Friday, September 24, 2010

The PhD Affair

My officemate had some profound thoughts on PhD that she enlightened me with. She said that doing a PhD is like being in a relationship. On certain mornings, you wake up feeling all lovey dovey, floating on cloud 9, knowing that you are the luckiest person in the world to be in this relationship. You look forward to your research, have a wonderful time with your advisor, get your tuitions waived and get paid to obtain a degree. You network, publish, write, teach, nurture, learn, experiment, wonder, analyze, and grow as an individual while being a part of the relationship.

Yet on certain days, depending on that time of the month, the phase of the moon, or the phase of your (or your advisor’s) mood, you feel like screaming. You know you are living a lousy life, a thankless life of an underpaid and overworked graduate student. You spend days and nights at the lab, neglect your pet, don’t give as much time to the “real” relationship you have, never call back your mother on time, and never earn enough. The moron in the adjacent lab who you always thought was a loser graduated with a masters and is now happily working, driving a BMW, making monthly trips to Hawaii and the Bahamas, and has been voted the “most sought after single guy” on Your advisor is never happy with your deliverables, midlife crisis has hit you, you are losing hair and growing fat, and speed dates and blind dates have been replaced with speed deadlines and blind deadlines. You hate this relationship. You can’t wait to get out of it.

And then you wake up again and feel so lucky, rubbing shoulders with the brightest people in the field, fantasizing about wearing that gown being hooded hopefully in the next few years, and telling yourself that while the moron next door spends his weekends partying, you burn the midnight oil for the greater cause of mankind.

And the cycle of I hate my PhD life and I love my PhD life continues …


Monday, September 20, 2010

Dreaming Within a Dream

A few months ago, I had a dream. I saw that something good was happening to me, something I’d hoped for a while. It was nothing materialistic. In fact I don’t remember what exactly it was though. However I woke up and there, the dream was gone. It was sad.

Ever since, I have a pattern of dreams. I see that I dream of something good happening to me, and I tell myself in the dream that it is just a dream and will vanish, and I wake up to realize that it is true. I saw I made it up with someone I hadn’t talked to for years, and in my dream, I told the person that it is just a dream and in real life, I know I am never seeing him again. I woke up and there it was. I hadn’t made up with anyone. It was just a dream. On another occasion, I saw that Harvard had reconsidered its decision of admitting me into their program, and I was asking the dean if its reality, because I suspected it is just a dream. I was right. I woke up to realize I was still as far from Harvard as possible, both geographically and literally.

These must have been examples of repressed desires, things that I have wanted in the subconscious though in reality, I kept telling myself that it did not matter. Who cares about Harvard is what I told myself. But deep within, I think I cared. It was a good exercise, since I started asking myself the things I really want although I might have shrugged them off consciously all this while. The list, I am not going to tell you about. But I can say that it is an exercise definitely worth doing. If nothing, we can be more aware of the things that constitute our needs, things we keep telling ourselves does not matter. Repressed desires, forgotten friendships, decisions of moving on, things that make you shrug your shoulders and say “I don’t care” though deep within, you know you do care. If nothing, you will at least not fool yourself going back and forth between your inner/true reality and the perceived reality.

I want to read and know more about dreams and their interpretations (and I am not talking about dreams where you see something random like a horse and know that you are going to have a baby boy). I want to watch sensible movies about interesting experiences or explanations about dreams. It is interesting to know about our conscious, cognitive world, but what happens in the subconscious is even more intriguing.


Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Small is eventually beautiful

A dark summary of how moving from a boastfully big north-western American city to a small university town on the east changed my attitude towards looking at things, and doing things.

It wasn’t a comfortable move, comfortable being synonymous with “sit-on-my-ass-and-do-nothing”. Boxes were filled, things were sorted, most were thrown, decisions were made, muscles power was spent, and so was money. Hundreds of dollars slipped through as if there was a sink hole sitting right there. Car was moved, bank balance was depleted, farewell parties were attended, gyaan about move and new life was accepted, and good wishes of “hope you meet someone there” were received with a disinterested smile. Planes were changed, a sleepless night was spent cruising through air pockets and waiting 5 hours at an airport for the next connection. Then I hopped onto this plane that was to take me to my final destination, realizing that it is the smallest plane I have ever seen or taken, so small and cramped that even my carry-on luggage had to be checked in. Sitting huddled in the aircraft, I made a mental note of losing more weight. As we descended, the landscape below kept getting greener and greener. It was beautiful, alright, but then all forests are beautiful. I was hoping to see the smaller version of maybe the Space Needle or the Downtown skyline lookalike, and there, we had landed. I didn’t see anything, not even a building more than a couple storey high. We had landed in the middle of lush, green vegetation. It was an airport alright, but so small that you had to actually hop off the plane onto the ground, pat the plane at the back as you would do to the elephant buddy that just gave you a ride across the Periyar Reserve in Kerala, and walk to the baggage claim area inside the airport.

Welcome to the typical American small town, a voice said sarcastically.

My electronic friend (friendships made over chats and emails) was waiting to pick me up. There were six more cars maybe. Not much traffic, huh? By now, my mind had gone to that mode where I was comparing everything I had there and I saw here. Space Needle, no Space Needle. Tall downtown buildings (really tall ones that gave you neck aches). No buildings at all. Rushed traffic at the Seattle airport. A few cars seldom qualify as traffic.

So I hopped on to the car, and in the next 10 minutes, I was home. Not that my new house was located particularly close to the airport. Here, everything is located close to each other. I mentally wrinkled my nose. An inner voice almost boasted, “Seattle airport is way bigger and crowded, and you take like two interstate freeways and drive for an hour before you could get to the airport. People can actually miss flights getting delayed in traffic. Whereas here I could be walking slowly and still not miss my flight”.

This attitude of comparing that versus this continued for the next few weeks. Every time someone would casually or courteously ask about Seattle, I would get into this rant about how big and bright Seattle was. I needed to get a hold on myself, I was getting paranoid. I was soon to realize that my new university town did not have a Macys. There were the other basic stores alright, Bath and Body Works, Target, Office Depot, Walmart, but there was only one store of every kind (except McDonalds I guess). I remember almost bitching to T, “What kind of a horrible place this is. They just have a single store for every chain”. There were a few English movie theaters, but the nearest Hindi movie theater was 2 hours away. In fact the next big city was 2 hours away. I was horrified that there were not that many places to drive and hike compared to Seattle. Everything looked green but kind of monotonous. The volcanic mountains and the coast of the west were missing. There was no Mount Rainier around. No Olympic mountains and no Lake Washington. The town started and ended within a diameter of a couple of miles. I was dreading the day when people would visit me and I would have nothing to show them around.

I remembered my friend from Wyoming who lived amongst fields and mountains and had remarked during her Seattle visit that America is not all concrete and big city and flashy downtown like I perceive. America could also be this boring place in the middle of potato fields with nothing to do but sit at home. And that was the America she and most others from India got to see. There are very few international students who actually get to live in big, vibrant cities.

That day I had shrugged, “Whatever !!” Today, I understood what she had meant.

Things changed the first day I woke up late for class. The class was at 9 am and I was horrified to discover it was past 8:30 am. I scrambled, skipped breakfast, and ran up to the bus stop cursing myself. I luckily got the bus and guess what? I reached the department at 8:55 am. The other day we went to watch a movie and thanks to the game, the roads were blocked. We had to take a detour and even after that, we reached the theater 10 minutes late, just in time to catch the movie starting. Think about how cool it is that you can start 15 minutes before class and still reach on time. In fact you can start for any place and in 5-15 minutes you would be there. Yes there is just one store of each kind, but this means less confusion. If I ask someone to wait for me in front of Starbucks, there is no confusion as to which Starbucks I am referring to (Only a Seattleite can vouch for how many hundreds of Starbucks there are and how it adds to the confusion). I have all my favorite chains of stores, including Chipotle, and I don’t care about the number of stores because I realize I can only be at one place at a time.

These days, I find it comforting that I don’t have to deal with the hustle and bustle associated with big cities, parking issues, traffic clogs, and the confusion and complication of living in a bigger city. Anyone who has been caught up in evening traffic on the 520 while traveling from Redmond to Seattle will know what I mean. I like the fact that I live with a bunch of graduate students (and not working professionals) and thus do not feel mentally pressurized into taking the flight and going to some place during the long weekends. This weekend I just cleaned and organized my home, read books, watched movies, and did nothing. My weekends in Seattle were not so. It used to be so pretty that I was pressurized and coerced into going somewhere every weekend. I still love to travel, but I have realized that this place is so small, I must keep those special places I want to visit for future when friends and family visit me, for I hope I am going to be here for the next few years. So these days I have developed new and more sessile interests like watching movies and reading books. I am working towards developing better relationship with others as this is going to be my social group for the next few years. And for a change, I actually like the fact that I am not pressurized into planning trips and driving on weekends all the time. This way I hopefully get to finish my PhD sooner.

It takes a while to get used to things if you are used to a bigger and more vibrant city and move to a smaller one. But once you realize the benefits and the simplicity of living in small towns, you will begin to appreciate what I mean. I no longer intend to drive to bigger cities during weekends, like I had originally planned. Instead, I am going to go to the only Starbucks in town, with a book bought from the only Barnes and Noble book store. I am going to read the book, observe people, chat with them, and write about my experiences. When I am done, I will lie by the lawn on campus and soak in the warmth of the sun. I would think of all those people caught up in traffic snarls and delayed flights at the airport and sigh in relief. I don’t need to go anywhere for a vacation. My work place is now my vacation place.