Monday, November 15, 2010

A random day in my life

Disclaimer: Pretty random and boring post

I just took the 10 pm bus and reached home. That makes it a little more than 13 hours spent at the department. I had two core classes and I was almost ready to head home at 3 in the evening. But I have spent the last 2 days of the weekend agonizing. Last Friday, my advisor gave me some work that I dreaded doing. I almost wasted 2 days wondering how I would ever get that work done. You see, people say a PhD is great because you get to think innovative and discover something. All that is fine, but those glorious moments of innovation and discovery happens with a saddening low “once in a blue moonish” frequency. You spend years doing a PhD and you think you innovate something everyday? For 95% of the time, you do rote work, work that your advisor wants you to do and not necessarily what you want to do. It is not a bad thing at all, it is all a part of the training process. A PhD is not just about mastering a small area in your field, it is more about how well you can work with your research team, meet deadlines, develop interpersonal skills, communicate with others, work proactively, and think of ways of doing things that will make you look smarter and hard working. For all of you who think researchers work in isolation, spending all their time alone in labs, you are wrong. PhD is very much a social process.

So what rote work was I assigned this time? My advisor gave me a list of schools and asked me to find and print particular details about their school of medicine program. When I looked at the list, there were some 60 schools. Remember those days when you were just done with your GRE and were in the process of choosing schools and sending them suck emails (emails asking a professor if he has funding and is accepting students because you might just be the brightest student he could bag)? How I hated those days, going through school website, website after website, jotting down every tiny detail. It was a laborious, monotonous, thankless job. Now I was back to doing that. I had to show him results by Friday this week, and I had already spent 2 days in inertia, overwhelmed about how and where to get started.

This was not going the right way. With the finals approaching, I had to get this thing out of my life and move on. I decided to stay back and finish at least half the schools. Website after website, I skimmed through every detail he wanted with mechanical precision. There was nothing innovative, nothing to use my brains for, just a combination of commands (search, click, copy, paste, print) repeated hundreds of times. Slowly the surrounding sounds got lower, classes got over, people in the building left for home. But I worked, school after school, website after website, my back aching and me longing to come back home and sleep. No music this time, no chatting, no wasting time getting distracted, I worked on this for 7 long hours. Finally I was done, not half way through, but in its entirety.

I was so relieved after finishing it that I went on a feeling of high. I sulked for 2 days wondering how I will get it done, but it took me only those seven solid hours to get it done. I am sure tomorrow when he sees what I have done, he will smile, say thank you, and give me some more work to do. That is what everyone above you in authority does, isn’t it?

I know all this in theory, but what I like is the realization that obstacles are mostly in our minds. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist or are benign. Yes they are very much there, sitting and intimidating and overwhelming us. But once you let go of that inertia and start working on what you need to get done, even the most boring and monotonous work will be done. Those 7 hours were horrid, but now that I have put it past me, I feel so much lighter.

Not all days are productive. Some days I end up not getting a single bit of work done in the entire day. Friends, distractions, phone calls, and movies get in the way. Those are the days I feel so horrible about myself, so guilty, and so low. It’s like going on an eating spree when you are supposed to be watching your weight. Yet some days you drag yourself to the gym, and no matter how tiring those few hours of workout are, you come out feeling so good about yourself. Similarly for those days that are spent in inefficiency, it is days like this that give me a high. Some amount of solid work done, something to show to the advisor next morning, and I start feeling great about myself again. I know this is like the sine curve where efficiency will be followed by bouts of inefficiency. I know a few days from now I will be feeling low again, blaming myself for not working hard enough. Yet today I know I will have the best and the most relaxing sleep, because something that was due the following Friday has been completed by Monday evening.

Just a random day in my life as a graduate student.



dipthought said...

Such is life!

Calvin said...

Guess it has something to do with Newton's First Law, and the concept of Static friction :)

Raam Pyari said...

I used to feel the same way when i was studying. One day of good solid work lead to a very very peacful night....i know exactly what you are talking abuoot!

Anonymous said...

So very true. Kudos to you to narrate it so well. Happens to me all the time :)

deep said...

as Anonymous ji said.. so true!! u described with such precision, what exactly a Ph.D. student feels every other moment..
That is what we got to win over.. Procrastination!!!