Another of those 3-hour long statistics classes, the second one since morning. I was already losing focus, and I logged on to my email. My friend had just delivered, and she had sent me a cute picture of the baby. For a while, I zoned out of what the professor was teaching, the statistical data handling and output. I looked at the baby’s picture, wearing a nice little froggy dress, smiling cutely. I wanted to comment on the baby’s cute outfit. I wanted to write, “Nice outfit”.
All I ended up typing absentmindedly was, “Nice output”.
[As recounted by a friend in class today, after which, both of us rolled on the floor laughing. Nice output of a baby? How statistically apt!!].
As a graduate student, getting through a semester is analogous to running on a treadmill for a workout. At the beginning, it is all nice and rosy, you look at that treadmill, all new and bright, sitting far away, and you know that you are going to run on that for the next 4 months. You can’t wait to get started. You are prepping, dying to show off those shiny, new and nice gym clothes you bought, eager to show off those grey cells, get some challenging courses out of your way and go show the world what a gift to the educational fraternity you are. Classes start, the first few days look nice and rosy, you are still warming up, flexing those brain cells, getting that nice little pace for a jog. You pace yourself, eye the calorie meter in front of you, smile at the calories you are burning, the pace at which you are running, your accelerating heart beat rate, and so on. The professors are still spending their time getting to know you better, and familiarizing you with the course requirements. The lost looking TA just handed you a handout with the syllabus, course expectations, deadlines, and the grading policies all nicely written. This is the rulebook for the semester that tells you how to play. You don’t really look at it, toss it somewhere, you are just happy smelling your new textbooks, finding old friends in class, and discussing your travel and other fun plans for the rest of the semester.
A few weeks into the semester, and they have accelerated the pace on the treadmill. You are working out a nice sheen of sweat, but things still look pretty good. You are warming up, wish you had put on a little less clothes, or hadn’t been too ambitious and had taken maybe one course less, but it’s all okay. You will do it. you have your enthusiasm and self-confidence, although these days the lectures are getting a little monotonous, your eyes glaze over more often than you would like to admit, and on the last few occasions, you were caught disinterestedly sitting in the class lectures Facebooking. There is no dearth of distractions around, and monotony sets in when things fall into a pattern, you know you are required to follow a pattern, show up at the 9 am statistics class every Friday, show up for the 8 am team meeting every Monday, and so on. The professors are bombarding you with assignments, the advisor is asking you to get that report finished in 4 days, and you are slowly skipping the thrice-a-week dinner meets with your buddies.
You are beginning to get out of breath at this stage, and you look at the calendar to realize that there are maybe four or five more weeks before the semester ends. Things look really bad now, you are running as fast as you could, as if your rear end is on fire, but the speed isn’t good enough. You are sweating like a pig, and run the risk of drowning and choking in your own sweat mixed with the tears that you are now shedding at the sheer torture of barely meeting deadlines, deadline after deadline, class after class, week after week. You are now beginning to skip classes at the pretext of a stomach ache just because you know you must finish up the assignment from the other class first. You realize you were never a gift to the educational fraternity in the first place. Things are piling up, all the professors are looking at you with expectations, as if forever asking you, “When are you going to finish that homework?”, or “What were you thinking when you wrote that report and used that regression analysis? Were you stoned?” The advisor is giving you a hard time, constantly reminding you how much time and money he has invested in you, and rather than being super-efficient, you find yourself being stressed, nervous, sleepy, hungry, grumpy, menopausal, and angry all the time. You have long since stopped showing up for the 8 am class, are usually 20 minutes late for the Monday meeting, mumbling up an excuse that no one listens to, and the number of status messages on Facebook like “I hate school”, “My advisor sucks”, and “I was born intelligent but education ruined me” has significantly gone up. You are barely holding on to the deadlines now (as if they were your lifelines), submitting assignments 2 weeks post due dates, and have started to question your existence in the academic world. The sight of the advisor gets you paranoid, and you have started to take roundabout routes to the department that go through the jungles and not through the main entrance so that you can avoid eye contact with as many professors as possible. You are running on the treadmill as fast as you could, because you know some bulls named “deadlines”, “assignments”, “advisor”, “meetings”, and “conferences” are chasing you. You can hear their hooves at a distance, not a comfortable feeling I must say, and you just turned back to see the bull named “advisor” charging and sniffing angrily at you. You look at the display meter in front of you. 20 more days, 18 more days, time has lost its pace, and it seems a lifetime before you will be done with the semester and attain some kind of nirvana. Time stands still, you can no longer differentiate the days from the nights (because you are always in the lab). You are struggling to stay barely afloat, the A’s have been replaced by B pluses and then B minuses, and you would be happy to pass the course and be done, forget showing off those A pluses or giving that highhanded look because you once fell in the top 5 percentile of the class.
I am at that stage right now, happy to be alive and breathing, but so running out of fuel. Working in the department all night, showing up in classes all puffy eyed, giving blank looks whenever someone asks about a new deadline, sore, hungry, looking at that treadmill display meter and wondering if I will make it. 3 more weeks, and dozens of deadlines packed in these weeks, hopping from deadline to deadline, fighting in the battlefield with my last remnants of strength, and most importantly, just happy to be alive and breathing.
My PhD was not really supposed to turn out this way. Like most students, I expected to spend my days and nights working in the closed confines of my lab, crouched over some important problem the answer to which would admittedly change the world. Yes there are long hours of research work, classes, and home work involved. To add to it, the last month saw me traveling like crazy. Washington D.C., Florida, North Carolina, Missouri and Boston. People who know me also know how much I love traveling, and what amount of time and effort I put planning trips for vacations so that I don’t have to sit at home watching TV. Now I have surpassed even my vacation standards. The kick I get every time the plane takes off, or I enter a hotel and jump on the mattress, or when I set my sights on a new city is priceless.
I usually try to include some non-work sightseeing in my work-related travels. The DC trip had luckily coincided with the start of the Cherry Blossom festival, and I spent 4 hours on a certain chilly evening going around seeing and taking pictures of the cherry trees and freezing my hands. I added a few days to my Florida conference to see St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. The drive to North Carolina is one of the prettiest drives I have done, and I held on to my love for seeing new school campuses and went around Duke University. Every trip had something to offer that I had never done before.
It does put me under a lot of stress, since I am still taking 5 courses, and doing research work. Since I take classes, I travel during the weekends, which means I have no time to study or take care of the home. I realized I went grocery shopping after 3 weeks today. For 21 days, I have been eating out while I traveled or finished deadlines or accepted the generous offer of my roomies to eat what they cooked. Most Thursdays I finish class and hop on to a red eye flight. I miss out on sleep, feel sleep deprived, sometimes doze off on the wheel while driving, have a suitcase permanently packed, and miss out on home cooked food. I had to bail out of participating in a dance program because I was spending too much time traveling. But I’d still do what I am doing any day. It makes it easy that I don’t have family here, a relationship to devote time to, or children to look after. I couldn’t imagine doing the kind of globetrotting with a family. You would think traveling alone is like living with loneliness, but that is not the case. I get to observe people, meet up with old friends, drive through new roads, learn the names of new shops and streets, eat new varieties of food at restaurants not known to me, see mountains, climb lighthouses, walk along beaches, visit forts, see world famous campuses, shop at new malls, and yes, get to take lot of pictures. My interests in traveling and photography perfectly align with each other. It is a temporary phase of travel, I know, and things will calm down soon. Hence it is amazing while it lasts.
Mr. Clooney, when I watched you in the movie, I just adored you. Fancy suits, charming personality, and so on. These days I get to wear such fancy formal clothes too, going around networking and talking to people. I live in hotels I would have never afforded with my meager student salary. I love driving a new car every time I go somewhere, listening to the local happenings at National Public Radio (NPR) and nodding to myself as if I have always lived in that city. And more than anything, I love the thrill of seeing a new place, and all the things that come with it and prevent my life from boredom. Someday I will be perfectly happy spending a nice vacation at home, a frothing mug of hot chocolate in hand, reading a book or watching a romantic comedy movie. But while I wait for that to happen, I shall still enjoy my hot chocolates, in new shops at unfamiliar places, poring over the area map in order to plan what I can go visit next.