Monday, April 25, 2011

Working on a configuration upgrade?

I cannot help but notice that these days, my blog is all about PhDism. I know how annoying it can get for someone whose life doesn’t significantly revolve around a PhD. It is an irritable feeling akin to reading those gushy mushy status updates from new moms who, from breastfeeding to the texture of poop, cannot stop themselves from discussing anything under the mommyhood sky. On a side side note (anti-mommy updates being the side note here), I realize I have now opened up my blog for some sex seeking desperate people on the internet who end up at this blog while looking for keywords like breast, sex, or even car mein zabardasti [I have a cool way of tracking what words people were looking for when they landed on my blog], but I digress here. My post was neither about the activities of pornsters on the prowl, nor was about women who cannot stop showing off their newly acquired motherhood status. My post was very much about me, my academic daddy, and the amazing gyaan he gives me gratis that makes me want to rechristen this American dude as Sant Gyani Singh. No matter how intimidating and academically charismatic he is, once in a while he never fails me amuse me with the plethora of gyaan he has to offer.

We were arguing about my scintillating academic life (or the lack of it) and about how many courses I should be taking to make myself a coveted candidate while I am out there job hunting (I don’t believe he is discussing job hunting already, and I have been like 8 months into my program). The story goes that I made a face when he said he wants me to take 6 levels of statistics courses and 3 levels of qualitative methodology courses. That is a lot, given any standards, ensuring I have to take 4-5 core courses every semester. Some of them are not even required courses, and the problem of crossing the age of 16 or all this “living and thinking independently” jazz of an American life is that sometimes you don’t listen to academic daddies, and wrongly believe that you know more about your academic well being than your daddy does. Anyway, I will paraphrase what he told me, and I will take the effort of doing this because I believe this gyaan will benefit at least some of you who are trying to do a Ph.D and don’t argue with academic daddy as often as I do.

While in graduate school, you are like a computer processor in the making. As you take classes and learn new skill sets, you are constantly enhancing the features of your processor. Your configuration is constantly improving. You take classes, write exams, and learn new skills. However once you are out of graduate school, out there in the job market, the features in your processor have been determined, and you cannot change it. Sure you can go for those external upgrades, adding a feature every now and then by auditing a class or attending a conference, but these are external features. What you learn in graduate school goes in building your core, your inherent qualities of a researcher. Hence, it is very important for you to take every remotely relevant course, take exams (and not just audit courses), learn new skills, and do everything that you hesitate to learn and fool yourself into believing that you will learn once you get a job. Anything you want to be in life after PhD, graduate school is the only chance you will get to build your processor from the scratch. The rest of it gets added along the way, but only as additional features. So go take that class because once you graduate, you will never get to take a class again, no matter how much you want.

I don’t understand much of computers or technology, but I loved his analogy. Hence, these days I am found neck-deep in course work and assignments, building my processor before they tell me that the model has been outdated again. And finally, I learnt an important thing from this conversation. I learnt that it is awesome to have a smart, geeky, and technocratic physicist for an academic daddy.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Interest and Attitude

I was reading someone’s statement of purpose (the clichéd bullshit you write for the PhD committee, marketing yourself as the best thing that happened to humanity since Einstein) with a somewhat sardonic expression. I did the same thing 6 years ago, and again 2 years ago, but when you are sitting at the other end reading stuff, you see through certain things downright. The person wrote, “I am really interested to know this and that”. Perhaps yes. However, I have realized that interest is not what will sustain you through your PhD life. It is attitude that is going to sustain you.

Don’t get me wrong, you cannot be not interested in something, and still study it. However, interest plays a very basic, introductory, and minuscule role to sustain your academic life. Let us put it this way. In the process of doing research, there are many innovative ideas you think of. That is why it is called a PhD. However, sustaining the travails of a PhD life on a daily basis is not possible with interest alone. You don’t keep thinking of new ideas everyday for 5 years straight. 

It is here that attitude comes into play. Many of us live with the misconception that doing a PhD means sitting in plush offices and thinking of innovative ideas. That just happens for 1% of the time. What then? What do I do with my ideas? How do I execute it? 

What I do in my day-to-day life is not innovative research. What I do every day is mundane work, that might lead to or that might be a product of an innovative idea. Every day, I do stuff like getting printouts, making photocopies, taking lecture notes in class, making presentations, editing papers for spelling and language errors, grading exams of undergraduates, replying to emails, learning to use new statistical software, and digging out research papers for literature reviews. I go to the gym to keep myself fit and thinking. I buy groceries and cook to feed myself. I figure out maps and make decisions about the mode of transport to take that will get me to the department quickest. I travel and attend conferences and listen to stalwarts share their ideas. I organize team meetings and document the meeting minutes. I do homework and assignments, with data that belongs to someone else. I learn new skills like organizing conference calls and making posters. I solve analytical puzzles to sharpen my brains. I establish good relationship with my peers to see how they do their research. I write blogs to be free flowing in my thoughts. I talk to school administrators, network, communicate, write institutional board review protocols, and make up questionnaires. I learn to think of intelligent research questions. 

All this is a part of my PhD process, little steps that will hopefully earn me a degree someday. But is this innovative or interesting work? No, all this is very mundane work, no different from what an office secretary would do. The difference is, I am my own secretary, managing my own academic life. That innovative spark of an idea I got 4 months ago was a brief moment of eureka. But in order to materialize that innovative idea into a tangible research product or publication, I have to go through all these mundane things I just discussed. I need the tools to help me think in the right way, for which I take classes and often piggyback on my advisor’s knowledge. Sustaining this and still remaining focused has nothing to do with interest. It is all about the attitude to work hard. PhD needs interest as a trigger, as a starting point, as much as that match that lights the fire. But attitude is that oxygen that sustains the fire through years. 

And do you think my advisor is sitting in his plush office and thinking of new ideas with an interest all the time? He is a stalwart in the field, with an Ivy League degree and all that. He is bright, successful, tenured, and often awe-inspiring. Yet he doesn’t spend his time sitting in his office thinking. What he does is mundane work like writing grants and proposals, making phone calls, giving lectures and presentations, bringing in the money home so that we can do the research and get paid, and of course advising and motivating brain dead people like me. And it is not interest that sustains us. It is the attitude to keep going. 

If a simpler analogy works, let us say doing a PhD is like learning to make an innovative dish that no one has cooked before. But to be able to do that, we must decide on the ingredients first, and then start with tilling the soil, growing the crops, picking the crops, milking the cow, making the curd, extracting the oil, culturing the fish, growing the spices, cutting, chopping, grinding, and take the other mundane steps that leads to the finished product for food.

If you came into a PhD program with the expectation that your interest will sustain you through the bumpy ride, chances are more that you will end up frustrated and go back to what you did before this. However, if you come with the right expectation that for the next few years, you are going to work your ass off doing all the mundane things that eventually lead to innovative work, it is more likely that you will actually enjoy the ride. So come prepared not only with the interest, but with the attitude to hang in there and keep working hard.

If you know of a person who is planning to start a PhD and might benefit from this perspective (which is all mine), do share this writing.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Statistical Faux Pas

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!!].


Running out of fuel

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.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Feeling like Miss. Clooney

As I entered my home after yet another work-related trip (the third one in the last four weeks), I could not help but remember the character Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) in the movie “Up in the air”. I don’t really go around flying and firing people, that is not the similarity, but yes, I do get to travel a lot for work. Despite what others might think or argue, I love it. The thrill of packing suitcases, booking airline tickets, and more so, the sight and smell of airports and airplanes excite me. This is not just it. My traveling also involves a fair amount of driving, which I love. During my Florida trip last week, I drove 600 miles in 4 days, and I recorded another 500 miles of driving as my North Carolina trip ended today.

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.


Thursday, April 07, 2011

Toeing the line

My granny is someone worth adoring, mostly for her antics. She is the oldest amongst women in the family, and the most organized, stylish, and fashion conscious. While I am seen mostly in some ragged clothes, usually without makeup, and I don’t even bother to comb my hair every day, she is just the opposite. She is fair (and this is based on societal notion that being fair is synonymous with being beautiful), petite, and is amazing with self-care. Every morning, she will first take a bath, oil, comb, and braid her hair, put some Bath & Body Works lotions I get her from here (she takes so much pride in using US cosmetic products), dab some face powder, and would then go around with the household chores. In the evening, she will take her own time off, go for a walk, take another shower, wear a nice sari, apply more cream and face powder, and would spend time in front of the television watching her favorite shows. Too bad she isn’t seen wearing a gown, glass of wine in hand, wearing her pearls and watching the television. What amazes me is the way she works around her schedule to do what she needs to do with household chores, and still manages to find time for self-care. She would spend some time everyday glossing over fashion magazines and watching the latest stuff on television. She might be old, but far from ignorant. Sonu Nigam is her favorite singer, and she is aware of every latest Hindi movie and Bollywood gossip. She also takes great pride in the fact that her granddaughter can speak fluent English, and lives in America, which is accessible only by airplanes. She seriously thinks I would have done great in Bollywood, so breathtakingly beautiful and talented I am.
Neither my mother nor I have inherited her impeccable sense and taste for fashion. A few weeks before Durga Puja, my mother would be frantically finishing her last moment shopping, not knowing what to buy for herself or for the family. It is then that my granny will smile smugly, for she carefully manages her time and resources throughout the year, and does her shopping year round. Honestly, neither I, nor my mother care about the ritual of wearing new clothes for the Pujas. Granny will surprise us, because she will have something new to wear twice a day, every day during the Pujas. She will never repeat the same sari in succession, and will always wear a different color. With the limited money and mobility she has, I am amazed at how well she does for herself, looking always prim and proper, her wardrobe neatly stacked with saris of every color and make.
These days her eyesight is getting bad, hence she asks my mother to apply bright red nail polish on her fingers every time she visits my mother. We make fun of her, calling her the “beauty queen of the family”. She doesn’t mind, she thinks we are too casual and do not spend any time with self-care. This post is based on a telephonic conversation with my mother a few weeks ago.
When my father underwent a brain surgery, my granny decided to come stay with my parents for some time and help my mother with work. While mother did the outside work, visiting the hospital and taking care of my father, granny took care of the house, cooked, supervised the maid, and so on. Eventually father came home, and there would be dozens of people visiting him every day. The societal support we get in India during crisis is amazing. There hasn’t been a single day when I have called home to see how he is doing, and there haven’t been a bunch of people surrounding him. It is so much work, especially since you have to offer them tea and snacks and cater to them.
So my granny comes with a bottle of bright red nail polish one afternoon and asks mother to apply it on her toes. Mother looks clearly confused, since she didn’t want it on her hands this time. Mother tried her usual trick of shrugging it away, arguing about who really notices the feet. It is then that granny shocks her with her new theory about nail polish on the feet. She argues that since so many people are visiting to meet my father, they always bend down to touch my granny’s feet as a sign of respect. Hence, granny doesn’t want her feet to look ugly, and now wants bright red nail polish on her toes. Can you beat that logic?
Granny is adorable for all her antics and eccentricities, and for whoever she is. It is a virtue, to hold on to someone's values and beliefs even during the most trying circumstances.