Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Facebook Wall(Street) Journal

My daily dose of entertainment these days comes from the FB post I read on my feed one by one, without seeing who wrote them. It gives me a chance to snicker, while I wonder if loss of IQ has a correlation with the amount of time people spend on FB. This is of course after I have “unfollowed” many people in the last few months, because I do not have the mental bandwidth to go through all the garbage they spew. From romantic trips in Hawaii to theme weddings and babies sprouting teeth chewing on organic strawberries, I have seen it all. It is not so much the news that is distasteful to me as it is the self-aggrandizing way in which it is portrayed, that seems distasteful. On an average day, when I read my feed, it looks something like this (note that it is not what one person writes on their wall, but how different people writing different things appear on my wall):

Narendra Modi blah blah blah.

Having an awesome time in Uganda. Going to Botswana tomorrow.
[And why would I want to know that?]

Narendra Modi blah blah blah. Sonia Gandhi blah blah blah.

Production of India's Ambassador car suspended.

My darling son [insert name of baby] just ate an entire banana. Yipee!

Emma Watson graduates from Brown University.

Made goat curry and steamed pulao for lunch. Who wants to come?
[Note: She is actually not inviting anyone. Just being mean and showing off about how she is eating nice food on Sunday].

Missing you darling. Come back soon.
[I have no idea who they are missing and why they are not contacting them directly, unless they are aliens].

Share this with 30 people in the next 5 minutes and Sai Baba will fulfill all your wishes. If you fail to do that, you will face misery for the next year.
[This makes me strongly suspect that my present day miseries might be attributed to one of these people].

20 reasons why [tall people/thin people/MBAs/Republicans/Arranged marriages/Bengali food/Single women travelers/People with B positive blood group] are great.

OMG! GMOs are killing people! Global warming is real! OMG! GMO! 

125 reasons why non-vegetarians are sinners and should become vegetarians.

Every time you share this, Bill Gates will donate 5 cents to the poor and needy.

I love Chweetu! He is the cutest.

A list of 25 quotes by [Albert Einstein/Paulo Coelho/Aristotle/Bill Gates] that they never said.

I hate my life. Some people are such losers. Sigh! (Comments: What happened dear? What happened? What?)

OMG! Look, we are in the park. Look, we are smelling the roses. Look, we are walking on the grass. Look, we are eating an ice cream. OMG! Life is so good.

RaGa sucks! Om Na Mo Na Mo.

And the circus continues.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Of research, and resolutions, and other miscellany

This is a write up about this and that, specifically the “this and that” that has happened over the last two weeks. I continue to get many emails from many of you (thank you for that!), but it seems like some of you wrongly thought that I am depressed and in need of help. Trust me, it is nothing like that, and I am not in denial. Usually an upbeat and positive person, I am doing great.

I usually have this argument with a close friend of mine. The friend’s point is, people are better off not knowing when they will die, because that will spoil the rest of their life. And I wholeheartedly disagree. I think that I would be able to plan my life much better if I knew my expiry date. That everyone will be dying someday is a universal truth; there is no doubt about it. Now given the current state of things, I would prioritize my life differently if I knew when I am dying. If I had 1 more week, I’d straightway drop everything and go visit Peru, because that has been high up on my list. If I had a month, I’d do Peru, Scandinavia, and visit India just in time. If I had a year, I’d spend it traveling most of the time. But if I had 30 more years, I’ll continue with my job search, publish more papers, etc. Now since I don’t know when I am dying, I have no clue how to prioritize things.

Not convinced? Most food we buy, milk cartons, cheese, eggs, juice, etc. come with an expiry date. Don’t know about you, but it helps me plan my grocery, money, and space in the fridge better. I feel cheated that I just know that I will be dying someday, but I was not told when.

So why am I talking about dying? Because these days, I am prepping for a different kind of goodbye. Goodbye from the current research group. I figured that I have 16 more weeks now. Time is finite for all of us. And now that I know when I am departing, I am able to plan my 4 months of remainder work so much better. At some point, I realized that instead of working the usual 40 hours/week, if I can ramp it up to 60 hours /week, my productivity will increase by 1.5 times. Which means that I will be able to publish more papers before I leave. Which will help my CV look better, and will help me find a job in the long run. But given how many of us complain that time is a constrained commodity, how do you find those extra hours? I came up with a very simple strategy.

No opening laptop at home during the weekdays.

It is as simple as that. This plan works like wonders for many reasons. Earlier, I used to come home, open my laptop, and spend hours looking at people’s awesome lives on Facebook (and feeling worse about myself). And being a big movie addict, I’d start a movie while eating dinner, watch it until late hours, go to sleep at 3 am, wake up at 9 am, and lose time and productivity. Now since I have no laptop on weekdays, I strangely find that I have not much to do at home. Hence I go to sleep by 10 pm. I am not kidding you. I don’t remember the last time I did that, but this plan works wonders. When I sleep by 10 pm, I wake up by 6 am, without an alarm clock. I not only wake up early, I wake up with my batteries fully recharged. So I have more energy to work now. I get to work by 8 am and spend the next 12-13 hours working. Now since I know that I will be at work for long, I don’t hesitate to take a break, go on a walk around the campus, and take some time off. Earlier, I would be constantly looking at the clock, trying to finish as soon as possible. Also, since I do not Facebook from work, my Facebook time is mostly restricted to when I browse on my phone. And how much time can one spend on phone browsing Facebook? The other thing is, alone at home, I keep thinking about all the things that will go wrong for me next. Mostly unhappy, negative thoughts. So the longer I am at work, the less time I have to think negative thoughts at home. Overall, this “no laptop from home on the weekday” is a win-win situation (which also explains why most of my blog posts and the replies to your emails happen on the weekends). In fact, once you get into this habit and rediscover the value of 8 hours of sleep, you do not even miss your laptop much. Notice that restricting the time you spend online is way effective than cutting it out totally.

I have had an awesome time practicing this the last two weeks.

This strategy helps me in another way. I think that research work (or any work for that matter) consists of two kinds of skills, lower-order and higher-order. The lower-order things are those that do not require much thinking, and is done mostly with practice. The neurons in your brain follow a fixed trajectory. For example, interviewing a research subject, transcribing a research interview, supervising the undergraduate student, looking up mail addresses, posting gift cards, etc. These activities are needed for research, but do not need specialized skills. And then there is higher-order work. Like designing a study. Writing a paper. Running a statistical model. These challenge your brain to think.

Now ever since the boss gave me the marching orders, they have also been dumping lower-order menial jobs on me. And I can see why. They know that I am leaving, so no point in spending their time training me. The boss doesn’t want to give me any higher-order activity that might not be finished during the last few months of my stay here (understandably because after I leave, they will have to depend on me to finish it). So the boss has started dumping lower-order work on me. I was recently asked to transcribe 35 hour long interviews, and I have no idea why I am doing the work of an undergraduate. It’s brain dead, mind numbing, menial work. It is not research, it is the preparatory work that leads to research. Now in an 8 hour work day, I am spending 8 hours doing menial jobs. But if I increase that to a 12 hour work day, I now have 4 extra hours to do higher-order work. It makes a hell lot of difference, being able to do those few hours of challenging work everyday.

So anyhow, this post is more about me babbling, because I am on my laptop after five days of hiatus. Now you might be wondering, if a 12 hour day makes people more productive, why don’t people do it more often? The answer is simple. Working such long hours is not sustainable. You can do it in spurts. Now that I know I am leaving, I have real motivation to get as much done as I can. Because I have an incentive of publishing more papers. If I knew I would be with this group for years, I would not feel the push. It is the same analogy of why most of the studying happening during the last week of the final examination. Students don’t study seriously everyday. For better or for worse, 90% of the studying happens in the last 10% of the remaining time.

So I have taken a hiatus from everything else for now- laptopping, photography, travel, socializing. Someone told me that I should socialize and seek a support network, and I respectfully disagree. Now is the only time to get some work done, for initiating some real research-related action. Socializing can happen during old age.

Anyhow, I got two job rejects this week. And next, I am tempted to write about my interview for another two jobs, and how interesting they went. Sarcastically speaking, of course.


Sunday, May 04, 2014

My Graduation Ceremony: Why I wanted to go, and why I will not go.

May 17, 2014. That is the day when all the graduates from my institution will be attending their graduation ceremony. When I was a student there, every year, I would attend the ceremony, camera in hand, because another friend would be graduating. I would take their graduation pictures, cap and gown and regalia. On a hot May weekend, I would stand in the sun, watching the graduates parade the ground, listening to the guest speaker give their lecture, and feeling inspired for being a part of a top US institution (my university is actually an original Public Ivy League school). To me, it is a matter of pride, a sense of belonging, a way of life I have chosen for myself. I could be a school teacher or a sales manager or a PR person, but I voluntarily chose to be a researcher at an academic institution.

I always dreamed about what it would be like, attending my own graduation ceremony. I know people who never bothered to attend theirs, and I wondered why. I have even flown to a different city to attend someone else’s graduation ceremony, whose family was not going to be there, because I did not want them to feel alone. Yes, I have done things like that. Because to me, it is nothing short of a huge achievement. An achievement which is not celebrated enough.

If I had decided to marry in my twenties, or even decide to do it now, there would be a huge week-long celebration. Hundreds of relatives will breathe a sigh of relief that I have finally come back to my senses and a getting married, congregate from different parts of the country, eat and drink for days, and bless me. There would be good food and good music. Much to my dislike, I know that my father has a separate budget in his savings kept for the occasion. He is not going to give me the money (which is a substantial part of his savings). Instead, he will use that money to buy me expensive clothes and jewelry, invite a few hundred people and feed them, hire photographers and catering services, buy flowers and decorations worth many a thousand rupees, and marry me off. And what have I done to deserve this celebration? Just found myself a husband, nothing more than that. I did not clear entrance exams, did not ace competitive exams, did absolutely nothing. But I would still be worth the week-long, expensive celebration.

Now think about this. Almost nine years ago, I worked day and night to ace my GRE. I got into a top ranking university in Seattle. I worked harder, attended classes, learned my subjects, aced my exams, and the drill continued for two years, until I graduated with a master degree. Then I worked in the industry for a bit. And decided to go back to school again, and finish my PhD. This time, I moved to the other coast, joined a top university again, worked hard day and night, did everything one needs to do, and finished my PhD in a little less than three years. Now given the amount of celebration for a wedding, and the amount of celebration getting a PhD makes me worth, what do you think happens? Does my father buy me diamond jewelry, invite a few thousand guests, and throw a party? No. Actually, they would not even make it to my graduation event, because India is far away. So on a bright and sunny May morning, I would don my cap and gown, and receive my degree with absolutely no one to cheer for me. No one. Sure, a few friends might show up, and take me to a local restaurant. My adviser might tell me a few words of encouragement. But nothing more than that is going to happen.

This is what makes me so sad. That in my family, getting married is valued more than getting an education, being independent, mastering a subject, being a student of two world renowned universities, getting a PhD, and creating my own identity.

So I thought to myself, forget parents. Forget the celebrations. Forget the makeup person and photographer. I will celebrate my own success, alone, like I have done so many things in life. When my sister got married a few years ago, I was appalled at the amount of money that was spent on junk- flowers and unwanted guests and lighting and clothes and what not. My sister, who works and is financially independent, let my dad blow off a lot of money for the celebrations. Because she thought she deserved it, and it was my dad’s duty to do it. And my dad was happy doing that, marrying my sister off. And during the same occasion, I was harassed and bullied by God knows how many people, who did not understand why I am not showing any interest in getting married, and doing a PhD instead (note: I don’t see a PhD and a wedding as mutually exclusive events). I tried to let go of the hurt, and think rationally about why people had that mindset. Maybe because it is an age old tradition to celebrate marriages, while women during those days did not do PhDs, so getting an education was not valued. I don’t know.

Even now, look at the amount of celebrations that go for weddings and baby showers and thread ceremonies and engagements and birthdays of the little ones. And look at the amount of celebration that goes for getting an education, getting a degree, and being smart. The comparison is stark.

So even one year back, I was decided that I would go for my graduation (note: If you graduate after May, your graduation ceremony happens the following May). But a few months ago, I changed my mind.

Because I graduated, and I moved 1,200 miles away. That is roughly the distance between Kolkata and Mumbai, without direct flights. I would have to change flights at least once, if not twice. And it would cost me $500. Also, for a weekend ceremony, I would have to fly out on a Friday, and return on a Monday, which is taking out two vacation days from my 12 days/year vacation time. The time and money, I could not justify, not to mention the exorbitant amount of the graduation gown. You know, I have heard many people say that the honeymoon should be right after the wedding. If you wait too long, you would never end up going. And I saw the same thing happening. This year long gap had put my focus in different directions now. I was over my initial high of getting a PhD, and was sufficiently busy in my new job. But all these reasons aside, there is one big and only reason that finally convinced me that I will not go attend the ceremony. The money and time are resources that can be replenished. So I would have gone eventually. But something happened, that totally changed the way I perceived my graduation ceremony.

I decided not to go for my graduation, because I am convinced that my PhD has not adequately prepared me to find gainful employment. Eight months into finishing my PhD, I am desperately looking for my next job, and keep getting rejected all the time. The visa is a pain, an apt description of what it is. My adviser might have written me reference letters, but he has done nothing to connect me to the right people, or to reabsorb me in his group. I have had occasional supports from here and there, but overall, I have been on my own through this mess. Parents didn’t understand, adviser didn’t care, and another professor made fun of it and asked me to find an American boyfriend.

Which created a disconnect with the excitement I had of celebrating my very own and only achievement of this magnitude. It was my very analysis of the situation that perhaps my PhD has not prepared me well enough to find a respectable job in the field. Forget a faculty position, I am unable to find even a postdoctoral position. I mean, how hard can it be? It’s not that I am not looking hard enough. It’s not that I am not smart or do not know how to get the work done. Some things in life do not make any sense, and this is one of them. I finished my degree in record time, am actively publishing and presenting at national conferences. Still I am unable to find anything. It is a puzzle to me. Somehow, the pieces do not add up.

So May 17, I will be home. It was a hard decision, but a practical one. I think that I am better off saving money for the rainy day. Too bad, I cannot walk the ceremony next year. If I had a job by now, I would go back to attend the ceremony in a heartbeat. But right now, it doesn’t seem right.

It is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. But I am at peace with my decision, because it seems like the right thing to do given the circumstances. The path I have chosen for me is not appreciated by a lot of people around me, and I will have to be okay with that. Perhaps in another life, I will get a PhD, and then my dad will invite hundreds of people and there will be weeklong celebrations, dance and music, good food and a lot of photographs. Not in this life. And in this life, when the situation is better, when I have some more money and lesser worries, I will celebrate by going backpacking somewhere nice. Maybe Alaska. Maybe Europe. Perhaps South America. I know that I will celebrate someway. Just that I will not walk my graduation ceremony.


Saturday, May 03, 2014

A Personal Touch

Over the last few weeks, several people have sent me emails, asking me how am I doing, sending me links to jobs that might be a potential fit, listing institutions I could look into, or simply wishing me luck. And I have read all these emails and messages multiple times, smiling, and basking in the feeling of wonder. Many of you wrote that you have been reading me for years now, and never commented, until now. Some of you appreciated that in this age of twitter and Facebook, I still wrote long blogs. It was like suddenly discovering a mini treasure chest of friends who I did not know existed.

Thank you for every note and every comment you wrote for me. I am not very good at replying right away, but that is not an excuse. What amazes me is, even after sharing so little personal information, you have been interested to continue reading. I don’t think I would be very keen on reading someone whose name I did not know, but I might be wrong. I consciously try not to mention identifiers, names of people and universities and where I live and where I work and what color car I drive. Because when I started blogging back in 2005 (almost 9 years and going strong), I wanted to be this totally anonymous person on the web people did not know about. That way, I could write more freely without hesitation. I see many people on Facebook promoting their blogs (which is fine I guess if you do not want to be anonymous), and then going a step ahead and soliciting certain people from their friend’s list to read and comment. It makes me cringe, though it should not. To me, it is a self-selecting group of readers. Nothing wrong in that. It just makes me feel weird that people personally known to me are reading everything I write. It would be fine if I wrote movie reviews and restaurant reviews and fictional stories. Not otherwise.

However, those emails I received were lovely. And I want to genuinely know who you all are. Not because I am going through a crisis and looking for a job and could do with some much needed support. I just want to know who you all are. To me, it feels like I have been performing on stage all this while, the spotlights on me, while my readers sit in darkness watching the show.

Please send me an email at sunshinenjoy[at]gmail[dot]com if you’d like to say hi. I look forward to hearing from you.