Saturday, August 29, 2015

"What's It Like To Get A Ph.D. In Science?"

Saw this article online in Slate the other day and boy, did it hit home for me.  The dude knows of what he writes.  Just a few comments:

"It will be lonely, and you are on your own without a net."

So true.  The first year is generally spent in classes taken by everyone in your program, but once you get to the qualifying exams and pick a lab to work in, you are indeed on your own.  You are on track to becoming the world's foremost expert in whatever your tiny, ridiculously narrow field of specialty is, which means A) that nobody else is doing exactly what you're doing, and B) that nobody else cares about what you're doing nearly as much as you do.  It's up to you to figure things out and push through whatever difficulties you're having, including having to proactively go find the people and materials you need to help you get through the rough patch.  And you really do have NO idea how long you'll be there, either...when I was in grad school, I believe the national average from start to finish in a Biology Ph.D. was seven and a half years.  That's a long damned time.

"Choosing your institution is your least important choice."
"Choose your adviser and committee carefully."

These two go hand in hand: the most important decision I made in my entire grad career was the choice of my adviser.  (I looked at eight or ten grad schools before making my decision, and I could have gotten an excellent degree at any one of them despite their different tiers.)  The article suggests that the adviser's reputation and professional connections are key, and they are.  However, I'd argue that open-mindedness and flexibility are almost as important.  My adviser was clearsighted enough to realize that not every Ph.D. candidate belongs in a lab somewhere, and he willingly allowed me to do an internship in patent law while still in grad school even though it meant leaving his lab for ten weeks.  Not many of his peers would have done that.      

"Do not date your adviser or any department faculty member!... Dating other grad students in your department is fine, sort of.  Better yet, keep your personal and professional lives separate."

Luckily for me, I was still dating a college boyfriend for the first six months of so of grad school: quite long enough for me to observe what happens when you date a scientific colleague.  When it crashes and burns, there's no escaping the fallout for anyone in the vicinity since it's a small, insular community.  Having learned that lesson NOT the hard way, thankfully, when my college relationship ended I decided to date a guy from the school across the street instead.  Three and a half years later, I was profoundly grateful for that decision because it meant we weren't working anywhere near each other when we broke up in a spectacularly ugly and painful manner.    

"You will hit the wall."

You're trying to get ready for qualifying exams (the crucible of grad school, usually taking place at the beginning of your second year.)  Something's not working out and you are beyond stressed.  That's the point at which I started grinding my teeth in my sleep.  To this day, I wear a mouthguard at night.  You're in lab, and your experiments aren't working for no reason you can figure out.  You've tried everything you can think of, and either the experiments aren't working at all, they aren't reproducible or their results make no sense.  You look at your lab friends, and their work is cooking along just fine (although for sure as hell they hit a wall at some point too.)   Maybe they are publishing a paper or getting ready to write their dissertation, while you see no light in the tunnel at all.  You look at your college friends and most of them have jobs and families and lives...they aren't at lab at 9:30 on a Sunday night setting up the same damned experiment for the fifth damned time and living in a crappy student apartment.  You start wondering why the hell you weren't a business major in college like your freshman roommate who partied every night while you were trying to get ready for that terrible 8AM Inorganic Chemistry class taught by the sadist from Malta.  It takes a certain kind of person to dig in and keep going at that point.  I've been accused with a lot of justice of being the stubbornest damned person you ever saw, but I was not about to give up.  Even when the attorney I worked for while interning at the law firm offered me a job there if I'd quit school.  (I was four years in and *not* leaving without a Ph.D. at that point, although the other intern did.)  Several of my friends left school with master's degrees, and one with no degree at all.  No shame in how you choose to deal with the wall, but nobody escapes it.    

"Stand up for yourself."

I'd been working in the lab for four years or so and the end was in sight.  My adviser liked me and we'd always gotten along well.  I'd published some solid papers, my research was progressing nicely, and I was thinking that I was almost ready to start writing my dissertation.  I mentioned that to him, and all hell broke loose.  He told me that my work wasn't good enough to write up and that I had a lot more to do before I could even think about graduating.  Not trusting myself to respond at that point, I went home and fumed.  Then I started thinking about some interpersonal encounters of his I'd observed over the years and realized that the best way to deal with him was head-on.  We were both early birds, so I walked into his office the next morning when the lab was quiet, looked him in the eye and told him that he'd really upset me with his comments the day before and that if he had issues with my work, four years in was not the time to tell me about it.  To his credit, he apologized, and I graduated less than six months later.  

"It will change you."

When you're an undergrad, all science professors introduce themselves as "Dr. So-and-so."  Your first day of grad school, out of the blue, they start introducing themselves to you informally.  "I'm Bill, nice to meet you."  You're a junior member of the club, to be sure, but you're now in the club.  My adviser is almost exactly the same age as my dad.  Having been raised by parents who were big on having their kids respect adults, I could NOT bring myself to call him by his first name when I started working in his lab, but he gave me grief (not in a mean way, just jokingly) when I didn't.  My solution at the time was to just walk into his office and look at him when I wanted to talk to him so I didn't need to use his name at all!  Eventually, however, I grew in confidence.  I accepted that I was in fact a peer, albeit a less experienced one.   Under his guidance, I grew professionally to the point where only two years later, I was able to capably address an entire ballroom full of distinguished scientists.   Later, when I started work at another university's technology transfer office, I was accepted as a full colleague by the scientists with whom I was working, including many much older than myself.  Facing the kind of struggles any student scientist faces and then managing to overcome them gave me much more faith in myself than I'd had previously.

Would I do it again, knowing what I know now?  That's the $64K question.  It's a tough way to get a degree, with an uncertain future at the end of it (way too many graduates and not enough available jobs.)  I came out of it well because I was able to switch career tracks, but not everyone does.  You have to want it really badly to get through, that's for sure.

Now, go write your dissertation.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Evolution Of The Playdate

We had a rare and wonderful afternoon at home yesterday.  And since the kids all missed the friends they haven't seen much in recent weeks because of their travels, I allowed each one to invite a friend over.  Counterintuitive as it might seem, six children are much easier to manage than three, provided that only three of them are your own kids.  ;)  So, for most of the afternoon, my house was occupied by two third grade girls, two fourth grade boys and two seventh grade boys.

The third grade girls played together with dolls and dress-up clothes and art supplies.

The fourth grade boys played together with DSs. They were synced to the same game, and the two boys were playing in the same game world on separate devices while sitting next to each other on the family room sofa, and also talking to each other about the game.

The seventh grade boys were both sitting on the guest room bed, but not interacting much at all...each on their own devices and in their own little worlds, with the odd few sentences of chatter thrown in.

All three kids had a great time, even though their experiences were vastly different.  And if the progression holds, by high school my kids will be having their interactions with their friends purely via the Internet with no physical proximity or conversation needed at all!!

Sunday, August 23, 2015


I wrote a while back about the difference between vacations and trips...the primary distinction being that trips involve children and logistics and refereeing, whereas vacations involve actual peace and quiet and relaxation.  Himself recently gave me the gift of a four-day vacation, mostly because I didn't kill him in July when he spent 16 straight days in London for work.  :)  Last Thursday morning, he took all three kids and went to Florida to visit his best friend's family for the long weekend, leaving me at home in glorious, blessed solitude except for the dog.

Things I did little to none of during my vacation:

Things I did a lot of during my vacation:
Geocaching (49 finds!)
Walking with the dog
Martial arts classes (two classes each of taekwondo and aikido)
Spending time with friends (one lunch out, one evening out, one day spent caching in a group)

To each his own, I admit, but all of those things make me happy and it was a WONDERFUL weekend.  I think I need to make this an annual tradition!

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Thing Two had his annual evaluation by the neurodevelopmental pediatrician yesterday.  Truly lovely woman, knows her stuff cold, no issues with her whatsoever, but there's something about sitting in a room once a year and being told everything that's wrong with your kid in stark clinical detail that always sends me into shutdown mode for a couple of hours afterward.

She generally starts off by talking to us while he does paperwork down the hall: writing samples, math problems, that sort of thing.  Then she sends us to the waiting room while she talks to him and administers all of her tests.  When those are all done, she sends him down the hall again to play while she brings us back in and goes over the test results.  From start to finish (including a quick physical exam by one of her nurses at the beginning), the whole process usually takes somewhere between two and a half and three hours: quite a production.  She's able to give us an annual snapshot of how he's doing, since she only sees him once a year...the rest of us who work with him (Himself and me included) don't necessarily notice changes because we are with him so much more.  She also provides valuable input as to which assessment tests should be run and what services he needs.

Essentially, his difficulties boil down to a relatively severe problem with the processing of incoming (receptive) and outgoing (expressive) language.  Some features of mild autism (although she's convinced that he's not actually autistic) and some features of ADHD as well, but nothing that rises to a clinical level.  Luckily for him, he's smart as hell under all the crossed language wires in his brain.  Despite the deficit, he tests at or above grade level in most academic areas and WAY above grade level in some (12th grade-level spelling for an incoming fourth grader, for example??  That was a shocker.)  She saw improvement from the year before in almost all areas she tested, so he's unquestionably continuing to progress, but nobody knows exactly how FAR he's going to be able to progress.  Modern medicine is sadly lacking in magic 8-balls.  All *I* want to know is if he's ever going to be able to pass for a "normal" kid (whatever the hell that might be) and nobody can answer that question.  And not because his differences bother me--I love the kid as he is--but because I don't want them to impede him.  As his mom, all I want is for him to be independent, have friends, have a job, have a life that makes him happy...all of which require a mastery of language and social skills (secondary issue to the language problems for him.)  

So, in the meantime, we cling to the progress that's being made.  He has friends at school.  He enjoys school and is doing well (see comment above about him being smart despite the crossed wires.)  He can carry on a conversation on the phone now, and get involved in imaginative play, two things that eluded him until a year or two ago.  He plays on soccer, baseball and basketball teams, studies both judo and taekwondo, is two years into piano lessons and is even going to be trying the trumpet in fourth grade band next year, for heaven's sake.  Compared to so many children with more severe medical issues, we have nothing to complain about, and I really do know that.  (Hell, considering that just a few short years ago we really had no idea if he was going to be able to function in a kindergarten classroom, the fact that he just blew the doors off third grade with a relative minimum of classroom support should be grounds for celebration, and I know that too.)  I just don't deal well with uncertainty, and that kid's future is one giant ball of uncertainty.

One small step at a time, I guess.  Progress.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Out Of Curiosity...

I should be ashamed to admit this, but it's the truth: I'd been using my new iPhone for a good month before I noticed that the voicemail feature hadn't been set up.  Really.  One quick trip to the AT&T store and it was taken care of, but you'd think I might have figured that out earlier.

I love love love my phone.  It's in my hand a lot (far too much, if you ask Himself.)  However, it is very rarely used AS a phone, which of course explains why I didn't notice the voicemail thing for so long.  By my reckoning, talking on it comes in a solid sixth in the ranking of my potential uses, behind the following, which are listed more or less in order.

1) using its GPS capabilities for geocaching
2) using it to navigate while driving
3) texting
4) emailing
5) surfing the Web

So, I have to ask: If you have a smartphone, do YOU actually use it primarily as a phone??  If not, what do you use it for most often?  Wondering if it's just me for whom the phone function is almost incidental now!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Best Idea Ever

Seen recently in a highway rest stop bathroom:

(Yes, this is the first time I've seen a need to take a picture in a rest stop bathroom, for anyone who may be wondering.)

The sign on the stall door said "Mommy & Me."  It was about the size of a standard handicapped stall, but as you can see, it has not only a regular toilet but also a small one for a young child and even a seat (the gray thing on the wall) in which you can safely restrain an even younger child.

Where was this when I was traveling with three kids under the age of five?  Fabulous idea!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


The one stinking time I write a post about ignoring my maternal instincts and listening to medical "experts," it backfires on me!  Turns out that nurse on the phone was full of baloney...ended up having to bring Thing One to the pediatrician for prescription ear drops on Monday night anyway since swimmer's ear *IS* in fact an ear infection.  Oh well, you can bet I'll remember that the next time.  Live and learn.  No major harm done and his ear is doing a lot better already.  

Just in time, too, since my in-laws picked all three kids up yesterday for a week at Camp Grandmom!  (Bless my sainted MIL.)  In past years they have taken the kids either all separately or two together and then the third, but this year because of scheduling issues they have all three at once.  The original plan was for them to have the kids until Sunday, but with Thing One's ears needing to stay dry through days of drops they had to postpone a beach day, so they are now going to the beach on Monday and I am to pick them up on Tuesday.  I have no idea what I am going to do with all this peace and quiet but I'm sure I can figure something out.

Actually, the week is going to fill up pretty quickly.  Today I have a bunch of errands to run, including birthday shopping for Thing Two, who will turn ten over the weekend.  TEN.  How can that be possible??  Then tomorrow is quest day...for my 3000th geocache (!!), I am driving over two hours  each way with a group of friends in order to bag an especially cool one for the milestone, in keeping with the tradition.  Friday Himself and I leave for our weekend away, returning Sunday.  And while we are doing this the kids will be doing historical stuff and going to an amusement park and the beach and their cousins' house for a sleepover and generally having the time of their lives with their grandparents, so everyone wins.  :)    



Sunday, August 9, 2015

Well, I Learn Something Every Day

Just got home today after a full week on the road with the kids, Sunday-Sunday: some historical stuff, some fun stuff, all five to six hours' drive from home.  Eight days, three cities, four hotels, three very wiped-out kids.  Was going to write about the trip tonight, and I will eventually, but it's getting temporarily preempted by Thing One, who managed to get himself sick at the waterpark I've been writing about.  He'd been going downhill for the last day or so and by this evening (Sunday, natch, when the pediatrician is closed) it was looking for all the world like he'd acquired the mother of all ear infections.  This would not be a crisis except that the kids are supposed to be leaving Tuesday to spend this upcoming week with my in-laws, and as awesome as my MIL is, I would rather not send her off with a sick child even though she could most assuredly handle it.  Especially since the plans for the week include swimming.  So, on the off-chance that the nurse on call might be able to schedule me an appointment with the doc for tomorrow AM, I called the pediatrician's office.

The office being closed, I was referred to the phone operator of the affiliated hospital to connect me with the nurse.  No big deal, except that the woman answering the phone from the covering nurse service identified herself as being affiliated with a huge children's hospital halfway across the state.  That was odd, but she was a nice lady, and after confirming that she didn't have the authority to make me an appointment, she offered to connect me with the nurse on call at her hospital.  Having been a mother for a combined approximately 30 years (kids are almost 8, almost 10, and 12) I figured I bloody well know an ear infection when I see one by now, but on a whim, I agreed to give my number and have the nurse call me back, which she did approximately two minutes later.

Long story short, the professional opinion is that he has swimmer's ear, NOT an ear infection.  My first thought was that germ-ridden waterpark pools were to blame, but no: this is apparently a pH-change thing.  She told, me, I kid you not, to dilute vinegar 1:1 in water and fill his ear with it for five minutes at a time several times a day.  This, combined with ibuprofen and warm compresses, she swears will do the trick.  What do you know.  And how do we diagnose this over the phone, you might ask?  Good question, and also a learning experience for me.  Should any of you encounter this situation, there are two tests you can run.  First, gently grab the rear edge of the ear just above the lobe and pull directly back, parallel to the ear.  Second, press gently on the little "hill" that is in front of the opening to the ear.  If either of those motions increase the child's discomfort, dingdingding we have a winner and the prize is a nice case of swimmer's ear.

As I type this, I can imagine my mother reading it and laughing about nothing being new under the sun!  I'd completely forgotten till just now, but when we would go swimming as kids, she'd joke about "making a salad" in our ears...a drop of oil in each ear before we went swimming and a drop of vinegar afterward.  Son of a gun: wish I'd remembered that beforehand.  Glad I didn't let my maternal ego get in the way of talking to the nurse, anyway, since Thing One would have been the one to suffer for it.  I continue to be amazed at how often I learn something when I politely give an expert the opportunity to share their hard-earned wisdom!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Thoughts From The Water Park, Day Two

Well, had there been any doubt at all, it is now officially dispelled: a significant majority of adult Americans have at least one tattoo that is plainly visible while they are wearing the bathing suit of their choice.  (A day and a half spent in line at a water park tends to ram that point home to even the most casual observer.)

As it happens, I have no tattoos myself.  Not because I am fundamentally opposed to them; more because I've never come across any word or image that I could imagine still wanting permanently engraved on my body fifty years from now, should I be fortunate enough to live so long.  (Not to mention the whole gratuitous pain thing.)

I understand the names or pictures of loved ones.  I understand symbols or words that have meaning to you. I understand baby handprints and intricately colored sleeves that are actually works of art no matter what you may think of the medium.  What I do not understand is skulls; flaming, dagger-penetrated, or otherwise.  I've seen so many in the past 24 hours of contemplation that I've almost come to think of them as a default tattoo for the absence of something original or meaningful, "Hey, maybe I should get a skull tat like everybody else has."  Which I would think would defeat the purpose of having a tattoo that marks your individuality, but what the hell do I know.  Any thoughts??

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Sign Of The Impending Apocalypse

Spent today at a water park with my children.  Sign seen at the entrance to one ride: "Not for riders weighing more than 400lbs."

Sad that the park would actually *need* to post that.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

There Are Two Kinds Of People In The World...

...those who feel compelled to clean house before going on vacation and those (fortunate, blessed souls) who don't.

Must be along the same lines as being told to wear clean underwear when you go out in case you get in an accident, I'm thinking. If there's some sort of issue while we're away (fire, flood, act of God) I don't want the firemen etc walking into a disaster area.  One not relating to the disaster they're there to  help with, anyway.

So, tell me: how many of you are like me and prefer to leave a tidy house, and how many don't worry about what things look like when you walk out the door??  Just curious.

Preview, Part 2

(Or maybe this should have been part 1 since it will happen first.) We dropped Thing One off at his first sleepaway soccer camp on Saturda...