Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Camera Update

Thanks so much to everyone who left suggestions and expressions of empathy in response to my post about the broken camera. It looks like I can now put that frustrating episode behind me - we received the repaired camera back last week. It seems like everything but the housing was replaced, judging from the notes on the packing slip. And it works like a dream, too!

In fact, it almost works TOO well. The sensitivity is incredible! So incredible, in fact, that I've had to rewrite all my analysis codes because the parameters have changed so dramatically.

I also got a new computer that was pre-loaded with the right operating system. I think it's funny, though, that nobody seems to want the computer that three people slaved over for several days to wrest from the clutches of Vista. I thought it would be used for the new set-up, but they chose to order a new one as well. Then it looked like it would be used to run the fluorimeter, which used to be run by a Commodore 64 and was just upgraded. But it is still sitting next to the optical table, not attached to anything. I guess it's tainted with the scent of futility.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Finding Time for the Extras

Zuska's question for this month's Scientiae Carnival was:

How did you let the world know "I am HERE!"
The most obvious answer is that I (finally) started writing this blog. But, I've increased my visibility in other ways as well.

After going through the graduate school application process a few years ago, the program I felt was the best fit for me was in a city about five hours away from where my family and I were living. Since the program was highly respected, and at an Ivy League school, to boot, my husband and I decided that I should not pass up the opportunity to go, and decided to move the family. The plan was that I would move first, with Thing 1, and that hubby would keep his job in Old City and commute once a week until he found something suitable in New City, since we couldn't really all live off of my stipend. We thought it would take six months to a year.

It actually took almost four years. During that time, I finished my two years of coursework, did rotations, served as a teaching assistant, and joined a lab. Since there was only me to drop off and pick up Thing 1 from school and extended-day, all of those activities had to fit into a very rigidly defined window. There was not a minute of extra time on week days to do anything that couldn't be done at home or with Thing 1 in tow, and hey, the kid needed to sleep! So I made sure I was on time to pick her up every night, even if it meant leaving class early, missing review sessions, not hearing invited speakers, or skipping social events. I spent time with her until she went to sleep, then hit the books. Often I was too tired to work at night, so I would rise at the crack of dawn to finish up whatever was due that day before it was time to get her up and ready for school.

When Thing 2 was born, the window became narrower still, and it became nearly impossible to work at home. Instead of getting up early to work, I was getting up at all hours to nurse and otherwise tend to Thing 2. And in the evenings I bounced between the two kids - serving up the big kid dinner in between spoonfuls of the baby dinner, reading a story to Thing 1 while Thing 2 nursed. Multi-tasking became the norm, and I developed a habit of going to bed with the kids. Where I used to be able to occasionally arrange for Thing 1 to have dinner with one of her friends if I needed a little bit of wiggle room, I couldn't really see having someone else look after Thing 2 after she'd spent the whole day away from me. And I could not imagine traveling - I didn't even go to my program's yearly retreat that year.

So, I'm sure you can imagine the relief I felt when hubby finally took a job in New City last year. I had great expectations for how much easier it would be to handle everything when I was no longer outnumbered by my children. And things are much better. I don't feel so much like I'm running around in circles. Other changes are happening gradually. I've started to attend some of the evening talks. I've been able to travel to attend retreats and conferences. I've been able to present my research. And I've been able to participate more fully in student life. I volunteered to be the representative of my program on the board of a student group. This summer, I will be mentoring a participant of my institution's summer research program for undergraduates; I went to the kick-off dinner tonight, while hubby had quality time with the kids. And I know I'll be able to meet with him regularly without compromising too much research time.

Because I've been able to expand my available time, I've been able to do more stuff besides benchwork. I'm hoping this means I'm getting more out of graduate school, and preparing myself better for the job market. Plus, people see me around more, and I don't get that, "Wow, where have you been?" comment so often. And, you know, I feel like a more balanced human being.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What Every Female Grad Student Needs

You can get a pair here for under $20!

Monday, June 2, 2008

On Mentors

Over on Drugmonkey, PhysioProf wrote about the misconception that, in order to be a good mentor, a PI has to be at the bench, able to do every technique in the lab better than anyone else. He says,

Sitting at the bench or having good hands has nothing to do with being a good PI. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. There is no positive correlation.
I agree with him. I also agree with the commenters who note that the selection process for PI's really should reflect that fact. Not having gone on the job market, however, I don't know weather it does.

The debate of interest to me at this stage of the game, however, is over just how pervasive bad mentoring actually is. One commenter, Becca (no blog), suggested that bad mentoring is so common that,
The system is broken. If not because it doesn't work for so many, than because it wastes so much time for so many. Bad mentorship is a leading cause.
She goes on to cite up to 50% drop-out rates at her institution, and to say that she
think[s] that most of these individuals *deserved* to finish their degrees.
Personally, I think Becca is suffering from the all too common disconnect between the idealistic vision of grad school and academia in general and the reality of living in the adult world. Nobody DESERVES to graduate simply because they were admitted into graduate school. It's a long, hard road, and you don't get that hood if you don't walk to the end. Period.

And that road is filled with sharp curves, and is poorly lighted. Before entering graduate school, students are so focused on doing all the right things to get into graduate school - getting the grades, getting the research experience, getting the recommendation letters, taking the GRE. It's ticking off boxes. And most people have a fair amount of support in this endeavor. But once you have ticked off those boxes, sent out those applications and been accepted to a program, the nature of the game changes. It's no longer as simple as ticking off boxes; instead of performing well at pre-determined times that have been announced to you well in advance, you have to be on top of your game all the time. Then you join a lab, and it's not enough to be smart or to have potential. You are expected to produce. Produce data, produce insight, produce something publishable.

Different mentors have different approaches for getting you to achieve that last goal. Not all styles of mentoring will work well for all mentees. And there are some ineffectual, even damaging mentors out there, but grad students, as the adults they are, need to take some responsibility for their own education. A potential mentee has but two jobs - first, seek out the mentor, or mentors that fulfill the mentee's own needs, and second, be open and accepting of mentoring. Most graduate student expect their PI to be a good mentor to them. Sometimes this doesn't happen. What then? If your PI is a bad mentor, find another mentor. Find two or three, in fact, because no one mentor is ever going to fulfill all your needs. If you find yourself at an institution that does not as a whole provide good mentorship, go to another institution.

I spent a lot of time and effort researching schools to make sure I would be in the environment that was right for me. Then, once I got into grad school, I spent a lot more time and effort looking for a mentor who was right for me. I could have joined a lab headed by a big name PI who has his fingers in every pie in my field. Instead, I chose to join the lab of a junior PI who was doing the kind of work I wanted to to, and who showed that he respected me as a person and was comfortable with my "lifestyle". I am certain that there is no way I would have made it through my first year in a lab otherwise. I am often very frustrated when I have to listen to classmates who complain about their PI's, only to find out that either they had heard the stories about that person and thought that it wouldn't happen to them, or, they hadn't even bothered to ask around or do any research on the person for whom they were going to have to work for several years. That is a careless thing to do. As they say, you have to lie in the bed you make.

As for the counter-claim that some students are not mature enough to do that kind of legwork, well, maybe some people aren't ready for graduate school right out of college. Maybe they should go out into the world for a little while and see how it works before they dive into a PhD. program.

As for the second job of a mentee, fellow students, don't be so quick to paint your PI with the dumb-fuck brush. I have had both the humbling experience of having my PI point out something incredibly obvious that was screwing up my experiments and the exhilarating experience of having an idea that my PI pooh-poohed actually produce interesting results. It seems that grad students go through a sort of adolescence - where their PI is like the parent and they have to prove that they can function separately from them. Just like how adolescent children like to say their parents don't know anything, so too do grad students like to bitch about their PI who could never understand all the details of their experiments. A certain amount of this is totally normal - just blowing off steam. But if we get carried away with it, we may miss out on what our mentors have to offer. So what if your PI doesn't know how to use every piece of equipment in the lab with a level of skill and grace that would make angels weep. Does that mean they have nothing to offer? No. And is that really all you came to graduate school to learn? I hope not.