Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Graduate School is a Marathon.

Some say that graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint. You can step onto a track completely untrained and run as hard as possible for a short distance. That's a sprint. You may not win any races, but you can DO it.

For a marathon, you spend sixteen weeks (about) running 3-5 days a week, progressively longer and farther. Then the big race day comes! You lace up your shoes, roll on some Body Glide, buckle up your Garmin, pin on a bib number, and line up. The crowd nervously shifts with excitement. Finally, the gun booms, and masses of humanity surge forth! You probably start out too fast, inspired by the spectators and jittery from your caffeinated Gu, but you quickly realize that you'll be moving for (on average) 4-5 hours, so you slow down. You settle into your comfortable, well-rehearsed pace. You make some friends along the way, distract each other from the drudgery, and stick together for a few miles. One of you eventually pulls ahead, with amicable goodbyes. At the 13.1 mile marker, you rejoice that you just finished a half marathon, while trying to ignore that nagging little voice worriedly whispering, ``But you have the other half to go...'' Around miles 18-23, you despair. You wonder why anyone would ever run at all, let alone pay $100 for the pleasure of running 26.2 miles on a perfectly good Sunday morning. Everything hurts, especially your legs. You consider napping on the side of the road, but then what good was all that training? After mile 23, you realize that you only have one 5k left to go! You can do this! That medal is almost yours! You can eat a bagel and drink chocolate milk so very soon! Just keep running! Why is there always a hill near the end?! Your legs burn and tears well up but you don't stop. You can't stop. You see the finish line! You muster up the last drops of energy in your muscles and you sprint over it! You're DONE. You're a marathoner.

After five hours, thirteen minutes,  and fifty seconds of running:

So it is with graduate school. You spend sixteen grades in school (about), attending class 3-5 days a week, progressively harder and more specialized. Then, you graduate from college! You pack your
belongings, move across the country, arrive at your esteemed university, take safety training, strap on your badge, and pull out the NRL Formulary. The other students are equally idealistic, a little terrified, a little arrogant, and jittery from their coffee. Finally, classes begin! You take pristine notes, complete homework as soon as it's assigned, and jump into research. You quickly realize that it's much harder than undergrad, and you'll be here for (on average) 6.5 years, so you slow down. You settle into being relieved that 50% is passing. You make some friends along the way, commiserate with each other over advisors, and have grand adventures for a few years. Eventually, one of you graduates, with bittersweet goodbyes. At the symbolic halfway marker of sorts, you rejoice for passing Generals and earning a Master's, while trying to ignore those annoying little whispers of, ``But you still have that dissertation...''  Around years 4.5-5.5, you despair. You can't figure out why you are still in school, particularly as your undergrad classmates are making so much more money in the real world on your perfectly good Bachelor's degree. Everything hurts, especially your brain. You consider quitting, but then what good was all that schooling? After you get a job offer, you realize that you only have the final dissertation edits and defense to go! You can do this! That Latin-inscribed piece of paper is almost yours! You can eat cake and drink champagne so very soon! Just keep writing! Why do your readers add more red ink to your drafts?! Your brain fogs and blood pressure rises but you don't stop. You can't stop. You schedule a defense date! You dig out the last morsels of motivation from your being and deliver that talk! You're DONE. You're a doctor.

After five years, eight months, and fifteen days of graduate school:
The Doctor

Wee bit nervous.
Answering questions.
I love Barbara.
Chattin with the advisors 
Posin' with the stellarators

Friday, May 11, 2012

How to Finish Your Ph.D. and Get a Job, Part II

I finally feel like I can breathe. I'm not done, but I'm almost there. My writing energy is no longer being eaten by Dissertation Monster (Thesisaurus?), so here we go!

In this installment of  How to Finish Your Ph.D. and Get a Job, we'll discuss that whole job thing.

To find a job, I tried everything. I visited a career counselor, googled every combination of "physics research postdoc job computation theory" possible, scoured Physics Today's postings, attended on-campus and conference job fairs, emailed colleagues around the world, and stalked job posting sites at various national labs. I practiced my job talk (a one-hour seminar describing my thesis research, given as part of an interview). I bought my first suit, new shirts, and professional, sensible (yet shiny) flats.

I finally applied to about ten jobs. Most were positions in my field, but a few were completely off-the-wall (did you know that NASA recently accepted astronaut candidate applications?), in Germany, England, and all over the USA. At the conference, I interviewed with about thirty people for five different positions. One company had me stop by while I was in Washington to chat, even though they didn't actually have a position available. (They were really nice. Maybe in the future.) Four companies invited me to on-site interviews. Three actually had me visit for those interviews (two in New Mexico and one in California). One rejected me and one accepted me. One hadn't decided by the time I take a position in New Mexico!

Did you catch that? I AM MOVING TO THE SOUTHWEST!



Sure, it will be much different than the Northeast, and that's a little scary. But the culture is a little more like the home of my first 22 years, the Northwest, and that's exciting. I signed the lease on a cute townhouse (no more studio living!) with a backyard and canyon view. I'm packing my cat (and parents, for fun) into my Corolla and driving across the country in a few weeks. I'm going to take up trail running and rediscover skiing. I might get a puppy. I am going to have a real job and a new life!