Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 10: I'm a Second Year Already?


One year down and, hopefully, only four more to go. It's amazing how quickly time passes. I finally got that master's degree (although it's not yet hanging on the wall). And I am eyeball deep in research, but coming up for air every few months to take another qualifier.

I've slowly gotten into the groove of being a full-time research assistant: 60-plus hours a week labside, no classes, no teaching assistantships, just Jeff (the advisor) popping in a little too often for my taste asking, "How's it going?" The frustration from this summer has receded, and my labor no longer seems to be in vain. I've actually gotten some results that please my advisor, although nothing ever seems to be enough and everything should have been done yesterday.

I'm learning to live gracefully with the frustrations of research: being grateful when something works and not taking it personally when it doesn't. With the help of more seasoned graduate students, I've come to accept my life as a researcher--toiling constantly toward an occasionally well defined but elusive goal. With small steps I am gaining on that goal and now realize I have yet another path to pursue, obtaining publishable data.

As a high school student and again as an undergrad working in research laboratories, I did not fully comprehend all of the preparation that goes into experiments. I enjoyed the work, though, and thought, yeah, I can do this. It's only now I see all of the planning, the U-turns and wrong turns, the inconclusive data and results, the malfunctioning equipment and the general madness involved in doing solid research. But if everything was easy, worked the first time, was easily interpreted, and gave reproducible results, it wouldn't be research.

I am very appreciative of all these things now. At my undergrad school we had this saying: In K-8 you learn the alphabet, in high school you learn to make words, in college you learn to make sentences, and graduate school is for learning to construct paragraphs and make stories. Each of us has a story to tell, and in mine, the research is slowly coming together. ... I'm busy putting the sentences together so that they make sense. I guess I always wanted to be a storyteller, so here I am.

As the new school year begins, I offer a brief update on the situations from last year that I told you all about.

As for the isolation of Chapter one and Chapter two, things have improved considerably over the year. I now enjoy a wide range of associates both inside and outside the department and we consistently get together with each other for moral support. I actually moved in with Stacey and Raphael, a couple of friends, and this has made life fabulous. After a day of looking at papers, techniques, and chemicals, coming home to them makes me feel a little more human. Although we don't see much of each other (they are also in graduate school), they have been wonderfully supportive of me, and I them. I still go to church each Sunday for spiritual grounding; if I don't go I get cranky, so I know it is essential.

Unfortunately my commitment to the gym has waned even though I know it's good for me. I'll get back there soon; I just have to stop hugging the pillow in the morning. The hardest thing right now is trying to find a balance between work and self that will allow me to keep up the grueling schedule. Currently, I work as hard as I can Monday through Friday and then try to keep as much of the weekend to myself as possible.

As for the qualifiers from Chapter three and Chapter seven, I only need to pass two more. So it wasn't the end of the world when I flunked those other two, although it is still a huge nuisance. Sticking to the list of study tips from Chapter three helps, and hopefully in a few months I'll be able to report that I've completed my qualifiers.

Playing the Game Perspective and Perseverance: It's the Only Way

Often when we have managed to achieve a great deal elsewhere in our lives we take it personally when our research isn't quite working. It feels like a personal affront: I planned the experiment, I scoured the literature, I prepared everything just so, and it still doesn't work! I spent a summer in agony and frustration because the majority of my work was not productive. It is important for me to try to maintain perspective and to persevere. If this were easy, everyone would do it. But it's called REsearch for a reason (actually, four of them):

REdo, REwork, REmake, REthink!

The lab family from Chapter four has changed considerably. Tim, the California cool guy, has left us for another advisor and we've added Sabir, a second-year fellow who defected from another group. Sabir is the first international student that we've added to the group although I'm quite sure there will be more. I've always enjoyed working with people from far afield, and my interactions with Sabir have been a delight. He's a lot more intense than Tim, works vampire hours, and is studying for an additional master's degree from another department. Phew!

I am now coordinating the work of the undergraduates in the lab. They report to me and I assign them to Daphne, Laura, or myself for the day. Thus far, Ben and Jiao are working out well. Working with the undergraduates in this way will have to substitute for being a TA.

And then there's Jeff. After close observation I've determined that the gender bias I perceived earlier was actually more results based than gender based (see Chapter eight). Tim left the group for several reasons--Jeff was bugging him to work harder but at the same time, he was losing interest in the work. It also seems that so long as I'm exhausted from work, Jeff is convinced that I'm working hard enough.

As for the cheating scandal from Chapter six, we lost a few of our classmates. It isn't clear if they were encouraged to leave, but we don't believe they were kicked out of the program. We do know that two people were kicked out of another group. Nevertheless, the whole incident still leaves a bitter and unresolved taste in my mouth.

In the end, I have persevered. And for the moment, I feel like I'm back on top of the wave instead of being beaten down by it. Until next time ...

You can send e-mail to Micella at

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