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Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 16: Time for Rumination


Well folks, another month has FLOWN by. Part of me hopes that they'll all be like this, but then, it would be nice to have had a few more results to show for the end of the month. As summer approaches, I'm hoping, like Jeff, that this project will take off and begin to bear reproducible fruit, a.k.a. data. Unlike last month, things in the lab have actually decided to work, miraculously, and as I take off for vacation Jeff is a little less stressed around me; he even smiles a bit more. What a difference some data make.

My advisor is not a mentor to me, but I am fortunate to have mentors around that I can talk to. One Wednesday morning I had a chance to have coffee with a former math department head who, thankfully, has taken an interest in my progress toward my Ph.D. Dr. Dom has been around the university for quite a while and was the first minority department head in science and engineering. He's seen lots of students and professors come and go, so I trust his insight as it relates to surviving graduate school, sanity intact.

Over coffee, I told Dr. Dom about the difficulty I was having with Jeff. In case you missed my last column, it's the old "untenured-new-faculty-needs-first-big-grant-and-you're-working-on-the-project" syndrome. I talked (to Dr. Dom and in last month's column) about the frustration that I felt, having been, up to that point, unable to get results that indicated the project was working. He asked me what Jeff was doing as an advisor, and I told him that he came around frequently to ask how things were going, but that sometimes I just wanted to be left alone to work out a problem. When I was frustrated enough, I told Dr. Dom, I would go and ask, rather than being harassed every other day. Sometimes, it feels like the Spanish Inquisition rather than support and encouragement. Yeah, I know, overachievers-R-us. ...

Dr. Dom told me that what I was experiencing was relatively normal, and that, in spite of it all, at least I had an advisor that was interested in what I was doing and not leaving me floundering in a sea of nothing, wondering why a year just slipped by.

Talking to some of my fellow graduate students, I see how easily this can happen. For instance Amy, now a third-year grad student, had been working on a problem for a little while, but was "scooped" by someone at another university. These last 6 months she's been working on another project but hasn't made much progress. Her advisor is more of the hands-off type, and I sense her frustration with his lack of involvement in her project. She thinks she would have made better progress if he had offered more assistance in the earlier stages, rather than letting her wallow, stuck in first gear.

There is, it seems, a delicate balance that must be found between advisor, student, and project. The advisor must discover when and where to step in on a project and move a student along, without being too intrusive and pushy, or, on the other hand, too aloof. The student must learn when to ask the advisor for assistance when things are not working and some tweaking is in order. Each person must also respect the other's work ethic and sense of timing. I know ... I'm a graduate student and so I must toil many hours day and night. But if I'm doing that, then please don't imply that I'm not working hard enough if the project isn't moving forward. Do not, as the professor, forget about the quasi-periodic cycle of research; that sometimes it's good and things work, so you keep working while you're golden. Yet, things can go very wrong very fast, and it may or may not be the fault of the student. It's just how life is.

In a few months I'll be choosing a committee and researching my proposal, another requirement for the program that has very vague guidelines: "Write a proposal that you could submit for funding." Cute. ... Laura has just finished work on hers and I'll be discussing the process with her once she gets comments back from her committee. Ah, the mysticism of graduate school: If they like it and it holds water and meets some unknown qualifications, she'll defend it; if they don't, she'll rewrite it and submit it again. This should be fun, right?

Now that I'm on vacation, and much calmer than I was a few days ago, I can say that it hasn't been all that bad. Dr. Dom said that graduate school is to be endured sometimes, not always enjoyed ... well, I continue to endure, although I may not particularly like where I am or what I'm doing, at least when it's not working. Hindsight being what it is, there are things that I might have done differently, maybe a different program or a different location, but who's to say if it would have gone better or worse than it has?

To those of you who know students that are starting graduate school in the fall, tell them the truth: It ain't all roses. From advisors, to funding, to classes, there are plenty of things that can and will go wrong. As a pre-grad-school gift, send them to this site, because the more informed they are, the better off they'll be in the long run. Happy graduation to those of you that have made it out this spring! So long for now; I'm off to sun myself. ...

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