JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

INDEX OF ARTICLES

I've recently had an abrupt change of heart. I've left the fields of apathy I dwelt in many days during my third year of graduate school and wandered into more motivated pastures.

I've realized it's time to leave (with degree in hand of course). Sooner, not later; the operatic diva has started to warm up.

I've come to that point in graduate school that someone told me about years ago: the point at which you dislike everything and everybody and want to do whatever you have to do to escape as quickly as possible. Welcome to year 4, that weird time when people start asking you, So, how much longer?--and you want to strangle them because you have an answer in your head, sort of. But there are papers to write, advisers to please, younger students to train, undergraduates to manage, and classes to teach ... and all you really want to do is propose, finish, defend, and leave.

Yes--at the beginning of my fourth year I have found motivation.

I've reached that point where new students coming into the department aren't interesting. Even if they join your group, you only have to deal with them for brief periods of time, so why bother putting forth great chunks of time on them? Some advice here or there is reasonable, but long, drawn-out histories, um, maybe not. I'll be out of here soon, anyway.

I think maybe the vacation did it, getting away for a little while and facing my inquisitive family and friends who have real lives already. Before the vacation, I'd reached the point of extreme apathy--not knowing, not caring, not caring to know. Before the vacation, I was feeling sorry for myself, despising the many hours I spent at school/work, wondering where I would find the enthusiasm to finish and leave. It was pitiful. I'm ashamed to say that it was me, but I know I can't be the only one who has these moments of angst, denial, and depression.

I decided to run away for a little while; I needed to change my environment. I went home and had a little rest and relaxation. At home I found what I needed but didn't necessarily want--family members asking, more than once, How much longer?

In addition to dealing with the family inquiries, I saw some friends from undergraduate years during my escape. A few are still in school, but most of them have moved past the contingent phase, the time of life when you sit around waiting for your life to begin. Yet seeing them didn't depress me the way I thought it was going to; it actually invigorated me to come back, kick it in the head, finish reading, learning, experimenting, and just finish.

I'm amazed at how different I feel about my experience in graduate school now than I felt a few short years ago. Reading back through chapters 1 and 2, I hardly know that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young lady who hadn't the slightest idea what was about to hit her.

Yet her (my) instincts were pretty good, and I managed to make it this far with fewer scars than some of my co-workers. I didn't realize, back then, that I was in for so much personal growth. So many little crises--comps: chapters 3, 7, and 13; being female: chapter 8; research anxiety: chapter 15; disliking my project: chapters 19 and 20 (and others, no doubt, still to come)--so little time.

The people I met my first year either have come, annoyed, and moved on or have come to be good friends. For those of you just starting, give yourself at least a semester and a half to make friends, and then figure out which ones you want to keep close and which will remain mere acquaintances. Even acquaintances are nice, though; it is comforting to walk through campus or town and know people more than I used to. I don't mind eating by myself or going to the movies on my own sometimes; the fewer schedules I have to coordinate, the better.

I've come to a place where I know deep down that my situation is temporary, so I no longer look for every opportunity to escape. I don't need to do something with someone every weekend. I've become very careful of how and with whom I spend my time--Will this situation make me smile? Or will it just irritate me?--because I don't have as much time to waste any more. I've got work to do, a degree to finish.

I still haven't the slightest idea what I'm going to do when I'm done (Chapter 1). It might be a university professorship, but probably not, at least not at a Research I university. Maybe I'll work in science and education policy. Maybe I'll work for a nonprofit. Maybe I'll join some university's initiative to improve education and training for scientists at all levels.

I like people, sometimes. A parade of people would keep life interesting, I like helping people to become the best they can be. Maybe I'll find a career that will let me do this every day.

I've remained involved in my community. I've tried to maintain relationships with all of the offices on campus that are related to what I am (a graduate student), what I do (science and engineering), or who I am (a black woman). This community involvement is time-consuming, but it keeps me connected to the campus and the goings-on of my fellow students in other departments. It has allowed me to mentor a few students, and it has provided me with mentors outside my department who have been great sounding boards when I'm feeling claustrophobic.

My social life has evolved over time. I was never a sit-around-and-wait-for-it kind of woman, but now I have people to call up and go out with. My struggle now is to find peace and patience with the research, to do it well, and to get it done. I can see now, and I willingly admit, that I haven't been the greatest graduate student. There is always more to read, more to do, more to marvel at and think about. Sometimes I've tried my best. Other times I haven't. But who can be perfect, "on" all the time? Not me, kids, not me. But now is the time for me to become a better student than before. Now that all those social and other distractions are behind me, it's time to rally, time to do the best work I'm capable of, and vanish.

As for the lab, it too has been functional or dysfunctional (chapters 4, 25, and 26) in cycles, more or less like me. We're actually now getting to where we can laugh and joke in group meetings, with everyone on or approaching the same page. It was a long road, but somehow we have started to enjoy each other's company every now and then. There is still work to do, but it seems as if the lab group has gelled slowly but surely.

Here I am, at the beginning of year 4. I've emerged from my funk long enough and far enough to see that, yes, I will leave one day, hopefully soon, but there is much to do. I have two proposals to write and defend them before I officially start my thesis work (though, of course, in reality much of the work is already done). Happily, things are working well right now; it's still not my favorite thing in the world to be doing (Chapters 19 and 20), but good data are good data. We hope to have another paper (Chapter 18) out soon trumpeting our good work.

If you're reading this and you're younger than me--or even if you're older but haven't reached the point I've newly found, (which I'm told is a good place to be)--take heart. Yes, it can be done. Yes, it hurts, but with a little luck it only hurts a little.

Suggested reading for you newbies: Chapters 1 through 8 detail the "joys" of my first year. Chapters 27 through 30 talk about the communication skills we aren't taught as students but that we desperately need to succeed in grad school and beyond. Take care, good luck, and wish me the same. We all need it.

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Science Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the forum, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.