Sunday, March 30, 2008

Breakdown, meltdown, cracking up...

I had my first real stress induced breakdown of my graduate career this afternoon.  I made it through the first two terms without being reduced to a puddle of tears, but no more.  Yes, it is completely girlie to cry when you are stressed, but I am a girl - so bite me!

Since I first started school I've been working on my thesis proposal, and now that I'm facing my first grad-committee meeting (this thursday) I've been working even harder on perfecting it. Writing for long hours of the day and giving the transformations of the draft to my professor for editing (with the hopes of sending the proposal to committee members tomorrow morning.) Normally I love getting a draft back with lots of good comments and changes, I firmly believe that editing is what make writing great.  But today I received my latest draft by email with a suite of comments, and as I scrolled through them I realized it would take many hours to make these changes, many more hours than I would have to work on it tomorrow morning.  

Slowly the realization sunk in, I had to go back to work.  Normally this wouldn't bother me much, I work most days, but I had planned on spending today with my husband, going rock climbing and brewing a batch of beer.  I felt crushed, and I knew just how disappointed he would be and I lost it.  I started packing up my bag and the hot tears started rolling, frustration burned through me.  My husband didn't know how to help but offered lots of heartfelt but unhelpful advice, like refusing to make the changes and such.  Nice idea, but that just isn't how it works.  There should be a support group for spouses of graduate students.  I'm sure he was even more frustrated than I felt, being unable to do anything to help me.

Having now experienced this little meltdown, and subsequent mini-breakdowns this afternoon at my desk, I realize it was just another inevitable part of the graduate school process.  I should just be glad it didn't happen during my committee meeting.  

I'm reminded of stories one of my best friends tells me about her fellow vet-school students having breakdowns in the middle of lecture yelling at the professor and storming out.  I was shocked the first time she told me such a story and I wondered if they treated the students any different after suck a breakdown.  Her response was simply no, we all breakdown eventually and it's usually public and humiliating so we're all really supportive when it happens to a fellow vet-student.  

Totally unbelievable.  

Professional school (in her case) and graduate school (in my case) is so overwhelming at times that it is totally acceptable to have a disruptive public breakdown.  How does that make our social dynamics any different than a pre-school class?

It sounds absurd, I know, but I can't help but feel there is a little truth in it.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Anthropology Museum - University of BC

Absolutely amazing museum. This picture is a close up of the face of a carved speaker pole.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Thai tea

Wonderful pot of tea at lunch.  Green tea with jasmine blossoms and rose buds, as optional golden raisins added to your cup.  (the Curries weren't half bad either.)

Stanley Park

Look what I found walking in Stanley Park this morning, a healthy little gorse bush.  I didn't think it had invaded this far north, but apparently I was wrong.

Greetings from Vancouver (BC)

A good start - Beer sampler at the Steamworks brewery

Monday, March 17, 2008

One hurdle down,

-50 bazillion to go!
No, really it does actually feel good to finish up classwork for the term.  Getting much closer to rest, beer, and sleep.  Now that my tests are done I just have to:
1. finish a final draft of my thesis proposal
2. prepare a presentation on my research to give to working professionals
3. prepare a presentation for my first committee meeting
4. Clean the house up before the cat-sitter realizes what a pig I am 
And then I am free for spring break!  Vancouver here I come.
So I over estimated with my count of 50-bazillion things to do, but come-on it does sorta feel that way when all I really want is a pint of beer and a nap.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Paul Dirac quote

A really great quote from my google quote of the day widget:

"In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite."
Paul Dirac
English physicist in US (1902 - 1984)

Friday, March 14, 2008

More than just the week comes to a close....

The end of another fantastical week of graduate school.
The end of winter term.
The end of a satisfying botany class.
The final days of statistics, the final push before grades are out.  
Time to focus and drive ourselves.
And then finally it will be time for rest, time for beer, and time for sleep.
I think that will be a mantra to finish the last few days of Term: Focus, rest, beer, sleep.  Focus, rest, beer sleep.  It actually has a nice flow to it, or perhaps I am to brain dead to be clever right now.  Yes, I think it's the latter, definitely.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Gift of Space

I tend to go to my office if I need to write, study, or just to concentrate.  Occasionally I read a journal article in a coffee shop or pub, but I need to keep my headphones on so that music blocks out the distractions.  Needless to say, I don't get much work done at home.  I usually don't bother to try working at home, unless I'm home alone and all the pets are sleeping (that rarely happens.)  

But on occasion I do attempt it.  I did so this morning, My husband had a late start time for work, so I stayed home for an extra couple hours thinking I could have an extra cup of coffee with him and review for my next exam.  It was not turning out to be a very productive environment, and I finally had to say something.  Lovely man he is, he gave me the space I needed to finish my work, and I was so grateful.  He frequently wants to help me with school, and I really appreciate this when I have plants to re-pot or study cards he can quiz me with.  But in this case what I needed the most from him was a little space.  It's amazing how much it helps to just be left alone sometimes, even for a short period of time.  It's difficult to ask for, I'm always wary of hurt feelings, but sometimes space is one of the best gifts we can receive.

Phillip Lopate poem

I was digging around in a desk drawer for ibuprofen (yes it's one of those days) and found a printout of a Phillip Lopate poem that I used to have hanging above my monitor at my old job. Though I'm not usually one for poetry (with the exception of AA Milne) I've loved this poem since I first encountered it in the great book Bird by Bird. It seemed like a perfect thing to share on a Thursday afternoon.

We Who Are Your Closest Friends
Phillip Lopate
We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
discontent and
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

While other people are starting families.....

We are starting thesis projects.
I recently found out that my closest friend from high school (who is happy, well educated, and successful) is having a baby.  And it just got me thinking.  So many graduate students I know seem to have that part of their life on hold.  We spend some prime dating, marrying, procreating years attending classes, conducting research, and publishing papers.

There are exceptions to the rule (I got married quite young for example, so have had a loving and dependable spouse throughout my "adult" life) I know other students who have young children when they return to graduate school, and still others who start families during graduate school.  But their is a large number of us that seem to have that part of the brain switched off.  The idea of a family doesn't even seem comprehensible to many of us, and I can't help but wonder if that instinct will ever be switched back on.  

Will there be this large group of socially repressed, childless, but brilliant scientists solving the worlds problems in a few years?  I guess lately part of me has felt like instead of moving forward by leaving a career for grad-school I've some how regressed.   Apparently most people would say the is something wrong with you for enjoying an evening spent with your laptop and a pint of beer.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Daylight freaking savings

As if we don't have enough trouble with our melatonin levels.  I just walked back from the greenhouse and it feels like 2 in the afternoon outside.  My internal clock is confused, and so is the rest of me.

An excess of hand gestures

- makes you look insane.
It's bizarre. I feel myself doing it and tell myself to stop, but I continue to flail my arms about and gesture in nonsensical ways, hoping to get my point across. The harder I try to communicate to the audience the more blank looks I get. That glazed over expression is so distressing. I feel for my professors, we students cut them no slack. I can see why they like to turn the tables on us and require oral presentations.
Boy, teaching labs next year is really going to be fun (was that dripping with enough sarcasm?)

Maintaining balance

Students at every level struggle with balance.  Perhaps an even wiser statement would be all humans struggle with balance.  But for students it is always balancing school with other things in you life, family, friends, hobbies, work, sports.  It's nearly impossible to get it right all the time, and naturally other aspects of your life always pull on you the hardest when all of your attention needs to be focused on school.  I wish I could say that I have figured out a way to deal with it, but I probably use one of the worst tactics.  I tend to ignore phone calls and skip fun activities as deadlines approach.  I'd like to send out this note just before the end of term hits: 

"Dear family, friends, and loved ones,
For the next two weeks please refrain from any dramatic altercations, mental breakdowns, life altering revelations, time consuming favors, tragic accidents, and life changing decisions that need my in-put.  Thank you for your cooperation in this matter, communications will now cease until after my last final."

But I have a feeling it wouldn't go over too well.

Friday, March 7, 2008

College Gourmet

Deluxe micro-ramen recipe:
Put 1/2 cup frozen veggies (I like stir fry mix) in bowl.  
Add dry ramen noodles and fill bowl with nearly boiling water.  
Soak noodles until slightly softened (about 1 min.)
Microwave until noodles are soft but still opaque (taste better than over cooked translucent noodles IMHO) cooking time is approximately 2 mins on high.
Pour extremely hot water out of bowl and re-fill will cooler water.
Stir-in flavor packet and enjoy!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Power of Positive Editing

It's amazing how a few positive comments can make your day.  A edited draft can be covered in red ink from cover to cover and a few positive comments on your writing style or the way you worded a few paragraphs make all the difference.  Even just an underlined phrase with the word "Nice" written next to it is all it take to give you that pleased little smile and satisfied feeling.  It's amazing how much power is in the editors pen, there is certainly truth to that old saying about the pen and the sword.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Since returning to school I've noticed something unexpected about life as a graduate student, it's very lonely.  I know it sounds odd.  I share an office with four other students, I go to classes with dozens of others, I have two professors I work with, there are research assistants, post doc's, undergraduate workers, but yet the fact remains I still somehow frequently feel alone.  Being social by nature I find it difficult sometimes.  Everyone is working so hard on there own projects you don't have some one to bounce new ideas off, share jokes, reflect on experiences.  Don't get me wrong, I love being here, being part of this fantastic group of scientists, but I feel like I've sacrificed something too.  The job I left for school was wonderful in that way, I had these really strong bonds with my co-works that were different than usual friendships.  Not really better, because they never really last after you leave the job, but still very strong friendships in their own way.

Now I find myself seeking out old friendships with people I've grown away from, trying to find a connection to help combat the loneliness, but it's difficult.  I get so wrapped up in school work and research that I'm unable to properly cultivate a friendship with people outside my immediate group of office-mates, mentors, and colleagues.  In a way I feel like the more I advance in science and knowledge the more I regress in social capacity.  Perhaps there is something to the stereotype of the socially inept out of touch scientist, but I really hope not.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

New Motivational Statement

I was browsing through some old entries at my friend Mike (the super-hero librarian) blog when I came across my new motivational statement for the week: "shut up and just get some shit done."  That is exactly what I needed to hear.  Thank you Mike!

Stress is in the air

Well, they started again last night.  Those damn stress dreams!  You know the ones, everyone has had them at one point in their college experience.  You overslept on the day of your final, you keep trying to get to the exam and one obstacle after another presents itself.  Or the old classic, it's the last day of the term and you find out that you were registered for a class that you forgot about and you are now going to fail because you haven't been attending, and it's too late to drop it from your transcript.  

I think the stress of all the students and professors must combine to form a giant stress cloud over the university and stress storms begin to hit people at random all over campus.  No one is immune, I been told by professors who have been teaching for a quarter century that they still have those dreams about missing exams and forgetting class.  A friend described the condition as being like post-traumatic-stress disorder, once your body has gone past it's limit of stress your mind plays out irrational scenarios  on it's own.  I really don't know anything about PTSD but I'd believe that attempting to function in this high stress environment for long periods would begin to effect your health.  

In fact, all this stress has helped me discover my end of term mantra; "Just two more weeks, just two more weeks."

Monday, March 3, 2008

Under Pressure

Oh, how quickly the end of term is upon us.  All those promises you made to yourself about not putting your term papers and class projects off to the last minute haunt you with irony.  As graduate students weren't we supposed to put procrastination behind us?  But rather than part of the minority, I find myself in good company; overworked, over-stressed, short-tempered, and sleep-deprived company.  And yes, I should be writing a term paper right now, and instead I'm typing this blog.  At times like this I find myself thinking about this fantastic line from Slings and Arrows:  

"My reason may very well be hanging by a thread. Well, my friends, it is my belief that the best stuff happens just before the thread snaps."

Lovely.  Well, lets hope it's true because the thread is wearing thin.

The Scientists' Mantra

I've been thinking about mantras lately.
Something to say to myself when I need that extra push.  Something inspirational, motivational, something that helps me to focus.  Not being in a recovery program, not ascribing to a particular religious view, and being moderately poor at yoga, I don't know any mantras.  So, I did what any laptop dependent adult would do in my place, I googled it.  More specifically I googled the scientists' mantra, thinking I'd find a inspiring message floating about in cyberspace. Unfortunately we scientist apparently are rather uninventive when it comes to such things.  The motley crew of mantras that I found follow:

Scientists need freedom in pursuing their research.
-Well true, but I find this rather lacking in inspiration and motivation.
First learn what others have done.
-A good message, an especially important one for us young scientists venturing in to new territory, but still not very mantra-like.
Anything that can be measured by statistics or quantified is by definition the right way to do things. 
-Well, I'm fairly sure this was meant to be insulting to scientists.
More research is needed.
-Very Blah.
There is value in basic research.
-Hmmm, better.  Could be especially good if you thought your research was rather rudimentary in comparison to others work., but still no winner.
Discover, develop, deliver.
-Would appear to be a commercial catch phrase, which by definition eliminates it from mantrahood.
Science for scientists.
-I really hate this one, "Science for all" would be much better.
A scientist is an objective observer and interpreter.
-Now, this one has potential, still doesn't have that powerful mantra-feeling, but it's definitely growing on me. 

And that leaves me still searching for that inspirational, motivational scientists' mantra.  Hmmm, something about the value of our work, and changing the world..... I'm working on it.