Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mid-PhD Crisis

Like a madman groping in a dark room
Seek the light to burn away the gloom
I’ve lost my mind but my feelings are true
Everything I do, I offer to you.
-- No Turn Un-Stoned (Shpongle)

I am now a mid-career PhD student. That was how my advisor described me during the first departmental meeting of this academic year while introducing his research group to the incoming batch of grad students. Then, I didn’t give much thought to the term he used; mid-career. However, listening to the above lyrics and considering my PhD progress - probably anyone’s for that matter - it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that truer words have never been spoken.

But then, Jorge Cham knew it all along. Nearing 40 in my ‘lab years’, this is probably the perfect time for a mid-‘lab’ life crisis. It seems to have struck me hard. Look at what I am doing right now. I should be working on my thesis. Instead I am procrastinating, penning down my thoughts. I can’t help it. Each time I stare at the word document of my would-be thesis, I can’t help myself getting distracted. On a positive note, though, this time has been a productive blogging period for me, what, with plenty of updates over the last month or so, both here and at Interstate 42.

Newton’s third law of graduation - "For every action towards graduation there is an equal and opposite distraction".

It wasn’t always like this. I got through the inevitable post-qualifiers slump that hit me last summer, obtained some good results and published a paper before this summer began. But now, summer is gone and I have nothing to show for it. I have been coding, compiling and debugging; but I am nowhere near simulating the thermal behavior around laser heated nanoparticles. Guess it happens; it is after all a mid-PhD slump.

Things should pick up soon, if not I should force it. It is time I took Cecilia’s resolve and started working full time on my candidacy report that would later become my thesis. Before my advisor loses his patience, I have to finish the report and take my candidacy examination. But, where are the freaking results? ~Long breath~

In the meantime, I came across a friend’s facebook status - “I TA for a professor whose Erdos Number is 1. Yes No.1 and no lesser. Despite that fact the amount of respect that he gives to other minions like me is amazing! The more I see these people, the smaller I feel in this world. Who said grad school was burden, it is an enlightening experience at every step”. He is a new grad student at RPI and all I can say is ‘enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts. It won’t be long before you end up like this'.

As for the rest, take care and have a blast.

PS: Take note of Jorge Cham’s disclaimer. If you are new to PhD Comics, then remember, ‘reading this entire archive can be hazardous to your research. Proceed with caution and use only in moderation.’

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A matter of choice

One harmless decision. One more a few minutes later. Then a series of small, seemingly inconsequential choices. Nothing more. Yet, in the end the damage was done. Ah, hindsight! Things look so simple in it. Turning back, connecting the dots, a pattern emerges.

I was tired. Working away in my tiny cubicle, I had kept sleep at bay for forty hours.  No more. I had to get out, get back home. Never before had I longed so much to snuggle under my blankets. Never before had the thought of a warm bed comforted me more.

Before that, though, I had to satisfy the growing discomfort inside my stomach. I needed food. Cooking was not an option, not with my eyelids threatening to snap shut, the threat growing stronger every waking second. Thank god for the new diner just outside campus.

A collective ‘Welcome to Moe’s!’ greeting and a short queue later I was able to give my order - rice bowl with chicken and soybeans with a free pack of tortilla chips. To go; one harmless decision. After all, why take the risk of embarrassment, drooling over the table at the diner?

I got the chips in a paper bag. The cashier asked, “Do you want a bag for the rice bowl?” I shook my head in the negative. The second one, after all why waste paper? I put the bowl in the bag with the chips and headed out.

The pedestrian signal was red. “Home in ten minutes”, I thought as I waited. A minute later the signal changed and I was on my way. A little across I met a friend. He had just returned after hiking the Presidential TraverseI could have just greeted him and walked past but I wanted to ask about the hike. A simple choice.

A few minutes later we said our goodbyes and I continued my journey home. As I reached the end of the block, the intersection between 15th and Sage, the pedestrian signal was red. I looked around. Across 15th I saw another friend of mine. He hadn’t seen me. I could have waited for a few more seconds, rushed across Sage and been on my way. A seemingly harmless choice later, I was on the opposite side of 15th. We exchanged pleasantries and started discussing about possible next hikes and camping trips. Fall was approaching and the views would be simply out of the world.

As we parted our ways, after a while, I could hear my stomach grumbling. I had to rush back home. I increased my speed, my hands swinging more violently. I was just a block away from home when I heard a tear. I looked down only to see the bag give away. Unbeknownst to me leaked gravy from the bowl was gradually weakening the bag’s integrity; and, now there I was staring in distress at my dinner on the sidewalk.

I cleaned up, deposited my dinner in the nearest garbage bin and walked home. Now I had to cook something. I am too lazy to do that on a regular day. Now I was too tired to even think about standing over the oven, stirring and waiting. As I reached home I made my last decision of the day. As soon as I saw the bed weariness overcame me. I would have to sleep in an empty stomach. “How would this decision come back to bite me?", I thought as I lay in bed quickly losing consciousness.

I learnt a simple lesson from all this, one of the simple truths of life. Your choice matters, every decision counts. Everything in life may not happen for a reason, but they definitely do because of one. There are no simple choices. As chaos theory goes, even the flutter of a butterfly can wreak havoc on the opposite side of the world. Every decision, thus, has to be weighted with care.

This is true more so for an entity like a nation. The choices of each of its individuals, however small and inconsequential they may seem, matter. Collectively they form the nation’s psyche.

Next time I’ll think twice before jumping a signal, bribing the police officer to escape the fine, buying movie tickets in black, traveling in a train or a bus without buying the ticket, and misrepresenting land costs to escape property tax. Any one of these acts by a single person may be small with respect to the working machinery of a nation, but it is not inconsequential. Things add up. Collectively they contribute to India’s corrupted psyche.