On Milestones and Maladies

This week was a pretty big one for me. On Tuesday, I successfully completed part II of my candidacy exam. So I’m a PhD candidate now! Hurrah!

The exam had been looming over me for some months. Due to scheduling issues within the committee, the date was pushed back to later than it usually occurs. The extra time to prepare was nice, but it was also extra time for anxiety. I’m not the sort of person to put in 80 hour weeks, nor do I think it would have been helpful, but I started to feel a vague sort of guilt anytime I wasn’t studying or working on my candidacy talk or paper. So of course I feel quite relieved now that it is over and done with!

But—there’s always a but—a lot of my anxiety hasn’t gone away. This isn’t totally surprising, as I have been previously diagnosed with anxiety, so this is just part of my life and the way my brain works. It’s still annoying, that I’ve so easily begun now to worry about this new stage of my graduate career. Luckily, I am quite happy with the area I’ve chosen and my current advisor, so I don’t need to worry about changing that. But I do have to organize my thesis committee and at least start to come up with a general idea or theme for my thesis. I’ve been putting off thinking much about this before as a post-candidacy problem…well now it’s post-candidacy, so here are all my delayed worries come to rear their heads.

This is, as far as I can tell, enormously common! Achieving a milestone is wonderful. It can feel very great and relieving. But it can also be anticlimactic in some ways, and after all is said and done, you’re still the same you as before the milestone.

For me, the best thing to do is make a list and keep on going. I don’t have to figure everything out today. Today, I can just enjoy my accomplishment and also check off one new task. Onwards and upwards, but never forgetting how far I’ve come!

A Year in the Life of a Grad Student

This afternoon I entered the Chandrasekhar Room at 1 PM to do the first part of my candidacy exam, and I am now officially a second year PhD student! It’s quite hard to believe it’s been a year. Looking back on that year, it was a time of growth, change, and learning, and for the most part I had an absolute blast.

One thing that I wanted to do was see just how much time grad school would take out of my life. I’d heard horror stories of 100-hour weeks, little-to-no social life, and scant opportunities for important self-care like cooking, working out, and maintaining relationships. Since I was coming from a consulting job where I was used to billing hours in 15-min intervals, it wasn’t hard to me to log my hours spent each day (I gave myself a break and only did it to 30-min intervals). Now that’s it been a year, I have a full set of data showing how much time I spent!

So how was it? Well…variable. I took an extra elective class every quarter during the academic year, and at times that was hard to juggle. I thought when summer came around I would have so much time to do research, but I struggled with the lack of routine and found it hard to motivate myself to keep a strict schedule. It was also hard to figure out where the boundaries of time off vs work were in the summer, as I traveled quite a bit and took time off.

Here’s what it ended up looking like, in both daily and weekly hours:


The purple line in both cases shows the average over the entire year. Definitely not 100-hour weeks! While I was regularly doing 50-hour weeks in the Autumn Quarter, that tapered down over the course of the year. Of course, by the time summer rolled around, my time plummeted a lot, and this ended up pulling down the yearly average to 37.1 hours. My average workday (so excluding weekends/holidays) was 7.28 hours. Looking at those averages by quarter:

Average Hours
per Workday
Average Hours
per Week
Autumn Quarter
(Sep 25, 2017 – Dec 8, 2017)
9.42 47.64
Winter Quarter
(Jan 3, 2018 – Mar 17, 2018)
8.00 42.41
Spring Quarter
(Mar 25, 2017 – Jun 9, 2018)
6.95 36.18
Summer Quarter
(Jun 17, 2018 – Sep 22, 2018)
4.79 23.42

Some things to keep in mind: Firstly, I have always strongly valued work-life balance, and I have had several years practice in perfecting that balance. I know how to leave even when there is work left to be done (as long as it isn’t urgent), and I prioritize other things besides just school in my life. Secondly, to the best of my ability, this represents time actually spent working. It excludes lunch breaks, long periods of time getting distracted on reddit, and other such things, even if I was sitting in my office. Thirdly, I have depression and anxiety, which sometimes makes it difficult to function as effectively as I would like, and at times that affects my productivity.

As far as how effective I was in that time, well, that’s a bit subjective. I passed all 9 of my classes, I am working on 2 different papers from my research, and no one laughed me out of the room at my candidacy exam today (although I haven’t gotten the official report yet), so while I definitely could be doing more, I don’t think it’s been a failure by any means.

Since I’m already in the habit, I plan to continue my hours-logging for the next year as well!

We’ve Come a Long, Long Way Together

One year ago today, I was sitting at my desk in my dingy cubicle, counting down the hours until I could go home (too many—it was ~9 AM), when I got a very unexpected email. The chair of graduate admissions from UChicago said the committee had met the day before and he would like to call me with some good news.


I didn’t have long to silently freak out at my desk, because he called about 30 minutes later to let me know that I had been accepted (and also nominated for a scholarship). The peculiar combination of elation and disbelief is hard to describe. I had been so unsure if I would get in anywhere. I didn’t know then what the future would bring, whether I would even go through with my mad plan to go back to school for my PhD, but it became a real option in that moment. I ended up getting accepted by 2 more wonderful schools, but here I am at Chicago today. There were a lot of reasons behind my decision, but being first with the news didn’t hurt.

I basically torpedoed my whole entire life over the last year, and while I’ve had my share of doubts and struggles, I can safely say I am very happy with where I am now and that I will never forget silently dancing in the hallway after that phone call.

I Ain’t Trying to Do What Everybody Else Doing

Another day another dollar! Except not, because I have no dollars coming to me at all right now. Which is fine. This is fine. (Actually, it is fine, because I planned for it, but it is a little…unnerving?)

Today I got some more modern physics refreshed into my brain. I read two chapters, Atoms and Molecules. As advertised, I got to learn about both atoms and molecules! It was a very interesting perspective on things that are familiar from high school science classes. Ionic bonds! Covalent bonds! Except now with added quantum physics! Which I think is pretty damn cool. Suddenly the why of rather arbitrary things, like having 6 electrons in each p-orbital, makes sense. Or at least, makes as much sense as quantum physics ever does. =) Reading about the spectra for molecules made me think about taking spectra of exoplanet atmospheres and I got all excited all over again about what I get to do.

And then I got scared.

Forgive me for waxing a little personal/philosophical here, but reading about all these amazing physicists like Schrödinger and Dirac and Pauli is intimidating. These people were brilliant and able to come up with these new ideas that changed the way we understand the universe. I certainly can’t hope to do that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty smart cookie. And I’m really good at learning physics. But am I good at doing it? I honestly don’t know. And this is part of the reason why it took me so long to pursue this path. Anyway, it’s scary, but I just have to button up and carry on. I’ll do my best and not get ahead of myself.

In other news, I finished up my Python course today! That was pretty exciting. Do I feel like a coding genius? No, not even close. But I have a better understanding of the language now, and I feel more confident about my ability to tackle it and make it work for me. Overall, I think the Codecademy course was very helpful, and I recommend it to anyone trying to get the basics of Python down. Plus free is always a good price! But it’s definitely only a stepping stone and not a full education in a language.

I think I earned myself some ice cream!

Today’s fun “new” fact: The letters used to identify the l quantum number (s, p, d, f for l=0,1,2,3) were not just arbitrarily chosen to frustrate young chemistry students. According to a footnote in my textbook, they are “remnants of spectroscopists descriptions of various spectral lines as sharp, principal, diffuse, and fundamental.”

Your Fingertips, Well They Know the Code*

Oops, a bit tardy getting this post up! Been having a little trouble self-motivating the past couple days, in fact, because I didn’t get my Friday chapters done until Saturday night. I have properly chastised myself, but I’m not too worried. I’ve given myself weekends off, so there is some flexibility in my schedule, and I did get it done eventually!

So Friday AM I scheduled myself to work on coding. I learned to code in Basic a long time ago, and I loved making little text games and mazes and such. While my skills are a little (a lot) outdated, it gives me a decent grounding in the mindset of coding. I also started doing a Codecademy course in Python about 2 years ago, although I only made it about halfway through. However, the general consensus on the best language to know for physics seems to be Python, so I’m revisiting the course. I spent Friday going back through the lessons I had already done to remind myself of the syntax and such. It was pretty simple, but it felt good to go through some basic lines of code.

Once I finish the Python course (I anticipate that being in the next week or so), I plan to check out a resource I found specifically for physics called Computational Physics by Dr. Mark Newman. Some of it is available for free on his site, so I will start with that. If it is a useful resource, I’ll purchase the full book and try to work through it. I think this will place me in excellent footing for the fall.

For my slightly delayed Tipler and Mosca studying, I had 2 chapters: Static Equilibrium and Elasticity and Fluids. I’m not going to lie, the fluids stuff was tedious. I am not sure why. Perhaps it reminds me too much of my Navy science experiences, or maybe it is just a weak spot for me. In any case, these two chapters brought me to the end of Part I! That was an exciting little milestone for me.

It was the first time that I found something I had written in my textbook. In general, I am not a big fan of writing in my books, but here I had made a small pencil note rewriting the equation for buoyancy to show the relation between apparent weight and weight. It was a small thing, but I was really struck by it. For one thing, it shows that this must have been something I kept getting mixed up for no good reason (hello, weak spot…), but for another it was a blast out of my past. I used this textbook for my first semester of physics, which was way back in the fall of 2006 (!). Could my past self have imagined that, over 10 years later, I would be poring over this book again, preparing myself to go back into physics? It’s a strange thought. It reminded me that I once wrote a vision statement–later, after graduating from college, after deciding I wouldn’t stay in the Navy–that placed me at MIT studying planetary science. And then I ended up turning that chance down! But for another awesome opportunity!

Anyway, it’s been an intro/retrospective couple days. I look forward to knuckling back down tomorrow and tackling some more math, physics, and blasts from my past.

Today’s fun “new” fact: The hydrostatic paradox. I understand why the pressure in a fluid is the same at any horizontal point, and water level is independent of container shape, but it’s still weird to see it play out.

*Today’s lyric title is a bit more obscure, but it comes from a song by one of my favorite bands (Jack’s Mannequin), so you should check it out!