Archive for March, 2012

If I can do one…

It’s the weekend already. I am a bit incredulous at how fast this week has sped by. My presentation is progressing, if somewhat slowly. I might work a bit on it this weekend, as I wanted to have a first draft down on Monday. It’s really hard condensing 100+ pages into 40 minutes, but I’m getting there.

I didn’t anticipate looking in earnest for jobs before my defense, but a few positions have popped up that have particularly interested me. Unfortunately, if I’m going to apply for them, I kind of need to do it now. So I’ve had to spend an appreciable amount of time working on my application information for those. These may not work out at all, and I’m overwhelmed  even thinking about the whole process of applying for such professional jobs, but I decided that if I just went ahead and did it, I would at least get the uncomfortable part out of the way. I might not get the job (I have no idea how likely or unlikely it is), but I can at least have the confidence of experiencing it once. And if I can do one, I can do thirty! After I round up my CV, a cover letter, statements of teaching philosophy or research interest, letters of recommendation, and transcripts for one place, I’ll have them basically there for slight modifications for other applications. It’s just a little stressful now.

I really don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. I’m keeping my job options open, but that also makes for a huge, scary world out there. I know I’ll find the right position at the right time, so there’s nothing to worry about. It still causes a bit of apprehension, though. First things first, though…I can’t forget that I still have to pass my defense with flying colors before they anoint me “PhD.”

Powerful points

Today I began putting together my oral presentation for the defense. In some ways I can just toss together some slides from previous talks and figures from the thesis, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in graduate school is the fine art of assembling graphics for Power Point slides. Now, I’m no expert of course, but I have spent many hours of my graduate career putting together slides for myself and others, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

First, sometimes you can’t avoid words and lists of things; however, it is in general preferred to have more pictorial representations of things. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. And if you can spend an extra few minutes adding a little color and even some depth and shading, your drawings really start to pop. There is a point of diminishing returns, though, so don’t waste too much time on tiny details unless it’s very important. 🙂

Graphs are a must-have for a scientist. Often, you will have multiple graphs to show on one plot, and it can get quite messy to look at. One of the greatest tricks I’ve learned is how to take multi-plot graphs from Excel and pick them apart in Power Point. Using custom animations, I can make a single plot appear at once, then gradually stack the multiple curves as I talk about each one individually. The visual difference when a new plot appears is enough to draw the attention of the audience to the present topic instead of trying to painstakingly point out an entire line with just words or a laser pointer.

Animations can also be great to demonstrate motion or change in a physical system or the progression of an experiment. However, it’s easy to get carried away, so keep it simple! Also, cartoon representations of physical systems can be quite powerful, especially when paired with some simple and well-placed animations.

Other than some tricks in preparing the slides, I’ve found that excessive and repetitive practicing is probably the number way for me to achieve a successful talk. Think about it–you wouldn’t take a leading role in a play without painstakingly learning your lines! Your presentation tells a story about your work, and while you don’t want to sound scripted or even read directly from notes (though it’s sure tempting sometimes), you do want to essentially memorize and practice presenting all the points you want to make. That also helps you stay on time, which is usually a major consideration for a scientific talk. Don’t get me started on presenters who just drone on and on at conferences!

I also try to keep the tone light, especially if I have a little bit of extra time (which I don’t usually). Sometimes you just have to power through with an all-business attitude, but depending on the audience you might do well with ever-so-slightly less formality. Portray yourself as a real human, not just a scientific drone (though I know some people who just are, hehe). A little humor usually doesn’t hurt, given the appropriate context, of course. But while I feel that I’m quite clever and witty, I find many people don’t quite get my puns and plays on words. :p In which case, I mostly just avoid outright humor altogether.

For this presentation, in order to make sure I am sharp and brilliant regarding every possible question about every possible nuance of my project, I really have to do more than just prepare the talk. I have to carefully study the fine points and concepts. I mean, let’s face it…this is essentially an oral examination! You wouldn’t go into a test without studying, and I can’t stand before my committee unprepared either. The problem is that I’m so wiped out from writing my thesis that studying takes a lot of will-power; my body and brain feel a lot more like resting. It’s particularly challenging to do something purely cerebral when there isn’t an actual physical item to produce, something tangible with visible evidence of completion. I can’t neglect this, though. At least a couple of practice talks with my group will keep me accountable.

Two weeks from tomorrow–in a way I wish it were sooner, though I know the full two weeks will be beneficial for my preparation. I am still feeling the calm, as if I really have passed through the storm and am walking slowly back into the light of day. Yet I must stay steadfast still toward the final goal.

Eye of the storm

Today, I managed to go through the majority of revisions for three chapters. That sounds like a lot, but two of the chapters were pretty short, though one was the final heavy data chapter. That means that all my chapters have seen revision now and I am ready to compile all seven chapters into one single document. That will be a task for tomorrow, as it’s late and I’m pretty tired. I also have a checklist of a few smaller items to address as I go along.

The goal is to send the first compilation to some group members with whom I’ve been working; even if they won’t read the whole hulking monster, maybe they can read the parts they are familiar with and provide a few comments. Then the compilation will go out to my five committee members for scrutiny in the two weeks leading up to my defense. It’s also debatable how much of it they’ll be able to read, but they’ll at least skim through it and read parts that are interesting to them.

I wish I could say my thesis is “done,” but I can say that all the writing and initial revisions are done at least. From here I will be putting finishing touches on the style part of it (making sure the graphics are pretty, all the references cite correctly, etc.). Then the big task now is the defense presentation. I will spend most of the next two weeks preparing for that, making sure I am comfortable talking about all aspects of my work and paring 100+ pages down into a 40-minute talk.

It seems that most of my mental stress and frustration came to a head last week and is now ebbing. I can’t let up on the final preparations, of course, but with some sort of thesis accomplished, whether in its most perfect form or not, it seems as if I have genuinely crossed through the eye of the storm. Maybe, just maybe, everything I need to do is going to fit into the next 18 days after all.

On a high note

Well, this week started off pretty rough, but it appears to be ending on a really high note. Of course, there are a few hours yet until the end of the day, but pending anything blowing up, I am going to have a fun dinner with my husband (whom I feel I haven’t seen more than a few hours this week!), hang out a little bit in town, and go home.

I thought I’d have some revisions by the end of Friday that I could work on over the weekend, but earlier my advisor made a comment that implied he might not get them to me this weekend. I am still psyching myself up for coming in on Saturday, which I have been anticipating all week, but part of me would love to have the time off (there are a few projects piling up at home that I’d like to take care of). However, with three more chapters of revision to go (one huge chapter and two very small ones) and a self-imposed deadline of giving a readable draft to my committee next Thursday, it would really be nice to spread the last revisions over an extra day or two. But it will happen regardless.

DH made a very good suggestion that I complete my CV this weekend if I do end up with some down-time. Nothing is definitive yet, but I feel that I have gained a little more insight as to what I might pursue as my next step, and when the time comes to apply for a job, I’d like to be ready and have as much of the usual stuff lined up as possible. I might also need to ask around to possible references for letters of recommendation. I have a feeling that the job hunt is going to be enough drama for its own blog!

As always, I don’t want to lull myself into a false sense of security about the amount of work yet to be done and then promptly fall off the other side of the emotional roller coaster in a couple of days, repeating the beginning of this week. But I did work pretty dang hard last week and knocked out a huge amount of progress. Maybe there is “a light at the end of the fiber,” and while I shouldn’t quite relax just yet, I could lighten up on the stress a bit. If anything, I want to be cool, energetic, and confident as I approach the actual defense talk, not harried and browbeaten about how dumb I feel as I have been feeling lately. Revisions are almost done; time to finish learning about what I didn’t know before and focus on what I do know…which really is a lot!

Brain stew

In a way, “brain stew” about sums up how I’m feeling at the moment. I was blowing through revisions relatively fast earlier this week, but I have slowed way down this afternoon. It is Wednesday, after all.

My brain is very tired and overwhelmed, and while I can go home and sleep or take a short break while working, it’s not enough to fix what really ails it–pure mental overload. I can’t have that for another few weeks yet. All I can do is bear down and bulldoze through all this work  at whatever pace I’m able to sustain at any given moment. It just doesn’t happen to be very fast today, as my brain feels like mush.

It’s a little early (still before 5:00), but I decided to go ahead and warm up the soup I brought for dinner. Yes, I’m staying until way after dinner time these days, of course, so I either bring my own or take a break to go get something in the evenings. I could have waited until actually dinner time to eat it, but I was hungry and figured I could use a few calories of yummy home-made soup goodness to kick start my brain again and hopefully get a few more productive hours of work out of it today.

I hope this is just the usual mid-week slump and I can recover some momentum going into the end of the week. These revisions are just kicking my bum, but I won’t let them get me down for the count. In fact, you might say that I may get knocked down, but I get up again.

That probably exceeds my quote for inappropriate 90’s nostalgia for today. I guess it’s back to it before anybody gets hurt.



Over the last semester, I have been on an emotional roller coaster. I have experienced a full range of emotions while writing this thesis–optimism, despair, indifference, satisfaction, frustration, boredom. However, today was the first time that I have felt pure anger.

I’ve written most of my thesis now. Most of it has been pretty solid, but of course it does need a second go-over to fill in any holes or add something I missed or fix a conceptual or factual error or a typo on my part. I have put a lot of effort into it, but I know it’s not perfect. It’s a huge paper, and I don’t always know everything. That’s why I do revisions with my advisor. I expect for him to catch things I missed or suggest an alternate viewpoint or expound upon ideas. However, the revisions I got from him today struck me just wrong, evidently. I was very annoyed with a few of them while working through them during the day. I stayed late, working through the end of the chapter, and eventually grew so angry that I had to leave and get dinner before I threw something. Ok, maybe I did relocate a few things around my desk in a non-gentle manner. Time to take a break.

Yes, sometimes it is hard for me to accept criticism, but, as I said, I totally get the whole revisions thing. I’ve not necessarily enjoyed revising the few chapters I’ve already done so far, but I’ve done them. It wasn’t a big deal. The comments were reasonable and made sense. But none of those revisions have compared to this one. I felt like a complete moron, like I didn’t know anything. Or things I thought I knew for sure were totally wrong. I felt like I had worked very hard on this chapter and yet it was still unacceptable. Probably the comments weren’t as personal and as insulting as I evidently took them, but they absolutely rubbed me the wrong way today.

As I said, I have been on an emotional roller coaster for months now with stress simmering on the back burner the whole time. Yesterday I was in a bad mood, and an unfortunate miscommunication yesterday left me a complete emotional train wreck. I knew then that the stress and emotions are weighing on me hard now and causing me to react in exaggerated ways to normal external stimulus. It’s just three weeks now, and the pressure is on, so there’s no wonder I’m feeling it more and more. I’m not making excuses for a prideful attitude or inappropriate behavior, but it’s evident that I’m at a point where I really have make sure I stay level-headed. I can’t help how I feel, but I am always responsible for how I react.

I really seek peace daily as I try to get everything done, but sometimes it is very hard. Even if I don’t necessarily worry, the thesis and defense are constantly hanging over me–how can you not feel some anxiety or anticipation about it? It’s going to take divine intervention and a lot of prayer to get me through this…fortunately I know that I have the Holy Spirit for strength and intercession from my friends and family…and Jesus himself.

“Do not be anxious for anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Then the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6,7.

“…Christ Jesus, who died-more than that, who was raised to life-is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Romans 8:34.

Gnashing of teeth

Can I just say how miserably slow this day is going? It’s probably going so slow because God is being nice and merciful to me to give me more time to actually work on things before I go home for the weekend. But just cannot seem to get myself into the groove today. Every word of the final conclusion chapter feels like it’s having to be ripped out of me instead of flowing like a nice little stream. Nevertheless, I do keep poking at it and making progress. All the original writing is just almost done…no telling how many revisions on it all, but no more massive generation of new content.

I’m also trying very hard not to chew any gum for a couple of days. While I am a habitual gum chewer anyway, I’ve been jawing on it like a maniac pretty much the whole semester to get through this paper. Somehow it makes me concentrate better, maybe? It also distracts me from wanting to constantly shove food into my mouth while sitting idly, too. But the more focused and intense I am, the harder I seem to chew. Since I don’t want to develop TMJ or gnash my teeth into oblivion, I’m trying to take a little break. That’s also driving me a little crazy trying to stay focused. I’m almost ready to give in if it helps me be more productive for the end of the day. We’ll see if I can hold out…I may need twelve steps or something.

I found out another student in our hallway is defending this semester. He sent out an invitation email this afternoon for his talk, which is next Thursday. I might go, but I also can’t afford to take a ton of time out of the day either. I’ll have to see what I can do. Good luck to him, though! From what I know of him, he will do great.

Lest I allow myself to get too distracted for the remainder of the day, I’ll wrap it up here and wish you all a good weekend. Wish me luck as I try to crank out another page or so before I head out!