Posts from the ‘Graduate School’ Category

Pomp and Circumstance

After fighting traffic and throngs of people, I found myself walking alone across campus to the field between the library and Old Main where all the graduates of the class of 2012 gathered before commencement. The air resonated with the sound of clarion bells continuously ringing in song across campus to mark the occasion. The crisp air and overcast skies, cold yet not all that unusual for spring in Colorado, created an air of contemplation and solemnity for me as I walked, clothed in my full academic regalia, between the dignified old buildings of the university. This ancient of traditions, born out of the formal institution of universities in medieval Europe, has been repeated for tens of centuries, the formality of antiquity juxtaposed with the realities of our modern day.

There in the grassy space, most of the over 6,000 graduates organized and formed ranks, preparing for the traditional procession around Old Main and across campus to the stadium where the ceremony would be held. There I stood with a number of other graduate students, none that I knew, but all united in their similar recent accomplishment. As the procession began, the doctoral students lead the whole assembly of graduates in the march behind a group of bagpipe players and drums.

Yes, bagpipes. Awesome.

People in the buildings leaned out of windows or lined the doors outside, waving and congratulating the students as they walked past. I was a bit surprised how proud of myself and my accomplishment I felt; while guarding against true hubris, I decided to allow myself the pleasure of a little self-congratulation.

Finally, the formal parade reached the stadium, and I, as one of the doctoral students, was one of the first of the 6,000 total graduates to enter the stadium.

It didn’t take long for the doctoral and masters students to be seated, and we waited what seemed like forever while the rest of the bachelors students filed in–almost 5,000 of them. We smirked as they swarmed it, half on their cell phones, many with goofy hats or glasses or outfits, acting goofy when they realized they were on the stadium’s “big screen,” slightly irreverent behavior for such a solemn behavior. I suppose eight years of perspective separates me from my undergraduate self (who probably still was leaps and bounds more reserved than some of these at that time).

Finally, everyone got seated, and the faculty took their positions at the front of the assembly. Having gotten up at the crack of dawn, I got a little tired listening to the line of speakers, but there were many good words spoken during the ceremony. Finally, the deans of the colleges and the university president formally conferred degrees up on all the graduates, including myself. I am now officially “Doctor!”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through graduation; I’m not the kind of person to go through a bunch of ceremonies with a bunch of crowds, especially if it requires getting up ridiculously early. However, when I thought about not doing it, say, if I didn’t finish and graduated in the summer when the did not have a commencement ceremony, I felt a little sad like I was maybe missing something. So I decided I would do it, as I most likely won’t get the opportunity again (I sure don’t intend to get another PhD ;)). My parents were also quite pleased to come out and share the experience after eight years.

Thursday afternoon, the physics department held their departmental recognition ceremony. It was meaningful, as they specifically honored their graduates in particular; however, I didn’t really know any of the other doctoral students who were graduating, plus only three of us total bothered to show up for the event. And since I did my research off-campus, I never did feel so deeply connected with the department. It was, however, a nice event anyway.

I initially felt that the big, university-wide commencement would be large and informal, and in a way it was. I was by myself as far as knowing other doctorates. However, I formed a kindred camaraderie with those students around me as we sat through the ceremony together. Furthermore, the traditions and the pomp and circumstance proved to be very significant to me as well. I’m not the one to hold precipitously to tradition just for the sake of tradition while the reality of changing times forges ahead without me. However, I do believe that traditions with the right perspective and context are extremely important to be a part of and to not forget. While surrounded by cell phones, video cameras, vehicles, and other modern innovations, by going through this ceremony I feel somehow connected now to a millennium of high scholars before me.

Eight years of hard work, plus four years of preparation before that…is it finally sinking in that this chapter of my life has finally, officially closed?

Here’s to us, class of 2012.


Another eventful week

It’s Monday again, and thus starts another eventful week. My parents will come into town on Wednesday, and we will have a couple of graduation festivities to attend. Thursday afternoon is the Physics Department graduation ceremony, and Friday morning is the university-wide commencement. The physics department affair will  be smaller and probably a bit more meaningful than the huge ceremony. However, I guess since I worked so hard and was here so long I couldn’t really just skip the other one. However, I am not looking forward to it–it’s ridiculously early Friday morning, and traffic is always a nightmare just getting to town that day, and I can only imagine what it’s like actually having to maneuver through it and find a parking space. Well, it’ll work out somehow, and at least it’ll all be over by noon.

I was surprised to learn that I will receive my actual, honest-to-goodness diploma after the ceremony on Friday. I thought I’d have to wait for it, but I guess they thought that all the advanced degrees waited long enough to get theirs, so the Graduate School will have them available for pickup afterwards. Now I have to figure out a cool way to display my expensive piece of paper.

All the while these things are going on, I have one more thing to think about…I actually got a job offer this morning. There is so much to consider about this job…most importantly, the whole having to sell our house and move there thing. I have not yet made a decision, but I will have until next Monday to decide.

I seriously did not anticipate how hard it would be to decide what I want to do when I grow up. Whatever I choose to do now will not likely be permanent; the typical path for a physics grad is a post doc, which lasts 1-3 years, but even taking a teaching or industry job would most likely only be a step toward something else in the future. But it’s a little unsettling to slog through eight years of graduate studies only to realize that I will probably be less stable now for a few years than I was all through grad school. Academia is comforting; you know the end is coming, but you know it’ll be a few years before it happens. Newton was definitely onto something with the whole body-at-rest thing.

Is this why some people never leave college and get five advanced degrees? I’m beginning to understand.


An eventful week

Evidently I took an unexpected hiatus from the blog! The last week has been pretty eventful–in good ways and in bad.

First of all, I actually had an interview on Monday for a potential job. This required flying out on Sunday morning and spending the day traveling there. I had a dinner meeting Sunday evening and a full day of activities Monday before flying back that evening. Everything seemed to go pretty well, so we’ll just have to see how this develops.

As evidenced by the fact that I flew there, this is not a local position. Therefore, if I am made an offer, the whole moving thing will be a significant factor in our decision. At this point, I am aware that moving is a very real, and highly likely, possibility, but deciding where to move and selling our house in this economy aren’t trivial decisions either. But it’s still early, and though time sure flies these days, I do have some time to deal with these issues. Who knows, I might even find something local yet. We’ll just have to see.

I was back at work on Tuesday; however, I got an unexpected day off yesterday. I felt fine Tuesday, a little tired from my travel, but nothing very strange. I even ran four miles that evening and felt pretty good about it, too. However, before bedtime I started feeling a little weird, and by the time I got in bed, I was feeling a bit ill. All of a sudden this fever and slight nausea came over me, and I felt bad all night long. I didn’t sleep well, and at one point I had a fever of 102. By morning, I was sort of feeling a little better, though very tired and still with a tiny fever (much less than 102). I decided to stay home from work; my rule of thumb is to wait 24 hours after a fever goes down before being around too many folks, just in case. After resting yesterday and a much better night’s sleep, I’m back today. I must have picked up something on the plane; that’s all I can figure. But I’m thankful it was very short-lived.

That’s pretty much what’s going on at the moment. Next weekend will be eventful, too, as I will be actually graduating! The final culmination of all my labor, I will have my PhD officially bestowed upon me next Friday. I’m not so excited that the school-wide graduation starts a, like, 8:00 a.m., but since my parents will be here for it, I guess I can get up early enough to deal with the traffic and crowds, just this once. Or I hope it’s just once…who needs another PhD?!?


Lessons Learned: Goal-setting

One of the surprising things that surfaced out of my creation of this blog is the importance of goal setting. While always a list maker, I never, ever considered myself to be a goal maker. However, a list is clearly a set of goals, so it doesn’t surprise me that my time working on my thesis and writing this blog naturally lead me to a more broadened view of making goals.

I suppose I’ve normally felt that setting too many long-term goals was a bit presumptuous. How am I supposed to know what my life will be like in ten years, let alone in ten days? What I want right now might be totally different after I live a little and gain new perspectives on life. I suppose I took for granted that I did have some assumed life goals; for example, as a high school student I aimed at going to college, and after that it just seemed natural to go to graduate school. I thought I would most likely get married and have kids and work in some sort of job eventually. That was a general plan, but I never took for granted that life is not in my control and my circumstances could always change. Even now I make sure I remember that and allow myself to be at peace about something unexpected happening.

So, since the future is unknowable, I felt for a long time that making long-term goals was a little bit meaningless–why say you are going to do something when you don’t know if you will be able to achieve it? Of course, if you live your life day to day with nothing in particular that you are working for, then it starts to feel like you’re just spinning your wheels. So what’s a girl to do?

It has finally occurred to me how one can approach his or her life to make both today and tomorrow as meaningful as possible in our short time here on earth, and that approach is, shockingly, making goals! Now, in my mind I have this broken up into two areas: personal vs. circumstantial goals and short-term vs. long-term goals. As I just stated in previous paragraphs, I was hung up on the uncertainty of making long-term circumstantial goals. However, I have finally recognized that there’s a much broader scope to goal-setting, and if you can nail down this strategy, you’ve found an incredible tool for living an intentional and meaningful life.

Your money, possessions, or even status can be taken from you, but the things you strive for within yourself are immutable. My previous view of goals was purely one of circumstances or material things, but I now understand that goals can also be set to develop who you are as a person. In that case, it makes total sense to always have a number of short- and long-term personal goals. I believe this is somewhat naturally ingrained in us, as we probably do this without thinking: I should really watch less TV; I should spend more time with the kids; I should be less grumpy in the mornings. I’ve set many vague personal goals like this for myself, but I’ve never articulated them specifically, which has lead to varying degrees of success. If you are intentional about setting personal goals and quantify exactly what you want to accomplish (I will read x books this year or volunteer at y places), then you can gauge your progress and motivate yourself to complete it exactly. And you’ve probably created a wonderful habit you’ll benefit from all your life. Now that I realize this, I’m committed to keeping various personal goals for myself at all times.

While I hesitate at the long view, circumstantial goals are still very important, too. There’s certainly in principle no harm in having a material or situation objective to work toward–a nice house, a good job, a big trip–as long as you keep a reasonable attitude about those things. You wouldn’t want to let something you have, or maybe don’t even have yet, totally define who you are, especially if life happens and you don’t achieve it. However, I see circumstantial goals as particularly important in the short-term. Specifically, I think of these as tasks I need or want to get done within a few days, a few months, or even a few years. For example, I want to get into better shape because I’ve been sitting behind my desk all semester. So my goal is to run a 10K, if that works out for me this spring. Having a real event coming up keeps me motivated to stick to my training schedule, or else I might not keep it up. This could even encompass mundane tasks, such as house projects that aren’t as exciting but never get done if I don’t set an intentional goal to do it.

I definitely took advantage of this kind of mindset during my “101 in 1001,” “Goal-of-the-week,” and “Goal-of-the-month” challenges. And because I took the approach of dividing a large goal into smaller pieces, I leveraged a number of small goals to achieve one large career goal, getting my PhD! So there is definitely a place for long-term circumstantial goals in life, especially since the achievement of circumstantial goals can also develop important personal rewards that will stick with you!

Now, the efficacy of goals does directly relate to personal motivation, and motivation stems from a desire to achieve some sort of reward for the completion of said task or goal. Some people respond to a physical reward–I get a piece of cake if I run five miles, or I get some cash if I complete this job. Others respond to mental or emotional reward, like the prestige of an elite career or even just the satisfaction of improving from a previous state. For a list maker like myself, I was surprised to comprehend what level of satisfaction I get just by drawing a line through something–essentially satisfaction at the act of completion itself. If the end reward is not alluring enough for the amount of effort required, then a goal will never be achieved.

Goals are also fantastic for looking back and seeing what you’ve accomplished, especially if you take the large number of small goals approach. For instance, if you wanted to loose weight, you might get discouraged from day to day if you aren’t seeing obvious progress. But knowing where you came from (x pounds or y inches) and remembering your milestones (I did lose 5 lbs or 3 inches off my waist) helps keep you motivated to see the goal to the end.

So, I’m glad that this process has taught me to articulate my feelings about goals, because I’m now excited to leverage this new technique for future personal and circumstantial successes in my life. I hope that my new-found perspective will motivate you to try some goal-setting in your life and see what happens!

Thesis submitted

Today, I officially submitted the final version of my thesis. All of this was done electronically, so I just uploaded my PDF, payed them a few bucks for a nice hard copy, and clicked “submit” and it was done. I had sent my previous version in for an initial check by the graduate school to make sure they were happy with the formatting, and it got the a-okay. You always hear horror stories about people whose margins were an eighth of an inch off and were denied submission of their thesis, but these days, with everything done electronically, I guess it’s not such a big deal. Plus, as I mentioned before, I did mine in LaTeX, and the formatting is pretty much automatic. At any rate, my hands are now washed of the document.

I also submitted my final piece of paperwork today (at least, to the best of my knowledge it’s the final piece). I hope it’s the last one; I’m tired of making the trip up to campus only to discover I need just one more signature and have to return again. I haven’t been on campus this much since I was taking classes; it’s just almost unacceptable.

Now that all that is over, I’m sort of in a lull, catching up on a few things and doing a bit of job searching and related issues. Next week I’ll talk with my boss about stuff I can do as I coast into my last days here. I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned it (surely I have), but my current appointment will last through the summer, so I have a few months to wrap things up if I so desire. I just know he’s going to suggest redoing the measurement from Hades to make some final and definitive measurements with it and possibly write up a paper on it, so I’ll have to really search deep within myself and find the strength to at least not run screaming from the building prematurely.

And then there will be commencement in three weeks. I think my parents are coming, so I will actually have to get up at the crack of dawn to fight horrible traffic for the ceremony. I guess that’s okay. The day before is the department ceremony, which I think will be a little more meaningful for everybody. Plus I get to wear a big robe and a hood and look like I’m from Hogwartz or something. And instead of a wand, I guess I get a laser pointer. Doctorus defendo!

Lessons learned: eating an elephant

I called my sister to let her know the good news after I defended. She told me she was incredibly impressed by my accomplishment, and I said I was, too, because so many times it seemed like an utterly impossible and ridiculous task. I told her that it was like eating an elephant…you just have to take one bite at a time (and possibly invest in a very large deep freeze).

So one of the lessons I’ve learned here is that any seemingly insurmountable task can, indeed, be accomplished by breaking it up into many smaller, much more reasonable tasks. I’ll talk more about goal-setting specifically later, but just the idea of setting before yourself something feasible is very encouraging and will motivate you to tackle the following tasks as well.

I am an incredibly list-driven person, which is the epitome of breaking something up into bite-sized pieces. I love, love, love crossing something off of a list, so if I construct a good list (a good mix of easy to accomplish items with reasonably sized other tasks) the progress of the small things will motivate me to tackle the bigger ones. That also helps me keep track of which parts of the elephant I’ve eaten and what’s still left.

Another way in which deluding yourself into taking that first bite is useful is that even a minute level of momentum will carry you forward. Case in point: I am not very excited about house cleaning. I do get frequent bouts of motivation during which I normally tackle it; however, I am somewhat ashamed to admit that these bouts of motivation will occasionally be few and far between, and I let a few things go that I shouldn’t (at least I had a very reasonable excuse…until last week). I just can’t convince myself that I want to do it. However, I can eventually coerce or guilt myself into saying, “okay, I will at least unload the silverware out of the clean dishwasher, then I will go sit down on the couch and watch another episode of X-Files on Netflix with a reduced level of guilt.” However, I subconsciously know that if I start an unsavory project, even without the commitment to complete all of it, I will inevitably gain enough momentum that I just can’t bear the shame of stopping. Before you know it, the dishwasher is unloaded. And then I go watch X-Files with a clear conscious.

Maybe claiming that I “trick myself” is a little disingenuous, since I’ve figured out my little Jedi mind trick and know full well that I’m usually going to finish whatever I say that I’m going to just “start.” In that case, I think it’s good that I’ve learned this about myself and can use it to effect, and I can clearly see how one day my attitude will change to be “okay, let’s just do it.”

As I have alluded to a few paragraphs ago, this issue is closely related to that of goals and goal-setting, something I took for granted and even poo-pooed up until a few years ago. In another blog, I will explore this lesson I’ve learned and how it has really transformed my life, or at least the way I think about it.

Lessons learned: carry it to completion

It’s been about twenty-four hours since my defense, and I’ve finally had some time to rest and process through everything. I also took the day off today, which is an outstanding event, I must say. I’ve spent some time thinking about everything and reflecting on my time as a graduate student. I thought it would be nice to share some of the lessons learned during this time in my life.

Probably the most significant lesson I’ve learned (and still have much to learn about, too) is that if God calls us to do something, He will see us through to the end. I can’t tell you how many times I was discouraged, hated what I was doing, or wanted to quit. However, it seemed clear that God put me on this path, and His plan didn’t include giving up before I got to the end (much to my chagrin at those many times of discouragement). He also didn’t leave me here to languish all alone while I did it all myself. Sure, I had to put a lot of time and effort and mental and emotional fortitude into seeing this thing to the end, but I committed to doing my part in good faith, and God upheld His end of the deal.

He provided just what I needed at the right times. After a few years in my research tenure, it became clear that I would be hard pressed to derive a thesis-level project in my initial research position. At least two times I tried to “improve” my research situation on my own, seeking out other groups or projects to take me in. It seemed downright reasonable for me to move on to something else. However, those instances never worked out, because it wasn’t the plan. I finally surrendered and was patient, knowing that God would do whatever it was He planned whenever He had planned for it. Sure enough, three years ago I was able to take what I learned those years in my previous position and work on a joint project in another group that yielded a high-level research project, for which I just earned my PhD. Yes, it ended up taking eight school years to complete, but who cares….because I did complete it. It’s not always easy or comfortable, nor does it always seem reasonable, but you won’t go wrong trusting the one who sees the big picture instead of relying on your own limited view.

He also provided a vast group of people bathing me in prayer and encouragement, especially in this last semester of straining for the finish line. I can’t tell you how many people were praying over me yesterday, because I am honestly not even sure. And while I am by no means an expert on prayer, it’s something I’ve really begun to mature in this semester, gaining some new perspectives and beginning to overcome some issues I’ve struggled with for a very long time (if God knows everything that’s going to happen, what’s the point in praying at all?, etc.). I’m still no expert, but it’s the beginning of a lifetime of new perspective on what it means to pray.

Finally, I now have to trust Him for the next steps, too. I’ve really only just come to appreciate that the rest of my life is really just beginning now. My sister has always hated the phrase “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” so I think about her when I say this. 😉 But getting a doctorate isn’t the end; it’s the beginning of something you do once you have it. I still don’t know what that is yet, and it probably won’t be just one thing for the rest of my life. Likely life will take us many places over the years, but I can trust that there’s a plan and a reason for the steps we’ll take.

I’ve learned many other things looking back on my time here, and hopefully I’ll get to share those with you. I feel like I’m now trained not just with knowledge or information in a particular subject of science, but with life skills that are now tools in my belt that will help me tackle the new challenges in life.

“…Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,” Philippians 1:6