Posts from the ‘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.


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

Decaffeinated thoughts

Well, I finally got a committee together, but now I have to get those five busy people into the same room at the same time on the same day. Right now the room(s) I want are not available at the “best” time for everybody, so I have to either figure out a secondary room arrangement or see if I can slightly inconvenience one person to get the desired room layout. I assume that option number one will probably win. Oh well.

Today I’m particularly annoyed at the whole writing and revising process. I feel like I’m going to drown in references for one thing, and I keep getting distracted by much more entertaining mental pursuits like randomly surfing the web or repetitively checking news websites.  I can’t even really listen to music; if it’s not my worn-out playlist on my iPhone, it’s too new and interesting to ignore, and I end up paying attention to it instead of letting it be relaxing background noise. I just have to focus, but my thoughts seem scattered, like my brain is filled with some kind of fluff that long, coherent thoughts can’t attach to. I wish I knew how to achieve mental solidity and clarity at will.

Is this what coffee is for?? :p (I’m not a coffee drinker, but maybe I should start)

At least going to get a coffee at the nearby shopping center would give me an afternoon break; it’s a common event for many in the group, but I, the non-coffee drinker, never go. The ten minute walk over there is usually invigorating, a nice exercise for stiff muscles and cramped lungs. However, it’s freezing cold and cloudy today, not very motivating for getting out of the building. I guess I’ll stay here, eat an orange, and just try to ignore how not fun the writing is.

Tabula Rasa

I just sent out my fifth thesis committee member request. Numbers one and two were easy, as those are my closest advisors. Number three I felt would be the hardest to nail down, and while he indeed have travel plans during my first choice, he could do the following week (the last week for spring graduation). Number four I felt would be a bit easier; however, he’s the one with tentative plans around that time and needs a week or two to confirm those dates before he can commit. I hope he can do it because I think he’ll be a nice complement to the group, so I have my fingers crossed! The fifth request is for a non-departmental reader, someone whom I don’t know at all but one of a few names my advisor suggested, so maybe they know each other. I am hopeful about him, too, though I do have those other names if it doesn’t work out.

I knew this would be one of the most unsettling tasks to perform, in its own way. However, I remain optimistic that I’ll get these folks nailed down before too long. But this is why you do this a few months in advance!

As far as the writing goes…well, it’s hard. DH and I discussed earlier how starting with a tabula rasa–a blank slate–is probably the hardest part of the thesis process. He felt the same way with his master’s thesis, and I’m sure feeling it now. Some things, like my own measurement setup and results, I can write from my brain while looking up a few quick numbers in my notebook; however, a lot of my thesis is background information that I have to research from primary sources and then learn well enough to write within the context of my research. That’s really hard. It takes me quite a while to ramp up my momentum for the day while doing this part, though I can eventually get going, sputtering along at about 15 mph or so. 😉 I just have to keep telling myself that it’s really okay…just get some words, any words, down, and my advisor will do a large bit of revising and suggesting. But he can only help me with that if I get something down on the page. I also struggle with wanting all my words to be very perfect the first time, but in the last few years I’ve really learned that it’s totally fine to give that up!

Well, I wanted to give a quick update, but I should get back to that sputtering along. I really am quite a good ways through a couple of chapters, so I’m trying to buckle down and finish at least one soon. Here’s more fingers crossed!

Herding Schrodinger’s cats

I guess I plan to do some writing exclusively the next two days or so. Actually, at this point, I don’t think I have a choice, as the laser is being moved around and someone took one of the photodiodes I was using. I guess that’s what’s called good timing or something. This morning I input all the data I gathered last week into Excel worksheets, and now I guess I’m ready to write the sections surrounding this measurement, as well as some other parts. I’m a little sluggish at this point in the afternoon, though, and my brain a bit cloudy to concentrate on a bunch of words. I guess I’ll take this little break and see if I can get into it soon.

Also, today I began contacting my thesis committee members to try to nail down an official date for my defense. The idea of announcing your commitment to a whole group of professors sure makes it feel, well, official. As long as I kept it to myself and maybe my advisor, if I chickened out or failed to get it done in time, there weren’t as many people who knew I didn’t reach my goal. Now, if for some reason I’m not going to make it, I have to admit that to a bunch more people. Though that would really be fine if I absolutely had to, it does add even more pressure to get it done. I guess pressure and deadlines area  good thing, as most of us don’t get a fire lit under us until something is breathing down our necks.

I am convinced that getting a group of professors together in one place at the same time just almost violates some sort of quantum uncertainty principle. If one professor will actually be available at a date and time, another one is almost bound by the laws of nature to be gone somewhere for a conference. It’s like herding Schrodinger’s cats. Therefore, asking a full two and a half months in advance is necessary in order to get the biggest professional event of your entire life on their busy calendar.

Even then, periodic reminders are a necessity to keep it fresh in their mind. I’ve heard too many stories about professors not showing up to students’ defenses. It’s also not impossible that something “more important” will come up and they choose to schedule that over your thesis and make you move it. It’s very frustrating that such a big event–one that all professors have gone through themselves, too–is so easily disregarded by some faculty. First of all, it’s part of their job at the university to attend to their new prospective graduates. Secondly, has it been so many years since their own defenses that they have completely forgotten how important it was to them and how each student must be feeling the same way? Fortunately, this isn’t the case for the majority of faculty, and so far I’ve been lucky to not have trouble scheduling. I have two of five left to nail down, and hopefully their schedules will coordinate with the week I’m looking at. Then I guess it’ll be official.

So that’s the plan for the week….writing, trying to stay awake, and setting a date. Guess I should get back to it…I have “miles to go before I sleep.”

There is nothing left but to do it

Panic, trepidation, doubt…and hope. All these have been surging through me in the last twenty-four hours, and probably shall for the next fourteen weeks. Yesterday was my first day back at work after the break, and the reality of my situation flooded over me when I looked at the calendar. Fourteen weeks remain until the last date for oral defenses for the spring semester…fourteen weeks for me to wrap up everything I’ve done in the last 7.5 years of graduate school and bring it to a conclusion. I felt utter terror at the prospect and panic welling up inside of me, though all I can do is tamp them down, ignore them the best I can, keep my head down, and work like crazy.

I met with my advisor yesterday and today, and he has been very encouraging and supportive; this is allowing me to subdue my fears and actually give me hope. Moreover, there was some question about finances for me, which I absolutely did not need to have to be thinking about. But he adamantly demands me to not worry or think about that at all and to focus on the task at hand; it’s incredibly calming to not have that burden on me anymore. We created a writing plan that gives me deadlines for completing sections of my thesis as I go along, allowing plenty of time to finish measurements, revise, and fine-tune as well as prepare my oral defense, which in reality is what I will actually be judged upon at the time of my defense. Well, “plenty” is a relative term at this point, but the schedule leaves nothing until the last minute, provided I can stick to it.

Technically, if I don’t get done by the drop-dead date, I can just defend during the summer semester. However, my advisor and I agree that we should just push for it. There is nothing left but to do it now; why languish for another few months unless the upcoming weeks show that it just isn’t possible?

My biggest fears about this whole process are twofold. First, I fear not having enough time to finish measurements and writing. I suppose there will be enough time if I work around the clock. I think it’s possible. Secondly, and most grippingly, I’m terrified of getting to my defense and not impressing my committee enough with my knowledge and ability to answer questions that they decide to not pass me. This probably stems from some trouble I had at my thesis proposal answering a few questions; while not a totally unwarranted fear, I have to keep in mind that it’s probably unlikely. First, after having written my thesis and bouncing it off all my colleagues, I should have a very solid understanding of all the measurements I did, what the results mean, the motivations for the work, and any tangential questions they might have. Second, my advisor is probably not going to let me get up in front of them without feeling I am prepared enough. Thirdly, once you’ve gotten this far, it probably takes a lot to have it not all-together enough for a committee to deny a student passage into scientist-hood (though I’m sure they will if necessary). This is why I am leaving plenty of time in my schedule for preparing my presentation, so I can be as prepared as possible. So whenever this panic tries to rise up inside of me, I can shove it back down and remain confident instead. Even just acting confident can cover a multitude of sins.

Above all, I have one more tool in my arsenal. With constant prayer and supplication of the Spirit, I can trust that whatever happens, God will take care of me. I’m sure He’s not as concerned about my actually getting the PhD as He is with how I am shaped by the experience. A dose of perspective in a trying time might not make everything better, but it can make it bearable.

Well, friends, this is it. There is nothing left but to do it.