Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Okay, I’ve been half writing this post for a while now.

I keep deleting it because I wonder if anyone really cares what getting a PhD is like. In fact, whenever someone tells me that they are thinking about getting a PhD, my first response is always: “There are better, more productive ways to blow a decade of your life. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to harbor a deep seated addiction to a narcotic? Or how about join the clergy for a few year, that would (hopefully benefit other people. If you’re short on ideas, you could always join green peace the Red Cross, or a pluthera of other organizations that pay you nothing and put you through a grueling regime of railing against the world. And seriously, working for them is much better for your sanity.”

When they persist about getting a PhD—usually with a cute little laugh and a “No, I’m serious” (so am I)—then I move on to the truth.

It’s hard.

It’s writing a book hard.

It’s writing the same book ten times hard.

And I don’t mean revisions, I mean writing the same book ten times.

First you write the manuscripts that will become the dissertation. Then you let your adviser read them. After s/he is through with them, you scrape the lifeless carcasses of your manuscript off the floor and try again. You use all of the same data, most of the same references, and the same format and you write it over again.

Lather, rinse repeat.

This is what being a grad student is really like:

Me: Oh great mother of science, let him like it this time. Please please please! Let him like it this time. I know now that the last version was crap, but this one is better. It’s not some drunken paper passed out on the sidewalk of academia. It’s a real paper. Please let him like it.

Adviser after reading the paper: Well, this was a nice effort, but I’m afraid it just doesn’t quite cut it. Try again. And this time, put some thought into it.

Me:        :-(

::goes back to writing::

Repeat this process 16 times (no joke). That’s where I am right now, on the fifth version of the same four papers. Even these “much improved” papers are covered in track changes and comments (one of them came back from the dreaded professor with 110 comments! And he calls it defensible!!).

And so, when I say that this is NaDissWriMo for me, what I really mean is that this is the month of extermination.

taken from the Tardis Index
I’ve been exterminating comments from my dissertation by going through and rewriting sections, revising ideas, refining data and generally kicking butt.

On Monday, I eliminated the last of the comments on the body of my dissertation. I still have 44 comments in my figure captions for one (one?!) chapter. Then it’ll be all up to me. I feel a little like a Dr. Who villain.

So, the progress: I have 167 pages of comment free dissertation. I’m past half. Now all I have to do is exterminate those last comments, clean up my figures and make a couple tables.

(You know, maybe there is a practical application for PhD writing… maybe all writers should try it for a little while, cause let me just say, I’ve got a thick skin now. Of course, I earned it through the heartless comments that read something like “This isn’t English, Rena. Heck, it isn’t even American!” and “This is really just terrible. Do you think you could at least use words that make it sound like you know what you’re talking about?” or, my personal favorite “This is a bit of a nightmarish sentence, don’t you think. It could really use a bit of surgery.”)

Monday, November 14, 2011

I'm grateful for Slaughter House Five

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. It was spawned by Beth Revis’ books you’re grateful for. And here’s where I go all serious. If this is the first time you’ve been to my blog, I ought to warn you, I’m usually not this, well, uh, serious.

The book that I might actually be the most grateful for is Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I think this book and I got along more out of timing and circumstance than anything else. When I went to college (undergrad) I had made this choice that I was going to put all the silly, childish things in my life away and focus on my dreams.

I wanted to be an astronaut (I know, it’s so cute, right?), but I wasn’t that cute little kid who just wants to be an astronaut. I set the curve in my high school physics class because no one was going to have that top spot. It was mine, and no one this side of Newton’s apple was going to be better at it than I was.

Then I got to college.

I grew up in a town with 856 people in it. My first class sat 880. It was a bit of a shock. Being the best in a small town is easy. Even the really smart people just don’t want the same things, so they don’t try as hard. In college, they all want the same thing. They might as well have stuck me in a tiny little school full of other students who just wanted to be set the physics curve, but unlike the writing community where everyone is nice and tries to help everyone else out, they were more like ballerinas at a competition, pouring powdered glass into the other girl’s toe shoes.

Except those super competitive people were everywhere, in every class, not just the physics. I struggled. I’d never had so many options, and I hated my math classes (no, I don’t think I said that right: I HATED MY MATH CLASSES!!!!). It’s not like I lacked the talent or the skill. What I lacked was the ability to sift through the horrible accents and actually pay attention in a 200 person class that was clearly designed to bore my brain cells into a gelatinous ooze.

College didn’t go the way I’d planned.

And worse, I’d given up—wholesale!—nearly every fun thing I’d ever enjoyed. I’d been pretty good in band, good enough to get into just about any music program I wanted to, but all I did in college was the jazz band. I didn’t take any of the classes I really wanted to (Why didn’t I take surfing when I had the chance? Or Sailing? Why was I so dumb when I was so damned smart?). My first semester was chosen to maximize my requirements to credit hour ratio.

In fact, the only fun thing I did was to take a fencing class (loads of fun, everyone should try it at some point). In high school, I’d been in plays, the choir, band, the soccer team, the swim team: I did stuff that had nothing to do with school. I had a great costume every Halloween. I rode horses in competition, raised (and sheared!) sheep. I did a ton of stuff that had nothing to do with my academic prowess. I read books. I *wrote* books. But in college, I was going to buckle down and get to the business of growing up.

For anyone who’s ever been in this position, it should be pretty obvious that this sort of obsessive drive to succeed isn’t healthy, but I thought I was on the path. I’d started on the long journey to my dreams.

And then I didn’t succeed. In the first semester at college, despite giving up everything I’d ever loved to chase one dream (a dream I had better odds at winning the lottery than succeeding at), I got my first ever non-passing grade (a C-, how cruel is that, they give you credit but they won’t let you take the next class). It was the worst grade I’d ever taken home. Ever. I was a failure.

But I’m stubborn, and I decided that the answer was to buckle down even more. I couldn’t take any more physics and math classes (they went in order at the beginning), so I took Russian (the better to talk to my Russian comrades should I ever make the astronaut corps). I guess I must have thought there would be a place on the astronaut application form where I could write down my grades for participation and effort. I definitely got an E there. Well, let’s just say that learning a whole new language thing doesn’t help much when all your other classes are ridiculously hard as well. By the third semester of this sort of self induced torture, I had so much homework that all I ever did was school work. I ate with my math homework in front of me. I got the take out lunches so I could sneak them into the library. I was crazed, driven, obsessed, and still failing.

I didn’t read any books for fun. Not one. By my third year of this, well, let’s just say my grades weren’t great. I was more determined than ever, but I was still a complete failure. I was in debt, I hadn’t come up for air in forever, and I had a solid loathing of my peers. We had nothing in common. They were all like “See how easy this shit is for me?” “Aren’t I awesome?” “Are you even good enough to be in our study group?” “Why would anyone ever read a work of *fiction*? It’s not even real! How stupid can you be?”

Right, how stupid could I be?

I quite jazz band so I could work in a lab in the physics department. I figured that if I could actually do these things then I could really make it in physics. Working more in physics didn’t really help me out. And I had confirmation of my general inability. When I went to ask for help on my homework in this one class, I was told by the professor that “If you are having trouble with this, then you should consider a new major.” That asshole made me so mad and embarrassed that I never asked for help in that class again. I passed, but not well. I should have realized that just passing those classes was a huge hurdle: in five classes of physics they whittled the engineering students from 500 to 40. It wasn’t an easy series. I busted my ass, and I still got bad grades. And who wants a grad student who can’t do better than a C in basic physics? Who wants an astronaut who could only manage a C? It seems like they’d want the A+ people. I needed to get my grades up before I flunked myself out of any chance of making my dreams.

I caved. I took two classes that didn’t fulfill ten requirements at once. I only took them because, well, I needed a breather. I was dying, and a little art studio wouldn’t kill anyone. And a little music appreciation wouldn’t hurt either. Besides, it filled a requirement I wasn’t likely to get anywhere else, and I’d already taken music composition in high school, I was pretty certain I could rock that class (and I desperately needed an A on my transcripts).

I was still a failure (as far as I was concerned) and I was starting to get the feeling that there would be no grad school for me (a Ph. D. is required to get into the astronaut corps on the science side; thousands of jet flight hours is what you need for the military side, I thought the science path would be easier). Art studio meant more money on non books than I’d spent in a long time. I’ve bought $100 paperbacks in the name of physics, so forty bucks to buy paper and pencils seemed pretty cheap. So cheap in fact that I let my eyes cast about in the book store. There was a little display of books right on the edge of the art section. It was three books by Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughter House Five, Breakfast of Champions, and The Cat’s Cradle.

One of my friends had told me about the protagonist who says “So it goes.” Considering that I was failing at my life dream—had sunk to taking art classes to raise my GPA!—I figured I might have something in common with this Billy Pilgrim fellow.

I bought the book.

I read the book during my music appreciation class (it wasn’t a really important class, they were talking about the fantasy section of a symphony, and I could have given the lecture), and then I read it through my next class: math. It was Green’s function (read: important crap that I should have been paying attention to and ultimately lead to my worst ever grade, an actual honest-to-Galileo F). After class I made it the ten steps to a wooden bench around a planter and kept reading.

At the time I bought that book, I had never felt sorrier for myself (before or since). By the time I finished that book, I knew I was being a fool in just about every aspect of my life.

I knew then that no matter what, I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by staying in a place where I hated everyone, and they all seemed to hate me (they didn’t, I was just the only girl in any of their classes and they didn’t know how to handle the rare female scientist in her natural habitat). The next semester, I changed degrees, found people who were like me (and they even read books that were a complete waste of time featuring fake people doing fake stuff, sometimes on fake worlds! Crazy!).

I’m not going to lie. It wasn’t easy, and it added a year to my time in college, but that one book caused me to reevaluate my life. I am so thankful for it. So thankful, that I went back and bought the other two books. Then I found the nearest used book store and started back into books with a vengeance. I still get a little too into my grown up work and stop reading (like right now because I have 29 days before I defend my dissertation), but one look at that book on my shelf and I remember that place where I was so miserable. The worst part about that place was the only person who had any control over how miserable I was, was me! It was Billy Pilgrim’s lack of control that made me see all my problems like the tiny things they really were. Literally, I was just a few sheets of paperwork away from happy the whole time. How dumb could I get? Physics wasn’t the only answer. There were a number of other sciences that could cut the grade.

And really, would it kill anyone if I got to be happy while chasing my dreams?

That is how Kurt Vonnegut convinced me to leave physics and find a science I actually liked.

Thank you Mr. Vonnegut.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pining away

On taking a break

And, no, I don’t mean a break from my dissertation. That monolith of literature I’m still chugging along on my revisions. I’m trying desperately to get my adviser prescribed revisions done before the 19th so I can have plenty of time to handle whatever strangeness my advisor sends my way (and there will be strangeness—he’s waited until the night before giving talks at major conferences to give me some concept smashing data and asked me to “just stick it in”).

No, I mean a break from the writing that I love to do. My poor work in progress is sitting on my hard drive collecting electrons and looking back at me feebly every time I skip right over that folder to click on PhD.

And I’m scared. I’m worried that when I finally open that folder up again I won’t love it anymore. And I loved that story—I mean *loved* that story. Usually, I wouldn’t be able to stay away from something like that, but this dissertation thing has been years in the making. It must take priority… but now I don’t even remember some of the secondary character’s names. Some of the details are starting to fade. Who was I going to kill and why? What hints did I lay? What hints did I still have waiting in my tangled bucket of trouble? How did I plan to solve the big bad problem? Oh crap, what was the big bad problem?

Yeah, I have notes… Okay, not many, but that’s not what worries me. I’m afraid that by taking a break the spark that I had—the burning need to write that silly story—will have fled me. I worry that I’ll just be ho-hum by the time I get to the end of my dissertation, and I’ll never feel like I used to about my writing in waiting.

So what about all of you, have any of you ever set something aside? What happened when you got back to it? Did you still love it?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I'm not as crazy as I sound... maybe

I’ve been sick and injured, both key conditions for getting tons of work done. *sigh*

I could whine about it (wait, I think I am…) but that wouldn’t help me get anywhere, and what’s worse is that somehow I feel like it’s my fault that I’m injured and sick. Oh, that really frosts my hide. I know better, so why the guilt?

Okay, well, I know why, it’s counting down over there in the corner, so it’s not all that surprising, but still, it seems really crazy that I feel guilty for not being at the top of my game for the past week. How ridiculous.

So today, I’m going to try something. We all should give this a try (and if you are one of the few who can really make this work, let me know how): Today I am going to forgive myself, and let it go.

That’s right, for a limited time only, I’m going to let it go. I had a full seven days of under-productivity, and I’m going to write it off (hmm, maybe I can get some taxes back on it). I’m going to cut it lose and run with it. I’m going to be a person and not go crazy. I’m going to—dare I say it?—move on.

And really, this isn’t about enlightenment (I’m far too immature to reach enlightenment, more on that some other time). This is about done. I’m going to defend this semester by hook or by crook, and the only way to do that is to stop wasting time beating myself up over things that could have happened.

You know, I think I feel better already.

21 out of 200 pages done

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me

Yeah, I know it’s not cool to draw attention to self centered celebration, blah blah blah. But the truth is I don’t follow rules. I run with scissors; I don’t always use my hand signals when I ride my bike; I jay walk: I’m a rebel.

And this is an important Birthday.

You're how old?**
Nah, it’s not the big three-Oh. That one came and went with a whimper. No, today I turn 33 (I know, I just told the world how old I am! Talk about breaking rules! Next I’ll confess my weight—or not). So at this point you’re all wondering what could possibly be so great about 33? After all, 30 and 35 seem like bigger better ages to be all uppity about, but I’m strange.

Most people count 7 as their lucky number, but not me. Mine is 3, but since I didn’t really figure out that my lucky number is 3 until well after my third birthday, I’ve been waiting a while to get to the decade of threes. And this is the luckiest so far, it has two threes!

Okay, I’m not really that superstitious.

I mean really, do you know how unlucky it is to be superstitious?

**that's not just some random horse. That's my sister's horse Romeo.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A very serious problem: OIRX

Okay, so I thought I’d purged myself of the disease. You know *the* disease. If you’re a writer and you’ve ever sent a query letter, you are intimately familiar with the disease.

Obsessive Inbox Refreshing/checking, or OIRX (that’s pronounced orcs).

For me, OIRX look like this:

2 seconds later
three minutes later

Okay, I’m not that bad, but I think everyone knows what I saying when I admit that there’s the strangest anxiety tied to query letters. I’ve entered contests and crossed my fingers, but there is nothing like the possibility that a magical little email is waiting in my inbox.

So if you know someone who has OIRX, just remember, they have to want to help themselves before you can help them…

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The answer to the psycho test

OMG, can I just say today has been crazy full of complete freak out? My back went out this morning (I guess for coffee or something), and it still hasn’t come back. I’m literally writing this from the couch at my office. It sucks.

I tried to enter two contests today, and apparently my being anywhere near contests kills them right now. The Baker’s Dozen Submission went dead after I got a confirmation, but at least it came back up. The other contest, well, I’m not sure it actually died or if it was me. Ah well.

Still, on to the Psycho Test.

Don’t read this part until you’ve been here to take the original test.

The psycho answer was correctly identified by Liz. Maria kills her sister so there will be another funeral and she can see the guy again.

I’ve heard that this was an actual test that a psychologist used to give serial killers. According to the stories, they always answered psycho, and here’s why.

The majority of answers given for this test (by most folks) is that the sister was dating the guy, or that the sister murdered the mother. These answers require additional information that was not part of the original test (i.e. she saw the hot guy with her sister, or she got dumped by the hot guy when he saw her sister, etc.). The point of the test is to see if you can come up with a logical reason for Maria to commit murder based only on the data set presented.

From the data set presented the only logical answer is completely illogical from a societal stand point. No one would kill someone just to see a potential paramour; however it is the only logical answer that isn’t based on made up information. In short, it singles out people who suffer from antisocial personality disorder (as well as mild mannered scientists who know a trick when they see one).

In short, all fun and games.

Ooog, now to find some stretches or something for my back…