Friday, April 15, 2022

Twelve Years a Grad Student

I drew this on a white board at my 
last school, in 2013.  Nine years later
and I slayed the dragon.
I recently finished my PhD in physics.  My particular field is astrophysics, and my thesis topic was on Newtonian and relativistic white dwarf asteroseismology.  All I have left to do is get past the whims of Kate Turabian, whose opinion on formatting people for whatever reason care about.  

The first post on this blog was almost ten years ago, while I was a grad student.  Inspired by some of my classes and books I was reading, I had some crazy ideas mixing science and fiction and wanted to post them somewhere.  The most famous of those crazy ideas was about the Berenst#in Bears, which is now a meme far beyond my mere tiny blog.

Ten years ago I was a graduate student.  One week ago, I was a graduate student.  In fact, I started graduate school in 2010, meaning I have been pursuing a PhD for for twelve years (eleven not counting my year teaching high school).  

I have been twelve years a grad student.

I figured, given the momentousness of the situation, I would reflect on this overlong time.

Growing up, I went to a high school out in the suburbs, so I of course took multiple courses in test prep.  Prepping for standardized exams, prepping for real exams, prepping for SATs, ACTs, APs, all that.  And the first rule of test prep is, do the easy questions first, skip the harder ones until later.  So one day, after a very good run as the top math major and top physics major at my very small liberal arts college, I went to take the GRE, having this first rule of test prep in mind.  First question was going to take me a bit more than 3 minutes to answer, so I skipped.  It wouldn't let me really skip, so I just marked something, and I'd go back later.

It turns out you can't do that on the GRE.  Or you didn't used to.  It turns out once you mark a question on the old GRE, it changes the entire exam to give either easier or harder questions.  I've retaken the GRE since then, but my original score was soul-crushingly disappointing.

And that is how I started graduate school at my last university.  I won't name the university, because I don't want to drag it through the mud.  The fact is I never liked it.  This post from 2013 essentially sums up my feelings about it.    I felt the school was unserious, over-concerned with athletics, had no reputation beyond its football team, was over-infested with fratbro culture, and that it was what I was resorted to after sucking at the GREs.  That is how I had felt about my university from basically the first month, but I decided to stick it out.  I stuck it out five years.  I took a lot of interesting classes, but my research went nowhere.  So after five years, with no project, no hope of ever finishing, and on a $900/month stipend, I just "mastered out."  I've written about this before.

That brief summary accounts for the first five years of my time as a graduate student.  I don't consider it time completely wasted.  I did enjoy a lot of my classes.  I did learn a lot.  I learned how to program in C++ while at this university, I learned the basics of computer simulation, I took courses in Monte Carlo methods from one of the world's experts, and I got to take a lot of great classes in math and physics that my little liberal arts college couldn't have offered.  I really liked my advisors.  As people and as advisors.  I could tell they cared about me.  They did not give me recommendations after I left, and I have always felt bad for betraying them.

Maybe it was only pride that made me leave.  Or maybe it was recognition that school name meant everything when competing for the tiny handful of available faculty positions.


Here's my advice to any first-year or potential graduate students out there.  Once you have your PhD, your institution's name will be attached to yours for the rest of your life.  If you do not want this institution's name and reputation trailing you everywhere, do not go there.  If the institution does not have research programs in subjects you greatly enjoy, do not go there.  If you just started at an institution (less than 1 year) and realize there are no research programs you will enjoy that you can get into to, then you need to leave now.  A quick pivot at this stage is understandable, especially if you explain you did not find a research fit.  Many of my fellow first-year grad students did this, and went to other schools.  I am the dumb one who tried to stick it out.

If you are in your fifth year and realizing all of this, then I'm afraid it's too late.  You've wasted five years, and your only options are to waste at least five more, or to finish now.  Having done the opposite, I suggest just finishing.  Write whatever you need to finish, and finish.  You won't be able to get a job as a research professor, but no one outside of academia will care where your PhD is from.  You can get a nice, high-paying job in industry, and you can start generating high earnings now, rather than six years from now.  The six years compound, given raises, promotions, paid-off loans and accrued bank interest.  It's not six linear years, but six exponential years, comparing what your wealth and income could be if you just finish now, vs. if you go the route of changing schools.

The other route is to change schools.  Note that you will not be able to change schools.  Not at this stage.  Save the application fees.  There are too many red flags on your application.  You're leaving now because you want a different research topic... then why did you research it for four years?  They're going to assume you had a fight with an advisor, or did something unethical you're trying to escape, or are just a lazy do-nothing (this is exactly what the grad advisor at my last school warned of).  First, you need to get your MS and work for at least one year.  It will be easy to get a job teaching high school.  And teaching high school is horrible, so it will also be easy to explain why you want to stop teaching to go back to grad school.  But there might be better options, like national labs or research industries that will let you continue working while in grad school and maybe even help pay for it (forget trying to do physics grad school while teaching -- you cannot imagine how exhausting teaching teenagers is).  You can apply in the winter, and this is at least not a red flag.  

I did this.  I studied and retook both the general and physics GRE and wrote statements of purpose and got letters and filled out all the applications.  Straight out of grad school I was immediately rejected everywhere.  After one year, I barely managed to get in to my safety school.  But at least I did get in.

If you mastered out, got a job, and the job is supportive, I actually suggest keeping it.  I worked for the last year of my graduate studies, and the reduction in stress from having a real income more than makes up for the lack of sleep.  Make sure you cleared all the core courses, can use PTO to re-take the quals, prelim, and finally defend, and can fit any group research meetings into your work schedule.  If the degree is related to your job qualifications, most jobs will be supportive or at least understanding.  Having a working spouse can also help alleviate some of the stress of poverty, but might come with other stresses in the form of arguments.

The poverty is really the hardest part of grad school.  I don't know if it's fair to call it real poverty, but it's miserable all the same. You can't live in a good place, you can't eat good food, you can't buy new clothes, you can't see a doctor, you can't do anything you want except for study, and study, and study so you can get out of the miserable condition as quickly as possible.  Poverty mindset is a real thing, clinical depression is a real thing, and they both will affect you and will delay you and will stop you from focusing.  Anything you can do to avoid this is helpful.  Even if it's working a day job.


So I left my old school, worked a year teaching physics at a private school, and got accepted to a much better university.  I will also not mention this university, at least not until I have the physical diploma in my hand, because you never know what can happen with posting identifying details online these days.  I have been there for six years.

My time here has been enjoyable, but also with its own issues.  No place is perfect.  

At my new university, it was immediately clear that I am not the smartest person here.  It was manifest that other grad students are far better at physics than I am now or ever could be.  This was actually a very good thing, because it forced me to give up vain conceits about what I was doing.  I wasn't going to be a next Hawking.  I was going to find a project in a field I liked, and do it.  I finally had a realistic notion of my place in the world of physics.  It was middling.

My research project was somewhat outside of my advisor's specific area of interest.  I wasn't the golden boy in the group.  Some other guy was the golden boy, and everything the golden boy did worked, instantly and perfectly the first time, and gave groundbreaking results.  Nothing I did for three years worked or gave results.

I wasted about two years of my research trying to solve a problem using a stupid numerical method, mostly because I never stopped to consider why I was trying to use this stupid method at all.  It wasn't until two years  of banging my head, that I explained the method I was using, was asked why I was using that method, and suddenly realized what a great question that was.  I tried something else, and instantly it worked.  Two years, now gone.  What could have been four, became six, just because I never stopped to think.

My research has been very interesting and rewarding (at least once it started working), and I have grown a lot.  My advisor has been a font of wisdom when it comes to references and improvements.  Under his advice I took my research code from a piecemeal collection of header files, to a real production code.  The code is now one of my most proud achievements.  I enjoyed everything I learned, and never felt like I was just holding my nose to get through it, or being restricted from pursuing ideas.

I have never known when major athletic events were happening.  Maybe that sounds like a petty thing to be thankful for.  When you live in a town where you cannot buy groceries or go anywhere to eat because the entire town is full of cars due to an athletic event, or you get woken up by people making animal sounds a mile away, then you will understand how important that is.

I wasted a ton of time on reddit.  So much time on reddit.  I was a frequent poster on /r/Christianity, desperately trying to rescue the sub that holds the namespace from being a petting zoo for atheists.  One night, after realizing the impact it was having on my progress, and the impact my lack of progress was having on my wife, I deleted my reddit account.  While I was there and constantly answering question posts, I like to think things were better.  But now I think it's just a tumblr.

Why did I waste so much time on reddit?  Because I was stressed out from being poor, and from not having meaningful progress in my research, and all I had mental energy for was recreation.  No it doesn't make any sense, yes it is counterproductive and a vicious spiral, but that's what I was talking about with poverty mindset and clinical depression.  It will delay you and stop you from focusing, unless someone slaps sense into you and forces you to get things done.  I'm thankful my wife did that.

Getting through graduate school is made much easier by having a wife.  She pushed me to stop goofing off.  When the stress of trying to live as two people on a grad stipend was too much, she got a job, and that removed so many worries and freed up brain cylinders.  Your brain has to burn calories over time to think; however much of that time and calories goes into water bills is not going to physics.  


My last post was a year and a half ago.  I didn't even notice.  I don't think very many other people did, either.

I haven't really had time to blog.  My crazy ideas about science have dried up.  When I have something to say, it is increasingly not about parallel worlds and the thickness of Narnia.  Just movie/book reviews, D&D, and religion.  I actually avoid posting things I've written, thinking I've over-posted on things that aren't about science.  Most of my ideas about science are about legitimate research, not crazy ideas, and that legitimate research I kind of want to officially publish, not in a blog, so I sort of hold it back.

I'm done with grad school, so I have no excuse.  I'm also done with grad school, and don't have cancellations hanging over my head.  I think I might feel free to say whatever I want.  Maybe blog technology from the 00s isn't the best way to do it.

Having graduated, I feel like I no longer need to care about conferences or publications.  So maybe I should self-censor less.

I'm afraid this post hasn't sounded as happy and triumphant as it should.  To be honest, the past twelve years have mostly been stress, depression, and heartache.  It's over, and I'm thankful to God it's over, but more in the way you're thankful when your cancer goes into remission.  Not in the way you're thankful when your first son is born.  I'm glad it is behind me, I am glad I finally achieved my lifelong dream of being an astrophysicist, and I'm glad I can now look forward to the future.  It was a ton of work to get here, and I have been blessed with loving family and friends to help me.


Graham said...

My dad once linked me to your blog around a year ago and since then I had read mosts of your posts (only skipping those discussing one or two book series I hadn't read). I enjoyed reading your perspective so much that when I saw the movie Tenet it made me wonder what you would've said about it. So that actually made me one who did notice tha you hadn't posted in a year and a half and seeing a post show up in my RSS feed reader was a nice surprise.

I too spent too many years in grad school (in Engineering) and I am very happy to be done and earning a living in private industry. Throughout it I remembered something that my mom (also has a PhD) once told me: grad school is like a prison sentence; you have to do your time to get out. While I didn't change schools, I did change advisors a couple of years in to get to research I found more interesting.

So, in short, I am one who is glad to see your return to posting.

texasellipses said...

Congratulations - it's a big moment! Glad to know you're alive :)

Reece said...

@ Graham, thank you so much for your comment. That really means a bunch to me. And grad school is like a prison sentence. I'm glad we're both over it.

Reece said...

@texasellipses Thank you! It was a ton of work, and I'm glad I finished it.

Saurabh said...

Congrats! Hope future is better than past..