Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Past Two Years of My Life

I was looking just now, and realized it's been two years since my last update.

This blog is kind of a weird thing. It started as a way for me to vent my thoughts on fantasy and science fiction books, then got kind of science-y. At one point I had a spike on my post about the vampire movie Let Me In.  Then I had that viral Berenst#in Bears post that got passed around the web a lot, inspiring lots of kookiness. I was getting lots of traffic for a while -- until Vice basically rewrote my same idea but on their own website with their names attached.

Since then my traffic has slowly dwindled down to numbers that actually make sense for what my blog is.

Really, what gets me isn't that another site gets my traffic, but that in all the traffic that I got, almost none of them read what I think are some of my coolest posts -- the stuff about using Gauss' Law to calculate the width of Narnia, or using volume contracting spacetimes to travel to other dimensions, or why everything cool in physics is impossible, or how time travel is understood to work within physics.

I haven't posted much (anything) since things sort of died down. I still check in frequently, but never find the impetus to start to writing. Maybe it's the weight of former glory intimidating me.

In the two years since whenever I last posted, a lot has changed in my life. And now, I finally have a break, and have decided to fill the void in my time by finally finally updating my blog, without any pressure.

Around the time I posted last, I was in grad school for physics. I had been there for five years and was a PhD candidate. Normally, a PhD candidate at five years is pretty close to finishing their thesis, or at least knows how much more they need to do. I didn't.

I was never really very happy with my school. The badness of the fit became apparent to me pretty quickly in my first year, but I decided to stick things out and see how they went. I ended up in a field of research that I didn't really like. My advisor saw this, and changed me to a new field that was pretty cool and I liked a lot; but he didn't know anything about it, so I was sort of stuck. He didn't like my proposals for topics, and didn't propose anything himself. So five years in, didn't even have a topic, my advisor couldn't help me because it wasn't his area of study, funding was drying up and I was already at $900/month, and I was unhappy with the university generally. So I made the decision to leave the university, and apply elsewhere.

Part of the reason why I ended up at the school I did was due to my very poor performance on the GREs. When I first took them back in 2009 (amazing to think it was that long ago...) I got a very measly score of 660 in math. That was around 48th percentile. I know for a lot of majors, a 660 in math is incredible. Except I was a math/physics major. The median score on the old GRE for math/physics majors is somewhere around 800/800. It was pretty disheartening, really.

Before that, I had been thinking of applying at schools like CalTech or MIT. Afterwards, I was resigned to the few schools that didn't require the physics subject test -- which I was too defeated to take.

It turns out the problem is the old GRE used some stupid, idiotic system of progressive questioning, where you have to answer every single question in order and it determines your next question based on your answer to the previous one. And I didn't know that. And I had been through tons of test-taking-strategy courses that teach you to skip questions to come back to them. But I didn't find this out until years later.

When I decided to leave my old university, I retook the GRE, having a better idea of how it worked. I got a perfect 170/170 on the math section, and a 165 or so on the verbal section. Those are much better scores. The takeaway there really shouldn't be that I got a perfect on the math section. It should be that I originally got a bad scor, but then the act of studying for a standardized test caused my grade to increase. That means that the GRE is worthless as a measurement of anything other than how well the person studied for the GRE.

I also took the physics GRE this time. I did pretty good. 85th percentile.  Not great. It was a reassuring grade.

With these new-and-improved grades, I applied to a whole bunch of other universities. I made sure that they had research programs in general relativity (which is where I knew my interest was). I had made the mistake before of not making sure the research interests matched, and that's how I ended up studying something I really didn't like and wasting three years of my life. This time I was more careful.

I applied to a bunch of places, wrote statements of purpose and filled in my CV and submitted my shiny new test scores. And in return, I got soundly rejected across the board. Every single school denied me. Some (like the school I thought was my safety) turned me down straightaway in early January. Others put me on a waitlist and strung me along right up until April 14th, which is the day when schools are required to finalize decisions. It was an unnerving and heart-wrenching exprience stretched over four months of anxiously checking my inbox, and my reward for going through it was nothing.

So I left my former school with a MS in Physics, and that was that.

If you're not in science then you don't know this, but in the US, there isn't actually such a thing as a masters in physics. In the US, an MS in physics (or chemistry, or biology, or math) means that you dropped out of graduate school. Either you failed your qualifier exams, or you got burnt out and left.

It's usually called a "consolation masters".  As in, "Sorry you didn't get your PhD, here's a masters for trying."  That's what I had.  A consolatory masters.

After that, I was almost immediately hired at a small Christian privat school near my hometown. It was a huge blessing to get a job that quickly out of school -- it was one less source of stress that I didn't need

While at the high school, I taught high school physics, chemistry, computer science, and coached the robotics team.

Sound like a lot? Yeah. It was. It was a heck of a lot.

I had two physics courses - regular, and AP Physics 1. My AP students all should have been taking AP Physics C, because they all wanted to be engineers and were all taking calculus, and AP Physics C is the only class that counts for anything for engineering majors. I liked both of these classes, becaus I am (literally, I guess) a master at physics. I knew exactly what I was doing and didn't need a lot of preparation.

It was also fun to teach precisely because it's physics -- you can demonstrate just about anything in the first half the year by throwing random objects across the room, or pushing chairs into each other. I had a lot of fun demonstrations, and even though the class was frustratingly hard for my poor students (it took me all year to learn resonable expectations), they all really enjoyed class for the demonstrations I had.

If all I had were physics, it would have ben fine. But it wasn't only physics. We were a small school and didn't have enough demand for four physics sections. We also couldn't waste a science teacher on two classes. So I had to teach more stuff.

My computer science class was okay. I don't think I did a very good job of teaching it. I started trying to do lectures and all, but it ended up devolving into a work-at-your-own-pace kind of class. I uploaded a bunch of assignments, gave them one lecture explaining the subject, showed them a lot of example codes showing how to use that idea we were covering, then told them to do new things using that idea. They got all class period to work on it and ask questions, and they could resubmit work for regrading until they got it right. They had a final project, which was to make a very simple text-based game (similar to old D&D games from the 70s). It didn't have to have graphics, or make sense, or even be a good game -- it just needed to use enough control structures to show they knew how to us them.

Some students did well, turned in everything, resubmitted stuff, worked in class, asked questions, and turned in pretty cool final games.  I kept a few examples to show off to friends.  Other students goofed off all period, didn't turn anything in, and failed. Miserably failed.

My chemistry class was less than okay. This is surprising to people, but studying one kind of science doesn't qualify you to teach another completely different kind of science. In university, I actually only ever took one semester of chemistry. Just one. I started taking second semester, but actually dropped it because I nearly failed. I managed to convince the department chair to let me substitute a computer architecture elective for chemistry on my transcript, and that's how I graduated. I know about chemistry only in terms of quantum mechanics because that's the only context where I ever intersected with it -- but you can't teach quantum mechanics to high school kids. Apart from quantum mechanics and wave functions, I know pretty much nothing about chemistry.

At one point, the chemistry department chair where I was teaching actually asked me if I had taken chemistry in college. Super embarrassing to say no.

So I had four classes to prepare lesson plans for. That's a lot for a first-year teacher. I was also declared head of the school's robotics team, which was awesome, but also super draining.

I barely had a free weekend all last year, being stuck grading, planning, or supervising kids drilling holes in robots.

Really, the most draining thing was that I was teaching high school. In college, you can reasonably assume any students in your class are there because they want to learn -- because if they didn't, then they wouldn't be in class. In high school, not the case. For the first time ever, I had to deal with students acting like brazen douchebags. Not like young adults trying to get an education, but like stupid jerks who never learned how to behave properly.

I literally didn't even know how to respond half the time.

I had a lot of great students, awesome students, students I'm super proud I got to teach.  And in fact the great students outnumbered the jerk students by a huge margin.  But the jerks are the ones that got to me.

I had decided, when I took the job, that I'd stay for at least two years. By November, I had decided to leave.

I reapplied to graduate schools. I took some advice from a person by the name of Vincent Klug (whose book on this subject I recommend); I applied to specific schools, tailored my statements to the schools and the research faculty there, I got good letters, the works.  And slowly but surely, the rejection letters came filtering in.

Yeah. I got rejected across the board again.

Well, almost.

One school waitlisted me. It went on and on, from January until April sometime. I had my poor boss on pins and needles waiting to know if she needed to hire a new physics teacher or not. After months of waiting and watching and hoping, finally they got back to me.

I was accepted. I was going back to graduate school. I was free!

That summer, I went to visit my girlfriend. She lives in Costa Rica, with her family. It was a long distance relationship, which is very hard. I was going to get to stay with her almost the entire summer, from end of June until August. I brought lots of books with me (studying for the qualifying exams I would have to take when I got back). She was in school. We had a lot of fun driving around town, studying together, going on walks together. It was a great break for me, after so much stress and anxiety from studying for tests, getting rejected by universities, then teaching high school; just getting to sit on the hammock on her parent's back porch and do nothing but read was heavenly.

While I was there, I got engaged. I had brought the ring with me. I had been planning on proposing a long time before. But you can't effectively propose marriage over the phone. I was glad I finally got to ask her what I had been waiting so long to ask her, and I'm glad she was willing to accept. We had a great last few days together before I had to leave my new fiancee and go back to the US for school to start again.

Almost immediately I had to pack everything up, move out, move across the country, unpack and move in to my new apartment, start going to orientation and TA training seminars. It all happened pretty fast. I was enrolled in two classes, teaching Advanced Lab and electronics, and trying to help my poor fiancee plan the wedding.  My days were a flurry of studying, grading, and messaging my poor neglected bride.

Finally in November we got married. After our honeymoon (over Thanksgiving break) I had to come back for finals. I'm really glad she was able to enter the country with me (now is not a good time to be applying for visas). Classes ended, they picked up again. I enjoyed having a wife to take care of me, because with my new load of classes I barely had time to do even basic things for myself, like feeding.

Eventually her visa ran out and she had to leave again.  Bringing her to the airport and letting go of her was probably the hardest thing I've ever done.

Since then, I've been studying like crazy trying to finish everything for finals, and then for qualifying exams.  And now the semester is over, the quals are over, and I can finally, finally update my blog. Finally!

I have at least two posts in the works, one trying to explain gravitational time dilation. I have a new field of research, which should be a spring of new ideas. I have no classes this summer, or this fall. So hopefully things can once again pick up here at the Wood Between Worlds.

So that's been my life since whenever I posted last. Dissastisfaction, betrayal, rejections, heartbreak, stress, strife, then finally freedom, love, marriage, and hope.

Thanks for reading.


susan said...

I'm happy to see you've returned to your writing. That was news to me about the consolatory masters degree, but it's good to now you're back on track for your doctorate.
Many congratulations and best wishes on your marriage.

Reece said...

Thanks susan! I'm glad to be posting again.

Aurini said...

Glad you're back; if you ever were to publish a "layman" book (something with some calculus in it) I'd love to read it.

Igor Almeida said...

Came here from a link about Mandela Effect ended up reading your experience as a teacher was much better.
I'm also a teacher and could feel your pain.
hope you can try that again in the future, perhaps as volunteer in some place. I love to work with kids from 4 to 10 years old, they just are almost always eager to learn and ready to work!