Wednesday, September 14, 2016

An Academic Journey: Trials of the TA

I want to start this by simultaneously thanking and apologizing to every single TA I had during my undergraduate education.

Tomorrow is my second day of TAing. I TA introductory genetics discussion, an hour and a quarter of going over whatever material he students are struggling with or want clarity on. I have three of these sessions in a row, every Thursday from 1pm-5pm, as well as exam proctoring. The students are mostly sophomores, with a smattering of upperclassmen. My first lecture, last week, was pretty rough and a little shaky. I talked way more than I'm probably supposed to, but I managed to not get stumped by a single question and therefore avoided looking completely stupid.

I hope.

There were some questions that were tough to answer. There was a lot of material that I wasn't 100% sure of, since I'm essentially learning the material a few days ahead of the students. I haven't taken a genetics course since I was an undergrad, sitting in that same exact room, so I understand their thought process and how little they actually give a crap about the sections I discuss. There were some questions asked that showed a complete absence of understanding of the material or major concepts. Some quiz answers missed the mark so badly I felt like I had failed that student. I constantly founnd myself having to rein in my own enthusiasm over topics that aren't relevant to their exams, and I really think that's noticeable: I caught myself going on little tangents here and there and did my best to nip them in the bud. I tried to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, because I've been through it, and through grad school, and I'm back in grad school, so there is a lot of material I'm probably taking for granted that they really haven't been as deeply exposed to. It's tough to see them struggle with concepts that I take for granted as really self-evident.

But holy shit, when they get it, I feel like a hero.

I was grading quizzes, and I was a little disheartened sometimes. Some of it may have been bad questions on my part, which I did my best to remedy for this week. Some of it may have just been lack of exposure, or different emphasis from the professor than I got when I was learning the same material. Overall though, the grades were good. Everyone passed, which is always a good sign. Still, grading, in and of itself, was a chore. Writing quizzes? Chore. Inputting grades? Chore. Making notes for the next session, reading over their homework assignment to see what they'll ask, and generally trying to be prepared?


It's crazy how little credit non-teachers tend to give educators, and I think it bears repeating that wow... they do not do an easy job, and often they're overcoming weird hurdles you'd never even consider. Technology that isn't working properly or updated properly. A mismatch between the syllabus and the reasonable pace of teaching. Just the hassle of printing 80 copies of anything and then making sure it's all sorted out properly for multiple sessions, organized, and filed away properly afterwards. I did it for one day, for 4-ish hours, and already I have a new respect for my TAs, who did this while also studying and doing research or rotations. This isn't even to mention the full time professors, but hey,.. at least they make a living wage, unlike the lowly graduate students.

I was a little beat up, a lot tired, and questioning how fit I was to do this when my third session finished and I packed up for home. Mostly though, I was excited. It was so much fun. It felt really great to get through, even if it was just for my own sake. I'm excited for tomorrow, despite how exhausting the prep was and how much better all that time would have been if it had been spent on studying for my exams, or actually finishing the other requirements I have, like animal training modules.

Still, I think this is the beginning of something great for me. 

If you're going to do a program that requires you to TA, understand that it is NOT a walk in the park and you WILL be putting the hours in to it. I think most people who do it, though, develop a kind of affinity for it... a gentle affection of shared passion and at least feeling involved at the most basic levels of the fringes of shaping future minds. It's a thought that I find almost as comforting as the idea of research putting you at the cusp of human knowledge. It's a good feeling, and I think it will be a long, and totally worthwhile venture. Despite the cliche, I really do feel as if I'm learning just as much as they are from this... probably more, since my competency with the material is moderate at best.

If nothing else, I'll have great stories!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

An Academic Journey: First Week Survival

I survived my first week as a PhD student.

When I came into this, I figured that this wouldn't be much of a milestone. After all, I already went to grad school once, I kind of know how the whole thing works out. Then I had to fight to get my rotations sorted (which they are) and get my insurance paperwork done (it is) and do other little bits of paperwork and prep (which are thankfully all done now!). On top of that I even tried to be social and get to know some of the people in the labs I will be rotating in.

Anyway, with all of that, it was a little overwhelming, and my TA responsibilities haven't even really started. I wrote my quizzes for next week. I've been staying caught up on reading for my classes. Still not making friends, but since I'm really unmotivated to be friendly, I figure it isn't bad for that to take a little while to happen. I mean sure, we're all in this together, but I'm not entirely here to make friends. (That statement is separate from anything resembling networking, which is such an absolute necessity that I weep deeply for my aversion to socialization. Networking, for me, is essentially faking the sociability until you make it.)

On top of all that, I've even attended some extra talks and signed up for my first conference AND to meet some guest speakers for lunch after their talks. Trying to stay on the ball is exhausting, and I worry that all of the time that I took off after my masters has put me at a disadvantage. I guess I was aware of that going in. I feel like I have to relearn and refresh a bunch of skills related to studying and time management, and I haven't had to start teaching or grading or doing office hours yet, so we know it will only get worse from here. 

Still, I made it through the first week. That's something! I know this update is pretty short, but trust me,once I start TAing and rotating things will get better. For reference, I get to TA 3 sections of a genetics discussion (all on Thursday) and I will be rotating in the following labs: a developmental neurolab, an electrophysiology neurolab, and a cancer bio lab looking at p53. These are in order, so I'll be getting my hands dirty in a dev-neurolab first, and I like the PI and the people and am really looking forward to getting started there sometime next week as well! Looking at this, it seems like week 2 will be the real metric of misery, but I'm looking forward to the challenge and sadness of it all.

The thing is, I've been thinking a lot about the things that are sacrificed to do a PhD program. I've had to fight administration to get my paperwork done (including having paperwork lost twice and SHREDDED twice). I've had to deal with the differing approaches to rotations from prospective PIs I had spoken to. I moved here with nothing but a carry on full of clothes, and with the exception of some generous donations from a former mentor, that's still all I have. A weeks worth of clothes, a futon older than I am, and a backpack so old it still has a cellphone holder for the old nokia cellphones. My 5 year old phone and 7 year old laptop are dying and will need to be replaced. I still have an outrageous amount of fees to pay the school (because fully funded doesn't mean that at all). I don't think that's much different from any other grad student, really. Moving is expensive. Living is expensive. Being a student? Expensive.

That's not why we do it though. We do it for love, for passion, for curiosity. We're not in it for the  money, we're in it for the love of knowledge, the love of curiosity, the love of truth. Which is good, because PhD students make shit for money, and if you were already poor like me, then you're really making a decision that may very well see your health suffer. Not to mention your mental health, bank account, and relationships. Those all suffer, and will have to adjust. I'm lonely and tired already, and it's just the first week, and I have another 6 years to look forward to of this, though it will likely balance itself out and get a little easier. I look forward to that, but at the same time, I made this choice. I chose the stress, and the isolation. I chose to put this thing I love first, and though it may be premature, I'm happy that I did.

I'll see you all on the far side of teaching, and I'll probably have way more to say!