Friday, December 30, 2016

The Road Ahead

I have loved too much
To not believe in hate
That cold, dead-eyed eel
Worming through hot veins
I have closed too many doors
To believe in any god that would open more
Or even crack a window
And really, I've seen
Too much of reality
To believe in any gods at all
Except maybe ones we make
In our image, in our heads
We have sung too many songs
Sad, or otherwise
Without knowing all of the words
Mumbling through our uncertainty
With the confidence that accuracy is worth less than joy
An apt metaphor
For how we live life

I have seen, in your eyes
A sort of look
That leaves me unnerved
With the way it shines
And seems to talk without words
A stupid turn of phrase
For reading body language 
And a little optimistic
Facing the dragon fire
As if I ever minded
The burns and scars
But in the mirror
I see only a roadmap
Of lost causes and forgotten dreams
Mixed with a little bit of sadness
And bad eyesight hidden behind old glasses
I have spoken too many words
And heard a fair share too
To ever give them much worth
Or pay them half a mind
Since words may be cliche
But cliches are cliches for a reason
Even if they're stupid 

We have killed too much hope
To be ashamed of the trophies we took
Proudly displaying them beside scars
Like glass cases of keepsakes
Or the heads of some great animal
Mounted on our wall
Pointing out their origins
With the nostalgic pride of an old soldier
Or anyone who is stuck in their past
Fighting nightmare battles in your head
Of days long past
Passing long days lost in old glories
And maybe a few exaggerated stories
Knowing that to smile and laugh
At what you've done
And where you've been
Can only hold back the tears until nightfall

You have had to swim
Too many deep oceans
Just to stand before the mountains
Over which you must now climb
At least in the water
You knew the shark's intentions
Even if you never expected to make it out alive
Now, facing the wolves
Howling in the foothills
Feeling like a fly
Caught in the web of a dead spider
Having avoided the jaws of fate
Still to find an unworthy end
And between the sharks behind you
And the bared fangs of the wolves before you
You remember why
You never trust someone
Whose smiles show their teeth

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

An Academic Journey: The First Semester In Retrospect

So here we are. I took my last final of the semester yesterday, and now I have some free time to reflect on my thoughts and feelings concerning my first semester as a PhD student. I have to admit, that for the most part my masters degree was much more stressful, and I would like to say that that fact is a credit to the network I have here. In Baltimore, I was utterly alone and isolated, while here I have some friends who have been extremely instrumental in keeping my brain from exploding. 

I'm used to tough coursework. I'm used to dealing with fast-paced classes with a ton of information being thrown at me, like a fat kid playing dodgeball. I'm used to learning a ton of science-based information while trying to get through assignments and write papers and deal with weird administrative crap. Overall, I feel like i struggled more because I hadn't been in a scholarly or academic setting for quite some time. I was worried about that. However, barring some weird events before final grades are submitted, I think I did fairly well... at least academically speaking. 

Other stuff, though? Not so much. 

See, where I stand right now, I'm not entirely sure where my academic career is going. I like learning. I love science. I honestly had spent a lot of years determined to make this my life. Now here I am, at the end of a pretty successful first semester, and I'm starting to second guess everything.

Academia is grim, and the market is saturated more and more every year with PhD students and fresh scientists who are entering a market that is so needlessly high-stress and competitive. The commodification of science has been an extreme detriment to the actual pursuit of scientific knowledge. Publish or perish is a direct result of this. Now, it seems like every lab is just an assembly line for grant applications and publications. grant funding is hyper-competitive, and tends to focus more on big headlines and human applications rather than any sort of general science knowledge. Science used to be seen as a sort of public service... the work of a researcher was seen to benefit humanity and society. Now, it's just seen as a sort of elitist, self-serving approach, ignoring the fact that most PhDs are signing up for a decrease in net lifetime earnings, long hours in a highly competitive environment, and no real sort of recognition. You can't be a scientist for the love of knowledge anymore, because it isn't enough to be curious. You have to be curious, plus willing to work insane hours, to always bring work home, to sacrifice relationships and earning potential, plus keep an incredible pace of work just to stay up to date. Even then, you're not guaranteed anything for your struggles unless you can sell it well, with the right spin, to the right people. Aside from that, the culture in academia is creating what seems like a resurgence of academic misconduct which is damaging the overall credibility of scientific endeavors. As someone who loves the idea of research, and who loves the idea of teaching, the fact that I'm expected to make barely livable wages for the duration of my PhD training, then make slightly more livable wages as a post-doc, then struggle for a few years in hopes of finding a place to start a lab, the whole environment is a huge turn off to me.

Even ignoring broader problems with how science is conducted, and how the whole process has been overly commercialized, the training process is not good for the trainees. I've talked before about how nobody gives a crap about your well-being or your success, and how the expectation is that you really aren't a person when you're in the lab or the classroom (and you're always in the lab or classroom.) The professors don't care unless they are your PI. The administration doesn't care because they have no incentives to. They only profit from what you do, and you are entirely expendable. Shit rolls down hill, and PhD students are unfortunately at the bottom of that hill. In this first semester I've had my paperwork shredded, a couple of absolutely atrocious professors, and a host of administrative issues stemming from this idea that we don't matter until we're in a lab. On some level, I get it: their job security matters more than a first year student who can be easily removed and replaced if things don't work out,.. but they are in a job where they are supposed to be fostering the next generation of scientists, not just throwing shit at us over and over to see if we can dodge it. I don't feel like being told that I'm too stupid, unfocused, and old to get a PhD helps me become a better scientist. (I have a masters, and I started my PhD at 25). I don't feel like being talked down to by a professor because they are incapable of expressing their expectations or teaching the material is a proper way to inspire or retain students. (I was told I could never be a biochemist. I have a masters in biochemistry.) I don't need professors wasting class showing off how smart they are... we get it, you're a scientist. I don't need to have my goals compromised by professors who have decided to "change their mind" about something we've been agreed upon since I got here, simply because it helps their career in the very short term. I especially don't need all of these factors thrown at me in a place where I am entirely unsupported by the staff and faculty. Again, the hardest part of this hasn't been learning. It isn't papers, or exams, or really trying to figure out how to ask the right questions so that you can answer them in the right way with the best experiments.

The hardest part of my first semester as a PhD student has been putting up with everyone else's bullshit. 

I know it is idealistic of me, but I wanted to go to a smaller institution in order to really not have to deal with that fast-paced, super-intense environment, and all of the weird political bullshit that seemed to arise from it. Instead, I have all of the bullshit, but with lower quality science that guarantees me a mediocre academic pedigree at best. The whole process ha already made me bitter, and I haven't even taken my qualifying exams. I'm sure that after quals, and once I'm in a lab full time and working on my project, some of the unnecessary bullshit will fade away, but for now? For now, I feel like I resent the fact that all of this ludicrous bullshit has been the direct result of other people, and therefore was out of my hands to respond to. There were no attempts at professional courtesy. No heads up about things that changed my plans, and could very well impact my whole future. As is, my academic goals are pretty messed up simply by the fact that the neuroscience faculty here are all now either retiring, unfunded, or fully staffed and no longer taking students. The whole reason I came here was the strength of that part of the program, and now that it no longer exists, I feel unmotivated, frustrated, and out of sorts.

Enough whining, though. Let's get into the meat and potatoes of this whole thing. My first semester as a PhD student was not as academically grueling as my masters was. Whether that is because I learned a lot then, which I retained until now, or if there were differences in difficulty between a top institution and where I am now, or even if it's just the pacing, I don't know. I won't say i'm proud of my academic performance this semester, but I'm definitely not disappointed. I think I'm exactly on track with where I thought I would be and where I need to be. I didn't fail out, so whatever. To anyone considering graduate school, don't worry about the coursework. If you're a good writer and you have any kind of study ethic, you'll  sail through it. There weren't quite as many papers as I had expected there to be, which sadly worked against me, as I consider my academic writing one of my stronger skills, but the work and classes aren't hard. 

Being a Teaching Assistant this semester was honestly the single greatest highlight. I loved it. I was thanked by students, and that justified having to relearn introductory genetics and write quizzes, and deal with proctoring. I liked how much I learned from them, and how much confidence TAing gave me in my own knowledge. I think that it was maybe better for me than it was for them, since they had to try to learn through that whole process of my self-discovery, whereas I just got to grow as a person and feel like an educator. It really made me want to teach at this level more, and look forward to my TA assignment next semester. It also made me sad that getting an academic job at a research university is such a shit show, because I'm not sure I'll ever be the kind of person willing to put up with the necessary bullshit to do it. We'll see.

Rotations. Oh man, rotations. I did one rotation this first semester, and it was a slow start. I felt the PI and the people in the lab were a bit standoffish, and that I was kind of thrown into things with no preamble or any sort of work up to what I was doing. I wasn't apprised of the project, I wasn't given reading assignments, or really informed about the goal of what I was doing. At least that's how the first few weeks felt. Fortunately, I really clicked with the technician and the undergraduate I was working with, and I was really getting to the heart of what I was working towards... just in time for the rotation to end and finals to begin. I wish I could have spent more time there, or that I had known enough to be able to use the time I had a little more wisely, but I'm very appreciative to the lab, now, for all of their help. I even appreciated all the things that went wrong, and the three weeks of failed troubleshooting, because I learned a lot. I could see myself staying there in the long run. Unfortunately, due to some issues I mentioned earlier, my next rotation is now up in the air. The PI I was going to work with decided to take another student, and the professor the department chair wanted to assign me to is someone I legitimately refuse to work with because of his unprofessional and generally negative attitude towards graduate students. So now I will either be randomly assigned to a lab which I may or may not have interest in, or I will be in a lab with a PI who has no time for a rotation trainee and no real vested interest in training a rotation student, as their lab is full. Neither of those outcomes is especially appealing to me, but I guess half the fun of being a lowly PhD student is learning to roll with all of the punches and get used to the taste of bullshit. It seems the best way to dilute the taste is with alcohol, because this is graduate school and everyone drinks. (But that's a topic for another time.)

So there it is. My first semester of graduate school in a nutshell. I give it a solid 6/10. If I hadn't spent so much time and effort and misery trying to get here, I'm not even sure I'd be staying. As it is, we'll see where things stand at the end of the year once qualifying exams are done and I have a permanent place in a lab (hopefully.)

As always, I'd like to leave off with this little thought: graduate school is a labor of passion. You do it because of love... for the material, for learning. As idealistic as it sounds, and as counter to the current nature of both academia and industry as it is, I think everyone would agree: you do graduate school because you love it, and you're willing to make all of the necessary sacrifices to see it through. It isn't really something done on a whim, because it does ask so much of you, and require you to suffer through constant setbacks, failures, and frustrations. You have to love it enough for all of that to be worth it. It isn't for everyone, but if you're one of those people, then go for it. I've hated graduate school, and it has made me hate myself. I have suffered and struggled, and cursed it. 

But I have never once regretted it.