Thursday, September 30, 2010

Career Prep

A labmate of mine (set to graduate with his PhD in January) just took a seminar in preparing your C.V. for academic uses. Basically, how do you put together a package to apply for jobs/professorships in academia? Yesterday he was sharing with us what he learned (read: all of us in my cubicle were avoiding work). Although I knew applying for academia is a lot of work, I just was suddenly overwhelmed at what is required.

You would need a teaching statement (what classes you are prepared to teach, your relevant teaching experience, etc.), and a research statement (what ways are you planning to change the world). You need letters of reference from people vouching for you. You need a list of publications, posters, talks, conference presentations, invited seminars, and anything else relevant. You have to show you can write grants and bring in money. All of these things I've read about (especially on other academic blogs from women currently in various stages of academia), but I realized something else as my labmate was talking.

I am SO grateful I don't have to worry about some of these things.

I don't plan to be a professor. I want to be proud of my PhD research, but I am not worrying about whether my chosen PhD topic is going to leave me with more research directions to pursue in a post-doc or professorship track. Or whether I am creative enough to come up with interesting and relevant research problems to build my own lab around.

I don't have to worry about getting relevant teaching experience. I just have to suffer through my stint as a TA. I don't have to worry about whether I can manage students doing research, although I have done that (some PhD students will be required by their advisor to supervise undergraduate research, to help learn management skills. Poor undergrads!). I don't need to think about what classes I could teach, or how to put together a syllabus. I don't have to learn how to write a grant, or an NSF proposal.

I want to make sure my PhD committee is relevant to my research, and will give me good advice and mentorship. But if I choose committee members that don't turn out well, I don't have to worry that they will ruin my career by refusing me a letter of reference.

I of course want to share my research findings with the world, so I publish my work. And I write conference papers, and give talks. I know other classmates that have advisors constantly pushing them to publish. My advisor is not like that, I don't NEED to publish for the sake of my career. Thank goodness, because I don't want my career to live and die by the impact factor of journal I can get into.

If I had to consider how all my choices now in grad school were setting me up for an academic career, my focus on a lot of things would be different. But since that's not what I want to do, I feel like my grad school career is a lot less stressful.

But at the same time, I have my own long-term career in mind in the things that I do. It's just a different set of goals, given that I want to work for a start-up or launch my own company. (Or, that is, another one.)

I DO have to worry about connecting with small businesses and cutting edge research in my field of research. That's why I go to networking events.

I DO have to worry about meeting venture capitalists, business people, and knowing how to write a business plan and give a good pitch. That's why I take business classes and maintain a good relationship with people like the head of my school's entrepreneurship center.

I DO have to worry about keeping in touch with the overall startup community, which is why I do small things like read TechCrunch and other various blogs on a regular basis. I also am involved in organizing a global startup conference (both last year and this coming yeat), which keeps me in touch with the international entrepreneurship pulse.

I am trying to set myself up as best I can for when I graduate. I do my best to watch my father and learning how he conducts business. I try to stay creative and always be thinking and watching out for ideas, so that I have enough good ideas to found a company on. I think I will.

So really, all those side projects that my classmates tease me about - those are useful. Not useful if I was gunning for an academic job, sure, but useful for where I am headed.

So I guess the point is - I am truly enjoying my graduate experience, but I am reminded that ultimately I am headed elsewhere. I feel relieved that some of the academic pressure is lessened by this choice, and mindful that at the same time I need to take advantage of the unique opportunities I have while I'm here.

To each his (or her) own!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stress Relief

Today was not a good day for Miss Outlier. I almost cried in the office, which I have never done. Normally I am not that emotional.

But, I have given tonight to myself. I am not thinking about classes or books or research or responsibilities.

I am making body scrub.

I like making things, I like working with my hands. I like having smooth soft skin. I do NOT like paying $20 for body scrub. So what is an engineer to do?

I have a couple pretty glass jars from Specialty Bottle. (Seriously, the only place you should ever buy bottles and tins and jars and containers on the Internet. I mean, $0.60 a jar!) I have a box of sea salt for $1.79, and a box of cane sugar for $2.49. A bottle of safflower oil set me back $4.99 (big spender, look out!). In my medicine cabinet I have a small bottle of Vitamin E, for protecting cuts and scrapes (I mean, I work in a machine shop. It happens). I also have all manner of cooking oils (coconut, almond, etc.) and spices.

I also have the all-mighty Google at my fingertips, which turns up helpful sites such as Bath and Body recipes. After some research, I'm making two batches:

Salt Scrub
- 1 C. sea salt
- 1 C. safflower oil
- 1 tsp. honey
- 2 tsp. Vitamin E oil

Sugar Scrub
- 1 C. cane sugar
- 1/3 C. safflower oil
- 1/3  C. coconut oil
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 tsp. Vitamin E oil

From my internet searches I surmise that you can also add cocoa, or cinnamon, or nutmeg, or almond extract, or pretty much anything else that catches your fancy. After I finish these two batches, I have PLENTY left to whip up some more! I sense a design of experiments...

So how much did I end up paying? Well, with shipping for the pretty jars.. about $15. But it makes a vast quantity. If it turns out well, I can see this even being a thoughtful, cheap Christmas gift for acquaintances I don't know very well. Pretty crafty, don't you think?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Month 18

I've been involved in a medical research study for 18 months now! All the way back in April of 2009 I started this study, and I can't believe I've come this far. This study is looking into the effects of diet on aging, which is why it is two years long. They have to let you age a little. :)

You also have to, well, diet. You have a certain amount of calories per day to eat, and I try to stick pretty close to that. This leads to some pretty rapid initial weight loss, and then a longer-term trend downward. But then it got harder. About a year in, I realized that my weight had leveled off, and it was really difficult to lose any more weight. The problem was, the study still wanted me to lose five more pounds to be in the target range.

I tried and tried. (And Christmas got in the way there too, which will foil almost any healthy eating plan!) It just got so mentally frustrating to track every calorie, and to always be thinking of the lowest-calorie choice when buying lunch or dinner out. I just wanted to eat without thinking, without scrutinizing, and without feeling guilty if I saw the scale go up.

And of course, being frustrated didn't help, so I finally sort of gave up. And since I was doing all I could to try to lose weight (with the results being to only stay steady), "giving up" meant that pretty quickly I gained weight back. Ack!

So I had to talk to the nutritionists at the study, and explain my frustrations (and my sudden uptick in the weight chart...). They assured me that this study is not supposed to make you develop an eating disorder, and that really what they want is data - not for me to feel angry or irritated with constant mental exhaustion.

And then since the pressure was off, and that mean number on the scale wasn't personal anymore, I felt more comfortable. I went back to doing what I knew - eat fruits and veggies, fiber, cook healthy meals instead of swinging by the fast food place. Understand what is in your food, so you can make healthy choices. If you indulge one day, just be mindful the next day. Consistent behavior is key - restricting your eating then pigging out isn't going to help anyone.

So now I'm back to where I was. I've still lost a total of 20 pounds since I started the study, but I'm no skinnier now than I was last November.

But I'm okay with that. I think maintaining a healthy weight (which I am) is a more important life skill than dieting. When I finish this study six months from now, I want to feel confident that I have eating patterns and a lifestyle that works for me in the long run. And if two years isn't the long run, I don't know what is...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Heard at the Office

"Stupid orders of magnitude! I'm just living my life in a skewed log-log plot...."

Ah, control systems. :)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Grad Student Etiquette: Asking to Skip Meetings

I know every lab has different customs on when and how often students meet with the professors. I usually meet with my advisor once a week, and it has been twice a week this summer while I am also involved in a group project (once individually, once in the group).

These past two weeks, I have been really busy with both undergraduate orientation events (since I live in a undergraduate dorm and am in charge of two floors of girls), and graduate orientation events (since this year I am the Orientation Chair in charge of planning those events). We have 160 new Mechanical Engineering grad students joining us this year, so it takes some planning to pull off a bunch of events for them over a week.

So I asked my advisor if I could skip a week of meetings. He had no problem with this, as he is pretty easy-going in general (and honestly, I think he is busy too with beginning-of-the-semester activities).

But I wonder in general - what is the policy for asking to skip meetings? In some labs, there is a weekly meeting with the whole lab, and one student presents each time. In that case, you may only present once every couple months as you rotate through the group. I would hope that in two or three months you would have some results to show - and if you weren't prepared, it's mostly your own fault.

But I think it's entirely reasonable that if you meet every week, sometimes you just won't have anything to show. And honestly, some weeks everything I say during the meeting I only did the day before... you can get a lot done in one day! It's amazing how time slips away from you. If you have a meeting on Tuesdays, for example, the week goes like this: Tuesday you present. Wednesday you slack off because you just had a meeting. Thursday you have class and you work on homework. Friday - well who wants to work on Friday? Make it a lab clean up day! Then Monday - ack! - you have to get some work done to show on Tuesday.

So I don't feel bad about taking last week off. I was busy getting everybody oriented. But what do you do when you have no excuse, you just didn't get any work done to show? Do you ask to skip that week, do you pull out something older you had saved for just such an eventuality, or do you just discuss future goals?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Life is Too Short

Life is too short.....

... to watch stupid commercials. I'm switching to online. If I can't fast forward or watch without commercials, I'm not watching it. I can't stand wasting 20/60 minutes on ads. Netflix, Hulu,, here I come!

... to wear shoes that hurt. If it gives me blisters, I'm throwing it out. If it has no support and my feet are aching halfway through the day, I'm giving them away. Don't worry, I have plenty of shoes, losing a few (or a bunch) won't kill me - and the ones I have left, I will actually wear.

... to eat crappy food. If it's greasy pizza (again! why is all free food pizza?) I will pass. If it's a sugar-encrusted sticky bun, I know I'll feel sluggish later. For the most part I will eat vegetables and fruit, and meat and eggs and cheese, and try to cook my own meals where I know all the ingredients. My body deserves to be treated well.

... to not get enough sleep. I'm cranky when I can't sleep, I'm not productive, and I'm only hurting myself. I will make time to get enough rest, and be good to myself.

... to not have a clean room. If an item doesn't have a home, I'm finding it one or I'm throwing it out. If I buy a new thing, I will take out an old one. If it's clothes, I will donate an item and replace it with the new one - my closets are full enough already.

... to not have toothpaste I like. I usually buy Crest, and last time I bought Colgate because it was on sale. I hate it, but I feel like I should finish the tube. It's $2, for crying out loud. I'm buying Crest, enough said.

I can't be constantly worried about these little niggly things. Sometimes you have to shake off the status quo, and get your life the way you want it to be.

Stepping off the soapbox now. :)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The RAing Begins - Again!

It's a new school year, and my second year as an RA! After a whole summer of the dorm being empty (and do you know how creepy that is? ack!), the girls are all back. I had a bunch of seniors graduate, some people moved to other floors, a whole gaggle of girls moved to my floor so all of them could live together, and I have six new freshmen. Twenty-nine girls in all.

Last year, I was really nervous as the school year began. It took me a long time to get comfortable. I just didn't know what my role was, or how I fit into the girl's lives. As I said, there were a bunch of seniors, and they already had established social habits and circles of friends, and didn't really need me. Somehow I always felt as if I was intruding. And it also didn't help that I had trouble remembering names and faces. Because the girls didn't have many issues (not that I'm complaining - hey, makes my job easy!) often I wouldn't see them on a regular basis. Add in the fact that there are a lot of them, and many look similar (maybe it's racist, but I have trouble telling Asian girls and Indian girls apart sometimes), and they all DRESS similarly (jeans and T-shirt, it's the college uniform!), well it's no wonder I would forget names!

But this year, it's so much more natural. So much easier of an experience.

I realized it was different when I went to training day. Last year it was all new information, especially since I didn't do my undergrad at World's Best School - I felt like I was learning a whole new culture. But this year, it's familiar. Comfortable. I could even answer questions from the new RAs (I have three friends who just became RAs, and it was a pleasure showing them the ropes). Ah, I thought, this is how it's supposed to be.

And I no longer feel the strange urge to hide when meeting the new girls. This year, I greeted all the girls as they arrived, introducing myself with ease and confidence. Two weeks ago, I met four of my six new freshmen. They were chatting it up in the kitchen (which is good, I approve!). They were comparing which ones had turned 18 already. Aw, how cute. :) They will grow past that quickly...

So now I'm just enjoying the fun. I have a great bunch of girls. Some highlights so far:

1) I'm actually six months younger than one of the seniors on my floor, I discovered... not that I told her that!

2) I love watching the freshmen explore their independence. There is all the mile-a-minute talking of the outgoing ones, trying to adjust and fit in with all the new relationships begin formed. The shy advances of the introverted ones, adjusting to life as an adult.

3) Over the summer, another RA and I started a garden on the rooftop of the dorm. I smile when I see the freshmen exploring the dorm excitedly, and even the returning girls are enthusiastic when they find the garden surprise.

4) Once freshman girl came to me, very worried, carrying a wrapped half of a watermelon. "Miss Outlier," she said, "Is this watermelon okay to eat?" Confused, I replied, "Well I assume so - why do you ask?" "Because," she said, "The sell by date is three days ago, so I don't know if it has gone bad!" "Well does it look bad?" I asked. "I don't know what it would look like if it was spoiled!" she cried, "My mother always tells me when food is okay to eat!"

Okay, rule one... if the melon has no mold and smells okay, it is fine. And three days after the sell date is not nearly long enough to worry about. :) Ah, life lessons...

5) Hurricane Earl came through a few days ago. It was only a Category 1 storm by the time it got here, but that didn't stop one girl from asking me, "Should we sleep in the hallway to be away from the windows in case the glass breaks?" No, sweetheart, it will be okay... it's just rain.

6) I was sitting on my bed, when one girl came in gingerly carrying her computer. "Miss Outlier, help!" she wailed, "My Mac froze up, and I was in the middle of making my resume, and I don't want to lose all that work, and I don't know how to use a Mac, and it's a brand new computer, and what do I DO?" Whew! Deep breath. Save, force quit, restart. Ta-da! Miss Outlier: Resident Mac expert.

So the bottom line is, all the freshmen seem to be orienting well. Miss Outlier is orienting well. Let the school year begin!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why Must Everything be at the 11th Hour?

As my advisor says, if it wasn't for deadlines, nothing would get done.

My labmate and I attempted a run of experiments last Tuesday afternoon, and just as we were all set to go - we could not get a useable signal out of one of the sensors. Although of course the other sensor, which was just fixed, and the rest of the equipment in general, is working beautifully, finally. I did some troubleshooting, and for some reason the sensor was just broken.

This was terrible because the labmate I am working with is leaving in four days.

I sent it back immeditaely for recalibration, (it arrived in CA the next day) and called them to see what the problem was. Because that sensor is over two years old, they have to upgrade the firmware and then recalibrate, and will send it out early next week. I asked if it could be faster without the upgrade, and they said they don't use the old firmware anymore so they have to upgrade. I asked if there was another sensor on the shelf they could send immediately, and the only one they had was not quite the right kind.

I thought it would take me longer to figure out how to use the not-quite-right kind than to wait for the correct one, and the not-quite-right one was $499, so I didn't order it.


And all this time, I am trying to finish the mango project. These experiments would have finished it.

I talked with my advisor about what the expectations are to finish the mango project. What we want is:

1) 100 parts manufactured
2) Data from all sensors and all equipment for all those parts
3) Good control of parameters from all machines
4) Data from inspection of all those parts
5) Functional testing results from all those parts

Since we were stuck waiting for the broken sensor to be fixed, in the meantime I thought about using some sensors I already had on hand, to modify things and get the equipment to work and make those 100 parts. But even if I did the work to do that, and we made 100 parts, we wouldn't satisfy point #2. So I'd just have to make 100 more parts, which didn't seem worth it.

So the plan now is to wait for the sensor to come back, install it quickly, and try at least a short run of 10 or 20 parts with the automated system before my labmate leaves.

But why is it that no matter how much you plan, no matter how far in advance you know about deadlines (the labmate has had the plane ticket booked for a month), you still come down to the wire to get things done? Is it my fault, or does the universe just work this way? Is it the same reason that most PhD students get 70% of their work done in the last 30% of their PhD?

I'm saying that the lab gremlins always conspire to delay progress until the last moment.

Crossing fingers.