Tuesday, September 30, 2008

not-so-brute force

You know how here I said that I was working away on this problem where I had a zillion iterations?

Turns out that if you get the underlying calculations right, you don't need that many iterations. At all. Geez, I'm glad I spent all that time working on it.

I am following in the long, storied thesis tradition where you spend ridiculous amounts of time on minimal text. Total amount of time spent on this bit of calculation so I can write two lines to appease my advisor? 30 hours and counting. Um, in the last 3 days.

I will blog about more interesting stuff once I actually start doing/thinking about more interesting stuff. Oh, and once I get past this wee little deadline.

Monday, September 29, 2008

brute-force computation

I'm breaking my promise to do nothing but actual work until I get this stuff done, but this will be quick:

It would be nice if I had a decent programming background. I'm doing some fairly uninteresting calculations, but they're iterative and it turns out the space for the iterations is very small and the length of "time" that it takes for stuff to happen is very large. This would take about 4 lines of code to write, but I'm auto-filling in excel instead. Did I mention it's a LOT of iterations?

I started to get worried when my excel files broke the 15 Mb mark. Lucky for me, I discovered that if I convert those files from "old excel" to windows 2007 excel, I halve the file size! Who knew? I also haven't run out of rows yet. At some point, though, I'm going to need to make file #2 to fit the iterations.

I'm so glad I'm working in the computer age - this is a relatively insignificant calculation that's taking a silly amount of computing effort.

Friday, September 26, 2008


So, I just had a big meeting with my prof and the due date for my thesis has been pushed up about 4 weeks from what I was hoping/expecting. The next couple weeks I have some other major commitments, so I'm not entirely sure how I'm going to get everything done. So, I may not be blogging much over the next month or so.

At this meeting, my advisor told me to find out when my committee members were available to schedule a defense. Here's how the conversation went:

Me: So...who should I contact?
Advisor: Your committee members.
Me: Who's that?
Advisor: I don't know. Didn't we have committee meetings over the past two years?
Me: Well, I met with professor A all the time to figure out my thesis, so I'm guessing professor A should be on my committee...
Advisor: Hm. (pulls out my file). Not in here.

So we troop over to the administrative office, where my advisor pulls out my official school record (it's pretty thick - I'm sorta curious as to what's in it) and finds that I in fact have no committee.

Advisor: So who should be on your committee?
Me: Well, I'm assuming professor A...
Advisor: Who else?
Me: Um, there's professor B who comes to our big group meetings. But I haven't spoken to professor B in over a year and my thesis doesn't really involve professor B's field of study...
Advisor: Perfect! Send them an e-mail.

So my e-mail said something along the lines of, "Congratulations! You're in my committee, and my defense is going to be this very close date, so are you free? I'll send along a review copy by this even closer date. Thanks!"

I hope they're not in too much of a foul mood when I defend my thesis.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

math and science

It’s funny that these two are always paired – the implication is that in order to do science, you must be some sort of math whiz. How many girls think that “I can’t do math” and never consider doing science?

I’m a big believer in so-called emotional intelligence. There’s a whole range of smarts out there that aren’t covered by a test. In my case, my primary strength is language. In fact, I do a lot of writing on the side that doesn’t involve science at all.

What I am not good at is math. A fairly privileged upbringing, education at a fancy SLAC, and several grad courses have shown that I am not good at math no matter who teaches it or how it’s taught. Before taking the GREs, I fought my way through the entire prep book and took all the tests for the math section, and then I casually thumbed through the vocab section and giggled at the incorrect definitions/connotations. My scores? Upper 99% for English, bottom 2% for math (for science grads).

Do you need to know math to do science? Yes, but you tend to use the same set of “tools” over and over. I may need to pull out some paper and work things out that other folks can do in their head, and I tend to look up things that my engineering friends think are laughably simple (hey, I don’t use the quadratic equation in daily life). I worked my ass off in calculus, got a bad (but passing) grade, and promptly forgot everything except for what integrals and derivatives look like. But I’ve managed so far by looking up whatever I’m missing in my old textbooks and exercises.

Most people I know who have a knack for math have gone into finance and not science. The sciences will never pay close to what wall street does. Maybe instead of worrying about math geniuses, we should find smart students (regardless of how they “test”) who have a passion for learning and the fortitude to persevere in the face of poor funding and defenders of the status quo.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

one site visitor...

I tend to sound somewhat jaded in this blog, especially in my previous post and this older post. In order to counteract some of that cynicism, here's a story of a different sort of site visitor.

I was doing some fairly boring groundwater sampling (a lot of sitting around watching water drip) on a major contaminated site when a man came wandering over from a nearby neighborhood. He asked what we were doing and I went into my standard sampling spiel: "I'm here working for client x, we're taking groundwater samples using y equipment, and measuring the z in groundwater before we collect the samples."

He told me that he grew up in this neighborhood and that he and his friends used to swim in the local (water body) all the time. The water used to be all sorts of strange colors from the industrial effluent that was piped straight in.

His brother died from cancer at 16.

He told me that he was so happy to see that someone was still out there, years after the pollution became a big deal and the cleanup started. That he hoped our work would prevent a repeat of his personal tragedy.

When I'm mired in paperwork and the regulators want just a few more samples to prove a negative (but you haven't poked these 10 square inches!) and the client is spending more money on lawyers than on remediation, it's good to remember that as clumsy as it is, this industry is better than the alternative.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


When I talk about environmental consulting and my grad school work, lots of folks think it's really cool that I do environmental work outside. Am I an environmentalist? Do I get all starry-eyed about how I'm going to save the planet?

Well, no.

My thesis is about as earth friendly as can be. But the real reason I enjoy it is that I like working at the intersection of 3 disciplines, one of which was a close second for a major (I fell in love with it late in my college career, and geology has better field trips). Geology (and that other stuff I do) is so cool to me because of its complexity - the more you know, the deeper you get into the processes, the more you realize is actually going on. It's like the world's biggest logic problem you're trying to put together. And every new site has its own set of "rules" that you have to figure out. So I'm here pretty much for the love of science.

The other problem with being a scientist in the environmental field is that you quickly realize that there are very few easy answers. Reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by using biofuels, and you encourage the destruction of habitat for corn/sugarcane/soy monoculture (and don't get me started on the fertilizers corn requires). Use cloth napkins instead of paper ones, and you trade tree-killing for needless water and detergent-using. Super high efficiency lightbulbs contain mercury (I know, a tiny amount), causing disposal problems. Shut down dirty industry here, and ship it off to some poor country elsewhere. Etc etc.

So, I recycle, keep my energy and water usage down, and generally try not to make an excessive impact. Being a cheapskate helps. But I'm not making much of an effort to save the earth other than my own (very small) contributions to Science.

Monday, September 22, 2008

&#$% computer!

I've been working away in advance of another big deadline. I'm further behind than I planned because after my last post, I was writing away when I hit a button or something, a screen popped up that I didn't recognize, and I closed it without saving and found that I'd lost all my work for the last 6 hours.

Yep, I had been working all day on a file and I hadn't saved it once because I was so friggin' focused on what I was doing, I never closed things down to take a break. I was pretty unhappy, to say the least, when I got back out to the folder list and saw the that the last version my computer had was from the previous day.

Luckily, I lost all my writing, tables, and figures, and not any of the calculations and original figures that were on a bunch of other files in different programs. So making up that lost work didn't take the full 6 hours. But I was not a happy camper regardless.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

rig mortality

After re-reading my last post and comments, I wanted to emphasize something that might have been lost. Drill rigs are dangerous and need to be respected.

The worst drilling accident that happened on my watch (not the rig I was personally overseeing) involved a lost fingernail (eew) and not anything bigger/more permanent. The worst accident my drillers have been in NOT actually involving a drill rig...well it's actually sort of long, so I'll leave it for later, but it wasn't catastrophic.

With that said, I have a co-worker with an immediate family member who was killed in a drilling accident. I've occasionally used a certain drilling company that lost a driller in an accident. A driller was killed working for one of our extremely large clients (the driller was not geographically close to us and was working for a different firm) at the same time I was also overseeing drilling for the same client. One of my coworkers oversaw a "near miss" where a high-pressure line came lose and hit the driller (in the head) so hard he flew backward 15 feet. He probably survived because he was wearing a hard hat.

All the examples above are within the last 15 years, so they're not exactly ancient history. They generally didn't involve bottom-of-the-barrel drilling companies or inexperienced drillers.

Whenever an accident happened that caught the eye of my company, they would re-examine their safety regulations and usually they would add in a qualifier or another step for the safety check. The problem is that over time, the safety checklists got more elaborate and the pre-drilling procedure that we'd need to tell every driller about got longer and longer. Having a daily pre-drilling inspection that includes random fluid levels (do I really care how much windshield washer fluid they have?) and a 10-minute rig startup procedure just means that people gloss over/forget the really important stuff.

So, here's the short geologist patented guide to avoiding rig mortality:

Take a long look around you. Thunder/lighting? Big heavy rainclouds? Pools of water? Random ropes and heavy equipment? Tuck things away if possible. Make sure folks can skedaddle safely if they need to.
Take a walk around the rig. Chances are you don't know what all the knobs and doohickeys do, but if something looks like it's leaking/rusted through/missing, pull the driller aside and ask about it. If they assure you on their mother's grave, cross their heart and hope to die that it's fine, well, then keep an eye on it and don't stand next to it.
Make sure everything looks reasonably secure on the rig.
Any dangers/problems specific to whatever you're going to do? Mention it to the driller AND helper.
Where is everybody? Fingers and toes free of potential problems? Wearing appropriate gear?
Everybody's been told drilling is about to start?
Find a place to stand/set up that isn't in anybody's way and that avoids obvious pitfalls.
Ok, now you can start.

Repeat process when you think of it or at least hourly. It takes about half a minute to do a quick scan of everything and make sure it looks ok. Remember, long checklists cover your ass, but a little bit of awareness can save it.

find any oil?

This is the number 1 comment I get when I'm out drilling.

EcoGeoFemme's post today reminded me of the joys of interacting with the public. Not family members, not grad students, but the guy wondering what this giant rig is doing next to his house.

When I was in consulting, I had a pretty erratic schedule and so I never volunteered to do science-y outreach-y stuff like some of my coworkers. But I was happy to explain stuff to anyone who was interested. Here's what I said:

1. Step away from the rig, please; it's dangerous. (If he gets hit on the head with that precariously balanced rig hammer, I'm toast)
2. I'm working for (client) and these folks with me are our subcontractors. (yes, I am in charge and if you bug the drillers, they'll just refer you to me)
3. We're taking soil samples/installing a well to collect groundwater samples.

At this point, the person I was talking to either expressed surprise that there's water under the ground, accused the client of being an evil corporation/wasting taxpayer dollars, or fretted about the noise/mess.

I can recall only two times where people wanted to actually hear more, but I was happy to regale them with as much technical info as they wanted (and that I could give out without getting into trouble). One of those times, I was talking to another geologist (yay!) in a somewhat related field and the other time, it took about 10 minutes of conversation to realize the guy was actually just hitting on me. But he sounded so interested in the science!

Regardless of how interested folks are in the actual work I'm doing, I always like to talk to them about it. I'm always hoping that by being a visibly in-charge and knowledgeable female, I'm providing a public example of a Female Scientist.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

geologists vs. engineers

When I was in environmental consulting, I worked with scientists in all different fields. However, the field folks could be broken down into 3 groups of about equal sizes - geologists, engineers, and everybody else.

As I've said before, issues with contamination can be approached in many different ways. But generally, the departments that produce the most graduates who go on to environmental work are engineering (civil/environmental) and geology. This produced a certain rivalry between us when we were out in the field - the engineers thought we were inferior because we thought qualitatively and not quantitatively, and we thought the engineers were inferior because they were trying to apply painfully simple equations to an infinitely complex situation.

To indulge in some stereotypes, we were observers and they were builders. So a geologist would be utterly fascinated by some odd pattern in the soil, while the engineer would be off fixing some annoying equipment problem, usually with duct tape, and nobody was especially interested in the actual sampling they were supposed to be doing.

I had this dichotomy stuck in my head when I applied to grad schools. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn't really hold true for the schools I was looking at. In fact, when I was meeting students at one school during a visit, I brought up the "geologists vs. engineers" rivalry and they'd never heard of it.

Now that I'm in grad school, I've found that the geologists and engineers I've met who are working on contamination-related topics tend to fall into either the "quantitative" or "qualitative" mind set in roughly equal proportions. It's a good reminder that my opinions on this blog are based on my experience only, and may not be necessarily extrapolated to the rest of the world.

...but geologists are still cooler than engineers, right!?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

entry-level servitude

I mentioned in the comments to the last post that treating entry-level employees as interchangable and disposable is a bad idea if said employees are actually doing critical and unsupervised work.

Unfortunately, a lot of environmental firms do churn through their entry-level folks. They send them out into the field with minimal training for weeks (months) on end, don't pay them overtime when the entry-level folks are regularly working 70-80 hour weeks (and the base level pay isn't that great either), and have laughably small project budgets. The idea is to keep folks in indentured servitude for two years, and if they actually stick it out, graduate them to doing 100% office work.

I have some experience with these firms, and let me tell you how much quality work you get out of folks who are out in the middle of nowhere, criminally underpaid to begin with, and are acutely aware that their 40 hours of paid work ended Wednesday afternoon and it's now Friday. The fact that their 120% billability enables the higher-ups to have super-low billability is not exactly a big motivator.

The other issue is that these firms treat fieldwork as monkey science and a trial to get through and never do again. Fieldwork produces the fundamental data that your entire enterprise is based on. If you have poorly collected data, it makes all your fancy models and technical arguments worthless. And you may get away with shitty work for a while, but unless you're doing utterly rote reports, someone is going to catch you. It may be a regulator, a concerned citizen (if you're representing Big Bad Industry), or more likely, it will be a consultant for another company that's trying to shift blame for their mess onto you. And when you're on the stand (figuratively or literally) and the easy stuff is wrong, you lose all credibility and you can kiss your big contracts goodbye*.

*That's wishful thinking - most upper level management is expert at tap-dancing around inconvenient problems and convincing the client that the real problem is that they need more money, stat. But I'm an idealist.

Monday, September 15, 2008

musical desks

I’ve had a variety of offices. I’ve worked in everything from a big office with actual doors to a cubicle to a converted lab, with the lab “conversion” consisting of moving out the lab equipment and moving in the office furniture. I’ve worked from home. I can work just about anywhere. But one place I refuse to work is a place that doesn’t bother to find any space at all for me.

This situation tends to happen to entry-level field monkeys. I first started out, as I’ve mentioned before, in the teeth of a recession. Not only was I clueless about how to get a job, the actual entry-level jobs were practically nonexistent. So I grabbed the first job offer I got.

The only time I actually saw the office was to pick up or drop off equipment, and that was long before/after office hours. My first day of work, I was given the address of a site and a time, and told to bring work boots. I felt like an interloper in my own company to not have even a cubby to put my stuff in.

After a relatively short time, work dried up. They kept me in the field until they had nothing left for me to do, then they let me go the day I came back into the office. The funny thing was, I came in at 8 or so and was told to wait for some meeting to scrounge up some stuff for me to do. But I didn’t have a place to wait. My “official” desk was shared by two other people, who were also in the office. One girl dragged in an extra chair, but we couldn’t find another, so I ended up sitting on the desk for the hour or so it took for management to locate their pink slips or something.

It wasn’t a surprise I was laid off – management hadn’t set eyes on me since they’d interviewed me. It was pretty clear I was nothing more than a warm body to do fieldwork. Why bother spending an hour scrounging up space for me, when I wasn’t supposed to be in the office in the first place?

It seems like a small thing, but if a company you’re thinking of working for doesn’t want to invest even one day in getting you set up, it’s a good indication of how much respect management will have for you. None.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I was apparently born with a giant sign on my head that says "tease me." I am physically unthreatening and blush easily. This makes it hard to maintain my authority. Here's an example of what I mean:

I'd been working with one drill rig for several months, so we knew each other well by that point. The driller had two helpers who were my age (early 20s at this point). I should say that one of the helpers was built like an ox and the other spent his day using drill rods as dumbells. One day, the driller took off to get supplies or something and we were waiting around - probably we were waiting for the backfill to settle around a well before finishing installation, or we were waiting for the concrete to set.

At some point, the conversation moved around to the 100-pound bag of concrete I was sitting on. Helper 1 said something about me weighing less than the concrete.

Me: Not really.
Helper 1: You can't weigh more than 90 pounds.
Me: I assure you, I do not weigh anything close to 90 pounds.
Helper 2: My girlfriend is your size and she weighs 90 pounds.
Me (getting a little irritated): Look, a lot of women lie about their weight. I don't have a problem with how much I weigh, and it's more than 100 pounds.
Helper 1: There is no way you weigh more than 90 pounds soaking wet.
Me (now riled up): You know what? You don't know squat about womens' weights. In fact, I weigh 120 pounds! (thus becoming the only modern female to ever fudge her weight up a couple pounds).
Helper 1: That's horseshit.
Me (insulted): Well, then, it must be that I weigh so much because I've got more muscles.
Helpers 1 and 2: AH HA HA HA!

The rest of the week, my name was "muscles." All I heard was, "hey, 'muscles', why don't you pick up that (object weighing at least 200 pounds) and bring it over?...'muscles', why don't you break the drill rods for us?"

Note to self: getting goaded into an argument about my weight does not help me project an aura of authority.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

kitteh adoption

This post reminded me of my own kitteh (non) adoption story.

My SO is deathly allergic to cats. Enforced stays with cats (more than a day) result in breathing problems, then lung-filling-with fluid problems. I love cats, but I'm rather attached to my SO. So, no cats.

One lovely summer evening, we were watching TV when we heard a pitiful cry. It was a teeny little stray kitten who'd gotten separated from its mama, sitting right under the window. I made the mistake of going outside to see what I could do, and that was it. The kitten cried outside for a while before I broke down and put out a dish of water. Then we slunk out of the living room so we didn't have to hear sad little kitten cries.

In short order the kitten decided that our house was his house. We gave in and started feeding him and his family once we were sure they were indeed strays. But he eventually chased out his siblings and spent his time trying to get inside if we were in and snuggling up to me if I was outside.

This kitten was one of the homeliest cats I'd ever seen. He started out super scrawny (although he eventually filled out on kitten chow), with giant ears and double paws. That is, he had an extra "toe" on his front paws that stuck out like a thumb. That's what it looked like, but upon closer inspection, that "toe" had three toes, and the rest of each paw had a couple extra toes as well. I had the cutest mutant kitteh ever!

We racked our brains about what to do with the kitten once it got cold. Would it be cruel to keep him in the basement if the alternative was staying outside? He was going to get in trouble outside - our neighborhood had dogs, raccoons, and (a year or two later) coyotes, and he'd hop into random cars when people opened doors - he was that friendly/fearless.

That was my summer of stray cats. Everyone I knew who might have taken a cat had already done so, and a friend of mine was trying to place a whole litter. And our kitteh had to go to a good home, because we'd both completely fallen for him. But eventually, someone living upstairs (who was discovered one day lying on the front porch with the kitten on his lap, so we weren't the only suckers) did find a good home for him and arranged for the mama to be trapped and spayed.

I know he's in a good home, but I still miss our little mutant kitteh.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

SLAC job searches

As I've said before, I do think that a SLAC was the right place for me to go as an undergrad. Overall, it was a terrific preparation for post-college success. However, the big problem I had when I graduated was trying to find a job. Oh, sure, you can go anywhere with a liberal arts degree, and the school talks up its big job search/placement department. But at my school, they knew about/could help you find two types of jobs:

1. Finance
2. Teaching

Big frickin' help.

My advisor had some knowledge of environmental work, but the school I went to was located a couple hundred miles from where I wanted to find a job. And this was before monster.com and all those other company search engines. Searching for "remediation" and "environmental jobs" brought up asbestos removal companies, industrial hygenist positions, septic tank companies...I didn't know that I was looking for "environmental consulting". All I knew was that I wanted to play in the dirt and maybe do something good for the environment.

I floundered around for a little while, took the first job that sounded about right, and was frankly sort of relieved when I was laid off because by that point I'd gotten my bearings. I ended up in a job that I could see staying in for a while - I was able to do actual scientific-type stuff. And I did stay for several years.

I run into environmental consultants from my old geo department from time to time. Invariably, they describe the same problems I had trying to find a job. I still keep in touch with my old advisor, who is the one professor who really helped me academically and professionally. And I repaid the favor by letting him know when we were trying to fill entry-level jobs. Since most of those people worked out well, my SLAC is starting to get a good rep in the (extremely local) environmental job market.

So I'm afraid I don't have any original job hunting advice for new grads in environmental consulting. The jobs are out there, I promise. But sometimes it takes accepting a somewhat sub-par job before finding where you really want to end up.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

authority and weather

Most of the time when I'm out in the field watching a drill rig, I'm collecting soil samples and so am incredibly busy. But there are lag times, such as when we're fairly deep (it takes longer and longer to pull up a split spoon because you have to break more rods to get at it) and when backfilling a well after installation.

I've said before that there's always things to do to keep busy, such as catching up on paperwork. But I prefer to keep my eye on the drill rig. At first, it was because I had no idea if what I was watching was really ok, so I was trying to learn by watching. Later, it was simply to keep an eye on things. If the weather is lousy, it feels wrong for me not to be out there, suffering along with the drillers. Drillers occasionally tell me that I don't have to stand out there with them. This happens especially if it's very cold, which makes drilling super annoying and obviously affects me more than someone weighing 100 pounds more. But I shrug this off because part of the reason they want me to go away is that then they can be sloppy and finish quickly. I'd rather be cold than have a poorly constructed well.

One particularly miserable day, we were doing rock coring in a monsoon. The drillers hadn't put on their raingear in time and by the time they realized their mistake, they were soaked and so didn't bother. I did have raingear (I break out the ugly pants and jacket at the hint of rain for this reason) but the rain was going sideways so hard, the raingear was only sort of helping. I couldn't really take notes even if I wanted to, so I was really just watching and commiserating with them.

Another geologist on the job had driven by and seen this. That evening, he pulled me aside to tell me that by staying out with the drillers, I had lost my authority with them. By seeming to be one of them, they had lost any respect for me. This geologist had at least 10 years more experience than I did and I'm always trying to reinforce my authority, but in this case I didn't give his advice an iota of consideration. Why?

1. I have my reasons why I stay outside, as I mentioned.
2. This particular geologist was actively sabotaging other people and had no redeeming qualities that I could see.
3. I had seen how he worked earlier in the day. His drillers worked away on his supposed instructions in the pouring rain while he sat in the truck with the heat on, reading the newspaper. His drillers hated him. If that's not a recipe for insubordination, I don't know what is.

I am always trying to assert my authority. As a young looking female, I'm walking a fine line between empathy and not being taken seriously. Part of the "being taken seriously" is to demand the same high quality work regardless of weather. But I refuse to become an asshole to play stupid power games.

Monday, September 8, 2008

geological leprosy

I mentioned previously that I had a hard time fitting in at college. You might imagine that I would find refuge in Science, in a department of people who were geology geeks like me. This was not the case.

The geology faculty had a distinct group that was “in” and one that was “out”. The “in” clique filtered down to the students, whose social structure mirrored that of the professors. The situation was a lot more complex than that, of course, but I’m trying to keep this from turning into an e-novel. As you might guess, my thesis advisor was “out”, as were his/her advisees. I couldn’t corral the other “out” students to make our own group because I realized what was going on relatively late and the other folks had either left the department entirely or (justifiably) had no interest in associating with the rest of us.

So here’s the summary of my undergraduate geology experience:

Freshman: panic. I don’t know anybody! Why does everybody else know so much? (I’d inadvertently taken classes out of the usual order and most students were juniors or higher)

Sophomore: denial. We’re all in this together! My senior friend who mutters darkly about “the cool kids” is just being dramatic.

Junior: growing awareness. Why is it that I keep having nice conversations with people when we’re alone, and then I become invisible if another person joins us? Why is this happening with everybody!?

Senior: rage. What, I’m not good enough? Y’all can kiss my ass. Watch me ace my senior thesis and graduate ___ cum laude. Then I’ll find a scientific job and in a few years I’ll be running major projects while your pet students are still “finding themselves”. Then I’ll apply to grad school in various disciplines and I’ll be accepted to every single one. Then I’ll eventually defend my thesis, publish a couple papers, and go on to do kick-ass science. So there!

Well, that got me all fired up! I’m totally motivated to go write more.

Friday, September 5, 2008

department organization

In this post and in the comments, I mentioned that I'm not getting much guidance while I'm writing, so I'm sending endless drafts for comment instead to make sure I'm going in the right direction. This is one result of my department having almost no rules and regulations other than those which are university-wide.

Other departments in the university and at other schools have orientation programs for new students, require you to submit a proposal for your work, require tests of general discipline knowledge, have a strict plan for completing your work on time, specify work hours for RAs, and have a template for how your thesis should be organized. My department has none of these for masters students. What it does have is a fantastic graduate student coordinator/secretary who knows all the university regulations, keeps a million balls in the air, and advocates for students who are getting shafted by their advisors. This works out ok, but if the grad coordinator leaves, the department will grind to a halt.

I'm a grownup and I dislike red tape as much as the next person, but there are disadvantages to doing everything on the fly. I spent my first week here in a panic, trying to get a million things squared away in buildings scattered all over campus. When I started my first TA, I had no idea how to run the labs and I was assisting a brand-new prof who didn't have a clue either, which made things interesting. My specific area of study is the specialty of a prof in another department, who has become essentially advisor 2 and has made it clear that he doesn't appreciate all the extra work advisor 1 has created for him. A proposal that formalized what I was doing and who would help out would have reduced that drama. A more institutional problem is that some students appear to have vastly different research workloads.

I'm still not sure how I feel about the lack of direction on how to write the thesis. The various professors have different opinions on how a thesis should be organized, and we have completely different theses. Some folks have long-term field projects, some do a million little lab experiments, some write code...it makes sense that different formats wouldn't work so well for certain people. But if your professor doesn't really care how you write it, then it can be hard to figure out where to start. So I guess in my case, the reason I'm feeling sort of lost right now is because I'm not getting guidance from any direction other than that I should finish by x date, which is waaay too soon. So I guess I better get back to work...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

handing it in

Posts about writing have been circulating around the blogosphere recently. I have my own writing process (I try to put everything possibly useful in writing as I read it/produce it and then end up with a bunch of documents I manipulate into whatever form I need), but what I'm interested in here is the point at which folks hand out their work for comments.

I have a very "hands off" advisor. This normally works fine. When I started, I had industry experience to draw on and I have my own ideas about what I'd like to do. When I started planning, I wrote out a fairly detailed document explaining I wanted to do, citing literature for my reasons for choosing x and y methods. I tried to get feedback as much as possible prior to starting work, but if I hadn't done so, I'm not sure if my advisor would have pushed to make sure that I was doing something remotely feasible/scientifically defensible.

So here I am with a massive amount of data collected in various ways over a relatively short period. For a number of reasons, I cannot go back and get additional data to supplement what I did. I've been spending my time making a million graphs, testing various hypotheses, checking control samples, and generally trying to make sense of everything. My advisor is not interested in digging through data, and all he sees is the end result that I've produced. In order to explain what I see, I'm essentially writing my thesis as I go.

As a result of all this, I keep shooting "does this look ok to you" drafts to my professor. He comments on style and organization while he's at it (don't we all?) and that gives me something non-technical to work on when I'm tired of wrestling with numbers. My timeframe is to check in once a week and send a draft after I've made enough progress that I'd like reassurance I'm going in the right direction with the analyses. This works out to a draft every couple of weeks.

I'm getting the feeling that my way of producing and handing in this thesis is different, to say the least. Everybody else I've talked to has handed in finished (to them) sections or even the whole thing at once. Friends have offered to proofread it once I have the whole thing together, but by then, my advisor will have seen it several times. Am I annoying my professor with all these drafts? He hasn't shown any sign of irritation, and frankly, if he'd spent a little more effort on this earlier, I wouldn't need as much hand-holding at the end.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

smile, dear!

Sorry I've been AWOL - I've been on vacation (along with what feels like everybody else) and I didn't have internet access.

I am normally an exceptionally easygoing and friendly person. I am cranky on this blog, but it's my way of unloading all the things that get under my skin. A perceptive (or not so perceptive) reader may realize that being perceived as a teenager is a massive pet peeve of mine. When this happens, unfortunately, my manners go out the window. My typical response is either a) start spluttering with indignation or b) my smile freezes into a grimace and I get a slightly crazed look as I try not to do option a.

Last week I met a middle-aged man who asked me what my school was. I know he was assuming that I was an undergrad, so I said that I went to (undergrad school) and then (grad school). But I didn't actually say that I was a grad student. My bad. So this guy goes on and on about how I probably know this person he knows, who is, as it turns out, a current student.

I was with my mother at the time. Needless to say, she knows me well. She jumped into the conversation and explained that not only was I not a current college student, I had graduated from college before this girl started high school. She then steered me away before I could say something obnoxious.

I realize that announcing my actual age and then stomping off in a huff is not the sort of behavior that helps me gain respect in the field or anywhere else. I have managed to not do that. But it is really, really tempting.