Tightrope walking

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I don’t know if other students feel like this at any point in their PhD journey. For me, this sensation has come during the “home stretch”. In other words – at the worst possible time.

It is not uncommon for graduate students to feel down or discouraged at some points of their degree. Everyone knows the PhD road is long and replete with intellectual challenges, time-stealing setbacks, daunting skills to learn in very little time, and experiences that propel us far outside of our comfort zone. It is not uncommon for PhD students to feel fatigued, overwhelmed or disheartened. Waves of negative emotions may come and go, amplified by the constant pressure of deadlines and high standards. It is the small victories in between that make the waves recede and that keep us going, suddenly reminding us of why we love what we do and why we wish to keep doing it.

But that common feeling is not exactly what I am alluding to. This is something a little more difficult to put into words – a feeling of fragility and transience, uncertainty and instability, not only towards one’s work but also one’s own self. Let me try to explain.

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Signal to Noise ratio

Four months ago, I was offered the opportunity to become a grad life blogger at McGill University.
First week. I was ecstatic. I was telling everyone I knew, “I am a blogger now”. Turns out I actually have to post something before I can claim that title.
Second week. I complained that everything I wanted to write about – the beautiful fall weather, great things to do in Montreal, etc – had already been covered by the awesome crew at grad life blog.
Third week. I wrote, erased, re-wrote, wrote some more, deleted, claimed I had writer’s block and basically got nowhere. I guess it’s practice for my thesis writing.
End of the month, and what do I have in front of me? I finally decided on a great title for my post – signal to noise ratio. Now what?

There you have it – procrastination.
The act of putting things off for so long, you have no other choice than to blog about it. In all honesty, I have beenv busy. Some new developments in my research project have moved it to the fast lane and I’ve been spending lots of late nights in the lab, but one post could easily have been done. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve also been going through some sort of a PhD existential crisis, if you will.

I had been thinking about what to write for my first blog post for quite some time, and then, it came to me. Unless you have been living under a rock or writing your thesis, you are aware Steve Jobs passed away recently. My supervisor threw this quote up on the fridge in his honour. And right then, everything that had been brewing became quite clear.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

Now, I am not an Apple fanboy, but I thought the quote was very eloquent. It reminded me of a concept known as signal to noise ratio. It is an engineering/science term that applies to how much of what you observe is noise (background) and how much is what you’re actually interested in observing (signal). I feel it’s a concept that applies to anything in life, but, as I roll into my sixth year of a PhD, it could not be truer. The end is near, and yet not here.

I am a dreamer. I always have been and always will be. Every day I have a new idea, a new travel plan, a new revelation. I tried to remember the reasons why I decided to start grad school, and I think one of them is that research lets you dream up new possibilities all the time. Research in general is a foray into the unknown. When you take on a research project, you have no idea where it is headed and this allows you to dream up innumerable
possibilities. That, of course, is the easy part. The other, more frustrating part is slowly dissecting away your theories until you find the right one.

No matter what you’re doing in life, particularly things requiring a significant time commitment, you will always have to deal with negativity within yourself and around you. So in this case, signal would be focusing on wrapping up this PhD, but there is so much noise around that it’s easy to get distracted. Noise is that nagging question of what’s
next. Noise is: why is it taking me so long to graduate. Noise is: did I pick the right project. Noise is: getting easily annoyed when someone asks why you aren’t done yet. So much noise.

I realize that, more than anyone else, the pressure comes from within. I have a good project, although it has been very challenging. I work in a great environment, surrounded by supportive people, and have an understanding supervisor. So why all this noise? Sometimes I wonder. When I started my PhD, I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I had tried my hand at research while I was in school and loved it. So I said to myself, why not give it a shot. At the beginning of grad school, my project looked promising and I had all these indications that I was at least decent at it. Awards, scholarships, positive comments at committee meeting. But after a while, all that dies down and what remains is your publishing record, which is meant to speak for itself. And I haven’t published yet. I am close, yet not there.

Since I started drafting this post, months ago, I realized the worst thing I can do is over-think it. As a friend pointed out, a PhD is a process. Everyone who does it understands that you’re not working towards milestone or a big payout. You have to think of it in terms of a process, not as a means to an end. A PhD does not have a defined set of rules like school does, and the process is unique to every individual. You can’t compare yourself to others.

How am I going to tackle this problem? I’m going to do what I learned from my father. Put my head down, my blinders on, and keep on trucking. Soon enough, hopefully, I’ll have arrived to my destination.

Clarity

‘Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.’  -Thomas Edison

I think most of us have a small, seemingly impossible dream or desire that could turn into an amazing opportunity.  It could be an opportunity to make money, but more likely, it is an opportunity for happiness and fulfillment.  Thomas Edison recognized that no amazing thing happens without a large amount of hard work and dedication.  Human beings are lazy, and we like to complain.  Perhaps it would be a valuable lesson if we could get over our fear of having less and working more – it may even lead to a more fulfilling life.

I have been experiencing this personally this summer.  Right after graduation, I found myself enjoying the life of no work, all play.  Part of this had to do with a sudden feeling that if I had a Master’s degree, I should not have to stoop to get a lowly summer job, especially not in a restaurant or café – ewww.  As you know from my previous post, I decided to busk instead of get a job.  Initially, I was terrified of the act of busking – it was something new that I had never done before.  How would I know my efforts would be appreciated?

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Convocation ceremony at Macdonald Campus

It was 13:30 when I entered Centennial Centre and rushed to pick up my gown and academic cap. I was supposed to be there at 13:00 and couldn’t believe that I was so late on the most important day of my life. When I saw a long line of students waiting for their turn and a very well-organized staff guiding the whole process, I was relieved.

But, then, nervousness gripped me with an irrepressible force and I couldn’t help thinking that, I might fall on stage –only, because I was wearing shoes with heels. Heels and I are usually the worst of enemies and avoid each other like plagues. This golden rule was set when falling became a custom, each time I slipped into my unwanted heels. However, heels were mandatory on such an important occasion – at least, according to my friends and colleagues.

We then lined up two by two and made our way toward the ceremony hall. As we climbed the stairs, enthusiastic applause followed. Proud parents and family members were clicking and clicking and clicking trying to immortalize this once-in-a-lifetime event. I smiled when my walking partner commented that she feels like a movie star. I felt the same too as if we have achieved the impossible and now the world is at our feet. However, this feeling will always remain inadequately described, meant only to be felt.

I presume that I clapped the loudest when Professor Julian Davies was conferred the honorary degree (Doctor of Science, honoris causa). In addition of being an excellent orator, he is humorous and gave an advice which is of primary importance – to wash our hands with soap and warm water as frequently as we can. It sounded like a funny statement, but on the other hand, washing our hands can decrease a consequent load of bacterial infections. I have started washing my hands more frequently.

Thinking about it, grad life was a roller coaster of bittersweet memories that shaped my life, personality, mind, attitudes and if need to be repeated, I’ll embrace it again. I did flashback on long hours, working relentlessly in the lab where techniques were failing and I had to repeat procedures several times. But then, surges of happiness when I was awarded a long sought scholarship and my paper finally got accepted in the journal of my choice, with the strong editing skills of my better half, Bushansingh Shyam Baurhoo, also a McGill graduand.

In the end, wearing my convocation gown and academic cap, I was deliriously happy and proud to have graduated from an elite university alike McGill. Being a McGillian did contribute hugely in securing my job.

And no, I did not fall…

However, my academic cap did kiss the stage. A generous soul retrieved my cap and I continued my walk down stage, unflawed, with a smile on my face.

neerusha gokool baurhoo

Post-Post-Grad

So – that was that.  My master’s degree.  Was I dreaming?

I have been recently hit with the common post-grad-school realization that I can do ANYTHING I WANT!  I have no familial obligations, no contracts, no school, no… ah wait.  The financial obligations are massive and heavy coming out of this endeavor.   This new stage of life is exciting, terrifying, and very different than anything I have ever experienced.  It is time to find balance – a balance of risk-taking (after all, we are still young!) and responsibility (after all, we are going on our thirties!).  It is time to find a way to work, play, make money and spend it all at once.

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Everything but…

Photo by Gordon Adler

I have been feeling very keenly lately the urgent need for variety in life.  All year, as my posts have reflected, I have been intensely focussed on one current, ongoing goal, which has really taken all of my energy.  The broader questions I have been asking myself lately have been:

  • What is really going to make me happy and healthy?
  • What is happiness, anyway?
  • Are there things in my life that I need to get rid of?  Are there things I need more of?

One resource that has helped me alot has been Eckhart Tolle‘s book, ‘The Power of Now’. (more…)

Opportunity vs. Money

As I draw closer to graduation, I find myself turning down opportunities.

I use all kinds of excuses – I (almost) have a Master’s degree and deserve to earn more; It’s not worth my time for that price; or the killer: What If Something Better Comes Along.  However, all too often, something better does not come along, and I am stuck with nothing to do.  This is not like a McGill Graduate: we are taught to grab opportunity by both horns and run with it.  I need to do more of this.

Recently, I applied to alot of things that do not pay well (summer programs and the like), but that I am likely to be successful in.  So, here comes a bunch of new auditions, new people to sing for, but also a newfound confidence that I will likely succeed!  Perhaps I am overconfident, but I don’t think so.  These opportunities are reasonable options, and look like the next step for me in my career.  They can also lead to more opportunities, which ‘doing nothing’ doesn’t generally do.

Although succeeding at something small is not quite the same at succeeding at something massive and unlikely, it is still a success.  I would be happy with one of those!

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