The Sceptical Chymist | Materials Girl: Flying and soul searching

Published in Chemistry

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[Posted on behalf of Materials Girl]

Four hours into my first transatlantic flight, I have crazy cabin fever that won’t be helped by the usual narcoleptic tendencies (apparently my superpower of passing out is limited to talks/reading). Flights were a rare novelty in my younger days. Now, with some age and a few conferences under my belt, I wonder how frequent travellers manage to keep their sanity and knees intact in such cramped quarters. In lieu of cartwheeling down the aisles, I’ll be wiggling toes and catching up on blogging!

Change and adaptation are underlying features of graduate school. I’ve recently been learning this as a new PhD student, particularly with YouKnowWho (YKW) recently ‘suggesting’ an entirely new thesis subject. It appears that the previous funding source was not renewed, thus I’ve been reassigned — ending the promise to graduate using my Master’s research. Not to say that this hasn’t happened before or that I’m entirely surprised, but this is more serious than tossing new ideas to a Master’s student (whose thesis would likely not receive a thorough read). My newest projects have me changing material systems entirely, from semiconductors to metal-ceramics. Yikes.

So here I am, starting over with vague guidelines and no background. Is this my fault for not having specific goals/interest for my own research? I’m not sure. Thus far, I’ve gone along with YKW’s various ideas and had enough curiosity to work hard at them, but without finding any specific passions. YKW’s method has been to suggest general topics and then have me find something ‘interesting’ to study. Sometimes I get an itemized list of suggestions; sometimes a caveat is at the end reminding me that some/all of them may not work, in which case I must find another route. Lately it’s been baffling, and I’m sitting on this plane still wondering what YKW actually wants — all the while heading to another country for collaborative research on the new project. (I’ve long since given up on asking YKW about anything other than random details, as questions tend to result in “it’s your job to figure it out”.)

It has taken time for me to realize how directionless my research has been. In the past I’ve gotten by through various amounts of labour and good fortune, but I need to find a proper focus. My loyalty to the group (and reluctance to scrap three years of work) keeps me here. So, I’m buckling down for the long haul, all the while wondering how normal this situation is for students. To anyone still reading — what was your graduate experience like, as far as choosing/pursuing projects goes?

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