Graduate School

I think my favorite part of grad school was working with the secretaries/admin assistants. They kept that place going. Second would be getting a bag of Doritos for dinner (more often than I care to remember), riding that last bus #39 of the night to Jamaica Plain. JP >>> Cambridge. Third would be leaving grad school. I don’t think it was a mistake to go, I just think I took too long.


Ditto for graduate school. Moving across the country is something of a traumatic experience. Being away from the friends and family that I’ve known for ten years or more has made me reevaluate my priorities in life, and realize that things only get more complex from here on out. No, you don’t need to deprive yourself of all the joy in your life to try to figure out what you really want out of it. It does seem to help me, though.

I had a nightmare last night. I was running around the BART trying to get to SFO on time for an airplane back to Boston, and having miserable luck, between a surly waitress, a horrific station scene, and a need to return some lost items.

I stopped by a restaurant in Berkeley on my way to the BART. I ordered some food (sorry, my memory is fading pretty fast), which arrived cold and bland-looking, so I tried to send it back, but the waitress insisted that it was still good and that I should eat it. One bite; ugh, awful. What could I do, though? I pushed the dish back and waited for the check to arrive. Hmm. Just a couple of hours left before my flight. And I waited. And I waited. (this sort of ties in to a recent restaurant experience I had, for the junior psychiatrists out there: the owner of the restaurant, who was also our waiter, served strange-tasting food, small portions, and argued with us about the merits of his restaurant versus other similar restaurants in the area. read into it what you will — residual guilt, maybe, for leaving a five percent tip?) The bill was outrageous and late, but so was I, so I threw down some cash and hurried over to the BART.

Groups of kids were clustered along the railways like birds on a telegraph line. Every so often, one would jump to the ground twenty feet below and mangle some part of their body in the impact. The details were fairly horrible and made me feel nauseous, which was compounded by the facts that Berkeley doesn’t have an elevated BART station, the layout of the station was completely mad (I had to walk along a catwalk directly behind the jumping kids to get to the train), and the faces of the kids disturbed me. It wasn’t until I got onto the train that I recognized them: they were the same people I used to hang out with in grade school, except that they were entirely the same, age and all. As the train pulled away from the station, the jumping kids began to swarm over the catwalks and the train police began to disperse the kids through brutally efficient contact between club and face, elbow and chest, knee and groin. Most of the kids fell back down to the ground below, though not of their own free will.

I looked away as quickly as I could, and already we were arriving at the next station (for some reason, I seem to be blending elements of the MBTA into BART). As the usual crowd pushed its way off, someone dropped a wallet and I picked it up and hurried after them, only to lose them in the crush and to watch the train sail off again, with my luggage and without me. I caught another glimpse of the person — whether it was some distinctive jacket or headgear, I’m not sure, but I remember being able to recognize them — getting into a bus, and by the time I’d gotten on, it was overcrowded and I couldn’t even breathe, let alone find the guy. I stationed myself on the right side of the bus to see where the guy got off, though. Ok, juvenile humor mode off.

The guy got off in front of an apartment complex filled with soaring wooden towers and narrow footbridges and catwalks lacing in between. Did I mention that I have a mild acrophobia, probably stemming from the times that my brother threatened to throw me off of a dam? Anyhow, it was like the final chase scene from In the Name of the Rose, winding through obscure passages and dashing across gossamer links trying to catch up to this mystery fellow; all I was trying to do was be helpful. I was resigned to missing my flight by then, as there was only half an hour left before the scheduled departure, to say nothing of missing my luggage (which had probably been dispatched to at least four different pawnshops by now), but I didn’t have an infinite amount of time to go traipsing off after this guy. At that point, my foot came down hard on a rotting board and my whole body jerked as I shook myself awake.

The narcissistic me says that this was entertaining, Mike, but what does it have to do with graduate school? Let’s look at it like a parable.

First, I was going back to Boston and having no luck in doing so. I’m beginning to think that coming here in the first place wasn’t such a hot idea after all. I wanted to challenge myself to shake off the ennui that’s gripped me during the last few semesters of my undergraduate life, but all it seems to have done for me is make me realize just how nice my life in the Bay Area was. I’m not saying that Boston is a terrible place; indeed, I think it’s a nice area (although something needs to be done about the humidity in the summer) but that it’s not for everyone, and it’s probably not for me. Why did I want to come here in the first place? It’s a great career opportunity, but I’m not the sort to sacrifice love, family, and friends over career, or so I thought, when that’s what I ended up doing in coming to Boston. I realize that I’m probably not giving Boston, its inhabitants, and the people at MIT a fair shake, and I’m sure that they’re all nice people. In fact, my coworker is about as nice a person as you can find — he always laughs at my bad and hastily mumbled jokes. I just feel like something is missing from my life here, and no amount of either studying or socializing is going to fill the gap in my heart for friends and family far from here.

I stopped by a restaurant. I was expecting something excitingly spicy and delicious, when what I got was more like a thin gruel, kind of like how my classes have gone in this, my first semester. You know how it goes? You go through college (or you don’t), you take Physics and are exposed to all of these wonderful beautiful physical ideas — from momentum to electromagnetism to heat transfer to quantum mechanics — for the first time, and your eyes open wide to drink in all of this wonderful knowledge. I like that excitement that comes from first knowing a concept, an idea; the first spark of inspiration that flares brightly dies quickly, though, in later years, when all your classes seem to deal in essential yet dull minutiae of the same concepts that you learned back in freshman Physics. Perhaps it’s a cynical view, coming from my engineering (i.e. applications-oriented) background, but that’s the way that most engineering courses work. The last really exciting class I took was my introductory heat transfer course, where we got to get down into the nitty-gritty of the equations governing the processes; a similar class taught by the same professor the following semester focussed mainly on applications and I found it as dry as dirt.

The fluids course that I’m taking seems to have very few redeeming features, except for the fact that I’m learning about certain concepts better than I’ve ever cared for before. Most of the will to work on the problem sets was burned out over the month that it took me to finish the problems on control volume theorems. I’m not sure why. It’s strange how courses billed as “advanced” really should be relabled “fundamentals of”. I grow tired of problems that test whether or not I know the tricks to apply to turn them into solvable problems. I grow especially tired of an instructor/section leader who spends his class times strutting and preening his own ego; the socratic method only goes so far, and the reason why we ask him questions is not to get questions back (sometimes which I think are designed to humiliate us, but that’s probably my ignorance of his brilliance shining through) but rather to get answers. Having to beat the concepts into my head is something I do best on my own; I don’t need help (but thanks, anyways). Maybe it’s just the topic, but every time I try to crack on those problems, I don’t get too far before I’m too sleepy or I don’t understand some obscure point.

It’s a slightly larger leap (sorry), but I feel the jumping kids represent some sort of personal evaluation on the worth of so many degrees. These were all kids that I’d had some sort of association growing up with and to see them hurling their bodies voluntarily just because it was a cool thing to do was heartwrenching. So why am I earning a master’s degree? I get the feeling lately it was because it seemed like I was predestined for it, or so I did believe. One of my teaching assistant/mentors early in my sophomore year told me that if I didn’t go into research, I’d be wasting a lot of potential, which made me swell up with pride (good and bad effects both). I tried to land a research-type job ever since the summer of my freshman year, and I finally got one the following year. Although it was an unpaid job that was really more of a technician’s job than a researcher, I had done it — I was working on research of sorts (more like trying to figure out how many layers of carbon plies I could apply before my fingers and ligaments and connecting bits would wear out). I wasn’t deathly bored with the job, but I did live in a vague fear of the boss, who was rumored to have a short temper, as well as a small contempt for the graduate student who wasn’t directly supervising me and yet felt that I needed some sort of micromanagement. The saving grace in that job was my graduate student boss, who I figured out to be a decent human being as well as an excellent teacher. The next summer, I began working on my dream job: setting up an experiment from the ground up. The first grad student boss that I had had to join the Navy, though, and I found myself sliding from peer to peon, with the new boss, who seemed to have little experience with setting any sort of experiment up. The lab supervisor seemed to delight in small torments, too, and before I sound too whiny, I’ll wind it up quickly by saying that I was somewhat glad to have left (a couple of months after I had graduated), although sad, too, at having to leave that professor as well as Berkeley behind.

My current research is interesting, I guess. If you want the official word on it, you want to see my (probably never-to-be-completed) work page. The unofficial word that I’ll tell you right now is that all I see my research right now is all that I’ve ever done in my life — set up expensive equipment, make sure it works, and then do something that someone else wants done. It’s probably a bitter and no doubt unnecessary way to regard things, but I feel like I’ve spent so much of my career to date helping to get other people’s work off the ground and running that I’m not sure what to do when faced with my own. If I don’t do it, who will? Does it really matter in the end? What chance do I have for posterity in this world — isn’t that what we’re all chasing in the end? Maybe I’m not going to set up a Liubel Prize or anything like that, but as my life has worn on, I’ve finally reordered my priorities.

I’m chasing my motivation, and never quite catching up to it. My advisor has advised me that soon the research will begin to motivate itself, but if that’s going to happen, it had better happen soon, before the boards give way under my lazy weight and I fall through. I used to wonder why more people didn’t stay in school for as long as they could manage to, back when I was an eager beaver of a freshman. It’s not that school has been so horrible to me, it’s just that I feel as though there’s more to life than problem sets. Of course, after a few weeks of work, I’m fairly sure that I’ll want to crawl back to the comforting unreality of school, but I grow less patient of the stifling artificiality of school every day. I’ve been in school now for nearly eighteen years, which is more time than I’ve ever spent doing anything else. I realize that I’m still young and probably full of beans, but eighteen years of anything is likely to send me running out into the streets looking for something new.

If you’ve ever been to MIT, with its maze of tunnels and corridors, it’s not such a stretch to extend the buildings to the apartment complex of my dream. I remember my first thoughts on stepping into the lobby of Building 7 was to suddenly utter the words, “great cathedral of learning”. With its soaring roof and massive arches, it looked the part. The “Infinite Corridor” is also a fairly impressive work, although probably unnecessarily cluttered with dangling pipes and massive arches. It reminds me somewhat of the Hearst Memorial Mining Building on UC-Berkeley’s campus: the lobby is impressive as all get-out, but once you get past that, the main corridors are cramped up by the reality of HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning, for you non-ASHRAE (don’t ask) types) ducts. They took a graceful old building and grafted new modern necessary implements on to it (hmm, vaguely Borg-like), which undoubtedly results in a more functional building, but somewhat ruins the experience for me. I don’t claim to be a purist with respect to preservation, but there has got to be some limit over which function can take over form. Anyhow, you can spend at least an hour wandering through the Rogers Building (at 77 Massachusetts Avenue) and its connected hallways if you don’t know where you’re going.

Seeing as how this is probably the last personal page that you’ll read until I write something even more sappy, I figure that you deserve some sort of overarching conclusion to this all. By now, you know what my life has been like up until now; what plans do I have for the future? I’m not sure. At this point in my life, I’m planning on finishing up my Master’s Degree and leaving school for one or two years, at least, to go to work. I’m no longer sure about what I want in a job: why are the only engineers over forty in administration or academics nowadays? When I used to daydream about being an engineer, none of my dreams included cubicles or calculators: I’d spend all day tweaking engines (isn’t that what an engineer does?) and dropping them into cars with nary a care in the world. Reality is different, and started sinking in long before I got to college. No, not all of us can be like Steve Dinan or John Lingenfelter; though we may try, people are not going to pay us to make their cars go faster.

The truth is that it seems I’m most suited to designing door handles or, given my specialty, analyzing the flow of coolant in an air conditioning compressor. The truth is that I’m more or less turned into the mundane person that I always dreaded that I’d be. The truth is that I’m too young to be giving up on the dreams I had, that I should be reaching up and over, beyond and ahead. The truth is that I don’t feel so young any more; in fact, I feel rather elderly and mis-used. I’m still growing up. I’m still learning that nothing is hard-and-fast true.

I remember growing up knowing that whatever I’d be, if I wasn’t good at it or I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have to do it. Guess what?


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: