Materials Girl: Sunshine in June, but the lab has no windows

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[Posted on behalf of Materials Girl]

Three years ago, while still an undergrad with zero notion of “research”, I wrote a post that briefly pondered the summer life of a grad student. The following year I discovered that summer = vacation for the younger masses only. Now that the regular school year is over, I’m experiencing my first summer as a graduate researcher. So far, this has been time to catch up on the research that I neglected during the school year. (Apparently, a grad school B– = undergrad C– = failure + retake class = extra motivation to maintain straight As! Plus, TAing is awesome, even if in an often painful manner.)

Grad students resemble “normal” working people, only we work longer hours (and/or organize time poorly/try to make up for the time wasted during regular work hours), have a lower salary, and get away with wearing hole-filled jeans and t-shirts from high school. Or as in my case, we get paid nothing. Last week I offhandedly asked “our beloved supervisor” to start paying me during the summer; my financial aid and TAing contract from the department ended in June. He laughed/chuckled/smirked(?) and mentioned that I should apply for the NSF fellowship* again, then changed the subject. Ummm, time for more student loans? This might be a reason to find a wealthier advisor, if only I didn’t genuinely like my projects and group – a recent, but decisive development… The combination of happiness and grad school seems a rare commodity. I’m hanging onto my 7am–10pm motivation for dear life.

*They only gave me an honorable mention this year — and thus no money. /grumbling

So, the summers are for good work – and a couple of good breaks. And, apparently, we never work enough. The internet, among other things, provides countless horror stories of advisors deporting international students who fail to meet some absurdly high standards, brusquely demanding work 20/7** (a useless gesture, as this likely results in lower quality results and inefficient time management), etc. I have little problem with working unspeakably hard, assuming that the projects are worthwhile. However, I want to be the one motivating myself and scheduling my own time, instead of having an irate PI taking attendance and cracking the whip. As it is, one reason I’ve learned to be happy in grad school is that my PI doesn’t micromanage us from day-to-day – he generally just picks on our data and masterminds numerous ideas to try [which may or may not be of value, but that’s a different issue!]. Besides, with all the random assignments, it is not even necessary for him to demand nights and weekends – if I am to present anything decent at our weekly group meetings! Motivation by necessity is much more enjoyable than by direct force.

**20 hours a day, 7 days a week. They do, at least, acknowledge that we are primarily human and need SOME sleep. During my first or second month in the group, my advisor mentioned that getting over 4 hours a night means I’m not working hard enough. He was grinning, and to this day I haven’t figured out if that was a joke or a passive-aggressive communication regarding my work ethic.

At the end of the day, I’m enjoying my serfdom/hermithood, and I even take occasional nights off to… umm… I actually don’t know what to do with “spare time”… Still, though, can I get a stipend already?