Materials Girl: Beginning of the end

Go to the profile of Neil Withers
Mar 27, 2019
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[Posted on behalf of Materials Girl]

Late last year during the fall term, YouKnowWho dropped a small bomb on my plans: I could write a dissertation using the work for my intended Master’s thesis. What?! In previous bids he had simply asked me to stay for a PhD to work on some project, whereas now there was the claim that I could finish in just another year. (I assume this means two more, bringing the total to a reasonable five years.) It was then the time for waffling. On one hand, staying would save a large amount of time and effort – no need to retake classes, create new networks, and familiarize myself with a different academic system. On the other hand, I had always planned to relocate sometime in the future to do my PhD. Also, although my search for specific jobs was coming up nil, a [very big] company had found my resume in their online bank and decided that I should work for them (after flying me in for some quick interviews) – but their tempting offer was contingent on graduating in the spring. I was conflicted.

Now that I think about it, turning down the job would feel akin to breaking up with a serious boyfriend. Would I ever get another offer or would I be reduced to a penniless, lonely miscreant forced to move into my parents’ basement while honing my skills as a barista? Was anyone else going to pick me from the sizable crowd of contenders? Did I actually possess the skill for a good position or was I deluding myself in assessing my value? The potential outcomes plagued me for months, during which time I turned down [very big company’s] offer in order to ruminate further. This should’ve been a hint that deep down I had already made up my mind, but it wasn’t until the end of winter break that I steeled myself for the long haul. I was going to stay.

So in January, I found myself on the road to oral preliminary exams in the materials science & engineering department – something mere months prior I had never dreamed of (and had gleefully ignored every term as a Master’s student). The pressure for me to pass was enormous, more so than the inherent nature of the exams. Not only did I want to avoid the mortification of retaking them, but also the required time to finish a Master’s was running dangerously low. If I spent the rest of the school year studying for the maximum two attempts at prelims, no time would be left to graduate if I failed both – thus leaving me in some horrible purgatory of no degree after three years laboring in grad school. To say the least, it was a very sobering thought and serious business.

The other major hurdle to prelims was my undergraduate background. (In)organic chemistry has distinctly different curricula from that of any engineering major. Being in materials eased the pain to a degree, although topics such as mechanical properties and diffusion were still foreign to me. Between TAing, classes, and Lab Mom duties, I stayed buried [or at least attempted to] in heavy textbooks.* Never before had I experienced such prolonged, excruciating pain in the form of studying. (Call me a bad student with no attention span, but despite sleeping through most classes I’ve learned to earn good grades after studying only days before tests. Blame the apnea?) I formed a study group with other prelim-takers from a hodgepodge of backgrounds: the physics guy knew his electrical properties beautifully, the two from chemical engineering were comfortable with thermodynamics & diffusion, the one from materials had already learned everything, etc. The group helped a bit despite our sessions being exhausting and relatively short – and sometimes spent pondering how to bribe each professor to pass us, or if it’d help to bring a bottle of vodka (or a revolver) during the actual exams. Our weekly sessions of questions, griping, and even laughter were a little reminder that I wasn’t alone in a traumatic world of stress and cramming. As it is with the rest of my grad student family, we ultimately helped each other through the blood, sweat, and tears.

*Countless thanks goes to the friends who lent me their books and support. Hopefully the cookies I’ve baked have repaid them.

To cut a long story short, after two months of studying I took prelims and PASSED. (!!!) No second attempt, no earth-shattering reprimands from professors who find me an inadequate candidate, and just about no dishonor. I am officially on the road to being Dr. MG, as well as starting to act somewhat human again. So it’s probably a good time to get back to writing those papers for YKW (which will eventually turn into the dreaded dissertation)… Gulp.


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