Sunday, December 21, 2008

A 42 Family Town

I enjoy the month of December.
There is still plenty of cold weather ahead, it is Christmas Season, and I am filled with Hope for the upcoming year. December is also a time where I look back at the past year and think of all of my accomplishments. This usually involves writing a Christmas Update letter and sending Christmas cards out to my extended family and faraway friends.

It is Sunday, December 21st. I have already traveled to my vacation destination, and I haven't even started composing a Christmas letter.

Remember the post Probability of Order? That was vague, wasn't it? Right. Well, I did it- I made the change- the turbulence is over- I left my old boss's group.

What does that even mean!!!

Unless you are in pursuit of your PhD in the basic sciences, you probably don't immediately understand the significance of leaving someone's group. At the end of this post I have a link to some of my previous thoughts on my graduate situation where I compare it to Slavery in the Old South. Today I will use a different comparison.

My department is a small town where the popular pastime is gossiping about other people's business. The town consists of 42 families, but instead of houses, we live in one apartment complex composed of 3 buildings. The gossip flies faster in such a close proximity.

The research groups are polygamist families before any sort of feminist revolution. The boss is the husband and the graduate students are the wives. (Although husband and wife here are used only to indicate power, not gender.) Leaving my boss's group is equivalent to getting a divorce and getting remarried in this small town of 42 families. My old boss has now been divorced 7 times in the last 6 years.

The good news is: I am out. I am now in a new group lead by a woman who has been a professor now for 2 years. I am going to have to work 60 hours a week on a regular basis- but it will be toward something that will get me a PhD. And that is the goal.

I feel a big sense of peace with this change because I trust my New Boss "Alice" where as I did not trust the old boss "Catfish." Catfish had the following priorities:

1. Complain about life in general, esp. about home repairs, graduate students, and other families in our 42 family town.

2. Sculpting: Ordering rocks and staying home from work to have them delivered, getting graduate students to make illegal copies of sculpting videos at the library, giving chemicals from the lab to the sculpting teacher, making a mess in the lab by mixing chemicals and rocks, talking about sculpting.

3. Making money by not actually doing anything: This is Catfish's secret obsession. He likes to talk about how he invested 1000 dollars in this start-up company that is one of his student's thesis projects. My thesis project had me doing experiments that had already been published in 2002! Why did I have to do them? Because he had a patent on this idea (which was a dumb idea which will never make him any money) and he was sure that if I did the work for it he could start a company and make a profit. Right. Forget about doing something because it is good science. Catfish only wants to use science in hopes of making himself rich. What else?

4. Playing Solitaire and Hearts on his laptop. You know how with Windows the start menu shows the recent programs used the most? Right, well every week for group meeting we hook up Catfish's computer to the projector and give him our power point presentations to show. He inevitably clicks on the Windows start menu icon... and the 2 most used programs on his laptop (his only work computer BTW) are ALWAYS Hearts an Solitaire. (the thing is- not only is he not working- how can any semi-intelligent person be entertained by those games!!! Right- Catfish is not intelligent.)

5. Telling graduate students that they need to buy research supplies with money from their paycheck. Awesome. Did I mention that it is HIS JOB to provide research funding for us? Oh yeah- Solitaire is way more stimulating that writing grants or publishing papers. What else is his job? helping his students get their research published in scientific papers. The last time one of his students published a paper containing original research was in 2005. In a few days it will be 2009.

Okay enough of that-- How did I get out? Well my old thesis project was based on this instrument and it was broken when I got it and continued to get worse. Catfish didn't think it was ever broken so it took a long time for me to convince him that we needed to fix it. And finally after trying to fix it for a semester- I realized that it wasn't fixable. The instrument I am talking about is a prototype that never made it to market. There are 5 of them in the world- and they are composed of many "made to order" parts. So... right... but Catfish has a patent (see #3 above) so when I told him that I needed a new thesis project because I couldn't fix the instrument- he said no. And I found a new thesis project in a different group. (A socially acceptable reason to get a divorce.)

In my new group, my new boss, Alice has a different set of priorities:
1. Get research done
2. Publish papers
3. Write grants
4. Stay on top of the current science literature

I think I will be happy in my new family.
Merry Christmas to me.

Recommended reading: Yes Masta, Youse a Good Masta


kamakula said...

Yay! Congrats on your new family. It certainly sounds like you're much happier already :). I'm glad things now seem to be moving for you. I had a conversation with my dad the other day that pretty much ended with "don't worry, I've seen the 4+ year grad students who STILL don't have a thesis topic. I've got no plans of becoming one of them".

Fermi said...

Thanks. I am happier and more at peace.

2 other things that I forgot to mention:
Our department now won't fund you after your 5th year- if your boss has grant money, fine- if not- you don't get paid and you can't teach for money

Second- there is a 5th year in Catfish's group who still has no data towards his thesis.

That makes me happy that I got out now. For him- it is too late.