im in ur science, fixin ur grammerz

June 22, 2010

Submitted a conference abstract today, for the Fall MRS meeting.  Yes Mom, you are entitled to laugh, go ahead and complain that I had to wait until I’m working on my PhD to work on my “Mrs.”  Ha ha.  Moving on…

Let’s pretend for a second that I’m not made of awesome and the most powerful, brilliant, amazing person you’ve ever met.  Instead, perhaps, let’s imagine a really insecure graduate student who’s had a hard time finding a relevant role in her research group, and is really just now getting a proper grasp on the real down-and-dirty of the science she works on, despite being two-ish years in already.  Perhaps she’s even more insecure because she feels like she “cheated” on the admissions process (inasmuch as winning a prestigious fellowship and then just waving it at the admissions people is “cheating,” but hey, this hypothetical grad student has some issues).  If I were this imaginary not-made-of-100%-pure-awesome person, having to write up a summary of what I’ve done and will do for the next four months in 3,000 characters or less and then submit it to a conference so big it has fifty symposia you can submit to is kind of daunting.  Not only that, I have to show it to my mentor first.

If I were our imaginary grad student, I might find this somewhat challenging and perhaps totally terrifying.  Ironically, it’s the showing-it-to-the-mentor part that’s scarier.  A large part of what had to be written involved correctly interpreting results I haven’t worked on directly, and hadn’t even had a complete conversation about, and thus there was a risk of revealing myself as really not understanding what’s going on at all.   It would be mortifying indeed, were I not made of awesome and most assuredly immune from such things.

So after doing battle with the remaining skunk demons this morning, I/our hypothetical grad student wrote the abstract and emailed it along to Dr. Mentor. [An aside: Dr. Mentor is not actually Dr. Advisorman; Dr. Advisorman pretty much wins us money, awesomeness, and brand-name recognition, and then puts his “I am Dr. Advisorman and I approved this message” stamp on everything we do.  Dr. Mentor is actually one of several Dr. Mentors, but he’s the current incarnation so we’ll call him that for now.  Welcome to national lab life.  Don’t even get me started on who the department thinks my advisor is, or who pays my salary.  Check out this amazing webcomic chart if you’re not confused yet.]  This was scary.  Then I stalked my email all day waiting for it to come back marked up, feeling just like I was back in high school waiting for the boy I had a crush on to tell me if he was accepting my invitation to prom or not (“oooh oooh new message” — “oh, boring, it’s just that there’s free cookies in the reading room, how disappointing.” *hits refresh again*).

It came back completely rewritten.  That sound you hear?  That is the sound of an ego being crushed.

So, well, perhaps it was inevitable.  I mean, to an extent, I’ve come to expect that grad school is simply an exercise in suffering and it will somehow make me a stronger person and/or give me a fancy degree one day.  Sometimes I can accept that and be all zen about messing shit up again.  But man, I was so scared to write that abstract, and then had a bunch of my fears confirmed.  It’s like my dog who was afraid of baths, and then I gave her SUPER EVIL BATH OF DOOM for two hours.  Only I’m hoping that I won’t compulsively avoid my coworkers and refuse to accept treats from them (y’know, if they fed me treats at all, that is).  Anyhow, yeah.  Felt like sort of a “congratulations, you’re wrong again!” moment.  I was sad.

And then, as I retyped it sans corrections-markup, I had a satisfying realization — it needed intelligibility and grammar editing.  Yay!  What I wrote was too vague and missed some of the real issues (but wasn’t factually wrong per se), but now I got to take the corrected science and correct its writing.  Something I can do!  Competency win!  Honestly, I’m kind of frustrated that I keep finding that the only thing I’m any good at now that I’m doing Real Science ™ is writing, but it is nice to be doing okay in at least one spot.

Plus, there’s just something petty and yet deeply gratifying about fixing subject-verb agreement in something written by someone a lot smarter than you. Hah!

P.S. If the title makes no sense to you, you get a gold star, and probably don’t use the internet very much.  Don’t ever google “lol cats,” and keep up the good work.



  1. I have gotten back many abstracts and pages of papers that are almost completely a new color, thanks to track changes. Sometimes I get stuff wrong, sometimes I just don’t make sense, sometimes my mentor thinks a totally different angle is more appropriate. I’ve actually learned more about scientific writing from the corrections my mentors have made than any class I’ve taken.

    Not that I don’t still get that sick, maybe-I’m-not-cut-out-for-science feeling every time I get said corrections…

  2. I’d say if you weren’t getting messages about what you need to fix, then you’re probably in need of a new messenger.

    $.02, and not worth nearly so much in our deflationary age.

  3. Thanks for the comments. It always does help to hear that I’m not insane or incompetent…for about 10 minutes. And then I go into the lab and spend two hours aligning something the wrong way, and it starts all over again.

    About the messenger…it’s definitely been a better experience, if a less pleasant one, than the feedback I would get from my undergrad advisor. I think I talked more about Carolina basketball with him than about science.

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