Archive for December, 2010


the disposable academic, or, more good reasons to jump ship

December 29, 2010

Due to the awesomeness of my roommate’s frequent flyer account with American Airlines, my house is now receiving The Economist, along with a few other random magazines (she was offered a chance to cash out excess expiring miles in magazine subscriptions).  The current edition sitting on our coffee table has a fascinating (and well-timed) article titled “The Disposable Academic.”  It details the ridiculous waste of the research doctorate system, and is the first “real” publication I’ve seen to flat-out say that the system exploits students and postdocs for cheap labor, when most of those students and postdocs won’t ever be able to find an academic position further down the road.

On job prospects and grad student exploitation:

Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.

Go to China, it seems, is the moral of every story these days about careers and business opportunities.  An excellent point later in the article takes a look at why the number of PhDs being churned out continues to increase even despite this, with a bonus snapshot of why it sucks to be a woman in academia, part 7382628 (emphasis mine):

Academics tend to regard asking whether a PhD is worthwhile as analogous to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in the world. They believe that knowledge spills from universities into society, making it more productive and healthier. That may well be true; but doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual.

The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned. The more bright students stay at universities, the better it is for academics. Postgraduate students bring in grants and beef up their supervisors’ publication records. Academics pick bright undergraduate students and groom them as potential graduate students. It isn’t in their interests to turn the smart kids away, at least at the beginning. One female student spoke of being told of glowing opportunities at the outset, but after seven years of hard slog she was fobbed off with a joke about finding a rich husband.

Then, of course, there’s the usual commentary about the extremely limited increase in salary that you get for a PhD over a master’s degree.  All in all, it paints a pretty grim picture of the state of PhD work across the world, and for once, hardly gives any article space to the arguments for doing a PhD.

It’s worth noting that I do think there are great reasons for doing a PhD.  I used to subscribe to them wholeheartedly, and believed that a PhD was right for me.  I still think it’s right for a lot of the people I know (probably more than job prospects allow).  I just know now that it’s no longer right for me.


home, just barely

December 28, 2010

Much love to all who are traveling or have been traveling on the eastern seaboard since Christmas.  I feel you.

Our flight was supposed to leave Charlotte at 8:30pm yesterday, and go directly to Denver.  Yay direct flights.  Though Charlotte got a lot of snow on Christmas (by Charlotte standards), it seemed that things were cleared up two days later, and we didn’t anticipate more than minor systemic delays because of the holiday crush and the echoes of the disaster further north.  Leaving the house, everything was fine and on time.

Little did we know that our flight was a continuation of a flight originating in Newark.  Joy.  Once we found this out, we got a bit concerned, but an agent on the phone assured us that the plane was in the air and on its way south.  Bullet dodged!  We were picking up what had to be the only plane leaving Newark!  Cue cautious optimism.  Shortly after expressing said cautious optimism, our flight comes down with Creeping Delay Syndrome.  Primary symptoms include a gradual postponement of the departure time at intervals of 15-60 minutes, and a slew of contradictory information from gate agents, phone agents, messages from the airline, and online flight tracking data.  Wheeeeeee!

A few hours later, our flight’s case of Creeping Delay Syndrome has progressed, and the patient is pronounced dead.  The gate clears, or at least its entire population immediately runs across the hall to the special services desk to get rebooked.  Best case scenario is sometime the following day, as we have a bad habit of traveling on the day’s last flight to Denver.  I get on the phone because I don’t play the waiting-in-line-with-a-whole-cancelled-flight game unless I have to, or at least I stand in line while on the phone, and race to see which route gets me talking to a human faster (usually the phone, FYI).  I get through the menus and make it to being on hold, and the line moves one person, when our flight suddenly makes a miraculous recovery.  Hallelujah, it’s a miracle, the patient was resuscitated, and we have a new plane coming our way!

…from JFK.

Yeah.  Because that’s so much easier to get out of than Newark.  At this point I decide I hate my life.

Even though our flight is un-cancelled, its case of Creeping Delay Syndrome continues to progress, and a few times edges towards terminal once more.  We’ve already missed our chance at taking the last bus home from the Denver airport once we arrive, and had long since lined up a ride, but at this point our ride starts to ask how long we’d be stranded at DIA if she didn’t pick us up after all (answer: at least 4 hours, assuming an optimistic arrival time).  We start to hunt for other rides, and meet with extreme unenthusiasm all around (“Hi!  I’ve missed you, looking forward to seeing you!  How about we meet at DIA at 2:30am tomorrow morning to catch up?”).  Desperation provides all manner of inspiration, and the partner’s announcement of our predicament to the general gate area manages to land us a ride to my house once (if) we arrive.  There’s camaraderie to be had in shared suffering.

About three hours after our scheduled departure, we receive word that our plane has lifted off the ground at JFK, and flight tracking websites report the same.  The little plane-shaped icon even moves southward by a few pixels!  Holy shit, it’s really happening.  Creeping Delay Syndrome eases, or at least they stop updating our estimated departure time (officially our flight was delayed to 12:10am, but we didn’t push back from the gate until 12:40, and continued to sit on the tarmac for a goodly while after that).

The partner begins singing: “Never thought I’d be on a plane, it’s a big flying metal thang…”  Link is to the original song, which refers to a boat, but hey.  We’re loopy by now.

So, after we actually get on it, our flight is largely uneventful, though one of the un-events is unfortunately that they don’t do a snack service, and none of us have eaten in hours and hours, since we were afraid to leave the gate lest our flight be cancelled or, heaven forbid, actually depart.  We touch down at 2am mountain standard time, manage to get a shuttle to the remote parking and find our saviors’ car by 3am, and finally open my front door at 4am.  Which, of course, is 6am eastern, which, of course, is what we’re operating on.

But we made it.  I’m actually back in Colorado, sitting quite comfortably (sleepily) on my very own couch.  Yes!

Best of luck to the rest of you suckers who are flying anywhere remotely near the eastern seaboard.



December 19, 2010

Two of my roommates are going to be here for Christmas this year, and so, we have a Christmas tree in our living room.  The driving force behind the tree bought pink lights, because, as she put it, “we’re a house full of girls!”  Right.  Nevermind that we’re all physicists and engineers and do almost nothing stereotypically girly with our time or our wardrobes (skirts + cute shoes + experimental science = not allowed, lab safety and all).  We are now officially girly, though, because we have pink lights for our tree.

My roommate then proceeded to do a very dangerous thing: she put the pink lights on the tree, and left for a four-day ski trip.  She left me with a pink-lighted, completely undecorated tree, and trusted I would make it classy.  Oh, oh roommate, you’ve known me for two and a half years now, when will you learn?

This is our fully-decorated tree.

It is nothing if not classy.

That’s probably pretty hard to see, so here are a few close-ups.  You might still have to click on them for full-size to get the proper effect.  It was nice to finally put the seventy thousand Victoria’s Secret catalogs we get to some kind of fun use instead of just recycling them, and I never thought I’d have cause to be cheerful that they have an “angels” line of underwear.

A few of our ornaments. Amusingly, the pasteboard backing is a Cap'n Crunch box.

I really enjoy the look on her face.

And, finally, what’s a tree like this without something to unwrap underneath?

She was well-paid in Velveeta for this endeavor.

I hope I’m here when my roommate gets back from her trip this evening.


wtf minesweeper, wtf

December 15, 2010

I spend a decent bit of my time playing minesweeper. This might surprise you, especially those of you who I often dismiss with claims that I’m busy and don’t have time to talk/hang out/get beer/sleep/eat/whatever. But, I swear there’s a legit explanation here. Minesweeper can be played in 90-second increments while a photoluminescence scan runs, or while the system equilibrates between scans, whereas fun or useful times can rarely be had within those same time parameters.  Also, my data collection computer doesn’t have an internet connection.

So, minesweeper. At this point (months and months into a short-scan-heavy project), I’m pretty damn good at it. My original goal was to set all the records on each of the computers in the lab I use; I did that a few months ago (not hard, really, since nobody else seems to play it on those computers).  Now I’m simply trying to beat my own records.  It’s a considerably harder goal, and I still only actually beat the expert setting about 1/8 of the time.  The other day, I was absolutely destroying a board, when disaster struck: minesweeper cheated me.

Click on the image to see the brutal unfairness of it all, and to admire my shockingly good time. Also, this data is unpublished, so don't steal it. It's also unlabeled and unanalyzed, so good luck if you try to.

My best time by far, only two mines left, and no possible way to tell where they are.  And of course, I guess wrong.  BASTARD WINDOWS PROGRAM.  It wants me to fail.


in which several recent events are discussed, illness edition

December 11, 2010

Being sick sucks.  I can peg a semi-exact cause now, though: the only other lab person who was on my flight back from Boston last week is also sick since Monday, with very similar symptoms.  Grrr.  Stupid air travel plague.  It’s what I suspected anyway.

My roommate often suffers from roommate-itis in the same way that I suffer from Lady-Quantum-itis, and is just about as susceptible to catching air travel plague as I am.  She has a plan to front-load the vitamin C before departing for lands east for the holidays, and I think I am going to follow her example.  It would be miserable to get over one case of air travel plague only to catch another.

I like pseudoephedrine a lot less today.  I couldn’t sleep last night, and ended up chasing a benadryl with valerian tincture at 2:30am before I could.  This is probably not the best approach to sleeping.  Also, the damn stuff isn’t even keeping me from wanting to stab ventilation holes in my face anymore.

Sometimes student health clinics are a disaster, and sometimes they amaze me with their awesomeness.  It’s a strong function of who treats you.  Yesterday, I saw the same guy who sent me for a CT scan after my head injury a year and a half ago, and I had forgotten how fabulous he was (in my defense, I saw him through a blinding headache last time).  Our appointment went like this:

  1. I describe my symptoms and present my theory that I caught a virus that may have spawned a secondary sinus infection when I took too long to get well (Lady-Quantum-itis, as it is).
  2. He asks me, “if you were the doctor, what would you do to fix you?”
  3. I tell him I need to start azithromyacin if I don’t start to improve the next day, but it’s a day or so too early still, and I’m only in there because it’s Friday afternoon and I really don’t want to be defenseless in the event of worsening over the weekend.
  4. He examines me.
  5. He says, “I concur.”
  6. He writes me a script for azithromyacin, and tells me that my thought that I should wait another day before starting it (in case I don’t actually need antibiotics) isn’t a bad one at all.

He is now a favorite, up there with the woman who gave me steroids when I was completely healthy, just so I’d have them on hand when I got sick enough to need them.  I love it when doctors listen to me.

I think I may be getting better without antibiotics, which is thoroughly shocking for me.  If I can make it through the day without running a fever or wanting to stab holes in my face, I won’t start them.  At least, if I don’t want to stab holes in my face for very much of the day (I want to right now).  Yes!  Here’s hoping.



December 9, 2010

I never take it, because it makes me feel weird and stops me from sleeping, but after a day of trying to do work and wishing I could stab a ventilation hole in my face to stop the pain from the pressure (somehow I don’t think this would help my pain that much, but it is so appealing), I broke down and bought some of that glorious pseudoephidrine/guaifenesin* mixture they sell.  I was already downing the guaifenesin anyway to keep the green stuff from solidifying in my lungs.

Oh man.  This stuff is awesome.  I can now touch my face without wanting to cry.  I’ll have to revisit this assessment in a few hours when I try to sleep, though.

And yes, my throw-up-on-the-bus episode turned into the standard Lady-Quantum-itis, where I spew forth massive quantities of strange colored mucus from my upper respiratory tract.  It’s been a fun week around here.

*for those of you playing along at home who aren’t at the point yet where you’re figuring out what to give your pharmacists for Christmas, pseudoephidrine is the active ingredient in Sudafed, and guaifenesin is what they put in the plain Robitussin.  And yes, yes I am going to put together a gift basket for my pharmacists.  They are that awesome to me, even if it scares me that they recognize my voice on the phone.


monday, aka i hate everything

December 6, 2010

Ways not to start your day: vomiting on the bus to work.  Especially if said bus is taking you somewhere where you will be effectively stranded for the next 7 hours.  Unless you opt to use your two-bus, hour-and-a-half option, in which case you will only be stranded for the next 2 hours.

Ways not to continue your day: missing your next two-bus,  hour-and-a-half option.  Especially when it’s not your fault, and the first of those two buses leaves early.

At this point I’m wondering if it’s worth it to take my next hour-and-a-half option, or if I’m better off just sticking it out here.  Sorry, coworkers, if I infect you with my airport-caught plague.