On Thursday afternoon, I sent a pair of haiku to Matt. I love haiku.
Liked my stuff and they want to
Let me write thesis
But still! So many
Flies to push and text to write
I am exhausted
And that pretty much sums up the results of my thesis committee meeting. Mission accomplished.
My committee is wonderful. Each time we’ve met, they have given me their full attention and treated our meeting as an opportunity to teach me new things. I love to learn. It is a little overwhelming to have four professors focused with laser-like precision on you—I was nervous before and during the meeting—but they have been generous and supportive of me, and that has made my journey through graduate school that much sweeter.
I am very happy to see the finish line for my degree. It’s been a long road, full of twists and turns, dotted with some success and much failure. The journey has made me laugh and it’s made me cry. It’s also made me very, very crazy. Sometimes I can’t believe I get paid to do this work—I get paid to stumble my way through experiments and to write manuscripts. I get paid to think really, really hard. And even though science is my day job, it’s changed the way I think about everything. It’s no longer possible for me to accept anything as truth—as one blogger puts it, “Nothing is sacred.” The first of two very important things that science has taught me is this: prepare to fail. What the hell does that mean? “Prepare to fail?” It means that we should expect things to go wrong. Because they do, all the time. In fact, the morning of my committee meeting, my hair dryer caught on fire. Swear to God! I was blow-drying my hair, and the dryer sputtered. I pulled it back from my hair to look, and smoke and sparks starting shooting out the bottom. Ahhhh! I frantically clicked it off, yanked the plug out of the wall, and threw it away. Then I thought, Great. Now I’m going to have bad hair on this very important day. Then I fluffed my still-damp hair, thought, oh well, and finished getting ready. I just hoped it wasn’t an inauspicious sign of bad things to come.
The second thing that science has taught me is this: have a back-up plan. My back-up plan after my hair-dryer caught fire was to let my wild hair do its own thing. I got a haircut recently, and I told Matt I look like I have a permanent case of bedhead. I thought that description might appeal to him more than my first description, which was that I look like a shaggy dog right now. Too bad Matt’s a cat person!
From a more worldly perspective, this back-up plan idea is great because it keeps your mind open to other possibilities that you aren’t pursuing right now. I still dream of being a professional writer, but for now, it’s my backup plan. I’m going to take this science thing as far as I can, and I’ll see where I end up. Maybe some day I’ll be teaching your children that they, too, should prepare to fail. I’m sure that lesson will make me a very popular professor.
Many of you, dear readers, sent me good-luck wishes and other kind thoughts last week. For that, I cannot thank you enough. Some of you have known me for a long, long time. I can still remember having college breakfasts with JD, and during breakfast, he’d poke fun at my nerdy science schedule. After breakfast, I’d head off to Intro to Neuroscience as he’d mosey on over to his political science class. But here’s the truth: JD is just as big a nerd as I am. He’s always reading something interesting, adding new pieces to his mental jigsaw puzzle, making sense out of a nonsensical world. Because JD’s nerdiness differs from my nerdiness, our friendship has a certain color and richness that makes it very special to me. I’m so glad he’s NOT a scientist!
Others I’ve known for…uh, a week? Does it count as meeting if this person exists in your life as words on a computer screen? But oh my, what powerful words! I am so excited to have discovered Gena and her beautiful blog, Choosing Raw. I happened upon Gena through her poignant essay on her quitiversary, one year after she quit smoking. Reading her words, I thought to myself, This is a woman who gets it. This is someone who understands that we battle our demons in a series of tiny moments, a sequence of seemingly minor decisions that add up to something so much bigger than us. Gena fought her battle with cigarettes; I fight my battle with a wandering mind and a fidgety body. It seems so strange to say it this way, but the key to success may be letting yourself be uncomfortable for a while. Let yourself be cranky because it’s nighttime, and you used to smoke a cigarette after the dinner dishes were washed. Let yourself be grumpy because you’ve got data to analyze, and moving numbers around Excel spreadsheets is mind numbing. But do what you have to do to get the job done: for Gena, push-ups and reminding herself that she wants to be healthy; for me, an hour break for every hour of work. Repeat as needed.
As much as I try to focus on the process, in cooking and in the rest of my life, it occurs to me that some things are easier to accomplish if we set the process aside for a minute and focus on the goal. Nobody enjoys quitting the smokes. Likewise, it’s fair to say I have not enjoyed graduate school. But I think both are worthy endeavors, and for the latter, I can say that 90% of the time, I am glad I decided to pursue a PhD. At the end of the day, when all the experiments are done, the data crunched, the figures made, the manuscript written, the thesis submitted, the PhD earned, there’s one thing that will always be true: science starts and ends with ideas. We’ll never know “the truth.” All we ever get to see is a kaleidoscope of evidence in which the picture flows endlessly. Certainty slips through our fingers like grains of sand. But never you mind: there is always another experiment to be done.