The Story So Far…

Note:
1) There has been an edit to this post (besides this note) where I changed part of my discussion where I spoke about a colleague in particular (who wished not to be mentioned) to be more general. Editorially, this actually works better as it more correctly illuminates a general situation. On a personal note I’ll add that I had hoped my reference was positive, as I’ve greatly appreciated their hard work and dedication on my behalf (as well as others) but deeply regret any distress caused.
2) I don’t believe any of the bare facts of this little peak into my private-self-turned-public are incorrect. The majority of this article are my feelings and opinions. I relate events as the appeared to me, at the time they were unfolding. This is to give greater insight to my mental state. Actually, that’s bullshit. The truth is: I was freaking the hell out and needed to get that off my chest! I tried to use a bit of humor, as is my way, to express very deep concerns. I’ve done my utmost to forego any hyperbole, which, if you know me is incredibly difficult. <\end edit>

 
This is possibly the last post for this site (theotherstlarch) as, in a week, I’ll leave Saint Louis for good. Some things about this next big step are so solidly reassuring that they make all the rest far more than bearable. The most important part is my amazing wife, Amanda, and knowing I have someone to face this all with. But other parts aren’t as much a “sure thing” such as tomorrow’s meeting. A meeting which is going to determine what I do with my days for the next few months and, in a possibly significant way, the rest of my life.

Tomorrow’s meeting will decide if I continue writing on my thesis. Actually, tomorrow decides if that is even an option. And that scares me. I friend of mine, Andrew said the nicest thing about all of this to me tonight: “I hope it all works out however you want it to.” It was very kind, but really hammers home the question, “How do I want things to work out?” I wish that was as easy of a question to answer as it sounds. To be able to understand why, you’d have to know the circumstances. Partly it comes down to the fact that this PhD has been delayed over and over again. False starts and countless equipment failures have me multiplying any estimation for even the tiniest deadline by at least 5, and still failing to meet the time requirements in a spectacular fashion.

It would be easy to blame this all on myself, my inability to properly diagnose or fix problems, inability to convince my superiors of the necessities for changes (or at least not fast enough), or possibly just a general deficit in general intelligence. Any and all of which I’m sure have contributed somewhat. I have no illusions that I’ve navigated any of my challenges perfectly or through the best route, but I’ve had enough successes based on my hard work and/or perseverance to fall into that mental trap that I’m somehow worthless or stupid. But trap is often there when we face challenges. It is a terrible, and yet easy, scapegoat.

I really should explain. I can’t assume you are one of the people I’ve rambled at while tired. As of this moment, the experiment I’ve been working on for 5 years isn’t capable of producing worthwhile data. And my time is up. This summer I was given the goal of gathering 100 hours (minimum) of experimental data. That was honestly the first time I’d been given a genuine goal to meet with an concrete pass or fail. Which all by itself is a bit disturbing. But this was the first time the goal was quantitative vs qualitative… or even just subjective.  If that sounds frustrating, you’re right.

Over the past few days I’ve been painstakingly going through my notes and trying to organize everything to pass onto the next student. And I’m seeing over and over that expectations haven’t ever been clear. And feedback has been nearly nonexistent. It has left me in a rather constant state of fear and confusion. I have no doubt it is completely unintentional. That doesn’t make it any more effective as a teaching or mentoring strategy. Looking back over notes, I’ve noticed that regularly a third party would intercede and break down the larger goals into smaller, concrete tasks that could then be evaluated easily. I never noticed this pattern, and now I’ve become the lab member with most seniority that’s in the lab on a daily basis. Since I hadn’t recognized that pattern, I haven’t emulated it completely.  I’ve still broken down goals into smaller, obtainable goals, but just for myself. I report my findings at each step, but without the immediate oversight. Most importantly, I have rarely done that for a fellow graduate student. I’ve come to realize that the lab relies on having someone with authority down in the lab on a regular basis. But a graduate student doesn’t have the time or experience to be directly running a full lab. Or perhaps I’m just unwilling to commit that much more time and energy to doing tasks that distract from my PhD work.

Now we are in a unique position. Amanda has defended and has a post-doc lined up, and with how things were going, we thought we’d both be done. I mean, our wedding was planned so that I’d have defended before the wedding and now we’ve already celebrated our first anniversary. But the experiment isn’t working and my adviser has only recently come to that conclusion. I’ve been trying to communicate that to him, but he was out of the country for two months. I’d stressed how important communication was, to the point that he bought a new laptop so that we could Skype weekly. In two months: zero calls. I sent emails explaining that things had broken, and what I was doing about it to very little response. I stopped sleeping. I basically started living in another room so my wife could sleep. I would fall asleep late, and then just head to work early. This wasn’t helped by the fact that construction has been going on campus since May.

I work on an experiment that is very sensitive to vibration. They are building an underground parking lot very close to our basement lab. Not to mention a building right next door as well. Digging from around 5 am until nearly 11 pm. So guess who is up at midnight, watching to see when the noise is finally quiet enough to start the experiment and then wakes up to turn it off before the construction starts and start the feedback system. The feedback system which can’t run during the experiment is collecting data without possibly altering the data but is needed during construction to keep the experiment aligned, which takes days to fix.

At this point maybe you’ve done the math and thought, “Well, even if they work every single day that’s still around 5 hours a night, so you needed just 20 nights, right?” And you’d be right. I collected nearly 200 hours of data and would have kept on trucking until summer ended had my adviser just last week finally started looking at the data. Data I had been sending and talking about in emails while he was gone. Data that had been discussed and shown a few times the first week he was back. At least twice he tried to correct me on the magnitude of what I was reporting. “I think you mean microradians.” “No, sir, I mean milliradians.”

Up to this point, as I’d sent some of the data, graphed, I assumed he knew what he was looking at, and would say if something seemed off. He’s usually quick to remember any of this and prides himself on having it all in his head and on the tip of his tongue. Although I was collecting data at night, I was still working away at the theoretical calculation so it could be subtracted so we could see if anything was out of place. Still working at it. I didn’t have it finished. I still don’t. I do currently have a very rough one. Which, sadly, I’ve only done recently in anticipation of finishing the whole big computer program that takes into account every piece of material that moves in the chamber. Upon finishing that calculation, it is clear that the signal is over a thousand times too high. That’s an entirely reasonable figure to be off by if caused from even an incredibly tiny electrostatic charge. Electricity is so much stronger than gravity you can’t even wrap your mind around it. Think about how easy it is to pick up a piece of paper. Now realize that it is only solid because of electrostatic forces.

Anyhow, yeah, it took my a while to get around to that calculation. I “knew” (i.e. assumed) my adviser would know instantly if something was off. Normally he’s quick to call anything into question. And this is a good thing as it trains you work out reasoned arguments before speaking and being prepared with evidence. But this wasn’t a course of action or some analysis, this was just the raw data. And the data shows that the balance is moving far more than it should given the incredibly tiny changes being made. Once I’d done the calculation, I realized why I’d been “corrected” earlier about my units. What I was looking at was saying that, I shouldn’t be seeing anything given the tiny changes I made. But you can see right on the graph, without any trouble, that the experiment is really responding to the source plate moving. So what makes sense? Thing are moving a thousand times more than you think they should or someone just confused 2 prefixes that are both small and start with m?

So now we’ve realized that there is no time to fix anything. We are already packing up to move. There’s no time to collect more data and there’s nothing to be done with it. And there’s already been a great thesis on this project that was all about methodology. And there’s been an experiment with the same ‘ground breaking’ geometry when it was assumed there wasn’t.

Seems like, even though I’ve fixed more problems than I can count (and I am counting!), that none of them really count if there are still more. So even if I get to continue writing a thesis, a good chuck of it was predicated on the idea that I’d have data and analysis of that data. That isn’t true. Possibly my committee (and I) will come up with a new way to wrap up my work. Perhaps we wont. In that case, I’m just done. I’d go back to looking for a job requiring just a Masters (but I’d have 4 years more of research experience than someone straight out of school). But if we find a new direction, that still requires a major re-tooling of the thesis.

Either way, re-tooling is going to happen: the thesis or me. And I’ll find out which ones are a choice or mandatory tomorrow. Or “vollen-told” as opposed to volunteered (not my joke, heard it today and thought it was funny).

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Author: The Other St. Louis Arch

My name is Adam J. Archibald. I’m a 7th(?) year graduate student at Washington University in Saint Louis. The bulk of my work has been focused on the development of a torsion balance experiment to investigate gravitation at distances below a centimeter. I've also devoted a great deal of time on an experiment probing for violation of the Weak Equivalence Principle. Outside of the lab I enjoy board games, rock climbing, playing music, reading, and occasionally writing.

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