Season 7, Episode 1 of “Being a Grad Student” Or: How The Meeting Went

When we left off, it was the night before the scheduled Mentoring Committee Meeting, where I was to lay out the issue before us: ~200 hours of data was collected. All of it corrupted by what I believed was some electrostatic patch charge on a plate, giving an enhanced signal giving us a toque on the balance over a thousands times what we should see.

I didn’t sleep that night. And by that I do not mean “I tossed and turned in bed all night.” I mean, I got in bed by 11:30, read to try and take my mind off things, and couldn’t fall asleep. I’d known I would probably wake up early, so I’d grabbed a clean set of clothes and stashed them in our spare bedroom. I’ve done this repeatedly over the last couple years, knowing that I wake up early when stressed and from experience have found that fumbling around in the dark or using my phone as a flashlight both wake up my wife.

So I went to the back bedroom, and finally fell asleep around 1:30am. I was awake, WIDE awake by 3. I tried reading again, but at a certain point, when you are that awake, when your adrenaline is pumping for no good reason, I’ve learned just to funnel that energy into action. Tossing and turning wont give me any rest and will just build the stress. So I get up, shower, and head to work, pausing to grab a 12 ounce cranberry flavored Red Bull and a couple doughnuts from the gas station on my way in.

Seriously, this thesis has been fueled by those addictive Red Bulls. Specifically the cranberry. Sooooo good. Amanda and Red Bull have kept me going.

Having made it to the lab before 5am, I learned something about the world. Or at least about Saint Louis near campus. Coffee shops don’t open that early. That morning I compiled a binder full of work, in chronological order. Post it notes coming out of the top, labeling “important” reports I’ve done. Reports detailing either a significant change I’d suggested, with data to back it up, or characterization of a piece of equipment, where I’d presented data on how it worked. I’d hoped those reports could sway the committee that I’d actually done some science, even if the main experiment was still currently inoperative.

Printing those extra copies of the reports, collecting and organizing my work to present to the committee wasn’t as time consuming as I’d feared, as I’d already been working to organize everything in anticipation of my leaving the lab. By 7:20 I was done, and I layed down, exhausted onto the couch in the lab and passed out. I wish I could say it was a dreamless sleep, but it wasn’t.

I was startled awake by a fellow graduate student coming into the lab around 9am. I felt much more refreshed and would later find out I slept better on that couch than I had at home. With less than 2 hours left to the meeting, I went back to work. It was at this point I slammed the Red Bull.

By the time 11am finally came, I had basically organized all my work in such a way that it had never been before. I was ready. Or so I thought.

When the meeting began, I (formally) explained to the committee as a whole what the issue was. They’d all heard it from me before, but I wanted to lay out exactly where we were. I pulled out the raw data (graphed) and explained it in detail until it seemed we were all on the same page. To my utter surprise, there wasn’t the slightest discussion on their part about a possibility of me not writing a thesis and defending it, only how to (possibly) pivot the focus, or how to approach writing it. At some point, fairly early on, I realized I was playing the Devil’s Advocate, attacking the suggestions, trying to poke holes in their ideas, trying to find all the things an outsider would find fault with. I didn’t want to spend a few more months working on a thesis (without a stipend) only to have an unsuccessful defense. I didn’t want to spend months working for nothing, and have used up our savings writing instead focusing on job hunting with my current education level.

Thankfully, I was rebuffed at each point and was convinced that there was a viable path forward.  I was later told it sounded as if I was trying to talk myself out of a PhD. And perhaps I was daunted by the idea of completely rewriting everything or just scared of defending without having reasonable data. Having been convinced that a defendable thesis was at least possible and plausible, I was asked to leave so the committee could discuss it in private.

I waited in a chair at the end of the hallway. It was far enough away that I couldn’t overhear whatever was being discussed in the room, but I had a clear vantage point of the doors. I knew I’d hear what was decided eventually, but I couldn’t leave that hallway. As time slowly crawled on, I had the chance to speak with quite a few people I hadn’t seen recently.

Ten, fifteen, and then twenty minutes passed with me sitting in that hallway. My confidence was shaken. How long did it take to discuss this? What private information could be shared right now? Or was it some debate in my competence? Who was on my side? Better yet, who had lost confidence in me (other than myself)? Finally they left. I’d hoped to thank my committee members for their time, but my adviser bee-lined it to me. He was going to write up the recommendations formally, and then send it to me. He didn’t let on to what those were though, which was fine as I’d see them soon. At this point the other two members were already going in opposite directions and caught by someone else who needed to speak with them.

So I continued to wait in the hallway, feeling a bit creepy as I just meandered back and forth aimlessly, waiting for one of them to finish their discussion, just to thank them. One of them finished up after what was probably a short time but felt as much of an eternity as waiting in the chair had been. It was brief, things felt positive in the conversation until we discussed my coming back to finish installing equipment and taking more data.

My heart sunk. I explained how that’d be very strenuous on our limited (no-income) budget. I realized that he’d forgotten that I was off the stipend starting the end of the month. Suddenly things clicked for him, as if the purpose of the meeting, and my urgency finally made sense. And there was a not-so-subtle shift (or perhaps I read way too much into it or projected) where it seemed the last vestiges of “well, maybe he’s just being a little lazy” seemed to evaporate from him. Eyes when wide with an “Ooooooh, oh, that makes total sense now!” (or something to that effect). I was somewhat more comforted by this shift, yet my heart learched. What else had I failed to impress upon them? We finished up speaking and I stayed in the hall, waiting for the last professor to finish up talking to a colleague.

Eventually I gave up on waiting. I was starving at this point, having eaten breakfast around 4am, and it was nearly 1pm. I wrote an email to the third professor and tried to go back to work. I can’t even tell you what else happened that day. I think I did more organizing. More printing of graphs and updating a notebook, filling out a binder more… but it was all a blur. Possibly sleep deprivation played a big role here, but also, I couldn’t stop refreshing my email.

By 4:30pm I needed to leave. I’d been on campus for too long. I kept waiting for that list, and was really stressing out over it. All my fears about feedback came roaring back. Had I not impressed upon everyone how terrified I was about being left to drift in the wind? That was my exact feeling at that moment, just hours after the meeting.

I should have realized what happened, but I didn’t, so I emailed my advisor’s assistant. I had a feeling they’d be the one to actually type up the recommendations or at least would know something about it. Turns out we were just waiting for the other committee members to approve the write up. That still hasn’t happened, as far as I’m aware, but I was given the unapproved draft.

Current mission: Write up the damned thesis just like the data isn’t crap. Build up the analysis tools, calculate the Newtonian gravitational potential and then the torque on the balance due to it, and put a bound on the inverse square law violation. It’d be a HUGE possible violation, but at least I’d show that I’d have the skills to detect it, if the experiment worked. And also write up what needs to be done.

This means that most of what I’ve been writing gets to stay the exact same. There is still the review process with my advisor while I’m away working, but I’ve drafted a proposal for deadlines on my submissions to him, turn around deadlines for him replying to me, and a fairly detailed rubric for him to apply to my work. Mainly I need him to focus on those questions so that we don’t go back and forth a million times.

At this point I feel… mostly relieved. There is still a ton of work to do over the next few months. But it is mostly writing, a little programing, and a bit more analysis. I’m staying a graduate student for at least this semester. Possibly not defending until the spring semester, partially because I padded the submission deadlines for myself because I plan to get a part time job in Boulder once we get there, to augment our income.

For now, I am still a graduate student and a PhD candidate. So the saga continues!

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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