Friday, June 25, 2004

On Being a Grad Student, part two

So, today was my first day in a real lab. If I don't screw it up, this could be the world's coolest job.

All I actually did was wind a some wire around some plastic pipe and then glue them together, to make a solenoid (you wouldn't believe the amount of wire, pipe, and epoxy I wasted in this process... Or how long it took me. In the end, the epoxy still wasn't holding properly, so I tied some rubber bands around the whole thing.) The impressive thing was that I made a solenoid. I didn't buy it, or even buy a kit. It seems like there's no way anything I make, out of bits of spare wire and pipe, with all of this clumsiness and waste, should actually work, but George seem satisfied. So next he had me assemble a mount (for a photon detector), which was like playing with tinker-toys. He had to coach me on pretty much every step, embarrassingly, but in the end, he used the thing I made.

I love the guys and the work they're doing -- making atoms do tricks, like a quantum flea circus, by poking them with lasers -- and I can't get over how cool the lab itself actually looks. Red readout displays, tinfoil-wrapped vacuum chambers, turquoise laser beams, wires draped from the ceiling, glowing crystals (if you take the cover off the infrared lasers they've built, anyway) and even a giant cannister of liquid nitrogen.

But all of this enthusiasm comes after a really sickening final month or so of the quarter. I was TA'ing, taking three classes, and preparing for qualifiers. As a TA, I had to deal with formal reprimand and a crisis which was a part of the reason for the reprimand, involving vanishing exams. (Not my fault, as it turns out, although I'm irresponsible enough that I assumed, like everyone else, that it was.) The classes were frustrating and made me feel stupid. Particularly one which ended with a final presentation like everyone's public-speaking anxiety dream, complete malfunctioning computers and heckling. And the qualifiers meant I couldn't justify, to myself, wasting any time on frivolous things like novels and internet discussions and social outings. I felt like I was doing nothing but physics, and also like I was getting nothing done. (The only indulgence I allowed myself was watching baseball, and then only because I could, more or less, do homework at the same time.) In spite of all of that, or because of it, I still failed two of my three qualifiers, and now I have to spend the summer trying to learn this stuff for real. (I'm TA'ing over the summer too, along with the research. Actually, technically I'm an "Adjunct Lecturer," because TA's have to be enrolled in classes, but the department doesn't pay for summer classes.)

So, the recent memory of disgust, but the prospect of delight. I find myself swinging dizzily from optimism to pessimism and back again within the space of seconds. To make it worse, I still don't know what's a flaw in the system and what's a flaw in myself, or how normal all of this up-and-down is.

But at least I feel less isolated, and I had a solenoid and an instrument mount to show for my efforts, at the end of today.

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