Pamela on being a graduate vampire

By Phil Plait | August 5, 2008 4:18 pm

Pamela Gay has written a nice post on what it was like to be in grad school, complete with being a night owl. She observed far more than I ever did; using Hubble meant waiting for the data to be delivered (on tape! by mail! or by me driving up to the Space Telescope Science Institute and picking it up!) and not needing to stay up all night. Though, for my Masters, I did observe every night for two weeks in a row, inducing almost literally waking nightmares… but that’s a tale for another day. Go read Pamela’s. As usual, she speaks truth.


Comments (33)

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  1. Astronomy in the Dark Ages at I Think I Need a Shoehorn | August 6, 2008
  1. Waking nightmares….those aren’t fun.

  2. Davidlpf

    Being a natural night owl staying up was not the problem, the problem was the early morning classes.

  3. I have trouble with the strange noises in the dome, the rustling in the woods and the bats!

  4. vic

    I spent one (long) week observing in the top of the dome, by the telescope, in the winter. My college had its own 36-inch telescope and we had just installed new tracking software. We had to be sure it didn’t run the telescope into the dome or put it into an unnatural position. So someone had to stay in the dome and watch it move. Did I mention it was Wisconsin? I’m still not warm.

    Oh yeah and I agree, next morning labs were the worst!

  5. hale_bopp

    Way back in the prehistoric 1980s’, I was using an early CCD camera on a telescope. Well, they just got the camera and had no software to reduce data (darks, flats, etc). I spent many days at a computer typing away, coding data reduction routines that always worked perfectly on our test images only to be flustered when I went to the telescope at night and took real data and, hmmm…the real data mucks things up?!?

    Mine was in Iowa…and I finally warmed up afte3 3 years in Tucson.

  6. hale_bopp

    Too bad you got there on Wed last week…you could have joined us Tuesday night at GORT…nice, clear night, lots of stars, meteors and satellites (including a nice pass by a tumbling satellite).

    Oh yeah, we took some images also!

  7. Davidlpf

    Vic, I tried to get an undergrad degree in physics both places a there were domes. The first place was one top of three story building in New Brunswick, every week I took two groups every thursday night except when comets Hyakatuke and hail bob and that Hale Bob and that was thursday and Friday nights. At the second university it was on top of 22 story residence for the school in Halifax NS so I know cold nights. Actually in Halifax the dome had small holes to allow keep the scope close to the conditions outside and the snow storm blow snow all through the dome. The next day I went up to do some solar observing for a course and there was about a couple millimeters of snow all over the place. I grabbed the phone and called the tech and said “Got a shovel.”
    Also that year I left the tracking motor on and the mount the scope had had all the motor wires contained in there. Unknown to anybody the cables were all wrapped around the motors and leaving the motor on just tightend the wires around the motors and took a week the observatory tech to fix.

  8. Davidlpf

    Oh in Halifax several weeks I was up there for 5 times a week. There were two first year courses I took images for, and also a second year project track asteroids.

  9. BlondeReb3

    Being in Graduate School (granted for a different subject) I can commiserate (I’m so tired I’m not even sure that was spelled correctly). Having nightmares about Hitler is never fun…

  10. Dave Hall

    I was in Grad school many moons ago. And its sad to gear it hasn’t changed very much. Granted my adventures were in the History department, but social “scientists”seem to feel the need to compensate for not being a real science (Thanks Dr.Science!). And they pile the crap on too.
    The best advice I ever received re: grad School came from one of my undergrad major professors. He told me: “Its merely survival. After you’ve been kicking against the pricks–literally and figuratively–long enough they’ll give you your degree and you’ll have made it.”

    I almost did. I made it through the MA and got almost ready for my prelims, then life happened.

    Probably the only thing of value I really learned was how not to treat my fellow human beings. I had enough negative examples of arrogant (and ignorant) pedants that I decided I would never be one.

  11. Quiet Desperation

    Pfft. I got my MSEE while working 40 hours a week as an R&D project lead. Lightweights. 😉

  12. Natalie

    Wow! Tomorrow is the first day of orientation for graduate school (Chemistry). What’s interesting is no matter how much I hear about all the bad parts, I am so excited to start! I figure, even if it’s the worst five (?!?!?) years of my life, it will be over and it will still be awesome! Here’s to hoping!

  13. Todd W.

    Good luck, Natalie!

  14. Hah. I spent a month at Cerro Tololo one summer, and it was totally awesome! Mostly because I was 9, and if I fell asleep in the dome it was no problem! Lessee, Magellanic Clouds, giant condors eating meat out of your hand, beautiful mountains, electric carts to drive around in, night assistants to develop all the photos I was taking with my box camera (with VP-620 film! Yeah, shooting medium-format at age 9, woo-hoo!) And plenty of Creedence Clearwater Revival in the dome.

    And my dad is still cool, even if he’s gone on to studying scallops. Wait, because he’s gone on to studying scallops.

    Er, I seem to have gotten off the subject. I should go post this on my own blog. kThxBye.

  15. Dave Hall

    Quiet Desperation Says:
    Pfft. I got my MSEE while working 40 hours a week as an R&D project lead. Lightweights.

    Yeah, yeah, and you had to walk 20 miles a day to do it–in the snow–uphill–both ways–barefoot!!! 😉

  16. Skeptic Tim

    A wee while ago (about 40 years) I was a grad student trying to get decent spectra from a few late type stars (in those days a curve of growth analysis was a long laborious process): in winter: using the old David Dunlop 72″ instrument. (Yep, same one that confirmed black holes many years later). It was difficult enough to get that optical spectroscope to accept a glass photographic plate (suitably bent around its curved mount – glass doesn’t always bend right when its really cold) in October, north of Toronto, but when I actually got my viewing time – during January and February – (nice clear nights, mind you), it took many long, long, cold, cold nights babysitting that magnificent instrument to convince just a few stars to let me try to peak! I wonder if the numbing cold of a few of those nights convinced me to retreat into geophysics (mostly in the north, mostly chilly!).

  17. Yeah, I like radio astronomy. We can observe all day AND night. You never know what your schedule will bring! But I remember having to do optical or IR labs all night for one class, then going to our other classes the next day. Once, one of my labmates woke up in the middle of a class after a late-night session and blurted out, “huh? Is he still talking?!”

  18. Phil, What is your opinion on the Dark Rift theory, that we’re boned pretty soon thanks to it…

  19. CanadianLeigh

    @Skeptic Tim,
    What is the latest news on the Dunlap telescope? Here at the wet coast it has been said that it is up for sale. It would be a shame for the Toronto area to lose such a historical piece of equipment. It seems to be the Canadian way to pave over our heritage.

  20. Yeah, university taught me the hard way what a hypnogogic hallucination was the hard way. I’m sure that my Masters will go much better, and I will have no problems sleeping.

    CanadianLeigh: the Dunlap deal is nearly finished. I have some friends in the astronomy dept at UofToronto, and that’s their buzz. UofT says that they’re going to use the money to improve science education facilities at the main campus. Still, cold-comfort as far as I’m concerned.

    In addition, Montreal has a similar observatory that has been sold, and is about to be torn down. But, Montreal is doing it right, in that they’re using the money to build a newer, better observatory just outside the city (away from the light pollution)! If only we in Ontario were so smart/have a basic awareness.

  21. Don Snow

    Thank you.

    Now, I know what my twin brother went through. Out of High School, he went to college, and I went into the military. His doctorate’s in math and computers.

    To my little experience, grad school sounds like five years of Infantry Trainingt Regiment: up all night, classes during the day, battalion manuevers, equipment orientation for four weeks. So much crammed into four weeks. And you guys went through that for years.

    Wish this had been here for me to read, when I first found the blog. I would not have made such a fool of myself.

  22. You think that’s bad, try working in IT..

    8-10 hour work days and countless work “nights” because in IT you’re merely a seat warmer by day and saving your real work for nights.

  23. Andy Beaton

    My best school horror story – my observing partner at U of Toronto back in the 80’s once froze an eyelid to an eyepiece observing in the freezing cold. Luckily, eyepieces are removable. Now I only use eyepieces with rubber cups in the winter.

    And it does look like the DDO sale is going through, though some of us still hope that the observatory can be kept running as a public outreach facility, with the cooperation of the new owners.

  24. Quiet Desperation

    Yeah, yeah, and you had to walk 20 miles a day to do it–in the snow–uphill–both ways–barefoot!!!

    Nope. My employer had a satellite video link to USC. I only had to be on campus for exams. Viva la space age! Or is it le? Who thought applying genders to things was a good idea? Pft! Everyone should speak English, the open source language. 😉

    Oh, and they even had VCRs you could program so we could watch the lectures on tape at home the next day.

  25. It is remarkable to me how similar other people’s grad school experiences in any discipline are to my own experience in psychology. I had initially thought as an undergrad that psychology departments would be filled with nice, caring people. After all, the clinically focused psychologists were in the helping profession. WRONG! I found psychology departments to be filled with maladjusted, weird, cranky, nasty, professors with poor social skills. They weren’t all that way, of course, and some departments were more hospitable than others. But Pamela’s description as well as others’ here rings so true and recognizable to my own experience.

    If you love a subject and are hell-bent on getting an advanced degree, I say, go for it. Just know that it is going to hurt sometimes and you may have several occasions (about 10^15) to doubt yourself and your choices.

    Most importantly, it will be over eventually despite the cruel time dilation that apparently occurs in grad school (Einstein should have included that in his theory). You will be done one day and for the rest of your life (unless you’re one of those masochists who decides to do it all again and get another degree. Can’t help you.). And, like repeatedly smashing your head against a wall, it will feel SO good when it stops. You’ll have your degree, and what I consider life, will resume.

    However, if you do something like Pamela did and go into academia, then you’re just making yourself a colleague of those crazy professors and answering to nasty journal editors, granting committees and tenure committees and your homework becomes reading your student’s homework. It is like Graduate School 2.0.

    I avoided academia. Ten years after graduation that feeling that I don’t have any homework or a paper due still lingers and feels great. I’m FREE!!! Woohoo!!! I can watch TV! I can read Phil’s blog! Ahhh.

    I think Phil is smart for crafting his career in the way that he has. It seems to be on his own terms, filled with just the things he wants to fill it with.

  26. Dave Hall

    Quiet Desperation Says:

    Nope. My employer had a satellite video link to USC. I only had to be on campus for exams. Viva la space age! Or is it le? Who thought applying genders to things was a good idea? Pft! Everyone should speak English, the open source language.

    Oh, and they even had VCRs you could program so we could watch the lectures on tape at home the next day.

    Slacker! I would have wished for such technology–if it existed back then! VCRs?? Bah!! We had to record our videos on wax cylinders–then wait 50 years for the TV to be invented so we could play them back! You young ‘uns got it tooo easy–Now1 Getthehelloffmylawn!!!

  27. Quiet Desperation

    We had to record our videos on wax cylinders–then wait 50 years for the TV to be invented so we could play them back!

    Hey, the folks who recorded audio on clay pots never got to hear it. :-)

    Actually, I don’t think anyone has recovered any audio from a clay pot yet. Didn’t Mythbusters cover that?

  28. CanadianLeigh

    @Cdn Skeptic,
    I had read in our local rag that a couple of astronomers that live in Whistler were trying to raise cash to buy the Dunlop and move it to Whistler as a tourist attraction.
    As much as I like promoting astronomy for the regular public (which I qualify as), I thought this was a stupid idea. Locating a telescope of that caliber in a steap mountain valley in a rainforest is just plain dumb. Others I have spoken to at a local astronomy meat agreed and also added that moving anything other that the mirror would be a waist of money. Much better finding a new use for it where it is. I know that the U of T has some funding issues, but could this all be part of the anti-science that seems to be building up in various government bodies in our country?

  29. CanadianLeigh

    Whoops, I should have proof read that last post. Pardon my spelling.

  30. I was like that during my Masters, except I’m not an astronomer; I’m an engineer. I only stayed up through the night because during the day my office was filled with other grad students loudly talking about poker. Not a great work environment.

  31. Dave Hall

    Quiet Desperation Says:
    Hey, the folks who recorded audio on clay pots never got to hear it.

    Now don’t go sassin’ me boy! My grandpa had a great collection of clay pot recordin’s!
    He had all of the greats; Hamurabi and the Lawyers; the Gilgamesh Trio; Not to mention Sargon’s famous “Tigris Rag”–the long version with the lyre solo!
    Can still play ’em too ifn I can knap a new point on the needle fer the player–but they don’t make flint like the old days–just this cheap obsidian stuff!

  32. Drwla

    The guys who talk about how graduate work is/was a pain in the ass shouldn’t be doing it. If what you’re doing for the degree isn’t fun (and quite possibly hard work as well), chances are you should be pursuing some other area of endeavor. The payoff is in your sense of achievement, and in the pride you feel in your results!


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