Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Waiting and reading

We may be going on vacation tomorrow. There are promises that the Manchester airport is open, but I'll actually believe it when we're landing, and not a moment before. If we get stuck in the airport, I'm prepared: I've got reading material and a friend who will come rescue us if we're marooned in Atlanta.

There are the books we're taking.

Can you tell which pile is mine and which is Andrew's?

Monday, April 19, 2010

R.I.P. 2003-2010

I haven't quite left work and they've already decided I'm gone.

When I protested (Warning: Monty Python reference ahead), "I'm not dead," I was informed that the 'Graduate Student Renee Michelle' is dead. (If it helps, I think the battery and the sweetener are offerings to my shrine.)

I am now much less worried about our vacation situation. The situation is still uncertain, but we have plans, and then we have back-up plans, and then we have secondary back-up plans. Not all involve getting to Europe in the next two weeks, but all involve me taking a long vacation, and I think that's all I need right now.

(And to the people who asked me why I might postpone my vacation, because they didn't know about the volcano erupting and the hundreds of thousands of people stranded: maybe there is something to this idea that academics live in a bubble, after all.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

A gloomy post

It's a beautiful spring day. I'm sitting outside on the front porch, drinking iced tea, and listening to a cat meowing as she tries to decide whether she'd like to be inside or outside more. And I am more worried than I have been in months. Maybe I sailed through my defense with too much ease, and now it's my karmic turn to take one on the chin. I've spent the day alternately worrying about my revisions and worrying about my vacation. To wit, writing under a tight deadline is proving excruciating to me. I'm a planner, so when I have a deadline, I allot sufficient time for each step in the process. But any way you slice it, there just isn't a lot time. So I'm annoyed that I have to work so quickly, I'm frustrated when things don't go well the first time, and I'm bothered that I have to ask other people to work on my abbreviated timetable, which doesn't seem fair to them.

And then the volcano. I had not even dreamt of the possibility that a volcano could derail my vacation plans. Of course it's a natural disaster, and the Icelanders actually bearing the brunt of the ash and possible floods have it far worse. I think it'll be next week before we know whether we'll get an abbreviated vacation or whether the whole holiday is gone. We planned this trip to start before my new job, so I don't think it's likely that I can reschedule; I just won't have the vacation time.

On the up side, I guess a cancelled vacation gives me more time to revise my dissertation. Sigh.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Finishing things off

First off, I want to thank everyone for celebrating virtually with me. I was especially touched by the congratulations of two of my uncles, one who wrote me a post, and one who has never commented on my blog before (I know who you are, odeman45!).

I thought things would be calmer after the defense, but (alas!) I am actually busier. This is mainly of my own doing, as I have tightly scheduled the next six weeks. Right now I am working on the revisions to the dissertation, so that they will hopefully be completed early next week. I also need to pack my suitcases, because Wednesday we leave for England. Oh, and I need to pack everything in the house as well, because I'm leaving for Miami the day after we return.

But enough complaining. I have blessing to count, and they are big ones:

- I'm going on vacation (at least, I will if Britain's airports reopen)
- I'm done with my education (twenty-seven years worth!)
- I have a job (and it's an exciting job)

To close, some pictures of the celebrations. Me, with one of my advisors (my primary advisor doesn't live in DC anymore, so she video'd in. I should have taken a picture of me and her head on the laptop screen):

I am the cake-maker in our research group, so there is a hole to fill when I leave. It turned out that two people made a cake each for me, so I'm leaving the group well-caked.
That night, we celebrated with Ethiopian food. My brother and Dad are relieved that the food, although exotic, has meat in it.
Later in the week, my parents and I spent the day in Annapolis, where we took a historical tour, led by a man in a tri-corner hat. I didn't know how many important things happened in Annapolis. It's the state capital of Maryland, and it briefly housed the U.S. Congress. That occurred right after the Revolutionary War, so Annapolis is where George Washington resigned his commission (the first peaceful transition into democracy in history) and where the Treaty of Paris was signed (ending the Revolutionary War). We ended the day with ice cream. (Please take note: I only ate one of the two ice creams I'm holding in the picture.)

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


It's all over, and I'm happy to report that you may now address me as Doctor. I finished my talk in a reasonable amount of time, the questions were all good (which I define as either answerable or thought-provoking) and the revisions are reasonable. On top of that, I managed to get another paper published, on the very day I graduate.

I think I'll take the evening off.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


My little widget countdown (to the right) is not not quite right. It didn't allow me to input the exact time of my defense, so according to it I'll be defending my thesis at midnight Wednesday night. I'm sure my committee is a bit happier with the afternoon time slot we chose.

I don't have much to do today. Since turning in my dissertation a few weeks ago, I've kept busy by finishing up some smaller projects. I've written the talk I'm going to give, and there's only so many times you can practice before you risk turning it into a liturgical chant. I feel a bit like I should be spending the day fasting, in prayerful contemplation, to prepare myself for the ordeal ahead. But I'll probably spend the day packing instead.

For those of my readers not steeped in academia, I thought I'd provide an outline of what a defense actually is.* My committee (i.e. the six people who decide whether I pass) received my dissertation two weeks ago. In some groups, most of the committee members read give the dissertation only a cursory read, but I expect almost all of my members to have read it (and have many comments).

A block of two hours has been set aside for everything to happen. During that time, I will give a half-hour talk that is intended for both the the committee and the general public. The "general public" is made up of coworkers, family, friends, and anyone in the department who is interested, and I'm expecting about 20-30 people. Anyone can ask questions, but it's the chairperson's job (that's one of my advisors, not me) to make sure the committee gets time to ask all of their questions. There's also time set aside for the committee to talk to just me, without the audience, and time for them to talk when I'm not present.

Within the two hours, they have to decide whether I pass and what qualifications I must yet complete before I graduate. In most cases, the committee requires some amount of revisions on the dissertation itself before a student is officially done, but I've never heard of someone actually failing. In theory it can happen, but when it does it reflects badly on both the student and the advisor (who's supposed to make sure the student is ready to defend). So I expect that I will pass my defense, and the real suspense is in how many revisions they will request and how difficult I will find the question during the defense.

See you on the other side!

*As a researcher, I must of course point out the limitations of this description. It is specific to my university, and my discipline, but I think the process is similar for most science PhD's in the U.S.