Not as bad as it could be…

Posted by barb on Mar 17, 2006 in Random Thoughts, Thesis/Grad Life

I suppose I shouldn’t write a post eluding to “bad news at work” without expanding on it a little bit. This has to do with the Joys of Contracting post I made a couple weeks ago. I think I mentioned that in the propsed NASA budget my project got hit pretty hard – the budget dessimated the NASA science programs, and the project I work with was no exception. Basically my project is now in a holding pattern.

I had been hoping to drop to 50% time on this project, and had already made up my mind to quit the other contracting task that I’m on. The purpose would be to have more time to work on my thesis while not cutting my income to that of a poor grad student. In addition, if I could keep my contracting position at at least 50% time, I keep my benefits.

Yesterday I heard that I’ve been cut to 30% time on my project. It’s certainly not as bad as it could be – Andrew and I had been prepared for either the 50%-time or a 0%-time contingency. It’s just that I’d been hopeful about staying at 50% time (as had my project). Andrew and I have decided that I’ll contract at just 30% time, and work on finishing my thesis that much faster. We’ll be fine financially – we’ll just need to stop eating out quite as much. The part I really hate is feeling like I’m not pulling my weight in the household. I know that Andrew feels like I am pulling my weight, especially since I’m working on the PhD, but I just feel like I could be doing more.

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Presentation Tips

Posted by barb on Nov 28, 2005 in Random Thoughts, Thesis/Grad Life

From the many talks and presentations I’ve attended in the past several years, I have a few tips for presenters. These range from the appearance of the slides to the content and structure of the talk itself.

  • Slide contents:
    • Don’t put up a slide with loads of graphics – parse them out on different slides, or pop them up one at a time as you talk about them.
    • Don’t put things on a slide that you don’t want to talk about – make it look like you put this talk together for this audience, and not that you’re just recycling something for a longer time slot.
  • Slide layout/appearance:
    • Use a solid color as a background for all writing; a patterned background or a picture will have light and dark spots that make any font color hard to read.
    • Do not use red font on a dark blue background and don’t use yellow font on a white background. In fact, only use yellow if you’re using a black or dark blue background.
    • If in doubt, use black and white – this will make a better impression than a bad color combination.
  • Talk contents/structure:
    • The best talks tell a story. They start with a little bit of background on the topic, then show the current results, and finally put them in the context of the background research. Most audiences don’t need all of the gory details of your research; only very specialized audiences need that. Give a good overview, and that will leave time for the context and summary.
    • Plan for your time slot – if you talk faster than the speed of light, no information is conveyed. Less is more, and a good story will stick with your audience better than a rapid-fire collection of disconnected bullet points.
    • Leave enough time for your summary. Don’t just put up a summary page during the question period. This leaves your audience with the choice of reading your summary points or listening to the questions.
  • General comments:
    • Use the laser pointer judiciously, and don’t look away while pointing at something, because you’re more likely than not to dance the pointer around randomly.
    • Speak up and speak clearly.
    • Don’t mumble the end of your sentences – the audience doesn’t know what you’re thinking, and we need to hear every word. If you aren’t sure of something, don’t say it.
    • If you have a microphone, don’t be afraid of it! And make sure you put it on your “screen side”. That is, if you’re constantly turning to point things out on a screen, make sure the microphone is on that side, otherwise your voice will fade in and out as you point out important things on your slides.
    • Don’t sound bored with your own topic. If you aren’t at least a little bit excited about it, the audience won’t be, either.
    • Walking around the audience is just weird – it’s a clever way of keeping the audience’s eyes off of you, but is really uncomfortable for the audience.
    • Dress like you care just a little bit about what you’re doing; for heaven’s sake, wear pants that cover your crack (no kidding).



Grad Life: The “grad stigma”

Posted by barb on Aug 29, 2005 in Thesis/Grad Life

My non-science friends are impressed by the fact that I’m a grad student in astronomy. Perhaps they’re more impressed by the fact that I’m doing my thesis work with a scientist at NASA. The same goes for my family. However, in my workplace, it’s not so special to be a grad student.

This might be my imagination, but it feels like there’s a stigma attached to being a grad student. Whenever someone calls me a grad student, it’s usually accompanied with an attitude that comes across as “she’s just a grad student”. Every time I hear someone refer to me as a grad student, I feel diminished.

I think this comes from the fact that most of the people I work with are PhDs (or “phuds”, as my friend Lorna might say). This means that they were grad students themselves once. They probably remember that they were a bit clueless when they were a grad student.

I’ll happily admit that I’m clueless about a lot of things. I’m still working my way through a lot of what I need to know in my field of research. The larger problem comes because I’m a part-time grad student – I’m also a part-time support scientist-slash-web developer-slash-e/po specialist. Whenever I’m introduced as a grad student, it makes me feel as though I’m also “just” a support scientist, or “just” an e/po specialist.

Whenever I introduce myself and what I do, I try to keep the grad student part last, to make it seem trivial compared to what else I do. In that way, I try to diminish the grad stigma.



On Doing Physics

Posted by barb on Jul 22, 2005 in Thesis/Grad Life

For the past two years I have focussed the entire of my thesis work on writing scripts and running data through a data pipeline, while losing sight of the underlying physics. All along I’ve kept telling myself that I really need to read more journal articles and that I really need to explore the physics of the sources that I’m studying, but the allure of getting my data through the pipeline quickly has taken over. I’ve used the excuse that I only work half-time on my thesis to justify my tunnel vision.

Over the past month, Andrew and I have been attempting to carve out one night per week where we go to Starbucks and I read journal articles. If I sit at home, it’s too easy to get distracted by other things — the cats, tweaking my data pipeline, watching tv or a movie, reading a book, cleaning, anything. So, at Starbucks, I have only my articles and a frappuccino (or iced tea, if I’m trying to be healthy). While I read, Andrew works on writing that he’s been neglecting. It seems to be a good system.

However, I need to do more than just read the articles.

Read more…

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UMD Observatory Talk

Posted by barb on Feb 21, 2005 in Pictures, Science Musings, Thesis/Grad Life

I gave the talk last night at the UMD Observatory, titled X-ray Astronomy: Frequently Asked Questions.

The forecast called for snow and icy conditions, which probably kept a lot of people from the observatory. The group was small — about ten people were there for the talk. I had planned for several children to be in the audience, and feared that with only the one there, my talk might be at too low a level. However, at the end, three people asked questions, which suggests that it was at an accessible level. Overall a good experience for me, and hopefully for the attendees as well.

Felicia came with, and gave her talk, too, as shown in the picture below.
Felicia giving an X-ray astronomy talk at the UMD observatory

She also went down to the telescopes, and adjusted the pointing on one:
Felicia adjusting the pointing on one of the UMD telescopes

And checked out some of the astronomy posters there:
Felicia checking out posters at the UMD observatory

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X-ray Astronomy Talk

Posted by barb on Feb 18, 2005 in Science Musings, Thesis/Grad Life

Andrew announced this weeks ago, but I forgot. I’m giving the talk on Sunday at the University of Maryland’s observatory open house. The talk is titled “X-ray Astronomy: An FAQ” (contrary to what it’s listed as at the observatory site…I wasn’t certain what the talk was going to be when I signed on). Basically, it’s a broad overview of what X-ray astronomy is and why we do it. So, if you’re in the DC area this weekend, come join us.

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Meeting with Chris

Posted by barb on Feb 11, 2005 in Thesis/Grad Life

Met with Chris today. Yup, just Chris — Kim had a family emergency earlier this week, so she was catching up in the office. I decided to keep our meeting, though, since we hadn’t met since December.

It was a good meeting. We clarified a few things that we had discussed last time, and decided that I really am ready to just chug through the data. I have a few tweaks that I’d like to make to the pipeline, but should be done with those this coming week, and then I’m going to just let’er rip.

Since Kim was unavailable, we decided to meet at Chris’ office at the University instead of GSFC. I hadn’t been to campus since last fall when I had to set up my funding again, and that time I was able to escape without talking with anyone besides the human resources person. This time I ran into a few people, and had a chance to catch up. Very few of the grad students I knew are still there — that’s what happens when you take a year and a half off — so I didn’t recognize many of the faces in the grad offices.




Posted by barb on Jan 29, 2005 in Thesis/Grad Life

For the last year and a half I have known, without a doubt, that I don’t like doing science. I love astronomy, but I don’t love doing astronomy. This means that every time I sit down to work on my thesis, I wonder to myself why I’m doing it? Why am I wasting my time? Why don’t I just quit?

I know the reasons I’ve kept going: I’ve wanted a PhD for as long as I can remember, I know that I can do it, and I’m already this far along, so I might as well finish. They might not be good reasons, but there they are. Frankly, they haven’t been enough. And along with the messages of “Why am I doing this?” that I’ve been feeding myself, I’ve found it very difficult to muster any enthusiasm for my work. This means that I’ve been getting very little done, and subsequently is going to prolong my grad work.

In addition, I’ve been finding that I don’t take myself seriously at all. I feel like I’m “just a grad student”, and at 33 that makes me a nothing. At least that’s how I’ve been feeling. It’s not good, it’s not true, but it’s going through my head continuously.

Enter my epiphany.

Read more…

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Thesis Meeting

Posted by barb on Dec 3, 2004 in Thesis/Grad Life

Met with Kim and Chris again this afternoon, finally. Not much to say about the meeting — it was productive, and I know what I need to do next with my MCG-6 weirdness and the CenA fits. We’ve also convinced ourselves that I can fit just one model to all the data, and if certain components aren’t present, it shoudl come out in that fit.

Just plugging along…


Back to Equilibrium?

Posted by barb on Oct 6, 2004 in Thesis/Grad Life

The funding situation seems to have been ironed out for my thesis. I’ll be working 75% time as a contractor and 50% time as a grad student. Yup. 125% time…50 hours per week. Well, I suppose I already put that in with the evening and weekend babysitting I do for my data runs. The bad news is that my contractor vacation time accrues at only 50% time (true for anyone working anything less than 40 hours per week). The good news is that all of my other benefits are still in place.

Not sure if I’m happy with this, though. I certainly appreciate all the effort various people have made to make this happen, the upshot of which is that I don’t loose much of my salary. However, now I’m split between two companies, have to document that I work more, lose vacation time, and my tax withholdings will be all messed up (a couple years ago I came very close to owning money due to working for two different companies).

The worst part is that I’m not even sure that a PhD is what I want. I’m at that point where if I quit, I’ve wasted 2 years of my life, but if I continue, I’ll be miserable for the next 2-3 years. I’m not sure which is worse. Oh, and there’s the fact that I won’t actually use this degree when I’m finished that makes it all the more enticing.

I’m going to quietly put my resume up on monster.com and see if there are any good nibbles…

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