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Blog Reflections of a Ph.D.

Reflections of a Ph.D.

I took my first job as an environmental chemist when I graduated from college with a bachelors degree in chemistry because I was tired of school. I started graduate school two years later because I was tired of work. It had become very routine and didn't pay much.

A masters degree in chemistry seemed like a good idea for someone who didn't know what to do with his life. To be in school was to advance, I told myself, so why not take classes until things fell into place. I never considered getting a Ph.D. because I didn't see myself as "Ph.D. material." It was an honest self-assessment, and that made the masters a good compromise.

I began taking graduate classes in Brooklyn. One day I was waIking out of the building with a professor while exchanging some simple comments, starting with one from me about "getting my masters degree," followed by one from him about "thinking of a Ph.D instead of a masters degree." It was at that moment, when I discovered that a professor at the school saw me with a Ph.D., that I adopted the idea for myself, without quite realizing I had done so. It's not that my feelings about myself were going to change during the years that followed, but rather that I would slowly discover a secret about graduate school in the sciences: It was a great place to hide from the world, so it made sense to stay as long as possible. Working 10 hours per week as a teaching assistant in the chemistry department meant I could go to school for free (they paid your tuition) and get a stipend which was just enough for me to live on. What could be better?

After the second year when my coursework was finished, it was time to decide what type of research I wanted to do. As befitting my character, I had no ideas about research, mainly because I hadn't gone to graduate school to do any. However, there were two professors in the department who were working with lasers, and I was somewhat intrigued by them. The lasers, that is. My aunt had given me a book on the topic when I was in the fourth grade, and it had left an impression. When I saw laser light for the first time with my own eyes, I made the decision to work in that area. The rest of my graduate school career unfolded as a consequence of that decision.

I spent the next three years working on an experiment having to do with non-linear light scattering, where the frequency difference between a pulsed pump laser and a continuous wave probe laser was used to stimulate vibrational modes of quartz crystal. Working in a laser lab requires knowledge in many different areas, and my baskets were all practically empty on the way in. I would learn more during those three years of research than at any other time in my life, and for anyone who hasn't experienced it, I can tell you that you've missed something rare, precious, and fulfilling. For example, I learned how complex numbers (numbers with "imaginary" parts) are so amazingly useful in describing and understanding the interaction of light with matter, something that applies to our ability to see, the color of things, and the way materials absorb, reflect, and transmit light. I also learned about plumbing, vacuum systems, digital electronics, computer hardware, electro-optics, soldering, interfacing computers with external devices, gas systems, circuit theory, A/D converters, computer programming, signal processing, integrated circuits, the art of proper electrical grounding, light, and lasers. It was as good as it gets.

It took me one full year just to build the experimental apparatus with which I would ultimately fail to detect the effect I was looking for, which, if you want to know, was Raman optical activity (ROA) in quartz crystal using optically heterodyne-detected Raman induced Kerr effect spectroscopy (OHD-RIKES). The theory behind the experiment was just outside my ability to fully understand, and I was not gifted enough to figure out that the equipment I was using may not be up to the task of finding the needle in a haystack I was looking for, so that left me tinkering with expensive equipment and using resources for three years with little hope of ever making a contribution to science.

Then, there would develop a deeper and darker psychological effect that would grab hold of me from my time in that laboratory. When the experiment ultimately failed, I was left wondering: Was it my lack of ability that caused the failure? Could a more gifted graduate student have taken the same equipment and produced the result I was unable to produce? During the years that followed, I spent considerable time contemplating that question, and I have generally felt there is some evidence to support both sides, but one thing is certain: That failure and the rather unpleasant experience of trying to defend a thesis that had produced no results weighed heavily on my delicate mind, as I have had recurring dreams about that lab ever since. The dreams are quite consistent: I'm working in a dark, basement laboratory with a complex system of lasers, optics, and detectors, eerily similar to the system I had actually tried to master. The seemingly hopeless task of making it all work in a symphony of successful signal production lies in front of me. My thesis advisor is nearby, hovering about the dark lab, and I have that feeling of dread, created from a swirling mixture of academic frailty, intellectual impotence, and educational insecurity.

My thesis defense did not go well, the result of my not having learned nearly enough, being quite nervous, lacking confidence, having to defend a thesis that had failed to produce a result, and wearing a suit that didn't fit because I had waited until about an hour before my defense to try on a suit I hadn't worn in 10 years. I was just an idiot all around. When the defense was over, I stood alone in the hallway for 45 minutes while my committee deliberated. My thesis advisor finally came out alone, stood next to me and said "That was not a good showing," to which I replied without hesitation "I know." He went on to explain that I would be allowed to pass with some additional work on the thesis, and I learned later that the physicist on my committee did not think I deserved to pass. My guess was, that were it not for the gentle pleading of the other committee members who felt I was a "nice guy" who had put in the time, I might still be aligning laser beams in Brooklyn looking for that elusive signal.

Aside from my defense, I was required to give two seminars to the chemistry department during my years as a graduate student, and these were the next two most difficult events of my academic career. A female graduate student, whom I later became friends with, had sat through at least one of my awful seminars and, later when we were friends, told me what her impression of me had been during the talk: "weak, sincere, and clean" was how she put it. It was the story of my life, summed up in three words by someone I barely knew. Not exactly a champion blend of adjectives, I might add.

I never mention my Ph.D. in polite conversation for the simple reason that deep down inside I feel I don't deserve one. It's a lot like an 85-year-old woman with a valid driver's license who hasn't driven a car in 20 years and who will never drive again. Having a driver's license doesn't make you a motorist.

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