Typical Day in the Lab

Heat for seven days and after the seventh day, rest–or cool to room temperature, however you want to think of it. Who would have thought throwing together atomic material and heating the bejesus out of it (anything over 900 °C qualifies as bejesus) would make something useful. Those organic chemists have it wrong, heating to a measly 60 °C and spending hours working up some messy liquid. My way’s all solids, baby. Heat that sucker up, crack the tube, and reap the rewards.

So when I walked into lab this morning, head held high and ready for results, I was feeling pretty good. My crystals should be ready, and the sealed quartz tube holding them should be cool enough to touch. I’d proudly carry my work down to the glassblower’s room–in the basement; poor guy, never seen a window–and let him slice open the tube he had so carefully crafted the previous week. I wonder how he felt, always having to break his masterpieces. But no time to worry about him, I need those crystals!

The tube furnace is flashing green, telling me it’s done with its work, and I congratulate it by flipping the switch that lets it sleep. That thing sucks so much power that it can’t be plugged into any old wall outlet, it has to be hooked directly into the system–best only to keep it on when necessary. I twist the knob that opens the valve that opens the system to air. A loud hiss escapes, followed by thin tendrils of purple smoke. Smoke’s no good; all of my crystals should be solid by now. Holding my breath and clearing the air with one hand, I slide out the holding tray with the other. The tube is there, as it should be, but it’s in two pieces, as it shouldn’t. The heat worked its way into a crack so small that even the glassblower with his Steampunk magnifying glasses didn’t detect it. The smoke was my material floating away. Eight days of anticipation sucked into the ventilation system, leaving purple stains on the pipes.

I stood for a moment staring at the tube. No explosions, no shattering, just a little clink as the tip of the tube landed on the metal tray. In my daze, I forgot the lab until a gloved hand landed on my shoulder. My own hands balled to fists, and my head whipped around in surprise–I’m more of a fight than a flight kind of guy–until I saw the face of my boss. My outside relaxed, but my inside tensed. I knew it was coming. She grinned, reminding me of my cat with her favorite toy mouse, and asked, “So, do you have any results?”

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Working for two professors is hard, especially when they have different opinions. I end up being the liaison with the general feeling that both blame me for the other’s resistance  It doesn’t help throwing two more graduate students in the mix, both on the same side and very against the other. Somehow I’m expected to remain politic and get along with everyone, but I’m not sure how to stand up and take a side. I’ve thought about what (to me) is the right option, and I’ve tried to express it in a courteous way, but every time I’m shut down by both sides.

This argument has dragged on for months. One side gave in out of sheer exasperation, and the side that won doesn’t even believe in the project. (Guess which side I took.) I suppose this is a lesson in teamwork that everyone learns eventually, but it’s not a fun one. It’s just wasted effort.

Is graduate education changing?

An American Chemical Society report commissioned by the society’s president Bassam Z. Shakhashiri–who gives an annual lecture entitled “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri”–calls for an overhaul of graduate education. The main focus rests on increasing opportunities in the dismal job market, but the report also suggests ideas on improving the graduate experience by updating safety protocols, reducing graduate habitation, and treating postdocturals as professionals. (It hadn’t occurred to me until now how poorly post-docs are treated–made to work all hours at the whim of a capricious boss who has the same educational qualifications, but gets paid considerably more and works considerably less.)

Chemistry graduate school seems to have it worse off than other graduate programs. The average time a chemistry student spends in grad school is 5 years compared to the 3 or 4 years of other programs. And 5 is just the average! We all know plenty of 6th year students and maybe one or two 7th year students. Leisure time is spoken of in hushed tones lest the boss hears a conversation not concerning work and finds out–gasp!–that you actively participate in a hobby. Why spend time doing something you love when you could be working! All social activities get pushed to the wayside, and most of my fellow students know no one outside of chemistry graduate students–myself included. Dating outside of the department is unheard of and most students are either married or single and not looking. We toil through hard, time-consuming research for barely enough to scrape by–I make $22,000 a year before taxes and school fees, I end up taking home about $1,400 a month. We do this with the hope of graduating  with a well-paying job at hand, which is increasingly a fantasy.

It’s no secret that every graduate students thinks about quitting at least once–who am I kidding? It’ more like once aweek. Would the stresses of graduate school be alleviated by more pleasant bosses and less slave-like labor? I think so. I’m a firm believer that stress hinders learning (and productivity). Yes, science takes time. But does it take fourteen hour days, six days a week? I’m not sure of ACS’s plans for the overhaul–one professor suggests doubling the salary and halving the students–but I am ready for it.