Monday, February 1, 2010

Timescales in graduate school

I've been meaning to write this post for well over a year now and I want to get it out there while I'm still getting used to the mental transition*. Since beginning grad school, I've had to adjust the timescale on which I think about my life. Of course I have set and achieved some long-term goals before this**, such as applying to grad school or traveling with Jon. Both of those things happened well over a year after deciding to do them. But this feels different in a way that I can't put my finger on. I felt this adjustment most acutely at the beginning of my second year. I was starting to think about prelims, field seasons, and how these things fit into my personal life.

When I graduated from college, I spent a few transient years living in different places and traveling before I started grad school. In any given year I didn't know where I'd be the following year. That kind of uncertainty makes it difficult to make plans for one year later let alone many years.

Graduate school has filled some unknowns with knowns. Next year we'll still be living in Big City. Two years from now we'll still be living in Big City. Probably even 3 years from now unless I finish in lightning speed. Now I'm in a position where I can and must take a long view of my decisions. In fall 2008 I was beginning my prelim proposal. I was writing a proposal that I knew I wouldn't really be able to begin collecting data for until probably late 2010- two years in the future at that time. Two years. It felt like forever. I didn't submit that proposal for funding until last summer and I still haven't heard back yet. I'm getting used to the fact that many things take at least a year. Sam and Herb have said things like, "Well, your mistakes in the field might add several months or a year to your Ph.D., but that's normal." The first time I heard that I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly. You mean I might make a mistake that costs a year and no one blinks an eye? A year used to feel like forever!

I'm still getting used to this idea of setting concrete goals years in the future. For example, in two years (by January 2012) I would like to be completely finished with my fieldwork in Ukenzagapia. My goal is to finish my Ph.D. in summer 2013. That will give me a year and half to analyze and write after I finish data collection. That means I've got at least 3.5 years left, since things are likely to take longer than I expect. Part of what I need to do for my next committee meeting is present them with a likely timeline for different projects, especially those with field work. I've been putting off this task for weeks because it feels daunting.

It has been helpful for me to hear professors talk about the timelines for their projects. For example, in the database project I'm working on with Sam, he expects that it will take 8-10 years from the time he conceived of the idea to the time it is fully functional. I've got to develop my ability to take a long view of projects and commit to them. Before grad school I couldn't have conceived of choosing such a long commitment to a project because there were so many uncertainties about how my interests or career would develop. Now that I have a direction, I can take out my spotting scope and see distant but real possibilities instead of just looking at my immediate surroundings and wondering which way to go. Now I just need to start putting timelines on those landmarks.

*Part of me wants to hold onto this post and continue to polish and revise it but I think I just need to get it out there. Please comment if you can articulate your own experience with this phenomenon (or lack thereof). I think it might help me eventually write more clearly on this topic.
**Clearly, completing a four-year degree is a long timescale by this standard, but it feels much different. Perhaps because as an undergrad the structure of the timescale is defined for you by terms and your options are defined by courses. This kind of long-term planning in grad school is a different kind of animal.


penn said...

I think the time scales are crazy like that. Honestly, the thought of spending 8-10 years on a project makes me super unhappy. Ten years ago, I was in a radically different place, and that's okay. If you can incrementally build up a project over 10 years and get good feedback and results from the intermediate steps, then I think it's an easier commitment (example: child rearing). But to spend 8-10 yeas on something and not know the outcome until you're done? It is very difficult, and I admire professors for being able to work on a timescale I find incomprehensible.

Michelle Rodrigues said...

Grad school definitely adds a lot of certainty and uncertainty that makes life harder to plan in some ways. For example, I also took a couple years off doing internships and field positions and such, the did a masters, and then entered a phd program. Since starting this program, I've been planning my dissertation, and, three years after beginning to develop the idea, and a few months away from starting fieldwork, I'm kind of sick of the topic. And I know the next chapter of my life requires 15 months of fieldwork, and then at least a year of analyzing and writing, before I can get that PhD. But after that, I don't know where I'll be, and I don't know how to plan for that. I would really like to figure out, when/where in my life I'll be having kids, but since life after my PhD is such a huge question mark, who knows... I hate that it all depends on what the job market looks like then...