I am only just starting to grasp what life as a scientist must be like for those that have jumped through the various hoops, done their time in school, published their papers, worked through a post-doc or two and slaved as an assistant professor for a time. After all of that, you finally "make it". As near as I can tell, that "making it" still involves a considerable amount of positioning oneself against your colleagues such that the money that is floating around in our economy for research science goes to your work. In effect, one of the early steps in most research projects is ritualized begging, which we call "proposal writing". As in any professional venture, it is certainly not the merits of the proposal alone that can sway the decisions of those with the dough.
So, with these things in mind, and given that I am training myself as a scientist, this blog post is also serving as the world premiere of my newest tool for shameless self promotion, my own website, dedicated to ME. You will immediately note that I will certainly NOT be getting any calls seeking my services as a web designer from this site. My hope, then, is that it might someday help me in the great game that the scientific community must play, "Who Gets The Dough?".
Now I just get to kick back and watch the support for my projects roll in...
As it turns out, science is characterized by great periods of sitting in front of a computer punctuated by brief but happy periods of not sitting in front of a computer. At the beginning of this month I had on offer to go down to San Diego and drive a small boat around in the ocean. I really do love such things, and take River Rat's utterances as gospel: "There's nothing . . . absolutely nothing . . . half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats." So I jumped at the chance. Additionally, the project requiring the messing around in the boat is Dr. Jon Warrick's, who is the one person that I view as most responsible for setting me up in school, so I owe him a favor...or two.
So we found ourselves just off-shore of the Tijuana River, within spitting distance of the U.S.-Mexico Border (we were only accosted by burly armed coast guardsmen in fast inflatables one time!) repeatedly dunking expensive equipment into the ocean, eating cheese and crackers and doing everything in our power to keep ourselves engaged (data collection in oceanography is often not really that...stimulating). We were working quite close to shore, though, and on the days with swell imagining all of the horrible ways that I could wreck a government boat kept me pretty interested.
Last week I turned a corner in my graduate schooling. The Ocean Sciences Department structures the hoops that a student must jump through as follows: In your first year you take four required courses on various aspects of oceanography, chemical, physical, geological and biological. Then, at the beginning of your second year, a bunch of really smart people get together in a small room and grill you on all of the things that you feel, vaguely, like you've heard before but, after a whole summer, you just can't seem to dredge up. As far as I can tell, nobody ever truly fails (like get kicked out of school fails). But people are made to re-take classes, which is apparently threat enough to make this an incredibly anxiety-provoking exam for most students. I've spoken with students who have left campus and essentially taken a study retreat for a few weeks before the exam. One fellow student re-wrote and summarized, BY HAND, her entire collection of notes from all four classes. TWICE. As has been a pattern in this academic adventure, I felt much like Lane Meyer in the classic class scene from Better Off Dead, peeling last year's notes out of my back pocket, pulling the pieces of old gum from between the pages and trying to make sense of my nearly unintelligible scribbles.
In retrospect, the experience was worthy of the attention paid to it by my fellow students. The smart people asked me questions, I did a lot of staring blankly at them, and they would lead me on with little hints until eventually I crafted an answer. Afterwards, I felt like I had spent two hours being metaphorically kicked in the head by some really smart people. But in the end I passed. It wasn't elegant, and I certainly didn't impress anyone, but according to my peers, passing is all that matters.
Now I get to start thinking about this spring's hoop - the qualifying exam. This is where you present your research plans, again in front of a room of really smart people. This time I am going to where a helmet.