October 2020: 3rd Year PhD Begins

This was the first full week of the new quarter and the 2020-2021 academic year, the beginning of my third year as a PhD student. I have about an hour right now before my virtual therapy appointment, which is not enough time to get research work done, but probably just enough time to reflect a little on the start of this new year. With the global pandemic, remote learning, and the upcoming election that could have enormous implications for my rights as a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this is no doubt going to be a strange and difficult year. I hope that by focusing on self-care as much as possible, I can mitigate the negative impacts on my mental and physical health.

During Septemeber, I feel that I was able to pull my paper draft into pretty good shape – I feel proud of the overall piece I have, although there are still a lot of changes I still need to make. I am hoping that I will have a new draft ready for my advisor to review by the end of this weekend, but that will require me to really focus during this weekend. I have been struggling a little bit with chronic back pain issues, which have been flaring up because of stress during the pandemic. This month was especially hard, but I had a zoom appointment with a doctor who prescribed some muscle relaxing medications. As I try to mitigate some of the mental stress I have, I hope that the pain will be reduced. I think part of the stress I’ve had comes from feeling like I’m not in control of my schedule and the structure of my day. Now that my schedule for the quarter, between research meetings, classes, my part-time writing consultant position, and students org meetings has been more or less decided upon, I want to try to keep a structured schedule and act like things are normal as much as possible – for my own sanity.

About halfway through the month of September, I completed a training for my “side hustle” position at the Graduate Writing Center. It was five days of zoom lectures and activities from 9 am – 4 pm. It was pretty exhausting to be on zoom for such a long period, but I enjoyed meeting with the other consultants and getting to know them a little through our discussion-based activities. Before the training, we had about 8 hours worth of readings to complete about writing pedagogy. There was a lot of interesting material presented there, from scientific writing, which I’d never really thought about formally before, and assisting ESL students with writing English. It brought up a lot of interesting discussions during the training about wealth inequality and language barries, and how English language and grammar is often used as a way to gatekeep elite academic opportunities from low income and international students. Thus, as a writing consultant, I see it as my duty to give students directed support with their writing that they might not otherwise receive, and in a way, help with wealth distribution. I’ve been thinking a lot about how even though I worked very hard to get the NSF fellowship, there were so many elements of luck involved, including being born in this country in a family of academics, going to a high school that emphasized writing skills, having access to research opportunities in undergrad, and having my advisor be willing to read over my research proposal and give me directed feedback. I know that not all students at my university are lucky enough to have those privileges, even though they are just as qualified in terms of skills and abilities. Thus, I see this position as an opportunity to pass on what I’ve learned and hopefully help other students win the fellowship. Students who have not had the privileges that I have had earlier in their careers will gain access to more opportunities and career advancement through this fellowship, and the least I can do with the privileges I do have is pay it forward and increase access.

After the training, we were assigned our shifts for the quarter. Mine are 9 am – 11 am on Thursday and Friday, and I just finished the four sessions for the week. I had a lot of anxiety about waking up on time and time management during the sessions (they are only 50 minutes each!), but I was surprised at how smoothly they went. I feel I got a range of experiences even just in the first week, from fellowship personal statements to journal and conference papers. While research often feels never-ending, discouraging, and insurmountable, it was uplifting and rewarding to feel like I had helped these students in such a short amount of time. I am looking forward to continuing these sessions throughout this quarter.

At the beginning of the month, I volunteered to be the representative for my org, QTSTEM (Queer & Trans in STEM) for the LGBTQ Center event for incoming students, called Queerantine Connections. I spent a lot of time on this project, hand-drawing infographics for an Instagram post, updating information for our org on the university website, participating in a zoom panel, and hosting a zoom “table” where incoming students could come learn about our organization and find information on how to sign up. It was very draining but worth it, and I feel I did my best to contribute to the community. I also think it is a good practice for my social anxiety to challenge myself to speak in these kinds of events. This year, I will be serving on the board of QTSTEM as Treasurer, and I will be attending the weekly meetings as well as board meetings.

I started off the quarter taking two classes, even though I only have one more class to complete for the department requirements. I decided I want to drop the other course and focus on the one course, the Machine Learning for Bioinformatics course. There is a final project for the course, and I have an idea I’ve been sitting on about applying machine learning to my research. Thus, I am hoping to hit both with this course and project and maybe try to get a second paper out of it? It seems ambitious, and I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, but I will keep it in mind as a possibility.

My department pub nights have started up again, and while I haven’t kept in touch with many of my department mates over the summer, it was nice to be able to chat with them for a little. One thing that was validating was that there was one student, a man in my department, who had bothered me with some of his comments last year, which seemed somewhat demeaning. But then when he learned (through other sources) about things I had accomplished, he suddenly had more respect for me. When we were discussing a male professor in my department who had been biased towards me, this student said, “Well, because you don’t really talk that much about your accomplishments, people might get the assumption that you’re not as competent. But clearly, that’s not true.” I am past the point where I need approval from men in order to feel competent, but it did make me feel validated to hear him say that (although ideally, women and minority students should be treated with basic level of respect without needing to earn it or assert their value – I’m hoping our achievements will challenge the implicit biases a lot of people have and make it easier for people in the future). Then, I had long discussions with my department mates, including some of the senior students in my lab, about the messed up nature of elitism in academia and the publishing industry. I’ve been feeling a lot of publishing stress given my current paper draft I’m working on, so it was helpful to hear the perspectives of students who had more experience with it.

I haven’t been able to keep up as much with working out and healthy eating, but I think I might have to be kind and lenient with myself until I have this paper business sorted out. Overall, I hope that once I have more structure in my schedule and less pressure once the paper is submitted, I will be able to reintroduce those things in my life with more regularity.

That’s it for this post. Until next time!