Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The R2 Experience

I'm going to warn you now, this is going to be a long post. I still don't know how to split posts. 

What a drastic, dramatic difference this experience was from my previous interview at Program #4 back in February. 

I arrived in Western City on Sunday afternoon to find beautiful, perfect weather and my ride waiting for me at the airport. Having never ventured this far west in the US before, and having lived my entire life in New England, I could not get over how vastly different the landscape and everything was. I was like "Wow, so that's what REAL mountains look like!" I was standing in 75 degree weather looking up at snow-capped peaks off in the distance. It was amazing. 

I was brought to another student's house for a homecooked Easter dinner that was de-lic-ious. The first couple of students I met were nontraditional students with spouses, kids, actual LIVES and experiences. Everyone was so incredibly friendly, warm, easygoing, and funny. They actually seemed really excited to have me there, and it was very cool to feel so welcomed. They spoke to me openly and frankly about the program, the faculty, and the students so I feel as though I got an honest assessment of what it's like to be a student there. One was a 3rd year, and the other was a 5th year. 

Before heading off to bed, I was fed homemade chicken and dumplings. YUM! I felt like a family member coming for a visit, not a stranger from the other side of the country or a temporary inconvenience. 

The following day I met with a bunch of faculty members beginning with the department head, attended a 1st year graduate class, was treated to a delicious lunch at the student union with a bunch of other grad students ranging from 2nd-6th year. I felt like the new exchange student in high school, with everyone scrambling to get a chance to talk to me. One of the students accidentally got pregnant around admissions time, and had her first baby in the first semester of her first year there. She was very blunt about it: "I don't recommend it. It was a nightmare. 2nd year, absolutely. But not your first year."

I got to spend time with a variety of students, with different people escorting me to each meeting, taking me on campus tours, showing me around facilities. Though I got sick of repeating the same information about myself twice an hour all day, it was fantastic to talk to so many people about their experiences there. 

The faculty there are fantastic. They are not intimidating, arrogant, or any of the things I experienced at Program #4. Many of them are quietly well-connected and networked to important researchers throughout the country, without tying those connections to their own reputations. I noticed that several of the textbooks used in the graduate courses were written by faculty members at my undergrad MRU, which was very cool to see. One of the professors I met with keeps a Wall of Fame in her office, where students put their name and a little blurb about a project when they publish it with her. It was a pretty big wall. But the important thing about it was the pride with which she showed it to me - it was blatantly obvious how much she WANTS her students to succeed. 

One of my biggest concerns about this program was that it was an R2, and there was a lack of major journal publications on the part of the faculty. I wanted to make sure that I would have adequate opportunities to publish so that I would be marketable in academia when I graduate. One 5th year student I spoke to has 8 publications, 11 presentations, and 7 more publications under review. A 3rd year student had 5 publications and 6 presentations. This was the pattern I saw. 

When I asked the students about the deficit in major journals, they brought up and issue that has been discussed over at ScienceBlogs many, many times - the Least Publishable Unit. They told me that if they wanted to go for a major journal, there was adequate support and knowledge there for them to do so, but most of the students prefer to send their research to high-impact niche journals where they feel it will make the most difference. 

I had a frank discussion about this with several students and a couple of faculty members. The general consensus (and I know this to be true from my own MRU), is that JPSP (the major journal of my field) has become highly politicized and incredibly difficult to get into. They keep publishing the same authors over and over and over again, and the material is becoming less and less accessible to readers. In other words, JPSP is putting itself into a position where it is a major journal because of prestige, NOT actual impact and visibility. I heard stories from students who had submitted there, received a "No thank you" email within 24 hours of submission, and a month later received a very excited message from a 2nd-tier journal saying "Yes, absolutely! We love this study!" I now have the understanding that the lack of JPSP articles has more to do with pragmatism than lack of quality research. 

The students are all very passionate about the work they do. Because of a specific, unique quality of this program, many of the students are working toward industry jobs rather than academia. About 1/3 are pursuing faculty positions. This means that the competition between students is simply not there. They are a pretty cohesive group, albeit quite large. You are able to work with any faculty member you want who is willing to work with you - there is none of that "You're MY student, you will study what I'M interested in, dammit!" Though you do choose a primary advisor, you can change that at any time and faculty members can also "pluck" you from another faculty member if they want to and no one gives a shit. I mean, they do, but not in the political sense. You know what I mean. 

This is a great quality for me in this particular program, because as I have mentioned before there is no single faculty member there whose research interests are perfectly aligned with my own. But the nature of the department is such that for any given project, I can consult with as many different faculty members as I need to in order to incorporate their specific expertise in my research. The boundaries there are nonexistent. 

The grad student body is pretty diverse. The ages range from 21 to 50's. There are married students, single students, divorced students. Students with kids and students without. When they do have kids, they range from age 2 to age 35. There is religious diversity and ethnic diversity, though I did not meet a single African-American grad student. This bothered me to some extent, but apparently there is a black male student who would be in my cohort if I decided to go there this fall. It is a politically liberal city that shares many of my personal views, though apparently the outskirts contain the gun-loving, homophobic, racist, Republican good ole boys that are common to rural areas pretty much everywhere. 

It was the cleanest city I have ever seen in my life. It makes New England look like a glorified trash heap. Especially if you compare it to Boston (no offense, anyone). It was absolutely fucking beautiful. Every outdoor activity you could possibly imagine is available to you in great variety. From the moment I arrived I could see my husband and I living there and raising our kids there. And here's the kicker - there's no TRAFFIC! I was like "Wtf? What do you mean you can be anywhere in the city in 15 minutes? What about rush hour?" Only the folks from LA knew what "rush hour" was. Everyone else just gave me a blank stare. 

Okay, so that about sums up all of the positive things. On to the concerns. 

The state economy there is in serious trouble. Jobs are somewhat hard to come by, because it is not an industrial city. When my husband was laid off from his job here a couple of years ago, it took him 4 months to find a new one. It would probably take a lot longer for him to get a job out there. My student stipend is not large (of course), though it is enough for both of us to live very frugally on. Under normal circumstances, this would not be a problem. But given my impending unemployment this summer, the recent news of my husband's military pay being much lower than previously thought, the dwindling savings under these circumstances, the incredibly high cost of moving to the other side of the country, not knowing whether the military will be able to transfer him out there and not knowing whether he will lose his signing bonus if they do, and not having a job for him when he arrives all combine to create an incredibly scary situation for me. 

The department head was not very sympathetic to this, saying "Well, our students do this all the time. I'm not sure I understand why it's any different for you." She seemed to take it as a lack of committment on my part, which I tried to dispel. I understand that I would be moving from a very high cost of living area to a very low cost of living area. But losing 60% of my salary and not having savings in the bank terrifies me. If my car died, I'd be fucked unless my husband was working. I get that people do this all the time with no problems. I GET IT. But I inherited from my father this constant anxiety over finances. I spent several years in my twenties living paycheck to paycheck, and I really don't want to do that again. I don't want my life to be harder than it has to be, and I don't think that's unreasonable. It's not about being able to spend money on frivolous things (I don't do that now). It's about having a cushion for emergencies and unexpected events. And in this real estate market, it is highly unlikely that my husband and I could sell our house and get any money back from the sale at all. 

The department head suggested that my husband return to New England when he gets out of the military and live here until he finds a job and gets his military transfer. My reaction was "Hell the fuck no." I did not explain to her that we had been separated last summer and that I am unwilling to be apart from my husband for a moment longer than I have to, because I got the impression that she would think of my marriage as unstable and me as being co-dependent. She said, "Who knows, maybe this could be a good test of your relationship." I told her quite bluntly that if I had to choose between my husband and my degree, I would choose my husband because there is always a way to work it out. If graduate school was such that I could NOT have both, I would choose the degree and be away from him for awhile. But the fact is that there ARE ways to have both and I will seek them out to the exclusion of the alternative. 

This led to my asking about a deferral of admission for one year. She wasn't sure if this was possible but said she would look into it, followed by telling me that she gets the impression that I am ready to jump into this right now. I told her I feel that R2 is where I definitely want to go, and while I would love to start the program immediately I also don't want to cause myself an unnecessary amount of stress. The whole conversation kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. I don't like it when my level of dedication to my field is called into question. I also don't like it when my dedication to feminist principles is called into question because I express that my spouse is important to me. I could not get her to understand that this is a timing issue, and one that was not anticipated because of changing financial circumstances. 

A couple students had told me that this faculty member doesn't seem to understand work/family issues. One student didn't tell her that she was pregnant because she didn't want to hear what she would say. Everyone there is apparently very supportive of family issues and balance, but this one person just doesn't seem to understand it on a personal level according to what they told me. So I'm not taking it personally, but it does make the decision more difficult. 

I should note that a seemingly-fantastic assistantship has been offered to me that incorporates both my experience and interests, but if I wait a year to start it will most likely no longer be available to me. There would be something else, but there is no guarantee that it would be as good or better than this one. 

Part of me wants to say "fuck it" and fly by the seat of my pants into the program this fall. But part of me is really enamored with the idea of taking the year to spend time with my husband when he gets back, get some money saved, and take on the move as a team - taking our time to get him transferred, find him a job, get him enrolled in their engineering program. Doing this would put off starting a family for another year, or going into my first year with an infant in tow. There is low-cost, on-site daycare at the campus, but it apparently has a very long waiting list. 

They are giving me plenty of time to make the decision, so I can relax about it somewhat for right now. I am still applying for the RA job at my MRU. I feel like if I get that job, I will defer for a year. If I don't, I will go this fall. But that's not set in stone. I really don't know what to do. I wish I could talk to my husband to find out what he thinks. He's more of a Jump In Headfirst kind of guy than I am, but it's possible that being away has made him want to enjoy some downtime with me when he gets back. He does not like to be without a job. I think he would go crazy in a new city with all new people and nothing to do with himself. I know he wants to move out there - he was more excited about it at first than I was. That's not an issue. 

So I don't know. What do you guys think?


19 comments:

Professor in Training said...

I'm so glad to hear you had a positive experience this time. Given that you've been itching to get your teeth into research since your graduation and that the program sounds like a great fit not to mention being a fantastic opportunity, you should think seriously about taking it. If you defer, you will not only lose the assistantship but you never know how the economic crisis is going to affect grad school admissions etc next year.

Sounds to me like you're looking for reasons not to accept. Isn't this exactly the type of program and environment you've been looking for?

leigh said...

as a fellow financial worrier, i can understand being very nervous about not having a financial cushion. but the lack of sympathy you're getting from the department is pretty universal. they admit you, they train you, you make the money work out. it's one of those things we all have to do to go to a grad school that's not in the next state over. the decrease in cost of living will help considerably. NE is expensive!

financially, this is not impossible. scary, but not impossible. and should something bad happen, you have the future to recover from it. you can start living frugally now in preparation. if you need suggestions, i'm all about the frugality.

the concern about jobs for your husband is also valid. i'm encountering this in potential-postdoc-city, because they have a fairly well-known training program in my husband's field in town. but if it comes down to it, we know how to live on a single salary while he calls in letters of recommendation and powers through the search. your husband may get a little stir-crazy while he looks for a job, but is that a situation he is willing to do for you? if he is a jump-in-head-first kind of guy, would he jump at the opportunity to move to new city and worry about the details later? (it sounds like you are good counterbalances to each other.) moving across the country is always going to have some uncertainty, especially so in this economy.

re: the head who didn't get it- your mentor will have far more influence on your training than anyone else. our chair is a horse's ass, but he hasn't affected me since i got into my boss's lab.

the positives in the training program look to me like they outweigh the short-term scary stuff. you sound really excited about this. REALLY. excited.

as a long-term thinker, i'd encourage you to go for it. you rarely regret taking amazing opportunities, but you might regret letting them pass you by. enjoying your environment is very important- coming from someone who does not.

but this is just my input from my perspective. :)

Labness said...

That sounds like an lovely life to lead - having the freedom to research whatever you care to with different profs, publishing in journals where what you write matters, no traffic, beautiful mountains...

It sounds like your main concern is actually not related at all to the R2 - it would be there in almost any city.

I want to bring up a grim and depressing point. There is a small chance that in the current economy, neither of you may find a job in your current city if you defer for a year. Instead of thinking of going from a dual- to a single-income budget, is there a chance that a grad-school-stipend-for-two budget may actually be a safer choice...

You've been growing more and more excited about getting into research. This is a chance to both provide a stable, guaranteed (if small) income, while doing absolutely kick-ass research.

Also, if your husband does not like to be unemployed, maybe he can take care of your kid (if you hustle now, you may be able to have one before the end of first year ;) ). This will also take care of that prof who does not think you are sufficiently feminist.

Good luck with your decision. In either case, you now know that there's a program that academically suits you!

Arlenna said...

I think you should take it. All those things about the people and the faculty that you warmed to and respected are extremely important.

Sure, so is financial security, and it SUCKS to be poor. Believe me, in my grad school our stipend was $7000/year, and that was only six years ago. It also sucks to be separated from your husband. I did that, too, for the final three years of my postdoc.

I was depressed all the time, it was stressful and painful etc. But guess what: if I hadn't stuck in there for what I knew I wanted out of my training and career, I would not be in my awesome job, that I LOVE and is perfect for me, today.

I know it's hard, I know it looks impossible and unthinkable from the distance, but sometimes it is worth the pain to be able to position yourself to get where you want to be in a few years.

Deferred gratification: you might miss out on the ultimate best place to be if you miss this opportunity now.

JLK said...

@PiT - I've kind of been wondering the same thing, if my fears and anxiety about making this decision and then moving across the country by myself are the real underlying issue and that the finances are a convenient scapegoat for chickening out. It would be a LOT easier to stay here for a year and ease into the change. The low-stress alternative is very appealing after what I've been through over the past few years.

@Leigh - I think my husband is going to say go for it. It'll be at least a week or two before I know for sure what he thinks. I wish we were able to have a real discussion about it, but I have to take what I can get. I am very tempted to pawn the decision off on him, because really it will be more about his situation out there than mine.

@Labness - I have a job now that I've been at for over 3 years. There is no reason for me to leave it other than going to grad school or pursuing a research job. My husband also has a job here that he can return to immediately when he gets back from the military. If neither of us had job prospects here then the decision would be made already to just go. Instead, it's security versus uncertainty.

Mrs. CH said...

It sounds to me like the positives far outweigh the negatives: the program is pretty much exactly what you want (not just research-wise, but socially as well...and that's really rare!) besides the financial issue.

I know it's tough to think about, but this is the best time in your life to take a financial risk. Most grad students go deep into debt, so you getting a stipend puts you ahead of the game already. Your husband will be able to find a job - it might not be a dream job at first, but he can find something and then look for something else.

I think you should go for it! It sounds like such a great opportunity with people you like and in a place you can see yourself starting your life in.

Labness said...

Sorry, JLK.

I am always functioning under the assumption that all jobs are temporary/contract. I thought you're looking for a research job because your contract was running out, and so would your husband's once he came back.

If that's not the case, could you down-size until September, and work until then mostly to save up? I'm not sure how reasonable this is in your situation in New England, but maybe really going without (while not sustainable long-term) while you both have jobs will allow you to have a bit of a nest egg once you move in late August?

Good luck!

Cognitive Psychologist said...

GO THERE.

graduate school = financial risk. No matter where you go it's tough - but it's only temporary.

DuWayne Brayton said...

GO! Seriously, I know it's fucking scary as hell, but if you put it off it is only going to get harder and the next opportunity may not be as good.

I really wouldn't count on next year either, at least not if that particular women has a lot of say. And this just sounds way to fucking rocking to pass up. Especially the cohesive atmosphere - as I am coming to grasp, that's pretty rare. I don't know about you, but I would love working in a program that isn't cutthroat.

ANd ultimately, it sounds to me like your husband would be game. Yeah, it might suck for a minute, but fuck it - adjustment periods almost always suck. Then you adjust and it's all good...

(I know, I'm getting set to quit smoking - just contemplating adjusting to no more cigarettes leaves me sweaty)

JLK said...

Just a quick note to everyone for clarification:

If I defer admission, I will not have to reapply. It just means that I will be starting in Fall '10 instead of this fall. I would be committing to this university in writing, and it would basically mean that slot #1 would go to me next year.

I don't know if that changes anyone's opinion, but I just wanted to make sure you guys have all the facts.

Professor in Training said...

You may not have to reapply, but you don't know if/how things will change in the admissions process from one year to the next. And from what you've said, this seems to be a perfect fit for you.

If you're waiting for definitive advice from the blogosphere here it is: take this opportunity and be as fabulous as you have the potential to be.

Stephanie Zvan said...

JLK, this is the most excited I've ever "heard" you. It's not even close to the most scared. Take that for what it's worth.

Hope said...

I’m so glad you had a positive experience at R2U! In situations like these, I tend to prioritize advice from those who know (and love) me best. So, what would your husband say? It’s good that you’ll have the chance to consult with him, but I think you already know the answer to that. Best of luck!

DuWayne Brayton said...

Doesn't really change mine all that much.

Go now, get settled into the program and have things more or less settled in by the time your husband gets back. Get started now, so that you don't need to put off getting preggers another year - especially given the very fine advice about not having one in the first year.

It just seems to me that there are very good reasons for going now and good reasons not to wait.

That said, I can see the advantage of waiting, if it is pretty certain you're in even if you wait.

scicurious said...

I concur...with everyone. Go now. I understand your financial worries, because I do that, too. And I still HAVE the financial worries like crazy. But my training has been worth it. Also, the fellowship you've been offered is a prestigious thing, and would give you an extra boost.

I have never heard you sound so excited and optimistic about anything. To get an immediately positive feel for a place and a group of people is something that really says "GO!" to me. I think your husband would agree. Perhaps you could talk to some of the more understanding people there about starting to find him something now, so he can get a head start? It might make a difference. Maybe ask some of the faculty you connected with (not stupid chair)?

But it sounds fantastic, it sounds like you would get the education you want. While financial concerns have their place, this is a long term career step and would be worth it. And your husband will follow you to the ends of the earth. Go for it!

DrL said...

It is only natural to fear the change, and the way to cope was summarized beautifully in the book's title:

"Feel the fear and do it anyway!"

If you defer by a year this change may still be as difficult as it is now. You do not know the future, you cannot predict whether in a year's time this move would be easier or more difficult. This is not a reason to delay it.

"low-stress alternative" may turn out to be still stressful enough when it becomes the present ;)

Avoiding financial risk does not seem to be worth missing such a great opportunity. You said so many positive things about the atmosphere, the diversity of people and support for life-work balance. This is precious...

Do you think your husband would prefer to see you in the old place in the old job when he returns, bored and unsure whether this was a good choice, or the stimulated new you, in the new positive environment, with new friends and happily re-energised?

Your enthusiasm will become his enthusiasm. My husband took a year gap from his studies and followed me to Japan, he does not have a job here, we live frugally but it is OK, because we ARE TOGETHER!

Btw, do not listen to that lady head of department, especially as the other students told you that her opinion about balancing work and family are biased. Maybe she sacrificed her private life for a job and thinks everyone else should do that too? She does not seem particularly friendly, so no point in seeking approval and understanding for your worries from her.

My advise is: Be brave! There is no point in waiting :-) This seems a perfect opportunity, and something that you really wanted. Go and get it. It will be scary. Regardless of wheather you do it now or next year. So maybe just better to do it and get it done with? (starting new life in a new place) The excitement will compensate for financial hardship at the beginning, and later when your husband comes back you will have a lot of happiness to compensate for the frugal life.

"There are some things money cannot buy", positive atmosphere, friendly people, academic freedom, work-life balance...

Candid Engineer said...

Do it. Do it now.

Toaster Sunshine said...

Remember: fear is the mindkiller. It might be safer to save up for a year, but in what way will having a nest egg like that progress your career or your personal goals?

Anonymous said...

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

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