Monday, November 01, 2004

Engineers like to chart things

When I was in college, my friends and I came up with a graph of Suck vs. Time. The units of Suck, Btu*cp/lbm*°R, are my favorite part, although they are only funny in geek language. (Those units are really hard to work with. So… they suck. Get it?) Basically, the chart looks like this:

Suck vs Time (for undergraduate ChemE) Posted by Hello

The jump in sophomore year is the Thermodynamics Correction Factor. Thermo is really really hard. It’s pretty much a weed-out course. (Aside: I came back from a Thermo homework session once complaining about how I hated doing Thermo. An acquaintance said, “Then don’t do it!” I said I had to; he couldn’t see why. There were a few minutes of puzzled exchange until I realized that he thought Thermo was a drug.) And then the classes just get exponentially harder, culminating in Unit Operations Lab, and then there’s the sweet relief of graduation.

Grad school inspired a similar chart, but this time there were two things to plot against time: Bitterness and Apathy. (I never figured out what their units should be. Maybe I didn’t care enough.) It was my third or fourth year, and I had lost most of that hopeful, first-year-grad-student anticipation. My experiments were going nowhere, and I seemed to be accomplishing nothing. I felt like I was doomed to spend the rest of my life treading water in that godforsaken lab. When I caught myself thinking about it as the “godforsaken lab,” and I realized had gotten a touch bitter.

In fact, in my fourth year, during the annual recruiting weekend – when the deparment brought prospective grad students out to try to convince them to choose our university – they asked us grad students to help out, as we did every year. But I didn’t meet any of the recruits that year, because I said that the best thing I could do for the department would be to not speak to any of them. My bitterness would only scare them away.

But, as time passed, the bitterness began to wane. Oh, things were still going nowhere; I just didn’t care. And so I developed this:

Bitterness, Apathy vs Time Posted by Hello

Since graduating, I have found that this chart is applicable to graduate students everywhere. Everyone hits a wall somewhere around year 3 where it feels like you will never finish your thesis. And then, somehow, you finish. My thesis has five chapters. The first chapter is the introduction and the last chapter is the conclusion; the middle three chapters represent the five years I spent toiling in the lab. It took me 4 years to gather the data for Chapter 2. Chapter 3 took me one month. Again, this is typical. And it makes sense; it took me four years to figure out how to do it, and then I did it twice. But you can see how that four years can seem to stretch out interminably.

I’ll leave you with one last graph. It’s another Suck vs. Time graph, this time representing the level of suckiness at discovering that all of your data is incorrect. And I know from experience.

Suck vs Time (for discovering all your dissertation data is wrong) Posted by Hello

1 comment:

Erica said...

My husband is an EE PhD - I'm sure he agrees heartily with this!
It's funny though - out of the two of us, I'm the one who put all of our expenses in excel and made graphs out of it. But that's the business person in me I guess.
Nice getting to know you post! Looking forward to meeting you in Chicago.