Time is Nice; so is Grad School

I’m sorry I haven’t blogged any more substantial things lately. I’m finding it difficult to bring myself to type out lengthy blog posts about serious, thought-requiring things precisely because I spend all day doing serious, thought-requiring things so that when I come home, even if I do have free time my first impulse isn’t to go blog about something thought-requiring; it’s to put on a tape of an old radio show and make a smoothie.

At the same time, I liked the small hint of what it would be like to blog about thought-provoking topics and have people respond to them in comments. I will have to get better about making such thoughts compact enough that people can read them, but if I can do it, it would be a lot of fun. Maybe it’s something I could make into a routine, the way I’ve been making Saturday night my night for trying more complicated recipes.

In the meanwhile, however, I want to share the following pleasant fact about grad school, so far: I’m just not that busy. At least, not yet. And this is excellent, I think. In fact it’s just what I needed.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m well aware that onceI pick a research project and start on it, things will really pick up, I’m sure. But in this first year when I’m mostly doing coursework, things aren’t so bad and they don’t show much indication of getting worse.

This is great, because what I’ve really needed for the last couple of years was just a chance to do physics as something more than a side hobby. In fact, I got so foolishly busy with such wildly divergent activities during college that a lot of the time, everything I did felt like a hobby because nothing got enough attention to feel like a full-time pursuit.

Now, though, I have enough free time that I can have  few hobbies (running, cooking, blogging about my hobbies) and also focus in on physics to my heart’s desire (at which point I go engage in a hobby). This afternoon I spent an hour on a homework problem after I had gotten the answer, because I was convinced there should have been another way to do the problem and couldn’t make it work. Turns out, there was a sneaky reason why the other method wouldn’t work in this case, and now I know something subtle and sneaky that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. There is no way I would ever, ever have had the time or energy to do something like that last year, when I was supposedly studying physics but really just doing enough with it to convince the people signing my degree that I was doing physics.

The result has been that I can also feel my attention span increasing somewhat, which is good, because I’ve always had trouble controlling when I decide to get really focused on something. Sometimes it just happens, which is excellent, unless it’s something pointless like an origami model when I have real work to do. But sometimes I have real work to do and just can’t filter enough of the other thoughts out of my head to keep my attention on the task at hand.

Or at least that’s how things got towards the end of college. And I’m pretty sure that’s in large part due to how many wildly divergent obligations I had at any given time, and in particular, because the nature of several of these obligations meant that they could spring themselves upon me at any time. Thus I was never really safe to stop thinking about X club or Y organization because they might give me a call late at night and I’d have to bounce my attention to them, meaning that the whole time I was trying to prove the Baire Category Theorem or whatever part of my brain kept wanting me to stop and think about what else I might have to do.

I certainly have a lot to do for the physics department here, but at least I have basically two things I’m obliged to do right now: go to class and learn, and teach physics labs to pre-med majors. And those are pretty well contained to their own spheres; Dr. Van Nieuwenhuizen isn’t going to call me up right now when I’m trying to focus on blogging and ask me to do some additional homework problem. So I don’t have to spread my brain over a thousand different directions.

The result is that I actually have more time (at least so far), to do “extracurricular” things like read books, go running, or wish that I could draw a little better, because I can more effectively get my “compulsory” stuff done when I decide it’s time to do the compulsory stuff. It’s working out really well so far and I hope it stays that way.

Now, I know that part of the reason it’s like this is because I haven’t developed an extensive social circle yet. But to be honest, that’s okay so far, too, because it means I can treat “socializing” on par with “reading a book”– i.e., I can do it when I want to or need to, but it doesn’t intrude on my thought and prevent me from doing other things when it’s not it’s turn.

And to top it all off, I found a quarter today. What a nice place to live.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

2 Responses to Time is Nice; so is Grad School

  1. S(tephen) says:

    I’m curious as to what you’ll pick up as your research area. I understand the general tests at Stonybrook are a bitch and a half, so you’ll more than likely have quite a bit of time.

    • Colin West says:

      You know, I’m certainly curious too! I have always been interested in particle theory, but Stony Brook is doing a great job of making sure I get tempted by all sorts of wildly disparate sub-fields. I’ve been surprised to discover that it is just as difficult to narrow my focus within physics as it was in college to narrow my focus to physics in the first place.

      As for the comps exams, I don’t doubt they will be difficult, but unfortunately, this doesn’t buy me any additional time to think things over. I have to have passed all my exams by the end of my second year here if I want to continue, so the clock is ticking!

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