Wednesday, December 05, 2012

life wasn't simpler, back then.

over the weekend i learned about blogger's label feature ..
for an example, click here; also .. [0]

.. so i ended up reading quite a few posts i wrote when i was in the middle of my ph.d. and shortly after i started doing actual research. it makes for more interesting reading than my life now, but .. ye gods:

I. it was a dark, uncertain point in my life. i forgot how often i worried about whether everything would work out or even whether i was cut out to be a mathematician [1], how it took so long to ever learn anything .. much less work with it .. and then there were 2-3 rounds of job searches: one just before the financial crisis hit with full force, the other(s) after it.

in comparison, my life now feels relatively secure and even routine.

that's not to say that i've stopped worrying. rather, i think i worry just as much as i used to [2] .. just that i've gotten used to not getting any resolution out of it, and gotten better at pushing it out of mind.

II. i wrote a lot more often about technical details, and i don't exactly know why. maybe it was because all this research stuff was new to me and i found it hard to separate it from the rest of my life.
maybe it's because by writing them, i could partially convince myself that i had some idea of how they worked .. which i didn't, of course.

maybe it's because i've encountered enough non-experts, relative to my field, and have given enough unsuccessful explanations that i've grown tired of writing or thinking about them, during my non-work hours.

contrary to popular expectation, not all of us researchers work all the time;
these days i would consider myself a non-example.

who knows? maybe it's progress .. that i see a bigger picture now and that the details, though still essential and important, aren't the main focus anymore.
related to this, my research problems have been asking why a bit more often than how, these days.

III. travel wasn't routine to me, yet. to be fair, i didn't particularly like traveling back then, either, but i was more excited by the trips i took.
the first flight to finland (2003) was an adventure to me, for example. i didn't know anyone. before the flight over, i didn't know if i could get by at all in english. few if any of the talks made any sense. in one week i saw the sun at midnight for the first time, i crashed a bicycle, i had a run in with the police, there was that incident with that one woman at that pub ..

.. and i met the advisor, for the first time. (-:

part of the novelty was that i was constantly meeting new people. there were fellow ph.d. students [3] from different departments that were equally as overwhelmed as i was, there were hallowed professors who were giving distinguished lecture series and to whom i was afraid to ask anything (even to pass the salt at the conference dinner), and there were sympathetic postdocs that spotted me more beers than i deserved.
these days, conferences are more like reunions. i have a lot of colleagues who are friends, and it's rare that i get a chance to see them otherwise. [4]

there's one more aspect: though i attended a lot of conferences during my ph.d., i rarely gave talks .. which makes sense in how american maths ph.d. programs are structured: in many of them, it's not until year #3 that you get to any research at all.

now i almost never travel without having an invited talk ready. until recently, i didn't have my own travel money, and it always seemed a tacit rule (to me anyway) that funding was contingent on speaking.

i don't know: if you asked me right now, do i feel any different than 7-8 years ago?

yes and no,
but more no than yes.

i wonder if i'll ever feel like i know what i'm doing.

[0] in case you're wondering, i tend to write about similar topics over a fixed period of time. so under the keywords & tags sidebar, a "series" collects the posts about a particular experience in my life. for example, series:pfs-class are all the posts i've written about teaching that "intro to proofs" course (during my first postdoc).

[1] i still don't know. it's gotten better over the years, but i still have a hard time thinking up good research and getting ideas to work out. some days i still feel like an impostor; it's just that this world of mathematics has shown itself to be rather poor at weeding such impostors as myself .. (-;.

[2] rationally, it doesn't make sense. i have a job lined up, my ideas for research are working out well enough, and right now i don't have to teach .. which frees up a lot of time to learn new things, which is something very hard to do, in the course of teaching over a semester.

[3] for the longest time i did not consider students in business, law, and medical schools as "graduate students" since it seemed like they were at the university for different reasons. a more precise terminology is "ph.d. student" .. i guess.

[4] it just occurred to me: what if i'm becoming one of those scary "profs" at conferences that ph.d. students hesitate to talk to?

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