Midnight Memories…In the Lab

“Tell me that I’m wrong but I do what I please.”

Somehow, One Direction was able to sum up the entire graduate experience in one line.

Don’t judge me. I am not a 1D fan. But I did take my niece to see them a few years ago on one of their tours (so this would have been pre-fallout, as is the fate of pretty much every boy band ever formed). It was actually the first concert I’ve been to. And after that experience, it’s the last concert that I will EVER go to. The stadium was filled with thousands of screaming tweens, and for three hours afterward, I felt as if I were in a tunnel. My poor eardrums had suffered so much torture that they declared mutiny on me.

In addition to “Midnight Memories” being a huge pop hit, it is, oddly enough, a minor tribute to grad student life. No, we don’t go everywhere “singing, singing, singing, singing.” But we are used to constantly being told that we’re wrong and then going ahead with whatever we were doing in the first place, much to the chagrin of pretty much everyone around us.

We do go straight from planes to hotels for conferences and are not always sure where we are because we’re too freaking exhausted to notice. We do normally have large house parties since we only know each other and even when we leave our labs we still have to talk about our work. Sadly, the only people that want to hear about our work are the people we work with.

No, we don’t always know where we’re going but we are trying to find our way. And that’s not even in reference to research (though it very well could be). Many a grad student has asked her- or himself if what she or he is doing is worth it.

We definitely do care about how much we spend, though. We’re grad students. We work our tails off for a pittance. (A bit of an exaggeration; we make enough to live off of if we have a couple roommates.) Although sometimes when we get too depressed about our own lack of progress, we spend more money than we should thinking it will perk us up.

It doesn’t.

Because we then become depressed by the next credit card bill we have to pay, and a vicious cycle ensues.

I guess the big question is do we stay up until midnight?

Ha! Midnight? I laugh in the face of midnight. I’m sure you actually meant have we stayed up until all hours and then gone to work the next day?

Oh yeah.

I remember writing a draft for a paper and my adviser sent me corrections before Thanksgiving. Stupid as I was (and possibly still am), I thought that since the corrections appeared minor I would only need a couple hours to do them. So I went home to pack and decided to work on the corrections that afternoon and make the nine-hour drive during the night to get home.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The corrections ended up taking me about TWELVE HOURS to finish. Even though I was exhausted, I figured what the heck? I’m up anyway; I might as well get the drive over with.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Driving while tired is similar to driving while drunk. I had to pull over twice to take a nap since I could barely keep my eyes open. What was only supposed to be a 9-hour drive (even with the holiday traffic) turned into a 15-hour trek. What made matters worse was my cat wanted to cuddle with me while I napped; but when I woke up she’d lodged herself under the passenger seat. When I got home, it took my mother pulling her front paws and me prodding her tush with the windshield scraper to get her out.

Another fun-filled experience came around midterms, which usually results in some form of academic PTSD. The prof had given us our test and told us we had 24 hours to finish it but that we would definitely not need the whole 24 hours.

Oh, but we definitely did.

I don’t think there was anyone in the class that actually finished the test. The ones that actually went to bed that night had just stopped caring after hour 18. On top of that, the deadline for the exam was at 10 the next morning, which meant we all had a full day ahead of us.

Enter my quantum mechanics class, which at the time was the bane of my existence. And my prof, who felt I was the bane of HER existence, already didn’t like me. How much did her opinion worsen while I was struggling to keep my eyes open (especially after she turned out the lights to show us something on the projector)? I honestly have no idea; I thought her opinion of me couldn’t get any worse, but it most likely did.

(Interesting side note: even as I was dozing off, I was still taking notes. And they were almost 100% right. How weird is that…)

I’ve spent the night on the couch in my lab before. (Yeah, my adviser had a couch, a toaster oven, and a fridge in our office space; essentially, she wanted to give us everything we needed to just stay there.) Even as a teacher, I’ve spent the night in my office. At least in my former lab there was a couch; in my office there was the floor, which cost me a visit to the chiropractor.

Such is the way of academia. Some of our best work is accomplished at the most profane hours. We never know when inspiration will strike. If it even bothers to, we have to be ready for it. (Hence the reason you will see coffee makers and about three to five coffee mugs on every grad student’s desk.)

Most of the time, nothing makes sense and we sometimes do have to just pretend that everything is A-OK. Why am I not getting enough data? Why isn’t there a trend in the data? Why hasn’t this worked after doing it five times? Why is the universe against me?

It makes me wonder why I am even bothering with going back.

Maybe it’s not just the memories but also the experience that made everything else worth it.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

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