Halfway through Fourth Year

I realized that I hadn't written anything broadly about my progress through the PhD program in a while, so I should do that now. I'm halfway through the fourth year of the program, and this year has allowed me to take on more responsibilities compared to last academic year.

For one, I'm now doing more projects than I was last year. In particular, last year, my main focus was on fleshing out a way to combine atomistic and continuum treatments of electrodynamic response in order to understand van der Waals interactions among molecules and larger bodies (which was the subject of my second paper). I did a bit of work on the side extending this to situations where the molecules may deform, and while that work still hasn't been published yet, it was not particularly difficult to understand what was going on there given the broader picture of mesoscopic van der Waals interactions. In any case, I was able to basically focus on one major project whose path and end goal seemed fairly well-defined, and as a result, I was able to take things a bit easier. By contrast, right now I'm working on two parallel projects incorporating vibrational effects into this description of molecular response and seeing how that affects the van der Waals interactions as well as heat transfer between molecules. This required quite a bit more formulation and writing & testing code on my part, and featured significantly more uncertainty in the results, because while the basic formulation of van der Waals interactions between molecules and macroscopic bodies for my previous project could be relatively easily extrapolated from our collaborators' description of interactions among molecules alone (and the resulting physical interactions were relatively more predictable), I wasn't really sure what to expect with respect to the modification of these interactions due to vibrations, nor what to expect for heat transfer or thermal emission at all; this is because as far as I can tell, other people haven't really considered molecular vibrations in such a context in an ab-initio manner thus far. Thus, I've felt like in terms of research, I have a lot more work and more uncertainty on my plate now than I did a year ago.

For another, I was a TA for the first time last semester and am a TA again this semester. This semester is turning out to be particularly interesting in that regard, because while last semester I was a TA for a graduate-level quantum mechanics class where I could basically count on students knowing what they were doing and not needing me to hold their hands at every obstacle, this semester I am a TA for a freshman-level linear algebra class that is being taught as an engineering class for the first time; not only am I assisting with a class for which the curriculum is being developed afresh, but this class has a diverse group of freshman who are from less-resourced schools and may have less formal math and science background than some of their peers here, so beyond ensuring that I be an effective pedagog for freshmen, I now have to make sure that I can connect with these students by making myself feel inclusive rather than forbidding.

Most broadly, I now have to think more seriously about what I want to do after I graduate, as that point comes nearer. The big question is whether I want to stay in academia or not, given both the locations where I may find interesting opportunities and the nature of such opportunities. For a while, I thought that I would more likely want to leave academia given the tough odds of finding a tenured faculty position in a place that I would like to be, so I at least thought of doing an internship this coming summer outside of academia. While I still haven't ruled out the latter idea, I have come to realize that I enjoy academic research enough to consider continuing it for at least a few years after graduation, and I've also realized that it isn't necessarily a good choice to try to divine my career many years in the future based on my assessment of my current research progress, as that future becomes less certain the farther away it is. Given that, I also feel like a summer internship could disrupt the pace of my current research, so I would want to engage in it if I could be reasonably sure that it would actually help with my current research. However, if I forswear a summer internship to focus on my current research, then I have to really make sure that I fully investigate my options following graduation; for example, I have a few ideas on research topics to pursue following graduation, but I have no idea how feasible they are because they're in an adjacent field with which I have essentially no experience, so I need to get to know people in that field and make those connections to facilitate my next move. I'm going to the 2018 APS March Meeting next week, so with the uncertainty about my research projects & directions in the short- & long-terms along with the need to more seriously network with researchers in the field, this upcoming conference does feel like it has higher stakes for me than the one I went to last year, when I wasn't as worried about such things.

Such seems to be the course of research in a PhD. I'm glad that I've been able to take up these responsibilities and become a more well-rounded researcher & educator, and the uncertainty of research is gratifying to the extent that I get to investigate different ideas with the chance to fail and improve further in the hopes that I will ultimately hit upon something successful. However, the flip side of that uncertainty is stress when I realize that I have to deliver in some way, whether that means making a good impression & networking effectively at a conference or seriously considering upcoming career moves (where I again would have to make a good impression upon whoever may be evaluating me for a job). Ultimately, my hope is that I can continue to work hard & stay focused on what I need to do without letting that stress and uncertainty cloud my decision-making in the hope that my hard work will pay off, in the same way that in my second year, when I was stressed about my slow research progress relative to some of my peers, I simply pressed on and was eventually rewarded (through the fruit of my labor) with a publication at the beginning of my third year; even if that payoff doesn't come in the way that I expect, my hope is also that by that point, I will have cast a wide enough net that other options will be available to me too.