A few words of advice for Ph.D. candidates

I’m thankful for having had the pleasure of watching several of my classmates pass their general examinations this semester. “The general” constitutes the last major hurdle before the dissertation defense, and a successful examinee becomes “A.B.D.” (all but dissertation). As a recent Ph.D. recipient, I have aggregated a few nuggets of advice for them. Some of these items may seem self-evident in hindsight, but may not be to those upon which the stress is piled higher and deeper.

  • No escaping it, the dissertation is a daunting undertaking. It can seem insurmountable. The key to getting it done is to break it apart and tackle each chapter, section, and subsection individually. As the old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? … One bite at a time.”

  • You must make dissertation writing a habit from now on. Set a writing schedule and stick to it. (For a scientific discussion of why this works, read Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot, which I extolled in a previous post.)

  • Ultimately, your name will be the only one on the spine in gold leaf, but no one writes a dissertation in a vacuum. Keep a list of people who helped you and notes about how they contributed. This list will easily transform into your acknowledgments section. Speaking of which…

  • The acknowledgment section is the only section of the dissertation over which you have complete control, so have fun with it. Give enthusiastic shout-outs to those who made your journey smoother. Include photos, anecdotes, poetry, whatever you want!

  • Be defensive about your time. You need to maintain laserlike focus on your goal. In the semesters prior to your defense, reclaim your time by load-shedding, and don’t take on new commitments. Let others know that your availability will be limited in the coming months, so that they can adjust. This advice is particularly relevant to women, since we are conditioned to try to please everyone. Learn to say, “No.” Be polite and pleasant, but also firm.

  • Some of your biggest stumbling blocks may be internal. There will be days when you simply don’t feel like writing. You will suffer setbacks. There will be days you feel like throwing up your hands and walking away from the whole endeavor. Always remember that you are not the first Ph.D. candidate to feel this way (although many of us think we are). A support group that meets over coffee once a week can be beneficial for working through your issues. If your internal blocks are too great for you or your support group to bear, consider seeking help from your school’s professional counseling services.

  • Do what you have to do to maintain your focus. Close your office door. If you share an office, use a visual signal to communicate when you do not want to be interrupted. (In my case, I wore a pair of over-the-ear headphones to tell my officemates that I was “in the zone.” Another of my colleagues put out a black rose on her desk when she did not want to be disturbed.) I also made extensive use of overnight hours, when distractions were at a minimum.

  • Stay physically active. Writing a dissertation involves sitting on your butt in front of a glowing screen for long periods of time. If you don’t take care of your body, no one else will. Don’t neglect diet and exercise, even when it’s crunch time. Stick to your exercise regimen. If you get stuck on a paragraph, a simple 10-minute walk outside can be a great refresher.

  • Keep your right brain busy, too. Analysis, derivation, and logic all fall to our left brains, and its fruits are traditionally over-represented in the dissertation. Don’t let the creative, nonlinear strengths of your right brain fall by the wayside. Paint, draw, sing, play a musical instrument, write poetry, laugh. Would you work out with only half a barbell?

  • Keep copious electronic notes that are easy to search. Our parents’ generation used note cards to organize information. We now have electronic tools that can do many of the same things. In my case, I created a (private) blog on LiveJournal and documented everything related to my dissertation there, including my thought processes, conversations with others, small epiphanies, and even more mundane things like compiler options. I used tags to organize it so that I could quickly reference past entries, a practice that saved me a great deal of time when I had to retrace my steps.

  • When you dedicate yourself so completely to studying one topic or case, literally for years, your brain will naturally yearn to work on other things. You will have flashes of inspiration for projects that aren’t related to your Ph.D. research at all. When new project ideas come, write them down, and save them for later. I kept a document called “Future projects?”, and one of those ideas turned into my postdoc.

  • Be kind to yourself. Set attainable, bite-sized goals, and don’t forget to reward yourself when you reach them.

Remember, you’ve progressed further toward your dreams than 99% of the population. You are the cream that rose to the top. You are stronger than you think you are. Be proud of that fact.

Good luck!

2011-11-07: Wichita Mountains tornado

I’d been anticipating this chase opportunity for nearly a week. In spite of that, my chase partners and I showed up late for the party. And in spite of that, we still witnessed a unique sight: a tornado interacting with the Wichita Mountains.

It’s fall in Oklahoma, and the jet stream is moseying back south. A couple of high-amplitude troughs have already swung low across the state, bringing chilly temperatures on brisk northwesterly winds. The long-range models were hinting at another such trough last week, but this one also brought surface moisture, ample deep-layer shear, and steepening mid-level lapse rates with it. There was no reason to hold back.

Our initial target was Altus. My chase partners (Dan, Jana, Jing) and I planned to leave Norman just after lunch. As usual, one thing after another delayed us by a few minutes at a time. Suddenly, somehow, it was 2:00 p.m., and supercells were already grinding across western Oklahoma. One near Frederick quickly dominated the others, all but flashing a neon “CHASE ME” sign. So, after far too much dawdling, we hastily piled into my car and blasted southwest along I-44.

During our haul southwest, our social media feeds lit up with quick pics of a fat, high-contrast cone near Tipton, OK. Earlier in my chase career, it was typical for me to arrive at a tornado-producing supercell, only to have it greet me by gusting out. Obviously, that still happens sometimes, and it’s always a kick in the wallet when a storm I’ve driven hundreds of miles to intercept mockingly turns to grunge in front of my eyes. Internally, I steeled myself for that possibility.

As we approached Lawton, Mt. Scott and the rest of the Wichita Mountains (actually some of the oldest mountains in North America, whose geologic history you can read about here) loomed against slate-gray rain curtains on the horizon. We were about 30 miles from a second tornado reported to be approaching Snyder, a town that had a prior abusive relationship with a tornado. We craned and strained but could not see any cloud base structure at so great a distance.

We debated our plan of attack. Heading west on U.S. Hwy 62 was not an option because the tornado had just crossed it at a 40 mph clip. Jana reminded us that OK-49, the next E-W highway to the north crossing the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, has a speed limit of 45 mph. Then we remembered the paved ribbon running west out of Elgin to Meers Restaurant, and took it. As we turned right past the cattle pens, promising ourselves a Meers burger some other time, Dan got a text message from Lou Wicker suggesting that we head northwest on OK-115 and intercept the storm near Saddle Mountain.

The mountains, of course, blocked our view of the cloud base for much of our approach. But all the signs aloft (updraft, clear slot) keyed our attention on a darkening shaft behind the scrubby ridges. My certainty of a rain-wrapped tornado surged we rolled up on it:

Tornado in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife refuge

Rain-wrapped tornado in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (OK) at about 4:10 p.m. CST

We stopped shortly thereafter and caught the tornado crossing the inverted chins of stone comprising Saddle Mountain, and later passing in front of the wind farm just to its northeast. We observed it for about 15 minutes, repositioning once, and never saw another vehicle the entire time. Here’s my video.

Note that the trees on the hillsides are turning red – it really is autumn in Oklahoma!

I’d never witnessed a tornado interacting with complex terrain from such a short distance before, so observing its looping contortions was an unexpected treat. I also hadn’t gotten to watch a tornado in solitude for many a year. Apart from two news helicopters hovering behind us, my companions and I had the tornado all to ourselves. I kept expecting other cars to go zooming past, but the road behind us stayed curiously, almost eerily, vacant. We’re guessing the wildlife preserve forced many of the other chasers to divert around it to the west; very few came at it from the east. Sometimes, being late to the show has its advantages.

After the Wichita Mountains tornado was swallowed by a descending reflectivity core, we were hard pressed to catch up to it. We crossed the damage path (plastic bags, bits of sheet metal, and other miscellaneous trash caught in barbed wire fences and trees) just north of Saddle Mountain, nearly flattening a tire on a laid-out stop sign, then stair-stepped along gravel roads near Albert, occasionally catching sight of promising shallow cones dipping out of the cloud base. On the descent into Fort Cobb, we finally found the chase hordes, fixated on a multi-vortex tornado lazily twirling just west of town:

Multi-vortex tornado near Fort Cobb, Oklahoma

Multi-vortex tornado near Fort Cobb, Oklahoma

After that, we rapidly fell behind the storm, and daylight dwindled to dark grayish-blue. We headed back to Norman by way of Tuttle – our favorite dust devil chasing spot this past summer, and were back at the NWC before 7:00 p.m.

NWS documented at least 6 tornadoes from this storm, including the two we witnessed. My husband was able to take more video than I was, because I was driving. Here’s his highlights reel for this chase:

Two interesting follow-ups to this one:

  1. Two Oklahoma Mesonet stations suffered damage from yesterday’s storms and stopped reporting data. According to the Mesonet Ticker, at least one of the stations (Tipton) was laid waste by a tornado. This has never happened before in the 17-year history of the Oklahoma Mesonet, and two have two stations destroyed in one day is nothing short of phenomenal.
  2. About two hours after our return to Norman, the ground began shaking again. We’ve had a series of small-to-moderate earthquakes (magnitudes 4.7, 5.6, and 4.7, in that order) caused by a known fault near Prague, Oklahoma. So, I got to experience both an earthquake and a tornado in the same day. I crossed an item off my bucket list that I didn’t even know was on it!