A Quarter of Firsts and Lasts

Well, I’ve somehow managed to survive my first quarter as a PhD student with only minimal scarring (and a new addiction to coffee).  As I sit here at my desk in Fontana Labs reflecting on the past several months of my life, a few things come to mind; I have had a multitude of firsts and lasts this quarter.  There were the firsts I knew about (first graduate classes, first academic quarter instead of semester, first GE teleconference that lasted an eternity), and there were the firsts that took me by surprise.  Similarly, I knew this would be my last quarter of being able to think about mechanical engineering (my undergraduate background), and my last quarter thinking like an undergrad, but there are a few other lasts that I am promising myself.

Perhaps the most interesting first was the awesome highs and ridiculous lows I’ve experienced over the last eleven weeks.  I had my first truly gratifying feeling as a grad student when I finally figured out the undergraduate version of x-ray diffraction on my own, and then even managed to apply it to the graduate class.  As a mechanical engineer I obviously never had to learn anything about Bragg’s law, reciprocal space, or anything even related to diffraction.  On the suggestion of an officemate I ordered the undergraduate XRD text and spent the first few weeks of the quarter diligently reading and taking notes, scouring the book for anything that could possibly make this course a little easier to understand.  Somehow, it began to click, and that wonderful light bulb lit up.

Ups and Downs

Ups and Downs

I then had my first true low when I was then shortly pulled down in another course.  I somehow managed to make it through undergrad without ever having to drop a class, and had to drop my first class halfway through the quarter.  I am not one to give up on anything, much less a class that I had already survived the first six weeks of attending.  But for my own mental health (and in the interest of devoting more time to my fledgling research), I had to drop it.  So I said goodbye to an unfortunate experience, and moved on.

My most interesting lasts come more as a New Year’s resolution list than anything else.  While I had some typical lasts through the quarter, I find that the most beneficial “last” things are the things I am promising myself will be the last time I do them.  For example, while I did well on the midterms, I fell in to an unfortunate old habit and became overconfident in my knowledge of the subjects and therefore did not devote the necessary time to studying for finals.  Insert your own conclusions here.  This will therefore be the last quarter this overconfidence replaces my confidence.

Another last for this quarter is related to the first last.  I have a tendency to start out the quarter with my guns blazing, ready to read and do whatever it takes to truly learn the material, which is a great way to start new classes.  An unfortunate remnant of undergrad is that I soon get caught up in my life, reading, and other things, and this inertia quickly dies out until I sit down at my final and wonder what I’ve been doing the last few weeks.  This will be the last quarter that my inertia dies in the first part of the quarter, and I move on from an undergrad mentality to a graduate mentality.

So with you as my witness, this will be the last quarter I do these things.  Although it is typical to sit here and say, “hindsight is 20/20,” this time I will say “foresight is 20/20,” and learn from my firsts and lasts this quarter.  In the spirit of theses firsts and lasts, I must now actually get back to reading and work.  See you next year!


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