My previous posts have contained some rumors of the fact that I’m in the process of leaving MIT and moving to the Washington, DC area—most likely PG County—but I haven’t really taken the time to explicitly go into what’s going on. It’s probably about time I did so.
As I’ve complained about at length in the past, my PhD project at MIT was going nowhere. I essentially spent the last five years serving as a lab technician, attempting to repair broken equipment and largely being treated as a minion by the senior grad student on my project. When he left with a Master’s after nine-and-a-half years last February, I thought things would improve, but they didn’t. The Machine continued to not work, of course, and the depression I’d developed while working under him didn’t go away. Instead, it just made it impossible for me to make myself do anything with the Machine.
When I mentioned the idea of getting a Master’s to my advisor at our annual meeting in December, she said I couldn’t get one unless I collected data. Furthermore, in early January, I gave her a proposal for some experiments I could do without further repairs so I could at least have enough data for a Master’s. She refused and I concluded that I was probably doomed to leave MIT with no degree, since I didn’t believe that the needed repairs were even possible. I fell into a cycle of despair and found that I couldn’t even make myself go into lab and do any work, so I gave up and took various people’s advice and went on medical leave.
My medical leave started at the end of January, and my original plan was to move down to DC to find a temporary job for the nine months or so before MIT would require me to return. However, it pretty quickly became clear that I really didn’t want to go back, and that I wouldn’t be able to find a reasonable job to support myself if I couldn’t commit to staying at it for a year or two. Since I’d be required to return from medical leave well before that, I concluded that I should make plans to not return.
When I first talked to my advisor about this, her response was to ask me to come off medical leave immediately. When I pointed out that this wasn’t allowed, she then said I didn’t have enough for a Master’s thesis, but that I should return for the summer and write a set of applications for the new data acquisition computer we purchased, along with a thesis about the applications, in three months. I told her I thought this was impossible and had a bit of a breakdown that evening over the fact that it appeared that the last five-and-a-half years of my life were going to be a complete waste because she was withholding a Master’s to try to keep me from leaving.
After talking to my undergraduate advisor about my options, I sent my thesis committee an email making it clear that I was leaving and not coming back, but asking whether I could write a thesis based on some work I’d already done.
While I think it is necessary that I leave MIT with or without a degree, I really would like to receive credit for the work I have done here, and I believe that I have already done enough to merit a Master’s thesis. As for what my thesis could contain, besides the obvious literature review and discussion from my orals proposal, I think there are several things that would be worthy of including:
(1) The hundred-page user manual for the Big Machine that my advisor is having me write strikes me as reasonable to include; it is a very detailed coverage of the experimental and maintenance techniques that I have worked on in my five years in the lab, techniques which—for the most part—had not previously been documented.
(2) In terms of publishable achievements, the most obvious one is the molecular dynamics simulation I designed and coded for the fluorine project two years ago. I included initial calculations from that model on the poster I presented at the 2013 Gordon Conference on Dynamics at Surfaces and, back when I wrote it, I also wrote up a fairly detailed write-up of the model itself. I think an expansion of this would make a good primary component for a thesis.
(3) The first thing I did on my own when I joined the lab was to write the LabView code for the data acquisition program that we still use today to collect auger spectra. This seems similar in nature to the data acquisition computer programming that my advisor proposed for a Master’s, so perhaps it would have some merit as the basis of a Master’s thesis as well. My one concern is that, because it’s LabView code, it would be much harder, I think, for me to access it on my own to write up how it works without access to a computer with LabView installed.
I am curious whether it would be acceptable for me to write a thesis based on some or all of these over the next few months. My understanding from conversations with the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education is that if I could produce an acceptable thesis, it would be possible for me to return as a student for a few days at the start of the summer term in June to submit the thesis and thus finish the requirements for a Master’s degree. I’d then receive the degree on the September Degree List, but I would be able to return to Maryland after a couple of days, so this wouldn’t be incompatible with finding a long-term job.
Of course, being my advisor, she still hasn’t replied to this email six days later. But the day after she received it, she did email the lab announcing that she would be out of town for the next two weeks with limited email. Since she left, I’ve talked to my thesis chair and the Dean of Science and the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education. They all do seem to think that I should be able to get a Master’s based on what I’ve done, but it’s not clear to me exactly how this will come about or what the details of the thesis or who would sign it are. That all seems to be waiting until my advisor comes back, although my thesis chair has said he’ll call her. I don’t know if that will happen, but also don’t really want to keep living on couches indefinitely until I get an answer out of her.
Given all of this, I think that my current plan is to leave Boston on Thursday—now is the time to poke me if you want to see me before I go—and find an apartment in PG County somewhere. My first priority for the next couple of months, assuming they let me, will be to write a Master’s thesis. However, I also need to find a job. Working as a lab technician if I can find a position seems like it’s probably my best bet, although something in science policy could also be quite interesting if anyone would hire me for it. I’m not really sure that I want to stay in science, and I’m planning on taking classes at University of Maryland University College to try to give me more career options. I’m not really certain what classes, but something programming-related seems the most employable these days.