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Posts Tagged ‘science’

This post is for graduate students, people contemplating graduate school, and people who want to understand what their graduate school friends are going through.

phd1029

from PHD Comics

 

Graduate school is hard. This, hopefully, is not a surprise. But it’s difficult to understand how hard it really is without going through the experience.

The end of the semester is rapidly approaching, and thus I find myself on an emotional roller coaster. I have a thousand and one things to do, and they all feel like they needed to be done yesterday. I have a lot of feelings about attending graduate school, why I chose to go, why I’m still here. It’s complicated. But I’m writing this post for people who are still thinking about going back to school, so they can make informed decisions, at least about the emotional side of things.

I feel the need to explain that I am in graduate school for geology, and the logistics of how that works. First off, geology, like most sciences, is generally a paid graduate program. You are there either on a research or teaching assistantship (I’m here on a TA), and so you are getting paid to do one of these two things, and your tuition is waived. I don’t get paid much, but I essentially don’t have the stress of worrying about how I’m going to pay for this education in the present or future (although, I do have student loans from my undergraduate degree, so I am not without a significant amount of debt – I just don’t have to worry about paying it right now). This is, of course, different for non-science graduate programs. Some are paid for, some you must pay for yourselves – there are many different ways to go about graduate school. Paid or unpaid, both have their benefits and drawbacks. I, for instance, don’t have to pay for what I’m doing, and I am indeed paid to teach and do research. But this means I am both attending school and working a normal-ish job, so my workload is a bit higher than it would be if I didn’t have to teach.

As a geology graduate student TA, I have to take a minimum of 24 course credits, plus at least 6 thesis credits, during my time here. I am on the semester system, so I teach/grade for two classes each semester (right now it’s Geology 101 lab and grading for Historical Geology/Earth System History, for those who wish to know). I may only have 6 thesis credits required, but the actual time it takes one to complete a thesis is much greater than that. Theoretically, this must all be done within 2 years (and I mean full years, not 2 academic years – I get to use my summers as well).

On top of all teaching and taking classes, I must also produce a thesis project for my Masters of Science degree. Hours upon hours of research and data collection, follow by hours upon hours of writing. Right now I’m neck-deep in data collection.

My third semester is almost over.

Of course, the panic tends to set in for everyone at the end of every semester. Final exams are approaching like fire-breathing dragons (and some professors like to give exams right before Thanksgiving… I have one tomorrow, despite the fact that there are only two and a half weeks of class left before finals. Ugh.). Final projects are due (I’ve got one due next Tuesday, before Thanksgiving). Holiday/vacation planning is in full swing, if you allow yourself to take the time off. It’s a stressful time of year. And it happens twice a year for students.

For graduate students, at least in the sciences, it’s compounded by the fact that your advisor is breathing down your neck asking why you haven’t gotten things done (whether or not they are actually doing this in real life, they’re probably still doing this in your head). It is both a gift and a curse to have an advisor who cares about you finishing your degree on time. I almost wish I didn’t, because it makes me feel guilty when I don’t have time for thesis stuff any given day. As a result, my brain sometimes begins to spiral.

You have research to do! Why on earth did you decide to take that extra class, even though it’s really interesting and will likely help you get a job in the future?? Why are you doing this to yourself? What was wrong with your life before graduate school that you had to abandon it for this life of torture??!

Graduate school, at least in my case (and many others in the sciences), is a juggling act of teaching, learning, and researching. You’d think that taking our the teaching might make it less horrible, but honestly? Teaching is probably my favorite part of this whole experience. It’s also the easiest. Next semester I won’t have any more classes to take, and I do have the whole summer after that. The goal is to start writing my thesis in the middle of spring semester. At this point I honestly have no idea if I’ll make that deadline. It feels far away and scary and there are SO MANY THINGS that need to get done between now and then. Weekends are no longer real. The future is not so vast, and it’s hard to keep things in perspective in graduate school.

In the grand scheme of life, I do not regret this decision. I have met many wonderful people I otherwise never would have come in contact with, and I am happy I have them in my life because I chose to go to graduate school. I am sure my degree (once I earn it, hopefully before I snap and run away) will help me get a better job in future.

But right now I’m in a dark tunnel and I can’t see those shiny lights at the end.

This is what graduate school is like. Not all the time, but at least once a semester. It’s made even harder when you see what your friends back home are doing on facebook and twitter, having a grand ol’ time of life. Or when you see your new, non-graduate school friends go to work and come home able to relax and do whatever they want. I know what that life is like – I took two years off before going back to school. On the one hand, I’m glad I did, because it helped me figure out what I wanted to learn about in graduate school. But on the other hand, I know what I’m missing without school in my life, and that’s hard.

Graduate school is stressful. It is the most stressful thing I have ever gone through. Would I have decided to go if I could go back in time with the knowledge I have now? I don’t know. That’s a really difficult question, one I try not to think about (but inevitably do around this time of year).

I must keep reminding myself that if all goes according to plan (and I honestly don’t know if it is right now) I have less than a year left of this life. My stepmom always says you can do anything for a year. Thing is, I’ve been doing this for a year and a half already. But I’ve made it this far, it would be stupid to run away now. I am not a quitter, and I would hate myself forever if I just gave up and walked away, so no worries of that happening.

It’s really difficult to balance relaxation and fun time with the amount of work you are required to do. This is something I have struggled with my entire life though. It’s exhausting. My greatest advice to new graduate students is this: make time for fun, and for yourself. You may find yourself working 12 hour days (that’s where I am right now). But you need to find a way to cut yourself some slack when you do that, or you’ll burn out. This past summer I did an internship, and it was basically like a real job. Yes, it set me back on my research progress, and yes, it didn’t end with a job offer. But it gave me another taste of the real world post-school, and a chance to recharge for the second year of graduate school (not to mention I met one of my best friends there). I don’t know if I’d be in a better place now, mentally, if I hadn’t done that internship. Sure, I’d have more data for my research project, and I’d be further along with it all, but I’d also be taking another class right now, and that sounds awful.

microscope

Like I said, graduate school is an emotional roller coaster. You get really excited about things like staring down a microscope at sparkly minerals and rock fragments, but then you also get overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do in such a short amount of time. I am going to take things one day or one week at a time, because looking further ahead than that is terrifying. I promise it is not all gloom and doom. I have learned a great many things here and I am thrilled to know them all. I love what my project is about. I just wish I had more time.

Here’s a great list of 8 struggles only a graduate student will understand. Although it’s also a good read for non-graduate students who want to understand what their friends and family members are going through.

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I went fishing for the first time today, and I’d love to write about it because it was REALLY fun – but I only managed to get one photo, and I technically was in between casts, so I wasn’t really fishing. Just sitting on a boat looking cool with a dog. Oops. So stay tuned for a post about fishing later, after I’ve had a few goes at it (and taken some more photos!).

Instead, I’m going to attempt to explain sequence stratigraphy and my graduate thesis project to non-sedimentary geologists!

brace yourselves knowledge

First, some Geology 101:

Sedimentary rocks are rocks that are made up of sediment (gravel, sand, clay, mud, etc. derived from other rocks that were weathered and eroded). Water (and other things, like wind, but mostly water) moved this sediment around via rivers and waves and tides. Eventually, this sediment settles down for the long haul and slowly gets buried by more and more sediment. This burial causes the sediment to squish together and compact. At a certain point, the sediment “lithifies” and becomes a sedimentary rock. Welcome to my favorite part of the rock cycle.

Sedimentary rocks are conglomerates (gravel-sized sediment held together by smaller sediment), sandstones (basically sand that has become a rock via the process described above), shales (really fine grained stuff, generally too small to see without some kind of magnifier), and mudstones (the finest grained sediment).

The type of sedimentary rock you’re looking at, the size of the sediment grains, and any sedimentary structures that were preserved (like ripples, crossbeds, planar beds, etc,) can tell you what kind of environment the sediment was deposited in. Composition of the sediment grains (minerals and rock fragments) can also help, but sometimes the grains are too small to determine that without a microscope. You might imagine that a sedimentary rock created by a lake (mostly very fine-grained sediments like mud and clay) would be very different from one created in a beach environment (mostly sand), which would in turn be very different from a rock from a river environment (gravel and pebbles). Of course, all of these environments can be variable, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

seds

 

Stratigraphy is the study of these sedimentary deposits/rocks, and how they are layered.

One more thing before we start putting things together into sequence stratigraphy. Over time, sea level around the world rises and falls for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s climate – either global (eustatic) or local. Sometimes it’s caused by plate tectonics – the movement and interaction between crustal plates.

Now, let’s put these concepts together:

I’ve talked about depositional environments, and I’ve talked about sea level change. At the most basic level, putting these two concepts together is sequence stratigraphy. Burial is what ties them together.

I’m going to put this into context with a coastline, because that’s what I work with, and that’s what makes the most sense to me. On a coastline you might have the river meeting the ocean, a beach, a tidal flat, and the deeper, offshore environments.

Imagine you’re on a beach, and sea level begins to rise. Pretend you can breathe under water/sediment, and you’re immortal, so you can totally watch things change on a geological time scale.

First, your beach sand would get buried by finer grained sand from the tidal flat, and as the water continued to get deeper, the beach sediment deposit and the tidal flat deposit would get buried by the deep offshore deposits (really fine muds with maybe a little really fine sand).

That, my friend, is a sequence. If you cut a slice into the sediment right where you were standing when sea level began to rise, you would see this stratigraphic sequence, and the sediment would be getting finer closer to the top. We call this a “transgressive” cycle, because the shoreline is “transgressing” across the land – it is moving landward. Also, the furthest the shoreline extends at the end of transgression creates a surface called the “maximum flooding surface” – hopefully this seems pretty obvious: as sea level rises, you are flooding the environments that were there before sea level began to rise.

Now, pretend you are still standing in the same place on that beach (now buried under quite a lot of sediment), and sea level begins to drop. You might see the return of tidal flat deposits, and eventually you’d see the beach again, and if sea level drops far enough, you might even see the river environments at the very top. This is what we call a “regressive” cycle – the shoreline is regressing away from the land and moving seaward.

If you were to step back and take a slice out of this whole sequence I have described – from the first beach deposit to the fluvial deposit, and then studied how these depositional environments changed laterally and vertically, you would be studying sequence stratigraphy.

Of course, it is a TON more complicated than this, especially since these processes are often erosive, so you don’t always get a perfect sequence that records an entire cycle of sea level rise and fall, but hopefully you get the idea. There are also these things called “significant surfaces” (the maximum flooding surface is one of them), which help us define sequences. They are usually created by some form of erosion – either transgressive or regressive, but involve some kind of shift in either the direction or speed of sea level rise or fall.

One important aspect of sequence stratigraphy is the source of sediment, and this is where the focus of my thesis project lies. You can hopefully imagine that river sediments come from somewhere upstream, while beach or tidal flat deposits might be sourced from somewhere else on the coastline, or they might get sediment from the ocean. Sediment comes from all over the place.

In my field area, the previous graduate student identified three different sources of sediment. I’m going to be looking at the composition of all the sandstones (sorry, sand can be found in many different environments, try not to thing about it too hard) in my rock formation and comparing them to see if there are significant differences between these different sources – and if the sands from the same source have similar compositions. Again, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the general idea. Also there are GREEN minerals in my sandstones (not a common sedimentary mineral color). I get to identify them – I’m pretty stoked.

Sequence stratigraphy is like studying history, but it’s history of the earth rather than of people, and that’s what I love about it. Sequences of depositional environments is very intuitive to me. Plus, looking at things in a powerful microscope (a few different kinds actually), is really fun.

microscope

That thing up in the right corner that looks like plaid? That’s called “tartan twinning.” It’s a potassium feldspar grain. It GREW like that. Plaid is found in nature, guys. Chew on that.

If you’re curious, or you need me to explain something differently, please feel free to leave questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to help you understand! This stuff comes as second nature to me (and I already find it fascinating), so it’s difficult (as any specialty can be) to break it down and keep it interesting. I hope you at least learned something about sedimentology by reading this post.

bill nye dropping science

 

Fun fact: “Sedimentology” is not recognized by computer dictionaries. My entire area of study does not exist to technological devices.

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