Friday, June 26, 2009

The Truth About Grad School

PhD Comics current series on the dramatization of science is damn near perfect. It starts here and is currently ongoing.

Whenever I see someone doing research on TV, either in a movie or often in a documentary, they're sitting in shiny modernist offices or laboratories full of gleaming chrome and fluorescent lighting. In my experience the fluorescent lighting is about all they get right. My lab in college was largely held together by epoxy and duct tape. Anything metal was probably the worse for wear and the windows hadn't been cleaned. Ever. The greatest part is the repurposed lab equipment and old experimental gear which almost never clutters the corners of movie shots. At one point my lab was using an optical table as a desk. This was a precisely drilled and mounted slab of steel that weighed and cost more than an SUV. It's so heavy and unwieldy that after the experiments using it were completed eons ago, nobody had the desire to move it. The lab just grew up around it. It's probably still an incredibly expensive workdesk in Spencer Lab to this day.

The comic about making the graduate student wear a labcoat and look important? False. The only time I ever saw a professor in the lab was when photos were being taken. At which point they were the ones dressed up and looking official while making intelligent looking adjustments to the coolest piece of equipment in the lab.

But the bit about not being able to explain your research is true and classic. I worked on composite manufacturing using RTM, VARTM, and SCRIMP. Just Google them. Most of my work was modeling fluid flow through porous media using Darcy's Law. I tried explaining this to Amy once. About all she got was "you suck glue through tiny tubes." Yes, yes, that's what I do alright.


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