Tips for Surviving Graduate School

This is a weird topic to write about. Here I am starting the third year of my PhD and I still feel like I know nothing. It’s a fun combination of Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning Kruger Effect. But I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things about surviving grad school at this point.

Now, to be fair to my imposter syndrome, I am in no way an authority on these topics. But as someone who has several labor-intensive hobbies and doesn’t want the degree to consume their entire life, I feel like I’ve learned a few things from trying to be productive in both areas.

Get Some Sleep

This is one that I am REALLY bad at. I’ve always been a bit of a night owl. Left to my own devices I’ll stay up all night and sleep until noon. It’s hard, especially if you’re like me and a burst of motivation always hits you right before bed time. But it’s worth it to develop good sleep habits. As hard as it is, if you start going to bed earlier you’ll feel more rested and you’ll be able to wake up earlier. This last bit is important because it makes you feel like you have more time in the day and you wont catch yourself staying up late trying to squeeze out a few more drops of productivity. An all-nighter wont make you more productive, it will just make more tired.

Make Time for Other Things

I have a lot of hobbies that work often gets into the way of. Some semesters are going to feel more hectic than others, but you should still make time for your hobbies. Even if it’s just a few minutes before bed you’ll be glad you did. What’s even better is if you try and make time every evening and on the weekends for the things you enjoy. It’s really hard to feel good about your work if it’s consuming your life. Plus the things you work on outside of work can make your work better. Reading and writing as hobbies have made me feel much more prepared for presentations and research papers. But don’t think your hobbies need to also make you better at work.

Be Realistic About How Long Something Will Take

When I first joined the lab I’m in now I constantly felt unproductive. No matter what goals I set for the day I never met all of them and I felt terrible about it. That changed when I realized that it wasn’t that I was doing poorly in lab, it was that I wasn’t blocking out my time effectively. I wasn’t giving myself enough time to complete each task and the result was that I felt like I wasn’t getting anything done.

I fixed this by setting one big goal for each day in the lab and a few of what I like to think of as stretch goals. When I go into lab I normally have one experiment planned. I go in thinking “today I will complete this reaction” or “I will do x number of titrations.” Those are my main objectives for the day and I devote most of my energy to those. If I find myself finishing these early or having to wait for a reaction to finish I work on my stretch goals. These are things that are nice to get to in a given day but don’t need to be done right then. Stretch goals might be cleaning glassware, doing a literature search, or processing data.

Once I started doing this I instantly felt more productive. I was being more honest with myself about how long something would take me to do and I didn’t feel like I needed to do more once I got home. You will also find that you get faster at a lot of these tasks as you gain more experience.

Take Advantage of You Laziness

Some mornings when I get into the office the last thing I want to do start work in the lab. All I want to do is sit at my desk and sip my coffee. So that’s what I do. I sit down, turn on my computer, sip my coffee, and use that time to see what’s new in the world of science. For me that normally means looking at few American Chemical Society publications. Specifically Inorganic Chemistry, Organometallics, Chemical Reviews, and Accounts of Chemistry Research. I normally have a few keywords I’m looking for in the titles. Anything with the words cobalt, iron, or spin crossover get at least a quick glance. Or a quick download to the folder of files I tell myself I’ll read eventually. I have found a lot of great references that I’ve ended up citing later this way and learned about new fields that I hadn’t heard of before. Not only will doing this help you stay up to date on the latest research, the more time you take to read and review material in your field the more comfortable you’ll feel talking about your own work. It always feels great to whip out a relevant paper in the middle of group meeting that no one else has seen yet.

Listen to Your Undergrads

Universities have tons of social events, clubs, and resources to be taken advantage of. You probably don’t realize a lot of them are there. Talk to and listen to not just your fellow graduate students, but undergrads and staff too. Even if the undergrads in the section you’re a teaching assistant make you pull your hair out its worth listening to them talk. Remember, many of them are on campus 24/7 while you may only be there for a few hours. You can learn a lot about other departments and the resources available on campus if you listen to them while giving them zeros on their lab reports.

Oh yeah, sometimes they have some good research ideas too.

Cultivate Your Social Skills

You don’t need to become a complete extrovert, but it pays to talk to other people around campus. After spending all day on experiments it helps to know a few people down the hall who might want to grab pizza with you. Or they might call you up if they have an extra concert ticket. More practically, it helps to have people you can go to for help whether it’s help studying or getting access to an instrument in their lab. Science is collaborative and in most jobs you’ll have to work together with other people so it pays to get started now.

You Know More Thank You Think You Know

In graduate school you’re surrounded by competent people. So much so that it’s easy to think that they know more than you or know their project better than you will ever know yours. It’s important to remember that if you are in a graduate program you already have a bachelors. You knew enough to get one degree in your field and now you’re working on another. You know your project better than anyone and you know a lot more in general than you think. The more you talk about your work and your field the more confident you’ll feel. Even if it’s hard at first.

If you can’t tell already I have horrible sleep habits and I’m always tired. If you like the content I post here consider buying me a coffee to help me get through the day.

Twenty Questions to Ask About Your Fictional Country

  • What is the climate like?
  • Is it landlocked, coastal, or an island?
  • What resources are present?
  • What is the terrain like?
  • Are their any natural barriers that would impede movement?
  • Where are the sources of water?
  • How many languages and ethnic groups are present?
  • Have any of these people been recently displaced?
  • How is society organized?
  • What form of government is there?
  • Do the people look favorably on the government?
  • What religions are practice?
  • Is there a state religion?
  • Who are the country’s neighbors?
  • Is this country more powerful than its neighbors?
  • What are the country’s major industries?
  • Is the country dependent on its neighbors for any important resources?
  • Does the country have any colonies abroad?
  • Are any parts of the country’s territory contested by its neighbors?
  • Does this country have any historic rivalries?

The Best Things About Bending

Elemental magic is hard to do right. The four classical elements are so ingrained in us that we all are likely to add elemental worldbuilding into our first settings, but it’s hard to do well. The four elements have been done so much that it’s hard to be original. It’s hard to make elemental magic feel like it’s really a part of the world and not just a later add on.

Yet the elements are so pervasive that the internet is full of people showing off their elemental magics systems where they very creatively include their own elements like shadow, mud, or even magma.

There is nothing wrong with making an elemental magic system. It comes naturally to us for a reason. But if you want to your elemental magic to work it’s going to take a lot of effort.

Of the very limited selection of examples I have been exposed too I have only seen two instances of elemental magic done well; Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and Avatar the Last Airbender.

Unlike Avatar, Codex Alera has six elements, not four. Each element has it’s uses, but some elements are clearly more useful that others. To be fair, the characters are at war for just about the entire series and for obvious reasons the characters are most interest in the elements that help them to kill the enemy. In Avatar the elements have a place in daily life and each can easily contend with the other. As much as I love Codex Alera, the world of Avatar just feels more alive.

Physicality

This is something that can really only be done in a visual medium, but Avatar does it so well. Not only is each of the four based in a different marital art, different styles have their own variations.

For me the most obvious example of this are the pro-benders. Their quick jabs and evasions evoke images of professional boxers, and the bending they do reflects that. They’re all about quick attacks and evasions and it shows. Against a real fighter not constrained by the rules of the ring they quickly fall short. There movements are of peoples trained to do one thing well rather than master their element.

What’s the best thing about this? For me it’s that practice gets results. In most fantasy it can be hard to show characters getting better with magic. In Avatar their magic is so tightly linked to their movements and thinking that it’s almost impossible not to. A bender’s philosophy and mindset impact their bending in a very visible way.

Balance

Elemental magic is so common that it’s hard not to have prejudices.

Earth, Water, Air, Fire. Which would you choose? Which is the best?

In fantasy that has a four element system we don’t always get an equal view of each element. Everyone expects fire to be aggression or water to be healing. Avatar may not give every element the same amount of screen time, but they each have the same amount of potential. Every element is shown to have its own limitations and strengths but none is ever made to look weaker than the others.

In fact the best benders, like Iroh, take the time to learn from the other elements and see what practices they can incorporate into their own art.

Incorporation

Each of the four nations is inseparable from their element.

Too often in fantasy, magic is treated as something separate from the rest of society. In the Avatar universe magic is inseparable from the larger society. The trains and mail in Omashu are moved by earth benders. The builds in the Norther Water Tribe are clearly built with the help of water benders, and the the Fire Nation could not have had its industrial base without the fire benders to power the furnaces.

This arrangement brings obvious inequalities to mind. What can a normal person do when bending is so prevalent?

It’s an important question to ask and one that doesn’t get enough attention in the Legend of Korra. What do non-benders get?

Even so, the prevalence of bending in these societies becomes even more important. What happens when technology progresses? What happens when the non-benders no longer need the benders? While not fully addressed in The Legend of Korra, it’s still an interesting question that fantasy should address. What does magic do when it can’t hide?

Conclusion

Avatar the Last Airbender is an amazing series. I’ve loved it since I first saw the pilot in a hotel room when I was ten. Any time I thought I might want to make an elemental magic system I’ve turned to the wiki and realized that I simply couldn’t beat it.

It’s not the magic, or setting, it’s how real everything feels. The entire world is infused with the love of its creators and speaks to the wonders that can be achieved by a few dedicated worldbuilders.

What I most love about Avatar is that the otherwise cliché elemental magic can be innovative in the right context. Any magic, any idea, can feel real in the right setting. It speaks to the strength of good worldbuilding and it has been in my mind ever since I saw the first episode.

Really though, the best part of Avatar is that the magic doesn’t feel like magic. It just feels like a part of the world.

If you liked this post and want me to help me stay up making more content like it consider buying me a coffee.

Is The Legend of Korra Any Good?

Maybe.

I began watching (several years late) knowing that fans have a love/hate relationship with the show. Nevertheless, I tried to keep an open mind and managed to make it through to the end. And I have a lot of thoughts. I struggled writing this post, I tried to write a coherent essay about the Legend of Korra. Instead have this listicle.

If I had to sum up my thoughts about what was wrong with the series it would be this. It had a lot of potential, multiple good moments, and a lot of missed chances.

The Bending

If you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll know by now that I love magic systems and bending is no exception. The world of Avatar is one of the few examples of a fantasy world where elemental magic doesn’t feel like the cliche. It feels real and it’s an integral part of the setting and culture. Getting to see subsets of bending reach maturity, especially metal bending, is just great.

It was also great to see an airbending master let loose. Don’t get me wrong, Aang is great, but he never really put his airbending on full display like Tenzin does in this series.

I guess airbending is good for something other than marble tricks after all.

Finally, I was glad to see the creators stick with giving each style of bending a distinctive visual. Pro Benders, the professional athletes of the Avatar world. have a very distinctive style regardless of element that shows a focus on quick attacks and agile dodges. That this style of bending rarely holds up outside of the confines of the arena is a nice touch.

The main issue with the bending in this series is Korra’s weakness. Already at the beginning of season one it’s implied that she has already mastered three of the four elements. Yet throughout the series she repeatedly get’s brushed aside by her opponents. This is especially apparant in season one when she starts Pro Bending and apparently forgets everything she knows about bending in the process. Her fights with the Equalists are filled with quick jabs like those used in the arena when she could have just brought the building down. By the end of his first season Aang was sinking entire fleets on his own. With the exception of an incredibly cartoonish fight in season 2 we never get that from Korra.

The Villains

None of the villains were bad exactly, at least the ideas for them weren’t. It makes sense that non-benders would begin demanding equal treatment or that established forms of government would be overthrown or forced to change. Or that people would forget to honor the spirits and cause backlash by doing so.

The problem with these villains is that we never really get to explore their motives. In her role as avatar Korra takes for granted that the world is already the way it should be. In season 4 it’s finally said that Korra helped get better treatment for non-benders but that’s not something we ever see her caring about in the first season while she is fighting Amon.

In Avatar the Last Airbender the protagonists dealt with concepts like imperialism, war , refugees, gender roles, and disabilities to name just a few. Legend of Korra introduces its own ideas, but never really deals with them in the same way. Time and time again Korra sees the problems that gave rise to the villains she has to face and each time she turns the other way.

Not Doing the Thing

So conflicts could have been resolved if the characters had done the sensible thing. I realize that if characters never made mistakes we’d never have story, but LoK has some really spectacular mistakes.

Why for example did Suyin Beifong refuse to restore order in Ba Sing Sei after the Earth Queen’s death? Morals aside, she at the time ruled one of the most advanced cities in the world with dedicated cadre of trained fighters. She had at this point already took her forces out of the city to help the avatar and the fledgling air nomads. Her refusal to help led directly to Kuvira’s rise to power.

While we’re on the topic of inaction. Why in season four was the Fire Lady so unwilling to take action against Kuvira? Given all the work Zuko put into rehabilitating the nation’s image after the war this attitude makes sense to a point. Did she really forget that her son is a part of the army that would very likely have to fight Kuvira on its own if the Fire Nation refused to help?

For a country seemingly dedicated to inaction the United Republic has a lot of warships.

And why didn’t General Iroh just order his troops to fight Kuvira? I understand that the president had ordered him to surrender but it’s not like he wouldn’t have been able to see what a terrible idea surrender was. Plus as a member of the Fire Nation’s royal family he isn’t lacking in career options. After the role he played in season one, his part in season four was just disappointing.

The Spirits

I actually enjoyed Avatar Wan’s story. I know a lot of people did not. But it didn’t actually contradict any of the existing lore, if anything it gave it greater context, and the different art style made it clear that the story was being told with some embellishments.

The problem I have is with how the spirits were portrayed in the rest of the series. in the Last Airbender the spirits had gravitas. They were forces of nature or strange creatures bordering on being eldrich horrors. LoK’s spirits are essentially neopets that get angry sometimes. It’s no wonder the people of the Avatar World stopped listening to them.

I do however like that Iroh was able to live on in the spirit world. It made sense for his character and as a big fan of Iroh I was glad to see him come back.

The Tech

At first the huge jump in technological progress that happened between ATLA and LoK was jarring, but it grew on me. The series has a wonderful steampunk/magitech aesthetic and the ways that we see bending and technology intermingle is just great.

Almost none of this tech got used after season one and that’s a tragedy.

With all the advances in technology I don’t quite understand why we don’t see as many non-benders taking part in conflicts as we did the ATLA.

The Verdict

The Legend of Korra had some good moments and a lot of bad moments, but it’s still a fun watch. If you want to see powerful benders driving around in shiny cars then this is the show for you. Like most things, it helps if you watch it for fun and don’t question it too much.

If you liked the first series then you should definitely watch this one, as long as you don’t raise your expectations too high you should still be able to enjoy it. I still don’t think it at all measured up to the first series, but at least I had fun watching it.

If you liked this post and want me to stay up writing more like it consider buying me a coffee.

All the images here were sourced from the Avatar wiki.

The Little Things

I have always loved pens, but it wasn’t until my mother gave me a nice pen for my highschool graduation that I realized I could buy nice pens for myself. Since then I’ve bought pens impulsively. I’ve saved up for pens. I’ve looked at pens on line and lamented the fact that I cannot afford them.

This might seem pointless, and on some level it is. But I spend a lot of time writing with pen and paper. Writing is a hobby of mine and why shouldn’t I invest in my hobby. If you can afford it there is no reason to feel bad for improving your daily experience.

I’ve always liked computer peripherals and in the past few years I’ve probably spent more money than most on them. But during this quarantine I’ve bought a full desk mat, a second mechanical keyboard, a bluetooth keyboard, and an ergonomic mouse.

On the surface all of these seem small, and they are. If you look at the big picture none of them matter. A notebook is a notebook. A pen is a pen. A keyboard is a keyboard.

None of these matter.

Unless they do.

If you have the will and the ability it is entirely worth investing in any of these. It’s easy to discount any one of these but if you use just one of them every day it’s easy to get hooked. If you use one of them every day it’s easy to justify investing.

The hard part is that once you invest you get sucked in.

If it’s pens you soon get sucked into deciding whether gel, fountain, or ballpoints suit you best. If it’s computer mice you wont stop at wires vs. wireless, you’ll start agonizing over the weight. If it’s keyboards you’re wondering about the material of the keycap, the type of switch, the travel distance, and much more. There is a lot to care about. And there are a lot more hobbies that I care about.

My point is that whatever you hobby is the little things matter. If it’s something you do for work or that you do every day it’s worth investing in. If you have to do it it’s worth enjoying.

For many these purchases seem like extravagances. They are. There is nothing wrong with not being able to afford or not wanting to chose to spend money on the newest pen or keyboard.

No matter what you want or prefer, if you like it or use it you shouldn’t feel bad investing in it. Life is short. You might as well invest in the tools that you use everyday.

A Dice Rolling and Story Writing Adventure

Writing prompts are a great way to get the creative juices flowing. Unfortunately, it’s been quite awhile since I found one that really inspired me. Instead of scouring the internet in hopes of finding one I decided I would make a few of my own with the help of Dungeons and Dragons.

You should be able to use a standard dice set to go through these. Let’s see what we create!

Genre – d6

  1. Space Opera
  2. Sword & Sandal
  3. Science Fantasy
  4. Urban Fantasy
  5. Cyberpunk
  6. Atompunk.

Place – d10

  1. Large Crowd
  2. Festival
  3. Temple
  4. Underground
  5. Ocean
  6. Ancient Forest
  7. Prison
  8. Grasslands
  9. Ruins
  10. Bank

Main Character – d8

  1. Rogue
  2. Priest
  3. Guard
  4. Prince
  5. Prisoner
  6. Mystic
  7. Soldier
  8. Healer

Objective – d20

  1. Save the Prince
  2. Get rid of a cursed necklace
  3. Hold them off
  4. Escape from the guards
  5. Get rich quick or die trying
  6. Go unnoticed
  7. Find the missing children
  8. Break through the walls
  9. Track the goblins back to their lair
  10. Sell the stolen cargo before the guards find it
  11. Make it through the tunnel alive
  12. Track down a band of thieves
  13. Find the hunter Bolland, he never came back from his trip last week.
  14. Save the Corish Ambassador from a mysterious assassin
  15. Get your friend to a doctor
  16. Evade the pirates, no way can your ship take them on alone
  17. Escape from your captors
  18. Steal the King’s crown
  19. Blackmail an important official
  20. Stage a coup

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to figure out how to write a story about a science fantasy temple healer who wants to get rich more than anything else. If I complain just remind me that I brought this on myself.

Affinity Designer: An Amatuer’s Perspective

I have always wanted to draw. When I was little I thought I wanted to be an artist. Since then I’ve turned to science and writing, but art has long been an aspiration. I can draw some exquisite cartoon monsters but when I’m trying to worldbuild I struggle to draw the images that are in my head.

Why does this matter? Why can’t I just put the images in my head into words? Despite the cliche, a picture really is worth a thousand words, and a picture can immediately capture feelings that would take pages to describe. When I’m making notes for myself I often make quick sketches for own use that are not at all worthy of being shared publicly. So what is a writer to do?

Recently, I’ve discovered vector art, and it has been a godsend.

This spaceship was one of my early creations. Perspective is still difficult for me, as evidenced by the thrusters.

Rather than drawing every line with a stylus, you work with a series of pre-made shapes than can be combined and contorted to your liking. Your computer treats these shapes as a series of mathematical functions, which allows you to resize your work as much as you want without any pixelation. At first this doesn’t seem any more useful than PowerPoint’s shape tools. With time and a bit of imagination you’ll see what possibilities the medium offers.

For my vector art I went with Affinity Designer, a low-cost alternative to the Adobe Suite.

My first impressions of the software were a little underwhelming. What was I supposed to do with a bunch of rectangles? This simplicity is the beauty of vector art. You start with a selection of basic shapes, but you can endlessly manipulate these shapes to get whatever design you want. This makes it great for making diagrams or for people with shaky hands like me.

More than anything else, the great thing about this software and this medium, is that it makes it easy for writers and worldbuilders like me to put the images in their head on the screen in a way that you can feel comfortable sharing. You might have seen a few of my recent worldbuilding posts featuring artwork I made with Affinity Designer. Sure, they aren’t going to win any awards, but they’re clean and presentable and that’s really all I’m looking for.

This flicker lamp from my Sprawling Iron setting was made after I had a bit of practice. It’s the first in a series of magical communication devices I am making for the setting.

Beyond the few beginner-friendly tools, Affinity Designer has a plethora of tools that are a complete mystery to me. Someone with more artistic ability and the time to tinker can make some really amazing pieces of art as evidenced by countless reddit posts.

So should you try Affinity Designer? For only $50 it’s an attractive option for more casual creators who don’t want to commit to an Adobe subscription. But if that’s too much for you, there are free vector programs like Inkscape that may be worth a look. But if you have the $50, or if the software is on sale, I’d say go for it. Affinity Designer finds a good balance between price, polish, and usability. Plus it’s a lot of fun.

If you enjoyed my review of Affinity Designer consider buying me a coffee.

Does the Perfect Fidget Toy Exist?

Confession time. I LOVE fidget toys. When I was a kid my mom used to to put all sorts of knick knacks in our stockings for Christmas. To this day I seem to be the only one who actually liked getting them and this minor obsession has continued to this day. For this post I searched my desk for my three most used fidget toys to try and decide which one is the best.

Our three contenders.

Tom’s Fidgets Flippy Chain

Our fist contender is admittedly underwhelming at first glance, but it’s simplicity is part of its charm. It’s a simple, repeated motion that is perfect for fidgeting when you’re on edge (if you look closely you’ll see that I broke one of the orange rubber bands during my qualifying exam). My only complaint is that sometimes the two rings get stuck and it takes a few seconds to get them back into working order. If it weren’t for this occasional stumble I’d say this chain is the perfect fidget toy.

Fidget Cubes

Our second contender should look familiar to many. Fidget cubes got very popular for awhile and for good reason. If you need to keep your hands busy they’re a great option. Each side has a different option so if you’re only allowed to own one fidget toy, this is one.

That said, there is one very important thing to remember; price matters. There’s a surprisingly large difference in quality between the $20 and $5 options. The $5 knock offs you find at walmart? They can be good, but if your first one was maybe $15 like mine was then the difference is clear. That $15 might seem like a lot but when you’re buying something with so many moving parts that quality difference matters a lot.

Lifidea Alumnium Alloy Fidget Toy

This one is simple. You have a cube, made from smaller cubes, and you break apart the big cube and continuously refold the smaller cubes back into the bigger cube. Like the Flippy Chain the movements involved are relatively simple but perfect for idle fidgeting. The only real complaint I have with this toy is how quickly the paint wears off. Admittedly the color doesn’t matter much for something like this, but it’s still nice to have a set of desk toys with the paint still attached.

The Winner

So which toy wins?

It’s a tough answer for such a simple question. If I had to choose I would say the Ligidea Alumnium toy. It has a nice repeated motion that doesn’t get fouled up like the chain does, and any shortcomings in quality are not as obvious as they might be in knock off fidget cubes.

So if you just have to buy one, buy either the Lifidea Alumnium toy or the authentic fidget cube. Or buy all of them. The more people who are buying these things the more options will be available for anxious graduate students like me.

If you liked this post and want to see more please let me know and take a look at what I’m doing on other platforms here.