thinking work June 10, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school, research, solar physics.
Tags: grad school, productivity, programming, solar physics
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I have to give a presentation next week and older son took off for the summer, so between getting slides together and getting stuff and people shuttled to the airport, it was a rather busy weekend. There was some code I wanted to work on but didn’t have the chance.
It’s funny, though, because I was still thinking about it, and I actually think I made good progress on a plan of action. I realized I had three options: fix it, rewrite it, or throw my hands up in despair and give up. (Okay…last one is very low on the list of possibilities, but I can’t say it’s non-existent…there have been days.) I’m not sure I can fix it, but I have an idea of how to go about doing it. It’s a piece of code without commenting, but I know what it’s supposed to do, and I have an awesome ‘cookbook’ of numerical algorithms that explains it. (Need a spline written in a jiffy….I’m your woman!) I also suspect that in the process of trying to fix it, I’ll figure out a way to rewrite it a bit more efficiently, likely with less effort than fixing it will take. And I planned out how I can verify everything, as well.
While I didn’t have much time to work on it directly, I got my resources together and know what I’m going to do so I can hit it first thing after work tomorrow. I wonder if I made more progress by spending my ‘off’ time thinking about it than if I’d just dived in. I guess I should know in a couple days. But it’s funny how stepping away from something and letting your mind idle on it can result in something worthwhile.
Grad student advice: Picking a topic April 17, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, physics, research.
Tags: advice, advising, advisor, dissertation, grad school, research
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It happened again yesterday: one of the email updates I received had a post from someone asking someone to give him a good topic for a dissertation.
It’s not an absurd question: some of us don’t have much if any guidance from advisors, though I get worried that this is indicative of a problematic advising relationship. I’m also not saying an advisor should give a student a topic (at least not for a PhD), but they apparently aren’t even addressing the topic with the student. However, I figured it’s a question worth addressing on the blog. If nothing else, I can post a link whenever I see the question pop up, which it seems to do with regularity.
The real simple answer, in my experience, is to start reading. Read journals in your field. Look at what interests you. Try to think of gaps or problems that aren’t addressed in the research you’re reading. And don’t forget to go back and read the references for the most interesting articles. Other ideas are to get involved in projects or try to choose something from a class project (I discuss this here). Generally, you’re going to be spending several years on something, so let your curiosity guide you. If it’s not interesting now, it certainly won’t be in four years. (In fact, even if it is interesting now, you might be sick of it in four years, but it’s best to make that four years as tolerable as physically possible.)
The question in my mind is whether you should talk to your advisor before or after you start doing this. Some advisors do give their students projects, but my experience in physics and electrical engineering is that most don’t. (My friends in the biological sciences, particularly medicine, have indicated that, in their fields, getting a topic handed to you is the norm.) However, even if your advisor doesn’t give you a project, s/he is likely to have an area of interest where they’d prefer you work. My MS advisor was very much the exception in that he expected his students to pick topics outside of his primary research area as a way for him to learn more about other areas. I think his rule of thumb was that it had to require electromagnetics…beyond that, you were pretty much on your own. On the other hand, if you had no particular interest, he did have suggestions, so he didn’t leave you hanging, either.
Therefore, as you’re looking at topics, be sure to check in with your advisor on a fairly regular basis to make sure that you’re not going too far astray (been there, done that) as well as making sure they still ‘buy in’ to your project (done that, and it’s not fun when they aren’t terribly interested). You also need to take into consideration whether or not you have the facilities and equipment and, probably, funding for your project. If you want to go into a certain area and need funding, you’ll likely need help from your advisor. It’s also a good idea to do this early because it gives you an idea of how invested your advisor is in your project and how well you communicate. Figure it out early before you get four years into a thesis project only to have your advisor tell you you’re an idiot and won’t be graduating. (Yes, it does happen.)
The take away message should be that you should try to use your curiosity and creativity to find a project, and that you need to make sure your advisor buys into it. Don’t ask total strangers as they’re so far removed from the situation, you’ll never get anything useful.
Some of my readers are wise in the way of advising, so I’m curious what they have to add.
If I didn’t need a job, I’d probably… April 10, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, grad school, personal, work.
Tags: grad school, independently wealthy, work
I am always amused when listening to people talk about what they’d do if they didn’t have to work. I sort of found out for myself: I’d probably work.
I had a couple years as a stay-at-home mom, where I primarily was homeschooling the older child. I also had a stint doing it when he was a toddler. I sometimes fantasize about staying home with the younger boy, who would be much easier to homeschool than the older boy was.
Then my husband reminds me that’s not a good idea: I was pretty much going batty by the end of it.
I bring this up because Nicoleandmaggie posted about this, saying boredom would be a problem. Oh, was it ever. I cannot spend all day at home with a child. Believe it or not, I had nearly a spotless house (you’d die laughing if you saw my house now), was taking care of getting kids to appointments, homeschooling, even working on an MSEE part-time…
And going completely nuts.
I really immersed myself in dancing during this period because it was one of the best ways to interact with other adults outside of school. Unfortunately, regular training, teaching classes, and spending time outside of structured dance time did nothing to help the boredom. It kept me busy, but not stimulated. My classes (which I was doing pretty much one per semester) were about all that kept me sane.
The year the older boy hit middle school, he decided he wanted to go to public school full time, and I decided it was time to finish my MA. My dancing dropped off significantly, I was working on teaching or research or homework almost every night. And I was much, much happier.
I guess what that made me realize is that I really, really need to have intellectual stimulation, and reading Scientific American just isn’t enough to do it for me. I like working on problems, figuring things out, working towards a goal. If I were to win the lotto, I suspect I would just keep doing the same thing, probably by funding my own research. (Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to find someone to pay you to do it?) I think the biggest difference is that I’d probably be able to go on trips more often.
Let me drop everything and work on YOUR problem March 23, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, grad school, work.
Tags: dissertation, schedule, schedules, work, work habits, workplace
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I appreciate the fact that I have very respectful and polite colleagues. I particularly appreciate it when it comes to my schedule. I only work half-time, and most of them have been very good about making sure to schedule things for when I am there. On those occasions where things had to be scheduled when I was supposed to be gone, my supervisor has usually asked me first to make sure there’s no conflict. My hours are pretty flexible, as well, so if I have to stay late one day, I can take time off the following day or something similar.
Still, I hate having things change around too much. Changes in schedule seriously seem to affect my concentration, and changes in routine just don’t sit well with me. I can certainly deal, but it always seems to throw me off.
In the past month and a half, things have gotten much worse, schedule-wise. I’ve had to do a lot of changing schedules because of some PR that the university has been doing both on my research at work as well as my dissertation project. I have gotten to the point that I now am dressing up half the time when I go to work because, more than once, I’ve gotten a call in the morning that they’d like me to talk to a reporter or in the afternoon. Half the time, I wasn’t even dressed like a nerdy engineer – t-shirt and jeans was it. It’s a good thing I live close to campus because I’ve had to make emergency wardrobe trips. However, despite all of the rearrangements, if I’ve said I had a conflict, no one has ever asked me to change anything. People have been willing to work around my schedule, which has been awesome.
The only real problem I hit is when deadlines show up. If the deadline is looming but not close enough that I can adjust a schedule for the week, that sometimes sucks time out of dissertation work (although I am getting more and more protective of that as time goes on, simply because it’s so easy to let it slide). What’s worse is when there are deadlines at work and the kids suddenly have a million and one extra activities as well. And I really hate it when someone gives me ‘vague’ deadlines, like “as soon as humanly possible”. I usually tell them what is humanly possible for me, but I suspect that on a couple of occasions, they felt as though they could do the same thing faster. It’s possible they could…but it’s also possible that, if they had the same schedule constraints I do, they might not. As cliche as it is, I go back to Stephen Covey’s 7 habits book. In it, he says he schedules everything out, and if someone drops something in your lap, you ask them what other thing you should get rid of to fit in this deadline. (Maybe it’s surprising, but my supervisor is very open to shifting priorities when it’s necessary. Other people…not so much.)
How do you deal with shifts in schedule and sudden deadlines?
The Brain Drain March 22, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, Fargo, grad school, research, science, societal commentary.
Tags: fargo, higher education, north dakota, politics, universities
Yesterday, I was getting into my car when I noticed something on my windshield.
My neighbor had seen the article about me in yesterday’s paper and left me a message about it. In fact, it hit three of major newspapers in the state. (If you care to read it, one copy is located here.)
When I was asked by the public relations person at NDSU if she could feature my research as part of an effort to promote the supercomputing facilities on campus, I was certainly glad to do so. First, from a simply pragmatic point of view, it’s not a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you. (Although, to be honest, they have a lot of other projects they could’ve featured.) Second, and more important in my mind, is that this type of thing counters some of the negative attitude about the state universities in the western part of the state.
People from out of state (probably the 4 of my 5 readers) are probably not aware that there is a bit of a divide in state politics, and it can be roughly framed by drawing a vertical line down the center of the state. The eastern part of the state has the major universities and sees the benefits of having them. The western part of the state thinks the universities are sucking all of their hard-earned money, and worse yet – children, away from them.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s all I heard about was the ‘brain drain’ that the state was suffering: all of those bright, hard-working, born-in-North-Dakota kids were being educated at a low cost and then leaving the state. The people in the western part of the state seemed to think we just ought not to spend so much money educating them. I don’t think they understood that the likely result of that would not be to prevent brain drain but to accelerate it as those students would end up leaving for colleges out of state. On the other hand, the eastern part of the state was asking for more and more money to fund already seriously underfunded universities which were teaching a lot more kids than they could realistically accommodate. And we won’t even talk about research. The universities are supposed to be there to serve the students from the state…what does research have to do with anything?
I was one of those kids that left straight out to go to college, and I really had no intention of returning. I wanted to do research, and I knew that coming out of high school. I knew that because I’d gotten involved in research through a state-sponsored program at NDSU as a high school student, and I also knew that I likely couldn’t do what I wanted here. And why should I, when I could go someplace better?
If you fast forward to about 2000 (when I came back to return to school), there were some significant changes happening. Great Plains software was bought out by Microsoft, making it the second largest Microsoft campus in the world. There were companies in town doing engineering. There was a way to stay in North Dakota with a technical degree. And about that same time, NDSU started to make some aggressive moves to increase the size and reputation of its campus.
In the past ten years (even before the oil boom in the western part of the state), this significantly slowed the population loss the state was suffering. However, the western part of the state was still shrinking, and this was probably aggravating the divide. The eastern part of the state is right, though, IMO. If you want to keep people from leaving, you need to find a way to create jobs, and not just any jobs: they have to be jobs that bright, educated people will want to do. Universities are very often centers of creativity and entrepreneurship, and so bringing in more money to the universities will likely do a lot to create jobs and businesses. Bright, educated people will start businesses to hire those that may not necessarily have the advanced degrees but are still hard workers. The state is finally starting to see that, and they’re also using some of the money from the oil and gas taxes to create incentives for businesses to operate here.
Going back to the article, I was excited to do this as I see this as a way to communicate to the skeptics that the universities are good for the state. Here is a project that I would likely have to do somewhere else if it weren’t for the fact that we have the facilities here and they are easily accessible. Part of the reason I think my research was featured is not only the coolness factor, but the fact that I’m a native of the state and one of the people who, ostensibly, you don’t want leaving for a better job elsewhere. So yes, the universities are doing something to keep people here, even if not in the western part of the state. (On the other hand, it sounds like they have more people there now than they really know what to do with, which is another story altogether.)
My only disappointment in all this is that my hometown paper, the Bismarck Tribune, didn’t run the story. I can’t help but wonder if that is a result of the fact that the divide still obviously exists.
Scientist, with kids February 19, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, family, feminism, grad school, homeschooling, older son, personal, physics, research, science, societal commentary.
Tags: feminism, gender equity, kids, parenting, role models, sexism
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FSP has a post asking about the Local Mom Effect. That is, she wonders if being in a department with more women professors who have kids affects the outlook of younger women in the field. I find this post interesting…but also, I hate to say it, irrelevant.
Let’s put it this way: what women?!
When I started school at Caltech, I knew of two women professors out of all of math, physics, and astronomy. I only ever met one of them, knew she had no kids. I knew nothing about the other professor. When I decided to go back to school a few years later, I ended up in a physics dept. where the professors were all men. Later, I ended up in an electrical engineering department where the professors were all men.
I guess that, in my mind, the notion of being one of the few women in the department was no different than being one of the few women with kids in the department. When I went back to school, I had a kid already, so it wasn’t like I really had a choice about whether or not to be a childless woman in physics or engineering.
I will say that when I originally got pregnant as an undergrad at Caltech, I was told by my advisor that women couldn’t do calculus while pregnant and that I should drop out. Of course, he was a guy, so I seriously doubted he understood how women’s brains work while pregnant. (And it turns out that I can do calculus great while pregnant…I just can’t speak a full sentence coherently.) However, I guess I never took it as a message that women with kids don’t belong in science…I inferred that he meant it more personally, and that I myself was not a good fit for science. (Fortunately, major hopping got boring after a while, I ended up back in physics.)
When I went back to school, however, I felt that being the only woman or one of a few was very advantageous for several reasons. First, if I was the only woman or one of a very small number, I was already an oddity. A woman with kids is probably not much more odd than a woman without, and there was really no one to compare myself to (or say that I was doing it wrong). Second, I went back to school in North Dakota, and it really seems like people here more or less expect you to have kids no matter what you’re doing. I know that grates on some people, but for me, it was a blessing: having kids is just another part of life, and most people here learn to do their jobs while having them. (Also, I can’t recall anyone having a fit if I said I couldn’t make it to something because of kid-related issues.) Third, I was older than the average undergraduate or even grad student, so I think people assumed that it was pretty normal for someone my age to have kids. The fact that the younger students didn’t have kids was simply a function of age and never made me feel self-conscious that I did have kids. Finally, when I started my MS, my advisor was fine with the fact that I was homeschooling the older boy and would only be doing my degree part-time. He said this was really no different than other students in the department who were working full-time and pursing their degree part-time, as well.
I have been told, especially when doing my PhD classes, that it was “really cool to see a woman in science with kids”, especially by some fellow grad students. Until I started my PhD, I really hadn’t expected it to be a big deal. It had never occurred to me that I might be a “role model”…but I keep hearing it more than I ever expected to. I also suspect it’s because I often had kids with me or family issues that were more apparent to fellow grad students. Many professors try to maintain a more professional relationship with their students, and it doesn’t surprise me that many grad students don’t see how having kids affects the lives of the professors or that they don’t realize some professors have kids at all.
Realistically, I only got here because I didn’t really know that what I was doing was unusual in any way. If I had been surrounded by women who had kids but never let it on or didn’t have kids, I might have felt self-conscious about being a mom already. With no one to compare to, however, I just assumed that it wasn’t any more abnormal than a woman without kids.
You ought to… February 15, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, grad school.
Tags: academia, career, community college
I was discussing some of my career aspirations the other day. After talking a bit, the person I was talking to lifted their index finger in that way people do when they’re trying to be thoughtful.
“You know, you really ought to get a job at a community college.”
I was floored. The person realizes that despite the fact I could have stayed here and finished my PhD in just a couple years, I chose to go someplace else and spend two years apart from my family because I didn’t want the stigma of “only been at one school”. Why would I do that if I wanted to teach at a community college? In fact, why would I go get a PhD at all? I could start teaching at a CC after finishing my MS and not put myself through all that.
I’m not saying this as a slight to community college teachers, either. I went to a community college for a couple years and had some of the most awesome teachers I’d ever met there. It’s just that 1 – it’s not really where I want to go and 2 – I don’t think I could handle it. Given the choice between research or technical work and teaching general ed-type classes, I’m pretty sure research would win out. I’ve learned that I can live without spending hours in front of students or grading papers, but I can’t live without the mental stimulation that doing technical work provides. Further, I’ve had the opportunity to teach in high schools as well as general ed labs for non-science majors. I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I like teaching labs for circuits, optics, and physics. I love teaching, but I’ve also learned that the material I like to teach is not suited for just an average student. I like math and theory, and most community colleges are not going to be offering the kinds of things I would love to teach, at least not at a high level.
Now realistically, if that was the only job available, I’d take it and try to be a totally kick ass teacher that makes their students want to be great scientists and engineers…or whatever else they want to be. I just am not convinced that’s a good first career choice for me.
Anyway, this whole interaction was very disappointing because it left me feeling that this person either has little faith in me or really doesn’t understand my interests well at all. I do realize they had no intention of making me feel bad, but I still felt slighted. It was all the more disappointing given that this person, in the past, has been very encouraging of my career goals.
Are grad classes a waste of time? February 5, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geophysics, grad school, physics, research, solar physics, teaching.
Tags: classes, coursework, grad school, graduation, graduation requirements, independent study
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I have seen both Gears and Massimo post comments about how grad classes are a waste of time. Last week, Gears said this in his EngineerBlogs post (which I’d like to address several points, but this will have to suffice for tonight) and Massimo has suggested ‘workshop’ classes. I have to say that I disagree with both of them, but I think it’s because of my weird background.
For review, I did an undergrad in physics with a math minor, my masters in electrical engineering, and my PhD will officially be in geophysics (as was all my coursework) though my project is actually on solar physics.
Honestly, I’m not sure I could have done that without the coursework. On the other hand, I think my attitude would be different if I’d stayed in one field. In my work in electrical engineering, I use almost every class I took, especially the grad courses. I use antennas and microwave engineering a lot…so much so, that my circuits classes are probably the most rusty. (I know, that’s completely backwards for an EE, but that’s how it goes sometimes.) I find myself often wishing I’d had the opportunity to take some advanced signal processing, as well. And one of the most useful courses was numerical techniques in electromagnetics. Not only does it help me with the work I’m doing in EE, it’s also helping with many of the things I’ve run into looking at geo- and solar physics research.
The flip side to this is that if I’d continued on to get a PhD in EE, any further coursework would not have been terribly relevant. I think there’s an optimum point, and that may have come earlier if my undergrad was in EE.
My classes in geophysics were not as useful, and I think there were probably 2.5 classes that had anything at all to do with my research and what I’m doing now. Realistically, for the stuff I was interested in, I probably should have looked at a PhD in physics or astrophysics…but that may not have been much better if I was taking a bunch of classes on stuff that had no bearing on my research, either (which is likely). However, the 2.5 classes that were useful have been REALLY useful.
I’ve got a breadth in classes that most students never get. This is one thing that I think is a bit of a sticking point for some students. Most places have a ‘breadth requirement’ – i.e. so many classes outside of their department. I think this is a good thing as it helps people to see what other types of things could be relevant to their research. I really think this is something that should be required because of all the ideas that come from seeing how different disciplines approach their fundamental problems, and even having some exposure to what those problems are is a benefit to students.
The real problem, in my opinion, is that so many places require a LOT of credits. It’s fairly common in most good EE programs to require somewhere between 50 and 60 credits of JUST coursework. I don’t like the idea of no classes, but I really think you could trim them back and just make students take classes that are relevant to their research as well as a couple classes for breadth. I was very disappointed with my PhD program because once you hit advanced candidacy status, you’re not allowed to take any more classes unless your advisor is willing to foot the bill. Not likely because most advisors want their students working on their research and getting done (not that I blame them). The down side is that there are a couple classes that I could have really used but was unable to take because they didn’t fulfill the requirements for my degree. Most of my classes had to be in the department as I’d already fulfilled my breath requirement, so taking a class here or there outside the department was viewed as a waste of time because they didn’t allow me to tick off some of those boxes in the red tape. And of course, it becomes obvious that you would really benefit from a course once you’ve hit advanced status and can’t take any more.
It would be nice if there was a system where your advisor could sit down with you and figure out where you’re interested in going research-wise and plot a course through the classwork that makes sense and is flexible. Wouldn’t it be nice if you discovered you need to learn about a particular topic and could then go take the course on it? It makes more sense to me than filling in boxes to get to a certain number of credits or hedging bets that something will be useful later on.
Let’s face it: research degrees are already very specialized and take a long time, so it would make more sense to cut the classes down to those that are relevant. This would ideally save time without sacrificing the background required for a research project. Finally, a really good option, which more universities ought to allow, is independent study classes. During my MS, I took one class as an independent study working on emag stuff. It was awesome as I got the material I really needed in a more structured way and was able to do a project which (I’m still hoping) would be a foundation for some decent research down the line. Therefore, I don’t feel grad classes are a waste of time, as long as they make sense, and I wish universities would be more flexible in some of their requirements.
Big plans for the year January 2, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in family, grad school, personal.
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Last year I wrote about how I don’t make resolutions. And I don’t…but I did try to make some plans and set some goals. On the other hand, I was supposed to check up on those every three months and failed to do so. Despite that failure, I still did fairly well.
1 – Making significant progress on my dissertation. I hope it’s realistic, but I’d like to be done within 2 years.
In a year’s time, I cut down my estimated completion date by 6 mos. That’s not terribly good. On the other hand, I’m actually making some real progress now. I’m hoping that by the end of this year, I will be to the point that I can get into the heavy duty data analysis, if not further.
2 – Significantly reducing credit card debt. Having two separate residences for two years is not cheap, but neither is the interest on a credit card.
This was done…mostly by some refinancing magic. Still, no credit card debt is a good thing, and in the months since we’ve done this, we haven’t put anything back on. Even better, we’ve paid off a couple of other obligations as well.
3 – Plans to finish a half-marathon (walking) and sprint triathlon. This is because I need to exercise regularly, and I find that having a goal to work towards makes it much more likely that it’ll happen. If things go as scheduled, I actually have two triathlons on my list, but it depends a lot on finding another place to swim since NDSU took out it’s pool. If I have to wait for the public pools to open in June, I will probably only do one triathlon in July or August.
I didn’t do so well on this front. I had anticipated walking a half-marathon and did a 10k instead. I also didn’t do either triathlon. On the up side, however, I’ve started running in the past couple months, something which I really did not think I could do. (Past attempts have caused my fibromyalgia to flare up.) Today I signed up to do the 10k again, although I plan to run this time, and I signed up for a triathlon I really want to do. I’m much more committed to these things when I’ve actually paid money to do them. I also am thinking about running or walking/running a half-marathon in the fall…but I haven’t decided which one yet (Bismarck or Fargo).
4 – A more structured approach to time with family in order to make sure it happens more often. Spontaneity is great, but it reduces to the likelihood that things will happen as we’re all going different directions, even moreso with an independent teenager. We’re trying to schedule a weekly time with family as well as a couple trips.
We did well on this front until the older boy went away for the summer. Then we got out of our routine. We did go on a nice camping trip in the fall and a couple trips down to the Cities, but not anything terribly different from the normal trips we take. We’re actually planning a real vacation trip for this summer…although it’s a bit more tricky with a big dog.
5 – I have some personal goals that involve reading for fun, finishing up some crafting projects, and finding a new violin teacher so that I can start lessons again.
I didn’t get a violin teacher, but I determined that I really don’t have time for lessons. I am just playing a bit every day, working on getting back in practice. Maybe once that dissertation thing is done.
Most of my goals are similar for this year, as you can see, although I have a couple new ones pertaining to Gigadog. We’re resuming obedience classes this week, and I’m hoping that by the end of the year, she will have earned a canine good citizen award and a companion dog title. I’m also going to be showing her, and, if time permits, maybe starting on working toward water dog and draft dog titles. As you may have guessed, this will probably be a fairly time consuming effort. However, she’s happiest when she’s busy…and so am I, as it keeps her out of trouble. It’s amazing how much trouble a 100 lb. dog can get into.
So do you have any big plans for the coming year?
Grad school Barbie December 12, 2011Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school, humor.
Tags: grad school barbie
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A friend posted a link to this page on Facebook. It’s all about Grad School Barbie:
Every Graduate School Barbie comes with these fun filled features guaranteed to delight and entertain for hours: Grad School Barbie comes out of the box with a big grin on her face that turns into a frown after 2 weeks or her first advisor meeting (whichever comes first). She also has adorable black circles under her delightfully bloodshot eyes.
And there’s more. Check it out for a good laugh.