It’s all fun and games until you’re covered in clay dust, crusting up, walking 2 miles home from the ceramic studio after 3 hours working on your thesis. “I’m crusty,” I repeat into my phone, slick with sweat from the heat of laying large slabs of clay and running into the kiln room.
Maybe it’s just my severe ADHD showing but concentration, or at least sticking to one, was never meant to be my forte. I never pictured that this was where I would be. As a freshman, I really thought that at this point I would be knee-deep in a stem cell lab. Too bad I finally admitted to myself junior year that: I. Hate. Biology. I didn’t realize that you could actually LIKE what you do until junior year, when I accidentally took an Environmental Engineering class because it was the only credit that fit in my schedule. And I loved it. I mean, I REALLY loved it.
Four weeks into the semester, I was sitting in office hours for a bioengineering class looking up some formula for hemoglobin when I realized I was actually staring at the Plan of Study for Environmental Engineering. I packed up my things faster than I ever had before, which means a lot coming from someone who started itching to pack up my things as soon as I sat down in bioengineering lectures. I called my mom on the stoop of my dorm entrance crying in the rain because I knew what I wanted to do but wasn’t sure how to do it.
Switching concentrations is a lot more like leaving a toxic relationship than I want to admit some days. The weight off my shoulder that came with finally admitting that I hated the very thought of being surrounded by bioengineering for the rest of my life was incredible. After I finished dancing and singing any praise I could muster, I made the switch formally. And it’s great! But they never really warn you that switching back and forth between disciplines leaves you feeling like an imposter no matter what you end up doing. In environmental classes, I always feel like there’s something I missed because I joined late. In bio labs, I always felt like I wasn’t prepared because of the lack of interest. In my mechanical classes, I never felt like I really belonged even though it’s the only field I consistently spent my time in.
Doing a thesis is incredibly isolating. You want to Google all the things you’re unsure about but the fact is, you can’t. Because there are no answers. Because you’re the one who has to come up with the answers. Talk about intimidating.
There are good days, like when your roommate is looking for any excuse possible to avoid doing a 5-minute blog post for a Gen Ed and is willing to read you’re 35-page, single-spaced, 11-point Calibri font thesis progress report.
There are bad days, like when you have to run an experiment for 6 weeks to collect data but you only have 4 weeks to do it in.
At the beginning of the semester, thesis updates were very formal and clear. We all really want to represent ourselves and our work in the best way possible, obviously. Around two months in, however, my presentations have more question marks than citations. But that’s what you’re supposed to expect.
My roommates have accepted that there’s a giant bucket of moss sitting in the windowsill of our common room that I water and tend to. They’re a bit hesitant to let me lay out the clay tiles I’ve created after I admitted most of my work had legitimately MOLDED, but hey, when you’re experimenting to see whether something can promote growth, you get kind of excited to see how well it can mold. You live and you learn, and sometimes it feels like you’re barely surviving and making it up as you go, but that’s honestly all you can hope for. Or at least, I hope so.
They don’t put working clocks in windowless labs because it’s always a fun game of whether you’ve been there for 30 minutes or 6 hours.
I tote around a bucket full of moss, and nobody ever asks me about it. I keep to myself that I’m 99% sure I accidentally killed the tiniest snail ever when I shoved 250 grams of moss into the same brand of blender I’ve used to make margaritas to create a “moss milkshake” I can grow for my thesis. All I know is I don’t know where that tiny little shell went but I know he wasn’t that fast, and now I guess I’ll just have to live with that.
My roommates sneak me snacks, usually pushing a package of Oreos near me with a long stick in between my low growls and mumbling while I code. I can most often be found at my desk with both Matlab and a bottle of wine open, except I’m usually more preoccupied with one over the other. I don’t know where I would be without peach moscato, but having a Trader Joe’s that carries cheap peach bellini right across the street from the studio I do my thesis work in has become dangerous. It doesn’t seem fair that there isn’t an additional thesis stipend for wine and food to carry you through the thesis process.
No matter how many times my mom or roommate (who, honestly, is just Mom 2.0) tell me how interesting my thesis is or how hard I’ve been working, I don’t really acknowledge the work I’ve been doing. Even after having my thesis adviser and mentors tell me they’re excited to see what I’m doing with this idea, I still struggle to see my work as impressive. But the real difference is that I’m just as transparent about how much I’m struggling through a thesis as I am about the components of my thesis.