Announcement : Off the beaten path

March 18th 2013.
Today I told my research adviser I was leaving my PhD program.

It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, and I’ve got to thank my friends, mom and dad for their advice, support and love.

I could have gone to pharmacy school, or medical school, or law school, or gotten a job straight out of undergrad but I chose to go to graduate school at one of the top analytical chemistry programs in the world. And now, I’m walking away from it. I had been tossing the idea of leaving my program since passing my candidacy exam, but I could never bring myself to actually do it until today.

I initially came to graduate school because I wanted to be a research professor. Over the last few years, my views of the academy have changed and I’m now finding myself wanting balance above all things. I’m no longer seeking a position as a professor and as a result, I no longer need a PhD.

We are in the midst of an ‘education bubble’ in which far too many people are far too educated. Nature magazine likens the trend of higher education to a ‘Factory’. Currently, there are too many PhDs and no one wants to hire overqualified candidates in this economy. For what I aim to do, industry/real world experience speaks far more than academic titles.

Looking back, I think to myself, ‘why did I stay in the program so long’ (especially after reading this article that was published ~ 2 years ago) and now, it is so clear. I’m not a quitter, and leaving feels like quitting. I’ve jumped through most of the hurdles, teaching, coursework, candidacy exam, and now, all that is left is research. I know some of you are thinking, ‘Puja, this is you! You can do it!’, and I’d agree with you, but it isn’t what I want to do. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.

While I was at the monastery, I thought a lot about my choice to leave. There are prevailing winds that have influenced my decision. First, the obvious one is the economy. As mentioned previously, this job market is not keen on hiring PhDs and so getting one will not ensure that I get a job (though, now that I have resigned from my program, some may say I’m crazy to be leaving my program without having another offer on the table)

The other factor that I can’t help ignore is that I want a life; not in 3 years, not in 10 years, but now. The innumerable hours spent in my current window-less, loud, lab environment, lacking opportunities for social interaction aren’t providing me with balance or happiness in my life. I would also eventually like to have a family that I can spend time with, and the more qualified I become, the less time I will have for family life. It is important to get priorities aligned, the sooner the better.

Finally, the ultimate realization that I needed to move on came to me when I was asked, “Why are you getting a PhD” and my reply was, “To have a PhD”. I’m not the type of person to stick around for titles, and I didn’t go to graduate school to play life safe or to go the easy route. I came to graduate school to enjoy the ride of life.

I’ve always wondered if I had the confidence to veer off the beaten path, I guess now, after much deliberation, I’ve decided that it is time that I make my own.


P.S. friends living in the Boston or San Francisco Bay areas… there is a high chance I may be near you soon! Keep your fingers crossed and contact me so we can be friends in Real Life!

Monastery weekend

Most students typically head south to the beaches for spring break. This year, my friend Lisa and I headed up to Rives Junction, Michigan to pray and meditate at a monastery. It was beautiful. I was unplugged and without modern distractions. We got to experience the last snowfall of the season and with the end of the winter I got a glimpse of spring and the new beginnings that will come.



On Specialization

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine sent me the book Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher. I read it, liked parts of it, and thought other parts were over-the-top. Nevertheless, reading the book has launched me into reading several other books that are tangentially related and have me thinking of the world from a rather different perspective.

Rod Dreher is a writer for The American Conservative and National Review who has fairly counter-cultural views of the world. My friend Richard Barrett has his own take on Dreher’s utopian ideologies noting, ‘Once modern society collapses, I can be a blacksmith’.

My wise friend Hugo has provided me with quite possibly the best advice ever, ‘Life is all about balance.’ I didn’t quite understand what he meant when he said that back in 2009, but now, after becoming overqualified for most any job, I completely understand his sentiment.

I finally finished reading The Unsettling of America, by Wendell Berry. I hope to write a series of posts on some reflections from the book (since there are many thoughts floating about my mind), but for now, I will focus on specialization, since it is the subject plaguing my mind as of late.

In The Unsettling of America, Berry suggests that the deep problem standing behind all the other problems of industrial civilization is “specialization,” which he regards as the “disease of the modern character.” Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: we’re producers (of one thing) at work, consumers of a great many other things the rest of the time, and then once a year or so we vote as citizens. Virtually all of our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to the environmentalist, political action to the politician.

As Adam Smith points out in The Wealth of Nations, division of labor has enabled the birth of civilization. Specialization is allows me to sit in my lab and develop bio-analytical methods. Yet, it is this same division of labor that obscures lines of connection and responsibility making it easy for me to overlook the coal-fired plant lighting my computer screen.

Specialization, whenever it arose, has brought us great economic benefits and efficiencies. It should be no surprise that it has also wrought some bad things as well, and Wendell Berry does a good job articulating those.

The modern urbanite is woefully ignorant about practical matters involving agriculture, natural resources and energy, because they can take so much of it for granted. Flip a switch, pump the gas, turn the tap, flush the … you get the point. Everything just “happens”.

What is lost to specialization is the common sense and independence of the generalist. But Berry idealizes that lifestyle as well. His world is best suited to a much less densely populated world where the pressures of feeding billions don’t exist, but the knowledge base is advanced. The rural life is not always the Jeffersonian agrarian paradise, with everyone happily tending their little plot of land and making a comfortable living writing niche books. Farming isn’t all benign, even for the little guys.

If you think of the world as one big marketplace, specialization makes sense. But that brings vulnerability (some call it interdependence, but one side is always more dependent than the other). Knowledge is imperfect, markets can be inefficient, and aggression is oft times rewarded. Sometimes the world is a battlefield, and it’s good to have the ability to go it alone. The trick is in achieving a balance at all scales.

I’m also asking myself, ‘Has modern hyper-specialization gone too far?’
Perhaps it has. I suspect this trend will continue until it reaches a point of diminishing returns (i.e. people become so specialized in their work that they become dysfunctional in other areas of their lives). We may find that the old concept of “the Renaissance Man/Woman” with diverse knowledge is actually more effective.

This is my current experience. Excessive time spent doing one thing. Thinking in a particular uni-dimensional way is taxing. Knitting, cooking, pottery classes, gardening are hobbies I have taken up as fruitful work and serve as a way to employ my brain in other ways. Now, if only there were more time; a way of bringing about a more balanced life. Pity modern society hasn’t collapsed.


The Feminine Mystique

I was raised to be an independent, self-thinking woman. While my friends were playing with Barbie dolls, and EZ bake ovens, I played with legos, erector sets, and built massive puzzles (my mother has insane stories).

My mother seemed to do it all, and from her example, I thought it was expected of women to go to work 9+ hours/day and then tend to laundry, cooking, and other chores (when asked if men shared in the burdens, the answer was always ‘no’). Of course, this bothered me to no end; why should women have to do it all?

So, when I was 16, I decided to read The Feminine Mystique, and I decided I was going to make a poster that would go to some state history fair competition. Ergo this monstrosity…

My 2002 history fair poster

Sitting in front of the poster with my group at the state history fair competition. Sporting a terrible hairstyle, and wearing a watch designed to survive an apocalypse. Circa 2002

I assumed in the 21st century that men and women were on the same playing field (title IX had been instated long before). In school I did better in math and science than most guys, I could run a mile in under 6 minutes, and all of the first violinists were female. The notion of a level playing field existed until I went to college.

In college, I realized that 75% of the women around me were not focused on attaining their B.S. or B.A, but were primarily in school to get an M.R.S. degree. This was the first time in my life when I had seen women seeking an education for the sake of getting a degree. One of my college roommates was an education major-an admirable vocation if entered into thoughtfully, however this roommate was not terribly interested in childhood development, but instead was very interested in going out on Friday and Saturday nights. It seemed like many of the women I was surrounded by were focusing their energies not on developing their own personalities, but instead were hunting for a spouse. I felt like I had blasted back to the post WWII era.

This all rekindled thoughts of Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (the one I did a project on in 2002). The book (published in 1963) documented for the first time that “problem that has no name,” housewife’s syndrome, where American girls grew up fantasizing about finding their husbands, buying their dream homes and dream appliances, popping out babies and living happily ever after. In truth, happily-ever-after never came. Countless women suffered from depression and breakdowns as they faced the endless meaningless tasks of shopping and driving children around. They never had opportunities to fulfill their highest potential, to challenge themselves, to feel as though they were truly contributing to society beyond wielding the credit card to keep the consumer culture going.

The middle-class American housewife’s life had become, essentially, meaningless. The industrial revolution and subsequent rise of America’s consumer culture had demoted homemaking from a craft tradition to the mindless occupations of primping the house, shopping, and chauffeuring.

So, how does a woman avoid becoming some overly eager to get married person with a full life? Friedan and other feminist scholars suggested that equality, security, and human dignity are impossible to achieve without earning one’s own money. Women had to be economically independent. This sounds great, and easy enough in a post-industrialized society where we frame independence in the context of participation and prevalence in the market economy where personal economic power is the only security. Ideally, this should have enabled women to seek well-rounded/meaningful lifestyles but of course failed to happen (as evidenced by the roommate described previously)

Another point to consider is that post-WWII suburban life left countless housewives isolated in their homes. With family members gone all day, and each home its own island, the loneliness took its toll on these women. This, I believe has been the Achilles heel of the stay-at-home mom; the belief that self-sufficiency exists (it may exist as an illusion with the aid of corporations, but in reality, it doesn’t).

For decades, the American housewife has failed to perform any valuable function in the home except to feed money into the consumer marketplace. The crafts of gardening, preserving food, baking bread, educating the young, or caring for the aging are no longer necessary since we can easily ‘hire it out’. As such, the American household is no longer a unit of production, but of consumption.

It appears as though we have failed to grasp how consumerist “improvements” have failed us. We have failed to anticipate the ecological and health problems associated with processed foods, we didn’t recognize how schools and media were separating children from the earth, and didn’t predict how the health insurance industry would bankrupt us.

Friedan raised a critical point: “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.” What Friedan understood, but what many of us have ultimately forgotten, is that simply landing a job does not guarantee self-actualization. Those who do not seriously challenge themselves with a genuine life plan, with the intent of taking a constructive role in society, will share the same dangers as housewives who suffered under the mystique of feminine fulfillment; they face what Friedan called a “nonexistent future.”

I currently have the freedom and ability to do whatever it is I want to do. In thinking about it all, I’m realizing that feeding into the consumerist cycle will not work for me. So, as I see it I have 2 options:

  1. Finish grad school. Get the highest paying, most meaningful job possible. Work for 10 years (or some period of time) until I have saved up enough to not work for someone else.
  2. Find a job that is fulfilling and enables me to live a balanced life (so no excessive hours), and provides me with enough to live comfortably and support another/save a bit.

Of course, the second option seems the most ‘sane’. I have yet a couple years before I have to decide on anything, and life circumstances will surely motivate my directions. Nevertheless, it is certainly daunting to consider the number of possibilities that lay before me and how many of them I don’t want.


Tired of phone commercials…

Over the weekend, some friends and I head over to the Barrett’s home for afternoon tea. Somehow, the topic of terrible cell phone ads came up. I don’t even watch TV; instead I opt to watch a couple of episodes a week of the Colbert report via Hulu, but even through Hulu streaming, these ads have not escaped my attention…

If you want to be unlimited; Sprint can help you out…

Or, if you need an upgrade on yourself, the Droid is to the rescue!

These commercials suggest that the miraculous is only to be found in the latest technology (it is indeed miraculous that these gizmos exist, but miracles are hardly limited to technological advances).

Also, I think the phrase “I need to upload all of me.” is just perverse. The “need” to display oneself to a world of potential viewers is an exhibitionist’s dream or perhaps it represents a tacit nod in the direction of immortality—I “need” to upload “all of me” so that none of me will be lost. (Though, some may say this blog is a need for me to this, so I am guilty too).

The fact that this ad has been made, and has made it to the airwaves says more about us than about the merits of a data plan.



Is the compulsion to overwork, the reckless pursuit of affluence, and the credo of individualism worth the demise of society?

Then, I take a step back, consider libertarian ideals motivated purely by economics (think Ayn Rand objectivism), shudder, and think to myself, ‘heavens No!’

There are two novels that can transform a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.
-Raj Patel, The Value of Nothing

This indeed was my case. At the age of 15, I was handed the works of Ayn Rand, and for a decade I had taken objectivism to heart as Truth without much looking back.
Now, as I question my ideals and role in society I reflect sorrowfully on my objectivist mindset. In his 2012 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Barack Obama summed it up:

Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that that’s a pretty narrow vision. It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America.

I guess this is all a sign that I’m getting older.


Craft party

Collaging, darning, painting, drawing.
Yes, we did it all…

Fondue… compliments of an ex-fraternity 😉

Shakespeare and cake

Exercising creative muscle

Phil darning socks. Crafts practically.

Artsy fartsy mish mash

A scientist writes a haiku

Let them eat cake…

Pondering the night away

Now, back to thinking analytically…



I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about the type of lifestyle I seek to have as I continue on in life. With petrol prices nearing $4/gallon (and considering the crazy traffic and commute most people in large cities face), I’m realizing the importance of considering population density in addition to the availability of public transportation among other things.

I happened to stumble upon this powerful infographic…

I’m still pondering how crime rates, diversity, rooted-ness, reality, and utopian ideals all fit in. It is impressive to think that there really aren’t that many of us!


I’ll sub a convention for reality

Words are useful so long as they are treated as mere conventions. More often than not, we run around confused; trying to live in the real world as if it were a world of words, and when we find reality to be indescribable, we are left dumbfounded. The harder one attempts to live in this world of words, the more isolated and alone he or she may feel. Joy and liveliness of things is exchanged for certainty and security. On the other hand, the more we are forced to admit that we actually live in the real world, the more we feel ignorant, uncertain, and insecure about everything. Life becomes stressful for small Pujas.

I believe that the reason I love science is because I’ve placed a false reality in it. I’m afraid I have greatly misunderstood the scope and purposes of science because I have confused the universe which science describes with the universe in which man lives. Science is merely a convention that symbolizes the real universe; serving a similar purpose as money. They are conventions that are convenient for making practical arrangements, but prove to be cumbersome when the meanings of money and wealth, or reality and science, are confused.

In a similar way, the universe, when described in terms of dogmatic religion, is nothing more than a symbol of reality; it is constructed out of verbal and conventional distinctions in the same manner as science. Science has “destroyed” the religious symbol of the world because, when symbols are confused with reality, different ways of symbolizing reality will end up being contradictory. People in the STEM fields can get away with fundamentalist empirical views in modern society because the scientific way of symbolizing the world is more suited to utilitarian purposes than the religious way, but this does not mean that it has any more “truth.”

Is it truer to purchase a computer by its weight or by its storage capacity? It depends on what you want to do with it. The war between science and religion has not shown that religion is false and that science is true but rather, it has demonstrated that systems of definition are relative to various purposes, and that none of them (science included) actually “grasp” reality. Religion has been misused by fundamentalist groups as a means for actually grasping and possessing the mystery of life, so a certain measure of “debunking” has been highly necessary (to the detriment of humility).

In the end, it appears to me that in the process of trying to symbolize the universe, we lose the actual joy and meaning of life itself. The reality of the present eludes all definitions and descriptions; here is the mysterious God which words and ideas can never pin down. Almost every spiritual tradition recognizes that a point comes when a man must surrender himself and face the fact that he cannot know or define the ultimate. It is up to the individual to find a balance.


Purim 2013

Over the weekend, I ended up heading to the opera house to check out the opera Akhenaten. It was a surreal experience, and the very first modern opera I’ve seen. The opera focuses on Akhenaten, an Egyptian pharaoh who attempted to abandon traditional polytheism that existed in Egypt at the time in lieu of a monotheistic religion that worshiped the Sun.  In addition the interesting story line, I absolutely love the composer Philip Glass; the music was breathtaking and so were the costumes!

The next evening, my friend Morgane who happens to be culturally Jewish and I got together  with a couple of other friends to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Apparently, On Purim, Ashkenazi Jews eat triangular pastries called Hamantaschen (“Haman’s pockets”).  To make these treats, a sweet pastry dough is rolled out, cut into circles, and traditionally filled with a filling; its is then wrapped up into a triangular shape with the filling either hidden or showing.

In addition to making and eating sweet and savory Hamantaschen, we also ate a festive meal (since this is a part of the Purim holiday tradition).

After our feast, we spent time listening to old 1940’s jazz hits, talked about our respective jobs (one of my friends is an artist who also works at a halfway house and has a seemingly infinite number of interesting stories to share), and discovered that our friend Lydia’s father happens to make guitars out of locally sourced woods found in the Adirondack mountains (see them here). He is quite the accomplished luthier!