Do PhD Students Dream of Free Energy?

Trying to get an intuitive feel for Gibbs free energy is like trying to dream in another language. Sure I can mimic some sounds and I understand a few words but it’s a long stretch from literature. In mechanical engineering, there’s very little reason for anyone to understand the nuances between different types of free energy- hell there’s very little reason for a majority of people to even know what free energy is.

For many reasons I was not the best student in under grad, and I had the studying finesse of a toddler matching shapes. All I would do was memorize as many situations as possible hoping that I would have memorized what the teacher asked with relative success. It wasn’t because I lacked interest; I lacked time, money, and mental energy. So many alumni and professors would joke with the casualty of dulled war wounds that can’t be covered, “You don’t end up using any theory once you start your job anyway”. Reasonably, the herd mentality of futility was palpable in every classroom. My rudimentary learning style wasn’t frowned upon as long as I passed my classes.

I always had the mental energy for dancing though, maybe because there was the possibility of no thought, but I put a lot of time and effort learning how to dance. Learning tango wasn’t easy but the progression felt inevitable- realizations could reliably be born of nothing. I had to build the skill and strength- my thighs were always burning, my ankles felt like they were going to fracture if the wind shifted too quickly, and the blisters on my feet ruined so many pairs of socks and hose with so much blood and puss that I questioned if I finally had the mental fortitude to become a doctor. And in all the pain and practice there were still moments were it would all make sense. I would piece together how to change my center of gravity and what was initially forced muscle strain became a fluid control of momentum. And there are no words for it- I sound like some horrible combination of white person who thinks they’ve discovered Korean BBQ and a person who lost 30 pounds from cross fit. All attempts to recount these moments incremental universal alignment sound overly pretentious and emotional and not an ounce as eloquent as I would hope for it to be.

Yet here I am wanting to try to feel math and science. I want to understand thermodynamic equations like mixing paint to create passable masterpieces. And statements like that make me sound like my roommate has been force feeding me pot brownies for two months, instead of a semi-competent woman who got into one of the top PhD programs in the country. So much of it hurts right now trudging through calculus and chemistry for glimmers of comprehension. I think there is a shred of insanity required to endlessly hope for something like a PhD. So I will roll with the obvious craziness; I will eat, sleep, and breathe these dense papers and textbooks until I can speak them all in my sleep.

Where I Start

I wish I was starting this out as some altruistic guide to those looking to start their grad school journey, or as evidence of poignant thoughts that I am narcissistic enough to believe demand to be recorded. Instead, I’m in my living room sitting next to my cat, irritated that I forgot to take my antidepressant, and debating whether it would be too sad to make a grilled cheese sandwich for the third time this week. I skipped classes today because I fell asleep after taking an advil to combat the blood clots from my less than benevolent uterus. The awareness of my inadequacy as a grad student and as a newly minted adult is harder to ignore than my period cramps- it seeps into the eye contact I make with my adviser and the desperate laughter after dark punchlines of my inevitable failure.

There’s no ignoring my past: a degree in mechanical engineering devoid of organic chemistry and quantum mechanics, a couple voluntary hospitalizations, several romantic relationships that ended with me convinced that I was a heartless bitch, and a family with enough health problems to consistently hit max out of pocket for five years now. None of those things were particularly easy, and many of them produced enough anxiety to keep me awake for days on end, but I fear that this may be more difficult. This week alone was it’s own brand of hell, surviving the breakup of the first woman I ever loved and then trying to make it through a meeting with my adviser being able to explain the most basic concepts of my research (a task I had managed to butcher twice already).

So here I am, marking the start line. This is where I admit that I have so much to lose and so much to gain. This is where I allow myself to be every bit as miserable and ecstatic and crazy as I need to be to get through this. And maybe whatever happens I can see the miles I ran in appreciative wonder.