Editor’s note: Finally, our second installment of the A Day in the Life series! In this week’s episode, we learn about the life of someone with one foot across the proverbial threshold between graduate school and real personhood. Specifically, this is the period at Stanford bounded by one’s (successful) thesis defense on one end and by the completion and submission of one’s dissertation (and, presumably, a coincident or near-coincident beginning at a job) on the other. It’s an experience unique (to my knowledge) to Stanford (at most schools, the dissertation is submitted before the defense); let’s see what it’s all about!
A Day in the Life: Episode 2 – Tarun Narayan
The focus of this installment of ADitL is none other than our favorite misanthropic chemist, Tarun Narayan. Tarun defended his thesis (about intercalation or some shit, I didn’t pay attention) on March 10, 2016, meaning he took about 3.5 years to get his Ph. D. However, it should be noted that he previously obtained a master’s degree in chemistry from MIT, or, as he refers to it, “the bad place”, before coming to Stanford. So, really, his whole graduate career was 5.5 years, which we can round up to 7 years so I can feel better about myself. Before MIT, he obtained his undergraduate degree from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA. Going all the way back, he was born and spent his childhood in upstate New York before his family moved to the Yay Area, which he says has “stolen his heart.” His family still lives in the area, meaning he gets plenty of homemade Indian food which he never shares with me. The following describes a prototypical day for him while he was compiling his dissertation (i.e., the written document which describes and unifies all of the work he did throughout his graduate tenure) and otherwise preparing to leave Stanford for a postdoctoral position at the University of Maryland.
Tarun typically wakes up at approximately 8:00 AM. By his account, getting out of bed (i.e., getting off the floor) occurs when the urge to poop outweighs the desire for additional sleep. He then “poops for 10 minutes” (he did not provide any sort of statistics; maybe they’re in the SI, who knows). After completing this deposition as well as the other obligatory morning hygiene tasks, he eats breakfast. It’s his favorite meal of the day for the “cereal [sic]” (guessing he meant eggs, bacon, pancakes, or really any other breakfast food), which he enjoys with almond or flax milk. After completing his low-tier breakfast, he puts on his “socks, jacket(s), bag, and gym bag (in that order)” before putting on his shoes outside. He then dons his characteristic shiny helmet and bikes to work, arriving around 8:45 AM.
After parking his bike the rightmost spot in front of Skilling, a spot which, despite the abundance of bird poo, is “a position of great prestige”, Tarun opens his computer “in despair.” He then takes a hard-earned break to play Madden (casual) on his phone (double casual!), completing the daily challenges in the hopes of getting elite-level players with an above-90 rating. Work ultimately begins when Tarun decides to read some papers tangentially related to his thesis, an action which usually leads to him fixating on a small detail from one of these papers that is even less-than-tangentially related to his work. Being a good scientist, he then reads a few papers on this detail before getting flustered and giving up; the whole detour comprises approximately 2 hours. He then writes a paragraph of his dissertation (which, it should be noted, is mostly a copy/pasted-then-stitched-together version of his previous papers), thereby earning himself the reward of more Madden time.
This combination of Madden and scientific time-wasting sprinkled with actual work usually brings Tarun to the 12:00-1:00 PM vicinity, which, as we all know, is gym time. His split is as follows: legs and shoulders on Monday/Friday, back, biceps, chest, and triceps on Tuesday/Thursday, and circuit training plus abs on Wednesday. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that hitting any of back, biceps, chest, or triceps for a quarter of a sesh twice a week has been broscientifically demonstrated to yield suboptimal gains. He then showers after his lift (again, squandering prime office pump-mirin’ time) before eating lunch. Next, he goes back to reading and writing, although his efforts are usually hindered by the frequent interruptions of other group members asking Tarun for help. I am the chief perpetrator, and Tarun should probably be first author on all of my work. To be fair, it’s his own fault for knowing so many things. The rest of the afternoon passes with periods of helping group members, waving around a cricket bat and/or throwing a cricket ball, and playing Madden, all punctuated by the occasional dissertation progress. From 7:00-8:30 PM, Tarun works in a focused manner to reach his target of 1-2 completed dissertation pages per day before going home.
Upon arriving at home, Tarun fires up a podcast; current favorites include the Bill Simmons podcast, Revolutions, History of the Crusades, and Freakonomics. He listens to the podcast while preparing dinner, which consists of some frozen dish courtesy of Mrs. Narayan, some roti (3, specifically), and fruit. According to Tarun, it is of paramount importance that he has the same two types of fruit for dinner every day of a given week; if this requirement is not met, “[his] diet is impure.” After eating his spectrally dictated dinner and finishing the evening’s podcast, he Skypes with Pooja, his girlfriend (also not an Xbox). While she is currently a first-year student at Des Moines University, she previously lived in San Francisco, where the two met and presumably bonded over their common interest of not sharing their respective homemade Indian food with me. After the Skyping is done, Tarun gets in bed (or sometimes just lies down on the floor) at 12:30 AM on average. At this point he watches sports (usually soccer and cricket) highlights via reddit or YouTube before falling asleep.
I think we can agree that life during the so-called “writing quarter” at Stanford sounds pretty idyllic. While uncommon among graduate programs, I think having the defense before the dissertation submission helps to reduce the stress associated with figuring out just what the fuck we’re all going to do when we can’t be students anymore. Tarun, being an efficient person and a brilliant scientist, lined up his job before defending, thereby preventing indefinite elongation of this joyous writing period. Whether it’s by design or simply ineptitude remains to be seen, but I don’t intend to make the same mistake.