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 REFRACTIONS

BY HENRY PETROSKI

Welcoming Summer

For postgraduate researchers, a season of challenge

Photo: HENRY PETROSKI - I lived and breathed a problem by day, dreamt a solution by night.  For me, one of the true joys of academic life has always been the change of pace that summer brings. It has not been, as it is in Porgy and Bess, that the living is easy. Indeed, there has been many a summertime when I worked longer hours on harder problems but without the comic relief of faculty meetings.

When I was in graduate school in Urbana, Illinois, where I had my first real taste of academic freedom, summers initially meant studying foreign languages to satisfy requirements that are now as rare as prices in textbook catalogs. Whereas during the fall and spring semesters I took all of my classes on the engineering end of campus, during the summer I trekked beyond the student union to where French and German were taught — in buildings that housed not laboratories but theaters.

For those of us teaching assistants who were fortunate enough to pass the translation tests, summers next came to mean concentrated work on a research project. It was here that I first learned what it meant to live and breathe a problem daily — and dream of its solution nightly — without the benefit of an answer key, instructor’s manual, or expert to consult. Now we students were expected to be the experts to whom others would come regarding the slice of engineering science that we had carved out for ourselves.

The loneliness of the long-distance runner has been written about, but little has been said about the loneliness of the long-suffering doctoral student. Day after day and night after night, we worked away on problems whose solution seemed then even more elusive than a balanced checkbook. Summer was a time to make progress on a problem that would define us, at least for a while, but progress came slowly and sullenly.

With the end of my research in sight, summer came to mean the time to write up the dissertation and also write up papers based on it. I had a sense of urgency to submit my first paper before someone else might submit something similar enough to make all of my work null and void. After all, what I was working on was pushing the frontier of my field, something other graduate students were doing also. And the field was somewhat crowded.

Fortunately, I completed and submitted my first refereed-journal article just in time. Barely weeks after it was accepted for publication, my adviser received a manuscript to review for another journal. He had to tell the editor that our article in press covered essentially the same ground.

Becoming young faculty members brought new summer pressures, at first mostly centered on writing proposals for research extending our dissertation work. Soon, we were advised to break away from that and come up with fresh ideas. When we were fortunate enough to get some of those funded, summer was often the time of year when the serious research promised in the proposals had to be done.

Summer also is, or should be, a time for reflection. Where have we been and where are we going, not only with our research but also with our teaching? Summer is a time to take stock and, on the eve of the new academic year, to make resolutions.

Nonacademic friends and relatives envy us our “summers off,” but that’s probably because they do not appreciate how busy our summers actually are. And they are short, as we realize in early August, when the new semester looms like a massive homework assignment. There are syllabi to organize and lectures to prepare. Little time is left for doing research or writing up results. That has to wait for next summer.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book is To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure.

 



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