we can do the difficult in an hour, the impossible takes a little longer

Academic treasure Jorge Cham of Piled Higher and Deeper has done it again with a comic that takes me back to my first year of graduate school:


Ah, that lovely first semester. I had never laid hands on a stats package more complex than SPSS, was only just learning OLS regression for the first time, and made the mistake of asking my then-advisor a question about some articles he had me reading.*

“Hmmm… that’s interesting,” he said.

“I thought so too,” I responded, feeling relieved that I hadn’t shown myself to be a moron in my first six weeks of grad school.

“Go ahead and do that analysis with SAS and let me know what you find on Friday,” he concluded.

“What?” I asked, in panic.

“Get the GSS data,” he elaborated, “write a program in SAS. Do the analysis, by Friday.”

“Su- sure,” I stammered.

And then I stopped sleeping for a few days so I could write the most unholy kludge known to man. A program so ugly, so brutally inefficient, that for some insane reason SAS would only deign to execute it when it was stored on a floppy disk. When I completed the analysis I discovered absolutely nothing interesting whatsoever, but I had learned a lot doing it.

And if that isn’t a metaphor for grad school, I don’t know what is.

* In fairness, the following conversation is accurate only in the outlines. I don't remember exactly how the conversation went both due to the time that has elapsed and because I was terrified for a large portion of it.

2 thoughts on “we can do the difficult in an hour, the impossible takes a little longer”

  1. Perfect metaphor for grad school. One of the first — and hardest — lessons is that no one is going to show you how to do things. On the other hand, it really demonstrates how people rise to meet expectations when presented with a challenge.


  2. You know, this doesn’t just happen your first year of gradschool. I have had a nearly identical conversation and outcome with my boss at least 5 times since I started my job in July.


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