A Setback, Literally

The start date for our trip has always been fluid, tied not to a date on the calendar but to an event, namely Jeff’s completion of his PhD. As anyone who has ever worked toward a PhD or anyone who has lived with a PhD seeker knows, nailing down a graduation date can be tricky. The finish line can be squarely in sight, seemingly so close, but then as you’re about to pump your arms in triumph at completing this marathon—this Ironman—you learn that you have another lap to complete before you can break through the tape. This ambiguity seems particularly true with the sciences, though I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have experience with other fields. Jeff can work all day, every day, (weekends included) and do everything “right,” but if he doesn’t get the results he wants, it doesn’t matter. Science is fickle. As I mentioned in an email I sent to many of you announcing this Website, we hoped to leave in July, neuroscience gods willing.

Well, folks, it doesn’t seem the neuroscience gods are on our side. (Who wasn’t making the proper offerings to the gods? Go ahead, fess up.) In some ways, July was always a pipe dream. For us to leave in July, everything had to go right. Everything. Even if you never took anything beyond high school chemistry, you probably could have figured out the chances of that happening were slim to none, and that’s looking at the odds in a positive light. But damn it, for once, I was being an optimist. And for a while, it looked like things would go our way. The head of Jeff’s lab here in D.C. gave the nod of approval to the June graduation plan in the pre-Christmas weeks. (Apparently he’d been drinking too much eggnog, especially considering his wife is due to deliver their first child in June, which makes me think the chances of him booking a flight to Stockholm for a June defense date were, again, slim to none.) A schedule was drawn up, dictating what paper would go where when. This was going to happen. Jeff would be working like a madman, and we’d have to cram all our planning into the wee hours, but this was going to happen. Maybe those optimists know something.

Alas, no. Jeff’s been doing everything right, but the universe is not on our side, or to be more specific, Sweden isn’t on our side. Apparently Sweden is going to extract a toll in exchange for those cheap visa fees. Jeff’s mentor in Sweden isn’t on board with the June graduation plan, and if he’s not on board, there’s really very little that can be done, considering he may just be the only person on the planet who has any true idea of what the Karolinska graduation requirements are, since they seem to change with the wind. One requirement I have been made aware of, however, and which you may find interesting, is that Jeff must apparently publicly declare his intent to defend some months before the actual event by literally tacking his thesis to some board. Very Martin Luther, me thinks. I suggested that he just email the thesis to someone else and tell them to print and tack up the dang thing, but he says that’s not allowed. Seriously? What kind of weird system is this? He’s supposed to fly over to Sweden in order to tack some paper to a board? While we all wish his thesis might be as earthshattering as Luther’s theses, I just don’t think it’s going to be (no offense, Jeff). Email seems a plenty viable option to me.

He also must recruit an opponent, someone well-established in the field, but someone with whom he has never worked, to show up at his defense and challenge him (this in addition to his committee). Perhaps that also happens in the U.S., but I’ve never heard of it. What is this, a boxing match? And don’t even get me started on the general bureaucracy, which seems to require that once he actually finish his research and thesis, he then spend months wading through paperwork. Even if every single experiment goes right, every paper gets accepted, I still don’t think he could manage to graduate in June.

So if no June graduation, what about July, August? Oh no, folks, this is Sweden, land of endless vacations. If not early June, then September. Those are the options, the only options. And so that’s that. It seems, unless you all—and I do mean you all–start reciting novenas, that happy day of defending will not happen until September, which means that we will probably embark on our trip in October.

It’s not by any means the end of the world, but I must admit that I’m a bit disappointed. Though I knew the timing was fluid, I had really started to think of July as departure time and to build my plans around it. I was already counting down to my quit date at work. Guess I’ll have to refigure that. As for the trip, one major thing will change, and that’s the route we’ll take. Instead of the Southeast Asia to Africa to South America journey we had been envisioning, we’ll now be going Central/South America (approximately October to February) to Southeast Asia (March to May) to Nepal/India (June) to Africa (July to September).*

And while I’m disappointed, aren’t you excited? This gives you three more months to spend with me before I hit the road. Lucky you.

*All dates are approximate. One day we’ll nail down an actual itinerary, and when we do we’ll post it right here.