That, is the worst question you can ask a senior grad student. I've had enough of friends that were senior to me (see my navratna post) and saw them go through this phase long before I reached it. Consequently, I was always careful about hitting this nerve in other senior students and tried to not ask the dreaded question when I ran into them. But in my mind, I always wondered why they took it so badly. After all, we live in a university town. Everybody is going to grad school, and that Masters or Ph.D degree is the ultimate light at the end of the tunnel. So in as much as everyone tries to maintain a balanced life, a "life outside lab" etc, etc, at the end of the day, school is our life. Many may disagree, but I think they're either in denial or they're not really giving their work enough attention then. ;) When you bump into others on the bus, one can chat a bit about cricket, politics, weather, movies, but ultimately the "question" is raised. It's just inevitable. Unless, it's another senior student you are talking to, and who follows the unwritten rule of "never ask that question". But as a student in the beginning years, one is always curious about the others. "Are you going to finish soon?" "Do you have any papers yet?" and questions like that will be asked by newbies. It can be perceived as innocent questioning or cheeky presumptuousness. I don't know. Anyways, I never quite completely understood why my friends, who were senior to me, took so much offence to that question. Soon, we had a blacklist of people- stupid pesky kids who liked to ask others that question all the time, keep asking the same person the question, or start hounding people in their fourth year (the average phd duration is 5 - 6 years) itself about when they were finishing. And these were people they'd never really talk to otherwise. !@#$%s. We learnt to avoid them on the bus, or better still, avoid the bus they were on. :) And bitched about them within our own coterie.
Now, enlightenment has dawned on me. I am on the other side, and I can see exactly what is so irritating about this question. I like to say I'm a finishing grad student. But the "whens" of finishing- nobody knows. Research is unpredictable, and advisors and committees, even more so. Just when you hit the end of your fifth year, have turned the town inside out and have nothing left to do here, really want to move on to a new life, new project, the uncertainty and unpredictability of your situation aggravates you the most. And nosy peoples' questions about the same only remind you of your agony. The dynamics of "finishing up" are not dictated by whether you are a capable scientist, equipped with necessary skills to earn that Ph.D alone. There is a lot more that factors into it. And seriously, for each of those twits that meet me on that 15 min bus-ride, I do not see it necessary to spell those complications out. In fact, I doubt if they even care, anyways. And I'm beginning to see what my friends were talking about- there are some, whose face betrays that sadistic emotion when they're asking that question. And I've had my own share of fans too. Ones that were hounding me since last year, asking "So, are you graduating this semester????". !@#$$%#$%%Q#$&*.
Usually, I get on the bus and whip out my little book to jot down or go over my "To-do" list for the day. So it' s easy to avoid these idiots. I also carry a book to read. However, some people are particularly talented in crossing all these barriers and reaching out to me. Because they're just dying to know, "So, when are you graduating?". !@##s. They start their conversation with "So.." and you can already see that grin spreading over their face. For them, I have a nice smile reserved. And I give a lost, philosphical look, and say "bhagwaan hi jaane". Then, if this person is really irritating, he or she will grin and persist "hehe, but stilllll, you must be having some idea, no??? you have been here since when??". Then I keep a straight face and say "5 years". They go "oh myyy goddd", raised eyebrows and everything. I appear nonchalant, and say it doesn't bother me that much, I am very happy with my work, and enjoy school-life. The !@# doesnt get the idea. S/he persists "ohhh but stilllll you must be looking for post-doc jobs then??". I realise that such people are just beyond repair. The only way to not have to deal with them is for them to disappear right there. I patiently answer "no, not yet, still waiting to finalise things". "Oh.. " they go, as if they are now really worried for me and my well-being. As if my being there for five years and still going strong is somehow of problem to their well-being. I now am debating whether to open my book and start reading, or just look out of the window. The extent of their glee in asking me that question is directly proportional to any hints of sadness, frustration or worry on my part. So I maintain a happy face, and tell them I'm in no hurry to get out. They then look at me as if I am crazy. They realise that they're not going to get that crib out of me, or that tale of woe which will make their day. The say "oh, nice for you.." but it's accompanied with a look of disbelief or disappointment.
These days I'm running out of tricks in my book, it invariably happens to be the same dolts that corner me and ask me the same thing, every alternate month or so. And given how I'm late everyday anyways, I cannot afford to miss any more buses. So I've started a new strategy. I bore the living daylights out of the person, going into the nitty gritty of some experiment I am stuck at, I go on and on about it in the most animated gory detail and then say, " as soon as I figure out why this is not working, I can graduate". And smile enthusiastically. They are beginning to label me as crazy, but when has that ever stopped me? I love the look of boredom and regret on their face. So far, this plan is working very well.
And for all you curious buggers out there, ;) I was hoping to finish this December, but it seem like it'll be spring next year, thank you for not asking. :-)