Parents in Grad School: We’re Doing the Best We Can.

When I signed on as a blogger, our fearless leader, Claudia Farber, suggested that I write about the work-life balance, as I am a new mom as well as a grad student at the finish line of a Ph.D. program.  “I’ll blog about the work-life balance as soon as I find one,” I joked.

Well. Half-joked.

I can’t offer advice.  It would be downright fraudulent. Advice should only come from people who know what they’re doing, and I’m winging it. Instead, I offer a handy little list of lessons I’ve learned in my first year as a parent and as a graduate student.

  • We’re all doing the best we can.

When you’re a parent, judgment abounds.   Your parenting style, your appearance (You look great!  You look tired!), your schedule, your work – everyone from grocery checkout clerks to your pediatrician will weigh in on your life choices.  And it’s a bit redundant because no one is judging you more harshly than you probably are on all these fronts.  At least, I know that’s the case for me, and all the ink that’s been spilled on imposter syndrome tells me I’m not alone here.  Parents in grad school, especially new parents, have a lot to handle and not enough time in which to do it.  So something, somewhere, has to give.  Here’s the good news.  Parenthood also brings a remarkable sense of clarity, so it’s pretty obvious what relationships, habits, etc., need to go.  Sometimes, in fact, they’re self-selecting.

  • I do not have time for this.

This sentence pretty much runs on repeat in my head throughout the day. Grad school and parenthood are each colossal black holes for free time.  Membership in either of these institutions comes with enough stress to turn your hair as grey as a two-term president’s, and the combination of the two means that you will probably have less time for friends than you used to.  If you’ve got deadlines, girls’ night out is going to have to slide.  If you’ve got a newborn, you can bet the farm that you’re not making it to that 35th birthday party, and if you do, you’ll be home in time for the local news.  Which you’ll miss because you’ll collapse in a heap at the foot of the bed instead.  That babies and grad school mean considerably less time for socializing is patently obvious to you, but you will find yourself occasionally having to explain and defend your priorities to a few folks.  If you find that, “I’m doing the best I can” isn’t good enough, you know whose number you can delete.  Anyone who can be jealous of a baby or a conference paper is going to demand more time than you can give.  It’s not their fault.  Your life is completely foreign to them – which you’re not allowed to say because it sounds sanctimonious and condescending – but it’s not your fault either.  As Ben Folds sang, it just happens sometimes.  And you don’t have time for it.

  • You can do it all.  You just can’t do it all at once.

I call my system “parenting triage”.  While the baby is napping, you have an opportunity to do the things that you’ve let slide.  (By the way, let me offer one small nugget of truth here. The advice that new parents invariably receive – especially moms – to sleep when the baby sleeps is nice in theory but not necessarily workable.  When else will you shower?  Eat lunch?  Read?  Put out the fires that we used to call housework?  And – do I dare dream? – work on the diss?)  But here’s the thing.  You can’t do all of them. You can’t even do most of them.  So you prioritize.

First come the basic bodily functions.  Sleeping, eating, visiting the bathroom that has now become something of a sanctuary in your house because it’s the only place that’s quiet – all of these things usually come at the top of the list.  These are closely followed by basic hygiene.  Normally this isn’t negotiable either, but the fact is that you can leave your house without having showered.  You can’t really go on with the rest of your day, much less take care of a child, if you are a sleep-deprived, starving shadow of a human being.  The third-level priorities then include writing, taking care of household chores, catching up on e-mails, and the like.

Now here’s the thing.  And this is the absolutely critical point.  You can do one, and sometimes you can do two, but you cannot do all of them.  If you want to nap, you are likely going to do it at the expense of a shower.  You can eat and then write, but you cannot eat, shower and then write.  Your priorities will shift depending on how long you’ve let one or more of them slide. And it’s okay.  You’ll get there.  Just do the best you can.  Hating yourself because you’re not as productive as you’d like to be is going to make you less likely to meet your deadlines and less likely to enjoy your time with your kids, not more.

  • Having no time means having no time to waste.

Credit for this quote, which I’m paraphrasing, goes to Laura Bennett, Project Runway’s most famous parent.  It’s completely true.  You might not have much time anymore, but when you do, you don’t waste it.  The parenting triage principle translates smoothly to writing.  It’s just about cutting the fat.  What do I absolutely have to do first?  Solidify the argument, address any gaps in the research, track down the only text that ever described the one London garden gate that is the lynchpin for my chapter on the architectural orders.  Now, what is negotiable?  That excursus on the semiotics of classical architecture is interesting but rather beyond the scope of the chapter.  And I don’t have time for it…at least, not today.  Just as you can leave your house without washed hair but not without, say, pants and a reasonable blood sugar level, your draft can go to your adviser without the paragraph in which you take on Habermas just for fun.  But it can’t go without a clear argument and explanation of your contribution to the field. 

Look, parenting in grad school is hard.  So is being a working parent of any walk of life. That’s why a modicum of compassion for others and for yourself is crucial to survival.  Your friend with the new baby couldn’t pick up the phone after you got dumped?  Be disappointed, but be compassionate.  She’s doing the best she can.  Your friends are subjecting you to insulting conversations about your parenting choices?  Stand up for yourself, and end it if you have to, but don’t judge them. They’re doing the best they can.  Not everybody has to accept your life choices, even if they’re the right ones.  Beating yourself up because you can’t spend the day at the park with your daughter?  (Oh, the guilt.  The guilt that comes with being a parent is a mighty thing indeed.)  It’s temporary. It’ll pass.  So lay off yourself.  You’re doing the best you can.

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Opportunity for Grad Students: NSF Data Science Workshop

August 5-7, 2015, University of Washington, Seattle campus

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is sponsoring a workshop to convene 100 graduate students from diverse domains of science and engineering and data scientists from industry and academia to discuss and collaborate on Big Data / Data Science challenges. Graduate students are invited to apply for participation by submitting by June 22, 2015 a white paper (no more than three pages in length) that describes a Big Data / Data Science challenge faced by their scientific or engineering discipline or an idea for a new tool or method addressing a Big Data / Data Science problem. Travel support is available.
Read more

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New York Academy of Science Opportunities

Graduate students and postdocs in NY area:  Consider becoming an Academy mentor at Dept. of Youth and Community Development summer camps during July, teaching food and nutrition science. Mentors who complete 24 hours of teaching and training will receive an Academy Mentor Teaching Credential, as well as a $1,000 stipend.

Start planning ahead: From Scientist to CSO: Experiencing the Scientific Method as your Guide to Career Success takes place October 27 – December 5 at the Academy.

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Sacrifices

In the past month, two of my three closest friends from high school have either gotten married or placed a down payment on a house. Two weeks ago at the wedding, the single one, whose house is still currently in the process of being built, showed me pictures of the structure and mentioned how real it felt as they began to put the windows into place. Being stuck in grad school while close friends make these huge commitments is less than ideal to say the least. As their future gets clearer, they pose questions about the cloudiness of mine and as I’ve posted on the blog before, my aspirations of going into academia don’t necessarily impress my trio of friends: The Dentist, The Surgeon, and The Homeowner.

Seeing their lives progress while much of mine has remained at a stand still somewhat made me question my chosen path. These interactions combined with the barrage of academia job applications I’ve sent out without much any response hasn’t been positive reinforcement that this is going to be my career.  Even if I thought industry was a good fit for me, I haven’t had any sort of formal experience since my internship in 2009 and wouldn’t really know where to begin to make the switch. Most of my professional experiences the last 4 years have been so focused on teaching, I’ve been honing skills that I’m not sure how valuable they would be in an industry setting. Sure, my public speaking is much better, and I’d argue I can communicate science better than most of my peers, but even students from my department who have much more impactful research and leadership experiences than I do have struggled finding a job.

About a month ago, I set a deadline of June 1st as when I’d start looking for positions in industry,  just to see what was out there and if I could find a position that would work for me.  That was Monday.  However last week, the instructor for the summer course I’m TAing for had a conflict and needed me to cover her lecture.  I’ve given talks at conferences and departmental seminars, but this would be the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to probably outside of my high school graduation.  It was an introductory lecture, Biological Molecules, teaching the building blocks of proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids, something I had no problem teaching but given this was my first time, I had this odd feeling of nervous excitement, similar to Christmas morning as a child, heading into the lecture. 2 hours later…okay, you caught me, I let them out early. 1.5 hours later, I felt inspired and confident that that all the sacrifices I’ve made to be here have been worth it, and that the wedding and the house are still in my future and I’ll get to them.  First comes the hard part, finding someone to let me teach.

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Wake up Call for Workaholics

Recently, my fellow blog writers have talked about ways to stay motivated, keep a sense of humor, how to better manage time and even how to manage depression.  Almost all of us have mentioned taking some time to yourself.  I was struck that we have to specifically call out taking time for enjoyment.  We each have our own goals in life – earn lots of money, obtain influence, help others, enjoy the world.  But on each path, an individual will feel unsatisfied if he/she is not committed to, and happy with, the chosen use of his/her time.  For example, if I am interested in helping others, I may feel extremely dissatisfied with spending all of my time alone staring at a computer screen or 96-well plate.

While I am certainly committed to and happy with my choice to pursue a PhD and what follows, I also am committed to having a rich family life and community and challenging myself both physically and intellectually.  Yet, with one-mindedness I pursue my research and teaching activities, leaving out the other parts that I want in my life.  Is this sacrifice temporary and necessary for the degree or am I pursuing my degree in a way that is harmful to my life goal?  This article about graduate student workaholics tells me it is the latter.

In this article, the author describes a university environment that encourages students to work ALL THE TIME.  When we are not in the lab or classroom, we are glued to our computers grading, reading, writing, analyzing data, etc.  While we are all in a rush to make the most of our time, we are burning ourselves out.  There should not be guilt associated with having a nice dinner with family or drinks with friends. Rather, taking that time will provide stress relief, happiness and will inspire productivity and creativity.

So, I am sharing this article as a wake up to all those who may be closet workaholics.  I certainly wouldn’t have called myself that before reading it. However, I have certainly taken work with me on vacations, cancelled personal appointments to finish work and worked in the evenings and outside of office hours.  These workaholic behaviors are listed in The Artist’s Way at Work which is referenced in the above article.  The realization that I need to set up  boundaries to fit in all that is important to me in life is empowering.  I encourage you to make a list of things that are important to you and prioritize them, not just your graduate work.  Because the work will still be there for you in the morning.

-workaholic in recovery

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Dr. Jekyll v Ms. Hyde – The truth about picking an adviser

The truth is picking your adviser is one of the most important decisions you will make in your graduate career and also one of the least informed.  While you may spend hours deliberating topics and personalities, it is unlikely you will make your decision with a full picture of who that person is or what your research with them will be like.  It’s a gamble.  Your assessment of that person and their lab may be entirely accurate or incomplete when you choose to work with him/her.

If you are entering a program that doesn’t automatically pair you with your advisor (like many at Rutgers, including Nutritional Sciences), you are tasked speed-meeting the potential mentors.  You may narrow down your choices and spend a little time in 2 or 3 different labs.  Then you have the monumental task of choosing the person who will be your mentor for the next 4-7 years.  So how do you choose?  What should you consider?

Brandon wrote a post  in the fall about his choice of adviser and provided great advice on picking “someone you are comfortable becoming yourself.”  I can personally relate to this comment, seeing now how I have learned habits and behaviors from my own adviser.  In addition to picking a mentor who you admire, here are a few other reasons you may select an adviser:

  • The lab is Amazing! – Possibly the lab has all of the equipment that you have dreamed of.  Or the people who work in the lab are your soon-to-be best friends.  Consider that you will spend a lot of time in the physical lab and working with the people.  Pick a place you feel comfortable.
  • The schedule is Amazing! – Maybe you are trying to figure out the 4-hour graduate work week.  If so, you probably don’t want an adviser who expects you at your desk or in the lab 8am – 5pm every day.  If you hate trying to communicate via email and want to see your adviser everyday, picking one who travels a lot may not be the best option.  Pick someone whose work style aligns with your own.
  • The research project is Amazing! – You may have your heart set on studying earthworms.  If so, definitely find the adviser who will nurture your passion and combine it with his/her own.  Remember, research projects always go in unexpected directions.  So if the initial project isn’t exactly what you want, you may later be able to incorporate the things that interest you.
  • The funding is Amazing! – It’s a tough market for graduate students.  If your primary objective is a study support stream, go towards the gold.  Even if this adviser doesn’t have his/her own funding, he/she may be your biggest ally in securing funding through fellowship, grant or teaching assistanceship.  Make sure they are invested in supporting you.
  • My CV will be Amazing! – This adviser may not be your cheerleader, may not be around much, may not be super interested in your project.  However, he/she knows how to get you publications, books, presentations, fellowships, etc.  He/she will drive you to your full potential as a graduate student.

As I consider my experience and other newer students’ experiences choosing an adviser, I realize that you have to gamble.  Decide what is important to you first so you are collecting relevant information.  Within your program, ask the advanced students more details about your options.  Ask your program directors for advice.  Make the most informed roll of the dice that you can.

What other factors did you consider in picking an adviser?  Was your gamble a good one?  Please share your stories on this subject!

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