Healthy Living for the Graduate Student – The Basics

Where were you for the last four hours?  Most graduate students will answer, “In the lab” or “sitting at my computer.”  With the focus required for literature review, data analysis, writing manuscripts and bench research, it is unsurprising that our health often drops down the priority list.  Previous posts in this blog have discussed the importance of fun and making time for yourself, but this is a reminder that your physical health is important.  Lack of care for your lab instrument or computer leads to an inability to conduct research.  So too will lack of attention and care for your body and mind.  In this post, I will write some general comments about starting a health routine.  In future weeks, I will follow up with more details of nutrition and fitness requirements.

food bike

So what is important to know?  Nutrition and physical activity are both necessary.  Hate running? Or can’t find the time for that gym class? Go take a 10 minute walk around campus once or twice a day.  Run up and down the stairs in your building a few times. Maybe invest in an exercise ball “chair” or a standing desk for your office.  Try a few things to figure out what will work to give your body a little energy boost a few times a day.  There are numerous studies that show physical activity improves mental stamina and acuity and is, therefore, critical for a graduate student to maintain a steady pace of work.

Now about nutrition.  We all have our quick fixes and our special comfort foods that may not be the best fuel for our bodies.  So it is key to find balance in your food choices.  Eating the same things all the time is not desirable as you may be missing key nutrients, so add variety in fruits and vegetables, in your meal preparations and in your protein and fat sources.  Also, eating sweets and processed foods or quick snacks is ok if those times are occasional and balanced by nutritious, real food the rest of the time.  Consider your food intake as fuel – so will a protein and vegetable stir fry or a greasy pizza produce more focused, sustainable work energy?

It is easy to write about nutrition and exercise routines, but much harder to put this into practice.  Two ideas have helped me to find a sustainable routine.  First, try to prepare ahead of time – prepackage meals and snacks at the beginning of the week so you can just grab a portion each day on your way out the door, like this blogger does.  This requires a little planning on the weekend but makes it easier to make healthy choices during the week when you are busy.  Likewise, plan your exercise times ahead of schedule so you don’t have to think about it during the week.  Book the time and stick to it to make it a habit.  Second, be forgiving as you are starting a new routine.  It takes time to make habits and sometimes you fail with one system before finding another that works.  Keep trying until the habit sticks.

As we start this semester, I encourage you to consider your current nutrition and exercise habits.  How well are they fueling your studies?  Try the USDA Healthy Eating Index to determine the quality of your diet and take a look at the Let’s Move initiative for information about physical activity requirements.  What changes do you want to make?  What changes are reasonable to make this semester? I am eager to hear your plans, so comment below with thoughts and questions!

Your job, found at iJOBS

Whether it is a sad or happy thought, it is true that a PhD or MS program has an end.  So what does one do after?  The number of academic jobs decline each year, and the future state of higher education is very unclear.  So what other opportunities are there for newly minted graduates?

This is exactly the question that a new Rutgers program is addressing.  iJOBS, Interdisciplinary Job Opportunities for Biomedical Scientists, provides opportunities for current graduate students to network with and learn about relevant industries beyond academia.  Implemented with Biomedical Science students, iJOBS is expanding to include students in many other academic fields.   It is a multi-year program for students, with phases of participation.  In Phase I, students participate in career fairs, workshops on skill development and similar events.  Students must accumulate a certain number of participation hours to apply for Phase II which includes more personal training and shadowing opportunities.

Why should you consider it? Because this is an opportunity for you to begin developing skills and contacts that will help you pursue a career beyond a tenure track position, such as science and health policy, business management and data analysis. The workshops alone are worth a look, including resume/cv development, interviewing skills, communicating science to politicians and networking skills.

There are certainly interesting topics for any graduate student, and I encourage everyone to consider participation in the program.  Find more information at http://ijobs.rutgers.edu/

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

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!

The Magic of Motivation

At some point, while you have been reading articles for classes, attending seminars, teaching and occasionally collecting data, you have progressed into the later years of your PhD.  One day you will realize, “Hey, I’m getting there!” and simultaneously feel “Ugh, so much more to do.”  This is the point in time when your motivation is as necessary as your experimental controls.  Why does this point in time happen so abruptly and how do you keep moving past it?

First, let’s briefly consider why this dichotomy of optimism and frustration occurs.  I think it has to do with the grand scope of a PhD program.  The large, amorphous goal is to develop, execute and communicate a project of to-be-determined size, depth and importance.  What you find at the end may be completely different than what you thought when you started.  And there is no simple roadmap of how to get from Point A to Point B while hitting all the landmarks in between.

From Point A to Point B

Our minds (and hearts) often have difficulty wading through the small details of a big picture. To better allow our brains to get to the end point, we need to set smaller, intermediate goals.  Now you may think, “Goal setting is obviously important for getting my papers written and my   experiments completed, but how does this help my motivation?”   Not only do these intermediate goals enable us to manage the day-to-day, they help us see progress on the messy path to Point B.  This article on mindtools.com has some great tips for goal setting and utilizing these goals as a compass toward your big picture.

Goal setting seems like the practical explanation to the question of how to maintain motivation.  I really appreciated this TIME article’s not-so-logical explanation of productivity loss.   Life is not just logic, and emotions alter our productivity and motivation.  So, what to do when you have an experiment that is just not working, your advisor asking you to do more and the feeling of frustration and fatigue inhibiting every reasonable plan of action? Here are three magical suggestions:

  1. Stay Positive: Whatever is going wrong is temporary and not the end.  If you are relating to this article, it is because you are in the middle of the long journey.  This means you have accomplished A LOT on your way to this point.  Remember all of those experiments that have gone well, those papers that you have really liked, that conference talk that was awesome.
  2. Get Rewarded: Tom and Donna from Parks and Recreation have this one solid with “Treat Yo’self Day.”  You don’t need a reason – you’ll feel happy and much more excited to get back to the grind.
  3. Get Peer Pressure: You care what your friends think, so use them!  Ask them to push you toward that scholarship deadline or paper outline.  Be deadline buddies and set dates to check in on your progress.

There is no one path to a PhD or one solution for staying motivated, so these tips are as good a place to start as any.  Slow days will come and go.  Stick with it.  There is light at the end of the tunnel…

Prioritizing Writing

At this point in the semester, I am surrounded by individuals trying to ride out the wave of work that surges through a semester.  The most important task is the one that is due next, and those long term projects are put off until it is too close to really give them the time they deserve.  For example, learning science and doing science are important, but so is communicating it.  Between courses, exams, teaching, lab work, mentoring, family and other commitments, how do grad students find time for writing?  One of my greatest struggles is determining where in the “To do” list to prioritize this long term task.

While it may seem like this is something that would come at the end of a large study or after a great deal of research/reading, I recently read a book that convinced me otherwise.  The book, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva, is a fast read that discusses how to be successful in writing more consistently and productively.  There are some specific tips about writing articles v books, but the main points are

  1.  Set aside time dedicated to writing and all of its associated tasks
  2. Commit to and defend  this time

To learn more about the author’s suggestions, I suggest borrowing the book from the library or purchasing it.  This book has totally changed my perspective on writing.  While I understand that writing and preparing presentations of my work is just as important as reading background information and working in the lab, I have not been dividing my time accordingly.  Now, I am taking the authors suggestion and planning a few hours every week, on my calendar, just for writing.

So far this strategy has allowed me to more efficiently organize my thoughts and make progress writing emails, blog posts and my dissertation proposal.  I know that writing is viewed differently between humanities and sciences, but this point is relevant for any field.  So, I am eager for others to comment on their own trials and successes with writing productively.

What do you do to prioritize writing?

Teaching Issues: Behavioral Ethics

As graduate students, we share our opinions with the force of fact.  In many fields, this unwavering confidence is necessary for ideas to be considered.  We are required to frame our ideas so we receive thoughtful insight,  constructive criticism and no nit-picking.  Typically, this means significant amounts of preparation and burrowing into the ideas which we support.  What a fantastic skill to develop!

Have you ever considered what happens when you stand up in front of an audience with this strong bias towards your own ideas?  As a presenter, you are serving as an “expert” on a topic.  While you may want to persuade your audience of an opinion (yours, your advisor’s your department chair’s), doing so without all of the relevant information, including opposing points, is deceptive.

As teachers and mentors, what is our responsibility to our students?  Is it ethical to share your opinion without letting them form their own?  Or to present one side of a research argument without at least mentioning the other?  The one-sided or incomplete seminars I have experienced left me skeptical and unexcited.  The classes I’ve taken taught by stubbornly opinionated professors have left me questioning the expertise of the professor.  Perhaps these are conscious choices of the presenter, but it is unclear if these individuals understand the mistrust they instill in their audience by forcing their own perspective or missing important information.

I found an interesting series of videos on behavioral ethics that discusses social influences on individual choice.  As leaders in the classroom, laboratory or organization, graduate students have influence on undergraduates and peers.  It is important to acknowledge this influence and use it carefully and thoughtfully.  When you prepare for your next class just consider what you are sharing, or not sharing, with your audience.  Consider if you are being honest about what you do and don’t know to support your conclusions.

Have you ever considered this perspective or your responsibility as an authority figure?  Leave comments on the post to continue this discussion…