Sometimes in grad school, the days are dark…

It’s spring! It’s spring!

Well…it sort of is. The calendar says that spring is here, but the weather doesn’t really seem to have taken the hint. But the days are slowly getting longer, and the sun seems to shine brighter.

But for some of us grad students, the days still seem dark. Depression is common in grad school, so much so, that we joke that it is the normal state of graduate students. And to some extent, this is true: sometimes our work will get us down. However, prolonged periods of feeling down (or suicidal) might actually be a sign of actual clinical depression or another mental health problem. (There’s even a NY Times article and a Science Careers article about it.) And for as much as we talk about grad school making us depressed, we don’t seek help often enough, nor do we encourage others to do so.

So this is a short post to remind you that if the days seem really dark, reach out to someone. Rutgers provides counseling services to all students, and don’t be afraid or ashamed to take advantage of them. In fact, Rutgers Counseling, ADAP and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) has a special program just for graduate students, because they know that we face unique challenges.

Even if you don’t think that you have a serious mental health issue, sometimes it’s just nice to have someone listen. And I promise that it doesn’t mean that you’re less brilliant or capable than your peers.

Hopefully as summer draws closer, we will see many more bright days.

Surviving Grad School: Some Advice

As my graduate student career slowly, slowly comes to an end, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons and skills that I’ve learned along the way. As graduate students, sometimes (actually, most of the time) our graduate work consumes us, and we can lose sight of all the other things that happen around us. Here are a few key things that I’ve learned and that have kept me sane throughout this experience:

  1. Community: the very nature of grad school is isolating. You’re working on a novel project, which few people outside your lab or department understand. You see the same five (or ten, or whatever) people every day. Your loved ones don’t really understand what you do, or why (they might think that you’re just an overgrown college student). So it’s very, very important to build a small community of people to walk with you through this experience. Friends who will drag you out of the lab to have lunch before you forget to eat. Colleagues who will remind you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Mentors who will encourage you to press on when you’ve convinced yourself that you can’t do it.
  2. Diversify: have a side project that you work on in the lab. Learn a new skill like coding or data visualization. Teach and get one of the TA Project teaching certificates as well. Start a blog (or write for this one! =D). Take something out of this graduate school experience which isn’t just your dissertation project. It will keep you busy when you’re waiting for cells to grow, or to get comments back on your writing. It will give you something to make your resume/CV stand out when you’re looking for jobs or postdocs. It will introduce you to new people or things. It will give you a place to channel your pent-up frustrations.
  3. Step away: Yes. Step. away. from. the. bench. Or laptop. Or desk. Remind yourself of the world outside the ivory tower. Hang out with people with whom you talk about things other than your work. Take a walk and enjoy nature. But just do something, sometimes, to help you clear your head.

What are some other bits of advice you have for surviving graduate school?

Time Management and Lists

Last week, Brandon wrote an awesome post about his five priorities as a graduate student. You can read it here. Time management is always such a huge issue for us as graduate students, since we’re often pulled in so many different directions. We are students with classes, but we’re also scholars with research projects, instructors with classes to teach, and so much more. That’s why staying organized is one of the keys to staying sane in graduate school.

Brandon’s prioritized list made me think of the tools that I use for time management as a graduate student, one of which is list-making. Here are some ways that I use lists to get/stay organized:

1. Making a list of all the things to be done:
This is the most obvious use of a list, and what makes lists great. Most days as a graduate student, I have a lot of things to get done, which fall into a variety of categories: experiments, lab maintenance, administrative, teaching, personal, etc. On those really, really busy days, having a list of the things that I need to get done is great because it really helps me with task-switching. Generally, if I don’t have it written down, at least one task will slip through the cracks, such as not remembering that I have to stop by X’s office until 6:15pm when X is already long gone.

2. Using lists as incentives:
I use this particularly on writing days (days when I’m not in the lab, but instead I’m working on my dissertation) and usually with a friend. What we’d do is make a list of five things we’d like to accomplish while working in the library. Once we’ve both finished two or three things on our lists, we take a cookie break. This type of list is good for setting clear goals, and also nice for rewarding yourself for reaching them. Another example is my little brother: each day he makes a list of three things he would like to accomplish. He doesn’t consider the day to be over until he’s accomplished those three things, which gives him incentive to get them done early.

3. Using productivity apps:
In case you couldn’t tell from the title and first few sentences, I’m a fan of list-making. So much of a fan that I have two specific list-making apps that I use daily (in addition to having a planner and Google Keep). The two apps that I use are Any.do and Todoist. [If you’re a fan of making pen-and-paper lists so that you have the satisfaction of crossing things out, the swipe-to-cross-out feature of both of these apps is almost as satisfying, I promise.] Both apps also come in a free version and a paid premium version. In true grad student fashion, I’ve only used the free versions of both of them. Here are my thoughts on each of them:

Any.do: I really like this app because it’s very intuitive and easy to use. You can set list items for specific dates with or without reminders or for a generic “someday”. The app and website both make it easy to drag and drop an item to another day, and you can view your list items either by time view (in order by due date) or by folder view (in order by category). In Any.do you can also add sub-tasks and notes to a to-do list item, and it has a collaboration feature as well (which I’ve never used). One of my favorite features of the Android app is that your to-do list always appears in your pull-down notifications list (but not as an actual notification in the bar at the top, so it doesn’t get annoying). This way whenever I check my notifications I see the things that still need to be done on my list.

Todoist: One of the best things about this app is the Gmail integration feature. This allows me to add emails to my to-do list directly from my email window in my browser. Then when I click the item in my to-do list, it will open the email. I’ve found this to be very convenient when there’s an email that requires action that I can’t address as soon as I’ve read it, but I need to respond to relatively soon. Other features include list categories called projects, prioritization of list items with different-colored flags, recurring list items, project sharing with friends or peers, and sub-tasks. Todoist makes it especially easy to add recurring items to your to-do list, as it is designed to recognize certain phrases as cues to create a recurring item (e.g. “Bowling every Tuesday” will create a list item called “Bowling” every Tuesday until the end of time).


What about you? How do you stay organized? Do you have preferred apps that you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a second year STEM graduate student, and she turns to me and asks, “This may be a stupid question, but why do we go to conferences?”

It made me pause to think for a moment. As graduate students, we get a lot of advice on making the most of conferences, and how to present at conferences, but it’s always assumed that we understand why we go to conferences in the first place. Clearly, for young grad students, this is not always the case, so I decided to make a short list of my top reasons for attending conferences (in no particular order).

1. To meet people
A big reason for going to conferences is to meet and meet up with people. Conferences bring together people from all different geographical areas who share a common discipline or field, and are a great way to meet new people in your field. At a conference you will be able to get together with people from a wide range of backgrounds or from a number of institutions, whom you may not encounter at your home institution. As you build your professional network, conferences also become a good place for meeting up with people in your field that you haven’t seen in a while.

2. For people to meet you
It may not seem like a notable thing, but conferences are also a good way for people to meet you. Yes, you, the lowly second year grad student, presenting for the first time. You may meet someone at a meal, or they may stop by your poster, and within a few minutes, you can make a connection with someone that you might not even have met if you hadn’t attended the conference. This is especially important when you are looking for collaborators, or jobs and postdocs, or, in some fields you may even be looking for committee members. Or perhaps you are just trying to build your professional network. Conferences are another way to get your name and your work out there as you begin to establish yourself in your field of study.

3. To present your work to others
This is one of the more obvious reasons for attending conferences: to present your work! It’s good practice in talking about what you do with a variety of people from similar, related and/or completely different areas of study. Presenting will make you more confident about the work that you do, and gives you new perspective about your work as people may ask questions that make you think about your project differently. At a conference you have the opportunity to get feedback on your work from people who have never seen it before and may provide new insight, as well as from people other than your graduate adviser who are experts in your field.

4. To learn new things in your field
As you view different posters or attend different talks, you hear a lot about things in your field that may be new to you. These could be new techniques, new types of equipment, data that is yet unpublished, or investigators that you may not have heard of. Conferences allow you to get a good sense of what’s going on in your discipline that you might not be aware of living in your neck of the woods. You get to hear about the research of some of the biggest names in your field and of some of the newest faces in it. In addition, conferences give you the opportunity to talk to these people one-on-one about what they are working on, and they may even give you advice on how to develop your project. You have the opportunity to ask presenters questions about their work and the rationale behind it, which you can’t do when reading journal articles!

5. To learn new things outside of your field
This is a two-fold benefit of going to conferences, since not only may you learn things outside your field about other areas of research in your discipline, but conferences also have many sessions for professional development and career advice, particularly at large national conferences. Chances are, when you go to a conference the attendees are united by a single broad topic, such as immunology, but they have many different sub-fields of study, and many projects will be multidisciplinary. Thus you have the opportunity to learn about a different area of your field as a way to develop your dissertation project, for your own personal pursuit of knowledge, or if you are looking to change your research focus. Moreover, conferences (especially the big ones!) have many professional development workshops and seminars for graduate students, where you hear from career professionals about skills such as networking, creating a CV or resume, different types of careers, and interviewing skills.


So why go to conferences? I guess a short summary reason would be: for your continued personal and professional development. Take advantage of these opportunities, even if you can only attend smaller local conferences. Meet people. Network. Learn new things. Who knows, you may even end up leaving a conference with a job offer!

What are some other reasons that you might have for attending a conference? Share them in the comments below!