Wake up Call for Workaholics (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

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. Continue reading “Wake up Call for Workaholics (Throwback Thursday)”

The Hidden Virtues of Wasting Time (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

For the benefit of the incoming graduate students, my department in college used to take surveys of everyone about what they would do if they were starting graduate school over again.  (They called this “Starting Over,” and it was such a fantastic idea that I shamelessly ripped off the idea when I came here.  Here are our results.)  As interesting as all the comments were, I was always most fascinated by the clear difference between the current student responses and the faculty responses.  The current students tended to dispense wisdom about academics, research, and the minutiae of navigating a Ph.D.  A lot of “study hard for your quals” and “start writing your dissertation early.”  The faculty, though, rarely mentioned such details.  Rather, they focused on…..well, how to stay human.  They tended to submit entreaties to go outside and exercise, to make time for family and friends, to stay healthy, and so on.  Not exactly what we’d expect from a profession that is notorious for its workaholism (which also seems to have led to a serious case of caffeine addiction). Continue reading “The Hidden Virtues of Wasting Time (Throwback Thursday)”

Benefits to Being a TA (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

When I was first looking into graduate school programs, I was attempting to avoid having to teach at all costs. However life, and especially research funding, does not always work out as planned. I’ve been a TA now for several years and have to say teaching has greatly enhanced my graduate school experience. Yes, it does take a lot of time away from doing your actual thesis research, but it does develop many valuable skills. I’ve noted a few: Continue reading “Benefits to Being a TA (Throwback Thursday)”

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!

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.

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.

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

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?

Enjoy Graduate School at Rutgers

Feel excited when you know you’ve been accepted to graduate school? Or feel nervous, stressed or anxious? Just don’t let your emotions get in the way of setting yourself up to succeed once your new program starts.  Here are some small tips that might help you survive and enjoy graduate school at Rutgers.  First of all,

–Expect to be busy

You are a grad student now, the assignments you’re given will be more involved, the exams you take will need more preparation, and most importantly you’ll be spending much more of your time on academic work, whether it’s on research, thesis paper, or keeping on top of your studying. You need to take responsibility especially if you’re working in a group on a large project.

–Select the work you’re really passionate about

I can’t imagine you can devote hours on end working on something you can’t stand. The truth is that you’ll grow tired of it and simply won’t put forth the endless effort that it takes to get through days and nights of studying.  The bottom line is pick something you absolutely live and breathe so that you can keep moving towards your goal.

–Don’t forget you have an advisor

I’m not sure what the situation is in other departments, but in our computer science department, each graduate student will be assigned an academic advisor and later a research advisor. Your advisor is there to help with any questions you may have regarding programs, research, faculty issues, etc. It’s advisable to set up a regular meeting with your advisor to check in and see how things are progressing for you.

–Be tolerant of your mistakes

You are a graduate student, you are learning, and it’s normal to make mistakes. Seriously, don’t be so hard on yourself. What you’re doing is admirable and difficult. The world isn’t going to come to an end because you make a mistake, the earth won’t stop rotating because your research experiments haven’t gotten inspiring results yet as you expected.

–Take time to experience life

Through your courses and busy research work, remember to take time to experience life as well. You’re a grad student and you’re also young, life is versatile, it’s not only study and work, you deserve more.  Rutgers has a fantastic location, I won’t talk more about it here, there are many great posts in this blog, I’m sure you’ll find them and know where to go to have fun in the area. And last but not least,

–Love your school

Yes, love Rutgers, love where you’re living and the school where you’re studying. You know, not everyone is as lucky as you to be accepted in. Maybe it’s not ranked number one in your field, but somehow I believe in destiny, what you get is actually what is most suitable for you. The miracle is, when you realize that, you feel happy every day, you feel proud of Rutgers, you feel lucky to be a grad student at Rutgers, and you’ll be full of confidence to overcome any difficulties that may happen during the journey.

Love your school, and enjoy your graduate life at Rutgers.

A Grad School Sense of Humor

As I approach the halfway mark of my fourth PhD year, one of my favorite ways to keep moving forward is by maintaining a sense of humor. To summarize a great article on gradhacker.org, a sense of humor can help with grad school success because: 1) you will experience failures before you achieve any success, 2) you will inevitably embarrass yourself from time to time, 3) you aren’t going to finish everything you set out to do, 4) stress happens, and you need to let go of it, and 5) dealing with frustrating people and situations is sometimes unavoidable. My favorite laugh a day type website is http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/. Check out the archives for Dec 29th 2014 for an accurate description of how my fourth year is going. Let me know if you have any favorite daily sites you visit for a good laugh!

Survive Grad School Essay Project Launches

From the project newsletter via Dean Harvey Waterman:  “The Survive Grad School Essay Project launched a year ago.The project collects essays that show how authors’ experiences prior to, or outside of, grad school helped them to develop the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that lead to their success in grad school. Each essay, in some way, completes the sentence: “All I needed to survive (and succeed) in grad school, I learned ….”

Eleven essays are published on the project website, and more are in development. Our authors come from many disciplines: geophysics, English, meterology, neuroscience, education. They attended schools across North America. Some are still students; some have finished their degrees. All have stories to tell. And their stories offer surprising lessons and sound advice.”…

October Blues

The beginning of every academic year of my graduate school experience always comes with much excitement. Whether it’s taking or teaching a new class, or maybe just as simple as having new found motivation after a short summer vacation, September always flies by. But each year, I often find myself in a rut in mid-October. In September, I have my “honeymoon” phase with my semester, finding ways to adapt my schedule as best as I can, enjoying jumping back into the swing of things and meeting new students. But by October, I’ve realized that the one day of the week that is the most mentally draining (Thursdays for me) or the day with the busiest lab schedule (Mondays due to shared time on an instrument), feel like more of an obstacle than a responsibility.

And, being a graduate student never helps manage these feelings.  We are so reliant on others (the A- and C-words) to help us achieve our ultimate goal, which I think is often misunderstood by graduate students. It’s not to get a degree or find a job.  The goal of graduate school is to develop, intellectually and professionally. I’ve actually always looked at our low salaries as TAs and GAs as an invisible tax we pay to help avoid or get away from the “real world” after college. That our time here, despite us not seeing it during our day-to-day grind, helps us grow into the potential leaders and executives we will be once we leave.

And, when you think about it, it makes sense that way.  Time in graduate school is strictly achievement based; law school and medical school are 3 and 4 years respectively, but graduate school can take much longer. When I think about how I process information from a lecture or guest speaker, or how I explain information to a confused undergraduate compared to how I did when I first started my time here at Rutgers, I’m astonished.

So this October, take some time to reflect on YOU. Not qualifying exams, tests, experiments, or manuscripts, but how have you grown from last October to now. You may not see tangible results, but I bet you’ll be able to feel them.

Half Price Movie Tickets!

Many of us love to go to the movies, but it can be tough on the tight grad student budget we are forced to live on. That’s why I want to make sure you all are aware of Rutgers Cinema. It is a state-of-the-art facility featuring three cinema screens each with digital projectors, stadium seating and surround sound.  The best part is, with any Rutgers ID, the price after fees is only $6.50 per ticket! The same movie would cost $12.75 at a nearby theater. At the same time, a non-Rutgers customer can purchase a ticket at the Rutgers Theater for only $8.50, which is still a substantial savings. The only thing you are sacrificing is movie selection but they usually try to feature the highest demanded movies.

This week’s lineup features:

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy
  2. The Maze Runner
  3. Tusk
  4. The Drop

For more information and to buy tickets, you can visit their website: http://www.rutgerscinema.com/

End of Semester Events

As another semester comes to a close there are a few activities being offered to help us relax and recharge both mentally and physically.

– This Thursday May 8th the GSA is holding an end of semester social from 8pm to 12am in the graduate student lounge. This is a chance to come out and meet people from different departments and have some fun. The GSA has obtained an alcohol wavier for the event so bring your ids and your own beer, wine coolers, or cider. RSVP on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/807834569246342/?ref=22

– Rutgers Recreation is also offering free fitness classes for the month of May to let you work off some steam. For those of you who have a flex pass you should be familiar with Bodypump, CXWORX, Spinning, RU Fit, GRIT, BodyAttack, Zumba, Fitness Yoga, and Willpower and Grace. Those of you have not tried the classes in the past use these weeks to try them out. The schedule of classes can be found at https://www1.recreation.rutgers.edu/Events/eventView.asp?EventID=292&CategoryID=3

Get out and enjoy these and the many other activities that are going on, I hope to see you there.