First-year Fears (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.

The transition to graduate school is an exciting time in the life of a first-year graduate student, but it can also be a terrifying experience.  As a first-year graduate student, I will admit that the first couple of weeks of my graduate career were extremely overwhelming.  I found myself in an unfamiliar city surrounded by students who seemed to be more comfortable in this environment than I would ever be.  Many students already held advanced degrees, while I was making the transition straight from undergraduate.  Doubts arose and I asked myself the most daunting question that a graduate student can pose: “Do I really belong here?” Amidst the panic and feelings of discouragement, I hadn’t noticed that I had fallen victim to a prevalent phenomenon known as the “Impostor Syndrome.” Continue reading “First-year Fears (Throwback Thursday)”

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.

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!

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?

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…

Revisiting Your Resolution

With the (short) extra time off this week due to snow, I’ve used some of the time to reflect upon the month that was January 2015.  I’m actually not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I think an arbitrary end point shouldn’t affect your ability to make changes about yourself if you really want to make them happen. Positive changes can happen in any month of the year, why wait till January? I find it amusing when people make broad resolutions like “Eat healthier” or “Exercise more”, as they purposely make them non-specific enough to allow themselves to slack off or forget about them by mid-February. An annual custom I’ve come to enjoy is the extremely crowded cardio equipment section at the gym that seemingly becomes empty usually 4-6 weeks into the semester when exams and papers start piling up.

While my resolution sounds clichéd and broad (become a better organizer), I’ve focused on specific smaller ways and used the start of a new semester as a rationale for bucking my resolution trend.

My organization goal actually relates to both of my roles as a graduate student, in both my teaching and research.  My desks both at home and in my office are a complete mess. At home, I often find it difficult to find space for my laptop at night. I mean, I need to have space for the important stuff like my Staples’ Easy button, right? My desk at my office is not much better, scattered with books, journal articles, and that Science section from the New York Times dated October 14, 2014 that I’m definitely going to read this week. I’ve found this disorganization to flow into 2 key places that affect my daily life: my flash drive and my messenger bag.

My flash drive used to look like a 6 year’s old toy chest, scattered with random files of data in raw and Excel formats and folders that say “New Stuff” and “Original Stuff” and it makes me wonder if I’m ready for life after graduate school when I label multiple folders “Stuff”. So, I’ve used this as a jumping off point to organize my flash drive as well as other sections of my computer into labeled folders, placing as much information into folder and file names as possible including semester, year, and full journal article titles. It’s really helped during the writing stage to be able to find that specific experiment or journal article that I used to take me 20 minutes.

The second aspect of my resolution focuses on my messenger bag which contains all my supplies for teaching this semester. Rosters, attendance sheets, graded assignments, and non-graded assignments that I need to collect from students that my bosses want for reasons I’ll never understand. All piled and squished into separate folders but some sections having much thicker folders than others despite having the same amount of students, which after inspection usually is my agenda and teaching supplies from 2012.

Well, not THIS semester. At least that’s the plan. Only 2 weeks in, I think I’m on the right track. What was your resolution and can you make it 11 more months?

Most importantly, prediction that’s relevant for this weekend: Seahawks 28, Patriots 27.

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!