May 2, 2014

The Hours We Keep

These last few weeks, I have been thinking about how much time I spend in lab and how much of it is truly productive (while I sit at my computer typing this… while at lab).  As a graduate student in my first year, I spent a lot of time in the lab, and I insisted that I would be there longer than my boss.  Further, I’d try to stay longer than anyone else – I wanted to impress people with how dedicated I was to my work.  As my graduate career progressed, I found this schedule was frustrating for many reasons.  First, I felt like I was wasting time in lab when I could have been at home doing something more productive, especially on days when I didn’t have that much to do.  Additionally, I found myself wasting time in lab doing things that weren’t either necessary or my job, such as cleaning up common areas or organizing my bench for the tenth time.  Sooner or later, I stopped with this crazy schedule and found balance.

How I avoid wasting time in lab
At the start of one’s scientific career (and at it’s midpoints, such as starting graduate school, a post doc, or a faculty position [I presume]), it’s natural to be excited and constantly working… and actually enjoying it.  As time passes, that excitement wanes.  Experiments fail, labmates annoy you, you are drinking too much coffee…  The shine wears eventually.  When the lab no longer glimmers like it once did, it’s easy to find distractions:   talking with virtually anyone, browsing the internet, playing games on your phone.  The opportunities to waste time are endless!  What’s worse is that academia (at least in all of the labs I’ve seen) is very free-flowing and less strict about staying on-task. 

Probably the biggest time-waster is Facebook. Logging in and browsing is so easy, and the temptation to watch everyone else’s lives is too easy with Facebook.  It stimulates the mind just enough to not feel like you’re wasting time… until you’ve wasted your time already.  Plus, it is kind of fun.

Of course, there are several other time-wasters:  Reddit, imgur, CNN, BBC, Netflix, Hulu, Youtube.  And the cat memes abound!  How could anyone hope to get anything done when there are videos of kittens!

For exactly these reasons, I’ve banned myself from using any of these websites on my computer at work.  If I want to view any of those sites, I need to do that at home, on my time, on my personal computer.  Mission accomplished:  no time wasted.


Not exactly.  It’s still really easy to take really long coffee breaks, to walk to the bathroom using the really long route, or to take a long phone call in the middle of the day.  The best way I’ve found to avoid these situations:  fill my schedule.  During the day, I’m not running around with an experiment:  I’m running around with five or six experiments.  Why not?  These experiments pay for my salary and (hopefully) will lead to a promising career filled with accolades and a sky-high salary. 

My method breaks down into two simple pieces:
1.      Stay busy.
2.      Ban distractions

Following these two simple guidelines takes a lot of effort.  Signing into Facebook would be incredibly easy right now.  My fingers are so close to the F key on the keyboard…  But no.  Later.  Or maybe not.  Who needs Facebook or any of those other distractions anyway?  I’ve got hobbies that I enjoy that can take up my time.

Cute kitten pictures…  Those are a little harder to avoid.

No!  No distractions!

April 29, 2014

Figuring Out the Perfect Project

I have spent the last few weeks trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, in a sense.  At my fancy new post doctoral institution, I have a couple projects going, but they don’t feel like “mine.”  I didn’t come up with the ideas to get them started, and I feel like they’re not my “babies.”  Still, no need to complain about some great work that I can do while I figure out my own project.

And that’s where I’m stuck right now.  Because I’ve switched fields (somewhat radically, albeit not that much), cracking into the literature has been tough.  Sure, I understand the basics, but every field has its nuances, and I have yet to master these.  The depth of the literature (and my lack of complete understanding) has been holding me back at figuring out where I can carve out my niche.  Thus, I have a lot of reading in front of me, and it’s rather intimidating. 

Being a rather linear person, I like when things fall into line:  I read this paper, then that paper, and then that paper.  This type of thinking doesn’t work very well when diving into the literature:  I’ve got to jump in and start reading, find some references, read some other papers, and at the end of the day, understand all of it.  I envision this as a big cloud filled with information with connections between all the points, and I prefer lines, rather than clouds.  Nonetheless, I’ve done this before, and I’ll do it again.

I can search for some topics that interest me, but I’ve found that either the experiments have been done before or I end up looking at irrelevant things (like a dog trainer looking up how to grow carrots… terrible metaphor, but you get what I’m saying).  While I think that I may have come up with some really great ideas, I’ve got to verify them, which requires a lot of reading through the literature.  This is a great situation because it introduces me to a lot of great topics, and I’m learning a lot very rapidly.  I become excited when I’m reading the literature and I find that someone has already answered the question that I wanted to study… for a couple different reasons.  First, that sucks because I wanted to do it.  Second, it’s great because I’m thinking along the right lines for asking the pertinent questions in my field.  Regardless, I’m learning a lot of new things.

In reality, the main thing that I’m looking for is that “wow” factor – that sexy project.  Something unexpected and exciting sounds perfect (as I’m sure it does to everyone), and I’d like to do something that stimulates my creativity.  Naturally, everyone is going for those tantalizing topics – reading the literature, one can see that there are certain molecules or processes that are in vogue.  Finding that next big topic would be even better.  After all, I would like to establish a career based on this mystery topic.

Here’s to hoping that my ideas fly and don’t fall flat on the ground.  Even though the latter is more likely, scientists can’t help but try.

April 25, 2014

Changing Institutions

While I always knew that I would have to eventually move on from graduate school, I never really considered how many options there were, even when specifically aiming toward an academic career.  The vast number of disciplines and the number of people working on truly fascinating questions is astonishing.  At the same time, finding that perfect match is difficult.

Being in a long-term, committed relationship with a geographically-restrained partner made me think that I was going to be left to find a post doctoral fellowship near my graduate school, which left me with very few options.  Having weighed those options, applied to those jobs, and realized that they weren’t the right fit, I found myself in a very difficult situation:  stay “local” with the okay job with the terrible pay or go far, far away for the pretty cool job with equally terrible pay but much better career prospects.

I chose the far-away land, where I basically had to pack up a subset of my life, leaving the vast majority back at home, where my partner remains.  I’ve made a short-term commitment, and I plan on adhering to my (rather self-imposed) deadlines for finishing.  At the end, I hope that my job prospects upon returning are absolutely amazing.

Adjusting to life in far-away land has been one of the most draining experiences in my life.  It’s not that it’s different:  it’s that everything is different.  I chose to switch fields entirely, which was jarring: all of the lingo, methods, people were new.  While that’s exciting, the vanity wears after a week, when one realizes that this situation is very real.  The city has been difficult as well.  Moving has never been my forte, and I tend to be very insecure when alone.  Needless to say, I haven’t adjusted very well.  All-in-all, I’ve found myself making constant tiny mistakes that really play with my emotions.  I feel like I can’t do anything right and that I’m failing not only at working in a new lab, but also with life in general.  This experience has had a very steep learning curve.

When I left my graduate school to become a post doc at a prestigious school, many people said that it would be straight-forward:  you do this and this and this and this, and then bam – employment opportunities abound! It’s just not quite that simple.  I tried to prepare myself for this scenario, but I still get down on myself. 

At the same time, I still feel that I made the right decision.  Moving away to a prestigious school and really pursuing work that I enjoy is something that I need in order to feel good about myself.  My work is strongly attached to my well-being, so I needed to do something big.  I’m hoping that this grand experience does turn out well in the end, but it has been a rough road so far.  Plus, I imagine that I will be even more stressed if (when?) I am able to secure an academic position (if they still exist in a few years).

I’ll keep working on figuring everything out. 

February 7, 2014

The Future? What Future?

Since I neglect to update this blog on any type of regular interval, I'm going to try to summarize:

I graduated!  Yes!

I have a post doctoral position lined up!  Yes!

It's in a different country!  Yes?

Let's start with the first thing:  defending my thesis and graduating.  Everyone had told me that it was a "formality" and "easy" to defend the thesis and go through the committee meeting afterward.  At my institution, we have four faculty members on a committee, who are joined by a fifth from another institution.  They read through the thesis, make comments, and ask questions of you for a few hours after you have presented on your research to the department.  The after-presentation meeting is where things were not so much fun, namely my committee asked questions that I have absolutely no idea how to answer.  I'm not sure if that's how it was supposed to be, but it was very painful.  First question out of the gate was about a protein that I remember marginally, so I had to really think on my feet and try to come up with something.  Eventually the conversation drifted toward metabolism, which I abhor and have not thought about for four years.  Needless to say, I was exhausted afterward.

Something that surprised me was how little satisfaction I received from finishing my defense.  At the end, everyone politely says congratulations and then life moves one.  Meanwhile, I was thinking in my head, "HOLY CRAP I'M DONE."  In reality, it doesn't mean much.  Sure, my parents were excited, but to everyone in the lab and the department, it was more "meh."  Just another PhD, I guess.  That's rather depressing.

My thesis edits aren't terrible, and I was quite surprised at how my committee really had few corrections.  As I was going through all of the pages (so much paper wasted!), I realized that I didn't have that much to do.  I went into this process knowing that I would have to make changes, so I expected some things, such as expanding the discussion and clarifying a few issues.  Nonetheless, I expected that they would tear the document apart.  Not the case, thankfully!

Which brings me to the topic of my next post...  how to write a thesis without going crazy.  I'll save it for next week, assuming that I remember to actually update this blog.