Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Who doesn't have PhD Depression?

When I was in high school, I was surrounded by people who thought learning was stupid and being interested in learning was even stupider.

I was thrilled to discover, upon my arrival at college, that I was in a new group of people. These people were excited to learn. They were disciplined and motivated. They would say things like "I'm going to the library" or "I can't, I have reading to do", without a hint of disappointment (stress maybe, but excited, happy stress) and off they'd march proudly, to do what they were born to do - excel at learning.

Going to college was like going home to me. It felt like the place I was meant to be. I was finally with people just like me, and they weren't the "nerds" or the "losers", they were (for the most part) well-adjusted, well-spoken, well-studied, semi-adults. They thrived in an academic environment where they could OCD to their hearts content, discuss interesting topics, and generally nerd-out without judgement.

I assumed that as I moved up in the academic world, I would find even more of this. But, as I discussed a few days ago, for me grad school is nothing like college.

It feels like I'm back in high school.

Everyone around me refers to their work with an shrug and and eyeroll. We complain about the talks we have to attend, or the papers we have to read. Showing some genuine enthusiasm for something other than extracurricular activities most commonly results in a snarky comment about whatever you're excited about - "Great talk!" "Yeah, except the middle 30 minutess, where I fell asleep, or the end where he mispronounced something, haha, what an idiot" - which can seriously grate on a person's enthusiasm.

I'm not saying I'm always the exception to the rule. I have my own long-standing pet peeves with academia (like why so many crappy papers get published), and I also admit to going through bouts of PhD Depression.

But what's everyone else's excuse?

Does everyone have PhD Depression?

My personal answer is yes.

Ok ok, not everyone, but I'm going to go with a majority. There's always exceptions to this rule, but as I've argued before, the attrition rates show a huge number of us are unhappy enough to leave the programs we're in, and who knows how many of us are unhappy and finish anyway - though I'm beginning to get an idea.

So is it the chicken or the egg here? How much of our unhappiness is amplified by the negative attitude of those around us?

You might be surprised to know, given my running of this blog, that a few weeks ago a fellow PhD student told me that I inspired him. After giving a presentation of my work, he said "that sounds so interesting, this is the first time I've been excited for my work" (his work will be similar to mine).

Yup me. P.D. inspiring others by the work I spend hours fretting and blogging over.

So what does this mean?

1) It means I'm a damn good presenter. I don't believe in lying, but I do believe a presentation is about selling your product. It is my job to go up there and say why this should be interesting to you, and I guess I got a convert. Pat myself on the back.

2) It means that maybe a little positivity around the office might help us all. It's not that I want to be around show-offs all day, but just some people noting how interesting a topic is...like the good ole days of college

3) It means that you should be the one to start this change, since you're reading this right now. The next time you find something interesting in a paper, share it. Share the tiny flickers of enthusiasm you get, instead of hiding it away and covering it with the oh so cool PhD student cynicism.

4) It also means I could just be a complete idiot and totally wrong. Do you notice what I'm talking about at all?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Crusin' 'round the 'sphere

Food for thought:

The funnier version of my learn to be grateful tip

The metaphorical version of my just start tip

This has nothing to do with any of my tips, but is just funny. Watch what you say on facebook!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

My Decision to Commit Academic Suicide...

On this lazy Sunday, I was catching up on some of my blog reading and stumbled across a moving piece about the type of motivation that comes from making things work because you JUST HAVE TO. I don't think that one line summary does the post justice, so just go read it to see what I mean.

Wow, did it hit home.

So now, even though I try my hardest to keep my identity private so that I don't compromise my job or cause pain to any of those around me such as my advisor (whom I totally respect) or my school (which I totally love), I'm going tell you a little about myself and the last 4 months since I started this blog.

When I decided to become a PhD student, I can't say I did it for the "right" reasons. I didn't know at the time they were the wrong reasons, but I've come to realize it. The reasons were:
  1. I was good at school
  2. I loved listening to lectures and doing homework
  3. I didn't know what else to do with my life
  4. It made my parents, friends and myself proud.
I wasn't totally enthralled by my subject. I had actually considered going for a PhD in a different subject, but see reason #4 for why I went this direction. That was probably the biggest mistake I made.

Another problem with my logic was that getting a PhD has almost nothing to do with previous school experiences, i.e. #1 and #2, in fact it's the exact opposite. It's unstructured and lacking clear direction other than the self-directed goals you set.

I don't think I need to explain why #3 is a bad reason. But if I do, then I'll just say it's because something so consuming and frustrating and poor-paying should not be entered into lightly. If I was floundering at least I could have done it in a 9-5 that paid me 6 figures, like the thousands of obviously smarter college grads who enter the real world workforce each year.

I loved the first two years of my program because it was basically a harder version of college - exactly what I was looking for. I completed my required courses all while avoiding taking on too much research (mistake number 4).

During years 2 and 3 I taught a lot. Part of this was because I was required to, part was that I found that I really enjoyed teaching and part of it was that I wasn't finding a good research topic and being busy teaching was an easy way to not acknowledge that while being useful to my department.

The bouts of PhD Depression began during year 3 when I would question "why am I here?" (grad school, not life...or maybe both). But at that point I brushed it off as something that would get better once I identified my dissertation topic.

But I was wrong.

During year 4 I finally nailed down a good topic. One that actually interested me and seemed relatively unexamined in the field. I felt good and motivated and could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

And then I saw how much digging and swimming and climbing it was going to take me to get to the end of that tunnel.

And that sent me into the lowest low of my PhD Depression.

It was in the depths of my PhD Depression that I felt so desperate that I was moved to action. First, I started this blog to find others out there like me, and then I began to plan my escape from academia.

But then a great/horrible/mysterious thing happened....I started to feel good, really good, about my PhD.

Have you ever heard that one of the warning signs of suicide is when a really depressed person just suddenly and inexplicably stops being depressed? Sometimes that's because going on medication, ironically and tragically, gives them enough of an energy boost to do the deed and since they've decided to end it now they're just enjoying the last moments of life, feeling better having made the decision. Well, that's sort of how I felt.

Having decided to commit Academic Suicide (not PhD Suicide, I still plan on finishing my degree because I'm so close, but I decided not to continue my career in academia afterwards), I began to feel really good. And this good feeling was magnified by my concerted efforts to incorporate the tips into my life.

Why is feeling good so bad?

It's bad because I began to put the plans I had been developing for my future academic-break on the back burner. The things I was preparing started to seem less important than my research.

That's the catch 22 and why the article hit so home with me. It's great that I'm getting interested in my research, and I'm going to need this momentum to finish. But it is also a symptom of something important in my personality. As long as I'm doing anything else, I won't be able to totally disconnect and focus on doing what I want to do (i.e. my own business).

So how does this story end?

When I told my parents that I have no intention to continue on to becoming a professor, they responded by saying I should just apply for positions and take them in the meantime until my business takes off. It sounds like my parents have a lot of say in my life, but the truth is that they are just the external representation of that nagging voice inside my own head. They're saying the things that I know are true - I shouldn't be irresponsible about this decision.

Of course I should get a job and health insurance, and I shouldn't burn my academic bridges...just in case. But there has been another nagging voice in my head saying...

"If you take the safe route again, this is never going to happen. You're going to get stuck there, just like you've gotten stuck in your PhD. You're going to put all of your time and energy into it, because that's what you do, and you'll never quit because you don't quit things."

And that's it I think.

I have to start drowning before I have the time, energy or focus to learn how to swim.

Is that crazy? Probably. But right now, what seems crazier is swimming only in the shallow end and then drowning anyway, but so slow that I don't even realize I'm drowning, and being too stubborn to get out because I think this is the safer water.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Weekend Wisdom

For those of us in the business of thinking, we sometimes like to spend our free time not doing that. And I can hardly argue. Not thinking has long been a pastime of mine.

A great non-thinking activity is TV watching. TV and I have a serious love/hate relationship. Every time I sit down to watch some TV, I feel like I'm wasting time. However, I also feel like wasting time is not always a bad thing, and sometimes it's a really good thing.

Some shows render that debate irrelevant. By watching them, you are not only not wasting time, you're actually gaining something. A show like "the Wire" makes you realize that you can make a TV show AND be a genius at the same time. Everything about it connects, it makes you think, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. It's incredible stuff.

This weekend, I urge you to test the durability of your eyeballs and watch every episode of the first season of "the Wire". Ask a friend to borrow his copy, put them all in your netflix queue, get them from iTunes or Amazon (see below), or see if there's a rental store that has them near you (I would really really urge you not to download them illegally, but I'm not your mom).

We spend a lot of time with a lot of smart people, but usually it exists in our very narrow research universe. Every now and then, it's refreshing to appreciate genius in something completely unrelated to what you're doing. Maybe it can even help you think differently about your work. Enjoy your TV binge this weekend!

The Wire - The Wire, Season 1

The Wire - The Complete First Season

Or if you really want to go crazy, here's a link to the ENTIRE series!

The Wire: The Complete Series

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ten Tips for Making the Most of Your PhD Time...Even When You Feel Like There's No Hope

So for the last tip list, Ten Tips for Staying Sane While Getting Your PhD, I slowly revealed each tip once or twice a week until all ten tips were out there.

At first I did this because I had no idea that I was compiling a list. I was just giving tips as they occurred to me during my own struggle to get out of a bad case of PhD Depression. But then, after some reflection, I noticed the trend in my tips (regaining sanity in a crazy PhD world) and thought I'd round them all up and top them off to make a nice clean list of 10.

This tip list is a little more premeditated. I liked how the last one turned out, so I thought I'd try my hand at another one. Last weekend I spent some time thinking about what I'm trying to do with my life/PhD/etc, and I came up with this list, about how to make the most of your PhD. I'd like to think that this advice applies to both those who are happy in their program and those struggling.

At first I thought I'd do a slow reveal, but then I realized that I don't really care about building suspense. What I do care about is fleshing out the tips when I get time. So, for now, here's a summary of all 10 tips. Over the next few weeks I'll expand on each.

10. Hone your skills - Focus on the skills you're getting the opportunity to build and really hone them.

9. Get a Roth IRA - Might as well see the upside to making minimum wage.

8. Act like a college student - Any way that comes to mind. As long as you live on a campus, you can do it like the college kids (other than dating your students).

7. Start sucking up...knowledge - Take advantage of all the know-it-alls around you and learn something exotic.

6. Publish - Obviously you have to, but think about your name being written into the history books and your butt being flown to an exotic island location to present at a conference.

5. Get paid to read! - It's easy to forget how lucky you are to get paid to read and research and learn. Take advantage of that and set aside some time each workday to read interesting things (in and out of your field).

4. Get friendly - Make contacts/friends/whatever-you-want-to-call-them to inspire you in the short term and help you get a job or provide a reference in the long term.

3. Beef up your resume - To the extent that it doesn't hurt your research, join committees, teach, take positions of leadership. No other job offers you this many opportunities to shine (and generally without strong repercussions for failing!).

2. Take notes on your advisor - Study what he does to see what got him to where he is (there must be something). What could you learn and what would you do differently? It'll help you in any position you take.

1. Don't waste your own time - If you're going to slack off, do it productively by doing something that helps you discover your true interests.

Do you have any tips of your own to share with us?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

From the Desk of the TA: The Enemy from Within (Your Pants)

My friend, T.A., contributes two posts a week to Ph.D. Dep. His series From the Desk of the T.A. runs every Wednesday and Weekend Wisdom runs every Friday.

Being a TA means meeting with lots of students, each with his or her own personal motive.

Some are purely driven, and actually want your help. I like those students. They make your job worthwhile, without overwhelming you. And after talking with them, you feel genuinely useful. Such a good feeling.

Some are less purely driven. Some want to know if they're right, when they actually KNOW that they're right. So what they really want is for you to know how right they are. Awesome. I love those people. I could write an entire column about much I loathe dealing with those questions.

And amongst the myriad of other motives lies the most difficult one: the student who wants a little more.

First, lemme just assure you that getting together with one of your students is never a good idea. Never. Not even once. The only good outcome is the minute chance that you end up together with this student forever and no one else finds out. The chance that no one finds out is about 0. If someone does find out about, you're really screwed. Dating a student is against the TA protocol of just about every school. It's the most basic of conflicts of interest. In the best case, you'll be fired as a TA. And in the worst, you may face some investigation from the academic board or whatever internal committee your university has.

I don't want to be Debbie Downer here, but it's the truth. It's a bad idea. Now here's what sucks about the whole situation. In my first semester of TA'ing, I was trying to be as helpful as possible. I would spend a lot of extra time with students, and I thought it was working really well. But then I got the distinct impression that a couple of the students were flirting with me. Luckily for me, I wasn't remotely interested.

So I got very defensive and avoided answering their questions. or tried to answer as quickly as possible and then move on. I would spend less time helping them than other students. And then they felt offended, which made them upset. That cycle continued, and it ended with one of the students making snide remarks, and the other getting into a shouting match with the other TA.

As a result, I pulled away a bit. I got less involved with the personal stories of my students, and just tried to help however I could. Sometimes it sucks when I'd really like to help someone out more, but it's impossibly hard to balance that with helping too much and invading your personal time. So do as much as you can that feels appropriate, and you're doing your best.

One last thought about this whole situation. If you really feel like a person you're TA'ing is your one and only, it's not illegal to date him or her. It's just a really bad idea and against the code of conduct for pretty much any school. Try waiting until after the semester when you're not the TA, when it becomes much less messy. If you two are still madly in love, then go for it. If not, then you saved yourself a lot of aggravation, and possibly a career in your research field.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Crusin' 'round the 'sphere

Took a little break last week from writing, but I was still doing my reading!

Here's what I found...

Guy speaks twitter in the office

Classic rapper/nerd pairings

College pranks
gone wild

Sometimes the basics of life slip the minds of PhDs - Do you have renters insurance?

Social commentary on social networks

Want to take a lighter look at your situation? How about writing a song about your research? (Thanks for the suggestion Dimitra!)

How to publish an e-book. What does that have to do with you? Sometimes our writing is so overwhelming, I think it's good advice to just do a brain dump on the first draft and then fix and add to it over a couple of drafts. What do you think?

Why are we all just coping? A plea for us all to stop coping and start living. Food for thought.

Now this is what I call living. 100 French kisses - We should all be so lucky to find a project like that.
...and even more living. I laughed for 5 minutes straight while reading this. Make sure to read the author's little comments before each punch line.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Monday Pep Talk - Your advisor should be just that

It's easy to see our advisor as our boss, and attribute all of the features of a boss to him. We may fear him and worry that he will fire us. We may avoid him because we don't want to show him our slow progress. We may "yes" him, because we don't feel allowed to say "no".

But your advisor should be just that - someone who advises you. You are his mentee and he is there to show you how to be the best researcher possible. Of course if you don't do your work then you may face repercussions, but before it ever gets to that, remember that your advisor's most important job (once he's gotten tenure) is you and the work he helps you produce. One of the top markers for his success is how his PhD students do, so it should be absolutely in his best interest to help you in every way possible.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Weekend Wisdom

Another week in the books, meaning it's time for another weekend. Nothing like a weekend for some reflection time.

I know I usually advocate a policy of negligence or relaxation for the weekend, but this weekend I feel inspired to try something different. Last week, I was right on the cusp of something on Friday, but I left the lab because that's what normal people do at 6PM on Friday, and it was already 8PM. I took the weekend off, and had a really tough time restarting on Monday.

This weekend, I'm going to spend a little bit of time reflecting on what I've been doing. I know it's a slippery slope when you start thinking about your work on the weekend, because then you start losing weekends. But every once in a while, it's OK, as long as you do it the right way.

Over this weekend, think about what you've been working on, what you'd like to be working on, and more of the big picture ideas. Don't get hung up on the details of your last paper or simulation or whatever. Try to think more about where your work is going, not what you've done already. And make sure that the direction you're headed is actually where you want to go.

I'm telling you to think about this this weekend because it's much easier to do it on the weekend. During the week (if your experience is anything like mine), you become so obsessed with solving the current problem, that you never have time to consider whether or not you should be solving this problem at all. The weekend is a perfect time for doing just this. So this Sunday morning (or Saturday if you prefer), wake up a little earlier, and spend an hour or two thinking about the big picture. If you like where you're headed, great! Go in on Monday and continue crushing your PhD. But if something seems off, you can spend some time thinking about what you can do next week to make it that much more productive.

Here's a song to play in the background on Sunday Morning. Actually, it's a whole CD. When I need to do work (and when I needed to do homework) I listened to a CD called ... Homework. It's by daft Punk, and it's from approximately 100 years ago, but I still really like it. The most known song is probably, Around the World, but in general it's a great CD to have playing in the background while you do some serious work. It doesn't intrude, but it's definitely there. Check it out:
Daft Punk - Homework

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ten Tips for Staying Sane While Getting a PhD

When starting this blog a few months ago, my goal was to alternate posts between those that document my struggle with PhD Depression and those that provide tips for surviving the PhD program.

I didn't think it was useful to focus entirely on the negative and wanted to suggest some things that were helping me pull myself out of my all time low, which caused me to start this blog back in July.

I've collected the first 10 here for anyone who's interested in getting an overview of what I said. Within each tip post are suggestions of how to go about putting the tip into practice, so click on the links if they sound interesting. As usual I'd love to hear feedback if this is useful or worthless or missing something that works for you.

Without further ado...

  1. Write down your negative thoughts - Identify what it is that is really bothering you. It doesn't have to just be a "dear diary" entry, I listed a few different ways to vent.

  2. Workout - Get those natural endorphins going and remember that a healthy mind starts with a healthy body. If you suffer from workout motivation problems and/or time limitations like I do, I provided some tips for getting yourself to the gym.

  3. Get professional help - This can be more than just seeing a counselor. I listed some services your school most likely provides to help get you through graduate school.

  4. Reignite your passion - Don't get bogged down by the things you didn't realize you were signing up for. I discussed how you need to actively incorporate the things you love about your field into the daily drudgery.

  5. Get Social - If you're like most PhD students, your social life is probably suffering for a number of reasons. I give suggestions on little ways to improve your social life for a happier, more productive you.

  6. Forget about yourself - Get out of your head for a while and think about someone else. I named my favorite ways to help yourself by helping others.

  7. Be grateful - Some times you just have to force yourself to take a new perspective. I explained the concept of keeping a gratitude journal and started you off by listing my own personal gratitude list for the day.

  8. Let go - It's one thing to get social, but it's another to do it without all of that PhD Guilt hanging down on you. I suggested ways to forget about work and really enjoy your precious free time.

  9. Set goals - This tip is so important, it took me two posts to cover it all: Things to consider when you're setting goals for yourself and a step-by-step for writing a goal list.

  10. Just start - It only gets worse if you put it off. I told you of my own struggles with this phenomenon and how to get yourself out of the procrastination rut.

Did you try any of these? What did you think?! Let me know in the survey and comments!

From the Desk of the TA: On the (Communication) Front Lines

My friend, T.A., contributes two posts a week to Ph.D. Dep. His series From the Desk of the T.A. runs every Wednesday and Weekend Wisdom runs every Friday.

This week, I'm gonna sound like your mom. And that's unfortunate, because I have a man's voice, and your mom probably didn't, so I probably won't be doing your mom any justice.
It's possible that while you were doing something crappy in your life, your mom tried to show you the bright side of things by explaining that this would be useful later in life or blah blah blah, something dumb. What do moms know?
As a TA, there are a crapton of things that you do that secretly teach you things. The problem is, sometimes you hate it so bad, or you're so busy only thinking about the crappy parts, that you fail to realize all the things you're learning. This is unfortunate. You're in a PhD program to learn things, so why stop with research?
I think the most important thing I've learned as a TA is how to communicate. And as broad as the phrase, 'how to communicate' is, that's how many things I've learned about it. So lemme just list some of the things I've learned, so you can make your mom proud:
1) Communication with non-native English speakers: Here's something you already know: the world is shrinking. It's incredibly easy to get in contact with people from just about any where. And surprisingly, they don't all speak English (who knew?). It's amazing to see all of the different countries and peoples that PhD Dep has reached on the facebook page. Spanish, Indian, US...ian (no good word for US people), British, Australian, French, German, Portugese, Polish, Italian and so on. Many. And for a lot of these people English isn't a native language. As a TA, I help a lot of students for whom English is not a native language. I am always amazed at how well the non-US students speak English. Really, I am in awe. I wish I could speak their native language with the same ability that they speak English. Alas, I cannot. So we have to use English to communicate. In fact, English is usually the language of compromise, especially in the academic world. I've learned to cut out my slang, some of my sentence fillers, and a lot of my bad English while speaking with non-native speakers. This has helped me speak English a lot better, and has helped me learn how to communicate my message without filling it up with so many useless words.
2) Communicating with native English speakers: Sometimes, my greatest communication hurdles come from those who do speak English as a native language. Just knowing the same language doesn't guarantee that the other person will understand you. It's important to communicate your point in a way that the person you're dealing with RIGHT NOW can understand you. What works for some students may not work for others. I've learned that some prefer a visual explanation, others prefer e-mail, and some prefer one-on-one discussion. It has really taught me that while conveying your message is important, the way in which you convey will be just as important. It can make the difference in so many situations.
3) Being diplomatic: I am still prone to flying off the handle a little bit. My gut reaction is usually an extreme one. In the vast majority of situations, that's not very helpful. Being a TA is one of these situations. Sure, sometimes you're super pissed that your professor is making life difficult, or that your students are making life difficult, or both. But punishing any of those parties is really not accomplishing much. I'm not saying you should stifle yourself if you're being trampled on, but I've learned some things about how to avoid a trampling. If my professor has an idea that I am certain will totally backfire, I'll propose an alternative (instead of just saying, 'no, we shouldn't do that'). If my students are crying for mutiny, I'll explain to them why that's a bad idea, and mention to the professor that maybe something should be adjusted.
It's hard to think of a more useful skill than communication. It is essential to just about everything we do. Being a communicator 101 is not a required course (at least not in my school), but if you pay attention while you're TA'ing, and you make adjustments based on your past experiences, you will become a great communicator. And that will be just as useful as any degree you might get.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tip #10 - Just start

So how ironic is this...I have had the hardest time starting this post. I'll tell you why.

A few weeks ago, after I had written a few tip posts, I realized it would be really cool if, after 10 tips, I wrote a "10 tips for staying sane while getting your PhD" post. That post would summarize each tip and link to it so that new comers and old regulars could reference all 10 tips at once.

When I did that I decided I needed to really drill down to my top 10 sanity tips. I wanted these to be 10 great tips, culminating in the ultimate 10th tip.

I thought about what this perfect 10th tip could be. I wrote out a ton of tips and picked the creme de la creme, and I was ready.

Each tip came flowing out of me. Tip 9 came flowing so hard that it became a two part megaseries.

But then pressure hit.

I had come to tip #10 and it had to be the tip that eloquently and appropriately finished my top ten tips list. And I froze.

Does any of that sound familiar? Ok, you might not be a blogger, but you're a self-directed creator just like I am.

Do you find yourself putting so much pressure on yourself that you can't even start?

This tip is as simple to write as it is hard to implement. Just start.

Start reading.

Start researching.

Start writing.

Start asking questions to anyone who will listen and/or answer.

Start figuring out where to submit your work.

Get off facebook, stop tweeting, your clothes can get washed later.

As I was putting off this post I found a really great article about procrastination. The funny thing is, before I found it, I wasn't even thinking of the word "procrastination". The reason is that I never feel these days like I'm putting things off in the same way I did in college. It doesn't feel like laziness to me - in fact it's the exact opposite. There are just too many things to do nowadays.

I'm not laying in bed eating bon bons and watching Die Hard, I'm organizing committees and putting out credit card fires (seriously, another extra fee?). I'm going to meetings and teaching and applying for grants. I'm not not doing things, so I never even realized I was procrastinating. Do you?

But what I am doing is violating the number one rule of a PhD: Put your research first.

If you're like me, no one told you this rule until you were already behind (or maybe I was the first person to tell you?). I'm not sure why your advisor, your school and everyone you meet on the street doesn't scream those words at you.

No. It's after you've given your soul to committees and your heart to teaching and you're stretched so thin that you feel like you're ready to snap that someone says offhandedly "You know, as a PhD student you have to put your research first. It's your research and no one will ever care about it as much as you do."


I didn't know I could do that. I thought it was my job to be thankful that someone has taken my pathetic butt in and is willing to pay for me. Aren't I supposed to be repaying him with every waking hour and possibly my first born?

It's not my advisor who put that idea into my head either. He's a perfectly nice person who I genuinely believe just wants me to find something I'm passionate about. No, I'm not sure where this idea came from. Maybe other students. Maybe within myself.

Either way, the day someone told me that it is in my ability to make my research my number one priority my whole view changed. I'm not saying I don't sometimes feel like I desperately need to write an email to an old friend in the middle of the day, or organize a social function for my department, but I actively say no to many of these things now.

What's most important each and every day of your PhD life is getting started on your research.

And if your problem isn't procrastination/confusion/lack of knowledge and you're screaming at the computer "I have done it all, but it's not working" - then start figuring out why.

Start pushing your advisor to help you.

Start a list of things you need to do.

Start reading books about writing a successful dissertation.

And also stop.

Stop with the pressure and unrealistic expectations. You know what's worse than something not being perfect? Making yourself miserable with guilt and pressure and producing nothing at all because of it.

So the next time you find yourself overcome with anxiety and guilt over not having done whatever you think you should have done last week - instead of taking your mind off of it with a phone call or a t.v. show or a computer game, just start.

My pick for motivational music: MJ
Michael Jackson - The Essential Michael Jackson - Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'

P.S. Thanks to the people who left me some feedback when I requested it a few days ago. The requests for more tip posts helped kicked me out of my pressure funk and forced me to just spit it out already. If you haven't left me a note telling me what you want more of, please do it now!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Monday Pep Talk - You're not expected to be an expert yet.

Even though it sometimes feels like those around you know everything there is to know on their topics, remember that you're still called student for a reason. You're not expected by anyone to be an expert yet, so stop putting that pressure on yourself.

So, shake off your fear of failure and enjoy the journey.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

What do you want from me?!

Sooo Ph-Depers, it's been a few months now and I've played with a couple of different styles of writing.

The writing I do is largely for myself and working through my own PhD Depression, but it's also for you. I've been finding that any writing on the topic is helpful to me, but I want to know what is helpful to you?

Do you like the:

...and how about the posts by T.A.?

I'd love to get your feedback about...

what you liked and didn't like

what you'd like to see more or less of

what your favorite post was

or anything else you want to tell me!

So please please go comment now and let me know!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

10 things that are worth getting out of bed for each day

I was hanging out on the PostGraduate forums yesterday and came across the request by a member to list the things that make us happy.

I thought I'd share my answers with you in the hopes that it'll inspire you to think of the 10 things that you get out of bed for. If it does, please share them back with me in the comments!

The things I wake up for in the morning are...

10) Tea! Hot, cold and even luke warm.

9) Coffee. On slow weekend mornings when you're sitting outdoors and the air is crisp.

8) Sweaty activities, especially when they involve hitting things (balls, not people).

7) Bright, blinding, beautiful sunshine.

6) Being in a new place with nothing to do but spend the day walking, talking, eating and exploring.

5) Blogging.

4) Small breaks. A ten minute walk outside in the middle of the workday can feel like 100 days at the beach.

3) Getting to know people. Everyone has at least one mind-blowing story to tell if you just ask.

2) Teaching. You're changing a person's life.

1) And, through all the episodes of phd depression, the thing that sends me back to school each and every day is that feeling I get when I've done great work that I didn't really think was possible the day before. I know then that, for today, I lived to my full potential.

An informal 11th thing that is making me happy right this second is this song. It just feels so appropriate for the post:

Tim McGraw - Tim McGraw - Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, 2 & 3 - Where the Green Grass Grows

So what gets you up in the morning?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Weekend Wisdom

This week, after an informal facebook poll, we learned what we probably already knew. Most of us pump ourselves full of one stimulant or another (or popcorn!) to keep us going throughout the day. It's sad but true. And for most of us, there's really no way around this. We are in a competitive environment, and sometimes you just need to put in those extra hours.
And sometimes sometimes is all the times.

This weekend, give yourself a break from your stimulant fix. Yes, I know, you may have a raging caffeine headache, but your body might actually appreciate it. Enjoy a whole day where you don't have to worry about keeping yourself going for that extra mile. In fact, quit with like, 5 miles left to go. Try getting 10 hours of sleep. Anything to give your body a little break from the daily pounding you put it through.

Sometimes we neglect our bodies in the pursuit of a goal. Remember, if your body breaks down, you won't be able to enjoy your success.

To give you some extra help, here are some tunes from a guy who has helped many people relax, Bob Marley. This is my personal favorite, Stir it Up
Bob Marley - Legend (Remastered) [Bonus Tracks] - Stir It Up

If that's not enough, check out the whole CD, Legend. I always thought it was the coolest thing that his CD was just called, Legend. Sums it all up.
Bob Marley - Legend (Remastered) [Bonus Tracks]

Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Crusin' 'round the 'sphere in my six-fo'

Since becoming a blogger a few months ago, I've become an avid blog reader.

To facilitate my new addiction I use google reader. If you haven't set up a reader yet, you're missing out. You can subscribe to any blog that sounds interesting (like mine!) and voila! you've created your own personalized, daily news/thoughts/inspirations/self-help readings!

Once you've set it up, it's the central location for you to get all of your blogs delivered so you don't even have to move a lazy finger to type in individual blog urls.

If you hate google (i.e. you're insane), there are readers out there by yahoo and other names I don't recognize (see my "Subscribe to -> Posts" section on the right, there's a drop down menu there with the names of those mysterious readers).

What's in my reader?

So, now that I've convinced you to get a reader, I'll point you to some good blogs to get you started down procrastination road (like you needed any help). Here's my list of the best of the best:

Problogger - As I mentioned last week, I've gotten so into blogging that I even read a blog about blogging. Darren is a great writer though and while I started reading the blog to learn about blogging, the writing is the reason I subscribed and continue to read. This is true about all of the blogs - it's funny how one person can make a topic interesting while another can make it boooooring.

Worlds Strongest Librarian
- It's hard to say exactly what Josh writes about, it's sort of just about life and wacky things that happen in his. But like I said, for me it's not about the topic as much as the writing. It's entertaining and interesting. What I do know about him is that he loves kettlebells, he has Tourrette's syndrome and he is, you guessed it, a librarian. Oh and he's only been writing his blog for a few months and already has a book-deal - that's how awesome he is.

Balance, Joy and Delicias
- I found this blog after the author linked to my blog, but become a fan because of the "food porn" as she calls it. If you like food and pictures of food or are just interested in the adventures of another PhD student's blog, check it out.

Surviving a PhD - Wistar doesn't write often, but when a new post appears in my reader it's a dry, sharp, humorous little treat.

PhD Comics - Do I really need to explain this one? If I do, you might not be a PhD student...

Articles I've found floating 'round the interwebs:

While I'm on the topic of my web reading addiction, I figured I'd add one more thing to the list - articles that I've enjoyed recently that didn't come from my reader:

Kiplinger.com's fabulous freebies in 2009 - PhD students generally love (or desperately need to - depending how you look at it) finding ways to get things free. This article isn't the useless "sign up for things and give your information to people so they can sell it and you can be bombarded with spam" advice. It's good, useful stuff, like a link to free tour guides when you travel, free music services that are legal, and free money for grad school. Good stuff.

20 Pictures of Nerdy Cupcakes
- Ok it's only half true that this isn't in my reader. After finding this just now I subscribed to the Comedy.com geek culture feed! I'm such a blog junkie...

So, now I've told you mine....what are your favorite blogs and articles on the internets?

By the way, did you get the song reference in my title? If not, go check it out on:

Eazy-e - The Best of N.W.A. - The Strength of Street Knowledge - Boyz-N-the-Hood



Warning, if you don't like explicit language or old skool gansta rap, don't click those links! But if you love the 80's and are "bored as hell and want to get ill", you're gonna love it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From the Desk of the T.A. - A Dangerous Battery (of Excuses)

My friend, T.A., contributes two posts a week to Ph.D. Dep. His series From the Desk of the T.A. runs every Wednesday and Weekend Wisdom runs every Friday.

As a TA, I'm used to hearing some fantastically hilarious excuses. And while the excuse, 'The dog ate my homework,' has never been used, sometimes I wish it was.

Unfortunately, college students are much smarter, and more creative, than that. They know the following things:
1) I might not deal with them much beyond this class, so they can use some over-the-top excuses that may or may not be true
2) If they say something terrible happened, and I challenge it and am wrong, I will look like a total asshole

For instance, if a student comes up to you and says that his grandmother died, and as such, he can't turn in his homework, what am I supposed to do? (By the way, 'My grandmother died' is probably the new, 'My dog ate my homework').

And seriously, what sort of world is it where when someone approaches me and says his grandmother died, the first thing I think about is, 'how many times has your grandmother died when an assignment was due?'

Here are some excuses I've heard:

1) I have been sick and could use a couple extra days
2) I have been really sick and could use a couple extra months
3) I am dead, but pending resurrection, I think I'll need a few weeks
4) I've been really busy at work
5) I've had a bunch of job interviews this week
6) My house was robbed
7) Computer crashed
8) My computer crashed in a particularly exciting or unique way, which is different from ordinary crashes
9) My computer crashed after my house was robbed (my house was unguarded while I attended my grandmother's funeral)
10) We have, like, 4 other homeworks also due on that day
11) Also there are like, 2 tests on that day
12) I had a kid
13) You misspelled something on the assignment description, which took you 3.1 hours to fix, so I would like a 3.1 hour extension

You can see how those excuses vary from ridiculous to plausible, and my reactions vary from uncaring to sympathetic. So here's my take on excuses. I like to accept the first excuse, no questions asked (unless I know from someone else that this person is a serial excuser). This is because I'm not entirely jaded, and I'm open to the possibility that sometimes things happen.

What's really important to consider is what gets done after the excused period. Let's say I give a student a couple days because of an illness or something. I won't grade that student more or less harshly, but I will look at the quality of the work. If someone really takes advantage of the extra time and turns in a great assignment, I don't really care whether the excuse was legit or not. The point of the assignment was to learn something, and this demonstrates that you clearly did that, even if it took a little longer. On the other hand, if, after an excuse, I receive a crappy homework, I will tend to be much more skeptical in the future.

Here is a quick example. I gave one student several extensions during a semester, mostly for what seemed like flimsy excuses. First I think he was busy, then he was sick, then his house was broken into (in the third case, he actually offered to bring me a police report). I did not hesitate to give him an extension on any of them, because each time he delivered really excellent work. He needed an extension for the final homework (due to the robbery), but his submission was one of the best, if not the best, and it was clearly his because he sat down and discussed it with me for about an hour.

The absolute most important thing to remember about excuses, is the actual excuse itself though. Some years from now, you will forget the agony of grading, or the aggravating questions you get during office hours. But what you will definitely remember is when a student requests that you grade his work three years late because he had a kid a few months ago. Priceless.



(Image from www.healthyhype.com )

Hey PhDep-ers (pronounced P-H-Deeper in my head)

I was definitely not expecting to sign into facebook today and see my innocent question about coffee blowing up with comments. To recap, I said:

Energy drink, coffee, tea, or stimulant free? What keeps you going? I think I gotta drop the coffee.

My favorite responses were:
  • the one I quoted in the title from Marina who was apparently so excited/wired she could do nothing by scream "coffeeeeeeeeeeeeeee"

  • and also Charlie's more premeditated "During my summer internship I weaned myself off of coffee so it'd have effect again in the fall (smart me! :P)" haha, that's a whole new level of addiction.
So I thought I'd write you all a totally random post about coffee...

Did you ever see this Saturday Live clip with Chris Farley? It's one of my favorites.
(click the small play button in the lower left corner if you want to keep viewing it in this window)

Has anyone else noticed that the Starbucks baristas are insanely happy to be serving you? I can't stand the coffee, but I go there anyway because they make ordering a cup of coffee interesting. Maybe that's this guy's excuse too. But seriously, what was Starbucks thinking raising prices last month? (actually the article has a theory)

I just discovered there is an entire blog devoted to coffee! And then I found that there are many...like this one devoted entirely to Starbucks (and she doesn't work there) and "the world's leading coffee buying guide"

I used to drink these coffee singles when I was in high school. I don't know why they were in my parents' cupboards, I've never seen another person use them (if you can't tell from the pic, they're tea bags with coffee in them), and I've never bought them myself. Are my parents the sole supporters of them?

This article tells us that coffee is ok up to 3 cups a day if you don't feel the negative effects.

I haven't tried every coffee, but I have to say that I think Cafe con Leches in Spain are a head above the rest that I've tried. If you're a coffee lover, you have to go there. If you can't get there, these little machines + the intended capsules make the second best coffee I've ever had. My next coffee goal is to try Turkish coffee in Turkey.

I'll end with the follow up question: Why is it that when you drink a cup of coffee it disappears so quickly, but when you knock a cup of coffee over it is never ending?

And this image of my idea of a perfect morning

(image from tripadvisor.com)

Listening to: The coffee song


Does anyone out there like tea? Because I have a whole post on that ready in my head...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Annie Le

For today let's stop feeling sorry for ourselves and send our thoughts out to the friends and family of one of our own.

Here's some follow up to the story.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Monday Pep Talk - Amazing

I was crusing around the blog-o-sphere the other day and I found the Brain Dump II and this quote: "When I'm working by myself and I get stuck, the best way to get unstuck is to pretend I'm in some Star Trek scenario. Like, I'm trapped on an enemy moon and everyone else is obliviously partying on the Enterprise, and I have to characterize the sample before the virus kills us all. Then I can usually figure out what to try next."

If that doesn't inspire you to lighten up and take a different perspective on your work, I don't know what will.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Weekend Wisdom 9/11/09

This is an interesting weekend for me, and for many of my fellow US citizens. It begins on Friday with a memory of something that brought us all together for a moment, only to split the nation in half just a few years later. It's been a strange 8 years for those of us who grew up through it (and I assume that most of you in a PhD program right now grew up through it). Even though some of the memories are distant, we have some constant reminders that our world is forever changed.

At the same time, it's the opening weekend of the National Football League, the most popular and most watched sport in the United States. People will build entire Sunday schedules (me included) around it. Some will spend many many hours scouting players for their fantasy football team. And after our favorite team plays (or before) we'll watch a game that doesn't really mean anything to us just because it's football and it feels like the thing to do. All of this for a game.

For the PhD depressed (and anyone for that matter) take some time this weekend to visit both ends of the spectrum. Call Mom or Dad or a brother or sister, or someone else important to you. These are the people who can really help you if you're feeling down, and maybe hearing from you can pick them up. And after you're done that, watch some football, even if you don't like it. Here's a reason for those who like and those who don't like:
  • If you like football, you don't need a reason. Celebrate football.
  • If you don't like football, watch a game and revel in how dumb it is. Make a list of how dumb it is. Call one of your friends who likes football and explain to them how dumb it is. Etc.

In either case, you'll feel better afterwards, and maybe you'll have a fresh perspective for your Phd work on Monday. And if you don't have a chance this weekend, there's always Monday Night Football!

Also thought I might add some music to the weekend wisdom posts, and what better music for this weekend than the classic music of NFL Films. Whatever you might think about the NFL or football or sports, you really need to check out these songs. It's a compilation CD of songs made for NFL Films. My favorite is The Lineman (Sam Spence - Selections from Autumn Thunder: 40 Years of NFL Films Music - The Lineman,Amazon ), but they're all great. Here's a link to the whole album, called Selections from Autumn Thunder: 40 Years of NFL Films Music:

Sam Spence - Selections from Autumn Thunder: 40 Years of NFL Films Music


Thursday, September 10, 2009

How slouching could be causing your PhD Depression

We're all PhD students here, so it's only natural that this blog cites journal publications sometimes....but I'll try not to make a habit of it!

It's a pretty well known finding that smiling can cause you to feel happier. I even mentioned it briefly in a tip a few weeks back. But what I had never heard before - though it makes total sense now that I've heard it - is that slouching may induce symptoms of depression.

I guess this is a concept that I was mildly aware of. Anyone who took intro Psych knows that William James thought your bodily functions caused your mood. But the way I heard it explained before always sounded so absurd- of course I'm not frightened just because I'm quivering.

But after I read the results of the study it made more sense. So I'll try to summarize it...to all the Psych PhDs out there, feel free to correct me if I interpret anything wrong.

The Study

Much like the study about facial arrangements eliciting emotions, this study tried to secretly get people into one of two positions: slouching or sitting up straight. Participants are put into these positions for 3 minutes, while experimenters pretend to take measurements of muscle activity (they aren't supposed to know the true purpose of their posture). Afterwards, participants are given a note saying they did well in their muscle test, are asked to take a mood assessment test, and finally must solve 4 puzzles: the first 2 are unsolvable and the second 2 solvable.

The results show that the "slouch" group had significantly lower "persistence" on the puzzles, thus showing signs of "learned helplessness" and depression. There was no significant difference between the groups' answers to the mood assessment test. The authors conclusions to this is that the body posture affected the mood but only once there was additional evidence to support it - i.e. when they first finished slouching (and filled out the mood assessment test) there was no reason to "believe" what their body was telling them about being in a "depressed posture". But once they had to go do something difficult, their brain put two and two together and thought "I was slouching, and now this is hard, life sucks" versus the people who weren't slouching whose brain just said "hmm, this is hard, keep trying I guess".

So what does this mean for us?

For me, it means that constant urge I have to get up and stretch and walk around when I'm working may not just be due to boredom and back problems. Is it a cry for help from my body? "Listen dummy! Stop bending me all up into positions that make us feel sad. Can't you hear me? Sit up!"

How often during your PhD work are you slouching in front of a computer or leaning over a table working? How often do you feel your back all knotted up from hours of that same hunched position?

Could it be that the hours of hunching and slouching, deep in thought, working on difficult problems is in itself driving us to an unavoidable learned helplessness? Yes and no.

Yes, it could be that our inherent "learning" position is a main contributor to our sad state of mind, but we don't have to accept that we're doomed to suffer this fate. The same guy who coined "learned helplessness", Martin Seligman also wrote Learned Optimism, yep that same book that I told you about a few weeks ago. He argues that there are certain things that prevent some of us from falling down the trap of learned helplessness. If you want to know what he suggests, pick up any of his great books (Authentic Happiness, Learned Optimism and What You Can Change and What You Can't). But for now, I think we should all try something.

Let's all try to just sit up for a week. As the study says, the results won't be immediate, but you might start to notice a difference with time and as situations arise. By the way, try not to sit up too tensely because later in the study he demonstrates that being tense causes stress. But try this for a week and come back and report to the survey. I'll write a follow up post a week from now to report how it worked for me.

Did it help?


Riskind, J. H. and Gotay, C. C. (1982). Physical posture: Could it have regulatory or feedback effects on motivation and emotion? Motivation and Emotion, 6(3):273-298.

From the Desk of the T.A. - The enemies from within

If you're in the brotherhood of TAs (which isn't some elite fraternity that requires a blood oath, it mostly just requires that you be desperate enough to take a low-paying, high stress job, or even better yet, a no-paying high stress job), then you've probably done your fair share of complaining about your students. And why not? Students are inherently evil, and were put on this earth to make your life a living hell. Someone once suggested to me that students are actually there to learn and become productive members of society, but that seems impossible. First, it's just not possible, and second, the natural order of things is that students make life hell for TAs, and TAs sob quietly to themselves, professors see sobbing TAs and realize that they used to sob like that when given hard homeworks, and since they haven't seen any of their students crying, they should make the homework harder, which makes the students ask more questions, etc. You can almost hear Elton John.

Ah, but students aren't your only enemy as a TA. Fellow TAs can also make your life a delightful barrel of misery.

In large classes with many sections, there will be many TAs. And this gives you the opportunity to run into many different TA personality types. Here is a brief description of these people, so you can spot them ahead of time and act accordingly.

1) ÜberTA - I worked with an ÜberTA once. ÜberTAs think that the entire class will immediately implode if not for them. They often take on too much responsibility, and then maintain a pleasant air of disdain for all of the other TAs, who they feel aren't doing anything. Their way is also clearly best.
A brief anecdote about one of my favorite ÜberTAs: Every week our TA group would meet with our professor to discuss the upcoming week and how much time we spent the last week. As we weren't getting paid per hour, or at all for that matter, reviewing hours was just playing pretend: we would make up some number of hours that we worked that sounded reasonable, and the professor would say, 'That sounds reasonable'. A normal hourly tally was something like 10 hours. ÜberTA got frisky one week and thought she was really going to shock the world. So when it came to her turn she said, '37'. At first I started laughing, but then realized she was being serious (as serious as you can be when you just told someone you spent a full time work week grading homework #3). If you think you're an ÜberTA, take a break. Seriously. You are upsetting yourself and everyone around you. You can do your share, but don't go out of your way to do your share and everyone else's, and then get upset when everyone else isn't giving 400%

2) Slacker - Pretty much explains itself, and isn't nearly as hilarious as an ÜberTA. This guy won't do anything. But at least he makes no bones about it. There are no false promises from slacker, just pure apathy. Sometimes you think it's all an act, but then you check his facebook status and it says, 'So baked. Life is funny LOL,' and you know that he is a very genuine douchebag. I hate slacker, however, if you mix a slacker with an ÜberTA, you can get some pretty cool meltdowns/explosions.
I don't want to sound like the principal from Back to the Future, but if you're slacker, please play in traffic.

3) Flake - Flake is actually worse than slacker. Flake will frequently promise things, and then occasionally deliver, leading you to believe that he is a good TA. Then he will disappear. Usually this is right after he has agreed to do something important, like answer homework questions for the week. Questions will start piling up, you'll hear nothing from him, and you decide you have to step in and help out. 5 days later you'll see him again and he'll say something like, 'I had to go to an emergency barbecue at my parents' house. For 5 days. Did we have anything to do for class?' The odd part about flake is that while slacker seems to just not care, flake seems to honestly have no idea that he has done anything wrong. He just exists in his own world, occasionally stopping by to grade some homeworks, but only for a short visit.
If you think you might be a flake, that's not possible. A real flake would have started reading this article, then would have seen a bug of some sort on his window, decided he needed to figure out what kind of bug this was, and spent the next 7 hours looking through pictures of bugs on wikipedia before falling asleep. So congratulations, you're not a flake!

An important thing to remember when TA'ing is that you don't want to be one of these three people, each for different reasons. As strange as this sounds, you need to be a combination of all three. When you're in charge of something, take charge of it, but know when to back off and let other people do what they need to do. When you're not in charge of something, stay in the background until you're asked to step up. If you think you can make every aspect of the class better by running it yourself and doing it your way, here are two tips:

a) You're wrong

b) Shut up!

I know we learned this during the first day of teamwork lessons in kindergarten, but contributing to the effort is just as important as letting other people contribute.
Keep that in mind the next time you think you might be under/over contributing. And remember that with all the problems a TA has, a fellow TA shouldn't be one of them.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Slipping and sliding back into a Ph.D. Depression

So I've recently slipped slowly back into my PhD Depression. It's been a really disheartening week because I had been feeling so good about everything lately. It's hard to say exactly how it started, but it went something like this:

2 Weekends Ago: Spent all weekend doing cool things for the blog. Reading about blogging, adding friends on facebook, checking my stats to see how many people visited the site, writing content for the upcoming week and upping the number of posts to once a day...

Last Monday-Wednesday: Spent most of the workday daydreaming about the blog. Wondering if people were reading the posts and if they were enjoying them. Wondering how many people answered the survey questions. Wondering how many new facebook friends I had (I restrict myself, for the most part, from doing blog-related activities while at school).

Thursday-Friday: Fantasized about running away and becoming a writer. Started realizing that what had been a good outlet to vent and share ideas for successful PhD completion was turning into a distraction and demotivator in itself. Resented the PhD program for keeping me doing something that I didn't daydream about like the blog.

Last Weekend: Felt guilty for not doing as much as I should have during the week. Turned the computer off for the most part, needed some space from the blog. Barely enjoyed the free time, thinking about how I really needed to make up lost work time. Missed checking up on the blog.

Monday: Total PhD Depression. Felt guilty and unmotivated. Lots of thoughts of PhD suicide. Realized I had to pull myself out and get on with it. Near the end of the day took my own advice and laid out a simple daily goal list for Tuesday (which I had, ironically, not been writing this past week...which, like I said in the goal list tip, means I didn't really want to commit to any work). Started to feel like I had a plan again. Completed my small goal for the day and felt better that night.

Tuesday: Slow start. Lots of blog reading (others, not mine). Some email writing. Eyed the goal list, made the push. Gotta accept these lows will come sometimes and just push out of them...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Monday Pep Talk - You're less alone than you think

By now you know that you are not alone in your PhD Depression. You've met me, and you're starting to meet each other as readers of this blog as well as friends and followers of the PhD Depression facebook and twitter pages. But it's good to remember that it's not only this group that suffers from the constant pressure to perform.

This pressure even gets to our most revered childhood heroes, as I read about the other day.

What's important is that we acknowledge it, accept it, and deal with it head on. Among other things that you may be doing, you're doing those things by coming here and joining this community. Thank you for your support of me, of each other and of yourself.

Tip #9b - How to make good goal lists

Ok, so here's part two of the goal list tip and it's implementation time (if you haven't read part one, check it out now):

  • How to start your goal list - Focus on all of the things that you want/need/should/could/would do in any aspect of your life. Let them flow out without censor and get them down as they come to you, before you forget them. Write anything and everything now, and worry about choosing appropriate goals from the list later. You can do this in one sitting or over some period of time. Personally, I like doing it in one sitting because then I can get a train of thought going. But sometimes, when you've opened the floodgates you will find yourself suddenly inspired the next day or later that week (or maybe forever!), and you will find yourself saying "That'd be a pretty cool thing to try", if so, make sure to add it to your list.

  • How to narrow down your list - Once you have your goals down on paper (or screen), start organizing them into a thorough and detailed plan. This plan will eventually be a few large bulletpointed items, followed by smaller subgoals that are the steps to completing large item. Now is the time to condense your list to a few major goals. Pick 5 or so major goals from your brainstormed list and as many subgoals as you'd like.

  • How to organize your goal list - Keep your brainstormed list as a super long term goal, and check back on it every once in a while. There are various ways to organize your lists, but I think most lists should generally be a few large bulletpointed items plus many small subgoals. They don't always have to look like this, sometimes long term goals can just be one large goal, but shorter term goal lists should start to show the fine details and subgoals needed to get there. Projected goal completion dates are also useful and sometimes even a calendar layout can help. See my examples below.

  • What to do if you're stuck on your research goals - If you don't know what to write for your work goals, don't get overwhelmed. You're lucky to realize that now so that you can talk to your advisor before you head down a path almost certain to lead you to PhD Depression. When you talk to your advisor, you might even bring a half completed goal list and explain what you're trying to do. Tell him you'd like to flesh out whatever goals you're missing - ask things like what should your overall goal for the year be (completing a requirement, submitting to a journal, etc)? What should you complete in the next 6 months to help you get there (collect data from 10 subjects, outline your dissertation, etc)? This is a great conversation to get you guys on the same page and can prevent future misunderstandings or unmet expectations.

Here are some examples of how I organized my goal lists:

(To avoid giving out too much information about myself, I've modified
the lists slightly. If you haven't read my "about me" and my reasons
for anonymity, check them out now)

My life this year goal list:
  1. PhD goals:
    • Defend dissertation by August 2010
      -Read two papers a week, add summary of papers to current writing
      -Submit paper in December

  2. PhD Depression Blog goals: (Yay! I completed two of my goals already!)
    • Average 3 entries a week
    • Figure out survey posting
    • Reassess blog success/utility in July 1st 2010
    • ....

  3. ...etc...

My disseration work goal list (6 month list):

You could just say:
  • Make super sonic hyper tonic rocket blaster (made up thing...as far as I know)
...but that doesn't tell you anything that needs to be done or give you any estimate of how long it will take to complete...

My version would look like:

  • Examine blueprints for regular rocket blasters (1 month)
    o Find 10 blueprints (1 week)
    o Compare blueprints (3 weeks)
    -Note the main points of variation in design
    -Compile list of main points of variation

  • Explore super sonic hyper tonicness (1 month)
    o Find 10 recent articles published in good journals (1 week)
    o Develop a list of the advantages and drawbacks versus regular sonic hypo tonic (1 week)
    o Brainstorm ideas for combating the drawbacks and enhancing the advantages (2 weeks)
    -Research the best method for implementing these ideas

  • Create novel blueprint for rocket blaster (2 months)
    o Integrate each of the best variations from the 10 examined blueprints (3 weeks)
    o Add super sonic hyper tonic-ness (3 weeks)
    -Incorporate ideas for enhanced advantaged and decreased drawbacks
    o Present to advisor for approval (2 weeks)
    -Reevaluate with input from advisor

  • Build super sonic hyper tonic rocket blaster (2 months)
    o Find parts (2 weeks)
    o Weld parts (3 weeks)
    o Run small test and adjust blaster (3 weeks)
    o Layout test (1 week)
    o Run test (1 week)
    o Adjust controls based on test (1 week)

  • Write up preliminary results (1 month)
    o Analyze results of preliminary test (2 weeks)
    o Note adjustments made and future adjustments needed to improve results (1 week)
    o Add introduction and conclusion (1 week)

...so that's a way to convince yourself and your advisor that something that sounds somewhat simple (I'm assuming it does to a rocket scientist), is actually a many-part series of steps.

My daily goal list (for month 2 of the example above):

Each day, I like to aim for completing something that seems like it should take me only a couple of hours. It's the same principle of the whole goal list - plan to do something small and be proud of yourself when it's complete. Most likely you will hit a snag and it will take longer than you expected, but you will hopefully still be able to accomplish it. If everything goes smoothly, then move on to tomorrow's goal and be excited that you're ahead of schedule!

You might say:

  • Read 1 paper (which seems like a small task)

...but that makes it sound like you're doing nothing...

I would say:
  • Read 1 paper
  • List advantages and drawbacks
  • Brainstorm methods to combat the drawbacks and enhance the advantages.

You'll notice that the second goal list stresses the importance of the one small goal you're completing that day. It doesn't add much more work than you probably would have done, but highlights all of the work you will be doing. Also, if you look back at the 6-month goal sheet, you'll actually be completing in 10 days (1 day/paper) what you promised would take you much longer (about a month, there's one goal on that list you won't be completing in those 10 days). This will give you some cushion for various problems - if you're having trouble finding papers, or if you're not understanding a paper, or if something later takes extra time.

Final thoughts on goal lists...

  • Where to put your goal list - This is a more personal choice and depends on what works for you. I like to keep my 6 month list by my desk so that I can look at what I should be doing in any given week. I try to keep my daily goal list next to or sitting on my computer keyboard so that it's the first thing I look at when I start working and requires barely a head movement to see over the course of the day. I may consider keeping it by my bed so that I can look at it right when I wake up to avoid that "Oh crap, there's so much to do" panic that I get sometimes in the morning. My yearly goal list is in a google spreadsheet, so that I can look at it any time the feeling strikes. Also, I like that it is in a guarded place (i.e. password protected) so that no one else but me knows my secret hopes and dreams for the coming year. All of these are either electronic or printed on paper, but you could write them in a calendar, notebook, desk planner, personal planner, white board, black board or body paint if you think that would help.

I know all of these things sound stressful - I have a really hard time making myself accountable for things because of a fear that I won't accomplish them - but you don't have to think of this as a reason to beat yourself up. Just try it and stick to it and see if it doesn't actually remove some of the stress from your life. Knowing what needs to be done every morning when you wake up can be such a relief compared to the overwhelming feeling that you need to be doing *everything* when you wake up.

  1. Some time in the next week, dedicate a few hours to setting up your goal lists. Set up at least 3 and no more than 10 lists.

  2. Starting with your long term goals, list a do-able number of long term goals, I like the number 5, it seems to be enough to fill a year without being overwhelming. You might list a goal for each of the most important categories in your life like I did in my example above: research, teaching, social, travel, hobby, etc. When you've listed your goals, bulletpoint a few of the major steps along the way.

  3. Now move on to the 6-month goals - Break the major goal into about 6 1-2 month long sub goals and those into weekly goals.

  4. Finally, think about what you want to do each day of next week. Assign yourself work that you think should take you just a few hours. When you've completed it, check it off, praise yourself for completing your day's work and be done. Do this one once a week for a few weeks and see if you don't start getting out of your slump. Eventually, if you're really finishing off all of your work in a few hours then you can consider upping your goals, but don't push it - this is a marathon not a sprint.
As always, good luck and report back to let us all know how it's going!