Monday, August 31, 2009

Monday Pep Talk - "At least I was here..."

The next time your experiment fails, your paper is rejected or your advisor tells you that your work is disappointing, again, here's your mantra:

"At least I was here to have the opportunity to _______ . I could have been doing a lot worse things."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tip #8 - Just let go of your PhD Guilt

After I posted my tip on getting social to help break out of a PhD Depression, a reader brought to my attention that I forgot something critical: it's one thing to go out and be social, and it's another to do it without the feeling of dread and guilt that you're behind in your research and should be working.

This is such a good point, and one I often struggle with. So I've thought about how I deal with this PhD Guilt and ways that I should deal with it, and here's what I've come up with:

  • Remember the importance of your mental health - It may seem like you don't have time for a social life, but the depression of no social life will hurt your work more than the few hours outside. So if you can't get yourself to stop feeling guilty about not doing work, think of it as part of your work to make sure your brain has some rest and/or social stimulation. How can it be creative if it's use is confined to such a small task as research? Humans are the most complex question in the world. Interacting with this strange species will refresh your brain more than any overpriced cup of Starbucks (although the people working at Starbucks are, themselves, generally entertaining).

  • Establish a set workday - One of the best and worst things about the PhD program is that there is often no set workday. I find this to be the main reason behind PhD Guilt. It's hard to let go when all day, every day is potentially a work day. So it's important to break this mentality by setting a fixed work day for yourself. There are a variety of ways to do this, but my experience in building good habits says that keeping it simple and consistent at the beginning is best. Don't say "I'll set the hours in the morning" or "Mondays I'll work these hours and Tuesdays I'll work those hours", just set unbreakable work hours Monday-Friday. Treat it like a job. From 9am-7pm, for example, you go to work and when you get home at 7:30 you are done for the day. Eventually you can maybe lighten up on these restrictions just a little - that is one of the advantages of being in a PhD program after all - for example sometimes when I'm really motivated and into what I'm doing, I'll stay until midnight and sometimes on Wednesdays I take a "mental health" hour where I sit out in the sun and linger over my breakfast before going in. But for the most part I have a set workday and I don't stray much from that. One thing you might notice when you set these time boundaries for yourself: instead of half working all day, you'll really work for the portion of the day that you call "work". This is what I discovered for myself. I found that when I had no time boundaries on my work, I tended to float around all day doing some work, some emailing, some chatting on the phone. But enforcing limited hours of work on myself translated into really needing to work while I was at school, which ended up making me feel much better about what I had done during the day when I got home at night. I felt like I deserved to relax.

  • Don't work from your bedroom - I'd say to not even work from home, but I know this isn't entirely realistic for most PhD students. Personally my favorite place to work is at home on my porch, surrounded by fresh air and shaded sunlight, but the more you can distinguish work time from free time (and your home should be your sanctuary not your office) the better. I don't mean that you should have a miserable time when you're working - you should definitely take steps to make that time enjoyable too - but just try to keeping it out of your bedroom should help you with letting go at night. This is especially important if you have any sort of sleeping problems like I do. Do nothing mentally active in your bedroom if possible. This one rule makes all the difference for me and my sleeping habits. When I work in the bedroom I find it impossible to turn my brain off in bed, 5 feet away from my computer. All of the other "turning off" situations I could deal with, but not sleeping is a real killer. I've had so many issues with sleeping though that my rules for good sleep should become a whole tip in itself. For now I say, work out of the house if possible, it's better for your mental health to be around living beings anyway.

  • Set goals - This is also worthy of a whole post in itself, and I'm actually going to expand on it for my next tip post (watch for it on Thursday!). But, in short, break your work into the tiniest little goals possible and assign yourself maybe one or two a day. When you've accomplished them, congratulate yourself and know that anything else you do that day is extra. When you finish working for the day, if you've accomplished the goal then know that you really deserve to be done for the day. Even if you haven't finished that day, know that being behind one goal day isn't the end of the world (and consider breaking your goals down into smaller sub-goals for future days). Check back Thursday for more of my goal-setting rules.

  • Keep a record of what you've done - Some say to do this in a physical journal, I say that the only writing by hand I've done in the last 5 years is signing my name. I tend to create all records electronically and then print them out so that I have a hard copy. Whatever method you like, go for it. Actually discussing all the types of records would make a good future post too, this tip is going to spawn 10 sub-tips! The purpose of this record is so that, when all else fails and you just feel like you don't deserve to have free time, you can look back and see that you were (hopefully) really doing a lot every single day. It's easy to look at the big 1-step picture (publish or build or experiment or whatever), but it's important to remember all of the hundreds of little steps that it takes to get there. If you look back at your record and see how much work you've done, maybe you can be a little easier on yourself.
So, I think these should help anyone having trouble letting go at the end of the day. Let me know if you try any of them and how they work for you. Also let us all know here, in the comments, if you have any suggestions of your own!

Friday, August 28, 2009

The perfect advisor...

Well I'm not sure what the ideal advisor is, but in my experience advisors can be categorized into two broad categories:

1) The Overmanage-r - This advisor is probably young, ambitious and childless. He is great because he is up to date on every important paper and every concept, so he can work side-by-side with you and his other students, just like he did not long ago in grad school. His downside is that he works insane hours and expects the same from you. He wants to publish early and publish often and if you can keep up and not lose your mind (which you just might) you'll probably graduate with an amazing CV.

2) The Undermange-r - This advisor is older, established and busy with family and administrative obligations. He is great because he isn't breathing down your neck, doesn't mind if you don't show up at school for days and gives you the space to discover your real passion within the field. His downside is that he never pushes you towards anything and can be hard to track down. He believes that getting a PhD is about learning how to manage yourself with little intervention and, if you get yourself through your dissertation (which you may never do), you will have done it on a topic you're passionate about and have developed all of the necessary skills and personal motivators to be a great researcher yourself.

There are obviously more than 2 categories of advisors. Categories I often hear about are:
"the Jerk" - Self explanatory, but mostly just a sad personality trait
"the Unpredictable Jerk" - Also self explanatory, and usually a combination of the over- and under- manager, someone who is never around and then shows up and wants you to show them the world
"the Really Big Jerk"...etc.

There are probably also advisors that fall in between these two, but when I hear about them it's usually "As he's getting older he's less intense" or "He used to be great and now he seems to be losing interest". But overall, all advisors that I've heard about tend to exhibit one of these two managerial habits more than the other.

So today I was trying to imagine what the perfect advisor would be, and I don't think I can really say. Personally I think that an Overmanage-r is better for me. My main advisor is an Undermanage-r and I really like and respect him. I appreciate that he never pushed me towards a topic of his own agenda and I've seen self-motivated people flourish under his (light) direction. But recently, when I began working with an Overmanage-r I think everything came together for me.

Like hitting rock bottom, I fell into a deep PhD Depression when I first began working with this Overmanage-r because I felt overwhelmed and unable to start what I saw lying ahead. But thanks to the micro-managing and side-by-side work, I have begun to progress in my dissertation at a rate that I never thought possible after many years of no progress at all.

So without my Undermanage-r I wouldn't have had the time to explore various topics (and land on a topic with his help) and without my Overmanage-r I doubt I would have ever gotten the nerve to start down the path. I'm not out of my PhD depression yet. I have lots of concerns like if I'll be able to keep up the pace I've started (maybe, if only for a year...) and if I could do this on my own if I moved into my own research position (probably not...but only time and progress will tell...), and I still have bad days where I feel like I was never smart enough to be here in the first place.

But for those of you in the middle of a bad period, let me give you a little bit of hope from almost the other side (for today) - if you ever enjoyed the subject at all you will probably come out of this low (that's why it's PhD Depression and not real Depression). If you're back in a low after you thought you escaped, that happens too and is ok too. The question is: When is too much unhappiness too much? That is a long answer that I am trying to answer for myself and all of you here.

For now I want to know what your advisor is like...

We can't get a detailed answer there though, so after the survey go leave a comment about what your perfect advisor would be like...

Maybe it's one of these* =)
*Thanks to Charlie, a reader that suggested I check out the funny but sadly no longer published Dent Cartoons

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tip #7 - Learn to be grateful

I read a set of really great books a few years ago about the emerging field of Positive Psychology.

Although there was a lot of good information in the books, and I highly recommend reading anything on the topic, one exercise in particular stuck with me from the book Authentic Happiness by Positive Psychology founder, Martin Seligman.

In the book, he talks about keeping a "Gratitude Journal" where you write down what you're grateful for every day. I can't remember the exact details (and I gave my copy of the book to a friend who never returned it), but what I got out of it is trying to write down 10 things a night that I am grateful for. I don't do it every night, usually just when I recognize that I'm in a funk and feeling like there's nothing good in the world.

I'm a big believer in the ability of a person's brain to control their mind, and this is a perfect example. Force yourself to write down 10 things that you're grateful for. You can make them wacky or weird, just do it honestly and whole-heartedly and see if that doesn't improve your mood.

By the way, I choose to write my 10 things at night because that's when I find my PhD Depression creeping in, but I think it could also be a great start to the morning. It is also nice to just list things in your head in the middle of the day if you find yourself in a low.

Here's what I wrote today :

1) I am so happy to have created this blog because writing it has gotten me through a dark PhD time.

2) I feel lucky to have a "job" in these hard economic times - a lot of people would do anything to be in my position.

3) I love the summer and am grateful for these months of sunshine.

4) I am glad to have made it through 4 years of my PhD program, because I remember a lot of hard times, and making it through that makes me feel mentally strong.

5) I think it's really cool that you're reading this right now, which means my words are resonating with someone. I definitely appreciate my readers!

6) I am thankful for tea and coffee, they give me comfort when I'm down.

7) I am happily surprised by talks that have free food and/or drinks.

8) I enjoy the rain that happens when I'm working - then it's soothing AND I don't get wet.

9) I am so glad that the world is in a place where, even living on a small stipend, I can travel and explore and learn as much as a person of greater means (thanks priceline and expedia!).

10) I like how finishing a 10-step list makes me feel like I've done something productive.

As you can see, I put down big, universal things I'm grateful for, as well as little, random things. I don't think it really matters, I just have fun with it. So now I want to hear what you're grateful for, leave your list in a comment!

And, in case you were wondering, the books I mentioned reading at the beginning, in addition to Authentic Happiness were: Learned Optimism and What You Can Change and What You Can't. I found them a nice combination of self-help book and psychology text book. If you read (or have read) any of them, let me know what you think!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Monday Pep Talk - Jerks. Your Work. Sad Little Smirks.

So I got a request for a pep talk post, which I thought would be a great addition to my usual posts of discussions and tips.

I’m not really in the business of trying to convince anyone to stay in a program that makes them unhappy, but I’m willing to share pep talks that I give myself if you’re looking for some cheering up. So here it goes…

Everyone reading this blog is in the struggle together. The attrition rates suggest that even most of the PhD students who aren’t talking about it have had PhD Depression (or else why would they all be leaving their programs?). So realize that the next person who smirks at your topic is probably insecure about his own topic. Happy, secure people don’t try to make others feel bad about themselves. Next time someone questions you a little too harshly, and you start to wonder if you're topic is worth anything at all, know it’s not you they have a problem with, it’s themselves. So if you're feeling anything, it should be sorry for them.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Mastering the Art of Sleeping with Your Eyes Open

If getting a PhD doesn't teach you anything else, the numerous talks you attend by folks either too short-sighted to see their own dullness or two long-winded to care, should at least give you time to master the art of sleeping with your eyes open...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tip #6 - Forget about yourself

I touched on this in the last tip post about getting your social on, but wanted to expand the thought here.

Sometimes we get so caught up in wallowing in our PhD Depression that we can't get out. Doing something for others every once in a while is a good way to appreciate what you have and get out of your own self pity. It's also an important part of society and being a contributing human being, but this blog isn't about how to improve the world, so I'll leave that discussion for the more noble. Try some of this out and see if your life doesn't get a little sunnier.

  • Technical Volunteer Work - Give back what so few others have the ability to: your immense knowledge of your subject.

    • Teaching - I know it's required and possibly a pain in your ass, but just remember that you have the chance to shape the lives of these students. Channel your favorite teacher/professor and give them everything you've got.

    • Extra teaching - This isn't your required, deal with snotty college students who want a good grade, teaching. This is reaching out to the community around you and/or those in need. Find a group in your area who has a program set up with local schools or set up your own summer class for disadvantaged youths (I bet you could drum up support in your department, most Universities are dedicated to giving back for altruistic or other reasons). If those seem like too much commitment, just sign up with your school to be a tutor for a few hours a week.

    • Contribute your skill to an organization - Not by teaching necessarily, but by doing whatever that skill does. If you're an English PhD, then write/edit their handouts, if you're a Finance PhD then balance their books. Again, you may feel dumb sometimes, but you have more knowledge in one subject that almost anyone you'd meet on the street, so put it to use and you might even get some of the old fashion "oohs" and "aaahs" that people used to give you for being so smart before you joined the PhD program and everyone was smarter.

  • Nontechnical volunteer work - There's so much you can do, here's some that appeal to me:

    • Soup kitchen - My favorite thing about these is you often don't have to make a huge commitment, just call the day you want to come and see if they need anyone.

    • Participate in a walk for a cause - Just collect donations and get your workout in! Double the PhD Depression fighting duty. So easy, one day commitment plus one mass email.

    • Be a big brother/sister - This is definitely something you need to commit to, but this is the ultimate stop-being-such-a-self-absorbed-jerk-and-realize-how-lucky-you-are situation. Think of all the opportunity you were given that these kids don't have. Honor whomever was your role model by passing on that gift to one of these kids.

    • Build a house - There's something so great about getting out there and getting physical. See your work come to life by working with Habitat for Humanity or whatever organization is prominent in your area, maybe it will inspire your "real" work to come to life.

    • Look up the numerous opportunities that your school offers - Like I said, I just named a few that appeal to me. A list of the opportunities available in your area should be available on your school's website. Or if you have a favorite way to give back, post it here for others to see.

  • If you feel you can't spare one minute to do community service, how about just try to make the lives of those around you a little nicer

    • Smile - It's such simple advice that it's cliche. The act of smiling not only makes you experience a mood lift*, but can be the simplest ray of sunlight in someone's cloudy day. I don't think there's a better 1-2 combo for improving your mood while doing good.

    • Reply to an email just to say thank you - There's probably certain people in your life that seem like they're there to serve you - your parents, the IT department, administrators of various things, etc. But even if it is what they're getting paid for, it doesn't mean you shouldn't extend the common courtesy of thanking them for their work. Although someone probably told you while you were growing up to say "thank you", I bet no one ever told you "now reply 'thank you' in an email" and thus most people don't. So now I'm telling you. Don't forget to thank the people that make your difficult life a little easier, whether you're communicating in person or electronically.

    • Acknowledge important moments for people - There's nothing lonelier than having a big moment in life that no one acknowledges. I used to be one of those people who forgot birthdays, never sent cards and thought saying "I'm sorry for your loss" was soo awkward that it was better not to say anything at all. It's not true. A small thought isn't meaningless or trivial, it's thoughtful and can make a person's day. And if it doesn't than no harm done. It will also pay dividends as those people whose special days you remember will be more likely to remember yours. Use facebook (so easy, after checking out today's birthdays or your newsfeed just jump on the wall and say "happy birthday!", "congrats!", whatever), google calender (program the calender to send you email reminders and go straight from that to email), hallmark reminders (free, then send an e-card), or whatever works for you.

    • Be a nice person - This is everything I've just said + anything I forgot. Be polite, be thoughtful, be warm, be appreciative, be generous, be forgiving. Unless you develop the cure to Cancer (and maybe even if you do) you will never do anything to more important, more rewarding, or more influencial than interact with other humans. Think of it as paying it forward. Other than the immediate rewards of just being a good happy person with good relationships, if you can make those around you happy then maybe they can make others happy, all the way around the world until it comes back to you as a nicer advisor or a wonderful and enthusiastic dissertation committee.

*When searching for a reference to the studies that demonstrate the smile-happiness correlation, I came across this great blog article called Smiling Makes you Happy. The author, I found, is an entertaining and informative writer, so you should check out that link. Also, I love that he has a book called The No Asshole Rule - the name amuses the 10 year old in me.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What would you do if you learned you were dying tomorrow?

I often think about this. It's a morbid thought, I know, and I'm not planning on dying anytime soon. But on the days that are really hard, that I really just don't feel I can take this PhD stress anymore, I think "If I found out tomorrow that I was dying I would..."

First and foremost I would quit the program. There, I've said it. Sometimes that thought makes me cringe, but then I realize that there are a lot of absurd things that I would do that I would only be doing because I was dying and I knew there was no future to plan for.

For example - I'd travel the world, go to every inch of it, especially the places that scare me right now, because who cares about danger when I'm dying? I'd also move home to my family and friends, whom I miss everyday (it's a dream world so I'm allowed to simultaneously travel and move home). I'd get too drunk a lot just for fun and eat too much and maybe take off my clothes and try to make one of those wild dashes across a stadium.

All those things sound amazing in a fantasy, but I wouldn't really want to do them for more than my last 6 months. I'm sure I'd fight with my family when we weren't brought together by my tragedy. I'd feel sick and gross if I got drunk all the time and ate too much. I could never really withstand the public humiliation of running naked across a stadium. Traveling though...I might be able to do that one forever.

But could I live with quitting the PhD program? I'm not as sure either way.

I talked before about the feeling of failure that motivates me sometimes to stay in the PhD program. But it's also more than that. It's the feeling of success when I figure something out and produce a paper that reveals an idea I had that no one has ever had before (or at least hasn't published).

It's the feeling that I just don't quit when things get tough. I've been seeing lots of advice floating around the internet to my fellow struggling PhDs of "if you don't like it, don't waste your time". Who says it's a waste of time? Ok, sometimes I do when I'm feeling PhD Depressed, but isn't it all (i.e. life) a waste of time? And aren't we always learning or growing somehow if we choose to? At least, that's how I feel on the good days. How can it be wrong to stay in a generally good environment doing sometimes interesting things? From what I hear from other friends, a lot of them spend their days at work surrounded by bad people and doing totally uninteresting things.

What do you think?

That survey can't capture everything you have to say. Let me know what you would do with your life if you only had 6 months left. And do you agree with me that temporary moments of dissatisfaction may just be something you must trudge through in life? What is the breaking, "give up" point for you?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tip #5 - Get Social

I really believe that there are a ton of good things about life in academia. It brings together intelligent, frugal, interesting people to (theoretically) explore the deepest levels of their undying passion...but one bad thing about it is that these people also have the tendency to be a bunch of antisocial nerds. I say that will all due respect and lovingness because I myself can be quite the antisocial nerd.

The problem is that all of these people are thrown together, Lord-of-the-Flies-style, and then create a hierarchy and culture of antisocial nerdiness. The main drawback of this culture is that, as you near the top of the food chain (i.e. moving from undergrad to grad student), you often encounter more and more people who believe life revolves around sitting alone, thinking, and working.

It's easy, when you are a sometime antisocial nerd like myself, to fall into this trap, but when work lets you down and sends you into a PhD Depression you may realize that something is missing...all of the friends and family you've been neglecting.

So here are some suggestions of things I've tried to do for myself:
  • Pick up the phone! If you can't do anything else, i.e. you don't have time or you're too far away from loved ones, then just call them. Do this while you're driving (but do it hands free and pay attention to the road), walking, biking, skating or busing to school. You have to commute anyway so dedicate those few free minutes to reconnecting - it'll give you a great out to hang up when you get to school if you don't want to spend too much time talking. Or figure out another hour of each day, or at least week, when you call (while eating, walking to the bathroom, taking a 5 minute break...).

  • Communicate electronically. Whomever thinks that e-communication is the downfall of society hasn't been a stressed, overworked PhD student - for whom it can be a lifeline. Of course meeting in person or even talking on the phone is better than just keeping an electronic relationship with someone, but it is a great way to keep a lot of people up-to-date on your life and/or communicate quickly. Start a blog so everyone knows what's going on, follow the blogs of others, tweet someone a quick hello, text a mass "Happy New Years" - these are not the actions that make a relationship deep or everlasting, but keeping up even small amounts of communication can keep you sane.

  • Make a date. You may be starting to see a pattern here (I made a similar suggestion in my workout tip) but that's because this is the best trick that works for me. Make a standing date with a friend to do something just once a week and don't break this date. Try to pick a friend who is reliable and also fun, someone who can take your mind off work. Make the date a dinner or lunch date if you want because you have to eat anyway. I have found that just having one standing date with the same one friend can make a real difference in my mood and outlook. The best part is talking to someone who has a total outside view of your life and a totally different life than yours, it makes you remember that there is life outside of your little academic world.

  • Accept all weekend invitations, or make your own. It is fine and, probably responsible, to not party every night of the week, but do you really have to work all weekend too? If you're really burnt out, then something's got to give, and my first suggestion is to give up weekend work. I didn't do that until recently when I met some very hardworking people who refuse, unapologetically, to so much as check their email on the weekends and the attitude has blown my mind. It's amazing how refreshing it is to just leave your worries at the door on Friday and let your brain relax for the weekend. Go talk to people, go dancing, go to a bar...let it all out and see if you don't feel more ready to work on Monday or even Friday when you're making a final push to the finish line each week (as opposed to a slow drag through the never ending process).

  • Ask others how they are doing. You can't keep up a genuine relationship with a person if all you do is complain to them all the time. Don't forget that you're not the only one with problems. Don't be an emotional parasite, be an emotional mutualist. It also can really put things into perspective when you realize everyone has different problems and can help you decide if yours are as bad as you thought.

  • Don't ask others how they're doing. And don't talk about your problems either. Make a promise to yourself to just not talk about it for a while. Talk about anything that isn't work.

  • Network! I hate that word, it sounds so slimy to make friends to help your career. But if all else fails, if you feel you can't take one minute away from work to revive (or begin) your social life, then think about the adage "it's all about who you know". Whether you like it or not, people get jobs, promotions and raises based on who they know and what those people think of them. It's only dirty if there's someone more qualified who gets passed up because of a brown-noser suck-up. It's human nature if you're a friendly, outgoing, intelligent person who pops first into someone's mind. The more people you know and speak to, the more minds you're likely to pop into when an opportunity arises. You never know who will stumble across what opportunity for you, so even hanging out with your oldest friend and continuing that relationship can be considered networking. If you can't think of any other reason to be social, at least think of it as something that will help your career as much or more than your next publication...

And don't forget, commenting here would be fulfilling the e-communication suggestion, so start your socializing now and leave me a comment about what you think!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Are you staying in your PhD program because you're afraid of failing?

Recently I discovered that someone that I grew up playing sports with is now doing it professionally and is climbing the ladder towards the top of the field. They travel all over the world to compete and even have a fan page on facebook. It's amazing and I'm really proud to know this person, but it got me thinking - I never aspired to be a PhD. I did always say I wanted to be a doctor while I was growing up, but I meant the medical kind. After entering the PhD program I started drinking the kool aid of superiority and along the way have come to think of getting a doctorate as the end-all, be-all. If you don't get your doctorate, then really, what are you worth?

That feeling has been one of the main motivating factors behind my drive to finish in my darkest PhD hours, and for the first time in a long time I realized how silly it was. This friend of mine has an amazing and exciting life doing something we both love and is becoming famous (in that community at least) for it. Meanwhile, I'm stuck in an office all day working. How did I convince myself that this was the coolest job in the world? On the flip side, when did I decide being a professional athlete was a cool job - I never felt that way before this moment, I never aspired to go pro, it was always just a hobby. Is this just a reaction to my feeling trapped in doors all day long? Is this the same reaction that causes other engineering PhDs to leave give it all up to pursue fashion design or photography or anything opposite of science?

So the survey today is one question:
Are you like me, does the fear of failure keep you in your program?

Is there another, non-doctorate requiring profession that you fantasize about pursing? If so, is it is the polar opposite of what you're getting your PhD in? Leave a comment and tell me what this fantasy job is! I want to hear what you have to say!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tip #4 - Try to remember why you're getting your Ph.D.

Why did you do it? What made you decide to go to grad school in the first place?

Ok, take away all of the reasons like "I want to be a professor", "I want to make sweet professor cash", "I want to have tenure one day so that I never have to worry about getting fired", etc.

Boil it down to some tangible act that you enjoy performing (hopefully there's still something there, or you might have a problem). What made you love your subject so much that you decided to spend the next 40-60+ years devoted to exploring the most minute details of it? Try to remember that.

Now, let's try to get back to that.

Obviously, you can't completely ignore the parts of the program you dislike, but if you can remember what you did love, and make a concerted effort to introduce that back into your daily routine, then those other things that are causing your PhD Depression just may become bearable.

Personally, it might sound crazy, but I didn't start the program for the research or teaching aspect. I started it because I enjoyed the course work as an undergrad. Being a good student, I had gotten the opportunity to work on a few research projects, which I thought were representative of what I would be doing. That was not the case. I know now that what the undergrads do in my field (engineering) on research projects involves much less open-ended research, and more implementing of a nicely defined concept (which is similar to undergraduate course work).

It was a rude awaking to find how open-ended and ambiguous real research is. I can get very overwhelmed by this ambiguity, which makes me want to crawl under the covers and ignore the world.

But lately I've been trying to set small daily goals of working on the concrete implementation of concepts that I enjoyed as an undergrad, and it has reignited a little of my passion.

So try it out. If you can allocate a small amount of time to whatever it is that you loved doing with your subject, can it make the rest of the day and drudgery bearable? Let me know how it goes.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Gap year

I've recently heard the term "gap year" for the first time. A gap year is described in one article as "a time to explore, learn, travel, and test yourself". After looking around at the programs offered and the articles written on it, my interpretation of the "year" is a time where you do anything other than progress towards your intended career goal, which seems to be a logical rebellion of Millenials to the pressure put on us by the helicopter parents that were the topic of similar lifestyle articles a few years ago.

(Ironically, it is stressed in almost all articles that you should spend this year doing something that could become a selling point in a future interview, which makes it sound a lot like college to me. But I choose to focus on the year as one of self discovery, not resume building)

I think this phenomenon sounds amazing and I wish that I had known about it when I was graduating from college. Actually, I did hear of it once, from a friend of mine whose family had all taken gap years after high school or college. At the time I thought it was just an excuse of the lucky and wealthy to put off getting a job. While I was right about the putting off getting a job part, I now see the benefit to this year. Tired and "burnt out" by 26 years of school and 10 years of progressing towards an expertise that I wasn't in love with - just because I didn't know what else to do - I wish I had known that I could take a step out of the race to assemble my thoughts and discover my passions. I don't think you have to be lucky and wealthy, only resourceful, motivated, willing to take a risk and possibly willing to live in debt for a while. But, with that, you have the chance to learn and explore for a whole year (give or take), hopefully coming out the other side a reborn person who has discovered their passion, as opposed to spending years in week-long vacation increments doing small things to get there.

Personally, I've decided to make a bad situation good and look at my time left in the Ph.D. program as a gap year since it provides me with money, travel and a flexible schedule. But I wonder now what I could have done with a year of travel and exploration between college and grad school (not a year of work, I'll discuss that topic in another post). I have yet to find my true undying passion, and maybe that could have given me some clues.

And what about after grad school? If you think gap years are just for recent high school and college grads, think again. Apparently people are taking them in the middle of their careers or while switching careers. If things I'm working on right now don't work out by the time I finish the Ph.D. program, I'm considering doing a real gap year. I think it would be very soothing to the soul to remove myself from this hyperanalytic, high-stress world to focus entirely on improving the lives of others somewhere.

So what do you think of the gap year? Waste of time or needed break?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Tip #3 - Get professional help!

I just saw this very sad article about 3 Caltech students who committed suicide in the last 3 months.

I want to reiterate what I said in the first post: If you are suffering from a major depressive disorder or having thoughts of suicide, please get professional help.

Even if you just need someone to talk to, you have a great opportunity to utilize the free services of your school. Check out the free and confidential counseling services that your school probably offers. Sometimes just an objective (and paid to listen!) point of view can really shed light on things.

It may seem like your advisor or your department doesn't care about you, but your school definitely cares about your mental health. In addition to counseling services, look into the other professional services your school may be offering to help keep you sane in these crazy times:
  • Stress
    • Stress Counselor - It's their job to relax you, help them get paid.

    • 1-Time-Only Offerings - These usually pop up right around finals and may include free 10 minute massages, breathing workshops or yoga classes.

  • Physical Health
    • Doctors, Insurance, Gym, etc - Use these services while you get them cheap! Get yourself in top shape, in case you have to start paying your own insurance soon.

    • Smoking Cessation Programs - These can be pretty expensive when paid for, take advantage of your school's concern for your health and do it now. Taking control of one aspect of your life can make taking control of other parts that much easier.

  • Career
    • Career Counseling - Why not go discuss your options should you choose to leave the program?

    • Career Fairs - See what's out there, make some contacts, set up informational interviews

  • Academic
    • Writing Workshops - Having an expert tell you how he thinks it should be done may teach you something, inspire you, or remind you that you're a better writer than others and renew some confidence. Also, meeting other attendees in your position can help you develop a Ph.D. support group.

    • Tutoring/Knowledge Exchange - Use the tutoring services offered by the school to get someone to explain a peripheral area of knowledge, or find a Ph.D. student with whom you can exchange help in your area expertise for theirs (i.e. your knowledge of good writing for their programming skills, etc)

  • Graduate School Services
    • Grad Center - Mine offers free coffee and a place to work that isn't the library or my office.

    • Workshops - You may find grad-specific workshops like how to write a dissertation or how to apply for grants.

Do you have any other favorite services that I've missed?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Will your PhD contribute to society?

One struggle I have with my work is that I don't feel it will contribute to any greater good in society. Sure, it will contribute to academia, but it won't directly improve someone's life. I'm not curing diseases, I'm not developing crops that will feed the hungry, I'm not designing buildings to house orphans. I have always had a strong desire to "contribute". I thought contributing to academic discussion would be enough. Seeing my name in print would prove that I had done something in this world. But one of the first things that comes to mind when I'm feeling down on my work is "what's the point?"

Is it only me? Or is this a problem lots of PhD's go through? If we had more meaningful work, would we be happier? Let's see what everyone thinks...

What does "contributing" mean to you? In what way would you most like to be contributing in life?