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!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Guest post by someone who's made it through to the other side...

A reader who has made it past the PhD finish line kindly sent me his "Tips on How to Survive Graduate School and Maybe Even Flourish".

These tips are definitely focused on those of the Biological fields - so if you're not a Biology major, consider if they apply to you before accepting them as fact - but I think all of us can take away good points on the more general tips (I especially like and agree with #1 and #15, simple and so true!).

There's even quite a few tips aimed at PhD's just starting their journey.

By the way, he mentioned that he'd be happy to revise based on your feedback, so leave some comments with what you think!

Thanks for the tips Dr. Varela! We hope to meet you in beautiful Drland soon...

Tips on How to Survive Graduate School and Maybe Even Flourish

Dr. Manuel Varela
Professor of Biology

  1. First priority: pursuit and completion of your thesis.

  2. Time management: Maximize your daily efforts towards your education and your thesis project; i.e., complete daily experiments—don’t section off parts of experiments for another day.

  3. Enjoy your intellectual pursuits.
    a. Routinely (daily) read books and the latest published literature, especially in your field, but also other fields.
    b. Do not worry about your grades; instead, just try to understand (and play with) your knowledge.

  4. Choose a research laboratory that is functional.
    a. Do not study techniques: study problems.
    b. Do not invent (or be the first in your lab to use) a technique—use only those techniques and methods already established.
    c. Never develop (or tweak) an assay, nor clone a gene, nor purify a protein, nor work with RNA for a thesis.

  5. Choose a graduate advisor wisely.

  6. Apply for your own graduate fellowships and funding in collaboration with your advisor.
    a. Learn good grantsmanship and writing skills.

  7. How much work (minimum) for a thesis?
    a. 1 full-length paper for M.S.
    b. 3 full-length papers for a Ph.D.
    c. 1 full-length paper per year for postdoc.

  8. Present your work at meetings
    a. Rehearse your presentation repeatedly.
    b. Write putative questions and have a written answer ready for each.

  9. Publish your work early.

  10. For thesis research and projects…
    a. Always provide a logical rationale and hypothesis.
    b. Never ask “yes or no” questions.
    c. Instead study Hypothesis A versus Hypothesis B, or Hypothesis A versus Hypothesis Anti-A.
    i. Experimental design should distinguish between the hypotheses.
    d. Provide a “Gap.”
    e. Conduct more than one project at a time, in case one or two projects fail.

  11. Design your experiments such that the data are useful to you no matter what the outcomes are of such experiments.

  12. Use appropriate statistics.

  13. Get teaching experience, to the extent that you are able.

  14. Be leery of envious colleagues and competitors; your best revenge is to be successful.

  15. Be honest and ethical, or else your transgressions shall haunt you for ever.

  16. Do not be afraid to think or dream big, and do not let others talk you out of pursuing your dreams.

  17. Never give up.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Weekend Wisdom

If you're in the US, this weekend is Labor Day Weekend. For the non-US citizen, Labor Day Weekend is Summer's last stand. It's the last day when you can open a beer at 3PM and use the excuse, 'Hey, it's the summer! I'm allowed to.'

Whether you're celebrating Labor Day Weekend this weekend or not, be sure to take advantage of the last gasp of summer (unless of course you're in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case, go enjoy the start of it!). Sometime in October when you're mulling over the best way to phrase, 'Our results were not what we expected,' or some student brings you back a 2 week late homework and asks you if you can regrade his extra credit, you can at least think back and have a fond memory of the end of summer.

So unless you're defending on Monday (or Tuesday), don't think about your PhD this weekend. You'll have plenty of time for that in the coming months.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tip #9a - Make lots of goal lists

As promised on Tuesday's tip post about freeing yourself from the shackles of PhD Guilt, today I'm expanding on the topic of setting goals. I am an avid "to do" list-er, which is sort of like setting goals, but my to do lists tend to be a brain dump of everything I could ever need to do in my entire life and are thus overwhelming and often ignored. The goal list is the to do list's older, more organized, much more successful brother.

As I wrote this tip, it grew into a monster, so I've split it up into two half tips. In this half I will discuss different strategies of constructing goal lists, so that you can think about what is right for yours. In the second half, on Sunday, I will give you examples of my own goal lists and my own personal strategy to try out if you'd like.

So, here's what you should consider before you write your goal lists:

  • Recognize a goal versus an expectation - A while ago I heard someone make a distinction between goals and expectations, which really stuck with me. An expectation is something you hope to have happen, but is not really under your control. A goal is something you have control over and can, for the most part, affect the outcome of. For example, a goal could be to write a dissertation - totally in your control - an expectation is that that you will get your Ph.D. - something someone else controls. The purpose of a goal list is to help you take back control of your often ambiguous work and set structure for yourself in the open-ended world of the PhD program. So when you're making your goal list, make sure you're setting accomplishable goals and not just filling your list with expectations of greatness.

  • Short term versus long term goals - I think it's important to have lots of goal lists. Right now I have 4. The first is a general goal list for my life this year, the second is a 6 month goal list for my dissertation work, the third is a goal/expectation list for this blog and the fourth is my daily goal list. The reason it's important to have goal lists of different granularity is so that you can see both the big picture and the daily work you anticipate it takes to get there.

  • Too many versus too few goals - I strongly suggest erring on the side of caution with the number of your main goals. Too many goals defeats the purpose of the list, which is to give you structure as well as accomplishable benchmarks for success. With too many large goals you are dooming yourself to failure and being unrealistic about what you can accomplish. On any given list, you should have only a few main goals, with subgoals that are required to complete the larger goals.

  • Physical versus mental goal list - A mental list of your goals is a list you plan on breaking - at least it is for me. There is something about writing down and declaring your goals that is scary, final and unappealing. But there are many things you gain from writing down that you tend to not get out of keeping them all stored inside:

    • A thorough plan - I guess you could develop a thorough plan in your head, but by the time you get to the end, would you really remember much? (hint: science and wikipedia, say no)

    • A reference - Even if you remembered your plan for 5 minutes, I doubt you will remember the details of it over time (back to wikipedia for lack of a better quick source). You also won't have anything to pin above your desk or on your mirror, or wherever you find it useful to pin reminders.

    • A promise in writing - If you go as far as agreeing upon this list with your advisor (which I suggest, it's a good way to keep you "honest" to the list), a written list can act as a contract. If you've written out your goals smartly and you stay on track, the next time you or your advisor wonder why things are going so slowly, you can (nicely - don't be a jerk) point out that you are exactly where you should be according to your list. Feel free to casually slip it into conversation - if you're presenting your work to your group, start out with a short summary of the project that highlights the goals you've laid out and then explain how you're right on target. If you're meeting with your advisor, bring the goal list and say "I'm at this point on the list (hopefully you're pointing to a place that corresponds exactly to the current date) and I want to discuss starting this next item on the list with you". If your biggest critic is you, point out the same thing to yourself: "I'm exactly where I said I would be. If I keep on this track I will complete a goal that is an important step in my dissertation, in a time frame that my advisor and I agreed was reasonable."

A story:

The trick with the goal list is to map out a good work schedule without being unrealistic.

The first legitimate goal list that I made was for a course I took in which we had to layout our work plan for a 3 month long final project. It was explained to us the work plan itself was part of the grade and was a lesson to teach us how set realistic goals so that if/when we get into industry we have an understanding of what we can and can not produce in a given time.

With that in mind I set the lowest possible goals that I thought the professor would let me get away with. I simplified the project to something that fulfilled the minimum requirements without any excessive bells and whistles that might add a "wow" factor. Then I broke the work, which sounded very simple and accomplishable in a week, down into about 6 major-ish substeps and had them vary from about 1 week to 1 one month in completion time needed.

Some of these steps were pretty simple, such as "project write-up" and I assume a lot of my classmates didn't consider it important enough to note, but I gave that step a week of time for two reasons - 1) It would actually take some time and should be acknowledged as one more piece of work I was doing and 2) It might only take me a day or two, but a week didn't seem like too much to ask and gave me 5 extra days to make up for when I inevitably got behind somewhere else. The same was true about my 5 other steps - some didn't seem that complicated, so I would suggest a week of time. But those weeks added up so that it was clear to the professor that there was not just one major component that should only take one month, which is the time I allocated for the major component, but other, small substeps that would chip away at my 3 months on their own. The other substep that I added and assume other people brushed off was basic setup of the project. There is always a learning curve for starting anything new, and set up (i.e. learning new theories/procedures/technologies) can be the biggest time killer of all the work, so should definitely be acknowledged in any project, complete with a list of all the learning that will be required.

So how did this project go? As you might have guessed (why else would I be telling the story?), it went great. The professor was fine with the amount of work I laid out. I got behind on things as I anticipated, but since I gave myself cushions of time to make up for it. I finished everything by the due date. And since a majority of the class didn't complete their more ambitious projects, my project looked like a star by the end. The moral of the story is: set small, manageable goals, give yourself the time you think you need plus a large cushion and at the end, instead of frustrating yourself and your advisor with a broken, half completed promise, you will deliver exactly what you promised or more.

On Sunday I'll finish this post with a "how to" tip.

By the way, on another day when I have more time, I'll write a review of this book, which I really liked and inspired the first seeds of the idea of daily work plans in me. But until then, if you're dying for a whole book of dissertation writing suggestions check out:
Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

From the Desk of the T.A. - Episode 1

A friend of mine, who knows about the blog and has also suffered from periods of PhD Depression, has offered to guest post some comic relief for me in two weekly columns: "From the Desk of the TA" (FDTA) and "Weekend Wisdom". Said friend is a hilarious writer and kick ass T.A., so I happily agreed. Starting today, FDTA will be posted on Wednesdays to document the trials and tribulations of the overworked and undervalued T.A. On Fridays, "Weekend Wisdom" will hopefully send you into the weekend with something to laugh at.

So without further ado, the first episode of FDTA...

Teaching Assistant.

There are some PhD students who hear that, and something happens to them. Strange and terrible things. If you are a PhD student who has never been a TA, it may be extremely difficult to recognize these symptoms. You will witness irrational behavior and wonder what has happened. Never fear. I'm here to give you some tips for recognizing if your colleague has been afflicted with TAS, or Teaching Assistant Syndrome.

1) Does your normally mild mannered colleague turn into an Incredible Hulk of rage and anger shortly after a class homework is due? Do you see an unusual number of objects being thrown, kicked, or kicked and thrown in some order?

2) Have you ever heard your advisor discussing adding an essay question to his exam, and one of your colleagues fainted/blacked out?

3) Do you sometimes notice him catatonically staring at a stack of papers, hoping it will do something? Does he ever take a break from staring to quietly sob?

4) Do you hear your colleague muttering to himself things like, 'How could they not understand this?' or 'How could I explain it any more clearly?' Has general self-muttering increased?

5) Does he ever ask you for your opinion on how much you think a scuba instructor in Hawaii makes, and how quickly he could get his license and move there?

If so, your colleague is probably a TA. You may be tempted to go up to him and give him some words of encouragement during his trying times. DO NOT DO THIS. When he is approached by someone in this state, he will assume a series of questions is about to be asked, and most likely flee or scream or something worse. It's best to keep your distance, and never bring up the subject in front of him.

I'll try to pass along some advice, or at least comiserating stories for your associate in the coming weeks. While approaching him directly is right out, maybe you can print out a copy of any tips I might have, and leave them on his desk when he is gone (although there is a good chance he will react badly to any paper he discovers, assuming it's an exam or homework). Good luck with your colleague, and remember, someday you'll probably be a TA too.