I really hate bureaucracy

Nothing like a notification that you’ve been de-enrolled from health insurance to kick off a Friday!

My department really can’t get it together.  Last month, I didn’t get the pay raise I was supposed to, and I also was not receiving money from the training grant that I am on this year.  Now, I am all set up to get the right amount of money and from the right source, but as a result, my enrollment in health insurance is all screwed up- in fact, I’ve been de-enrolled as of yesterday, without any prior notification or explanation except for what I’ve been able to deduce on my own.

If it’s not fixed by a week from today, I won’t have health insurance until December, as our system makes you enroll by the last business day of the month prior to beginning coverage.  Considering that I already have doctors’ appointments scheduled (in October) that I will now have to cancel, and that having free health insurance is a part of my condition of enrollment at Pitt, this is completely unacceptable.

It’s just been one thing after another with my department this year, and every new problem turns me off from ever again working in an environment where my simple well-being is dependent on people who fail to do their jobs properly.

The thing you need to hear

Sometimes, motivation comes from the most unexpected places.  On Monday, it came from the undergrad sitting next to me on the bus- at 10:30 pm, after I’d been in lab for 13 hours.  I’m typically not one to engage in conversation with strangers on the bus, and especially not at that hour of night.  But after a few nonchalant responses to this particular stranger’s questions, I decided that he seemed nice enough and that there was no harm in chatting with him during the remaining 5 minutes of my bus ride home.  Little did I know that this short conversation would actually put a whole different perspective onto my day.

The beginning of the conversation was menial small talk.  And then, the question that would spin the whole conversation: “Where do you work?”

I mentioned that I work in a research lab, specifically studying cancer immunology (which I subsequently explained).  Immediately he was engaged.  “How’d you get into that kind of research?” was his next question.  He seemed truly interested, so I explained to him that when I used to work as a day camp counselor, one of the little girls in my group was recovering from brain cancer.  [I'll have to post the entire story on the blog here at some point.]

“Wow,” he said.  “That’s huge.  That’s like, bigger than you, bigger than me, than any of us- that’s really important work you’re doing.  That’s really great.”

And that’s just what I needed to hear, after 13 hours in the lab on a Monday.  Quite honestly, during my day to day work I rarely think about the implications of my research outside of whether the results might help me get funding or a decent publication.  It just took the stranger on the bus pointing them out to give my day a much brighter perspective.

Change #3: Clothing

With this new season comes, of course, new weather.  The mornings have been outright frigid lately, and even once the sun rises, it barely takes the edge off the chill.  This particular change means that getting dressed is no longer as easy as throwing on jeans and a T-shirt and calling it a day- but by no means does the colder weather need to mean pulling out a whole new wardrobe!  Sure, scarves and coats and gloves are unnecessary in the summer, but there are certainly some key summer pieces that can make the transition to the colder weather.  My favorite?  White pants!

Whoever said you can’t wear white after Labor Day must not have been very creative, because over the last couple of weeks I have come up with two outfits that I absolutely love that are based around my pair of white pants.  They both take into account the colder weather and the inclination to wear boots and a sweater, just with a brighter twist by substituting jeans for white pants.

Outfit #1:  Mustard yellow sweater (Target); white pants (TJ Maxx); brown boots (Famous Footwear)

White pants with yellow sweater

Outfit #2:  Red sweater (Target – similar); white pants (TJ Maxx – same as above); black boots (Payless – similar)
Apologies that I don’t have a picture in this outfit! :(

Either of these outfits easily would work with jeans instead of white bottoms, but they’ll really pop with just that one small change.  While I love the colder months, I do like thinking of tricks like this- it makes it less of an ordeal to make changes for every new season.  Even though I certainly have jeans out year-round, these outfits help me avoid having to pack so many clothes away at the end of the summer!

How do you transition your favorite summer pieces to the fall and winter?  Let me know in the comments!

Change #2: Decorations

I’m easily bored with the decor in my apartment, but since my lease explicitly states that I am not allowed to paint the walls, there’s little I can do to quickly change the look of the entire space.  Instead of giving in and remaining frustrated with the current state of my apartment, I decided to get creative and find a new way to redecorate, in season and with minimal effort.

Last year, which was the first year I was living in my own place, I really wanted to decorate but was not willing to spend the money required to buy in-season decorations.  Instead, I waited until the end of each season (after Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the winter/Hanukkah), and picked up decorations on clearance.  This year, I’m all set to decorate my apartment, on a budget!

wpid-20141012_161049.jpgThis is a picture of what I’ve done to decorate for fall!  In the context of my apartment, this shelf serves as a room divider between my living room and my work/office space.  Because of the very open floor plan of my apartment, I see this space from the moment I walk in the door, while I’m doing work, and while I’m watching TV from my couch.

The football made of crepe paper I picked up on clearance last year.  The wreath I made (!) from things I picked up on discount from the craft store last year.  The pumpkin is real- but from the grocery store; and over on the right, I picked up a candle holder for 50% off at a preseason sale at RiteAid, and put a candle that I got for free a few years ago inside.  Finally, the football-shaped confetti on the shelf is from the same sale as the football.

So, my two take-away tips for changing up your space are:

  1. Pick up decorations a year in advance on clearance!
    and
  2. Be creative with the space you have, even if you can’t decorate exactly as you’d like.

Happy autumn!

Change #1: Food

At the end of last month, I posted about my attempt to meal plan. Regardless of how challenging it was, it certainly saved me money, and not running out of money before the end of the month has been my biggest challenge recently, with all that I want to do with my small stipend. This month, I spent a bit more money early in the month than I typically have in the past, but with the ultimate goal of spending less money over the course of the month.

Here’s what I did: I bought enough meat to eat for every weeknight dinner for the entire month, and put it in my freezer. That’s 23 pre-portioned meats that I can turn into many different dishes, without having to do much legwork each evening to get them ready. I have sausages, chicken (already marinated), ribs, stew, meatballs, taco meat, and turkey burgers. My grocery store has a great deal in its meat department- $20 for 5 different 1 lb packages of meat- so while it’s a bit more expensive per pound than buying larger sized packs of meat, it’s a cheaper way to introduce variety, especially since I am only cooking for myself and don’t need huge quantities of chicken and beef and pork and turkey all at once. I portioned everything, and also pre-seasoned the meatballs and the taco meat, so that all I need to do any evening is cook whatever I want to eat, with very little prep necessary.

Two weeks into the month, it’s proven to be a fantastic method. I haven’t eaten dinner out yet! Of course, there will be nights during the month when I have plans to eat out. But I know that if I can avoid picking up dinner on my way home on nights I think I’ll be too tired to cook, and instead prepare an easy meal out of my freezer, I will be saving a lot of money that can be put to use for better purposes, and I will avoid my bank account running so low at the end of the month like it has been recently.

New season, a time for change.

I love the changing of seasons- the humidity giving way to crisp fall air, the leaves changing color, the long days turning to longer nights.  It’s a reminder that there’s a way to start over and to make changes, because everything changes a few times each year.

My schedule seems to move in waves- some weeks I feel as though I have nothing to do, and then the next I will barely be home even to sleep.  September was a rough month, mainly because of how busy I was and how little down time I had to recuperate before moving on to the next thing, and the next, and the next.  As soon as October rolled around, all of the craziness halted at once and I finally had time to breathe.  The fact that this coincided with the weather finally cooling down provided quite a refreshing feeling, both physically and mentally, when I was finally able to enjoy everything around me instead of being bogged down with work.  As usual, this calmness won’t last forever- especially knowing that the first week of November consists of a fellowship application deadline, presenting at lab meeting for the first time, and a BGSA Council meeting consisting of no less than 3 agenda items I’m responsible for, including amending our Constitution.  Whew!

However:  I am taking advantage of some more free time while I have it, to enjoy the Fall weather and the inspiration for change it’s providing me.  And this week, I am going to have a series of posts highlighting some of the (easy!) changes I am making this season.

Meal Planning

“Meal planning” is quite the buzzword these days.  It seems to me like everywhere I turn there’s a blog or a magazine promoting the optimal way to plan out your meals for the week or month, and grocery shop according to a prescribed list that promises to provide enough food for your scheduled meals and no extra.  I’m sure for some people, meal planning helps them stick to a limited budget and makes life easier for a busy family.  I, admittedly, have been staunchly in the opposite camp in which I’d rather spend a little extra time each day figuring out what to eat when I get hungry, instead of turning planning that out into a chore once a week that I’ll inevitably grow to hate.  However, last week I decided to flip my conceptions on their head and plan my meals.

My plan:

  • Not eat out for any of the meals I’ve agreed to plan.  In my mind, the ultimate part of meal planning is cooking, so that’s what I aim to do.
  • Decide over the weekend what to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner Monday through Thursday, and breakfast & lunch on Friday (I’ll eat out for dinner on Friday, as a treat, if I make it through).
  • Purchase as few ingredients as possible during the week, as this seems like a perfect opportunity to eat through my freezer– I have a lot in there and I’d like to clean it out.
  • Not eat the same exact meal more than once- or at the very least, not on consecutive days.

It turns out that I had a meeting on Thursday evening that provides food, so I didn’t have to make myself dinner that night either; leaving 5 breakfasts, 4 lunches, and 3 dinners that I had to plan.

Results:

  • Considering that I wrote my meal plan on Sunday and couldn’t find it on Monday morning, I did an admittedly terrible job following the plan I made!
  • I did still do my best to prepare every meal from food I had at home.
  • On Thursday, I had to deal with a rent payment fiasco, it was Rosh Hahanah, and I was running back and forth between campus and synagogue all day, so I didn’t leave myself any time to prepare myself lunch.  Instead I bought lunch in the hospital cafeteria for ~$5.

Conclusion:

I’m no good at planning my meals, because I’m hungry for different things each day and I don’t know over the weekend what I will want to eat each day of the week.  But if I have it in my head that I’m not going to buy food out for a week, I can be creative and think up meals to prepare based on ingredients already in my kitchen (this is actually the second time recently that I have tried this, and both times, it’s been a success).  In the future, though, I should plan weeks like this mid-month instead of as a reaction to being low on money towards the end of the month.

#overachiever

Recently I asked some of my friends whether they’d submitted abstracts to a regional conference we’d all discussed presenting our research at.  Out of the 5 friends I asked…all five responded with variations on the theme of ‘no, I’m not doing that’.  The particular response that stuck out to me the most was one text that said #overachiever. Here it was meant as a sort of roll-your-eyes joke, but it got me thinking about what being an “overachiever” really means, why people think it’s an okay insult [although in the context of the text I got I don't think it was meant this way, in this post that's what I am going to explore], and how people on the receiving end of being called an overachiever can embrace the title.

#overachiever

What does it mean to be an overachiever?  Wikipedia says that “[o]verachievers are individuals who “perform better or achieve more success than expected.'”

My basic interpretation of being an overachiever is in line with the above definition:  it means doing more than is expected of you.  But I say that expectation may be based on the sometimes faulty assumptions that others have of your drive and capabilities; or others are jealous of your accomplishments and use the term “overachiever” to make themselves feel okay with not performing up to an internal standard they have set.  You may be labeled as an overachiever within your surroundings even when you feel as though you’re not measuring up to your own standards.  Maybe others think you are trying to one-up them – even if you have remained modest or even silent about your accomplishments!

Why do people think “overachiever” is an okay insult?  Just like other phrases that can be used to belittle other people, as an insult it comes from a place of jealousy, of disappointment in one’s self, even if that is not the conscious emotion of the speaker at the moment it is said.  And yet “overachiever” at its etymology does not have a negative connotation.  It can mean achieving more than your potential because you work hard and set lofty goals for yourself.  If you know that you are stretching yourself to achieve what you have, then being an “overachiever” may be a trait with which you like to associate.  Because the word has a positive meaning as well, it doesn’t sound nearly as bad as most other insults.

Finally, how can you embrace being called an overachiever when it’s directed at you as an insult?  By keeping in mind that you wouldn’t be called an overachiever if you weren’t doing something more than those around you.  In the long run, being an overachiever means being a few steps ahead of your peers and embracing the high internal standards you’ve set for yourself.  The extra effort you are putting in is being noticed, and that’s a good thing!  Even if in the moment of hearing “overachiever” directed at you, you roll your eyes, remember that if one person is noticing your efforts, chances are others are as well, whether or not they tell you.  So, keep going strong!

Back into the swing of things

There’s no other way to summarize September except for hectic.  I imagine that the way my September went is the reason that so many people complain about, hate, and drop out of grad school- it was busy.  Not always busy because of school-related things, but busy nonetheless when there are only 24 hours in the day.

From going out of town to Washington, DC for Labor Day Weekend, to going to the International Graduate Student Immunology Conference in Dallas, to our departmental retreat last week, to this week with Rosh Hashanah spanning two weekdays to also trying to, you know, be a productive scientist, I’ve been spending crazy long hours in the lab on the days that I have been able to in an effort to keep up with the amount of work I feel I should get done in a month.  I’m happy to say that of the list of 5 experiments I made to do at the beginning of September, I’ve crossed four off my list already with still a week to go in the month.  I think I can do it!

Last week was a major catch-up week after being gone for four days the week prior, and I didn’t get home until close to midnight any day last week.  (Yes, that was awful and I was utterly exhausted by the weekend even though I did get a lot done in lab.)  Now that I have had that time to catch up on school/science things, I am trying to devote some more time to non-academic pursuits (such as blogging!).

If last week taught me anything it’s that I am much happier when I aliquot time to all of my interests instead of pigeon-holing into just one.  I’m sure that sounds counter-intuitive to all the stereotypes of graduate school, but the most important thing, truly, is doing what works for you to make it through.  Last week was certainly a lesson in that for me, and I’m happy to be starting afresh this Monday.

10 Books

A few weeks ago there was a thing going around Facebook asking people to list 10 books that have stuck with them, no explanation necessary. I was secretly hoping to be tagged for this challenge, but I wasn’t, so I decided to turn my list into a blog post instead. My 10 books (in no particular order) are:

The Giver – Lois Lowry
Son – Lois Lowry
Quiet – Susan Cain
Sarum – Edward Rutheford
The Two Princesses of Bamarre – Gail Carson Levine
The Quillian Games – DJ MacHale
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – JK Rowling
The Pact – Jodi Picoult
Act Without Words 1 – Samuel Beckett
Running Out of Time – Margaret Peterson Haddix