Writer’s block

Grad school is a cycle of ups and downs. These past few months have been largely down, because I feel like I haven’t had a chance to get back into the swing of things since coming back from winter break. Our lab is moving, but the move date has been pushed around so many times that I’ve been afraid of starting any long-term experiments for fear of not having lab space to finish them. I went to a few conferences throughout the Spring semester, and finally, I’m in the midst of writing my comprehensive exams (which will hopefully be all finished by the end of June). It’s been a lot these past few months, and for someone who depends on having a schedule, at times overwhelming.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that I’ve been simultaneously been struggling with writer’s block and haven’t been able to think of much to post on the blog. It seems too easy for something that’s relaxing and fun to become a chore in the midst of a whirlwind of other responsibilities. But at the same time it’s been a relief to spend some time not worrying about publishing posts on a certain schedule, and instead just writing for myself when I want to.

I have ideas of things to write about (finally!), though, so hopefully I will also have the motivation to get some more blog posts up this summer. It’s been a while, but I’m ready to be back.

Feelings, #1: Guilt.

A phrase from one of my graduate school professors that really resonated with me was this:  that everyone struggles in grad school, but everyone’s struggle is different and begins at a different time.

My current struggle is with guilt- with feeling like I need to be doing more work, no matter how much I’ve already done in a given day or week.  If I find myself trying to relax, some thought immediately comes to mind of what I could be doing related to studying, reading papers, or being in lab.  This feeling is worse if I am actively doing something fun, whether it be reading, shopping, cooking, watching TV; the thought then is that if I can spend time and energy on something fun, I should be able to spend the same time and energy on something productive.

The balance here is tricky.  There are sometimes when I really should be working, and in those cases trying to convince myself that it’s okay to not be working is also dangerous.

In observing my peers, it seems as though establishing this balance is easier for students who are in relationships or living with roommates, as they have another person whom they are- for lack of better terminology- required to spend time around.  That person can serve as a gauge of when they’ve worked too long, when they don’t look well, and when they need to take a break.  The requirements of being in such a situation, though I’m sure can themselves be stressful at times, seem from an outsiders point of view to counterbalance the stresses of grad school well.  Alone, I quickly feel guilty for taking any time to deal with personal issues or simply take care of myself, when without anything besides my own desires to worry about, I could just as easily be spending that same time in the lab.  I feel like I don’t have a good excuse not to be.

At the same time, I’m acutely aware of when I need a break.  The problem for me is not that I’m not aware of when I should step back, but the actual act of not doing work for a period of time in order to get the break I need.  It’s guilt that at least partly stems from the way it can be perceived in grad school to want to not be in the lab all the time- especially when there is a culture of working long hours and/or on weekends.  I’m trying to embrace the mentality that hours spent working and productivity are not completely correlated (and I do, truly, believe that), but it is difficult to break through the sense of implicit pressure to always work and the judgement I feel when I’m not working as many hours as other people.  It goes the opposite way, as well- when I lose sight of that truth and work extra (often fruitless) hours, I get frustrated that others around me are working less and getting just as much accomplished.

So I suppose the lesson in this is what I’ve been trying to hold on to throughout my entire graduate school career thus far:  that I’m happiest when I listen to myself and what I need, but that at the same time I need to still work on a way to better process how I react to the feelings of others to avoid feeling guilty for taking care of myself.

Doctoral Directions: Learning to Lead in Biomedicine (day 2)

I am very long overdue on a synopsis of the second day of Doctoral Directions, which took place on March 6th.  (Click here for my recap of day 1.)  In lieu of a long recap, I will give bullet points of some of the topics that were discussed by our keynote speakers and direct you to the Twitter feed for the conference to read some more about the talks and attendee’s thoughts on the topics.

  • Joanne Kamens gave another keynote address, this time on establishing and maintaining work-life balance.  “Science is not just what we do, it’s who we are. If we’re not doing science, we won’t be happy.”
  • Chip Souba gave a talk on flipping the leadership paradigm.  “You [graduate students] don’t have titles, but you’re all leaders.”

I left the conference before the afternoon’s breakout sessions on account of having to TA that afternoon.  Regardless, this year’s Doctoral Directions was a success and I’m looking forward to next year’s conference already!

Doctoral Directions: Learning to Lead in Biomedicine (day 1)

I’m really excited to be live tweeting this year’s Doctoral Directions conference.  Follow the conference at #DocDirections!

Doctoral Directions is a local conference hosted annually in Pittsburgh that focuses on career development for graduate students, medical students, and postdocs.  It’s a two day conference, this year including a Thursday evening dinner session (which this recap is about) and a full day of speakers and breakout sessions on Friday.  This year, the focus of Doctoral Directions is on leadership.  Thursday’s speakers were Joanne Kamens, Chip Souba, and a panel of professors from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, who all spoke on different areas related to facilitating a successful career in biomedicine.

I was particularly excited to hear from Joanne Kamens. She’s the executive director at Addgene, but I’m more familiar with her from following her on Twitter! She gave an excellent, interactive session on networking. In particular, she gave some actionable tips regarding how individuals with different personalities can network successfully. As an introvert, I especially liked her acknowledgement that it’s okay for introverts to practice conversations and introductions before entering into a situation where they’ll actually need to talk to others.  I often hear people talk about networking from such an extroverted perspective, with tips that essentially boil down to talking to and trying to remember conversations with as many people as possible in a limited period of time.  As an introvert, that doesn’t work for me!  It was refreshing to hear the perspective that though introverts and extroverts clearly get their energy from different activities, both can be effective networkers in different ways:  either by being great listeners, or by facilitating connections between others.

Dr. Souba talked about how to embrace being an leader in a world where those of us who are able to pursue our intellectual goals are a large minority.  He commented on our responsibilities to the population to disseminate knowledge while also remaining true to our own desires.  His keynote started off with two questions that framed the talk:  “What do I want to do with my life?” and “Who am I?”.  Not only every scientist, but every person, should ask themselves those two questions in order to determine how they can be an ‘effective human’ and make a mark on the world.  However, my favorite quote from this talk was this: “You can’t make something meaningful for yourself by just deciding it’s going to be meaningful.”  Instead, it takes looking inside yourself to decide what matters to you and then carving out a path that allows you to do that work.  And when you’ve finally figured out what that is, it requires little forced effort to get done- the work just flows out of you because it’s what you are meant to be doing.  Of course, being able to do that type of work is the goal of most individuals; those of us lucky enough to be able to make a career of it are rare, but lucky.  It’s definitely something that hit home for me, and I know that I will be keeping that idea in mind as my idea of what I want my career to look like continues to evolve.

Finally, a panel of biomedical thought leaders from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon spoke about work life balance and how to negotiate that throughout your career.  The general consensus of the panel was that a few specific things are key to having a successful work-life balance throughout your career.  The key ideas that they threw out were to prioritize; maintain a support network (including family); empower others; and manage your time well.  In particular, time management was a key theme throughout this discussion- and as it’s something that I struggle with (case in point:  it’s 12:30 am and I’m writing this recap instead of sleeping!) I was happy to hear it discussed so candidly.  The overarching advice that arose for managing time better was twofold.  One, set boundaries.  Give yourself time off to care for those around you as well as for yourself.  Whether it’s leaving work at a certain time every evening, or giving yourself one scheduled day off every week, find what works for you and make sure to preserve that time.  Two, work efficiently, not more.  Being more productive does not automatically mean that you need to spend more time working.  Instead, you may need to find better uses of the time that you already work in order to increase productivity then.  That way (tying back into point number 1), you can also spend time away from work to cultivate other areas of your life.  The best way to achieve the work-life balance that is appropriate for you and your situation is to put effort into things that are important to you, both at work and in the rest of your life.

So there you have it:  a quick-and-dirty recap of day 1 of Doctoral Directions.  I’ll be live tweeting throughout the morning and afternoon tomorrow, so follow me on Twitter and follow #DocDirections to keep up with the event!  I’ll also be posting a recap of tomorrow’s sessions soon after the conference ends.

Dear Interview Candidates,

Dear Interview Candidates

I’m glad you are applying to graduate school.  From the point of view of a current student, it’s fun to bring in new batches of candidates each year to talk science with and share our love of this program and this city.  It’s neat to see the potential in each year’s prospective class over the 5 weekends we host interviews each year.

But, dear Candidates, please understand this:  while I and all of the other students you interacted with while interviewing were excited to meet you, we were there for you, not for us.  We are already in graduate school, in labs, and pursuing the scientific opportunities we want.  You, on the other hand, are trying to get to that place.  You are interviewing because you have an interest in doing research here, in living here, in becoming a part of the graduate program here.  We are helping with your interview weekend because we love the decision that we made; you are (presumably) interested in learning why you should make the same decision.

It’s called an interview weekend for a reason- the entire visit, not just the formal sit-down meetings with professors, is an interview.  The current students, in fact, do have a say as to whether or not you get accepted into our program.

So please do not waste our time.

Any of the graduate students you saw during the weekend had any number of other things we could have been doing with our time besides spending it with you- sleeping in, doing laundry, going to lab, reading papers, or writing journal articles are just a handful of the things that come to mind- instead of taking you to your interviews all day Friday or giving you a tour of the city at 9:00 am on a Saturday.  At the very least, listen to what we are saying.  Interact with us.  Respond to our comments about the program and the city with questions of your own- we know, after all, that most of you have never been here before, and that none of you are currently in the program.  When we sit with 20 of you on a bus for six hours, or at various lunches and dinners throughout your visit and see nothing but blank stares and the backs of your cell phones, we are not impressed.

Graduate school takes motivation, and it begins now with your interviews.  Make an effort.


A frustrated graduate student

Book Review ~ A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison

Grad school makes it difficult, sometimes, to find the time to do things you enjoy doing outside of science.  I particularly find it easier to fit in fun stuff that has a scheduled time (like a community ed class, or an event) than an activity that’s up to me to choose when to do.  So one thing that I have neglected doing much of since starting grad school is reading for fun.  All throughout my life, I’ve been the one with my nose buried in a book, whether in class, at a sporting event, or while traveling.  But it’s been hard to convince myself recently that after reading scientific papers all day, I want to spend my free time reading, too.

One thing that does get me to spend my free time reading, though, is when I’m asked to review an advance copy of an upcoming novel.  After not finishing an entire book since early summer of 2014, I recently got my hands on an ARC of A Small Indiscretion by debut author Jan Ellison, and it drew me in from chapter 1.  I’m excited to share my thoughts on this book with you today!  You will be able to read it for yourself when it hits shelves next Tuesday, January 20th.

Jan Ellison book coverIt’s amazing how one seemingly inconsequential choice from your past can alter the course of your entire life.  It’s even more spectacular when each member of a family holds a secret like this.  A Small Indiscretion follows the aftermath of a wife’s hidden past, a husband’s secret knowledge of it, and an acquaintance who turns out to be more than just a visitor for the summer.

The web of lies is tangled, but a keen reader will be able to pick up on who knows what before it is explicitly revealed in the text.  While this book is not a mystery novel, it makes it fun for the reader to try and figure out the truths before the characters know them themselves.  On the science side of things, one of the big reveals comes via tissue typing for an organ transplant- a nice surprise, and I picked up on the answer to that mystery rather quickly!

If you are interested in winning a copy of A Small Indiscretion, fill out the form below.  I’ll pick a winner on Sunday!

FTC Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book for review from Random House, via 20 Something Bloggers.  All opinions expressed are my own and were not influenced in any way by receipt of the book for free.  Prizes for the contest winner will be handled by Random  House.

Can your life include science?

“Unless you can’t envision yourself doing anything but science, you shouldn’t go into science.”  While I’m paraphrasing, this philosophy is something that I hear all the time as a science student.  If science isn’t the only thing you are interested in, the only thing you can possibly envision spending your time doing, don’t be a scientist.

Before I entered grad school, I staunchly opposed this point of view.  I earned a dual degree in molecular biology and French literature in undergrad while also being a four-year member of the marching band.  Science + humanities + music:  I was pretty much as well-rounded as you can get, and I enjoyed all the different aspects of these disparate activities.  Though I wanted to pursue a career in research, I couldn’t fathom science being the only thing to occupy my mind all day, every day, for the rest of my life.

As a grad student now, however, I completely understand how science can become all-consuming to a researcher.  Most days, I spend a significant amount of my time at home in the evenings thinking about papers or experiments or what I need to do the next day in lab.  I have experiments planned out for the entire next month.  Sometimes, right before I go to bed, I decide to read “one more” section of a paper, or rework “just one sentence” of an abstract.  So yes- science clearly has the potential to consume even the most stubborn of minds.

And yet I’m doing my best to avoid that happening to me.  That means that while I’m in lab nearly all of every weekday, I try to limit the amount of time that I go into the lab on weekends so that I have time to also pursue other interests.  That includes a few activities that I picked up not long after moving to Pittsburgh (including going to a French conversation group on Saturdays, finding various foodie events around Pittsburgh, and writing for this blog and other publications) and some new adventures (such as an ASL class that I’m quite excited to start this semester!).

Do I feel like any of these activities are taking away from my ability to be a successful scientist?  Absolutely not!  Exactly the opposite, in fact:  I like that science is one portion of my life- a major portion, at that- but I also like that I can take a break when I need to and know that I have interests to pursue in those moments, too.  I can imagine feeling completely overwhelmed with the workload of pursuing a PhD if I wasn’t able to disengage from time to time.  And this has given me a freedom that maybe other grad students/scientists don’t feel:  I don’t feel guilty when I am participating in another activity, because I know that they are just as important to my mental well-being as making progress towards my PhD is.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Although I had a lot of good moments in 2014, I can’t say that I’m too sad to see this year come to an end.  I’m hoping that my resolutions for the new year will help 2015 to overall be more relaxing and more fulfilling for me than 2014 was.

  • Take better care of myself.  The amount of stress I had at the end of 2014 made for a really miserable fall semester.  I need to take more time to myself on activities that will help me relax- not just watching TV as I do most evenings.  On the list?  Reading books; writing more regularly; doing my hair/wearing makeup; actually eating breakfast and lunch.
  • Keep my desk and my apartment cleaner.  I’m admittedly stressed at home too, mostly because of how cluttered my apartment is.  Yesterday alone I filled almost 4 trash bags of things to throw away, yet it barely made a dent.  I’ve never been the most organized person, but I know that if I keep up with cleaning my apartment every day after every mess I make, that in the long term I will feel a whole lot better when I am at home.
  • Budget my time at work better.  I need to get over the notion that the number of hours I spend in the lab each day is a direct correlation with the amount of work I get done.  It’s certainly not.  I need to work on experiments during my most productive hours (first thing in the morning, or right around lunchtime) and also try to get reading or writing done during my other productive time- late at night.  As such, I need to stop being self-conscious about leaving lab a bit earlier in the afternoon, when I know that my productivity in the lab decreases to practically nothing anyway.
  • Shop more responsibly.  I got away from couponing and getting free samples as I got busier and busier this past year.  But I know that if I spend a little bit of time each week clipping coupons and planning my shopping trips, I will have more money to either save or spend on things that I really want, and that’s worth the bit of additional effort up front.
  • Travel more.  I definitely visited more places than usual in 2014, including with the massive road trip I took with my family in August and a few additional states for sciencey things.  But in 2015 I want to do more traveling on my own, for relaxing things that I choose to do on my own without any work involved.  There are so many places I want to go, and now that I (hopefully) will have some flexibility with time, and definitely do now more with finances, I hope that this will be the year I can finally get away more.

24 Things I Know at 24

One of my inspirations, Oprah Winfrey, has a column in her magazine called What I Know For Sure.  I read her magazine every month, and this column is one that sticks with me, and one that I look for with each new edition of the magazine.  I turned 24 earlier this week, so, taking a page out of Oprah’s book, here is my list of 24 Things I Know at 24:

About life:

  1. The world is big, and waiting to be explored.
  2. The most devastating moments can ultimately lead to something great, even if it takes years to realize.
  3. The past is the past.
  4. Accepting that the past can’t be changed is simultaneously the most difficult and most freeing thing you can do.
  5. Even though the future is uncertain, you can maintain stability day to day.

About people:

  1. People don’t change.
  2. Each person is shaped by his or her own previous experiences.
  3. The experiences that define one person’s reality are no more or less valid than those that define another’s.
  4. Age does not equal maturity.
  5. One-sided friendships are not worth the effort.
  6. People grow apart, and it’s okay to let them go.
  7. Pick your battles.
  8. A deep breath can make all the difference in a heated conversation.
  9. It is important to surround yourself with people who leave you feeling good about yourself.
  10. Family relationships evolve over time.

About work:

  1. Work is done better and more efficiently when motivation is the driving force to get it done.
  2. Work-life balance is impossible to achieve; there will always be one more thing to do either at home or at work.
  3. Your job title does not need to define every thing you do in your life.

About my/yourself:

  1. A conclusion that I draw myself holds more weight than one that is spoon fed to me by anyone else.
  2. Quiet time to relax and recuperate is imperative each day.
  3. Living in fear of guilt is paralyzing.
  4. Everyone needs one activity they can count on to relax them.
  5. If you don’t take care of yourself, everything else will start to fall apart.
  6. It is possible to do everything if you manage your time properly.

The end of the semester (ish)

End of semester confusion

When classes are no longer the deciding factor as to when winter break begins, things become a lot more ambiguous.  As such, having to decide for myself when to take a break from lab to visit family and/or go on vacation has been exceedingly stressful for me this year.  It’s even more so because I don’t celebrate Christmas, so I don’t have any particular dates that I need to be with family this winter.

Last year, my rotation ended on a Friday, my last assignment was due the following Tuesday, and then I was free from obligations until the first Monday after the new year.  This year, classes have ended, my last assignment is due tomorrow, and then…I can (and should, to an extent) stay in lab except for however much time I decide to spend out of town.  In my case, the determination of how much time that is is up to me as my PI is flexible- within reason- about how much time and when everyone in the lab takes time off for the holidays.

I wish it were more straightforward.  I want to go on vacation (and not just to my parents’ house), but besides the fact that vacations during the holidays are so, so costly, I don’t want to seem like I am taking advantage of my PI’s flexibility and generosity, and I know that the longer I’m away, the more stressful my first week back is going to be with all the things I will want to do in the lab.  And yet I know that I need a break, a refresher, so that I can be productive come 2015.  Many of my friends from far away (both in the States and international) planned their trips home long ago, and that makes sense as they don’t see their families throughout the year.  Even some of my friends from closer are excited to go home to see their families for Christmas.

I, on the other hand, took an extended vacation with my family back in August, was just home for Thanksgiving, saw my family about monthly throughout the year, and really don’t have a desire to spend the entirety of the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s back in New Jersey.  I could have planned to go away earlier in the month (when flight and hotel prices are cheaper), but there are a few meetings at which I feel obligated to be in attendance; and along the same vein, I have such trouble planning for things too far in advance for fear that something will come up that I feel pressure to attend.  So for this year, at least, that’s now out of the question.

All I have decided for now is that I’ll be in New Jersey from December 20-22, for a holiday party on the 20th, family Hanukkah on the 21st, and my birthday on the 22nd.  After that, who knows…any suggestions?