Taking the scenic route

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reflecting on the choices I’ve made during grad school and how long it has taken me to finish.  When I first started, I learned that the average amount of time to get a PhD (at least in this field) is 5 years, although it can be done as quickly as 3 years.  So of course, I thought I could get it done in 4.  Why not?  I’ve always been above average – good grades, prior research experience, and everyone says how smart I am.

But here I am, 5.5 years later,  planning to graduate in May.  6 years for a PhD.  Not the 4 I had planned, not the 5 that is average, but 6.  And ever since year 4 rolled around, I’ve been convinced that I could graduate in the next 6 months.

I’ve been beating myself up about it for awhile:  How can it take me so much longer to finish than I thought?  What’s holding me back?  Why can’t I work hard enough to get this done?

I still haven’t figured out the answers to those questions.  Now I think that maybe it is because they are the wrong questions.  So I started challenging my original assumption instead.  What makes it so bad to take longer to get a PhD?

The answer, it turns out, is quite complex.  There is nothing inherently wrong with taking longer to get a PhD, at least in the US where there is no set time limit.  Employers, whether in academia or industry, don’t look to see how long it took, but look at your list of accomplishments (i.e., papers) and your skill set.  Sometimes, taking longer means you start the post-PhD stage as a better candidate.  Other times, though, taking longer means you are incapable of wrapping up a project, of finishing.

The same is true for completing a PhD quickly. It could mean that you are driven and focused – you know what you want and you accomplish it.  Or it could mean that you did the bare minimum to graduate and don’t actually know enough or have enough experience to proceed.

Now, I’m trying to focus less on the actual amount of time I’ve spent in graduate school, and more on what I’ve done with my time.  Considering the matter this way makes me feel better about myself – all that “extra” time was spent working on side projects that, in the end, give me more experience.  Of course, the rate at which I learn new skills or become involved in other research must increase with each extra year I spend in graduate school, or it will quickly become not worth the money I’m not making by sticking around longer.  So, don’t worry *insert concerned family member here*, I’m definitely motivated to finish up and move on.

I still dislike the questions you often get from those not in the know about how this whole graduate school system works.  Maybe we need a new metric, at least for casual conversation:  “No, I am not just a fifth year PhD student, I actually have a great productivity to research credits ratio.”  But someone else can come up with that.

I’ve got a dissertation to write.


Always backup data, always!

I haven’t talked much about this, mostly because I’m still somewhat traumatized, but last August I lost a large portion of my data.  Avoiding the gritty details, it was one of those freak mishaps where, in a system with n redundancies, n+1 fail at once.

Overall, I’d say I lost about 3-6 months in the process.  There was a month or more where I was waiting to see if it was recoverable, then the time spent afterward to re-do what was lost.

I’ll be honest, it was incredibly frustrating for me. Mostly because events felt out of my control – there was nothing I could do to make it better besides just starting again. On the positive side, everything I had to recreate I did better and much more efficiently.  I was almost astonished at how much I had improved – it’s not something I notice on a daily basis, but this comparison really brought it out.

After I sufficiently recovered from the shock, I decided to take a good look at how I store my work-related files.  I wanted to minimize the damage if something like this ever happened again.  I now have a system that works pretty well and makes me feel relatively safe.  If I lose the files I’m currently working on, I will lose only a month or less of progress, which is pretty reasonable, given that it only takes me a few hours each month to backup everything.

If you don’t have your research files backed up in several locations, I highly recommend you do so now.  I’ve created an infographic (my first!) to illustrate my process.  Start there, and modify so that it works for you.

How To: Backup data for graduate students

Living the 9 to 5 life

Graduate school, despite the word “school” in the title, is much more like a having job than going to college.  Except you probably don’t get benefits or raises, and you are expected to keep on learning.  So, I’ve decided to treat it as such and work from about 9 to 5 every day.  Here’s why its a good idea:

1. It sets the stage for your career.  Do you want to spend the rest of your life working evenings and weekends?  No?  Me neither.  That’s why I decided to only work relatively normal hours.  I’m practicing for the future.  I find that having limited time to work makes that time more productive (see point 3).  I’ve also accepted that I might have been able to do more work if I had stayed longer hours.  But, I’m okay with prioritizing my happiness over a potentially prestigious future job that would stress me out.  By setting the amount of work time I have each week, I contain myself at a level that is sustainable in the long term and isn’t a stress-work roller coaster.

2. It makes you visible to the faculty.  The majority of faculty members work during normal business hours.  They aren’t constrained to, at least not by the university.  Mostly it is because this schedule fits best with other factors such as when other faculty members are around, when kids are in school, and when classes need to be taught.  Regardless, the best time for you to be in your office is when they are around to see you.  Yes, graduate school is not about working hours, but about accomplishing certain tasks.  However, professors are still human.  They are more likely to believe that you are making progress if they see you in your office everyday than if you work evenings when no one is around.

3. It increases productivity.  I’ve known graduate students who spend long hours in the lab and at their office.  You may be one of them.  They always have so much to do and not enough time to do it.  They also tend to be the ones who take long coffee or gossip breaks during the day.  Now think about what would happen if they took those breaks and worked through them.  Instead of having to pace yourself to survive a long work day, you could plow through it, knowing you get to go home at 5.  Plus, there’s also the motivation of a time crunch.  If you only have limited hours to work, you have to make them count.

There are, of course, some caveats.  Field work is exempt, for obvious reasons.  If you are still taking classes, homework may pose an issue.  I chose to try to complete homework at home, in my off time, leaving my 9 to 5 day for research.  You can also choose to make homework a part of your work day and leave any large projects or hard problem sets for after hours.  The same goes for teaching assistants.  Decide if you want to fit grading papers into your daily schedule, or if you are prioritizing that time for research.

Then there are the important research activities.  The paper that is due tomorrow, studying for exams, practicing a presentation.  There is no need to restrict these to your 9 to 5 day.  You can stay a little late, take some work home over the weekend, whatever it takes.  As long as it doesn’t become staying late everyday and working every weekend.

Lab work is another problem to the 9 to 5 work day.  If you can do your labwork within that day, great!  If not, consider trading hours between your work time and home time.  For every hour you stay over to work in the lab, take another hour off on some other day.  Do you work late two nights a week?  Then leave on Fridays at noon.  If at all possible, try to stay true to suggestion #2 and schedule your lab time to overlap either normal working hours, or when a faculty member will be around to see you working.

Overall, working a typical 9 to 5 shift as a graduate student can be beneficial for you.  Be careful not to take these recommendations too strictly though – they can be easily modified and still achieve the same effect.  For example, I work best in the mornings, so my “shift” is closer to 8 to 4.  I also do better with a long, non-work related lunch break.  So I make up for this time by occasionally taking home books or papers to read.  Figure out what works best for you and stick with it!

So, how do you normally work?  Is a 9 to 5 workday reasonable for you?