Category Archives: PhD

“Making up for lost time”

It seems that whenever I hear the phrase “making up for lost time” it’s always in the context of an incredibly motivating story: someone escapes from a near-death experience with a renewed sense of purpose, another finds joy from reconnecting with estranged family members, yet another discovers their passion for healthy eating and healthy living.  It’s a phrase that’s meant to be inspiring.  Well, the perfectionist in me has a serious issue with the idea of making up for lost time.  Frankly, it’s overwhelming.  The tagline of my blog is “putting one foot in front of the other” for a reason: it’s simple and it reminds me that I don’t need to obsess about where I came from or where I’m going.  I only need to focus on progress one step at a time.

As a graduate student in my fourth year, I’m feeling this pressure to make up for lost time more and more often: it’s time to publish, time to make due on all that time spent on research.  I understand that my advisor wants me to publish – it’s what pays the bills and allows our research to benefit the community.  I can respect that.  But now it’s beginning to feel less like “let’s publish this research” and more like “you should have published already”.  The impression I get is that every action (aside from adding text or figures to my draft) is a waste of time.

With all of this pressure, I can’t help but think back on my graduate career and say “if only I knew then what I do now – I would have been a great graduate student” (read: published a lot).  I spent so many hours working on the code, reading articles, taking notes at seminars, but these didn’t translate into papers.  During my first year I added new functionality to our group’s code and was excited to use this to produce new results.  I found an article I wanted to compare the results against and I brought them to my advisor.  His response: “This article is a waste of time – let’s do [something more complicated]”.  So I found myself hacking away at the code again.  Two years (and several unsuccessful projects) later, to my surprise, I found myself at a presentation where our new post-doc presented exactly what I had wanted to do in my first year (same analysis, same article for comparison).  He didn’t need to add anything to the code, he just needed to run it.  Within months he was able to publish a paper.  He was allowed to pluck the low-hanging fruit.  And all the while, I feel like I’ve been a failure for not publishing.

The truth of it is this: it’s hard not to feel the need to “make up for lost time” when you’re surrounded by brilliant professors who have been publishing in your field for decades.  There’s a lot to learn as a graduate student – and I’m not only talking about the science.  In addition to the formulas and experimental and numerical techniques, I needed to (and still need to) learn how to code well and how to organize my work.  Some of the work I did the past few years has been lost because I didn’t take the time to document things properly.  I never found a system that worked for me.  All the articles I’ve read are scattered among ambiguously-labeled folders and binders in my office.  It’s inefficient and frustrating.  What I know now is that it’s important to take the time to be organized – to keep a record – and I wish this had been emphasized by my advisor.  His attitude towards documentation can be summed up as “if it’s not going to be published, there’s no sense writing it” and he openly mocks the idea that metadata is important (it is).

On good days I remember how far I’ve come since I started graduate school and how much I value the activities that I spent my time on (time that I could have been churning out papers, theoretically).  During the first two years I spent most of my time on a heavy course load, but still found time to contribute to the code that has been an essential tool for my research thus far.  I’ve been the teaching assistant for three classes now, one of which took upwards of twenty hours a week (never again).  My greatest blessing during my graduate studies has been another student in our group who introduced me to Linux (and so much more) and is now mentoring me as I maintain our group’s “super-mini” computing cluster.  Without a doubt, the time I’ve spent (and continue to spend) on class, computers, and teaching has been well worth it, but it’s hard to remember that when all I’m hearing is “publish, publish, publish”.

So what am I doing now to succeed as a graduate student?  I’m redefining what it means to succeed – the fact that I haven’t published does not mean this time has been a waste.  I’m also writing more.  I’m organizing my thoughts on a daily basis and in a semi-organized manner.  Admittedly, it’s hard to be completely organized when my work is so exploratory and uncertain.  I now keep a daily record of my goals and accomplishments for the day, along with a to-do list for the future.  Each day’s list is a simple text document, so it’s easily searchable.  I’ve also started a project that I’m calling my “daily literature review” where I write about an article I’ve read.  I summarize the purpose of the paper in my own words, make a note of interesting results, identify what I consider its pros and cons, and I keep track of other related articles I might want to read later.  I’ll see how it works and post about it here – I’m hoping this will help me develop the literature review I need for the article I’m writing.

Writing this post has helped me realized that the time I’ve lost has not been the time spent on classes, computers, code, or teaching, but rather the time I spent telling myself that I was failing – that I was bad at my job.  Even if that is truly the case (which I hope it isn’t), there’s no sense sitting around feeling sorry for myself.  I choose to move forward (one step at a time), and here’s how I’m going to do it:

  • by appreciating all that I’ve learned and accomplished in the past few years,
  • by finding an organization system that enhances my efficiency at work,
  • and by sharing my lessons learned via this blog (to help others be more productive).

Well, here’s hoping for another successful year.

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