Moving toward a happier, more productive graduate research experience #PhDChat

We're sitting pretty at week ten of another academic year here in northern Utah. As I reflect, this is my seventh November in a research lab at one university or another. After seeing the usual recurring start to another academic year, I decided to pen some notes to address a few issues that come up within the graduate research world each and every year. A lot of people come at research from a lot of different angles, but these are my observations from many good - and a few less than good - experiences and some real talk with mentors and peers over the years.

A drone, the Utah Climate Center, and a GIF. Researchers having fun at work.
 1. Write and/or read every day if possible.

When I entered graduate school, someone once told me that my job was to "create information while mastering existing information." They were referring to the tasks that are added onto a recent undergraduate's workload. No longer is it about the straight A report card, but rather it's about asking and answering questions within the framework of a given discipline. To slide your question into that scientific discussion and framework requires a dedication to understanding what has been done, and clearly articulating how your questions build on that existing work. You can only understand where you're going by understanding the past (reading) and then verbalizing how it all works moving forward (writing). Write in a journal on the park bench. Blog. Try to form an argument on paper every day, iteratively improving and building upon it over the weeks, months, and years. Find a strategy, schedule and supportive group of people that help you write, revise and repeat. Yeah, stuff happens, and you won't be able to have the hard and fast schedule when you're in the field, etc. but it's a lofty and not entirely unreasonable goal for office weeks.

Lofty goals


2. Balance is not optional.

Research is an extremely demanding lifestyle, and one that can be all-consuming. That said, nobody is going to cite your H-Index at your funeral. During the requiem they'll talk about the places you went, the way you treated the people at those places, how good your jokes were, and how you were committed to your family. They may reference your love of esoteric music, obscure sports, and under-appreciated literature. They may talk about the way you ran your first marathon or climbed K2, how sick your violin chops were or how great you were at cooking and sharing a meal. Turn the computer off every once in a while and make sure you find the time to live outside your research.

After all, research is just a part of a balanced, ambitious life...and life's a garden, can you dig it?

Digging the garden, Naomi Peak Wilderness - 1 Nov 2014.


3. The first rule of fellowships is...don't talk about your fellowship.

One thing I've always noticed in grad school is the disparity between the haves and have-nots within a given department or college. This is especially true for graduate students who work under faculty with different expectations and philosophies. Some people teach four years, others have no-obligation funding at every turn, and the paychecks vary dramatically. When on the winning end, it's best to play it cool and humble. Nobody likes a CV appended to your email signature. People win awards all the time in this business, and people will recognize the intangibles that make an award-winning scientist by how they roll day-in and day-out.

I was once in a car with three other graduate students, two of whom are extremely productive and both fellows from large funding bodies, and the fourth guy immediately wanted to discuss his "esteemed fellowship" that "perhaps, we'd heard of" because "...it's kind of a big deal." Long story short, we didn't feel obligated to drop our own titles, paper counts or grants awarded...and we really didn't feel obligated to kick it with said graduate student from that day forward.

Fellowships - speaking of which, your GRFP is due this week.
4. Admit you're a part of a team...

Boom. This is the big one. We're all the products of our collective experiences and exposure to different people. From the person who brought you into the department to the funding agency that paid for it, you're on a team every single day that you roll through the halls of a research lab. The team starts with your peers within your lab, works up to your boss, and generally cascades through the department. The team you were able to join started with a lot of things, some of which may have been privilege (economic, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), so pay that forward, acknowledge that society has afforded you the chance to play on a team, and then go forth playing your position as well as you can.

5. ...And contribute to a winning one.

Some teams are better than others at doing what they do, but no team gets any better by an individual competing with her/his teammates. Everybody feels a bit insecure. We all have our doubts. And we all respond differently to these emotions. If you wake up every day intent on doing your best and helping your team do their best to reach their goals, your team is going to rise. You'll build a culture of support, collaboration, and creativity that generally feels safe, fun, and allows each person to take the risks associated with striving for their personal best and to meet their individual goals. I try to acknowledge my team at every turn, because I'm stoked that (a) they keep me around, and (b) because I'm stoked on how hard they charge and how ambitious, creative, and talented they are.

The stand that grows together gets a winning view of Mt. Rainier, WA, USA
6. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

You can't do everything all the time, and you can't do everything quickly all the time. I liken a long-term research project to a steep, trail ultramarathon: there are lots of big hills, some up, some down, and at the end of the project a lot of conscious small motions will add up to a few big ones. Make each of them count by taking the time to do them right, even if it's harder than just slamming something together quickly.
Long roads and reasonable paces, Smoot, WY

7. Acknowledge your humanity.

If we believe that everyone should be a research machine, then we're going to act like machines and demand others act like us. We're human. See #2, #4 and #5. At the end of the day, we can't be perfect, we can't do it all, and we can't justify not embracing the social, personal, and emotional aspects of the research lifestyle. Give people the room to be themselves and hopefully they'll give it back to you.

Go big and believe, Logan Peak, UT, USA
8. Believe in yourself.

I have known a lot of peers who have an awful time jumping over their own self-doubt to achieve what everyone else knows and sees is possible from them. It's hard to stand up and deliver every single day, so decrease the drag on your ascent by not letting the ripples of doubt splash too hard. A good team (#4, #5, #7) with a good culture helps people to feel like they can accomplish whatever they set their minds to. Have faith in your abilities, your preparation, and don't let the day-to-day academic negatives (paper rejection, grant rejection, fellowship application rejection, advisor beef, overly competitive peers) influence your self-worth. It's not worth it and you've jumped enough hurdles to get here. Trust your abilities and judgement and talk to friends, mentors, and if need be, a mental health professional to get you on the right page with yourself.

9. Research isn't a contest, fight, or combat metaphor.

Boom again. This hustle is all about shared relationships and ideas and mutual trust, respect and support. Strive for your own personal best and the excellence you can achieve, not to steamroll the guy/gal down the hall. The research metaphor is much more a family metaphor than anything, so don't be the creepy aunt/uncle or crappy step-brother/sister.

The view is pretty good from the top, Bear River Range, UT, USA

10. Embrace the grind.

Like running uphill, in long-term research you have to just grin, sing your favorite tune and smile all the way to the ridge. The view will probably be pretty nice from the top. If you hate running, there's only so much you can do until the race is over.