2014 – This will be the year

Over the past year and a half, I’ve experienced a number of losses that have affected me profoundly.  These experiences have left me with a new perspective on my life.  Life is short.  I need to learn to appreciate my life now, not wait for some future that may not happen.  I need to stop putting off personal goals so that I can achieve professional goals.

For so long, I’ve focused on achieving mid- to long-range goals.  For example, during my master’s, I focused on getting into my top choice for PhD programs.  During much of my PhD, I’ve focused on setting myself up for a tenure-track position.  Along the way, I worked hard and allowed myself few breaks. Now that I am nearing the end, I find myself very burned out.  I can no longer pretend I am so hardcore that I enjoy working from 7 am to 11 pm (with a couple hours in between to walk to and from the office as well as for preparing meals), 7 days a week.  It doesn’t help that I don’t find my dissertation topic interesting or important anymore.  I need to finish.  I will finish.  But, I also need to find a way to live in the present. Image

Now, as I begin a new year—the year I will graduate—I want to think about and prepare for the next several months in a positive way.  The two goals I have for this year seem to boil down to diametrically opposed aspirations (in this order): 1) stop being so chronically stressed out and 2) finish my dissertation.  Actually, I think finishing my dissertation will help a lot to reduce my overall stress because writing a dissertation is hard (no kidding) and because I have hated my PhD experience (I’ll get into more specifics with a future post).  Since I’m not going to quit my PhD, I need to get the writing over and be done with my department ASAP. At any rate, I’m going take a stab at organizing some positive steps to get me to both of these goals.

First, I need to knock my dissertation off the pedestal I put it on and accept that it isn’t going to make a huge breakthrough.  It will not be published in PNAS, Science, Nature, etc., and that’s ok.  It will not be perfect, and that’s ok too.  No research is perfect.  I need to let go of my perfectionist tendencies and embrace my undergrad mentor’s mantra: better done than good.  For me, this is much easier said than done, but I’ll never finish if I wait until I find my dissertation acceptable.  Second, as another former advisor used to rhetorically ask me as I wrote my thesis, “How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.”  Instead of being overwhelmed and paralyzed by the amount of work I need to do before I schedule a defense, I need to focus on getting pieces completed.  Therefore, I plan to will devote:

  • At least 1 hour a day to writing and generating figures.  If I can’t write, I will sit there for the hour and brainstorm ideas for a section.  Thinking about it is still working, and it’s better than nothing.
  • At least 4 hours in the lab, 5 days a week to finish the last bits of labwork until I have enough for the three data chapters.
  • Twenty hours per week on TA-ship responsibilities during the spring semester.

Since I know that I feel less stressed when I have a set routine, I need to decide on a routine that fits in all of this work as well as exercise and execute it when the semester starts.  I can use the couple weeks in between now and then to practice getting into this routine.   In addition to these tangible goals, I will work on a few less easily measured goals to help me with stress. These are:

  • Walk/jog 10 miles (cumulative)/day 6 days per week.  Add stretching, yoga, and/or meditation 5 days/week.  Disclosure: I currently walk about 10 miles a day, so I’m adding a little (1-2 miles) jogging (gah!) to this goal to shake things up both for my body and mind (if I’m jogging, I can’t dwell on anything aside from breathing and desperately listening for the mile marker to be announced on my pedometer app).
  • Stop caring that other people might be judging me for not putting in a traditional 8 (or 10 or 12) hour day at the office.  I work from home before and after I get to the office, taking breaks in between to go for long walks.  I am more productive this way.
  • Enjoy sporadic conversations with my colleagues while at the office (instead of being stressed out that I’m not getting anything done).
  • Take a bath at least once a week with a fun read, a glass of wine, some chill music, and lots of bubbles.

I could probably set several more goals, but I think this is a good start.  Basically, I need to set a daily routine and stick to it, and allow myself the guilt-free time off.

Are you setting some goals to accomplish in 2014?  How do you plan to accomplish those goals?


19 thoughts on “2014 – This will be the year

  1. I could have written this post. Thank you so much for calming me down in the face of an overwhelming workload (and an unfinished data chapter!). I think my work goals are 2 hrs manuscript writing per workday, 1 hr postdoc app work (as needed), 20 hrs/wk on my TA, 3-4 hrs in the lab. My personal goals are to walk to work at least 3 times per week, to make myself 2-3 meals a day, and to get in at least 5 hrs of knitting and/or TV per week.

    • Good luck with your goals and finishing your data chapter, FSGrad! I’m glad you found my post helpful and it’s nice to hear that I’m not the only one in this situation.

  2. My first though reading that was also that I could have written that post! Just knowing that I’m not the only one going through this end-of-thesis crap makes me feel soo much better. So thank you. I don’t know if I’ll be walking/jogging 10 miles a day, but I think just allowing myself to exercise an hour a day instead of stressing about not using that time to get more writing done would be good for me. Good luck with your goals – you will finish this year!

    • Wendy, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one going through this either! I think you’ll find you will be more productive if you allow your mind to rest during exercise. My thesis is when I started walking so much (and lost >40 lb too!)–whenever I was stuck in analysis or writing, I went for a walk. It never failed that when I was at the farthest point from my computer, I would have a great idea, and then the walk back was even faster so I didn’t forget! Good luck with your goals too and have a great new year!

  3. Oh, the daily routine. That’s one of my goals – to have something resembling a daily routine and more or less stick to it through the semester.
    Another (related) is to finally work out how to block off time (almost) every day to write, and to read papers. rather than have it pushed to the last thing at the last minute.

    Here’s something I was successful at in 2013: my desk didn’t disappear under a pile of papers (mostly because I don’t print papers, I read on electronic devices. My students did exams online. And when i do use paper, I use a book instead of loose sheets).

    • … and not to let ‘others’ intrude on your defined blocks of time, bcs you ‘seem to be doing nothing much’ ….or even seem to yourself to be doing ‘nothing much’….. it is easy to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no, I’m busy’ when someone asks you do do something.

    • I like your goal for 2013 too! At some point, I need to weed through my paper articles and recycle what I have digitally. I’m definitely using a book this year to take notes on articles that I read and ideas that I have. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Sounds like you’re on a great, positive track!

    When I was early in my grad career, there was a senior student who was on clinical internship who would come into the lab in late afternoon/early evening to write. I once commented about how scary writing a dissertation is, and she told me to think about it as one project, not a life defining one. That eventually helped me frame the work in a less scary, I’ll never be able to do this, way.

    This year I’m working on writing a certain # of hours a week to reach a goal for a total # of hours of writing for the year. Anyone is welcome to join (http://www.evalefkowitz.com/1/post/2013/12/join-the-2014-writing-challenge.html).

  5. “First, I need to knock my dissertation off the pedestal I put it on and accept that it isn’t going to make a huge breakthrough.” – congratulations, just writing this is the first step in accepting that your little piece of research is what it is – nothing more, but certainly nothing less. Three suggestions to help you achieve your aim, from an ‘oldie’ who had much trouble finishing her PhD when she was a mature-age students with 3 kids and a farm: (1) draw a line in the sand and say ‘no more reading, no more expts after that point and (2) understand that no-one else in the whole world knows more about this topic than you do – it is YOURS, all yours and (3) you don’t need to eat the whole whale – your dissertation is only one defined little bit of it.

    I couldn’t get finished until I accepted these things, then when i did it all happened quite quickly, like rushing down a hill.

    All the very best to you and all the comment-posters here – happy new year. Hope each of you enjoy chewing on your little bit of whale. (Hope Greenpeace isn’t reading).

    • Thanks d! You have great advice. So far I’m off to a great start, but it’s only been one day. I’m glad I set my goals publicly this year. Thanks for your comments–I always enjoy them!

  6. Those final months can be crazy, so you are doing well to have a plan! Reading your post was as if I was having a flashback to my own dissertating years. The three years since have been a whirlwind with settling into a tenure track position at a SLAC. I have discovered many amazing things about myself in this life after dissertation (AD) that I wish I had known when I was struggling through those grad school years. I, like you and so many grad students, spent 20+ hours on TA duties each week. TA duties of course vary a lot and in many cases can be quite demanding and can easily require many hours. In my case, TA positions usually consisted of 1 prep for 2 lab sections and discussions/wk. At the time this often seemed daunting and I definitely put TA work ahead of research many weeks. Now that I find myself teaching 3 lecture+2-3 lab preps/semester (no TAs to cover labs) all while trying to maintain an active research program and enjoy life a bit, I reflect back on those grad school TA days and wish I had known then my new-found ability to juggle so much teaching with research. I definitely am not suggesting to you or others that you spend less time on teaching duties than what you deem necessary, but it may be possible to open up more hours in your week by forcing more efficiency with teaching prep/grading (20 hrs is quite a big chunk of the week…even if that is what you are technically being paid to do). With more forced timelines I find that I am no less (and sometimes more) effective in the teaching area of my job. Good Luck!

    • Thanks and great advice, beenthere! TAing (and teaching) can be a huge time sink–sucking up as much time as you’ll give it. I’ve learned to be more efficient, but that’s a skill I’m still working on improving. This year, unless I have a pressing deadline with my TA responsibilities, I’m putting my writing and labwork first. If I don’t get something done in a particular week, it won’t be my stuff that falls through the cracks! (Hopefully my advisor doesn’t know who I am).🙂

      • Reading your replies, Gracie, reminded me that sometimes a scheduled stint at teaching and grading can be as helpful as exercise in helping unstick your mind from whatever problem it is dealing with and giving it a distance perspective. The other advantage of teaching is that you get to finish something every week, the actual class and/or the grading; and in the middle of the muddle of writing-up, finishing anything at all seems like luxury. p.s. I totally agree with the value of exercise in unwinding the tight mind, I found that too.

  7. Good luck with 2014! One of the things that helped me get through my PhD was a lot of figuring out how to deal with stress. I didn’t do it alone, there were so many others in my life who helped with it, but it boiled down to figuring out what I can do and what I can’t do, and making sure that I don’t burn myself out when I try to do when I can’t. Great hbar, it can be hard, especially with the pressures inherent in academia and lab culture. I hope you’re able to stick to your routine, to make the stress manageable, and to knock your dissertation out of the park while doing it your way.

  8. Love seeing all of these responses from other “terminal” graduate students (a term I stole from my advisor)! I’m also in the end stages, trying to write papers and finish experiments and find a job. As far as stress management goes, I’ve had a lot of success as a student making medium-term to-do lists, usually on a monthly basis–it’s detailed enough to let me cross off tasks that I’ve completed, but not so detailed that I get bogged down in minutia and feel like I’m not making any progress. I’ve battled some pretty serious anxiety in the past, and I’ve finally realized that at least giving myself the illusion of control is important for my sanity. My list this month contains specific items related to a manuscript in progress, a couple of experiments I need to tackle, and lots of job-related things (career center meetings, paperwork, securing letters, etc).

    So, my goals for the year (or at least the next 6 months):
    1. Block off at least 4 hours/week for writing/editing, preferably somewhere that isn’t my lab
    2. Treat my workouts like appointments. I’ve really been blowing off the “take care of myself first” mantra this year, and I’m a much better person when I commit some time each day for a workout (even if it’s a short one).
    3. Care less about things that I can’t control, namely coworkers who are lazy and/or mean-spirited and having to commute back and forth between my apartment and my SO’s place.

    • @Norwegian Forest Cat – re your #3. Yes. Two deep breaths about things you can’t control. A very wise person once told me (actually several of us at a training session): “you need to work around people who are annoying, you will never change them”. Taking this on board really made a difference to my stress levels at work.

  9. While writing up my dissertation, I was able to achieve a big picture of my research that helped me get excited about my project. This was a completely unexpected–especially since I did not enjoy my research–and helpful attitude when writing. I wish all of you writing your dissertations a renewed excitement about your research.

    I find writing very challenging, partly because I tend to edit a sentence before it’s completely on the page. One way I overcome this was to type ideas, comments, and snarky retorts [[double-check the definition]] to my inner critic in double brackets. It became easier to get my thoughts down, which made the whole writing exercise more effective. It was easy to search for [[ to find areas I wanted to edit.

    Best of luck, gracieabd, and all you other abd’s.

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