Always rushing, never celebrating

One of the most discomfiting moments of last semester came in my lab meeting in late November. I’d just submitted a big grant and we had gotten past a conference where my students presented preliminary results and research plans. I felt like celebrating. But we were also in the throes of the end of semester craziness. I asked the students to go around the table and tell the group what they’d accomplished during the semester and what they still wanted to get done. The first student quickly listed off about 5 things she wanted to accomplish before the end of the term. There was a long pause and then she managed to articulate one thing she’d accomplish already. I gently reminded her about the poster she’d presented only the week before. There was an “Oh yeah, there was that.” And what about the fellowship application she’d submitted a week before that? “Right, that too.” We moved on to the next student. She listed close to 10 things she wanted to get done before the term ended in 3 weeks. And then she tried to pass off to the next student. “But what did you accomplish?”, I queried. She said that she’d made a poster, but had to be prompted before she’d include instrumenting a field site and beginning data collection (a massive undertaking) in her list of things she’d achieved during the semester. We moved onto the third student…and the same thing happened. Even having watched me prompt her colleagues for their achievements, she still focused on the to-do list. And so it went.

Those few minutes have stuck with me, because I’m tremendously proud of what my students have gotten done in the few short months they’ve been in graduate school, but I’m also worried that I’m setting the wrong tone for them. Last semester was a one tough one for me; I was constantly rushing from one deadline to another. There were a lot of reasons why the semester got ugly and some of them were unique to that time period, but it’s not unique for me to be caught up in a whirl of “busyness.” I’m already feeling that way about this semester – and we haven’t even started classes yet. But I’m increasingly recognizing that feeling frantic all the time isn’t good for me and it’s not good for my family. What that moment in lab meeting showed me is that it doesn’t seem to be good for my students either.

Always rushing… Used under a CC license from flickr user John Fraissinet. Click photo for link to original.

Always rushing… Used under a CC license from flickr user John Fraissinet. Click photo for link to original.

I don’t think it’s just me – I think our whole academic culture is to blame. We are a culture of checking things off to-do lists. (I endorse a Remember the Milk pro subscription.) We are a culture that rewards productivity (MOAR grants, MOAR papers), regardless of how that productivity is achieved. We are a culture where boasting contests about who’s busier and who’s getting less sleep are not uncommon. We are a culture that rushes from one thing to the next, while multi-tasking, and never stops to celebrate what we’ve accomplished. I think that’s why my students found my prompt so hard.

Even if I miraculously achieve an entirely different ethos this semester and forever more, I won’t make much of a difference in the academic culture. But I will make a difference in my own life, in the life of my family, and maybe I’ll be a more reasonable role model for my students.

I don’t think I can really “un-busy” myself, but this year my goal is to be more purposeful in the endeavors I take on. If I’m going to be busy, I want it to be busy with things that are really important to me personally and to my career – which is a smaller number of things than I’ve been running around doing in past years. For me, this means focusing grant proposals on more core disciplinary funding opportunities, rather than stretching myself so much for interdisciplinary targets. It means focusing on tending the student and publications parts of my research conveyor belt. It means saying “NO.” And it means regularly taking a little bit of time to reflect on what I’ve gotten done and what it means to me. And to celebrate.

I don’t know how I’ll do with my plan… as I said, I’m already feeling a bit crazy before the term even officially starts… but I know two of the ways I’ll be measuring my success. At the end of this semester, what have my students and I accomplished? And, can we each articulate and celebrate our accomplishments without the shadow of the never-ending to-do list entering the conversation? And then I’ll take my students out for a celebration of all the amazing things we’ve done. Because we will…we are… doing amazing things. We all are. And I think we all deserve a moment to savor that thought.

One option for a simple celebration… Photo by  mhaithaca on flickr. Used under a CC license. Click image for link to original.

One option for a simple celebration… Photo by mhaithaca on flickr. Used under a CC license. Click image for link to original.

21 thoughts on “Always rushing, never celebrating

  1. Great post! Maybe if you tell them beforehand that they’ll need to share their accomplishments they’ll have a more prepared list. I know that I can never remember things off the top of my head when I have so many To Dos to do. This might force them to look in their “done” list and reflect on their accomplishments even more.

    • I love the first 3 paragraphs of this post (and the rest of it, but especially the first three). I wish I’d known about it before I wrote my post so I could have linked to it, because it is a spot on assessment of academic culture. I also like the idea in the post and comment thread that being busy is, in some ways, a privilege because it means that we have interesting work to do that provides well for us. That’s why I don’t want to be “un-busy”, I just want to keep it manageable and focus less on what needs to be done at the expense of what has been done.

  2. I tell my students to keep a running document that they update every time they accomplish something. That way, when it comes time to fill in “what-you’ve-done” forms (e.g. faculty activity reports), you don’t forget anything.

    • as well as that, you could send a little ‘high five’ email bulletin to your group when someone achieves something, and keep a record of these emails in a separate file so you can start the next lab meeting with a list of ‘already done’ stuff.

  3. I really like d’s idea of ‘high five’ emails. When I was a trainee I usually felt buried under my to-do list (still do as a new P.I. to be honest), and any positive feedback or acknowledgement of an accomplishment went a long way for boosting morale. It’s also good for the whole group to know what their peers are up to.

  4. Wow, does this post resonate with me, especially at the moment as I run around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to prep for the new semester and juggle major travel! I’ve thought about this a lot as I’ve navigated through academia, and especially as a new professor. My PhD advisor constantly dwelled on how busy she was. It was partly her attempt to let you know where you stood in her priority list, and probably partly a habit of dwelling on the negatives. Whatever the reason, it was something that drove us nuts as students and also drove some of her students away from science. It created an overall negative impression of her life and job, yet I also know she loves (most parts of) her job. Consequently, I am trying to be more sensitive about this issue with my own students, but it’s so difficult because there is a definite culture of dwelling on the negative. I love the idea of the high-five bulletin. Something I’ve also started doing is a semester re-cap for my home page. This has the added benefit of showing me everything I’ve done over the semester, but I think it’s probably important to do more frequently.

  5. I like the high-five emails and semester recap on the webpage ideas. I post abstract submissions and paper acceptances on a blog on my webpage, as well as student awards and defenses. (This works as a record keeping system for me as well.) … But I don’t explicitly communicate that I’m doing this laudation to my students. And I should.

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  7. I’m co-advised by two very busy people, and although I think I’m living up to their expectations, it can be difficult as a PhD student to know what constitutes a celebratory moment. Does that poster count? That lesson you helped redesign? Or is it only the big stuff, like passing preliminary exams? Publishing a paper? Sometimes we’re allowed to be proud of ourselves, because we’re just relieved to have met the bar of expectation. When you’re put on the spot you think of your to-do list first, because you don’t want to be perceived as not working hard or pushing for the next big thing. However, I think being able to state your accomplishments confidently and humbly is an important part of being successful. PIs or even senior students in the lab could model taking pride in accomplishments. The high-five emails are a good idea. But we can even do them for ourselves. Recently a post-doc in one of my labs sent around a paper of his with the announcement that it had just been published. This does two things, it gives him a chance to share his pride in his accomplishment, and it keeps us all informed about the most recent publications from our collaborators. Although it could be perceived as self-congratulatory, I found it inspiring, and I was proud of him and proud to be a part of that research team, even though it wasn’t my paper. We’re always reminded that at this stage of the game we’re all big fish in the same small pond, we’re all straight-A students, so those accomplishments no longer set us apart. What we all need (student and faculty alike) is permission to take a breath and be proud of ourselves in an inclusive way. Good luck in promoting this within your lab, I think it’s a wonderful approach to productive science!

  8. This post resonates a lot with me.

    One way I have to “celebrate” is to write what I’ve done immediately in my CV. I keep three CVs: one “normal” for my website, one “university format” and one that has “absolutely everything”. This last CV contains crazy things such as the courses I took as an undergraduate, the number of times I’ve refereed a paper for each journal (it doesn’t contain the references of such papers for privacy), the names of the people whom I wrote recommendation letters and the type of letter, the list of reviews that I’ve made for math-reviews, and many other things that you don’t normally put in a CV but you may in special occasions. So, whenever I do something, I go to my CVs and write it there. It it’s relevant, it’ll go to the three CVs, and if not, it will always go to the “absolute everything” CV.

    I’ve been doing this to keep track of what I do and never forget anything that may be relevant, but I’ve also discovered that this is my way of celebrating, and those five minutes that I take to update the CV make me reflect on how accomplished I feel. After that, I reset and go back to the “to do” list.

  9. This past year, I’ve gotten into the habit of creating a “Daily Summary” of everything I worked on that day. I started doing it as a way to keep track of where my (very valuable) time was being spent, but it’s turned out to be a really helpful tool for tracking and celebrating my progress. Since it was all in plain text files and I made a few large categories that I sort them into at the end of each week (different project names, job issues, other, etc.), a simple python script and some copy/paste into an Excel spreadsheet now gives me an overview of what I did each day, week, month, and (now having just finished the first) year. I’ve done an amazing amount this past year, but, like your students, without these summaries I would be hard pressed to list what was done since I’m so focused on working on what’s just over the horizon.

    • I just started one of these myself (at the start of January, as a resolution of sorts and to help me out of my December funk). So far I’ve noticed a marked increase in my feeling of accomplishment, my general happiness and my productivity! Amazing what a few short sentences reflecting on a day can do.

  10. I am very much in favor of making the time to celebrate. In grad school, our lab culture was that everyone was perpetually busy, working tirelessly on whatever deadlines were next; however, my PI always impressed upon us to celebrate our own and each other’s accomplishments. This meant when her grant was funded, we would all take the next day and leave early to grab a drink at our lab’s favorite hang-out. When my paper was accepted, we’d do the same. When the undergrad got accepted to medical school, we’d do the same. We also made sure to celebrate engagements, births, and other major life events. When there was no time to leave lab, 20 minutes and a bottle or two of champagne shared in the annex next to the lab space always did the trick. At times, perhaps, the number of celebrations may have seemed excessive, to the point where my husband once joked that we celebrated every time one of us had a good bowel movement. But I must say, taking the moments to enjoy our successes seemed to make the many challenges much more bearable.

    Now, in my postdoc lab, there are few celebrations. Accomplishments are seen as business-as-usual. We get the high-five emails, but it’s just not the same.

  11. How about taking a walk in the woods, dancing to some favorite music, or baking a loaf of bread? Updating a resume, etc etc is not, in my opinion, the best way to decrease “busyness”, in fact, I think it furthers it. I hold off on emails, read good books, and take the time to smell the roses. A career can go on for 40+ years, and your creativity and inventiveness will thank you, along with those anxious students if you free your mind.

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