Monday, May 28, 2007

Surviving Graduate School, Pt 3: Constant Dripping Hollows Out a Stone

OK! You've avoided being a chump, and are master of your own destiny. Now what?

One of the most difficult parts of graduate school is finding the determination to trudge on when your project is in the crapper. Don't underestimate how hard it is to show up and do experiments over and over when nothing is working. I think this is one of the ways in which graduate school as han edge in difficulty over medical school. There is constant pressure and obvious consequences in medical school for not making progress and forging ahead; the things you need to learn are laid out in front of you, and if you don't learn them, you will fail your class. In graduate school, there are rarely actual consequences to having spans of months where no progress at all is made on your project. Which can be good, because sometimes it is out of your hands; sometimes, no matter how hard you work or how many hours you put in, there will be nothing to show for it. However, the lack of consequences can really undermine your work ethic. It's a constant struggle to find ways to motivate yourself.

There are two steps to getting things done, if you think about it. Sadly, they aren't always as easy as they sound.

Step 1: Show up
Sometimes you will wake up in the morning, lay in bed, and think about how you are so sick of trying things that don't work, how you're sick of lab and graduate school and you just need a break. You'll probably find that your brain can be very persuasive those mornings--it will have very convincing and reasonable sounding arguements as to why it would be okay for you to just take the day off. This is one of the many reasons to try and find a lab which has people you enjoy being with. Finding one or more people to work next to that you like can make the difference between just barely scraping by and actually thriving. There were many days when the only thing that got me out of bed and into lab was knowing that at least I would see my friends, and they could give me a pep talk.
There are other tools also. Self bribery can be very helpful. Depending on the lab you join, there may be plenty of motivation--in the form of having your boss berate you for hours--to at least show up. Side note: some bosses don't even notice if you don't show up for a few days. You should decide if this would be good for you or bad for you. I know it sounds nice now, but it can be helpful to know that you will be missed if you don't show, because sometimes things are so rough that even awesome labmates won't help.
Of course, showing up isn't enough. Once you get in to lab, it's time for:

Step 2: Do actual work
First, briefly congratulate yourself for shaking off those two weeks of long hours and hard work that went into the garbage yesterday. Now it's time to get down to business. This may not be as easy as it sounds.
You see, there is this kind of quicksand that can form in labs. Chances are that at any one time there are at least two people for whom things aren't going well. And in the days of computers, and heading out to lunch, there are about ten million ways in which you can be technically in lab but not actually doing anything. You may be able to escape this temptation normally, but having someone else around that is as frustrated, as tired, as disillusioned and as unmotivated as you forms slacker quicksand that is well nigh impossible to escape. Watch for this quicksand, and avoid it if you can.
There are two sayings that really helped me pull out of this quicksand. The first is the title of this entry: constant dripping hollows out a stone. I liked to say this to myself as I got up to start repeat number one billion of an experiment I didn't want to do in the first place. The other is: you can't till a field by turning it over in your mind. Another trap is thinking, and planning, and thinking, and planning, but never just doing your experiments. At some point you have to just get up and do it.
Because the truth is--and you have probably noticed this as a theme so far--that only you can get yourself through grad school to your degree, and you do that by trudging on.


docmama said...

those are also not the days to ask yourself if it's really worth it...
that's dangerous territory.

Anonymous said...

Hi, as you may already noted I am new here.
Hope to receive any assistance from you if I will have some quesitons.
Thanks and good luck everyone! ;)