Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The in-between time, or the bliss of not having students for a little while


Welcome to 2012, everyone!
Sorry I’ve been so remiss on writing the last few months, the fall semester kind of got away from me with teaching and everything else on my plate. Hence why I am writing now, when a lot of people are still on vacation, and the subject of today’s musings, what this between semester time is like.

Like I’ve mentioned before, life as a PhD student means you are almost always working on multiple things, all that should get your full attention but never do. During the semester for most of us the main things on the plate are teaching and research. Teaching pays the bills and the research is what we’re actually here for, writing a thesis to earn our degree. Our teaching obligations always seem manageable at the beginning of the semester, but invariably end up taking up far more time than we expected, eating into our time and brain power for working on our research.

This fall I would have spurts of tons of grading to work on, which I would alternate with spurts of working on a manuscript, getting a fellowship application submitted, or getting lab work done. The few times when I had a whole week or two without grading were amazing, I felt really productive, I got to really think about my science, and got a lot accomplished without having the nagging feeling that I should be working on teaching in the back of my mind. I had this same feeling a couple days after we submitted our final grades when I had uninterrupted hours to really focus on getting a near final version of a manuscript edited. I got in this great zone where things seem to make sense that didn’t before and the quality of the work was a lot higher than it had been.

When you’re an undergrad, you take your last final and then are excited to get to be on vacation, do nothing or whatever you want for a few weeks. As a grad student, you are really excited to get some time sans teaching to get some of your own important work done. This was the first year, I think probably ever, that I wasn’t ready for Christmas when the semester was over. I wanted more quiet limbo time before the holidays to get to work on what I needed to work on, not what I had to work on for teaching, meetings, other semester-related obligations.

I love this graph. I think the garland along the best-fit line is my favorite part (R^2 value is 0.69, for anyone who is interested, hehe) (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v450/n7173/full/4501156a.html)

The holidays did come, but I didn’t really feel like I was on vacation until the afternoon Dec. 23rd when I sent of a manuscript draft to a collaborator in Israel (they don’t have Christmas break there, hehe). I saw a small article in Nature a few years ago discussing how scientists aren’t giving themselves enough down-time, showing that the number of papers submitted on Christmas day has been increasing (see above image). While I do think expectations for working on weekends and holidays can be a bit high, I have a new perspective on this pattern. I think submitting a paper on Christmas, or at least over the holidays, would be kind of a good idea. There wouldn’t be any scheduled meetings, classes, or students wanting to come meet with you. You have some quite down time to gather your thoughts, and then maybe nip down to present opening or Christmas dinner after your work is done. When its work on your own time it is much more enjoyable, even if it is during a holiday.

Please don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy teaching and I like interacting with students. But as I’m discovering, as a senior PhD student there is always something to do, work that needs to be done and that you actually want to do sometimes, and this makes it hard to enjoy your other professional obligations that that time away from those things. Can you put “full-time multi-tasker” on your CV?

I hope to make time for blogging this semester. I have a lot of lab work and things on my plate, so I might try writing some more detailed posts about what my research consists of these days. Good luck in the New Year!

P.S. I wanted to write about a story from This American Life that came out in the middle of November, but clearly I didn’t have time. I would highly recommend listening to the first story about the collaboration between a cancer scientist and a music professor and about how scientists and non-scientists think very differently about the same problem. If people would like to discuss it I would be happy to have this as the subject of a future post!


  1. I couldn't imagine writing my thesis and teaching at the same time. How do you manage it? No wonder you didn't feel the holidays with all the multitasking you did. I wanted to pursue teaching as a profession but I've been needing a little bit of soul searching. Any advice for someone who's not sure about pursuing a doctorate degree? Are the hours as really as bad as they say?

  2. Hi Bennie
    I think the biggest thing that determines if someone has a positive experience in grad school is how much you are really interested in your research, and teaching in some cases. A lot of people are smart enough to go through a PhD program, but when you get to the parts of the process where you are having to work long hours studying for your qualifying exams, setting up experiments, doing field work, you have to think to yourself "is all this hard work worth it". For me, the answer is yes because this work allows me to answer scientific questions that I want to answer and kind of be in control of most of my time, meaning I don't have to be at a desk from 9-5 doing work I am not very interested in. For teaching, it can be sort of the same way. A lot of long hours but if you really care about what you are doing then it can be worth it. Many friends at IU were very committed to their teaching while doing their PhD, two even got teaching professor positions right after graduation, so a PhD and teaching can go well together. I think we have thought this is especially useful in helping students think for themselves and teaching them meaningful problem solving and critical analysis skills. Sorry this answer is long and maybe rambling. Doing some soul searching is a good thing because that can really be what makes or breaks you. I think when you find what you want to do you know it, and giving a good long think is a great idea.