Becoming Comfortable with Failure

If you have ever taken music lessons you know what failure is like. For an hour each week you’re stuck in a room alone with your teacher while they constantly interrupt your playing, make you repeat the same few measures over and over again, and tell you that you haven’t made enough progress that week. None of it’s personal, or at least it shouldn’t be, they’re hard on you because it’s their job to help you identify your weak points and help you get better.

Ideally, the same is true for group meetings in graduate school. Though many PI’s like to make their criticisms personal, the real purpose of group meeting is to identify what needs to be fixed and where to go next.

The same is true for writing. Now, I am not a published author, but I do write a lot. Short stories, blog posts, research papers, research proposals, fellowship applications. I like to think I’m reasonably good at it.

The most important thing about writing, just like music and research, is to accept that you might have made mistakes at it and work to fix them. Mistakes, poor word choices, terrible plots, all of them can be fixed as long as you actually write it down first. Don’t worry about how it sounds or reads in the moment, just write and plan to fix it later. If you never write, you’ll never finish.

It’s also important to realize that everyone needs an editor. It can be easy to take edits personally, but remember that an editor is just trying to help you. The meaning of your writing might seem obvious to you but that is because you wrote it. A saying or turn of phrase might make perfect sense to you but might not be as commonly understood as you thought. Other edits might be because you and your editor just have a different style.

Most importantly, the project you’re working on now doesn’t need to be your magnum opus. It’s enough to finish the project and take what you learned from it and apply it to your next one. The longer you work at something the better you will get, and you will always look back on your past work and think of how much better you could have made it. Doing the best you can now will allow you to do even better late.

So rather than worrying about perfection, worry about done.

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Tips for Surviving Graduate School

This is a weird topic to write about. Here I am starting the third year of my PhD and I still feel like I know nothing. It’s a fun combination of Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning Kruger Effect. Still, I would like to think I’ve learned a few things about surviving grad school at this point.

Now, to be fair to my imposter syndrome, I am in no way an authority on these topics. But as someone who has several labor-intensive hobbies and doesn’t want the degree to consume their entire life, I’ve learned a few tricks that have helped me make time for my hobbies and still make progress towards my degree.

Get Some Sleep

This is one that I am REALLY bad at. I’ve always been a bit of a night owl. Left to my own devices I’ll stay up all night and sleep until noon. It’s hard, especially if you’re like me and a burst of motivation always hits you right before bed time. But it’s worth it to develop good sleep habits. As hard as it is, if you start going to bed earlier you’ll feel more rested and you’ll be able to wake up earlier. This last bit is important because it makes you feel like you have more time in the day and you wont catch yourself staying up late trying to squeeze out a few more drops of productivity. An all-nighter wont make you more productive, it will just make more tired.

Make Time for Other Things

I have a lot of hobbies that work often gets into the way of. Some semesters are going to feel more hectic than others, but you should still make time for your hobbies. Even if it’s just a few minutes before bed you’ll be glad you did. What’s even better is if you try and make time every evening and on the weekends for the things you enjoy. It’s really hard to feel good about your work if it’s consuming your life. Plus the things you work on outside of work can make your work better. Reading and writing as hobbies have made me feel much more prepared for presentations and research papers. But don’t think your hobbies need to also make you better at work.

Be Realistic About How Long Something Will Take

When I first joined the lab I’m in now I constantly felt unproductive. No matter what goals I set for the day I never met all of them and I felt terrible about it. That changed when I realized that it wasn’t that I was doing poorly in lab, it was that I wasn’t blocking out my time effectively. I wasn’t giving myself enough time to complete each task and the result was that I felt like I wasn’t getting anything done.

I fixed this by setting one big goal for each day in the lab and a few of what I like to think of as stretch goals. When I go into lab I normally have one experiment planned. I go in thinking “today I will complete this reaction” or “I will do x number of titrations.” Those are my main objectives for the day and I devote most of my energy to those. If I find myself finishing these early or having to wait for a reaction to finish I work on my stretch goals. These are things that are nice to get to in a given day but don’t need to be done right then. Stretch goals might be cleaning glassware, doing a literature search, or processing data.

Once I started doing this I instantly felt more productive. I was being more honest with myself about how long something would take me to do and I didn’t feel like I needed to do more once I got home. You will also find that you get faster at a lot of these tasks as you gain more experience.

Make Your Laziness Work

Some mornings when I get into the office the last thing I want to do start work in the lab. All I want to do is sit at my desk and sip my coffee. So that’s what I do. I sit down, turn on my computer, sip my coffee, and use that time to see what’s new in the world of science. For me that normally means looking at few American Chemical Society publications. Specifically Inorganic Chemistry, Organometallics, Chemical Reviews, and Accounts of Chemistry Research. I normally have a few keywords I’m looking for in the titles. Anything with the words cobalt, iron, or spin crossover get at least a quick glance. Or a quick download to the folder of files I tell myself I’ll read eventually. I have found a lot of great references that I’ve ended up citing later this way and learned about new fields that I hadn’t heard of before. Not only will doing this help you stay up to date on the latest research, the more time you take to read and review material in your field the more comfortable you’ll feel talking about your own work. It always feels great to whip out a relevant paper in the middle of group meeting that no one else has seen yet.

Listen to Your Undergrads

Universities have tons of social events, clubs, and resources to be taken advantage of. You probably don’t realize a lot of them are there. Talk to and listen to not just your fellow graduate students, but undergrads and staff too. Even if the undergrads in the section you’re a teaching assistant make you pull your hair out its worth listening to them talk. Remember, many of them are on campus 24/7 while you may only be there for a few hours. You can learn a lot about other departments and the resources available on campus if you listen to them while giving them zeros on their lab reports.

Oh yeah, sometimes they have some good research ideas too.

Cultivate Your Social Skills

You don’t need to become a complete extrovert, but it pays to talk to other people around campus. After spending all day on experiments it helps to know a few people down the hall who might want to grab pizza with you. Or they might call you up if they have an extra concert ticket. More practically, it helps to have people you can go to for help whether it’s help studying or getting access to an instrument in their lab. Science is collaborative and in most jobs you’ll have to work together with other people so it pays to get started now.

Remember That You Know More Thank You Think You Know

In graduate school you’re surrounded by competent people. So much so that it’s easy to think that they know more than you or know their project better than you will ever know yours. It’s important to remember that if you are in a graduate program you already have a bachelors. You knew enough to get one degree in your field and now you’re working on another. You know your project better than anyone and you know a lot more in general than you think. The more you talk about your work and your field the more confident you’ll feel. Even if it’s hard at first.