I’ll Try Really Hard Not to Drop Out of this MOOC

Is this Angelina Jolie?
No, I don’t think it is. (Photo Credit: Bart Everson via Flickr)

I’m taking a MOOC! A MOOC is a Massively Open Online Course; this one is on a platform called Coursera, and it’s about machine learning. ML allows computers to learn in a meaningful way without being programmed. Google uses machine learning to improve its search results, Apple and Facebook use it for their photo recognition software, Tesla (and many others) use it in their self-driving cars, Google used it to beat the best humans at Go, a famously complex game, and IBM’s Watson is helping people tackle cancer. Not that I intend to compete with any that, but suffice it to say, I’m interested.

There are lots of people in our “class”– last we checked, around 750 had introduced themselves on the forum! Of course, studies show that completion rates for these types of classes are low– a little below 7%. I am definitely concerned that I might be part of the 93% who drop out for whatever reason, so I’ll promise in advance to be reflective and write a post about why I quit if I in fact do. I read through some of the posts my classmates have made introducing themselves, and they truly are from everywhere– France, India, China, Rwanda, Kentucky– and have all different levels of education. I’m not the only doctoral student, and there’s at least one middle school student enrolled!

For this class, there’s some recommended content knowledge, but no formal pre-requisites. It doesn’t cost money to take the course, but if you’d like a certificate, you can pay about $50. B and I aren’t taking it for a certificate, we’re just curious!

It’s not part of my degree program, so I don’t need to take it for any kind of credit– I think the understanding of the technology and the social experience of taking an online computer science course will be useful for my research. Machine learning could be an interesting data analysis method for me. It will certainly require its designers to make interesting ethical choices, and if I get the chance to study such a design team in the future, it will be helpful for me to understand the technology they are using.

So far, the class is interesting. This week, we are learning about the algorithms that statistical programs like R use to find coefficients for univariate regressions. It’s a fun counterpart to the linear modeling class I took first term which used that kind of software. It promises to tough, and an excellent opportunity for me to practice what I’ve been learning about growth mindset and grit!
We completed our first week today. I’ve passed all my assignments and have only cried once!

More info (& crying) to come on this, I’m sure.

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First summer weekly reflection

Today I did my first reflection on my weekly schedule. As I explained last week, I am trying to continuously improve my work habits so that I am as effective as possible by the time I have a huge, independent dissertation project on my plate in a year or so.

Here’s what I observed this week:

  • I did not stick to my schedule on weekends. Although my Saturday is indistinguishable from my Monday, the same cannot be said for my friends! I want to maintain and improve my social connections, which I rarely have the opportunity to do since my move, so it’s important to me to carve out time for friends and family.
  • My starting time is manageable. My first draft of the weekly schedule included 5 hours of work per day, 7 days a week. I worked from 11:30 am to 4:30 pm. I started that late so I could enjoy staying out or up late on an occasional “work night” since every night is a work night :) I found it easy to be working by 11:30, and could consider moving it up a bit if necessary.
  • I don’t need a lunch break. I had scheduled one in last week’s draft, but didn’t use it. I will get rid of it, and I will think this week about breaks. Studies show that they are important for productivity and health, so I will need to include them.
  • Ambiguous work tasks tank my productivity. I spent nearly entire work day completely wasting my time until I realized that the task on my plate was intimidating and confusing because I didn’t know what specific things to do to accomplish it best. “Work on the paper” is too vague for me.

Here’s how I addressed each observation:

  • Weekends. This one is an open question still.Each draft of my schedule includes a section for “open questions” to acknowledge and focus my attention on unsolved problems. I may not have an answer for every problem right away, and I refuse to let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this project. I had to adjust my weekend schedule anyway because I took on a class on Saturdays, so I’ll experiment with this new schedule and see whether it’s easier or harder. I have another idea to solve this waiting in the wings, but I want to change my schedule incrementally so I can get the best picture of what actually works.
  • Starting time. I decided to stick with the 11:30 starting time for another week to solidify the habit of daily work at a comfortable time, but I will consider moving it earlier for the following week. My goal for evaluating start times will finding one that supports the most productivity during the day, not starting as early as possible for earliness’ sake.
  • Breaks. I eliminated the lunch break and brought in another project that had originally been relegated to free time. I’ve added breaks to my open questions and plan to observe my needs and existing habits for breaks closely over the next week.
  • Ambiguous work. This last week, when I wasted a day I redeemed it near the end by using GTD’s project planning technique to clarify my goals, define my desired outcome, and create concrete, goal-oriented “next actions.” This cleared up my thoughts and the next day, I was back on track.

Draft 2 is on paper!

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Summer plans!

I’m trying a new thing this summer. I want to meet some specific goals in terms of each of three priority projects this summer, but I struggle to remain productive with unstructured time.

I’ve devised a plan for my work days that will support those goals and will help me build on what I learn so that when I have to, say, write a dissertation, I won’t have to figure it out from scratch.

Here’s the plan.
1. Get up to date in GTD. GTD is a productivity system laid out in the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. I have tweaked it slightly for my own needs and implemented in in workflowy. The system and software work really well with each other and with my mind, when I am actively using them. The end of this last semester threw me off a bit, so my first goal will be to get my list back up to date. This included narrowing down all the projects I am interested in to the ones I am planning to actively work on this summer. It also includes setting up a time for a “weekly review” so that I keep my list up to date and in line with my priorities.

2. Plan out my week. Although it’s not specifically sanctioned by GTD, in order to make sure I’m spending my time in appropriate proportions on my projects (not just on what seems most urgent or interesting that day) I’ve scheduled out work time for each of my projects during the week. I plan to work about 5 hours per day, 7 days a week.

My first draft of the plan started with a list of the projects I’d identified as important. I allocated a number of hours per week to work on each, and then drew a map of each of the seven days. Along with blocks for each project, I included regular calls, lunch, and maintenance tasks like cleaning. I also have a space for “Open Questions” on the planning page that will serve as prompts for the next step.

3. Reevaluate. On the same day as my weekly review, I have time planned to write about what I’ve learned about working when I have autonomy over my time. This will give me a time to reflect and adjust my plans if I need to.  A week will give me a chance to test out every aspect of the plan before altering it, but each new plan will be lower-pressure: it’s not My Life Plan, it’s just what I’ve committed to for the week.

The written reflections will help me learn week-to-week and help me understand the effects of each change. Hopefully, by the time this summer is over, I will have not only a solid routine established, I will also have a better understanding of how I work and what my options for a routine are so that I can apply all of that knowledge to new circumstances in the winter, next summer, and during my dissertation work.

Commit, test, reflect, adjust. That’s the plan.

I’ve got time planned in my week for blogging, so I will keep this up to date :)

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Downs and Ups

It’s finals time!

I thought I’d throw up a quick post to talk about what the end of the semester looks and feels like, rather than waiting until after I’ve recovered.

Here’s what I’ve been up to:

  • At the end of our first year, we do a review of our progress with a committee. It went well, but compiling the materials consumed a lot of time and thought. The process and the review was a very productive exercise in thinking about my career, so it was worth it. I may to a future post about first year reviews.
  • I took an extra class this term, which I don’t recommend. It was interesting, and supposed to only be IMG_2194two credits’ worth of work, but it turned out to be a lot throughout the semester, and it added significantly to my end-of-semester workload. Today we gave our final presentations, and although the class and its content were great, it’s a relief that that’s over.
  • I bit off more than I could chew for a big final project and I’m excited about the outcome enough that I’m going to do the work instead of scaling it down, but intrinsic motivation is a double-sided coin. That’s how you end up with to-do list like this one.
  • I stayed up really late last night on accident. I wasn’t even doing anything useful, I was relaxing with Gilmore Girls!

So this morning, I had to be at school for a talk and a class. It turned out to be well-worth the short sleep– the talk was about how the idea and practice of trigger warnings have evolved, how they are used, and how they do (or don’t) function in the college classroom.

For some reason I can’t explain, I got really sad in the time between that talk and my class. I’m not used to acknowledging my feelings, so I may never get to the bottom of this one, other than that I was tired and it didn’t take much :)

I tried to take a walk, but the outside is full of people. I sent a text to my partner, but it was early on the west coast, and he was still asleep. Eventually, found a comfortable chair somewhat out of the way, made myself some tea, and meditated a bit.

It helped a lot to acknowledge how I was feeling, and that it was OK. Someone from my lab even asked if I was OK; I lied to him (Sorry!– bad socialization) but I really appreciated it. For what it’s worth, I think he– and anyone in my department– would have understood. After all, they were grad students once.

So the end of the semester is challenging, as you’d expect. But even though most of the stress is my own fault, I wouldn’t trade it. I’m excited about my occupation for the first time ever, and I am confident I can make it (also pretty rare for me :).

To conclude, I’ll share this Facebook post I made last week about this same paper (that of the big to-do list). I am very happy to stand behind it, even on this less-than-easy day.

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The Alternative?

This is a “reprint” of a post I wrote for an in-class, private blog as an assignment last term, slightly edited. It is a response to articles about mental health challenges in graduate school; something like this one.

I was inspired to fetch and post this publicly by a conversation I had with some more senior (and one former) graduate student today about whether and how we were prepared for the intellectual and emotional work of grad school.

I post this with gratitude to my friends whom I mention here, all now PhDs in their own rights :) 

I feel lucky to be here.

I am aware————————–de=erd   [<– this is the contribution of my cat, Mandelbrot! I’ll use this occasion to try that sentence again]

I was convinced for most of my life that I was only possessed of aptitudes for which I could not be paid: drawing, painting, poetry, the verbal sections of standardized tests, and getting things down from high shelves. This would have been fine– that’s what hobbies and short roommates are for!– except it also turned out that I was pretty bad at doing things that did pay, and pretty miserable doing them, too. I thought I was just not very clever, and rewarding work wasn’t in my future, until I met some grad students.

I had this impression that in order to pursue a PhD, you needed to be some kind of savant– that if I were to meet people who were doing so I’d have so little in common with them that we couldn’t even communicate. But I was way off.

The graduate students I met were sharp, of course, but also friendly and fun! They had meaningful conversations thoughtfully, and, surprisingly, they cared about *my* thoughts, too. They wanted to know what I was curious about, what my ideas were. They even thought some of my ideas and questions were good, and I felt like I was a real, equal partner in our discussions. Meanwhile, at work, I would be asked for my opinion, ignored or over-ridden by someone senior to me, required to execute and stand behind something obviously stupid, and then told to clean up after those ideas went wrong.

And the more I got to know my academic friends, I noticed something really amazing. More than anyone I knew, they sincerely loved their work. People say, “don’t ask a grad student about their thesis topic,” and I can’t think of worse advice. I mean, yeah, don’t ask when it will be done, but if you like to learn,  the person to ask is someone who taken on huge opportunity costs to become an expert in a topic that they care about. So they were experts, they worked hard, and they loved their work. I quickly grew to love graduate student parties, because I could go around and ask, “so what do you study?” It might take a few follow-up questions to convince them I was actually interested, but eventually, I could learn a ton about something from someone who knows all about it, and gave up what is often considerable income potential because they care about it so much.

The value surplus of my friends’ work expand the human knowledge by pin pricks, and I worked to– what exactly? prevent a start-up from failing? Make some board members (marginally more) wealthy?

So if there’s a checklist, my friends had autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and I had none of the above.

After being told by a senior executive that I was here to be “something nice to look at,” being spied on, and finally asked to do something unethical, I quit my last start-up job, and I promised myself I wouldn’t find another until I took those GRE books out of my trunk and put them to use.

I spent the next year gathering research and teaching experience to give this an honest shot. By the time I got into this, I had seen my friends go through comps, prospectus defenses, dissertation defenses, and the job market. It looked terrifying, though they all handled it with grace. They confessed it was brutal, and it was totally worth it.

The choice was perhaps easier for me than them, even with open eyes to the difficulties, because the payoff–rewarding work– was a unicorn I never dared believe existed (and frankly my alternative was pretty shitty.)

My partner, Brandon, persuaded me to write a plan (in GTD style) for how I’d get in to graduate school. I went back to check it out (had to go look in the “Completed” section by the way– what a trip!)  Here are the purposes and principles for my “get into graduate school” project:

  • Enjoy learning and researching for 4-7 years, and expand human knowledge by a pin prick at a time
  • Qualify for a career in which I can continue to enjoy learning and research (in academia or industry)
  • Qualify for a career in which I can continue to expand human knowledge (pin pricks at a time)
  • Qualify for a career in which I can spread enthusiasm for science among people like me, who initially were intimidated or uninterested
  • Qualify as a expert in something, about which I can write
  • Qualify for a career in which I could feel autonomy, mastery, and purpose
  • Have an income for 4-7 years
  • Expand my social network with more thoughtful, invested, ambitious people
  • Publish a first-author paper
  • Don’t idolize R1, TT jobs
  • Don’t put your name on half-assed work

Fortunately, all of these things can be accomplished if I end up working in industry. So as as intimidating as the pressures created by the structure of academia are, and as much as I want to fix the issues that plague the academy for the sake of current professors and undergraduates, I am walking in with open eyes and and a back up plan.

It’s fun to end with a photo, so here is Mandelbrot gloating about her astute blog contribution.

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I hesitate to write this, but I think it’s important. When I was an undergraduate at a large, state campus, I didn’t fully register how different my experience was than my male classmates’, nor how that scaled and effected the subjective experience and opportunity of women at college or in the world in general. As a more aware, 29 year-old graduate student, I’m in a new position to write about some parts of the college experience as a woman with a bit more life experience.

Today, I wrote this tweet about flipping off a catcaller.

My Twitter account is apparently attached to my Facebook account, and the post generated some great conversation there about why people catcall and how to respond.

In fact, it wasn’t just the guy in the parking lot who decided to tell me what he thought of my body today. While I was walking to and waiting for the bus, 6 different guys honked at me or shouted out their car windows loud enough for me to notice over my podcast (most of them were work vehicles, surprisingly).

I mean, I did take the long way today, but still. 6. That even one guy thought I was there for his visual appreciation and that it was OK to go out of his way to express that idea is pretty frustrating, but 6?

So, my enlightened readers know that I was not walking in this parking lot wondering what this random man in a windowless van thinks of my body. Instead, I was walking to the shuttle to get to work, where I think original thoughts, feel feelings, contribute, and otherwise operate just like an autonomous human being. But guess what about that shuttle?

The University offers this free shuttle to help students, faculty, and staff live in more affordable areas and commute to school. I love the shuttle– it’s key to my being able to live without a car! That said, the moment I show my ID to the driver and turn to take a seat, there are three people I look for.

Stare-y McStareson. Stare-y is easy to notice, because he sits in the seats at the front of the bus that face the center, rather than the front, and stares. He is an equal opportunity starer at first– his gaze follows men and women as they get on the bus. If there’s no one actively getting on the shuttle, he takes turns staring at the women he can see from his seat. If Stare-y McStareson is on the shuttle, I want to try to sit in the back– ideally with several people between me and him. I get the sense that he is just surprisingly un-self-aware, but it is quite unsettling. He would be no problem at all if it weren’t for…

J. J tends to sit in the back of the bus. He takes the shuttle at night on his way home from work with a restaurant on campus around 9 when I get out of class, and gets off at the same stop as I do. I know his first initial because he first time we got off the bus together, he was friendly and we had a nice chat as we walked back to our neighborhood. He was the first person I’d met in my neighborhood, so when he handed me his phone to put my number in, I decided against feeling rude and handing it back, even though I got a bit of a vibe from him. When I did this, I figured I’d mention my boyfriend at the first opportunity and he’d get the hint, and maybe we could be friends. I didn’t realize at the time that he went way out of his way to walk me to my apartment. I also didn’t expect him to be so persistent. This is the last part of our email exchange, after I fully registered that there was no hope of simple friendship.

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The “Hey not being funny. . . ” text is in response to an IRL moment, in which I saw him on the shuttle, he asked why I wasn’t responding to his text messages, and I told him he was making me uncomfortable.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 4 times (not including the very first text response, in which I said I had a boyfriend I was very happy with and was not looking for dates) that I tried to get him to back off, very directly. Can you imagine how a young woman who has been socialized to be polite and accommodating would feel and respond to this guy? Even I, Feminist Shrew, felt guilty and mean and scared the first two times, until I got pissed.

Wild Card. The last guy on the shuttle I look for we’ll call Wild Card. I met him a few weeks ago, I was waiting for lunch, listening to a podcast on headphones. I noticed someone waiting to order was looking right at me. Startled, I didn’t register the words he was mouthing at me.

“What?” I asked.

“I know you.” He said. I didn’t recognize him. Alarmed, I took out my headphones.

“What?” I asked again.

He proceeded to tell me where I work and the number of the shuttle route I take to get there. Then he asked me where I live.

Now, I have no proof, or honestly even a reason to believe that this man was anything other than a shockingly unempathetic, immature guy who had no idea how he was coming off. But the risk that his ignorance extends to perceived entitlement to women’s time, affection, or even bodies is non-zero.  And frankly the fact that he can make it to his age without thinking about what it might be like to be a woman is telling and infuriating.

And that’s why I think it’s important to talk about these non-incident incidents. If we don’t talk about what it’s like to constantly assess threats, try to balance being assertive and feeling safe, strategically choosing a seat on the bus, and weighing a long walk home in the dark from the city bus stop against getting off the shuttle with the guy who will not leave you alone, people who don’t have to deal with it will not be able to empathize, even if they may want to.

The privilege of not being female may protect you from this experience, but so may living in a safe neighborhood, or living with a male partner– I’ve lived here for 8 months and I have never experienced this level of street harassment or inappropriate come-ons in any city I’ve lived in the past. But if you haven’t had this experience or it’s a rare nuisance, please consider not dismissing the women who complain about it as paranoid or sensitive. The probability of their being in physical danger may indeed be small, but potential cost of letting her guard down is astronomical, and the emotional experience of being treated like a powerless object is a real, damaging thing.

If you have kids of either gender, talk to them about this stuff. If they empathize, they won’t do it, and they won’t stand for their friends doing it. And when they go off to college or move out to develop their career, your daughters will be prepared to resist the pressure to be polite when others are being rude and creepy. There’s very little risk that your daughter will be so flattered by a cat-caller that she runs away with him, but she could internalize the ideas of men who see and treat her as an object of value for her physical appearance, and that endangers her mental health, her potential, and to a diluted degree, the potential of women everywhere.

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Evolution of a Nickname

I have always wanted a true, organic nickname, but I don’t seem to inspire that in people. I also wish I was the kind of person who came up with fun, personal, endearing nicknames for their friends, but I think I’m not that kind of comfortable with people,


I am that kind of comfortable with my cat.

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This is Mandelbrot. She’s 3, and I’ve had her for 7 months. Over that time, here is the evolution of her nicknames.

Meow -> Mao

This one is probably obvious– it comes from her chattiness– and has also been a nickname that’s evolved for other cats, namely, my parents’ cat Baci. It amuses me to imagine her as a furry little dictator but, again, not exactly unique among her species.

Mandelbrot -> M

This also makes sense, but mostly only comes up when writing about her in text messages. “Mandelbrot” is annoying to type.

Mandelbrot -> Mandie

I thought this would happen, because she is a she, and Mandie is shorter and more girly than Mandelbrot. I called her this once, in a comment on the Facebook post I wrote when I first got her. This nickname died immediately– victim to the doomed nature of artificial, sensical nicknames.

Mandelbrot -> Mandible-beeble-brot -> Mandible-beeble-brat -> M’beebs.

For all the sense this makes, these are the ones that stuck.

Here’s a photo of my cat fully embodying the character of M’beebs:

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So far, this is going quite well. I found a few things I was dreading doing and putting off because they were unclear, or complicated, or something I had minorly screwed up in the past and was afraid of.

But avoiding the task doesn’t solve any of those problems (in fact, it exacerbates the latter!) so, once I got my head clear and recovered some of my confidence yesterday, I clarified them, broke them down into next actions, and tackled them this morning.

And you know what?

I didn’t fail or die or anything! My cat even still likes me.

Now, it’s time to go grocery shopping and make a whole bunch of burritos so I don’t have to cook next week 😉

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I keep noticing that I’m less motivated, productive, and just feeling less on top of things than I did last term. I worry that I’m slipping into old habits or I’ve lost something key and can’t get it back. What if the new environment and the excitement of a new direction in my life is what allowed me to do well, and that productivity was not a skill I developed or evidence of personal growth, but a fluke of circumstance?

Well, last night (when I was aimlessly wandering the Internet at 3 am, because that’s healthy) I stumbled across an interesting analogy.

One of the ways I’ve been slacking is that I’ve gained back about 10 pounds of the weight I lost a year ago. (This has happened slowly over the time since I moved and started grad school, but I only bought a scale recently ; )

So I am back browsing some of the supportive weightloss forums I used to be on, and last night I stumbled on this post from a user who had also gained back some weight she had lost. Reading the comments helped me realize a few things:

  1. What happened yesterday/last month/over the last year has already happened, and feeling bad about it or denying it won’t change anything.
  2. Even if my slacking off had been an awful evil moral failing, the best thing to do would not be to feel bad about it. It would be to do something different today.
  3. The narrative of “I’ve been doing poorly,” or “I am slacking off,” or (possibly worse) “I am a procrastinator” is not helping. We have a bias toward wanting to be right about the world– if we believe we are slacking, it makes sense that we’d continue to do so. Why aim that tendency against your goals?
  4. Being vulnerable with other people about your experience, even if it’s your perceived failure at something they are all working toward and succeeding at, opens you up for their support and encouragement, and may even make other people who aren’t doing as well as they’d like feel less alone.

So I have to stop telling myself stories about being a slacker or about losing my momentum, and start thinking about what I can change. I can open up to people I can trust (or… the whole Internet?) about feeling like I’m not as productive as I’d like.

And, like my supportive partner reminded me, I can build a rat park for myself so I don’t use endless Internet binges to feel better. I’ll write a future post about the idea of rat-parking and my plans, but we talked through some basics on our weekly chat date this week. One of my favorite ideas was to start writing journal entries in draft blog entries. I love journaling, but it has seemed like it might detract from “real work.” I want to write a blog, but it’s intimidating to sit down and write a full, Internet-ready post in one sitting. Well, this way, I can journal, and if I like it, I can post it. If I don’t, I can save it to read or even polish for posting later. And either way, I get the writing practice and the cathartic experience of processing my thoughts.

So, it’s in the spirit of all of these things that I offer this journal-entry-which-is-now-a-blog-post, and this revamped description of reality:

Graduate school is stressful, and I don’t always eat, work, clean, or even relax the way I want to, but if pay attention to my behavior and feelings, be compassionate with myself, and make adjustments based on that understanding and compassion (instead of shame and guilt) I can look forward to the feeling of accomplishment, confidence in myself, and guilt-free relaxing that comes when I get shit done.

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Baby’s First Academic Conference


So I’ve been gone– hopefully this doesn’t happen too much while I’m in grad school, but it seems somewhat inevitable, so I won’t start apologizing until there are readers here to complain 😉 Feel free to pipe up in the comments and redeem one groveling at no cost.

I’ve done a lot while I’ve been gone, but I thought I’d start with the most interesting event, the experience most relevant to new grad students, and the thing that went most differently than I expected: My First Conference.

Near the end of February and the beginning of March, I went to an ACM-SigCHI conference called Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Actually, no one calls it that: they call it CSCW and so will I. :)

Here’s what I knew going in: it’s a medium-sized conference (benchmarked using CHI and iConference, if that means anything to you), my advisor does a lot of work there, and I have a poster to present. But I’m surely not the first self-aware over-thinker to pass through the metaphorical halls of academia, and I was pretty worried about the whole thing.

Here’s were the challenges I identified:

  • the conference hotel was expensive. My travel award had a limit, and $300 a night gobbled that up pretty quickly, not to mention the cross-country flight and registration
  • I have to schedule travel and just hope that I don’t miss something important (SPOILER ALERT: I did.)
  • I have never designed, printed, or presented a poster before
  • Communities like this tend to have norms, history, status hierarchies, and all manner of other unseen mechanics that I would be completely unaware of. (what if I make an ass of myself?)

So here’s what I did.

First, the travel arrangements. I went on to airbnb and found that, even at half the price of the conference hotel, I’d still go over my travel award at the market rate there. This particular conference would have been worth it for me to spend a little money on, but I live on a graduate student stipend, so it was worth some extra hunting to see if I could get within my conference award.

I tweaked my search parameters a few times and found eventually found a residential hotel for half the market rate with a 7 day minimum stay. Even without the cheaper airfare for flying in and out on slow days, it was cheaper to stay longer! The guy had no reviews and he ignored my request the first time, but I was determined, so I sent a second request and I called him on the actual phone (!). (If you do this, I recommend that you make sure that the booking is through Airbnb. They have lots of protections for you if the host turns out to be sketchy, and if you book directly, you lose out on those.)

On missing things and gaining things. The conference itself was on the same days as my classes would have been, so no matter how I booked it, I’d miss one meeting of each class. But the rest of my week is generally free, so I had several days on each side to play with.  I picked the cheapest flight days, triple-checked my calendar, and booked!

So suddenly, I have a little mini-vacation on my calendar! 3 of those days are conference, and the rest are prep for conference and explore the city days! Certainly, not everyone will have the luxury of doing this, but perhaps this is the advantage that grad students (despite their limited funds) have over some faculty in attending conferences.

I took advantage of it and invited my LDR partner to join me there. He’s a 45 minute flight from the conference, and the trip fell just a couple days after our 2 year anniversary. Not exactly a luxury vacation, but we had an absolute blast. I don’t have time to go over all the fun stuff we did, but I’ll give you three of my favorite things I’ll be doing in future conference cities.

  • the work time: I’m putting this first because it sounds boring, but it really unlocked the fun of the whole trip for me. Since I was missing class and had all the same work obligations I do at home, from the first day, I had a lot of work on my mind. My partner also has autonomy over his time and work, so I think he had an easier time committing to the trip because it wouldn’t be a total loss in terms of productivity. So he suggested that we decide early on how many hours worth of work we wanted to do each (non-conference) day, and plan to do it so we could enjoy the rest of the time exploring. We decided on about half of our daily, non-vacation goal amount, and made sure we squeezed the most work out of it that we could. To be honest, I got a lot done because of that constraint, and it freed my mind to enjoy the city.
  • the backup charcuterie: on our first day, we went to Trader Joe’s and picked up a few kinds of cheese, a truffle pate, a baguette, and some beer and wine (I missed you California booze and booze regulations!) We had a mini fridge, so we were able to keep deliciousness in stock throughout our time there! It was great for relaxing and luxurious meals in or a quick snack. We couldn’t find (or travel with) a knife and didn’t want to buy 100 disposable plates or cups, so we used scissors to cut up our food, disassembled paper bags as a cheese board, and plastic coffee mugs for all drinks. No regrets– it was amazing, will do again.
  • the mysterious ferry adventure: You can accomplish this on any form of public transit, but we chose the ferry because we enjoy boats more than buses, BART is loud, and San Francisco has a lot of destinations on its ferry system.
    1.  find the transit vehicle of your choice
    2. Purchase a ticket to the next destination on the schedule
    3. Board the transit vehicle, and disembark when you arrive!
    4. Now, go explore the place you landed.

    We ended up in someplace in Marin County, found a nice walking trail, explored a community of marsh homes, and had dinner and beer at a local brewery! We like to read together, so we brought our books for the journey, and it was a real highlight of the trip. I’ll be doing something similar in future cities (time permitting :)

As the spoiler alert mentioned, though, I did miss something. After my travel arrangements had been booked, I got an email about a department event I was expected to participate in the day after the conference was over. I tried to rearrange my travel, but I wouldn’t have been able to do so without canceling the one affordable airbnb option. It was a bummer, but we worked out a way for me to contribute without attending. The bottom line, and the reason I mentioned it at all, was that I am really grateful for understanding faculty and the opportunity to go to the conference with their support and flexibility. And for all of us very-early-career academics, conferences are an important part of finding and building out your place in a research community, and it’s worth it to ask for what you need and make some compromises and sacrifices to get there.

Poster presentations. This is where I invested most of my anxiety, and where everything was honestly just fine.

Designing the poster was easily the hardest part. My first draft was a disaster. My best advice is to have other people look at it. Once you’ve spent that long staring at it, you’ve lost objectivity.Even though I massively reduced the amount of text on my poster, I wish I had done so even more. I also recommend that you do not use Illustrator to accomplish this. YUCK. I’ve heard people use powerpoint, but that sounds terrible as well. If anyone has software recommendations, please leave them in the comments!

Printing the poster was annoying. It was half the price to do so at Staples as it was at my university, but it was a pain. I went in, they told me to email it to them, I did, and then they told me I had to submit it through the website. Annoying, but it looked fine in the end, and, because I had a couple extra days, I could print it in the destination city instead of carrying it on the plane. WORTH IT. Someone else in my lab got theirs printed ahead of time on fabric, folded it into his suitcase, and that was that. That’s certainly a good option to consider if you have the lead time!

Presenting the poster was actually pretty fun. I can be quite shy in new social situations, and this conference certainly qualified as a new social situation. But the poster presentation gave me an excuse and topic to talk with others about, which helped me feel comfortable and gave me the space to get to know people. If I had something to recommend here, it’d be to keep your eye on your goal for the night. The easiest path is to use it as an opportunity to refine a “pitch” for the study, and this is really useful for that. Sort of like if you broke your arm, for the first couple of days you’d tell the story a different way, and by the end of the week, you’d have the most concise and effective story down pat. There’s a lot you can learn from this, so don’t underestimate it. But in doing this, it’s really easy to find yourself doing a lot of the talking. But you already know what you know– try to get the other people talking so you can find out what they know

Norms, etc. I made the debatable choice of using the conference as the site for an ethnography assignment for class. This meant that I was constantly taking notes about how people were behaving and how I was feeling. The pros were that I noticed a ton that I wouldn’t have otherwise and discovered that I really enjoy ethnography. The major con was that it made me very self-conscious. You are supposed to be reflexive, but yikes.

So I was really worried about violating some unspoken norm and making an ass of myself. This did not happen. (YAY!) People did try to get a sense of where you were in your career, so it was clear from the beginning of conversations that I was a lost little bunny. It sounds bad, but honestly, I asked questions like that, too, and I often told people unsolicited that it was my first conference. I thought it would be a disadvantage to be at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole, but people were kind and understanding and seemed to genuinely be interested in my lost-bunny experience.

But most of the reason I didn’t make an ass of myself is that I was too exhausted even by the end of the first day to participate in anything optional, especially if that thing were social. So as silly and obvious as this is, the most useful thing I learned is that conferences are exhausting. I was expecting something like a day full of meetings– tiring, but the kind of tiring where you’re up for a party later to unwind. Now, there were parties to go to (and I did feel obligated to go to them) but I elected not to. By the end of the first day, I knew I would have (and be) absolutely no fun, so I went to the (lovely!) hotel atruim/bar thing, had a drink with my partner to celebrate my survival, and went back to the hotel, presumably to eat some backup charcuterie and pass out.

Next year, I will be mentally prepared to work all day and party all night, but I don’t feel guilty that I didn’t take advantage of the social and networking time in my first year. I will be much more comfortable next year, and in other future conferences, now that I am confident that I have the lay of the social land. I know not everyone feels they need it, but I want to encourage you that if you do, you’re not alone.

My final thought is that it really helped me to have my partner there. Although I often gave up valuable networking opportunities because I wanted hang out with him, it was well worth the trade off for my first year to have someone you know you can reach out to when you are kicking yourself for saying something awkward or thrilled about something you learned, or proud of yourself for gathering the nerve to ask a question. I recommend finding someone you can text or talk to who will support you and help you keep perspective. It’s not a dangerous or scary event by any means, but I found it over-stimulating, to say the least, and it was really great to have someone to reach out to.

So this turned into quite the omnibus post, but hopefully it was helpful to get a sense of what your first academic conference might be like. Prepare for a lot of activity, a lot of people, and a lot of fun, but don’t feel bad if you say something silly or need a break. People understand, and they won’t remember by the time they see you next year. 😉

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