I’ve read a lot in the last few years about what a poor choice it is to sacrifice 5+ years of good earning potential for a slim chance at a job where you’re under pressure from all sides. I’ve heard how horrible writing a dissertation is for your mental health, and how preparing to go up for tenure is even worse.

In “The Awesomest 7 year Postdoc,” Radhika Nagpal explains her approach to her first 7 years as faculty. Here’s what she did:

  • I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  • I stopped taking advice.
  • I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  • I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  • I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  • I found real friends.
  • I have fun “now”.

Her argument is that pretending like it’s a post-doc and enjoying the time before tenure will take pressure (and stress) off your early career, free you up to make meaningful choices for yourself, and stop contributing to the all-work-no-life culture in academia.

I think it’s worth thinking about this in light of the eponymous theory in Shawn Achor’s “the Happiness Advantage.” The book is well-worth reading (life-changing for me), but in very very brief, the idea is this: we think that if we become successful, we will be happy, but the data suggest that it’s the other way around– that happiness breeds success.

In the short term, for example, students who are asked to of the happiest day of their lives before taking a standardized test do better. Doctors given a small gift before a test of their diagnostic skill came to the correct diagnosis faster, were more creative, and were more able to change their minds when presented with new information. Dedicated practice of happiness and optimism can change your mindset and change your results on tasks, and over time can change your mindset, making this so-called “Happiness Advantage” a feature of your work all the time.

Your beliefs not only effect your performance, they are changeable: people who believe they can improve (called a “growth mindset”– see Carol Dweck) are more likely to take new opportunities to learn and they learn faster!

There’s a lot more to the book than this (because it is a book, and this is a blog post), but I will focus on a couple key takeaways for the early academic career that might be good supplements to advice in “the Awesomest 7-year Postdoc.”

First, focusing on how much you prepared and your knowledge of the subject matter before a presentation could put you in much better stead than worrying about your tendency to fidget or the faults in the slideshow. Note that these aren’t empty affirmations or false flattery, but a simple focus on what you are actually good at instead of what you are worried about. This is shown to reduce anxiety and improve performance.

Second, taking time to list 3 good things about your day trains your mind to look for the positives and the possibilities.I have recently restarted a gratitude practice in my bullet journal– three things a day, big or small. Participants who wrote down three good things each day for a week were happier and less depressed, even one, three, and six months later. Also, people who attend to the positive are more likely to notice opportunities for personal gain and growth. Pretty easy advice to take for people in any career :)

The third one is especially close to my heart, since I’m sort of obsessively afraid of failure. People who see failure and negative events as an opportunity for growth are more likely to identify and capitalize on those opportunities.  Psychologists call it “adversarial growth,” or, in appropriate cases, even “post-traumatic growth.” When people were taught to prevent errors when learning software, they learned less, worked slower, were less accurate, and had fewer feelings of self-efficacy than people who were guided into mistakes while they were learning.  This inspired me to follow the folks at the now-defunct “PhD in Progress podcast,” and refer to these mistakes, detours, and even epic failures as “secret learning.”

Lastly, people who view their work as a calling (instead of a job or a career) find their work more rewarding, work harder, and get ahead– this is true of medical doctors, janitors, and administrative assistants, among others I’m sure. Achor suggests an exercise: rewrite your job description as a “calling description.” He recommends writing down all of the tasks you perform at work, especially those that “feel devoid of meaning.” Then ask, “What is the purpose of this task? What will it accomplish?” If the answer you write down still seems trivial, ask yourself what the result leads to, and write that down. He suggests continuing this process until you have connected every menial task to a big picture you care about.

Here– I’ll try. Grading can be a real PITA. It takes forever; it’s not fun, but it requires focus; and it often makes students mad at me. But, in the big picture, even if I still don’t love it in the moment, I know that grading is the key way I can give my students individualized feedback. Even though they may not appreciate it at the time, this is how we pass along not only the content but the process of my discipline, and of learning generally. More broadly, as much as *I* think my research is important (and I can hope my discipline thinks it’s interesting, too) teaching students is probably the main way I will make an impact on the world.

Do you have a task rewrite to share, or another happiness practice? Please share in the comments :)

 

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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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Art, Science, and Audience

This week we are reading about and discussing “the Public Intellectual.” We read short stories by scientists, browsed scholar’s websites, and watched a TED talk by one of our professors. I wrote the following blog post for an assignment in reaction to these examples and ideas: 

I’ve always been a big hobby-sampler– I do a little bit of a lot of things– and the things I really care about don’t get the time investment it takes to make them great. When I moved out here, the constraints of leaving behind my social network and bringing only what I could fit in within the 50lb checked-bag limit brought me a great opportunity, and I selected a single hobby.

I decided to pursue art in my free time. I minored in art in college, but had mostly done Really Fancy Crafts since I graduated.

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The distinction I am drawing between art and crafts isn’t an evaluation of merit, by the way, and I only use it to classify my own work, not others’, but for reference, here’s what I mean. Both art and crafts can be decorative, functional, meaningful, and therapeutic to create, but the design of crafts are informed primarily by another design or a process, where the design of art is informed by my subjective translation of some idea.

Here’s an example of a craft I did.

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The photo on the right is of my commissioner with his dad on an old Harley. It’s meaningful and beautiful, but not suited for display because of its size and condition. He wanted to be able to enjoy the image, and I was able to use the photo, a google image search for the name of the bike, and a surprisingly small amount of human judgement to create the painting on the left. The subject, medium, composition, and style reflect only necessity, my aesthetic preferences, and the desires of the guy who paid me :)

Here’s an example of art I made.

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It was physically simpler to make, but the subject, form, media, and style all carry meaning. Here’s a section of the document I used to imagine, refine, and embody an idea into that piece.

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You can see that I started with a big, abstract idea (“happiness”) and created a mind map around that idea to settle on a more specific idea I was interested in (“harmony”). At the risk of “explaining the joke,” I’ll explain more of the process to give you an example of how art (as I see it) differs from craft, and perhaps give you a sense of why I find producing art to be rewarding.

I had recently joined a singing group when I made this piece, and was thinking about the human diversity in the group and how it served to build a more complete and beautiful whole in the same way that our musical harmony did. It also took me far out of my comfort zone. So I did some thinking about different dimensions on which humans or ideas can vary. I decided on a matrix design for the concept (I wanted 4 parts, much like we had tenor, lead, baritone, and bass singers), which led me to select two visual dimensions on which the piece could vary. In homage to the abandonment of my habits for new adventures, I forwent my usual style (2 dimensional, monochromatic, representational work) for something I’d never done (3D, full color, abstraction). I designed a bridge shape for the form, to represent the way in which diversity itself can form a link between very different people and how the meeting of each with the others elevates all. The result is 4 sections which start out flat and get taller in the center, where they meet. Diversity is abstracted and visually represented on two dimensions: complexity of structure and breadth of color range.

Now did I expect the audience at that show to look at that and go, “oh! she must belong to an a cappella group?” Of course not :). I want to take my experience and perspective, bring it into a form that evokes these ideas and feelings in me, and allow others to see what they want in it, from their perspectives and experience. That way, as long as I take responsibility to make it maximally true of me, there’s a chance that someone else can see it and think or feel something true of them, and in that moment is the connection I am looking for.

All of that to say, although I enjoy the process and respect the skills required for crafts, I missed the creative thought, iterative meaning-making, and attempt to connect that is part of art.  When I moved, I committed to making that my hobby. Because my thoughts and experiences and perspectives now are so thoroughly informed by and immersed in the thought and science of graduate school, I am making art that responds to and reflects on that experience. Here’s my current work in progress: a 7-foot tall, nontraditional embroidery piece with the working title “Grasp.”

My hope, which I admit is lofty and far out of reach at the moment, is for the art I am making now to be a part of my public scholar profile, to be another avenue to communicate my findings, and to be a jumping off point to discuss the subjective experience of doing science.

Scientists do their best to expand human knowledge and share what they learn, but have to accept the likelihood of an overwhelming majority misunderstanding or not caring about that knowledge much of the time. Artists and scientists, in that way, are very similar and, I think, brave.

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Preventing loneliness, burnout, and other miseries

Before coming to graduate school, I read a lot about how depressing and frustrating and difficult it is. Not just the coursework or the research, in fact, few of the complaints I had read even mentioned those things. They talked about feeling alone, depressed, unsupported, and especially poor. Every week or so on the forums, there’s a post like this, about quitting. Just today, a friend shared this article about the hidden cost of graduate school with me (hint, it’s your mental health.)

This was interesting, since the first doc students I met were notable and inspiring because they loved their work so much. They definitely had a lot of late nights and anxiety about comps, or the job market, but at the end of the day, they loved their work and got a lot done.

So what is the difference?

Here’s what my friend shared, along with that article, on Facebook:

 

Research suggests social support networks are among the most reliable predictors of happiness and success, that social support networks prevent people (and even rats!) from forming debilitating addictions, and are more productive, engaged, energetic, and resilient (see: this TED talk about addiction and Happiness Advantage for the rest. No, I won’t stop citing that book.)

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Many of us moved thousands of miles (even over oceans) to come to graduate school, and maintaining old friendships is hard when they are far away. Many graduate students report feeling less engaged with their old friends after starting a new routine and lifestyle with different concerns. Many people tend to pull away from their social support network when work gets tough. Breaking in to new friend groups is challenging, especially with limited time and money, and it will still be a while before you may feel comfortable being yourself around new people.

So what’s the solution?

I think the only thing to do is acknowledge that making new friends is scary and difficult, and that it will take a long time, and commit to doing it anyway. We have a weekly cohort social event, even though there are so few of us, and some of my lab mates have been really welcoming. I’ve started attending a church I can walk to, and I’m planning to start and host a meetup group when I get up the nerve (and money :) It’s going to be hard, but it’s too important to give up on.

The risk here is feeling rejected and exhausted when you can’t immediately replicate old, close friendships, and I certainly get that feeling. That’s a perfectly healthy way to feel, and you don’t need to feel guilty or weak if you experience that. Be compassionate with yourself and remember this day 5 years from now, when you meet a first-year :)

A friend of mine (now a PhD) suggested to me that perhaps it would be best if all graduate students checked in with a therapist occasionally, and especially at the outset. I did exactly that, and I now feel much less alone, and much less afraid of failure. Find some Emotional hygiene habits and techniques that work for you– prayer, meditation, exercise, art– and defend your self-investment time consistently. This resilience you’ll build won’t just help you fearlessly befriend new people, but also bounce back from setbacks and failures in your research, finish big projects, and weather the job market.

 

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