Summer updates

I am hanging on in the Machine Learning MOOC! Week 9; barely! I am trying to keep my eye on my progress and focus on how much I have actually learned instead of how frustrating it is to repeatedly get something wrong for several hours in a row.

I was talking to some friends about defining characteristics of success in their occupation, and persistence came up as a candidate for computer science. Persistence is definitely a weak spot for me, and I’m learning both machine learning and programming simultaneously, so this class has been a real trial. Hopefully I will be able to look back on it in the future and say, “if I can finish that machine learning class, I can do this!”

I have mostly stopped weekly planning. Travel, having guests in town, committing to a new project, and trying out a new objective setting plan have colluded to derail that project. I learned a lot, though, and I wholly recommend trying it, even if the lessons you learn are from what stops you 😉

Speaking of which, I’ve started daily objective planning. As part of testing an app my partner is building, I’m setting objectives to further my life’s current projects. I can’t wait to share more info about that app with you, but for now, the practice of daily objective setting generally has been really effective for me. Putting each objective under a large-scale project that I believe is important has been just as motivating as the crossing off of them each day. I have a bigger-picture view of my life and a better ability to balance the urgent with the important.

I fly back startlingly soon and have a lot to do! I’m working on a literature review, so I will have lot of actual science content to share with you shortly :)

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How I learned to stop worrying and love the bubble bath

Remember when I said I was going to reflect weekly? Well, the weekly part hasn’t worked exactly, BUT the spirit of the project (continuous improvement to my schedule for work and play) has been consistent and beneficial.

Here’s the biggest thing I’ve learned:

I must make room for my humanity.

This may sound weird and woo to you, which is fair–  you can reword it however you like. The point is, about two weeks ago, I was getting into daily self-soothing spirals of unproductive and un-fun messing around. First, it was reddit and facebook. Literally, I would read one until I ran out of content, then switch to the other. Then, I downloaded “Two Dots.” Ya’ll, this is important. Do not download Two Dots. After I deleted Two Dots, I went back to reddit and facebook.

This happens for me when I am stressed out or overwhelmed by something that I should be doing, or if I’m not taking care of myself. Not only was my work suffering, but my relationships were, too. I was grouchy because I felt guilty, and I felt more guilty for being grouchy.

So, I downloaded an extension for Chrome called “Block Site” and instructed it to redirect requests for “facebook.com” or “reddit.com” to list I created in Workflowy of things to do that I would enjoy and would make me feel refreshed. These things were a plausible and attractive alternative to social media loops, and have an ending point– something to accomplish.

There are big things on this list– like “hike mount woodson (for real this time),” but they are mostly small things. I could walk to a nearby grocery store for a fruit popsicle and go read with in in a nearby park. I could paint my nails, or watch a TED talk, draw or color. I could read in the bath or on the pier. Or I could write in this blog.

I feel so much better when I’m done with one of these things, and by the time I’m back, I’m usually ready to get back to work. If I’m feeling up for it, my “work” reading is on the same Kindle as the Neal Stephenson novel I’m into right now, so I can adjust my level of work based on my level of energy.

I was trained (as I’m sure many of you were) by school to “NO EXCUSES WORK RIGHT NOW ALL THE TIME.” That doesn’t mean I didn’t procrastinate, it just meant I felt a constant hum of guilt and worry. This ethic does not allow for being kind to yourself, discourages you from trying something you might fail at, and it doesn’t prioritize reading your mind and body’s signals that are telling me how much work I can make myself do. When I was ignoring these signals and buying into the guilt-driven work ethic, I would feel bad for so much as getting out of my chair. Therefore, when I felt tired or unsure, I would stay put. And I would open a new tab. Of course, all I had to do was type “f” and my browser knew what to do (-acebook.com) from there!

So far, this has made a big difference in my work and state of mind. Notably, I haven’t been on reddit at all in 2 weeks. I am nicer to be around, and more likely to be available when my friends invite me somewhere. Also, there’s a fancy grown-up coloring book on its way from amazon today : D

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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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 10.46.50 PM

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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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De-slackifying

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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Slacking

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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Is it a teacher’s job to motivate students?

This term I’m taking a teaching course. Before our first class, we were asked to respond to the following prompt: 

When asked what he does to motivate his players, [NFL coach Chuck Noll] famously said:

“I wasn’t hired to motivate players, I was hired to
 coach motivated players.”
Reflecting on your own personal philosophy of teaching, do you believe that it is your responsibility to motivate your students?  If so, how do you do it?  If not, why not?
I am very early in my learning-about-teaching career, so I expect to look back on this with a little bit of embarrassment in the future, but here’s my perspective on this prompt at the moment. Please feel free to leave your ideas in the comments!

Student motivation should be the goal of all teachers, but, in my opinion, cannot be the responsibility of the teacher alone.

Research suggests that intrinsic motivation is hugely effective, where extrinsic is not. It also suggests that extrinsic incentives, like pay in the working world or rewards like candy and contingent play time for children, effectively stomps out intrinsic motivation. So what contributes to intrinsic motivation? Autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

My experience as a student was probably not unique, but certainly colors my experience. I was an unmotivated student until I was in my twenties, and as competent and caring as my teachers were, I doubt there was anything they could do to get me to care. I did not have much autonomy (I had to be there when school was in session and I had to learn what the requirements dictated), I didn’t feel mastery (I got mediocre grades and had a what Carol Dweck would call a “fixed mindset”) and I didn’t have a sense of purpose (I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, college was a given, but I had no specific reason to be there.) I can look back on brief glimpses in school where I felt motivated— creative writing projects and extracurricular activities—and in all of those, I had the three elements of intrinsic motivation.

NFL coaches have the advantage of working only with those who have not only opted in to the team, but have in fact worked very hard to get on the team. They chose to work hard at it; their talents, developed skills, and experience made them excel at it; and they wanted to win: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. They necessarily have strong motivation if they have gotten this far, so it is reasonable to expect a coach to assume their players will be motivated. Unfortunately, most students have very little autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and haven’t for years in the curricular context. It would take a lot for a single teacher to revive the intrinsic motivation to learn, and teachers cannot give students autonomy, mastery, and purpose of their own accord.

Despite those obstacles, I keep my eye on autonomy, mastery and purpose and support them whenever I can. My teaching experience has been in a very structured class which I had no power over, so autonomy was hard to come by, but I intend to support it in the future by giving students options for projects and power over their own topic and methods. When I teach, I tie anything I can back to purpose (the ACT is boring and arbitrary and you will never use the content of this class again, but it can help you get in to the college you want so you can build a career you care about, so let’s focus on that.) The primary way I tried to help my students in this and their future classes was to work on what held me back throughout my life. I emphasize a growth mindset to support mastery. Instead of “wrong,” I think about “not yet,” and I celebrate progress to help them see that they can (and already are!) improving.

On the first day of class, I tell my students to imagine they are teaching their little cousin to do something they love— free-throws, painting, a video game— and then imagine that their cousin misses the basket or makes a mistake. Do you tell her, “wow, you are bad at this! You should probably quit trying to get better?” Of course not. We know that she’s not going to be an expert right away, and we know from experience what kind of dedicated practice it takes to improve! If you wouldn’t talk that way to your little cousin, don’t think of yourself that way either.

Although I can’t give students all the autonomy, mastery, and purpose they would need to develop intrinsic motivation, I can try to help. I find the teaching roles I’ve had so far especially suited to helping students with mastery— if they take anything away from my class, I hope it’s that they can improve, and that their skill and capacity isn’t fixed. I hope this course can give me some tools to foster as much intrinsic motivation as I can in my job.

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Winter Break 1.0

Long time, no see! I just got back from winter break. You’d think that I’d have had time to write something, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s sort of what this post is about.

Before winter break started, I was really excited about all the work I’d be able to get done. It was a simple formula:

No class = more time

Right? Not exactly

During the last lab meeting before winter break, we went around the table and talked about what we would do before we met next. I talked with my cohort about what winter break would be like. I planned my trip. I knew it was a norm to joke about how difficult it will be to get work done, but I knew I had bitten off less than I could chew. I look back on my confidence with amusement.

Now I see that having no structure in my time is, for me, a disaster. I did get the main priorities for the break completed, and I’m happy with what I’ve done, but let’s just say that if I didn’t return 5 days ahead of time just before a huge snowstorm that gave me an excuse to not leave the apartment for days on end, I would be significantly less happy.

And those few days were like pulling teeth to get anything done, even though I clearly had the time. Like the total cliche I am, I found other things to do. I cleaned, I cooked– I even baked a loaf of bread! (That part was worth it. delicious.)

It’s important to me to learn from this experience for a few reasons:

First, I will have other breaks, including summer, when I will have to get work done.

Second, and hugely, assuming all goes well, I will have a lot of unstructured time during which to write my dissertation. During that time, I need to write my dissertation, not worry about writing my dissertation and then write it all at once at the last possible moment.

Thirdly, I need to have practice imposing and conforming to structure on my time to be a researcher who succeeds in accomplishing her own priorities, rather than what happens to be urgent at that moment.

After a year or two of arranging my life pretty haphazardly and years of historic failure to handle long term projects for school, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with my productive response to the structure of last semester. What that tells me is that, just like studies suggest, I am capable of improving and building new skills. Now it’s time to extend that to productive use of unstructured time. And I’ll have several, but not unlimited opportunities to practice and refine those habits before dissertation time.

I’ll report on my plans and progress in this area, and I hope you’ll leave your suggestions for being productive with unstructured time in the comments!

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