Myths Worth Busting to Stay Sane in Grad School

March 2018
Zoya
B.
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Caricatures by Maria G. (Zoya’s sister)

As we approach the middle of the second semester and inch on all-fours towards the summer, we look back at what we’ve gained and cultivated since the year began, and we inevitably start to make resolutions to do things bigger, better, and faster before the academic year runs out on us. Grad students, who already regularly question their existence, when given the explicit opportunity to evaluate the past and coming years, can get particularly existential at this time. Let’s use this opportunity to bust some myths about having a successful PhD. Let’s talk about how to avoid falling into the “PhD Comics” local minima.

In this post, you will hear from:

George Chen, MIT alum, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University (Heinz College of Public Policy and Information Systems) who had a Star Wars-themed PhD defense

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Marzyeh Ghassemi, MIT alum, starting as assistant professor at the University of Toronto (Computer Science and Medicine), who often held her research meetings in the process of picking up her kids up from daycare..

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Justin Solomon, Stanford alum, assistant professor at MIT EECS who bakes cookies for his students and has a laugh like Santa Claus

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Katia Shtyrkova, recent grad from MIT at RLE currently working for MIT Lincoln Laboratory, who gets her weekly exercise by playing DDR with her teenage son
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Keith Winstein, MIT alum, assistant professor at Stanford University (Computer Science Department) who took a leave from MIT to work as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal
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Jean Yang, MIT alum, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University (Computer Science Department) who showed up to her lab at MIT in a onesie during deadlines

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Myth #1. Always be in the lab.

“It’s really easy to be physically present and mentally somewhere else.”

Homer SimpsonIt’s far easier to glue yourself to your research seat for the day and don a pair of Homer Simpson style “awake glasses”, then to effectively plan out a reasonably-lengthed, yet effective workday. Many PhD students, without external obligations (e.g., children, a second job, heck even a pet), fall prey to long hours thinly smeared with productivity. Much more impressive is the student who works shorter hours but produces output. A PhD is not manual factory labor: longer hours have the effect of wearing out creativity.

A useful tip from writers and creatives: stop writing for the day before having completed a paragraph, leave off the last few sentences. That way, when you come back the next day, you know exactly where to start. Just the process of launching into your work right away from a clear spot can clear out mental blocks and put you in the right state of mind to keep writing.

JeanMy undergrad professor told me there was a scientist at MIT who did science for four days a week, and then he would do improvisational drama, I think it was, for the fifth day. And that was really good for him. For me, if I put in a good four days, I would allow myself to experiment with other things on the fifth day (this was a reward that I only took if I earned it!) I also tried to keep my work to 8 hours a day, leaving me plenty of free time to read books and write blog posts. This didn’t always happen either: in particular, the months before major deadlines were quite busy. Trying to enforce good work/life balance was enlightening for me because I saw that I could still do a lot of work and other things at the same time.
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JustinWhen I was in grad school, I tried to treat it like a job, and I arrived every day at the same time, I left every day at the same time. I think it’s really easy to be physically present and mentally somewhere else.
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KatiaMy rule is that from 6 to 9:30 pm, I don’t do any work. I love what I do, I try to maximize my time here, but there’s never been an evening where I haven’t been looking forward to coming back home to my child. You know, you set the rules. Say that a student at 4 pm started to do measurements, and he did three times as much because he left at midnight, and I left at 5:30 pm, and that’s ok. I think you have to be sincerely ok with that and just know that this is the choice that you make, and be happy about the choice.
  
  

MarzyehMy son and I walk my daughter to the school bus at 7:30. I walk from the school bus to drop off my son at preschool, and then I go to the office. And I have from 8 to 2:30 and that’s not a lot of time, right? You’re working for 6 hours or 5 hours depending on the day. So you need to be focused. You come in knowing exactly what you need to do or spending some time figuring it out, but then doing it.
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GeorgeJust unloading tons of hours doesn’t lead to better work. It really is clarity of thought and having spontaneous good ideas. It would be really hard to come by if I’m constantly just overworked and tired, and constantly stressing out. It’s really important to have that downtime to relax, to think more calmly about things and have a more positive attitude.
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What can you take away from this? Plan out your day well. Ending it early is not the end of the world, and mass panic will not ensue, I assure you. You may even discover that you become more productive when you don’t have the whole day ahead to rely on and compensate for the wasted minutes of earlier that day. If you don’t have home obligations, you can schedule in obligations by choosing rewarding extracurriculars.  This brings us to the next myth about being successful in grad school.

 

Myth #2. Eliminate extracurriculars.

"When graduate students are happy and healthy, they do better research."

 

You know that guilt that creeps in when you’re not doing your research? Cut it out. I have N≥6 worth of evidence that not only does a healthy dose of extra-curriculars not interfere with successful PhD completion, but that in many cases the skills gained can have invaluable impacts on your future career, both in academia and beyond.

 

For instance, Jean, George, Katia, and Marzyeh held organizational positions that put them in charge of tens of thousands of dollars of funds to run student-related events, in exchange for sometimes upwards of 20 hours a week of their time.

 

KatiaI was the director of MIT’s career fair for one year. You have five to six hundred companies who come into this career fair, and you do everything. You recruit them, you decide who comes, you figure out how much they pay. I was doing more communication-related work, so I had to advertise the career fair both to the companies and to the students. And every morning, I would spend 4 hours doing emails. The fall career fair is organized entirely by students, and I think that differentiates it and makes it really, really unique. Traditionally, I think there are six or seven directors. All those people are super-human. First of all, they’re all super-human if they are doing this and you make friends with super-human people.

 

JeanFor starting Graduate Women at MIT (GWAMIT) it took about 20 hours a week because we had to bootstrap all of our funding, write our constitution, figure out what we wanted to do, what events we wanted to have, how we wanted to organize them, recruit people to join our organization team, recruit people to come to our events... and it was really thrilling for me. So yeah, it was definitely a big commitment outside of my actual research. I mostly did it at night or on weekends, and some days when I was having a slow day at work, and it was a really great way of reinvigorating my attitude towards work. I think I learned a lot of leadership and how to organize people skills through GWAMIT and I also learned a lot about science communication through NeuWrite, and I think both of these things really help with my current position and also lead me to realize that this is what I want to do.

 

GeorgeI ended up becoming one of the five executive officers at Sidney Pacific. I spent three or so years very active in dorm government. You grow appreciation of--basically--politics, and what it's like, to a much smaller extent, to work for a real government... for the public sector. And also applying for grants – little pockets of money, internally, on campus: as a grad student, I was never asked to write grants, whereas I did it here [as a dorm officer]. It's kind of interesting... I would say that in terms of the kinds of skills that are needed to be a faculty member, I learned way more from dorm government. I mean, I was managing 10 grad students. Everything from management, to applying for money, to dealing with the politics of the people in power, and having a sense of who do I talk to if I want to have “X” happen.

 

MarzyehThe fact that I wanted to be in a leadership position in my dorm was sculpted by my belief that communities of students benefit from leadership that helps them get together and become a better community. And a lot of things that I learned as an officer at Eastgate, I tried to bring into my own lab. I thought that was really helpful. That kind of socialization builds trust among students and then you’re better collaborators together. The other kinds of activities that I chose are reflective of the things that I thought were really important. I was on the Graduate Student Council housing affairs committee. And when I co-chaired that, I pushed really hard for increased graduate student housing, and an increase to graduate student stipends. And that’s because I believe that when graduate students are happy and healthy and have a good social life, they’re going to do much better research. They’re going to be better collaborators, they’re going to be more functional people.

 

Not only do extracurriculars not interfere with future job prospects, including in academia, they can often provide a light (or not-so-light) shove in the right direction.

 

KeithAs a junior or senior just after 9/11, I got interested in journalism, and I had joined The Tech. And then in the summer of 2002, I had an internship at a short-lived, right-wing newspaper in New York City. And then in 2005, I had an internship with The Wall Street Journal in Boston. I was lucky enough to have a front-page article during my internship. And so when they had a job open up in 2006, I thought about the options and I decided to go. MIT was super generous and they decided to give me an indefinite leave of absence to go be a newspaper reporter, provided I could find an advisor when I came back. I covered medicine and medical trials. So it was only by that outside exposure that I sort of got interested in statistics and learned about decision making under uncertainty. And that’s ultimately what gave me the idea to do a statistically optimal TCP, and that’s what I came back to grad school and ultimately did.

 

GeorgeWith friends who I met at the dorm, we started working on an electrification project in India, which led to me working on other things in India as well, working with farmers in India…

 

George is now an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University in a college that focuses on public policy and information systems. “I'm surrounded by people who care a lot about social issues, social good.” George has recently been working on helping farmers in India who don't have access to reliable cold storage.

 

Myth #3. Socialize less, work more.

"Work: sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. But people are a little more consistent."

It’s easy to fall into the routine of zombying past everything and everyone on the path from home to the office, having no recollection of how you got there. A cure for the “every-day-is-the-same” syndrome is to spruce things up by taking advantage of the living, breathing “distractions” that can be found in the offices near you. Socializing during work hours is not a sin, it is a benefit of grad school.

 

JustinWhat got me up and going to the office was the chance to interact with a lot of people that have similar interests as me, and are all pursuing related mathematical goals. People overlook the social aspect of graduate school, but it’s incredibly valuable. Very rarely are you in a place with so many people that are smart and knowledgeable, and you get to interact with them whenever you want to. I was very lucky in grad school to have a lot of collaborators that were patient with me showing up in their office, and asking a lot of stupid questions… and that was the fun part. I mean, otherwise I could have just done it at home.

 

KeithThe Stata Center is a really special place, because you’re surrounded by so many other motivated and intelligent and inquisitive people. It’s an incredible resource. So one thing I would do if I was stuck was sort of bumble around and go distract other people. I’d be like, “Hey, I’m stuck on this problem. Let me try and describe it to you and see if you have any ideas.” And I’d do that with a lot of my fellow students. The fact that MIT lets you wander around and bother people was very helpful, and is a good way to get unstuck.

 

JeanBeing in grad school is really fun. I had a big group of friends – it was fun to be in the office together, we made a lot of jokes, pulled pranks on each other, and that was really epic. I think sometime the research was going well, sometimes it was going less well, but the office for me was generally a place I enjoyed being. Graduate Women at MIT was also fun, and I really liked days when we had meetings for that. And I also liked my friends that I had in grad school. I think for me it was a lot about the people. Because the work – sometimes it's good, sometimes it's just bad. Sometimes it's the work that gets you up, but people are a little more consistent.

 

georgeIn addition to the research which is world-class, you're surrounded by world-class people who are working on all sorts of different things and in 10-20 years, a whole bunch of your peers are going to be the shit in what they do. So imagine if you ever had a question – say about something in experimental physics – there is someone you could ask who can help you understand the landscape of things. I would say that's something hard to get if you work at a top computer science company, for example. You'd be surrounded by people who are at the top in the particular area of what you work in. But to also be surrounded by people who are going to be world-class in a bunch of different disciplines – I think that's extremely valuable.

 

MarzyehThere are people that you meet through these clubs or organizations or just branching out that will read your papers, give you advice on your faculty applications, give you perspective on what’s happening in their field... You know, if you are a computer scientist who works on clinical machine learning and decide one day you want branch out into microfluidics or genetics or whatever, it doesn’t matter. Having somebody you can call and talk to is really valuable. And it’s not just somebody. It’s somebody who’s going to be somewhere great, right? That’s the thing that I really want junior students to take away - that the friends you make at MIT, they’re all going to be somewhere incredible in 5 or 6 years.

 

Extracurricular activities at MIT, in the form of student clubs, institute committees, and student government can expose you to a wonderful cross-section of the MIT student population. In the simplest scenario, positive social interactions and working on non-research projects can reinvigorate your attitude towards your own research. In the best case scenario, you will discover new ideas, make unexpected connections, form novel collaborations, and possibly even base your career path on the people you meet and things you accomplish during your extracurricular endeavors. Your work day will be shorter, but your grad life will be richer.

Success in research is part determined endurance and hard work, part luck. So if the luck lets you down, at least make sure you have a surplus of endurance to pick you back up again. There is no magic recipe for academic success. Grad school is a marathon, not a sprint, and if there is one resolution worth making, it’s to make the most of the marathon, and pace yourself. And on that note, time for a Spring vacation?