By Jim Skeath, PhD, Professor of Genetics at Washington University School of Medicine
I’ve always felt that the keys to success in graduate school are to work hard and have fun – to work hard, think hard, do experiments, and to enjoy what you do and where you do it. I think these keys remain in place during challenging times. By focusing on what you enjoy doing and doing it, you will learn and it will bring you some level of happiness. Focusing during challenging times is hard, and yet gaining focus can help us get through these times and also feel like we are progressing in our training. Below are some thoughts or tips that others have shared with me over the years and that I find helpful in both good times and bad:
1) Be kind to yourself: We are in uncharted waters, and each of us needs to realize we won’t be as productive as we’d like right now, and that’s okay. The top priority is taking care of yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically.
2) Learn something new that you enjoy doing: If you want to learn to program and enjoy the process, do it. If you don’t like programming but enjoy learning how to use Adobe Illustrator (or a similar program), do it. I don’t think the specific activity matters much, but it totally matters that you enjoy the activity. The joy will help you master the activity, and it will bring you peace of mind and fulfillment.
3) Read: Most scientists and researchers, me included, would do well to read the literature more broadly and deeply. Read up on recent and classical papers in your field or identify emerging areas of research in related fields and become well versed in them (e.g. phase separation or biological condensates for those in biology and chemistry). Reading will make you a better scientist, researcher, humanist, etc. Here is a link to help gain VPN access to connect remotely to University resources and download papers from journals, etc. (https://it.wustl.edu/home/how-to/connect/).
4) Create: Create figures or schematics for papers or talks. If you are in the middle or later stages of your PhD, do you have data you can analyze and organize into a figure for a paper, or big picture schematics you can create for a talk? If so, do it. For me, the most efficient way to write a paper is to organize my data, create a figure, and write the results section as soon as I get the data. My mind is focused on the question, the science, and its logic, and because of this it’s relatively easy to create the figure and write the results. As time passes, the question, science, and logic dissolve into the deep recesses of my mind, and it gets increasingly more difficult for me to recreate and write the question, logic, approach, etc. If you are set with your data, maybe create cool introductory (or summary) schematics or slides for your talks. You know, the ones you always think about a day or two before a talk, but don’t have time to make. Making figures and schematics is creative and fun; it uses a different part of the brain than reading.
5) Write: Early-stage PhD students can work on their QE or thesis proposal, and later-stage students can work on a paper or thesis. Writing is hard for most of us but crucial. To quote Admiral Hyman Rickover, “Nothing so sharpens the thought process as writing down one’s arguments. Weaknesses overlooked in oral discussion become painfully obvious on the written page.”
6) Take breaks – they help: Here’s a favorite quote from Robert Pirsig and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on the importance of stepping back and taking breaks. He’s talking about fishing, but as he says, the break need not be fishing, even if I am partial to wetting a line. “I’ve sometimes thought this inner peace of mind, this quietness is similar to if not identical with the sort of calm you sometimes get when going fishing, which accounts for much of the popularity of this sport. Just to sit with the line in the water, not moving, not really thinking about anything, not really caring about anything either, seems to draw out the inner tensions and frustrations that have prevented you from solving problems you couldn’t solve before and introduced ugliness and clumsiness into your actions and thoughts. You don’t have to go fishing, of course, to fix your motorcycle. A cup of coffee, a walk around the block, sometimes just putting off the job for five minutes of silence is enough.”
7) Reach out; connect with others: Need to talk to a fellow student, need advice from a program director or trusted faculty member, or simply need a sounding board? Reach out. It will help you and them. These are hard times but we’ll get through them, and it’s better and easier to get through them together. For example, the Student Advisory Committee for DBBS PhD Students hosts a weekly chat: the Petri Dish Fridays at 2:30: https://dbbsstudentadvisorycommittee.wustl.edu/the-petri-dish/
8) Be kind to yourself: It bears repeating here and every day. Have a hobby you love – spend time doing it; have one you want to start, have at it.
I’ll end with two other favorite quotes:
“The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.”
Frank Herbert, Author of Dune.
“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”