Grad School Cycles

She only sleeps when it's raining...

She only sleeps when it’s raining…

Grizzly, drizzly weather today. If I’d realised how bad it was outside I wouldn’t have got behind the wheel to brave the freeway. Still, I need the practice of driving in rougher conditions, so I went to pound stress out at the gym, before heading out to the mall zone to get groceries and enjoy a veggie Indian buffet lunch. By the early afternoon I retreated into my apartment and decided to stay put for the rest of the day.

It wasn’t that long ago since my last Crunch Time. Now it is hurtling back at me: the second and final half of my candidacy exams. This time the focus is on my research – what I’ve done and where I’m going. If my written proposal and PowerPoint defence aren’t up to scratch, then I leave the program with a Masters degree this summer.

That said, there isn’t a huge amount of ambiguity or stress here. I managed to prove last semester that I could hack candidacy-level exams: my committee & PI were pleased with how I did, the latter has expressed the opinion that they aren’t “too concerned” about my upcoming exam. At this stage, as long as I put in a solid performance I will be set for the rest of my PhD.

The challenge comes with getting my research polished. I’ve got “results” from the project I’ve been working on since last summer: not good enough for a publication, but good enough to indicate that it will be possible to get them up to publication quality.

When you’re in the middle of a PhD, you are navigating through a dense jungle of research space, only able to see (metaphorically) a few paces ahead of you. You’ve no idea what the bigger picture is, and making progress on your project is often a case of hacking your way through what seems to be the path of least resistance. Except that you switch your path constantly, left for a bit then right.

As such, I’ve amassed a decent quantity of data, but I need to sort out the bits that are useful (a lot of stuff I tried doesn’t add anything to my “results”) and fill in any gaps that I missed. And I want to give the impression that instead of flailing about blindly in the jungle for 9 months, I was actually following some kind of rational agenda.

***

My research productivity is a cyclical thing. What usually happens is that I will have 1-2 weeks “on” – I get fired up about a new lead, or become particularly frustrated with my lack of progress, and spend a lot of time in the lab, running a near-constant stream of experiments – followed by a week or so “off”. I can’t sustain the “on” mode for very long, and so my productivity eventually ebbs. There are times when I’m staggering about the lab late at night, wanting to close my eyes but pushing myself to at least tidy up and prepare for another intense day tomorrow. There are times when I walk through a wing of the department and it looks like I’m the only person in the building. There are also times like today when I take a full day off or get home in time for dinner.

Part of adjusting to grad school is accepting that I can’t be perfect. I’m not a human being that’s capable of working “on” for the entirety of their PhD. Nor do I think I’m completely capable of working at a flat rate of productivity – it’s something that surges and abates. Even when I’m “off” I don’t think that I can be classified as “non-productive”, I’m just not operating at full capacity.

I’ve become a lot more organised and productive as my PhD progressed. At the start I wasn’t efficient enough to do what I can do now: run a reaction, work it up and purify it in succession on the same day. It used to be impressive when I ran 3 column chromatography purifications in 1 day – now I can run 4 per day without too much undue exertion. Sometimes it’s the silly little things that accelerate or stall my overall productivity – do I have enough clean glassware, for instance.

My strategy in the lead-up to my candidacy exam is to just go with the flow. I can sense that next week will be “on” – it is the final week before teaching resumes, so I have a clear run at the research. I’ll try to avoid burning myself out, or getting too frustrated with the “off” mode.

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