New Year’s Resolutions You Don’t Need to Keep, Part 1


December 20, 2017

As we look back at what we’ve gained and cultivated in the fall semester, we inevitably start to implement resolutions to do things bigger, better, and faster in the year ahead. Grad students, who already regularly question their existence, can get particularly existential when given the explicit opportunity to evaluate the past and coming years. Zoya Bylinskii, a PhD candidate in the MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, uses this opportunity to bust some myths and talk about the resolutions you don’t absolutely need to carry out in order to have a successful PhD.

..

New Year’s Resolutions you Don’t Need to Keep
(or, How to Stay Sane in Grad School), Part 1

By Zoya Bylinskii, PhD Candidate, EECS; caricatures by Maria Gavrilov (Zoya’s sister)

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

    ..

  • 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
    ..
    ..

    ..
  • 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
    ..
    ..

    ..
  • 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
    ..
    ..
    ..

1. Always be in the lab.

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

It’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.

Jean: My 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.

Justin: When 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.

Katia: My 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.

Marzyeh: My 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.

George: Just 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.

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 article is the first in a three-part series.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *