Imagine, if you will, a vague sense of dread permeating your every moment. Gaze around your metaphysical landscape, and you see the looming threat of semi-mechanical beings of your own construction returning to bury you under the weight of your industry. The big ones are well past the horizon now, but they are louder than they are fast. It's the incessant jangling and clanking of them approaching that keeps you up at nights, though you have calculated exactly how long it is until they reach you. It's the little ones that are the worst, because they are spry and spritely enough that they sneak up on you without warning. Soon, they will be upon you, and you must either fight them, or you must run. If you fight them, and you win, you will stand upon the body of your vanquished foe for just long enough for another construct of your choosing will take its place. The only bonus is that it will simply be further away.
Let me make this perfectly clear: you could not choose something to take its place. You really could. But that's like playing Skyrim when there are real dragons in the world.
This is how things are shaping up to be this summer. I have selected my big three responsibilities that will take precedent over any others at a given time: preparing for early-early candidacy, mentoring an undergraduate in lab, and chairing an RSG committee. Candidacy is over the horizon, and it looms like a mountain. Like any student who takes this after only about two months of thesis labwork, I'm pushing back writing my proposal to get more/any data. But I must make sure that my REU student (the talented Minion Lydia) gets the guidance that she deserves. And she's really quite good; she learns techniques quickly and doesn't make the same mistake twice, but I need to teach her new techniques, help interpret her data, and provide strong rationales for the next experiment - and so into these cracks I try and jam my research, the infinite number of small, sneaky deadlines: a reaction must be quench, a column run, a spectrum taken. I am in the lab of a first-year professor, who is itching to get data and publish. And into the cracks of research and responsibility I try and find the room for everything else: a weekly Ultimate Frisbee game, a healthy drinking habit, and maybe even choreographing Dance My Thesis.
It's going to be coming down to the wire a lot in the near future. I know I'm going to put off my proposal until the last minute, not because of procrastination but because it will be of higher quality if I make the molecules I need, run the assays, and get data. This blog post, which I proactively and naively put on my calendar as being due on the 15th, will likely be in on the 30th (sorry Natalie!). All the RSG Academic Affairs Committee agendas and minutes will be e-mailed out right in the nick of time. Panic makes for a powerfully efficient motivator, and I need to make the most efficient use of my time, and so I am making use of it.
As I look at those a little more advanced into their careers, I strike the 'near' from in front of 'future' and replace it with 'for the foreseeable.' My first-year PI is constantly on a last minute writing bent. He proudly came into lab not long ago, saying he had written a ten-page NIH supplemental in four hours. Reading it over, it wasn't half bad. Good on him! I remember agonizing for months about the two pages of my NSF research proposal. Here's betting it won't be like that this year.
Let me re-make this perfectly clear: once I slay candidacy (assuming I slay candidacy) I could not choose something to take its place. I really could. But then I'd be stuck actually battling imaginary dragons in Skyrim rather than creating the meaningful challenges of my life. And while Skyrim could be fun (it is) and challenging (it's not), I think we both know that positive impact of a level 29 vampire cat ninja on the real world is probably negligible. And that's the great part about all of it, this trite little piece of advice that I've heard many times and only now have begun to understand: you get out what you put in. When I compare playing Skyrim and fighting for a resolution to expand the Non-Discrimination Policy of the University, I know that they're both objectively meaningless ways to spend the ever-clicking clock of my life. But subjectively, I would like to think that it's important to do the research, find the data, and convert the skeptical that this resolution will bring about positive change for the University. Certainly more important than helping Ulfric Stormcloak win the rebellion against the evil Empire of evil elves. Or ascending through the ranks of the Thieves Guild. Not that I'd know anything about that.
That's not to say it won't be less busy after candidacy, but I will certainly be less panicked. And life will get nicer when I can turn my attention to other things a little more regularly.
So here's the thing about periods of life like this, which is to say 'all the foreseeable time:' you've [obviously] got manage your time. I'm writing this in the early morning before my Minion gets to work, and will get dedicated blocks my own research in when she goes home. For the bigger chunks, use Google Calendars, whether it be to manage a busy partying schedule, or put in the deadlines for projects, or navigating a polyamorous relationship. I also use the Reminders app on my iPhone and iPad as living to-do lists. I check things off as I go, and that's a very satisfying feeling, and I don't have to wade through the pages of crossed out items. Remember to schedule in fun times, if needed, in order to let loose. For me, these have been taking the form of mimosa brunches this summer, or more accurately have been taking the form of an all-day bacchanal of friends, food, and a little orange juice in my champagne. For reference, our last numbers were '14 hours, way more bottles.'
Also, be proactive. It's easy to let this resolution or my research - really all the things without discernible timelines or end goals - slip through the cracks as other deadlines approach. Panic can be a powerful motivator, but it should not be the only motivator. This can be particularly true for relationships, and so I beseech you: please do not let a friendship or other relationship die because of candidacy, or whatever hurdle you must overcome in your life. That would be a terrible shame.
If you manage to do all this, with the aid of no small amount of coffee (at time of writing, I have 34 free drinks at Espresso Royale), then you may be able to get through each hurdle - not behind, not caught up, but ahead. It may be that after all the writing, the research, the mentoring, the agendas, the good drunken times with friends, the cuddling with your wife and/or girlfriends, the mission preparedness of candidacy, the Sunday Ultimate, it may just be that you have time to slay some dragons.
About the Author
Chris Tom, Ph.D. Student, Chemical Biology
Published in: Student Voices