It’s just life

 Ever since April one year ago, when I last published anything on this blog I have been pondering one question in various forms:

“Will I be able to finish this PhD?”

That same question has also been asked by others. I’ve had a very caring person ask me to consider how much of myself I should be sacrificing for a PhD. But my motivation has also been questioned in a very harsh way, causing a lot of stress and anxiety.

Since I started my PhD in the fall of 2013 my family has gone through a lot, ranging from deaths to serious health issues to the births of 3 children, with more on the way. I have had a lot on my plate, to say the least. In the end it’s not a surprise that I’ve felt guilty of being distracted from my research. Our PhDs has a way of becoming the major thing in our lives. It’s even the only thing in some candidates life. But the truth is that the question isn’t if you have what it takes to complete your PhD or any other goal. It isn’t about why you can’t catch a break and focus all your attention on your work. In fact there is no question.
It’s just life.

Your life dosen’t enter a pause mode when you start your PhD. It keeps on going, sometimes at high speed and there is no getting off. You need to deal with the good and the bad as best you can. And you need to take responsibility for your own health and force the surroundings to realize that you are a person, and with that comes a life that has to be lived. Old-schoolers like to say that the PhD was the best time of their lives with freedom to do whatever excited them the most.
“You will never be as free as you are now”.
But even if that holds true for your research life it’s hardly ever the case for any other aspect of life.

Taking charge

I’m fantastically lucky to have two mentors that I can honestly discuss my PhD-life with. Recently they both told me: it’s YOUR PhD and YOUR life.

Take charge and make it work for you.

 

Now I’m here, looking back at my PhD and my life since the fall of 2013 and yeah, I’m proud. I didn’t deal well with everything that happened but I didn’t give up. And despite it all, I got a bunch of science done.

 

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Taking up space

This week continues the same level of crazy that has been going on for the past month. Finally the primary cells from the US are ready to do some work. Primary cells are cells that are taken directly from an animal or human and used without being transformed to divide indefinitely. Therefore they can't be kept going for longer than about two weeks, which means that I'm doing several experiments at once. This set-up from Saturday is about half the experiment.

 

This would not be possible without my amazing lab mates that are helping me harvest all the cells at once. To get all of this done I had to book both of our sterile benches dedicated to bacterial work and I might need one of the bactria free benches too. To avoid crashes with other experiments I emailed everyone to tell them that I'm occupying the lab all of Wednesday. This experiment is getting bigger and bigger, forcing me to take up a lot of space. For a naturally shy lab rat that is an excellent exersice!

Hopefully this will give me a LOT of information about how these proteins work – and give us something to continue with. One year into my PhD I'm really stressed to get some preliminary results to build on. I know people go years without results, but I don't have years. I only have 2 more, including 6 months at a lab in the US, and I need to produce three papers (or so my univ say…). So yeah, I need data!

On my way from the lab on Saturday I somehow stopped by a few shops and found a new pair of heels. I decided that surviving the past month earned me the shoes (they were on 70% anyway) and I tried them on when I went to work on Sunday.

 

Heels have nothing to do in a lab in my opinion, but that's because they usually hurt SO bad after a few hours. For a round of siRNA though, it worked out fine. I'm sure those genes will be all the more knocked down by my awesome shoes!

I ended the weekend being served an awesome dinner of horns and cocoa by G. That guy really can bake!

 

 

Who do you feel like punching?

That feeling, when you tell your supervisor about the horrors of the day and she replies:

“Who do you feel like punching?”

Mostly I felt like banging my head against the wall. I'm actually surprised I got through the day without crying. But when you've had enough major fails like this the immediate shock followed by horror followed by frustration is quickly followed by a feeling of tired acceptance.

“Oh well, let's go with what we have”

A colleague told me that this is what makes a scientist, the patience to get through the shit without breaking down or giving in. No amount of equipment malfunction or contaminated cells can stop the progress of science, although it might stop the occasional PhD student – at least for a couple of days.
That's when you need a supervisor who you can actually tell “I'm staying home tomorrow, I need a day without any disasters”. And it's perfectly ok.
And you need your colleagues to tear you away from the lab for a nice lunch with no work-talk. My colleagues are my heros these days.

When these two join efforts to cheer you up there can be no more bad mood.

I eventually got home, bought an extra good chocholate and a magazine (yes, another one, this is ridiculous) and am now planning to have a drink of … something strong.

We're waaay beyond the beer-in-bed at this point.

 

Super amazing awesome automatic macro

Did I mention how excited I was over my semi-automatic Fiji macro?

Still, I was getting sick of spending hours in front of the mac, clicking, clicking, clicking. This afternoon I went to the radical step of removing model planes, wires and screwdrivers from my desk and this is what emerged:

Amazing!

I then proudly showed G my awesome macro, followed by him saying “is THAT all you wanted to do?!!” During the next hour we managed to turn it into a completely automatic process. YEEES!

While I went for a jog G turned the macro into a small, usefriendly program that's no longer Furby-specific, but can be used be anyone.

 

I'm amazed!

This saves me hours, even days, of work. It's adaptable to other types of work we do around here and it can be done anywhere. Happy happy Furby!

 

Adventure Time: let’s do some Science

I don't know how common it is for people without kids to watch Adventure Time, but let me just say:
 

This show is awesome!

It's fun, crazy and so freaky it's actually given me nightmares a few times. After my masters degree examination a friend and colleague gave me a Finn cup that I keep in my office. Finn's currage and go-get-them mentality is a great inspiration. Also, it does a great job holding my coffee.

But nothing beats Princess Bubblegum, the ruler of Candy Kindom and scientist.

She can do pretty much everything, from creating the huge, poweful guardians that protect the kindgom to turning everyone into zombies. Occasionally the experiments fail or give unexpected results, i.e. Lemongrab, that literary come to life to yell UNACCEPTABLEEEEEE at her!!!!

 

 

So glad that's never happened to me!!

Better yet, Princess B has the kind of confidence every girl (and especially a phd-student) should have:

That one is going on my office wall tomorrow!

 

Joint forces

Last week was crazy. This week started with a crash.

It seems I've somehow lost the ability to keep more than one thought at once and completely given up planning my days. That summed up to a Monday with an 8 hour experiment, 2 meetings and teaching our new students in between. Luckily one of the meetings got cancelled, so it didn't matter that I had no chance in making it. The only thing that gets me through these days are my amazing colleagues.

One of them agreed to join efforts with me in the lab at 7 am this morning and made it possible for me to attend the first meeting. Later I took care of her stuff when she had to go to a meeting.

Even though this was another crazy day we actually managed a good 25 min lunchbreak in the sun. The right colleagues are everything in the daily lab life.

How I keep my sanity

A few weeks ago a friend doing a masters thesis came to talk to me about the work-life balance lie and how to survive in science. As this is something I have been struggling with myself I  emailed her my thoughts on the subject. This post is a modified version of that email. Everything here is based on my experiences with research and helpful tips I have collected from both “virtual and analog” colleagues.

But first, a small but important note: in Norway a PhD is considered a job and it is relatively well paid. A PhD contract is typically 3 or 4 years, and most people finish during year 4 or 5. This greatly influences how to approach a PhD here compared to other countries with different systems. 

All of this is very individual and what works for me might not agree with you or anyone else. This is a selection of my thoughts on the work-life balance lie and how I work, in addition to a selection of blog posts that I have found very helpful.
But in the end you’ll need to figure out what works for you.

First: the short version
My philosophy is: I love science, but I won’t die for it.
In other words: it’s a job. Most importantly I’m here to have fun!
To do a good job I need to work reasonable hours and have evenings and weekends off to be with my family and focus on my hobbies.