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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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.

Time to finish this thesis!

5 weeks and 3 days to go.

Or 1 month, 1 week and 3 days.

My thesis deadline is the 15th of May. My examination will be 2-3 weeks after that. The first few months of 2013 has flown by in such a hurry that I’ve had no chance to keep up. I’ve been writing like crazy and entered some kind of «production zone» where I could think about nothing else than my thesis. I didn’t wan’t to read, write or talk about anything else, and therefore I’ve avoided twitter, all my favourite blogs and my own blog (as well as people) for several weeks.

Honestly, it’s been a great time. I’ve been using tips and tricks from the 4 Hour Work Week, AcWriMo and Next Scientist to become focused and productive, allowing me to work 4-6 hours a day and still “produce more thesis” than I’ve ever done before. What happened?

I began setting 1-3 goals for each day, things like «write 500 words», «read up on that subject» or «rewrite that paragraph». And I would do those things and nothing else. No Facebook, twitter or looking at stuff online, minimize lunch and coffee breaks and avoid anything that might take up my time. But most importantly, whenever I reached the goal for the day, I would pack up and go home. Often the goals were so ambitions that I worked very hard and efficiently to reach them – only to be done a few hours early.

It might sound weird, but I’m having all this time to enjoy reading and writing my thesis and to my surprise it’s been fun! Even though every day has been intense, the shorter days have also left me a lot of time to be with G.

This monday I sent the complete manuscript to my supervisors for review. We had a meeting about the next phase of completing the thesis and chances are good that I can hand in a finished product by the end of April. With the new work routine and shorter days I’ve had a lot more energy and feeling much more excited about my project again. The 1-2 weeks I have to give my supervisors to review the text is proving to be difficult because all I want to do is work, work, work to finish this thing!

In addition to almost finishing my thesis I got a job.

That’s right, I got a PhD position!!!!!!!!!!

YEEEEEEY!!!

I applied for three different positions and was very happy to get an interview for two of them. In the end I got the position I most wanted and there is NO WAY I can describe how excited I am about this. The PhD is part of a completely new research group and we’ll be lots of new PhDs starting out together. Everything from the group to the lab is brand new (and very well funded) and I look forward to not only get a new project, but to be part of establishing a new lab.

My position is a 3 year-PhD with no teaching or supervising of students and it includes a 6 month stay abroad – which means I get to move to USA (for a short time). Even better, G (the best boyfriend in the world) offered to come with me if his job situation allows it. The prospect of moving with him to USA for 6 months is the best of all that’s happened so far in 2013.

Now let’s finish this thesis!

The natural laws of the lab

This is my final week in the lab (as a masters student). I started out in the fall of 2011 and as I’m writing this my last batch of seedlings has 2 hours left of incubation in my last  experiment. All this time spent in the lab has led me to recognize the  «natural laws of the lab» and I figured this was the perfect occasion to summarize them:

1. Commonly used stuff disappears

Items are known to go missing from the lab, regardless of the owner or the nature of the item. Bottles of ethanol and marking pens are uncommonly susceptible to disappearing and no amount of marking will save them. Key ingredients from shared kits are also at high risk and if possible such high risk items should be locked away at your own bench spot. Whenever you can: gather and hide them, making sure no one else can find and remove them.

2. Lab coats doesn’t come in your size

There is no way of fighting this, unless you belong to some kind of wonder-lab with tidy benches and a working radio. Lab coats just doesn’t come in your size and you should stop looking. Use whatever you find, roll up the sleeves and don’t bother stopping the coat from dragging along the floor. Don’t mind the others laughing, remember: you have the ethanol bottle!

3. Hair preys on face

At the point when you are most occupied in the fume hood, have gloves full of E.coli or are about to inoculate a new culture, your hair will attack your face. In most cases it aims for the nose or eyes and causes an immediate itching that is unberabale to the prey…err… your face. There is no known cure except for intensive rubbing, usually performed with the upper arm although this method is vastly ineffective. Wearing a surgeons cap has been found to be preventive in cases of short hair or no bangs, but such equipment is not always available.

4. There is no such thing as too much coffee

This goes without saying. Get hold of a huge mug, find the best coffee maker and hide your mug outside the lab so you can fill up during the short breaks. Try not knocking over other people’s mugs, that’s just bad attitude.

5. Paranoia is mandatory

Life in the lab is crazy, and accordingly you will go crazy. How can you be sure that everyone handles shared euipments the way they should? Are you sure that buffer isn’t contaminated? Was it prepared properly? You had to get your lab mate take care of your babies…sorry, cells last week. What if he trypsinated them too long? Even though you specifically said 4.5 minutes, what if he did 5?

The key to handling lab paranoia is either to do everything yourself (only for the extreme cases) or to not think about it and eat chocholate whenever the feeling of horror and despair hits you.

6. Don’t mind the forgetfulness 

In the end, lab becomes routine and at this point you will start to forget. You have prepared that solution hundreds of times, you know your experiments better than your own coffee mug and you could do them in your sleep. The problem is that when you reach this stage you are doing your experiments in sleep. Everyting goes perfectly well during the day, but when you get home you can’t remember anything. Did you dilute the stock solution? Did you close the fridge? Did you even put the solution back in the fridge?

Chances are you did, but you can’t remember. As our brains are built to forget most of what happens everyday (wouldn’t it be worse if you remembered everything?) there is no cure. Write as much as is sensible or enough to calm yourself in your lab journal and move on.

7. Occasionally your brain will fall out

Late hours, repeated pipetting for hours a day, lack of food or too much chocolate? Whatever the cause you will on occasion loose your brain and become… stupid. Suddenly you won’t know how many grams you need to make 10ml of a 1g/ml solution, you don’t know the day of the week or why you got up so early. Don’t worry. Stay where you are and don’t go looking for your brain, it will find you.

 8. You are the master, learn to live with it!

A common thing to say to master or PhD students is that «you are the expert. No one knows your project as well as you do». It is meant to be encouraging, but if you don’t beware it will be enraging. As you are the expert, you are also the only one that really cares whether incubation should last 3 min or 2,5 min. You are the only one who can’t sleep at night, pondering if this or that is the right thing to do. Although you might well be frustrated, you are the expert. This is the burden of (very detailed) knowledge and you just have to live with it.

If there’s anything I forgot, add them to the comments. I’m going food hunting!

That desk would make a great bed!

Week 26…

Seems to me that time is speeding up and the weeks are rushing by. The exam period is starting soon, lectures are ending next week and somehow half of November is already over. I have no idea where all my time went and just today I realized there’s exactly 6 months until I have to hand in my thesis!

I’ve been talking a lot about the subject of “too much work” and how it kills motivation. I thought that for myself that problem was taken care of when I dropped most of my cancer study. Turns out that wasn’t enough though. I’m so tired that I’m always sleepy. Even sitting in my office I feel like my desk could be a perfectly good bed. Staring at the screen or all the paperwork, it seems my head has exploded. Kaboom!!

A lot of people seem to think that to do science you cant do anything else. The way people compare hours in the lab or how late they stay up at night to work is just plainly annoying and not benefitting anyone. Repeatedly we hear about people getting out of academic careers or even completely leave science due to the work pressure and even worse, it scares young and brilliant people away. On the other, a lot of people are trying to change this view of science, because it is simply not true. It is possible to be a scientist and have a life. You can have a hobbies, a family, anything you want and still have a career in science. But somehow that requires you to realize that a) you want it, b) you deserve it and c) it is possible even if it seems impossible with your current workload.

I think the clue here is the workload and not necessarily the “real” workload, but the on you imagine you should be able to do over a week. I’m completely incompetent when it comes to planning realistically. I have repeatedly planned to do 3 experiments a week (or more) and at the same time be supposed to attend two lectures, prepare for those lectures and additionally do some work on my thesis. Not only do I NEVER finish everything I plan to do, I feel bad about it, get stressed and then can’t sleep.

The problem gets even bigger if there is something outside your work interfering as well. For instance, since late September G and I have been working every weekend and several nights a week on our new apartment. No need to say we’re exhausted, but letting this interfere with my work has been a huge problem for me. The problem isn’t that it has prevented me for doing a normal amount of work, it has prevented all the work I otherwise do in the evenings. The same can be said for anyone with something major going on: you feel bad not being able to put those extra hours into science.

I think we can all agree that it’s ridiculous.

After all, the day only has 24 hours and no one can go without sleep. But what is a normal workload? Especially if you’re doing experiments you need to keep a flexible schedule that allows you to work late to finish an experiment and that can result in periods of really looong days. But even if you stay 13 hours in the lab one day, you shouldn’t feel bad about taking some time off the next day. It’s important to remember to take some time off and then to use at least parts of that time to relax. Most of us realize that the work we do when we are well rested and happy is much better than when we’re about to fall asleep on the cell culture, E. coli or whatever you’re studying. A normal weekly load then, should be the amount of work that gives you a chance to do a really good job on a few selected things and then go home to relax; instead of wearing yourself out over a million things that you couldn’t possibly finish anyway.

Personally I get forgetful when I’m tired and stressed. So forgetful in fact, that I just couldn’t remember what I was doing this morning. Why did I get up so early? Did I do an experiment? …lecture, right, I went to a morning lecture!

In other words, time to go home and rethink that workload. And get that living room painted!

Week 30: time for a change

A lot has been going on lately and in stead of my usual short weekly post I wanted to take some time to properly tell you about it.

Ever since spring I’ve been swamped with work and it’s taken a lot out of me, mostly regarding my motivation. I’m the kind of person that needs a goal, so approaching my final year with so much work and not knowing what I was working towards was really hard. As you may know, I decided to do a PhD when I’m done with my masters. Although this helped a lot on my motivation, especially regarding the immunology course I’m taking, the workload was still too much. Last week after yet another «I couldn’t do all I planned last week, here’s a new plan»-email to my supervisor, he sat me down and told me things had to change. Not only had he noticed that I was struggling, he also thought my plan was ridiculous. Which was very true.

I’m in the great situation that I’ve been allowed to decide what I want to study and suggest experiments myself. My thesis originally was supposed to focus partly on plant responses to ITCs and antibacterial effects of ITCs. Due to experimental difficulties and a whole lot of other problems, we quickly moved away from the bacterial studies. In stead I wanted to study the effect of ITCs on chemotherapy. I conducted a literary review and came up with a HUGE study, enough material for a PhD or at least a few papers.

Well, even I could tell that was way too much, so I chose about a quarter of it and made a plan for the study. My supervisor agreed.

As is usually the case in the lab, everything takes forever. Experiments failed or had to be postponed, my TA job took more out of me than I thought it would and the routine chores of managing mice, plants and cells took hours every week. In addition we’re using a lot of time and energy on fixing the new apartment. I didn’t have any time or motivation to write and I couldn’t even find time to sit down and read immunology. That’s when my supervisor said stop.

In a very effective meeting a told me I wouldn’t be allowed to finish the cancer study. I could finish the one experiment I’d already started, but no more. «Throw out the old plan» he said «and make a new one where you only do one thing each day, not five.» So I did. This plan contains three experiments. They’ll all be finished before Christmas. The plan also contains room for reading and writing and even some time for visiting family and taking a break (although I originally forgot about Christmas and was all like «wow, I could do a LOT of work in December»).

I wasn’t happy though. The first week after the meeting I felt like such a failure. I know it’s common in science to not being able to finish a planned study, but I felt so strongly about the cancer study. It was my thing!

I had read so much, planned it and decided the experiments. I owned it so much I almost wanted to cry about not being able to do it. Part of the problem is that the study is now dead. No one else will be doing it and I have this great idea that no one is going to put into life. I’ll be able to do the first experiment so that I can say even more strongly that «hey people, someone should take a look at this!». Even if I give all my notes to my supervisor I don’t think this part of the project will be continued after I graduate. And no, in case you wonder I don’t wan’t to do a PhD on this myself. I want to go into medical microbiology. But that doesn’t mean I wan’t the whole thing to die.

It’s been almost two weeks since the study died and I’m feeling much better. I’m still sad that I’m unable to do it, but at least I have a normal workload, which is making me feel so much better and much more motivated. Right now I feel like I’m going to get through this and finish my thesis without dying too much. I’ve even decided to finish the 1st of May, two weeks early, just to get some time to … do nothing!

In the meantime it’s 30 weeks to go. And I’m actually starting to look forward to them!

week 31: completely incompetent, nightmares – and a guest

I’ve reached week 31. Slowly, slowly moving forward.

I’m so busy lately that I didn’t have time for my usual Monday-post. I’ve been evaluating lab reports and spending the evenings and weekends at our new apartment trying to make it … look worse apparently.

Lots of stuff to get rid off!!

We’ve teared up the floor and the wallpaper and even two walls. Now we need to get rid of all the garbage and that includes carrying it down fours stairs. That’s happening tonight!

Last week I once again proved to myself (and my supervisor) how amazingly silly I can be when I don’t put my head on properly. I messed up so much it’s more funny than sad, but at least I only ruined my own experiment. I finally got a chance to help R and finish her experiment while she was out. She’s been helping me so much I was excited to return the favor – but of course the sterile bench was occupied. I ran around to find another bench, then I had to find a new multi pipette, not to mention tips and liquid trays. Turns out everything in our new lab is invisible!

In the middle of it all one of our scientists came to talk to me about her pipette that had gone missing (my fault! I got it back to her) and then she decided to teach me how to handle the yellow waste boxes, which I’d been doing wrong for a few weeks.

So naturally I was late and even more stressed than usual as it wasn’t my experiment. Asking the senior scientist about the liquid trays she said she didn’t know where to find them, but “you know” she said “when you do experiments, it’s important to plan ahead”.

She said it like a real advice – and it is true – but I couldn’t help laughing. As we just moved into a new lab it’s not entirely my fault that I am/appear completely incompetent!

In the end I got it all done and nothing went terribly wrong with R’s experiment, though I messed up my own. But let’s not talk about that. That story includes a narrow lab full of inexperienced students contaminating my pipette boy and sterile bench and a broken multi pipette

– every scientists worst nightmare!

On a happier note, I’m excited to say that a very good friend of mine that just moved to London has agreed to join me as a guest blogger here. Look forward to her post on Thursday!