The 6 rules every grad student needs to know well

(EDIT: Contains minimal biology. Deal with it.)

The past 7 months have been the busiest and most stressful of my life. I decided to abandon my plan to become an academic to move back home and pursue an industry job, where, from an academic’s perspective, the ranks are filled with fat cats that do shady business via coordinated rubbing together of the hands  and menacing ear-to-ear grinning, and where even the low-level employee cubicles are lined with millions of ill-acquired dollars taken from the penniless hands of the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and [insert your favorite noble scientific organization here].

Before I could graduate and thrust my resume into the tens of thousands of already overflowing piles of identical resumes seeking to get the same entry-level industry jobs as I sought to acquire, I first had to do all of the following within 7 months: 1) design and complete the largest and most ambitious experiment of my research career, 2) author and defend a Masters thesis from scratch, 3) teach an undergraduate lecture course by myself, 4) help my busy fiancée plan and execute a wedding and honeymoon, and 5) coordinate a cross-country move, using only a 4-door Honda Accord to fit everything I own.

So, if you had any question what I was doing with my time over the past few article-less months, please read the above paragraph. Please try not to wince as hard after reading it the second time through.

How did I get all of these things done? Here are a few simple laws that helped me see through all of these goals at once:

1) The 80-20 rule:
Developed by 1906 by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto and recently popularized by Timothy Ferris in his stimulating bestseller “The Four-Hour Work Week”, the 80-20 rule describes that, in many situations, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In business, this might mean that 80% of your income comes from 20% of your clients, or that 80% of your losses come from 20% of your setbacks, and so on. In my case, 20% of my urgent tasks were causing 80% of my stress. This dynamic rule forced me to identify what tasks needed my attention the most and foresee what positive effects I might expect as a result, allowing me to prioritize where my efforts needed to be expended.

2) Don’t drop the same ball twice in a row:
Early in my grad school career, my PI sent an email to the entire lab with advice that read something like the following: “If you have to balance many important tasks in one day, such as work, family, research, and school, you may not have time or energy to adequately address all of them. It’s OK to let one of them go unnoticed. However, it’s whenever we fail to address the same thing several times in a row that the problems begin.” My alteration to the rule: don’t let the same task go unaddressed for two consecutive days. No task got rusty or completely left my mind if I devoted at least a little bit of time to it every other day.

3) Identify and minimize wasted time:
Like all of us, I get distracted by things that are more fun than work. How do you identify what’s the MOST distracting? Simple: RescueTime. RescueTime is a free application that creepily monitors your activity on your computer, categorizes your time by category, and highlights which applications are the most productive or distracting. For example, RescueTime knows whether I’m playing video games or surfing Reddit, and runs a clock to monitor how much time I’ve wasted on each activity. At the end of the day, it alerts me with a report on how much time was productive and builds a profile of my daily and weekly productivity. Your goal should be to beat your previous day’s (or week, etc) productivity score.

If the internet is your big time waster, try StayFocusd. This simple browser add-on allows you to input which websites (Reddit, YouTube, Facebook) rob you of the most time. You can then set a time to share between all sites on your list, and a counter will appear displaying your remaining time on those sites. For example, I allowed myself only 30 minutes per day of combined Reddit and Facebook time. After the 30 minutes, StayFocusd would block access to those sites on my computer, leaving me no way to access them once the clock has run out (unless I disabled the add-on, but that’s cheating).

4) Drink heavily and cry Prioritize sleep over poor-quality work:
Know and understand how sleep can enhance the quality of your workday without increasing the time you spend working. Each person has their own limits and needs; for the lucky few that are alert all day after 6 hours or fewer of sleep, I envy you. I need about 8 plus a 20-minute power nap around 4:30. Others need 10 or more. Experiment on your own, graphing your RescueTime productivity score (y-axis) as a result of the hours you slept the night before (x-axis). After a week or two, clear patterns should start to emerge, and you’ll find your sleepy sweet spot. Once you do, make that amount of sleep your priority, otherwise the quality of your work may decrease with increasing stress.

5) Break large tasks into small ones, each chunk with a firm deadline and a small reward:
Following this rule allowed me to write my graduate thesis draft almost without issue. First, I’d set aside an entire day per week for thesis writing, not worrying about research or teaching or any other day-to-day activities (but not for two consecutive days, see item 2) above). Before I began, I’d spend 5-10 minutes devising my goals for the day: take a section, break it into unambiguous chunks, assign a short deadline for each chunk (see below), and list the reward for finishing on time. Your rewards must be small, like a 10-minute cookie break or a brief play session with the dog. My favorite reward: use the remaining time until your deadline to do whatever time-killing you want to do. If you fail your deadline, you get no reward. Alter your deadlines if you miss them frequently, but it’s important to keep them short.

6) Assign absurdly short personal deadlines:
Another Ferris-popularized idea is a rather clever one; when you assign deadlines, make them shorter than you originally anticipated, within reason. Large tasks often take until the very end of the deadline to complete, so by shortening the deadline, you’re forced to work more diligently and more precisely without truly rushing. Say you’ve got a paper that’s due in 3 months. It will take you from now until the 3 month deadline to think, outline, write, edit, and review the paper, turning it in only at the very end (or at least near it). Instead, shorten that deadline to a single weekend, and you’ve now freed up so much time to devote to tasks that may be more important or urgent. I used this rule for my thesis; during a meeting, my PI asked for the first draft in 8 weeks. Instead, I suggested to make it 4 weeks, forcing me to live up to my goal while still having enough time to get good work done.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of constructive suggestions. These are just 6 things that I found were helpful towards preventing me from feeling overwhelmed.

Now that I have completed all of these really difficult tasks and am looking for full-time employment, I have more time to spend sharing science again. It’s a comforting yet horrifying thing, unemployment. On one hand, I have so much more time to devote to science communication, one of my truest and most rewarding passions. On the other, OH MY GOD IM UNEMPLOYED WHY DO I HAVE SO MUCH FREE TIME YET SO LITTLE MONEY.

In the end, I’m glad I made it through the past 7 months. I now have a Masters’ degree, a loving wife, and work experience that should make hiring managers scramble to send me their official job offers. I don’t mean to brag too much about my accomplishments. I’m just proud that I’ve seen my goals through and have made it to the other side. I wish you luck on doing the same.

Check back soon for more Badass Biology articles, and as always, comment if you have a badass science topic you’d like me to cover!

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