Monday, February 7, 2011

Full Time Researcher

This is the first semester I haven't had any classes. Ever. Since I was five. No, wait - four. (I went to preschool). That's a lot of years I've spent taking classes, and now I don't have any except Ground School, which I'm taking for fun.

It's an odd, surreal feeling.

On the one hand, I absolutely love it. It is a glorious, glorious realization that there is life after classes - to go home and realize that you don't have to be working on a problem set.

No finals? Be still, my beating heart.

Even though during grad school I have only been taking two classes each semester, which isn't a full load, it still mentally splits you. If you have the overachiever bug and only two classes, it's very easy to spend WAY more time than you need to on the homework, making it perfect. Even though in grad school it's not hard to get an A, internally you still push yourself.

So even though two classes is not physically much time spent in class, and although homework for two classes doesn't take too much time from your week, it FEELS disproportionally distracting. Especially if the class is a project class, where you have to mentally deal with the project plus group dynamics.

So not having the distraction of classes really frees you up to focus on your research, and the productivity of experiments goes way up. Right?

Yeah, theoretically right.

But on the other hand, I'm having trouble adjusting to no classes. Whereas I used to wish - "man, if I just had a whole morning free, I could really get something done". Or, "if only I had an entire afternoon with nothing scheduled." Now, I find that although my evenings are still scheduled (exercise classes, RA meetings, basketball, occasional dinners with friends, meetings on conference organization), my days are fairly free.

Do you know how hard it is to get up in the morning, when the first thing on your schedule for the day is simply lunch? Especially when I do my best work at night? What ends up happening is that I stay up later and later, and sleep in later and later, until I have shifted myself completely around backwards. Not the ideal way to go about your life, being out-of-sync, even if technically there's nothing wrong with it.

World's Best School has an academic calendar that gives the whole month of January off, and classes begin in February. So all of Jan, I was sort of treating it like vacation - it's Christmas break, right? But now I'm coming to grips with the fact that my whole YEAR is going to be like this, with no classes. So at some point I have to get out of vacation mode - this is how I will be WORKING.

My advisor is also not the sort that micromanages, he stays hands off unless I ask for help. I love that about my advisor, but it exacerbates the motivation problem because he doesn't apply pressure. (I know, I know, I have terrible problems.... :P)

I have always had trouble keeping track of the date - who keeps track of whether it's the sixth, or the seventeenth? - but I could usually at least remember what day of the week it was. But now, the weekend is pretty much the same as the weekday. I can go in to work and do experiments on Sunday, and I can stay home on Tuesday (um, blizzard days are good candidates for working at home...). A lot of my work is on the computer, and really there's no need for me to be in the office for that if I don't want to. But it's turning out that perhaps I SHOULD be in the office, necessary or not, so that I force myself to be productive and not to get distracted.

Because what I am finding is that NO routine means it's hard to stay motivated, even though in general I'm really good at being self-motivated.

So this coming week, my goal is to establish some boundaries - a routine, artificial though it may be. I would like to get into the office at a reasonable hour (9:30, maybe? 10? Anything's better than 11 or later), make my coffee, check email, write a quick blog post, and then get to work. Because if I have a whole morning free, and I get nothing done, whose fault is that? If I'm checking Facebook in the afternoon that I have nothing scheduled, I have only myself to blame when my weekly meeting with my advisor comes around and I don't have results to show.

I have flexible, focused days available to me. I plan to use them.

How do you schedule your days without classes to plan around? How do you apply external motivators?

1 comment:

  1. I struggled with this for awhile because I am definitely someone who thrives on a schedule. A few things that help me:

    1/ I like TAing each term, even though it is not required that I do (although I also enjoy it for the $$$ and the teaching experience), because it gives me a non-research weekly goal/activity.

    2/ I try to get to the lab by 9am Mon-Fri and I don't schedule non-work activities between 9-5 M-F. Although research cannot always conform to "regular" work hours, I find it helps me to set these artificial hours where I am not allowed to do non work related tasks.

    3/ I try to plan my experiments for the week out so that I have clear goals and plans. Because my work is with primary mammalian cells, once an experiment is started, the cells tend to force me onto a schedule, because things need to be done at specific time points.