Two things at once

In a few weeks, I’ll be forcibly elevated to fifth year PhD candidate status. It will happen at my program retreat. The incoming first year students, with their mind-boggling enthusiasm and energy, will do force me to say “I guess I’m a fifth year” and then that’s what I’ll be, like it or not.

With this transition looming, I’ve been thinking about how to get from here to where I want to be in a short, yet realistic, amount of time. I want to have my PhD and be an employed person who makes a salary rather than a stipend, and ideally this employment will not involve rodent husbandry or agarose gels. That’s a bratty way of saying I won’t do a traditional academic postdoc. I should say it in a less bratty way, but as a rising 5th year student I feel entitled to my bitterness. I’ve come by it honestly.

This dual goal of graduation and a job means that I need to be making serious progress on my research while I build a professional network and skills that will get me a job. My boss and I had to discuss this a few weeks ago when I told him about a non-research focused (but still important and prestigious!) conference I’d been selected to attend, and he replied with a terrifying email that said only “let’s talk”. But, like most big conversations, once we got going, it was just two people talking. His advice was to cut back on the extra stuff I do, that a PhD is hard enough without extra commitments, not to mention a kid who limits your work time and ensures your brain is mush at 8:30pm every night. You can’t do two things at once. Point taken.

But he also admitted that he had no idea how to mentor me to get anything other than an academic postdoc. And while his point about spreading myself too thin is a good one, his point that he can’t mentor me is honest and a good reminder that only I can sort out the next step. His practical advice on this was that I put a hold on anything besides research until this time next year. But I’m going to need to ignore that part. Certainly my project (and my boss) would be well served by a robot-me who could work on it without distraction for a year. Unfortunately for the robot-dream, organizing events/speakers/groups is part of what I do and I’d probably go nuts without that professional and social outlet. While I will need to be discerning about any time commitments in the coming year, I’m unwilling to stop organizing and attending events that might help me meet people. I probably just need to make sure my boss knows how hard I’m working every week (hello weekly meetings) so I can continue funneling some energy towards networking and skill development (goodbye Matlab, hello R).

Can I do two things at once, and do them both decently? Can I be the okayist PhD student who gets it done before she becomes a 6th year student, and build skills (at least there’s some overlap here), and make connections to get a job lined up? Here is my rough plan of attack, written here for Internet accountability.

  1. Weekly meetings with my boss. When he cancels, as he tends to when he gets busy, I reschedule for the same week rather than push it to the next week.
  2. Email meeting summaries to boss after each meeting to keep record and keep all aspects of project, and how fast progress is made, moving forward.
  3. Set one-week, one-month, and two-month goals. Put hard dates on these goals, put them in the meeting summary for accountability, address them at weekly meetings.
  4. Every completed task gets a figure and figure legend. No loose ends. No one cares about things that are “almost done”, the most important part of a PhD is the D which stands for Done.
  5. Committee meeting as soon as certain “almost done” components can be upgraded to “preliminary results”.
  6. Continue building skills and meeting people. This one is fun, so it can be no 6.
  7. For emphasis: Done >Not Done. No one cares about things that are almost done.

So, Internet, I will write this here so you hold me accountable. I expect to be publicly shamed if I don’t follow through – you’re so good at that.

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2 Responses to Two things at once

  1. NetworkingMatters says:

    By year 5 of graduate school, you’ve definitely earned your bitterness 😉 More importantly, I can’t emphasize enough how important continuing to network is. I adopted the “focus mostly on your science” strategy my last 6-12 months in school. While I won’t call it a huge mistake, I can’t say it was the best decision for my future. Yes, I needed to finish my degree in a certain period of time, but I also needed a job when I finished. I accomplished the former but not the latter. The latter took another several (grueling) months. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined doing anything differently, but, in hindsight, I would much have rather had an “okay-ish” dissertation (which no one will ever, ever, EVER look at again) and a paying job in hand when I finished. In short, your assessment of this point is spot on!


  2. Pingback: Training Wheels | A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman

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