The Race to the Publish Line – How to maintain a good pace in grad school

August 21, 2013 | Posted by Fraser Tan in Grad School Help |

The best way to maintain a good pace is to maintain your health, both mental and physical. The best way to do this is through the ever-elusive work-life balance. (This is a slight misnomer, in my opinion, because work is definitely a part of life, and for those of us who choose research, more a part of life than for most.) Each person has a different balance, but when that balance is out of whack, everything, including your work, will suffer.

In my first year of grad school, a friend of mine and I both rotated in the same lab. It was awesome getting to work with her. I matched her work schedule, which was grueling. I was in lab for 12+ hour days for a month straight – including weekends. And at the end of it, I was a wreck; sleep deprived, brain dead and unable to function nearly as efficiently or happily as I wanted. It turns out, I can’t work like that. She thrived, I dived.

It turns out that my work-life balance was very different from hers, and I took that month’s lesson to heart. For the rest of my grad school career, I stuck to my guns and worked roughly 8 to 6 daily, and no weekends unless required. Granted, there were many times when I had to push more, but I made 12+ hour days a thing of requirement, not of the norm.

But deprioritizing hours in lab mean prioritizing efficiency in lab. By planning out my daily, weekly and monthly tasks, I could keep multiple projects going at once, interweaving various experiments along with routine tasks in a complicated daily choreographed dance. By the end of the day, and the end of the week, my willpower and discipline were used right up, and couldn’t be recouped in lab.

Singing in my a capella group to let steam off.

Singing in my a cappella group to let steam off.

I turned to my passion – singing. Through a cappella, I’ve met great people, made great friends, and loved every minute of it. Most importantly for me, singing is the opposite of science. Where science requires discipline, when I sing, I let loose. Where science requires efficiency and determination, when I sing, I goof off. That’s the point – I get to relax, let myself breathe and be in the moment, not planning every next minute. No matter how awful my day in lab was, getting together with my group left me breathlessly laughing, my stress gone, ready to tackle another day. It’s my stress relief valve.

Grad school will be boring, will be stressful and will leave you frustrated; it is one of the hardest things you will push yourself to do. Make sure you have a relief valve – something fun to turn to when work leaves you wrung out. Many of my friends would go to the gym (which is great! Never sacrifice your health for work!), surf, join local volleyball and soccer leagues. Some were instrumentalists and played with the school’s orchestra, others joined the choir. Some cooked and baked (and brought in their delicious treats to share with us – yum!). Find something that will refresh you, re-energize you, and help you remember in the midst of the drudgery why what you are doing is important.

And last, but certainly not least, use your interests to meet new people, make new friends and generally round out your life. Explaining your work to people not familiar with it will polish your communication skills and boost your confidence – especially when they “ooo” and “ahh” about how cool your work is (and they will!). You’ll be happier and healthier, and that will reflect in the level and quality of work you do in lab.

About the author

Fraser supports our customers on Science Exchange. She completed her graduate and postdoctoral studies at Stanford University and served on the Marketing and Development Team for BenchWise.org before joining Science Exchange..

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