Friday, November 14, 2008

Survival in a graduate school

Ronald T. Azuma, Alice Domurat Dreger, and Marie desJardins provided a bunch of valuable advice in surviving and flourishing in a graduate school. I personally like the marathon metaphor: the Ph.D. life is more like a marathon rather than a sprint. “You have to pace yourself” so that you can keep yourself until you reach the finish line. I used to work too long time every week in my last job, eating irregularly and almost giving up all exercises. Though I liked my job, I ended up with chronic stomach inflammation, neck/shoulder muscle pain, and exhausted energy. These downsides are still exerting their power in my life and it seems they have brought me into a vicious circle. E.g. When I am under a big stress for the sake of workload, my stomach pain could become so severe that I cannot work, which further pushes me into a bigger stress. I have been struggling to change this situation but it is still a long way to go.

I think Dr. Azuma, Dreger, and desJardins are really wise in advising us to look outside of the “ivory tower”. This would benefit us at least in two aspects. First, as Ronald mentioned, surrounded by a cohort of smart, hard working people, it is not easy for us to hold self-esteem and confidence. Looking into the real world would help us find back self-confidence since we have already shown our excellence and potentials that won us a position at a graduate school. Secondly, keeping in touch with the real world would help us choose and evaluate the research line we would take. Personal interest serves as a good motivation to start a long-term research topic, but marketability contributes a lot to the sustainable development of this research topic, the related research line, and even the whole personal research career. 

As a supplement of their advice, I would share something I learned from my experience. First, I found the best way to reduce the extreme pressure generated by work is to start working immediately. Even if I just get a little progress in work, I will get a lot of pressure released. This does not mean you have to work ten hours without a tea break; it simply means we should get a big task started as soon as possible so that we won’t feel a bad headache whenever we think of the big task approaching to its deadline day after day. The second experience is that we do not try to make everything perfect. Well, I would say I am kind of a perfectionist person. I would probably feel uncomfortable even if a tiny piece of work is not done well. This is more or less infected from my previous Japanese coworkers to whom perfectionism seems as a kind of culture of work. But I am very clear that every “perfectionist” piece of work needs a great deal of time investing. There is too much work that is not allowed us to do so. It is necessary to differentiate which is more important and should be more time-invested and which is acceptable to be ended up with a so-so result. I have been learning to be more comfortable with those so-so endings. 

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