New Employee Orientation

Every time you start a new job they have some kind of new employee orientation. I remember very clearly the year I started working at my college tutoring center and had to attend a two day orientation and training. This professional feeling workshop was starkly contrasted with the video tape in the backroom orientation I had to attend when I started working at a movie theater the same summer.

Today I had the orientation for new employees-in English. The best thing about orientation is the free stuff! Plus you learn a lot about the history and policies of your organization. Once, a previous boss complemented me on always knowing the rules about employee tasks. I was shocked. They covered all of this in orientation. I mean I didn’t remember what the rule was but I did remember that they had talked about it so I went and looked it up in my notes. Apparently this in not the norm.

Today’s orientation was great. The free loot consisted of a 2G USB stick with the university logo, a cloth bag with the logo, some handbooks for organizations, a spiral notebook with university logo, a pen with university logo, and a good lunch. They covered topics ranging from the history of the university presidents, a very cool modern art museum that is part of the campus system, to inventions that have come from research at the university. I was inspired and took a lot of notes, and am planning some upcoming posts based on the day. However, today I just wanted to say, you should go to your new employee orientation. Not only will you learn about what benefits your company offers but you will get free stuff and hear about all the cool things that you might not know about the other parts of the company.

LOOT!

LOOT!

Leaving work after 11pm

Tonight I headed back to work after my Swedish class (18-20:30) because I hadn’t finished everything I had planned for the day by 17:25 when I had to walk out of the office to go to class. No problem, I thought, I can just go back and finish up everything and take a later bus. I figured I had about an hour more of work to do. And since it was basically busy work, it wasn’t a problem to do late in the evening but as we had committed to get the work to a collaborator in just a few days I wanted to get it to my PI ASAP.

When I made it back to the science building I was about 21 (9pm). The building was totally deserted. I thought it was a little weird to not see any students studying or working on projects in the main hallways. I know 21:00 is late but when I was a student in science we often met up to work on homework and projects after dinner. As I walked to my office I noticed that I didn’t see a single person. Not only were there no students studying but basically there were no workers walking around the halls. First, the building is set up with many wings that are closed off by security card but the way I walk through the building is past tons of study rooms, the main cafeteria and the main instrument labs, as well as, some research wet labs. This building has over 450 employees and 900 students taking classes in it and I saw not a single person.

After getting to my office I locked myself in and finished up my work. I love being at work really early or really late when there are few people around. In graduate school it was my habit to get to work around 7:20am and my favorite part of the morning was before 8am when I would have a cup of coffee, answer emails, and sing my country music aloud in my office. Even the few times that other students came in early and caught me singing (and maybe dancing) around our 15+person office didn’t damper the fun (and honestly productivity) I achieved during my early mornings alone. Tonight, as I made figures and tables I played my music loudly and sang along. I am sure if there had been anyone on my floor they would have come to investigate. However I didn’t see anyone.

I finished up the work that had to be done on my office computer about 5 min after a bus had left. The next bus wasn’t for a while since they only go twice an hour this late in the evening. I decided to work on a few other things before heading to the bus stop for the next bus.  I walked out of the building a different way than I had come in and still saw no one. Then I walked the 5 min walk to the bus stop (a huge bus interchange) and still saw no one. As I was walking, I started thinking  that maybe this was a cultural thing. In the US, at top universities you would expect to see people working all sorts of hours. You would expect the students to be studying all times of night. Is is really that the students are working and studying less in Sweden or that they are just not doing at work?

In graduate school it drove me crazy when a few people I worked with tried to make comments about the fact that I left work around 18-19 every day, when I had come in to work hours before they had. I felt that staying at work when I had put in a full day and wasn’t working very hard anymore was posturing instead of actually being productive.

One of my commitments for this postdoc was to be organized enough that I could leave work at a reasonable time (17-19) and if I needed to, I could monitor work from home. I have mostly been succeeding at this goal but honestly there have been times that I feel I am not working hard enough. These are feelings I can mostly associate with feeling like I am just not working enough. These are not new feelings for me. In graduate school there were times that I felt I wasn’t being productive enough, time I felt I wasn’t very motivated and so wasn’t giving it my all. Basically I went into almost every meeting with my advisor feeling that I could have done more.

Recently I have been feeling this “not working hard enough” feeling until I stop to analyze if maybe I am not putting in enough time. Last weekend I spent all of my time alternating between work and sleeping. I would work for a few hours and then take a nap, then I would wake up with an idea for work and roll over in bed and start working on my laptop. This kind of work schedule is one I easily fall into but isn’t sustainable or healthy. It is definitely a pattern I would like to minimize. However, no one can say that I haven’t put in lots of time in the last two weeks. So are these feelings of inadequate work real or are they socialized into me via the US Chemistry Ph.D. mentality?

Mental Health and Gradschool Questions

I have been reading the recent flurry of blog posts on mental health and graduate school. After thinking about what I could add to the conversation I decided instead to focus on my own story and make just a few comments on what a few others have said. At the bottom of this post I have tried to collect links to the relevant posts.

 

First, I decided to be a chemist at the end of high school. Both of my parents have PhD’s in chemistry and I tried for quite a long time to not be like them, but you do what you are good at. Since I had this perspective, I went to college, knowing I was going to go to graduate school. Because of this I planned my classes and took opportunities to optimize research experiences. I happen to be dyslexic and knew from high school that I wasn’t going to be able to do well in college level English and history classes so I worked hard in high school to take AP tests so as not to have to take these in college. I have always said that I could fool a 3 hrs test better than a trained professor for 3 months. With these exams, I entered college with close to 60 hrs (I was a junior in standing) and I was able to take 3 bachelors of science degrees and a science minor. I literally took 4 non-science classes in college: 2 in Swedish and 2 in philosophy. I had worked in 4 different research labs by the end of college (1 REU like program, 1 biochem and 1 organometallic lab at my university, and 1 biochem lab in Sweden for a summer). Because of all of this I was a good candidate on paper. I applied to 5 top 10 graduate schools. I didn’t get in to 2 of them but when I called and asked why they both said that one of my letters of recommendation had come over a month late and that they didn’t accept anyone until their application was complete. By the time my application was complete they had accepted everyone they were going to. Honestly, this was fortuitous. One of these schools was the place my parents had met while my mom was a grad student and my dad was a post doc and I am not sure I would have been able to choose anywhere else if it had been an option.

I ended up attending a great school that fit my personality much better than the others. While visiting the school I called my mom to tell her that I had decided to move to Chicago because I would “graduate in purple velvet robs and get to buy a real winter coat.” While of course these were not the deciding reasons for my choice they were the cherry on top. I feel like this description of my choice is probably the most fundamental description of my graduate life. I had picked a great school, with the type of atmosphere and level of internal competitiveness that suited me, in a place I wanted to live, and with a climate I would enjoy. I had tried as hard as possible to balance my work and life right from the start.

I choose an apartment in the city about a 25 min commute in the morning to campus, understanding that I could have lived further into the city which I would have liked better but the commute at 9:30 pm would have been over an hour. And the night you are stuck at work till 9:30 is not the night you can handle an hour long commute. By separating myself from campus I made hanging out with other students harder but gave myself the type of apartment, in the type of neighborhood I felt most comfortable in (I am truly a city girl at heart), for the amount I could afford on a grad student stipend.

As I looked for a group, I met with the professors multiple times. I asked a lot of questions at group events and group meetings to try and figure out group dynamics. And from the final groups I was most interested in I took 4 different girls, each at a different stage in the group, out for coffee off campus to ask them personal questions about the group dynamics, the work, the professors, and grad school in general. I was really confident when I choose my groups. During orientation the department administrator had said to remember that there were three things to consider when you picked a group: (1) the project/work, (2) the group, and (3) your PI, you have to like at least 2 out of the three…and after finishing I have to say that if one of them isn’t your PI get ready to leave with a masters. I choose my groups thinking 1 and 3 were strong and there were people in 2 that were strong also.

When I joined 2 research groups with a combined theoretical and experimental project, I thought I knew what I was getting into. While I will say that I can’t remember an episode where I had some of the physical responses described by others, and I didn’t often sit in my apartment crying, I did drink too much, sleep too little, and have very little social life. And I was a very balanced graduate student. I knew what I was getting into when I went to grad school. I even looked down on one of the schools I visited when the grad students said they only worked 45 hrs a week and not on the weekends. “No wonder they take so long to graduate”-I thought.

One of my professors sent out a list of group policies that included that 60 hrs of work a week was expected, but this could include teaching, reading papers, and writing. I thought this was generous. I set up my schedule to arrive at campus around 7 am and leave most week days by 6:30 pm. By taking a quick 30 min lunch at my desk (I did mostly bring food with me though) I was able to fit in 11 hrs of work each week day, leaving about 5 hrs I needed to get in on the weekends. This meant if I came to campus around 9 am on Saturdays I could leave by mid-afternoon. This is how I got “work/life balance”. I felt that by cooking dinner at home and having time to hang out with my friends on a Saturday afternoon I was balanced. I was extremely lucky to make 2 very close friends within the first 4 months of graduate school. During our 5 years in Chicago, we had season tickets to the ballet and the symphony and liked to go out to eat at nice restaurants. But mostly we watched nerdy movies or chick-flicks and ate takeout and drank wine.

For me classes were easy, and teaching was easy as I had almost 4 years’ experience as a tutor from college. I had no problems with my qualifying exams in my 2nd year but soon after I started collaborating with a girl from the material science department. She had had some horrible interpersonal problems in her department that had put her behind in research. I noticed that the way her boss ran his group was extremely different from my PIs and I thought that if I had the same problem mine would not have been very sympathetic. As I started collaborating more and more I began to look around at different management styles and by the middle of my 3rd year I know that I often was looking for flaws in my group dynamics and with the PIs’ management of the group interactions.  By this point the group dynamics in my office had changed drastically from when I had joined the group and I felt that I sat in a “boys club.” I often watched while others got their names on papers and got picked for collaborations because they had poker night, or hung out on the weekend. I once watched the person who sat next to me go around the room to everyone else and ask for help but specifically not ask me…I knew how to do what he was asking about and in the end I didn’t speak up. Honestly I stopped trying to fit in with these people who didn’t like me. I had walked in on too many conversations about how I wasn’t friendly, how crazy it was that I was best friends with so-and-so cause they were so nice. One of the issues is graduate school is everything is unofficial. When you work for a company there is a hierarchy. When you are in grad school all grad students are supposedly the same and some treat it like an extension of college and other treat it like a job.

Because of this tension I felt in my office, I always thought that my struggle in graduate school was the group dynamics. Until the last 6 months of my PhD, I had always gotten along well with both of PIs. Looking back I was always nervous when I met with both of them, but mostly because I always thought I could have worked more…when I did meet with them the meeting always went well and they never told me there were any problems. We always discussed the science and they even shared many things about their travels, their families, and their opinions on academia with me. I thought I was one of the really lucky ones who had chosen well at the start of grad school. When I got near the end I began making an outline of my thesis and asking if what I had listed was enough. After getting confirmation on this I tried to wrap up all the projects we had discussed.

One of my PIs says that his requirement for defending your thesis is that all of your papers had to be in submission form but every time I asked him about a paper he was editing he would say things like oh I have to read so-and-so’s first. As we could go 15-30 rounds of passing a paper back and forth this was really frustrating. Finally, I was allowed to schedule a date for my oral defense (which was over a month out).

About 2.5 weeks before my scheduled defense, I was frantically trying to compile my thesis, while doing things like taking a day to make a 3D journal cover for one of my articles. After approving the journal cover, my PI asked to postpone the date so that we could have more time to edit all the manuscripts that were in draft form. We postponed 2 weeks to the last day of the month. So I had to get my paper thesis to the committee 2 weeks before and I would have those 2 weeks to back up my apartment, move all of my stuff to storage, get down to just 2 suitcases of things to move to Sweden. On the day that my paper thesis was due, I dropped a copy off at each member of my committee’s offices. I had a long conversation with the PI who had the strict graduation requirements about a manuscript that was at a journal and as I left his office I said “OK, my parents will buy their plane tickets to come now”. We then had a conversation about how he didn’t understand why parents wanted to be at someone’s thesis defense. (Seriously…this is a big day in someone’s life…way bigger than college graduation…on par with your wedding day).

During this whole process of postponing, my biggest problem was that as everyone around me was telling me my PI was acting completely unreasonably. I kept thinking that since I didn’t totally disagree with his points just his methods that anything I could do to make him happy was worth doing. Look: I agree, a more prefect thesis, more papers published those were good for me also. Making sure my PI liked me when I left and still thought of me as a hard worker or a good student was critical.

Two days after distributing the paper copies of my thesis, at 10:40pm on a Sunday night, as I was frantically packing in my apartment I got an email from my other PI saying they had talked and thought we should postpone to “button up” everything. I still to this day don’t know what that means. Now hysterically crying on the phone with my mom I had my big breakdown of graduate school. I replied to the email saying that I was confused why but if that is what they both thought then it was what we would do. What else could I say at that point…

On Monday I emailed the other committee members to let them know they didn’t need to read the 300 page thesis I had left with them on Friday. I frantically looked for a place to live as I had to be out of my apartment by the end of the month and obviously I was going to be around more than just a few days spent crashing at a friend’s. My parents had to put their plane tickets on hold so they could use the flights later (hopefully).

I had to wait a week before I could meet with both PIs in person (they were both at conferences) and I went to the meeting dreading it. Disclaimer: I am a crier. I cry when I am stressed. I cry when I am angry. I cry when I am frustrated and don’t know how to explain. However by pre-thinking what I am going to say, and how I will respond to certain questions (just like for a presentation) I rarely cry in public. I often cry at home but mostly can hold it in when at work; the last time I cried in public was an argument with a teacher 2nd year in high school. I was pretty sure I was going to cry in this meeting with my PIs and was actually trying to figure out how not to do it till the end.

I went to the meeting determined to explain why what they had done was such a big deal (in a response email one of them asked if postponing really mattered) and how much it had disrupted my life. I got to the office and they acted like this was a totally normally meeting. I could feel myself starting to boil with anger and took out a Kleenex to blow my nose and get myself under control. As I blew my nose my PI said “oh do you have this cold that is going around”. Honestly, I snapped. “No I don’t have a cold; I am trying desperately not to cry because I am so angry I can’t speak. Do you not realize how you have disrupted my life, cost me thousands of dollars, and you didn’t even explain what the problem was.” I explained the fact that I had been in this same office on the previous Friday and no indication was given that there might be problems, was really insulting. Going forward we were all going to have to communicate a lot better and if there was a problem I needed to be told immediately, that I couldn’t read minds. Both of them were floored to say the least. One of them hadn’t recovered by the end of the meeting (2 hrs later), in fact he kept saying things like “but it will be better for you”…in the end I had to reiterate that I wasn’t going to argue about the reasons for postponing but that the method and communication was a complete failure.

A month later when I finally defended it was almost worse that they acted so proud like they knew I was great and always had faith in me. “Grad school is incredibly difficult, but it doesn’t need to be demoralizing.”—Color Blind Chemist I left feeling little pride and a lot of relief.

 

I think my biggest revelation is that they system is broken (I know it has been discussed before). In the current system the PI has complete autonomy. While I know that an advisor has a lot of rolls to fill and  you can’t expect everyone to be good at all of them, I never asked my PIs to be more than they were. I found an outside mentor; I attended workshops on writing skills, speaking skills, and career development on my own time. I found outside money to attend conferences. I was frugal with my research budget and I took the initiative to start and maintain collaborations both inside and outside our university. When at a meeting in my 5th year that one of my PIs asked if I had looked at the literature and I brought up a slide with the literature summary, on the one hand I was insulted “you have known me 4 yrs and expect that I didn’t do my research?” and on the other hand I knew he would ask this question and wouldn’t remember what we had discussed last time so had come prepared. This kind of high stress environment is part of the grad school experience but the current structure gives all the power to the advisor and doesn’t have good structures for the student to use if they have issues. It is all very hypocritical. The same week I ended up defending, one of my year mates was also defending in my group. Somehow he didn’t have to jump through the same hoops I did. Not that his defense was without critique but it is extremely frustrating to have everyone held to such different standards. I know it is not possible to make life fair and I have been told that better students are often pounded on more and more is expected of them but while this might build good scientists (I find this highly debatable) it definitely doesn’t build comradery between graduate students or scientific collaborations between PIs and students but instead fosters power struggles.

My best friend was one who left with her masters after 4 years in graduate school because her boss thought that her year mate always worked more and got more done than she did (very simplified version of story). Now the fact she worked more hrs every day and the other student didn’t work on the weekends at all was not as important as his perception of their personalities which he equated with work ethic. Now the year mate is also leaving after 5 years.

This is a huge problem. As has been noted by others, choosing your group and advisor is critical but there is no way to know everything before you are really there. You can have a great relationship for 5 years and still have major problems, I did. Students are at the complete mercy of the advisor when it comes to projects, publications, graduating and moving on, and letters of recommendation in the future. Student have no leverage, no bargaining power, no compensation and nowhere to go when they are struggling (yes I know there are good counseling centers at many schools-including mine but this has no actual direct impact on the advisor-advisee relationship). Basically by the time you get to any major problem it seems like the most productive thing to do is move groups. This is demoralizing for most and if nothing else complicated logistically.

Now I am in Sweden and I have been looking around at the system here. I can say the method of finding a graduate position is much more stressful, as they apply directly for a specific project or group or grant. Also having the announcements be posted at any time of the year there isn’t the same structure of everyone in your class, and going through orientation together. However, it seems like most students have better work/life balance or at least don’t have to sneak around as much to have it. There are more department discussions of alternate careers and what is expected in academia (I have started a lot of these discussions but everyone has joined in, including some of the most senior professors).

I don’t know what the right fix is but I am glad that there are groups of people discussing this at length. With more conversation comes more exposure and hopefully a shift in the autonomous culture of chemistry graduate school programs in the US.

 

Original Conversation between Chemjobber and Not the Lab

Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 1

Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 2

Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 3

Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 4

Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 5

comment from professor about choosing profs: http://chemjobber.blogspot.se/2013/01/is-graduate-school-in-chemistry-bad-for_11.html?showComment=1358035454449#c4473973353610582084

 

Post by others in response to initial conversation:

http://dennymayo.tumblr.com/post/40437391233/on-graduate-school-in-chemistry-and-mental-health

https://theorganicsolution.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/did-i-not-work-hard-enough/

http://justlikecooking.blogspot.se/2013/01/grad-schools-mental-toll.html

http://colorblindchemist.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/mental-health-in-graduate-school/

 

Chemjobber’s Summary of the Conversations

http://chemjobber.blogspot.se/2013/01/more-on-graduate-school-in-chemistry.html

Coffee for Science, Cake for Fun

I have said before one of my favorite things about my new job is the coffee hours. Not only does this mean I never have to make coffee for myself and that I am regulating how much coffee I drink by being lazy but it is also a great built in way for new members of the department to get to know people and it fosters collaboration. It is easy for a student to ask a senior professor something simple as you can ask it casually at coffee hour. As I am not very good at remembering to go to coffee hour I have been setting alarms to remind me to stop working.

However, on Friday afternoon I need no alarm, partially because duh it is Friday but also because I eat a smaller lunch so I can have CAKE!

Today’s coffee hour was perfect, the cakes were wonderful and there were even a few that people had brought back from home to share (i.e., one from St. Petersburg) and there was lots of chocolate. But the best part was that because everyone comes to Friday coffee hour and everyone sits down for a while to eat their cake I got to witness 3 collaborations forming and 2 problems solved by helping each other. There was much catching up…”what have you been up to lately”, “oh I am annoyed ___ isn’t working” etc.

I really like this structured yet informal way to provide both socialization and collaboration. Is there a way this could be implemented in American research groups effectively? I am still pondering the ways…

Work Life Balance: Working Out

One of the main workshop and development conversations in science academia both in graduate school and beyond is how to achieve work life balance. I have attended so many workshops on this topic it is crazy. I am not sure there is really such a thing as work life balance but this year I made my New Years Resolutions in the hope of being healthier, happier, and more balanced. To me this means being healthy: both the food I eat and working out, being happy: doing fun things, staying in touch with friends, and balancing that with hard work and some good publications (otherwise how would you know you were productive :).

This is the first post in what I hope will be a year long series on how I am finding work life balance and working on my goals for the year.

One of my goals for this year is to work out more regularly. To this end, I decided to try to ease into it this time instead of trying to start too quickly which I did often during graduate school. My goal is to work out 3 times a week in January and then slowly increase this amount to 4-5 times a week in February and March. I decided to start with some workout DVDs I have (I own about 30ish).

Today I did my first workout of the new year; I tried a Jillian Michaels tape. What I notice each time I start again is that I am sore, out of breath, and that I don’t do the workout “full out”. I made it through the hr long workout but just barely.

This time what is particularly interesting is that I lost about 3 kg on my recent trip to London by just walking around. I was being cheap when I had time to kill instead of paying to take the tube back to my hotel I just “went shopping”, i.e. wandering through the stores and buying nothing. I hoped that this would be a good kick off to my fitness this year. I have been eating quite healthily since I moved into my apartment as during graduate school the way I learned to eat cheaply was by cooking healthy food in bulk.

Even though my back is sore from arm circles and some planks (crazy I know), I think this is a good start for the year.