Staying motivated in the unstructured work environment of academia can be difficult. For me, it has always been easy to stay on task during the field season because the summer ticks away regardless of how much I get done. I have to be organized and get in while the plants are growing and the tides are favorable. As summer gives way to fall, I have often gone through productivity slumps. This was especially true after I was done with my coursework and, more recently, when I was struggling with some mental health issues. In spite of these challenges, I have been at this graduate school game for (*gulp*) nine years now, and I’ve learned a thing or two about how to bring structure to my days and set myself up for maximum productivity. In other lucky news, I have tons of smart friends who kindly offered up some of their best advice on a Facebook thread I started. Thanks Tanya, Jeff, Christy, Brendan C, Danielle, Haley, Kevin, Sarah, Brendan H, Anne, Vadim, Ashley, Chhaya, Jamie, Lyndsey, Eddie, Jessica, Caroline, Sacha, Becky, Bjorn, Carlos, Aviva, and Colin!
Here are my top tips for staying focused and productive!
Hi friends. I’m glad to be back in this space. I hope you enjoyed reading Meridith’s life update last week. While we all have our own struggles, my year has been particularly difficult. This is your warning that I’m going to talk a lot about death and grief, so if you’re not in the place to read about that, I totally understand if you bail now. I’ve bailed on a lot over the past 365+ days. But, bailing out means keeping your boat floating, and, with lots of help, I’ve managed to do that too.
“To be careful with people and with words was a rare and beautiful thing.” –Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
I want to write about this, in the imperfect way I am able, because I know it will help someone else to read it. Maybe you? We know that graduate school is uniquely difficult on folks’ mental health. I want you to know you’re not alone. If this isn’t you, but it is someone you know, I suggest you start thinking about the support you can offer. This twitter thread is a great place to start.
I want to want to write about my brother specifically, but I can’t do that yet. The short version is this. Last summer my older brother, Jake, was in a car accident on the way home from work. By midnight on the day of the accident I was flying home to Kentucky. After nine days in a coma, my brother died.
I want to write this to talk about my own experience over the last year as someone grieving as a graduate student. I want to talk about the things that helped me and the ways that this type of pain gets mixed up in the head of one anxious, highly driven person. I don’t intend this to be prescriptive. I know everyone’s grief and grieving processes are unique, and you don’t have to be grieving a death to have some of these things resonate with you. I formatted this as a list of dos and don’ts, but there are no dos and don’ts. There is no way to do this wrong.
I thought, in the hours we spent planning the funeral, that when this was all over I would want to write everyday. But, as the weeks passed, I felt my grief like cotton stuck in my throat. I want to write about this because I think it will help me too.
Guide to Graduate School Grief (to be taken as loving insight with the full knowledge that only you know what is best for you)
As most regular readers of this blog know, I’m a speech nerd. I competed in forensics (speech and debate) for 11 years, all the way through the collegiate level**. As a result of this decade long inundation in communications training, I’m deeply invested in the subject of scientific communication. I’ve taken some really stellar courses and workshops on the subject, and there is a growing resource of training, which focuses on helping scientists get the right content for the right audience and producing a concise and compelling message. That is hugely important! As my communications instructor husband told me recently, “Don’t shirk when planning the content of your message. 90% of effective communication happens before you open your mouth.” It’s a point with which I completely agree. There are forums where this sort of training is not only hugely beneficial, but is also entirely sufficient: writing popular science articles, starting a blog, or giving a killer one on one interview with a journalist.
However, there are plenty of communication situations that don’t involve writing or speaking to a journalist one-on-one. That’s right, the thing folks apparently fear more than death, public speaking. I would contend that scientists are, often, not confident or competent public speakers. Furthermore, scientific communication training often lacks detailed instruction on this critical skill. Have I seen scientists who can throw down on a speech or a talk? Sure. But public speaking is really hard! Lots of folks have legitimate public speaking anxiety, and still others simply haven’t gotten many chances to practice this skill. Again, learning what to say is more important than how we actually deliver those words, especially for scientists, for whom accuracy is the barometer for competency. However, I’ve seen some really fascinating scientific subjects, things I was personally invested in, fall flat at conferences. I’ve seen keynote speakers who had amazing, well written stories to tell fail to really capture the potential of the moment. I’ve heard folks talking about eminent environmental threats on NPR and wanted to turn off the radio and take a nap. I think we can do better!***
Enough of that, you’re reading this because of the enticing title. Tips. Tricks! Life hacks (eh, that was probably euphemistic at best)! In the interest of being concise, I decided I would give you the public speaking advice I give all my friends before their conference presentations or job talks. Unfortunately, that’s only about two items, so I reached out to all my speech and debate friends on Facebook, and asked them about their best bit of public speaking advice. I wanted to know that one thing they advise their pals to do to prepare for a talk. I got some great feedback, and I’ve done my best to distill it all down into a few major themes and spin them in such a way that they will be useful to scientists in a few of the different forums in which we commonly address an audience. Thus, these tips should be useful to you if you are speaking to your peers or if you are speaking to the public. I’ve put these in reverse order of importance, so if you read nothing else, skip down to number 5, as this was the advice literally everyone gave, and I thought it deserved some substantial elaboration.