Monday, February 5, 2018

Worst Advice for Grad Students?

After a brief glance at twitter this morning, I am tempted to run a contest: what is the worst advice to give a graduate student (other than to pursue a PhD, that is)?

What inspired this?

I don't think I ever told my students to work long hours.  Maybe I set goals for them that implied working longer hours, but I never told them to work 60 hours a week (my TA's might be nodding their heads but not my research assistants as my vague instructions never required long hours).  The whole "work smarter, not harder/longer" may seem trite and easy to say, but, in my humble experience, the biggest challenge to being productive was not the time put in but being productive in the time spent.  That focus is the problem, not hours. 

In my case, I definitely have a focus problem, not a time problem. I have never been one for putting in long hours.  Indeed, in my first teaching gig, I did work on Saturdays sometimes.... for those weeks where I skied on Thursdays (where was I this Friday?).  Ever since, my weekend work, a few hours here or there, not a matter of working entire weekend days, has mostly been grading and reviewing and some catching up in my reading, but that does not make me hit 60 hours because I have rarely worked nine to five on weekdays.  

Of course, it depends on what you count.  I do travel on weekends for interview research so that the weekdays are as efficient as possible, but I never have had an interview week that is pure interviews from morning to night.  While I do fill some of that time with transcription and planning, some of that time in foreign capitals ends up being empty .... which means tourism.  Conferences?  Those can be long days, but playing poker or drinking with friends after the panels? Is that work?  Not really. 

Getting back to graduate students, it really depends on their lives--what other competition is there for their time, how much progress they have made compared to the clock on their funding, etc.  Students fall short of making good progress in the program do so not because they are failing to overwork, but because they:
  • took on too many other responsibilities (working in student government, agreed to do service type stuff long before they should have, etc.  Saying no is really hard for academics but especially for grad students).  Of course, there are very demanding disciplines that require tons of time in labs so YMMV. 
  • could not figure out their research question.
  • had a hard time sticking to one question (juggling multiple projects is not something I recommend for anyone pre-tenure and especially not while in grad school).
  • had a hard time getting funding to do the research.
  • have a hard time working independently.
Yeah, I get it--that with a tougher job market, grad students need to publish while they are in school and that increases the workload.  So, I am not saying they never go over 40 hours.  But I would never tell a student to expect to average 60 hours a week.  Sometimes, one's load might go up that high, but at other times, one can't focus and one puts in under 40.  The academic life means that it is up to each individual how to figure out how much time to put into various things.  Early in one's career, course prep takes more time.  Later, course prep takes far less time, but one has to do more advising of advanced grad students or more administration or more service.  Which means that I tend to read far less than I would like.

And, no, I don't count time I put into blogging and twitter as work time because you may have noticed that my lack of focus definitely applies here--much of my online social media stuff has nothing to do with work.  When someone asks me to write for them, well, that is work.  Writing for myself?  Mostly fun, sometimes free therapy.

I have always been a big believer in work-life balance, that seeing a movie the night before a big exam or a defense is a good way to de-stress.  Sure, I wish I could be more productive, but that is not about putting more time in, but being more focused when I am trying to work. Speaking of which, time to get back to the big grant application.

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