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Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 14: Spring Break Is for Undergrads


Ah, spring is in the air and the snow that I've been suffering through this winter has finally decided to melt ... slowly but surely. But instead of jetting off to some sunny Caribbean isle, Florida, or Mexico for some much-needed sun during the traditional spring break period, I'm toiling away in the lab. File this under things they don't tell you about grad school: Spring break dies when you get a bachelor's degree. The buildings are always open. Why? You have a key! There is never an end to a semester or a break for the fall or spring. Vacations are taken with the permission of your advisor, and leaving for a month is about the most you can get away with (but it feels like you'll be "making up" that month for the rest of your career).

It's funny, just because you're in "graduate school" the rest of the world assumes that you are subject to the whims of an academic calendar: Summer vacations, spring breaks, holidays, and 3-day weekends. No such luck folks; but I know, I'm preaching to the choir. Just because a semester starts and ends, this is no reflection on the status of your project and how much progress you may or may not have made. Graduate school is a low-paying job with minimal benefits. No paid vacations here.

Of course some of this is highly department/advisor/project dependent. One of my classmates working for a tenured professor comes and goes as she pleases and may not see her advisor for a month. One of the older students proclaims, "If the mailman doesn't work, neither do I." Then there are those of us working with the untenured professors. ... We're definitely under more pressure and can feel the dragon waiting hungrily for results, micromanaging our projects and--indirectly--our lives, squeezing the breath out of their students by tyranny or coercion.

Or maybe I'm just delusional and motivated by the guilt of not getting it all done when I think it SHOULD be done. ...

Needless to say, I'm due for a break, and soon. I'm getting antsy to travel a bit (I haven't been outside of a 90-mile radius since Thanksgiving), and I'm starting to understand the stance some of my other fellow students have: Leave the immediate vicinity of the lab at least once a month.

Playing the Game--Rest and Rejuvenation

Contrary to popular belief, vacations are good for you. You just have to figure out when and where to take them.

The first goal is to get the time off. The methods of asking your advisor for that time are many. I've heard that asking forgiveness is easier than asking permission, but I personally don't want to have guilt hanging over my head while I'm on vacation. Talk to the elders in your group about how they approach your advisor on how to get substantial time off. And time it right. Don't ask for time if things have just fallen completely apart and you have nothing good to say. You have to give to get. ...

If you can, project where there might be a break in the experiments. This gives you a goal to work on while you're looking forward to going away. Always leave extra time for things to go wrong; you know they will just because you would like it to work out right.

Plan a trip that you'll enjoy. You deserve it; you've been working hard. I'll let you know how mine works out, but just a hint: I'll be sunning myself for a whole week!

While you're there, enjoy yourself. Don't worry about work. Try not to check your e-mail, and keep some boundaries between you and your work; it's time to recharge your batteries.

Here's hoping that you'll at least get a few days of down time! (And, no, conferences don't count, though they are entertaining.)

Fortunately I've learned how Jeff operates with regards to "time off." He's the type of person that will give to you only if you give him something good first (see sidebar for some more ideas ...). For example, a few months ago, things were going relatively well with the project. Experiments were cooperating and things were moving along at a decent pace. It was at this time, after sharing an encouraging result, that I asked Jeff if we could talk about my calendar for the year. I had already semi-planned for 2 weeks off this summer to go home: My little sister is graduating from high school! I'm so excited! There were also a few meetings that I wanted to attend and I mentioned these. To my surprise he said yes without giving me the run around that he had given me in the past: "I won't say no, but at what point do I say no to your requests to leave town?" or something like that. The first time it was infuriating. I'm thinking, you're my advisor, not my parent, and I don't even ask my parents if I can leave town; I tell them, give them the contact info, and roll out. This whole asking-permission-to-go-somewhere is new and disturbing to me. I'm an adult! Leave me alone!

But if I look like I'm busting my butt (and believe me, I am) and I have good things to tell him, he's willing to have good things to tell me, like, yes, take 2 weeks off.

It's not like I'm trying to go everywhere at all times and do everything. I try to limit trips away because it can be difficult to get back in the groove when I return to the lab. You get out of the lab, feel the sun on your face, and it's like you're a caged animal that has recently been set free. Why go back into the cage?!? Because you know that ultimately the time you do, the date of your permanent release from captivity, is dependent on your ability to behave while captive and be the goose that lays the golden egg, otherwise known as interpretable, publishable results.

A friend and I were talking. She recently finished her PhD and was telling me about a survey of recent PhD recipients and what motivates them. She told me that one of the things that motivated her was fear--not curiosity for the subject, but fear of not getting it done when it needed to be done, fear of not pleasing the advisor, fear of not performing well on exams and in conferences. Fear. I wonder, is this the unacknowledged key to science, what secretly motivates us to keep moving forward? Underneath all the pomp, circumstance, and academic rigor there is this fear of not being good enough--is this what pushes us to work insane hours? Does this fear make us accept a culture of research that frowns on taking rejuvenating vacations because there's always someone, somewhere, that might be working toward the same result, and we want ours published first?

This is why I probably won't be going into hardcore academia; I value my time, my family, and my friends far too much to be ruled by my job. There's too much of a fight to be the first, the best, and the brightest in academia. It is such a solo pursuit. That isn't me. Besides, I like spring break. How about you?

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