Your Bag of Apples | Set Realistic Goals

People who have the drive to get a PhD tend to be the people who try to pack 10 pounds of apples in a 5-pound bag. It can be tempting to carry that many apples, but sooner or later the bag will burst.

Grad students are super-high achievers. Taking on more research projects, saying “yes” to exciting opportunities, learning new skills, stretching in new directions. And doing everything extremely well. Meeting your own high standards and meeting the expectations of others. Each is an apple. Your bag gets more and more stretched.

Then it bursts!

If you are limited to those that fit into a 5-pound bag, how do you pick the best apples?

Grad students tend to take on far more than the typical person. You have that “I can do it!” attitude. In the short run, maybe you can. But this pace and volume is not sustainable. Even you have limits.

Overstuffing your apple bag spreads you too thin. It becomes difficult to do the critical things like finishing your degree and publishing your work. It can also lead to burn out.

The answer is to set realistic goals. Stay focused on a few priorities. Carefully select your apples: some that need to be there and some that you want to pack. Leave the other ones at the market. You can always pick them up later.

Need To Do

Apples in basketsPublishing is a mission-critical apple to put in your bag. Publishing your research is a priority for nearly all students in all fields. In some fields you are expected to publish articles in journals. In others, you are primarily presenting conference papers. But before you get your PhD, you need to conduct research and scholarship worthy of sharing publicly. (“Invest in and nurture your ideas,” is what Dr. Deji Akiwande advises in his Three Keys interview.)

Publishing means you need to finish one (or perhaps two) research project at a time. It is tempting to follow new ideas and start more projects, before you bring one to a close. But until the manuscript is submitted and accepted, the project isn’t done yet.

One way to select among interesting possible research projects is to pick the projects that will help you publish. Select the apples that move you to your long-term goals of graduating and launching your career.

Other “need to pack” apples:

  • Skillful writing. Take a class, use the writing center, and invest time.
  • Technical skills. Some may be “need” skills and others “want” skills.
  • Program requirements you must fulfill.

Want To Do

Vertical apple basketsGrad school is a time to explore. There are so many opportunities; lots of students get overwhelmed. It is a great time to try an internship, a leadership role, science outreach, extra teaching, mentoring an undergraduate, entrepreneurship, a class in a new area.

Select apples in alignment with your goals and values. Give yourself permission to extend beyond formal requirements and your advisor’s expectations. If you just do your research and nothing else, you are shortchanging yourself. But be choosy.

Discern your passions and determine your priorities. You may decide to put an apple you don’t like (too sour!) in your bag, because it will get you where you want to be. (“Follow your passions” is the theme Maureen Stabio’s upcoming Three Keys interview.)

Look ahead to your professional life after graduate school. What options can you explore? What activities can you try out in a small way? “Think next stage,” is the second piece of advice Rick Reis gave in his Three Keys interview.

For example, Dr. Stabio added a teaching certificate, because she loved teaching. Likewise, being involved in her church was important to her. Pick the things that matter to you. Pack those apples in your bag. (Your To Be list can help you choose wisely.)

Pace Yourself

How do you keep your bag full, but not overstuffed? Learning to pace yourself takes discipline and practice. Don’t be a super hero. These seven strategies can help.

Say No. This is a hard word for eager graduate students to learn. You will need it your whole life, because you will constantly be asked to do something extra. Kerry Anne Rockquemore describes why it is hard to say No, and offers tactics for doing so, in this essay and this follow-up essay in Inside Higher Education.

Defer. Try saying “Not Now.” Remind yourself that opportunities will keep coming. You don’t have to do everything right now. Life proceeds in chapters, and some things can be set aside for later. When others ask for your time, you can defer. “I am in the middle of writing a paper, can you ask me next year?” “No problem,” is the usual response.

Delegate. You don’t have to do everything yourself. You need to master delegation as you advance through grad school, into a postdoc, and start a job. As a grad student, you can work with undergraduate researchers. Take the time to train them very well. Then let them do chunks of your work. Delegation requires relinquishing some control, but it is crucial for productivity.

Green applesModeration. Carrying five pounds of apples requires making choices. It is not all or nothing. It is a matter of degree. Grad students tend to be the type of people go full tilt all of the time—six projects in the lab, five clubs, and four outreach activities.

Do a few projects, not 15. By exercising moderation, you are setting a pace that is sustainable throughout your career. You are modeling a healthy academic life to those you mentor. Remember, the opportunities keep coming. You don’t have to do all of them in one year.

Shut out distractions. If you have one thing you want to get done on a particular day, close your email. Better yet, don’t open your email until you have worked for two hours every morning. And never check Facebook at work. Make appointments with yourself to complete high-priority tasks. (Kenneth Gibbs did this when writing his dissertation, as he describes in his Three Keys interview.)

Don’t compare yourself to others. Academia embraces a culture of high achievement and record-levels of accomplishment. It is easy to see how many apples others seem to stuff into their bags, and try to keep up. Don’t! You need to figure out how to fill your own bag, and which apples to put in it.

Be gentle with yourself. All scholars and scientists have well developed inner critics. It can get too loud, and it can be mean. It pushes you and makes you miserable. Balance that with kindness to yourself; take time for reflection and gentleness. Many students develop anxiety and depression because they beat themselves up all the time. For others it can lead to Perfectionist Gridlock.

Balance this critical voice with kindness towards yourself. Offer yourself gentleness and self-care.

Don’t Overstuff Your Bag

apples-in-bagBelieve it or not, after grad school life gets more hectic. The demands are more numerous and more pressing. When you have a spouse, children, and a demanding job, you have to figure out how to pace yourself. You can’t afford for your bag to burst.

When life hands you an unexpected challenge—the death of a family member, a change of city, the birth of a child—you need to know how to resort and repack your apple bag.

Moderation and pacing are valuable life skills that will serve you well.

Maureen Stabio

Dr. Maureen Stabio

This was co-written with Dr. Maureen Estevez Stabio. Dr. Stabio is an assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado-Denver Anschutz School of Medicine (CU Anschutz). She is heavily involved in teaching and leadership in the master’s degree program in Modern Human Anatomy. Her research training and expertise is in the structure and function of the mammalian retina.

She completed her PhD in 2007 from the department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Boston University, working in the lab of Dr. Carter Cornwall, where she received excellent mentorship and training in the study of the vertebrate retina. In the Cornwall lab, she used electrophysiology to uncover key features in how rod and cone photoreceptors process bright light signals differently from one another.


Dr. Stabio working in the lab

Thereafter, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Anita Zimmerman and then in the lab of Dr. David Berson at Brown University, where she studied the structure and function of a new type of photoreceptor in the mammalian retina that can respond to light independent of rods and cones (the intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cell or ipRGC). In 2014, she moved to CU Anschutz as a new tenure-track assistant professor. Right off the bat she was mentoring 8 students and juggling 8 different research and teaching projects. It was too much, but so much fun! It was hard to say “no” to all the opportunities! After having a baby, she realized that she needed to radically restructure her time, commitments and priorities. Parenting was harder than she ever imagined. Her experience inspired this post. Dr. Stabio’s advice is featured in a Three Keys  interview.

Published on: September 20, 2016


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