So how about a Ph.D.? Part 4 – How to Work Smart and Grad School Visits

Ian Pendleton is a Ph-D. student at the University of Michigan. He is a four-year ACS member and a recipient of the Division of Organic Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. He is currently researching organic chemistry with a focus in methods development. When not working in the lab, he enjoys rock climbing and scuba diving. (Photo courtesy of Eastern Michigan University)

Welcome back to our series on applying to graduate school. If you haven’t done so already, check out our first three entries in the series (parts one, two, and three). In those articles we covered general strategies for the application process; in this one we explore two remaining strategies that are easy to overlook: managing your stress and maximizing your visits to possible grad schools.

1. Minimize stress, maximize productivity

The semester in which you apply to graduate school is typically more hectic than most and, with many looming deadlines and upcoming visits, it is easy to lose sight of how to relax. In fact, by this point in the semester, with your time and energy spread between researching graduate schools, studying for midterms, and completing your senior research, you’re almost certainly stressed. If so, I really hope you’re ready to de-stress! Not distress (which is the opposite), but de-stress.

About this time last year (it’s mid-November as I write this), I was on the verge of sleep deprivation and still fighting to meet deadlines for my graduate applications. I was taking classes, attempting to wrap up research, and writing my senior thesis. It was easily the most busy and stressful time of my entire life. However, it provided me with a foundational understanding of stress management. These experiences, in combination with advice from mentors and blogs such as LifeHacker, have taught me several effective ways to deal with stress.

First and foremost, do not work constantly. One easy mistake anyone can make is to equate productivity with work hours. I see it here in graduate school, and it is a frightening trend. But a lack of productivity is not the only problem: spending 10+ hours a day doing a single task without rest is dangerous to your health. The easy solution is to take breaks before you start to wander from the task at hand. One of the best ways to do so is to make a break schedule. For instance, in writing this blog, I work for an hour, take a 10-minute walk, return to my desk, and start again. Force yourself to get up and walk around occasionally; I think you’ll find yourself thinking more clearly and getting more work done.

Taking periodic breaks shortens the time you spend actively working, and at first you may feel you are accomplishing less. Yet as chemists, we know productivity is dependent on time and rate — so, by improving our efficiency, we can be more productive. So the real question is: How do we increase our “rate”? I have mentioned one way already. By taking breaks, the time spent working will be more effective because you will naturally be more on task.

A second solution may be slightly less appealing, but really does work: get rid of Facebook (and other distractions). All of them. At the very least, force yourself to login to Facebook manually.

Another common distraction is one’s phone. My solution: I turn my phone off for the hour I’m working; during my walk, I turn it back on and text my friends and check e-mail. This way, I am not breaking my concentration to respond to that enticing ring tone.

I chose to delete my Facebook account six months ago, and got rid of my smart phone last week. I would recommend both as solutions to those who are truly serious about increasing productivity. Also, avoid stumbling through the Internet. If you have to write, turn off the wifi, and make it difficult to go back online.

While you’re at it, stop multitasking. Here’s the thing about multitasking: even if you think you’re good at it, you’re not. Researchers at Stanford University have found that the more we multitask, the worse we are at it. Multitasking isn’t a sign of productivity, it’s an addiction. According to an article about the researchers’ findings, “High multitaskers just love more and more information. Their greatest thrill is to get more.” So, do one thing at a time, and get rid of excess distractions.

Stick to a check list. If you are working on a project and have an idea for one that is due later, jot down that good idea on a list to review later, and stay on task. From this suggestion arises my newish mantra (which applies to everything from chemistry to rock climbing), “work smart, not hard.” If you still don’t believe it is possible to work fewer total hours and get more done, I challenge you to try maintaining a list of ideas for later review as described above — even if only for a couple days. Let me know how it works out for you!

The last few tricks to being efficient take longer, but are also more rewarding. If you are more productive, then your extra time can be spent on health. This means the usual triumvirate of self-maintenance: eat well, sleep, and exercise. I want to emphasize SLEEP. If you are trying to get through an unending list of tasks, the worst solution is to sacrifice sleep; you can’t think if you’re sleep-deprived. Even worse, sleep deprivation is linked to obesity and memory loss.

Oh, and people who exercise regularly earn, on average, 9% more than those who don’t. Thought you’d enjoy that statistic.

Remember to relax and play. Enjoy a book, play a game, watch a movie, do something that gives you a rest. Nothing is so important that you should sacrifice your health and well being to attain it.

2. Make the most of your graduate school visits

After the stressful semester in which you apply to graduate school, it’s time to solicit and gather your acceptance letters. But, while it’s extremely satisfying to have all your acceptance letters in hand, this is not yet the end of the process. You still need to visit and see the institution where you plan to spend the next 5 to 10 years of your life.

Graduate school visits are an important part of your application. They’re your chance to learn about — and also impress — the groups you could be joining. These trips should be treated as job interviews. The professors and students you meet could be your mentors and co-workers in a year, and you want them to remember you as the best student visitor. In short, you want to make an outstanding first impression.

First, read and understand the research of professors you are interested in. While you are not expected to understand all of the research at the university, becoming at least familiar with it demonstrates both interest and drive.

Second, don’t overdo the alcohol (getting drunk, becoming incoherent, or worse) when you go out during your visit. This may sound obvious, but it happens. One of my co-workers, Jane Higglepants, told me an interesting story of an individual she witnessed make this grievous mistake at the University of Somewhere (names changed to protect the innocent). As is typical on most graduate school visits, the potential graduate students were taken out to a bar one evening, offered drinks, and given time to casually speak with professors and current grad students. Jane was seated at a table with professors and graduate students when a clearly intoxicated ‘potential’ joined them and started making rude comments, the least offensive being, “You’re so small I could throw you!”

Jane, trying to be professional, prompted a conversation about how harassment would be handled at the university. Suffice it to say, the department demonstrated its position very clearly the next day: Jane heard through the grapevine that Mr. Potential’s offer was rescinded because of the incident. The lesson? Just because you’re accepted doesn’t mean you’re invincible — so even a little alcohol-fueled bad behavior could negate all the hard work you did to earn your place as a candidate.

Hopefully this article has given you a bit of insight into the next stage of your application process and how to best handle stress. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop me a message. I have had a great time writing for the ACS undergrad Reactions blog and hope that you will stay up to date with our current articles for years to come. Hope to see you in graduate school!

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