We're a little crazy, about science!

Overloading in education

Get your PhD they said! It will be worth it they said. You’ll have a good time they said! They certainly say a lot don’t they? Well I say things shouldn’t be so freaking hard. I get that getting your PhD requires work and frankly, it should require work, I mean it’s a freaking PhD! That said, it shouldn’t be a four to six year gauntlet of torture to see how many times you break down mentally and physically. It doesn’t build character, or better PhD’s, but it is the system we work in.

For those of you just joining, my semi-regular reminder that I’m a third year PhD candidate (wow, time flies!) and this is my daily blog about the trials, tribulations, and tasks I’ve been performing to get there. I’ve been blogging every day for nearly two years now and I like to think that my experience has helped a few people along the way. Or at least that’s what I tell myself so I keep doing this.

As a PhD student/candidate (here I define the difference) or even a Masters student you don’t have the semi-rigid structure you grew up with or saw in your undergrad years. The hours are more fluid and the somewhat firm line between education and freetime grows so paper thin you forget where it starts and stops sometimes. I know, I spent my whole Master’s degree working before I realized no one would tell me to take a break! It’s a hard lesson to learn, but the earlier you learn it the easier it is to remember that you can — and need to — take a break.

However there are forces that work against you! Your PI, who is a cross between your boss and mentor, will task you with things you need to do outside of just your education. These are requirements, not requests. Things like outreach, experiments, etc. The stuff that slows down your path to your degree, not because they want to keep you from graduating, but because that’s the system and these things need to get done. Your job is not only to get your education, but do those things!

Then comes funding responsibility. As a PhD student/candidate you are semi-responsible for your funding (Masters students too in some cases). Never take a PhD position without funding when you join the lab, ever. You in no case should be paying for your PhD… ever. They should and will be paying you (it’s not much, but its something).

That doesn’t mean that funding runs out and securing your own funding will ensure that you have the freedom to do your own things without the stuff attached to the funding your PI will have for you. Normally that funding involves doing some sort of experiment, I didn’t have ready funding so I got tasked with a set of experiments with the expectation of writing 1-2 journal papers and a conference paper. I’m still working on that due to COVID, so it’s not an easy thing to deal with, especially if the experiments aren’t directly tied to your research.

Outreach and mentorship are both pillars of your academic career. We learn to be teachers while you’re doing your research, or at least that has been my experience. I’ve taught several classes, was the teachers assistant for several more, and have done so many outreach projects I’ve lost count. I currently mentor three undergrads and over the course of my ~3 years in the PhD program and 1 year in my Master’s program I’ve mentored a few dozen students. I’ve also worked with Skype a Scientist for five years or so now and I absolutely love doing outreach, being a mentor, and to a lesser extent teaching. Then again, I prefer the hands on, one on one feeling I get from mentoring to the somewhat cold lecture hall full of students.

All this goes on while you try to accomplish the research you need to do to get your PhD. It’s a lot and the system isn’t perfect. You get asked to sacrifice your freetime, except it isn’t a question, you’re being voluntold. There is a power dynamic involved so saying no isn’t exactly an easy thing to do, but you can’t just endlessly be adding more things to your to-do list and sometimes saying no is needed.

For example, the other day I mentioned that I have a ton of things to do this week, so much things to get done that I feel like I’m at my end. I couldn’t possibly add one more thing to my to-do list without breaking down completely, curling into the fetal position, and wishing for a painless death. Don’t worry, this happens to me a lot. I will get through it, it just sucks in the moment.

Yesterday I got an email from my main-PI who suggested that if I didn’t have class during the times listed I needed to attend a few sessions of a class he is teaching this term. One that I am not enrolled in because why would I do that to myself!? My schedule is already packed and I couldn’t add one more thing if I wanted to! Also they are in person classes and no, just no, even though I’m vaccinated, no. Not doing it, you can’t make me! Of course, I didn’t say that. I politely reminded him that I have the R21 grant I’m furiously writing and doing experiments for. I politely said that I didn’t have the time to dedicate to something like that and the grant deadline is the middle of February so I needed to focus on getting it written.

Do you know what happened? He responded by saying that was fine, I didn’t need to take the courses and that he appreciated the follow up email. See my main-PI is busy running the lab, there are 20 or so of us working with him, plus the course he teaches every term (two technically), the funding he has to secure for the lab, and a whole lot of other things he needs to juggle. He just didn’t realize that I had so much going on. Since I pointed it out to him, instead of blindly saying okay I’ll add one more thing to my infinite list of stuff to do, I not only pointed out that I was working on projects he cared about, I also gave him a perfectly valid reason why I wouldn’t be able to do the course.

That’s not easy and I hate saying no. Trust me it never gets easier, it doesn’t. It’s especially hard when the person asking you is in charge of your career basically and could break you if they felt like it. It also doesn’t help that they are so disconnected from all the stuff I’ve got going on. My Co-PI only has myself and a new postdoc to manage, so it’s a little easier for him to know what I’m doing. My main-PI isn’t a bad person or thinks I’m being lazy, he literally just had no idea what was going on. Basically if you ever find yourself in the same position, it can be scary to say no I don’t think I can do that, but sometimes it’s needed and if your PI is like mine, they won’t mind.

Having good boundaries as you get into your higher education is important. I’ve learned that the hard way and I really don’t want to see anyone else have to learn that the same way I did. Take time for yourself and prioritize what you can, drop what you can, and don’t be scared to say no. Or rather, even if you’re scared, it’s okay to say no. Your PhD and even Masters degree will feel like a whirlwind as it is, like I said I feel at the breaking point a lot! However, I never let myself get past that point, to the place where I’m actually broken and that’s an important distinction. I can work (on occasion) at 100% when I need to, but I CANNOT work that way all day every day, you shouldn’t feel like you have to either.

In short, the system sucks and if you don’t set your boundaries for yourself, no one will set them for you. You’ll get asked to do things by people who don’t realize all the other stuff you’re doing. It’s okay to tell them you’re busy, it’s okay to say no, and it’s okay to take breaks and to take them often. If there was a secret to making your PhD journey easier, I would say that’s the biggest.


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