Hurry Up And Wait

I first heard the phrase “hurry up and wait” to describe the nature of life for actors on a film set. I was an extra on the set of “Olympus Has Fallen” for one day back in 2012, filming in rural Louisiana. As extras, all of our attention and energy was needed while filming sequences, then we’d stand around waiting while cameras moved around, lighting got adjusted, makeup/fake blood was reapplied, etc.

The phrase refers to activities that require all of your focus for some length of time, immediately followed by another period of time where you have nothing to do, waiting to return to your original task.

Researchers experience “hurry up and wait” during many experiments when all of our attention is needed for a few minutes or hours as we follow a protocol. We then have to wait for a couple hours, days, or weeks, while experimental steps take their course. No matter how much we might want to speed things along, we cannot rush these waiting steps and trying to avoid them can ruin the entire experiment.

Particular protocols are notorious for the frustration evoked during waiting steps, especially for those of us who lack patience and/or are excited about the data to be gathered at the end of an experiment.

Cell culture is my nemesis because it can make planning experiments very difficult. You have to keep a close watch on cells so you can quickly adjust if they aren’t growing as fast or are growing faster than you want. Cell work forces me to keep my schedule flexible so I can be available when they’re ready for an experiment. As a result, it is common for students to make evening or weekend plans, only to have to cancel at the last minute because they’re needed in the lab.

In graduate school, “hurry up and wait” comes in the form of many student’s least favorite requirements of higher learning: writing papers and grants. We spend enormous amounts of time and energy attempting to submit a manuscript for publication or meet a grant deadline, only to then have to wait weeks and months while it gets reviewed. For manuscripts, it’s common to wait months only to get back reviewers’ comments that need to be addressed within a couple weeks in order to continue with submission.

In preparing for my candidacy exam, I’m experiencing “hurry up and wait” with drafts of my written proposal. I work non-stop to finish a proposal draft, then have to wait while the draft get reviewed by colleagues and my adviser. The good news is that once I submit my written proposal, three weeks ahead of my oral exam, I will be done with it until I need to prepare my F31 application (NIH grant) in a couple months.

My biggest problem with the waiting stage is boredom. Immediately after having so much to do, having nothing to do immediately forces you to find other distractions or become very bored. The best of us have multiple projects going on at once and are able to use the waiting periods of one project to accomplish high-focus tasks in another. However, while very efficient, that work ethic can lead to burnout and future problems that would need to be addressed.

For now, I should be using my time in between proposal drafts to work on my presentation, which will need to be in working order for my practice exam next week. Unfortunately, without a strictly impending deadline, distractions are all too easy to find.

**Thank you to Runze Shen for encouraging me to write about “hurry up and wait”**

The Cost of Calm

“Whoever said money can’t solve your problems,
Must not have had enough money to solve ’em”
-Ariana Grande, “7 Rings”

With mental health struggles so prevalent for graduate students, graduate programs and support networks are putting extra emphasis on mental health awareness.

My graduate program offers workshops and counseling to its students, providing training and information about the resources available within our institution. I have attended workshops on meditation, the importance of being aware of your own mental health, and mentally preparing for big presentations. The university’s recreation center also offers yoga classes, for a small monthly fee.

We’re taught that daily factors affecting your mental health include diet, sleep schedule, human contact/communication, and work load. To a certain extent, we have control over most of those elements. However, when we lose control over the last one, work load, we must find an outlet.

Every student is different in the way(s) we manage our stress. It is up to us to determine our preferred coping mechanism.

Some seek professional services through counseling or therapy. Some find solace in support networks on social media. Some keep journals to put words to everything swirling inside their heads.

While I do some writing, I, and many others, prefer more active pursuits. Some of us make regular trips to the gym, others go to yoga or meditation classes to clear their heads. A couple of my classmates take pole dancing classes and highly recommend them. A few other students sing in a local choir or play in an orchestra.

I know others who have taken up boxing or gymnastics, empowering activities which require a completely different skill set from what is utilized for their research.

All of this is to say that students exploit highly varied outlets to separate themselves from their work and take care of their mental health. Unfortunately, many of these endeavors cost a decent amount of money, making them not accessible for every student who wants to participate.

I grew up in an incredibly thrifty family. Both of my parents paid their own ways through university because their families did not have the means to do so. For them, growing up without money meant that when you had it, you saved it. I was raised with that mentality and, as a result, spending any amount of money over $50 is a mental hurdle, especially for things that I don’t “need”.

I recently started taking yoga classes at a studio near my house. These classes are more expensive than the ones offered through my university’s rec center, but they’re more varied and conveniently timed. With a student discount, classes cost $85/month. This may not sound like a lot of money to some, but to someone making $32,000/year and already paying a mortgage in addition to normal monthly expenses, $85/month can be a fair chunk of change.

This fee for classes is, admittedly, pretty low compared to more selective options (i.e. offered in fewer locations), like boxing or gymnastics. In addition, stipends in our program are very generous for PhD students, but expenses beyond necessities are a struggle.

The mental hurdle I had to jump to get here was that I don’t “need” to take these classes. I could stretch at home, I could go to my rec center’s classes, or I could find a different outlet that didn’t come with a monthly fee.

My instinct to not spend money is so ingrained that it risks my overall well-being. I have to convince myself that the cost of the activity is worth the benefit I will get out of the activity. Even then, I ask for a free trial period to take as much time as possible before I put any money on the table.

It is likely that my mental obstacle courses are particular to me, but I know that concerns over personal finances are common with grad students. I worked for a few years before grad school so I have a safety net. Many other students aren’t so fortunate. They started grad school immediately after undergrad, with no savings or are financially responsible for family members/children.

These are struggles we handle individually, prioritizing where best to spend the money we have. Increasing graduate student stipends would be a welcome financial relief, but that is not a path likely to be taken with increased tightening of research budgets. I would like to see better education for students interested in budgeting their finances, and greater acknowledgement of the funds needed by each student to find and pursue their own outlets for mental health security.

Diminishing Returns on Exams

Exams, short for examinations, are supposed to test whether the examinees (i.e. students) know and understand the material that has been presented to them. In high school, you take exams during the semester as a separation between each topic taught; once you’ve completed the exam, you move on to the next topic. You may have a final exam at the end of the semester (i.e. before a long holiday), but you’re given ample materials and preparation to study for it by the teacher. In college, you may have a similar exam structure to what you experienced in high school, but you become responsible for the majority of the exam materials and studying efforts. Graduate school exams are a much more amorphous system.

In graduate school, at least the ones I’ve attended, examination styles are inconsistent from course to course. You may have multiple exams throughout the semester, you may have one giant exam at the end, or you may have no exams at all. The design of the course is entirely up to the discretion of the course director. What’s more, if a course is taught by more than one lecturer, each lecturer is commonly responsible for writing the exam questions on the material they presented. This can result in a single exam comprising a multitude of question styles, formats, writing requirements, and expectations of knowledge comprehension.

As an example, on an exam I took yesterday, one lecturer asked you to write down the definition and relevance of 10 terms discussed during their lectures, while another asked you detail the experimental setups required to study certain physiological functions in a given animal model. Each question type requires knowledge of the information presented in lecture, but preparation for each involves different types of studying (i.e. memorization versus method design) and study time required to become comfortable answering the question. While sitting for the exam, I may be able to remember the definitions faster than I can design a few experiments, but it may take me longer to complete the first question because I have to physically write down 10 definitions, as opposed to writing down a few bullet points about each experiment’s design.

For the purposes and expectations of a graduate school education, I fundamentally understand why our exams can be so varied. We’re expected to have a diverse set of knowledge and skills, and we’re expected to be able to adapt to any research problem/question we encounter. Our ability to answer a variety of questions on a myriad of research topics can evaluate our preparedness for taking on a research project for our thesis, dissertation, etc. My frustration comes from the sheer length of time and energy that is required for us to take some of our exams.

As a continuing example, in the exam I took yesterday, we were tested on material covered in 13 one-hour lectures, valued at 260 points, and covering 17 pages of questions. Our previous exam for this class covered 14 lectures and was valued at 280 points. Math aficionados out there will notice that divides to 20 points for each lecture.

The first exam took students between 1.5-2 hours to complete. The first person to finish the exam yesterday did so in roughly 2 hours; it took me 2.5 hours to finish and 2/3 of the class was still working when I left. This class is designed to be an hour long.

When an exam requires that much time to finish, it is no longer a test of comprehension, it is a test of endurance.

During a 2.5 hour test which requires 17 pages of writing about both related and unrelated scientific topics, your hand cramps multiple times, your head and neck begin to lock into their hunched over position, and your brain gets tired of generating answers to questions you have never been asked before.

After 90 minutes of taking the exam, I could feel myself stop trying, simply because I was tired. It was a Friday afternoon, at the end of a long week in which I had spent tens of hours studying for this exam, in addition to laboratory/research responsibilities and unexpected events (these included a flat tire and a mandatory evacuation from my house, so no biggie). My exact experiences leading up to this exam weren’t the same as those of my classmates, but I’m convinced that every single one of them would support my assertion: there came a point when the exam we took yesterday stopped being an accurate measure of our understanding the material.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be taught and examined on a wide variety of topics; the breadth and depth of the knowledge we’re tested on is a discussion for another time. I’m saying that if we are to be tested on such a variety of topics, it should not be in manner that requires so much time and energy to complete. I do not feel that my results on the exam yesterday will be an accurate reflection of my knowledge of the tested material. For the last third of that exam, I could not think clearly and became only concerned with finishing the exam and leaving because I wanted to spend as little time in that mental state as possible. I am convinced that yesterday’s exam did not satisfy the fundamental purpose of an examination and am left asking myself a troubling question: what was the point of the exercise?