Monday, May 23, 2016

It's MAY?? Spring Semester, Conference Season, and Keeping Up

Wow. This was both the shortest and longest semester in the past 10 years, and it taught me a lot about my professional habits. Not just about a tendency to take on more than a human can manage (as many of us do), but how it happens, how I handle it, and what happens to me as a result. The short version is BAD - as in, I've already made many public commitments to avoid ever putting myself in this situation again. A good deal of reflection has led to some useful conclusions, including the meaningful rewards of all that hard work.

Conclusion #1: When presented with an opportunity to begin a new project, I focus solely on the potential scientific benefits (including "that sounds so cool!"). Unfortunately, I don't attend to the details of how the project will be carried out - whether anyone has generated a list of all relevant tasks, who is in charge of which tasks, how long each one will take, and what the standard is for completion. Which is strange, because I'm a planner! I schedule my activities carefully and I've rarely had difficulty keeping up with ongoing tasks. But without soliciting all of the relevant information above and/or making key decisions ahead of time, my plans get blown up regularly, and I lose hours on tasks that I thought would take 30 minutes. That means something else just isn't going to get attention. 

Poster #8 of the Semester
Similarly, when it's time to prepare for my favorite conferences (or for our internal student research day), it sounds like a great idea to submit 7-8 abstracts at a time. It's only when preparing posters and presentation slides (or making multiple rounds of edits to student posters) that I remember "I didn't have to do ALL of this." Tired much, academic in this photo? ---->

As many academics suggest, it would be useful to have a clearer long-term plan and concrete targets to hit. Then I can reference the plan when new opportunities are presented: does this fit, and does it help me meet my target? If it will put me beyond the target, is it enough to justify the time and effort of the project?

Conclusion #2: I'm a perfectionist/control freak. This is a tough one for me to admit. I have high standards and there is a right way to do much of what I do, so I tend to insist that it be done this way. It's easy to see the problems that such tendencies create, such as making more work (and possibly, friction) for myself than is absolutely necessary. And of course, it's just generally uncomfortable to doubt that you're a good collaborator.

At the same time, there are good reasons to insist that work be done in a particular way. Junior investigators, in particular, have to be aware of how we're building our reputations and whose standards we use to evaluate our work - especially if we work on multidisciplinary teams, as norms differ across fields. This feeds back to #1, in that potential difficulties can be avoided with thorough conversations up front. 

I'm still in the process of deciding whether to focus on changing this tendency or accepting it and adapting to it (e.g., with early conversations and the attitude that not everything is worth doing). I suspect that there is a happy medium.

Conclusion #3: I hit my limits before I expect to. I can tough it out through busy, stressful times - I have a lot of practice and I hate to be a complaint factory. So I expected to be okay for the first few months of the semester, and to feel the effects in the last few weeks. In truth, I was burnt out two weeks before spring break (i.e., five weeks in). I had little energy for socializing, which usually invigorates me, and my work didn't quite meet those high standards of mine. 

I didn't realize how spent I was until I traveled for a conference and friends inquired about my well-being. They didn't think I was on the verge of a meltdown, but they could tell that something was off. Then it hit me pretty hard. In response, I took the opportunity to rest and see the sights more than I originally planned. It helped a lot, and probably saved me some sanity down the road. As a result, I'll be more careful to take breaks (always a downfall), check in with myself, and communicate realistic time frames for completed work.

Conclusion #4: Staying mindful of positivity and the power to change can get me through. Throughout this crazy semester, I prefaced (or added the caveat to) any complaining with the acknowledgements that (1) everything on my plate was good, and (2) I made my own bed. I'm fortunate to have the opportunities I have (people want to work with me, yay!), and I have some ability to modify my schedule and commitments as I see fit (flexibility, also yay). As a clinical psychologist, I know that most people can handle difficulty if they know that it's temporary. Hope and optimism are pretty powerful; it's the lack of confidence that circumstances will improve that really gets us. My little reminders - which were accurate - kept me from getting lost in negativity. So I'll keep up those mantras whenever staying afloat seems more difficult than it should be.

Clinical Health Psychology Lab
Conclusion #5: It's all worth it. Really. I had some important successes this semester. I had a first-authored paper accepted in a great journal and my first NIH grant received a decent score. Another grant was reviewed very favorably by a mock study section. I made some critical connections at conferences. I gave many guest lectures. And I finally recovered from surgery and got back to my normal exercise routine.

Most important of all, though, were my students' successes. One was accepted at a prestigious medical school and one at an ideal masters program for her. I supervised three undergraduate Honors theses, which were my first; one of them received an Honorable Mention for our Library Research Prize and that student won two awards from our department. I mentored five additional students to posters at our research day (See photographic evidence, and #1....) 

Our Lab at Senior Awards Night
Seeing my students do well was hugely rewarding. It was the first time that I got to feel true pride in someone else's accomplishments (rather than just happiness for them), as I knew the role I played in each. And, unsurprisingly, it shifted my perspective on the long hours, sleep deprivation, and decreased socializing. I love the work for its own sake, and I'm so grateful that I get to share this with students. (Stay tuned for more commentary on this process.)

This is your life lessons of the semester: Know thyself, ask questions, and keep your eyes on the horizon.

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