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How A Rock Band Helped Save My PhD

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When I look back on graduate school the one thing that I am forever grateful for is the fact I played in a rock band. It was a way to escape all the frustration. When an experiment failed or when I felt like a failure in lab, I was up on stage having fun. And even though it was a lot of work and dedication, it saved my PhD.

Graduate school (for me) pretty much consisted not only of long days but also late nights and weekends running western blots and sitting/standing in the cold room for hours washing and sonicating my ChIP samples with my iPod cranked. Crazy how at least a week’s worth of work can translate to simply getting a band on a gel.  And repeating it over and over to get it right. And in the end, a band on a gel can play a large role in deciding how soon and when I graduate (in addition to thesis committee politics).

When a PhD student graduates depends not only on how hard they work, but also on the luck of their experiments (and the nature of their overall project). I know some graduate students that would work 12+ hour days (even on weekends) just to try and get some quality data. I also know those that worked only 8 hours on average, got more quality data, and ended up graduating sooner. Many even end up quitting the PhD altogether after many years of hard work and frustration. So, what are the key factors here?  Is it simply “work smarter not harder”? Or does the harder someone works equal more usable data?

Some may say hard work (and perseverance), good experimental design (i.e. asking and pursuing the right scientific questions), productivity mixed in with a little bit of luck and keeping the ‘balance’ all play a role. There are certainly other combinatorial factors here, but keeping a balance for me played a very crucial role, and it may for you as well.

Sometimes I just needed to wind down instead of thinking about the scientific problem that haunted me and what remained. I’m sure you already know that once you answer one scientific question it raises yet another question to be answered. The process of research can be never-ending. That is why towards the end of your PhD, it can be hard to know when you are actually “done.” And your PI can keep you longer, by simply adding one more ‘final experiment’. How good is good enough? And when is it good enough? That’s where you come in and how well you fight for your graduation (you certainly have to convince your thesis committee that you have done a satisfactory level of work).

Let’s keep going here: Nothing is a better feeling than getting that crucial piece of data you worked so hard for after some huge dry spell where you get nothing for weeks. After all, you are diving into the unknown. What does this data even mean? How do you interpret it? What path do you go down next? Many great ideas can come at a time when you least expect it, and are doing something you ‘really shouldn’t be doing’ or at least your Professor may not approve of.

band3Now I’m not saying that I got some epiphany when I was on stage playing a show, but I will say that the band helped me hit the reset button. I could go back into lab the next day with a fresh mind. Without this reset button, I never would have made it through. The daily grind of grad school can weigh you down more than you think.

This article’s main focus is to shed some light on a story of how to keep the balance by doing things outside of lab to keep your sanity. When you don’t have luck on your side and you’re banging your head against the wall, you need some sort of outlet. You can imagine what may end up happening when you do this for years on end during a PhD program.

If you have not read my previous article on how to keep up a good social life (and why this is important), check it out here.

As most of you in graduate school know, social life can be hard to keep up with. It is especially crucial to maintain during your middle-late years to keep your sanity.

You can ask anyone who completed their PhD and they will identify one factor that made it hard. Loneliness, lack of money, burn out at the bench, health issues, fear of the unknown, demotivation, mistreatment by their professor, lack of career direction, interest in other fields… The list goes on and on.  The fact that a PhD is hard (and whatever that reason is) also implies there has to be something that someone did in order to get through it. What did the successful PhD graduate do to keep stress levels low, prevent burnout, and overcome the feeling of failure? The answer is staring right at you.

If you want to say a PhD program was easy and you didn’t need any sort of social outlet outside of graduate school in order to get through- you are a very rare breed. It ignores the realities that a PhD program is not easy and it takes a mixture of perseverance, tenacity, and cogency. The 4th thing is BALANCE.

To summarize-I knew something was missing. I knew I needed a change. I knew graduate school was a long process. I knew I was in it for the long haul. I also knew that if I did things outside of graduate school that this would be frowned upon. But I didn’t care. I figured a PhD program lasts 5 or more years. Why not enjoy it along the way? I thought to myself is this even possible? Shouldn’t I be in lab 24/7 cranking out experiments and data to graduate in the fastest possible time? Won’t anything I do outside of lab simply be a distraction?

The choice is up to you. But I can tell you had I done nothing but straight lab work I would have dropped out with a Master’s. I would have burned out.

There are so many articles out there that tell you to network outside of lab (and GradStudentWay has written about it too). OK we get it. There are also hundreds of articles and ongoing discussions that shove the awareness of the post-doc plight down everyone’s throats. We know the job market is bad for academia, and we know all the statistics. Each study I see reports the percentages are decreasing and the problem is becoming worse-most likely to just get more attention-but we know it is nothing new. You have a 15% chance of becoming a professor within 5 years. I have seen some say it is 8% and now even 1%. Let’s just say it’s low and leave it at that.

But what I am telling you is to take your mind off all of this for once and put it elsewhere. It is important to have goal with an actionable plan and follow through, but at the same time it is important to enjoy your life along the way before, during and after graduate school.

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These articles tend to tirelessly repeat like there is some new found holy grail of graduate school. How to write your thesis in 3 months or less. How to network and get a job in industry. How to write faster, better, and publish. How to effective manage your time and experiments. Where is the fun in all of this?

Graduate school may not be viewed as fun to a lot of people, but it doesn’t have to be so cut and dry. Yes, graduate school is tough and articles that provide advice are important. But you don’t have to worry about your future 24/7 and you certainly shouldn’t focus on any negatives of your situation. You have to make the best of your PhD program. Your career depends on it. You’ve invested time (and money) into this so you want to make sure you get out alive.

When my graduate student friends all passed their preliminary exam around the same time that I did, it seems that social life started on a rapid decline. Something was missing. The only thing that consumed us was lab and the fear that we will never graduate. Late night experiments at 10 PM on a Friday were not uncommon. We still tried to plan things and do social events every now and then, but we all just got busy. This was just the reality of the situation (no sympathy needed).

There came a moment in time where I had to make a decision. Aside from all the networking outside of academia, running a blog on the side, and worrying about my future I needed a different social outlet.

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Many graduate students suffer in silence. They tough it out. The mindset is that if you complain you are viewed as nothing but a whiner and someone who is weak (and you need to change your attitude). But what this does is ignore the importance of having a work/life balance. Proper diet and exercise and having hobbies outside of grad school (sports, clubs, etc.) are going to help you dramatically during your time in graduate school.

It may sound cliché, but those that choose to focus on work/life balance are going to have a much more enjoyable PhD experience and will increase your chances of successfully graduating. Those that chose to drop out of a PhD program have many different reasons (many can be complex), but many can be tied to the lack of work/life balance and the toll it takes on your physical and mental health. Graduate school will involve sleep deprivation and late nights. It may even involve excessive amounts of caffeine : )

If you haven’t already, check out the article How To Effectively Deal With PhD Stress and How To Graduate Faster. These articles will give you some additional advice to how you can combat the difficulties of a PhD and keep things under control when the pressure is on.

The purpose of this blog post is not to promote myself but to open your eyes to possibilities that lie outside of lab. And to not be afraid to pursue them. If you don’t, you may have regrets later on. Or your graduate school experience may not be very enjoyable. The sad reality is that the better part of your 20’s is spent in graduate school. And essentially, your life is put on hold. It is no surprise that many may choose to delay marriage (or buy a house) until after they graduate, especially when they are not yet financially secure or working in a stable career.

I can tell you that if you focus on nothing but lab and graduating as soon as possible you will be on the path to burn out. Even if maintaining the work/life balance were to add 6 months to your graduation time but ensure your graduation (and cut down on the hardships and give you some breathing room), would you view it as being worthwhile? Keeping your physical/mental health is not only important for the short run, but the long run as well. The PhD is NOT the end game. It is the start of your career. So if your goal is to graduate in the shortest amount of time, you are in for a surprise for what awaits you.

I will just say that I was often criticized for doing things outside of lab (and not wanting to pursue academic research). I started my blog and wrote a book during my 4th year of graduate school. One of my thesis committee members caught wind of it and viewed me as someone who isn’t dedicating enough time to lab (therefore I am less deserving of a PhD). That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The fact that I did things and got into the habit of doing things outside of lab (in addition to being in a band) helped me stand out from the crowd. Now the band is not something I would put on my resume, but it did mix things up and throw in some variety. The point here is that had I focused on nothing but graduating (which I call ‘grad student tunnel vision’) I have no doubt I would be quite unhappy and currently doing a post-doc. The misconception is that this is the default career choice after graduate school, when in disguise it is nothing but an extension of graduate school. For those that wish to pursue a post-doc and know this is the right path for you, I applaud you. But for many, they simply need to be made aware of other options available to them and take action.

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I had no idea that being in a band would connect me with so many people and created a whole new social outlet for me. When a Friday night rolled around and all my graduate student friends were busy, I could call up the guys from my band to jam (and even people I met after shows). And I just didn’t have that type of connection with my science friends. Both groups were fun (don’t get me wrong), but having that ‘extra’ group filled in the gaps when my science friends simply didn’t have the time to go out for a beer and when I really needed a break from lab.

Everything has to be taken in small steps to essentially become a reality, but you need a starting point. In retrospect (once you have actually seen what comes of your efforts), it is so much easier not being cynical or skeptical of all the different possibilities-especially the ones where you doubted yourself but still pushed through to see where it would take you. What I mean by this-is that when most think “rock band” they may view it as too much work, too distracting from graduate school, or something that will just be some bad sounding garage band that won’t lead to anything. All of these were not the case in my experience.

I had no idea that a simple craiglist ad with a demo of me playing on stage at my uncle’s wedding would connect me with a great group of musicians. I had prior music experience (I have been playing guitar since I was 13), so I used this to my advantage. Music has always been a very big part of my life (and helped me write my entire thesis ;).  You can use any of your talents/skills to your advantage too. Turns out that within only about a month we were able to piece together a full rock band with a bassist, a drummer, a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist (me), and a singer.

We played covers (Metallica, Shinedown, Godsmack, Pearl Jam) and even wrote some originals. We practiced 2x a week in the evenings and played a handful of shows. The plan was not to make a profession out of this (or even make money off it), but to simply just have fun. That was it. Some of our gigs were paid, but to me it didn’t matter. It was enough to buy a few drinks and have fun after a show and that was all I cared about. In the end, the band helped me accomplish my goals of getting through the hardships of graduate school, and I was out in 5 years with a job waiting for me in industry.

Being up on stage is one of the greatest feelings. It is a rush. It is just like giving a public talk, you are nervous at first. The more and more you do it, the easier it becomes. If any of you play an instrument, I highly recommend taking it to some level. Whether it means teaching piano or guitar lessons, you got nothing to lose.

Towards the end of my PhD, when I had to write my thesis in about 3 month’s time, I did have to withdraw from the band. But to this day, the band experience has positively affected my life in so many ways. And now I’m back playing in a different band while maintaining a full-time job. And graduate school made it all possible-the time when you would least expect it. I am forever grateful for the experience I started when I was just 25 years old and will carry with me my whole life. I have also made many lifelong friends.

And the best part was when all my grad student friends showed up to my shows :)

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I’ll just end by saying don’t be afraid to pursue what you are passionate about. Do whatever it takes to get through grad school. And don’t always give in to the criticisms by your professors. You certainly don’t have to tell your thesis committee everything you do outside of lab. And most of all-don’t be afraid to approach your thesis advisor about your career or pursuing something outside of academia. It’s your life and your career (and your happiness-not theirs) and you have control over where you go next. So do whatever it takes to protect this at all costs and you will be successful.


Further Reading

10 Ways To Stay Happy and Productive In Graduate School

10 Most Memorable Things I Learned While in Grad School

5 Things To Do Outside of Grad School

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