Alex Hodgson
September 25, 2013 --

Keeping Balance in Graduate School

balancing image

When I was in graduate school, my top priority was crystal clear to me: getting out with a Ph.D. Other people described me as “focused like a laser beam” on that goal. In retrospect, I may have been too focused. There is more to life than graduate work. Keeping your health and sanity intact are both vital to achieving the primary goal of getting out alive.

Earning a Ph.D. is a lot like running a marathon. You have to learn to pace yourself and take care of your body if you want to reach the finish line. Unfortunately, students often act more like sprinters than long distance runners. They are highly productive for awhile, then fall by the wayside because they aren’t eating correctly, exercising, taking time out to recharge their batteries, etc. You maximize your long-term productivity by not ignoring those other aspects. While I was in graduate school, I took time out to travel the East Coast, from Boston down to Orlando. That was an important part of keeping my stress level down and recharging my batteries. I also did some running and circuit training for exercise. For shorter breaks, I shot nerf basketballs at a tiny hoop mounted in the lab and kept a guitar in my office. When all is said and done, you need to simply figure out what works for you.

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is a major occupational hazard in our industry – one that few of us starting out ever consider. We often think that we are invincible – machines that can run off coffee and whatever available food we can find at seminars or can be microwaved in 2 minutes. Unfortunately, when you look at the common tasks we do, it is easy to see how RSI can impact us. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is just one type of RSI. If you do not know how to set up your workspace for good ergonomics – it’s definitely worth a Google! Over a dozen of my friends and coworkers have been afflicted with this problem. In severe cases, RSI can be a career-ending injury. If you can’t type, it’s rather difficult to write papers or presentations, let alone do basic pipetting and bench work. Don’t freak out – a little bit of prevention goes a long way.

Put a post-it note that reminds you to sit up straighter or walk around. Download an pedometer app – most people are shocked at how little they walk in a day.

Stretch your hands and your shoulders. My favorites include: Doorway: This stretches the pecs and shoulder. Hold elbow at a right angle, and place forearm along door frame, as shown. Lunge forward, keeping chest and hips facing squarely forward. Hold 30-60 seconds. Try holding arms at different angles. Repeat on other side. Wall: Extend the arm along a wall, with arm parallel to the ground and palm facing wall. Attempt to open chest so that shoulders are perpendicular to arm. Extend fingers and palm away from wall as much as possible. Hold for 30-60 seconds.

Oh and most importantly – take it easy on the coffee -a bit of water can go a long way.

Listen, we’ve been there. There is always a mountain of pressure to do one more experiment, read a few more papers… It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Don’t forget to keep in touch with the “real world,” to remind yourself that the graduate student population is not representative of humanity in general, and to keep perspective. You got into graduate school because you have already shown to your professors that you have potential and skills that are not typical among most college students or much of the population in general – don’t forget that. Take a few steps to thank your body for carrying your super-genius mind all the time… remember – grad school is a marathon.