Twice per year, I sit down with each person in the lab to go over their career development plan. We discuss what they think they’re doing well relative to others at their career stage (not relative to others in their class/program but others that will likely compete with them for the job they’ll apply for next). We discuss what, as of this moment, they want that next job to be. What jobs might be suitable based on their talents and current interests. We discuss areas they want to improve and tangible strategies to do so. We discuss their projects, prioritization, goals for experiments/writing/soft skills. We discuss what kind of support they need, what opportunities we need to find, what networking to do, and what feedback to seek. Frankly, it’s exhausting. But the utility of this exercise is in self-reflection, planning, and getting on the same page towards a common purpose, so it’s important. I briefly considered skipping this activity and not asking everyone to reflect on their progress and goals in the middle of a pandemic. Would this stress everyone out? Who wants to talk about progress and goals when the world is burning around us and everyone has their own unprecedented challenges? Ultimately I decided that maybe this is the precise time, when everyone feels uncertain about the future, to try to provide some clarity, stability, strategies, and optimism.

One thing I realized through this exercise is that most of the students in the lab are approaching what I will call the valley of despair. You know the one. The period of time after you have completed your rotations, taken the bulk of your core and elective courses, gotten more or less up to speed in your chosen lab, passed your qualifying exams, and have nothing but open space from now until graduation to do whatever needs to be done so that THEY will let you graduate. The end isn’t in sight and the requirements aren’t clear. Motivation may or may not be at hand. Given that all the students in our group are approaching this dark time, I thought I would pass along some of the thoughts and strategies I suggested to arm them going forward.

1) Yes your committee’s signatures are ultimately required to complete your degree, but the really big secret is that there’s only one person that decides when it’s time. You (the student). Whenever you decide to get in the drivers seat, focus your work towards coherent research products, and obtain the remaining skills needed to be competitive for the job you want, you’ll be done. It’s easy to feel fed up and feel that you’ve given your all when you’re 80% or 96% done, but it’s not actually done until you’ve completed the onerous last bit. Sometimes the last bit is difficult. Sometimes it’s easy but completely tedious and boring. And unfortunately there is no credit given for time served. You won’t get the degree because you’ve struggled long enough. And no one can do it for you i.e. only you can decide when you’re going to make the big push (see #2).

2) Many will tell you the bulk of their PhD work was completed in their final 12-18 months. There is a lot of learning, a lot of false starts, and much non-publishable data collected before that. But usually there is an increase in efficiency and a focused effort that happens at the end. I don’t think it necessarily has to be this way but often students do hit their stride, become more confident, and are motivated to make the bulk of their progress during a concentrated period. This requires hitting that next gear rather than maintaining the status quo. So that means behaviors, efficiency, and output look different than they used to.

3) So how do you get from the valley of despair to being the senior grad student making the final push? How do you get from a pile of effort to a coherent product? The goal isn’t just to do it but to know HOW to do it so you can do it again and again more independently. One reason the early part of the PhD is less nebulous is because you had specific goals and timelines set out for you by others. Now it’s up to you to set those goals and timelines. Setting out some SMART goals for yourself can help. SMART goals are goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. There are several alternate versions of this acronym but the idea is the same, and you can learn more about it here. An example is perhaps drafting and ordering figures from your existing data. This may help you figure out what story your data trying to tell you, what model they support, and what experiments you can do to try and break/challenge the model. Preparing a figure is specific. It’s easy to measure because you know when it’s complete. It’s attainable as long as you have the software you need to prepare the figure (illustrator/inkscape or your favorite). Relevant? Yes! These may be figures that go into your next paper or may highlight what you need to do to convince yourself and others that the data are sound (more replicates? orthogonal approaches?). Time-bound? Give yourself a few days or a week to complete this depending on how many figures you want to prepare. What if you’re not ready to make a figure and are trying to dig into a new area or new field because your data are pointing in a new direction? Ok you may need to read more in this new area. “Read more” is the opposite of a SMART goal. But read three reviews in your new area and collect 10 references for where to dig deeper by the end of the week is a SMART goal.

4) Accountability. This is probably the biggest gap in the valley of despair. It also is a contributor to the feeling of aimlessness during this time. Rather than having a deadline for finishing your classes or qualifying exam, you now just have open space until obtaining dissertation signatures. Sure you may have a committee meeting once per year to see how you’re progressing. Depending on your mentor, you may have frequent or infrequent check-ins. But again, the goal is to be able to hold yourself accountable even if others aren’t doing so (or in between when others are doing so). Here is a useful article on self-accountability that involves writing things down, reviewing your own progress, and asking for feedback. Telling others your plans is also a very useful strategy. Don’t be afraid to tell others about your small and large goals. Sometimes just having to live up to the expectations you’ve set is enough to keep you on track.

5) Timing is everything. One of the other reasons the valley of despair is so rough is that the timelines are longer. You may be used to finishing things with deadlines a few days, weeks, or months away. But what happens when you have even more that needs to be done within a timeframe of years? SMART goals with intermediate timelines help but for longer term goals, work backwards. When do you want to be done? What needs to happen before then? When do papers need to be preprinted/submitted/revised? How far in advance do you need to identify job opportunities that will be available when you’re ready to move on? By doing this, you may see that you need to actually get going now to finish some small thing for a goal that seemed like it was a year away.

Definitely as an advisor, I am here to help, but my REAL goal is to get students to a place where they don’t need me to do the goal-setting, motivation, and accountability. Everyone always needs mentors and feedback regardless of their career stage, but gaining confidence and independence are learned skills that pay off in the long term. To all of you in the valley of despair, with a little planning and your own safeguards, you will get through this!

Categories: Pro-tipsReflections