The Drive to Finish Your Thesis Faster Comes When You Least Expect It…
I have been an avid swimmer since I was 3 years old, so it was natural for me to join the Masters Swimming Club when I was in graduate school.
Senior graduate students told me how important it was to make time for play, so I diligently went to practice at least 3 times a week.
However, one evening this non-contact sport nearly killed me.
Since it was a popular club, there were 3 or 4 of us in each lane.
That particular evening I shared a lane with a guy who had very long arms and really poor technique.
We were doing 100 yards backstroke, when suddenly I felt a sharp pain across my forehead.
I had just a second to gasp for air before I sunk underwater and had a blackout.
The rest of the evening was a blur.
I later found out that my swim-mate pushed off the wall at a strange angle and crossed over to my side of the lane, slapping his long arm full-force onto my goggles and right eye.
Fortunately, the doctors determine that I had no permanent injuries and the bruising over my right eye would take approximately 10-14 days to heal.
I fell into a long dreamless sleep that night, and woke up the next morning with a swollen-shut and bruised right eye.
It was a work day and I felt embarrassed about going to my lab but I had timepoints in my experiment so I had to deal with the stares from my coworkers.
As a result of getting a black eye I actually learned five very important lessons that helped to become a better researcher and finish my thesis faster.
Lesson #1: Do not believe anything until you have proof
My morning began with an elevator ride up to the 7th floor where my lab was.
I shared the elevator with a middle-aged man whom I never met before.
When we reached his floor he turned to me and said: “You know, you shouldn’t let your husband or boyfriend do this to you.”
“Excuse me?” I replied surprised.
He pointed to his right eye as the elevator doors shut behind him.
I suddenly realized that I looked like a stereotypical case of domestic abuse.
I never saw that man again and I never had a chance to tell him that my shiner was due to a backstroke gone horribly wrong.
I actually felt quite insulted that a stranger would make such serious conclusions without knowing any of the details.
I frequently read papers referencing other papers and I soon learned how critical it was to read the primary references too.
Either the citation was incorrect, or the conclusions did not make sense based on the data in the primary reference.
So, I just got into the habit of reanalyzing data in the primary reference, without believing any conclusions that the secondary references made.
I also made up my own buffers as soon as I learned that the commercial buffers did not have the concentrations of salts that were listed on the labels.
I could no longer believe anything that was stated in the label, unless it came from a highly reputable company.
The only thing I could trust was my own quality control and I planned my experiments very meticulously, without having to rely on outside information.
Lesson #2: Become comfortable with being uncomfortable
I was very uncomfortable at work the day after my injury.
Concerned coworkers stopped me at nearly every step to find out how my injury occurred and how long it would take to heal.
I probably had to retell the story 20 times that day.
Others just walked past me, raising their eyebrows in horror.
By the end of the day I actually felt comfortable in my new role as “the girl with the black eye.”
I did not mind the stares anymore.
In fact I almost missed them after my injury healed.
Prior to my injury I always tried to blend in with the crowd.
I was afraid to speak up at meetings because then everyone would look at me, and perhaps think that I was crazy if I asked a stupid question.
The problem with trying to blending in is that you will never get noticed, and you will not be considered for great opportunities.
Once I went through the experience of everyone starting at me for multiple days, I actually felt more comfortable speaking up at meetings, giving talks, or presenting posters at conference.
I no longer minded being critiqued at meetings; in fact I enjoyed presenting things from a different perspective to make the meetings more interesting.
My professor noticed, and he commended some of my ideas, which later turned into part of my thesis project and publications.
Being continuously questioned at meetings was great practice for my thesis defense where a professor grilled me to pieces in front of 120 people.
I had learned to be comfortable in front of a large crowd, which served me well in my professional career when I had to lead meetings and present my research.
Lesson #3: If you sit back and wait things will take (at least) twice as long
The doctors told me that my injury would take about 10-14 days to heal.
That seemed like a long time, especially since I was in pain.
I decided to try a new approach to speed up my healing process.
Coincidentally, my father gave me a very special gift just a few months before, a novel light therapy device, called Bioptron, that promoted all types of healing, both internally and externally.
I diligently shone the lamp a few times a day over my right eye beginning the morning after my injury and my wound started to heal.
In fact, 5 days after my injury I had no more bruising.
My injury occurred on a Wednesday night, and Thursday and Friday I invited lots of stares at work. But by Monday morning, there was no indication that I ever had a black eye.
While I have no control experiment (in the form of a concurrent shiner over my left eye), I like to think that using the Bioptron sped up my healing process.
First, my eye was swollen shut and there was serious and widespread bruising over my right eye.
Second, according to the doctors and medical references it would take about 10-14 days heal completely.
I will never have real proof that the Bioptron helped the healing process (thus I never wrote an article stating that), but I certainly know that being proactive makes nearly everything go faster.
This is especially important in graduate school, where you are at the mercy of your thesis committee and you need to do everything within your power to finish your thesis faster.
I did not have the luxury of waiting around for an experiment to go well on its own.
Being proactive paid off all throughout graduate school, especially as the graduation deadline neared.
I remember that I had to ask one of the committee members to sign my thesis so I could submit it and register for graduation.
She was extremely busy and frequently out of the office.
Everyone else had already signed it, so getting her signature was the last step in completing my thesis.
The deadline was getting closer and I was really concerned that I would miss graduation that semester.
My thesis was 150 pages long and I knew that I would be lucky to catch her for 1 minute, not nearly long enough for her to read the entire thesis.
So, I printed out a signature page with just the abstract on it.
I ran into her 2 days before the deadline and asked if I could get her signature.
She said that she was too busy to read my thesis and started to walk away.
“Oh, you don’t need to read the entire thesis, ” I told her.
“I printed out the signature page with just the abstract and it is due in 2 days. ” She looked at me relieved.
“Oh if it is just the abstract I can read it quickly.”
Five minutes later I had her signature and I nearly sprinted to the office to hand in my thesis.
I could hardly believe that I actually made it to graduation that semester.
Graduate school does seem like it will never end.
Lesson #4: Turn your pain into focus
Although I went to work Thursday and Friday after my injury, I was in a lot of pain.
As I did my experiments the one thing that kept going through my mind was “I want to go home as soon as possible and rest.”
I was frequently interrupted by coworkers and I engaged in conversation with them.
Sometimes I also browsed the web or checked email while waiting for an experimental time-point.
On Thursday and Friday I became more focused, because I wanted to go home early and sleep.
I used every possible minute of the day to make forward progress.
When I waited for timepoints, I analyzed data from previous experiments.
I did not waste any time browsing the web or chit-chatting with coworkers.
My increased focus paid off and I got to home home after 8-9 hours of work.
I did not need a black eye to become more efficient at work.
The strategies I developed to use every possible minute for forward progress helped me to write my entire thesis in 20 days and to prepare 50 slides for my thesis defense within the same time-frame.
I know other people who learned to focus during challenging times (loss of a loved one, job loss) because the pain that they experienced motivated them to strive for higher goals so they could move on with their lives and find new opportunities.
Lesson #5: Find the gift in every situation
The reality is that no situation is good or bad.
It is your interpretation of the situation that makes it good or bad.
For example, I was crushed when I was rejected after my first job interview.
But this rejection led me to interview for other jobs, and the one that I finally got was a much better fit for me.
If you are every rejected by an employer (or a potential boy/girlfriend), it was probably not a good fit anyway.
If it were, you would not have been rejected.
I have been in other difficult situations and once I asked myself “Where is the gift in this?” I was able to turn it around and make it into a positive learning experience.
For example, I once my experimental results were the opposite of what I expected.
I initially thought I had discovered a new biochemical pathway!
But I had learned earlier to always examine all the experimental conditions before making a conclusion.
There was an undergraduate helping me with the experiment and I decided to go through all the steps with her again.
When we did the experiments in parallel, it turned out that she had mislabeled the bottles.
As a result of these errors, several weeks of work was lost.
What was the gift in this? The gift was not that I learned never to trust anyone else with an experiment.
The gift was that I learned how to train people better, so they could do the experiments faster and with fewer mistakes.
This skill was especially useful in industry because we had very short turn-around times and a lot of experiments to run.
In the end, I was glad that my eye healed completely in 5 days, and I went back to swimming that night.
I was not worried about being injured again.
It was the first time that I had such a serious injury in 20+ years of swimming.
I was also confident that after this accident all the swimmers would stay on their side of the lane.
They certainly did, and they were relieved that I got back to swimming so quickly.
Did you have an experience that changed your life, or your perspective on graduate school?
I look forward to hearing your stories in the comment section below!