Every time I talk to my mother (hi mom!) she asks me something like, “so what is your usual day like?” I’m the first one in my family to go to a research-based graduate program in the sciences – my cousin Jess is in med school and my uncles got PhDs in history and economics, but the routine of those lives are very different. There’s a certain amount of mystery and allure about what happens when you are a graduate student, besides of course my mother’s general curiosity about what I’m doing with my life. I’m not going to class, so what is it that I’m doing?
But there’s not a real answer. Days both fly by and drag past. There isn’t really so much to distinguish them from one another at this point – I haven’t started fieldwork or labwork for real. The main thing is that Fridays are filled with group meetings, department meetings, and seminars. Sometimes other days are, too. Those days it can feel like you get nothing done and are running around from one thing to the next all day. Other days it can feel like you get nothing done and are just reading all day. No matter what kind of day it is, it’s hard to measure progress or have any tangible outcome of what you’ve done.
For me, the biggest change is to have a community, a structure, obligations, meetings. For more than the last year, I worked pretty independently. In Davos at SLF, we were a tiny department and had a short meeting once a week. That was it, other than checking in with co-workers whenever it was convenient just by popping my head into their office, or taking out my earbuds and striking up a conversation across my desk.
In Sweden, my supervisor was on paternity leave and only came into the office a few days a week. I didn’t have a real office – he offered me a place in the computer lab – so I worked in the library, which was a considerably nicer place, or from home. I checked in with him in his office a few times a week, but other than that it was up to me to make my own schedule.
No matter where you are in academia, there’s some flexibility in scheduling. People keep their own hours. Night owls hunch over their computers deep into the night; early birds cycle to work and have pumped out a few pages of writing or analysis before the rest of us even arrive. I don’t have to keep a timesheet, clock in and out, or tell anyone my schedule.
But compared to Davos and Gotland, it’s jarring to be back in an environment where people more or less arrive at 8 and leave at 5, taking a regular lunch break all together in the cafeteria. Where there are meetings and seminars and journal clubs that you will be shamed if you don’t go to. Where if you decide to leave early and spend the rest of the afternoon reading that book from the comfort of your sofa at home, probably there was some important obligation that you will have totally forgotten about and subsequently miss.
This is, of course, real life. I don’t dislike it. In fact, I do like it. I like our coffee breaks, our lunches, having other people. I can chat with the postdocs; I can turn my chair around and ask my fellow PhD student, Roman, how to go through the maze-like University matriculation process. Once a week I have a scheduled meeting with my supervisor Florian. We spend an hour or two talking about my project, ranging from experimental details to theory.
On Thursday, the ECO department had its annual Christmas party. A few wonderful people dressed the old teaching lab up with streamers, a disco ball, and other decoration. The department purchased more beer and wine than the 60 of us could possibly drink; they hired a pizza truck to park outside (I was initially alarmed to see an actual firewood-fired pizza oven in the back of a truck, because it just seems dangerous, but on second thought it’s no more crazy than a usual food truck) and make us pizzas to order. The rest of us brought salads and desserts; three student’s DJ’ed and everyone, from students to lab techs to the administrative staff, danced. It was great fun. It’s really nice to be part of a department with such a sense of community.
The hardest thing is that I have to try to get my daily run in before work, which is challenging when it doesn’t get light until after 7. I struggle to pry myself out of bed. But I shouldn’t complain. Millions of people manage to go running in the dark before work, why is it so hard for me?
The second hardest thing is that these meetings with Florian never have a concrete outcome. Embarking on a PhD in Switzerland is different than in the U.S. because I only have three years to finish. That means that right off the bat, there is a certain sense of urgency to figure out what I’m doing and get started. But at the same time, mistakes can’t be made. Things have to be carefully planned, connected to theory. We have to make sure we have good questions that we are answering, that we’re not just collecting data willy-nilly. It’s a fine balance between making decisions and taking more time.
It can feel frustrating, but I think that is what a PhD, and indeed research itself, is all about. Still though, it is easy to feel jealous of Roman, who is six months ahead of me and already busy with labwork, PCR’s, and weeklong trips to other labs to learn new techniques. I’m still figuring out what it is I have to learn and it can feel like everyone around me is leaving me behind as they move on with their projects.
None of that really answers the question of what I do all day. What I do all day is very different than what I will be doing in three months; in some ways it isn’t very representative of what PhD life is like.
But maybe it answers what I feel all day. I feel giddy if I make a GIS map; I feel sleepy if I read too many chapters of a book on ecological theory; I feel excited when I listen to a seminar about some cool research someone in my department is doing; I feel overwhelmed when I think about how to try to link all the pieces of my project together. I feel responsible for some important, long-term decision when I go to buy hip-waders for my stream work, even though actually this is probably the least-important decision I will make in the whole project.
And this combination of excitement, stress, and confusion is probably what will characterize my life for the next three years. One of the best things I am doing now is looking at the people around me and trying to glean information about how they manage their days, their projects, their home lives, their expectations. Luckily, I have a great set of mentors to learn from.