Category Archives: Graduate School

Combating Shiny Object Syndrome

In graduate school it is extremely important to know when you are putting your time towards professional activities that are directly beneficial to your dissertation progress versus activities that are interesting or fun but do not contribute to moving you forward. In terms of time and resources spent on experiments, staying on task is a serious consideration or else you run the risk of falling victim to Shiny Object Syndrome.

It’s great to be curious about many different topics; curiosity is a driving force in basic research and is a necessary motivator for many individuals. However, in order to stay on task and keep making progress towards your degree it can be helpful to follow these guidelines:

Learn to Designate “For Dissertation” and “Interesting Tangents” During Literature Review:  I am guilty of this. My dissertation mascot has been Dori from “Finding Nemo.” I can happily fly down a rabbit hole of research on PubMed for an entire day, ending with a giant stack of new articles that are tangentially related to my dissertation work. Being able to conduct a thorough literature review is all well and good, but a lot of the time these papers don’t directly help me understand my topic. Now, in doing a PhD you have to work at the very limit of human knowledge, so sometimes you end up pulling in diverse resources in order to get a broad understanding of the topic at hand; that is not a bad thing. However, when you repeatedly find yourself consumed by interesting but non-supportive materials you may have a problem with Shiny Object Syndrome, where interesting but non-productive tasks begin to take over. Take a moment during your literature reviews to make sure that what you are following is directly relevant to your work. If you do find interesting research articles that you want to read…

Designate Blocks of Time for Side Projects: To keep tangential research from seeping into your productive hours it helps to set aside designated times to work on side projects. Treat them like you would a hobby; give them a designated time but do not let them interfere with your real work. Save the interesting citation or pdf, and keep it to read until you have free time so as not to use up time meant for research. For me this usually means reading an interesting journal article on the bus when I have 20 uninterrupted minutes to read whatever I want.

Minimize Risk in New Projects: If you believe that pursuing a side interest may actually aid you in your dissertation progress, then write down what resources it will require and how much time it will take. Is it a relatively minor investment in time and resources? Then go for it! Graduate school should be an opportunity to learn to think for yourself. A major part of this is learning which experiments are worth pursuing. However, if this side project involves a significant amount of time, animal work, or using up some serious resources in the lab, then think twice. Do not take major steps like this without consulting your adviser first; they or someone else may have attempted that particular experiment before you joined the lab and it did not work. Talk with your adviser to determine the following:

  • Is it worth the time away from your primary research?
  • Is the potential payoff from this particular side experiment worth the effort and potential setbacks in the progress of your primary research that could result from taking the time to accomplish the project?
  • How likely is the side project to succeed early on? (Is the system well characterized? Is it an established technique, or something very new and exciting, but not as well known?)
  • What kind of optimization might the project methods require to get up and running? (Don’t discount the time necessary for optimizing experiments in a new system!)
  • Do you have the resources (equipment, cash, animals, etc.) necessary to complete the proposed studies?
  • Do you have all of the necessary administrative approvals for the work (clearance for animal work, strain approval, radioisotope permits for radiolabeling studies, etc.)?

If it is worth the time and your lab has the resources and approvals, you can go for these riskier projects with the support of your adviser. This is often the process by which your dissertation project will slowly change hands from your adviser to you. Over time you should become the person proposing the new studies stemming from your work, and all of that diverse study early on will help to inform how you develop your own dissertation research project.

These are only of a few of the ways that you can manage interesting distractions and even use them to support your primary work and make it your own (interdisciplinary projects, anyone?)

How have you managed the lure of tangential studies during your dissertation? Share your experiences with Shiny Object Syndrome in the comments section below.

[Image by Flickr user Abby Lanes and used under Creative Commons licensing]

This post originally appeared at, a part of Inside Higher Ed.

The Perfect Workspace

What exactly is the perfect work space? For me, the answer is “many.”


Since I’m not assigned to a cubicle for my PhD work I have some flexibility as to when and how I get my work done. It’s like that really worn out joke about getting a STEM PhD, “The hours are great! You can work any 60 hours a week that you want!” Thankfully, not all 60 have to be in the laboratory, so I have cobbled together a few different spaces to use depending on my priorities and the task at hand. Here are my top three work spaces for getting things done: Continue reading The Perfect Workspace

Using Project Management Approaches to Tame Your Dissertation

No one finishes a STEM dissertation by doing just 100% research all day every day; you have many other tasks including classes, writing manuscripts, attending journal clubs, teaching obligations, seminars, lab meetings, public presentations of your work, and the need for sleep and a healthy body. All of these activities need to be planned for and the time necessary to complete them taken into account. Once you do that, research effort is really about 50% of what you are doing (although this can vary quite a bit depending on your particular project and field). These are a lot of tasks and obligations to keep track of and can easily derail your research progress, which will be the determining factor of when you actually get to graduate. Continue reading Using Project Management Approaches to Tame Your Dissertation

Basic Negotiation Tactics for Grad Students

Graduate school is the final stage before entering professional employment; yet many graduates lack the negotiation skills necessary for the impending job search. As a result, many recent graduates take the very first offer they get out of school without negotiating their salary or terms of employment, which can lead to an individual being underpaid for their work. Unfortunately our future pay is often the product of what we are currently paid, so that failing to negotiate for a higher salary initially (even as simple as $5000 more a year) can compound over a lifetime of work to a loss equivalent to $500,000.

With that in mind, here are some basic tactics you should know going into salary negotiations as a recent graduate. Continue reading Basic Negotiation Tactics for Grad Students

The Battle Between Perfectionism and Productivity

The authors at GradHacker have written about the struggle with perfectionism in graduate school before, but there is still much left to say about this issue.

From all the hoops that we have to jump through to get into a program, GPAs to GRE test scores, it’s easy to see how graduate school selects for perfectionists. In graduate school, the pressure experienced during your undergraduate studies doesn’t let up, it only intensifies until you finish your degree. Suddenly, your workload is higher and more intense, the demands from professors (and now students if you’re a TA) are more immediate, and there is no room to do everything perfectly all the time. Left unchecked, struggling with perfectionism and falling short of your self-imposed standards can lead to feelings all too common in graduate school: anxiety, depression, frustration, and even anger. These only compound the issues feeding into perfectionism until finally, you may find yourself unable to deal with any of the work relating to your degree.

This moment is when perfectionists start to slip up in graduate school: when outsized expectations collide with real-world limitations. At this point, the perfectionistic habits that got you this far can start to work against you; it might be time to learn some new ways to work. Following are three common productivity-killers of perfectionism, and how to get past them: Continue reading The Battle Between Perfectionism and Productivity

Failing Forward in Graduate School

In life, failure is inevitable; in graduate school, it is guaranteed.

The very nature of a graduate degree puts you into contact with failure on a regular basis, especially if you work in the lab attempting to do or show something that has never been seen before.

Somehow, in the face of this failure we as students are expected to have that roll effortlessly off our backs and move on to the next task. After a few years in academia I’ve realized that this is a great example of “failing forward,” or learning from failure in a way that makes you a more capable student and scholar. But how do you fail forward? What needs to happen in order to fail forward is a change in your outlook on graduate school from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. What exactly is a fixed vs. growth mindset, and how do you cultivate it?

A fixed mindset is reflective of someone who sees their abilities as predetermined and unchangeable, while someone with a growth mindset would see themselves as developing their abilities over time. Someone with a fixed mindset sees their performance as a fixed issue “I’m smart, so I got it right”; or in the case of failure, “I’m stupid, so it’s no use trying to understand this.” When you approach with a growth mindset, failure looks more like “well, I didn’t get this right, so let’s see how I can work on improving before trying again.” It means that you can be more open to constructive criticism, rather than defensive—a trait that will help you in relating to your graduate adviser and committees and in making consistent progress with your work.

The growth mindset in action: Did you take a ton of your time to apply for a grant, only to have it not funded, or not even scored? In this moment it is all too easy to feel like a failure, especially if looking at the situation with a fixed mindset. However, if you are looking at this kind of event from a growth mindset, then you can see it as an opportunity. As a student, this application was not about securing that one grant, but improving the skills that you need to obtain grants for the rest of your career. Get the comments for the application to find out what the reviewers liked about it and build on those strengths so that your next application has a better chance at scoring well and getting funded. No researcher on the planet has a perfect funding record; they all had to work hard to get the skills necessary to craft a successful grant application.

With many grant section pay lines at or below 10% right now, there is a lot of failure taking place in the academic community. Add to this the rejection of manuscripts submitted to professional journals and it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any progress and none of your efforts are paying off. If you can’t develop a growth mindset in the face of these many continued rejections, it will be extremely difficult to make any progress or even persist in the academic career track. It is easy to get stuck thinking that you are fixed in how much you can understand and accomplish, and if that is the case then each failure and setback will only serve to make you feel unfit for graduate school (impostor syndrome, anyone?). However, if you can learn to see failures and roadblocks as opportunities for personal growth and development, then you can look forward to reaching ever-higher levels of achievement as you keep working toward your goals, both within and outside of graduate school.

[Image from Flickr user Chris Potter of, used under Creative Commons licensing]

This article originally appeared at, a part of Inside Higher Ed.