Traveling as a grad student – good or bad?

Traveling while in graduate school (at least in the STEM fields) is often viewed as a waste of time and a serious lack of commitment.  However, I believe traveling is an invaluable learning experience far superior to anything you’ll learn from a book.  Learning about other cultures and philosophies by actually experiencing it can drastically change one’s perspective and perception.  Needless to say, it can also assist in thinking outside of the box.

The amount you learn while immersed in a foreign country with a foreign language is immense.  Not only do you learn a ton about the culture, traditions, and customs, but perhaps even more valuably you learn about yourself.  How do you respond to stress? To not knowing the answer? To solving problems with limited resources? How well do you think on your feet?

These are all invaluable skills to survive and succeed in graduate school, and beyond.

This spring my boyfriend and I decided to undergo our first major relationship test – three weeks of traveling together in France and Switzerland.  Luckily despite a few bumps it was a huge success and we both couldn’t stop talking about it for months!

So, being a grad student the first step towards this trip involved informing my supervisor that I would be MIA for 3 whole weeks.  This went surprisingly well given that grad students don’t typically take much vacation other than a quick trip home for the holidays.  I think in my case though I got lucky as my supervisor has always been relatively lenient with vacation time.

Having that out of the way, the next step was figuring out what exactly three weeks in France and Switzerland would involve  I began conducting some background research into the local cultures, geography, and tourism.  Even simply choosing what parts of the countries to visit, and in which order, was a huge challenge!  But with a bit of perseverance we settled on a route starting in Paris, working our way through the north of France, then down to the south, followed by a few days in the Swiss Alps.  For those who are interested, I’ve included our itinerary (and suggested modifications) at the bottom of this post.

A few things we learned:

  • We can survive a couple of weeks together without killing each other
  • French cuisine is just as amazing as we’d heard.  Expensive yes, but totally worth it!
  • Planning as we went allowed us to use our B&B hosts’ recommendations and alter our plans accordingly
  • Staying at least a couple of days in a place lets you start to understand the local culture and appreciate the area so much more than a one-night/city “bus tour” style trip
  • Not only are B&Bs often cheaper they also offer the huge benefit of immersing yourself with locals
  • “Je suis excité” does not mean what google translate says…
  • Having a conversational level of the language gives a much richer cultural experience
  • Renting bicycles is a great way to get around while still giving you the freedom to stop and explore the culture
  • Switzerland is indeed VERY VERY expensive
  • Restaurants in France open for only a couple hours right at lunch time and dinner time, so don’t miss lunch or you will be very hungry!

We both found it to be an extremely educational trip, and are very excited to go back and continue exploring the rest of France and its diverse cultures!  I think next time we’ll skip Switzerland due to the cost.


Our itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive in Paris!  Train straight to Rennes, explore Rennes and the local cuisine.DSC01535

Day 2: Day trip on local transit to Mont St Michel.  This day trip is well worth it and very easy to get to from Rennes.

Day 3: Explore Rennes.

Day 4: Train to Tours, drop off our bags at a B&B where we will stay in a few days.  Then train to Angers.

Day 5: Pick up rented bicycles in Angers, then cycle along the Loire river to Saumur. (see future blog post about this)DSC01561

Day 6: Explore Saumur, L’abbaye de Fontevraud (a hidden gem!).DSC01653

Day 7: Continue along the Loire river back to Tours (we cheated and took a train the last little bit)

Day 8: Train to Montpellier and explore.  The old part of Montpellier is quite historical and the newer part has fascinating architecture.

Day 9: Explore Montpellier.  We had hoped to do a wine tasting but everything was all booked up… c’est la vie!

Day 10: More exploring Montpellier, getting laundry done etc.

Day 11: Train to Marseille!  Marseille was fascinating culturally, could have spent more time here.

Day 12: Organized day tour to Avignon, Pont Du Garde.  Made for a bit of a long day and was rather touristy.  But interesting.

Day 13: Did a local hike to Calanque de Sugiton.  We took the back trails which was fantastic! Breathtaking mediteranean views.DSC01831

Day 14: Train to Nice and explore.

Day 15: Took local transit to Cap Ferat and hiked around the cape.  Was gorgeous and much less touristy than the rest of Nice.DSC01852

Day 16: Flight to Zurich, train to Spetz.  Spetz is a gorgous town located on Lake Thun, only 30 mins from Interlaken.  The views from our B&B balcony were stunning!

Day 17: Train to Interlaken, then the Berner Oberland train to Wengen.  We then took the scenic hiking trail from Wengen to Wengenschalp. It was absolutely stunning, the highlight of our time in Switerland!DSC01921

Day 18: Train to the base of Mt. Niesen, Funicular to the top. Then train to Thun and a historical steamboat back to Spetz.

Day 19: Spent the morning in Interlaken (would skip, was extremely touristy) then the afternoon exploring Bern.

Day 20: Early flight to Paris, rest of day exploring Paris.

Day 21: Sadly, all good things must come to an end 😦




Quality vs Quantity… where does the balance lie?

Recently it was reported that Sweden is moving towards a six hour work day.  Now this isn’t entirely a new idea, in fact many companies in Sweden (and even entire cities) have played around with the concept since the 1990’s. However, it would seem the six hour workday is experiencing a bit of a second wind in the era of small entrepreneurial startups looking to boast about employee quality of life.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many employers have noted following the shift to a six hour day their staff were much more relaxed, sick less often, and overall more focused while at work. I’m sure I’m not the only one guilty of taking a personal call while at work, or quickly running off to do some banking since the banks will be long closed by the time I’m off.  Or sitting at my desk discretely checking Facebook, waiting for the clock to read an “acceptable” time to head out.

However, if six hours was an acceptable work day there would be plenty of time after work to go to the bank and complete other personal errands.  Furthermore that afternoon lull wouldn’t occur.  Really how productive are most of us after 8 or 10 hours at work anyways?  For that matter, how many of us can truly remain focused and completely on task for that length of time?  I don’t doubt for the majority of us it would be much more beneficial to simply check out and unwind, then approach the next day refreshed and focused.

While the workday hours don’t technically apply to graduate students (we don’t have a minimum set number of hours) the concept of working shorter hours and more efficiently is often entirely overlooked in graduate school.  There is a common perception in graduate school that if you are practically living in the lab, you’re doing it right.  In contrast, show up at 8am and leave at 5pm and you will forever be labelled a slacker.

I am a “slacker”, and proud of it.

Maybe after graduating I should look for a job in Sweden…




The hidden costs of a PhD degree

Recently a friend of mine shared this interesting article on facebook which really struck a chord with me:

There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about

Essentially the author discusses the psychological/emotional cost of a PhD, with some scary statistics to back up the claims. This paragraph in particular opened my eyes to just how common this issue is in graduate school:

I might not have felt so alone had I known how many people struggle with mental health issues in academia. A 2015 study at the University of California Berkeley found that 47% of graduate students suffer from depression, following a previous 2005 study that showed 10% had contemplated suicide. A 2003 Australian study found that that the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population, according to a New Scientist article. The same article notes that the percentage of academics with mental illness in the United Kingdom has been estimated at 53%.

The fact that I am a graduate student and had previously never heard any mention of mental health issues in the field is scary.  It also embodies the author’s discussion of how graduate students often ignore or downplay mental health symptoms in order to avoid appearing weak or incapable.

Graduate student… and high performance athlete?!?

Choose. One or the other.  Student OR Athlete.

Sadly, this is still all too common in academia. As a student athlete, my fellow students and colleagues are often shocked and impressed to find out I manage to train twice a day.  Meanwhile, my supervisors ask how much longer I intend to “play” sports, and when I am going to get serious about science. Or I am instructed to completely remove my athletic achievements from my CV for fear that I will be seen as less focused.

All of this is despite the fact that many awards actually encourage and reward extracurricular activities and leadership.

Yet for some reason many mainstream academics seem to have this view that any time spent outside of the lab is time wasted.

There are numerous benefits to being a student athlete.  Student athletes tend to perform better in their careers.  There is also a known correlation between physical fitness and mental fitness. Sports encourage the development of leadership and teamwork skills.  The time spent talking to teammates who are not involved in science, or even just taking a break from thinking science increases your ability to think outside the box.  I could go on and on, but that is not the purpose of this post.

Getting back to science…

8+ hours a day in the lab running experiments (or in the library researching the literature etc),  two practices per day, 6 days a week, plus classes, conferences, and sports competitions.  Needless to say, to successfully manage this sort of schedule without having a nervous breakdown necessitates supreme time management skills.  Plus an understanding of working efficiently.  Without these skills a complete meltdown is certainly imminent!  Important though is the realization that breaks and fun time are essential for mental health and well being.

These same life skills are also invaluable in the workforce.

So why isn’t this further encouraged in graduate school???

Now I’m not saying being a high performance athlete is a good choice for everyone.  Obviously there are drawbacks, such as not being able to go to parties during your competition season, nor having time for 12 hour Netflix marathon.  But employability or productivity certainly aren’t drawbacks.

PhD Adventures… foraying into the blog-osphere!

A PhD candidate.

A.K.A. A professional student.

The true meaning of pursuing a PhD is learning and exploring as much as possible during the duration of the degree.  Some may interpret that as spending 100+ hours a week in the laboratory conducting research, or becoming a permanent sculpture in the local library.  Alternatively some choose to while away their learning hours becoming connoisseurs of coffee shops… perhaps at the completion of their degree they are even deserving of an additional PhD in coffeeshop-ology?

I have taken a slightly different approach.  Instead of being a  “specialist student of biophysics” (not actually as bad as it sounds!) I have chosen to take full advantage the flexibility that comes with this period in my life, studying anything and everything, time and resources permitting.  Some may say I am procrastinating or slacking, but I prefer to say I am studying towards becoming a generalist.

The end result?

I have spent countless hours during my degree outside of the laboratory (much to the chagrin of my supervisor) pursuing sports, arts, languages, travel, culture, food, and even a social life.  And now for a new study – the art of blogging!

During the course of this blog I will delve into some of my successes, mishaps, and challenges stemming from becoming a generalist in a specialist world, all whilst learning the ins and outs of blogging.  I hope you enjoy a few laughs and maybe even learn a little bit about yourself in the process!

Thanks for reading and happy studies!