9 New Year Resolutions for Grad Students and Postdocs (and tools to help keep them)

By Gaia Vasiliver-Shamis, PhD

Let’s face it, reality is that our new year resolutions usually don’t last past January…while the world wide web is full with “science-backed” ways to keep your new year resolutions, it’s almost had the same number of articles explaining you why new year resolutions don’t stick. But let’s stay positive on New Year evening and use the latest behavioral research (from 4 days ago!) showing that if you want your resolutions to stick you should ask yourself a question rather than make a statement. For example, don’t say “I will exercise” but ask yourself: “Will I exercise? Yes or No?” – the answer should clearly be yes. So in this spirit here are 9 New Year questions every graduate student/ postdoc should have for a successful 2016!

Let’s start with scientific-related resolutions…. I mean questions.

 

  1. Will I finish my paper?

Publications are the token of productivity in the research realm so no matter what your next step may be, you should show that you have been productive. Some struggle because they think they need to get one more experiment done before they start writing…this one big experiment that will turn your work into a Nature paper. While this might be true, this is not the case for most of us. To finish your paper, you actually need to start it! Start with summarizing what you have thus far by creating a sketch of your figures. This will force you to think what is the story you are trying to tell in your paper; this will help you identify the “holes” or the missing experiments in your story. Once you identify those, discuss it with your mentor and make an action plan with some deadlines for the missing experiments and not less importantly for writing!

If you are a visual person or just love “to do” lists, I highly recommend you try Trello – it’s a great, free, tool to help you organize your plans and projects in one fun dashboard (and between us, there is something extremely satisfying by dragging an item to the “done” list).

 

  1. Will I present at a meeting?

I am sometime shocked to discover that some trainees barely attend scientific meetings. Attending conferences is a bundle of important opportunities. Beyond the obvious of learning about the latest research in your field; it’s an opportunity for you to present, get an award (travel award, best poster etc.) and not less importantly network. Yes, I know…networking…it’s so sleazy….so let me rephrase: you will meet new people. Depending on the conference and its size, you will get a chance to interact with top researchers, editors in journals you wish to publish in and scientists from industry and other young scientists like you!

Now, this is something you should plan for, especially if you need to apply for a travel grant so plan early. Nature has a list directory and the myriad of events can be overwhelming. If you’re new to the research business just ask your mentor and peers which conferences they usually go to and recommend.

 

  1. Will I apply for a grant?

Getting funded not only shows that your research is solid and promising, but it also speaks greatly to your written communication skills. It does not matter whether you want to stay in academia or not, having a grant you written get funded will look great on your CV/ resume. Take advantage of any grant tutorials or clubs you may have at your university/ institute and apply even for a small grant. Not sure where to find a grant you can apply to? Try this list from Science Careers.

 

Moving on to career-related resolutions, the arching question you should ask yourself is “will I make the time to take care of my own career?” and the answer should be “hell yeh!”. I’d also like to stress that the following questions hold true whether you are planning for an academic or non-academic career path.

 

  1. Will I attend an event from the Graduates/ Postdoc Affairs Office?

First, if you are not already aware of it existence – find out whether there is a postdoc office or graduates affairs office and what kind of events they offer and make sure you receive their emails.

Once you are in the loop of what’s going on in your institute be sure to attend their events. Whether it’s a CV seminar, career panel or what not – make the time to attend this. I know life happens and experiment go wrong but you should block this time on your calendar for YOU! Taking 2 hours a week to attend a workshop will not stall your research, seriously!

 

  1. Will I intentionally meet new people? (aka the networking more resolution)

I can’t stress this enough! While networking is a pretty dreaded concept for some people (and if you’re one of those people be sure to read “Networking for people who hate networking” by Devora Zack), try to approach it as meeting new interesting people and building relationships. Use LinkedIn and your existing network to identify other professionals you can talk with, reconnect with older or dormant connections or simply join your grad students/ postdocs association. My favorite posts about this topic were titled “Cold emails and hot coffee”. This four –part series in Science Careers shows how you can advance your career in a few hours a week and offers practical tips. Also, if you’d like to stay organize tracking who you talked with and what about, use MyIDP or Evernote.

 

  1. Will I keep my CV/ resume updated?

This is a good habit to form for your professional life in general. Always keep a “kitchen sink” CV/ resume where you add everything you’ve done. I know it’s easy to remember to add a published paper to your CV but you may forget being a member on a committee or writing a piece for the student newspaper or giving a talk so it’s a good practice to add those as soon as you’re done. Also, don’t forget to include any metrics (because sometimes these are easily forgotten).  I’d suggest having your “kitchen sink” CV/ resume as a Google doc so then it’s available for you anytime on any device so you’ll have no excuses (plus you’ll have a backup)!

 

  1. Will I create my career “wish list”?

If you are looking for opportunities beyond academia, you should have 2 lists one for 2-3 career paths of interest and one for companies you’d like to work for. If you’re interested in the academic path, you should have your list of universities/ institutions you are interested in. Once you completed your list, go to question/ resolution #5 and make sure your meet people working in careers you’re interested and/ or people working in the companies/ universities on your wish list.  Since networking is about building relationships – the earlier you start – the better!

 

  1. Will I learn something new?

If you were not into learning new things, you probably wouldn’t have taken the research path right? Whether it’s a new technique in the lab, learning R (which is super valuable on the job market these days) or just expanding your horizons – there are multiple ways for you to learn something new in 2016 and it doesn’t have to cost you a dime! The Muse had a couple of posts with links to FREE online courses in programming, finance, digital marketing and much more, here are the links for 45 courses and 43 Career-advancing courses, you can finish the listed courses in 10 weeks or less. Now who wants to start 2016 smarter?

 

  1. Will I gain a new skill (or develop an existing one)?

You have opportunities both inside and outside the lab to gain/ develop different skills such as leadership, teaching, organizing and more. You should proactively seek opportunities to gain the skill(s) you’re interested in having. Mentoring is a skill that can be easily be acquired when you’re in the lab, if your PI haven’t assigned you someone already, express your interest to her in mentoring an undergrad student or a grad student if you’re a postdoc already. For leadership and organizational skills join the student/ postdoc organization and be active. And if it’s you’re written communication skills you’re looking to strengthen – the Scizzle blog is always on the lookout for talented writers, so drop us an email if you’re interested.

I know, these are some very serious resolutions and it may seem overwhelming at first. A known way to set goals and achieve them is 1) to write them down and 2) have them be SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time-bound) and you can learn more about how to set them here. If this is not enough find an accountability buddy, it can be your friend, your spouse or the career person in your grad student/ postdoc affairs office.

Now I know some of you must be thinking “I don’t have time to do my research AND all of this!”. I’d urge you to put your own career and success and a top priority. Taking even a couple hours out of the 168 hrs you have in a week to advance yourself is very doable. Not convinced? Try  Toggl that allows you to track time based on tasks/ projects or use it to time your career-related activities or find out how much time you really spend on pointless browsing by using Rescue Time.

And if all this is too stressful for you, try this fun website called Pixel Thoughts, it will help put things in perspective and calm you down in 60 seconds. After all, mindfulness meditation is the like new non-GMO (though it’s actually a trend that is based in solid science).

I hope you find this post useful and I wish you a very happy and successful new year!