The week before the 2016 election, I proposed my dissertation. I had ambitious goals and I was ready to put in the work to achieve them. A December 2017 graduation date was in my sights.
But on November 9th, I entered into an unfamiliar brain state: constant, low-level panic. An itching feeling that I needed to do something—anything. And I did in fact do many things, leveraging my previous policy experience and my role in student government.
Advocacy feels great. Sometimes it’s obvious, like when we did a call-a-thon to protest the immigration ban executive order, and I was extremely moved by all the students who came out in support. Sometimes it’s surprising, like when we went to a particular Senator’s office, and I was expecting to disagree on every issue. Our discussion wound up being productive and we found a lot of common ground (also they had every flavor of Dr. Pepper). With every action, my enjoyment of policy work grew.
However, this has made that graduation date slide further and further way.
As you can tell from this blog I do very basic research. “Basic” here means that there is no direct application on the horizon (I should say, on a close horizon – the application could be years or even decades away). I want to understand how the brain works, and I want to develop algorithms that help me do that. There’s no clinical side to this – I’m not helping sick or injured people get better (maybe eventually?), and I’m not making something monetizable, either (although facebook seems to have other ideas).
Because of this disconnect from humanity, I sometimes find my ivory tower quite confining. So for the past 100 days, when I’ve had to choose between advocacy and research, advocacy has had quite the advantage. Can you really blame me? It’s very hard to do basic science under existential threats like funding cuts and immigration bans.
I wanted to use this post to share what has helped me navigate the past 100 days: valuing my time.
What does it mean to value your time? For me, it means the following:
- Before committing to something, assess whether the impact will be worth the time spent.
- Treat both advocacy and research like work
- Limit the amount of work time on any given day so as not to burn out
Item 1 is something of an art, and this was often the source of my failures. A lot of advocacy work seems on the surface like it will be a good use of your time, but in fact you are probably contributing to white noise. It’s worth putting in time up-front to figure out what is an effective way to advocate.
Item 2 took a long time for me. When you’re a PhD student, you often feel that anything that’s not research is somehow chill break time. Advocacy is not. Advocacy is both emotional and intellectual labor and the sooner you start treating it that way, the sooner you can effectively implement item 3 and protect yourself from burnout.
I know I’m not the only one struggling with this, and we need to support each other. Hopefully we can all find a stable equilibrium and graduate on time!