Grinding away your mental edge...take some time to think

Dec 10 2011 Published by under Mentoring

I think a serious misconception amongst trainees is that the only thing that matters in grad school is racking up a huge body count of hours at the lab bench.  I see them grinding away at the bench hour after hour only to go home too exhausted to do any critical thinking.  You have to partition out some of your time to read, write, and more importantly just to think.  I've asked these lab bench workaholics how often they are reading and the answers are quite frightening.  In my opinion (and for what little it is worth) you need that precious time to just sit and process your own research, your subfield, and what is going on around you in science.  This is what sustains the flame of intellectual curiosity and keeps you mentally sharp and focused.  At least for me anyways.

Does this sound like utter bullshit?

9 responses so far

  • Morgan Price says:

    I'll agree that grad students don't read enough, but I'm not sure that grinding away at the bench is the reason. It's a problem in theoretical and computational areas too.

  • Steve Bennett says:

    The logical flow of this argument is particularly weak: you see a possible cause, you assume (without evidence) a possible effect, you assume (also without evidence) that the cause causes the effect...

  • A friend, a librarian who works in a science library, likes to joke, “A week in the lab can save an hour in the library.” I agree with her point, which is that some scientists don’t read enough or think enough about what they are doing.

    On the other hand, my Ph.D. advisor taught me that once I got an experiment working, I should try every variant I could think of—I should run the experiment into the ground. That can require long, but productive, hours in the lab.

  • Yael says:

    Not to mention, too many people regret their lack of reading come thesis writing time or postdoc application time. In my experience, the postdoc application process was more demanding than the defense because you are judged on how well you can think on your feet about other problems (other than what you are working on now). One can develop these skills by reading a lot (and being critical), as well as going to seminars and learning to ask good questions.

    Have seen people with reams of beautiful data being rejected at the postdoc interview because they couldn't think about what interested them at a new lab...

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I lived 11 miles from the university and would drive in or ride the bus. I used the time for thinking and came up with various interesting ideas. One of my colleagues commented he was glad I did not live farther away.

  • Dr 27 says:

    Agreed. I never understood that mindset when I was in school. I did put in long hours a few times, but I can count them with one hand. I was not a slacker, and I knew that after spending 8-10 hours in the lab I was pretty useless. My boss finished the PhD in 3-4 years and was very proud of that, and would often stay late ... but I don't think there was a huge increase in productivity by staying that late. I think there needs to be balance between working hard and enjoying some time out, because it is often during those times away from the bench/lab that some of the coolest ideas come to mind. At least for me.

  • becca says:

    At this stage in my life, critical thinking can almost never occur at home, but I also don't get really long hours either, so I don't get fried like I used to when I worked 14 hour days.
    Actually, often enough the monotony of say cell culture or minipreps is just what my mind needs to unwind and relax enough to think creatively. Though my mind works best for creativity when I'm talking with people.

  • Bashir says:

    In my experience graduate students tend to over-focus on proximal things. Such as hours in the lab, and how the current experiment is going. It's hard to have a long view when you're new to the game. Being well read is more of a long term strategy. It doesn't pay off immediately like a few extra hours in the lab can. Also the more you read the more useful it is, the more you can connect papers to your research ideas.

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