Jorge Cham, who writes/draws PhD Comics, is doing a book tour and gave a talk at Berkeley yesterday. (He did his grad work at Stanford and is now an instructor at Caltech.) This is one of those comic strips that hits home a little too often, but in doing so is frequently pretty funny. Cham is also funny as a public speaker, with an excellent sense of comic timing. He sometimes played the straight man with jokes appearing on his Powerpoint slides, and sometimes reversed this dynamic.
The talk was about staying sane under the pressures of grad school, and the main theme was that procrastination is a powerful tool for this, both for taking the pressure off and regaining motivation and creativity when one returns to work. Needless to say, I had already figured this out, as the three-plus years of archives on this blog will attest. It turns out that there is also scientific confirmation of a sort: via Chad Orzel I read in the New York Times that distraction is key for relieving dread.
The first study ever to look at where sensations of dread arise in the brain finds that contrary to what is widely believed, dread does not involve fear and anxiety in the moment of an unpleasant event. Instead, it derives from the attention that people devote beforehand to what they think will be extremely unpleasant.
Grad students in the Berkeley physics department have their share of unpleasant events to devote attention to, beginning with the prelim exams and ending with actually writing the thesis. My personal source of dread lately has been the qualifying exam, and maybe my ability to find new distractions lately is related to this. However, I definitely plan to take it next semester. (I’ve been saying this for three semesters now, but that’s the power of procrastination for you.)