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Reading for the New Year

Inspirational books to guide you throughout the year.

January 7, 2018
 
 

Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

Happy New Year, GradHackers!

Like many of us, I started January setting goals for the year. Although New Year’s resolutions can take hundreds of different forms, like Laura’s Three E’s or Heather’s Three Words, I like to link my resolutions to my favorite books. I keep quotes from these works and resolutions in my journal, so that I can go back to them throughout the year for motivation. These author’s stories have inspired me in some way, so the quotes are short reminders of their stories that provide mantras for each resolution.  

Here are some of the works that inspired my resolutions for 2018:

1. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling. In this collection of essays, Kaling - who rose to fame for her work on The Office - tells stories about her career and personal life that sound like letters written from a loving, hilarious older sister. My favorite essay is the titular one, “Why Not Me?”, in which she provides readers with her “No Fail, Always Works, Secret Guide to Confidence.” For her, confidence is an entitlement to earn. She summarizes the guide in four steps: “Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled.” I want to keep this in mind when preparing for presentations and meetings. As an early graduate student, I rarely feel like I know the right thing to say, especially around senior labmates and faculty. As I enter the second semester of my second year, I want to contribute more and have more confidence in the lab. I have a lot to learn and will need to practice, but it will be worth it.

2. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Grad life can be busy, but sometimes being busy is not the same as being productive. This year, I want to stay motivated by making sure my daily activities are moving me toward a goal, whether it’s to finish grading a stack of lab reports or designing a new experiment. For me, this translates into making more meaningful to-do lists. It’s easy to lose motivation in the routine of benchwork, but every step in an experiment has its purpose. To remember this, I’ve been returning Lab Girl for inspiration, which I read at the end of 2017 in two sittings separated only by sleep. The memoir is an engrossing look into the life of a scientist, writing past “eureka” moments in the lab by telling stories about mundane lab work and the obstacles she faced to find funding for her work. Despite the challenges she has faced and the fact that  life as a scientist can sometimes make her feel “insufficient and anonymous,” Jahren recognizes that she is, “stronger than [she looks] and part of something that is much bigger than [she is].” I want to keep that perspective in mind.

3. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. In this book, Rubin details a year-long journey in which she dedicated each month of the year to a different aspect of her life.   Her driving force was the fact that, “the days are long, but the years are short.” Keeping this statement in mind pushes me to spend each minute of my time wisely. To help me do that, this year I want to write every day. Writing is the only way I know how to make sense of things, whether when it comes to an experiment’s results or a personal issue. Before I leave the lab and before I go to bed, I tend to journal what happened that day to give it closure and keep from being overwhelmed by busy days. Having a regular habit also helps me feel like I accomplished something for the day, especially after a day of poor results in the lab.

4. Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Seconds is a cautionary tale, a graphic novel that tells the story of Katie, a successful and talented chef on the brink of opening a second restaurant. Soon after we meet her, her plan starts to fall apart - but, much to Katie’s luck, she gets dozens of chances to start again. But the biggest lesson she learns, and one that I need to too, is to accept failure. Failure is an inevitable part of life. In the lab, the number of failures can seriously exceed the number of successes. And while we learn the most from it, failure still sucks. Sometimes, I wish I could get a second chance - if only I’d done an experiment a certain way the first time, if only I’d explained a concept more clearly to a student, if only I’d read a reference paper earlier...while I can form better habits, there are some things that have consequences we can’t reverse. In the book, Katie concludes that, “There are things we can't change, and we just have to accept that. And maybe that's some kind of grace." The best we can do is learn from what we’ve done and keep moving forward.

What are your resolutions for 2018? And what quotes could you use to motivate you?

[Image by Flickr user Amy Styer. Used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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