The most important question you can ask yourself today

“If I ask you, “What do you want out of life?” and you say something like, “I want to be happy and have a great family and a job I like,” it’s so ubiquitous that it doesn’t even mean anything.

Everyone wants that. So what’s the point?

What’s more interesting to me is what pain do you want? What are you willing to struggle for? Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives end up.”

—– Mark Manson, The Blog, Huffington Post.

Read the full article here.

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Multi-tasking during class: Not worth it

One day last year, I sat at the back of the room while a guest speaker gave a lecture in my undergraduate course. Some students were listening attentively, while others were doing all manner of other things on their laptops. One even appeared to be studying for an exam in another course. In the digital age, this type of classroom activity comes as no surprise – and many of the faculty I know have resigned themselves to this inevitability. Death, Taxes, and Students Surfing the Web While in Class.

Given this widespread practice, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that my colleagues and I have been noticing more and more graduate students working away on something unrelated while sitting in a seminar. But in fact it is surprising, since grad students are generally motivated to make a good impression on faculty – and since it’s fairly obvious in a seminar when a student is disengaged.

In a prior blog post, I contemplated whether multi-tasking is ever a good idea. In this case, the answer is clearly no.



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Beware the WEIRD study participant

‘Weird’, in this case, means study participants from Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries. More on that below – but first let me set the stage.

Our Psychology department at UC Berkeley recently articulated a set of learning goals for our graduate students. It’s a work in progress, and several students and faculty have written to me with suggestions.

One of the learning goals is for students to…

Develop an awareness of the importance of science to humanity while recognizing its limits (i.e., some scientific knowledge is culture specific and may not be applicable to the human condition universally). 

In response, a grad student wrote me a thoughtful e-mail:

“I have always seen science as just the opposite. Anyone in the world (given some education) can appreciate a beautiful mathematical proof, the size of the cosmos, the way evolution works without foresight, and the complexity of our organs, in the same way, regardless of race, creed, or religion. To me, these scientific findings bring about the same awe and joy that a Mozart piece does, but the difference is that its beauty doesn’t depend on local beliefs or tastes. If there is anything that can bring cultures together, I think it’s an appreciate for science.”

This is a lovely perspective, written by someone who clearly loves science as much as I do, but I think it’s important to distinguish between mathematical proofs and psychological research.

This discussion reminds me of a wonderfully provocative piece that I strongly recommend to all those studying human behavior: The weirdest people in the world?  Interested readers might also enjoy this Slate article.

It’s worth pondering just how WEIRD our participants are, and whether our conclusions about human cognition and behavior are as broadly applicable as we believe them to be.

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How professors spend their time

How faculty are expected to allocate their time differs somewhat across settings (research universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, professional schools), but all professors struggle to achieve the right balance between teaching, research, and service.

This cartoon captures the essence of the problem:

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Is multi-tasking ever a good idea?

This photo just made me laugh out loud. Potholes aside, this Kansas area man demonstrates just how much we can achieve when we put our minds to it…

In all seriousness, much has been written about the myth of multi-tasking. Indeed, the research shows that we are deluding ourselves if we think that we can perform two things as well or as quickly if we attempt to do them simultaneously rather than separately. And, in some situations – like texting while driving – this false sense of competence can have disastrous consequences.

On the other hand, not all forms of multi-tasking are equally bad/futile – it really depends on what the tasks are. For example, there’s apparently no harm in listening to classical music while reading.

Do you try to multi-task? Ask yourself…

1) Do you have the option of completing the tasks serially rather than in parallel?

2) Can one of the activities be performed on auto-pilot with minimal risk to yourself or others (e.g., walking)? Note: when it comes to driving or biking, the answer is clearly ‘no’.

3) Are the two activities quite different from one another (e.g. knitting and running), or is there too much interference between them (e.g. watching TV while writing a paper)?

4) What are your goals, and how high are the stakes? When I’m out hiking and listening to an audio book, I might not walk as quickly or remember as much of the book or encode my surroundings quite as carefully as if I were to engage in these activities separately, but no one is clocking my speed or testing my memory.

5) Does the secondary task make the primary task more enjoyable? You might not work quite as quickly at a café as in a library, but if you find it more enjoyable you might stay longer and ultimately get more done. Similarly, our friend from Kansas could theoretically run a faster marathon if he weren’t knitting at the same time — but if he weren’t even interested in running unless he could knit while doing it, then this would be a moot point.

I’d like to hear from you, dear readers — what forms of multi-tasking do you engage in? How successful do you feel you are?

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To defer or not to defer gratification while in graduate school

It’s a gorgeous day in the East Bay, and I’m trying to figure out how to squeeze in everything that I want to accomplish today, both on the personal and professional fronts. So far, so good: I went on an early morning coffee date with my husband, and have been watching some statistics lectures online and working out on the elliptical trainer.

I just got side-tracked, as you can see… The professor was talking about how multiple regression can be used to predict behavioral outcomes, and my mind wandered back to conversations that I’ve had recently with two graduate students, talented young women who are trying to figure out how to succeed in their scientific careers while also leading fulfilling personal lives. Although they are at very different stages in their Ph.D. program, they both have important decisions to make that could influence the course of their lives.

I wish I could use inferential statistics to predict the consequences of these students’ decisions — or, better yet, I wish I had a crystal ball. Should I advise them to charge full speed ahead with their research right now, putting their personal lives on the back-burner until after they’ve landed good jobs? Alternatively, should I tell them that there is no time like the present to establish a good work/life balance? One cookie now, or two cookies later?

I suppose the best advice that I can give them is to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”, in the tried-and-true words of Thoreau. Take advantage of your youthful energy, and experience as much as you can. Learn to draw deep satisfaction from your work & achieve ‘flow’, make time to fall in love and establish deep friendships, and *play*. But (and this is a big ‘but’): don’t set unrealistic expectations, or you will make yourself miserable.

You can’t expect to achieve perfect work/life balance at any given moment. Sometimes you need to kick your work into high gear, and at other times you need to take a step back from it to reinvest in a relationship or take better care of your health. At the end of a year, you should be able to look back and reflect on how you’ve grown professionally and personally – but you should also be able to say that you’ve been kind to yourself.

But time is slipping away from me, and there’s still a lot of marrow to be sucked from the day.

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How Ph.D. students choose their careers

What are the factors that lead graduate students away from careers in academic science?

This study, based on in-depth interviews of a relatively small sample of Ph.D.s, suggests that the biggest factors are emotional/motivational. With a little more encouragement and exposure to positive role models, these findings suggest, more of us would stay in academia. This is the same basic conclusion of a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine.

Click here for the press release

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