Category Archives: Grad school

On procrastinating in grad school

I’m back from blog hiatus! Firing it up again to tell a few stories and mull over what’s next.

Dissertation year (2013-2014) was hard. I spent a lot of time fighting with myself and needed help getting through it. It’s hard to remember to be gentle with yourself when setbacks feel like personal failures, or feel connected when your friends have moved away, or keep perspective when your job is a mix of “Spend every day realizing how much you don’t know” and “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show.” I loved it best when colleagues put away their grant-writing, everything-is-awesome faces and we could all just admit we were learning on the fly together.

So alongside the research were the self-reckonings and the ways I learned to work with myself, which my mom (herself a Ph.D.) pointed out was perhaps the true value of the degree. I am very grateful to my advisor and Duke’s counseling center for the lessons on non-judgment and compassion for myself and others. (Insert plug for CAPS’s mindfulness courses. So, so glad they were there.)

Today’s topic: that most human of habits, kicking the can down the road. For me, the procrastination monster reared its head early and often. In fifth grade my mom got mad at me for spending the weekend sculpting a clay bird due next Friday while neglecting a report due Monday. In college, I relied on my knack for pulling off term papers hours before they were due. Same thing for grad school—I worked and re-worked grants until the absolute submission deadlines. I was never late, but man did I get things in under the wire.

Fear of failure and the accompanying perfectionism hovered nearby, and still do. The bioinformatics learning curve I (and others in biology) have been ascending is steep. Tasks like figuring out programming pipelines and working with massive amounts of data for the first time were daunting. I didn’t know where to start, felt bad asking for help all the time, didn’t yet have the vocab to Google my way around, and ended up putting off a crucial step for months out of sheer paralysis.

And, of course, the mental pile-ons included beating myself up in comparisons to friends who made steady progress, whereas all I had was a habit of thriving under pressure. It took therapy to accept that needing deadlines is just how I work. I also noticed that I was hard on others who procrastinated because I so disliked the trait in myself, yet I couldn’t stop succumbing to YouTube or Wikipedia when hitting an analysis or writing block.

In emotional terms, practicing mindfulness gave me that vital moment of awareness before clicking “New Tab” for a temporary distraction. In practical terms, what saved me were productivity tools for focus and writing. Here are the ones that worked for me — you can find lots more with Google searches (example here).

researchPaperI mean, this is what we’re up against. (credit) And I have no interest in implying that I have conquered procrastination. That is laughable, because there are ALWAYS more crosswords to solve.

1) Leechblock: I found this website-blocking program in January 2013, after my friend Jason posted “SOMEONE TAKE THIS INTERNET AWAY FROM ME SO I CAN WORK.” You list the websites you want to block and specify how long to block them. Alternatively, you can specify how long per hour you’re allowed to visit before you’re blocked. You can create separate lists with separate settings, and you can force yourself to type a password before the program gives you access to change settings.

Pros: This is SUCH an effective tool. I’m going to use it forever. It broke my pattern of automatically escaping to the Washington Post (my homepage) when I was facing a rough patch in the writing. My passwords have been either miserable sentences featuring my advisor’s name or questions on how I’d like to be spending my time. The act of typing them when I’m trying to access a site is often enough to wake me up. The program works because I set the permissions, but during my moments of weakness, like Odysseus yelling to be untied from his ship, it’s an external control saving me from the Internet sirens. Now that it’s been in place for two years, it’s trained me really well to recognize new distractions and to wait until my nightly window to read blocked sites.

Cons: You can game it, of course. There are lots of news sites carrying the same stories. And if you mess a lot with your settings, the power of your password gets diluted fast. I had to figure out a balance between lax and draconian measures so the program could do its job.

2) RescueTime: After I submitted my dissertation to the grad school in March 2014, my friend Mari told me about this plug-in, which monitors your computer use both online and off-. It categorizes each website/software from Very Distracting to Very Productive (tweak as needed) and gives you a productivity score at the end of the day. You can pause monitoring, receive a weekly summary newsletter, and track your scores on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.


Pros: If you’re grade-oriented, as I am, you’ll find it useful. In the week between submitting the dissertation to the grad school and my committee, I was sailing on high scores from all the time I spent revising. Nowadays I average 50-60% productivity, which seems low but usually means I’m on track. The visuals are good at showing to your face when you’re the most (un)productive.

Cons: I had to manually configure Windows for it to start up with my computer by default, which is lame given its purpose. Also, multi-purpose websites are tricky to categorize. Where does email fall—neutral, productive or distracting? Probably neutral, but because I spend so much time per day on it writing professional emails, it adds less than it should to the productivity score at the end of the day.

3) Write or Die 2: The name caught my eye when I was Googling around in August 2014 to kickstart manuscript revisions. It’s a web- or desktop-based plugin that’s targeted for the NaNoWriMo crowd: your goal is to write text non-stop without worrying about formatting or editing. The fun part is the reward or punishment settings you choose to help make your writing goal. Below is an example from the Consequence category. (An additional perk is Kamikaze Mode, where if you go a certain time without writing, an invisible monster starts eating all the vowels in your sentences.)


Pros: We have birds in our lab that are rewarded with birdsong when they accomplish certain tasks. Likewise, I wrote an entire introduction to the soothing sound of crickets. Thank you, cognitive behavioral psychologists.

Cons: It’s buggy, costs money, and is mostly good for the novelty. It’s also not great for revising because you can’t format EndNote or other fields, so eventually I had to abandon and return to Word. So I’ll mainly stick to using it to jump-start drafts.


Finally, perspective really helped.

Russ’s passing during my dissertation year consistently nudged me forward. I wrote a few words to myself after he died.

Do it for Russ.

Remember the short-term pain that you want to avoid is countered by the long-term sense of accomplishment, and of success, and of getting the credentials you need to do the things you want. Don’t shortchange yourself now. Don’t torch your dissertation out of procrastination. At the end of the day, it is yours, and you want to be able to own that statement with every cell in your body. Now go forth and make it something you’re so proud of you can’t wait to share it with the world.

Remember how much you want to know the answer. Remember the excitement. Remember the difference between liking and loving your research. Sometimes you may dislike it intensely. Often you are convinced it’s so shitty and clumsy that anyone else could do better. (Which is maybe why you put it off.) But behind the anguish and the fear and the uncertainty is the love you have for your work. The love you have for birds, and sunrises, and that puffer fish in the silent mangrove. The love you have for the people who have gotten you here.

In closing, the PostSecret card that got me through.


Happy muddling. And thank you all for your beautiful brains. 🙂


A Craigslist ad I never posted

For sale: Vibrator. Used twice. On tiny songbirds.

Science is exciting and requires supplies. But now that my experiment is over, it’s time to send this Sexy Things Pop Vibe onto its next chapter. Will you be in it?

The story behind your newest addition:

Scene: Adult store, April 2012.

Well-dressed salesperson: Hi, welcome to [XXX] Adult Emporium.
Me: Hi. I’m looking for your smallest vibrators.
Salesperson: Great, let me show you our Bullet collection.

They were neatly arranged down one side of a kiosk. They were also nearly as long as the birds themselves.

Me: Actually, do you have anything smaller?
Salesperson: Um…
Me: I’m trying to collect samples for my graduate work.
Me: I need semen from a bird.
Me: It’s for a “friend”?
Salesperson: Okay! I can suggest these three models within your price range.

They were $8, $12 and $15. We went to the counter. He turned them on and I put them in the palm of my hand.

Me: Whoa. These are all really strong.
Salesperson: Your hands might not be sensitive enough, so if you want a better idea of the sensation, you can touch it to the tip of your nose.
Me: Oh my god.
Salesperson: How does it feel?
Me: I’m afraid they might cause nerve damage.
Salesperson: Try turning it to the lowest setting. This one has a bunch you can choose from. You can control the pulses too.
Me: Is there anything I can do to lessen the strength?


Salesperson: We’ve…never had anyone ask that before.
Me: Maybe wrap a towel around it?
Salesperson: I’m sure you’ll be creative enough to come up with a solution.

I picked the $12 one and biked to school.

Half an hour later, I realized I’d forgotten to ask for a receipt. The guy picked up, and I explained that I needed to be reimbursed. I think that’s when he finally believed me about the whole thing.

(I never did submit the receipt to NSF. After someone in our lab was asked to justify an order from the Container Store, I just couldn’t bring myself to fill out the expense report.)

I tried it out on two test birds. You know how cartoonists indicate the force of a power drill by drawing squiggly lines around cross-eyed people? The poor males were blurry in my hand. Also…nothing came out. Conclusion: Cloacal vibratory stimulation is an ineffective way to obtain bird spooge.

Anyway, my scientific failure is your gain! Act now, supplies won’t last! Waterproof and comes with free batteries.



Letter from (almost) Cuba

Dear friends and family,

In 2009, when I first pitched my Big Dissertation Idea to my lab, my advisor Steve concluded the discussion by saying, “I think Cuba is in your future.” He was far more prescient than I was. After three years of receiving lip service, the notion of traveling there gradually became a reality over this past year. On Wednesday I board a flight to Havana and will spend the next two months in southwest Cuba chasing blackbirds.

Because I don’t expect to have internet (more on that later), I’m writing this post as a stand-in message before going offline. It covers why I’m going; how my contacts and I got this thing in motion; and what I know about my living conditions so far. I’ll say upfront that I’ve never kicked off a field season knowing so little about what’s on the other side, so there’s a fair amount of speculation about that last part.

Anyway, enjoy!

What I’m doing in Cuba

I’m going so I can sample two of the five blackbird species I study. Basically, I need to know how much they cheat (ahem, “engage in extra-pair mating”) relative to the other three species. I collect blood samples from Mom, Dad and the kids, then run DNA paternity analyses to see which of the kids weren’t fathered by Dad.

[Aside: If you’re interested, here is a video of me giving a five-slide research talk in early April. The fourth slide shows the distribution of my five species and explains why I go where I go each summer. My segment starts at 07:40 and is followed by fascinating talks from fellow grads who have all summed up years of their lives in five minutes.]

For multiple reasons, I predicted that the three species in the Caribbean—the one I sampled last year in Puerto Rico, and these two Cuban species—would cheat less often than the two continental North American species. Initially, I was going to sample just the Puerto Rico birds, then extrapolate their behavior to the Cuban birds.

To my surprise, I found that the Puerto Rico blackbirds basically cheated as much as one of the continental species. Out went my ability to infer the Cuban birds’ behavior. And in came the excited responses after I presented my findings at a conference last summer. In describing my project to a roomful of witnesses, I inadvertently made it official that I was going to discover what those Cuban birds were up to.

Still, it wasn’t clear that Cuba would even allow samples to be exported for genetic analyses. The country is a signatory of a biodiversity convention adhering to rules stricter than anything the U.S. belongs to. And, like Brazil, there is a measure of commercial protection of its natural resources. I was initially told that taking out blood samples would be out of the question.

But to my great good luck, I recognized a contact early one morning, at the conference 5K, who has since become one of my life-lines. (Kids, this is why Google-stalking is an important life skill.) I’ll call him F here. F traveled to Cuba last fall to talk with officials about his own projects and to ask the current policy on exporting blood samples. Back in 2001, he had received a yes. With the Bush years, that answer turned to no. I got the phone call in late October where he told me they were saying yes again. Full speed ahead!

Where I’ll be

Here’s Cuba.


I land in Havana, spend a few days sorting out paperwork, and then…somehow…will travel 80 miles southeast to that lovely green peninsula inside the blue box. Also: I cannot believe how close Cuba is to Florida.

The green spot is Zapata Peninsula, home to Zapata Swamp National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the largest tract of preserved wetland in the Antilles. It’s home to almost 200 species of birds, as well as a staggering amount of peat moss and all three genera of a rodent called a hutia. (Wikipedia: “They are hunted for food in Cuba, where they are often cooked in a large pot with wild nuts and honey.”)


Alas, I may not get to see the hutias. Because of unknown political stuff going on at the Ministry of Science, I was ultimately not given access to the park. I was told I’d have to get so-and-so permits from so-and-so agencies, and that previous U.S. ornithologists were similarly denied entrance to the park’s protected areas.

Before the bad news broke, F had connected me with a colleague (I’ll call him R) in the Ministry of Agriculture who manages a reserve just to the east of the national park. After the bad news, it suddenly became my only option, as well as the first of many times F would save my ass.

If you click on the map, you’ll have a better view of the little lake east of the green area. That’s where I’ll be, near a town called Guamá. Apparently it is home to a recreated Taíno village and a crocodile farm. (Rough Guide: “On a tour round the swamp you can witness a mock capture of an exhausted-looking baby crocodile and are then invited to eat one at the Croco Bar.”)

I’m there until late June, and then I spend my last week in Havana getting my affairs in order until returning to the States. I come home on the Fourth of July.

Also, check out the inlet between the park and the lake. That’s the Bay of Pigs.


Getting there

This has been a long and painful process. On the U.S. side, I have travel and import permits from three federal agencies plus Duke. On the Cuban side, I have…no visa, no site permits, and no export permits.

At minimum, I needed a visa even to board the charter plane in Miami. Ideally it would have been a work visa, issued from the agency overseeing the field site, that would allow me to work for 70-odd days. Things were looking good, until my Agriculture contact R disappeared from email. As my flight date approached and no visa appeared, my travel agent and I switched to Plan B: Fly in with a 30-day tourist visa, buy myself a month to meet with Agriculture people, and lobby for the work visa once I’m on the ground.

[Travel agent: So, I will book you a round-trip ticket with the 30-day tourist visa. Once you’re approved for an extended stay, then you can buy a one-way ticket for July.
Me: Wait, why can’t I book two one-way tickets, one for April and one for July?
Travel agent: As a U.S. citizen, it’s illegal for you to book a one-way ticket to Cuba.
Me: Right. Yes. Got it. Very good.]

Tomorrow I receive the round-trip ticket in the mail. Major thanks to my advisor for footing the bill for this unwieldy itinerary.

There’s a happy epilogue (so far): R’s brother, with whom he shares an email address, wrote and gave me R’s cell phone. He added, “The sound is really low, so you’ll have to speak loudly.” So there I was, in my lab with the door closed last week, shouting to R how much I looked forward to coordinating the work visa.

Bottom line, I’m boarding that damn plane on Wednesday.

Okay, now for some stuff about living conditions.


Internet in Havana is of the 56-Kbps, five-minutes-to-load-a-webpage, $8-an-hour kind. Internet at my field site is probably non-existent. So, while I may be able to send little email telegrams at the beginning and end of my trip, I’m going dark in May and June. It’s the longest time I’ll be without internet since acquiring the internet.

As for phone, the 2009 lifting of the telecommunications ban means my phone could work in Cuba. But after getting slammed with roaming costs in the Bahamas for checking one voicemail, I’ll save way more by renting/buying one in Cuba. I’m not sure whether that, or payphones with phone cards, is the better bet. Either way, phone calls to the U.S. are more than $2 a minute, so goodbye to heart-to-hearts for now.

I’m also not sure how the communications cut-off will turn out. I think it will be good for me to run around experiencing a life untethered by email. But, you’ll have to indulge my two-month-old version of the world when I return. (“Guys, did you hear the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage/gene patenting/baby Veronica?!” “Yes.” “Oh.”)

Plus, high probability of seeing unusual things + inability to share = Irene writing pages and pages of observations to herself. Every time I see something breathtaking in the field, I’m reminded of this line from Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family, a story that begins with a solitary hunter:

“One winter night, as he looked at the stars that, blazing coldly, made the belt and the sword of the hunter Orion, a great green meteor went slowly across the sky. The hunter’s heart leaped, he cried: ‘Look, look!’ But there was no one to look.”

Expect a huge blog blast when I’m back, so we can look together 🙂


You can’t get Cuban money outside of Cuba, so everyone must bring in currency to convert to pesos. There’s a 10% fee for the conversion. If the currency you bring in is USD, you get charged an additional 10% fee. So last week, my friend Matt accompanied me to Wells Fargo, where I picked up a giant f-ing order of Canadian money. ATMs are rare, and no U.S.-issued credit cards are accepted. I am traveling with all the money I have.

Cuba has a double economy to accommodate the vastly different financial situations of tourists vs. Cuban nationals. Tourists pay with convertible pesos (CUCs; I’ll call them “tourist pesos” here). Until 2004, the tourist peso was pegged to the dollar, but the consecutive conversion fees obviously elevate its value.

In contrast, Cuban nationals, whose salaries rose to $19 last summer, use a subsidized currency of national pesos. The conversion fee is 1 tourist peso to 25 national pesos. Each of their pesos is literally pennies for me.

Depending on whether their clientele is predominantly tourists or Cuban citizens, different places use different currencies. In theory, I’m supposed to stick to tourist pesos, but I know I’ll inevitably receive national pesos in change. Those I can use to buy food and drink from places accepting national pesos. This will be the fastest way to cut costs.

Tourism is Cuba’s cash cow, with salaries in that sector way higher than in others like medicine. As a result, it’s not a very cheap place to travel, with daily costs around $75-100 per day in Havana. Since I’m neither in Havana nor doing “normal” tourist things, I anticipate spending far less. Mostly my expenses will be in lodging, food and transportation (including taking the driver to lunch).

Health and safety

Fortunately Cuba has a reputation for being a safe place, especially compared to other Latin-American countries. But I’m aware that I stand out in this part of the world, so I’m taking the necessary precautions. Crime in Havana is higher because of all the tourism. I don’t know about the situation at my field site, which is part small-town and part tourist attraction.

The mosquitoes are supposedly horrendous. Hello bug shirt (haven’t seen you since Maine 2006!), 98% DEET that will melt paint, and permethrin on my sleeping bag liner. Anything to avoid dengue fever, an underreported tropical disease for which there is no vaccine. Everything else (Hep A/B, typhoid), I’ve gotten shots for.

Drinking water straight from the tap isn’t recommended, nor is the usual eating raw or peeled food. Please don’t let me get firehose diarrhea.

Lodging and transportation

In Havana, the alternative to a more expensive hotel is to stay in a casa particular, a kind of bed-and-bath where Cuban citizens are licensed to accept either other citizens or tourists as guests, but not both. (Keeps the currencies separate.) I have a place in Havana, recommended to me by a fellow Duke grad.

Beyond that…eugh? Most likely I will rent a bedroom from someone at my field site.

Since it’s way too expensive to rent a car for two months, I will be working with local drivers to pick me up and drop me off at the reserve each day. I probably won’t get to drive…but just in case, over the weekend I re-learned stick shift with Steve.


Also a wild card. Rations are in place for Cuban citizens (for example, only children under 7 can receive milk), so it sounds as though supplies are hurting from the embargo. I anticipate eating a lot of rice and beans. Also, because I really can’t give up PBJs as energy food for 12-hour days…


Behold, 11-and-a-quarter pounds of lunch.

Bucket list

A neighbor’s friend reports that the Bay of Pigs has great snorkeling. This statement is bizarre and wonderful in so many ways. I’ll report back.

The bee hummingbird, endemic to Cuba, is the smallest bird in the world. It weighs TWO GRAMS (just over a paper clip) and its eggs are AS TINY AS PEAS. Its Spanish name is “zunzuncito.” This is the best word.


The worst-case scenarios are still out there. I could be kicked out of the country in 30 days (I really think this is unlikely). All my money could get stolen. The Ministry of Science could change its mind about genetic samples and completely deny my export permit. But at this point, I think I’ve done everything to at least ensure a smooth arrival.

This entry is way too long and I totally have to get back to packing, but before I leave, some thanks are in order.

To those of you who listened to six months of developments; to those who called me “brave” and “strong” these last few days (know that I feel the same way back!); to those seasoned travelers who assured me that things are infinitely easier face-to-face; to my committee members who agree that even if everything goes down the toilet this summer, I still have enough for a dissertation…

Thank you. I hope you know how much those comments have meant to me. It hasn’t been easy dealing with the uncertainty, especially considering the value of this trip to my research. But your confidence in me has been contagious. So here we go: I’m going to Cuba, I’m going to do science, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it when I’m back.

Tell the cicadas I said hello.



Some recent articles on Cuba:

Raúl Castro to step down as Cuba’s president in 2018 (NYT, 24 Feb. 2013)
How capitalist are the Cubans? (NYT, 1 Dec. 2012)
Where is Cuba going? (NYT Magazine, 20 Sept. 2012)