This afternoon, I submitted an a fellowship application to the National Science Foundation (NSF). I'm extremely blessed to have a PI with enough research funding to not have to worry about funding for the rest of my Ph.D. at Stanford. However, the funding source is not infinite, and paying a graduate student a stipend, health insurance, tuition, and associated university fees slowly depletes even the best endowed account. In order to extend the longevity of the funding, we looked into some fellowship options as an additional source of funding.
I am eligible to apply for the NSF during the first two years of my graduate study, however I may only apply once during my graduate eligibility cadidacy. We reasoned that we could assemble a stronger application package in 370 days than in 7 days, so last week we decided to postpone applying until my second year of graduate school.
On Sunday evening, however, we received a compelling argument from one of my undergraduate professors to why I should apply this year. Apparently, NSF pools applicants based on years, and I stood a much better chance of selection in my first year of graduate school than in my second, especially because I've found a PI willing to take me on as a Ph.D. so early in my career. The deadline to apply this year was Tuesday evening at 5:00 PM local time. Just like that, my best chance at $100,000 of stipend money of funding was now 48 hours away.
This afternoon I submitted my application. The NSF responded with a email receipt informing me they received my application at 16:58:44 -- 76 seconds before the deadline.
Take a Cold Shower
Writing an application is dreadful work. I don't know too many people who fill out forms for fun, and those who do probably spend all their free time merrily building a small fortune. What's worth it is the chance of getting money at the other end. Spending two weeks at 50% part time (40 hours total) to apply for a selective (10%) fellowship which disburses $100,000 is the equivalent to working for $250/hr. Unless you do brain surgery for a living, this is a valuable use of your time, no matter how painful the process is.
This is not unlike taking a cold shower. Cold showers have numerous scientifically-backed benefits, but they are unpleasant experiences. Ask anybody who takes cold showers on a regular basis, and they will tell you how unpleasant they are. However, warriors of the artic bathroom enjoy the benefits that only the brave earn.
Whenever I have to put mind over matter to do something hard to reap a reward, starting my day early with a cold shower puts me in the mindset necessary to carry me through the day.
Prepare Ahead of Time
I had started the application ahead of time, but later withdrew it when we decided to apply my second year instead of my first. There was no way to recover my canceled application. However, I had been proactive and had saved some of the materials (short paragraphs and lists of publications/scholarships) in Evernote. Had I not done this, I had saved a version of this list before when I applied for graduate school. Having paragraphs with statements of purpose, diversity statements, and lists of achievements handy can save a lot of time and decision fatigue when having to prepare an application under pressure.
My heart skipped 0.5 beats when I realized at 15:30 today that the NSF required a transcript issued by Andrews' registar. I would have been completely hosed on transcript if I had not decided ordering an extra copy of an official transcript would be a handy backup when I matriculated at Stanford. I hopped on my bike and booked it to my house and reached into the T folder in my alphabetic filing system where my transcript was waiting. After biking back, it was scanned and uploaded by 16:00.
Writing statements of intent is likely the most arduous academic soul searching many students will ever go through. Thankfully, fellowship applications are strikingly similar to graduate school applications in their personal statement prompts. Chances are that if you made it into a selective graduate program, you've got a half-decent personal statement lying around somewhere. Having this on hand when you craft your
Know What You're Doing
The sooner you know what you're doing, the less time you have to spend editing your papers. There is no better time to zoom out and get a bird's eye view of why what you're doing is important than when you're asking for people's money.
People pay money for "why." If you find a good enough "why," lots of people will be willing to write you a check. The problem is that we're really good at finding "what" and "how," but really bad at "why."
"What" and "how" are also really important. People know why solving cancer is important, but nobody's figured out "what" the solution is or "how" to do it. And even if you know how to do that what, you need to be able to articulate that clearly. Too often, we wander through the weeds of our daily work and don't confront ourselves with askings ourselves "what are we doing?"
Know Thy Resources
People with Ph.Ds are very good at writing. Universities are also interested in teaching students how to get very good at writing. I always was let down by high school writing classes that tended to instill this idea that writing is a subjective art that often has a lot of gray area. It wasn't until I studied for the SAT that I really learned how to write.
There are resources for crafting high-stakes essays. Sign up early and often at writing centers, get lots of eyes on your paper, and the more Ph.Ds that read your paper the better. These remarkable folk have written, revised, re-written, edited, and written again these massive papers called dissertations. They are profoundly good at writing and have good enough eyes for detail and what is important to help you craft solid essays.
Keep Breathing, But Breathe Deeply
When stress goes high, I've seen people throw their daily routine completely off balance to meet a deadline. Ostensibly, spending 100% of your time working on an applicaiton for a few days is a great cheat to get more productivity, but it actually doesn't work. It's like a runner believing that breathing during a sprint is just taking up effort in his lungs that he should be investing in his legs.
PUt a reasonable effort into maintaining some semblance of your daily routine while working on applications. Go to class, eat meals, and don't be a complete hermit. Running a few errands can give your mind the time it needs to rest from writing essays so it can be effective when you return to the blinking cursor on your computer screen.
Be intentional about working on the application, but be equally intentional about breaks. Work hard, and rest hard.
No "Attention Snacking"
Don't be fooled! Distractions, no matter how small and innocuous, snap you out of a flow state where you're able to do your deep work. It's so tempting to check your phone when it buzzes, check an email that comes in, or check facebook for a few minutes.
DON'T DO IT!
I'm not sure I personally believe the figure, but the New York Times claims that it takes 25 minutes to recover from a distraction.
When working on important work,
- Silence your phone. Better yet, turn it to airplane mode
- Take your email accounts offline
- Write in a distraction free environment, both on your screen and in your physical environment
On your breaks, don't look at your phone! When you're trying to filter and edit large amounts of data, your brain is already treading water in a sea of information. The last thing it needs is an endless feed of facebook posts, instagrams, tweets, pins. The second to the last thing it needs is a finite feed of emails, text messages, hangouts messages. What your brain really needs is a quick breather from data.
In preparing my applicaiton, I found it much more relaxing and de-stressing to walk. I work on the 3rd floor of a building with a sub-basement. In short breaks, I would descend to the basement and stand in the middle of the atrium with a view of the sky through the glass cieling of the third floor and pace for a bit. I would then ascend these stairs again and sit down to work. On longer breaks, I would stroll the perimeter of the engineering quad at Stanford before returning to work.
Whatever you do, don't check your phone during this time. The chances of somebody dying between your 10:00 am break and when you take a break halfway through your day is very small. Treat it as if you were a health nut with a soapbox against snacking between meals. If you think about it, there are a lot of parallels between snacking and deep digestion, and checking notifications and deep focus.
Exhale, But Not That Much
As I said earlier, I finished my application and submitted it with a whole 76 seconds to spare. The second hand on the office clock quietly rotated over the 5:00 mark while I stared blankly at the screen and let the cortisol churn through my bloodstream.
After taking a 10 minute walk, I returned to my desk to wrap up for the day. In the past, I've made the mistake of binge relaxation. I'd either find an addictive video game, eat a ton of food, or do something else profoundly unproductive to decompress with. I decided that this time, true to my "keep breathing" principle above, I'd try to roll off the stress in a productive way while still relaxing.
The first thing I did was check a few other fellowship deadlines to make sure I wasn't missing anything. I then tidied up my desk and deleted all the clutter that dumped onto my desktop and downloads folder as an effect of this application. Lastly, I ran down to the lab and spent 10 minutes starting an overnight data run on my experiment.
I think it was really beneficial to take a clean up approach at the end of the day. Productivity sites call this approach clearing to neutral, and it's a wonderful way to signal to your brain and you're body that it's time to relax. Although I still feel the effects of the stress 4 hours later as I'm writing this article, I have a peace of mind knowing that I rolled off from the stress in a way that helps set me up for more productive work tomorrow, as opposed to the hangover that follows any binge.