How to occupy space and time in the post-prelim abyss?

 In for grad students, PhD/Postdoc Blog

Imagine this: You just spent the past 365 days studying for your preliminary exam, and it’s finally go-time! You stand in front of your distinguished committee, and for the next sixty minutes, you verbally answer questions from these stoic professors about anything (yes, anything) related to your chosen field. Your initial flushed face, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, and shaky voice subside as you settle into your groove. Halfway through, your examination feels more like a good conversation, and you smile inwardly, feeling quite confident with your abilities as a practitioner and doctoral student. The hour passes and you pass your exam with flying colors. The late nights, the endless study sessions, moments of self-doubt, and 24/7 grind all payed off and you feel a near-physical weight lift from your shoulders. You walk on air as you revel in the freedom, breathing deeply and seeing with sharper vision for a day or so- but then what? Your every action and decision over the past year was made with the prelim exam in mind. You can divide the year into two halves: Life pre-prelim, and life during-prelim. How does one occupy space and time in the post-prelim abyss?

Here’s how: You celebrate! The preliminary exam dictates where doctoral students stand in their respective programs. If you pass it on the first-try, you remain in good standing. Pass it conditionally? You continue in the program, but there are a variety of consequences. Don’t pass? Try one more time, where a repeated poor score may dismiss you from the program (yikes). Anyhow, you passed, so take pride in it! Take a day or take a week, and perhaps book a trip to avoid feeling lost after conquering such a milestone in the academic journey. I’ve heard horror stories of students lacking motivation after passing such exams and meandering directionless for prolonged periods of time. Your strategy is to avoid that by planning. Maybe you’ll do what I did and travel to New York City. That brings us to Post #4 of 6 in my series: How I’m Creating a Dynamic Career as a Dual Scientist and Storyteller. Tactic #4 is this: ‘Work Hard, Play Hard.’

While I do love NYC for all its hustle and beauty, I booked my post-prelim trip with a concrete goal in mind, which was to reconnect with my dietetic internship network from 2016-2017. In the summer following undergraduate graduation in 2016, I packed my bags for the East Coast, a place I had never visited, let alone lived. I started that journey knowing a whopping one person, but I grew immensely both personally and professionally in a short time. I was a full-time dietetic intern, part-time Equinox employee, and an amateur weekend adventurer in the city. Ten months later, preceptors and colleagues became cherished friends. A year later (and one RD exam and one year of doctoral training behind me) the Big Apple called me back to where the journey all began.

I planned this pilgrimage with two specific goals in mind: To explore NYC as a vacationer rather than a student, and to reconnect with/strengthen my East Coast network. See, you never know who you’ll collaborate with next, and every encounter lends itself for learning opportunities (See my Series Post #3: Find Collaborations in Unusual Places). On this trip I chatted with fellow nutrition friends in cafes, stayed in their homes, visited the dietetics team (my former clinical preceptors) at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and used each encounter to share my stories, but more importantly listen/learn from theirs. Some conversations took place in apartment buildings, others over tasty and leisurely meals, and still others at iconic places in the city (Freedom Tower, Chelsea Market, Broadway, Rockefeller Center, Prospect Park, to name a few). As Jordan Peterson articulates in his book ‘12 Rules for Life’ (A book I highly recommend all graduate students read) assume each person you meet has something to teach you, as treating each encounter as a learning experience accomplishes a few things: It strengthens morale and connectedness (Again, see series post #3 to avoid graduate school isolation and burn-out). We’re social creatures, after all! Additionally, the nutrition world is quite tight-knit; make your name known, because a friend who knows a friend might request your expertise at any time.

Finally, these encounters are two-way dialogues, in which the speaker and listener make sense of their stories. You need to remind yourself why you’re on this great journey called graduate school, especially when navigating the aforementioned post-prelim void. Talk it out, not worrying about how intelligent or important you sound. Conversations with a trusted colleague or friend are like rough drafts; merely getting the thoughts out of your head and into open space is the first step to articulating your- “why.”-Bonus points if your friend can summarize what you said and repeat it back to you to ensure understanding (Thanks again, J.P. You’re the real MVP).

I participated in equal parts leisure and goal-directed career strategy on this NYC adventure, and I encourage you to implement this strategy for yourself. Engaging in these fruitful conversations enabled me to practice mindfulness (a stress-reducing way to revel in the present moment), indulge my human need for connection, and return to California with rekindled motivation and purpose. Master the balancing act of working hard and playing hard.

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