It’s finally the end of the semester! Time to put your textbooks away, apply some sunscreen, and get ready for a summer of…science? Your summers spent as an undergrad and your summers as a grad student (and all the subsequent summers you’ll spend as a researcher) will look very different from one another. Even though it’s been 7 years since I finished my undergraduate studies, I still feel nostalgic and a bit jealous when I see droves of undergrads heading home after finishing their spring term exams, off for that blissful time when you’ve accomplished another year of studies and have an entire summer ahead to enjoy life before it all begins again in the fall.
Life as a researcher can certainly leave you feeling like you need your own summer vacation. It’s additionally difficult when working in an academic setting, where you witness the happy undergrads set off on summer adventures while you’re stuck in the lab. Regardless of whatever stage in your career you’re in, summer can still be a great time in the year of a researcher. Summer provides us a bit of warm air to freshen our spirits and plenty of sunshine to brighten and motivate us. It’s also generally a less busy time of the year regardless of what field or what sector you’re in, as most folks will head off on vacation when kids are out of school or to take advantage of the nicer weather for some needed rest and relaxation.
As with most things in life, having a good plan is a great way to make the most of it. Summer can be a great chance to unwind and relax after a busy academic year, but it’s also an opportunity to re-focus and re-assess where you are and what you need to do to make progress in your own project, while also thinking about where you and your career will go next. Especially for those of you who are just starting grad school and experiencing your first ‘academic’ summer, it’s important to see how this part of the year will look like, what you can expect from the people you’ll work with, and how to make the most of your summer months. Summers are a great time to explore some ideas of your own and to develop your skills of working more independently. And while summer is a good opportunity for you to take your own summer vacation, be careful not to use it as an excuse to do no work at all. Remember that part of the training in grad school is to become an independent researcher, so just because your advisor’s not around doesn’t mean you necessarily should take off, too!
Plan ahead for the summer. Whether you’re at a university or an industry research lab, people tend to disappear over the summer. Between school vacation for kids, fieldwork, conferences, and the fact that everyone else is on vacation, you may soon find yourself in an empty lab. If you have things you need done by other people during the summer months, or need to get feedback on something from a committee member, professor, or collaborator, be sure to keep in touch with them early on in the start of summer and find out when they’ll be out of town. Don’t put yourself in a position to be set back in your own project just because one of your collaborators is spending 2 weeks away!
Spend some time on your own projects or goals. Summer is a great time to focus on the things that you haven’t managed to get done or that might not have been a priority during the regular academic year. Have a small side project or experiment that you’ve been dying to try but haven’t had the time? Set aside some time in the summer months to focus on getting it done. Doing these smaller projects can also keep you motivated during the quieter part of the year, especially if you are the type of person that thrives on always having something to do.
You can also expand your idea of a ‘side project’ to include new activities like outreach, volunteering, and mentoring. Want to get involved in some public engagement? There are always ample opportunities for activities with schools and summer programs, and it’s a great time to try something new like talking to 7th graders about science. Has your PI talked about setting up a lab twitter or Facebook page but never got around to it? Sign up for an account and work on developing your group’s social media presence over the summer, then come the start of the semester you’ll have a fully up-and-running platform to build from. These activities can also bolster your CV and give some breadth to your current work and research perspectives.
Practice becoming an independent researcher. It may be easy to lose sight of goals when there is no one around to witness your hard work or tell you what to do. Regardless of what sector you end up in, though, you’ll be required to work independently as a part of it, and you’ll be expected to take initiative instead of always waiting to be told what to do next. If your PI or other collaborators are gone for some time, use the opportunity to work things out on your own and to try out some new approaches to answering a problem. It will show your PI that you’re working on developing your own independent research skillset and will also give you some hands-on experience in how to manage your own time and efforts. While doing so, keep tabs on yourself and your productivity levels during a day. Be sure to also keep in touch and report back to your PI on a regular basis when possible, which will allow you to get feedback on your independent research endeavors and to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Think about what you want the rest of the year to look like. One way that you can work on becoming a better independent researcher is to do some long-range planning of your own. It can be hard to think of what the next year or two will look like when you’re busy trying to get things done during the busy academic year, and the summer can offer a brief respite for your schedule to think about where you are and where you want to (and need to) go next. Take some time to think about what data you have, what questions you’ve addressed, which ones have arisen because of your work, and what you need to do to have a complete story by the end of your project. Doing this thinking exercise can give you some perspective on what you’ve done already and can put you in a better position to do great work during the next year to be in a position where you’ll have a lot to show, be it a manuscript, a dissertation, or a job!
Do some summer reading. Whether you get something off the summer best-seller’s list or something that’s been sitting on your shelf for a year, grab a book and make your own summer reading club. Reading something that’s not a scientific paper can be a good break and refresher for your own mind and can offer some perspectives that you don’t as easily get from a TV show or a movie. Added bonus: you can enjoy them outside without worrying about screen glare! On the more scientific side, you can also use the summer to read a few papers that go outside the scope of your normal reading list. Just as picking up a new book can expand your mind and introduce you to new places, reading a paper from another field is a good way to get a fresh look at science as a whole, and it may even bring a few ideas to bring back to your own project.
Make some excursions…for writing. Nice weather and relaxed academic schedules are a great opportunity for some excursions from the lab to a new working environment. Take advantage of shorter lines and less noise at your favorite coffee shop to watch the world go by while you work on emails or a manuscript from outside your normal work setting. Summer is a great time of the year to get some writing done and to take some time ‘off’ from the lab and other obligations you have during the regular academic year to work on a paper or make some progress on your dissertation. Summer is also a great time for your advisor to be able to read your work more thoroughly, as fewer obligations for faculty meetings and teaching means they’ll have some time on their hands to help you with a manuscript.
Enjoy the sun while it’s there. Remember that not every excursion has to be for work! Take advantage of a sunny afternoon for an afternoon drink with a colleague or a brainstorming/sunbathing session outside. While you should work on not making these excursions too much of a habit, take advantage of a more relaxed working pace and don’t feel guilty for taking some time to recharge and relax. Summer is a great reminder to take life at a slower pace and to enjoy life and work outside of the constant rushing around and fast-pace of the academic year and of research as a whole. There is always plenty of work to do in the lab and for your project, so be sure to enjoy the sun and the slower pace while it lasts.
Take your own vacation! There’s a reason that a lot of your colleagues, advisors, and collaborators will take a vacation in the summer: because they need one. We all need a break sometimes, and the hard part about research is that you always feel like there’s something that needs to be done or a pang of guilt when you’re not dedicating all of your time for scientific progress. The fact is that life as a researcher is busy, with months full of grant writing, lab work, classes, conferences, and everything in between. Regardless of whether you did 100% of the things on your to do list, a break in the summer will do you some good. It doesn’t have to be a long vacation, as even a couple of days to get out of town or a day at home to enjoy the sun from the comfort of your own balcony can do wonders to refresh your mind and get your brain re-oriented for the next round of research. Be sure to check out our archives for ways to make the most out of your break time.
Regardless of where your summer is spent, be it out in the field counting bugs or in the cool air conditioning debugging code, there’s a lot you can do to make your summer productive and relaxing at the same time. Taking some time to focus on your own interests and professional development, taking the initiative to become more independent, and working on the loose ends on your to do list can set you up for a great summer that will leave you poised for the start of another academic year. At the same time, remember that even though you’re not an undergrad anymore, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to enjoy some much-needed R&R in the summer months.
In terms of our own Science with Style summer itinerary: We are currently getting ready for our first-ever Science with Style seminar this week at the University of Liverpool as part of Post-graduate researcher week! If your UK-based institute or research group is interested in hosting a one-hour seminar on giving scientific presentations, please get in touch and we’d be happy to work with you.
We’ve also got quite a long reading list of our own, with a couple of these to be featured in an upcoming book review later on in the summer, in addition to some new posts for our Heroes of Science series. In the meantime, I’m also ready for my own summer break, currently listening to Andalusian music while dreaming of the Moroccan food I’ll get to enjoy in less than a week while I’m sipping mint tea in Marrakech.
- Modern Poisons, a contemporary book on toxicology written by my honors thesis advisor Dr. Alan Kolok
- Seven brief lessons on physics, because I need a good lesson in physics, be it one or seven of them!
- Born for this: How to find the work you were meant to do, intrigued after taking this quiz
- Aleph, because it's been sitting on my bedside table since March and because I loved The Alchemist