metal teapot on a table next to two matching round teacups

Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

A quiet sip of tea. Warmth and sweetness. Tang of raspberries. Familiar scrape, chink of ceramic mug lifted, returned to the tabletop.

A reminder to pause. Absorb this moment, this breath, this sip of tea.

A reminder to take time.

Your work may be your life, but your life is more than just your work. Sometimes, in the midst of paper revisions, running studies, writing code, it's easy to forget. But your life is more than your studies. It's more than your art, your hobbies, your sports, your relationships. Your life is all of these. Sometimes, you have to take time away from one facet to tend another. And that's okay.

Some of the best advice I've gotten about balancing my life came from a fencing coach, when I was a teenager. He'd say, come to practice. Train hard. Care about the sport. But he'd also say, "at the end of the day, it's just fencing." At the end of the day, it's only one piece of your life, even if it's a really important one right now. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

That always holds true. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

The hard part is knowing what should take precedence, now or in the long-term. The hard part is taking time when you need it. The hard part is not just taking time once, but continuing to take time. After all, time taken for one part of your life is time lost in another. Right?

Yes and no. I find I'm more myself when I take time for hobbies and relationships. I find I'm more productive in my work when work is not the only thing I do all day, every day. So I use little things to remind myself to take time. I use little things to take time.

A mug of tea becomes a reminder to stay present. I take that moment to pause, relax, re-focus.

A commute on Boston's subway, the T, becomes a reminder to take time for things I enjoy, like reading. I bring a book, fiction or otherwise unrelated to my usual research-related reading, to pass the time.

A walk across campus becomes a reminder to spend more time outdoors or exercising. I remember to relish the mile walk from my apartment to the T every day -- a walk I could easily dread, especially in January. But it's a reminder to see the world. In walking through the city every day, I see its small changes. I notice the first buds in spring. I see the snow fall, stick, and melt away. Sometimes, I use the walk as time to call family or keep in touch with friends. A reminder that relationships matter.

Find small moments to take time. Be present in your life. We all know how easy it would be to spend all day and all night in our labs and offices.

But sometimes, other stuff take precedence. Other stuff matters too.

I use little things to remind me of that.

What are your reminders?


girl in blue sweater sitting at a computer with documents open

A problem with writing

Writing without getting feedback is great. You're writing. That's good.

Writing with feedback is even better.

The biggest problem students tend to have -- whether or not you are one of these people -- is getting feedback on their writing. You need feedback to improve. You need to see what good writing looks like and what bad writing looks like. You need to how other people would say the same thing differently, and why.

(This isn't a problem only relevant to students. It's relevant to most people who write. But I'm a student, and a lot of the people I interact with on a daily basis are students, so this is advice targeted at us.)

As it turns out, this whole feedback thing is actually several problems.

#1: Get feedback

First. You need to get feedback on your writing. Sometimes this is hard, because everyone is busy and may not have time to comment in detail on your paper drafts. But it's really, really important.

It's something we should all do for each other.

Send your paper drafts to the other students in your group. Ask them for feedback. If we all have the mindset that we can help each other out, then it's a reciprocal process: you give feedback on their papers, you get feedback on yours.

When you ask other students for feedback, respect their time. Try not to send them a paper to look at last minute, unless you ask them if it's okay first. That said, pretty often they're willing to help you at the last minute because we all know how deadlines are and what it's like trying to finish a paper. (At least, the students in my lab are like that. We try to help each other.)

You can also get other friends, students, family, whoever to look at your paper. Getting someone who's in your field to look at the paper is great, because they know the conventions for how papers are written and organized -- what's expected in your field. Getting people outside your field to look at your writing is also great. You get to learn whether you're understandable to someone who's unfamiliar with your work already. It's really easy to forget to explain things that seem straightforward to you but really aren't, because you think about them all the time.

#2: Give feedback

Second. You need to give feedback on others' writing. Reciprocally, when other students send you paper drafts, give them the kind of feedback you'd like to get. Be friendly, be helpful, be detailed when you can, but be critical. The goal is to improve their writing. Critiquing other people's writing helps you see what you think is, and is not, good writing. It helps you see how writing is done. It helps you realize that when you get feedback, the other person is trying to point out stuff you might've missed the first time around, not trying to be mean...

#3: Don't take feedback personally

Third. When you get feedback, don't take it personally. Or put in the positive, do remember that your writing is not you. You're still practicing. Still getting better.

When you get a critique on a draft, or when you get back the reviews of a paper submission, the first thing you do is briefly skim it. Say to yourself, okay, this person read what I wrote and thought these bits could be better. They are not trying to be mean. They are not saying that I am a terrible writer. They are trying to help me express my ideas more clearly and coherently. They probably have more experience doing this than me, so I should probably pay attention.

You don't have to pay attention right away. Take a step back. Set the reviews aside. Get a cup of tea. In a little while, after reminding yourself that reviews and critiques are, almost always, intended to help you be better at writing, go back to them. Tackle them head on and revise that paper. Remember that since people are busy, comments they write on your drafts may be terse. That's okay. They're just trying to be efficient. Revise that paper anyway. Remember that you don't have to accept all the feedback and make all the changes they suggest--some things are absolute (like spelling), some things are opinion (like how to best phrase a sentence). Sometimes people are unhelpful and sometimes their comments don't make sense.

If you're revising a paper for a conference or journal based on reviews you got, definitely get help from people who've done these kinds of revisions before--other students, postdocs, and professors! The way I learned how to politely and completely respond to reviews on a journal submission was by seeing how the professors I worked with phrased things and told me to write things. I was given copies of past cover letters and response letters as examples.

Revision is part of writing

In summary: Get feedback. Give feedback. Writing is practice. Revision is part of the writing process. You have to write and fix what you write to get better.


white laptop with printed papers and books

Writing is not a chore

Many students see writing as a chore. I finished this study and have great results, now I have to write up the paper, boo. I want to attend this workshop, but oh drat, they want me to write two pages about something relevant to the workshop.

Repeat after me: Writing is not a chore.

Writing may be difficult. You may struggle to explain your ideas coherently and concisely. You may be in a never-ending battle with proper English grammar.

Writing may be time-consuming. You may spend an hour agonizing over one paragraph. You may stay up all night trying to finish a two-page paper (not counting the hours spent trying to get the Latex formatting to work or wrangling Word).

Writing is not a chore.

Writing is practice

Writing is practice. Writing is a key means of communication -- in academia and in the rest of the world! Learning to write well will never hurt you and only help you.

Writing is planning. Writing is thinking. Writing is synthesizing.

Writing your ideas out with an eye for communicating them to others can help you see the flaws in your arguments, come up with new connections between ideas and fields, or generally help you organize your thoughts on a subject. Introductions and discussions are especially great for this, since these are the parts of a paper where you connect your work and your ideas to everyone else's.

But not all writing has to be super academic or for a specific purpose. Journals, notebooks, text files: you can jot down ideas about what you're reading and thinking about. Whatever that is. Review your notes periodically. You may see patterns. You may develop new research ideas or figure out themes in your interests.

Write a lot.

It isn't just me saying this. Multiple advisors have told me: Papers become chapters in theses. The act of writing can add rigor to your thinking. Write as you go. Don't just write it all at the end!


a pen sitting on a pad of paper with two extra pens beside it

Communicating ideas

As a student, you need to learn how to explain your work to others.

Which is to say that you need to convince other people that they should care about what you do.

And that's all about the story you tell.

(This isn't a skill only relevant to students. It's relevant to most people. But I'm a student, and a lot of the people I interact with on a daily basis are students, so this is advice targeted at us.)

Tell a story

When you share your ideas and your work with others, you are creating a narrative. You are telling a story. The key thing is to tell a compelling story about your work and to frame your work so that it means something to your audience.

Start big. Situate your work in the larger context. The question you should answer is not what are you doing? The question you should answer is why should anyone care?

Find a big important thing people care about. Tell them how it impacts their lives. Then explain how your work is related to that big important thing.

For example. Say you are working on a robotic language learning companion for preschool kids. The robot is supposed to help them learn new words. Why do we care? Well, language and literacy are important for everything humans do. It's the primary means of human knowledge transfer! Language is super important. Plus, there's research showing that if we don't get enough language exposure early on (e.g., ages 3-5), it'll be hard to catch up in school later. Oh no! Language skills are important for academic and life success! But not everyone has those skills! Enter robot. This robot can help young kids develop language skills at a critical time, thus saving them from a life of misery and pain!

Or, you know, something less dramatic. But you get the idea. Situate your work in a larger problem. Then dive in and explain how what you're doing fits into the larger problem, even if it's just a tiny little piece of that larger problem.

Make your audience care. Tell them a story.


Occasionally, I come up with new lyrics for existing songs. Here's some I recently wrote for my husband, Randy Westlund, about his favorite operating system:


(to the tune of Let It Be - The Beatles)

When I find Gentoo is too much effort
And Linux uses systemd
It's time to reconsider, which OS for me
And when Windows goes to blue screen
Allan Jude stands right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, install BSD

Which OS is better?

And when the broken hard drives fail
There's no quick recovery
There will be an answer: BSD
Though data seems corrupted
It's not 'cause ZFS can guarantee
Your files can be saved by FreeBSD

If you hate closed software, try OpenBSD

If you have a toaster, there's NetBSD

It's more user-friendly with PC-BSD

You wake up to a big new update
Rebuild packages throughout the tree
Compile until tomorrow - BSD
And when you run your own homeserver
Focus on security
Set up jails for your users with BSD

Which OS is better?

Which OS is better?

Creative Commons License
BSD (Let It Be) by Jacqueline Kory Westlund is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.