Surviving grad school – lessons from a Roomba


You may think that the title of this post was just clickbait. Obviously, its clickbait, but it is also surprising how much my Roomba (his name was Roy, now Svein, RIP Roy) is teaching me about success in grad school. So far this sounds like the ravings of a mad person and of course, and that is exactly what it is – I am currently a grad student.

The story begins on the dusty shelves of a local thrift store where I met Roy the Roomba. (Roombas are robot vacuums and Roy is my robot vacuum). Roy was purchased for a tenth of what he sells for new and as I am always using chores as an easy distraction from data analysis or manuscript development, having a robot take over a significant chore is easily justified as an investment in my career. As I am married, and neither of us likes to vacuum, it is also an investment in our marriage. As it turns out, Roy has so much more to offer. Here are some of the things he has taught me already:

  1. This is not a linear process…and it does not need to be.

When I first began watching Roy – yes I sit with a cup of coffee some mornings and allow myself to be entertained by his antics – I found it hilarious that he drove around randomly and ridiculously. He would run into things, adjust, run into something else, adjust and on and on. Now, I have an obsession with efficiency bordering on lunacy, and Roy chaotically crisscrossing my living room is not efficient at all.  Then it struck me, it doesn’t need to be.  He still gets that job done!  Our floors are cleaned on a regular basis.  Grad school can often feel like the direction is unclear, repetitive, and even backward…but progress is being made I assure you!

2. Completing 25 – 75% of your TODO list gets the job done…eventually.

When I say Roy gets the job done, it does not mean perfectly every day.  He actually only cleans about half the floor each day, but which half changes each time.  He putters along every day that I press his start button, meandering randomly around our home. By the end of the week, I would say that he has covered every square inch of accessible floor multiple times. Remember, grad school is meant to be school. You are supposed to be learning and applying challenging new skills.  It will be a very iterative process. You will revisit and go back to the drawing board often.  This is what high-quality output requires. Grad school is a marathon of just showing up and doing the best you can.  You will absolutely have rockstar days, where the stars are aligned, and you can picture your celebrity career unfolding.  The vast majority of the days will not feel this way.  Just show up.

3. Slow and steady wins the race…or at least ensures you will finish it.

Roy moves at a pace I would describe as dawdle. When he nears an obstacle he slows even more. This is obviously by design.  If Roy operated at a high speed, he would be smashing up my walls, damaging furniture, and injuring my pets. His slow and steady pace allows the process to be safe. Grad students, myself included, often operate a frenetic pace.  When we are in undergrad, we have successive little pulses of high intensity…mid-terms, finals, etc… When the pressure is on we pick up the pace to get it all done.  Grad school feels like a steady pressure, which can drive us to feel like we need to maintain a frantic pace to get it all done.  Take a breath, slow down, take time to think and rethink and discuss. Also, do all those healthy things you are supposed to do…exercise, get plenty of sleep, spend time with loved ones, and have hobbies. This is important for your health and well-being.  It is also important to improve the quality of your work.

4. Quietly doing the dirty work for someone else can be valuable.

This is quite literally what Roy does.  Without complaint – he actually plays a happy little jingle when you set him to work – he goes about cleaning up someone else’s mess. Most of us can appreciate a clean floor and even more so when someone else does it but lets face it, it is often taken for granted.  Do you remember thanking your parental figure every time they cleaned up after you? If you did, you were a saint, and an exception.  Roy putters around, I rarely think him, and I often laugh at him.  He does keep our floor clean and this has resulted in a happier, more peaceful marriage for my husband and I.  Now that is valuable! There will be times, especially if you collaborate, where you will be tackling unexpected work, helping out in your lab or department, or picking up slack. Often times, this will be thankless.  Either people are unaware that you did the work or they were too wrapped up in the pressures they were facing, to take notice.  It is not malicious and I would suggest that we are all guilty of not giving credit where credit is due from time to time. I have come to understand, that it does pay off, and usually not in the ways you might think.  Just be mindful to not overdo it…which leads me to my next point…

5. Recharge regularly

We all know this, yet few of us actually do it.  Too pressing is the self-imposed pressure to ‘get more done.’  We are our most effective and efficient when we are happy and well rested…let me say again…most EFFICIENT.  Taking care of ourselves will allow us to get everything done and we will likely enjoy it much more.  It is an illusion that if we put in crazy hours, we will accomplish so much more.  Our productivity, problem solving skills, and creativity all diminish rapidly when we become tired and/or frustrated.  Do what you can, in a reasonable amount of time, then go recharge your batteries in whatever way works best for you.

6. When you get stuck, ask for help

Our little Svein (model upgrade from Roy) has the entertaining ability to send us text messages.  The first time we received a text that said … “Svein is stuck near a cliff,” we were really glad we had named him Svein!  When he encounters an usual obstacle, he tries his best to overcome it for maybe ten seconds, he then stops and asks for help which is a very efficient way to get unstuck when you have been thwarted by a wayward sock!  When you get stumped, give an honest effort, then ask for help.  It is the most efficient solution, and believe it or not, people usually like being helpful when a small effort on their part helps you in a big way.


I am sure there are more gems and I will add them as I learn from our happy, and effective, little SVEIN!