Nov 19, 2016

Adjust Your Expectations for Grad School

Beginning a doctoral program? Prepare yourself for several years of intense research, studying, and professional growth. Like anything else in life, realistic expectations will be critical to your success. What should you know?

Successful Graduate Students are Autonomous 
You may have already noticed that grad school is less structured than college. It requires independent thinking and initiative as you'll be responsible for guiding your own professional development. You may have to choose your own advisor, and you definitely will have to have to figure out a way to get along and work with him or her. It will be up to you, with a little guidance, to carve out an area of research and find a dissertation topic, as well as make the professional contacts that are essential to advancing in your field and getting a job after graduation.

Accustomed to undergrad, new grad students often wait for someone to tell them what to do. The they wait without answers or direction, the more fearful they may become about their futures, which can lead to paralysis. For success in graduate school, be prepared to take control of your own education.

Graduate School is Not Like Undergrad 
I've said it before but it's worth repeating. Doctoral programs are nothing like college. If you're considering graduate school because you're doing well in college and like school, be aware that grad school will likely be very different than the last 16 or more years of school you've experienced. Graduate study, especially at the doctoral level, is apprenticeship. Instead of sitting in class for a couple of hours a day and then being free to play, grad school is more like a job that occupies all of your time. You'll spend a great deal of your time working on research in your advisor or mentor's lab, as a formal research assistant or simply to get experience.

Research Rules in Graduate School
The purpose of doctoral education is to learn to do research. The emphasis is on learning how to gather information and construct knowledge independently. As a researcher or professor, much of your job will consist of gathering materials, reading it, thinking about it, and designing studies to test your ideas about it. Grad school, especially doctoral education, is preparation for a career in research.

Don't Expect a Speedy Finish
Typically a doctoral program is a five to eight year commitment. Usually the first year is the most structured year, entailing classes and lots of reading. Most students are required to pass a set of comprehensive exams at various points in the program in order to continue. For example, in my graduate program, students took a set of comprehensive exams at the end of the first year to receive their master's degrees and then another set after completing all coursework (at the end of the third year) to progress to doctoral candidate status (often informally referred to as ABD - all-but-dissertation status).

The Dissertation Determines Your Fate 
The doctoral dissertation is the basis for earning a PhD. You'll spend a great deal of time searching for a thesis topic and advisor, and then reading up on your topic to prepare your dissertation proposal. Once the proposal is accepted by your dissertation committee (typically composed of 5 faculty that you and your advisor have chosen based on their knowledge of the field), you're free to begin your research study. You'll plug away for months or often years until you've conducted your research, made some conclusions, and written it all up. Then comes your dissertation defense: you'll present your research to your dissertation committee, answer questions, and defend the validity of your work.

Jul 23, 2016

How Grad School is Different from Undergrad

The first days of the semester are always busy, but the first days of grad school might pass in a blur of classes, orientations, and meetings. I remember little of my first day of graduate school many years ago. What stands out is an orientation speech by the chair of the department who explained that grad school entails a critical transition from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge. That’s what it’s all about, but I had never thought of it that way. I was to become a producer of knowledge? I went through the rest of the day in a daze.

Totally overwhelmed, I got home, changed into comfortable clothes, and discovered that I put my shirt on inside out and backwards. Stressed? Those first few weeks of school I learned that graduate school was way different than I expected. In the coming years I'd put in intellectual sweat, emotional equity, and much more time than I ever expected. Despite this, I wouldn't trade my time in graduate school for anything. And, if grad school is right for you, I suspect that you will feel the same way.

So, how do you make a smooth transition to graduate school? Here are four major differences between college and grad school.

It's Not Just Classes 
Classes are a big part of master's programs and the first couple of years of doctoral programs. But grad school entails more than completing a series of classes. You will take courses during the first couple of years of your PhD program, but your later years will emphasize research (and you probably won't take any courses during those later years). The purpose of grad school is to develop a professional understanding of your discipline through independent reading and study.

Apprenticeship Model
Most of what you learn in grad school will not come from classes, but from other activities, like doing research and attending conferences. You'll choose and work closely with a faculty member on his or her research. As an apprentice of sorts, you'll learn how to define research problems, design and carry out research projects to test your hypotheses, and disseminate your results. The end goal is to become an independent scholar and design your own research program.

It’s a Job
Approach grad school as a full-time job; it's not "school" in the undergraduate sense. If you soared through college with little studying, you're in for a big culture shock. The reading lists will be longer and more extensive than you've encountered in college. More importantly, you'll be expected to read and be prepared to critically evaluate and discuss it all. Most grad programs require that you take initiative for your learning and demonstrate commitment to your career. Remember that no one will hold your hand and walk you through. You must provide your own motivation. Also note that if you’re receiving funding from your department or program, you’re probably expected to put in full time hours – and are probably forbidden from outside work.

You'll Become Socialized to Your Field 
Why is graduate school so different from undergrad? Graduate training teaches you the information and skills that you need to be a professional. However, being a professional requires more than coursework and experiences. In graduate school you will be socialized into your profession. In other words, you will learn the norms and values of your field. and you will learn to think like a professional in your field. Are you ready?

Jun 27, 2016

How to Spend the Summer Before Grad School

Starting graduate school this Fall? If you're like most students, you're probably both excited and anxious for classes to begin. What should you do now, in this last summer before starting grad school?

Bet you didn't think I'd suggest this. Although you may be tempted to get an early start on your research, you should make time to relax. Grad school will be challenging and stressful (and fantastic too). Avoid burnout before the semester even begins. Take time off to relax or you may find yourself fried by October.
Stop Working (or Reduce Your Hours) This may not be possible, but try to take some time off from outside employment. The last summer that you will be free from academic responsibilities.. Graduate students work during the summer. They do research, work with their advisor, and perhaps teach summer classes. If you must work this summer, take as time off as you can. Do you whatever is necessary to begin the semester refreshed rather than burned out.

Read for Fun
Come Fall you’ll have little to no time to read for pleasure. When you have some time off, you’ll probably find that you don’t want to read. Enjoy a good book this summer.
Get to Know Your New City If you are moving to attend grad school, consider moving earlier in the summer. Give yourself time to learn about your new hometown, before the whirlwind semester starts. Discover grocery stores, banks, places to eat, study, and grab coffee. Something as simple as having all of your belongings stored away and being able to easily find them will reduce your stress and make it easier to start fresh.

Get to Know Your Classmates 
Most incoming cohorts of graduate students have some means of getting in contact with each other, whether through an email list, Facebook group, LinkedIn group, or some other means. Take advantages of these opportunities to form friendships. You’ll study together, collaborate on research, and eventually be professional contacts after graduation. These personal and professional relationships can last your entire career.

Clean Up Your Social Profiles
If you haven’t done so prior to applying to graduate school, make some time to review your social media profiles. Do they present you in a positive, professional light? Ditch the college partying pics and posts with profanity. Clean up your Twitter profile and tweets as well. Anyone who works with you is likely to Google you. Don’t let them find material that makes them question your judgment.

Keep Your Mind Agile: Prep a Little 
The key word is little. Read a few of your advisor’s papers – not everything. If you haven’t been matched with an advisor, read a bit about faculty members whose work interests you. Don't study. Don't burn yourself out. Keep an eye out for topics that interest you. Note a stimulating newspaper article or website. Don’t try to come up with a thesis, but simply note topics and ideas that intrigue you. Once the semester starts and you make contact with an advisor you can sort through your ideas. Over the summer your goal should simply be to remain an active thinker. The summer before starting graduate school should be a time to recharge and rest. Prepare yourself for the amazing experience to come.

There'll be plenty of time to work and you’ll face many responsibilities and expectations once graduate school begins. Take as much time off as you can – and have fun.

Jun 1, 2016

How to Ask Professors to Sit on Your Dissertation Committee

The dissertation is clearly the most challenging part of graduate school as it is the ultimate determinant of whether you earn the doctoral degree. It’s how you show that you’re an independent scholar capable of generating new knowledge. Your mentor is critical to this process, but don’t underestimate the role your dissertation committee plays in your success. The dissertation committee serves a consulting role, serving a checks and balance function that can boost objectivity and ensure that university guidelines are adhered to and that the product is of high quality.

Members of the dissertation committee offer guidance in their areas of expertise and supplement the student and mentor’s competences. For example, a committee member with expertise in specific research methods or statistics can serve as a sounding board and offer guidance that is beyond the mentor’s expertise.

Who should you choose?
Choosing a helpful dissertation committee isn’t easy. The best committee is composed of faculty who share an interest in the topic, offer diverse and useful areas of expertise, and are collegial. Committee members should be carefully selected based on what they can contribute, but also how well they get along with the student and mentor. It’s a delicate balance because you don’t want to argue over every detail yet you need objective advice and insightful, tough, critiques of your work. You should trust each committee member and feel that he or she has your best interests in mind. Choose committee members whose work you respect, who you respect, and who you like. This is a tall order and finding a handful of faculty who meet these criteria and also have the time to participate on your dissertation committee is a daunting task. It’s likely that not all of your dissertation members will fulfill all of your professional and personal needs but each committee member should serve at least one need.

How do you ask professors to serve on your dissertation committee?

Seek your mentor’s input 

As you select potential members, ask your mentor if he or she thinks the professor is a good match to the project. Use your mentor’s reaction as an indicator of whether to move forward and approach the potential committee member.  Aside from seeking your mentor’s insight and making him or her feel valued, professors talk to each other. If you discuss each choice with your mentor, he is she is likely to mention it to the other professor. You may find that the professor is already aware and may have already implicitly agreed.

Make your intentions known
At the same time, don’t assume that each professor knows that you’d like them as a committee member. When it comes time to ask, visit each professor with that as your purpose. Explain that the reason you’ve asked to meet is to ask the professor to serve on your dissertation committee.

Be prepared to explain your project
No professor will agree to participate in a dissertation committee without knowing something about the project. What are your research questions? How will you study them? Discuss your methods. How does this fit with prior work? How does it extend prior work? What will your study contribute to the literature? Pay attention to the professor’s demeanor. How much does he or she want to know? Sometimes a professor might want to know less – pay attention and consider what this might mean for his or her participation.

Explain their role
In addition to discussing your project, be prepared to explain why you are approaching the professor. What drew you to them? How do you think they will fit? For example, does the professor offer expertise in statistics? What guidance do you seek? Why do you think that the professor is the best choice? What are your expectations? Busy faculty will want to determine whether your needs outstrip their time and energy.

Don’t take rejection personally
If a professor declines your invitation to sit on your dissertation committee, don’t take it personally. Easier said than done but there are many reasons people decide to sit on committees. Try to take the professor’s perspective. Sometimes it’s really a matter of being too busy. Participating on a dissertation committee is a lot of work. Sometimes it’s simply too much work given other responsibilities. Other times they may not be interested in the project or may have issues with other committee members. It’s not always about you. If they are not able to meet your expectations be grateful that they’re honest. A successful dissertation is result of a great deal of work on your part but also the support of a helpful committee that has your interests in mind. Be sure that the dissertation committee you build can meet these needs by asking the right questions from the start.

May 17, 2016

Is it Procrastination or a Productive Pause?

Nearly every article on time management includes a warning to avoid procrastination. Sure, waiting until the last minute to start a task is a bad idea, but postponing tasks is not always procrastination. Intentionally delaying work on a task while keeping it in mind is sometimes referred to active procrastination, intentional delay, or a mindful, productive pause. Whatever you call it, pausing can lead to productivity. I sometimes find it helpful to pause or delay working on a task for the following reasons.

Incubation Time
When faced with a problem, decision, or a paper assignment, we sometimes act too quickly, impulsively, and make mistakes. Intentional delay is incubation time, an opportunity to be mindful of the task and consider approaches. For example, I’m working on a presentation on a topic that is a bit of a stretch from my other work. So far I’ve taken some notes but I’ve delayed work on the talk. I’ve been thinking about it, reflecting on approaches while I go about other tasks. I’ve considered the topic for a while and feel like I have a handle on it and know what I’d like to do. I’m ready. I consider this a mindful, productive, delay – not procrastination.

Prioritize Tasks
Many students jump straight to work when given an assignment. We usually praise this, but it’s possible to act too quickly. For example, suppose that you learn of an unexpected exam next week. Some students jump to it and immediately begin preparing flash cards. Others might wait a day as they consider the test. They might decide that flash cards aren't the way to go, that a whole other study strategy is needed, or even that there are other assignments or exams that should take precedence. During a reflective pause a student might consider the semester as a whole and the items that compose a final course grade, feel less panicked about the new assignment, and conclude that it is less critical than it initially appeared. Often what seems important changes, sometimes even over the course of a day. This isn't to say that you should always delay before beginning a project, just that waiting is not always such a bad idea.

Prevent Burn-Out
Intentionally delaying beginning a task can be a way of giving yourself a moment to breathe. Pausing for a day or two can help you retain energy and focus over the long run, whether it entails completing the semester, a dissertation, or a book.

I'm a big fan of pausing before beginning a project and taking time to let ideas ferment. But don't mistake procrastination for intentional delay. How can you tell the difference? Do you periodically think about the task – how you might approach it rather than how you dread or stress over it? Or are you trying not to think about it? Do you periodically jot or record notes and ideas? Are you thinking or avoiding? Finally, don’t pause for too long. Plan to start writing well ahead of the due date. Start by writing all that you’ve considered and reviewing your notes to date. If that’s hard, make bulleted lists and go from there.

May 1, 2016

Tips for Choosing a Dissertation Committee

Graduate study culminates with the completion of a lengthy project known as the dissertation. In psychology the dissertation most often entails conducting and writing up a research study that is a novel contribution to the field. Many master’s degrees require a similar document, a thesis, which is much smaller in scope, but still a challenge. Universities require that dissertations (and often theses) be supervised and judged by a committee of faculty. The student and advisor/mentor usually assemble the dissertation committee. How do you choose the professors who will determine your fate? Carefully, with these tips.

Consult your mentor about local norms. How are committees assembled? How are they comprised? For example, most dissertation committees must include a specialist in methodology and statistics.

Get folks your advisor likes. When it comes to which faculty to invite to sit on your committee, seek your mentor's advice because you need someone who you mentor feels he or she can work with. Also your mentor will have info about the professor’s personality and history as well as how the faculty you select get along. Dissertations are not just about a student completing a degree - they're about politics too. Select a faculty member who doesn't get along with your advisor and you may have a committee member who is difficult and just plain hard to work with -- and who finds fault with your work simply to get under your advisor's skin. It happens and these interactions can slow down your dissertation and keep you in grad school longer than you want or deserve to be.

Learn from other students. Seek input from other students as to how they secured a committee, what kinds of things they looked for, and their experience with particular faculty. For example, some professors are notoriously flaky. They miss meetings, forget to read your work, and run behind. They may be very nice, helpful, and easy to get along with, but they can interfere with your progress.

Trust your instincts. Make it a point to get to know faculty throughout your grad school years. As you take classes, talk with faculty, and watch faculty interact, keep the dissertation in mind. Trust your gut. If someone seems like a terrible choice, even if he or she is a very successful professional, you should trust your gut and think twice before asking him or her to sit on your committee. This doesn't mean that you should exclude successful, but difficult, people. It simply means that you should go in with your eyes wide open.

Knowing who to choose for your committee really comes down to communication. It’s about getting to know faculty, communicating with your mentor about your needs, his or her needs, and potential candidates, and communicating with other students about their observations, experiences, and history. Also recognize that some dissent among dissertation committee members is part of the process. Some debate and disagreement can improve your project. The goal, however, is healthy and constructive debate.

Apr 23, 2016

Prepping for Master’s and Doctoral Comprehensive Exams

Way back when I was a first year graduate student I remember hearing the more senior students talking about “comps” and nodding knowingly to one another. I had no clue what they were talking about as I was a fairly naive and clueless student. Soon I learned that I would take two sets of comprehensive exams over my graduate student years: Master's and doctoral. What would these exams assess? Everything, I was told. It’s easy to see why comprehensive examinations, known as comps, are a source of anxiety for most graduate students

What is a Comprehensive Examination?

A comprehensive examination is just what it sounds like. It is a test, written, oral, or both, that covers a broad base of material (thereby, "comprehensive"). It assesses the student's knowledge and capacities to earn a given graduate degree. The exact content will vary by graduate program and by degree, Typically, comps are administered towards the end of coursework or afterward as a way to determine how well a student is able to synthesize the material, problem solve, and think like a professional. Master's and doctoral comprehensive exams share similarities but differ with regard to detail, depth, and expectations.

Not all master's programs require comprehensive exams. Some programs require comps for entry to the thesis. Other programs use comprehensive exams in place of a thesis. Some programs give students a choice of completing either comps or thesis. In most cases master's students will be given guidance on what to study, such as specific lists of readings or sample questions from prior exams.

In doctoral programs comps often serve as the gateway to the dissertation. It is after passing the comprehensive exam that a student can use the title "doctoral candidate," which is an informal label for students who have entered the dissertation phase of doctoral work, the final hurdle to the doctoral degree. Doctoral students often receive much less guidance on how to prepare for comps, as compared with master's students. They may receive long reading lists, some sample questions from prior exams, and often instructions to be familiar with classic articles as well as recent research published in prominent journals over the past few years.

What if You Bomb Your Comps?

Graduate students who are unable to pass a program's comprehensive exam are weeded from the graduate program. Most programs allow a student who fails the comprehensive exam another chance to pass. But most send students packing after two failing grades.

How Do You Study for Comps? 

Learning all there is to know about your field is daunting. The truth is that you can’t learn it all. Don’t let that fact overwhelm you. Prepare systematically, as follows:

Locate old exams.  Most departments store old exams. Ask for sample questions. Old exams can provide info about the kinds of questions to expect and the base of literature to know.

Consult peers. Look to students who have successfully completed their comps for info, such as: How were their exams structured? What kinds of questions appeared on the exam? How did they prepare? What they would do differently? How confident did they feel on test day?

Consult with professors. Usually one or more faculty members will sit down with students, often in a group setting, and talk about the test and what to expect. Otherwise ask your mentor or another trusted faculty member. Ask specific questions, such as how is the exam organized? How important is understanding and citing classic research as compared with current work? How can you best prepare?

Gather your study materials. Gather classic literature – the sources that form the basis for recent work. Next, conduct literature searches to gather the newest, most important, pieces of research. Use your course materials as a guide. What theorists and researchers come up again and again? Review those authors’ most recent work and most important work. Be careful though - it's easy to become consumed and overwhelmed with this part. You won’t be able to download and read everything. Make choices. Use your coursework as a guide.

Think about what you’re reading. It’s easy to get swept away with the task of reading, taking notes, and memorizing oodles of articles. Don't forget that you will be asked to reason about these readings, construct arguments, and discuss the material at a professional level. Don’t memorize. Stop and think about what you're reading. Identify themes in the literature, how particular lines of thought evolved and shifted, and historical trends. Keep the big picture in mind as you think about each article: What is its place in the field at large?

Consider your situation. What are the challenges you face in preparing to take the comps? How does life interact with your study plan? Do you have a family? Roommate? Do you have a quiet place to work? Space to spread out? Think about all the challenges you face and then devise solutions. What specific action will you take to combat each challenge?

Plan your study strategy and manage your time. Many students, especially at the doctoral level, carve out time that they devote exclusively to studying - no working, no teaching, no coursework. Some take a month, others a summer or longer. More often, students instead limit their other activities as ceasing all other work may be unrealistic. Many take a couple of weeks of “vacation” to study-binge just before the big day. Regardless, it’s your job to plan. It's likely that you have a better grasp of some topics than others, so distribute your study time accordingly. Devise a schedule and make a concerted effort to keep it. You will find that some topics take less time and other more time. Adjust your schedule and plans accordingly. Set weekly goals and daily to-do lists.

Seek support. Remember that you're not alone in preparing for comps. Work with other students. Share resources and advice. Simply hang out and talk about how you’re approaching the task and help each other manage the stress. Consider creating a study group, set group goals, and then report your progress to your group. Even if no other students are preparing to take comps, spend time with other students. Reading and studying in isolation can lead to loneliness, which certainly isn't good for your morale and motivation.

Apr 18, 2016

What to Look for in a Grad School or Dissertation Mentor

Every graduate student hopes for a mentor who will offer guidance throughout graduate school and beyond. The ideal advisor becomes a mentor. He or she supervises your research, provides insightful feedback and direction, helps you assemble a fantastic dissertation committee, gets you funding, gets you involved in research at a level that earns publications and conference publications, shows you how to review articles and publish, invites you to dinner, becomes a friend, helps you get a job, and mentors you throughout your career. This is a very tall order.

I have a friend from graduate school who is still in contact with her mentor (about two decades later) and they see each other at conferences. Her mentor still offers advice and helps her with career decisions and job searches, if asked. This is pretty close to the ideal, at least my ideal. And yes – I’m super jealous. I don’t know many students with close relationships like this - who became friends with their advisors. The ideal is something to strive for, but most advising relationships fall somewhat short of this ideal.

So, what do you look for in a mentor? Someone who
  • provides support and encouragement
  • helps you to learn from your mistakes
  • offers opportunities for collaboration, joint presentations, and departmental talks
  • helps you to learn about writing and submitting manuscripts for publication
  • is interested in your career area
  • is able to provide support and training in your area
  • models a successful academic career and training in your area
  • is committed to help mentees make the next move in their career development
  • demonstrates personal integrity
  • introduces you to colleagues
  • helps you to identify and work with your strengths and weaknesses
  • provides opportunities for you to develop autonomy
Not every mentor ticks all of these boxes. Look for someone who hits enough of the points that you deem important.

One of the important things to remember about mentoring relationships is that they develop over time. During your first year of grad school you may have an inkling, a gut feeling of who will be a good mentor, but the relationship develops over time and by way of your interactions. Open honest communication is key. Meeting deadlines and thereby supporting your advisor’s research is also important. We often think of mentoring as a one-way street in the sense that the mentor provides benefits to the student, but mentors also get something out of the deal. Mentors get competent help, the satisfaction of having a hand in a student’s success, and leaving a legacy, or more simply, being able to brag about a mentee’s success – even many years later.

Finally, no one person will fulfill all of your mentoring needs. In grad school you may find that your primary mentor, your dissertation advisor, may not be the best person to turn to with questions about teaching or an internship, for example. Seek relationships with multiple faculty who can provide you with advice on various areas of academia. Most of us have several mentors over the course of our careers: mentors for different areas (e.g., teaching and research) and at different times in our professional development (e.g., grad student, post-doc, junior faculty).

Apr 11, 2016

Coping with Criticism: Improving Your Writing

Receiving feedback, criticism of your work, goes hand-in-hand with graduate study and academic careers. It might take the form of scrawl on the margins of your manuscript or strikeouts, additions, and comments in a tracked document. If it’s a peer reviewed manuscript, you’ll probably receive a lengthy single-spaced letter and accompanying 2 or 3 single-spaced reports. No matter the form, you’ll likely feel at least a little apprehensive and nervous about what lies within. Criticism often(usually?) stings but it ultimately leads to a better product. If you plan on an academic career (or any career), you’ll have to learn how to deal with criticism. Learning how to read and act on feedback is a skill and essential to your productivity and, ultimately, your success.

So, what do you do when you receive feedback?

Read the reviews and comments, then put the paper aside.
Take a deep breath and open the document. Skim over the comments. Then, if you’re brave, read it all in depth. Then put it aside to give yourself space to wrestle with your mangled pride. Time makes it easier to step back from critical comments and analyze your work objectively. Put the paper aside for at least a day, but ideally much longer. A week, even two or more, can help you gain perspective and realize that you’re not an impostor.

Don’t fret over reviewers’ tone.
Try not to let the tone and wording of reviews and comments sting. Frequently written comments may seem harsh and blunt, but terse comments often reflect the reviewer’s haste and desire to use time effectively by communicating clearly and concisely. Concise communication can often come across as terse. Try to look at the message itself.

Organize comments and suggestions.
Once you have read the review once or twice, read again while taking notes. List comments and organize them into meaningful categories. One list might consist of easy suggestions to address. Another will likely include suggestions that you need to think about. A third might be suggestions that you are inclined to ignore. You might later break the list down by content, for example, listing items regarding data analyses and interpretation, or the literature review.

Don’t ignore comments.
As you plan your revisions, be sure to address all comments. Remember that your mentor, dissertation committee, or reviewers have spent time reading, evaluating, and attempting to improve your work. They will expect to see that their advice is considered and their comments addressed. The more comments you receive, the more time your reader has spent considering your work. Ignoring a reviewer’s comments sends the message that you don’t value his or her work. While you don’t have to act on each suggestion, you should acknowledge and comment on each. If you don’t take a piece of advice, be prepared to explain why, which brings us to the next item.

Prepare a revision memo.
When you receive a recommendation to revise-and-resubmit a manuscript to a journal, it is customary and expected that a revision letter or memo will accompany your resubmission. An effective revision memo lists the substantive comments and suggestions made by reviewers and then notes how each is addressed in the revision. A revision memo is a useful preparation tool as it encourages you to consider and address all comments. Such a memo can be an important communication tool in your conversations with your advisor and dissertation committee. Even if not required, writing a revision memo can help you frame your work and ensure that you use feedback constructively. Consider writing revision memos in response to comments on your dissertation, even if you don’t share them with your committee. The process of writing a memo can help clarify your thinking – and it provides a record of your revisions that can help you document the evolution of your dissertation.

I’m not going to lie, receiving criticism is always challenging, but it gets easier. Devise a system that works for you so that you can take advantage of feedback and use it to improve your work

Apr 2, 2016

Make Grad School Papers Work Double Duty

Just about every class that you take in grad school will require you to write a paper, and often, multiple. New graduate students often approach writing grad school papers as they did undergraduate papers, by choosing topics that easily fulfill the course requirements. This approach will get you through your coursework, but your job as a grad student isn’t just to complete a marathon of coursework – it’s to become a professional. Take advantage of class papers as they are an opportunity to advance your own scholarly work.

How do you use class papers to your advantage?
It’s a little more difficult than choosing the topic that most easily fulfills the course assignment. Instead, think about your own academic interests. You may not have chosen a dissertation topic yet, but class papers are an opportunity to explore topics that can inform your own research. Carefully choose topics for your class assignments. Each paper you write should complete a course requirement, further your scholarly development, and help you figure out your own interests.

Make your papers serve dual purposes.
Choose a paper topic that will permit you to review an area of literature related to your interests. Use paper assignments to test your ideas. For example, not sure if a topic is complex, broad, or interesting enough to study for your dissertation? Integrate it into a term paper assignment and you’ll be able to do some research and thinking while completing a class assignment. The feedback that you get from your instructor can help guide your thinking. In this way, each assignment you write should do double duty: help you advance your own scholarly agenda (test ideas and get instructor feedback) and get course credit. 

This approach may not work for every class, but most students can find ways to integrate their interests with course goals and assignments. For example, consider a student in developmental psychology who is interested in adolescents who engage in risky behaviors such as drinking and drug use. While enrolled in a course in neuroscience, the student might examine how brain development influences risky behavior. A class in cognitive development might yield a paper examining the role of cognition in risky behavior. A personality course might push the student to look at personality characteristics that influence risk behavior. In this way the student examines multiple dimensions of his or her research topic while completing course requirements. Will this work for you? At least some of the time. It may be easier in some courses than others, but, regardless, it is worth a try.

Don’t submit the same paper twice.
That said, take care in how you plan and construct your papers and be sure to write different papers covering different angles of our topic for each class.  In other words, attend to ethical guidelines of writing. Submitting the same, slightly revised, paper for more than one assignment is unethical and will get you into a great deal of trouble. 

Class papers are opportunities to test ideas and get feedback about your ideas and writing style. Approach each paper assignment as an opportunity to fill in a clearly articulated gap in your knowledge. It takes a little more work, but there are big rewards.

Mar 12, 2016

Don't Let Stage Fright Interfere with Your Teaching

Ever stand in front of the class and feel shaky, jittery, or out of breath? Break into a sweat? Hear your own heartbeat? You’re not alone if you find it difficult to speak to a crowd. Symptoms like upset stomach, dizziness, and an inability to focus can completely derail your presentation. These feelings are common in new instructors, but even experienced instructors sometimes suffer from stage fright, especially on the first day of class.

As with most things in life, the hardest part about public speaking is beginning. Many instructors feel their anxiety rise just prior to class or while watching students walk into class. Once they begin the lesson the stage fright usually dissipates. What can you do during those stressful few minutes prior to class and at the start of class?

Establish a Pre-Class Ritual 
A ritual, or set of behaviors that you carry out before every class, can direct your energy in a positive way. Stop working 10 to 15 minutes before you must leave for class. Close the door, eliminate distractions. What you do next is up to you.

Some people find it helpful to engage in a physical activity. A set of jumping jacks, push-ups, or other exercises like a few squats or lunges can get your blood flowing and release some of the physical stress that accompanies anxiety. (This is why you close the door!). All it takes is a minute to make a difference.
  • Other people find a short mediation and quiet stillness comfortable. However, if anxiety leaves you with racing thoughts, it might take some practice to clear your mind.
  • In her well-known TED Talk Amy Cuddy suggests that your posture can change how you think and behave. Spread out and let your body take up as much space as possible. If sitting, spread your legs, stretch your arms out. If standing, pull yourself up into a superhero position with your hands on your hips and shoulders spread. Making your body stand tall and take up space can make you feel bigger and stronger and more confident. Regardless, stretching and moving around can’t hurt.
  • Choose a theme song. Athletes often use a song to pump themselves up. Consider yourself an intellectual athlete. What’s your song? What makes you feel upbeat and confident? The theme from Wonder Woman has been known to pop into my head from time to time.

Plan Transitions
How do you begin class? How do you move from one topic or activity to another? Plan your transitions to avoid awkward moments. One way to transition from topic to topic is to make your students do the work. Pose a question and ask students to write for a few minutes, then ask them to discuss their responses. This is an excellent way to begin class as it moves the focus away from you, reminds you that your students are individuals (many of whom also feel anxiety), and gives you time to acclimate.

In the Classroom, Prior to Class 
  • Employ a ritual for setting up your work space. If you’re busy there is little time to build anxiety. You might put your jacket and bag in a specific place, log into the computer, line up markers, pens, and paper, and organize handouts. Pull out your notes and find your place. A simple orderly way of preparing as students enter can acclimate you to the space and the many bodies within. 
  • Establish dominance. Anxiety is literally in your head. Acknowledge it and explain to yourself why it's unfounded. You know your stuff. You have a degree. You’re the expert. You know more about your subject than anyone in the room. Look around at the empty the room and remember that this is your room, your space to carry out your work. Own it. 
  • Greet students. Say hello or make eye contact and smile at students as they enter. Creating connections with individuals helps you remember that you’re speaking to many individuals, not an impenetrable wall. 

During Class 
Sounds like a cheesy commercial, but it works: Just do it. As you talk it gets easier and your nerves will subside.
  • Slow down. You know the material but your students do not. Anxiety makes us talk more quickly. Force yourself to stop. 
  • Pause. Check student comprehension is to pose a question. Ask students to write for a moment or two and follow with a brief discussion. When you feel overwhelmed, make students do the work. It reduces your pressure and is a legitimate way to promote learning. Win-win! 
  • Don't be afraid to rely on your notes. You have notes. If you suddenly feel overwhelmed, review them. Take a moment to gather your thoughts. Students will welcome the brief pause. 
  • Hide shakiness. If your hands tremble, place them on the lectern, desk, or at your sides. Hold one arm behind your back for a professional stance that hides a trembling hand. 
  • Take it one person at a time. Remember the individuals rather than the mass. Speak to one person in the room at a time Make eye contact.
Ultimately getting over stage fright entails changing your thinking. Although college teaching is often described as a performance, a more productive way of thinking about it is as communicating. Your job is to communicate what you know. Explain the field. Your students are looking for information, not a performance. You can reduce stage fright with consistent work.

Mar 7, 2016

On Advisors and Mentors

The terms advisor and mentor are often used interchangeably. After all, both provide advice and supervision. Students are often assigned an advisor upon admission to the graduate program. The assigned advisor helps the student select courses, usually incorporates the student into his or her lab, and may oversee the student’s dissertation. But advisors don’t always become mentors.

 A mentor is a guide, a trusted ally who facilitates a student’s growth and development through the graduate and postdoctoral years. Much of grad school is about socialization, learning the mores of the profession. For example, at conferences a mentor might introduce a student to colleagues, their professional network. Mentors also help in less visible ways by helping students understand their strengths, develop confidence, and begin to establish a sense of professional identity. Mentors often become invested in their protoges and find their students’ success very satisfying. The mentoring relationship often continues well after graduate school and is sometimes career-long.

Unfortunately, not all students have mentors. Similar to friendships, mentoring relationships are rooted in shared concerns and interests as well as chemistry. The emotional features of a mentoring relationship occur organically. Just like not all grad students will be best buddies, not all advisors will become mentors.

Are you doomed if you don’t have a mentor? Not as long as you connect with others in your program and field, developing formal and informal advising relationships. Savvy students develop advising relationships with multiple faculty and with more advanced students who can provide support, perspective, and advice on the various facets of professional life, including how to balance work and home life. Even students with mentors can benefit from interaction with multiple advisors.

Feb 28, 2016

Is it Procrastination or a Productive Pause?

Got a paper to write, stack of papers to grade, or class to plan? Scrolling through Instagram, Twitter, and random sites? Procrastination at its best. But is it really all that bad? Sure procrastination can stall your progress, but sometimes what looks like procrastination is really a productive pause.

Productive pause – is that simply word play? Maybe, but keeping a task in mind while fooling around on other activities is sometimes helpful. It’s incubation time, a chance to reflect on the paper, talk, or whatever, to be mindful. I don’t think we’re usually aware of this. We often procrastinate on stuff that we’re not quite sure how to begin. My writing flows – once I finally begin. I think this pause is helpful, if it doesn’t last too long.

Intentionally pausing, waiting to begin, can be useful. For example, a student may learn of an unexpected/forgotten exam. Panicked, he or she might immediately begin making flash cards. Intentionally pausing, even for a few hours, can prevent impulsive and potentially wasteful activity. If the student pauses to think about the content of the exam he or she might realize that flash cards aren’t the way to go (as is often the case) or even that work for other classes is more important. Often what seems important changes over time, sometimes even over the course of a day. Waiting is not always such a bad idea.

I'm a big fan of pausing before beginning a project and taking time to let ideas ferment. It gives me a moment to breathe and think. Of course there’s a dangerous flipside. Sometimes we pause in ways that feel productive because we are getting things done. The problem is that we may be getting the wrong things done. Ever get obsessed with your to-do list? I find that playing with my to-do list – trying out new apps, reorganizing, and such, can eat up a ton of time. I’m drawn to fiddling with my list when I’m overwhelmed and stressed – those times when I really need to act rather than pause. How do you know if your pause is productive or simply procrastination? I don’t really have the answer other than to be mindful. Periodically stop and quiz yourself: What are you getting out of the pause?

Sometimes procrastination is a sign. Putting off something might mean that it isn't right for you. If you find yourself having extreme difficulty working on a task, consider why. Are you truly invested in it? How can you use this knowledge in the future?