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.