“Sabbaticals” for graduate students

Dynamic Ecology is a fantastic blog (written by a small group of contributors) on various topics in academic research and careers, especially in evolution and ecology.  They just featured a provocative new post advancing the idea of taking a “graduate student sabbatical” — when a grad student spends a long period of time somewhere outside of his/her home institution — to achieve research goals (e.g., forming a new collaboration, facilitating field work) or to accommodate family needs (e.g., a significant other with a job elsewhere).  Usually we only think of sabbaticals for faculty members, but grad students often do similar things all the time, even if we typically don’t call them sabbaticals.  It’s a fascinating angle, I recommend checking it out!

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Reflections and Advice after Many Semesters

Last month, fellow blogger Brian Tholl wrote some advice about the graduate experience from his perspective as a first year graduate student. I think his advice is very useful and informative, and I want to reiterate some of it and add some advice from the perspective of a senior graduate student.

Brian is right, that transitioning into graduate studies can be difficult, and although the process is unique to each of us, much of his advice is likely to be useful to graduate students (even senior students like me). However, graduate school is itself a series of transitions, including admission, coursework, one or more qualifying exams, preliminary thesis work, intensive field work, lab work, research work or other studies, and thesis writing – not to mention teaching, personal life, and myriad other responsibilities unrelated the completion of the degree.

Graduate school is about transition — growth and change as a scholar, researcher, and educator is achieved throughout these transitions. It is important for graduate students to map out their graduate experience, which may vary from field to field, advisor to advisor, even student to student. But it is important to have reasonable expectations about what one wishes to accomplish at each stage of the degree program, information one should be seeking from one’s graduate director, advisor, and other faculty. Besides having day-to-day plans about when and where to invest one’s time, graduate students should have a structured and firm grasp of what their long-term goals are and how to accomplish them.

Organizing one’s free time is critical for first year students, and that will not change throughout one’s graduate studies and after. The responsibilities of graduate students (and in their futures as faculty, scholars, educators, or work) are usually task-oriented, rather than time-oriented. Significantly, these tasks are often very large, high-level goals, e.g. “write a thesis”, rather than simple short-term tasks, e.g. read XYZ paper in ABC journal for next week. Besides allocating time appropriately, it’s important to break down large tasks into small, feasible subitems and complete those subitems on a reasonable (not too lofty, not too lazy) schedule. Constructing these goals and setting them in a reasonable fashion allows students to complete seemingly impossible tasks, e.g. “write a thesis”, by working through a series of smaller, more tangible tasks.

Brian also mentions that graduate students should participate in social events, look after one’s health, and try to reduce stress. Learning to manage the demands and stresses of research work is a very important part of graduate school. It is indeed important for us to prioritize appropriately healthcare, healthy eating, stress-relief, and sleep. The time and money we spend on these may seem like a waste, because every waking hour could be spent working on our theses. But to the contrary, if we have a good perspective on our progress towards completing a degree, and taking care of our other obligations, e.g. teaching, we do have enough time.

Taking care of oneself will result in more effective and efficient research or teaching. There is a point of diminishing returns when a graduate student spends too much time working. I’m not saying don’t work hard — hard work is important, and we are all aware that graduate students may work 60+ hours per week, but in the remaining 80 or 100 hours, we should set aside time for eating right, sleeping adequately, and taking some personal time to relax and stay sane.

I will offer some other practical advice briefly, as a list rather than expounding at length:

  • Have conversations. All the time, with everyone, talk about research, talk about teaching, talk about anything. Use your friends and colleagues as sounding boards, discuss your challenges with your advisor, and really listen when people do the same with you.
  • Attend seminars, workshops, conferences. These are informative and fun, and should help you expand your scholarly boundaries. Even if the topics are tangential or unrelated to your research, you will learn much and may find hidden connections or new interests. This is also a useful way to do “networking.”
  • Teach your own classes whenever possible. This requires a huge time investment compared to TA work in recitations, lab sections, grading, etc. but is an incredibly important part of professional development. Even if you only teach one class for one summer, that’s a great opportunity to get teaching experience.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff, at least, not every time. Graduate students aspire to be scholars, educators, and leaders in their fields of study, which often requires incredible attention to detail. However, it is important to recognize which details are crucial and which are expendable. There is that metaphor about the forest and the trees — don’t get lost!

Marie desJardins has written an excellent, lengthy guide to being a graduate student, and while not all her advice will apply to every single student, it is actually very relevant to most of us and is a very useful and frequently cited tome of advice for graduate students.

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Making the most of scientific conferences

Conference experiences have been explored a few times on this blog before, but given the apparent diversity of conference formats across disciplines, I think another perspective might be valuable.  The topic is particularly on my mind since I recently attended the American Physical Society (the major professional society for physicists) March Meeting, which took place in Denver this year.  March Meeting is by no means the only important conference in the physical sciences, but it is probably the biggest — almost 10,000 people, from undergrads to Nobel Prize winners, attend from all around the world.

I’ve been to March Meeting three times now, plus a few smaller conferences.  Now that I’m nearing the end of graduate school, it thus seems like a sensible time to reflect on how to make the most of these trips.  Optimizing your conference experience is important, since conferences are usually a substantial investment of your time, energy, and money (maybe your advisor’s money, but still…), and they can be key opportunities to advance your career.  So here are some thoughts on the matter I’ve acquired over the past few years:

  • Don’t try to attend everything.  This was probably my biggest mistake at earlier conferences, and I think it’s a common one to make.  It’s so easy to have eyes bigger than your brain when you look at the schedule of talks.  I would try to attend everything the first day or two, and then I would inevitably burn out and end up missing or sleepwalking through some more important events later on.  Try to prioritize the absolute most important things on the schedule before the trip, and make a reasonable plan of how much you can actually do.  Be conservative with your judgment.  It’s better to sleep late and attend only a few talks that you really pay attention to, rather than to wake up early and attend everything but be so tired that you don’t learn anything.  So how should your prioritize events?  Well…..
  • Meeting people is the most important thing.  Specifically, it is more important than any talk.  Talks definitely can be useful — they put your finger on the pulse of cutting-edge research and can expand your breadth in unexpected ways — but there are still alternative ways of learning about research.  You can always read someone’s papers if you really want to know about their work.  But there is no substitute for interacting with people face-to-face at a conference.  This is how you form new collaborations and meet people who may someday offer you a job.  So when budgeting your time and energy, opportunities to meet people should always come first.  Skip the talks and just go to the reception afterward if you have to.  Now that I’ve stressed its importance, how do you actually go about meeting people?
  • Be a little shameless.  It’s hard to summon the courage to ask questions during a talk or introduce yourself to someone new, especially when they are much more senior and your questions and ideas seem naive.  But you have to be a little shameless and do it anyway.  The particle physicist Tommaso Dorigo has some nice ideas on his blog about how to come up with questions for these occasions.  The point is that even if your questions are a bit vacuous, or your attempt to introduce yourself and shake hands with that famous person feels awkward and forced, the mere process of getting practice doing it will be beneficial.  By the time your questions and ideas are more substantial, you’ll already feel quite comfortable speaking up.  Despite science’s reputation as being the domain of introverts and nerds, in my experience the scientific community rewards assertive, outgoing social behavior, people who are aggressive about seeking knowledge and maybe even a little self-promoting.  Being “that person who keeps asking questions” will make you stand out and gain respect as a passionate seeker of knowledge.  I played such a role at a few events in the past (ones with small audiences, which made this a lot easier), and several people even told me afterward that they noticed me because of all my questions.  Hopefully I wasn’t too annoying, but at least they noticed me!  But besides meeting new people from scratch, a much easier route is to…..
  • Use your existing connections to make new ones.  It’s always easier to meet people through people you already know.  So if you already know one or two people at a conference, spend enough time with them to meet some of the other people they know.  Getting to know grad students or postdocs at other institutions is a great strategy: as a grad student yourself, it’s usually not too hard to meet and get quality time with other young people (compared to, say, faculty), and once you get to know each other, they should be more than happy to introduce you to their friends at their own institution or other people they happen to know.  And you can do the same for them.  Finally, once you’ve met some new people…..
  • Follow up with the new people that you meet.  This can be tricky, but it’s important if you want those new connections to last.  I have been able to invite a few people I met at previous events to give seminars for our group here at Rutgers, which obviously helped a good deal in solidifying those relationships.  But that’s not always possible.  Sometimes it’s reasonable to send a follow up e-mail to someone you just met.  For example, you might talk to someone about a paper they wrote, and after you go home and read it, you could easily send them an e-mail with a generic pleasantry (“It was nice to meet you at that conference…”) followed by a question or two about the paper.  There’s no need to be sycophantic, but if you are honestly interested in their work, it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a few genuine questions.  A short e-mail exchange like this will go a long way in preventing you both from forgetting each other.  In the worst case, try to track down your new contacts at the next conference, even if it’s a year or two in the future.  They’ll probably be flattered that you remembered them and reached out.  If your memory for names and faces isn’t acute, find other ways of keeping track of the people you meet: for example, you can ask for business cards (not common in science, but apparently common in other disciplines) or keep a list of professional contacts.

I’m sure five years from now my views on conference-going will have evolved even further, but the foregoing points have at least served me well as I finish up my Ph.D. and prepare for the next stage.  So I hope someone else will find them useful as well.  In any case, I’m sure these issues probably vary widely across disciplines (and even within a discipline, too, depending on the conference), so different perspectives are welcome in the comments!

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On the Digital Humanities

I recently attended a talk sponsored by the MLIS Colloquium Speaker Series at Rutgers University titled “Digital Humanities: New Roles for Libraries.”  The panel consisted of a diverse group of Digital Humanities scholars, staff, librarians, and specialists who discussed a broad range of topics ranging from an overview of the Digital Humanities to the specific roles of the various members of the panel.  As a PhD student in the Humanities, it was fascinating to learn about the general role of the Digital Humanities as well as the role they can play in my own scholarship.  The panel allowed me to consider the benefits of this kind of technology in academia, and to think about scholarship in ways that I had not previously thought about it.  In the following paragraphs, I intend to share my learning experience with you!

Perhaps an obvious, but very important aspect of the Digital Humanities is that it allows us to conduct research remotely.  The example provided was the Jazz Oral History Project at Rutgers – a project devoted to the recording and digitization of the oral history of jazz musicians and their profession.  By digitizing the oral history interviews, we are able to access these materials from any location, thus eliminating the need to travel to conduct research.

The most interesting aspect about this project, however, is the notion that it changes the way we study history.  We are no longer simply memorizing important people and eventful dates, but instead listening to and learning from the seminal figures that lived this history and are providing us with the opportunity to rewrite it.  As one of the panelists stated, we are experiencing history through storytelling, arguably more exciting than the traditional experience we are used to.

I think the greatest potential of the Digital Humanities lies in the opportunity for collaboration.  Digital Humanities librarians are able to work with scholars from many different departments of the university.  Furthermore, the Digital Humanities can bring together researchers from two seemingly disparate fields, such as Foreign Languages and Computer Science.  This allows for various networking and professional exchanges, but it also provides the opportunity to consider your research from different and multidisciplinary perspectives.  I believe this is especially relevant in today’s academic world; STEM disciplines and the Humanities are often at odds with each other, but it is truly in our best interests to narrow the gap between the two and take advantage of the chance to collaborate.

The Digital Humanities will undoubtedly continue to evolve and prove to be a valuable tool in academic research.  In a world of continual scholarly production across multiple disciplines, the Digital Humanities allows us to engage in both technical and creative endeavors, providing us the opportunity to expand our work and the collective knowledge of humanity in previously unthinkable ways.

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Workshop Podcasts Now Available

In response to requests, selected Project AGER workshops will now be recorded, when feasible, and posted on the new “Podcasts” page on this blog.

Two podcasts are now available:  Turning your dissertation into a book or article, presented by Chie Ikeya, Assistant Professor, History Department, 2/12/2014, and Careers in Academe: Issues to Consider, presented by Dean Barbara Bender, GSNB.  They are here.

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Informational interviewing: Getting your foot in the door before you need a job

As I wrote in a previous post, this past summer I was an intern at the Department of State in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary.  In addition to experiencing the State Department work culture I attended invaluable career development workshops.  I’ve summarized here the information I obtained on Informational Interviewing, a skill I used extensively to build my network while in DC.

We have all heard that networking is the key to getting a job, so we attend conferences, career fairs, and join relevant professional societies.  However one type of networking students may be less aware of is informational interviewing.  This is when you meet with “connected” or “knowledgeable” professionals in your career field of interest.  The purpose of these meetings is not to obtain a job offer but instead to gather information, advice, referrals, and support.  These interviews are different from a job interview in that you take the initiative in conducting the interview by asking the questions.

These meetings allow you the opportunity to gather valuable information about potential career fields, companies, schools or organizations that you may want to work for in the future.  It lets you discover and explore previously unknown areas in your field and potential job leads.  It may expose you to important issues in your field of interest and also allows you to enlarge your network of contacts, by building on referrals.

When arranging for an informational interview briefly introduce yourself and explain why you want to meet them.  Let them know what type of information you are interested in and clarify that you are not looking for a job.  If you were referred by someone else make sure to mention that person’s name.  Make sure to acknowledge the value of the other person’s time so ask for only 20-30 minutes of their time.  If you are going to initiate contact over the phone have a script ready so that you cover all these aspects without having to think about what to say.  If you prefer contact by email, you should include what you are currently doing, a brief background on yourself, your referral or connection, and what you are looking for from that person.

In preparing for the interview learn as much as you can about the organization and the individual with whom you will meet.  Make sure to prepare and write down the questions that you will ask.  Develop priorities for the interview so that you get the most important information from the contact that you can.  Some example questions are:

- How did you get into this line of work?

- What has been your career path?

- What skills do you need to be successful in the job/field/organization?

- What associations and professional membership organizations do you find most useful?

- Whom else should I talk with and may I use your name when I contact him/her?

When conducting the interview make sure to arrive on time and restate the purpose of your meeting.  Focus on getting answers to your most important questions and don’t forget to ask for advice, information and referrals.  Make sure to stick to the time frame that you asked for originally and do not offer a resume unless asked.  Thank the individual and ask if you may keep in touch, typically by connecting on LinkedIn.  Within 24 hours you should follow up with a thank you note.  You can then periodically keep in touch.

Informational interviewing can help you to make better, more informed career decisions, and be more knowledgeable about positions or organizations of interest.  It also gives you experience and self-confidence in discussing your career interests for job interviews.  This is also an invaluable way to make you visible and connected to the job market.  Additionally, potential contacts are much more likely to take time out of their busy schedule to meet and help you if you are a student.  Informational interviewing is the method by which 70% of people get their next job offer and allows you to develop your networking skills even when not looking for a job.

Adapted from Department of State: Career Development Resources Center PowerPoint “Informational Interviewing: A powerful networking tool”.

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Reflections and Advice After My First Semester

The transition into graduate school can be tough, and as a first-year student I was undoubtedly plagued by fears, both rational and irrational.  As the spring semester is now in full swing and I have had ample time to reflect on my first semester of graduate school, I’d like to share some advice that helped me get through my first semester.

Organizing your “free time” is the key to success

Some students may argue that free time in graduate school is an illusion, and to a certain degree I agree with them.  As a Graduate Fellow, I do not currently have any teaching responsibilities.  I attend class four times per week and the rest of my time is “free.”  This is inevitably spent reading and preparing for those four classes, but it can be easy to fall into the trap of putting those readings off.  I’ve found that it’s best to create a schedule and to stick with it the whole semester.  Unfortunately, life doesn’t stop in graduate school, and you will certainly be forced to deviate from your schedule, but creating one in the first place will be extremely helpful throughout the year.

Find a great place to study

Knowing that you have a favorite spot where you are guaranteed to be productive is a relaxing feeling.  Whether you are buried among the stacks in the library or hidden in the corner of your favorite coffee shop, a familiar environment in which you can motivate yourself to do work will yield great results throughout your graduate career.  Furthermore, chances are someone else has made this their habitual study spot, so it’s also a great way to make new friends!

Take advantage of Grad Student Tuesday/Thursday

Although it’s great to have a specific study spot, it doesn’t hurt to change it up a bit.  Every Tuesday and Thursday on the College Avenue Campus, food and drinks are provided in the Graduate Student Lounge (GSL).  You can certainly benefit from a break, and the GSL offers a more casual environment for studying.  At the same time, you will be among other graduate students, and it’s nice to know that you are surrounded by others who share a similar lifestyle.

Look after your physical and mental well-being

This is the most important piece of advice I can offer, but is sadly one that is overlooked by many graduate students.   We all get worried and stressed about deadlines and the amount of work we need to complete; it may often seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day.  Unfortunately, this may lead to poor management of our body and mind.  This coincides directly with our organizational skills – it is important to plan a time during the day to take a break from studying to go to the gym, take a walk around campus, read a book for pleasure, or to do whatever you would like.  It is also important to eat healthy and to eat regular meals.  Preparing a meal may seem like a burden after a long day of work, but it is extremely important.  I have found it helpful to plan and prepare meals for the following week every weekend.  This eliminates the possibility that you come home and realize that you need to go grocery shopping in order to eat that night.

Other concerns or advice you think is helpful for other students?  Leave a comment!

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