The Job Search. Gulp.

Of late the job search within academia has been popularly compared to the Hunger Games.  It would be funny if it weren’t actually true.

Having worked for two years between my completing my Master’s degree and entering the Ph.D. program in art history, I’ve had the benefit of going through this ringer before.  While I have no idea if my experience was typical, it was definitely a trial, and I suspect that writing about it can only help anyone else going through this phase of graduate school.  Either you’ll relate, or you’ll enjoy a bit of schadenfreude.  Without further ado, What I Learned About the Job Search:

1. Don’t take it personally.  If you didn’t get the job, or even an interview, it sure feels like the hiring committee has weighed you, measured you and found you wanting. But having been on the other side of the hiring process too, I think I can say with some certainty that nobody was sitting with their feet up on a conference table, throwing darts at a copy of your CV tacked to the wall and joking that you must have been mad to apply in the first place.  I have been in the room when hiring decisions were made, and no one cackled like a Bond villain over rejected résumés.  A rejection letter often has nothing to do with you.  In my field of art history, for instance, perhaps a museum’s upcoming exhibition schedule dovetailed beautifully with another applicant’s thesis on Rembrandt.  It didn’t mean other applicants couldn’t do the job.  So it’s not you. You’re lovely.  And qualified.

2. It could take awhile.  After my M.A. program, I spent about six months sending my CV to anyone who would take it, applying for anything remotely within the realm of possibility.  In all, I sent out 52 applications and got two interviews and one offer.  A few months later, I was chatting with a senior member of the museum staff at an office happy hour, comparing war stories.  After his Ph.D., he’d sent out 125 cover letters.  Maybe you’ll find something immediately, but be prepared for a marathon, not a sprint.

3. It’s not the end of the world.  It just feels like it. Every day I made a point of checking the same sites and searching the same fields – and then trying new ones just in case they yielded anything.  Most days, it came to nothing, and it was so very easy to be glum.  But chin up.  Sometimes things get worse before they get better – it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason.

4.  Network.  Eat something.  Network.  Coffee break.  Network.  Then network some more.  I have to admit, I’m not so great at this, since networking in academia can entail attending conferences, which in turn entail registration fees and travel expenses. While they may not amount to a fortune, a small pile of coins can be a fortune in grad school.  But things like alumni associations can be useful as well, along with social media such as academia.edu or LinkedIn.  And not all functions are pricey – be on the lookout for things you can afford to do.

I’m no expert, and for all the advice I’m dishing out, I will probably let the job search get to me every now and then.  It’s hard out there for a prof, especially if you have to take a series of adjunct jobs to string together a meager income.  (It happens.  A lot. When even fashion magazines are talking about this, you know it’s officially a thing.) But armed with the knowledge that hiring decisions, while not always in my favor, are often the result of a perfect storm of events having little or nothing to do with me, maybe I’ll have fewer sleepless nights.

What advice do you have for people entering the job search?

Posted in advice, career planning, health & wellness | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Teaching Assistants: Teachers in Training

Serving as a graduate Teaching Assistant or “TA” provides graduate students with opportunities to experience and learn what it is like to teach. The role of the TA often depends on her/his subject matter expertise for the course. Whether serving as a professor’s assistant or primary teaching support, teaching class part-time, or as the primary teacher for a course, a graduate student TA experiences firsthand the joys and challenges of teaching. Serving as a TA is often the first real teaching experience for those aspiring to become a faculty member. Although TA’s usually have experience performing research, writing, and working with colleagues both faculty and graduate students alike, they often lack real teaching experience. Serving as a TA helps them understand the important difference of being in front of the classroom and sitting within it.

TA’s are compensated. TA’s receive a significant stipend plus payment of their tuition and fees. In return, TA’s work 20 hours per week. TA’s usually have some background in the course or courses for which they serve as a TA. TA’s often have taken the course or related courses for which they serve as a TA. In return, TA’s often have office or lab hours in which they work with students. TA’s help grade exams and papers subject to the professor’s judgment. Also, TA’s may lead exam review sessions. Most importantly, professors often assign TA’s to work one-on-one with students having difficulty with the course.

All of the TA’s roles and responsibilities not only assist the professor, help students learn the course’s content, and build a sense of classroom community but also provide the TA with valuable training. How well a TA benefits from this training is directly related to how well s/he teaches when s/he becomes a professor. This training enables a TA to better communicate her/his expertise to her/his students when s/he becomes a faculty member. Serving as a TA is integral to a TA’s success when s/he becomes a professor because the experience will enable her/him to teach more effectively and enhance students’ learning.

Posted in teaching | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sometimes in grad school, the days are dark…

It’s spring! It’s spring!

Well…it sort of is. The calendar says that spring is here, but the weather doesn’t really seem to have taken the hint. But the days are slowly getting longer, and the sun seems to shine brighter.

But for some of us grad students, the days still seem dark. Depression is common in grad school, so much so, that we joke that it is the normal state of graduate students. And to some extent, this is true: sometimes our work will get us down. However, prolonged periods of feeling down (or suicidal) might actually be a sign of actual clinical depression or another mental health problem. (There’s even a NY Times article and a Science Careers article about it.) And for as much as we talk about grad school making us depressed, we don’t seek help often enough, nor do we encourage others to do so.

So this is a short post to remind you that if the days seem really dark, reach out to someone. Rutgers provides counseling services to all students, and don’t be afraid or ashamed to take advantage of them. In fact, Rutgers Counseling, ADAP and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) has a special program just for graduate students, because they know that we face unique challenges.

Even if you don’t think that you have a serious mental health issue, sometimes it’s just nice to have someone listen. And I promise that it doesn’t mean that you’re less brilliant or capable than your peers.

Hopefully as summer draws closer, we will see many more bright days.

Posted in advice, balance, health & wellness | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Surviving Grad School: Some Advice

As my graduate student career slowly, slowly comes to an end, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons and skills that I’ve learned along the way. As graduate students, sometimes (actually, most of the time) our graduate work consumes us, and we can lose sight of all the other things that happen around us. Here are a few key things that I’ve learned and that have kept me sane throughout this experience:

  1. Community: the very nature of grad school is isolating. You’re working on a novel project, which few people outside your lab or department understand. You see the same five (or ten, or whatever) people every day. Your loved ones don’t really understand what you do, or why (they might think that you’re just an overgrown college student). So it’s very, very important to build a small community of people to walk with you through this experience. Friends who will drag you out of the lab to have lunch before you forget to eat. Colleagues who will remind you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Mentors who will encourage you to press on when you’ve convinced yourself that you can’t do it.
  2. Diversify: have a side project that you work on in the lab. Learn a new skill like coding or data visualization. Teach and get one of the TA Project teaching certificates as well. Start a blog (or write for this one! =D). Take something out of this graduate school experience which isn’t just your dissertation project. It will keep you busy when you’re waiting for cells to grow, or to get comments back on your writing. It will give you something to make your resume/CV stand out when you’re looking for jobs or postdocs. It will introduce you to new people or things. It will give you a place to channel your pent-up frustrations.
  3. Step away: Yes. Step. away. from. the. bench. Or laptop. Or desk. Remind yourself of the world outside the ivory tower. Hang out with people with whom you talk about things other than your work. Take a walk and enjoy nature. But just do something, sometimes, to help you clear your head.

What are some other bits of advice you have for surviving graduate school?

Posted in advice, balance, grad student life, health & wellness | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Magic of Motivation

At some point, while you have been reading articles for classes, attending seminars, teaching and occasionally collecting data, you have progressed into the later years of your PhD.  One day you will realize, “Hey, I’m getting there!” and simultaneously feel “Ugh, so much more to do.”  This is the point in time when your motivation is as necessary as your experimental controls.  Why does this point in time happen so abruptly and how do you keep moving past it?

First, let’s briefly consider why this dichotomy of optimism and frustration occurs.  I think it has to do with the grand scope of a PhD program.  The large, amorphous goal is to develop, execute and communicate a project of to-be-determined size, depth and importance.  What you find at the end may be completely different than what you thought when you started.  And there is no simple roadmap of how to get from Point A to Point B while hitting all the landmarks in between.

From Point A to Point B

Our minds (and hearts) often have difficulty wading through the small details of a big picture. To better allow our brains to get to the end point, we need to set smaller, intermediate goals.  Now you may think, “Goal setting is obviously important for getting my papers written and my   experiments completed, but how does this help my motivation?”   Not only do these intermediate goals enable us to manage the day-to-day, they help us see progress on the messy path to Point B.  This article on mindtools.com has some great tips for goal setting and utilizing these goals as a compass toward your big picture.

Goal setting seems like the practical explanation to the question of how to maintain motivation.  I really appreciated this TIME article’s not-so-logical explanation of productivity loss.   Life is not just logic, and emotions alter our productivity and motivation.  So, what to do when you have an experiment that is just not working, your advisor asking you to do more and the feeling of frustration and fatigue inhibiting every reasonable plan of action? Here are three magical suggestions:

  1. Stay Positive: Whatever is going wrong is temporary and not the end.  If you are relating to this article, it is because you are in the middle of the long journey.  This means you have accomplished A LOT on your way to this point.  Remember all of those experiments that have gone well, those papers that you have really liked, that conference talk that was awesome.
  2. Get Rewarded: Tom and Donna from Parks and Recreation have this one solid with “Treat Yo’self Day.”  You don’t need a reason – you’ll feel happy and much more excited to get back to the grind.
  3. Get Peer Pressure: You care what your friends think, so use them!  Ask them to push you toward that scholarship deadline or paper outline.  Be deadline buddies and set dates to check in on your progress.

There is no one path to a PhD or one solution for staying motivated, so these tips are as good a place to start as any.  Slow days will come and go.  Stick with it.  There is light at the end of the tunnel…

Posted in advice, balance, dissertation, grad student life, PhD | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

March Mad-Scientist

It’s probably been too long since I wrote when I have trouble remembering my password to submit this post. There have been times during grad school when I could easily blame laziness as an excuse, but the past four weeks have been the most taxing and stressful of my academic career: finalizing my dissertation.

So here I am, writing this, in my possession a fully revised and edited document containing over 31,000 words thinking that while my defense is still ahead of me, do I feel much different than I did before sending my final draft to my committee? Okay, bad example, that e-mail had so many emotions tangled together before hitting that Send button.  Let’s go back an hour earlier to when I packaged my Word document into a .pdf and finally had time to exhale. Breath in……and…..out.

I was surprised at how little I felt. Now, maybe this isn’t the case for other people, but I had this preconceived notion that finishing your dissertation should feel like this monumental moment in your life, the culmination of 4+ years potentially ending in you never being labeled a “student” again.  That all those sleepless nights or worse, nights you slept and dreamt about your dissertation, were going to stand for something and you’d have this sense of pride and accomplishment. For me, nothing.

Through the process of writing, editing, yelling obscenities at Microsoft Word, editing, fixing graphs in Excel, and (still more) editing, I started to see places in my results that opened up not holes, but passages for future and additional work that could show critical information. Information that would allow our whole research group to make stronger conclusions about our respective individual projects and potentially what they could mean for the scientific community. So, despite not feeling any changes, those thoughts made me realize one thing. It was time for me to go and maybe that was THE difference.

Posted in academics, dissertation, grad student life | Tagged , , | Leave a comment