Dr. Jekyll v Ms. Hyde – The truth about picking an adviser

The truth is picking your adviser is one of the most important decisions you will make in your graduate career and also one of the least informed.  While you may spend hours deliberating topics and personalities, it is unlikely you will make your decision with a full picture of who that person is or what your research with them will be like.  It’s a gamble.  Your assessment of that person and their lab may be entirely accurate or incomplete when you choose to work with him/her.

If you are entering a program that doesn’t automatically pair you with your advisor (like many at Rutgers, including Nutritional Sciences), you are tasked speed-meeting the potential mentors.  You may narrow down your choices and spend a little time in 2 or 3 different labs.  Then you have the monumental task of choosing the person who will be your mentor for the next 4-7 years.  So how do you choose?  What should you consider?

Brandon wrote a post  in the fall about his choice of adviser and provided great advice on picking “someone you are comfortable becoming yourself.”  I can personally relate to this comment, seeing now how I have learned habits and behaviors from my own adviser.  In addition to picking a mentor who you admire, here are a few other reasons you may select an adviser:

  • The lab is Amazing! – Possibly the lab has all of the equipment that you have dreamed of.  Or the people who work in the lab are your soon-to-be best friends.  Consider that you will spend a lot of time in the physical lab and working with the people.  Pick a place you feel comfortable.
  • The schedule is Amazing! – Maybe you are trying to figure out the 4-hour graduate work week.  If so, you probably don’t want an adviser who expects you at your desk or in the lab 8am – 5pm every day.  If you hate trying to communicate via email and want to see your adviser everyday, picking one who travels a lot may not be the best option.  Pick someone whose work style aligns with your own.
  • The research project is Amazing! – You may have your heart set on studying earthworms.  If so, definitely find the adviser who will nurture your passion and combine it with his/her own.  Remember, research projects always go in unexpected directions.  So if the initial project isn’t exactly what you want, you may later be able to incorporate the things that interest you.
  • The funding is Amazing! – It’s a tough market for graduate students.  If your primary objective is a study support stream, go towards the gold.  Even if this adviser doesn’t have his/her own funding, he/she may be your biggest ally in securing funding through fellowship, grant or teaching assistanceship.  Make sure they are invested in supporting you.
  • My CV will be Amazing! – This adviser may not be your cheerleader, may not be around much, may not be super interested in your project.  However, he/she knows how to get you publications, books, presentations, fellowships, etc.  He/she will drive you to your full potential as a graduate student.

As I consider my experience and other newer students’ experiences choosing an adviser, I realize that you have to gamble.  Decide what is important to you first so you are collecting relevant information.  Within your program, ask the advanced students more details about your options.  Ask your program directors for advice.  Make the most informed roll of the dice that you can.

What other factors did you consider in picking an adviser?  Was your gamble a good one?  Please share your stories on this subject!

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…

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.

Educational Research

In the field of education, there are many opportunities for research using a variety of methods. As part of the doctoral program, all students are required to take 4 courses in research methods divided between qualitative and quantitative methods. Depending on the research interest of the student, they may select either methodology, or a combination of both. Quantitative research is research that uses numerical data analysis to support a hypothesis. This type of research is done when conducting program evaluation or when looking for statistical support for a position. Qualitative research is done when the researcher is looking to explain a particular phenomenon. This includes case studies, ethnographies, narrative descriptions, etc.

As part of the research sequence, many doctoral students in the field of education conduct a pilot study. These studies, although they are conducted as part of the qualitative methods course, tend to combine qualitative and quantitative methods to some extent. The pilot study allows students to go into a setting similar to that in which they hope to conduct their dissertation research and get a first-hand sense of what conducting qualitative research is like. In this study, students may take field notes, conduct interviews, analyze documents, survey individuals, and practice any other techniques that they may find useful in their future research. Overall, the research methodologies sequence at the Graduate School of Education is extremely useful in identifying the methods that will be most helpful in conducting dissertation research.