Category Archives: Idea Generation

Remember: Even If You Feel Behind, You’re Not Losing

Sometimes grad school can be a little intimidating. You’re surrounded by brilliant people all the time, and you might start wondering how you fit in.

Especially during the first weeks of a new semester, it seems like everyone has something exciting to report, and you begin to feel stuck and small.

It can be hard to remember that you’re brilliant, too.  That’s why they picked you.

Here are some ways to get you out of your funk and back into the game.

Think about it for a minute

Someone somewhere in your department had faith in your ideas. They read what you wrote, looked at what you’ve done, and decided to train you. You are worth their time (and their grant money). Your adviser, your mentors, and your entire university is vested in your advancement. They care about you.

Talk to another (more experienced) grad student

The more advanced grad students have done it all. Seriously, go find one and pick their brains. Vent to them about your coursework, your ideas, your IRB troubles…whatever. They will likely have ideas or tips from their own experiences. Or at the very least be able to lend a sympathetic ear.

Talk to Your Adviser

And make the most of it. Remember, if you’re the Olympic athlete, your adviser is your coach. Listen and learn.

Get Organized

It’s incredible how much information is out there. I use Evernote to keep track of articles and classnotes that I find helpful. That way they are neat and searchable for when I need them.

Make a (Minimalist) Game Plan

Leo Babauta calls it his three Most Important Tasks. Before you go to bed, list out the three most important things on your to-do list for the next day. When you wake up, address these three tasks first. That way, if nothing else, you accomplish something related to your goals.

Make a (Complex) Game Plan

Maybe you want more than Leo’s method. You like big checklists and huge plans. You want to plan out your time for the entire month.  Look no further than Productive Flourishing’s free planners.  These things are amazing because they encourage objective-based planning. Set goals, and define your path towards them.

Most importantly…

Remember that you’re not losing. Graduate endeavors are individualistic affairs. For the most part, you set your own path and determine how far you go. 

Look at others around you for inspiration and encouragement. Collaborate and commiserate when you need help. But ultimately, you will look forward to focus on your own goals and cross your own finish line.

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6 Savvy Ways to Help Your Adviser Help You

You’ve just started graduate school, and now you’re completely lost.

Or maybe you’ve realized that this is your third or fourth (or nth) year. And you’re completely lost.

“What did I get myself into?”

But wait. Before you panic, there is one person who has been chosen as your superhero. Your adviser.

If you’ve chosen to study under this person, chances are your goals are similar to their accomplishments. They can be a gold mine of information if you only know how to ask. But how do you even ask for help when you’re still learning the language?  How do you get their valuable feedback and time when you have a very important person with very important things to do as an adviser?

Here are 6 ways to make it easy for them to help you. The first three are for before you meet with your adviser, and the last three are for meetings with them.

Before the meeting…

1. Start with structure.

You didn’t just come to graduate school on a whim. You have a mission. Take a look at your personal statement. This is the piece of you that convinced your department to take you on as a graduate student. What made you the compelling choice? Write down 3 goals you have for your graduate career. This focuses your mind and nips panic mode.

2. Make a Master Task List

Take those 3 goals you came up with and list everything you need to do to accomplish them. Split the list into immediate (1-2 weeks), short term (3-6 months), and long term tasks (years). This list will get longer as you progress (and certainly after you meet with your adviser).

3. Know what You Want to Know

Your adviser isn’t a mind reader. They don’t know what you don’t know. Their minds are occupied by numerous projects and duties and classes. You have to do the active thinking about what you need to know.  Keep a running list of questions to ask them, and keep it current. Evernote is a wonderful tool for this.

During the meeting…

4. Don’t Waste Their Time

Outline your expectations early. If you called this meeting for a purpose, tell them exactly what that purpose is and what you hope to get out of talking with them. It’s their job to help you (and most are eager to do so). Tell them what you need. Hint: refer back to your Master Task List and Question List.

5. Agree on Deliverables (and then provide them on time)

Advisers are great at providing feedback on something tangible. Agree on a deliverable to have by your next meeting. This does two things: 1) It keeps you on track and focused, and 2) It gives your adviser a way to appraise your work and offer suggestions.

6. Don’t be Afraid to Look Stupid. Just Ask.

You will look stupid at some point. Get over it, and ask your question.

Remember, you are not alone in this journey. Your adviser is there to, well, advise you. Take advantage of their experience and expertise to get unstuck and get going.

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How to be Understood in Grad School: Speak the Language

Have you ever written something you thought was brilliant and then reread it a week later and have no idea what you meant? Or had it covered in red comments from your adviser?

Do you get overwhelmed and mumble something unintelligible when someone asks you “what you’re studying”?

You are a smart, capable person. But…

You don’t speak the language.

It all comes back to the words. The majority of what you want to say has been said more concisely and eloquently by someone else already. I think this is safe to assume for all graduate students. We’re learning. It’s ok.

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel by explaining difficult concepts “creatively”. What you think is clever wording is probably unintelligible to the person listening to you.

There is a unique language in each field of study. Adopt that language as soon as possible. Veterans in your field speak it fluently while baby grad students stutter along.

I’m not just talking about jargon (though that could be a large part). I’m referring to the way professionals in your field talk about your subject, the phrases they use, and the style of the questions they ask. As in a foreign country, speaking a little bit of the language can take you from being the loud, awkward foreigner to being a welcome part of the community. It is critical to acknowledge this language barrier and address it.

Three Places to Find Your Field’s Language

1. Your advisor’s bio page – This is a perfect place to see what your advisor uses as an elevator speech. What is the main purpose of their research? Out of everything in their decades-long, super auspicious career, what do they choose to highlight? If you’ve chosen to study under this person, chances are your goals are similar to their accomplishments.

2. Mission statements – Whether from your department or an NGO or a grant organization, mission statements give you concise, goal-oriented language.

3. Introductions of journal articles – Authors often start their papers with an overview of the current knowledge. Clear, simplified concepts just for you. Bonus: check out their citations.

Use Your Common Language

Besides writing, you can use this language in many different settings.

For example, you may be interested in the BOND project. Their website states that a “primary goal of the BOND project is to harmonize the processes for making decisions about what biomarkers are best for use in support of research, program development and evaluation, and generation of evidence-based policy.”

Here are a few ways you can use that language:

Introducing yourself to someone at a seminar: “Hi, I’m interested in what biomarkers are best for use in iron research in populations with high infection rates.”

Talking to a faculty member: “Could you point me in the direction of good resources for program development and evaluation of iron supplementation trials?”

Get the gist?

***Note: Obviously, if you’re going to use any of this language in writing, you will provide the proper citation. No plagiarism ever.

Collect Winning Words

Start a collection and refer back to it before writing or making an introduction. This is your “Smooth-talking cheat sheet”. Just copy and paste phrases into a Word document (citing them, of course, for future reference) or put them in an Evernote note (guess which one I do). I find Evernote’s Web Clipper to be really useful for saving grant websites’ mission statements.

Remember, learning the language is only the first step. It’s up to you now to use this language to spruce up your pitch and your proposal and get you talking with the in-crowd.

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The importance of setting outrageous goals in grad school

Summer can be a wonderful time in the life of a grad student. The weather is lovely, the library is empty, everyone seems more relaxed.

But after a week or so, I find myself growing restless. I’m the kind of person who thrives on activity. I need hurdles to jump and goals to strive for.

This makes summer the perfect time for analyzing my personal and professional goals. Instead of making New Year’s Resolutions, I make One Year Goals from summer to summer.

Sometimes I have a hard time drawing up a list of goals because I tend to play it safe. I keep making baby goals–ones I know I can achieve. But now is not the time to be safe!

Now is the time to be bold.

What do you want to do this year? Suspend reality for a moment and consider everything.

Do you want to learn a language?
Do you want to travel?
Do you want to organize an event for your peers?
Do you want to make a serious dent in your proposal/grant application/dissertation?
Do you want to become an authority among your peers?
Do you want to buckle down and pay off student loans?

Think back before you came to grad school. What did you think it would be like? Are you doing what you thought you’d be doing?

Here’s the list that I made back in July 2011:

travel to two foreign countries (fully funded of course)
travel to two nutrition conferences
become independent of my car
register a domain name
dance three nights a week

I traveled to Rwanda and India this year for part of my research. Here I am celebrating Holi in India.

I presented at the Experimental Biology conference this year. I registered this domain name (and one other). And I dance three nights a week (publicly during the year, privately during the summer). I even competed!

When I wrote down my goals, I had no idea how I would accomplish them. (I mean, really, who in grad school has time to dance three nights a week??) And really, if you already know how you will accomplish a certain goal, that goal is TOO EASY. 

I didn’t reach all of my goals. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with work. I get that; I worked hard this past year, too. But having concrete goals in mind (and on paper) primed me to take advantage of opportunities that I might have otherwise dismissed. 

Action Steps:

  1. Set a timer for 30 minutes.
  2. Get out a pen and paper and brainstorm ideas.
  3. Pick 3 crazy goals for this year.
  4. Put them somewhere you can see them.
Remember, now is the time to be bold. You might be surprised what can happen in a year!