Thoughts on Grad School, take 6 (aka I finished my master degree!)

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One week ago today, I completed my master degree.

Phew!

It was a true race to the finish line (which was slightly self-imposed, but also came with a tuition rebate for the month of August), and even though my advisor and I worked back and forth for many hours over the last few days before the submission deadline, all the hard work is worth it to get to the finish line.

But really, I’m at the beginning of another start line: in September I become a 2nd year PhD student, as this past year counts as both my master degree and year 1 of the PhD program. Exciting times ahead!

Here are a few summary thoughts on the process I’ve gone through in the last 11 months:

1. My writing has changed significantly. I’m not implementing all of those changes here, (*ahem* passive vs. active voice), but how I construct my thoughts and get words on the page is significantly different, eleven months later. I recognize that my writing is stronger, more developed and my overall voice is closer to the academic style that is required.

2. Criticism 101. Learning how to handle criticism is something every young working (or studying!) individual has to learn, and it’s hard. It’s often a harsh experience to receive criticism, and also difficult to avoid taking things personally. I know this, because I’ve been there in many of my previous roles. However, all that wonderful practice has opened up my ability to see criticism for what it really should be: constructive help to make your ideas better. I love getting feedback and I thrive on making my work better and better, and I don’t mind receiving other relevant opinions on my work; in fact, I welcome it.

3. Idle time. I’ve always been a very busy person. I like having places to go, people to see, and things to do. But, this past summer really opened my eyes to the idle time syndrome that is part of graduate level education and work. Once classes are over (for the summer, or for good), you have to buckle down and do the work, among a very flexible and wide open amount of time.  At first, I didn’t know how to cope with the lack of activities etc, but after three months of learning to adapt and thrive, I look forward to moving through my final year of coursework to a more open and free-form schedule. Idle time doesn’t mean wasting time, but it does mean learning how to be efficient and effective with the gift of time that is flexible. 

So for the next few weeks I’m moving apartments (more to come on this!), moving offices (hello, PhD!), and preparing for the fall semester. I’ll take some time off to enjoy a few novels and check out the Wolfe Island Music Festival this weekend, too.

Stay tuned for more details, as well as the return of five things on Monday!

Thoughts on Grad School, take 5.

The spring/summer semester is well underway and that means nice weather and lots of free time. I mean…. lots of unstructured time with plenty of work to do, but way less stress (for now, at least).

I made it through two challenging semesters, read more than 250 academic papers (I have the paper cuts to prove it), and am still looking forward to next fall when I continue on as a PhD student.

What else have I noticed since my last post on grad school? Well, here are a few insights:

1. Research doesn’t always work the way you want it to. In fact, it hardly ever works as you expected it to. It’s initially very exciting to run a study or experiment, and then is promptly followed up by a deep sense of disappointment when you start running the data through SPSS.

2. Without a schedule, without focus. I thought I’d want more freedom to my daily routine, but it seems that I really prefer my early wake-up time followed by getting to the office at a reasonable time. I put in my time and by mid to late afternoon I bugger off to others things, feeling better that I’ve at the very least tried to do something productive. As they say, there’s always tomorrow.

3. It’s a ghost town as soon as the undergrads leave. Better watch out for your advisor, as they might become scarce as soon as the undergrads depart. I’m pretty luck in the sense that my advisor is clear about his schedule and is pretty good at making time several times a week, but sometimes they vanish into the night just as the students seem to do.

4. You have no excuses not to be productive. This is the hardest part; you have no reason not to be as effective as possible because you’ve been given the gift of time and freedom to complete your research. There really are no excuses for not completing (your project/degree/program etc) on time.

5. Vacation / Stat holidays quickly lose their meaning. I remember getting so excited for a long weekend when I was a full-time professional – it was the best reward to know you had a four-day week ahead of you. But, in the world of academia where holidays can be taken as you please (you can interpret this in a variety of ways), every day can either feel like a vacation day or a work day or some nasty hybrid of the two. Setting goals and sticking to a schedule helps. As does having a bf/gf that lives in the “real” world with a “real” job. At the very least they’ll remind you when it’s time to take a break!

For previous “grad school” posts, see 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Some BIG news.

This time last year I found out that I’d be heading back to school full-time in the fall and I patiently kept things under wraps for a few months.

However, this time around, I’m eager to share my next piece of news because it both feels right and I’ve actually been talking pretty openly about this for a while now.

I’m thrilled to tell you that I am advancing both my education and my career by - yes, you may have guessed it – embarking on a PhD this fall!

I guess this is big news in the sense of making a three or four (or five?…) year commitment, but it’s probably also no surprise to some folks who’ve known a PhD has been on my radar as early as a year ago.

I’ll be staying on at Queen’s and in September I’ll be a 2nd year PhD student (yes, my Masters counts as year 1 – BONUS!) and I’m so, so, SO excited to keep on trucking.

Wish me luck!

Thoughts on Grad School, take 4.

It’s been a while since I updated you on the goings on of grad school.

Kingston is finally warming up, albeit slowly. And, with the onset of spring, plans for spring and summer are starting to materialize, and I have some really fun things to look forward to! (Anyone else thinking Osheaga this August, too??)

The winter semester is all but three weeks away from being complete, and I have a ton left to do before April ends and it’s onto my masters project full-time. Let’s hope I make it to the end of the semester in one piece.

Here are a few new thoughts on grad school.

When my mentor asks about my progress on my thesis #whatshouldwecallgradschool

1. You actually end up falling in love with the library at some point.

I said early on in the year I didn’t know how to use the library, and that at 26 years of age, I finally learned how to navigate the academic library. Then I told you I actually borrowed books from the library. The new news is that I’ve become a bit of a book hoarder! I now love seeking out a hardbound volume at the library and I even know where to find things faster the more I visit. I don’t always love lugging the heavy books around, but oh those books. <3.

2. You love the money for TA’ing, but loathe having to do the actual TA’ing. 

I actually enjoy grading, most of the time. Of course it always comes in waves when you have tight deadlines or other things going on, but let me assure you that it is really satisfying to read a good report or paper and as a result be able to give a great grade! Conversely, it really sucks to give someone a bad grade. The money is great (hello, unionization) and, contrary to popular belief, I find TA’ing pretty fun in a nerdy/privilege kind of way.

3. Your relationship with your supervisor is like a fine wine. 

It gets better with age.

It’s also probably fair to compare your relationship with your supervisor with something else: a racetrack. Full of twists and turns along the way.

4. You dream of the summer semester for the free time it will obviously afford you. 

Kidding! We all know there is going to be a ton of work to do come May, but we all secretly plan to read non-academic books by the lake while soaking up the sun and spending our evenings on patios.

We’ll see how that pans out….

(For previous “thoughts on grad school” posts, click for 12, and 3).

What’s your ideal work day?

Home Office

Home office

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School office


Have you ever thought about what it’d be like to do whatever you want every day (at work)?

This week I’m on a reading break (No class! Woo!) and I’ve been able to experiment with how I spend my time each day. I’m always trying to figure out the most effective way to schedule my time and prioritize my tasks to be as effective as possible. And, the beauty of being a graduate student is that most of my time is in my control. Of course, I still have to meet with professors and schedule time to perform TA duties (in class and outside of class), but most of my time is my own. I’m pretty lucky. But, sometimes the lack of structure can have a crippling effect: where are you supposed to start?

For most people, their day-to-day activities are more or less controlled by where they work, and what the boss’s expectations are. But, if you did have the flexibility or freedom to do whatever you wanted, how would you organize your work day?

Would you sleep late and work late, or rise early and get done as quickly as possible?

Would you want to work in a quiet or a loud space? Coffee shop or home office?

More and more people are able to control what their workday looks like.

Maybe you have a more flexible start/end time. Maybe you can work remotely when you have big projects on the go, or perhaps your main office is in another location, so you always work from home. Maybe you go to the gym on a longer lunch break.

For the vast majority of professionals, some elements of choice are now baseline expectations in establishing what type of work environment any individual wants. The way we measure productivity, especially in the business of services, is constantly evolving. More and more managers are of the “get it done right and well, and I don’t care when it got done” mentality, and I know that’s good for morale.

Personally, I’m a bit of a traditionalist.

I like going into the office around the same time, and having a consistent schedule, day-to-day. I sometimes work from home when I have a large project on the go, or need some time to think things through without interruptions.This week I’ve been working from home in the mornings and going into the office for the afternoons. It’s a nice way to build a break into the day and also make sure that I keep my effectiveness up by changing up my environment.

I guess I’m not all that different from most 9-5 professionals, but I like knowing my time is my own.

So, what does your ideal work day look like?  

Thoughts on Grad School, take 3.

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Getting back to the grindstone can be tough after the holidays. To ease myself back into the swing of things, I’ve been watching television (to get it out of the way, thus eliminating a potential distraction), organizing my iTunes library (can’t use background music if you can’t find it, right?), and getting my books organized (I’ve been to the library twice already. Twice!). Some of my “prep” work may look more like procrastination to you, but folks, we’re only in week one of the semester. To continue the series, here is part three of my thoughts on grad school.

1. Get em’ while they’re hot: library books. I don’t know about other schools but at Queen’s, graduate students can loan (ahem, hoard) books from the campus library system for an entire semester at a time. Yep, an entire semester!! There’s nothing more satisfying that a few scholarly books sitting on the shelf, so go ahead and get your fill before anyone else does. That’s right, make tracks for the library now and you’ll be both prepared for your classes/research and also be the envy of all the latecomers because you’ll already have the books (for an entire semester!). Top tip: This is the best time of the semester to hang around the stacks; everyone who is normally cramming is trying to make good on their new years resolutions by shedding lbs at the gym.

2. Pants suck. One thing I love about student life is the lack of pants that are present. I’m not saying be slopping and dress in sweats – that’s a total no no – but why wear pants if you don’t have to? And besides, it may be winter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be stylish and chic without being warm. This is the season of leggings, tights, leg warmers and all things cozy. Everything in life is better sans pants. Start the year off right with leggings. Sorry boys, this one really doesn’t apply to you.

3. Get some sunlight, pastyface. Winter means less daylight. And, since graduate students often end up working long hours in the lab or office without windows to look out of, it can be a dark and dreary winter. Pop some Vit-D but also make sure you get an afternoon jolt of light by heading out for a coffee or brief walk. In the meantime, I’m counting the days until we have a later sunset time. 

Happy semester!

Thoughts on Grad School, take 2.

What’s the news in k-town lately? Well, there is lots and lots of work to do, but not much to report back to you just yet. Sometimes it’s hard to take a pause in the middle of all the busyness to look around and appreciate the chaos that grad students seem to thrive in, so I hope that my short summaries can be a quick look inside what’s going on without having to tell you just exactly what it is I do each and every day. (Sneaky, right?) So far, it feels like I spend hours upon hours taking in new information, but I still need hours and hours to unravel everything and make sense of it. (I’m also told that this will go on for ever and ever as an academic!)

My biggest challenge right now is deciding on a research topic. Truthfully, it’s difficult to pin one down, because a) there are so many interesting directions to take, and b) you need to make sure that it hasn’t already been covered in some way. So no, I don’t have a topic yet, and yes, please do not ask me about it. Ha ha.

So here are my latest thoughts as a followup to part 1.

1. Grades.

You still get them, but the administrative folks will tell you that you’re not here to be graded, therefore grades shouldn’t mean as much as they did in undergrad. After all, you’re here to expand knowledge, not regurgitate it! But, that doesn’t mean you still don’t want to ace the test or coyly compare your grades with your classmates just like you did in undergrad. Who am I kidding? Grades always matter.

2. You finally learn how to use the library (but still do most of your research online). I have to confess; I never really learned how to use the library when I was an undergraduate because I didn’t ever really have to use the library. So here I am, 26-years old and just learning how to use an academic library. That’s the bad news. The good news? Grad students have term loans so if I feel like hoarding books from the library, I can hoard them for an entire semester at a time!

3. You learn to avoid answering questions about your thesis/dissertation really fast. More senior students (PhD’s) will tell you that they don’t like to be asked, “So, what are you working on?” or, “How’s your dissertation coming?” because it will drive them crazy! They never feel like they have an answer and, because things aren’t always black and white, it’s hard to give a good answer really quickly. Funny how this feeling rubs off on masters students really fast; it’s just as tough to answer these questions, even when we’re on a shorter timeline doing a smaller project.

4. Learning how to avoid/kill/eliminate distractions is really tough. I’ve never wanted to be so focused in my life, but that’s not easy to achieve. But thanks to two tools / tricks I’m getting better and better every day.

  • Trick 1: The pomodoro method of timing/breaks. This really helps with readings because I can reward myself after sticking with it for a straight chunk of time.
  • Trick 2: Distraction pad / ideas pad. Have you ever been trying to concentrate, but things like “I have to do laundry!” or “Remember to buy bananas!” pop into your head? This happens to me all the time. I keep pen and paper nearby and jot things down as they come to me, and then deal with them later. This way they are out of my head and I can keep on focusing on the important stuff.

5. Even when distraction avoidance is tough, sometimes time just vanishes – in a really good way. You start reading one article, it leads to another, and another, and before you know it an entire afternoon flies by and you feel as if you could just keep going and going!

And now, it’s back to the books!