Work Hard, Play Harder, and Be Gentle with Yourself: Advice for the Beginning of Grad School and Beyond

I have a lot of thoughts on my mind as I wrap up my prosem on graduate education. I have spent a semester talking to young, hopeful, bright first-year graduate students about how to be successful in graduate school. I have also been supporting several students this semester who are currently on the job market and are having a mixed experience. I am also prepping for my PhD Job Market class for next semester and planning a series of posts here related to that course. Finally, I have read some books about productivity and academia the past few months, all of which emphasize well-being, though from vastly different perspectives. Here are some tips for new graduate students to keep in mind as they move through grad school. And some points that all of us would do well to remember.

Don’t let your self-worth get tied up in your graduate school performance

Let's all migrate here! photo credit: chuck4x5 Happy via photopin (license)

Let’s all migrate here!
photo credit: chuck4x5 Happy via photopin (license)

This is so hard to avoid. But graduate school performance is determined by many factors, a lot of them that are outside of your control. Perhaps you don’t realize going in to graduate school that your advisor rarely publishes, or no one told you to look and see if they do. Maybe you and your advisor just don’t mesh. Maybe you realize you really don’t like your research topic. Maybe a professor holds some kind of implicit bias against you. Maybe you just don’t like research and writing. Maybe you are feeling inadequate and experiencing imposter syndrome. All of these things can lead to you being less successful as a graduate student. And, going into graduate school, you may not realize many of them. Thus, just because graduate school doesn’t go well for you, or just because your CV has no publications on it, or just because you have no motivation to get research done, it doesn’t mean that you are not an awesome, smart, capable person. You are. But, maybe this is not the right environment for you. If it isn’t, I officially give you permission to quit and move on with your life. Maybe it is, but you need to make some changes. I officially give you permission to switch advisors, departments, or institutions. Make sure you remember that your self-worth is much more than your academic performance.

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Fighting Back: Implicit Bias, Micro-aggressions, and Micro-resistance

I have been planning to do a post on diversity in graduate education, but it requires me being vulnerable and I wasn’t even sure how to even do it. On Tuesday, in my first-year graduate proseminar, we had a session on implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and micro-resistance, and ironically, 2016 was the first year that I have included this session. I thought as I taught that class that the glass ceiling would be shattered that night and that the need for a class on these topics would become less necessary over time. How wrong I was. Now, more than ever, the necessity of promoting diversity, and strategies for dealing with implicit bias in the academy and life, have never been more important.

What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias is a major pathway through which privilege is enacted. Using the definition from Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute: “implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.  Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.  Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.”

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Advice on Being Advised

The advisor-advisee relationship can be complicated. This post focuses on advice for new grad students on how to navigate these relationships and start off on the right foot. However, these relationships vary on so many continuums – on how friendly they are, how hierarchical they are, how useful they are. . . Thus, some of the advice below may not be useful for some graduate student-advisor relationships, and may not be useful in some fields or in particular graduate programs. If you want advice more specific to your own graduate program or field, you might identify an alumni or current graduate student who had some success in your program, and even better, in working with your advisor. What is their advice for having a successful graduate student-advisor relationship?

My former graduate student Sara Mernitz and I at her graduation in 2016

My former graduate student Sara Mernitz and me at her graduation in 2016

Ask Your Advisor What Their Expectations Are

There are these implicit rules of grad school that no one often tells you [note, that is the point of this series on advice for new graduate students], and the worst part is that some of these rules change from advisor to advisor. One rule I didn’t realize I had until I had a student who was not following the rule is that I expect my students to spend a majority of their working time on campus, largely from around 9 to 4, usually four days a week. If students want to work from home one day a week, I am fine with that. But for new graduate students in particular, I want to see their face around the office. Once trust has been established, I am more flexible. Unfortunately, I did not set up this expectation clearly at the beginning with one of my students, and this led to me being frustrated, and the student being frustrated. Some things you might want to check with your advisor re: their expectations.

  • Work schedule – Does the advisor have any expectations about when you will be on or off campus? What about over the summer?
  • Emails – How quickly does the advisor expect you to respond to emails?
  • Tasks – How quickly does the advisor want you to complete tasks?
  • Interruptions – Does the advisor mind if you stop by their office with a question?

I am not saying that what the advisor wants should always happen. I am saying that you need to have explicit conversations about their expectations so that you can either 1) meet them, or 2) negotiate with the advisor to come up with an agreement that works for both of you. My student and I should have talked and set up a schedule we could both live with. Perhaps something like – the student will spend 2.5 days on campus as long as they are achieving their goals.

Their Schedule vs. Your Schedule

Professors are busy. I know grad students are too, but in general, grad students tend to have more flexibility. If you are trying to schedule a meeting with them, defer to their schedule in general. If the advisor is an administrator, this is even more important.

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Where should I go to graduate school?

After you decide to go to graduate school [after reading Should I go to graduate school] and are accepted [see Crowdsourced Advice for Students Applying to Graduate School], it is time to decide where to go to graduate school. Many students are making those decisions now. Yesterday I received an email from a student who was trying to decide where to attend graduate school, and wanted to know my opinion on which of two graduate programs (neither that I had attended or worked at) were better in terms of their statistics and methods training. I didn’t know the answer, but I also thought the student was not asking the most important question. Here is a list of issues I would evaluate on when trying to decide where to go to graduate school, in order of importance.

photo credit: ¿? via photopin (license)

photo credit: ¿? via photopin (license)

Note these are considerations for after you are accepted, but could also inform where you apply. Hopefully, you will be able to ask most of these questions in person when  you visit the graduate program.

  1. The Mentor

This is by far the most important issue to consider. First, does the mentor study what you want to study? This is absolutely critical. Graduate students who study want to study what the mentor studies get 1) more opportunities for co-authorship, 2) help from a mentor who knows the field well and can give excellent feedback on whether a study idea is a contribution to the field, and 3) can help you network within the field, opening up opportunities for fellowships, awards, and postdocs. You absolutely need to work with a mentor who does research in your interest area.

Second, is the mentor productive? The job market is brutal, and even if you want a job at a primarily teaching college, you need to have publications. Thus, publishing in graduate school is likely to be the most important activity you can do to advance your career. Working with a productive mentor will help you get publications because 1) you may coauthor with the mentor, and 2) you can learn how to publish from the mentor. Evidence of productivity: publishing papers in the top journals in the past few years, active research grants, and/or grants under review. The best way to get a sense of productivity is to look at a current CV (note that a CV is the academic equivalent to a resume). But, faculty often do not keep CVs current. I suggest you search the mentor’s name on Google Scholar. That will also allow you to click on hyperlinks of their publications, and you can read their recent work.

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How to Succeed in Graduate School While Really Trying

I am really trying! photo credit: dkjd via photopin cc

I am really trying! photo credit: dkjd via photopin cc

We are midway through the autumn semester, and I have been reflecting on my graduate proseminar course, which is essentially an introduction to graduate school. Some programs have these types of classes, and others do not. So, in this post I give you links to articles I assign and a few tips I give to our first-year graduate students. The articles and tips are designed to tell students those things which faculty generally assume students know, as well as give them suggestions on how to succeed in graduate school. What would you add to my list?

How do I take a graduate class? How do I know what classes to take?

Claire’s Tips for registering for courses:

  • Talk with your advisor. Talk with your advisor about which courses you should take each semester. They may have specific courses they want you to take, or they may know about a specific seminar being offered that would teach you a specialized skill or knowledge set.
  • Email the professor. You may not be able to tell from the title of a course what the course topic will be. If you see a faculty member is teaching a seminar, email them for a course description and/or syllabus. Even if the syllabus is not ready, they will be able to share with you the topic for the seminar. Then, you can decide whether or not to take the seminar.
  • Take seminars when they are offered. Faculty often rarely have the opportunity to teach graduate seminars. Thus, if you are interested in a seminar in a specific topic, such as attachment, it may not be offered again for two or more years. Thus, it is smarter to take the seminar when it is offered and delay a required course, because you may not have the opportunity to take the seminar the following year.
  • Make it count. Choose your electives wisely. For example, try to take electives related to your research interests. You may be able to write a paper for these courses that are related to your research interests and will thus lead you closer to a publication or help you prepare for candidacy. Further, if you are planning to do a minor or specialization, you should look for electives that will count towards the requirements for the specialization.
  • Explore other departments. HDFS is interdisciplinary, and our students often take coursework outside of the department. If you cannot find an elective you are interested in taking in the HDFS course offerings, you might explore electives in Psychology, Sociology, Economics, or Communication.
  • Register for independent studies and thesis credits. Do not forget to register for independent study and thesis credits! By adding these credits to your load, you will free up time from coursework to focus on your research.
  • Make sure you take the minimum number of credits needed to be a full-time student.

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Guest Post: Leadership Matters, So what’s the Matter with our Leadership Today?

I was recently having coffee with my friend and colleague Dean and Professor Steve Gavazzi to discuss the National Council on Family Relation‘s Future of Family Science task force [more on that in a future post] and I mentioned my series of blog posts on self-regulated learning and graduate education. Steve asked me – did you mention leadership training? I had to admit I hadn’t. I invited to Steve to do a blog post on leadership to round out my graduate education series. Steve did so in the context of the conversations happening about the future of family science at the national level. Enjoy!!

Stephen Gavazzi

Stephen Gavazzi

Leadership Matters, So what’s the Matter with our Leadership Today?

Growing attention is being given to the present and future state of Family Science. Witness for instance NCFR Executive Director Diane Cushman’s most recent article in the NCFR Report Magazine. Here and elsewhere, thought is being given to the need to better understand where our academic field is, and where it is going. In her thought piece, Cushman mentioned two articles that appeared in the most recent (July 2014) issue of Family Relations. One article by Hamon and Smith dealt directly with the strengths and limitations of the discipline of family science, while a second article by Hans focused attention on some of the field’s identity issues, including what it calls itself (family science, family studies, family relations, etc.). Along with several NCFR colleagues, I was invited by Family Relations editor Ron Sabatelli to respond to these two articles. My commentary, which appeared in the same issue of the journal as the Hamon and Smith and Hans articles, invited readers to focus their concentration on a number of issues related to leadership, as I believe that there is no bigger challenge to the family science field that has to be recognized and confronted today.

Here is a portion of what I stated in my commentary:

“Leaders will either insert themselves into the process of determining our destiny as a field, or else that future will be determined for us, and invariably by people who likely do not have the same appreciation for our field’s importance. To make this happen, we must become much more intentional about the way in which we develop and support the next generation of department chairs, deans, provosts, university presidents, and heads of professional organizations who quite literally will either make or break us as a discipline.”

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Self-regulated Learning and Graduate Education: What Graduate Programs Should do Part 2

Well, it is time for my final post in my series on self-regulated learning and graduate education. This series resulted in the following posts:

Today, I want to discuss the other key to a graduate program informed by self-regulated learning principles: goal setting and feedback. I just finished typing up our graduate students’ annual reviews.  You might remember that our end of the year report was what started me on my quest to consider what a graduate program informed by self-regulated learning would look like. I learned from my fabulous colleagues Chris Wolters and Shirley Yu that intrinsic motivation, which exists within the self and usually stems from a personal interest in a task, is much better for achievement than external motivation, which usually comes from an external entity setting the goal. Hence, the final key to a graduate program informed by self-regulated learning is goal setting and feedback, informed by intrinsic motivation primarily, with some extrinsic mixed in.

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Self-regulated Learning and Graduate Education: What Graduate Programs Should do Part 1

Today I want to wrap up my series on self-regulated learning and graduate education. I want to revisit my original question: “What information, tools, tasks, and activities could we provide to promote our graduate students’ learning, intellectual development, and achievement of their post-graduate school goals?”. Over a series of posts, I reviewed information and tools (writing skills, research skills, and presentation/teaching/media skills) to promote graduate student success. My posts on tools ended up discussing tasks and activities to master those tools as well, so look in those posts for those discussions.

If I had to sum up my series of posts, I think that the keys to a graduate program informed by self-regulated learning principles would be a focus on professional development and goal setting and feedback. I want to discuss both; in the post I am focusing on professional development.

After writing these posts, I have been reflecting on graduate training. Of the tools I identified that graduate students need, I think most graduate programs focus primarily on teaching students the scholarship of their field, and how to contribute to it, which would fall under the category of “research skills”. The other tools I identified are largely ignored in graduate training, unless an advisor takes it upon themselves to teach them: writing skills, presentation/teaching/media skills, and those parts of research skills that do not deal with conducting research (such as consuming research). I now believe all graduate programs should have the following, and that these could lead to improvements in graduate student achievement.

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Tools to Promote Grad Student Success: Writing Skills

Well, apparently I took the summer off from blogging. I wasn’t necessarily planning that, but I was really busy with grant submissions, travel, paper revisions, etcetera. I had a great time at the International Association for Relationship Research conference in Australia in July, and I also visited and gave talks at the University of New South Wales’ Social Policy Research Centre and the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. I was also appointed to the National Council on Family Relations’ Future of Family Science Task Force and attended a 3-day meeting in Minneapolis where the task force met. More on that in a future post.  I should also mention I had fun too – lots of baseball and t-ball for my sons, a Nashville bachelorette party for my sister, and trips to Cedar Point and Kelly’s Island with my family. Overall, great summer!

photo credit: Pesky Library via photopin cc

photo credit: Pesky Library via photopin cc

For now, I want to get back to the topic of self-regulated learning and graduate education. My last post posed the question “What information could we provide to promote our graduate students’ learning, intellectual development, and achievement of their post-graduate school goals?” Now I want to move on to “What tools could we provide to promote our graduate students’ learning, intellectual development, and achievement of their post-graduate school goals?”

When I think of the tools of the trade for myself, the most important tools that come to mind are: writing skills, research skills, and presentation skills. Let’s discuss each of these in turn.

The most critical skill we could provide to our graduate students, in my opinion, is exceptional writing ability. Excellent writing skills can improve a students’ likelihood of grant funding, manuscript acceptance, and can ease the milestones of graduate school, such as comprehensive/qualifying/candidacy exams. Each of these can help students achieve their post-graduate school goals. Further, excellent writing skills can lead to further intellectual development as they can help distill ideas and lead to new discoveries. Learning is also improved with good writing – students will be more likely to retain information when they are able to succinctly and logically summarize critical ideas.

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Don’t take my word for it: Crowdsourced Advice for Students Applying to Graduate School

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photo credit: TwOsE via photopin cc

I did a presentation a few years ago for prospective graduate students at the National Council on Family Relations annual conference. In preparation, I gathered advice for students applying to graduate school.  You can see the contributors below.  Do you agree with the advice? What is missing?

Contributors: Elizabeth Adkins-Regan, Paul Amato, Mitchell Bartholomew, Alan Booth, John Casterline, Jeff Dew, Karen Fingerman, Gary Gates, Elizabeth Hay, Claire Kamp Dush, Tina Kauh, Andrew Martin, Lauren Rinelli, Karina Shreffler, Katherine Stamps Mitchell, Miles Taylor, Alexis Walker, Nick Wolfinger

What SHOULD an undergrad or graduate student who is applying to graduate school or a Ph.D. program do?

MOST COMMON PIECES OF ADVICE: 

DO YOUR RESEARCH (AND MAKE CONTACT WITH FACULTY) BEFORE APPLYING.

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