Career Advice There Are Many Paths – Who Knew?

As an undergrad my senior year, I had an inspiration or a thought that I might like to “teach” college. As a first-generation college student, I had no clue what professors really did.  I only saw them in the classroom.  So, I asked a question. “What does it take to be a professor at a university?”

What Do Professors Do? Photo of a professor assisting 3 diverse students working together on an assignmentI wasn’t ready for the full answer or complete picture, so my mentor said “Well, you will need a Master’s degree.”  She knew it took much more, but a Master’s Degree was a good starting point.  Ok, I thought to myself, someday I will do that.

I also knew that I wanted to have industry experience to bring real life experiences into the classroom. It was clear to me that I wasn’t ready to do “that thing called a thesis”. I heard how hard “it” (writing the thesis) was.  I was in classes with grad students and in awe of them. All the work they had to do – I had doubts – could I really do that? A thesis? All that work? Research? I knew I wasn’t ready, so I focused on getting a job in industry.

That was the best decision for meat that time – to find a position in industry.  In my industry position, I learned so much and began to work with a mentor.  We did exciting research together; published papers; presented at conferences. They did not have undergraduate research programs when I was an undergrad – or – I was unaware of them.  It was only after our third publication that I knew I was ready for Grad School and a thesis.

What I didn’t realize at that time was that there are many paths, turns, and bends that my career would take. But I kept asking along the way for direction and then decided on what was the best next step for me at that point in time.

Picture of brown hills with a winding road going off into the distanceMy message is this – “A career is seldom a straight line to a goal.”  Careers today usually follow a series of “branching decision points” – more so than when I started – although my career path did have its branching decision points as well.

Those branching decision points lead you to a path that provides valuable learning experiences or as I call them “tools” for the tool box.  You may not realize how important those experiences are, but in time, you will see how valuable they are for your career path and you will be pleased to have that experience, knowledge, or “tool” to assist you in your career.

Today I see many career paths needing a balance between breadth and depth/specialization.  Too much of either is not good.  You need specialization to know your field and you need breadth to see beyond your discipline.  There are important skills to learn that come with each – Breath and Depth/Specialization.

Through my journey, I discovered that I was unique and so are you! We all have our distinctive gifts; that’s why it’s important NOT to compare yourself to others.  That’s why it’s important not be a clone. You don’t want to be a clone of your professor – you are unique and so are your life circumstances.  It takes a lot of courage to follow your own path.  In the end, the journey will bring you great satisfaction.  Mine has.

Look for mentors who can provide encouragement and share their experiences.

How do you do that? Take the first step and …

  • Talk to alumni
  • Use your professional meetings and network
  • Ask key people along the way as I did, “What best advice would you give me?” or “How can I get that experience?”
  • Use your Grad Student Organizations, Career Fairs, Research Symposia to network with peers and others especially industry or faculty leaders.

You never know from where your next leading will come. It’s all about networking.  Talking to others about their experiences is key.

Finally, remember you are on a journey.  Your career is a continuum.  At every level you want to learn as much as you can and network.  You are investing in you and you are in it for the long-term – not just for short-term results.Shows people walking on different curved paths. Message important Not to compare yourself to others

See each step as a long-term investment in your life’s work!

Before you know it, you will be sharing your story about your career path with others!

Fireside Chat: How to Be an Effective Writer and Not Binge

I used to be a binge writer and would write only when I thought I had enough time – which was never. I thought I needed blocks of time – like complete days – or long afternoons.

picture of Dove Raspberry Sorbet with dark chocolate barsFor me binge writing was like binging on sweet dark chocolate – chocolate cake or just plain dark chocolate. My favorite is Dove ice cream – not so much for the ice cream but for the dark rich chocolate coating.

I have learned from experience that binging on dark chocolate can make me feel – well not so good. So, I’ve learned to “manage” my binging and keep the richness of the dark chocolate to small amounts.

As with chocolate, I also learned several things from my binge writing days.  The days when I would sit in the living room writing my thesis.

Coffee cup on table with red blanket and fireplace in background. Writing my thesisA fire was lit in the fireplace on a cold winter morning and I could see my fellow grad student friends walking to class or to the lab while I was inside with my Cup of Joe writing away.

What I learned was this.

  1. I accomplished less overall by binge writing. Writing the thesis/dissertation is a marathon – not a sprint – so I needed to pace myself.
  2. My binging was not sustainable. I just couldn’t do it day after day. What I discovered was I was spending more time re-reading and re-acquainting myself with my topic.  It would have been better to have smaller amounts of time dedicated each day to writing. Not to mention how draining and tiring it is.
  3. I also realized that by expecting too much of myself – I could never achieve my goal. In fact, I learned that it’s best to start with a small goal.  “There’s no such thing as too small a goal”.  What a small goal did for me is to allow me to see my accomplishments and not get discouraged and quit.
  4. What I learned about writing is what I learned from my love of chocolate cake. Picture of rich dark chocolate cate with 3 cherries on topWriting is more than eating the chocolate cake – it’s about tasting the frosting or having one small bite. Writing can be that way as well. Writing can be done in bits and pieces. Having attended several writing workshops, I learned there is so much more to writing.
  5. One key piece is to leave off at a spot where I can pick up – so the idea is not to finish all of it – but to get to a place where I can pick up where I left off last time. Sometimes, I would make a list or an outline of what I would write next and use that to get me started.  That was a big take away for me. I use it today and share that insight with my students.
  6. The other important piece that I learned from writing workshops is that revising/editing, making an outline, checking references are all part of the writing process. So, when I only had 10 minutes, I can revise a paragraph or check the format of references.  Each step gets me closer to my goal.
  7. In a short period of time, I can read my paper and examine my writing from a big picture perspective and ask, Did I make persuasive arguments? or Did I convey my ideas clearly?
  8. Other times, I can focus on word crafting. I learned this from a great teacher – What’s the best word to use here? Do I need a better adjective or fewer adjectives?
  9. Does the paper flow? Does it logically move from one paragraph to the next? Do I have my topic sentences at the beginning of the paragraphs?
  10. Finally, I learned to check for typos and punctuations by reading the paper outload and then focusing on each word to find typos. We all know how self-correcting word processing has-a-mind of its own – it may not be the word we were typing.

To Recap:

  • Avoid binge writing it’s not sustainable
  • Set smaller goals
  • Leave off where you can pick up again
  • There is more to writing than writing
  • Revising and editing are all part of writing

Finally, if I write in long hand first and then type it up, I am more efficient as I am not trying to edit as I go.

Writing is hard work and tiring so it’s important to take breaks.dog resting at ocean shore with ball in mouth. Important to take a break after a hard workout!

Fireside Chat: How to Prepare for One-on-One Meetings with Your Faculty Advisor

Daunting– that’s the word I could use to describe my first meeting with my faculty advisor – Awkwardis another – Why? Being a first-generation grad student, I was unprepared and/or unaware of how to make my meetings with my major professor efficient, effective and successful.

Over the years I have been a student of what makes successful meetings and to this day, I have faculty who will gladly come to any committee meeting I hold.

Why? I am prepared, focused, effective and efficient – I don’t waste their time nor mine.  Faculty members just like grad students are busy with lots of professional and personal demands on their time.

Preparing for your meeting is an important step for success in getting to the finish line – graduation.  Being prepared also reduces conflict and misunderstanding.  The key is to start early.

Before your meeting you want to send a short email with 1 or 2 sentences describing the major objectives of your meeting – notice I said your meeting.  You need to take control if you want to graduate. You can’t be passive. You want to be active.Person typing on computer sending an email

Use the subject line of your email to catch your advisor’s attention.  If you don’t hear back within 5 to 10 days, send your email again.

In that email send any materials or documents you need your major advisor to read and review.  They need it ahead of time – so they can think and reflect. Not the day before – their schedules are tight so allow at least a week or several days.

Prepare an agenda complete with action items and questions or topics for discussion. Have 3 or 4 main topics/or questions to discuss.

Send minutes and a reminder email. This is helpful. Of course, you have figured out the date, time and location and you have included that in the email.  The bottom line is – come well prepared – if you do, you will find that things move forward more efficiently. There still will be hurdles and challenges to address and you will be in a better position to do so.

Clock showing 3pm and Be On TimeDuring the meeting make sure you show up on time. Follow your agenda and ask clarifying questions. You will want to bring concrete things for your advisor to provide feedback.

Think about how your advisor might assist you. If there are professional as well as any personal issues that may influence how you complete the milestones – keep them informed.  You don’t have to reveal your personal life and at times we all know that “life happens” (funeral, flu outbreak) and it is important to inform your advisor and not just disappear. Keep them informed.

Remember to ask questions. Your questions help them to be better teachers of you.

Focus on what your advisor is saying.  They are providing feedback to assist you.  Ask clarifying questions about the feedback. If they are giving you directions be sure to follow them.  Nothing irritates an advisor more than to provide constructive feedback and directions and they are ignored.

Agree on the milestones you can meet. Record action items. Who is doing what and by when.Note pad and Pen taking minutes and recording action action items

After the meeting post minutes.  Even though you and your faculty advisor each took notes, it’s important to have minutes. You can send them out with the next agenda as well. By sending the minutes or a quick recap of the meeting, you can summarize action items.  You can summarize the deliverables as well.

The Key to all thisis to start early.  Have meetings even if they are only for 10 minutes.  Meeting 1 x a week for 10 minutes can make a difference and move you closer to the finish line – graduation.

When in doubt ask even when not in doubt ask.  You may find you have discovered an unclarified point.

Maintain on-going discussions about expectations with your advisor and yourself.  Take home to reflect on your expectations and goals.  They do change over time.

Remember you are preparing yourself to contribute new knowledge to your field.  You are giving shape to a “new” you from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge. The adventure of discovery and meetings should assist you in that process.

Finally, remember your advisor is not a manager.  It’s important to see your advisory as a catalyst and a facilitator.

You are in control of shaping your own graduate career. It’s up to you to get to the finish line and you will.

PhD comic strip about meeting with a professor where you did'nt do your work and he forgets about is as he is distracted

Fireside Chat: Creating a Space and Place – What we do matters

Mentor sitting with grad students talking and listeningCreating a space for graduate education to support the unique needs of you, our grad students is so important.  Grad students are not just “older” undergrads.  You are unique individuals creating and discovering new knowledge that impacts our nation and the world.

It is important to create a space or place no matter how small or large where grad students know they are valued and can find their voices.

Creating a space is about creating quality experiences for our grad students.  As Grad Deans and faculty, we must not be afraid of disruption.  Our charge is to lead change.

It is important for grad students to be heard.  Their voices and messages provide great insight and we need to listen.  Grad student voices can be overshadowed on campuses where the majority voice is that of the undergrad.  Yet – as I always say – it’s the grad students that are the “legacy of our universities.”  Their voices have always caused me to stop and reflect.  We need to create a space where their voices can be heard, and we can listen.3 graduate students sitting and sharing their stories with the audience

Recently, I had the chance to hear the voices of grad students at another university. I listened and was moved. I will share some of the insight I learned from their voices.

In that space, I heard about the importance of asking questions.  While I know that to be true, I heard it in a different way.  Grad Education provides a venue for grad students to explore new opportunities and to find their real purpose. Questions like “How is the work I am doing supporting my goal for the future?”  Statements such as “Touching the future with training I have received so that I can touch the lives of others” through counseling education.Male grad student sharing his story telling us he is about to graduate

Asking – “What is a PhD for?” and listening as grad students shared their perspectives and experiences.  “To be truth seeking and when I see bad science to stand up.”  To see the PhD as a path for personal development and “to develop technical excellence in your field.”  To see “each step is as hard as the one before but it’s worth it.”

female humanities grad student telling her storyI was moved when one grad student spoke about “reclaiming the future.”  She was in the humanities and was bringing history and family experiences to new frontiers through song and blue grass.

Another student spoke about how she dealt with the transitional nature of grad school.  “Everything in Grad School is transitioning.”   She spoke about how she first connected with peers in her lab then branched out to her department and through place and space of Grad School, she connected to the university – peers across campus.  “Grad school helps one to connect with people at the university level” that she couldn’t do by herself.  It was the place and space that made a difference as well as the action she took.

She told the audience about how she invited her peers in her lab to spend 30 minutes with her eating lunch.  She and others really looked forward to sharing ideas and conversations that wouldn’t be possible if she didn’t take the initiative to connect with them – even if it was for 30 minutes.

Our grad students are with us for a short time and yet what they give to us is lasting – we all can create space/place (even if it is at a picnic table for lunch) to support our grad students and assist them to connect.Male grad student telling his story

We all benefit – from a more inclusive community.  Our charge to lead change begins with grad students, faculty, and Grad Deans to build a culture with new meaningful and relevant program and opportunities – it takes an acorn to grow into a tree.  WE all can be that acorn – we don’t have to start out as the tree.

What we do matters!Picture of an acorn with saying It only takes an acorn to grow a tree

Fireside Chat: Are we there yet? Or did we get stuck in the “Mud of Dunland”?

How do you begin to understand the road or journey to research?

While I’ve been conducting research for many years and have mentored graduate students in the research process, I always stop and reflect. I need to remember that first-year graduate students are novices and they are not familiar with journey. Think about the town, village, city you grew up in — you know it like the back of your hand – but to first-time visitors it’s uncharted territory.

student driver learning to drive sitting behind the wheel looking confusedIt is like learning to drive a car – trying to figure out how to coordinate every aspect of moving that vehicle safely down the road to your destination. While I know it’s automatic for me to know the research process, what questions to ask or what methodology to use, it’s not always clear to the beginning graduate student. For the novice, trying to figure out where to begin or what to do can be daunting and as clear as mud!

What is research? I like to think about it as exploration. A journey. A systematic investigation that varies by field or discipline, but in the end, we are asking questions to find answers to problems in a way that others can 1) understand what we did and 2) they can repeat what we did because we provided a clear road map for them to follow.

Picture of a winding road - Research is not a straight pathResearch is not a straight path. It’s not an easy path. The road is not smooth or paved. There are many potholes and detours along the way – that’s why I love doing research. We make choices or decisions and these choices impact and affect the next decision on our journey. It’s discovery at it’s best.

Since this is a journey, we need a plan, we need a map, GPS, Google Maps, or a path to follow. We need to record our journey, so others can follow our path and know where the pitfalls and potholes are. They need to know where we went and how we got there.Shows a map with a finger pointing to a spot on the map. showing we need a map to follow

We need to reflect along the journey. It’s important not to just look forward, but rather, to reflect and look backwards. You can learn a lot from reflection. From reflection comes inspiration. Be careful – you don’t want to drive constantly looking in the rearview mirror.

The research journey starts with a clear problem statement or question. When we start, many times our questions are foggy, not well formed, not concise or clear. This is why I always recommend to my students that they should write their problem statement down and then talk about it. Talk about that problem statement to everyone. Everyone who will listen.

Why do I suggest this to my students? It’s important that we know where we are going. The problem statement or research question needs to be clear and concise. This will assist us to know where we are going and inform others. What my students find out is that by talking about their problem statement to others, there will be questions – many questions. Questions asked of them that make them think critically about their research problem/question. This process assists them to move from fog to clarity. In the end, they will have a problem statement that is clear and concise.Forest with sun rays coming through and shining on path Reflection and Inspiration

Choices must be made along this journey. Just like traveling to an unfamiliar destination, you will have choices to make. For example, which turn to make. Which fork in the road to take. What to do when you approach an unexpected detour?

Research is much like that unfamiliar journey. Your choices will come from many questions and a lot of thoughtful reflection and guidance from your major professor and committee. Such as, what will the experiment or research design look like? How many samples will be needed? What to sample? When to sample? How to sample?

How will you measure your results? What will you measure? How will you collect your data or observations? What empirical evidence will you collect?

What will you do with the information or data you collect? What type of analyses will you do? How will this assist you to the conclusions you can make?

All of these are the choices you need to think about and plan before you begin.

What you will find out is that when you finish you will have the next set of questions to ask. And your journey continues.

In sharing your research, keep in mind the “so what”. So, what does this mean to the public or consumer? How does this contribute to the public knowledge and to the public good? If you can’t explain that when you finalize your project you need to spend more time reflecting and crafting your problem statement. It is key today with funding agencies and the general public that we be able to share the “so why are you doing this?” “Why is this important to me?”

Finally, along the journey, you want to avoid the “Mud of Dunland” where you get bogged down. Mud of Dunland shows feet stuck in gooey mudYou remember the story of a family going on vacation and driving a long distance. Along the way the children kept asking, “Are we there yet?”

Remember it’s a journey. Enjoy it. It’s a process with lots of unexpected turns and outcomes.

Fireside Chat: You have all the time you need right now for Your Outrageous Goal

How can you enjoy life while being a graduate student? How can you find the time to do the fun things like attend concerts or have pizza with friends when all you think about is “I need to be studying or writing that thesis/dissertation”? Easy – you have all the time you need right now.

Prioritize tasks.  It’s not a matter of having more time.  We all have the same number of hours in a day/week/month/year.  It’s what we do with or how we use the time we have that matters and makes a difference.

First things first.  Prioritize your tasks.  Make a list for your tasks for the next 2 weeks and include in that list a time to socialize or time to exercise/hike/bike/watch movies/listen to music.

Next, you’ve heard this before and it’s important.  Prioritize that list. What’s the most important task to reach your goal? Mark that with a #1. Continue to the next most important task, and mark that with a #2.  Continue until you gone through the list.  Don’t forget to prioritize time for social events and exercise as they are important for you to reach your goal.  You will find that constant reading emails or texting may be keeping you from what’s really important. Except reading an email from your advisor/chair.

Think of this list as your “frogs”. Now line them up. Find the biggest frog or most important task and put that in front of the line. Now image you have a large jar where you will keep your frogs.  It is important that you put the biggest frog first into the jar so there is plenty of room for the big frogs.  Now add the next biggest frog. Keep going but make sure you have all the big frogs in first.

Or another way to imagine this is to think of marbles instead of frogs. Some marbles are large and big like the big frogs while others very small almost the size of sand. You will want to put the largest marbles in the jar first because they’re the most important. Continue with the next size. Finally, add in the least important tasks – that’s your sand or your tiny marbles. If you were to add the smallest marbles or sand in first, you wouldn’t have room for many large marbles.  It is the large ones that will get you to your goal. I found this a useful tool to help me when working on an important goal.

Focus Your Attention. Now that you have prioritized your list and have your large marbles or frogs identified, notice that what you focus your attention on gets done.  You draw your energy to your focused attention.  Focus on the large frogs or biggest marbles first, not the small ones that fill the void.

I suggest to my students that they write their goal on 3 cards and place them in key places where they will see them every day. Place one on the frig, one on the bathroom mirror, one on the computer.  Each card is a visual reminder of the goal. It’s to remind them to take a tiny step toward their goal every day.

Don’t Procrastinate. This is easier said than done. Not really.  By doing the marble exercise and prioritizing your important tasks, focusing your attention on the large marbles, taking a tiny step each day and using a free organizer called www.workflowy.com, you can move closer to your goal each day.  You can reduce the tendency to procrastinate.

That’s how I wrote and am writing all my fireside chats. I focus 10 minutes on what I want to write about (tiny step). I take another tiny step and write for 30 minutes. Next, I take another tiny step and type the chat up and edit. These tiny steps don’t need to follow immediately after the previous one.  Using www.workflowy.com helps me to organize my week and have a big picture of all my large marbles and some small ones too. I keep taking tiny steps until I am finished with a chat.  Each chat is a large marble for me.

I also watch my thoughts.  “There’s never enough time for me to write that chat.” The reality is I only need 10 minutes to map one out. Later I can find 30 minutes to write it. You get the picture. You will find that if you take tiny steps you can do it and do it well.

Big Frog. A dear colleague and coach, Ellen Watts once told me a story from Mark Twain about eating a Big Frog. I tried it and it works. Here’s the story and how it works.

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning. Nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”  Mark Twain.

Here is what Ellen taught me.  Sometimes if you line up your frogs (your tasks) and you find you have a big frog (big marble) and you really don’t want to “eat the frog” (procrastination),  you will find that if you take a tiny step (10 minutes) working on that large marble (frog) first thing in the morning, you will find the rest of the day gets easier. I did that – I did eat a large Bullfrog one morning while working on forgradstudents.com.  Guess what, once I “ate” that frog, everything else was so much easier.

Rewards. As I am writing this chat, I am thinking about my reward. Yes, the chat will be written (during my 30 minutes), but the real reward for me – is a walk on the beach.  It is important to plan treats for yourself. Small rewards for finishing a marble.  A coffee break, ice cream, a piece of chocolate, or whatever reward makes sense for you.  It is important to reward yourself as you move through important marbles.

Okay, now I’m done with time left on my clock. That was easy. Now for my reward. I hope that you will:

  •  Prioritize your tasks
  • Focus your attention
  • “Eat” a frog for breakfast
  • Reward yourself.

P.S.  Once this chat is finished and posted, I will have completed my “Outrageous Goal” that I set for myself over the last 8 weeks. That goal was to write and post 24 fireside chats, and get a website launched for grad students! I have never done any of this before. Yes, I experienced key hurdles and setbacks.  However, I kept my focus, had a terrific support group (Butterflies), asked for help along the way, and took tiny steps to reach my goal. If I can do my Outrageous Goal where I went from “fog to focus; confusion to clarity; apathy to action; and overwhelm to over the moon”, you definitely can accomplish your goal!

Fireside Chat: How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed

Now that you are preparing to write a thesis/dissertation, you may be feeling like I did – overwhelmed.  You may be asking yourself questions. How am I going to do this? Will I ever finish?  Will I have a life other than the thesis or dissertation? What is it they want me to write and what is it I want to write?

Getting started on a thesis/dissertation can feel like you are trying to each a whole elephant in one bite.  No need.  Here are some nuggets that may help you in that process.

Be Clear. Before you begin you need to have clarity.  Why are you doing this?  Are you doing this because you want to gain knowledge and skills?  Do you want to do this because you are passionate about the topic and want to delve deeper into the subject matter?  Are you doing this for career advancement? Are you doing this because someone else said you should?  If it is the last one, you need to think again.  Unless you are passionate about your topic, you may lose steam along the way.  If you are doing this for you, then when it appears that you are overwhelmed and losing steam, you will find the momentum to take the next step to keep going.

Journey. Writing a thesis/dissertation is a journey. I always calm my students by telling them that we are on a journey and I am their tour guide.  I have been there before.  What I know is this; there will be detours and setbacks.  I have taken this route before, so I know what to expect.  The detours and setbacks are just part of the discovery and process.   Getting to that degree is not a straight line, so enjoy and experience the journey.

BIG Decisions. Early on you will be faced with 2 big decisions – selecting the topic and selecting a advisor/chair. Maybe not in that order.  How you select a topic varies by disciplines.  In many disciplines, it’s student led. In my discipline it’s student led so as a grad student, I came up with the topic.  In other disciplines, your topic may be a small part of a larger project.  It could be that your topic may be project led depending on the funding source.

Selecting your advisor/chair can vary by discipline as well.  As I discussed in an earlier fireside chat Dissertation Expectations, you may not have a choice.   In some disciplines, the decision was made as you were accepted into the program and/or based on funding.  If you dohave a choice, choose carefully.   You want to look for an advisor/chair that has expertise in your topic, methodology, and data analyses.  You want them to be able to guide you through the process.  Remember, the journey is not a straight line.

You also are looking for an advisor who can motivate and mentor you.  In mentoring, you are seeking opportunities regarding what conferences to attend, where you should present your work, as well as networking possibilities.

Manage the Process. It is important that you be an active participant in the thesis/dissertation process.  You need to take an active role.  Discuss expectations with your chair/advisor.  Expectations about meetings, how often and with whom. Discuss teaching and industry internship opportunities.  Your advisor/chair may not be knowledgeable about everything; you want them to direct you to where you can seek answers. Select an advisor/chair who will guide you rather than shut down your ideas.

Wrong Direction. There will be times when the research or writing will not go as planned or expected.  Now what do you do? Don’t hide. Don’t be invisible.  It’s key to your success that you raise the issue. Sometimes as I experienced, you may face challenging times with your advisor/chair.  Talk with your advisor/chair.  If you feel the issue is not being resolved, it may be time to seek additional guidance. That is the time to seek advice from the Director of Graduate Programs or the Graduate Coordinator in your program.  Keep in mind your advisor/chair is not your supervisor for life.

Peer mentors can be a great asset and provide valuable insight from their experiences. Their experience can assist you. Remember, you are not the first to ever have challenges with their advisor/chair.  I came before you, and I can tell you from experience, you’ll survive and finish.  However, it’s up to you to take the next step, no matter how tiny that step may be. Take it.

Get Involved. You need a life outside of the thesis/dissertation.  Now don’t go to extremes and make this your #1 priority.  However, you do need to get involved with activities besides your work. Find or start a peer support group.  Go to informal coffees, attend social events sponsored by the graduate student association.  Attend conference or seminars on campus.  They are usually free.  Take time and visit the art museum or go for a walk or hike.  The time away allows you the opportunity to return refreshed and ready to begin again.

Remember you

  1. Need to be clear as to why you are doing this in the first place
  2. Are on a journey that is not a straight path
  3. Have important decisions to make
  4. Need to manage the process
  5. Need to seek assistance when you find you are heading in the wrong direction
  6. Need a life so get involved

Fireside Chat: How Not to be a Centipede

Doing the Dissertation – How not to be a Centipede

Begin Now!Starting is the most important part of writing the thesis/dissertation. Don’t wait for it to be fully formed in your head and expect to write the perfect thesis/dissertation from beginning to end.

You don’t want to be a centipede. The key is to take a tiny step forward each day.  Each step makes a difference and brings you closer to your goal.

“There was a centipede on the road. And when confronted by a toad, Was asked which foot came after which. This worked his mind to such a pitch, He lay distracted in the ditch.”

Keep your focus. Type the questions that will guide your research and put them on your computer, on your bathroom mirror, on the front door. Put them where you can see them every day – to keep you focused. And take a tiny step forward.

It is not easy to write a thesis/dissertation. It takes perseverance. It also takes creativity to write precisely and concisely.  Keep at it.  Don’t quit.

Follow the Leads. I loved looking for names of researchers and authors as I read each journal article and book. Some names will continue to rise to the surface and that may be an important lead. Follow it.  Read further and deeper, but remember you need to stop at some point and begin writing.

One faculty member suggested to her students that they check out book reviews of the books they repeatedly cite.  “Some reviewers will give you intensity and helpful ways to view these books.”

Outline. From an early stage in my career I wrote from an outline.  I know that at times it seemed easier to skip the outline and start writing.  However, in the end you waste more time.  “It’s easier to revise an outline then it’s to revise paragraphs and chapters” was key advice given by several faculty members during a thesis/dissertation workshop. Sharing your outline with your advisor/chair helps them to begin to “own” your organizational plan.  You want their “buy-in”.

Use topic sentences.Start with the big ideas up front. A great piece of insight from a faculty member was, “It is key to state your thesis in the first sentence of the thesis/dissertation.”  I use this advice all the time.  I learned this when I attended a grant writing workshop. For example, “The research problem is …” or “The purpose of this study is …”  Using topic sentences that are precise, concise, and direct make it easier for the readers to understand your message. It also helps you to understand what it is you are writing about.

Set deadlines and be accountable!  It is important to set deadlines for writing each section of the thesis/dissertation. You can be accountable to yourself and/or with other students in a writing support group. Practice setting deadlines.  They will help you finish and get done.  Use your outline to assist you in setting the deadlines. The outline can be most helpful.

Leave a place where you can pick up easily. A faculty member shared this step with students and I learned it in a writing workshop.  I use it all the time. “One suggestion from Hemingway to writers was to stop at the end of a period of time in the middle of an idea and then sketch an outline of the concrete next steps in your writing.”  I find this to be useful in my own writing. It gives me a place where I can start up writing where I left off. It makes it easier to return to my work. I also like to set a timer for 30 minutes and write for that length of time. That is one tiny step forward.

Resist interruptions.  You need to set boundaries. Be in a place where you can put a “do not disturb” sign on your door. Shut off social media. Use your phone and set a 30-minute timer and begin writing.  I found if I hand write and let things flow, it is easier and more efficient. I am not trying to edit or correct spelling as I go. I do that as the next step.  Editing is another step in the writing process. Here again, that you can set a timer and begin editing.  You can check references and format; it’s all editing. The key is to stay focused and you will get done faster.

Use a proofreader.  You need someone in addition to yourself to read your work before you give it to your advisor/chair.  This person could be a friend, a partner, a peer mentor.  They will see spelling and grammatical errors.  They will identify statements that are not clear.  It’s natural for us to read over these as we know what we are trying to say.  We all need fresh eyes to read our work.

It is important that if your advisor/chair asked you to correct something, do it! Nothing annoys us more than to see the same mistakes not corrected after we pointed it out.  As one faculty member stated, “To repeat the mistakes you’ve agreed not to make, is to risk irritating your advisor.”  I have experienced that as an advisor and it is irritating.

Celebrate!  You need to reward yourself as you complete sections and make your deadlines.  We all like rewards.  Including me. It’s a way to encourage yourself to continue on.

 While each thesis/dissertation is unique and original. I hope that you will find one of these, if not all, 12 steps you can use to get the thesis/dissertation started and finished.

Remember, You don’t want to be a centipede!

Fireside Chat: A True Story About a Home Run

“You can’t hit a homerun unless you get up to bat.” I am not the best baseball player.  In fact, if you were picking your team you wouldn’t select me.  But I did learn that I can hit a homerun. Let me tell you a story about how I hit a home run out of the ball park.

I was applying for Graduate Dean Positions.  I had served as an Associate Dean and then Interim Dean.  I knew it was common practice at many universities, although not at all, that the internal candidate is passed over. Partly because faculty know where your “warts” are or “you can’t be a prophet in our own backyard.”  It was clear to me that I better hedge my bets.

My campus was searching for the Dean of the Graduate School.  As Interim Dean, I knew I had a shot at the position.  I also knew that I better look for a position outside the university.  I began applying for positions.  It takes a lot of work to apply for an administrative position (but that’s a story for another fireside chat.)

There was one position open at a major research university. I had been on that campus to recruit grad students for my campus at the time.  I was so impressed by the people I met and the beautiful campus.  I could feel the positive energy of that campus and I knew I would love working there.

While I was there recruiting, I met with the Dean of the Grad School.  He told me that he was never going to retire.  I got depressed thinking “that’s too bad for me”.

Shortly after my recruitment trip, that position came open.  The Dean didn’t retire, he was promoted to VP for Research and that left a vacancy.  A vacancy that I knew I wanted and that all my male colleagues and then some would want as well.

As I made applications to other schools, I thought about that one position I really wanted. I kept thinking that I’d never get that job.  I was listening to the “self-doubt mind gremlins”.  Did I have enough experience? Could I do the job at a large research university?  Would they even consider my application? Those were the self-doubt and lack of confidence issues I was facing.

I also knew there exists gender and implicit bias that women may not be able to lead a male dominant large research-intensive university.  The biases affect the decisions that we make such as – not to apply.  They limit us. Or a I say, they become ingrained as part of our limiting belief systems.

It’s wasn’t uncommon for me at that time to feel that I didn’t deserve the position.  “I’m not as prepared.”  “I need to do more before I am worthy of such a position.” I find these thoughts to be a common theme among many high achieving women.  Studies have shown this as well; “I’m not deserving.”  At times it’s difficult to internalize your own accomplishments.   It’s easier for others to see them before you do.

That’s why mentors (peers included) are so important. They can make a difference.  They see in us what we can’t or don’t see.

So, I hope you get the picture.  I wanted that position and I was letting my limiting beliefs get in the way. I thought, “All the guys will apply, and I won’t stand a chance.”  Then I had another thought, “Yes, they all will apply, but if I don’t – I will never get the job.”  That’s when I realized that if you want to hit a home run, you have to get up to bat!

I did get up to bat.  I put in my A+ game.  I paid attention to every aspect of that application process. Did my homework and then some.  I was ready.

You know what? I hit that home run. I hit that ball out of the park.  I got that position. I was the first female to serve in that position. I was the first person from outside the university they hired for that position. In both cases, it only took 93 years to accomplish that. I served in that position for 12 years and loved every minute.

So, the next time you let self-doubt creep in, remember – You can’t hit a home run unless you get up to bat.

Fireside Chat: A True Story – Asking Questions is Key to Learning

There we were in Dr. Lewis’ textile chemistry class. Organic chemistry was the prerequisite. This was a very serious class. Dr. Lewis never smiled.

She would walk into the classroom and begin writing formulas on the board.  You could hear only the scratching of our pencils as we frantically wrote in our notebooks trying to keep up. No one dared to speak or ask a question.

It had been a while since I had organic chemistry and it wasn’t coming back as quickly as I had hoped.  One day as I sat in class, I was confused.  I was too scared to raise my hand.  No one ever asked a question.  If looks could kill – she was very good at giving you this look – the “look that could kill.”

After class that day, I asked my classmates, “Did you know what Dr. Lewis was talking about?” They all said, no.

That was an “ah ha” moment for me.  Up until that time, I thought everyone else in that class understood everything Dr. Lewis was teaching, everyone but me.  I was experiencing lots of self-doubt. I figured everyone else was better prepared than I was.

My “ah ha” moment was this.  There we were sitting in our graduate textile chemistry class and no one seemed to understand what was being taught. No one was brave enough to ask a question.  I thought for a moment. This is “stupid”.

So, the next class as Dr. Lewis was writing away on the board, I got the courage to raise my hand.  When she turned around Dr. Lewis was surprised to see a hand raised.  She gave me a look – I held my breath.  She called on me.  I asked my question. Dr. Lewis answered it.

After class everyone came over and thanked me for asking that question.  They didn’t know the answer either.  It took courage to raise my hand and ask my question. After that class, my fellow classmates became brave and started asking questions. I learned that once one hand raises and breaks the “ice”, others follow shortly thereafter.  If you can raise your hand to ask a question the first time, it becomes easier each time thereafter.

What I learned from that experience is this. Questioning is the art of learning. It’s okay to ask questions. Asking questions is the best evidence of understanding.

Questioning is important. Questioning is the key means by which professors find out what graduate students know, identify gaps in knowledge and understanding.  If the professors are excellent teachers, they can scaffold the development of the students’ understanding to enable them to close the gap between what they currently know and the learning goals.

I learned that brilliant thinkers and scholars never stop asking questions. “Asking questions is the single most important habit for innovative thinkers,” says Paul Sloane, the UK’s top leadership speaker on innovation.

Asking questions is the simplest and most effective way of learning.  Children are proficient at asking lots of questions. That’s how they learn.

I learned a lot from Dr. Lewis’ textile chemistry class in addition to the chemistry. Every time I teach, I make a point to smile, engage my students, and encourage them to ask questions.  It is their questions that keep me learning.

Dr. Lewis got used to us asking questions and I learned a lot in her class. We did get her to smile. Sometimes teachers don’t realize that their student aren’t at the same level of understanding.  It’s important to explain things in different ways to reach all the students in the class.

If you don’t ask, you won’t know.  I always say “the only dumb question is the one not asked”. Have courage – raise your hand. Ask a question.

“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who doesn’t ask a question remains a fool forever.” Chinese Proverb