Fireside Chats

Fireside Chat: A True Story: How A Mentor Saved the Day

Have you ever thought about why Mentors are so important? As a first-generation college student, I didn’t understand how important it was to have a mentor or several mentors. I was clueless as an undergrad and especially as a grad student.

I think of my mentors as “Learning Coaches”.   They provide a model of “apprentice with” not “apprentice to”.  They help create along with others, a rich and robust intellectual community where the quality of transparency is not strained and learning outcomes are explicit.

Having a mentor is so important because as a mentee we are being prepared as the next generation of thought leaders and independent scholars. Our faculty are preparing us to be critical thinkers – an essential skill for our toolbox that we will carry with us through life.   Our faculty are preparing us to be ‘stewards’ of our disciplines and to expand it for the next generation.

Enhancing success. Faculty mentors really assisted me by providing a cognitive map of my program and the process of doing my thesis and dissertation. They can do the same for you and your capstone project.  Think of a cognitive map as a google map or a gps system that assists you with navigation.

As a first-generation grad student, I was clueless about the cultural and political aspects of the department and my discipline.  My mentors provided guidance for the socialization and acculturation into the department.

I can still hear Dr. Ford (one of mentors) say to me, “Grasso, this is the way it is …” I was having challenges with my major professor and needed to understand the lay of the land. She was great, direct, clear, and I got the message.

In the process of mentoring, our mentors (both formal and informal) as well as our peer mentors can include us.  They can create a rich inclusive community by engaging us and reaching out so we don’t feel isolated and alone.  I found my peer mentors experienced many of the same feelings and things I did.  They had helpful suggestions and strategies that assisted me in navigating hurdles.

Think about all the possible pitfalls, sinkholes, and brick walls you can encounter along the way in grad school.  I know I hit a few.  Having mentors assisted me every time I hit a brick wall or that hurdle I thought I couldn’t get over. Dr. Ford, Dr. Lassiter and others helped me avoid the pitfalls. One even saved the day.

I can remember this as if it were yesterday.  Back then, our prelims or qualifying exam lasted over 5 days.  You didn’t know what question you would get to write on each day.  After the written exam, you had to do an oral defense of the prelim.  It was during the oral defense that my major professor started asking questions unrelated to my exam.  I began to get flustered.  I was about to lose my composure when Dr. Lassiter stepped in and started asking my major professor questions.  Perfect distraction! Perfect time to allow me to catch my breath, breathe, and get my composure back.  Dr. Lassiter wasn’t a formal mentor, more of an informal one and he save the day for me!I passed the exams but not before experiencing extreme undue stress.

Clear expectations would have been great to have from my major professor about the exam process.  That’s what a good mentor or learning coach will do for you.

My informal and peer mentors helped guide me through the dissertation process. What should it look like? How will the process be handled?  Who not to get and who to get on my committee.

Mentors have your best interest at hand.  Their goal for you is to complete your degree.  My goal was to get through, around, over, and under each hurdle and reach my goal – graduate.

On a final note, my experience as a grad student shaped me to be who I am, who I was as Associate Dean of the Graduate School, and Dean of two Graduate Schools. I know from experience how important mentoring was to me.  I am passionate about mentoring such that I made it one of my strategic goals to improve mentoring for grad students; to mentor faculty on how to be better mentors, and to mentor grad students on how to be great mentees and be mentored.

My career path would be different if it weren’t for mentors along the way.  They were the Learning Coaches I needed. My learning outcomes, well I have to say accomplished!

Fireside Chat: What Do I Know Now – Advice From Grad Students

“What do I wish I knew then that I know now?”

This is a question I ask graduate students as they are finishing up and getting ready to graduate. They have great insight and wisdom to share. Here are a few pointers from several students with whom I spoke recently as well as other thoughts that I have shared with my students. The direct quotes are from the students with whom I spoke.

Before I begin, people always ask me so what is graduate education? I reply, think about your experience as an undergraduate or someone you know. Undergraduates are consumers of knowledge and graduate students are producers of knowledge.  If you hold the thought that graduate students are producers of knowledge, then these remarks may make more sense for you.

More is expected of you. More than what was expected of you as an undergraduate. I mean, much, much, more.  It took me my first semester to figure that out.”

It’s not like being an undergraduate. More is expected, and you can’t expect people to hold your hand.” “They will not feed you information like – telling you want’s going to be on the test. It’s no longer appropriate.” You are a professional now and the faculty expect you to behave and perform as a professional.

It’s up to you to figure things out.” Take initiative, read and learn on your own. While it’s more demanding, there is life after graduate school so work effectively and efficiently now and get to your goal.

It takes longer than you think. Things don’t always work out the way you think they will nor in the time frame you’re expecting them to.” “Not everything goes as expected.”

One student told me that as she entered the Master’s program, she thought she had all the time in the world to figure out her topic of research.  She took her time the first semester or as she said, “I later realized that I needed to get going at the start of the program that first semester because I found myself behind at the beginning of the second semester.  It goes by faster than you think.”

As I tell my students, your time here is limited. You are not here to earn tenure. Before you know it, we’ll be at fall break, then winter holiday, and when we return there are only weeks before spring break, then graduation. Each year seems to go by a little faster, which can be overwhelming when you have to meet deadlines.

Right now, you have the luxury to focus on one research topic or one project. Once you leave the university you may not have that luxury again as there will be many more demands on your time. Enjoy the process and the gift to focus on the one project now.

There is a need for patience and persistence.“I didn’t realize that I needed to be resilient.”  “Things wouldn’t work out as I expected in my research. I learned that it was ok to fail. Through failure I learned to get up and try again and again.”

I always told my students we expect that things will not always work as we expect and if it weren’t for the failures we wouldn’t have the discoveries and innovation that we do today. The key is to “fail early” rather than later.

Take advantage of every opportunity. There is so much to be gained.  Go to conferences, attend seminars, meet speakers.  “I found the Grad School workshops on teaching and writing to be valuable not only while I was there, but also now that I am in industry. I use what I learned everyday with my team.”

In their own way they each told me, and I know as well, that graduate education is a transformative process. A transformation takes place from the time you enter until the time you leave. You sharpen your problem-solving skills. You develop and enhance your critical thinking skills that last a lifetime. You become a lifelong learner and create knowledge that we all benefit from in the process.

Remember that completing a graduate degree might appear to be a big job, but in fact “it consists of a million small chores” Haggerty & Doyle. Organize those million chores and ensure that you check them off on you way to that Big Goal – completing your degree!

Finally, never forget that you are giving yourself a gift – a gift of education that will last a lifetime and benefit your family, your community, and the world.

 

 

Fireside Chat: How to Be Successful at a Conference

You are prepared to attend the conference.  You’ve done you preplanning.  Now what?  Let’s talk about being at the conference and what you can do to be successful.

Imagine – see yourself at the conference. See yourself walking with confidence the whole time you are at the meeting. Even if you are an introvert like I am.  It’s important that others perceive you as having confidence.  I always say – Walk like you are in NYC (New York City). That is, walk like you know where you are going even if you don’t.  Don’t appear like a deer in headlights.

Name tags – pesky and annoying as they are, they are important. A valuable lesson I learned from a politician was to wear your name tag on your right side.  It feels comfortable and natural for me to place it on my left side given that I am right handed.

The politician explained to me that the reason for wearing the name tag on the right side was so when you extend your hand to shake and introduce yourself with your name, that person you are meeting can look up from your hand/arm to your name tag and see your face.  The association of name and face is important and helps people to remember who you are.

If your name tag is on the left side, then the person you are meeting has to lean over to read your name while trying to shake your hand and then back to see your face. It doesn’t flow.

What do you do if that name tag is on a string?  Never fails that string is too long. For me, I find the name tag on the string hangs down to my midsection.  I don’t want someone bending down to read my name tag around my stomach.

There is an easy fix. I always pack two magnets. I place one magnet on the inside of the back portion of the plastic cover of the name tag and the other magnet behind my jacket or shirt on the RIGHT side and not hang the name tag on the string.

If I forget to bring my magnets then I tie up the string to shorten it.  That just doesn’t work ask well as having the name tag on my right side.

Appearance – Be mindful of what you wear to the conference. Your appearance is so important. You have less than 10 seconds to make that first impression and it is a lasting one.

It’s not easy to interpret what is meant by business casual, especially for women.  For the men, it usually means a shirt, no tie, and a jacket or a golf shirt and jacket.   For women there is not a standard business casual uniform. So what I say is this … it’s not tee shirts and flip flops.

You always want to look like the professional you are. Most decisions about a person are made nonverbally as you walk through the door.

Quick Recap

  • Remember name tag on the right side
  • Walk with confidence.
  • Dress and look like a professional who already has the job
  • Enjoy the conference!

Fireside Chat: Conference Job Search Strategies

My niece called the other day asking for assistance. She was going on the job market and attending a conference where company reps and recruiters would attend. The first thing I asked her was, “Has your major professor talked you about what to do?” I wasn’t surprised by her answer – no.  So, I told her that she wants to be better prepared than I was attending my first meeting.

I remember my first conference – early on in my graduate career.  I was clueless of what to expect. Good thing I wasn’t on the job market. Good thing I had a fellow grad student with me. Together we managed to navigate the large meeting and exhibits.

If I knew then what I know now, my first meeting would have been even more successful.  First thing I do now is to scan the pre-program to identify speakers with whom I want to connect.  I may do some research on them.  Read some of their papers. Check them out on LinkedIn and Google them.

Next, I prepare a question or two to ask. A question that is more open ended. One that requires more than a yes or no answer. I always like to follow up with a “How so?” You always get more information that way.

When scanning the program I look for any pre-conference workshops where I can add something of value to my “tool box”.  Find additional people with whom I can connect.  I look for any dinner or reception opportunities where I can network.

Coffee breaks are important times.  I use them to seek out people I want to meet or with whom to reconnect.  I’m always keeping my network current.  Finding out new pieces of information that can be helpful. Sharing what I am doing is important so my information gets circulated as well.  Plan coffee breaks well – they are important.  Make sure you plan to get some coffee too!

Go to the meeting prepared.  Have you ever thought about your business cards? What you don’t have one? Even graduate students need a professional business card with current information. Business cards are important. I always present my card with my name facing the individual to whom I am giving the card.  Why would I do that?  I want them to remember me and know my name.  It’s also very appropriate in different cultures to do it that way.

You can present your card to the speaker or to your new contact and write on the back of the card the question or the “ask” you want the person to do.  For example, you may want to ask for a copy of their paper or survey instrument.

Write that ask on the back of the card.  This serves as a reminder to your new contact of what it is you are wanting. It also helps them remember you when they return home. That is important!

You may be asking your new or existing contact for a referral.   Maybe this person can’t assist you. Always ask, “Professor Smith, who would you recommend I speak with about X?”

They may give you a name of a person to contact. You can write that on the back of the card they gave you. Always ask Professor Smith if you can use their name when making contact with the person.  That will assist you in your next step when you reach out to that contact you are now connected through Professor Smith.

Something simple as, “Mr. Newperson, Professor Smith suggested that I contact you regarding X.”   The door is now open for you to engage Mr. Newperson in a conversation.

When you are meeting someone and exchanging business cards, take an extra second to carefully present your business card so the person receiving it can read your name.  When you receive theirs, take a moment and read it before putting it in a safe place.

I make sure I have two designated places to store my business cards. One place is for my card, so it is readily available when needed – I don’t want to fumble around looking for my card. The other place is for the cards I receive. Never shall the two meet. That could be embarrassing if they get mixed together and you give out someone else’s card for yours. I also don’t want to be seen shuffling though business cards to find mine – I did that once – not recommended.

It doesn’t take much to be prepared and your time and effort will pay off in a successful experience at the conference. Much like my niece’s experience was.

Here is a quick recap.

  1. Prepare before the meeting by scanning the program
  2. Planning your strategy for each part of the program
  3. Draft a few ice breaker questions
  4. Have your business cards ready
  5. Ask for a referral

Fireside Chat: Imposter Syndrome

As a first-generation college graduate, to earn a graduate degree was a major milestone. A first for my family.  Women did not attend college let alone seek an advanced degree. I was the lucky one – encouraged to seek an education. Education was a gift – a key that opened doors to opportunities

There was no one in my family to advise me about graduate school or how to navigate the path forward. I was on my own trying to figure things out. I realized early on that if I was going to be successful that I couldn’t do it alone.  That is when I became brave enough to ask a few questions of my fellow grad student colleagues; I discovered what today we call peer mentoring.

When I began my graduate education, I remember feeling the excitement of the journey ahead of me.  Today, I can still feel what it was like that first day. I remember the beautiful crisp sunny fall day – stepping onto the campus as a first-time grad student. I can see the beautiful trees, awesome huge buildings – the pathways across the quads. Most of all, I can feel the joy of taking that first step to achieve my goal

My memories flash to my enthusiasm and passion for learning and the degree I was going to earn – that would create opportunities to become a university professor. My enthusiasm and passion were a way to stay focused on achieving my goal when I encountered hurdles along the way. And there were hurdles – small one, large ones, multiple ones.

Self-doubt liked to loom close by.  Early on, I would say to myself, “oh my … They let me in. It must be a mistake. Everyone else here is so much smarter and they know what they are doing.”  What scared me most was that someone would find out that I got in by mistake – then what?

I wasn’t the only student having self-doubt. I heard several of my friends say some of the same things I was thinking.

Today we call self-doubt the “imposter syndrome”.  Letting self-doubt and the “mind gremlins” take over and squash your dreams.  Guess what – they didn’t just let me in. It wasn’t a mistake.

The faculty admission committee knew what they were doing. They saw promise and potential in me. I realized early on not to let the “mind gremlins” get in the way of achieving my goal – earning that degree.

I had a belief that grad school was going to be an extension of what I experiences as an undergraduate – wrong. With no one to share insight, I was clueless especially as a first-generation student.

Much more is expected of you in grad school, much, much more.  I did find my path through trial and error. Asking graduate students ahead of me a mix of questions about the process, about professors, about anything I needed answered. We call that peer mentoring.  Peer mentoring is essential in graduate school. One has to be willing to ask and seek out others who can serve as peer mentors.

The most crucial lesson I learned was the importance of peer mentoring. The experience of those ahead of me helped to demystify graduate education. It was the experience of benefiting from peer mentoring that even as Dean, I served as a mentor to demystify the process of grad education for students and assisted anyway I could to share experience.

Here are a few of my takeaways for you that I learned that assisted me and I have seen it work for many other grad students. The last one especially worked for me at difficult times in my PhD program.

  • When you’re “stuck” or experience a little wobble, remember that first day of excitement, passion, and thrill, of being new – feel it – and remember your goal!
  • Many – especially women, experience the imposter syndrome. Spot it for what it is and move beyond it.
  • Find peer mentors who can assist and answer questions; be a peer mentor to someone else
  • Finally know there will be bumps and hurdles on your journey. Your task is to get around them, through them, over them, under them and Go for your Goal!

Fireside Chat: Social Etiquette and Table Tops

Have you ever noticed that there are never enough table tops at a reception and the ones that are there are always taken? People lay claim to them as if they were staking a claim on a gold mine. Well, table tops are valuable and few in number for a reason. The idea is for us to mingle with food. The organizers want to ensure that we don’t become squatters in one place, but rather circulate and network.

Yep, you have seen me make that mad dash and stake claim to one of the tables.  Why? It’s all because of toothpicks and my lack of ability to juggle a plate of food while trying to carry on an intelligent conversation.

How good are you at juggling? Some of you have to be better at it than me. I could do with some practice. Although it seems that with all my years as a Dean, and the many informal and formal receptions and events I have attended, you would think that I have mastered the skill of balancing food plates, drink glasses, and napkins. (A skill not taught in graduate school, perhaps it should be).

It seems that every time I go to a reception I am trying to balance a drink in one hand and a plate of food in the other with a napkin. It never fails. I am doing a great job balancing and then someone comes up to me.  They introduce themselves and extend a hand to shake. Now what? I’m still looking for that magic recipe or dissertation on “How to succeed at a reception with food.” If you find a good source, let me know.

Ever notice that the server with tray of the most delicious appetizers always approaches you. Then you spot it – the toothpick- speared through the cheese cube or something wrapped around a water chestnut, or my favorite – chocolate covered strawberries.

It’s over before it begins. I just give up. It’s just too hard a task for me. It’s not that I don’t want the appetizer. I love food – but it’s the balancing of multiple plates in my hand and those little decorative “party” toothpicks.

What do I do with the toothpicks when I am finished eating the appetizer? If I succumb to weakness and select a food item off the tray with a toothpick and enjoy eating that tiny food morsel – Now what? What do I do with the toothpick?

As women, we are at a disadvantage. No pockets. No pockets in jackets, no pockets in slacks, no pockets anywhere. What were the designers thinking? We need pockets to store those toothpicks.  That’s one place I could stash that toothpick, but then again, I don’t want to get home and find a pocket full of toothpicks.

Ever notice the server with the tray is never to be found again especially when you are ready to “give back” that little toothpick?

So what do you do? What are some best practices for handling toothpicks, juggling plates and glasses, and laying claim to a table top?

Here are five effective strategies that I found to be effective.

  1. Eat before you attend a reception, so you only have one hand holding the glass; keep it in your left hand so your right hand is available to shake hands.
  2. If you can prearrange with your colleagues that one of them or you lay claim to a table top. Do so and do it quickly and with gusto! The table top can serve as your staging area. You can deposit your toothpicks wrapped in a napkin and leave it on the table. The table top can hold your glass, plate and you can be hands free. This allows you to move about the room and mingle without food or drink.
  3. What if the table tops are taken? This strategy always works for me. Find a table top that is not too crowded. Approach slowly, stealth fully, and with a smile. Ask, “May I set my glass here?” The answer will always be a “yes”. So, squeeze in and claim your space. The wrong question to ask is “Are you saving the table?” Because even if they are not, they most likely will say “yes”.
  4. Focus on food first, but not food and drink. Best always to make sure you eat before you drink.
  5. Finally, and most importantly, focus on networking and give up the food. Networking is the reason you are there. While I know we have been trained as graduate students (my generation too) to follow the food, you really want to use this time wisely and network.

Next time you see that delicious speared appetizer and an open table top, I know you will have a plan with the end in mind before you engage!

Fireside Chat: A True Story – Introvert at Important Reception

While it may seem to you that I am an extrovert, I’m really a border line introvert/extrovert with the emphasis on the introvert.  It’s not easy for me to break into groups – especially groups where I don’t know anyone. It always seems to me that everyone knows everyone and I am on the outside looking in. Has that ever happened to you?

Never fails – when I walk into a reception I notice all the faculty standing around talking to each other while the rest of us just look on.  Over the years I learned how to be more successful in navigating these events. It’s really not that hard.

First, as introverts we have an advantage! We listen. I realized that I am a good listener and that people really like to talk about themselves. So that makes it easy. I let them do the talking and I do the listening.  Now I’m connected.

The key for me is to prepare a question to ask and then listen. The question might be about the speaker we just heard, or the latest event happening on campus, or something in the news. It’s just an ice breaker. Or I ask them to tell me about themselves. That one always works.

I also figured out a few ways to gracefully navigate an “escape” from the person that goes on and on. One way is to say. “It’s been great talking with you and I promised ‘so and so’ that I would meet up with them at the break.” Sometimes I am really lucky and another person comes along.   That is what I call divine intervention. I don’t feel guilty about leaving, the person talking now has a new person to engage.

As a female I find that it can be difficult at times. I remember this one time when I was at a reception that the Chancellor of the University System was hosting.  I wanted to talk to the Chancellor about an important matter and get it on her radar. She was surrounded by a group of male faculty members. They knew where the power was.

My task at hand was how to I break into that circle and speak to her.  I looked and found an opening in the circle. Stood there and listened to the conversation.

I had a plan. I was not going to shout my question from across the circle.   I had to maneuver closer to where she was standing. So, I slowly kept moving around the circle until I could get right next to her. I did. When I was there standing next to her I engaged her with my question. Because of my proximity, I had her undivided attention.

Later a male faculty member said to me…I saw what you were doing, that was a pretty clever move.

I know you can be clever too.

Fireside Chat: Friends and Chocolate

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate” especially in graduate school. Making friends in graduate school was so important to me. My friends have lasted me a lifetime. They kept me connected with what was important and hearing from them instantly brings back great memories and a smile.

My friends helped me get through the difficult times like taking my qualifying exams or preparing for my orals. They were my cheerleaders. They shared their experiences. They were someone I could talk to and they helped to make the process of graduate education not be so crazy and hard.

I am still in contact with many of my friends. Even if we do not get to see each other, we take the time at least once a year to drop a line and catch up with each other.

Best fun I had was making friends with people outside my department. It was a great way to let off steam. We might go for hikes or a run (not my favorite) or hang out in the park. Sometimes we gathered our “pennies” and went to happy hour for a beer and pizza at Big Al’s; he was big and his pizza the best in town. Our gatherings over food were always special. It was a time where we would explore and dream about our future.

Sometimes I just needed a friend to listen to me. Like when I was dealing with a difficult major professor. His idea was that I was to work, work, and work; until he told me, I was finished. My idea was to push back and say, I have a job waiting and I cannot just “work, work, work, until you tell me I am done”. Having my friends made the difference of me being able to complete my degree.

We talked about what was going on in the world, elections, weather, and any subject other than school. We celebrated our successes and milestones. My friends made my experience in graduate school full, full of growth, happiness, fun, and of course food. I hope yours will as well; and do not forget to bring the chocolate!

Fireside Chat: Collaboration and Communication

Collaboration and communication both begin with the letter “C” and so does the word conflict. As we think about or even experience collaboration, we learn first-hand that everyone in our group or team has a different perspective. We see things through different lenses. That is what makes collaboration rich and exciting. At the same time it is our different lenses that create the potential for conflict unless we stop for a moment, spot the conflict (what we are
seeing and experiencing), and be open to receiving and understanding the different perspective. It does not mean we have to change our viewpoint – just be open to receiving other perspectives.  When we are open, we are more receptive, we expand, and we grow. That is where the growth is in collaboration.

We all are the same. We all have a different viewpoint, a different way of doing things, a different method to solve problems or issues, a different cultural experience. I could go on and on about differences and that is where conflict can arise – in the differences. As Tom Crum states, “The quality of our lives depends not on whether or not we have conflicts, but on how we respond to them.”

Conflict can be subtle and very passive aggressive or conflict can be “In your face”, New Jersey style. Having lived in many parts of the country from NJ, to the mountains in the west, to the southwest, to the south, I learned how to live in different cultures and to understand different forms of communication and styles of conflict. I was used to the direct in your face style of conflict however, living in the south, that direct style of conflict just would not be appropriate.

Communication is another way we can experience conflict through the collaborative process. The conflict can arise from our different communication styles.  That is, how we receive and how we send communication can cause conflict. Let me give you an example of different communication styles or preferences with respect to collaboration.

The other day, I was having an impromptu conversation with two graduate students. One was a Gen X with business/industry experience and the other a millennial coming straight through from an undergraduate program. Both were in the same department and working on doctoral degrees.  I engaged them in a conversation about collaboration.  What I learned was that Gen X with industry experience had a different understanding with respect to expectations in how to communicate and collaborate with other generations especially with Boomers. Boomers like the face-to-face means of communicating and collaborating. Millennials prefer other means of communication. From our conversation, it became clear to me that different generations have expectationsthat other generations should meet their expectations and preference style in communication. Communication is key to collaboration. As Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication.”

The Gen X person was very clear and stressed the importance of collaboration. “Collaboration is an essential skill in the workplace and that you cannot solve all the problems by yourself.” Both students told me how Millennials perceive collaboration differently.   The Millennial stated that Millennials collaborate using technology for example on google drive. In so doing, each person can work at different hours; people can do their own thing, and isolation can become an issue. Millennials are collaborating when they add to the document or conversation in google drive. The Gen X had a different perspective. “Collaboration looks different today as a result of technology”.  Collaboration happens best when team members “work in person” and not remotely. The Gen X student left me with this thought, “Bigger better ideas come through sharing knowledge and the end result is more innovation.”

What is clear is – as we engage in collaboration, it is important to understand the expectation preferences of each team member’s communication style. Perhaps a hybrid model will evolve to include the best of each generation.

What is important is that each generation wants respect and if we start with that premise, then Collaboration and Communication will begin with a big letter “C” and conflict with a small letter “c”.