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: 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, 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 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  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 – 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

Fireside Chat: A True Story About the 3 Minute Thesis

What can you do in 3 minutes? Boil a kettle, make toast, listen to a song, wash your face, and get rice into the rice cooker? In 3 minutes 750 births happen; 1 million tweets are tweeted; and a graduate student can present the core of their research in a compelling way with one slide.

An 80,000-word thesis or dissertation would take 9 hours to present – their time limit is 3 minutes.

What a fascinating idea. Sharing your thesis in 3 minutes and one slide. How could that be? I was intrigued.

Here’s my story of how my curiosity and my passion for educating graduate students led me to bring the 3MTTM   to the U.S. – first at the University of Georgia. I then shared my discovery with the rest of the Graduate Community.  Today, it’s been adopted in some form or another across the U.S. and into Canada.

I discovered the 3 Minute Thesis TMcompetition while talking with a colleague from the University of Queensland (networking). We were at a meeting in Munich, Germany in 2011.  I can still see us standing around during a coffee break.

Several folks were talking about a three- minute thesis. A three-minute what? I was curious.

Once they explained it to me, I was hooked on the idea. It was exciting and challenging to share your research in 3 minutes or less to an intelligent lay audience with one static slide, no dancing, and no props.  That’s not all, you had to engage your audience to want to learn more.

Returning home to Athens, Georgia, I gathered my team and said, “We’re going to do a 3 Minute Thesis TMCompetition!  We’re going to do it this year! This competition is so relevant for our students to hone their communication skills. It will be fun.”  You should have seen the surprised look on their faces.  That was October and we did it! We held the first 3MTTM to my knowledge in the U.S. on March 29, 2012.

Why did I push so hard? What was my vision? I wanted to help grad students succinctly communicate what they were doing – what their scholarship was about – and the “so what” of it.

I saw the value of these students sharing their knowledge to a wider community.  As it happened – they are holding 3 MTTM competitions across the U.S.  It’s an important career and employability skill.

A skill essential for career advancement.  Students need to be able to communicate technical information to a smart intelligent lay audience like policy makers, or in a job interview, or to their grandmother.

The competitions are amazing. I learn so much each time I attend one.  It’s tough to judge these – I know, I served as a judge.

Students learn as much by preparing for the competition. They learn how long or short 3 minutes are.  They learn not to speak using jargon.

Most importantly, they share with a broader audience 1) the benefit of graduate education, 2) that graduate education is a public good, 3) the new knowledge they created, and 4) they inspire others to want to know more; they peak their curiosity.  It’s curiosity that drives the engine of innovation and creation of knowledge.

Several students shared that they practiced giving their talk at a stoplight. Others practice in front of their friends or even in front of their grandmother. If their audience could understand them, they knew they are on the right track.

I knew I had to share the marvelous aspects of the 3MTTMwith my grad dean colleagues.  They could see I was passionate about this competition.  They invited me to bring three of my finalists from our competition to “perform” for the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools (CSGS) Deans regional meeting over lunch.

To fully understand. You need to stop a minute and picture the setting in which this was done.  Imagine wait staff clearing dishes, the clinging sounds of silverware and glasses being remove from the tables. The distraction of dessert being served. That was our background.

I arose from my table and proceeded to introduce each student one at a time and they each gave their three-minute talk. Each dean was so impressed. I could see it on their faces. Their focus and attention were not on dessert and coffee or a conversation with their neighbor, but rather on each student as they presented.

They were so impressed with how professional, engaging the presentations were, and how the distractions of the clearing of the tables did not bother any of the students.   “WOW” was the comment I heard most often followed by, “How do we do this on our campus?”

Next year many of the deans began to implement a 3MTTMcompetition. Before you knew it, CSGS was holding a regional competition inviting the winners from each campus to compete.  Today, regions are sending their winners to the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) meeting for a national showcase.

I love the 3MTTM.   I love what it can do for students. I love how an idea – an innovation – can be shared for the benefit of our students.

I invited Legislators to meet with our students and experience their three-minute talk.  I had our students do their three-minute talk to the Chancellor, to the Board of Trustee members, to Alumni Boards, to my Development Board.

It demonstrates the powerfulness and impact of communication. The audience sees the result of the value added and transformation that occurs in graduate education.  They can also see the public good of graduate education.

So next time you have 3 minutes, maybe you will be practicing your talk.  It’s not as easy as you think.

Fireside Chat: Collaboration – A Real Life Experience and Key Skill

There is always something special about the first time you do something. It is exciting, it is scary, it can be rewarding, and there are challenges.

However, in the end there is growth, expansion, and most of all the experience of creating. It is empowering! That is how I feel about collaboration; it can be all those things including fun.

Collaboration is like exploring the next frontier and you get to do it with colleagues, friends, or a group. Like when you get bold enough, take a tour, and do not know anyone in the group and the tour ends up being fantastic and you made new friends.

So, what is it about collaboration that is exciting? Collaboration allows you to see amazing possibilities.  It provides the environment in which you can think BOLDLY about the problem or issue. It is where possibilities begin. It is where we get to answer without limitations, “What if…”

Exploring the unknown and having other minds to add to the depth and expansiveness of the exploration, the unknowing. It is the unknowing and creating new knowledge that is exciting, rewarding and fun. Exploring options, “feeding” off others ideas, and seeing possibilities where there was none. Sharing and consoling when you fail or hit a dead end and regrouping to continue on a new path.

Oh, yes it can be scary. Like how am I going to relate to all the different folks in my group? What if my ideas are not the best? It is scary that I do not have all the answers and I think everyone else in my group thinks I do or should.  Can I really collaborate?  Will it be easier just to do this project myself and not rely on my teammates? What if we do not listen well to each other how will that affect our collaboration? Perhaps you can think of other scary aspects of collaboration that you could add to my list.

What I know is this, collaboration is valued.  From my experience as a graduate student, industry member, faculty member, administrator, and neighborhood/community member, the benefits, outcomes, and rewards of collaboration outweigh the scariness or challenges.

Let me give you a real life example. When I was president of our neighborhood association, we had situation where a developer wanted to build a project that would significantly diminish the safety and quality of life for our families especially our children.

Now I could have taken this on myself, but it was through inviting the neighborhood to form a collaborative group that we were able to reach an outcome that benefited our community more than, if I tried to solve the problem alone. Through that collaborative process, I learned and gained skills that I use today and those skills have helped me to advance in my career.

I learned that listening and really understanding my group members was critical. What were their issues, what were their solutions, what were their considerations? Respecting different viewpoints even though the ideas did not always agree with mine was so important to our collaborative process.

Let me tell you, everyone had a viewpoint on what we should do! I gained valuable experience in honing my interpersonal, organizational, and leadership skills that are highly valued in the job market and I use every day.

I also learned a valuable lesson. The importance of patience. Not everyone reaches a solution or comes to consensus at the same time. Some take longer in the information gathering stage than others. It is important for the collaborative group to allow for that because in the end, the outcome will be stronger.

There are many challenges to collaboration. In the end, it is so worth it. The impact of what collaboration can create is more than I could ever dream by myself.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Helen Keller

Fireside Chat: Advice from Faculty About the Dissertation

How do grad students learn about how to write a dissertation?  I thought about my own experience as a first-generation grad student.  There must be a better way to assist grad students.

I found a way. And in this chat I will share the experience of others who successfully completed the process and some who were going through the process. But first let me tell you how I found a way.

I happened to be visiting an experienced Graduate Dean seeking informal mentoring when I was invited to attend a special workshop. This workshop was a Dissertation Workshop for graduate students. I thought, what a novel idea. How can I do something like this for our grad students. And, so I did.

Using that workshop as a model, I expanded the idea to include master’s as well as doctoral level students. The first Thesis and Dissertation workshop was held on my campus in October 2000.  It was a great success.  We had a full house. Faculty from diverse disciplines were invited to serve on a panel and give their best advice to the attendees. They ranged from having just finished their dissertation (newly appointed Assistant Professors) to well established faculty (Professors).

The students asked lots of questions.  One student captured the experience of attending the workshop as follows.  “This is the first thing like this that we have had as graduate students.  It makes me feel like I am part of a community of scholars.”

The Faculty shared great wisdom and I have the luxury of having saved my notes and am able to share their insight with you here. Much if not all of what they said holds true today and my hope is that you will find one nugget that will be of value to you.  You may want to read the fireside chat on Dissertation Expectations.

Preparing the Way. Faculty had much to say about how important it is for you to get started right away. Do not let the first semester slip by without you taking action. They recommended that you:

  • Attend dissertation proposal meetings and defenses in your program right away.
  • Select a topic you like, and feel is important.Sometimes that topic will be selected for you by the funding agency, if not, you will want to be passionate about your topic.
  • Explore several possible dissertation questions.
  • Consider multiple designs and don’t prematurely foreclose on your topic.

One faculty talked about how important it was to prepare. He said the following. “If you don’t prepare the way – set the stage – you’ll end up like I do on Saturdays.  I spend the day going back and forth to Lowes rather than making a planning check-list and making only one trip.”

Advisors. Selecting your faculty advisor is a major commitment. You may want to read the Fireside Chat A Mentor Saved the Day and do better than I did.  Sometimes you may not have a choice in that your funding is tied to a faculty advisor. Be mindful. Everything is rosy during the honeymoon or early phase and it can get difficult during the middle of the process. You don’t want to divorce your major professor as I did (that’s for another fireside chat) or have them divorce you.

  • Choose an advisor with great care.
  • Expect some bumps in the road in working with your advisor.
  • Consider the advisor’s work load and promptness in reading and providing feedback.

This faculty member says it like it is. “At times during the dissertation process, you won’t like your advisor.  I pride myself on not hating anyone, but I hated my advisor at times. Now that I’ve graduated, I don’t hate him.”

Committees.  Think about committee membership in several ways.

  • How academically helpful will they be?
  • What is the social/political make-up of the committee?
  • What scientific paradigms do they represent?
  • How liberal or conservative are they scientifically/methodologically?

Never forget that there is a standard unspoken protocol. It is this. “Committee members usually defer to the dissertation advisor. That is the way the system works.”

Process.You will find that you are excited to begin. Your family will keep asking you, “When will you be finished? What is it you are working on?”  The dissertation process is different from anything you have done in the past. As one professor stated, “The ‘bells’ that have rung in your past will probably not ring for you when you do a dissertation. You are largely on your own.”

  • Be proactive, not simply reactive during the process.
  • Remember that the dissertation process is a tutorial one – you and your advisor.
  • Map out the entire dissertation and then break it down into smaller subparts and tasks.
  • Set short term goals relative to the dissertations subparts and hold yourself accountable.
  • Identify technical and emotional social support assets.
  • Get by with some help from your friends.

One doctoral student in attendance summed up her experience and how your mindset makes a difference.

“As a doctoral student at the dissertation stage, I’ve discovered two attitudes among students. 1) This is what I have to do, and 2) This is what I chose to do because I have a passion for it.  What a difference it makes to have the second attitude!”

Fireside Chat: Communicating Your Science is an Important Professional Skill

There are many skills that a grad student should take away from Graduate School.  For those of you in STEM fields (science, engineering, technology, and math) learning to communicate your science to different audiences is critical.  You may not believe that now, but consider the poor state of the public’s science understanding.

We do the public a disservice by not assisting them to understand what it is we do. The more they understand, the more they are able to make informed decisions.  Communication is a key professional skill and no longer considered a “soft skill.” Every grad student should have communication as a professional skill.

There was a time when those of us in science could be certain that all we had to do was share the facts of our scientific knowledge.   At that time, the public valued the knowledge and scientists were generally trusted.

Currently, the public acceptance and understanding of what it is we do and why, or the impact of what we do, can and does influence governmental policy and regulation, whether it is at the local or federal level. That’s why science communication is more important today than ever before.

If we as scientists communicate more effectively, we all benefit and science thrives.  The public is looking for us to be able to communicate our discoveries and the resulting impact, or as I like to say, the “so what factor”.

The public is asking “What does it mean for me?  What difference does it make?”  Why is effective science communication important for you?  It affects your ability to have a competitive edge when on the job market or when you are seeking career advancement.

Ultimately, our ability to communicate science effectively enables more informed decision-making at all levels; we all benefit.

However, today, many voices compete in the marketplace of public opinion.   Anyone with a laptop, a video camera and a compelling message can share their views on scientific matters that may or may not be rooted in science or even in truth. In fact, today science doesn’t always have the upper hand in matters of critical importance to our country and our world.

As researchers, we often start explaining from the perspective of our own understanding, and sometimes the vast knowledge we have acquired in our field can be an obstacle to clearly communicating our research.   It’s challenging for many of us in scientific fields to dial it back to the thousand-foot view so we can communicate with a general audience.

Scientific jargon gets in the way of communicating science.  All fields have their own unique jargon, and when we communicate with our peers, they understand our message.  But outside our sphere of our discipline, jargon only confuses people – It excludes others from the circle of understanding. Look carefully at the jargon you use, and find terms that explain the principles you want to share. For example, practice explaining your work to a non-scientist relative, what would you say?

Think about why you got interested in your research area in the first place – maybe you wanted to save the environment or provide a safe source of drinking water for people around the world.  How did you get from that “Big Idea” to the lab or the field in which you work now? What inspired you and what does your research offer to address the world’s problems.  Think about the “so what?” of what you do.

People love stories, and often they will remember a story about your research better than the theories, data and results. Think of a “hook” to catch their attention and reel them in.  Engage them. Peek their curiosity.

You may have heard the expression, “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”  Share your passion for your work, and help your audience to understand what it means to them.  What challenges are you trying to address?  How might your work improve lives?

Of course, there are many ways to communicate your science.  A colorful image can look like a piece of art, but the story behind the image can capture the imagination of your audience.

Social media offers opportunities to share a nugget of scientific wisdom.  Each media platform offers unique ways to share your science and connect to others in your field.

Whatever your passion, think of ways that you can share it with others.  In addition, make it a goal of your graduate education to become a skilled science communicator.

How can I gain experience in communicating science? There is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University that offers programs for masters and PhD students.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the New York Academy of Science’s Science and the City program offer opportunities for scientists to engage.  There are “science cafes” in many cities, or science museums where you can hone your skill.  Finally, don’t forget the 3MT TM competition that many graduate schools are holding. Many schools are collaborating with faculty from communication disciplines and offering summer workshops and training. It’s up to you!

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!