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 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: Dissertation Expectations

Everyone has expectations – your professors, your committee members, even the Graduate School.  Expectations about your dissertation.

The most important lessons are the following.

  • You are not in Grad School to get tenure.
  • You do not have to win the Nobel Peace Prize for your dissertation.
  • That Big idea you have will last you a life time so, just do a small piece of it for your dissertation and graduate.

You were selected and admitted into the program because faculty and the Grad School saw promise and potential in you. You do have outstanding qualities.

Graduate School.  The Grad school has its own expectations of you.

  • To exhibit and practice only the highest and ethical research standards.
  • To create new original and independent knowledge.

In the process of doing your dissertation, you will enhance your critical thinking skills, be able to critique and transfer knowledge.  The one thing that is different today is that the “Ruler Lady” is no longer employed to measure your margins, so your dissertation can be bound.

Today everything is electronic, and the format can be quite different.  For example, in some disciplines 3 publishable papers or a more creative format may be used in place of the old standard format. A standard format may consist of an introduction, literature review, methodology, results and discussion, conclusion and implications for further work.

Advisors.You may be wondering about the expectations of your advisors.  They want you to be independent, take responsibility, ask questions, and transition from novice to peer and be able to take the lead. It’s also important that you be respectful of their time.  Your dissertation is not the only one they are supervising.

Questions you should ask.

  • What should the dissertation look like? Are there chapters? If so, how many? It is a collection of papers that you co-author with your major professor?
  • Who owns the data you are collecting – you? The funding agency? The Industry sponsors? What implications does that have for you to publish your work?
  • Will your prospectus/proposal for the dissertation be agree upon by all committee members? By the funding source?

These are important questions to explore with your major professor and confirm by looking at other examples of recently “published – on-line” dissertations in your program.

Management of Your Dissertation. Your expectations for the management of the dissertation should be clear.

  • How will the drafts be handled?
  • Will the entire document be handled by your advisor before it goes to the rest of the committee? Will it go chapter by chapter?
  • What is the amount of lead time you need to give the reader(s) to review and give you feedback?

It’s unrealistic to expect that if you turn the material in today, that it will be read in two days.  You need to ask what the appropriate protocol is for your program. Keep in mind, the committee and/or your chair have other responsibilities besides your dissertation.

The Chair. It’s important that you as the student have regular meetings with your chair.  Be sure to be prepared.  Come to each meeting with an agenda and leave with clear action items.

Questions you should explore with your chair include:

  • How will meetings be scheduled in advanced?
  • How often will I meet with the whole committee to provide progress updates and receive feedback?
  • What can I expect at those meetings?
  • Will I be meeting one-on-one with committee members? If so, how often and for what purpose?

You want to be very careful as to who you select for your chair.  Sometimes, that decision is made for you by the funding source (your chair).  If that’s not the case, do your due diligence and ask your peer mentors for advice.  Be sure to check out the chair’s completion rate and the median time-to-degree to finish for their students. The same can be said for committee members. You may want to read Fireside Chats: A Mentor Saved the Day; Preparing the Way.

Resources. There are resources to assist you. You do not have to blaze the trail by yourself.  Most Graduate Schools have workshops that can be a great value to you. But, you need to make the effort and get to them.  You probably have found numerous on-line resources on “How to write a dissertation.”

Most importantly, get a support system-group in place now! People who can encourage you as you go through the process. People who understand what you are going through. People who can celebrate with you at the finish line – graduation.

You may want to hire a professional editor. Especially if English is not your first language.  I always used an editor as I prepared my grants and manuscripts for publication.

There are writing and thesis institutes where you can spend a focused week on writing.  Attend workshops on writing.   Take advantage of every available learning opportunity even if you have to sneak out of the lab.  They will be valuable to you as you proceed through the process.

Imagine.  Finally, before you begin, Imagine.  Imagine yourself at the end defending a successful dissertation. Finished!  Just defended your work. You are now preparing for graduation and the celebration that follows.  Feel what that feel like.

Now, remember that feeling and go there every time you hit a brick wall, face a hurdle or challenge.  Keep on going. Go over, under, around, and through the challenges to your goal. That feeling and how you saw yourself as graduating…that will assist your spirits and help you to stay on task.

I always tell my students, “Never in the middle ask why am I here? Remember you goal and what it’s going to feel like when you finish.”  You will get there!