Fireside Chats

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: Why You Should Do a 3MT Competition

The 3 MT TMcompetition is held on many campuses and grad students compete to be a finalist.  They have the opportunity to win money.

We were excited to hold our first 3 MT TM competition at The University of Georgia on March 29, 2012.  Looking back, it’s fun to read what the 10 finalists said about their experience.

Many told us how they practiced while at traffic lights, over yogurt cones with friends, with international students not in their discipline, or with family members.  What came through loud and clear was how much they learned about themselves, their research, effective communication, and the importance of seeing the big picture.

Why should you do a 3 MT TM competition?Here’s what they said.

“We often forget to step outside of our own departments and fields to see how our research and others interact.”  It is important to make research accessible and understandable, so we can have an impact.  Learning to communicate to others in a meaningful way is key.

One student summarized the experience of competing in the competition as way to prepare for his future. “It’s important to think about my research in the eyes of the general audience. You know in the future, we will probably “sell” our ideas or research to others who have no technical knowledge.”

The experience took students from being in the weeds of their research topic to one that enabled them to see from 50,000 feet.

“The experience refocused me on the bigger picture.”  Several students told us that it was an opportunity to rethink their research in a different way.   “You need to have a good grasp on the big picture of your research and why it’s pertinent.”

They said it was important to have a good understanding of what the general public knows and doesn’t know about their research topic, so they could prepare their talk.

Several talked about how the experience of competing was a fun challenge – a “nice departure from the norm.” Others talked about how the competition was an opportunity to challenge themselves.

Finally, this student’s comment sums it up. “We are doing wonderful things we think are necessary but ultimately, if we can’t present our ideas and results to people from all walks of life, we doing a disservice to ourselves.”

Hope to see you at a 3MT TMcompetition!

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: Social Etiquette and Letters b and d

Did you know that social etiquette is as easy as making the letters “b” and “d”?  Keep that in mind the next time you’re invited to dinner at the Department Chair’s home.

When the invitation comes, that’s when I find I have lots of questions. What can I expect? How do I handle this important social event at the Chair’s home?  What happens if there is more than one fork on the table?  Should I bring a gift? Is there anything I should do before hand?

The answers are easy, and it took me a while to figure it all out. Yes events at someone’s home are a little different – usually smaller and more intimate – but easy to navigate. So let’s start at the beginning.

First things first, I put the event in my phone so I have it on my schedule. I don’t want to lose the address and phone number; I may need it later to text a message. I also google directions and know how long it takes to get there.  I’ll talk about that later.

Now I’m ready to R.S.V.P.  When I host a dinner, you won’t believe how many people assume I am a mind reader and know whether they are attending or not. They never R.S.V.P. I know you know that it means Répondez s’il vous plait – please respond.  I always notify my host of any dietary needs I have.  The dinner planned may include a food item I’m allergic to or can’t eat. The host appreciates knowing that up-front so they can plan accordingly. I know I do.

If the invitation is for me. They mean only me. It’s not appropriate to ask if you can bring a friend or even your mom. I did that one time.  I assumed I could bring someone to a wedding —so I responded “yes” with 2 attending.  It was awkward.  The bride had to reach out to me and say… the invitation is only for you.

I often ask the host if I can bring anything. Most often they say “no”. If they say no, I bring a small gift regardless.  What kind of gift do I bring? I usually bring– wine or flowers- but I make it something that doesn’t put my host to work.  Flowers in a vase with water are fine.  I avoid flowers wrapped in plastic that require my host to find a vase, arrange the flowers etc. A potted orchid plant or a bottle of wine always works.

Another important rule I follow is not to arrive early.  My host still may be involved in preparations. The best time to arrive is within 15 minutes after the event’s start time. That is why I checked how long it would take to get there so I can arrive at the correct time.

Also, I don’t want to be the last one to leave.  After the coffee and dessert are served, I figure out it’s time to gather my belongings, say my goodbyes, and thank my host.

Before dinner, it’s important that I mingle with the guests.  I let the guests have a chance to talk with the host – I don’t want to monopolize the conversation with the host.

Often I offer my help to the host by saying, “Can I do anything to help?” instead of saying “What can I do to help?” The first question allows the host to decline my assistance.  With the second question, the host may feel obligated to find me something to do.

Most of all I stay out of the kitchen.  Crowding into the food prep area to carry on a conversation with the host may be more of issue than a help especially when they are trying to get dinner on the table. If I’m invited, then I join in.

This next step always confused me – How do I approach the table? I learned that it’s best to approach the table and enter my chair from the left, and exit from the right.  That prevents me from bumping into other guests. It’s important to keep all personal belongings off the table – cell phones, keys, purses, elbows.

Here is the part you’ve been waiting for – the letters “b” and “d”.  Now as you glance at the table setting from your seated position, most people become confused. I see this all the time when I am at a sit-down dinner at a conference even with distinguished guests. The ultimate question is – who owns which coffee cup, wine or water glass?  I hear this all the time, “Is this one mine or yours?”

Once you learn this you”ll always know which one is yours and can kindly inform the person next to you that this one is yours and that one is theirs. Someone taught me this and I share it all the time. Here is how you do it – it is fail safe.

You are seated. Start with your left side and think of the letter “b” – that stands for your bread plate.  Now look to your right side and think of the letter “d” – that stands for drinks.  In the middle between “b” and “d” is the dinner plate or entree. Therefore, you can spell “bed” and remember what belongs to you.

An even better way to do this is – using your left hand, take your pointer finger and thumb and make the letter “b” and using your right hand, take your pointer finger and thumb and make the letter “d”.  You can’t go wrong. You can’t make a “d” in the wrong hand.

The wine glass will be the closest to you and the water glass behind the wine glass. They are always on the “d” side.  If the coffee cup is preset, it will be set above the spoons. So, when your neighbor starts to grab for your coffee cup you can gently remind them, that cup is for you.

How about all those extra utensils?  I find it can be confusing. The key I found is to start from the outside and work my way in. Salad fork will be on the outside, the main dinner fork will be closer to the dinner plate. Dessert fork and/or spoon may be north of the dinner plate. Look for them there if they have been preset.

Success! Dinner is over.  It was a great event. I knew what to do and did it ever so well. When I return home, I make sure I follow up with a thankyou note. I compliment the host for a lovely evening and the delicious food. I know I love to text or email – but if I really want to score points and get an invite back – a hand-written note is sent. Those are appreciated.

So remembers, to RSVP, Simple gift, Mingle, Practice making “b” and “d”, Outward in, Thank you. Now youare ready to share the letters “b” and “d” with others!

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: Emerging Skill Needed for 21st Century Career Sector

What does it take to succeed in today’s 21stcentury job/career sector?  What is different from yesterday when many of us were entering the job “marketplace”? I actively seek out answers to these are questions to assist graduate students and post docs.

I don’t need to tell you that in the future, more jobs will require an education beyond a four-year degree.  In just a few short years – we know that millions of new and replacement jobs will require a graduate degree.  That is definitely different from yesterday.

Recently, I had the opportunity to serve on the National Academy of Sciences Committee, “Stem Education for 21stCentury” and a panel at the National Summit on Developing a Stem Workforce Strategy. This panel included leaders from a variety of technology industries. We discussed the challenges businesses face in developing the work force and how the skills and knowledge of graduate students are needed and valued even more today.

You read the word stem and you are in social sciences or the humanities, this information is as relevant to you as it is to all graduate students.  How do I know this?

My research comes from interviews and conversations with CEOs and industry leaders; participating on the Council of Graduate Schools Committee “Pathways Through Graduate Education and into Careers”; listening to graduate students, post docs, alumni; attending a conference, “The Future of Work” and engaging business leaders in conversation about this topic.

I have been asking these questions for years and what I recently discovered is that there is a new skill that emerged.  Of the three skills, two were consistently mentioned to me over the years. They are 1) Communication skills both oral and written, and 2) Teamwork, especially interdisciplinary.  The emerging skill that is needed is agility or flexibility.

Communication. It’s important for students and professionals to acquire the capacity to communicate the significance and impact of their work to the public at large. It’s what I call the “So What?” factor. Your work is important to you, but how does it relate or impact me or my stake holders? That’s what the public and policy makers want to know.

Interpersonal communication skills are a critical component of being able to work across disciplines or in diverse groups or committees. They are necessary just to get along in the office or the lab.

Industry leaders emphasized the importance of being able to discuss technical issues with nontechnical individuals.  This essential skill is needed for job success and career advancement. Tied with that are presentation skills. How does one present their information to engage the audience?

It is critical that all graduate students be able to communicate across generations – from Millennials to GenX to Boomers. Each generation has a different style and way in which they like to communicate from texting to face-to-face meetings. It is incumbent upon us to understand how to communicate across different generations and with diverse intelligent lay audiences. We are trained to communicate effectively with those in our disciplines.  We need to expand our skills.  The 3 Minute ThesisTMis an excellent way to practice this.

Teamwork. Why is teamwork so important? Andrew Carnegie said it well.  “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision.  The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives.  It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”

Developing the ability to work collaborative in a team involves having depth in your discipline and being able to work effectively with colleagues with expertise in other disciplines from diverse cultural backgrounds. You need to be able to work with different research methodologies and work styles. That is the lay of the land today.  This is different from yesterday.

“No problem can be solved alone.”  I heard that repeated numerous times over the last few years.  “This is how industry works” – is what I also heard.  Numerous studies and reports in the literature have documented the importance of the ability to work effectively in teams. Today industry puts people together in teams to solve complex or “wicked” problems or issues. Thus, you need the communication skill set I described above as well as the ability to listen.  Yes, problems are more complex today and that is different from yesterday.

Agility or Flexibility. Being agile or flexibleisthe emerging skill that was emphasized as I visited with alumni in the corporate sector.  As I listened to leaders and alumni from Non-profits, the Chemical industry, the Tech industry, Textile industry, as well as the law industry, the message was the same.  They told me that to be successful and to advance in your career, you need to be agile and flexible.

You need to “Think Big, start small, and move fast.” “Change will be rapid and disruption intense.” You may be working on one project today and have to totally change direction tomorrow or change projects as the company is moving in a new direction.

You need to be able to shift gears quickly and often. If you don’t or can’t, you will be left behind. That message came through loud and clear as I spoke with alumni and industry leaders from across the country.

For you to bring value to the workplace, you have to bring you’re A+ game.  That includes having these three skills in your “tool box.”  That’s what’s different from yesterday.

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!

Fireside Chat: The Importance of Mentoring

What is a mentor? Is a mentor the same thing as a faculty advisor?

The term “mentor” comes from The Odyssey where Odysseus asked his friend Mentor to help watch over his son Telemachus while Odysseus was away at the Trojan War. Twenty years later, the goddess of wisdom Athena disguises herself as Mentor to provide Telemachus crucial advice at the start of the epic story: to investigate what happened to his father.

A mentor can be a trusted guide, or counselor.  A mentor has expertise and can assist the mentee or learner.  “Mentor: learning from someone who wants you to grow.”

Some see a mentor as a coach or a role model.  A person who can provide a support system.  They can help with career advancement or provide insight in how to navigate a difficult situation.

Mentoring can be formal with a specific set agenda and outcomes. Mentoring also can be informal. Most of my experience has been informal both as a mentee and as a mentor.  When I ask a career question of a mentor who I see as a role model – it usually occurs in an informal setting.  As John C. Crosby says, “Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”

An important key to success in any mentoring relationship is respect and trust.  Both parties must find value in the mentoring process. Keep in mind that mentoring is a dynamic process and changes over time.

One mentor may not serve all your needs as a mentee.  You may find you’re best served by a matrix of mentors – more than one. Can your faculty advisor be a good mentor for you? Sometimes, it depends.

One faculty advisor can’t do it all.  They may not have the answers to all your questions. You may find your major professor is great at directing you in your research but may not be able to assist you in seeking a career outside of the academy.  That’s why it’s important to seek out several mentors; you can gain from their varied experience.

You also may find that your colleagues can serve as peer mentors. Peer mentors were so important to my success and they were a life line for me.

One student recently shared the following. “I had a question – How do comps work? I was uncomfortable to ask questions about things. I wish I had met with students in the 3rdand 4thyears and asked them – What does it look like? Can I bringfood?”

Peer mentors can give you inside information about committee members. Having the right committee members is key to your success in finishing your degree.  You need them to be responsive and read your work in a timely manner.  You need them to get along, so you can avoid being caught in the crosshairs of opposing political views that have nothing to do with you or your research.  That’s where I found peer mentors so helpful.

One of my peer mentors shared valuable insight. She said, “You don’t want Prof X and Prof Y on you committee; they don’t get along.”  Another peer mentor told me, “Prof Z never reads, and it takes months before you get any feedback if any at all.”

Mentoring is a way to pass on what it is you know.  Be a wise-advice giver. Seek out many as well. I know that if I didn’t have mentors I would not have finished graduate school, navigated successfully through the tenure process, and been a Graduate Dean.

“If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before.” J Loren NorrisIt’s that simple.


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!