Into The Academic Abyss – By Queen JAKS, guest author, doctoral student


“I can’t believe I’m in, I got accepted and now I’m here. I’m so excited but definitely nervous. The hard part was getting in, right?!” 

I was wrong … so wrong. The excitement diminished and I was left with a bunch of nervousness to figure out. The transition into my PhD program was rough, to say the least. It wasn’t what I thought and I quickly reevaluated if this is what I still wanted. 

In high school I was homeless and living in the streets. The hood was my home. I was the first in my family to pursue higher education.  It felt more like a burden than a blessing. My family and friends didn’t understand anything (and still don’t) about the process or demands of the program. I felt a blanket of isolation and doubt wrapped around me every day.

My department hosted discussion circles to connect with colleagues that are faculty sitting at round tables sharing and networkingfurther along in the program. These sessions were helpful but not as candid as they should have been. I wanted to hear that everything wasn’t going to be ok because for me it wasn’t. I always struggled and nothing turned out the way I envisioned it. As PhD students, we don’t always figure it out and we especially don’t figure it out the way others do. Imposter syndrome is talked about but I know imposters exist. Am I one of them? 

This is my sixth and final year in my PhD program and all of these feelings are still with me. What has changed is the way I allow them to affect me. I wish I was comfortable and thriving, however, that’s not my story.  I’m fine with that. Although being here has broken me down, I was given a chance to build myself up again and get to know who I am through a different set of challenges. I’ve never felt so vulnerable in an educational setting but it has taught me I can survive this too.  

We will enter this abyss and it is not guaranteed we will make it out seeing the light. That’s ok… The aim is to learn how to navigate the depth and darkness of it all to create our own light. 



  • Be true to yourself, no matter what that looks like 
  • Don’t hesitate to take a non-traditional route. You don’t have to follow what’s being told to you just because they are more experienced and further in their career
  • Constantly evaluate how important publication and status is to you. What are you willing to endure/sacrifice to get it? 
  • If you knew everything already, you wouldn’t be here 
  • The most successful students in the PhD program are not the most intelligent but yet the most dedicated
  • Everything takes 3x longer than you think (readings, assignments, writing papers) 
  • Be willing to let go of what you’ve written; adapting and evolving is critical
  • Appreciate feedback but don’t be afraid to question and reject it  
  • Check in with yourself constantly to make sure every move is one you want to make, not forced to make. Why did you decide to do this in the first place?

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: 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: Best Advice From Alumni

When I was in graduate school, I never miss an opportunity to ask a question of an industry leader, a Dean, or an academic leader on campus.

My favorite question was,  “What’s the best advice you would give me?” I continued to ask that question in some form or another throughout my career. At times it became a bit more specific other times more general.  Now, I ask that question of alumni, industry leaders, and faculty members on behalf of graduate students.

Recently, I had the privilege of meeting with a group of 20+ alumni over lunch. They ranged in age and experience from recently hired to having a long career in industry. I asked them to share a bit of wisdom for those of you thinking about a career outside the academy.

I have taken their comments summarized them, included some direct quotes, and grouped them into four categories: 1) Your brand, 2) An open mind, 3) Jump in, and 4) Skill set for the “tool box”.

YOUR BRAND. “You are always your own brand.”  It’s important to have your talking points together.  You need to have your 2-minute spiel ready at all times. You want to be able to communicate the value you add to the company. Sometimes you may find yourself in the elevator with a VP and they ask you, “So, what do you do?”  Now you’re ready with your 2-minute talk.

Another important part of your brand is your credibility. “Your credibility is earned, not given.” An important part of that credibility and your brand is ethics. “Ethics are important.”

OPEN-MINDEDNESS. “Don’t be afraid to try something you didn’t think you can do.”  “Never limit yourself.”  By trying new things, you may give yourself a different perspective and be able to add more value to the company.

“Figure out how to connect the dots to get you to the final place you want to be.”  This may mean starting in one position and looking for opportunities and networking to open doors.  It’s about figuring out how to build your value so you can move to that next position.

Trying something new can lead you and prepare you for future opportunities. It’s important to be open to try something new and get new experiences. As one alumnus put it, “Don’t be afraid to try something you might not like because you may find out you do like it, or you can use that information and experience as fuel for your next job.”

JUMP IN.“Just Do it!” This alumnus was adamant about getting in there and do the job – especially for women in industry. You can’t be timid.  It’s important to keep an open mind.

“It’s okay if you don’t know – be humble – be open to learn.” Don’t sit back or you will miss out on opportunities. Even if you don’t know- just get in there and give it a try. Women too often think they are not prepared…they make great leaders. The key is to quiet the inner critic and move forward, even if it is just a tiny step.

“You can’t rely solely on the academic information you learned.”  Industry is changing.  “There is rapid change.”

TOOLBOX SKILL SET. In your tool box you will need a set of skills on which you can rely. “Networking is key if you want to advance.”  “You need to network to build connections” not only for advancement, but also for the projects you are working on.”   You need people in other parts of the company to assist you in solving or working on your project. “You can’t do it alone.”

Teamwork is important.  You may find yourself leading a group and it’s “critical to understand the group dynamics. You need to know what motivates each member.  You also want to see how you as the leader fit into the group.”

It’s important to “develop the skill of telling stories” and be comfortable at it. Storytelling is a great way to get your message across.  People always remember the story.

Don’t forget to look up.  “Need to look up and see what’s going on in the company. Lift your head up. Understand where the company is going and where the changes are.” You want to understand where the company is changing. “It’s even better if you can predict where the company is going.  You will be able to adapt more quickly and be on board with what’s coming down the road.”

“If you are running a race you can go real fast, but if you are going in the wrong direction, you will never cross the finish line.”  Bill Coed, ASHRAE President.

Each person talked about the excitement and challenges of their work.  They said to really enjoy what you are doing and if not, look for what’ next!

Fireside Chat: Friends and Chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fireside Chat: Collaboration and Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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