Home Blog

Doubts – is it going to be worth it?

Doubt. This five-letter word can be a thief. It can steal hope, happiness and pride. Webster tells us that the word doubt means to be uncertain, lack confidence in or distrust. Anyone who has ever tried to accomplish something has had some degree of doubt. For graduate students and those considering graduate school, doubt can be overwhelming, and in some cases debilitating.

For those who are considering graduate school or who are currently in graduate school, doubt can be a constant companion, and must be managed. The correct management of doubt can lead to increased confidence in abilities that can permeate all areas of personal and professional lives. Everyone has doubts about something. 

While graduate students at Tennessee Tech experience doubts just like any others, they are finding ways to navigate doubts and turn uncertainty into success.

For graduate students, time versus money versus goals can spark major doubts. Students must define their goals and then decide which is the right path to take to achieve those goals. 

For those who just completed their undergraduate degree and are going to immediately begin graduate school, the doubt may be “can I afford to continue my education?” or “can I afford not to continue my education?”

At this point, there should not be any doubt about being able to ‘handle’ the academic responsibilities, as confidence in those abilities should be high.

Malory Heidelberg of Jackson, Tennessee, originally wanted to be a dentist, but changed her major two years into her undergraduate degree after realizing she wanted to be a dental hygienist instead. She redefined her goals. With the changing of her undergraduate major came the realization that she wanted to get her master’s degree.  

“After the decision to change my career path, I knew I wanted to achieve my master’s,” Heidelberg said. “My passion is healthcare. I knew I needed to pursue both my loves.”

Once she received her bachelor’s, she started researching master’s programs in Tennessee that would let her take classes remotely so she would be able to keep her full-time job. She decided on the Master of Professional Studies degree program with a concentration in healthcare administration at Tech.

“Completing a remote program takes a lot of drive and focus. It is 100% achievable when you have amazing faculty like the ones at Tech,” Heidelberg said. “If you consider any master program remotely, choose a university that will support the students and their success. Out of all the universities I have attended, Tech has allowed me to feel like my work matters. I am proud to be completing my degree at Tech.”

Rachel Patterson of Wartrace, Tennessee, is pursuing her masters in professional studies degree with a concentration in healthcare and she will be the first person in her family to receive a master’s degree. For that fact alone, one would expect some doubt, however for her, the doubt came from others.   

“I had a lot of people that doubted me along the way, but I have never been so proud of myself for pushing through and achieving my goals. It is an amazing feeling,” Patterson said. “There are going to be times when you will want to give up, but getting your master’s will make it worthwhile in the end. I feel like getting my master’s is going to help me reach the dream that I have always desired and that is making a difference in healthcare.”

For the person who has been out in the workforce for years and wants to return to pursue their master’s degree, there can be various doubts. The reasons they want to achieve their master’s degree may vary from wanting to advance their current career, to wanting to completely change careers or perhaps just as a personal milestone or check mark on the bucket list.  

Doubts for those individuals, while like those already mentioned, may now include the “am I smart enough to go back to school” or “can I handle the workload with my current workload, homelife, kids?”  Added into this one might be “can I afford it at this stage of my life?” or “will I get any return on investment at this stage in my career”?

Mollie A. Mahan, a Cookeville native and Tech alumna, is pursuing her Master of Science in Community Health and Nutrition degree after being out in the workforce for almost 20 years. Does she have doubts that she could come back and succeed at his after all this time?  Absolutely, but her ambition and drive are stronger than her doubts. 

“I have these moments when I realize that I am actually doing this, and I am succeeding at it. For me, beginning this program is exciting and scary. I don’t know specifically what my future holds but I know that I am ready to start this journey,” Mahan said. “My children and husband are excited to see me grow professionally and gain overall confidence in myself. It’s going to be a great experience but not without struggles. I’m excited to look back to see how I’ve grown academically and personally.”

When one has doubts, talk to someone.  It may be a career professional, someone who has been through it already, or maybe just a friend or family member that will let one ‘vent.’ Sometimes all it takes is to simply ‘bounce’ ideas, concerns, and even doubts off someone else for them to become less scary and manageable. 

Is it normal to feel doubt?  Yes, however, one shouldn’t let doubt keep one from attempting new things or setting high goals. Overcoming doubt can boost self-confidence and lead to further successes. One step at a time, one assignment at a time, one day at a time, this is what leads to the fulfillment of those goals. Will there be stumbling blocks?  Yes, when one remembers the desire they had at the beginning to complete a master’s program, to improve, enhance or change their life, they can be overcome. 

Did you have doubts about pursuing your master’s degree?  What specific doubts did you have and how did you overcome them?

Balancing graduate school with life and work

Balancing graduate school, home life, and work life can be hard. Webster tells us that balance as a transitive verb means “to bring into harmony or proportion.” What this means to individual graduate students depends on where they are in their lives.  

One type of graduate student is those who graduate with their undergraduate degree and immediately start graduate school. Another type is the graduate student who has been out of school for a while, like years, in some cases many years. This type may seem to “have more on their plate,” so to speak. They may have established careers, families, mortgages and maybe even a dog. One isn’t “better” than the other, they just may look at things differently.

The first type of graduate students may have jobs at the university, as graduate assistants, research assistants, or in some other capacity at the university. One would think that for those types of graduate students balancing life and work may look different. Afterall, they may not have “left” school, but are “continuing” their education. They may be in their early to mid 20’s and still single or newly married, and perhaps have a fur baby or two. 

Alexis MacAllister is this type of graduate student. She first graduated from Tech in 2017 with a degree in communication. Now, she is pursuing her Master of Professional Studies degree with a concentration in project management and will graduate in the summer of 2023. She currently works in the iCube, a grant-funded office on Tech’s campus.

MacAllister said her classes allow her to incorporate real job experience into homework assignments and projects, which she said makes the coursework even more engaging and applicable to her future career goals. It has increased her confidence in her abilities. She has obtained real-world experience as she worked on her master’s degree. 

The online format has been convenient, according to MacAllister, and she is grateful for the opportunity to pursue a degree while still maintaining her professional career.

“I appreciate the flexibility of being able to take my master’s classes online while still working in my current career,” MacAllister said. “This allows me to balance both aspects of my life effectively and chip away at assignments during nights and weekends.” 

At times the process has been challenging, according to MacAllister, but the sense of accomplishment she feels now has made it all worthwhile. 

Mollie Mahan is an example of the other type of graduate student. She is a registered dietitian who first graduated from Tech in 2005. She currently works for the State of Tennessee’s Women, Infants, Children program, but she recently started back to school to get her master’s degree in community health and nutrition. She works full time, has two daughters who have lots of activities, a husband, a home, a ‘normal’ life.  

Why is she getting her master’s degree? Mahan said she hopes to expand her knowledge of programs and evidenced based research of community health risk and programs. This will help her to strengthen her ability to assist with WIC participants. She also hopes to show her daughters that “you can do whatever you set out to do.”  

How does she do it? With the help and support of that husband and her daughters. Her daughters recently helped her film a video in a local grocery store about choosing healthy foods for one of her courses. The girls thought it was “the funnest thing EVER!” Mahan thought it was an opportunity to include her daughters in her life as a graduate student. On that day at least, she had the best of both worlds.  

What’s her secret?  She took to heart a piece of advice given to her by one of her instructors in her program.  

“One of the best pieces of advice came from Dr. Hutson. She told me to utilize all pockets of time that I can. I have found that reading journal articles and completing other small tasks when I have small pockets of time makes assignment completion smoother,” Mahan said.  “While my daughter is at her 30-minute piano lesson, I usually read assigned material and make quick notes on my phone.” 

She also tries to stay ahead of assignment deadlines, that way if someone is sick or something keeps her from assignments, she does not miss deadlines. The online program allows the students to work ahead on most things. 

Tyler Gentry, a graduate student who is pursuing his Master of Science in Nursing Education degree is perhaps a combination of the two. He first graduated in December 2020 from Tech with a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing and is currently in his first semester of graduate school.

Gentry is working two jobs, has a wife and an almost one-year old son.  He currently works full-time at Cookeville Regional Medical Center as a Registered Nurse, and his second job is part-time as the lab specialist at Tech’s Whitson-Hester School of Nursing. 

He puts in 65 hours a week, employment wise, and then with school he has his schoolwork, which he spends “anywhere from three to five hours a day.” The work is involved, and it does take a lot of time according to Gentry. 

Time management is always an issue. He said you always want to do the best and just continue doing as much as possible. One must pick and choose what are the most important aspects of life. He said family is important, as well as work and education, and “we provide for our families through education.”

“Working two jobs and going to grad school is a challenge. Everything for the graduate degree is online. So that really lends to my ability to just, on my own time, be able to do things. I’m not really time constrained, which is fantastic,” Gentry said. “I also have a new baby at home, and I do get to spend time with him while doing this, which is really a main drive in choosing Tech’s program, because it is all online. With nursing, clinical hours that are required come later so it gives you time to prepare, so to speak. But it’s been very doable, and I have no regrets.”

The ability to reach out to the instructors and get quick responses is a component of the success of the programs at Tech according to Gentry.

“Tech’s program is fantastic, and the master’s education is very well laid out.” Gentry said. “They make it easy, it’s convenient and affordable, honestly. And everything is on your time, it bodes well for working professionals.”

These are three real examples of graduate students who are making it work for them. They have figured out that harmony and proportion are not always possible, at least not on the same day. Is that okay? Yes. Will the world end if everything is not exactly balanced? No. 

One day, the most important thing that needs to be done may be a paper that is due, and you zone in on that; however, it may mean the laundry or dinner dishes must wait. The next day it may be getting your child to the baseball game on time for the district championship game, and all thoughts of school assignments are banished to the furthest recesses of your mind. Which may lead to getting up early the next morning to complete an assignment. 

Real life can sometimes be hectic and messy and overwhelming. But there is a light at the end of that tunnel – graduate school is not forever.  But the prize you get out of that Cracker Jack box at the end will change your life, and the lives of your family, be it man or beast, forever. 

There are all kinds of tips and advice from academia experts on how to balance graduate school, work and life out there. Find the ones that fit your life and utilize those, let the others fall by the wayside. 

The balancing act does not look the same for everyone and as long as it works for you, that is all that matters. 

What does that balance look like for you? Do you have any advice for keeping this balance?

Valentine’s Day and chocolate

Who Created the First Valentine’s Day Box of Chocolates?

By the 1840s, the notion of Valentine’s Day as a holiday to celebrate romantic love had taken over most of the English-speaking world. It was Cupid’s golden age: The prudish Victorians adored the notion of courtly love and showered each other with elaborate cards and gifts. Into this love-crazed fray came Richard Cadbury, scion of a British chocolate manufacturing family and responsible for sales at a crucial point in his company’s history. Cadbury had recently improved its chocolate-making technique so as to extract pure cocoa butter from whole beans, producing more palatable drinking chocolate than most Britons had ever tasted. This process resulted in an excess amount of cocoa butter, which Cadbury used to produce many more varieties of what was then called “eating chocolate.” Richard recognized a great marketing opportunity for the new chocolates and started selling them in beautifully decorated boxes that he himself designed.

From that point, it was a quick jump to taking the familiar images of Cupids and roses and putting them on heart-shaped boxes. While Richard Cadbury didn’t actually patent the heart-shaped box, it’s widely believed that he was the first to produce one. Cadbury marketed the boxes as having a dual purpose: When the chocolates had all been eaten, the box itself was so pretty that it could be used again and again to store mementos, from locks of hair to love letters. The boxes grew increasingly elaborate until the outbreak of World War II, when sugar was rationed and Valentine’s Day celebrations were scaled down. But Victorian-era Cadbury boxes still exist, and many are treasured family heirlooms or valuable items prized by collectors.

Start, Keeping Going – Lessons from Running

I have heard many times that graduate school is a marathon and not a sprint. In fact, in her blog post last week Amy Sheppard said this very thing! I wanted to expand on this idea because for the past year I spend most of my time either running or working on my thesis. I developed an appreciation for running the year I started my first foray into research, the final year of my BSc. When I started graduate school that appreciation and dedication only grew: as I became more disciplined with running, I pushed my limits academically. In the final year of my MSc I ran my first half marathon and made plans to start my PhD. There is an unavoidable parallelism in my life between running and academia.

I like running because it gets me outside (even in the extreme cold I have a strict no treadmill policy), it is dedicated time to spend with close friends, and it is my time to think, process, and discuss with undistracted focus. Running starts my day with a comforting rhythm that is sometimes hard to find in life. But it has also taught me many lessons that I can bring to my experience in academia: to be successful at long-term efforts like grad school and running you have to get in a routine of working towards your goals. But how do you do that when those goals seem so far away? First you start, then you keep going.

I was a little frosty after my run on a typical Manitoba winter morning (-30C) last week but it was still worth it!


It is daunting to start something, whether it’s taking that first step out into the cold morning or writing the first word blank document. Starting comes with the inevitability of challenges and the possibility of failure. When I find myself focusing only on if and when I will finish, I get hung up on how far away that ultimate goal feels. I need to remind myself I have it backwards, I first have to focus on the beginning. The first step to finishing is taking that first step.

The first question I ask myself is: Can I start? Can I start running today? Can I start working on a big analysis or piece of writing? The answer is almost always yes! Conversely, I try not to ask myself: ‘Can I finish…?’ Because that’s not always a guarantee. To remind myself that starting is an accomplishment too, I’ve added the word “start” before the items on my daily to do lists. That way I always accomplish what I’ve written down for that day.

Another way to start is to form a habit. For instance, I know I will go out for a run if I make it the first thing I do in the morning. Similarly, I have daily cycles in my academic productivity; If I’m mindful of that schedule I’m often successful at the tasks I plan.

Keep going

Congratulations on starting! The next question is: Can I keep going?  Can I run 10 more steps up the hill? Can I write one paragraph or figure out what this model looks like? Again, the answer is normally yes! At this point I’m well on my way to accomplishing something.

Sometimes I find myself ready to give up right before the *magic* happens: I’m subconsciously giving myself one final out before I fully commit. Whether I’m pushing past a distance or pushing to finish a big project I’m always proud of what I accomplished by persevering. When I finally do achieve my goals, whether It’s finishing the marathon or submit my thesis, I will look back to those more challenging moments as key points where growth happened. It’s the prior steps that add up to that final goal: progress is happening.

A perpetual feeling of being behind on work manifests when there are no achievable milestones along the way to a goal. If being finished was the only thing that could make me feel ‘caught up’, I would label a lot of what I do as failure. I urge you to focus on any growth, learning, or experience as progress, not only the final product. Some days you just won’t run as far or accomplish as much as you wanted to, and that is OK. You got out there and you tried. Any time you start and keep going when you want to quit, puts further along than you were before.

Here are a few specific things that help me start and keep going when running that can be applied to working on my thesis:

  • Interval training: On days that I really need to get something accomplished I use the Pomodoro (or Tomato Timer) Method. Set a timer (~25 mins) to work uninterrupted on a single task like writing a section of your chapter, cleaning some data, making a figure. When the timer goes off, you get a 5 min break. After 4 cycles you get a longer 30-minute break. I normally aim for 8-12 cycles in a day. I did this while writing my MSc thesis and my Comprehensive Exam Essay and I found it really effective.
  • Peers: My peers motivate me both in running and science: they keep me honest about my habits and help me push my limits. Friend participation is helpful for Pomodoro days because friends keep you accountable to work. You can start a peer support system for work in your own lab: for instance, the WEEL lab holds a biweekly “writing group” in which we submit writing and review other submissions. This habit forces deadlines, provides a supportive working environment, and is a constant stream of feedback.
  • Rest: Important because recovery happens on rest days. Without them, progress would slow with the inevitability of burning out. Self-care is the key to perseverance. Amazing things happen in those intentional pauses – including inspiration! The timer method is a microcosm example of the important role breaks play in your journey of productivity

I am still working on changing my perspective and definition about what success is:

  • Don’t compare yourself to others, instead celebrate your self-improvement. There will always be someone who is a faster runner or a more studious student than you. It is a disservice to you to not reflect on your own progress. It is equally damaging to compare yourself to the unrealistic super-productive person you imagined yourself being when you set your goals at the beginning of the semester or month. So, I also keep a ‘done’ list to remind me about what I have accomplished in times I would normally perceive as unproductive.
  • Focus on small joys like the yellow supermoon against a purple morning sky, the light when the sun hasn’t risen just yet, your footsteps on the quiet trail, the happy dogs on their morning walk, the ravens cheering you on, the time with friends or just yourself! Try to find the joy in working on your thesis, the sharing of ideas with colleagues you admire, helping someone else work out a problem, and making connections strangers when talking about your study species or study system. There is intangible value in your effort separate from what you produce at the end of the day.

Success isn’t a one-time deal, it is a habit and a routine. There is a comforting rhythm to both running and science. I can do both of them regardless of where I am. They are both mixed with surprises and variation – the perfect blend that makes me take that first step every day and keeps me going.

New Year’s Resolution: Eliminate, Enhance, Explore

It’s my first day back at my writing desk since my Holiday Hiatus, and I’m thinking a lot about what I want from 2023: what I want to achieve, how I want to work better and smarter, and what I need to do in order to be successful personally and professionally. I’m sure many of you are beginning 2023 with similar resolve: I salute you.

I’m a real sucker for resolutions. I make them every New Year, of course, but I also make them at the beginning of each semester. Resolutions give me a sense of purpose; they help me feel like I have some control over this crazy life, like I still have the power to shape who I am amidst the cult of grad school. And there’s something cathartic in saying it out loud: THIS is what I want, or THIS is what I needAnd I’m going to make it happen. *Cue Wonder Woman theme song.*

But it seems that New Year’s resolutions may be falling the way of bygone New Year’s traditions, such as pork-over-poultry“First-Footing,” or, my childhood favorite, banging pots and pans until my eardrums felt fit to burst. Resolutions, most commonly about physical or emotional change, are hard to keep. A study from the University of Scranton suggests that only 8% of Americans are actually successful in keeping their resolutions. Failed resolutions often leave us feeling poorly about ourselves; what began as a quest for self-improvement transforms into (yet another) site of guilt.

There are many tactics for developing successful resolutions, such as setting SMART Goals, asking for varying degrees of accountability, or hacking the psychology of habit-forming. These tactics are all useful, each in their own right; I’ve tried them all over the years. But the one caveat, on which I will insist, is that would-be-resolvers avoid guilt. We’re grad students; we’ve got enough guilt. To that end, I offer to you three suggestions for creating New Year’s Resolutions.

1.    Eliminate.

Start with getting rid of the clutter. If you’re like me, the commitments pile up faster than you can blink. You serve on committees, you guest lecture in a class, you offer to proofread a paper—all on top of taking classes, writing your dissertation, teaching, and attempting to maintain some semblance of healthy relationships with friends and family. Even when I want to try something new, or change my behavior, I find that I have no time left to do it. So before you try something new, scale down. Make room to breathe. Enjoy the space.

My “Eliminate” Resolution: I resolve to stop working at 8 pm each night, and to take Sundays off.

2.    Enhance.

What are you really good at? Resolve to keep doing it, but better. When are you at your best? Don’t set impossible goals for yourself, but recognize the areas in your life in which you’re already succeeding. Figure out how you can enhance those areas of your life. Are you great at writing in short increments? Try developing a daily writing routine. Are you already disciplined about writing daily? Consider adding 500 words to your daily count, or investing in a new software program to improve that experience. Are you at your best when you get a full 8-hour sleep? Try going to bed earlier, or drinking less caffeine in order to sleep better. Make a skill into a habit. The principle is the same: play to your strengths.

My “Enhance” Resolution: I am at my best, my sharpest, my happiest, when I allow myself to be creative. I’m going to play the piano, I’m going to sing, I’m going to write poetry; I resolve to create space for imagination and artistry in my life.

3.    Explore.

Try something new. Take a risk. Give yourself the freedom. This doesn’t need to be a big goal; you don’t need to master a new language, or learn to play an instrument, or travel the world. Exploration does not require commitment. To explore is to seek, to investigate, to try.

The most common resolutions are to lose weight, to save more/spend less, and to get organized. Each of these things is final: you do or don’t lose weight, you are or aren’t organized, you do or you don’t save. I think this is a guilt-inciting mistake. Instead of setting an all-or-nothing goal, resolve to give something a try. If it works for you, then you can choose to incorporate it into your life.

Last year, I resolved to “move around the classroom” more frequently. I thought that this would help me connect with my students, provide a more engaging educational environment, and help me curb frustrating technology use.

I tried it. It was weird.

I felt uncomfortable, students felt uncomfortable, and I quickly returned to my position at the front of the classroom. I don’t feel bad about opting out of this resolution: I gave it a shot, it didn’t work for me, I moved on. Ultimately, I consider this a success in the spirit of the resolution, if not the letter: I learned something about myself as a teacher, and trying, at least, set me on the path to improvement.

What if I Told You … You Can Be Organized Too

Before starting my doctoral program, I never anticipated how much time I would spend developing learning skills like organization. Graduate school requires organization in many forms. Students must organize calendars, literature (paper or digital), deadlines, multiple e-mail accounts, research and writing projects, computer folders, to-do lists, and personal and professional responsibilities. Luckily, other GradHacker authors have written about some of these areas, including how to organize your computer, email, research, and notes.

A common question I ask other graduate students, as well as professors, is: “How do you organize your work?” Responses to this question have taught me that even professors struggle with organization and their workflow in general. Some folks respond that they are not good examples of how to be organized. Others are willing to share detailed accounts of how they do things, and from these I’ve learned that there is no perfect way to organize. Throughout the years, I’ve aimed to learn about organization and workflow from as many people as possible. In this post, I share details about part of my current system. A special thank you to all the folks who have shared their methods with me and helped me put my system together!

1. Semester plan

I learned about the semester plan from a dissertation bootcamp I did that was led by Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, President and CEO of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. You can learn more about the semester plan here. When I begin getting organized for a semester, I brainstorm everything that I want to do during the semester without thinking about dates and my calendar. I typically complete this process in an Excel spreadsheet with each major item as a column heading. You want to break each major task down as much as possible. For example, instead of having my entire dissertation as something I need to work on, I specify a major task such as a single chapter I need to work on. Then, I think about tasks that are smaller or more specific that go into that chapter, like the purpose section, the research questions, or the theoretical framework. Each of these smaller tasks form the basis of what I will do each week in my semester plan.

When you’re brainstorming your major tasks and the specific items within them, think about what specifically you have to do.  Which chapters or sections? What manuscripts are you working on and which sections need attention? When are conference proposals due? How do the proposals break down into smaller chunks?

2. Calendar Integration

Once you have identified the major tasks and broken them down into smaller items, start mapping out when you are going to complete the work. I do this in Excel by labeling each row of the spreadsheet as a week of the semester. When you do this step, account for holidays, conferences, or anything else that will take up time. You don’t want to allocate three tasks for a week when you are going to be away at a conference and won’t have time to work on them.

Once I have my spreadsheet set up, I flip over to my calendar application, Fantastical, and start adding all the tasks with deadlines. Fantastical is great because it integrates very well with OmniFocus, but any calendar application will work; you just need to be able to add weekly deadlines for each of the smaller/specific tasks you identified in your semester plan. In my calendar I make all my tasks due on Sunday which is what I consider the end of the week.

Now, it’s Week 1 of the semester, you have your semester plan done, and all your deadlines in your calendar. The next step is figuring out your weekly schedule for when you are going to work on these tasks. The first time I did a semester plan I broke down the term so that I had three things I wanted to get done, and each week I tackled each of these tasks in some way. The tasks were: 1) the analysis for my dissertation; 2) a book chapter; 3) a report for my job. I followed an approach I eventually called the 3 x 3, where each day I had three tasks I wanted to work on and I spent three hours on each. I put these work blocks right on my calendar so that I knew what I should be working on each day. Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega shares two different approaches to working in a post called “Move Every Paper Forward Every Day (MEPFED) vs Work on One Project Every Day.”

This 3 (tasks) x 3 (hours) was my ideal situation. Some days I did less, or nothing at all, but I found three tasks gave me enough variety for for my day and made me feel like I made progress on several things each week. You can play around with this approach but the point here is you want to schedule specific work time for the tasks.

3. OmniFocus

A while back, Dr. Inger Mewburn (The Thesis Whisperer) shared details of her workflow in a Google Document titled “Academic Housekeeping – a check list and explanation.” She first shares how she organizes her files and email accounts, and then breaks down how she integrates OmniFocus, a task manager and productivity software. I’m not going to go into all the details of OmniFocus, but I strongly recommend you check out the Academic Housekeeping post to see additional details about how you can use it.

I like OmniFocus for two reasons. First, it keeps me on track. Once my semester plan is complete with my tasks for the semester and each week, I go into OmniFocus and add each major item as a Project, and then also add each of the specific tasks with the deadlines I previously established. The software shows you what tasks you should be working on based on the deadlines you allocated, and tells you what deadlines are coming up. Fantastical integrates really well with OmniFocus, so I can see my calendar, all my projects, specific tasks, and deadlines right in Omni.

Second, when you complete a task, you get to put a big checkmark next to it. And, when you haven’t completed something on time, it lets you know. Seeing this little number two on the icon on my dock means I have two items that are past due (Oops!). This is very motivating to me because I’m always striving to not have this indicator and it is very satisfying when I don’t.

It’s easy to use and doesn’t take a lot of time to set up. I know what you’re thinking: This seems like it takes so much time to set up, and it costs money. Do I really need more apps? But the software took less than an hour to learn after I saw how someone else was using it. At the beginning of each semester, it takes me about an hour to make my semester plan and another 30 minutes or so to put everything into Omni. After just an hour and a half I have a plan for the semester and a program that will notify me when I’m behind.

4. Reflect

At the end of the semester, it’s important to reflect on how the term went. Did you get the tasks done? Why might you have failed to complete everything? How could you modify your semester plan or your weekly workflow to accomplish more? Reflection is important because you must look at where you can improve and make changes accordingly. When working on your organizational system, a variety of things can be customized to your needs, but you need to put in the time to find what works for you. You may want to, for example, incorporate an overall graduate program completion or dissertation plan, or an Everything Notebook.

Though my system has additional components like email and digital file organization and literature spreadsheets, I hope this post has sparked your interest in reflecting on the system that you use. And I invite you to share regarding your system below.

What planning do you do for your year, semester, month, week, day? What tools do you use to make it all work?

10 Habits of Highly Effective Students

The key to becoming an effective student is learning how to study smarter, not harder. This becomes more and more true as you advance in your education. An hour or two of studying a day is usually sufficient to make it through high school with satisfactory grades, but when college arrives, there aren’t enough hours in the day to get all your studying in if you don’t know how to study smarter.

While some students are able to breeze through school with minimal effort, this is the exception. The vast majority of successful students achieve their success by developing and applying effective study habits. The following are the top 10 study habits employed by highly successful students. So if you want to become a successful student, don’t get discouraged, don’t give up, just work to develop each of the study habits below and you’ll see your grades go up, your knowledge increase, and your ability to learn and assimilate information improve.

1. Don’t attempt to cram all your studying into one session.

Ever find yourself up late at night expending more energy trying to keep your eyelids open than you are studying? If so, it’s time for a change. Successful students typically space their work out over shorter periods of time and rarely try to cram all of their studying into just one or two sessions. If you want to become a successful student then you need to learn to be consistent in your studies and to have regular, yet shorter, study periods.

Successful students schedule specific times throughout the week when they are going to study — and then they stick with their schedule. Students who study sporadically and whimsically typically do not perform as well as students who have a set study schedule. Even if you’re all caught up with your studies, creating a weekly routine, where you set aside a period of time a few days a week, to review your courses will ensure you develop habits that will enable you to succeed in your education long term.

3. Study at the same time.

Not only is it important that you plan when you’re going to study, it’s important you create a consistent, daily study routine. When you study at the same time each day and each week, you’re studying will become a regular part of your life. You’ll be mentally and emotionally more prepared for each study session and each study session will become more productive. If you have to change your schedule from time to time due to unexpected events, that’s okay, but get back on your routine as soon as the event has passed.

4. Each study time should have a specific goal.

Simply studying without direction is not effective. You need to know exactly what you need to accomplish during each study session. Before you start studying, set a study session goal that supports your overall academic goal (i.e. memorize 30 vocabulary words in order to ace the vocabulary section on an upcoming Spanish test.)

5. Never procrastinate your planned study session.

It’s very easy, and common, to put off your study session because of lack of interest in the subject, because you have other things you need to get done, or just because the assignment is hard. Successful students DO NOT procrastinate studying. If you procrastinate your study session, your studying will become much less effective and you may not get everything accomplished that you need to. Procrastination also leads to rushing, and rushing is the number one cause of errors.

6. Start with the most difficult subject first.

As your most difficult assignment or subject will require the most effort and mental energy, you should start with it first. Once you’ve completed the most difficult work, it will be much easier to complete the rest of your work. Believe it or not, starting with the most difficult subject will greatly improve the effectiveness of your study sessions, and your academic performance.

7. Always review your notes before starting an assignment.

Obviously, before you can review your notes you must first have notes to review. Always make sure to take good notes in class. Before you start each study session, and before you start a particular assignment, review your notes thoroughly to make sure you know how to complete the assignment correctly. Reviewing your notes before each study session will help you remember important subject matter learned during the day, and make sure your studying is targeted and effective.

8. Make sure you’re not distracted while you’re studying.

Everyone gets distracted by something. Maybe it’s the TV. Or maybe it’s your family. Or maybe it’s just too quiet. Some people actually study better with a little background noise. When you’re distracted while studying you (1) lose your train of thought and (2) are unable to focus — both of which will lead to very ineffective studying. Before you start studying, find a place where you won’t be disturbed or distracted. For some people this is a quiet cubicle in the recesses of the library. For others it is in a common area where there is a little background noise.28

9. Use study groups effectively.

Ever heard the phrase “two heads are better than one?” Well this can be especially true when it comes to studying. Working in groups enables you to (1) get help from others when you’re struggling to understand a concept, (2) complete assignments more quickly, and (3) teach others, whereby helping both the other students and yourself to internalize the subject matter. However, study groups can become very ineffective if they’re not structured and if group members come unprepared. Effective students use study groups effectively.

10. Review your notes, schoolwork and other class materials over the weekend.

Successful students review what they’ve learned during the week over the weekend. This way they’re well prepared to continue learning new concepts that build upon previous coursework and knowledge acquired the previous week.

We’re confident that if you’ll develop the habits outlined above that you’ll see a major improvement in your academic success.

How to Eat Healthy in College (on the Cheap!)

What if you could get good, tasty, healthy, AND cheap food for your dorm room? This personal trainer and nutrition specialist explains how.

As a college student, you probably have barely enough money to buy ramen, much less fancy salads, salmon, and other healthy foods.

However, even though healthy food has a reputation for being expensive, it doesn’t have to be that way—even for college students. If you want to stock up on good-for-you foods to keep in your dorm room, use these tips. You’ll get what you need and save cash at the same time.

Learn the sales cycle at your local grocery store

All stores have a cycle for their sale and clearance items, and if they’re near your campus, they might be especially sensitive to cost-conscious college students.

Maybe you’ve seen their weekly sales flyers, which promote the deals for that week. If you can’t get these flyers in person, the grocery store might even share them on social media. At any rate, the key here is knowing when those promo cycles end, because that’s usually when surplus items go on sale.

Some grocery stores even offer double discounts on the day the old sales end and new ones begin. This may not sound like the cheapest technique, but AOL’s finance blog says this can save you as much as 50% off your grocery bill. All you have to do is plan your grocery trip ahead of time.

Buy simple foods and prepare them yourself if you can

Prepping your own meals is an easy way to cut costs and eat healthier in college. You might be surprised by how much healthy food you can keep in your dorm and even how much meal prep you can do if you have mini-fridge and/or microwave. And if you live in an off-campus apartment or an on-campus suite with a full kitchen? Well, the world is your oyster! (Except not really because oysters are crazy expensive.)

For example, pre-bagged salads are convenient, but you pay more for that convenience. To save on cash, grab a head of lettuce ($1–$2), along with carrots (less than $2 for a whole bunch), a cucumber ($1), and maybe a few more veggies of your choice (spend up to $5). Chop everything up at home and store in an airtight container in your fridge for an easy-to-grab base for lunch and dinner salads.

You can likely get at least five small salads out of that, which ends up costing less than $2 per salad. You can even bring some to the cafeteria and eat it as a side with an entree they’re serving.

But salad math is just the beginning. Other great cheap but healthy food choices for college students include:

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Beans and/or lentils
  • Eggs (microwave mug omelets, anyone?)
  • Garlic
  • Hummus
  • Onions
  • Peanut butter
  • Popcorn (look for low-salt, low-calorie options, not the butter-drenched kind)
  • Rice, preferably brown (grab the microwaveable bag if you don’t have a stove top)
  • Rotisserie chicken (if you can’t cook a chicken yourself)
  • Salsa
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Tortillas
  • Tuna fish (look for low sodium/forgiving roommates)
  • Whole grain bread
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Yogurt, preferably plain, low sugar, and/or Greek

With all the recipes online, you’ll have no trouble finding easy, healthy dishes you can make in a dorm. (Editor’s note: if you have a full kitchen, we highly recommend this “epically frugal” rice and beans recipe!) And don’t forget, cooking is a super-handy life skill, so the more practice you get, the better.

Related: 5 Easy Recipes to Cook Up in Your Dorm Room

Shop bulk items

The bulk section is where you’ll save on the cost of packaging. You can get the same amount of most granola, nuts, and grains for significantly less, especially if they’re running a sale. If your grocery store has bulk bins—and you aren’t picky—go for the items that are on sale to get a lot of food at a steep discount. Supplement these dry goods with other perishable items mentioned above to make healthy meals and snacks right in your dorm room.

Then there are bulk stores. And just like you might’ve teamed up with your roommate to share big-ticket dorm items like your mini fridge or TV, you might be able to go in on a bulk store membership together. If not, why not ask for one as a holiday or birthday gift? (Just be prepared for a look of amazement from your parents.)

Shop around first

Sometimes the stores we assume are the cheapest are actually more expensive than we realize. While Trader Joe’s is known for their low prices, a recent grocery store analysis found that stores like Aldi, Publix, and Kroger came in above Trader Joe’s for offering the most weekly savings.

If you have access to more than one grocery store, shop around before settling on your go-to. To test the difference in pricing, do the same exact grocery trip two weeks in a row (buying all the same exact items) at two different stores. Compare the total to see where you can save the most.

Take advantage of coupons and pricing apps

Coupons are one of the best ways to save on healthy food. The local papers are packed with manufacturer coupons, and many brands are now promoting newer, less-processed foods, allowing you to save big on the stuff you want most.

You can also use grocery pricing apps that direct you toward the best deals and might even give you cash back for shopping.

Use your student discount

Most retailers and grocery stores in college towns offer discounts for students, so long as they show an ID. Use this to save on healthy groceries whenever you can. Not only is it the easiest way to save but the discount is also usually high, around 20% off in many cases.

Saving money on healthy food in college is totally doable. Whether you use an app, do your research, or rely on the bulk bins each week, you can get what you need without going over budget.


Making a New Year’s resolution is easy. Sticking to it is much harder. Here are some common New Year’s resolutions for college students, and tips on how to make them stick.

Study harder. It’s no mystery why this is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions for college students. Better study habits lead to better outcomes. We’ve posted a few blogs that will help you with your study mechanics (try this one and this one), but consistently putting these mechanics into practice requires the formation of habits. To make habits stick, you must commit to them for at least three to four weeks (studies often cite thirty days). Start simple and make it daily. If you only study sporadically, it’ll be much more difficult to form the habit.

Perfect attendance. For many college students, perfect attendance is like a unicorn. You’ve heard of its existence, it sounds amazing, but you’re pretty convinced it’s a myth. The truth is, the practical benefit of attending every class is worth the effort it takes to make it happen. You can’t control unexpected events in your life, but you can better prepare for them. Take care of yourself to avoid sickness. Plan on showing up to campus a little earlier just in case you have car troubles. It’s not the most glamorous of New Year’s resolutions, but it’s one worth pursuing.

Get more sleep. We don’t need to debate the merit of being well-rested. As a college student, your commitments often keep you from achieving that perfect eight hours of sleep. One way to combat this is by structuring your sleep the same way you structure important events in your life – budget and plan for it! Try studying earlier. Stay away from computer, tablet, and phone screens prior to hitting the hay.

Finish assignments at least one day in advance. Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing something. It’s the decision to do something impulsive (often instant gratification) instead of sticking to a plan. To finish assignments early is the most noble of all New Year’s resolutions for college students. Here’s how you make it happen:

  • Start by writing down when your assignments are due. Make your due date one day earlier.
  • Tell at least three people you are completing your assignment a day early. This way, whenever you see them, they’ll be likely to inquire about your progress.
  • Break completing the assignment into small, manageable steps. Sometimes we procrastinate because the work seems overwhelming. Small chunks of work are more manageable.
  • Eliminate procrastination enablers. This includes and is not limited to Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, television, jump ropes (if you’re in to that), etc.

Make healthy choices. These types of resolutions rarely pan out because they aren’t specific enough. Being specific with your formula will help your resolution stick. For instance, if you want to get in better shape, your formula may look like this:

“I want to lose [blank] pounds by [date]. I will achieve this by getting [blank] minutes of exercise [blank] times per week. I will also get [blank] number of servings of fruit, vegetables, and whole foods per day.”

Being specific makes all the difference in the world.

Have a 5-year plan. You’re likely going to college to achieve a specific outcome (like becoming a Registered Nurse). What you do post-college should be about achieving specific outcomes as well. In essence, having a 5-year plan is similar to having an extended New Year’s resolution. Like all resolutions, be specific about what you want. Write it down. Tell other people about it. Five years is far enough in the future where you can start laying groundwork towards achieving your long-term goals. The best way to stick with it is to revisit your goals often. These should be regularly-scheduled times to determine if the steps you’re taking to achieve your goals are working or need to be adjusted.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (Graduate Student Edition)

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (Graduate Student Edition)

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the lab,

Not a creature was stirring, not even an undergrad;

The lab coats were hung by the fume hood with care,

In hopes that our PI soon would be there;

Some grad students were nestled all snug in their beds;

While visions of publications danced in their heads

But my labmate with her tea, and I with my mocha (peppermint),

Had just settled down for a long-ass experiment,

When out in the parking lot there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my lab bench to see what was the matter.

Over to the window I trudged with a teeth-gnash

Tore off my latex gloves, and threw them in the trash.

The moon on the breast of our newly-parked cars

Highlighted our drudgery, in the lab at all hours,

When what did my watering eyes did appear,

But a Mini-Coop, and eight boxes of lab supplies…oh dear.

With a little old driver, much smarter and wiser

I knew in a moment he must be my advisor.

More rapid than peer reviews his orders they came,

And he mulled over, and pondered, then called them by name:

“Now glass cleaning! Now grading! Now culturing and DNA extractions!

On, lit reviews! On, data analysis! On, exams and presentations!

To the end of this semester! To the end of the fall!

Now, slave away! Slave away! Slave away all!”

As students to free post-seminar snacks fly,

When they find some more coffee, and get a caffeine high;

So over to the lab bench the grad students we flew

With our hands full of lab supplies, and our lab notebooks too—

And then, in a twinkling, I heard (though it’s not my strong suit)

The stepping and stomping of each loafer boot.

As I looked up from my research, and was turning around,

Down the hallway came my advisor with a bound.

… (Tra la la nose like a cherry, bowl full of jelly, tra la)

A squint of his eyes and a turn of his head

Soon gave me to know I had data to spread(sheet)

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the grant applications; then turned with a jerk,

And grabbing his laptop, from his office desk he rose

And giving a nod, out the lab doors he goes;

He sprang to his car, to his students gave a wave,

And away he drove, probably back to his research cave.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—

“Happy Lab-Mas to all, and to all a good night!”