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Mentally Preparing For Graduate School: What You Need To Know

Whether you’re considering going to graduate school, in the process of applying, or already enrolled, there is a lot of preparation that goes into becoming a graduate student.

The good news is: earning a graduate degree a wise investment. The number of jobs that prefer a master’s degree is projected to increase 18 percent by 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and more than a third of employers are hiring professionals with a master’s degree for positions previously held by those with a bachelor’s.

Earning a graduate degree will equip you with more than just a competitive advantage, however; you could also increase your salary potential. Individuals with a master’s degree are estimated to earn an average $1.38 million more over their lifetime than bachelor’s degree holders.

Follow the steps below to better prepare yourself for success in graduate school.

How to Mentally Prepare for Graduate School

You overcame the first obstacle: getting into graduate school. Yet now it might feel like a dozen other challenges lie ahead. After all, this is a new experience, which is nerve-wracking in itself, but this choice also requires a large financial and time commitment.

So while this graduate school experience might seem daunting now, remember the benefits. Knowing what’s on the other side of your degree program will help you start mentally preparing for graduate school—as will these other tips.

1. Start planning now.

Scour through your syllabi and map out all major assignments on a calendar, so you have a holistic view of what’s due and when. Seeing project deadlines next to your work and family commitments will help you more effectively allocate your time. If there’s a particular week that looks overly hectic, start strategizing which to-dos you can check off early to avoid any last-minute scrambling.

Now is also a good time to reflect on your undergraduate days. Were you a procrastinator who regularly pulled all-nighters, constantly refreshing your social feeds to avoid work? It’s easy to revert to old habits, so develop better patterns early, whether that means prioritizing a full eight hours of sleep, establishing a morning routine, or activating website blockers when it’s time to study.

2. Read ahead.

If you’re still nervous about falling behind, or simply want to get a jumpstart on the semester, begin reading the assigned articles, cases, and books listed in your syllabus. By familiarizing yourself with the subject matter early, you can ask more informed questions in class and start connecting the concepts being taught with the research you’ve already read.

3. Prioritize finding your balance.

Establishing work-life balance in graduate school is important—particularly when you’re already juggling a 40-hour or more workweek on top of other commitments. In order to avoid burnout, prioritize balance.

This could mean improving your time management skills, taking breaks when necessary, or knowing when to say “no” to certain work or social engagements. “Balance” means something different to everyone, and so you need to establish a schedule and routines that feel right for you. Graduate school should be an enjoyable experience, not a stressful one. Although the stress won’t always be avoidable, balance can help minimize it.

4. Leverage your new network.

Remember, you’re not in this alone. Any doubts or questions you have, your peers have likely had too. Get to know your fellow classmates. Learn more about their current jobs, why they enrolled in the program, and their professional goals. Through that process, you can start to build a support system, which makes the grad school experience more manageable and more fun. Plus, you never know where those connections might lead you.

“Once you graduate, you could be working alongside some of the greatest minds in your field,” writes Christopher Dousharm, a graduate of Northeastern’s Corporate and Organizational Communication program. “And before that time, any of those people could be in your classroom. Make friends, build connections, and be ready to learn from your peers.”

The same goes for your professors. Faculty bring decades of shared industry experience and thought leadership to the classroom. Leverage their expertise, absorb their lessons, and ask a lot of questions—whether about past lectures, your work, or how they’ve applied what they’re teaching in the field. Your professors want to help, so don’t be shy in reaching out.

5. Remember that this is temporary.

One of the key things to remember when you’re mentally preparing for grad school is that this experience is temporary. You won’t be juggling all these commitments forever; there’s an end in sight. And when you achieve that end goal, the payoff will make the sacrifices and hard work worth it. Immerse yourself fully, and enjoy this time while you can.

Choosing a Graduate Program

The most important step in preparing for success in grad school is, of course, choosing the right master’s degree program for your personal goals. If you are considering going to grad school but have not yet chosen a program to apply to, here are a few factors you should take into consideration when evaluating your options:

  • Learning options and flexibility: Be sure to choose a program that works for your needs. If you know that you’ll be juggling school with professional or family obligations, find a program that allows you to maintain a balance.
  • Hands-on learning: Earning a master’s degree should prepare you with the skills you need to enter the field, and doing so often involves learning through real-world experiences. Programs that are built around experiential learning offer students opportunities to gain practical experiences in their field of interest.
  • Industry-sourced faculty: At the graduate level, having professors who are actively engaged in your field of interest can be highly valuable to your education. These scholar-practitioners bring their own experiences and perspectives to the classroom, providing students with unique insights into the workforce.

No matter the program you choose and ultimately enroll in, preparing for your graduate education can be a long journey. Throughout every stage in the process, there are resources available to help ease your transition and prepare you for success.

Credit: Northeastern University Graduate Programs, Mentally Preparing for Graduate School: What You Need To Know

7 Interview Tips That Will Get You Hired

Interview Tips That Will Help You Get Hired

Here are some job interview tips that can help you interview effectively. Proper preparation will help alleviate some of the stress involved in job interviews and position you for a positive and successful interviewing experience.

1. Practice and Prepare

Review the typical job interview questions employers ask and practice your answers. Strong answers are those that are specific but concise, drawing on concrete examples that highlight your skills and back up your resume. 1

Your answers should also emphasize the skills that are most important to the employer and relevant to the position. Be sure to review the job listing, make a list of the requirements, and match them to your experience.

Even the most well-prepared response will fall short if it does not answer the exact question you are being asked.

While it’s important to familiarize yourself with the best answers, it’s equally important to listen carefully during your interview in order to ensure your responses give the interviewer the information they are looking for.

Also, have a list of your own questions to ask the employer ready. In almost every interview, you’ll be asked if you have any questions for the interviewer. It is important to have at least one or two questions prepared in order to demonstrate your interest in the organization. Otherwise, you might come across as apathetic, which is a major turnoff for hiring managers.

 

2. Develop a Connection With the Interviewer

In addition to indicating what you know about the company, you should also try to develop a connection with your interviewer. Know the interviewer’s name, and use it during the job interview. If you’re not sure of the name, call and ask prior to the interview. And, listen very carefully during introductions.

If you’re prone to forgetting names, jot it down somewhere discreet, like in small letters at the bottom of your notepad.

Ultimately, building rapport and making a personal connection with your interviewer can up your chances of getting hired. People tend to hire candidates they like and who seems to be a good fit for the company’s culture. Here’s how to get the hiring manager on your side.

3. Research the Company, and Show What You Know

Do your homework and research the employer and the industry, so you are ready for the interview question, “What do you know about this company?” If this question is not asked, you should try to demonstrate what you know about the company on your own.

You can do this by tying what you’ve learned about the company into your responses. For example, you might say:

I noticed that when you implemented a new software system last year, your customer satisfaction ratings improved dramatically. I am well-versed in the latest technologies from my experience with developing software at ABC, and appreciate a company who strives to be a leader in its industry.

You should be able to find out a lot of information about the company’s history, mission and values, staff, culture, and recent successes on its website. If the company has a blog and a social media presence, they can be useful places to look, too.

4. Get Ready Ahead of Time

Don’t wait until the last minute to pick out an interview outfit, print extra copies of your resume, or find a notepad and pen. Have one good interview outfit ready, so you can interview on short notice without having to worry about what to wear.

When you have an interview lined up, get everything ready the night before.

Not only will planning out everything (from what shoes you will wear, to how you’ll style your hair, to what time you will leave and how you’ll get there) buy you time in the morning, it can help reduce job search anxiety, and it will also save you from having to make decisions, which means you can use that brainpower for your interview.

Make sure your interview attire is neat, tidy, and appropriate for the type of firm you are interviewing with. Bring a nice portfolio with extra copies of your resume. Include a pen and paper for note-taking.

If you’re interviewing virtually, have all the technology set and ready in advance. Do a trial run to be sure everything is working properly, and you’re comfortable with it.

5. Be on Time (That Means Early)

Be on time for the interview. On time means five to ten minutes early. If need be, drive to the interview location ahead of time so you know exactly where you are going and how long it will take to get there.

Take into account the time of your interview so you can adjust for local traffic patterns at that time. Give yourself a few extra minutes to visit the restroom, check your outfit, and calm your nerves.

6. Try to Stay Calm

During the job interview, try to relax and stay as calm as possible. Remember that your body language says as much about you as your answers to the questions. Proper preparation will allow you to exude confidence:

  • As you answer questions, maintain eye contact with the interviewer.
  • Be sure to pay attention to the question so that you don’t forget it, and listen to the entire question (using active listening) before you answer, so you know exactly what the interviewer is asking.
  • Avoid cutting off the interviewer at all costs, especially when he or she is asking questions.
  • If you need to take a moment to think about your answer, that’s totally fine, and is a better option than starting out with multiple “ums” or “uhs.”

Check out these tips on avoiding job interview stress to help keep your nerves calm. If the thought of a job interview puts you in panic mode, reviewing these interview tips for introverts will be a great place to start.

7. Follow-Up After the Interview

Always follow up with a thank-you note reiterating your interest in the position. You can also include any details you may have forgotten to mention during your interview.

If you interview with multiple people from the same company, send each one a personal note. Send your thank-you email within 24 hours of your interview.

It’s worth the extra effort. A Robert Half survey reports that 80% of hiring managers said it was helpful or somewhat helpful to receive a thank-you note after an interview.2

Bonus Tips

Avoid These Common Interview Mistakes

What shouldn’t you do when interviewing? Here are the most common job interview mistakes, blunders, and errors a candidate looking for employment can make.

Take the time to review these mistakes before your interview, so you don’t have to stress out about blunders after it.

Successfully Handle Any Type of Interview

Review tips on how to handle interviews that are different from a typical one-on-one meeting. These include tips for phone interviews, second interviews, lunch and dinner interviews, behavioral interviews, interviewing in public, and more advice for interview success.

Also review these signs that your job interview went well, so you can see what skills you may need to brush up for next time.

Credit: The Balance Careers, 7 Interview Tips That Will Help Get You Hired

We will Survive Grad school

Thriving and Surviving Grad School

 

Assuming no disasters, this will be the last year of my PhD program. Before the final push, I want to share some hard-earned wisdom so that those entering programs now can find success and avoid common pitfalls.

At this point your mind is probably fairly settled with respect to doing a PhD (although its resolve will be tested–believe you me!). Before that enthusiasm wanes, I’m going to share what I take to be some of the most important strategies for thriving and surviving in what will be both the most grueling but rewarding period of your life so far.

No Person Is An Island

Despite most of our social awkwardness, we are intrinsically social creatures. As Aristotle put it:

But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors.

If you think you’re going to get through grad school alone without a social support network, you’re deluding yourself. In practical terms this means you should create favorable social and psychological conditions for your success–that is, you need to join, create, and invest in community.

You may not like everyone in your department but at minimum you should attend official department events (social and otherwise) and organize/participate in some unofficial social events, for example parties, karaoke nights, bowling nights, and day trips.

Grad students who don’t invest in their community run the various risks associated with social isolation and lose out on many of the obvious benefits. You can’t afford these risks or to lose these benefits. Shift the probabilities of success in your favor and spend some time getting to know other grad students and faculty outside of the classroom. Here are a few reasons why.

Emotional Well-Being

At some point (perhaps many) in grad school you will experience bouts of depression and despair–even if you aren’t typically disposed. The most effective buffer and remedy to depression is a community–friends that care about you and that understand what you’re going through; i.e., other grad students. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pull yourself out of a depression by your own bootstraps. You need to be in an environment where others care about your well-being.

But here’s the catch. You can only have a community of people who care about you if you’ve invested in that community beforehand. Few people are sympathetic to those who only take support when they need it but are conspicuously absent when they don’t.

You want your grad student community to be a place of caring, strength, and support. But this doesn’t happen on its own. You must invest. I promise you that if you do this you will get out much more than what you put it.

Writing/Research

The quality of your work increases when you engage your ideas with a community of experts and experts-in-training. I know it’s romantic, but few of us are Nietzschean ubermench holed up alone in our cave single-handedly creating ideas beyond our time. Most of us run into mental walls. To escape the thought loops and dead ends in your own head, you need other people to bounce ideas off of and to read your work. People will only do this for you if reciprocate.

Some of your best ideas will emerge from discussions with your colleagues at coffee shops, at bars, or on walks. But these discussions only happen if you’re willing to listen too. No one wants to be talked at. People also want to discuss their own ideas.

Being a Good Community Member

Take on duties, fulfill them. But understand that for community that won’t be enough on its own. Caring communities require reciprocal care and empathy. Recognize that you’re not the only one in your program that’s struggling. Ask people how they’re doing. Offer to talk about how someone’s doing and about their ideas.

From the point of view of relationship-building, the most difficult but most important thing you can do is to recognize that we each come into grad school with different resources and to offer to others who lack where we don’t. Ask yourself, what are the background conditions of your success? Did your parents go to grad school? Do you have a loving and supportive family?  Do you have natural self-confidence? Do you have high relative social status compared to your peers?

The best community members recognize where they have won the resource lottery, and do what they can to support other members who aren’t as lucky. To the grad student who is the first in their family to attend grad school, encourage and support them. To the grad student who has a poor relationship with their family, be caring. To the student who is insecure, build them up. Let them know when they’ve asked a good question or made a good point in seminar. A few words of recognition will do wonders.

Most importantly, listen and learn from others who don’t share your social background. Just because you haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean others haven’t. And just because you have experienced something doesn’t mean others have.

Scheduled Down-Time

Grad school–especially if you have teaching duties–is like drinking from a fire hose. You will almost NEVER have everything done on time that you’re supposed to. From this it follows that you can very easily burn yourself out if you only allot yourself down time “when I’m done everything.” Also, the occasional couple of hours off isn’t going to cut it.

If you never really know when your time off is coming it’s easy to fall into low productivity, procrastination, and/or burn out.

Every week schedule for yourself a full 24 hours off. I do from Saturday evening until Sunday evening. Pick whatever 24 hour period works for your semester schedule. It should be the same every week. This way, when you’re starting to feel burnt out near the end of the week you can push through knowing that you will get a full 24 hours off in just one more day.

This is not to say that you can only take 24 hours off. Some weeks and days will be busier than others. However, regardless of how busy your week is, always have a scheduled 24 hour break. Overall, you’ll be happier, more resilient, and more productive.

Avoiding Self-Esteem Traps: You Are Not Your Work

Possibly the best advice I ever received about grad school came from my sister (who had completed her PhD several years before I applied). She said, “don’t wait until after grad school to start living.” I’ve found this advice to be invaluable.

If all you do is academic work then it’s very easy to conflate the success or failure of one’s coursework and research with one’s self-identity and self-worth. Positive feedback on your work=”I’m happy, I’m awesome!” People critical of your work/research dead ends=”I’m sad, I suck.”

The inevitable vicissitudes of your research, writing, and ideas do not make them a stable foundation for your sense of self-worth. This is not to say your identity should be entirely disconnected from your work or being a student, but it’s easy to make the connection too tight when that’s all you do.

To avoid this problem you should expand your identity and source of self-worth to include other activities. In other words, participate in at least one non-academic group/activity. Volunteer with a charity, join a recreational sports league, do art, practice dance or martial arts. Find some activity that is entirely disconnected from your academic pursuits and make it part of your regular schedule. This way, when things aren’t going so well in school your entire sense of self-worth won’t comes crashing down along with it.

You are valuable for other reasons. Find meaning and purpose in other domains.

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Again, this goes without saying. Do not let your physical health go to crap. There is no shortage of literature demonstrating that people who exercise regularly have lower stress levels, are more productive, and have better mood regulation, amongst other benefits.

The main thing in this. In grad school, your primary battle is for your mental health. When you start to let yourself go, you’ll start having negative thoughts about yourself. You can’t afford more reasons for negative self-talk on top of all the other ones that already come with academic work.

The best physical fitness program is the one that you will actually do. Find stuff you enjoy. Not everyone needs to get swoll. Go for an hour walk a day if that’s what you enjoy. Group fitness classes are a fun way to stay in shape. Try hiking, biking, dance, and so on. It doesn’t matter–but do something at least 4 times per week. Much of your success depends on it.

Gratitude

One of the biggest traps you can fall into is to fail to be grateful for the extreme privilege of going to grad school. You begin to complain about how hard your life is. We all do it. But take a look around at how the majority of the world lives. Most people struggle just to survive. And if they aren’t struggling, they go to work at a job they probably wouldn’t choose if not for purely pragmatic reasons.

But you get paid to study and write about the things you love under the tutelage of experts. Think about it. Like just about every PhD student, you have a scholarship and stipend. Your education is free and–depending on the institution–you have somewhere between just enough for a simple life or a little more.

Most importantly, you chose this life. Unlike so many in this world, this life was not a choice forced upon you. Of all the possible choices you could have made after completing undergrad, you chose grad school. Nay, you had the privilege of making a choice.

Don’t let these thoughts stray far from your mind. It’s vital that you keep this attitude of gratitude throughout your studies. You chose pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. What made you think it would be easy? Or that you wouldn’t have to struggle? Isn’t that part of the reason you chose it in the first place?

When things get tough, remind yourself of the extreme privilege you have; that this was your choice; that you had a choice; that society pays you to do what you purport to love.

You are privileged beyond most of humanity for all of human history.

Be grateful.

Be Process Oriented

You are in grad school to become a scholar. You aren’t one yet. This means that you must focus on developing the skills and virtues of a scholar rather than on producing particular research units. If you develop these skills and virtues, the results will follow. But if you fail to develop them, the success of your research is purely a matter of luck.

This mindset will help you see criticism from your professors and peers as something positive. They are pointing to areas where you need to improve. You haven’t developed the virtues yet. Your skills are underdeveloped for genuine scholarship. The fact that your professor covers your paper in red ink is a blessing. Look at all these opportunities for development! These red marks point the way to becoming the scholar you wish to be.

Be grateful they took so much time on your work. As you’ll soon learn, grading and giving constructive feedback is tough time-consuming work. Imagine if they hadn’t said anything and allowed you to continue, oblivious to your undeveloped academic skills and virtues? You’d never become what you came here to become.

Epictetus describes the wrong attitude toward criticism:

And so far from looking for someone to bring you to your senses, you are distinctly offended by any advice or corrections. You say, ‘He’s nothing but a mean old man.’

 – Discourses II. 17. 37

Thank your professors for pointing out where you need to improve. If all you seek is praise, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Extend the attitude of gratitude to your professors and peers for their feedback.

More on Mind-Set

To my mind, no one has surpassed Epictetus when it comes to describing how we ought to approach grad school:

You see, you are going to have to become a student again–that universal figure of fun–if you really mean to subject your opinions to honest examination. And you know as well as I do that this assignment can’t be completed overnight.

 – Epictetus, Discourse Bk I. 11.

I take this to mean that we ought to approach grad school with humility, intellectual honesty, courage, and joy. We also need to understand that success won’t happen overnight, nor will it occur without sustained substantial effort. Grad school requires a great deal fortitude.

As I pointed out in the beginning, none of us are islands. We will sometimes falter. We will sometimes despair. And that’s why it’s so important to develop a caring community around you–people to support and encourage you when you can’t do it alone.

Grad school is incredibly rewarding but tough. You will be tested. At times, you will suffer doubt, depression, and occasionally despair. To overcome these mental obstacles you need to proactively create an environment and habits that mitigate affective volatility and foster support and resilience. A large part of this has to do with creating and participating in a caring community. The other big piece is to structure your life with good habits of action and of mind. With these features in place, you radically shift the odds of success in your favor both for becoming a scholar and for well-being.

For more great advice on grad school from Epictetus, I highly recommend: Discourse Bk II. 17 and 19; Bk III. 5 and 23; Bk IV. 4.

Ami Palmer is a PhD candidate in applied philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on political epistemology and civic virtue in an environment of widespread misinformation and political polarization. He blogs at Wrestling with Philosophy and offers a free online critical thinking course at Reasoning for the Digital Age.

Paper Writing Help: Essential Editing and Proofreading Tips For Students

You’ve done it! After days of slaving away at your laptop, you’ve finally finished your paper. Instead of instantly submitting it, proofread it first. Try these tips to make sure you get top grades, every time.

Work on a print out version of your text

Even if you’ll be submitting your work electronically, print out a copy to proofread. Errors often jump out at you more on paper, and it’s a lot easier to mark it up, ready for you to correct any mistakes on screen.

Use writing tools

There are plenty of writing tools available online that can help you in your proofreading efforts, why not try some out?

Pro Writing Aid: Another readability tool, paste your work in and get suggestions on how to edit it to make it great. It’s clean interface can help those who get easily distracted and helps you focus on the task at hand.

Boom Essay service: An online writing company staffed by competent writers, that offers writing, editing and proofreading assistance for students. It’s a great service if you’re looking for an expert opinion of what you’ve written.

Readability Score: Paste your text in here to get a ‘readability score’, based on what education level a reader will need to be at to understand your work. It’s a great way to check whether you’re going over your intended reader’s head, or speaking down to them by accident!

X Essays: A constantly evolving writing service, the writers here keep on top of the latest topics and trends so their advice will stay relevant to you and your work. They offer many free features, great for cash strapped students.

Hemingway App: Paste in your work and the app will highlight any issues for you, including run on sentences, overused words and use of the passive voice. It’s highly visible nature will help you spot errors almost straight away.

Smart Edit: Located directly in Microsoft Word, this tools helps you edit within the program itself. This is great if you’re trying to stay offline to avoid distraction.

EssayRoo: An Australian writing company that provides editing and proofreading consulting for students. The service hires professional tutors and PhD writers and suggests assistance to both aussie and international college students.

Make several passes

Every time you read through your paper, look for different types of errors. On the first pass look for spelling and grammatical errors, on the second look for incorrect references, and so on. It’s a lot easier if you’re only focusing on one thing at a time.

Read out loud

The quickest way to find out if a phrase in your paper doesn’t make sense is to read it out loud. Sometimes errors don’t show up in a paper until you hear them read aloud.

Invite someone else to read your work

If a friend can read your work and pick up on the main themes, then you know you’re doing it right. Plus, you can then offer to read their papers too and help each other out.

Double check your references

On one of your passes, check that all the factual data you’ve included is correct. This may mean poring back over books and online journals to make sure you’ve put in the right date or name, but the time spent now is worth it to avoid losing marks over simple errors.

Take your time

Instead of a simple read through, take your time over your work. Read it through carefully, and make a point of examining every word for errors. It may feel tiresome, but it’s worth it in the long run.

Now, you have the tools and know how to make your paper the polished piece you know it can be. Set the time aside to proofread, and you’ll have top grades in no time.

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!

Start

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.

6 Grad School Networking Tips

1. Embrace your tribe

First off, attend any events that will allow you to network or socialize with faculty members or students within your own program. Pay attention to the e-mails you get from your program—they might mention such soirees. Keep an eye out for campus flyers too.

You should also schedule regular office hours with your professors, ask a professor to act as a mentor, or suggest dinner with fellow students. Relationships grow most easily out of social situations, and you never know whom your closest colleagues might introduce you to.

2. Don’t skip the less-comfortable events

You won’t meet anyone new if you don’t venture out. Take advantage of any funds available through your grad program—or put up your own—to travel solo to a conference, visit a nearby school’s symposium, set up an informational interview, or attend a club meeting on a topic only tangentially related to your own. You might discover a new interest . . . or valuable contacts in your own field.

3. Always be prepared

Sitting quietly through a conference is a wasted opportunity. Brainstorm smart questions to ask beforehand, and familiarize yourself with speakers’ and other attendees’ research so you have a conversation starter. Dress professionally and take notes, listen, and follow up later. Genuine interest goes a long way toward making an impression.

4. Establish a professional presence

Some graduate students create business cards, whether through school or an inexpensive printing service, to help them stand out during informational interviews or conferences. While cards are a plus, it’s even more important that you cultivate a professional presence online.

Most contacts or interviewers will Google you at some point—you should know exactly what they’re going to find. Make sure your online profile is respectable. Beef up your LinkedIn profile with skills, endorsements, and a professional photo (no selfies from the beach). Or go a step further and create a professional website for yourself using a free site creator like Wix, Weebly, or WordPress. Your site can include contact information, a CV or résumé, any credentials or publications, and a blurb detailing professional and personal interests. Spending a single night making yourself look professional online will convince people that you are. (Because you totally are, obviously.)

5. Don’t be shy

Whether online or in person, don’t be afraid to approach people with questions or just a simple introduction. Easier said than done, I know, but as I’ve forced myself to do it more often, I’ve been continually surprised at people’s responsiveness. Ask contacts who are well-connected to put you in touch with people they think share your interests. Above all, don’t be afraid to follow up if you don’t get an answer; most people, even if busy, are eager to help.

6. Embrace internships and part-time jobs

One of my greatest mentors throughout my graduate career was a faculty member who hired me for five hours a week through a faculty aide program. I hesitated to apply, as the pay was miserable, but the position turned out to be mutually beneficial. He allowed me to tailor the job so I could assist with copyediting articles—something he needed help on and I needed experience in—and helped me in turn by giving me career ideas and advice. Our weekly coffee meetings evolved into a long-term mentoring relationship, and his input on both my thesis and my overall career has been invaluable.

So network, network, network. Even when it’s awkward. Especially when it’s awkward. You never know when that extra step could lead to an interview, a helpful mentor, or perhaps the most helpful contact of all: a new friend to grab drinks and commiserate about grad school with.

The Top 10 Most Valued Job Skills

Looking to land your dream job? Before you can truly interview well, you have to understand what hiring managers are looking for and how that aligns with your job skills and experience.

After all, when they ask you about your strengths or fit, you want to wow them by describing the strengths that they most want and need in a candidate.

Every job requires different technical knowledge and abilities, but beyond that, there is a set of essential job skills and competencies that will increase your value with just about any employer.

We have compiled a list of the 10 most universally valued job skills based on our extensive experience working with recruiters, hiring managers, and candidates. Our findings are also backed up by numerous surveys of employers, including those conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

We’re diving deep into each one so we’ll do it in 3 parts, starting with the top 3 (and stay tuned for the next installments so you can weigh in on where you agree and disagree on the rankings).

These are the competencies that are prized in both entry-level roles and senior-level positions, in industries from technology to medicine to finance.

So naturally, these are also the skill sets to highlight in your resume, cover letter, and interview talking points. And if you’re lacking in any of these areas, we’ve got suggestions to help you develop and become a stronger candidate.

I recommend reading through the list and rating yourself (on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being perfection) in each category. This will give you a pretty clear idea of which strengths you should be “selling” (and it’s amazing to me how many naturally modest candidates shy away from properly demonstrating their strengths in interviews) — and which are areas for development (or maybe even your “greatest weakness”).

Most Valued Job Skills 1-3

Communication Skills

Employers want to hire people who are able to communicate effectively with those inside and outside of the organization.

The communication skills category includes both verbal and written communication skills. That means being able to get your point across in discussions both in-person and virtual.

It’s not enough to be well-spoken. Writing skills are now critical for almost every job because email has become such an important means of communication (and an email is often your first or only impression on a colleague, client, or partner).

In most roles, you must be able to tailor your communications for different audiences. You have to be able to provide the big picture to senior executives and then get down into the detailed instructions for the technical experts. You may be writing directly to customers while simultaneously speaking the right lingo with your coworkers in different departments.

As an employee, you may also be called upon to write reports, newsletters, blog posts and articles, summations, employee reviews, and more. Without adequate (or stellar) written communication skills, your career could suffer.

Why Are Communication Skills So Highly Prized by Employers?

Strong communication skills make you more productive and more effective. When you communicate well the first time, you save a lot of time that would otherwise be wasted on clarifying, answering questions, correcting wrong perceptions, chasing people down, and fixing mistakes.

Great communication skills can set an employee apart. At the very least, they can mean the difference between the potential for advancement and a stagnant career.

Communication skills are also key to getting hired in the first place. After all, the way you communicate your strengths and what you bring to the employer’s table in your resume and during your interview plays a huge role in whether you get hired — or not.

I have seen many well-qualified candidates get passed over due to communication skills. That’s when they come to me for coaching and see the dramatic difference they can achieve with a little preparation.

Once you’re in the job, your ability to communicate reflects, for good or ill, upon the entire organization.

Many times, poor performance can be traced back to poor communication skills.

Effective communication may be one of your strengths if you:

  • Served as the spokesperson for your group in college classes (and got A’s on all of your papers)
  • Shine when making presentations at work
  • Receive positive feedback on written reports
  • Handle unhappy customers (or colleagues) with ease
  • Facilitate discussions and bring people to agreement

Be sure to mention examples like this on your resume and in your interview as they serve as indicators that you are, in fact, an outstanding communicator.

What can you expect your interviewer to ask you regarding your communication skills? Here are a few examples:

Sample Communication Skills Interview Questions:

  • “Tell me about a difficult client/manager/teammate you had to deal with.”
  • “Describe a time when you were asked to make a speech or presentation at the last minute.”
  • “Tell me about a time when you had to be very careful in communicating sensitive or delicate information.”
  • “Give me an example when you had to present complex information in a simplified way to explain it to a superior.”

Tips to Develop Stronger Communication Skills

If communication, verbal or written, is an area of weakness for you, there are things you can do that will help. The good news is that communication skills can be developed — natural talent helps, but anyone can learn best practices.

Consider any of these development options:

  • Take a business communication class. You’ll find classes on presentation skills, business writing, and general communications at local colleges, continuing educations providers, and corporate training companies like the American Management Association or Dale Carnegie.
  • Sign up for an improv workshop. This is also a great option for those who want to learn how to think on their feet — or just need an adrenaline boost.
  • Join your local Toastmasters group. Toastmasters is an awesome organization. You get to practice your speaking and presentation skills and can also meet interesting people from different industries.
  • Make a commitment to scrupulously edit and proofread all written work. Don’t over-rely on spell check, but use it and other tools like Grammar.ly if you’re rusty on Composition 101 topics.
  • Recruit an editing buddy. Find someone at work who can serve as a second set of eyes on important documents. You can play the same role for him or her. We often miss things in our own work and an objective reader can be very valuable.
  • Volunteer for assignments that stretch your communications skills. Ask if you can lead a meeting or take on managing this month’s internal newsletter. This also shows initiative and a commitment to your work.
  • Read up on communications best practices. Try classic writing books like “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White (short but enlightening), bookmark Grammar Girl for your grammar questions, read “Crucial Conversations” for advice on navigating tricky communication issues at work or “Getting to Yes” for advice on negotiation.

Take one of our development suggestions (for any of the skills listed in these articles) and highlight it in your annual review to show your commitment to continuous improvement.

Teamwork/Ability to Work Collaboratively

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook 2015 Survey “the ability to work in a team structure” tied with leadership skills as the #1 most attractive job skill for prospective employers, with 77.8% seeking both of these qualities.

Yes, calling yourself a “team player” is a big cliche, but it has become a big cliche or a reason. Hiring managers want to hear that you can get along with others in a professional setting.

Working well as a member of a team requires a combination of qualities — communication skills (see above), being open to collaboration, a generally positive attitude, and the ability to deal with different personalities (especially the “demanding” ones).

Why is Teamwork so Important for Today’s Employers?

Almost every job requires employees to collaborate, or at least get along, with a diverse group of humans. This makes the ability to work with others a highly-valued trait for employers.

We’ve all worked with people who didn’t “play well with others”— and it can really have a negative effect on both productivity and morale.

A team player is able to work with different personalities, can work through disagreements productively, and makes his or her individual preferences secondary to achieving the goals of the team.

Employers like to see evidence of your ability to work in teams when reading through your resume and cover letter or listening to your answers in interviews. For a new graduate or junior-level candidate, it’s important to show that you’ll be able to get along in the office environment.

If you haven’t yet had much opportunity to work on a team in a work setting, be prepared to talk about academic group projects or extracurricular team experiences. You want to show that you can jump right in and get along with your coworkers and clients.

What Makes a Good Team Player?

Here are a few qualities that make someone easy to work with as a member of a group:

  • Focus on results, not who gets credit
  • Ability to listen
  • Respect for all group members
  • Appreciation of the perspectives of others
  • Communication skills (see above)
  • Ability to take constructive feedback
  • Reliability and work ethic

Teamwork may be one of your strengths if:

  • Coworkers are constantly asking to run ideas by you
  • People frequently ask you to join their projects
  • You’re often invited to lunch with coworkers to talk shop
  • You are regularly called upon to provide an objective opinion or mediate disagreements
  • You can find a way to connect with just about anybody

Sample Teamwork Interview Questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you worked as part of a team.
  • Tell me about a time you had to work with a difficult person.
  • Share an example of a group you’ve worked well with (or not so well with).
  • Have you ever had a conflict with a coworker?
  • Tell me about constructive feedback you’ve received.

Note:  For more information on answering teamwork interview questions, be sure to check out Big Interview’s Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Teamwork guide and Big Interview’s Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Handling Conflict guide.

How to Become a Better Team Player

If you have limited experience working collaboratively or feel it is a weakness, there are ways to improve.

Consider these development options:

1) Volunteer for more team projects. Look or opportunities at work, in class, or in your extracurricular or volunteer activities. For new grads, it’s all about gaining more experience that you can describe in your interviews — and looking for openings to work with different people in different environments to increase your versatility.

2) Find a teamwork mentor. Look around for role models who handle collaboration particularly well. You can learn a lot just by observing and emulating. Who do you enjoy working with most? Who is particularly good at neutralizing touchy situations? If you start observing more carefully, you’ll notice people have different teamwork strengths — for example, one person is the motivator and someone else is the hard worker who always finds a way to get things done.

3) Deepen your understanding of group dynamics. Try an assessment like the DISC profile or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). These personality assessments can be useful in understanding your own preferences and those of others. For example, if your boss is a details guy and you’re a big-picture thinker, it can help to know that and tailor your communications to persuade him in his own language.

4) Learn how to troubleshoot teamwork challenges. Read a book like Working with Difficult People to learn strategies for dealing with bullies, tyrants, connivers, and kiss-ups.

Initiative

Victor Hugo said it best: “Initiative is doing the right thing without being told.”

Employers consistently rank initiative as highly important (a 4.4 on a five-point importance scale in this representative survey) across roles and industries, making it a key quality to demonstrate if you want to get hired.

Employers want self-starters who are constantly looking for ways to contribute instead of sitting around waiting for assignments. The goal is to have employees who proactively seek out ways to propel the business forward.

Many employers also see initiative as the ability to take ideas and run with them, to persist in the face of difficulty and inertia, and see a project through to completion.

Why is Initiative Important to Employers?

In today’s competitive and fast-moving business environment, companies are always looking for an edge on the competition. To position yourself as an ideal hire, you need to show you will go above and beyond the job description and really contribute.

Initiative is attractive in any candidate, but it’s particularly desirable for certain types of positions. For example, startups typically look for people who can wear multiple hats. Many teams within larger organizations also find themselves tasked with “doing more with less” and greatly appreciate a candidate who can contribute beyond their formal job description.

For employers, it’s hard to know if a candidate has initiative through their resume alone. Smart hiring managers will use behavioral questions (“Tell me about a time…”) to get a sense of how the candidate has approached work in the past and if he or she has a history of taking initiative on the job.

Initiative may be one of your strengths if you:

  • Prefer to start projects early to ensure you’ll have time to do a fantastic job
  • Seek out new assignments, especially those outside your comfort zone
  • Never say, “That’s not my job.”
  • Rarely say, “What else do you need me to do?”
  • Are known as someone who gets things done, even in the face of obstacles
  • Volunteer for committees or special projects
  • Look for training opportunities to help you contribute more
  • Read up on industry trends in your spare time

Sample Initiative Interview Questions:

  • “Tell me about a time when you took the initiative on a project without being asked.”
  • “Tell me about a time you improved a process or procedure at work.”
  • “Give me an example of a time you went above and beyond your job description.”
  • “Describe a major obstacle that you had to overcome.”
  • “What is your greatest accomplishment?”

Tips to Develop/Show Initiative

If you’re not someone known for showing initiative, the good news is that you can change that perception pretty quickly. “Initiative” is less about having some innate ability and more about looking for opportunities and putting yourself out there.

Here are some ways to show more initiative in your workplace.

  • Think Differently. Make time for brainstorming new ideas that could benefit your team or company. Schedule an hour into your week or set a quota of x new ideas per month to research. Not all of these ideas will be winners, but you’re certain to find a few gems along the way. This process also trains you to look for new ways to improve and contribute on a regular basis.
  • Be Your Best. Take full advantage of all of the training options available to you. You have to be proactive because if you wait until you “have time for training,” that time may never come. First, explore the training opportunities available to you through your job (whether company-provided or company-reimbursed). However, don’t limit yourself to the obvious options. Look at free courses available through organizations like Coursera and EdX. Even if you have to pay your own way (some companies are unfortunately stingy with training), seek out ways to develop your skills and knowledge. This can help you show initiative in your current job and will also make you more marketable for future opportunities.
  • Ask for Input. If you’re having trouble finding ways to take initiative, talk to your manager about where you can add the most value for the group. Ask how you could make his or her job easier. This can help you identify new ways to contribute — and just asking the question demonstrates initiative.
  • Act on Constructive Feedback. If your manager or a colleague gives you constructive feedback, act on it and let them know that you acted on it. For example, if your boss mentions that your writing could be more concise, sign up for a writing class or pick up a book on writing skills, then make a point of thanking your manager for the advice and mentioning how much the class/book has helped you.

Thriving and Surviving Grad School

Assuming no disasters, this will be the last year of my PhD program. Before the final push, I want to share some hard-earned wisdom so that those entering programs now can find success and avoid common pitfalls.

At this point your mind is probably fairly settled with respect to doing a PhD (although its resolve will be tested–believe you me!). Before that enthusiasm wanes, I’m going to share what I take to be some of the most important strategies for thriving and surviving in what will be both the most grueling but rewarding period of your life so far.

No Person Is An Island

Despite most of our social awkwardness, we are intrinsically social creatures. As Aristotle put it:

But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors.

If you think you’re going to get through grad school alone without a social support network, you’re deluding yourself. In practical terms this means you should create favorable social and psychological conditions for your success–that is, you need to join, create, and invest in community.

You may not like everyone in your department but at minimum you should attend official department events (social and otherwise) and organize/participate in some unofficial social events, for example parties, karaoke nights, bowling nights, and day trips.

Grad students who don’t invest in their community run the various risks associated with social isolation and lose out on many of the obvious benefits. You can’t afford these risks or to lose these benefits. Shift the probabilities of success in your favor and spend some time getting to know other grad students and faculty outside of the classroom. Here are a few reasons why.

Emotional Well-Being

At some point (perhaps many) in grad school you will experience bouts of depression and despair–even if you aren’t typically disposed. The most effective buffer and remedy to depression is a community–friends that care about you and that understand what you’re going through; i.e., other grad students. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pull yourself out of a depression by your own bootstraps. You need to be in an environment where others care about your well-being.

But here’s the catch. You can only have a community of people who care about you if you’ve invested in that community beforehand. Few people are sympathetic to those who only take support when they need it but are conspicuously absent when they don’t.

You want your grad student community to be a place of caring, strength, and support. But this doesn’t happen on its own. You must invest. I promise you that if you do this you will get out much more than what you put it.

Writing/Research

The quality of your work increases when you engage your ideas with a community of experts and experts-in-training. I know it’s romantic, but few of us are Nietzschean ubermench holed up alone in our cave single-handedly creating ideas beyond our time. Most of us run into mental walls. To escape the thought loops and dead ends in your own head, you need other people to bounce ideas off of and to read your work. People will only do this for you if reciprocate.

Some of your best ideas will emerge from discussions with your colleagues at coffee shops, at bars, or on walks. But these discussions only happen if you’re willing to listen too. No one wants to be talked at. People also want to discuss their own ideas.

Being a Good Community Member

Take on duties, fulfill them. But understand that for community that won’t be enough on its own. Caring communities require reciprocal care and empathy. Recognize that you’re not the only one in your program that’s struggling. Ask people how they’re doing. Offer to talk about how someone’s doing and about their ideas.

From the point of view of relationship-building, the most difficult but most important thing you can do is to recognize that we each come into grad school with different resources and to offer to others who lack where we don’t. Ask yourself, what are the background conditions of your success? Did your parents go to grad school? Do you have a loving and supportive family?  Do you have natural self-confidence? Do you have high relative social status compared to your peers?

The best community members recognize where they have won the resource lottery, and do what they can to support other members who aren’t as lucky. To the grad student who is the first in their family to attend grad school, encourage and support them. To the grad student who has a poor relationship with their family, be caring. To the student who is insecure, build them up. Let them know when they’ve asked a good question or made a good point in seminar. A few words of recognition will do wonders.

Most importantly, listen and learn from others who don’t share your social background. Just because you haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean others haven’t. And just because you have experienced something doesn’t mean others have.

Scheduled Down-Time

Grad school–especially if you have teaching duties–is like drinking from a fire hose. You will almost NEVER have everything done on time that you’re supposed to. From this it follows that you can very easily burn yourself out if you only allot yourself down time “when I’m done everything.” Also, the occasional couple of hours off isn’t going to cut it.

If you never really know when your time off is coming it’s easy to fall into low productivity, procrastination, and/or burn out.

Every week schedule for yourself a full 24 hours off. I do from Saturday evening until Sunday evening. Pick whatever 24 hour period works for your semester schedule. It should be the same every week. This way, when you’re starting to feel burnt out near the end of the week you can push through knowing that you will get a full 24 hours off in just one more day.

This is not to say that you can only take 24 hours off. Some weeks and days will be busier than others. However, regardless of how busy your week is, always have a scheduled 24 hour break. Overall, you’ll be happier, more resilient, and more productive.

Avoiding Self-Esteem Traps: You Are Not Your Work

Possibly the best advice I ever received about grad school came from my sister (who had completed her PhD several years before I applied). She said, “don’t wait until after grad school to start living.” I’ve found this advice to be invaluable.

If all you do is academic work then it’s very easy to conflate the success or failure of one’s coursework and research with one’s self-identity and self-worth. Positive feedback on your work=”I’m happy, I’m awesome!” People critical of your work/research dead ends=”I’m sad, I suck.”

The inevitable vicissitudes of your research, writing, and ideas do not make them a stable foundation for your sense of self-worth. This is not to say your identity should be entirely disconnected from your work or being a student, but it’s easy to make the connection too tight when that’s all you do.

To avoid this problem you should expand your identity and source of self-worth to include other activities. In other words, participate in at least one non-academic group/activity. Volunteer with a charity, join a recreational sports league, do art, practice dance or martial arts. Find some activity that is entirely disconnected from your academic pursuits and make it part of your regular schedule. This way, when things aren’t going so well in school your entire sense of self-worth won’t comes crashing down along with it.

You are valuable for other reasons. Find meaning and purpose in other domains.

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Again, this goes without saying. Do not let your physical health go to crap. There is no shortage of literature demonstrating that people who exercise regularly have lower stress levels, are more productive, and have better mood regulation, amongst other benefits.

The main thing in this. In grad school, your primary battle is for your mental health. When you start to let yourself go, you’ll start having negative thoughts about yourself. You can’t afford more reasons for negative self-talk on top of all the other ones that already come with academic work.

The best physical fitness program is the one that you will actually do. Find stuff you enjoy. Not everyone needs to get swoll. Go for an hour walk a day if that’s what you enjoy. Group fitness classes are a fun way to stay in shape. Try hiking, biking, dance, and so on. It doesn’t matter–but do something at least 4 times per week. Much of your success depends on it.

Gratitude

One of the biggest traps you can fall into is to fail to be grateful for the extreme privilege of going to grad school. You begin to complain about how hard your life is. We all do it. But take a look around at how the majority of the world lives. Most people struggle just to survive. And if they aren’t struggling, they go to work at a job they probably wouldn’t choose if not for purely pragmatic reasons.

But you get paid to study and write about the things you love under the tutelage of experts. Think about it. Like just about every PhD student, you have a scholarship and stipend. Your education is free and–depending on the institution–you have somewhere between just enough for a simple life or a little more.

Most importantly, you chose this life. Unlike so many in this world, this life was not a choice forced upon you. Of all the possible choices you could have made after completing undergrad, you chose grad school. Nay, you had the privilege of making a choice.

Don’t let these thoughts stray far from your mind. It’s vital that you keep this attitude of gratitude throughout your studies. You chose pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. What made you think it would be easy? Or that you wouldn’t have to struggle? Isn’t that part of the reason you chose it in the first place?

When things get tough, remind yourself of the extreme privilege you have; that this was your choice; that you had a choice; that society pays you to do what you purport to love.

You are privileged beyond most of humanity for all of human history.

Be grateful.

Be Process Oriented

You are in grad school to become a scholar. You aren’t one yet. This means that you must focus on developing the skills and virtues of a scholar rather than on producing particular research units. If you develop these skills and virtues, the results will follow. But if you fail to develop them, the success of your research is purely a matter of luck.

This mindset will help you see criticism from your professors and peers as something positive. They are pointing to areas where you need to improve. You haven’t developed the virtues yet. Your skills are underdeveloped for genuine scholarship. The fact that your professor covers your paper in red ink is a blessing. Look at all these opportunities for development! These red marks point the way to becoming the scholar you wish to be.

Be grateful they took so much time on your work. As you’ll soon learn, grading and giving constructive feedback is tough time-consuming work. Imagine if they hadn’t said anything and allowed you to continue, oblivious to your undeveloped academic skills and virtues? You’d never become what you came here to become.

Epictetus describes the wrong attitude toward criticism:

And so far from looking for someone to bring you to your senses, you are distinctly offended by any advice or corrections. You say, ‘He’s nothing but a mean old man.’

 – Discourses II. 17. 37

Thank your professors for pointing out where you need to improve. If all you seek is praise, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Extend the attitude of gratitude to your professors and peers for their feedback.

More on Mind-Set

To my mind, no one has surpassed Epictetus when it comes to describing how we ought to approach grad school:

You see, you are going to have to become a student again–that universal figure of fun–if you really mean to subject your opinions to honest examination. And you know as well as I do that this assignment can’t be completed overnight.

 – Epictetus, Discourse Bk I. 11.

I take this to mean that we ought to approach grad school with humility, intellectual honesty, courage, and joy. We also need to understand that success won’t happen overnight, nor will it occur without sustained substantial effort. Grad school requires a great deal fortitude.

As I pointed out in the beginning, none of us are islands. We will sometimes falter. We will sometimes despair. And that’s why it’s so important to develop a caring community around you–people to support and encourage you when you can’t do it alone.

Grad school is incredibly rewarding but tough. You will be tested. At times, you will suffer doubt, depression, and occasionally despair. To overcome these mental obstacles you need to proactively create an environment and habits that mitigate affective volatility and foster support and resilience. A large part of this has to do with creating and participating in a caring community. The other big piece is to structure your life with good habits of action and of mind. With these features in place, you radically shift the odds of success in your favor both for becoming a scholar and for well-being.

For more great advice on grad school from Epictetus, I highly recommend: Discourse Bk II. 17 and 19; Bk III. 5 and 23; Bk IV. 4.

5 Productivity Practices That Helped Me Finish My Dissertation

The last two years of my doctorate, I had a side hobby of researching and experimenting with productivity tools and teaching others to apply them to their own lives via my blog The Tending Year. I started The Tending Year to manifest personal accountability to accomplish big goals; as a result I learned how to focus my labor so I could accomplish my to-do list in less time and with more intention. I have chronic health issues that affect my energy and ability to focus, and I live with chronic pain that requires me to take breaks from sitting, so I was particularly interested in learning how to write my dissertation in short, focused work sessions. Plus, I genuinely loved my dissertation topic, and I wanted to make the process as fun as possible.

So, how did I finish my dissertation on time and enjoy the process?

I knew what steps to take and in which order.

I broke the larger dissertation project down into actionable and achievable steps. This meant knowing which component tasks made up a larger goal, tracking how long certain types of tasks took me to complete and using that data to set deadlines that were reasonable. I shifted my approach from “write a chapter” to assigning actionable tasks to work sessions, such as “write a mind map for the first analysis section” or “draft a one-page description of my method.”

I knew how to plan an effective work session.

  • Every time I sat down at my desk, I determined one to three actionable and achievable goals for the time I’d allotted to work that day.
  • I monotasked, which means I focused on only one task at a time, which enabled me to reach a state of flow much more often.
  • I developed a fun practice that I call the Goldilocks Approach to Productivity, which involves identifying a to-do task that is appropriate for the time/energy I have at the time and my goals for that day’s work session.

I used tools to help me focus.

  • Like many academics, I’ve fallen in love with the Pomodoro method, a pulse-and-pause technique that involves predetermining a task, working uninterrupted for a set amount of time, taking an intentional break and then repeating the work/break process.
  • I co-worked with others to mutually hold ourselves accountable to starting a task, working on it and sharing how the process went. Co-working is a great motivator to get started when you feel blah about your work or are procrastinating.
  • I set intentional boundaries around my technology, such as deleting social media from my phone, using website blockers on my laptop and simply putting my phone out of my reach and inside a box or bowl with a lid while I worked.

I shifted my perspective from perfection to “good enough.”

  • After hearing the phrase “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” multiple times, I finally decided to start using the comments function to write notes to myself and my adviser during the drafting process. These notes might say, “I know I need to research this historical event; I’ll do that in revision” or “I have brain fog and can’t think of the right word; will look up later.” This meant I finished drafts sooner and sent them to my adviser to get comments on the larger ideas instead of spending stressful hours on writing or revising tasks that truly could wait until later.
  • Instead of pre-emptively diving deep into literature reviews and historical contextualization, which often felt overwhelming, I asked my dissertation adviser what her preference was for the breadth and depth I needed to include for examples, footnotes and context. I found that she was often very satisfied with one or two examples, and I saved myself hours of unnecessary labor.
  • I tracked my progress not only by words written, but more intentionally by time spent laboring, and I endeavored to value the invisible forms of labor that go into writing a dissertation, such as brainstorming, outlining and revising.

I prioritized my mental and physical health.

  • I took a lot of breaks and tried to make myself look away from my screen, get a glass of water and walk the dog around the block.
  • I had strict start and stop times for working on my dissertation to ensure that I took time to care for myself and nourish my relationship and friendships.
  • If I was experiencing pain, brain fog or fatigue due to my chronic health issues, I gave myself permission to take breaks, rest and take the rest of the day off.
  • When I really focused during a work session on a predetermined task, I made a lot of progress, so when I finished my work “early,” I took the rest of the day off from dissertating. I also gave myself permission to take off whole days and weekends from working on my dissertation.

Summer Planning Strategies

For so many graduate students, this summer has already proven itself to be unlike any other they’ve encountered so far; and with ongoing global crisis, graduate students should feel no guilt for prioritizing their personal well-being over their productivity. That being said, summer has always been a time of free fall for graduate students — assistantships end, funding becomes unstable, precarity increases and the work structures that we rely on to keep us productive throughout the semester suddenly disappear. All the while we are expected to prepare for fall teaching, continue our own research, catch up on tasks that we shuffled off during the academic year and make real progress on a slew of tasks. Whether this summer has been particularly disruptive for you or whether summer always proves a time of uncertainty, here are some strategies for making progress in your work, however small.

Be Kind to Yourself

While it’s worth practicing self-compassion no matter the circumstances, this tip feels especially necessary now. As graduate students, we keep seemingly endless lists of tasks and goals, aspirations and to-dos. With so much on our plates at all times, it can be easy to slip into feelings of doubt, guilt, despair, stress and anxiety. However, as you may know from experience, such feelings are entirely counterproductive, serving only to paralyze us in the face of even small tasks. As a result, instead of holding yourself to incredibly high standards this summer, be realistic about where you’re at, where you’d like to be and what steps you’ll be able to take in the time that you have.

Setting huge goals for yourself (“I will write every single day!” “I will finish two chapters this summer!”) may feel good in the moment, but it can set you up for a work freeze if you fail to live up to those goals (“I missed writing yesterday. Why am I so terrible at this?” “I’ll never finish this chapter at this rate — why even bother?”). Instead of responding to inevitable setbacks with guilt, shame or frustration, treating yourself with care can make all the difference in your willingness and ability to bounce back.

Instead of judgmental self-talk, try to speak to yourself like you would a close friend, a loved one, one of your students or even a child. Whatever approach you need, responding to yourself with compassion and understanding will make you more willing to try (and potentially fail) later, making it easier to get back to work even after a setback.

Work Backward

Perhaps already a familiar strategy to those who have experience creating lesson plans, working backward from your intended goal to accurately plan the steps that will get you there is a powerful way to build your own structure and deadlines. Think about the goal that you’d like to reach and its ideal deadline.

For instance, if your goal is to take your comp exams by Oct. 1, but you know that your exam materials must be submitted two weeks prior to your exam, then your real deadline becomes Sept. 17. Then, you know that you want a good three weeks to write and revise each of the two essays required, which means that you’ll want to start drafting by July 21. Before that, though, you’ll want some time to finalize your bibliography, read and annotate your sources, and talk to your committee, all of which you can fill in as tentative deadlines on your calendar.

So, now, instead of Take Comp Exams by Oct. 1, you have June 10: Contact Committee, June 15: Compile Possible Sources, June 22-July 17: Read and Annotate, July 20: Finalize Bibliography, July 21: Begin Drafting First Essay, Aug. 11: Begin Drafting Second Essay, Sept. 17: Submit Materials to Committee, Oct. 1: Exam.

Thus, instead of setting large goals into your calendar, build in smaller deadlines by breaking the goal into its components (the topic of the following tip).

Set Actionable Tasks

Admittedly, there exists a page in my own planner that includes the task Write Chapter 3 — a worthwhile goal, perhaps, but not an actionable one. After all, it would be impossible to simply sit down and suddenly produce a complete and usable third chapter. In fact, the only way to eventually reach a finished Chapter 3 will be to first complete the reading, research, brainstorming, planning, drafting, revising and all of the other minute steps that make up the work of chapter writing.

As you think about working backward, and thus consider all of the small steps that make up much larger goals, think about how you can break large goals into even smaller actionable steps that you can realistically complete.

To use the example above, the July 21 goal of Begin Drafting First Essay will give you a clear deadline for your monthly calendar, but it isn’t yet at the more achievable level of daily to-do task. As you get closer to this deadline at the end of July, you’ll want some more clear direction. For instance, your to-do list for July 21 might include items as small as Create New Document for Essay 1, Title, Draft Rough Introductory Paragraph, Import Bibliography Into Document, Draft Bulleted Outline Beneath Introduction, etc.

The idea is that you first set realistic calendar deadlines by breaking a goal into smaller goals, but then you can further break those small goals into daily to-dos that allow you to make real progress each time you sit down to work and cross something off of your task list each day (instead of only getting the satisfaction of feeling “done” once the whole project is completed).

Be Consistent

As scholars like Joan Bolker (Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day) and Helen Sword (Air & Light & Time & Space) make clear, the most successful academic writers are those who are the most consistent in doing work. While it can be tempting (or unavoidable, or necessary) to step away from work for extended amounts of time or to work in large, sudden blocks, working regularly, even in small sessions, ultimately produces larger amounts of usable work.

Breaking your goals into small, achievable tasks can help with your consistency. After all, it’s much easier to want to write each day if your goal is something like Write for Five Minutes or Add Transition to Final Paragraph instead of the imposing and seemingly unattainable Write Chapter 3.

Rewarding yourself with small treats or writing trackers (today’s final tip) can also be a great way to motivate yourself to want to work. Regardless of how you do it, however, the fact remains that small and consistent progress adds up much quicker than sporadic bursts of work. Consistency can help you become more compassionate with yourself as well, since you no longer have such large expectations for your working time. Instead, remember that any work done (no matter how seemingly insignificant) is still work done.

Reward Yourself

While other articles exist with ideas for how to reward yourself for your work, it’s simply important that you are getting some kind of regular payoff for your work to keep you moving forward. These should be (like your work itself) small and consistent rewards. That is, while you might be planning some way of celebrating completing your comp exams in October, you should also be including smaller-tier treats for finishing each step of the process that will get you there. You might even want a weekly or even daily reward for completing work — you know your needs best.

Even if they are small rewards like a new sticker for each day of work, a morning pastry with your coffee after every three consecutive workdays or an at-home spa day at the end of a full week, keeping yourself motivated with self-generated rewards is necessary to becoming more productive. Rewards keep you motivated and make you more likely to want to keep going. After all, the promise of a sticker might be the difference between sleeping in on Friday or shuffling out of bed to add a few sentences to a draft.

Even without external structures of work, colleagues, etc., you can still be self-starting — capable of caring for your needs and the reality of your situation, building your own deadlines, breaking your goals into achievable tasks, working consistently, and providing yourself with rewards and motivation for your hard work.