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Get Your Graduate Student Groove Back

Spring Break is over and gone. There’s a pile of papers to grade. Article revisions are due to your advisor next week, and a fellowship application is due to the college the week after that. You’ve got ten students who want to meet with you this week to talk about what they can do to improve their grades, and your inbox is overwhelmingly full.

If you’re facing any or all of these things, you’re not alone. The doldrums of the semester or the spring slump are very common, especially when the weather is grey and summer break seems eons away. Fortunately, there are a few things that you can do to help reenergize and refocus your graduate work if you find yourself becalmed at mid-semester.

Research

  1. (Re)Read to Inspire: While reading really great pieces of scholarship in your field can be a great way to re-energize your research and scholarly work, I’ve also found it really helpful to read up on productivity research and strategies (Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space are two of my favorites). While it may seem counterintuitive to take time away from my work to read about effectively spending my time, I’ve found that reminding myself that other people face similar struggles and that there are effective strategies for tackling them helps to reenergize me, even if it’s just a chapter or two on my morning bus ride.
  2. Write to Inspire: In the midst of all the obligations that you’re currently juggling, it can be easy to lose sight of forest for the trees (especially when the trees seem to be falling on you). If it feels like you’re digging your way through piles of work that do nothing to inspire you, stop and take 15-20 minutes to just write about why you’re in grad school. What inspired you to come to grad school? What are you ultimately going to do with your degree? Taking a few minutes out of your day to refocus on the big picture of your graduate education can do wonders for your motivation and really help you to feel like the work that you’re doing is valuable.
  3. Get a Second Opinion: With everything piling up around you, it’s all too easy to find yourself mired in writing or research problems that seem insurmountable. If you feel like you’re grinding your way through problem after problem, throw yourself a life preserver and find an outside pair of eyes to examine an issue for you. This could involve meeting with a research librarian, visiting the writing center, or chatting with your advisor or another graduate student. Often, getting an outside perspective can clear up seemingly major issues fairly quickly. Just last week, I had a 15-minute meeting with a professor in another department who suggested a different strategy for developing a taxonomy that I had been grappling with for weeks.

Teaching

  1. Get Active: If it feels like your students are dragging, implementing a few active learning activities can be a great way to recapture their attention and help renew their focus. These do not need to be elaborate or time consuming – often implementing even simple activities (the jigsaw is easy to plan for) can really change the tone and energy level of a classroom. Bonus: these activities tend to be a lot of fun to teach as well.
  2. ​​Check In: It’s hard to gauge how students are feeling about the class and how best to help them unless you ask them. I like to send out a mid-semester evaluation that asks questions about what students feel is working in class and what we, as a class, can do to help make the class work better during the second half of the semester. Some of the questions are my own and some come from my department’s end-of-semester teaching evaluation survey. However you structure it, getting and responding to feedback from your students  shows that you care about their learning and  gives you the chance to incorporate their suggestions into the class. Their feedback will also likely help to improve your course evaluations.

Professional Development

  1. Look Forward: When grad school gets stressful, it can be helpful to think about your long term goals. While the current job market for academics doesn’t necessarily lend itself to tranquil day dreams, doing a little career prep work can be a great way to help connect all the things you’re currently doing with your bigger career goals. I find the websites Imagine PhD and Versatile PhD to be really useful for this. Together they offer great resources, clear, concrete action steps, and success stories about real people who found real jobs. Spending fifteen or twenty minutes on one or both of these sites once a week can help to reassure you that you’re on the right and that there’s a bigger goal behind the seminar paper or lab reports that you’re working on.
  2. Celebrate with your CV: If you haven’t updated your CV (or your teaching portfolio) in a while (or even if you have), setting aside half an hour once or twice a week can be a great way to boost your sense of accomplishment. Since it’s fairly rare for academics to leave the office with a tangible product, it can be easy to lose sight of all the things that you’re actually accomplishing. Taking time to update your CV not only reminds you of all of the things that you’ve accomplished since the last time that you looked it, it also contributes to something far more permanent than the slew of emails you have to send.

Do you have any strategies for recharging your batteries at mid-semester?

Spring Into a New Habit

Spring break looms and whether we’re fretting about baring a little skin after the long winter months or preparing to hunker down to get some work done, this time of year often prompts the desire to develop better habits.  For some, the longer days and (slightly) warmer weather may motivate us to kickstart our exercise routine. Others may have decided to eat healthier, spend money more wisely, arrive to appointments on time, or become more disciplined writers. Whatever the case may be, spring break provides a perfect opportunity to dedicate time to the habit we value the most or the one that we most want to improve.

How do we establish good habits that we’ll stick with?  Here are several keys:

Focus: Building habits requires focused energy and attention. Therefore, focus on only one habit per month. Once you’ve developed that practice, then you can layer another habit into your routine.

Motivation: Write out why you want to [eat healthier, exercise, create and follow a writing schedule, etc.] and what you consider the rewards of doing so. Then record both instant and deferred rewards as you experience them to generate positive associations with that habit and to motivate yourself to stick with it.  For instance, those who are beginning an exercise routine may experience increased happiness or energy after working out, or those adhering to writing goals may track the feeling of accomplishment in meeting their word count target or explaining a difficult concept.

Willpower: Researchers have discovered recently that willpower is much like a muscle that can be developed and strengthened over time.  By working on one habit (any habit) people developed better habits in numerous areas of their lives. [1]

Consistency: This one seems obvious, but for something to become a habit, one has to practice it consistently over a period of time – usually at least 30-40 days.

Support: It’s one thing to start a new project, learn a new skill, or begin a routine, but to maintain it, we need the support and encouragement of others. It’s even more helpful if we can find people who are working on the same thing.  If your goal is to develop a running habit, join a local running club. If your goal is to finish your dissertation by writing 500 publishable words a day, find a writing group. You get the idea. Also follow Twitter feeds, such as #phdchat and #GradHacker for encouragement and helpful tips and tools!

Don’t forget – just pick one to focus on for the next month. After that, you can add in another habit to focus on after you’ve gotten the first one down.

What would you like to work on during the month of March? How are you going to do so? What has worked for you in the past?

Finding Myself in Research

I’m a black, first-generation college graduate from a low-income Appalachian community in Pennsylvania. It was statistically unlikely that I would complete a four-year bachelor’s degree. It was even less likely that I would further my education beyond that.

Now, as a graduate student in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, I spend my time studying health disparities, the variation in rates of disease between socioeconomic and racial groups. Probability — as well as my lived experience — says I’m an anomaly. People with Ph.D.’s do not look like me, and do not come from where I come from.

I was drawn to study cancer because of the unknown. It is not like diabetes, a disease about which much is known on treatment and prevention. I also wanted to make the United States a healthier place for groups like black women, who suffer disproportionately from diseases like breast cancer.

As a child, I witnessed the reality of health disparities in my own family. My maternal white grandmother received dialysis for diabetes that extended her life, so she could witness the birth of my niece, her great-granddaughter. My paternal black grandmother had a leg amputated because of diabetes and ultimately died of it, when I was just a young girl. Both of my grandmothers lived in cities in Florida, yet had vastly different outcomes for the same disease.

Last fall, I flew to Atlanta to present my work at a conference called the Science of Cancer Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved, held by the American Association for Cancer Research. This conference is a big deal in my field. Once a year, the most notable names in this research are in attendance. This was my first conference as a graduate student. Needless to say, I was nervous.

As I stood next to the poster detailing my work down to the level of molecular characteristics of breast cancer, researchers from all over the country stopped to question me. I took copious notes, eager to capture a fraction of the ideas and inspiration in the room. I even met some of my academic idols. I felt like a real scientist, engaged in the process of scientific inquiry.

Later in the session, a black woman with silver hair and no institutional affiliation listed on her name tag approached me. Before I could begin my standard elevator pitch, she said she’d prefer to read my entire poster first. I studied her face as she read. A few minutes passed. The concentration in her face gradually shifted to raw emotion.

After she finished reading, she introduced herself as a survivor advocate, someone who is not a scientist but interacts with them to give the patient and survivor perspective. She shared her medical history — her diagnosis of severe endometriosis in her early 30s, the removal of her ovaries and uterus in an attempt to allay the symptoms, and her more recent diagnosis of breast cancer, which led to her advocacy in the cancer research community.

Then, she reached out and touched my poster and said, “I see myself in this research. This was a study meant for women like me.”

Her personal revelations stood in stark contrast to my previous interactions with fellow scientists, which were mechanical and formulaic. This was different. It was two black women talking about our resilience.

Graduate school is a notoriously isolating experience. Ph.D. candidates at American research institutions have six times as much anxiety and depression as the general population, according to a study published earlier this year. For people like me, the already stressful experience takes a different shape. When you don’t fit the mold of a traditional graduate student, there exists an intricate interplay between impostor syndrome, social support, sense of purpose and mental health. Out of self-preservation, I immersed myself in the scientific process in an earnest attempt to avoid the isolation that too often accompanies graduate school.

Instead, I spent my first year of graduate school in front of a computer screen with de-identified subject identification numbers. A screen full of numbers indicated whether a woman smoked or not, had children or not, had a family history of breast cancer or not, and whether she had succumbed to breast cancer or not. Women’s entire lives were distilled into data; their health care life cycles and eventual deaths now were 0s and 1s on my screen. Despite my deep sense of purpose, emotionally, I felt removed from the work.

This made my experience with that woman at the poster session all the more meaningful. Now, when I present my analyses of the binary numbers representing women who gave part of themselves for the advancement of cancer research, I include her story. To me, her interaction with the humanity of science is just as important as the output of my statistical models.

In graduate school, we are urged to publish in the most prominent journals and pursue prestigious fellowships. The number of peer citations or research dollars measures success. What is often absent is the consideration of how research affects everyday individuals. My experience with the woman at the poster session reminded me that I am not just doing research to become a known scholar in my field. I research for the sake of humanity. All researchers could use that reminder.

Stop Procrastinating to Complete Your Dissertation

Are you an ABD (All-But-Dissertation) student? Doctoral dissertation looming over your head like an ominous black cloud? The dissertation is the most difficult and time-consuming academic requirement a doctoral student faces. It’s way too easy to procrastinate and put off writing your dissertation under the guise, “I need to read more before I can write.” Don’t fall into that trap!

Don’t let your dissertation drag you down. Stop your procrastination. Why do we procrastinate? Research suggests that students often procrastinate when they perceive the dissertation as an overwhelming task. Big surprise, huh? Motivation is the biggest problem that grad students face in writing the dissertation.

A Lonely Time

The dissertation is a time consuming and lonely process that usually takes about two years (and often longer). The dissertation often is a major blow to a graduate student’s self-esteem. It is not uncommon to feel as if it’s an insurmountable task that will never be completed.

Organization and Time Management are Key

The keys to completing the dissertation promptly are organization and time management. The lack of structure is the difficult part of the dissertation because the student’s role is to plan, carry out, and write up a research project (sometimes several). A structure must be applied in order to complete this task.

One way of providing structure is to view the dissertation as a series of steps, rather than as one mammoth task. Motivation may be maintained and even enhanced as each small step is completed. Organization provides a sense of control, holds procrastination at minimal levels, and is key to completing the dissertation. How do you get organized?

Outline the small steps needed to complete this large project.
All too often, students may feel that their only goal is to finish the thesis. A goal this large may feel indomitable; break it down into the component tasks. For example, at the proposal stage, the tasks may be organized as follows: thesis statement, literature review, method, plan for analyses.

Each of these tasks entails many smaller tasks. The list for the literature review may consist of an outline of the topics you wish to discuss, with each outlined as detailed as possible. You may even wish to list relevant articles in the appropriate places within the outline. The method will consist of the participants, including items on locating them, rewards, drafting informed consent forms, locating measures, describing psychometric properties of the measures, piloting measures, drafting the procedure, etc.

The hardest parts of writing your dissertation is starting and staying on track. So how do you write your dissertation? Read on for tips on how to write your dissertation and successfully complete your graduate program.

Start Anywhere

In terms of completing your list of dissertation tasks, it is not necessary to start at the beginning. In fact, believing that one starts the dissertation proposal by writing his or her introduction and thesis and ends with the plan for analyses will detain progress. Begin where you feel comfortable and fill in the gaps. You will find that you gain momentum with the completion of each small task. Feeling overwhelmed by any particular task is a sign that you have not broken it down into small enough pieces.

Make Consistent Progress Writing Every Day, Even if Only for a Short Period.

Set aside periods of time to write on a regular basis. Establish a firm schedule. Train yourself to write in short blocks, for at least an hour a day. All too often we insist that we need large blocks of time to write. Blocks of time certainly help the writing process, but the ABD often lacks such resources.

For example, when we were writing the dissertation, we taught 5 classes as an adjunctat 4 different schools; blocks of time were difficult to find, other than over the weekend. Aside from pragmatics, writing at least a little every day keeps the thesis topic fresh in your mind, leaving you open to new ideas and interpretations. You may even find yourself thinking about it and making conceptual progress as you complete mundane tasks such as driving to and from school and work.

Use Incentives to Assist You in Overcoming Procrastination.

Writing requires consistent, well-organized effort and a system of self-imposed incentives to overcome procrastination. What kind of incentives work? Although it depends on the individual, a safe bet is taking time off from work. We found vegetation time such as time spent playing computer games to be helpful as an incentive to reinforce progress.

Methodically Break Through Writer’s Block.

When it is difficult to write, talk through your ideas to anyone who will listen, or just talk out loud to yourself. Write out your thoughts without criticizing them. Take time to warm up, by writing to clear your thoughts. Get the ideas out without scrutinizing each sentence; it is often easier to edit than it is to write.

Work through your ideas by writing, THEN edit extensively. You will write many drafts of each section of the dissertation; a first (second, or even third) draft need not approach perfection. In addition, it is acceptable to use dashes to mark when you cannot find the appropriate word to express your idea, but want to go on; just remember to fill in the dashes later. The important thing is that you develop a pattern of producing some output regularly that output can be edited or even thrown out, but it is important to produce something.

Recognize and Accept the Fact That Writing Is a Time-consuming Process. Don’t Rush Yourself.

No draft will be perfect that first time around. Expect to go through several drafts of each section of your dissertation. Once you feel comfortable with a particular section, take time away from it. Ask others to read your writing and consider their comments and criticisms with an open mind. After a few days or a week, reread the section and edit again; you may be quite surprised by the impact of a fresh perspective.

Writing the dissertation is much like running a marathon. The seemingly insurmountable may be attained through a series of small goals and deadlines. Accomplishing each small goal may provide additional momentum. Make consistent progress each day, use incentives to assist you in attaining your goals, and acknowledge that the dissertation will require time, hard work, and patience. Finally, consider the words of Dag Hammarskjold: “Never measure the height of a mountain, until you have reached the top. Then you will see how low it was.”

4 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Graduate School Experience

An advanced degree can bring so many benefits to your career that it’s hard to list them all!

That’s why it’s important to take your education seriously and make the most out of this opportunity. Doing so can better improve your skill sets and lead to positive career outcomes. Here are four tips for using your time in grad school in the best way possible.

1. Have a Plan

A graduate degree itself is a nice asset to have. The Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that this credential can increase salaries by $12,000 on average. It’s best to have a specific plan in mind before enrolling in an advanced degree program. Say it to yourself like an affirmation, write it down in a bullet journal, create a vision board—do whatever you need to keep your goal top of mind.

Do you want to switch career paths? Advance in your current position? The answers to these questions will help determine the concentrations you should participate in and networking events to attend.

Remember, graduate school programs are generally designed to give you a professional edge, which is why it’s important to choose a program relevant to your career goals. According to the Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey, which collected responses from more than 86,000 U.S. adults attending over 3,000 institutions, students who take courses that reflect their daily life are more likely to say that their education was worth the investment.

2. Take Advantage of Campus Resources

Advisors, mentors, program directors and other resources are valuable help, and many grad students don’t rely on them enough. Having a mentor or advisor can be a great benefit toward your educational experience for a multitude of reasons:

They can help you achieve your goals

Grad school mentors, program directors and advisors are experienced in how educational institutions operate. If you followed the advice above, a mentor can help you stick to your plan and graduate in a timely manner. They might recommend electives that best support your career goals or direct you toward faculty who have experience in your field.

They can make grad school more accessible

Directors, mentors and advisors can also give you an insider’s perspective on the graduate school experience and help you balance your education with other responsibilities. They can offer advice for specific situations you may find yourself in, whether while at school or during your new career. Try asking your director how they made it through graduate school for tips that are practically guaranteed to work!

They can help you through bad days

Let’s face it—grad school won’t always be a walk in the park. You may occasionally find yourself overwhelmed or stressed out, whether because of difficult school assignments or because real life got in the way. Your mentors and advisors are here for you. In addition to providing educational support, they can lend an ear or offer advice when you need to talk.

They help set you up for success

Finally, having a mentor can increase your chances of success after graduation. Per the Strada-Gallup study, people who received career advice during their school years feel most prepared for the workforce.

3. Make Connections Between Your Assignments and Work

It’s easy to think of school and work as two separate entities, but it’s good to keep in mind that the former is designed to support the latter. As you’re learning, think about how specific ideas and strategies apply to both your past and present career objectives. If you’re dealing with a difficult employee, for example, think back to what you learned about management or communication to solve the situation. Doing so can help you better understand how your coursework correlates to the professional world.

In fact, you can even apply this concept to your curriculum. Recognize how the subjects discussed in one class pertain to another—such as statistics and budgeting—even if the two appear unrelated at first.

4. Manage Your Time Effectively

Making the most of your time off

Breaks between school semesters aren’t just the perfect time to catch up on your Netflix queue. You can also make progress on major projects, such as developing your thesis or capstone project. You might also consider taking a professional development course, either through your college or an industry organization, to obtain yet another perspective that you can use on the job.

Of course, don’t forget about using your time off for rest and relaxation, which will help you recharge for next semester. It’s possible to both indulge in self-care and make academic progress if you stick to a schedule. After all, everyone deserves takeout and trashy TV once in a while.

Taking advantage of your day-to-day downtime

Set time on your calendar for studying at a supportive space (such as a desk where people know not to interrupt you) as well as time for relaxation. Use your lunch breaks to study, or listen to recorded lectures during your commute. Taking advantage of small pockets of time can definitely help you internalize everything you learn.

Graduate school can be the step you need to make your next career move. Elmhurst College’s programs, mentors and proximity to Chicago can boost your educational experience.

All Work and No Play Makes for a Dull Grad Student

We’re constantly told to go out and have fun, but never told how or what to do!

In discussions about self-care in graduate school, we’re always told to build in some time for ourselves. It sounds simple, but that proposition is baffling to me. Unwinding and having fun can seem impossible when we wear multiple hats (student, teacher, administrator, family member, partner, etc.) and constantly running from one appointment  to another. Graduate students are trained to be efficient with our time, money, and energy, and to constantly be hitting two — or ten — birds with one stone. If I’m supposed to present my work at a conference, I’m also supposed to meet five famous scholars, and hear about the newest theory in our discipline, and get to the caucus meetings, and catch up with my friends, and take a great Instagram picture. Oh, and also pay for this conference without going into debt. This mentality has transcended to my everyday life too: if I’m going to kick back with a new book, it also has to be fun and teaching me something about new developments in the field. Or, if I’m going to cook a nice meal for myself, I also plan to be reading furiously for seminar while it simmers on the stove.

No doubt about it: doubling up on fun and work is effective, especially when we’re short on time, money, and energy. The downside of all this? We forget that completely stepping away from work is not only restorative, but absolutely necessary. We can get bogged down in trying to get it all done, to the point that completely disconnecting from work seems impossible.

However, disconnecting is constantly associated with luxury: expensive spa days, fancy dinners out, cocktails on some sunny, distant beach. These are great, but they’re not really within the reach of a graduate student budget or schedule. I personally think that disconnecting is less about how much time or money you spend, and more about a state of mind.

Schedule your fun

Scheduling your downtime doesn’t sound relaxing at all, but I find that actually writing it down and securing its place in my schedule makes it more restorative. I also find that if I plan out my downtime and decide exactly what I’m doing, where, and when, I’m much more likely to do something fun instead of lying in bed scrolling through Instagram for hours. (I do that even when I’m swamped with work anyway!). So: if you want to get a little more from your downtime, WRITE IT DOWN. Schedule it and hold on to that time fiercely: prioritize it like you would a meeting or a doctor’s appointment, and don’t put it off!

Decide how much social time matters to you

Spending time with your friends is crucial in graduate school, but I think we have a tendency to conflate social time with relaxation. Going out with your friends can be fun, but don’t forget that hanging out with friends can feel very different from time alone to do what you want. When it comes to budgeting your time, remember to keep those two categories of downtime separate, especially if you’re an introvert who absolutely needs alone time to recharge.

But what am I supposed to do for fun?

Lots! I used to be terrified of the “What do you do in your spare time?” question, simply because I didn’t feel like I had well-defined hobbies or interests. I’m still working toward this, but after trying different things out, I’ve found a few options that help me unplug from work. You can do these activities by yourself or with a group of people

1. Video/computer games

I don’t play video games very often, nor do I follow the culture, but I’ve found a few games out there that I like. Complex moves like aiming and shooting on a controller stress me out, but I enjoy solving puzzles and exploring worlds – it reminds me of being a kid and playing on the computer for hours after school. I have a few games saved on my computer that I play when I’m taking a writing break, and they’ve really helped take my mind off work. (My personal favorite: Tricky Towers, which is a tower-stacking version of Tetris with physics and gravity. You can play in single-player, online multiplayer, or local multiplayer mode!)

2. Indulgent cooking

I do two kinds of cooking: functional, quick, everyday cooking and indulgent, slow, slightly more complicated cooking. Functional cooking is something I can do in a rush: it mostly involves quick sautés or popping something in the oven. When I do this kind of cooking, I’m usually not following a recipe and I’m often catching up on my texts or scrolling through Twitter at the same time. Indulgent cooking, however, is more rare and is what I consider a break from my routine. It usually involvesfinding a recipe, getting ingredients, putting on music or a podcast, and enjoying the sights and smells of a warm, bustling kitchenIt doesn’t have to be an expensive recipe either – I’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with recipes from BudgetBytes.com. And when I don’t feel like following a complicated recipe, I’ve had great success buying a single steak (which can range anywhere from $7 for standard freezer aisle steak to $20 for a prime grass-fed cuts) and throwing it into a sizzling hot skillet.

3. Walks

Similar to cooking, there’s functional, quick walks (e.g. from your parking lot to your main building or to the store to get more milk) and then there are more deliberate, planned walks. When I do walks like the latter, I like to leave my headphones at home and really take in my surroundings. It’s a great way for me to sort through my thoughts, and to get moving after a long day (or week) of sitting and reading. A walk is also a great way to catch up with a friend, especially if you don’t want to center hanging out around food or drinks, or if you’re both trying to introduce more physical activity into your schedule. Check out hiking trails, bike paths, and bustling sidewalks near you, and see which fit your mood.

4. Board games

If you’re the social type, board games are a great way to kick back and unplug from work. When grad students get together, it’s easy for conversation to shift from catching up to teaching, classes we’re taking, departmental gossip, the next conference, and other professional topics. Board games are the perfect antidote for this tendency because they offer the group something to do together rather than leaving a huge chunk of time open for conversation. I really enjoy cooperative games where all players are working together to win – think of it as low-stakes practice for collaboration and communication in the professional world. My personal favorite is Betrayal at House on the Hill — the constantly changing configuration of the board makes it so that this game never gets old. The spooky theme is a bonus!

5. A quick at-home spa experience

There’s something profoundly soothing about very visible and ostentatious-looking grooming and maintenance methods. Rituals like beard grooming, mud masks, DIY manicures and pedicures, or even teeth-whitening(!) are great reminders to step back and take care of ourselves., When I’m having a bad day, I like to put on my thickest, goopiest mask and wander around my apartment in my pajamas. It doesn’t take a lot of time (about 30 minutes to put the mask on, leave it, and wash it off), and I can pair it with other small indulgences, like a longform non-fiction piece I’ve saved on my browser and a cup of tea.  Whether it actually does anything for my skin is debatable, but I do love catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror and giggling at how ridiculous I look.

11 Tips for People Looking Into Getting a Master’s Degree Online

Making the choice to go back to school for a master’s degree is a big decision. With so many programs to choose from and so many online masters degree options gaining popularity, it never hurts to get a little extra advice.

We asked students currently getting their master’s degrees online for some advice. Here are their eleven tips for successfully getting your masters degree online:ay not have considered previously.

1. When each class starts, take a broad look at the course

Having a broad understanding of the course will help you to complete your work in the way that the professor expects. Making sure that you have a good idea of the layout of assignment deadlines, types of assignments, and any extra expectations (like attending a poetry reading or show) is a great way to ensure that you are prepared for the entire course and to avoid surprises.

2. Understand what is expected of you and don’t be afraid to ask questions’

Take a hard look at the syllabus and any assignments you have access to right away. If there is something you don’t understand, it is better to ask questions right away than to wait until the last minute.

3. Pace yourself and don’t try and get too far ahead. You’ll learn as you go

Getting ahead may sound like the best way to stay on top of things with your classes, but being too far ahead can actually hurt you, especially if you rush to complete assignments. Pacing yourself will help you to stay engaged in the material and do your best work.

4. Use your peers in your course for support and feedback

Just because the course is online, doesn’t mean that you have to go it alone. Swap emails with a couple of your classmates. That way, if you have questions or just want to commiserate about a tough assignment, you have someone who understands what you’re going through.

5. Try to join a cohort with someone you talk to daily or who is close to you so that you have the support and can bounce ideas about assignments off of them

One of the best things that you can do as you complete assignments is to talk about them with other students. They help you to get your ideas straight and improve your work.

6. Don’t forget to take a break at least once a week from the course to keep you on track, and keep you from getting burnt out

Online classes can be intense, so taking a break once a week from your classes will help you to stay focused and relaxed throughout the course.

7. Ask colleagues or anyone in your profession for help when you need it

Don’t be afraid to ask! If you are getting your degree to move up in your work world or change careers, some of your best assets may be your colleagues or someone in the profession. Don’t be afraid to tap those resources when you need them. They may provide you with a fresh perspective that you may not have considered previously.

8. Seek individual support from your professor when you need it

They are there for you just like in a face-to-face class and love to support students. It can be easy to feel like your professor doesn’t care about you when you don’t see their face on a daily or weekly basis, but they do! Don’t hesitate to ask questions if you have them or even just drop them a note to introduce yourself. Professors are a lot more likely to help you out in a pinch if they know who you are.

9. Make sure you schedule time for your course and understand the time expectations before starting

Online classes can take just as much–or even more time–than traditional classes. So scheduling a time each day to work on your reading and assignments will help you to stay up to date on your work. It can be overwhelming at first, but as you move through your courses you learn the pattern that works for you and it takes less time overall to complete the work.

10. Make sure you are ready for the commitment before starting and are serious about embarking on the degree

Committing to a new program is a big step. So do your research before making a commitment. Take a look at our 5 things to consider before going back to school post as a starting point.

11. Do the reading!

This is the most important piece of advice for any class, but especially for one that is an online masters degree. Without a scheduled class time, it is too easy to let things pile up and get behind. Readings are where you will et most of your information so keep up with the readings and ask questions if something is unclear.

Beat the Burnout

I knew I’d hit a particularly low point when, this January, I found myself spending more time than I’d care to admit Googling “psychics in Boston.” I was still recovering from a flu that had knocked me out for nearly three weeks, amidst which I’d flown to Chicago for the MLA conference (literature’s big field conference, for the unfamiliar). It might have been the physical toll of the illness – the worst I can remember in years. Or perhaps it was the psychic toll of the conference and all it represented – a conference where countless others interviewed for tenure-track jobs that I might never have a chance at despite everything I’d accomplished. Most likely, it was both as well as a a total adrenaline crash from the previous six months of defending my dissertation and starting a new job (and new courses) without taking a significant break.

I guess I figured a psychic would help. I never been to one in my life and I’ve never really been one to believe too much in that kind of “New Age” stuff, aside from reading my horoscope with some regularity (shout-out to my fellow Scorpios and to Sonia Saraiya for perfectly encapsulating my feelings on this matter). But I know that what I was really searching for online was not the psychic at all – it was answers: a sense of certainty . I wanted someone to neatly unfurl the future before me. I wanted someone to tell me to keep going, to tell me it would be ok, to tell me everything would work out as it’s supposed to at a time when I was seriously struggling to tell myself.

I was riddled with guilt. I had succeeded in getting a job and one, moreover, that I not only truly loved but that, as far as contingent positions go, is about as good as it gets (low course loads, relative stability, outstanding colleagues and students). How could I possibly complain? I was also riddled with doubt. Was I doing enough to be rehired for next year? Did my students like me? Was it ok that I was producing scholarship at a much slower rate than during graduate school? Would I ever find a publisher for my work-in-progress? Would I ever get anywhere on that work? Did any of it matter? I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything I did – everything I was pushing myself to to do – was utterly meaningless, even though it still felt important to me.

It seems clear enough now that I had a real case of burnout. Ironically enough, this was around the time when burnout was a hot topic thanks to Anne Helen Petersen’s viral Buzzfeed article and several important responses to it. And while I recognized that my burnout, like Petersen’s, bears a certain incontrovertible degree of privilege, the article seemed to articulate some of the deep-seated feelings I was experiencing (and I mused, too, that it didn’t seem incidental that Petersen had also earned her PhD). For the better part of the year, I had been tired, anxious, and irritable (some of those, familiar feelings), but I was also increasingly forgetful, missing deadlines or appointments because they simply slipped my mind (sorry GradHacker Eds for the sometimes last-minute posts!), less motivated and productive than usual, more prone to procrastination, and generally, almost consumingly, demoralized. Reading Petersen’s article made me feel less alone.

I write this now hoping that it might make someone else, too, feel less alone. We know that mental health is a crisis in academia and that the solution ultimately has to be systemic, not individual. Nonetheless, we at GradHacker HQ haven’t shied away from offering advice on how to overcome slumps in the hopes that it could provide temporary solace. While the majority of this advice has focused on solutions for getting your groove back  academically or pedagogically, I want to take a slightly different tack and talk about some of the most effective things ― some work-related, others more general ― that have helped me start to beat the burnout (or that might prevent it in the first place!)

Make a Long-Term To-Do List
When I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed or unmotivated (the two are often not mutually exclusive), I find it helpful to make a long-term to-do list. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the idea that everything needs to happen at once: that chapter needs to be finished, that article revised, that syllabus revamped, etc. For me, at least, I can lose sight of the bigger picture when I start to stress about everything that needs to be accomplished, seemingly at the same time. In those moments, I’ve found that it can be useful to take a step back and revisit my expectations and timelines, parsing out important tasks over a series of a few weeks, months or even years. Often I’ve found that breaking down big tasks into a series of smaller steps and smaller deadlines can take the pressure off the immediacy of the short-term to-do list; it not only helps me implement a doable plan but helps me refocus on the few key things that actually need to be done quickly so I’m better able to manage my time and, perhaps more importantly, my attention.

Prioritize Your Own Work
When I’m feeling burned out I often find it’s because the majority of my time and attention has been concentrated on tasks that primarily benefit other people ― everything from responding to emails, to grading or tutoring, to departmental or community service, to research assistantships. Don’t get me wrong,these things are important, and they are things that I often enjoy immensely. Taken together, though, they can sometimes leave me feeling drained and unable to prioritize my own research/projects/activities. Recently, I was listening to a podcast interview with “Intern Queen” Lauren Berger. One of the pieces of advice she gave that particularly resonated with me, drawn from her recent book, was to start your workday with tasks that are crucial to you rather than with email or something for someone else. It’s not always possible, of course, but I’ve tried to make it a practice to do just a little bit of work on my own projects before I delve into other, externally motivated tasks. Even if it’s only an hour or so, it’s made a world of difference in terms of my outlook and ability to find balance in my day, so I don’t feel like I’m constantly working without any output to show for it. I even started using a Pomodoro timer (where has this been all my life?) and just two or three cycles on an otherwise busy day can be enough to do the trick!

Reframe Your Idea of Productivity
Perhaps the most oft-repeated piece of advice for beating burnout is to take a break. But if you’re someone like me who has trouble truly relaxing, taking time off can be really difficult to do (especially in a culture of academic overwork), even though it’s vital. “Taking a break” and not doing anything can sometimes be more anxiety provoking. I’ve found, however, that when I do need to take a break from academic life, the best thing to do short of taking time off entirely is completing other tasks that are still productive but are not necessarily work-related. I’ll spend a day listening to music or podcasts while cleaning my apartment. Or I’ll take my dog to the park and maybe run a few errands while I’m out. I might schedule a few appointments that I’ve been neglecting. These are not always the most exciting tasks, but they can afford me the mental break I really need while also keeping my mind and body occupied. The point is, though, that you absolutely have to reframe what counts as “productive”; doing so goes a long way!

Go Dark on Social Media
For me academic twitter has been, in equal measure, a great networking resource and a source of extreme anxiety. While it’s allowed me to connect with scholars in my field across the country, organize panels, and learn about new research, it’s also been a constant reminder of other people’s productivity and successes. I myself sometimes fall into the habit of using Twitter as a highlight reel instead of posting the good and the bad. Nearly every time I post I feel an intense urge to delete it, out of both embarrassment and fear of contributing to the problem (many times, I do). It can be incredibly unsettling to scroll through Twitter and find post after post after post of people doing amazing pedagogical things, writing countless articles, going to all the conferences, seeming to be endlessly productive, especially when you’re struggling to do so (and even if it’s not real life). The relentlessness of the question “how will I ever keep up and get a job with all these accomplished people around?” can be paralyzing. Social media ― not just Twitter, but Facebook and Instagram too ― can breed insecurity and self-doubt. This is not news. As a result, it can be really beneficial to cut it out entirely or at least limit your intake. While I daily consider but haven’t yet gone dark on Twitter entirely, I have set limits on my phone that only allow me to scroll for 10 minutes a day, and I’ve made a conscious effort not check it first thing in the morning so it doesn’t set a negative tone for my day. Checking it in moderation has prevented me from dwelling too much on what everyone else is or seems to be doing and instead to focus on what I’m doing.

Change Your Environment
Right around the time I was feeling especially burned-out, organizing-guru Marie Kondo’s Netflix special had just been released. Like many, I binged the show and immediately ran to my closet and started folding and organizing (because compartmentalizing your belongings is better than compartmentalizing your feelings, am I right?). I was not only decluttering but changing my space in a tangible way. Indeed, if there is “life-changing magic” in Kondo’s method (questionable views on books aside), it’s because, at base, Kondo is advocating for changing and re-charging the energy of the space we occupy. And this change of energy is not just about the physical or material but is ultimately mental, too. I think that changing your environment can be impactful, forcing you out of or mixing up a familiar space or perspective. This could be big things (going for a walk in a new spot, taking a trip to a new place) but it can also be much smaller ones (rearranging furniture, decluttering belongings). In one of the episodes I was watching, Kondo said that in the morning she likes to open the window and light incense to change the air in the room. Hokey as it sounds and as hokey as it definitely felt, I took her advice to heart and went to my office. While I don’t have any windows, I did light incense. And even if it was just a placebo effect, that small step quite surprisingly made a huge difference because I felt like I was no longer passively accepting my burnout but was taking active steps to combat it. I was in control of my space and environment; it couldn’t consume me. I changed the air in the room and found that my perspective began to change slowly, but undeniably too.

And for the record: I never did get to the psychic, but I’m still open to recommendations for a good one!

Your First Year in a Ph.D. Program

Julie: Usually we write about the end stages of the doctoral-student career as soon-to-be Ph.D.’s prepare for the job market. But this month we’d like to step back and offer advice to those just starting out in graduate school.

We believe early career planning is especially important in the current climate surrounding doctoral education. From all sides, Ph.D. students hear that their fields are in jeopardy, that research and teaching positions are shrinking, and that the doctoral path is one taken only by the rich or the financially foolish. That refrain is especially heard in the humanities, as typified by Jordan Weissmann’s recent blog post for The Atlantic, but he has also written about the lack of jobs and the decline of research opportunities for scientists. Others have aired similar concerns about fields such as computer science, particle physics, and the biomedical sciences. The challenges faced by Ph.D.’s seeking work outside of academe even made The New York Times recently in an article entitled “The Repurposed Ph.D.”

Jenny: In our work as graduate-career counselors, we know doctoral students to be intellectually inquisitive and passionate about their fields. We also know that during years of graduate study their priorities may shift. Life, to many students’ surprise, doesn’t stop during a doctoral program. And no matter how much you love your field, research is work and, as such, can sometimes feel like a grind no matter how passionate you are about the topic.

Part of being an engaged graduate student is to manage those shifts in your priorities and attitudes over the long haul. A doctoral program, as the old saying goes, is more like a marathon than a sprint.

Julie: If you started your program in the fall, then you know how to get around the campus by now, and have developed a study schedule that works for you. It’s time to think about making the most of your first year.

First, find out what your department expects of you. I hope you attended the orientation for new graduate students in your department and have reviewed its website. Most departments will have sections about the Ph.D. process, taking you from course requirements through dissertation completion. Some departments may have a timeline that indicates what you should achieve in each year of your graduate program. Others may offer discussions on the nature and benefits of the various requirements and expectations of doctoral study.

Jenny: To get off to a good start it’s crucial to be involved in the life of your department and attend the activities, seminars, and meetings that it organizes for students. Faculty members will expect that of you and will see your participation as a sign of your level of engagement in the field.

Attending those events may sound like an added burden, in addition to your coursework and teaching responsibilities, but think of it as a chance to get to know people in your department. Graduate school can be an isolating experience, so it’s important to take the time to connect—intellectually and socially—with others, particularly in the early years of your program.

Julie: Second, understand that doctoral education is different from that offered at the undergraduate or professional-degree levels. Most people find that their doctoral program challenges them intellectually in ways they have never been challenged before. That can be exhilarating or discouraging, or both at the same time. It’s important to develop a support system that can help you get through the more stressful periods.

Jenny: Most departments provide a range of services, and it’s up to you to make use of them. Your department may offer regular professional-development seminars that can prepare you for teaching, writing grants, and going on the academic job market. Take the time to attend those seminars—including some during your first year—as they will help you to gain the skills that can set you up for success in your field down the road.

Julie: Many universities offer terrific professional-development opportunities through their career services, graduate-dean offices, teaching centers, and other departments, which often work together to sponsor such programs. Savvy students take advantage of those services regularly, while other students seem to be completely unaware of the programs or find out too late. Be the savvy student. Do a bit of research on your university’s website, talk to older students in your department, or stop by the writing/teaching/career/dean’s office and ask about the services they provide to doctoral students.

Jenny: Once you’ve chosen an adviser, that faculty member will likely become your main source of career and scholarly guidance. Julie and I have spoken with many graduate students in the course of our work, and we know how much this relationship can influence how a doctoral student experiences a program. A great adviser can make the experience wonderful; an absent, difficult, or even downright mean adviser can turn the experience into a misery.

So chose wisely. Do your “due diligence,” as a lawyer might say. In your first year or two in the department, get to know professors and their work, considering carefully who might be a good fit for you. And be sure to talk with students farther along in their programs about their experience with individual faculty members.

Julie: Your adviser will be in charge of helping you get your Ph.D, but you will be in charge of your career. It is vital that you pay attention to what interests you, rather than looking to your adviser for guidance on that. Keep track of potential areas of research interest. Eventually you will need to select a dissertation topic, and you will want it to be something that excites you. Take courses with different professors in your department and, when possible, in related areas of study. Be sure to introduce yourself to your professors, to fellow graduate students, to staff members (such as a graduate coordinator), and to administrators. You never know from where opportunities will arrive.

Jenny: Besides departmental events, attend lectures and programs elsewhere on the campus to widen your circle. It’s also a good idea to start to get to know your scholarly association’s website; read not just the scholarship but about the discipline itself and about the services the association offers. Most scholarly societies have listings of job announcements and fellowships, along with helpful professional advice. Too often, I see students who have missed a couple years’ worth of relevant information simply because they did not know to look to a scholarly association as a source of information and support.

Julie: Talk with more-advanced doctoral students who participate in graduate-student groups. At Penn, for example, we have active student groups involved in university governance (the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly), career interests (the Penn Biotech Group), and many other topics.

Consider joining a graduate-student group and maybe even taking on a leadership role. The organizational and administrative skills you develop—running the group, public speaking and presenting, committee work—can help you be a better student, manage your time better, and provide skills that you will need later in your career, academic or otherwise. It’s particularly important to establish a pattern in your career of regular interaction with others around a central goal or project—especially if you are in a discipline where you do most of your research on your own.

Jenny: Developing a range of skills will make you a stronger doctoral student. You will, of course, be better at some of those skills than at others. Take the time to build a level of comfort with the things that don’t come naturally to you, whether that means teaching, presenting, writing, or networking.

Most people have a natural tendency to avoid doing the things they perceive themselves to be “bad” at. Your doctoral program will offer you many opportunities to practice your areas of perceived weakness. Take advantage of them.

Julie: Jenny brings up something most people are more likely to associate with M.B.A. than Ph.D. programs—networking. As you go through your doctoral program, you should be building a network of contacts in your field and related ones, from both inside and outside your institution. Those people can be your collaborators—and sometimes your competition. Either way, knowing them will help you to keep abreast of developments in your field.

That is why conference attendance, even when you are just starting out, can be so important. Find out whether your university offers travel grants to help graduate students defray the costs of going to academic conferences. Keep an eye out for conferences happening near your institution. Many of the major scholarly societies have regional chapters, and attending those sessions is a good starting point.

Jenny: During your graduate training, be sure that you are keeping up your connections (and developing new ones) with people working outside of academe. That will be good for your general mental health and sense of perspective. And it will pay off if, upon earning your Ph.D., you pursue a nonacademic career.

Julie: Many students who start off in Ph.D. programs come to realize that it is not a good fit for them. That does not imply failure or lack of ability on the part of the student, but rather a mismatch between the goals of the doctoral program and the career goals of the student.

If that mismatch is where you now find yourself, go talk to someone about it. Visit the counseling center on your campus, or the career-services office. Many students find the first year of a doctoral program to be extremely challenging, and not just the workload. They are in a new city and trying to develop a new social circle. Talking to someone can help you sort out whether being in your particular program is the right fit for you.

Jenny: Finally, immerse yourself in your coursework but not so far in that you don’t take the time to follow up on some of our suggestions. Most of our recommendations complement your research and teaching experience and should enhance your first-year experience.

We invite our readers to share their tips and words of wisdom on the first-year doctoral experience by posting in the comments section below.

Sink or Skim?: Top Ten Tips for Reading in Grad School

The reading load for your graduate courses is quite substantial, not only in terms of the number of pages required per week, but also in terms of the complexity of the readings which are assigned. We understand that this can be intimidating at first, and have put together these tips to help you master your readings (instead of allowing the readings to master you!).

1. READ STRATEGICALLY, NOT LINEARLY (SCHOLARLY READING IS NOT LEISURE READING): When you read a book for pleasure, you most often read linearly – starting at the beginning and working your way through the book page by page. This is not necessarily the best strategy for academic reading. Your job is to read strategically – mining the text you are reading for information. You need to dive in, find the information you need, and move on to the next reading. Make use of the tables of contents, introductions and conclusions, and index, if there is one, as well as headers and sub-headers to help guide your strategic reading.

Questions to consider as you read strategically: What is the author trying to say? What is
motivating the explanation of the topic? What does this research contribute to our body of
knowledge or the world? What are the main arguments of the piece? How does this relate to other
assigned readings?

2. TAKE NOTES WHILE YOU READ: Take notes while you are reading, whether in the margins of the text, in a notebook, or on a computer. This will help you remember those thoughts and details that you identify as important, as well as assist you in comparing and contrasting different readings for the week. It can also be helpful to jot down questions, critiques, or observations you have. This will help you when it comes time for class discussion.

3. READ WITH A CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE: A critical perspective is helpful for situating what you are reading in a broader context, which is crucial for International Studies. Contrary to how it sounds, being critical does not simply mean being negative or criticizing everything. Rather, critical perspectives question assumptions and values that appear to be implicit in arguments.

Questions to consider when reading critically are: Who benefits from particular social structures and who is marginalized? What values underlie the work? What experiences and perspectives do these values privilege? How might focusing on different experiences re-frame the conversation?

4. READ FOR UNDERSTANDING, NOT MEMORIZATION: Your job when reading for grad school is not to memorize every detail of the assigned readings. There are no multiple choice exams in graduate school. Details such as names, dates, and data can be looked up at a later time. Rather read for general understanding of what the different authors are trying to say (using the questions outlined above to guide you).

5. KNOW HOW YOU WORK: Grad school is a lot of work – there is no doubt about that. In order to keep up with the demands (and keep your sanity), it is important to know how YOU work. Everyone works differently. Some people are morning people, some people are night people, some people like to highlight everything, some people like mind mapping, some people like sticky notes. What is important is that you figure out what works for you and stick to that. Do not compare yourself to your classmates and their working style.

6. TAKE A BREAK!: While the amount of reading may seem daunting and you might feel like you need to spend every waking moment tackling your assignments, it is absolutely crucial to take a break every now and again. Stand up, stretch, go for a walk, go out with friends, play with your dog. Whatever it is that relaxes you and gives your mind a break, make sure to take the time! Additionally, no one is at their most brilliant after an all-nighter. Make sure to get some sleep!

7. WORK WITH YOUR CLASSMATES: While everyone has to recognize their own work style and do the readings in a way that works best for them (see #5 above), that doesn’t mean you should ignore your classmates. Talk to each other about the readings, summarize them for each other, and discuss any questions or problems. One of the most effective ways of thoroughly understanding something is to try and explain it out loud to someone else. You are all in this together!

8. MANAGE YOUR TIME: Managing your time wisely is one of the most important skills in graduate school. If you have 300 pages of reading for your three classes in a given week, you know you will not be able to leave it all to the last minute. If you know you have three papers due at the end of the semester, do not plan on writing them all after Thanksgiving. Managing your time so that you leave yourself ample opportunity to do the work and do it well is crucial. Once again, everyone works in different ways, but find what works for you and make it a habit. One effective way is to work in 45-minute blocks. Beginning on the hour (for example 9 a.m.) work (read, write, etc.) for 45 minutes without interruption – no phone, no internet, no email, no TV. At 9:45, take a 15 minute break to do whatever you want. At 10 a.m., repeat with another 45 minute work block. You will be surprised how productive you can be with 45 minutes of working with no distraction.

9. CREATE THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT: Create a reading space for yourself that is free of
distractions. Have a good chair and a good lamp. Don’t read lying down as it interferes with active engagement with the text. Whether your reading space is in your house, the library, or a café, creating the proper environment can have a positive effect on your understanding of the material.

10. PRIORITIZE: Sometimes, it is simply not possible to get it all done. While not completing all the readings for class should not become a habit, sometimes it cannot be helped. In those times, prioritization is crucial. Look at the syllabi for your course – what is the topic for the day? Which readings does the professor highlight or which seem to be most pertinent to the topic? Focus your efforts on reading for understanding based on the topic for the week. If you are really behind in a given week, talk to your professor and explain the situation. Ask if there is anything you should focus on for that week. Again, this should not happen frequently, but everyone gets behind sometimes. Don’t panic and continue working through the materials with all the tips outlined above