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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

Healthy Living for the Graduate Student – The Basics

Where were you for the last four hours?  Most graduate students will answer, “In the lab” or “sitting at my computer.”  With the focus required for literature review, data analysis, writing manuscripts and bench research, it is unsurprising that our health often drops down the priority list.  Previous posts in this blog have discussed the importance of fun and making time for yourself, but this is a reminder that your physical health is important.  Lack of care for your lab instrument or computer leads to an inability to conduct research.  So too will lack of attention and care for your body and mind.  In this post, I will write some general comments about starting a health routine.  In future weeks, I will follow up with more details of nutrition and fitness requirements.

So what is important to know?  Nutrition and physical activity are both necessary.  Hate running? Or can’t find the time for that gym class? Go take a 10 minute walk around campus once or twice a day.  Run up and down the stairs in your building a few times. Maybe invest in an exercise ball “chair” or a standing desk for your office.  Try a few things to figure out what will work to give your body a little energy boost a few times a day.  There are numerous studies that show physical activity improves mental stamina and acuity and is, therefore, critical for a graduate student to maintain a steady pace of work.

Now about nutrition.  We all have our quick fixes and our special comfort foods that may not be the best fuel for our bodies.  So it is key to find balance in your food choices.  Eating the same things all the time is not desirable as you may be missing key nutrients, so add variety in fruits and vegetables, in your meal preparations and in your protein and fat sources.  Also, eating sweets and processed foods or quick snacks is ok if those times are occasional and balanced by nutritious, real food the rest of the time.  Consider your food intake as fuel – so will a protein and vegetable stir fry or a greasy pizza produce more focused, sustainable work energy?

It is easy to write about nutrition and exercise routines, but much harder to put this into practice.  Two ideas have helped me to find a sustainable routine.  First, try to prepare ahead of time – prepackage meals and snacks at the beginning of the week so you can just grab a portion each day on your way out the door, like this blogger does.  This requires a little planning on the weekend but makes it easier to make healthy choices during the week when you are busy.  Likewise, plan your exercise times ahead of schedule so you don’t have to think about it during the week.  Book the time and stick to it to make it a habit.  Second, be forgiving as you are starting a new routine.  It takes time to make habits and sometimes you fail with one system before finding another that works.  Keep trying until the habit sticks.

As we start this semester, I encourage you to consider your current nutrition and exercise habits.  How well are they fueling your studies?  Try the USDA Healthy Eating Index to determine the quality of your diet and take a look at the Let’s Move initiative for information about physical activity requirements.  What changes do you want to make?  What changes are reasonable to make this semester? I am eager to hear your plans, so comment below with thoughts and questions!

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (Graduate Student Edition)

Last year, we brought you 12 Days of Marine Science Graduate Student Christmas. And this year, we’ve tackled the holidays again with our very own remix of a beloved children’s poem (with Christmas gifs, could you ask for more!). Best enjoyed with a mug of hot chocolate (or something stronger) and with this playing in the background:

We’re on an unofficial hiatus until the new year, so check back then to see what the ocean’s been up to!

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (Graduate Student Edition)

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

Not a creature was stirring, not even an undergrad;

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

In hopes that our PI soon would be there;

Some grad students were nestled all snug in their beds;

While visions of publications danced in their heads

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

Had just settled down for a long-ass experiment,

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

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

Over to the window I trudged with a teeth-gnash

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

The moon on the breast of our newly-parked cars

Highlighted our drudgery, in the lab at all hours,

When what did my watering eyes did appear,

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

With a little old driver, much smarter and wiser

I knew in a moment he must be my advisor.

More rapid than peer reviews his orders they came,

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

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

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

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

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

As students to free post-seminar snacks fly,

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

So over to the lab bench the grad students we flew

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

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

The stepping and stomping of each loafer boot.

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

Down the hallway came my advisor with a bound.

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

A squint of his eyes and a turn of his head

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

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

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

And grabbing his laptop, from his office desk he rose

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

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

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

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

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

The Broke College Student’s Guide to Giving Holiday Gifts

You’re a college student, and you don’t have a lot of money to spare. And now that it’s gift-giving season, you might be feeling a bigger pinch on your wallet than usual. After all, how are you supposed to afford next semester’s textbooks (hint: like this!) and nice, thoughtful presents for your five best friends, four younger siblings, three awesome roommates, two loving parents, and your Aunt Partridgina Peartree? (Sorry for the terrible “12 Days of Christmas” joke…)

Of course, it’s the thought that counts, and you don’t really need to give your friends and loved ones presents. But if you’re looking for some free/cheap gift ideas, you can show you care this holiday season with some of the items and kind gestures below!

Dinner party

If you have access to a kitchen and enough space to host people, make your gift to your closest buddies a low-key dinner party. It’s hard to go wrong (or expensive) with pasta for a crowd. Buzzfeed knows what’s up with these one-pan pasta dishes. Or you can all pitch in and make it a potluck holiday party.

Also popular in the food-gift category? Baked treats. Do the right thing: wrap ’em up pretty. Here’s one of our favorite candy cookie recipes. And here are dirt-cheap treat bags.

The Interwebs

Put your time gallivanting around reddit, tumblr, and the like to good use by curating a collection of the funniest/weirdest/coolest stuff you can find. You can even publish your findings, whether it’s a collection of funny GIFs or a YouTube playlist, to a tumblr or WordPress site. Give it a holiday theme or tailor it to the person. Think about what they person really loves, from sports teams to books to viral dance crazes. You’re sure to find enough fun stuff online to keep them smiling until New Year’s Eve.

Childhood memorabilia

This is a good one for Mom and Dad or anyone else with a sentimental side. See if you can dig up a hand-drawn picture or note from your kindergarten-ish days—a list of “reasons why I love my mommy/daddy at Christmastime” would be peeeeerfect. Then find an inexpensive frame and boom. Adorable gift. Bonus points if you get an unfinished frame from a craft store and personalize it with your own artsy paint job. Which brings us to our next idea…

Arts and crafts

Do you knit or crochet? Cketch or paint? What about just artfully writing your intended gift recipient’s favorite song/movie/book quote on a mug? Whatever your abilities, you can make simple homemade gifts sure to make your friends say “Aww!”


You saw this one coming, didn’t you. We know they’re corny, but they can also be the cute kind of corny—as long as you don’t give “Good for one free hug” coupons and call it a day. Instead, think about some of the more meaningful things you can offer: an afternoon spent hiking, just quality time between you and your BFF. A month of emptying the dishwasher for your roommate. Helping your little brother set up his first blog. An hour-long foot rub for…whomever you’re comfortable enough with to touch their feet. And you can get all crafty with your coupons too, whether it’s using your digital design or glue-and-glitter skills or both! (Or you can just use the template above, found here.)

No one expects you to give cashmere sweaters as a poor college student, so don’t stress about holiday gifts. Instead, just enjoy the season and have fun celebrating the people in your life. Santa would be proud.

What Holiday Treat Should You Stress Bake/Eat?

It’s the most stre-e-essful time of the year!

Let’s face it: the Hallmark movies they’ve been showing since Halloween don’t depict the real end-of-the-year hustle no matter who you are, whether you’re a high school senior trying to finish your college applications before the end of the year or a college student with finals beating down the door. Even if you have everything under control, there’s the stress of traveling, family gatherings, shopping, decorating, entertaining, and all those holiday parties you have to attend!

Luckily, December is prime treat season. Now’s the time to stress-eat or, even better, stress-bake. Stress-baking, especially to share with others, has actual psychological benefits associated with it, according to science.

So take an application/study break, pull out the baking sheets and cookie cutters, and whip up one (or all) of these stress-beating snacks!

College app stress

If you’ve got your Common App filled out and all you need to do is finish those pesky supplemental questions and essays, you’ve earned yourself a decent break—which means you have time to put into baking some delicious gingerbread cookies or sufganiyot.

Depending on how well you’ve budgeted your time, you can donate more or less time to your cookie-making break. You can use store-bought dough that’s premixed or the kind you just need to add eggs and water to; you can make your own dough but limit your decorating to the bare minimum or not at all; or you can go all out and make the dough and frosting yourself and decorate each cookie with individual detail (if you really need to procrastinate take a break). What’s great about gingerbread is that you should let the dough rest for a little bit, and watching an oven is no fun, so you can work on your apps during those times. Just don’t forget to set a timer!

Sufganiyot are time-consuming but delicious jelly doughnuts for Hannukah. What’s great is that there’s a long inactive period while making these because the dough has to rise. Set a timer for the recommended rising time (maybe add a five-minute buffer just to be sure) and work on your applications intermittently. You can be busy in the kitchen and keep busy at work too! (Here’s a recipe for baked sufganiyot in case you’d like to be slightly healthier this season.)

Exam stress

With exams, you probably just want to step away from everything for a few days, or better yet, just not take them at all. While this seems like a great idea, it’s not really that possible. You’re better off to take a short break to make a quick fudge or some candy.

A lot of fudges are pretty easy to make and aren’t that time consuming. You have to give them time to cool before eating, but let that be your incentive to study hard or finish your essay in a timely fashion and reward yourself with decadent fudgy goodness. And all you need for a lot of fudge is a microwave, a microwave-safe bowl, and a pan to put it in! You can find some simple fudge recipes here and here.

There are also a lot of candy options. Again, these tend to require setting or cooling times, but that allows you to schedule different breaks in your studying. From a holiday twist on classic muddy buddies to homemade gelt to microwave-made candy, there are plenty of easy candy recipes floating around.

If you’re super nice and your class is on the smaller side (not a 100+ person lecture of course!), you might consider bringing some to your final for your classmates. Unless there’s none left of course!

General holiday stress

This is for the Golden Students who submitted their college applications early and are cool as a cucumber about exams. This time of year can still be anxiety inducing with all the pressure surrounding the holidays, plus Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) setting in for some people. You might need a little pick-me-up, and making food can be great stress relief. That’s why it’s called stress-baking! Since you don’t have to worry about being crunched for time, bake something delicious that will force you to focus on it for a while. Try making pie or maybe some truffles.

When it comes to pie, the prep time is long, but the payoff is big. And there are so many different types of seasonal pies you can make, from an old-fashioned pecan or apple pie to something less traditional like eggnog or cookie—warning: the literal best thing you’ll ever eat!—pie. If you’re really bored (and creative), you can get fancy with the crusts.

Truffles are delicious, addictive, and typically easy to make. However, they are a time commitment. They typically take at least an hour just to chocolate-coat them. But if you’ve ever had truffles, you know they’re worth it. You can find some recipes here and here.

And remember, if you don’t like baking, store-bought works just fine. Enjoy!

Debunking the Shame in ‘You Should Be Writing!’

“You should be writing!”

This popular tongue-in-cheek rebuke has been a humorous, if not a durable universal higher educational meme, familiar among graduate student researchers, academic faculty, and other writers. It softly shames us for engaging in activities unrelated to advancing and publishing our research–namely, the laborious and intensive writing part. Oh, the indignity of us partaking in something other than our scholarly writing!

While, maybe, we should be writing, it’s easier for some of us to take the comical scolding to heart. During a writing drought and after we’ve chosen to play pick-up volleyball with friends, spend quality time with family, or read non-academic books for pleasure, we may punish ourselves in the quiet aftermath for not working on our research scholarship. Shame, an outgrowth of the imposter syndrome, which GradHackers have extensively discussed here and here, can embed in us as firmly as our visceral reactions to feeling publicly humiliated.

In reality, we pack our bags for impending guilt trips when blocks and other distractions momentarily prevent us from writing effortlessly. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed Editor Scott Jaschik, Joli Jensen, the Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa, says the unnecessary mystification of academic writing leads “many of us to feel shame and fear when our writing doesn’t go smoothly.”

It can be even more challenging in the face of looming deadlines, when deep feelings of guilt and embarrassment triggered by writing slumps render us immobile. Before long, we’re stuck, and our scholarship has stalled. Sadly, building disengagement can give way to academic writing paralysis.

The voice in our heads scolds us.

“You should be writing!”

You can quell the inner turmoil that exists amid the need to meet timely writing targets and the call to enrich one’s emotional self with some intentional actions:

Read, read, and read some more. When you’re blocked, and you have yet to transform your own words, computations, and analyses into productive writing, you can at least expand your literature review as a prep for your continuing work. Research shows we learn to write by reading. Academic researchers who argue that only writing–and not reading–advances writing, have it halfway right. Why kick fellow academics when they’re down? Broadening one’s reading proficiency, as we’re compelled to do through lit reviews, inspires graduate researchers to make progress–and write more. This, from writer Mike Elgan: “When you are thinking about what you’ll write, you’re actually engaged in the craft of writing—you’re doing the most important part of writing.”

Write something, anything related to your scholarship. Author Steven Pressfield would call it “making a start.” His book, The War of Art, aims to help writers break through all sorts of writing blocks. Ruminating on the words and related meanings connected to your research brings you that much closer to beating the resistance to write.

Get a little help from your friends. Discuss your reading and writing plans with colleagues and friends. Sharing a dialogue with them is good; you starting the conversation is even better for you and your writing progress. GradHacker Brady Krien in a recent article suggests some innovative ways for graduate scholars to communicate their research to the public.

Stop looking for large chunks of time to write. Unless you’ve been blessed with scholarly serendipity, which could certainly be the case, and you have loads of free time, the luxury of routine lengthy writing sessions is probably unrealistic. Think of your writing episodes as extended series of short piecemeal gains, as opposed to long and unvarying periods of writing.

Recommit yourself to the purpose of your research. Do you remember why you chose your original research topic? Recall your intention to pick that particular subject, to want to dive into the literature, and to discover the truths wrought by your own experimentation in the area. Reclaim your commitment to seeing your study through to the end. And know that you’ll need to begin writing (again) to make that a reality.

10 Small Things Students Should Be Thankful For

We all know we’re supposed to be thankful for the big stuff at this time of year—friends, family, your education, your job, food, good health. That stuff is no secret, and you’ll find plenty of memes and posts across the internet to remind you to be thankful for all that.

But this Thanksgiving, don’t just think of the big things you’re grateful for. Think of the little things too; the things that make life worth living for college students.

1. The friend who pays for Spotify

Nothing is worse than having to listen to ads every other song when you’re hanging out with friends having an impromptu karaoke session. Nothing, that is, except paying $10 a month for the privilege of not having those ads. Be thankful for your friend group’s DJ this season, especially if they let you choose the music.

2. Netflix

No commercials. No waiting a week for the next episode. No brainer.

3. Late-night delivery

Is it even really a Saturday if you don’t order food at midnight? Remember to be thankful for not just the pizza but the delivery person and those who made the food for you as well. They are true heroes because they keep you from having to go out in the cold or (worse) make it yourself.

4. Chocolate

Is there anything as universally perfect as chocolate? Is it not the perfect pick-me-up snack for a down day? Remember to be thankful for chocolate, especially when it’s in pie or cake form on the Thanksgiving dessert table.

5. When the library has your textbooks

Or finding a PDF online. Or your roommate sharing their textbook with you. Or when the professor just copies the chapters you need and gives them to you as handouts. Or when you just never bought the book and still haven’t used it in class. Essentially, just be thankful for all the ways you’ve saved money on textbooks this semester.

6. The snooze button

Life hack: if you set your alarm(s) early, you can hit the snooze button guilt-free for your extra five minutes. Besides, who doesn’t love the challenge of hitting snooze one too many times and trying to see if you can still get to class on time?

7. Coffee

Aka your blood during finals (read: in two weeks), midterms, all-nighters, and sometimes just life in general. Without coffee, college students wouldn’t survive a week. (Really no one would survive a week.)

8. Having friends in your class

Having a friend in your class means you always have someone to do homework with, someone to commiserate with, someone to gossip with, and someone to pass notes to. All very important things.

9. Puppies

Seriously? What did we do to deserve dogs?

10. Long weekends

Who doesn’t love a long weekend? Extra time to do homework (read: sleep), hang out with friends, and just relax in general. The especially good ones last more than three days, like the one for Thanksgiving!

Enjoy your Turkey Day, everyone!

Don’t Spend Your Holiday Break Writing

In a few weeks, I’ll be heading to Arizona with my husband and our preschooler. We’ll be on vacation for 13 days, and I will not bring my laptop. That’s because I practice what I preach as a writing consultant and academic-productivity specialist: Don’t just finish your monographs and articles on time — finish them on time without compromising your quality of life.

I ask every client I work with — whether a graduate student writing a dissertation or an academic working on a book or article — to take semester breaks actually, unequivocally, 100-percent off. Decompress. Enjoy (or “enjoy”) their families. Or just spend a week or two walking around in the fresh air, lingering over a fun conversation in a cafe, or binge-watching NewsRadio reruns and eating Red Vines at 9:30 a.m. Whatever.

The secret to taking holidays off is to be all caught up on your work plan before they start. And the way to be caught up on your work plan before the holidays start is to have a work plan. You’d be amazed (or not) at the number of perpetually aggrieved academics I know who don’t. They just sort of launch themselves in the general direction of their research a few times a month, and then — you guessed it — sequester themselves miserably for a few weeks of life-ruining lockdown right before their deadline.

If you actually want to have a happy relationship with your work, you need a prescription for exactly what you want to do every day. Yes, it can feel overwhelming to executive-function intellectual labor. But I guarantee that spending a 10 minutes a day (plus about 30 minutes at the top of the week) organizing your writing projects will save incalculable time and effort down the line.

The key to a successful work plan is to start a project — an entire monograph, a chapter, an article — with a healthy work trajectory and a clear-cut blueprint. Only you know how you best impart new information into your big, smart noggin, so I won’t presume that the structure I’m about to suggest will work for everyone. I will, however, presume that it will work 100 percent better than the most popular competing “strategy”: fretting and doing nothing.

Step No. 1: Write first. Possibly the most unconventional suggestion I give clients for creating a first draft is: Write first, then read, then write again, read more, and write one last time.

That flies in the face of the general wisdom that faculty members impart to undergraduates, which is to read the material carefully before they write a word. And for them, that holds — but not for you, because you have already spent upward of two decades reading and writing smart things, and you’ve almost certainly read the primary source material of your project at least once.

Most of you don’t follow that advice when you start a project. Instead you spend an untold amount of time attempting (and failing) to read Everything — every book, article, paragraph that could ever be relevant to your topic. Then you proceed to get more than a little psyched out by the polished quality of the published work: Will I ever be as good as this? Oh, no, what if I’m not? I’m not! I’ll never be! Hey, my couch needs vacuuming.

Yeah, don’t do that. Instead, at the beginning of a project — even if you have only the vaguest idea what it should be about — I suggest you set aside a week and free-write. On each workday of that week, spend 25 minutes twice a day (two “pomodoros” a day) and write down all the things that you know, want to know, are interested in, are confused, or are excited about in your new venture. Don’t try for paragraphs or even full sentences. Revel in the mess.

At the end of that week, you may have 1,000 to 4,000 words of semi-gibberish — but it holds the key to your future brilliance.

Step No. 2: The baby bibliography. From that inspired semi-gibberish, you will then mine your first annotated bibliography. And the annotations are the most important part. You should never read anything without writing something down about it. Look up about 10 sources on your subject — the 10 best or, at any rate, the most famous, or most recent and “exciting,” or most in vogue, or most something. Just start somewhere. For approximately two weeks, spend every work session reading (or rereading) those sources carefully, creating a full bibliographic entry for each one. Annotate each entry with:

  • The source’s main thesis.
  • Its primary impact on the field.
  • Two or three representative quotes.
  • Your own opinion about the source — what you think is brilliant, what you think is flawed.

Step No. 3: A skeleton draft. Using your baby bibliography, begin to merge some of your insights with your free-writing to form a primordial outline. You know how.

  • Organize under subject headings all the quotes, summaries, and opinions inspired by your free-writing.
  • Copy, paste, shape, and cut stuff.
  • Always, always create another document to save everything you’ve cut.
  • Make note, at every turn, of unanswered questions. This is, in effect, the most important part: It’s the part you can’t write yet.

What you’ll have at the end of about two weeks — provided you work on this in two or three 25-minute sessions a day, five days a week — is essentially a skeleton. It will have the vague shape of an article or chapter but will ask a lot more questions than it answers and will have a fair share of bracketed “notes to self” (à la Find a thing that ties these two ideas together).

Step No. 4: Close reading. Your skeleton draft is also a road map. Instead of attempting to read Everything (which you will never do), you now know what sorts of sources you need to find and read in order to flesh out your arguments and fill in the gaps. To identify those new sources, look to household names in your field, to scholars you’ve met at conferences, to people with whom you already collaborate, to that one exciting new hotshot you keep hearing about. And, of course, consult the bibliographies of your first 10 sources. Get to mining!

With an expanded list of sources in hand, it’s time to read more intensely. Spend the next three to six weeks diving into those new sources and expanding your annotated bibliography. Again, do the reading two or three times a day, in 25-minute sessions, five or so days a week. Give yourself a deadline: Set a specific number of work sessions (such as 20 or 30), and when you’ve reached that number, cut yourself off. (Don’t worry, you’ll soon have time to read more.)

Step No. 5: A workable draft. At this point, you’re ready to dive into your now-massive annotated bibliography and do more surgery. All those unanswered questions you had scribbled down in your free-writing? It’s time to fill in the gaps. Extract quotes, summaries, and arguments (copy, don’t delete, them from the bibliography), and paste them into the appropriate places in your Skeleton Draft. Your writing here can still be rough — don’t trip yourself up worrying about transitions or squaring all the circles. This stage of writing is chaos. If it feels uncomfortable, you’re doing it right.

By the end of this step, you will have a slightly more fleshed-out draft. Your next task, then, is to spend another two to three weeks tinkering on the sentence level, working on those transitions and cleaning up unnecessary jargon. Follow the same basic work schedule: two to three 25-minute writing sessions a day. At the end of those weeks, you may still have more holes to fill (especially in the footnotes.) But, by and large, you will have, miracle of miracles, a real draft of a chapter or an article that’s 25 to 30 pages long.

From start to finish, the process will take 11 to 14 weeks — about the duration of a semester — of working on the project for no more than an hour or two a day. With a workable draft in hand, now is a great time to put it aside and let it breathe, as your backbrain spins its wheels while you’re on break in earnest.

I know, I know — a fat lot of good this advice is doing you now, as you’ve once again put off your research agenda until the three weeks of winter intersession that you’re already dreading. But take comfort: Spring break will be here soon — and by then, at least, you will have a plan.

Gratitude for experiences brings surprising benefits

On Thanksgiving, many of us take a moment to reflect on what we’re grateful for – and we get rewards for doing so. Feeling gratitude leads to benefits like increased happiness and social cohesion, better health outcomes and even improved sleep quality.

But will you get more of such benefits from that antique sofa you bought or the vacation you took? New research shows that we feel more gratitude for what we’ve done than for what we have – and that kind of gratitude results in more generous behavior toward others.

“Our previous research found that consumers derive more enduring happiness from experiences than from material goods, and our new studies show that experiences generate greater feelings of gratitude, with its resulting benefits,” said Amit Kumar, Ph.D. ’15. Kumar published the study with Thomas Gilovich, interim chair and the Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology, and Jesse Walker, a graduate student in the field of psychology, in a recent issue of the journal Emotion.

“Think about how you feel when you come home from buying something new,” said Gilovich. “You might say, ‘This new couch is cool,’ but you’re less likely to say, ‘I’m so grateful for that set of shelves.’ But when you come home from a vacation, you are likely to say, ‘I feel so blessed I got to go.’ People say positive things about the stuff they bought, but they don’t usually express gratitude for it – or they don’t express it as often as they do for their experiences.”

In addition to experiments they conducted, the researchers found real-world evidence for this by looking at 1,200 online customer reviews, half for experiential purchases like restaurant meals and hotel stays and half for material purchases like furniture and clothing. Reviewers were more likely to spontaneously mention feeling grateful for experiential purchases than material ones.

“One reason for this increased gratitude,” said Walker, “may be because experiences trigger fewer social comparisons than material possessions. Consequently, experiences are more likely to foster a greater appreciation of one’s own circumstances.” And, the researchers write, “we suspect that people are likely to feel grateful for purchases that connect them to others, enhance their sense of self, and encourage them to appreciate what they’ve purchased for its intrinsic value, not for how it compares with what others have purchased. Experiential purchases do just that.”

The researchers also looked at how gratitude for experiences versus material purchases affected prosocial behavior. In a study involving an economic game, they found that thinking about a meaningful experiential purchase caused participants to behave more generously toward others than when they thought about a material purchase.

The kind of gratitude that participants in the studies felt from experiential purchases was more likely to be “untargeted,” not attributed to someone else’s actions. The researchers suggest that this kind of gratitude for an experience can result in a strong urge to somehow express that feeling in action – such as giving to others, even to anonymous others.

Kumar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago, says this link between gratitude and altruistic behavior is intriguing, “because it suggests that the benefits of experiential consumption apply not only to the consumers of those purchases themselves, but to others in their orbit as well.”

Gilovich, who is interested in applying insights from modern social psychology to improving peoples’ lives, says this new research shows an approach that governments can take to increase the well-being of their citizens and advance societal good.

“If public policy encouraged people to consume experiences rather than spending money on things, it would increase their gratitude and happiness and make them more generous as well,” he said. Such policies might include funding for public parks, museums and performance spaces.

Organization Tips for Graduate Students

Graduate students—and faculty—often find themselves overwhelmed with tasks. Good time management skills are essential, but succeeding in graduate school requires the ability to organize more than your time.

Being unorganized—not knowing where your stuff is—is a time waster. The unorganized student spends precious time searching for papers, files, notes, wondering which pile to check first. She forgets and misses meetings or arrives late, repeatedly. He finds it hard to focus on the task at hand because his mind is swimming what the details of what must be done next or what should have been done yesterday. An unorganized office or home is a sign of a cluttered mind. Cluttered minds are inefficient for scholarly productivity. So how do you get organized?

1. Set up a Filing System

Go digital when you can, but don’t forget to organize your paper files, too. Don’t skimp on file folders or you’ll find yourself doubling up on files and lose track of your most important papers. Whenever possible, go digital (with a good backup system!). Maintain files for:

  • Research/thesis ideas.
  • Thesis references (probably divided up into additional files for each topic).
  • Exam materials. As you prepare for comps, will have copies of old exams, study materials
  • Professional credentials – vita,  sample cover letter,  research statement etc.
  • Reprints and professional articles, organized by topic.
  • Life (bills,  taxes, etc.).
  • Teaching materials (organized by topic).

3.  Acquire and Use Office Supplies

Though supplies can be expensive, it’s easier to get organized when you’ve got the right tools. Purchase a quality stapler, paper clips, binder clips, stick on notes in several sizes, sticky flags for marking important pages in texts, etc. Go to a supply store and purchase office supplies in bulk to maximize savings and to be sure that you don’t unexpectedly run out of supplies.

4.  Organize Class Materials

Some students use binders to organize class notes, with dividers to separate your notes from assigned readings, handouts, and other materials. Other students keep all of their class materials on their laptop and use software such as OneNote or Evernote to save and index their notes.

5.  Remove Clutter at Home and Organize Your Study Space

Sure you’re desk and study area should be neat. It’s also helpful to keep track of the rest of your home too. Why? School is overwhelming enough without worrying about whether you have clean clothes, differentiating between the cat and dust bunnies, or losing unpaid bills. Set up a command center near the entrance to your home. Have a bowl or spot for you to put your keys and empty your pockets of important materials. Have another spot for your bills. Each day as you open your mail sort it into stuff to throw out and bills and other materials that require action.

Additionally, make sure you have a dedicated space to work in your home. It should be free of distractions, well lit, and have all supplies and files nearby. Even if your living space is small or shared, be sure to designate a portion to your graduate studies.

6.  Create a Schedule for Household Tasks

Set up a schedule for accomplishing household tasks like laundry and cleaning. Break cleaning up into smaller tasks, by room. So you might clean the bathroom on Tuesday and Saturday, clean the bedroom on Wednesday and Sunday, and the living room on Thursday and Monday. Clean the kitchen weekly then spend a few minutes each day on it. Use the timer trick to keep on task while you’re cleaning and show you how much you can do in just a little time. For example, I’m amazed that I can clear out the dishwasher and wipe down the countertops in 4 minutes!

7.  Don’t Forget the To-Do List

Your to-do list is your friend.

These simple tips can make a difference in your life. From my own experience as an academic, I can attest that these simple habits, though challenging to set, make it much easier to make it through the semester and maintain efficiency and productivity.