Monday, July 14, 2014

Finding Your Balance in Graduate School

Just as is the case with life in general, it's important to understand how to balance your priorities and time in graduate school. Early in the PhD program is a great time to learn when to accept and turn down opportunities in order to avoid burnout.

There are so many opportunities and goals to accomplish as a graduate student. Shaping your career and research expertise at this time is such an exciting experience. There can be many, many goals including publications, gaining teaching experience, and applying for research funding, while attempting to complete coursework within a decent timeframe.

Although I work part time,  I work (and think) harder now than I did when I was a full time employee. There is always a new homework assignment, research project, or professional study/certificate aspiration. Meanwhile I'm constantly thinking about what I should be doing today, what the next deadlines are, and what the future career prospects look like in my field. I feel like there isn't enough time, and that there is so much that I need to learn.... And, as a result, last semester I overloaded my schedule.

Finding balance as a graduate student is a challenge, but it is an important one.

1. Prioritize 
Although the list of what you want to do might be long, it is important to determine what is most important to do now. In my first year, I had a semester with four classes, meanwhile attempted to write for a federal grant and accepted a teaching position. While working a separate part time job.  All of these activities are wonderful, but the truth is, getting the coursework out of the way and getting good grades really was a top priority, while working to cover some basic costs.  The other activities really may have needed to wait.  It's important to consider all of this combined with family commitments (which should also be a priority of course!).

2. Be Aware of Timeframes
There are two aspects of time I want to address here. It is important to learn time management skills and to set a schedule for activities. This can help to remove that constant nagging feeling that there is always work you should be doing! In writing and conducting research, for example, scheduling dedicated time through a weekly template will reduce stress and show significant progress in a short amount of time.

Also, in terms of activities you have selected it is important to schedule and plan accordingly. If you are applying for a teaching job, be clear on how much time you will need to commit through the semester/quarter to the research, preparation, and meetings with others in coordinating the class. When considering a research project be aware of the number of years required to participate and how much time you will need to commit. This can affect your available time and possible future options two, three or four years down the road.

3. Be Aware of the Details
In my opinion, this is the toughest skill to learn - working with unknowns. How is it possible to be aware of what you don't know?  How do you know what you don't know what to ask about? I have committed to many opportunities where never-before-mentioned tasks began to expand greatly, and almost become greater than what I had agreed to commit to.   Before you agree to commit to a project, seriously consider the time commitment and the types of expectations there will be. For example, in teaching a course, you will need to know the number of students expected in the class (min and max), and what your responsibilities will be.  Teaching can involve course preparation, lesson planning, arranging small group meetings, meeting with other faculty, setting up and arranging offsite activities, communicating with community groups, grading, and more.  Within all of these, there are small details that you may be responsible for (meeting smaller deadlines, preparing and providing documentation, etc.).

When considering a project or opportunity, ask as many questions as possible. There can not be too many questions. What is expected of me? What will I need to do to accomplish this project? Will there be assistance? What are the resources available to me? Is there anything else I will need to do aside from the tasks I am anticipating? Is there anything else I should know?

Finally, consider your schedule and set parameters of what you will and will not be able to do.

4. Learn When to Say No
Sometimes a great opportunity comes at an inopportune time. Accepting this offer might disrupt everything else you are doing and turn out to be a poor decision in the end. It's important to learn when to say no, and to be hopeful that a better opportunity will return at the right time.  Overstretching your schedule of tasks can affect your overall productivity and health.  It's important to learn how to find balance.

Sometimes we just learn the hard way.  I am now trying to learn from the scheduling mistakes I made last semester. I expect that it will be a continual process. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Maximizing Summertime as a PhD Student

The time has flown by, and I have completed my first year of the PhD program with As in all four classes this past semester - a miracle in itself considering the crazy semester that it was (I'll talk about this in a separate blog post on Finding Your Balance in Grad School). 

Now that summer break is here it's time for more reflection and time to relax... a little.  Here are a few tips I have to maximize student life while still enjoying the summer:

1. Enroll in summer school. This may sound counterproductive and does not sound like much of a rest, but summer school classes are often quicker to get through and everyone is pretty much in some sort of vacation mode. The mood of the class is likely to be more relaxed than the rest of the year. Depending on the schedule at your school, the type of class you select will determine how much of a summer vacation you will have. If summer school is going to take up most of your summer, choose a less demanding course if you can, or choose a class with a professor you enjoy working with. Let's hope to keep the summer as pleasant as possible! 

My school has two separate 8 week summer sessions. I enrolled in the first session and will still have several weeks of vacation when this is over. And, as a result I will be halfway through my doctoral coursework.  I'm also taking an independent study class. This one runs through the entire summer but has less of a demanding fixed schedule as a result. The final product of this independent study is some data analysis and a manuscript. This is work I planned on doing anyway this summer, and will get course credit for it.

2. Submit conference abstracts. If you find some interesting conference calls for papers during the summer, you might have more free time to submit and prepare your presenations than you would during other times of the year. You can do a google search for conference calls for papers in your field (or a related field) or see if your professors know of any good conferences coming up.Most conference abstracts are 150 or 200 words long and do not necessarily require much time to prepare. You will generally have several months to finalize your poster or paper presentation (you can adapt this from a class or research project you have worked with). Some conferences do ask for full paper submissions instead of abstracts. You can contact  the editors an informal email ahead of time to see if they would be interested in your research ideas before you proceed. 

3. Start writing manuscripts. When you're a PhD student who is pre-ABD, there is no better time to prepare manuscripts than in the summertime. Gather a group of classmates and work on a plan to submit for journal calls for papers. You will most likely not have difficulty finding other doctoral students who are interested in publishing. Section off the parts of the manuscript and ask a helpful professor to comment on your ideas and writing, and then work toward the goal of submitting this in time for the deadline.  If it doesn't get completed in time, finish the paper anyway, and wait to submit for another similar call for papers.

*** Some web links that I have found for calls for papers are through the UPenn Dept. of EnglishWiki CFP, as well as CFPList. ***

4. Get out of town and get a change of scenery. As part time or unemployed grad students we are on limited budgets, so it's time to get creative. Local trips this summer can be important escapes for well being. Driving out for the day a few hours away can give you that needed escape out of school mode. Camping trips aren't too costly if you can borrow a tent and have a sleeping bag. Getting away into nature can work wonders on physical and mental health. 

I hope that you will have had time to be accepted into upcoming conferences and have publications in process this summer, while still having some relaxing summer vacation adventures. Have a wonderful and productive summer. 


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Your Advisor Must Be on Your Side

I have heard many stories by PhD students who found the need to change their faculty advisor. Incompatibilities in personality and research ideas do occur. I have actually met more students who have experienced the need to change advisors than who haven't.

Here are some red flags for when it is time to change your advisor:

1. Your advisor is reluctant to write you letters of recommendation. I can get a professor in my classes to write me letters of recommendation without a second of hesitation but if my own advisor declines, saying she doesn't know me well enough, why are we here? If I can't rely on her now for recommendations, how will I rely on her when I am seeking to graduate and am looking for faculty positions?

2. Your advisor criticizes but does not provide guidance. If your advisor is quick to tell you when she thinks your work is lacking, but does not provide guidance on how to improve, then what are we here for?

3. Your advisor does not understand the context of the work you are interested in doing. When I was an anthropology student, I had a professor who could not understand why I wanted to research race. He told me that I was reinventing racism by choosing to discuss race. Why can't you research something more objective, and more neutral? this professor will suggest to you. As a multicultural and multiethnic student and researcher, stay away from folks like this, especially if your work involves issues of ethnic diversity. Most likely, this professor will not respect, will not understand, and will devalue your research.

4. Your advisor has little to no experience in your research and professional goals.  It is important to me that my advisor be experienced and able to share their experiences with market trends and challenges. Grant writing, getting into postdocs or into research programs, and getting through to the tenure track are all important experiences they should be able to share with you.

Your advisor does not have to be your best friend. Your advisor does not have to tell you that you are the most amazing student who ever landed on campus. But your advisor must be someone you can trust academically and professionally. They should really be one of your key recommendations for research programs and positions. They must be willing to assist you to develop into a strong researcher. They need to be able to support and prepare you for PhD candidacy and through the dissertation process.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Grad School: It's Not Where You Go, but What and How You Do

When selecting colleges for bachelors study, the college acceptance process is a huge concern for many parents and some students (heheh).  Selection of the right college is seen as the key to professional achievement, important network connections and future economic status.  All this this has an element of truth to it. (Of course there are some undergrad students wisely selected their college based on their budget and refused to take out student loans, opting to work full time while studying part time. This is also very commendable.) Your choice of major also matters, and selecting a major that serves industry needs can be that ticket to career success. If your career takes off from here, it appears that the formula has worked out for you -- Congratulations!

However, by the time you have decided to consider graduate school, the landscape has changed. Many folks have now spent a number of years underemployed or unemployed with undergraduate degrees. In graduate school, you may now be classmates with folks who went to that undergraduate school that you did not attend. Suddenly it appears that students from competitive undergraduate schools are in the same boat as all graduate students. 

In the current economic climate, the decision to accumulate additional graduate school expenses should be given much contemplation. Perhaps your undergraduate college debt has accumulated and all that matters now is determining which graduate school is affordable, or which graduate school will provide a significant portion of your doctoral tuition. Now, you may be attending a graduate school you never thought you would give the time of day to. However, after having seen the difficult job market, selection of an affordable graduate school now makes a lot of sense, and you may have seen that many graduates from these universities are being offered decent jobs with their degrees.

Basically, is no longer about about where you go. Instead, it is more about how well you do, and what you choose to do with this time.  Take the time to build your networks and to build your research skills through attending conferences, attending summer internship training programs, and presenting your work. Graduate school is the time to be truly focused on what you want out of your time and expenses as a student. It is an opportunity to reevaluate and reconsider your academic and career goals. What is exciting is that graduate school is your chance to clarify and redefine your career path, improve your skills, and develop your own individual range of expertise. The goal now is to emerge from graduate school with research and professional skills which will allow you to stand out.

In graduate school, university status no longer really matters as much as it used to. I see some online articles disagreeing with this but they are still focused on the graduate school admissions process. I can only speak from experience. I have seen folks with BAs and graduate degrees from competitive schools search for work months and years after graduation. Business owner friends of mine receive ivy league graduate resumes for unpaid internship work. I have also worked with ivy league graduates earning average pay. Don't believe the hype of the jobs waiting just for the elite school graduate. In the job market, when you graduate, you will meet folks from all types of universities who will compete for the same positions as everyone else with the same professional or doctoral degree. Regardless of your university affiliation, let your skills and experiences stand out.   Life is an interesting journey, and the same goes with undergraduate college, graduate school, and the career world.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why Mixed Race Discussions Matter

Why Mixed Race Discussions Matter

I'm not a doctoral student in Ethnic Studies or Education or anything like that as this blog might suggest, however, because of my mixed identity I have always been interested in mixed race culture/s and how mixed folks navigate their identities in such a phenotypically-driven society as the United States. My studies focus on public health, and still, I am finding some very  interesting and important ways to discuss mixed race from the perspective of public health.

Mixed race is a significant identity in our race-obsessed society. It causes that extra level of ambivalence, that extra set of questions about identity. It is similar in some ways to the immigrant American experience for example, however, being mixed adds another level of scrutiny. 

Here are some reasons why mixed race matters:

1. Our Shared Experiences are Significant. Having parents who may not look like each other "racially" can be a normal way of life for us. Having siblings who look like "racially" different variations of us is a common occurrence. Being comfortable and feeling at home in different environments such as ethnic events as well as with our multiracial relatives can be normal to us. Having a love for multiple cultures which feel like home to us is a beautiful thing. Feeling the sense of being a cultural, ethnic, and "racial" bridge can be our life experience.

We are also aware of the experiences of  being asked a set of similar questions and hearing particular comments.  For example, frustrating questions such as  "Which 'race' do you feel like you are 'more' of?" "So do you prefer to be ---- or ----- ?", or comments such as "Wow, that is so beautiful/exotic/amazing." "Wow, how did that happen?" "How did your parents meet?"  just seem so ridiculous to us when we hear them, but  these are very real, normal questions we hear often.  Has anyone else had to endure hearing folks tell you their "favorite mix"?  In all seriousness, some of these questions and comments are forms of racial microaggressions and begin to wear down individuals upon hearing them hundreds or thousands of times.

Having a space to share these experiences is important. Additionally, some mixed folks feel a shared identity with each other regardless of ethnicity. By being mixed, I have been able to discuss some unique experiences with other mixed folks, though we are from different ethnic backgrounds.

2. Our Differences Matter, Too.  It's good to be respectful of our differences as mixed race folks. Do you have siblings who identify differently than you do? I do, and I choose to respect their identities. We all know we are mixed, but their selected categories are different. I also choose different categories over time, and based on the situation. There are also mixed folks who have been much more welcomed by one ethnic population and not others, and they choose not to identify with these groups. There may be folks who also claim not to be mixed, or select not to be identified or broken down into identity fractions and that's fine. It's not easy to guess and not my place to presume what all mixed individuals have experienced, but it's important to be respectful of our different experiences and identities.  

3. Our Critical Lens Can Inform the Public Policy of Racial Categories. As the nation's demographics continue to change and become increasingly diverse, organizations such as the Census Bureau have been attempting to define all groups in new ways at least every ten years. These changes may be to maintain the relevance of categories, to be politically correct, or to more successfully capture the specific identities of populations.... Social perceptions of race do impact the way that the federal government and other organizations decide how to define diverse individuals, whether it be the "Other" category,  "Multiracial", "More than One Race" or the "Other Race plus Non-Hispanic" or "Some Other Race plus White" categories. As the number of identifying mixed race folks increases, these categories will continue to change to represent the population the way that the federal government and other organizations believe is most appropriate. Providing your feedback such as in the  "Other: Please Specify" column also informs these categories. By speaking to our community, local, state and federal officials, we can help to influence the ways that publicly defined categories of mixed race can be changed to be more inclusive and more accurate of our nation's demographics.
(See and  

4. Our Discussions Can Have Far Reaching Influence. By continuing the discussion by conducting our own research and data collection in policy, education, ethnic studies, history, and other disciplines, we can be part of making significant progress in serving the mixed race population. For example, let's look at the public health side of mixed race. A variety of studies have shown that individuals of mixed race experience higher levels of depression, substance abuse, various aches and pains, and sleep disorders.  Health services organizations tend to prefer clear race categories in their attempts to provide appropriate and relevant services, while mixed race folks and adolescents in particular are not being served in the same way. Culturally competent health services to mixed race populations is not highly developed at this time.  Society does not make it particularly accommodating to be mixed race in its perception of identity. However, continuing these discussions in public settings can bring about new ways to improve the quality of life for mixed race individuals.

Here are some links to public health research on the effects of society on mixed race individuals:

Friday, March 21, 2014

The First Year is Definitely Tough- Advice to Get Through Successfully

I am a couple of months away from completing my 1st year of the PhD. It has definitely been an adventure! I can say that it definitely has not been easy. I thought that my studies would be just a part of my year, and that research and part time work would equally matter. But it is difficult to say that this is the case. As my classes became more demanding, I started finding less time to spend on my research ideas and had difficulty investing as much time as I would like into work. I am learning some tough lessons this year that I want to share here:

1. Your classes really do need to come first. Thinking that other activities such as time spent on websites and social networks, working part time, or thinking about your research ideas really do need to be managed very carefully at this stage in the program. Getting the best possible grades and learning coursework skills as thoroughly as possible will be the most rewarding thing you can do in your first year. 

2. The toughest time of the year is between midterms and finals. Prepare time to focus on this.  Cut down on your activities at this time. As you prepare to take your midterms, realize that your final grade is seriously beginning to materialize. Your final exam will be the grade that can change everything. If you did well on midterms, you still need to keep up the work for the final grade. If you didn't do the greatest on midterms, you have another chance to make things better with the final. So, it really matters. 

3. Meet often with your professors to see what to study and how to improve. Professors have been very helpful and are often pleased that you have made the effort to meet with them. It's important for them to know that you are making an effort in class and that you truly care about doing well. I believe that this will count to bring up class participation and effort grades, while informing your academic progress as you prioritize what is important to study. 

Best wishes with your first year in grad school.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Spring Break Ahead!

What are you planning to do for spring break? I was hoping to get out of town for the weekend, however I am in a Saturday class this semester, and the professor decided to have class the Saturdays both before and after spring break week. (Our midterm, in fact, is the Saturday after spring break week. Whatever. )My husband recently began a new job and is not ready to take weekdays off. So, I won't be traveling very far for the break.

Here are my thoughts on planning for spring break:

1. If you aren't traveling to visit relatives or friends but want to get away, book hotels for the weekdays if you can. I am finding weekend rates to be a little too high.

2. Stay in town instead. Do the stay-cation. I never get to play tourist in my town and don't get around to visiting places I was looking forward to visiting when I moved to my town.

3. Take the time to plan out your research goals and do some recreational writing (if so inclined). I hope to do some research and creative book writing.

3. Catch up on work on the syllabus for the second half of the semester. With that entire week off, use some of it to get ahead on required writing assignments to make life less stressful when school gets back into session.

4. Apply for summer internships and scholarships if deadlines are still pending.

5. Plan for summer internships or look into possible summer travel and study abroad programs.

I'm the type of person that likes to have something planned, otherwise I spend time watching TV and can't decide what to do with the time. Preparing a list like this is going to be helpful here. I hope!