There is always so much to worry about in graduate school: from academic performance, finances, staying healthy and in a nutshell, trying to achieve a balanced lifestyle. For the past year, I decided to go on a path for finding (and keeping) balance. This included getting to know exercise; attending yoga and meditation classes; committing to healthier eating choices; and above all, emotional healing. I ended up enrolling in a 4-week workshop offered by McGill’s Counseling Services (MCS) on cultivating emotional awareness (currently being offered as “Skills for Emotional Regulation” starting November 2nd.) Throughout the workshop, Philip Lemieux, a psychologist at the MCS, emphasized that the most important message to take home from this workshop is “the planting of the mindfulness practice seed”.
When my father was a young professional working for a German company designing solar panels, they used to have team meetings almost every day to discuss the progression of the research. Every day, the secretary would be the first one to arrive to scour new articles published in engineering journals in order to keep the team fully updated. He would then type up his findings and make several copies for the attendees to discuss during the meeting.
Now imagine how easier this job would have been if, say, there was a Twitter-like platform where he could log onto from the comfort of his home; check his feed on current literature; receive notifications as soon as a paper gets published; organize the literature in a virtual library; and be able to digitally share this library with the team instead of printing copies. He would be able to cash in quite a few more hours of sleep! But sleeping aside, imagine if you could have a Twitter-like platform being updated 24/7 and notifying you of all the breakthroughs in literature the second they come out. Imagine having not to miss out on reading a recent paper that might greatly improve your research or that might discuss the same experiments you are working on, giving you hints on what works or not so you can change your course accordingly without losing time. Suddenly, being scooped doesn’t feel like the approach of the apocalypse, but a minor setback in the course of your graduate studies.
I don’t know if other students feel like this at any point in their PhD journey. For me, this sensation has come during the “home stretch”. In other words – at the worst possible time.
It is not uncommon for graduate students to feel down or discouraged at some points of their degree. Everyone knows the PhD road is long and replete with intellectual challenges, time-stealing setbacks, daunting skills to learn in very little time, and experiences that propel us far outside of our comfort zone. It is not uncommon for PhD students to feel fatigued, overwhelmed or disheartened. Waves of negative emotions may come and go, amplified by the constant pressure of deadlines and high standards. It is the small victories in between that make the waves recede and that keep us going, suddenly reminding us of why we love what we do and why we wish to keep doing it.
But that common feeling is not exactly what I am alluding to. This is something a little more difficult to put into words – a feeling of fragility and transience, uncertainty and instability, not only towards one’s work but also one’s own self. Let me try to explain.
A couple of months ago, I was leafing through Psychologies magazine (December 2014 issue) and stumbled upon an article on a new rising economy: the economy of sharing and swapping that has taken bloom in the UK recently. By some mysterious force, I found myself drawn to the article: from the writing style to the engaging content that depicts a rare initiative of reaching out to people who are complete strangers – it inspired me. I gathered up the courage and got in touch with the author of the article, Jini Reddy, to ask her if she would share some of her writing and life skills with me. An accomplished traveler and a writer/journalist who writes about eco-travel, nature-based experiences, wellbeing and sustainable living (pretty much everything I dreamed of becoming and still dream of becoming), Jini has quickly become a role model for me.
This past July, McGill’s Department of Biochemistry hosted one of the most prominent female figures in the biological sciences: Dr Joan Steitz. Having been invited repeatedly over the past 13 years, the seminar finally took place in room 1034 of the McIntyre Building. The seminar saw a very big turn-out, including most of the biochemistry faculty members and graduate students from various departments in the life sciences.
Dr Joan Steitz walked in with an air of confidence and a general disposition of compassion. She was dressed in an elegant suit of sky blue and gray; hair beautifully coiffed up in a timeless updo and a naturally glowing complexion. The screen flashed with the title of her talk: “Non-coding RNAs with a viral twist”. For the next hour, Steitz discussed her current research and findings on how non-coding RNAs in the genome play an important role in viral infections and proliferation, specifically, the gamma-herpesvirus.
My journey with academic writing began when I was a senior undergraduate applying for a fellowship. I had never written a research proposal before and so the result of my futile efforts came in the form of a very literary and romantic piece of writing about a faulty protein in Crohn’s disease – certainly not what you would present to a grant committee. The moment I laid eyes on the edits made to my proposal by my supervisor and saw the generous red markings, I almost fell over in my chair. That was a low moment in my writing career. But after I sat down with my supervisor and discussed the edits, things become remarkably clear, making perfect sense. The most valuable lesson I took from him that day was one simple word: Flow, which is the very first cornerstone I will talk about in this article.
Shortly after this incident, I enrolled in a course offered by Graphos and the McGill writing centre called “Cornerstones of Academic Writing”. It was truly a very fun and interactive course that I recommend to graduate students who are struggling with their writing, wish to improve it or simply want to try out an elective in an unrelated field. I’ll be sharing with you a few pointers I picked up from the course.
I am the kind of person who gets annoyingly bored by the mundane and so I have developed an eye for those little obscure details in our surroundings. For example, after many months of observation throughout various seasons, I have noticed that there is a small conserved population of black squirrels that live specifically in that courtyard on the Atwater/Sherbrooke intersection, right at the 144 bus stop. That was the first time I had ever seen a black squirrel and probably the only place I have ever seen them in. I know black squirrels exist elsewhere, but please don’t burst my bubble and tell me otherwise. You see, it’s very simple: squirrels make me happy. The way they hop; search for food; naively miss the piece of walnut you just threw right in front of their scrawny paws; the way they stand up on their two hind legs while they’re checking you out (I mean, look at that guy in the picture, really!); the way their bushy tail is, well, bushy; the way they chase each other and interact with each other and the occasional human.
I’m about to pull a Miss Potter here and tell you a tale about black and gray squirrels. The only difference between me and Miss Potter is that I will actually be in the story – just very briefly. But let me do this properly like the good ole scientist that I am.
I just finished writing my master’s thesis and I am now waiting for formal signatures before I can submit it. The whole experience is still too fresh in my mind for me to provide an objective assessment, but one aspect of my graduate studies is worth talking about: doing research under a remote supervisor.
We all had this experience: it is the lab’s holiday party and everybody is having a good time. When the night is over your supervisor wishes you luck on your next semester and assures you that he will keep contact next year. Your confused look prompts him to divulge more information. You didn’t know it, but he is going on a sabbatical next year so he will be abroad when you pursue your first year of actual research. Memories from previous unattended research come back to you! You steel yourself. At least, you had the experience before. Good night!
Sarah had a piece on long distance relationship during graduate studies. Let this be the post on long distance supervisorship.
Somewhere between now and forever. That sounds about right. Isn’t that the gist of your reply to family members and friends who just don’t get why you’re still a PhD student? So much has changed in the world, and you’re still at it. I mean, how long does it take to write a thesis? Just write it already!
But you know, and I know, and Cecilia knows — it’s not that simple.
Or is it?
Unbeknownst to him, my supervisor gave some stellar advice in one plain sentence, a few weeks ago. Although this advice was not directly meant for me, and was part of a general conversation about papers and publications, it’s something I took to heart and have applied ever since: “Just sit down and write it – tell yourself you are going to work for this amount of hours, and sit there and write it”. Just sit down – best advice ever, because it made me concretely realize that writing is not challenging due to a lack of inspiration, but due to a lack of focus. If you give yourself the time and the space to do nothing else but work on writing, there will be no shortage of ideas, arguments, counterarguments and – eventually – words on the page.
I have been writing my thesis full time for two weeks. Every day. The encouraging thing is that it seems to get easier and easier, as does anything after copious amounts of practice.
I think what one needs is a “writer’s toolkit” – some strategies that work for you, that you can stick to, and that can serve as a comfortingly familiar routine, to help ensure your success on this writing mission.
Here is my toolkit:
One aspect of our graduate student life at McGill that truly stands out as exemplary to me is the sheer number of resources in place to buttress our burgeoning professional careers. I am amazed that, even as a senior PhD student, I am constantly finding out about organizations, workshops and tools that I did not know of the year before. We are blessed to have such an incredible framework of support at our university, and to have a wealth of information and support right at our fingertips. I’ve compiled a list of valuable resources for students who currently are or soon will be enrolled in a graduate program at McGill. In here is basic information I found out about when I first arrived, as well as information I found out about just last week! I hope that many of you will benefit from this information and will know where to turn when in need of more.