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Tightrope walking

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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.

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The Writer’s Toolkit: 14 things that could change how you feel about writing

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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:

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You’ll never walk alone: Valuable resources for graduate students at McGill

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.

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What is a post-doc for (and how to succeed in getting one)?

Last week, the McGill Association of Postdoctoral Fellows hosted a very useful seminar on how to succeed with post-doctoral fellowship applications. Those in attendance were privy to very sound advice from a charismatic and knowledgeable speaker, Dr. Madhukar Pai, a McGill Associate Professor in the field of Health Sciences. Over the course of his career, Dr. Pai has served on review committees of numerous granting agencies (such as CIHR or FRSQ) and has become an expert on what makes certain post-doc candidates immediately stand out from a pile of applications. His insightful and honest descriptions of the review process – peppered with his humorous comments on the harsh reality of academia – are indispensable words of wisdom for PhD students at any stage; whether you are just beginning your PhD or have reached the end of the long process and are about to jump ship, these are valuable strategies to keep in mind as you plan your future in academia.

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The trick to writing

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” ~ Red Smith

Writing

Joost Swarte

Today, I discovered the trick to writing. It’s plain and simple. So plain and simple, in fact, it’ll sound downright ridiculous. But here it goes:

The trick to writing is to write.

Doesn’t that sound absurd? Let me (slightly) clarify.

The trick to writing is to write as if you have no other choice.

This epiphany came from first-hand experience today, as I finally admitted to myself that this is the beginning of the end of my PhD journey. My general introduction was written in the winter (by me, don’t worry) and now I am beginning to produce as many journal-style papers as I can until I’ve conveyed everything worth conveying to the scientific community (I’ve collected a lot of data, it’ll be a while!). Today, I started to write my real papers.

Of course, by “started to write” I mean the process of actually typing strings of sentences onto a page. The “other” equally important process of writing (i.e., reading, annotating, outlining, bulleting, writing half-sentences that I reassured myself weren’t final because they did not contain THE perfect choice of words) had begun a while ago. And between that wonderfully productive time and today, something weird happened – I froze. Something about beginning the actual process of writing is inanely “freak-out-and-denial-worthy”, once you’ve grasped the reality that THIS tangible beginning of a collection of words, graphs and figures is going to be your Dissertation (capital “D” also spells “daunting”) and that you’d better be good at this because this is the beginning of your long career (hopefully) of pushing to publish papers upon papers (hopefully)…There’s an invisible line between the time when you’re ahead of the game and writing is easy because it’s early in the process, and when suddenly your task becomes to write and produce and submit and defend and graduate. Gasp. I recently crossed the invisible line and suddenly writing became less easy.

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Be kind to yourself

kind to yourself

In our fast-paced reality of to-do lists, meetings, places to be, people to see, deadlines to meet, friends and family to be there for, and hobbies to stay true to, our hectic lives involve figuring out that fragile balance between work and play, ourselves and others. The most delicate part of this game is managing to stay healthy while being so busy – managing to stand steadily on the ball while we juggle all the pins and the balls and the fiery hoops.

It’s a serious worry many of us have, especially in an endlessly long season of arctic temperatures, snow, ice, flus, viruses and whatever else may be going around. None of us can afford feeling ill, falling behind, feeling weak. We all have way too much to do. But, funnily enough, it is always the case that the exact point in time where we can least afford to fall ill is precisely when it happens. This is no coincidence, though. Your body knows when you are over-worked, over-stretched, over-stressed and over-tired. Bodies know when they are being abused. Bodies aren’t stupid.

Sometimes, whatever you catch absolutely floors you and you have no choice but to stay in and recover. Other times, the feeling of illness is much more gradual, more subtle, more complex, and easier to ignore. You notice you haven’t quite felt like yourself the past few days. Then those days stretch into a week, the week spills into the next week, and suddenly you don’t know where the month has gone, but you feel like you’ve lost your groove. Whatever the ailment – be it physical or psychological, or a bit of both – the drill is the same: we need to put ourselves first. It is funny, actually, how we put just about everyone and everything ahead of ourselves sometimes, until something happens to make us realize that this may in fact be the wrong strategy.

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A silent witness

[Disclaimer: Aspects of this post may cause emotional discomfort]

Monday began like an ordinary day. My alarm clock forced me to greet the morning at five-thirty. I responded to e-mails and penciled a to-do list over three cups of coffee. I squeezed myself onto the ridiculously crammed metro, caught the bus, and unlocked the door to my lab about thirty minutes later. It was an ordinary day of collecting and analyzing neuroscientific data, of meeting my supervisor, and of writing bits of my dissertation. I was busy, focused and pretty reserved all day long. The afternoon was also quite ordinary; I waited for rush-hour to subside a little and left work around six-thirty, in order to have a less stressful time with overcrowded transportation. I recognized the bus driver, got a seat towards the back like I usually do, and was at Sherbrooke metro in fifteen minutes – just like any ordinary day.

When I pushed the heavy door to enter the metro station, I noticed two police-offers were shooing a man toward the exit. “Outside!” one officer yelled in English (which, I remember, surprised me more than the fact that an itinerant was being asked not to loiter). The man began to retaliate, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying, as I was listening to my iPod. “Outside!” the officer yelled again, and added something that sounded like a threat to intervene if the man didn’t comply. I passed the busker who was singing joyously with her guitar, passed the turnstile as my STM pass emitted its routine “beep” to let me through, and walked slowly down the stairs to the platform. As I walked down, I could hear a man shouting something below. A different man than the one they had just ushered out of the station, obviously, but someone who sounded equally distraught. I removed my iPod and continued down the steps. He was loud and sounded upset, like he was venting about something. He did not sound like he was well. Before I even got to the bottom of the stairs, I could tell roughly where he was standing, due to the converging glances of passengers waiting on the track. Everyone was silent – listening, watching, pretending not to listen, pretending not to watch.

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What type of procrastinator are you?

I have written about procrastination here before, but it is such a natural part of our lives, I figured it could use a little extra attention.

Now, before you get all defensive, shrug your shoulders and say to yourself, “I’m not a procrastinator!” while dragging your mouse to the X on the top-right of this page, take a quick look at the amusing post below, and see if you could see yourself in any of the vignettes. I saw this on Facebook this morning (not that I was procrastinating or anything), recognized myself in one or two or three vignettes, and could not help but smile.

 

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Waiting for Midnight

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The year may change and so might the setting, but those final moments leading up to midnight always feel the same. The champagne cork will pop soon, and the clock will shove December and the last twelve months aside. We wait in anticipation to welcome a year that’s new – a set of four digits we are not yet used to writing out. The countdown to midnight always comes with a whole lot of excitement and a little bit of angst. It is a chance to start fresh, but it also comes with some pressure to think ahead, to set new goals, to better ourselves and change all those little pesky things about our lives that we wish we could change! Who knows what the year will bring. That is the beauty and the scariness of life, after all…

When I welcomed 2013, I wished for a whole lot, like any ambitious, hopeful person would! I wished to surprise myself with my progress in my PhD work and be successful, even (and especially) outside of my comfort zone. I wished to cherish simplicity and beauty, and to recognize those important moments in time, before they become memories. I hoped to be able to dwell less on what is not absolutely crucial and to worry less (which, I admit, is easier said than done). I vowed to make more time for family and for people I care most about. It was also important to me to make time for new creative projects and for passions that add to who I am – and who I wish to become. I wanted to write plenty, travel plenty, cook plenty, photograph plenty, and love plenty.

Looking back, 2013 turned out to be a great year.

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Writing Wednesdays

Ask anyone what Graduate School is about and the first thing they will probably tell you is that you have to write a thesis. In reality, we all know that Grad School is about a looooot of different things (some of which we had no idea about before we started our Grad School journey), but I think we  would all agree that the main goal is to pop out that dissertation and leave a trace of ourselves and our contribution to the research community.

So, is it just me or are others also faced with the ironic situation that the one thing we should really be doing also happens to be the one thing we devote the least time to in our everyday PhD lives?

Of course, there are many steps to complete before even beginning to write the dissertation. First,  you argue, you need to get all those other pesky requirements out of the way (depending on how your Department works) – coursework, Comps, the research proposal, etc. Then, if you’re in an experimental field, the next phase is devoted to obtaining Ethics, recruiting participants (or finding animals, growing cultures, whatever you’re into!) and testing – oh, so much testing. (By the way, have you ever tried to use your lab keys to open your front door at home? Testing can be draining.) You can’t POSSIBLY write during this period, right? And, after all, you need to have something to write ABOUT, don’t you? It’d be atrociously silly to start writing papers when you might have to re-think, re-analyze, re-organize and re-write it. And, needless to say, there are all those urgent interruptions along the way – the kinds with deadlines (conference abstracts, conference presentations, paper reviews), the kinds with heavy expectations (attending meetings, being involved in other work in the lab, participating/organizing departmental events), and the kinds with neither, but that we simply cannot live without (Facebook and various other procrastinatory activities).

Excuses, excuses!

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Falling embers

Possibly more than many other cities, Montreal truly comes alive in the summer. The hot, sticky weather and the long hours of daylight signify that it’s (finally) time for picnics in the park, ice cream, late afternoon drinks (which unfold into late evening dinners) on outdoor terraces, sun-bathing and other sports on the gentle slope of Mont-Royal, bustling Plateau streets with restaurant-goers walking with a bottle of wine tucked under their arm, and the countless festivals that Montreal is famous for. When summer rolls around, one of the festivals I look forward to most is the international fireworks competition that takes place every year at La Ronde.

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Jacques-Cartier Bridge open to pedestrians. Kristina Kasparian

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Roses blooming in the rain

Roses1

Photo by Kristina Kasparian

 This post is a sequel to my previous post “Growing Smaller“.

 ~ April 20th, 2013

I had been in Italy for nearly two months. I had grown accustomed to my Italian life – to my quiet neighborhood on the bank of the Adige river, to the melody of Italian filling my ear, to the resounding church-bells that sliced each of my days up into half-hours, to the kitchen drawers and cupboards and supermarket aisles, to my bicycle Isabella, to the yellow house on the hill that always caught my eye as I’d wait for the bus in the morning, and to all the faces — of strangers, and colleagues, and new friends – I would see on a daily basis in the small town.  Reluctantly, I also grew used the way the weather would go from sun to rain in fifty seconds, the way the mountain-tops were destined to remain snow-capped in this impossible spring, and the sight of the shivering vineyards, desperate to become green and full, and to keep their promise of wine and life. I had even grown accustomed to the towering mountains, standing like an edgeless backdrop to the scene. They had become my anchor, so much so that I noticed my posture had changed, and I walked much straighter, looking ahead rather than down.

 

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Growing smaller

All days are numbered. Days left until the weekend, days left until you see someone again, days left until an important date comes around, or until an important deadline stares you right in the face, days elapsed since the beginning of a new relationship, a new baby or your PhD, days until you leave, days until you return. All days are numbered, but you realize it most blatantly when you are forced to count them.

89 days in Italy. That’s what I filled out on all my Italian paperwork, and that’s what I told the Immigration Officer when he asked me how long I would stay. For the next three months, my apartment is in a small town called Rovereto in northern Italy, in the province of Trentino. My new office door unlocks with a long iron key that looks like something you would find at an antique store, and my new lab-mates are people who were strangers to me only a handful of days ago.  For the next three months, getting to my street will involve turning left at the vineyard instead of turning left at the Metro station, and instead of hearing traffic and snowplows, I will hear lots and lots of church bells.

Photo by Kristina Kasparian

 

Photo by Kristina Kasparian

Photo by Kristina Kasparian

Why did I suddenly transplant myself to Italy? Besides my long-standing love for this country and culture, the purpose of my stay is academic: my mission for the next three months is to collect data for my PhD project, while collaborating with a research team that is interested in the same topics and methodology as I am.

Although I haven’t moved to Italy for that long a time, the process of leaving and the feelings that arise when dealing with all that is new and uncertain are probably largely the same whether you leave for three months or three years. I remember how similar it felt when I left for Europe for two years for my Master’s degree. I am writing this post for international students or for people who find themselves moving to a new place for their studies or their jobs and who, at some point or another, may have shared these experiences or thoughts.

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A wishful look ahead

You may think it’s too late for New Year’s resolutions, given that it’s already mid-February. But, the truth is, it’s never a bad time for some wishful thinking about the future, however near or far ahead you’re thinking.

Particularly on days where I lack motivation, inspiration and positivity (hey, it happens to all of us), thinking positively of all that I’d like to achieve in the coming weeks and months helps keep me looking forward to all that’s to come, and gives me the strength to change my mood and make the most of my day. This wishlist is both academic and personal, just as my aspirations are.

Here is my wishful portrait of the coming months, and what keeps me looking forward everyday:

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How to write a conference abstract (or how NOT to write one)

Source: PhD Comics

The summer and early fall are what I call “conference season“; somehow, all the conferences that interest me in my field always take place between mid-June and early September, and I find the rhythm of my summer (and much of the year) dictated by these events which are fixed points in time, unlike the rest of the wibbly-wobbly, and largely self-imposed, timeline of the PhD. Attending at least two conferences per year means having to stay on top of data collection, data analysis, presentation skills and networking. It also gives you the chance to think about your work from several angles, and especially about how it fits into the existing dialogue between researchers in your field, which is extremely useful for sitting down and writing papers (ideally right when you return from the conference). But it also means that, as much as my summers are characterized by last minute analyses, PowerPoint slides, practice talks, packing, travel and jet-lag, the winter months are characterized by writing abstracts, and finding an interesting story to tell about my research….

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Tomorrow is NOT another day: Tips to overcome procrastination


After the holidays – those crazy, lazy, sugar-hazy vacation days that we will all miss terribly – it could be hard to get back into the swing of things. Getting up with an alarm, for one, could be the day’s first and greatest challenge. It might be tempting, now more than ever, to hit snooze, to be slow and sluggish, to want to eat and nap at random points during the day, and to procrastinate.

Procrastination is a word I actually became familiar with during my grad studies. It seemed to be a common problem for many, and that is why the term made it to my ears so frequently. But it’s not only an issue that a certain unlucky few are faced with, nor is it just a problem reserved just for grad students; we all do it, at least to some extent, even if we don’t all admit to it!

When you think about it, it’s completely natural for us clever human beings to try to avoid what causes us stress, what puts us in a state of disequilibrium or anxiety, or what feels mentally difficult for us.

Putting things off to another day is not always a bad thing, if you think about it in terms of prioritizing or being realistic about what you can accomplish in one day, or even in terms of needing to call it a day and just relax. But it is when we start putting off things which are in fact a priority and when we start wasting time with things that are absolutely not urgent that procrastination officially becomes a nasty habit that we must try to chase away. ASAP.

After reading fellow blogger Valerie’s recent post about procrastination (or much needed relaxation?!) during the holiday season, I tried to think of some personal tips that have worked for me or for colleagues and friends to help overcome those strong urges of putting things off. Please feel free to share your own advice and strategies, as sharing this kind of information always helps others more than you might think!

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366

Last year at precisely this time, I spent a couple of days reflecting on the year that had passed – a big year that held many happy moments, opportunities seized, travels to brand new corners of the world, but also many challenging obstacles and lessons learned. Then, looking forward, I conjured up a list of all I hoped 2012 would bring – kind of like New Year’s Resolutions but, errr, 21 of them (ambitious, aren’t I?). I shared these with you in a post at the start of the year: http://blogs.mcgill.ca/gradlife/2012/01/12/a-year-that%E2%80%99s-new-4-thoughts-moments-lessons-hopes/.

Although I kept these wishes or resolutions in mind throughout the last twelve months, I actually didn’t re-read the post until just a couple of days ago. When I did, I was happily surprised that I could indeed check off all of these bullets, and that what had seemed to be a random list of wishes actually turned out to be a recipe for a successful, balanced and wonderful year.

One of the common themes in my list of hopes was the need to make room in my days for balance and creativity, with the aim of achieving (or holding onto) carefreeness, peace of mind, and stable health. Every day of the year, I made a conscious effort to make time for my hobbies, make time for my friends and family, make time for ME, for the joys and inspirations of daily life, even if this meant that I devoted several hours to something other than my complex and time-consuming PhD work.

I read books for pleasure, watched movies and weird TV shows with my sci-fi-loving husband, spent weekends playing with my nephew, called my grandmothers more often, tagged on some extra days to conference-related trips so that I could have some time to unwind and explore, often doubled the time that making supper normally takes just so I experiment in my cooking, and took pictures – lots and lots of pictures – so that I would get into the habit of always searching for beauty and inspiration, even on the most ordinary days.

This photo project was one of my favorite resolutions for 2012. I created an album called “My 366 for 2012” and snapped at least one photo every day of this leap year. Some are not particularly good. Some are downright boring. Some days I was home and could not for the life of me find something worth photographing. But, in the end, this collection of snapshots helps me look back on all the moments that were captured, as well as all the moments in between.

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No lists!

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started working with to-do lists – it must have coincided with the time when life got really busy, at the end of my undergrad just when I was about to move to Europe to start my Master’s degree. Then by the time my PhD journey began, there was no turning back: I had become a list-making-machine. Big and small tasks, complex ones and easier ones, emails to reply to, errands to run, questions to ask, feedback to give – it all got jotted down, patiently and meticulously, as if I was rummaging through my head with a butterfly net, catching each thought to bring it onto paper, in order to free up some space in that snowglobe of mine. I thought of them as my lifeline – my best tool for keeping organized and on top of things. With my trusty lists, I would not forget. I would have a system. A plan. I would feel a sense of pride with every checkmark, as well as a sense of anguish upon realization that the checked-unchecked ratio always remained unchanged (because we all know that with every item we check off, we also think of at least one more to add to the list).

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On sirens and safe-rooms: A letter to all those affected

History always felt to me like something of the remote past, something significant that others have lived and that we learn about years and decades later. Growing up, I always saw myself as living in a time where nothing “historical” happened – no World Wars, no “walls” being built, no worldwide economic crash. Learning about history in school, I perceived life – mine, my family’s and my country’s – as calm and historically uneventful. History was, to me, very distinct from the present. I think it was when 9/11 occurred, during my early teenage years, when I first fully grasped that history and the present are very much intertwined. Since then, I would often ask myself, “Will my kids one day read about this in their history textbooks?“, and would try to imagine events of my timeline as “history” for people to come.

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All in one room: A day just for PhD students

Another academic year has begun – offices and labs in our department are populated again, classrooms are actually being used, and there is a pretty good chance that you will have to wait in line for the photocopy machine (and, of course, the washroom). Despite the fact that, come September, our department is filled with people – the lull of the summer months already light-years behind us – it does not necessarily mean that PhDs and post-docs spend much time catching up. In fact, it seems likely that the amount of time spent socializing actually decreases proportionally to the number of years spent in the PhD program.  After all, our tasks become more time-consuming and complex, our deadlines more terrifying, and our interests more narrowly focused. So isn’t it natural that, after a while, we dart straight to our little corner in our lab, do our work and head home, limiting our social interactions to brief hi’s and bye’s in the hallways, instead of more substantial “what are you working on these days” conversations? We may even work from home a lot of the time. Isolation may eventually become a natural way of maximizing our time, staying in control of our productivity and keeping the eyes focused on the finish line.

However, it is obvious that much can be gained by interacting with our peers; the PhD is an intense journey at a point in our lives where we have many other priorities to juggle, and – try as we might to get them to relate – our significant others and family members won’t always see where we are coming from, and how despaired we might be feeling at times.

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