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Our experience of a writing group as a PhD student: Growing in our identity and struggling with isolation

In our PhD Education Colloquium on October 17, Sara Doody, Sarah Marshall, Maggie McDonnell, and Erin Reid presented the following to our class. I was so inspired that I asked if I could incorporate their presentation into the GradLife blog, to bring it to a larger audience. I hope you are as inspired reading this as I was during their presentation.

Sara, Maggie, Erin and Sarah

Sara, Maggie, Erin and Sarah

We’re in our second year together as doctoral students, and we’re spending a lot of time reflecting on our development as doctoral students, researchers, and writers. We have been meeting as a writing group for about a year now, and plan to continue together at least as long as the PhD journey keeps us writing, if not beyond. We’ve all contributed to this text, so it is heteroglossic, although it’s worth noting that we have all nodded vigorously along as we each discussed our personal experience, as we planned the text.
Social Isolation (Sarah M) – next year we will have finished all our course work, so we will have no reason to actually see and be with anyone else in our DISE cohort. Here’s a nice quote from The Guardian Higher Education blog:
All PhDs are solitary affairs. When you carry out doctoral research you are, by definition, the only person working on the precise topic of your thesis. There will be others whose research is closely related to yours, but nobody else is doing quite what you are doing. In this sense, all PhDs are solitary affairs. (July 2014)
All of us are writing in isolation it would seem, but to use a metaphor, I see it as we’re like bees in a beehive. Each worker bee has their own hexagonal cell to look after, but in a beehive each bee, while working on their own cell, is also a part of the whole hive, as it is with us PhD students: we are a part of a bigger group. By participating in the writing group we are able to break the illusion of being alone – we are not alone. Not only are we writing with others in academe, but with our classmates we are at approximately the same phase of the process. Sure some are a bit ahead (preparing CPs) and others are not there yet (working towards preparing CPP), but we are all PhD3 in DISE.
One could argue that the construction of the author as an isolated producer of texts is only sensible if one takes a very limited, object centred, view of writing practice. The understanding of writing as process, as communication, and as therapy, cannot be supported by the concept of the isolated writer (Pheby 2010).
Society uses a convention that often shows writers, alone in their office or den, slaving away over an unfinished manuscript until – ta-da – it is finished; completely perfect and whole like the Virgin Birth. In my experience it couldn’t be further from the truth – writing is as collaborative as it is generative.
Renegotiating Identity (Erin) – Being a writing group member has allowed me to renegotiate my relationship to not only to writing, but also to my identity as a writer. Throughout my education, I was encouraged, largely implicitly, to view writing as a solitary activity…something that was best done in isolation, with the focus entirely on the finished product. Although writing was something to which I always felt drawn, it was often a site of intense personal stress for me. I struggled to see myself as a legitimate writer/scholar…I was constantly wracked with what I eventually named my CSD (crippling self-doubt). This struggle intensified dramatically when I found myself in graduate school as an MA student in Religious Studies where the long-standing meme of the solitary, struggling, silent and hopefully brilliant writer was in full force. Though the graduate students may have enjoyed some camaraderie in sharing an office and at times writing in the same space, work was never shared, only our anxiety. There seemed to me to be a direct correlation between the most stressed out student and the most brilliant – writing the bulk of my MA in 3 horrible weeks was a badge of honour for me as it was proof that the frustrated, procrastinating, blocked-yet-brilliant artist model was alive and well. But that process was so painful that it literally led to me being unable to move my head due to compressed vertebrae in my cervical spine. It took me at least a year to heal from writing my MA.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand why developing a new, healthier relationship to writing was one of the main reasons I decided to return to academia. I needed to find a better way to write, and a way to allow myself to identify as a writer; in short, I needed desperately to develop “new habits of the mind” (Spigelman, 1999). Writing groups have been transformational for me as the process of working with, responding to, and eventually collaborating with my peers has allowed me to identify myself increasingly as a practitioner, rather than simply a learner. As we began to share our work, we developed our skills in critical reading, editing, and giving feedback, which in turn have led to a growing sense of confidence in academic selves, something that Kamler and Thomson (2007) have referred to as ‘discursive social practice.’ Finally, writing groups allow us to identify ourselves as a member of a writing group facilitates our identifying ourselves of a larger peer community (Maher, 2008).
Assumptions – What’s Out There? (Sara D) I have always found writing groups incredibly rewarding. I’ve spent a lot of time in them, and have experienced the “Shut Up and Write”, the peer review, and the roundtable (where you read a paper at home and come prepared to give feedback). You could say that I am a serial “Writing Groopie”.
There is a common assumption of writers as isolated. Writing is often pushed into the margins and talked about as something you do “after” all of the hard work has been done. It is something you share only after it has been “perfected”, so it can be scary just talking about writing. The dominant assumption of writing seems to be that we have to work alone to craft the perfect text before we even think about sharing with others.
Writing groups are really useful vehicles for subverting these popular assumptions about writing. Scholars exploring doctoral writing groups assume that writing is a social practice. Whenever we write, we write to someone, and writing groups make this sociality visible. This is especially true of writing in academe, where we are trying to figure out how to write to a larger community of scholars and peers. As Anthony Paré (2014) writes, writing groups provide a space for us to learn how to participate in these conversations. Writing groups provide us with opportunities to explore how to give feedback and experiment with thinking and arguing like a scholar. He also believes “opening one’s mouth to speak in the doctorate…[is] fraught with danger” (p. 25). What we write and how we write it affects the ways in which we are viewed by our communities. While we learn how to speak from supervisors, writing groups provide a safer environment to test out ideas, ways of talking, and ways of writing (Guerin, 2014; Paré, 2014; Starke-Meyerring, 2014).
Reflexive Strategies (Maggie) We want to wrap things up with some ideas for how to get the most out of a writing group, based partly on what we’ve experienced, and partly on the ideas of those who have come before us.
Our group meets once a week – many groups meet less frequently, but we’re using the weekly appointment as a way of keeping ourselves connected to the habit of public writing. Typically, we use the Pomodoro method, so in our two-hour session, we write in 25-minute sessions, taking a short break to chat, or share bits of our writing. More recently, especially as we worked on grant applications and candidacy papers, we decided to dedicate one session each month to a share-and-respond session, wherein we exchange computers and comment in writing on each other’s work. We discuss our comments before we end the session, but we each leave with at least two other people’s feedback recorded in our text, for reflection and reference.
Of course, there are many different writing group formats, and as you might expect, there are a ton of resources for writing groups online, which if nothing else speaks to their effectiveness. Most academic writing groups recommend a few basic tips, which we’ve included below, along with some links to other writing group resources.
One of the tips is to find a common goal. Although we’re all researching different things – Sarah M. is looking at teacher education in physical therapy, Sara D. is writing about doctoral writing, Erin is exploring how religious education can be beneficial in adult language learning, and Maggie is looking at development of teacher identity in higher education – we’ve been writing together for almost a year now. About a month ago, Sara D. had a brilliant idea – we should present on writing groups as part of the colloquium! And then she added the most enticing part: if that works out, we should write a paper.
So now, as well as meeting regularly to work on our own writing, we’re starting to gather our collective thoughts and experiences, in order to write about our group and its impact on our personal doctoral journeys. When Sara began looking into writing groups, she found a great deal written from the perspective of those who encourage us to form groups, but only one written from the perspective of an actual group member (Maher, Seaton, McMullen, Fitzgerald, Otsuji, & Lee, 2008). So we thought that we should write and share, so others can benefit from this strategy. Since we still have some time before we get to the end of this particular journey, we’re not rushing to write this paper, but we’re gathering thoughts and reflections in preparation.
One of the methodologies we’ve begun using, then, is a form of reflexive memo. At the beginning of each session, we take five minutes to write about what we’re hoping to work on, our personal goals, and our feeling about the session. Then at the end of the session, we take another five to ten minutes to reflect back on the session. Over time, we will collect these, and collectively reflect on the reflections, so we can see how the group is working for us collectively and individually.
You can also use memoing with a writing group as another way of recording reactions to and reflection on each other’s work (Qualley & Chiseri-Strater, 1994), not to mention record and reflect on your own progress. Whether you use memos specifically or not, finding a way to engage in collective reflexivity can help improve your writing and your morale (Barry et al, 1999).

References and Resources:

Barry, C. A., Britten, N., Barber, N., Bradley, C., & Stevenson, F. (1999). Using Reflexivity to Optimize Teamwork in Qualitative Research. Qualitative Health Research, 9(1), 26-44.
Golde, C. M. (n.d.). Tips for Successful Writing Groups. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from http://chris.golde.org/filecabinet/writegroups.html
Guerin, C. (2014). The gift of writing groups: Critique, community and confidence. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 128-141). New York, NY: Routledge.
Haas, S. (2014). Pick-n-mix. A typology of writers’ groups in use. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 30-47). New York, NY: Routledge.
Kamler, B., and P. Thomson. 2007. The failure of dissertation advice books: Towards alternative pedagogies for doctoral writing, Paper presented at annual meeting of AERA, Chicago, April.
Lee, S., & Golde, C. M. (n.d.). Starting an Effective Writing Group. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from https://unmgrc.unm.edu/writing-groups/documents/starting-an-effective-group.pdf
Maher, D., Seaton, L., McMullen, C., Fitzgerald, T., Otsuji, E., & Lee, A. (2008). ‘Becoming and being writers’: The experiences of doctoral students in writing groups. Studies in Continuing Education, 30(3), 263-275.
Paré, A. (2014). Writing together for many reasons: Theoretical and historical perspectives. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 18-29). New York, NY: Routledge.
Pheby, A. (2010). The myth of isolation: Its effect on literary culture and creative writing as a discipline. Creative Writing: Teaching Theory & Practice, 2(1), 51-58.
Qualley, D. J., & Chiseri-Strater, E. (1994, Winter). Collaboration as Reflexive Dialogue: A Knowing “Deeper Than Reason” Journal of Advanced Composition, 14(1), 111-130.
Spigelman, C. 1999. Habits of mind: Historical configurations of textual ownership in peer writing groups. College Composition and Communication 49, no. 2: 23455
Starke-Meyerring, D. (2014). Writing groups as critical spaces for engaging normalized institutional cultures of writing in doctoral education. In C. Aitchison, & C. Guerin (Eds.), Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond (pp. 65-81). New York, NY: Routledge.
Studying for a humanities PhD can make you feel cut off from humanity. (2014). Retrieved October 19, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/jul/08/humanities-phd-students-isolation

Top 5 Tips to Increase Productivity

Photo by @GradLifeMcGill instagrammer @steezsister

Photo by @GradLifeMcGill instagrammer @steezsister

Ah, grad school. Aka the years of your life where you’re learning how much you don’t know, pushing your personal and professional boundaries, and managing an outrageously busy schedule. Grad school schedules come with deadlines. Deadlines for abstract submissions, funding applications, and course work, on top of lab meetings, data collection, and social endeavours. Here are my top 5 tips to increase productivity, to maneuver these deadlines and actually get work done:

1. Make a list

This tip is probably the most cliché of all, but couldn’t be left off of this list. The fact is: it works. I find it much easier to prioritize my tasks when they’re all laid out in front of me. I can see what needs to be done, estimate how much time each item will take, and start working from there.

Make your list before you start doing any work. Include even the smallest tasks, because it’s a great feeling to check items off, and any progress is good progress!

2. Set a timeline and stick to it

When I’m working in the lab, I tend to pick a task to work on until lunch time, and then take my lunch break. Then, I pick another task (potentially the same one, if it’s larger), and work until the end of the day. I always have a time when I know I’ll be leaving the lab, and I stick to that timeline. This helps me set aside blocks of time for each task I need to complete in a day, and knowing how long I’m going to be working on something helps me stay focused and be more productive.


Not so alone in the lab

Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @yogipetals

Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @yogipetals

The theme last week for the GradLife Instagram was “Colours of Gratitude” and with Thanksgiving just last Monday it has me pondering ‘What about grad school I’m grateful for?’ There are many things that come to mind; intellectual engagement, flexible hours, meaningful work and experiments that work! But what I’ve come to realize over the last several years is that the things I’m most grateful for is the support and friendship of my lab mates. The lab can be a lonely place. As a scientist, you are most often working independently on your individual projects. When you add in the long, erratic hours at the lab this can sometimes lead to feelings of isolation. What helped me when I first arrived was a supportive lab group and co-workers who very quickly become my friends.

It was 5 years ago, but I still remember coming to my current lab to interview. Perhaps I was a bit naïve in how I went about choosing where I wanted to do my PhD, but what really helped me make my decision was talking with the current graduate students of a lab. Looking back I don’t think I truly realized how important this would be for me. Your lab mates are the people you will be working 8-12h a day with for the next 2-7 years. These will be the people who train you, who help decipher your results, who tell you when your ideas make sense or when you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. These are the people that you will see ALL the time.

If I could give some advice to people looking to start their graduate studies in a lab-based environment, it would be two thing; know what kind of working environment works best for you and try to have an opportunity to talk (or e-mail) with the people working for your potential supervisor. Not everyone works well in the same sort of environment and this is exactly what the other graduate students will be able to help you ascertain. They can tell you what it is really like in the lab and how the supervisor runs things. Try to get a feel for the lab dynamics and the other graduate students themselves. Prepare some questions in advance. These are the people you will, in all likelihood, be spending a significant amount of time with so I think it’s important to understand if the lab atmosphere is one that will work for you.

I’m not saying you need to be best friends with your lab mates, but you will be seeing a lot of them. As such, good working relationships are essential. I was lucky because I started at the same time as 2 other grad students in my lab. There is something so reassuring about going through all the grad school milestones with someone else. You have someone to commiserate with when you’re stressed about comprehensive exams and people to celebrate with when you get your first publication. And maybe it doesn’t have to be your immediate lab mates, maybe it’s the students down the hall or the collaborators a floor above. What’s important is that you don’t go through it alone.

All this to say, I’m very grateful for the close friends I’ve made in the lab. They make coming to work a little more fun and grad school a lot less lonely. Graduate school can be tough but having good working relationships can make it so much easier. So if you can get a glimpse at what that working environment is like before you join a lab, in my opinion, you’ll be better off for it.

Graduate student + mom : the disadvantage

Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @fanidee

Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @fanidee


While I love being a mother-graduate-student (and I will later write a whole post about the advantages), sometimes, it is quite difficult. Here some of the reasons:

  • I am very lucky because I got a couple of months of paid maternity leave for each of my child. But not all graduate students can say the same.
  • I hate pumping my milk every day (and I don’t want to give baby formula milk). I am lucky to have an office, because Thompson House is kind of far.
  • You know this crazy lecture with a superstar scholar? If it’s in the evening and my partner is not at home this day… I will miss it.
  • Since most of the academic activities (GradLife meetings, parties, going out with friends) are in the evening, even if my partner is at home, I will be absent. Taking care of two young boys and putting them to bed alone is quite a challenge, so their father and I try to be together with them most of the time. I am going out sometimes with my old friends, but the problem is I don’t really have the time or the opportunity to make new ones at McGill. It is not because I don’t want to know you, guys!


Thinking days ≠ procrastination

What I call “thinking days” are the days you take for yourself. It can be to sleep in, to organize non-school related appointments, to meet a friend for lunch, or even to watch Netflix. Whatever you need to do! Whatever you want to do!

In the meantime, while you feel like you’re procrastinating on your thesis work, you allow your brain to breathe in order to think better.

It took me a while to realize and accept the fact that: in order to be productive on my “writing days” I needed “thinking days”. My first reflex was to feel guilty about not reading or not writing for an entire day when I had a day off work. I forced myself to study on any available day but the result was just a disaster. Any fly or dirty dish within a mile seemed way more appealing than the blank page staring at me.

Instragram @gradlifemcgill photo by @na0mirlima

After that was my “couch potato phase”. I picked one day, let’s say Wednesday, and I turned all my Wednesdays into home-bound days. I stayed in my pyjamas, didn’t see anyone and consumed way too much junk food and Netflix. Not my finest moments. I was basically forcing myself to procrastinate, as if this would help me to be more productive later on.

Finally, I realized that consciously taking some time for myself was the healthier option. No matter what you feel like doing, it’s a day just for that: do exactly what you want to do. In the meantime, your brain is still being stimulated. You might even surprise yourself by finding something interesting related to your research along the way.

The next day, when I got back to my desk, I was full of ideas and excitement. I also felt that the ground breaking thought I had two days before got processed without much effort, just by staying there, on the side of my brain during my “thinking day”. What a relief! What a great sensation to have!

Have you ever gone through similar phases as I did? What is your secret weapon to fight procrastination?

Hello, Technology

Photo by @gradlifemcgill instagrammer @kipunsam.daily

Photo by @gradlifemcgill instagrammer @kipunsam.daily

So, it’s over. I did a two-week technology cleanse, and learned a lot about myself and my surroundings. I was able to achieve most of my goals, or at least move in the right direction toward decreasing my overall screen time.

What I did:

I was able to limit my social media use through the day, and I became much more mindful of when I was checking my phone and how much time I was spending on it. I didn’t watch even one episode of Netflix, which means I did even better than what I had planned for the two weeks. Instead, I found other activities to fill my time. I did Sudoku puzzles, printed and completed crosswords, and spent time filling in my colouring book – great for relaxation! I also increased my physical activity levels, because every morning instead of sitting on my computer or phone before heading into the lab, I was able to do a quick workout or yoga session. That made me much more productive during the day, which was one of my main goals.


Graduate studies: A decision between adventure and chaos – Part 1

Did you ever want a donut at 3 am? Or maybe some all dressed pizza? Why not a double bacon hamburger? In this case, the answer is easy, you just wait for the next day to grant yourself that wish. In the worst case scenario, you get out of bed and walk/drive to the closest 24 hours fast food restaurant to fulfill your desire. However, what if your desire involves something a lot more complex that you cannot even define? Maybe you will spend the rest of the night trying to understand it without success, but you can surely perceive it. You want to change something, go somewhere or meet someone. How, when and why are questions just out of reach. That was my story. I had these three questions in my mind often during the night. The phone from the company I used to work for would ring exactly at 3:01. I had to wake up quickly, answer, understand the situation in the factory and try to give some indications before falling asleep again.

Image 1 blog
Sometimes I had to get out of bed and drive in the middle of the night in order to fix the situation onsite. But do not misunderstand me, I loved my job. It was the realization of many of my big dreams when I was an undergrad student: a well-paid job in an international company where the everyday challenges teach interesting things. But for some reason, these feelings about doing “something else” assaulted me in the middle of the night, and I could not understand them at all. I started to feel empty, without direction and very discouraged. I really needed to change my life. But why? There was no logical reason behind these thoughts. At the beginning, I believed that maybe the lack of physical activity, the stress at work or even the food at the factory kitchen were making me feel that way. I decided to exercise again, prepare my own food before going to work and other rituals that could improve my situation. These things improved significantly my mood, but I was still thinking that something was not right. Then the first clue came to me. I heard that a local private university was offering Master degrees for engineers from our factory and I was very excited about it. I wanted to learn more, to know something new and some of that could be right there. Unfortunately, the subjects (mainly focused in administration) were totally different from what I expected and I decided to leave that idea alone. But the idea refused to leave and later I found myself talking with the coordinator of the Metallurgy and Materials master program of my previous University. The investigation branches were exciting, as I could see some of my work problems explained from a very different perspective, making it an excellent opportunity to improve my skills and fulfill that hungry for something new.

Unfortunately, when I was about to say yes to begin the applying process, they gave me a single condition: even when I was not receiving scholarship from the Institute, I had to quit my job to be accepted, as they considered that I would not be able to have a good performance if I was fighting on two fronts. I had a lot to process then. On one side there was an excellent and secure job; in the other the opportunity of change completely not only my professional development but my whole life. The master degree did not have to stop there, I could continue with further adventures in science with a Ph.D. and who knows what after that. Even there was the Canadian dream and beyond… but that
belongs to another story. I was between my own past dreams and the present ones. Years before that job represented everything I was fighting for: stability, certainty and material wealth for me and my loved ones. But at some point, I changed without noticing and that dream alone was not
fulfilling anymore. This new horizon seemed so exciting, full of new possibilities and experiences. There was a single problem. Fear. Not only to fail but to fail after having a good work, which I left following something that seemed to be a whim. Fortunately one day I realized something thanks to a good friend. You have the right to decide anything in your life, but make sure that the reasons behind those decisions are good enough. The fear is the worse reason to do or not something. Is good to be afraid sometimes, as the fear keeps us safe from falling from the last floor of a building or enter to a nightclub of doubtful reputation. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to do whatever makes you happy, as long as you accept the problem that comes with that decision, which will be easier to overcome if your drive is strong enough.

I guess you can imagine what I decided considering that I am writing this during my free time from my PhD. But that is only the beginning of an adventure that would take me to more places, situations and problems than I could ever imagine. And in the end, the life is that, an adventure where you should go to sleep only with the desire of having a donut at 3:00 am, but knowing you are doing the best for yourself.

Write it out!

What better way to start writing in blog form than exploring the reasons I wanted to be a blogger in the first place? So here’s how it all started!

Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @na0mirlima

Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @na0mirlima

Once upon a time, when I was still in high school (alright, that was eons ago), I developed this tendency to write. And you might argue: well, we all develop a tendency to write, which is why that skill usually gets taught at the beginning of elementary school. What I mean, though, is Writing for the sake of Writing. I am not talking about being published, not about becoming famous. And not even about being read. That Writing had to be just for myself!


Metaphors of Grad School


Have you ever been asked to bring an object that represents a metaphor of your current researcher identity to class? The second year PhD students in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education (DISE) were asked to do so. What transpired what a rich and interesting discussion of what grad school is, and how we positioned ourselves as researchers. Our objects included:
• Three watches or “timekeepers” preoccupations of time management and planning
• Edgar Degas’s painting of The Ballet Master the master shares the fundamentals of his craft
• A house plant Growing in unexpected ways, flourishing with a bit of light and care.
• An unfinished hand knit scarf the researcher identity, not fully developed, and multifaceted
• A fuzzy pencil case practical, familiar, along for the journey
• A hat A researcher is part explorer, part reporter. Hats giver the wearer other identities.
• A Loopy Tangle A fidget stopper, helping a distracted researcher focus
• A shovel Allowing for deep, below the surface digging and research
• Two notebooks As social science researchers, there is writing, writing, writing

A wonderful activity, promoting reflection and introspection. What object represents a metaphor of your researcher identity?

That blind-spot in our Graduate Life…

At a first sight, the word surroundings sounds like something similar to shiny rounded rings enclosing something important in its center. However, these surroundings have often an importance in themselves and can be as relevant as the center on which we are too obsessively, crazily, stressfully focused. If my first post was about the relationship between graduate life and Time, the second one will investigate (wow, I’m so academic here) how the former relates to Space. Obviously, the two are strictly correlated and we will see that the idea of discovering our surroundings depends also on the choice to give time to this process of discovering and exploring. Yet, I do not want to be boringsophical here, just tell something that any graduate student may feel on his or her own skin.


Être cher à l’hôpital, études au ralenti

Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @lyly.man

Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @lyly.man

Hier matin, une ambulance est allée chercher ma grand-mère.

Elle est à l’hôpital. Pour des heures? Des jours? Des semaines?

L’incertitude, c’est dur pour les études. Mon cerveau part dans les nuages quand mon coeur se serre en s’attendant au pire. Je relis huit fois la même page, je regarde les analyses à faire de travers.

Planifier est délicat. Dois-je annuler cette rencontre au cas? Qu’en est-il de la semaine prochaine?

La maladie et la mort imminente d’un être cher balancent la fierté aux poubelles. Les émotions à fleur de peau, ne sachant où me mettre, j’ai pleuré devant des étudiants, devant des professeurs, des collègues.


5 Things To Do Before the Winter Comes

Screenshot 2016-09-28 16.04.10

Don’t get me wrong, I love winter. Winter means snowmen, ice-skating, layers and Christmas! But it also means snow, ice and freezing temperatures. I just know that once the winter comes along I’ll be cooped up inside eating a lot of food and watching TV (and hopefully getting some work done). That’s why I want to make the most of the remaining warmish, non-snowy days where I can still wear my favourite sneakers without falling over or getting frostbite.  Here are 5 things you can do to get outside and enjoy the weather while it lasts. Leave a comment down below telling me what you’ve been up to and what you want to do before Montreal is invaded by snow.

Goodbye, Technology

Photo by Flickr user Meghan Wilker.

Photo by Flickr user Meghan Wilker.

Recently, I’ve realized how much time I spend looking at screens. I spend all day in the lab typing word documents, running stats, processing data – all on a computer. Then, I come home and watch Netflix, check Facebook and Instagram, and listen to music – all on a computer or phone. By the time I go to bed, I’d estimate that I would have accumulated over 12 hours of screen time on the average day.

That number seems outrageous to me. Over 50% of my life is spent looking at a screen. While you can’t argue the enormous benefits technology provides to our daily lives, especially in grad school, including communication with other people, efficiency in our tasks, and increasing our productivity levels when used wisely, you have to wonder if it’s sometimes necessary to draw the line somewhere.

The shocking part is that screen time is usually directly related to sedentary time, or time during which you are completely motionless. Sedentary time has been found to contribute to chronic health in the exact opposite way than physical activity levels (i.e. excessive sedentary time reduces overall health and well-being). I won’t turn this into a post preaching the benefits of physical activity (although exercise is very important for your mental and physical health!), but I will say that I’ve decided it’s time for me to reduce my screen (and consequently sedentary) time.

Hence, I’m doing a technology cleanse.

I already foresee obstacles in this challenge, but I want to be aware of them and deal with them as they come. I know that I cannot completely eliminate technology from my life, as it is such a vital part of my daily functioning with my thesis work, communicating with my friends, family, and supervisor, and even how I spend my leisure time. However, I want to set some ground rules to work around these barriers and manage how I use technology in the short term.


“To be or not to be?”: An intern

It’s September. It’s potentially the beginning of my last year as a graduate student. Except if I decide to do a PhD at some point. So far so good though, I should be finishing grad school some time next Spring/Summer.

My first article was about my dream job which I finally decided to quit. This was a hard decision, but I did it to solve my rhythm problem. No more long-term academic projects combined with short-term rushes on social media.

The question being, what should I do next? I know myself. There is no way I will feel fulfilled with “just” writing a 100 page dissertation. No matter how passionate I am about my project, I need another challenge. Something new, something exciting, something that fits well with research and writing.


How about an internship?

The main advantage – and disadvantage – of an internship is not being paid. You all get how this is a disadvantage. However, on the plus side, it also means more freedom to try things. As a volunteer, there is a good chance that your schedule will be flexible enough to allow you to take the time you need for your studies. It also means that you can try everything you’ve always dreamt of doing. It would be for a semester, for two days per week.

I’m not saying that everyone can afford an unpaid job, but I really think that it is a great option to try something new and to challenge yourself. You can always combine it with a part-time job. This way you will get all the advantages and can learn twice as much.

Last but not least, a two-day internship will not only fit well into my writing schedule, but it will help me balance it. If I have to use my morning alarm twice a week to go to work, I’ll probably end up waking up more easily the rest of the week to write. I decided to structure my week in two parts, two days at my new internship and two days of full writing. Leaving out: well, weekends because I would love to maintain some kind of social life, and my one day a week to think.

In my next article, I will discuss the importance of what I call “Thinking days”, not just writing.

Taking Down Time: Tiny Escapes

Being a grad student, being any student for that matter, or just being alive usually means there’s a lot going on and a lot on your mind. There are a myriad of ways to take your mind off things for a little while, but personally I love to read. To me reading takes me away to be someone else who’s somewhere else, for as long as I want to be there. Then at any time you may return there just by getting lost in a thought. I would like to do my part to help you get there. (more…)

The roller-coaster that is graduate school

"Graph - Work Output" "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

“Graph – Work Output”
“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Welcome to grad school, where schedules are made up and plans don’t matter.

(Alright, that’s not entirely true, but you’ll see what I mean soon enough).

Last week, I had a fairly productive week in the lab. To me, a “fairly productive” week means that I met with my supervisor, and crossed most items off my to-do list. I’m making good progress, and I’m on track to submit my thesis on time. I’m lucky to currently be in a spot in my master’s degree where I am typically making constant headway – but that’s not always the case.


Tous à bord! Un stage à l’étranger en famille

Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @digitalpigeons

Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @digitalpigeons

En 2012, mon conjoint et mois nous nous sommes envolés à Paris pour faire un stage. Nous habitions un micro appartement mal isolé au 6e étage sans ascenseur. Notre nourriture comportait trop de pain et de fromage. Nous visitions sans contraintes les fins de semaine.

En 2015, mon conjoint a été invité à poursuivre son stage pendant quelques mois. Je voulais en profiter pour faire quelques recherches dans les archives de Paris. Le seul changement: un petit F-A d’un an qu’il fallait emmener. Après un moment de réflexion, nous avons entrepris les démarches pour déménager en famille. Ouf!

La planification a été plus difficile. Il a fallu trouver une éducatrice (à distance!) pour notre bébé puisque mon conjoint et moi devions étudier en journée. Nous avons réussi à louer un petit deux et demi situé dans un premier étage pas trop loin de la BNF. Grâce à des amis et au propriétaire de notre logement, F-A a eu des fournitures d’enfant. Même faire la valise du petit (va-t-il grandir beaucoup? quelle température fait-il à Paris l’hiver?) a été un casse-tête.


“To be or not to be?”: Time and Graduate Life

The two sides of our time...photo by GradLife McGill Instagrammer @falisha.k

The two sides of our time…photo by GradLife McGill Instagrammer @falisha.k

Full name: Graduate Student. When your name is Graduate and your surname Student, you come to realize how the word time gets more and more often into your conversations. It’s always a matter of time: the time you are supposed to spend sleeping, the time for eating and feeding yourself up (yes, it does exist!), the time you would like to invest in hobbies or working out, the time to wake up, the time to love, the time to submit a paper, to get out from the library, to study, to read, to teach, to cheer, to…what?  Although you may find as many ways to talk about your graduate time as David Foster Wallace would do (and have a look at Infinite Jest’s footnotes to have an idea), there is one time that would never disappear, that is the time that we lack, the time that we may need to do all the things that we want to do.


First year on campus… But not frosh

Parc La Fontaine. Photo by GradLife McGill Instagrammer @aleksbud.

Parc La Fontaine. Photo by GradLife McGill Instagrammer @aleksbud.

Well, September is almost upon us, bringing the start of a new school year. Seeing all of the incoming graduate students arrive in their labs allowed me to reflect upon my own experience of starting grad school one year ago. I came to realize that one aspect I’m happiest about is the fact that I decided to change universities to complete my graduate degree. Starting grad school at McGill was a lot like starting undergrad – except that I was a first year student in a different way. Here are some of the reasons that I’m glad I changed it up by starting grad school at a new university, and what I recommend for new students who are in the same boat this year.

My Advice:

Firstly: Explore Your Surroundings

Moving to a new university for grad school meant I was able to experience a new city. I had already become very familiar with my undergraduate university town, and the change of scenery was refreshing. In a city as large as Montreal, there are endless activities at our disposal; new streets to explore, and new adventures to be embarked upon. One way that I was able to fully take advantage of my new surroundings was to bring my favourite hobbies with me and enjoy them in my new environment. I found new running spots (Mount Royal, Parc Lafontaine, and Lachine Canal are some of my favourites), and different places where I can take interesting photos.

What I recommend to incoming students:  If you’re moving cities to begin grad school, take advantage of every opportunity provided by your new location! Do your best to see how your favourite activities, whatever they may be (reading, art, sports, etc), can be maximized and built upon here, or find a new hobby that is unique to the city (e.g. learning a new language).


Happy Un-New Year!


If you know your Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, you would be familiar with an un-Birthday. As explained by Humpty Dumpty: “There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents… and only one for birthday presents, you know.” (Carroll, 2009). So, an extension of the concept is that any significant day could be celebrated any time – 364 days of the year (minus one of course, because that is the actual day).

Personally, I think September is a better time to celebrate New Year’s Day. Specifically, the day following Labour Day. This year, September 6th. Why? Because everything is ahead, untouched. New classes, new deadlines, new friends to discover. All is possible, ready to be revealed, and free to the imagination. As well, it is really the only time that I find myself setting goals and resolutions. I am back planning now so I can be where I need to be by the end of May 2017. Summer is over, and the time has come to face new challenges. For students, the day following Labour Day is the real fresh start of a new year. The dog days of summer (a summer period marked by lethargy, inactivity, or indolence) are in the past, the seasons are changing, as are daily routines and schedules. So let’s get on with it! What goals and resolutions are you setting as we transition through the Un-New Year?

HAPPY UN-NEW YEAR to all new and returning graduate students. Hope your summer was restful and invigorating. Now is the time to set some goals, and go for it. All the best in the new year. Cheers and good luck.

Carroll, L., Haughton, H., & Carroll, L. (2009). Alice’s adventures in Wonderland ; and, Through the looking-glass and What Alice found there. New York: Penguin Classics.
Photo: Creative Commons Through the Looking-Glass, illustration by John Tenniel. Source:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Humpty_Dumpty_Tenniel.jpg

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