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Believe nothing, question everything and never stop!

When I remember my days as an undergrad, I feel the good old nostalgia of those days when my friends and I gathered in the faculty cafeteria to prepare tests, homework or anything else. However, the challenges are quite different now. Back then the answers were almost absolute. If you were able to read the book and manage to improve your ability to solve logical problems, you were on the other side of the river. During a graduate research, who can say if something is correct or not? Of course, your supervisor (an expert in the field) must have a strong opinion about a subject, but if you find evidence rejecting his/her hypothesis, then who else can give a precise answer? In my own field, there are many questions that nobody has really answered, while some researchers publish papers with vague explanations to incredibly complex phenomena. And inside this whole chaos reside the real beauty of science. Many times we simply have no clue of what is happening. And our sole weapon was created a thousand years ago.

Photo by: @lyly.man #gradlifemcgill
“…after a close room, what hurts them most is a dark room, and it is not only light but direct sun-light that they want… People think that the effect is upon the spirits only. That is by no means the case. The sun is not only a painter but a sculptor.” Florence Nightingale, Notes on Nursing, 1860.


Just one of THOSE days

Photo by H. McPherson

A Reflection of being a Masters degree student teacher with attention/behavioral and learning difficulties.

Have you ever thought about how grad students with learning difficulties manage to successfully navigate grad school?  Have you ever wondered how many grad students have attention/behavioral and learning difficulties?  It is a topic that never crossed my mind, until I had the opportunity to work with a Masters student with attention/behavioral and learning difficulties.  I was the cooperating teacher, RB was my student teacher.  The following is RB’s story:

It was a Monday morning; I had not slept more than three hours, I was tired! I was sure of one thing as I waited for the bus, I was ready but not as ready as I could have been. My lesson plans where set out, my power points made, with the revision questions for the chemistry test clear. I also had my prairie-de-resistances a really “cool” demonstration that would end up with shaving foam being shoot across the classroom.

Before I get into this I guess I should explain a little about who and what I am. I have desied to become a teacher after having a carrier as an engineer. After school I had NO attention of being one for a number of reasons. The first being I had no love for an education system I felt like I had battled against and smashed my head repeatedly against until I had finally graduated with a civil engineering degree. I was at that point in my life whole heartedly uninterested in a system that in my opinion had failed me, I was angry to the point of tears and furious at the injustice of those running the system. Little did I know that my true battle with dyslexia was only just about to being.

Now on this particular day I had woken up late and had to rush out of the house of course I did return to the house after having closed the door to grab the essentials for my very cool shaving form experiment. I was exited and mine experiment as the we before I had show the Chem class a experiment that made a tea bag fly. Which had worked really well as a starting point that lead into class room discussion about the gas laws. As the chemistry class trouped into the classroom I was not ready for them my question paper I clearfull written out with worked answers to go along with my notes had been put down somewhere. I wish I could say bye someone else but that would be a lie its was by me. I actually found the at the end of the day. There appeared that little goblin on my shoulder “you don’t know what your doing and there all going to know.”

It was the trip home. I sat in the car, furious, not only with myself but with the students also, how dare they act like that even if it was my fault. There I was sitting in the car and for the first time I can see/tell my CT is really disappointed with me it was just one little mistake but many big mistakes. I spoke about how angry I was and we talked about the day and those calamity of event that had made the day into what it was. In my mind there were three key points in this conversation, the first question was early and was along the lines of what are you going to do about today because you have 4 or 5 weeks left? I hope answer as someone would expect, “well I am not going to let it happen again because I am furious, I not sure if my reassured her, but she excepted my answer for what it was. The next day I set the rules down once again to the classes and explain that I felt that my classroom which I freely admit is on the edge of caose was never going to enter caoso again that I think I did actually regain her trust. Then there was the question of is it to do with your dyslexia. My answer as always to this question was I am not sure I didn’t think so but, I then told the story about the student Doe Jane and her offering me her tablets [the student offered RB concerta, meds for ADHD– she recognized a need and was trying to help!]. Then my CT laught I knew at that point everything was going to be ok, it was after this she told me I should write this paper so I have. What I have not told her or really told anyone, that I actually new everything would be ok because they the student and my CT had not found out the true. That the goblin that sits on my sholder whispering into my ear, you’re an idoit, you can’t do that, you are going to fail, fail, fail. No your not right You cant be right”. Had not been found, that fact that even me a person how has achieved academically more than many people could even hope for, still thinks of myself as the child at the end of elementary school unable to read a sentence as simple as “Leaves grow on trees.” That the walls I have carefully built around me to hide the “studip” that is at my core. It is this goblin, this stupid core that has driven me to be a teacher for many reasons. The first being that I know that the goblin is lying, I mean it I know he is wrong, but he well at least I think it is sometime he looks remarkable like the face of those teachers I have had over the year who pretend to understand and have those eyes that scream I don’t believe you. 

I will also point out at I don’t make mistakes very often will often writing out everything I plan to say in a lesson and when I do this effectively my lesson run much smoother. I don’t know how dyslexia effects me as a teacher. Was it dyslexia and a little ADHD that made this day leaving me angry and frustrated? Or was it over-confidence, my fixation on my “cool” activity, lack of preparation and my panick when the bell went and I was not ready. Is this something anyone could have happened to or was it my learning difficulties that cause the problem? The most important thing is that I want to prove myself to the students, I what them to believe that I am there to help them, that I am there to help them learn that I am trying to give them the best classroom experience where learning takes place as I can. For me this desire comes from dyslexia. Well what about that goblin, well I can never let you see the goblin the voice of studipidy at my core placed there by a school system them cares nothing for the emotional effects of learning difficulties. Well that little goblin is why I well never think I a good enough why I will always be looking to improve regardless of …. well anything because just like all those with learning difficulties I will never believe I am good enough. I hope this sort of explains that the thing people worry about when they here a student is dyslexic is the wrong.

So that is RB’s story of a day.  Not the best day, but a day of growth, anger, frustration, and ultimately humor and success. I have worked with numerous student teachers over the years.  None were more talented in the classroom than RB.  I found this story heartbreaking – how many young people with disabilities don’t make it?  RB’s story is one of success, founded on grit, determination, and the gift of teaching.  My students will all tell you that they were phenomenally lucky to have had RB as a student teacher.  RB helped students complete high level science fair projects, work on a robotics competitions, prepare them for December exams, inspite of his  less than empathetic experience in grade school. And RB can now add a Master’s degree to an impressive list of credentials.  Bravo!

Societies? A brief comment about Student Memberships

During a conference, an individual with pamphlets will approach you talking about the incredible opportunities you can get when acquiring a student membership for the “(insert discipline here) Canadian/American/International Society”. He/she will tell you that for a yearly fee, you can get access to incredible awards and contacts for your future professional life. However, you should be careful when selecting on who are you going to invest your precious stipend. In my case, I was somehow suspicious about spending any money on something without any immediate benefit. But after a year, I found interesting things. It is important to note that my personal experience is limited to Engineering societies, but some points could be shared with other disciplines. Here are the benefits that I know first hand:


What can the Undergrads teach you?

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @kipunsam.daily

Being a teacher’s assistant (TA) can be hard work. As a TA you’re a font of knowledge, the solution to their problems and the keeper of their GPA. You’re also figuring out things as you go, putting out fires as they happen (hopefully figuratively!) and generally trying to keep up the aura of authority. So whether you are lecturing in a seminar, running tutorials or supervising a lab, like me, it’s as much as learning experience as a teaching experience.

So what have my students taught me? Well, I think you learn different things depending on what kind of teaching you are doing. Fannie described her experience leading seminars and I can only speak to my experience as a TA for a lab course, but here are a few lessons I’ve learned. (more…)

Publier son mémoire, c’est possible!

Camille Robert // Academia

L’automne dernier, j’ai fait la connaissance de Camille Robert, historienne et étudiante en pédagogie de l’enseignement supérieur à l’UQAM. Quand j’ai appris qu’elle faisait des démarches pour publier son mémoire – «Toutes les femmes sont d’abord ménagères » : Discours et mobilisations des féministes québécoises autour du travail ménager (1968-1985) – j’ai été vraiment impressionnée! Comment publie-t-on le fruit de ses recherches?

Quel est le sujet de ton mémoire?

Mon mémoire porte sur les discours et les mobilisations des féministes québécoises autour du travail ménager. Par travail ménager, on entend généralement toutes les tâches d’entretien du logis et de soin des personnes formant l’unité familiale.

Dans mes recherches, j’ai voulu expliquer comment les féministes se sont appuyées sur le travail invisible exécuté par les femmes pour formuler de nouvelles revendications. Au début du XXe siècle, le travail des mères et épouses au sein du foyer a servi de levier pour obtenir certains droits, par exemple le droit de vote. Mais c’est surtout à partir des années 1970 que l’enjeu du travail ménager devient central dans le mouvement féministe. Plusieurs féministes y voient la source de l’infériorité des femmes dans plusieurs sphères de la société… Par exemple, le fait que les professions traditionnellement féminines (enseignante, éducatrice, secrétaire, infirmière, etc.), qui sont en quelque sorte des prolongements du travail ménager, soient sous-rémunérées et dévalorisées. Dans mon mémoire, j’examine également les différentes avenues de reconnaissance du travail ménager proposées par les féministes : salaire au travail ménager, socialisation du travail ménager et réformes gouvernementales.


Pourquoi le doctorat? Parce que… j’aime ça.

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by @yogipetals

À la sempiternelle question «que vas-tu faire avec un doctorat?», je ne sais jamais vraiment quoi répondre. Parce que j’ai quelques idées, mais que je ne le sais pas. Disons que les offres d’emploi qui stipulent que le candidat doit avoir un diplôme de troisième cycle en histoire sont plutôt rares – pour ne pas dire presque inexistantes – et qu’il faut se créer des occasions.

Alors, pourquoi me suis-je embarquée dans plusieurs années d’études, surtout sachant que j’allais avoir une toute jeune famille en même temps? Et que j’avais un travail bien rémunéré?

La réponse, toute simple, est que j’aime cela. J’aime étudier. J’aime lire. J’aime faire de la recherche. J’aime apprendre.


Solidification of a story

Gradlife Instagram photo by @steezsister

McGill Gradlife Instagram photo by @steezsister


Literally, the word “solidification” means making or becoming hard or solid, making stronger. I like to think of this word as a phase change, like from water to ice, or from magma to crystals or marble. The story that I have told so far in “The beginning of a story” and “Successes: the story continues…” has a liquid status that this text aims to solidify. A character without name will get one, a spatial location will be drawn around his body, a past will carve out his shape throughout the page. (more…)

Let’s talk about mental health

Photo from the Berkeley Science Review

Photo from the Berkeley Science Review

If you listen to the radio or watch local TV with any regularity, then you know that last month (Jan 25) was Bell’s Let’s Talk day; a fundraising and awareness campaign that uses social media to raise money for mental health research. And if you’re like most of us, you’ve let the ads come and go, and you may not have thought about mental health since.  But the reality is mental illness is still here, especially in grad school, and it’s an issue we need to talk about.

The University of California Berkley conducted a survey of their graduate students and found that mental wellness issues are alarmingly pervasive in academia.  On their campus, more than half of graduate students reported issues with depression and anxiety!  That’s close to 10 times higher than the national average for the US, and things don’t look much different here in Canada.

Why are grad students at risk? (more…)

What do you do (other than grad school)?

Photo by sasint / Pixabay

Photo by sasint / Pixabay

As a grad student I constantly find myself strapped for time. There is a pile of experiments to be done, lab reports to mark, an apartment to be cleaned and even friends to see. Sometimes it can be hard to juggle all of these things and still keep up with my other interests. However I think that one of the important lessons I’ve learned is that you need something other than grad school to keep you balanced. Maybe it’s a sports team, or a community group, or maybe you volunteer and give back to your community. Healthy McGill is running the Self Care Challenge this week and one of their recurring themes is taking time for yourself. It couldn’t be more important. Personally, I volunteer as a Girl Guide Leader. (more…)

Study better, not harder.

By N. H. Zelt

By N. H. Zelt

Finally, a graduate student. Bet that means I don’t have to study anymore, right? Bet that means I don’t have to know huge amounts of information by specific deadlines, right?. . .Right? Damn.

Fine, but if I still have to know things then I should at least learn things the right way. I read a lot of journal articles, there must be a literature on the best ways to learn things. Luckily, people study studying! So, let’s learn a little educational psychology. (more…)

Being digital humanists….

McGill GradLife instagram photo by @lyly.man

McGill GradLife instagram photo by @lyly.man

Before coming to McGill, I did not know what the expression Digital Humanities means. Now, one year and a half after, I’m focusing my research on this field. I presented it at the last Digital Humanities Showcase that this year took place at McGill on January 26th. It was not only an occasion to share my work with other scholars, but also an example of how this field has become paramount for the curriculum of any graduate student.


To the Conference!

Conference! Those glamorous days when we can wear a nice suit and demonstrate what are we made of in front of dozens of researchers. It can go pretty well and be a good chance to meet new people or make new friends! However, the preparation is essential to achieve your most ambitious plans. Why am I saying this? Well, let’s say that you don’t want to end up stranded in Tijuana on your next travel to a conference. Believe me, you don’t. My first huge conference was on a beautiful beach in the Pacific Ocean, but because of my poor organization, the things went pretty bad the whole trip.


Photo by Luis Villegas Armenta

What did I learn? Let me give you a hand:

  1. Always arrive one night before your presentation if you are planning to arrive by plane. You never know when the weather will look for some fun.
  2. Investigate more than one way to reach the conference hotel. Sometimes the roads can be blocked by a construction or maybe the sea just decided to swallow them (as in my case).
  3. Make sure you have a way to pay for everything you could need (extra cash, debit). It would be a shame if your credit card gets blocked out of nowhere (again, my case).
  4. Find a way to contact the conference staff in case of any complication.
  5. Upload your presentation to a cloud storage. USB´s gets lost just too often.
  6. Bring extra clothes. Always.
  7. Finally, have some fun! Even if something bad happens. At the end, you will always remember the beautiful sunset you saw while eating cold pizza on the beach.

Good luck with those abstracts!

I have two versions of my Master’s thesis

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by @na0mirlima

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by @na0mirlima

Once upon a time, I was doing my Master’s degree about a Latin text found in a big volume written by a Jesuit in 1710. I did a translation from Latin to French and wrote about the author and how his text was presenting the Native Americans. After two years of work, I finally submitted my thesis and started to work in communication, waiting for the result.

One day, I received an email from one of the members of the committee. I was wrong. The text’s author was not an 18th-century Jesuit, it was a 17th-century unknown layman. Please make again half of your thesis.



The next step may be abroad

The picture of Dante holding the Commedia in his left hand is a reproduction of Domenico di Michelino's painting, Florence, 1465.

The picture of Dante holding the Commedia in his left hand is a reproduction of Domenico di Michelino’s painting, Florence, 1465.


What the…What is Dante Alighieri doing on GradLife’s Blog???

Dear Graduate Students, maybe this is going to be your last year at McGill, maybe not. Maybe you are graduating and thinking about what you can do after having gone through the Hell of your thesis and finally got outside of it, on the peaceful and lightened sand of Dante’s Purgatory. If that is the case, then you may find this post interesting. Before writing it, I was thinking about what to publish, then I told myself: “Hey, you are an international student and you took one of the most important decision of your life, let’s talk about how you choose where to go and what to do!”. Here it is then, a few words about people and things that may help you in choosing which path you want to take to climb the mountain of the Purgatory. (more…)

If only I was more organized…

Photo by @kipunsam.daily / @gradlifemcgill

Photo by @kipunsam.daily / @gradlifemcgill

One of my favourite (but often failed) New Year’s resolutions is to be more organized and better schedule my time. Now this is obviously not a SMART resolution, and to be honest I’m not the most un-organized person, but every year I wish I was a little more on top of things and procrastinated a little less. This is especially true this year as I’m hoping to submit my thesis and there are mountains of work to be done!

So how I am going to be more organized? Well Aleks wrote a while ago her top tips for productivity and I like a lot of them, but I thought I would add a couple of my own. (more…)

Successes: the story continues…

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @yogipetals

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @yogipetals

At the end of The beginning of a story, the story was left open on purpose. Hope, possibility, opportunity, chaos, chance were the words that concluded that post, but now it’s time to add chaos to the unfolded life of that character.

The phone was ringing loudly. The noise annoyed him. He answered to just stop it and did not even speak. On the other side of that coded and decoded connection through which a human voice was reaching him, a man was producing sounds with his mouth. The sequence took form and meaning, became denial of purposes and ideas, refusal of something that the guy had sent to the journal whose the man was an editor. You don’t know anything about what you are writing, do you? You should read this and this and this and I will write everything down but your article was so…empty that I preferred to call you to vomit all my disappointment on you. Sounds, meaning and delusion. 


Do you Change the Ideas or the Way of Thinking?

If you are a graduate student and you are reading this, I am almost sure that you know which role you play in this world as a researcher. We are expected to answer the questions that nobody can still answer in order to improve the quality of human life, in the most diverse ways. However, there is another duty we should convey in our lives; one more discrete but not less important work.

Zorro pescao


Photo by Luis Villegas-Armenta

Lately, as I get more involved with scientific work and all my supervisor incentive me to find the ultimate truth behind every statement, I started to do the same with every small thing I find on the internet. This drives me to be more skeptic with many things that were simply unquestionable for me. Unfortunately, if you look at your everyday social media interaction, nowadays some people tend to create all kind of hypothesis and statements about the real world that should worry us all. This could be harmless if we talk about some mean comments in Facebook or YouTube, but if you think about it, in some countries this will be reflected in the population vote, the aversion of people towards vaccines, climate change countermeasures or any other important subject. Even if we are respectful of everyone’s beliefs, we live on the same planet and often country; then their points of view will affect us.

Changing the point of view of people is a very dangerous activity, as sometimes even our own judgment can be deviated from objectivity by our personal experiences. Also, you should not try to make other people think like you. Then, what could be the solution? In my opinion, as graduate students working hard to prove or disprove scientific facts, we can try to make people raise questions about smaller and less important subjects first. If you try to hit the big targets, you will force people to close their minds and see you as another ideological opponent. The idea is to make them question the information whirlwind around them, in a more objective and fact-checked way. For example, is dangerous to use a microwave? The sports drinks are as good as they say?  That post in Facebook is really that reliable? These small things could make people curious about more and more things until at some point, they start to really investigate about important things. The idea is to become a society that takes well-informed decisions and not only goes with some radical website or hate speeches when it comes to big decisions.

In summary, as science emissaries, we must encourage a change in the way of thinking not the beliefs themselves. I hope that in some decades we will reach a point were self-learning and rational thinking, will demonstrate that there is a way to co-exist without boundaries someone else built; boundaries that we accepted just because we were too afraid to learn a little bit more.

Holidays at Home


Photo by jill111 / Pixabay

Like many of my fellow grad students, I travelled home to spend the holidays with my family. I‘m half way though my vacation and things are following the same predictable pattern, more or less. There is the excitement of seeing my parents and siblings, followed quickly by the readjusting to suddenly living with 6 people (I normally live alone). We all open our presents together, play board games and enjoy lots of good food (though this year half of us got food poisoning!). And while I’ve experienced the holiday joy Heather talks about, I also experience the impostor syndrome Angel describes so accurately, especially since everyone knows I’ve been doing cancer research for the last 5+ years. (more…)

The Impostor Phenomenon

As many other friends, I went back home to enjoy the holidays with my family. This should be a time to rest and enjoy the parties, but if you have been out of home for a while and especially out of the country, all kind of questions start coming from everywhere. “Hey! How is Canada?”, “Is it really that cold?” or “How many more years are you going to be away?” Are the preferred ones. However, the more complicated questions usually are “What are you doing in your Ph.D.?” and, “What do you do with a Ph.D.?” Then you can feel proud for a minute explaining the importance of your research and how we contribute to save the world (well, maybe).


Photo by @christinekts #GradLifeMcGill #HappyHolidays #DaysOff #NewbieAtMcGill #christmasisalreadyhere #christmasmodeon #lastdayofexams #cantwait


Photo by @christinekts

Some of us could experience a sense of guilt or even fear at some point. Are we really working in something THAT important? Moreover, if it is, am I really qualified to work on it or am I riding an unstoppable bus to doom? Then you start to feel anxious thinking about all the work piling up in the laboratory. This is by far worse than the disconnection problem I mentioned in my previous article (The vacation boundaries and the “Workshop Blindness”) because this time we are dealing with a self-confidence problem. Naijean S. Bernard et al. [1] defines the Impostor Phenomenon as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness in high achievers who are unable to internalize their successful experiences”. In other words, it means that some capable people are sometimes unable to realize how good they really are, feeling that others will point out them as frauds or cheaters. This seems to be a very common problem in McGill graduate students. I discussed this subject during the Grad Connect Cafes (hosted by Campus Life and Engagement and Career Planning Service) some time ago, and I was just amazed how many students were feeling this way. We talked how we are too hard on ourselves, thinking that only our luck or other advantages brought us all the way long.

If you have this problem, I can tell you only one thing we defined there. Many people achieve great things not only because of their natural talent but mostly because they defied their fear of facing bigger challenges. During this struggle, we could feel overpowered by the task ahead, but it does not mean that we are not good enough to deal with it. The only thing to do is to give your best and be confident about your abilities, as not even all the luck in the world would be enough without the sacrifice and the effort you put in your everyday work. So the next time you feel like this in the middle of your turkey sandwich, try to recognize how really good you are and the achievement that being a graduate student represent. Happy Holidays!

[1]          N. S. Bernard, S. J. Dollinger, and N. V. Ramaniah, “Applying the big five personality factors to the impostor phenomenon,” Journal of personality Assessment, vol. 78, pp. 321-333, 2002.

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