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December stresses me out!

Photo by @aliisonw // Instagram @gradlifemcgill

Photo by @aliisonw // Instagram @gradlifemcgill

It’s officially mid-December and you know what that means. Snow, slush and exams! It’s the time of year where every coffee shop in a 20 minute radius of campus is full of undergrads and graduate students alike studying hard for exams. Personally, I’m in my last years of a project-based degree, so I finished my course work some years ago and I do not miss it one bit. The sleepless nights, the stress eating, and the caffeine-induced eye twitches are mostly issues of the past for me, but I feel for all of you out there currently in the middle of exam season. It is not fun, but hopefully it will be over for you soon.

Now while I don’t exactly have exams to manically cram for, this time of year brings my own special brand of stress, my annual committee meeting. Now I know not all the departments are the same, but as a Biochemistry graduate student you have to assemble a committee of professors (at least 2 plus your supervisor) that you meet with at least once a year to make sure your work is on track. Unfortunately mine has been pushed all the way to the end of this year.  All things considered, I prefer this annual evaluation to any exam I’ve written but it is still incredibly stressful. Basically it’s a presentation where I show all the work I’ve done over the years and I’m questioned on what I know, what I think and what I want to do next. (more…)

Goodbye, students from my conferences!

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by @kipunsam.daily

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by @kipunsam.daily

For the second time in my life, I was a TA. For 10 weeks, I had to read the assign articles and books of a class and prepare questions in order for students to discuss in the conferences.

Last year I wanted to die because I didn’t even know what conferences were supposed to be (I never had that kind of activities at the University of Montreal), and I had to entertain twenty young students in English.

This year, I was more comfortable. Still stressed, but less. Ouf!

I met incredible students, opened to the world, expert-to-be in their own field, nice and funny. Some were really helpful, correcting my English pronunciation or translating for me. Some encouraged me by their smile. It was really, at least I hope, a multidirectional exchange of knowledge.

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Conferences & Conferences…

 

Photo by a tiny conference organizer (Paolo Saporito)

Photo by a tiny conference organizer (Paolo Saporito)

In any language of this world, Graduate Life’s translation could easily be “Conferences”. Conferences here, conferences there, doesn’t matter who you fero cum or you want to confer (for those of you who understand Latin)…this is a word whose echo stressed, stresses and will stress most of our readers. Then, if you are one of those who have ever wondered “confer…hence?”, you may want to have a look at this post, where I’m going to share with you the amazing experience of being not a speaker, not a presenter, not a panel spectator who struggles to get more free-food than the others, but a conference organizer, the most grey, banal, yet amazing figure in this world of weird translations.

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Grad School! But then what? (Part 2)

Photo by @aleksbud / Instagram @gradlifemcgill

Photo by @aleksbud / Instagram @gradlifemcgill

A couple weeks ago I expressed some of my anxiety about my future career plans, my decision to explore my options other than a post-doc and a Career Development Day I was organizing. The event was a rousing success! (I might be a bit bias.) Organizing the event was a learning experience in itself and I’ll talk more about my experiences working with BGSS in a future post but here are the 4 top things I learned from the event.

1. Know what is important to you.
This was an exercise from the Individual Career Planning workshop run by CaPS. Basically you make a long list of different values you might look for in a job (ie. work-life balance, high salary, security, flexibility, problem solving etc.) You take these and put them into 3 piles; needs, wants and neutrals. Then you take your “needs” and order them from most to least important. When you really sit down and think about it, you might be surprised by what aspects are the most important to you, I know I was. Once you have your list you can see patterns and maybe associate them with certain careers. Better yet, give it to a friend; they might see things in there that you can’t. This activity really helped put things into focus and is allowing me to look for careers that will fit with who I am.

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Applying to Grad School: An overview

When I think about how uncertain and nervous I was about applying and beginning grad school this time last year, I always give out a loud laugh, brimming with relief. As an international student, I had to think about how many universities I need to apply to (the application fees are pretty high), whether I was qualified enough for each of those (the level of study/syllabi are completely different), and how I was going to manage my finances (I still convert prices from dollars to rupees and moan about how costly food is in Canada). Taking a loan is a pretty big deal, especially when the loan amount is huge and you’re unsure whether you’ll get a job right after grad school. In my case, since I wanted to get into a biological sciences field with the intention of doing a PhD after, I had to think twice. Do I take a loan of almost 40,000 USD for two years, and do a PhD after? How could I repay it on a PhD salary? More importantly, will I even get into a university? (more…)

#DesautelsFamily

Bronfman Building, Desautels Faculty of Management and snow

Bronfman Building, Desautels Faculty of Management and snow || Photo by Akshay Kohli

It’s been a while now that I stood in front of the Bronfman building’s main entrance at Sherbrooke and admired the history of it all and the legacy that I am a part of. A year, to be precise, since that moment when I ‘looked up’ to realize my existence in front of a building which, in the last few decades, has made many dreams come true. I, like 76 other MBA students, started my MBA at Desautels Faculty of Management in August 2015 and remember when most of us saw the building for the first time, gazing at the red frame shining in the sun, smiling in hope. The construction in front of the gates doesn’t help but we have completely forgotten to stand still, take a breath and look up to the place we are at. The place which has been our home for the last one year.

                The MBA students at Desautels faculty of Management spend most of their time at the third floor. It is not uncommon for students to spend five or maybe six days a week at that floor attending classes, meeting for group projects, completing assignments, planning for club events, chilling, meeting with faculty, tweaking resumes, flirting, writing cover letters, reading cases, searching incessantly for job postings, writing emails in the name of networking and what not. Just as we fail to notice the significance of the Bronfman building in the midst of it all, we forget that these wonderfully passionate people who are at it day in and day out are life stories which are germinating at the moment in the ‘greenhouse of careers’ that Bronfman building is. Typing away amidst all the anxiousness, loneliness, happiness, irritation, joy, disappointments, deprivation, and other spectrum of feelings that an MBA student goes through what keeps them going is the passion that they came here with (and the fact that the debt is real).

                A mother of two toils away to learn to apply business strategy and at the same time hopes that the kids are taken good care of by the husband, a husband, living away from his wife with the hope to change careers and can’t travel home on all weekends due to the piling school work, students from the other side of the world are looking to only go back home to meet their dear ones once they have a job that they want, and some students have been experts in their fields, in their country, but change of location has deemed their skill not as valuable. The struggle is real, but at the end of the day (or semester) these, and many more students, still have a smile on their faces because all of us care. The faculty of management brands us as the #DesautelsFamily but it is not just a branding exercise, it is the root of our existence and success at Bronfman.

I was speaking to a first year MBA student and he said that despite all the challenges that students face at school and in the Canadian market, the reason that we are still going strong is because “They Care”, the faculty cares for each student. No matter what the circumstance, the students of our MBA program should learn one thing- to “Take Care” of their surroundings and the people in them. The students of the #DesautelsFamily, in my opinion, don’t necessarily want to take over the world, but to “make the world a better place” and it’s happening right here at the Bronfman building.

Finally, the construction in front of Bronfman building has stopped and I finally got a chance to stand still, this time in the snow, and admire the house of our big family. Visit us sometime.

———————

For philosophical musings, Twitter @akshayleo25

Read it and Weep

 

H McPherson

H McPherson

The urban dictionary uses the expression “Read it and Weep” in the context of giving someone bad news, especially if that news is in written form. However, I am using the expression in a purely literary sense.  Although I am perhaps more than two years away from even beginning to write my PhD dissertation, I have been reading award winning alternative dissertations.  What I have read are things of beauty. Articulate, exquisitely crafted, rich with colorful imagery, depth and control of relevant theories. Some extend the boundaries of the genre moving between theory, fiction, autobiography, stream of consciousness fragments, poetry, epistolary forms, and bricolage. Some are hybrids that blend autobiography, ethnography, visual, and performative arts. Once upon a time, I did a MSc in plant breeding and genetics.  Quantitative all the way.  Hard science, pure science. Clean, precise. Predictable. Then my head went BAM and that is now all over. The end of my engagement with quantitative methodology. There is something about the depth and richness of context, of the ability to capture what people have to say in their own words, to describe experiences with emotion and depth. Qualitative methods, language – every word carefully chosen.  Every sentence slowly crafted.  A slow crescendo of language and theory building to a denouement, the outcome of a well-crafted story, where secrets are revealed, leaving no loose ends. There is no going back. I have found a new home.

 

Urban Dictionary, November 24: Folx. (n.d.). Retrieved Novmber 27, 2016, from http://www.urbandictionary.com/

Do you have what it takes?

As the end of fall semester gets closer, days become shorter both literally and figuratively. Many of you may know that graduate students have to deal not only with their lectures but also with teaching assistantships, papers, presentations and any other duty to be done. We are the hidden cogs of the academic machinery that keep the academia running, but this noble labor requires an exceptional kind of person.

What makes us suitable for graduate school? Is it only a matter of being smart? Try to think about this for a few minutes on your next trip to the laboratory. Maybe you are an exceptionally smart buddy, but what if you are too shy to speak in public? In this case, you will have to face your fears and confront a set of academics along with a room full of people, which will not hold back just because you are nervous. Maybe you are smart and confident, what about discipline and organization? Do you have the habit of reading by yourself these papers and write your reports? Can you keep track of every experiment and every result without turning your desk into a war zone? Sometimes your supervisor will try his/her best to make time to discuss with you, but most of the time you will have to show that you can be an independent researcher who brings reasonable good results. Ok, so you are smart, confident, disciplined AND organized. Then how do you feel emotionally? Can you deal with failure, lack of motivation and even depression? That without mention that many times you are thousands of miles away from your loved ones and all the things that were familiar to you. In summary, what it takes to be here? A lot. Really a lot. Because even when you lack any of the previously mentioned characteristics you are here doing the job. Because with every one of your weakness and demons you are here doing your best. So for all of my fellow graduate students, fear nothing. You are exceptional human beings and I really hope that this end of the semester you get that paper done, have an amazing thesis defense or that those results finally make sense. Only the best for all of you.

Grad School! But then what? (Part 1)

Photo by @christinekts, Instagram @gradlifemcgill

Photo by @christinekts, Instagram @gradlifemcgill

Do you ever think about what you’ll do next after grad school? Does that thought ever scare you? Over the last few months I’ve been thinking more and more about this. I have about a year and a half left and thinking about what comes next has left me with more than a few sleepless nights. It’s a big decision to come to grad school but there are also big decisions to make when you’re about to leave.

It doesn’t help when you’ve heard the stories about how hard it is becoming in academia, especially when you look at the statistics. In 2012, ASCB published a graphical representation of current biology PhD career paths that suggests less than 10% of current graduate students will get a tenure-track academic position. A NIH working group found that while PhDs awarded in biomedical sciences has doubled in the last 20 years faculty positions certainly haven’t and they found over 1/3 of biomedical PhDs are working in non-research related careers.

Now it’s not all doom and gloom, don’t get me wrong. But it is a reality we all need to be aware of and something we need to prepare for while we are doing our degrees. (more…)

Dear Edward Snowden…

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by : @digitalpigeons

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by : @digitalpigeons

“Standing in line to

See the show tonight

And there’s a light on

Heavy glow….”

(Lyrics from The Red Hot Chili Peppers – By the Way)

Verses, words that many of us know, words that came to my mind that late afternoon when nobody-knows-how many students, professors, people of the McGill community waited for hours before listening to Edward Snowden. I was among them and I strongly believe that GradLife should have a page about this event, about his words.

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How to be creative in an academic environment?

This question has been haunting me for the past six months. I may have already told you this, but I am a graduate student in French literature at McGill. I am doing my dissertation in both research (30 pages) and creative writing (70 pages).

For the past six months, I have been struggling with – what I call – an « administrative paper ». A seven-page paper describing and explaining my dissertation to convince my thesis a committee that it is interesting enough for the university and that they should allow me to start the writing process.

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @na0mirlima

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // Photo by @na0mirlima

I had an interesting conversation with one of my fellow GradLife McGill team members. She was taking a class in which she had to be creative and write about her thoughts on a subject. Since she works in science, she is more used to experiments and results, not necessarily giving her opinion on her work. In my mind, I had the exact opposite dilemma. I was faced with an assignment asking me to prove – based on sources and research – the interest in my field, while I’m used to giving my opinion.

I discussed this with different people in various disciplines and encountered a contemporary artist from London. He told me about his experience at Oxford University, saying: « We were the only ones creating in an environment where everyone else was analyzing. »

Here it is: I need to analyze things as a first necessary step towards creating.

My conclusion is that: in order to be creative in an academic environment, you need to follow the steps. You can’t rush things and create without a well thought out and well proven process. Don’t forget, you are writing a dissertation that might inspire others after you and that needs to add something to your field of study. You are contributing to research! Isn’t that what grad school is all about? Contributing.

What about you? Are you more of a creative or a research type of student? Do you sometime doubt how your work can « fit » within the academia standards?

Survival 101 (The first time away from home)

As a 20-something student who’s never really been away from home for long periods of time, it sure is tough to move to a whole other country to pursue higher studies. Especially if that other country is around twenty thousand kilometres away, and looking at the air ticket prices makes you want to close your eyes and use your imagination instead. I had decided that I wanted to pursue higher studies way back when I began my undergrad. I wanted to experience how it felt being away from home and having to manage everything by yourself. And so I decided to go to university… on a different continent. A completely different place. Alone (well, alone-ish). Yay! Fun. (more…)

The Dream You Don’t Dream

The Samuel Bronfman building is the house of business studies at McGill University. Each year a batch of students begin their two years journey of dreaming and a batch leaves the building with the satisfaction of having achieved their dreams and the joy that the last two years bought to their lives. But there are some dreams that no one dreams and that dream that you don’t dream is reality that surpasses your expectations. Something that you never imagined or fleetingly hoped for but never expected.

In 2012, five students got together at the third floor of the Bronfman building and decided that they want to tackle the problem of world food scarcity. They did not know what they would achieve but they had the courage to take up this challenge while braving the rigors of an MBA course. The team saw a spectrum of ups and downs but one year later in September 2013, the same five students from McGill University won the Hult Prize with their unique solution of using insect-derived flour to win a bid to address food security, in the process winning USD $1Million as seed funding to further pursue their idea. It has been three years since they won and the Aspire Food Group is still going strong with their mission of providing a sustainable food source to millions of people around the world.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton with McGill’s 2013 winning team (from left to right): Jesse Pearlstein, Shobhita Soor, Zev Thompson, Gabriel Mott and Mohammed Ashour. / Photo: AP Images for the Hult Prize

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton with McGill’s 2013 winning team (from left to right): Jesse Pearlstein, Shobhita Soor, Zev Thompson, Gabriel Mott and Mohammed Ashour. Photo: AP Images for the Hult Prize

The Hult Prize is the world’s largest student competition for social entrepreneurship and this year’s challenge is centered on “the refugee opportunity”, specifically reawakening human potential, and build sustainable, scalable social enterprises that restore the rights and dignity of 10 million refugees by 2022. Students have an opportunity once again to tackle an issue where social enterprises of any kind can help attain the target. The beauty of Hult Prize is that with such a broad topic, it allows students from all backgrounds to view the challenge with a different lens and uniquely use their skills in the quest to find solutions.

On Sunday, December 4th , McGill University is hosting Hult Prize @ McGill — the university-level competition for the prestigious Hult Prize. Winners from the university level event will go on to represent McGill at the regional competitions in March 2017. The winners of the regional event will then participate in a six-week long accelerator to refine their ideas before presenting at the finals at the annual Clinton Global Initiative in September 2017 and get a shot at securing USD $1Million as seed funding.

The Aspire group probably didn’t dream this before it happened, maybe you haven’t dreamed it as yet. But this is your opportunity to live the dream that you may have never dreamt and in the process impact the lives of billions of people.

Those interested in participating can find more information about the McGill competition and the Hult Prize. Follow Hult Prize on Facebook to get updates of events and workshops.

 

A Friend in Fear

It’s that time of year again, when the streets are lined with ghouls and monsters, department stores are filled with plastic skeletons and more candy than they have room for, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s finally Halloween! Even though I’m a sucker for all things pumpkin, I’m most excited about all the new horror that comes with each Halloween season.

pumpkin patch

I’ve always loved anything that’s designed to scare. Ghost stories, zombie hoards, slasher flicks, you name it; I was that kid in junior high that made my friends watch the Blair Witch Project for my birthday party! There’s just something so exciting about the sense of unease that comes with being scared and so, it seemed fitting that my first post with GradLife McGill should be about fear.

Of course I’m not alone in my love of horror, and perhaps it’s not surprising that my grad student tendencies lead to me wondering why so many of us are drawn to fear. A couple PubMed searches later and it turns out that I’m not alone in my curiosity either.

Researchers have looked at the allure of being scared from many angles and in many disciplines. Some psychologists have theorized that people are drawn to horror as a way to “practice” reacting to real-life situations (1). There’s even research on how horror movies help bond couples on dates (2)! After all, according to data scientists at OkCupid, liking horror movies is the number one predictor of long term relationship success (3). But as a meta-analysis in Media Psychology points out, the love of being scared might all come down to the way we interpret our reactions (4). In other words, some of us are drawn towards fright because we also experience excitement that we interpret as pleasurable; this also helps to explain why, although we all get scared, only some of us enjoy it.

I personally identify with the pairing of fear and excitement. I’d even add that fear can also be a powerful source of motivation; it’s just a matter of pointing that motivation in the right direction. Four years ago, the idea of moving across the country and starting a graduate degree and a new life away from everything I knew was absolutely petrifying, but it was also exciting. I used that feeling of terror in the pit of my stomach to push me towards my goals and, although it’s definitely not been easy, it was the right choice.

My grad school life, like many others, is full of situations that scare me. Whether it’s starting a new experiment with my hypothesis on the line, or taking on the mentorship of an eager, impressionable undergraduate, the excitement of what could happen is always accompanied by a vein of fear. So while I sit here surrounded by glowing jack-o-lanterns and with a classic horror movie playing in the background, I’m reminding myself to embrace my fears, and to use them to make the most of opportunities as they come along.

After all, grad school is terrifying. But maybe that’s why I’m here.

IMG_20161028_213938 (2)

 

Works cited:

1Christian Jarrett (2011). The lure of horror. The Psychologist. 24:812-815

2Zillmann et al. (1986). Effects of an opposite-gender companion’s affect to horror on distress, delight, and attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(3): 586-594.

3 Rudder, Christian (2014). Dataclysm: who we are when we think no one’s looking. New York, New York: Crown Publishers.

4Hoffner and Levine (2005). Enjoyment of Mediated Fright and Violence: A Meta-Analysis. Media Psychology, 7: 207-237

Graduate studies: A decision between adventure and chaos – Part 2

Imagine yourself about to jump from a bungee platform. You will see the abyss below you and the urgent feeling of retreat. In that moment you have to options: chicken out and live with the shame in your comfortable way of living… or you jump and see the experience by yourself. In my very personal perspective I would not make the jump as I don’t see the point of throwing yourself off a cliff just for the “YOLO”.

20161031_131903

Photo by Luis Villegas

But I guess that I had a similar feeling when I was about to enter the manager’s office to explain to him that I was about to quit to go back to graduate school. Metallurgy and Materials Engineering to be precise (more details in the previous post Graduate studies: A decision between adventure and chaos – Part 1). He was a nice boss, but he was also a strong old-shaped man whose perception of academic life was not very positive. “Are you going there on the afternoons?” he asked, and I had to explain that actually, I was presenting my resignation. I could feel the disappointment when he reclined in his chair and threw a quick glance to me, but there was nothing I could do. I received several bad opinions from some friends and other close people about my decision by then, so I was starting to get used to that particular reaction. The notice was official, my replacement was selected and started to train him. I received good wishes from my colleagues and I remember that the very last day when I step outside the factory, I felt like I was ready to take over the world. Unfortunately, things started to get crazy during my first weeks in grad school. First of all, my paycheck reduced dramatically for obvious reasons. Second, for some strange phenomena, all days were Wednesday. That day of the week where you do not know if you should press harder as in Monday or to take it easier as in Friday, feeling in a procrastination limbo that lasted 2 years. Working on Sundays? Of course! There is no better day to put your thesis drafts together. Going out on Monday? Why not! After a while, a Tuesday is not really different from a Saturday.  I lost the perception of time in a very interesting way. The days were longer now. There was no work cellphone to wake me up at 3 a.m. However, now sending emails and writing abstracts at 4 a.m. was perfectly normal. At least I could justify my nocturnal eating habits.

All of this was really hard at the beginning, and I could feel tired, more stressed and a little bit paranoid sometimes. But I was excited like never before, my research took me to different places in my own country, I met amazing people and I discovered a whole new world of information. And then the best came when I realized that it did not have to end there. What if I could go further and get a bigger challenge? There was an old wish in my vault waiting since I was a teenager. And there was a maple leaf on it.

Late Entry: When is the right time to do a PhD?

 

Photo:  H. McPherson

Photo: H. McPherson

I have not counted the number of times that someone has asked: So why are you doing a PhD? The question does not stem from genuine interest in my proposed research, nor does it come from an interest in my possible future career aspirations in academia. Rather, the question arises because I am clearly old(er). Over 50 older.

In our department (DISE), the age of doctoral students is more or less 1/3 under 30, 1/3 between 30 and 45, and yes, 1/3 between the ages of 45 and 60. No one asks the under 30 crowd why they are doing a PhD. It is understood that they wish to challenge themselves, or they feel a driving force to explore and learn new things, to improve their abilities to understand and solve problems, and they all hope to find a career in academia. This is obvious, and to ask this demographic why they are doing a PhD would be superfluous. The trajectories of 30 – 45 group are similar, with the added experience of engaging in the job market for a number of years, and a sense of certainty that research and academia are truly where they want to be. Again, this is not questioned.

And that leaves the last third. Myself and the other late entrants. So here is why we are doing a PhD. We are all in the last 10 years of our career. We all have unanswered structural questions about how things are organized in our respective professions, and so back to school we went. I think the main characteristic we all share is curiosity and a sense that completing a PhD will be personally fulfilling. Our careers are rewarding and we are happy in our careers. We are all working full time or part time, and are pursuing a PhD full time. But there is that intangible something that meant, for all of us, that this journey had to be initiated. This was made possible because all graduate courses in the Faculty of Education are offered at night. Which implies that the nature of education, being an applied discipline, genuinely values/needs PhD students who possess a clear intellectual and academic thread to their portfolio that is combined with previous work experience in the field of education.

Each age group in our program has unique strengths that we bring to our studies. The under 30 group has no responsibilities, no money, and a clear and concise vision of where they are going. Late nights are just late nights. The 30-40 age group bring experience to the table, and a drive that comes from having done something else and knowing precisely why they are pursuing a PhD. Many of the students in this demographic have young children, and are juggling job, family, and school. Hats off to them – their juggling expertise has the respect of all. Finally, the late entrants have adult or almost adult children, which means free time, a fulfilling careers, and a thirst for answers. Just please don’t ask us, “So uh, WHY are you doing a PhD?

When is the right time to do a PhD? Well, when the time is right for you. Anytime is the right time. Enjoy the journey and embrace the roller coaster ride. Just do it!

The beginning of a story…

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @na0mirlima

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @na0mirlima

 

Definitions of stories are enough to say that they are the way our life runs, works and expresses itself. Every act, every action, every single gesture or word is a component of that story that we tell by living. Then, let’s write a different story, one that would not describe a graduate life as a report, but one that conveys the sensations that graduate students feel in their day-by-day journey. Let’s put a character in the middle of something, a character that shows the way we are, faces reality the way it is, as many of us do. Although generally known as fiction, sometimes narratives can be the only way to clearly describe what we feel, what things are and not what they should be. Enjoy.

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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

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.

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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?

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