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Enfer et demande de subvention

Photo par: Fannie

Photo par: Fannie

Étudier aux cycles supérieurs c’est bien.

Être payé pour le faire c’est mieux.

C’est pourquoi j’écume les Internets pour trouver des subventions à la recherche. Mais écrire des demandes de bourses peut toutefois être long, pénible, vraiment stressant et frustrant.

Long, parce qu’il faut trouver lesdites bourses, d’abord. Ensuite, chacune d’elles demande des informations, lettres, projets différents. Il faut réécrire chaque fois son projet en fonction de l’angle souhaité par l’organisme subventionnaire. Parfois, il faut remplir une simple petite lettre, dans d’autres cas c’est plutôt un formulaire de 10 pages.

Pénible, certes, ça l’est. Non seulement postuler pour des bourses demande beaucoup de temps qui serait mieux investi dans la recherche (!), mais s’assurer de collecter tous les documents, en certains cas de la part de chercheurs d’universités à l’étranger, c’est épuisant.

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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…)

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!

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

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?

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.

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.

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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…)

My experience at Thèsez-vous

Have you heard about this amazing concept that is Thèsez-vous? It is a retreat for grad students in a beautiful and quiet spot where all you have to worry about for three days is writing. For non-French speaking readers, “Thèsez-vous” is a word play between thèse (a thesis) and taisez-vous which means “Be quiet”.

Introduction

The idea came from graduate students who thought about what could help them and other students in the same situation finish their thesis. It all started in June, 2015 and it has been growing ever since. I heard about it from my colleague who is not only working full time but also struggling to finish her memoir. She thought Thèsez-vous would be a nice push to the finish line.

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Smoothing Out The Grind.

PodCast logo

Part of being a graduate student is liberation! Finally, free of from the shackles of introductory undergraduate classes that are accompanied by the colossus that is studying. Regrettably, being a grad student also pins you into the category of very cheap labor. I personally felt an annoyance of three parts the day I found out that my assistant, a summer student, is paid better than I am because he is paid by the hour.

Though I cannot speak for all graduate students, I do know that for most of my fellow laboratory trainees there exists robots capable of easily automating the larger portion of the bench work we do. That being the case, I am old friends with repetition, a slow and torturous soul-killer that is known to many others as well. Of course repetition is our friend in many ways, helping to squeak our n-values towards significance, still it is also the bane of maintaining an interesting existence.

In my valiant attempts to combat the trials of monotony I have spent a good deal of time sampling the various options available to aid me in battle. Of course the go-to for most people is music, which is all well and good for a lot of people but I have grown to find it disappointingly unstimulating in the long-haul. So what was next for me? Technically I first tried listening to TEDtalk videos as well as talk-radio, but we’ll skip straight to the best thing so far, and that is podcasts! (more…)

How to be a full time graduate student with a dream job?

Studying hard, getting into graduate school to get a better job – yes! Working part-time on the side to pay for your studies, your rent, food or any activity – yes*2. Finding your dream job while you’re still studying, keeping it for experience and potentially as a first job? Let’s try it.

A STUDENT JOB

Let’s talk about the different types of student jobs. You can work anywhere just for the income, with no particular interest in the field, potentially with a good team, close to your place or your university. Any convenience will be appreciated for this type of job but mostly, it pays your groceries and that’s all you need.

Then, there is the golden nuggets kind of student job. Basically, your dream job but two years too early. That’s what I got. I started working for an art gallery two years ago. It was an “on call” job where I was supervising art pieces during private events at the gallery. After a few events, they asked me if I wanted to get a part time job, two days per week working at the front desk. I had to welcome customers, answer the phone, learn a bit about the art, smile and basically just be there. I could even do my homework while working. The perfect combination.

Photo by Marion M.

That was a year and a half ago. I finished my bachelor degree, took some time off whenever I was in a rush for finals or needed vacations.

September 2015, McGill University. A whole new chapter of my life. I started with absolutely no idea of what being a graduate student meant. I thought it was going to be just like undergrad with longer papers and less exams. At the exact same time, I got an offer from the gallery: to become the new community manager, which meant, back then, maintaining our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts up to date. I said I would try it for a month and see how it would fit with school. It worked pretty well.

MY DREAM JOB

I loved having the balance of work and school. On one side I was learning so much from amazing teachers, meeting new people in my field, discovering a new student life, a new campus. On the other side, I had concrete and instant results. I would write a newsletter, translate it, correct it and send it to 2500 people in one click. After that, those people would come and see our exhibitions, they would take photos, post them, tag us, like us, etc. You know how social media works.

Photo by Marion M.

Although I felt like I had found the perfect balance, I realised this only happened because I had seminars to take and credits to earn, in a nutshell, short term projects to focus on. Writing a 100 pages thesis seems like a completely different rhythm.

BALANCE?

Now the dilemma. I spent 20 hours per week at work versus 6 hours per week at school. Since I work on social media, I also get constant notifications and emails that go with the job. Our Facebook page response rate is 3 minutes… You see my problem? I love it so much and I take so much pride in this concrete result that I can’t disconnect. I want to (or do I?) but I don’t know how. I’m physically and mentally always working. At the same time, my thesis subject is great, I’m passionate about it too, but every time, it takes me a while to get into it. I need a few days to focus on school, not think about work and then I can write.

Summer is passing by, September is staring at me wondering how am I going to balance both my job and my thesis.

So far, the best solution I found is this new retreat concept called “Thèsez-vous“. More about it on my next post.

Do you also have trouble balancing your job and your studies?

Calling all Bloggers, Video Bloggers and Instagrammers! Join the new GradLife team.

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Want to share your story? We are looking for grad students and post-doctoral fellows who are energetic, articulate and passionate about their studies and life outside of academia. 

Apply to be a blogger, video blogger and/or, Instagrammer for our new GradLife McGill social media platform.

Deadline: June 15 – Apply here

Follow @GradLifeMcGill on Facebook and Instagram

Sciencescape: A New Tool For Accelerated Efficient Research

Image from Sciencescape

Image from Sciencescape

When my father was a young professional working for a German company designing solar panels, they used to have team meetings almost every day to discuss the progression of the research. Every day, the secretary would be the first one to arrive to scour new articles published in engineering journals in order to keep the team fully updated. He would then type up his findings and make several copies for the attendees to discuss during the meeting.

Now imagine how easier this job would have been if, say, there was a Twitter-like platform where he could log onto from the comfort of his home; check his feed on current literature; receive notifications as soon as a paper gets published; organize the literature in a virtual library; and be able to digitally share this library with the team instead of printing copies. He would be able to cash in quite a few more hours of sleep! But sleeping aside, imagine if you could have a Twitter-like platform being updated 24/7 and notifying you of all the breakthroughs in literature the second they come out. Imagine having not to miss out on reading a recent paper that might greatly improve your research or that might discuss the same experiments you are working on, giving you hints on what works or not so you can change your course accordingly without losing time. Suddenly, being scooped doesn’t feel like the approach of the apocalypse, but a minor setback in the course of your graduate studies.

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Tightrope walking

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I don’t know if other students feel like this at any point in their PhD journey. For me, this sensation has come during the “home stretch”. In other words – at the worst possible time.

It is not uncommon for graduate students to feel down or discouraged at some points of their degree. Everyone knows the PhD road is long and replete with intellectual challenges, time-stealing setbacks, daunting skills to learn in very little time, and experiences that propel us far outside of our comfort zone. It is not uncommon for PhD students to feel fatigued, overwhelmed or disheartened. Waves of negative emotions may come and go, amplified by the constant pressure of deadlines and high standards. It is the small victories in between that make the waves recede and that keep us going, suddenly reminding us of why we love what we do and why we wish to keep doing it.

But that common feeling is not exactly what I am alluding to. This is something a little more difficult to put into words – a feeling of fragility and transience, uncertainty and instability, not only towards one’s work but also one’s own self. Let me try to explain.

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Cornerstones of Academic Writing

Cornerstones of Academic Writing

My journey with academic writing began when I was a senior undergraduate applying for a fellowship. I had never written a research proposal before and so the result of my futile efforts came in the form of a very literary and romantic piece of writing about a faulty protein in Crohn’s disease – certainly not what you would present to a grant committee. The moment I laid eyes on the edits made to my proposal by my supervisor and saw the generous red markings, I almost fell over in my chair. That was a low moment in my writing career. But after I sat down with my supervisor and discussed the edits, things become remarkably clear, making perfect sense. The most valuable lesson I took from him that day was one simple word: Flow, which is the very first cornerstone I will talk about in this article.

Shortly after this incident, I enrolled in a course offered by Graphos and the McGill writing centre called “Cornerstones of Academic Writing”. It was truly a very fun and interactive course that I recommend to graduate students who are struggling with their writing, wish to improve it or simply want to try out an elective in an unrelated field. I’ll be sharing with you a few pointers I picked up from the course.

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Long Distance Supervisorship

I just finished writing my master’s thesis and I am now waiting for formal signatures before I can submit it. The whole experience is still too fresh in my mind for me to provide an objective assessment, but one aspect of my graduate studies is worth talking about: doing research under a remote supervisor.

We all had this experience: it is the lab’s holiday party and everybody is having a good time. When the night is over your supervisor wishes you luck on your next semester and assures you that he will keep contact next year. Your confused look prompts him to divulge more information. You didn’t know it, but he is going on a sabbatical next year so he will be abroad when you pursue your first year of actual research. Memories from previous unattended research come back to you! You steel yourself. At least, you had the experience before. Good night!

Sarah had a piece on long distance relationship during graduate studies. Let this be the post on long distance supervisorship.

Maybe not the best way to keep in touch with your remote advisor (Credits: science-notebook.com)

Maybe not the best way to keep in touch with your remote advisor
(Credits: science-notebook.com)

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

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Somewhere between now and forever. That sounds about right. Isn’t that the gist of your reply to family members and friends who just don’t get why you’re still a PhD student? So much has changed in the world, and you’re still at it. I mean, how long does it take to write a thesis? Just write it already!

But you know, and I know, and Cecilia knows — it’s not that simple.

Or is it?

Unbeknownst to him, my supervisor gave some stellar advice in one plain sentence, a few weeks ago. Although this advice was not directly meant for me, and was part of a general conversation about papers and publications, it’s something I took to heart and have applied ever since: “Just sit down and write it – tell yourself you are going to work for this amount of hours, and sit there and write it”. Just sit down – best advice ever, because it made me concretely realize that writing is not challenging due to a lack of inspiration, but due to a lack of focus. If you give yourself the time and the space to do nothing else but work on writing, there will be no shortage of ideas, arguments, counterarguments and – eventually – words on the page.

I have been writing my thesis full time for two weeks. Every day. The encouraging thing is that it seems to get easier and easier, as does anything after copious amounts of practice.

I think what one needs is a “writer’s toolkit” – some strategies that work for you, that you can stick to, and that can serve as a comfortingly familiar routine, to help ensure your success on this writing mission.

Here is my toolkit:

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

One aspect of our graduate student life at McGill that truly stands out as exemplary to me is the sheer number of resources in place to buttress our burgeoning professional careers. I am amazed that, even as a senior PhD student, I am constantly finding out about organizations, workshops and tools that I did not know of the year before. We are blessed to have such an incredible framework of support at our university, and to have a wealth of information and support right at our fingertips. I’ve compiled a list of valuable resources for students who currently are or soon will be enrolled in a graduate program at McGill. In here is basic information I found out about when I first arrived, as well as information I found out about just last week! I hope that many of you will benefit from this information and will know where to turn when in need of more.

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

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

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