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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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We are all Philosophers

About two years ago I was attending the going-away party for a member of my lab. He had successfully defended his PhD thesis and landed a job overseas at a very well known internet company. We were ‘shooting the wind’ as the cool kids say and some drinks had been emptied before we ventured into ‘changing the world’ discussions.

At some point he was asked something about ‘ideas’ to which he replied “Well what is an idea, really?”. I quipped “woah, mind…[open my hands around my head]… blown!”. And yet, here I am 2 years later, seriously wondering about it.

Well, what is an idea, really?

(Credits: Fair use originally from themindfulword.org)

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The trick to writing

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

Writing

Joost Swarte

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

The trick to writing is to write.

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

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

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

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

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To tweet or not to tweet: why use social media?

I’ve recently been bitten by the twitter bug.

 

A little birdie told me.

I’ve had an account for years (Twitter says since 2011), but I’ve only started using the social media platform in the last couple of months. A recent conference here in Montreal had a big social media push, and several of my friends and colleagues are tweeters, so I tried my hand at it. I have since been posting fairly regularly. Not only have I learned that live tweeting is a lot harder than it looks, but I’ve also learned that twitter is a pretty awesome tool. Here are some of the things I think are the most useful about it:

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Let’s talk business

During Winter 2014, I participated in Basic Business Skills for Non-Business Graduate Students (BBS), offered through SKILLSETS. Recently, I sat down with David Syncox, Graduate Education Officer, to learn more about the course.

Could you give me some insight on how the course came about?

It really is a fairy tale story. Two PhD candidates, one from Experimental Medicine and the other from Human Genetics, had the idea of setting up a lecture series on basic business skills. Unfortunately, even though they were part of a student consulting group at McGill, they experienced difficulties in doing so.

These graduate students came to me in 2009, right after SKILLSETS had been founded, and together we created BBS. To their credit, they worked tirelessly to coordinate the series, picking topics, determining the cases, booking rooms, and inviting presenters. During the first session, in Winter 2010, we had 30 students. By Fall 2010, we had 150 people apply for 50 spots. We quickly realized this was going to be a very popular course, and we needed to scale-up our capacity to accommodate students.

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Concept Mapping with the McGill Library

Concept mapping is a way to link ideas and concepts in a visual and easy to follow way. Yesterday, I participated in a workshop held at the McGill Library that was all about using this method to organize and visualize ideas. So why would a graduate student want to spend part of their day learning about concept mapping? Aside from adding another bit of non-standard software to my computer, concept mapping seems to be a useful way of connecting ideas; be that as part of a research project, a course curriculum, or even a way of collaborating with others.

At the most basic level, concept maps consist of two ideas linked by an arrow labeled with words or phrases that connect the two ideas in a meaningful way. The example given in the session was (pie) –is–> (good). Voilà, a concept map! Yes, this is really a technique that can be used for just about anything. Several ideas can be linked using linking phrases, and gradually built into a map of concepts, which can help to to clarify concepts, and more interestingly, highlight areas where connections could be made.

A concept map about concept maps. From the IHMC Cmap Tool Website, http://cmap.ihmc.us/

 

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Keeping it trivial

Some of his woodcuts are titled Puddle, Dolphins, and Metamorphosis. Though he did not have a significant mathematical background, he was fascinated by figures such as Necker Cubes that are contradictory. This artist usually made lithographs, including Still Life with Spherical Mirror, Relativity, and Drawing Hands. For ten points, name this 20th Century Dutch graphic artist whose pictures contained logical contradictions.

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“Don’t let your degree get in the way of your education” …

The MOC House!

The MOC House!

Hidden McGill gems, part 2: after cooking with the Midnight Kitchen a few weeks ago and reporting about it on this blog, I want to bring up another great group on campus: the McGill Outdoors Club (MOC). As its name suggests, the Outdoors Club is an all-purpose sports/travel/adventure club which serves as a hub for outdoor activities of all kinds. What’s not to love?

And yet, having known of the MOC for two years, I had, until recently, never done anything with it. Not, mind you, for lack of opportunities: their mailing list, which I’ve been on since I’m at McGill, witnesses emails every day from people proposing trips and offering shared rides for anything from skiing at Mont Tremblant to trekking in up-state New York (or just building snowmen on McGill’s lower fields). I was even an MOC member last year, but no – no trip, no outdoors, no adventure; it was always for “next time”, when I would have fewer things on. But not this time! After one and a half years at McGill, it was time to stop “letting my degree getting into the way of my education” – the MOC’s motto, incidentally. And – *spoiler* – it was fantastic.

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Be kind to yourself

kind to yourself

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

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

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

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Food for Everybody! Cooking with the Midnight Kitchen

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The Midnight Kitchen in Action

One of the better-kept secrets among graduate students on campus is the Midnight Kitchen. The Kitchen – also known simply as ‘MK’ – is a non-profit organization that provides a free, balanced and complete vegan lunch to students, every day of the week, every semester, since 2002. Whilst it is quite famous among undergraduates – partly because it operates out of their SSMU building (3600 McTavish) – it is somewhat less well-known among graduates, although it’s always been open to them, too. Either way, I wanted to take a look behind the curtains, and so I decided to join the MK team for a morning, to cook it up for the around 250 hungry students – grads and undergrads alike – that were, like every day, to be expected for lunch!

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Formatting: An unexpected challenge of thesis-writing!

Photo credit Help Desk, reed.edu

As spring approaches, so do some important deadlines for graduate students. For many of us, we’ll be submitting an initial draft of our thesis in April, which is (eep) less than a month away!

As I putter on, editing my manuscripts, polishing my introduction and conclusion, I can’t help but notice something I truly didn’t expect. Who would have thought formatting could take up so much time?

Maybe you Word-savvy readers would scoff at the reality I’m facing. What’s odd is that I always found myself to be pretty competent at copy editing and formatting. Maybe it’s the size of the thesis that is making things a little complicated. For one, my citation management software, EndNote, is acting a little funny; like it’s tuckered out and can’t handle more than 70 citations at once. Or, maybe it’s that my table of contents is three pages long and his having a little meltie.

My table of contents just can’t handle it right now
Photo credit: Nancy K. Sullivan

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White Night

(credits: photo - Yunpeng Li, 'giffing' - me

(credits: photo – Yunpeng Li, ‘giffing’ – me)

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Sarah uses this

Read on to find out how you get a picture of a brain cell that looks like fireworks...

Read on to find out how you get a picture of a brain cell that looks like fireworks… Brain cell pic by Sarah Konefal. Fireworks pic from commons.wikimedia.org)

In January, Guillaume posted about what he uses to get stuff done.  I’m following that up with my own post about what I use, which will highlight some of the research I am doing right now. This will  include lots of pretty pictures like the one shown here!

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