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


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:


Future McGill Graduate Student?

Photo by Maryna Lesoway.

In the last several weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of talking with prospective students who are interested in joining our lab here at McGill. When considering starting graduate studies, particularly when starting a doctorate, it is important not just to check out the website of your potential supervisor and future lab to see that your research interests line up. It’s just as important to meet your potential supervisor, to check in with the students who are currently members of the research group, and to be sure that your personal styles are a good fit. Starting graduate studies is a decision that will make a big change in your life, and it is important to be aware of issues that could arise during the course of your studies.  After all, you will be working together for the next few years! (more…)

Ask, and You Shall Receive

You’ll never know if you don’t try.  The biggest regrets you’ll have in life are risks you don’t take.

There are a ton of cliché lines I can throw at you – but instead, I’ll share with you a little story about taking risks and receiving better-than-expected returns.

I started my master’s only a couple of months ago – I was excited about the prospect of starting some cool research in a new lab.  However, as time progressed, I began to realize that the work I was doing was far off from my expectations.  I found myself becoming less and less motivated, the sparks of interest that I had lit at the beginning of the year began to die out one by one.  I reached a point where I thought I only had two choices – call it quits, or suck it up and go through the next couple years drudgingly just to attach the three letters “MSc” behind my name.  Little did I know that the answer to my troubles was a simple knock on the door away. (more…)

Friendly support or expert advice?

My mother always says that if you have a problem, you should voice your opinion and let yourself be heard, because you are rarely the only one facing that situation. However, I have found this to be a little tricky in grad school.

Your peers are usually your best support group, and this couldn’t be truer than in grad school. Everyone works late hours, goes through frustrating periods, has career crises. They can all relate to what you’re going through, because they’re living it themselves, so you can instantly connect with them.

I recently hit that point in my project where I’m not really sure which direction to move forward in. I have tried lots of different angles that haven’t really panned out. A PhD, by definition, is a novel piece of work, which means you are often the expert you seek to find. No one else can necessarily answer your questions. No shortcuts exist. It’s a process of trial and error, which can sometimes be frustrating and lonely, even though you are not alone. Talking to peers and friends inevitably gets you some of the same suggestions – have you tried A, how about B. Of late, after having tried all options, the answers have become “oh well, that’s too bad,” “good luck,” or “you’ll figure it out.” That’s the kind of stuff my mom and dad tell me. It’s more encouragement than sound advice.

So what do you do when your friends’ and family’s advice seems fruitless?
Back in December 2010, I hit a similar rough patch and decided to head to a conference. I was so frustrated, and I figured that if I went to a conference and bounced ideas off people, it would get me somewhere. My supervisor didn’t think it was a good idea, but he didn’t stop me from going. I decided to pay for it out of my own pocket. It wasn’t far (Philadelphia), and since I knew people who were going, I could crash on their hotel room floor.

Disaster ensued. Well, not quite, but it was definitely overwhelming. I went to ASCB, which is one of the largest conferences in my field. Five days, with over 1,000 posters a day. I met lots of people, but not necessarily the experts I was hoping to find. I came back knowing that I’m not alone and that many others are in the same boat, but without any concrete new experiments to try. My supervisor, politely, didn’t say I told you so, and actually did pay for my registration fees when he found out I had gone to the conference on my vacation.

So this time, being faced with a similar situation, I decided to attend a much smaller conference. My supervisor was on board and even registered to come as well. Two days, 36 posters, and basically every expert in my field. With everyone I met, I could skip the introduction and background, and dive directly into the nitty-gritty details, which made for excellent exchanges and feedback.

I have now returned, feeling rejuvenated and with concrete theories to test out and new experiments to try. They may not work, but at least I know I’ll be testing the right theories. I learned that it’s good to discuss your problems, but it’s even better when you do it with the right people.

The DO’s – Advice on choosing a lab/supervisor

As promised, here is part 2 of the two part series “the do’s and don’ts of choosing a lab/supervisor” (more…)

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