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Three weeks of travel, networking and fish & chips (II)

After four days in London, it was suddenly time to switch gears – time to get into an academic frame of mind, time to spend more time reading lengthy articles than sorting through hundreds of pictures, and time to venture out of my comfort zone and network as much as possible, rather than being perfectly content wandering through a city where not a single person knew my name.

I tucked my London ticket into the zippered pocket of my backpack and pulled out the ticket I needed next. I was off to Bangor, Wales – a place I knew nothing about, except that it was a University town, and that some amazing bilingualism and neurolinguistic research is going on over there.

Photo by Kristina Kasparian


Three weeks of travel, networking and fish & chips (I)

Photo by Kristina Kasparian

You’ve never been to London? How could that be?”

I’ve had to answer variations of that same question – posed each time with the same sentiment of surprise – on numerous occasions over the last couple of years. As an avid traveler and as someone who spent nearly every weekend of her European Master’s degree jetting off to another capital city, it amazed people (and me) that I had still not been to London, or to any other city in the UK for that matter.

And so, because fate kept London away from me a little while longer – until the right opportunity would present itself for me to be London-bound —the city quickly became a dream for me. It was finally this July, on my way to a summer school in my field of research, when I would finally have a ticket to London in my name.

And let me tell you – I was excited! I read the Lonely Planet London cover to cover (those of you who know me well can attest that I am a very slow reader who rarely makes it to the back cover). I blared London Calling at least once a day (much to the dismay of my husband, who hates hearing the same song over and over again). I even bought myself a Keep Calm and Carry On travel journal in anticipation. By the time I was scheduled to leave, I knew a lot about the city, except about how it would FEEL.

The plan was to spend four days in London, before heading on to Bangor, in Wales, to attend the International Summer School on Bilingualism for two weeks. After a very busy few months of meticulously designing my experiments for my PhD research and having to solve one challenge after another, I was looking forward to taking a break from my routine and life at the department, and hoped to come back refreshed and inspired.


Learning to say no

One of the most important aspects of both my personal and my academic life is that I truly enjoy being there for others, being generous with my time and helping out whenever I can. I also love to live new experiences, to keep learning and moving, and to give back to a universe that has given me so much. And, according to the people who know me best, it seems like I have a self-inflicted disease of not being able to sit still and let myself get bored for a bit. According to my mom, my plate always has to be piled high with things to do and, unless I have over three-hundred boxes to check on a to-do list, I just wouldn’t be me.

Well, this blog post title seems to contradict this intrinsic characteristic, doesn’t it? But the truth is, this is my esophagus talking. For the last 2-3 weeks, I have had my head full of so many things (more than ever, more than the busiest, craziest, most jam-packed periods of my life) both academic and not, both insanely complex (my research projects) and truly mundane (house stuff). Balancing everything, and making sure to make time for others, has been a precarious juggling act. I thought I had been doing a pretty good job at juggling, actually, until I slowly came to terms with the fact that I might be dropping a ball here and there, and getting hit in the head with one or two of them, because I’ve just got my hands TOO full. Admittedly, I’ve been feeling a moderate amount of anxiety. Not that I am hyperventilating (yet?), but my esophagus has been unhappily cramping on its own, without being provoked by anything, which has made it extremely difficult to sit, sleep, eat, drink, yawn, sneeze and even talk. It hurts like crazy. Even when I sit still and quietly, it has taken every opportunity to inform me that it is unhappy with the stress I am inflicting upon my body.


Thinking outside the box: Your PhD conveyed through a photo … or dance!

A topic that has come up several times on our blog this year is how to make your PhD research accessible to others who do not share your lab-space, or your brain, 24/7. My fellow GradLife blogger Crystal challenged us PhD students to explain our research with an audience of ten year-olds in mind, while Zsofia challenged us to “explain the subject we eat, sleep and breathe in only 124 characters”. In fact, communicating our work to the public is an immensely important skill to develop. Why else do we do this research, than to advance scientific knowledge and have this knowledge impact the community at large?

While we are constantly encouraged to write “lay summaries” of our work (and, let’s face it, they never turn out to be completely free of scientific jargon, do they?), or “keep an interdisciplinary audience in mind” when putting abstracts together for conferences, the real challenge is when we are forced to think even MORE outside of the box!


Daydreams of rucola, prosciutto and pecorino romano

My previous blog post was about productivity and fighting procrastination, yet I’d really be inhuman (and a liar) if I claimed to never fall into procrastinatory daydreams myself! I attribute these spells of distraction to (thankfully) having many other interests, and see no harm in entertaining some of these interests for a little while, even when PhD life is at its busiest. Something I frequently catch myself doing is wondering and pondering about food. I’ll think of an ingredient that I like, or one that I am curious about, and then I will Google it to see what I could possibly do with it, should I want to cook something new that evening or weekend. Indeed, I admit that thoughts of pecorino romano and rucola often seep into my day, interrupting my thinking about how a bilingual individual’s brain might deal with multiple competing languages.

So, here I am now, channeling my most recent food-thoughts into a blog post. What does a blog post about cooking have to do with PhD life, you ask? Well, although we PhD students are always pressed for time, we naturally get hungry when we work so hard, and we should be able to enjoy our life and eat healthy and tasty food, in order to compensate for our stress and deadline-filled days. Aside from that, for those who enjoy cooking, trying out new recipes can be seen as an opportunity for creativity, for taking a break and for gaining energy from a great meal.


10 ways to enhance your productivity

Is your thesis deadline fast approaching? Do you have tons of work to do, yet you can’t seem to get enough done in one day? Do you find it difficult to motivate yourself during these springy-summery days, when classes are out, departments are quieter, and your bike and the neighborhood park are calling your name louder than your research project is? If you have answered YES to at least one of these questions, then read on!

The best part about Graduate Studies – but also the most challenging aspect of it – is that, most of the time, you set the goals, the tasks and the pace for your work. How much you tackle in one day is largely up to you. Deciding how you structure your time to meet your objectives and deadlines is what makes you work independently – a skill that is highly valued by supervisors and funding committees, and one that will be crucial when conducting research beyond graduate school. There is a great deal of flexibility in being a PhD student, but the challenge remains that we have to learn how to motivate ourselves, fight procrastination and stay PRODUCTIVE!


Vivete felici (Live happy)

It was my husband who first introduced me to the world of classical music, back when we met ten years ago. My affection for this genre grew slowly, but steadily. At first, I would enjoy the pieces but, because they would fade into the background, I would never remember them. With time, I noticed that I was occasionally able to correctly identify composers, rather than making random guesses hoping to be correct and to impress him in the early stages of our relationship (“Mozart, right?” Because, when in doubt, Mozart was a pretty safe guess). Later on, I grew more selective in my taste; I learned which pieces I adored, and which ones didn’t evoke anything in me. Eventually, it was me who began to introduce my husband to tons of new classical music – some very different pieces than what he would actually listen to in the past – and ended up adding to his enormous collection of composers and pieces. I have my favorites, some popular and some obscure, most of which are Baroque and Romantic, and almost all of which are strings.


“Where do I go for my PhD?” How to make that important decision.

While many of you blog-followers might already be enrolled in your doctoral studies, some of you may be contemplating a PhD in the near future (and have been reading our posts to evaluate whether it’s a good idea or whether you should totally rethink this option!). Choosing a PhD position is a really big decision; not only would you be dedicating a number of years to yet another degree, but you are also making a series of choices — a program, a university, a city and a supervisor – in one shot. Some of us are careful planners, while others are more impulsive, so it’s fairly certain that we won’t all approach this decision in a similar way. However, I thought I’d share my own thought process and the criteria I carefully considered back when I was deciding which PhD program to join.

I should mention, first, that I am a pretty analytical person, and I do things systematically and methodically. Paradoxically, however, I am also just as impulsive and emotionally-driven as I am analytical! So, you will sometimes find me devising carefully planned pro/con lists and taking 16 days to make a decision, and other times you’ll find me “going with my gut” and arriving at a decision in less than 3.2 seconds. My PhD decision was the fruit of a systematic, rational pro/con list, many conversations with well-informed people, and a few days spent on my own, so that I could honestly listen to the voice inside my head – and, yes, also my gut.

You can create your own pro/con lists or buy a pack of these ones made by Knock Knock.


A lighter jacket, a lighter mood

Photo by Kristina Kasparian

Wasn’t it just yesterday when we were blogging about the new year and all the winter festivities Montreal had to offer? It seems that some of us have had our noses far too deeply buried in our thesis work and manuscripts to have fully grasped that spring is here! (Alternatively, it could very well be fright and denial, given that the months and seasons are rolling by at a much greater speed than that at which our research work is progressing).

Yup, it’s time for possibly the most drastic change of season of the year. We’re so used to winter that it takes a bit to notice the change. We start to see signs of it – often subtle – like a crocus peeking out of the still dry, leaf-covered, unturned winter soil. Another sure sign is when every single person around you has a bad cold and, try as you might to immunize yourself, it’s sadly only a matter of time until you catch it too. Other times, the signs are not subtle at all, but rather quite blatant – like this year’s 25 degree weather in the middle of March, throwing us off kilter as we dug out clothes that we usually only inaugurate in mid-June. Still, we know the sneaky tricks Montreal can play, and are reluctant to get our hopes up. “Is it spring?” we wonder, “are we done with our coats and boots for good?“, secretly bracing ourselves for that one last crazy snowfall that could very well blanket the whole town just in time for Easter. But waking up to a symphony of bird-calls in the morning, and watching the trees bud makes you feel pretty darn sure that the time has come to bid winter farewell. Soon enough, it’ll be summer in this glorious city.


Your name is dark purple (and if someone writes it in a different color, I might have an aneurism)

For as long as I can remember, since I was a wee-little girl, I’ve been aware of the fact that every word I read and every word I hear is colored. In fact, every letter and every number has its “own color”. I see these so vividly and so automatically in my mind — without any conscious effort or control — that I’ve always thought it was a completely common experience for everyone.

My earliest recollection of it is in kindergarten; when I was playing with magnetic alphabet letters, I felt that “A” was indeed a very red letter (as it was in that set of Fisher Price magnets). I also remember that, in Grade 1, the teacher had posted large alphabet cards above the blackboard from A to Z, with a corresponding example of a French word that began with that letter. I remember thinking that île (island) was “a very yellow word”. Another very strong early memory comes from the times when my sister and I used to play the game of Life for hours on end, and I would spin the wheel and feel quite unsettled that the number six was yellow instead of olive green, and that the number one definitely should have been reddish-brown instead of blue. I didn’t vocalize any of this until sometime in early high school when I was shopping for notebooks and school supplies, and I finally told my mom that I needed a green notebook for Physics (“because Physics is a green subject!”) and a blue notebook for Math. I thought she knew exactly what I meant — well, because Moms know everything — but it turns out she had absolutely no clue.


On the subjective notion of Time

"Time is more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly...time-y wimey...stuff." ~ Doctor Who

My PhD life has been a supreme juggling act lately. It’s been a period of dangerously high levels of multitasking coupled with dangerously high levels of caffeine consumption (to keep warm and cozy is my excuse). My previously-important “mental warm-up” and “mental shut-down” buffer-times at the start and end of my days have grown very short now, and my mind is racing with reminders and ideas even in my sleep. I find myself thinking or reading or writing for most of the hours of the day. I think I might have even heard my to-do lists sigh.

These insanely busy days have got me thinking about Time in all sorts of different ways.



The Estate Sale was called for 10 am and by 9:20 there was already a line-up of cars outside the house.  We couldn’t believe it. We were new to this, after all, never having had an Estate Sale before. We had no idea how many hungry scavengers we’d open the doors up to. It all felt like a bit of a whirlwind. We stood there amid the heaps of belongings, feeling very weird about the crowd of strangers who had suddenly marched into our Grandparents’ house and had begun sifting through things that had belonged to them for several decades.


Academic Integrity

 ” What is right is often forgotten by what is convenient”
Bodie Thoene, author.

As young researchers and scholars, we are expected to conduct our work in accordance with principles of “academic integrity“. At some point in our studies – undergraduate or graduate – we are taught the basics about research ethics, often through idealized examples of what is considered right or wrong. We are told on countless occasions how serious “plagiarism” is. We submit our carefully-thought-out research proposals to the Ethics Board for review. We are taught by librarians and Professors how to cite other authors and properly reference ideas and findings, in order to differentiate between what is ours, and what is not.


Thinking critically

Although the delightful comic above has more to do with reviewers’ comments on a paper submitted for publication, it still has to do with “critically appraising” one’s work — from the very assumptions guiding a study, to the methodological choices made by the authors, to the appropriateness of the conclusions that have been drawn from the study’s results.

One of the key skills we are expected to develop during our PhD years is the ability to “think critically” and show an “in-depth critical analysis” of what we read and cite in our work. This skill is likely to develop over time and with experience, as we get to know the main authors in our research area, their theoretical views and common methodological practices. But even early on, in course papers, presentations, Comprehensive Exams and our proposals, even when absorbing what is presented to us at conferences, we are required to “critically evaluate” research. The idea is that we can’t simply buy into everything that is presented to us, without using our intelligence, our knowledge of other relevant work, and our careful reflections of whether or not the authors’ arguments and methodology seem sound.


A year that’s new (4) : Thoughts, Moments, Lessons, Hopes


That’s enough of looking back. Here’s to the year ahead – wide open and ready to be written. Full of hope and promise! Here are some of my wishes for 2012.

  • I hope that 2012 will bring only those challenges which are absolutely necessary, as 2011 brought enough challenges to last a while!
  • I hope to complain ONLY about what is really worth complaining about.
  • I hope for the year to be filled with new recipes, new adventures near or far, new memories with old friends, new research contacts and new developments in my projects.
  • I hope for a super productive year where I am filled with energy and able to accomplish a LOT in my work. (more…)

A year that’s new (3) : Thoughts, Moments, Lessons, Hopes


A year is a collection of moments — both good and not-so-good — and, hopefully, a collection of lessons. I think it’s when you stop to reflect on them, or even jot them down, when you best realize all that you’ve gained in a short period of time. Here are some of the lessons 2011 taught me – perhaps not ground-breaking ones, but simple realizations I’ll carry with me to the new year.


A year that’s new (1) : Thoughts, Moments, Lessons, Hopes


Moments just before and just after midnight on New Year’s Eve always feel weird and surreal for me — like a sort of interlude hanging somewhere between past, present and future, all blurred into a single fleeting instant. Watching the countdown live on television has become a yearly tradition, although there is something kind of disconcerting about intently watching time go by. I think of everyone counting down together – people in restaurants, banquet halls, homes and city squares. I watch all those strangers in Times Square, huddled together in the cold, united only by their collective countdown, their readiness to close off the year and begin anew, with high hopes, big wishes and meaningful resolutions.


“I’m so tired!”

Photo source: http://gbengaadebayo.com/fighting-fatigue/

If these words have been escaping your mouth much-too-frequently these days, you’re not alone. It’s a tricky time, December — not only the end of the term, but also the end of the year. For those of us taking courses, it’s crunch-time now with final papers, projects and presentations. It’s also a popular period for conference submission deadlines (hence lots of data analyses, writing and then of course spending more time editing than writing in order to meet the impossibly low word-limit). It’s also a time for wrapping up all those things that you expected to be done with by now, things that you don’t want to roll over to the new year. Now begin the perhaps-satisfying, perhaps-stress-provoking “what have I done this year?” reflections, along with the “what are my priorities for the new year?” reflections. In sum: lots of things to do, lots of reflections, not lots of time.


Poinsettias and Panettone: Chasing the holiday spirit

Since my previous blog post, I have fully accepted that Christmas is coming. By now, I am ready to embrace the holiday spirit and to feel my senses rejoice with all the simple pleasures this time of year brings along with it.

When I lived in Europe, this pre-holiday season would make me giddy with wonder and happiness. Late-November in Milano meant the massively tall Christmas tree would be set up — with the help of mega-cranes — in front of the Duomo (Cathedral) and the most wonderful lights and building projections would liven up the grey, fog-cloaked city. The cobblestone streets would be made all the more narrow with Christmas markets selling handmade arts and crafts, and after only a two-minute stroll, I’d suddenly be overwhelmed with the desire to fill my already-overweight suitcase with handcrafted Italian Christmas tree ornaments. Shopping for gifts in tiny, artistic shops (or even gorgeously decorated department stores) never felt hectic or crazily consumerism-driven, and the way the clerks would gift-wrap everything for you automatically with the most amazing paper and with such classy flair always left me smiling. Late-November in Milano was the season of outdoor markets, of Christmassy musical concerts in churches, of poinsettias and panettone, and of the scent of roasted chestnuts permeating the crisp foggy air.

Photo credit: Kristina Kasparian


Ode to November

It was the first day of November, a Tuesday morning, and I was on the bus. Between songs on my iPod, I would overhear students dissing the poor month that had just begun. “I hate November”, “November sucks”, “Oh, November’s always so grey and boring”. I couldn’t bring myself to agree with them. Not on that morning anyway. I gazed out of the window, squinting from the sun, as the bus climbed steadily uphill along Pine Avenue, the downtown cityscape coming into view behind a colorful row of still-relatively-leafy trees.

“I can’t believe it’s November already!” another student exclaimed. Now that I could agree with. Time’s been flying. It was September just two seconds ago. Before we know it, it’ll be winter and time for the holidays. A time for going home, or coming home, or realizing that by now you kind of have two homes. The change in clothes is inevitable now, and so is the inauguration of the good old winter coat. How do we do this again? After a long, hot, sunny summer, who on earth could possibly get psyched up for waterproofing, ice-proofing and frostbite-proofing ourselves all over again?


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