Category Archives: Graduate School

Goal-Setting vs. Goal-Achieving

This post was co-written by KD Shives and the excellent Emily Curtis Walters. Emily Curtis Walters is a PhD candidate in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydcw or at her blog, dighistorienne.

When being thrown into the open-ended project that is obtaining a PhD, it is critically important to make consistent progress in completing the major milestones of your program.  This can be more than a little overwhelming for most students, and extremely difficult for those who are not familiar with the ins and outs of modern academia (first-generation students such as Katie can attest to this!). With so little structure, it is easy to get lost in the day-to-day goings-on of graduate school, and suddenly you might find yourself a 6th-year student with no publications and no conference presentations. So how do you stay on track—or even find the right track in the first place?

No matter what discipline you are pursuing your degree in, be it STEM or the humanities, there are common themes in making consistent progress within academia. The most basic three are: How do you identify important goals? How do you then set realistic goals? How do you track your progress in order to achieve your major goals? Coming from very different disciplines, we thought it might be interesting to compare how we approach each of these three questions. Continue reading Goal-Setting vs. Goal-Achieving

Navigating the Academic Conference with Social Anxiety

Academic conferences can be one of the most enjoyable experiences that you can have during graduate school. A paid-for trip, usually somewhere at least semi-exotic, to allow you to talk about the kind of work that you are personally interested in—what’s not to like about that?

Well, for those of us who deal with anxiety in unfamiliar situations, attending an academic conference alone in a strange place without knowing anyone can be a difficult and demanding experience.

Thankfully, I’ve managed to attend and present my work at a few different research conferences despite my own anxiety and I’ve learned how to make it through these multi-day academic marathons relatively intact. In fact, these have been some of the best professional experiences I’ve had once I got past my initial anxiety and learned to enjoy the event (even though I’m the kind of person who starts to worry about just flying a week in advance).

Here are my 5 favorite personal strategies for going to conferences and managing anxiety: Continue reading Navigating the Academic Conference with Social Anxiety

Combating Shiny Object Syndrome

In graduate school it is extremely important to know when you are putting your time towards professional activities that are directly beneficial to your dissertation progress versus activities that are interesting or fun but do not contribute to moving you forward. In terms of time and resources spent on experiments, staying on task is a serious consideration or else you run the risk of falling victim to Shiny Object Syndrome.

It’s great to be curious about many different topics; curiosity is a driving force in basic research and is a necessary motivator for many individuals. However, in order to stay on task and keep making progress towards your degree it can be helpful to follow these guidelines:

Learn to Designate “For Dissertation” and “Interesting Tangents” During Literature Review:  I am guilty of this. My dissertation mascot has been Dori from “Finding Nemo.” I can happily fly down a rabbit hole of research on PubMed for an entire day, ending with a giant stack of new articles that are tangentially related to my dissertation work. Being able to conduct a thorough literature review is all well and good, but a lot of the time these papers don’t directly help me understand my topic. Now, in doing a PhD you have to work at the very limit of human knowledge, so sometimes you end up pulling in diverse resources in order to get a broad understanding of the topic at hand; that is not a bad thing. However, when you repeatedly find yourself consumed by interesting but non-supportive materials you may have a problem with Shiny Object Syndrome, where interesting but non-productive tasks begin to take over. Take a moment during your literature reviews to make sure that what you are following is directly relevant to your work. If you do find interesting research articles that you want to read…

Designate Blocks of Time for Side Projects: To keep tangential research from seeping into your productive hours it helps to set aside designated times to work on side projects. Treat them like you would a hobby; give them a designated time but do not let them interfere with your real work. Save the interesting citation or pdf, and keep it to read until you have free time so as not to use up time meant for research. For me this usually means reading an interesting journal article on the bus when I have 20 uninterrupted minutes to read whatever I want.

Minimize Risk in New Projects: If you believe that pursuing a side interest may actually aid you in your dissertation progress, then write down what resources it will require and how much time it will take. Is it a relatively minor investment in time and resources? Then go for it! Graduate school should be an opportunity to learn to think for yourself. A major part of this is learning which experiments are worth pursuing. However, if this side project involves a significant amount of time, animal work, or using up some serious resources in the lab, then think twice. Do not take major steps like this without consulting your adviser first; they or someone else may have attempted that particular experiment before you joined the lab and it did not work. Talk with your adviser to determine the following:

  • Is it worth the time away from your primary research?
  • Is the potential payoff from this particular side experiment worth the effort and potential setbacks in the progress of your primary research that could result from taking the time to accomplish the project?
  • How likely is the side project to succeed early on? (Is the system well characterized? Is it an established technique, or something very new and exciting, but not as well known?)
  • What kind of optimization might the project methods require to get up and running? (Don’t discount the time necessary for optimizing experiments in a new system!)
  • Do you have the resources (equipment, cash, animals, etc.) necessary to complete the proposed studies?
  • Do you have all of the necessary administrative approvals for the work (clearance for animal work, strain approval, radioisotope permits for radiolabeling studies, etc.)?

If it is worth the time and your lab has the resources and approvals, you can go for these riskier projects with the support of your adviser. This is often the process by which your dissertation project will slowly change hands from your adviser to you. Over time you should become the person proposing the new studies stemming from your work, and all of that diverse study early on will help to inform how you develop your own dissertation research project.

These are only of a few of the ways that you can manage interesting distractions and even use them to support your primary work and make it your own (interdisciplinary projects, anyone?)

How have you managed the lure of tangential studies during your dissertation? Share your experiences with Shiny Object Syndrome in the comments section below.

[Image by Flickr user Abby Lanes and used under Creative Commons licensing]

This post originally appeared at, a part of Inside Higher Ed.

The Perfect Workspace

What exactly is the perfect work space? For me, the answer is “many.”


Since I’m not assigned to a cubicle for my PhD work I have some flexibility as to when and how I get my work done. It’s like that really worn out joke about getting a STEM PhD, “The hours are great! You can work any 60 hours a week that you want!” Thankfully, not all 60 have to be in the laboratory, so I have cobbled together a few different spaces to use depending on my priorities and the task at hand. Here are my top three work spaces for getting things done: Continue reading The Perfect Workspace

Using Project Management Approaches to Tame Your Dissertation

No one finishes a STEM dissertation by doing just 100% research all day every day; you have many other tasks including classes, writing manuscripts, attending journal clubs, teaching obligations, seminars, lab meetings, public presentations of your work, and the need for sleep and a healthy body. All of these activities need to be planned for and the time necessary to complete them taken into account. Once you do that, research effort is really about 50% of what you are doing (although this can vary quite a bit depending on your particular project and field). These are a lot of tasks and obligations to keep track of and can easily derail your research progress, which will be the determining factor of when you actually get to graduate. Continue reading Using Project Management Approaches to Tame Your Dissertation

Basic Negotiation Tactics for Grad Students

Graduate school is the final stage before entering professional employment; yet many graduates lack the negotiation skills necessary for the impending job search. As a result, many recent graduates take the very first offer they get out of school without negotiating their salary or terms of employment, which can lead to an individual being underpaid for their work. Unfortunately our future pay is often the product of what we are currently paid, so that failing to negotiate for a higher salary initially (even as simple as $5000 more a year) can compound over a lifetime of work to a loss equivalent to $500,000.

With that in mind, here are some basic tactics you should know going into salary negotiations as a recent graduate. Continue reading Basic Negotiation Tactics for Grad Students