Category Archives: Graduate School


5 Pointers for a Better Poster

There is a big difference between the research posters we make in graduate school compared with our seventh grade science projects. Some of us, myself included, managed to dodge poster projects all through undergrad, until one day as graduate students we find ourselves staring blankly at the submission form for a poster session at a conference.

Thankfully, posters are not as hard to make as they might seem, but there are some very common mistakes that many people make when putting together their first posters. Here are some basic pointers I have picked up that have greatly helped me with putting together and presenting posters.

1. Focus your message: Poster size is limited, so you really need to take the time to determine what point you want to convey. What data do you need to include to get your specific message across to an audience unfamiliar with your work? What is the minimum amount of information that you need to create a convincing narrative for your work? If you find yourself going under 18pt text to fit it all in, you’ve gone too far and need to start cutting back.

2. Keep it Simple: In order to not overwhelm your audience, don’t cram your poster edge-to-edge with tiny, dense text and a dozen hard to decipher figures. We have all seen that poster, and it is impossible to read. Use only the data and text that you need to support your conclusions. You can communicate anything else that is relevant in your poster talk (see tip #5).

This also applies to the visual design of your poster. Don’t get too carried away with bright colors and fancy design as these can be very distracting. It can be tempting to go overboard on the design, so try to screen design elements by whether or not they enhance the content you are presenting. Never underestimate the value of blank space on your poster as well. Good design should fade into the background so that your work can be clearly interpreted.

3. Arrange figures for maximum impact: Viewers usually expect the most important part of the poster to be right in the middle, so keep the most important parts in a central area. This usually includes experimental figures for a research poster. Once you have the “meat” of the poster set you can add in other sections (Introduction, Conclusions, Methods, Acknowledgements, etc) around the periphery.

Most graduate departments should have some posters on hand from current students, so if you are at a loss on how to arrange your content, take a moment to look at the posters that fellow students in your field have made to get a feel for what the standards are.

4. Know your audience: Posters are a short story designed to visually convey your work to an audience. It is important to know who that audience is and what they expect from your poster. Is it a more general poster session? Then keep your information more generalized. Is it a conference for a specific subsection of your discipline where everyone knows the same jargon and industry leaders? Then by all means go deep into the technical details–if it doesn’t crowd your poster.

5. Hone your poster talk: Usually, you will have the opportunity to present your poster during a designated poster session, so take some time to plan out your talk. When putting together your talk, take a moment to think about what you want to convey.What is on your poster and what is your message? How do you convey your research/concept to your specific audience? Is there anything that you need to mention that you didn’t have room to include on the poster?

Because you won’t have a guide on the poster to remember these additional points, it is helpful to rehearse your talk ahead of time and make up a card with prompts that connect your poster to related points you want to make, but might not remember on the fly.


Poster sessions can be fun and less stressful than an oral presentation for those of us who have difficulties with public speaking. They also provide opportunities for one-on-one interactions with individuals in your field and can facilitate high-quality networking that will benefit you and your future career.

While these are some basic tips, there are more in-depth guides to poster design on the internet. One that I highly recommend is “Scientific Poster Design” by the Cornell Center for Materials Research. This site shows many different types of posters and some of the most common pitfalls that occur during poster design.

Do you have any “tried and true” approaches to designing great conference posters? Please share them in the comments section below!

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

[Image by Flickr user ThinkGeoEnergy used under creative commons licensing.]


Cultivating Happiness in Graduate School

So many people equate graduate school with the pursuit of an intellectual passion. Right alongside this line of thinking is the assumption that doing what you are passionate about should make you happy without qualifications. However, anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in graduate education knows that it can be anything but the blissful pursuit of intellectual curiosity once you add in classes, teaching, independent research, service activities, grant proposals, and somehow fitting a life in around all these priorities. We all know how difficult the graduate process can become and the toll that this takes on some individuals.

So how are we supposed to be happy when our work doesn’t make us happy? Continue reading


Take your career to the next level with informational interviews

One of the best aspects of earning a graduate degree is obtaining a high level of specialization in niche areas of academia. However, this specialization can lead to a somewhat limited view of total career prospects with a graduate degree. Even though many of us have focused down to one or two areas so that we have well-developed skill-sets for our academic niche, making the jump to employment outside of academia can be difficult without knowing what to expect next. One action that graduate students can take is conducting informational interviews with individuals employed in areas where you might want to work after graduation.

When new to this idea, it may be difficult at the outset to identify people that you would like to interview. If this is the case, a simple first step is to check and see what alumni from your school, and especially program, are currently doing. This is a very simple approach but also highly effective, as you will be interviewing people who came from a similar environment and then made a successful jump to new ventures.

Still stumped on who to ask? Don’t be afraid to cast a wide net if you have diverse interests. Almost all professionals can make time for a brief interview, so if you are interested in government, non-profit, or industry positions seek out those individuals working in areas that interest you and set up a meeting. Even if these don’t lead you to that career path, you have generated good networking contacts that can still benefit you in your career as time progresses.

An informational interview is not an interview for a job, but rather an opportunity to gather information on a position or company that you happen to be interested in. These are great ways to get more information from others who have been where you are and successfully made the jump from academia to a variety of satisfying careers. Additionally, contacts made during informational interviews can expand your network to include more individuals which can be beneficial during the eventual job-hunt that students face.

Informational interviews are a different format than traditional interviews in that this time you get to ask all of the questions, usually in a much more relaxed setting than a traditional interview. However, since you are the leader of the informational interview it is important to keep a few things in mind before your first meeting.

Develop a set of questions: What do you really want to know about the company, position, industry, or how that particular person made the jump from a graduate student to having this career path? Compile a list of questions that matter deeply to you, and the answers will help you make more informed decisions about your career options. Even simple questions such as the following can be extremely revealing:

  • How has your work/life balance changed since leaving graduate school for position X?
  • What’s a typical work week look like for you?
  • What skills that you cultivated during your graduate education have been the most valuable while working at company X?
  • What kind of additional training did you have to (or opt to) take for position X?
  • Are the jobs prospects for this field or industry growing, declining, or holding steady?
  • Do you get to collaborate with other departments, companies, or organizations?
  • What do you like most about your current job?

You CAN ask about money: Polite questions about pay levels are also appropriate in this venue and being able to comfortably speak about salary levels is extremely important no matter what career path you take. You can always ask “what is a representative pay range for this position” if you are worried about being too forward.

Have a time limit: Usually informational interviews run from 15-45 minutes. This will have a lot to do with the schedule of the person you are interviewing, so try to respect the person’s time by keeping your questions brief. You can always follow-up with a few more specific questions in an e-mail if you want more information in the future.

Do your homework: Take the time to research the company and the person that you are interviewing. What does the company do? What does this individual do? Do you come from similar academic backgrounds? Knowing the important key points of a business or job will allow you to ask specific questions that can provide good insight into that specific line of work.

Don’t ask for a job! This is not the best venue to ask for a job and may leave your contact feeling misled or leave a bad impression, so stick to gathering information.

Be sure to send a thank-you: This is a very simple, yet often overlooked, way to let the other person know you appreciated his or her time. It doesn’t need to be an actual card—a simple email will do if that is how you communicated initially.

How have you used informational interviews to evaluate prospective career paths? What questions or concerns do you still have about the process? Share your experiences and questions in the comments section below!

[Image by Flickr user Aidan Jones used under creative commons licensing.]

This post originally appeared January 30, 2014 as The Informational Interview on Gradhacker, a part of Inside Higher Ed.


From First-Gen College Student to First-Gen Grad Student

*This post was co-written with Alicia Peaker and originally appeared on Gradhacker, a part of Inside Higher Ed.

At my high school, fewer than 10 percent of graduating seniors went on to four-year colleges. I can’t imagine what that number looks like for graduate school. Although first-generation college students are relatively well-studied (though still not well-supported), there is a major lack of research about first-generation grad students (FGGS).

On Gradhacker we’ve featured posts by grad students who have shared their experiences and strategies for adapting to graduate school as an FGGS. You don’t have to be an FGGS to identify with many of the themes we’ve covered this week (imposter syndrometranslating your work for your family, and more) or to use the strategies each author has laid out. At the same time, first-generation students do face some unique challenges that can affect performance, time-to-completion, and drop-out rates. So here are a few more strategies for making the transition from college to graduate school as a first-generation student.

Find out how you work. Many grad students performed well in college classrooms. We’re good at school. That’s why we keep doing it. But doing well in the classroom doesn’t always translate to becoming a productive and successful academic. When I entered my exams, I felt like a rug I didn’t even know was there was pulled out from under me. Suddenly I had tons of time and tons of work, but no idea what to do with either of them.

Of all my time in graduate school, this phase was where I was held up the most, and a major part of that was just trying to figure out how I worked. I finally realized that I wrote best in the mornings and in a coffee shop, so I built that into my schedule and my budget. Every time I teach a writing course or workshop now, I ask my writers to work out where, when, under what conditions they are most productive.

Fight imposter syndrome. With so many peers having credentials such as multiple publications, industry experience, or significant time working on their own projects it can be very easy to feel that you don’t live up to the standards set by your cohort or that you somehow don’t fit in. It is amazing how fast you can lose the feeling of accomplishment that comes with an admissions letter when you start comparing yourself to everyone else around you.

The funny thing is that ALL of us (not just first-generation students!) struggle with these feelings from time to time. In fact, you might be surprised to realize that even some of the people you respect the most have issues with this. Talking to other students and faculty is important if you want to stay in touch with reality and not end up feeling like you aren’t cut out for graduate study. You might even be surprised to find that others think you’re doing a great job even though you don’t at the moment.

Get comfortable with failure. While I can’t speak for other disciplines, anyone doing laboratory-based research for a graduate degree needs to have a good understanding of just how much you will fail. Experiments will not work. You will analyze data with the wrong approach by accident. Cell cultures get contaminated. Someone will forget to label a critical expiration date. Always remember that these kinds of regular failures are NORMAL and do not mean that you are incompetent, merely learning. And there is a LOT of learning in graduate school. At a certain point, graduate school is more a test of how well you can learn from failures and keep persevering rather than producing perfect work.

Finally, let’s just take a minute to talk about shame. Many graduate students experience embarrassment or shame when they haven’t heard of that researcher or read that book. But shame can be compounded for first-generation grad students who may feel an extra level of shame about being an FGGS.

For example, when I started my graduate program I realized that I did not know how to really read primary literature. For the life of me I could not figure out how my peers were able to cover all the journal articles for class, and I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t keep up. For a while I thought it was due to me being from a smaller state school while many of my peers were from private institutions and had impressive credentials, so surely they were smarter than me and that was why I couldn’t keep up. Nope! Turns out most of the other students skimmed the figures and discussion sections just enough to discuss them in class. It had nothing to do with my intelligence—I just didn’t know about a common shortcut because I hadn’t had experience with high-volume coursework.

Feeling ashamed about our FGGS status can feel like a betrayal of our backgrounds. A key part of dealing with this feeling of “background embarrassment” is to remember that our lives are not stationary and that while we may have defined our lives by a certain kind of upbringing or background, there is no reason that we can’t honor that history while growing in new, often unexpected, ways.

Graduate school and professional academia may seem overwhelming at first, especially for those of us unused to the norms and customs of this community. Just like Jess mentioned in her previous Gradhacker post on first generation students, there are more diverse backgrounds in academia than we may imagine at first glance. Sometimes taking a moment to speak with those around you can remind you that you are definitely not alone in this process. Many of these feelings and issues are not unique to first generation students, and as such there are many, many other people around you going through similar situations with whom you can speak and find community.

What challenges have you faced as a first-generation grad student? How have you met those challenges?

[Image by Flickr user bram_souffreau used under creative commons licensing.]

*Alicia Peaker is the GradHacker Development Editor and a PhD candidate in English at Northeastern University. Her research examines women’s literary and artistic contributions to ecological discourses in the first half of the twentieth century. She tweets @aliciapeaker and blogs here.

Intro to Resumes for CV-Minded Academics

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

This post was co-written by K.D. Shives and Ashley Sanders. Ashley Sanders is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Michigan State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @throughthe_veil or on her blog, Colonialism Through the Veil.

In academia, your curriculum vitae (CV) is the master list of all your professional accomplishments and is a requirement when looking for jobs in academia. Many of us (both authors included) have spent hours accumulating every item possible for this document. As a result, the modern academic CV is usually a multi-page document that covers everything of note you have accomplished during your graduate education. This is a wonderful thing to have, as the CV gives others in academia a good idea of what kind of work you are capable of when applying for new academic positions.

For many of us though, graduation means leaving the ivory tower and finding work. Outside of academia, the traditional format for job applications is the resume, which is easy to forget about when all the people around you are obsessed with growing their CVs. Continue reading

Eating Well on a Grad Student Stipend

This post originally appeared September 6th, 2013 on Gradhacker.orgFood via  Flickr user epSos.ed

There is no escaping the need to eat. Graduate student stipends are notoriously tight though, leaving room for the question, “How do I eat well on a student stipend?”

Have no fear, there is no need to live off of ramen (unless you love it, then by all means go right ahead).  As an admitted foodie, I was worried that I would have to revert to my undergrad ways of ramen and bulk off-brand lucky charms after two years working in a paying job and eating vegetables. Once I adjusted to a new city, different food availability, and a new food budget in graduate school I realized that as students we can afford to eat healthy, filling food that tastes good—something I realized AFTER I gained 10 pounds eating numerous pilfered, bland seminar bagels over the course of a semester. All it takes is a willingness to shop in new ways, learn some basic cooking skills, and spend some time in the kitchen.  Most importantly, I learned that there are two main actions you can take to get the best food on a student budget: buy smarter and cook at home. Continue reading