Category Archives: Graduate School

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Managing Public Speaking Anxiety

We all have to present our work to others at some point in our graduate careers, and this commitment to public speaking can lead to real anxiety for some individuals. I know this because I am in that group. I have been so anxious before a 12 minute talk that my hands actually went numb from the terror, my pulse started racing, and I ended up speaking so fast that my 12 minute talk became 9 minutes, tops. That leaves a lot of room for awkward silence.

So how do we learn to manage our public speaking anxiety? Some would suggest simple hacks: use confident body language, speak slowly and in a deeper tone, or my least favorite “picture your audience in their underwear,” which is most definitely the LAST thing I want to think about during a talk. While these hacks can be helpful for people with minor issues they are by no means sufficient if you are experiencing serious anxiety prior to public speaking events.

You might have public speaking or performance anxiety if you have experienced any of the following before giving a talk:

  • trembling
  • sweating
  • clammy hands
  • rapid heart rate
  • shortness of breath
  • muscle tension,
  • blushing
  • confusion or losing your train of thought
  • upset stomach
  • shaky voice
  • dizziness

At this point I think just about everyone can say yes to experiencing at least one of these prior to public speaking. Thankfully, since my numb-hands-speedtalk days I’ve learned some new ways to manage public speaking anxiety.

Know your stuff: This is the most important part for dealing with anxiety related to graduate level and professional presentations. Minor hacks such as puffing up like a fish to project confidence and lowering your voice will not help you if you don’t know the material. This happens to me on a regular basis: I do just fine presenting my own work (which I know) but the moment I have to present for journal club (where one student reviews a recently published paper in depth in front the of the department) I start getting anxious because I am presenting work I am unfamiliar with.

Make sure that you give yourself plenty of time to go over your talk before hand. One trick that has helped me immensely is to structure my slides so that the end of each slide leads directly to the next. By building in and practicing transitions you are much less likely to get lost, and your audience will appreciate having a cohesive narrative in your talk.

Notes aren’t just for class: Even when you know your project inside and out it is still good to have some form of notes on hand–whether it is a general outline of your talk, important sources and citations, or specific technical details of experiments. You can do this the old fashioned way and have printed notes, but I recommend becoming familiar with the joy that is presenter view on Powerpoint. If you don’t know how to use it I highly recommend this approach as it allows you to have your notes for each slide displayed for you, but not your audience. However, not all presentation venues are set up for presenter view (a lot of conferences are like this, unfortunately) so keep a hard copy of your notes handy just in case.

Get (non-threatening) feedback: Next time you have a big anxiety-inducing speaking event coming up (thesis defense, anyone?) try running through your presentation for a small group of fellow students, professors, and other coworkers and get their feedback afterwards. This is an enlightening experience as sometimes what you are the most worried about no one notices, or you find out that you have a distracting tic that you never noticed.

Managing the anxiety response: Sometimes no amount of preparation can prevent your innate flight response when faced with public speaking. If you can’t stop your innate responses you can learn to manage them. Your audience has no idea your hands are numb, and no matter how bad the talk goes you will not be chased down with pitchforks.

When you feel yourself starting to get anxious remember that these feelings, while very much real, do not mean that you cannot give a great talk. The trick is learning to be separate from your anxiety by acknowledging it and allowing yourself to have that feeling, then deciding that even with the feeling you can move forward. It can take some practice learning how not to be overwhelmed by these feelings, but eventually you will be able to acknowledge them and move past them in order to accomplish your goal of giving a good presentation.

Are there any other tips that you have learned to manage public speaking anxiety? If so, please share them in the comments section below!

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

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

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Surf’s Up!: Thriving Amid Chaos

It’s no secret that sometimes in graduate school it feels like everything can get really chaotic. As young professionals, we are expected to produce new research and ideas while taking courses, keeping up with committee meetings, and even teaching classes to other students, and it can easily become overwhelming. While we can never truly control our environments, we can learn to grow through them and make continued progress.

Think of graduate school like surfing: On the last trip I took before starting graduate school, I got to take surfing lessons, and it has surprised me ever since how much surfing and graduate school have in common. I had to accept that you can never calm the ocean, but facing that chaos and learning to ride the waves can be one of the most rewarding (even FUN!) experiences out there. So how do we take these lessons from the ocean and learn to productively manage our personal relationship in the academic chaos around us? Here are some things I’ve discovered during my own PhD process, and I’m sure there are many more out there waiting to be discovered and shared.

Plot out the major milestones: At the beginning of your program it is a good idea to go through your graduate handbook and find all of the major milestones that you need to accomplish before they find you and suddenly make life chaotic. Nobody likes to find out that an important grant is due 6 days before you thought it was. Find out what each item is (required classes, seminar talks, committee meetings, major exam like prelims and comprehensive exams, etc.) and what date you need to have it completed. Once you have this all in one place, WRITE IT DOWN! It doesn’t have to be pretty, just a sheet of paper with your personal timeline written in your words so you know when you have to do what.

Back to surfing: Even though oceans appear chaotic, surfers have to know the tides if they want to catch the best waves. They don’t know what the waves will look like each day, just that you have the best waves at the right moment in the tide.

How this like graduate school? You don’t know where every project will go, but once you get the big picture outlined  you will be aware of all the major events headed your way and much less likely to be caught off guard by major projects. In my case, I used to buy six foot lengths of butcher paper and plot an entire semester as soon as I got my syllabus, color coding each class and professional event. Did it look weird? Yes, but I was never taken by surprise by a single deadline.

Build a system: For a lot of us, graduate school means changing how we conduct our day to day lives in a big way. One of the best ways to deal with these major changes is to establish a system or routine that works for you. For me, this means having established hours on campus and defined, achievable goals for every day to make sure that I am making consistent progress without burning myself out. Make sure these routines include activities that provide physical exercise and some social engagements that you enjoy, as both of these activities will keep your spirits up during the long haul of a graduate degree.

Find your supporters: Graduate school often means leaving family and friends far across the country in pursuit of an education. Reach out and stay connected with those who are important to you as they can be your biggest supporters and provide a necessary dose of reality when it feels like graduate school is becoming overwhelming.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to find people on campus to be part of your support network as well. Having good relationships with your peers and professors are both key to making progress and navigating setbacks, so don’t neglect these relationships while pursuing your graduate work. For me this has meant taking the time to catch up with mentors from my undergrad years, letting them know my progress, talking about what to do next, and asking about how they dealt with similar situations as a graduate student.

Dig in: Now that you know the major milestones you need to make, have a system that manages your personal obligations and know a few supporters to lean on in difficult moments, all that is left to do is dig in and finish your degree.

Sounds easy?

Not quite. You can pretty much count on the fact that nothing goes perfectly according to plan in graduate school, which is why you need to practice these lessons while things are still calm. While it is easy to remember these things when times are easy, what is important is remembering and drawing upon these lessons when things start to get busy and chaotic. It has been shown that success is not linked with the highest IQ, but with those who possess the most grit, or the ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

Once again, this comes back to surfing: Some days the waves are rougher than usual and even the best rider will wipe out and get rolled, but they know how to let that wave take them before coming back up to work on catching the next wave. (Anyone who has applied for grants in the current economic climate certainly understands this feeling.) In fact, it is often in outrageous conditions that surfers find the ride of their lives, but only because they practiced so much in calmer seas.

Have any other tips that have helped you manage all of the different demands of graduate school despite the chaos? Share them in the comments below!

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

[Image by Flickr user Escuela Surf&Rock used under creative commons licensing.]

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The Lost Art of Doing One Thing at a Time

Today I submitted my very first grant application to the NIH. Funny thing is, until yesterday I thought I had 6 days to submit. However, I did not factor in early submission deadlines, so thanks to a well-timed reminder from our Grants and Contracts office I suddenly realized I had less than 24 hours to finish a grant package with all of the supporting materials or else all of my hard work would be for nothing. How did I get it all finished in time (other than lots and lots of coffee)?

Monotasking

Or, as I like to refer to it “the lost art of doing one thing at a time.” Continue reading

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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.

Conclusions:

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 Gradhacker.org, a part of Inside Higher Ed.

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

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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

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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.