Tag Archives: Graduate School


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.


Hack Your Workspace With Ergonomics

There is no denying that the modern academic pursuit requires a LOT of chair time, most likely while next to or staring at a computer, possibly while surrounded with less-than-comfortable institutional furniture, and that this kind of work environment is pretty unnatural. Many of us work in less than ideal spaces during graduate school (I’m writing this while sitting on a couch made in a PRISON), so all too often we end up sitting and moving in ways that unduly strain, and even injure, our bodies over time. All this brings the question of how to keep your degree from destroying your body while working long hours both at your desk and at the bench. Continue reading

Surviving the Comprehensive Oral Exam

Matura (oral part) - during exam.
You may be asked to diagram you ideas, so be prepared. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This article originally appeared at Gradhacker.org on April 26th, 2013.

While my last Gradhacker post focused on the written aspect of comprehensive exams, for many graduate students there is another, equally dreaded component: the oral examination.

For even the most prepared students, this can be an intense and difficult experience. However, with enough preparation and the right mindset the oral examination can actually be an enjoyable experience where you get to talk about your ideas with members of your committee.

Having just completed this hurdle myself I’d like to go over some of the things that worked and those that I wish I had known before undertaking this process. This advice is the most relevant for those of you defending a written document that you’ve had time to prepare, but some of this will be applicable to more generalized oral examination formats. Continue reading

Rock Your Recruitment

Suit Jacket
Suit Jacket (Photo credit: brixton)

This article originally appeared at Gradhacker.org on January 28th, 2013.

Some of you reading this article are about to start your first round of graduate school interviews this spring. Many of these interviews will take place during what is known as recruitment weekend. However, this is a much different process than your standard job interview and you should be aware that there are some key differences between the two. While much of this advice comes from my own experience in the sciences and will vary according to your program, there are some basic themes to be aware of. Continue reading