Category Archives: Graduate School

Wrap up your dissertation with a writing plan

Anyone pursuing a graduate degree has experienced the feeling that a project will go on forever. Thankfully, pursuing a graduate degree does have an end date but to get there you have to write everything into a dissertation first. Writing a dissertation can be, and quite often is, the biggest academic undertaking that many of us have experienced. Grant applications, manuscripts, and literature reviews pale in comparison to the size of the average dissertation and writing one can be an incredibly intimidating goal.


Have no fear though, as writing a dissertation is a manageable task if you approach it correctly. One thing that helped me immensely in preparing my own dissertation was making a writing plan and sticking to it. By using this approach I was able to work on my dissertation a little bit each day and make consistent progress while maintaining my sanity.


Know the expected format before you start: Before you even start to think about writing you need to know exactly what you are expected to write. Many program offer seminars on writing up your dissertation; if you can, I highly recommend taking the time out of the lab to attend so that you are aware of the formatting expectations and requirements. Additionally, many programs post the style guide for dissertations on their website. Find yours and read it all the way through before starting to save yourself many headaches in the future. Another great resource are completed dissertations from your own program, so check out a few recent dissertations at the library or through the ProQuest database!


Outline your dissertation and break it into chapters to draft and edit: Once you have a defense date set it’s time to work backwards to determine how much time you have to write and when key paperwork is due. Outline the major sections of your dissertation (introduction, materials and methods, data chapters, discussion, etc.) so that you know exactly what you are going to write. Establish your list of final figures and which chapters they will appear in. Give yourself plenty of time to write drafts of each major chapter/section and enough time to edit them as well. Don’t try to make the mistake of writing and editing the same section as you go, otherwise you may get stuck in a circle of trying to make one part perfect and fall behind on your overall writing progress which will leave you struggling to catch up as you approach the submission date. Embrace the ugly first draft of each section and move on to the next before coming back to edit individual chapters. Also, give yourself enough time at the end to correct formatting errors. Something as seemingly simple as building a table of contents in Word can take a surprising amount of time.


Map it out with concrete dates: Once you’ve established what you are going to write for your individual chapters, set actual dates for the completion of each major milestone. Set these dates into whatever type of calendar works for you so that you have a concrete, visual outline of what you need to accomplish each week to submit your dissertation on time.


For me, mapping out my dissertation writing plan meant establishing a dissertation progress meeting with my advisor every Tuesday morning where I would submit one chapter for comments and pick up the prior week’s chapter to start editing. In this way I was able to continuously write something new and edit previous chapters without getting stuck trying to write and edit the same section at the same time. Once I had a map of which chapter was due to submit and which to edit each week, I wrote them down on a paper calendar that followed me everywhere for two months. Each week I could see my progress toward a complete document and knowing that I could meet these small, consistent goals prevented me from getting stressed about writing a giant dissertation all at once.


Taking the time to set a formal outline for your writing progress may seem unnecessary to some, but the time (and sanity) saved in knowing what you need to accomplish can go a long way toward making the dissertation writing process something to enjoy rather than dread.


Have you used a formal writing outline to managed your dissertation writing? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!


[Image from Flickr user AndrewHurley used under creative commons license.]

Blogging to Establish Your Digital Identity

With so many people pursuing PhDs today it can be hard to differentiate yourself from other students in your discipline. If you want to stand out professionally and improve your writing skills, try starting a blog! Writing your own blog is an excellent way to engage with your professional field at large or to maintain a side interest or specialty outside of your graduate studies. Even better, having a publicly visible blog gives you the opportunity to craft your own image online and have a degree of control over your digital identity that you just won’t get with most social media platforms. Many available blogging platforms like WordPress, Blogger, and newer platforms like Medium are all designed for people with no coding experience to hop in and starting building ; great for busy grad students who don’t have time to learn how to code.


What Are The Professional Benefits of Blogging?


Show your skills and establish expertise.

In many ways a blog is like having a public archive of your graduate work. With all the effort we put into our graduate studies, show off all that effort and scholarly activity to a wider audience.

Blogging also provides you with a platform to demonstrate that you know where your work fits into the field and how it relates to trends in the field. This is important, as you can use your blog to show, not just tell, potential employers that you have a wider understanding of your dissertation topic and that you can speak to elements outside of your direct area of study. This is an incredibly valuable skill, especially if you intend to pursue


Increased Visibility.

What happens if you do a Google search for you name? Go check. Are all of these results what you want potential employers to see? Even if you don’t have embarrassing photos on social media, having a blog can improve search rankings by tying your name to the content that you create. Having positive results that you can control on the internet is a huge advantage compared to a collection of your Facebook and LinkedIn activity.

It sets you apart from other applicants.

Drs Peppers
What sets you apart from other applicants?

 Having a blog can help when you start looking for employment after graduate school, especially if you are going the non-academic route. Blogging shows that you have taken the time to learn how to write for a wider, non-academic audience and allows you to establish a unique brand that sets you apart from other applicants with a similar education.

So what’s holding you back?

Here are three of the most common objections to starting a blog (hint: none of these should stop you!)


“Writing takes time.”

Do enough scholarly writing and you will begin to feel like every writing project takes weeks of agonizing effort, editing, and revisions. Not so with blog posts! It can be incredibly liberating to write 400 words on a topic that you are interested in and publish it to your blog; no peer review necessary. (Sorry reviewer #3!)

Plus, as you practice writing you will get faster. Articles used to take me days to put together; now I can draft a full post and start in on editing in the same day. Even more important is that my scholarly writing has improved from all the practice I have gotten from blogging.

  “Writing is hard.”

Practice makes it much easier, and the effort you put into writing for your blog will sharpen the writing skills that you use in your graduate degree. Writing blog posts is a different format than writing a peer-reviewed journal article, but both are still writing. Think of blog posts as cross-training exercises for your scholarly writing.

“Doesn’t it cost money to have a website?”

Yes, but it is not prohibitive! I’ve personally used WordPress for over 4 years and pay less than $30 annually to host my own domain using a free template. This means I’ve had to give up a little over $2 a month to maintain my site; that’s a single coffee per month. It is absolutely worth the investment in yourself and your career (and this is coming from someone who LOVES her coffee).


For those of you who want to establish a digital identity and take control of how you present yourself, a blog is a fantastic starting point. There will be more work involved in maintaining a blog, but you only have to take on as much as you want. Once a month is plenty when you’re starting out, there is always the opportunity to do as much or as little as you want. It’s your project after all!

Have any of you started a blog in graduate school? What was your experience like? Share your stories in the comments section below!
[Image from NOGRAN s.r.o., used under Creative Commons license]

When It Comes to Dissertations, Done Is Best

As an ABD student bent on finishing up this summer my personal mantra has become

“The best dissertation is a done dissertation.”

While this may rankle some graduate students, I think this is some of the best advice that an ABD can take to heart.

Yes, it may be a tired cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason! It’s really easy to get lost in the details and to focus on all the minutiae of your project. After a couple of years in grad school this is how your brain works. There is definitely a sense of pride in producing our best work, but the struggle of best vs. done is important to recognize as you near completion. Continue reading When It Comes to Dissertations, Done Is Best

5 Tested Tips to Battle Burnout with Better Self-Care

Every grad student knows that getting an advanced degree can be extremely challenging and that, unfortunately, taking care of yourself often falls off the list of priorities. The long hours in the lab, teaching, and coursework requirements can become a grueling recipe for burnout. Burnout is a different monster than just being tired or overworked for a short period of time. It’s a chronic state of distress resulting from too many constant demands (sounds like grad school!).

I had to learn how to take better care of myself to manage burnout after months of struggling with experiments that did not work. Here’s what I learned: getting out of a burned-out funk takes effort.

With PhD completion rates around 50%, knowing how to deal with and push through burnout is an essential professional skill in an environment that demands so much from students.

Are you experiencing burnout? Some of the common symptoms are:

  • chronic physical exhaustion that does not go away with rest
  • depression and/or anxiety
  • cynicism
  • loss of motivation or interest in your work
  • forgetfulness and/or impaired concentration
  • detachment from those around you
  • increased irritability
  • lack of productivity/poor performance


If you thought these feelings were just a normal part of graduate school, I have great news for you: You don’t need to feel this way in order to get a degree.

So how can you combat burnout in graduate school when there are so many demands on your time? The key to managing this conflict is to be very proactive about self-care. The best way to combat burnout is to take the time to take care of yourself. These changes don’t have to disrupt your whole life, but taking the time to reassess your habits and alter your behaviour to better care for yourself will have a positive impact on your work and is worth the effort.

Don’t feel like you have to suddenly change your life to beat burnout; it’s not fair to expect that of yourself when you are burned out and it’s a recipe for failure. Instead, focus on making small, consistent changes to take better care of yourself and see if that impacts how you feel.


Here are my five personally tested tips for dealing with burnout while in graduate school.


Get Enough Sleep

In grad school sleep is one of the first things to go; some students even brag about how little they’ve slept like it’s a badge of pride. Yes, it can feel good to crank out a major experiment overnight or finally finish writing that article in the wee hours of the morning; but long-term sleep deprivation is incredibly bad for cognitive functioning.

There are two parts to this: getting more sleep and getting better sleep.

Getting more sleep is straightforward. Go to bed earlier or find a way to get up later. Turn off the autoplay on whatever video streaming service you use so you are forced to make the decision to watch more TV late into the night. Or try setting a “bedtime” alarm so you will be mindful about getting to bed at an earlier hour.

Getting better sleep is just as important as getting enough, nobody wants to sleep for 10 hours and still feel tired. To get better sleep try setting a “no screen” time for later in the evening. The light of computer monitors, cell phones, and television screens are known to disrupt your ability to sleep. Aim to shut down tech for the last 30 minutes of your day so you are not exposed to the bright lights that disrupt restful sleep.


Get regular exercise in your life, however you can. It doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking, even little bits through the day will help to improve mood. Taking the time to incorporate physical activity into your routine will help combat the physical symptoms of burnout and can produce mood-stabilizing endorphins that will help you to feel better in the long run.

Do you live close enough to campus to ride a bike?

Can you walk on your lunch break and get some extra sun to help your mood?

Examine your schedule and start by adding in little activities that you enjoy. You can always add more exercise later, the important part is to just start.

Eat Better Food

Eat real food! Even if it’s basic, it’s better than a vending machine, which is usually filled with empty carbs or salty/fatty chips. These foods aren’t doing your brain any favors even if they do feel better on your wallet. Eating better doesn’t have to break the bank.

Eating better is not complicated or unaffordable, no matter what all those diet plans are trying to sell and tell you. Don’t worry about gluten-free, low-fat, paleo, vegan, or the fad-of-the-year diet plan. Focus on eating basic, nutritious foods consistently so your brain actually has enough fuel to function. For me it means throwing a little tuna salad on a bunch of spinach before I run out the door, it’s really basic, takes less than 5 minutes, and provides enough energy so I don’t come home from lab like an over-caffeinated zombie. Embrace whatever works for you.

Even if you absolutely love Ramen noodles (which I do, I embrace the love of ramen I developed in undergrad) at least throw some frozen vegetables in there at the end so you’re not just eating empty carbs and salt. It’s not about major changes, but making the little improvements where you can, when you can.

Take some time to learn to cook. It doesn’t have to be a complicated undertaking. Making a bunch of stew on a Sunday is pretty easy, and if you make enough to freeze you won’t need to cook lunch for the rest of the week (which is a HUGE time-saver as well!). Play around with a Crock-Pot. Have some fun with it! Learn to cook real food that you like and nourish your body.

Ask for Help

One of the major drivers of burnout is trying to cope with an overbooked schedule and too many necessary tasks. Try to take a step back and see if there is anything you can ask for help with in order to lighten your workload and give you room to recover from burnout. Do you have a spouse, significant other, family, or friends who can help ease the burden for a little bit by taking on some smaller tasks (like cooking dinner when you usually cook)?

Your personal life isn’t the only place where you can ask for help. If graduate work is completely overwhelming then take a hard look at all of your professional responsibilities and see if there is anything that you can step back from. This may mean having to speak with your advisor to determine what is working for you and what is not. Sometimes you might just need to be reminded that projects don’t always work and to be kinder to yourself, other times it may be time to address the project and drop aspects that are not working.

The important part is don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.

Learn to say NO.

When trying to get back from burnout you have to accept that you can’t do all the things. The temptation to add lines to your CV is always there, but it’s important to know when to say no to unnecessary activities, events, and even people. Protect your time and cut out whatever is not helping you achieve your goals or take care of yourself. Learn to say no to activities and people that are not contributing to your progress. Be ruthless!

Once you have a set of self-care habits to protect against the worst of burnout, then, and only then, can you start taking on new activities. Wait until you’ve made it through the burnout and can actually handle the increased workload, otherwise you may end up right back where you started.


Final Thoughts

While other articles may suggest the power of positive thinking in combating burnout, I think this is a bad way to deal with this particular problem. Positive thinking can result in an inability to actually deal with the issues that caused your burnout in the first place. It’s better to accept the negatives for what they are (heavy teaching loads, long hours, failed experiments) and work with what you have then imagine a false alternative for yourself.

Take baby steps to take care of yourself and stay consistent. Small, regular changes go a long way toward helping to break through burnout.

These tips don’t take much to implement, so try what fits for you. Always remember that you are worth taking care of.


Have you dealt with burnout during your graduate degree? What helped? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

[Image from Flickr user emiliokuffer, used under Creative Commons license]


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

Shutting Down Sexism in STEM

It seems like it is now impossible to go a week without hearing about sexism in STEM in the news. Last year provided too many examples, whether it was Nobel laureate Tim Hunt attempting to humorously claim that girls are trouble in the lab who either cry or fall in love with you (and the amazing #distractinglysexy response from female scientists on Twitter) to the resignation of exoplanet researcher Geoff Marcey due to sexual harassment charges, it was hard to miss the discussion about sexism in STEM fields in 2015.

Even now, only a few days into 2016 there are more reports surfacing of sexual harassment in STEM fields against female graduate students. It is painful to read about women being pushed from STEM  due to this kind of treatment. This behavior must be addressed by both men and women working in STEM if we are to have any hope of more diversity.

Continue reading Shutting Down Sexism in STEM

The Importance of Asking for Help

One of the most important things that I’ve learned in graduate school is how to ask for help when I need it. Knowing when and how to ask for help can make navigating this unknown terrain much easier and save you time by avoiding the mistakes (or experiments) that others have made. This skill cannot be underrated, as you will encounter the unknown regularly in your studies as a graduate student. Continue reading The Importance of Asking for Help