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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.]


Ace Your Next Phone Interview

Ah, the phone interview! This is often the first step in the interview process for graduate students looking for careers inside academia or  alternative academic (alt-ac) careers. Getting your foot in the door is usually the hardest part, so congratulations on making it through the first hoop!

Now that you’ve got the phone interview scheduled, how do you prepare to make the best impression and get to the next round of interviews? Phone interviews can be great for academics because you can treat them like open book tests and study up ahead of time, so make the most of your hard-won study skills!

However, don’t feel like you need to have a full speech for your dissertation topic, if you’re going alt-ac an elevator pitch will usually suffice. One major difference for graduate student preparing for alt-ac careers is that your specific dissertation topic will not be the basis for your interview, it’s going to be about what you can bring to the company you are interviewing with, so being able to quickly explain your work in plain language is a benefit.

Here are my five best tips for preparing for and acing your phone interview:

1. Have all of the relevant documents close at hand
Before answering the phone call you should have all of your relevant documents with you. Everything that the hiring manager has, you should have, so you can directly discuss relevant points on your resume, CV, or cover letter. This is critical if you are applying to multiple jobs and writing custom-targeted documents for each position (which you should be doing!). By compiling everything you need in front of you, you can minimize the risk of forgetting or mixing up your application materials.

2. Make a spreadsheet of common questions and your answers
This can be as simple as finding some of the most common questions online (there are tons of sites with sample questions) and writing down your answers. It does not need to be any more than a Word document table with the question on the left, and your answer on the right (bullet points work great for this). This can be especially helpful with tricky, open-ended questions such as the ever-present “So tell me about yourself.” Print it out and have it with you during your interview. I’ve used this myself and it really, really helps.

3. Find a place that is quiet and has good phone reception
Yes, the quiet space where you will be undisturbed is important, but having cell reception is also critical. If you’ve found a space that will work for your interview, be sure you call someone from that location before your phone interview so you can ensure that you are getting good reception and can be clearly heard. Even better, find a landline! They might be considered outdated, but the quality of sound and understanding what your interviewer asks are worth the trouble, if you have access to one in an appropriate, quiet space with no distractions.

4. Be aware of your voice
It’s no secret that interviews are stressful, even over the phone when you can’t see your interviewer. With just your voice representing you during the phone call it is important to make sure that you sound collected and competent. A quick shortcut to this is to stand up during your phone interview; this will help open your torso and minimize the compression of your lungs and diaphragm so that you sound better. If you’re anxious before your call it can help to walk around to dissipate some of that nervous energy and keep it from creeping into your voice and pace of speech. If you’re still nervous during the call (and many people are!) pace or even slowly walking up and down a flight of stairs can actually help to dissipate that energy; just be sure not to be so active that you start to lose your breath!

5. Always, always, always follow up and say thank you.
This is a critical and often forgotten part of the interview process, especially with phone interviews as they can feel very impersonal. Always take the time to send a follow-up email to your interviewer within 24 hours of your interview. Same-day is even better if you have an early interview. Taking the time to say thank-you after the fact and communicate your enthusiasm for the position will help to set you apart of the other applicants by giving the hiring manager another, positive impression of you.

Many interviewing skills take time to develop. If you’re very anxious or struggle with the interview process in other ways it may be beneficial to practice interviews or speaking over the phone until you get more comfortable. With these tips in mind I hope you can go out and ace your next phone interview!

Have you had successful phone interviews? What did and did not work for you? Share your experiences in the comments sections below.

[Image by flickr user cipherswarm and 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

Zika Virus: What You Need to Know

Once relatively unknown, Zika virus is in the middle of an explosive epidemic in Brasil and other South American countries. While common symptoms are mild, pregnant women should be wary as contracting Zika virus during pregnancy appears to be linked to microcephaly in their babies.

What can we expect from Zika virus in the Americas? Read on to find out.

Continue reading Zika Virus: What You Need to Know

Mind-controlling fungus turns insects into zombies

Deep in forests around the world a strange fungus is lurking. It doesn’t grow on trees, or from the ground like so many other fungi that we are familiar with. Instead, this fungus infects an unfortunate insect, turning it into a mindless zombie and control of its body until the fungus matures, erupting from the dying insect.

Think this sounds like a plot line from the X-Files? It’s not.

For some unfortunate insects this actually happens; enter the Cordyceps fungus.

How can a microbe turn these normal insects into fungus-erupting zombies? Read on to find out more. Continue reading Mind-controlling fungus turns insects into zombies

Are Viruses Alive?

Česky: 3D virus chřipky English: 3D model of a...
3D model of an influenza virus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are viruses alive?

In a sense, viruses are molecular hijackers bent on subverting host defenses, taking over a host cell’s ability to control nucleic acid and protein processing functions, and making copies of themselves to go out and infect more cells. Viruses don’t divide like cells, don’t generate their own energy, and are fully dependent on host cells and their proteins to replicate.

Don’t let this simplicity fool you, viruses have very sophisticated means of taking over cells and turning them into factories for making even more viral copies.However, since they can’t accomplish many of the major of functions of life on their own outside of the host cell it has been debated for many years whether viruses are “alive.” Continue reading Are Viruses Alive?