Why bother with blogs?

It’s worthwhile thinking about the blogsphere and its utility for grad students. Blogs produced by graduate students may be highly personal and experiential in focus – useful for finding kindred spirits and especially useful when reflecting your field or area of studies. Other blogs, produced by coaches or mentors – like this this one – can be useful for accessing information and coaching tips from a professional perspective.

To get started, it’s probably worthwhile to check out a few of the more well-known and substantial blogs. Sites such as GradHacker and The Thesis Whisperer offer stories and advice from graduate students, and provide all sorts of links to other sources that may be of specific interest to you. One of the most active Canadian sites is career coach Jennifer Polk’s From PhD to Life. And there are many more out there.

The key is to search “grad studies and blogs or blogging” and identify the few that are of special interest to you and might be worth bookmarking and following with some regularity. However, time management matters here. As with any kind of research, a lot of time can be spent floating in cyberspace and tasting the fruit – while not getting a lot of other things done.

What I like to do is to follow a few that make particular sense to me at any given time. I save those links in my “favourites” bar, adding new sites as they crop up – constantly editing my favourites list as I tire of some sites and discover fresh ones. It takes me only a few minutes every day or so to check out my favourites, a little longer if I want to list or de-list items.

When I run across something I want to read in depth but don’t have time for at the moment, I send an e-mail to myself with a link in its body. On a slow day or when there is a little pocket of time (waiting rooms are good for this), you can pull up and enjoy these mini-reads – much better than those dog-eared magazines from yesteryear that waiting rooms seem to favour!


Inspiring story: Kristen Gwinn-Becker, CEO HistoryIT

At grad launch, we’re always on the lookout for stories about individuals who have carved out interesting and unexpected employment paths for themselves after completing their degrees.

In this post from the phds at work website (May 19/14), Kristen Gwinn-Becker speaks of putting her PhD in History to use by founding a software and services company that works with institutional clients in creating accessible digital archives.

Kristen sees her work as “transforming and expanding the way history is viewed, accessed, and utilized.” She characterizes her life as “the coolest” as she spends her weeks “jetting around” to view historical collections and helping to make them “really meaningful to the broader public.”

It is this last that most interests me in Kristen’s narrative. While she sees doctoral research as a great privilege and appreciated having the time to immerse herself in archives, she became uncomfortable about the way that archival records tended to be seen as only of use and meaning to researchers like herself. In her own words,

“… the more I interacted with these materials, the more I understood that this great wealth of content would be incredibly meaningful if the general public — the big, wide world of non-researchers — could search it in the same way that they search Google.”

The business that she eventually established is rooted in a mission — the alignment of personal goals with academic credentials in order to make a difference in the world at large.

Kristen does not characterize her journey as being easy or direct, but after exploring the world of academic publishing she slowly found her specialized niche, moving from a general consultancy focused on technological solutions for humanities projects to a direct focus on the world of digital archives.

Kristen’s description of a single week in her working life is remarkable — hers is a fast-paced, varied and exciting world of work.


New online site offers pro-dev tools to grad students at Ontario universities

Earlier this week, MyGradSkills.ca was launched to provide all Ontario graduate students with a set of free online professional skills training tools.

The Ontario Consortium for Graduate Professional Skills, a group of seven Ontario universities, developed the initiative and funding for the project was provided from the Ontario government.

According to a press release from the Council of Ontario Universities (COU), by using their university email accounts students can now “log in to view 18 short, self-paced training units.” Topics include how to write a resume, how to conduct a job search, the art of entrepreneurship, teaching and learning, and academic and professional communications.

MyGradSkills.ca is designed to meet the needs of “those interested in a career in academia, as well as those seeking to put their credentials to use in business, government or non-profit organizations.”

The COU press release quoted PhD student Coleen Even, of the University of Waterloo (one of the universities involved in the consortium), who says:

“One of the real advantages of this modular program is that the modules are self-selected (you choose what to use) and can be pursued on a students’ own time and in relation to their own schedules. As graduate students, we don’t always have time for in-person workshops — we’re often immersed in research, traveling for field work or conferences, and teaching undergraduate students. So being able to access this sort of information online is a real plus.”

Allison Sekuler, Associate Vice-President and Dean of Graduate Studies at McMaster University and past chair of COU’s Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, led the initiative. In a post on the MyGradSkills.ca blog, Allison invites students to share feedback about the modules and provide ideas on future courses and site content.

For those of us dedicated to graduate student professional development, this new initiative is welcome and gratifying. It represents an important consensus on the part of Ontario universities about the need for professional training for graduate students, and demonstrates the willingness of institutional partners to invest in providing skill-building opportunities for graduate students.

It will be interesting to see how students respond to the site and its course offerings

Why graduate students need social media

We all use social media all the time: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Flickr, blogs and so on. Such sites are virtual villages, hives of social interaction, and we flock to them for fun and for information that matters to us. For the most part we use such sites as personal tools, sharing our lives with friends and finding like-minded others to connect with through our ever-growing electronic networks.

However, grad students need to become more aware of how useful social media can be for their own professional purposes, especially when it comes to connecting to those sharing research interests — and, ultimately, to those who might be interested in hiring us some day.

In a post, featured in University Affairs (November 22/13), Leah Devellis wonders why graduate students “shy away from using social media to promote themselves and their research.” Leah at that time was the coordinator of Graduate Services and Professional Development at Carleton University’s faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral studies.

She outlines five reasons why graduate students need to use social media:

  • To connect with others because “Grad school can be an isolating experience” and you need to connect with others in your field. Twitter offers countless opportunities for connecting with others who are eager to discuss research and the grad school experience.
  • To make your research accessible without waiting for publication in academic journals – a one-minute YouTube video can make what you do available “to millions” immediately.
  • To mobilize your research – how many people are going to read your thesis or dissertation, really? Leah offers tips on how to discover groups and people working in your field who will want to know about your work.
  • To establish yourself as an expert – by focusing “your social media engagement in one or two general areas.”
  • To discover alternative- or post-academic careers by identifying key players, organizations, and opportunities outside academia.

Leah advises using Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, and other sites which provide great opportunities for enhancing your professional identity. You just need to figure out the “social media platforms that work best for you” and jump into the pool.

There’s more to read in her full post, “Grad students need social media,” as Leah expands on these points and offers some interesting examples of grad students using social media in this way.

Bedevilled — dealing with writer’s block

When it comes to written communications, anyone can experience writer’s block anytime. Joli Jensen’s blog at chroniclevitae.com focuses on getting academic writing done with efficiency, which includes the need to tame the beast when one is feeling blocked.

Joli is a Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa, and in one recent post (June 30/14) she speaks of a strategy that she calls inviting your “writing demons” in for tea.

In Joli’s experience, “no amount of time, space, or energy will make you a more productive writer if you let your inner writing demons (that is, your secret fears and self-doubts) sabotage you.” She says these doubts “may manifest as unconscious, self-perpetuating assumptions about who we are and what our writing should be. If we allow them to take hold, they can petrify us and keep us from writing.”

Among the many bedevillers that plague us, whether we are undertaking academic or other writing projects, she identifies “the magnum-opus demon,” “the hostile-reader demon,” “the impostor-syndrome demon,” and “the compared-to-X demon” – as well as lesser demons such as “the cleared-deck djinni,” “the perfect-first-sentence djinni” and “the need-more-research djinni.” (I think I have met them all in my time.)

She goes on to describe specific strategies for dealing with specific writing demons, but the really exciting part about visiting her page is its expansiveness, especially the links she provides to other pieces she has written on academic writing.

Visit Joli’s blog, “When Doubts Bedevil Your Writing, Invite Your Demons in for Tea,” and click away on the leads she provides. One of these links is an invitation to join Vitae’s writing discussion group, On Scholarly Writing, where graduate students share tips about “fighting through doubts about their work.”

Communication skills essential to workplace success, say employers

Just in time for the start of a new academic year, Jennifer Lewington has put the development of good communication skills front and centre in terms of student employability and success in the workplace.

She writes in the The Globe and Mail (August 26/14) that recruiters put a real premium on communication skills. In fact, “When hiring young managers, employers appear to value one skill above the rest: the ability to communicate clearly.”

She goes on to say:

“Corporate recruiters ranked communication skills ahead of teamwork, technical knowledge and leadership when assessing MBA graduates for mid-level jobs, according to a survey last spring of 565 global employers by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which administers a widely used business school entrance test. Respondents rated communication skills ahead of managerial ability by a two-to-one margin.”

A recent survey by Leger Marketing in association with the Schulich School of Business at York University and other Canadian business schools concurs, and Jennifer notes that “an online survey of 845 business executives identified leadership and effective communication as the two most important management competencies – and the two most in need of improvement.”

Communications skills are increasingly important in preparing for work in any organization. Writing clearly to share ideas within an organizations and to its external stakeholders is essential. Oral communication is equally important. Face-to-face forms of communication, where you can’t hide behind a screen and a keyboard, and where body language needs to be read and emotional cues attended to if the relationship is to work, are essential for effective work in workplace settings.

Some business schools have designed programs to help MBA students to communicate more effectively in person. Jennifer Lewington quotes Sharon Irwin-Foulon, director of career management at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, who states that:

“Students who have grown up with texting and Facebook are forgetting to look someone in the eye and watch for the emotional intelligence cues,” she added. “These are the real differentiators that make them promotable.”

You can find out more by reading the article “Recruiters put premium on communication skills.”

My sense is that all graduate students, and not just business students, need to deliberately emphasize the development of communication skills over the course of their degree programs. And how? By intentionally finding and concentrating on opportunities to develop their speaking and writing skills. For example:

  • Graduate students need to write, request and act upon feedback whenever they perform or submit anything for grading. Ask your grader how you can improve your ways of expressing yourself – and have in-person conversations about how you can improve with those whose job is to assess you as you complete your degree.
  • Almost all universities offer workshops in writing and communications skills for graduate students, with a focus workplace readiness. Find out from your Faculty or School of Graduate Studies where you can find on-campus programs related to communicating well in the after-degree universe you will be entering. Fit a few such activities into your schedule each term.
  • There are always committees or associations that graduate students can become involved in, whether as grad student representatives on university committees or as involved members of active student groups. Take on a role in some campus-based or community-based group and use that activity as a sandbox (not necessarily soap-box) for improving your ability to speak out, speak up, speak succinctly, write concisely, and/or overcome public speaking fears by “just doing” it.

My favourite topic – getting organized!

We get into grad school on the basis of our academic records – and the promise that we will employ our considerable intelligence and diligence in the pursuit of knowledge once we get there. And we will.

However, staying on top of things is a considerable challenge, as we all know or expect.

So what’s the most important self-management tool once we get into grad studies? My vote is for the need for really good organizational skills.

Some would argue that getting and staying organized may have been easier in the past when multitasking was less a fact of daily life, and it’s easy to blame the pressures and distractions of the wired world for our slippages when it comes to staying focused and on track.

However Daniel Levitin argues in The Organized Mind that – based on what neuroscience teaches us about the brain and organization and productivity – there are plenty of strategies available to us for managing life in an age of “information overload.”

Lucy Feldman, writing for The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy (August 18/14), extracts “Ten Tips on Organizing Your Mind” from Levitin’s book.

Among them are:

  1. Taking breaks.
  2. Setting up different computer monitors for different activities.
  3. Embracing a (modified) paper to-do list.
  4. Filing correspondence in multiple ways.
  5. Purging when needed.
  6. Designating time for short tasks and longer projects.
  7. Not spending more time on a decision than it’s worth.
  8. Sleeping, even napping on the job.
  9. Avoiding over-organizing
  10. Leaving work at work.

Some of these seem like common sense to me, though Levitin uses neuroscience to back them up. Some seem unlikely to happen in my little office (different computer monitors? – I would have to suspend them from the ceiling). But some I can take to heart – like #3 (index cards – of course – why didn’t I think of that?) and #7 (I could afford to do less of this).

It’s worth finding a few minutes to read Feldman’s article. Better still , read the whole book – if you can fit it into your schedule!



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