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Guest Post: Maintaining Motivation in Grad School Even When Your Supervisor is Destroying It

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This guest post is written by a recent graduate in Neuroscience from the University of British Columbia who wished to be kept anonymous.

The story that I am going to tell here is not exactly the most glamorous one. During my graduate study, I failed to generate publishable results, had frequent arguments with my supervisor, and felt like I was worthless and helpless until the very end. The advice I will give in this post is based on the scenario when you are trapped in a laboratory with a toxic supervisor, and hopefully my advice here can help you avoid falling into the same kind of traps like I did.

Like the title suggests, maintaining motivation is one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish when the person next to you is constantly filling your mind with negativity. It is important that you prepare yourself to deal with harmful behaviors from your supervisors, because they can make you absolutely hate your graduate study and destroy your career. The advice I give graduate students who are dealing with toxic supervisors is to take their criticisms with a grain of salt. Students will undoubtedly hear belittling comments from their supervisors at some point during their graduate study, and it could be triggered by mistakes as trivial as forgetting to restock culture dishes in the cell culture room or errors made during experimental procedures. It is important students realize that nobody is perfect and that researchers (including supervisors) make mistakes on a daily basis. Do not allow your supervisors’ criticisms to dampen your love for research and make you miserable. If they scold you, the best thing to do is pretend that you accept the criticism and then forget about it as quickly as possible.

Almost a year after working in the laboratory I discovered that my supervisor had a poor track record in mentoring successful students and most of the problems I encountered during the program were due to his unsupportive approach and unfair expectations. It took me an entire year to realize this because I went into the graduate program assuming that every supervisor in the world had a decent amount of skill in training students, which turned out to be a grave assumption. When you are working in a laboratory, it is important to be skeptical of your supervisor’s ability, otherwise you can end up in a situation where you are spending time and effort on tasks that will never come to fruition, such as endlessly performing an experiment demanded by your supervisor even though the experiment is bound to fail. If your supervisor is making a scientific claim that you disagree with and can be disproved with contemporary scientific literature or even basic scientific knowledge, question it. If your supervisor belittles your competence or attempts to diagnose you with a psychological disorder, ignore it. If your supervisor criticizes your inability to generate the desired observation, think of an alternative explanation for your observation rather than blindly believing your supervisor. Follow their advice, but do not become their slave.

Many graduate students fall into the routine of performing experiments without properly evaluating their purpose and design. This can happen when students face heavy workloads, and consequently it can lead to a rapid loss of motivation. Conducting research without a proper grasp of its purpose is mentally and physically exhausting. Added to that, the pressure to produce results that fit in line with the supervisor’s previous findings can make for a difficult situation. The simple key to solving this problem is to read papers related to your field of research. It sounds simple and obvious, but many supervisors prefer their students to spend most of their time in the laboratory generating data, and treat them as employed research technician rather than mentoring them to become independent researchers. Reading papers can revitalize your motivation, help you appreciate the importance of all of your work and sacrifice, and train you on how to use the most important source of scientific knowledge. In retrospect, I had the most fun in my graduate study dissecting the results and discussing the implications of my favourite papers with my colleagues rather than chugging away at the microscope.

I hope the advice mentioned here can help those of you who are going into graduate study or those of you who are already in graduate study but have difficulty dealing with a tough supervisor. Competent supervisors who share similar life values and beliefs with students and can properly manage students’ learning are hard to come by, and in fact most people will never find their “ideal” supervisor. Because of this, the responsibility lies with the student to make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation. Overcome the hurdles and never give up.

Thank you to this student for reaching out and taking the time to describe their difficult situation in grad school. If you are a current grad student or recent graduate and would like to share your experience, check out this post to get the details on how to go about it.

 

 

Guest Blog: Planning on Med School?

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This Guest Blog post in written by Liz Koblyk. She is a career counsellor at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, an instructor at McMaster University, and a regular contributor to the Careers Café blog at University Affairs/Affaires universitaires.

Along with my work in a med school, I also teach in a program full of students hoping to get into med school.  One of the most heartbreaking phrases I read in their work is, “Once I get into med school, I’ll have it made.”  Of course, being a doctor is a great path to pursue.  It’s an obvious choice if you want to help people and you love the sciences.  But it’s not the only option out there, and sometimes, it’s an option people pursue without fully considering what they’re getting themselves into.

Here’s the problem: no one “has it made” once they get into med school.  What initially feels like enormous success – getting in! – can quickly turn into a long slog.  Med students do a lot of work, get little sleep or spare time, and spend hours with angry, scared, ill and sometimes dying people.  While the med students I work with talk about extremely rewarding times, they also share challenges, like trying to connect with patients who yell at them, feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities, and preparing to enter yet another competitive process as they hope for residency spots in their specialties of choice.

Yep – there’s more competition after getting admitted to med school.  Not all medical students land a residency in their specialty of choice (if you want to see the stats, have a look at the reports on the CaRMS website).  In fact, not all medical students land a residency spot at all.  Likewise, not all successful residents find the jobs that they’re looking for, or find jobs in places where they want to live.  There is no guarantee, just because you enter med school and pay your 6-figure tuition, that you will end up practicing as a physician.  This is not to say that no one should apply to med school, just because there’s a labour market.  People in all professions run into limits on where and whether there is opportunity to do the work they want to do.  However, there’s something about the size of med school tuition, and the fact that the physician labour market is very good, that can lead people to believe there is unlimited choice for MDs.

So, if you’re considering med school, ask yourself whether you’ll be happy in a number of different specialties.  If you’re hoping to be an emergency doc, a plastic surgeon, or an ophthalmologist, for example, will you be happy with other options if the public doesn’t need, or the labour market doesn’t support, another specialist in your dream job?

Finally, if you’re preparing for med school, there’s nothing stopping you from exploring other options at the same time.  No one is so limited that they could only be happy and make meaningful contributions in one job.  Time and again, I’ve seen people who focused initially on one goal because it was what their family wanted, because it seemed like a wise choice because of the money or status, or because they didn’t know what else was out there; they found better options once they started looking.  Sadly, I’ve also worked with clients who pursued a job for those same reasons, and who came to find themselves dreading each day of work.  From what they’ve told me, those work hours seem to stretch out into an endless parade.

That said, med school might be an amazing option for you.  But explore it before you get into it.  And give some other options you’re curious about a fair shake, too.  Nothing is lost by that: either way, you end up knowing what you’d most like to pursue.  And if your final decision is still to pursue med school, you’ve still lost nothing – you’ll be all the more able to explain your choice, and that will help you to earn admission in the first place.

 

 

Guest Post: 6 Reasons Why Summer Research Experience Will Give You More Than Just Research Experience

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This guest blog was written by Sophie Duranceau, a graduate from Concordia University (B.A. Psychology, Honours).  Sophie worked diligently on grad-school applications, and  received multiple acceptance letters from excellent Clinical Psychology programs! 

I know about many of the things that Sophie did to prepare for grad school, and I watched her deal with the application process. I don’t want to make this sound too much like I’m writing a letter of recommendation here, so let me just say that I have seldom before met a student who worked so carefully and methodically on every important step. Its no wonder her applications were so successful!

 Sophie did a lot of things right, from choosing the appropriate graduate programs and potential supervisors (given her career goals), to preparing a persuasive personal statement, to contacting potential supervisors before applying. Sophie began some of the most important steps long before she started dealing with the application process — namely, getting involved in the research being conducted by some of her professors, and enabling them to learn about her strong personal qualities and abilities. Here, she shares some excellent advice about getting that much needed experience.

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Let’s face it, as undergraduate students, we are often faced with the challenges of finding time to; do research, work for a living, keep up with our classes (and get straight As), volunteer, AND live a ‘’balanced lifestyle’’.  I can already hear some of you say ‘’that is simply not possible, there are not enough hours in a day’’! Folks, I was an undergraduate student in Psychology less than a year ago and I promise you that it can be done. I can certainly offer you some advice based on my own experiences juggling undergraduate studies and getting into graduate school. Lesson number one, the secret to succeeding is careful planning. Now that you know this, I’m going to give you my second advice; if you want to go to graduate school, there is no way of getting around research experience. Dr. Mumby has repeated it multiple times on this blog and in his book: research experience will provide you with assets that, ultimately, will make the difference as to whether or not you will get admitted into a graduate program. For the purpose of optimal planning, I would strongly advise you to not only work on research during the school year but to also plan at least one summer around getting research experience. Why? Here is a list of 6 reasons why summer research experience will be beneficial to you, above and beyond the fact that you will be doing research.

1- You will get to spend a lot of time with graduate students. The school year is busy for everyone, even more so for graduate students. As a result, they may not be as available to answer your questions, teach you new skills or get you involved on their projects. The summer is very different though. There is usually at least one graduate student in each research laboratory that is collecting data for his/her thesis. Being there while it is happening is a great way to learn what designing an experiment and making it happen is all about. Spending time with graduate students will also allow you to better assess whether or not graduate school is really what you want to do.

2- The professor you will be working for is more likely to have time to actually get to know you personally. Dr. Mumby has mentioned this before but it cannot be emphasized enough. A big reason why getting research experience is so crucial is because it’s the best way to get strong reference letters. Professors, like graduate students, are very busy during the school year. As a result, they may not have many opportunities to see you at work in a laboratory setting and get to know you. During the summer, things are not as rushed and professors typically have more time to physically work in the laboratory and check on their students. This is a great time to show them what you can do! Not convinced yet? A hoard of undergraduate students typically makes itself available to professors every September. That same hoard typically disappears in May, when the school year is over. If you are one of the few ones who decide to stay, you are setting yourself apart from the crowd just by being there.

3- This brings me to my third reason; summer is a great time to do some networking with your professors. Networking does not come naturally to most of us but here’s the great news, it requires very little effort during the summer. Your presence will speak for itself. Believe it or not, professors talk to each other. If you come into school regularly enough and interact with professors down the hall, you will quickly go from being the student who sits in the back row to Student W in Dr. X’s lab who is working on Project Y and hopes to go to graduate school to do Z. This will become very handy when you need reference letters. Your presence in the school will also allow you to more casually ask professors that have gotten to know you if they would be willing to write you a strong reference letter during the fall. Chances are, at that point, they will. Another way this can be beneficial is if you plan on taking a year off to do research-related work after your undergraduate studies. Professors that you have not worked with in the past might be more likely to hire you as a year-long research coordinator if they feel like they already know you and your supervisor can attest that you are a good worker.

4- Summer is typically the time when graduate students (at least MA students) defend their thesis. Thesis defenses are usually open to other students and professors. Working on research during the summer will allow you to find out when these things are happening and to attend! This is a great way of getting to know what you would be expected to do in graduate school and, again, to set yourself apart from the crowd. Professors that see you there will take it as a sign that you are serious about what you want to do.

5- If you are planning on starting your Honours Thesis with Dr. X in the fall, working in Dr. X’s laboratory during the summer will provide you with a head start. You will have the opportunity to get acquainted with the literature in your field, you might learn how to run a specific task during the summer which will make it easy to collect your data in the fall, it will be easy to meet with your supervisor to discuss a project (before he/she becomes too busy), etc.

6- Last, but not the least, authorships! If you are reading this you are probably still an undergraduate student and publications are far from your mind. That is completely normal but here’s the thing; one morning you will wake up, you won’t know how it happened, and publications will have become one of the first things on your mind. Even if that day hasn’t come yet, it doesn’t mean you can’t start getting ready for it! Research laboratories are typically buzzing with projects that you could get involved in during the summer. It could be a professor wanting to try out a new task or a graduate student who needs help with an experiment. If you provide them with some significant help above and beyond more typical tasks such as data entry, there’s a good possibility that they will acknowledge your work by putting your name on a poster for example. An authorship on a poster is not a pre-requisite to get into graduate school but it is a nice extra to have on your CV that will, again, set you apart from the crowd.

If you have read this far I must be convincing you that summer research is a good idea after all. If you are like most undergraduate students and typically work during the summer months, your next question probably is; how can I get such research experience and fulfill my financial needs at the same time? There is no miracle answer to this question but I can provide you with a few ideas in my this post about how to get summer research experience while keeping a roof over your head.

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Guest Post: Addressing Weaknesses in Your Graduate School Application

Giulio Rocca is a Harvard alumnus and the founder of GradSchoolHeaven.com and MBAHeaven.com, online references for people applying to graduate and business school offering clear, complete and expert advice based on first-hand experience.

Getting accepted to graduate school is a competitive affair. Imagine an admissions committee reviewing your application with a checklist in mind. They start by reviewing the quantitative measures of your ability. Does the applicant have a high GPA? Check. High GRE score? Check. Next, they turn to the qualitative parts of your application: your cover letter, personal statement, writing sample, and recommendation letters. Naturally, the ideal candidate will pass with flying colors. But what if all the boxes aren’t checked?

Let’s start by discussing grades and standardized test scores. If your performance isn’t stellar, the default conclusion is that either (a) you aren’t intelligent or (b) you didn’t put the requisite effort into your studies. One way to compensate is to demonstrate your intellectual superiority by excelling in one of the quantitative measures. For example, if you have a low GPA, ace the GRE; or vice versa. Another way to address weaknesses is to highlight your strengths in the written portion of your application. This can be accomplished by drawing attention to a subset of your GPA that relates to your major or specific subjects, or referencing a high percentile score in one of the verbal or quantitative sections of the GRE. A third way to compensate is to offer alternative and acceptable explanations for your poor performance. For instance, if your grades trailed off in your senior year because you worked to support yourself financially, lived through a family crisis, or experienced other extenuating circumstances, you can briefly touch on this without being melodramatic.

But what if your weakness lies in the written portion of your application — in your personal statement, writing sample, or recommendation letters? If you’re not a skilled writer, workshop your written materials with people that you hold in high esteem. Your current and former professors are usually a good bet. You can also enlist the support of a professional editor but resist the temptation to have your work completely rewritten and passed off as your own. If you’re struggling to come up with recommenders, ask yourself whether you’ve considered all options. Did you think about all past and present professors? How about professors both inside and outside of your department? While it’s desirable to submit recommendations from professors in fields related to your application, it’s acceptable to include an outside perspective particularly if the two fields overlap in competencies.

Even if your application materials are in tip-top shape, it’s possible to commit a final cardinal error: submitting your application after the deadline. While some graduate schools are unbendable on this point, the reality is that it typically takes days, if not weeks, for admissions committees to review all applications. If you’re late, you can attempt to salvage the situation by including a cover letter containing an apology and expressing your sincerest gratitude to still be considered in the current application cycle. Following up with a phone call or email to the department’s Graduate Director and professors with whom you’ve initiated contact is also helpful.

Ultimately, success in addressing your weaknesses depends on your ability to conduct an honest self-assessment and strategically focus on compensating where it matters most. Keep a positive attitude and remember that many applicants are accepted each year with less-than-perfect applications. If you can’t check all the boxes, do the next best thing and nip any concerns in the bud.

Guest Blog: The benefits of attending a smaller University or College

I teach at one of the smallest universities in Canada (and certainly at the smallest one in my province).  We have about 1200 full time students in our whole school.  A big department like mine, has five faculty members.   (To put that in some perspective, the lab I was in while doing my PhD had five members).   I know my students are getting a good education, I have evidence of that.  Heck, we even recently hired one of our former students (once she went off and got a PhD) in our department.  Each year we send off a few students to grad school in psychology, but also to law school, med school etc.

Why do I mention these things?  Well, there is a perception out there that one is somehow at a disadvantage if one’s degree is from a small school when applying for graduate work.   I can tell you that, in my experience, this is completely and utterly untrue.

What do graduate admissions committees care about?  They care about grades, GRE scores, experience, cover letters (or personal statements) and letters of recommendation.   The letters of recommendation are key.  (I have been on graduate admissions committees before, and at a big university).  You will get a much more insightful letter if the prof knows you.  He or she will know you pretty darned well if you have taken 5 classes over your undergrad career with him or her.  What do they want to see in these letters?  Well it varies, but most of us would like to see words like ‘maturity’ and ‘independence’ and such.  Well, at a small school someone will easily see those things in you.

Once you get to a grad program, your work at a smaller university will stand you in good stead.  You see, graduate seminars and classes tend to be small, but you have been in small classes since day one of your undergrad career.  The idea of speaking your mind is a lot easier if you have been doing it already for a few years.

I have heard many students of mine say that they are concerned when they apply to grad school that ‘nobody will have ever heard of our school’ or ‘they think we are some small time place’.   I did my PhD at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, but, when I look at the faculty, and where they did their undergrad degrees, I can see that many went to small schools ‘nobody has ever heard of’.

In our fourth year capstone seminar course on the last day I tell my students this:

‘If anyone ever tells you that your education here was second rate, or that your degree is somehow worth less than theirs, feel free to tell them to go to hell, and tell them that was from me.’

Dr. Dave Brodbeck is an experimental psychologist at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie ON, Canada where he teaches and studies the evolution of cognition.  Dave can be found talking science, video games, sports, politics etc at davebrodbeck.com or on twitter @dbrodbeck.  All of his lectures are podcasted and available on iTunes

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Guest Blog: From The Classroom To The Cubicle: Seeking Feedback The Right Way

This post was written by Alicia Magda, who is a member of the GreekForMe team. They cover all sorts of topics related to the college life experience, including the following article on how to best prepare for and get the most out of performance evaluations at work.

Many grad students pair their studies with a part-time or even a full-time job – it’d be nice to immerse yourself completely in your studies, but well, you have to eat! Just as you seek feedback from your professors in order to improve; it’s so crucial to do the same at your job. Yet, with both employees and managers wearing so many different hats these days, it can be hard for your boss to find time to give you that feedback, and you want to be sure you ask for it in the right way. Here are our tried and true ways for gaining that valuable performance feedback you need.

Schedule Time In Advance

One of the easiest ways to turn your boss off to you is by saying “I really need your feedback now.” Just like you, your boss’s day is filled with pre-scheduled tasks and meetings. Set up time with your boss in advance where they can choose a date and time that works for them. You’ll be demonstrating initiative in wanting to set up the meeting in the first place, patience, and consideration for other’s time.

Document Your Goals and Performance

Think of this like a syllabus. The beginning of a syllabus starts with an overview of the class (your job description), and then goes into detail about the various milestones you’ll encounter throughout the course (the goals you want to hit at your job), and concludes with a list of how your performance is evaluated, based on how well you did at each milestone (list specific ways you have helped the company and how they fit into your goals). Bring this with you to the review, and present your boss with a copy. This will show your boss you’ve taken the responsibility to do a personal evaluation of your work and evaluate how you are contributing to the bottom line.

Follow-up with Quarterly Reviews

Many companies do yearly performance reviews, but it’s easy to fall off track throughout the year or lose sight of a long-term goal. After your initial performance review, be sure to follow-up with your boss every three months, bringing along a synopsis of your goals and company contributions since your last review. Your long-term goals should stay first and foremost on your mind, so consolidate them into three points on a post-it note and stick it on your desk. This will help make evaluating your personal performance so much easier when the next performance review rolls around, and if you know yourself, it’ll be easier on your boss to review you, too!

Share with us your tips on asking for a performance review, whether it’s from your boss or from your professor! Is there anything you shouldn’t do when asking for a performance review? We’d love to hear your feedback.