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Why Less is More in Graduate School (And Life In General)

Mark Levy shares a fascinating story in his book "Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content". The story is about a coach named Robert Kriegel, who was training runners for the last few spots in the Olympics. After he noticed that the runners were tense, he performed an unusual experiment. Instead of telling them to try harder, he advised them to relax and run at about 90% of their normal speed. The results were amazing. Each runner ran faster than previously, and one of them set an unofficial world record!

How does this story apply to graduate school?

Let's think about the path of a typical graduate student. Most first-years are enthusiastic and committed to making the next big discovery or designing the most innovative tool of the century. By the time students enter their fifth year, however, they are itching to graduate. They try to work harder, but many of them have lost their motivation. What happened?

In graduate school it is easy to get caught in the work hard-burnout-fall behind cycle (see diagram). Students have such expectations from themselves (or maybe their supervisors do) that they try to give everything 110% until they are too exhausted to work anymore, and burn out. Repetitive strain injury from excessive typing is a perfect example. If you type so much that you injure your arms, you will probably need to take a break from typing for several weeks. This will actually set you back more than typing less (or slower) because then you would not need down-time. When you are caught in this hamster-wheel, you try to work beyond your limits to catch up, but in the end you make little progress and have no social life either.

When I wrote my thesis, someone advised me to submit it when I felt it was 95% done. If I expected it to be done 100%, I would never finish, because there is always more to do. Whether you work at 90% or 95% efficiency (which is subjective anyway), your mentality shifts immediately from the self-defeating "I always have to give everything 110%". Suddenly, you give yourself time to take a break, to talk to your friends and family, and to exercise, all of which foster creativity and enhance your productivity overall. You are now aiming for excellence instead of perfection, with the permission to make some mistakes and to learn from them.

This principle also applies to writing papers and dissertations. Writing blocks occur when we are afraid of making a mistake on paper so we write nothing instead. If you let your guard down and just start writing, the ideas will come. Set your timer to 30 minutes, start writing freely and you will be amazed at your own creativity!

Wishing you the best,

Dora Farkas, PhD, Founder, PhDNet

Author: "The Smart Way To Your PhD:200 Secrets From 100 Graduates."

Now Available in Kindle and Softcover!

Three Things Employers Want To Find Out About You During an Interview

After the hiatus in hiring during the summer, employers are once again posting job ads and leafing through piles of desperate resumes. The lucky candidates will get interviews either because they sent in an outstanding resume, or (more likely) an acquaintance got them through the door.

The initial excitement of landing an interview is sometimes dampened by the overwhelming preparation phase. Most PhD interviews include a 1-hour job talk followed by technical and behavioral interview questions. Technical questions are usually not the problem. We were trained in graduate school, and possibly during a postdoctoral fellowship, to answer tough research questions. The behavioral questions, on the other hand, can make candidates nervous especially if they did not practice the answers in advance. With so many types of interview questions, who can be prepared for all of them?

Rather than trying to memorize answers to all possible interview questions under the sun, remember the following truism: Employers hire people to solve problems. The purpose of the interview is to find out whether you are the solution to the employer's problems. In today collaborative environment, solving a problem translates into more than just technical expertise. You will need to demonstrate your ability to work in teams, and also motivate other people. While the list of possible interview questions is endless, most of them fall into the following three categories.

1) Do you have the necessary technical expertise?

2) Do you work well in teams both as a contributor and as a leader?

3) Do you fit into the work environment? (e.g. work hours and collaborative vs. competitive environment)

Many interviewers are friendly and will make light conversation with you. While it is acceptable to relax a little bit, keep most of your answers relevant to the job. In particular, when the interviewer asks you "Tell me about yourself", summarize your technical background that led you on this career path. Also let them know about your experience in mentoring and working in teams, even if they are not directly related to work (e.g. volunteering, student organizations).

Also make sure you send a follow-up email within a week after your interview, to thank the interviewers for their time, and reinforce how you can contribute to their organization.

Wishing you the best,

Dora Farkas, PhD, Founder, PhDNet

Author: "The Smart Way To Your PhD:200 Secrets From 100 Graduates."

Now Available in Kindle Edition!

Five Keys to Staying Motivated in Graduate School

Earlier this week I was driving on the highway and noticed that the traffic was much heavier than usual. When I mentioned this observation to a friend, she remarked, "Yeah, traffic is always heavy on the first day of school after Labor Day, but then it gets lighter later on. I guess people stop going to school or work." We both laughed, but I suddenly realized that this pattern was thoroughly familiar to me.

In my freshman year in college, I took Calculus in a 400 person lecture hall (I know many of you readers can relate) and it was packed on the first day of classes. The numbers dwindled gradually, as did the attention span of the remaining students. In graduate school it is a little more difficult to keep track of everyone's whereabouts, because students can be in classes, libraries or doing research in a laboratory. Yet, the gradual decrease in attendance is still noticeable.

Why does enthusiasm peak at the beginning of the semester and then die off gradually? I believe that one of the biggest challenges in graduate school is staying motivated, day after day, for many years. Graduate students often feel like victims, due to a lack of guidance and emotional support. What can you do to boost your motivation? There is an excellent book I read in graduate school called "The Now Habit" by Neil Fiore. The title is quite catchy as is, and Fiore summarizes how our self-talk can influence motivation. In essence, in order to be more productive (and graduate sooner), one needs to be move from a "victim" mentality to a "producer" mentality. If you can change the following five most common negative though patterns to positive ones, you will be much more effective and happier too.

  1. "I have to"
    : This is very typical of "victim-thinking" and will make you feel like you are forced to do something. It is true that you might not want to do every project, but going to graduate school was your choice. You decided to pursue a Ph.D. because you wanted to. Thus, while you might not enjoy every moment of it, replace "I have to" with "I choose to."
  2. "I must finish": For various reasons, many of us feel a rush to graduate. Some students really do need to graduate by a certain deadline due to financial issues or family obligations. Other students become fed up with disappointments and just want to "get out." When you encounter these negative feelings, think about the next project which needs to completed and ask yourself: "When can I start?"
  3. "This is so big": A doctoral dissertation is a big project, but to my knowledge nobody finished it in one day. A common reason that people procrastinate, is that perceive their project as too overwhelming to even start. Instead of focusing on how complicated your project is, brainstorm about how you can break it down into small parts (small accomplishments can be as simple as reading a paper, asking your advisor some questions, or organizing your lab notebook) and tell yourself: "I can take one small step."
  4. "It must be perfect": This type of thinking immediately sets you up for disappointment. Instead, determine realistic expectations. What are the important things that must be accomplished in your thesis? Can these goals be accomplished within a reasonable amount of time? If you accomplish them, will you satisfy the requirements for a Ph.D.? When you realize that you are driving yourself beyond your limits, remind yourself that: "I can be human"
  5. "I don't have time to play". The truth is thatthe best time to take a break is when you feel the most overwhelmed. I did not believe this advice initially, but later I realized that if I took some time to relax (a few minutes, maybe even an hour) during the busiest times, my minds would automatically come up with solutions to creatively resolve problems. Therefore, when you feel that you are too busy to take a break, remember that "I must take time to play."

My favorite one is #3, "I can take one small step". It is tempting to put off big projects, but once you make that first initial step, you will get the momentum going and possibly finish quicker than expected. Remember the Woody Allen quote, "80 percent of success is just showing up"? While he did not go to graduate school, he is a millionaire and a very successful film director. I too found this quote to be quite true in my academic and professional life, and I am reminded of it when I face challenging situations.

Wishing you the best,

Dora Farkas, PhD, Founder, PhDNet

Author: "The Smart Way To Your PhD:200 Secrets From 100 Graduates."

Now Available in Kindle Edition!

Getting Your Feet Wet in Academia with Adjunct Positions

A few years ago I met Jenny (not her real name) at a friend's BBQ party. Jenny was the mother of two young children and an Adjunct Professor in the Humanities. "How do you like your job?" I asked her. "Well, it has its ups and downs," she said. "I love working part-time as a Mom, but I get paid very little. Plus, I always have to look for new positions." Overall, Jenny was satisfied with her job. Her friends who held tenure-track positions worked much longer hours than she could have imagined for her lifestyle as a parent, and she enjoyed teaching very much.

Adjunct positions are usually not the top priority career paths for PhD's because they offer low salaries and are not permanent. Yet, many PhD's apply for adjunct positions because of the flexible schedule and the teaching experience that come with the job. If you interested in testing the waters in academia and developing your classroom proficiency, begin with the following:

  • Talk to your adviser, professors in your department, as well as alumni to help you decide which institutions to apply for and which ones to avoid,
  • Discuss teaching opportunities with your career services office,
  • Think about the types of institution and the courses you are interested in, and
  • Look at job postings in the online resources at the end of this post.

The end of the school year is usually a good time to look for adjunct positions, because that is when many universities look to fill positions for the upcoming semester. Adjunct positions do open up during the school year as well, and if you submit your C.V. mid-term, the department will keep it on file until something opens up. Since adjunct faculty are paid less than full-time faculty, schools with tight budgets and expanding enrollments are more likely to hire them. You might find also openings in evening and weekend continuing education programs, and possibly museums and local libraries too. If you have no teaching experience, you can still outline your course plan in your application, and highlight your public speaking experience.

The Adjunct Advocate is an excellent online magazine with job listings, blogs, forums, and online tools. I have also listed other online resources, as well as a link to an excellent article by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Online tools:

Article from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Wishing you the best,

Dora Farkas, PhD, Founder, PhDNet

Author: "The Smart Way To Your PhD:200 Secrets From 100 Graduates."