Finding a Unicorn

Sometimes it feels like narrowing down a research topic is like searching for a unicorn.

One of my course assignments this term is to submit a 10 page research proposal. It seemed like a relatively simple task and I thought I knew what I was going to write, but now that it is crunch time, I am more confused than ever before. Summarizing what you want to research in 10 pages is far more challenging than I had thought. No literature review, just ten pages of what you want to research and how. Yikes.

The “Imposter Syndrome” in Grad School

I wish someone had explained to me that grad school is likely to make you feel more stupid than ever before.

Many undergrads write about the difficult transition between high school and university: grades drop, the “freshman 15” creeps up and confidence often wavers. However, the hit to your confidence is also likely to find its way to you in a graduate program. I initially applied to UBC as a back up school and was shocked and thrilled to be offered a spot in the master’s program I was interested in. I had completed my undergrad at a small university and had never even considered UBC as an option, only deciding to apply on a whim because I had heard from several colleagues that it was a great school. I mailed my application the day before it was due because I was so uncertain about applying. My first graduate experience ended up being excellent and after successfully defending my thesis, my advisor encouraged me to consider applying to a PhD program. So I did and was admitted on my first try, with full funding. I was excited at the time but only now fully understand what an awesome accomplishment that was. Unfortunately that particular program turned out to not be a good fit for various reasons. My confidence tanked, I felt completely unsupported and I found myself wondering why I ever thought doing a PhD was a good idea. It felt like the biggest mistake of my life.

After taking some time to figure out what I wanted to do and switching programs to one that is a much better fit, I’ve realized what I need to be successful in graduate school:

  • Supportive family and friends – an amazing husband who cooks dinner with nary a complaint and friends who understand when I have to camp out in the library instead of being social on a Friday night
  • An advisor who believes that my work is important and worthwhile
  • A committee who provides constructive criticism and advice
  • Mentors who can help me learn how to be an effective teacher and researcher
  • Courses that are useful for my research
  • Classmates who can relate to the experience and provide perspective when needed
  • A cat to snuggle with when I’m frustrated and exhausted writing a paper at 2am

Grad school often feels like a race but it is your race. If you don’t believe in what you are doing (and you won’t all the time) you will need people around to encourage and remind you why you wanted to do this in the first place. Your ideas have merit and YOU have merit, regardless of how many publications you have on your cv, what letters are behind your name and how much funding you have. Imagine the day you get to cross the stage in the Chan Centre in ridiculous Harry Potter robes and hear the Dean present you as “Dr. so-and-so” who studied “insert topic of your research in three lines or less” and how amazing that will feel.

That is what keeps me going at 2am. Well that, and cat snuggles!

The Paradox of Teaching & Being a Student

This term has been a balancing act – my first term in a new program and my first term as a sessional (adjunct) instructor.

I previously was employed as a teaching assistant for two years and had the good fortune to work with a very experienced professor and another much more experienced TA in a new graduate level seminar course. I had the opportunity to help develop the course, teach a few lectures, organize a student conference and do minimal marking. It was the best way to learn if I wanted to be a professor and my conclusion at the end was that I wanted to pursue teaching in some form. This term I am teaching undergrads for the first time ever and most of the course is online, so that has been a real shift in my planning and how I interact with the class. It is also a bit odd being a teacher and being a student at the same time – when I was a TA, I felt like I had more free rein to relate to the students and remind them I was also a student, albeit at a different level. However, now I feel like the bar has been raised. I am fully responsible for these students and their experience in my course and sometimes that feels like a lot of responsibility!

I feel like there is a lot of discussion about teaching as part of a professorship but not much time or attention given to teaching grad students how to be effective instructors. UBC-O has an amazing course for new scholars who want to improve their teaching skills: http://www.ubc.ca/okanagan/ctl/tagrad/credprog.html and UBC-V has some great workshops and resources as well: http://ctlt.ubc.ca/programs/graduate-student-ta-programs/ The Instructional Skills Workshop comes highly recommended and will give you a notation on your transcript once you successfully complete it: http://ctlt.ubc.ca/programs/all-our-programs/instructional-skills-workshops/

Reflecting

In my research course this week, I was joking about how self-reflection is beat into us in social work training and so it becomes rather instinctive when conducting research. I also found myself reflecting on my journey through university and grad school yesterday when an old friend came into town. We met at a conference in Toronto eight years ago and last saw each other in 2006, so it was wonderful to catch up on what has been happening in our lives since undergrad.

I was extremely fortunate to receive an In-Course Millennium Excellence Scholarship (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada_Millennium_Scholarship_Foundation) for my undergraduate studies and part of the award was an opportunity to travel to Toronto and Ottawa for conferences with the other award recipients from all over Canada. Through that program, I made some amazing friends and became connected with the Canadian undergraduate bioethics conference, which fueled my interest in ethics and connections with students from many different fields of study. I am certain that these experiences were the root of my interest in pursuing graduate school and a PhD. These types of opportunities are all over the place and I would encourage everyone to look for them and take part because you never know where they might lead. It was fun to reminisce about all the steps that led to where I am now.

Midterms for Grad Students

Ah, midterms. There is no such thing for us grad students and I am thankful for that.

I guess we have our own version of assignments and mid-semester busy time grading undergrad work but I find myself thrilled to know that we are halfway to the end of the term and the winter break. I am loving my courses but not loving being so insanely busy trying to balance coursework, a thousand pounds of reading, teaching an undergrad course, work and some family time. This past weekend was fantastic and really made me appreciate how fortunate I am to live in such a beautiful city and to be privileged enough to attend grad school. I find myself marveling at the beauty of the fall leaves while walking around campus this week. It is still nice enough to study outside in the sun instead of hiding in the library basement.

Grad School 2.0

Since this is my second go-round at a UBC graduate degree (or third, when you consider I switched programs this year) that probably equips me with some insight worth sharing about UBC and grad school in general. I promise that not all of these posts will be lists full of advice…I will expand on some of these points in future posts.

Pearls of Wisdom for Potential Grad Students:

  • Your relationship with your advisor is likely the single most important factor influencing if you will complete your program or not (and I will definitely post more about this!)
  • A good fit with your program is almost as important as a good fit with your advisor but sometimes you can find flexibility when it appears there is none
  • You should probably have a better reason to pursue a grad degree than personal fulfillment unless you simply cannot imagine doing anything else or you are independently wealthy
  • Grad school really isn’t like a job even though lots of people will try to convince you that it is
  • Most graduate programs are not designed for students with professional type careers that work while taking classes and doing research (although there are a few exceptions at UBC)
  • Asking for reference letters may feel awkward but most professors understand it is part of their job and don’t mind writing them unless they don’t know you well or you ask for one at the last minute
  • Grant applications are a pain but SO worth it when you get funded!
  • Sometimes you will be denied funding due to things completely out of your control (like my CIHR application that was denied because my supervisor didn’t have enough publications…)
  • Choose a thesis topic that you are passionate about because you will be VERY tired of it by the end of your program and at many points along the way
  • Get used to being asked “Why do you want to do a PhD?” and “When will you be finished?” and “So what is your thesis research about?” over and over and over again

Course Shopping

I seem to have hit the course jackpot this semester.

I have been somewhat disappointed with many of the courses I have taken over my graduate career – sometimes it was not due to anything in the instructor’s control, like lack of enrollment or an instructor going on sick leave partway through the term or being forced to complete a “required course” I had little to zero interest in…we can all relate to that one! Overall, I can count on one hand the number of courses that I have taken that were truly inspiring and useful. This term, I am taking two courses in the education department (which is massive and full of acronyms I don’t understand) and both have already exceeded my expectations. One course is advertised as an introductory research course and I was a bit worried it would be below my level, but after reading the course outline and attending the first class, I was blown away by the professor and her knowledge. Clear expectations and most of the students are at the PhD level, in a variety of fields. I have already learned so much and am really enjoying myself. The other course is not quite what I would have expected and I came across it quite by accident – it was advertised on a listserve that I am part of from my former department. Again, after reading the course outline and attending the first class, I was excited and energized by my classmates and the professor. One course on research that I can use to develop my proposal for next term and one to develop my ideas and a draft of one of my chapters – SCORE!

My best advice when choosing courses:

  • Be sure to chat with your advisor about your selections as they may suggest courses you wouldn’t have thought of
  • Join listserves and read your department’s emails about new course offerings
  • Go “course shopping” the first week of classes to find the course that fills the need you are seeking
  • Be honest with the instructor if you are not sure you will be taking the course or email them before the first week with any questions you might have
  • Be sure not to overload yourself, especially in your first term! (here is where I need to take my own advice…)