Janelle Joseph is a Learning Strategist at the Academic Success Centre. She completed a Master’s degree and a PhD at U of T and two research fellowships in New Zealand and in Oshawa. In a previous blog, Janelle discussed her work at the ASC and as an Adjunct Professor at U of T. In this post, we learn useful tips for grad students through Janelle’s own time in grad school.
1. Practice “persatience”
Persatience = perseverance + patience.
Part of the hunger of the grad student is that you want everything and you want it now. ‘I want this book published now.’ ‘I want this article published now.’ There are multiple steps to each process and each step takes its own amount of time.
I have published 10 articles and I’m in the process of publishing manuscript for two books, but I’ve also had manuscripts rejected and I had to make revisions on every single publication that was ultimately accepted. It was really hard for me to accept that not everything that I do is going to be brilliant. When you are talking to a community of your peers, of other people who have studied and are experts in your field, you want to be accepted in that sphere, but not everything you do makes it. I learnt that you have to be persistent and you have to be patient. You have to persevere and make sure that you don’t take things too personally.
2. Reach out to mentors
As an undergrad I didn’t get to know many of my professors and I regretted losing that opportunity. As a grad student, I was friendly with my professors. I reached out to them, I asked questions, and really tried to follow their advice. To me, it’s so elementary. These are people who have gone through the thing that you are trying to go through and so it really makes sense to ask them questions.
I encourage students who can’t find mentors in their own departments to do what I did, which was to reach outside my faculty and connect with professors who guided me in different ways. Maybe it’s someone that you took a course with, even if that was a year ago, you still have some basis of a relationship with them. Take them out for a coffee or just show up at their office hours and try to pick their brain and get some good advice. Get them to look at something that you are writing. Ask them what they’re reading. Just try to establish that collegial relationship with professors, because that can really go a long way.
3. Have a plan
You will always keep learning and growing, and I think at the graduate level, students get stuck in thinking that their work is never finished. You think you have to write a bit more, learn a bit more, and research a bit more and then it will be done. One thing that I did really early was to talk to mentors and figure out what steps I needed to put into place in order to finish in a timely manner. I was doing ethnographic research in the field and I was working with Caribbean-Canadians. Some of my fieldwork was in the Caribbean. Who doesn’t want to stay in St. Lucia for another 6 months? Barbados for 1 more year? I easily could have extended that research project much longer, but there comes a time when you have saturation with your data and you need to just move on. I realized that I wanted to leave grad studies behind and become a professional, but not leave the thinking and the research behind. Once you finish your thesis or dissertation, it’s just the beginning of the next phase of life. That can be daunting, but procrastinating with writing is not helpful. I think that having a plan has definitely contributed to my success.
One good piece of advice I got when I had finished my data collection and was starting the writing was to “set chapter deadlines.” If you’re going to write a seven chapter dissertation, then maybe that takes you seven months. Whatever you think it will take, just set a schedule. The magic of that advice is that completing your original plan is nearly impossible. You might not really know how many chapters you’re going to write or how long it will take when you’re starting, but just having that outline and having that goal was the best piece of advice, as it gave me a basis to work from. I meet with a lot of students who say “I don’t know where my time goes and I don’t know what to write or where to start.” I give them the advice that you should start with some kind of a plan. It will probably change, but you need to have a plan. If you don’t have any short-term, medium-term, or long-term goals, then at the end of any given time frame, you’re not going to have that checklist or to-do list completed. If goals shift and change based on new information, that’s ok. You’re making the goals based on the information you have today.
4. Try concept mapping for assignments and exams
To really get an understanding of a great amount of information, whether that is in a reading or an entire course, you can create a concept map where you have a main idea in the centre of the page and you draw arrows or lines out from that main idea and connect them to your sub ideas. Then you can see how those ideas on the outside are related to each other and related to the central topic. I think it’s really effective because it’s visual and kinesthetic. There are softwares that you can use to do a concept map, but I’m a big fan of highlighters, markers, pencils, and paper in order to actually see how it’s created. It’s also a really good tool for developing your essay ideas. A lot of people don’t realize that writing is thinking. They want to have the ideas formulated, write them down, then submit the essay. However, it’s through the writing process, through the brainstorming and especially the editing that you actually figure out what you know. I really believe in the concept map or brainstorm for that purpose.
Do you have any proven grad survival tips and strategies? Share them with us in the comments below!
Want to know more about how to implement these tips in your grad school journey? Janelle is available for individual appointments to discuss academic skills and strategies. If you would like to book an appointment with her, please visit http://asc.utoronto.ca/Individual-Appointments.htm for more details.