August 14th, 2015

Support Structures for Graduate Writing


Photo credit: google images

Guest blogger: Alice Hutton Sharp, PhD Graduate and Postdoctoral Fellow at McGill University

Late summer can be a time of frustration and anxiety for graduate students working on their dissertations. Those who have been teaching wish they had more time and energy to devote to their thesis, while those who haven’t feel pressure to produce a large body of work before the commitments of the fall term begin.

Having the proper supports in place can radically improve the way you approach the dissertation writing process. Last spring, the university’s Provost’s office hosted a working group on graduate student writing support, and many systems that students have used to successfully complete their dissertations were discussed:

* Many students have built a dissertation-writing community by meeting once a week or so with their peers, over coffee or lunch, to discuss how their work was going and set their goals for the coming week. At the next meeting, they would then report on how they would go. These can be arranged to include all the students from a given year in the program, or simply a group of friends; smaller groups do seem to work better, particularly if you will be reading one another’s writing, as some groups have done.

* The University of Toronto’s Academic Success Centre is organizing three Graduate Writing Groups to give students the time and space to focus on their writing; the sign up deadline is September 7th, and more information can be found here. After a short discussion of writing goals, students will then use the scheduled meeting time for wi-fi free writing “lock ins”— a strategy that many people, even accomplished writers, have found helpful.

* Other students have arranged groups according to their research interests, moving out of the writing-focused model to discussing readings and even, with departmental support, inviting speakers. This is a particularly useful model for pre-candidacy students, as it can give them an opportunity to meet frequently with other students to discuss the latest research in their field.

* Many of these models of accountability depend on the time and space availability, and not everyone has these to offer. My friends and I got around these constraints by arranging a daily series of accountability e-mails that helped keep us on track no matter what distractions were going on in our lives. I presented our model at the meeting, and written up my notes on the system here.

If you need more suggestions, there are many books written aimed at helping graduate students write their dissertations—I’ve put together an annotated bibliography, which can be found here.

However, as Michael Collins, a doctoral candidate in English, pointed out in his presentation, there is a general need for open and honest conversations about the writing process, not only between graduate students but also between graduate students and faculty. This can be a problem for scholars in the Humanities— since words and texts are our focus, it can be hard to admit that we need help writing. Developing a support system, however, is a crucial first step to expanding the conversation on writing methods and support.

I can’t promise that finding a support system will make you love writing; however, meeting your goals does offer an important sense of accomplishment that can be lost in the long process of writing a dissertation, and building a supportive community can be key to cutting through the anxiety and frustrations of writing and revising.

Alice Hutton Sharp defended her dissertation in January 2015.  She is now a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the History and Classical Studies Department at McGill University.

July 23rd, 2015

Using the University as a Resource and Vehicle: Tips from a Ph.D. Student



By guest blogger: Jacob Hogan, PhD student

I read in a book for my comprehensive exams that a University is a tremendous resource for all those willing to tap it. I forget the book’s author, title, and argument. These things will happen. I have not, however, forgotten the book’s most salient message. Since I survived the ordeal and odyssey that is comps, I have endeavored to tap the resources at this University. Over the past two years, my network contacts and experience at this University have expanded immensely. I feel confident that I will find meaningful work, outside the academy, once I graduate. Below are a few things that I wish I had of known when I started here:

1)         Expand Your Network outside Your Department

Explore opportunities outside your department – whether at Hart House, School of Graduate Studies, ULife, Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation, the Academic Success Centre, Centre for Community Partnerships, Graduate Student Union, Grad Room,and Gradlife—as soon as you get here. Since your second year will be consumed with comps, be proactive early and often. If you do not have a LinkedIn account, create one, and start adding connections.

2)         The Money is Mandatory

Familiarize yourself with the Career Learning Network website; this platform continuously advertises on-campus and off campus job opportunities. Since working can be time consuming, volunteer as much as you possibly can. It feels great and people remember when you volunteer. Familiarize yourself with the Co-Curricular Record, a centralized website with an endless amount of volunteer and work-study opportunities, alongside club and committee positions.

3)         Write Early and Often

What are you going to have to write while you are here? First and foremost, will be those SSHRC and OGS proposals. Next, will be the foundational thesis proposal. Oh yes, and that dissertation too– eventually. This past year the Academic Success Centre created inter-disciplinary writing groups, dedicated to three hours of improving on silence and writing.

4)         Sweat as Much as You Can—In a Positive Way

You pay for the Athletic Centre and Hart House. Use these facilities. Going to the gym, running the treadmill, or swimming a few laps are all great ways to sweat away the stress. Join a yoga class. Organize an intramurals team.

Use this campus as a resource. Rather than just a venue for four or five years, approach the University as a vehicle to help drive yourself to the next destination in life after you graduate. Finally, after a year or so here make a decision: Do I want to live in Toronto for the rest of my life?

For website links for divisions mentioned in the article, and many more, consult the following:

The Academic Success Centre

Career Learning Network

Centre for Community Partnerships

Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation

Co-Curricular Record

University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union

Grad Room


Hart House

School of Graduate Studies

Student Life


Jacob Hogan is currently a 4th year Ph.D. student in the Department of History and a workstudy student with the Co-Curricular Record Program.

July 3rd, 2015

Life After Grad School: A Retrospective


Guest blogger: Trish Starling, OISE Master’s graduate  and former Gradlife blogger

It’s been two years since I graduated from OISE and this time of year seems to bring me back to the space I was in soon following graduation. While I can’t claim to speak for everyone, last week I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who is defending her PhD shortly. Listening to this highly intelligent, highly capable, and confident woman’s anxieties demonstrated that everyone feels a little (a lot) unsure in the months after (and leading up to) the walk across the Convocation Hall stage.

So what do I have to offer two years later? Just a few things:

1) Graduating from school is awesome! (But mostly scary.)

It’s true! Most of us have spent countless (okay, 15+) years in the classroom, probably doing pretty well there, and somewhat liking/loving the process of institutionalized learning. I mean, there are always exceptions, but I’d presume most people who choose grad school probably love(d) school. And so, being faced with the prospect of leaving that space can be outright terrifying. That’s normal.

2) Recognize that fear shouldn’t make your decisions.

Closely leading up to graduating, I met with my supervisor to discuss the prospect of moving into a doctoral program. After spending 3, 4, 21, evenings crying over job opportunities (did I mention I graduated with a teaching degree?), I had decided that there was so much more I could research beyond my MRP, and actually, I do really love writing and research and education and the classroom, and pushing boundaries and learning and… You know what my supervisor said? “Didn’t you spend the last year and a half explaining to me your desire to make a difference and discuss ideas outside of academia? I think you’re scared—I don’t think you want a PhD”.

Turns out academics are pretty smart people! My supervisor nailed it on the head—I was looking for a familiar option, as opposed to what (I now recognize) as the right option*.

3) Someone will hire you! You’re pretty darn smart, y’know?

It’s true! The thing about grad students is that lots of us don’t recognize how transferable our skills really are! Speaking with a career counselor can help market yourself as a highly capable and skilled prospective employee (because you are one!).

4) But you will have to swallow your pride.

In order to work right out of the gate (OSAP was looming), I had to embrace the idea that most jobs pay better than my masters did (cough cough), and there is value in that. I started out in a paying-only-slightly-better-than-minimum-wage contract position (lots of those floating around) that was only supposed to be a 3-month summer student position. I treated it like a learning experience, and tried to get as much out of it as I could. I worked hard, offered skills that weren’t required for the position, and demonstrated the work ethic that all of us academics ultimately HOLD DOWN (and hold it down well). What happened? I learned a ton, I received a permanent position and a promotion and got that 2+ years experience that so many of those job listings throw-around. Life after grad school, I had found it!

And so, life after grad school is totally a thing. It’s out there and it’s exciting and a little bit scary. But the truth is, we will probably have lots of jobs in our lives, and every time one chapter ends, we’ll never know what happens next—the key is to trust the uncertainty and know that we can learn from everything, because above everything else, we are all pretty fabulous learners.

*For me! Of course there are lots of good reasons to pursue a PhD, it just wasn’t my jam and my brief moment of thinking it was, was fueled by fear and not much else.

Image courtesy:

June 22nd, 2015

UofT Flexible Futures Career Series for Grad Students Happening This Week!



Image: google images

By guest blogger Jonathan Turner, PhD, Career Educator, U of T Career Centre

I’m Jonathan and I have a PhD. I work for the University of Toronto, but I’m not a professor. Some of my classmates work in publishing and editing, others have careers in museums or archives, a few work for the government writing and researching policy, and some are professors at universities around the world. We’re all successes! If you’re getting a graduate degree or pursuing a post-doc at UofT, you are awesome (you really are), and the possibilities are endless for what you might do next.

If you want help navigating what you might do next, how to apply for work, how to secure a job during an interview, or even what you can be doing throughout your graduate studies to be ready for the job market when you finish, then you’ll want to check out the Career Centre. From June 23rd to 26th we’re running programming for graduate students and post-docs only (you can come visit us any week of the year, but this week is just for you). We have a workshop each day, we have drop-in hours on Tuesday from 4 to 6pm, and we’ll be following the #UofTFlexibleFutures conversation on social media. Hope to see you there!

Sign-up for our workshops using the following links:

Applying for Work, Tuesday, June 23rd, 1-3:30 –,

Building Your Online Presence, Wednesday, June 24th, 10-12 –,

Interviewing for Work, Thursday, June 25th, 1-3:30 –,

Labour Market, Friday, June 26th, 10-12 –

June 9th, 2015

The fine Art of Negotiation




By guest blogger: Masha Cemma, Ph.D. student, Molecular Genetics

Disclaimer: this post is inspired by a course on negotiations “How to talk to people about things.”

Being a workshop-junkie, I am attracted to all kinds of workshops that enhance my communication, project management and computer skills. Yet, when I enrolled in a negotiations workshop – I had a goal in mind. I wanted to ask my PhD supervisor something very daring – take time off for an internship to pursue my passion in global health. No one I knew in my department did internships during graduate school, so it was a bold move. Once I started learning about negotiations, however, it changed the way I approached conversations. I used the newly acquired knowledge to convince my niece to do her homework, deciding on what movie to watch at a family dinner and when/where to go for holidays.

Before I avoided negotiations because they were unpleasant, and the outcome was difficult to predict. Now, I am better prepared to handle a difficult conversation (which I still dislike). Here are some negotiations basics:

Listening is arguably the most important skill for a good negotiator! Listening allows you to understand the other person’s point of view, which is critical for striking a deal. You need to know what the other person really cares about before you can find an optimal solution. Too often unsuccessful negotiations consist of repeating one’s point of view. What is needed is a healthy mix of listening, inquiring, paraphrasing to make sure you understand the other person’s point of view correctly, and finally advocating for your own interests.

Also important is distinguishing positions versus interests. This is key! The position is WHAT one wants, and the interest is WHY they want it. When you are negotiating, it is important to figure out not only what the other party wants but also why they want it. So next time you are negotiating, explain why what you arguing for is important to you and listen for the other person’s interests. It may happen that the positions of two parties seem to be at conflict with one another, yet their interests are not, and an obvious solution might emerge upon in depth conversation.



Knowing the interests of both parties can allow you to create options for mutual gain. This is rare, but happened to me before. The understanding of what the other person wants gives the ability to create a solution where everyone is satisfied with the outcome.

While negotiating, keep in mind your best alternative to a negotiated agreement and only accept an offer if it is better than the best alternative. The question is what will happen if you do not reach an agreement? Knowing your best alternative and the other person’s best alternative will allow for better decisions. For some people the tendency to find a compromise is so large that one fails to notice that the agreement is not in their interest. On the other hand, if one overestimates their best alternative, they can be burned by the outcome of negotiations.


The conversation with my supervisor went well, but the confounding variable is that I have a generous supervisor who cares about his students. What I am certain of is that I became a significantly better listener and this made my life much easier. Follow Masha on twitter: @CemmaM


For a more in depth read, check out “Getting to Yes” and “Difficult Conversations” authored by the a team of researchers from the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiations. For more interactive learning, consider enrolling in a negotiations class “How to talk to people about things” taught by Misha Glouberman or courses offered through the U of T School of Continuing Studies.

All images in this post were taken from google images.


May 20th, 2015

Things I wish I knew as a student

By guest blogger Crystal Chin (Masters in Health Informatics, Information recent graduate and former gradlife blogger)


In less than two months, I convocate. After 6 years, I can finally say I am a proud U of T graduate. A couple weeks ago, Jennifer, our lovely Gradlife program coordinator, reached out to me and asked me to blog for the last time as a grad student. She asked me to talk about things I wish I knew as a student.

And boy, were there things I wish I knew. For example…

1. Take this time to socialize with other grad students.

During my degree, I always found myself surrounded by my classmates. My program is structured so that I only spend time with them, despite efforts to have us mingle with other students. As much as I loved spending time with them, I couldn’t help but feel isolated from the rest of the campus. If I could go back in time, I would go to more Grad Talks, maybe joined a club, or even go to my program’s student union socials.

The point is, right now we belong in a huge network of the brightest minds at U of T. After we graduate, we may never be in such a network again. Lets pick each other’s brains while we can and have some fun while doing it!

2. Take advantage of your UTGSU health and dental coverage.

Let’s face it. Healthcare and dental are expensive. Even though our healthcare system covers primary care and hospital services, we may require the expertise of other healthcare professionals. The costs of visiting a physiotherapist or getting a vaccine can add up quickly.

That’s where the UTGSU health and dental coverage plan comes in. Thanks to that plan, I was able to see the dentist without breaking my bank. I was also told that the plan covers 80% of the cost for the HPV vaccine. That’s 80% off of $450, the amount it costs to get all three doses of the vaccine.  That means you save $360. Sounds crazy, right?

3. There’s life beyond grad school, and it’s good to be prepared. 

I recently learned about the Mitacs Accelerate program, which connects grad students with employers in the private sector for internships. In these internships, grad students will be able to apply their research and specialized know-how, all while gaining work experience in the industry. Having these and experiences, talking to people you admire in your field, and thinking about what comes after grad school is a great exercise.

It’s scary wondering what will happen after it’s all over. I finished my classes in December, and was lucky to find a job in my field very soon after. But before I started, I remember feeling this immense sense of uncertainty and apprehension. It was unpleasant and uncomfortable. Preparing for that, and scoping the field, can help ease the transition.

And that ends it. My last blog as a student. I hope that your grad experience was as fulfilling and satisfying as mine. Good luck, and good bye!

May 15th, 2015

Grad Students of U of T


Name: Debra Kriger

Program of Study: PhD, Sociocultural Exercise Sciences

What made you choose your grad program at U of T? Funny you should ask. I didn’t know much about my program when I applied here; I didn’t know that Exercise Sciences has a whole tradition in what I was interested in studying. I was pointed to my (awesome!) supervisor by a faculty member from a quite different discipline to which I had applied at another institution. It felt like a hard decision at the time, but I’m glad I ended up here – it really feels like I’ve found a ‘home’, and I feel really lucky to be working with and learning from such amazing, passionate, and knowledgeable people. Apart from the academic side of things, I chose U of T ‘cause the food in TO is fantastic – yum!

Favourite Study Spot:  I always discover new ones as time goes on and my ‘studying’ activities change (reading to writing to thinking to grading, etc.). I really like the course reserves section of Robarts for reading when it’s cold out – big windows, just the right amount of warmth, a bit of movement/sounds, and quiet/peaceful enough to concentrate. In the summer, I like going to Trinity-Bellwoods park…that usually ends with equal parts studying and napping. And, hey, since I work at the Grad Room, let me plug that, too! Lots of people like studying here – come check it out (NE corner of Harbord/Spadina)!

 What’s on the top of your TO-DO list this week? Okay, so maybe it’s not exactly the TOP top of my list, but I just received a Milk Bar cookbook from my cousin (thanks, cousin!), and I really, really want to start trying these recipes!!! The pictures make it especially pressing. Beet-lime ganache?! Cornflake-chocolate chip-marshmallow cookies?! Yes, please!

What does an average Tuesday look like for you?  These days, my average Tuesday starts with back-to-back tutorials to teach as part of my TA work. I won’t gush too much about it, but let’s just leave it at this: super enjoyable. After that, I stop by Tim’s (Tuesday treat! Integral!) on my way to volunteering at Dress for Success Toronto (highly recommend – they do some super cool stuff), and then I have the rest of the day to see what comes my way, arrange meetings, and/or hunker down and get to WORK!

Favourite way to take a break from school work: I love people. Hanging out with friends and/or family has got to be tops on this list. They have a funny way of making insurmountable mountains of work seem do-able.

What did you have for breakfast this morning? Okay, so I ended up having a bowl of Alpen dark chocolate cereal with milk. What I thought about having (does that count?) were eggs, scrambled with parmesan and sriracha sauce. That stuff’s fantastic.

April 28th, 2015

Exploring Careers for Grad Students

By guest bloggers Ainsley Goldman and Libby Whittington

We’ll be honest. We were pretty excited to find out that we would be writing a Gradlife blog post about career exploration. As the Career Centre’s two Coordinators of Career Exploration, not only do we get to shamelessly promote our upcoming events and programs but we can share our own career exploration stories as UofT graduate students! (Custom) (3)

Libby and Ainsley pose for a selfie at their graduation in November (Photo credit: Libby Whittington)

After working in the arts, not-for-profits, education, environmental organizations, and many restaurants, Ainsley had taken the plunge to complete a Master’s degree. Though she had taken personality assessments, gone for coffee dates and informational interviews to get a sense of the industry she wanted to enter before beginning her program, she had actually recently switched programs, and still hadn’t totally identified what she wanted to do with her degree or what her next step would be.

Libby has a similarly non-linear story. The few years after undergrad involved travelling, working abroad, and finally working in a language school managing the student services.  Loving her work but hating the sales focus, Libby realized she wanted to work in student services but at a university. Not knowing in what capacity or how she could get there, she spent the year saving ‘dream job’ postings.  One winter’s day with a large glass (or two) of red wine, Libby sat down and combed through the saved postings to figure out what skills, experience, & education she needed.  All signs pointed to a Master’s of Education – so Libby quit her full-time job and returned to school!

Early in our grad studies, we both met on the first day of Work Study training at the Career Centre where we learned that we would both be Senior Career Peers Advisors. After our work study positions, we both decided to complete practicum programs at the Career Centre and then shortly after we were both “lucky” to secure full-time jobs that “happened” to become available at the Career Centre. Many people (ourselves included) look back at experiences and say things like “It was really lucky that job opened up” or “I was totally in the right place at the right time.” There is actually a theory to describe this phenomenon called Planned Happenstance Theory, which explains how we construct unexpected career opportunities. Whether you have a particular career in mind and you need to know how to get there, or you are feeling a bit lost, the career exploration programs we run can help you navigate your next steps, and construct the unexpected:

The Extern Job Shadowing Program connects you with professionals in your career area of interest for a half-day to five-day job shadowing experience. Many of our hosts have graduate degrees; this is a great way to explore non-academic career options where you can experience a day-in-the-life of a particular field, see what the workplace would be like and who your future colleagues would be. The next session is in June, and you can register for an orientation in order to participate.

In the Field is a half-day group field trip to an organization to meet professionals working in a variety of careers all under the same roof.  This summer, we are taking groups of students to the YMCA, Free the Children, AGO, and the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) to learn about various career paths. If you want to see how you can use your graduate level research skills outside of academic research, definitely check out the HEQCO event and/or their blog post about transitioning from graduate school! Register for an orientation in order to participate.

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Students explore careers at a recent In the Field event at Sick Kids (Photo credit: Libby Whittington)

The Informational Interview Database gives you the opportunity to speak with experienced professionals to find out how they got to where they are today. To participate, attend a workshop on informational interviewing, Interview Them.

As a grad student you won’t be attending alone. About 30% of St. George participants are graduate students! If you want to chat more about programs, you can find us in the Career Centre or at

April 20th, 2015

Grad Students of U of T

Name: P.J. Partington
Program of study:MA Political Science
What made you chose your grad program at U of T? 
After working on climate change policy in the non-profit sector for a number of years, I was getting quite frustrated by the lack of progress. The opportunity to consider some of the political barriers we’re facing on climate change in a little more depth was very appealing, and that’s what I am hoping to get out of my program.
Favourite study spot: My couch at home, with a cup of tea and a sleeping dog.
What’s your favourite way to take a break from school work? I’ve been getting increasingly creative with my procrastination. Lately I’ve made a project of sending mystery letters to friends. George Bowering talks in one of his poems about going around to his friends a month after Christmas dishing out presents and good cheer “in front of their startled & uncomprehendingly beautiful eyes.” I’ve always liked that.
What does an average Tuesday look like for you? Tuesday is my campus day this term. After doing some studying at home in the morning I head in for a noon class. After that I usually spend some time wandering around like a hypoglycemic zombie in search of food. After that it’s a mix of gym, studying and meetings before another class from 6 to 8. They’re both policy classes, but in different departments. The contrast keeps it interesting!
What are you reading these days? I just finished MaddAddam. Unfortunately I now have a pile of serious books waiting for me.
Tell me about the last time you felt really proud of your work: If I may say, our wedding! My wife and I got married in September and it was beyond awesome. Seeing everyone there enjoying themselves made me incredibly proud of all the work we put into the day.

April 10th, 2015

Three Minute Thesis (3MT) 2015 Final

By guest blogger: Laura Hache, Gradroom Assistant


3mt.pic. (Custom)

Photo credit: Jason Krygier-Baum

Winner, Stephen McCarthy (3rd from left)

On Wednesday evening, the School of Graduate Studies hosted the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) 2015 University-Wide Final Competition. The 3MT is a competition where PhD candidates have only three minutes to explain their research projects to a non-specialist audience.  The challenge is to synthesize their wealth of knowledge about their topic of interest into an engaging presentation that intrigues the audience and leaves them wanting to learn more. The Toronto Star calls the 3MT Competition the “Canadian Idol for the geeky set”, getting researchers out of the lab and library to explain their work to a broad audience.

I left really impressed after watching the divisional heats a couple weeks ago. Getting a glimpse into some of the top innovative research coming out of U of T was a real treat.  The competition started out with four divisions: Humanities, Social Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Life Sciences.  Five finalists were selected from each division and these were the participants who competed in the university-wide final. Stephen McCarthy from the Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology took first place with his presentation, Towards an Ebola Cure.  Second place went to Elissa Gurman from the English Department who presented on Consent and the Love Plot in 19th-Century Anglo-American Fiction.

As the runner-up, Elissa walked away with $500 in prize money. Stephen walked away with $1000 in prize money and a place to compete in the provincial finals. A couple short weeks away, the Provincial finals will bring together the top presenters from all over Ontario. Last year, U of T doctoral student Daiva Nielson won top place in the provincial finals held at McMaster University.  This year, the competition is happening at Western University where Stephen will defend the U of T title in Ontario.. no pressure, Stephen! If you want to learn more about the competition, please visit the SGS website.


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