A New Semester!

With a new semester beginning on Monday, I thought I would share some steps and tips that I take to prepare myself.

Purchase color-coded notebooks and folders-Maybe this is because I am a former middle school teacher, but I still purchase the same color notebooks and folders for each class. This small trick makes organization a bit easier.

Say no as needed-The beginning of the semester always seems to bring a ton of meetings, appointments, etc. Say no when you need to. The new semester can already be overwhelming with new classes so you may need to focus on your studies and hold off on scheduling non-urgent meetings and appointments.

Schedule time for yourself-It may not happen if you don’t! If going to the gym is important to you, put it on your schedule as if it is a class and make it happen. Same goes for massages, seeing friends, weekend getaways, etc.

Happy New Year!

Photo by Garrett Carter

Happy New Year! Starting a New Semester by Thomas Elton IV

Getting back into the routine of school after winter break can be challenging. This is the time to order your books, purchase your parking pass for the new semester, and any other materials or supplies you need to replenish to make sure you continue to do well with your graduate studies.

Before the semester begins it may seem that you have a lot to do and you’re “on break” but here is a list of a few  things you may or may not have thought of to do to ensure you begin the next semester smoothly.

  • Clean and organize school stuff. Recycle all those articles and papers you printed that you do not need. If you believe they could be useful in the future, organize them by putting them in a folder so that you can easily access them later.
  • Check your emails! In graduate school you may find that even though you are “on break” not everyone else is. There may be emails regarding your financial aid, research, volunteer, internship, or even employment opportunities. For example, I recently checked my email, and the initial application window for a position was only 6 days. If I had waited to check my email, I would have missed my opportunity to apply.
  • Clean and stay up to date with your housekeeping. Although you are on break, you do not want to start the semester having chores to do on the first day. For example do all of your laundry, so that it is one less thing that you have to worry about when beginning the semester. Also do any other regular housekeeping tasks such as sweeping (vacuuming) floors.
  • Go grocery shopping and clean out your fridge.  When you have a lot more time than during the semester, stock up with your food. Since winter break is a few weeks, our refrigerators may become bare because food does go bad. This is because we may travel during the holidays and any food that can not last a few weeks will need to be thrown out. I personally like to make sure that I purchase milk, fruits, vegetables and healthy snacks during this time.
  • Make a list of things you do not want to forget. This list can include everything aforementioned in this post. This list can also include anything else you feel that you need to do before the semester begins. I like to physically write my list down but you can do it however you like (i.e making the list in your phone).

These are just a few suggestions that work for me when beginning a new semester  after winter break. Feel free to use them and good luck!

Countdown to 2018: Self-Care Practices for Graduate School in the New Year

The end of each fall semester is bittersweet. Grading is done, courses are complete, and, more often than not, we are burnt out. The new year is just around the corner and resolution ideas are already brewing as we check the pulse of our progress for the year. Self-help writers and experts publish pieces every year about why writing new year resolutions are necessary or planned failures . Wherever you stand on resolutions, the semester-end is usually a clear reminder (or demand) to get back into the regular practice of self-care, self-love, and healing after 16+ weeks of the emotional, physical, and spiritual tax of academic life. As I write this blog, I think about the 50-11-hunnid think pieces about self-care Continue reading

The End of the Semester…

For those contemplating a return to school, I thought it might be useful to give you a snapshot of what the final weeks of the semester look like. To provide some context, I am a third-year Ph.D. student in Education Policy Studies. Let’s begin with the Thanksgiving break that wasn’t…

While I enjoyed the opportunity to go home for a week, I went into break with one smaller paper to complete (7-10 pages) before returning to school, and two larger papers (20+ pages) due on December 11th. Since I did not want to be working on two large papers at the same time, I decided that I would complete my smaller paper and put a big dent in one of the larger ones. The good news is that I completed the smaller paper and put a dent in the larger paper! However, this came at a cost. One, I did not tell many friends that I would be in town because I knew I would not have time to see them. I work best when I have full days to work as opposed to days broken up by luncheons and dinners. Second, I chose to cut my break two days short because I knew I would get more work done at my apartment in Bloomington than at home where I would rather be spending time with my family. So, while I technically had a break, I also felt like I did not have much of one since I was still doing work. While this was a sacrifice, it definitely paid off upon my return.

While several of my friends were cramming to complete several large assignments in the final weeks, I was left with just a few pages to finish on one paper and then my other large paper. There is no right or wrong answer here; you just have to know what works best for you. Some people needed Thanksgiving break to rejuvenate and then tackle all of their work during the last few weeks. I knew that it would be better for me to get work done over the break, so I only had one major assignment to complete afterwards. As a result, I finished up my semester on Friday, December 8th leaving me with a full month of no work before returning on January 8th. This time, I will tell my friends I am home!

One of my large papers!
Photo by Garrett Carter

Happy Holidays, and I hope that you have an opportunity to take a little break as well!


“ I’M HERE!”

(Image from http://pridebrary.com/the-color-purple-1982/

There are a lot of responsibilities that we take on as graduate students. Between personal, professional and scholastic development, I have felt absolutely exhausted at times. It is during these times to remember to be kind to yourself. Self-kindness allows you to forgive yourself. I may not get everything done as I would have like, but I am continuing to press forward, allowing myself to stumble and sometimes fall. There are days when the best I can do is show up… “but, dear God, I’m here!!”

The Horrors of Grad School! The Halfway Mark of the Semester!

As the leaves begin to change colors and temperatures drop, the fall season begins to settle in, and so do you in the fall semester of the school year. You should be settled into your class schedule; finished your midterms; and have made it past the halfway point of the semester. Now is the time to reflect on the first half of the semester, and evaluate your successes and failures to ensure a strong finish of the second half of the semester.

The first point of reflection should be your study habits and whether they positively or negatively impacted your performance. A good way to determine the effectiveness of your study habits should be your performance on your midterm exams. If you didn’t score a high mark and were disappointed in your grade, now is the time to change your study habits.

One way to improve studying is to work with your fellow classmates. Reviewing course materials, such as class notes and actual homework assignments, with another student from the class can help you better understand the material. Increasing the frequency in which you study can also help improve your academic performance. Studying a little bit each day instead of cramming for several hours the day before the exam can increase your ability to retain information, as well as reduce your stress level about the exam. Lastly, making a study plan for exam can help you do better in the course. Once the professor assigns a date for the exam, designate specific study times far in advance. Each day you can pick a specific subject to study to ensure that you cover everything that will be on the exam. And while studying is important, a graduate student must also effectively manage ones downtime.

One of the most difficult things graduate students face is balancing time between school work and social or personal relaxation activities. There will be weeks where you’ll have a lot to get done and other weeks where the workload will be significantly lighter. When it comes to the latter, it’s important to not spend too much time relaxing, especially when you are uncertain of potential future assignments. For instance, if an assignment is not due for more at least a week and half, you should begin working on it once you’ve submitted the more pressing homework. It’s best to get on jump on the assignment sooner rather than later. Even if you only do one or two problems here and there, getting a little bit done early on lightens the potential load of other assignments you may get hit with the following week.

Reflecting upon one’s progress after midterms is crucial for any graduate student. You’ll make mistakes or stumble in your graduate career, but the key is to learn from those mistakes and apply them to the rest of the semester and even the school year. After all, a phrase I like to live by is, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” So if things are off to a rocky start at the beginning of the semester, there is still time for you to improve going forward.

4 Tips for Surviving Graduate School Applications

Graduate applications can be a very stressful time, especially since they often overlap with midterms and/or finals. Below are some tips to help you survive this stressful time.

1) Make sure you get adequate sleep. Staying up late and getting little sleep is often seen as a “badge of honor” in college. However, not getting enough sleep is related to a number of negative physical and psychological health outcomes. Therefore, getting enough sleep is important for performing at the optimum level. You can improve this by trying to go to sleep at a similar time each night and have a consistent bedtime routine in which you get 7-9 hours each night.

2) Find an application partner. One of the best ways to stay on track to complete your applications by their deadlines is to have an accountability partner. Meeting with this person and working on applications together at the same time each week can help motivate you and boost productivity on days when you are not feeling up to it.

3) Have a team. Having a team of other students, current graduate students, and/or faculty members to read over your application materials and provide you with feedback throughout your process is crucial for creating a competitive application. These individuals can also help keep you on track.

4) Try not to stress too too much. It’s natural for you to experience high levels of stress throughout this process. However, there are some things you can do to try and combat this. Some ways to do this include: exercising, spending time doing things that you enjoy, and mindfulness practices such as deep breathing and yoga.

Dealing with Haters: What to do when you get negative evaluations

Although there are a many ways to fund grad school, most often your graduate stipend will come from a teaching position. For some this will be a one-time gig, but for many it’s an every semester commitment. During your time as an Associate Instructor (AI), often referred to at other universities as a Teaching Assistant (TA), you will be faced with the end-of-term evaluation. This is an important assessment from the students you are teaching solicited by the department to garner feedback about the course to make it better. Often, these are also ‘free for alls’ for students to tell you how they really feel, for better or worse.

The reality is whether you enjoy being in the classroom or not, negative critiques can hurt because it can feel (or be) a personal attack on your character. During my first year of teaching it was like night and day between the fall and spring semesters. Whether it was the number of students doubling or the personality of the group of students, I know that reading my evaluations made me question whether academia was the right fit for me. After reflecting on my personal classroom experience, a few pieces of advice:

Fix the things you can Ultimately, teaching is a skill like any other and needs to be continually developed. No one is perfect, and what worked before may not work the same way with this group of students. If your students make recommendations within the evaluation forms, see if there are reoccurring themes. Use these areas to focus on and improve your teaching style. For example: Do you speak too softly? Are lecture slides too busy? Have your office hours been held at a difficult time? Use these recommendations as small fixes that can improve the overall classroom dynamic. Universities often offer teaching pedagogy courses or have centers that host workshops to help improve teaching and learning. Making one or two improvements may increase the overall experience for both you and your students.

Recognize there are things you can’t change Understand that some critiques will be beyond your control. Whether it’s the amount of work required for the course, content to be covered or assigned projects, most of these are established way before you’re assigned to teach a course. Sometimes addressing it on the first day of class is helpful (and sometimes it’s ignored). Reflecting on why some comments are made, rather than the fact that they’re targeted at you can help illuminate that the issue may be less about you and more about their feelings.

Keep Calm and remember to breathe. Whether you’ve been teaching for 25 years or this is your first semester, take a deep breath and try to relax. At the end of the day everyone has good semesters and bad ones, but if you want to pursue teaching at any level, you will be bound to receive some negative feedback. Don’t let it break you.


Getting Through The Semester with Breaks

Getting through the semester as a graduate student is tough work. Midterm time is different from when in undergraduate school. This is because one may or may not have tests. For me this semester, I did not have any midterm tests but I still had several assignments on my plate to keep me busy. A sixteen week semester in graduate school can feel very long while in the moment but before you know it, you’ll only have only six weeks or less left. It is important to work ton continue to work hard in your studies but it is also a good idea to make sure you have some personal time away from your school work.

This personal time can include trying a new restaurant with friends, taking the time to be physically active or just watching something you enjoy on television once a week. For me this includes getting together with friends to try some of the local restaurants that I haven’t been to (even though I have been here for over a year). Also it does not have to be expensive, you and your friends could take the $10-$20 each that you all would spend at a restaurant , put it together and buy a lot more food to cook and then watch a football game (something else I have also done this semester).

When it comes to being physically active, you as a graduate student will pay student fees and with those student feels, a membership to the gym usually included. Different universities have different names for their gyms. For example here at Indiana University Bloomington it is called the Student Recreation Sports Center (also commonly termed the SRSC). However at my undergraduate institution, it was the Wellness Center. University gyms have cardio equipment, weight machines, and free weights. There are also plenty of resources that may be available to you such as exercise classes, or access to a pool. If you paid the student fee and not utilized your school’s gym, it is almost like you’re paying not to go (wasting your money!). So take advantage of your graduate school’s resources and go get your money’s worth! Being physically active is beneficial for your health and it can also be a healthy way to deal with the rigor of your graduate program to help you get through the rest of the semester.

How well do you know yourself and your work? A Discussion on the Personal Statement

One of the major components of the graduate application is the personal statement. Often, the importance of the information given in this statement is underestimated and as a result many people write statements that limit their chances of getting into a graduate program.
So, what exactly should go into this statement? How should it be structured? Why is it necessary to plan this out? Well, the answers to all of these questions will come through this post.

I remember when I was initially writing my personal statement; it was terrible and I mean TERRIBLE. The problem was not in my ability to write, the problem was in that I did not REALLY take the time to connect to myself personally especially in regards to my work. I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, I knew why I wanted to go to graduate school, but I did not think of myself enough to connect my person with the end goal of obtaining my Ph.D. Let me give you an example of what I mean: “Since I was little, I’ve always wanted to be doctor and save the world.” Did you really? Are you sure about that? Too often there are cliché statements used in personal statements that do not capture the attention of the reader. One of the most important things I learned was that you literally have the first two sentences to capture a reader. This is where you must shine through, this is how you start the reader on a journey into your uniqueness.

Sharing your narrative adds vibrancy to who you are and what you will contribute.

Sharing your narrative adds vibrancy to who you are and what you will contribute. No one goes to an art gallery for dull art, find that gem about yourself that makes you art.

When I was writing my next draft of my personal statement, I took the time to think about something I enjoyed and connected to my work as a mathematician. I found a theme, if you will, and carried that throughout my essay. For example, the opening sentence of my personal statement went as follows: “Intricate, mesmerizing and challenging dance performances are a work of art. A well-choreographed dance has the potential to move audiences on multiple levels. Much like a meticulous dance routine, a well-choreographed work of mathematics is an art form.” Now, reading the first couple of sentences, you have no idea what direction I’m going to go in, but it is intriguing. So what does this show? It shows you can write and talk about yourself without detracting from the main purpose of your statement. I was able to connect something I enjoyed with my work. In doing so, I was also able to get a better understanding of myself as a person, and in some capacity, be more vulnerable. You have to make yourself (through your statement) a work of art. Toni Morrison stated that “Your life is already artful – waiting, just waiting for you to make it art.”


Now, that we’ve got your attention. What should go in there? Well, if you have taken time to think about who you are, your work, and what you love the major content of the personal statement consists of the following [Note: There is no exact formula, but these are things that could help]:

  • A Theme: Find a unique trait or angle to write from personal to you and relate that to your work.
  • Your background with highlights of achievements relevant to your research.
  • Strengths and weaknesses, but categorize your weaknesses in a way that play to you modifying them to strengths. Life is hard, we go through things, but you want to make sure you don’t sound like a sad story and more triumphant.
  • If there are gaps in grades or other elements, explain them but do not sit on them. In fact, make sure you show how you were able to surmount such an obstacle and go back into how it adds to your strengths.
  • Your research interests: What, Why, How, When and EXPERIENCE. These are important. Highlight a major research experience (if you have had one) and what you did, why you are interested in the work, how it will impact the community you are involved in and when you plan to continue with the work. This would also be a good place to talk about how your research relates to work the department is doing or a specific professor is doing (it shows you’ve done your homework).
  • Why this program is a good fit for you and why you’re a good fit for the program. This is critical, especially if you have reached out to people and made connections. Doing this, believe it or not, is research.
  • Where you want to go with your career. It is never to early to think about what your career will look like. You do not have to know every detail but this gives programs a chance to see how serious you are. A Ph.D. is a tool and along the way you are picking up other tools to help prepare for that career. Too often, graduate students think about just getting to a program and not HOW this program will help you beyond getting into graduate school.

The aforementioned bullets are a few good ideas for content of a personal statement. Once you have the content, the structure should tell a comprehensive, concise but well-written story. The basic structure follows essentially an introduction, body paragraphs that focus on your research, interests, and why the program is a great fit. You end with a conclusion that summarizes everything, talks about your future and broader impact and how the program and the Ph.D. as tools will help you. This is a simple recipe but effective for creating continuity in your story. The structure matters and clean transitions between sentences are underestimated. Take time to invest in creating smooth continuity in your writing; connecting ideas will give you a cleaner story. Creating that continuity comes with planning. You can expect to write several drafts. You should also expect to that outlining is useful. I would also suggest that you write your first draft straight from your heart; how you feel and what moves you about your work and your life experiences. Take that draft and then write from your mind – this is where the editing comes. Do not be afraid of planning and investing time in planning. Often, we fail things in life because we have no focus nor invest in the plans we create. The devil is in the details.

Communication is vital and writing a well-composed personal statement gives an idea of how you communicate. Think about it, eventually you will have to present research, go to conferences, write grants, etc., and this type of communication will help, so the practice through a personal statement is helpful. Moreover, what I like the most about the personal statement is the ability to tell your story. No one knows your life better than you and your story matters. When I think about some of my favorite inspirations, Einstein for instance, was a terrible student but managed to present the world with one of the greatest theories in physics. Had he not found a way to sell himself and tell his story, he may have never been invested in as a researcher, physicist and mathematician. Stories matters and it is vital you think about your story because after all, you never know who is reading, watching and will be inspired. Personal statements have the ability to make or break entry into a program. Do not sell yourself short, you’ve worked hard to get to this point. I’ll leave you with this:

If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it. – Toni Morrison. 
As you talk about your story, if you want to know who you are, write it down, write it down, write it down.