Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Post 46: Lab Meeting Guests, and Normalizing the Grad School Experience

This post has been brewing in my mind for a while, and now that I'm mostly over my flu (caught early last week on the Easter long weekend!), and TAing has wrapped up, I can engage in this space a little bit more again. In many ways this semester turned out to be much busier than I could have imagined it to become at the beginning of January. I knew I was staring down TAing a very big class with multiple tutorials, that I'd be trying to write a lot of my thesis, and that I would be keeping up with my hours for my second research project. At some point in those early weeks of the semester myself and my colleague Tanya took on the role of organizing our weekly lab meetings, too, and we set out on an ambitious schedule.

Due to difficulties with our technological setup at University House 4 (we didn't have a video-conferencing set-up, nor did we have functional space with a big screen to effectively share work or demo programs or such), our schedule was flexibly modified as the semester chugged along. Still, we included a good variety of meetings, from a discussion on short scientific presentation skills, to prep and planning for a conference many of us are attending in early May called Thinking Mountains, to overviews of Weebly (website development), Scrivener (a composition program), and Papers (citation program that plays well with Scrivener), student presentations and catch-ups, and a variety of guests, mostly PhD students, a post-doc student, and a visiting scholar from Australia.

Walking in the land of tulips! Makes me think of the tulip mania that took over the Netherlands during the 1600s. 

For the meetings with guests, I was particularly keen on hearing about their experiences during their graduate degrees, because in the recent months I have found it incredibly useful and wonderful and important to help me deal with the impostor syndrome, anxieties, and other concerns about graduate school. I've found that the more I hear stories about people experiences—good and challenging—about making it through grad school, the more I've gained perspective, built bonds with those colleagues, and found a way to really enjoy my experience all the more. In short, it's been a really useful way to normalize a lot of the experiences of going through this program, and it's been simply wonderful to make more connections and deepen my understanding of the graduate school.

So on top of asking about their current research projects, Tanya and I asked about what the most valuable advice was that each of them had received during their graduate experience, major roadblocks they'd encountered and how they overcame them, what formative experiences led them to carry on to do PhDs or further, and what they recommend for managing relationships with their research communities, including their committees and supervisors. For a couple of the later ones we also asked questions about the differences between PhD students and post-docs, and about experiences with transitioning into sessional teaching (this will be an upcoming guest post). Our guests included Frances Stewart, Christy James, Nancy Shackleford, Liese Coulter, Garrett Richards, Kira Hoffmann, and Jonaki Bhattacharyya.

Because there were so many of them—it's a shame that I didn't have more time to write on each closer to when they happened—and because I got too wrapped up in enjoying the stories and having our guests I only took sparse notes, so the below is going to be a very brief overview of what we all discussed and heard during those meetings.

Beautiful tulips on the walk to the bus down in Cadboro Bay! Love the colour!
Unsurprisingly, each graduate student has their own story: their own path to developing their interests in the field they're currently studying. And the advice or insights or stories each of them shared are as varied as the people telling them. It's amazing the territory discussions have covered with this diverse set of students, whether it's hearing about stories about the Elk Island National Park or the Cooking Lakes Moraine from Frances, where she is conducting her work on gene flow among a number of mesocarnivore (animal whose diet consists of mostly meat!) species, and learning about the genetic techniques used to figure out these landscape scale animal behaviours and relationships. Or then about Nancy's math background and her excellence at developing the networking skills that have enabled her to co-publish a number of publications very quickly. She described the process as "pulling together different people's strengths," and recommended working with "people that you like;" if someone's getting in your way or preventing you from reaching your goals, making the connections you want, or supporting your work, get them out of the way and find someone better! I also really loved hearing about her ideas about writing, during which she encouraged writing quickly and getting the writing out quickly, because someone else will fix the mistakes that you've made (give feedback). :)
Kira and Christy are both amazing women doing very interesting work! Christy on finding out about specific habitat ranges for a variety of bird species in the Willmore Wilderness. Christy's two cents: make sure to take the time to build relationships with your supervisors, and mentioned that when her supervisor says something's going to be easy, it definitely won't be! There are all sorts of curveballs that come along the way, and you work your way through them!

Kira identified a few different roadblocks, from struggling with a statistics course, to feeling the insidious isolation that we find at different parts of our grad school experience, but reminded us to be adaptive, as things always change. Further, "don't take yourself too seriously," and "Don't compare yourself to others." This last point is one that I can really identify with; some of my early grief in my program began with the constant comparing, and accompanying worry that I wasn't working hard enough, or doing enough, or learning quickly enough, or wasn't smart enough, etc. It is hard, though, when working with a bunch of fantastic, brilliant, and intelligent people!

Kira found a group of other PhD women working in ecology that became a sort of support group that's really been helpful for building  camaraderie and excitement and a deeper engagement with her graduate experience. This sounds very similar to what I've recently been enthusing about with my writing group! :) And one final bit of advice: meet with your supervisor regularly, even if you feel you don't have much to discuss. There is always more to discuss than you think! And it is good to check in with how things are going, and keep the forward momentum going.

And our dogwoods are blooming on campus now, too! :) Love these ones! 
Jonaki had some incredible stories, including about some of the adventures she had during her PhD, such as losing her hardrive and the backup of her hard-drive due advised us to be our own "project managers: set an agenda, go through the material;" your supervisors will appreciate the professionalism, and similar to Kira's advice, it will keep the momentum going.

Garrett had some really practical advice, too, and encouraged us to become much more assertive communicators, by asking for very specific things from our supervisors when it comes to feedback (he's also in the writing phase right now), and provided some useful ways to frame these requests: "This would be most helpful" or "I'd like this kind of feedback," which can guide the expectations for what he'd most like to hear from his supervisor.

Everyone has their ups and downs, and finds different ways to tackle the surprises and challenges that come along the way.

I'm sorry because in a way I can recognize that this post falls very short of expressing the delight of sitting in on the presentations, and hearing the varied experiences, the voices and stories of different researchers, and the adventures that they shared, but I hope this at least gives a little sense of these wonderful people.

The next post is going to be Garrett's recommendations on teaching, because that was one aspect I'd been particularly keen on hearing from him, but we didn't get a chance to talk about it too much because we ran out of time at the lab meeting!

If I do this again in the future, I will try much harder to write soon after each of the lab meetings with the respective guests.

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