Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Post 37: Advising students - to go to grad school, or not to go to grad school?

Over the past few weeks, I've been contacted by a couple students interested in chatting about grad school, and I was really excited to meet and chat with them. Considering grad school and options post-undergrad is a really exciting time for people, and I definitely approached this with enthusiasm and support, and from the perspective of encouraging them to consider their options fully.

Before going, however, I really had to think about what were really important things to emphasize about my journey through grad school, lessons learned, and things that I wish I had done differently or that otherwise would have been useful to know beforehand. So with this post, I'll cover a few of those things, but will start with a general discussion about mentoring undergrads and other students.

It's a lot of fun to share about my experience of grad school, but I decided that enthusiasm over my personal story shouldn't spill over to convince someone to go to grad school. It's a better discussion to approach from, Here's what I've learned since starting my program, and what might be useful for your to know when considering whether grad school may or may not be the right fit for you. There are a number of factors that people need to consider when deciding when it's a really good choice for someone. Part of that has to do with personal disposition, what they want out of grad school, if the program/supervisor is a good fit, and what their financial situation is.

Disposition: I'm someone who loves learning. Learning all the time. I read widely (sci-fi, fiction, literature, non-fiction, essays, poetry, etc.), I love film, I like music, and treat each of these things and something new I'm learning about the world. Since entering grad school, I've become much choosier about each of these things: learning to differentiate why I prefer one style over another, or what counts as a good source for research or not. Grad school has very much been a space for personal and professional development, and I'm glad that it has been.

I've also learned a lot by sitting on different committees (for selecting teaching awards and planning a graduate student conference), and I've taken part in all sorts of professional development workshops and conferences both on campus and elsewhere. I've learned how to use write and cite, how to make a conference poster, and how to take part in and give back to a writing group. I've learned that I quite like teaching. I've also figured out that I'm an introvert, and what that means for my teaching style. I've also learned a good bit about the impostor syndrome, and what that means for me as a student and how I view my accomplishments, and why I dwell so much on process. Almost all of these things are things that I wouldn't have anticipated before grad school, and I've loved learning all of them (even though some were really, really hard), but this also gives some indication to the kind of person I am, and how and why grad school's been a fruitful journey for me so far, considering I wanted a broad experience that didn't just churn me out as a good researcher by the end of the program.

Gorgeous look up valley out in the Goldstream Park right by Victoria. A nice dash of August green to challenge
the rainy grey of today!
Finances, funding, and resources

I was once told by a friend of mine in undergrad that people should not pay to go to grad school. And with almost no hesitation, I agree. In Canada, with a struggling job market (especially for younger educated people), we are having some trouble with education inflation, where having a bachelor's degree doesn't cut it anymore, and employers are preferentially choosing folks with at least a master's degree. Part of this is a crappy job market for young people, where employers can afford to be so choosey. This isn't great news considering that master's programs oftentimes are not an in-and-out kind of degree: even UVic's performance measures indicate that the average completion rate for master's degrees across the university is 4 years, and the average PhD program is 6 (see the graph buried on page 32 of the report). That's a long time, and that's a lot of money and stress and investment, considering most programs are advertised as 2 (master's) and 4 (PhD) years, respectively.

There are two things to emphasize here: it's not impossible to complete a master's in two years; one of the 13 students that started with me managed to do it. But that person was the exception. One of the students from my program has left, and the rest of us are still plugging along. We're not finished not because we haven't been working hard, but there's a whole lot more to a master's than I think a lot of us imagined when we began.

So, looking at the average numbers, and recognizing that funding typically covers the first two years of a program (this may vary in departments), I advise students to have an honest discussion with their potential supervisor or with the program graduate advisor to get a sense of which professors are taking on students, what completion rates are like, and/or other resources (such as the Thesis Completion Group, or the Centre for Academic Communication) that are going to get them finishing faster if they are on a tighter timeline. Finances are important, and when the funding runs out, as students take on part-time or full-time jobs to cover their money needs, it's no wonder that it can take longer for them to finish their programs. Talking about funding and funding possibilities (grants, scholarships, bursaries, etc.) that will help keep them covered while they study is key, too (oftentimes students still have debt from their undergraduate degrees). Discussing teaching assistant possibilities and other research work can be very important. As well, because grants like the big federal ones (SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR) are frequently peer-reviewed, almost no school will turn you down if you've already been offered one of these grants; essentially, that grant offer is validating that you have demonstrated you have the potential to undertake excellent research. The MITACS program has also emerged in recent years as an important funding source for graduate students. Getting your financial ducks in a row is really, really important! :)

Finding the right supervisor is also important! A lot of grad school is learning about relationships: how to manage them when the stress and expectations are high, and when work needs to get done. How to do this collegially, with a mentor-supervisor? Learning how to ask the right questions, and figuring out when to ask for help. Learning how to understand feedback, and make revisions. These are all aspects of this professional degree that I've had to work on, and continue to. And a lot of it hinges on how well my relationship with my supervisor is going. I've heard of a few horror stories from other graduate students (admittedly mostly at the PhD level), about supervisors who don't let them finish, who don't agree that the student is ready, who give feedback completely opposite to what another committee member said, etc. Learning how to deal with these is a must, and with a supervisor that's rooting for you and on your team, you will succeed. :)

A shot downstream at the Sooke Potholes—a must-visit summer spot in the area! 
There were also a couple basic things that the students I spoke with asked about.

Are there different types of degree programs? Yes. There are course-based master's, project  based master's, and research based master's. The one I'm working on is a research based master's. We have coursework for the first 8 months of the program, then we launch our projects and head out to do the empirical work. (I know less about the other two, but by letting students know about other possibilities, they can go check them out).

After we complete the empirical work, we usually do some sort of analysis (this will differ based on methodologies), and then write up a thesis, which is disseminated to our supervisor and committee member, and when they approve that document, we head to a thesis defence, which includes a third member from outside the department, who also has an interesting look at your thesis, provides feedback and asks probing questions, and at that defence, that committee decides how much needs to be revised in the thesis document. There are 4 ways the result of the defence can go: 1. pass without revisions (very rare); 2. pass with minor revisions (common). 3. pass with major revisions (less common, but still somewhat frequent), and 4. fail (extremely rare). Basically, by the time your supervisor and committee member agree that you are ready to defend, you should be in pretty good shape. But thesis defences are still a really big deal—and the reason why the internet is full of all sorts of memes addressing defences (or offences!).

There's a lot that goes into considering grad school, and I definitely recommended for those students to talk to potential supervisors in advance. Also, talking to some of the grad students of supervisors (though this, I think, would be even more important if someone's considering a Phd), could be useful, too.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Post 36: There are multiple zooms on the thesis writing camera: on realizing that writing the thesis is an organizational puzzle!

For many months I stressed about getting started on writing my thesis, and over the past two months, I've realized that most of it was overblown worry on my part. Writing is a lot of fun (and I definitely send big THANK YOUS to my writing group), and has been for a long time for me. So why all the insecurity, hesitation, and balking about the thesis writing?

Part of it is the size of the project, undoubtedly. This is probably the biggest thing that I will produce in my life so far (!!!!). Part of it as well, is the scrambled, getting lost in the details on my part, too. I was getting lost in the little pieces, and gazing at the pattern on one puzzle piece, while diving to the pick up the next puzzle piece without figuring out where the first one went.

Here's where I'm going to employ the camera metaphor: writing a big project is knowing when to zoom in, and when to zoom out. I recently wrote a post about paragraph thinking: but realized afterwards that paragraph thinking is only useful when you already know where what you're writing goes! :)

When I met with my supervisor a few weeks ago, we had a really great discussion where we realized that part of why I was asking so many questions about which section goes where is because I was in macro mode, when I needed to be in landscape mode! When we realized that, he asked me to write out kind of a one-pager outlining my entire thesis, how I was splitting up and organizing chapters. It was almost a relief to finally sketch out chapter contents and realize: This has to go, this can't be there, this isn't closely related enough; Oh, this section will be shorter and smaller in scope.... after all, master's theses are only about 75-100 pages (even though I have seen quite a few in my department that have been upwards of 150 pages).

Local maidenhair ferns, Adiantum aleuticum, hanging out in a cool spot, keeping their feet wet at the Sooke Potholes! 
Now for a different metaphor: in the past two weeks I also realized that writing a thesis is really about figuring how to fit puzzle pieces together. I had been walking around with a section on my scientists drafted in mind for a bit (who they are, why them, the different collaborations they engaged in when I thought at the beginning of my project there were more discrete research organizations, challenges in contacting various groups of them, etc.), and thinking about my methodology/methods chapter and what would go in there (methodology, methods, challenges and limitations), and what would go into my introductory chapter (thesis questions, abstract, great opening quote, context of climate change and rapid ecological change, and why it's important we engage with scientists).

So between juggling the various puzzle pieces, and organizing them into borders, and breaking them into colours and compatible sections (best puzzle building strategy!), things have gotten a lot easier and feel much more manageable. And I definitely can't underscore how important the emotional part of this project has been so far! It's nice to feel the buzz of seeing progress being made.

Onwards and upwards to stitching my 4 main literature sections together! :)

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Post 35: Falling in Love with Write and Cite

Beginning in September, there were a few new members in my thesis completion group (I'd joined earlier in the summer). One of the members, N— is just starting her second year of her MA after a hiatus, and the group got to talking about 'writing and citing' programs that make life so much easier!!

Having been in this MA for 2 and a bit years now, it's remarkable how easy it is to forget some of the smaller things that I've grown so dependent on, and grateful for! And my write and cite program is one of them.

So, what are these things, and what do they do?

Gone are the days of printing every single paper and journal article, and marking it up with a highlighter and sticky notes with a memo for the gist of the paper. These days, there's a slough of programs that will help you to organize your library of papers (and save trees by keeping them digital), highlight important sections of them, keep notes attached to them, and stores all the meta data that's important for compiling bibliographies when you're ready to hit 'finalize'.

Some are free programs, others have a one-time fee, others simply manage and store your bibliographic information, and others still do the whole paper and notes and highlights she-bang.
It is well worth doing a bit of research to find out what program would work best for you, and will meet your needs.

More wonderfully bright leaves from across campus on a lovely autumn day!
I have gone with Papers, produced by Mekentosj. Papers stores and curates the full journal articles, has a built-in search engine that connects through the internet to check several databases (and works with my uni-library to access papers available through all the licensing agreements and such here), allows me to neatly store and file groups of related papers, allows me to annotate and highlight them and make notes on particular sections. Because it has a built-in search function, I can also look for article separate to the built-in search (say, off my library's homepage), download those articles, drag and drop them into the program, and 9 times out of 10 it will find and match the article and automatically in-fill all of the bibliographic info.

With the student discount it had a one-time fee of about 50$ (on the website it's in Euros), but I regularly and hassle-free receive updates (eg. I'm now on Papers2), and it's fantastic!

The one drawback of this program is it's ability to handle grey literature (government reports and technical summaries, etc.) I find that I edit almost every entry for those. But, that's not a terrible thing: at least I will know if I've missed any key papers because I've handled them so much!

Other programs that I've heard really good things about include Mendeley, which is very similar in functionality to Papers, and has a social function built in to share work and collaborate with colleagues (though I haven't tried that) and Zotero, which is a free version and styles itself as a personal research assistant.

So many arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) berries this year! This tree's absolutely loaded with them!
And while they have a very curious flavour, they are edible, but best kept in the 'emergency food' category!


This is the fun part: Papers has a call function, where I can summon my articles library from my word processor, as I'm writing. In my case, I hit the option button twice, and then a little search window opens inside my writing composition program (I use Scrivener). If I remember the name of one of the authors of the paper, or a key word from the title, I type that in, and Papers gives me a list of articles that match that paper. I click on the one I had in mind, and am presented with 2 options: to include a formatted citation right there, or an unformatted citation. I slot either of them in and keep writing!

If you choose unformatted citations, when you are done writing your paper, you can tell Papers to format all of the citations in whatever style you want: APA, MLA, Chicago, etc. It's amazing, and such a time saver!!! It populates a complete, organized bibliography at the end of the paper, and all of the in-text citations are correct as well. it's worth having a look through to make sure the program has all the information right, because I've caught a few mistakes (as in the case of the grey literature info for a few reports), but those are easily fixed.

In short, write and cite programs like Papers save time and hassle (once you've learned how to use them), are extremely flexible with form, and ensure that you haven't missed a paper! I am so grateful for this program, as well as my supervisor who strongly recommended I look into one at the beginning of this degree! :)

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Post 34: Paragraph Thinking and Writing

I write this post with gratefulness in mind for my colleague Garrett Richards, whose brilliant conversation, friendship, and mentorship was immensely valuable to me when we were able spend time together for a month and a half this summer. We'd meet up to eat lunch together several days of the week, discuss a wide variety of fun topics, including the thesis work we were doing.

As a PhD student, his slightly more advanced (in academia) perspective was fantastic: he'd finished his master's not-that-long-ago, and so was able to provide some phenomenal advice. He was also really getting into writing his thesis at the time, so a number of the conversations we had were around me asking questions like "How are you organizing your chapters?" and  "How do you sort out what information belongs where? How do you plan your writing?"

So with my thanks to Garrett, this blog post is dedicated to the few (awesome) conversations about thesis writing and thinking in paragraphs.

Thinking in paragraphs is the way he structures what he has to write. The paragraph is a great unit to organize thoughts by, because it's a nice balance between the tiny details of a specific point that one research paper makes, and the overall aim of a thesis chapter.

A paragraph has a logical organization, beginning with the topic sentence that informs what the paragraph will cover (and consequently, Garrett said, he had the tendency to write long paragraphs), and finishing with a sort of wrap up of what that paragraph then said (the concluding sentence), with related sentences in between. Then, you can organize sections of the chapter based on laying out which paragraphs speak to the others around it, and which ones need to be in there, etc.

On my walk to the library, being charmed by the big maple leaves! 
Having this kind of tool was really helpful for providing advice to one of my colleagues recently! In one of my Thesis Completion Group meetings,  a colleague was dealing with writer's block, and the fellow sitting next to me said to him, "D—, are you trying to write a whole thesis at once?!" And this got me to thinking about what was helpful for me for breaking down the intimidation involved with setting out to 'write a thesis', and well: you don't write a thesis all at once; you write word that builds a sentence that builds part of a paragraph, one piece at a time. Or, one thought at a time, and I chatted about this with D— when I invited him to my thesis writing group the following week. In short order, we'd discussed what he'd be working on writing, in smaller, manageable paragraphs, and he set to it!

Therefore, paragraph thinking (and writing) is an extremely important tool for chapter organization (on top of writing!) that helps to break down the concerns about writing a whole thesis at once. :)

Hope this was helpful!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Post 33: On Juggling 5 Projects... Where Did the Time Go?

Well, okay, maybe it's only 3 projects, but I'm certainly keeping busy, and finding my daytime hours are disappearing faster than I can say "Unique New York" quickly 10 times in a row! (It's already the middle of October!!)

Last week the second research project that I've picked up to help cover my bills, now that I'm in the post-funding era of my degree, really started to ramp up! And it is hella fun! It's so cool to research the backgrounds of some of the people that I'll be interviewing in the next few months, and think about time zone differences and adjustments for suggesting potential 'best' interview times (unless I want to rise for a sleepy one at 4AM!), so that has been very good.

Lots of writing back and forth feedback and undertaking a pilot interview to test out our interview questions—and seeing the evolution of those has been phenomenal, too, and has inspired me to reflect in slightly different ways on the way I undertook my thesis research.

Our dash of green: pathside plants and ferns, exploring out at Goldstream Park!

On a different note: much love to my thesis writing group*!!!! I can't gush enough about how much I love their company and the productive atmosphere we have built. While there is still some scheduling irregularity with space and times that we're able to meet (we're trying to do Monday, Wednesday, Friday; everyone has different departmental meetings and odd things that break up the times), it's been phenomenal.

More Pomodoros. This time, smilies!
I've now graduated to being the Pomodoro timer on occasion. We use the online one available here. It's quite innocuous, and so isn't an unpleasant shock when we hear the timer.

And the MOST FUN thing is finding different ways to keep track of/tallying (photos coming soon) how many we've been able to get done in a day! We were in over the Thanksgiving long weekend on Sunday and Monday, and went from getting six done on Sunday, to a RECORD of 10 on Monday! That felt so good!

Phew! What a day! Got so much done!
The structure of hunkering down for 25 minutes at a time, and then having a set chat/break/question time is fantastic. Again, much love to them. Really, really enjoying spending more time with this group.

AND: we also appreciate the support of the Graduate Student Society, who keeps allowing us to schedule time in one of their two conference rooms in the Halpern Centre for Graduate Students. Having a big room suitable for convening and getting our work done is really, really great.

* I wanted briefly to identify here that I joined this thesis writing group by meeting some of the members through the Thesis Completion Group that I've written about before, here. :)

Friday, 26 September 2014

Post 33: My Newfound Joy: A Writing Group!

Phew, September has WHIZZED by faster than I can account for! (Which isn't that unusual.) :)

As a graduate student who's had an office in a building located on the margins of campus (right by Mystic Vale, for those who know it), I spent much of the last eight months alone there. Of the four people that I shared an office with when I first moved there in August of 2013, one had graduated by November, another graduated in the spring, and starting in January of this year, had decided to work primarily at home (which is fair). But, the result was that I spent a lot of time in isolation, being a little bit (and at times a lot) overwhelmed by the impostor syndrome, not realizing that's in large part what I was dealing with (unsuccessfully at the time), and it took a number of things changing in the past few months to really get a grip on what it's meant for me.

One of the biggest breakthroughs was starting to talk to people about my despair, and quite continuous feelings of insecurity, doubt, lack of confidence, and that general feeling that someone would walk into my office and say, "Hey, that doesn't count as research! You're a fraud! You don't belong here!" (Oh yes, wonderful.)

Another breakthrough was when one of my colleagues, Garrett, started to spend his days full-time in our building, and when we started to simply have lunches together, what began as conversations about things we both enjoyed, became some thesis related discussions that proved to be incredibly valuable for me. As a PhD student, his perspective was very insightful and helpful, including strategies for various ways to approach writing different thesis section. (SO GOOD!)

There was also a different power dynamic when I was speaking with Garrett: I didn't have the usual fear and trepidation I sometimes have with professors, who also, admittedly, are often further in time from doing thesis-related work than a PhD student who recently completed their MA/MSc. I realize that obviously professors are doing research and publishing all the time, and that those are the skills (some of them) that we're learning in grad school, but the dynamic was incredibly close-knit and collegial.

Last few days of summer weather exploring downtown: this little water taxi
parked down by Wharf Street!
Another conversation with another colleague produced these two golden-advice nuggets: write the smallest amount necessary. Master's theses are expected to be between 75 and 100 pages. Not more. Considering that my monograph thesis won't be published in its current form, perhaps this is even more applicable advice. I'll be doing a fair bit of re-writing to get anything down to a useful size for journal article publishing, and if it'll become a book, then that'll need a good deal of rewriting, too!
Her second advice-bit was one that changed my perspective: she told me that I had done certain things (a whole lot of reading, lots of writing, conducting interviews and journaling, in my case), and now I had to stop doing the continuous reading, and write about what I did! In the past tense. Which was SO helpful! Without realizing it, I had been caught in this continuous slide of "I haven't read enough here, or here", and "I need to find out more about this..." and was stuck in this endless loop of reading further and more, instead of stopping to finally try to account for what I had already done.

Now, I've joined a writing group, and it's been fantastic! We're a group of grad students from across campus. Usually, 3-6 show up, due to availability. The group runs Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. While we're all writing different things, and really are in different stages, it's really nice to have a productive space carved out. I've found I'm much more motivated to work in this supportive atmosphere. This afternoon we really actively engaged in doing successful Pomodoros, with one person setting a timer, and us standing up and doing a few stretches. We drew a picture on the whiteboard for every successful Pomodoro done.

Pomodoro day! And yes, can you guess what the weather was doing? 
I'm enthusiastic about writing again, my perspective has shifted to feel more positive about how do-able my thesis is, and I have started to get really engaged with what I need to do in order to write successfully on my thesis, such as writing downhill, so that when I stop at the end of the day, I know what I'm starting with the next day again. What that means is that I'll write a short note about the next paragraph in the section that needs putting together. As well, though, the amount of time (so far) that it's taken me to break into the writing phase has decreased. It now only takes me a few minutes of mental groaning before I can commit to a good writing session, which has been very helpful outside of this group, too.

Revisiting the Joan Bolker book that my colleague Maddy shared with me was also useful to mine for some more writing tips, like: "Write one day at a time" to deal with any guilt or negative feelings about having missed a writing day. Wahooo!

If you get a chance to make a writing group come together, do it. I joined a small group that was already underway before me, and it's evolved in the past week as well to include more new people. It's a very supportive and productive space for me, and I really look forward to going. Especially when we can book a nice 4-6 hour period in a row.

Now, cheers to more writing!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Post 32: Making Finances Easier: The Graduate Student Tuition Income Offset Plan

I didn't hear about this until last year, I think, when I somewhere along the way stumbled upon the Graduate Student Tuition Income Offset Plan. Essentially, you can arrange to have your tuition payments paid in 4 equal payments over a semester, for an entire year (3 semesters), instead of having to pay your tuition in one giant schwack right at the beginning of each term. It only costs 25$ to set up the payments, and requires one void cheque (unless you know your financial institution information).

According to the form, it's "intended to better align... to the receipt of fellowship and employment income" that many grads get. I'll agree with this, and say that I found my finances a lot better to plan knowing what my regular monthly payments would be, and when they would be taken out of my account.
For our dose of local plants and colour: Gorse (Ulex europaeus), which smells so divinely like coconut! 

Now, I know that I read somewhere, some student financial advice that doing the monthly budgeting is smarter financial planning but can't for the life of me find that any more (didn't think at that point earlier in the summer that I would be posting about this, apologies), but making the monthly payments is a bit better, says someone out there! :)

You can start in any of UVic's three semesters, though the dates very according to the term. Make sure to get this form in by September 15th for this semester; for January, it's also the 15th; or for the summer semester on May 15th. All coverage would go until the end of August. And, as I've found out from this year, you renew the form and again pay the 25$ to set it up for another year.

Hope this helps!

Updated note: I should also mention that very very helpfully my department sent out an email the day before I wrote this post, which I hadn't noticed because I hadn't opened it yet, but I'm glad that they did send it out! As grad students, we should definitely know about these kinds of helpful resources, and I'm grateful that my department is helping to raise awareness about them.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Post 31: Final TA Conference Workshop

I'm writing an extra post for what was my final workshop to wrap up the TA Conference, because it was FANTASTIC!

I'll confess that when I wrote my previous post, I questioned whether I was going to make it to the last workshop. It was about surviving marking essays (in particular), and I hummed and hawed about: it was late Friday afternoon after an already trying (though fun) week, and I was tired. Did I want to sit through another 1.5 hour workshop?

Well, am I ever ebullient that I did!

Edward White, the TA consultant (TAC) for the Department of Sociology, was one of the funniest, most cynical people I have ever met. It was clear from his opening introduction, where he handed us a well-researched, and EPIC 17-page document (as he put it [sort of paraphrasing here, based on my bad memory]: "Yes, I do believe that more is more.") that covered everything from differentiating between objective and subjective marking, to best principles of marking (always mark to a rubric), to different ways to handle usual problems that come up with marking (the list we made on the board and subsequently discussed included such things as engaging with professors, plagiarism, justifying a grade, giving a failing grade, time management, CUPE and saying 'no' to work, and more).

Wacky photo I took looking up into the roof of a bus-stop near campus! :) 
An idea that Edward talked about was marking to 75% of the grade for accomplishing the requirements of the assignment (that's where it's handy to have the rubric); then the other 25% should be reserved for the students who go above and beyond the assignment requirement. If they want those A range marks, they need to strive for them; at university we ask more of them than anyone did in high school. Taking the time as well, to engage with both the professor and the students (meeting them, making announcements and explanations of this kind of idea in class ahead of the assignments), and essentially investing the time to build rapport so they understand you're interested in their education and developing their scholarship skills, was certainly something that Edward emphasized.

Another main point that came out of the workshop, too, was that as TAs, we aren't marking the student or person doing the work; we're marking their scholarship. By externalizing their work, it becomes easier to engage with them without making them adversarial or antagonistic. When discussing the work they produce, and the scholarship they put into their assignments, it becomes a much better way to have a constructive conversation and talk to them about ways to improve their work.

Overall, it was an excellent workshop, and I'm so so glad that I went!! If any of the ideas very briefly sketched out above interest you, find Edward through the LTC and contact him for a coffee and to follow-up on some of these ideas. This is one very knowledgeable chap!

If you get a chance to attend this workshop next year (or in the spring if it's offered then), DO IT. No hesitation.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Post 30: Okay: The TA Conference was Fantastic Beyond My Remembrance!!

I have had an absolute blast at the TA Conference (run by the Learning and Teaching Centre [LTC]) over the past week! I attended 2 years ago during my first year, but last year didn't go as I was still undertaking interviews for my research. In reflecting on my experience at the conference, it's clear that all of the presenters are people who care very much about how we can be better TAs, better professionals, and ultimately, better instructors.

In this post I'll briefly highlight the workshops I attended to give you a sense of why it's valuable to attend the workshop and develop your professional skills as a graduate student.  If you weren't able to make the Fall TA Conference, there is one held in early January, too, so fear not! As well, workshops for TA and Graduate Student professional development are also run all year long through the LTC. (I also recognize that there's only so much that I can put into a post, and express my excitement for the workshops; far better that you try to attend a few in the spring!)

I attended 7** workshops over the past week. Tuesday was the big day, where the most concurrent sessions are held, and where, as a byproduct of the structure of the conference, you'll miss a lot of the others. For this reason, repeat workshops were held for the rest of the week (or at least, a lot of them had repeats). And wow—very glad to be inside on Tuesday after our epic monsoon-like showers and thunder!

Clouds reflected in a rain puddle, near the Library! 
So on Tuesday, I attended two workshops whose theme was 'Preparing for a Teaching Career in Higher Education.' For one, that was the actual title, for the other, it was a discussion about the LATHE program, which is a 2 year certificate specifically focused on learning and teaching in higher ed.
The first workshop focused on the importance of preparing a teaching dossier: a document that includes all sorts of supporting documentation to show how effective an instructor you are. Some of these components include an evidence-based teaching narrative (replacing the older teaching philosophy), syllabi, TA experiences, course evaluations and reviews, guest lectures—all the things that comprise the evidence that shows that you would be a great instructor to hire! The LATHE certificate program (which will show up on your graduate certificate) is geared towards officializing that commitment to great teaching even more. Predictions from the panel of presenters (the instructors for the three LATHE courses) reiterated a couple times that while this type of certificate is an emerging phenomenon, and that it only makes sense: to teach at the secondary and elementary levels, you need to do a separate degree in that; why not for teaching at the post-secondary level, too?

A third workshop by Jill Harvey from the Department of Geography covered transitioning from being a TA to being a sessional instructor and also emphasized the importance of readying a teaching dossier, because by the time you're applying for teaching positions, it should be ready to go. You will be asked for it at some point during the hiring phase. She also included a quick discussion on pitching your own course, and why that may be useful.

The last workshop I attended Tuesday was about experiential learning with David Barrett, the TAC from Geography, and how TA's can incorporate all sorts of activities into their tutorials or lessons. Experiential learning is fantastic because it speaks to all of the major types of learners: those who primarily learn through visuals, those who learn through auditory means, and those who are kinesthetic learners (hands-on). A few examples of experiential learning (there are many) include role plays, field trips, interviews, debates, using equipment, field schools, and more.

WEDNESDAY, I learned a lot about CourseSpaces (the new Moodle) that facilitates running a class online, sharing teaching materials, and engaging with students. Last year I sent all my tutorial materials to the professor who posted them onto CourseSpaces. I learned so much more about having a run-through trial, and as a TA, saw that we can actually do a lot on the course page! Very very good. And the facilitator, from the Technology Integrated Learning folks on campus did a great job! She also pointed me to what seems like a fantastic resource: a number of support videos and other documents to help professors (and TAs) get familiar and comfortable with CourseSpaces if we haven't before. A similar set of resources exists for students

I also learned about puzzles, artefacts, and art—three different activities that can bring to life the materials that we present in class, with Iryna Matiyenko from the Political Science Department. These activities were also centred around the Kolb learning cycle, to again, make sure that we reach different kinds of learners. I found this workshop extremely engaging and found myself thinking of much more creative ways to get students engaged with the materials I would be teaching them.

THURSDAY, yesterday, I attended a workshop led by Caroline Winter from the English Department, on how to encourage students to edit their own work. The main point was simply to mention it to them, since undergrads may not know that editing and revising is a big part of writing. The LTC encourages the 40-20-40 writing model: 40% researching and planning and brainstorming, 20% writing (first draft, usually), and 40% revising and editing. This model shows just how big a part of writing the editing and revising stage is. It's one I've encountered previously, through another workshop held by the LTC. (The LTC really rocks!)
A tip here as well: maybe include one short grammar lesson as part of your tutorial every so often (as an alternative to spending an entire tutorial/class/session on a big grammar dump) especially if students will be producing reports or writing essays or other writing assignments during the semester. Even covering some of the most common errors in writing that students seem to make (according to the presenter) such as comma splices and run-on sentences and knowing how to use colons and semi-colons correctly would be great. :)

This afternoon I have one more workshop on 'Avoiding Death by Paper,'which is tips and strategies on how to survive essay marking. Very much looking forward to it.

But yes: I am definitely, definitely am very glad that I participated in the TA Conference! And, as one of the presenters mentioned: it's a great way to network and meet other TAs in other departments who also care about the things you do. :) I know I met some lovely grad students in some of my workshops!

** I made sure to attend at least 6 workshops not only because they are fun, but because on doing so, the LTC will print out a certificate of participation that you can include on your CV or as part of your work history. Being able to demonstrate that you have an interest in teaching and continual learning and skill development can be important for your work.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Post 29: TACs, and our new one!

The first day of the TA Conference yesterday was fantastic, and I'll post a short review very soon. In light of the conference and all things themed TA, let's talk about TACs! What are they, what do they do?

A TAC is a Teaching Assistant Consultant. They are an immense resource for all the TAs and graduate students in a given department, and regularly offer workshops for graduate student and TA professional development during the year. They undergo a fair amount of training at the Learning and Teaching Centre, so they are able to expertly share their knowledge and help graduate students learn more about teaching and TAing, and generally, professional development in academia. Her first workshop will be next week on Monday, September 8th, from 2:30-4:00PM, and will be "Facilitating discussions and establishing positive tutorial dynamics." Location: In the Dry Lab.

In Environmental Studies last week, we all received an introductory email from our new TAC, Anita Girvan! Anita is an interdisciplinary PhD student who is also a TA in The Environmental Studies Department.

Our lovely TAC: Anita Girvan!
A couple of words from her welcoming message:
"My name is Anita Girvan and I have the privilege of being the (first ever!) T.A. Consultant in the School of Environmental Studies for the 2014-15 academic year. This is a position supporting in part through the Learning and Teaching Centre at UVic.

My role is to support TAs  in diverse ways including (from the job description):
'Developing discipline-specific seminars designed for TAs in department; facilitating their professional development; helping with one-on-one consultations; providing advice and referral to appropriate campus resources; liaising with faculty.'"

Many departments have their own TAC; some don't yet. Have a look at the list of current TACs for 2014-2015. If you see that your department doesn't yet have one, have a passion for sharing knowledge and experiences, and you are an experienced TA, consider starting a discussion with Cynthia Korpan, who director of the LTC to see if you might be a good fit for being your department's inaugural TAC!

Friday, 15 August 2014

Post 28: TA Conference and other TA and Grad Resources on Campus

Last week an email in my inbox made me really look forward to the approaching new semester: The Teaching Assistant Conference (TA Conference), put on by the Learning and Teaching Centre is on again this year!!

Aside from being an awesome on-campus resource that helps organize everything from tutors to writing help to teaching tips, the Learning and Teaching Centre has been running this conference for a number of years. The conference usually takes place in the week right after the Labour Day long weekend, which is idea for grad students and teaching assistants, because tutorials, labs, and other TA-related work doesn't yet begin.

The layout of the conference is great: its agenda features workshops for both new and experienced grad students, with some specializing in the three main discliplines: the Humanities, the Sciences, and the Social Sciences. As well, a few of the workshops are specifically designed for international graduate students who are TAing.

Tuesday is the most important day for the conference. It's a day stuffed full of presentations and concurrent sessions; there is a less busy schedule on the subsequent week days.

Two years ago when I was first starting my program, I attended this conference, and my experience was very positive. Certainly, I felt more prepared going into what then was a completely new experience. Some of the most memorable workshops were one on the many different kinds of icebreakers one could run at the beginning of a class to get students (and you) to know each other. I usually employ an altered a game that I played years ago in high school theatre class, but the workshop was great for getting me to think about different class sizes and how one can use the appropriate ice breaker.

Another one was specifically about being an introvert and TAing, and the kind of personality one brings to the classroom. I'm sure we all know the jokester, or the super engaging, humorous teacher or professor that knows when to crack the best joke, and how to include tastefully funny comments in their presentation. That isn't me, and it's stressful enough, sometimes, for me to be in front of a class (that is improving, however, with practice). The takeaway I got from there? Don't worry about being someone you're not; be your usual, quiet self, if that's what you need to do. You'll be engaging if you bring your excitement and care, and students will be understanding. They will know if you're being sincere and have their interests and learning experience in mind.

If you're around during the first week of September, I highly recommend attending!
Updated note: The Department is having their retreat on Tuesday, but even if you miss the first day of the conference, attend the others! There are numerous sessions that take place all throughout the week.

                                    When every stick looks the same, it's good to know which
                                                          resource will serve you best!

Aside from the TA conference right at the beginning of the semester, there are always a number of other resources available for graduate students on campus. This short list is a few of the main ones:

The Writing Centre (soon to become the Centre for Academic Communication), whose tutors will sit with you one-on-one to discuss your writing, ways to self-edit, revise, etc. They also conduct workshops throughout the year on everything from planning your research, to writing it up, and presentation skills.

The Halpern Centre for Graduate Students is also a great place to spend a bit of time, have a pint and/or a meal, and meet to discuss ideas with fellow grad students.

                              Another of our local beauties: common camas (Camassia quamash).

The Thesis Completion Group, run through Counselling Services, is a supportive undertaking that helps students to complete their theses! Maybe the best part is the camaraderie of understanding peers finding their way through academia, and the great listener and advice-giver that the organizer, Janet, is. The TCG also covers some practical things like time management (Pomodoros!), goal setting and planning, offering tips on the best resources for writing your thesis and dissertations, managing relationships with supervisors, and overall, just providing an open, supportive space.

CUPE 4163 is also the union the TAs belong to, and are a resource for all things work-related for TAs, including working conditions, interpreting the Collective Agreement (the rules that govern TAs' relationship to the university, and everything from breaks, to sick leave, to training...). They also have access to mediators and legal professional help if there is a need. Their blog features a number of up-to-date articles and issues that affect academia as well.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Post 27: Best (By this, I mean Useful**) Thesis Advice So Far.

This post is written with the desire to give a nod to all the supportive voices and folks that have helped me weather my ups and downs along the way. I want to share some of the best advice that I've been given or encountered along the way. Positive reinforcement, right? This is necessarily a partial list because I have a poor memory and have undoubtedly forgotten some of the advice, or haven't written it down, and—I'm not done yet! So more will probably be coming.

1. "Best foot forward, one step at a time." This from the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment. Let the hard things be hard. Each day that you start, the conditions will be different; you might have skipped breakfast to sleep in a bit more, or your cat got spooked at 3AM and rattled you out of your sleep, and you had to spend half an hour figuring out what happened, and calming the cat. So, begin each day fresh, with intention, and starting with goal setting as you go, based on how you think you can work that day.

2. "A master's is more about learning the skills than coming up with some genius discovery." This is classic Jenna, with her pearls of wisdom (slightly paraphrased).

3. "No fear!" from my supervisor. :)

                                   ...and then I can just be glad I live in this awesome place!

4. "Keep it simple, and as you go through your degree, pay attention to the realizations that suddenly become obvious to you." That's where you'll find the results and insights that you'll be writing about, but because they will also become 'obvious' to you, you may have difficulty reminding yourself that those are your findings, and that they are important to report. -- Karen, my awesome work buddy, office sharer, who also teaches as a sessional instructor, on research methods and methodologies in social work.

5. "The first draft of anything is shit." Thank you, Ernest Hemingway. :)

6. The advice from my supervisor was to find someone in my field, to talk to, and discuss ideas. There's nothing worse that can come from a poorly timed talk from someone doing different methods, using different ideas, than you are, that can make you panic and think that you're not being diligent. I'm sure every grad student goes through some point where they're gripped by the fear of not reading enough, or widely enough. So, talk it out with someone who shares your methods (or very similar ones). I can't thank my colleague Garrett enough for all the conversations and discussions over lunches sitting outside our building in the sunshine this summer. So good! He's also doing science studies research, and is certainly a bona fide social scientist in the making. And, we've discussed everything from specific methods and approaches, to how to write up a lit review. So good.

7. Effective procrastination: this from Laurie Waye's "Managing your Thesis or Dissertation: A Workbook for Students." Essentially, she points out that ineffective procrastination is when you are supposed to do work on a certain thesis something, but instead you go do the dishes, or fold your socks, feeling guilty and spending precious mental space beating yourself up because you know you should be doing thesis work instead. Effective procrastination is when you are unsure of how to proceed with say, starting chapter 2, or beginning the summary on that book, so, you go for a walk to clear your thoughts and think about how to start. Or, you have questions that arose from the last article you read, so you need to think them through a bit more, so you go for a walk to do so. You're still spending time working (thinking ideas through), and you're still focused on what you have to accomplish. Win, win!

8. From my lovely committee member: on tackling the imposter syndrome: don't take yourself too seriously, and approach all of your work with a bit of humour. :) AND—send stuff out. The more feedback you can get, and the sooner, the better. (Obviously the things you do send should be in pretty good shape, but yes, getting something to your supervisor is probably a good idea!).

(P.S. I'll come back and update this post periodically, as more 'best advice' comes in; if it gets too long, I'll break it into two posts, but that's maybe less likely at this point. Stay tuned!)
(**P.P.S. Each of us needs different advice at different times. If you have a pocket of time, and someone hands you a novel, you may just take it. If you're already curled up in a chair in a library, with three books on a table beside you and your imagination buried in the book in your hands, you might accept it, but it might also be refused. I've certainly noticed that some things said to me earlier only make sense now, looking back over the various phases of the thesis. So, take the advice above in stride, you might not need to hear some of it yet, and for others, it might just be the right thing, whereas next week, you'll notice it's no longer useful.)

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Post 26: Awesome Office Spaces

Okay. Just today I arrived on campus and walked to my workplace near Mystic Vale, and hear the keening of two hawks that live near my partner's workplace. Who knows what they were up to, but they seemed to be having a time of it.

Next, it's lunchtime, and I usually pull out a chair to sit in the sunshine in front of my building, taking in a good bit of fresh air and sunshine (I usually sit behind a computer for most of the day, looking out at the lush maple trees right in front of my window). I look right, in response to the strange scrabbling sounds, and see a squirrel making it's way up a tree trunk, it's tail helping it climb, though it also looks like the squirrel has a giant inchworm attached to its butt.

I look left, and see a barred owl in the maple tree by the office corner, lazily turning its head and looking around, swivelling in that 360 viewpoint that only owls can manage. I point it out to my colleague who joins me with his soup, moments later. He also just missed the leaping and bounding wiener dog that was chasing a red bouncing ball down the hill in front of our workplace. Pretty darn cute.

                                       Our office barred owl! Just down the way, on the path.

Just before my partner comes by for our brief walk (we do this once a day for our breaks, to counter the detriments of sedentary lifestyles), I fill up my bird feeder. I regularly get house finches, brown-backed chickadees, nuthatches, and even have some towhees and junkies that seem to have learned about the rewards of leaving the ground to find a roof-top high snack!

Twice last week, and for 4 days this week, I have been and will share my office space with a colleague who doesn't have her own. Her admiration of this old house, and the phenomenons of having push button light switches and latch-windows and all sorts of other neat features in this house, reminded me of how fantastical it was to move into this space, almost a year ago now. And, it also makes me more grateful for a wonderful office space, that is a treat to have a space to get to, relax, throw down my books, or get away from the construction noises that have been taking place outside my apartment for over a year now (I keep forgetting about that, until I spend a short few hours in my apartment when I would usually already be on campus).

My laptop is my main and only computer, and I have a big monitor that I connect it to, set to be the right height and distance from me when I'm sitting, working at my desk. I also removed the arms on my chair to promote better posture, and also in the vein, have a keyboard and mouse that I connect to my laptop, so I don't slouch down to type. As I wrote earlier on my blog, it's good to have the ergonomics set up properly, and stick to using your equipment well so that you don't end up with repetition-injuries like the one I had with my shoulder.

Having a great office space is wonderful, but having it set up for productive work is necessary. I will admit I sometimes get distracted by the birds that visit the bird feeder suctioned to my office window. :) And, of course, watering all the plants is a must.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Post 25: The Impostor Syndrome

Okay, so I just wrote my last post mentioning the Impostor Syndrome, but realized that I haven't actually written about it before.

The Impostor Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon (not an illness or disease), whereby "people are unable to internalize their accomplishments" (thank you, Wikipedia.) It's oftentimes linked to the Dunning-Kroeger Effect, which I've posted about a little bit, here, right at the beginning of my blog. I've now convinced myself that the Dunning-Kroeger Effect is the positive, wonder-full closely-related flip-side-of-the-coin to the Impostor Syndrome, because when I'm feeling positive, and on top of my game, I really feel inspired and excited by recognizing that there is so much out there to read and learn and be exposed to, and so much that I don't know. Hundreds of years of other people's ideas and expressions and arguments and lessons and wisdom. It truly is an amazing time to live in, with the internet and interlibrary loans and blogs and journals, and being a part of academia. And then, when I'm feeling the full brunt of the Impostor Syndrome, all of that wonder kind of falls away, and instead those people or ideas who I admire, become unreachable, and become objects of terror and interrogation, because I might not be fully understanding them, or might be getting them wrong, and those are skivs that can be dug into my identity, my sense of being, and can be used as objects to prove that I don't belong where I am: that I am a fraud who doesn't deserve to be at this institution.

That is the Impostor Syndrome: that cycle of thoughts that tells you: You don't deserve to be in the program that you are, to have the position that you got, to earn as much as you do, to get the funding that you did, etc. And you feel like somewhere, someone is going to call you out for it, is going to embarrass you, is going to show the world that you really don't belong, and didn't, the entire time.
While discussing the sometime crippling tendencies for perfectionism in her awesome workbook for grad students, Laurie Waye employs the useful metaphor of the Cinderella Syndrome: "where you're at the ball (i.e. graduate school) but you don't really belong there. You're worried about being found out for who you really are..."

Reading on the Wikipedia page, I am not surprised to see that it was women (Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes) who first began to do research on this phenomenon (their article was published in 1978), and showed that high-profile, successful women exhibited this phenomenon, believing that they were over-evaluated by others, and were not intelligent (Wikipedia).

Since then, a number of high profile people—not only women—have admitted to struggling with this phenomenon, including an actress and humanitarian who I highly admire: Emma Watson, who was recently named to be the UN Women's Goodwill Ambassador, and others like the formidable US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and the writer Neil Gaimon. Other common demographics of people affected by it include (surprise!) graduate students, the beneficiaries of affirmative action (who think that they are chosen because of these 'exceptions', instead of their skills or abilities), and generally, successful folks.

Now, the tough part is that there is no 'cure' or solution for the phenomenon. The best thing to do is to talk about it, and be aware of it. To identify it. I know that I am grateful that it was discussed and mentioned by the staff person from Counselling Services for the graduate student orientation that took place right before the official start of my program here at UVic. I had never otherwise heard of it before, and certainly never felt it as strongly as I have over the past few months, during undergrad. One suggestion was to write actively about one's achievements, and while I don't think of it that way, one of my motivations (when I was writing excitedly about the Dunning-Kroeger Effect) was to keep track of all the wonderful things I get to do, experience, be a part of, during this graduate degree. Some of that includes marvellous things that are celebration worthy, like receiving great funding, and attending amazing conferences, and getting to spend time with brilliant colleagues and professors and ideas.

So, we need to be gentle with ourselves, and supportive of others. We need to take the positive side of competition, which is to help us become better people, and in this case, budding academics. Cheers to positive learning!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Post 24: And then there are days...

... when it seems like you can't get anything done, and truly are your worst enemy. The logic goes something like this: "Well, I can't start writing this, because I'm not done with that part of it; where do I start then? But oh, can I do that? What if I can't do that? Is this the next best thing to do? I don't know if it is, so maybe I won't start there. Okay, so because (I think) I don't know what to do here, I'll just skip to the internet and poke around there..." And after an hour or so of reading news articles, and beating myself up for doing so, instead of "getting work done," I start to feel like I'm a fraud and a cheat, and like I don't deserve to be here, and I'm a fake, because surely this can't mean 'doing research.' And someone's going to call me out on it. Well, the reading articles on the internet sure isn't, unless they're vaguely linked to your thesis, but frequently they aren't. But thinking about novel ecosystems and the social construction of nature and how scientists study the mountain pine beetle, in my case, very much is! So much of doing qualitative research is iterative, with learning happening at various points and stages, some unpredictable, and there's always a gradual, almost imperceptible set of changes around the ideas that I'm forming, that my biggest job, sometimes, is keeping track of those changing ideas.

So, we all have bad days where we psych ourselves out of being able to get things done. I woke up with a headache this morning (which on its own, doesn't happen often), and that certainly doesn't help.

                                                   It might as well be raining indoors...

I think when we get into these ruts, I go back to making really simple goals, small tasks, starting from somewhere, because it's definitely better that getting stuck nowhere, with the Impostor Syndrome and the cycling, downward spiral of the psychological game that that is.

And, it's not easy to deal with at the best of times. I've been having a lousy work week, and finally yesterday I had a brief blip of light: I received a letter in the mail (an unexpected form for the message I was waiting for), that I had been appointed to the Environmental Advisory Committee of my local municipality. I had applied for this position via email over a month ago, and was waiting to hear. It was great news. I certainly think there are limits (and perhaps dangers) to depending on outside reassurance that I am capable and competent, but for now, it certainly is helpful. But a personal, ongoing project will need to be learning how to internalize my successes and achievements, so that I don't need to start from square one all over again. I am competent, and can achieve things, and be a part of something bigger than myself, along with other people who care about and share similar goals as me. Recognizing this doesn't mean that I can't be wrong, or can't make mistakes; all of those places are opportunities to learn something. With enough evidence and good arguments, we should always be open to changing our minds.

                                       Could definitely use one of these and a cup of tea....

So. Here's to heading back to my follow-up interviews and having a good go at them.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Post 23: Manuscript or Monograph Style Theses?

Somewhere in this process of undertaking a master's, this conversation starter came up: to do a manuscript or monograph style thesis? What's are they, what's the difference, what are the pros and cons of doing either (as I've encountered them so far...).

Well, to some extent, your thesis supervisor will have a lot of input into which one you write. Your specific topic and research questions will also influence the form that the thesis should take. Do you have two very specific and different research questions? It might be most suitable to tackle both in an article each. Or, if you have a bigger, over-arching research questions with a few subsidiary questions, it might be easier to tackle as a monograph. OR, it might just be the legacy of your supervisor's research group that manuscript or monograph styles are preferred.

In general terms, here are the differences between the two, and good things to consider:

Monograph style: 

For this thesis, the chapters are styled similarly to a book. Chapter 1 will be an Introduction, Chapter 2 the Literature Review, Chapter 3 will cover your Methodology, Chapter 4 will cover your Results/Findings, Chapter 5 will be the Discussion/Conclusion of your findings. (Or something to that effect; the chapter numbers and contents can be shifted around with some flexibility. For example, Chapter 1 may be a combination of the introduction and literature review, and chapters 5 and 6 may take on the discussion and conclusions separately.)

The idea behind a monograph style thesis is that it's a chance for developing a long, fully fleshed out argument that provides an answer to the research questions that motivated the undertaking. As my supervisor promoted the form, he pointed out that we don't see this kind of long-form argumentation very much any more.

Benefits: This form is relatively easier to write than the manuscript style. It's also easier to transform research written in this form into a longer book-length publication.
Drawbacks: This form means that there is a bit more footwork to be done if you're turning your research into a journal article or two. More rewriting and restyling later down the road.

                              Quick break for flowers - these live on campus by the UVic Bookstore.

Manuscript style:

For a manuscript style thesis, the format will take shape something like this: Introduction, Methodology/Methods, Article 1 (with it's own Introduction, Methods, Findings, and Discussion), Article 2 (with it's own Introduction, Methods, Findings, and Discussion), and Conclusion. Each of the articles is styled like a journal article or pretty close to it, each beginning with an internal introduction, content, and conclusion.

As is covered in a different post, there are a few different kinds of journal articles, which my colleague Dr. Garrett Richards illustrated here. From what I've heard from a colleague, it's become trendier to write original research into a manuscript style thesis because this increases the chance of publication. Some of the 'chapters' in this thesis may be labelled with the monograph style headers, but the content can be quite different. So, Chapter 1 will be the general introduction, Chapter 2 will be article 1, Chapter 3, article 2, Chapter 4, the conclusion. The introduction and conclusion in this thesis style need to speak to both of the article chapters, and generally, the Introduction, Methods, and Conclusion will pull together the whole document.

Benefits: This form will relatively quickly line you up for publishing journal articles.
Drawbacks: Sometimes it can be difficult for new graduate students to translate their research into journal articles right away (hence the comment re: monograph style thesis above). Ultimately, these things seem to me to come down to time, and things you want to learn before you get out of the door.

The School of Environmental Studies, being a broad and interdisciplinary department (political ecology, ethnoecology, and ecological restoration being this department's three main pillars of research), certainly has students producing both styles of theses.

There also seems to be some departmental difference between the preference of thesis styles. In some, like biology (from what I understand) and other hard sciences, it is most common to write a manuscript style thesis. Sometimes the monograph style is said to be 'out of fashion', (and I've heard of a few stories where supervisors disparage the form that way) but again, keeping in mind what can be achieved with both styles is important, and will be helpful for deciding which will be more suitable for your work. Again, your supervisor will undoubtedly weigh in on this discussion. The goal for both forms of theses is to report your research findings; from there, it's choosing the best form. I think this is a good perspective to have: you will learn slightly different skills with either form, both of which will be valuable.

(PS: This post is not meant to be overly prescriptive: there will be differences among forms. A monograph style thesis may turn out with the results section being almost cut-and-past ready to drop into a journal article. Or, a manuscript style thesis still needs re-shifting, editing, cutting, to make the articles a better length for a target journal; depending on the journal, you may have a manuscript style thesis with two article chapters, each 10,000-12,000 words in length, but the target journals for each article have a maximum word count of 6,000-8,000 words. So, editing is still needed.)

As a graduate student, it is well worth the time to find theses from previous grads in your program. They can offer a guide and example of the kind that you'll be working towards. I've also found it extremely valuable and am grateful to the colleagues that have had long conversations with me about their process, tips, and advice. SO GOOD! :)

Monday, 7 July 2014

Post 22: Parkinson's Law of Procrastination and Pomodoros

Okay, so the law isn't necessarily directly tied to procrastination, but one of my colleagues pointed out that was a natural consequence of the law.

Parkinson's law (according to Wikipedia) is the phenomenon where work expands to fill the time available for its completion. People, who know that their deadline for a given project is in a week, will take the whole week to finish said project, even if it should have (and could have) taken less time. It's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson, British naval historian and writer, identified the phenomenon that carries his name in an essay he penned in 1955 for The Economist. Originally the essay that discussed the effect pointed out to the consequences for the efficiency of work, and since then, a number of further elucidated points arise, including this one, which more directly speaks to the point above: "The amount of time one that one has to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete a task."
And further: "If one waits to the last minute, it will only take a minute to do" (Pannett, Dines, & Day, 2013, p. 65).

This is what I feel I deal with as a graduate student all the time! Where, if I don't structure my day, or set myself small goals throughout the day, the amount of work and time spent being productive drastically decreases, because, Hey, I have the whole day to do it, right? (Without defining what 'it' is...) It's a trap!

                                  And then there are summer pine cones, looking pretty great.

In one of my recent attendances at the Thesis Completion Group, the organizer brought up the Pomodoro Technique, which are 25 minute blocks of uninterrupted, dedicated working time, split by 5 minute breaks (short) or ten minute breaks (long); or, a food break as you need it. The idea was developed by Italian Francesco Cirillo, who believed that taking frequent breaks led to better mental functioning and agility. Breaking up big blocks of time into these little patches of really concrete work time can be an awesome way to break up the day, and get lots done! (For example, writing a short blog post!) I've been thinking a lot more about how I structure my time and day since learning about Pomodoros, and I've found them to be quite effective, especially when I build them around bigger breaks or markers in my day, such as when I leave work, or take lunch.

So, if you, like me, struggle with Parkinson's Law, try a Pomodoro, or two, or three, and get to using your time to your advantage. After all, theses don't write themselves, and as a graduate student, you are your main deadline setter!

AND -- if you want to become a Pomodoro master, have a short look at this short video. There is also a book for the technique, but I don't think it's necessary to purchase. The technique as described above and in the video, are more than enough to start thinking about, and changing the structure of your time.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Post 20: Being Young, and Asking for a Better Future

One of the resounding messages that I feel I've been left with after the Impact! 2014 Youth Leadership in Sustainability Conference is that we need more stories that make sustainability come alive. And then I have a whole host of questions to accompany that: what does sustainability look like? How does it translate to someone doing something in the world? What possibilities exist for me in my position? How do I make sustainability and environmental issues generally, more visible for other people?

Since retiring from being a professional astronaut, Commander Chris Hadfield has been making the best of the skills and experiences he built in his career as an astronaut. And he is an amazing storyteller. I think griping people—as he did me—with stories about his lessons learned and unique perspectives because of looking at our planet from the International Space Station, which essentially embodies the 'pale blue dot' idea that Carl Sagan first wrote about, he has a lot of really valid things to say when it comes to sustainability, addressing climate change, and using human agency as a force for good in the world.
Gorgeous arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) on my walk down to Cadboro Bay.
I appreciate his storytelling. The talk he gave at the conference was immensely engrossing. All of this makes me wonder about the imagination that we currently have about the future of environmental and climate issues. Where do we see positive and useful examples of a different future? Who do we have changing our imaginations about what's possible? What do humans' actions on the planet and towards our ecosystems indicate for our values, and our general impact on the planet? What do we do if we find we're stuck in paradigms that don't work any more? How will people respond to "novel ecosystems," or assemblages of new plant and animal species that challenge traditional management techniques and ask us to examine our values when we look at the species that fill our waterways, backyards, and roadside ditches?

I think that we live in an exciting time. I am really intrigued by what the future holds: engineered ecosystems, novel ecosystems, adaptive cities. Dear world, please bring me the better future I'm looking for, where people and other species, animal and plant alike, get along a little bit better, share resources and thrive alongside each other. And in the meantime, I suppose I'll keep writing my letters, signing petitions, and asking for the better world that in glimpses, I sometimes see.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Post 21: Fieldwork Readiness and Prep!

This morning as I packed my bags for school, I was excited to head to campus to meet some of my colleagues and bring them a little surprise. Yesterday while grocery shopping I bought a big packet of Twizzlers (remembering that Mary loves them), and for those who might not be so into gummy strawberry-flavoured sticks, I got a couple Turtles and a packet of Smarties. I had a jolt of joy thinking about the delight I hope the gift will bring.
The summer is that time of year when a lot of graduate students head to to collect their data, and this summer is no exception for the School of Environmental Studies.

                           Throw-back to my time in the mountains: Hard at work writing field notes!
                                                        (Photo credit: Mary Sanseverino)

For some, this process started already a few months ago, and the halls of the buildings become doubly quiet: first from the undergraduate students that no longer visit professors, sessional instructors and teaching assistants during their office hours as classes find their end in April, and then when the grad students take to the mountains and oceans and communities in which they conduct their studies.

Last year I packed my rental vehicle and drove from the Kootenays to Prince George and back, and made another trip to Edmonton to visit the lovely folks that I was interviewing about the mountain pine beetle. I had my recording device, spare batteries, interview questions, my usb cards, a notebook, the casual professional clothing I was going to wear, my driver's license, money, everything I thought I needed for that trip. And, here's where maybe my best advice for going into the field: do your planning and prep for your field work as soon in advance as possible. You don't want to be scrambling in the last few hours before a big (or even small, but important) trip, sometimes to places where you'll have limited access to resources. For last year, my recording device, batteries, and interview questions were super key to the success of my trip. This year, being a supporter (a small one) for the MLP crew, I thought they needed some treats in the car on their drive; the rest was up to them. :) So, with that in mind, the other tips below are suggestions from when I spent time in the mountainous field with MLP, and the ones above, from my social science, qualitative interviews field work last year. Your approach is probably your best tool to being prepared. :) 

                                    Two great examples of being prepped for the weather: sandals for the
                                    black sand beach just outside of Hana, Maui.

                                              ...and sunglasses and a windbreaker to brave the chilly
                                              winds at 10,000 feet on top of Haleakala, Maui!

This year marks the two year anniversary since my field season with the Mountain Legacy Project (MLP), who were gathering their gear and packing the truck for this year's two-team outing!

My self-set task this year was to be supportive and to provide some tips; what's best to bring and pack when you're going to be spending 8 weeks in the mountains?

Some of my top suggestions for this work (definitely reminiscent of this blog post for MLP):

-earplugs (for entering and exiting the helicopters, when it's is so, so loud!! And, you never know when some bird will wake you at 5AM and you can't quite get back to sleep, or when a bunkmate might snore....)
-longjohns (it's several degrees cooler at elevation)
-fleece sweaters and a windbreaker and layers (frequently breezy, which affects core temperature due to abovementioned point)
-make sure to get enough sleep, eat enough food, drink and pack enough water
-take lots of photos and keep a journal to record all those special moments
-a hat, bug spray, and polarized sunglasses
-a couple of your own bandaids
-NO cotton; cotton gets cold when wet, and can contribute to hypothermia in the right conditions. Unless you're somewhere super hot and humid, you're better off with breathable, layered clothes that aren't cotton, in the mountains

Sorting out account log-in information for the blog has brought me into nostalgia mode: how fun that summer was, spending time with Jenna and Mary and the big big mountainous landscapes of BC and Alberta. Huge pockets of rain cells that you could see and avoid in the helicopters. The big shadow splotches of clouds on the forests and mountain sides, that bring texture and richness to a landscape's colour. The quiet. The buzzing insects, pollinating and zipping around at 8000+ feet, causing me to wonder how on earth they survive up there. The mosquitos and their ferocity (and the difference with being on the wind- or lee-ward side of a slope). The birds-eye view from the helicopter, and the bits of fun and banter with the pilots.

So much fun! Wishing them all the very best and a great field season for 2014!