Pause, Breathe, Reflect and Reset

As this challenging academic year winds down, it can be especially valuable for grad students to take the time to consider where they're headed, write Steve Lee and Janet Branchaw.

May 3, 2021
 
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The end of the academic year is an excellent time for graduate students to pause, reflect and reimagine their future. Even if your graduate program does not require an annual review, taking time to consider where you are and where you’re headed is incredibly valuable.

This is particularly true following 2020, when two pandemics deeply impacted graduate education and graduate students: 1) the COVID-19 global pandemic and 2) the pervasive racial inequities and injustices in our country. Pausing to reflect will help you to avoid reacting haphazardly and enable you to instead strategically plan your future. Such reflection will be especially beneficial if you are:

  • preparing for an annual performance review or discussion to update your individual development plan (IDP);
  • grappling with how to transition from remote work back to in-person activities, travel or fieldwork;
  • agonizing over a strained and/or less-than-effective relationship with your faculty adviser during remote working conditions; or
  • exploring how the fight for racial justice impacts you, your graduate education and your future.

Here, we offer a road map to consider the impact that the 2020-21 academic year has had on your development as a researcher, your graduate education, your future career and your relationship with your primary research adviser. The road map is based on the areas of trainee development in the Entering Research conceptual framework. It is informed by the concept of mentoring up (which we adapted from John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter’s concept of managing up) to encourage and equip mentees to actively engage in their mentoring relationships to advance their academic and professional goals. The road map also incorporates elements of a guide that we recently published for faculty research mentors to reassess, realign and reimagine their research mentoring relationships in remote working environments. We also suggest some tools and strategies to help address the questions we provide in the framework below.

Everyone’s context is different, so there are no cookie-cutter answers to planning your future. But certain tools will allow you dig deeper, assess and plan your future. Free, web-based individual development plans (ImaginePhD, myIDP or ChemIDP) or an IDP at your home institution can help you systematically assess your situation and set goals. Self-assessment tools like Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder, Communication Styles Inventory and the like can help you sharpen your metacognitive skills so you can leverage your strengths and develop strategies to address your weaknesses. Beyond those tools, understanding and applying a growth mind-set can help you prepare for and persist through challenges, bounce back from failures and actively seek feedback as you progress in your graduate career.

Reflecting on Your Progress as a Graduate Student

The road map questions we raise below may initially appear overwhelming, but digging intentionally into them can help you reassess your situation and strategically prepare for next steps. Reviewing the past year, ask yourself the following questions in each of these general areas:

Research comprehension and communication skills

  • How has your disciplinary knowledge and ability to communicate your research to broad audiences advanced?
  • What research presentations, papers and other products have you made progress on or authored?
  • How have you been seeking feedback on your research to assess your understanding? Is your approach to receiving feedback aligned with a growth mind-set?

Practical research skills

  • How have you developed your ability to advance in your research -- designing and conducting experiments, analyzing data, learning a novel approach and the like?
  • What milestones have you achieved in your research?

Research ethics

  • What have you learned about the ethical implications of your research?
  • How have you conducted research in responsible and reproducible ways?
  • Have the many conversations around social justice and equity for historically marginalized communities influenced your research?

Researcher identity

  • Have you been thinking of yourself as a researcher more or less frequently?
  • Has the salience of your identity as a researcher changed?
  • What’s your sense of belonging in your academic community?

Researcher confidence and independence

  • How has your confidence (i.e., self-efficacy) and independence as a researcher changed?
  • Given your current stage in the graduate program, do you feel that you’ve been given too much, too little or just about the right amount of independence in making decisions about the direction of your research?

Equity and inclusion awareness and skills

  • Have you felt connected to your research group and/or academic communities? How has this “second pandemic” in our country affected you as a researcher and your experiences in your research group?
  • How has your understanding of equity and inclusion in the research environment changed?
  • Have you considered whether you can contribute to advancing equity and inclusion in the research environment?

Professional and career development

  • How have recent events impacted your research and professional priorities?
  • How much progress have you made on your career goals?
  • What professional development activities have you participated in?

Building Your Mentoring Network

We all need mentors, sponsors, advisers and coaches to guide and support us. Even though the two of us have been working professionally for decades, we both regularly seek out new contacts and mentors to help us deepen our expertise and grow in new areas. Different mentors fill different roles, so it is important to have a network of mentors.

We encourage you to build your mentoring network by discussing your answers to the road-map questions with your current mentors and actively reaching out to develop new mentoring relationships with experts in areas you may not have considered before, such as equity and inclusion. Doing so will allow you to leverage their wisdom as you adjust your plans. Even if you decide after deep reflection that you don’t need to adjust your plans, discussing your thoughts with your mentors will affirm that you’re on the right path. It will also provide the opportunity to reconnect and realign your expectations with your mentor’s.

Exploring the Impact of Racism

As experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others have pointed out, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the pandemic of racism in our country -- and both have deeply impacted graduate students. Furthermore, unlike the COVID-19 virus, the virus of systemic racism existed for many decades, is not easily traced and has no simple vaccine.

Many graduate students have been marginalized due to racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and identity, physical and learning differences, and so on. They are probably suffering deeply at this time due to the disparate impact of the COVID-19 virus on their communities and highly publicized instances of anti-Black and anti-Asian violence. Students of color are also often burdened with the minority tax -- being called upon to speak as the token representative of their community and to serve as the expert on all matters related to diversity and inclusion -- all the while dealing with the stress of being hypervisible and invisible at the same time. They are also probably dealing with more microaggressions and other acts of intolerance, along with attempts to gaslight them for being “too sensitive” to those microaggressions and other experiences -- incidents that were already challenging but have likely become exponentially exhausting during this double pandemic.

We encourage those of you who are graduate students who identify with historically marginalized communities, who have been working as allies to promote diversity and inclusion, and who have lost loved ones or otherwise suffered due to COVID-19 to consider your own mental health and well-being and to actively seek out mentors, counselors and friends who can support you. This is the time to check in with yourself and strategically plan some downtime. Whether you identify as a member of, and/or as an ally for, those from historically marginalized communities, pause and allow yourself to grieve and lament the many tragedies from racial inequities that have occurred -- and then decide whether to engage and how that might affect you.

Rushing to action could create more stress and lead to superficial solutions or performative diversity efforts that fail to tackle the roots of the problems. Slowing down will give you time to understand and reflect on whether and how best to move forward for yourself and others. Furthermore, the values-affirmation exercise that Geoffrey Cohen developed, which has been shown to provide sustained benefits for students of color especially, might be valuable at this time. You can incorporate this simple exercise into your road-map reflections to focus your attention on the values that have guided you and can sustain you through the uncertainties and challenges in your life.

In conclusion, this past year has been unprecedented, chaotic, divisive and tumultuous. But it has also been filled with resilience, courage, grit and even hope. Whatever your experiences during the 2020-21 academic year, you’ll find great value in reflecting on it and reimagining your future. We hope this road map and resources will help you transition to the next phase of your graduate career. We wish you the best.

Bio

Steve Lee is the assistant dean of inclusion, diversity and equity in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. He is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. Janet Branchaw is assistant professor of kinesiology in the school of education and the faculty director of the Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement (WISCIENCE) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. They have collaborated to encourage and equip graduate students to mentor up.

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