Katie Shives's blog

The Professional Student


Katie Shives recently completed her PhD in Microbiology at the University of Colorado and now works in industry as a production scientist. Her writing can be found on her digital portfolio site, kdshives.com.




Just about anyone pursuing graduate school has had to answer that awkward “what do you do?” question about your studies. This can be difficult to answer, as grad school is a sort of transitory zone between being a student (undergrad) and being a professional (work). Are you a student, professional, or some sort of professional student?


There are two camps when it comes to graduate school: those who see it as an extension of undergraduate studies and student life, and those who see it as pre-professional position. During my PhD I struggled to find what constituted “professional” behavior for a graduate student and what exactly I needed to do for “professional development.”


Working conditions for graduate students don’t help with this dilemma, as many of us don’t work a traditional 9-5 shift. Instead, many grad students cobble together erratic schedules that consist of teaching, research, and writing that often bleed over into our personal lives, further confusing the definition of our work. Sometimes it can be really hard to feel like a professional and not a student when you’re coming into the lab at 10 p.m. on a Friday night in your sweatpants to harvest cells, knowing that you’ll be back Saturday morning at 10 a.m. to look at the very same cells in the very same sweatpants.


However, despite the individual confusion we can feel about our professional status, as a whole, graduate students are very much in professional roles. A recent court ruling decided that, in cases where grad students teach or conduct research for the university, they are indeed university employees and entitled to the same protections as employees, even if they do wear sweats into the lab on Saturdays.


Treating graduate school as the professional experience it is requires development of your sense of professionalism. Professionalism matters for graduate students because it gives us a way to prioritize and organize our working lives and take pride in the work that we do. This will help you get the most out of your graduate experience so that you’re ready for whatever comes after graduate school, where you most definitely will be in a professional role. Having recently completed my PhD, I can clearly see in retrospect how cultivating professionalism was a key part of graduate school and was a major asset in transitioning into a non-academic position after graduation.


Three Key Areas to Master for Professional Grad Students


Time Management and Prioritization: You may not be getting paid much, but your time is incredibly valuable as a grad student and even more so an employee. As grad students we can get used to long hours watching cat videos on YouTube while the centrifuge completes a run, or taking frequent coffee breaks to get away from the lab during our 50+ hour workweeks. There’s nothing really wrong with this, as the flexibility of many students’ schedules allows for it, but it can make for a very difficult transition into work if you’re not used to hard deadlines and limited hours of operation. While in grad school, if I didn’t manage my time well and an experiment went too long or if I wasn’t done with writing I could stay as late as I needed to complete the work or come in on the weekend to catch up with plating cells. This is not the case as an employee, as now I have to contend with standard hours of operation, fixed deadlines, and collaborative projects that require me to finish my part on time or the whole project stalls. Thankfully, as a grad student I was ruthless about maintaining strict deadlines for myself and limiting my hours to 8-5 so the transition was not too difficult. Start building the habit of treating your time as precious and not something to waste and you’ll be well prepared for the professional transition.


Setting Your Standards for Independent Work: One of the great transitions graduate students undergo is becoming an independent professional and not a passive consumer of information. Part of that will be learning how you generate original work and how to set standards for yourself along the way. It can be a difficult adjustment after years of studying for the test in undergrad or just writing enough to get an “A” on an assignment. Suddenly being faced with the open-ended concept of what is “good enough” can be unnerving and lead to perfectionism or sloppy work if you’re not used to setting independent standards for yourself. Ask yourself  “What does good work in my field look like?” and work toward that. Set high but realistic standards for yourself so that when you do become more independent (either as an employee or postdoc) you know how to complete professional work with little to no input from those around you. Intellectual independence is the whole point of graduate school, so embrace the transition early on and learn to take control of and pride in the quality of work that you produce.


Embracing Professional Criticism: Learning to stand up for your research or scholarship can be difficult when first starting out. Mastering the art of presenting and defending your ideas in a rational, reasoned matter is a useful skill wherever you go, so make the most of your committee members for this reason. They are excellent trainers for learning to take an independent stance on your work and learning how to deal with conflicting opinions in a professional setting. On the interpersonal side of things, remember that while professional criticism of your work is to be expected, you are entitled to all of the professional respect due to anyone working in a more traditional 9-to-5 setting. Report abuse and harassment, whether from peers, students, co-workers, or professors. If it shouldn’t happen in an office setting it should not be happening in your lab, classroom, or field site. Don’t fall the trap of thinking “I’m just a student, so this behavior is acceptable.”


This student attitude is, in fact, my greatest regret of graduate school; I wish that I had learned to stand up for and demand the professional respect that myself and others deserved earlier. I eventually learned how to do this after having to deal with some seriously disrespectful behavior, but it is clear that I would have benefited from getting over the “but I’m a student” mindset the minute I set foot on campus as a graduate student.


Closing Thoughts


Professional development is not just the sum of the skills that you have or your number of published papers. It includes how you approach your work, structure your time, and interact with your colleagues. Make the most of your graduate education by learning to approach your studies not just as an extension of school where you are a passive student, but as a professional student actively participating in your profession.


What professional skills do you think benefit graduate students the most as students and in the workplace? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


[Image courtesy of Flickr user Paul Jackson, used under Creative Commons License]

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Navigating Your Next Steps


Katie Shives recently completed her PhD in Microbiology at the University of Colorado and now works in industry as a production scientist. Her writing can be found on her digital portfolio site, kdshives.com.




The final months of graduate school are often the most difficult on students. Years of intense scholarship and research must be condensed into a dissertation in a matter of months, while at the same time planning what is supposed to happen after the defense and somehow maintaining your personal health in the middle of this academic madness. Thankfully, many of us have gone down this road before and have managed to both finish and land jobs while writing up that dissertation.


Here are some pointers that I learned while writing up my dissertation and landing an industry scientist position during the last 3 months of my PhD. While all of these tips may not apply to everyone, especially those of you not in STEM fields, much of this can be used by any student hoping to finish out strong and transition boldly into the next phase of their careers.


Finishing The Dissertation:

First and foremost, you’ve got to finish. Writing and defending your dissertation can seem like an abstract thing at the beginning of a 5-8 year journey, but trust me, the last 6 months come at you fast. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be pretty, but a dissertation must absolutely be completed and submitted through the proper channels by certain date for you to get those three little letters after your name. I’ve written on the importance of a complete dissertation over a perfect one before and the advice stands. Invest however much energy is required to finish in a timely fashion, but save enough time and energy to seriously plan for what comes after your defense.


Planning Your Next Steps:

The biggest decision you will make is whether or not to pursue an academic career or something outside of academia (for STEM disciplines this is the Academia vs. Industry dilemma, AKA “Going to the Dark Side”). Whatever you decide to be the best path for you, be sure to commit to one path as soon as you can and work to make the best possible outcome for yourself. Don’t make the mistake that I did by refusing to choose a direction until the last minute, which is incredibly stressful and can prevent you from investing enough energy in the outcome you really want (be it a good post-doc or an industry job). Applying for jobs takes a lot of effort (think of it as a second job), so make the most of it by focusing on what you actually want to do after your defense.


For aspiring academics, this means lining up the best possible postdoctoral position that you can muster, sooner rather than later. Don’t take the easiest path of staying on with your current advisor, even if that is the most comfortable option. Postdoctoral studies should force you to grow as a scholar or researcher by exposing you to new challenges and should not be a simple continuation of your graduate studies.


The hunt for a postdoctoral position can and should start YEARS before you defend your dissertation. Who does interesting work in your field? Can you meet them at a conference? On campus? Can your advisor introduce you to them? This is the importance of networking and you cannot start too early. Start reaching out to see what kind of opportunities exist in your field. Once you have an estimated completion date you can start sending more formal inquiries along with project proposals to indicate to scholars in your field that you are a serious, independent, upcoming researcher who they would want to have in their labs. Once you’ve secured your exit strategy, you can focus fully on writing up and defending.


Industry jobs can be more complicated, as offers for employment usually assume that you will be starting soon after the offer is made, whereas postdocs have more flexibility. This can make applying for positions during the last few months of your studies difficult, but it is still important to start early. The hiring process can take months in some cases, so start to apply for positions once you have a completion date in sight. You can list your completion date on your application materials, along with the degree you are pursuing, to convey to potential employers your skills and availability.


Then of course there’s the subject of applications. Job applications take a significant amount of time, as each position requires custom documents like cover letters and a 1-page resume. It can be painful chopping down that multi-page CV that you’ve tended for years into a short resume, but it does make a difference to those doing the hiring who are going through 100+ applications per opening. So, if a job posting asks for a resume, you’d better convert that CV to a targeted resume rather than sending a multi-page document that nobody is going to take the time to read. The same goes for cover letters. Each should be individually crafted and reflect the specifics of that job posting and how you are the ideal candidate.


Be sure to leave yourself enough time to search for suitable positions, and then craft and submit the proper documents. One generic document will not cut it in today’s hyper-competitive job market. Keep all of your resumes and cover letters for future use because once you have a series of different versions it gets easier to tailor them to specific positions. Even better, be sure to mark which resume went to each job, so that when you do get the call to interview you know which document you submitted and what skills and abilities you presented to that particular employer.


It can help to plan job applications and document writing into your schedule just like any other academic task. In my case this meant writing up my dissertation in the mornings until I got stuck or could not look at figures any more, then taking a coffee break to look at the new job listings for that day (LinkedIn is actually useful for this). Once I had a handful of jobs lined up, I alternated between writing my dissertation and applying for jobs during the rest of the day until 6 pm (after that I kept a no-dissertation zone to have dinner and spend with my spouse, because self care is important, people!).


Maintain your Health and Sanity:

There’s always the anecdotal story of the grad student who came down with some stress-related disease like shingles during the dissertation-writing process. This is because the stress of finishing up a multi-year project coupled with uncertainty about what comes next is a big deal. GradHackers have written extensively about the importance of self care. During the dissertation-writing process this becomes more important than ever, as project timelines rapidly shrink and illness can be a major setback in completing grad school once and for all.


With these guidelines in mind, don’t be afraid to take control of your final months in graduate school. Don’t get lost in the pursuit of the impossible perfect dissertation. Do the work necessary to finish with pride while devoting serious energy to taking your next steps. Time won’t stop and the perfect job rarely appears right when we defend, so take what time you do have to set yourself up. Less than two-thirds of doctoral recipients have a job lined up upon graduation, but early and consistent effort applying for positions can help ensure that you are not in that unemployed third upon graduation.


Did you managed to find future employment while finishing your dissertation? Tell us what worked for you in the comments section below!

[Photo from Flickr user trekkingrinjani used under Creative Commons License]

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Wrap up your dissertation with a writing plan


Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her writing can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.


Finish Line.jpg


Anyone pursuing a graduate degree has experienced the feeling that a project will go on forever. Thankfully, pursuing a graduate degree does have an end date but to get there you have to write everything into a dissertation first. Writing a dissertation can be, and quite often is, the biggest academic undertaking that many of us have experienced. Grant applications, manuscripts, and literature reviews pale in comparison to the size of the average dissertation and writing one can be an incredibly intimidating goal.


Have no fear though, as writing a dissertation is a manageable task if you approach it correctly. One thing that helped me immensely in preparing my own dissertation was making a writing plan and sticking to it. By using this approach I was able to work on my dissertation a little bit each day and make consistent progress while maintaining my sanity.


Know the expected format before you start: Before you even start to think about writing you need to know exactly what you are expected to write. Many program offer seminars on writing up your dissertation; if you can, I highly recommend taking the time out of the lab to attend so that you are aware of the formatting expectations and requirements. Additionally, many programs post the style guide for dissertations on their website. Find yours and read it all the way through before starting to save yourself many headaches in the future. Another great resource are completed dissertations from your own program, so check out a few recent dissertations at the library or through the ProQuest database!



Outline your dissertation and break it into chapters to draft and edit: Once you have a defense date set it’s time to work backwards to determine how much time you have to write and when key paperwork is due. Outline the major sections of your dissertation (introduction, materials and methods, data chapters, discussion, etc.) so that you know exactly what you are going to write. Establish your list of final figures and which chapters they will appear in. Give yourself plenty of time to write drafts of each major chapter/section and enough time to edit them as well. Don’t try to make the mistake of writing and editing the same section as you go, otherwise you may get stuck in a circle of trying to make one part perfect and fall behind on your overall writing progress which will leave you struggling to catch up as you approach the submission date. Embrace the ugly first draft of each section and move on to the next before coming back to edit individual chapters. Also, give yourself enough time at the end to correct formatting errors. Something as seemingly simple as building a table of contents in Word can take a surprising amount of time.


Map it out with concrete dates: Once you’ve established what you are going to write for your individual chapters, set actual dates for the completion of each major milestone. Set these dates into whatever type of calendar works for you so that you have a concrete, visual outline of what you need to accomplish each week to submit your dissertation on time.


For me, mapping out my dissertation writing plan meant establishing a dissertation progress meeting with my advisor every Tuesday morning where I would submit one chapter for comments and pick up the prior week’s chapter to start editing. In this way I was able to continuously write something new and edit previous chapters without getting stuck trying to write and edit the same section at the same time. Once I had a map of which chapter was due to submit and which to edit each week, I wrote them down on a paper calendar that followed me everywhere for two months. Each week I could see my progress toward a complete document and knowing that I could meet these small, consistent goals prevented me from getting stressed about writing a giant dissertation all at once.


Taking the time to set a formal outline for your writing progress may seem unnecessary to some, but the time (and sanity) saved in knowing what you need to accomplish can go a long way toward making the dissertation writing process something to enjoy rather than dread.


Have you used a formal writing outline to managed your dissertation writing? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!



[Image from Flickr user AndrewHurley used under creative commons license.]

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Ace Your Next Phone Interview


Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her professional and science writing can all be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.

Ah, the phone interview! This is often the first step in the interview process for graduate students looking for careers inside academia or on alternative academic (alt-ac) careers. Getting your foot in the door is usually the hardest part, so congratulations on making it through the first hoop!

Now that you've got the phone interview scheduled, how do you prepare to make the best impression and get to the next round of interviews? Phone interviews can be great for academics because you can treat them like open book tests and study up ahead of time, so make the most of your hard-won study skills! 

However, don’t feel like you need to have a full speech for your dissertation topic, if you’re going alt-ac an elevator pitch will usually suffice. One major difference for graduate student preparing for alt-ac careers is that your specific dissertation topic will not be the basis for your interview, it’s going to be about what you can bring to the company you are interviewing with, so being able to quickly explain your work in plain language is a benefit.

 Here are my five best tips for preparing for and acing your phone interview:

1. Have all of the relevant documents close at hand
Before answering the phone call you should have all of your relevant documents with you. Everything that the hiring manager has, you should have, so you can directly discuss relevant points on your resume, CV, or cover letter. This is critical if you are applying to multiple jobs and writing custom-targeted documents for each position (which you should be doing!). By compiling everything you need in front of you, you can minimize the risk of forgetting or mixing up your application materials.

2. Make a spreadsheet of common questions and your answers
This can be as simple as finding some of the most common questions online (there are tons of sites with sample questions) and writing down your answers. It does not need to be any more than a Word document table with the question on the left, and your answer on the right. This can be especially helpful with tricky, open-ended questions such as the ever-present “So tell me about yourself.” Print it out and have it with you during your interview. I’ve used this myself and it really, really helps.

3. Find a place that is quiet and has good phone reception
Yes, the quiet space where you will be undisturbed is important, but having cell reception is also critical. If you’ve found a space that will work for your interview, be sure you call someone from that location before your phone interview so you can ensure that you are getting good reception and can be clearly heard. Even better, find a landline! They might be considered outdated, but the quality of sound and understanding what your interviewer asks are worth the trouble, if you have access to one in an appropriate, quiet space with no distractions.

4. Be aware of your voice
It’s no secret that interviews are stressful, even over the phone when you can’t see your interviewer. With just your voice representing you during the phone call it is important to make sure that you sound collected and competent. A quick shortcut to this is to stand up during your phone interview; this will help open your torso and minimize the compression of your lungs and diaphragm so that you sound better. If you’re anxious before your call it can help to walk around to dissipate some of that nervous energy and keep it from creeping into your voice and pace of speech. If you’re still nervous during the call (and many people are!) pace or even slowly walking up and down a flight of stairs can actually help to dissipate that energy; just be sure not to be so active that you start to lose your breath!

5. Always, always, always follow up and say thank you.
This is a critical and often forgotten part of the interview process, especially with phone interviews as they can feel very impersonal. Always take the time to send a follow-up email to your interviewer within 24 hours of your interview. Same-day is even better if you have an early interview. Taking the time to say thank-you after the fact and communicate your enthusiasm for the position will help to set you apart of the other applicants by giving the hiring manager another, positive impression of you.

Many interviewing skills take time to develop. If you’re very anxious or struggle with the interview process in other ways it may be beneficial to practice interviews or speaking over the phone until you get more comfortable. With these tips in mind I hope you can go out and ace your next phone interview!

Have you had successful phone interviews? What did and did not work for you? Share your experiences in the comments sections below.

[Image by flickr user cipherswarm and used under Creative Commons license]



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Blogging to Establish Your Digital Identity


(We're talking about establishing a digital identity here at GradHacker this week. Stay tuned to our social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook today for a special giveaway!)


Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her professional and science writing can all be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.




With so many people pursuing PhDs today it can be hard to differentiate yourself from other students in your discipline. If you want to stand out professionally and improve your writing skills, try starting a blog! Writing your own blog is an excellent way to engage with your professional field at large or to maintain a side interest or specialty outside of your graduate studies. Even better, having a publicly visible blog gives you the opportunity to craft your own image online and have a degree of control over your digital identity that you just won’t get with most social media platforms. Many available blogging platforms like WordPress, Blogger, and newer platforms like Medium are all designed for people with no coding experience to hop in and starting building sites, which is great for busy grad students who don’t have time to learn how to code.



What Are The Professional Benefits of Blogging?:


Show your skills and establish expertise.

In many ways a blog is like having a public archive of your graduate work. With all the effort we put into our graduate studies, show off all that effort and scholarly activity to a wider audience.


Blogging also provides you with a platform to demonstrate that you know where your work fits into the field and how it relates to trends in the field. This is important, as you can use your blog to show, not just tell, potential employers that you have a wider understanding of your dissertation topic and that you can speak to elements outside of your direct area of study. This is an incredibly valuable skill, especially if you intend to pursue


Increased Visibility.

What happens if you do a Google search for you name? Go check. Are all of these results what you want potential employers to see? Even if you don’t have embarrassing photos on social media, having a blog can improve search rankings by tying your name to the content that you create. Having positive results that you can control on the internet is a huge advantage compared to a collection of your Facebook and LinkedIn activity.


It sets you apart from other applicants.

Having a blog can help when you start looking for employment after graduate school, especially if you are going the non-academic route. Blogging shows that you have taken the time to learn how to write for a wider, non-academic audience and allows you to establish a unique brand that sets you apart from other applicants with a similar education.




So what’s holding you back?


Here are three of the most common objections to starting a blog (hint: none of these should stop you!)


“Writing takes time.”

Do enough scholarly writing and you will begin to feel like every writing project takes weeks of agonizing effort, editing, and revisions. Not so with blog posts! It can be incredibly liberating to write 400 words on a topic that you are interested in and publish it to your blog; no peer review necessary. (Sorry reviewer #3!)


Plus, as you practice writing you will get faster. GradHacker columns used to take me days to put together; now I can draft a full post and start in on editing in the same day. Even more important is that my scholarly writing has improved from all the practice I have gotten from blogging.


“Writing is hard.”

Practice makes it much easier, and the effort you put into writing for your blog will sharpen the writing skills that you use in your graduate degree. Writing blog posts is a different format than writing a peer-reviewed journal article, but both are still writing. Think of blog posts as cross-training exercises for your scholarly writing.


“Doesn’t it cost money to have a website?”

Yes, but it is not prohibitive! I’ve personally used WordPress for over 4 years and pay less than $30 to host my own domain using a free template. This means I’ve had to give up a little over $2 a month to maintain my site; that’s a single coffee per month. It is absolutely worth the investment in yourself and your career (and this is coming from someone who LOVES her coffee).


For those of you who want to establish a digital identity and take control of how you present yourself, a blog is a fantastic starting point. There will be more work involved in maintaining a blog, but you only have to take on as much as you want. Once a month is plenty when you’re starting out, there is always the opportunity to do as much or as little as you want. It’s your project after all!


Have any of you started a blog in graduate school? What was your experience like? Share your stories in the comments section below!


[Image from NOGRAN s.r.o., used under Creative Commons license]

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When It Comes to Dissertations, Done Is Best


Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her writing can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.


Cropped not perfect keep going.jpg

As an ABD student bent on finishing up this summer my personal mantra has become

“The best dissertation is a done dissertation.”

While this may rankle some graduate students, I think this is some of the best advice that an ABD can take to heart.

Yes, it may be a tired cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason! It’s really easy to get lost in the details and to focus on all the minutiae of your project. After a couple of years in grad school this is how your brain works. There is definitely a sense of pride in producing our best work, but the struggle of best vs. done is important to recognize as you near completion.

Finishing graduate school and the time that you take to do so is very much a risk vs. reward moment as you will need to make decisions that will determine your career trajectory for years after this moment. Don’t prolong graduate school by falling prey to the delusions surrounding the “best dissertation”.

3 Myths that have you pursuing a perfect dissertation at your own peril:

1: If I write a beautiful dissertation I’m guaranteed a good job. I don’t need to focus on my professional identity.

This is entitlement thinking and you’d better stop it. Right. Now. Don’t be naïve in assuming that the academic labor system will reward you financially or professionally for a beautiful dissertation. Hiring managers and search committees will not read it. They will however, read your publications, have seen your talks at conferences, and review grants that you apply for; all of which are all items that end up on your CV. Do good work on your dissertation, but remember that in completing your dissertation you should be consistently publishing, presenting, and applying for funding for your work. A beautiful dissertation is nothing without a productive track record to support it.

2: My perfect dissertation will revolutionize the field!

It is great to be proud of your work and to create something that is a valuable contribution to your field. That is one of the greatest parts of a graduate education. Remember to keep things in perspective here though: How many other dissertations have revolutionized their fields? How about published, peer-reviewed articles? How many people are going to read your dissertation versus read your published articles?

Ask yourself these questions and think long and hard as to whether you’ve inflated the importance of your work to stratospheric proportions in order to justify what you are doing (and giving up!) in order to achieve this academic credential. It’s a common mental trick that happens to a lot of us late in the game so don’t feel embarrassed if this has happened to you; finishing is tough!

While I cannot speak for the humanities, in STEM fields only your published papers get read. The dissertation is simply a formal mark showing that you can do research and contribute to the field. Nobody outside of your committee will read it (and you will be lucky if they read the whole thing with focused attention for that matter). So get over being a perfectionist, publish your research in to advance your field, slap that work into your dissertation, and move on. If you really want to revolutionize your field, you need to be working in it, not just completing a dissertation on the subject.

3: My advisor/committee wants it to be perfect!

Do they want a perfect document, or do they want a student that finishes in a timely manner and goes on to a productive career (whatever that means for you)? Which looks better from the university’s perspective?

Productive career.

Yes, your committee should be pushing you to do good work (it’s why you have one after all), but once you’ve met your graduation requirements it’s time to dive in and finish your dissertation. Meet the requirements, even exceed them, but under no circumstances pursue perfection at the expense of meeting your graduation timeline. Your best work is good enough, and good enough is done. Dissertations don’t count if they are not done and your committee wants you to finish on time much, much more than they want a “perfect” document.

Don’t get lost in the labor- and time-intensive process of preparing this “perfect dissertation” at the expense of getting on with your future career. Finishing graduate school is a difficult time for many students; the structure that we have come to take for granted inside the academic system will no longer be there for many of us after we finish and move on to different careers. This uncertainty about our futures makes it all too tempting to spend just a little more time, more effort on our dissertations to prolong having to enter the job market.

Prolonging the process won’t help; leaving academia is going to be a decision that most of us have to make at some point in our careers as tenure-track positions dwindle and research funding continues to remain scarce. Careers where nobody will ever read your dissertation, or even care that much about your research topic. The working world outside the Ivory Tower cares about what you can do, what you have learned, and how well you manage yourself; not that you spent years lovingly curating a document that does not pertain to your current work.

For those determined individuals pursuing academic work, finishing up is even more paramount since it’s the entry point to your future career. To avoid a slipping into perfectionist habits and downward productivity spiral set concrete milestones for your writing. Know what the standards are and hit them, but don’t waste time going above them.

Get past the idea of a perfect dissertation because it will never exist. It is a reviewer’s job to find fault, and there will always be something that someone, somewhere, somehow disagrees with no matter how much effort you put into writing. Finish your dissertation and start building your life post-PhD, whatever that may mean for you.

[Image by Flickr user SweetOnVeg and used under a Creative Commons License]

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5 Tested Tips to Battle Burnout with Better Self-Care


Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her writing can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.




Every grad student knows that getting an advanced degree can be extremely challenging and that, unfortunately, taking care of yourself often falls off the list of priorities. The long hours in the lab, teaching, and coursework requirements can become a grueling recipe for burnout. Burnout is a different monster than just being tired or overworked for a short period of time. It’s a chronic state of distress resulting from too many constant demands (sounds like grad school!).

I had to learn how to take better care of myself to manage burnout after months of struggling with experiments that did not work. Here’s what I learned: getting out of a burned-out funk takes effort.

With PhD completion rates around 50%, knowing how to deal with and push through burnout is an essential professional skill in an environment that demands so much from students.

Are you experiencing burnout? Some of the common symptoms are:

  • chronic physical exhaustion that does not go away with rest
  • depression and/or anxiety
  • cynicism
  • loss of motivation or interest in your work
  • forgetfulness and/or impaired concentration
  • detachment from those around you
  • increased irritability
  • lack of productivity/poor performance


If you thought these feelings were just a normal part of graduate school, I have great news for you: You don’t need to feel this way in order to get a degree.

So how can you combat burnout in graduate school when there are so many demands on your time? The key to managing this conflict is to be very proactive about self-care. The best way to combat burnout is to take the time to take care of yourself. These changes don’t have to disrupt your whole life, but taking the time to reassess your habits and alter your behaviour to better care for yourself will have a positive impact on your work and is worth the effort.

Don’t feel like you have to suddenly change your life to beat burnout; it’s not fair to expect that of yourself when you are burned out and it’s a recipe for failure. Instead, focus on making small, consistent changes to take better care of yourself and see if that impacts how you feel.


Here are my five personally tested tips for dealing with burnout while in graduate school.


Get Enough Sleep

In grad school sleep is one of the first things to go; some students even brag about how little they’ve slept like it’s a badge of pride. Yes, it can feel good to crank out a major experiment overnight or finally finish writing that article in the wee hours of the morning; but long-term sleep deprivation is incredibly bad for cognitive functioning.

There are two parts to this: getting more sleep and getting better sleep.

Getting more sleep is straightforward. Go to bed earlier or find a way to get up later. Turn off the autoplay on whatever video streaming service you use so you are forced to make the decision to watch more TV late into the night. Or try setting a “bedtime” alarm so you will be mindful about getting to bed at an earlier hour.

Getting better sleep is just as important as getting enough, nobody wants to sleep for 10 hours and still feel tired. To get better sleep try setting a “no screen” time for later in the evening. The light of computer monitors, cell phones, and television screens are known to disrupt your ability to sleep. Aim to shut down tech for the last 30 minutes of your day so you are not exposed to the bright lights that disrupt restful sleep.  



Get regular exercise in your life, however you can. It doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking, even little bits through the day will help to improve mood. Taking the time to incorporate physical activity into your routine will help combat the physical symptoms of burnout and can produce mood-stabilizing endorphins that will help you to feel better in the long run.

Do you live close enough to campus to ride a bike?

Can you walk on your lunch break and get some extra sun to help your mood?

Examine your schedule and start by adding in little activities that you enjoy. You can always add more exercise later, the important part is to just start.


Eat Better Food

Eat real food! Even if it’s basic, it’s better than a vending machine, which is usually filled with empty carbs or salty/fatty chips. These foods aren’t doing your brain any favors even if they do feel better on your wallet. Eating better doesn’t have to break the bank.

Eating better is not complicated or unaffordable, no matter what all those diet plans are trying to sell and tell you. Don’t worry about gluten-free, low-fat, paleo, vegan, or the fad-of-the-year diet plan. Focus on eating basic, nutritious foods consistently so your brain actually has enough fuel to function. For me it means throwing a little tuna salad on a bunch of spinach before I run out the door, it’s really basic, takes less than 5 minutes, and provides enough energy so I don’t come home from lab like an over-caffeinated zombie. Embrace whatever works for you.

Even if you absolutely love Ramen noodles (which I do, I embrace the love of ramen I developed in undergrad) at least throw some frozen vegetables in there at the end so you’re not just eating empty carbs and salt. It’s not about major changes, but making the little improvements where you can, when you can.

Take some time to learn to cook. It doesn't have to be a complicated undertaking. Making a bunch of stew on a Sunday is pretty easy, and if you make enough to freeze you won’t need to cook lunch for the rest of the week (which is a HUGE time-saver as well!). Play around with a Crock-Pot. Have some fun with it! Learn to cook real food that you like and nourish your body.


Ask for Help

One of the major drivers of burnout is trying to cope with an overbooked schedule and too many necessary tasks. Try to take a step back and see if there is anything you can ask for help with in order to lighten your workload and give you room to recover from burnout. Do you have a spouse, significant other, family, or friends who can help ease the burden for a little bit by taking on some smaller tasks (like cooking dinner when you usually cook)?

Your personal life isn’t the only place where you can ask for help. If graduate work is completely overwhelming then take a hard look at all of your professional responsibilities and see if there is anything that you can step back from. This may mean having to speak with your advisor to determine what is working for you and what is not. Sometimes you might just need to be reminded that projects don’t always work and to be kinder to yourself, other times it may be time to address the project and drop aspects that are not working.

The important part is don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.


Learn to say NO.

When trying to get back from burnout you have to accept that you can’t do all the things. The temptation to add lines to your CV is always there, but it’s important to know when to say no to unnecessary activities, events, and even people. Protect your time and cut out whatever is not helping you achieve your goals or take care of yourself. Learn to say no to activities and people that are not contributing to your progress. Be ruthless!

Once you have a set of self-care habits to protect against the worst of burnout, then, and only then, can you start taking on new activities. Wait until you’ve made it through the burnout and can actually handle the increased workload, otherwise you may end up right back where you started.


Final Thoughts

While other articles may suggest the power of positive thinking in combating burnout, I think this is a bad way to deal with this particular problem. Positive thinking can result in an inability to actually deal with the issues that caused your burnout in the first place. It’s better to accept the negatives for what they are (heavy teaching loads, long hours, failed experiments) and work with what you have then imagine a false alternative for yourself.

Take baby steps to take care of yourself and stay consistent. Small, regular changes go a long way toward helping to break through burnout.

These tips don’t take much to implement, so try what fits for you. Always remember that you are worth taking care of.


Have you dealt with burnout during your graduate degree? What helped? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

[Image from Flickr user emiliokuffer, used under Creative Commons license]

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Shutting Down Sexism


Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her various writings can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.



2015 has been quite the year in terms of elevating the issues of sexism in STEM to a national topic. Whether it was Nobel laureate Tim Hunt claiming that girls are trouble in the lab (and the amazing #distractinglysexy response from female scientists on Twitter) to the recent resignation of exoplanet researcher Geoff Marcey due to sexual harassment charges, it has been hard to miss the discussion about sexism.


On a much more positive note we are beginning to have a strong public dialog about how to address this issue.  As both a woman and a STEM PhD candidate I can definitely get behind the need to address these issues; I myself have encountered these attitudes and once had to report inappropriate behavior that was directed specifically at me. It was a difficult experience to be sure, but I managed to learn a lot from this incident and want to assure other students who experience harassment in graduate school that:


1)      you should not be subject to gender discrimination from anyone in your workplace


2)      you have options for how to deal with these situations


As students it may not always be clear what is and is not appropriate behavior because graduate school often gets treated as a limbo space between undergraduate education and the “professional” workforce. As a result it can be hard to know if what you are experiencing is harassment, or if you do know that you are being harassed it can be difficult to know how to handle the situation or who to talk to.


Graduate school is a professional environment and should be treated as such. Just because you’re not wearing a tie and suit does not mean that you deserve any less respect than any other professional worker. If you are not sure if what you are experiencing is harassment or just someone’s really, really bad taste in humor then start writing the incidents down. Keep a log of exactly what was said by who and when and notes on why it was inappropriate. Better yet, write it down and email yourself the notes so that they are time and date stamped. If over time you feel that the behavior has not changed you can decide to either bring up the issue with the individual (if you are comfortable doing so, this is usually a good approach for dealing with other students) or approaching a trusted mentor or your adviser for advice on how to deal with the problem person (which is a better approach if the problem involves someone in a position of power). In both cases you will want the concrete record of what was said and/or done and when it occurred so that you can see any patterns and make your case.


If you do not have a trusted mentor or someone you know that you can go to professionally discuss or report sexual harassment don’t forget the Title IX office on your campus. As a student, Title IX guarantees you the right to reasonable changes in academic, living, transportation, educational, and working situations and applies to all federally funded institutions in the United States. So if you are having a problem with someone on campus (or in the field if you do program-based fieldwork) you have the legal right to have the university accommodate you so that you continue to get your education in a harassment-free environment.


Change will only come to the system when we act like it has changed and stop tolerating old sexist attitudes in the workplace. So if you are experiencing harassment based on your gender don’t despair; do not be afraid to stand up for yourself and shut down this kind of insulting behavior so you can get the education that you came for.


Have you experienced gender-based harassment as a graduate student? How did you resolve the situation? Share your comments below.


[Image by PipetMonkey Blog and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]

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The Importance of Asking for Help


Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her various writings can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.


HELP flicker get credit.jpg


One of the most important things that I’ve learned in graduate school is how to ask for help when I need it. Knowing when and how to ask for help can make navigating this unknown terrain much easier and save you time by avoiding the mistakes (or experiments) that others have made. This skill cannot be underrated, as you will encounter the unknown regularly in your studies as a graduate student.


The trick is knowing when, and how, to ask for help. The point of graduate school is for students to become independent scholars of their chosen disciplines who can ask and answer their own questions.

When starting out it’s quickly apparent that graduate school is different from undergrad. It can be difficult to know what is expected of you in terms of being instructed on what to do versus independently figuring out what to do. This is a huge change from undergrad, where a lack of knowledge was assumed and professors were there to show you what and when things needed to be completed. Now, there are still professors to ask for assistance, but by and large graduate students are expected to take the lead in their training and reach out for what they need.


Quite often your peers and professors are extremely busy individuals, so waiting to be noticed and helped is a path to disaster in graduate school. As a first-generation graduate student this was a huge adjustment for me and made the first semester much more difficult than necessary. When starting out, I often made the mistake of waiting to be helped and could not understand why I was having such a hard time staying up with the material. I learned that if you are struggling, you have to take the time to identify precisely what you need, who to ask, and what to ask.  For me, it meant acknowledging that I was struggling with a specific course, asking the graduate program to match me with a tutor, and requesting slightly reduced hours from the head of my rotation lab so I could study more. And guess what? It worked! However, I never would have gotten what I needed if I had not identified these specific issues in the first place.


Figuring out what you need can take some time. If you are frustrated with your progress, take a break from your lab or project to get a clear idea of what you really need help with. Maybe you’ve been too close to the project to realize that you need assistance from someone trained in the new assay you are starting or line of code you are trying to put together. One of the great things about being an academic trainee is the fact you are surrounded by experts, so make the most of these resources and ask for assistance.


Imposter syndrome can be a serious obstacle in getting what you need out of your program. If you feel like you don’t belong or don’t deserve to be in your program, then fear can prevent you from asking for help. Don’t let imposter syndrome stop you from getting assistance, otherwise you risk turning unfounded fears (you were admitted to the program after all) into a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.


When it comes to internal barriers when asking for help, fear and pride are right at the top. Imposter syndrome or excessive pride can blind you to the people and resources around you that can answer difficult questions. It may feel good to do it all on your own and give your ego a stroke, but it may take much longer than if you ask someone who has done it before and learn from their mistakes (don’t undervalue the negative data!).


Asking for help is not limited to the technical questions, so don’t forget about your larger support network. Struggling with personal issues like time management or anxiety? Talk to other students, they’ve probably been through the same problems and would be happy to help you. Stuck trying to get your project to work? Don’t just ask your PI/Adviser, go to your committee members and other faculty members as well. They have a wealth of knowledge and it is quite possible that their expertise in a different area might give you the extra dose of perspective that you need to start making progress. The point here is not to limit yourself in who you can ask for help. Take a hard look at what resources are available to you and who can help you accomplish your goals and make the very most of them.


Don’t let pride or fear get in the way of gleaning everything you can from your graduate training experience. The level of freedom and independence afforded to us as graduate students is immense and, while it can be overwhelming to navigate this system, taking the time to identify what you need and how to get it is never a waste of time. This is your education and it’s up to you to get the most from this experience.


Have you ever gotten stuck in graduate school before and had to ask for help? Share your experiences in the comments sections below!

[Image from Flicker user Got Credit, used under creative commons license.]

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A Teetotaler's Guide to Networking in Grad School


Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her various writings can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.

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For students,  graduate school presents many opportunities for professional networking and socialization. These events are usually held over beers at a conference or that one bar across the street from campus. So what about students who don’t drink? Being the only person in the bar with just a glass of water can be a little uncomfortable, especially when continually met with questions of “why are you not drinking?”


Unfortunately, by not drinking some students may find themselves left out of department social life (depending on the culture, of course) or having difficulty navigating networking events where alcohol is a major component. Students who do not drink deserve all of the same opportunities to form social connections in their programs and within their fields of study, so if you find yourself in this position as a graduate students do not despair, being a teetotaler does not have to hold you back.


So what do you do if you are a graduate student who does not drink and you find yourself at a networking or professional event with alcohol?


If you are at a professional event where booze is being served a nonalcoholic decoy drink is always a great idea. A decoy drink is something with bubbles and a citrus wedge (soda/lime or cola/lemon). Looks like a cocktail; no one but you will have to know the truth.


If you choose to forego the decoy drink at events and find yourself facing these awkward questions there is always the opportunity for a witty comeback such as “I’m pretty charming without it”  or a polite deferral along the lines of “I’m the designated driver tonight.” If witticism is not your route a simple, direct “I prefer not to, thanks” is more than enough of an answer. You are not required to explain yourself in this sort of situation.


An important point to remember in these moments is that if someone is really pressuring you to drink or heavily questioning you as to why not then they have overstepped into unprofessional behavior. These are personal questions and you do not have to answer them, so don’t be afraid to move on and network with someone else who will not put you on the spot in such an unprofessional manner.


Students choose not to drink for various reasons, so whether they are religious, personal, or medical is beyond the point. (Also, NEVER ask a woman “are you pregnant?” when she’s not drinking at a professional event. Don’t be that person.)


If you are graduate student who does not drink, there can some serious benefits to your professional life.


Not drinking at networking events means never having to:


Miss that morning conference session due to a hangover. Yeah, that one that cost over $3000 for you to attend on another continent? That one.


Worry about what you said to your adviser and committee chair after that 3rd glass of wine

“Ha, and so this other time at Burning Man….”


Untag embarrassing photos of yourself on social media

“Greg found a new use for the hemostat!”



Remember, even for individuals who drink, these different professional events are about socializing with the other people in attendance, not the alcohol. Drinking should not be the focus of a professional event. If everybody is clearly there for the alcohol then it’s probably an event that you can skip.


In the professional world, “Let’s grab a beer” is not about the beer, it’s a figure of speech. It’s easier to say beer than deep-fried mozzarella sticks, but the idea is the same: let’s talk. That’s something that everyone can do, even without alcohol.

[Image by Flickr User RomanBoed and used under Creative Commons Licensing]

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Smart Title: 
A Teetotaler's Guide <br>to Networking in Grad School


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