This is late by two days, but for some on the other side of the world it’s only the 1st of September so I am going to pretend that it is exactly on time. This is basically how academia works… right?
Today I present you with the following observations made while shadowing a PhD student as the Voice at the Back of her Mind for the last three months.
Asking for help is difficult for subject as subject thinks she is supposed to know everything weeks after joining the program. Subject is coming to terms that if she knew everything she would not be here. Subject is also embracing her natural talent for asking ridiculous questions and not ducking for cover immediately.
Subject suffers from Going Down the Research Holes. While this affliction is not serious, it does hamper the ability of the subject to read a single article without opening up a dozen tabs for small details. Subject currently has saved tabs of 60 or so pages in folders named as different versions of “Lol Whuuut”. Subject may also have a broken sense of humour.
Subject is currently swinging back and forth from the tree known as Work-Life Balance. This is characterised by subject signing up to DO ALL THE THINGS and then feeling guilty thinking subject “should” be working ALL THE TIME.
At the time of writing this report, subject has found several magical items such as ‘routine’, ‘to-do lists’ and that guarding her time like a dragon may be the key to all of this. The realisation that life cannot and should not be put on hold while she tries her hand at this PhD thing has been a sobering thought for the subject as well. How successful subject is at this, remains to be seen.
Subject alternates between periods of “She got this” and crippling insecurities that manifests itself in an intense urge to hide under the lab desk. Subject is coping with it by going to workshops for areas that she may be lacking in, actually listening to people when they point out her strengths and covertly stalking other people also doing their PhD.
Subject mutters ominously under her breath and has, on occasions, mildly disturbed electricians, people she lives with and complete strangers. Subject is gleefully proud of this trait which is slightly concerning.
The Voice at the Back of the Mind will continue to follow the subject in the days to come and keep the denizens of the inter web updated on her flailing about as they happen.
If you have enrolled in an Honours course during the second semester of last year, then you are probably writing your thesis as we speak. Possibly with the threat of submission looming over your shoulder. Let’s talk about that today, shall we?
“Don’t wait for your deadline to knock on your door. Open the door first.” – My wise Honours Co-ordinator
Your deadline is never truly far away, it is already here. So write as though it is clawing at your hands. And plan like you are a general leading the troops into battle. Be ruthless and pragmatic with your time and effort.
The battle plan
Ideally you should start putting together this plan at least three months ahead of the deadline. It may seem earlier than expected, but that time will pass you by quicker than you think.Your timeline should include parts of the thesis you aim to finish by a given date, experiments you are still running or will run. Then, send that timeline to your supervisor so that they can help you make it realistic. Keep a few days here and there for breaks. Remember, you are running a marathon, not a sprint.
Vision Boards: Thesis Edition
This is the part where I tell you index cards are your new best friends. Grab an A4/A3 sheet and write down the different parts of your thesis. Now under each part, place an index card with the topic that will take the centre stage in that section. You most likely will have more than one topic that will fit this description. Write all the other related things you want to write about around them. As you write each section, you can take a look at this “vision board” for your thesis and remember how you wanted to frame them. My thesis had a lot of “what if’s” in it, so if yours is similar, then this is a good way to keep track of all the conjectures and possible links you want to mention. A mind map you can keep at hand also works as well. I just really like index cards.
Telling the story
I find that writing the methods and material section is the easiest of part of the thesis to tackle. Start with this section. It helps to jog your memory of all the things you have done so far. After that, you can go in order or out-of-order. For my thesis, I took the results-discussion-introduction-conclusion-future works route. And my reasoning behind it was that, I had to completely rewrite my introduction. While my literature review was good, it no longer fit in with the rest of my thesis. Partially because, I wrote the review on an at best tangentially related topic. Don’t do this. Really, don’t. Unless you enjoy coming up with an entirely new, but highly relevant, introduction.
Now, there will be plenty of back and forth between sections, simply because you will have to take into account all the draft versions per section. Depending on the method of feedback (paper or electronic), you will be swimming in drafts. So be prepared to keep track of them all. Sticky notes and highlighters are your other best friends. Remember, until the very end, your thesis will likely exist in pieces. That is completely okay.
Sharing is caring… I think?
Get other people to read your complete draft of the thesis. They can be your best friend to check if your thesis is entirely jargon, or the kind seniors in your lab who will give you valuable feedback. Ask them if they want to read it first and be prepared for them to say no. And if they do read it, treat them to good food. They are grad students. They must be fed.
Caring for yourself is also caring
There is something else that is just as important in being able to finish your thesis on time, and that is your wellbeing. If you are unwell and of poor mental health, then your work suffers. So, take care of yourself. Schedule in some me time, take an afternoon nap, go eat meals with some of your friends from time to time. Go easy on the caffeine and eat properly. Simple things, but when we overlook them we end up suffering from burnout for the next few months (yours truly).
At the end of the day, what your thesis should be is a story in context to other stories. It probably won’t answer all the questions in that field and that is not the goal of your thesis anyway. As long as it can rationally answer the question you posed, then that is enough.
This is a story I have stopped myself from telling nearly half a dozen time since 2015. But stories have a life of their own and you can only keep them bottled up for so long.
If you follow me over here then you may have noticed a lull in posting last year, which was unusual even by my write-when-the-mood-strikes fashion. I was in a haze of unsettling emotions and while that was excellent food for writing, it created a unique situation for publishing said writing. It began, like all things do, with a tweet.
During the incident of “the problems with girls in the lab” by a prominent male scientist (I am not naming him, because I am convinced that will cause trolls to pop out of the woodwork faster than Bloody Mary herself), I tweeted a thing. A thing that apparently ended up on HuffPo. A thing that lead to a bizarre few months. Not because of the tweet, but because of who followed it all the way, not to my twitter account, but to my blog here. And what happened next was, for a lack of better word, perplexing.
A guy made a rambling video on my post, strangers called me an idiot, a spoiled princess, a brat, a whiner, a mediocre not-really-a-scientist (that was a fairly used one). People I had no idea they existed, sent essay length comments on my post calling me everything from lazy to pretty princess (can you smell the sexism in the air), and weirdly enough accusing me of “scoffing at hardworking Asian students”. This went on for almost three months, which was three months after the post was originally published.
When I first started getting the comments I laughed to myself, thinking who had so much time on their hands to make a video on an old post, that by my own standards, was a fairly basic piece. I stopped laughing when, disregarding the golden rule of the Internet that is to never, ever read the comments section, I read the comments section. It was an interesting experience. I have never had hundred of strangers call me names. I have, however, been laughed at by my classmates in Grade 6 when I was called to read one of my writings. So one would think, I would be used to that borderline out-of-body sensation. One would be wrong.
No matter how ‘strong’ you think you are, there are bound to be few things that will slither past your defenses. Flimsy barbs masquerading as criticism sneaks past my defenses, despite the fact that they hold very little substance. The sheer volume of the comments surprised and baffled me. I kept wondering what prompted so many people to resort to schoolyard bullying on a perfect stranger.
Bemused. Confused. Angry.
I have considered this blog to be a safe haven. A place where I could tune my voice, where I could share my thoughts and maybe, just maybe, help someone with similar struggles. To have that illusion of safety taken from me by weekly comments calling me all sorts of things, made me angry. Angry at the people writing those horrid things and at myself for letting them get to me. I can handle criticism. Of the few things my parents taught me when I was a child was to understand the validity of criticisms, to be self-critical enough to pay them heed. It is a lesson I have tried my best to remember. But this wasn’t criticism. It was strangers calling another stranger names. Perhaps they were bored. Perhaps they were just small-minded, spiteful human beings.
It reached a point where I was flinching at the orange speech bubble in WordPress. Flinching and sighing at the comments and pingbacks I would have to go through to disapprove (I had approved only the first and the last comment I received on this post out of more than half a dozen one). It turned from a bemused, off-kilter, one-off incident to a tiring, simmering rage-fest. It made me not want to write over here, a blog that has seen me through my first diagnosis of clinical depression. And I didn’t write for a while. I distanced myself from contributing to another science blog because a part of me was scared if something like this would happen there. That what I had to say was meaningless. That it would be better if I didn’t voice my thoughts.
This is when the rage at myself truly kicked in. Yes, I had to sort through all the horrible things being said about me. But I also had a tremendous amount of support from people I knew of in academia. They took the time to say kind and thoughtful things to me. I felt that by giving into the trepidation I was essentially letting both them and myself down. It took a while for me to sort through my own emotions and by then the rage had transformed into understanding myself a bit better.
I had carved a place for myself at 3 Am Ramblings. This is who I am. And I will be damned if I let anyone take that from me.
So I am back, writing. You can join me, but please, for the love of all that you hold dear, no essay length comments.
So you want to apply for admission to a graduate programme. Are you ready to commit? No, I am not asking you about your commitment to the program for its entire length. That comes later.
I am asking if you are ready to sit down, write a page or two and impress your potential supervisor enough to get the ball rolling.
Cover letters. They are like advertisements only packaged for a very specific demographic and lacking the option to lie. Well, you could lie but that likely won’t end well so why don’t we steer clear from that… Now, writing a good cover letter can be especially hard for those not comfortable writing about themselves, like yours truly. After stewing in the pit of despair known as staring at the same paragraph for half an hour or so, I turned to Google. Don’t get me wrong, Google was perfectly adequate with tips and tricks for a good cover letter. The problem for me was that, the tricks were mile posts that only told you how far you needed to go but not to where you should be going. And did I mention the crippling self-doubt that writing about myself brings about 90% of the time?
So after writing quite a few cover letters I think I have figured out a recipe that works for me. The problem with writing a cover letter is that you have to write about yourself in a “notice me Senpai” way. If you are struggling with writing about yourself then don’t write about yourself.
We are all born storytellers, we just sometimes forget that. Imagine you are writing a story about someone else. You know this character well enough; you know their history, their passion and their drive. Likewise, you also know of their shortcomings. Combine both of these facets and you are in the perfect position to paint them in a favourable light. Not to mention, it gets easier to deal with the ever nagging voice at the back of your head that “you are not good enough” when you are writing someone else’s story. Afterall, doesn’t this person you are writing about sound impressive? Look at all the things they have done and accomplished! Imagine their enthusiasm and translate that into words. And at the end of the day, it helps shake off the imposter syndrome just a tiny bit.
Now that you have decided you are writing someone else’s story, how do you go about it? I found the meat of a good (on a scale of burn it with fire to you are great) cover letter is in asking and trying to answer three questions.
Why are you writing this letter?
Who are you and what have you done so far?
What do you have to offer to the project and vice versa?
With these questions in mind, I tried to figure out the anatomy of a cover letter.
Find out the name of the person you are writing to. You are not going to send the email into the void, so clearly another human being is involved. Most places will provide you the details of that person, and if they don’t you can always check out their projects section and find that information. This is a lot better than writing ‘To whom it may concern’. Trust me, it is. This should also go for the email you will be attaching your cover letter to.
Now, the why of the cover letter. Why are you writing to this person? Is it on a position that was advertised somewhere? Are you looking for a supervisor to start your program at that institute? The person reading your cover letter won’t know what you are interested in unless you tell them. This should preferably be the subject to your email.
Let them get to know you. Sure your CV will partially do that, but they won’t know how you handled a research project, if you decided to add something to the project or worked at something from a different angle. If the beginning of the letter is about telling them, then this is where you show them what you are made of. One easy way to do this would be to use the STAR method. This is where the story analogy really fits in. You get to set up the stage (Situation) for your character to behave (Task), do things (Action) that you can then fit in a description (Result). This is the part the reader connects with the character, their struggle and their achievements. Carried out a summer research project or an Honors project? This is your chance to show what you did. Sure you can say “I did this”, but the how and the why are unanswered and the story falls flat. If you are an expert in a bunch of different techniques show them how you used them to answer your research question. (Tip: If you did carry out a research project, mention what you found out.)
Why do you want to be a part of this project? What do you want from this project and programme? Yes, they are scary questions but you still need to have some idea about them. This is where you connect with the reader from the other side of the letter. How do you fit into their lab? Are your interests different from theirs? Your narrative has to fit the mould of these questions. Of course, you don’t need to answer them straightforwardly. One easy way to start is to say if you are interested in a particular field that corresponds with theirs and how you think being a part of this project would help you get there.
Another question to keep in mind is that what can you offer to this programme/project? It’s a difficult question to answer and one I still struggle with the most. Remember, you know the strengths of the story you are telling. Use that to your advantage. It can be your tenacity, your enthusiasm, your ability to ask interesting questions and the way you convey these qualities and more to the reader depends on how you shaped your story up until this point. This is where you tie the knot of the story. This is where you say, ‘I am good at what I do and I would be terrific at this so you should give me the chance to be so’.
Thank them for their time. Mention what other documents you have attached with this letter. Your CV, academic transcripts and/or letters of recommendations should be sufficient.
Send the documents, try not to stew in the what may happen. Start writing your next cover letter. I promise you, it does get easier.
So after a few months of wondering if WordPress is the place I want to write in, I have decided to try to post both on this blog and on Medium over here. The reason why I was so uncomfortable writing at 3 Am Ramblings for the last few months is a story, that I perhaps will write about sometime in the future. For now, you can check out my posts over at Medium. I will continue to completely re-post some of the pieces from time to time.
Like any other year you were full of surprises, twists and turns and more than a few punches. But you marched and dragged me with you to the finish line, and for that I am grateful.
While I am currently in the team that the transition of one year to the next holds very little sway over who you are as a person, I do feel that it is similar to finishing a chapter in an incredibly long book. You did it! Pat yourself on the back and roll up your sleeves for the next chapter.
I know when the clock strikes 12, I won’t magically become a better version of myself, but I would like to think I am beginning to settle into my own skin bit by bit. And with each passing day I am going to try to remember to be kind to myself and others. To remember my faults and my strengths, especially when I find myself on a slippery slope of doubt and anxiety.
I don’t have any new year’s resolution this time around other than to simply survive 2016 no matter what it brings. Here’s to the celebration of the end of one year and the beginning of another and all the things this trip around the sun means to you! Happy 2016!