How to Survive Graduate School — Academic Skills Seminars for Graduate Students
As part of our effort to enhance the graduate program in the EEB Department, several department faculty and graduate students have identified a number of academic skills, and organized Friday afternoon workshops — a few a semester, depending on availability of leaders and time slots. The concept of these seminars is for a faculty member or graduate student with expertise on one of these topics to lead a discussion with all interested participants, and then put together a document summarizing the topic and providing additional information and references for those who want to pursue it. These documents will be edited and put together as a series, accessible from the EBIO webpage. For further information, suggestions, or corrections, please contact the series editor, Thomas W. Sherry.
Introducing A Speaker
Excerpted from Merelyn L. Reeve
© Copyright 1992, By the Author.
Communication Handbook for Teachers. Dartmouth College.
Printed in the United States. Registration Number 522 517.
Reprinted on the World Wide Web with permission of the author to T.W. Sherry.
Speeches of introduction are the most common type of speech that people are asked to give, and yet they are often absurdly bad. Many of them are poorly prepared and badly delivered. Delivery is apt to be either weak and indistinct, or stilted and self-conscious. Introducers often say too much or too little and frequently lack tact and become trite, both in thought and expression. We've all heard the introduction that was interminably long or the one that was filled with clichés. Often we're subjected to the introducer's egotistical personal stories or absurdly lavish praise of the speaker.
It is wise to remember that the purpose of a speech of introduction is:
Unfortunately, the introducer's lack of tact is more frequent than we like to admit. The classic example is a story Cornelia Otis Skinner loved to tell on herself. She had been asked to be a speaker for an evening engagement in a small mid-western city. At the time, Admiral Byrd had just returned from his polar exploration, and the fees for his lectures reflected his popularity. When the chairman rose to introduce Miss Skinner, she began, "Since we cannot afford Admiral Byrd on this occasion, we are having Cornelia Otis Skinner instead." Senator Bob Dole's favorite involves the man who introduced him as the person who is "interesting even when he doesn't have anything to say."
Brevity is essential. Long-winded introductions are inexcusable. Remember that the audience came to hear the speaker, not the introducer. The speech of introduction is the hors d'oeuvres, not the main course; or to be even more blunt, the introducer is the "piece of parsley on top of a serving of fish."
The story of creation as told in Genesis is only 400 words; the Ten Commandments contain only 297 words; Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" is 266 words; and the Declaration of Independence is only 1,321 words. The kindest thing to say about long-windedness is that it suggests a lack of preparation or a compulsion to be in the limelight.
Our third charge is to show enthusiasm. As Emerson said, "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm." A great speech of introduction cries out for enthusiasm. Don't sound like a dead fish. If you sound tired and/or bored, you will fail to do justice to either the speaker or the audience. Put energy into your delivery and sincerity into your words and you can't miss.
The procedure for putting together a speech of introduction is as follows:
1. Gather information that you need. Write or, if time is short, telephone for a résumé or biographical data. If you are asked to introduce the speaker minutes ahead of time, grab the speaker and ask questions. (Quickly forgive yourself if the introduction smacks of inadequate preparation.)
2. Outline your plan. Read the résumé, analyze the information about the speaker, consider the occasion and the audience, and put your ideas in order.
3. Contact the speaker. Check with the speaker the accuracy of names and titles and find out what the speaker wishes to have said and prefers not to have said. Sometimes this can be done when you are getting biographical information, but the speaker has the right to know what you are planning to say. Check the pronunciation of all names, titles, and offices.
4. Prepare the introduction.
5. Practice. A speech of introduction should not be read. Even at the expense of some fumbling or hesitancy, it is better that the audience and the speaker see the introducer as sincere. Genuine sentiments, even if somewhat rough, are better than the impersonal recitation of a few words. Because the speech is short, memorization is almost inevitable. To guard against our tricky memories when under the pressure of public speaking, always have either notes to jog you or have the speech completely written out. Excellent speeches of introduction stand out. They are inevitably well practiced. Mark Twain admitted to his listeners that it took him "about three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech."
Leading Discussion of a Scientific Journal
T. W. Sherry
Science departments at many universities convene regular discussions of contemporary research, journal articles, or even ideas or studies done by group participants. This forum thus provides an opportunity to evaluate embryonic or fully-fledged research results, to keep abreast of newly published ideas or books, and to develop or teach communication skills. Faculty benefit from exposure to hot, contemporary topics that they might not otherwise encounter (see list of topics as examples from Spring 1998 Journal Review, Appendix below), and students benefit from the opportunity to develop essential professional skills and to interact regularly with diverse faculty. These skills include critical thinking, critical evaluation of published work, effective writing and presentation, oral communication, and leading group discussions. Leading a discussion of a scientific work is a hybrid of several kinds of skills — leading a discussion group, reading a scientific paper at a meeting, public speaking — but it is different from all of these in interesting ways, which is why I have put together these comments (see References below).
The focus here is how to lead discussion of a scientific journal article, but our group maintains flexibility by inviting outside seminar speakers, discussing the research of group members, and taking on extended discussions of book-length works, among other activities.
Choice of Topic
The first task, and one of the most important ones, is to choose a good article or topic. The article should be significant and general enough to interest the entire group. For example, if both botanists and zoologists participate in the group, then an article on a process or phenomenon applicable to both animals and plants is better than one applicable just to plants. In other words, choose an article appropriate to the audience. The article should also encourage critical thinking and discussion, e.g., by broad enough applicability to pique interest of people with different backgrounds, or by providing a bold and provocative new syntheses. Multiple articles might be chosen, particularly if they present alternative views of a controversy, or otherwise invite comparison or contrast. Be sure to choose readings that are sufficiently inviting and concise that other members of the group will do the reading!
The most important prerequisite to leading a successful discussion or giving a presentation is preparation. First, be sure that all members of the group have easy access to the readings well in advance of the meeting date. Then consider providing written instructions, e.g., what aspects or parts of readings to emphasize, or a series of questions. Focus any such questions or preparatory material on the key points or issues to be elucidated during the actual presentation.
Next, review the material, and supplementary material, so as to be sure to understand the content. Read the article multiple times, if necessary, to grasp the concepts and be familiar with content. Seek help with ideas you do not understand. Consult literature that is cited, or other material that will enhance understanding of the topic. Be sure to understand the basic operation of the system under consideration, even if it is necessary to consult texts, additional articles, or colleagues. Look for material or examples that help expand the applicability or generality of the ideas or system under consideration.
Finally, organize the presentation itself. Try alternative organization schemes (using outlines) in an effort to improve on the logic and flow of the presentation. Provide visual aids to enhance understanding. For example an outline will help others follow the presentation, a set of open-ended questions will help provoke participation by group members and lead the group in the direction desired. Anticipate questions by the group, and prepare to answer them. Graphics (overheads, computer printout, tables, figures, etc.) should be concise, easy to grasp, and large enough to be read by anyone in the room. Models, diagrams, cartoons, and other material can also enhance understanding. Remember that "more is more" when it comes to preparation, and that "less is more" when it comes to presenting a lot of material at the expense of leading a discussion of the material! A discussion group should not be confused with a lecture! Also avoid repeating the material of the article because participants will want more from a discussion than they could have gotten by just reading the article on their own!
Try to keep the atmosphere light. Use humor if it comes easily to you. Cartoons, animated drawings, or simple illustrations created by the discussion leader to make or clarify a point can be very effective – and memorable.
Introduce the topic with reference to the general conceptual context, but plan to keep the introduction very brief, because you will want to reserve the bulk of the time for discussion. Try to see the forest for the trees, in providing background information, for example by thinking about where the topic might fit in an introductory textbook on the topic. This also helps establish the importance of the topic. Avoid the common mistake of giving too much background: You do not have to go back to Darwin for every talk on the subject of Evolution. Again, think of your group and its needs when deciding how much background or explanatory information to provide. You may have to give handouts or an introductory presentation on technically difficult material necessary for full comprehension of the topic. Illustrations of the organisms involved, the study system, and the experimental or conceptual set-up are often useful, even if these are not described in much detail in the work you are discussing.
Review key methods, findings, and interpretations, using simple illustrations (figures and tables — consider simplifying them for ease of comprehension by the group). Provide perspective by giving some history underlying the work, by discussing its scope or applicability, and by asking what are the advances (e.g., technical, conceptual, or analytical). Invite criticism of too much generalization or "over analysis", incorrect interpretation, inappropriate design or statistical analysis, lack of consideration of alternative plausible hypotheses, untested (and unidentified) assumptions, and so on. The criticism will be more useful if it is constructive, i.e., designed to identify improvements or avenues for future, clarifying studies. You as the discussion leader may wish to suggest for consideration your own novel interpretations, deductions, or syntheses.
Be prepared to lead the discussion by asking questions. You may want to start out with yes-no questions to get opinions defined, and get started. Then you can ask more open- ended questions, such as why? How? Which? Consider having a list of questions that invites the group to participate, and that helps lead the group towards the core issues for consideration. Questions can also establish the objectives and scope of the discussion, and can complement an outline of the discussion. Consider dealing with the core issues first, because this guarantees that the most important issues will get discussed, leaving less important ones for any remaining time. Again, remember that a discussion is just that, and the job of the discussion leader is to invite participation by other members of the group. Unless another member of the group decides to get the discussion rolling for you, you will have to do so with your own questions or provocative statements.
Speak clearly, towards group participants, and slowly enough to be understood. Try to maintain eye contact with group members, which establishes rapport, comfort, and feedback on whether or not group members are following the speaker. Seek a speaking pace that favors comprehension. Leading a group discussion involves some of the same skills as public speaking, and many books and courses are available on the latter topic (e.g., Reeve 1992).
Nervousness can affect how one speaks, and most presenters feel it, particularly inexperienced students. However, many relaxation (a.k.a. stress-reduction) techniques are available to help relieve the nervousness, such as deep breathing and positive visualization — e.g., visualizing yourself handling the situation successfully. One of the best defenses is a strong offense, namely preparation, which tends to provide the confidence that can also help relax a speaker. Recognizing one's own nervousness is the first step in learning techniques to overcome it. Practice can't hurt, either, particularly in terms of speaking, presenting background information, and timing the presentation of material (computer software packages such as Microsoft PowerPoint help make this task easier for some kinds of presentations).
Leading a Discussion
Coming prepared with a list of provocative questions is an excellent way to get a discussion going. Keep the discussion moving actively, by avoiding digressions, and returning the discussion to the topic at hand, if necessary. The discussion leader is in charge, and should feel comfortable taking charge, if necessary. Use silence effectively, and resist the temptation to answer your own questions after too little time, which has the effect of taking the discussion away from other participants — who will want to participate themselves, no doubt. Encourage speaking up by other participants, so all can hear, and encourage other participants to clarify or elaborate. Protect the rights and respect of other speakers, for example by respecting their opinions, or risk inhibiting their willingness to participate. Focus any dissension on issues rather than participants. Differences of opinion should be encouraged, and can certainly make any discussion more lively and memorable. Use disagreements to encourage critical, independent thinking. Test information for reliability. For example, is it relevant (how does it apply?), is it valid (what's the source of information), and is it credible (is there contradictory information or interpretation?)? Help with clarity, e.g., by reviewing your own understanding or asking others to clarify issues.
Watch out for non-constructive "contributions" (Reeve 1992). For example, there's the "talk hog" who goes on and on, to everyone else's disappointment. To deal with this type, slide into the discussion during a breath or break in thought, acknowledge their contribution, and ask the rest of the group for a response. The "attention getter" can be handled by structuring the talk so that other members of the group get equal time to give their own views. One can encourage a "wallflower" by asking for contributions from other participants.
Look for closure and summarization, both as you are moving along, and at the end of the discussion. Encourage participants to provide summary. Use clear transitions both to keep the discussion moving and to provide closure on issues that are already adequately considered. Allow time at the end to seek consensus, conclusions, and/or assessment, and encourage members of the group to participate in providing closure.
We encourage all in the group to evaluate each other, and we enjoy evaluating the faculty right along with the students! Students get a lot of valuable feedback from all participants by the use of this format. For example, it's hard to ignore an issue, such as the fact that you used the word "uh" dozens of times in your presentation, when all your peers point it out to you! We have developed a simple evaluation sheet that invites all participants to provide the group leader with quick, but meaningful and constructive feedback in the short time that is usually available after a discussion.
Tulane University Journal Review Club
Evaluation of Presenter
All participants in Journal Review are expected to provide the presenter with feedback on the quality of the presentation, along with constructive suggestions on how the presentation could have been improved.
Note: The rating system is on a five-point scale:
However, the rating alone provides little useful information; please provide comments in the spaces provided!
References and Additional Sources of Information
Bragg, L. 1966. The Art of Talking About Science. Science 154: 1613-1616.
Ellis, D. 1994. Becoming a Master Student, Seventh Ed. College Survival program, Houghton Mifflin, Rapid City, SD. See Chapter Nine on writing, which includes information on public speaking.
Gullette, M.M., ed. 1994. The Art and Craft of Teaching. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. See Chapters Four and Five, on "Questioning", and "The multifaceted role of the section leader", respectively.
Hailman, J.P., and K.B. Strier. 1997. Planning, Proposing, and Presenting Science Effectively: A Guide for Graduate Students and Researchers in the Behavioral Sciences and Biology. Cambridge University Press, New York. Includes a chapter on communicating research, at seminars and scientific meetings (both orally and via posters).
Reeve, M. R. 1992. Communication Handbook for Teachers. Copyright 1992 by M.L. Reeve, Dartmouth College. Very practical, easy to read guide focused on teaching undergraduates and graduates a variety of spoken communication skills.
Uno, G. 1997. Handbook on Teaching Undergraduate Science Courses: A Survival Training Guide. University of Oklahoma Printing Services. Chapter XI discusses topic of leading good discussions. (Contact Gordon Uno for copy at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at Dept. of Botany-Microbiology, Univ. of Oklahoma, 770 Van Vleet Oval, Norman, OK 73019- 0246.)
For many graduate students, grad school is their first brush with natural selection. Every person brings a different set of skills and problems to meet this challenge. But there are some universal issues that unite all grad students in a common cause. The notes and references below emerged from a seminar presented to grad students in Tulane University's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology by Dr. Fleury.
Attend Your Departmental Journal Clubs or Lab Meetings on a Regular Basis
Read the paper assigned for these meetings, and one or two related papers. You might end up being the only one there (other than the speaker) that understands what this topic is all about!
Attend Seminars, Including Those Offered at Loyola and UNO
Get there early and sit up towards the front or with other faculty. Ask intelligent questions.
Attend Conferences off Campus
Your mentors will help you determine which meetings are the most important in your field. This may mean a big commitment of time and money, but the rewards are significant. You'll be mingling with your future colleagues, and have a chance to meet the greats and near-greats in your field. When the time comes to apply for a job at their institution, you will be more than just another faceless applicant.
Make Contacts of All Kinds
Don't restrict your activities to the local and departmental community. You never know who will be helpful down the road. Such contacts could lead to good research ideas and research sites, as well as prospective employment when you (finally!!) graduate.
Present a Poster or Paper on the Early Phases of Your Dissertation Research
This could be your baptism of fire, but it will also highlight problem areas that might haunt you during your defense, and it will give you the opportunity to see what professional life will be like in your chosen specialty. Journal club is the perfect place to float the trial balloon that could lead to a successful poster or conference paper.
Subscribe to the Relevant Journals
Yes, they're expensive, and yes, you can get them from the library, but your membership in the primary professional organizations in your specialty shows that you are committed to your profession, and support the work of these organizations.
Help out the Department Wherever and Whenever you Can
I don't mean suck up to the departmental chair (although it can't hurt!), but be aware of departmental problems and needs and do whatever you can to help. Lots of small favors add up to a big commitment in the end, and you're contribution will be noticed.
Treat the Secretary and Administrative Assistants as Goddesses
They hold the keys to the kingdom in the most literal sense of the word. Don't make their job any harder than it has to be. A kind word, a morning smile, the occasional box of chocolates or small bags of cash, these small kindnesses will smooth your path in many unexpected ways. Heed this advice wherever you go in your future career!
Be a superior T.A.
Don't treat your assignment as a gift or a scholarship, or even as a job. Treat it as an opportunity. This is your big chance to develop your teaching skills, and these skills will be invaluable when it is time to rejoin the real world and apply for jobs. Don't blow off any aspect of your assignment. Even those off-the-wall assignments you may occasionally draw, the ones that are totally outside your immediate specialty, are an opportunity to expand your horizons. The course materials and experience you acquire and develop as a T.A. will prove invaluable when you have to develop your own courses farther down the road.
Grad School Can be a Lonely Business
Don't make it worse than it has to be. The temptation to isolate yourself can be overwhelming, but if you wall yourself off, you are severing your most important emotional lifeline. Your family and friends may wonder why you are putting yourself through the ritual ordeal of graduate school, but if you keep those lines of communication open, they will support you when you need it the most. The biggest victims of graduate school are your significant others, especially your immediate family, and most especially if you are a married student with small larvae. Try not to bring into their lives too much of the frustration and depression that you will inevitably feel along the way. Find someone you can talk to, and get together on a regular basis. You are not alone, despite the way you may feel.
Your Fellow Grad Students Are Not the Enemy — They Are Your Future Colleagues, and Your Best Allies
Be nice to one another in every way possible. You may be bucking for that lone A, and the competition for grades can seem overwhelming, but classes are soon over and mostly forgotten, whereas the slings and arrows of un-collegial behavior can fester for years, and come back to haunt you later on. Connect with grad students in other departments. They may not understand your immediate course and faculty-related problems, but they are all dealing with the same fundamental issues of surviving the process.
All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy, and Might Even Tempt Jack to Leap From the Top of Tall Buildings
Eventually you will have to reenter the real world. Don't come back to it as a stranger. Find the time for concerts, plays, a game of Frisbee, have lunch at Maple Gardens or Beebo's, go to Mardi Gras, go to Jazz Fest…whatever turns you on!
Get a Hobby, or Breathe New Life into One You Already Have
It doesn't really matter what it is — music, poetry, painting, sculpture, building with Legos, hacking into federal computer systems…Whatever you're good at, and like to do, try to become the very best at it that you possibly can. This takes time, but it will be time well spent. Those hours will be a pleasant relief from the endless work and worry of grad school. This advice may sound trite, but I received it from one of my profs in my M.A. program, and thought well…what the hell, maybe she's right. And she was! I devoted a chunk of my precious free time in grad school to learning to play the autoharp, an instrument I'd carted around and fumbled at for years. Developing that skill into a fine art has brought peace of mind many times over the years.
Know When to Cut Your Losses and Walk Away
There are two schools of thought on proceeding directly to grad school, and both can result in short-term disaster. Some faculty maintain that immediate enrollment in grad school is the best thing you can do. Sustain the momentum you've built up over the past four years, keep your study habits and your intellect alive and healthy, etc. There are many good arguments for this position. But your academic momentum can also hurl you into the brick wall of academic burnout, making your first year of grad school an absolute (and expensive) disaster. And a few years in the real world cannot only add a hearty portion of maturity to your ultimate application, it can also heighten your motivation. You'll have a much clearer picture of what it is you are striving to accomplish with your degree program, and the kind of life style you ultimately hope to enjoy. Be sure to get your letters of reference on file in your department or dean's office when you graduate, and memories of your performance as an undergrad are still fresh. A few years and several hundred students later, your profs might not remember what an outstanding student you were.
Be Prepared for a Little Ecstasy and A Lot of Misery
As Sternberg counsels in his excellent book (cited below), grad school is a series of waves. Sometimes you are riding high on the crest, like when you get a viable topic, an approved prospectus, or complete your data analysis, or win approval for complete chapters of your dissertation, or (finally!!) survive your dissertation defense. But it is also a roller coaster ride into the trough of those waves, what Sternberg calls a voyage through "dissertation despair, doubt, or desperation." Enjoy the peaks, but be prepared for the valleys, when your prospectus is returned in little pieces, when your data doesn't support your initial hypothesis, when committee members leave or scholarships or grants go belly up. If this were an easy thing to do, everyone would be a Ph.D. Grit your teeth, hitch up your britches, and climb back on your surfboard to catch that next wave.
Life is Long — Longer Than You Might Think!
The road to grad school can have many twists and turns, so NEVER give up on your dreams. I ended up taking a seven-year break between my first (failed) and second (successful) graduate programs. Always keep your eyes on the prize.
Wow, just what you needed — more stuff to read! These books are part of a large and growing literature on surviving college degree programs. They helped me out in various ways, so I'm passing them on to you.
How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation
Sternberg, David | N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1981
This is absolutely the best book I've ever seen on this topic. The title says it all. Get it. Read it. Read it again. It saved me from many common pitfalls and snares along the way, and reminded me that no matter how bad things got, I was not alone. Sternberg provides superb practical advice for avoiding the curse of the ABD. The book focuses on organizing, researching, writing and defending a dissertation.
Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Master's or Ph.D.
Peters, Robert L. | N.Y.: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1992
Covers some of the same turf as Sternberg, but on a much broader canvas, including advice on selecting a grad school, getting financial aid, surviving comps and prelims, and managing your time and stress levels. A very useful and practical addition to your grad student survival shelf.
Acing College: A Professor Tells Students How to Beat the System
Halberstrom, Joshua | N.Y.: Penguin, 1991
Although aimed at undergraduates, there is much sound advice here for students of all ages and GPA's. I learned most of this stuff the hard way, but there's loads of common-sense advice for every student. The chapter on the "Adult Student" is especially relevant for many grad students.
On the Market: Surviving the Academic Job Search
Boufis, Christine, and Victoria C. Olsen (eds.) | N.Y.: Riverhead Books, 1997
A useful compendium of short essays covering every aspect of job seeking. The emphasis is on first-person accounts of successful and unsuccessful job searches. Though most of the contributors are in English or the Arts, their tales are universal. My personal favorite was "The Gypsy Scholar — Making a Living as a Full-Time Adjunct". A word of caution — like many such books in this genre, these tales of academic anguish can be both inspiring and extremely depressing.
Job Search in Academe: Strategic Rhetorics for Faculty Job Candidates
Formo, Dawn M., and Cheryl Reed | Sterling, Va.: Stylus Publishing, 1999
Packed full of sound advice for the prospective job seeker, including the intricate art of packaging and selling yourself. Covers resume writing (with sample CV's), writing a good application letter, preparing for and surviving interviews, and (the science fiction part of the book) negotiating a good contract.
Yes Virginia, there is life after graduate school. It's just not life as we know it! The business of getting a job (and make no mistake, it can amount to a full-time job in itself) would easily occupy an entire seminar in and of itself. Be patient and open-minded about the process.