Making the Most of a Boston Summer

Written by Brenna Gormally, Biology Ph.D. Candidate

Summer in Boston is my favorite. I grew up in the Northeast and definitely appreciate the seasons, but being able to enjoy the city in the warm weather is fantastic! Here are some of my favorite things to do around Boston, especially when it’s nice out.

Let’s go to the beach…and river…and pool!

One of the best things about Tufts is how close it is to the water. I love escaping campus to head to the beach. There are plenty of ocean beaches within an hour or so of Tufts, but one of my favorite spots is just 10 minutes from campus at Mystic Lake. Access to Shannon Beach is free and it’s a great spot to swim, barbeque, and enjoy the sun!

A classic Boston summer also includes kayaking on the Charles. There are a bunch of places from which you can rent equipment all along the river. I went kayaking on my first birthday in Boston and it’s still one of my favorite memories of my time here.

Another thing I’ve only recently discovered are the public pools around campus. Of course there’s the indoor Tufts pool, but when it’s so nice out, you don’t want to be cooped up inside. Depending on whether you’re a Somerville or Medford resident you may have limited access to certain pools. The Dilboy Pool, just a 10 minute walk from 200 Boston Avenue, is open to everyone for just $2! It’s a great place to enjoy the sun and relax away from the lab or library for a bit.

Hiking and biking around town

I’m a big fan of hopping on my bike and hitting the roads to escape the city. The Somerville Community Path is an awesome, car-free path that connects Davis Square to some surrounding areas. This summer I learned that it connects to the Minuteman Bikeway in Arlington and you can ride all the way out to Lexington, Concord, and Bedford. It’s one of my favorite ways to explore the Greater Boston area. The paths also feature some of Boston’s cutest dogs so if you’re looking for some puppy love, that’ll be your go-to spot.

There’s also some fantastic state and local parks for hiking around Boston. The Middlesex Fells is only 10 minutes from campus and has a ton of hiking trails. There are so many beautiful lakes and reservoirs in the Fells to spend an afternoon hiking. Further away from Boston, the White Mountains offer some more intense hiking and backpacking options in New Hampshire. I haven’t made it up there yet, but am looking forward to going this fall to enjoy the leaf colors!

And once you’re exhausted from playing outdoors, drink indoors

If you like hanging out at breweries, Boston is the place for you. Somerville and Cambridge have a bunch of really great, locally-owned craft breweries that are great for hanging out, playing board games, and drinking delicious beers. Many of them even have home-brewed non-alcoholic options! My favorites include Night Shift in Everett, Aeronaut in Somerville, and Lamplighter in Cambridge.

Remember—your work will always be there, but summer only lasts for three brief, beautiful months. So get out there and explore!

Preparing to Defend

 

Preparing to defend my thesis was the most mentally, emotionally, and at times, physically, challenging part of graduate school. After my final field season, I thought it was going to be easy. All I have to do is write. I’ve written a ton. Piece of cake.

I was so wrong.

Yes, as graduate students we write a lot. During my time in graduate school, I wrote scientific papers, grant proposals, popular science articles, blog posts, etc. But I had never written about the same subject so continuously. I started to get sick of my study system (honey bees), which made me sad, because I love honey bees!

When I finally handed my thesis in to my committee, I had to prepare for the actual defense. This was also a challenge. What papers should I read? What is my committee going to ask me? What if they hate my thesis?

In the end, it all worked out. I successfully defended my thesis and the defense was enjoyable! I didn’t need to stress as much as I did.

Preparing to defend your thesis is going to be challenging, but here are some things I realized that may keep you from psyching yourself out too much.

Use a citation manager!

First, a specific piece of advice: start using a citation manager when you get to grad school, keep it updated, and use it consistently! This will make the references section of your thesis much easier to deal with. I didn’t start using a citation manager until year three, and when it came time to write the thesis in year five, I was not happy with past Rachael. I use EndNote but there are many other options and the library hosts workshops on almost all of them.

Keep your committee in the loop.

Throughout your time in graduate school, talk to your committee. Update them on data at committee meetings, discuss methods, ask for suggestions on writing when relevant. If you do this throughout graduate school, your committee won’t be surprised at defense time, and neither will you. If you take the time to get to know your committee members, you may be able to anticipate their questions.

I realize this doesn’t work for that external committee member you may be required to have. When choosing your external committee member, choose someone who knows your field, and read his/her relevant papers. I did this for my external committee member, and I was able to successfully anticipate some of her questions. Also, when it comes to your external member, don’t be afraid to ask around. Ask past graduate students from your lab who they chose and why; ask about their experience in the closed defense.

It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Remember, the written thesis you hand in to your committee is technically a draft. As a perfectionist, this was difficult for me. I was working so hardto make every chapter, every figure, every page, so that it could be publication ready. But with a document that long, it may not be possible in the time you have. And that’s ok. Part of your committee’s job is to suggest edits, which you can then use when/if you publish.

It’s a conversation.

On defense day, I was most worried about the closed defense. What if they hate my research? What if they ask me a question I can’t answer?

Part of these nerves will be alleviated by fostering a relationship with your committee. Also, think of the closed defense as a conversation rather than a “grilling” session. Your committee asks you questions, you answer the questions as best you can. Some questions lead to other questions. It’s just a discussion– a discussion about something you’ve been studying for 4 – 6 years and you know really well.

My closed defense was a fun, productive experience. Sure, I couldn’t answer some of the bigger, theoretical questions, but it was fun to brainstorm and discuss ideas.

Take care of yourself.

Even if you follow all my advice, preparing to defend is going to be difficult. Graduate school is supposed to be hard. Throughout this process (and all of graduate school), remember to take care of yourself.

Countless hours of sitting at a computer takes a toll on your body (this is the physical challenge). Take breaks to stretch or go for a walk. Give your eyes a break from the screen. Drink water. Eat food. (Both sound simple but trust me, you might forget.)

Stay active, whatever that means to you. Do yoga, go for a run, kickbox, get outside, play a board game, grab coffee with friends. And don’t feel guilty about taking time away from school to stay active! Your mental health is important. Your mental health is important. Your mental health is important.

 Remember, you are not alone.

Writing a thesis is an inherently isolating process. Don’t let it get to the point where you feel like you’re alone, because you’re not. Talk to past graduate students from your lab (this was my greatest therapy while writing/preparing to defend), attend the graduate writing exchange, visit family, grab coffee with friends (yes, I’m saying it again).

Graduate school takes a village and you have a support system in your mentor, your committee, your friends, your family. Use that support system.

 And finally, celebrate!

Following your defense, take time to celebrate your accomplishment! Getting a higher degree takes dedication, ambition, and a lot of hard work. You deserve to be proud of yourself!

Written by Rachael Bonoan, Biology Ph.D. 2018

When Home is 2,500 Miles Away

Written by Alia Wulff, Cognitive Psychology Ph.D. Candidate

It has been well over a year since I made the decision to attend Tufts for graduate school, yet I still occasionally feel the pang of homesickness hit me. I moved here from Washington state and those 2,500 miles separating me and everything I have ever known are still hard to deal with sometimes. When you come to Tufts, whether it’s from a city in Massachusetts, somewhere on the West Coast, or another country entirely, there will always be differences that make you feel like you are on an alien planet.

Alia’s mountain view leaving Washington for Tufts

For me, the little things hit me the hardest. People stop by Dunkin’ Donuts before work rather than Starbucks, they giggle at my pronunciation of aunt as “ant”, and I am forced to say “Washington state” instead of just Washington so people don’t confuse my beautiful home state with D.C. I used to go days feeling just fine, and then someone would mention they never had earthquake drills in elementary school or they’ve never heard of Jack in the Box and suddenly the thousands of miles between me and my home became very prominent in my mind.

 

It is true that new experiences help you grow as a person, and Tufts has been full of those, so I have never regretted moving here. However, it is still a good idea to have coping mechanisms and strategies to deal with the move.

My first plan of action when I decided to move here was looking up where I would live. I don’t just mean knowing what my address was going to be. I opened Google Maps, searched my future address, and then hunted down every important place within a two-mile radius until I knew exactly where to find anything I would need. I looked for restaurants, grocery stores, libraries, the best places for milkshakes, parks, art studios, museums, the nearest Target, and anywhere else I thought I might need to go. I planned out routes and checked transit schedules until I was confident I could get from my front door to Stop & Shop without getting totally lost.

I also made sure I had things to make me feel comfortable in my new place. I love baking and it always reminds me of home, so I made sure I could get my KitchenAid shipped to my apartment. Baking bread or cookies or something equally carb-filled always brightens my day. Paying for your old guitar to be checked on your flight here, buying houseplants that are native to where you are from or covering your bedroom with your favorite posters may seem silly or juvenile, but you will not regret it later when you have a physical reminder of home.

My worst fear was that I would not be able to meet new people, which is often a big problem due to my anxiety. I started small, within my own department. I lucked out and met some great people right away, but it’s okay if you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone for a bit. Join some graduate groups on campus, check if any of the students in your department do trivia nights, attend an art class at a studio in town. Having people around is so important. Consistent contact with people back home through phone calls and Skype conversations are not guaranteed and are no replacement for face-to-face interaction.

Alia’s view of her new home – landing over Boston at sunset

I will admit that it occasionally feels ridiculous that I get homesick. I’m an adult. I have lived on my own for years. I pay taxes. It seems as though when you get accepted into graduate school you are no longer able to feel things, because you chose to do this. I did choose to come here. I am so excited I get to be here. That doesn’t mean that it’s not hard at times. This is a huge metropolitan area, filled with new people, new food, and new weather. No matter your age or subjective level of adulthood, moving is hard. But when classes start, or you have your first lab meeting, or you find the place that makes the best pizza, some of the stress and homesickness melts away.

I’ve gone back to the West Coast four times this year, and each time taking off from the Seattle airport feels a little bit less like I am leaving my family and more like I am coming back home, where the Starbucks isn’t as good anyway and linguistic differences are a fun anecdote at parties rather than a reminder of the distance.

Looking back: one year after graduation

It’s already the end of May, which means that we got to watch our graduates take the stage at Commencement this past weekend! While graduation might mean the end of their time as a student at Tufts, it also signifies the beginning of many exciting things to come. Two of our alumni bloggers, Lennon Wolcott, M.F.A. 2017, and Michelle Connor, Music M.A. 2017, look back at their first year out of graduate school. 

How you were feeling this time last year?

Michelle Connor: This time last year, I was feeling a little bit nervous about beginning my search on the job market, especially since I had planned a trip to Italy during the summer months after graduation.  I wanted to stay in Boston due to my love for the city as well as my relationship; however, I felt overwhelmed with all of the opportunities and job descriptions. I spoke with some of the faculty members closest to me as well as former supervisors and they suggested that I continue my work in Admissions. I applied for a position in the Graduate Admissions Office, and I was super excited to be hired for the position and continue my service to the university, especially as an alum. Everything worked out for me!

Lennon Wolcott: This time last year, I was overwhelmed. I was trying to finish and install my master’s thesis show centered on decolonization and the rebuilding of community after a loss of culture through sculpture/paper-arts/craft/performance. While at the same time interviewing for AICAD art school faculty printmaking jobs and deciding what kinds of choices I could afford to make after graduation with the cost of living and student loans to pay back.

How would you describe your first year after your graduate program?

MC: During the first year after my graduate program, I realized that there is more to experience than what is found in the classroom. I have grown so much as an individual and coworker over this past year. I am starting to realize where my strengths and passions lie as well as the tasks that I feel the most comfortable with. I learned what matters most to me, where I am meant to be, and how I want to build my avenue to career growth and success. Not be cliché, but life is what you make it. Use your skillset, take advantage of opportunities, and do not be afraid to explore outside of your comfort zone.

LW: It was hard, after 2+ years of immersive art making, to find myself in a space where I had to juggle full time work responsibilities and find time to keep up a practice as an artist. After graduation my instinct was to jump back into art making immediately. However, I needed time to decompress and think through what I learned during grad school. It took time for me to find how my process and work needed to evolve outside of the academic institution. Re-learning how to adapt and create a life for two full time jobs (art and another) have been my primary goal over the year.  It has taken about a year for me to add art into my full-time work/life routine, and I hope by next year I will be on more solid footing.

How have you been using your graduate degree?

MC: Although I have not been using my graduate degree in the field of research, I use my graduate experience and degree on a daily basis. One of the most beneficial aspects of a Master of Arts is the chance to focus on your writing while writing about a favorite topic. Moreover, in the humanities and arts, you have the many opportunities to explore your potential as a communicator, presenter, and professional. In the Admissions Office, I spend most of my day constructing concise, clear e-mails and communicating with my co-workers, supervisor, and potential applicants. I do my best to write well and in a style that reflects conversational, yet professional, communication. I credit Tufts to my success as a member of the Admissions team. Writing is one of the most important takeaways from the M.A. degree.

LW: This year I’ve worked on smaller art pieces, while looking at residencies, gallery shows and trying to incorporate art into my daily practice. I have been fortunate enough to get to work in a full-time position with artists coming into graduate programs. I speak to prospective students about what it’s like to enter a graduate program, look at work, and have conversations about pursuing a terminal degree in fine art.

What advice do you have for graduate students who are graduating this year?

MC: I encourage graduate students to truly take the time to explore the many opportunities on the job market. I’m not directly using my primary degree in the context of teaching or research; however, I am using the skillset that I have learned over the course of my undergraduate and graduate career. There are so many jobs available, especially in the Boston area. Take the time to apply to the ones that strike your interest and continue to build confidence to pave your own route to success. Keep in my mind: success is defined by you, yourself.

LW: As graduate students, you have spent two years treating art as an important full-time position in your life. As a Master of Fine Arts, you have gained the skills in the SMFA at Tufts program to further your practice and find the artist who you need to be. It will not be easy, but you have the ability through research, skill, and conceptual based creativity to succeed if you are willing to continue the work.

 

One Year Down – What I’ve Learned So Far

A cherry blossom tree in full bloom outside of the admissions office

Written by Alia Wulff, Cognitive Psychology Ph.D. Candidate

Writing a post on the best things I learned my first year of graduate school was a seemingly insurmountable task. Boiling down nine months of hard work, constant research, and new experiences into a few paragraphs is daunting. I finally narrowed it down to these, my biggest takeaways. These have helped me through the amazing days and the not-so-amazing days.

1) Classes are important, but only if they are useful to your interests.

I have determined that the best process of selecting classes is to separate them into two categories: intriguing and pertinent to your area of study. Then you simply sign up for classes that fall into both categories. This way, you are much more likely to enjoy the classes, while also gaining knowledge that may actually be useful for your future. While it may be tempting to take a class purely because it seems fun, you may regret it later when your knowledge of medieval architecture still hasn’t come in handy and you have to take an extra class to get all of your credits in time. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have fun with classes, just make sure you aren’t being flippant about your choices.

2) Listen to students who are well into graduate school.

They are the most important sources of information in your life, I promise you. These students know crucial information like the closest places to get coffee on campus, which professors teach what classes the best, where the office supplies are located, and when buildings are locked for the night. You may receive a small packet of information from the administration when you first arrive that describes basic things like how to register for classes, but nothing compares to the advice from higher level graduate students. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions. It’s better to ask and feel ridiculous about it than blunder around looking for something that has a simple solution.

3) Make sure you take consistent breaks.

This is so important. This does not mean deciding to take a break when you feel like it, because occasionally you will not feel like taking a break and suddenly it’s dark outside, you haven’t moved from your computer in seven hours, and stretching causes your joints to make horrible noises. Taking consistent breaks means making a conscious effort to remember to stand up and move around at least once every two or three hours. While it may feel like you are disrupting your productivity, you are actually helping your brain function properly by improving blood flow. This advice could also be phrased as “make sure you exercise enough!” but I’m not going to pretend I did that regularly. Taking the few steps to the water fountain to refill my water bottle is often all I have time for, and that’s okay.

4) Taking longer breaks away from the office is also necessary.

For example, I made the decision at the beginning of the year that I would not come into the office on Sundays. I work on my laptop at home and try to be productive, but I do not focus all of my attention on school. This allows me time to focus on other things that often fall to the wayside during the week, such as cleaning my apartment or doing the laundry that somehow always manages to have more clothes in it than I’ve worn. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do this regularly but trying to relax is better than not relaxing at all.

5) You have to be kind to yourself.

My final takeaway is the most important thing I have learned. I know that sounds like a terrible motivational poster, but it’s true. It is so easy to receive criticism or a bad grade or a terrible review and hate yourself for it. Graduate students have been told time and time again that we are the best students, the top researchers, the brightest minds and that is why we were accepted into graduate school. Just remember that this is still true, even when you make mistakes. Your worth as an academic is not determined by these small and almost entirely inconsequential problems.

My first year of graduate school, aside from a few papers due at the end of May, was officially over on Friday, May 4th. I completed my last final and gave my last presentation before I headed home for a much-needed weekend of doing absolutely nothing. I was back in my office at 9:00am on Monday. I’ve got participants to run, papers to write, an office to clean, exams to sort, and code to edit. My first year may be finished, but I’ve got four more to get through.

 

Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze? – The five people I met at SMFA at Tufts and how I knew I was in the right spot

Written by Lennon Wolcott, M.F.A. 2017

When I was considering graduate and post-baccalaureate programs, I was worried about the cost, location, and resources of the school. Would I feel comfortable enough to do my best work and make the time worth the cost? From having sat in the back of my mother’s college classrooms at the age of five, I have learned the “tells” of any good educational institution. There are common traits to look for in a school where students can succeed and you can tell this by the people you meet. It is the alliance of support that makes a place special, something beyond great studios and shops.

    While on my first tour at SMFA, I met five people. Their support and inspiration were why I decided to build my community here.

Keena (Former Grad Student): The first person I interacted with was then a current graduate student named Keena. Not only was she friendly and welcoming, but open about the program. She encouraged me to ask any questions that I may have. I learned about the ins and outs of the program, the best kept secrets, and things to look for in the building and studios. She informed me of places and resources that she appreciated that could also be beneficial to me. I was able to see first-hand what she was gaining from the program and learn how she would use this experience when she left. Keena shared a vision of who I could be and urged me to make myself at home in the potential of my own space here. After our conversation, I could see myself sitting in her place, happily working on producing my best work and developing a strong sense of self.

Nan Freeman (Director, Post-Bacc Program): After the tour, I had lunch with a group of prospective graduate students and the director of the post-bacc program, Nan Freeman. She asked us what had led us to SMFA at Tufts and to share what our backgrounds were. Being able to share our backgrounds and learning that this would be a resource in our art making was vital. I felt able to express a variety of passions and use my individual skillset as an asset in my practice, encouraging my research, and pushing my vision. I knew from this conversation, that a structure of interdisciplinary experimentation was built into the SMFA at Tufts model.

Peter Scott (Professor of the Practice, Printmaking): The next person I interacted with was Peter Scott. From my first conversation with him, I knew that he was going to be my favorite faculty members at SMFA at Tufts (shhh, do not tell that to all of my other favorite SMFA faculty). Peter, a practicing and ridiculously talented artist in the field of printmaking, talked “shop” with me about facilities and working with print media at the school. He is whip-smart with a conceptual understanding and a sense of humor. He made me feel at home and that this was the place I wanted to be. Luckily for me, I would find that same amazing dynamic with so many of the faculty I have come to admire.

After a half a day engaging with faculty members, current students, going on tours, and listening to a panel, I walked around the school trying to decide if I would be comfortable at the SMFA. I wandered into the library where I was greeted by Ashley Peterson and Darin Murphy, the Research and Instruction Librarian and the Head of the Fine Arts Library respectively. The three of us sat and talked for over 45 minutes about art, research, and resources that the library could provide. They pulled out artists’ books and references for me to view and told me about individual research visits. The SMFA library is small but mighty and they let me know that it is part of a consortium which provides students with access to books from around the world in addition to the SMFA and Tisch libraries’ collections. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be in a place where people were so passionate about their subjects and eager to help others find their own.

Leaving the library, I knew that the SMFA at Tufts would be the right choice for me. I looked forward to continuing conversations with the faculty, staff, and students on a regular basis. Meeting these five people helped me to take a leap of faith, knowing that I would have the resources and support to develop myself as an artist.

No matter what happened, the juice would be worth the squeeze!

 

 

How to manage working full-time as a Certificate student

 Written by Penelope Seagrave, Human Computer Interaction Certificate

Working full-time while attending classes in the evening has been quite an exciting juggling act. I have completed my audiobook, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which should provide sufficient explanation for how much driving I’ve had to do to accommodate this lifestyle (for those who don’t know, this book is over 1000 pages – also, definitely recommend). I’ve sacrificed many precious Sundays and weekday evenings to the Tisch Library. My evening exercise routine has now become a distant memory. I’ve even had to ask for an extension on this very blog assignment. Nonetheless, the satisfaction I receive from working towards this dream of mine has made the whole experience so fulfilling and worth it.

I get to spend my once expendable free time with those who share my interests and listening to brilliant professors explain theories and studies that are beyond fascinating to me. My assignments, while challenging and often time consuming, are so enjoyable for me. I absolutely love learning and I especially love learning the material covered in the Human-Computer Interaction Certificate.

I am so happy to be studying at Tufts. The pursuance of this dream more than outweighs the sacrifices I’ve had to make for it. I truly do believe that you can always find time for the things that matter to you.

That being said, beside my excitement and positive approach to this experience, there are definitely a few tips I have for those considering working full time while pursuing graduate school:

  1. Get a planner, one you enjoy using and can manage carrying with you. Mine has alpacas on the front cover. It is important to stay on top of deadlines – both work and school. It’s nice and comforting to know that you are organized and it substantially reduces the chaos that comes with balancing all of your obligations.
  2. Make friends with your classmates and, more importantly, your teammates. If you can look forward to spending your cherished weekends and evenings with people you can laugh with, it makes all the difference.
  3. Get an audiobook or find a podcast you enjoy listening to. You’re most likely going to be driving or taking the T quite a lot. Instead of seeing this as an idle waste of time, devote this opportunity to learning something new and it won’t feel like such an expense.
  4. Classes aren’t free. Be sure to understand how much your program is going to cost, and make sure to plan ahead. Of course, it will all be worth it in the end.
  5. Take the classes that fascinate you. Now that you are no longer are an undergrad, you should have a better sense of what you enjoy and want to understand. Pursue your interests and class will be full of exciting wonder and curiosity.

This has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I am so happy to be back in school and learning. Working makes it possible, and allows me to make headway in my career at the same time. I strongly recommend considering this option if you are able to.

 

Biology Department Retreat!

 Written by Gina Mantica, Biology Ph.D. Candidate

Giving game-playing instructions to the Biology Department with my megaphone and my helpful assistant, Mike Fath. IMAGES COURTESY RACHAEL BONOAN.

Last semester, the Biology department hosted its first ever departmental retreat, and I was lucky enough to be on the organizing Committee! The Biology department is separated on the Medford campus; half of the faculty are located in the new Science and Engineering Complex (SEC) while the other half are located at 200 Boston Avenue. The SEC is about a fifteen-minute walk from 200 Boston Avenue, and the only time during the academic year that people from both buildings come together is on Fridays for our departmental seminar series. The Biology department retreat was born from the idea of bringing all faculty, staff, and students from both buildings on campus together in a relaxed setting for a day of learning, bonding, and fun. During the first half of the retreat, faculty and post-docs from both buildings presented their current projects. As a second year student relatively new to Tufts, it was great to hear about the work going on in other labs within my

 

Professor Mitch McVey and PhD Candidate Marcus Lehr working together to finish the relay race. IMAGES COURTESY RACHAEL BONOAN.

          During the second half of the retreat, students, faculty, and staff participated in team-building games organized by yours truly. I was a camp counselor for a few years during my undergraduate career, so organizing outdoor games and activities was really a treat for me. I planned a hula hoop passing game, a relay race, and a human knot activity for retreat participants. I got to use a megaphone when directing the activities, and I got to watch the influence of my camp counselor enthusiasm on adults.

One team working together to untangle their “knot”. IMAGES COURTESY OF RACHAEL BONOAN.

          My favorite part of the retreat was directing and watching the human knot activity. I separated the department into four equal teams and instructed everyone in each team to cross their left hand over their right hand in a tight circle facing inwards. I then told everyone to grab the hands of two different people in their group, and work together, once connected, to untangle the “knot”. The human knot activity requires every individual to actively work with others to uncross not only their own hands but also the hands of their teammates. Additionally, the human knot activity tends to be successful only when teammates communicate their thoughts and ideas with others in their group. For example, if one individual tries to untangle the knot by themselves, they could end up dragging their teammates along and pulling people to the ground instead of helping others up or helping the team get out of the knot.
            Many scientists pride themselves on being independent thinkers and workers, so the human knot activity proved especially hard for some teams. I coached struggling teams on openly discussing their ideas with their teammates and pushed for some of the more reluctant team members to participate in the open discussion. In the end, all teams successfully untangled their “knots”!

              The memories made at the retreat and the experiences shared between students, faculty, and staff created a noticeably more inclusive and welcoming environment within the Biology department. I look forward to attending the next Biology department retreat and welcoming the newest cohort of graduate students into our Tufts Biology family!

The first team to successfully untangle their human knot. IMAGES COURTESY OF RACHAEL BONOAN.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Being a TA

Written by Priyanjana Pramanik, Economics M.A. 2018

I’ve been a TA now for a little more than a year, which means that I have wisdom to share (not really, but I’ll try). Being a teaching assistant has been exhausting, rewarding, and, much to my surprise, quite enjoyable. Now, this might be a little disorganized, but I’ll try to make it as educational as possible. I’ll skip the basics: you know the absolute no-no’s! I’m going to go straight to the stuff that I think is making me a better TA than I was before.

When I started out last year, I was absolutely terrified. I remembered every tiny bit of advice that I’d been given, including ‘never apologize’, ‘don’t let them know you’re afraid’, ‘never give out your cell phone number’, and loads more, but honestly, all that stuff just scared me more. My first recitation didn’t go well. Nor did the second. In fact, I don’t remember feeling like I’d done justice to a single recitation session the entire semester.

Which brings me to my first don’t. Don’t make the recitation about yourself. It’s very easy to do that because you’re in front of a classroom, and you have performance anxiety, and you feel continuously judged. But it isn’t about how you do. Your job is to get through the material that you’ve been told to cover, because the students in your recitation need help with it. They’re struggling with concepts that you, the grad student, already know, and you can help them! It’s all about them. While it may seem pretty basic, making my recitations about the students and what they needed, instead of focusing on how I was doing, improved my performance in recitations a great deal.

However, all the best intentions in the world aren’t going to help you if you aren’t familiar with the material. This is especially true for concepts that you’ve known for a very long time. For me, as an economics grad student, that includes things related to probability, random variables and other statistical matters that I’ve been working with now for about five years. (Yes, five years.) And the problem with being over-familiar with concepts is that they seem simple to you, and you don’t simplify them enough when explaining them. You skip steps because in your mind, they’re obvious. The way out is simple. Prepare for recitations! Especially if it’s stuff you know. Sometimes I practice my spiel for lab sessions on my classmates. Occasionally I’ve practiced over Skype on my long-suffering boyfriend.

There are two other very good reasons for preparing for recitations. One is that it makes you feel less nervous. The other is that you can focus less on the material and more on how students are responding to it. You become more aware when they understand something you just said, and when it wasn’t clear enough. Making eye contact also helps. For someone like me, that can be a challenge, but it’s extremely useful.

Try and make things interactive. This year, for example, when I’m doing practice problems with my recitation section, I’ve had them make little groups. I give them a few minutes to work on it, and then we go through it together. Students feel more comfortable sharing their work when they’re not alone. They get nervous too!

Last pieces of advice. Don’t sweat the grading. Put some music on, be as consistent as you can, and don’t think too much about it. Set boundaries. Don’t set a precedent for always responding to emails in half an hour, or having extra meetings for students who can’t make it to office hours. I try to be as accommodating as I can, but it’s important to get the message across that you have a lot on your plate too. A lot. Don’t look at other TAs and think, I wish I could do such a good job. Be yourself, and you’re going to find a teaching style that makes you absolutely awesome. Finally, ask for help whenever you’re unsure. The professor you work with will be happy to clear up any doubts you have.

Anyway, remember those horrible recitations I was having last fall? When I got back to school for the Spring semester, I found a card in my mailbox from one of my students, thanking me and telling me that they really appreciated what I’d done in recitations. Guess I wasn’t such a bad TA after all.

 

Maintaining a social life on and off campus as a graduate student

 Written by Brenna Gormally, Biology Ph.D. Candidate

One of the many stereotypes that everyone has heard is that graduate students have no social lives. They’re shackled to the lab bench or desk, never to leave the fluorescent lights of the one building they know the name of. And yes, I’ll admit it—early on in graduate school it seemed inappropriate or taboo to admit that I had a social life. I made a pretty conscious decision in these early days to make it clear to my advisor, my peers, and myself that setting a work-life balance was very important for me. I realized that maintaining my emotional and physical health also meant maintaining a social life.

So how did/do I do it? Through a lot of trial and error (what can I say, I’m a scientist!), I have figured out four things that help get me outside the lab and socializing with others. Firstly—do things with people in your department. This seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes graduate school feels like a very solitary experience and it can be incredibly beneficial to surround myself with those who are going through similar struggles. And don’t stop with just the people in your lab, your specific group, or your cohort. For me, this means participating in events sponsored by my Graduate Student Organization, BUGS. These events range from pumpkin carving to career counseling to Easter egg hunts. They have been excellent times for me to forge connections with others in my department that I don’t necessarily see every day.

Secondly—do things with people outside your department. Now I’m not trying to sound harsh, but sometimes your own department can drive you nuts. Sometimes, I just don’t want to talk biology anymore. When I sense these feelings creeping in, I seek out more university-wide events that help me connect with students in other departments. For the most part, these are sponsored by the Graduate Student Council (GSC). Last year, I joined the GSC as the co-chair of the Academic and Career Development Committee. In this role, I helped organize the Graduate Student Research Symposium—a fantastic event in the spring semester—which enabled me to meet people from the English, Fine Arts, Chemistry, Biomedical, Urban and Environmental Planning, and Computer Science departments. As Vice President of the GSC, I continue to meet and socialize with people across all the Tufts schools. These opportunities have helped re-center me when I’m feeling particularly bogged down with biology.

Thirdly—do things with “real adults” AKA people outside of academia. Don’t get me wrong—I love academia and all the amazing people I have met through my journey. But it’s a bubble. And sometimes you need to get outside that bubble and remember that there is life outside of Tufts. For those times, I turn to my community sports leagues. When I first moved to Boston, I had no idea how many sports leagues there actually are. Two of the main ones are Boston Ski and Sports Club (BSSC) and Social Boston Sports (SBS). Through these two organizations, I have joined lacrosse, kickball, bocce, and inner tube water polo leagues. Yes, that would be a “sport” in which you sit in a blow-up inner tube and “play” water polo. The competitiveness and athleticism varies depending on the league and sport, but no matter what, these are great ways to meet people all across the city.

And finally, and this one seems a little backwards, but—do things on your own. Speaking for myself, sometimes I need some alone time. I have found that taking some time to wind down on my own can be incredibly beneficial. Whether it’s by reading a book, listening to music, going for a walk, or just watching Netflix, this time recharges me and prepares me for the challenges of graduate school.

So don’t be afraid to admit you have a social life. I hope that this post has provided some great resources if you need help jump-starting that social life!

Me with other board members of Graduate Student Council. Through the GSC, I have met people from all different departments including the English, Computer Science, Physics, and Engineering Departments. Photo courtesy of Taylor Sands-Marcincowski.

My inner tube water polo team celebrating our season championship. Sports leagues have gotten me out of the Tufts bubble and out and around Boston to meet some great people, and play some fantastic sports. Photo courtesy of Social Boston Sports.