Tag Archives: Mental Health

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

How To Survive in Grad School

 Written by Kate Cottrell, Classics M.A.T. 2019

        So you’re considering taking the plunge into graduate school and Tufts. Welcome! You should know that there is no typical grad student. Sure, we all share traits, e.g. weirdly specific information on an obscure topic or an (un)healthy relationship with our favorite lab, library or coffee shop, but there is no typical path to grad school. This is great because it means whatever path gets you there is the right one. Some of us arrived at Tufts directly from undergrad, some took a few years off, some are returning after decades. Some, like me, are returning to school—again—and possibly forever. I graduated with my BA in Philosophy in 2011, took 4 years off and then did my first MA in Theological Studies at Harvard. I made the short move from Cambridge to Medford and now I’m here offering lessons learned during my first program.
        1. Set Boundaries

          Burnout is real. Boundaries are necessary. Our innate curiosity and intellectual drive combined with the demands on our time as students, TAs, and humans with family, friends and lives academia-adjacent is dangerous and volatile. Boundaries will look different for everyone. One limit I’ve set is that I don’t check my school email overnight between 9pm and 7am and only once a day on weekends. Learning what works for you, what will keep you sane, requires trial and error, and failure. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be fun along the way; give yourself the space to indulge in that Netflix binge, or to read that novel that you really want to read just for the hell of it, or go to that concert on a school night.

        2. Protect Your Mental Health

          There are some troubling studies about the mental health of graduate students. I suggest not looking at these in the middle of a 3 am “what am I doing with my life?” spiral of worry. We are (mostly) all scared or insecure and stressed. This, of course, manifests vastly differently for each person. This is a call for you to take responsibility for your mental health. Tufts offers mental health services for graduate students if that’s what managing your mental health means for you. This isn’t something I, a stranger on the internet, can pretend to advise you on: know yourself, know your needs, find the help necessary to support yourself.

        3. Find Your People

          Making friends as an adult is hard. It is especially difficult if it involves moving to a new city. Luckily, school is a great catalyst for building friendships. Practice setting boundaries with your academic work and taking care of your mental health by doing fun things with your cohort—go to restaurants, or hiking, or have a board game night. Really, anything really that drags you off campus and into the bustling city that is Boston is ideal. Spending hours in the library/coffee shop/your apartment pursuing academic questions only you seem to be asking can be isolating, but there’s no reason to go it entirely alone. I mean, who else are you going to frantically text about the homework due tomorrow?

        4. Trust Yourself

          Remember that you belong in graduate school. No, you did not trick the admissions committee into getting in. You put in the work and have built the skills that will help you be successful. There is work still to do—there is always work to do—but trust yourself to do it. Whether this means trusting your gut in proposing hypotheses, offering to sight read in a language class, or submitting and giving papers at conferences, try it. It will likely go really well. But if it doesn’t, trust yourself in failure. It does not mean you do not belong here. It’s a sign of growth and growth is uncomfortable.

        5. Remember Why You’re Here

          This second degree is humbling in ways I did not anticipate. After all, I have mastered material. I am a classically trained scholar with an oversized piece of heavy stock paper to prove it. And yet I still find myself struggling to translate participles and don’t even get me started on the way my brain shorts out when gerunds and gerundives are mentioned. I never thought I knew everything—learned that lesson from Socrates during my bachelor’s—but I did and still do have parts of my identity intimately tied to excelling in school, to being smart, and to performing intelligence. This process takes patience and self-forgiveness. Being healthy in grad school, as in life, takes work. The first step of that work for me is reminding myself daily that I am here to learn. We are all here to learn.