Tag Archives: Research

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

A Day in the Life

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

7:30am My alarm wakes me up. I press snooze. It goes off again. I press snooze again. It goes off again. I finally give in and grab my phone to check my emails and social media. I am so not a morning person.

8:30am A full hour after the initial alarm went off I decide it might be time to get out of bed. I wash my face, fix my hair and makeup, and make breakfast. Eggs on toast, a yogurt smoothie, a banana, and a full water bottle. The water is important. I often forget to drink water while I’m working. Dehydration is extremely detrimental to brain function, so I always drink a full bottle in the morning as preparation.

8:45am I anxiously check my phone because I know my research assistant is beginning a study session right now. I don’t have any messages and I sigh in relief. I’ve had to run to campus to avert disaster before and that’s never fun.

9:30am I walk to school, which normally isn’t terrible since I live so close. However, it’s raining today so by the time I get to school my coat is soaked through and I think I smell like a wet dog. It’s unpleasant.

11:30am I’ve been working on my computer for two hours straight. I’ve read two ten-plus page papers, taken multiple pages of notes on each, graded forty activities for the class I am the teaching assistant for, and answered all my emails. So far, so good.

12:00pm It’s time to go to my lab meeting. We have one every couple of weeks with all the graduate and undergraduate students. This is one of my favorite parts of the week, because I get to hear about all the amazing projects my lab is doing. Most of the time graduate students in the same lab are working on completely different projects, so it’s good to get together and discuss ideas and issues. Today we are presenting our posters for the conference several of us are attending soon. I make my first mug of tea for the day, so I have something warm to hold. I don’t drink coffee. Cue jokes about how I could ever survive grad school without coffee.

1:10pm The lab meeting ran long, and now I only have five minutes to get ready for the class I TA for. It’s across campus, so the walk isn’t short. I check my email, throw my notebook in my backpack, and put on my coat. It’s still damp from this morning.

3:00pm I’m back in my office and I have four more papers to read, two more emails to deal with, and forty more activities to grade. I make some microwave mac and cheese and a mug of tea. I have leftover spaghetti in my fridge from last night that was supposed to be my lunch for today, but I didn’t remember to grab it before I left my apartment. I kind of prefer mac and cheese anyway, so I’m not that sorry.

5:30pm I finished grading, dealing with emails, reading papers (I only got through two more, but even I have to admit that over fifty pages of reading in one day is pushing it), taking notes, and merging and converting data files from my study. I even managed to write discussion questions for class on Monday. A huge tip for graduate school: if you have time to do something right now, even if it’s not due for another week, do it. You’ll thank yourself later, because you are never guaranteed to have time to finish it in the future.

5:45pm I listen to music on the walk home. It’s been an eight-hour day, which is fairly average so far. Some people can work from home, but I am not one of those people. Everything I need to do, I do at the office. There are far too many distractions at home for me to be productive.

6:00pm I get home and make my third mug of tea for the day while I reheat my spaghetti. It wasn’t too rainy when I walked home, but it’s still dreary out and nothing goes better with a grey day than some hot tea. I eat my dinner while watching Netflix in bed. There is no shame when it comes to self-care.

9:50pm My roommates are both still out and I’m getting ready for bed. It’s a Wednesday, and since I have plans for the weekend, I don’t have to be social at all this week. Right before I go to bed I check my phone. Three new emails, but they’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

 

 

My year in review and one thing I wish I knew when I started

Written by Vasanth Sarathy, Computer Science Ph.D. Candidate

Vasanth 5-27-16 pic

Super Mario Bros. 2

It’s hard to believe that I am done with my first full academic year at Tufts. I know everyone says time flies, but I often find that expression to be meaningless in the moment and unhelpful in hindsight. When I am going through a challenging time I rarely feel like time flies and when it’s done, I don’t find myself at peace with the knowledge that it went by quickly. But, sometimes, not always, that expression can bring to bear something quite empowering and confidence-boosting: the idea that experiences, both good and bad, are fleeting and must be, for the lack of a better term, experienced and learned from. I learned a lot this past year, and if there is one thing I wish I knew when I started is to have confidence in myself and in my commitment to learn. It can be challenging entering a new environment, but I think it is okay to strive to be confident in your own abilities and experiences.

I am a Computer Science and Cognitive Science student, which means I am required to take CS classes and also classes in other cognitive science topics like Philosophy and Psychology. I love learning new things and this past year has been all about learning fun new concepts. I learned about interesting questions in Computer Science like what is the computational complexity of video games like Super Mario Brothers, which by the way was proven to be NP-Complete (math-speak for really, really hard for computers) by our own Tufts Professor Greg Aloupis. For the mathematically inclined amongst us, see here for proof. I was able to learn about fascinating and profound philosophical questions about our own minds, consciousness and the ties between cognitive science and artificial intelligence with none other than Professor Dan Dennett. Philosophy, math, and computer science came together in a single class this semester for me as I learned about Turing Machines and the limits of what computers can do, all from Tufts’ award-wining Professor Ben Hescott. Ben brought a level of excitement, entertainment and humor to theoretical computer science that I have never seen. Check out this news story about him. Who knew humor could help with learning. Apparently researchers looking into this very question did all along!

Besides learning how to answer questions, I also got the opportunity to learn how to ask them in my research. I explored some interesting questions around how we perceive objects in our environment. How do we reason that sometimes we can use coins as screwdrivers or pens as bottle openers? Believe me, I tried it and it really works! Asking these questions and beginning to find answers to them has allowed me to travel to scientific conferences this past year and afforded me the opportunity find mentors and discuss my work with other researchers.

I also discovered all the great programs and opportunities Tufts has for folks who want to learn to share their ideas. We had Tufts Ignite, Cognitive Science Graduate Symposium and the Tufts Graduate Research Symposium, to name a few. In addition, the Greater-Boston area celebrates Cambridge Science festival every year and this year, the postdoctoral researchers from Tufts and MGH put together a great spotlight talks event at the Rattlesnake in Boston. Several graduate students and postdocs from Tufts and MGH gave short talks to the general public (and I really mean general public) about their research. I had the good fortune of being involved in these talks and I really began to appreciate the importance of communicating your ideas to the world.

So, looking back, it has been an exciting first year. I thought being confident was about how much you knew. If you wanted to be confident in programming then you should know Java, right? But, having completed my first year (and learning Java), I am humbled by the discovery of all the new things I must now learn. It appears as I learn, the amount there is left to learn keeps growing, and growing at a faster and faster rate. As daunting as this sounds, I began to realize that this is a good thing. It means I can now shift my focus from maximizing what to learn to instead optimizing my learning process. Being confident is not about how much you know, but about your commitment to learning and the quality of your process of learning.

I am looking forward to the summer, when I get to dig a bit deeper into my research, work with and mentor some talented undergrads, and build robots!

Happy summer!

Why Tufts? Part 2

robot_grow_up_Final

Written by Vasanth Sarathy, Computer Science Ph.D. Candidate

“I think I want to go to grad school. Does that sound crazy?” This was a question I asked one of my mentors about a year and a half ago. I was about to quit my job as a lawyer, a job that I had held for nearly a decade. I wanted to switch careers because I really missed learning and teaching science and math, and I wanted to exercise some creative control over my life. I thought that a career in academia was the right way to go. “Unusual, yes. Crazy, no!” was the response I got from my mentor. His response gave me the confidence to go ahead and follow my heart and pursue this career track. Of course, to pursue said career, I needed a Ph.D., and to get a Ph.D. I needed to get in to and graduate from a strong research program. Thus began my search for schools.

I decided to restrict my search to the Boston area. This was for personal reasons and because I think Boston is an awesome city! I also had a general idea of what subject I wanted to research. I am deeply interested in understanding the cognitive process of creativity and insight. I learned very quickly that studying these types of questions in cognitive science involves a highly multi-disciplinary effort approached from many different angles: neuroscience and learning about the brain activity; psychology and learning about the human thought process; artificial intelligence/robotics and learning by recreating cognitive architectures in computer systems; philosophy and thinking about why we think a certain way; and mathematics, the language with which to bring these disciplines together.

Each of the schools I looked into offered some combination of these disciplines. I chose Tufts because it provided an integrated approach to studying cognitive science. Not only does Tufts have some of the most well known names in each of the above fields, they all, in full earnest, work together under a coordinated Cognitive Science program. Moreover, I could pursue a joint Ph.D. in Computer Science and Cognitive Science. I felt this combination was powerful and would help me acquire a breadth of knowledge in less familiar fields while deepening my expertise in my primary area of interest: computer science. In the Boston area, this type of program is unique to Tufts. While some schools have cognitive and brain science programs many are limited to the combination of neuroscience and computational methods.

After confirming that I was on the right track, my mentor (during our “am I crazy?” conversation) advised me to reach out to faculty whose research I found interesting. This was a brilliant piece of advice. I sent emails and reached out to several professors in various schools to ask about their research. Only a few replied, which was understandable, given the madness that was the November application season. However, I was able to meet with some of them and learned not only about their research, but also whether or not I could see myself working with them for a long time. The professors at Tufts are highly motivated and driven, while simultaneously supportive–they truly care for their students. If the students are committed, the professors will match their commitment. So, needless to say, another big reason for applying and ultimately choosing Tufts was its faculty, and particularly my research advisor. Meeting via email and face-to-face with my then future-advisor helped me get a better sense of how this important professional relationship might play out.

There are so many more reasons I like Tufts, and I cannot do justice in a short blog post, but one takeaway is that being both a nurturing liberal arts school and competitive research institution, Tufts affords some great opportunities to do good work, grow in your career, and remain happy while doing so. Go Jumbos!

Ghana 2015, Week One: Nketia Festschrift & Akwasidae Festival

**Guest Blogger**

This blog post was originally posted on Ben Paulding’s personal website on July 8, 2015. Ben is pursuing his M.A. in Ethnomusicology and can be reached at benpaulding@gmail.com.  

Greetings from Ghana! After a great year in Boston teaching at Brandeis University, working as a T.A. to Professor Attah Poku at Tufts, and studying ethnomusicology under David Locke, I have finally returned to Kumasi. This summer, I am spending seven weeks with Prof. Poku conducting research on Kete, including interviews, recording sessions, and field trips to visit Kete groups in remote parts of the Ashanti Region. Big thanks to the Tufts University Graduate Student Research Competition for funding a portion of my summer research.

Presenting a gift to the Queen Mother of the Ashanti King’s Fontomfrom drum ensemble.

I arrived in Accra late on Monday, June 29th, exhausted after a four day stopover to visit my friends Elana and Francis in the Netherlands. I spent some time sifting through the Nketia Archives at Legon, then on Thursday, July 2nd, I visited the University of Ghana again to attend the book launch for Discourses in African Musicology: J.H. Kwabena Nketia Festschrift, edited by Kwasi Ampene, the book in which my article “Kete for the International Percussion Community” was recently published. The event, hosted by the Institute of African Studies, featured a performance by the Ghana Dance Ensemble and a speech from the 94-year-old titan of African ethnomusicology, Prof. J.H. Kwabena Nketia.

The day after the book launch, I caught a bus to Kumasi, where I was greeted by many old friends who I’d missed over the past year. On Saturday, we met at the Centre for National Culture to give a private performance to visiting dignitaries from a diverse group of nations including Germany, Japan, and Angola. I enjoyed catching up and playing together with my old teacher royal hartigan, who has been in Kumasi this past year on a Fulbright. On Sunday, Attah and I joined the Cultural Centre to perform at the Akwasidae Festival at Manhyia Palace. Continuing my tradition of bringing custom clothes for the groups I play with, this year, I presented “Manhyia Palace Fontomfrom” shorts to the King’s Fontomfrom group to wear underneath their traditional Ashanti cloth.

 

What are we ready to risk? Academia, advocacy, and activism

**Guest Blogger**

This blog post was originally posted on Mimi Arbeit’s personal blog on May 18, 2015. Mimi recently earned her Ph.D. in Child Study and Human Development and can be reached at mimi.arbeit@gmail.com.

I graduated from Tufts University this weekend, with a Ph.D. in Child Study and Human Development. I was honored to be the student speaker for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Doctoral Hooding Ceremony. Here is what I said.

As the non-indictment verdict arrived, I was working on my dissertation. Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, will have no trial. The people of Ferguson protest: Black Lives MatterThey call for an end to business as usual, but my business as usual was just getting good. I wanted to write my dissertation and I really, really wanted this degree.

And I was tired. Business as usual is exhausting and there’s no energy left for protests and movement building and solidarity.

Abigail Ortiz taught me that solidarity means sharing risk. I ask myself what risks I am willing to share as a white person in solidarity with people of color: Am I willing to risk arrest? Injury? Reputation? Career?

The system is built to maintain itself.

In the first month of 2015, four black trans women were murdered. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. The intersectionality of oppression is life and death.

Alicia Garza writes:

“Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.

Morgan Collado writes:

Support for trans women dwindles when we are still alive… It points to who is valuable and who is disposable. If you’re not a trans woman… think long and hard about the ways that you’re supporting trans women in your community. Do you see trans women in public community spaces? How are your actions pushing them out? 

I learned to do academic work that could inform advocacy. I wrote a guide for youth development programs about queer-inclusivity, racial justice, and trauma-informed practice. What is life anyway but one giant youth development program? These principles can guide both the work we do and how we run our workplaces.

But these systems are built to maintain themselves.

As PhDs, we are pronounced producers of knowledge. We can use our position within the system – and the peer-reviewed knowledge that we produce – to advocate for change. That’s our professional work; activism is the personal work. But activism, solidarity, is risky. I want a job, tenure, grants, clout. I want those things for myself and for my advocacy – I am building power and building knowledge with hope that I can leverage my power and my knowledge to make a difference.

Can I continue working on that, while also working to break down the systems that grant me this power?

These systems are built to maintain themselves. And I am a part of that.

But these systems are not okay. We need an end to business as usual, and we all need to commit to that end, as knowledge-producers and as human beings, each situated at various sites of power, within White Capitalist Heteropatriarchy.

So now that our degrees are not on the line anymore, what are we ready to risk?