Tag Archives: academics

Effective Communication: How to create a working relationship with your advisor

Written by Michael Ruiz, Bioengineering M.S. 2020

We often find ourselves isolated in books and papers while in graduate school. It is easy to forget how to communicate effectively or openly with other people, but the one person you need to communicate effectively with is your advisor. I encourage graduate students to foster a culture of open and effective communication with their advisor. In my experience, communicating effectively with my academic advisor is one of the most important factors which will determine my success and happiness in my graduate education. 

The first step towards developing an effective communication strategy is to define a set of ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ from your program. This may seem like a daunting task, but it will help you later down the road when you want to translate your experience from your coursework, group projects, thesis projects, and experiments into transferrable skills to list on your resume. 

Ask yourself questions like: “After I graduate, what is my ideal job?” and “What skills will I need to be successful in that role?”. These are difficult questions to ask, but it’s important to take the time and think it out. As a result of this practice, I was able to adopt more open and effective communication methods with not only myself, but with my advisor. These methods have contributed to success within my graduate program. The more independent you become, and the easier you make it for your advisor to support you by communicating your wants and needs, the better your relationship will be. By becoming more self-sufficient in your graduate program, you will become more prepared for your future career.

In a culture of effective communication, it is important to be direct. It is essential to focus on work-related issues and state the objective realities that concerns you. Clarify your thoughts about the situation, and why it bothers you. Are you concerned that your project is not being completed properly?  Is it taking too long?  Is it too expensive?  Is it difficult to get along with someone else on the project? Explain what your goals are and how you would like the situation to be resolved. Before the meeting, plan out your thoughts and ideas to make the most of your time.

As students, we can sometimes forget that professors are busy people. Most of them teach, serve on committees, write grant requests, travel to conferences, and mentor graduate students. While problems with your research and coursework are central to you, they are only one of the many items on your professor’s radar. This makes effective communication central to a working relationship with them. If you feel stuck in your research or academic work or the writing of a paper or manuscript, then it is time to utilize your effective communication skills and schedule a meeting with your advisor.

Being a full-time employee and part-time graduate student: A week in the life

Written by Penelope Seagrave, Human Factors M.S. 2019

I work full-time as an Engineer at Cognex and am also a part–time graduate student. This semester, I’m enrolled in two evening classes at Tufts as I work on my  masters in Human Factors Engineering. I thoroughly enjoy these courses, and find the assignments interesting and worth the precious time that I forfeit to work on them on Saturdays and Sundays. Occasionally, I may work through lunch on an assignment, but typically I am able to manage by finishing assignments exclusively over the weekend. Weekends are now my productive time. Honestly, it’s encouraged me to be more responsible and disciplined in my life overall. While it does mean that I spend more Friday or Saturday nights at home, I’ve come to realize that having an entire weekend day full of productivity is a truly fulfilling experience, and worth the potential FOMO. Working on a Sunday makes me feel like a responsible adult.

While I could choose to do homework assignments in the evenings during the workweek, I find myself extra inclined towards procrastination after I’ve spent the whole day working already. So, for me, it’s easier to plan to devote a weekend day. During the week, I prepare by reading over the assignments and getting a solid sense of the expectations so I can predict how long I will need to complete it, and then I save the work for the weekend.

There are some projects that are better broken down into steps over the course of many days. This goes for studying too. Especially for design courses that encourage an iterative process, I tend to work on my assignments after work and sometimes during my lunch breaks. This allows me to space the time better and also solicit feedback from my coworkers, which I have found to be an incredibly helpful and unexpected bonus. 

So far, I have been able to manage working full time while in graduate school very smoothly. And the best part is that I have an income while in school. If you are considering this option, check to see if your company offers tuition reimbursement. Having money coming in while I’m in school is fabulous. There is no way I could go back to my old college days of ramen noodles.

I will say that the consequences of being a part-time student are felt primarily in the length of time it takes to complete the program. For example, if I were a full-time student, I could have graduated in two semesters. Now I’m completing my fourth semester and looking forward to my final full semester in the fall, with a one-course summer session in between. 

But the upside is that I get to be a Tufts student for a longer period of time. I love being a Jumbo! And because I’ve been attending classes here for so long, I feel it has a stronger place in my identity. I am really proud to be studying at Tufts.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Being a TA

Written by Priyanjana Pramanik, Economics M.S. 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.