Tag Archives: PhD

Making Friends and Building a Community when Moving to Boston

from an international student’s perspective

Written by Ebru Ece Gulsan, Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering

Congratulations! You made it!

You are moving to the Boston area and are possibly even coming from the other side of the world.

Your parents are proud, friends are jealous.

As time goes by, maybe they start to be more bittersweet. They think you are too busy living the dream life to FaceTime with them as often as you used to, but they have no idea how difficult it is to wake up at 5 am to make sure you call them at a reasonable time since there is a 10 hour time difference. You sound “annoying” or “displeased” when you complain about the tremendous amount of grad school work-load because your loved ones think you do not appreciate your opportunities enough. It looks so easy when you see the third-year international students, because they all seem settled down and have already built their communities. They are all incredibly fluent in English while you still take your time to construct your sentences in the most grammatically perfect way not to be judged by native speakers, and sometimes give up on speaking up because you are exhausted of overthinking.

I get it.

I moved to Boston from a country where America is only known for its fast food, huge cars, and “drive thrus.” Maybe also for TV ads of prescribed medications (like seriously?).

Even though I traveled abroad a bunch, lived in different countries and went to an English medium university (which are supposed to teach me English), it took me a long time to feel comfortable with my new first language. I still remember the first time I landed at Boston Logan Airport and not understanding a word the security guy said to me. I was freaking out about writing a scientific article or a textbook chapter in English. The first research group meeting I attended was a nightmare – leaving aside the scientific content of the discussions, I could barely understand the language that they spoke. There is a difference between “native speakers who speak English” and “internationals who speak English.”

Language shock is not even the first challenge you face when you move in from another country. Yes, we live in a more global age and all of us are exposed to other cultures and understandings, but this does not necessarily mean that we will immediately adjust and things will go smoothly. There are so many small cultural differences and nuances, such as different gender roles, work ethics, and gestures that are not visible at first. You will learn how to write e-mails, how to flirt, or what to say someone who has lost a significant other in another language. Health insurance, contracts, financial agreements, leases; all these small things work differently, and now you have to read everything before pressing “I agree to the terms and conditions.” It is like learning how to walk again, although you thought you had expertise in it. On top of all these challenges, there is also the time you realize you came to this country all by yourself and you have to make friends and build your own community to survive.

The first big step to take is to accept the fact that you will need to put in effort. You probably will not find yourself in your perfect friend group spontaneously without making the first move. Luckily, Boston is such a diverse and international city. It is easy to blend in. It might feel strange or new to hang out with people with different backgrounds at the beginning, but Bostonians have been doing this for such a long time. Plus, you speak their language! This makes a huge difference because if you were to move in another country where the first language is not English, it would be much more difficult to befriend locals. Despite the fact that they can speak English if they want to, people will hardly give up on the comfort of speaking their first language to have you around. Are you not confident about your accent? Well, think about it as an ice breaker because you will notice that the question “where is your accent is coming from?” is a classic pickup line. So, own it!

There is a metaphor I really like: it is called “Peach People vs Coconut People.” You can look it up for more details, but briefly, it defines certain people as “peach people” and others  as “coconut people”. Peach people are easy to approach, love small talk, yet they still have the core that they will only share with their core group of friends or significant others (this does not mean that you will never be a part of it). Coconut people are the opposite, with an annoyed resting face; but once you get to know them, they are ready to tell you about their aunt’s new boyfriend or why they chose a particular medicine. Just remember that people will be different, and keep this in mind to understand different reactions when approaching others and getting to know them.

Obviously, it is easier to connect with other expats. You will receive plenty of e-mails from Tufts International Center about upcoming events – attend them. If you want to bond with people from your country, find their communities and show up at their gatherings. But please remember that balance is the key. Keep your conversations and friend groups diverse. Of course you will feel homesick and will need your own people, but try not to call home every time you find yourself in this situation. Actually, you know what? You will soon realize that you see home in a different light. It will take time, but once you get there home will not be “where your heart is,” but instead might be where you can connect to the VPN.

Last but not least, know what you like to do and keep doing more of it. Pursue your hobbies and find others who share the similar interests. If you like scuba diving, become a member of New England Divers. If you enjoy photography, go take a course about it and meet others who enjoy it too. Do you need people to hike together? Just invite them and get to know each other during the hike while there is no distraction except the nature.

Do not forget that flux has no season in a diverse and international city like Boston. People come and go all the time. They all feel like a fish out of water at the beginning. Everybody needs friends and there is not a “more normal” thing than the desire of being a part of a community. Just be yourself, show up and bring your beautiful unique accent and slightly broken English with you wherever you go! 

Five buys to help you get through grad school that won’t break the bank

Written by Gina Mantica, Biology Ph.D. Student

Do you ever feel stressed or burnt out in grad school? You are not alone, and Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences provides a diverse array of mental health services to help you on your journey to completing your degree. With on-site professional counseling, guided meditations, free courses on mindfulness, and the occasional visits from therapy animals—Tufts provides support to help its graduate students succeed.

What else can you do? Well, you could take a break from work — you could go on vacation, sleep in late, read a book that has nothing to do with your thesis, and get some much needed (and deserved) rest and relaxation. However, all of these things take time. When time is short and you find yourself putting that new mandolin slicer into your Amazon shopping cart with a whisper of “treat yo’self” to homemade potato chips as a quick pick-me-up, think twice.  While homemade potato chips are indeed delicious, there are other impulse buys that science suggests could boost your mood. Without further ado, here are 5 impulse buys that might cheer you up without breaking the bank.

1. An Essential Oil Diffuser

As a scientist, I’m not one to praise the use of essential oils for medicinal purposes. However, several studies suggest that essential oils can lead to improvements in mood. Two of the most popular essential oils for relaxation are eucalyptus and lavender, and whether the mood effects are placebo or not, they DO work! Turn on some slow acoustic music on Spotify, and BANG- you’ve got yourself an at-home spa experience. Before plugging your new toy in and turning your apartment into a wonderfully smelly day spa, make sure to check with your roommate.

2. An LED Desk Light

Okay, this one is backed by science. Exposure to fluorescent lighting all day, every day (and sometimes night) without sunlight is bad for your health. Fluorescent lights are blue lights, and such cold-colored lighting can trigger the fight or flight response in humans, increasing our stress levels. While we as graduate students cannot really change the fact that we have to work inside at desks, we can try to decrease our stress response to light. Buy a full-spectrum LED light that you can put on your desk to try to counter all those bad fluorescents!

3. An Activity Tracker

Michelle Obama did not spend time and effort creating the “Let’s Move!” Campaign so you could sit on your bed watching Netflix all day. Doing aerobic exercises for 30-60 minutes will cause your body to release endorphins in your brain. Endorphins are chemicals that can give you a sense of euphoria. Additionally, during exercise your body pumps out endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are, yes, related to cannabis. They are naturally made chemicals in the body that bind to the same places in the brain as THC in weed, causing you to feel calmer and more at ease. So, buy a fitness tracker to compete in exercise challenges against friends and improve your mood at the same time.

4. A Meal Delivery Subscription

Nutrition is important—I’m sure you’ve heard it before. We hear it all the time growing up, from our parents, our teachers, and our coaches. But did you know that what you eat can actually affect how you feel? Processed foods and sugary snacks, while delicious, do not help us. Research suggests that eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed grains can lower the risk of depression. One hypothesis is that this happens through a chemical that is primarily produced in your gastrointestinal tract called serotonin. Serotonin regulates sleep, appetite, and most importantly in this case: mood. So, if you want to impulse-buy takeout from Pini’s Pizzeria think twice. Instead, consider signing up for a Meal Delivery Service like EveryPlate-where the meals are cheap, the ingredients are fresh, and you can help your body and maybe your mood!

5. A Coloring Book

Adult coloring books are a great way to reduce anxiety. Additionally, HELLO NOSTALGIA. Do I need to say more?

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, depressed or any combination of those three things, remember that Tufts has services available to help you conquer graduate school. Reach out to friends, family, and counselors for support. But also remember that these scientifically-backed, feel-good products can also provide an outlet if you’re ever in need of a little mood boost.

Why Attend Graduate School?

Written by Alia Wulff, Psychology Ph.D. student

I was fairly young when I discovered that getting a doctorate meant something other than becoming a medical doctor, which meant that I was fairly young when I decided that I was going to get a doctorate. I’ve been working towards this since I was five, and even though the path to get here was hard and full of unexpected gap years and tough situations, I am very happy to finally be here.

But my story isn’t everyone’s story. Not everyone learns about doctoral programs when they are five years old and decides to get their Ph.D. before they even start going to full-time kindergarten. Some people might be considering this fresh out of undergrad, wondering if they need graduate school or even if they made the right decision to apply. So I asked some friends for their stories, gathered up ideas, and wrote a list of common reasons why people should (or shouldn’t) go to grad school.

You have a dream job that needs a graduate degree

This one is very common. If your dream job is to become a professor at a university and mentor undergraduates or graduates while working on your own research, it is almost guaranteed that you need a Ph.D. Similarly, there are many lab manager, industry professional, and administrative positions that require a master’s degree, at minimum. Research what you need in order to succeed in your field and go for that. 

You need to advance in your career

On a related note, sometimes getting that master’s or Ph.D. will help you go further in a career you already have. That is awesome! I know many people, especially teachers, who go this route. Getting a graduate degree can help advance your knowledge of the field, increase your salary, or even land you a promotion.

Side note: don’t get more than you need if the previous two reasons are why you are attending graduate school. If you need a master’s, don’t go to a Ph.D. program. It will take at least twice as long, is much more likely to be full-time, and may even make you overqualified for your desired position.

You want the opportunity to improve your research capabilities

While there are plenty of industry jobs that require you to do research, they generally don’t give you the same educational support that grad school does. If you’re working on Project X for a company, you might learn exactly how to complete the necessary tasks A, B, and C. If you’re working on Project X in grad school, you might learn the theoretical backgrounds of tasks A and B, the reasons why task C is so important to the project, and how to do related tasks D, E, and F, along with the research another professor is doing regarding Project Y. And, maybe you work with them for a bit to see if that is interesting, and if it will help you develop Project Z for your dissertation. The breadth of knowledge and understanding you develop for your work is built into the graduate program. You might get this depth of experience in industry depending on your field, so it’s up to you to decide if a graduate degree will get you an education your field cannot provide you with.

You love to learn

This does not mean the same thing as “you like school.” Graduate school isn’t set up to be the same school experience as high school or even undergrad. It is more challenging, more demanding, and designed to expand your mind more than it is designed to teach you things. If you have a passion for learning and growing, and love what you are learning, grad school is likely worth it. This is the reason I decided to go to graduate school when I was five, and it is still one of my most important reasons for staying. I love being here, I love learning, researching, and growing every day. It’s hard, but I don’t regret it.

Of course, these are not all of the reasons to attend grad school. There are many, many, many more. And there are just as many reasons to not attend grad school. What matters is that you make the decision for yourself, based on your own desires and goals. You can talk to your advisor, your friends, current graduate students, potential schools, or your employer, but when it comes down to it, the decision is yours to make. Make sure that you know you are doing what is best for you, so that you are as prepared as possible should you decide to pursue applying to graduate school.

What Makes a Good Graduate Program?

The most prominent factors I considered when looking at graduate school programs

By Audrey Balaska, Mechanical Engineering: Human-Robot Interaction Ph.D. Student

As you may have figured out, I am a graduate student at Tufts University. Specifically, I am a first-year student in the Mechanical Engineering and Human-Robot Interaction joint Ph.D. program. Before coming to Tufts, I received my B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of New Hampshire in May 2019.

Since I’m such a new student, the application process is still fresh in my mind. One of the steps I found the most challenging was deciding which schools to apply to and then which position to actually accept. I’m going to talk about my personal journey, and if this doesn’t resonate with you, that’s ok! There are many paths one can take to get to graduate school

Deciding where to apply to

When I was considering schools, I learned about them in a variety of ways. Some I found through online research on labs which had rehabilitation engineering as a research area. Others I remembered from my search for undergraduate programs. Some I learned about because faculty recommended them to me based on my research interests. And some, like Tufts, I learned about at a graduate school fair.

Rather than inundate you with further information regarding every school I looked at, I’m going to explain to you why I decided to apply to Tufts, and why I ultimately decided to come here for my graduate degree.

Like I said, I learned about Tufts University from a graduate school fair – specifically, the one at the Tau Beta Pi (the oldest engineering honors society in the United States) National Convention in Fall 2018. While a decent number of schools were represented at this fair, I did not apply to all of them. I first decided to look more into Tufts because the representative from Tufts University showed genuine enthusiasm for the school, and was able to tell me some specific aspects of Tufts University I might find interesting after I told her my research interests. Having someone so knowledgeable about the school at the fair reflected really well to me. Just because someone you meet from a school isn’t in your research area, doesn’t mean they don’t reflect the university’s community and environment.

Meeting someone from the graduate admissions staff wasn’t enough to get me to apply, though. That occurred when I researched the program more and found classes and research labs closely related to my own research interests.

Deciding to Attend Tufts

Then, I got into Tufts University, along with a couple of other schools. That was when I had to make the big decision of where to spend the next 4-6 years of my life.

One thing that I didn’t consider much when applying to schools, but definitely did at this stage, was the location. I realized after some thought that I really wanted to be close to a city, or even in one. That caused me to decline one school, and pushed Tufts even higher on my list.

Another thing that I really liked about Tufts was the graduate student environment. Tufts University has some awesome graduate student organizations, and hosts multiple professional and social events each semester. Not all universities have this, and it was something I was excited to see existed at Tufts.

Most importantly, however, was my advisor. I got to speak with him via Skype during my winter break after I applied, and then got to meet him in person once I had been accepted to the program. Both times I found that I liked his personality, his research, and his leadership style. Honestly, having met him, it became very easy to say yes to Tufts. If you are applying to doctoral programs, make sure you take the time to try and meet your potential advisors. I had other potential advisors whose research appealed to me, but found that when talking to them our personalities were not a great match.

Ultimately, when deciding on a graduate program it is crucial to decide what is most important to you. I realized I cared a lot more about my location than I initially thought, but some people I know really had not cared about where their school was. Before deciding on a school, take the time to decide what is actually important to you. Maybe, one day, the school that you pick will be Tufts!

Finishing That Pesky Dissertation

Written by Brenna Gormally, Biology Ph.D. student

Graduate school — and in particular Ph.D. Programs — are strange because at times you feel like there is an indefinite amount of work to do and that you might just be in school forever. But at the same time, that feeling of permanence can be comforting. Once I settled into my routine, Tufts became my home and I’ve loved every minute of it. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. And with that comes a whole bunch of emotions — the excitement for the next step, the sadness for leaving my Tufts community, and the stress of finishing degree requirements.

I am currently right in that sweet spot. Over the summer, I had the good fortune to accept a postdoctoral fellowship which will begin in early 2020. That means that I get the opportunity to finish my Ph.D. Without the added pressure of finding a job. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my success in finding a job is a testament to the experiences I’ve been afforded at Tufts. Not only did I receive world class mentorship, but the professional development opportunities (Graduate Institute for Teaching and the NOD Workshops) helped me hone my marketable skills. I am incredibly excited for my next step, but over the next few months I have a LOT to take care of — namely finishing all that writing. I’ve decided to give you some of my tips for getting down to business and finishing that pesky dissertation.

1. Schedule, schedule, schedule

I cannot overstate the importance of planning. When I have a lot of projects going on, it sometimes seems easier to just do things and be productive. When all you have to do is writing, it can be difficult to focus. Staring at a blank page and thinking about how you have to ill it up is… daunting. I have found that the best way to avoid this feeling of desperation is to have realistic, scheduled goals. Focusing on one section in the morning and one section in the afternoon has helped me not get bored with the material and continue progressing.

2. Write in different places

Although I love my desk, sometimes you need a change of scenery. Luckily, there are at least 5 different coffee shops within a 10 minute walk of campus. My favorite coffee shop for writing is Tamper: it’s nice and quiet, serves delicious food, and offers beer options for later in the day. I’m also a huge fan of working in Tisch Library. There’s something about being surrounded by stressed out undergraduates that motivates you to get your own work done. By switching up my physical writing space, I have been able to make progress even when it doesn’t feel like it.

3. Get the blood pumping

Most people know that when you are stressed, making time for physical exercise is crucial. This becomes even more important when you’re writing your dissertation, which should be a marathon and not a spring. I try to make time and head down to the Tisch Fitness Center or go on a run along the Charles River. These are great opportunities to clear your head, which always helps with writing.

4. Don’t forget to have fun!

Most importantly, I think, is remembering that writing your dissertation should have some elements of fun. This can be the hardest task, because you’ve spent years in your program and you might feel jaded with your topic. But after all, these will be the final months of your time at Tufts. For me, it has been the perfect opportunity to reflect and remember where my passions first began. Tufts has been a fantastic chapter of my life that I will remember fondly.

Dancing through graduate school: when passions and academia collide

Written by Gina Mantica, Biology Ph.D. Candidate

Ever since the age of 5, I’ve been a dancer. I used to dance around my living room to Disney music, until my parents decided I needed some sort of outlet for my dancing habit. My parents signed me up for ballet classes shortly thereafter, and I’ve been taking dance classes and performing on stage ever since.

I was in my second year of undergrad when I was invited to perform in my first professional gig. I remember the moment vividly: I was at a retreat when my long-time mentor (and now, friend) left me a voicemail. I remember the feeling of butterflies in my stomach as I listened to my mentor say she had an opportunity for me to perform and get paid for my dancing. To this day, the voicemail is saved to my cell phone. That voicemail not only changed the trajectory of my dance career, but also altered how I now see myself “fitting into” academia.

Five-and-a-half years have passed since I performed in my first paid dance gig. Since then, I’ve danced in more professional productions than I can recall, ranging from a full-length production with Jazz Inc. Dance to a short-lived HGTV show “Spontaneous Construction”.

Also since then, I’ve grown a fondness for academia. I love learning and being able to research questions I am curious about. My time as a Ph.D. student here at Tufts is nothing short of a dream. However, academia is not always fond of me.

Since entering grad school, I have not stopped pursuing my passion for dance. Dance provides me with much more than just exercise; through dance, I find joy and a sense of comfort that I cannot get anywhere else. My refusal to give up something that I consider to be both a means of self-care and a crucial part of my identity rubs some academics, who, themselves, have lost sight of what a work-life balance should look like, the wrong way.

The pressures to conform to some academic ideal of a work-life balance (which, in reality, is not balanced at all) are not missing at Tufts. However, Tufts is such an incredibly diverse community and it is possible to find mentors and colleagues to surround yourself with that share your own opinion of what a work-life balance should look like. At Tufts, I have found friends in my department who will go take dance classes with me, or who will take a day off from work to go to the beach. I have found mentors who support my love of writing and outreach and who will provide me with opportunities to pursue my interests outside of the lab.

Most importantly, however, I have grown to realize that I don’t need to conform to some ideal of what an academic should look like; at Tufts, I am able to relieve myself of the pressures of “fitting into” academia and just be myself.

Why Vasanth Chose Tufts

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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!