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Peer Blog: Some Final Thoughts for Now

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1

Happy April everyone! Here we are in the final countdown to the end of term. For those of you graduating or taking a summer off from school: congratulations, you deserve it! It has been an incredibly tough year. I have not quite been able to wrap my head around the peculiarity of the last couple of semesters. My friend said it up best when she declared that 2020 “felt equally like the longest and shortest year in human history.” The waiting and watching and general uncertainty seemed to drag out every each and every month. Yet, at the same time, it was hard to fathom when the COVID-19 pandemic surpassed its one-year anniversary.

When the pandemic first hit, it felt like, out of nowhere, a thick smog rapidly descended over the entire world and, in an instant, obscured everything from view. Its tendrils spread wide and fast, surely tainting most if not every facet of our daily lives. At first, the panic and confusion made it difficult to adjust to, but every day the mist cleared a little more, and every day we could see just a little bit further ahead of us. As a student, I felt completely lost in the beginning, but as the months passed, COVID-19 made me reflect on a few notions I have about school and education. Join me as I reflect on how the pandemic has moulded and strengthened my beliefs about what school means to me.

I really love to teach

At the beginning of the pandemic, I remember feeling concerned that the switch to virtual classes would obstruct my ability to be a good TA. Without weekly interactions with the students, I was sure I would not be able to form a rapport with students. That has absolutely not been the case. I have not gotten to know as many students as I have in past years, but I have still been able to to foster a supportive and positive learning environment. If anything, the pandemic has made me more conscientious about answering student emails. Since students cannot ask questions about assignments during labs or tutorials, our one stable line of communication is email. That means I now typically reply to emails right away. Of course, I would prefer to be interacting in a classroom, but I am relieved to say that I still love teaching and being a part of students’ educational network, even if it is through alternative channels.

My support network is stronger than I ever realized

Secondly, the pandemic has taught me that I have a lot of people in my corner. While social distancing has prevented us from physically being with our friends and family, it has not stopped me from staying connected with them in other ways. I have always enjoyed talking on the phone, and the pandemic has only ramped up the number of hours spent calling and video-chatting with my friends and family. Throughout the past year, I have come to lean on my social circle more than ever before. They are my rock, and I am so glad I have people with whom I can reach out when I am feeling stressed or worried. While the pandemic has tested me in more ways than I can count, my devotion to “my people” has remained stronger than ever.

With the vaccination program moving steadily forward in Canada, many of us are finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel (I hope things are going as well for those of you in other places). As such, I am finally allowing myself to imagine a return to normality. I cannot wait until the day when I can teach students in person and meet up with friends to celebrate birthdays. But for now I am content to continue giving this virtual/distanced world my all. Good luck on your final exams: remember your TAs, family, friends, and everyone at SASS are there for you!

Wishing everyone a safe, happy, and healthy spring & summer!


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Peer Blog: Tips for Online TAing Success!

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1

Happy March everyone! At the beginning of the fall semester, a whopping six months ago, I remember feeling some apprehension about how my TAing experiences would be affected by the pandemic. I even mentioned it in my very first SASS blog. The most fulfilling aspect of TAing for me comes from the interactions with the students, especially during labs and tutorials. Luckily, I had only ever TAed courses with labs or tutorials before this year.

Moving to an entirely virtual learning environment has meant the demise of these interactive course components. The labs have been cut out of both psychology courses I’ve taught this year. In their place, I’ve been asked to run office hours and post a few lab videos here and there. While my experience as a TA has been different this year, my goal has still focused on the quality of teaching: I have tried to ensure the students are provided with the same opportunities as if we were in a classroom together.

Here is how I do it. Maybe you can try some of these tips too!

  1. Be proactive

Most TAs are also full-time students with jam-packed schedules. That means it’s easy for us to accidentally overlook tasks that may not directly apply to our own research or coursework, including their TA duties. But I implore other graduate students to fight this urge! Whenever I am preparing to TA a course, I go through the syllabus with a fine-tooth comb and add the dates of any quizzes, assignments, and tests to my personal calendar. That way, I can keep track of students’ progress and know what sort of emails will be collecting in my inbox.

If I am tasked with introducing a new assignment, I will often pre-emptively complete the assignment myself so that I have a good understanding of the types of concerns the students might have.  

Finally, I make an effort to keep in touch with my co-TAs (when I have them) throughout the term and especially before I begin marking an assignment or test. Maintaining consistency in grading is crucial, so before big marking tasks, I always check in with my fellow TAs to discuss any ambiguities in the grading scheme. This way, we reduce the potential for discrepancies in grading across students. Try these three tips and you will, hopefully, find yourself ahead of the game rather than constantly playing “catch-up.”

Luckily, the skills Kate has learned as a TA also make her a good bread-making instructor!
  1. Be approachable

Conveying approachability has been a tricky thing to master in this new, online world. With everyone so far apart, the chances of face-to-face interactions are minimal. As such, I have employed every trick in my book to engage with the students and present myself as an ally and educational resource.

I have been tracking my emails with vigour. No student email is ever left unread or unacknowledged. Typically, I respond to the students’ emails within 2 hours of receipt. One of my personal pet peeves as a student is when a TA does not respond. To me, it sends the message that the TA is either uninterested in helping or simply does not know the answer. I never want students to think the former, so I always hit the “reply” button. Secondly, I strive to keep an open mind when I am introduced to new perspectives. For example, every so often, a student will approach me to ask why they did not get full marks for a question on an assignment/ test.  In these situations, rather than just reciting the rubric and dismissing their concerns, I invite them to explain their perspective. Students often introduce me to a new perspective I had not considered. I’ll happily concede the marks when students explain their perspective and fair reasoning! The key here is to avoid getting defensive—and to learn more about other Queen’s community members by reading more about their needs (start by reading my fellow blogger Rahul’s take on decolonising the classroom). We all make mistakes: I know it. Students know it. We all know it. Handling these situations with grace and humility reaffirms the students’ trust in me as a mentor.

Of course, even with these tips, there are bound to be a few hiccups throughout the term anyway. Try as I might, I know it is impossible to predict or prevent every debacle. However, I also know that by taking these measures, I mitigate my potential for error as well as simultaneously enhance the learning environment of the students. As long as I am an educator, I will continue to put the students’ needs first and create an interactive space where they can feel confident asking questions and striving for success.

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Peer blog: Exploring extracurriculars: The academic boost you need

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1 

Happy February everyone! For students, this month marks the beginning of the second wave of midterms and assignments (the first wave being in October). I am sure many of you are preoccupied with planning and studying and brainstorming for those imminent assessments. In light of this, I have decided to take this blog in a slightly different direction and focus on something other than schoolwork. One could call it “academically adjacent.” While I do, in fact, spend the majority of my time engaged in research, coursework, and TAing, there is another whole facet of my academic life that I have yet to touch on: extracurriculars and volunteering. I am always interested to hear about the types of hobbies and interests of other students, and I have found that a large part of my own “university experience” has been built upon participation in these supplemental activities.

Kate’s seven years with the Queen’s Recreational Figure Skating Club don’t seem to have paid off.

Let’s start at the beginning. In my very first year of university, I remember feeling a strong desire to get involved. At the same time, however, I was completely overwhelmed with coursework, so I knew I could not throw myself into as many extracurriculars as in high school. As such, I limited myself to just one extracurricular activity: the Queen’s Recreational Figure Skating Club. I am still a part of this club (7 years strong!) and, over the years, it has been the source of some great friendships. I have seen 5 presidents come and go and countless members graduate. Needless to say, I am the longest active member of the club. Looking back, I think joining the team was one of the smartest academic decisions I’ve ever made.

It reinforced the value of getting involved in activities outside of school. As a student, it is easy to develop tunnel vision and forget the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance. However, being a part of the skating club gave me an outlet during which I could give 100% of myself to something other than the next presentation, assignment, or quiz. If you have always been interested in joining a certain club or committee, but have just never gotten around to doing so, this is your sign! School is meant to expand your horizons beyond just the classroom. You will never know what you are missing out on unless you take the plunge. Here is a link to all of the clubs Queen’s has to offer. I hope it is as rewarding for you as it has been for me!

While engaging in these types of activities may allow you to hone an existing passion, it is also a great way to explore new interests and develop new skills. Volunteering as a peer writing assistant (PWA) at Queen’s Student Academic Success Services gave me the opportunity to do the latter. As a PWA, my role is to help first- and second-year undergraduate students improve their writing skills (see here for more information). Before joining the team, I had no experience as a tutor or mentor, thus, when I came across the advert to be a PWA, I was nervous to apply. “Who am I,” I thought, “to give writing advice to others?” This was totally new and I was unsure if I would be any good at it. I do not consider myself a spontaneous person. I am a planner through and through. Yet, I am so glad that I went outside my comfort zone to become a PWA because I have found a whole new passion for helping/ mentoring students. I have now been volunteering as a PWA for four years and counting. Needless to say, I really enjoy the work!

Guess what? SASS is currently hiring for a range of volunteer positions coaching and teaching other students in writing and academic skills. The deadline for applications is March 7, and you can read more about all our programs and how to apply here.

I know first-hand that school can be extremely overwhelming at times, and every now and then you simply need to take a break. As such, it is important that you find activities outside of school that interest you, whether it be a sports club or the debate team or something else entirely. I have learned over the years that maintaining a well-balanced lifestyle is very similar to maintaining a well-balanced diet: it takes a bit of commitment and lot of variety to achieve that fully satisfactory feeling. Never be afraid to try something new because you never know when you might just stumble upon a new passion.

See you soon!

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Making big decisions: autonomy in the life of a PhD student

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1 

Happy January! For many of us, January is a time for goal-setting and new year’s resolutions. Of course, this can’t be done without some reflection on the past year (which I did in my last blog) and on the nature of upcoming tasks.

When I’m not setting big academic goals, you might find me taking a winter hike with my sister!

As a PhD student, I have a newfound autonomy over my education, which has been both a blessing and a curse. For example, I have free rein in choosing my next topic of study. However, I carry more responsibility and must set my own objectives if I am to complete this degree in a timely manner. As such, long-term goal setting is a skill that all PhD students are expected to acquire. Right now, I have two main academic goals that (I hope!) are achievable in the next several months.

  1. Choosing a Dissertation Topic

Even though I have spent the last several months familiarizing myself with the current literature in my area of study, I have yet to formulate a scientific question that I can test empirically (i.e., a dissertation topic). Right now, I am unsure of how large I must make the scope of my chosen topic—but I know that’s a normal experience for a graduate student. The topic must be broad enough to elicit 3-4 years’ worth of research, yet specific enough that 3-4 years’ worth of research will be sufficient to draw meaningful conclusions. It is easy to feel overwhelmed working within these constraints, so it’s important to have a step-by-step plan in place. It is much easier to face these sorts of seemingly insurmountable tasks when you break them down into a series of achievable goals:

  1. For instance, the first step in narrowing down a topic is reading the literature and taking note of the topics I am interested in.
  2. After organizing these topics into a list, I need to do a more specific literature search on each of those areas to see where the gaps in knowledge lie. Only then will I have a better understanding of what is missing from the current literature.
  3. After this, I must decide which areas of research I find the most interesting.
  4. Next, I will present this list of topics to my supervisor.

I am presently in the middle of step #1. I hope to be finished with this first step by the end of January and will keep you updated on my progress throughout the next few months!

  1. Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam

Additionally, I will be writing my comprehensive exam in May or June of this year. The structure of this PhD exam varies across different disciplines, but usually entails both a written and oral component. In the cognitive neuroscience stream of psychology, we are given one month to write four 20-page papers (excluding references, if you were curious), and then we sit a three-hour oral defense centred around those papers. I expect this to be the most cognitively demanding month of my life. This exam is designed to push you to your limit. Preparation for this assessment can be difficult because you are not given your essay topics prior to the exam. Thus, the best way for me to prepare is to continue to review the current literature in my field. Luckily, I am well versed in the literature because I am trying to choose a dissertation topic even as I prep for comps.

As you can probably tell, goal setting will likely be a big theme for me this semester. It is easy to set goals, but the real test is in staying accountable to those goals, especially when they are self-appointed. With great power (i.e., freedom over my research) comes great responsibility! It is thus a good thing that I am a “planner” by nature. As such, I am looking forward to establishing the direction of my research project(s). If you have any big goals you want to tackle this year, I encourage you to try and create a step-by-step plan like mine. Hopefully, it will provide you with the same sense of satisfaction and motivation as it has me!

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The Year of Adaptability

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1

Back in high school, I remember being told by my chemistry teacher that university requires a huge amount of self-motivation and focus. Material would no longer be taught in “units” culminating in easily digestible tests to ensure we had a thorough understanding before the final exam. No one would be checking our attendance or homework. University would be all about self-directed learning. “Adapt or be left behind,” I remember her saying.

While I highly doubt this is what my chemistry teacher meant, it is clear to me that the theme of this school year has indeed been adaptability. In mere months, we have made the switch to an entirely online learning model. With lectures being “asynchronous” and office hours being “virtual,” my schedule last semester was the most flexible it had ever been. That change had some pretty major side effects. For example, it taught me how to structure my time. I have always been more productive on days with early-morning lectures, because afterwards I would head straight to the library. Getting an early start to the day has played a crucial role in maintaining my productivity, and without morning lectures to depend on, I knew I would have to motivate myself some other way. Thus, last semester I deliberately scheduled all of my commitments for the morning. Between volunteering and TAing, I had 9am commitments lined up Monday to Thursday. Thankfully, this tactic worked well. I seldom struggled to start schoolwork after my morning obligations. As such, I will continue to implement this strategy this semester.

The next obstacle I had to face as a by-product of the pandemic was learning how to work at home. This is something with which I, historically, have never had much success. For the last several years, any waking hours not spent in a lecture or lab, have been spent either in Douglas or Bracken libraries. People are generally surprised to hear that I struggle with productivity, I assume because I was always on campus. But make no mistake, my constant presence on campus was very much intentional. By doing so, I was compelled to stay focused on schoolwork. Before March 2020, I never used my apartment as a place to work. Thus, COVID-19 threw me for a loop. All of a sudden, I was being forced to operate exclusively from home. The first several weeks were painful. I have listed below some tips and tricks which helped make the transition to working at home easier. However, there was still a large adjustment period. In reality, working from home was something I just had to give myself time to get used to. In fact, I am still getting used to it today.

  1. Ensure your desk is clear
  2. Use earplugs
  3. Set phone to silent
  4. Prepare your lunch the day before

The first three tips are pretty self-explanatory, so let’s skip to tip #4. At face value, it seems kind of silly to make a sandwich or portion out some leftovers and then throw them back in the fridge for lunch the next day, but hear me out. Normally, on campus, lunch was a very uneventful 30 – 45 minutes. I would stop whatever I was doing, pull out my lunch, mess around on my phone while I ate, and then get back to work. However, when I began to work from home, lunch became a 1.5 – 2 hour production. No longer did a simple sandwich suffice. In order to procrastinate, I would cook a hot meal. I quickly realized this was unsustainable during the work week. As such, I reverted back to making my lunch the night before, as if I was going to be spending all day on campus. I urge you to try this if you also find lunchtime to be a source of procrastination. While taking breaks throughout the day is important to maintain your productivity, when those breaks become the length of a cinematic feature (as mine did), you may be crossing into dangerous territory where breaks are now impeding your ability to work.

These were just some of the changes I had to make last semester in order to accommodate a new style of learning. Prioritizing school during a pandemic has been incredibly strange and more cognitively demanding than I could have imagined. Nevertheless, we are doing it. We are adapting! I will never underestimate my abilities to adapt ever again. You shouldn’t either!

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