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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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Starting the semester off right!

Santosh, Life Sciences, Class of 2021

Happy New Year Gaels!

I hope all of you had a much-deserved break over the past two weeks. I know I used this time to catch up on all the lost sleep over the past four months. On a more serious note, the winter break gave me the chance to relax, enjoy time with my family, and reflect on my first remote semester. Fall 2020 was an unprecedented semester for everyone, but we all learned a great deal on how to achieve success while studying online. Here are a few things I noted about this past semester:

Some of the things that worked for me:

  • Creating a daily list of tasks helped me to keep a good work/life balance and was a source of motivation.
  • Taking breaks throughout the day. Simple things like going on walks, playing video games, and chatting with my friends and family relaxed me when university got a bit stressful.
  • Using the Pomodoro method to make sure I was focused during my studying periods: 25 minutes of studying without distractions is better than 1 hour of studying with Netflix in the background.
  • Joining Facebook group chats. Group chats are a great way to communicate with peers about the course content. In addition, you can meet new people and build study groups over the semester. If you’re stuck, search for the Class of 2024 group as a start.
  • Being active on discussion boards and going to office hours to fill in content gaps. Don’t wait until the exam period to ask your questions; go get help today!
  • Stay on top of your coursework throughout the semester so you can have more time to do the things you love to do. Even a little work every day—5 or 10 minutes to get you started—adds up over 12 weeks.

Some things that did not work for me:

  • Studying on my bed: this is a trap! It feels comfy, but it took me several instances to learn my lesson that the bed is created for a person to sleep and not to study.
  • Having my phone near me while I am studying this is another trap! Keep it out of your sight so you even forget that it is there.
  • Having Netflix or YouTube open on a different tab: yes, another trap! It’s all too easy to switch to the fun stuff while you’re working on a tough problem for class.

Another really helpful thing that I did early last semester was to thoroughly look at the syllabus and timeline of each of my classes. The syllabus is an amazing resource that provides the course content, grade breakdown, and required materials needed for the course. Taking a look at it will help you understand how to best allocate your time to maximize your grade. The timeline, meanwhile, gives you an overview of due dates and a general understanding of the work that must be completed each week. Exploring the timeline from one class and comparing it those from other classes can prevent unnecessary stress from building up when you have three large assignments due in the same week for multiple classes (true story, unfortunately). Overall, just looking at these two resources helped me have an idea of how the fall semester will unfold and to stay on track by getting to work on big tasks during quiet periods, while having a careful (but not too burdensome!) plan for busy weeks. I recommend doing this for the winter semester if you haven’t already!

You might remember that my goal for last semester was to manage my time effectively. It was a tough goal to accomplish but thankfully I felt as though I was able to achieve a good work/life balance by the end of the semester! This semester, I want to step it up a level by not only managing my time but also making sure that the time I allocate to certain things is spent dedicated to doing that specific task—and not aimlessly browsing social or watching TV in the background. I noticed that even when I was able to allocate my time well, I just wasn’t able to concentrate for long periods of time. Therefore, quality work hours is something that I am going to strive to achieve this semester. What goals have you set for yourself this semester?

Overall, I think we all learned something about how to (and also how NOT to) succeed in online university over the past four months. It’s very important to take everything we learned and create an ideal schedule for ourselves. I hope all our blogs have gotten you excited and prepared to start this semester off strong.

Good luck Gaels. Let’s conquer this semester together!

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Peer blog: Living a healthy 2021 by choosing and meeting your goals

Rahul, Psychology, Class of 2021

Poster with 2022 is going to be my yearHey! My name is Rahul, and I’m a 4th-year Psychology major! As I’m writing this post, the break is about to end, and the winter term is about to begin. Not to be too pessimistic, but I can’t say I’m too excited for 2020, Part 2. I sense the feeling might be mutual for some of those who are reading this post. However, if things continue as they were in 2020, it might be time for a change.

Perhaps you weren’t on top of your schoolwork, your job(s), your health, or your friendships in 2020. But at one point, you thought things were going to change for 2021 when you set out your resolutions. If you have struggled with those resolutions already, I bet some of you are thinking that 2022 will be my year for sure

This mindset creates a barrier to change. We shouldn’t have to wait for 2022 for our lives to magically transform. After all, with the events of 2020, who knows what obstacles we’ll face in the future? If you want things to change, you need to start right now. Here are some tips that I want you to keep in mind as you pursue a better you—in whatever small ways that you can or choose to—in 2021. 

Reflect

What is it that you want to change? Yeah, there might be a lot of things you want to change about yourself. But dig deeper—what is the most essential thing that you want to change for yourself? 

For me, I realized that my physical health was at a low as 2020 drew to a close. I know about the links of physical health and academic success: at the end of the day, you can’t study well if you’re feeling lethargic and unhealthy. I’ve heard that adults should get about 10,000 steps a day. But here I am, glued to my armchair, getting maybe 100 steps a day in. Ouch. I know that the pandemic doesn’t make it easier to do daily activities outside. But I’ve decided not to wait for 2022 to be “my year for sure.” Instead, I thought of ways to improve my physical health at the end of the break. You might be thinking that this is an academic success, not a fitness, blog. But you can use the same approaches to strategic and incremental lifestyle change in your study habits, whether you want to read more, write regularly, or get started on big new projects.

Here’s how I got started.

closeup of overwhelmed kid

Me coping with the fact that I need 10,000 steps a day when I only get 100…

Start small

It’s unrealistic to immediately get your 10,000 steps. Let’s say you do get 10,000 steps or close to it—your body might experience a physical shock to this new change, which could lead to soreness the next day or two. This effect can be demotivating. Instead, motivate yourself by setting incremental targets (1,000 steps on Monday, 1,500 steps on Tuesday, and so on). Or, if steps aren’t your thing, go by minutes (10 minutes on Monday, 15 minutes on Tuesday, and so on)! We truly feel a lot better and stick with our habits when we set ourselves up for success by starting small and setting measurable and realistic goals.

To start small, I started walking (with my mask—you should too!). In my first walk, I probably walked for about 10 minutes. Then another day, I went for a run for about 10 minutes. On my second walk, I timed myself to walk for 15 minutes. On my second run, I did the same. Starting small gave me confidence. Starting small allowed me to increase my limits. Starting small was realistic.

After 2 weeks in the break, I eventually ran 8,500 steps and found myself at the top of Fort Henry in Kingston! This shows you how you can build up new habits. Pick an academic (or a health) challenge, and commit to making a tiny step towards your goal today. You can always add more tomorrow, next week, or next month.

View of Kingston from Fort Henry

 

Expand

I know some of you might be thinking, I’m gonna pass out if I run or but what if I get tired from running or walking? I hear you! I knew that I didn’t want to run or walk every day and that there had to be other alternatives to mix things up. So, if you’ve already thought about an area of your life that you’d like to work on, what alternatives can you use to improve that area? 

I’ve always wanted to bend and reach down to the ground from an upright position. I mean, you might recall trying to do this in your physical education classes in elementary or high school. I then realized that there are a plethora of yoga videos on YouTube. This is where I stumbled across Yoga with Adrienne, who takes a personal approach to yoga. With YouTube and a free app like Yoga for Beginners | Mind+Body, I improved my physical health through another alternative. So, what alternatives can you really pursue to improve an area in your life? 

I started with yoga sessions every 2 days. Once I felt like this was a small enough and comfortable pace, I then did yoga every other day. Now, I’m doing yoga every day and hope to maintain this pace. I found a new alternative to improving my physical health, and on top of that, I started small! If you’re looking for academic tips, why not choose one thing you’ll change in your study habits, and try a new habit just 3 times a week to start with?

Rahul doing yoga tree pose

A tree pose, after a lot of practice!

2021: Your year

I can’t provide you with a step-by-step guide to getting your life together for 2021 during a pandemic, but I can give you some general ideas that you should reflect on. 

What is one thing that you want to focus on? How can you work toward this in a small and incremental manner? In what ways can you accomplish this one goal? 

Once you’ve applied these basic ideas successfully, move to a different and vital area of your life. Having worked toward one area in your life, you will be ready to improve the next.

Believe in yourself. 2021 will be your year, and you shouldn’t have to wait for good things to happen in your life! Begin now, reflect, start small, and expand.

See you soon, friends!

Resources

Yoga with Adrienne: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/yoga-for-beginners-mind-body/id1382141225

Yoga Apps: Yoga for Beginners | Mind+Body, Yoga | Daily Yoga

Find a community—yoga subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/yoga/

Find a community—running subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/running

Running Apps: Strava: Run, Ride, Swim; Nike Run Club

Queen’s Athletics and Recreation Centre YouTube | See videos related to physical activity: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCq5zzamjU8AOntSLEuamkQ/videos

 

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How I find the time to do what I love, even during the busiest times of the year

By: Sophia Klymchuk 3rd year Concurrent Education/French Studies student

 

“I don’t have time for anything anymore.”

These are the words that I kept repeating to myself when I entered my first year. When I was in high school, it was easier for me to find time for my hobbies, such as reading for fun, drawing or baking. But when I started university, all the extra assignments, readings and studying made me feel like I didn’t have the time to do these activities. I was under the impression that I had to work all the time, and that it was normal to let go of what I used to do for fun.

You may have, on more than one occasion, had this thought, or shared it with a friend. As a university student, what is expected of you on the academic level is challenging. However, your academic career shouldn’t be getting in the way of your hobbies and what you enjoy doing. I came to this conclusion after my overwhelming first year, and ever since, I’ve been consciously making room for reading and drawing along with my studies. Whether it’s reading, playing music or learning a language, here are some ways that you can find the time in your busy schedule to do what you love.

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Get back on track during Reading Week!

The most successful university students plan their time and prioritize their tasks effectively. Reading Week is a great opportunity to get back on track, push forward, and get ready to finish the semester strong. This worksheet is designed to assist you. If you need more help, check out the SASS site, learning and writing advice appointment booking, and SASS’s calendar of drop-in workshops.

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