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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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