Thesis update and tips on surviving grad school

Over the past few years, I’ve given the odd update on how my thesis is progressing.  Friend and colleague Atif Kukaswadia recently did a thesis update of his own, and given some recent developments I thought this would be a good time to do the same.  We’ve been writing this blog for nearly 5 years now (since I was still in my Master’s), so things have changed quite a lot in that time.

My PhD is focusing on the health impact of sedentary behaviour in kids and adolescents.  It includes 1 randomized crossover study (i.e. an experiment), and 2 epidemiological studies (i.e. big surveys)  A brief overview of our experiment can be found here. These studies have been split into 4 separate papers – two papers for the experimental study (each looking at a different set of outcomes), and one for each of the epi studies.

All 4 papers have been submitted to journals for publication, with 1 being accepted, 1 being revised and resubmitted (i.e. the journal isn’t ready to publish the paper yet, but said they might be if we made a few changes), and the other two still out with reviewers (unfortunately I can’t share the details of the papers just yet, but I will as soon as the papers are published).  So at least 1 paper will be published before my defense, and hopefully 2-3.  The goal is always to have at least 1 or 2 published before the defense, if anything just to give a bit of confidence in the quality of the work.  Since I’m actively looking for jobs/post docs, publications can’t come quickly enough at this point.  This week I also submitted my literature review for publication, so I’ve got many fingers and toes crossed at the moment.

The only sizable piece of my thesis that remains to be finished is my general discussion, where I’ll have to tie together all the different papers into a somewhat cohesive story. I’m heading to a conference this week (more on that tomorrow), but I’m hoping to have the discussion largely done by the end of the month.  Then I’ll put the lit review, papers, and general discussion into one big document, send it to my supervisor for a final read-through, and then the whole package can be submitted to my thesis committee.  It will take somewhere between 6 and 12 weeks to organize the actual defense of my thesis, which will likely put mine in late summer or early fall.  So I’m not quite at the end of the tunnel, but I’m getting progressively closer.  For so much of grad school it’s hard to tell if you’re making progress because there is such a big pile of work to get done, so it’s nice to be at a stage where everything you do gets you tangibly closer to the finish line.

Nearing the end of my PhD of course brings up the question of “what next?”.  On that issue things are a bit less clear.  I’ve spent a lot of time this year applying for funding on projects that I think could be very interesting and useful to the field, now it just comes down to whether or not the funding agencies are interested.  I should hear back from them any day now, so I’m literally holding my breath every time I refresh my email.  It would be nice to have things ironed out before I submit/defend my thesis, but that’s somewhat out of my control.  If you hear of any exercise physiology positions, feel free to pass them along!

While it may be premature for me to be offering advice on grad school, here are a few general tips that people may find useful, especially for a PhD:

  1. Get started on data collection as early as possible.  There may be some constraints on this depending on your program (e.g. no data collection until the comps and proposal are completed), which can make it extremely difficult to complete intervention studies within the standard 4-year time frame.  Ask more senior students (and profs) in your program if there are any ways to begin at least some aspects of data collection (for example, pilot data) early in your degree.  This will make your life much easier down the road.
  2. Work on side projects.  I’ve been lucky to work on a number of side projects during my PhD (some prime examples are herehere and here).  Most of them have been closely linked to my thesis projects, although some have had nothing to do with my thesis whatsoever.  They’ve all been useful in building skills related to writing/editing/statistics, giving me opportunities to collaborate with other established researchers, and (most importantly) adding a few extra presentations and papers to my CV.  They also force you to learn about research that is slightly outside of your core areas of research, which can be incredibly handy when you start writing the Intro and Discussion for your actual thesis papers, or when you are defending your research at a conference.  Thesis projects can also become side projects; when my committee suggested I focus my thesis only on studies in children and youth, this study went from a thesis project to a side project overnight.  In the end, people care more about your total body of work than your specific thesis document, so I think it’s good to work on side projects whenever they fit within your workload.  Which brings us to the next point… 
  3. There is no such thing as a side project.  A prof in my department said this recently to a group of grad students, and the point is worth remembering.  Side projects are great for all the reasons outlined above.  But they can also monopolize your time and seriously derail progress on your thesis.  I’ve worked on a few side projects that have taken a considerable amount of time and energy, but have been fortunate that they haven’t slowed down work on thesis projects too much.  Due to the way my program is arranged there were a few periods when I couldn’t do much work on my thesis itself (e.g. in the first year of my program before I began my comps, then again while I waiting for ethics approval for my study, etc), and I found these were really good periods for focusing on side projects.
  4. Take extra courses.  My university offers a few courses focusing on University Teaching.  They are pass/fail, they don’t count towards your degree, and they don’t take much time.  And they are fantastic.  I’ve taken two courses on teaching during my degree, and they are probably the most useful courses I have taken during all of grad school.  My university also organizes regular media training sessions, and sessions on networking and project management and also sorts of other useful things.  And a French certification test.  They are all free, and they are all really useful.  And most universities offer similar courses/workshops (they may be aimed at staff rather than grad students, but they are usually willing to let students attend anyway).  I’d recommend leaving these until later in your degree when you are done your other coursework and data collection, but they are absolutely worth the small amount of time that they take from your schedule.
  5. Write as much as you can.  Academic writing is a weird sub-genre of writing, but the more comfortable you are with writing in general, the more comfortable you will be when it comes to writing your comps/proposal/thesis.  Review papers and letters to the editor are an excellent opportunity to work on your academic writing, and are generally underused (letters especially).  It only takes an afternoon to write a letter to the editor, and it’s an important contribution to the academic literature.  Consider writing one the next time you see something in a paper that strikes you as odd.  The worst that can happen is a rejection letter, and you may be able to reuse what you wrote for the letter down the road anyway.  On this note, I would strongly encourage grad students to start a science blog, which is probably the best conceivable way to improve your skills as a writer and science communicator.
  6. Aim for work/life balance.  This one is not always easy.  For example, participants in my thesis study were school-aged children who, as the name suggests, have school on weekdays.  This meant a lot of Saturdays in the lab collecting data.  That’s not ideal for work/life balance.  But it’s important to aim for it nonetheless.  Some of the most prolific researchers I know have phenomenal work/life balance – working 9-5, rarely working weekends, avoiding too much travel, etc.  There are always going to be periods when you need to spend a bit more time at work than you’d like, but don’t let grad school take over your life any more than it has to.  Your supervisor and lab group have a big role to play in this, so I would strongly recommend you ask about this before joining a lab.  My current group is fantastic – we play road hockey several days a week at lunch, we have annual BBQs and pool parties, there are book clubs and social gatherings, etc.  I can’t tell you how much easier it is to do a PhD when you actually like your lab group, and I would recommend placing this very high on your list when choosing where to do any sort of graduate training.  And if you are a supervisor or director  of a research group, please try to encourage your students to maintain a reasonable level of work/life balance while they are in your lab.

Those are a few of my thoughts on things that I’ve found helpful during my PhD.  I’m sure there are many other more useful comments out there, but these are the ones that stuck out for me (they are all things that I chose to focus on increasingly as I moved from undergrad to PhD, and I found that my quality of life and enjoyment at work increased as a result).

If you have any comments or suggestions (or would like to update us on your own thesis progress), please share them in the comments section.



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3 Responses to Thesis update and tips on surviving grad school

  1. Pingback: Heading to #ACSM13 | Obesity Panacea

  2. Laura says:

    A useful and thoughtful column! I’ve got my degree behind me but agree with everything you suggest here. I might add to this list public speaking experience, either in an academic setting (seminar, conference, debate), general public setting, or both. The earlier one learns how to talk about their work and its contribution to society/science/etc, the better.

    You’re really lucky to have found such a great lab group. Good luck with the last dash to the finish.

  3. Thanks for posting this, I’ll pass it on to our grads and link it in course on Survival Skills for Grads. It’s great to have my advice echoed by students. I enjoy the blog and look forward to reading your pubs.