10-Year Post-Ph.D. Post

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left: my graduate mentor hooding me; middle & right: hooding my first two Ph.D. students

I graduated with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology 10 years ago! I thought I’d reflect on that by responding to a tweet by Nathan C. Hall (check out the full thread of responses to his tweet here, an article on it here, and discussion of it on a podcast here.

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1. Don’t despair when you’ve invested a lot of time in a study and the results are not statistically significant. There’s a future process coming that will allow you to publish these studies as long as they’re rigorous (Registered Reports).

2. Even though mentoring graduate students provokes a lot of uncertain/anxious feelings, it will end up being one of the most meaningful aspects of your job.

3. You overestimate how much your treatment of people influences how they treat you. People’s goals, personalities, motivations, and other incentives guide their behavior too (more so than yours in some cases).

4. When deciding what to teach within time constraints, prioritize depth over breadth and make time to teach students about process (e.g., how to find and critically evaluate the research on depression treatment) over content (e.g., reviewing every type of depression treatment currently used).

5. Don’t neglect the importance of sociocultural factors in biopsychosocial models of psychopathology. I didn’t even realize I was almost exclusively focused on biological/psychological factors in my abnormal psychology class until a student commented on it in my evaluations during my first year of teaching. I’m really grateful they did that. It made my subsequent teaching more comprehensive.

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6. Demonstrate the importance of course subject matter by taking time to discuss it within its historical context and current real-world significance (e.g., on intelligence – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

7. Even though you think you’ll regret it later, you’ll actually be grateful that you turned down some work opportunities when you were already overloaded with work.

8. If you’re experiencing burnout, try looking at your situation through an operant conditioning lens. Identifying reinforcements, punishments, etc. in your situation can produce problem-solving ideas. This was advice I got from someone else that stuck with me.

9. There are certain types of work in academia that are more frequently and formally recognized and rewarded than others. That doesn’t mean that the other work isn’t of value. Reminding yourself of that with regard to your own and others’ work is important.

10. I don’t know how to phrase this last one except to say that I am extremely grateful for all of the trusted friends and colleagues I have been able to consult when I am unsure of something ranging from scientific to interpersonal aspects of academia. In advice form: don’t hesitate to ask for help from people you trust. And pay it forward when you’re the one who is asked.

 

A Note on the Tragedy at Douglas High School

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All school shootings are heartbreaking. The one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School hits close to home. I grew up in the town neighboring Parkland. I have seen many of my friends from high school express similar sentiments: Douglas was our “rival” high school, but we all got to know each other in middle school and were friends. We hurt for our friends. Most of us still have connections with the area. Our family and friends live there. We can vividly picture the details revealed in the news because we’ve been in those locations. Most of us remember being there without fear that a mass shooting like this could ever occur.

For parents who lost their children in the shooting, this must be an absolute gut-wrenching nightmare. I hear my parent friends saying that they worry about mass shootings when they send their kids off to school. The things that they used to tell themselves to reduce their worry (e.g., we live in a safe town, the school prepares with active shooter drills, the school has security in place, armed resource officers are on campus) start to lose their power when a mass shooting like the one at Douglas happens. The fact that school shootings are statistically rare in an individual risk sense provides little comfort to concerned parents. All children deserve to go to school in safe places, and parents shouldn’t feel like they’re putting their kids in harm’s way simply by sending them to get an education.

For the family, friends, and people directly affected by gun violence of all kinds…no words suffice. I have nothing but compassion, sympathy, and motivation to do my part to address this painful problem. The loss of a child is unfathomable, and I send nothing but love your way. I will conclude with two suggestions for coping, in case they’re helpful to anyone.

Connect

In the face of painful emotions, it can be tempting to withdraw and isolate oneself…to avoid processing or thinking about hurtful realities. While taking time to oneself and breaks from tragic news are components of healthy coping, it’s important to balance that out with taking time to connect with others about your feelings. Interpersonal connections are crucial to good mental and physical health. Communicating with others during stressful times helps to remind us that we’re not alone in our experiences, that we have people who we can depend on, and that there are many kind people out in the world. The American Psychological Association’s press release provides additional resources for coping in the face of this tragedy.

Contribute

This Twitter thread spoke to me. It says that we must act in the face of tragedy 1) to reduce the number of people who are victims in the future and 2) to show our children that we care enough to keep trying. When we take action, it can provide hope in times of despair – for ourselves and for others. Over 10,000 people have already joined a Mobilizing Marjory Stoneman Douglas Facebook group. Over 100 mental health professionals in Florida have said they’re willing to donate time to provide therapy for Douglas students and their families. There is a benefit concert being organized to help victims’ families. There is a fund to help Marjory Stoneman Douglas victims. Students and teachers who survived are courageously speaking out, organizing groups, and planning rallies and marches. People are pulling together to contribute what they can with their diverse resources and talents.

Let’s remember these students and staff and find ways to honor them. Let’s lean on each other for support in the wake of this tragedy.

10 Tips for Writing

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Raymond Tucker, a clinical psychology graduate student at Oklahoma State University, suggested the topic for this blog post and co-wrote it with me.

The late A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, former physicist, aerospace engineer, and president of India once wrote, “Writing is my love. If you love something, you find a lot of time for it. I write two hours a day, usually starting at midnight; at times, I start at eleven.” For me (Ray), this sounds about right… well…. not the first half of the quote… or most of the second half actually… well, really just the starting at midnight part is spot-on. My association with writing during graduate school may not be quite so romantic. Hours of fumbling over sentences, second-guessing work, and responding to endless amounts of track changes, red pen scribbles, and obscene suggestions made by Reviewer 2 (it’s always Reviewer 2) has, at times, left me considering the option of hurling my laptop out of our third story laboratory window.

However, developing skills as an efficient writer is of the utmost importance for a young scientist. It is the goal of this blog post to detail some writing “tidbits” to help young scientists become disciplined writers. Honestly, our goal could most easily be accomplished by telling you to read Dr. Paul Silvia’s book, How to Write A Lot. His book details common misconceptions about writing and important characteristics of highly successful writers. Our hope is to cut some of Dr. Silvia’s thoughts into easy-to-digest chunks, as well as add some insight of our own.

  • Schedule your writing time and guard it ferociously. Schedule when and where you will write. Although this simple scheduling can help you stay more disciplined (even if only 15 words make it onto your Word document), this tip is only helpful if you guard your writing time. Treat it like a meeting with your laptop that simply cannot be rescheduled. Would you cancel a meeting with the Dean? Nope! Heck, name your laptop Dean if that helps. Just guard this time.
  • Writing does not always need to occur in one sitting or during large periods of time. It is easy to get in the habit of saying things like, “I do best when I can sit down and just write the whole paper.” This may feel true, but likely is not. Writing every day, even for 10, 15, or 30 minutes helps keep information fresh in your mind and prevents the dreaded procrastination writing binge that can negatively impact the quality of work produced. Dean Laptop will appreciate more consistent, short periods of attention in comparison to sporadic, long work dates.
  • Know that you are likely to inaccurately predict how long your writing task will take you to accomplish, and just write when you can. This definitely goes along with the previous point, but does expand by noting that predicting time needed to complete a writing task is an imperfect science. One way of behaviorally avoiding a writing project includes feeling like it will take forever to finish and that you need to block off a large chunk of time to write. The opposite can be true. Putting off a writing project because you believe it will only take an hour or two may be another way to avoid buckling down with Dean Laptop and crossing off a project on your to-do list.
  • Be prepared for additional writing time. If you are a graduate student, you know the life of 101 meetings with professors, mentors, clients, and supervisors. These meetings are with pretty busy people which result in them occasionally getting canceled. Always take your writing to meetings or times you work with a client in case you wind up with some unexpected free time. Dean Laptop is highly mobile and enjoys your unexpected company.
  • You learn to write from BOTH writing and reading a lot. This is a sentiment that has been expressed to me (Ray) by advanced graduate students and leaders in the field. Of course, you learn from receiving feedback on your work, but you also learn to write by reading the works of others, especially those who are more advanced than you. I especially appreciate Dr. Thomas Joiner’s advice to make a habit of reading outside of your discipline. This not only helps you develop innovative research ideas, it potentially exposes you to very different writing styles. Read outside of your discipline, not only for content, but for writing structure and style. Dean Laptop is not only a great place to save your written work, but pdfs of others’ works as well.
  • Know that writing distractions can take many different forms. Writing procrastination is definitely a shape-shifter. Sometimes its disguise is fairly easy to see through, taking the form of Netflix binges, texting, and knee-jerk tweeting, pinning, Facebook creeping, and Instagramming. These distractions/procrastination vehicles can be pretty easy to spot. Sometimes the writing procrastination shape-shifter brings its A-game. Nitpicking outlines, fiddling with fonts and formats, and believing that you have not read enough yet to begin writing are all potentially shapes of this behavioral avoidance of the nitty-gritty task of writing. Reflecting on how you might avoid writing can be important. Below are some of our personal ways of avoiding quality time with ol’ Dean Laptop:
    • “I write best when I am at the coffee shop. I will have to go there to finish this.”
    • “I can definitely write with Orange is the New Black on in the background.”
    • “I don’t feel inspired to write.”
    • “My laptop is almost out of battery.”
    • “I haven’t printed out the Gordon et al. (2010) article yet.”
    • “I will write this weekend.” HA!
    • “I am feeling (insert psychosomatic complaint). This wouldn’t be my best work.”
  • Understand that struggles during the writing process are common and that perseverance is key. It’s important that you don’t misinterpret the experience of having difficulty with writing as an indication that you are incapable of writing well. To the contrary, many award-winning, accomplished writers have openly discussed the challenges they have faced. For example, Felicia Day wrote about the process of writing her award-winning web series, The Guild, in her New York Times bestselling book You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost).

Every second of writing that script felt like walking barefoot over shards of glass. I would write a bit and then I would sob, wanting desperately to erase what I’d just written…Then I would force my fingers to type more, every word feeling like I was bleeding from every orifice. I was engulfed with fear of making mistakes, of writing something stupid…I was, in short, terrified of the process. It was not fun. What drove me to continue? Sheer obstinate grit. (pp. 142-143)

Similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates said that during the process of writing Between the World and Me, he felt “total despair” and thought, “I am about to fail and everyone will know it.” He stuck with it, and Between the World and Me went on to become a New York Times #1 Bestseller and earn a National Book Award in 2015. Coates also won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2015 for his work. Coates shared more of his advice on writing and struggles with the process here and here.

  • Remove obstacles caused by perfectionism. There is an old saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” I (Katie) try to keep this in mind as I write. In particular, this means that I start typing what I am going to write well before the sentences are formed “perfectly” in my head, knowing that effective writing is typically the result of a process that involves multiple revisions rather than the first thing that comes to one’s mind on a topic. Secondly, I set time limits on my other tasks (preparation of teaching materials, responding to e-mails, blog posts) that allow for high quality (but not perfect) work, so that I can protect and prioritize writing time.
  • Use exposure to overcome writing anxiety. Worry about writing can come from multiple sources. The biggest areas of anxiety for me (Katie) come from a concern about being unable to complete a project and worry about other people (e.g., co-authors, reviewers, etc.) not thinking my work is good enough. When anxiety strikes, our urge is usually to avoid – avoid writing, avoid sharing your work with others, etc. The most effective way I’ve found to counter this anxiety has been to treat it like I would clinically – repeatedly put myself in these situations until they don’t feel as scary. Putting myself in positions where I need to complete projects with tight timelines and share my work with others teaches me that I can, in fact, handle these aspects of writing, even when it means receiving criticism of my work and other types of pressure.
  • Create interpersonal accountability for your writing. Publishing is often viewed as one of the main responsibilities for academics, and yet, it can be the hardest activity to get to in light of the clearer expected timelines for other responsibilities (e.g., meeting with students, teaching). For me (Katie, again), one of the most helpful strategies has been to work collaboratively with others who are expecting writing from me within a specific time frame. Setting these dates and goals, particularly when others are aware of them, increases my motivation to find the time to write despite all of my other responsibilities. This group can be other grad students, professors, co-authors, or just other individuals who have projects where they benefit from checking in with others. I often use this strategy with my lab group.

By no means are all of these suggestions easy to accomplish. Just like any good skill, practice is key. We hope you can test drive some of these tips and see what helps you become an effective and disciplined writer. We wish you the best of luck in your academic pursuits!

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Advice for Aspiring Professors

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my colleague, Professor Erin Conwell

Last month, I wrote a post describing my tips for graduate school success. A student suggested that it would be helpful to have a follow-up post featuring advice about becoming a professor, and I thought that was a great idea. As you read through my recommendations for aspiring professors, please keep a few things in mind. First, disciplines, universities, and departments all vary in terms of what they look for when they are hiring. Most of my experience and knowledge come from psychology departments in the U.S. with a primary focus on research and a secondary focus on teaching. Therefore, my advice may be most applicable to people seeking out those types of jobs. Second, most graduate students are already aware that publications are a major way that job applicants are evaluated for professor positions in research-focused departments. Therefore, I have not included direct advice on publishing below, even though it is undeniably an important part of being a competitive job applicant for these types of positions and should be prioritized. Finally, many people take postdoctoral positions before applying to work as a professor and that provides additional opportunities to gain experience in the areas described below.

Programmatic Research When making hiring decisions, faculty select applicants who are likely to succeed at establishing an active research program in their department. One way to increase their confidence in your ability to do that is to have a specific plan for the types of research that you will pursue both in the short-term and the long-term. If you demonstrate that you have a program of research with well-articulated, theory-driven, and well-formed research questions propelling your work, you will be a strong applicant. Alternatively, applicants who have disconnected, poorly planned, and impractical ideas will not be as competitive. 

My advice for graduate students is to think about conceptualizing your research in a programmatic way when preparing your job application materials and job talk (a presentation of your research that most interviews include). I suggest asking to see other people’s materials as samples and consulting with faculty for feedback as you prepare your own. Every piece of work (e.g., publications, presentations) that you have done does not have to fit within one theme, but it helps if you can tie your past, present, and future work together with a (or a few) overriding theme(s).

Grant potential It is also typically important that you demonstrate the ability to obtain grant funding for your work. You can do this by 1) getting a grant in graduate school (they don’t have to be major grants, smaller within-university or department grants can be helpful in this regard), 2) applying for an external grant (e.g., through the National Institute of Health or the National Science Foundation) even if it is not funded, and 3) showing that you have knowledge about grants (e.g., specific ideas about the types that you will pursue once hired).

My recommendation for graduate students is to prepare for your job application and interview by actively seeking out grant information through specialized workshops, research mentors, and websites for relevant funding agencies, which often have tutorials available. It is especially helpful, as I mentioned above, to gain experience by actually applying for grants. Even if your grant applications are not funded, it still reflects positively on you that you applied. You should understand the main types of grants that you would be eligible for and the types of projects that tend to be prioritized for funding.

Teaching potential Job applicants are also usually evaluated on their ability to teach effectively and to fill department needs. You can present evidence that you will be a good teacher through 1) positive ratings and comments from students for previously taught courses , 2) job application materials expressing enthusiasm and citing sources of specific knowledge about teaching (e.g., classes taken about teaching), and 3) letters of recommendation that positively reflect on teaching-related skills. If you are invited for an interview, you can also demonstrate your potential through positive interactions with the department’s graduate and undergraduate students and a willingness to teach a variety of classes.

In addition to seeking out the types of teaching experiences I listed above, I also suggest preparing for your job talk by practicing it for different audiences and getting feedback from a variety of people (e.g., professors both within and outside of your specialty areas). If you didn’t have a lot of teaching experience in graduate school (which was the case for me), it may be especially important to present a polished job talk that displays relevant skills: clearly expressing and connecting ideas, engaging an audience, and responding well to questions.

Collegiality As is the case with most hiring decisions, people seriously consider whether the applicant would be a good colleague. By that, I mean someone who will contribute to the department and university in meaningful ways, act with integrity, and behave respectfully toward others. Evidence that someone is likely to make a good colleague can come from 1) showing interest and enthusiasm for other people’s work in your application and on the interview, 2) being polite and interactive during the interview, and 3) letters of recommendation touching upon your strong interpersonal skills.

For this component, my advice is to be mindful of the ways that you interact with your peers, professors, and others in graduate school, so that these individuals can attest to your collegiality. You can prepare for job interviews by seeking out opportunities to interact with professors and peers in your own department, communicating with conference attendees and presenters, etc. These type of experiences will help you to refine your professional interaction style and increase your comfort level.

Match Beyond the collegiality aspect mentioned above, your goals and priorities and how well they align with the department, your openness to potentially collaborating with others in the department, and your commitment to similar values as the department (e.g., prioritizing evidence-based treatments in clinical psychology programs that have a clinical scientist training model) will all be considered.

My advice is to look closely at information about the department, the faculty, and the university and highlight areas of fit in your cover letter and then expand upon them in more detail if you are invited for an interview. 

I enjoy being a professor and wrote this post to help others who are interested in becoming professors. The application process for these types of positions can be daunting. My hope is that this post makes typical areas that are considered for hiring more transparent, and that the advice will help you to prepare for the process.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to my graduate school mentor, Dr. Thomas Joiner, for all of his excellent job-related advice. I also want to thank Brandon Saxton for giving me the idea for this post and for feedback on an early version.

Ronda Rousey’s Fight with an Eating Disorder

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I recently read Ronda Rousey’s book My Fight/Your Fight. In case you’re not familiar with her, I will list a few of her accomplishments: she is a former UFC champion, an Olympic bronze medalist in judo, and an ESPY Award recipient of both the Fighter of the Year and Best Woman Athlete awards. A few of the personal reasons that I connect with Rousey’s story are that I also started judo as a young girl and am a black belt in it (unlike her, I am not currently in my prime fighting condition); I, too, moved from a warm-weathered coastal city to a smaller town in North Dakota; and, like her, I really value authenticity both for myself and in other people. I admire Rousey for the numerous difficulties she has overcome, her position as one of the most dominant athletes of all time, and the barriers that she broke through by not letting people stop her from pursuing her dreams in a male-dominated field.

The two aspects of Rousey’s book that are most relevant to our lab’s research are related to her father’s tragic death by suicide and her past with an eating disorder (she reportedly had bulimia nervosa that began when she was an adolescent). Rousey speaks openly and compassionately about her father and how his death by suicide impacted her. I recommend reading about it in her own words in detail in her book or briefly in a piece she wrote at this link. Here, I will focus on three points about eating disorders from her book:

  1. There is a common misperception that people with bulimia nervosa are fragile.  I can’t imagine that anyone would describe Rousey as anything other than exceptionally mentally and physically tough. You can see it in her judo matches and UFC fights. She is remarkably resilient despite the numerous hardships she has experienced (born with her umbilical cord around her neck, overcame a significant speech problem, lost her dad, and much more). Despite her obvious and immense strength, she suffered from bulimia nervosa for years before recovering. Her openness about her past helps to decrease public perception that eating disorders result from weakness.
  2. Rousey offers insight into the factors that she believes contributed to her eating disorder, and they are consistent with what we know from scientific research. Being an athleteholding perfectionistic standards, feeling dissatisfied with her body, having low social support (which she experienced when her bulimia nervosa started), and fasting (which Rousey did to make weight for competitions) all elevate the risk for developing and continuing to have an eating disorder.
  3. In her book, Rousey states that she no longer binges or purges, no longer fasts to cut weight, that she typically maintains a healthy weight (rather than striving for an unhealthy low competition weight, as she did in the past), and that she now has a positive view and appreciation for her body. Like Serena Williams and other female athletes, people have attempted to criticize Rousey’s body by saying that she looks masculine. She responded to this by saying that her body was “badass” and “there’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose…” She raised money for a charity that focuses on mental health issues including body image, and her positive message about body image is spreading. Beyonce played the speech where Rousey said these things during a performance, and Demi Lovato (who also recovered from an eating disorder) has also expressed admiration for Rousey. There is hope for recovery and thriving after an eating disorder. If you or a loved one needs treatment for an eating disorder, there is help available: 12, 3, and 4.

I will conclude with a fun fact for us folks who live in North Dakota. Ronda Rousey’s first full sentence was, “I like North Dakota more than California.” (p.18 of her book)

Overcoming Overthinking

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Note: If you have mental health concerns, please consult with a mental health professional for help. I have provided an introductory overview of rumination below with the hope of raising awareness about the research on rumination, but this does not replace the advice of a professional who personally knows you and your situation.

Most of us have had the experience where we can’t stop thinking about something, no matter how hard we try . We might pick apart the situation to see what we could have done differently, try to analyze minutiae of the incident to figure out what it all means, wonder why it happened to us, and so on. Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema referred to this process as rumination and defined it as “a method of coping with negative mood that involves self-focused attention” and “repetitive and passive focus on one’s negative emotions.” If you are interested in ways that researchers and therapists measure rumination, you can look at Nolen-Hoeksema’s questionnaire here.

Though most of us ruminate from time to time, some people ruminate frequently, and people who do this are at higher risk for depression. In addition, our lab found a connection between rumination and elevated risk for binge eating, while others have found that rumination is associated with a tendency to cope through alcohol or drug use and nonsuicidal self-injury (intentionally hurting oneself without the intent to die, such as cutting or burning oneself).

If you tend to ruminate, you may have experienced people telling you to just stop overthinking a situation and move on. For many people, this is easier said than done. Fortunately, Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema offered suggestions for decreasing rumination. I will list the main ideas below, but I highly recommend reading her books for details (1, 2).

  1. Recognize that rumination is different than problem-solving or planning. Problem-solving and planning are active coping strategies, while rumination involves rethinking situations, analyzing them, and replaying them without forming an action plan or feeling a sense of resolution. Sometimes simply recognizing that you’re ruminating can be a helpful first step toward decreasing it and getting on a different track.
  2. Research suggests that distraction can also help to reduce it.  Because the pull of rumination can be strong, Dr. Edward Selby suggests specifically selecting activities that are highly engaging and positive, so that they effectively shift your attention from overthinking.  Examples may include vigorous exercise, taking a hot shower, doing a crossword puzzle, holding an ice cube in your hand (a suggestion from Dialectical Behavior Therapy), watching an engrossing movie, playing a game, or any other type of healthy activity that you find helpful.
  3. Plan dedicated daily rumination time. Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema recommended scheduling a dedicated time (e.g., 30 minutes) in the day when you plan to ruminate, an exercise similar to one developed by Dr. Thomas Borkovec for worry. This might sound strange, but the idea is that if you start ruminating or worrying at any other time during the day, it is easier to change course if you think to yourself, “I don’t need to think about this now. I will save it for my designated time later.” In my clinical experience, when people devote time to ruminating in a focused way, they often find that they can’t fill the full time or that they find some resolution at the end of it. This is in contrast to a common pattern of ruminating which involves going in and out of it in a more shallow way of thinking throughout the day while completing other tasks. It is not recommended that you plan your rumination time right before bed, because it could interfere with falling asleep.
  4. Try meditation or prayer. Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema conducted community interviews and reported that some people turn their concerns over to a higher power when ruminating, and that this seems to help them gain acceptance and peace about a situation. In particular, some clients that I have worked with find the serenity prayer to be helpful with reducing overthinking. For people who are not religious or who are just looking for an additional healthy coping strategy, she suggests trying meditation and/or mindfulness exercises. If you would like to see what some meditation and mindfulness exercises are like, there are many options on this website. In particular, the last three exercises on that website are designed for finding new ways of relating to your troublesome thoughts.
  5. Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema also recommended writing thoughts out in an effort to reduce the thoughts from going around in circles in your head. The key here is to make sure that the writing is leading to a sense of resolve and relief rather than adding a new place for ruminating. If you find that it makes things worse, then it is best to try some of the other strategies in this post.
  6. Talk to someone about the problem to try to gain new perspective (just beware of co-rumination (“extensively discussing and revisiting problems, speculating about problems, and focusing on negative feelings”), which can exacerbate the problem.
  7. Create positive emotions. Research suggests that creating momentary positive feelings can help people to cope more effectively with their problems. It might seem like this is particularly hard to do when stuck in a rumination cycle. However, if you can find something to add some positive emotions, even briefly, it might help you to look at your problem differently. Some suggestions for this include watching a funny video or book, singing/listening to/dancing to an upbeat song, going somewhere that makes you feel happy, etc.

Because it can be hard to remember the options listed above while in a ruminative state, it can be helpful to have a list ready (e.g., on an index card in your wallet, on your phone, on your computer) of healthy coping strategies. That way, if you find yourself ruminating, you can refer to your list for specific suggestions to try during difficult moments.

I hope that you find these recommendations helpful for reducing overthinking. However, if you feel that you are stuck or that your rumination is leading to significant distress or impairment in your life (e.g., negatively affecting relationships, work, or school), please seek help from a mental health professional.  This article by Dr. Jill Holm Denoma on Psychotherapy Brown Bag‘s website explains how to find a good therapist.

In addition, sometimes thoughts and memories can keep returning to people’s minds because of the experience of a traumatic event. This can be quite different than rumination, and I recommend seeking professional help specifically for trauma if that is what you are experiencing.

My Top 10 Tips for Grad Students

The transition from being an undergraduate student to becoming a graduate student can be challenging. One aspect that graduate students may struggle with is the ability to decipher faculty expectations. A couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation on this topic that included my top 10 tips for graduate students. I am posting them here in case they are helpful.

  1. Clarify expectations, and then put forth your best effort to meet those expectations. Sometimes students feel embarrassed to ask faculty to spell out what they want for a particular project due to fear that they will look unprepared or unintelligent. However, taking time to clarify expectations typically leads to a better outcome both in terms of completing a task correctly and decreasing uncertainty and anxiety for the student during the process.
  2. Practice conversational skills, listening, and otherwise refining your interpersonal interaction style. These skills are important to develop for networking, job interviews, and opening up collaborative opportunities. I recommend seeking out ways to practice in order to feel more comfortable and confident interacting with other professionals in your field. If you want feedback about your interpersonal skills, I recommend asking faculty or more senior graduate students who you trust to be honest and constructive.
  3. Complain discreetly. Almost all (if not all) people vent or complain about the less desirable aspects of their work and life from time to time. It can be a helpful way to process emotions and garner social support. However, if complaining about graduate school-related topics is done frequently, particularly in public domains (e.g., in public hallways and public places, social media), it may suggest to people that you are dissatisfied with your line of work and may fit better in a different field.
  4. Act respectfully toward others, not just people you view as crucial to career advancement. Though it’s a rare occurrence, sometimes people will only act respectfully toward certain professors that they view as vital to their advancement and less respectful to others, including their peers and administrative staff.  Word gets around about people who do this, and it can reflect negatively on you.
  5. Respond well to feedbackOften students who enter graduate school are used to being among the top students from their undergraduate classes. It can feel especially difficulty to start receiving more in-depth criticism on writing, presentations, and other aspects of your work. It is important to keep in mind that you are working to attain a much higher skill level than before, and feedback is necessary for you to reach that higher skill level. As best as you can, try to accept that feedback is part of the learning process and not a personal attack or sign that you are incapable. Try to be open to feedback and respond well to it.  You are not expected to do something perfectly the first time you try, but it will reflect positively on you if you listen non-defensively to feedback and incorporate changes based on it.
  6. Be mindful of your online presence. Many employers, students, and clients will look you up on social media. Keep this heightened visibility in mind as you transition into a more professional role as a teaching assistant, begin practicum experiences and internships in your field, etc. Try to keep in mind that anything posted with a public setting may be viewed by people other than your friends and family, and tailor your online presence accordingly.
  7. Show interest. If you are passionate about your field and demonstrate that through enthusiasm about your work and the work of others, people will be able to see you as a professional in the field. If it appears that you are doing the bare minimum asked of you, tuning out in class or lab meetings, or otherwise going through the motions, you may want to consider whether you would be happier in a different field.
  8. Be engaged. In my seven years as a faculty member, I have repeatedly heard other faculty members talk about graduate students who impress them. Consistently, they are students who demonstrate that they are engaged through consistent, hard work, going above and beyond what is asked of them, and seeking out additional opportunities for learning (e.g., attending presentations or reading materials that are not required), and independently seeking out professional growth opportunities (e.g., initiating research projects and papers, presenting at conferences, applying for grants and fellowships, attending specialized workshops).
  9. Act with integrity. Regardless of achievements or talent, if a person does not act with integrity (e.g., treats people disrespectfully, acts in an aggressive or discriminatory manner, lies, or cheats), then faculty will be reluctant to work with or hire them. On the other hand, if a graduate student treats others fairly and acts honestly and ethically, then faculty can wholeheartedly recommend them to future employers and collaborators without reservations. In most cases, if you make a mistake, you can still prove that you have good character by taking responsibility, apologizing, making amends, and proving that you have changed your behavior.
  10. Take care of yourself. Finding a balance between working really hard and taking care of yourself can be difficult. Yet, it is essential to prevent burnout, maintain productivity, and, most importantly, to protect your physical and mental health. If you find yourself struggling to strike this balance (as most of us do), consult faculty members and peer role models for advice, and please consider seeking counseling as an option as well. Discussing your values and well-being needs with a person outside of your program can help to clarify what you need to do to take care of yourself while balancing the important, hard work that you need to do in order to succeed professionally.

Navigating graduate school can be a challenging process. You were admitted into your program because the faculty in your department have confidence that you have what it takes to succeed. I hope that you can take some comfort in that fact while balancing the numerous demands of graduate school.
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 Maplewood State Park, 57 miles from NDSU