Completing a graduate degree while working full time

I always like to compose the title of these blog entries first as a way to help me focus my thoughts as I write.  It keeps me from rambling … too much.  My first inclination was to title this blog “Surviving grad school while working full time.”  However, I realized that title did not capture the essence of my own experience, which is what I really wanted to share.

While there is an element of survival, your goals in earning a graduate degree while juggling a 40-hour-a-week (or more) job and a personal life should be to complete the degree, build a network, and enrich your life.  This statement may sound idealistic, even ridiculous if you are reading this blog while on yet another business trip or while trying to catch up on your social media sites while your toddler is taking a nap or some such event.  Surviving is not enough for most of us, though; we want to thrive!

What I present below are some tips that helped me while I completed master’s and Ph.D. degrees and continued to develop new initiatives in a demanding job, care for (and later grieve for) a dying parent, and maintain a healthy relationship with my wonderful, supportive significant other (S.O.).

  1. First, before committing to a graduate program, make sure it’s what you really want to do. Sometimes people will start a program because they think that’s what they need to get promoted.  That MBA or M.S. might be your ticket to an executive office, but it might not.  In my case, a Ph.D. was required to be taken seriously in my field (higher education).
  1. Talk it over with your friends/family AND your co-workers. You have to have their support if you are going to succeed because there will be times you have to miss family events because of school and times when you have to lighten the load a bit at work to finish major milestones such as a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation.
  1. Some folks will disagree with me on this one, but avoid taking out loans to attend graduate school, if at all possible. Enlightened employers will pay for your graduate education, especially if they can see how it will enable you to help the company meet its goals.  If the degree you desire is not related to your job, and you will need to take out loans, run the numbers to make sure the increased salary you can expect upon completion will be enough to pay off those loans in a short time-frame, say five years.  The stress of added debt without added income can be tough on you and your family.
  1. Once you start taking classes, be realistic about how much time you can devote to graduate school. While full-time students usually take about three class a semester, start with one class that first semester (or a one-credit seminar and one three or four-credit regular class).  If that schedule feels comfortable and you think you can do more, then sign up for two courses the next semester.  The point here is to start slow and be flexible.  Graduate school is a marathon, NOT a dash!
  1. Involve your family in what you are studying. Even though my S.O. had little interest in my field, he was curious about what I was learning and writing.  I would share interesting tidbits from the course material, read snippets of my writing to him, and ask for feedback on whether it made sense.  These short sessions enabled him to feel like he was helping me in some small way, rather than being an outsider.
  1. Make time for yourself! Work out in the morning before going to the office.  Also, take time to clear your head for at least 20 minutes a week (meditate, do yoga, sit in the backyard alone on a beautiful evening and stare at the stars), whatever helps you relax.  This is a hard tip to follow, but I swear that once I started jogging a few miles each day, my productivity and ability to concentrate improved drastically.
  1. Finally, honor each milestone. At the end of each semester, celebrate with your friends and/or family. Keep your supervisor informed of your progress.  Thank your co-workers for their continued support.  When you finally graduate, participate in the ceremony!  Invite the important people in your life and enjoy the fact that you have just completed this amazing journey – maybe weighing a few more pounds or feeling a little less sane than when you started, but from that point onward you can check the box that indicates you have a graduate degree!

Good luck!

Best way to develop communication skills? Experience!

In the nine years I have been working in higher education, I’ve seen firsthand the value of experience gained outside of the classroom in more fully understanding the concepts taught within the classroom.

Case in point: Technical communication. Many second and third-year students struggle to understand why they need to write and present well as engineers. Despite all the news stories in recent years about how employers value “soft skills” like communication and teaming, it can be tough for someone who thinks of engineering as a math-and-science field to see the value of learning how to compose clear, concise prose and design engaging presentation slides.

After all, lectures about persuading an audience and using precise, concise language can seem irrelevant in the midst of coursework focused on equations, computational analysis, and theory. They may believe, “I’m an engineer! My numbers (or models) will do the persuading!”

It is only after their first co-op or internship with a real company that many students finally connect what I try to teach them in their disciplinary courses with how their supervisors expect them to communicate. Students often come back from these experiences saying, “Now I get it!”  They talk about having to present to their engineering team on a regular basis, write test reports, or contribute to larger communication projects in which they have to convince others to take a particular course of action.

It’s often easy to identify those students who have had at least a couple of high quality co-ops or internships because they come into their senior capstone  courses with more mature attitudes and more sophisticated approaches to communication tasks.

If I had one piece of advice for engineering students it would be this: Make sure you have at least one co-op or internship before you start your 3000-level courses.  The experience will be well worth the time!

Developing a Daily Writing Habit

Ask any prolific writer her secret to her productivity and she will likely tell you she has developed a habit of writing every day for some minimum period.  Whether you are an undergraduate student taking a writing-intensive class like ME Practice or a graduate student preparing your thesis or dissertation, getting into the habit of writing every day will improve the quality of your writing and make you a more disciplined individual.

One good reason to write daily is that you avoid the problem of procrastination by chipping away at large projects gradually instead of frantically rushing to pull a paper together the night before it is due.

For any activity to become a habit, though, you must make it a priority in your life.  As an example, people who exercise several times a week have made working out a priority by setting aside time on specific days to do run, walk, go to the gym, or take a class.  The same is true for developing a daily writing.  You have to make it a priority and make a commitment to stick to your schedule.

Next, you should set a long-term goal and a few short-term goals to keep you motivated.  For example, a long-term goal might be a detailed paper due at the end of the semester or your dissertation proposal while a short-term goal might be something as simple as making notes in a course or lab notebook or developing a resume.

Once you have some goals, commit to writing for at least 15 minutes every day.  I often find that once I start writing, I can write for much longer than my minimum.  Other days, it’s a struggle to find the words to get started.  (I’ll address ways to overcome writer’s block in a separate blog post.)  That’s why I suggest having a few different projects (journal paper, book chapter, proposal, etc.).  That way, if one project is not going well, you have another one on which you can make progress.

The key is to write something every day, even if it’s just an entry in your diary.  The act of writing triggers deep thinking processes in the brain, which helps you retain information and organize your thoughts.

Answering the “So what?” question

You’ve spent the last twenty minutes passionately describing your latest grand idea.  You’ve used big gestures and eye-catching visuals to demonstrate the awesomeness of your work, and, yet …  Too many people are shifting in their seats or scanning their smartphones.  Those who are looking at you have an odd bored/terrified expression, as if they want to scream, “When are you going to stop talking?!?”

You crafted great slides, you practiced your presentation, and you showed your passion.  So what went wrong?  Why isn’t everyone as excited as you are about your work?

It’s likely that you forgot a key rule of persuasive communication: Make the audience care.   Aristotle used the term “pathos” when he wrote in Rhetoric that understanding and appealing to the audience’s emotions is vital to persuasion – and most professional communication involves persuasion.

Whether you are pitching a new project to a potential client, seeking funding, or just trying to gain some recognition for your efforts, you must first answer the “So what?” question. No matter how great your idea or proposal is, you will not persuade people to act unless you can help them understand, upfront, WHY your work matters to them, the company, and/or the broader world.

Your introductory slide (in a presentation) or paragraph (in a proposal) should set the scene so the audience can grasp why your work matters.  To understand what matters to your audience, consider their roles and objectives and then appeal to their needs and interests.  How will your great idea help them achieve their goals or address an important problem?  Will it save money and/or time?  Will it streamline processes?  Will it make the impossible possible?

After you hook the audience with the answer to why they should care, weave the details of that answer throughout your presentation or proposal and skip the jargon.  How will your idea save money? When will the savings begin? What has to happen first, next, last?  What can the audience do make your idea a reality?

By tailoring your pitch to the needs of your audience, you will have a better chance at rallying them to your cause.

‘Soft Skills’: Lousy title for vital competencies

I cringe whenever I read or hear the term “soft skills” as it applies to those non-technical skills employers of engineers and scientists value, but the teaching of which often get relegated to liberal arts courses in college.

“Soft skills” is such a weak phrase for such an important skill set.  Few people who lack the ability to communicate in a variety of modes, work well in teams, or think critically about issues are going to succeed in their chosen career.  A few years ago, an online survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities revealed that 93% of employers either somewhat or strongly agree that “candidates’ demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major” (AACU report, 2013).

Unfortunately, that message does not get through to many STEM students, in part, because people still talk about “soft skills” as though they were a nice addition to one’s resume, but not required. Such weak phrasing leads many STEM majors to place less value on those humanities, arts, and social science courses that nearly every degree program requires to create a “well-rounded” human. Instead, many students would rather spend their money and effort solely on the technical, “hard skill” courses and gripe their way through composition, philosophy, sociology, etc.

One effort under way at many universities, including my own, is to incorporate written and oral communication, teaming, critical thinking, and problem-solving into disciplinary courses rather than expecting students to learn these skills elsewhere.  This way, students begin to view these skills as just another part of the STEM curriculum, as opposed to “frou-frou” subjects.  Change comes slowly, especially in academia, but faculty eventually realize that the little bit of extra effort required in teaching these topics results in more well-crafted student products, which is a win-win-win situation for faculty, their students, and employers.