All in one room: A day just for PhD students

Another academic year has begun – offices and labs in our department are populated again, classrooms are actually being used, and there is a pretty good chance that you will have to wait in line for the photocopy machine (and, of course, the washroom). Despite the fact that, come September, our department is filled with people – the lull of the summer months already light-years behind us – it does not necessarily mean that PhDs and post-docs spend much time catching up. In fact, it seems likely that the amount of time spent socializing actually decreases proportionally to the number of years spent in the PhD program.  After all, our tasks become more time-consuming and complex, our deadlines more terrifying, and our interests more narrowly focused. So isn’t it natural that, after a while, we dart straight to our little corner in our lab, do our work and head home, limiting our social interactions to brief hi’s and bye’s in the hallways, instead of more substantial “what are you working on these days” conversations? We may even work from home a lot of the time. Isolation may eventually become a natural way of maximizing our time, staying in control of our productivity and keeping the eyes focused on the finish line.

However, it is obvious that much can be gained by interacting with our peers; the PhD is an intense journey at a point in our lives where we have many other priorities to juggle, and – try as we might to get them to relate – our significant others and family members won’t always see where we are coming from, and how despaired we might be feeling at times.

“What do you mean you won’t be done this year? Just work quickly and finish it!”

“Does it matter that you’re not getting any feedback? Can’t you just do it all yourself?”

Our peers are quite valuable to us and could serve as our support group, as they can relate perfectly well to our (precious) ups and (inevitable) downs along the way. It’s also a shame if we do not learn about our peers’ research projects and interesting findings. We may not know more than one or two keywords about the research being conducted in various labs in our department. We may even find ourselves halfway across the globe, learning about a colleague’s research from a total stranger at a conference, while, embarrassingly enough, this colleague’s lab is immediately adjacent to ours! Our Graduate Program Director organizes an annual Orientation Day for all PhD students at the beginning of the Fall term, but with all the formalities, we barely have time to get to know each other then.

To this end, several students in our department (the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders) decided that it may be fruitful to organize a “PhD-day”, where students in our department would gather in an informal setting (with no Faculty members attending and with lots of refreshments served) to present themselves, their interests, their research project(s), and/or the skills and wisdom they have gained from various graduate school experiences. Our idea was to set aside a day where PhD students at every stage (whether in their 1st year or final year) and from every lab would gather together to share perspectives, anecdotes, resources and research findings. We also wished to welcome the new PhD students who joined our department this Fall, not only to pair new names with new faces, but to have the chance to hear more about their backgrounds, their research ideas and their goals as they enter the PhD program.

Our PhD-day was organized for students by students, and it was meant to be very different from a conference or workshop. Our concept for the day was to have short student presentations scheduled in the morning (9 am – 1pm), followed by a catered lunch outdoors, in the garden behind our building. Our main goal was to create an atmosphere where we promoted the community feel of our department – not only in terms of sharing our research, but also providing support for the other aspects of PhD life.

We began planning the event months in advance. We first set up a Doodle and chose a date that worked for the vast majority of the 32 PhD students and post-docs in our department. To organize the event, we formed 3 different committees (Program, Set-up, and Food) which were made up of a number of attendees who volunteered to help out. To provide the food and drinks for the day, we used the funds that our student body (our Post-Graduate Student Association, or PGSA) is allocated every year from the PGSS Student Life Fund. Note that every department is eligible to receive such funds for their graduate student body, as long as they create a PGSA (or already have one in place) that follows certain rules (i.e., a constitution) determined by PGSS, thereby allowing the PGSA to be officially recognized.

We welcomed 5-, 10- and 15-minute presentations, on a variety of topics, and we encouraged all students to contribute to the day – even the newest PhD students – emphasizing that it was perfectly all right to give a 5-minute introduction of themselves. Research presentations did not need to have data to report – students were free to discuss research proposals they were currently working on, or to share with us their progress and some of the challenges they had encountered in their work so far. We also encouraged non-research presentations, so that students could freely share some tips and insight that they would not be able to share in more formal presentations. The idea was basically to hear from everyone, about anything to do with the PhD journey. By the time the event rolled around, we were to be 26 attendees and 20 presenters – a turnout that totally exceeded our expectations! As the event drew near, many of us confessed to each other how much we were looking forward to our student-organized PhD-day.

Waiting to get started

The program for the day was beautifully diverse, just as we had hoped it would be. Out of the 20 presentations, exactly half ended up being research-based. These research presentations were non-technical and non-jargony – perfectly accessible for students from a variety of backgrounds and research areas – and they gave a fantastic overview of the kinds of fascinating questions that are being studied in our department. In a nutshell, we caught a glimpse into how language develops in children with autism, how bilingual children learn vocabulary in both their languages, how we are able to suppress the literal meaning of idiomatic expressions like “He is pulling my leg“, how we have to re-read sentences like “The old man the boat” to arrive at the intended meaning of the sentence without being tricked by our expectations, what the advantages and disadvantages might be of using certain clinical tests to check for language delays in children, what kinds of changes occur in the brain when we learn a foreign language, what kinds of cultural differences there might be in how emotion is conveyed and perceived in speech, and how our tone might change when we are being misleading and insincere.

The other half of the presentations dealt with all the other themes that PhD students consider important: teaching and supervising during the PhD, successfully surviving the Comprehensive Assessment Exam (Comps), time management, stress management, tools for improving efficiency, how to earn some extra money during the PhD, etc. We had the privilege of hearing golden words of advice from the veteran PhD students’ who, after several years of experience, were eager to share their wisdom and “survival tips” with the rest of us. They shared with us what they learned the hard way, what they know they will laugh about when they look back on their experiences, and what they would do differently if they had to go back and do it all again. They shared some truths about expectations and reality, about how everything takes longer than you think it will, how re-analyzing data and revising papers is part of the process, how challenging it is to step back from your work and not let it define you. We smiled and nodded as they shared their insight, many of us able to relate to these typical grad-school experiences, while the new PhD students initially laughed and then perhaps began to wonder just what was in store for them! We listened in awe and admiration to the 5 Moms in our PhD program about how they came to achieve that fine balance between work and life, how they manage to juggle all their obligations, how their priorities eventually shifted and how it is perfectly okay to have a life outside of your thesis without feeling guilty about it. We applauded the courage of international students who described to us what it was like to move to a new place and start from scratch, to brave the Montreal winters, overcome homesickness, and make new friends. We envied the fresh enthusiasm and “world wide open” attitude we saw in the new PhD students as they talked about the path that had led them to McGill and where they hoped to go. We took notes of the many resources that were shared that day – resources that we are blessed to have at McGill: SKILLSETS workshops, the McGill Writing Centre and graduate writing courses, the McGill Mental Health Service, funding opportunities, PGSS council and other opportunities to be proactive and get involved.

Discussion after a research presentation

Throughout the presentations and all the discussions that followed, the common themes to take away from this day were the importance of being positive, the importance of staying connected to one another, of keeping our work and associated challenges in perspective, and maintaining the balance between our PhD careers and our hobbies or other priorities. That we were able to share tales of triumph and hardships, as well as the wisdom and insight that resulted from these experiences, along with the many interesting research projects being conducted by talented young researchers in our department, made this day an immense success for everyone involved. The outdoor lunch was also quite relaxing, and allowed us to mingle and talk even more. Several times throughout the day, students thanked everyone for attending and for presenting, emphasizing how beneficial and FUN this day had been for them, and how they wished they had had such a day in previous years. Given all this positive feedback, we are sure to repeat this event next year, and we encourage other departments to do something similar, if you can!

Lunch in the garden

It was an incredible experience to have 26 PhD students – at different stages and from different backgrounds – sitting around one table, laughing and sharing and supporting each other. It is not often we are all gathered in one room, let alone that we are able to openly compare notes on the many different facets that make up our graduate-school journey – a journey that, while common to all of us, is uniquely enhanced by our own individual personalities, backgrounds, interests and life circumstances, making it so that there is always so much to learn from one another, and so much perspective to be gained.

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