Posts tagged "advice"


At present, I write here infrequently. You can find my current, regular blogging over at The Deliberate Owl.

graduates at an outside commencement throwing their hats in the air, with pine trees in the background

Considering applying to graduate school? Or enrolled already, but second guessing your decision?

I was talking with another mom at the park last week. Her husband had a PhD, but wasn't using it much in his career. He hadn't gone into academia, or even into research. That's frequently the case for PhDs. Sure, having the credential could be helpful in landing gigs. But … "Is going to grad school worth it?" she asked me.

No, graduate school is not always worth it. The key is deciding whether it is worth it for you, right now. Many factors go into your decision: personal, practical, financial.

Can you afford grad school?

Graduate school is a notoriously expensive investment. The expected payoff is that you will earn a higher income and attain a more desirable career as a result. But is this actually true?

It depends entirely on your field and your personal career goals.

Many students end up in debt. You're more likely to pay for your degree and take on debt if you are pursuing a degree in the social sciences or humanities, or for a professional degree such as an MD or JD. In STEM fields, and some social sciences, you are more likely to find funding, such as a scholarship or fellowship, for your studies—but it's not guaranteed!

Consider your finances carefully before jumping into grad school.

Does a graduate degree help you?

Going to grad school can help you achieve your career goals… but it can also hurt. Many PhDs don't become professors or go into research—like my friend's husband. That means they've trained for a job they don't have. What do they do instead? All kinds of things. But when you choose a career path that doesn't require a graduate degree, the people who started that path before you—without attending grad school—may be seen as more qualified and may be hired or promoted over you.

Think carefully about your potential career paths up front. Revisit your plans regularly and consider your options.

(Read: [How I Built a Career from Strengths and Interests—and How Your Kids Can, Too](

Do your career goals require a graduate degree?

If your career goals require a graduate degree, then you should carefully evaluate whether a graduate degree is the only possible path to that career.

Professional degrees can often be required for a particular career path—such as a JD for lawyers.

If you're in the humanities, and some social sciences, grad school is less likely to be worth it. You're more likely to end up in debt, because there's as not much funding available for advanced humanities degrees, at either the Master's or PhD level. An advanced humanities degree is not required for many careers. If you want to be a professor, sure; but there are few tenure-track positions available, and the adjunct life is only appealing in certain cases.

In STEM fields, and some social sciences, grad school can be a useful stepping stone to a wider variety of careers—professorships, government research, and industry research. Many higher up positions in research-heavy fields require a Master's or PhD. Some, however, may just as easily accept an equivalent number of years of experience. Do your career goals require a graduate degree?

Do your personal goals allow for a graduate degree?

Even if your career requires a graduate degree, your broader life goals may not. Grad school takes a long time. Master's programs are generally one or two years. A PhD can take up to a decade, depending on the program and your field. A decade is a long time.

What else are you putting on hold while you're in school? What are your other personal goals for your life? Do you want to live in a particular place? Do you want a family? You may already have roots in a particular place, or a family, or a spouse's career to consider. These factors impact your decision to attend grad school—or not. What do you have to give up? What else could you be doing?

(Read: [Why I Went To Graduate School](

Does going to grad school help you?

Ask yourself these questions:

    What do I value? How do I live out my values? What career do I want? Why? What are the different ways I could pursue this career? Is graduate school absolutely necessary, or can I learn what is needed in another way? Are there similar careers equally appealing that require less schooling? What are my financial goals? Does graduate school help me reach them? Can I afford more school? Is it worth it? Can I trade time and money for the future payout of a more desirable career? What's the opportunity cost? What could I be doing instead? What am I giving up to attend graduate school? Think about where you want to be in five years, or ten years. If you were at the end of your life looking back, what would you wish you had done more of—or less of? Who would you wish you had spent more time with?

Make sure your plans line up with your priorities. Don't go to grad school by default. Only go if it's the best option for you and helps you learn and achieve what you want to learn and achieve.

Like this post? You'll find even more detailed advice about managing grad school and life in my new book, Grad School Life: Surviving and Thriving Beyond Coursework and Research. Order it today!


silhouette of a person standing arms outstretched in front of a sunset

So where do you get good ideas?

Even at MIT, good ideas don't grow on trees.

Instead, I've found that good ideas have two ingredients: preparation and practice.

1. Preparation. The act of acquiring new knowledge and ideas. The foundation on which my good ideas will be built.

2. Practice. Generate lots of ideas. Engage with ideas in new ways. Think about what's next, what could be changed, what can be improved, how things work, what might happen if, implications, extrapolations.

Here's my method.


I read outside my field, especially non-fiction. This gives me new information and new perspectives.

For example, I picked up Vera Johnson-Steiner's book Notebooks of the Mind, which was a nice qualitative discussion of creativity. I read Cal Newport's Deep Work, which changed how I approach my work time. Peter Gray's book on self-directed education, Free to Learn, is personally relevant, and discussed a lot of education research about how children learn (including anthropology work about hunter-gatherer tribes!), which influenced how I approach my research on kids, robots, and learning. I've read books on laughter, mutual causality and systems theory, the differences between ancient Chinese and Western medicine, the impact of socioeconomic status and race on language and society, the psychophysiology of stress, and many more.

I read papers in my field. I read the "future work" sections in papers I like. These sections are full of researchers' ideas that didn't quite make it into the current project, ways to extend their work, and ways to improve their work.

I try to have a regular academic reading group. Success has varied. With my lab group, some years we've managed to meet weekly! Some years, we're lucky if meet once a month, if at all. Right now, I'm also in a reading group organized around the broad topic of learning; we've read papers recently on the connections between Piaget and Vygotsky, Bandura's intrinsic motivation theory, and how stress affects learning.

We take turns choosing papers to read, which means I often read papers I may not otherwise have picked up. Some are highly relevant to my work, and some, not so much. One question I always try to ask is "How could I apply the ideas in this paper to my work?" That is, what can I learn from this paper? Having this question in mind helps me ground what I'm reading in what I already know.


Notebooks: I have one. Several, actually (along with some text files and unsent email drafts).  I jot down ideas regularly: thoughts on whatever I'm reading about, interesting things I notice about the world, how concepts connect back to other things I've learned. I review these notes periodically. I look for patterns. When deliberating dissertation topics, I noticed themes in what I highlighted in my notes, which helped me narrow in on what really interested me. I've developed new research ideas and come up with ways of building on my previous work.

Spend time thinking, processing, summarizing, planning, and synthesizing. For me, this often overlaps with "notebook time", in that I do a lot of this thinking and planning on paper. I find writing time (such as working on a paper) is also synthesizing time. The process of writing coherent paragraphs about a topic means I'm clarifying and summarizing my understanding of the topic at the same time. The important thing, however you do it, is to not only accumulate knowledge but also process what you've learned. I find it important to spend connecting ideas and deepening my understanding of how different pieces of knowledge fit together.

Use class projects as an opportunity to explore random ideas. I've benefited from the MIT Media Lab's project-heavy class structure, since there's ample space to try out new things, no long-term vision or research agenda required. In my final project for an Affective Computing class, I tested a hypothesis about the impact of introducing a social robot in a particular way might have on people's social judgements of the robot. I've also made light-up balls that change color in response to accelerometer data (we called them glorbs, and created life-size paper robot silhouettes to ask questions about the "aliveness" of robots.

Other people in my lab have, perhaps, gone in wackier directions—for example, two students did a project about enhancing creativity during early stages of sleep, which involved getting people to fall asleep wearing an EEG cap, and having a robot wake them up with questions every time they started to get comfortably dreamy.

I talk to people. For example, in my lab group, we used to all walk downstairs to get tea or coffee from the 3rd floor kitchen at least twice a day. We'd troop back up to the lab, steaming mugs in hand, and stand around throwing ideas off the wall for half an hour before getting back to work. We discuss some serious stuff, like the ethics of child-robot interaction, as well as random stuff, like ceiling robots that could unobtrusively steal leftover food from other people's meetings.

I also try to talk to people from outside my lab and outside my field. Hearing from people who see things from a different perspective or who need me to explain things in a different way can be incredibly helpful for gaining new insights and seeing things from a different point of view.

In all these conversations, notebooks, and classes, I try to keep asking, "And then what?" If my hypotheses are supported, what next? If I'm wrong about something, what are the implications? Where are the opportunities? What might happen if?

That's where my good ideas come from. Preparation and practice.

This article originally appeared on the MIT Graduate Student Blog, June 2018


metal teapot on a table next to two matching round teacups

Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

A quiet sip of tea. Warmth and sweetness. Tang of raspberries. Familiar scrape, chink of ceramic mug lifted, returned to the tabletop.

A reminder to pause. Absorb this moment, this breath, this sip of tea.

A reminder to take time.

Your work may be your life, but your life is more than just your work. Sometimes, in the midst of paper revisions, running studies, writing code, it's easy to forget. But your life is more than your studies. It's more than your art, your hobbies, your sports, your relationships. Your life is all of these. Sometimes, you have to take time away from one facet to tend another. And that's okay.

Some of the best advice I've gotten about balancing my life came from a fencing coach, when I was a teenager. He'd say, come to practice. Train hard. Care about the sport. But he'd also say, "at the end of the day, it's just fencing." At the end of the day, it's only one piece of your life, even if it's a really important one right now. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

That always holds true. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

The hard part is knowing what should take precedence, now or in the long-term. The hard part is taking time when you need it. The hard part is not just taking time once, but continuing to take time. After all, time taken for one part of your life is time lost in another. Right?

Yes and no. I find I'm more myself when I take time for hobbies and relationships. I find I'm more productive in my work when work is not the only thing I do all day, every day. So I use little things to remind myself to take time. I use little things to take time.

A mug of tea becomes a reminder to stay present. I take that moment to pause, relax, re-focus.

A commute on Boston's subway, the T, becomes a reminder to take time for things I enjoy, like reading. I bring a book, fiction or otherwise unrelated to my usual research-related reading, to pass the time.

A walk across campus becomes a reminder to spend more time outdoors or exercising. I remember to relish the mile walk from my apartment to the T every day -- a walk I could easily dread, especially in January. But it's a reminder to see the world. In walking through the city every day, I see its small changes. I notice the first buds in spring. I see the snow fall, stick, and melt away. Sometimes, I use the walk as time to call family or keep in touch with friends. A reminder that relationships matter.

Find small moments to take time. Be present in your life. We all know how easy it would be to spend all day and all night in our labs and offices.

But sometimes, other stuff take precedence. Other stuff matters too.

I use little things to remind me of that.

What are your reminders?


girl in blue sweater sitting at a computer with documents open

A problem with writing

Writing without getting feedback is great. You're writing. That's good.

Writing with feedback is even better.

The biggest problem students tend to have—whether or not you are one of these people—is getting feedback on their writing. You need feedback to improve. You need to see what good writing looks like and what bad writing looks like. You need to how other people would say the same thing differently, and why.

(This isn't a problem only relevant to students. It's relevant to most people who write. But I'm a student, and a lot of the people I interact with on a daily basis are students, so this is advice targeted at us.)

As it turns out, this whole feedback thing is actually several problems.

#1: Get feedback

First. You need to get feedback on your writing. Sometimes this is hard, because everyone is busy and may not have time to comment in detail on your paper drafts. But it's really, really important.

It's something we should all do for each other.

Send your paper drafts to the other students in your group. Ask them for feedback. If we all have the mindset that we can help each other out, then it's a reciprocal process: you give feedback on their papers, you get feedback on yours.

When you ask other students for feedback, respect their time. Try not to send them a paper to look at last minute, unless you ask them if it's okay first. That said, pretty often they're willing to help you at the last minute because we all know how deadlines are and what it's like trying to finish a paper. (At least, the students in my lab are like that. We try to help each other.)

You can also get other friends, students, family, whoever to look at your paper. Getting someone who's in your field to look at the paper is great, because they know the conventions for how papers are written and organized -- what's expected in your field. Getting people outside your field to look at your writing is also great. You get to learn whether you're understandable to someone who's unfamiliar with your work already. It's really easy to forget to explain things that seem straightforward to you but really aren't, because you think about them all the time.

#2: Give feedback

Second. You need to give feedback on others' writing. Reciprocally, when other students send you paper drafts, give them the kind of feedback you'd like to get. Be friendly, be helpful, be detailed when you can, but be critical. The goal is to improve their writing. Critiquing other people's writing helps you see what you think is, and is not, good writing. It helps you see how writing is done. It helps you realize that when you get feedback, the other person is trying to point out stuff you might've missed the first time around, not trying to be mean...

#3: Don't take feedback personally

Third. When you get feedback, don't take it personally. Or put in the positive, do remember that your writing is not you. You're still practicing. Still getting better.

When you get a critique on a draft, or when you get back the reviews of a paper submission, the first thing you do is briefly skim it. Say to yourself, okay, this person read what I wrote and thought these bits could be better. They are not trying to be mean. They are not saying that I am a terrible writer. They are trying to help me express my ideas more clearly and coherently. They probably have more experience doing this than me, so I should probably pay attention.

You don't have to pay attention right away. Take a step back. Set the reviews aside. Get a cup of tea. In a little while, after reminding yourself that reviews and critiques are, almost always, intended to help you be better at writing, go back to them. Tackle them head on and revise that paper. Remember that since people are busy, comments they write on your drafts may be terse. That's okay. They're just trying to be efficient. Revise that paper anyway. Remember that you don't have to accept all the feedback and make all the changes they suggest--some things are absolute (like spelling), some things are opinion (like how to best phrase a sentence). Sometimes people are unhelpful and sometimes their comments don't make sense.

If you're revising a paper for a conference or journal based on reviews you got, definitely get help from people who've done these kinds of revisions before--other students, postdocs, and professors! The way I learned how to politely and completely respond to reviews on a journal submission was by seeing how the professors I worked with phrased things and told me to write things. I was given copies of past cover letters and response letters as examples.

Revision is part of writing

In summary: Get feedback. Give feedback. Writing is practice. Revision is part of the writing process. You have to write and fix what you write to get better.


white laptop with printed papers and books

Writing is not a chore

Many students see writing as a chore. I finished this study and have great results, now I have to write up the paper, boo. I want to attend this workshop, but oh drat, they want me to write two pages about something relevant to the workshop.

Repeat after me: Writing is not a chore.

Writing may be difficult. You may struggle to explain your ideas coherently and concisely. You may be in a never-ending battle with proper English grammar.

Writing may be time-consuming. You may spend an hour agonizing over one paragraph. You may stay up all night trying to finish a two-page paper (not counting the hours spent trying to get the Latex formatting to work or wrangling Word).

Writing is not a chore.

Writing is practice

Writing is practice. Writing is a key means of communication -- in academia and in the rest of the world! Learning to write well will never hurt you and only help you.

Writing is planning. Writing is thinking. Writing is synthesizing.

Writing your ideas out with an eye for communicating them to others can help you see the flaws in your arguments, come up with new connections between ideas and fields, or generally help you organize your thoughts on a subject. Introductions and discussions are especially great for this, since these are the parts of a paper where you connect your work and your ideas to everyone else's.

But not all writing has to be super academic or for a specific purpose. Journals, notebooks, text files: you can jot down ideas about what you're reading and thinking about. Whatever that is. Review your notes periodically. You may see patterns. You may develop new research ideas or figure out themes in your interests.

Write a lot.

It isn't just me saying this. Multiple advisors have told me: Papers become chapters in theses. The act of writing can add rigor to your thinking. Write as you go. Don't just write it all at the end!