Thursday, January 19, 2017

I am Sophie Kromholz and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Sophie C. Kromholz in the "How I Work" series. Sophie is an art historian, creative explorer, and communicator, who has successfully defended her PhD thesis, “The Artwork Is Not Present – An investigation into the durational engagement with temporary artworks”, at the University of Glasgow. She has taught and lectured internationally and is currently working on publications while she also explores other research opportunities. Sophie also coordinates CoCARe – the interdisciplinary PhD and Postdoc Network for Conservation of Contemporary Art Research. Her expertise lies in modern and contemporary art practices and her research interests include, but are not limited to, ephemera and ephemerality, collecting behavior, conservation theory, and storytelling. At present she is living and working in Catalunya.

General: Recent Doctoral graduate (viva passed, currently waiting for thesis corrections to be read and approved)
Current Location: Granollers, Catalunya, Spain
Current mobile device: iPhone
Current computer: Macbook

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?

I have just submitted the corrections for my PhD thesis in Art History at the University of Glasgow and am currently pursuing publications and further research and teaching positions.

My research focuses on temporary artworks – physical works built to last for an intentionally limited amount of time and created only once.

I also coordinate CoCARe - the interdisciplinary PhD and Postdoc Network for Conservation of Contemporary Art Research. My research looks at the role of loss and how to promote a durational engagement with artworks which cannot physically endure in a traditional sense. In essence, I am interested in how future audiences can experience artworks which no longer physically exist and alternative conservation and display methods. If it melts, auto-destructs, is eaten, disintegrates, or is unmade through other means – it’s my bag.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?

I am a keen Apple user and rely on my Macbook and iPhone. Also, over the course of my doctoral research I have become an absolute wizard with Word.

What does your workspace setup look like?
I work in a combination of places: home, university office, and cafes. Key workspace requirements: wifi and a plug for my laptop charger. Additional things I like to have present: a bulletin board and coffee.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?

  1. Do the thing. Whatever it is that you are holding off, just get on with it.
  2. Sleep enough.
  3. Harness the power of saying “no”, to social things you don’t have the energy for, to additional projects you cannot commit to, to doing things that distract you from the work you need to be doing now. “No” is a powerful word; use it well and use it more often. You are both not a doormat, and not able to do everything all the time, all at once.
How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
I am an avid list maker. I write everything that pops into my head down and keep track of things on a combination of laptop, phone, and paper notes.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
Other than my smartphone and laptop, I tend to go analogue and use old-fashioned pen and paper.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?

I am a strong communicator and good at relaying research to non-specialist audiences. Enthusiasm helps, as does creativity.

What do you listen to when you work?

I rarely find I am able to listen to music and work at the same time now. But, if I feel particularly insistent on having a little buzz in the background and find myself in the office, classical tunes without singing. I prefer not to multitask and spread my attention if I can help it. Focus is key and finding ways to optimize it is critical.

What are you currently reading?
I love to read, and have become an avid reader of short stories. They are easy to take along with you wherever you are and squeeze in pockets of time dotted throughout the day.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?

I have often said that I am an introvert that doesn’t have the luxury to be shy – you simply don’t get anything done that way. In effect I think I am a combination. I am a social creature and seek activities to promote my research, as well as socialize outside the ivory tower where the air can be a bit thin, because having hobbies is healthy. But I also recognize the importance of being able to recharge on my own with a cup of tea and a book.

What's the best advice you ever received?
Jodi Rose, an artist friend of mine once told me: “Do the thing that you believe only you can do, that is the most valuable use of your time.” In her case this involves pursuing the idea of creating a global symphony of bridges – her work is rather conceptual. I try to apply this concept of “best use of your time” to the projects that I commit to. I say yes to, and pursue the things, that I am willing to give my all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

How to work in a microbiology lab after an 8.8 earthquake

Today, I'm hosting Beatriz Gonzalez-Muñoz, with whom I talked on Twitter about working outside of priviliged institutions. Dr. Beatriz Gonzalez-Muñoz is a Chilean scientist with a PhD in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Sheffield, UK, where she worked with Professor Simon J Foster studying the bactericidal mechanisms of mammalians against S. aureus. She is a Molecular Biotechnology engineer with a Master in Sciences with a minor in microbiology, which she got under the guidance of Dr Rosalba Lagos from the University of Chile working on the microcin E492 system. She enjoys a good book, scientific conferences in exotic places with nice food, coffee in all of its form (except decaf, that’s just wrong), travelling, museums and corgis. She is currently looking for a job after finishing chemo, so if anybody needs a microbiologist with a PhD, a serious coffee addiction, incredible knowledge about movies and knitter of really long and cozy scarves, please get in contact with Beatriz.

I’m Beatriz Gonzalez, a Chilean scientist with a PhD in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Sheffield, UK. I did my undergrad and my Master in the University of Chile so the Summer of 2010 I decided to stay and work on my thesis, taking advantage of the mostly empty lab. On the night of February 27th I was in Santiago during the 8.8 earthquake that moved Chile for more than three minutes, triggered a tsunami and killed a lot of people.

I have to say that even though Chileans are used to earthquakes and we know what to do (we are trained during elementary, middle and high school, we have plans with our families, know the strongest structural spots in our houses, have emergency kits at home and always lanterns at hand, etc.), this was huge and had a lot of consequences. Phones were not working, streets were cut and bridges fell down, there was a shortage of fuel and, of course, no electricity.

The lab were I worked at the time was a lab where half of the people there worked in microbiology (my half!) and the other half in bioinformatics and structural biology. We didn’t have much money, but everything worked very well because my supervisor was super organized with the money and we had a lab manager that was amazing, responsible, organized and respected/feared by all. Each of us had a specific bench space but we sometimes shared desks. Everything had its place and mostly you could find things were they were supposed to be.

This is why coming into the lab two days after the earthquake was a shock. You could see how the huge unmovable centrifuges moved, how most of the Duran bottles were broken on the floor, everything was out of its place and the ethidium bromide spilled all over. The gas lines were closed until the university was able to confirm they were not broken. And of course, due to the blackout, all the fridges and the freezers were off, coming close to the feared -60ºC that meant that we were going to lose everything.

By this point, most of the postdocs were in the lab and they decided to take charge. I had a jeep so we went to the hardware store and rented an electric generator (using their grants to pay for it!), bought fuel from several gas stations and then went back to the lab. Once everything was connected it was decided that we needed to accumulate good karma and went to all the other labs to ask for another freezer because we were going to receive all of the invaluable samples and cell lines and purified proteins from all the campus. So we ended up with about four freezers connected to that one small generator and samples from at least twelve labs for a week before the electricity was back and the other labs were up and running again.

The gas was another thing, because it took more than two weeks to come back for good. So we had to improvise because deadlines wait for nobody, not even after an earthquake. This meant that we worked using some sort of Molotov bombs: glass bottles filled with ethanol and with a little hole on the lid, though which we put some sort of fabric touching the ethanol. Oh yes, we did tons of electroporations, colony duplication and streaking using this and I feel like it’s important to say that none of the plates had any contamination.

I feel like this prepared me to work in any lab in the world. My project survived an 8.8 earthquake, I got my degree, and I survived all of the aftershocks that came later, even a 6.4 that made us leave the lab in a hurry, but not before I saved the changes on my manuscript and took my computer with me. Nothing can top this.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Paid opportunity for PhD candidates

Dear readers, I recently received the following announcement for a paid position for PhD students in the development of online courses. Hope it can be useful for some of you!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Taking my own advice: self-care in the academe

Selfie with bff, my personal cheerleader
Today, I have the pleasure of hosting a guest post by Jenny Lendrum. Jenny is a PhD candidate and Rumble Fellow in the department of sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI USA. She is currently conducting an ethnographic study in Detroit, analyzing gendered mechanisms operating in the neighborhood and their effects on the informal economy.

Listen, I’m not so good at self-care at the moment. So, quite naturally, I decided to write a guest blog about it.

My job has something to do with this, I suspect. I am a third year Ph.D student in the Department of Sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, USA. As my research and writing workload has intensified in recent months, I’ve found myself struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance - specifically, one that facilitates me functioning as both a doctoral student and a human being—at the same time.

Yet I believe there’s a silver lining to these struggles. If there’s ever been an ideal time to reflect on ways I can embark on a more self-nurturing lifestyle, it’s right now!

In the spirit of full disclosure, it is through this blog that I share the following tactics and promise I will take better care of myself moving forward. From acts of nourishing kindness to good, old-fashioned nourishment, here are some things I have found useful in times of crisis. Hopefully, as time goes on, these will become a more regular part of my life—not just things I turn to in times of need.

1. “Positively Present” blog.
I subscribe to this weekly blog that shares various modes of positivity. These include quotes, links to other sites for personal development and enhancement, and music and book suggestions. For years, I have a kept a chalk quote-board in my kitchen. Every week, I find and post a new quote to motivate me. Some weeks are themed around anger while others are framed more around moxie. A colleague of mine, however, prefers brevity; for her, leaving sticky notes with a short, sweet “YES” around the office and/or dwelling helps inspire openness, positivity, and reflection.

2. The Social Component.
I have a natural tendency to isolate myself when I am struggling with challenging writing and analysis—but when I emerge from self-imposed solitude, I rely on the amazing friends, family, and colleagues who continue to support me, even during intense times. Engaging my support system helps me recover faster and easier. Another facet of my social component includes writing at local coffee shops, which helps me escape the quiet of my offices on campus. In addition to the social reprieve I get from random, yet engaging coffee shop conversations, I’m also fortunate to have some amazing creative friends: Adam Pervez and his 2013 happiness Tedx talk; Michele Bond and her yoga practice; Matt Livengood here; and, K.S. Adkins here.

3. Fresh & Local Foods.
Strolling through the local farmer’s markets can be a calming and productive time. Nourishing the body nourishes the mind. Finding peace in the simplicities of a home-cooked meal, made from fresh produce via the local farmer’s market, is time well spent. I find there is something gratifying in washing, chopping, and preparing colorful foods. Coupled with cooking with colleagues or friends, well, even better. Because I spend time collecting data in the field in between working at three offices, on Sundays, I prep my meals for the week, stashing them in mason jars that are travel-friendly.

4. Running.
It is my sanctuary. I realize running isn’t everyone’s bag, but for me, I find time on the road or along muddy trails gives me, and my head, an escape from work. I also use this time to think about my research in different ways. When running with others, talking about random life happenings, work-related problems, and self-care tactics (such as other physical outlets: Bikram yoga and Betty Rocker) become ongoing themes.

5. Napping & Sleeping.
My personal magic number is 7.5-8 hours of sleep per night. The occasional afternoon nap with my cats may feel indulgent but really helps offset the weekly fatigue. Some of the best advice I received in graduate school was a reminder to sleep. Okay, mission accomplished. Next.

6. Et al.
Hmm. While I’d like to write about how making art, meditation, and journaling have helped me maintain a solid work-life balance throughout graduate school, I, in good conscience, cannot. I have realized, over time, that sometimes falling apart is okay. Because, and I don’t know if everyone has similar experiences, maybe that’s just part of the deal with this precarious process. Perhaps learning how to operate in high-stress situations may help better prepare us as scholars in our fields.

Moving Forward.

Disclaimer: this list is not as virtuous as it may seem because I rarely follow all of these practices at any given time. However, now that I’d outed myself, perhaps in the future and throughout the rest of this graduate school experience, I pay better attention to these practices that I have found work well for me at some time or another. I’m more curious about: What works for you? What doesn’t? How do you remind yourself to follow self-care practices in your graduate program program?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: On sustaining reading habits

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

We all know that the literature review involves a lot of reading: sitting down and going through piles and piles of papers, technical reports, and books. But what happens after you finish your literature review? You know that you have to "keep up with the output". But the amount of papers published on a daily basis is enormous. How do you define what you should read and what is not a priority?

Reading recent publications, and closing some gaps in your knowledge by reading additional papers from the past, is the best way to continuously grow your understanding about your topic and one of the most important ways to grow your research creativity. If you are in a PhD program, you need to keep reading about your topic, so that your literature review chapter will be up-to-date when you submit your thesis (and not two years old). If you are an early career researcher, you will need to read more broadly, learning about research topics that are tangentially related to your field, and that might be interested for a future project and/or collaboration. Wherever you are in your career path, it can be good to learn how to read fast, and to read differently for different purposes.

Once we finish our literature review, we need to combine an ever-increasing number of tasks. As a PhD student, you might be moving into experimental work, and the analysis of these experiments, and perhaps preparing for your first conference. As an early career researcher, especially if you just started teaching, the sheer amount of different responsibilities can be overwhelming. Keeping up with the literature might be your last priority when deadlines are looming around the corner. Here's how you can develop and sustain a habit of reading technical content:

1. Schedule time

As always, planning is key. Keep time for reading in your schedule, as busy as it is, and, if you can't find peace and quiet in your office, go to a place where you can do the reading that you need to do. In that case, consider it a date with yourself: go to a nice coffee place or the library to read comfortably, and schedule the time to get there and settle in, the time to do your reading, and then the time to transition to your next appointment. If you find it difficult to stick to your commitment during the week because of external factors, then try to find at least two hours on an evening during the week or during the weekend for your reading.

2. Save material in an accessible place

Make sure that you have the material that you need to read available when you have time to read. Don't make the mistake of "starting" your reading hour by doing a search on scopus, and then browse from paper to paper without doing the actual reading (or worse: get trapped in the interwebz). Have your papers accessible on your digital device of choice, or have them printed out and on your desk when you start reading.

3. Volunteer to review

One way to put deadlines to when you need to read something is by serving as a reviewer. While this option might not be available to you when you start your PhD, you can expect to begin reviewing towards the end of your PhD, or towards the beginning of your first academic appointment after your PhD. If you are interested in starting to serve as a reviewer, there are a number of steps you can take (see this post by Veronika Cheplygina).

4. Get print versions of journals

When you sign up for professional memberships, you often receive access to the professional institution's publications. If there is an option to get a print copy of the journal, and it is an important journal for your field, then select the print copy. If you have a print copy in your house, or on your office desk, you might feel more tempted to pick up the journal and read it then that you'd feel about accessing a PDF hidden somewhere in your data structure. With a print copy at home, you might pick it up and read something while eating, waiting for a friend to arrive, or simply when you feel like it.

5. Use conference presentations to read

If you attend a conference, and the conference offers the proceedings at the time of the conference, then you can use the time during the presentation to add notes to the PDF of the full paper, to highlight important parts, or even to see the small figures and tables right in front of you. After the presentation, make sure you add the file of the conference paper to your paper management system.

6. Revise your literature for every paper you write

Whenever you write a paper, make sure that your literature review section is up to date. Additionally, if you are submitting to a certain journal, it is a good idea to search for the topic of your paper through the archives of that journal, and refer to it. You have to show the editor that you didn't miss a crucial publication from the journal you are submitting your work to.

7. Reading club

If the idea of getting curled up in a library with something to read is not so appealing for you, you can see if you can form a reading club with your colleagues. You can identify a certain number of papers that you want to read, meet up at a set time once a week or every other week, and take that time to discuss the contents of the papers you read. Having a meeting to look forward to is like having a deadline for reading the papers - you don't want to show up unable to participate in the discussion.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

I am Jenny Lendrum and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Jenny Lendrum for the "How I Work" series. Jenny is a PhD candidate and Rumble Fellow in the department of sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI USA. She is currently conducting an ethnographic study in Detroit, analyzing gendered mechanisms operating in the neighborhood and their effects on the informal economy. She is one of the managing editors of Gender & Society. She is an avid marathoner in her spare time.

General: I am a third year PhD candidate in the department of sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI USA. For my dissertation, I am conducting a qualitative study into the work primarily women are doing in one neighborhood in a large urban city. I have taught an introductory sociology course for the past two years at Wayne State.
Current Job: I am one of the managing editors for Gender & Society. I received a Thomas C. Rumble University Graduate Fellowship for the 2016-2017 year. The fellowship grants me the time to continue my data collection, conduct concurrent analyses, and write. I also teach English as a Second Language (ESL) part-time to expatriates seeking to master the language while assimilating to American culture.
Current Location: Detroit, MI USA
Current mobile device: Droid.
Current computer: Asus laptop (windows).

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?

I have been conducting an ethnographic study in Detroit since the summer of 2014. This includes participant observations in the “field” (the neighborhood I am studying) and involves spending large chunks of time in the neighborhood, attending community meetings, walking around, engaging in informal and more formal conversations throughout various neighborhood spaces. During these observations, I make a lot of notes (called “fieldnotes”) and take many pictures (I primarily use my Droid for photos). I spend my field days conducting interviews and observations followed by extensive and laborious write-up of notes. On non-field days, I spend time writing and analyzing data as well as engaging with various bodies of literature. Though observations have been the primary source of data collection during the last two years (approximately 200 field hours), I also conduct more formal, structured interviews with people in the neighborhood. Thus far, I have conducted over 40 interviews with men and women who live and/or work in the neighborhood. I expect to be in the field for another several months following by analysis and writing.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
I use a Sony ICD-SX712 Digital Flash Voice Recorder to record my formal interviews and occasionally my recorded fieldnotes. During the transcription process, I rely on the Olympus AS-2300 PC Transcription Kit. I use NVivo Qualitative Data Analysis software to analyze the data in a single accessible space. The program works well in that it allows for various types of analysis of the data including photos, hard-copy documents from the field (such as community flyers and business cards), transcribed interviews, and fieldnotes. I use google calendar to stay organized though I am constantly on the look-out for more efficient organizing tools.

What does your workspace setup look like?

I am fortunate that I have multiple work-spaces.

I have a home office with windows along three of the walls that provide access to a lively and walkable city street below. I primarily utilize my home office for heavy reading and writing days. I also use this as a shared space with colleagues as my home office is within a ten-minute drive from campus.

Home office
Working at home

I have a shared office at WSU that allows for daily access to faculty and colleagues in a space that facilitates intellectual conversations about our research. I prefer to work in this office during early mornings as it’s generally pretty quiet at these times. Because I am a morning person, it has become a productive spot. Bonus: I also have access to the printer/copy machine which helps when printing out stacks of journal articles and teaching materials.

Lastly, I have a shared office at Oakland University (OU) which houses the current editorship for Gender & Society. This space is shared with other feminist scholars and allows us to share literature, theoretical and methodological ideas, etc. in a dynamic and fierce space.

OU office

I alternate between these spaces as well as a favorite local coffee shop. I find that during times of heavy writing, I prefer to be in a public place with some background noise and ordinary life activities.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Tapping into available resources. This includes both inside and outside of the institution you’re affiliated with as well as resources through various networks. Accessing others’ knowledge and expertise in complementary disciplines and areas of expertise has been extremely useful for the sharing of intellectual ideas and information.
Most recently, a colleague shared this one that has stuck with me: “Get thy shit together!”. This quote is now a visible note in my offices. It reminds me to stay focused and disciplined.
Lastly, I track my hours spent doing various types of work related to the dissertation. This logging helps to visualize and make tangible my progress.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
I must admit, I am old-school in my daily habits. I use post-its regularly in my car and in my various office spaces. I find the act of jotting down hand-written notes helps me to remember and forces my brain to consider questions and conceptualizations in ways I might not consider typing these same notes. Though I must also confess, I, on occasion, lose, forget, or misplace these scattered post-its. Despite these drawbacks, I continue to find this method does work best for my working style.
I also, though irregularly, use OneNote to keep ideas, notes, and literature. I continue to battle with centralizing this information. For now, google calendar picks up some of the slack.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
The rigor I use in my fieldwork helps me differentiate myself from others. While there have been many challenges throughout two years of fieldwork, I have begun to view myself as a strong and impassioned researcher. Because ethnographic research is a lengthy process (from establishing rapport in building and maintaining relationships to the recruitment and interviewing processes to the writing and analysis of pages and pages of fieldnotes and transcriptions), I have learned to be patient and dedicated to this project. I feel grateful to be a part of research I am so strongly connected to intellectually and personally.

What do you listen to when you work?

Some days I use websites that play background white noises (for example: Other times, I listen to celtic music or heavy metal (depending on the type of writing I am doing at the time). When I am in the midst of heaving reading and writing, I work in silence with my earbuds in to block out exterior noises and distractions.

What are you currently reading?
I am currently reading: “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart; “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller; “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line” by Ben Hamper; and “Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook: Eat Like You Give a F*ck” by Thug Kitchen (to experiment with new recipes).
I read in the evenings when I am not pushing deadlines. I also keep several books in my car so that when I find myself with downtime, I can utilize it well by reading one. Some nights I only read a page or two before conking out.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert?

I identify more as an extrovert and find myself working in spaces that include more interactions or the potential for random interactions. I like the uncertainty of social spaces and the possibilities of conversations and the intellectual sharing of information. Some weeks, I have spent > 20 hours writing at my usual table of my favorite local coffee shop. That said, I do enjoy and appreciate my cozy Detroit apartment at the end of long workdays.

What's your sleep routine like?
I sleep long and hard. I usually aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night. I find I am far more productive during the early morning hours. As such, I have extreme (so I’ve been told) sleep habits that sometimes mean I am asleep before 9pm. I also enjoy occasional sleep marathons that may look more like 12-14 hours. Because I am well aware of the many horror stories of fatigue and insomnia (related graduate work), I am grateful sleep has been my refuge.

What's your work routine like?
I aim to work in hour-blocks hovering around 4-6 hours in the early morning hours. During deadline heavy periods, I also return to work in the evenings, but this looks more like 2-4 hours. On an ideal workday, I do my best to write in the mornings and edit/read in the afternoons. I supplement my work schedule with running, preferably in the early mornings, but the summer months offer more opportunities for evenings runs.

What's the best advice you ever received?

“Be your own advocate.” You know, intuitively, the best route to successfully get through graduate school. Follow it, create your own path.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Testing Positive

Today's guest post is a contribution from Patrick Bigsby. Patrick is an alumnus, former employee, and diehard wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. He currently clerks for the Hon. Jessica R. Bear, Chief Judge of the Meskwaki Nation Tribal Court. 

About two months ago, I, an adult man in graduate school, sat down to take the hardest test of my life. No, the test wasn’t compliments of Maury and no, my elementary school principal didn’t make any surprise discoveries in my file. It was a standardized test, complete with timed writing sections and bubble sheets, and it was the single most important element of my graduate education. Last week, the State of Iowa toasted my score because (sorry haters, but) I passed.

Graduate school is, traditionally, an environment for original research, creative thought, and years-long exploration of enormously complex niche interests. In other words, it’s the antithesis of the board-defined curriculum and rote application of standardized testing; the life of the mind instead of the life of the #2 pencil. Or is it? Most graduate students in the U.S. reached that station following a satisfactory performance on the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, or another acronym. For many of us, board and bar examinations of some variety await at the end of the tunnel. Despite the proliferation of thinkpieces about the educational faux pas of “teaching to the test,” standardized testing remains an important part of graduate school entry and, in many cases, exit.

By the time you read this, I’ll be a state-certified standardized test success story. But it wasn’t easy: being a graduate student meant I was several years removed from my last sealed Scantron form. 

Below are my tips for shaking off the standardized test rust you’ve developed since the tenth grade.

Don’t overestimate yourself. Graduate students are, by definition, high achievers. We’re a smart bunch and just self-aware enough of that intelligence to be dangerous: our past academic success has a tendency to encourage confidence in our future academic success. Confidence is fine, but don’t let it lull you into overlooking something as seemingly mundane as a standardized test. Sure, your thesis might be a brilliant, original work, but that won’t get you off the hook of navigating the black-and-white world of algebra or sentence correction questions. Don’t succumb to graduate school hubris: this isn’t the tenth grade and whatever inherent future-grad-student intelligence we used to dominate ITBS won’t cut it on your graduate school exam of choice.

Use your community. For all of their alleged drawbacks, one of the great things about standardized tests is that literally thousands of people are having the exact same experience that you are having. Need a study strategy? Many organized test preparation classes exist. Unsure about how many layers to wear on test day? Hundreds of people ask that question on message boards every year. Fed up with mnemonics and trick questions? Take a night off with your equally fed up peers and blow off some steam. Many graduate students report at least some social isolation, but I’ve never felt closer to my classmates than enduring the identical shared pain of standardized testing.

Drill. Graduate work in all disciplines tends to be a slow-moving affair involving long-term goals. Spending four, five, or six years on a PhD isn’t considered an anomaly. A standardized test, on the other hand, involves a predetermined schedule with no flexibility or extensions. Athletic readers are probably already familiar with the concept of race-pace training - eventually you have to practice running at the speed you need to run during the race - and your test preparation should be similar. Taking a standardized test is an unnatural exercise, but the right practice techniques combat that. Be very strict with your stopwatch on practice tests (yes, you should take practice tests) to help your race pace feel natural on test day.

Prioritize your comfort. Ultimately, your performance on the test is the only thing that matters. I don’t mean to state the obvious but, no matter which test you’re taking, there are no points for martyrdom. Where possible, you should be willing to splurge on yourself when it will put you in a position to deliver your best performance. The scoring panel doesn’t care that you commuted two hours each morning to the test site instead of staying in the hotel next door. The Scantron machine won’t know that you used your cruddy, chewed-up old pencils instead of buying new sharp ones. I’m a big fan of student-specific budgeting, but all that goes out the window when everything is riding on one big test. If you’re having a hard time justifying test-related expenses that aren’t per se necessary, ask yourself why, if you wouldn’t cut corners on your study routine, you’d be willing to shortchange yourself in other forms of test preparation.

Let yourself off the hook. One of the reasons some students find standardized tests so challenging is the pressure of myriad professional and academic goals depending on a single score. In my recent experience taking the Uniform Bar Examination, failure would have been professionally catastrophic. If I had failed, I would have been unable to work as a lawyer, forced to admit I had essentially squandered the last three years, and, as the results are publicly posted, outed in front of my classmates, professors, employers, and anyone else with an internet connection as a big stupid dummy. Despite the nightmare fuel of knowing I could, despite my best efforts, still blow it, I was remarkably relaxed. I knew I could trust in my months of preparation leading up to the test, but even more comforting was the fact that I had secretly given myself permission to fail. Lest the UI College of Law ABA Accreditation Committee experience heart palpitations upon reading this, I don’t mean to say I didn’t have a healthy fear of and respect for the test. I merely acknowledged privately that, even if I turned in the choke job of the century, the Earth would keep spinning, I would wake up the next morning, and Maury would still be on the air. In short, even my most epic failure wouldn’t be the end of the world - a comforting notion when you’re looking down the barrel of a bubble sheet.

Got any good test tips? Anything you wish you knew before you took a standardized test? Let us know in the comments what helped you crush the GRE, conquer the MCAT, and slay the bar!