When my dad left me in State College, it was a little nerve-wracking. Here I was in a new country, about to start the big task of getting a PhD. Thankfully, the university put on lots of orientation events, so I was never at a loss for things to do! There were international orientations, department orientations, university orientations…the list goes on. Content in the international orientation ranged from opening bank accounts and getting a student ID to learning our “WE ARE” chant and basic American Football rivalries.
Our department put on a kinesiology-specific orientation where we got to meet our cohort for the first time. It was a little daunting, looking around this room at all these intelligent people with exciting research interests and diverse backgrounds. But we were put at ease because they provided the best cookies I’ve ever had! In the department talk, the professor in charge of the program (who happens to also be my advisor) gave us some great advice for “surviving” grad school. I thought I’d outline a few pieces of advice that have stuck with me below:
- In every talk you attend, be it a seminar speaker or at a conference, have one question and a back-up question ready to ask the speaker.
- Invited speakers have been invited for a reason – they may not be in your area of specialization but they may help you see something differently or give a different perspective.
- Find a mentor. Find multiple mentors. Your advisor shouldn’t be your only source of advice. Mentors can be other grad students, other faculty members in your area, other faculty members in other areas.
- Keep an open mind. You’re going to learn a lot in grad school, accept that there are people who are going to approach work differently, who might have ways of doing things you don’t understand. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong!
- Learn from your peers. Grad students who have been around longer understand department politics, what are good classes to take, how to use the coffee machine etc. Use their knowledge! Grad students in your cohort all have different experiences and can help you out. Some will have coding skills, others will know how to use a piece of equipment, some might be able to help with your writing and others will have a knack for networking.
- Work hard, but know when to relax. It’s a long haul and you don’t want to burn out by December of your first year. Find a balance between hobbies and work, get some exercise involved, eat right. Look after yourself!
While the list above is by no means comprehensive, I think it’s a great place to start! I hope to write up the advice given by invited speakers when they visit and to add to this list over the coming years.
Part of the kinesiology orientation involved inviting current grad students to have pizza with the “newbies”. We played a game of Penn-State/Kinesiology themed Jeopardy, which was an excellent ice breaker (although is it really fair to allow those who’ve been here 3 years to answer what certain buildings are called??). This silly knowledge game helped bond us with the students who’ve been around for longer and integrated us into a department. It was fun!
Other than the social aspects of orientation, I also had my first Teaching Assistant meeting. I was fortunate to be given a class that has 7 TAs in total, plus an instructor-in-charge. This meant that no one had too much to do. We each got to take a lab section, and our duties included teaching that section, holding office hours, grading lab reports and the final. From what I gather from my friends, not all TA jobs are as pleasant! Content-wise, the labs focused on basic biomechanics – using a force plate, digitizing a ball dropping, pulling shoes along different floor surfaces, understanding frequency and sampling rates, etc. It was fun to teach, although the lab section I ended up assigned to was at 8 am on a Friday – you have to work with what you get, right? As it turns out, the students in my section were fantastic and pretty enthusiastic.
Of course, other than teaching a class, I also had to sign up for classes myself. This was the first time I’ve had the freedom to select the classes that I wanted to take. My program isn’t very prescribed – in fact the only requirements are to take 5 classes within kinesiology, 2 classes outside the department, and to take a seminar series every semester until I pass my comprehensive exams. There is no statistics requirement or any guidance in that regard so I turned to my advisor to find out what students normally take, and for some recommendations. I ended up taking a biomechanics methods class, a stats class and an engineering design class.
The biomechanics methods class covered different ways of capturing and analyzing human movement – from force plates and motion capture to 3D transformations and direct linear transformation. It was a great introductory course to discuss common approaches used in the field, looking both at their advantages and disadvantages. It also introduced me to MATLAB, building a basic level of understanding to create a portfolio that demonstrated all we’d learnt over the semester.
I took a statistics class because it was recommended to me, and I believe every scientist should have a decent comprehension of statistics and what is appropriate to use in certain situations that will arise in their research. There’s very little to say about my stats class, it taught me basic statistics that I’m likely to use in my future work.
The engineering class was a little out of my comfort zone but I ended up really enjoying it. The premise is to accommodate human variability within product and workspace design. The assessment involved both an individual and a group project, which was great because it allowed me to incorporate my orthopedic interests, and I researched total ankle replacement implants (more on this in a later post).
I’ll end it there for this post, the next one I’m going to talk about figuring out my research topic, developing the idea and how my research has progressed over this first semester.