Author Archives: Marshal Carper

Databases and the Art of Search Engine-Fu

The beauty of being a graduate student is that you have access to high quality databases.  As a research junky, this gets me pretty excited.  If I can spend a day in the library trawling databases and digging through big ol’ books, it’s been a good day.  This is not something I would admit at a party, but I feel that most graduate students can probably relate.

As a journalist, I have spent a significant amount of time buried in databases, and while they are phenomenal resources, they can be frustrating to use.  You need to be familiar with how they are organized, and you need to hone your search engine-fu.  First, a breakdown of my top three favorite research databases.  Some tips for manipulating search engine queries follow.

1. EbscoHost

EbscoHost is by far the most comprehensive article database available.  This is both a strength and a weakness.  Since EbscoHost aggregates multiple databases, covering a wide variety of subjects and disciplines, a single search can yield thousands of results yet none that are relevant.  To prevent this from happening, don’t be lazy.  Use the database selector to narrow your search.  We’ve all been lazy and hit “Select All,” and it never works.  Don’t do that to yourself again.

2. LexisNexis

LexisNexis is more focused that EbscoHost.  It focuses on legal documents and public records information.  While this sounds like it may have limited relevance for most graduate students, the magnitude of raw data available through LexisNexis has a surprising amount of application.  It’s great for researching companies or demographics, giving you very clear, reliable concrete data.  Even if you don’t think LexisNexis will provide relevant information, give it a shot anyway.  It just might surprise you.

3. Google Scholar

Google Scholar is like EbscoHost in that it covers a broad spectrum of topics.  It’s Advanced Search options are slightly different from EbscoHost, so if you are having trouble finding something on EbscoHost, trying Google Scholar might produce useful sources (or vice versa).  Also, I have found that, in general, the Google Scholar search function is a bit better at producing useful sources than EbscoHost, but I will often switch back to EbscoHost once Google Scholar has given me a useful string or a useful journal to explore.

Search Engine-Fu

When I am starting research from scratch, my preferred plan of attack is to start at the macro level, searching broadly to get an idea for how the research is segmented and who the big names are.  Typically, I browse Wikipedia and conduct some general Google searches.  Wikipedia, while not a reliable source in its own right, often links to sources that are reliable and appropriate for academic research.  These articles will either be some of the more important sources in that particular field of study, or their bibliographies will contain those sources, do dig through the sources they cite.  Also, these preliminary macro searches will often clue you into the terminology that exists with a particular field.  Familiarizing yourself with the language that topic experts use will give you some words and phrases that you can use in future searches.  If you’re that kind of person, you can write these phrases down.

If my macro search produced some important names, I go to EbscoHost or Google Scholar to find articles by those people and by people citing those people.  If I do not have any names to search, I begin to use the words and phrases that I found in my macro search to hopefully dig up relevant sources, and then again, I pillage those reference lists for useful more useful search phrases (often hidden in the titles of articles) and for reliable experts in that field.  When I am doing this, as I mentioned before, I eliminate irrelevant databases to help narrow my search.

Once you find one relevant article, you should be able to dig at least four or five relevant sources out of that article’s reference list, and that’s really the big secret to search engine-fu: finding more relevant words and names that you can mix and match in your search queries.  If you get really stuck, you should find someone at your University and ask them where you should start (or ask a librarian).

For more on search engine-fu, check out Mashable’s article on Google Fu, which is the father of search engine-fu.

A Stranger in a Strange Land

Graduate assistantships come in many flavors, and you have read about many of them already this week.  For my GA position, I work at West Virginia University’s Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.  Yes, that is a mouthful, and the gentlemen that hung each individual letter for the signs agree.  I watched them doing it, and they weren’t happy.

My specific role at the Statler College is to develop recruitment materials for graduate engineering programs, but I have also had the opportunity to participate in community outreach, advising, event planning, and undergraduate recruitment.  The “hard” sciences have never been a focus in my career, professional or academic, but working within the Statler College has been a surprisingly multi-faceted learning experience that has increased the quality and depth of my graduate school experience.  If your graduate degree falls outside of the hard sciences, here are _ reasons why you should consider a GA position within a hard science program, department, or college.

1. Networking.

Meeting new people is an important part of being a professional, and it could help land you a job (which we talked about last week).  By getting outside of your normal bubble, you have the opportunity to interact with different types of people that are connected to communities that you would otherwise have no access to.  In the future, this could lead to a job or a useful contact, giving you an edge over the competition that never explored other communities.

2. Interdisciplinary Education.

Your undergraduate program likely required you to take a slew of general education electives.  The reasoning behind these requirements as that exposure to other subjects beyond your specialty makes you a well-rounded citizen by providing more context and scope to your core material.  As a graduate student, it’s easy to shut out the rest of the academic world.  Working among scientists and engineers will allow you to continue that interdisciplinary education in an unofficial way.  It has benefited me, and I enjoy the change of pace.

3. Portfolio Building.

While the rest of your peers are filling their portfolios and resumes with clips and experiences that are often remarkably similar, you have the chance to do something different.  Any time you can add something unique to your resume, you should.

4. Tuition Waiver.

Paying for grad school sucks.  I would scrub toilets every day to pay for my education, so sitting at a desk writing about engineering is like a vacation.  I would do terrible terrible things for a tuition waiver, and let’s be honest, you would to.

4 Strategies for Landing a Job After Grad School

When #gradschoolproblems first launched, Greer and I wrote about going to graduate to wait to the recession.  With my time in graduate school spilling out of the hour glass, finding a job once I complete my M.S. is a growing concern.  I came to graduate school to further my career.  I do not want to leave graduate school and return to the same dead end that I was trying to escape in the first place.  Here are the four strategies that I am employing to prevent this from happening, and I will gladly accept more ideas if you have advice to share.

1. Start with the end in mind.

This advice is taken from the president of California University of Pennsylvania, Angelo Armenti Jr., who took it from his friend Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  I started graduate school with the goal of using my M.S. to land a job within my chosen field.  From my first day of class, I structured my every academic step to further my goal.  If I am assigned research, I make it relevant to my field and build upon previous research.  If I have the option to take an elective, I take electives that will develop my skill set and make myself more appealing to future employers.  With my end goal in mind, it is easier to fill in the space between with behaviors and choices that bring me closer to that goal.

2. Volunteer in your community.

Career search professionals are advocating more and more for strategic volunteering as a means of making yourself more appealing to potential employers.  At WVU, connecting with the community is become a more important part of University culture, making volunteer opportunities more visible and more accessible to students.  I have been taking advantage of some of these opportunities, and when possible, I try to do community service that is relevant to my career interests, like guest lectures and high school visits, to sharpen my skills while giving back.  Volunteer hours build experience and social capital, which could give you an edge over your competition.

3. Network with peers, mentors, and sources.

According to the Society of Human Resources, networking is the most popular way to find a job.  Networking does not come easy to me because I am a shy person by nature, but I am making a greater effort to make connections because of the potential benefits.  My fellow graduate students are intelligent individuals that are part of networks that are very different from mine, and when they graduate and progress in their careers those networks will grow.  Having that in with an old classmate could pay off.  Professors as well have well-developed networks that are resource rich, and even interview subjects can become contacts for future career opportunities.  Networking opportunities are everywhere.  Look for them.

4. Keep an eye out for contests and conferences.

At WVU, the Business & Economics College has an annual contest that provides start-up capital to budding entrepreneurs, and similar opportunities likely exist at your university or even on a state or national level.  Ideally, your research could be leveraged for these contests to maximize the return on your effort while minimizing the amount of time you have to invest.  On a similar note, submit your research to relevant conferences and journals.  Consider breaking up your thesis into mini-studies to again maximize your return.  These will look great on a resume and may open other doors as well.

What are you doing outside of the classroom to increase your odds of landing a job?  Please share.  We’re all in this together.

The First Rule of Grad School Fight Club

In a previous post, I talked about how stress and inactivity can have negative, long term consequences for your health.  Though that post focused on commuting specifically, even non-commuters should be concerned about remaining active.  With desk jobs becoming a norm (and let’s face it, every graduate student is chained to their desks and shock-collared to their advisors), making extra efforts to improve your fitness are becoming more and more important.  Personally, I get my exercise by training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which is like wrestling except that your goal is not to pin your opponent but to submit him, to make him tap out to a choke or a joint lock.  I began this hobby as an undergraduate and have continued into graduate school.  Like all exercise, jiu-jitsu is a great stress reliever, and I highly recommend it to other graduate students.  Here are 4 other reasons you should consider adding jiu-jitsu classes to your course load:

1. Jiu-jitsu is a full body activity.  In sports consisting of limited movements, like running or soccer, you only exercise part of your body.  Even a weight lifting routine can neglect certain muscle groups in favor of others, and research shows that this have long term consequences.  The science says that muscle maintenance is not holistic.  Exercise only preserves the muscles that are exercised, so you need to exercise everything.

2. Jiu-jitsu builds confidence and reduces stress.  In addition to the natural benefits of exercising to reduce stress, jiu-jitsu itself is an exceptional outlet for aggression.  As much as you might want to throw down the gauntlet with your thesis committee, you can’t.  Jiu-jitsu gives you a way to relieve that tension in a healthy and a constructive way.  You will also find that stress will affect you less the more you train.  After all, how intimidating is a 20 page paper when you spend your free time getting beat up by trained fighters?

3. Jiu-jitsu is community-driven. In graduate school, your circle of friends can become extremely small, especially if you are not attending the University where you completed your undergrad.  Training jiu-jitsu will allow you to expand your network and interact with people that aren’t bitter about graduate school.

4. Jiu-jitsu is for nerds.  Jiu-jitsu is an intellectual pursuit.  The sport is complex, and the strategic depth of technique of the sport is often compared to that of chess.  If you browse a few jiu-jitsu blogs, you will see what I mean (The Jiu-Jitsu Lab, for example, is run by a purple belt currently pursuing a doctorate).  You may disagree that you’re a nerd, but you’re in graduate school.  You’re not fooling anyone.

5. You could be like this guy:

See you on the mat!

Degree Inflation and the Fight for Hope

As Greer mentioned, many of us from the abandoned generation sought the shelter of graduate school to wait out the recession.  Our individual stories may vary, but the theme seems to be consistent.  Job prospects were few, so we decided to continue honing our skills and building our expertise in an academic setting.  Unfortunately, since so many of us had this idea, we have created a new complication for our original problem: there are more graduate degrees being issued than there are jobs that require graduate degrees.

The Economist recognized this two years ago, and the situation has likely compounded in that time.  From the article “The Disposable Academic:”

“Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.”

The Chronicle echoed the concerns of The Economist but with more alarming numbers:

“Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.”

The same article notes that there are at least 5,000 janitors in the U.S. that have PhDs, which disturbs me as a graduate student.  Admittedly though, I knew these numbers and these risks before applying to graduate school.  Not wanting to fall into the graduate black hole that has consumed so many before me, I made a few rules for myself.  It is my hope (and the success of these rules remains to be seen), that these rules will increase the chances of my getting a full-time job relevant to my field.

1. No more debt.  My debt from my undergraduate degree is not substantial, but I have bills and other debts that are still a major concern.  Knowing that graduate school was not a guarantee for a better life, I decided to only pursue a graduate degree if I was able to secure a tuition waiver.  This resulted in a bit of a last minute scramble, but I at least have the comfort of knowing that I will not be worse-off financially if an M.S. in journalism does not make me rich and famous.

2. Work with the end in mind.  My ultimate goal is to further my career.  I enjoying learning, and I enjoy thinking about concepts and ideas, but thinking does not feed my family, and it does not give me shelter.  As you may know, I write books, so I started graduate school with the goal of furthering my writing career.  The classes I took, the research I did, and the projects I completed were all designed to further this goal.  Customizing my education in this manner has worked well thus far, and I believe that it will pay off.

3. Network and collaborate.  Graduate cohorts tend to be diverse, and mine is no exception.  My peers have backgrounds and skill sets that are very different from my own, and learning from them has been just as beneficial as learning from professors.  At the same time, these are professional contacts that could prove to be useful in the future.

4. Don’t abandon your career.  While I am in graduate school, I am not allowing my writing career to stagnate.  Two more of my books are coming out this year, and I have maintained an active blog and social media presence while at the same time pursuing new projects outside of class.  Whenever possible, I fold this work into my graduate study to get as much mileage out of my effort as I can, but it’s important to me that I do not lose the momentum that I gained in between undergraduate study and graduate study.

Graduate and post-graduate students, what are you doing to increase the value of your graduate experience?  How are you preparing for the future?

5 Tips for Beating the Drive-Time Blues

I spend 8 hours a week commuting to graduate school.  While I would like to move closer to shorten my commute, my wife works near where we live currently, and she too commutes to (a different) school.  Moving in any direction away from where we are now would be impractical, but the drive has not been kind.  The drive killed my 2001 Ford Escort—for 4000 miles I had to shift into neutral when I braked to avoid stalling, and the Escort was not a standard.  Unfortunately, the commute might be killing me as well.

According to an article from ABC News, commuting is associated with a slew of health risks.  “Swedish researchers surveyed 21,000 workers aged 18 to 65, and those who commuted by car or public transit reported more everyday stress, exhaustion, missed work days and generally poorer health compared to the active commuters, according to the study published Oct. 30 in BMC Public Health,” the article said.  The article defines “active commuters” as those who bike or walk to work.

This is consistent with my own commuting experiences.  The drive is draining, especially after an 8 hour work day and a 3 hour night class.  In addition to the stress of commuting, the extended periods of sitting are also unhealthy.

NPR recently interviewed Steven Blair, an epidemiologist, on his study of health risks associated with extended periods of sitting.  NPR notes that, “Specifically, [Blair] found that men who reported more than 23 hours a week of sedentary activity had a 64 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than those who reported less than 11 hours a week of sedentary activity. And many of these men routinely exercised.”

The problem with sitting, Blair says, is that the largest muscle groups remain inactive for extended periods of time, which ultimately decreases metabolism.  These health risks come in addition to the burden of rising gas prices.  In my area, gas prices are hitting $3.90 a gallon.  I can barely afford graduate school, even with a tuition waiver, and I certainly cannot afford to waste gas or to come down with a serious health condition that requires medical attention.  Medical attention is more expensive than graduate school.

For me, I go from sitting in my car to sitting at a desk to sitting at a desk in class, and until I complete my coursework, I am stuck with this routine.  I have no way to reduce the distance that I am traveling.  However, being aware of this health risks has instilled in me the importance of structuring my life around a healthy lifestyle, which is now a part of my career goals.  As for what I can do now to lessen the stress and financial burden of my commute, I have come up with 5 tips.

1. Podcasts and Audiobooks.  Music and talk radio quickly became dull for me, so I have become a podcast and audiobook addict.  The content is more stimulating than music, and it expands my knowledge horizons.  Seth Godin’s audiobooks are especially relevant to my interests (though they might not be for you), but I think that everyone can get something out of This American Life and Radio Lab, two of the bests podcasts I have found.

2. Carpool.  I was fortunate enough to meet someone in my office that also commutes from my town, and he is a nerd like me.  Splitting driving duties decreases the exhaustion levels, and having a conversation on the drive helps to pass the time more pleasantly, and sharing the cost of gas makes the commute less expensive.

3. Call a friend.  In many cases, my wife and I end up commuting at the same time, so we talk for the hour that we are driving, which keeps my mind active and keeps me from dwelling on the misery of driving (check your local laws for cellphone use while driving).

4. Cruise control and maintenance.  Driving less aggressively (not breaking or accelerating suddenly) can increase fuel economy, and using your cruise control to maintain a constant speed can help your engine function more efficiently.  Also, change your air filters and maintain your tire pressure to increase the efficiency of your engine.

5. Condense your workload.  Initially, I was commuting five days a week.  I spoke to my boss, and he agreed to let me work some of my hours from home, allowing me to fit my 20 hour graduate assistant position and my coursework into four days, cutting my commute time from 10 hours to 8.  This may not be an option for everyone, but it’s worth considering.  The tradeoff is that I spend more time on campus and at work in those four days than most of my peers, but reducing some of stress and saving some money makes the tradeoff well worth it.

Bonus. Strength train.  My friend and fellow grappler Stephan Kesting uses his commute time to do grip training.  I am not that hardcore (yet), but his video demonstrates that we should think more creatively about how we spend our commute time.