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A behind the scenes look at the graduate experience at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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  • Where Are They Now? Meredith Sellers

    Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".

    Meredith Sellers graduated in 2011 with a PhD in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Now, she works as a Managing Engineer in the Materials and Corrosion Engineering Practice at Exponent Failure Analysis Associates. She specializes in proactive materials characterization and reactive incident investigation, particularly as they relate to oil and gas pipelines, integrated circuit fabrication, and chemical process safety.

    What was the transition from graduate school to a professional career like for you?

    The transition from graduate student to postdoctoral researcher, and then to technical consultant, was an exciting one. As a technical consultant, I feel challenged by the fast-paced work environment and enriched by the chance to work with experienced consulting staff in a variety of science and engineering disciplines.

    What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?

    The most interesting and rewarding aspect of my job is the opportunity to tease apart fact from fiction to understand the cause(s) of incidents that may have resulted in loss of life, property, or livelihood.

    What has been the most valuable transferable skill you gained from graduate school?

    The most valuable transferable skill that I gained from graduate school is the ability to quickly learn critical information about an unfamiliar topic – in my line of work, this can involve anything from passenger ferries to knee implants to solder joints.   

    What experiences made an impact on your career choice?

    At the undergraduate and graduate level, my career choice was certainly influenced by my teaching experiences, participation in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and engagement with various campus-level advising bodies such as the UIUC Provost Student Advisory Board (PSAB).

    What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?

    Be open-minded to non-traditional career paths in which you can apply the skills you have gained from graduate school. For those in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields; consulting, policy, and journalism are great examples. An ideal career path should be personally rewarding, not just intellectually challenging!

    This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. Interviews are conducted by Laura Spradlin. Laura contributed to Grad Life throughout its first year. She is an alumna of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Illinois and studied English and French at Illinois Wesleyan University. 

  • Putting the Break Back into Winter Break: Managing Work and Play During Winter Break

    Semester breaks are the perfect time for some relaxation, spending time with friends and family, and filling up on delicious holiday snacks. But for graduate students working on their theses, winter breaks also mean ample time to get some research and writing done. During my seven-year career as a graduate student, I’ve spent plenty of time trying to achieve the best of both worlds. Though balancing data analysis and cookie baking can be difficult, below are a few tips to help you maximize your research time, and still have fun during the holiday season.

    Take a break from your research

    Taking some time away from work is one of the best things you can do—school vacation or not. Whether it is a few hours a day or a week, a break gives you a chance to rest, recharge, and clear your head. It is easy to become burnt out when you are working on your thesis so intensely every day. Taking time away from your project to visit with friends, travel, or sleep in will allow you to approach it with fresh eyes.

    Find a distraction-free space to write

    I am easily distracted when I go home for break. Whether it be watching a Home Alone marathon, sampling my mom’s freshly baked cookies, or playing with my family’s dog, Dudley, I can usually find something I would much rather do than work. If you are easily distracted, changing your work space can make a big difference. If you are traveling during break, you might research places—such as coffee shops or libraries—where you can devote some time to your work. Champaign-Urbana becomes a ghost town during breaks, so it’s easy to find a place to work. You can have your pick of virtually any library or coffee shop in the area!

    Plan small, easily achievable goals.

    With a month off from school, it is sometimes tempting to set an enormous goal that is (in reality) difficult to achieve. Not accomplishing these feats can make you feel like you’re falling behind and hurt your confidence. Instead, try setting smaller, easily achievable goals and leaving yourself ample time to complete each task. For example:

    • Today, I will read and summarize an article.
    • Over the next two days, I will translate this text from German into English.
    • This week, I will outline my plan for Chapter 4.

    For some of my friends, setting other types of goals has kept them on track. One of my colleagues finished her dissertation in a year by writing 250 words a day. Another devoted two solid, uninterrupted hours a day to his work. During break, you might scale these goals back slightly (so, 150 words a day or one hour a day, for example). Try a few different strategies and see what works best for you.

    When you have completed your task, make sure to reward yourself: buy yourself a celebratory balloon, go play laser tag, or make yourself a banana split. Having something to look forward to while you work will motivate you to finish the task.

    Be flexible

    Life is unpredictable, so make sure to allow yourself some flexibility in your work schedule. For example, what if you catch a cold and don’t feel like getting out of bed, much less reading 20 pages in that Adorno book like you had planned? Take the day off from work, fix some chicken noodle soup and rest. If you are not at your best, your work will not be at its best. What if your family plans a spontaneous road trip? Go for it! That data you were entering into Excel can wait until tomorrow. Adding some flexibility in your schedule will allow you to enjoy opportunities without feeling guilty about not getting work done.

    The bottom line is, make sure to take some time for yourself during winter break—you deserve it! But don’t forget to make time for your work, as well. Balancing these two tasks will leave you feeling good about your work and ready to charge full speed into the new school year.

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    Emily Wuchner is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She is a PhD candidate in musicology at the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.

  • Takeaways from the Wellness Fair for Graduate Students

    We’re in the home stretch of the Fall semester and winter break is tantalizing close, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before the last exam is submitted. On Wednesday, November 9, The Graduate College hosted the first Graduate Student Wellness Fair to help graduate students take control of their health and wellness for the rest of the semester and beyond. The Wellness Fair featured dedicated staff and students from across the university representing the many resources that our campus has to offer for practicing self-care, work-life balance, campus safety, and stress management, to name a few.

    As a graduate student, it is important to remember that if we do not practice adequate self-care, we are at higher risk of burning out (which isn’t good for anyone, including the precious research we work so hard on). For those students who did not attend the Wellness Fair, here are some highlights of campus resources that will put you in tip top shape faster than you can say winter break.

    Facing an Overwhelming Obstacle? You Are Not Alone.

    The Graduate College Office of the Ombudsperson is here to help. Staff members are available to assist students with effective problem solving and to help students identify steps that may be taken to resolve problems without jeopardizing academic progress. To consult with Anne Kopera, the Graduate College Ombudsperson, contact ombudsperson@illinois.edu or (217) 333-6715. A list of resources is also available online.

    The Graduate College Ombudsperson works closely with offices across to provide a complete look at the resources and options available to graduate students in need. In addition, the Office of the Dean of Students Student Assistance Center houses the Emergency Dean who is available 24-7, 365 days a year. The Emergency Dean supports students who are experiencing an emergency situation after 5 pm, in which an immediate University response is needed and which cannot wait until the next business day. The Emergency Dean is not a substitute for trained emergency personnel such as 911, Police or Fire. If you are experiencing a life threatening emergency, call 911.

    Bottom line: If you are having problems at home or on campus and are in need of help, you have options. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

    McKinley Center: Not Just for Flu Shots

    McKinley is not just for flu shots (which you hopefully already got!) or to get that weird rash checked out. They offer a comprehensive suite of resources designed just for you, a beyond overscheduled graduate student. In addition to helping you when you are sick, they offer nutrition, fitness, and stress-management programs. You can make individual appointments with a stress management coordinator or attend one of their wellness workshops held throughout the year. As a bonus, they offer online relaxation exercises, which you can download to your phone, and practice deep breathing as you envision your blissful post-graduation life.

    The Counseling Center Can Help You Become an Ally

    Kognito, the new online tool from the Counseling Center allows you to simulate difficult discussions and roleplay a range of situations such as helping to create a safe environment for our LGBTQ peers. This tool makes it easier to break the ice, enabling us to share our views, and connect with one another in a more meaningful way, which ultimately builds and strengthens our graduate student community.

    Burn Out Benefits No One

    Finally, the Graduate Student Wellness Fair reminded me that there is life outside of campus and my research. We are so fortunate to have the world-renowned Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where tickets are still only 10 bucks for students. There are five forest preserves within a 30-minute drive from campus, and over 20 art galleries in Champaign County. Even if you spent most of your waking hours doing research or working on your dissertation, over the course of a graduate career, there are plenty of opportunities to explore Champaign-Urbana, spend time doing meaningful activities, and improve your wellbeing. Graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint, and burn out benefits absolutely no one.

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    Monica Chinea Diliz is a third year PhD student in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology studying molecular neuroscience. Her professional goals are to become a principal investigator in the field of molecular biology, and start a mentoring/outreach program for minority students interested in pursuing graduate education in STEM. Monica enjoys reading and writing about productivity and time management, taking road trips, and spending time with her three rescue dogs. She is a member of the 2016-2017 SAGE board.