So, you want an assistantship?

doctoralgownI’ve written before my advice on how to be a successful graduate student. But to even get to be a graduate student in the first place, you may need a graduate teaching or research assistantship – especially if you’re an international student not eligible for loans in the U.S.

I get it, I understand how important an assistantship is to you (the ticket to graduate education in the U.S.!) and how much you need it. I’ve been an international graduate student myself. Granted, I didn’t have to ask for assistantships – I always got them, maybe because I was lucky, maybe because my file spoke for itself.

But here you are, you got admitted to Purdue (congratulations!) yet you don’t have funding. What do you do??

The first thing NOT to do is to type (or copy from some website) a letter along the lines of the one below and send it to ALL professors in several departments:

“Dear Professor,

I’ve been admitted to Purdue… I’ve read about your research and I’m very interested… I am highly qualified in… (areas usually not related to the professor’s research). My resume is attached… Will you please consider me for a research assistantship?”

You know what happens to these emails? DELETE. Most of us don’t even bother to answer. Hey, you didn’t bother to look up my research interests – or even spell my name in the opening of the email.

Whoever advised you that you get ahead in life by sending template letters to lots of people was WRONG.

If you want to get my attention and have a chance at being considered for funding, here’s how to go about it:

  • Write a clear, specific subject line that refers to something I do or I’ve worked on (I=me, the professor, not you). This will get my attention and will tell me the email is relevant to me personally.
  • Use my name in the opening of the email. Copy and paste it from my website, to make sure you spell it correctly.
  • DO actually read about my research interests, peruse my list of publications, read one or more of them – or at least spend a few minutes reading my blog.
  • Convince me you are ACTUALLY interested in the research I do. Be specific about what you’re interested in and why. Show me you’ve done the work to learn about my research. A strong interest in my research is the #1 qualification I look for in students. I can teach you the rest.
  • Argue how your skills will actually be applicable to the research I’m doing. Give me some ideas about what you would like to work on.

Yes, this type of letter is more work. You won’t be able to write 500 of them. But the 10 you will be able to write are more likely to get you an assistantship than the other 500.

You should know a few more things about how this process works. If you are admitted as a graduate student in my department, chances are I saw your file. I might have even voted on your admission. If I wanted to offer you an assistantship, I would have done so by now. If you are in another department on campus, I have not seen your file. Although I am more motivated to fund students in my own department, I will consider you if you are a very good fit.

If you’ve applied for admission in my department, don’t send me the form letter above the week before classes start – or ever. If you were REALLY interested in my research, you would have mentioned that on your application to graduate school, and you would have been in touch with me a LONG time ago.

And here’s the last part. Not all my faculty colleagues will work this way, but it may work with me: If you’re just applying to graduate school and you’re VERY interested in working with me, contact me as early as possible – even before you send in your file. Be prepared to explain what about my research you’re interested in and why.

Research is the most valuable skill you need (and will learn) as a graduate student. Show you have potential for it by DOING YOUR RESEARCH before approaching professors and asking them to invest in you.

[Photo credit:]

How to be a successful grad. student

I asked my TECH621 students to interview 3 professors each and get tips about graduate school success.

Here are their posts: Scott S., Stephen W., Jenny S., Zheng Z., Andrew B., Scott K.

A bit late, here are my tips & expectations about being a successful graduate student. They are derived from my experience in grad. school, both as a student and professor:

Be self-motivated

You don’t have to be in grad school. Your parents may have forced you to get an undergrad degree, but you are in grad school because you want to learn. So, learn.

A successful graduate student doesn’t only “absorb” information. She actively seeks knowledge.

Professors might mention something in passing, and the grad. student goes out to research that topic in depth and learn about it, because he wants to, because he’s curious – because he’s a born researcher (you know who’s a born researcher? Don Bulmer. He has an innate curiosity and the drive to pursue knowledge. Those are characteristics of the ideal grad. student.)

Actually, several other tips follow from the first one:

  • work hard. As a grad student, I put at least 4 hours of reading & other work preparing for each 3 hour class I took.
  • be conscientious. Grad students don’t miss assignments, don’t turn them in late. They don’t miss class (there was never an attendance policy in my grad. classes, but I didn’t even dream of missing class unless I was very sick).
  • be critical. Try to view different points of view. Question. Explore. Ask:
    • “why?”
    • “does it have to be so?”
    • “what/who are we leaving out?”
    • “what’s the downside of that?”
    • “what are the long-term effects?”
  • create knowledge. Most grad. students learn to be researchers. Assume your researcher role and if there’s no easy answer to a question, go ahead and research it – create new knowledge.

Try to learn the culture of academia & to fit in

You can’t succeed in academia without doing good work. But you can do good work and not succeed in academia, because you don’t understand how to present your work in ways that are valued by academic culture. The values vary by field and even by department, but be on the lookout, try to identify and learn things such as:

  • the accepted/valued outlets for presenting research (posters, conference papers, or panels, and at what conferences?)
  • the accepted/value format and writing style
  • and even… the accepted/valued topics. There are certain “hot topics” at any given time, just as there are certain “passe topics.”

A mentor can help you figure these things out – but it doesn’t have to be your academic adviser. Ask faculty members, we love to give advice. You learn a lot just by hanging out with faculty or senior grad students. Create these opportunities. Organize a seminar or a get-together, or ask if you can go to lunch with someone.

Think long-term

Every class you take is a potential job interview. I’ve had several professors approach me and offer me teaching or research assistantships while I was taking their course, or as soon as the course was over. In fact, many classes ARE job interviews.

Maybe today’s class or assignment is boring, or seems irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Try to do your best anyway. Keep in mind that 2 or 4 years down the road, you might need to ask that professor for a recommendation letter. The best thing we can write about a student is that she consistently exceeded expectations. Great work is great. Doing great work consistently and repeatedly is even greater.

As always, please add your tips, comments, reactions, comments or… cabbage jokes 😉

How to read a research article

Most research articles you find in academic journal follow a similar recipe. If you understand how the article is structured and what to look for in each section, you can read articles much faster. I can get what I want from a research article in 5 minutes or less. When I started grad. school it took me 45-60 minutes to get through a research article and I still didn’t get much out of it. I wish someone had taught me how to read them.

Here are my lessons, based on my experiences. They work for me. I hope they work for you, too. If they don’t, use this as a starting point to figure out your own reading process.

Understanding the anatomy of a research article will also help you write easier.


Usually long and cryptic. Most titles are poorly written. I don’t pay much attention to the title.


I read it carefully and look for:

  • purpose of study/research question
  • a hint as to research methods
  • key results


I read the introduction looking for the following information:

  • explanation of the problem the study addresses
  • explanation of the larger context of the problem
  • argument about the importance/need/relevance of studying the problem
  • purpose of the study
  • an overview of how the article is structured, and how the next section is organized

Literature review

It may be called something else, or the article may not even have headings – but it should be there somewhere. The literature review should accomplish 2 purposes:

  1. make an argument for the need to conduct this specific study (identify a gap, or a need in previous literature)
  2. present the previous theories, concepts, etc. that this study uses and builds upon

Usually, each paragraph or small section of the literature review covers a body of literature (the best lit. reviews are organized thematically, IMO). When reading the literature review it is important to identify these major themes. They give you a lay of the land.

Imagine the body of literature is a garden. The article you’re reading attempts to plant a new seed in this garden. Before doing so, the authors explain the layout of the garden (vegetables here, flowers there, weeds over there) and they explain why their plant is needed and where it fits in.

When reading the lit. review, you get a feel for this garden. If you are:

  • very familiar with the literature, the lit. review confirms that the authors looked in all the right places and didn’t reinvent the wheel. OK to skim.
  • completely unfamiliar with the literature, this section will be terribly confusing. Don’t worry. All you have to get out of it are the major themes (sections of the garden). You can come back later and examine each individual plant. OK to skim.
  • are trying to learn the literature – read carefully, and mark on the list of references the sources you want to read.

The literature review ends with the research question(s). Find them and highlight them. They are promises that the article should deliver on.


This section explains the research methods and procedures used for the research study. Read them carefully, make sure they are valid. If the research methods are faulty, the data are not to be trusted. If the research methods are absurdly faulty, stop reading here. Go back to the literature review and the list of references and see if they can help you find better articles on the topic.


In this section, the authors present their data, along with their (statistical or interpretive, etc.) analysis. This is as close as you can get to the raw data. This section, in a quantitative article, should be as free as possible of interpretation. Try your best to understand the results for yourself, so you can create your own interpretation of what they mean. But, if the statistics baffle you AND if you trust the authors, skim this section and move on to:


This section explains what the results mean, in the context of the garden (literature review). You should see how the problem from the introduction is solved, how the research questions are answered, and whether the purpose of the study was accomplished. I usually read this section very carefully, because it tells me what the authors think they have accomplished.

Either here or at the end of the conclusion, you will find suggestions for future research. These can be very useful for your own literature review – you can cite the article, if it calls for exactly the research you’re doing. You can use this to support your own argument about the need for your research.


The first part of the conclusion should be a summary of the entire paper. I read it carefully, because the repetition helps me remember what I read. The last part of the conclusion is usually the most difficult part to write, very often fluff, and I don’t feel guilty about skimming or skipping it.

I used to teach this recipe to graduate students and they found it very helpful. I hope you do, too. Please share your own reading and writing tips, and ask me other questions you may have about graduate school.

There are several books that can help you, and the APA style manual has a chapter that explains the structure of APA research papers.

[update:] Barbara Nixon created a slide presentation for this content:

My job is to kill creativity

University professors… are curious forms of life. …They think of their bodies as transport for their heads.

We educate children only from the waist up, focusing on their brain, and that too, only one side of it.

Jillian isn’t sick: She’s a dancer.

If all insects were to disappear from the planet, life on Earth would vanish in 50 years. If all humans were to disappear from the planet, all forms of life would flourish.

These are a few quotes that stood out to me in this brilliant TED talk about education, given by Sir Ken Robinson. If you’re an educator, you owe it to yourself and your students to spend 15 minutes to watch it:

Hello, my name is Mihaela. My job IS to kill creativity.

Here’s how I try to try not to:

I’m very, very cautious, I try to treat it like a fragile and precious rare flower.:

  • I try, as much as I can, knowing I will always fail, to remove fear out of the classroom. But I still have to give grades, so it’s impossible to do away with fear. If you read my blog before, you know fear in education is one important theme on PR Connections.

  • I try to encourage students. I ask them to give themselves a break, not be harsh on themselves. I compliment them a lot. Yesterday I taught strategy. I asked students to create strategies for some case studies. They were hesitant to share, afraid they were wrong. I kept telling them it’s the first ever time they’re doing it, and they only had 20 seconds to think about it. It’s OK if your strategies suck. Guess what, they didn’t. But how many times do we grade students on their first attempt at something? 90%, I’m guessing.
  • I remove students, as much as possible, from modes of writing (research papers) that have conditioned their minds to be numb. I ask them to email or blog assignments instead of writing APA style papers. I ask them to create videos, dance, or perform, their final project. I will be (and I am) a persona non grata in my department for stating this publicly (we live for APA papers, and we do exactly what Sir Ken Robinson says: try to make them all university professors).

But here’s what I think: If you change the medium, you change the way they think. Ask them to write in a new medium, one that they haven’t been conditioned to fear and be constipated about and write like a mindless robot (see Richard Landham on the need to un-teach students how to write) – and guess what: Students’ writing comes to life, you all of a sudden see ideas, thoughtfulness, soul!But many times they choose to write APA style papers. Because it’s too late, because they’re scared to do otherwise, because they can’t think of anything else. So sad.

So, if you’re a teacher or a professor, what do you do to (not) kill creativity?

If you’re a subject of education (and we all were students at some point), teach me: What can I do to protect your creativity, or maybe even encourage it to grow?

[Found video via PROpenMic, thanks to Paul Loop. This post is inspired by the comments I posted on Paul’s post.]

The Golden Wall

I’m reading The Discovery of Heaven, a novel of ideas by Dutch author Harry Mulisch. One of the main characters, Onno, after a stint in politics, meditates on the nature of power.

He claims that power exists because of the Golden Wall that separates the masses (the public) from decision makers. Government, in his example, is a mystery hidden behind this Golden Wall, regarded by the masses (the subject of power) in awe.

Once the Golden Wall falls (or becomes transparent), people see that behind it lies the same mess as outside it. There are people in there, too. Messy people, engaged in messy, imperfect decision making processes. The awe disappears. With it, the power.

What happens actually, with the fall of the Golden Wall, is higher accountability and a more equitable distribution of power. Oh, and the risk of anarchy.

But the Golden Wall must fall.

In the communication professions, social media is tearing huge holes in the Golden Wall. Just like in 1989 Europe, some are celebrating, others are paralyzed with fear.

In education, the Golden Wall stands. Secret meetings behind closed-door decide the curriculum, the professors’ yearly evaluations, tenure, lives, my life.

I talk to my students about squabbles in faculty meetings that result in curriculum changes. I want them to see behind the Golden Wall. To understand how decisions about their education are made. That we’re human, imperfect, and hopefully, possibly, subject to change. I haven’t seen undergraduate students involved in changing the curriculum. Nobody asks them. They don’t push. At Purdue, the Graduate Student Association had a representative sit in on faculty meetings. We did impact the curriculum. We were in, behind the Golden Wall.

In U.S. government, C-SPAN gets us glimpses behind the Golden Wall. But we don’t watch. We’re too busy. It’s too boring. (OK, there are exceptions.)

Look around you. Do you see Golden Walls? Tear them down.

Then come back here and tell the story in the comments section.


“Yet I believe that school should be a safe place, the way home is supposed to be. A place where you belong, where you can grow and express yourself freely, where you know and care for the other people and are known and cared for by them, a place where people come before information and ideas. School needs to comprehend the relationship between the subject matter and the lives of students, between teaching and the lives of teachers, between school and home.” (J. Tompkins, A Life in School, p. 127)

“Fear is what prevents the flowering of the mind.” (Krishnamurthi)

(Thank you, Cheryl, for pointing out these quotations to me 🙂

How much of what you do, or what the people who work for you do, is motivated by fear?

Interview questions

On the PR network PROpenMic (if you haven’t joined yet, I think you should!), Phil Gomes, VP Edelman Digital answers questions from PR students & faculty. Below is the most recent video, in which Phil and a series of other Edelman employees answer the question:

What questions do you always ask in a job interview? Find more videos like this on PROpenMicIf you are a PR practitioner reading this, please add your favorite interview questions in the comments. If you’re a student, feel free to add an interesting/difficult interview question you have been asked in the past.