Life documented


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 😉

Twitter competition: Flutter

On Time

You are invited to the  …. Holiday party …

Wednesday, December xx, 7-9 pm

In Romanian culture, mentioning the end time of a party on an invitation is appalling. I mean, if you’re not ready to go all night long, don’t even bother. Mentioning the end time is like kicking people out of your house. Inconceivable. Rude.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about people’s relationship to time, cultural differences, and the impact they have on relationship building.

I recently reconnected with an Indian friend I hadn’t seen in 10 years. We met for dinner. It lasted 6 hours. We parted ways when we were too tired to keep our eyes open and the restaurant, then the coffee shop, closed, and we had to leave.

I met a Romanian friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years for dinner the following evening. We hung out for another 6 hours or so. Lots of catching up to do. Lots of on-the-spot decisions: walk in the park? dinner? walk me to my hotel? glass of wine in hotel lobby?

Whenever I meet American friends for dinner, after about 90 minutes they get fidgety, don’t pick up on conversation topics, glance at their watches and then out around the room, their eyes projecting their urge to get going.

When we met for lunch or coffee, the same nonverbal behaviors occur like clockwork, after about 50 minutes.

It seems to me Americans have an internal clock that times their lunch, coffee, and dinner interactions, and when a situation occurs that might mess with that clock, they spell the time limits on the invitation. It’s part of this culture, nothing to blame on anyone. But it doesn’t work for me.

I guess I don’t know how to build relationships under these severe time limits. When I relate to someone, when we have fun talking, I don’t see the reason to stop, I don’t have the same internal timer. I can’t help but be slightly hurt by others’ internal timers, though I know they don’t mean to offend me.

When my husband and I first met, we spent the entire night talking.

It takes time and talk to build relationships.

So how do you build relationships?

How do you build relationships under strict time limits?

Does your relationship with time affect your relationships with people?

And what happens when you interact with other cultures, either in interpersonal or public relations settings?

Cause honestly, my feeling is, if this culture’s relationship with time were a bit more relaxed, I’d have more friends.

The Question of the OTHER

This past week has reminded me of this book by Tzvetan Todorov I read back in college (in Romania). It’s an analysis of how people and cultures relate to OTHER-ness. If I remember correctly, when faced with an OTHER who is deeply and radically different, people feel fear. They feel threatened. They feel uncertain. And then they choose one of the following behavioral options:


a) they feel superior to the OTHER, they attempt to conquer or make the OTHER their subject or subaltern. That’s how the European conquerors related to the people Native to the (now) American continent. That’s how the Nazis related to Jews.
b) they appreciate the culture of the OTHER more than their own, and they “go native.” They “convert” to the OTHER’s culture and give up their own. Todorov offers the example of one European officer who preferred the Native American way of life.

c) they respect the OTHER as a different and equal partner, and build an ethical and respectful dialogue and relationship. They coexist.

Is option a) how many people in the U.S. relate to Obama, because he is in many ways the OTHER (different from them, and from their idea of a president)? Does this explain the death threats and scary behaviors, the stuffed monkey at political rallies, the black-face parties?

The question of the OTHER also has direct applications to public relations. Many times, the organization or the CEO feel they know better, they’re smarter that the public. “If they knew what I know, they’d agree with me.” The examples when the organization bows to the public and takes their lead are very rare. Do you have  any? And finally option c), is what PR should be, as defined by Grunig’s excellence model, the relationship management approach to public relations, and, in social media circles “the new PR,” or “PR 2.0.”

“Utter bullocks”

I’m amused by this expression used in a comment on a RWW post titled: Study: 93% of Americans Want Companies to Have Presence on Social Media Sites.

I also believe it’s the perfect response to the report of this study, as presented in the RWW post. I don’t know, the study might be brilliant. But that’s the problem, they don’t provide enough information so I can decide if it’s brilliant or not.

Two issues here:

1) understand the data before you make decisions based on it

2) even if the data is good & valid, don’t jump in and make decisions based only on statistics & demographics

1) understand the data before you make decisions based on it

Some questions to ask about these particular results:

  • who are the 93% of Americans? There aren’t that many Americans online in the first place!!! (P.S.: cultural sensitivity issue: “America” includes Canda, and South American countries. Do you mean U.S. residents?)
  • they probably mean 93% of survey respondents, I guess (guessing = bad sign in research)
  • who are the survey respondents? Provide information about the sample:

These are just a few things I’d like to know before I’d spend a dime on a “social media presence”. And, as RWW writer Frederic L. points out, which social media sites? Twitter and Facebook are so different they might as well be two foreign countries!

2) even if the data is good & valid, don’t jump in and make decisions based only on statistics & demographics

My social media mantra is: It’s not about technology, it’s about culture.

Culture (social norms, etiquette, communication practices) emerges quickly around a social medium, and is specific not only to that medium, but also to sub-groups of users. So you can assume there are hundreds if not thousands sub-cultures on Facebook alone (about 100 million users worldwide).

An example: Befriending someone you haven’t met before is perfectly acceptable on Twitter, but creepy on Facebook.

So think about social media as a continent with many different countries and cultures. If you were to go to Romania (my native country), would you start doing PR & marketing armed with just some demographics produced by a poorly designed research study? I certainly hope not! I hope you’d take some time (a couple of years, say) to begin to get a grasp of Romanian culture before you dive in.

Same goes with social media. Start with your surveys, and make sure you understand what a good survey is. But do some ethnographic research, too (focus groups will do) before you spend that dime on your “social media presence.”


Since I’m ranting, let me point out that the phrase “social media presence” is also … (see post’s title). It’s not about presence, it’s about engagement & conversation.