Order of Operations

This post comes to us compliments of Melissa Corrente. Melissa is a part-time instructor of Health and Physical Education studies at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University, North Bay. We’d like to thank Melissa for her wonderful piece that advocates for balance and family while reinforcing the importance of persevering through academic work. 

I recently read a journal article titled Striving to Obtain a School-Work-Life Balance: The Full-Time Doctoral Student (Martinez, Ordu, Sala & McFarlane, 2013). Five full-time doctoral students were interviewed to explore their experiences, and four themes emerged from the data. Martinez et al. (2013) found that doctoral students strived to achieve a school-work-life balance by purposefully managing their time, seeking well-being, finding support, and making trade-offs. There was one participant who discussed the order of operations in the doc life which made me reflect on my own order of operations. I was never the greatest math student; however, I do remember learning about BEDMAS (brackets, exponents, division, multiplication, addition, and subtraction) in public school. Upon searching the internet I was surprised to find they use a new acronym now which you can see below.

Upon reflecting on the priorities in my life I came up with the acronym SMHPT (son, me, husband, PhD, teaching) to represent my current situation.

My son will be two years old in April, and he is my first priority. After my son, I take good care of myself which includes eating healthy, exercising on a regular basis, and socializing with friends. My husband and our relationship are also important, so we recently had a weekend getaway to recharge our batteries and enjoy the great outdoors. After taking care of my family, the PhD is the next order of operation, because I am currently working on my research proposal.

Order of Operations 1

It is my goal to finish the research proposal before baby #2 arrives in two months! At this point I will be switching my priorities and the baby will move to the beginning of the equation. Teaching was a priority for me last term, however this term my focus has changed to research. I do miss being in the classroom, however I am at peace with my decision.

I think it is important to remind ourselves that priorities change and our order of operations one day may not serve us the next day. I encourage you to explore the current order of operations in your own life. Are they serving you or do you need to make a few changes? I have found that managing my priorities on a day to day basis has served me well.

The Martinez et al. (2013) article also discusses how graduate students carry various competing roles. I try to see the roles in my life as complementing each other because I learn from each one and they inform who I am as a parent, scholar, and educator. As you experience the graduate journey think about how the various roles in your life complement each other. Don’t be afraid to reach out if you need support as I have learned that asking for help is a necessary part of the graduate school adventure!

Melissa Corrente

Order of Operations 2 



Martinze, E., Ordu, C., Sala, M. R. Della, & McFarlane, A. (2013). Striving to obtain a school-work-life balance: The full-time doctoral student. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 8, 39–59.

Welcome to the 2015/2016 year in the School of Graduate Studies at the Schulich School of Education, Nipissing University!

If you are just beginning this journey with us, we are so thrilled to have you as a colleague. I’m confident you’ll find our online program to be comprehensive, challenging, and responsive to your needs. If you are continuing with your studies and are beginning a new term of research or coursework, I hope you’re as excited as I am for another year of learning, growth, and opportunity.

Make no mistake; graduate level studies are designed to prod, provoke, and problematize your thinking, which frequently leads to temporary periods of discomfort and discontentment. However, rest assured that it’s worthy work, and that you are not alone throughout this rewarding process. Though we may be separated by geographic distance, know that your classmates and professors are only an email, phone call, or Skype away. We are all in this together; never feel afraid to reach out for support.

Over the past year, my colleagues and I have wrestled with Impostor Syndrome, attended conferences, gone through the process of thesis approval, engaged in field research, attended group research discussions, built critical friendships, and balanced the demands of coursework with our familial, professional, and personal obligations. Through all of this experiential learning, I can reflect upon my first year in the program, and offer a few tips for success that I’ve clumsily accumulated by stumbling through the challenges presented by the rigours of my chosen route.

If you have anything to add to this list, please feel free to do so in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.

  1. The Medium is the Message, and the Process is the Product

Paying homage to Marshall McLuhan’s theory, the process of graduate work is simultaneous a process, and a product. In other words, it’s the journey, not the destination. The process through which you go through your studies and research work is also an incubator for complementary skills that will be essential to your long-term development; time management, academic writing, reflection, resilience, adaptability, and criticality. The medium (the route your graduate work takes) and how you engage with it will ultimately shape your message.

What does this mean?

Be kind to yourself: mistakes are a necessary part of the process, inherent to your experience. I’m currently listening to transcripts of when I was out in the field researching, and sometimes I cringe at mistakes that I make. Congratulate yourself for being brave enough to go outside of your comfort zone, take the lesson you need from the mistake, and move on.

Another tip? Experimentation. Play around with your scheduling (as best you can), figure out your peak reading and writing times through trial and error, and be willing to try again. It’s taken me a year to make peace with my own internal clock, but now I can be much more responsive to my state of mind and energy levels. When I first started and was focused on coursework, I’d be on the discussion boards from 7am- 11am, and again from 7pm-9pm, to respond to what had been said during the day. That worked really well for me. However, I had to completely shift this schedule when I started working on my thesis. If you’re working full time, you may not have as much of an option, but you may find that waking up at 5am to complete your work for the day is preferable to beginning your work at 6pm. Trial and error, friends…trial and error.

Reflect: do frequent check-ins with yourself. Due dates coming up? Research proposal coming down the pipeline? Neglecting any other areas of your wellbeing? Any “aha!” moments? Write in a journal, go for a long walk or run, and allow yourself the time and space to reflect on your work.

  1. Chose your route as soon as you can

We have many posts on the three routes and the differences between the three, but knowing from the get-go what my path was helped me to hit the ground running. See this post for more information about each route. Start a conversation with your Faculty Advisor as soon as you’re able so that you can feel confident moving forward, even if you chose to focus solely on coursework and the research project and seminar. Knowing from the star that I wanted to do a thesis helped me make decisions, keep an eye out for opportunities, and tailor my coursework so that I could incorporate the research I performed for class credit into my thesis. I basically just had to tweak my research proposal from Research Methods in order to be approved for thesis, while keeping a copy of my ethics paperwork printed and by my side to complete them all simultaneously. Work smarter, not harder.

  1. Recognize your distractions

I’m a news junky, and am frequently on Facebook to see what headlines come up on the various news sources that I like and follow. As a result, I’ve had to install blocker software onto my computer to prevent me from accessing both it and YouTube. I use Self Control, it’s free and has helped me more than I’d like to admit.

Just this past month, I realized that I could get distracted by random thoughts and ideas that floated through my head (movie titles, a book that I just remembered that I had wanted to read at some point, I wonder what ever happened in season 6 of The Vampire Diaries…etc.) and suddenly I’d look at the clock and I’d been on Wikipedia for an hour. So I created my official Distraction Journal (it’s an orange moleskin). When I’m working and I get a thought that is starting to itch, I just write it down, so it knows that I’ll get to it when I’m done my work. Then it can stop bugging me and I can keep writing. It’s a simple fix, but it’s very effective.

Image credit: xkcd

Image credit: xkcd

  1. Back. It. Up.

This past October, I spilled a travel mug of tea all over my keyboard of my Mac, which then proceeded to turn itself on and off, until it turned itself off and was unresponsive. I put it in rice, and brought it into tech services, who were fortunately able to resuscitate my poor baby. Since then, I’ve been backing up my hard drive once or twice a week. All of my important documents are additionally backed up on Google Drive.

Back it up. Then back it up again. Have you backed it up yet?

  1. Be present

Physically, this might be a challenge, depending on where you’re studying from. But our bi-weekly graduate meetings offer a Skype option. If the timing doesn’t work for you, try writing a post for the blog, or consult with your faculty advisor or supervisor about a conference near you that you can attend or present at. The more time you spend as an active, present member of the community, the stronger your resolve will be when the going gets rough, because you’ll feel the invisible bonds of community.

Is there anything I’ve missed? Sound off in the comments, either below or on Facebook. Good luck, everyone!

Simple Tricks for Kicks

The following post was written by Samantha Van De Wal, a Master of Education student who is also currently obtaining her Certified Nutritional Practitioner designation and naturopathic medical degree.

Like many students, you’ve probably fallen into your winter rut, and had ample opportunity to develop some pretty gnarly habits that you didn’t have Summer 2014 (thanks, grad school). Have no fear, I’m here to give you five simple tricks to kick the unhealthy habits, rid or reduce the stress, and get a clearer mind:

1.  Eating low fat is a thing of the past.

Think you’re doing yourself good by grabbing the low fat yogurt and fruit? Have you ever asked yourself whether you’re truly satiated after eating it? My guess is… you’re not. That’s because it’s loaded with sugar but has relatively no or very low fat. And while you think all fats are bad, I’m here to tell you that they’re actually the good guys that keep you fuller, longer! In fact, fats are essential macronutrients; fats are essential for us to function optimally.

  • Have a long day ahead? Fats are a source of short term and long term fuel. By adding in a tablespoon of fat (like olive oil or coconut oil) into your meal or smoothie, you’re actually preventing yourself from over-indulging later. They keep you fuller longer because they take longer to digest.
  • Trying to retain some knowledge and keep your brain healthy? (You’re in grad school, of course you are.) Fats are integral for brain function, and are a major contributor to your brain’s structure. Try increasing your daily Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) intake by taking 1-2 tablespoons per day of high quality fish oil.
  • Fats act as a synthesizer for vital hormones in your body. Improper fat intake could lead to hormonal issues, including your adrenal hormones, which are impacted by stress.
  • Beware though that there are some bad fats like saturated fats that have negative impacts (e.g., weight gain, cardiovascular disease, etc.), but only when consumed in large quantities.

2.  Rev up your water intake.

Water is our life force. We’re made up of 60%+ water, and all of our physiological processes require it. Vitamins, minerals, and nutrients rely on water to dissolve and transport the material to the cell. In saying this, water plays a major role in our energy production. It increases our mental alertness and prevents us from getting headaches by sending oxygen to our brain (the same reason why working out helps us have greater clarity).

While getting 2L of water is said to be the gold star standard, my suggestion would be to aim for 3L, if you can. Take into account your vegetable intake and other water sources (included in that amount).

Not only do green juices offer an amazing amount of vitamin and mineral benefits, but they also contribute to 500mL to 1L of water intake (depending on the size of course). A simple green juice would include: a handful of greens (your choice), sprinkle of fresh parsley, juice of a lemon, half a cucumber, and half a banana to sweeten (optional). So refreshing and regenerating, and the perfect swap for your 2pm coffee.

What would Captain Vegetable do?

What would Captain Vegetable do?

3.  Cut the refined sugar

Low glycemic load (that is, meals that don’t cause sugar spikes) prevent sugar crashes, reduce mood swings (the highs and lows of the day), reduce fatigue (we all need that), and help in weight regulation. My suggestion is stick to a plate that looks like this:

  • 1/8 protein (e.g., chicken)
  • 1/8 starch and/or starchy veg (e.g., sweet potato)
  • 3/4 non-starchy veg (e.g., leafy greens)
  • 1 tbsp good oils (olive, coconut, avocado)

Tip: Stick to a whole foods (unprocessed) nutritional plan and avoid foods with consumer labels. You won’t have to worry about refined sugar if you’re committing to whole foods with high nutrient intake!

4.  Take a high intensity workout hiatus:

Let’s face it… we’re all stressed beyond our capacities (thanks, Modern Day Life). Our adrenal glands are one of the major glands in our bodies that try to regulate our stress hormones, but the reality is that many of us are suffering from adrenal fatigue.

When planning your exercise regime, my advice is to do several moderate exercises at least 3-4x a week. This can range from a light jog to interval training, and definitely includes the addition of yoga into your routine.

Apart from increasing your circulation, increasing your flexibility, and improving your memory, yoga will make you sit still and relax… something we’re not used to doing! Finding five minutes to breathe, meditate and get into your own headspace will help you reduce your stress and maintain focus for future tasks on hand.

Lastly, if nothing else…

5.  Take a high quality multivitamin:

The Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) lacks many of vitamins and minerals that we need in order to be our healthiest self. Let’s be honest… we don’t always have the time to prepare great, healthy meals (we just need to get that paper in). And, even if you are eating great, you may be eating a narrow diet (aka, a diet that doesn’t consider the amazing varieties of nutrients this world has to offer). A good multivitamin will contain every vitamin and mineral in the usual recommended doses. It’s likely that your stress will reduce, your memory will strengthen, your fatigue will minimize, and your sleep will improve.

So, if you’re feeling sluggish and stressed, try these five tricks to kick the bad habits that may have got you feeling crummy. You may start feeling the changes quickly, or it may take a couple weeks – this all depends on your current state of health.

Disclaimer: The above material is for your informational use, only. Always consult a healthcare practitioner (e.g., medical doctor, naturopathic doctor, holistic nutritionist) before taking any vitamins or supplements.

Beating the Winter Blahs

February. You’ve only been here for one week, and I can’t wait to see the end of you. While I have embraced the beauty of the north, including its ever-white snow banks, just once I would love to wake up and see that the sun has already greeted the horizon. Instead, I stumble in the dark to the coffee pot, groggily head to the discussion boards, and scowl at the sun’s unfashionably late arrival (nice of you to show up, buddy). The winter blahs can be all-consuming, particularly if you’ve acclimatized to the responsibilities of being a grad student and the assignments begin to grate on your nerves.

Since I personally won’t be jet-setting somewhere with white sand and turquoise waters to stockpile some vitamin D (and good on you if you are), I’ve developed a few coping strategies to help bide away the cold and the dark.


  • Exercise – this one sounds pretty obvious, but if my circle of friends at the graduate level is any indication, it’s easier said than done. Every week, I vow to hit the gym a minimum of three times; every week, I usually fail to meet my own lofty expectations. How could I possibly think about taking the time to lift weights when I have a million posts to read/write?! But the thing is, every time I go, I feel great. My confidence goes up, I’m inspired to eat healthier, and my focus improves. It’s worth the investment of time to take care of your body, even if it’s just 15 minutes of stretching after a long writing session.
  • If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em – one of the things about living in this magnificent country is that we get snow, and depending on where you live, you might get heaps. Storm systems moving in over Georgian Bay and Lake Nipissing result in weekly snow pileups; so why not embrace it? Today I plan on getting in a nice day of cross-country skiing, followed by a cup of hot chocolate. Although I have plenty of school related work to do, it’s important not to get tunnel-vision, because there’s always more to do. To that end, I’m choosing to prioritize winter activities. Other activities to check out are snowshoeing, skating, maple syrup festivals (coming up soon!), tobogganing, snowman building, collect some pine cones for some DIY decorations, winter hiking, playing/watching hockey, ice fishing, drinking mulled cider under a blanket with a good book or movie.
  • Treat yourself – if you’re the typical type-A grad student, you may be balancing your studies with a million other things, including jobs, families, hobbies, community commitments, and so on. When was the last time you did something small for yourself? In the past, I’ve experienced feelings of guilt when I treated myself to something nice that I wanted, but not necessarily needed. But here’s the thing: you work hard. You’re pushing yourself. Treat yourself to something as a thank you gift. Make yourself a nice dinner. Book a massage. Get a magazine subscription. Upgrade your coffee to a latte. Go see a movie. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it does have to be intentional.


  • Make time for friends – this is something else I’m really working on. Just one hour of a good chat with my friends and my soul feels lighter. However, this is often one of the first things to go (along with exercise) when my commitments start ramping up. Even if I’m skyping with someone who lives far away (a good friend of mine is in the Yukon), it feels good to break out of the work-school-eat-sleep-repeat mentality. Life’s short, and it should be filled with as much laughter as possible.
  • Combine all of the above! Partner up with your friends for some exercise accountability, go skating with your partner/kids, indulge in a day on the slopes with your nearest and dearest. One of my favourite winter memories was finding a small indoor farmer’s market near an ice rink, and toddling around with my friends before heading inside to warm up with locally made goodies. Each city/town has events to go check out, round up the family and friends and make it an adventure.

This list is how I manage to cope, but I’d love to hear how my fellow grad students deal with the winter blahs. Leave a comment below and share your tips, tricks, and ideas 🙂

A Hidden War: Self-Sabotage and How Not to Let You Get the Best of You

This week’s post by Amy Dickersona Master’s of Education student who balances her academics with both teaching and motherhood. We’d like to thank Amy for her outstanding contribution this week.   

“Having a low opinion of yourself is not ‘modesty.’ It’s self-destruction. Holding your uniqueness in high regard is not ‘egotism.’ It’s a necessary precondition to happiness and success.”  – Bobbe Summer

Often, we have naysayers in our lives sending us negative messages and challenging whether we can achieve what we have embarked upon. I know that I have personally had criticisms tossed at me such as, “You can’t have it all; You’re going to be 80 when you’re done; Get done so you can join the real world.” Most of the time, these messages are easy to dismiss and let slide away; at other times, it is more difficult to shrug them off. When the latter is the case, negativity may join our own thoughts and feed any lingering doubts we might have, and it is much more difficult for us to dismiss negative thinking when it comes from inside. But why on Earth would we deliver critical messages to ourselves when we have enough negativity from outside?


For me, I have felt a fear of success, which is really a fear of failure and when I take steps toward my personal and professional goals. I sometimes feel like I am not good enough, smart enough, or somehow don’t fit in, similar to the Imposter Syndrome. If I am someday ‘successful’ (whatever that means), is that going to be it, will there be anywhere to go when I get there? As a budding researcher, I realize that there is never going to be a shortage of topics to research and write about, so success cannot be a ladder-type scenario; it is more like a spiral in nature, opening more and more doors as I work through my career. I think I get caught up in that it’s ‘warm, safe and comfortable’ feeling of the status quo and forget that life (to me) is about challenge, taking risks and growing. I sometimes need to remind myself that I am worthy and capable; that I just need to keep moving, keep growing despite what others, or even my own mind, say.

I honestly did not even realize I had been actively participating in my own destruction, and was left wondering why I didn’t finish that project or why that relationship ended. Then one day a very sage and deeply grounded friend looked at me and simply said, “It’s called self-sabotage.” I started to reflect upon where it came from and why I was doing it, what was it serving me – or was it at all?

In my newfound awareness, it was up to me to change that acquired thinking and move forward in a more positive way. This is not an easy endeavor, and when you encounter external negativity and others’ desires to maintain a status quo, it becomes much more difficult. I have learned, and am practicing, as I move through my 30s, that assertiveness is not equivalent to aggression, and that meeting my own needs is not the same as being selfish. I make plans and take risks and have chosen to be led by my own desire and abilities on a path of personal and professional growth.

When I started this journey, I attended the 3rd Annual International Summer Colloquium at Nipissing in July 2013. I spoke with one of the organizing professors (and my Theories of Learning professor in the fall) and he said something that has really resonated with me, and helps me out when people wonder to me why I am doing all of this. Dr. Ron Wideman looked at me and said, “Your MEd will open up doors that you don’t even know exist yet; the doors may not even exist yet.” So how can we define what it means to be successful if the outcome of our journey may not even exist? I think it is more important to focus on the process and not on the outcome. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”


More about self-sabotaging:

Self-Sabotaging: Why We Get in Our Own Way


8 Self-Sabotaging Lies to Stop Telling Yourself


Self-Sabotaging in Work or Relationships? Why?




Chronic Illness: An Exceptional Graduate Student Experience

This post was written by Catherine Giroux, a second year full-time M.Ed student based out of the North Bay campus. We’d like to thank Catherine for her heartfelt and honest contribution to our community. 

Special Needs

Original poem by Ruth Reardon (the word student is substituted for child in this revision)

Post-secondary education is a unique experience. For some students, the years spent at university can be affectionately called the best years of their lives. Major perks of university are making new friends, learning new things, and taking in all the new experiences associated with emerging adulthood.

In a way, graduate school is an extension of the university experience. You become incredibly engaged in your courses and immersed in your research. If you choose to pursue a thesis route, it essentially becomes your baby throughout the duration of your degree. Graduate school is not easy at the best of times; it presents new and difficult challenges, but even moreso when you have the challenge of a chronic illness.

First off, what do I mean when I discuss chronic illness? Is it like a recurring cold or flu that just won’t quit? Not exactly. Chronic illness has several definitions but here’s the one that I prefer:

Chronic illness is a medical condition, disease, or injury that has lasted more than three to six months and has caused an individual to significantly alter his or her day-to-day activities (Repetto, Horkey, Miney, Reiss, Saidi, Wolcott, Saldana, & Jaress, 2012).

Why is it difficult to be a student (especially a graduate student) with a chronic illness? Imagine every grad student has been hired to be a juggler. Your task is to keep all the balls in the air without dropping any (these represent your classes, readings, research, writing, and social expectations). Now imagine that you must keep juggling while more balls are being thrown at you. One is labelled chronic illness (you may have more than one depending on what you’ve been diagnosed with). You catch it and carry on. Out of nowhere, five more balls are added to your juggling attempts. These represent every specialist you see and how often you need to travel to see them (because of course they aren’t local). Throw in a couple balls to represent the medications you’re on, the potential daily procedures, and how much the potential side effects impact your ability to function normally. Now you’re looking at roughly 14 balls that you’ve got to keep juggling, without letting any of them drop. You’ve figured out a system and you’re making it work but you don’t know how much longer you can keep it up. Remember Zack in She’s All That? It’s a little bit like that!

Suddenly, you experience a flare up in your illness and you have to drop all the balls that you’re juggling. There’s no way that you can keep up with school and the social expectations that go along with school. The words leave of absence get thrown around but you don’t like them one bit; you’re too stubborn for that (which can be both a good and bad thing).

But you are resilient and determined to make it work. Slowly you recover and can pick up a few of the balls that you’re supposed to be juggling. You resolve to juggle fewer things this time around but you know that it won’t last. Eventually the cycle will repeat and you’ll be back to where you started. Nevertheless, you love what you’re doing in school and in life and the juggling is a small sacrifice that lets you have a normal experience, at least some of the time.

Living and studying with a chronic illness is about making choices. It might be fun to go to the pub with your friends after class but by choosing not to go home and go to bed at a reasonable time you might be sacrificing your ability to function tomorrow. There is an unbelievable amount of unpredictability with chronic illness. One day you might be feeling totally fine while the next, you can’t get out of bed or might even be in the hospital. We are fortunate that at Nipissing there is a great degree of flexibility because of the online courses. That flexibility allows for the frequent trips home for medical appointments and for schoolwork to even be completed from bed (or wherever else you might be). A word of advice though… make those deadlines and never put off until tomorrow what you can do today, especially if you’re feeling well.

Those of us with chronic illness look just like anybody else. We can often fake wellness so convincingly that others may not be able to tell just how much we are juggling at any given time. In some cases, this works to our advantage but in others it can be quite isolating because it feels like no one (peers, professors, etc.) truly understands how hard we work to be here.

So what helps?

Here are some strategies that I have found to help mitigate the stresses of chronic illness throughout my post-secondary experience:

  1. Introduce yourself to your professors early so that they are aware that chronic illness might influence your academic timeline. Only share as much with them as you are comfortable- it’s your health and wellness that is important.
  2. Register with Accessibility Services. They can help advocate for you and your needs (both learning and health).
  3. Find a network of friends (with or without similar chronic illnesses) who can support you when you need to vent and who will respect your limits and needs.
  4. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Do the best that you can and allow for the necessary time to take care of yourself. That is what is really important, after all.
  5. Do things when you can. You never know what’s around the corner so prioritize and get as much done in advance as you can while you’re able.
  6. Have your good days! If you are feeling well and physically able, go enjoy some of your favourite activities (e.g., snowshoeing, skiing, swimming, knitting, etc.). This goes a long way to helping your emotional state of being and stress levels too.
  7. Keep track of your spoons (this isn’t as random as it sounds. Please refer to Christine Miserandino’s The Spoon Theory. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety to understand life with a chronic illness). Remember to keep one spoon in your back pocket for emergencies.
  8. It is absolutely possible to complete graduate school with a chronic illness. It is a matter of tuning in to your health, your capabilities, and your goals. It isn’t always easy but it is often fulfilling and worthwhile.

If you are a graduate student with a chronic illness (or are interested in the topic), please check out these blogs/forums!




Work/school/life balance … is it possible?

When I started my first undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa, I had just two priorities: school and social life (and maybe not in that exact order).

And then I saw my loan statement from first year… Ouch! I decided that I desperately needed to work more than 10 hours a week to get through my studies without a massive pile of debt. So I got a second “part-time” job doing 8 and 12 hour clerical shifts in an Emergency Department (which quickly turned into a 24 to 36 hour a week commitment). I moved over to Intensive Care two years later, again as a “part-time” staff, where overtime was offered to me frequently… and that I accepted more than I likely should have.

I’m now onto my third degree (the Master’s of Ed), having earned a BA and BEd from the University of Ottawa, and I am still juggling both working and studying full-time.

I’m not exactly sure how I have survived the past six years, even less how I have maintained good academic standing, but here are some tips I might offer to you, fellow graduate student, so that you can be overworked and still have (some) time for yourself!


Get a planner. Or many. I have two planners and a wall-calendar in my kitchen. Being organized is essential!

Colour-code your planner! Each aspect of your life should be designated a colour. I use varying shades of green for my academics, blue for work, orange for social commitments, and red for appointments (although the orange doesn’t get used as much as I’d like). [Check out: http://www.maydesigns.com/ for awesome customizable planners!]

Track your productivity.

Especially in an online program, it is easy to become distracted by the never-ending pit that is the internet. RescueTime is an app that can be installed on your computer to log your productive vs. unproductive time. Settings are customizable, so for example if you are studying popular culture, YouTube can be placed on the “productive websites” list.


Schedule your weekly chores.

Make a date and set a time limit on grocery trips, laundry, vacuuming, etc. I personally love to clean as a form of procrastination because it feels productive! Be mindful of your time in every aspect of your daily routine.

Make use of your mornings!

Wake up an hour earlier than usual, and do a reading or post a response online. [I now work at a Montessori school, and my mind is much more alert before spending 9 hours surrounded by very excited 3 to 5 year olds…]

Set mid-way deadlines for major assignments.

This will (hopefully) help you stay on track and prevent procrastination. Having a critical peer can help with this as well (more on that later).

Give yourself time to unwind every day.

An hour of relaxation before bed has helped me get my mind off of assignments and has helped my sleeping patterns. Have a glass of wine and read a book for fun, play Sudoku, chat with loved ones, or stream a show on Netflix. You can ‘afford’ to do this if you spend an hour doing schoolwork in the morning!

Schedule a 2/3/4 hour block every week for YOU.

No work, no schoolwork, no chores, nothing. Spend time outdoors, hike, knit, paint, sing, do something that makes you happy!

Take this thing one day at a time! It can be overwhelming trying to balance school, work, and life. I don’t pretend for a minute that it is easy, and I commend anyone who is working while studying, at any level. I am very lucky to have my sister as a role model for time-management and work-school-life balance; I haven’t followed every footstep, but rather the general path she has cut through the brush and entangled roots of studying, and we have both succeeded. Find a balance that works for you; make use of your time and planning skills in ways you feel are most beneficial. Everyone will get through the challenges of studying in their own ways, but whatever the case, ask for help! Your significant other, friends, family, professors, peers, colleagues, even bosses can be great allies.

Keep your chin up, plan like mad, and then go with the flow.

This week’s blog post is written by Laura McRae, a first year Master of Education student. We’d like to thank Laura for her excellent contribution to our community and commend her for her ability to juggle a three-course load this term while working full-time.

“This isn’t what I thought it’d be!” (Expectations vs Reality, and the Journey of Self-Discovery)

I remember being an undergraduate student taking a research course overseas. It was a research methods course, and we were paired with a faculty member from our host university in our host country. At the end of my time abroad, I remember my faculty supervisor turning to me and asking, “so, you’re coming back here for graduate school, right?”

That moment was pivotal, because previously I’d never even considered graduate studies! In fact, I’m quite certain that my initial reaction to her question was (badly) suppressed laughter. I was stopping after my undergraduate degree. No more school for me.

Little did I know then that I’d find myself on this crazy journey of self-discovery and redefinition that would ultimately result in an M.Ed in progress (with the crazy thought of pursuing doctoral work as well). When I reflect on where I have been and where I am now, I can weigh the expectations that I held for this process against my actual experiences. Graduate school is a process of self-discovery. Everything you thought you knew and understood about yourself, your work habits, and your working and personal relationships with others will be challenged. You will dance on the edge of your comfort zone until you feel ready to spread your wings and fly…but don’t be alarmed if you come tumbling down a few times as well. It is all a part of the process.

I came into the program bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was excited to start researching my topic and eager to use my research to make a difference in the world. I had visions of T.A.ing, research, travel, conferences, grants, and publications. Ambitious? Probably.Lifeplan

As I’ve gone through the process, I’ve begun to better identify what I expected and appropriately adjusted my expectations to match the reality of graduate school. Here are my top five examples:

Expectation 1: I need to know exactly what I will be researching before I enter the program.

REALITY: This is not the case here at Nipissing. Luckily, you don’t need to know your whole thesis outline before you apply to the program. You don’t even need to know what route you plan on choosing (thesis, MRP, or course). I changed my mind a few times before landing on a thesis topic that truly felt right for me.

Expectation: I will be free to study EXACTLY what I’m interested in and this will lead me to finding meaning in my life.

REALITY: This can be partially true. In graduate school, you spend a lot of time focusing on what interests you. I’ve also found that it is sometimes helpful to explore other topics of interest in your courses (not just your thesis or MRP) because sometimes your brain just needs a little bit of a break and there’s something to be said for being well-versed in a variety of subjects. As for finding meaning, in my journey I have discovered that there are so many different parts to me and all of these need attention. My family and friends, my participation in sports and activities, my love of music and strange historical/political events and trivia are all things that make me unique and are meaningful. My thesis is important but it’s just one part of the larger picture.

Expectation: I will easily make friends and we will do all sorts of grad-school stuff together. 

REALITY: Ha (insert laughter here). The friend-making process has been interesting to say the least. To be fair, I have made some very solid friendships in graduate school. I still did not realize just how isolating the whole experience would be though. In my undergraduate degrees, I almost took it for granted that friends were the people who were in your classes with you. Graduate school is a whole other experience; friendships have gone online. Even though I opted to do my Masters onsite in North Bay, it has been hard to meet the other graduate students who are here as well. It takes a concerted effort to get together but believe you me that effort is well worth it.

Expectation: I will be smart and confident in Grad School. I will totally know what I’m talking about. I will be attending conferences and I will be publishing!

REALITY: Again, this one isn’t actually untrue. You CAN do these things in Grad School. You really can. For me, this one has just been a particular struggle with Impostor Syndrome (The American Psychological Society likens it to feeling like a fraud. Read more here). That pretty much sums up my first year – keeping my head down and working hard, hoping against hope that Nipissing wouldn’t find out the major mistake they made in           accepting me because there’s absolutely no way I can be working at this academic level, after all. In my second year, I’m recognizing that Impostor Syndrome is a cognitive distortion (yay, psychology?) and that I actually do belong here and I can make a valuable contribution to my field. I can attend conferences and I can publish. I just wish I could have a little more faith in myself from the get-go. (editorial note – this blog will be posting on Impostor Syndrome again in the future!)

Expectation: The thesis defense is the scariest thing in the world.

REALITY: Seeing as how I haven’t gotten there yet, I can’t speak to the reality of this one. I have heard from former students here and at other institutions though that your thesis team will not send you in for your defense if they do not think that you’re absolutely ready. I find that reassuring. I’m not going to lie; I still expect it to be the scariest thing in the world.

Needless to say, I’m very grateful for that day back in my undergrad where my faculty supervisor planted the graduate studies seed in my mind. Never in a million years would I have pictured myself here doing this but I would not change it for anything. I’m learning how to frame my expectations in a way that they might actually line up with the reality of the situation and that certainly helps. It is still good to have expectations, in my opinion, because they help to excite and motivate. Excitement and motivation are necessary in graduate school; they are what help carry you through to the finish line.


Thanks to today’s blogger, for her thoughtful and honest contribution:

Catherine Giroux

November 4, 2014