Best Practices: staying motivated and focused

The end of the semester is fast approaching for many of us. Homework assignments and projects are due amid the last round of exams before finals. On top of that, we’re expected to continue making progress on research — including getting papers written and presentations put together. How do you maintain your focus and get everything done in a reasonable amount of time?

If you’re done with your coursework and are purely focused on research and/or writing your thesis, perhaps you’re faced with the lack of motivation to do either?

Perhaps you’re in the middle — like me. I’m almost done with coursework, and have all the projects, homework, and exams associated with classes. On top of that, I’m deep into research with the goal of wrapping things up over the summer and starting to write my dissertation in the fall. And yet, I find that often I experience a lack of motivation or focus to get any of it done. My classes are pass/fail, and so there is a lack of interest in doing any more work than is required to pass the class. But when I’m not working on coursework, and I have plenty to do with research, I sometimes just get overwhelmed with how much I still need to do. It seems counterintuitive to not want to do anything. And yet, this is a common problem in graduate school, especially when pursuing a PhD. The road to graduation is long and arduous, and many of us get burned out during our time in graduate school.

So how can you push through this lack of motivation and avoid burn out? This is the current concern on my mind. Here are some of my best practices, as well as some tips and other resources. Feel free to comment with techniques that work for you!

Motivation/Focus techniques:

  • Make to-do lists!
    • Semesterly — keeps you on track for overall goals
    • Monthly — breaks down overall goals into manageable pieces per month
    • Weekly — focus on what needs to get done that week, adding one or two things that will help you accomplish your monthly goals
    • Bi-daily — break down the weekly tasks into tasks you can accomplish in 1-2 hours
  • If you have broken tasks down into items you can accomplish in 1-2 hours, frequently switch between tasks ever 1-2 hours when you finish a given task. While it may feel that you’re not getting things done, your mind is more refreshed when you switch between topics frequently. In the end, you’ll have accomplished more in any given day.
  • Find a workplace where you can actually get work done
    • Do you need music as a distraction? (I need classical music, or in general, music without words, otherwise I focus on the words. Additionally, sometimes, if it is music I’ve performed in an orchestra, I start listening to the music more than focusing on my task.)
    • Is it too loud in your office / lab? Get distracted at home? Take a day and work at a Panera or another coffee shop
  • Get up every hour for 5 minutes to exercise your legs and give your eyes/mind a break
    • Go to the restroom
    • Get a drink of water
    • Walk around the building
    • Go talk to a friend
  • Treat graduate school like a desk job
    • Work the hours necessary to get the job done (that may fluctuate between 9-5, and 7-7 depending on what you have going on)
    • But don’t take work home with you — your brain needs to relax and recharge
  • Find activities you like to do that are not research and fit them into your schedule
    • Play an instrument? Join a community band or orchestra
    • Play on an Intramural sports team
    • Exercise at the campus gym
    • Go hiking or walking around on city trails


Five tips for Staying Motivated according to

  1. Focus on High-Impact Activities
  2. Create New Challenges
  3. Set Attainable Goals
  4. Find a Social Support Network
  5. Acknowledge your Accomplishments

Read more at:


Apply now: FY15 Graduate Member Coordinator-Elect!

Are you interested in taking your leadership to the next level? Do you want to work with the Board of Directors, and help effect change for the entire graduate community?

If so, consider applying to be the FY15 Graduate Member Coordinator-Elect!

The Graduate Member Coordinator (GMC) works to foster a strong community and network for graduate students in SWE by facilitating communication between graduate students in SWE and SWE graduate student groups, and by representing the interests of graduate students to the Society. The GMC also works with a team of leaders at this level, including the Graduate Programming Coordinator (GPC), to help provide programming for graduate students in SWE.

The GMC is a two-year term filled by a SWE graduate student or recent graduate, serving one year as coordinator-elect for FY15 and one year as coordinator for FY16. The GMC-Elect assists the GMC, in preparation for the following year.

The application deadline for the FY15 GMC-Elect position is April 1, 2014.

If you would like an application or have any questions about this position, please contact Shivani Gupta at

Wanted: Region Conference feedback (and the three upcoming conferences)

Seven exciting region conferences have taken place throughout the spring so far! Thank you to all the wonderful volunteers who helped put on such great conferences, especially the graduate students who helped to organize specific graduate student-focused sessions. While many of these conferences are still fresh in our minds, we would love to have your feedback on how your region conference went, and how we can better serve the graduate community within SWE. Please take a few minutes to fill out this Survey and let us know your thoughts!

Finally, there are still three region conferences that will be taking place in late March and early April. Be sure to check them out if you’re in the area! Here’s some key information on these great professional development and networking opportunities:

Region A:

Region E:

  • Conference dates: March 28-30, 2014
  • Location: Blacksburg, VA (Virginia Tech)
  • Sessions of interest to graduate students:
    • Pathway to Graduate School and Women Engineers’ Journeys to Academia
    • Stealth Networking: How to Build Influential Relationships for Long-Term Success – Even if You Hate to Network!
    • What makes a great leader?
    • Getting to Know Your Inner Leader
  • Conference website:

Region F:

  • Conference dates: April 4-6, 2014
  • Location: Springfield, MA (Western New England)
  • Sessions of interest to graduate students:
    • Options for Graduate Students: from Industry and Government, to Academia and Education, to non-traditional pathways
    • Salary Negotiations: Because You Are Worth It
  • Conference website:



Note: If the survey link above does not work, please copy/paste:

Happy International Women’s Day!

Hey!  Are you a woman?  If so, then today is your day!  It is International Women’s Day!

I know, it seems like International Women’s Day was just yesterday.  Every year the lead up to IWD seems to sneak up on me.  I barely had time to decorate my apartment and send out all my IWD cards.  Did the IWD Hedgehog visit you last night and leave you herbal tea and lip gloss?  No, no it didn’t, because I made that up.


If there was an International Women's Day Hedgehog it would be adorable.

If there was an International Women’s Day Hedgehog it would be adorable.

I didn’t even know it was International Women’s Day until a friend told me yesterday.  So if you would like to know more about International Women’s Day here are some places to look and some things to just generally get you in the mood.


If you come across something interesting today please leave a link in the comments!

Lest you forget, there are not a lot of women engineers.

Lest you forget, there are not a lot of women engineers.

Do you ever find yourself, going about your business, interacting with your peers when someone goes out of their way to remind you that you are a “lady engineer”?  Mind you, I didn’t say “engineer”, I said “lady engineer”.  Every so often I get a subtle or sometimes not so subtle reminder that I am not a full member of the club, that I am not like most.

This past weekend the Super Bowl featured two commercials that brought this issue front and center.  The first was an ad for Volkswagen.  Volkswagen came under fire for not including women as engineers.  [WARNING:  DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS IN THIS VIDEO!] I read a lot of the discussion around this video and my favorite defense for the lack of women’s representation is that it accurately reflects the lack of women engineers in real life.  This one is my favorite because their argument for a lack of representation of women in a video where engineers magically sprout wings is that it is being realistic.  So women are a minority in engineering.  Did anyone not know that?

The other commercial that brought this issue into the spotlight was a commercial for GoldieBlox.   [WARNING:  DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS IN THIS VIDEO, ALSO YOU MAY CRY WHEN ALL THE LITTLE GIRLS SALUTE]  GoldieBlox is an engineering toy  marketed towards girls.  The company and founder are unapologetically critical of the toy industries gender ghettos.  Part of the drama surrounding this particular commercial is that a previous Goldie Blox commercial that went viral included a parody of the misogynistic Beastie Boys.  The Beastie Boys do not want their music used or parodied in commercials which caused a conflict. However, this commercial brought a refreshing change to some of the previous Super Bowl commercials that gain popularity through objectification of women.

Two commercials, one takeaway: there aren’t many women in engineering. Maybe Volkswagen hadn’t intended to make a point but their own bias showed the sad truth (not angel transmogrification).  GoldieBlox depicted a community of little girls demanding change, and possibly launching a rocket made of pink toys into space.  They are both a reality, women in engineering are a minority and, often, lack visibility but they also have communities that are striving for change.

I have one more link and then I will quite.  A young man in Toronto is contesting his failing grade in a class that he only attended once.  His reason is that the class was all women and he is shy.  Now I do not mean to be insensitive of people who social anxiety, it is difficult and those who suffer from it deserve help and consideration.  However, when it isn’t people or strangers that make a person nervous, it is only women, that isn’t social anxiety that is sexism.  It is based on  the belief that women aren’t people.  Raj on the Big Bang Theory has a similar problem.  He can’t talk to women because women are a special subset of being.  There are people and then there are women.

This may sound strange coming from someone who is actively involved in the Society of Women Engineers but I promise that I don’t do it because I love setting myself apart from my male peers, I do it because the engineering community hasn’t gotten to the part where they will stop separating me out.  Someday we won’t need GoldieBlox or SWE because Lego and every other engineering organization will be enough but right now they are not.

Also, SWE has pashminas as volunteer gifts at their national conference, I will stay for those.

Region Conferences begin this weekend!

The Region Conferences start this weekend in Houston with the Region C Conference! There are many great opportunities for graduate students to get involved at the region level, starting with attending the region conferences. Check out the January blog post here which gives the details for all region conferences as well as some sessions which may be of interest to graduate students.

The Region Conferences and dates are:

  • Feb 7-9: Region C
  • Feb 14-16: Region H
  • Feb 21-23: Region G
  • Feb 28 – Mar 2: Region B, Region D, Region i, Region J
  • Mar 28-30: Region E
  • Apr 4-6: Region F

A few updates to the original blog post: Region D will be hosting Rapid Fire research sessions and a “Succeeding in Graduate School” panel discussion. If you would like to participate in either, please see the information below.

Collegiates: Do you have research to present?

Graduate and undergraduate students are invited to present their STEM technical research at the Region D Conference Rapid Fire Research Session. Research from summer research opportunities through the dissertation level will be considered.  Selected participants will be asked to create a Powerpoint to accompany their 5-minute presentation.  To be select to present, please submit an abstract (max 250 words) by 2/17/14 via email to Stephanie Gillespie, Region D Graduate Student Representative at

Graduate Student Panelists wanted for Region Conference

Current graduate students are needed to present on a panel discussion at region conference on the topic of succeeding in graduate school. Geared towards new graduate students and undergraduate students interested in graduate school, share your experiences on funding, advisors, graduate coursework, and other related topics. If interested please contact Stephanie Gillespie, Region D Graduate Student Representative at .