EducationSkills

I remember the day I decided to take on a senior thesis in strangely vivid detail. I walked out of my advisor’s office feeling extremely confident and excited about the project I was about to undertake. However, by the time I had made it the three blocks back to my dorm, I was on the phone with my best friend in a panic, fervently begging her to talk me out of the decision I had just made.

As I look back now, over a year later, I can happily say that it was one of my better decisions. I currently work as an intern in a biological anthropology lab at The George Washington University studying primate behavioral ecology. For the past three years as an undergraduate student, I have studied data on maternal behavior and infant development in wild chimpanzees, wrestled with excel spreadsheets for countless hours, cataloged infinite sheets of behavioral data, and memorized an extensive protocol for entering data into excel and our online database. I came across this internship opportunity through an email sent out to all students pursuing their anthropology major.

My greatest passion has always been finding the answers to questions. I was never satisfied chalking things up to fate, chance, or destiny. Everything in my mind has to be answered with facts and correlations. I’ve always been curious; most of us are. The idea of research appealed to me because it is a way to establish facts and reach brand new conclusions – having tangible answers has always been crucial for me.

When I learned that the lab was working with Jane Goodall’s database, I knew I needed the job. Jane Goodall has been a personal inspiration my entire life. Her courage, strength, and dedication to science have always been traits that I admire. Jane embarked on a research journey in Tanzania in 1960 that many men and women would not have dreamed possible. Her independence and drive allowed her to succeed during a time when women were barely respected in scientific research. She individually named all of the chimpanzees she studied, researching their culture, hunting behaviors, and tool use. Her discoveries changed the worlds of primatology, anthropology, and the way we study evolution.

Although I didn’t necessarily plan on pursuing a career in primatology, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get my foot in the door of research and learn more about something I loved. I’ve learned that in order to discover your true passions, trying new things and jumping on interesting opportunities is a must. Working in the lab taught me that research was something worth pursuing, even if biological anthropology and primatology weren’t my primary passions.

When I first began working in the lab, entering data was exciting and informative. However, I soon realized that I was itching to get more hands-on in the work that the other lab members were doing. I would watch as the graduate students developed their research questions for their dissertations, and the post docs queried data for their analyses. I wanted to see if I had what it took to create my own questions and pioneer my own project. I met with my research advisor to discuss options and she suggested I begin work on a senior honors thesis.

The concept of individual, original research can be daunting, and it has been anything but easy for me. My near-fatal flaws include procrastinating and a lack of organization, but over the past year I have learned many valuable lessons about pioneering my own major project. Hopefully these skills will be applicable to you throughout your own research, senior theses, or any other type of long-term project.

1. Create a flexible timeline with small goals

This is extremely important for those of us who tend to leave things until the last minute. My thesis has taken place over the course of three semesters. I dedicated my first semester to creating proposals for two research topics, a major literature review, drafting preliminary research questions, and writing a 10 page introduction. I set deadlines for these individual tasks with my advisor in order to hold myself accountable. My second semester was all about performing the actual analyses and revising the questions after preliminary results. This semester, I’m finishing the final analyses and writing up the full body of the paper. Having smaller goals and requiring someone else to help keep you on track has really helped me stay organized and has limited my procrastination.

2. Keep an up-to-date spreadsheet tracking all of your sources/literature

The first step in research is almost always reading. There are so many studies that have already been done and it is crucial to educate yourself on the facts and information that already exist in the academic world. I ended up reading over a hundred journal articles in preparation for my research project. At first it was hard to keep track of the knowledge I was gaining just from the notes I had been jotting down, so I created a system to keep track. I started logging every article into an excel spreadsheet, listing the title, author, year, species, questions asked, methods, and results. This made it easy for me to look back and pull out the relevant information. I gained a foundational knowledge of my topic, as well as ideas for potential research questions and methods. For someone with severe organizational problems, this was a lifesaver, and I am constantly referring to this document. Make Excel your best friend!

3. Be proactive when it comes to meeting with your advisor

Fostering relationships with professors and mentors in college is one of the best moves you can make. Not only will they support you during your time in undergrad, but they typically have abundant connections that they are more than willing to share with you when it comes to your future. However, you are not their number one priority. Professors have multiple classes, conduct their own research, and are involved with countless other commitments. Therefore the responsibility is on you to be proactive when it comes to getting help with your project. You may have to be the one to schedule weekly meetings to touch base. You may have to be the one to create your own deadlines. Chances are that the more proactive you are the more your mentor will recognize your motivation and drive, and will do his or her part to help you succeed.

4. Treat the project as if it were a class

At most universities, working on an individual research project with an advisor can qualify you for research credits. For example, I got three credit hours towards my degree for each semester I performed undergraduate research. Therefore, I learned to treat my thesis as an actual class. If you think about it, you spend about two and a half hours in class per week, with an additional two to five hours on homework and readings. Each week, I try to dedicate that same amount of time to my project. This way, tasks don’t build up and you will feel less overwhelmed.

5. Utilize the people around you

I cannot stress this enough. Having other lab members around to support me has been absolutely invaluable. The grad students had all written senior theses in the past and are currently working on dissertations, which makes them excellent resources when it comes to research design, time management, and staying sane. At first, I felt a bit awkward approaching them; I wasn’t exactly sure that they would want to spend their time mentoring an undergrad when they already had so much on their plates. Luckily, they have been in your position before and understand the importance having mentors. Ask to grab coffee and talk about their projects and tips that they might have for you. People love talking about themselves and their work, and your colleagues want to see you succeed!

6. Never stop reading

New information is constantly being published. Even though I performed my major literature review over a year ago to jumpstart my research, there are countless new articles on my topic. It is so important to stay informed and always have the relevant and recent information on your topic. Reading the latest publications may give you new ideas for how you want to frame your paper, something else that you should control for, or another question you should be asking.

Good luck with your own research and thesis journey!

Image: Flickr

EducationSkills

Creating your own website is now easier than ever. It has become more economical in terms of money and work. But while starting a website is worth only a few clicks of effort, maintaining it and receiving constant traffic takes quite some skill. The essentials, tips, and tactics listed below are ones that I have learnt through experience by starting my very own website.

1. Finding your website’s niche

This is arguably the most important element to your website. You have to identify ‘why’ you are creating your website or ‘what’ purpose it serves. This will be your site’s trademark; people will remember your site for this very reason. To give an example, my website, www.maverickyouth.com, focuses on giving individuals the liberty to write and publish opinionated pieces. Linkedin’s niche is to serve as a platform that connects potential employers with seeking employees. The niche you pick will help your website set it apart from the crowd and it will make it more lucrative (If you’re planning on starting it for commercial reasons of course). Your title may also be linked with your niche for more impact. This task sets you going in the right direction.

2.  Who You Are Targeting

This is the next big step. While having a large consumer base might seem, quite intuitively, stronger, it is not necessarily so. True, having a large audience is a definite ‘plus-one’, but it’s better to have a narrow set of ‘active’ users than a large set of passive ones. My website looks to target young opinionated teenagers who wish to portray themselves through writing. Once you know who you are targeting, everything else will fall into place quite easily. Your website’s look for example can be modified to appeal to your user base’s interests.

3. Teamwork and Diversity Are Key

Having a team of committed individuals will make the whole process faster and more fruitful. Your choice of hiring (for pay or not for pay) is up to your discretion; the bottom line is you have to hire individuals ready to put in their best efforts. Diversity is key in this aspect. Make sure you have a team with diversified skill sets. You have to define their jobs clearly to avoid any ambiguity. Divide the website’s workload and hand over the work to the suitable team members. For example, you may provide the web designing work to someone with a strong background in computers. Since keeping up with each member’s progress is a must, make sure your team isn’t too large, as personal attention is required for more per-capita output.

4. Market Research

After your website is ready, you may share it with a select few to get their opinions and feedback. This sample audience may be close friends, family members etc. They should be people giving credible feedback. Otherwise, you may use websites like www.criticue.com to get feedback from online users around the world. This is an important measure to take before taking your website out into the open. The opinions you receive will be good sources for final touches. They may make you think of things you had not thought of before; you might see potential problems that you once overlooked. If your initial vision was strong, then the positive feedback you get from people will serve as a confident booster. Negative feedback will definitely make you rethink some of your website’s components. This is all for the improvement of your website.

5. Social Media

After your website goes live it becomes time to turn towards social media. Social media is a blessing to all website’s wishing to make it big. There are several widgets your website may employ to connect with websites like Facebook, Tumblr, etc. For example, your website may have a widget that allows users to register to your website by logging into their Facebook accounts. On the same note, creating a Facebook page for your website will be highly beneficial as you will be closer to your consumers. You may choose to use some credit to advertise through social media and attract a larger fan base. But before you involve money into the picture, it’s best you view some of the tutorials on Youtube that show you how to best handle your credit. Make sure you have a constant flow of posts on these social media pages. They are great for advertising new services or products. Since this job can be quite taxing, it would be pragmatic to have at least one individual on your team overseeing this.

Good luck with your own website endeavor!

Image: Picography

EducationSkills

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

As someone who has both led and been led, I have found this quote to be true in every situation.

The thing is, many leaders believe their job is to “tell” their team what to do, and to create and stick to their vision.

While it is important as a leader to have a strong vision and communicate it clearly, it is also important to keep open ears and an open mind, allowing team members to creatively and collaboratively contribute their own thoughts to the group vision. Inflexibly telling everyone what to do is a waste of the unique mind power each team member possesses.

Instead, I’ve compiled, from my experiences, six ways to ensure open communication and creative collaboration, and they’re pretty easy:

1. Make your team a communication “safe space.”

Be sure to actively listen, encouraging input and questions. This means showing appreciation for ideas, even when they aren’t great. This will keep team members unafraid to contribute potentially stellar ideas and ask important questions. Never talk at, always talk with. Remember, your leadership position should never have you on a pedestal.

I was training as a host at a restaurant. During a weekend night when we were absolutely slammed, the manager welcomed all of my questions. Because of that, the next night when we were even busier, I was able to handle the finicky crowd gracefully on my own, much more so than if I’d been afraid to ask her questions in the moment the night before. As a result, she was able to pick up the slack for a brand new server, keeping the customers much happier. Be patient and welcome all communication from your group, even if you’re stressed. It will pay off.

2. Provide continuous feedback (positively).

Show your team members you hear them and see what they’re accomplishing. Sometimes, people can be blind to our own strengths. Pointing them out can give members the confidence to take those strengths and run (a win for you). Be sure to also share things you expect them to improve, letting them know you believe they can do it and providing suggestions as to how they can.

I worked at a PR agency under a great CEO. When I got strong media placement results, he would take the time to stop by my desk and let me know he saw I’d been getting good results that week, and to keep it up. It kept me intrinsically motivated to keep improving my results.

3. Ask for your own feedback.

Good leaders must not be afraid to hear criticism. Anonymous surveys are good for receiving candid answers about this. Ask questions that will lead to honest and productive answers.

Honestly taking feedback into consideration creates a level of trust and mutual respect between you and your team. It also allows you to improve yourself as a leader and a person.

The best professor I’ve ever had checked in several times throughout the semester with anonymous surveys, and also asked for feedback on the fly if he felt something was off. He used it to improve his teaching methods, resulting in higher student test scores and retained knowledge.

4. Hold everyone accountable (yourself included).

When people are assigned tasks, tell them their deadlines and when you will check in with them. Then, do it by asking about their current progress and next steps. I’ve liked doing this via email and during team meetings. Just be sure everyone knows they’ll be asked about it during meetings so they don’t feel put on the spot, and can address concerns with you beforehand.

Update everyone on your own activity, too, so that they also know you’re all in it together. Set examples by meeting your own deadlines.

As the director of my university’s Children’s Miracle Network dance marathon, I often met one on one with team members to discuss individual progress and determine where we could tweak or add things. I created Google docs with each member’s proposed timeline, which we edited together as the year progressed. I also set aside about five minutes to begin our meetings by providing updates on my own activity. It kept us on track in exceeding our main goals.

5. Remember your team members are humans.

This sounds obvious, but it’s important; people will make mistakes. They’ll encounter personal roadblocks that drain them. Be sure to show interest in these things. If someone’s performance has dropped, don’t assume anything. Ask if they’re ok and listen to their concerns. Be sure also to recognize what motivates or discourages your teammates individually, as different people respond to different things in different ways.

In high school, my basketball coaches saw I’d been playing poorly for several games in a row. Instead of getting harder on me, they pulled me into their office after practice to ask me what was going on. They came to find out a personal stressor had been weighing me down; they showed their constant support and understanding. I was back to normal within a few games. They recognized that, while other teammates responded better to tougher love, I responded well to more gentle feedback.

6. No micro-managing!

Offer your help and provide advice, but trust your team to complete their tasks. They may mess up, but it’s better than keeping them from improving and learning. They also may do things their own way, which could turn out to be better than yours!

As the director of our dance marathon, we ran into some roadblocks with corporate sponsorship. We needed about $6,000 in less than two weeks, which my faculty director could have easily secured on her own. Instead, she put the trust in me to do it. I ended up applying for and securing all of the funding and grants we needed, and gained tremendous confidence in the process. She likely had a plan B on hold, but she let me grow and learn through the process.

In the end, your and your teammates’ personal and professional growth should be just as important as the project results. Don’t forget that you’re all teammates, regardless of titles, and that happy people do the best work!

What tips do you have for quality leadership? Any stories about good or bad leaders you’ve encountered?

Image: D I, Flickr

EducationHealthSkills

Most parents seem to sign their children up for sports hoping that they’ll learn the importance of dedication, teamwork and responsibility, while “staying out of trouble.” Though these are realistic intentions, few people realize the true value of athletics. By picking up a tennis racquet, I wasn’t preparing myself for college athletics; I was preparing myself for life.

After nine years playing tennis and two playing for the University of Nebraska, I’ve come to recognize some of the most important things that I’ve learned over the years:

How to Handle Adversity

You may be strapped with homework, your coach is screaming at you and you’re running on four hours of sleep, but you still have to play tennis. Right? Well, I can tell you that the ones that choose not to don’t make it very far. So the answer is yes. Though being an athlete has its perks, the initial description I just gave is the life of an athlete. Something is bound to go wrong on a daily basis, but you have to keep picking yourself back up. You’re bound to forget about that day that your boyfriend wouldn’t speak to you, but you’re likely to regret the hours you spent worrying about it instead of giving yourself the chance to grow.

Choose the High Road

After you’ve played a sport at a certain level, you begin to see that hard work pays off. You’ve put in the hours and you’re now beginning to reap the rewards. So the next time you’re given a choice, you’re going to choose the harder path. Whether it’s doing sprints after practice, taking extra time to study for a test, or making amends with a friend even when you did nothing wrong, you understand what it means to take the difficult route. And you become a stronger, better person because of it.

How to Make Tough Choices

I’m ashamed to admit it, but when I was trying to choose which college to go to, I spent an entire evening crying on the couch. There I was, with several scholarship offers, bawling my eyes out. Most of my friends had had their “moment” where they “suddenly knew,” and I was distraught, simply waiting for mine.

But not everyone has that “moment.” In fact, I sometimes think it’s better if you don’t. I’m a realist and a planner. I had my pro-con lists down to every nitpicky detail, from strictly academics to which school had a Starbucks on campus. Though the lists may not have made my decision for me, they definitely guided me along the way. Not to mention, I conducted an extensive amount of research that I’m sure few student-athletes did.

But when it came down to it, the ability to make the decision was innate. I knew enough about myself, and the school, to make a decision I could live with. My friends were right about one thing, and that’s to treat it like any other relationship. It was the right combination of using my head and following my gut.

Self-Reliance

None of the benefits I just mentioned would be possible if it weren’t for one thing: self-reliance. This perfect combination of confidence and independence is what drives you to make tough decisions, run extra sprints and keep your head high. Throughout your entire life you’ll have people telling you 25 different ways to do something, but you have to stick to your guns. There is not one specific path to success, and it’s definitely not a straight line.

Courage

When Hemingway defined courage as grace under pressure, he hit the nail on the head. To me, this is the most important of them all. Being an athlete, you learn to handle high-stress situations, often when they are least convenient. You’re under the pressure of your coaches, professors and parents to do well, and it all begins to add up.

If I’m on the court, playing the #1 position for my team in a conference match against Northwestern, I can’t break down. It’s simply not an option. As an athlete, you understand when the situation is more important than your emotions. You understand the consequences and are able to register that it’s only temporary. To be able to evaluate all of these things in a matter of seconds can only be defined as one thing: grace under pressure.

I can’t imagine trying to summarize the lessons I’ve learned over hours of training on the court. Dedicating my life to athletics not only benefited my health and my college experiences, but also made me grow as a person.

Being an athlete forces you into the tight, uncomfortable crevices of life that most people aren’t familiar with. But in reality, everyone is pushed out of his or her comfort zone at some point in time. Athletes just face it earlier than most; sometimes earlier than they’re ready for. So the next time around, they’re more than prepared. Behind the braided ponytails, bruised shins and tired eyes, they’re becoming something bigger than themselves.