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Words of Wisdom from Experienced Grad Students

A few weeks ago, Core Programs hosted its annual fall welcome for international graduate students with more than 120 students in attendance! During the event, experienced graduate students were asked to share their tips and strategies with incoming international grad students.

We found the majority of these insights are helpful to all graduate students across the University of Washington. Take a look at some of these tips and see which work best for you:

  • Don’t hesitate to speak up if you have a question.
  • Don’t try to perfect, just work hard and do your best.
  • You are not alone.
  • Learning to cook for yourself will save you money.
  • A big part of doing good research is about revising, revising, and more revising.
  • Consider “light therapy” during the winter if you are experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder. There are options for free light therapy (for students) at The Counseling Center and Hall Health.
  • Go to campus events for free food (and building community).
  • You are more than good enough.
  • Don’t confuse being busy with being productive.
  • It can be good sometimes to push yourself out of your comfort zone.
  • Save Sundays for adulting (e.g. go over your weekly budget, write a list of errands, cleaning, etc.

We hope you find these insights useful, and let us know what works for you!


Core Programs—Office of Graduate Student Affairs
University of Washington

Research Culture and Climate: It’s On Us (again)


We create culture in our moment by moment interactions with one another.”
—Teresa Posakony, Emerging Wisdom


As a number of recent National Academies of Sciences reports have shown, we have work ahead of us within academic and research environments across the country. As early career researchers, postdocs can struggle to fit in an institutional culture and risk being taken advantage of by later stage researchers (1). Other evidence also shows that women or otherwise under-represented trainees are not only vulnerable to harassment but are also at-risk of being excluded from research opportunities, either explicitly or implicitly (2). We must do better than this.

At the UW, there have been a few long-term efforts to advance organizational culture, in particular regarding how we treat one another. One example is the UW School of Medicine (SoM)’s  Policy of Professional Conduct. It was developed more than a decade ago by faculty and trainees together, and is endorsed by department chairs and the dean for use in annual faculty reviews and promotion considerations. The policy applies to everyone in the SoM, with the goal that all people — faculty, staff, fellows and students — act in a professional and ethical manner. The language was recently updated to reflect more of the unique features of research relationships and learning environments to complement the clinical focus of the earlier policy.

Here’s an excerpt from the policy, as the language is evocative of what we expect here at the UW and may be of use to you, whether in the SoM or elsewhere. After all, it is up to us to hold each other accountable to these standards. For example:

Unprofessional behavior means behavior that violates laws or rules regarding discrimination and harassment, violates rules of professional ethics (including professionalism in clinical, educational, research or business practices), or is disrespectful, demeaning, retaliatory, or disruptive. Bullying is unprofessional behavior that misuses power to control or harm others.

Discrimination and harassment is as defined in University of Washington (UW) Executive Order 31. As of the effective date of this policy, this includes discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, citizenship, sex, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, or military status.

Disrespectful, retaliatory, or disruptive behavior includes, but is not limited to behavior that in the view of reasonable people has a negative impact on the integrity of the healthcare or research team, the care of patients, the education of students or trainees, or the conduct of research, such as:

  • Physical assault or other uninvited or inappropriate physical contact;
  • Shouts, profane or offensive language;
  • Degrading or demeaning comments;
  • Discriminatory or harassing behavior or language (as defined above);
  • Retaliation in response to a person raising concerns about a behavior that may violate laws or policies (such as discrimination), or present a threat to safety or security
  • Threats or similar intimidating behavior, as reasonably perceived by the recipient;
  • Exploiting, neglecting or overworking those in subordinate positions;
  • Unreasonable refusal to cooperate with others in carrying out assigned responsibilities;
  • Failure to respond to inquiries within a reasonable time frame; and
  • Obstruction of established operational goals, beyond what would be considered respectful dissent.

As postdocs, we know you can be especially vulnerable because your future may rely on letters of recommendation from powerful others. The National Academies report recommends, as the OPA has for many years now, that postdocs have a mentoring team: a deeper bench of faculty and advisors you can turn to so you do not become isolated or feel you have to endure faculty misbehavior. These conversations are growing on our campus and there are many faculty who support you. If you find yourself in a difficult situation, please seek help or advice from any of the confidential resource offices listed below.

Another recommendation: find community, or make your own. For example, postdoc Gilbert Martinez (Pbio) has come forward and offered to host a group conversation with other URM postdocs to find out what you need and to reduce the isolation you may feel. See below for his invitation to you, and please do reach out. We all need deep support systems!


  1. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (2018). The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers.
  2. Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018)
  3. Sexual harassment and the toll is takes.
  4. Have the Sciences Had a #MeToo Moment? Not So Much.
  5. School of Medicine Policy of Professional Conduct

UW Resources:


National support for the postdoc experience

Earlier this month, the OPA and UWPA traveled to Cleveland, OH for the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) annual meeting. This is always an exciting conference, where leaders from postdoctoral associations and institutional offices gather to share best practices, recent research, and to strategize for future efforts supporting the postdoc experience. Here are a few pearls:

Take a holistic approach to postdoc experience. There was consistent advice across presenters that all postdocs need to explore various career choices. This is part of your postdoc training experience, and should be part of your regular work week. Feeling prepared for your next step is key, and is a purposeful investment. Dr. Rafael Luna, former executive director of the Boston-based National Research Mentoring Network, offers this advice: you must determine what you’re good at, what brings you joy, and what the world needs you to be. These are great questions to reflect upon and then discuss with your mentor as you move towards independence. Are you getting the correct experiences to prepare you for this future?

A number of recent students and reports raise concerns about certain issues within the postdoc experience:

  • The NPA conducted a survey of sexual harassment across postdocs and it is clear from the numbers that too many of you — men and women — have experienced unwanted sexual attention in workplace settings
  • The NPA will be launching a survey of stress, anxiety, and well-being among postdocs this summer, as we know these are key issues of importance and concern for many.
  • A session focusing on needs of international postdocs highlighted challenges with visa renewals, funding eligibility*, and transitioning to working in the U.S.
  • Most institutions have extremely limited information about where postdocs go next, and this limits our abilities to refine training programs, justify additional support efforts, and better prepare you for your futures.

It is clear we have work to do within our institutions, both culturally and structurally. Fortunately, the federal funding agencies are paying attention, highlighted by recent National Academies reports. Drs. Edwards and Mahoney are now on the NPA Advocacy committee, so we will be monitoring and participating in these national efforts in an on-going way and will bring back what we can.

Mentoring Matters. Another recurring theme of several sessions focused on mentorship, and how much having a mentor who is invested in you and your future makes a difference. There was good news from the national survey of postdocs conducted by the University of Chicago (results coming soon) showing that the majority of postdocs were satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their faculty mentor. That said, it can take work to get the mentoring you need. Several speakers reflected the idea we promote at the OPA — you need a mentoring team! One person is not enough to guide you through research, career, and personal support. The federal funders are interested in more accountability for faculty and better faculty mentor preparation. More programming and initiatives are coming.

Finally, there is widespread interest in raising the visibility of postdoc contributions to research, teaching, mentorship, service, and community. Throughout the spring, share a highlight or tell your story on social media with the #postdocstory hashtag.

We anticipate expanding upon these sessions and many more through local workshops or future blog posts. Look for additional recaps from the UWPA in their newsletter. And, please review the meeting agenda; if you have any questions about specific sessions, please let us know and we will be happy to share notes with you.

*FYI: International postdocs are eligible for the NIH K99/R00 award that can facilitate your transition to independent research and a faculty position. If you work in the biomedical, public health, or behavioral sciences, check out your NIH institute to see if they offer this funding mechanism. We will be holding a workshop in the future regarding how to prepare a strong application. The OPA will also be updating our resource list to include additional funding mechanisms available to international postdocs.


What to do if you experience sexual harassment or assault

This article was written in consultation with Valery Richardson, interim Title IX coordinator, Compliance Services. 

We hope that you will never face sexual harassment or assault here on campus, but we understand the reality that you may. This week, the Guru will walk you through the steps you can take, and resources that are available to you at the UW, if you are a victim of sexual misconduct.   

Sexual harassment — including sexual violence or sexual assault — is prohibited by Title IX. The best source for UW information can be found on two websites: the Sexual Assault Resources website and the Title IX website.   

For email or phone support, SafeCampus is staffed 24–7 and is a good place to start if you have personally experienced harassment or assault or receive information that someone else experienced harassment or assault. SafeCampus can provide immediate safety planning, provide important information about your rights and resources, and connect you with a confidential advocate who can help you consider all of your options and how to make a plan for your situation.

For victims of sexual assault, SafeCampus loosely breaks down your options into steps — which you could choose to initiate in any order that makes sense to you.  

Anyone who has experienced harassment, assault, or another form of sexual misconduct is encouraged to contact an advocateAdvocates will confidentially provide support, information and resources. An advocate will allow you to share your experience in as much or as little detail as you would like, discuss your options for medical and mental health care, and help you make a plan for your safety and for reducing the impact of this experience at the UW. Meeting with an advocate does not trigger an investigation by the UW or the police.  

If you have been sexually assaulted, seeking medical care can help to treat or prevent illness and injury. It’s also important for preserving evidence. You may also seek a disability accommodation if you are experiencing the impacts of a medical condition.  

You have the right to report sexual misconduct to the University, to the police, to both or not at all. If you choose to report an instance of sexual harassment, sexual assault or sexual violence to the UW, the University will conduct a prompt, fair and impartial investigation to determine whether a University policy or code — such as the Student Conduct Code or Executive Order No. 31 — has been violated.  

If you choose to file a police report, you have the right to have a support person or advocate with you. You may choose to file a report without pursuing an investigation or prosecution. For more information about criminal and civil proceedings that can result from a sexual assault report, please see the Sexual Assault Resources website 

If a friend has experienced sexual misconduct, there are ways you can provide support. Remember to be a good listener, avoid passing judgment, and provide your friend with options and resources for healing, emotional processing, and for learning the steps to file a complaint.  

If you wish to take action to reduce sexual violence on campus, you can learn about bystander awareness and join a group of Peer Health Educators through SafeCampus.  

Meet the Winners of the Grad School’s Distinguished Thesis Award

Matthew Coates, Kate O'Neill. Jan WittenbecherThe Graduate School recognizes exceptional scholarship and research at the master’s and doctoral levels. These awards recognize a thesis and a dissertation in four categories: Biological Sciences, Humanities & Fine Arts, Mathematics, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and the Social Sciences. Meet the winners of this year’s Distinguished Thesis Award (awarded in three of the four categories).

[expand title = “Biological Sciences: Matthew Coates, master’s in public health in Global Health Metrics and Evaluation ’17, Department of Global Health”]

Matthew Coates, Biological Sciences

Thesis: Quantifying Selection Bias from Birth History Estimates of Child Mortality

Please summarize your thesis in lay-person’s terms: We underestimate how many children die in countries without good health data because we can’t ask deceased mothers if their children have died.

Post-thesis life: research associate, Harvard Medical School

What sparked your interest in this topic?

I was working at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at UW on estimating mortality rates around the world. A newer colleague asked me a question about a gap in the way child mortality rates are estimated, so I started looking into different approaches that the field had used to determine whether or not the data gap led to consequential differences in results.

You earned your master’s degree in Summer 2016. What are you working on now?

I earned my Master’s degree in August 2016. I started working as a Research Associate with the Program in Global Noncommunicable Disease and Social Change (PGNDSC) at Harvard Medical School in the fall of 2016. The PGNDSC houses the Secretariat for the Lancet Commission on Reframing Noncommunicable Diseases and Injuries for the Poorest Billion (Lancet NCDI Poverty Commission, I support the Commission’s efforts by doing quantitative research relating to the burden of disease and intervention strategies for the poorest groups in low- and middle-income countries.

What do you see as the potential public impact of your research?

Child mortality is a key measure used to track progress in global health and development. Many methods used to estimate child mortality depend on mothers answering surveys about their children. Estimates are likely too low in populations with a high proportion of children who are orphans and in which the gap in survival between orphans and non-orphans is large because their mothers cannot be surveyed. Others have done work to account for this limitation in data and methods in populations affected by the HIV epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, and my thesis work tries to account for this limitation in the data by using another source of survival information (sibling questionnaires) from the same surveys. More research could be done to validate the approach I took. My hope would be that more can be done to assess the degree to which this challenge in estimating child mortality impacts estimates in other populations that could be affected (for example, in post-conflict settings).[/expand]

[expand title = “Social Sciences: Kate O’Neill, PhD student, Sociology”]

Kate O'Neill, Social Sciences

Thesis: “The Adolescent Empathy Paradox and Juvenile Offending: Why Sex Differences in Empathic Ability Can Explain the Gender Gap in Juvenile Offending Behavior”

Thesis, loled: Being a teenager is the worst and boys adapt by being jerks.

Post-thesis life: PhD student, Sociology 

How did you become interested in this topic?

Prior to graduate school I spent several years teaching an anger management class to men convicted of domestic violence and working with recently released violent and serious offenders. We did a lot of work on empathy building, but when I went to the literature to find out why I was surprised by how little there actually is on the topic. Furthermore, almost none of the literature I encountered discussed gender differences in empathy and offending in tandem. I saw an opportunity to fill a gap in existing literature and was lucky enough to have the data to do so.

What do you see as the potential public impact of your research?

In addition to further supporting empathy-enhancement rehabilitation programs (like anger management), I hope this research illustrates the danger of reifying gender roles. Specifically, when we reinforce the association between femininity and empathy we are blocking boys from accessing an emotional management and/or communication tool that deters crime.

What’s next for you? Are you building on the same research for your dissertation, or moving in a different direction?

For my PhD, I hope to explore how sex-segregated peer groups in adolescence predict crime across the life course. In layman’s terms, I want to know if having opposite sex friends when you’re a kid helps transmit norms and values that deter crime more so than exclusively having friends of the same sex. From my perspective, this is an extension of my MA work as I ultimately want to speak to gender differences in emotional development and their consequences for offending trajectories across people’s lives.


[expand title = “Mathematics, Physical Sciences and Engineering: Jan Wittenbecher, master’s in mechanical engineering, ’17, Department of Mechanical Engineering/MSME “]

Jan Wittenbecher

Thesis: Contributions to the Analysis and Design of Mechanical Systems for a Series Hybrid Chevrolet Camaro

Thesis, loled: Hybrid muscle cars would be great if anybody bought such a thing.

Post-thesis life: Emissions certification engineer, General Motors

What sparked your interest in this topic?

The desire to win the EcoCAR 3 competition – an automotive engineering competition sponsored by the Department of Energy and General Motors – and to prove the feasibility of a hybrid muscle car.

Describe the process of the EcoCAR 3 competition.

I was part of a UW team with more than 50 members, competing against 15 other schools. The goal of the four-year competition (2014-2018) is to convert a 2016 Camaro into a series hybrid and add other innovative technologies. This required removing the entire original powertrain (engine, transmission, etc.) and replacing it with a team developed architecture: a very challenging effort for a team of students doing this in their spare time. We had to develop our own mechanical, electrical and software components, source additional ones from suppliers and integrate everything to a working system.

How did your experience writing a thesis impact your career and your position now at GM?

EcoCAR was basically the platform for my thesis work. I wrote about the deep dive I did in three specific areas of mechanical design and analysis for the car (suspension design, engine efficiency analysis and gearbox component design). Writing this thesis had a great impact on my career in two different ways: I learned a lot about automotive technology and regulations which helps me at my job with GM as an emissions certification engineer. It also gave me a lot of exposure to the team’s GM mentor which ultimately lead to me getting a job offer from GM.


What’s a bike/walk/run commuter to do? (Showers, lockers, and other necessities)

I commute by bike and spend most of my day in a shared lab space. What are my options for showering and storing my stuff?


This post was first published October 2015, it has been updated for relevancy. 

First of all, good on ya for biking! Don’t forget November is Bike in the Rain Month*! If you’re on Seattle campus, the best option is the IMA, which is free (because it’s included in the Service and Activities Fee) to all Seattle campus students. Bothell students have access to showers and lockers at the Fitness Center in Bothell, and Tacoma students have the UW Y Fitness Center. If your campus gym isn’t convenient for you, ask your building coordinator if there’s a shower in the building for use. For storage, again, check with your building coordinator if there are lockers you can use. Otherwise, a great resource is the Commuter Commons in the HUB, which has storage units and a changing room. (It’s sponsored by First Year Programs, but completely open to graduate students.) The HUB also rents out lockers in the basement. Happy riding!

*If you’re interested in finding a Bike in Rain Team of UW students, faculty, and staff (or creating your own), register here! You can log your bike trips, win prizes and find friendly competition to help you stay motivated to bike as the weather changes.

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →

Finding Your People

At Core Programs, we often talk about the importance of finding your people—of making those intellectual, professional, and social connections that will nurture your whole self, not just your identity as a graduate student. Fall is a great time to remind yourself, whether you are just beginning your graduate school journey or you have been away working on your research or just straight up working, that developing a wider network of peer support is important to your overall well-being.

Here are some strategies to help get you started:

Connect with peers. Many of you have had the opportunity to make important connections with new and seasoned peers during your grad orientations and university-wide receptions. We also encourage you to make connections with peers outside of your program—who share similar and diverse identities, academic interests, and career goals. If you are in the research or writing phase of your work, reach out to peers at a similar stage and consider forming a writing accountability group or form a group for fun, social activities. Overall, connecting with peers within and outside of your department can help you sustain the motivation to continue your work and to feel like your whole self.

Grow your off-campus community. One insight we hear from grad students repeatedly is the importance of developing your community off campus. This might look like joining a hiking club, volunteering with your faith-based community, taking dance classes, or having potlucks in or dinners out with new and old friends and family. Growing your off campus community can help you stay grounded, expand your personal networks, and fuel your interests and values.

Build your professional networks. Whether your grad program is nine 9 months long or several years out, it is always a great idea to cultivate and grow your professional networks. Professional networks can include people already working in fields you are interested in and individuals who are working in careers you are curious about. Think of creating your professional network in terms of relationship-building and as part of intentional career planning—rather than just a means to getting a job. Join social media groups relating to your professional interests or find a local/regional meet up.

We hope these strategies help you find your people, and let us know what has worked for you!


Core Programs Team

Fostering Inclusive Classrooms as a TA

How do we, as TAs or RAs, work to include all students we work with, given the difficult times the nation is in? — Anonymous 

This week’s answer is courtesy of Gonzalo Guzman, pre-doctoral instructor in American Ethnic Studies and the College of Education. 

To say we live in “difficult times” would be an understatement. This is why it is our duty as TAs, RAs, or Instructors of Record to make sure that our students feel included in our classrooms. By “inclusion” I mean building and fostering a community in your class that validates and respects students. In difficult times, the community you build in your classroom can be a refuge, where students focus on learning and know that their experiences matter to you and their colleagues in the class.

Simply put, inclusion and validation of your students should be central to your philosophy of education/teaching. Students know when TAs/RAs/Instructors care about them, are accessible, and make efforts to include them. This is not content bound, but is a philosophy of work. For instance, a TA can teach content from a discipline or field that focuses on topics such as social history and identity constructions, and still develop a working relationship or classroom where their students don’t necessarily feel included or welcome. Even if the content reflects most of the students’ realities, if the teaching style and the overall classroom environment do not, then students will not feel a part of the learning environment.

Including all the students we work with is relational, continuous work, and it doesn’t need to be a  drastic transformation. It can simply start with check-ins with your students. Other ways to do this are to make assignments more accessible and responsive, adapt student input into your work, and make a collaborative space where your students know you are working together in a shared classroom. How you do this is up to you; it is dependent on the community you make and the relationship you have with your students. How do we include all of our students in these difficult times? We do the work. We teach and work to the benefit and developing lives of our students.