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  • Grad School 101: Building Community in Graduate School

    By starting a graduate program at the University of Illinois, you have joined a large, vibrant community of people committed to exploring and understanding the world. You’re surrounded every day by tens of thousands of fascinating, dedicated, and creative people.

    Within such a large and dynamic community, though, it can sometimes be challenging to connect with others. You may be wondering how to find those connections and build relationships with people around you. Good news, though: everyone else is wondering the same thing.

    Why is building community in graduate school so important? Here are several reasons and some ideas for how to feel at home here at the University of Illinois—and how you can help other grad students feel at home, too.

    Building community and connecting with others while you are in graduate school is important for two main reasons: First, connecting with more people means you have more people on your side, ready to provide support and guidance as you grow personally, academically, and professionally in grad school (and beyond). Second, having a range of friendly, healthy, supportive relationships within and outside the university can also help you live a balanced and fulfilling life as a grad student. It also allows you to help other graduate students to find support and enjoy their time at Illinois.

    When we talk about community in graduate school, what does that mean? What kinds of communities might be valuable to cultivate and maintain in the coming years?

    Interests: Your interests can—and probably should!—extend beyond the classroom or the lab. Exploring hobbies, socializing, and joining in all types of organized leisure are critical to living a balanced life and building community in grad school.

    Affinity: Affinity groups are those centered on shared identities, concerns, or missions. These groups can help you locate allies, resources, and opportunities to receive support from and make positive contributions to larger communities you are passionate about.

    Living: Whether staying in a shared residence in the heart of campus, living by yourself off campus, or completing your coursework outside of Champaign-Urbana, your neighbors and roommates can be members of your network of support and make wherever you reside during your graduate studies your home.

    Family: Your identities as a graduate student and a member of your family need not be mutually exclusive. Inviting family to your campus spaces and practicing explaining the work you do in new ways can help bring into harmony those roles that can sometimes feel disconnected.

    Academic & Professional: Completing your academic training requires taking a deep dive into your area of specialization, but that doesn’t mean you must handle every challenge individually. Learning communities provide valuable support, offer mentorship opportunities, and can connect you with current and future colleagues who are invested in your success.

    While you’re here at Illinois, where can you look to build these sorts of communities?

    Community during graduate school happens at a few different scales: in your department, at the university, in your local area, and beyond (your region, your country, and the world). 

    Your Department: Your department is where you will spend much of your time while at Illinois, and where you are most likely to find people who will share similar academic experiences. Building community and making friends in your department will support your academic growth and make your everyday life in grad school enjoyable and energizing.

    One strategy here is to simply be present. Talk to people before class starts. Go to department seminars. Join grad student associations or volunteer to serve on committees.

    You can also create new opportunities for you and your colleagues to connect. Start a study group or journal club, go out for coffee as a group, or host a game night.

    University: For many of you, the University of Illinois is one of the largest institutions that you have ever been part of, with over 45,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff. Building a strong and vibrant community beyond your department can enrich your academic pursuits, give you a network of people who can support you, and help make the University of Illinois home for as long as you are here.

    In graduate school, it can be easy to spend almost every moment of your life in your department’s building. But being in the same place all the time limits your community and can contribute to feelings of monotony and isolation. So change it up by exploring campus landmarks, using some of the half-a-million square feet of recreational space at the university, or even just studying on the Quad when it’s nice out.

    You can also find people outside your department with shared interests or experiences by joining registered student organizations (often called RSOs) or connecting with campus units like the Asian American Cultural Center and the LGBT Resource Center.

    Local Area: Your life extends beyond the university, and your community can, as well. Making connections with people in your local area can help you find balance, fun, and renewal outside your academic work, making your time at Illinois more sustainable and enjoyable. And if you aren’t on campus, this can be especially important.

    Finding new community in your local area can be as simple as becoming a regular at a neighborhood coffee shop, attending cultural events and festivals, or finding a religious institution you want to be a part of. And remember to change your habits and try new experiences occasionally.

    Regional/National/International: People who share your academic, personal, and professional interests can be found well beyond your local area. Luckily, digital technology makes it easier than ever to connect with them. Doing so while you are in graduate school can help you find collaborators, share ideas, and cultivate a broad base of support.

    Participating in regional, national, or international professional organizations can also be a great way to join that broader community.

    Also, try to maintain your connections to the communities (including your family and friends) that helped you succeed on your way to the University of Illinois, wherever those communities might be.

    Building community in graduate school isn’t a one-time thing; it’s a process you will be engaging in the entire time you’re here. That means you’ll have many exciting, fulfilling opportunities to make yourself—and your colleagues—a home at the University of Illinois.



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    Derek Attig is the Director of Career Development for the Graduate College. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles. 

  • Meet Our Fellows: Safiyah Muhammad, Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow

    Ford Fellow Safiyah Muhammad says that she learned to teach from the best – her mom. Her mother homeschooled her before she was old enough to enroll in kindergarten and served as her fourth grade teacher as well. “She never limited me in what I could do. She never told me I was too young. She was my very first and obviously most impactful teacher,” Safiyah said. With the help of the Ford Fellowship, she hopes to channel that feeling into her work as a researcher, teacher, and scholar at Illinois.  

    A third year PhD student in Chemistry, Safiyah works on inorganic chemistry, specifically focusing on how the electronics of the ligand (which she describes as a metaphorical house for metals and catalysts) can affect the catalysis of metals. This micro-level work has the potential to change the way that various materials are made with broad implications for industry and medical equipment.  

    Her work is supported by the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, a highly competitive three-year award designed to support scholars who excel both academically and in teaching and who have a commitment to using diversity as a resource for enriching the education of all students.

    For Safiyah, the importance of the educator in promoting diversity in higher education is obvious. When she started her undergraduate degree in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, chemistry wasn’t even on her radar. It was the influence of a caring professor who showed her “the possibility within chemistry” and who reached out to her like most professors in her life hadn’t. Through him, she developed not only a love and appreciation of the beauty within chemistry, but also a network that was invaluable as she considered and applied to PhD programs.  


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    “I originally wanted to be a marine veterinarian,” she said. “But there’s beauty in working with metals. When you work with metal complexes, you get to see these beautiful colors – every single color that you see comes from metals, from the movement of electrons. That peaked my interest. Then being able to build things, even though you can’t really see the catalysts that you are using with your naked eye – that’s interesting, that kept me hooked,” Safiyah said of her research.

    In a lot of ways, educators are doing just that – building something that can’t be seen with the naked eye but that, when carefully constructed and nurtured, can make a world of difference.

    At Illinois, Safiyah found ready opportunities to combine her passion for teaching and chemistry, both as a TA in large general chemistry courses and in inorganic and organic chemistry courses for undergraduates. “I really enjoy teaching – being able to explain something to someone and have them get it, or not get it and have me explain it again differently until it’s something they get,” she said.

    “I believe that educators have the most important job, they inspire the future thinkers,” Safiyah said. “The youth is the future, but you have to put something into the youth for them to be the future. To be able to cultivate people’s mind and tell them you can do it - sometimes in the Black community, the educator is the only person who does that, who says you can do it, you have to be passionate about it. You can’t go in and half do it or that will be reflected in the minds of the students.”

    Images courtesy of Safiyah Muhammad.



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    Caitlin Brooks is a PhD student in Recreation, Sport, and Tourism. Her research focuses on the creation of communities of meaning in liminal leisure spaces and her dissertation explores marriage practices at Burning Man. In her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome pug, Torbin.

  • Your Work Is Vital, Tell the World about It

    Laura Adamovicz is hard at work saving the world — one turtle at a time. Last year Laura, a PhD candidate in Comparative Biosciences, won first place in Research Live! — a competition that challenges graduate students to describe their work in three minutes or less. In her talk, titled “Turtles in Trouble: Applications of Health Assessment for Conservation,” Laura explained how her work combines math, science, and medicine to study the impact of the environment and infectious diseases on several box turtle populations, with the ultimate goal of improving conservation efforts in animal species.

    We checked in with Laura (who will serve as a judge at this year’s competition) to hear about why she decided to participate in Research Live! and to see where her research and fieldwork has taken her this past year.

    What inspired you to participate in Research Live!?

    Prior to attending veterinary school and grad school, I was a zookeeper performing educational presentations for park guests. This experience taught me that conservation efforts work best when you can effectively communicate their importance to the general public. As a veterinarian, clear communication also enabled me to serve as the best possible advocate for my patients. My ultimate goal to support wildlife health and save species is completely dependent upon my ability to persuade people that they should care about conservation. Research Live! provided a great platform to connect with local people who can directly and indirectly promote wildlife wellness through their actions and choices. It’s hard to ignore an opportunity like that!

    What was the most important thing you learned from your Research Live! experience?

    First, it was pretty awesome to hear about the diversity of research going on at Illinois, and to watch some excellently structured presentations! I did not anticipate how challenging it would be to give a lay presentation in such a short time, without the benefit of many visual aids. This experience really pushes you to condense your research down into the most salient points, while still clearly demonstrating the importance and validity of your approach. Effective communication in science can be difficult, but extremely rewarding!

    Can you give us an update on your research?


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    My research involves performing comprehensive veterinary health assessments in multiple populations of turtles and salamanders over the course of several years, then using that data to build epidemiologic models that help identify the most important predictors of good health, and the most clinically useful diagnostic tests for health assessment. This approach will hopefully allow us to tailor management and monitoring recommendations specifically towards the needs of my study species. I have just completed my final year of data collection, including over 1000 physical examinations and diagnostic tests, and am in the process of model construction and validation. I expect to finalize my results within the next few months.

    Do you have any long-term plans/goals after finishing your PhD?

    My ultimate goal is to continue performing practical and useful research that promotes the conservation of wild animals, and advances veterinary management strategies. I could pursue this goal at a veterinary school, a university, a large zoo, or an NGO.

    What advice would you give graduate students who want to improve their communication skills?

    Practice is the best way to build good communication skills. Take all the opportunities you can to create and give presentations, and get feedback on each one to learn what works well. I have found courses in public speaking, interpersonal communication, and group work to be useful in honing my own presentation skills. Studying good presenters and their visual aids is another useful strategy. Effective communication is also highly dependent on understanding your audience and their motivations, so you really have to think about the audience every time you plan a presentation.

    Would you encourage other graduate students to participate in Research Live! and, if so, why?

    Absolutely! Scientists need to get better at communicating the purpose and significance of our work with general audiences. Despite the importance of this goal, we have very few opportunities to practice. Research Live! is a great chance to break out of our typical, technical presentations and speak directly to people who may benefit from our research. It is a challenging, but fun opportunity to grow.

    If you are interested in watching finalists from previous Research Live! competitions, check out Media Space, and don't miss the Research Live! finals during Graduate Student Appreciation Week. If you are preparing to give a talk about your research, you can read some tips on our Communication Skills page.


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    This post was written by Emily Wuchner who is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.