April 2014

Navigating Graduate School

After Your First Year: What's Next?

Summer's just around the corner. Take our advice and make your summer as productive as possible.

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8 Ways to Prepare for Comprehensive Exams

Here are some ways to get ready for your comprehensive exams (or "comps").

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Good Practices in Graduate Education

Five Pillars of Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is the basis of the university’s goal to enable an exchange of ideas and develop new knowledge, and it requires that individual scholars work with and trust one another.

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Graduate Student Professional Development

Teaching Portfolio Workshop

Find out about the three major components of any teaching portfolio. 

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Communicating Research to a Lay Audience

Wonder how to talk about your research to your parents or the person you just met?

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Teaching Tip

Making the Most of Your Teaching Evaluations

Just a few more classes, and your students will hand in their evaluations. Here are six simple steps to make the most of your evaluations.

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The Graduate Writer

Use Definite, Concrete, Specific Lanuguage

Academic prose doesn’t need to be general, vague, or abstract. With a little practice and a good editorial eye, you can engage your reader with added detail.

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News and Notes April 2014

Funding Opportunities April 2014

Current Calendar


After Your First Year: What's Next?

You’ve handed in your last paper and graded your students’ final exams. With Spring semester behind you, you’re ready for summer. Three long months stretch ahead of you, full of promise. Take our advice and make your summer as productive as possible.

Tip: Click on a photo to pause the slideshow.

8 Ways to Prepare for Comprehensive Exams

Most doctoral students at UNL have to complete a written comprehensive exam to enter candidacy, and in some departments the written exam may be followed by an oral exam.

What your written exam will look like depends on your department. You may be asked to respond to a series of questions to test your broad knowledge of your field. You may be required to generate a grant proposal or prepare full articles for publication. The key is to talk to your supervisor and find out what is expected. Then prepare!

Summer’s the perfect time to prepare for your comprehensive exams (or "comps"). Here are some ways to get ready for this important milestone of your degree program. We’re going to focus on preparing for the more traditional written comprehensive exam, which is administered over a period of time (i.e., a 2-8 hour block).

Video Transcript:

Eight Ways to Prepare for Comps

1. Take notes. Establish a note taking system. Some people organize their notes in a spiral notebook, while others use a digital system. Tag each entry with keywords. If you have an open book exam, or if you end up writing a proposal for your written component, these digital systems can be extremely helpful. When you’re looking for an article or book during an exam, these tags can save you time.

2. Educate yourself. As you read and take notes, try to determine where you need to fill knowledge gaps. Are you up on the latest research in the field? Do you need to look for more sources? Meet with your committee members to discuss your reading. 

3. Learn from others. Find out about your exam. Consult your department handbook or your committee chair. Talk with doctoral candidates in your department about what their comps were like. Maybe they have tips on how to prepare.

4. Role play. Think like a committee member. To gain a new perspective on your reading, create your own prompts or questions. It'll help you think critically about what you read, which might help you recall the information when you need it.

5. Dress rehearsal. Practice writing efficiently as well as effectively by trying an outlining approach. Think through some questions that you might get from your committee and outline some written responses to them. Find the main thesis of your response and the supporting points. Then use your outline to write your response.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice. Practice answering aloud, speaking slowly and deliberately. If you’re nervous during your exam, you’ll naturally speed up a bit. Come up with different ways to ask your committee clarifying questions. When you get a question you don’t understand, or you draw a blank, asking for clarification can help you change your perspective on the question and give you more time to develop your answer.

7. Rephrase. Rephrase questions before answering. This saves the questioner from interrupting you with a rephrase of the question or, worse, you not answering the question.

8. It's okay to say, “I don’t know.” The oral exam is meant to find out what you know…and what you don't. When you get a question that's beyond your area of knowledge, you might say something like, “I haven’t thought about that. If I were to broaden my research to include that, I’d expect to see….” This acknowledges the question and helps you reconnect with your area of expertise.

Now you've got a plan. Good luck on training for your comps this summer!

Additional Resources

Dingfelder, Sadie F. Preparing for your comprehensive exams. American Psychological Association. April 2004.
McGill, Brian. Surviving your comprehensive exams. Dynamic Ecology. March 28, 2013.
Shives, K.D. Deconstructiong the Written Comprehensive Exam. Inside Higher Ed. March 21, 2013.
VanBuren, E. Five Strategies for Organizing Notes for Comprehensive Exams. Inside Higher Ed. February 18, 2014.

Five Pillars of Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is the basis of the university’s goal to enable an exchange of ideas and develop new knowledge, and it requires that individual scholars work with and trust one another. Avoiding academically dishonest behavior (plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification) is often cited as the way to promote academic integrity. But when the focus is on negative behaviors—where integrity is absent—conversations about integrity are centered on suspicion rather than trust, respect, and growth.

The International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) has identified five pillars of academic integrity to generate positive conversations about integrity.

Pillar 1

Honesty is sincerity. All other pillars of academic integrity have some basis in honesty. Honest individuals take stock of individual abilities and represent their effort fairly.

Pillar 2

Trust in other people and in your community eases working relationships. Trust is established in a system where all members are doing their best work, where structures and policies are fair and all will be treated fairly.

Pillar 3

Fairness goes hand in hand with trust. Every individual should believe that they will be treated fairly and judged by the same standard as all others in the community. For example, you can trust that your professors will evaluate all work fairly and not favor one person over another. The best work comes out of a fair system.

Pillar 4

Respect allows for individual points of view and opinions to be shared. Students show respect by “listening to other points of view, being prepared,…meeting… deadlines, and performing to the best of their ability.” (Fundamental Values 8) Instructors show respect by listening to students’ ideas and “providing full and honest feedback.”

Pillar 5

Responsibility means acknowledging your agency and accountability in daily actions and in your work. Everyone is personally invested in performing their work with integrity and encourages others to act with integrity too. Academic integrity starts with individuals and positively influences the entire community.


The International Center for Academic Integrity (October 1999). The Fundamental Values of Academic Integrity.


Image by Miguel Saavedra | sxc.hu

Join the dialogue this Fall during Integrity Week,
September 8–12, 2014.

Teaching Portfolio Workshop

On February 20, more than 60 graduate students and postdocs attended a two-hour workshop about teaching statements and teaching portfolios. Participants learned how to develop their own teaching portfolios.

While the scope and specific contents of a teaching portfolio vary according to its use, Dr. Laurie Bellows, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, outlined the three major components of any teaching portfolio.

  1. Teaching Responsibilities
    Lists all of the courses taught, including:
    • The course title, level, and number as well as the dates you taught the course
    • A description of your role in the course (i.e., instructor, TA, grader)
    • The number of students enrolled in the course
    • A brief description of the course
  2. The Teaching Statement, or Teaching Philosophy
    This is the backbone of the Teaching Portfolio. You should address four core elements of your teaching.
    • Learning objectives—what you want students to do/learn.
    • Teaching methods—how you as an instructor help students learn.
    • Student assessment and grading methods—how you know if students have achieved the learning objectives.
    • Teaching assessment—how you measure your effectiveness as a teacher.
  3. Evidence of Effective Teaching
    • Material that you develop yourself, such as syllabi, teaching samples, or narrative reflections.
    • Information provided by colleagues, including observation notes and summaries or letters.
    • Materials from students, like course ratings or letters and individual samples of student work.

The main theme of the workshop was that the process of putting together a teaching portfolio may be more valuable than the final product. Reflecting on how to improve your teaching and documenting your experience helps you continue to develop your teaching methods and how you approach learning in the classroom. Over time, you can measure your development by comparing versions of your teaching portfolio.


The Teaching Portfolio, a book by Peter Seldin, offers an introduction to the teaching portfolio and includes helpful examples from a variety of disciplines. Access the digital edition of The Teaching Portfolio through UNL Libraries.

George David Clark advises how to develop an effective teaching portfolio

Graduate Studies outlines the various parts of the Teaching Portfolio, including the teaching statement

Gabriela Montell offers helpful hints for writing your teaching statement and tailoring it to different jobs

Make your teaching statement memorable, advises James Lang in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Communicating Your Research to a Lay Audience

workshop participants practice their communication skills

Doctoral student Gregory DeGirolamo (Psychology) took a breath and began, “I study how memory changes as people age. I'm interested in factors influencing memory and what separates healthy aging from clinical aging, such as in Alzheimer's. To do this, I use FMRI and ERP…”

The audience erupted. "Whoa!" "What?"

With a laugh, DeGirolamo quickly amended his explanation, “I take pictures of brain activation while people do memory exercises.”

And with that, his research became more accessible to his audience.

Why Communication is Important

During the communication workshop on March 19, Dr. Mark Doyle, Director of the IANR Global Engagement Office and a former AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow (STPF), outlined how the public learns about science and why that needs to change. With current policy on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), climate change, and vaccination being determined by non-scientists, the ability to clearly communicate research findings is more vital than ever.

Communicating your research effectively can help you get a job, publish your research, obtain funding, make friends, and influence people. No, really! You can share your work with your students, your family and associates—even with strangers, and you need to be able to quickly and clearly explain what's important about it.

How to Present Your Research

When addressing a non-expert audience, take their technical knowledge into account, and use language your audience is familiar with. Avoid jargon or words that are a challenge for others to understand.

One specific way you'll be communicating your research is with people who ask, "So what do you do?" You’ll want to be ready with a short presentation of your work and its importance (sometimes called an elevator speech, after the length of an elevator ride—one minute or less).

In the workshop, Doyle outlined a simple formula for developing an effective elevator speech:

Start by developing one or two sentences about your research that has broad public appeal. Name the important issue your research tackles, or the hook to capture your audience's attention.

Next, craft three to five succinct sentences to explain the general topic and nature of your research, avoiding jargon.

Finish off with one or two sentences that connect your research back to the important issue you led off with, and describe what's next for your work.

Workshop participants had time to practice pitching their research to the group. Like DeGirolamo, most found it easy to talk about what they were doing, but surprisingly difficult to explain why they were doing it. With practice they could construct analogies or otherwise connect their work to their listeners' daily experiences, and leave the audience nodding with understanding and wanting to know more. Give it a try. Can you give an interesting and outline of your work to an uninformed audience?

Making the Most of Your Teaching Evaluations

It’s the end of the semester, and you’re wrapping up the class you’re TAing. Just a few more classes, and your students will hand in their final assignments and take their final exam. And they’ll complete a teaching evaluation. How can you make the most of the evaluation?

Improve Feedback Quality

Use midterm evaluations, such as the TABS administered through the Teaching Documentation Program here at UNL.

Ask your students to write a letter to the next class with tips on how to do well.

Video Transcript:

Making the Most of Your Teaching Evaluations

Step One: Sit down and evaluate yourself. Keep in mind that you’ll be more generous with yourself than your students. Compare your response to your student feedback.

Step Two: See if you have enough responses. If less than half your students responded, then your evaluations may not be representative of your students’ experience.  You can still get good information from the evaluations; just keep in mind that you tend to hear from students who feel strongly one way or another. You usually won’t hear from the people who describe their experience as “average.”

As you read, keep feedback in perspective. If you get one or two critical or negative evaluations, try to be generous and see where the critique lies. If you can’t, take the critique with a grain of salt. Remember that these evaluations do not reflect who you are as an instructor.

Step Three: Focus on quantifiable questions “The instructor communicates well,” where the student rates you on a scale of 1-5 (1 being “never,” 5 “always”).  

Did the responses for a question group together, or were there outliers? If most of your students give you a “4” and one student gives you a “1,” you might dismiss that response as an outlier. But if half of your class rates you highly and the other half offers a more critical rating, reflect on why your students had such varied experiences.

Step Four: Take a look at the written comments. If you have a low rating on one of the quantifiable questions, you’ll likely find the reason for the rating here. For example, if a majority of your students gave you a “sometimes” rating on the question “The course was intellectually challenging,” the comments under “What did you like least about this course?” may reveal that students felt they had too much homework or that the papers assigned were boring.

Step Five: Use the feedback to improve your teaching for next semester. If your students gave you negative feedback about a specific assignment, reconsider parts or all of the assignment. Consult with colleagues and advisors to revise assignments and come up with new ideas.

Step Six: Use the evaluations (and any changes that you make) to write a reflection for your teaching portfolio. You can write about how you changed your teaching or restructured your class to respond to your students’ feedback. Be sure to address how your changes help your students achieve learning goals!

Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language

William Strunk and E.B. White promote the use of specific, definite, and concrete language over the general, vague, and abstract. Academic prose doesn’t need to be general, vague, or abstract. With a little practice and a good editorial eye, you can engage your reader with added detail.

Video Transcript:

Example 1

"A period of unfavorable weather set in" doesn’t tell you much about the type of weather, or how long it lasted.

"It rained every day for a week" offers specific information about the weather and its duration.

Example 2

"He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward." leaves the reader with several questions: What does satisfaction look like? What was his reward?

"He grinned as he pocketed the coin." His facial expression tells you how he expressed his satisfaction, and the detail of the coin is far more specific than "well-earned reward."

Effective writing avoids abstraction by drawing a clear picture for the reader. Good pictures are not drawn with broad strokes; they include details and specific information that allows the reader to imagine the world the painting depicts. Detail isn’t random. Text that zeros in on a detail indicates that the reader should pay attention.

When you edit your text, see where you can avoid generalizations. For example, you may write about a general concept, or you may be making a philosophical argument. This doesn’t mean that your writing must be abstract or obtuse. This example from Herbert Spencer’s Philosophy of Style illustrates “vivid and particular” language:

Sentence 1: "In proportion as the manners, customs, and amusements of a nation are cruel and barbarous, the regulations of its penal code will be severe."

Sentence 2: "In proportion as men delight in battles, bullfights, and combats of gladiators, will they punish by hanging, burning, and the rack."

The first sentence doesn’t use examples or make use of detail, while the second sentence uses specific examples of manners, customs, and amusements by listing battles, bullfights and gladiators in combat. The punishments too are precise.

Academic prose doesn’t need to be general, vague, or abstract. With a little practice and a good editorial eye, you can engage your reader with added detail.