If you were at orientation you’ve already heard the short version of this but I thought I’d write this down so that everyone, even non-first year students could get a chance to hear this.
I’m going into my 5th (yikes) year in this department and, by far, like really far, the number one thing I would suggest to new students (actually, all students!) is to participate in extracurriculars. I know sometimes it seems like there’s no time for it, especially at the beginning, but, in my experience at least, being involved in extracurriculars has saved me a metric tonne of time.
There are three categories of extracurriculars I’d suggest: EBOSS (our student society), journal clubs and seminars/talks. I’ll go through each individually and give a quick mention of how they helped me along the way.
My first year in department, as a first year masters student, I decided to get involved with EBOSS. Basically, I picked the only spot they had open at the time, MSc representative on the curriculum committee. My responsibility was to show up at epidemiology curriculum committee meetings (where they discuss the content of epi courses and the sequence they’re given in) and represent the students of the department. I actually got off kind of easy because the committee hardly met at all that year but it was a chance for me to get know some of the faculty (including my future PhD supervisor) and a bit about how the department works.
After that year I was vice president for two years and president last year (which I can’t do this year because I’ll be in Brazil much of the year! Anyone want to be president?). It has allowed me to get to know most of the faculty (maybe all), meet many students who I might not have crossed paths with otherwise and, hopefully, contribute to making the student experience in this department better than it already was. I do know that being involved with EBOSS improved my own student experience. (And, don’t tell anyone, but I also think it looks good on my CV.)
This is the extracurricular activity I would most encourage students to participate in. For those who don’t know, journal clubs are groups that meet periodically (every two weeks or month depending on the club) to read papers on a given topic. Here is a list of the journal clubs in our department.
I started attending the Social Epidemiology Journal Club in the first year of my masters. I probably understood 20% of what was happening most of the time. I didn’t know what DAGs were, I had no idea what instrumental variable analysis was and sometimes I wasn’t even sure we were talking about epi anymore. It was a bit frustrating and sometimes I wondered what I was doing there but I later realized how important and beneficial attending this journal club was!
Many topics we covered in the journal club I saw later in class and having seen these topics before made them much easier to learn. Just a little exposure to a method or topic goes a long way to helping you learn it later when you cover the theory in class. One thing I know for sure is that my PhD would be totally different (or I might not have even chosen to do a PhD) if it wasn’t for journal club. That’s where I built a repor with my future PhD supervisor, that’s where I first encountered the methodology that I’m using and I even found the dataset I’m using at journal club. I basically built my entire PhD out of things I saw in journal club.
Find a journal club that interests you, get on the mailing list, read the paper and show up. You don’t have to say anything. Especially if you’re new, just soaking it in can be a great experience. If you’re looking for a supervisor, it’s a great place to meet and interact with a number of faculty at once. Sometimes I even go to journal clubs if I haven’t had time to read the paper if I think it looks interesting. You’re never called on or forced to talk so there’s no pressure!
On the EBOSS webpage, you’ll notice we keep a calendar of all talks and events going on in the department that might be of interest to students (you can import that calendar into your own google calendar if you have one). Keep an eye on it for talks you might find interesting or that serve free pizza (or, preferably both). Similar to how journal clubs help, talks can introduce you to new methods, ideas, topics that you might not have seen otherwise. And sometimes there’s food! Another tip that I probably shouldn’t give is that I often bring other reading material to talks and sit in the back. That way, if it’s boring I can do other things I need to do.
Ok. This post is long enough and I think you probably get the point. Just to recap the things I probably shouldn’t have told you:
- adding a line to your CV is a good reason to join EBOSS
- journal clubs are beneficial even if you didn’t have time to read the paper
- bring reading material (or your laptop) to talks in case they turn out to be a bust
If anyone asks, I never told you any of this.