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PSU Campus tour and general advice for PhD students 2021

Welcome new students to Penn State University's PhD programs in College of Education! 

As a final-year student in the PhD (Learning, Design, and Technology) program, I would love to share my favorite study-spots around campus with you, and offer some general advice for making the most of your PhD studies from a senior student's perspective. It was fun walking with you as a tour guide this Friday (August 20th, 2021). This blog is a follow-up to the places we toured, with additional information for future reference.



The department of Learning and Performance Systems (LPS) occupies the third and fourth floor. LPS has four specializations: Adult Education, Learning, Design and Technology (LDT), Organization Development and Change, and Workforce Education. LDT has classrooms and a student lab on the third floor. The Keller student lab has a few computers and a multi-touch interactive screen table that students confuse for a coffee table. I recommend going to the library, Krause studio, or Westgate instead - if you're planning to type away for long hours. That said, the LDT lab is a nice place to run into familiar faces. Some faculty have offices close to the lab. 



Chambers building houses many classrooms, offices, and the Krause Innovation Studio. Krause is a very comfy study space especially when you'd like to stay plugged into devices (multiple power outlets in every desk). You can also reserve one of the colorful conference rooms for group projects or presentations. I reserved the conference room multiple times to brainstorm ideas for my dissertation with friends in related fields, and to practice my qualifying and comps exam (oral presentation) with friends. I also use the conference room for some job interviews on Zoom when I'm looking for a quiet and professional space. 


This is where grad school offices are located, but since you might not care about that, this is basically where Panera Bread is located. Nice spot to get breakfast and lunch, or to hangout with friends after classes. 

Nittany Lion Shrine

Nice place for a photo op for future nostalgia purposes.  

Pattee Library

Our library is fabulous! You can borrow books, media, access a small makerspace with 3d printers and laser cutters, edit your video data in the media commons. Also, there is excellent support staff on site in the media commons, and they can guide you on technology solutions for your research. I reserved the large video editing room (newsroom style, with multiple large monitors) to edit my research data. I also got excellent guidance on an AR project I was developing, with Tyler Greer (Creative Designer at Pattee Knowledge Commons). He's insightful about AR/VR resources, if you ever need those for your research.

Duck Pond

This is by far my favorite spot on campus. I hangout here often, early in the morning. Best spot to read by the beautiful pond, looking at ducks and turtles and fishes. Or head over to the Gazebo (it also has a power outlet) to recharge your soul and devices. 


I often joke that you can tell how well funded a department is by looking at their architecture and interior design. Westgate is home to Information Sciences and Technology (IST) and there are many beautiful study areas both outside and inside the building. It's a short walk from Keller, so I often study here in-between classes. 

Schreyer Garden

My second favorite spot on campus! This is a beautiful hidden gem. Gazebos are always nice to study in. For eye health, it's nice to take breaks from the reading/staring at a screen up-close, and looking farther in the distance every 20 minutes. This is called 'Computer Vision Syndrome' - eye symptoms resulting from prolonged working on a computer (Reddy et al., 2013). Taking breaks and looking at things far away is easier to accomplish for me when I'm studying outdoors. 

Nautilus Garden

Nautilus gardens have a beautiful spiral pattern on the floor, and chairs arranged in a circular setting. Read about the architecture of the beautiful Nautilus garden within Schreyer garden in this article written by Derek Kalp, a landscape architect at PSU.

Water Tower

This is one of the coolest places to read, work, or just relax on campus, under the water tower, designed by Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. The water tower is located behind the Palmer Museum of Art and next to the Stuckeman family building.

Willaman Gateway

Willaman Gateway is the indoor bridge that connects the 3rd floors of the Huck Life Sciences building and the Chemistry building. This spot has one of the best views of campus! 

Millenium Science Complex

On a sunny, rainy or snowy day (which could sometimes be experienced in the same day in State College!) - check out the garden at the Millennium Science Complex (MSC) located in the Materials Research Institute at Penn State.  Fun fact, MSC was designed by the famous architect Rafael Vinoly


Arboretum is a beautiful place to relax, walk around, and/or study throughout the year. It has both shaded and open areas, and it's great for families (if you have children they will enjoy the children's garden). Many student and faculty researchers in the college of Ed collaborate with the Arboretum for research projects. If you love being outdoors, there are also some GA opportunities for educational projects at the Arboretum (keep an eye on the PSU workday portal for those GA listings!). 


Know thy advisor

Early in your degree, try to read several articles written by your advisor and try to get involved in their ongoing research (if a GA/TA position is available in their research group). This can help better your understanding of your advisor's expertise and working style, their preferences for communication, how they organize their work, etc. It also helps to learn your academic lineage, such as who were your advisor's mentors/advisors, or the work of other researchers that inspired the type of work your advisor is doing. If your advisor has a routine, it definitely helps to remember it while sending out emails. For example, some advisors may only respond to emails early in the morning, some may have open office hours or online chat hours on Teams/Slack, and some may be busy with added departmental responsibilities - so it helps to send follow-up emails about important tasks. 

Know thy goals

Would you like to work in academia or industry? Are you interested in teaching or research or both? Are you interested in staff positions? Do you want to create an educational startup? What kind of professional would you like to become after you graduate? Those can be the guiding questions throughout the program. 

For example, if you're interested in working at R1 universities - publishing in the top journals and attending key conferences in your field become very important. If you're interested in teaching more than research, getting some TA or adjunct opportunities besides studies is helpful. If you're open to staff positions like Learning Experience Designer or Instructional Designer, it helps to have a portfolio of projects that captures your design process. If you're interested in creating your own educational startup, checkout Invent Penn State for free entrepreneurial workshops and other resources. 

Read, Read, Read

Read diverse research in the beginning. Articles that you find through coursework are great - but read articles/books related to your personal interests outside of coursework too. I'm Dyslexic, so this advice is hard for myself to follow. My workaround is to print out journal articles - and draw diagrams/maps/connections by hand in the columns. I also sometimes use a screenreader and listen to an article while doing mundane chores. Reading diverse research will help you discover things about yourself - What kind of writing style do you like?  What journals would you like to get published in? Who are your favorite researchers? Whom would you like to collaborate with? What are some "gaps" in the literature that you would like to fill? Whatever you're thinking - there's probably a framework for that. 

Work with experienced researchers first 

Right from the first semester, try to get involved in ongoing research with your advisor or through your GAship. That experience will help you learn the best practices and basic how-tos of research. Ultimately, that experience will help you craft your own research. 

I worked as a research assistant with Dr Rick Shearer at World Campus and learned how to write IRBs, design studies, collect and analyze data. Then, after developing my own research idea through a series of courses with my advisor, I jumped into my own research. 

How to find a great dissertation idea 

Thoreau said "It is not worth the while to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar". Think about why a research question is worth pursuing? 

Think about the connection between X & Y. For example, I study the connection between educational media and maker activities, or between visual design and engagement. 

I developed a checklist for finding a dissertation topic, in case that helps anyone!

 I am passionate about the topic

 This idea fills a gap in existing research 

 This research can be completed in 1-2 years

 I have personal expertise/ background in this area

 There is some novelty, but I will also draw on established research

 This study can generate marketable skills and credibility towards the job I want

 I can visualize a finished publication (not too abstract)

 I can double-down on the efforts: I can do this research as part of my GAship or coursework

 This study fits within requirements of the program

 This study can genuinely help X community of learners

Publish sometimes, perish never

That horrible saying 'Publish or Perish' reflects the brutality of academia: publications mean a lot more than they should. There seems to be little respect for quality over quantity. BUT. My advisor and several other researchers that I respect, rightly point out that it's pointless to rush to publish when you're not ready. It's important to learn how to do quality research, generate helpful findings, and disseminate it to the larger academic community. Publish when you really have something new and important to say. No publication is worth losing your health over. 

Choose your electives wisely 

Most students don't realize that elective courses are very powerful and can empower your career in beautiful ways! For example, I was interested in children's media coming from film/animation background, so I took an elective in the media department studying how to measure media effects. Your advisor will need to sign off on your elective choice, so you need to weave a logical story of how this elective course will support your focus on education/learning. Think of it as a three legged race - the free legs are LDT, the tied legs are education AND the elective/special flavor. 


It helps to hangout with your potential future colleagues to know what it's really like to hold a particular job. For example, I'm interested in job opportunities like 'learning experience designer' or 'children's media executive' - and I became friends with the staff designers through conferences, linkedin, and podcasts. I also connected with children's media professionals through Children's Media Association membership and through media conferences. Attend the popular education conferences like AERA, ISLS, and AECT, but also attend a few niche conferences close to your particular topic of interest. 

Track your progress + celebrate milestones 

As time goes by, it's hard to keep a track of your writing efforts towards coursework, dissertation, publications, and conferences. I designed this Publication Tracker in Google Sheets (Feel free to download and edit) in order to keep a track of different types of writing - chapters, columns, empirical articles, non empirical articles, or conference proceedings. I set a clear start and end date, and assign a status from the drop down menu (not started, in progress, in press, under review, published). To celebrate milestones such as a good publication, or passing the qual/comps exams, I buy something small at one of the local business such as Nittany Quill or Douglas Albert Gallery - or just get a hot rock massage for those achy shoulders and forearms. Typing and screen-staring can turn any PhD student into the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Un-hunch yo-self!

Writing Retreats 

Have noisy room-mates? Live with family and need a break? Feeling totally uninspired to write? Questioning life choices and brooding in the dark? Maybe it's time to go on a writing retreat!

Here are some AirBnB rentals within drivable distance from State College, that I recommend for 5-10 day writing retreats during your final year of studies. These are old-world-charm type places which offer a great ambiance for writing. Look for unpopular dates (avoid holidays or football games) and you might find incredibly low prices:

(Personal favorite) Warrior's Mark, PA Princess Suite in Sylvan Manor

Bellefonte, PA Marsh Creek Cottage 

Bellefonte, PA Nittany Blue Room in Reynolds Mansion 

Bellefonte, PA The Maid's Quarter

Aaronsburg, PA Country vacation cottage

Reedsville, PA Room in historic home

Making the most of summers 

Summers are a great time to catch up on coursework, conduct your own research, collaborate with cohorts, do internships, apply for scholarships and fellowships, prepare research for conferences, and most importantly - catch a nice break for a few weeks to recover from the Spring semester and feel energized for the Fall semester. 

IRB officers are particularly less busy during the summer, so whenever you get to the point of designing your own research study - Summers are a great time to apply for IRB. The turnaround from application to approval goes by much faster during the summer.

Go there EARLY 

Go where early you ask? Anywhere, everywhere. Library, copy center, those beautiful gazebos we talked about, coffee shops, restaurants, haircut appointments, you name it! Why, you ask? Because this is a college town with a large student population. Everywhere can feel crowded and overwhelming. If you want some quiet time, and not have to wait in a line, go there early. 

The Seven Ships : 

Graduate Assistantships, Teaching Assistantships, Research Assistantships, Fellowships, Scholarships, Internships, and Friendships 

Yes, very cheesy. That friendship part is very true though. 

Checkout these scholarships offered by College of Education >>

Checkout graduate fellowships and awards offered by Penn State >>

Checkout awards by AERA >>

Checkout awards by AECT >>

Checkout awards by ISLS >>

Checkout Spencer foundation dissertation fellowship >>

Checkout special programs for graduate students by National Science Foundation >> 

Wanna graduate under 5 years? 

Life happens. Maybe you are a parent like me, maybe you have health concerns, immigration concerns, need to take care of an elder, have a financial crisis, or any other reason for wanting to graduate sooner than the timeline outlined in LDT handbook of roughly 5 years or more. 
Talk to your advisor early. Make your challenges known. 

Then together with your advisor make a plan semester by semester of how you will finish the required coursework, what would be your writing deadlines? Your advisor also has a lot of other work besides reviewing your writing - so get your writing to them in medium sized chunks (such as one chapter at a time). Ask them what are their "review days". Then send your writing to them a day in advance of their review days. Keep your writing rhythm going till the finish line. Take a break and mentally prepare to address revisions your advisor will likely recommend. 

I'm not saying don't be sincere and rush to graduate. I'm saying OPTIMIZE your time with your advisor. Stay focused on the task at hand. Stay the course with your topic because it's so easy to keep changing directions (Researchers are known to constantly think of new ideas and try to pursue many projects at once). But we gotta prioritize for graduating early. Dissertation first. A good dissertation is a done dissertation.

When to go on the job market? 

If you are a US citizen, you can consider working full-time and pursuing your PhD part-time. Many of the PhD students are PSU employees and do their PhDs this way. As a US citizen, you can also choose to "test waters" with jobs whenever you see fit, after discussing with your advisor. 

If you are an international student on an F1 visa, the best time to look for jobs is after you pass your comps exams and have made some decent progress on your dissertation. I am currently in this stage! Generally, the Optional Practical Training (OPT) takes anywhere between 1-5 months to get approved. So it's a good idea to keep looking for jobs while you wait for your OPT approval. 

Academic jobs (such as Assistant Professor, Lecturer, Adjunct faculty) will provide their decisions few months in advance, which is great for international students to figure out their immigration related stuff. However, most industry jobs have a quick turnaround and can wait only a few weeks - so you should look for those jobs in the final month of the PhD/ closer to defense. 

50 Shades of Cray 
PhD-student-things that could drive you crazy, and what to do about them: 

Feeling overwhelmed? Set clear boundaries. Say no to anything that does not align with your purpose of staying healthy, happy, and focused on the key tasks of PhD. 

Red flags to mental health? Use the free counseling services at PSU Herr Clinic 

Got a rejection from a conference or a journal? Congrats! Failure is redirection. Look at the feedback, learn from it, revise and resubmit to another venue. Don't try to kill reviewer number two. 

Not sure how to manage your money woes? Get a free consultation with Financial and Life Skills center

Having those days when you realize your friends are becoming CEOs and buying their third house and here you are "still in school"? Take that anger to your fists and join me for some boxing lessons at one of the downtown martial art centers, or take the calm way out and join one of the many yoga studios in town. 

Feeling distracted? Block writing hours on your calendar so you can be undistracted during those hours. Use any productivity apps of your choice, use Pomodoro writing style, cut out social media certain hours of the day. 

Feeling lost dissertation-wise? Talk to your advisor!

Cool Resources at Penn State 

Copy Center >> Print posters and study materials at affordable prices

Center for Immersive Experiences >> for all your AR/VR needs

Maker Commons >> for 3d printing, 3d scanning, 3d modeling, laser-cutting

Media Commons >> video editing, visual design, video recording, podcasting

Invent Penn State >>  entrepreneurial guidance

Hang in there!

When I arrived at PSU for the first time as a PhD student walking through downtown State College bustling with overenthusiastic undergraduates, frat bros and sorority sisters, I wondered, "Am I the only adult in a town full of fetuses?

But then, something magical happened! I met with other PhD students in College of Ed, and other colleges through my GAships and elective courses. Together, we learned that it's ok to be fully mature and partially clueless as PhD students. Together, we discovered some quiet havens on an otherwise noisy campus. Together we figured out the strategies described here. 

As our alumni have told me on their way out -  Give it time. In 5 years or less (sometimes more), you'll be walking down the commencement aisle in a very expensive and shapeless polyester regalia with a lot of static shock, but also a lot of pride over your doctor title. 

..And when a random relative or Fox News reminds you that you'll never be a real doctor, just smile and wave like the Penguins of Madagascar or tell it like Ice Cube, "Bye Felicia!"

In the meantime, make the most of our beautiful campus - and enjoy your doctoral studies!