CSC News

January 28, 2021

Helping CSC PhD Students Achieve Academic Vibrancy

The journey toward a Ph.D. in Computer Science can be a difficult one, full of twists and turns that can be challenging and disheartening even for the most gifted students. Dr. Laurie Williams, Distinguished University Professor of Computer Science, observed that the challenges were exasperated by the COVID crisis, and she decided to take action.  


A new CSC course entitled “Academic Vibrancy”, created and taught by Williams, is being offered for Ph.D. students this semester. The primary objective of the course is to have students “feel more joy, happiness, and peace - so they can be vibrant academics.”


This course is incredibly unique in its nature for the CSC department, but its existence is essential amidst the pandemic. COVID-19 has shown our society the value of science and how important it is to support scientists.


“This fall, I could see my own students really suffering from COVID isolation. I felt like part of my job this fall was to lift them up out of their negative feelings. I assumed they were representative of the students in general. So, one day, I just decided to do something about it.”  She proposed the new course to Dr. George Rouskas, Director of Computer Science Graduate Programs, and he said yes.  “It was that easy,” says Williams. “I feel blessed to be able to help the students with no hassle to start the class up.”


Academic Vibrancy has 14 scheduled class sessions in which students will meet to discuss topics such as Energy/Movement/Exercise, Sleep and Daily/Circadian Rhythms, Preventing Burnout, and Visioning, Goal Setting. Each of these sessions will include a presentation, a smaller breakout room discussion, and a general open discussion with the entire group. 


Williams is most excited about being able to help her students. “I love the technical aspects of my job a lot!  But, what I really like about my job is to be able to touch people’s lives.  I really feel this course has the potential to do just that,” says Williams. “I feel like COVID has exaggerated the situation, but depression (and even suicide) is higher among Ph.D. students. I am open to keep teaching this class every year if students find it helpful.  I am also planning to make a general website to make the information available more generally outside of just the class.”


Each class will be taught with the course objectives of students having strategies for finding more joy and happiness in their life, strategies for self-care, and strategies for boosting productivity and brain power - practices that Williams herself uses.


 “I have long been a student of a lot of the practices I will teach in the class — reading books, going to seminars, listening to podcasts, going on retreats, being part of coaching programs”, said Williams. 


The COVID pandemic has created an unprecedented learning experience for all, yet classes such as Academic Vibrancy are a reminder of how important it is to work together. 


“Ph.D. students have lots of unique pressures in the best of times. The isolation brought about by COVID has only exasperated these challenges.  I strongly feel that by coming together as a community, our Ph.D. students can learn new personal skills that will help them thrive during these times and beyond,” said Williams.


Md Raynhaur Rahman, a Ph.D. student from the Department of Computer Science, is taking the course as a way to connect with other students,


“We are devoid of socialization, sharing, compassion and active involvement with peers...I took this course to mitigate these adverse effects. As the course offers us a way to talk to each other, share our concerns, express how we are managing ourselves in these difficult times – it gives us the opportunity to understand and learn from one another.”


Another Ph.D. student, Rezvan Mahdavi Hezaveh, has high hopes for this course, “I hope that this course helps me to learn techniques for recovering and maintaining my mental health during this pandemic.” 


After their first class meeting, second year Ph.D. student, Nusrat Zahan, reflects on her positive experience, 


"Starting my Ph.D. life as an international student during COVID-19 was hard. In our first class, I shared my challenges with my peers without any particular purpose. Indeed, it was refreshing. From this course, I want to learn how to keep smiling while dealing with my stresses and stay productive."


It is a difficult time for all. But it’s important to keep in mind that academic vibrancy, personal resilience, joy, and happiness can still be obtained. 



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