Grad School with Dr. Toyin Alli of The Academic Society

Accountability and time management are valuable skills in graduate school

Toyin Alli, PhD of the University of Georgia helps students inside and out of the classroom. She loves teaching math, it’s her dream job. She’s also making greater impact with her business, The Academic Society LLC, which helps students succeed in grad school.

In this featured interview, Toyin talks about her book, #GradBoss: A Grad School Survival Guide. Inspired by graduate students in her Facebook community, Toyin wrote this handbook in 6 weeks during coworking sessions! The book is packed full of advice and stories about grad school.

We also talk about YouTube, and Toyin’s love for teaching.

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Meet Toyin

Listen to Toyin Alli’s featured interview, recorded in July 2022Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify | YouTube | TuneIn | ListenNotes | Blubrry

Jennifer: Hi everyone. This is Jennifer van Alstyne. Welcome to The Social Academic.

Today, I’m talking with Dr. Toyin Alli, a senior lecturer at the University of Georgia. Toyin, I’m so excited to have you on The Social Academic, and to feature you. Would you mind introducing yourself?

Toyin: So I am Toyin Alli. I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

I am a senior lecturer at the University of Georgia. I’m a teaching faculty member, so I do a lot of teaching, meet with a lot of students.

My go-to is those introductory level math classes where I can show students who believe that they’re not good at math, that they can be great at math.

Jennifer: That would be me [raises hand laughing].

Toyin: And they can enjoy it. That’s my personal challenge I have every semester.

On top of being a senior lecturer, I also run my own business called The Academic Society, where I help graduate students with time management and productivity. I also have a consultancy where I help other academics with their businesses. And setting up systems so that they can have a semester approved business that runs while they’re super busy in the semester.

Jennifer: Oh, my gosh, that is so much stuff. It’s amazing that you’re making it all work. You’re a teacher. You’re helping graduate students actually navigate their time in grad school. And you’re helping other academics who are wanting to start businesses like yours.

You must be good at time management, otherwise you wouldn’t have time for it all. I think it’s great that you’re helping other people with that too.

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Grad school life (and grad school problems)

A black man with a beard sits at a long table with a cup of coffee and an open laptop. On the laptop screen is a photo and bio for Dr. Toyin Alli of The Academic Society.

Jennifer: I love how open you are in your bio on your website about how grad school kicked your butt. And how time management and productivity made such a difference for you. I’d love for you to talk more about that and maybe your book, #GradBoss.

Toyin: Graduate school is definitely an interesting experience and journey. A lot of people have negative thoughts associated with grad school.

Once I really got the hang of grad school, it actually became great. I ended up having a great experience in grad school, which a lot of people do not.

What I found was, it’s really like that underlying soft skill that makes grad school so different. It’s the time management and productivity skills that we aren’t taught grad school, but we’re expected to just do. Those time management and productivity skills, they’re underlying everything. Those are the things that help you actually have time to do your research while you’re

  • Teaching classes
  • Taking classes
  • Going to seminars
  • Presenting
  • All that stuff

What I found from graduate students–and even myself when I was a graduate student– it’s very overwhelming. And there’s a lot to do. It’s hard to figure out what to do first. When you’re struggling to figure out what to do first, it kind of just paralyzes you. You kind of do nothing, and that’s where the procrastination happens. That’s where the burnout happens. I really like to jump in and help students figure out what to do first, and how to manage all of that.

When I started graduate school, I thought I was pretty prepared [laughs], because I did undergraduate research. My mom has a PhD. She told me about grad school. But something about experiencing it was just completely different. I had to learn that my undergraduate study habits were just not going to suffice in grad school.

I learned that other students were actually spending time before class doing readings [laughs], and that’s not something I ever had to do in undergrad. It was learning how to make time for those things that I’m not used to putting in my schedule, figuring out what my priorities should be as a grad student. Once I figured that out, and once I figured out how to learn math–which is funny–that’s when I really got a handle on grad school.

In my 1st semester of grad school, I took a class called Topology. It was something that I had never even heard of in undergraduate school. That class was just so foreign to me. I didn’t do the best. I’m sure I would have passed the class, but my professor ended up giving me an Incomplete [grade].

Next semester, in the Spring, I had to meet with him every single week and prove theorems on the board from that class. Every single week. There were tears involved. But in that process, I learned, “Oh, this is how you learned math.” From then on, I knew exactly how much time I needed to spend in my classes. I knew what I needed to do to actually understand what was going on, how much time I needed to allot for my homework.

Once I figured that out, I feel like everything was just unlocked for me. While grad school was still a lot of work, I enjoyed the experience.

Jennifer: I think that it’s really interesting because I see a lot of people on social media especially, talking about how they wish they had parents who went to grad school and who’d experienced some of that. Or, maybe who were academics themselves, to be able to highlight some of that hidden curriculum once you get to grad school. It’s the things that most people just don’t know about grad school.

What I’m hearing from you is that even though your mom had a PhD, there were still a lot of things that you had to learn. That you had to teach yourself and you had to figure out how to do. And it sounds like that one-on-one attention from the professor who gave you that Incomplete provided you some of those resources to be able to replicate that in other areas of your grad school life. It’s a really interesting story. So thank you so much for sharing that with me.

Is that something you talk about in your book, #GradBoss?

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#GradBoss: A Grad School Survival Guide

A copy of #GradBoss A Grad School Survival Guide by Dr. Toyin Alli of The Academic Society sits on a black floating shelf next to a potted fern.

Toyin: Oh, yeah. So I have a book called #GradBoss: A Grad School Survival Guide where I share my experiences in grad school: the things I learned, the failures that I went through in grad school. As well as the 10 things that you should know before going to grad school (and even after you started grad school).

Things to remind yourself about:

  • Time management
  • How to make friends
  • Imposter syndrome
  • Failure in grad school

I talk about all of that in the book. And I also share my stories as well as other grad student stories.

Jennifer: Oh, that’s great. I think that book would be so helpful for people. I wish that I had it when I was in grad school, because I felt like a lot of the areas you just talked about were things that I struggled with. Or, maybe I had more anxiety about that than I thought my friends did. Having a guide or some kind of handbook would have been so helpful for me. If you’re a grad student reading this, please get #GradBoss.

Now, when did you write that book? What inspired you to actually put words on paper?

Toyin: I have a YouTube channel called The Academic Society with Toyin Alli, and I have been sharing videos about time management and grad school stories, things like that.

I also had a community on Facebook for graduate students under the same name, where I help graduate students. Something I learned about grad students is they’re reading all the time.

Jennifer: Mmhmm [affirmative]. [Laughs.]

Toyin: I’m a mathematician. And I will say the reading was very minimal. It was mostly practicing problems, working things out. When I got to the research portion, then I would read papers. But math papers are so short, like 6-7 pages. They’re very short. Yeah, [laughs].

Jennifer: That’s short! Yeah.

Toyin: When talking to all these grad students, they’re telling me how much they’re reading. And I’m creating video content. I was like, “I should probably try to meet them where they are.” They’re already reading. Maybe I could put my knowledge into a book.

So I posted in my Facebook group, “Hey, I’m thinking about writing a book about surviving grad school. Does that sound like a good idea? Would you read it? And what would you want me to talk about?”

And they’re all like, “Oh my goodness. Yes, I would love a book. Here are the things I want you to talk about.” They listed about 10 things, and those became the 10 chapters in my book.

Jennifer: So that was really inspired by the people who you were already working with, who were already in your community, and who already needed your help. And they actually helped outline the topics and ideas that you wrote in the book.

I love that! I love that it was inspired by social media. That’s so cool.

Toyin: I know!

I realize I didn’t answer your question. When did I write it? I believe it was the summer of 2018. Or maybe it was the summer of 2019.

But something that I talk a lot about for grad students in grad school is you don’t want to do this alone. You don’t want to be isolated. And it really helps to have accountability. I’ve noticed that the difference between making a plan and actually following through is the accountability.

Jennifer: Mmhmm [affirmative].

Toyin: Whenever I set to do a task, I’m going to try to build in the accountability.

I’d never written a book before. I’m not a writer. I don’t call my myself a writer even though I guess I am because I wrote a book. 

Jennifer: Yeah, you’re a writer!

Toyin: But I was like, the only way I’m gonna do this is if I have people along for the journey. I had this program that’s now called Focus, but at the time it was called Productivity Accelerator. I was like, “Anybody doing some writing over the summer? Anybody working on their thesis, dissertation writing, publishing papers? Do you wanna write with me?”

I actually got grad students involved. We would sit on Zoom for hours each day. We would talk about our goals. We would use the Pomodoro technique and write for about 45 minutes, chat, write for another 45 minutes.

I wrote the whole book in about 6 weeks in the summer, mostly with other graduate students.

Jennifer: Wow! In those coworking writing sessions. That is awesome. And Pomodoros that was something that works for you. And they worked for everyone else because everyone can follow this same kind of timeline doing these smaller, shorter tasks.

Wow, that’s so cool. And you got it done in only 6 months, that’s amazing!

Toyin: Six weeks!

Jennifer: What? Six weeks, is that what you said? [Laughs], I lengthened that. That’s incredible. So six weeks brought you #GradBoss, and that was inspired by graduate students who were in your community. And written with graduate students in that same kind of virtual space and while you’re talking about your goals and everything in six weeks. That is such a cool story. I’m glad I asked about that.

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It started with her website and newsletter

A black woman wearing an oversized gray blazer and white slacks sits at a round modern table with a cup of coffee, holding her mobile phone. Also on the table are a vase of lilies, and an open laptop with The Academic Society website pulled up.

Jennifer: You talked a little bit about how social media is something you use for your community, but what does your online presence look like? Like what social media platforms are you on? Do you have a website? What is your online presence?

Toyin: Yes, I do have a website. I started with the website, as a home base for my brand. That’s where I would put my blog posts back when I was writing regular blog posts. I would create freebies or lead magnets–I would create some type of value for my audience in exchange for their email address. I would say my website and my email newsletter, those were what I built up first.

Then I remembered a dream that I had back when I started grad school. I started grad school in 2016. I loved YouTube. YouTube was everything for me. I watched all kinds of videos, learned about

  • How to do my hair
  • My makeup
  • What to wear
  • All of the things

When I first started grad school, I was like, “I really wanna be a YouTuber.” But I had this YouTube channel called YouTube University, where it would just be me trying to follow YouTube tutorials and do things. But then my mom shared my videos to everyone she knew, and I got so embarrassed. I was like, “No, I’m not doing this again.”

Jennifer: That’s so funny. She probably shared them cuz she was really proud of you. You were like, “No mom, what are you doing?” [Laughs].

Toyin: What’s funny is I have a YouTube channel now. I think the difference is my YouTube channel now is something that I believe in. I would push past being embarrassed because I know that what I’m telling people would actually be helpful for them. Being able to help someone overcomes that feeling of wanting to shrink and hide. I’m a very introverted and shy person, [laughs]. You wouldn’t guess that I have a YouTube channel.

After I started my website and newsletter, I was like let me do this YouTube thing. About 6 months later in 2017, I started my YouTube channel. I would post a YouTube video every single week. That is where I’m the most consistent.

Then, I occasionally post on Instagram.

Jennifer: I love that. It sounds like all of the places that you’ve brought yourself into that online space have been reactionary in the sense that you wanted a place to host your brand, to hold your blog posts. Then you wanted a YouTube channel because you wanted to explore that. Then you created a YouTube channel that was for a specific audience.

It seems very much like an organic process of finding new places that you wanted to spend time and create content for. And very audience driven as well, like you wanted to create things for specific people, is that right?

Toyin: Oh yeah. Definitely very audience driven.

At first as a mathematician, I assumed that I could only help graduate students who were like math or science, because that’s what I knew. I didn’t go to grad school for English, or humanities, social sciences. I didn’t really know about those programs. But when I was making my videos and blog posts for the STEM students, I had people in the humanities and social sciences saying, “Oh my gosh, this is so helpful. I wish I knew this.”

Gradboss /grad-bos/ Noun. 1. A grad student who has figured out how to balance grad school and real life. They are productive but they also have a social life. They build community around them and they help others.

What people were wanting to learn from me was not discipline specific. It was about time management. It was about organization.  It was about productivity. Those principles can be used anywhere. Now, I always encourage students to figure out what works for them and just leave everything else that doesn’t work. Some things I say may work best for mathematicians, but you can probably tweak it to work for a psychologist.

Yeah, I very much just followed what my audience wanted from me. It wasn’t just grad school in general, it was time management and productivity.

Then as I grew my business, people started asking, “Well, how are you doing this business thing and being a lecturer at the same time?” So here I am, business consultant for academics. It’s just naturally progressed as my audience grew.

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YouTube is Toyin’s favorite social media platform

A desktop computer with The Academic Society YouTube channel pulled up. Next to the desktop screen, mouse, and keyboard, is a small glass vase with a twirly twisted twig.

Jennifer: Oh, I just love that. It sounds like maybe YouTube was your favorite social media platform. It’s something that you were watching a lot and then you created a channel because you enjoyed creating videos for, is that right?

Toyin: Very much so, yes. 

Jennifer: What do you like most of about YouTube? You said you were getting makeup tutorials and all sorts of stuff you were learning. Was learning an important aspect of watching YouTube videos for you?

Toyin: Yeah, I think so. I think because I’m very much an introvert. But I’m also an Enneagram 5. If you know Enneagram 5’s, we’re investigators. We love information. We like to know all the information. Whenever I’m learning something, I am just feeling joy.

My friends make fun of me because I will sit and watch these video essays that people do on YouTube. I don’t know if you’ve seen them, but they’re like 2-8 hour videos on YouTube where they deep dive, have thesis statements about pop culture.

Jennifer: What?!

Toyin: Yes. I recently watched one on the Vampire Diaries. Like nothing even serious. But they deep dive into each of the characters, into the storylines, and different seasons. What made them work? I’m just fascinated by that.

Jennifer: Teenage me would’ve been mind-blown over this because I loved L.J. Smith books when I was in middle school and high school. This was before they were re-released, before the Vampire Diaries was a TV show. So middle school me would’ve been all over the 8 hour video discussion of that. That’s so great. I didn’t know there were such long videos on YouTube.

My interviews are like 40 minutes to an hour max. That seems really long. I worry, “Oh my gosh, no one’s gonna watch the entire thing.” But people do. And then they email me and they’re like “This was so helpful!”

Now I’m hearing that even longer videos are performing well. That people are creating this new type of essay, like video essay content. That’s so fascinating.

Toyin: I love it. I love it so much.

The long ones I do it takes me a few days to watch it all, but I always go back. It’s almost like getting a peek into someone else’s brain, watching YouTube videos and how they format the video, how they choose to share the information. I just find that fascinating. I find it somehow easy for me to just sit in front of a camera and share my thoughts. Cause it’s still being introverted–I’m in a room alone talking.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Toyin: But I don’t know. I feel like my video presence is nice. People respond well to me on video. I enjoy consuming that type of content.

Jennifer: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I talk with professors often about encouraging them to do a little video for their website. Or, a little video for social media. When I was watching 15 Minutes of Shame, the documentary about Monica Lewinsky on HBO Max, one of the professors who was interviewed said that even seeing someone’s facial expressions for a few seconds makes a difference for how people understand us as people. How they can connect with us emotionally because of those facial expressions. And how before that, people don’t seem like real people. So I’m always telling people, even if you can do a short video where you’re just saying hi, it can make a really big difference for people who are coming to meet you.

What it sounds like is that even though you’re an introverted person, kind of like me, that being on video ended up being something that was comfortable for you. Maybe not incredibly comfortable at the beginning if you were embarrassed with your mom sharing those videos. But eventually you found the comfort level that encouraged you to create more content for your audience, and create that channel. I love that you shared all that with me. Even your anxiety in the beginning, when you first created the YouTube University channel.

Toyin: That’s the one.

Jennifer: I love it.

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Online presence, a way to impact more than just my school

Hands holding a paper cutout chain of people holding hands.

Jennifer: Now, you’re a lecturer. You’re helping grad students, new faculty members with your side business. Why is sharing your message online important to you? Why is it helpful for you?

Toyin: Yeah, I think it’s just a way to impact more than just my school.

Jennifer: Mmhmm [affirmative].

Toyin: When I’m teaching, in my school, we have a big research university. But I’m part of the small class size initiative. Most of my classes have 19 students or less. I’m reaching very few students at a time, which is great for teaching. But there’s a world of people who have no idea about what grad school is all about.

Being able to hear as many stories about grad school as possible has to be helpful. I’m happy to share my perspective as a woman, as a black woman, as a black woman who’s a mathematician. Like what was that experience like for me?

I think people find comfort in hearing just different perspectives on things, and not just the one perspective on things.

Jennifer: Absolutely. I think that seeing different perspectives, especially for graduate students who are just coming into their programs…Seeing someone who looks like you, who has the success and the confidence that you have to run these multiple businesses, and be teaching, and doing all the things, and having this book.

Seeing that it is possible makes a big difference for graduate students. Seeing someone who looks like you in that space, probably makes them feel much more comfortable. I know I would have felt more comfortable learning from someone like you. Absolutely.

Toyin: Thank you. Yeah. Even my students in the classroom, they appreciate me being there. I’ll get emails from students like, “You’re the 1st black professor I’ve had,” or, “You’re the 1st black math teacher I’ve ever had.”

And I was like, “Wow.” I think it is important that I’m there, like it exists. And if you wanna do it too, you can.

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Why Toyin loves teaching

Math equations and figures by Dan Cristian Paduret

Jennifer: That’s why you still teach. Right? You have a successful business, but you want to still teach. Why is teaching important to you?

Toyin: Oh my gosh. I love it so much. It is literally my dream job. I feel so much joy and so much fulfillment from teaching. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

It’s very interesting that you say that because I do have a business that is profitable. I was speaking to my accountant and she was like, “So, when are you gonna quit your job? Because do you think if you taught less, you would make more with your business?” I was like, “Probably, but I love it.”

Part of the reason for my business consultancy is we’ve worked so hard to become academics, to get the PhD, to get the master’s degree. It took a lot of sacrifice to do that. On the other side of it, I want to actually enjoy the life that I work for. What I see a lot with academics is they get their job, and then it’s just like grad school 2.0. They’re just like working, working, working. Living just for academia, and not for yourself.

I feel very blessed to have chosen a career that fulfills me and makes me happy. It doesn’t really feel super draining. It doesn’t feel like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to get away.” It’s something that I’m excited to do every single day.

But I also have this other life that’s outside of academia. That actually fuels me and makes me even more excited to go back to the classroom.

Jennifer: Ooh, I can hear your enthusiasm. I can sense it in your voice. And in your face, I mean, you look so happy talking about it. I can tell that you told your accountant, “No, I’m not quitting my job, I’m happy as a teacher.” I think that that’s amazing and your students get so much out of it. That’s excellent.

Now tell me more about The Academic Society. How can graduate students who are listening to this get involved? How can they get some help with their productivity and their time management?

Toyin: The first place I like to send people is the YouTube channel. You can go to The Academic Society with Toyin Alli. Just type in The Academic Society, you’ll find it. And I have playlists about time management, about my teaching blogs, and all of that.

The second place would be to join my mailing list, so my email list. I have a lot of free resources, one being my class on what to expect in your 1st semester of grad school.

Jennifer: Oh my gosh, incoming grad students, sign up for that. It’s going to be super helpful.

Toyin: Yes. And it’s basically, I’ve noticed, you know, there are some things that students don’t realize about academia and about grad school.

Jennifer: Mmhmm [affirmative].

Toyin: I wanna let them know what it is before they get started so they can prepare themselves. Signing for anything on my website is a way to get involved with the newsletter.

Then also joining my community on Facebook. If you’re on Facebook, I have a Facebook group called The Academic Society for grad students. Students are in there asking questions, chatting it up, meeting new people inside of that group every single day.

Jennifer: Oh, I love that. I will include the links so people can be sure to join your Facebook group, sign up for your mailing list, and check out those YouTube videos. I think it’s gonna be so helpful for graduate students. And that’s incoming graduate students, and if you’re in grad school and you know you can benefit from some of these skills, be sure to check out those videos. I know it will help you.

Understand why you do the things you do

Toyin Alli holding a hold pen writing a to-do list in a spiral bound notebook. On the list are email, announcements, solutions, and office hours. Next to the notebook is a gold binder clip and a laptop, mostly out of shot.

Jennifer: Toyin, is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up?

Toyin: I would just like to say, it’s super important to understand why you’re doing the things you’re doing. Because that fuels you. It gives you the motivation.

I heard someone say, “I just wanna go to grad school so I can get those three letters, PhD.”

I was like, “Uh-oh, that’s not enough.” Grad school is a lot, and you’re gonna need something a little bit more than just wanting fancy letters behind your name. There’s a reason why you wanna do this.

I always encouraged students to get deeply connected to why they want to do this. Why they wanna go to grad school. Why they wanna be an academic. And to talk about it with others because it’s a great connection point. It can help motivate you and fuel you to help you keep going when it gets tough.

Jennifer: It sounds like it can help you make more informed decisions. No one’s telling you not to go to grad school or to do a different program or to, to get better with your goals. But talking to other people can encourage you in new ways that you might not have even thought of yet.

I know that talking with other people in grad school was massively helpful for me. I met a lot of people online who helped me not only choose what classes were gonna be most beneficial, but they helped me with actually talking to professors and standing up for myself when I needed it.

If I didn’t have community and grad school, I definitely would not have been as successful. And I wish that I had the productivity and time management skills that you were teaching, because I think that could’ve been really helpful to me. I am a procrastinator and I know it [laughs].

That kind of action based and accountability based thing that you were talking about grad students, if you’re listening, sign up for that mailing list and check out those videos, because it’s going to be so helpful for you. Be sure to get your copy of #GradBoss. Pick up your copy of that handbook to help you get through that first year of graduate school.

Toyin, I’m so glad you joined me for this interview. How can people get in touch with you afterwards? What’s your handle on social media?

Toyin: I am on Instagram @TheAcademicSociety_. That’s where all the grad school stuff is. But if you are already an academic and possibly thinking about having your own business, I talk about more personal stuff and more business-y stuff @DrToyinAlli.

Jennifer: Great! Thanks for sharing that with me Toyin, and have a great rest of your day. This has been an awesome interview.

Toyin: Thank you so much!

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Bio for Dr. Toyin Alli

Toyin Alli, PhD of the University of Georgia on The Social Academic blog and podcast

Toyin Alli (@TheAcademicSociety_) is a McNair Scholar who received her PhD in Mathematics from the University of Alabama. She is now a full time Senior Lecturer at the University of Georgia. Toyin started The Academic Society LLC to help graduate students succeed in grad school through time management, productivity, and self-care. She reaches thousands of grad students through her digital programs, online social platforms, YouTube channel, and website.

Interviews Resources for Grad Students The Social Academic

Jennifer van Alstyne View All →

Jennifer van Alstyne is a Peruvian-American poet and communications consultant. She founded The Academic Designer, LLC to help professors, researchers, and graduate students manage their online presence. Jennifer’s goal is to help people share their work with the world.

Check out her personal site at https://jennifervanalstyne
or learn more about the services she offers at https://theacademicdesigner.com

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