Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for October, 2013

Beginning Grad School

Graduate School Blues

Graduate School Blues (Photo credit: ChiILLeica)

Fall is the time of new beginnings. For many that means starting at a new position such as grad school. This is a big transition. The following post is from a women who just started grad school. Enjoy!

My first week at the university where I was going to spend the next 4-6 years I went through what I would call “academic shock”. Now we all go through it whenever we change our level of education: elementary school to middle school to high school to college. Every time we are scared to death of change or the unknown and walk around with our eyes bugged out bigger than a Panic Pete Squeeze Doll. For some reason though I was sort of annoyed that I was being squeezed again at age 22 (and getting lost on campus countless times despite a map…). I remember telling my boyfriend (who is in graduate school already) that, “I’ve been through this, I’ve done the drill, why does it all feel new again and I feel so unprepared?” He smiled and said, “It’s different. You have no safety net like as an undergraduate. You typically don’t know anyone [like high school friends going to the same college] and this time there’s less people in your boat so you really do feel alone.” My first reaction was to make fun of how “good” at consoling he is but he really did have a valid point where it made me stop and think. When it came to the other “academic shocks” you did it with an entire class. My classes of 2009 and 2013 were all Panic Pete Dolls right along with me. This time there were only two other Ph.D. students in different rotating labs on different floors or in different buildings. Everyone I had met so far had been incredibly nice and open but they had their lives set where I was feebly trying to construct mine.

So you are probably wondering where the positive advice comes into all this right? It’s week three for me so I don’t have all the answers yet but I have found some basic things that I think anyone would say are good pointers.

  1. Over the summer try to get in contact with your professor you’d like to rotate with at least once. Ask to meet people who you will work with in the lab and if you can go over project ideas or if they recommend any papers relating to overall lab goals. Take a genuine interest in what you’re doing early and you tend to have a little bit of a sanctuary in your lab before you get there. I knew a few people before I actually started my semester so when I got a lab bench next to one of them I didn’t feel awkward talking to them or asking questions. Also if you hadn’t during your visit the first time to the school, be sure to try to ask people what classes they recommend and what helped them in their research.
  2. Read, read, read! I don’t mean once you get to your first week of school. I mean if you have a general idea of what you’ll be doing for research the first semester, read over the summer. Don’t go in blind, you are continuing your education for a reason and to be honest it’s not undergrad life anymore, it’s a job. I read two review papers and two research-related papers three weeks before school to get an idea of what the lab was like.
  3. Obviously be yourself. You are here for 4-6 years, they will find out eventually and there’s no point in trying to deal with the stress of a charade on top of all your other responsibilities. You are allowed to not know everything in your field and you are most definitely allowed to be as silly, serious, funny, awkward, charming or whatever quality you have to the uttermost you.
  4. If you have an interest, ask about it. I don’t mean about your field, you’ll have plenty of time to ask those questions too. I immediately began asking students and faculty about my three favorite topics: food, music, and hockey. Not only am I genuinely interested in these things, but then I can also get a feel for what other people have interests in. I have found so far no one in my department likes hockey, but hey, now I know not to invite certain people to those functions! Food and music are the best topics because not only are you finding out where to go but what kind of food people like and what music style. I like to think of it as “First Date” topics with your department. As soon as you find a mutual like you can do the awkward first date thing and ask for a second date… as in ask them to go with you to their favorite restaurant or get a group to check out some music that everyone seems to like. Don’t be Pepe Le Pew where you are throwing yourself at people without taking any social cues but what I’m basically getting at is welcome back to your freshmen year of college where you have to put an effort to make friends. If you are yourself and just casually ask people here and there to things you want to explore in the area I guarantee you will adjust very quickly.
  5. Other than it being mandatory (for most departments anyway), seminar is a great way to get to know your department and other research going on in your field or other fields. I know of at least three schools that have a lunch afterwards with the guest speaker and the other seminar attendees. Pay attention, take notes during the talk, and especially don’t be afraid to ask questions afterwards. I found so far that I am beginning to recognize faces and talking to more people in and out of my department after only three seminars.
  6. This is my last piece of advice but I find it most important above everything: Keep your sanity.

I see so many people not do this, and it’s very discouraging. Yes, graduate school is demanding and requires a lot of time, but balance is everything. Let me try to explain from an undergraduate perspective first. Before I went to graduate school, I was very lucky and had a boyfriend and a lot of friends already in graduate school. I was given plenty of advice from Masters and Ph.D. students and the most repeated thing I heard was, “Make time for you, because I didn’t and I wasn’t happy for most of my time here.” There was one girl I talked to at a friend’s party who is a very successful Ph.D. student but she literally looked like the soul was sucked out of her and wasn’t even happy that she was finishing up that year after 5 years. Balance is key to everything in life but especially when you are in graduate school. It is easy to get wrapped up in your research, take work home, pull late nights, and go into the lab on the weekend etc. Obviously there will be times when you have to do that and there is nothing wrong with that either; however, also be sure not to burn out. So my graduate student perspective is this. What I have been doing is that on Sundays I go grocery shopping and do my errands so that on Monday after my courses and lab work I go home and have a cooking session. It’s a destressor for the beginning of the week: put on some fun music and cook out a menu for the week. This is great too because lunch and dinner are all set so I know I’m eating healthy and keeping up my energy for the next 7 days. Also I am trying to have one thing to look forward to every week, whether it’s a 2-hour show at some dive bar on a Thursday or a farmer’s market/festival on a Saturday or even a corny/fun department gathering. I still allow time to go into the lab if needed late at night or on the weekend but I also have something of my own too. I know people who will do a bike ride or go fishing at least once a week. Having something that is not work related is as important as doing well in work. I remember a professor once said to me, “Work as hard during the week as you play during the weekend”. If you can do that, you shouldn’t fall behind in graduate school or lose yourself either.

Truth be told, we can prepare all we want but to be human is, well, human. You submerse yourself into a new environment, new people who already have routines, new learning experiences as you acquaint yourself with your research, etc. You put yourself in a completely new life and if you’re not scared, you are doing it wrong. The good news is that if you look at graduate school as a fluid, fun, learning experience where you work as hard as you play, you will enjoy all the ups and downs it brings.

Hope you liked that story and thanks to the WomanOfScience contributor for writing. Would you like to post some advise?

Applying for Postdocs

Although the Fall is traditional application season, applying for postdocs can occur at any time. Unlike other jobs in academia that have start dates that coincide with semesters, postdoc start dates start when the money and the person coincide. You still have to apply for postdocs.

In my experience from the application side and the hiring side, are that hiring postdocs are extremely flexible and somewhat informal. When I was looking for a postdoc, my husband already had a postdoc offer at FancyIvyLeagueUniversity. We didn’t want to be apart, and were both graduating with our Ph.D.s at the same time. So, I had a targeted place to go for my postdoc. I saw a FancyBigShotProfessor from FancyIvyLeagueUniversity at a conference, and I went up to him and told him that I needed a postdoc at his university. He invited me to give a talk at his group meeting. FancyIvyLeagueUniversity was across the country from UniversityofState where I was getting my Ph.D., so I bought a plane ticket and went up and down the coast giving the talk at a number of places set up by graduate student friends. By the time I gave the talk at FILU, I was very prepared. FancyBigShotProfessor invited two other FancyBigShotProfessors to my talk, and they offered me a position doing a joint project with them. I feel like this was all very fortuitous and lucky. Or was it shameless self-promotion and crazy networking at a conference?

From the other side, as a professor hiring postdoc, I am trying to figure out what I think about when hiring. First, I very carefully read the letters from the recommenders. I often even call the recommenders on the phone and ask very specific questions about what I need from a postdoc at that time. Next, if the application looks good, and the letters and recommenders gave me what I need to know, I will bring the person for an interview. In the interview, the person will give  talk on their research. Can he/she communicate science to a general audience? He/she will meet with me and other faculty members in the group close to my own research. Most importantly, the candidate will meet and possible have a meal with the members of the lab. This is a crucial part of the interview. I need to know if this person will get along with other people in the lab. Can he/she be a mentor to the younger members of the lab?

So, the basic application for a postdoc can be anything from virtually nothing, as in my case when I applied, to a true full-fledged application process, like how I hire postdocs. The full-fledged application involves your complete CV, a cover letter (can be an email), and 2-3 letters of recommendation from people who know your research well from your Ph.D. Some people just ask for the recommenders’ information, so the PI can call or ask for the letters via email.

Do you have advise or information on your postdoc application experience? If so, post, or write a comment!

How NOT to Apply to Graduate School

Here is another WomanOfScience’s story of her process of applying to graduate school.

My experience applying to graduate school probably has more examples of what not to do than what to do. The story starts the during the summer before my senior year of undergrad. I was on my way to Germany to participate in a “Research Internships in Science and Engineering” program sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service. I planned on using some of my time outside of lab to look into graduate programs online. When I arrived at my little apartment for the summer, I discovered there was no internet service. I would have to go to to internet cafe a few blocks down the street. I thought this would be only a slight change of plans. As soon as I got over my jet-lag, I realized that exploring a new country and watching soccer were much more interesting than looking into graduate programs.

Ten weeks later I returned to the U.S. to start my senior year of undergrad with no more inclination about where to go to graduate school, or even in what field. Some days, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go. Was going to grad school something that was just expected of me because I was a strong student? I suppose I did want to go based on a lack of interest in teaching high school (I didn’t want to deal with parents) and my lack of interest in a lab tech position (I wanted to be in charge). As far as what field, I had been considering three or four different ones, all STEM and somewhat related to each other, but this didn’t give me a lot of confidence in my ability to make this big a decision about my career. I felt like I was all over the place and casting my net too wide. Have you heard of the paradox of choice? Too many options makes a decision harder, rather than easier. That sums up the fall semester of my senior year pretty well. I told myself if I just dedicated a few minutes each day to looking at programs, I’d have a list of things I’d like to apply to in no time. On the days did manage to dedicate some time to looking at programs, those few minutes ended up being just before bed when I was already exhausted and stressed. Looking at yet another program’s website and becoming more confused quickly led me to believe I should just go to bed; I’d see something different, something that would make this decision easier if I only had fresh eyes. I went to bed, but often couldn’t sleep since I had gotten myself so stressed out.

At some point I decided this couldn’t go on. My first decision when it came to applying to graduate school was that I was only going to choose programs whose deadline was after January 1st so that I could work on application materials over winter break and not have to worry about them at the same time as final exams for the semester. I went through the programs I had bookmarked and just checked the application date. I was able to narrow them from who knows how many to about ten programs in three different fields. I also started sleeping a bit better, when I made time for that.

At home on Christmas break, at some point between singing carols and wrapping presents for my younger cousins I took out my list of ten schools and my dad’s atlas that guided all of the family road trips we took growing up. I looked at the likely outdated population suggestions and eliminated two schools because I couldn’t picture myself living in a big city. I actually thought I would have eliminated more programs this way.

Finally, once all the presents had been unwrapped and we said goodbye to family members, I was relaxed and had some time to think about the actual research and science in the programs remaining on my list. Only at this point was I able to take the advice from my professors and choose programs where I thought there were a few different faculty I would be interested in working for. Doing this for a list of eight was much more manageable than doing this from a list all of the programs out there. I chose five to apply to (there were still three different fields represented in my list), writing my personal essay about how my experience in Germany working with a graduate student mentor who was not confident in his English (generally, I understood him just fine) helped me realize the important role communication has in science and for this reason I was interested in pursuing a career in science policy. It’s now my fifth year of graduate school and I still have the same interest and career goals.

I emailed my undergraduate professors while they were also on break and asked for letters of recommendation just a week before the first deadline (really, don’t do this. Give your letter writers a lot more time than I did.) Before I left for winter break, I had warned them this would likely be the case, but couldn’t give them any details at that time. I started submitting my materials in mid January and sent in my last application just a few days into the spring semester.

By March I had found out that I was accepted into all five programs. Some people may tell you this is a sign that I didn’t push myself. Those “reach” schools were probably in bigger cities or had earlier application deadlines and were among those I had eliminated in my early rounds of decision making. Also by March, I had finally realized that one of the three fields had risen to the top, so I visited only the two programs in that field. After my visits, I took all the time I could deciding between them. Reputation, H-index, alumni employment, even time to graduation weren’t factors that I considered strongly. I chose the program where the faculty I met were more excited about their work and where the students I met seemed genuinely happier.

While I doubt it’s highly recommended, I view my path as a success. Given the chance, I would choose the same program again, just maybe not in the same way.

Have advise for someone else applying to graduate school, undergraduate, postdocs, or tenure track positions? Comment or post here!

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