Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

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How to Meet with your Advisor

Conference_de_londresSo, I’m on sabbatical. OK, you know. And, I’ve been having meetings with students over SkyFaceGoogleHangoutTimepe. And, I have to say that, while it is frustrating to be 3000 miles away from the lab which has definitely led to some problems, in general, my individual meetings with students have gotten… better. We have every-other-weekly individual one-on-one meetings, and the students are coming more prepared and more focused than they ever did when I was there in person (exceptions abound, of course). I can speculate all day about the reasons this may be happening, but the fact that it is happening has exposed some best-practices for having meetings with your advisor. I will describe those best practices here, but before I do, I would like to point to a couple posts of related interest including: Effective Meetings, StateOfLab, mentoring.

Bring your notebook: I can’t tell you the number of times I am meeting with a student and I ask a question about their work, results, protocol, and they say, I can’t remember. My response is: no shit. OK, not really. I say that in my head. See, that isn’t surprising because you aren’t supposed to remember everything. That is what a lab notebook is for. The beauty of having a lab notebook is that you don’t need to remember. Indeed, relying on your memory will get you in huge, huge trouble, because our memories are faulty, not everything makes it into long-term memory, and you can only remember about 7 things in your short-term. When the student says they can’t remember, I usually ask if they wrote it in their notebook. That elicits a response of, “oh yeah!” At this point, it is prudent to go get your notebook, but this whole time-sucking activity can be avoided if the student would just bring their notebook to every meeting. So, always bring your notebook to the meeting.

Bring your data: In addition to your notebook, it is best to bring your data with you. Most data nowadays is electronic, so that means bringing your laptop and hard drive. Many labs have some sort of intranet or server to share data. If you upload your data to that well-before the meeting, it will be uploaded and can be downloaded in a timely manner. You may have a lot of data, so you might need to pre-sort. Don’t spend time at the meeting clicking open random files to find the right one. You should have noted before hand in your notebook interesting and remarkable data sets. Also, make sure you have characteristic data sets. It always happens that some look “better” than others, but you should also show the “quintessential” data set. Maybe you are past the raw data part, but there will still be things to show. Show your analysis method. Show your analyzed data. Describe how you calculated the error bars. If the data is a distribution, is it Gaussian? What functional form does the data fit to? Is that reasonable? What is the goodness of fit? Your advisor should not only know how you did this, they should want to know. If you make a mistake, they can catch it early and help you correct it. That is always preferable to finding out after submitting the paper, accepting the paper, or publishing the paper!

Be prepared: Bringing your notebook and data are a part of being prepared for your meeting. But, they are not the only way to be prepared. You should have an idea of what you want to talk about. Do you want to show off your amazing data? Do you have a question about how to analyze your data? Are you worried that a recent experiment isn’t replicating the first couple of experiments properly? Have a list of topics and questions you need to address with your advisor. And make sure you understand how you got the data you are showing. All the questions I describe about data above are things you should be prepared to discuss. Again, you do not need to memorize these things, but be able to quickly locate them in your notebook or within your computer.

Take notes: I can’t tell you how many times I have been talking to a student and giving the most brilliant, insightful information about their work, and then I say, “You got that?” And they look at me, with no pen in hand, no notebook open, no ability to write or recall the rainbows of knowledge I just spewed from my brain. Actually, many times, I diagram things on the white board when I am talking. In a sense, I am taking notes – or making notes, but these are written from my perspective. It is far better if the student takes their own notes. We can always take a picture of the board, and you can paste it in your notebook, but my hieroglyphics might not make sense next week or next month. Best to take your own notes and paste the board in under.

Actively listen – restate and seek confirmation: For any conversation where you want to make sure that all parties are understanding, it is always best to use active listening. This is where you basically double check that you are on the same page. You should restate their ideas or instructions in your own words, and seek confirmation  for what you understand to be the sentiments of the other parties. This is important to do in any conversation, but especially one where instructions are being given or you truly need to ensure that you do the right thing.

Prioritize: Before you leave the meeting, it is best that you prioritize your plan of action and double check that is the right priority for your advisor, too. All too often, a student leaves the office with a long list of action items, but no priority on how to attack them. Best to check the priority before you leave to make sure you are working on the right thing first on the list.

When working from a distance, I have found that, in addition to the things described above, a few extra things are needed.

Send protocols: Because I cannot look at your notebook, I need some information on how you did your assay. I have found with several students over the past semester that I thought I was helping to troubleshoot why their experiments weren’t working. They told me, verbally, what they were doing, but I couldn’t see the notebook or what they were actually doing. The advice I gave them turned out to not help at all. After a couple weeks, and several failed attempts to fix things, I realized that I needed more information on what they were doing. Turns out, the affirmative statements they made when I asked how they were doing their experiments were not the whole story. What I was really lacking was the protocol of how they were doing their experiments. Luckily, all the students were actually taking good notes and using printed protocols. (There is no helping someone who doesn’t write anything down!) Once I got the protocol, I realized why all my advice wasn’t working. The protocols were completely effed. Much of this was either a new protocol or a specific variation of a worked out protocol that drifted way out of the bounds of reasonable. Most of the time, the student was doing something that was fundamentally “unstable” such as pipetting 0.2 ul or something equally prone to uncertainty.

Send slides: Because I cannot look at all your data, it is best when students send a powerpoint with representative data and analyzed data. Most of my students have gotten used to this, because I usually have weekly group meetings where everyone presents every week and they have to have one slide each (meetings, meetings). Unfortunately, sometimes this means they only send me one slide, but it is better than no slides.

Share your screen: Another way to effective communicate and share data and knowledge is to share your screen with your student. I have done this several times, especially when showing a student a new data analysis. But, the students can also do that with me to share data. When doing this, the same rules as above for bringing and pre-selecting the data need to be done. A word of caution – when using GoogleHangouts, you must pick the application, and you can only share that application – it is annoying. Skype is better at this.

Let me re-iterate: Take Notes! Actively listen! It is so much more important for the student to take notes and to check what you heard when the advisor is a little head on a screen. Once, during my sabbatical, I was talking to a student. As I was vomiting pearls of wisdom, the student looked up and said, “Wait! I need my notebook to take notes!” The student ran out of the room to grab the notebook, and began scribbling furiously upon returning. Of course, I didn’t say anything about the notebook, because I had no idea that the notebook wasn’t there. I could tell that notes weren’t being taken, but it didn’t occur to me to say anything. Since that time, this student has never forgotten their notebook again at an online meeting. A lot of the follow-up I have been doing has been taking pictures of my notebook where I took notes and sending that. Often those notes are multi-colored and with illustrations.

So, this is what I have come up with. But, I am sure I am missing something. If so, post here with a comment!! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Work Life Balance – Not Just Kids

ScorpionMamaAt a recent women in science luncheon, we were talking about panels and sessions at women-centric meetings. One of the women complained that all the talk about work-life balance revolved around when to have kids, but she wasn’t ready to think about kids. That makes sense, because she was an undergraduate student. Most grad students aren’t even ready to think about kids or know if they even want them. They complained that the sessions and panels about babies were missing the point for her and were annoying and a waste of time. This is a very good point, and I want to address a different kind of work-life balance in this post – one that is specifically pointed to younger people.

Before that, I do want to defend the baby-mongering of many women’s issue forums. Why are we so obsessed with babies as the only form of work-life balance that needs to be discussed? Here are my personal thoughts (and I welcome all others to comment).

  1. Preparing you. Having a baby is a lot of work and much of that work specifically falls to women. Having a baby is a medical condition that NO MAN will ever face or understand. It starts very early with morning sickness and fatigue for many women. You continue to have crazy medical issues that are routinely checked with medical appointments. The event of having the baby concurs with a hospital stay and a surgery for many women. And then there is a long recovery afterwards. I felt like I was hit by a truck after delivering my first kid. Couple that with postpartum sleeplessness, learning curve, and perhaps even depression, and this is basically a year-long, or more, medical condition. WomenOfScience who have gone through it want to prepare others for this condition. So, they want to help you with these sessions. I am sure after that description, you will never want to have a baby!
  2. Letting you know that you can do it. Having a family is often cited by women as a main driver for their leaving STEM fields. Since many women “know” they want to have kids – just not the specifics of when, where, and with whom – the thought that a life in STEM is at odds with having them is enough to drive many women away. So, the point of these panels is to convince you that you can have children and still be a WomanOfScience. Wouldn’t it be weird if we had sessions for men about being a dad and staying in science. For a funny twitter account along those lines, I recommend: @manwhohasitall. Funny stuff.

So, what kind of work-life balance do young people need? Many older people with kids might say, “You should work all the time! It’s not like you have kids to take up your time.” A lot of my friends without kids hate it when people with kids say that kind of thing, and it is no less annoying to young people. So, if I had to do it all over again, here is what I would do (BTW – as I was writing this, I realized that I already did most of these things and had fairly good work-life balance even as an undergraduate).

  1. Basics. You need to get your basics covered for your health. There are four things you need to do to be healthy and balanced as a young person:
    • Sleep. I know this is hard to do. You have 4-5 classes and each demands a lot of time to devote. STEM classes are notoriously bad about this. Sometimes it seems like professors think that their class is the only one in the world. If there is a perfect storm of lab reports, term papers, and midterms, it can be hard to get a good amount of sleep. But, you really need to try. It is so important to help you to remember and make new connections. This is what you need to actually learn something. You are in college, doing a science major to learn, right? How can you learn, if you never give your brain time to process and cool down? When I was your age, I slept ~8 hours per night. I only pulled one all-nighter in all of undergraduate – for studying. (I pulled other all-nighters for fun – see below). I would have all sorts of dreams about science and math. I once dreamed my legs were test tubes when I was taking organic chemistry. These crazy dreams were my brain’s way of processing the science I was learning.
    • Eat. Along with sleeping, eating regularly and healthily is essential to your learning. Why? The brain uses up a large amount of your calories each day. You know when you have low blood sugar, and you can’t process and you might even get “hangry” (hungry + angry)? That is because you actually do not have enough calories for your brain to function properly. Your higher-order functions that control your impulses and emotions go bye-bye, and you snap at people. Your brain uses a ton of fuel, and is the number one user of calories. So, you need to feed it often with good food. A large number of undergraduates don’t go to lunch, or eat breakfast. They substitute caffeine for food. This is not good for you, and it really won’t work. You need to eat. Schedule your lunch and dinner times. Breakfast is a lifestyle choice, but you will be low of fuel in the morning. When I was in college, I did a good job of eating lunch and dinner every day. I did schedule it. I also often ate a late snack and went without a significant breakfast. That was a choice I made, and you have to do what is right for you. I could do that, because I was more of a morning person. I needed less uppers in the morning than in the evening to get work done. Food is an upper.  BTW – your brain can survive on both protein and carbohydrates. If you need to fast for some reason, it will take 4 days for your brain to switch from incoming fuel to using your own stored fat to function. You will be very stupid for 4-5 days, so do not do anything drastic or important!
    • Exercise. I am super impressed by the number of undergraduates I see regularly going to the gym. I totally didn’t do this when I was an undergraduate, so me telling you to do this is a bit hypocritical.  Anyway, it would have been good, if I had done this.
    • Bathe. OK, I know it sounds weird to have to tell adults to shower, but the number of scientists and engineers who are too stinky to stand next to is alarming. So, for the love of yourself and everyone else around you, please take showers (and wash your clothes) regularly.
  2. Explore, try, have fun.
    • Try new stuff. When you are an undergrad you should make time to try new things. This is one of the times in your life where people expect you to try new stuff. Do you like sushi? How do you know if you never tried? If you don’t give yourself the opportunities to try new stuff, you will never know what you like and do not like. How can you decide to go to grad school and devote yourself to a life of science if you haven’t ever done anything else? I used to DJ on the college radio station and go to see shows with my friends. I also programmed events for campus. It was fun, and I met a lot of people outside of science I never would have known who were super awesome. After trying those things, I decided I didn’t want a job in the music industry, and wanted to stick with science, but at least I knew there were other things out there. College is also where I tried Thai food for the first time (it wasn’t as common back then) and learned to dance like a mod.
    • Take a day off every week. In college, I tried (and mostly succeeded) to take one day off each week. It was usually a Saturday or Sunday. I wouldn’t work on problem sets or read for Japanese literature class. I would just hang out, go into town, catch a movie with friends. The other day of the weekend, I had my nose in a book working on problem sets for my science and math classes, so I would have them mostly done before our week-night study sessions. But I always took one day to relax and try new stuff. When classes and midterms got to be too much, I would work on that day of rest, and I would always turn into a raving bitch for the next week because I never relaxed and destressed. I actually still try to do this even now. It is very important for my psyche to have a day to lounge around and goof off with my family.  Starting these habits early help to cement them in later.
    • Who are you? Most importantly about all this is being open to exploring who you are and what you want. If you think you might be someone who wants a significant other in their life, the first step is knowing who you are and what you want in life. In order to know yourself, you have to try things and figure it out. Once you know yourself and what you want to do and what you want out of life, then you are ready to get to know someone else to share your life. Typically, the best relationships are between people with the same values and want the same things out of life. If you are the jealous type, you probably should: 1. know that about yourself, and 2. not date someone who is into open-relationships.  If you never want kids, you should probably: 1. know that about yourself, and 2. make sure your significant figure agrees with that.

I hope this was helpful. And to the young women out there: yes, there is way more to work-life balance than having kids. Half of work-life balance is having a life. So, go out, explore and determine who you are and what you want out of life.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? Comment or post here! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

What NOT to Wear – Academic Interview Edition

suit-blackOK, it is still interview season. We are having candidates come through, and frankly I am surprised sometimes at what people are wearing. BTW: This post is for the men. My field is male-dominated and most of our candidates are men (~1 token woman per short list). This year, I have seen some real bombs when it comes to what people are wearing to interviews. This is pretty ridiculous because it is SOOOOO easy for men. So, what should you wear?


Just go buy a suit. Buy it at a good department store. Get it tailored. Yes, it is expensive. But, if you get a faculty job, you will make more money, and buying a good suit will have been worth the investment. Plus, you will have a suit to wear to weddings and such, so just buy a decent suit.

Wear the suit on the most important day (when you give your job talk). For the next day, get a sport jacket and slacks – they can be separates like a blue blazer and khaki pants.

Should you wear a tie? That depends. I am OK with or without a tie. Some older folks think a tie is more important. Some fields might think it weird if you wore a tie. It is your call. You still need a suit. Get the suit.

Do not wear:

  1. Jeans. I don’t care how nice they are or what designer. Don’t do it. NO! No jeans. It looks like you don’t even care.
  2. A sweatshirt, hoodie, or any other similar type of clothing article. This is worse than jeans.
  3. Tennis shoes. Do not do it. Wear loafers, leather shoes. They can be brown or black or something more flashy, if you have a personality. Especially do not wear white tennis shoes.
  4. White socks. Invest in dark colored socks. Don’t wear a dark suit with white socks.
  5. A t-shirt. Come on. DO I have to say it. t-shirts can be worn under button-up shirts or sweaters. No t-shirts and especially nothing with words.

For the women: I have never once seen a poorly dressed woman candidate. They wear pant suits (full suit or separates), suits with a skirt and nylons, button-down shirts, good shoes. We might be a bit obsessed with this because it is often harder for us to determine exactly what is right.

I have had people ask me, when I give this advice: Why does it matter what I wear? I’m a creative scientist. I should be able to wear whatever I want. 

My answer: Yes, when you are a faculty and have a job, you can mostly wear what you want. And, if it OK to show your personality on your interview. But, being a professor is NOT about doing whatever you want. You must be a team player and serve on committees. You must teach. You may have a set curriculum that you have to teach. You have to write grants and these have A LOT of RULES. Even submission of papers has rules. Showing that you understand social standards of how to dress when shows that you can follow social norms. You will be able to get along with others. You will be able to follow the rules. We do want someone creative – but not off the rails.

Other issues that are becoming more frequent:

  1. Tattoos. Older individuals see tattoos as a taboo thing for Hell’s Angels Biker Gangs, but young people have tattoos. I say don’t over-expose, but no need to hide. If you have a face tattoo, you might be screwed, but something nerdy and medium-sized on your arm can be covered
  2. Piercings. Are they in ears? Probably OK, but you might want to remove for the interview if you are a man. Remember that many of the people interviewing you are older and of a generation when men did not have such things. If it is in your face (eyebrow, nose, tongue) – definitely remove it.
  3. Facial hair. Trim it to look neat. I know that steam punk handlebar mustaches and mountain man beards are in, but tame it for your interview. Also, get a hair cut. Manscape and make sure you don’t have crazy eyebrow hairs and nose hairs. People notice this stuff. Believe me. We notice.

Overall, I think you want to look like you are trying. It is a good thing to care. I want someone to join my department who has a clue and who cares. I don’t actually care how smart you are. I care more about if you can do good science and work with others.

So, what do you think? Is this advice sound? Post of comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Daily Choices

GoodSenseCorsetWaists1886page153I read an interesting article from another science blogger, Rigoberto Hernandez, on his blog EveryWhereChemistry. He had a recent interesting blog entry about what to spend your time on daily, where he compared the choices to Horcruxes and Hallows. Please go to read it. But, it got me to thinking about the different types of tasks we have presented to us daily, and the choices we make. The specific tasks depend on what level you are at, but the fact that you have to make the choices never changes.

Graduate School: In graduate school the choices should be easier, but they still exist. Should you attend that friend’s defense, or work on your paper? Should you take more data today, or analyze the data you already got, but aren’t sure if it worked? Should you spend a few months learning how to program to make your data analysis automated, or should you analyze it by hand to get it out faster, and will it really be faster?

Postdoc: As a postdoc, you are still focusing mostly on research, and you might have similar daily decisions similar to graduate school. Presumably, you figured out which are the right choices to keep advancing. As a postdoc, especially if you are fairly good, you are probably offered the ability to work on multiple projects. This can be very good for your career and your training. Good for your career because you could possibly get more papers out faster, which you need to get grants and get a job. Good for your training because as a faculty member, you will have to manage multiple projects that your students will work on. On a daily basis, you will have to decide which project to work on. Maybe you already tackled this issue as a senior graduate student, but postdocs are usually given more responsibility and more projects than graduate students. With multiple projects comes all the same decisions as on individual graduate projects, except multiplied.

Pre-tenure: Starting this job is like jumping into cold water. Now you have to teach, manage, write/obtain grants, initiate new research, train students, and on and on. That makes your daily choices so much harder. Should you spend your time working on your new class, writing a review article, writing a grant, working on research, meeting with students? The myriad of choices are endless. I would often divide the days into halves or 2-hour chunks and work on one thing for a set time before moving on to the next thing.

Post-tenure: If you made it past tenure, presumably you spent your time doing the right thing to achieve tenure – congratulations. With tenure comes a relaxation of the pressure to do what you have to do in favor of being able to do what you want to do.  So, what will you do? What will you choose to do each day? Somedays I find myself just putting out fires – doing a lot of things that are urgent but not important. Other days, I opt to work in the lab with students when I probably should be writing that next grant. The daily choices are a bit harder when you don’t have the pressure or the excuse of looming tenure. It is harder to say no or to prioritize the way you did before. You often get piled upon with more service and larger teaching loads. Unlike at the other stages, when you are still trying to make it, there is less advise for this stage, so you try to do the best you can, but are you making the right choice? Should I work on that paper to resubmit it to a new journal, or write that new grant, or work with that new student in the group?

I don’t know if I have advise here, since we all navigate these waters alone. What do you think? Any good ways to keep your priorities straight after tenure? Post or comment here. Follow this blog but hitting the +Follow button.

“Subtle” Harassment

DoorPinsMost harassment is not very subtle to women, but I realize that not everyone is as clued in and keyed up about it as I am. I was recently harassed, probably not on purposed or even pointed directly at me, but I inadvertently stumbled into some harassment, and I wanted to have a little talk about it. What to do, how to report, and make it clear to my male friends and advocates that this stuff is not just annoying, it affects us pretty much daily. So, I am going to post about “subtle” harassment – the pervasive kind that wears you down.

Chalk Board Harassment. In my career, I can clearly recall two instances of chalkboard harassment. In both cases, I literally walked into the harassment without warning. I reported the harassment to authorities, and nothing was done about it.

The first time, was in graduate school. I was TAing, and I had to use a photocopier to make copies for my class. The photocopier was in what I call a “party office” where many grad students have desks and work. It wasn’t really a party office in the sense that I never once saw a party or celebration occurring, but it was a “party” more like a “party line” for phone service in the olden days. You might also call it a “grad student ghetto,” which probably better captured the mood of the room. Anyway, this day, like many others, I went in to make my copies. The copier was directly in front of a 6 foot chalk board. This day, I looked up from the copier to see a 3-foot tall, very detailed drawing of a penis. I stopped my copying and went to the department office directly to the chairman, and actually got him to come to see the masterpiece. He actually took me seriously and came to see it for himself, but erased it immediately upon seeing it. He was quite harassed, as well as me. I informed him that it was this type of, well, not subtle, but pervasive harassment that scared women away from male-dominated fields.

Recently, now that I am a professor, a similar situation has occurred. On the chalkboard outside my lab and near my office, the word “penis” was written. This is certainly not as bad as the graphic drawn in gory detail when in grad school, but it is perhaps more troubling because it was drawn immediately next to some drawings my daughter (elementary-school age) had made on the same board. In fact, she wrote the word, “LOVE” and immediately next to it, was the offending word. Nice. As before, I informed the department chair and this time, I also took a picture and emailed it to the UniversityDiversityOffice who is responsible for following up such offenses.

A couple of things occurred to me about these two situations:

1. Why are dudes so obsessed with penises? Why not be obsessed with vagina? It is weird to me. Statistically speaking, some of the dudes in my department are likely to be homosexual. They don’t seem to be out. We do have an openly gay faculty-member, and there doesn’t seem to be overt homophobia in the department.  I could be wrong, but no student has come to discuss it with me.

2. I was surprised about how much more offended I was by the word in the second instance compared to the drawing in the first instance from grad school. I think it was because of the proximity in space and time to my daughter. It pissed me off that they defiled some nice drawings and lovely writings that were clearly done by a child. My child.

3. Finally, in the same note as number 2, I couldn’t help thinking that they had targeted my space in the department. In the first instance in grad school, the picture was in a closed office and was more likely not targeted at me. Yes, there were other women in that office, and they were the likely targets of the harassment, but it wasn’t targeted at me. But, this second version felt targeted because the board is right between my office and lab. That made me feel badly, too.

Everyday Stuff. Last week, there was a particularly horrific situation on the campus at UCSB, and I am sure most blogs dealing with women’s issues are mentioning something about it. The misogynistic rantings of the shooter are worrying to any woman who works in science, particularly some fields that are male dominated. Scary.

One of the topics that was described in the commentary of the “Yes, All Women” trend was women trying to explain that we often feel uncomfortable in situations, even everyday situations, because of the very real threat of men. One of my favorite comedians has a particularly clear view of this idea (See a video here).

After the women comments, there was a backlash with the tagline “Not All Men,” where dudes were trying to say, “Hey we aren’t all like that!” but as many women pointed out, WE CAN’T TELL WHO IS OR WHO ISN’T LIKE THAT. You all look the same to us.

Here’s a hypothetical: Let’s say 1% of men are like that. Now, you are a woman running a class of 400 students where only 20% are women. So, you are in a classroom with 320 men, and 1% are women-haters – that is 3-4 woman-haters are in the room with you.  Not that many, but enough to harass and demean you, if they sought to do so. I have talked to women who have been physically intimidated by male students in classes with these types of numbers. The students physically get into their personal space and demand differential treatment. I, personally, don’t let students get near me. I have a very large personal space bubble. But even so, there are other ways to cause trouble.

Outside of classroom situations, I have tried to notice my reactions to other, regular, situations in the past week. I have noticed that I make certain decisions about myself because of a fear of men. Let me give you two examples.

1. I was at the gym with HusbandOfScience. I wanted to stretch in the area near the mirrors. There were two men in the area – basically taking up all the room in the area in front of the mirror. There was just enough space between them for me to fit, but I didn’t do it at first. Why? I was afraid of them. Not deathly afraid, but wary enough to avoid. I decided that the likelihood that these two guys were both bad guys was low, statistically speaking. I was right. They were fine – just taking up more than their fair share of space, as men often do unconsciously (Not All Men).

2. I was taking my child into daycare. Normally, I park right at the front door, but there wasn’t room, so I had to park half way down. At the far end of the parking lot was a group of men. They laughed when I got my kid out of my car, and it made me sort of flinch. I noticed that I was wary of them. I went to drop my kid. After coming back to the car, I took a closer look, and I realized that they were latino, and that made me feel safer. Statistically speaking, dudes who hate women are white. (Sorry to my white men friends – I realize it isn’t all white men, but stats are stats.)

So, here is my say. The WomanOfScience addition to the #YesAllWomen movement. What do *you* think? Comment or post. Push the +Follow button to receive an email every time WomanOfScience posts.

Advice for International Students

chemistryTis the season for graduate admissions. Many of the applicants at UniversityofState (UState) where I am a faculty member are foreign. Some of these clearly have a lot of coaching and help, but others are clearly lacking. So, I have asked an International WomanOfScience for some advice on getting to US schools and ultimately an academic position from your CountryOfOrigin. Enjoy! (Remember, you can get email updates by pushing the +Follow button).

About me: I got my B.S. in Physics at a small-ish university in a warm foreign country. While an undergraduate, I participated in two summer research programs in the U.S., and I spent one year as an exchange student at a prestigious university in the midwest where I was also involved in undergraduate research. I attended graduate school in a very cold state, and I am now an Assistant Professor at a primarily undergraduate institution in the U.S.

As an international Science student, you should follow the same advice given to all students: keep up your grades and get involved in undergraduate research.

Two of the main challenges international students have in being admitted to graduate school in the U.S. are that the admissions committee may have a hard time judging the quality of the undergraduate institution you attended, and grades may be reported differently on transcripts. The best way to show the admissions committee that you can be a successful graduate student in the U.S. is to prove that you can be a successful undergraduate student in the U.S. Look for opportunities to come to the U.S. as an undergraduate for a summer or a semester. There are few summer research experiences open to non-U.S. citizens or residents, but they do exist. For example, there is the Internship for Physics Majors at Fermilab. Your home university may also have exchange programs, where you can spend a summer, a semester, or a year abroad. Even if you are part of a language program (like an ESL program) it may be possible to take a Science or Math class (it never hurts to ask!). If you do well in this class you will have demonstrated you are a capable student, and you could then ask the instructor for a letter of recommendation. A program like this has the added benefit of allowing you to figure out if you would enjoy living in the U.S. before you commit to coming here for 5 or more years.

PLAN AHEAD. It may take longer to gather all of the necessary materials for your application:

TranscriptsSome (most?) U.S. institutions will require an official translation of your transcript. At the university I attended, this took quite a long time (4 – 6 weeks).

The TOEFL, GRE and GRE subject tests: Depending on where you live, you may have to travel to a major city to take these tests, and they may not be offered very often. Thus, it is very important that you register early and plan your trip so that you can take the tests before the deadline for graduate school applications.

Paying for Application Processing:Some institutions in the U.S. charge an application fee and some do not. Most of the institutions that charge an application fee accept major credit cards. It is worth calling your bank and inquiring about the currency exchange rate and any extra fees for foreign transactions.

Other costs:In Science, most graduate schools will offer you a teaching assistantship, research assistantship, or fellowship, that will cover your tuition, health insurance, and provide a (small) salary. Make sure you understand exactly what each university is offering and how your salary compares to the cost of living. In addition to moving costs, you will probably have to put one or two month’s deposit down to rent an apartment, there might be university fees that are not covered as part of your “tuition,” and co-pays or a deductible on your health insurance. Also, some U.S. cities have very good public transportation, but others do not, which makes it difficult to live without a car.

VISA issues:These have been numerous in my case. It is probably best to contact the university’s International Student office and/or your local U.S. embassy. You should also try to understand as much about the system and the laws as possible – don’t trust that all of the advice you get is good, or even correct. Once you are in the U.S. make sure you take originals and copies of all relevant documents with you when you travel abroad.

The hidden curriculum:Your goal in graduate school should be not only to master a particular sub-field and conduct original research, but also to become a professional in your field. You need to think ahead to what you want to do after graduate school and look for opportunities that will help get you there. For example, if you want to go into industry, an internship could give you valuable experience and contacts. If you want to go into academia, your university might have a program that helps graduate students and post-docs explore and prepare for possible career paths (research institution vs. liberal arts vs. community college). You should try to regularly attend conferences, both locally (like your state’s Association of Science Teachers) and nationally. In any case, you will need letters of recommendation from several faculty members, so be well-prepared when it is your turn to present a seminar, be on-time for meetings and classes, and when you say you are going to do something, DO IT! In other words, treat graduate school like you would a job and behave professionally.

Culture Shock: There will certainly be differences between your own culture and american culture that you will need to be aware of, but there is also a culture to your particular field. What I found most helpful in graduate school in this regard was mentoring from other graduate students that were a few years ahead of me. If there is a graduate student group at your institution, make time to go to events and meetings, talk to the other students there about their experiences, and ask for advice.

What did I miss? Feel free to post questions in the comments.

I hope you found that post helpful! I am sure this WomenOfScience would be happy to answer questions in posts, so feel free to ask here. Thanks again for that insightful post.

Writing Letters of Recommendation

Power of WordsSorry for the delay in posting, but grading, the holiday, and trying to get a paper submitted caught up with me. I just had an email asking for mentoring on how to write letters of recommendation for graduate admissions and REUs and even a few for faculty jobs. After answering that email, I had a lot of fodder for a post, so here it is. Think of this as a possible outline for how to write a letter of recommendation. Hopefully it will help make sure we are including everything we should to give a complete picture of the student for the recommender. I am sure I am missing something from here, so please add any other suggestions for important parts or items by comment or post!

1. Use letterhead. Is this obvious? Maybe, but it is probably still worth mentioning. Best to make up a letterhead in Word or LaTex with the school seal and your information instead of trying to print onto letterhead. Also, it is good to have a scan of your signature to add to the bottom.

2. Introduction. Like other forms of writing letted of recommendation need an introduction. An obvious way to write is to introduce yourself and say you are excited to write this letter of recommendation for Student X. Then, you can say in what capacity you know student X: as the research advisor, as the student’s instructor in a course? as some other type of mentor or advisor? You should probably also say how long you have known the student in this capacity. Some of my research students were also students in the courses I have taught, so I  have to describe both.

If the student is from a class you taught, describe the class. Was it required for the major? Was it an advanced elective? Was it a lab course that would showcase research skills? What was the level of difficulty of the course?

If the student was a research student in your group, describe the research of your lab in general.

3. The student’s performance. In the second paragraph, I describe the performance of the student in the capacity that I know them. For a course, I list the student’s ranking in the course (i.e. “this student was in the top 3 of the 53 students in the course, earning 93% of the total points for the course”). For many of my students, I have interacted with them personally in class, in homework sessions (office hours), and outside of class activities. I describe the student’s  hard work, dedication, and scientific ability and intelligence, as I saw it from these interactions. I use specific examples to make my points and as evidence for my opinions. For instance, I might say, “Student Y had exceptional ability in the course, which I noticed during in class small group work and during homework sessions. In particular, Student Y was the first one to complete assignments and was often able to describe the solution clearly to her classmates to enable them to learn the material, as well.”

For a research student, I describe the student’s specific research project in the group in my words. The student should have also described their research in their own words, and these two descriptions should match up, more or less. The student’s description is often less precise than mine, but it is important that the person reading the recommendation has an idea of what the student was meant to accomplish. As for a student from a course, I describe the student’s work ethic, dedication, and scientific ability to do research using specific examples to back up my personal claims about the student. This is easy for a successful student who has a publication or has attended a national meeting and presented there, as there is direct evidence of success in research that is verifiable. For students who are not quite at that level, I use examples from the lab where I interacted with the student to demonstrate the student’s abilities. Why use examples? Our only way to assess future performance is based on past performance, at this point.

Interestingly, recent studies have shown that personality tests or “employment tests” can accurately assess a person’s ability to do a certain job (see recent story from NPR). As far as I know, these tests have not been tested for success in graduate school in science, but it would be an interesting thing to look at – maybe some Discipline Based Education Researcher should test this out? The benefit of these tests is that they remove inherent biases of “knowing someone who knows someone” and biases against certain genders and races. Kind of like when they started doing blind auditions for orchestras and realized that women and minorities can play just as well as white dudes. Also, these don’t have the same issues as Subject GREs, which are terrible for women, minorities, and people from SmallLiberalArtsColleges. Just FYI.

4. Personality and Social Skills. For each student, I try to describe the personality traits of the student that demonstrate an ability of the student for the position being applied for. I also point out the other non-scientific skills the student possess that will make him/her successful at the next level. Some important personality traits include: work ethic, perseverance and determination, follow-through (completing tasks), anxiety, niceness, etc. Some examples of important social skills include: ability to work in groups, ability to learn from mistakes, ability to take direction, ability to express oneself  in oral presentation, ability to write scientifically, ability to represent data graphically, ability to lead and mentor others. I know that some people shy away from discussing personality, or only discuss it for females and not males, but I include it for all because it is an important consideration when hiring or bringing in someone. If their personality is not a good fit, the person may ultimately  fail even if they are the smartest person in the application pool. Fit is important and social skills are important – not just if the person is a genius.

5. Personalization for each school. Some people think this is ultra important. But, if you are like me, and you have 4-5 students applying to 20 graduate schools each, that is way, way too much work. I might personalize a few if I particularly know people at the school, but for the most part, I just make it general. For faculty positions I always personalize every letter, and it takes forever, but you have to do it.

I am sure there is something I usually add, but haven’t included here. So what did I forget? Post or comment to fill in the gaps.

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