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All the Small Things

Post from another WomanOfScience about some of the little things that drive us nuts as WomenOfScience. Enjoy!


Silverback (Photo credit: bergeycm)

I have a Departmental Dirty Little Secret (DLS). An ongoing source of discontent, a small sliver that festers and lies always just beneath the skin. It is not fatal but the “Silverbacks” (my term for the Male Sage Older Faculty) of the Department do not lean over and pull it out.

The Silverbacks agree “‘Tis a shame, how annoying,” they murmur as they pull their beards and stroke their pearls, but still. It is just a sliver (man up!).
“It will work its way out, in time, we have seen worse,” they say, “In our day they proclaim there was….”
But, it is infecting me, bit by bit.

Does each of us have a Department DLS? That small, shameful slight that we may read too much into due to convergence of where we are in time and space that is simply drawing our focus off research, or is an indication of something much worse that must be focused on and would be negligent not to?

Here is mine:
I have never had a graduate student from my program talk to me that I had not had in my courses as an undergraduate. They have never talked me about research, about serving on their committees or just about life. So, our undergrads have been socialized to see us, but why do we find this acceptable in a student coming into our graduate program from the outside?
I think it is a human resource issue as well, all these students are provided stipends. Not being seen is a direct loss of resources.
Worse, even our young DepartmentalGraduateStudents (DGS) is a Silverback in the making and already murmurs, “How unfortunate but what can be done?” Ahh, students, they will learn in time.

What is yours?

Here is my DLS: There is an older male faculty who runs much of the department including class assignments and committee assignments who constantly passes me over for leadership roles. My department gave me pretty much no committee assignments this year – the first year after I have tenure. This is supposed to be the year when they stop “protecting me” from service and really let you have it.  But, nope!

He even had to make  special effort not to give me a chairmanship of a committee. A crap committee that he doesn’t even care about! The department publicity committee! He gave the chair position to an Assistant Professor over me. I specifically asked to be given the chairmanship after the assignments were made, and he said “No.” I pointed out that other committees have chairmanships given to the senior person on the committee, which would be me. He said, “That’s not true.” I gave him several specific examples of when this was the case. He said, “No.” I then wrote him an email that said directly, “When you don’t give me leadership roles, it makes me feel like you don’t trust me, because I am a woman.” He still said “No.”

This Silverback – in the literal sense – is about to retire after Spring semester, so I am looking forward to a future without his presence in the department, but I can’t be lucky all the time.

So, what about you? Comment or post…

Yes You Can, But Sometimes You Should Not

I have mentored a lot of undergraduates in my few years as a professor. I counted them up. Just students in my lab, who actually did work in the lab – it’s over 50. If you include students I mentored outside of class in any way, the number soars to well-over 100. This is one of the really great parts of my job as a professor. I love interacting with students and mentoring them.

I teach at UniversityofSmallState, and my students are very different than how I was as a student at SmallLiberalArtsSchoolforWomen. USmallState is near two two SLAS4Women, and I sometimes get women students coming to try to do research with me. I am open to students coming, but taking a bus 1 hour 1 way is very trying, and it has not worked out well in most attempts to do research with these students during the semester (summer research has been fantastic). The women who I know from my SLAC4Women and from my local SLAC4Women are very hard working, driven, and talented. But,I notice, that they already, at 19 or 20 years old, are falling into the Trap of the SuperWoman. Just last week, I had to mentor a student on the fact that we all sometimes should say “no” even if we have to say no to ourselves.

This can be hard, because we know intellectually we can do this thing. It is true, you could, and you would be kiss-ass at it, if you had the time to devote to it. But, even as undergraduates, we cannot say yes to everything. We must prioritize. In the case of the female undergraduate science student I was mentoring, this created a great sense of turmoil. She felt as thought she failed. I want to point out that this student is in no way a failure, and frankly has way more going for her in the science, class, and research department than most students I interact with at USmallState. In particular, this student had more research under her belt than most graduate students by year 3 in their programs. So, she really didn’t need me to do research. My research was more of a burden for her. Despite me telling her this over and over, she still left convinced that she could add something more to her schedule (no!) and that it could be work at my lab over 1 hour away (double no!).

The Trap of the SuperWoman affects us all. Even at the professorial level. We have to make choices, but we are often not satisfied with those choices – even if we are doing what is best for us. We need to learn to make the decision and let go the alternative that we had to let go. There can be no what if. Sometimes this can lead to other bad feelings about yourself. Here is another example from an ExtremelySucessfulJustTenuredWoman at AmazingPrivateUniversity:

When you are an Assistant Professor, there are endless demands on your time.  Moreover, you are expected to do many things (e.g. mentor students in research, write grants, lecture) that you have little to no experience in. This combination means that you are bound to do a bad job on some of these things at least some of the time.  The Professors (that get tenure) are not crappy (all the time) at writing grants, conducting research and writing papers.  However, they are often notoriously bad at mentoring and/or lecturing.

I have chosen to be a crappy lecturer and underprepare for the classes I teach.  I thought this habit might change with tenure, but it hasn’t.  My heart is in the right place – i’d like to be able to be a good lecturer, I’ve had great lecturers and they have been the best teachers I’ve had.  But, I’m not naturally good at it and it would take a lot of practice to get better and I just have too many other things going on.  And, in the back of my head, I figure I have *decades* to get better so why rush it?

I usually prepare *just enough* – which means that I can scrape by and am not disorganized. But, if the students are inquisitive and ask questions, they scratch the veneer of my understanding and the whole thing falls apart.   Again, I have a lot of guilt because I should know everything, right?  I sometimes wonder if my male colleagues have anxiety over not being prepared.  I sometimes wonder if they know everything and don’t run into these kind of issues or, at least, not as often as I do.  This then falls down the rabbit hole of me feeling like an Imposter and having a lot of anxiety.

I see this issue as having exactly the same root as that of my student. When thinking about this, I wonder if men feel this way? My WonderfulHusbandOfScience is currently teaching a big service class (>250 students) that is notoriously difficult. He is not doing a good job connecting with the students and barely keeping up with the class. But, does he care? Not much. Teaching is low priority for him, and he is not ashamed and does not feel personally bad about it. It is a decision he made, he lives with it, and he is happy that it no longer affects his tenure case, which is all decided and done. He knows it won’t affect his case for full in several years. So, why are we women so hard on ourselves about our decisions on priority?

Prioritizing your jobs is essential, and we all do it. You know when you are doing it well, because you are productive on the parts of your job that help you advance. These tasks are different at different stages of your career. Sometimes you truly cannot do all the important things you need to do, such as if you have many research projects going on. This is elegantly discussed in a blog post from Tenure She Wrote, another blog I highly recommend! So, what do you think? How do you prioritize and most importantly, how can we stop being disappointed in ourselves if we need to prioritize in a way that is less than ideal for our own high self-standards? Comment or post! Also, don’t forget to +Follow this blog to get email updates when there are new posts.

Advice for Grad School from AboutToBeDr


This post is from an awesome amazing graduate student woman of color. She is successfully navigating graduate school, and is almost done with her thesis.  I asked her to share her wisdom for future, new, and current graduate students. Remember, you can follow this blog by clicking the +Follow button. You can also lead this blog by posting comments and your own posts, like this one. Enjoy!

Entering my first year of graduate school I knew that it was going to be different from my undergraduate experience, but I really had no idea what I was getting into.  There isn’t a “Graduate School 101” course to take to learn the ins and outs of this academic journey.  Here are 10 tips and wisdom that I have acquired going through my Ph.D. program.

  1. Forget about imposter syndrome.  This is better known as the “I am stupid and I do not deserve to be here” feeling. Many underrepresented minorities and women especially experience this feeling throughout their graduate school career.  Your admittance into the program was not by mistake.  You have earned where you are and though there are times where you will feel like you do not belong, just know that you do.
  2. Pick a supportive advisor. Picking an advisor is one of the most important decisions you will ever make in graduate school.  It really is a “match-making” experience.  They have expectations of you and you have expectation of them.  This person should care about your overall career goals and help you along the way to achieve them.  For example, my advisor understands my need for structured independence.  He empowers me to take control of my project and teaches the other graduate students  and me to be confident in our work.  I honestly believe I hit the jackpot in finding my advisor because we work well and understand each other. The relationship between advisor and advisee evolves along the way in graduate school.  So choose with your gut and if you feel like something is off with a particular person trust it.
  3. Surround yourself with mentor(s) from different fields of study. Your advisor can be your mentor, but should not be your only mentor.  I personally have about three mentors who help me with various situations.  For science and career advice I usually contact my undergraduate advisor.  For navigating life as a female of color, I have a former sociology professor I have known since I was 18.  You get the idea.  Each mentor knows different part of my life and they help me navigate my present dilemma or triumphs.
  4. Do well in your classes. Just because you have your Bachelors in whatever field you are going to graduate school for does not mean you are an expert.  Study!  Graduate school teaches you to think more in-depth about a subject.  It is an overall training to become a critical thinker.  College was about scratching the surface of your desired subject and graduate school will be a full immersion process.
  5. Be humble and open to new experiences. You will learn how to think and approach situations differently.  Learning is a collaborative process and with this collaboration, respect for others is essential.  In summary, do not be a “know-it-all” and shut people out.
  6. Take care of yourself. Take a break everyday to do something you love other than your studies.  Sometimes stepping away from something for even an hour can give you a new set of eyes the next time around.
  7. Every opportunity is a networking opportunity.  Talk to a faculty member or a student you do not know at a seminar or a department gathering.  Go to conferences and make it a goal to introduce yourself to someone prominent in your field.  You never know if that conversation would turn into an opportunity for future employment or collaboration.
  8. Be involved on your campus and/or in your department. Taking a leadership role in your department or on campus can be beneficial in your own social life personally and for your career.  Personally, if you are organizing gatherings for graduate students you will interact with people who are going through the same process as you.  This can be rather comforting and supportive during rough times.  Career-wise if you are organizing something like a departmental seminar series with other students you will interact with people in various fields and this could lead to future opportunities.
  9. Swallow your pride and ask for help.  I say this because I use to be the person that would try to learn at other people’s pace.  When I did not understand the material right away, I would be too embarrassed to ask questions and I would not learn it.  This was detrimental to my learning process and resulted in failing my first class in graduate school.  Ask as many questions as you can and do not be afraid to have meetings with professors outside of class to go over material.  Study groups with other students in your class are also very helpful.  Make a habit of swallowing your pride and admitting when you do not understand something.
  10. You are not alone. Graduate school is an emotional rollercoaster and more of an endurance race than anything.  The people before you and certainly after you will experience the same ups and downs.  Have a positive outlet or someone who will share in your achievements and your failures.

What do you think? Have other advise? Post or comment.

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?

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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Applying to Grad School: Admissions View

I have served on the admissions for two different graduate programs, so I have had a view of what the admissions people think and are looking for when making acceptances. These two programs do things very differently. One accepts straight up, based on the application alone. The other has interviews for people before accepting them. One relies heavily on the results of the subject GRE, and the other does not require a subject GRE at all. Despite these differences, they are both looking for the same thing: Excellent students who will be able to get good grades in the first year of courses, be able to pass their respective qualifying exams, and ultimately be able to conduct new research and write papers for publication. There are many items that need to be included in the packet and each has various weights in the decision to accept or reject.

Each year, I give a little talk at various venues called, “How to get into graduate school” but really it should be called, how to assemble your packet for graduate school. Here are some of the hints I give:

What does the admissions committee want to know? When crafting your application packet, it is best to keep in mind what the committee is looking for, so that you can give them the information they want. We want to know from your packet, “Will this person do well in their graduate courses?” “Will this person pass the qualifying exam?” “Will tis person find a research group?” “Will this person be able to conduct independent research?” “Will this person get a Ph.D?”

What is in the packet? The packet consists of the following, and I will go through the rationale of each part below.

1. Your grades in your academic classes.

2. The scores on your GREs – both general and subject (maybe).

3. Your letters of recommendation.

4. Your personal essay.

Grades. The grades in your science classes are an important indicator of how you will do in your classes your first year of graduate school. All graduate programs have required classes to make sure you have a certain basis of knowledge before you go forward into research. All graduate programs have a minimum grade average or grade in each course that is required to stay in the program. Your grades in your classes will indicate if you will make good grades in your graduate classes. On the admissions committee, we want As, but that isn’t good advise for how to get into grad school. By the time you are applying, most of your grades are already set in stone. Maybe you messed up a few courses? Maybe you overloaded one semester and did poorly. Maybe there is a specific course that you really struggled with. Any booboos in your grades should be explained (not excused) in your Personal Essay. I once saw a personal essay that plotted the student’s GPA over time to show an upward trend. That was very convincing. It also showed that the student knew how to represent data in graphical form – an important scientific skill.

GREs. There are two types of GREs. General GREs and Subject GREs. The General GREs are like SATs. Everyone has to take them. You should do well – especially on the math. Science majors should have very good math scores. If you are foreign, the verbal scores are used to determine your reading and writing abilities. All graduate programs require the General GREs. Even if you are good at math and verbal skills, you need to buy a book on the General GREs to see what the test is like. Don’t go into the test cold.

The Subject GREs are not required by all graduate programs, but it is required by many. For graduate programs that will have a written exam for their qualifying exam, they often use the Subject GRE as a test run for the qualifying exam. They typically have a minimum number they prefer. That number, or ranking, is not a hard line, but merely a suggested set-point. For Subject GREs, I recommend studying very hard. Get practice tests. Use the summer before the fall semester of your senior year to study for the exam. One issue with the Subject GREs is that it is hard to encompass all the skills your need for scientific problem solving in a multiple choice exam. They are not very good at actually testing critical thinking and reasoning skills that we want you to have in graduate school. That being said, there is no other metric.

Letters of Recommendation. You typically need 2-3 letters of recommendation from professors who know you and your work in undergraduate school. The professors at your school are my colleagues.  These letters are the ability for them to talk directly to me about you. As someone else who has gone through the rigors of getting a Ph.D., possibly doing a postdoc, and getting a job as a professor, I trust that their values and judgments for students are valid. Because of these reasons, the letters of recommendation have a lot of weight for getting you into graduate school. Also, you want these letters to actually come from professors. It is not good enough for them to come from graduate students or postdocs you may have worked more closely with. They need to come from the professor you worked with. If the professor cannot speak about your work, have the postdoc talk to the professor before he/she writes the letter.

You want to make sure that your letters come from professor who can speak about you. The Best: Letters from professors with whom you worked closely in research. These letters can tell me about your aptitude in research, which is your ultimate job in grad school. Good: Letters from professors with whom you worked closely in class. This isn’t as good, because most professors have 100s of students each semester. They might not remember you. Even if you have a small class, you will usually be compared to the other students in the class, and there aren’t as many ways to prove your abilities in a class as there are in the lab. Poor: Letters from professor with whom you had very little interaction but did well in class.

Etiquette for requesting letters:

  • Ask for letters with enough time for the recommender to prepare it. Give them at least 2 weeks.
  • Send a complete list of all the places you are applying with the online location link, and the date the recommendations are due. This allows your recommender to check off when they completed one, and it is all in one place. If you just trust that the online systems will send messages to the professor’s email, you are not thinking about how busy your professor is or about how many emails he/she gets each day. The list will help your professor keep track of how many requests you sent to make sure they didn’t miss one.
  • When you request a letter, make an appointment to meet in person. Bring your CV/resume, a 1-pager on your current or past research, and have a talk with your recommender about your goals, so he/she can speak intelligently. Think of this as coaching your recommender, so they can write the best letter possible.
  • Professors are busy! Send friendly reminders via email. Do not badger, just remind. Most professors will appreciate it. If they agree to write the letter, they will want to get it out in time.
  • After you hear back, let your recommender know if you got in. They spent time to write a letter for you. They want you to do well.

Personal Essay. This is your time. It is your time to shine. It is your time to explain. So, what do you write? For the admissions committee, your research is the most important aspect of this essay. Include what you have done in research with enough detail that the professors reviewing it will know that you actually did it. Include examples when you solved a problem on your own. You should have a letter of recommendation from your research advisor to corroborate your statements. Summer REU advisors can write letters – not just your home professors! This is where coaching is important, because you want to make sure you and your professor are on the same page about what you did. Include specific advisors with whom you would like to work (only if you know and are sure, it is OK, if you don’t know for sure). Include subjects on which you would like to do research. They should be subjects that are actually pursued at the school you are applying to! You can use this space to explain any negative aspects of your grades or anything else.  Don’t make excuses and don’t dwell on it.

Here are some Do’s and Don’t’s:


  • Do have someone else read it – preferably your advisor
  • Do address or answer these questions – either directly or indirectly:
    • Will they find a research group?
    • Will they conduct independent research?
    • Will they get a Ph.D.?
  • Do use examples to demonstrate your ability to do research.


  • Don’t start with a quote from something
  • Don’t give your personal reason for wanting to go to graduate school
  • Don’t make it too personal – this is a professional application
  • Don’t include a long list of every person in the program with whom you would like to work. If you aren’t sure, say that you are open to exploring your options
  • Don’t put the name of another institution!!
  • Don’t have egregious typos or errors. Make sure you proof-read and spell-check

OK, so that is a lot of information. Does anyone else have any suggestions for students applying to graduate school? Post or comment!

Applying to Grad School: Student’s View

It was a long time ago, but I remember applying to graduate school. It was my senior year at SmallLiberalArtsCollege, and I knew I wanted to continue science in my MaleDominatedField. That meant applying to graduate school. The task was daunting. I was very worried I would not get in anywhere.

Looking back and understanding the psychology of it, I realize I was suffering from major StereotypeThreat. I knew that my field was male dominated, so I felt like I could not make it into graduate school because I was a woman. Further, StereotypeThreat played a significant role in my ability on the required SubjectGRE exam required by almost all graduate schools in my field. I knew women did not do well on the SubjectGRE in my field. I knew that LiberalArts Students also did poorly (male or female), so I had a double whammy. (I was also at a special SmallLiberalArtsCollege that was women-only – sheesh!). The protective and nurturing environment of the Women’sCollege was actually harmful because I knew it would ultimately hurt me on this exam, and so many schools straight out use that number to decide your ability to do well in graduate school. JUst as a matter of record, I did really poorly on the SubjectGREs. The typical cut-off is the 50th percentile, and I am pretty such I hit the 30th. I was pretty bummed about my prospects of getting into graduate school anywhere.

As far as the rest of my packet – I have no idea what I wrote. I am sure it was stupid. I did have a 4.0 in all my MajorCourses and I think I had good letters from my professors. One benefit of SmallLiberalArtsSchools is that many professors know you very well. I had three letters from professors who knew me, and my abilities in class and in research first hand.

I submitted 8 applications to schools that were mostly in the top 20 in my field. When I got my first acceptance, I was so happy and grateful I could fly. It wasn’t even a safety school. In the end, I was rejected from 2 schools. These 2 are well-known weed-out schools, so I might not have survived anyway. I got into 2 other top 10 schools, and they became my focus to try to decide where to go.

Deciding where to go was another issue. One thing that was very important to me was how the graduate students felt and acted. I visited one school where the students were just depressed. They were so down trodden and defeated that I couldn’t imagine going there. Other places, the students were happy and positive about their work and future. Other than that, and the ranking, I didn’t have a great deal of knowledge about what to look for. I was pretty naive.

In the end, the awful SubjectGRE didn’t matter once I got in. I acted like it didn’t exist and didn’t let it drag me down in grad school. I saw that it was only one test that lasted for 3 hours of my life, and I majorly failed it. Luckily, plenty of schools decided it didn’t matter as much as the other parts of my application. Being able to put it behind me and having confidence in my abilities in class and in research allowed me to excel in actual graduate school, which is nothing like the SubjectGRE. Even though a couple schools didn’t want to give me a chance, the ones that did were smart, and the one I went to is lucky I accepted. I was very successful in grad school and after, and that success reflects back on them and their forethought in letting me in and educating me well. Looking back, I still feel anxiety about big tests where I know I won’t do well. Luckily, I don’t have to take those anymore.

Any other stories out there on their experience in applying to graduate school? If so, comment or post. We would love to hear you share your story.

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