Been there, done that.

After six years of grad school, there are a few things I've picked up from personal experience and a whole lot of time talking with other female grad students (AKA procrastinating). I've always wished there had been some kind of handbook about how to handle the whole world of graduate school, so I figured I'd start a friendly place to discuss what it's like to be female in grad school, and maybe pass on some wisdom too!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Adviser Advice

I hope this holiday finds everyone in a good place, with the ability to relax a little :)

Okay, so this week's topic is a big one: how do you go about picking an academic adviser? Some departments don't require that you do this from the outset (instead letting you pick once you've had a chance to get to know people in the department for a while), but a good deal of people will go into applying for schools with a particular person they want to work with in mind. Either way, when selecting schools to apply to, keeping the fact that at least one of the people there will have to be your major adviser is vastly important. There are very few other factors that will have as great an influence over your graduate work than the person you work with. They can make the experience a living hell, or really mold the years of work your going to put in into a positive and helpful experience. Chose wisely, my young friends!

So, first off, there's the obvious point that whomever it is you are thinking about working with, you should be interested in the area of research they are working in. You should have a pretty clear idea of what area/project/vastly-important-topic you want to delve into for grad school (or, ya know, for-EVH-er). Read as many papers in this area as possible. Look at the authors. Check out the school's websites (and pray they have been updated recently). Ask around in your home department from people who are in similar or related fields. Make a list of people and make sure you have a few options. Don't just limit yourself to a single person, because you may honestly hate that person in real life and then where will you be? Back-ups never hurt anyone, so long as you don't tell someone they are you back-up choice :)

Now that you've got your list, there are things you will want to know before wasting your time and money applying. This is, in reality, a business decision. You should treat it like one. If you can't get along with your business partner, you are less likely to do well in your field. Not that it isn't possible to suck it up and get through grad school, but it is infinitely better to like your adviser, or at least respect the person. As females, too, learning that you're not going to be working with a chauvinistic pig (and for some reason academia has a good deal of them around) will make your life so much easier! So, I've spent a lot of time discussing what makes an adviser a good one with my husband. There is no hard and fast rules, but here are a few things to consider:
  • Male or female? Look, some women work better with other women. Some have a really hard time working with women. Know your own preference, and if possible, ask your potential adviser's other students about this (maybe not outright ask them, but finding a polite way to broach the subject, or at least get a feel for how the other students are handling things is perfectly acceptable).
  • Older and established, or young and enthusiastic? Ahhh, this is a question I've gone round and round on because it's certainly a tricky one, and very well could be 'tenured or not-quite-tenured?' Both my husband and my advisers are older and have tenure, but I do see the contrast between my interactions and those of my fellow cohort members and the younger members of my department. The younger faculty, while not having as much money or contacts, do tend to have a lot more interaction with their students, and can be less intimidating (or maybe that's just me... :). Anyhow, more established, tenured advisers have more money (generally) which can be incredibly helpful when you can't get a TA spot for a quarter. They also tend to know EVERYONE, which is a total plus. But there can also be health problems that can knock them out for long periods of time, they may take sabbaticals and be totally unreachable for a year (oh, it happens!), or they may be "past their prime" in terms of their ideas or approaches to your field. Think about this one carefully and really get a feel for how each individual works so that you make the best possible decision for the way you work!
  • Kids or childless? Does your potential adviser have strong feelings about children, particularly if you have some during your school years? The last thing you want is them blaming you for them not getting tenure because you took some time off to have a child. I honestly can't imagine what kind of douche would do this, but it does happen. Also, small children on the part of your adviser can mean they are around less, so it is something to consider.
  • Approachable or frozen Popsicle? Does your hypothetical adviser like to talk to his students weekly? Daily? Almost never? Is he easy to get a hold of, or is he/she never around? Does he/she make it easy and possible to bring up questions or concerns? How each adviser interacts with their cadre of graduate students is different--some have weekly meetings, others expect their students to seek them out when they are needed. It's a very individual thing, and finding out if their style--whether it be hands-on, or let-you-loose--needs to mesh with your personal style.
  • Extra set of hands, or new-projects-R-us? For some programs this is less of an issue than others, but it's good think about whether an adviser is looking to take on a new student for a project they already have going (essentially wanting another set of 'hands' for their own work), or if they are open to the possibility of you creating and carrying out a project of your own choosing and design. If you already have a well-formed idea of what you want to do before entering school, be sure to pick someone who won't expect you to work on cloning mice for their NSF project for the next five years.
Okay, I'm undoubtedly missing things, but hopefully this will get you thinking about some of the important issues that go into working with an academic adviser. Make sure you are comfortable and understand how you work and find someone that will mesh well with your style. Ask other students, politely address the potential adviser, email other people in the department (above all--be polite! Duh!). Don't just assume that because a person does some really cool research that they are going to be a perfect person to work with. Advisers are people too (well, sometimes....) and getting along with this person will make life a whole lot easier!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What are YOU looking for in a program?

(I honestly don't know where last week went. I planned on blogging. It just didn't happen. Some weeks in grad school are just like that. Add in the holidays and my to-do list from Hades, and well, it just won't happen. *sigh* Sorry!)

Okay, so you've decided this is the year you're going to do it: you're going to apply for grad school. You've taken your exams. You've started scouting out programs. And now you have some big choices: where ARE you going to apply? Well, I'm going to suggest making a large check-list (or whatever kind of list-like thing you might like, but generally a means of comparing and contrasting) that allows you to look over what each school offers in order to make an informed decision. Below is a list of things I thought about in looking at different schools:

  • The school offers the program you are interested in. Okay, I'm really just going to assume you've made the big decision regarding what you want to study/do for the rest of your life and have gone out and found some schools that offer programs in that area. Want to study underwater basket-weaving? Well, you've got a school with a great weaving program that has someone there who specializes in doing so underwater. Want to study tax-law? Find a law school that has a program that allows you to go into this.
  • Find someone(s) you want to work with. This is more for those who are planning on grad school proper, and involves picking an adviser (or at least a working group). Now, this is just too big to tackle in a bullet-point and will be the topic of a future post, but suffice it to say you've found someone who is studying something you think sounds cool and you could work with.
  • Funding. For most of us, paying for grad school is half the battle. How we plan on coming up with the cash, whether by loans or working, is definitely something to think about. Checking in with the department you're applying to is going to be essential! Most funding will change from year to year in every department, but asking around will give you a general idea of whether or not students are given teaching assistant positions, grants, or other kinds of funding. Ask--it's good to know!
  • Climate. If you hate the snow, well, don't apply to schools in up-state NY. Duh :) You won't spend a whole lot of your grad school life out of doors, but knowing there is great skiing nearby, or a beach to go to when you need to get out of the house, is good to know.
  • Child-care. Got kids? Planning on having kids with your significant other while in school? Then look into child care in the city, or if the school offers any, either. Some programs even offer subsidies to help cover the cost, which is a very good thing to know about and take advantage of. Definitely something to add to the list if you've got babies on the brain!
  • Vicinity of family. Kind of a random one, but ostensibly you have a family you might want to see sometimes. Maybe even more than just at the holidays. If you have kids, maybe you'd like some help with child-care. Or, maybe you want to make sure your family is good and far away so they are less of a distraction. Either way, think about where you're family is in relation to the programs you are considering--you'll be there for a few years at least.
  • Housing. Does the city you'd be living in have decent housing? Most of the time, it's going to be much more expensive in the city proper, so if you're on a tight budget, is there another close town you can live in? Also, student housing is a great option--most of the time. Often universities will have graduate student/married student housing, which is at least an option to look into. Now, I'll admit, I live in student housing and pretty much think it's the crappiest apartment ever, but I've heard rumors that other schools actually have amenities like working heaters. Imagine that!
  • City life. Free time won't play a huge role in your grad school life, but there will always be those weekend evenings where you'll need to get out of the house for your mental health. So, does the city you'll be living in (or one nearby) have stuff to do? Other than go to a movie? Many small towns can be pretty dead, and if you don't really feel like getting plastered with a bunch of undergrads, ask around and see what there is to do in the area. It may not be a make-it-or-break-it item on your list, but it's something to consider.
  • Atmosphere. Talk with other students in the department--do they like how they're treated? Do the faculty pay them some respect, and not like dirt? Does the department put some effort into showcasing their efforts? This is a HUGE thing to take into account for obvious reasons. Seriously, ask the other students in the department and see what they have to say. Hopefully not everyone will sugar-coat things and tell you what it's really like (or even better, what/who to avoid in the department!).
How do you get this information, once you've started looking? Well, many department websites will offer a lot of the basic information, as well as the University's Grad Program website. Phone calls with the admissions people in the grad studies office can also be really insightful--particularly to gauge the tone of how people are treated there. Emailing a few grad students with some brief questions about the department never hurt, either, though be sure to take into account that the person is probably going to be super busy and responding may not be a top priority. Talking to people is the best thing you can do, and asking polite and informed questions will get you far on your quest to know which program is the best one for you!

Anything I've missed? What other things have made the list of stuff to consider when looking for the perfect graduate school?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Topic of Interest

I came across this this morning and thought I'd share. A pertinent article dealing with having kids in grad school, and how to look for an adviser who isn't going to view this negatively.

(Though, I'm going to be really honest here: would you want to work with someone who is going to view the birth of a child negatively in the first place? I mean, that would be indicative of a personality that wouldn't exactly jive with me, imho. Buuuut, I'm not everyone. Still, as was mentioned in the blog, anyone who is going to use the argument that their grad student had a kid and therefore left their tenure application on the weak side is going to be facing their own kind of problems. The fact that someone actually DID that kind of makes me sick.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Test

I hope everyone is emerging from their Turkey-induced comas and are ready to head back to work tomorrow! (Okay, maybe not the work thing, but I do hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving!)

So, this week's topic to tackle: the Test. You know the one I'm talking about. It's either the GRE, the LSAT, MCAT, or some other acronym that can instill pain and suffering into the hearts of all aspiring graduate students. Yes, almost all programs in the US will require one or another, and doing well on these tests will obviously influence whether or not you get in, or at least where you decide to apply. So, how does one go about getting ready for these exams? Here are some of the common methods I've seen (and I'll even throw my opinion in there as an added bonus--for free! Lucky you!):

  • Kaplan (or other similar) courses. These evening/weekend classes are big among students applying for the MCAT in particular, though the centers offer courses for the other tests as well. I've seen many people go through these, and they are very intensive. In many cases, they will prepare you for the test itself, and they often have good deals on re-taking the course if you don't do as well as you'd like. They are also quite good at psyching you out in terms of the test--a side effect of pushing their students. If you are already one of those people who don't test well, these kinds of courses can help you improve, or totally leave you freaked out (I've seen both--the latter is not pretty...). Anyhow, the main drawback to these kinds of classes is the cost. Talk about $$$! Seriously, be prepared to fork over a lot of money. Of course, it may be worth it if it's going to get you into med school, but I wouldn't say it's worth it for the GRE.
  • By the book. There must be a hundred different prep books for each of the major grad school tests. They take up a whole section at my local Borders. Often, these are also quite good. They give good pointers, and will come with access to the online tests, too. (If you're picking one out--I'd steer toward the ones that are regularly updated and do have the option for electronic tests to practise on, as most of these exams are now given on a computer.) They're a much cheaper way to go in terms of studying, but they will obviously require a lot of personal discipline in terms of getting in study time. If you aren't one of those people who is good at forcing yourself to sit down and study for some amount each day, this may not be for you.
  • Wingin' it. Hey, it's been done. I'm not advocating it, but some people are already well versed in the field they're going into and don't need to spend the extra time studying. I hate these people. It is certainly the low-stress avenue to take :)
  • Mash-up. Many individuals take a variety of methods and mix them together. By the time people finish college they have a pretty good idea of the best way they study and can create a system that is going to work well for them. Personally, I like flashcards a lot, and ended up taking all of the GRE words and making myself a giant stack of them. I also found a book that helped me re-learn all the really basic math that the GRE tests on (because apparently grad students don't use calculators or excel--honestly, why do they test on eight-grade math?).
In the end, it comes down to how you study. What's the best way you're going to remember that physics course you took two years ago? Or all the amino acids? Taking a few minutes to really think about that before you set out to tackle one of these tests is going to help a lot.

Other things of note on this topic: in general, women aren't considered to be as good of test takers as men. This is one of those long-standing rumors that floats around, and I kind of wish I could figure out its origin. Personally, I've seen both men and women with serious test-phobias. They really can be crippling, and figuring out how to deal with them is going to be a serious necessity in order to not only get into grad school, but survive the process. Here's a few things I've heard/seen done/read about for dealing with test-related stress:
  • Wear green. I'm serious. It's supposed to relax you. I kind of wonder if this is actually ever been tested, but hey, if it helps, don't knock it!
  • Avoid daylight-savings time changes. This came out a couple of weeks ago pertaining to the SAT, but I think it applies here, too. The time change messes with your internal clock and can affect your score. I'm actually really not surprised by this.
  • Don't cram the day before. Yeah, we've all done it for tests before, but if you can take the day off before the test to let yourself relax, you're supposed to do better. It also forces you to be better prepared, which I think is one of the reasons it works.
  • The old standards: get a good night's sleep, eat a decent meal, don't drink too much water/coffee/stimulant-of-choice, get there early, avoid stress. These are the fall-backs for a reason. They help!
Okay, so what do you all think? What else can people do to prepare? What else can they do to avoid the test-taking woes? Anyone? Bueller?

Sunday, November 21, 2010


It's the weekend before Thanksgiving and I am decidedly procrastinating working on the paper I said I would have to my adviser by turkey day. This weekend's total amount written: one paragraph. Very productive!

So, I have a post that I was planning on writing, but who really wants to think about things like grad-school admittance tests when it's almost Thanksgiving? They're not something I particularly like thinking about in general, and the fact that I have a long weekend coming up, with every intention of a pumpkin-pie induced coma, I think it can wait. So, with that thought in mind, lets have a little fun:

What is your favorite procrastination method?

Personally, I find that cleaning my apartment may not be my favorite, but is decidedly my most commonly used method. I mean, I am kind of being productive, right? Right? And of course there's always blogging.

Anyhow, here's the deal: post your favorite means of putting off what you need to do in the comments. The one that makes me laugh the most (and yes, this is a biased test, I know it), will win a prize. Don't know what that will be yet, but I will do something. Once I finish writing this paper... :)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Time off before starting grad school?

Well, that has to be the most self-explanatory title ever. Anyhow, today I thought I'd tackle the topic of whether or not it's a good idea to take some time off between completing your undergrad degree and starting graduate school. Yayness--right? Right? Okay, maybe not all that exciting, but believe it or not, this is the #1 question I am asked by students when they approach me about grad school. It may not be a make-it-or-break it kind of thing, but it certainly is important.

Now, when I think time off, this is what comes to mind:
(Do you have ANY idea how much I want to be in that hammock? Seriously, I sat there staring at it for like five minutes, full of all kinds of wishful thinking...)

Okay, back to taking time off. A lot of folks finish with college and swear they will never set foot in a classroom again. That's all fine and dandy, but it isn't everyone's thought process. For some of us, there's the knowledge that there's no way we'll ever get a decent job in our chosen field without a few more years of school. Others basically have to go to grad school to define their careers (doctors, lawyers, etc.). So, for those of us who toss our nifty four-cornered hats knowing we'll be heading back to campus, the question then becomes--do we take some time off between stints of educational torture experience? Now, there are quite a few personal issues that come along with this: family, money, experience, etc., which can all play into whether or not a person chooses to take a few years in the "real world" before venturing back into the classroom. At the root of this, however, is whether or not it's a good idea to do so in the first place. Will it affect your chances of getting in? Make an individual less marketable?

Well, to be honest, it can work both ways. Taking a few years off and working at your local burger joint probably isn't going to help in terms of getting your grad school application looked at (unless you are applying to something that has to do with opening your own burger place? I don't know, maybe there's a burger joint grad school out there somewhere?). Taking a few years off to get some experience in your field, however, is always going to weigh in the positive field when it comes to applying. It shows that you are knowledgeable about your field, as well as serious about what you want to do. Bonus points if you can get to know some good people in your field who can write you letters of recommendation.

The other thing that plays into this situation is the fact that when you finish your undergrad degree, the vast majority of students are still quite young (I'd just barely turned 21--yikes that was a while ago!), and even though you might not think so, that doesn't always weigh in your favor. The average age of graduating PhD's is 33, and it takes about seven years on average to complete this degree. So most students are starting at around 26. A few years older, a few more years of experience, and a few more years reaching "adulthood." Quite frankly I know very few graduating undergrads that I would want receiving NSF grants. If you are going to be making that jump right into the academic world, be prepared to be mature enough to handle it. (Okay, just to be clear, I'm totally not saying it can't be done, as I've seen plenty of very young graduate students, but there is a degree of maturity obtained in the early twenties that does help in terms of being a successful grad student. Capitalizing in this isn't going to hurt!)

Waiting a few years also allows for another important thing: finding out if you even like what you've chosen to do. I've harped about this before, but it's very possible to finish a BA or BS in something, get a job in your field, and realize you HATE it. (Eh-hem, speaking from total personal experience here folks, trust me.) Stuff you study in school isn't the real working world--imagine that! So, taking a few years to get your feet wet may help shape where you want to go, and help you make sure that's where you want to end up.

Sure, a few people don't ever go back because they lose momentum after taking time off. That's bound to happen. But, really, extraneous situations excluded, if you're really wanting to go back to school, you're going to do it. There are so many options out there to do so these days that it's totally possible, if you want it. But you better be sure that's what you want :)

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Getting into grad school, applying for grants, and then applying for jobs--let alone dealing with advisers, students, and other grad students--requires being able to promote yourself. You are going to need to be able to point out your strengths and accomplishments to those who need to hear them, because, really, no one's going to do this for you. The sooner you learn how to self-promote, and do it well, the better. So, I thought it would be a good topic to tackle today (and many thanks to the readers who suggested it [I almost just put your names down, then thought you may not like that...]).

I think this is a particularly important topic for females. Generally, our society looks down on women who flaunt their accomplishments, considering them to be arrogant (or worse). Men don't face this to the same degree, as they are often expected to be "selling" themselves more. It becomes a fine line to walk between being able to promote what you've done, and be able to maintain the respect of those you are promoting to. Where exactly this line is varies from person to person, too, making it even more difficult.

I've spent a good deal of time thinking about this during the past couple of weeks, mainly because I really don't have an answer for the query of how to go about being better at promoting oneself. I'm certainly not very good at it. I hated writing those essays about myself to get into grad school, and the ones NSF requires for their grants were ten times worse. Now I'm writing letters applying for jobs and every time I read what I'm writing I cringe inside, wondering if I come across as a know-it-all, arrogant, annoying, or even worse, just not good enough!

My best understanding is that it all comes down to self-confidence. Having a positive, and realistic view of oneself allows for better interactions with others, and can get you over the hurdle of getting started in the first place. It can be taken too far, of course, and everyone knows at least one person who has managed to be seriously annoying with how "great" they are :) But, in general, women have to work hard to gain, and maintain a view of themselves that is positive and optimistic.

So, how to build self-confidence? Um, that's a really good question. There are a lot of books out there about it! (Google spit out some very amusing images to me, too.) I honestly don't know. Wish I did, because it's something I'd find useful! So I'm going to open this up and solicit some comments (please!): how do you build self-confidence? How do you promote yourself artfully? (Because, dude, it is an art!)

(She just looks self-confident, doesn't she? And can I go wherever it is she's at? Because it looks really nice and relaxing!)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guest Post: Highlighting the Good Stuff

Today I have a most excellent treat for you all, my fellow cohort Miss Katie Demps, offered to write a post for the Girl's Guide! This is something I've wanted to do (so you don't have to read my complaining all the time :) and if you're interested in doing a post, please let me know!

The soon-to-be Dr. Demps is reminding us today that being a grad student isn't all bad/frustrating/as-insanely-horrible-as-I-may-have-accidentally-implied. There is definitely a silver-lining, and the trick really is in taking a moment to think about it. I think Katie's got a great point, so please enjoy:

I took my lunch break out on the lawn today.  Went and bought an organic sandwich, laid in the sun, listened to some lovely acoustic guitar music playing nearby - and I was STRESSED.  All I could think about were the Things that needed to Get Done.  But despite the negative aspects of grad school, there are so many good things that I have experienced as well.  So I thought as therapy this afternoon, I would dwell on the positive.

Why it’s worth the journey (in no particular order)-

  • Flexible schedule:  You can go home and take naps in the afternoon if you want.  You’ll probably have to work that evening, or maybe on the weekend, but it’s your choice.  You can also work wherever you want (even though I end up spending most of my time in 6 square feet of inadequate lighting).
  • Job security: Huh?  Yep.  Several years of pretty much guaranteed funding and health insurance.  I didn’t realize how much I took for granted until I went on the job market this year.  Grad school has been like a cocoon for me through these tough economic times.
  • Free Travel:  That’s right, even though work is always involved, grad school has paid for me to spend a year in India, five weeks living in the Bolivian Amazon, a month on a tropical Pacific island, and a week in Berlin.  On all of those trips I’ve met wonderful people who have changed my life.
  • Things I Never Thought I would Do:  Like ride a motorcycle.  Or collect wild honey with real hunter-gatherers.  Travel the most dangerous road in the World.  Swim in every ocean and dance on every continent (still working a little on that last one).  Write a book.  Circumnavigate the globe.  Have five friends living in Ohio.
  • Not worry about the pay:  Don’t get me wrong, I am Poor.  The IRS tells me so every year.  But unlike working retail jobs, I’m not constantly thinking about how much I get paid and what I want to buy with it.  I like this freedom from consumerism (even when I whine about not being able to afford cute boots).
  • Good stories:  You’ll always have something to amaze and amuse people with at cocktail hour.  Remember that time I had to keep my typhoid in your parents refrigerator? Remember that time we all sat around drinking beer on Friday afternoon and laughing at stupid undergraduate responses to test questions?
  • New skills:  I’ve learned a lot of things besides theory and statistical analysis while I’ve been in grad school.  Maybe I would have learned to cook or ballroom dance or speak Spanish if I hadn’t gone to grad school, but the opportunities and environment have definitely led me to these things one way or another.
  • Met the man of my dreams:  I know grad school can be really, really hard on relationships.  A lot of divorces, very little dating prospects, even less time to keep yourself well maintained.  If it wasn’t for grad school though I wouldn’t have met my better half, and that for sure makes it worth it for me.

So yeah, the pay sucks, and there are times when you will feel overwhelmed by stress/inferiority complex/grading/family pressure; but I would totally do it again.  In fact, my sister the accountant is convinced that because I like my job it's not really work at all and I just sit around enjoying myself all day.  Ha ha.

Okay, so I'll admit I would love some new boots that didn't come from the SPCA thrift store. Not having my washing machine in my kitchen would also be a bonus. But there are some great things about being a grad student. For me, I really got to experience how much I adore teaching. It may be tons of work, but it is so worth it. Here's the question for you: what things have you found to be a silver-lining to your grad experience? Please share--we all could use a little more positive outlook in life!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Connection Connundrum

(Isn't this a cool picture? It *kinda* has to do with connections, which is why I'm using it, but mostly just think it's cool :)

So, I had a great comment on my last post about getting in to grad school that mentioned how connections with people around you really can make a huge difference. I would like to say that I was just saving this massively important topic for its own post, but then I'd be totally lying :) Anyhow, forming connections with other people in your prospective field can be one of the most important things you do before entering grad school for two reasons (maybe more--let me know if I'm forgetting something!): 1. meeting people in your field gives you an idea of what they do, how they function, and allows you to better understand if this is the life you're really looking for, and 2. it will totally give you a boost in terms of not only getting IN to school, but finding projects, jobs, etc. That old saying "it's not what you know, it's who you know"? Sad, but true. Now, I'm not saying it's the end-all, be-all to know the top dogs in your field. That would be impossible. But I am saying it helps to get your foot in the door if you are able to forge some links with others in your field.

Personally, I know full well I would have never gotten into grad school had I not known and worked with the people in my current lab. They were the ones who got me in here (for better or worse, haha!), and I owe them big time for it. Plus, they make life soooo much better for me, because they are awesome, as Smith Lab rocks :)

Okay, so connections: they're important. How do you form them? I mean, during undergrad years you read all these papers and see all these names in different fields, so how do you go about getting to know some people in your chosen area? Well, there are a few things, and one of the more important things to remember is that most people love some flattery, and generally like to talk about their research/work. Everyone likes to be made to feel a little important, though not like brown-nosing important :) Now, keep in mind that many people are busy and don't have time to sit down and spend hours giving out advice and help to every undergrad who sends them an email, but if you're serious, show some talent and genuine interest, it's not going to hurt. It might not get you any attention, but if it does, then you're on the right track. I'm certainly not saying stalk someone, okay?

Something I've seen my students do when asking about my research, and I think it's pretty appropriate, might provide a good guide: a student may read about me online (my website or blog), read a paper I've written, seen my lab, or heard a talk I've given. Then, a polite email asking for a time to meet, possibly during my office hours, or something similar. A short conversation follows, where they ask solid questions and ask for advice on what their best course of action could be. Now, these are the students I remember, the ones I'm happy to write super enthusiastic letters of rec for, and the ones I'll be thinking of first when I need interns. Good things, right? Generally, this is how good connections are formed. (Not that I'm exactly like some person that's all that great in the connections department, but I do know some people, and it's a good place to start :)

Other places that are great for forming connections are while you're working on that internship I mentioned last time. Get to know the people you work with, and MAKE SURE you're not the intern people are seriously glad to see go, okay? I've seen all kinds, and generally the ones who moan and complain, and are constantly breaking stuff aren't the ones we want to remember... Anyhow, be smart, be informed, and ask questions. It's a good thing. Conferences and professional meetings are other good places, though I'll be the first one to admit that I hate these big meetings. I get tongue tied and and much more comfortable hiding in the background. This is where the more personal connections you've made can come in handy though, and these people know others, and this can help even the shy among us meet people who can help with our careers. This is totally what's worked for me, and though it's probably not the best way to go, and certainly not the only one, it's a route to think about.

So, what have I missed? Where are other connections formed?

Also, if some people wouldn't mind hitting that little "follow" button on the sidebar there? I'd totally love ya for it. As in, I'll even make you cookies or something, if you live in the area :)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Getting In

It's time to start the "guide" part of this blog, and I thought I'd start off with the beginning. You've decided to go to grad school. Now what? This is not limited to females, and can certainly induce a fair amount of stress. I know that when I started looking into this, I was pretty clueless. There weren't any doctoral students at my undergrad institution (does anyone else think calling a place an 'institution' makes it automatically sound like a mental hospital?) so that didn't exactly help matters. I kind of had a grasp of the basics on what I should be doing during my undergrad years, but nothing concrete. Let's make a list, shall we? I like lists. And if you have anything to add, please drop it in the comments (please, please do! I like knowing people are, ya know, reading this. It makes me happy. And you want to make me happy, right?)

  • Grades. If you're planning on continuing on after undergrad, you'll probably want to spend some time working on these (more so than the average student I see, at least!). There's no set GPA or anything for all programs, but a steady stream of C's and below probably is going to hurt your chances.
  • Internships. Find out what you want to do and find the time to actually spend time DOING IT. Or as close as you can. Work in a lab, a law office, go on that archaeological dig, spend time in a hospital, and hope you love it. Love every freaking second you are out there. If you have any doubts about loving it, well, you might need to take stock about what you're doing.
  • Learn how to write. This is something that I wish most college students would ENTER college knowing how to do. It would have saved me a whole lot of headaches over the years of TA'ing while in grad school, and is probably the singularly most important skill you can take with you into grad school. Because you'll be writing a lot. Papers, reports, and academic articles (this will vary depending on your program, obviously), it never ends. I had to learn this the hard way, thanks to not attending school in English until I was older, and it's been really frustrating. No one likes getting papers back dripping red ink :)
None of these are really oriented toward girls, but they are all important. Especially getting your hands dirty in your chosen field before you start onto the next round of schooling. Who wants to spend years of your life doing something you hate?

Okay, anyone got any others? I know I'm probably missing a bunch of stuff!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why Babies Matter

Those of you in the Davis area may have heard about the seminar that was held yesterday regarding motherhood in academics, given by Mary Ann Mason, with the same title as this post. (The staff only send out, like, twenty emails about it...) I snuck out of the lab to attend. While the conference was okay, and I enjoyed the statistics, it didn't go into a whole lot of what women can do to find a balance between professional and home life. Mainly, it was a demonstration of where the "leaks in the pipeline" were in terms of where women are lost to the academic world. For PhD's in general, the number awarded is nearly 50/50 in terms of males and females, but the percentage of males as tenured professors is 75%. Females are much more likely to take non-tenure teaching positions, if anything. Most of this seems pretty "duh" to me--not that it's not interesting, but it's just something I've noticed in the departments I have contact with. I mean, it's not easy trying to figure out how to have kids and be a scientist/professional. There are only so many hours in the day!

Anyhow, I picked up the book written by the speaker Mothers On The Fast Track, which I'm hoping might shed some more light on the issue. We'll see. I may post on it again, which is why I'm bringing it up here.

Also, I thought I'd throw another questions out there. How do YOU plan on doing the whole balancing act? Is it possible? Can it be done successfully (as in, happy healthy marriages and children)? Honestly, shade your wisdom for us all! And I'm not just talking about careers--grad school, too, of course!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What makes all the difference?

I've been asked a few times now why this is a "girls" guide to grad school, and whether or not there really is a difference between guys and girls in their graduate careers. My answer, in short, is of course there is! But, there is a caveat. Grad school is different for everyone. Your experience in law/medical/grad school is going to have a million different factors influencing it, and no two experiences will be the same. I do think that females will have a few of these factors in common, which will affect the way approach and perform in school. I mean, hormones anyone? And some ladies are more likely to cry when under stress. It happens. (Especially if a certain person hasn't slept in like three days and is getting chewed out by their adviser--good grief, I am still embarrassed about this...)

Anyhow, I know there are a lot of different things that influence a female's journey in the annals of higher education, and I'd like to hear what YOU have to say about it. I know what I see as the differences, but that makes things kind of one-sided. I'd like to be a little more broad in how I approach future topics here, so I'd like to hear what you think are some of the major things that influence female participation in graduate work. I'd love to hear what you have to say!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

So You Want to go to Grad School

The fresh crop of new students entered campus a few weeks ago and I had an undeniable urge to run up to them, screaming like a banshee "You seriously want to do this???" I have heard from other sources, particularly grad students toward the end of their graduate careers, that they have the same feeling of wishing they could save the bright-eyed, full of possibility, little newbies all the frustration and heartache that awaits them while they attempt to complete their degrees. Because, let's be honest here, grad school is kind of like walking into a meat grinder that specializes in your brain. Okay, okay, maybe it's not that bad. I mean, I've seriously enjoyed most of grad school. But there are parts that have introduced levels of stress that should only be experienced by astronauts trying to blow up a meteor before it plows into the earth.

That being said, during my time here, there have been a few things I've thought about that I wish someone would have told me about before I started down this path-o-fun. The answers to these things will vary from person to person, and of course they are in no way deal-breakers in terms of completing a degree, but they are certainly food for thought, especially if you are of the female persuasion. So, here are some questions to ask yourself when you are looking to finish up your undergraduate degree and are looking at the possibility of starting the grad school application process:
  • Do you have one of these? (It's a stuffed uterus, for those who don't know. Who, honestly, made this thing? It's rather disturbing, I think. And kinda gross...) Do you plan on using it? Because if you want kids--and that's a great thing if you do--you are going to have to think loooong and hard about grad school. I'm not saying you can't have children while in school (I've seen it done--it can work) but it will add a lot of work and stress. This will be the focus of a much longer blog post in the future, but having a family will be affected greatly by obtaining a higher degree, especially a MD or PhD. You've got long years of work ahead of you, and then a stressful career. Just think about it.
  • Money? Can you afford grad school? It isn't cheap, and thankfully the sciences are pretty good about funding their students, but you certainly won't be rich (unless you already are when you start school, in which case, well, you suck. Kidding!) and there are only so many years you can eat mac-an-cheese and ramen before you get scurvy. If you can handle years of being poor and scrounging food from random university events you "happen" to crash, you'll be fine, but if you're not used to dealing with being poor, ya might want to think some more.
  • What kind of job do you want down the line? There are so many fields these days that a bachelors degree is not worth a whole lot. But there are plenty of others that allow for a fulfilling and happy life without a higher degree, or a shorter one like a Masters. It's something you should have a very clear picture of before you start.
  • Quality of Life. This is the BIG one here--something I've heard from so many people, and all the items above talk about aspects of it. What kind of life do you want to have? Do you long for prestige and power, work best under stress, and won't let anything stand in the way of your dreams? Or do you like these things, but also want to be happy in your life? Enjoy your life, instead of spending it working 24/7? Not all higher degrees will set up a life of stress, but knowing what you're looking for before you start is something to seriously think about, and may dictate which school you apply for, what jobs you hope to get down the line, what your family life will be like. It's your life. Make sure you're living it so that down the line you're not going to be wondering what the heck you're doing.
I've seen a lot of students enter grad school and quickly realize this is not something that they want. They drop out and go on the live meaningful and healthy lives. You know what? They aren't failures. They are just people who know what they want. I wanted my PhD, so I've stuck with my program and keep plugging along (wishing that light at the end of the tunnel were a little closer). But before you start school, make sure you know where you stand, what you want, and aren't doing this for 1) someone else, or 2) the wrong reasons. It's a big investment to make for the wrong reasons.


I hate introducing myself. It reminds me of the first day of class where the teacher asks everyone to stand up and say their name, where they're from, and something interesting about themselves. My hands always get sweaty and it is incredibly hard to even remember my name when it's finally my turn. It's also inevitable that the person in front of me will have the exact same "interesting" thing about them that I was going to use. Yup. Good times. Now that I get to teach, there's some little part of me the loves using this technique on my students though!

BUT, that being said, my name is Meradeth. It's spelled funny and has resulted in a lot of childhood trauma--especially because it was always impossible to find anything monogrammed with my name when I was a kid. I am a sixth year graduate student, attempting to finish up my PhD at a school in California that has become my employer, house, and torturer. In the past six years I've managed to spend a lot of time talking about what makes graduate school students tick, what makes things run smoother, and especially what I had thought about before I started my graduate career. Basically, I wish there had been a handbook, so I thought I might start one here! I most certainly don't consider myself an expert, but I procrastinate talk a lot with other students and I think it's time to give a little back :)

So, if you have questions, want to post a guest post, or have a suggestion about the blog, please shoot me an email! I'm going to shoot for at least a post a week, if not more, and will try to have some fun content, as well as contests, so hit the little follow button, add me to your reader, and let the conversation begin!

Oh, and let's play nice, okay? Trolls will be subjected to a joint MD/PhD program with an adviser that never leaves his office and expects you to do the same. I can think of no greater hell... :)