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!

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... :)