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, 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!