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.)