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, January 30, 2011

The Dreaded Personal Essay

At some point in the application process everyone is going to have to write one of those essays to the tune of "tell me about yourself." It can be disguised in a million different questions, but at its heart, it's the same essay. The committee deciding whether or not to admit you wants to know a bit more about you, other than your test scores and GPA. Often times there is also an essay on your proposed research that goes along with this, and more often than not, that can seem a whole lot easier. Honestly, every time I come across a personal essay (and they still exist even at this stage of grad school, only now in the form of job applications, etc.), I find myself grumbling. I really really hate writing about myself. The odd anecdote here and there, sure, no problem, but writing a whole essay about me? Bo-Ring.

But, it doesn't have to be.

The past few years I've started editing these things for friends, friends of friends, and a few odd students. I've never sat on an admission's committee, but I have managed to accumulate a few tips on what is going to constitute a good essay. (So far, I have a 100% success rate of edited essays leading to admission--a fact that I am stupidly proud of, despite the fact it has really nothing to do with my work... :) In general, you're looking to do a couple of things with this essay, and it's important to keep them in mind while writing the dang thing:
  1. Make yourself stand out. In a GOOD way. This is the perfect vehicle to note that you are more than a sum of your grades and research projects, but a person who lives and breathes the field you are trying to get into. Or, at least, make it seem that way.
  2. Highlight the important stuff. Have you done an internship/worked in your field? What did you learn? How is that going to help you? Note any other experiences you've had that maybe only get a line on your CV (maybe teaching experience, volunteer experience, the odd job you had before--obviously so long as it has something to do with your chosen field).
  3. Demonstrate why you're the perfect person for the school. Okay, this seems like a total 'duh' but most people don't like praising themselves and sounding arrogant. In these kinds of essays, you're going to have to walk that fine line between sounding snobbish and stating why they totally should want you. Be mindful of it (so don't act totally full of yourself--no one likes that), but you are trying to convince them to take you on, so point out why you're so totally irresistible.

So, how do you go about writing it? Well, there are no hard and fast rules, but in general you'll want to start off with something that's going to be considered a 'hook.' Draw your readers in and remind them that this isn't just any personal essay--this is an essay by someone they're going to want to have at their school. Now, don't go overboard and freak them out, but hit them with your high points first. Remember, you're essay is going to be sitting in a giant stack of others that more than likely the reader is just looking to finish with so they can get on with their lives. So, start off with your strong points: what makes you the most awesome. Don't think you have one of these? Remember, it's all in how you spin it :)

For the rest of the essay you are going to want to continue talking about your selling points. Go into (limited) detail about what your experiences have been that make you the right person for this spot. Be succinct, be honest, and be positive. Don't be down on yourself, ever! You may be reading the thing and thinking "oh crap, I totally sound like the lamest applicant ever" (which, I'll admit, every personal essay I've ever written  makes me think this way), but so long as you come across as honest and earnest, you're on the right track!

Now, there's a few things to watch for in the essay itself:
  • I've already mentioned it, but don't be arrogant. It's not a winning quality :)
    • THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE IN FEMALES. I don't know how many articles I've read about how being self-assured in females comes across as being bitchy and unlikeable, even when men are almost required to be so. It's not fair, but it's the truth. Keep it in mind while writing--you can sound somewhat humble, but also incredibly competent at the same time, and it's all in how you phrase it!
  • Don't just dash something off and assume that no one's going to read it. Make sure you put some time into it.
  • Have other people read it and give you feedback (the more the merrier!).
  • Watch for correct spelling and grammar (DUH!).
  • Don't go on forever and ever; a page should be plenty (and most will have word-limits, so make sure you obey them).
  • Remember to look carefully at word choice. Every. Single. Word. Matters. So make them count.
  • Be positive. Even if it kills you.
  • Don't do anything fancy with your formatting--I could go on for pages on this, but I'll spare you all, just keep in mind that what's easiest to read and look the cleanest is by far the best (think of those giant stacks of applications again).
Those are the biggies in this game, at least that I look for first when I'm reading for other people. There are plenty of minor nuances that I get into more detail with when I have individual essays in front of me, but these general things will get you on the right track.

Anyone have anything else to add about personal essays? What has worked best for you?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

What do YOU want to be when you grow up?

Okay, bear with me here, I just have something I kind of want to get off my chest. I don't do personal posts on here, but I think this has a lot to do with the general theme of Girls Guide, so I want to bring it up and see if anyone else has some thoughts on the matter.

Anyhow, last night I went to see The King's Speech (awesome movie, btw). Anyhow, one of the previews, for the movie Company Men, had a tag line that caught my eye and has been rattling around in the back of my mind all night. It went something like this: "In American, we give our lives to our job. It's time we took it back." (Okay, something like that--it's not exactly right, but you get the idea :)

Anyhow, it got me thinking of how true this is. In this country (and I'm sure elsewhere, too), we ARE our job. From a young age we ask "what do you want to be when you grow up?" Like our job is going to define who we are completely. One of the first things that is asked when you meet someone new is regarding what they do for a living. Like that means something. Like it defines their live totally and completely and you can tell something intrinsic about who they are because of what they do to pay the bills.

Now, the thing I find most disturbing about this is that I have totally and completely fallen into this trap. I know I define myself by my roll as a scientist, a teacher, a graduate student. In some way it's a part of who I am. And to some extend, I get that: it's what I spent the bulk of my time doing, so therefore it is part of me. Sure. But does it define me completely? Heck no! And part of me really hates that people lump my by that. Still, when I introduce myself I find myself giving the same old answers of what I do for a living like it is the ultimate answer of who I am, like it might influence someone into thinking one way or another about me. For some reason that just irks me.

Anyhow, does anyone have any thoughts on this? Are we our jobs? Or is there any other way to define who we are? Just something to think about at least!

And just for fun:

(Is it sad that I identify with this cartoon so much??)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Guest Post: The Interview

Today we have the pleasure of getting some pointers on the interview process from one of my favorite people! Joy was a former lab technician/miracle worker where I work and she decided to leave us for the greener pastures of UCSB (well, at least the better views. And the beach. Lucky!). Anyhow, she has offered a few words of wisdom of what you all should and should not do during a grad school interview, which is one of the first processes of grad school life designed to stress you out and make you sweat.

Take it away, Joy!

Interview advice:

1) have some idea about what the PI does, read papers or even just the synopsis on the dept website, papers are obviously better

2) but if you do forget/don't know a simple "can I see some of your more recent data?" will generally start off a 20 min long explanation from the world expert on that topic and by the time they're done the interview is over. Works like a charm (esp if you're an overly nervous/shy person)

3) if you know enough about their research come prepared with specific questions, they like that and it makes you look smart/thoughtful

4) don't ask dumbass questions. I was interviewing as WSU Pullman with some dude who studied female gamete maturation in some organism (c elegans?) and I asked why not in males, he looked at me like I was stupid and said "because that's not how it works in males, sperm doesn't mature." I felt like an idiot. no bueno!

5) relax! they've invited you to interview because they're interested in you. i found out after the fact that my program at UCSB only interviews people who they've more or less accepted. so long as you're not crazy/douchey/an idiot/or obviously choosing SB for the location/weather you're in. some schools even tell you you're accepted before you go to the interviews (Davis) others wait to tell you you've been accepted until you get to the interview (WSU)

The only other things I can think of apply to any interview situation: dress well (I wore jeans/sweater/nice-ish shoes to all of mine), don't chew gum, etc.

I'm not an expert but I did do it 3 times. I hope this helps!

Some good advice, right folks? #2 is sooo true, too, trust me! The only thing I can think of that I would tack on here as a side note is to be nice to everyone. (Joy does this normally, but I've seen my share of people who aren't as socially adept... :) Anyhow, the office ladies, your potential adviser's kids or spouse--all these people can influence whether you get in, and even if you are rude and get in, it won't be nearly as easily to deal with these people. Also, I've heard stories of people "testing" potential interviewees by making them work with frustrating people, just to see how they act. Kind of puts a different spin on the old saying "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" right? Anyhow, something to keep in mind!

So, does anyone have anything they would like to relate? Interview horror stories? Comments of any kind are always appreciated :)

A big THANK YOU to Joy for her great post!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Diversity in Graduate School

Considering that today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I figure that it is only appropriate that I pay a small homage to the man, and post a little about graduate school diversity. I mean, this is technically the Girls Guide, and by being female and in graduate school, we are technically increasing the diversity of the institution :) (Although, actually, males in graduate schools are actually shrinking in numbers, so I'm not sure what this means today...)

Anyhow, in poking around on the net some, particularly on the Council of Graduate Schools website there is a wealth of information about the diversity of graduate students across the county. The most recent report they have posted there (a 114pg behemoth of a thing) notes this:

"Over the latest one-, five-, and ten-year periods, growth in first-time graduate
enrollment among U.S. citizens and permanent residents has been greater
for racial/ethnic minorities than for Whites.... Between fall 2008
and fall 2009, Asian/Pacific Islander first-time enrollment increased fastest at
9.3%, compared with 5.3% for Whites. Over the last five-year period,
Blacks/African Americans had the greatest average annual growth and
Whites the least, and over the last ten-year period, Hispanics/Latinos had the
greatest average annual growth and Whites the least."

Interesting, right? Now, I'm not going to get into what I think about the actual categories that they mention (I mean, I do teach Human Biological Variation and we always are talking about how these categories are seriously arbitrary--I mean, just for example, what is "white"? It actually encompasses almost as much diversity as the Asian/Pacific Islander group. Does. Not. Make. Sense.), but over all what we're seeing is that most schools are seeing many more minority students apply, which in my book is a really great thing. If we need diversity anywhere, it's in graduate school and in the academic community, which has seen the old-boy mentality for far too long.

More specifically for women, we see this:

"As described earlier, first-time enrollment growth has been stronger for
women than for men over the last ten-year period. This pattern held true for
most broad fields between fall 1999 and fall 2009, with the average annual
increases for women outpacing those for men in all but four broad fields
over the ten-year period: arts and humanities, mathematics and computer
sciences, public administration and services, and ‘other’ fields (Table 3.10
and Figure 3.10). For women, the average annual rates of increase were
greatest in health sciences (6.5%), engineering (6.4%), and business
(6.0%). Average annual growth was smallest in arts and humanities (1.9%),
physical and earth sciences (2.5%), and ‘other’ fields (2.8%) over the

Okay, so I know these are kind of data heavy quotes, but they note the trends of where women and minorities are picking up speed. Pretty interesting. Now, there's always the question of diversity for diversity's sake: something that I found quite a few articles on while hunting around on google, but I don't think this is the case for graduate school. Sure, there are a lot of diversity-oriented grants and stuff, but to even get considered for graduate school, you have to have a pretty outstanding record, which isn't going to be oriented around your background as much as around your accomplishments.

Anyhow, this is an interesting trend, and something I'd love to hear your thoughts on!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Classroom Antics

Could someone please tell me where the past couple of weeks have gone? I'd seriously pay good money to know. I keep thinking I should have more time than this, but alas, I really have been swamped. Anyhoot, one of the main reasons for this is that school has started back up again and this quarter I don't have the luxury of being on grant, and I'm back in the classroom. For me, this is a great thing. I really adore being a Teaching Assistant (TA), as it allows me the freedom of not planning lectures every freaking day, and I get to know the students a whole lot better. I've met some of the most awesome people I know in the classroom, particularly in the class I'm now working with--my absolute favorite that's offered by my department. This, of course, does not mean that there aren't hiccups in my day. Anyone who has taught a class knows that sometimes things just don't go according to plan. It can't be helped. And sometimes it can be downright crazy. If nothing else, my students keep me on my toes!

In the interest of being more positive this year, I think this week should be devoted to your absolute favorite classroom moment. Whether it be the time you realized you'd given a whole lecture with your fly down, or that your phone goes off (twice!) in lecture, or you nearly hit someone in the head with a human femur, or students nearly come to blows discussing a heated topic. Not that any of these have ever happened to me. Seriously. Never. Uh-huh. (I swear I turned that phone off!)

But, seriously, we've all had them. The moments that either make us come home and hide under our covers, or make us realize teaching can be a whole lot of fun (or, well, not!). For me, this past two weeks has offered a few little gems that have left me chuckling to myself:

Last week, I had a student note that she'd been asked her race so people could find out whether or not they could hit on her. I sat there for a good ten seconds (an eternity with 25 kids staring at you) unable to come up with a single response. Classic. This week, I honestly thought a couple of the girls in my class might kill each other over a comment that animals don't support young that they know aren't capable of being self-sufficient, so why should humans? Um, this didn't go over so well with her classmates...

Anyhow, entering grad school often means that there will be at least once where you will be TA'ing a class and find yourself in a situation that makes you wince, laugh, and have a whole lot of respect for professors who have been doing their jobs for 30+ years. So tell me, what has been your favorite moment in the classroom?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Free Kaplan Books

So, I swear I had a really informative post all ready to write. And then I got busy, so I had a funny post I was going to do instead, but Blogger refused to cooperate. Now, I'm stuck. Bah! Anyhow, for those of you out there looking for a book to study for a Big Test in your near future, and you have an eReader of some kind (or, a computer), check this out! I seriously downloaded a bunch of cool books for free, and all of Kaplan's study guides are free until January 10th. They have other interesting books, too, which I found some good titles amongst. Pretty sweet deal, really! Go forth and study!