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, February 27, 2011

How to Pick an Academic Area of Study

One of the questions posed in this past week's discussion with undergraduates has had me thinking for the past few days and I think it makes an interesting topic for a post. This question was framed along the lines of "I'm interested in everything, how do I pick one thing to study?"

My gut reaction to this was along the lines of "are you kidding me?" I mean, I know full well there are major parts of my field that I have absolutely no interest in. But, I got to thinking about it, and within the general framework of my subfield there is a LOT I'm interested in. Actually, almost all of it I find interesting. Of course, that doesn't help when trying to come up with a solid research plan when applying for grad school, where a neat and tidy plan is necessary to demonstrate that you're capable of coming up with one, and of course setting up where and with whom you want to study. It can be a make-it or break-it part of your application. So how do you pick one thing you are wanting to study in school?

Well, there is a big caveats to this. Mainly, what you say you're going to study in grad school in your application more often then not isn't what you end up writing your dissertation on. You're going to need to be flexible (which makes liking a lot of different things very helpful). Your application will more often than not be a kind of guideline than an actual research plan, as funding/resources/samples/etc. will play a huge roll in how you plan your studies. Being flexible is a big part of research, so keep that in mind :)

That doesn't help though when it comes to actually finding something to study. Or at least say you want to study. Or even pick a general area of interest. Say you plan on going into archaeology, with some kind of crazy dream of being the next Indiana Jones (though he was really an art historian, and don't even get me started on this subject...), what part of the world are you going to want to focus your attention? The Maya? The Anasazi? The ancient Egyptians? You aren't going to be able to study them all, and with the way all science is going these days, everything is becoming more and more specialized. I look at my own research and have to laugh--I'm into such a minuscule area that it's almost funny (if it weren't so painful at times). Anyhow, you'll need to pick an area and narrow it down. And then pick a particular topic within that area and narrow that even further. But starting off with the bigger picture, how does someone go about narrowing things down?

Well, this is what I might recommend to those with this issue: make a list. I'm a big fan of lists. What have you studied that you just can't seem to get enough of? Make a list of these and take a long hard look at them. If you can't imagine spending the Rest of Your Life (and yes, that does need caps) studying this topic, move on to the next. Then, start digging. Read some papers. Read some more. If after five or six recent academic articles on a topic (and you'll probably have to go back and find some foundational research to build these on) you're still totally intrigued, keep going a bit. More often than not, you will find that either this is something you really love, or you'll find that the field has moved into an area you're totally not into. I'd use this method to cull through your list and narrow it down to as few items as possible.

From there, well, look at jobs. Let's face it, you're going to have to find employment studying this at some point, so finding out if there are more jobs in a particular sector will be very important. Studying underwater basket weaving probably won't help you much in terms of finding a paycheck. But there are regularly jobs for people in certain areas, so finding out this information at the first can really help. Plus, the chances of getting done and not finding a job (which is quite frankly the absolutely most frustrating thing I've ever experienced) will hopefully be minimized.

Anyhow, from here, narrowing your search will be based on schools an advisers. Finding a good fit for a school you like, an adviser you'll be comfortable working with, and a topic of interest will severely limit your list. If you're still having a hard time at this point, you're going to need to just spend some time thinking about it and what you want out of your life. I know that sounds rather vague and all, but that's something that I think is incredibly important.

Does anyone have any other suggestions?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Meeting with the Undergrads

Wow, I'm thinking today's title would make for a great sci-fi movie :) Okay, clearly I'm sleep deprived....

This evening in one of those rare "give back" (or in my case "warn away") moments, I attended one of the Anthropology Club meetings run for the undergraduates in my department. They were hosting a few of us grad students for a Q&A session about grad school (hence the "warn away" on my part--not really, but I am not one to generally sugar-coat anything!). It was a well-attended event and I had a really good time. Of course, that's probably because I got to pontificate a little, but hey, I gotta get my kicks somehow.

The assortment of students were asking all sorts of questions about things I've covered here, mainly about the whole process of grad school. How do you go about figuring out what you want to do? How do you approach people? All kinds of good stuff for future blog posts, as well as ones I've already hit on. I was impressed by their level of questioning. It is always heart-warming to see a bunch of college students really thinking about the next steps in the lives, particularly continuing their education (this must have a lot to do with TA'ing underclassmen for years on end, and seriously fearing for the future of our country when they can't write a simple sentence to save their lives--but I digress). Anyhow, other than my mild foreboding at the thought of so many people seriously considering going on for a degree in a field that is already so saturated, it was fun. Kudos to those of you out there planning on grad school! May you make wise choices that you later don't wonder why you didn't get a lobotomy instead :)

*please insert Debbie-Downer noise from SNL here*

Monday, February 21, 2011


Okay, it's President's Day. Yay! Right? Um, yeah, because I'm in grad school, this basically means I get the day to catch up on my insane to-do list. And maybe even a little sleep, if I'm lucky. This lovely little fact brought to you today by your local disgruntled grad student (who just spend several lovely hours grading, instead of being in Frisco looking at Olmec heads, which may still be work related, but would be much more interesting that eternally attempting to write out the difference between 'q' and 'q^2'.) Holidays, are in fact, for wusses. Or the gainfully employed. Either way, I look forward to the day when a school closure doesn't mean I just have to use extra keys to get into my building.

I so wish I were sitting near this umbrella today. Actually, I wish I were here every day!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dealing with the Stress

Alrighty people, I'm taking a break from the pile of midterms staring at my on my desk to write about something I've been rather intimately aware of lately: STRESS. Honestly, as my to-do list reaches insane proportions, I have been struggling with the concept of dealing with it all. I think this has a lot to do with a graduate student's life, and grad school in general lends itself to a little of this:

(This is me WAY too much of the time!)
Stress levels may ebb and flow a bit throughout your graduate career, but it's probably going to be a pretty large presence in your life. Not only that, but women tend to deal with stress differently. Some of us thrive on it even (not that that's me. Uh-nuh. Nope.), or become addicted to it even (never!). So finding ways to deal with it that work for YOU is going to be important. Because being stressed out all the time can lead to:

WTH? Seriously, don't eat your computer! Try donuts. They taste better!
Just as a recap, stress in your life can lead to: loss of hair (with or without you ripping it out), ulcers, blood pressure problems, and lowered fertility. So even if you finally get to a point in life where you can have a family, it can become a problem. Basically, all of these are bad things, and there are a bunch of other health symptoms that stress can cause or affect. Don't let grad school do this to you! I mean, I'm sooo the best example for this right? Totally. Because I swear, this is me:
I regularly find myself wandering the halls of my building, totally lost in a stressed-out daze, and then I wonder why people ask me what's wrong.... :) 
Anyhow, there are a lot of ways that I try to mitigate being an ulcer-queen (wow, that sounds dirty). Here are a few that might be things to think about, and please, chime in with a comment for any others that you've used yourself, or seen others using:
  • Exercise. I never thought I'd become a gym person. I mean, it's kinda not me, like, at all. But I swear, if I don't go now, I find myself climbing the walls. Plus, added bonus, burning some extra calories. This is especially good for those times when you absolutely must have chocolate (or insert goodie of choice, so long as it's high in calories) or the afternoon will not go on. I mean, we've all been there, right? Good tip for getting to the gym: find a buddy to go with! What I would do without mine would involve a lot more of my couch.
  • Find a hobby. You are all reading mine :) But seriously, finding something to do outside of school that allows you to think about something else for a while is a bonus. Tactile things are really good. Doesn't have to be fancy, but find something. I know a lot of people who cook/bake/make awesomely yummy things to eat. They earn lots of bonus points for bringing said yummy things in to share, too...
  • Give yourself a day. Once a week. It may sound impossible at times (and I'll admit, this is a hard one for me to manage), but knowing you'll have one day a week to not think about school stuff really helps the rest of the week be more productive. So, go outside. Do your laundry. Read a book for pleasure. Treat yourself with a day off. Your to-do list will thank you.
  • Find someone to talk to. Some days are just so bad. So insane. It can really help to have someone, not necessarily to dump on, but to commiserate with. This is especially true for females--we need this kind of social connection. So, take your office-mate to get something to drink. Talk. Share. Take a load off.
  • Be organized. This is a total no-brainer. But still, it's worth mentioning. Because nothing stresses me out more than forgetting stuff or realizing I have missed out on something because I never wrote it down. Find a notebook, a planner, google-calendars. Something. It helps!
  • Don't beat yourself up about things you've missed. It doesn't help.
  • Do a google image search for "stress." WOW. I laughed my butt off. Sometimes, really, it's the simple things that can really make a difference though. Find out what works for you and keep at it.
Some days, I swear, the only thing that keeps me going is knowing I'm almost done with school. There is light at the end of the tunnel. (I mean, not that I have even had a spare minute to look at the rest of my dissertation I'm supposed to be currently writing, but that's okay. Really. Sorta.) Still, it's been a slog of a few years, and a lot of it is lost to a stress-induced haze. Don't let this happen to you!

So, do tell, what is your best means of dealing with stress? Please share!

Also, if you have an idea for something you'd like to share as a post as one of our awesome guest-posts, please contact me!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Habitation Hunt

It's Super Bowl Sunday, which is one of those curious events in the States that I always find kind of fun to watch. I mean, I don't follow football, and hardly know which teams are playing, but it is an event where even non-sports fans get together to watch (mostly the commercials, which how strange is it that the they have become so interesting?). I'm thinking some chips and tasty bean dip is in my near future :)

So, you've decided you want to go to graduate school. You've researched programs, made the difficult decisions on where to apply, written an awesome personal essay, and aced your entrance exams. After surviving your interviews, you've gotten in. Yay! Take some time to celebrate! (It may be the last time you do for a while, because now comes the hard work :) Anyhow, in many cases starting graduate school includes moving some substantial distance. It is not easy finding a new place to live in a distant city, and thank heavens for the internet because I don't know how people managed before it! Make sure you scour the web for places to live, and read people's reviews before you secure your distant home. If you can take a trip to check it out (or even better, scout places while there for your visit/interview), even better.

After moving into my first apartment in grad school, I quickly came to find that there were a few things that I really wished I had to make my life easier. Because, remember, those first two years of school may actually kill you. It's been known to happen (okay, not really, but your time in classes is less than easy). Here are a few things to consider in your new digs: (and please, chime in on your thoughts or additions!)
  • Location. If you can afford it, the closer the better. The last thing you'll want is a super long drive home after a long day in class/the library/the lab. Most places close to campus are expensive, and I get that (or infested with undergrads), but see what you can do.
  • Appliances. Don't have a problem with doing your dishes by hand? Wait til you have a sink-full that smell bad and you honestly don't have the time to do them. I have often lamented about my lack of a dishwasher, and since I finally got one (it is the size of a microwave--I kid you not. And it hooks into my sink. And I think I'm in love with it.), it is awesome. Time-saver extraordinaire!
    • Washing machines and dryers. Wow. I'm all domestic here, but seriously, if you can get them in your apartment (like, you know, have hook-ups for them) DO IT. Craigslist often has older ones up for cheap/free. It's a time thing. It will make your life easier, and no more hauling all your crap to the laundromat to fight for machines every Saturday. (Or my personal favorite, the candy in the machines from someone else's kids. Thank you to whomever stained all of my intimates pink. You suck.) Also, if you have a significant other for whom you do the laundry, well, it just frees up more time. Of course, maybe you can convince him to take over laundry duties. Or you can make it easier on both of you.
  • Volume. If you can, find out if there are regular weeknight parties from a host of undergrads living next door. Ask the other tenants. See what the demographic of the place is. It's one thing to live in a place that sometimes has a party that can get loud and keep you from some much needed sleep, but quite another to live next door to a frat house that enjoys beer-pong at 3am. Every. Single. Night.
  • Personal Space. Let's face it. You're going to get pretty stressed in school. (And if you don't, well, there's something wrong with you. Or you're reading the wrong blog :) Anyhow, you will probably want someplace you can go to that's going to allow you to relax a little. Translation: just because it's incredibly cheap, but looks like Bates Motel, well, you may want to reconsider. I know this generally tends to be more the case for women, too, so make sure you can actually deal with the level of scuzziness where you're going to be living. A place you can study in peace and comfort is going to be worth it.

Student Housing is your friend. Many schools have graduate student housing, so make sure you contact the office early, as there is almost always a waiting list. The housing may not be ideal but the prices are generally pretty good, and often the location can't be beat. (I currently live in married student housing. It's small, but quiet and on campus--as in, I can almost see my building. Other than fighting for the dryer during the winter, it's really not too bad.) Even if you don't want to live in Transient Housing (or grad housing, but I like my name better), they often have resources for the better places to live in town. It's these kinds of offices that you really should get in contact with!

I know all of the above are pretty common sense, but they are good things to keep in mind. The other biggie is roommates. If you managed to get through undergrad without at least one crazy roommate tale, well, congrats! The same rules in picking roommates applies in grad school. I regularly see incoming first-years sending out emails seeking roommates, and this is certainly a good way to get a pool of applicants. But, be sure you get to know this person a bit before you sign a lease with them! I mean, duh, right? You do not need the added stress of the psycho in the room next door on top of everything else you'll be doing. Laying down some ground rules before you sign a lease wouldn't hurt, like knowing how to split rent, who's going to take out the trash, etc.

Living with your significant other? This is a major topic that I'll hit on in its own post, but sitting down and having a frank discussion about responsibilities and division of labor is probably a really smart thing to do. Coming from some experience here, (especially when both are in school) it can get pretty hairy. Having a whole lot of understanding, as well as some framework to fall back on, can make your living situation a lot better. Anyhow, as I said, this is a whole ball of wax to tackle another day.

Happy hunting!

(Also, do you have a topic you want to talk about on the blog? I love guest posts!!)