What I wish I’d been told during my first year of graduate school

Happyyyy summerrrrr!

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Actually, not really. Apparently Pennsylvania missed the memo that it’s supposed to be warm. It’s been 40 degrees this week and yes, it’s made me cry. Don’t judge me. I’m a Florida girl.

Summer is such a precious time. Everything finally calms down a bit, you get the opportunity to crank out some work without the added stress of classes or department obligations. This is actually my first real productive summer here, since last summer I spent recovering from a broken leg (but hey, it couldn’t have been all bad since that’s why I started this blog!).

Although I’m hoping summer will pass by extra slowly, one of my favorite times of the year is right around the corner: the beginning of the fall semester and the welcoming of the new grad students into our department!

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I’ve been reflecting on my last two years in grad school and thought I would write a blog post of advice I wish I had gotten (or wish I had followed) when I first arrived at Penn State. I also asked a fellow grad student in my department about her experience and included her recommendations below too (thanks friend, you know who you are!).

Some of these pieces of advice may not apply to you, but I think, in general, they are a good foundation for setting yourself up for success. Department atmosphere, fellow grad students, and university environment also play an enormous role in this, but there are also some healthy habits and mindsets you can get into that would help.

Let’s get into it!

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Establish healthy work habits early 

Coming from a 9-5 job prior to attending grad school, I learned the value of leaving work at work to the best of my ability. Sometimes, this isn’t going to be feasible. You may have an exam to study for, a paper due at midnight, or edits to get back to your advisor.

But in general, and whenever possible, try to maintain a reasonable work schedule. Working 60+ hours a week is not only unhealthy, but also unproductive. More hours of work do not necessarily mean increased productivity.

My recommendation is to establish a routine of working efficiently for a reasonable amount of time per week. And when you go home, REST. Use your weekends to have fun, take care of yourself, and REST. Your brain and body need it.

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(You may be put in the situation where your advisor expects you to be working long hours. This is a complicated scenario and one I cannot speak about because I have never been in this situation. However, I would recommend talking to your advisor or someone else in your department that may be able to lend a hand about working late and on the weekends. As a grad student, no matter what anyone says, this should not be expected of you. You are a human. A person. With a life. A life that is not completely enveloped in this work, unless you want it to be. Defend yourself and your time if you can. And if you can’t, try finding people who will.)

 

Maintain your hobbies or get new ones

During my first year of grad school, I was in class when a faculty member shared a story about how, at one point during her grad career, she realized she didn’t have any hobbies. She was using this story as an example of how she broke down because she had been all consumed by her work.

At that moment I also asked myself, “Do I have any hobbies?” and the answer had become no. I used to have sooooo many hobbies. Reading, crocheting, playing video games, running, working out, hiking, etc. And honestly, almost all of those had gone to shit when I got into grad school. After she shared that story, I remember feeling, for the first time, that I had really changed as a person when I got here. I had become someone that focused too much on work and, as a consequence, other aspects of my life suffered.

It’s taken time, but I started reading novels again. I started hiking again and working out regularly. Still haven’t made it back to crocheting, but one thing at time.

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I’m not necessarily good at crocheting, but hey, you don’t have to be good at something for it to still be fun! (Yes, I realize the sheep is knitting but there weren’t any good gifs for crocheting)

I encourage you to maintain your hobbies when you get to grad school. Or, if your hobbies were dependent on your previous location or situation, get new ones. Having an activity to look forward to, that doesn’t come with strings attached, is so valuable. More valuable than I previously gave it credit for.

Thinking about it now, it was SO easy to fall into the mindset of shrugging off fun activities for more work. Why read a novel when you have five papers saved that also need to be read? I kept choosing the latter and, over time, those hobbies became memories and were even more difficult to reengage in after I realized what I had lost.

Don’t be me. Keep doing the things you love for fun.

Make a point to explore your town or city 

If you’re entering into a Ph.D. program, chances are you’ll be in your town or city for the next 5-7 years of your life. Make the most out of it! Ask around and see what people do for fun.

This may seem like a straightforward thing, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll fall into work obligations and forget to explore. And once things start to get busy, it takes much more effort to seek out activities than when you had more time.

Familiarize yourself with your local area. Go on drives if you have a car. Explore your neighborhood or the downtown area of your town/city. Try new places to eat. Visit stores you’ve never heard of (for me, that was Wegmans, but seriously Publix is still where it’s at).

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There’s just no substitute for Publix. 

It’s much easier to do something fun that you’re already familiar with during times of stress. Take the opportunity to figure out what the fun things are early on. It will be worth it!

 

Meet graduate students outside of your department and people outside your college/university

Look, don’t get me wrong. I love the fellow grad students in my department. These people have been with me through some hard times. And nobody really knows your struggles like your department-mates or lab-mates do.

BUT. Please. Make friends outside of your department.

Even if they are grad students in other departments, just make friends outside of your work place.

Having people that can remind you that what you’re doing is not THE single most important thing in the world (and that if you fail, the world will actually end) is more valuable than you may think right now. Nothing has grounded me more than talking with friends outside of my department, and especially those outside of academia.

My partner that is not within academia at the moment. I am SO grateful for the constant reminder that the things that feel so crushing and so overwhelming to me are, more often than not, not as serious as I make them out to be. Only having friends within your department may reinforce these negative thoughts and also cause you to be talking about work even during non-work hours. I know it may seem silly and nitpicky, but removing yourself from your work to just breathe is so important. And sometimes, that boils down to who your talking to and hanging with in your free time.

 

Join organizations

One of the best ways to meet people outside of your department is to join organizations! If you’re at a large university, chances are there are organizations that may speak to your passions that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to engage with in your department alone.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to sacrifice what you’re passionate about just because you feel (or others make you feel) like you should be working all the time. 

While at Penn State, I help found our chapter for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). SACNAS has become a wonderful community for me, especially as a ethnic minority in a very, very white school. I was able to attend the SACNAS 2018 conference with some of my friends from the chapter, and this experience eventually led to me changing my entire dissertation based on what I had learned while there.

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Me and some other Penn State undergrads and grad students at SACNAS 2018!

However, I will caution with this point. It’s easy to start getting involved in MANY organizations once you start. There are so many awesome groups doing amazing work and activities, and, at least for me, the temptation was there for me to join all of them. For a while, I did. And I almost burnt out.

Like anything else, take this in moderation, but don’t underestimate the power of connecting with people over passions outside of your research.

 

Find campus or external resources for areas that you struggle in

Personal and academic struggles can be amplified when you’re under stress. Asking for help with your struggles is much easier when you know that resources exist to help you get through them.

Do you struggle with academic writing? Check to see if there’s an academic writing center at your institution. We have one here at Penn State that I JUST learned about, two years into my program.

Do you come from a low-income family or will you be considered low-income when you get into grad school? Many institutions have food pantries you can utilize if things get rough. Having those phone numbers nearby will be helpful if you’re ever in that situation.

Have you struggled with mental health issues in the past or are currently experiencing mental health issues? Look into campus resources for seeking help. At Penn State, we have Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). This has been a great resource for many students I’ve spoken to, both grads and undergrads. The services provided through your institution may be no- or low-cost, which is especially important considering many grad student budgets. Also consider asking more senior grad students about their experiences and where they seek help, and if your insurance plan covers these services.

Speaking from my personal experience, I knew I needed a therapist way longer than I knew just how easy it would be for me to see one. I will forever be grateful to the friends that encouraged me to seek help, and gave recommendations for specific places I could go to that would take my insurance. Sometimes, having someone say “Hey, this place has helped me” versus “They are several places in town that have helped students” can make a huge difference.

 

Imposter syndrome is real for everyone 

People have become more and more vocal about imposter syndrome. If you’ve never heard of imposter syndrome, check out this article to learn a little more.

I struggle with imposter sydrome on the REGULAR.

“Everyone is so much smarter than I am.”

“It’s only a matter of time before they discover that I’m a fraud.”

“I don’t even know how I got in. I was lucky.” 

“What if I can’t live up to the standards I’ve set for myself?”

I always knew that other students felt this way. It wasn’t until I started talking to more faculty members that I realized they, too, regularly struggle with imposter syndrome. And they are TENURE-TRACK FACULTY. They actually achieved their career goals. They got the job they wanted and would easily be considered a success story in their former departments. And they still struggle with this.

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Them too? Really?

What I’m trying to get across here is that there’s going to be moments where you have these thoughts. And when you do, know that 1) they aren’t true, you were accepted into your program because others recognized your abilities and 2) everyone, from the first-year grad students, to the post-docs, to the faculty, struggles with imposter syndrome.

Although these thoughts still creep up, I try to remind myself that they aren’t real and try to focus, instead, on my accomplishments and the work I’ve put into being here. I deserve to be here, and there’s no other way around it. You deserve to be there too. Remind yourself of this regularly.

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I feel like I could go on but I think I’ve hit the main points I wanted to. As always, I welcome comments and experiences from other grad students!

To current and former grad students: what advice would you give yourself or other incoming students? 

To those entering their programs in the fall: YOU’LL DO WONDERFULLY! Keep being you, defend your time, and make sure to take care of yourself. 

 

Until next time,

Maggie

Outreach, Education, and SciComm at AAPA 2019!

Happy end of the semester, everyone!

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I know I’ve used this gif before, but I really do think of it after some big task is finished!

I’ve been away these last few months catching up on work and my life, but I’m back and so excited to share some of the wonderful outreach and education events I’ve helped organize/participate in recently.

One of the main conferences for my field (biological anthropology) is the annual conference for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA).

(The name of our organization is not reflective of the kinds of work we do, so there’s been a movement recently towards changing the name to the American Association of Biological Anthropologists. If you’re curious about this, you can read more here.)

This year, the AAPAs took place in Cleveland, Ohio, just a short drive from State College (yay for saving on travel and time!).

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I always go to conferences and never manage to take the time to explore. Thankfully, I can always hop back over to Cleveland.

This year at the AAPAs, I co-organized a workshop on education and outreach within biological anthropology called “Teaching Bio Anth Within and Without a Classroom”. This means I got together with some badass #scientistas and ran a poster session where scientists and educators within our field could present their fantastic work, ranging from teaching primatology to middle-schoolers to running a pedagogy-focused group for graduate students.

This poster session was organized by the Committee on Diversity’s Anthropologists outside of Anthropology departments, Contingent, and Teaching-focused faculty (AACT) Task Force and the AAPA Education Committee.

The chair for our session was Dr. Jessica Westin, with co-organizers Becca Peixotto, Molly Selba, and myself! We also had a discussant for our session, the wonderful Dr. Briana Pobiner.

The poster session was on Thursday, March 28, 2019 and ran from 2:30pm-6:00pm (definitely one of the longestttttttttt poster sessions I’ve ever, ever presented in, but worth it!)

I presented on the amazing work done by the Anthropology Graduate Student Association: Outreach Committee at Penn State, of which I am founding member and currently still actively involved in. Y’all have seen my many Twitter posts about the fun activities we plan and the many wonderful children we get to interact with regularly. Here’s a snippet of one of our activities from just this week!

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Our committee has also been recognized during our department’s annual Anthropology Day for the connections and impact we have made in the local community. It was only fitting that we presented our work during the AAPAs! Below is our poster:

AAPA 2019 Outreach Poster

We had 19 brilliant posters presented in our session. Not only so, there was SO much interest in presenting that there was an additional Education poster session later on during the conference!

If you’re interested in seeing some of the wonderful outreach and education work presented during both sessions, do not fret! I have provided the posters below so you, too, can be inspired to run similar initiatives or think of your own within your department, school, college, university, or local community.

 

In addition to this poster session, the AAPA Education Committee also tabled at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History during each day of the conference! Here are some of the highlights from Twitter:

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I hope this post and the various posters, resources, and activities show just how important outreach and education are and the MANY ways you can do it, too!

As always, feel free to reach out with comments, questions, and concerns. Until next time, friends.

 

Maggie

CONGRATULATIONS! You got an interview for a grad program! But now what?

Graduate school acceptance season is upon us!

If you’re reading this, you may have already applied for grad schools, and maybe you’ve been asked to come and interview in person. CONGRATULATIONS! That is such an important step and you deserve the recognition that comes with it!

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When the time came for me to visit the two programs that were interested in potentially accepting me into a PhD program, I really had no idea 1) what to expect, 2) what would be expected of me, and 3) how to make a good impression.

Interviews for graduate programs are not like interviews for jobs. Many times, you are interviewing the program just as much as they are interviewing you (a point I will talk about in more detail later in this post). So, what do you do?

Because I found this to be a particularly stressful time for me, I thought I would put together a few words of advice and reminders regarding graduate school interviews, essentially a compilation of advice I received before my interviews and also what I learned by being on the other end of those interviews with prospective students.

So, let’s get into it!

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Like I said before, you are interviewing the program just as much as they are interviewing you. What does that mean?

Well, first this means that you can relax a little bit. The burden of having to impress is not just on you. You may find that these programs are going to give you tours of facilities, talk about the many resources available to you, have you meet with other students that want to talk about how wonderful the program is, etc.

PhD programs WANT good students. You have been selected for an interview because they have identified you as a good student. They now need to show you why it would be good for you to go there.

Because of this, you do have a big responsibility of making sure to ask questions to check if this is the right program for you. Remember, you are committing to something for the next 5-7 years of your life. Making sure the program you select is a good fit will be essential to your success.

I found that a good way to start thinking about how to approach whether the program is a good fit was to think about what was important and valuable in my life. Here’s a list of potentially important topics to discuss.

  1. Program expectations
  2. Work-life balance
  3. Resources for underrepresented minorities
  4. Outreach
  5. Mental health
  6. Department dynamics
  7. Involvement
  8. Flexibility

All of these issues can be phrased into questions for you to ask grad students, which many times will be the primary (and best) source for this kind of potentially sensitive information. You also want to make sure you’re asking grad students that are specifically in the lab you hope to be working in, if you’ve identified a mentor that would best fit your research interests.

Here are some example questions regarding some of the topics above:

  1. What is the curriculum for the program you’re interviewing for? How many classes do you have to take and what are your responsibilities as a teaching assistant, research assistant, etc.?
  2. How many hours a week do you put into work? Are these hours expected of you by your advisor or department or do you set them?
  3. What resources are available to help students from marginalized communities succeed? What is the department doing to retain these individuals and ensure their success? Does your potential advisor have training with this and how do they approach mentoring diverse individuals?
  4. Although there are disability resource centers on campuses, how does the department provide resources and ensure the success of individuals with disabilities? Are accommodation processes difficult and time consuming, and does the department have a good record of helping students in the regard? 
  5. What resources are there for issues with mental health? Does the department support students going through difficult times, and if so, how do they do it?
  6. What is the mentorship style of your potential advisor? How does the mentorship style work for different students in the lab you’re hoping to work in?
  7. Does the department/advisor in question support engagement with extracurricular activities, such as doing outreach or being in positions of leadership in university organizations?
  8. Are there problems with department politics? Are there faculty members that are not supportive, actively cause difficulties with students, problematic, etc.?

These are just a few of the many questions you can (and in many cases should) be asking during the interview process. For graduate programs, fit matters a lot. You are the best judge of what values are important to you, and finding out if the institution/department/program/advisor you’ll be working with holds similar values is absolutely key. 

Do keep in mind that the program is interviewing you, as well. 

Many times, students will have the opportunity to meet with a variety of faculty members over the course of their interview day(s). During this time, take the opportunity to learn about the diversity of work being conducted by doing some research beforehand on the individuals you will be meeting with. 

Programs will often send over your itinerary before the actual day(s) of your visit. When I was interviewing, I briefly looked up the general area of interests for people I was scheduled to meet that I was unfamiliar with (this will happen because your schedule will be a mix of both who you should be meeting with based on your interests, but also who is available to meet with you). 

A quick Google search, in many cases, will give you a general idea of the work these individuals are conducting, and will be a good starting point to launch into a conversation with them. 

One thing I want to stress (and perhaps this may be different in different programs) but, many times, programs want to see how you would mesh into the department. This may be in the form of meetings with graduate students, where they report back to faculty members and give their general impression of you. Faculty members will do this too. Remember to relax and be yourself. You were selected for a reason, your abilities as a graduate student were recognized, and you will most likely be just fine! 

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Make sure to ask the difficult questions about funding and quality/cost of living.

This may seem like a sensitive topic, but remember that financial struggles can be a very serious burden on top of going to graduate school. Understanding how funding works, how much (ballpark range) you will be making, and if that is going to be enough to cover your expenses IS ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL

Ask graduate students if they feel their stipends are sufficient. Ask students about where they live, what options there are for you to commute to work, and if there are any additional costs associated with this. 

Is there a good public transportation system? Are there parking passes on campus? Is housing very expense or very affordable? Are there graduate student communities that are more conducive to getting work done and living in peace? These are all questions you want to be asking because part of you going to this program means living somewhere completely new (for most people). 

In my case, I moved to Pennsylvania from Florida. The idea of having to experience winter was kind of scary. It may seem like a silly thing to ask about, but this mattered to me because this was a complete change in my lifestyle. And I needed to know if I would be comfortable enough here to do well in my program. 

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Don’t even get me started on this whole winter thing. 

Think about these aspects before you go into your interview, and don’t be afraid to ask graduate students about this, as they will be in the best position to explain to you the feasibility of living off of grad student stipends in the area where you’ll be moving to. 

A little more on quality of life: keep in mind what makes you happy during these interviews.

When I was applying to grad school, I was often told that you select a program based on the quality of the program, and not necessarily the location and area you’ll be living in. At the time, I believed this was the best way to select a program. 

Some may disagree with this, but I have since changed my mind about this sentiment. The quality of the program is not the only factor you should be considering. Ask yourself this: what will make you happy living in this new place?

Are you a hiker? Do you love being outdoors? Then ask about the recreational nature-focused activities in the area around your university. 

Are you from a city and moving to a small town? Ask about the social lives of students that attend your program/university. Are there opportunities to be social and de-stress? If so, what are they?

Do you play a particular sport and want to maintain that throughout the course of your program? Ask about intramural sports, community teams, or other opportunities for you to continue doing the hobbies that you love and cherish. 

Are you moving here with a significant other or a family? Ask about opportunities for your partner in terms of jobs within the community and overall happiness. What are the best school districts for your children, if you have any?

These are all important topics you want to ask about and consider during the course of your interview. 

Remember, quality of life is just as important as the fit of the program. 

Keep this in mind as you go through your interview process and ask questions related to this. You want to make sure other aspects of your life are fulfilled so you can be happy and productive in your program.

 


If you’ve already gone through your interviews, and didn’t have the opportunity to ask some of the questions I mentioned above, you should feel free to email students and faculty members with additional questions that weren’t answered during the course of your interview. 

When I was interviewing, I didn’t really know what I needed to know until I had multiple interviews and until I got home and started thinking about what would be required of me if I were to enter into one of these programs. 

Many times, grad students and faculty will tell you that you can email them with additional questions later on (and if they don’t, think about what that means in terms of the department). Take advantage of this. Make sure to have all of this information, because it will matter when the time comes for you to decide on a program. 

WHEW.

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Hope this post was helpful to you! If you have any questions about topics I didn’t address, feel free to message me. There’s nothing more important to me than making sure information like this is widely and freely available. I’m always here to help. 

The process of interviewing can look very different across programs/universities. I’ve done my best to provide advice that (I think) is useful across the board. If you’re in grad school and have had different experiences or recommend different advice, I’d love to hear from you!

Alright friends, I’m off to spend the rest of my weekend cleaning up my house, because goodness does that suffer when you’re busy. 

 

Stay warm (I know I’ll be trying to!), 

Maggie 

“So, what do you actually DO in grad school?”: A discussion on why it’s so damn hard

Happy (almost) holidays, readers! I apologize for my extended absence. I was looking back at my posts and realized I hadn’t blogged in 4 months, almost down to the day.

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If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen my posts on recent medical battles and coming to terms with my anxiety. To sum it up (and after visiting my neurologist yesterday), I’m doing much better! And in that, I felt that I was ready to get back to doing things I enjoy in my life.

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Funny you should ask, my brain actually WAS leaking!

I will be leaving soon to go back home for the holidays for a short spell. Whenever I go home, I always find myself explaining how grad school is really, really different than undergrad. It’s not just about taking some extra classes in your field, it’s about learning how to be good at failing, over and over and over again (because that’s what some parts of science are all about).

So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss (probably mostly for me) just how grad school is 1) different than any previous type of schooling you may have had and 2) what makes it just so DAMN difficult all the time.

The hope here is to talk about the struggles grad students face, for those hoping to pursue graduate degrees. But also as a way to explain something that tends to be really hard to explain in between bites of lechon and arroz con leche: what I actually DO as a graduate student.

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This will literally be me on Noche Buena 

Disclaimer: I’d like to make the point here that there are a large variety of graduate degrees, and my experience below is specific to those that require a research component in order to complete. All graduate programs are difficult in their own way, this is my experience in a specifically science-focused degree program. 

Graduate school isn’t just about learning more about a particular field, it’s about learning how to contribute to it

I started off my grad school career as most other grad students do, taking courses in the theory behind my field (anthropology) and learning how to frame my outlook on the world. These classes also helped me frame my potential research questions while also showing me how the scientific process has been employed before in order to test hypotheses and produce good quality work.

All of that sounds nice when you’re reading about other scientist’s work, and it may seem logical even as you read through a scientific paper. I regularly found myself saying “DUH, how ELSE would you have tested this?” I know now that my naivety and lack of experience was speaking for me at the time.

As I moved forward with my coursework during my first year, and began my Master’s project, I realized something that I was regularly told but never really internalized.

The questions that I am trying to answer have never been answered before. I don’t mean this in the way of like, “WOW, SO COOL, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE TO HAVE THOUGHT OF THESE QUESTIONS, SO MAGICAL, SO SMART”. I mean it in the way of “Holy crap, I literally have ZERO clue what I’m doing because no one has ever asked this really, really specific question before and I have to figure out almost every step of the way in order to answer it.”

And these steps are not necessarily intuitive (and that’s why having a good advisor during your grad career is so, so important). So what do I spend most of my time doing while researching my questions? Reading, troubleshooting, fixing code, reading more, doing quality control, Googling code that will allow me to do a VERY specific function, more reading, writing, writing, writing, and producing pretty figures. And along the way, learning.

Although it is (semi) important to do well in my classes, those grades are by far the most inconsequential part of my graduate experience. Perhaps this is different in other fields, but for me and my program, the grade at the end of the semester is just a small check for the degree requirements, and one of the easier ones to obtain.

The hardest part comes from actually figuring out how to be a scientist, and no amount of coursework or good grades is going to help you with that. Yes, you’ll learn a lot of what you shouldn’t do, and examples of what you could do, but in reality, the skills you’ll need in order to effectively contribute to your field (which is the only way you’ll get that Master’s or PhD) is to do it and fail, over and over again.

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This is probably the most difficult lesson I have learned (and am still learning) in grad school. That failure is part of the process. It’s not the end of the road, it’s not the end of the project, it’s a necessary step along the way. And sometimes, shit happens, and there’s really nothing you can do about it. Learning how to be ok after those moments, learning how to become resilient in this setting, is one of the most powerful attributes you can possess.

Trying to explain this concept of acceptable failure to my family is difficult. Because, unless you’ve been in a program or situation in which this was the way to learn, failing is only ever seen as a negative. Not only do I have to explain that some things haven’t gone to plan (basically almost everything), I also have to explain how that’s ok and part of the process. I do my best and hope my family understands.

Graduate school can be about much more than taking classes and doing your research, though

I’m pretty vocal about the extracurricular activities I do while also pursuing my graduate degree. I have made a few blogs posts on them, one on the outreach work I’m involved in and another on the graduate welfare committee I helped form.

I am often asked if I am required to do these in order to obtain my degree. And my answer is: well, yes and no.

Yes, because doing these activities, although they are definitely a form of extra work, keeps me happy and sane. I love doing outreach; it fills an aspect of my life that I really can’t get anywhere else, and taps into feelings of nostalgia, appreciation, and love for sharing that I don’t often have the opportunity to engage with on a regular basis. Being a happy and healthy individual makes me a better scientist, student, and human. All of these factor into my education and my graduate experience. Plus, if I hope to secure any funding through NSF, I can use these activities as proof of my commitment to the broader impacts of my work.

Not only so, but engaging in these activities also shows potential employers or collaborators that I care about more than just doing science. I care about social justice, equality, education, inclusion, underrepresented minorities, and mental health. All of this makes me a more well-rounded individual. Some employers definitely see this as a plus, and others may see this as a distraction from what you’re actually supposed to be doing, which is your research. This is important to remember as you move through your graduate education: your job is to pass your classes, complete your requirements, and do your research. Everything else is extra, which brings me to my next point.

No this is not part of my job, because there is nowhere in any of my requirements that says that I have to engage in these activities. There’s no box that gets ticked every time I talk to elementary school teachers or develop material to teach about primates, or even write this blog post. In fact, you could realistically go your entire graduate education without doing ANY extracurricular activities and, most likely, you’ll be just fine.

But, I’m just not that kind of person.

So, Maggie, what do you actually DO in grad school?

  1. I learn
  2. I teach
  3. I do research
  4. I take classes
  5. I engage with both the scientific community and the general public
  6. I make posts and write blogs to talk about the struggles I experience because I am the first in my family to pursue a PhD, and part of the first generation to go to college
  7. I am part of organizations specifically dedicated to mentor and help other students
  8. I am becoming a scientist

It’s hard to think that all of these can be wrapped up in a single experience, but they really are a part of everything that I do and everything I want to do. I feel like the ability to engage with all of this makes my job pretty great. Hard, for sure. But really great.

Have you had similar experiences in grad school? Or have they been 100% completely different? Part of writing this blog is sharing my experience, but also learning about the countless ways in which others navigate this varied space that we label “graduate school”. Drop a comment or email me. I’d love to hear from you.

 

Hopefully not too long until next time,

Maggie

Graduate Welfare Committee: Providing students with resources for grad school

Academia is hard.

Especially for those that are ethnic, first generation, BIPoC, LGBTQ+, and/or disabled. Or even just new researchers.

If you’re on #ScienceTwitter at all, you’ll regularly see posts addressing these struggles, and many others in regards to the difficulty of graduate school. Just check out #phdchat and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

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Probably one of the most difficult aspects of graduate school is coming in during your first year, being thrown into your program, with little guidance on what is expected of you, what opportunities you may have, and how to navigate your way in your department and the university in general. Not to say that departments aren’t doing what they need to do in providing the correct info (some do so better than others), but rather that there’s so much to know, in such a short period of time, that this stage can seem daunting and discouraging.

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In order to combat this, my fabulous department-mate and one of my besties, Tina Lasisi, started a Graduate Welfare Committee within our department. After hearing her explain what the purpose of the committee is, to ensure that incoming cohorts have all the tools and information necessary to begin their graduate school career, I jumped on board and have been helping plan events with her ever since.

Tina and I have come up with some effective strategies for ensuring that the incoming students have everything they need to start their first year as PhD students successfully. If you’re thinking about potentially doing this in your department, here are some suggestions for how to get started.

Graduate Student Survival Guide

About a month prior to the new students arriving, the Graduate Welfare Committee generated and distributed a New Student Survival Guide, with allllll the information the incoming cohort needed to start off on the right foot.

This included information ranging from how to get a PSU ID card to the plans and policies of the graduate student insurance.

In writing this survival guide (which was modeled off of a previous one generated by PSU PhD graduate Kevin Flaherty), we realized a few things worth noting if you hope to start something similar in your department:

  1. Information for programs, deadlines, insurance, and almost everything else changes regularly. Maintaining this survival guide would mean editing the document each year and revising based on new requirements or changes in policy.
  2. The first draft of the survival guide took serious time to edit, even with a previous model. The last version was updated in 2011 and almost everything was different, including the contact people in the department, the new curriculum, and even where to go to get a new ID.

All in all, the survival guide proved useful not only for the new students, but also current students in reminding us about aspects of the program we may have forgotten. Although specifically targeted for the incoming cohort, this document is a resource for all graduate  students in the department.

Graduate Student Mentor/Mentee Program 

Another initiative we implemented was a graduate student mentor/mentee program whereby all incoming students would have two older students as mentors, ideally one within their lab and another outside.

Graduate students in the department were asked to volunteer for these positions, if they were able to. This gave new students an opportunity to directly connect with people in the department who were 1) interested in their wellbeing and 2) approachable enough to where the new students didn’t have to feel awkward about reaching out.

This program provided the incoming students with direct points of contact for any questions they have moving forward. The new students and their mentors were connected via email prior to the start of the semester.

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This gif spoke to me on so many levels, so I had to include it

New Student Orientation 

At the beginning of the semester, we decided to hold a new student orientation separate from the department orientation (run by the Graduate Affairs Committee, the group that oversees graduate student progress and composed of faculty members and administration).

This was especially important because our department has recently revised it’s curriculum for PhD students. The program is much more streamlined, but requires front loading on all your PhD requirements. This includes taking candidacies at the end of your first year, getting your Master’s during your second year, and comping at the end of your second year. This gives students the opportunity to focus on research alone for at least three years, which is super valuable.

That being said, coming into a program where you have to basically start studying for candidacies right away is not easy. And with only one cohort that is part of this new curriculum (my cohort), resources are limited at the moment.

So, Tina and I sat down with the new cohort for two hours the week before classes began (with some catering sponsored by the department, heyyyooooo) and broke down the curriculum, candidacies, and upcoming deadlines for that $$$$.

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Maybe they only came for the free food…but would you blame them?

This was also a safe space for students to ask any questions in regards to the program; realistic questions that they may not have otherwise asked the Graduate Affairs Committee.

——–

We have a variety of workshops planned for the semester, ranging from mental health resources to being a financially responsible human. These workshops will be other ways in which we are actively engaging with the graduate students in the department and providing advice outside of the program and graduate school in general.

Do you have something similar in your department and/or have benefitted from the resources you were provided? I’d love to hear about how we can make this committee better!

Until next time,

Maggie

Yes, you should apply to these fellowships. Here’s what you need to know.

Happy start of the Fall semester!

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It’s normal that I’m already beyond exhausted, right?

One of the most stressful things about the fall for me personally isn’t so much the start of classes, but the start of allllll the applications for that $$$$ (whether for stipends or research money).

For those that are my more recent followers, I was awarded the NSF GRFP in 2017 and was shortlisted and an honorable mention for the Ford Foundation Fellowship Program.

Being on the NSF GRFP has allowed me to dedicate more time to my research and hit milestones in my graduate program earlier than expected. Not only so, but it also freed up time for me to engage in outreach activities (which, if you know me, you know it’s my favorite thing!).

So, I decided to write this blog post to help incoming/current graduate students with fellowships, with some tips and tricks to keep in mind when writing them to ensure strong applications!

Although the GRFP is restricted to individuals applying the year before entering graduate school or graduate students in the first two years of their program, the advice given here will be helpful for any grant app, so I hope you find it useful!

DISCLAIMER: The information provided here is directly pulled from my experience applying to these fellowships two years ago. Requirements, information, and deadlines change all the time. I’ve done my best to provide up-to-date information, but I’m not perfect. I recommend checking the websites for these fellowships regularly and becoming familiar with the application process. I have provided links to everything below. 

Alright, Maggie, enough talking. Let’s get down to business.

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If you know where this is from, you’re my favorite.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP)

A few things you should know about the GRFP:

  1. The application consists of: a personal statement no longer than three pages single-spaced, a proposed research project statement no longer than two pages single-spaced, three letters of rec, a general application form, and transcripts from all institutions you’ve attended.
  2. Your field of study will determine when your application is due. Make sure you know the correct date, found here. All applications are due in October.
  3. This is a five year grant. You are a fellow for five years and can take advantage of the many opportunities being a fellow provides (such as attending leadership institutes, like I did this summer).
  4. Although you’re a fellow for five years, funding is only provided for three of those five years. You can accept the funding for whatever years are the most strategic for you. For example, you may want to take the funding during your first, second, and fifth year of your program (if you are a PhD student), or perhaps just the first three years. The order in which you take the funding doesn’t matter, as long is it’s during those five years as a fellow.
  5. The GRFP provides fellows with $34,000 a year for their stipend. This INCLUDES summer money (which, if you are not yet familiar with typical graduate school funding, summer stipends are hard to come by).
  6. The GRFP also provides $12,000 to your institution to help cover the costs of your graduate courses (but you’ll never have to deal with this money, it will all be administrative).
  7. While actively receiving your stipend from the GRFP (those three years I mentioned earlier), you are not allowed to accept additional money that will go towards your stipend, BUT you are allowed to apply for and receive awards and grants that will be used to conduct your research, so long as they do not pay you directly.

Ok, got it. So what is NSF looking for in my application?

First and foremost, you should know that the GRFP is not funding a specific project, the grant is funding YOU.

What does this mean? 

It means that you can write about whatever you want for your proposed research (as long it falls in the discipline for which you are applying. So if you are applying for the geosciences deadline, your proposal needs to be geosciences related).

That being said, you don’t actually have to do that research. You just need to show that you can clearly and logically think through a research project with realistic expectations. I highly, highly recommend working with your potential or current advisor on the proposed research statement, especially if you don’t have experience applying to grants just yet.

When writing your personal statement, keep these following things in mind, in addition to NSF’s recommendations:

  1. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TALK ABOUT YOURSELF. This is the only opportunity you have to showcase who you are, as an individual, in your entire application. Did you win an undergraduate research award? You go Glen Coco, write about it. Did you take time off after getting your bachelor’s to discover what you really wanted to do with your life? YAS QUEEN, TELL THEM.
  2. TELL THEM WHY YOU WANT THIS DEGREE. Are you from a lower income background? Are you trying to lift yourself out of poverty? Tell them. Are you a first-generation student? Have you experienced resistance or struggled to be where you are now? Be the woke-ness they need.
  3. TELL THEM WHAT YOU HOPE TO DO WITH THIS DEGREE. Do you want to be a professor? Say that. Do you find yourself more interested in science outreach? Say that too. SAY ALL THE THINGS.

When writing your proposed research statement, keep these following things in mind, in addition to NSF’s recommendations:

  1. BE CLEAR. Nobody likes reading statements that are convoluted and don’t make any sense. We barely like reading scientific papers that do the same. Don’t make your reviewers struggle to understand what you’re saying, because they won’t waste their time with your application if you can’t be clear.
  2. BE CONCISE. You have two pages to get across all your ideas, including citations. Don’t be long-winded or wordy for no reason. You’re just taking up valuable space and wasting your reviewers’ time.
  3. BE LOGICAL AND REALISTIC. There’s no sense in being overly ambitious with your proposal. You’re not going to redefine evolutionary theory or discover the ultimate cure for cancer. Think about a small project that will contribute to your field, and be realistic about your completion of this project.
  4. MAKE SURE TO ADDRESS ALL ASPECTS OF YOUR PROPOSED RESEARCH. This includes not only discussing your research questions and how you’re going to answer them, but also the worth of the project (Intellectual Merit) and how you’re going to spread this knowledge outside of the scientific community (Broader Impacts).

You’ll need three letters of rec for this application. Choose your recommenders wisely.

I chose individuals that could attest to different aspects of my life. My first recommender was my undergraduate research mentor, one of the primary investigators in the plant molecular evolution lab I did my work in. My second was my undergrad anthropology major advisor, who also happen to be my instructor for two courses. My third was my former boss, who oversaw all my work as a program coordinator.

Together, all of these individuals helped paint a holistic picture of me and my abilities as a graduate student. This helped tremendously in convincing the NSF that I would be a good person to fund.

The link to begin your GRFP application can be found here.

The Ford Foundation Fellowship Program (predoctoral application*)

*There is also a dissertation and postdoctoral application available. Because my knowledge base is limited to the predoc one, I will only focus on that application.

A few things you should know about the Ford Fellowship predoc application:

  1. The application consists of: a personal statement no longer than two pages double-spaced, a previous research statement no longer than three pages that includes a list of publications and presentations, a proposed research statement no longer than two pages double-spaced, list of honors and awards, three-five letters of rec, a general application form, and transcripts from all institutions you’ve attended.
  2. Similar to the GRFP, the Ford Fellowship predoc application is also a five year grant, with three years of support. This fellowship provides students with an annual stipend of $24,000. The fellowship also provides support to attend the annual conference for Ford Fellows and access to a network of former Ford Fellows for mentorship!
  3. This fellowship is explicitly for students from underrepresented backgrounds who have interest in and history of promoting diversity, and also hope to become professors.
  4. You’ll notice on the program announcement for this application that there are two deadlines, one for your application and another for your supplementary materials. Your application, due in December, will consist of the personal statements, list of honors, and general application. The supplementary materials, due in January, consists of your transcripts and your letters of recommendation. Make sure to note both of these deadlines and that all materials are in on time. 

I recommend similar guidelines for this application as listed above for the NSF application, you’ll just be writing three statements instead of two.

The link to begin your Ford Fellowship application can be found here.

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WHEW. I know that was a lot of information, and I appreciate you sticking with me. I know it can seem overwhelming, but I also have a bit more advice on how to make applying to these programs more manageable. Stay with me.

  1. START EARLY. These applications take time and energy. Start early, familiarize yourself with the application system, and get the easy parts out of the way (like giving them your personal information). Doing this will ensure you’re dedicating the most amount of time to your statements.
  2. REPURPOSE, REPURPOSE, REPURPOSE. Don’t sit down and write two different personal statements, two different proposals, etc. This isn’t going to help your anxiety. When I applied, I was also applying to grad programs at the same time. So you know what I did? I used the same personal statement (with a few tweaks) for each application, including my grad ones. This saved me time and sanity.
  3. STAY ON TOP OF YOUR RECOMMENDERS. I asked my recommenders very early in this process if they would write for me. I also asked them to submit the same letters to the multiple places I was applying. This made my life easier because I didn’t have to worry about tracking down so many people. I would also send gentle reminders to let them know when deadlines were coming up (a month in advance and then about a week in advance). You don’t want your application to be disqualified because of a rec letter that wasn’t submitted on time. That’s just sad.
  4. GET PEOPLE TO READ YOUR STATEMENTS. The best way to edit is to have people proofread your work to check for clarity, spelling mistakes, etc.  Do not fly solo. Rely on your friends, lab-mates, and advisor(s) to help you with this. It will only make your application stronger.

To give you an idea of what my applications looked like, I’ve included both my personal statement and research statement for my NSF GRFP application and my personal statement, previous research, and proposed research statements for the Ford Fellowship. If you have any questions about these applications, feel free to email me at maggiehern1@gmail.com.

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You got this.

Until next time,

Maggie

In graduate school, “family” is what you make it

Moving to graduate school for me meant moving away from the only state I’ve ever lived in: Florida. My whole life was spent within 1-5 hour drive away from my immediate family.

If something ever happened, I could always jump in the car and see them at a moments notice and vice versa.

But now that I live in Pennsylvania, I don’t have the luxury of having my family close by. In fact, because State College is so small, it’s not even as easy as a cheap flight from big city to big city.

I figure this may be the case for most graduate students: you don’t pick a program based on geography, you pick it based on quality.

And most of the time, this means moving away from the people that are closest to us.

But if we look at this from an anthropological perspective, what is a “family”?

In the past and because I’m Hispanic and grew up in the United States, I considered my family to be my parents (all of them), grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and pets.

But as time has gone on, and especially since my accident, I’ve realized that, although my blood may be back in Florida, I still have a chosen family here.

Every day since my accident, my partner and I have had company in our home, in some form or another. Friends we share meals with, play video games with, binge watch shows with, and discuss politics with.

Tina and Irving

Two of my friends, Tina and Irving, bullshitting with me and Emiliano (my partner) while my leg has been healing.

Friends that have taken out the garbage for me because I can’t reach the bin outside the door.

Friends that watched me sob in pain after my surgery and didn’t feel uncomfortable.

Friends that supervise me while I go up and down the stairs to catch me if I fall.

Friends that have picked me up from my appointments, held my hand while my leg was casted, and taken me home when I’ve needed it.

Friends that have made extra of their dinner foods and brought it over to make sure my partner and I didn’t have to worry about meals.

Alexis cake

One of my labmates, Alexis, made this GORGEOUS cake for us during the first few weeks after my surgery.

Friends that have picked up extra packs of Boost and Ensure for me.

Friends that have sent me flowers because they couldn’t physically be here, but wanted to be here in spirit.

Flowers and GBBO

Flowers from my advisor, best friends from college, and partner that kept the house smelling lovely.

So, I now ask: what IS a family? Because I’ve never had one like this before.

I guess what I’m trying to get across in this post is that, on top of allllllll the stress that is graduate school, students also have to deal with the fact that we aren’t near our places of comfort anymore. Many times this means adjusting in ways we never thought we could: for me, it meant adopting an “unconventional” family structure (unconventional to us but potentially not to other cultures).

I didn’t realize my partner and I had been building a family since we moved here. And the manifestation of that family really came out during my injury and recovery.

You know the phrase “blood is thicker than water?” It is typically used to say that people who are related to you by blood should be more important than those who are not.

This phrase is actually a shortened version of this: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”. Meaning the people you go through shit with are more important than those you may have shared a womb with.

I also have to take a moment to discuss how amazingly wonderful my partner, Emiliano, has been through all of this.

I don’t think I have the words to describe how important his support has been throughout this whole process. Ranging from the several ER visits I’ve had within the last two months to playing our favorite LEGO video games together, this man has kicked it with me the whole time. All I can say is: I wouldn’t be anywhere near as functional as I am without him.

Emi and I ER

Emiliano and I looking deranged during ER visit #3

So, to all of the members of my “unconventional” family:

This post is dedicated to you. Thank you for being the family we need.

Until next time, fam,

Maggie