Tuesday, March 30, 2010

To PhD or Not To PhD... advice

Just met with a prospective student for my adviser, which brings to mind advice on doing a PhD.

Work with someone you like working with. You get to ultimately decide who you want your adviser to be, and it will be the only time in your life where you can "choose your boss", so to speak. Don't work with someone who you can't get along with or share mutual respect. A PhD is a 5+ year commitment, there's no sense in being miserable.

Choose a project you love. I was nervous about the idea of starting a whole new project when I move to NM; Felisa pointed out I don't need to start the first week I'm there. Try different things, and don't settle for something you're only luke warm about. You need to have the hots for your project. 5+ years is a long time to be bored and/or uninterested.

Interdisciplinary work, it's where science in headed. You don't need to be an expert at everything, but you should learn to communicate with people outside of your specialty. An interesting problem might arise, and you want those people and skills in your tool box.

Consider the people other than your adviser and committee who you will be incontact with. You want to be in a positive environment, again, 5+ years is a long time. Some departments are more cut throat than others. It's a myth that all of academia is like this, find a department that has a healthy relationship with itself.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Research = Worth It!

Real quick update on this overcast Monday morning in "Happy Valley"

My adviser and I have been talking about publishing my research, and today we are officially getting the ball rolling. He wants to send my second chapter to Nature (and if not Nature, then Science)! I don't care if the rejection rate is 90%, or if it does get rejected. I'm just happy that Russ thinks my work is good enough to even bother submitting it. If we can pull this off, my first journal publication EVER will be in a major scientific journal that is read throughout the world!

I'll just be happy to have something other than abstracts on my CV (scholarly resume)!

What's more, this particular chapter is about 90% mine, as in I came up with the idea, and the methods, and carried it through the analysis. If I get this published in a major journal, it'll be through my own hard work, not through riding on the coat tails of someone else.

That's a good way to start the week! Booya!

Saturday, March 27, 2010


I'm going to force an analogy here, so just bear with me.

This week I finally went to yoga for the first time in over a month. Without my knowing, it is the end of March, and I have once again wasted a perfectly good fitness membership by not going to any classes or even so much as using the elliptical. Nevermind yoga.

This week I also attempted to write the abstract for my thesis. My master's thesis consists of two chapters on two semi-related projects. They complement each other, but are stand alone works. The abstract is supposed to succinctly address the results of a study, while still making sense. It should flow and be intelligible.

Both the yoga and the abstract proved to be quite painful. You're trying to gracefully make something fit an idea, but it doesn't always end up so graceful, or pretty, or intelligible. Sometimes you fall over on your face.

Oddly enough, I was able to hold a Tuladandasana (balancing stick pose) and a Dandayamana-Dhanurasana (standing bow pulling pose) with minimal effort. So it seems I have good balance in my life, but zero flexibility.

The moral of the story: take care of your body, if you don't it will manifest itself in the way you think and operate. Oh, and sometimes it's impossible to write, and you need to give yourself some mental space.
My analogy was pretty weak and fell apart.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On Task

With great effort, I'm actually doing a fair job of staying on task today. I finished an assignment and am well on my way to completeing the grading I need to get done. I just have to get through my late afternoon writing class, then I'll be free to go to yoga for the first time in at least a month. I'm really looking forward to it.

I've been neglecting the things that usually bring me peace and relaxation over the past few weeks. My time has been absorbed by grading and teaching stuff. I want to just get the final edits to my thesis done so I can turn it in, but I guess I don't want it desperately enough, since it keeps taking a back burner to other things.

Maybe this evening will set me straight. I'm gonna go to yoga, go home and eat, have a glass of wine, and finish my grading if it isn't already done. Then, tomorrow, when I'm not teaching, I'll format the hell out of my thesis.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Teaching Philosophy: Round 1

Graduate school is actually a pretty sweet gig. It isn't glamorous or cushy, but you can learn a lot and become a really well rounded person. So long as you don't mind living on the cheap, you also get taken care of pretty well. The way graduate school usually works (in the physical sciences anyway, I don't know about humanities) is you get paid to be in a program. If you don't have outside funding (such as a fellowship) you usually get a stipend to keep you alive. In exchange, the graduate student either has a job as a research or teaching assistantship.

Teaching assistantships vary, depending on the needs of the college and the class. I've had both non-teaching (grading) and teaching assistantships. I've found that I prefer teaching, even though it can be much more labor intensive. For example, this semester I'm running three sections of an introductory geoscicences lab. This usually involves going over a brief lecture, organizing materials, running the lab, and grading assignments. Depending on the lab, this can be a lot of work, and this too can vary from week to week.

Many of my students are not geology students, and they are there with the attitude that they just need to get through this class and be done with it. I've found that many TAs are willing to just let students slide by; this is not my way of doing things. This is because I get great pleasure out of teaching something, that great moment when a student finally understands what you've been showing them. On the one hand, I know that much of what they'll get from me will never be used again. On the other, I know that a greater understanding of the earth and how it works can be useful if not entertaining. I had a student tell me once that they don't look at outcrops the same way anymore. It sounded like a compliment, and I'm taking it as one!

It's easy to get bogged down with myself: my own homework, assignments, papers, research. Yet in spite of my busy schedule, I would love to have a student come to my office looking for help, because I could certainly spare a moment to teach.

Teaching has vastly improved the way I feel in front of people. Almost everyone has felt that sense of terror when they know they need to get up in front of people and speak about something. I used to get nervous even asking questions in a class or meeting. I feel far more comfortable being heard in groups since I've started teaching on a regular basis. I can now say that I am willing and eager to talk to large groups, even in excess of a hundred people. Three years ago that would have been impossible for me. I have graduate school to thank for this skill.


Stress, every job has it.

I again want to state that I like graduate school, despite my temporary mood swings regarding the subject. I'm in an interesting position at the moment; I'm currently surrounded by people who are leading very stress filled lives, and I by proxy, am also stressed out.

I have a friend just entering into his PhD, and he is mildly freaking out about his candidacy exam (the thing that determines if they'll even allow you to continue).

I just recently had a handful of friends finish up their PhDs. Part of being a friend is being there to offer an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. My ears and shoulders have been well used this year! I've offered up my house to people who need a place to stay, and I've done what I can to try to help out, while still maintaining my own sanity.

I'm also currently living with a friend who is finishing up. I have to say, given how much trouble she's gotten from her adviser's revisions and general flakiness, she's handling it well. She's writing a blog about her final experiences here, I have a link to it on my homepage. You should check it out if you haven't already.

All jobs have stress, and I'm sure life after graduate school will also be stressful. We just have to be hopeful and believe that if we want it badly enough, it'll all be worth it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Quest for Money

As an academic, it is innevitable that at some point you are going to have to apply for research or travel money. This makes sense, it's part of your JOB, so naturally you don't want to pay out of pocket.
I've been on the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Graduate Student Council for going on three years now. Among other tasks, we are in charge of determining who gets the Centenial Travel Grant in the college. Basically we award 3-$1000 awards to help people get to meetings to present their research. Here are some tips for writing proposals, based on my own experience.

1) If you have to write a cover letter, be as specific as possible about why you need the money and why you're most deserving without being overly technical. Chances are good that the person scoring your application is not in your field, you don't want to lose them in a sea of jargon. I'm not even allowed to score applicants from my own department, so you can bet I know next to nothing about half the stuff I read about in applications.

2) When giving a budget, itemize it. I want to know how much every little thing is going to cost, because it might actually make the difference between a feasible budget and a non-feasible budget. If your budget is in major excess of the prize amount, explain to me where the difference is going to come from. Most funding agencies ask for other sources of funding, this information should be in there anyway.

3) Make sure your CV is up to date, and I don't care what you do for fun with your cats on the weekends.

4) Make sure you ask for a letter of recommendation from someone who can write well and actually knows you. Generic letters just tell me that your adviser doesn't know squat about who you are or what you do.

5) If English isn't you first language, have someone who is proof read your application. If I can't comprehend a letter, I don't read it. I doubt I'm the only judge on the planet that does this.

6) Did I already say no jargon please? I'll say it again. No jargon, please. If you must use a technical term, you had better define what it means.

7) Don't just say your research is important or that it would be really beneficial for other people to know about what you're doing. Provide concrete details, it makes for a stronger argument.

8) Be succinct. Don't take 3/4 of a page to get to your point when your page limit is 1 page. I'll fall asleep before then, I promise.

9) Make sure you fit all the minimum criteria for the award, don't waste my time.

10) Follow instructions people, seriously. If it says your cover letter can only be one page, it can only be one page.


What's going on: making revisions to my thesis, reading, grading lab assignments, and taking a break long enough to point out that I added a new page to the blog! It contains pictures of things that never made it into blog posts. I'll update it from time to time, check the date at the top of the page to see the most recent day that pictures are added. I put a few up from my New Mexico trip.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Not All Bad

Yesterday's post was a little, shall we say, sarcastic and satirical. I don't want to give the wrong impression: most people in graduate school are there because they WANT to be and because they genuinely like what they do. Otherwise, it just doesn't work.

Collegiate life has its perks. For example, there is a Belgian beer fest at one of the local bars which I will be going to. Last night, one of my friends successfully defended his PhD dissertation, and there was much rejoicing.  And heavy partying/bar hopping

I went on a snipe hunt this morning. I did see it, though only briefly as it was flying away. Until a few weeks ago, I didn't think there was actually a bird called a snipe. Apparently they are real, despite what we are told in UP!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Big Fish

Well, I'm back in State College again, and have settled back into the monotony of teaching, writing, and other collegiate activties. I feel like I'm pretty much caught up with the scholarly aspects of my New Mexico visit, although I'm sure later posts on the fun things I did after finishing my "business" duties will pop up now and again. I apologize to all who might read this: I know it's disorganized and kind of all over the place. I'm a graduate student, that sort of comes with the territory. I plan on going back and re-writing/editing some older posts, and I'll add more pictures, once things settle, if they settle.


I went out to lunch today with a friend who already has her doctorate degree. We were kind of going back and forth about the stresses and adjustments people make during different phases in academia. One of the biggest adjustments is getting over your own ego. I'll explain.

The kind of people who go on to get master's degrees and PhDs are the kinds of students who do really well in college, and they have a high degree of intellectual curiosity, in general. They typically are the best of the best at their institutions (one of the reasons I worry about actually DOING a PhD, ha!), and within the confines of their undergraduate degree programs they are hot shots, at the top of the food chain, the "big fish" in their tiny little pond. Even at PSU, an ENORMOUS school, the geosciences department was a little pond where I felt safe and important. Most graduate students can likely say this about where they went to undergrad.

And then they go to graduate school, and this is generally the first place they get their mental asses kicked pretty severely.

In graduate school, you come to the sudden realization that you are in an ocean and it's easy to get lost, confused, eaten, and then spat back out. Excellence is no longer especially praised, it's expected. Pats on the head are few and far in between. It's not a place where you will be coddled. You are no longer "the best".

I was lucky. I had a good relationship with my master's adviser before I started my degree. However, while sometimes I feel like he is indifferent to what I am doing, the times where I do get praise are extra satisfying. I realize he isn't actually indifferent, I simply have been in the department long enough to know what I'm doing, therefore I don't require a lot of adviserly maintenance. Our good relationship is probably what helped me simultaneously cope with grad school and the death of my father. I've heard horror stories about bad advisers.

I've also somehow avoided getting my ass kicked, and that's proably because I haven't pushed myself hard enough. The closest I've come was being in a Rudy Slingerland class, which has unachievably high standards, and I dropped the class. I still feel shame when I see Rudy in the hall. I look back on it, and I probably could have taken the beating in that class, but I was new to grad school, stressed, over extended, and afraid. Since I've avoided my own personal ass kicking up until now, that just means it's still coming at some point, and it will likely be during my PhD.

The time at which an academic beating comes varies from person to person. For some, it happens during the transition from college to a master's degree, or some time between a master's and a PhD. I don't know HOW people go straight from college to PhD directly; it seems somewhat masochistic.

Still, for others the beating doesn't show up until the PhD is completed and they are looking for a job, in the real world. These are the kinds of people who performed brilliantly from college all the way through their PhD, they were big fish all that time, or they flew below the radar and were just lucky. Then they come to the real world. The real world doesn't care how "cool" your research is or how brilliant you are. The real world has other criteria, and a whole new set of rules for you to adjust to. The real world never seems to be satisfied with the number of publications you have, or the number of talks you've given, or how "smart" you are. And even if you are brilliant, the real world will likely never tell you.

All of this, of course, only applies to PhDs in academic jobs. The REALLY smart ones go into industry and become rich.

I'm not REALLY smart.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Catching Up - 2

Wednesday March 10th

My second day of my school visit I met with various faculty and talked to other students in the department. Probably the best part of that particular day was attending the lab meeting; I got to see how Felisa and Jim interact with each other and the other students.
Just a quick explanation: Felisa Smith is a paleoecologist and my future adviser. Jim Brown is the famous biologist who is largely responsible for the metabolic theory of ecology (basically tying most ecological phenomena in some way to body size and metabolism). The who of them hold their lab group meetings together, so I'll get to interact with some pretty smart people.
During the lab meeting one of Jim's students gave a presentation on allometry in cell size and volume as it scales with metabolism. I know for most people that won't mean much, but it was interesting to me :-P

I've come to the conclusion that I am joining a bright group of scientists who, interestingly, are in another scientific camp about the causes of the end Pleistocene extinction. They are of the camp that humans caused the extinction. I'm of the camp that climate changed and destroyed habitats and thus lead to extinction. This is going to be fun, and it's nice to be challenged. I'm actually more of the opinion that it doesn't matter what caused the extinction; we do know that all sorts of weird things were going on ecologically at the time, and that on some level humans and climate were involved.

(For those of you who are lost, I'm a paleontologist. I'll provide further elaboration on what that means either in another post, or in a revamping of my "about me" stuff.)

Up until this point I had been staying with another student, "Fred". Fred is actually a girl, and her name is actually Shawn. Which doesn't clear anything up. Fred was a very good host, I knew things would be good when I showed up Tuesday night and she and her friend were watching Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog. I also had been enjoying the company of her two funny cats. I don't have the pictures off of my camera yet, but an update with pictures will come in the future. All I can say now is that one has a very unfortunate haircut! Think puffy cat in a leotard, and you've pretty much got the mental image.

Fred and her friend had to leave early the next morning, so Matt picked me up and we stayed at a Motel 6 by the highway. In grad school, you have to make these kinds of tough financial choices.

Thursday March 11th

The last day of my school visit. I had lunch with Felisa and Matt at a place that has the best Greek food I've had in a LONG time. Spinning meat on a spit, with cucumber sauce, and tomato, on a pita. Perfection. I have no idea what the name of the place is, but it's about a 5 minute walk from work, so I'll be going there pretty much as often as possible. They have a dolmas salad, which I think I'll try next time (that's stuffed grapes leaves for those of you who are missing out).

After lunch, Matt and I drove off into the sunset to go birding, with the hopes of seeing a road runner. I saw one, it practically ran out in front of our moving vehicle. Then we landed at the Mauger Estate Bed and Breakfast Inn in downtown for a non-Motel 6 experience. That place is mentioned in a previous post, and I highly recommend it!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Catching Up - 1

It's been a crazy week, one without consistent internet access, so I'll have to spend a few posts catching up.

Tuesday March 9th:
At 9am I met for the first time with my future adviser. She is a co-director of the new Program in Interdisciplinary Biological and Biomedical Sciences (PiBBSs). They just recently finished moving into a newly built wing for the program, so recently that I attended the ribbon cutting ceremony the first day of my visit. This brings me to my first point on graduate school:

Always accept free food. Retired people like to talk about fixed incomes... graduate students have VERY fixed incomes, and any opportunity to get good free food should never be passed up. Four words to sum up: very large shrimp bowl.

The new facility is very nice with lots of comfortable places to do work. I'll post images when I have access to my own computer.

I'm in Virginia at the moment, and I'm about to drive back to PA. Further updates once I'm settled in.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Still Alive

Just a note: I'm still alive, I just haven't had good internet in a while. A lot has happened during the past week, and I'm hoping to give a recap of it all this evening... provided the hotel has internet.

We spent the evening at the Mauger Estate Bed and Breakfast Inn near downtown ABQ. I have to say, it was really nice. The bed was really fluffy and the room was cozy, I didn't want to get up right away. However, breakfast was worth getting up for, they have delicious homemade granola which I will miss dearly. We were greeted last night by a light snack, cookies, and wine as well. Overall, I was very very comfortable.

Today we are headed to Petroglyph National Park to check out some drawings on rocks made by Native Americans. It is a sunny and clear day, so we'll be picking up some sunscreen, definitely. I'll post some pictures later.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Birding and New Mexican Delights

Today's adventure brought initially brought us about an hour and a half south of Albuquerque to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. On our way we were passed by what at first looked like a police pick up truck. It turned out to be a livestock inspector, which for some reason was very amusing to me. Once at the refuge, we saw around 40 different bird species, including some sandhill cranes. They were, unfortunately, really far away, and the heat shimmer made it difficult to really focus on them with the scope. Other sightings were a bald eagle eating a freshly caught pintail duck, a vermilion fly catcher, a mountain bluebird, and a bushtit among a variety of water foul.

On the way back to Albuquerque we stopped in San Antonio, NM for the world famous Buckhorn Burger. This delicious green chile cheese burger defeated Bobby Flay in a throwdown, and it was heavenly.

Other good eats for the day involved having a very late and very heavy dinner at Sadie's. Delicious food, and great margaritas!

I'm stuffed, time for bed.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Travel and the First Day

Yesterday was more or less a travel day, and involved such boring activities as sitting around in an airport. Matt and I DID however manage to get $370.70 vouchers, one for each of us, by volunteering to be bumped to a later flight. Score! Now I can pay for another trip to actually look for an apartment.

First great meal in Albuquerque: 2000 Vietnamese, great food, good price. It's located on the corner of Zuni St. and San Matteo Blvd. I recommend the boba tea milkshakes.

Last night finished with some television, we caught the last part of Legally Blond and the first part of Mean Girls. It was cinematic magic, but I was too tired to watch any more.

Today was an early morning; we woke up at 6:45 to hurry out of our hotel to drive up to Sandia Crest and see rosy finches. We were really lucky and saw several up close, there was a bird banding project going on and the birds were being brought into the inn where we got a good look at them.

There were also these funny squirrels running around...

During the afternoon we drove around the city to try and scope out where the "good" and "bad" areas were. I decided that I liked Old Town and the area around Ridgecrest the best. My new strategy is to spend the rest of the week figuring out specifically the areas I want to live in, and plan accordingly for my apartment hunt later in the summer.

I had an opportunity to go to church in the city today. I think we went to "Immaculate Conception Church", which, given the name, is obviously a Catholic church. It was different from what I'm used to, I didn't think it was that great. Although, there were some neat shrines throughout the building that were worth the visit. It didn't even come close to being as good as the church I'm currently attending in PA, so I'll have to keep looking for a spiritual home.

Mouse and Dave also flew into ABQ this evening, and we met up for a late dinner. We went to the Route 66 Diner on Central Avenue, which is the historical Route 66. I got the meatloaf. The meatloaf and mashed potatoes were really quite good. The mixed veggies were over done. My recommendation is to just pass on them entirely, they went pretty much uneaten. Matt got a shake that was good too, so that's a good item as well.

Tomorrow we'll likely adventure outside of ABQ and head south to look for sandhill cranes, then I want to spend some more time checking out Old Town or Nob Hill, possibly.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The pre-Beginning

Today I officially accepted my offer from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; so my exciting PhD adventure can officially begin. I still need to graduate from PSU, I still need to find an apartment, and I still need to move. I guess that actually makes this the pre-game.

I'm currently in Virginia, getting ready to fly off to Albuquerque tomorrow morning to visit the city and see UNM for the first time. I'm a little nervous, but SUPER excited about the upcoming week.

Tomorrow: Arrive in NM, get rental car and check into my hotel with Matt (boyfriend, who I am taking along on my adventure).

Sunday: Early birding in the Sandia Mountains, hopefully we'll see some Rosy Finches. Also, dinner with friends.

Monday: Green chili burgers in Socorro!

Tuesday: 9:30 meeting with future adviser, Felisa Smith in the department of Biology.
The rest of the week is yet to be determined... I'll update those plans when I figure them out.

Matt has informed me that we'll see cactus wrens... alrighty.