I wouldn’t be where I am, academically speaking, if it weren’t for a couple factors: my stubbornness, drive to succeed, love of fossils and learning, and support of my family and advisors. But here, I want to talk about how important my advisors have been and still are in my academic life.
I’m a first-generation student meaning that neither of my parents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Since grade school, I knew I would attend college, as my mom never said ‘If you go to college…‘; rather, our conversations regarding my education began with ‘When you go to college…‘. As I grew older, I knew college/university wasn’t the only career path for me, but to attain my goals and dreams, I knew I would need to one day go to graduate school. But first, I had to get through high school and an undergraduate program.
I had a hard time in high school, as I was constantly bullied for being the shy, quiet nerd. I didn’t really fit in anywhere, and every chance I got, I skipped class to go ride our horses. Predictably, my grades suffered. By the time graduation rolled around, I knew I didn’t have the GPA to get into college; in addition, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, I began taking classes at my local community college, and long story short, I fell in love with geology as soon as I took my first class. By the time I graduated magna cum laude from community college, I was accepted into James Madison University in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
At first, I felt out of place, as everyone in the Geology department at JMU knew one another and had formed friendships. I felt like an outsider, a feeling that was amplified by being a first-generation student and a transfer student. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one: other students in my program also came from community colleges! Still, my confidence in my ability to conduct science and be a great student were low. University classes were a different type of beast compared to community college courses, and the pressure was on.
As I moved through my geology program and took more classes, my confidence started to build. As a student in the Geology department, I was required to do undergraduate research. I was both excited and nervous about this, but knew it was going to be a challenge that would make me a better candidate for graduate school. By the second year into my degree, I had taken a paleoclimate and paleontology class. I absolutely loved both, and wanted to do a research project that included fossils and revealing something about our Earth’s oceans. The opportunity arose when one of the department’s professors, Dr. Kristen St. John, sent out an email with an opportunity to construct a foraminiferal biostratigraphy from deep sea sediments in the Gulf of Mexico. I leapt at the opportunity! I still remember the day I approached Kristen to tell her I was interested in conducting research with her. I think my face got red just talking to her, and I had to convince myself for a good 10 minutes that I should talk with her before I actually did.
I did start doing research with Kristen, and it went extremely well! I loved learning all the different species of foraminifera, and would spend hours at the microscope. I remember one day, Kristen came into the lab and told me I was working and researching like a Master’s student. I was over the moon excited to hear this, because it gave me hope that I would, and could, succeed in graduate school! Kristen was a very encouraging advisor, meeting with me weekly to chat about research and helping me find relevant papers. She, along with our department head Dr. Steve Leslie, even took me to the United States Geological Survey in Reston, VA one day to meet with a planktic foraminifera specialist! After this, Kristen introduced me to her good friend and collaborator, Dr. Mark Leckie, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. I was able to go to UMass as an undergrad and work with Mark for a few days to conduct stable isotope analyses. It was an awesome experience, as I was able to network with two scientists outside of JMU. I was, and forever will be, grateful to Kristen for investing her time in me to make me a better scientist and more confident researcher.
By the third Fall I was at JMU, I attended my first big geology meeting where I presented my undergraduate research. It was here that had also set up meetings with potential graduate school advisors. I was still torn between majoring in paleoclimatology or paleontology, so I had contacted professors working in both fields. My heart was set on going to UMass to work in Mark’s lab, but at the time, his lab was full and he didn’t have funding. I was crushed, but carried on. I met with several professors at the meeting, all of whom were encouraging about pursuing an MS degree with them at their university. One of the other professors I met with at the meeting was Dr. Alycia Stigall, who was a friend of my undergrad professor Steve. I sat down with Alycia for about 20 minutes, and instantly liked her (read her ‘Meet the Scientist’ post here).
My last year in undergrad, I ended up applying to about 6 universities for graduate school. I was so nervous that I wouldn’t get in, as my confidence was still lower than most students’. The day I got the email from Alycia that I was accepted in her lab and the Ohio University program as a fully-funded teaching assistant, I cried with joy! I moved to southeastern Ohio the following Fall to start my life as a Master’s student specializing in paleontology. It was here, at Ohio University, that I met Jen.
Working with Alycia and with her other graduate students was an amazing experience. At JMU, I never had confidence in my math skills, but after taking a few classes at Ohio, I was doing statistics and learning how to code. I taught my first paleontology labs, and even helped Alycia create a new class for the department. In addition, I was able to publish my first paper during my first year, and present research at an international meeting. I flourished working alongside Alycia, as I felt totally comfortable in her lab and with her. Most of the other graduate students in the lab were from divorced, low income, and/or conservative families, so we had a lot in common. I didn’t feel like an outsider, and often talked with my lab mates and Alycia about my home life.
But it wasn’t just that I was comfortable at OU, I had a mentor, an advisor, a colleague, a friend, and a role model all in one. Alycia was the role model I needed at this time in my life. My fiance and I were talking seriously about marriage and about the future, and I wasn’t sure how this would work while I was in graduate school. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to balance work and life, and moreover, even have a life outside of grad school (at this time I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD). But Alycia assured me I could have both a successful career and home life. She herself was (and still is) amazing at balancing her academic and home life. It was because of Alycia I knew I, too, could be an awesome scientist with a family.
By the time I graduated from Ohio University, my confidence was soaring. I knew I could do anything I wanted to, mostly because I had been trained to critically think, problem solve, and had a killer work ethic. That spring of graduation from OU, I had been accepted to the PhD program at UMass Amherst in Mark’s lab (remember Kristen’s friend I worked with from undergrad?). Life has a funny way of working out, as I never thought I would ever get the chance to work at UMass. But here I am!
When I first started at UMass, I was scared to death. I wasn’t as confident my first year at the university as I had been at Ohio University for a few different reasons. First, this was the first R1 university I had attended (R1’s are universities that grant MS and PhD degrees, and generally have large and intense research programs). Second, I felt like an outcast (again) with my slight southern accent, coming from a lower-income family, and being a first-generation student. Third, I had totally switched interests from invertebrate paleontology in the Ordovician (~450 million years ago) to working in the field of Neogene (~15 million years ago) paleoceaonography (although I will always consider myself a paleontologist first before a paleoceanographer). I had a lot to learn, on top of a lot of work. But I persevered, asked a LOT of questions, and continued on.
Lucky for me, Mark is just as great an advisor as Kirsten and Alycia, something I am very grateful for. When I wanted to go on a scientific ocean drilling expedition, Mark worked closely with me to craft a well-thought out application (I did get accepted, read about my experience here and see above image). He also gave me the opportunity to build and teach an upper-level geology class, an experience that most graduate students don’t get. Through teaching and researching, I have regained my confidence, and know once again that I can do anything I put my mind to.
So, there are a few words of advice I have from my university experiences for any student wondering how they’ll make it in grad school and/or with low confidence:
- Find an advisor that you can trust, and that you click with. In my opinion and experience, this was the most important factor when choosing a graduate program and advisor. My close relationship with my previous and current advisors are one of the reasons I’ve succeeded as a graduate student.
- Find a mentor. Advisors and mentors are not equivalent. Advisors will help you through your education, but mentors are guides who will help you navigate life. Some advisors are also mentors, while others are not. Other times, mentors come in the form of lab mates and friends. Both advisors and mentors are crucial to survival in graduate school.
- Find your people. Make friends in and outside of your department. Being a student is hard, and finding friends to commiserate with and draw inspiration from are essential.
- Believe in yourself. This is cheesy, and easier said than done, but change begins with you. When you start being confident in your abilities, you’ll find your confidence will increase over time. Also, reading A LOT of published literature helps here too.
- When you are able to, be the mentor/advisor for younger versions of yourself. By helping students from all backgrounds and identities gain confidence in themselves and learn how to conduct research, we can all make STEM fields more accessible and welcoming to all.