Scavenging the fossil record for clues to Earth's climate and life
Byte of Life
Advice from all Time Scavenger collaborators on how to navigate academia at a variety of levels. This often relates to our scientific lives but does not always contain scientific content. We hope that our experiences can aid others in similar positions.
If I had a dime for every time I heard this sentence…well, let’s just say I’d probably be free of student loans by this point! I teach hundreds of introductory geology and the large majority (95% or so) are not science majors. So, suffice to say, I teach students with a range in interest and self-assumed ability in science. But after three semesters of teaching full time and nearly 1,000 students, I’m putting a ban on this phrase in my classes and I’ll tell you why.
I want to talk about what it does to your ability to learn when you come into a classroom with the idea that you’re bad at something. You come in with a mental block that will stay with you for the duration of the class. If you struggle with the material, you’ll only give yourself a confirmation bias (see? I don’t get this stuff. I must be bad at science/math/French/whatever it is). How are you supposed to learn with that attitude? You can’t! And before you say “it’s easy for you to say-you’re a scientist with a Ph.D. You weren’t bad at science”. This simply isn’t true.
I struggled with learning math and science through middle school, high school, and through college. I’d sit down to study-I’d feel overwhelmed instantly. I’d tell myself “you’re not good at this stuff” so much that no matter how hard I’d study, I’d second guess myself on just about every problem, leading to even worse self esteem (and not surprisingly, worse grades on assignments). By the time I got to classes like Calculus and Physics in college, I had only made this even worse for myself. I told my professors when I went for help “I’m bad at math” or “I’m bad at chemistry”. Finally, a professor looked at me in my final math class (Calculus II) and said, “Sarah, you know you’re actually quite good at math. You just need to give yourself a little more time to learn it. And you need to be kind to yourself”. That idea stayed with me for a very long time- it freed me to be patient with myself. And to let me love learning without the fear of grades a little bit more. I made my highest grade on a college math exam that semester (a B-!) and you know what-I was (and still am) proud of myself for that exam grade-I even hung it on my apartment fridge for the entire rest of the semester so I could celebrate it every day. Achievement isn’t always measured by A’s!
Many of us (myself included) automatically assume that what we’re good at and what comes easily to us is one in the same. On the flip side, we assume that we’re bad at things we’re not automatically good at, especially in the world of academics. This simply isn’t true. To take an easy example, one that you’re familiar with if you’re reading this blog, is learning to read. Learning to read is incredibly complex! It took you months to years just to master your alphabet- learning to recognize each individual letter. Then, it took you even longer to figure out how to string bizarre patterns of these letters together to form words, sentences, and paragraphs. No became good at reading overnight-it’s a skill that you worked on for years. And, just like reading, none of us were born to learn science instantly! It takes time to learn how to learn science, just like you learn anything else.
So how can you boost your confidence in science? I’m glad you asked! If you’re taking a high school or college course, ask for help. Visit your professors and ask them to help you! We can explain concepts to you in different ways, help you relate the knowledge to something you’re more familiar with, or just assure you that you’re on the right track. Many times, my students have asked questions that have forced me to learn how to make a concept clearer (so professors actually really appreciate it when you tell us what you’re struggling with). Also, seek out cool articles or blogs or even popular science books in the subject you’re learning about! It can really help to boost your enthusiasm about a concept, which can help your confidence, too.
So give yourself permission to be patient with yourself. Science may not come easily you to-it’s never come easily to me. I worked hard to pass chemistry and even geology classes (looking at you, structure and tectonics!). It’s OK to love something that takes you more time to learn. And it’s also OK to pick a major or to take classes in something that you might need a little more help with. Science is a wide and complex field that takes dedication to master. It can take years to learn how to learn science to the point where you feel confident enough to proclaim, “I’m good at science!”- so why do so many of us automatically label ourselves bad at science? Just like learning to read, learning science isn’t easy! It takes time!
So here’s my warning to my students starting this semester-I’m no longer going to let you say that you’re bad at science in my class (and I don’t want to hear it from people reading this blog, either!). Your science education is a work in progress- and we’re going to work together to help you love science.
Recently I was provided with an opportunity to travel across the world, from Tennessee, USA to Nagoya, Japan for the 16th International Echinoderm Conference. When presented with a fully funded trip to an international conference your first answer would normally be, “Yes, of course!” I had not originally planned to go on this trip because I had recently graduated and no longer had access to apply for departmental funds. I had planned other adventures for that weekend, a bit more localized and affordable.
Unfortunately, my mentor and collaborator fell terribly ill the week that he was to travel to Japan and was no longer able to present our most recent work on understanding the taxonomy of blastoids. Being the only other co-author I was faced with a serious question – three days before I would have to leave the country. I am not an impulsive traveler. I like to spend time researching hotels, places to visit, and local historical sites. I like to spend time thinking and processing the whole thing. Having time to conceptualize the trip makes me so much more comfortable traveling.
I had to quickly weigh the pros and cons and make sure that I still had a valid passport! My initial thought was – no way can I go on this trip. I am one of those people that hates surprises and the thought of having to cancel plans, leave the country, and more in only a few days made me absolutely sick with anxiety. I told Colin, my advisor, that I would need one night to think about it and check to make sure I had valid travel documents. The next morning I decided that this opportunity to network with a global echinoderm community was too precious to not take the trip. I would be able to make new collaborations and rekindle my connection with old friends and colleagues. So, three days after the offer, I was off on a plane to Japan.
To say the trip was last minute is an understatement. I was incredibly overwhelmed, had to fix up a talk that I had not prepared, and be away from my family for 10 days. That being said, I am beyond grateful for this last-minute opportunity, especially as a junior scientist that is looking to make new collaborations and network with peers. Also, who doesn’t want to eat echinoid gonads with a bunch of echinoderm workers?! It was an unforgettable experience.
I think the moral of this story is to take these opportunities, no matter how fast and unprepared you may feel. It was a whirlwind of a trip but not only did I learn a lot, I made valuable connections within the echinoderm community that I would otherwise have not made.
Often one of the biggest challenges academics and scientists face is writing- namely, getting our research written up as a manuscript and published in an academic journal. We, as scientists, always commiserate about how hard writing is, and how we loath doing it, but I want to talk about a different aspect of writing and publishing that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough: collaborating with other scientists and working together as a team to get research published.
In the early years of academic publishing, it was very common for scientists to publish articles by themselves, or what is called a single-author manuscript. Today, however, the tide has changed, and it’s rare to find a published article with just one author! In fact, it’s not uncommon to find papers with more than 30 authors (such as those published that include an entire science tea, like a International Ocean Discovery Program expedition teams). Finding, working, and publishing with collaborators can be tricky, and at times seem daunting. However, if you know how to work as a team and navigate the collaborative waters, these partnerships will give back tenfold! In this post is some advice from some of the Time Scavengers collaborators on how to find, work with, and publish with scientific collaborators.
On Finding Project Collaborators
Jen: Start with people you know that are excited about similar ideas; these can be old lab members, peers or colleagues you have met along your career. For example, Adriane and I were in the same masters program and even though they parted ways to begin new paths as PhD students we kept in contact. So, starting this website was a simple task with two people in different fields who are passionate about educating the public. This connection has fostered further collaborations with Adriane and Sarah, who I found during her PhD program. We worked to create a web of scientists with similar drives but different technical toolkits. If you are new to a field, attending a large conference where you can be exposed to new people and ideas is a brilliant way to find new collaborators.
Adriane: Think of a collaboration with a colleague as you would any friendship: you want trust, clear and constant communication, and you want to have fun and be yourself with your friend! A collaborator is no different. When choosing who to collaborate with, make sure you get along with the person, and are able to have open and honest conversations with them. For example, Jen and I are great friends, and had a ton of fun together in graduate school at Ohio University. We have similar career goals, interests, and hobbies, and we can be totally goofy and honest with one another. For this reason, I knew we would make excellent collaborators building this website together.
If you are a graduate student, you are likely doing your projects on a tight timeline. For this reason, you need to be sure that your collaborator is someone who is willing to put time into the project so that it is finished on time. When collaborating with more senior scientists, make sure this person is invested in your success as a scientist. One of my dissertation chapters involves collaborating with a professor at another university across the country. I have worked all summer to pick foraminifera for stable isotope analyses, and when I have enough, I mail them to my collaborator who will analyze the samples in his lab. Some of my samples weigh almost nothing, which means they will be tricky to analyze. However, I communicated my concern to my collaborator, and he has been wonderful in working his geochemical superpowers to ensure most of my samples are analyzed correctly (of the ~300 samples I sent him, only ~15 were unable to be analyzed!). Most importantly, he has gotten my results to me within weeks of me mailing my samples to him, which has put me ahead of schedule to complete all of my analyses (this is a rare occurrence in graduate school). So, I have excellent results from my samples, and I’m ahead of my research schedule for this project because my collaborator is invested in my success and the success of my research.
Andy: I have two sets of collaborators, basically. As a graduate student I started collaborating mostly within my lab. My work with Chris Lowery (@CLowery806) has produced one paper, another in review, and a third building on the second, with an additional collaborator. We’ve also done a workshop together, and gotten each other talks, etc. Even though we’re directly competing for jobs at this stage in our career, it doesn’t affect our working relationship. That’s the kind of collaboration you should look for, one that makes both people better candidates for future jobs.
The second is with a couple of people. I was sitting at a wedding celebration for my then-supervisor, and another scientist and I started talking about work (as happens whenever you put two of us in a room together). She and I continued emailing, she brought in a friend who’d also been thinking about the same problem. These people have no connection to my lab, we’re just friends who are now working on grants and doing workshops together. We all bring different skills to the table, but most importantly we actually like each other. That makes working on projects easier. Working with people you don’t like sucks (this is also good advice for picking graduate advisors & postdoc supervisors).
On Working with Collaborators
Adriane: I can’t stress communication enough; this is THE MOST important factor when it comes to working with with collaborators. Bad communication can lead to assumptions, and well, you know what they say about assumptions. It can also lead to projects not being completed on time or people not understanding their role or responsibility within the project.
When you begin a new project with a collaborator or bring a collaborator on board to work with you, the first thing you should do is talk with them about your timeline, goals, and what everyone’s responsibility will be in regards to work done to complete the project. When I develop a new project with a collaborator, I like to outline the main hypothesis (or hypotheses) of the project, the methods, and the deadline for when each goal or analysis should be completed, and who will complete each goal or analysis. It is also a good idea to talk with your collaborator about how they prefer to share documents. Google Drive is my preferred method of sharing documents and writing papers with collaborators, but there are other options out there as well (e.g., Dropbox, Box, and Slack).
If I haven’t heard from my collaborator in a while regarding a project, I like to send them an email with the progress I’ve made on my part and check in with them. Like I stated earlier, it is very easy for all of us (students, postdocs, professors), to ignore one project for another. Sending an email to your collaborator and staying in touch is a good way to keep them motivated to compete their part of the project.
Andy: Skype or Google Hangouts are worth many emails when starting out and finishing. Depending on what you’re doing (workshops are very different than publications) but having every few month Skype meetings is well worth carving out the time for.
Adriane is correct, in the above, but optimistic. Best laid plans are wonderful, but all of the deadlines will fall apart. Don’t let that be discouraging. If you’re working with folks above the graduate level they’re managing students, writing papers and grants, teaching classes, and usually working on several other collaborative projects at once.
Jen: I agree with both Adriane and Andy and would like to add that you should maintain reasonable expectations. Somethings will go very quickly when you and other collaborators are really excited but you can’t shirk all other personal and professional responsibilities for a single project, that is unreasonable. Give yourself a flexible timeline but if you have set deadlines work within those confines.
Also, if something bothers you and you aren’t the PI or lead author say something anyway. You wouldn’t be on the project if the team didn’t value your input. Often times people get too close to their work and either lose sight of something or they implicitly understand the meaning but it may not always be clear to others.
On Publishing with Collaborators
Publishing with collaborators can be a tricky arena to navigate; Who will be the first author? How will the authorship list read? Does your collaborator even deserve co authorship on your paper? Does anyone else deserve co authorship? Different scientists may have different ‘rules’ pertaining to these questions, but here are some of our guidelines:
Who will be the first author of a study?
Adriane: Usually, the person that conceives the study and develops the hypothesis is the first author on a publication. There are exceptions to this, especially when a graduate student’s advisor helps the student conceive the study and leads them to develop the hypotheses. Outside of graduate school, the lead author of the study is the person who develops the project, invites collaborators, and does the majority of the writing and figure making.
Andy: When it’s a pair or group that works together frequently, then the first authorship can rotate. Sometimes there’s a handshake agreement that if the first authorship goes to one person on paper A, then it’ll go to the second person on paper B. This can lock you into a certain number of publications.
Jen: I agree with both Andy and Adriane and have used both techniques to determine authorship. Who is graduating first and in most dire need for publications can dictates authorship with rotations in the future as Andy said. Generally, it should be the person who conducted the most work on the project.
How will the co-authorship list read?
Adriane: This is a situation where communication is key. In a few of my projects, I have stated up front where my collaborator will fall in the authorship list. In other cases, the person that does the most work (after the first author of the study) receives second authorship, and so on. On other publications where everyone has contributed equally to the project, the authorship list is alphabetical by last name after the first author. However, this can cause issues if one (or more) of your collaborators feel like they have contributed more to the study, as alphabetical authorship allows nothing to be inferred about the contribution of the scientist to the study. Again, having open and honest conversations about authorship and how the authorship list will read early in the process is a great starting point.
Jen: This is also quite variable and field dependent. Sometimes names are all alphabetical, many times the PI of the lab is last indicating seniority, etc. I think there are effective and convoluted ways to describe and detail contributions per individual that lead to appropriate authorship lists. I generally tend to think in decreasing order of work contributed with the lab PI at the end unless there was no umbrella PI.
Who deserves co-authorship on your publication?
Adriane: My rule of thumb when it comes to co authorship is that whoever has contributed significantly to the study, i.e., you couldn’t have completed the project without them, deserves to be included as a co author on your publication. For example, I am currently developing a stable isotope record for the Tasman Sea in collaboration with my collaborator who is in California. Our geochemist at UMass who manages our stable isotope lab has been an essential part of making sure my analyses have ran properly in the lab. Therefore, he is being included as a co author on the study, even though he hasn’t helped to develop the hypotheses of the study or the methods. Without him, I wouldn’t have the data to even write a paper in the first place. Co authorship can also be offered to researchers who significantly contribute to the paper’s conclusions through discussions and suggestions of the data. However, this varies on a case-by-case basis. In these situations, I suggest using your intuition as to whether you think the study has been greatly enhanced through discussions.
I also have rules about who does not deserve co authorship on a study. If a person offers you off-handed advice, or you ask an outside researcher about a question pertaining to your study, this does not warrant co authorship on a paper. Scientists who have previously published data that you use in your study, whether that be in the form of a published thesis, dissertation, or journal publication, also does not deserve co authorship on your study. However, if you do use unpublished data from another researcher, you must absolutely include that researcher on your paper as a coauthor.
Jen: I wholeheartedly agree with Adriane. Significant efforts including but not limited to: data gathering, prepping, or analyzing and writing portions of the paper. Also, do not let people bully you into giving them co-authorship. If a related researcher wants to contribute to your body of work, fine. But just because they have strong ideas or opinions does not mean they get to commandeer your work.
In a previous post, Sarah outlined some excellent advice for graduate students (read it here). This is a continuation of that post with additional advice for surviving graduate school and growing into a successful, happy, independent scientist.
Guard your time. There’s a saying I’ve heard that I really love: your MS degree is a sprint, but your PhD is a marathon. This is the best metaphor for graduate school I’ve heard, mostly because of the truth it holds. My MS degree was only 18 months long, so I had to be very careful of how I spent my time. I am funded for 4 years for my PhD, which is quite a bit of time, but I also have more responsibilities and obligations. Research should be your second priority during your degree, with extracurricular activities (including but not limited to teaching assistantship responsibilities and outreach and mentoring events) coming in third. But wait, you might be saying, what is your first responsibility during grad school?!? That’s next:
Take care of yourself. Undoubtedly, your first and most important responsibility during grad school is to take care of your mental and physical health. There are piles of studies that show increased mental health is linked to physical health and activity, and vice versa (e.g., Bize et al., 2007). There will be times when you feel like you won’t have time to exercise, go to the doctor and dentist, or even have time to plan and shop for healthy meals. You should prioritize these tasks, and don’t feel bad or guilty for doing so.
Eat well. When I was doing my MS degree at Ohio University, I made sure that I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. There were often times I felt I had no time to cook, so I came up with some ways to meal plan. For breakfast, I made breakfast burritos, and would pre-cook the rice, black beans, and scramble eggs twice a week and keep them in containers. This way, I could throw all of the ingredients in a bowl, heat it up in the microwave, and have a wholesome breakfast ready in less than 5 minutes. For dinner, I would pick one afternoon a week to cook a crock-pot meal. I would then split the food into Mason jars and freeze them for later. In this way, I could come home late and heat up dinner (I would often have at least 4 different dinners frozen at any given time for variety).
While we’re on the subject, another piece of food-related advice: Beer/alcoholic drinks and coffee ARE NOT your best friends in graduate school. Alcohol is especially hard on your body, and can severely affect your energy and ability to function at your best. Studies have shown that students are particularly susceptible to abusing alcohol in college (e.g., Weitzman, 2004), especially students that are women, people of color, and/or from low socioeconomic statuses. When graduate school gets stressful, several people turn to drinking to cope. Instead, schedule time for yoga, running, or some other physical activity that is stress-reducing and healthy for you. Coffee and other caffeinated drinks are fine in moderation, but too much can cause your body to feel jittery, increase feelings of stress and anxiety, and cause you to crash after the effects wear off. When in graduate school, there is a culture of coffee-drinking that is rampant; walk down any hall at any time of the day and you’re almost guaranteed to smell a fresh pot being brewed. But coffee doesn’t work for everyone’s body, as it can be hard on your digestive system and cause upset stomach. Instead, try tea, some of which has lower amounts of caffeine per cup and doesn’t cause a huge crash like coffee can. Personally, tea works better for me, as I am especially prone to blood sugar crashes after a coffee caffeine spike and feelings of increased anxiety and stress.
Get plenty of sleep every night. You might have heard of your friends in undergrad or even in grad school pulling all-nighters and working at weird times of the day. Chances are you’ve even done this yourself. STOP IT. While in grad school, you will need your brain to work at maximum efficiency everyday (some days that’s not possible and that’s okay). But one way to make sure your brain is functional is to get a good night’s sleep, whatever that means for you and your body. Some people operate well on 6 hours of sleep, others on 8 hours, etc.
You might feel like you don’t have time to sleep while doing your degree, but this is absolute BS. You will thank yourself at the end of your degree for sleeping, and realize that it is a crucial component of your success as a scientist. Of my cohort of grad students that I started my degree with in Ohio, I was the only one to finish my MS degree on time. I also published two papers from my thesis, one during my first year as an MS student. I’m quite certain I was also the only one who made sure I got at least 7 hours of sleep every night. Don’t underestimate the power of a well-rested brain.
Don’t ignore stress. There are several ways to reduce stress in graduate school, with several students opting to swim, run, or do yoga. These are all good options, as physical activity is linked to reduced stress and increased mental health (e.g., Penedo and Dahn, 2005). I would often run in the afternoons, especially when I was writing my thesis. Running helped me clear my mind, and I would often have awesome ideas regarding how to write my thesis or how to make figures while I was running (showers are also great places to come up with great research ideas). There are also non-physical ways in which to reduce stress. Netflix was my best friend in grad school (and it’s still a guilty pleasure during my PhD), as I enjoyed nothing more than coming home from a day in the lab and tuning out to a favorite movie or episode in a series. I also read fiction novels voraciously when I’m writing up my science, which helps me clear my mind and zone out when my brain is too tired to keep writing any given day. This brings me to my third piece of advice:
READ. As a graduate student, you can’t read enough. Specifically, you should be reading studies from the published literature that relate to your thesis or dissertation. When I was in Ohio, I read at least 6 papers a week. I’ve slowed down reading this much during the later phase of my PhD, but will probably start reading more as I begin writing more dissertation chapters. The point is, there are times in your degree where you’ll need to commit more time to reading, and times when you may need to dedicate more time to analyses, field work, etc. Regardless, never stop reading. Also read studies that interest you but may not be directly related to your project. Reading publications for fun is a great way to expand your knowledge and relate to other students in your department and their research.
When I began my MS degree in Ohio, I also didn’t know the correct way to read publications. It’s okay to ask your advisor and colleagues how they read and interpret papers. When I go through a publication, I always have a highlighter and pen at hand. Important points get highlighted, and I almost always write a quick comment beside what I highlight so I can quickly know its significance when I look back at the paper a year later. When I’m finished reading a paper, I write at least 3 main points or the most important information related to my studies on the front page of the paper. I’m also old-fashioned in the sense that I can only read printed papers. But there are some good programs that allow you to comment and highlight PDFs on your laptop or desktop computer (I am particularly fond of Adobe Acrobat DC).
Another way I keep myself motivated was to form a reading club this past summer. The club is composed of myself and five other graduate students (MS and PhD) who meet once a week for about an hour. We focus on newer studies related to Antarctica and the Miocene, but we have also focused on paleoclimate concepts (such as the effect of shifting Westerlies on upwelling around Antarctica and current strength) and phenomenon that we don’t quite understand. Forming a group where you feel comfortable to ask questions and admit that you don’t understand something, then finding papers to better your understanding, is a great way to tackle the published literature. Meeting with friends once a week is also a great way to bond, form friendships, and commiserate with other graduate students.
Write. Like reading, writing is another crucial part of your survival as a graduate student. Writing is hard, and often boring, but the more you do it, the better you will become at it! When you first get to graduate school, likely some of the first documents you’ll have to write are grants. Your first draft will be absolute garbage, just accept that. But also understand that your advisor’s job is to help you recycle garbage into a shiny, awesome document. It’s also a good idea to reach out to friends and colleagues to ask for writing help, tips, and edits. I often reach out to Sarah and Jen for advice on writing and to ask them to edit my documents. I have also begun to apply for jobs this year, and I’ve reached out to other professors in my department as well as my MS thesis advisor at Ohio for advice on writing job application documents. These same people have also edited my documents, which has improved them tenfold at least.
Writing grants isn’t the only writing practice you should be getting. While taking classes, it may help you to re-type your notes, or even re-word written notes to make more sense. If you have a blog, practice your science communication writing there! As soon as you begin reading publications related to your thesis or dissertation, begin writing down the major concepts and ideas that you come across. Later, this text can be reworked into a grant or your thesis. Likewise, as soon as you begin doing research, begin writing your methods section! It’s much easier to write your methods as you do them rather than trying to remember what you did a year later (trust me, I know this one from personal experience).
Get outside of your comfort zone. This should be obvious, but graduate school is a time for your to grow as a researcher, scientist, and teacher. You will do things that make you nervous, anxious, or just plain scared, such as giving a presentation at a conference, attending an overseas conference, doing field work for the first time, or teaching a class. These feelings are totally normal, and for me, they usually mean I’m outside of my comfort zone and learning to navigate new spaces and experiences.
I have two main examples of times I’ve been completely shoved out of my comfort zone (by my own doing and choices), but grew as a scientist and teacher. The first is when I was given the opportunity by my department to build and teach my own upper-level undergraduate course. I was scared to death, but ended up loving my class and had a great time! And, I now have more teaching experience than most, something that will give me an edge when applying for jobs. I have no doubt that I’ll be able to build and teach any class I want in the future, and this feeling is priceless.
The second time I went way outside of my comfort zone is when I sailed on a two-month long expedition in the Tasman Sea. I was selected as on of the shipboard paleontologists, and thus it was part of my responsibility to let the other scientists know where we were in time as we drilled through seafloor sediments. This was a huge responsibility, and I had never been away from home for two months with people I didn’t even know. But the experience was awesome, I learned a ton, and I’m a much stronger researcher and scientist because I participated in the expedition. And I also have several new colleagues and collaborators all over the world!
I would like to add a cautionary note to this section. You shouldn’t participate in anything in graduate school that can cause you physical or mental harm, and don’t let yourself be bullied into doing something you’re not comfortable doing by your peers, advisor, or others. Remember that your physical and mental health should always come first, and that you need to guard your time. So don’t partake in activities that put these factors in jeopardy (although teaching my own course and sailing did take up huge amounts of my time, I felt those activities would benefit me in the long-term).
I hope this advice is helpful to some, as some of these tips were never told to me but rather learned through experience. If you have additional tips for surviving grad school, leave a comment below!
Political polarization, the ever-widening divide between Right and Left in the US, is an obvious problem. We have lost our ability to communicate with one another: using different sets of ‘facts’ to back up our arguments, with the ‘facts’ depending on our side of the political spectrum. The internet has in large part facilitated this fracturing. One can spend 10 minutes on Google to find support for anything that they believe. For example, Youtube videos link to increasingly conspiratorial videos, pushing us farther apart. This loss to our collective conversation is damaging in most arenas, even in the classroom or lecture halls. When a collection of outright lies masquerading as facts meets science, it causes problems. When a student population has firmly-held beliefs in concepts that are simply not true, as a facet of their personal values or beliefs, this presents a difficult and unique challenge for an instructor. I was a visiting assistant professor in a conservative area, dealt with these issues, and hope to provide some help for those who are walking into a similar task in this post.
I loved teaching at Sam Houston State University (SHSU), enjoyed my time with both my students and colleagues. Some of this is going to read as if I was combative the entire time I was at SHSU. I wasn’t. I truly enjoyed interacting with my students (and most liked interacting with me, from reading my evaluations), especially the ones who thought about topics differently than I do. College is supposed to be about exposure to new ideas, after all. I find it difficult to let people believe in materially incorrect things however, especially when they’re detrimental to their lives, and to my own or my family’s lives. SHSU is in a very conservative area in East Texas, and my introductory, general education course covered both climate change and evolution. Covering these subjects meant that the students signing up for “Historical Geology” as an easy science credit got a more ‘controversial’ course than they expected.
To say that climate change or evolution is controversial is imprecise. Both subjects, scientifically, are not controversial, especially at the introductory level. Evolution is a multifaceted theory that is accepted by scientists and there are no competing arguments; this has been understood for 150 years. Scientists also agree that the climate has been changing for decades, and that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a potent greenhouse gas since Svante Arrhenius calculated the extent to which increases in CO2 can cause heating in the atmosphere (he was alive in 1859-1927). Both subjects, unfortunately, are controversial in the public’s eye. Today, 29% of the American public believe scientists do not agree that humans have evolved over time, and 32% reject the scientific fact that is human-caused climate change (and 24% are uncertain!). Walker County, TX, which SHSU is in, has 7% lower acceptance rate than the national average. When I asked my students if scientists agree or do not agree that evolution is a fundamental process describing change through time, ~20% said scientists did not agree. To say that my classes were comprised of more conservative students, with strong personal beliefs, than an average introductory science course in the US is probably accurate.
Educating a student population with strongly held personal beliefs counter to course material doesn’t work well with traditional teaching methods. We not only have to teach students the material that they need them to understand for the course (past greenhouse gas changes, radiative forcing, proxy data, feedback mechanisms, etc.) but we also have to convince them of barefaced reality. We have to convince them that, no, scientists aren’t lying to them or the public. We have to convince them that we’re not in the pocket of ‘big-environment’, reaping the benefits of ‘big’ grants. We have to recover their idea that there can be legitimacy of the scientific process. If you say the words ‘climate change’ to someone of a Right ideology, they are likely to not listen to what you say afterwards because you’ve been written off as ‘far-Left’. How do you teach when your students might react that way?
A Hybrid Teaching Approach
Instructors, professors, and educators have to engage in science communication rather than teaching. Not entirely, but to a degree that can be uncomfortable. To explain: Science communication is sharing scientific results with the non-expert public. It relies heavily on a ‘values-based’ model, which is empirically more effective than the older ‘information-deficit’ model. The information-deficit model said that “People just don’t know enough, so if I explain what I know, they’ll agree with me.” That’s standard teaching. The professor explains the subject, the students take notes, everybody agrees the professor is telling the truth and that the professor has the most thorough understanding and information. The information-deficit model assumes that facts win, which simply isn’t the case. We resist facts that don’t conform to our strongly held beliefs. It doesn’t work if everyone does not agrees that the professor has authority in the subject. If a large enough number of the class think the professor is a member of a global conspiracy of attempted wealth redistribution, then the information deficit model falls completely apart. If the information-deficit model worked, then no one walking out of a (properly taught) high school biology course would believe intelligent design or creationism. That’s simply not the case.
The values-model says that the communicator (professor, instructor, educator) establishes shared values with their audience and communicates with them in a back-and-forth exchange. They then explain why a scientific concept is important to them, and why it should also be important for those who share the same values. That’s not teaching, in the purest sense, because it’s broader than just pure information conveying. That’s also not possible in the lectures we frequently find ourselves teaching.
Let’s assume that our goal is to take students who are uncertain about climate change, or don’t believe that evolution has occurred through time, and get them to accept scientific truths. Information-deficit isn’t going to get us to students accepting the truth, if we’re dealing with a resistant population. While not all of my students were resistant, I like to ‘swing for the fences’ and get everybody to understand concepts. Past students said they liked the ‘nobody left behind’ classroom ethos I set out. The values-model is uncomfortable for scientists, in particular. A scientific-upbringing, like one has while you get a Ph.D., prizes the ultra-rational and eschews ‘values’ for data (click here for a discussion about science being inherently political).
Blending both the values-based and information-deficit models of teaching might be the right approach. We need to communicate information, but if we demonstrate to students why the subject matters, how it fits with their previously held ideas, or even provide space for them to blend their faith with known biology, then we move them away from irrational, ill-placed skepticism.
I had these concepts gnawing at the back of my head while I was teaching my introductory course (Historical Geology). There was one particular moment that help me see a blending as the correct way forward. In class I occasionally asked students to submit anonymous questions to me on note cards about either impending or just-covered subject material. I’m one of the only research-centric scientists these students might ever meet, and I know from conversations with students that they have questions that weren’t covered in the course. Sometimes I answered the note card questions in lecture alongside the regular material, like in my climate lectures. Other times they exchanged cards with 5 other people, then the last person decided if they wanted to ask that now-anonymous question right then. At the end of my evolution section I got the question “What are your values?” from a student. I used my answer to that question as my first slide when discussing climate change.
That’s me sharing a value that most folks should share: that truth is important, something that we should respect. I used it to set the stage for a series of lectures on climate change that talks primarily about the mechanism and past examples, but also talked about climate models, future projections, and why we’re still arguing about it.
The following are my suggestions for how to teach a subject that folks in your classes think is controversial.
I opted for an overt structure to the roughly two weeks that I discussed climate change. I went methodically through a series of questions, going from “What can change climate?” to “Has climate changed in the past?” and “Why might it matter?”. Touching back to the objections that folks have to climate change and systematically explaining why they are wrong is useful, and makes a really compelling way to organize your lectures. Just be sure not to reinforce the incorrect material by stating it as a statement, rather phrase them as questions. So, you shouldn’t say things like “‘Climate changes all the time, so it doesn’t matter if it does now’ is wrong”, instead it should be “Has climate changed in the past? Yes, but here’s why that’s important”.
Spend Time with Contrarian ‘Evidence’
I had a student bring up a conspiracy theory: the Rothschilds were funding research in climate change and if the research came up counter to human-caused climate change they’d bury it. The student then brought up a ‘fact’ which I’d never encountered before, which they said had been buried by the Rothschilds company. The fact was counter to a huge amount of real research. All I was able to do in the moment was to explain the way things really are, but if the student has decided that the underlying data is falsified it’s difficult to counter. Since then, all I’ve been able to find is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory from the Napoleonic Wars and a Democratic DC Council member talking about how the Rothschilds control the weather. I still do not know where the student got their ‘fact’. I feel like I was under prepared to handle that interaction.
The index card activity that I mentioned above allowed me time to prep for these kinds of questions from my students, when I ask them for questions for the next lecture. I prompt them with “What’s a question that you’ve always wanted to ask a climate scientist? Something you heard about that sounds wrong or is confusing?”. On the spot, it’s difficult to do the due-diligence of tracking down the source of the student’s misconception. A student in another class wrote a question about Al Gore’s prediction of a sea-ice free Arctic Ocean by a certain deadline. The student missed several key points; it was about Arctic summer ice, Gore is not a scientist, the actual analysis Gore got that from was correct, Gore just used the most pessimistic number rather than the scientists preferred value, etc. Those aren’t facts I keep in my head, but I was able to collate them and present them one-after-the-other as a way to dismantle that piece of misinformation.
One way to view the interactions is as an accidental “Gish Gallop”. Dwayne T. Gish was a debater of evolutionary biologists. He was infamous for his rapid-fire objections to evolutionary science. He would place a simple objection, “There are no transitional forms,” and then another and another, then the scientist would need to explain why that’s clearly not true. The explanation requires a great deal more time. Any unanswered objection is then assumed by the audience to be correct. Such is the way in these classes. If you don’t clarify or correct a student’s point, that point is assumed to be correct, at least by the students you’re trying to reach the most, the ones that don’t accept the legitimacy of climate or evolutionary science.
In an ideal world a student would say, “Did you know crazy-thing-X?” and you respond, “I saw that somewhere, but that’s completely wrong because of A-B-C-D, and have you considered that person-backing-X does so because of E-F-G?”. It’s easier to catch something out of left field if you have some knowledge of the outfield.
Consider Your Approach
Telling somebody to their face that they’re an idiot for voting for somebody might be both cathartic and true sometimes, but it’s not that effective. Changing minds doesn’t involve hurling epithets, even if the president and his supporters are doing it (please see section My Perspective below for an important caveat). Scientists have facts on our side. Proving your point without literally cursing the name of the current president during a lecture in class is more effective than adding “*&@^ Trump”. Are you just venting your own frustration or are you trying to actively convince these folks who are wrong to join the correct side? By all means, force your students to grapple with the underlying long-term consequences of their voting choices, if they voted for him, but do it in the most effective way possible. Yelling at them is just going to stop them from listening.
An example: three students and I are having a conversation that explicitly turns to voting for Trump*. One student voted for Trump because Trump was going to redistribute wealth to the little guy, the other voted for Trump because Trump was going to engage in trickle-down economics (a failed style of economic policy that gives taxes breaks to the ultra-wealthy that then increases economic benefit down the class structure [it fundamentally does not work]). I tried to make sure they realized that they voted for him for polar opposite reasons, and that at least one of them had to be wrong about what Trump would do in office. Just like we try to do in education: making them walk down the path themselves, providing a guiding hand when necessary, and not just telling them, is more effective than yelling it at them (I’ll admit I laughed at the idea that trickle-down economics would actually be effective, but it took me by surprise).
I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the students perceived me as the messenger. I am originally from the Northern Midwest, where “hey guys” is a gender-nonspecific greeting for a group. In Texas it’s “y’all”, which is actually gender-nonspecific, unlike guys which is just used as nonspecific while being male. It’s very easy to adopt regionalisms accidentally or when it appeals to you for good reason. I’m living in the UK now and I’ve no reason to start saying trousers but I have. I fought the “y’all” change because it felt like the students would perceive me trying to co-opt their language to be more like them, which if you add me trying to push them away from strongly held viewpoints, would lead to resentment.
*This happened without me trying to get the conversation there. I try to discuss the political issues with my students, not the individuals involved in politics, when possible.
One of the questions that stuck out in my mind most from the folks who already accepted and had seemed like they might have a solid understanding of climate change was “Why do some people not believe in climate change?”.
Besides the word ‘believe’ in there, it’s a really astute question. Why is it? The physical basis is solid and fairly simple. The question ends up being more of a social science question. Leaving that unanswered though, falls into a serious trap. If you’re presenting the physical science of climate change you leave questions in your students’ minds. They know there’s another side to the ‘debate’. While the ‘there are two sides to every story’ journalism trope has plenty of faults, we’re conditioned to expect to hear the other side’s opinions. So cover it! Without it you seem like you’re trying to obfuscate.
Lastly, while this might lose your conservative students, it’s important to discuss with your students the actions that can be taken. While individual actions are useful and important, we all have our roles to play in conservation, those individual actions aren’t going to solve anything by themselves. The issue in climate change isn’t solved by one, two, or a hundred people starting to recycle (though that is a good end), it’s systemic change that is required to fix this problem. The end goal of doing this is to motivate the students to vote or to engage with their policy makers in some fashion. Them driving less is important, but the impact is not of the magnitude that we need.
I’m deeply uncomfortable with advocating for individual solutions. As a physical scientist teaching a physical science course at a public institution, it’s not really my purview to go into what solutions are politically feasible, unless asked. I explain the situation, I go through some of the solutions we have, and the implication is that the most effective one is to get involved politically. Because it is. That’s the solution to the community action; to involve the community in solving the problem.
All of this has been from my individual perspective. I’m a straight white dude in my thirties. I look, and probably outwardly project, a more traditional set of values than I actually hold. That affords me a whole lot of privilege in certain situations. Particularly in conservative areas there’s a baseline respect that comes with students having to call you ‘Sir’, ‘Doctor’, or ‘Professor’. It works, I think, really well to act as a Trojan horse for these students as someone who is not immediately othered within their views. For example, I don’t appear as and am not queer, so there aren’t quick barriers thrown up that my views or perspective is from ‘one of them’, similar to how when the words “climate change” are used, conservative individuals ignore the rest of the argument made.
So your mileage may vary. This advice may not work, some might actually be horribly counter productive for somebody who doesn’t have a similar background or the assumed respect that goes with being a white, male professor. I chose to keep my preferred pronouns out of my email signature while at SHSU, because that’s a clear sign I’m a lefty. Part of my privilege is that it’s not a life-and-death or job-or-no-job situation for me to fight for those rights. I don’t have the level of righteous anger of someone marginalized, targeted, or worse by our government, which allows me the privilege to not having to worry about getting into many possible unsafe situations. I opted to not engage on some issues in my first semester teaching, and to only deal with very specific battles. Making sure that I taught my course material, including those viewed as political, as effectively as possible seemed like a good first step.
This post was originally written as a response to an email that was sent out in my department. That email was worded in a way that suggested that women are not underrepresented in STEM fields. I’ve reworded and rewritten my original email here. Included in this article are numerous links to studies to support the claim that women and other diverse groups of researchers are discriminated against.
More specifically, data has been mined from the Paleontological Society and the North American Paleontological Convention to explore gender gap trends in paleontology. The gender breakdown data of members of these societies depicts a near even 50-50 split among graduate students, but a reduction to 25% women and 75% men at the professional membership level. This indicates that at somewhere between grad school and academic careers stages, women are being lost from the geosciences. There are easy steps to support these women graduate students as they transition to early-career stages in all areas of the sciences, such as: providing childcare at meetings, fostering mentoring opportunities, confronting internal biases, and conscious efforts to invite women as speakers. Women are less likely to be asked as invited speakers in a variety of venues, for example: TED talks and conferences. Additionally, work has been conducted to explore the likelihood of choosing women speakers at mathematics conferences compared to the observed outcomes. The author provided evidence that underrepresentation of women as invited speakers in mathematics should, in fact, be an overrepresentation given individuals in the field (easily digestible article on the content here).
Further complicating the idea that women ‘publish less than men’, women in academia-namely, those in a university setting, are much more likely to be asked of favors from students. Meaning, women are much more likely to spend extended time with students who ask for ‘special favors’ (e.g., second chances on assignments, etc.), Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests. Women statistically also do more internal service than men, says a study that surveyed approximately 19,000 faculty members across the country. Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?This increased service load leads to lower productivity in other areas such as research and teaching, which can directly affect salary and success in academia.
All of these issues are even further compounded when you consider that women of color, women with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community are under considerably more discrimination than white, heterosexual, cisgender, nondisabled women (accessibility in the geosciences). There are a multitude of studies indicating that academics that are part of more than one underrepresented group are further discriminated against (e.g. Racial Microaggressions Against Black Counseling and Counseling Psychology Faculty; Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards). While there are numerous variables involved in understanding these biases, we do know that these biases affect people very early in life, as there are many studies that identify problems like students of color are less likely to be identified as gifted by their teachers, thus taking away opportunities at a formative time (read more here).
To create a more inclusive and diverse scientific community we must recognize our implicit bias and work to support and encourage diversity. The onus should not rest on women and other underrepresented groups to fix the systemic discrimination in academia, as well as provide evidence that it exists every time issues arise concerning it.
Related article (here) by Dr. Phoebe Cohen that has similar goals and is easy to read and well organized.
Howdy! Today I want to share with you some of my journey to get to where I am in grad school. I am currently finishing up a master’s degree in geology, but I didn’t always plan on going to grad school, or even going into science.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, some of my favorite books were the ones on earthquakes and volcanoes, which were both very real geologic hazards in the area I lived. Someone gave me a book on identifying rocks and minerals and I started a rock collection with rocks I found down by the river or in my parent’s driveway. My grandpa loved rocks and geology and taught me how to identify various rocks and minerals and even pan for gold with sand and gravel he brought back from the Mojave desert in California.
However, by the time I got to high school I was struggling with algebra and higher level science classes and didn’t think I had what it takes to be a scientist. There were no high school level geology classes offered at that time and I didn’t even know that “geologist” was an actual job title. I discovered that I was really passionate about education and helping folks with special needs so I decided to go into special education.
After high school, I started at nearby Green River Community College (GRCC) so I could save money by still living at home. In the spring of my second year I had to take a science elective and ended up in Geology 101. I could write a whole post on how important geology classes at community colleges are, but I’ll save that for next time. This class quickly became my favorite class from my time at GRCC. The professor focused on how geology can be useful in our daily lives by framing each unit in terms of local geologic hazards to consider when buying a house or how to know what geologic processes have occurred when looking at a landscape. This made geology seem very interesting and relevant.
Now that I knew what geology was all about and what geologists do, I started seriously considering a career as a geologist. I loved the idea of studying the earth and the processes that formed it and are still shaping the landscape today. I especially loved learning about different hazards that affect people’s lives in different places in the world and how geologists can help prepare for and mitigate after disasters. The accelerated pace of college classes seemed to be what I needed to finally figure out higher level math, and I was actually enjoying my algebra and chemistry classes. I started paying attention to geology stories in the news and was in my professor’s office almost every day to talk about a recent earthquake or a cool rock I had found, etc. I decided to pursue a BS degree in geology after finishing at community college and looked into quite a few undergrad programs from Alaska to Ohio. I settled on Central Washington University, about an hour and a half from my childhood home, but on the other side of the Cascade Mountains so I got to experience a totally different type of climate and landscape. In the CWU geology department, every class that could had at least one field trip, and often more. There were good examples of almost every type of geologic process within a couple of hours of our university. I loved every class I took there and it seemed like every day was constantly reaffirming that this was where I was supposed to be. Even the informally dubbed “weed-out classes” I loved, which I was assured was the whole point: if you loved even the classes with 4 hour labs and 25+ hours of work outside of class time, slogging through all kinds of geology problems, then you were in the right spot.
When I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree and pondering what was next, I thought that I wanted to go to grad school, but not just yet. I had been in college for 5 years at that point and felt like I needed a little break. But then I attended a national Geological Society of America meeting in Vancouver, BC during the fall of my senior year. This is one of the biggest conferences for geologists every year, and there were scientists from all over the US and the world and from every branch of geology. I saw so many cool projects and was so inspired by all the interesting geology that I decided I wanted to be a part of that as soon as possible. When I got back I did some research and started sending e-mails to professors I was interested in working with. I didn’t get a single response to my first round of e-mails and was kind of discouraged. But I still really wanted to get in on some cool geology research so I sent out a second round of e-mails to completely different professors and heard back from all of them within a couple days! I was so excited to begin this journey and immediately started the application process, took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and waited eagerly for acceptance letters. I got in to two of the four schools I ended up applying to. I had a choice between living in Tennessee or Alabama, but decided I wanted to be closer to the Great Smoky Mountains (a dream destination since my childhood) so I went with Tennessee.
I moved to Knoxville and started my master’s in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I was prepared for an adventure, but even this one didn’t go the way I thought it would. My first project didn’t quite pan out the way I thought and I ended up switching projects and advisors toward the end of my first semester. This is way more common than you hear about…I have several other friends who switched advisors or projects as well. Sometimes it’s a personality or advising style issue, or sometimes the project itself is just not a good fit. The thing I had to keep reminding myself during this time was that it wasn’t a failure to change projects and not do what I thought I was going to, it just meant it wasn’t a good fit for me.
So I was on to my new project: contributing to a geologic map of a local area on Mars. Before starting this project, I didn’t know scientists even had the data to do geology on Mars! I was a little disappointed to not be doing field geology on Earth, but I thought this was a great opportunity to learn something new and expand my skills in geology and mapping. I discovered in undergrad that I loved mapping and structural geology (faults and earthquakes and how rocks move and deform). This project combined both by allowing me to map structural features on Mars and try to figure out a little about how they formed and contributed to the landscape in my study area. Throughout my time on this project I have come to appreciate the
I’ve been on this project for two and a half years now and I’m nearly done and thus began pondering again: what’s next? I applied to lots of jobs in geology or related fields and got only one phone interview. This is fairly common, but it’s still difficult not knowing what’s next. Then over Christmas break I remembered that in undergrad I had considered someday being a librarian. I am really passionate about reading and writing, about the community spaces libraries provide, about making information available and accessible to all. I had sort of pushed this idea to the side while pursuing my master’s in geology, as a “someday dream”. Now that I was almost done with my geology studies, I decided maybe “someday” was actually “now”. I did some research, talked to friends who were librarians, and sent more e-mails to professors. I ended up applying and being accepted to the Information Sciences program at UT to start in Fall 2018. I am so excited to explore the possibilities of combining my passion for geology and information: some potential jobs include positions at state geology libraries, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) library, national labs, or as a subject librarian at academic libraries.
Graduate school is one of those experiences that can bring out the worst in you. Sure, there are a handful of encouraging moments; like when you read a paper and actually understand it, or finally figure out what your advisor was asking you to do (even though you can’t actually do it, at least you now know what it is that you can’t do). Victories are few and far between, and the continual obstacles and failures take a toll on students. Filmmaker and once-PhD student Duncan Jones said it best: “When I was at graduate school you wouldn’t have recognized me I was so different — and not a nice person: a grumpy, surly, upset, confused, lost person.”
A theme among graduate students is feeling lost and confused, and consequently becoming upset that you’re lost and confused. You develop insecurities and wonder if you’re even supposed to be a Master’s or PhD student at all. The feeling grows and persists, all while undermining your confidence. This is the Impostor Syndrome.
What exactly is the Impostor Syndrome?
It’s a sense of incompetence, self-doubt, or anxiety accompanied by abundant evidence that you’re actually quite competent, intelligent, and hardworking. You are constantly second-guessing your qualifications and sometimes feeling that you’ve fooled people into thinking you’re smart. In fact, this sometimes-debilitating condition is quite common among successful people, and I’ve found it to be considerably persistent in my geology graduate career thus far.
Much of graduate school is admitting what you don’t know.
It’s true, you have to acknowledge what you don’t know in order to move on. Once you’ve done that, you recognize the information you need to learn, the skills you must master, and the tools you should develop. But in that process of identifying knowledge deficiencies, I’ve found that I end up feeling less intelligent and less capable. Letting my weaknesses undermine my confidence is easy. Thoughts of “I’m not cut out for this” or, “I’m not smart enough to be in this program” can work their way into your head and really throw you for a loop.
Despite this constant fear that I’m not doing anything right, I somehow still love graduate school.
I really mean that. Graduate school is this wild experience in which you probably have no idea what you’re actually doing or why, but you get to learn about the very topic that interests you most. You’re surrounded by equally ambitious peers, you work with revered professors, and you have an advisor whose fundamental job as an advisor is to make you better at what you do. There are definitely frustrating, disheartening, sit-in-your-office-and-contemplate-whether-geology-matters moments. And when Impostor Syndrome gets the best of you, here’s some advice.
Use logic against negative thoughts. Whenever these “impostor” thoughts begin to brew in your mind, try to remind yourself that Impostor Syndrome tends to affect successful people. Consequently, you must be successful and competent too. Check out this comic from PHD Comics for a good laugh and a nice reminder that you’re not alone.
Practice internal validation. Many people thrive off of external validation, like praise from their peers or professors. Try complimenting yourself and focusing on acknowledging the effort you’ve put into your research.
Avoid comparing yourself to others. Every student has had a different educational experience leading up to graduate school. When we compare ourselves to our peers, we often identify insufficiencies in ourselves and end up feeling unintelligent or incapable. Instead, recognize your skills and abilities, then use this opportunity to collaborate with your peers.
If all else fails and you need to commiserate with others, PHD Comics is a good place to turn. Check out their Impostor Syndrome comics (here, here, and here) and don’t be afraid to get lost in the hilarity PHD Comics has to offer.
Attending professional conferences can be a lot of fun. I have had the opportunity as a graduate student to attend several geology conferences around the country, but the first conference I attended was as an undergraduate senior geology major, and it set me on the course to pursuing graduate school.
Conferences for many professional organizations move around to different cities from year to year, making it easier for people in different regions to attend. During my senior year as an undergraduate, the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA) was held in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, just a few hours’ drive from my university, Central Washington University. Because of this, our department encouraged as many students to go as were able, since it was so close that we would not have to pay for plane tickets or other large travel expenses. There are several scholarships and travel grants available to students who are presenting research to attend professional conferences, but since I did not participate in a research project as an undergrad I was not able to receive this type of funding. To keep costs down, many of the students and professors from my department carpooled up to Vancouver and we crammed as many students as we could into a cheap hotel room a few blocks from the conference center.
Once we got to Vancouver and got settled in our hotel rooms, it was easy to see that this was the perfect place for a geology conference. It was my first time in Vancouver and I fell totally in love with the views. There were beautiful forested green mountains coming down right into the harbor. It was easy to imagine the subduction of the Farallon plate under the North American plate, forming the tall, (geologically) young mountains, followed by the giant glacial ice sheets covering the area during the last ice age and then retreating to leave behind such a beautiful landscape for us to enjoy.
During the conference, I was able to attend many interesting talks and poster presentations on a wide variety of geological topics, including paleontology, planetary geology, structural geology (earthquakes and tectonics), volcanology (volcanoes!), and metamorphic petrology (studying rocks that have been heated and transformed under high pressure without being totally melted). I was delighted to find that there were so many people studying so many interesting facets of geology, and was inspired to check out some ways to get involved in research myself.
There were many events happening during the week of GSA, some specifically aimed at students, and I attended as many of these as I could. Most were free or very affordable ($5-$15) for student attendees. There were a few networking events such as career lunches with professionals with jobs in industry (e.g., oil & gas), government, and academia. These lunches usually included a panel discussion or Q&A, followed by time to just mingle and talk to professionals and fellow students. Most GSA technical divisions (Structural Geology, Sedimentology, Planetary, etc.) had formal business meetings and social events (often combined) during the week of GSA. Some of these were free and some were ticketed, though if they charged they likely had a reduced rate for students. I found that these meetings were a good way to meet folks in fields of geology I thought I was interested in, and most of the people there loved to talk to students about what they do. One of my favorite events at GSA every time I’ve been is the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG) networking breakfast. This is their annual business meeting, but also a way to get a good breakfast and meet other women geoscientists during the conference.
The exhibit and poster hall was one of the biggest rooms I had ever seen. There were hundreds of poster presentations of people’s work. This was a good way to spend time if I had an hour or two free. Walking around and looking at all the posters was a fun way to learn a lot about branches of geology that I knew very little about. There were also quite a lot of exhibitor booths for universities, geological equipment manufacturers, and various companies that hire geologists. Many of them were giving away free stuff (bookmarks, flash drives, pens), so it was fun to go around and see what I could get. I also loved walking around to all the booths for university geology programs and talking to students from other schools.
As a result of being exposed to all this cool science, I ended up applying to grad school for geology, and am now in the last semester of my Master’s degree! If you are an undergraduate (or even high school student) interested in science and you have the opportunity to attend a science conference in your area I highly recommend it.
I am finishing applying to grad schools for my Ph.D. and figured some of you might also be currently applying to graduate programs or starting to think about if you want to pursue a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. My main goals for this post are sort of two-fold: what is the process of applying to graduate programs and how do you stay sane while applying. So let’s get to it!
Key aspects of this post
Look for people and research that interests you, not just locations
Contact people at the school that you would want to work with-this is key! Look for people whose work interests you and start contacting them early-ask if they are taking students, what kind of research they do, what it would entail, etc.
Communicate with friends, professors, etc. if you need help with your statements or even just someone to say I know this sucks!
Make time for yourself-do things that aren’t related to applying to schools and have fun!
No matter how daunting and stressful this is, you are capable of doing this!
How to Apply for Grad School
Applying for grad school is very different from applying to undergraduate programs and unfortunately a lot less intuitive. When you were in high school (or shortly after) and applying to colleges there were a lot of people who were around to help you navigate applications and there may have only been one application you needed to fill out to send to many schools. You could also choose colleges based on what state or even which city you wanted to be in for the next four years.
Grad school is very different in that you are looking for specific research programs and people that you want to work with, rather than a location. The location can sometimes be a driver for your research, but in most cases that really is one of the last things that plays a role in your decision to apply there. Grad applications are also more short statement driven; you will be asked for statements of purpose (why do you want to come to this school), personal history statements, and the ever vague “additional statements.”
Statement of Purpose
This statement really is the meat of your application. What has made you decide to go to grad school, what do you want to study, why do you think this school and this advisor is the only place that you can learn what you want to learn. This statement can be totally daunting because often there are no directions or clarifying statements about what to include. I personally like to include a quick paragraph that is more of a narrative- what experience in science did I have that has stuck with me and made me want to be a scientist as an adult? Did you go to a cool summer camp or have an awesome science teacher? Something to show your background and make you a human can make your statement easier for you to write and easier for people to read. After that paragraph is your chance to wow them- what super cool research have you done, do you have a research question that you just have to know the answer to? How does this advisor and school help you reach your research and personal goals? This statement really is up to you to decide which direction you take it in, just make sure that if a school does want you to address something specific in this statement that you answer it!
Personal History Statement
The personal history statement is a place for you to go a little more in depth with personal experiences that you have had (positive or negative) that have led you to where you are today. It can be family or personal matters, or even research experiences that you feel have shaped your career trajectory. In this statement you can also address any “problems” in your transcripts or academic records. If you do choose to address something that was a challenge to you or something that impacted you negatively, try to keep positive language throughout. How did you overcome these challenges, what did you learn about yourself with this challenge, etc. Grad schools and advisors want to know who you are now, not who you were your first semester freshman year. If you have something in your transcript that you want to address and a personal history statement isn’t asked for, I have also asked a trusted letter writer to discuss that in my letter. The personal history statement is a chance for you to show how much you shine, even in the face of adverse conditions.
This upload button can cause a lot of grief because it will literally say “other documents.” Don’t panic, this is not required and you don’t have to upload something if you don’t have something else you want to add. If you know you want to be a professor and you have already had some teaching experience so you have a teaching philosophy or want to learn how to teach more effectively, that could be a statement you might add. If you love doing outreach and you feel very strongly that you can bring something to the table with your outreach efforts, you can add a statement about that. I just submitted my first “other document” with my Ph.D. applications and I only submitted it because I feel very strongly about the importance of teaching and outreach and wanted to share that side of myself with the schools I was applying to. If you don’t feel like you need to share anything else with the schools, don’t. It’s not something to stress too much over, because this whole process is stressful enough!
How to stay sane while applying
As someone who is currently applying for grad schools, this is 100% the hardest part for me. Even though I have really supportive family and lab mates who read over every statement that I write, the process can still feel very overwhelming. You have worked so hard for so long and you just want these people you have talked to to see how great you are and be deemed worthy enough to work with them. The best advice I can offer is to surround yourself with friends. Some of them may have done this before or are in the process of doing this with you, take the time you need to talk about applications but don’t let it consume your life. Spend time with people away from computers, go do fun things, remind yourself that life isn’t just about school. Take walks during the day-I spend ~8 hours a day sitting at my desk and a lab bench and I have found that taking a walk with my friends during the day can be just what I need to feel refreshed and ready to keep working. Play with animals-my cat has been a very big help in this application process because he provides so much comic relief! Play music that boosts you up and makes you feel good-this past week my lab group had a jam session to the Moana soundtrack. If that isn’t love and support, I don’t know what is!