Geosciences programs should drop the GRE, here’s why.

Adriane here-

For a few years now, there has been a debate raging in the science community: Should admissions at universities and colleges drop the requirement that students need to take the GRE for graduate schools? This is a conversation that has been steeped in inherent and implicit biases, data, and a gross misunderstanding of how standardized tests impact students. In this piece, I won’t go into details about how our own biases affect the decisions we make and opinions we form. Rather, the purpose of this post is to pull together the available data that show that the GRE is, in fact, an ineffective tool to predict the success of graduate students. To further this narrative, there are also personal stories from people who have taken the GRE included in this post.

Here is a list of US-based Geology/Geography programs that have dropped GRE.

The GRE

First, a bit of background about the GRE test. The GRE, which stands for Graduate Record Examinations, is a standardized test that students take who are applying for graduate schools, including law and business school. The GRE itself is created by ETS, a company that touts itself as creators of ‘some of the most well-known and widely used educational assessments in the world’. There are different types of GRE tests, called Subject Tests, depending on what the student wants to focus on as their career path: Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology. There is no subject test currently for the geosciences, so students who wish to pursue a graduate degree in this field just take the General Test. 

The General Test is broken down into 3 major categories: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. Each of these categories is supposed to test the student’s ability to draw conclusions from discourse and reasoning, summarize text, and distinguish major from minor points, measure the ability to understand, interpret, and analyze quantitative information, apply mathematical skills to problem-solve, and measure critical thinking and writing skills. These are just a few things the GRE is designed to measure, as stated on their website (https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/). 

To take the GRE test, there is, of course, a fee involved. The current prices to take the test as of July 1, 2020 are as follows:

Australia $230
China $231.30
India $213
Nigeria $226
Turkey $255
All other parts of the world $205

(All data from https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/fees/)

Students cannot take a GRE test anywhere. There are specific testing centers that distribute the GRE, and they do so about 3 times a year in September, October, and April for the United States, but can be variable depending on other countries. Often, the testing centers are located in larger cities, away from more rural areas. The test itself takes about 3 to 3.5 hours, and students are not allowed to bring any snacks or drinks into the testing center with them. These restrictions are variable and can be more or less strict depending on the testing center. 

After the student has taken the test, they receive part of their scores right away. The written portion of the exam is scored by a group of panelists who later give them the score on the written portion. The student then must immediately decide if they want to send those scores to the graduate schools they are applying to. The student doesn’t have to send their scores to any school if they don’t want to or feel like they need to retake the test. If you don’t send the scores at this time, it does cost extra to send them at a later time. Scores are reported on a scale from 130 to 170 in 1 point increments for the verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning part of the exam, and from 0 to 6 in half point increments on the analytical writing portion.  

Although the student can choose to send their test results to multiple schools, it does cost an additional $27 to send scores to additional schools. As stated on ETS’ website, these requests for additional scores are not refundable, cannot be canceled, nor can they be changed. 

The Data

From the above section, it should be clear that the GRE test is serious business, as it costs quite a bit of money to take, takes a large amount of time, and is largely uncomfortable (seriously, no snacks?!?). The test is supposed to be an indicator of student success in graduate school, but there have been studies published that say otherwise. In addition, there are problems with the test, as it is not an equal predictor of success for men and women, nor among underrepresented groups. In this section, I’ll summarize some of those studies and their major findings.

The GRE as a Poor Predictor of Graduate Student Success

First, let’s start with the obvious assumption that the GRE test does predict success of upcoming graduate students. One of the earliest studies looking at the predictive power of the GRE was by Dunlap (1979). This study found that the best predictor a student success was the student’s performance on the basis of faculty interviews and undergraduate GPA. The GRE was a weak predictor of success. Dawes (1971) showed that GRE scores can be good predictors of grades and faculty evaluations, but only for first-year graduate students’ performance in psychology. Another study by Wood and Wong (1992) showed that the GRE, by itself, accounted for slightly less than 10% of the variation in the criteria of graduate performance against which the GRE was validated. This study also only looked at psychology students. A more recent assessment of student GRE scores as predictors of success in psychology departments was conducted by Sternberg and Williams (1997). These researchers at Yale University asked graduate student advisors to rate their graduate students on their analytical abilities, creative abilities, practical abilities, research abilities, and teaching abilities. The researchers also computed the students’ first-year, second year, and combined GPAs on a scale of 4 (high pass) to 0 (fail). Similar to the Dawes (1971) study, the data from Sternberg and Williams (1997) indicated that the GRE was a modest predictor of grades, but only for the students’ first year in graduate school. The GRE scores were not found to be useful in predicting other arenas of graduate performance, such as analytical, creative, practical, research, and teaching abilities.

Similarly, a study conducted by researchers looked at the predictive power of GRE scores in construction management programs in the United States. The study, conducted by Wao and others (2016) tried to correlate the success of graduate students (success meaning they finished their degree within two years and not drop out). They, too, found that the GRE scores were not correlated with graduate student success, and thus recommended that admissions committees should reassess requiring the GRE scores at all. 

Personal Stories & Experiences

In high school, I was not a great student, and did terrible in math classes (my high school math teacher once told me to get away from his desk when I asked for help because I was ruining the signal on the TV while he watched basketball, DURING CLASS). When it was time for me to take the GRE, I was already working 20-30 hours per week to put myself through community college and help my family with expenses. I had to take a day off of work, paid $200 for the exam, and had to drive 45 minutes to the nearest testing center. I was so nervous about taking the test, I sweat the entire time even though the room was chilly. At the end of my exam, my scores didn’t meet the minimum most graduate programs required (300 points). I ran to my car, crying, and called my mom telling her I had failed. I couldn’t really afford to take the test again, but I did so twice more. I received about the same scores all three times, but in the end, I was out over $600 that I needed for school and my family. Today, I’m a Postdoctoral Fellow, and have personally grown and accomplished so much during my short academic career. No, the GRE was not a predictor of my success, but rather highlighted the fact that I came from an area with subpar high schools and from a family with lower socio-economic status. 

Adriane Lam, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Binghamton

I an above average high school student, I didn’t significantly apply myself because I was easily distracted and often bored in class. But I did my work, just not to the best of my ability. I never was a strong test taker, and didn’t have excellent ACT scores (25). I went on to a local public institution and really did awful my first year. I was NOT able to coast through like I did in high school. This means I bombed my first year of my undergraduate studies. I spent the next 4 years (I spent 5 as an undergraduate) working to raise my GPA. I graduated with a 2.86 GPA. I have to reiterate that I am a terrible test taker, I get so anxious, my study habits were variable and awful. I struggled. I didn’t know that I could even ask for help until the last few years when I found supportive mentors. I dreaded the GRE, I got workbooks, flashcards, and even recorded myself reciting definitions of terms so I could listen to myself on my commute to work and school. The testing center wouldn’t let me bring in tissues or chapstick and said I could either take in my sweater or I had to take it off because I couldn’t take it off in the testing center. These are all comfort items for me and I felt naked and uncomfortable heading into the testing center. I took the exam and I got an okay score, around 1200 (I took the old version). One of my mentors said I needed to take it again because that wasn’t competitive. So, regardless of the expense, I scheduled another test. I did worse. This was a waste of my time and money, neither of which I had an abundance of. Today, I am a collection manager at an established museum and research institution – regardless of my GPA or GRE scores, I managed to achieve my goals.

Jen Bauer, Ph.D., University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology

My story is from applying to PhD programs in 2013, both involving schools in the top 10 Earth Science PhD programs. At one I was told by the PI I was waitlisted because of my scores (which I can only assume meant my GRE scores, my GPA was a 3.8), only to then be admitted 1 week before the decision deadline after others had declined and I had accepted elsewhere (which was rather embarrassing). I was later told by the (junior) PI that he seriously regretted waitlisting me, which was quite humiliating. The second program was told when I visited informally before applications were due that there was a ‘formula’ involving GPA, quant and writing score that was unofficially used. I was below the threshold, told to retake the GRE before applying, all while trying to finish my MS degree. Knowing there was a threshold I needed was incredibly stressful.

-Anonymous

I actually had a very positive experience with the GRE even if I’m not convinced of its utility as an application requirement overall. I’m also concerned about what standards are replacing it and how inequality is built in those too. Before applying to a geoscience grad program, I was nervous about “belonging” and being successful in the field. I didn’t do science undergrad, I was a little older, and black. Hitting the marks on my GRE helped reassure me that I was in fact qualified and belonged. I’m not sure how much my score actually factored in to my admission. Re the test itself, I bought an inexpensive test prep book (could have got it at library too), took it at a location walkable from my home, easy peasy. Test location was at an HBU so even that was encouraging. Largest drawback for me was the cost of the exam itself. That’s just one experience and if the data says the test is a useless barrier, then I trust the data. I always felt weaker in school on the quantitative side of things. The GRE wasn’t a class. It’s not math I’d apply in my field. It was a nut to crack, something to persevere and figure out. That’s something I do in my PhD, everyday. That’s how the GRE helped me feel ready.

-Shannon Valley

I went to undergrad on a full needs-based scholarship, because my family had no money to send me to college. I worked part time jobs, sometimes more than one during a semester, through all 4 years of college. I wanted to apply to grad school, and spent nearly a month’s pay signing up for the GRE. Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to the GRE, my grandfather died quite unexpectedly and I ended up needing to reschedule it because my mother needed help cleaning out his house out of state. I had to pay an extra $50 to reschedule (which wasn’t easy to scrape up). It took me over an hour and a half by bus to get to the exam because they didn’t offer the test where I went to undergrad (they still don’t)-they offered it in a city a short distance away, but without a car, I had to rely on public transportation. This added a lot to the stress of the day, seeing as the exam started at 8AM. 

The amount of money it cost me to take this exam left me struggling to afford food, toiletries, and medical bills. I then had to figure out how to pay for the steep fees for the applications themselves. I didn’t know that you could send your scores for free *if* you did it the day you took the exam until I was already taking it. Because of that, I had to resend my scores after the exam for even more extra fees (I want to say $10 per school to send an email with my scores, but I can’t remember what the costs were back in 2010). 

I got into grad school (M.S.) with a relatively low score in the quantitative section. Frankly, between taking 5-6 classes, extracurricular activities, and working (my senior year, I taught a lab section of a course for pay, tutored athletes, and worked as an office assistant in a music department all at the same time), I didn’t have any time to study for the GRE. I used an old copy of the GRE study book from the library when I had a free hour or two, but I didn’t study as much as I could have if I hadn’t been working. 

 I took it again when I applied to a Ph.D. program- I only did this because a mentor of mine told me I’d never get into a Ph.D. program with my quantitative scores (I scored in the 99% in the qualitative/literature section,  but everyone said that didn’t matter in the STEM fields). I, again, had to spend just over two hundred dollars (my monthly take home pay as a student was around $850-$900/month, so this was tough to do, mind you). I had a car this time, but still had to drive an hour each way to take the test. This time, I was able to get a study book that I found from a thrift store and I was able to do a little bit better in quantitative, but not enough that it was worth the extreme stress I went through trying to figure out how to pay for the exam. Today, I’m an assistant professor at a university that has a significant number of low income students and the costs for the GRE have only gone up since I took it, while wages haven’t changed with those rising costs. I want to see a world where my students don’t have to forfeit time to study just so they can save up enough to take the test. 

 –Sarah Sheffield, Ph.D. The University of South Florida 

As someone who grew up taking standardized tests every year starting in 4th grade, I have always been a good standardized test taker, (other kinds of exams not so much, my test anxiety really didn’t start until my undergrad when I felt that my scores would really determine my future) so the idea of the GRE didn’t bother me. At the time, it very much just felt like another annoying step to be able to apply to graduate programs. However, since the exam wasn’t offered in the same city that my college was located in, I had to drive 40 minutes to the exam after my classes ended that day to sit in a freezing cold cubicle with noise cancelling headphones to block out the sound of anxious typing from all the other students taking the exam with me. 

One thing I did appreciate about the exam was knowing my quantitative and qualitative scores immediately after finishing the exam. I knew that my quantitative score would be my lowest (hello, math insecurities) but did hope that it would be a competitive score-an arbitrary number in my head that I had gotten from looking up “acceptable GRE scores for paleontology programs” on Google. My quantitative score was lower than what that number in my head was, but on my way out the door I made the decision that knowing how I test in math and how much better I would need to do to raise that score even a few points was not worth the stress and the $200 to retake the exam. I was 100% comfortable with this decision, but still nervous that my score might deter universities from accepting me for my Master’s. While the scores did not prevent me from being accepted into a Master’s program, I do think that they played a role in some of my rejections from PhD programs because they were schools with strict cut offs on GRE scores. However, I was accepted into a PhD program and have yet to see the need for anything I learned specifically to do well on the GRE. 

Maggie Limbeck, PhD student, University of Tennessee

Additional Reading

Articles/Commentary

Peer-reviewed Literature & References Mentioned

Anxiety in Academia

Andy here-

A few weeks ago an undergrad tweeted that their professor had told them they shouldn’t go to grad school if they were having anxiety attacks because they wouldn’t be able to handle it. I replied that it’s doable but difficult. I want to elaborate. I’m trying here to be as specific and open about my experiences as I can. The beginning of this post is a narrative about how my disorder has impacted my career and life, and the bottom is hopefully some helpful tips I’ve found over the years.

I was diagnosed in undergrad with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as well as Scholastic and Social Anxiety disorders. When I was diagnosed they said that in part it was because of life circumstances but also because “some people just have jumpier nervous systems”. I have a family history of extremely severe anxiety; mine is not as bad as that relative, though it has impacted my life and career. I’ve been on anti-anxiety drugs (SSRIs, which are also used to treat depression) twice, once in undergraduate and I just restarted them a few weeks ago. I’ve been in therapy and counseling twice, once in undergrad and then again starting soon.

Educational & Professional Life

I failed out of college when I was a freshman/sophomore. This was largely because I had never learned to actually work in high school because I could just coast through. I was advised as a college freshman, because I was good at science, to take the extremely accelerated track at the University of Wisconsin (UW). Taking Organic Chemistry as a freshman with no study skills is a bad idea. After failing out of college I took a few classes at a community college, worked a job where I was stuck in the back of a large room entirely by myself, and retreated into online gaming. Coming back from all that was difficult. I went from not socializing for a full year to being back in large 300 person lectures. The only reason that I ended up in graduate school was because my advisor at UW took a chance on me; my grades were below the minimum for admission. Months of therapy (talk and group) helped some. A part of this experience failing left me with intense impostor syndrome which amplifies aspects of the anxiety disorders (Impostor Syndrome in Graduate School)

I had my first migraine in graduate school. I had just given a presentation to my group that I had been really worried about, and got a migraine on the way home. It became a thing, a massive release of stress and then a migraine. The second one had me go to an Urgent Care facility and put on morphine because of the pain. Medication has helped, but also meditation. My anxiety and stress levels are linked, and so the migraines seem like they’re a manifestation of the anxiety.

One of the things about academia is that every new level brings an additional layer of stress. During my PhD things became more intense again. I never felt like I was accomplishing enough each day, even though I would get to work at 7 or 8 AM and then leave at 5 PM, working once I got home. I was working flat out during those days as well, trying to accomplish as much as I could. I couldn’t shut my brain off once I was trying to get to sleep, so I would be awake for hours. Susanna (my wife) eventually suggested that I stop working at 8, force myself to shut down and take time before going to sleep. I also started to meditate before bed, repeating the thought, “I got enough done today.” It helped. I also accomplished more during the day. Your brain needs downtime, just like the rest of you does.

One persistent feeling is that my accomplishments are not my own. This is a part of impostor syndrome, but it’s also a part of anxiety. I still cannot shake the feeling that the postdoc I had at the National Museum of Natural History was because the curator I worked for wanted a specific speciality and he was friends with my PhD advisor, it wasn’t because of me as a researcher. I know that’s not the case because I got another prestigious fellowship 10 days (Newton Royal Society) after I accepted the NMNH fellowship, one that I can’t figure out how to tie completely to another’s success or rank. I remember having thoughts, though, trying to figure out a way to make it not my victory, but something I got because of another person. My second postdoc I got because I had the specific skills in data analysis they wanted. I know that’s an aspect of me as a researcher, but it feels like luck. Something outside my control. My fellowship feels like it was because my postdoc supervisor is a part of the committee, but I know she was out of the room when they discussed my ranking and selection. I either feel that my accomplishments are because I knew somebody that thought I needed help or I was lucky.

Conferences & Meetings

Networking at meetings is tough. My social anxiety is strongest with people I perceive as ranking above me. As a graduate student, talking to prospective advisors was next to impossible. So is doing the talking with mid or senior level scientists as an Early Career Researcher. It means that my involvement in certain projects is behind where it would be if I were able to network better.

Being at meetings is also exhausting. My social anxiety is best explained in analogy to a chemical reaction. I can switch to a more extroverted person temporarily, it just takes a lot of energy. If you think about a chemical reaction, there’s a certain activation energy needed to promote the reaction. If the reaction is initiating a social interaction, for an extrovert it’s lower, in an introvert it’s higher. For me, a person with social anxiety, it’s higher still, because I can feel my fight-or-flight reaction start when I am meeting another person in a meeting context. Because a meeting is a sustained version, I haven’t come back from a meeting in years without catching some kind of cold. Being in therapy makes this even more apparent. After a first session describing previous issues, why I was seeking help, I was ‘keyed-up’ and having an anxiety attack for the next several hours. I was unable to even look my wife in the eye without having an anxiety/adrenaline response.

If it feels like I’m describing all of this in an over intellectualized way, I am. I’ve done this for years to try and take all the emotions I can out of thinking about this because it helps reduce my anxiety levels. Just writing about this is difficult.

Interviewing & Teaching

Having anxiety means that your self perception is off, at least for me. I almost always feel that job interviews go horribly. The worse I feel the better they seem to go. I was completely convinced that I had made multiple fatal mistakes during my most recent interview. I repeatedly went over all interactions in my head. I spent hours mulling over all the answers I had given. I worried over what exactly to send in my emails. A lot of that is normal. What isn’t normal is that I had a feeling of panic the entire time. Weeks of utter dread. I felt as if I had let down my family, that I was never going to get a job. I told everyone that there was no way that I got that job. I ended up seeking medical help because I thought that my anxiety was going to cost me another job after this.

The first question I received after my talk is a good example. I had just finished and my first question was about the underlying driver of one of the topics I’d talked about. I have spent the last two years working on this question and have supervised three MSc students on it. I 100% knew the answer to this question. As soon as the question was asked, my mind went blank. The answer I finally gave, in my memory, made no sense. I remember not even speaking in complete sentences, instead in phrases or just words. It actually took me a week or two after the interview to have the answer reappear in my head, it was like my mind decided to protect itself by temporarily hiding that information. It really did just pop right back in my head like it had never been gone. This phenomenon happened again after a trip to the doctor discussing my anxiety. I was biking, made a turn, and ended up biking towards an oncoming car because I could not figure out which lane I was supposed to be in. I’ve been living in the UK for nearly two years and commute via bike every day. It happened last week when my group was talking about minerals somebody asked me what the hardest mineral was other than diamond. It’s quartz, but I made a joke because I didn’t want to say that in case I was wrong. Of course it’s quartz, I know I’m not wrong, but I can’t trust my self-perception of my answers, so I hide behind humor.

I got that job. I had completely given up on it and spent two weeks after they told me I was their top candidate feeling like they had made some kind of mistake. I know that my interview can’t have gone as poorly as I feel like it has, simply because if it went as poorly as I think it did there’s no chance I would be their top candidate. I know some of my competition for that job, they are amazing scientists! That’s really the bottom line of having anxiety in academia. You will intellectually know what’s going on. You’re in a grad program, so you fully know that you’re a smart, hard working person (you are). You will, however, feel that someone has made a massive mistake. In graduate school, I knew that nothing hugely bad would come of having a conversation making small talk, but even right now, as I sit at my kitchen table, I can feel some amount of adrenaline building just thinking about it.

All this might sound like me teaching could be a problem. Because my inability is situational however, I can teach just fine. If I know I’m the most knowledgeable person in the room, all of this goes away. If I perceive I’m the top of the hierarchy or an equal, then I don’t have a problem. My issues also recede as I get used to a new person, or while I’m actively suppressing them. Finding the limits of your disease can help figure out where you can and can’t be at ease. Storing up that energy when you can is vital.

Anxiety can also be useful, with some huge caveats. I have figured out how to use it as a tool in certain situations. When trying to get a grant finished, for example, if I can ride the balance between being worried about getting it all done and devolving into a complete panic, I can be exceedingly productive. It’s hard on me, it means that I work really quickly but can miss important details, and it does not work well if I do it over too many days.

It’s also, lastly, important to recognize that a basic truism of academia: there are not enough jobs and we face constant rejection. The constant threat of the complete impossibility of winning this lottery will be felt constantly. I, my family, went through 5 years of instability with constant worry about where we were going to get a paycheck from in a year, two years, three years, in the future. Anxiety issues are going to make that worse. Having a family means there’s even more riding on everything, because it’s not just you, it’s dependents as well. It’s worth it, but go into all of this with thought. Consider support systems, make plans (that’s what we do well, right? Plan to deal with anything that happens?).

Managing Stress & Anxiety

I want to end this with some things that have worked for me to help manage stress and anxiety. I’ve culled these from discussions with therapists, reading, and talking with other people. I hope they help you as well.

Find somebody to talk to that you trust: I would not be in the same mental state if I didn’t have Susanna to talk things through with. If I’m feeling anxious about something, I talk things through with her. She’ll give me an honest but supportive take on whatever it is. She pushes me to find professional help when I need it. For somebody that finds asking for help to also cause anxiety, that’s important. I know this seems like me saying “oh, just find somebody you love. That’ll fix it.” but it doesn’t have to just be a spouse. Find a trusted friend to confide in, or a parent. A support structure is important in graduate school or academia for anybody, but it’s even more important for somebody with anxiety.

Many universities have counseling services that offer a certain number of sessions with student or credentialed therapists. That’s what I started with at UWisc. The University of Bristol even also has a free staff counseling service. Seeking professional help is incredibly helpful. If you are in graduate school, you should recognize that expertise is important. Just because it’s your head, doesn’t mean that you are the best person to think your way out of your issues. I’ve tried. It does not work, a professional can guide you through the process better than you can do yourself.

Stop working: It’s really easy to fall into the trap that getting more stuff done will solve anxiety problems. It won’t. You’ll get more done for a day, then your productivity will begin to drop off, and that’ll cause more anxiety. Having a firm time everyday that no-matter-what you will stop working lets you take space. You cannot work all the time and be productive. People that say they can are wrong and dangerous. It’s not healthy for you or the others around you. I play first person shooter video games (the modern Wolfenstein series is a favorite), it takes me out of the things that are worrying me at the moment and lets me focus on something external. It’s been an effective catharsis for me. Find something that works for you to distract you from constant barrage of thoughts about work.

I now have two kids, and I trained myself to have fairly intense guilt about working from home. While that’s not great at the moment because of the pandemic, it’s been an effective deterrent to working constantly.

Breathe: I meditated for 15-20 minutes before my PhD defense. I put on a specific song that helps calm or center me, closed my eyes, sat cross legged, and tried to clear my head. I’ve been doing this since therapy after my panic attack. It has helped. I have no idea if I’m even meditating correctly, but find something that works for you. You just need to create some mental space from yourself and your stressor.

Give yourself a break: Recognize that this is going to make graduate school harder. It’s going to make being an academic harder. You will feel the lows more than the highs, and academia comes with all sorts of lows. Rejection will feel sometimes like a gut punch, it’ll make you want to leave. Yes, everybody feels this, but you, a person with anxiety, does not have an accurate self perception of your personal successes. I’ve had several really prestigious positions, PI’d a large multi-institution NSF grant as a postdoc, published in Nature, Nature Ecology and Evolution, and a bunch of other really good journals. I just got a research heavy Assistant Professor position, picked from over >100 people. I constantly feel I will need to leave academia imminently because somebody is going to figure out that I’m not as good at something as I should be. I don’t even know what that thing is. You’re going to feel this too. It’s a part of us. Sit with that thought, identify it, and realize that it’s a feeling and it’s not true to what you intellectually know. But then recognize that it sucks to constantly feel like this. It just does! It’s not your fault.

Figure out your triggers: I mean this in both a positive and negative, find things that make your mental state less and more anxious. Figuring out how to calm yourself down is just as important as figuring out what might lead to more anxious feelings.

I listen to a lot of very fast music (the more I think about my disorders the more I realize it’s completely interwoven into every part of my life), which many people have told me would make them feel anxious. A good example is Animals as Leaders – Tempting Time or Daughters – The Hit. This is what I (used to) listen to when I work. It’s quick, layered, and helps clear out the rest of the thoughts that I have rattling around in my head. But the cacophony can make things worse, so sometimes I have other music (e.g., Imogene Heap) which I can use to calm down. For me it’s about finding that balance between using the anxiety as a tool to get things done and not over doing it.

Drugs: I recently went on Sertraline (Zoloft in the States). So far, it’s helping. It’s tough to say, as I got over the initial increase in anxiety the Covid-19 pandemic really gained speed, the UK went on lockdown, and I received my job offer. While it’s tough to say what’s going on for any of us emotionally, both I and Susanna think that the drugs are helping. Taking drugs isn’t a weakness. Some of us (hello!) literally have nervous systems that react stronger to our experiences. Getting help is important.

If you also suffer from Anxiety and want to talk with somebody who has made it through, please do reach out to me. I’m on twitter (@macromicropaleo) or via email (andy.fraass (atsymbol) gmail.com), or anywhere else you can find me. I’m more than happy to talk or write with anybody about my experiences, your experiences, or just to listen. If you want 5 minutes or several hours, please, really do reach out.

Black Lives Matter & STEM

As I write this post, the date is May 30, 2020, approximately five days since the senseless murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. Protests have erupted in many cities across the country, and my city, Tampa, is no different. I am faced with the reality of our justice system, racism, and my own privilege as a white American. With this intense (and necessary) magnifying glass set on our country, I can not help but reflect on my surroundings and university. 

My name is Kailey and I am a student at the University of South Florida. A focal point of our university is the Martin Luther King Jr. plaza: here, you will notice a large bust of Dr. King overlooking a reflection pond, as well as his famous “I Have a Dream” speech immortalized in stone. While this part of campus serves as a rallying point for peaceful protests and events, the true meaning and impact of Dr. King’s message is lost in nearly every aspect of society, and higher education is no different.

A National Science Foundation study in 2019 reported that out of all bachelor’s degrees earned in biological sciences in 2014, 4.23% of those were by Black women. 2.83% of all physical science degrees were earned by Black women, and 0.99% of engineering degrees were earned by Black women. While these statistics specifically quantify the degrees earned by  Black women, all marginalized populations face significant barriers to STEM education. Scientific culture and broader society have built these barriers, causing incredible talent and perspective to leave science, or not enter into STEM fields in the first place due, in part, to a lack of representation. 

A lack of diverse and inclusive representation permeated my education growing up, and very likely the majority of my peers. For many people, myself included, the idea of a scientist was dictated by the scientists we learned about and heard from in class: white men. This concept has shifted the dreams of many young people to aspire to enter these fields because they never saw themselves represented as scientists and weren’t encouraged or provided opportunities by the education system to explore this path further. This is oppressive because it paints a completely inaccurate history of science that ignores the achievements of Black scientists, further entrenching science history in white supremacy. Further, lack of representation and over-representation of white men in science cements for white students the idea of “who” is allowed to participate in science- when you only see white scientists, your mind forms that stereotyped image. This negative cycle continues and the problem is exacerbated when marginalized people, and specifically Black people, are made to feel unsafe in public spaces and in outdoor environments. This means that white scientists often make assumptions about Black scientists, paving the way for microaggressions and harassment at scientific institutions. 

As scientists, we cannot remain silent. We need to take action to not only raise awareness of the obstacles Black scientists face, but also actively work towards making the science community anti-racist. Science is not apolitical and it never has been. White scientists, for hundreds of years, have been performing racist experiments, claiming that Black people are “less evolved” or “less intelligent”; scientists have experimented horribly on Black bodies causing unspeakable pain, and developing methods and medications we still use in modern science (e.g., Henrietta Lacks, Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, etc.)

Science has been shaped by white supremacy, just as every other system in the United States has been. The history of racism in science continues to shape how we, meaning white people, treat our Black colleagues and students and this is unacceptable. We cannot remain silent and we must stand with our Black colleagues and neighbors. Finally, we must take action. 

Educate yourself. Read books and articles written by Black writers. Listen and learn from Black activists, professors, community members. Understand that as much as we can try, we will never understand what it is like to live as a Black person in a racist society. Speak out. If you see or hear racism from non-Black people, step in and correct them. If you’re non-Black, you will mess up sometimes. Apologize, listen, and make sure to do better next time. Support initiatives to create programs for Black students at your university, and initiatives to increase support programs for Black students and faculty. I encourage you to contact your local government, make your opinions known, stand up for what you know to be right, and vote! 

These protests all over the country are providing something stronger than a “like” or a “comment” on a social media post can. With the ear-pounding sounds of mourning, and the bravery of those protesting, those that demand peace, equality, and justice for every Black person, they are working towards creating a better world for all. 

I challenge every person with a platform to use that platform for good. Silence is no longer an option. We have to be better and be active allies to causes for racial equality, as well as to our fellow neighbors who have been continually victimized and oppressed by police, the “impartial” criminal justice system, and individual prejudices/biases.

I would like to also recognize and thank Dr. Sarah Sheffield, a geosciences professor at the University of South Florida (USF), Mckenna Dyjak, a recent graduate from USF, and Lisette Melendez, an undergraduate at USF, for editing this post and ensuring our message is heard.

Note from the Editors: If you are interested in more actionable items, ways to become anti-racist, and a list of organizations to financially support please see our statement on Black Lives Matter.

Advice for Nomadic Academics (or, Moving is Hard)

Jen, Adriane, and Sarah here-

Entering the academic world and starting graduate school often means moving away from your family and loved ones and starting a new adventure. Each program, position, or job often comes with an associated move. We hope to share our successes and failures navigating moves and the burdens that come with them.

Jen [Illinois > Ohio > Tennessee > Florida > Michigan]

I have had four major moves (to new states) and three minor moves (local moves). Each move presented different challenges and experiences. My first move was from my home in Illinois to Ohio University to start my MS. This was about 6 hours from my mom’s house and we simply packed her Highlander and that was it. I had found a furnished (shared) apartment so I didn’t need any furniture and was able to fit everything else into her vehicle. I did not have a car of my own at this time and she drove home the following day after helping me unload the vehicle. 

I did another move within Athens on my own to an unfurnished (shared) apartment. I took a few trips to bring a futon mattress but didn’t really have any other furniture items. A hiccup – probably an issue with most college towns – is that lease signing happens so early! So I had about a 1 month gap between leases and it just so happened I would be at field camp. So I moved all of my apartment into the lab for storage (thanks, Hannah and Alycia!) and then when I returned I moved into my new apartment. At this stage, I was borrowing my mom’s highlander and did the move(s) on my own. I had a small foldable dolly that I had gotten for ~20 bucks at Ace Hardware. Both of these moves were very inexpensive since I had essentially no furniture. I slept on a futon mattress on the floor of my second Athens apartment.

My move to Knoxville, Tennessee took more planning and was more costly. I was able to fill the Highlander (thanks mom!) with most of my belongings from Athens but I had obtained a futon mattress and a few extras like lamps and storage containers. Not everything fit into the Highlander, but Jeb (my partner) was willing to drive down separately with me and was able to fit the rest into his sedan. After we got situated in Knoxville, Jeb went back to Athens and I drove up to Chicago to get some furniture from my mom’s house since I now had an apartment but no furniture. My mom and I rented a cargo van from Enterprise and I drove the van and she drove the Highlander back down to Tennessee. We had the van for about a week so I could also buy a bed and bed frame (woo adult life) and then Nancy (mom) drove it back to Chicago. This totalled ~$700 for gas and van rental for the week. There are certainly cheaper ways to do this but this is what worked out for us at the time. After two years in the apartment, Jeb and I decided to move into a house in Knoxville. We found this house on Craigslist and for the in-town move, his mom drove up with their truck and helped us move everything.

Myself, our two cats, and Jeb on the way up to Michigan from Florida.

The next move was to Gainesville, Florida where I got a postdoc at the Florida Museum of Natural History. I also was accepted to participate in a month-long workshop just before the postdoc was set to begin. So Jeb and I moved a trailer full of our stuff to Gainesville when he dropped me off at the workshop (a ~8.5 hour drive but ~10 in with the trailer). Our Subaru’s battery died on the way down, which was a difficult adventure (thank you nice Georgia man). We then stayed around looking at some local apartments. I eventually got an email from a current grad student there with an available house for very cheap – rented out by old staff and faculty of UF. The house was about 10 miles outside of town (a bit of a hike on my bike) but we couldn’t beat the rental price. The day my workshop was ending, Jeb drove down another trailer and our cats to the house. He had to pack it on his own and it was difficult. He arrived ~2:30 am and we had to start unpacking because we needed an empty trailer to pick up our stored belongings the following morning. This can be summed up by Jeb saying: ‘watch out there’s a bag of knives in the back’. The 6×12 trailers were ~$50 for a few days so we did that for two trips. We used Uhaul for both the trailers and storage – when you rent from them you can get a month of free storage!!! Take advantage of this program!!

Now that I had made it all the way south, it was time to head back to the midwest. We moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan from Gainesville at the end of August 2019. This time we rented a 20 foot U Haul truck with a trailer to pull the Subaru. We got the U Haul 3 days in advance to pack it best we could – yes this was more money but we desperately needed the time to get everything situated. We drove 14 hours the first day with two cats in the cab of the truck and spent the night at a Super 8 that we had selected for the giant parking lot… that was full when we arrived at 11:30 pm. The hotel was a complete crap hole and we slept and got up and drove another 7 hours to Ann Arbor. This one I budgeted out and recorded all of the expenses. Here is the breakdown: U Haul = $1110.56; Gas = $229.85; Food = $14.82; Hotel = $55.05 for a total of $1520.28. We obviously didn’t eat a lot and were very exhausted when we got up to Ann Arbor. Most recently, we did a more local move from Ann Arbor to Chelsea, about 20 minutes west of Ann Arbor. This was unfortunately during the stay at home order. We were able to rent an in town U Haul for about 24 hours. For whatever reason we went with the 10 foot truck, which required three roundtrips and several in our Subaru as well. We did all the packing and unpacking on our own, washed our hands a lot and did our best to be socially distant during the move. The truck cost $136.61 and gas was ~$16 for a total of $152.61. 

Other things to consider: deposits, some companies require first and last month rent, changing electrical can have a processing fee, setting up internet services has a fee, cleaning supplies, don’t forget a new shower curtain (we did multiple times).

Sarah [North Carolina > Alabama > Tennessee > Florida]

Moving regularly can really have a big impact on you, especially since it’s easy to feel isolated in academia and it’s expensive (especially on a graduate student budget!). Jen covered a lot of the details I would have, with moving truck logistics and costs, so I’ll try and focus on other aspects of moving to consider! 

With each of my major moves to new states, I did so as cheaply as possible, since I was a graduate student/recently graduated graduate student for all of them. I did so by moving in a cargo van or the smallest possible moving truck. This was made easier by not taking a lot of furniture with me when I moved. I went to thrift stores the week I moved to town and purchased things like tables, chairs, bookshelves, etc for cheap and sold them what I could or donated them when I moved again. Usually, I could afford to get all the furniture I needed for under $100-$150, which was way easier and cheaper than it’d be to rent a bigger truck to haul it hours away. 

The major concern when I move is my pets- if you didn’t know, I have a LOT of pets. My partner and I have fostered for a few different animal shelters and we have quite a few of our own and some fosters that ended up just staying with us permanently. So moving can quickly become a hassle, so I’ll give you a breakdown of the things you might need to think about! I’ve never flown with my pet (I have too many and I have pets that most airlines don’t generally allow on board), so I can’t give you advice on that! I always drive with mine! Here’s a picture of all of my critters that I’ve moved with!

Sarah’s pets, from top left to bottom right: Here are my guinea pigs, Iris, Annie, and Cassie (Iris and Cassie were permanent fosters through the Knoxville Guinea Pig Rescue), my dogs Piper and Boon, and bunnies Leo and Josie. Missing from this image are my many other foster bunnies, guinea pigs, and even a gerbil!

Do you have pets that could be not allowed in a rental agreement? I have a pitbull- mix, which can often be discriminated against in rental houses and apartment complexes. While I don’t agree with these policies, I can’t do much to change them. When moving to Tampa, I spent a lot of time trying to find apartments that did not discriminate and I did eventually find a good one. We contacted a real estate office that helped with apartment rentals and they gave us a list of apartments that didn’t have restrictions. A lot of apartments will also discriminate against “exotic pets” (i.e., anything outside of a cat or dog). 

My best advice in this situation is to call and talk to them before you move in. I called a number of apartments and talked to them about my bunnies (I have two-Leo and Josie, 8.5 year old siblings). Most of the apartments were willing to waive that restriction when I explained that my bunnies were litter trained. I was also able to get the pitbull restriction waived when I was in town and made appointments to meet the apartment managers. Piper won them over in a minute with her endless affection!

Do you have more pets than a rental agreement usually allows? This can be a tough one! Again, if you feel comfortable, just call your apartment. I called in advance and explained that while we had two dogs, we also had two small bunnies and a guinea pig, all of whom were litter trained or lived in a hutch and wouldn’t have access to the rest of the apartment. My new apartment said that was fine, while others said no (so I didn’t rent from them).

Do you have money for pet deposits and monthly pet fees? Many places charge pet deposits that can be hundreds of dollars and monthly additions to rent. Make sure you can afford those charges before the move.

Look for vets BEFORE you move! If you can, make sure to find a vet that you think you’ll like before you move. This is *especially important* if you have a pet that isn’t a cat or dog, since not all vets are required to treat critters like bunnies, guinea pigs. This is so important because you never know when an emergency will happen! One of my bunnies had an emergency medical situation when we first moved here, and I had luckily already scoped out an emergency vet that could see bunnies. Call the vet office before hand to make sure they’re accredited (i.e., the AAHA- the American Animal Hospital Association) and to make sure they have someone who can provide help with your pets’ specific conditions, if they have any. It can be really scary not to have a vet identified in an emergency!  Tip: does your local university have a vet school? They may have a clinic you can use!

Have at least a month of supplies stored, just in case. This is super important because critters don’t always tolerate change well! Make sure to have enough food, litter, and other needed supplies so that you can keep their lives a bit steadier while you move to a new place. Sometimes, you may need to take a few days to figure out where to get supplies in your new town (or, like in my case, 2017 Hurricane Irma came just a few weeks after we moved to Florida and we needed to have a bit extra on hand!)

Make sure to be extra patient with your pet. Moving is tough and it’s a lot harder when you don’t know what’s going on. Make sure to praise your pet, give them extra attention and treats. Consider giving them a new, special toy to distract them. Be patient if they forget their manners and use the bathroom inside- sometimes, stress can make your pets react weirdly. With my dogs, we had to move them to a separate room when we were loading the truck so they didn’t see it, which kept them calmer. If you know your pet is nervous, ask your vet if there’s a good medication option to help them get through the car ride.

Adriane [Virginia > Ohio > Virginia >Massachusetts > New York]

Jen and Sarah have already given you great advice above related to pets and moving fees, so I’ll keep this brief and provide some additional advice. First of all, I hate moving. My family moved a lot when I was younger, and as a consequence I feel like I don’t really have a ‘family home’ when I think back to my childhood. So when I move, the feelings of anxiety and unsteady home life come flooding back. Here, I’ll give you some insight into how I deal with moving. 

When I moved to Massachusetts, it was just my husband and I. We had rented a U-Haul truck with a car trailer. My husband drove the truck towing his car, and I drove our Jeep with our two cats crated in the back. We did the drive from Virginia to Massachusetts in one day; it took 14 hours and it was HELL. We were all tired, but luckily our hotel in MA was nice. I had researched hotels near our new apartment extensively, as I knew we needed one with a large parking lot, a free breakfast (that’s always my requirement for a hotel; if I’m paying to stay with you, feed me), and of course they had to be pet friendly. We stayed at a Howard Johnson with two queen beds, which I hoped the cats slept on their own bed. No, they slept with us (ok, it *was* super cute). The next day, we drove to our new apartment and moved in. We had trouble moving in our couch (our apartment was on the third floor, with a narrow stairwell), but lucky for us a neighbor helped (we became and still are to this day good friends). 

Spice, my Maine Coon cat, in her crate during the move. Her face captures all of our feelings about moving.

I really came to love our Massachusetts apartment, which really became our community and home. Therefore, when I got the postdoc offer from Binghamton University in New York, my excitement soon turned to anxiety when I realized this would require another move. However, in my offer package, the university would cover moving costs up to $3,000. I took full advantage of this. I hired a moving company for our moving day, and we were able to move 3.5 hours away from Amherst, MA to Binghamton, NY in one day. Whew! The cost came to a bit over $2,900 but under $3,000. If I can help it, I will never move again without hiring movers. Just be aware, with moving reimbursements from universities, especially public universities, the state may require an invoice or bill of lading. I did not realize this when I moved, my moving company has been unresponsive when I try to get in touch with them, and therefore I’m still waiting for my moving reimbursement from New York state today.  

As mentioned, I become super stressed when I move. Here’s some things I did before our move to NY from MA that helped with the stress:

  1. I tried to pack a box or two every day for a month before we moved. This allowed me to organize stuff and carefully pack all my valuable things (read: fossils). 
  2. I carefully labeled boxes with their contents, and grouped boxes with similar contents together. This way, when we moved, the movers kept together all the kitchen stuff, office boxes, etc. It made unpacking easier as well. 
  3. I Googled Binghamton (where we were moving to) and made a mental list of things I wanted to try, do, and places to visit when we got there. I find that if I have something positive and fun to look forward to, this reduces my anxiety greatly. I also feel more comfortable visiting or moving to a place the more I know about it beforehand. 
  4. I visited my favorite shops and stores in Amherst, and brought those foods, wine, and beer with us to our new home. It was nice to have these things with us in New York, as they were small comforts and gave us, oddly, a sense of peace.
  5. I talked about my anxieties about my moving anxieties with my husband, and cried a lot. I have a thing where I stop talking about things that bother me, which will just increases my anxiety about an issue and causes me to cut myself off from those around me. It’s super unhealthy, I know, but I made a conscious effort to reach out and share my fears with my partner about moving. This helped my mood immensely, although it didn’t totally dissipate the anxiety. If you are like me, I would also strongly suggest visiting a therapist to share and work through anxieties about moving (I probably should have). 

Working From Home

Kristina here-

With students, faculty, and staff all switching to work from home, I thought it might be useful to share some of my experiences on what it was like to do the majority of my Ph.D. remotely. 

I live three hours from my university, so I have been working from home for the better part of three years now. In fact, I only spent two semesters on campus in my first year taking classes. Then I spent a couple of semesters abroad running an experiment at Bodega Marine Lab. Since then, other than a few short field trips, I’ve been working from my two-bedroom apartment in rural Alberta, Canada. Below are a few of the things I’ve learned working from home.

However, the most important thing to keep in mind when reading any of these sorts of posts is that everyone is different, and what worked for me might not work for you. 

Keep Your Space Clean

I am a very tidy person, and if I know I have chores to do, or things are messy, I have trouble working without feeling distracted. If mess doesn’t bother you, great. I envy you. But if you’re like me and have a tendency to “procrasti-clean”, I recommend keeping on top of your chores and cleaning so as to avoid the temptation/distraction of cleaning. I typically either end or start my workday by cleaning. Not doing a full clean, but just doing one task a day, like vacuuming a bedroom, cleaning the kitchen, doing a load of laundry, or cleaning the bathroom counter, and cycling through them regularly. Spending that 5 – 15 minutes a day keeps everything clean, so I have no excuse not to focus on work.

Your Work Space

Battlestation Gastropod – one of many work stations

This is one area where I feel like my advice might be different. I’ve never really created a work space for myself. My work space has just depended on my tasks. We have a desk and office chair set up in each of our two bedrooms, and while I often worked in the more “office-like” one, I was just as content to work from the kitchen table, couch, or even one of the beds. This was partially because my cat, who loved to hang out with me in the “office”, died unexpectedly and I found it painful to work in that space without him. But I also like the variety. I have sciatica, so switching up how I’m sitting is helpful. I also live in Canada where the days in the winter are very short, so I move with the sun to the place with the best lighting.

So, while having a dedicated office space might work for some, don’t feel bad if you like moving around. Taking advantage of sunlight and soaking up those rays (or avoiding glare) will mentally help your workflow. If you have to work around a partner or roommate (my husband has currently taken over the “office”), work together and communicate your needs clearly so that you can make a plan that is fair to everyone. If you can’t move around, have things that make you happy and calm within eyesight. For me, this is the plants and bird feeders outside our windows.

Invest in a Whiteboard

Whiteboard and colored markers are the best

I purchased a large whiteboard (~2 x 3 feet) when I started writing my dissertation, and my only regret was that I didn’t do it sooner! I also invested in a bunch of colored whiteboard markers because color coding helps me organize my thoughts. I like to think of my whiteboard as my rough notebook/sketchpad. The ability to jot down ideas or diagrams, and easily erase or modify them is so helpful. Sometimes if I am struggling with an idea, I’ll write it out again and again, erasing or modifying as necessary. Once I have it the way I want it, I’ll either write it down in my notebook, type it into a word document, or make the figure on my computer. We get so used to having access to whiteboards at a university that this was one tool I couldn’t live without.

Making a “Plan”

I use the word “plan” loosely here, because no matter what plan or tasks you set out for yourself, it’s hard to stick to those goals exactly, so flexibility here is key. Working from home is tough, and not everything will go perfectly, even for someone seasoned like myself. Mentally, not beating yourself up if everything doesn’t go how you expect is important for your productivity. Not every day will be great. But by trying to keep some of your same organizational tools, this will help you feel more normal and productive, especially in a work space that is also your home. Again, this is one of the reasons I love my whiteboard. If I have to change the plan, it’s super easy to do so, and there’s no “evidence” of the change (unlike if you wrote something down with a pen).

Write out everything you need to get done, and organize it how you see fit. I color code tasks and sort them by day of the week. I usually have fewer and fewer tasks towards the end of the week because I know stuff from the previous days with inevitably trickle over. I also tend to repeat tasks several days in a row in case I don’t get to them on one day, or they take longer than I expect. Google Calendar is another friend. If you have other organizational tools you use, keep implementing them. Having structure (but one that allows some flexibility) is really important.

Creating a “Routine”

Again, try to be flexible here because some days are going to be harder than others. But if you can keep your regular routine going, that should help. For me, it’s setting an alarm and having breakfast and coffee with my husband. He likes to watch the news, but sometimes this stresses me out, so if I know I’m not feeling the news that day, I’ll go do something else, like clean, or play with the cat. Once the breakfast dishes are done, it’s time to work!

I like to start out the day by making a “to do” list on my whiteboard, and I will prioritize those tasks. I will then always try to make myself do the most difficult task first because if I can accomplish that, it will energize me for the rest of the day because at least I did something productive! For most of us, that task is probably writing. I’ve noticed that the days where I’ve been most productive are the days where I’ve started out with an hour or two of writing and reading articles in the morning. Even if I only manage to get a paragraph written, I will be more productive with other tasks if I know I got something on the page. Forcing yourself to write daily will also help the task of manuscript/thesis/dissertation writing seem much more manageable. It doesn’t matter if the writing is “bad”, getting it on the page is the hardest part.

Studious kitty Widget

Taking regular breaks is also important. For me, I’ll work for a couple of hours, then play with my cat for a bit, work some more, and then make lunch. I like to have a hot shower as my mid-day break because 1) pajamas and housecoats in the morning are awesome, 2) I need to stop and stretch my legs to avoid sciatic issues, and 3) I usually have an idea I need to mull over by mid-day, and thinking about it in the shower/tub is helpful. Then I will work again for a couple of hours, take another break to play with the cat, and then keep working. Because I live in Canada, I didn’t really feel like going outside for walks most days during the dead of winter, but now that it is “nicer” outside (not -20º C), I will usually go for a walk in the afternoon. I also have a bike trainer that I try to use, but I will admit that when I was deep into my dissertation-writing stages, I didn’t use it as much as I should have. If you have an activity tracker, these are helpful in maintaining an active routine. I wish I’d invested in one sooner. But the important thing is to not beat yourself up if you can’t keep up with a physical routine every day. 

One other thing I’ll say about routines is that having something to take care of is really helpful. Even if it is just a houseplant or a bird feeder, having some sense of responsibility to take care of something will help. For me, it’s a cat and plants. Pets will have routines that you might be forced to follow, whether it’s taking them for walks, or just feeding and cleaning up after them. When our cat died unexpectedly, working from home suddenly became a lot harder, so my sister bought me a bunch of plants and that helped. I also make a patio garden in the summer. My husband eventually convinced me to get another cat, and while I was very resistant, I’m glad we did it. She’s very active, so we have to play with her for at least a half hour every night before bed, or she’ll keep us up. She also has natural rhythms that start to shape your day.

Put Distractions Away

Very helpful coworker May.

This is an obvious one, but easier said than done. For me, it’s my phone and email. I try to check my email only once an hour, and will leave my phone in a different room. If TV becomes a temptation, I will go and work in a different room away from the TV. Food is another easy distraction. I try to have set meals and snack breaks. I allow myself breakfast, lunch, and two snack breaks during the day. I can take these whenever I want, but I normally only get two. I try to drink lots of water, coffee, and tea throughout the day instead. I can take as many water or tea breaks as I want. If I’m having a stressful or long day, I will add a third snack break in too. I try not to be too hard on myself – writing requires fuel! Planning out groceries, especially snacky foods, is important when working from home. You’re going to need and want snacks, so make sure they are at the ready, but try to be mindful of snacks and build them into your routine.

Maintain Regular Communication and Accountability

Whether it’s your PI, boss, or a trusted mentor, maintaining a regular line of communication is really important to help you feel like you are keeping to some kind of schedule. While communication is a two-way street, your advisor might be juggling their own responsibilities, especially in such an unusual situation, so the responsibility is on you to be clear in what you need. Ultimately, it’s your degree/project. In my advisor’s lab, we had weekly lab meetings which I joined via Skype. I also talked with my advisor at least once every two weeks on the phone for a couple of hours to keep him updated, work through any problems, and talk about goals for the upcoming weeks. These meetings were something that I initiated (although he’d check in regularly). Again, it was my degree, so it was my responsibility. When you are working remotely, people can’t see what you are doing, so having a dedicated time to share and update your supervisors is important, both for them to see how you are doing, but also for you to maintain some accountability. Having regular communication is also key to avoid feelings of isolation.

Practicing Self-Care

Yoda I crocheted for my advisor – BEFORE the Mandalorian existed

Set aside time each day to relax or do something you enjoy. Again, obvious, but sometimes challenging when you work and live in the same space. For me, when my husband stops working, I do too (most of the time, anyway). We will make supper together, watch TV for a bit, and I will knit or crochet. He might go for a run and I’ll go for a walk. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll take an extra long lunch break, or do some baking. In the summer, I like to work on my patio garden and go for bike rides. I also volunteer for a couple of organizations where I write or post content for their social media platforms. I’m also trying to institute bedtime reading.

Basically, if there’s something that makes you happy, make sure to dedicate time for it each day. Build it into your routine.

If It’s Not Working, Don’t Force It

Not everything will work, so be kind to yourself. I’ve been working from home for years now, and I still have days where I feel like I get next to nothing done. If I feel like I’m having a bad day, there are a few different things I will try. The most important thing is not to force yourself to do something if it doesn’t feel like it’s working. It won’t work and you’ll just end up feeling miserable. For example, if I am struggling with writing a discussion section, I’ll try to switch to writing or editing something easier, like the methods or results. If I’m not feeling the writing at all, I will switch to an easier task, like working on some R code, data entry, or even backing up and organizing my files. Whatever makes you feel like you’re still getting something accomplished, because even backing up data is important (speaking of, have you backed up your data recently? If not, stop reading this and go do it now!).

My sad little patio garden.

If all else fails, it’s OK to take a big break, or even quit early sometimes. The grad-school/academic guilt can be tough sometimes, but if you’re feeling that lousy, you probably really need the break. And you’ll probably be more productive the next day. Put it this way: how many 12+ hour days have you put in? Probably quite a few. So if you have a day where you only get 2 or 3 hours of work done, it will all balance out in the end. After my cat died, I hardly did anything other than binge RuPaul’s Drag Race for a month. But I still defended on time, and passed with flying colors. Even if you have a lousy couple of days, or maybe even a couple of weeks, my best advice is the saying: “Be like a dog. Just kick some grass over it and move on.” Be patient with yourself. Tomorrow is a new day.

Lastly, try to enjoy it. Go to bed early. Sleep in. You don’t have to commute anymore! Cuddle pets or loved ones. Call your long-distance bestie or family member. They’re probably lonely too. And don’t forget: you will get the work done, and you get to do it in your comfy clothes!

How to Train Your Postdoc

Adriane here-

In this post, I want to talk a bit about the excellent transition I had from a PhD candidate to a Postdoctoral Fellow. There are far too many horror stories of postdocs not being comfortable in their position, with their advisor, or at their university. Here, I’ll outline some of the things that my mentor and the faculty at Binghamton University have done that are stellar. I hope this post will serve as a short guide for postdoctoral advisors.

My office door leading into my lab. My office is in the back through another door.

First, some background. I met my current postdoc mentor while I was a PhD student at UMass Amherst. She was doing her postdoc there, and we overlapped by a year. She was then hired at Binghamton as a professor. Binghamton University, which is part of the SUNY (State University of New York) system, is located in the Southern Tier of New York, and is home to a large majority of first generation undergraduate students (students whose parents did not pursue higher education). Recently, Binghamton implemented a new postdoctoral fellowship program to retain and hire more women and folks from marginalized backgrounds into faculty positions, called the Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship (PDPF).

When the applications for 2019’s PDPF were open, my now-mentor contacted me to see if I would be interested in applying. She and I overlap in several research areas, and not only that, Binghamton has been without a paleontologist on campus for over 20 years! So it made sense that I apply: I could collaborate with my mentor, but I would also fill a much-needed research and teaching gap at the university. There were several applicants that applied for the position through the Geology department, but mine was the one chosen to be put into the final pool of applicants from many departments on campus. I was one of 82 applicants at the university level, and was awarded one of the two coveted PDPF positions.

My office, where I finished writing the large majority of my dissertation and where I live part-time (I’m kidding, sort of). My windows overlook the campus garden, so in my opinion, I have the best office on campus!

OK enough background. Onto what you came here to really read. The PDPF is an excellent postdoc by itself, as it provides me with a stipend (living expense, it’s more money than I’ve ever made in my life), as well as an additional $13,000 per year for travel and research expenses.  The position is for 2 years, with (hopefully) the option to transition to a tenure-track professor position.  But during my postdoc, I’ll also have access to health insurance for myself  and my husband, as well as retirement options, etc. In short, the PDPF allows me the money to succeed and pursue the research that I’m interested in. That alone is stellar!

But the way the faculty and entire department have treated me has been even better. When I arrived at Binghamton a full 4 months before my position began (so my spouse could find work sooner), they already had an office and lab set aside for me (and my name was already on the door)! Having my own space allowed me the room to really dig into and finish my dissertation, and now that I’m officially a postdoc, I have the space set up to have students work with me.

As soon as I arrived at Binghamton, I was made to feel like one of the faculty (remember, I was still a graduate student still when I arrived, still working on my dissertation). I was invited to and attended faculty meetings, which have really allowed me to grasp onto the inner workings of the department and university. During one meeting, our department head asked me what my opinion was on a matter of importance. It was strange, being the only woman in a room full of men, being asked what my opinion was and being listened to. But it was AMAZING! Being valued as a contributing member of the faculty has really helped me feel at ease and valued here.

From the start of my postdoc, I have also been given advice by the faculty on how to succeed and become competitive for a tenure-track position. Part of the PDPF is that the postdocs are trained to be competitive for tenture-track professor jobs, and will hopefully be hired into the SUNY system. My department head has given me a ton of advice already, and we have talked several times about ways in which I can stay on as a professor after my postdoc position ends. Tenure-track jobs are competitive, especially in STEM fields, but knowing that the faculty here are rooting for my position to turn permanent and coaching me along the way has been amazing. Especially since I am no longer considered a student, I feel hesitant about the future and unsure of what I should do, so having this tutelage and mentoring from my peers is incredible.

Brachiopod fossils from the fossil collections stored in my lab. All of the specimens have detailed location information and labels, which will make digitally cataloging them later much easier!

One thing I can’t help but mention is that Binghamton also has a very well-kept secret: they have a superb fossil collection that is not cataloged. And guess where this collection is? That’s right; IN MY LAB! When I arrived, I was told the eight wooden cabinets that lined one wall of my lab contained old specimens, and they were planning to be donated. One weekend, I looked through every drawer, and realized how amazing the collections were! Brachiopods, trilobites, eurypterids, mollusks, microfossils, they were all there and untouched for likely decades. I asked if I could keep them, and our department head said ‘Sure!’. So I’m also now a curator of the Binghamton University Fossil Collection (it’s not an official research museum collection yet, but I plan to get it to that point one day with the help of students).

My mentor is also especially amazing. She has been nothing but supportive since I arrived, and I hear from her at least once a week that she’s so glad I’m here. She has also included me on research meetings with her PhD student, and will add me as a coauthor on their publications (I have expertise on their project and have given input). Likewise, I will include her and her PhD student on my projects. We are in total agreement that science should be collaborative, and we will help our students succeed in whatever way we can.

These are just the major examples of how I’ve been included into the Binghamton University campus community. But I can’t help but think how STEM fields would be different if all postdocs, and graduate students, were treated the way I have been. Would we have higher retention of marginalized folks? Would more students pursue STEM degrees if the pay was more competitive and they had access to health insurance? What if all universities created postdoctoral fellowship programs like Binghamton? If they did, within a few years how many more women and people from marginalized groups would be in professor positions? Imagine.

My hope is that more postdoctoral fellowships like mine are adopted by other universities in the near future, and that a more sound and secure structure is created for graduate students as well.

Links to learn more about Binghamton’s program & other similar programs:

The Benefits of Community College: Personal Stories and Examples

Adriane, Rose, Shaina, and Jen here-

Here in the United States, community colleges are two-year institutions that cater to students in or just out of high school and people who are returning to college for a degree. In some areas, local high schools partner with community colleges for students to participate in special technical classes to expand their skill sets. This can include mechanical courses, film and editing, and much more. In short, community colleges are higher-education institutions that can provide workforce training and which offer several classes that are considered ‘core courses’ at four-year institutes and universities. Core classes include such topics as history, math, art, and science, with electives and options within each of these topics. Students who attend community colleges often transfer to a four-year university to complete their undergraduate degree, which takes another 2+ years depending on their degree. In some states, community colleges have agreements with universities that allow students a guaranteed transfer if the student meets certain requirements. 

Community college provides a fantastic option for students who finish high school and don’t quite know what their career path will be, for working folks who need flexibility in choosing courses and schedules, and for others in the community who might just want to take a course or two on something they are interested or passionate about. The very attractive aspect of community college is that class sizes are often smaller, the professors and teachers have more time to dedicate to students, several classes are available as online courses, and the on-campus classes may have several different times to fit the schedules of working students and adults. And bonus, similar to large four-year universities, many community colleges offer athletic and recreational teams for you to join! 

Regardless of all the pros to community colleges, there is still a perceived stigma surrounding them. 

The purpose of this post is to share some of our experiences with community college to break down the stigmas and negative perceptions surrounding community colleges by highlighting our own experiences in community college. We argue that we wouldn’t be where we are today without the structured training, guidance, and mentorship we received at our respective community colleges. 

TL;DR: Benefits of Attending a Community College

  • Attain a higher GPA after high school
  • Increase knowledge in certain subjects that were not taught sufficiently by a high school
  • Increase self-esteem in an academic setting
  • Build a support network of professors, teachers, and other students
  • Flexible schedule
  • Ability to take as few or as many (with limits) courses as you feel necessary
  • Opportunity to explore different career paths and options through diverse course offerings
  • Determine if a career is right for you
  • Affordable compared to a 4-year institution
  • Local students can live at home and save money on living expenses that would be incurred at a 4-year university
  • Take courses while simultaneously attending a 4-year university and have those credits transfer
  • Federal and state grants often cover the full cost of tuition (in and out of state)
  • Most professors also teach at a 4-year university or have in the past, and can offer advice to students pursuing a BS/BA degree and higher
  • Some professors may have worked in industry or in a non-academic position, and can offer advice to students pursuing these career paths
  • Some states offer a guaranteed admission program from community college to 4-year universities 
  • Some community colleges have exchange programs, offering students international experiences 
  • Because so many adults go back to school, the range of ages and life experiences in a classroom is very enriching and diverse

Adriane 

I started in community college the fall after I graduated from high school. I knew after graduating that my grades were not competitive enough for a 4-year college, and that I would likely do terrible on the GRE exams. My high school education was also not the best. I didn’t learn algebra as well I should have, and I was often bullied and had low self-esteem, which fed into doing poorly in my high school classes. I would often skip high school to go to the movies with my friend, or went riding my horse by myself (both were likely bad ideas). So attending my local community college was the best option for me. In addition, I also did not know what I wanted to do for a career. I thought that perhaps I wanted to be an artist (graphic art and design), or go into the medical field (even though medical stuff grosses me out), or even be a machinist like my dad (which would have been a really fun career, to be honest). 

Around the time I graduated high school, my mom was going through a divorce and was raising my little sister. I got a job in a retail store, and helped my mom with my sister, getting her on and off the bus everyday, and I was also able to help pay bills and help with groceries. Attending community college was great because I was able to work, help out around my home, and still take courses. My local community college, called J Sargeant Reynolds in Richmond, Virginia, had very flexible class schedules which worked great with my work and home schedule.

It was also at J Sarge that I found the career that I am currently in. I had to take science electives, so I took Geology. I figured I always loved rocks and fossils, so why not? During the first semester, our instructor took us to a local creek, where we collected fossils from ~15 million years ago! I was totally hooked. So I took another geology course, and it was during this course that I knew I wanted to become a geologist. Community colleges in Virginia have a guaranteed acceptance program with several state 4-year universities: if your GPA is high enough after graduating with an associate’s degree from a community college, you are guaranteed admission into a 4-year university. My grades were above a 3.5 at the time I graduated, so I was automatically accepted into James Madison University. Most of my credits transferred, so I was able to finish my geology bachelor’s degree in 3 years. 

Rose

I started at Green River Community College after graduating high school. I was primarily homeschooled through high school, but took a few electives at my local public high school (choir, Shakespeare, a cooking class). One of these classes was an education class. I loved kids but wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a classroom teacher, so my teacher at the high school suggested I start at the community college first. Our local CC has a well-respected education program, so if I did decide to go on to get a teaching degree I shouldn’t have any problems transferring and would be well-prepared. If I decided I didn’t want to pursue a teaching degree, I would have an associate’s degree in education, which would allow me to work as a paraeducator. Other advantages of this option were that I could live at home and save money. Because tuition was lower here than other colleges, I was also able to get Pell grants and state need grants that covered my full tuition.

I loved my classes because there were always a variety of people in them. There were students like me straight out of high school, high schoolers in the Running Start program, people coming back to school after many years to finish college or find a new career, and folks from the community who were just interested and taking the class for fun. My CC also had a large and well-known international exchange program. Students from many East Asian and European countries came for a year to study abroad in the US. For example, my chemistry lab partner one quarter was from China and my class partner was from Belgium! My lab partner in geology was Dutch, and while he didn’t go on to get a degree in geology we both decided it was our favorite class ever and still keep in touch via social media today.

Shaina

I started attending Manchester Community College the fall after graduating from high school. Growing up I knew I wanted to be an astronomer, but unfortunately my high school had very few options for math and science courses and most of the ones they did have were taught by sports coaches and not particularly beneficial so I ended up taking the excellent history and social science classes offered instead. This, combined with my prevalence for skipping school, meant that I was not prepared to apply to a four year institution after graduating, especially in the field I wanted to study. 

I ended up signing up for community college almost on a whim and was instantly thrilled with the options for classes I could take— I was able to take astronomy, could finally start learning math for real, and even had a wide variety of fun and useful classes like photography, women’s health, and even Philosophy of Lord of the Rings! I made a ton of friends, got straight A’s, and built the foundation for transitioning to a four year school. When the time came to apply to schools during my second year I had a great support network of professors who wrote me letters and helped me get into the astrophysics program I had dreamed of. I never could have done it without my experience at MCC to help set me on the right path.

Jen

Unlike Rose and Adriane, I didn’t start out at a community college. I went to a 4-year university straight from high school, I grew up in an area with a lot of state universities and picked one close to home. My high school had close ties with our local community college, the College of DuPage (COD). I had friends that would take classes there when they had moved passed what my high school offered or to get more technical training. There was a program where students could be at our high school for half the day and the other half would be spent at COD in a special program. 

I attended community college through a summer course – calculus. I was trying to stay ahead of my studies, to remain on track to graduate on time but couldn’t afford (time and money) to go to a summer class at my 4-year institution while working. The class was something wild like 3 hours every day starting at 7 am. The class size was incredibly intimate, maybe 25 students in the room for a month long course. At my 4-year institution all general courses were over 100 students during the lectures. The smaller course setting enabled me to meet new people, feel comfortable asking questions, and really foster a strong relationship with my peers and the material. I struggled with precalculus my first year of undergraduate — when I excelled at it in high school. This was incredibly frustrating and really made me feel like I would fail calculus. Community college helped me realize where I learn best — small settings where I feel comfortable. 

Not long ago, my mom returned to college by starting a program at COD. She had been a stay at home mom for almost 20 years and needed to get back into the workforce. She took courses over several years to become a medical biller and coder. 

If you are interested in going back to school, taking courses, or beginning at a community college, click the link below to find a community college near you in the continental U.S.: Community College Finder

Inclusivity and Sustainability in Conference Food

Shaina here –

The boxes were provided food at a conference that didn’t have ingredient labels so I couldn’t risk eating it.

Many conferences have meals built in for attendees and whether it be daily lunches or a special event dinner organizers need to take inclusivity and sustainability into account when choosing the food. There are several religious, ethical, and medical food needs that are common and taking these into account would be a great place to start if conferences want to provide accessible food.  This article focuses on the types of food served and how accommodations are managed by organizers. There are additional needs around the serving of food that are not addressed here, but links for more information are provided at the end.

A lot of networking opportunities at conferences tend to center around food. Events such as ‘networking lunches’ and ‘happy hours’ are geared toward giving people opportunities to meet others in the field. These events tend to attract a lot of attendees with the promise of food. However there are many people who end up being left out of events like this due to a lack of accessibility in the food options. For many of us it can be yet another time when we don’t feel included or comfortable attending. Often when we don’t show up no one notices we aren’t there, or they don’t know why we didn’t attend. When we do show up we are left awkwardly navigating everyone trying to help us find things we can have (that don’t exist) or feeling hungry while everyone around us is eating. 

The few conferences that do attempt to address this tend to take the path of promising to provide food accommodations if dietary needs are expressed in advance. This is a nice gesture, but in my personal experience it rarely works out in practice. Over the last four years, despite being asked for my dietary needs many times, only one conference ever actually met them. We can do so much better. A better alternative would be to ensure that all food at the conference was as accessible as possible to begin with. In addition to providing food that all attendees will be able to eat it is long past time that conferences center sustainability in the food offerings. 

When accessible food isn’t provided it is a burden on people who need it. 

How much, just in food, I need to pack for a conference even when the difference days they are providing food.
How I need to carry my backpack with my normal stuff and a full separate bag just with the food I need for the day.

Those of us who need food accommodations are often left struggling to find food and missing large portions of the conference in order to go in search of locations we can eat at. At one conference I was asked for my dietary needs in advance but then not provided any food during the daily lunches that were included in my registration fee. The closest restaurant I could eat at was 40 minutes away. I cried from exhaustion and low blood sugar when I found out how far I needed to go to get food after a long day of sessions. I regretted signing up for the conference at all. I also missed all of the evening sessions and networking events. At another conference I could find no food anywhere near the conference. I ended up spending a huge amount of time going back and forth to my hotel room to heat up frozen dinners since they were the only thing I could find at a local grocery store. I can’t stay any place that doesn’t have a fridge and microwave due to all of my dietary needs and an almost total inability to eat out at restaurants. This often costs more money and puts me further from the conference venue.

Talking about how your conference is more accessible because you provide accommodations is performative if those accommodations don’t actually exist.

In my experience I am most likely to be asked in advance for dietary needs at conferences that are small and that have inclusivity and accessibility as stated aims of the conference. In one instance the organizers of a conference I attended were speaking at a second conference I attended. Their talk was about inclusivity and they mentioned in their slides that they provide food accommodations. Except that they had not provided me accommodations when I had attended their conference just a month earlier, despite having asked in advance. I ended up having a low blood sugar event and having to leave the conference during the networking lunch to go buy a bag of chips at a gas station to avoid passing out. It didn’t feel great to see them bragging about their accommodations on Twitter (and getting tons of accolades as well).

In addition students and early career scientists attending conferences are often on an extremely limited budget and already struggling to pay travel and attendance fees. To have to pay for food on top of it- especially if they already had to pay built in conference attendance fees to cover meals that they won’t be able to eat- is a large financial burden.

Sustainability needs to be considered in conference food offerings.

The scientific consensus is clear that plant based diets are one key component in confronting the climate crisis. All food should be plant based and for accessibility all food should be 100% plant based. However plant based diets are not the only consideration. With 30% of all food being wasted food waste must be considered as well. Compost bins should be available and throwing things out should be discouraged. If possible avoid disposable plates and non-compostable containers. When possible food should be sourced locally from independent businesses or food co-ops to minimize emissions from transport and support local businesses.

Demand side mitigation potential from diets. It is from the IPCC SRCCL report.

How can conferences do better?

Strive to make your food as universally accessible as possible.

If you ask for attendees dietary needs you need to actually accommodate them or to reach out in advance to let people know you cannot provide accommodations that meet *all* of their needs. Please try to just provide accessible food from the start to minimize the need for accommodations. Think of it as universal design for food.

Strive to have all food be accessible from the start by having all food served be kosher, halal, vegan, and free of the most common allergens (such as milk, eggs, gluten, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and shellfish). Having an entirely vegan menu to begin with solves a lot of problems from the start since it already means the food will be accessible to folks who are allergic to eggs, fish, shellfish, dairy, it means many religious dietary needs will already be covered, and it is more climate friendly. Vegetarian food options do not solve nearly as many problems as vegan meals do since they are still inaccessible to people with many of the needs listed.

If you do need to provide food that is likely inaccessible for many attendees and have to go with just trying to provide accommodations then ensure that the food for the accommodations is easy to find and efficiently distributed. It is no fun to wait in long food lines when you know there likely isn’t anything for you at the end of them and that your meal might be stored somewhere else.

Help attendees prepare in advance by being transparent about what will be offered. 

If the conference provides meals have a complete list of what will be offered, including ingredients, available on the website in advance so that people can prepare. It is not sufficient to say ‘lunch provided’. Conferences should already have a page with accessibility information covering topics like closed captioning, wheelchair accessibility, restrooms, etc. Food accessibility information should be included on this page.

Provide ingredient labels on all food provided. 

During food serving times make sure there are clear labels and ingredient lists that people can check for themselves. This makes a huge difference to folks who need it. At one conference I attended they had asked for dietary needs in advance but when the food was served during the networking lunch no one knew the ingredients in any of the pre-packed lunches. There was one that sounded like I could potentially have it from the food title, but without the ingredients someone like me with an autoimmune disorder can’t risk it.

Minimize the greenhouse gas footprint of the food, reduce food waste, and disposable items.

Take steps to minimize the use of disposable containers, eliminate food waste, and ensure sustainability. Track the emissions reductions and waste reductions you are able to make so that you can help other conference organizers make the same changes.

This is not a definitive list.

In addition to the suggestions here regarding type of food served there are other considerations discussed in the links below, such as the configuration of how food is served (please no buffets) and considerations for the serving of alcohol (less alcohol or no alcohol is preferred).

Providing universally accessible food to the most attainable extent possible can go a long way to making attendees at your conference feel more comfortable and included. As we strive to make conferences more accessible for all attendees ensuring that everyone has access to food is one step that I would love to see more conferences take.

Success stories

I can count on one hand the number of times I have been provided with food at conferences, workshops, or seminars over the last 5 years. It is hard to describe how strange it feels to actually be given food. I feel so included when it happens. It is hard for me to understand that most people experience this normally. One time was when I taught at the Western Mass Youth Climate Summit. They had food that was all vegan and several choices (not only did I have food, I had options!!!) for gluten free options. Here is a photo of that lunch. The food was provided by a local business owned and operated by people of color. I used the same business (Pulse Cafe) when I got food for an event I was hosting. I made sure all options were vegan, gluten free, and kosher. The main allergen we needed to warn people of was a peanut sauce that was in separate containers. I had folks come up to me after the event to say it was the first time they had ever attended an event on campus they could eat at. It was one of the only events for me as well, and it only happened because I insisted on it and personally handled all of the coordination around food.
In our department beginning of the semester party food accessibility has been an ongoing issue. I have attended around 10 start of semester parties and despite requesting food accommodations each time I have only been provided with food once and I had to do the order on my own and pick it up myself. The graduate program director has seen my struggle and starting last semester we began collecting info on who in the department needed accommodations. It turned out to be over a dozen people, most of whom had been just quietly not participating in events with food. Providing food everyone can have from the start can go such a long way to making people feel welcome and included. Often when the majority of people are happily eating something like pizza those of us who are left out just go unnoticed and it feels hurtful. There are easy ways we can help change this if we just put in the effort.

Here are some resources for further reading on creating accessible conferences.

Eco-friendly Holiday Celebrations

Sarah here –

It’s hard to believe, but the holiday season is fast upon us! I know you’re probably already thinking of all the things you want to do to prepare- decorate your home, inside and out, send holiday cards, buy presents, bake delicious cookies, etc. This post today is about ways we can all take to make sure that our holiday celebrations are more eco-friendly! 

Decorations 

One thing to notice is that thrift stores are FULL of great holiday decorations! Why buy new when you can get awesome decorations for a fraction of the cost? Just this weekend, I was in a thrift store looking for a nightstand, when I came across a ton of great holiday decorations. I walked away with enough outdoor string lights to decorate the trees in my yard for a total of $4, all working and in great condition. There were artificial Christmas trees there, Hanukkah decorations, and more- all for a low price. Consider buying used to keep these types of things out of the landfill. Try to stay away from balloons, plastic streamers, plastic confetti, and decorative grass (like the kind you find in Easter baskets a lot of the times)- these are not recyclable and there are paper alternatives for many of them! As for balloons, many of the times, their pieces get stuck outside and animals try to eat them- causing illness and even death.  

As so much of this is made out of plastic, decorations will absolutely last in a landfill for years to come. Reduce the amount we all collectively purchase from stores, save yourself some money, and reduce the landfill- it’s a win- win- win! 

Ugly Sweater Parties and Holiday outfits

Skip Target and Walmart and go straight to the thrift store. So many people buy Ugly Sweaters, wear them once, and then donate them! I am not advocating for people to go to thrift stores and buy perfectly good, used clothing that’s cheap as a practical joke (many people use thrift stores as their primary clothing source- and for good reason! It’s accessible to a range of budgets) store, but there are *plenty* of Christmas themed sweaters at the thrift store that were made for the purpose of wearing to holiday parties! The clothing industry is responsible for an extreme amount of landfill waste and microplastic pollution in the ocean. Holiday sweaters often have glitter, sequins, and other items on it that definitely contribute to that- buy used!

There are also so many kids’ outfits in brand new condition at the thrift stores, as well as holiday party outfits for any age! Go there before going to a store to buy a new outfit! 

Cards and wrapping paper 

I love sending holiday cards and getting them. But there are ways we can send and receive holiday cards with a bit more thought to the environment. 

First, and easiest, make sure to recycle the holiday cards/envelopes you choose not to keep! Second, try to select cards and envelopes that are devoid of glitter and anything that isn’t strictly paper- it cannot be recycled as well. Make sure that the cards and envelopes you’re disposing are recyclable, as well.

As for wrapping paper, don’t buy wrapping paper with any metallic foils or glitter- they aren’t recyclable. Skip the ribbons and bows- you can get some great all paper options that look great but can be recycled! One fun thing you can do is use paper you already have to wrap your gifts. It might not be holiday-themed, but it can reduce your waste output (I’m actually using the wrapping from my toilet paper rolls! I use a company (https://us.whogivesacrap.org – the toilet paper is made from recycled paper, so no more trees*!) and their rolls are wrapped in cute paper (no plastic at all!) My partner and I decided the paper was too cute to throw away, so we’re wrapping gifts in them. 

Here’s what a lot of thrift stores look like right now- tons and tons of holiday decorations! Go there first, stock up, and save them from the landfill! Encourage your friends to do the same (image from https://livingthegoodwilllife.wordpress.com/tag/holidays/)

Gifts

This is a big conversation. Simply put, we have to do something to reduce our constant purchasing of new things that will eventually end up in a landfill. That doesn’t mean we have to change our gift-giving traditions, but there are ways of gift-giving without the carbon footprint. 

Appliances. How many of us are looking at new tablets, phones, robot vacuums, or instant pots this holiday season? So many of the Black Friday sales are dedicated to these types of gifts right now. 

First, we really need to consider holding on to our phones and tablets and other devices for as long as possible- these things use Rare Earth materials that, as you might have guessed, are rare- we can only mine them for so much longer. So consider holding on to your current devices until you absolutely need to get a new one. 

If you really want a new kitchen appliance, try going on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace! For example, my partner has really been wanting to try out an instant pot, but neither of us were willing to buy one. In our area, people are listing their used instant pots that they used once or twice and decided they didn’t want them! Try buying a gently used one for a holiday gift- it saves a ton of money and you’re reducing your carbon footprint by not buying a new appliance. 

There are SO many things you can buy used or refurbished- just try! Books, furniture, appliances, children’s toys, and more can very often be found almost brand new for so much less. Before buying something new, see if you can find it used, instead! Last week when I was thrift store shopping, the section of children’s toys was huge! All of the toys looked to be in great condition- for those of you shopping for kids out there, see if you can’t give a toy a second home. Often, that toy only needs a little TLC to make it as good as new (seriously- I think the entire stock of Paw Patrol toys was there!). 

Experiences. This holiday season, consider giving the gift of something to do. How about buy a loved one a zoo or aquarium membership, tickets to see the latest movie, a gift certificate for a massage, or a chance to go to a museum they’ve always wanted to see? Gifts like this, that can be shared together, can make wonderful memories that won’t contribute nearly as much to a landfill.  I don’t know about you, but I cherish the time spent with family much more so than any gift. 

Practical gifts. We can also consider giving someone practical gifts! I know this might sound weird, but my mom’s annual holiday gift to me while I was in graduate school was paying for my bunny’s annual checkup at the vet office. It was a gift of love, for sure, and made me smile because it was something I really needed. Consider giving the loved ones in your life things that they could use- maybe a pack of silicone, plastic free sponges? A set of plastic free freezer bags? Maybe take your friend who’s in grad school grocery shopping? There are all kinds of great gifts that will be useful and not get discarded are great! 

Holiday Baking. Really, my favorite part of the holiday- cookies and cakes! Consider not using plastic wrap to wrap your goodies, if you can help it. Wrap them in paper, or beeswax, or go to the thrift store and pick up a dozen of those holiday themed tins (seriously- there are so many there!) Consider that the wrapping will often be discarded, so try to move away from stuff that can’t be recycled or will end up in the landfill. Also, baking is a great gift if you want to move away from giving someone an item that might not be used or might end up in a landfill! Do you have a killer banana bread recipe? Do you love making cute iced cookies? Make someone’s day and bring them some! 

I hope all of you reading this have a holiday season filled with joy, time with loved ones, and relaxation. If we all make a few small changes to how we approach the holiday season, we can all reduce our carbon impact! Happy holidays, everyone! 

*This toilet paper company is not giving me any kickbacks for this site link! I just really like them for their environmentally friendly policies!

Hidden Disabilities: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

This post is part of a new series on Time Scavengers about Hidden Disabilities and how these affect us during graduate school, throughout our careers, and in the field and lab.  We welcome contributions from our community, friends, and colleagues to this impactful series.


Please welcome Ranjeev, a guest blogger here at Time Scavengers (click here to read more about Ranjeev and his research on our Meet the Scientist blog)!

What is it really like to be me

Imagine you are perfectly “normal” (a term that is used by “society” to refer to people that conform to the accepted morphological, physiological and/or behavioral norms) on the outside but on the inside, it is a whole different story, a complete nightmare where you are trapped inside a body constantly working under a “battery saving mode”: unable to stick to a schedule; living constantly stressed and anxious unsure of how the day is going to be or at work in pain and in mental distress so much so that you are unable to concentrate on anything but you make a conscious effort to keep a “poker face” so that you don’t worry your peers. Can you imagine? If so, welcome to my world. Hi! My name is Ranjeev, I am a PhD student and I suffer from several hidden disabilities including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a complicated chronic illness of the gut, which troubles me the most and is the basis of this writing. I should send out an early warning to the readers as this post is ironically written from the gut. Thus, if bowel movements are not your cup of tea, this is definitely not something you should proceed reading.

I have had IBS probably all my life, but recently, flare-ups have been more frequent and prolonged making my life interesting and challenging. Having said that, life is not always going downhill. There are good times and times that we are able to persevere through pain and discomfort. With IBS and several other hidden illnesses, I have accomplished a fair bit in my professional and personal life. I have been employed as a Probationary Lecturer (Junior Faculty), a teaching assistant and research assistant; completed a Bachelors and a Master’s degree, topping the batch in both; published and presented research, and I am about to start the third year of my PhD program. This post is not meant to provide any medical advice or by no means a success story. The content provided below are purely based on my own experiences and I’m well-aware that my methods of coping are not perfect. The objective of this post is to share my journey in the hopes that there will be bits and pieces that are relatable and helpful, and to create awareness about hidden disabilities within academia.

A hidden disability is basically a disability that is not visible on the outside. IBS, in my opinion, is indeed not apparent to the outside world at first, but there are many indications that clearly suggest that there is something wrong. With IBS, there are many possible symptoms which vary from person to person. Commonly there will be food intolerances, altered bowel habits, nausea, cramping, stomach pain, etc. The part that would be most apparent to the outside are behavioral changes like being always late or taking excessive leave from work, lack of energy, not participating in social gatherings, isolating yourself, and periodic weight loss. What triggers IBS flare-ups? Well, it could be anything from stress to what we eat and drink or in my case, trivial variables like what toothpaste I use or changes in the weather. Basically, I recognize the controllables (i.e. eating the right food in appropriate portions), moderate controllables (i.e. minor stress levels) and the uncontrollables (severe stress, weather, etc.). These are indeed interrelated and typically follow a cyclic pattern.

IBS and Grad School

The first point I would like to highlight is that success in grad school, in my opinion, is not maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA or publishing like a printing press. Rather, it’s doing your best and enjoying what you do. Grad school can often be a challenging if we mix up these two, and thus provide the easiest source of triggers for IBS and associated mental health woes.  As a graduate student, IBS offers some unique challenges to me. When I first stated grad school in 2015, I would always be late for the morning classes. It is no secret that people with IBS have a hard time getting out of their homes, because our bowels have a mind of their own and the phrase “trust your gut” does not work with us. Although I had already discussed with my advisor about my issues, I was initially reluctant to say why I was late for my classes. Obviously, no one likes to talk about the things that leave your body, nor would anyone want to listen to something like that. This is, in a way, a result of how most of us are brought up by society where we elaborate on all its glory on the food we eat but not on the excretory processes, which makes it so much harder for people having health issues to communicate or seek support. Subsequently, it came to a point where my professors thought I was being disrespectful, and I then let everything out. My professors were very understanding and supportive.  Since then, even after moving to a new college, I have communicated with all my professors about my IBS and the possibility of me missing, showing up late or leaving class early. I assured them that my absence does not mean that I will be taking things easy. Actually, it meant more work on my part because I would have to go through material on my own and possibly end up reading a lot more reference articles.

However, by communicating with my professors, what happened was almost a miracle. My anxiety and stress levels dropped, and my GI was more manageable. I performed well in classes, got my teaching and grading done efficiently and my research was going well. But there are always potholes on the road. For me, flare-ups tend to occur close to finals and when I get work piled up. The best way I would address these is have a regular schedule and place deadlines on myself, making sure I am on top of things. In doing so, my week is pre-structured, and I would get things done more effectively. Additionally, one piece of medical advice I got was to stick to a daily behavioral pattern, i.e. waking up, ablutions, eating and going to bed consistently at the same time each day. However, we all know that this is not always possible.  At an extreme end, we have all pulled all-nighters. They are indeed helpful but there should be limit where the benefit of getting work done is offset by the lack of awareness, the inability to concentrate and your bodily functions thrown out of whack.

Maintaining this balance is highly subjective and you should never compare your peers’ functional patterns and capabilities with yours. When I feel that my anxiety is getting out of hand because of exams or any other college related issue, I often have a pep talk with my GI and my head because they have a tendency to plot things together. Remember, your best is all you can do, so don’t over think, just do it, do it in the best possible way under the given circumstances! We often spend a lot more time (over)thinking about a task rather than the time we spend on actually doing it. This is more prevalent among people with hidden chronic illnesses because (A) our illness is not visible, and (B) we have to always be prepared and have alternatives ready just in case things go pear shaped. But in reality, “doing” is the easy part and thinking too much is what over-complicates things leading to panic attacks and flare-ups, but anxiety is part and parcel of chronic illnesses and needs to be managed with or without help.

Grad school is undoubtedly an eventful period in our lives. Professional gatherings like conferences provide excellent opportunities to learn and talk cool science, meet your favorite researchers, present your work and get insights on improvements, share your ideas with the community and, importantly, de-stress. Personally, I find such meetings and networking challenging.  For me the thought of leaving my comfort zone brings in a lot of anxiety which can turn into a bad flare-up. So, what do I do? I prepare myself in several ways.

Taking Care of the Controllables

  1. If this is my first time going to a specific meeting, the first thing I do is talk with my advisor and discuss our expectations and ask for any advice. This I find to be very important because my advisor obviously has been to similar conferences and has great insight and tips for successful participation, which in turn can reduce a lot of the anxiety caused by the unknowns. Once you have been to one such meeting, your confidence is often boosted, and you will experience less anxiety in the future.
  2. Preparing your meals and medication: If I am traveling outside, I would make sure to have my “safe foods” packed and ready. But this is not always feasible. You really can’t carry one weeks’ worth of food to a conference in a different state. Thus, I would do a thorough web search on restaurants that would cater food that agrees with me. Most professional meetings also provide food and inquire about food restrictions from their participants. I would also have medication sorted in a travel friendly arrangement because you never know when they can come in handy.
  3. It’s no secret that IBS sufferers frequent restrooms more regularly. Thus, I would have a good idea about locations of restrooms. There are a number of apps now available to find the nearest restroom (check out a list of a few of these apps here).
  4. One of the biggest mistakes that I do is eat less prior to travel or presentations. Believe me it’s a bad idea. I recommend having your regular meals and patterns rather than confusing the already sensitive digestive tract.
  5. Anyone in academia, however senior they might be, have had butterflies in their stomach at some point in their professional career. However, in IBS sufferers this benign and innocent form can change into fire breathing dragons simply by hitting the panic attack button. The method I follow to avoid panic attacks is trying to focus my attention on something totally different. If by any chance, you hit the button, I try to be mindful that what I’m imagining, often the worst-case scenario imaginable, was created in my head and communicated to the stomach. In reality, it’s just a false alarm because you have followed all necessary dietary precautions and there is no real reason for you to become sick. If this fails, I would calm myself by talking with a friend, getting some fresh air or by just going to the restroom. The interesting thing is that once you get into your presentation or meeting, your butterflies and dragons calm down and go back to sleep like magic.

Moderate Controllables and Uncontrollables

The best comforts you have as an academic who suffers from a hidden disability is your family, advisor, and peers. I am blessed with a wonderful and caring family, advisor and friends who understands my limitations and needs and help me in every way possible.  The fact that I don’t have to hide anything about my disability reduces the anxiety and gives me assurance and comfort that I have support  I can rely on.

Often times however, the anxiety and IBS are at levels that you cannot deal with yourself. This is a good time to make use of the mental health resources offered by your university, which in most cases are actually free of charge or part of your school fee. I have had several appointments and had excellent results from my sessions. You should freely talk about your concerns however crazy you may think they are. In all honesty, you are not the only one imagining such scenarios and in my experience the professionals have heard almost every story possible. I cannot stress this enough, there is no shame in getting help for mental health. It does not by any means make you inferior nor should be subject to be ridiculed or be judged. Actually, once you have had some good sessions, you are more likely to be mentally capable to face challenges better under stressful situations than others.

Fieldwork and IBS

Can someone with IBS become a paleontologist? Yes! Paleontology is often seen as a highly field based discipline. This is not exactly accurate. There are many aspects of paleontology that you can do “indoors”. Some examples include database associated analytical work and research on museum samples. I started out as a field-based paleontologist but at present my research is mainly lab-based due to my IBS. However, one should remember that one type is not inferior over the other. When doing field work, I would follow the same procedures mentioned earlier. It is always a good idea to be prepared well in advance and one thing that I experienced is that once I’m in the field, I forget my gut completely. But sometimes, you come to the realization of your limits. This should not be seen as a blow, but rather an opportunity to prospect for novel opportunities brought up as a result of your health. Quoting my advisor “you can do more to your field of research by taking good care of yourself”. Thus, self-care is good for both you and your field of research.

Supporting People with IBS

I do agree that it is hard at first, to understand how the minds and bodies of people with hidden disabilities work. And inadvertently, through no malicious intent at all, you are bound to say something that will make us uncomfortable. In such an instance, we are never angry but are put into a place where we are unable to provide a “sane” response. In a nutshell for most IBS sufferers, almost all conscious decisions we make, how trivial they might be, goes across our guts before it’s put into action. So the productivity or simply the ability to do something often rely on the stability of our guts. The best way to help someone with IBS or any other hidden disability is to be knowledgeable about the condition, know the limitations and remember that you are not there to cure but to give support.

De-stressing and managing anxiety are important components of managing IBS. However, people often mistake and sometimes irritate us by saying “oh! it’s all in your head”. There is a definite connection with your head, but it is never the sole reason. The only way that can happen is doodled below.

For Others with IBS

There are number of ways I de-stress. Taking frequent short breaks; talking with my friends; walking around campus; listening to music, etc. In the new age of technology, we can be connected to people with IBS on the other side of the globe with a simple click of a key or a swipe. Social media I find to be a very comforting source to vent and to seek support from fellow “warriors”. I use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to share my story, provide support to anyone in need and doodle funny memes about my condition. The latter not only to de-stress but also can be used to create awareness among the general audience and within academia. However, this should be done in a conscientious way such that you are laughing together than laughing at someone! The online community in my experience has been extremely supportive because they understand and can relate to what you are feeling. Not only do you get a chance to meet people, you can have the chance to inspire and be inspired by the struggles shared. However, NEVER compare your health condition with that of another. This is a big NO NO because you will inadvertently neglect self-care because someone else has it much worse!

Another point I would like to remind my fellow “warriors” is not to indulge and always be mindful about your food intake. Often times, I would CONSCIOUSLY consume a trigger food (e.g. ice cream) well aware of its consequences. This is often the case when either I’m stressed to a point that I don’t care and/or to celebrate a personal achievement (treating yourself) or in lieu of a long holiday. The justification of the latter two is I will enjoy this now and suffer later. But when you suffer, you not only go down into a mental low but also lose a lot of productivity because you may need a substantial recovery time. So my advice is not to let your five senses override your mental calmness and misdirect you to indulge in trigger foods/drinks. Having a lot of food intolerances, it is important to check with your healthcare team if you require supplements and/or figure out a good diet plan. Without the proper nutrition, it is obvious your productivity will be low.

In this post, I intentionally avoided discussing how our personal lives and interactions (with spouse/partner/family etc.) are affected by hidden disabilities. Your close family is definitely the best source of comfort, help and support in your academic life. But this would be a whole different topic. But I do want to highlight an important point which is often not talked about at all. Typically, we the hidden disability bearers receive the most care and support from the outside world. But our immediate families also go through almost the same level of trauma and we should be mindful to do our best to limit the stress and provide them with as much comfort and support as possible. Typically, mental health and other forms of support available to you are also available to your spouse and /or immediate family members. Be aware of them and make use of these resources.

In sum, I would like to conclude by suggesting you all to share your story to inspire, to let others know that they are not alone, share tips and tricks that worked for you and share your story to create awareness and de-stigmatize! Personally, as someone with a hidden disability, there is no greater pleasure than reading someone else’s story about how they overcame their adversities.