Applying to Graduate School

Maggie here-

I am finishing applying to grad schools for my Ph.D. and figured some of you might also be currently applying to graduate programs or starting to think about if you want to pursue a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. My main goals for this post are sort of two-fold: what is the process of applying to graduate programs and how do you stay sane while applying. So let’s get to it!

Key aspects of this post

  • Look for people and research that interests you, not just locations
  • Contact people at the school that you would want to work with-this is key! Look for people whose work interests you and start contacting them early-ask if they are taking students, what kind of research they do, what it would entail, etc.
  • Communicate with friends, professors, etc. if you need help with your statements or even just someone to say I know this sucks!
  • Make time for yourself-do things that aren’t related to applying to schools and have fun!
  • No matter how daunting and stressful this is, you are capable of doing this!

How to Apply for Grad School

Applying for grad school is very different from applying to undergraduate programs and unfortunately a lot less intuitive. When you were in high school (or shortly after) and applying to colleges there were a lot of people who were around to help you navigate applications and there may have only been one application you needed to fill out to send to many schools. You could also choose colleges based on what state or even which city you wanted to be in for the next four years.

Grad school is very different in that you are looking for specific research programs and people that you want to work with, rather than a location. The location can sometimes be a driver for your research, but in most cases that really is one of the last things that plays a role in your decision to apply there. Grad applications are also more short statement driven; you will be asked for statements of purpose (why do you want to come to this school), personal history statements, and the ever vague “additional statements.”

Statement of Purpose

This statement really is the meat of your application. What has made you decide to go to grad school, what do you want to study, why do you think this school and this advisor is the only place that you can learn what you want to learn. This statement can be totally daunting because often there are no directions or clarifying statements about what to include. I personally like to include a quick paragraph that is more of a narrative- what experience in science did I have that has stuck with me and made me want to be a scientist as an adult? Did you go to a cool summer camp or have an awesome science teacher? Something to show your background and make you a human can make your statement easier for you to write and easier for people to read. After that paragraph is your chance to wow them- what super cool research have you done, do you have a research question that you just have to know the answer to? How does this advisor and school help you reach your research and personal goals? This statement really is up to you to decide which direction you take it in, just make sure that if a school does want you to address something specific in this statement that you answer it!

Personal History Statement

The personal history statement is a place for you to go a little more in depth with personal experiences that you have had (positive or negative) that have led you to where you are today. It can be family or personal matters, or even research experiences that you feel have shaped your career trajectory. In this statement you can also address any “problems” in your transcripts or academic records. If you do choose to address something that was a challenge to you or something that impacted you negatively, try to keep positive language throughout. How did you overcome these challenges, what did you learn about yourself with this challenge, etc. Grad schools and advisors want to know who you are now, not who you were your first semester freshman year. If you have something in your transcript that you want to address and a personal history statement isn’t asked for, I have also asked a trusted letter writer to discuss that in my letter. The personal history statement is a chance for you to show how much you shine, even in the face of adverse conditions.

Other Documents

This upload button can cause a lot of grief because it will literally say “other documents.” Don’t panic, this is not required and you don’t have to upload something if you don’t have something else you want to add. If you know you want to be a professor and you have already had some teaching experience so you have a teaching philosophy or want to learn how to teach more effectively, that could be a statement you might add. If you love doing outreach and you feel very strongly that you can bring something to the table with your outreach efforts, you can add a statement about that. I just submitted my first “other document” with my Ph.D. applications and I only submitted it because I feel very strongly about the importance of teaching and outreach and wanted to share that side of myself with the schools I was applying to. If you don’t feel like you need to share anything else with the schools, don’t. It’s not something to stress too much over, because this whole process is stressful enough!

How to stay sane while applying

As someone who is currently applying for grad schools, this is 100% the hardest part for me. Even though I have really supportive family and lab mates who read over every statement that I write, the process can still feel very overwhelming. You have worked so hard for so long and you just want these people you have talked to to see how great you are and be deemed worthy enough to work with them. The best advice I can offer is to surround yourself with friends. Some of them may have done this before or are in the process of doing this with you, take the time you need to talk about applications but don’t let it consume your life. Spend time with people away from computers, go do fun things, remind yourself that life isn’t just about school. Take walks during the day-I spend ~8 hours a day sitting at my desk and a lab bench and I have found that taking a walk with my friends during the day can be just what I need to feel refreshed and ready to keep working. Play with animals-my cat has been a very big help in this application process because he provides so much comic relief! Play music that boosts you up and makes you feel good-this past week my lab group had a jam session to the Moana soundtrack. If that isn’t love and support, I don’t know what is!

On when you don’t uncover a clear answer

Sarah here –

Last summer, I went to southern Indiana to do some fieldwork with my undergraduate research student, the wonderful and intelligent Sarah Johnson (who has since graduated and gotten an excellent job working at an environmental consulting firm in Texas). We went there to collect data to answer a really intriguing question that, I am very sorry to report here, we still do not have an answer to. This post is about fieldwork, undergraduate research, and even more importantly, the importance of reporting the experiments and the field expeditions that just didn’t work out.

I work on a group of unusual extinct echinoderms, the diploporitans (you can read more about them here). One of the many weird things about this group of echinoderms is that no one can find fossil evidence of them as juveniles- we only find them as adults. All living echinoderms have a free-swimming larval stage- meaning, even the echinoderms that don’t move much as adults (like crinoids) are quite mobile as juveniles! For other groups of fossil echinoderms (like blastoids), there are plenty of examples of very small juveniles that likely moved the way that modern ones do-as larvae. However, there’s no known fossil evidence for this in the diploporitans.

This is a specimen of an adult diploporitan, found near Napoleon, Indiana. We spent a lot of time this past summer looking for juveniles, but unfortunately, didn’t find any.

So my student, Sarah, and I went to the one place in the United States that we would expect to find juveniles, if there are any to be found- Napoleon, Indiana. The reason that we would expect to find juveniles is that there are a very large number of preserved adults there-which makes it more likely that smaller ones would also be there (too small to see with your eyes). Sarah and I searched the outcrop for hours looking for the areas that had the highest density of fossils, collected about 50 lbs worth of sediment, and drove back to Knoxville, TN.

Sarah and Russell Godkin, my other undergraduate research student, then spent the rest of the summer sifting through the seemingly endless buckets of sediment that we brought back-they used microscopes and analyzed the smallest sediment grains for all fossils. They pulled out thousands of tiny corals, brachiopods, and pieces of crinoids. However, after countless hours, they didn’t find a single diploporitan juvenile-not. a. one.

Obviously, we were all quite disappointed-we really wanted to find these fossils (and Sarah and Russell were really tired of looking into microscopes-but I digress). There’s an important lesson in here, though- the LACK of an answer is just as important. The lack of an answer can help us develop new hypotheses as to why we can’t find these juveniles and it can help other scientists better understand related questions about echinoderms and fossil preservation. So-never fear, the hunt to figure out what juvenile diploporitans looked like is still on!

The Importance of Mentors and Advisors Through My Academic Career

Helping to bring in a core aboard the RV JOIDES Resolution, Summer 2017. It took many years of training and several awesome advisors for me to get to this point in my life, where I could participate in super cool science and be a confident researcher!

Adriane here-

I wouldn’t be where I am, academically speaking, if it weren’t for a couple factors: my stubbornness, drive to succeed, love of fossils and learning, and support of my family and advisors. But here, I want to talk about how important my advisors have been and still are in my academic life.

I’m a first-generation student meaning that neither of my parents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Since grade school, I knew I would attend college, as my mom never said ‘If you go to college…‘; rather, our conversations regarding my education began with ‘When you go to college…‘.  As I grew older, I knew college/university wasn’t the only career path for me, but to attain my goals and dreams, I knew I would need to one day go to graduate school. But first, I had to get through high school and an undergraduate program.

I had a hard time in high school, as I was constantly bullied for being the shy, quiet nerd. I didn’t really fit in anywhere, and every chance I got, I skipped class to go ride our horses. Predictably, my grades suffered. By the time graduation rolled around, I knew I didn’t have the GPA to get into college; in addition, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, I began taking classes at my local community college, and long story short, I fell in love with geology as soon as I took my first class. By the time I graduated magna cum laude from community college, I was accepted into James Madison University in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

At first, I felt out of place, as everyone in the Geology department at JMU knew one another and had formed friendships.  I felt like an outsider, a feeling that was amplified by being a first-generation student and a transfer student. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one: other students in my program also came from community colleges! Still, my confidence in my ability to conduct science and be a great student were low. University classes were a different type of beast compared to community college courses, and the pressure was on.

As I moved through my geology program and took more classes, my confidence started to build. As a student in the Geology department, I was required to do undergraduate research. I was both excited and nervous about this, but knew it was going to be a challenge that would make me a better candidate for graduate school. By the second year into my degree, I had taken a paleoclimate and paleontology class. I absolutely loved both, and wanted to do a research project that included fossils and revealing something about our Earth’s oceans. The opportunity arose when one of the department’s professors, Dr. Kristen St. John, sent out an email with an opportunity to construct a foraminiferal biostratigraphy from deep sea sediments in the Gulf of Mexico. I leapt at the opportunity! I still remember the day I approached Kristen to tell her I was interested in conducting research with her. I think my face got red just talking to her, and I had to convince myself for a good 10 minutes that I should talk with her before I actually did.

Kristen (left) and I at my first Geological Society of America meeting. Here, I was presenting my undergraduate research.

I did start doing research with Kristen, and it went extremely well! I loved learning all the different species of foraminifera, and would spend hours at the microscope. I remember one day, Kristen came into the lab and told me I was working and researching like a Master’s student. I was over the moon excited to hear this, because it gave me hope that I would, and could, succeed in graduate school! Kristen was a very encouraging advisor, meeting with me weekly to chat about research and helping me find relevant papers. She, along with our department head Dr. Steve Leslie, even took me to the United States Geological Survey in Reston, VA one day to meet with a planktic foraminifera specialist! After this, Kristen introduced me to her good friend and collaborator, Dr. Mark Leckie, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. I was able to go to UMass as an undergrad and work with Mark for a few days to conduct stable isotope analyses. It was an awesome experience, as I was able to network with two scientists outside of JMU. I was, and forever will be, grateful to Kristen for investing her time in me to make me a better scientist and more confident researcher.

By the third Fall I was at JMU, I attended my first big geology meeting where I presented my undergraduate research. It was here that had also set up meetings with potential graduate school advisors. I was still torn between majoring in paleoclimatology or paleontology, so I had contacted professors working in both fields. My heart was set on going to UMass to work in Mark’s lab, but at the time, his lab was full and he didn’t have funding. I was crushed, but carried on. I met with several professors at the meeting, all of whom were encouraging about pursuing an MS degree with them at their university. One of the other professors I met with at the meeting was Dr. Alycia Stigall, who was a friend of my undergrad professor Steve. I sat down with Alycia for about 20 minutes, and instantly liked her (read her ‘Meet the Scientist’ post here).

My last year in undergrad, I ended up applying to about 6 universities for graduate school. I was so nervous that I wouldn’t get in, as my confidence was still lower than most students’. The day I got the email from Alycia that I was accepted in her lab and the Ohio University program as a fully-funded teaching assistant, I cried with joy! I moved to southeastern Ohio the following Fall to start my life as a Master’s student specializing in paleontology. It was here, at Ohio University, that I met Jen.

Me, Jen, and Alycia at an outcrop in Estonia. This was my first international geology meeting.

Working with Alycia and with her other graduate students was an amazing experience. At JMU, I never had confidence in my math skills, but after taking a few classes at Ohio, I was doing statistics and learning how to code. I taught my first paleontology labs, and even helped Alycia create a new class for the department. In addition, I was able to publish my first paper during my first year, and present research at an international meeting. I flourished working alongside Alycia, as I felt totally comfortable in her lab and with her. Most of the other graduate students in the lab were from divorced, low income, and/or conservative families, so we had a lot in common. I didn’t feel like an outsider, and often talked with my lab mates and Alycia about my home life.

But it wasn’t just that I was comfortable at OU, I had a mentor, an advisor, a colleague, a friend, and a role model all in one. Alycia was the role model I needed at this time in my life.  My fiance and I were talking seriously about marriage and about the future, and I wasn’t sure how this would work while I was in graduate school. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to balance work and life, and moreover, even have a life outside of grad school (at this time I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD). But Alycia assured me I could have both a successful career and home life. She herself was (and still is) amazing at balancing her academic and home life. It was because of Alycia I knew I, too, could be an awesome scientist with a family.

Me, Steve (from JMU!), Steve’s PhD advisor, Stig Bergstrom (me and Jen’s ‘Paleo-Grandpa’), Alycia, and Jen at the geology meeting in Estonia.

By the time I graduated from Ohio University, my confidence was soaring. I knew I could do anything I wanted to, mostly because I had been trained to critically think, problem solve, and had a killer work ethic. That spring of graduation from OU, I had been accepted to the PhD program at UMass Amherst in Mark’s lab (remember Kristen’s friend I worked with from undergrad?). Life has a funny way of working out, as I never thought I would ever get the chance to work at UMass. But here I am!

When I first started at UMass, I was scared to death. I wasn’t as confident my first year at the university as I had been at Ohio University for a few different reasons. First, this was the first R1 university I had attended (R1’s are universities that grant MS and PhD degrees, and generally have large and intense research programs). Second, I felt like an outcast (again) with my slight southern accent, coming from a lower-income family, and being a first-generation student. Third, I had totally switched interests from invertebrate paleontology in the Ordovician (~450 million years ago) to working in the field of Neogene (~15 million years ago) paleoceaonography (although I will always consider myself a paleontologist first before a paleoceanographer). I had a lot to learn, on top of a lot of work. But I persevered, asked a LOT of questions, and continued on.

Conducting field work in Colorado with Raquel and Mark.

Lucky for me, Mark is just as great an advisor as Kirsten and Alycia, something I am very grateful for. When I wanted to go on a scientific ocean drilling expedition, Mark worked closely with me to craft a well-thought out application (I did get accepted, read about my experience here and see above image). He also gave me the opportunity to build and teach an upper-level geology class, an experience that most graduate students don’t get. Through teaching and researching, I have regained my confidence, and know once again that I can do anything I put my mind to.

So, there are a few words of advice I have from my university experiences for any student wondering how they’ll make it in grad school and/or with low confidence:

  1. Find an advisor that you can trust, and that you click with. In my opinion and experience, this was the most important factor when choosing a graduate program and advisor. My close relationship with my previous and current advisors are one of the reasons I’ve succeeded as a graduate student.
  2. Find a mentor. Advisors and mentors are not equivalent. Advisors will help you through your education, but mentors are guides who will help you navigate life. Some advisors are also mentors, while others are not. Other times, mentors come in the form of lab mates and friends. Both advisors and mentors are crucial to survival in graduate school.
  3. Find your people. Make friends in and outside of your department. Being a student is hard, and finding friends to commiserate with and draw inspiration from are essential.
  4. Believe in yourself. This is cheesy, and easier said than done, but change begins with you. When you start being confident in your abilities, you’ll find your confidence will increase over time. Also, reading A LOT of published literature helps here too.
  5. When you are able to, be the mentor/advisor for younger versions of yourself. By helping students from all backgrounds and identities gain confidence in themselves and learn how to conduct research, we can all make STEM fields more accessible and welcoming to all.

I love introducing students to geology

Sarah here –

I was recently asked a question during a job interview- which level of students do you most enjoy teaching and why? I thought for a minute and then gave my answer-introductory level students-and the entire panel seemed surprised, which gave me the idea to write this post. Right now, I am a visiting faculty member at a huge university-my entire job is to teach a lot of classes every year. These classes can range from graduate seminars, upper level geology classes, to introductory level classes, where the majority of the students are only there to get their core requirement classes out of the way.

Don’t get me wrong- I love teaching and working with graduate students and geology majors. It’s a blast to work with students who care so much about the material already and who have a thirst to learn more. But what I really love teaching-and the teaching that I find to be the most impactful- is teaching those intro classes.

One of Sarah’s awesome introductory geology students, Kelsey, with her super creative timeline of Earth history.

Nearly 90% of the students in my intro classes will never take another science class again. Most of them, on day one, probably don’t even want to be there-I am told by the students quite often that they’re terrible at science, or that they don’t have any interest in the subject, or even that they have learned some terribly untrue things about science (many of my students come in believing that science and religion are at odds with one another and can’t coexist peacefully-not true at all!). So why do I love teaching them? Quite simply, I am presented with an awesome challenge-to change their minds about science. With every semester, I am given the gift to encourage sometimes hundreds of students to explore the beautiful world of science. I get to show students volcanoes that burn bright blue because of the sulfur in the lava and show them reconstructions of how we think the earliest and weirdest of our ancestors might have lived. I get to help them learn to take a few pieces of evidence and draw conclusions and expose them to a new way of thinking. Geology is an incredibly fun and exciting science and to see intro level students get so engaged and passionate- and to let them see how passionate you are about this subject (seriously, I’ve gotten teaching evaluations that have said “too enthusiastic about science” before)- is a feeling that just can’t be beat.

However, this is also such an incredible responsibility- we have to teach them how science truly works and how to spot bad science, which is increasingly prevalent, in popular culture. We have a responsibility to help them see how their actions, like not recycling, have a direct affect on the people with whom they share the Earth. These classes help students form their opinions on the issues shaping our world today-is GMO food safe? Why do we care if evolution is taught in the classroom? Do we really need to be concerned about climate change? If this is likely the only science class they’ll take, this might be the only time they’ll ever learn how to form their ideas about the scientific issues facing our world-and most importantly, found their opinions based on scientific evidence. If, in a decade or so from now, at least a few of my students think back to their intro geology class with Dr. Sheffield and remember that they should really use those reusable shopping bags or that they might know how to correct someone’s misguidance on climate change or evolution, then I will have helped make a difference. And what could be better?

I wish I had had such an eloquent answer during my interview- but if I could go back, I’d say this: teaching these introductory classes is one of the most important things that we can do as scientists. Don’t take the responsibility you have to inspire a whole generation of enthusiastic and scientifically literate students lightly!

What it’s like to be a new faculty member

Andy here –

I just finished my first semester at Sam Houston State University (Sam for short). My position is a temporary one. I have a contract to teach there for a single academic year (Visiting Assistant Professor). The ‘load’ is a 3/3, three sections each semester. I teach two sections of Historical Geology, together about 90 students. In the fall I taught about 23 students in my Stratigraphy & Sedimentation course, and in the Spring I’ll have 20-30 in my Paleontology of Invertebrates course. I’m also the instructor for the upper-level labs. Sam treats labs as a part of the same course, while many other places consider the labs a separate, so in another University or College this would be a 4/4 (four classes taught per semester). I have not taught any of these courses before, though I was a teaching assistant (TA) for a course at the University of Massachusetts that was essentially a combination of all three courses I’m currently teaching.

Preparing 11 hours of lectures or activities a week, a total of ~165 hours (that’s roughly a week) of talking and guiding folks through science, is a brutal non-stop experience. Here are a few things to expect:

You are going to be seriously bad at it.

I was the top TA at UMass in Geology for a while, at least according to the award and recognition I got. When I lectured for Physical Geology I had students say “He’s the best professor I’ve had at UMass”. I was invited to talk to the incoming TA cohort about how to be a good instructor by the University one year. I am really good.

I was not good this semester. I know this. More than just an ‘aw, I wanted to do better’, I was just an acceptable instructor. My Sed/Strat class barely got to Stratigraphy even though I personally am a stratigrapher.

You will make some really harsh choices.

I knew that I had to spend more time on one course than another. I could either do a boring, mediocre job on both, or do a passable job in one and a crummy job in the other. I have 90 students for two semesters in my intro class (~180 total) and only 23 in Sed/Strat. Historical is the last time many of these students are going to be exposed to science in a classroom. Therefore, I view it as a moral imperative to do a decent — no, a good — job on that course.

I chose to spend more time crafting a Historical course. Making that choice was horrible, and I could tell that that my upper-class students knew I was phoning in some days. There were occasional times where I managed to work far enough ahead in Historical that I could spend time developing an interesting day in Sed/Strat. When that happened, the difference in the room was noticeable. I had students come to my office and tell me that it was a much better lecture and fascinating. It sucks to realize that you are failing a certain section. Make your peace with that, because it will happen. Maybe not catastrophic, but significant issues will happen, even.

You will burn out long before the students.

Before Thanksgiving I was just destroyed. In a single day four or five different students told me that I looked tired and asked if I was ok. It’s honestly hard to write about that because the burnout was so bad. I have never experienced that level before. One evening I went basically catatonic on the couch. It was, frankly, scary.

The only reason I’m still standing is that I made time for my family and slept over our Thanksgiving break. My wife and I went to a movie, the three of us went to the zoo, had a nice Thanksgiving. [Note: this was written in between the last lecture and finals.]

You will fail your family.

I, with all the stress, was a less patient father, quicker to loud frustration with my four year old. My daughter picks up on that and has become more quick to loud frustration as well. I was also, equally as apparent, not the husband that my wife deserves. I wasn’t able to listen to her problems as I was constantly going over new tactics to reach students, or designing activities, or worried I was not communicating important ideas. Even while not actively working, you’ll have enough of a stress level that you aren’t shutting down. It’s a tough thing to live through, but it’s apparently equally difficult to cohabitate with it.

Yes, it can be harder than the end of your dissertation.

Remember graduate school? Remember the push to your dissertation, when you didn’t sleep, you got heart palpitations because of all the caffeine? When you stopped taking care of yourself because you just didn’t have the willpower or time? When you got writing tunnel vision and all you saw when you slept was the blinking cursor of Word?

This is that, but instead of just your partner, your family, your advisor, or whomever, if you fail you aren’t just letting those about 10 people down, you’re letting down the hundred or so students, the professors that get them next who need to clean up your mess. The students don’t understand the stress that you are under. It will not occur to them, even if they personally are naturally disposed to empathy.

“Dr. Fraass, why do you look so tired, it’s almost finals. We’re stressed, but aren’t the professors basically done?”

“…. No, I have two interviews to prepare for, a conference that I’m presenting at and organizing a session, and I also need to write two exams, grade them, then figure out final grades.”

“Oh.”

Your students will hate you.

I am a friendly person; I like to think of myself as very personable. If departmental culture didn’t dictate me using Dr. Fraass, I’d have all the students call me Andy, just like the departments I was in as undergrad and grad. I have students in classes that come and sit down during my office hours to chat, or make appointments for mentorship.

I was shown a private chat thread some of my students had going about the class at one point. Many of them hate me. I’m too hard, I don’t explain things, I don’t care, on and on. For the record, I hold nothing against those folks, at all.

With more than 200 people making an impression of you every year, many of them are going to hate your guts, particularly when you control their grades. Yes, some of it is griping or venting, or simply individuals dealing with stressful situations, not everybody likes everybody else. Nobody is 100% likable. With an N of >200, even 1% means somebody is going to be mad for a full semester. Factor in that when you start you’re going to hold folks to a standard different than other faculty, and it’s probably well over 1%.

Sit with that feeling. It sucks, but that’s part of the job.

What is this thing you call research?

I got the tiniest bit of research done. Even that was overly ambitious, but with a Geological Society of America talk and an invited American Geophysical Union talk to prepare for, I didn’t have a choice. I read a single (1!) paper this entire semester. It described the creation of a database, but didn’t have a strong analytical aspect to it, so it wasn’t like it was even a complicated paper to read.

I doubt I’m a unique case. Just accept that there’s a pause and you can’t do anything about it.

Advice

Create set pieces.

I am a stratigrapher, a paleoceanographer, a paleontologist, and a member of a number of other little subfields of geology. The most important issue of our time, and in my classes, is climate change. I carved out time to develop impactful lectures on past and modern climate change. I also spent time throughout the semester preparing for a week long mock-UN climate negotiation game.  It isn’t ideal, but by deploying a really intense, interactive game in a confined window, it minimized the amount of time I needed to prepare, while still giving the students an experience. I had them fill out cards, so I know it made a heck of an impact on several of them. I plan on developing a game for evolution myself (a significant minority of my students come to me as creationists, due to a lack of understanding science and evolution itself) since that worked so well.

It also feels great to really nail the ever living hell out of something. You are good at what you do, but much of the semester is going to be spent feeling like you’re not doing a good job. Doing a lecture about something that you really care about is going to remind you that you can be a good, or even great, instructor.

Get into a faculty writing circle.

Getting your next job, or tenure, requires publishing. Without the faculty writing circle I got in, I would have gotten no research done. A faculty writing circle is a group of faculty that come together once a week and meet to talk about research and writing. It helps to provide some accountability to be productive during the week. I still only managed 30 minutes on a really good day, but that’s more than nothing. Teaching is a massive time suck, and there is always more work that can be done to do better. Having a group of folks that constantly encouraged me to do more writing, more research, helped with the pull from the students and my department.

You have to look out for yourself. You won’t be active in publishing, but try!

Manage your stress.

Ride your bike to work. Do yoga, play video games to shoot some Nazis for that cathartic release. Find something that you can do to help manage stress because this is going to be rougher than you expect.

And I’d expect it to be really, really rough.

Have a shutdown time.

There’s been a 8:00 PM work-stop time in my family since my time working towards a MS degree. I can’t sleep for hours after I stop plugging hard on something, so if I stop at 8 I have some time to slow my brain down. It also gives me time with my wife, even if it’s just watching Brooklyn 99 or The Defenders. Work will be there in the morning, and you’ll be able to teach better if you sleep.

Teaching isn’t writing. Your students will be able to tell if you aren’t in the moment. If you’re on 4 hours sleep, you won’t be in the moment. You’ll be on autopilot. They will be too.

Be as specific as possible when writing exam questions.

Technically amphibians are ancestral to a dinosaur, but the answer is archosaur, man. Give me a break. Also make your answer keys as you write the test. It’ll save time in the future.

Be OK with a bad lecture.

They will exist. They will happen. You’ll have bad weeks or a bad month. Students will stop showing up, even after just one. It’s ok. My attendance was ~50% when attendance wasn’t a part of the their grade (Normal Sam attendance with it being a part of their grade is much lower.) You are there to do your best, no matter how many are in the room. I gave mine 5% of their grade just for showing up to the last week of school, which I told them about for the entire semester. Only 58% showed up for the full week. You can only do so much.

You have some time to fix things that come up. There is time, because you’re creating this material on the fly, to revise how you’re developing materials. I changed the format of my exams after my first in Sed/Strat. I changed how I was giving out review materials too. Don’t go overboard, though. Think of it as refining your aim, rather than shooting at a different target.

That said, strive to do better. A bad lecture is something to fix next time, and to try to do what you can to not have it happen again. But it will. Keep notes on what didn’t work, or what did. I wish I had, it’d be worth the time.

Lean into the lecture format.

They’re faster to prepare. It just is. They aren’t the most effective, the students don’t react well to them as they’ll bury themselves in their phones.

Do what you can. Don’t lecture when you have something great, but be ok with them. You are in survival mode.

I want to leave you with one thing. I was talking to a friend a little while ago. She, being far smarter than I, told me:

The first year isn’t about hitting a homerun. It’s about getting on base.


Survive. Learn from your mistakes if you can, but most importantly: Survive.

That’s the best you can do.

LGBT and a Scientist

This post was written by an anonymous member in the geosciences who identifies with the LGBT community~

Being part of the LGBT community and a scientist can be a lonely experience. I have been involved with academia in some way since I began my freshman year in 2003. During this time, I have met just six openly queer people in the sciences. This includes my time at three different universities, in four different departments, and at three professional conferences. Of course there were probably others, but where were they? It’s a question that many are asking (Why Is Science So Straight?, Is Science Too Straight?). From what I’ve read, there are about the same number of self-reported LGBT people in the sciences as in any other career field, but they are not as out as some other professions.

Yoder and Mattheis (2015) created an online survey of LGBT people in STEM fields (Queer in STEM) and published their results in the Journal of Homosexuality. A second survey was completed just a few months ago, but the results from the first survey showed: 1) participants were more open about their queerness with family and friends far more so than with colleagues and students, 2) individuals in STEM academia were about as open as those in nonacademic fields, 3) however, people in geosciences, engineering, mathematics, and psychology were less likely to be out than those in life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences. They also found that people belonging to departments with more women were more likely to be out. Lastly, they confirmed that those who belong to departments that are perceived as being accepting and supportive were more likely to be out than those in departments less accepting and supportive.

So we’re out there, but there are many obstacles. Shame, fear, and the other usual suspects keep people in the closet. But in the sciences, there is the old idea that only the research matters, and the personal is not brought into the lab (‘No sexuality please, we’re scientists‘). It may be the there are some LGBT people who don’t care about revealing this aspect of themselves, and it may be indifference, not hostility on the part of their straight peers. Queer scientists are writing about their experiences and bringing awareness of our issues to a larger audience (Why scientists should march with Pride, LGBT in STEM: Progress but still many obstacles).

For me, whether I’m out or not has depended on a lot of variables. When I was an undergraduate in the early to mid-2000s, I was very cautious. As a freshman, only roommate knew, but I let more people know as I got older and made closer friendships. I was pretty comfortable with my bio cohort, but I really panicked at field camp because I just wasn’t sure how they would respond. It became a non-issue, I really worried about it. Grad school was fine, and I actually met other LGBT people in that department for the first time! However, there was an incident that has stayed with me. We were having a discussion about wild times in undergrad, and I told a story about going to the club (a gay one, of course), and one grad student said “Oh my god, everything has to be gay with you! You mention it all the time!” But that’s my life, and it was a gay club, so that is important. I’m still bothered by this.

I’ve been an adjunct for two different departments. With the geology department, I had no issues coming out right away to the faculty. Of course, I knew many of them already, so that helped. I even discussed it a bit with my chair. With the chemistry department, I’ve been very careful. I’m out to only two coworkers, and I don’t see that number changing anytime soon. As I’ve started preparing for new career as a teacher, I’m wondering what it will be like in a high school. There are no state or federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, so I may have to be in the closet again at work.

It’s been interesting writing and researching for this, because it’s made me look back on my time as a student, and I can see the progress we’ve made. The presence of persons who identify with the LGBT community is getting better, and we just have to be as authentic and honest as we can safely be. So if you are LGBT and can’t find anyone else, know that there are other scientists like you, and you will find us eventually!

Citations: Jeremy B. Yoder PhD & Allison Mattheis PhD (2015) Queer in STEM: Workplace Experiences Reported in a National Survey of LGBTQA Individuals in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers, Journal of Homosexuality, 63:1, 1-27, DOI:
10.1080/00918369.2015.1078632

Undergraduate Research Experience

Jen here-

All of us have taken wildly different journeys to get to where we are today. I’d like to share part of mine with you all and emphasize the importance of undergraduate research. Although I am currently in a geology PhD program I started out as a Biological Sciences major. When I started my undergraduate career I wanted to become an orthodontist – this slowly changed to medical examiner to I have no idea. The spring semester that I was supposed to graduate I took a course in the Earth and Environmental Science Department to fulfill my last 300-level course requirement. The course was “Introduction to Paleontology” with Dr. Roy Plotnick. I immediately became enamored with the content and scheduled a meeting to talk with him. He offered me a research assistant position to work in his lab and I accepted. I decided to stay for an additional year to get a minor in Earth and Environmental Science.

I did not know much about undergraduate research when I started out my new position as research assistant. Roy had several projects going on at the time. I started in on one working to assess how a specific type of brachiopod interacted with the seafloor. This involved me using a force gauge to measure the amount of force required to push the creature into various types of sediment. I also explored a specific type of crinoid holdfast (the part that secures them to the seafloor) and how it acted almost like an anchor. Roy gave me the freedom to explore the experimental process. He had a variety of tools and materials to experiment with and I was able to build different types of holdfasts and use the force gauge to drag them through different types of sediment. This was not only fun but it was a huge boost in my confidence. I was conducting my own experiments and collecting data.

A young, awkward Jen conducting undergraduate research in Dr. Roy Plotnick’s lab circa 2012.

I decided I wanted to go to graduate school in paleontology. I had become very interested in the extinction dynamics of the Late Devonian. I did an independent study with Roy examining the changes in cephalopod diversity during this dynamic time. I began applying for graduate school in all the wrong ways. I attempted to contact faculty members but they weren’t very good at emailing me back so I would go ahead and apply rather than attempt to contact them again. This mostly resulted in me losing a lot of money on applications. Many of the faculty I applied to work with simply had no funding for students that year. One day Roy brought in an article that was recently published in GSA Today by Dr. Alycia Stigall. This article was titled, Speciation collapse and invasive species dynamics during the Late Devonian “Mass Extinction” and, of course, sparked my interest. I exchanged several emails with Alycia before applying (late) to her program. A few months later I was accepted to work with Alycia for the fall of 2012. Thus, beginning my long journey through graduate school. Without the random chance encounter with Roy during my undergraduate career, I would not be where I am today. His encouragement, support, and enthusiasm provided the best working environment for me to officially become a scientist.

Not all undergraduate research experiences result in positive experiences as mine did. By reaching out to faculty members and participating in different research projects you will quickly find out what you like and dislike! There is no harm in talking to faculty or graduate students about your research interests. It is very likely that they have similar interests or know people that do.

Advice from a recent grad school graduate

Sarah here –
If you’re applying to graduate school, have recently started, or are even a year or two into your program, I’m sure you’ve gotten tons of advice from professors, current students, the internet, random strangers, all over. I hope you’ll read this, anyhow-I hope that my advice will be a little different from the others from whom you’ve already listened.

Jen and Sarah presenting their workshop material at the National Science Teachers Association meeting in Nashville in 2016.
1. Find friends (and colleagues!) From the minute you step into higher education, it can feel very isolating. You take classes with the same people; you research with an even smaller group of people; often, you don’t even know other graduate students from outside your department. It’s a big change from undergrad to grad school, for sure, and even more than that, oftentimes, graduate students are pressured to compete with one another. It’s the sad truth, but there are limited resources-your advisor’s time, grant money, etc.-our first instincts are to compete with everyone around us to get ahead. In reality, there will always be a little bit of competition, no matter what. But what is often missed is that graduate school doesn’t have to be this a lot of the time-nor should it be. You’re surrounded by some of the best and the brightest around. Why not take this opportunity to learn from them?
If I had to pick the most important relationship I made out of graduate school, it wouldn’t be with my advisor, with my committee, or with contacts I made at conferences. It was my labmate, Jen. She and I traded every single piece of our written work back and forth and we edited them mercilessly until they were flawless-grant proposals, emails, papers, job applications, you name it. We encouraged each other through all of our applications, even though we applied to all of the same ones-and many times, one of us was chosen while the other wasn’t. We’ve come up with research project ideas for the other, and some that we could collaborate together on. While we were competing for the same grants, we never actively competed against one another and put the other down. As a result, I have a wonderful friend, an editor, and an irreplaceable research collaborator, all in one. When graduate school felt unbearable, I’d turn to Jen for help, and without fail, I’d feel like I could handle it again. This relationship is so important; academia is hard. You need someone that you can trust and someone who can remind you of how far you have come-everyone needs some kind of support-don’t struggle by yourself. Everyone is struggling, even if they don’t say it. Be that uplifting person for someone else-be humble, be kind, and build a supportive community for you and your fellow classmates.

2. Find a hobby! Many of us feel like hobbies take away from the whole reason we’re in graduate school-to learn! We need to read papers and research and teach (and sleep-but only if we’ve finished work!). This is probably the worst thing you can do for yourself. Grad school is isolating enough-don’t further push yourself into a bubble. Find a hobby-a club, a new sport, anything-to join. Go every week. Don’t make exceptions, even if you feel like you’re just too busy-make your one or two hours a week just as mandatory as your classwork. Make friends outside of your department and even-dare I say it?-outside of academia! I didn’t do this during my master’s degree-I spent two years at the office from 7AM-9PM most days (including the weekends). I was lonely, miserable, and as a result, I don’t think I performed as well as I could have. During my Ph.D., I took up Middle Eastern dancing-once or twice a week-I made many new friends, learned a new skill that had nothing to do with geology, and most importantly: it gave me something to look forward to every week: a reward for surviving another week of graduate school. My second hobby, which wasn’t something I did in a group, but was so healing all the same: reading for fun. I made both of these a priority during my Ph.D. I read for fun 15 minutes a night before bed (yes, even on nights I went to bed at 4AM) and always went to dance class. You’d be surprised what having hobbies can do to restore your happiness and sanity.

Sarah and Jen presenting fossil material to the local Girls Inc. chapter of Knoxville!

3. Do some outreach! I’m a paleontologist-this means that I get to spend my days talking about dinosaurs and playing in the dirt (even though I don’t study dinosaurs). This means that I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to talk to countless K-12 classrooms and to fossil collecting clubs. A lot of people view this as a waste of time, that it might take away precious time from research-sure, you could look at it that way. But here’s what I got out of it: by all of these interactions-from working with girls’ after school groups to teach them confidence, to talking to families about the rocks they had collected, I learned to talk about my science in very understandable terms to all kinds of people. Communication isn’t a very easy skill-many of the scientists I meet at conferences, even scientists within my discipline, have a hard time explaining their research, even to other scientists. We forgot that if other people can’t understand your work, you’re not doing the best job that you can. My work with kids and non-scientist adults has given me so many opportunities to try different explanations and pictures so that I can talk to just about anyone about what I do-this has even helped me learn how to speak to scientists outside of my discipline. Also, consider what got you interested in science-a lot of us will remember learning about dinosaurs or volcanoes or something that really excited you. When you talk to these kids, you’re showing them that they, too, could become the next generation’s scientists. If you’re a woman, or a person of color, a veteran, a person with a disability, or someone who is LGBT-this can mean even more to kids who might not have had any idea someone like them could ever become someone like you. So go call an elementary school or find a local group that you can go share your love of whatever it is that you study-it will make you a better communicator and you might just be the inspiration for the next amazing person in your field. I know when I’m stressed or even sometimes really considering whether I made the right career choice (who hasn’t wondered that in academia?), being able to share my love of fossils with people who think dinosaurs are just as cool as I do is one of the best things to remind me that I am doing the thing I love most on Earth. Share your passion! You won’t regret it.

Grad school can be an amazing experience, as much as it can be a very stressful one. Remember to take time for yourself, share your love of science, find colleagues that support you, and try to be that uplifting person for someone else. It’s worth it.

Ten years in college, now what?

Sarah here to write about the slightly less fun, and the certainly less glamorous, side of science: becoming gainfully employed as a scientist after graduate school. My experiences are within applying to academic jobs (visiting professorships, tenure track professorships, postdoctoral researchers, museum curators, etc.). Academic job applications are quite a bit different than many other job applications. Here’s the step-by-step breakdown of how to apply to an academic job:

Lab group photo at Sarah’s graduation. Maggie and Jen were both ushers during the ceremony!
    1. Look for openings. Academic jobs are few and far between. A lot of the times, there are many more people applying than there are jobs in academia (essentially, universities or museums). Therefore, competition is stiff! To keep this from getting out of control in length, we’re going to keep this post about professor jobs. When a department decides they need a professor in a new area of research (like paleontology), they’ll make a request to the university. They’ll explain to the university why they need a paleontologist-what types of research they will bring to the department, what classes they’ll teach, what graduate students they’ll recruit, etc. The university will typically send all of the proposals they get in a year to the university board that will approve or deny the requests. Let’s say we’re approved for our paleontology hire-yay! We’ll send out a job advertisement for the position with a basic list of what the department would like to see (For example: “We seek a paleontologist for a tenure track position starting next fall. The candidate will be expected to develop a thriving research program, mentor graduate students, and teach courses”). This means that your college professors probably had little or no choice in where they moved for their jobs. It all depends on what university wants a professor in your field at the right time.

    2. Apply! Great! We have a cool job to apply to-what do we do to prove to them we’re the perfect person for the job? First, you write a cover letter. The cover letter is a one-two page document that is a brief overview of who you are, what your qualifications are, and why you think you’re the very best person for this job. Next, you write a teaching statement (or a teaching philosophy). This covers your general philosophy on how you view teaching-do you use active learning and hands-on examples? How do you grade students-by exams, projects, both? You talk about the types of classes you can teach at that university and the classes you’d like to add to their roster. This can be a few pages in length. Next comes your research statement -teaching is only a part of what university professors do; you’re expected to do a lot of research (that is hopefully funded by scientific agencies, like the National Science Foundation). Your research statement should talk about all the research you currently do-it should be framed as “the big picture”. For example, my research statement talks about how I study long-term trends in evolution and how evolutionary trends might be tied to climate change in the fossil record. Your research statement should cover where you think you’ll get external funding for research and new projects you’d like to get to in the future! Your C.V. (the academic resume) is the last thing that is typically required. It lists all your publications, grants, classes taught, outreach, and more, so the interviewers can learn more about what you do. Some universities require different statements in addition to your teaching and research, like a diversity statement. A diversity statement covers your commitment to supporting all people in your field and how you will help students from different backgrounds succeed.

    3. Interview! A committee of professors will read all the statements and compile a “short list” of a varying number of applicants. This short list will be contacted-a lot of the times, they’ll ask for letters of recommendation for the people who made the short list. A typical interview will consist of a Skype or phone interview. They’ll ask questions about your research goals, your teaching style, why do you want to work at that school, etc. If they decide you’re one of their top candidates, they’ll then invite you (and 2-4 others, typically) to come to a campus interview.

    4. Campus visit! The campus visit (one that I’ve made a few times) is a really weird kind of job interview-it starts when someone picks you up at the airport (typically a professor) and ends whenever you get returned. The interview day can last all day (I have had two that were 13 hours long). You meet with as many professors as can be met with, have lunch with students or more faculty, give a talk about your research to the department, and sometimes a second talk, a teaching demo, so they can see how good you’ll be at instructing their students. You’ll have a formal sit down interview with the search committee at some point during the day, too.

    5. Accept?! Congratulations! You’ve earned yourself a job! Now, you need to negotiate the terms: salary, money for start up (this means the equipment you want to buy for your research), a university position for your spouse, if you need one, moving expenses, teaching load, and more. If this position isn’t a good fit for you, you might not want to take it, even if jobs are hard to come by. Weigh your options and make the best decision for yourself.

It can take many years for a scientist to earn a tenure-track faculty position. Very few scientists are able to attain this type of position immediately after graduate school. But that doesn’t mean you should not try and tenure track positions are not for everyone. There are some industry positions available for people who obtain a Ph.D.

Sarah is currently working at the University of South Florida where she has a position as a visiting faculty member. She and Jen are currently compiling application packets for this upcoming cycle.

Non-Research Weeks

Jen here-

Today I’m going to talk about what I have been up to this past week. I recently traveled to Gainesville, Florida to participate in a workshop at the Florida Museum of Natural History through the myFOSSIL program. I’ll be writing up a full education and outreach post on that soon but check out my blog for photos by clicking here! After the workshop I was fortunate enough to spend time with some of my family in Tampa.

This week I have gotten zero research done. Sometimes this happens and it’s okay but it’s also very stressful. Work doesn’t stop while you are away so emails pile up and you may miss deadlines if you aren’t very careful. During my family time I had to organize a session for an upcoming conference with one of my mentors, work on Time Scavengers, help my project collaborator email teachers, and work on my job application packets. This was pretty minor as I don’t have any serious deadlines coming up. But I feel guilty about not working more even though this was my personal time to spend with my family.

Jen with the container of dead animal bits once we had gotten them to the new building.

Once I got back to work I spent several hours cleaning out my emails, catching up with my peers, and running to various meetings around campus. I also got to help one of our faculty members move her freezer full of animal parts (mostly cow… I think…). Things seemed to keep piling up one after another! It didn’t take us very long but one of her coolers was stolen so we had to pack up frozen bits into a large container in the back of her truck! Everything worked out well but man it was a weird morning! How do you get back to a regular week after a week of total chaos? Well, one day at a time I’m taking the weekend to relax and periodically finish catching up on work from the last week or so. I contact my friends and family that I haven’t been able to speak with a lot lately. This helps ground me and remind me that work should not be all consuming!

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of G. fistulosus a planktic foraminifera that Adriane saw earlier this week.
I’ve been really fortunate to get to speak with Adriane a LOT while she has been on her cruise. She is learning so much and meeting amazing people! Unfortunately, she has a bit of a cold but is on the mend. We miss having our weekly Google Hangout about Time Scavengers but are so grateful we can still communicate.

I hope this posts reminds people that self-care is vital for a productive life! Take time for yourself and it’s okay if your week is filled with meetings, travel, and bits of dead animals.