Scavenging the fossil record for clues to Earth's climate and life
Byte of Life
Advice from all Time Scavenger collaborators on how to navigate academia at a variety of levels. This often relates to our scientific lives but does not always contain scientific content. We hope that our experiences can aid others in similar positions.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Binghamton University Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship (PDPF; becomes available around January to March yearly when offered)
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Ever wondered what a scientist does for fun? Many people are surprised to find out that people who do science are into just about every single hobby that can be done! I think shows like the Big Bang Theory, that paint scientists as really nerdy and incapable of doing non-science related things, can make people think that scientists are really like that in real life (some of us are! Definitely nothing wrong with that- but scientists are a pretty diverse group of people). Why are hobbies important, though? Well, hobbies keep me sane. They give me a chance to take a break, completely, from work and do something challenging and fun. They give me a chance to make new friends outside of science and give me things to look forward to, when work gets tough.
So what kind of hobbies are scientists into? Well, we here at Time Scavengers wrote a group post so you could see the the types of stuff we get up to in our spare time.
My favorite thing to do is read! I have a challenge with myself–I read at least 50 books a year. I don’t have a favorite genre, really. I’ll read just about anything: fiction, classics, memoirs, young adult–I just like reading stories of other people’s lives, whether they’re real or fictional. I read every night before I go to sleep and I always have an audiobook that I listen to while I’m vacuuming, walking to class, or driving in the car. Right now, as this post is being written, I’m rereading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and listening to Tara Westover’s Educated (both super good–highly recommend!). I’ve read books for fun for as long as I can remember. Little known fact about me- I was on a competitive reading team in middle school aka I was super cool and not at all nerdy.
I’m also really into crafts. My mom is an art teacher, so she taught me how to do a lot of different crafty things (even if I inherited none of her skill). I love to paint, decoupage, and create all kinds of things. Recently, I decided to take up learning how to embroider. So far, I’ve cross stitched a few different trilobites to hang up in my office! Around my house are the relics of old craft projects that I’ve made and am probably way too proud of.
Another project of mine that I’ve taken up is learning American Sign Language. I’ve always wanted to learn and I recently decided that there was no time like the present. So, for the past year, I’ve been taking online classes through my local community college and spending time on weekends with the Tampa Deaf community to learn how to communicate via sign. It’s been a total blast and I’m hoping to keep learning!
Photo: the three trilobites I’ve cross stitched so far! (This is my very first attempt at any form of embroidery. I’m pretty proud of them!)
My favorite thing to do is be outside. After working for any amount of time the only thing that really refreshes me is getting some sunlight and air. Most of my work involves sitting at my computer so I constantly get burned out from staring at my screen. These days I do a lot of biking both on long greenways on my road bike and on trails on my mountain bike. Jeb even made some nice trails on our property in Gainesville – almost two miles! I used to do a lot of trail running when we lived in Knoxville but would have to take long breaks to offset my shin splints, which would get really painful at times. I also like to examine the wildlife – what’s around me and do I know what it is? iNaturalist allows me to figure out what the things are that I’m unfamiliar with. They have a more ‘fun’ app called Seek that has monthly challenges and can identify organisms as you sort of pan over them with your camera! It’s a lot of fun to explore and learn and the same time.
I also knit scarves, I don’t do fancy patterns or anything besides scarves because the point of knitting, to me, is to clear my mind and keep my hands busy while we are watching TV or just relaxing. I choose to knit Harry Potter scarves because I love the series!! I first started knitting them almost a decade ago and have a little Etsy shop where people can purchase them if they want to. They are also really warm, I started making them when I lived in Chicago and it’s just a funny joke that I keep moving south and keep making them.
I have many other hobbies but those are the two that I really enjoy the most. I read books but not as avidly as I once did and it’s much harder for me than it used to be, I suppose it’s because my mind wanders more easily to get all of my other tasks done. I do yoga a lot, play with my cats, garden, play Pokemon Go, blog, and chat with old friends.
As I’m in the last year of my PhD and frantically trying to finish my dissertation, I don’t have as many hobbies as I should. Much like Sarah and Jen, I do enjoy reading novels (mostly fiction to balance out the serious-ness of sciencing), playing Pokemon Go, blogging, and hanging out with my cats and husband. When the weather is nice, I also enjoy hiking around western Massachusetts (there’s no shortage of awesome views here!). My husband and I have also taken up biking, which has been great incentive to get us out of the house and doing something physical! Often in the summer and fall, we bike down to a market down the road a bit for ice cream.
Honestly, my most guilty pleasure right now is Netflix and HBO, and cooking. There is nothing I love more than to come home after a long day at work (I’m currently averaging about 9-10 hour days in the lab, so when I come home, I don’t feel like doing much) and plopping onto the couch with my kitties and husband. I love to cook and experiment with different recipes, so I usually cook about 5-6 days a week. After that, my husband and I watch the latest TV obsession, which is usually a series (yes, we’re sad Game of Thrones is over, but hey, that leaves more time for re-watching other beloved series like Dexter!).
The aforementioned hobbies (if you call watching TV a hobby) are not always my ideal ways to pass the time, so I’ll let you all in on a little secret: I LOVE old cars! Before I left home for graduate school, my dad and I would work on my 1971 Mercury Comet, which my husband wittily named ‘Halley’ (like Halley’s Comet, get it?). My dad bought the car for me as my high school graduation gift, and we’ve been working on it ever since. My dad is a huge car nerd as well. He’s a machinist by trade, but I’ve never met anyone who knows as much about cars as him. He has rebuilt several engines, installed exhaust systems, rebuilt carburetors, you name it. Since I’ve had Halley, we’ve put in a new engine (a 306 cubic inch compared to the 289 that was in it), new rims, and lockers on the rear (lockers make both back tires spin at the same time). Eventually, I’d like to make the car a 4-speed, install bucket seats, and give Halley a paint job, as currently she is 3 different colors. As you can imagine, antique car restorations are expensive, so this is not an ideal hobby to have whilst one is in graduate school on a limited budget.
My other hobbies that I absolutely love to do but cannot in this phase of my life are gardening, horseback riding, tending chickens, and shooting (rifles and recurve bows). After that last sentence, you probably now realize that I was raised in the country and am a bit of a redneck. Currently, my mom takes care of my horse, Scimmitar, who I have had and ridden since I was in grade school. Scimmi is a 31-year-old Egyptian Arabian who has more spunk than any older horse I’ve seen. When I go back home to Virginia, I still take him on trail rides through the woods with my mom, my sister, and our other horses. My sister and mom love chickens as much as I do, and still have 8 as pets. The chickens are all different breeds, and are mostly used for bug control in the yard and a source of eggs. Recently, my mom did teach her hen how to play the xylophone! My mom is the one who actually got my husband and I hooked on shooting recurve bows. She learned from her friend, and actually taught a few classes at her local sporting goods store. Archery is great because it forces you to clear your mind and focus on your body. It’s a great stress reliever, way to build muscle, and learn to focus your attention. I enjoy shooting rifles with my dad and brother, but those are pretty noisy and not quite as good for centering yourself like archery 🙂
Academic job interview season is always upon us and we wanted to give some perspective from our experiences. We have done phone interviews, Skype interviews, and in person interviews. More recently I, Jen, have had the opportunity to be on the other side of the table and do the interviewing. All of these experiences have given us a lot to think about and we would like to reflect on some of it for you all.
Prepping for an interview
Jen: To prepare for interviews I had a series of steps. First, I would do some research on the university/museum/organization to figure out what their mission, goals, and vision are. I could use this information to figure out if I was a good fit and what about my own career goals align with theirs. I then go to the department/group website to get a sense of who might be interviewing me, in many cases you will get a list of people ahead of time. I would think about questions they may ask and answer them on a note sheet and then come up with a list of questions to ask them.
Adriane: I was interviewed for two postdoctoral positions, and one tenure-track job. For the job, I did basically what Jen outlined above. I did research on each person in the department, such as where they went for graduate school, their most current and previous research interests, and any major on and off campus activities they were involved in. I then created a document with all of this information, with each page dedicated to that person. On that same sheet of paper, I also wrote down specific questions for each person. This way, I had everything I needed for talking to one person on one page, and I could also take notes. This method sounds like a lot of work (it really wasn’t), but it paid off immensely. Often, these on-site/campus interviews are tiring and you’ll be extremely nervous; do anything and everything ahead of time that will make the experience easier for yourself!
Below are some questions we encountered during job interviews (these were asked of us specifically for visiting or tenure-track professor positions):
Some questions you should prepare to answer:
Why do you want to work here?
How would you/your research contribute to this department/job?
What do you need (such as equipment) to do research in this department?
What courses could you teach in our department?
How could you involved our students in your research program?
How could you collaborate with our faculty in this department?
Provide an example of an effective teaching method you use in the classroom.
Describe your research.
Describe how you teach/your teaching strategies.
Outline a syllabus for a class you would teach (or they might ask you to do this for a specific class).
Questions you should prepare to ask*:
How does the department support you (grad, faculty, staff) in your role?
What would the ideal candidate for this position bring to the department?
What sort of funds are available for students to engage with research or projects?
Are students encouraged to travel to conferences? Are there funds to help them?
Am I encouraged to travel to conferences?
What sort of internal funding support is available for my research?
Are there departmental service requirements and what would they be for my first year?
Do faculty support each other’s work? Is this a collaborative environment?
A good one to end on: Do you love living and teaching here, and why?
* It is always good to ask these questions to multiple people to see how answers vary within the department.
Jen: These are the most awkward for me. I take a lot of queues from facial expressions to keep conversations moving, so trying to figure this out without seeing is tricky. It also is harder for me to listen closely and take notes without the visual queues of someone speaking to me. My suggestion would be to wear headphones so you don’t have to hold up your phone, this will allow you to quickly take notes as people are speaking to you. Since you can’t tie names to faces, it’s best to have a list of people who will be speaking to you ahead of time so you can refer back to their speciality or position during the call.
It may be worthwhile to use an online transcription feature like in Google Docs you can use Voice Typing. You’ll have to have the call on speaker but then you will get all of the questions people ask relayed in front of you. This is the other thing I struggle with – recalling multipart questions when on a call. Often you can’t write them down quick enough so you forget! But having a way to visualize the question again would be greatly beneficial and keep things moving.
Skype/Video Call Interviews
Jen: I prefer these setups because having a visual of the interviewers really helps me. They can also be very awkward though – depending on the set up. Often, you will be projected onto a larger monitor and be interviewed by a conference room full of people. I have been interviewed by 1 to 6 people. This is tricky because if there is not a separate microphone it can be incredibly hard to hear the people interviewing you. That is okay, just be sure to notify them – they will likely ask if you can hear them and include something like, ‘you are a little faint’ or ‘could you speak up some’. These people will have a set of questions to ask you and often they will go around the room as certain people may have specific questions they are posed to ask each candidate.
This can make it hard to identify who is who. I usually make a drawing of names or initials around a table so I can refer back to my cheat sheet of notes about the people interviewing me. This then helps place the people in the context of their role at the institution – which is super easy to forget when you are quickly being introduced to five people sitting around a table who are only ½ an inch high.
Be sure to have a quiet area to do the interview. Wearing headphones with a microphone ensures that they can hear you and hopefully you can hear them. I would also recommend a plain background or something simple so that the people interviewing you don’t get distracted and you are the main focus. I would try to have your face centered on the screen as much as possible without being cut off at the top or bottom of the screen.
Similar to the phone interview, I would have a notebook adjacent to you so you could quickly take down some notes during the interview. Also, you can more easily use the ‘take a drink of water’ trick when they can see you drinking – unlike on the phone. If you need a second to ponder an answer to a question- take a sip of water and reflect then respond.
Adriane: In addition to what Jen said above, you should also find out ahead of time the format for the interview. For example, one of my postdoctoral interviews over Skype was in the format of about 10 minutes for a presentation and 20 minutes of questions and talking. This was helpful to know in advance, as I could prepare what I wanted to talk about and use slides to do so through screen sharing. Another important step you should take is to test your equipment before the actual interview with trusted friends or colleagues. I tested my Skype and screen sharing capabilities twice with friends. I’m really glad I did because the second time, my sound went out! Luckily I figured out the problem and was able to fix it far in advance.
Because I work in a lab with several other people and I needed to be at my computer for the interview, I sent around an email to my lab mates to let them know the date and time of my interview. I also put a sign on our lab door that read ‘Interview in Progress’ so people wouldn’t run into our office during that time.
Jen: On campus interviews for faculty or staff positions can be much more involved. I’ve done two two-day campus visits and one one-day visit. Depending on the type of position you will likely be invited to give a talk – or two! These can be about a specific aspect of your research, your proposed research program to bring to the institution, your teaching experience and course offerings, or teach a course so they can observe you at the head of the classroom.
Prepare your mind: These are marathons. You will likely have a packed schedule of 30 minute meetings with all sorts of people. It is perfectly within reason to ask similar questions to a variety of people – in fact, you absolutely should! It will give you an idea of who is maybe talking up the department versus the reality of the situation depending on the answers you receive.
Prepare your talks: Before starting, know your audience – meaning who are you speaking to? A room full of people who will understand exactly everything you say? That’s highly unlikely. Prepare background information to catch people up to speed. I have a set of background slides I constantly use to help people understand phylogenetic trees and how to read them. It’s best to set up your audience to understand your talk rather than to just spew information at them.
Ask your colleagues, peers, friends, supervisors, anyone who recently went through the job interview life to send you their slides to see a structure or to set up a time to chat with you. I was advised to include citations for as many of my publications as possible on the slides. Showcase work done with undergraduate researchers to show the audience your commitment to their student body.
Extra things to bring: For my first on campus interview I tired to be really prepared. I often don’t travel well so I made sure to bring aspirin and tums. I also tend to not sleep well or get cramps from sitting funny on the airplane so I always carry Icy Hot or similar muscle relaxer when I travel. Bring things that you need to be comfortable because you are likely to experience some discomfort.
I always had a water bottle with me, I get really dehydrated so I figured this would help. None of the interviews I have done allowed flex time for bathroom breaks. This means you often have to request to use the bathroom or get a refill of water – you definitely should request these breaks!! It helps to just be quiet for a few minutes in a cold place before jumping back into conversations.
Adriane: For my on-campus interview, I did basically what Jen outlined above. I did research on each person in the department, such as where they went for graduate school, their most current and previous research interests, and any major on and off campus activities they were involved in. I then created a document with all of this information, with each page dedicated to that person. On that same sheet of paper, I also wrote down specific questions for each person. This way, I had everything I needed for talking to one person on one page, and I could also take notes. This method sounds like a lot of work (it really wasn’t), but it paid off immensely. Often, these on-site/campus interviews are tiring and you’ll be extremely nervous; do anything and everything ahead of time that will make the experience easier for yourself!
Second, I took the time to really get to know the department through news articles, their website, and through colleagues (our department head and one of my friends did their undergrad at the college I interviewed at, so they were great resources!). I did this while watching TV at night, and it became kind of fun. It also paid off, as I was able to ask questions about events and initiatives at the college which got people talking more.
Third, I’ll emphasize what Jen said above about knowing your audience and preparing for your talks. When I did my on-campus interview, I was asked to do a teaching demonstration and a research talk. The college where I interviewed was undergraduate-only, so I knew I had to tone down the complexity of my research. I’ve taught a ton of undergraduates, so the teaching demonstration was fun and easy. I spent the most time on my job talk, which involved modifying figures that I had previously made, culling out very jargony words specific to my field of research, and providing enough background information for a general audience. I also used graphics to explain my science. I create a lot of geochemical data, which are basically just squiggly lines plotted against geologic time. To make the interpretations from these squiggles more appealing and contextual, I created models of my interpretations. These models likely won’t become published in a paper because I don’t have enough data to support them, but they were perfectly fine to illustrate my science and communicate that to a more general audience. After my talk, even the biologists who sat in said they understood everything and thought my research was really cool! So taking the extra time and effort to readily and easily communicate your science in well worth it!
Fourth, be prepared for your schedule to get shifted around. My on-campus interview was during the Deep Freeze of early 2019, when temperatures in Michigan got into the -40’s with windchill. This led to the college closing, which rarely happened. This also meant that my two talks, instead of being on two separate days, were 30 minutes apart. I was totally fine with this, as I had practiced both talk to the point of almost boredom, and I had practiced them back-to-back (just by chance).
Lastly, just be yourself and have fun! I’ve received A TON of interview advice over the years, but this has to be the best one. For every interview I’ve had, I just go in being myself and bring my full enthusiasm for my science. For the talks I gave during my interview, I made them fun not just for my audience but for myself as well.
As far as packing for the interview, I packed several different outfits (I tend to change my mind a lot, so I wanted to give myself some flexibility and freedom on wardrobe choices). I have curly hair, and have to use mousse otherwise I look like a Chia pet. I didn’t want to check my bags in the airport for fear they’d get lost, which meant I couldn’t take my beloved mousse brand. So I spent a few hours tracking down a travel-sized mousse I could take with me the week before I left. I even tested it out beforehand to make sure I was happy with it. So, don’t be afraid to take the extra time and initiative to pack what you want and what will make you comfortable. I’m so glad I didn’t try any new hair products while I was interviewing, that would have just added to the stress. I also bought myself a new leather bag that made me feel like a professional and adult. Just having this helped my self-confidence, and it allowed me to be more organized (I tend to just throw everything into my bookbag).
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself during your interview. It just so happened that while I was traveling to the interview, I started my period. For me, this means ibuprofen every 6 hours or else I feel dead. So I made sure to tell folks that I needed to use the restroom when I had to, and also when I needed to get back into the department head’s office to grab more Advil from my bag. There’s no reason to pretend your not a human with basic needs during these interviews, so don’t be afraid to ask for bathroom breaks, water, or whatever else you need!
Jen: While I was at the University of Florida, I helped with the hiring process for two positions. The first was a staff position with over 50 applicants apply to join our core team. Our core team is really small, there are only five of us and three of us were part time. So we all evaluated each of the 50+ candidates, this means we looked through the submitted materials and online form. We had requested each applicant include a resume, cover letter, and list of references. Since there were so many candidates, those that did not follow instructions (such that they missed one of the required documents), we excluded their application. We used the original job advertisement to look for specific aspects that the candidates could help us with and ranked them but this was only part of how we determined best fit. We also took into account education versus experience, how well laid out the resume was, and how well written the cover letter was.
From this we pulled out just over a handful of candidates to investigate further. First, we re-read application packets and then we called their listed references to ask them a series of questions. We decided upon the questions we would ask ahead of time so that each of us got the same information – or close to it – for each candidate. We then hosted Zoom interviews with all the candidates that passed our reference check. This was usually about 45 minutes on our end 30 minutes on the candidates end. Something that is hard to avoid were technical issues. The first candidate we couldn’t get projected up onto the big TV so we all had to strain our eyes to see them on a laptop – we had to do this with the remaining candidates as well to be fair.
But it brought up some key things – be front and center with a plain background behind you. This will help the interviewers be able to see you very clearly. Use a microphone outside of the one in your computer, this greatly cuts down on background noise and the interviewers are likely in an echo-y room so anything you can do to reduce it will be easier on them. Speak slowly and deliberately, there is not a rush and when you speak fast (not always avoidable) sometimes it’s hard to keep up. Mostly because there are a few people in a large room trying to focus on a small screen – it’s a bad situation.
We then had a meeting to decide upon the top candidates to bring to campus for an in-person interview. We spent half a day with each candidate working to get to know them better. We had a group discussion where other members of the museum staff could come mingle and ask questions and then a more formal interview with the core team. These were more conversation led with a few major points we wanted to make sure to hit along the way. These points could be items from the candidates resume or cover letter that we wanted more information on or from something in the first interview that we needed clarification on.
Hopefully these hints are helpful and best of luck on the job market!
“Do you have vacation for three months?” “Do you even work when classes aren’t in session?” These questions get asked an awful lot to people who are in academia.
Sometimes, it can seem like that! Academia, for all of its unusualness, is a great place to work if you value schedule flexibility, especially when classes aren’t in session. As a matter of fact, as I type this on a Tuesday morning, I’m working from home in my pajamas!
There is a misconception that a professor’s job ends when the semester ends-this couldn’t be further from the truth! So, what do we do during the summer? It varies, depending on our specific positions, but my experience so far has been from someone with a high teaching load (3 lecture courses/semester)
Catch up on scientific literature! During the semester, it can be hard to block off time to read new scientific papers to see what new ideas have been published and to develop ideas on my research further.
Update lectures for next semester! Science changes quickly-this means that professors have to continuously update material to teach students. This summer, I’ll be updating material from my lectures that reflects new understanding of different topics. For example, new research about dinosaur evolutionary relationships that has been published in the past year or two means I need to update my slides on that material!
I also take time during the summer to edit assignments, exams, and lecture material that didn’t quite work the way I wanted it to. I take notes during the semester of the parts of lectures that weren’t engaging enough, or exam questions that may not have been entirely clear. This way, I can be much more prepared for the classes I teach every semester! Many professors also develop new courses during the summer, if they’ll be teaching new courses.
Catch up on service projects! This depends very much from person to person, but academic service is a big part of our jobs that often goes unseen by the public. Many of us serve on committees for professional organizations (e.g., The Paleontological Society). I serve on a grant committee that does the bulk of the work in early summer each year, so I spend a week or so reading grant proposals for researchers undertaking new paleontological research.
Conduct research and field work! During the summer, I have a lot of unscheduled time, which means I can take trips to museums or out to the field without too many scheduling difficulties. Some academics take their entire summer to travel, others only a little bit of time. It really depends. This summer, I won’t be traveling too much-probably only one or two short trips to collect data.
Write papers and grant proposals! The summer is a great time to write and submit papers, as well as grant proposals, both of which are required of a lot of academics. It’s easier to block off time to write when classes aren’t in session. During the summer, I like to write in different places than I do during the semester-instead of my office, I’ll write in coffee shops or at my house for a change of scenery.
Catch up on training! This summer, I’m taking a four-part course through the university to learn how to become a better ally for my LGBTQ+ students, as well as a course in learning how to be an ally for undocumented students. Personally, I like being able to do this during the summer so I have more free time to reflect on what I have learned and think about how to incorporate what I have learned in my classes for the upcoming semester.
Take a break! My schedule during the semester is often jam packed with classes, student appointments, and more. During the summer, I take a little more time to catch up on “life”- go to dentist appointments, run errands, and take some more time to play with my dogs and enjoy my hobbies.
This list is by no means complete, I’m sure, but hopefully you can get a sense as to what academics work on when they aren’t teaching classes! Hope all of you academics out there are having a productive and relaxing summer!
Members of the Time Scavengers team are writing a ‘Applying to Grad School‘ series. These blog posts are written primarily for undergraduate students who are applying to graduate programs (but will be useful for any transitioning graduate or professional students), and will cover such topics as funding and stipends in grad school, how to write and build a CV, how to craft an email to a potential advisor, and how to effectively write statements for your applications. This is the fourth post in the series on how to effectively interview with a potential graduate school advisor.
Adriane and Jen here-
This post is all about interviewing for and visiting potential graduate schools as an undergraduate student in your senior year or as someone deciding to go back to college. This can be a VERY scary process, as it involves talking with high-profile scientists in your field of study and answering questions about your science, education, and interests. Below is some advice from our own experiences, some things you should do to prepare for an interview and/or on-campus visit, and some questions we were asked by potential graduate school advisors.
First, there are several different types of interviews you may be asked to do as a student. In-person, online (usually through a video chat platform such as Google Hangouts,Skype, or Zoom), on-campus, or on the phone.
In-person interviews can be done through a visit to the potential advisor’s campus or at a meeting that you are both attending. You should request an in-person meeting at a conference during your first few email exchanges with a potential advisor (see our “Applying For Grad School Part III: Emailing Potential Advisors”). Simply, conference meetings are easiest when you set them up beforehand. When I, Jen, was looking for PhD programs, I requested to meet with three potential advisors at the large geology conference the fall I was applying to programs. This allowed me to also meet with other lab members – students and postdocs – so that I could ask them questions about their experiences with the advisor.
I, Adriane, asked to meet with two potential advisors at a large geology conference I was presenting research at during my senior year of undergrad. I told each person when and where I was presenting, and asked them to come there to talk with me. I did this so they could get a clearer picture of what my research was, and so they could ask me questions about my goals and such. I had two potential advisors come by my poster (both also had excellent feedback), but one was busy during that time. Instead, she and I sat down together and chatted informally for a few minutes.
Some things I, Adriane, did to prepare for our sit-down meeting at the conference was print out a copy of my poster and my CV to give to my potential advisor. I also had a notebook with me and several pens to take notes (because if you only take one pen, it’s sure to die or be dead). I also dressed appropriately for each interview, meaning I wore something comfortable but also professional.
In some cases, the institution or advisor will help support your visit to their university, most after you have had an in-person or phone interview first. Many universities have funding to bring out PhD students, but not MS students – this is entirely school dependent. It is within reason for you to ask if there are funds to help offset travel, especially if it is not easy (or cheap) for you to get to the university. Current students will often host you as their guest so you can have more in depth conversations with someone in the program. Just note that most schools will reimburse you for your travel- meaning you will, unfortunately, have to front the costs for travel.
Once I, Jen, was accepted into a program – I requested a visit to the campus. My visit ended up being in February and I was close enough to drive the 5 hours. I stayed with a current student (Sarah) so there were no lodging expenses and was able to get my gas mileage reimbursed. Visiting the campus was eye opening, I got to see students working in their spaces, talk with all sorts of faculty, and get a general feel for the atmosphere of the department. For the on-campus visit, I came prepared with some questions for students, faculty, and my potential advisor and ideas about projects I may be interested in. Remember, you are interviewing the school and you should question everyone you come across about their experience. If you have specific needs, make sure the school will provide them for you.
I, Adriane, did two on-campus interviews for my MS degree. I was invited to visit after I did in-person interviews at the geology meeting, and had been accepted to one of the schools. Both visits were nerve-wracking, but I highly recommend, if possible, doing an on-campus interview with your potential advisor. Doing so made me realize which advisor was the best fit for me and my career goals, and which school and city I would be most comfortable in.
Online interviews are very similar to in-person interviews. There’s a few extra steps you should do to prepare for your online interview before the big day:
Test out your equipment. Make sure the microphone, camera, and software all work before the interview. In fact, do this at least a week prior, as this will give you time to troubleshoot any issues that may arise
Find a quiet space to interview. Noises in the background will distract yourself as well as the potential advisor
Make sure the background is clear. Excessive clutter behind you (posters, books, shelves, other humans, etc.) will cause a large distraction. You want your potential advisor to focus on you, not your cat swatting flies or something in the background
To me, Adriane, phone interviews are the worse. I like to be able to see the person I’m talking to, as I respond better to visual cues. When you’re doing a phone interview, just be sure to find a quiet spot where you have good service and won’t get interrupted. Also, be sure to listen closely, as you don’t want to cut off, talk over, or interrupt the person interviewing you.
TL;DR: Preparing for an interview regardless of the format (online, phone, in person)
Start by exploring the faculty and student page of the institution you are interested in, write down people that are somehow related to your interested and include a bullet of their interests and any questions they may be able to help you with. Jen suggests asking the same question multiple times to see the variation in responses – it can be very telling! You can bring a folder, clipboard, portfolio, notebook – whatever you are able to best take notes on.
Ask faculty at your current institution if they know people there or have any suggestions on people to meet with that may not be on your list.
Decide how you are most physically comfortable. Jen usually wears dark jeans and a nicer sweater or shirt but is uncomfortable dressing up so often chooses not to.
If you are doing a visit, be sure to have a separate list of questions for grad students – you will likely be taken to lunch or have some alone time with a few students. This is an opportunity to request honest feedback about how they are supported by the department and university. I, Adriane, made my decision on which MS program to attend based mostly on answers and experience from graduate students.
If you are doing a virtual meeting make sure to get to a quiet place, use headphones, and try to have as plain of a background as possible with minimal glare. It seems silly but it can distract the person on the other end and you want them to be fully tuned into you!
Interview questions we were asked (at conference meetings and during on-campus interviews):
What is the bedrock under (current undergrad institution), and what is its age? (These questions are meant to test your geologic skills and knowledge, so any variant of this could pop up)
Why are your GRE scores so low? (This really is not an appropriate question, but some professors are bold enough to ask anyway – Jen was asked this during her visit to UTK and Adriane during her visit to a NC school)
What are some of your personal goals during your (MS/PhD) degree?
What are your research interests?
Describe your research experience.
Would you be comfortable teaching in a lab or classroom setting? Do you have teaching experience?
One last note, it is hard to remember this but the department is trying to sell itself to you. They want excellent students to help increase their output numbers. At some points you’ll realize it sounds like an info-mercial. They want you to choose them, even if you don’t have other options (don’t tell them that) they will still try to recruit you.
Members of the Time Scavengers team are writing a ‘Applying to Grad School‘ series. These blog posts are written primarily for undergraduate students who are applying to graduate programs (but will be useful for any transitioning graduate or professional students), and will cover such topics as funding and stipends in grad school, how to write and build a CV, how to network with potential graduate advisors, and how to effectively write statements for your applications. This is the third post in the series on how to email potential graduate school advisors.
Jen and Adriane here –
Now that you have thought about funding opportunities and tailored your CV, it’s time to think about emailing potential advisors. Before any emails are sent you want to carefully consider your options. It is best to get recommendations based upon what you are interested in. Talk with faculty or graduate students in your department to see if they have any ideas of where you could start looking for advisors. Once you get a preliminary list, internet stalk the heck out of these people! Some ways to do this are to go to their faculty pages or personal websites, look at their Twitter and Instagram feeds (if they are on social media), and by asking people in your department or area of study about the potential advisor.
Why should you stalk? It is important that you feel comfortable and supported in your future lab. You want to know things such as: can they house graduate students (some schools cannot)? Do they have current students? Do they have funding? What are their key research interests and how can you see yourself integrating into any of the projects? What skills or techniques do they use that you are interested in gaining? I, Adriane, also stalked as many of the potential grad school advisors’ past and current students that I could find. I was very interested in finding out what types of jobs and opportunities students gained after graduating from the lab. This task seems daunting, but start a spreadsheet and fill in the boxes! It can also be fun.
Once you have identified persons as potential advisors, it’s time to craft an email to them! The first thing someone will notice about your message is your email address and the subject line of the email. Make sure your email is ‘professional’ – it can absolutely be a school or gmail account, but use one that is your name rather than something you are interested in (cats, dogs, astrology, etc. – Jen had one that was PiEcEsTwIn315). Having your name in your email also ensures they are more easily able to pull your email back up, even if they don’t save it to their contacts.
The subject line should be something direct: Prospective graduate student is a short and direct. You want the reader to immediately know what the email is about. No point in reinventing the wheel – feel free to use that exact phrase or use it as a starting point to make it your own. Other ideas include adding in the semester you are looking to start: Prospective graduate student Fall 2020 — slightly longer and more specific.
In your email you want to convey several things:
You are looking for a graduate lab program and what semester you are looking to start.
Your research interests include x, y, z followed up by a line about your experience, see CV for more details
Ask if they are accepting students and if they are, would they be able to chat more about it via email, phone, or Skype.
Thank them and say you are looking forward to hearing from them.
Here is an example email that I, Jen, sent out while I was looking for PhD programs.
Notice that this email is short, concise, and to the point. You don’t want your email to be too long or rambly. A lot of faculty are very busy juggling several different tasks, and may only have a few minutes to glance at email. So keeping your email polite and pointed will be very much appreciated!
The response Jen received:
This was one of the fastest and most considerate responses I (Jen) received when emailing faculty. For both Adriane and Jen’s emails to potential master’s thesis advisors, many faculty never responded, or said they had no funding. It’s okay to be persistent with emails, more often than not their inboxes are filling up and they may lose track of your email.
One more thing to consider in your email: you may want to attach a copy of your CV or resume. There is the rare faculty member that we’ve heard that doesn’t like a CV attached on the first email exchange, but the majority of professors do appreciate having this information up front. It’s one more tool for which they, the professors, can use to determine if you might be a good fit in their lab!