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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.
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!
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 second post in the series on how to prepare and structure your CV for graduate applications.
Adriane and Jen here –
A good starting point for gearing up to find a STEM* (science, technology, engineering, math) graduate program is to get your Curriculum Vitae (CV) looking good. There are a variety of ways to do this in a handful of programs that may or may not give you templates. When emailing people about working with them in the future it is customary to include your interests and your CV so they can look at your experience. A CV should document all of your academic credentials, accomplishments, outreach and service, publications (of all types), and more! Read this online resource to learn more about how CV’s and resumes differ. *because we are all geoscience majors, the advice that follows is mostly applicable to STEM majors, check out CVs of people in your field by looking on their websites & research gate!
The additions to your CV all depend on what you are applying for and wish to do. If you are interested in a museum position, it’s a good idea to add when you have worked with collections, in what capacity, and for how long. Similarly, if you are applying for tech positions in a lab make sure you list out the equipment you have experience with and what you did with the machines. When applying for graduate schools specifically, what you really want to show is that you have a good, solid education, and that you are hard-working and can achieve tasks and goals.
We’ll go over some sections that should be included on your CV, but here are some general tips that apply to the entire document:
List the most important information first (Education, Professional and Work Experience), then go from there
Make sure the date for each item is very obvious and clear; provide a range of dates (e.g., 2013–2015), a year (e.g., 2016) or a specific semester (e.g., Fall 2015) for each item
Use italics and bolding, but do so in a manner that is appealing and does not distract from the overall appearance of the document
Make sure the text and any bullet points are aligned correctly throughout the entire CV
Use language that can be understood by the general public and doesn’t contain too much jargon; you don’t know who will be reviewing your application
Pick one font and stick with it
Using different sized fonts throughout is ok, but like italics and bolding, be sure this doesn’t distract from the overall look of the document
List your achievements (and other chronological things like community outreach, mentoring, etc.) in order from most recent to oldest last
As a disclaimer before diving into this post, we have been at the academic game for a long time. Do not feel discouraged if you don’t have as many lines on your CV. There are a million opportunities for you to expand your horizons and engage in research, award nominations, grants, and much more as you continue along your academic journey!
The heading on your CV should include your name, address, and contact information. Generally, your name can be in a bigger font so the reader is drawn to that first. You can list your home address, or the address to your university. I, Adriane, always include my phone number, email address (make sure it’s a professional email address), and my website URL. It is important to make sure you are using the designated header space on your document, as this ensures you have more space on each page of your CV. There are settings that allow you to have a different header on all subsequent pages so the first can be large and then you can switch to just your name so the person reviewing it doesn’t lose track of whose CV it is. Here’s an example of a formal header:
I (Adriane) also jazzed up my CV by adding in images of fossils that represent the two major time periods I work in. Stylistic features like this may be considered as unprofessional by others. So, ask those in your lab group or your supervisor/advisor for their input before doing something like this.
The first section of your CV should be all about your education. Here, you’ll specify where you attended high school (or leave it off, it’s up to you) and the college and/or university you attended for your undergraduate degree. Within this section you can also include your overall GPA. If you are attending graduate school to further your e.g., geology undergraduate degree, you can also put your major GPA. I, Adriane, did this when applying for graduate programs because my total GPA was low, but my geology GPA was pretty high. Within this section, also be sure to include the dates for which you attended each institution. If you did an undergraduate thesis or research project, you can even include that information in this section. Here’s an example:
After this section, you can tailor your CV sections to best fit you, the position you are applying for, and your experience. As an undergraduate, it’s important you showcase your experiences and capabilities.
Professional and Work Experience
The next section on your CV could be ‘Professional and Work Experience’. Here, you can add in any formal or informal positions you have held. For example, if you volunteered as an undergraduate teaching assistant, you could add that to this section. If you held any jobs, add those as well! Jobs that showcase team building, management, and other useful life skills are important to add even if they aren’t relevant to your target job or career. Some academics will tell you to leave off jobs that don’t have anything to do with the degree you are seeking in graduate school. I, Adriane, still include the two assistant manager retail positions I held while going to community college. I worked hard at those jobs, and including them on my CV (hopefully) signals to others that I have leadership experience and have extensively worked in teams to accomplish tasks. Both of these qualities are important in academia, although they are hardly talked about. Adding in these other professional experiences also helps fill out your CV if you are really early in your career path or haven’t found a position that will pay you for your scientific expertise (as many lab positions are volunteer based).
Peer Reviewed Publications and Conference Abstracts
One of the next important sections you should include on your CV is any abstracts you authored or were included on for academic meetings. If you contributed to a peer-reviewed publication go ahead and include it here. It’s important to be consistent with the style you cite publications and abstracts in this section because it can look messy or be confusing otherwise. This section highlights that you’ve been involved with research, and have practice presenting your research to the scientific community. If you don’t have research experience, don’t fret! Many undergraduates who apply to graduate programs don’t have that experience just yet, and that’s ok!
If you have any other types of reviewed literature you can also include it in this section. Maybe you helped edit something for a companies big annual report or contributed to a local journal or newsletter. Writing is a really difficult skill to acquire and if you can showcase you have been practicing that is great!
Funding and Awards
Next, list any funding you have received for any research projects, events, or clubs/associations you were involved with. You can title this section something like ‘Funding Awarded’. This section shows your future graduate school advisor that you can win money (a very important skill in STEM fields). In the heading, be sure to include the total amount of money that you’ve won to date. Each item in this section should also include the amount for each award. It may not seem like it, but if your college/university has helped you pay for attending a meeting, that’s money you should include in this section as well!
If your CV is not super filled up it’s totally fine to combine sections. I, Jen, often suggest students to include funding and awards together – the heading could be funding and awards, achievements, whatever you think best describes what you are putting in the section. When you end up with more funding and/or award success it makes sense to split them into two sections so you can keep track of things. I called my Awards and Honors and also included any instance where I guest lectured for faculty members. I didn’t have another good place to put it in my subheaders so this seemed reasonable to me.
The next section you could include on a CV is any relevant coursework. For example, when I, Adriane, applied to paleontology programs, I included all the courses I took that were related to paleontology in any way (biology, invertebrate paleobiology, stratigraphy and sedimentology). Here, you can include the semester you took the course, and even a short two-sentence description of the class. If you gained specific skills in the class, it is best to include that in the short blurb. If you took a mineralogy course and also had the opportunity to prep and analyze samples for XRF or XRD, include that information!
Other Relevant Experience
The next section of your graduate school CV could include a section titled ‘Field Experience’ (or ‘Field and Lab Experience’, or ‘Lab Experience’). This section highlights the work you’ve done in the field/lab, when you did that work, and a short description of what it was you did. This section shows your future graduate school and advisor that you know your way around the lab or have experience doing science outdoors. Again, if you don’t have this experience, it’s not a huge deal!
I, Jen, have titled a similar section more broadly as ‘Research Experience’. Here I include when I worked with (1) specific fossil collections; (2) specialized equipment or instruments; (3) any other things that may not have fit within the job descriptions listed above but may be useful for potential advisors or PI’s to know about.
Academic and Community Service
After you’ve highlighted your education, work experience, the research you’ve done, and your coursework, there are a few other sections you can include on your CV if you have the experience. If you’ve won an award as an undergraduate student, include that in a section titled ‘Awards and Honors’. If you are part of an organization, for example, president of the Geology Club, that can be included in a section titled ‘Academic Service’. Academic Service is any activity you do within the science community as a volunteer. This differs from Volunteer Experience as these are things done outside of academia. While we’re talking about it, do include a section on your CV where you highlight any volunteer or outreach experiences you have. This could be as simple as talking to a K-12 class about science, or helping at a rock and fossil sale.
Professional Memberships Organizations
The last section on your CV should be titled ‘Professional Memberships and Organizations’. This is where you will list all the clubs, organizations, and associations you are a part of. This shows that you are an involved and active member of your scientific and local community, a networking skill that will become even more important in graduate school!
Other Potential Headers
The National Science Foundation has a series of headers in their short format CV requirements and I, Jen, have worked to adopt some of the language that this large organization uses. So, I have a big header called ‘Synergistic Activities’ this includes, programmatic events I organized, ways I engage my community, professional development opportunities that I’ve participated in, professional service, mentoring experience, and invited talks and lectures. Now, that’s a whole lot of stuff but the header is something that people may specifically look for when they are analyzing your CV.
I also have a section called ‘Courses taught as instructor of record’. This is handy when applying for teaching positions because right off the bat they can see that I have taught a full course and have experience in front of a class. I have another section for ‘Collections Curated’ this is for specimens that I took care of or managed in some way. As I was applying for museum and faculty positions, it was to by benefit to include this section and showcase what I had done.
Our last bit of advice is to seek out help with your CV! Reach out to your classmates, a trusted professor, or a graduate student for feedback. Your CV will likely go through several iterations until you end up with something you are happy with. Also, attend any resume or CV-building workshop on your campus or in your community if you can. You’ll likely receive additional advice than what we provided here, and also get really great feedback from others on your CV. And remember, your CV is a living document, meaning you should continually update it anytime you achieve something!
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 student), 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 first post in the series on various ways you can get paid to attend graduate school in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.
Jen, Adriane, and Sarah here –
Attending graduate school is an exciting prospect, but you can quickly become overwhelmed with deadlines, things to do, but mostly by the expense of it all. It’s no secret that today’s college undergraduate students are facing increasing tuition costs along with inflated interest rates on loans. Within public 4-year universities and colleges alone, tuition and fees rose on average 3.1% per year from the period of 2008 to 2019. Even within 2-year public colleges (such as community colleges), tuition and fees rose on average 3.0% per year within the same period of time! For student loans, interest rates range from 4.5% to as high as 7%, and that interest is usually compounding (meaning you will pay interest on the interest that your loan accrues over time). It can seem like there’s no way to escape college and obtain an education without paying dearly for it, especially if you want to attend graduate school right or soon after your undergraduate degree.
But fear not, there are several ways in which you can avoid taking out loans while pursuing a graduate degree, both MS and PhD. Since we are all geoscience majors, the advice and information we provide herein is more applicable to graduate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. Below, we discuss a few options to reduce the cost of attending graduate school. We also are very transparent about the debt we accrued during our undergraduate degrees and how that compounded over time. But mainly, we want to explain how you can get paid (yes, you read that correctly!) to go to graduate school.
First, we’ll discuss the different types of assistance you can be granted to go to graduate school. We’d like to stress that we do not advocate for paying for graduate school out of your own money if you’re majoring in a STEM field*, as you should be able to get an assistantship to pay for your tuition and provide a stipend (living expenses)**. *we’re uncertain about non-STEM fields-please look for good resources to help you understand how tuition waivers and stipends work in other fields!
**some STEM industries will pay for their employees to go back to graduate school. This is an awesome option, but not available to everyone.
Assistance within the University
Teaching assistants (TA for short) are graduate (MS and PhD) students who are paid to help teach classes and labs at their university. For example, Adriane taught Historical Geology lab sections at UMass Amherst, and had a blast doing it (so many cool field trips!). As a teaching assistant, you will also be involved with setting up experiments for labs, grading students’ assignments, helping on field trips, or even leading your own field trips! Being a teaching assistant can be a ton of work, but it is a great way to make money and sharpen your skills as an educator (important for folks who want to continue teaching in any capacity after their degree). There may also be opportunities to continue working as a TA over the summer, as these jobs usually do not include summer stipends.
Teaching assistantships often include tuition remission, meaning you are not expected to pay for your education. This is important when you are looking for graduate positions in the university. You want to ensure that you are receiving a stipend and tuition remission. Even though you are getting your education paid for there often are still associated fees you have to pay each semester. These fees can range from 100’s to 1000’s of dollars every semester and cover transportation, athletic, heath, and building fees on campus.
A research assistant (RA) are graduate students who are funded to do research or work on some aspect of a project. Usually, the money to fund an RA comes from the student’s primary academic advisor, or it could come from some other professor in the department. In most cases, an RA is only funded during the academic year, but it’s not uncommon that money for an RA is budgeted to fund the student over the summer. For example, Adriane and Jen were each funded for an entire year from their MS advisor’s NSF (National Science Foundation) grant, where they were able to build a website while working on their own research. The benefit of RA positions is that they are usually more flexible as to when you can get your work done. When Adriane was doing her MS degree as a research assistant, she would spend an entire two days of the week doing RA stuff, that way she had huge chunks of time to focus on her research. The downside to being an RA is that you don’t receive teaching experience or get to interact with students in a formal setting. This isn’t a huge deal, as there are usually opportunities to help professors out teaching their courses while they are away at conferences, doing field work, etc.
Internal University or Departmental Fellowships
Internal fellowships (and grants) are small to large pots of money that you can win from within your university or college. You have to do some research and keep up with deadlines on these because often they have specific requirements. While Jen was at UTK there were several extra fellowships you could apply for as a graduate student. Some were specifically for MS students others for PhD students – some were mixed! One was only for students in their first year and one was only for students in their last year. Jen was fortunate enough to apply for an receive a fellowship through the university to fund the last year of her dissertation. This allowed her to reduce her teaching load and focus more on writing. You can read about it by clicking here.
External Funding Options
There are fellowships, like NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP for short)-you write a proposal for the research you want to work on and submit it. It’s reviewed by experts in the field you want to specialize in. These are incredibly competitive across a national or even international scope, but they are great ways to fund your research! Often, you have to apply to these either before you begin your graduate program or early into your program, so look into it as soon as possible!
There are other options to acquire competitive fellowships, often to finish off your dissertation without being restricted by teaching or other responsibilities that take time away from completing your projects. NASA has a program that graduate students can apply for, but there are restrictions – you already have to be enrolled and your project has to fit whatever the theme of their solicitation is that cycle. Adriane won a similarly competitive fellowship for foraminiferal research, which you can read about by click here.
In some jobs and careers, your employer will reimburse your tuition costs. These are often to benefit your employer, as investing in your education and training will make you a more well-rounded and specialized employee in your field. The amount that your employer will reimburse you also varies; some may provide 50% remission or 100%. This amount can also vary depending on the number of courses you take during your graduate career. If you think your employer offers tuition remission, it is best to have an open and honest conversation with them about how much they will reimburse you for, and how many classes or credits they will cover.
The Cost of Graduate School: Examples
Below is an outline of how each of us paid for our undergraduate, masters (MS), and doctor of philosophy (PhD) degrees.
Undergraduate: Once I left home I was given access to funds from my parents that I could use to pay for school. I lived in the dorms my first two years which used up a lot of this money. I then moved into an apartment and took up three part-time jobs (lifeguard, gym manager, research assistant) to maintain my living and school expenses. This allowed me to save the remainder of the money in my college fund and use it to move to Ohio for my MS program. MS: My first year at Ohio University I was a TA. My first semester I taught lab for Introduction to Paleontology and my second semester I taught Intro to Geology and Historical Geology. My second year I was on an NSF grant as an RA and worked on the Ordovician Atlas project for Alycia. Both summers I was awarded summer pay through this NSF project. My pay at OU was ~$14,000/year. My student fees at OU were ~$600/semester (summer was less like ~$200). Instead of taking out loans I took advantage of a loophole and paid late. There was a payment system but it cost extra. There was no fee (at the time) for simply paying a month late. It took some serious budgeting but was possible to slowly save for these extra fees. PhD: I was a TA all four years at UTK and taught a variety of classes: Intro to Paleontology, Earth’s Environments, Earth, Life, and Time, Dinosaur Evolution. During my time here my department stipend was $15,000 and I earned another $5,000 annual award from the university. I was able to split my pay over 12 months rather than 9 months. I was also able to work extra jobs over the summer at the university to augment my pay. Year 1 I was TA for a 4-week summer course for an extra $1000. Year 2 I taught a 4-week summer course as instructor for $3000. Year 3 I taught governor’s school (4-week program for high school students) for $2000. Year 4 I taught a paleontology summer camp at the local natural history museum for $500 (but also had the fellowship, where I got $10k but was reduced teaching so only received $7.5k from department).
Undergraduate: Full need based scholarship (shout out to UNC Chapel Hill for making my education possible!). My scholarship covered everything but summer school for the most part and I was hired as a federal work study student to pay for books and other necessities. I worked other jobs at the same time-I worked as a geology tutor and a lab instructor, namely, to cover other needs (medical care that wasn’t covered by insurance, transportation, etc.). I took out $7,000 in federally subsidized (i.e., interest doesn’t accrue until you begin paying) to cover summer classes and a required field camp. MS: I was paid as a half RA/half TA for one semester. I worked the remaining 3 semesters as a full TA teaching 3–4 lab courses per semester (I was paid extra to teach in the summer). My base pay was $14,000/year in Alabama. I worked as a tutor for the athletics department one summer to help pay for groceries. I did not take out loans for my degree, though I was not able to save much money. PhD: I was an RA on my advisor’s NSF grant for 2 years and a TA for two years. I also worked as a TA or a full course instructor for 3 of the 4 years. My base pay was $15,000/year in Tennessee. I took out $15,000 total in federally unsubsidized loans (i.e., loan interest began accruing immediately) to cover unexpected medical, family, and car emergencies. I also did small jobs, like tutoring individual students, helping professors, and babysitting to make a little extra money-my PhD department had a rule that we weren’t allowed to work outside tax-paying jobs on top of our assistantships.
AS (Associate of Social Science): I spent four years in community college, and lived at home while doing so. I worked 20–30 hours a week at a retail store to pay for courses and books. My grandmother did help me significantly during this time, so I was able to save up a bit for my BS degree when I transferred. Undergraduate (Bachelor of Science): I took out loans for 3 years worth of classes and research at a public 4-year university, in total about $40,000. I received a research fellowship ($3500) to stay and do research one summer. I still worked at my retail job the first summer and on holidays to make some extra money. MS: The first year I was a teaching assistant and my stipend was about $14,000 for the year. Over the summer, I won a grant from the university ($3000) that covered rent and living expenses. The second year I was a research assistant and made about the same as I did the first year. I think I took out about $5,000 worth of loans to help cover university fees and supplies. PhD: Throughout my first 3.5 years, I was funded as a teaching assistant making $25,000 the first two years, then was bumped up to $28,000 the third year (the teaching assistants at my university are in a union, so we won a huge pay increase). For the last year of my PhD, I won a fellowship (click here to read about it) from a research foundation ($35,000) that pays for my stipend, research expenses, and travel to research conferences. Early in the degree, I took out about $5,000 worth of loans to help cover fees and supplies.
I started my postdoc position at the Florida Museum of Natural History this past August and my time is split between two projects. One is with the FOSSIL project, a social paleontology project with the goal of connecting all levels of paleontologists (enthusiasts to professionals and all of those in between), and the other is with the Thompson Earth Systems Institute where I do a whole variety of different things from coordinating events, researching collaborators, and helping grow the team and institute.
Something many of us are not taught during our graduate programs is best practices for project management. I think of myself as a highly organized person. I use Google Calendar, Todoist, and other organizational tools to keep me on task. But it is still incredibly hard to separate my two projects, and it’s made more confusing since our teams have significant overlap. I’m on more projects than just these two, other research projects that also take up some time. So my weeks usually have several two hour meetings and many one hour meetings. A few weeks ago was particularly bad with each day having a two hour meeting with several one hour meetings surrounding them. I usually stay at work from about 8:30-4:00 pm, so about 7.5 hours. It doesn’t leave a lot of spare time to get work done when I spend time in meetings. I’ve been learning a lot about how to use 30 minute blocks for power productivity.
Each week, I organize my to-do list for all of my various projects and try to prioritize what I can get done quickly or efficiently compared to other tasks. I do my best to get these tasks done around my meetings and save the longer or more intense work tasks for when I have much longer. If I have a lot of things that require intense concentration, i’ll stay home and work on it for an entire day. Obviously, this is not ideal for many people but I am most comfortable at home so can be highly productive.
Is this something we should be trained for in graduate school? It is something I think of often and have had several conversations on Twitter about this exact issue. Some said they sought out courses at local community colleges to augment their formal training. Others went to workshops in different colleges during their graduate program. Since I’m working full time and doing several other projects in my ‘free’ time, I haven’t been able to find something that will fit into my schedule. It is also hard as my position is not permanent, so I have flexibility but different flexibility from permanent positions.
Tools that I use for productivity and management:
Google Suites: Content and project document organization, calendar
The idea to write this post spurred from conversations with colleagues (thanks, David!). A commonly asked question is ‘What do I need to do to become a paleontologist’? or ‘How did you become a paleontologist?’. Rather than write up a post on my experiences as an individual, I sent around a survey to collect data from as many paleontologists as I could. I requested information (via Twitter) from individuals that are professional paleontologists, meaning they are in some regard paid for the knowledge and expertise as it relates to paleontology. I ended up with 125 responses, including my own. I’ll provide the initial questions as headers with the data or comments represented below it.
TLDR: The responses provides evidence that there is not a single way of navigating your educational and professional life to becoming a paleontologist. It is by no means a linear path for all of us, but in many cases a twisting, winding road.
Did you always want to be a paleontologist?
Along my own paleontological journey I have asked friends, mentors, and colleagues how they have found paleontology. It is most often not a clear path. The options to select for this question included: (1) always; (2) discovered along my educational journey and; (3) much later in life.
50.4% of responders (n=125) said they had always wanted to be a paleontologist. This was unsurprising to me as many people I have met actually collected fossils from a young age. 43.2% of responders said that paleontology was not their original educational goal but that’s where they ended up. This indicates that although may responders knew their career path early in life, just as many did not.
What level of education have you received?
The options to select for this question include: high school, some undergraduate, undergraduate degree, some graduate level work, masters, PhD, or an ‘other’ box where people could write in their answer.
The majority of responders (56.8%) hold a Ph.D., followed by 26.4% holding an MS degree. The remainder includes ‘some undergraduate’, ‘undergraduate degree’, and ‘some graduate level work’. An important takeaway from this plot, that many people often forget, is that anyone with questions about the natural world can be a scientist. People with a variety of backgrounds hold careers or jobs as paleontologists. Additional degrees and fancy diplomas are not what define paleontologists, or scientists in general.
Did you start at a community college or return to one?
Other countries do not have a community college option or similar educational structure, paleontologists outside of the US were included in the ‘NA’ category. Largely, responders did not attend a community college as part of their educational path (71.3%), but 24.6% of responders did attend a community college. This category includes paleontologists that went back to restart their educational journey, those who took summer courses, those that took community college credits in high school, and those who attended a community college to begin their undergraduate degree. In general, there is still stigma in the academic community about the value of community colleges. These data show otherwise: Community colleges are wildly under-appreciated institutes that are often the catalyst for sparking an interest in STEM fields, including paleontology.
What was your undergraduate degree focused on?
Responders had the option of selecting multiple options or writing in their own. The options included: biology, geology, earth science, chemistry, environmental science, or paleontology. This question was intended to reflect a major or focus of the graduation but the results may include other specialties as well.
Clearly shown from this diagram is that over 50% of users studied biology, geology, or a combination of both. Which rings true with my experiences and anecdotal evidence I have gathered over the years. This diagram clearly indicates that although more than 50% of paleontologists studied the aforementioned subjects, these are simply not the only routes to entering the field of paleontology.
Did you do research as an undergraduate or high school student?
Research is an integral part of higher education and often can provide the learner with information on their path forward. Not everyone has the opportunities or time to pursue research during undergraduate programs. Especially when paid positions are not always readily available.
The results of this survey question show that the large majority of responders (85.6%) did conduct research as an undergraduate or high school student. This indicates that research at an early stage is common among professional paleontologists, but not necessary.
If you said yes to the above question on research, was this research related to paleontology?
Undergraduate or high school research can come in many forms. I was interested in determining if everyone that had conducting research early in their academic career was in a paleo-related lab group or not. This plot had a lower total response than the previous question, at 108 responders. 81.5% of responders said that the research they conducted was directly related to paleontology whereas 18.5% replied that their research was not directly related to paleontology.
This indicates that conducting paleontological research at an early stage in your career is not vital to becoming a paleontologist, but many professional paleontologists were exposed to paleontological research at an early stage in their career.
Where are you currently employed as a paleontologist?
The three largest portions of the pie chart include those in academia, specifically faculty members and students working toward their graduate degree. The next highest value corresponds to people working in the museum sector – either education or research related roles.
Not everything could appear on the pie chart so here is what was included with response amount in parenthesis:
Faculty member (39); Graduate school (28); Museum staff (research or education; 17); Postdoctoral researcher (8); Research specialist/scientist (5);Paleontological resource mitigation consulting (4); Museum staff & high school educator (3); Museum staff (research or education) & Faculty member (3); Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (2); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education; 2); Non-profit (2); Government (1); Higher education staff (1); Biology education staff (1); Cultural Resource Management: Field and lab technician (1); National Parks (1); High school educator (1); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (1); Freelance paleontologist, author, science communicator (1).
If you discovered paleontology later, what was your original career path?
In the first question of this survey, many people responded that paleontology was something that came to them later in their lives. I was interested in what these people’s original career paths were. Many had different original aims in terms of field of study. I would also like to include a few quotes to showcase how variable career paths can be.
“Minored in geology while getting a BA in Spanish, paleontology was my favorite class in my minor. Worked in sales, but the science of the products I worked with reminded me of my childhood love of science leading to my return to school for a bachelor’s degree in Geology.”
“Geology undergrad, then police officer for >30 years, then Geoscience MSc (masters degree), now PhD”
“I started taking graphic design classes at the local community college at 27 and took historical geology as a general education requirement. That introduced me to the idea of being a paleontologist.”
What experiences outside of formal education helped you maintain interest in paleontology?
Total responders to this question were 115 individuals, with a lot of overlap among responses. I’ve sprinkle some quotes throughout to bring light to several specific examples. Something that struck me is that many people included aspects of their research, but many more included information on informal learning settings such as public lectures, museums, fossil collecting, and joining clubs and groups in the area. Many responders indicated that they were volunteers at museums, and some had even mentioned this experience had provided them an avenue into their current positions. Others had led summer camps to engage young scientists in paleontology, and this helped them stay excited about fossils.
“There was an older fellow around town who was an amateur fossil hunter and knew a lot about the local history, archaeological, and paleontological record of the area. He’d take my dad and I out to fossil and archaeological sites. Also, definitely fossil activities at museums! I was always the kid chipping away at rocks. “
Other responses included aspects of various media: books, TV shows and series, documentaries, and internet resources. People of influence that came up by name include: Neil Shubin (with specific mention of Your Inner Fish), Stephen Jay Gould, David Attenborough, and Ned Colbert. Topics mentioned included: geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology.
“Lots of museum visits, as well as books on dinosaurs, paleontology, and evolution. I also got involved doing fossil preparation for a commercial paleontology company which allowed me to experience the non-academic side of the field.“
Another major theme involved communication. Respondents indicated they would reach out to paleontologists, members of the USGS, museum staff, and educators with their questions. To me, this indicates that communication helped these now-paleontologists foster passion and commitment to a subject or topic. Taking the time to respond to questions from those interested in the field can really change lives. The paleontology community on Twitter was mentioned as a way to find like-minded people and get a peek into their science lives. Another responder explained that their interest was maintained by the supportive and friendly community they had found in paleontology. Much of this indicates that maintaining interest in a topic relates to strong connections made with others through communication and shared interests.
“I have watched many paleontology documentaries and love visiting natural history museums. Those two mainly are what shaped my interest in paleontology. I later volunteered at a paleontology research center, in which I was able to get my foot in the door.”
“I volunteered at the San Diego Natural History Museum while I attended school at University of California San Diego. Books are also very helpful, especially if you want to maintain a sense of familiarity with topics that you’re not directly interfacing with (example: I worked mainly with invertebrate specimens, so I had to feed my hunger for vertebrate work with lots of mammal/dinosaur texts). Social media is a huge source for feeding my general curiosity. Follow as many paleontologists as you can and reach out!”
“Museum visits, reading, and the classic -David Attenborough. Having said that, I have never been nuts for dinosaurs, or so very interested in palaeontology growing up. It wasn’t until college (Geology A-Level) that I discovered how much more there is to Palaeontology, and its applications in different industries. I loved being outdoors and I wanted to travel, and palaeontology is great for that -there is fieldwork travelling season, and then there’s conference travelling season.”
What advice do you have for students interested in becoming a paleontologist?
This was an open answer question that had 114 responses. I did my best to synthesize them. There was considerable overlap so I’ve attempted to summarize a few key aspects. I’ll also include lots of quotes throughout this section. Some may be abbreviated from their original version.
Reach for the stars. And take math.
First, there were a lot of actions that I could easily pick out: explore, read, get involved, collaborate, communicate, learn, get experience, volunteer, engage, share, be flexible, apply for everything, ask questions, network, go to class, and find a supportive mentor. Other skills and subjects that were mentioned include: data science, programming, and 3D modeling.
Network and start gathering research experiences early! Don’t be shy to just cold call/email researchers (and follow up if you don’t get a response after a while). The worst they can say is no! Also, it’s great to make friends and talk to researchers outside your field, particularly biologists and ecologists. You’ll learn a lot just by being around them, naturally develop your communication skills, and might even find that it can lead to awesome collaborations! It’s also so important to protect your hobbies outside of school.
Networking, collaboration, and communication are another three answers that came up often. This could be in regards to attending conferences, engaging others on Twitter, or asking questions about jobs/research/etc. Responders indicated that science is not an isolated endeavor but is more enjoyable when you can collaborate with others that share your interests on the material or questions. Others noted about how their supportive mentors and supervisors helped them pursue their passions. Often mentors outside your department or exact field can really help you grow and see past any difficulties that may be occurring.
Don’t drop the humanities. Being good at maths is great, but learn to write properly and construct an argument. The most important skill any scientist can have is the ability to write concisely and well.
Find a mentor who supports you. I had several professors along the way try to talk me out of a career in paleontology, but it only took one professor to spark my interest and kept me interested by mentoring me through independent studies and undergraduate research. I should mention that this professor was not in my own department, but went out of her way to help me!
Be flexible – many responders indicated that their path had been altered along the way and being flexible allowed them more freedom and the ability to shift focus. Someone event went from studying dinosaurs to crinoids! That’s a huge shift but remember that the organism you study is not just because they are super cool but because they allow you to ask specific questions that you are interested in answering. It is also okay to change your mind. You should not stay in a program or field that you are uncomfortable in or that you are no longer passionate about.
Always keep your goal in mind. It’s not always an easy journey but the subject and its community are just wonderful. And also stay educated on related topics like geology, ecology, or evolution. Even if you won’t find a job in paleontology, you are likely also qualified for several other jobs. Keep on rockin’.
Share your passion and seek out colleagues and mentors. Science is not done alone. Your ideas will improve as you talk with people in and outside your field of interest. When I think about my journey I think most about the people that guided my path with their suggestions and encouragement.
There were a few other terms that came up regularly in responses: enthusiasm, perseverance, persistence, patience, and dedication. There is no correct path into paleontology and many paths are challenging. There were several responders that suggested they would not recommend you/young scientists go into the field of paleontology and that the field is highly competitive, and that you need to be aware of this before entering it. This is not limited to paleontology.
Every experience in life is relevant to helping you pursue a career in paleontology. As a high school student, I had a part-time job cleaning toilets, typing news articles, and developing film at my local newspaper. It wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t science, but I learned people skills, teamwork, and how to stick to a deadline as part of this–all skills that I use now. Also, learn how to communicate. This is just as important if not more important than proficiency with science. An effective paleontologist, no matter what they do (field collector, preparator, educator, researcher, student) needs to be able to communicate effectively in multiple media. Practice writing, and practice writing a lot. Good writing takes work.
If you are interested in becoming a paleontologist, these folks left their information so you could check them out line to see what they are investigating or doing at this time.
These paleontologists have left their handles so you can follow them on Twitter/Facebook/social media. A lot of these scientists also have their personal websites linked in their profile if you want to learn more about what they do and the research they’re involved with. Feel free to reach out to them if you have questions about being or becoming a paleontologist!
Academia is complicated. Each position has complicating factors that are unrelated to the work you’ll do, or who you’ll do it with. Considering the money and benefits are important. Here’s a discussion of some of the things that we have had to consider as we’ve moved around the world. Andy is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Bristol, Susanna is his very supportive and wonderful wife who’s been dragged all around the United States, and now world.
Susanna: I didn’t know what the life of an academic looked like. I’m not sure Andy did either, when we first got together, but the things listed here certainly affected us both.
Funding is not guaranteed for an advanced degree.
Susanna: There are different benefit scenarios which might be offered to someone applying for a Masters or Ph.D. program. My husband’s Masters program offered him a Research Assistant (RA) position, which basically meant he was paid to do his work. For his Ph.D., he was offered two years of funding as a Teaching Assistant (TA), which paid our living expenses, but it meant he had to spend time for teaching first before attending to his own research work.
Andy: Though I did get teaching experience, which helped build my CV. That’s something I actively pursued, even at the expense of money/research time.
Susanna: After the two years ran out, we were fortunate that his advisor helped provide opportunities for grants, fellowships, or other ways to stay in the program.
Andy: This can be a good thing also, to be finding grants as a PhD student, as once out of a PhD program you have to fight for money as well. It makes for a much more stressful early PhD process, though.
Benefits are not guaranteed.
Susanna: Our insurance coverage has run the gamut from fully covered with no copays, to paying $400+ a month for our own coverage under the Affordable Care Act. When Andy held a postdoctoral position as an independent contractor (Peter Buck “Deep-Time” Paleobiology Postdoctoral Fellow) with the Smithsonian Institution – National Museum for Natural History, he was allowed to purchase a healthcare plan through them. Let me walk you through what that would have been like.
Andy was paid $3766 a month. As an independent contractor, we had to deduct our own money for taxes and make quarterly tax payments. So we always immediately deducted $755 per paycheck. We lived in Arlington, VA, outside of D.C., and our rent was $1850 (Andy: That was cheap for the area. D.C. is expensive.). So far we are down to $1161. If we had opted to purchase the Smithsonian plan, we would have had $161 left per month. That would have had to cover utilities, food for a family of three, a Metro pass to get Andy to work (Andy: As an independent contractor the museum doesn’t have to pay for commuting expenses, as they would for a true employee.), gas for our car, auto insurance, any other expense that could and would crop up.
Andy: Susanna also could not get a job, as our daughter was not school-aged and childcare is outrageously expensive in the area.I did get a $2,000 per-year healthcare stipend, though that is not standard with that fellowship; many of my colleagues did not get one.
Susanna: We opted to buy our own coverage through the Affordable Care Act for about $400 a month instead, leaving us with $761 a month for all the above-listed expenses and the ones I’m surely forgetting. It didn’t leave much for anything unexpected, and certainly not much for leisure.
Affordable Cares Act
Total per month:
At UMASS during Andy’s Ph.D. program, we had the same insurance as undergraduate students, including being seen at the campus health services. It was a very different atmosphere sitting in a waiting room full of students. To make a broad generalization, students were often there to get notes to get out of class; I was there because our daughter was vomiting.
Andy: The actual coverage varied quite a bit as well, as the university (UMass) and the Graduate Student Union were in the middle of a series of contentious negotiations. It varied enough that we decided to go onto Susanna’s employer insurance for a while, because if we had had a kid it would have cost thousands of dollars out-of-pocket.
Susanna: Conversely, the coverage for graduate students at University of Wisconsin while we were there was the same coverage granted to the professors. It was, if healthcare can be such a thing, luxurious.
The applicant is usually expected to pay their own moving expenses.
Susanna: When a job does offer relocation funds, they are almost always after-the-fact and you will have to submit a receipt and wait to be reimbursed. Depending on the length of the move, the amount of stuff you have, and the size of your family, this can be a huge burden or a minor inconvenience. In my experience, moving always costs more than you think it will, on both the leaving and arriving ends. We have been lucky to have family financial help when we’ve needed it. We’ve done renting and loading a truck ourselves, hired movers to help pack, load, and drive, multi-day drives with our daughter in tow (and once, dog). We also flew from the United States to England, where we live currently, with only 200 lbs of stuff to start a new British life.
I will point out how frequently there has been a delay in receiving a first paycheck, too, since that appears to be a common complaint. How are you supposed to pay for a move upfront, and then wait 1.5 months to be paid?
Andy: Some places will help you with this. Some of our travel to the UK, and some of our visas were covered by the University and the grant supporting me. The NMNH provided a bit of money as well. Sam Houston State University helped us move from DC to Texas. You will likely not find that in graduate programs, and I also expect it’s less frequent in postdoc programs. It’s also never enough money to cover moving, which is so unexpectedly expensive every time.
Moving somewhere you never considered
Susanna: I am from Michigan originally. After college, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin (Andy: to be with me!), and it wasn’t much of a change. I liked it quite a bit. Western Massachusetts after that was more hilly than I was used to, but again, there were still four discernible seasons. Just the way I like it. Northern Virginia was too hot for too many months in a row.
So what did we do after that? Moved to Texas.
Andy: Something I will apologize for years for.
Susanna: When job-hunting, my husband will sometimes throw out questions to me like, “How do you feel about living in New Zealand?” and I can hardly say no. He has applied all over the world. Around the same time he got the postdoc at the National Museum of Natural History, he had also got a Royal Society Fellowship that would have taken us to Southampton, England. We thought we had missed the chance to live in England by accepting the position in Washington D.C., but another position in Bristol opened up last spring and here we are.
You (Might) Travel
Susanna: Andy has gotten to travel a lot for work. He has gone to conferences, school, meetings, and even sailed onboard the research vessel the JOIDES Resolution for seven weeks. In no order, he’s been to: Germany, Italy, San Francisco, Puerto Rico, Montserrat (Andy: Technically I was just off the coast, never on Montserrat, but close enough), Vancouver B.C., New Orleans, surely others. Unfortunately we could rarely afford for me to tag along, but I did meet him in Curacao when he got off the JOIDES Resolution and we took a vacation there.
When in-person interviews start getting scheduled again, there will be more travel.
Andy: Get a frequent flyer card! It won’t matter because you’ll almost constantly be forced to fly whatever flight is cheapest, but I hold out hope it’ll help someday.
Job-Seeking Starts Earlier Than You Think, and Takes Longer Too
Susanna: Most US places start looking for candidates about a year ahead of time. In this case, that means that Andy started looking for jobs pretty much as soon as he started teaching at a Visiting Assistant Professor position at Sam Houston State University. Each job application required a few hours’ work. The standard documents requested from each candidate are: cover letter, CV, teaching statement, and research statement. Of course, it’s best to spend some time on the boilerplate document and make sure it addresses specifics about the department for which you’re applying. This takes real time.
Andy: I once calculated the time spent on it. A job with 75 applicants, each spending an average of 3 hrs on that application, with letter writers spending 30 minute each, means that 337 hours is spent by people on the applicant side for each academic job. In our case, that means that during job season Susanna is the primary parent on weekends and I’m stuck on my computer typing and editing (until she takes over and edits everything).
Andy: Finding postdoc positions is tough. I’m balancing a family, a research focus, a strong urge to teach or do something where I’m interacting with non-scientists, and more. I got lucky when I blind emailed a potential advisor with a project, he immediately wrote back, we Skyped, and then wrote countless (ok, 6 or 7) postdoc funding applications together. He mentored me though the entire process. Sometimes you get lucky with good timing or just finding the right people.
I’m not one to normally be able to email somebody out of the blue, but having a supportive partner through this experience has made it more possible for me to do my best work.
Andy: All of these are things that we’ve considered over the years about different positions. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list. Certain places have built up structures to exploit graduate students or postdocs. They might have excellent name recognition, but always consider carefully the cost of living, pay, and benefits of a place. It’s a lot harder to get your best science done when you’re worried about the basic necessities of life.