Applying to Grad School IV: Interviews

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. 

Interviews

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

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. 

On-Campus

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

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

Phone Interviews

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.

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Applying to Grad School III: Emailing Potential Advisors

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:

  1. You are looking for a graduate lab program and what semester you are looking to start. 
  2. Your research interests include x, y, z followed up by a line about your experience, see CV for more details
  3. Ask if they are accepting students and if they are, would they be able to chat more about it via email, phone, or Skype.
  4. 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!

Applying to Grad School II: Preparing your CV

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!

Document Header

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.

Education

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:

An example of Adriane’s Education section from her CV with her undergraduate thesis and advisor information included.

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!

An example of Jen’s Publications section from her CV, this is a subheader specifically for Peer reviewed articles. In this same section she includes a separate subheader for Conference abstracts.

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!

An example of a funding section from Adriane’s CV. Notice the total amount won is included in the heading, and then each item has its own funding amount.

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.

Example of Jen’s Awards and Honors section on her CV, which includes departmental and club awards as well as guest lectures for departmental classes.

Relevant Coursework

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!

An example of how to write and format a ‘Field and Lab Experience’ section on a CV. If you also have experience working with museum collections, include that in this section as well!

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.

Example of a ‘Research Experience’ section in Jen’s CV. Simple and concise phrases indicating what I did when then people can match it to specific time periods in my academic training.

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.

Example from Jen’s CV of the language used to describe the collections curated during my various positions.

Summary

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!

Applying to Grad School I: Paying for Your Graduate Degree

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 Assistant

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.

Research Assistant

As part of her RA as a master’s student, Adriane helped curate and digitize a fossil collection at Ohio University.

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

External fellowships

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.

Tuition Remission/Waivers

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.

Jen

Jen exploring Ordovician life with young minds at the Paleontology summer camp at the McClung Museum.

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).

Sarah

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.

Always looking to find that extra dollar in graduate school.

Adriane

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.

The Life of a Graduate Student

Megan here-

Heading home for the holidays always provides a nice break from being a graduate student–no classes, no grading, no lab work. But being home around family and friends still involves at least thinking about graduate school and answering the many questions concerning what I study, or what I do every day, or most frustrating: when I plan to finish school. Thus, I give you this introduction to life as a graduate student in which I address the most common questions I’ve received. Of course, this is just one student’s experience and every graduate experience varies based on the school, the program, the advisor, etc. Regardless, I hope this provides a small gleam of insight into the simultaneously exciting and boring life of a graduate student.

“What kind of classes do you take?”

My corner of the office where I have a desk, a monitor to connect with my laptop, and piles of work to complete. The majority of my day is spent either in here or in class.

Every graduate student’s course load varies depending on their area of focus, their university’s available classes, and their advisor. I study glaciology, which means that a strong understanding of math and physics are key to my research. Thus far, I’ve taken three math courses as a graduate student, on top of the required calculus at my undergraduate university. Aside from those, I’ve taken a handful of courses in my own Department of Geology & Geophysics, which range from Paleoclimates to Advanced Data Analysis. I’ve found that choosing classes has required an interdisciplinary approach that extends beyond pure glaciology.

“What do you actually do every day?”

I love this question because it makes me pause and consider what I do and accomplish on a daily basis. I even tried to track my daily habits and activities in order to better explain what I do. Turns out I’m not very good at tracking as I quit writing things down on the second day. However, here is what a typical Monday looked like during the Fall 2018 semester:


08:45 – Bike to campus
09:00 – Differential Equations
10:00 – Do homework while holding office hours
11:00 – Meet with professor who teaches the class I TA
11:30 – Homework and read paper for weekly reading group on Tuesday
15:00 – Work on research (write code, organize and look at data)
17:00 – Bike home
18:00 – Pottery class
20:00 – Finish any remaining homework

 

Every day is a bit different depending on classes, homework, and meetings. Sometimes I have a nice, normal, 8-hour day and sometimes I’m in my office and working in the lab for 12 hours. Classes and homework, teaching labs, and working on my own research project comprise the majority of my time each day. I often have to work at least one day of the weekend, if not both. However, finding some degree of personal time is important to me. An occasional pottery class, ski trip, or yoga class keeps me happy and balanced.

“You must enjoy your long winter and summer breaks; what plans do you have?”

Sure, my winter break is six weeks long and the summer is two to three months without classes. Unfortunately that does not mean no research or lab work or reading papers. Those long breaks are often the times when my research productivity is highest because my schedule is void of classes and homework. The summer is also an excellent time for field work in Greenland, which means that a full month of my summer is spent abroad. I even spent an extra two weeks of my summer doing field with in California with a fellow graduate student. Breaks tend to be very busy and productive times with the occasional vacation mixed in.

“When will you finish your master’s?”

I don’t know. And many other students are also unsure. In my particular department, a master’s project usually takes two to three years and is thesis-based. This means that there are a required number of course credits a student must take; but ultimately, finishing a degree is contingent upon completing an adequate research project, writing a thesis, and defending that thesis. Research projects are not always straightforward, and often require learning new computer programs or lab techniques. The data I work with is collected and processed, so now I’m in the analysis stage. Assuming the analysis goes well, the next step will be writing my thesis and finally defending it. The potential for issues to arise or things to simply take longer than expected makes setting an actual end date nearly impossible. I usually have a basic timeline in my head, but I’m far too uncertain to divulge should it change.

“What are you going to do with your degree? Are you going to get a PhD next?”

Geoscience industries where graduating students in 2017 have accepted a job related to their field of study. The largest chosen industry for Bachelor’s students is environmental science; for Master’s students, the federal government and oil and gas industry are the largest; and for PhD students, over half of the graduates choose to work at a 4-year university. Source: Wilson, C. Status of Recent Geosciences Graduates, 2017. American Geosciences Industry.

Again, I’m not really sure. Thinking too far ahead tends to make me anxious about the present day. Until I know when I’ll finish, I’m not too keen on looking for jobs or applying to future programs. That said, I always have some rudimentary idea of what I hope to do upon finishing my master’s. Getting a job in geology or a related field is likely my next big goal. I enjoyed my internship with the National Park Service, which offers a variety of education and geosciences jobs. Environmental consulting is a popular path among geoscientists, as is environmental education. Any of these types of jobs could be a good fit for me, but ultimately I do want to pursue a PhD and stay in academia–just not quite yet. A year or two of not being in school could be an excellent opportunity to explore other paths or options. I went straight from high school to college, and straight from that to my master’s. That means I’ve been in school for two straight decades–a terrifying yet remarkable thought. I think that I could benefit from an academic break and see what else the world can offer to a geoscientist.

Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School

Megan here-

Graduate school is one of those experiences that can bring out the worst in you. Sure, there are a handful of encouraging moments; like when you read a paper and actually understand it, or finally figure out what your advisor was asking you to do (even though you can’t actually do it, at least you now know what it is that you can’t do). Victories are few and far between, and the continual obstacles and failures take a toll on students. Filmmaker and once-PhD student Duncan Jones said it best: “When I was at graduate school you wouldn’t have recognized me I was so different — and not a nice person: a grumpy, surly, upset, confused, lost person.”

A theme among graduate students is feeling lost and confused, and consequently becoming upset that you’re lost and confused. You develop insecurities and wonder if you’re even supposed to be a Master’s or PhD student at all. The feeling grows and persists, all while undermining your confidence. This is the Impostor Syndrome.

What exactly is the Impostor Syndrome?

It’s a sense of incompetence, self-doubt, or anxiety accompanied by abundant evidence that you’re actually quite competent, intelligent, and hardworking. You are constantly second-guessing your qualifications and sometimes feeling that you’ve fooled people into thinking you’re smart. In fact, this sometimes-debilitating condition is quite common among successful people, and I’ve found it to be considerably persistent in my geology graduate career thus far.

Much of graduate school is admitting what you don’t know.

It’s true, you have to acknowledge what you don’t know in order to move on. Once you’ve done that, you recognize the information you need to learn, the skills you must master, and the tools you should develop. But in that process of identifying knowledge deficiencies, I’ve found that I end up feeling less intelligent and less capable. Letting my weaknesses undermine my confidence is easy. Thoughts of “I’m not cut out for this” or, “I’m not smart enough to be in this program” can work their way into your head and really throw you for a loop.

Despite this constant fear that I’m not doing anything right, I somehow still love graduate school.

I really mean that. Graduate school is this wild experience in which you probably have no idea what you’re actually doing or why, but you get to learn about the very topic that interests you most. You’re surrounded by equally ambitious peers, you work with revered professors, and you have an advisor whose fundamental job as an advisor is to make you better at what you do. There are definitely frustrating, disheartening, sit-in-your-office-and-contemplate-whether-geology-matters moments. And when Impostor Syndrome gets the best of you, here’s some advice.

My advice:

  1. Use logic against negative thoughts. Whenever these “impostor” thoughts begin to brew in your mind, try to remind yourself that Impostor Syndrome tends to affect successful people. Consequently, you must be successful and competent too. Check out this comic from PHD Comics for a good laugh and a nice reminder that you’re not alone.
  2. Practice internal validation. Many people thrive off of external validation, like praise from their peers or professors. Try complimenting yourself and focusing on acknowledging the effort you’ve put into your research.
  3. Avoid comparing yourself to others. Every student has had a different educational experience leading up to graduate school. When we compare ourselves to our peers, we often identify insufficiencies in ourselves and end up feeling unintelligent or incapable. Instead, recognize your skills and abilities, then use this opportunity to collaborate with your peers.

If all else fails and you need to commiserate with others, PHD Comics is a good place to turn. Check out their Impostor Syndrome comics (here, here, and here) and don’t be afraid to get lost in the hilarity PHD Comics has to offer.

Applying to Graduate School

Maggie here-

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

Key aspects of this post

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

How to Apply for Grad School

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

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

Statement of Purpose

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

Personal History Statement

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

Other Documents

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

How to stay sane while applying

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

Advice from a recent grad school graduate

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

Jen and Sarah presenting their workshop material at the National Science Teachers Association meeting in Nashville in 2016.

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

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

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

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

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