An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

August 20, 2010

Searching for A Grad Program: There’s More Than One Right Answer

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , , — Radical Scientist @ 1:02 am

I am at the verrrry wee beginning of thinking about maybe next year applying to graduate school. Which means I’m at the stage of looking at different programs, thinking about where I want to apply. It’s an exciting and daunting task–there are dozens, if not hundreds of schools I could potentially apply to, just in the US. And as someone who’s research interests and experience-thus-far are at on the border between a couple of different disciplines, there are a number of departments I’ll be looking at, opening the field even more.

But when I look for advice on how to pick a school, I keep finding the same single suggestion: Find the current top names in your field, or people whose research sounds interesting to you. Find out where they teach, and start by looking at those schools. It’s fine advice, especially to the Ideal Grad Student–someone who is free to move anywhere (at least within their country), who has flexible but strong research interests, and so on. And, apparently, is somehow also completely clueless as to where they want to go.

But when I talk to friends and co-workers about how they settled on the school they eventually attended, I’ve never once heard ‘Well, I looked at the top working scientists in [subdiscipline]…’  I don’t think that’s all sample bias; there are a couple well-know researchers around these parts.

Instead, most people seem to work from a variety of more, er, practical questions, including:

Where can I get admitted?

Where will I get enough funding?

Is the campus near my family?

Will my partner be able to find work/go to school/etc there?

Will I like or hate the city?

Do the courses sound interesting?

Did the department have a nice website (admit it, folks. You notice)

Will there be a good community for me there?

What kind of vibe did I get when I visited the department?

And so on. I’d love to get some advice on how to get the gossip on a schools’ funding options, department’s labor expectations (everyone wants you to work more than they say they do, but by how much?), how to find a queer-friendly campus and town, how to navigate choosing schools with a not-infinitely-patient-and-portable partner, and so on. In particular, how do you do those things if you’re looking at schools far away from where you live now, that you can’t afford to visit before applying (and can only do a prospective student weekend or somesuch before accepting). I’m sure this info is out there, and I don’t expect my dear readers to hand deliver it to me (unless you want to. In which case, go ahead!). I’d just like to move beyond a single piece of advice. Especially when there’s no guarantee you’ll get to work with the Dream PI anyway.

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August 18, 2010

Grad School Applications, Recommendations, and Mentoring

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Radical Scientist @ 4:38 pm

This post is part of 49 Percent’s zomg grad school!!!1 carnival. Go check out all the other lovely posts over there.

There is one part of the grad school application process that scares me shitless. I’ll stare down the GRE with gritty determination, and I can swallow my pride and lay claim to my lackluster GPA. But even thinking about having to ask for letters of recommendation makes me consider food service related career options instead.

I got my BS on the installment plan, over 8 years. Along the way, I worked more than I studied (out of necessity), and had a couple mental health flare ups, eventually culminating in a hella-awkward-at-the-time gender transition. I didn’t handle any of those issues as well as I should have. None of which is my professor’s fault (ok, maybe that one asshole who taught intro to calc), but let’s just say my best work was spread out across the years. Add in one mentor who retired and decided to move to a remote island with no phone, and a lot of giant lecture hall classes where the professors struggle to recognize more than a few of their students on sight, and, well, it’s a less than ideal situation.

I get that LOR’s serve a specific purpose in graduate admissions. Grad programs want students who work well with faculty, who have made a positive impression on at least a couple of their instructors, and they need some perspective other than the numbers on a transcript and the student’s own self-praise. And now that I’ve spent a couple years working in labs, I understand that any worthwhile professor or PI considers handing out recommendations for their protégées to be a standard part of the job. But no one told me that, at least not until I was…oh, 25 or so.

Some students can feel comfortable asking their professors or mentors to take the time to send out a half dozen recommendations for grad programs or internships. There are some academic environment factors–smaller classes and smaller departments breed familiarity. And some students will be outgoing no matter what barriers are thrown up in front of them, and some will always be shy.But at the broad generalities level, asking for recommendations is even more fucking terrifying for students who have grown up being told that the old guard of professors–white, male, straight, cis, and middle to upper-middle class–are their social betters.

Sometimes those fears are founded, often they’re not. But so long as they exist, they are one hurdle to the sciences (or any other discipline) becoming more welcoming and diverse. I know I, for one, am not looking forward to tracking down professors from several years ago, trying to get them to remember me, coming out to them (lest I get the wrong name on my rec letter), and then asking them to take the time to write letters to a number of schools and federal programs.

Meanwhile, my frat boy classmates have nothing to fear. They’re unafraid to ask, to send deadline reminders, to specify which of their most charming attributes they’d like highlighted. Even those who are, shall we say, on close terms with the gentleman’s C. They’ve spent their lives learning to navigate Old boy’s Networks; they seem to know what’s expected, and feel that they deserve to succeed.

I had a small honors class once where the professor did a wonderful job of pulling everyone in, and driving us to excel. Before handing out the final exams, he gave us a short speech about how lovely a class we’d been, that it had been a pleasure to  teach us, etc etc, but he ended by saying he’d be glad to write a recommendation or be a reference for any of us whenever we began applying to jobs or graduate programs. It was a revelation to me.

I understand that it’s unusual to have an entire class full of students you’d be willing to vouch for. But in my brief time in the science blogosphere thus far, I’ve seen a lot of great discussions on the value of mentoring, the importance of making science more ‘diverse’ in various ways, how to mentor, and so on. One thing that I haven’t heard (and I freely admit I may have just missed), is the value of offering recommendations. To student workers and interns, to students who excel in your classes, and to advisees. Look at each one, and think ‘would I be comfortable writing this student a warm recommendation, if they asked me to?’ If the answer is yes, for god’s sakes, tell them. Make sure they know you are willing to help them advance, and that that is part of what you do.

Sure, assertiveness and self confidence are good characteristics to develop. Ideally, students would have the self-confidence to a gruff senior professor for professional help based on their performance, rather than the professor’s friendliness or whether they feel inferior to their instructor.  But being unapproachable doesn’t weed out people who are bad at science, it weeds out people who are afraid to ask old white guys for favors. And that’s one more little thing that gives us a new generation of scientists no less homogeneous than the last.

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