How Not To Apply To Grad School

When it comes to grad school, I did it all wrong. I didn’t know that I didn’t know everything I needed to know.

I didn’t know that I should find a mentor and do an undergraduate thesis if I wanted to go to graduate school. Most of my friends were engineering or fine arts majors with no intentions of attending grad school. I didn’t know that I was doing it wrong.

When I applied to graduate school I didn’t know that I should directly contact the person I wanted to work with. I thought that applying to grad school was like applying to undergrad: just fill out the application and you’re done. I didn’t realize that the process actually takes months when done correctly. It wasn’t until right before I started my Master’s program that I learned I hadn’t even applied to the correct department. Because I hadn’t contacted faculty, I didn’t know that the website hadn’t been updated and the person I wanted to work with was no longer with that department. One of the first pieces of paperwork I had to submit as a graduate student was a change of concentration form: changing from paleontology (the concentration I wanted) to general biology (the one I didn’t). Because I hadn’t done my research, I was the only paleontologist in a department of microbiologists, ornithologists, and entomologists. On the bright side, my lack of planning introduced me to my current research (which I love).

My biggest mistake was thinking that I could do this alone. It never crossed my mind that I might be doing things wrong; I’m smart and capable, couldn’t I figure it out? Maybe I’m the only person to make this mistake, but I doubt it. Why don’t we let grad school hopefuls know what they’re getting themselves into? If I could have attended a session called “So You Want To Go To Grad School” as a sophomore or junior I wouldn’t have gone into my application blindly. I would have known to contact faculty. I would have known that becoming a full professor was not as simple as I had been led to believe. The graduate school process is hard enough, why not make the necessary information readily available? Sure, this information might be hidden somewhere on a university website, but why not just sit down undergraduates and tell them what’s what? My undergraduate university had resources for applying for industry jobs, but not for entering academia.

For me, it was Twitter that got my act together. If Caroline VanSickle hadn’t answered my question about the difference between a personal statement and a statement of purpose, applications would have been more difficult (I referred back to that tweet all 3 times I applied to grad school. Thanks, Caroline!). Twitter helped me to connect with fellow stressed graduate students and to ask experts questions. Twitter introduced me to my PhD advisor and supplied me with elusive pdfs. I cannot stress enough how helpful Twitter has been for me.

As many mistakes as I have made, I can’t complain too much. Despite not understanding the system, it still treated me fairly well. Even though I just threw an application into the fray without a faculty guide, I was still accepted into a graduate program straight out of undergrad. I learned from my experience and I don’t want others to have to jump through the same hoops I did.

How to become a botanist in 20 easy steps*!

So you want to be a botanist! Here’s how to do it in 20 easy steps*!

Step 1. Be a curious child. It’s helpful if you’re also raised in the country. Explore outside and be fascinated by nature.

Step 2. Love science. Love it madly and without reservation. Soak up everything you can and ask too many questions.

Step 3. Decide early on that you want to be a paleontologist when you grow up.

Step 4. Be told early on that you can’t actually be a paleontologist when you grow up.

Step 5. Reassess your life goals. Decide that science is still awesome and that you’ll decide on a career later.

Step 6. Take all of the science classes your high school offers and decide that you want to study something that people think is really hard, like brain surgery or rocket science.

Step 7. Graduate from high school and head to a really nice college.

Step 8. Major in environmental science and try to figure out what you really love.

Step 9. Have an eccentric geology professor who reminds you that you can actually be a paleontologist.

Step 10. Take an ecology class and realize that field work is one of your favorite things.

Step 11. Take a field botany course and realize that plants are pretty cool.

Step 12. Get a paleontology internship and be the only biologist among geologists. Extol the wonders of trees to them.

Step 13. Graduate from a really nice college and apply to graduate schools.

Step 14. Only get into one Master’s program. It’s your last choice but go anyway.

Step 15. Sit down with your advisor and be told that you’ll be doing paleoclimate with plant fossils.

Step 16. Start working on your thesis and really enjoy it.

Step 17. Finish up your thesis and start to hate it.

Step 18. Get another paleontology internship. Do more paleoclimate with plant fossils.

Step 19. Decide that you don’t hate your research anymore and apply to PhD programs.

Step 20. Visit a Pleistocene fossil site and realize that you’re more interested in the paleoecology and paleobotany than the mammoths.

Congratulations! You’re a botanist!

*Results may vary.

Baumgartner Florissant Intern

Some Days I Feel Lucky

Some days I feel lucky.

Some days I marvel because I have had the chance to travel across the country because of my research. I spent two amazing summers at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota. During my Master’s, I spent two years at the Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tennessee. This summer I spent three months at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Florissant, Colorado studying paleoclimate. I’ve driven across some of the most beautiful parts of this continent pursuing my passion and I look forward to more of these trips in the future.

Some days I get excited by all of connections I’ve made. I’ve met friends and colleagues both in person and through Twitter.  I know that I have people from all sorts of backgrounds, in different stages of their careers, who I can go to for advice or with questions. If I travel or get stranded somewhere in the US I know that I probably wouldn’t have to work too hard to find someone I know to help me.

Most days I am thrilled to do my research. I get to study what I love. I get to do what I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. When I tell children that I’m a paleontologist, their eyes light up; they probably have never met a paleontologist before.

Some days I don’t feel so lucky.

Some days I wish that I didn’t have to travel so far. With every step of my career I travel farther and farther from my family and friends. In the past 4 years I’ve spent at least 3 months in 4 different states and I know that this will only get more extreme in the future.

Some days I get discouraged because my friends are spreading farther and farther apart. Without the internet, it would be very difficult to keep tabs on my friends across the world. And, like my own travel, they will also continue to spread apart as they move forward in their careers.

Some days I get told no. No, you can’t actually be a paleontologist. No, your research isn’t relevant. No, we can’t afford to fund you. Academia is a tough gig and a very competitive field; it’s hard to make it. Some days seem harder than others.

Today I feel lucky.

Things I Wish I Had Known Earlier: Master’s Edition

I just submitted the final draft of my Master’s thesis to the Graduate School and I will graduate with an M.S. in Biology in May. I went directly from undergrad to my Master’s, so the learning curve was not as steep as it could have been, but, obviously, graduate school has been much different from undergrad. Lately, I’ve been looking back on what I learned in the past two years while doing my research. Hopefully, I will be able to save others from making the same mistakes that I did!

Do it (right) now

Simply put, parts of research/thesis writing are busy work. I recommend getting these things done and out of the way. Have 77 graphs to make? Have citations that need to be added to your literature cited? Don’t wait until the last minute. It’s so much easier to make little changes along the way than to have to change all the things at the last minute.If you are looking for a reference manager, I recommend Mendeley. Along those lines, do things right the first time. You will probably have to pretty things up later, but do Future You a favor and don’t just throw something together.

 

Write it down

Write down everything. Have an epiphany? Write it down. Change something? Write it down. Seriously. In the first few semesters of my Master’s, I would just assume that Future Me would remember what I had changed. Nope. I’ve had to start analyses from scratch because I didn’t write down what I had done. My advice: get a notebook and write in it every time you do anything with your research. If you like writing things down by hand, there are composition notebooks and Rite in the Rain notebooks,  as well as online notebooks such as Evernote (check out Dave Pappano’s open lab notebook).

Back it up

Save everything. All the time. There’s nothing like having your computer freeze to remind you that you haven’t saved your file in the past few hours. It seems to be a fact of the universe that your computer will die at the worst possible point in the semester, so back everything up multiple times. And for sanity’s sake, give it a name that makes sense. One of my fellow grad students learned that naming all the files you don’t like “poop” or “poop2” isn’t actually helpful and leads to the urge to flip tables.

Ask for help

I learned early on that it is better to ask for help when I don’t understand than to tough it out and struggle on my own in an effort to seem self-sufficient. Sure, there is merit to figuring things out on your own, but sometimes it is better to get help. I’ve had to unlearn convoluted methods that I figured out on my own because someone showed me an easier way to do things.

Take care of yourself

This advice is constantly repeated in lists of tips to get through grad school, but that’s because it is vitally important. I feel like a hypocrite saying it, because I know that in the last few months I haven’t been following this advice as well as I could have been, but I recognize its value. I know that when I ran regularly, I managed to work out kinks in my research and my life while on the trails. I know that I when I eat and sleep on a regular basis, I’m a more functional human being. I know that without the emotional support of my fellow grad students and my department chair, finishing my Master’s would have been orders of magnitude more difficult. My advice: exercise, eat healthy and regularly, get enough sleep, and ask for emotional support when you need it. Grad school is hard on everyone, so there’s no need to go through it alone.

The core of my paleoclimate research came from data-mined information and the analyses that I ran on it, so my experiences might be different from yours. Not all of my tips will be relevant to everyone, but hopefully they can give a push in the right direction. If you’re reading this because you’re in grad school, I hope you find it helpful and good luck!