Summer Bucket List

Happy Summer Solstice! Last summer was so massively insane for us.  I (Rachel) did, what I can only assume to be, the most field work ever.  I have lots to do this summer, but I’m image2trying to prioritize work life balance a bit during this busy season.  Having said that, I have to admit I sort of hate the buzz wordy-ness of the phrase ‘work life balance’ for a couple reasons.  First, because balance somehow implies equality between multiple values or goals.  It’s probably more accurate to call them ‘work life trade-offs,’ a phrase I think I got from my masters adviser. Second, I feel like, particularly in academia, people absolutely love to talk about balance, then keep right on working 12 hours a day or whatever.  If you need some encouragement to choose to have a life sometimes, here’s a story.  I recently co-organized a panel on non-academic careers in conservation (It was so, so great!  Want to know more?), and Heather Tallis, the Lead Scientist for The Nature Conservancy, literally said we need to establish the pattern of work life balance you want in your career while you’re in graduate school, and that you absolutely didn’t have to destroy yourself to be a big fancy pants scientist (like her).  We pressed her on it later and she doubled down; seriously, no need to not have a life.

And I (Meridith) last summer was, unbeknownst to me, still in the beginning of my Quals Take Three journey studying my face off for Quals Part Two, while living in Seattle for half the summer. It was a fantastic adventure, but the pressure of the looming exam definitely applied a layer of guilt and dread to everything I did that wasn’t directly related to studying. To be fair, I DID get to see some lovely people and explore a new city and attend my first Statistical Meeting.  AND I didn’t have the added stress of the Field Season Life. This summer I have much more flexibility to focus on my own work life trade-offs while I continue advancing my research in preparation to ROCK my first statistical conference presentation.

So, here are a few STS Summer Bucket List items inspired by our own brands of work life trade-off and an original post by friend of STS, Beth, over at Finding Delight. Be sure to check out her Summer Bucket List as well!  We’d love to hear about your summer plans and dreams in the comments! Continue reading “Summer Bucket List”


Tricks of the Trade: LaTeX

Ok, guys. I’ve been studying as a baby statistician (scienctician? statscientist? ecologitician?)  for a little while now and I’m here to share some of their secrets. Before I started here at Penn State I had a couple ideas about what other grad students in my department would be like. First, everyone would be computer masters of any and all statistical programs: R, SAS, others that I hadn’t even heard of yet. Second, they’d all be completely on top of everything in all of our classes because they all would’ve completed undergraduate and master’s programs also in statistics. And thirdly, it’d be really hard to relate to other students because of my background in biology and my love for the outdoors (because clearly they’d all prefer sitting inside in front of their computers, right?). Thankfully, I was way off base and not only am I not left in the educational dust, but my cohort is full of awesome students with a wide variety of strengths and abilities. And I must collect them all. Yea, my new goal is to be like some sort of awesome Anna-Paquin-as-Rogue statistician and glean all of the amazing abilities and knowledge while I can. Except I think I’ll stick to taking the time to learn and practice things…instead of the whole touchy hurty thing she does. One of my absolute favorite new acquires is the ability to write code in LaTeX.

Another one of my pre-stats misconceptions was that whenever you saw an equation in a journal article it was created with Word’s super difficult equation editor.  Hopefully I’m not the only one who thought this, because now I feel really silly (Editor’s Note: I assumed mathematical witchcraft, so joke’s on me really.). LaTeX is a document preparation system for high-quality typesetting often used for technical or scientific documents. Long story short, you could be creating completely badass documents with lots of equations and badassery like these: [Homework with R Code, Homework with crazy stat stuff!]. I received my intro to LaTeX during one of the Cohort Workshops I have been arranging on Fridays for my department. Another grad student gave us a very brief introduction and showed us some of the basics. A few downloads, a bunch of googling, and several hours of practice later (not to mention an uninstall and redownload…) I was really starting to get the hang of it! Anyone who’s learning to program knows that you experience some of the most frustrating moments during that initial learning curve. WHY WON’T YOU JUST COMPILE AND SHOW ME A PDF OF MY NAME AND ‘HELLO WORLD’? I DID EXACTLY WHAT YOU TOLD ME…*deletes comma* Oh…well then. BEHOLD MY BRILLIANCE! FOR I HATH CREATED A MASTERPIECE!

I would like to encourage everyone to give it a go! I can answer basic questions, but I’ve found that the vast majority of my own beginner’s questions have been accomplished through a few key resources, including the Great Googily Moogily. Behold your starting point!

What to Download
  1. Tex – LaTeX is actually a sub-entity of Tex, sort of like Git and Github (which I also am just beginning to understand!) So you’ll actually need to download Tex in order to run LaTeX. Unfortunately, there are slightly different versions for Windows and Mac users but both deal with the same underlying program (if you run anything else, my apologies for being completely unaware of how to guide you).
  2. An Editor – The Tex download comes with everything you absolutely need, but I like using an editor for extra pretty colors and the option to code for other programming languages. I like working in Aquamacs, which is the Mac version of Emacs. (Update: I now use Sublime Text because Aquamacs kept giving me unhelpful error messages and I wasn’t having none of that.)
Full disclosure: this took me a WHILE!
What to Try First
  1. Hello, World! – Your first task is to just compile and create a PDF file with the most basic of greetings. I used this website at Art of Problem Solving. Even still I spent way too long before I got my first code to compile and PDF produced. It’s a glorious achievement!
  2. Do a Homework in LaTeX – This is not applicable to everyone and for all classes. But if you have a math or stats course where the homework isn’t too intensive consider completing it in LaTeX! One of my professors even wrote lots of handy coding tips on one of my homeworks that helped me a lot the next time around. I love being able to feel accomplished at writing up a nice, clean looking final version even if the homework is crazy difficult. Helps me keep those imposter thoughts at bay!

Next Level Stuff
  1. Update your CV – This was one of my recommendations for our Motivation blog post last week. I used this one from Bradley P Carlin and you can check out my final form!
  2. Write and submit your next manuscript using LaTeX! – Now, I’m nowhere near this stage of my program but I’d wager that quite a few templates or style formatting guidelines available for submitting a paper using LaTeX! Go, go, go!
  3. Combine with RStudio to work with knitr and sweave to produce LaTeX documents with R code  and results spliced in!

Basically part of my grand PhD scheme is to master a lot of the computing and presentation side of statistics so that I will be a valuable asset and worthy of ALL the jobs. At least a few options after graduating will be worth the toiling away finding that stray comma or misspelled command. Now that you’ve heard my favorite new tool I’ve learned so far please share yours! Or even if your favorite is also LaTeX tell me all the little tricks  you’ve picked up! I want all the tricks!

Cover Letters of Interest

Once you’ve gone through the process of finding potential grad school advisers, the next step is to contact them. It can be quite scary. That fear that you’ll craft a seemingly marvelous letter, attach your well-written CV, send it off, and then…hear back nothing. Or worse, you’ll hear back, but they aren’t interested in your obvious brilliance. Try not to get in your own head too much. Think of it more as the start of an epic journey towards the next step in your blossoming academic career. The professors that show the most interest in you are going to be the ones that are the best fit for your unique interests and skills. Writing about yourself is hard, but now is the time to brag on yourself a bit. Say it with me, “I am a badass science baller and all the profs want me.” Keep in mind that this letter does not need to be perfect. I just looked back at the cover letter I sent to my MS advisor (keep anything you write about yourself!) and it’s nearly 2 full pages long with way too much information. Thankfully, she wasn’t bored, and I had a wonderful, productive Master’s experience.

Say it again!

There’s a fine line between a letter of inquiry and a cover letter. Basically, if there is a posted opening with the advisor, then it is a cover letter. Otherwise, it’s a letter of inquiry, simple as that. The aim of such a letter, when writing to potential advisers, is to express your informed interest in them and their research, while also presenting a focused snapshot of yourself. Informed interest is important. Make sure you familiarize yourself with their work. Read their papers.  Brainstorm ideas for how your work could compliment theirs.  I’m not going to lie, this can be tough. I find it helps to remind yourself that you are not contractually bound to follow through with the ideas you come up with and present during your application process (Editors Note: This was my mantra to Meridith during her PhD application!  Glad to see it sunk it.). You just want to show that you are an intelligent being with a real interest in a similar field of research and that you can come up with relevant ideas.

To begin, you’ll want to state your interest in their lab and ongoing project(s). A common pitfall is to contact a professor about an area of research in which s/he is no longer active. Check the dates on those publications!  Additionally, some professors will be looking for more than one student to work on a several different projects. Clarify early why you are writing to them. They get numerous emails daily and the easier it is for them to read your email, the easier it will be for them to respond. Next, the second paragraph should be a self introduction. What are your recent experiences, and how would the skills you have benefit you if you were to join this person’s research group? The third paragraph should be dedicated to expressing your interests, goals, and ideas for research. The final paragraph is a little more general.  You can think of it as a summary:

I think my interests, skills, and future plans could potentially fit in well with your research program.  If you have room for a PhD student in the (interest term and year here), please let me know if you would be open to discussing my interests or experiences further. I have listed some of my major accomplishments below, but I have also attached my full CV if you would like further information about my past experiences and skills. I know you are very busy, so I appreciate any time you can give me.  Thank you very much.

I like to include a little bulleted list of notable accomplishments to whet their appetite. I wouldn’t advise giving them more than your “top 5.”  The goal here is to entice them to open your attached full CV.  Good achievements to mention are:

  • GPA
  • Grants or scholarships awarded (and how much $$ you were given)
  • Examples of academic excellence (exceptional GRE scores, special skills, unique courses taken with grade)
  • Evidence of research experience (REUs, internships, volunteer positions in research groups, etc.)
  • Publications (with links) or presentations/posters 

The internet already has loads of posts on this topic and plenty of sample letters to reference. Don’t rely on just this post!

Contemplative Mammoth’s Post
Dynamic Ecology’s Post
The Professor is In’s Post
Simple Sample Letter
In Depth Cover Letter Essentials

Please let us know if you have any other great cover letter references! We’d love to let this list grow and provide a wide array of recommendations for the future graduate students among us!