Science Book Club: My Family and Other Animals

Let’s celebrate summer with our third installment of the STS Book Club! This time, it’s a novel of the young adult variety. Perfect for picking up during breaks from staring at your computer screen or en route to your field sites!

c16bfa35dae8b847c0625f56de95e77eI don’t know about everyone else, but I could not be more excited and ready for #AcademicSummer 2016. Quals (take three!) are once more (SUCCESSFULLY) behind me and now I can finally relax into my favorite time of year. My advisor and his co-PI were gracious enough to fund my research for the summer (most Statistics students teach or grade for their funding) and I have left my days of classes, grading, and studying behind for coding and, to be real, actually living my life. I chose to write about this book, My Family and Other Animals, because it was such a lovely find last summer when I was living and studying in Seattle. I found this book in the mini library at Zeitgeist Coffee and was able to read it in spurts during transit and downtime. I love the idea of books that belong to The People and I’m hoping to pass along the interest in this one especially since I’ve taken so long to finish it.

Gerald “Gerry” Durrell in addition to being an author was a naturalist, zookeeper, and conservationist. Our kinda guy, right? Much of his fascination with all things natural was developed during his childhood living with his family on the Greek island of Corfu and it is here that his focuses his stories in My Family and Other Animals. Later, after working in zoos, aquariums, and on wildlife expeditions, he founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Durrell Wildlife Park on the Channel Island of Jersey. Durrell Wicorfu20redldlife Park was the first zoo to house only endangered breeding species, and has been one of the pioneers in the field of captive breeding. His book provides a delightful peek into the beginnings of this impressive career and lifelong love for conservation. Continue reading “Science Book Club: My Family and Other Animals”


Is there a Doctor in the House?

I’m over a month into my PhD program and I’m still oscillating between wild, ecstatic optimism and stone cold, stop you in your tracks fear of the route ahead.  Completing a Master’s degree was two and a half years of hard work and setbacks culminating in one of the proudest, happiest moments of my life – successful defending of my thesis. I’m back on track for five more years of the grad student life, but these will be harder, faster, stronger times ahead than before. Good thing I’ve got my Daft Punk pandora station ready to go. My Masters program didn’t entail any qualifying or comprehensive exams so they seem like lofty, impassable goals now. A sentiment shared by my cohort members, but we’ve found that the more information we have the more confidence we gain. We here at STS would like to share what we know about our own roads to knowledge with you the readers so that you guys can find the confidence to face this journey too.

Not freaking out. I am not freaking out. I’m not. 

First things first, what exactly is the difference between quals, comps, and a thesis defense? Well, if you’re in grad school you at least know enough to be shaking in your boots at the prospect of any one of them. As you progress through your PhD program the powers that be (general your advisors) will want to ensure that you’re advancing at the desired pace, thus a few intense, intimidating milestones are thrown at you. The first of these, the Qualifying exam, serves to assess whether the student is capable of conducting doctoral research/scholarship. Quals often also serves as the PhD candidacy examination. Qualification exams are taken early in your program and are often based on required coursework. Once you pass your quals (and sometimes it takes a few tries, don’t worry!) feel free to relax a tiny bit and allow yourself to celebrate! Throw a wild soiree with your cohort! The PhD Comprehensive exam is given by members of your committee once a student has completed the required coursework (generally year 2 or 3, but ultimately depends on your program) and serves to evaluate mastery of the major studied. Sometimes presenting your research proposal can be wrapped up within Comps, as a way so show you have mastered the content necessary to proceed. If you’ve passed your Comps go ahead and celebrate once more! Now all you have left is research, thesis writing, and a thesis defense! It’ll be tough, but you’re in the home stretch. A lot of students are terrified by the time they are fast approaching their thesis defense. A lot rides on that final presentation of research and oral examination by the committee, but honestly once your committee signs off on a date for you to present and defend you’re practically finished already! They don’t want to set you up to fail (it reflects poorly on them as well)! Smooth sailings on through to your doctorate! Congrats once more! You’re a doctor!!

Post Masters Celebrations!

If you picked up on how it sounds like your committee has a lot of power of your progress through your PhD project, then you’re not far from the truth! However, they will also be there to provide you with all of the guidance and insights that you could possibly need. After all, they’ve been in your shoes before and have helped others through your journey. The majority of your committee will be comprised of professors from your department, but if you’re one of those brave souls that goes for a more interdisciplinary approach you’ll likely find members from other departments or even other institutions.  You are in charge of approaching and inviting generally four professors to serve on your committee. Something to keep in mind while forming your own band of professors is that you’ll want to ensure that you choose members that will have the time and resources to help you with your thesis research, writing, and defending. You’ll need to have a close working relationship with these people so don’t be afraid to choose based on how well you foresee getting along with them. A highfalutin big wig in your field sounds great to have involved, but if they have no time for you then maybe it’s best to find someone else to serve instead. You want people who are passionate about being on your team and helping your grow and develop to ensure that upon completion of your PhD you’ll be ready to find a postdoc or a job in a variety of fields!

Workin’ hard with the cohort.

 If you are, like me, at the very beginning of your program with all of these hurdles strewn in your future it can be incredibly intimidating. A lot of doubts can creep into your mind about your ability to gain a mastery of the content, especially if you’ve changed fields! I’ve had quite a few chats with my cohort already about our looming quals at the end of this year. Our department recently changed it’s program for PhD students and we’re the first group to go through this new design! We feel a lot like guinea pigs – the kind that people eat rather than keep for pets! I have dealt with this nervousness by finding out as MUCH as I can about how I am expected to progress through each year. But what has really quelled my quals fears has been talking to my academic advisor and hearing his reassurance that no, the department really isn’t trying to scare anyone off or try and weed us out. They earnestly do want each and every one of us to pass and will provide us with all the resources to do so! Rather, instead of being a weed out process, the qualification exam more serves as a way to ensure that WE are absolutely sure that we want to put in the work necessary to earn a PhD. I’m so grateful that I am part of a large, wonderfully supportive cohort that is already working hard to make sure no one falls behind. If I can recommend just one thing to new graduate students feeling that fear creep in, it’s to talk to your cohort, the grad students that are ahead of you, and professor in your department. The reassurance I’ve gotten from admitting my fears and insecurities to others and in turn hearing theirs has been a tremendous confidence booster!

You can check out my (Meridith’s) Statistics PhD program expectations in the slide included! If you are interested in hearing about Rachel’s Ecology program (she’s in her 3rd year and has just schedule her comps!) you’ll want to keep an eye on our Sweet Tea, Science Tumblr this week! If you are also working on getting your PhD (or Masters!) we’d love to hear how these major exams work in your field/department! There’s so much variety that we can’t hope to cover how these things work for everyone, but go ahead and let your experiences be known down in the comments.


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!