Sacrifices

In the past month, two of my three closest friends from high school have either gotten married or placed a down payment on a house. Two weeks ago at the wedding, the single one, whose house is still currently in the process of being built, showed me pictures of the structure and mentioned how real it felt as they began to put the windows into place. Being stuck in grad school while close friends make these huge commitments is less than ideal to say the least. As their future gets clearer, they pose questions about the cloudiness of mine and as I’ve posted on the blog before, my aspirations of going into academia don’t necessarily impress my trio of friends: The Dentist, The Surgeon, and The Homeowner.

Seeing their lives progress while much of mine has remained at a stand still somewhat made me question my chosen path. These interactions combined with the barrage of academia job applications I’ve sent out without much any response hasn’t been positive reinforcement that this is going to be my career.  Even if I thought industry was a good fit for me, I haven’t had any sort of formal experience since my internship in 2009 and wouldn’t really know where to begin to make the switch. Most of my professional experiences the last 4 years have been so focused on teaching, I’ve been honing skills that I’m not sure how valuable they would be in an industry setting. Sure, my public speaking is much better, and I’d argue I can communicate science better than most of my peers, but even students from my department who have much more impactful research and leadership experiences than I do have struggled finding a job.

About a month ago, I set a deadline of June 1st as when I’d start looking for positions in industry,  just to see what was out there and if I could find a position that would work for me.  That was Monday.  However last week, the instructor for the summer course I’m TAing for had a conflict and needed me to cover her lecture.  I’ve given talks at conferences and departmental seminars, but this would be the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to probably outside of my high school graduation.  It was an introductory lecture, Biological Molecules, teaching the building blocks of proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids, something I had no problem teaching but given this was my first time, I had this odd feeling of nervous excitement, similar to Christmas morning as a child, heading into the lecture. 2 hours later…okay, you caught me, I let them out early. 1.5 hours later, I felt inspired and confident that that all the sacrifices I’ve made to be here have been worth it, and that the wedding and the house are still in my future and I’ll get to them.  First comes the hard part, finding someone to let me teach.

The Waiting Game

I’m also looking for academic positions and there is so much truth in Rebecca’s post from a couple weeks ago, that I highly recommend reading it.  I also wanted to speak a little bit about my experience, specifically in relation to the interviews.

In addition to making (small) steps towards graduating and enjoying the NBA playoffs, this past month I’ve had two different types of interview experiences and wanted to shed some light into what to expect. Disclaimer, I’ve only focused on applying to positions that focus on teaching, specifically at smaller PUI schools and community colleges.

Phone Interview

I’ve had two phone interviews which were very different from one another, both in the types of questions and tone. However, count on several different people being there, usually at least 3-4 different faculty members, with the interview being led by the department chair.  For one of the positions, it was a tenure-track position and questions were much more direct and specific, such as “Please provide some ideas on how you would use research as a learning tool” with the committee looking to gain insight into my expectations with working with undergraduates.  The other phone interview was for an instructor position and felt more like a conversation as opposed to an interview. Here, I was asked more broad questions like “How did you first become interested in chemistry?”  Like I mentioned, I’ve focused on positions with primarily teaching responsibilities, so I did not get asked any questions about my research and would imagine this would be different for research oriented positions.  I was somewhat surprised by this, but I can say that having seen faculty hired through our department here at Rutgers, final candidates were asked to come and give a short talk about their research, so it’s possible this was the next step in the interview process.

In-person Interview

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to an “Adjunct Invitational” at a local community college. I’ve spoken to some other colleagues about what this experience would be like, but it seems like most community colleges do this process slightly differently. About 4 weeks ago, a representative from Human Resources contacted me about selecting a time slot for their Adjunct Invitational giving me options of 2 hour-long slots.  When I arrived at the college, there was a large waiting area with tables surrounding the waiting area in a large circle, similar to a Career or Involvement Fair. At each table was a different academic department, and when your name was called an HR representative would come and escort you to your “interview” with your respective department.  I use interview loosely here as it was more of an informal conversation asking about my teaching experiences and philosophy only lasting between 10-15 minutes for myself in both circumstances.  I interviewed with two departments and spoke with 2 and 3 faculty respectively,  so despite signing up for an hour long slot, I was only there for about a half hour, but that could change depending on how many candidates are interviewing for your position.  Some of the other people in the waiting area spent more time waiting to be interviewed than the actual interview.

While I haven’t heard back from either yet, getting these “reps” and practice for these positions was really important helping calm my nerves a little bit, so the only thing I will add to Rebecca’s post is that not getting an offer is STILL progress. Good luck to anyone else on the job hunt!

March Mad-Scientist

It’s probably been too long since I wrote when I have trouble remembering my password to submit this post. There have been times during grad school when I could easily blame laziness as an excuse, but the past four weeks have been the most taxing and stressful of my academic career: finalizing my dissertation.

So here I am, writing this, in my possession a fully revised and edited document containing over 31,000 words thinking that while my defense is still ahead of me, do I feel much different than I did before sending my final draft to my committee? Okay, bad example, that e-mail had so many emotions tangled together before hitting that Send button.  Let’s go back an hour earlier to when I packaged my Word document into a .pdf and finally had time to exhale. Breath in……and…..out.

I was surprised at how little I felt. Now, maybe this isn’t the case for other people, but I had this preconceived notion that finishing your dissertation should feel like this monumental moment in your life, the culmination of 4+ years potentially ending in you never being labeled a “student” again.  That all those sleepless nights or worse, nights you slept and dreamt about your dissertation, were going to stand for something and you’d have this sense of pride and accomplishment. For me, nothing.

Through the process of writing, editing, yelling obscenities at Microsoft Word, editing, fixing graphs in Excel, and (still more) editing, I started to see places in my results that opened up not holes, but passages for future and additional work that could show critical information. Information that would allow our whole research group to make stronger conclusions about our respective individual projects and potentially what they could mean for the scientific community. So, despite not feeling any changes, those thoughts made me realize one thing. It was time for me to go and maybe that was THE difference.

Revisiting Your Resolution

With the (short) extra time off this week due to snow, I’ve used some of the time to reflect upon the month that was January 2015.  I’m actually not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I think an arbitrary end point shouldn’t affect your ability to make changes about yourself if you really want to make them happen. Positive changes can happen in any month of the year, why wait till January? I find it amusing when people make broad resolutions like “Eat healthier” or “Exercise more”, as they purposely make them non-specific enough to allow themselves to slack off or forget about them by mid-February. An annual custom I’ve come to enjoy is the extremely crowded cardio equipment section at the gym that seemingly becomes empty usually 4-6 weeks into the semester when exams and papers start piling up.

While my resolution sounds clichéd and broad (become a better organizer), I’ve focused on specific smaller ways and used the start of a new semester as a rationale for bucking my resolution trend.

My organization goal actually relates to both of my roles as a graduate student, in both my teaching and research.  My desks both at home and in my office are a complete mess. At home, I often find it difficult to find space for my laptop at night. I mean, I need to have space for the important stuff like my Staples’ Easy button, right? My desk at my office is not much better, scattered with books, journal articles, and that Science section from the New York Times dated October 14, 2014 that I’m definitely going to read this week. I’ve found this disorganization to flow into 2 key places that affect my daily life: my flash drive and my messenger bag.

My flash drive used to look like a 6 year’s old toy chest, scattered with random files of data in raw and Excel formats and folders that say “New Stuff” and “Original Stuff” and it makes me wonder if I’m ready for life after graduate school when I label multiple folders “Stuff”. So, I’ve used this as a jumping off point to organize my flash drive as well as other sections of my computer into labeled folders, placing as much information into folder and file names as possible including semester, year, and full journal article titles. It’s really helped during the writing stage to be able to find that specific experiment or journal article that I used to take me 20 minutes.

The second aspect of my resolution focuses on my messenger bag which contains all my supplies for teaching this semester. Rosters, attendance sheets, graded assignments, and non-graded assignments that I need to collect from students that my bosses want for reasons I’ll never understand. All piled and squished into separate folders but some sections having much thicker folders than others despite having the same amount of students, which after inspection usually is my agenda and teaching supplies from 2012.

Well, not THIS semester. At least that’s the plan. Only 2 weeks in, I think I’m on the right track. What was your resolution and can you make it 11 more months?

Most importantly, prediction that’s relevant for this weekend: Seahawks 28, Patriots 27.

Time Management Power Rankings

I’ve been in the Volunteer Blog Industry for a solid 3 months now and in that time I’ve learned two things. First, my grammar is atrocious. Second, if it’s one thing that drives readership and discussion, it’s power rankings.

During a month where the number of exams and papers are higher than the number of remaining class days, it’s important to think about time management, and where academics currently lie in the power rankings of your life.

Now a disclaimer, my rankings may be questioned or mocked, but they are MY rankings. I’d encourage you to place your top 5 in the comments.

1. Research/Experiments
After all, it is the reason we are here, right? While we all have other obligations, when pressed, I think we would all say on some level that our research is at #1 on most days, right? Thankfully, I’ve been here so long that classes no longer have a place on my rankings since I’m finished with my course load.

2. Sleep
I can’t stand the taste of coffee so getting a solid 7-8 hours of sleep is almost integral to having a productive day. I’ve often spoke to older people who use their age as an excuse to go to sleep earlier. If that’s the case, I can’t wait to get older.

3.  Basketball
My closest friends would say I watch too much basketball, but how well do LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Ricky Rubio really know me? Don’t worry, not a total waste of time as I often will watch games on my iPad while on the treadmill.

4. Teaching
Oh wait, I just finished all my teaching obligations outside the final exam!! If my bosses are reading this, it was absolutely #2, but needed a gimmick for this post.

4. Data Analysis
The beauty of my research is that it actually allows me to pile up data for months (I can say this from personal experience), without having to rush to get it done before starting my next experiment. Excel has become my best friend and worst enemy at times, with the amount of manipulation I need to do for Excel to make graphs, however with the help of macros and templates, Microsoft might need to go in my acknowledgements of my dissertation.

5. Video Games
Now that teaching is over, time for my old #6 to move back into top 5. Let’s hope this old friend (future Hall of Fame status in my Top 5) stays at #5 without going much higher.

So, as we wind down another semester, remember to focus on why you are here, but also don’t let graduate school overtake your life. Whether it’s basketball or video games, find something a little fun and stress-less to add to your Time Management Power Rankings this month.

What’s your 5 and should it change?

Picking the Right Advisor

As my time at Rutgers comes to a close this fall, I’ve started to reflect on some of the events and traditions I’ll be doing for the last time as a Rutgers student. It’s partially what sparked my interest to start contributing in this space.  Recently my mind has wandered on the events as to why I ended up here at Rutgers.  Before making my decision to come to graduate school, I searched out advice from faculty members, current graduate students, as well as perspectives from people who started working immediately after college. The most surprising thing about my investigation were the details and stories told by my former undergraduate faculty, specifically the highs and lows of their adviser experiences.

I know when I started graduate school, I didn’t really understand the totality of picking an adviser. I knew it was someone I was going to work with/for, but that’s really just the beginning of what your adviser will be to your time here.  My biggest recommendation on finding an adviser is finding someone you admire as to how they think and carry themselves, and who also happens to mold a project to your interest. I think every graduate student extracts some traits from their adviser, so in a way you need to find someone you are comfortable becoming yourself.  What makes it difficult is you can’t just choose based on this advice. I informally joined a group during my first year because I liked the adviser and the other group members, but I just couldn’t fully dedicate myself to the research. I picked a project that I struggled to see the real-life applications of, and when I wasn’t able to explain my research to non-scientists, because I didn’t fully understand it myself, I knew I needed to find something else.

I was torn. There were only a few other full professors in my department that were studying topics related to my specialized area of interest. I emailed a few, heard back from a couple, and after meeting with them my decision was very easy to make. Both of their research projects were similar, but they were very different people. One was very student centered, the other one was not. I knew that I needed an adviser I felt comfortable asking questions of, one who was going to be understanding, and one who would most likely hold me accountable to deadlines and actions.

Here I am, 6 years later, somewhat the group specialist when it comes to gas chromatography (which doesn’t get me as many dates as you’d think). I know that after being somewhat micro-managed early on during my research, which is what I’ve wanted, it has allowed growth in the long term; and that, ultimately, my adviser gave me a project I could run with and helped establish the foundation for becoming an independent scientist. I think that’s finally happened, and that’s why I’m ready to graduate.

If anyone can talk more about their experience with lab rotations and how that affected how you ended up with your adviser, write in the comments!

Workshop: Faculty Careers in Community Colleges

Last Friday, I attended a workshop titled, “Faculty Careers in Community Colleges”, where several former Rutgers alumni and current faculty members from local community colleges gave some perspective on their experiences. I’m considering the field of academia after graduation, and more recently have given some thought to the prospect of teaching at a community college, so I was curious to hear from them.

If you weren’t able to make it to the workshop, based on the panel of 4, here were some of the interesting comments.

  1. There are some community colleges that mandate research and publications from their professors. The environment described actually sounded closer to the expectations of a faculty member of a standard 4-year institution. This is important to note as these community colleges would likely care more about your research plan in cover letters and applications, than schools where research is not expected.
  2. Teaching loads vary from about 4 to 5 classes a semester, which wasn’t that surprising to me, however the class size of some of them are capped at 40 students which means you are only teaching 120 students a semester. Quite the jump from teaching as a TA!!
  3. As with most job markets, positions to teach at community colleges are becoming increasingly competitive, sometimes receiving up to 120 applicants for 1 position which have increased the qualifications of the candidate pool.  It’s becoming more and more common for the Ph.D to be “preferred” which actually means it’s a requirement, especially for the tenure track positions.
  4. Just like at most colleges and universities, the student body of community colleges is becoming very diverse. However, at community colleges it’s more common to find a wide array of experiences and backgrounds, ranging from the exceptional high school student looking to get a head start on college to the working full time adult looking to get to the next level of their career. I’m sure preparing content to fit all students would be quite the challenge.

And importantly, community college job announcements may not be listed in the same places as those for other faculty positions, so if you are interested, you might need to peruse their respective websites. Good luck!