End of Semester Events

As another semester comes to a close there are a few activities being offered to help us relax and recharge both mentally and physically.

– This Thursday May 8th the GSA is holding an end of semester social from 8pm to 12am in the graduate student lounge. This is a chance to come out and meet people from different departments and have some fun. The GSA has obtained an alcohol wavier for the event so bring your ids and your own beer, wine coolers, or cider. RSVP on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/807834569246342/?ref=22

– Rutgers Recreation is also offering free fitness classes for the month of May to let you work off some steam. For those of you who have a flex pass you should be familiar with Bodypump, CXWORX, Spinning, RU Fit, GRIT, BodyAttack, Zumba, Fitness Yoga, and Willpower and Grace. Those of you have not tried the classes in the past use these weeks to try them out. The schedule of classes can be found at https://www1.recreation.rutgers.edu/Events/eventView.asp?EventID=292&CategoryID=3

Get out and enjoy these and the many other activities that are going on, I hope to see you there.

Informational interviewing: Getting your foot in the door before you need a job

As I wrote in a previous post, this past summer I was an intern at the Department of State in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary.  In addition to experiencing the State Department work culture I attended invaluable career development workshops.  I’ve summarized here the information I obtained on Informational Interviewing, a skill I used extensively to build my network while in DC.

We have all heard that networking is the key to getting a job, so we attend conferences, career fairs, and join relevant professional societies.  However one type of networking students may be less aware of is informational interviewing.  This is when you meet with “connected” or “knowledgeable” professionals in your career field of interest.  The purpose of these meetings is not to obtain a job offer but instead to gather information, advice, referrals, and support.  These interviews are different from a job interview in that you take the initiative in conducting the interview by asking the questions.

These meetings allow you the opportunity to gather valuable information about potential career fields, companies, schools or organizations that you may want to work for in the future.  It lets you discover and explore previously unknown areas in your field and potential job leads.  It may expose you to important issues in your field of interest and also allows you to enlarge your network of contacts, by building on referrals.

When arranging for an informational interview briefly introduce yourself and explain why you want to meet them.  Let them know what type of information you are interested in and clarify that you are not looking for a job.  If you were referred by someone else make sure to mention that person’s name.  Make sure to acknowledge the value of the other person’s time so ask for only 20-30 minutes of their time.  If you are going to initiate contact over the phone have a script ready so that you cover all these aspects without having to think about what to say.  If you prefer contact by email, you should include what you are currently doing, a brief background on yourself, your referral or connection, and what you are looking for from that person.

In preparing for the interview learn as much as you can about the organization and the individual with whom you will meet.  Make sure to prepare and write down the questions that you will ask.  Develop priorities for the interview so that you get the most important information from the contact that you can.  Some example questions are:

– How did you get into this line of work?

– What has been your career path?

– What skills do you need to be successful in the job/field/organization?

– What associations and professional membership organizations do you find most useful?

– Whom else should I talk with and may I use your name when I contact him/her?

When conducting the interview make sure to arrive on time and restate the purpose of your meeting.  Focus on getting answers to your most important questions and don’t forget to ask for advice, information and referrals.  Make sure to stick to the time frame that you asked for originally and do not offer a resume unless asked.  Thank the individual and ask if you may keep in touch, typically by connecting on LinkedIn.  Within 24 hours you should follow up with a thank you note.  You can then periodically keep in touch.

Informational interviewing can help you to make better, more informed career decisions, and be more knowledgeable about positions or organizations of interest.  It also gives you experience and self-confidence in discussing your career interests for job interviews.  This is also an invaluable way to make you visible and connected to the job market.  Additionally, potential contacts are much more likely to take time out of their busy schedule to meet and help you if you are a student.  Informational interviewing is the method by which 70% of people get their next job offer and allows you to develop your networking skills even when not looking for a job.

Adapted from Department of State: Career Development Resources Center PowerPoint “Informational Interviewing: A powerful networking tool”.

Take a Break and Get Out!

For those of you new to Rutgers you may not be away of all the cool opportunities students can take advantage of with Rutgers Recreation.  Each semester they have numerous non-credit classes open to both undergrad and graduate students.  They also organize day trips for local recreation activities like hiking, yoga, whitewater rafting in addition to trips to visit local cities like Philadelphia and New York.

My most recent involvement was on Friday 9/30/13 when I participated in the RU Muddy 5K obstacle race.  It was a chance to get out and have some fun running through the Ecological Preserve on Livingston Campus while completing obstacles and crawling through a giant mud pit.  Luckily the weather was pretty warm because I was coated from head to toe in mud by the end of the race.  Although I did end up a bit bruised and battered from the obstacles it was a lot of fun and a nice change from the daily grind.

Tomorrow, 10/9/13, I am participating in Illuminate the Knight a 1.5mi run through Livingston campus that culminates in a dance party.  The course will be lighted with black lights, strobes, neons, laser and more.  It is suggests racers show up in neon and white to help light the course.  The after party at the finish line will have a DJ and more Rave lighting.  Registration is still open for anyone interested.

Visit Rutgers Recreation Facebook page to see tons of pictures of recent events, you’ll even see some muddy ones of me.  Hope to see some of you out there tomorrow and at other future events!

Alternative Summer Experiences

I have been very fortunate during my graduate school years to explore alternative options for my summers besides remaining in the research lab, working on my thesis, and teaching summer courses. These experiences have allowed me to develop skills and to network with people I would not have had access to otherwise.  I spent two summers on these “alternative” options taking a break from teaching and research.

The first type of alternative summer was early in my graduate career when I attended a course at the Marine Biological Laboratory or MBL in Woods Hole, MA.   Woods Hole is where famous life scientists go to play, learn, and teach the next generations of scientists during the summer break.  The Woods Hole website calls it “a salty sea spray village that brings the Nobel Laureate and the fisherman together in harmony.”  Of the several courses offered at the MBL, I was lucky enough to be admitted into the Microbial Diversity Course, a 6.5 week intensive crash course on all things microbiological.  We spent the first few weeks attending morning lectures followed by exploration of local fresh and saltwater marshes, bogs, and streams in an attempt to culture the various resident microorganisms.  The second half of the course was spent developing individual mini projects and additional instruction by world-renowned scientists.  However, it was not all work and no play as the scientists and students would mingle at the local beaches and bars in the afternoons and evenings.  I was also able to visit Martha’s Vineyard and go whale watching off the Cape Cod Coast.  This course and courses like it give students the opportunity to interact with other students and scientists from around the world, greatly enriching our scientific development in ways that are not possible if we do not venture off-campus.

This past summer I decided to experience something completely different from the normal bench work associated with microbiology.  I applied and was accepted to the U.S. Department of State’s Internship Program as a Student Intern.  I was placed in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary (STAS) in Washington, DC for a 10 -week period.  In this office I was surrounded by science PhDs who were using their knowledge to further U.S. international relations in regards to science policy and science diplomacy.  My responsibilities included drafting talking points, updating program information, and initiating a memorandum of understanding between State and a non-governmental entity.  I was free to attend numerous meetings, seminars and lectures within the State department and the surrounding DC area that caught my interest.  I worked on one initiative, the NeXXt Scholars Program and a research project on the Benefits of International Research Collaboration.  The NeXXt Scholars Program was initiated to increase the number of women from Muslim majority countries coming to the U.S. to pursue undergraduate degrees in STEM fields.  This was achieved by partnering with New York Academy of Sciences and U.S. women’s colleges.  Rutgers Douglass Residential College is one of the 38 women’s colleges that participates in the program.  During this internship I was learning how to apply the professional skills I was developing during my PhD training such as project management, organization, communication, and writing.  I learned how important it is to convey an overview of information in a clear and succinct manner, very different from the more in-depth analysis that graduate students do on a daily basis.  Being in DC provided me with the opportunity to network daily with professionals in related fields, experience the inner workings of the government, and discover numerous other possible career directions after graduation.

These two experiences, in addition to the normal teaching and research, have helped to round out my graduate education.  I learned and honed valuable skills that I may not have had the chance to develop if I had only remained on-campus.  Therefore I suggest you immerse yourself in another experience by taking advantage of internships, courses, field work, study abroad and other off-campus opportunities.  It will broaden your perspective and allow you to come back to your research with fresh eyes.  For many of these experiences the time to apply for next summer is now so act quickly!

Teaching can equal lots and lots of grading…

As I have stated in a previous blog post I find that there are many advantages to being a teaching assistant, however, a major disadvantage is all the grading.  For me, leading a three hour lab class twice a week is the easy and usually fun part of being a TA.  It’s the hours of grading that puts a damper on the whole experience.  Students hearing any TA, professor, or instructor complain about grading will always suggest that students don’t need to take tests or complete homework.  However, tests and assignments allow instructors to gauge students’ understanding of the material and to assign grades.  So for those of you that are new to teaching, I have a few tips for making grading easier.

First, make sure to warn students about legible handwriting.  I have a strict policy: If I can’t read it, it is wrong.  There is no reason in a college level course for a TA to be straining to decipher a student’s chicken scratch.  Some students figure if they write badly enough the TA will just give up and assume they had the correct answer for a question that they didn’t actually know.  I make sure to remind students at the beginning of every test so no one can dispute legibility requirements.

Secondly, make sure the general guidelines for writing/completing an assignment are very clear and accessible to the students.  The better you formulate the assignment or questions, the easier it will be for you to grade.  Ambiguity allows students the opportunity to debate with you about the “correct” format, length, and depth of the assignment.  Having the guidelines posted on a course website prevents students from making excuses about not understanding your in-class explanation.

For the actual questions, make sure there are not multiple correct answers.  Instead of just one correct answer, you’ll end up with your expected perfect answer, a few good ones and five mediocre versions.  Additionally, make sure that other questions in the assignment do not answer each other.  It helps to develop a grading rubric before you start, so that you know exactly which answers you are accepting for each question and how any partial credit will be given out.  The grading rubric is especially important if there are multiple TAs grading for the course.  The rubric makes it much easier for everyone to be consistent and significantly cuts down on complaints of there being an “easy” or “hard” TA.

As with any skill, developing good test and assignment questions takes practice and knowledge, so make sure to ask other experienced TAs about their techniques.  I also suggest taking advantage of the many seminars and certificates offered through the Teaching Assistant Project (TAP) to hone your teaching skills.

Research Methodologies in Laboratory Sciences- The Joys of Analytical Instrumentation

Obtaining a graduate degree would be so much easier if the analytical instrumentation would just work…For those of you would don’t have to run various chromatography instruments (ICs, HPLCs, GCs), thermo-cyclers, spectrophotometers, or any of the other numerous finicky pieces of laboratory equipment, I envy you.  You haven’t had to start your day thinking you would be able to run 100+ samples and get another figure for your thesis, only to spend not just a day but a whole week troubleshooting a mysterious problem, eventually determining you’ll have to order a part that will be delivered in three more weeks just to determine the concentration of your chemical of interest.  This of course holds up all the other experiments you had planned to set up.  I welcome you all to the joys of basic wet science research.

When I find myself in these situations I take a deep breath and think of all the reading I’ll be able to get done while I wait.  In my experience these situations usually arise from a few common problems and are a major part of the experimental process.  First, make sure you really read the instrument manual before you attempt to use anything or try to fix it.  Many times an instrument isn’t working because someone else, who had no idea what they were doing, decided to make a “repair.”  This is one reason it is important for senior members of the lab to instruct the new lab members on proper usage.  Secondly, remember to perform routine maintenance, as neglected instruments are like high maintenance boyfriends and girlfriends.  They will not work solely out of spite if ignored for too long.  Instruments work best when used and maintained on a regular basis. Third, always remember that this is part of the “learning” process.  You never really understand how something works until you have taken it apart and put it back together a million times.   Now not only are you an expert on the instrument, but you can also understand and interpret your data better since you know the limitations of the measurement. Your advisor and other graduate students will agree that this is a large part of the experimental process.

Lastly, if all else fails, blame an undergraduate and take a long weekend or a mental health day.  Delays are only to be expected when relying on group used equipment and if you are lucky someone else will have fixed it by the time you get back.  Plus working this hard makes obtaining the data that much sweeter.  So the next time an instrument, computer, or your “favorite” piece of equipment gives you a strange error message remember that you are not alone and that this is all part of the process.

Benefits to Being a TA

When I was first looking into graduate school programs, I was attempting to avoid having to teach at all costs. However life, and especially research funding, does not always work out as planned. I’ve been a TA now for several years and have to say teaching has greatly enhanced my graduate school experience. Yes, it does take a lot of time away from doing your actual thesis research, but it does develop many valuable skills. I’ve noted a few:

1) Public Speaking – Lecturing on a new topic every week that you may or may not be very familiar with. Being able to stand up in front of a group and deliver content in an engaging way takes a lot of practice. Undergrads make good test subjects since they are stuck listening to you.

2) Time Management – You have to balance your own course work, teaching responsibilities, and research. Throughout the rest of your life you are going to have multiple projects and deadlines that have to get done.

3) Really learning a topic- People always say you never really know something until you have to teach it to someone else. My understanding of microbiology has greatly improved since you never know what questions the undergrads might ask.

These are just a few of the many skills I feel I’ve honed during my time as a TA. Plus, after you teach a course a couple of times you become an expert, and it is nice to have something each week that you know you excel at as a feel good boost.