New York Academy of Science Opportunities

Graduate students and postdocs in NY area:  Consider becoming an Academy mentor at Dept. of Youth and Community Development summer camps during July, teaching food and nutrition science. Mentors who complete 24 hours of teaching and training will receive an Academy Mentor Teaching Credential, as well as a $1,000 stipend.

Start planning ahead: From Scientist to CSO: Experiencing the Scientific Method as your Guide to Career Success takes place October 27 – December 5 at the Academy.

Dr. Jekyll v Ms. Hyde – The truth about picking an adviser

The truth is picking your adviser is one of the most important decisions you will make in your graduate career and also one of the least informed.  While you may spend hours deliberating topics and personalities, it is unlikely you will make your decision with a full picture of who that person is or what your research with them will be like.  It’s a gamble.  Your assessment of that person and their lab may be entirely accurate or incomplete when you choose to work with him/her.

If you are entering a program that doesn’t automatically pair you with your advisor (like many at Rutgers, including Nutritional Sciences), you are tasked speed-meeting the potential mentors.  You may narrow down your choices and spend a little time in 2 or 3 different labs.  Then you have the monumental task of choosing the person who will be your mentor for the next 4-7 years.  So how do you choose?  What should you consider?

Brandon wrote a post  in the fall about his choice of adviser and provided great advice on picking “someone you are comfortable becoming yourself.”  I can personally relate to this comment, seeing now how I have learned habits and behaviors from my own adviser.  In addition to picking a mentor who you admire, here are a few other reasons you may select an adviser:

  • The lab is Amazing! – Possibly the lab has all of the equipment that you have dreamed of.  Or the people who work in the lab are your soon-to-be best friends.  Consider that you will spend a lot of time in the physical lab and working with the people.  Pick a place you feel comfortable.
  • The schedule is Amazing! – Maybe you are trying to figure out the 4-hour graduate work week.  If so, you probably don’t want an adviser who expects you at your desk or in the lab 8am – 5pm every day.  If you hate trying to communicate via email and want to see your adviser everyday, picking one who travels a lot may not be the best option.  Pick someone whose work style aligns with your own.
  • The research project is Amazing! – You may have your heart set on studying earthworms.  If so, definitely find the adviser who will nurture your passion and combine it with his/her own.  Remember, research projects always go in unexpected directions.  So if the initial project isn’t exactly what you want, you may later be able to incorporate the things that interest you.
  • The funding is Amazing! – It’s a tough market for graduate students.  If your primary objective is a study support stream, go towards the gold.  Even if this adviser doesn’t have his/her own funding, he/she may be your biggest ally in securing funding through fellowship, grant or teaching assistanceship.  Make sure they are invested in supporting you.
  • My CV will be Amazing! – This adviser may not be your cheerleader, may not be around much, may not be super interested in your project.  However, he/she knows how to get you publications, books, presentations, fellowships, etc.  He/she will drive you to your full potential as a graduate student.

As I consider my experience and other newer students’ experiences choosing an adviser, I realize that you have to gamble.  Decide what is important to you first so you are collecting relevant information.  Within your program, ask the advanced students more details about your options.  Ask your program directors for advice.  Make the most informed roll of the dice that you can.

What other factors did you consider in picking an adviser?  Was your gamble a good one?  Please share your stories on this subject!

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!

The Nurturing Paradigm of Scientific Training

Uri Alon, a biophysicist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, likes to tell a story about when he first became a faculty member.  Already an accomplished researcher, he stepped into his empty new lab and immediately felt overwhelmed.  Despite all the training he’d received about how to do science, there was so much more to being a scientist that he was completely unprepared for: setting up a laboratory, recruiting students and postdocs, developing good projects for students and postdocs, managing a large team, mentoring young people for the next stages of their careers, and so on.  As critical as these skills are to being successful, there is very little emphasis on developing these skills early in one’s career.

Indeed, there seems to be little respect in the scientific community for the importance of these “soft skills,” at least in comparison to the technical skills required to do the research itself.  As a result of his personal experiences, Uri Alon has led a small crusade toward greater emphasis of the human aspect of doing science.  On his website he’s compiled a growing set of resources called “Materials for Nurturing Scientists,” including articles, videos, and songs, authored by both himself and others.  Topics include how to choose a scientific problem, how to give a good talk, how to build a motivated research group, how to achieve work-life balance, and more.  He also has developed support groups for young scientists at his institution and has advised other institutions how to do the same.  His title evokes a compelling vision: one in which one’s goal as an advisor to students and postdocs goes far beyond merely supervising their research.  The “nurturing paradigm” entails holistically developing young people in every aspect of becoming a professional scientist.  Having heard Uri Alon speak (and sing songs) about these issues multiple times in person, his vision is certainly an inspiration to me.

From Letter Seeker to Letter Writer

One academic skill that many folks first experience as graduate students, which I suppose goes hand-in-hand with teaching for the first time, is writing letters of recommendation.  Up until now, we’ve always been the letter seekers, asking teachers, professors, coaches, and others for their written support.  But many of us reverse roles at some point in graduate school, often after having served as a TA or mentor for undergraduates.  Now we become the voice of experience, having to evaluate a candidate for a job, graduate school, or some other type of program.

Of course, like many grad school skills, this one is not explicitly taught.  Faculty at least can draw upon their experiences serving on committees that actually review such letters, but graduate students usually haven’t yet been in that position.  How are we supposed to know the properties of a well-written letter?

Having written several letters myself now, I have developed a few habits that I hope are good.  I always include certain details that I think will be important to the reader, such as who I am and how I know the student.  I try to discuss my experiences with the student in a way that is relevant to the goal of the particular application (e.g., medical school, a summer research program, etc.), sticking to specific examples and realistic assessments — I’m sure evaluation committees tire of reading generalities and effusive but meaningless praise.

However, so far this has all been based on my intuition, not on any real knowledge or experience regarding what makes a good letter.  I would be very interested to hear the perspectives of both other graduate students as well as faculty members on this issue, for the benefit of all who write and read letters of recommendation.

GradFund, or, How to Stop Worrying and Start Writing Grant Proposals

Well, it’s finally gotten to that point in the semester. I think you know what I’m talking about (especially if you’re in the humanities): class presentations, expeditions to the library to secure any last minute arrivals from E-Z Borrow, and that final push to finish off seminar papers.

Before I hole myself up in my apartment and get to writing, I wanted to give a quick plug for Grad Fund Rutgers’s incredible (and free!) resource center for graduate students seeking external support. Not only do they run workshops to help you become a better grant writer, they also maintain a vast database of fellowship and grant-offering organizations to help you find the right one for you at each stage of your research. Did I mention they offer free one-on-one sessions with  knowledgeable fellowship advisors to review your proposal drafts?

What’s more (yes, it keeps getting better!), each summer they run a Graduate and Postdoctoral Mentoring Program which provides incoming and current students the structure and support to go from identifying a “funder” to completing a proposal before Fall deadlines.

I participated last summer, even before setting foot on Rutgers, and through constant feedback and practical advice, GradFund provided me with the information and guidance I needed to make my application as competitive as possible. While I didn’t get the fellowship this time around, the process of applying gave me a chance to build rewarding relationships with faculty members who continue to offer support and encouragement. I feel so much more confident in my grant writing skills and got a great head start on refining my dissertation project.

Not every school has an office devoted to helping graduate students win fellowships, so I encourage you to take advantage of this real gem at Rutgers.

OK, back to those papers!