Grad Student Experiences in Leadership (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

scrollThis will be a different type of blog post. This is actually a blog post from 14 graduate students who graduated from the Rutgers Pre-Doctoral Leadership Development Institute (PLDI). This post is composed of short notes about their experiences and serves to thank the Faculty and Staff involved in PLDI. Continue reading “Grad Student Experiences in Leadership (Throwback Thursday)”

Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a second year STEM graduate student, and she turns to me and asks, “This may be a stupid question, but why do we go to conferences?”

It made me pause to think for a moment. As graduate students, we get a lot of advice on making the most of conferences, and how to present at conferences, but it’s always assumed that we understand why we go to conferences in the first place. Clearly, for young grad students, this is not always the case, so I decided to make a short list of my top reasons for attending conferences (in no particular order). Continue reading “Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons (Throwback Thursday)”

Your job, found at iJOBS

Whether it is a sad or happy thought, it is true that a PhD or MS program has an end.  So what does one do after?  The number of academic jobs decline each year, and the future state of higher education is very unclear.  So what other opportunities are there for newly minted graduates?

This is exactly the question that a new Rutgers program is addressing.  iJOBS, Interdisciplinary Job Opportunities for Biomedical Scientists, provides opportunities for current graduate students to network with and learn about relevant industries beyond academia.  Implemented with Biomedical Science students, iJOBS is expanding to include students in many other academic fields.   It is a multi-year program for students, with phases of participation.  In Phase I, students participate in career fairs, workshops on skill development and similar events.  Students must accumulate a certain number of participation hours to apply for Phase II which includes more personal training and shadowing opportunities.

Why should you consider it? Because this is an opportunity for you to begin developing skills and contacts that will help you pursue a career beyond a tenure track position, such as science and health policy, business management and data analysis. The workshops alone are worth a look, including resume/cv development, interviewing skills, communicating science to politicians and networking skills.

There are certainly interesting topics for any graduate student, and I encourage everyone to consider participation in the program.  Find more information at http://ijobs.rutgers.edu/

Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a second year STEM graduate student, and she turns to me and asks, “This may be a stupid question, but why do we go to conferences?”

It made me pause to think for a moment. As graduate students, we get a lot of advice on making the most of conferences, and how to present at conferences, but it’s always assumed that we understand why we go to conferences in the first place. Clearly, for young grad students, this is not always the case, so I decided to make a short list of my top reasons for attending conferences (in no particular order).

1. To meet people
A big reason for going to conferences is to meet and meet up with people. Conferences bring together people from all different geographical areas who share a common discipline or field, and are a great way to meet new people in your field. At a conference you will be able to get together with people from a wide range of backgrounds or from a number of institutions, whom you may not encounter at your home institution. As you build your professional network, conferences also become a good place for meeting up with people in your field that you haven’t seen in a while.

2. For people to meet you
It may not seem like a notable thing, but conferences are also a good way for people to meet you. Yes, you, the lowly second year grad student, presenting for the first time. You may meet someone at a meal, or they may stop by your poster, and within a few minutes, you can make a connection with someone that you might not even have met if you hadn’t attended the conference. This is especially important when you are looking for collaborators, or jobs and postdocs, or, in some fields you may even be looking for committee members. Or perhaps you are just trying to build your professional network. Conferences are another way to get your name and your work out there as you begin to establish yourself in your field of study.

3. To present your work to others
This is one of the more obvious reasons for attending conferences: to present your work! It’s good practice in talking about what you do with a variety of people from similar, related and/or completely different areas of study. Presenting will make you more confident about the work that you do, and gives you new perspective about your work as people may ask questions that make you think about your project differently. At a conference you have the opportunity to get feedback on your work from people who have never seen it before and may provide new insight, as well as from people other than your graduate adviser who are experts in your field.

4. To learn new things in your field
As you view different posters or attend different talks, you hear a lot about things in your field that may be new to you. These could be new techniques, new types of equipment, data that is yet unpublished, or investigators that you may not have heard of. Conferences allow you to get a good sense of what’s going on in your discipline that you might not be aware of living in your neck of the woods. You get to hear about the research of some of the biggest names in your field and of some of the newest faces in it. In addition, conferences give you the opportunity to talk to these people one-on-one about what they are working on, and they may even give you advice on how to develop your project. You have the opportunity to ask presenters questions about their work and the rationale behind it, which you can’t do when reading journal articles!

5. To learn new things outside of your field
This is a two-fold benefit of going to conferences, since not only may you learn things outside your field about other areas of research in your discipline, but conferences also have many sessions for professional development and career advice, particularly at large national conferences. Chances are, when you go to a conference the attendees are united by a single broad topic, such as immunology, but they have many different sub-fields of study, and many projects will be multidisciplinary. Thus you have the opportunity to learn about a different area of your field as a way to develop your dissertation project, for your own personal pursuit of knowledge, or if you are looking to change your research focus. Moreover, conferences (especially the big ones!) have many professional development workshops and seminars for graduate students, where you hear from career professionals about skills such as networking, creating a CV or resume, different types of careers, and interviewing skills.


So why go to conferences? I guess a short summary reason would be: for your continued personal and professional development. Take advantage of these opportunities, even if you can only attend smaller local conferences. Meet people. Network. Learn new things. Who knows, you may even end up leaving a conference with a job offer!

What are some other reasons that you might have for attending a conference? Share them in the comments below!

Making the most of scientific conferences

Conference experiences have been explored a few times on this blog before, but given the apparent diversity of conference formats across disciplines, I think another perspective might be valuable.  The topic is particularly on my mind since I recently attended the American Physical Society (the major professional society for physicists) March Meeting, which took place in Denver this year.  March Meeting is by no means the only important conference in the physical sciences, but it is probably the biggest — almost 10,000 people, from undergrads to Nobel Prize winners, attend from all around the world.

I’ve been to March Meeting three times now, plus a few smaller conferences.  Now that I’m nearing the end of graduate school, it thus seems like a sensible time to reflect on how to make the most of these trips.  Optimizing your conference experience is important, since conferences are usually a substantial investment of your time, energy, and money (maybe your advisor’s money, but still…), and they can be key opportunities to advance your career.  So here are some thoughts on the matter I’ve acquired over the past few years:

  • Don’t try to attend everything.  This was probably my biggest mistake at earlier conferences, and I think it’s a common one to make.  It’s so easy to have eyes bigger than your brain when you look at the schedule of talks.  I would try to attend everything the first day or two, and then I would inevitably burn out and end up missing or sleepwalking through some more important events later on.  Try to prioritize the absolute most important things on the schedule before the trip, and make a reasonable plan of how much you can actually do.  Be conservative with your judgment.  It’s better to sleep late and attend only a few talks that you really pay attention to, rather than to wake up early and attend everything but be so tired that you don’t learn anything.  So how should your prioritize events?  Well…..
  • Meeting people is the most important thing.  Specifically, it is more important than any talk.  Talks definitely can be useful — they put your finger on the pulse of cutting-edge research and can expand your breadth in unexpected ways — but there are still alternative ways of learning about research.  You can always read someone’s papers if you really want to know about their work.  But there is no substitute for interacting with people face-to-face at a conference.  This is how you form new collaborations and meet people who may someday offer you a job.  So when budgeting your time and energy, opportunities to meet people should always come first.  Skip the talks and just go to the reception afterward if you have to.  Now that I’ve stressed its importance, how do you actually go about meeting people?
  • Be a little shameless.  It’s hard to summon the courage to ask questions during a talk or introduce yourself to someone new, especially when they are much more senior and your questions and ideas seem naive.  But you have to be a little shameless and do it anyway.  The particle physicist Tommaso Dorigo has some nice ideas on his blog about how to come up with questions for these occasions.  The point is that even if your questions are a bit vacuous, or your attempt to introduce yourself and shake hands with that famous person feels awkward and forced, the mere process of getting practice doing it will be beneficial.  By the time your questions and ideas are more substantial, you’ll already feel quite comfortable speaking up.  Despite science’s reputation as being the domain of introverts and nerds, in my experience the scientific community rewards assertive, outgoing social behavior, people who are aggressive about seeking knowledge and maybe even a little self-promoting.  Being “that person who keeps asking questions” will make you stand out and gain respect as a passionate seeker of knowledge.  I played such a role at a few events in the past (ones with small audiences, which made this a lot easier), and several people even told me afterward that they noticed me because of all my questions.  Hopefully I wasn’t too annoying, but at least they noticed me!  But besides meeting new people from scratch, a much easier route is to…..
  • Use your existing connections to make new ones.  It’s always easier to meet people through people you already know.  So if you already know one or two people at a conference, spend enough time with them to meet some of the other people they know.  Getting to know grad students or postdocs at other institutions is a great strategy: as a grad student yourself, it’s usually not too hard to meet and get quality time with other young people (compared to, say, faculty), and once you get to know each other, they should be more than happy to introduce you to their friends at their own institution or other people they happen to know.  And you can do the same for them.  Finally, once you’ve met some new people…..
  • Follow up with the new people that you meet.  This can be tricky, but it’s important if you want those new connections to last.  I have been able to invite a few people I met at previous events to give seminars for our group here at Rutgers, which obviously helped a good deal in solidifying those relationships.  But that’s not always possible.  Sometimes it’s reasonable to send a follow up e-mail to someone you just met.  For example, you might talk to someone about a paper they wrote, and after you go home and read it, you could easily send them an e-mail with a generic pleasantry (“It was nice to meet you at that conference…”) followed by a question or two about the paper.  There’s no need to be sycophantic, but if you are honestly interested in their work, it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a few genuine questions.  A short e-mail exchange like this will go a long way in preventing you both from forgetting each other.  In the worst case, try to track down your new contacts at the next conference, even if it’s a year or two in the future.  They’ll probably be flattered that you remembered them and reached out.  If your memory for names and faces isn’t acute, find other ways of keeping track of the people you meet: for example, you can ask for business cards (not common in science, but apparently common in other disciplines) or keep a list of professional contacts.

I’m sure five years from now my views on conference-going will have evolved even further, but the foregoing points have at least served me well as I finish up my Ph.D. and prepare for the next stage.  So I hope someone else will find them useful as well.  In any case, I’m sure these issues probably vary widely across disciplines (and even within a discipline, too, depending on the conference), so different perspectives are welcome in the comments!

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”.

Conferences in Mathematics

Attending conferences is an important part of academic work. Conferences help us share our research with one another, find new collaborators and research topics, and keep up to date on our fields of interest.

I recently attended a bi-annual conference hosted by Integers (The Electronic Journal of Combinatorial Number Theory). I should say that my travel was generously supported by the conference organizers (i.e. the journal, via the NSF I believe) and my department & advisor, although I should say that one part of the conference experience is waiting with bated breath to get reimbursement forms processed. The government shutdown doesn’t help with that long wait either.

Rather than talk about the math, which isn’t really the point of this blog, I wanted to share some of the peripherals — the details of the conference, its format, what the experience is like. I have heard stories from other fields of study, and conferences seem to be very different from place to (figurative) place.

The departure is usually a bit of a rush of packing and preparing slides for presentations. Beamer (or equivalent) have become the de facto presentation method at math conferences, having (somewhat recently…) displaced the long-reigning overhead projector. After a day of travel, including a bit of a drive to Carrollton GA (home of UWG), I got some sleep before the first long day of presentations. I don’t travel much, and it is certainly stressful and tiring, but in the end I do enjoy it, especially driving.

Conference presentations are usually split into short (20 min) and long (50 min) talks, the later being given by specially designated (invited, plenary, keynote etc.) speakers of the conference. Most talks aim to communicate some new results, ideas, or insights into some type of research, and even for a specialized conference, there is a great deal of diversity in the subject matter. Some speakers speak to the general conference audience, while others speak to the very best experts in their slice of the research world. Many of the most interesting talks, to me at least, don’t probe into the depth of the subject, but give a gentle introduction or overview, and then outline or sketch the major new results or ideas. I’m more of a breadth-first guy.

The conference lasts for several days, as many conferences do, with talks back-to-back from about 9 to 5 every day. There are breaks for meals and coffee, and many conversations — professional and social — branch out from the main group during and after the sessions. Conferences are a great way to meet, re-meet, or quasi-meet people. I re-met Brian Hopkins, who has done some work related to my talk, and Bruce Landman, who has also worked in a related area (and is one of the conference organizers). Both of them (and several other audience members) had interesting questions and comments following my talk — one of the best parts of a conference is getting insightful feedback from colleagues. But I also met a few people more socially. I had a short chat about hockey with Cam Stewart after overhearing him talking about the sport, and sat at a table during the conference banquet with Steve Butler, Mel Nathanson, and Neil Hindman. Mel proposed an interesting problem at the conference that provided stimulating discussion and that I’ve found to be an interesting diversion even after the conference ended.

I also met other grad students like myself, many from closer to UWG (from schools like UGA, Georgia Tech, etc.), including Kate Thompson, whose advisor Jon Hanke  spoke here at Rutgers (by coincidence) only a few weeks after the conference (he was not at the conference). Making acquaintances can be quite beneficial — in this case, Kate and Jon know quite a bit about quadratic forms, which is something that is at least tangentially related to some long-term research ideas I’ve kicked around for a little while (but quadratic forms, on the whole, is a foreign subject to me). One day, if it comes up, I know somebody I can email if I stumble across questions or ideas I can’t wrap my head around.

Conferences in other fields can (apparently) be very different — my friends in the humanities tell me that conferences sometimes (often? always?) consist of reading papers aloud and asking prepared questions, while I have seen that some (many? most?) scientific conferences revolve around poster sessions and other such media. But for us in math, at least in my experience, it is a long sequence of presentations aimed (usually) at general information for the research-level audience, describing research ideas and perspectives and leaving technical details for the published page. I like this format, especially because it promotes dialog, discussion, and feedback — and helps people like me reach out a bit and meet others with similar interests and ideas in mathematics.

Welcome from GSNB Dean Harvey Waterman

And So It Begins…

With its perennial mix of enthusiasm and anxiety, the academic year begins.  For some of you it’s the beginning of graduate school, for others the return of routine or the continuation of ongoing work.  In any case, here we are again.

Unfortunately, graduate study resembles “school” (we even call it “graduate school”), with its suggestion of tasks being set by others and students dutifully completing them (or not).   This is terribly misleading.  For master’s students, the resemblance is particularly close, and disguises the importance of shifting the control of what’s going on toward the student, not the taskmaster—er, professor.  For doctoral students it’s all the more urgent that the student start creating his or her own box in or out of which to think.

Like weddings and bar mitzvahs, graduate study is the beginning of the rest of one’s life.  From the start, the student needs to figure out where she or he wants to go.  Not just how to get to the degree, but what it is for and what needs to happen in pursuing the degree so that the longer-term goal is reached in good shape.  This is not just the choice of which subject matter to emphasize or which courses to take.  It also means thinking about which relationships to cultivate, to whom to reach out beyond the faculty members of the one’s degree program, what skills are needed to complement the standard ones of the field of study.

For doctoral students, it means thinking early on about the kind of research that will best prepare for the career goals chosen.  And, therefore, the mentor(s) best suited to supporting those goals.

The risk is drift.  Take courses, read a lot of stuff, spend time working in the most convenient lab, postpone the real decisions, let fate unroll its verdict.  These are childish things.

Be, as the French say, sérieux.  It’s your life you are beginning.

At the same time, do remember to smell the roses.

Happy Year!

Harvey Waterman

Of Academic Sociability and Disastrous Storms

Reflecting on this past school year, it is clear to me that the social aspect of being a graduate student is nearly as important as academic production.  While research is often a monastic endeavor, the occasions in which we do get a chance to socialize with other academics allows us the opportunity to form new connections with key players in our disciplines, as well as to further solidify existing relationships.  Leaving the cloister of solitary scholarship also has the benefit of opening you up to unexpected adventures, such as hurricanes and other natural disasters.  Last October, during Super Storm Sandy, I realized how sociability and disaster can work together to form valuable, multi-faceted life experiences.

Academic conferences are typically social events that provide a venue to have a few cocktails and banquet meals, show off your research, and perhaps, most importantly, make the necessary connections that will one day (hopefully!) land you that nice tenure-track job at a top-tier research university.  My experience at the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIST) conference Baltimore last October is perhaps an outlier in this regard, particularly because much of the conference was overshadowed by the most significant natural disaster to befall New Jersey in recent memory.  This conference just happened to take place precisely as Super Storm Sandy was hitting the East Coast.  I had decided to stay in Baltimore for the duration of the conference, figuring that a large conference hall likely had generators and would be safer than returning to my home in Jersey City.  In fact, the storm barely disturbed Baltimore, with a broken umbrella the extent of my personal loss of property.  And, after the storm’s passing, the local brew pub was up and running again and things were just fine.  The New Jersey and New York coastline was not so lucky, of course, and finding transportation back to the New York metropolitan area with train service suspended became a challenge for me.  My solution was to rent one of the last cars at the nearby Hertz rental agency, and accompanied with another stranded Rutgers friend, make our way north, as quickly as possible, on I-95.  The landscape seemed virtually untouched, but when night began to fall and we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge into NJ, all lights remained dark.  We did not see a single street lamp glowing on our entire journey up the Jersey Turnpike.

Driving across the arched span of the Newark Bay Bridge into Bayonne, which normally provides an unobstructed view of the New York Bay area, revealed only a ghostly archipelago of darkened landmasses, with the opulent glow of midtown Manhattan and its radiant Empire State as the sole beacons of visible illumination on the horizon.  Driving through the darkened streets of Jersey City, we encountered dazed and lumbering storm-survivors, seeking out food, water, and perhaps most importantly, electricity with which to charge their digital devices.  This surreal environment resembled a scene from the zombie-serial, The Walking Dead, with city streets abnormally darkened, and slow-moving pedestrians lurching into oncoming traffic.  Fortunately, everyone maintained peace and civility, and surprisingly little crime occurred during this ordeal.  And when I finally returned to my apartment, my girlfriend was fine, cooking up some excellent stir-fry and sipping wine with friends.  So, thankfully, my fears of a zombie apocalypse turned out to be unfounded, but it would be about six days before we saw our electricity fully restored.

The experience of my trip down to the ASIST conference was clearly instructive as life experience on multiple accounts.  I was able to show off and discuss my academic research, and socialize with new professors, established luminaries, and friends just entering the job market.  Okay, so maybe a calamitous weather event that precipitated loss of life and billions of dollars in damage was not the ideal background for such an experience, but it did prove that traveling away from home and expanding one’s horizons does make the return home an entirely new experience.

Post Script:  Having just returned from a weekend at the Jersey Shore, I can report that there has been considerable work done on moving towards recovery from the damage wrought by Sandy.  There is still much work to be done, especially for private residences, but it is heartening to see how much has already been accomplished.  Even the Pinball Museum in Asbury Park, which is precipitously positioned right on the boardwalk is back in business!

Grad Student Experiences in Leadership

scrollThis will be a different type of blog post. This is actually a blog post from 14 graduate students who are about to graduate (or graduated) from the Rutgers Pre-Doctoral Leadership Development Institute (PLDI). This post is composed of short notes about their experiences and serves to thank the Faculty and Staff involved in PLDI.

What is PLDI?

Rutgers’ Pre-Doctoral Leadership Development Institute program (PLDI)  is designed to teach doctoral students aspiring to careers in academia how to navigate the challenges of academic leadership and thrive in the university environment. In this two-year certificate program, our professors shared a very precious gift with us – their experience. We created this blog in order to share our experience with them, with respect and appreciation for the gift they have so graciously given us. We hope that this will continue to serve as a reflective space for affiliates and future cohorts to share their perspectives.

-The PLDI Class of 2013

Tara Coleman: Program in Comparative Literature

When I first started the PLDI program and told my Dad about it, he looked at me strangely and asked why I needed leadership training if I was going to be a professor. He doesn’t know it, but I have already benefitted from my training a great deal, in ways as simple as being able to participate meaningfully in debates among my family and friends about Rutgers, the challenges facing higher education, and how I see my future in this field.

Continue reading “Grad Student Experiences in Leadership”

TEDxRutgers 2012

Vukosi Marivate

TEDxRutgers 2012 has come and gone (Website). I thought I should put my thoughts up about the event. I was one of the organizers of this and last year’s event. I take events like these as great opportunities to get to know and work with other students around the university. There are always so many things going on at Rutgers on any given day during the semester. Just check the GetInvolved website for the very long list.

Given this great number of things to do, students have a large variety of activities to choose from. My advice is to actually choose something and go with it instead of being overwhelmed by choice. The experience, outside my day to day research, is refreshing and rewarding. You get to meet new people who are not in your discipline, share ideas and potential collaborations in things you had never thought of before.

TEDxRutgers was, for me, one of those rewarding experiences. I started off in 2010 just as an attendee at the first one. The event was and still is run mostly but our great undergraduate students but I saw an opportunity to bring in some of my experience and joined the team as an organizer in 2012. The speakers in 2012 were from diverse backgrounds from in, around and outside the university. You can read more about the speakers here. We had students, faculty and performers.

My main responsibility was management of the website as well as all of the social media. I have a large interest in social media, especially as it pertains to mining data. Aside: Always be on the lookout for the opportunity to attend some of the Network Science/Social Media seminars/talks hosted at the Department of Computer Science or School of Communication. We had a great campaign for the event. Growing the Facebook page to 600 fans and having a reach (potential people who saw our posts on Facebook) of close to 15,000. Twitter was even better with a reach of close to 32,000 people. Below is a snapshot of the traffic generated on Twitter on the day of the event.

TEDxRutgers 2012 Twitter Reach
Uploaded with Skitch!

The only thing I think is heavily missing from the events is more participation of graduate students. Not only as organizers but also as attendees. It really is just a day out of the year but I believe we as grad students have so much to offer given our diverse experiences and the fields we work in.

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!

Spring Break as Conference Prep Time

When I was an undergrad, Spring Break meant a whole week to do absolutely nothing. Some years that meant traveling to a warmer locale with friends, others were of the “staycation” variety, but in both cases Rest and Relaxation were the name of the game. 

As a graduate student, things are a little different. This year, Spring Break meant a week of not needing to commute to New Brunswick from New York City, catching up on episodes of The Walking Dead, and starting the research process for end-of-semester seminar papers. Mostly, though, I spent this week putting the final touches on a paper I will be presenting at the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference at the end of March. 

As the name suggests, the ACLA is the national organization for scholars doing comparative work in the humanities, and the director of Comparative Literature here at Rutgers encouraged us graduate students to apply. This year’s theme is “Collapse/Catastrophe/Change,” and so I dusted off a seminar paper from a few semesters back and jumped at the chance to put myself out there and see if something stuck. And it did! I’ll be presenting a paper on two unconventional war movies: Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir and Katherine Bigelow’s independent film The Hurt Locker (both great, highly recommended). This will be my third conference presentation, and while I still have much to learn, I thought I would share some of things I know now but wished I’d known earlier about applying to and presenting at conferences.

What is a conference? A conference in the humanities is typically a meeting of scholars who convene over one or more days to present papers on a particular pre-determined theme. Some are local and run by graduate student organizations (these are a great entry for your first conference); others are larger and run by national or international organizations (these are often held on university campuses or large hotels). There are often keynote and plenary sessions open to the public where notable scholars in the field offer some thoughts on that theme, concurrent sessions of panel presentations, as well as a reception to allow time for mingling. Other formats exist, but I’m not familiar enough with those to comment (though if you can, please do!).

Why attend a conference? Participating in conferences is a key part of professionalization in the humanities. They offer opportunities to meet other scholars whose interests you share, and allow you to keep up with current scholarship in your field. And while we’re being honest, it is actually quite fun to spend a few days with people who are just as obsessed with interested in the kind of work you are doing as you are.

What do you do there? This certainly came as a surprise to me when I first learned about conferences, but what typically happens is that a panel of 3-4 scholars is allowed 15-20 minutes each to read a prepared paper. That’s right — they read their papers to an audience. A Q&A session follows the presentations, and I consider this one of the highlights of conferencing.  During this time, I have been offered helpful suggestions on additional sources to consult and new angles to consider in my work. Thinking of your paper as a solid work-in-progress really takes the edge off the experience of public speaking, and allows you to share your ideas while also opening yourself to feedback. Depending on where the conference is held, you might also get to travel to a new city, so why not take some time to get to know a new place?

How do I apply? Organizations put out what are called “Calls for Papers” (CFPs), which are a few words describing the conference theme and the kinds of papers they are looking for. In fact, you need not have written the paper when you apply (though having a clear sense of what you would argue is key). Most CFPs ask for a short abstract, about 150-300 words, summarizing your main ideas and how your eventual paper would fit the theme. Once your abstract is accepted, you will either be asked to submit the paper before the conference, or simply show up with your paper in hand to present.

Where do I find Calls for Papers? While this list is certainly not exhaustive, you’ll find a wide range via UPenn’s English Department Call For Papers website. Scholarly associations such as the ACLA and the Modern Language Association also post Calls on their websites. Department administrators also do a wonderful job of circulating Calls via email, so keep your eyes peeled!

Fun Fact: Searching CFPs is also a great way to come up with a paper topic for the end of the semester. Just knowing that other scholars are thinking about the same topics and themes can help motivate your research, and that strong end-of-year paper can become a great conference paper (and possible future publication). 

So what are some of your best conference strategies?  What is the most surprising theme you’ve come across? What are conferences like in other fields?

Share your thoughts in the comments!