Prioritizing Writing (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.

At this point in the semester, I am surrounded by individuals trying to ride out the wave of work that surges through a semester.  The most important task is the one that is due next, and those long term projects are put off until it is too close to really give them the time they deserve.  For example, learning science and doing science are important, but so is communicating it.  Between courses, exams, teaching, lab work, mentoring, family and other commitments, how do grad students find time for writing?  One of my greatest struggles is determining where in the “To do” list to prioritize this long term task.

While it may seem like this is something that would come at the end of a large study or after a great deal of research/reading, I recently read a book that convinced me otherwise.  The book, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva, is a fast read that discusses how to be successful in writing more consistently and productively.  There are some specific tips about writing articles v books, but the main points are

  1.  Set aside time dedicated to writing and all of its associated tasks
  2. Commit to and defend  this time

Continue reading “Prioritizing Writing (Throwback Thursday)”

Benefits to Being a TA (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.

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: Continue reading “Benefits to Being a TA (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/

A few things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference

As conference season approaches, I always have mixed feelings about going. I feel like I’m going to be missing a lot of work time and giving a big presentation can definitely be daunting. Honestly, however, attending conferences and presenting my work have been some of the most important factors in shaping my research.  After chatting with other conference goers and getting feedback on my talk, I came back from a conference last fall with an entirely new game plan for tackling my next research phase. There’s a couple of great previous posts on why to attend conferences and how to get the most out of going to conferences. Here’s my two cents on some things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference:

  1. There’s going to be A LOT of talks and posters to see: choose wisely, make a schedule. One of the first things you should do is open up the abstract booklet with the conference schedule (or download the online version). Make notes of which talks/posters to see and have a schedule for where to be and when.
  2. Go to some talks outside of your expertise. Find something that genuinely piques your interest. You never know where you might find inspiration or what you might learn from seeing how work is done outside of your personal research bubble.
  3. Bring business cards. Check out Rutgers Visual Identity website for a downloadable template for designing business cards. I got 250 cards printed at Kinko’s for cheap and they look good.
  4. Have an elevator speech ready for explaining your research. One of the most common ice breakers when you meet people is, “So what do you do?” Be ready to concisely explain what you do and why it’s important at the level of an educated person who has no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t use jargon. Make it quick; up to 30 seconds is fine and if they want to know more, they’ll ask.
  5. Dress nicely. Talk with people who’ve attended the conference before and ask about recommended attire. If in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to directly email the conference organizers. Always air on the side of dressing up than dressing down. You want to make a good impression – you’re probably presenting yourself and your work to almost everyone in your field.
  6. Make a summary of your conference experience. After you return home, go through the notes you took during talks and type them up. Reference the papers you meant to look up. Organize the business cards you got and follow-up with people you said you’d contact. Talk to your adviser about your experience and compare notes with any other fellow students who attended too.
  7. Try to see the city a little bit. You’re there to go to a conference, but why not plan ahead to see some sites while you’re there during break times? There’s typically group dinners organized at local restaurants, like for a school’s alumni or hosted by a sponsor company – check with your adviser on which ones they recommend you seek out. Maybe you could even extend the trip through the next weekend and do some touring!

The Truest Sentence You Know: How to Get Un-stuck

The greatest frustration of graduate school has to be that, no matter how often I hope it will, the dissertation never writes itself. How convenient that would be! Alas. It’s one thing to feel confident and assured that you know what you’re doing in the archive. You found a seventeenth-century piece of parchment, and you actually managed to decipher a line of chancery hand? Congratulations, and well done you! You’ve earned a slice of cake and sit-down. And while you savor that pastry, it all comes together in your head – chapter titles, concluding paragraphs, clever introductions. You can see it all. Then you sit down to write it. And that’s another thing entirely.

I can’t be the only one who knows this feeling. It’s like that liminal space between waking and dreaming when your limbs don’t quite work. The fear of failure or – worse – mediocrity can be paralyzing. I’ve always fashioned myself a writer, but what if this time…what if this time…

And then I know I need him. I need Ernest Hemingway.

Hem may have led a disastrous personal life, but he knew a thing or two about putting pen to paper. And even he, the (so to speak) consummate professional, had his bad days. But, thankfully, because he was the consummate professional, he soldiered through them, and, lucky for us, he wrote about it. His advice, recounted in A Moveable Feast, was directed at himself as he struggled with a story in his Paris years. But he might have been talking to me too.

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

By some miracle, it works. It always works. It gives my writing the strength and attitude it needs to be convincing and, if luck is shining on me that day, stylish. Excavating my draft for the core truth I want to convey – in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter – and being able to communicate it in a simple declarative sentence makes me a powerful writer for a moment.

Because that has to be part of the goal, doesn’t it? I’d like the dissertation to be more than passable, more than good. I’d like it to be stylish. Readable. Art historians like me write about people who created, but we’re creating something too. Shouldn’t we recognize that we are engaging in a creative act and try to act accordingly? Shouldn’t we try to write something worth reading? Something that contributes not only to our field or to the humanities but to humanity? (Did I go too far there?) I don’t flatter myself that I’m the next Simon Schama, Paul Barolsky or John Summerson, whose work I would gleefully read under the shade of an elm tree. But what was the point of doing all this if I’m not going to try?

Hemingway rented a room in the Latin Quarter of Paris – no heat, no toilet, no fun of any kind. When he was stuck, he stared into the fire, peeling an orange until he settled on the truest sentence he knew at that moment. He knew the fear of failure would be there, and he had a strategy for facing it. And Lord knows, he wasn’t alone. A list provided by my good friend and writer Michael Fuchs includes a series of successful writers lamenting their own fear of failure, including himself as he prepares his fifteenth manuscript. And Nora Ephron famously said, “I think the hardest thing about writing is writing.” We all get stuck. What is your strategy for getting un-stuck? In the end, I suppose it all comes down to discipline, whatever your discipline.

Prioritizing Writing

At this point in the semester, I am surrounded by individuals trying to ride out the wave of work that surges through a semester.  The most important task is the one that is due next, and those long term projects are put off until it is too close to really give them the time they deserve.  For example, learning science and doing science are important, but so is communicating it.  Between courses, exams, teaching, lab work, mentoring, family and other commitments, how do grad students find time for writing?  One of my greatest struggles is determining where in the “To do” list to prioritize this long term task.

While it may seem like this is something that would come at the end of a large study or after a great deal of research/reading, I recently read a book that convinced me otherwise.  The book, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva, is a fast read that discusses how to be successful in writing more consistently and productively.  There are some specific tips about writing articles v books, but the main points are

  1.  Set aside time dedicated to writing and all of its associated tasks
  2. Commit to and defend  this time

To learn more about the author’s suggestions, I suggest borrowing the book from the library or purchasing it.  This book has totally changed my perspective on writing.  While I understand that writing and preparing presentations of my work is just as important as reading background information and working in the lab, I have not been dividing my time accordingly.  Now, I am taking the authors suggestion and planning a few hours every week, on my calendar, just for writing.

So far this strategy has allowed me to more efficiently organize my thoughts and make progress writing emails, blog posts and my dissertation proposal.  I know that writing is viewed differently between humanities and sciences, but this point is relevant for any field.  So, I am eager for others to comment on their own trials and successes with writing productively.

What do you do to prioritize writing?

Teaching Issues: Behavioral Ethics

As graduate students, we share our opinions with the force of fact.  In many fields, this unwavering confidence is necessary for ideas to be considered.  We are required to frame our ideas so we receive thoughtful insight,  constructive criticism and no nit-picking.  Typically, this means significant amounts of preparation and burrowing into the ideas which we support.  What a fantastic skill to develop!

Have you ever considered what happens when you stand up in front of an audience with this strong bias towards your own ideas?  As a presenter, you are serving as an “expert” on a topic.  While you may want to persuade your audience of an opinion (yours, your advisor’s your department chair’s), doing so without all of the relevant information, including opposing points, is deceptive.

As teachers and mentors, what is our responsibility to our students?  Is it ethical to share your opinion without letting them form their own?  Or to present one side of a research argument without at least mentioning the other?  The one-sided or incomplete seminars I have experienced left me skeptical and unexcited.  The classes I’ve taken taught by stubbornly opinionated professors have left me questioning the expertise of the professor.  Perhaps these are conscious choices of the presenter, but it is unclear if these individuals understand the mistrust they instill in their audience by forcing their own perspective or missing important information.

I found an interesting series of videos on behavioral ethics that discusses social influences on individual choice.  As leaders in the classroom, laboratory or organization, graduate students have influence on undergraduates and peers.  It is important to acknowledge this influence and use it carefully and thoughtfully.  When you prepare for your next class just consider what you are sharing, or not sharing, with your audience.  Consider if you are being honest about what you do and don’t know to support your conclusions.

Have you ever considered this perspective or your responsibility as an authority figure?  Leave comments on the post to continue this discussion…

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!

From the computer screen to the lab bench: A physicist learns to do wet-lab biology

As Kenneth described in a recent post, the Center for Integrated Proteomics Research and the BioMaPS Institute for Quantitative Biology at Rutgers recently held a two-week “boot camp” program to cover a range of basic topics in molecular biology and biophysics.  The program was intended to serve the increasingly diverse community of scientists — with backgrounds ranging from physics and chemistry to computer science and mathematics — working in quantitative biology.

As a physics graduate student who works in the BioMaPS Institute, I was definitely in the target demographic.  In my undergraduate days I was mainly interested in particle physics and cosmology, so my coursework focused entirely on physics and mathematics.  I haven’t taken a biology or chemistry course since high school.  While I’ve certainly picked up a great deal of the necessary biology throughout my graduate research in biophysics, I could still use more breadth.

But I was primarily interested in gaining a very specific kind of breadth from the boot camp.  Besides having a background in physics, I am also a theorist by training, and I’d never had any experience doing “wet-lab” biology experiments.  (In physics, there is a very clear divide between theorists and experimentalists.)  But recently I’ve become interested in gaining some experience with wet-lab biology, both because it’s helpful for collaborating with experimentalists and understanding experimental papers, but also because there is a serious possibility I will pursue a combination of theoretical and experimental work next year as a postdoc.  Luckily, the boot camp included a week-long experimental lab for complete beginners like me, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it out.

The best thing about having zero experience with something is that you can learn a whole lot really quickly.  So even the most basic, mundane aspects of doing the lab were new and exciting for me, things I had heard about in talks or read in papers but never really understood.  So this is how you pipette…and “streak a plate”…and purify proteins…and run a gel…and so on.  Here’s some photographic evidence (credit to Gail Ferstandig Arnold):

As someone who has worked only on the other side of research until now, it has been really eye-opening to have concrete experience doing experiments and generating data that previously existed only as abstractions in my theorist’s mind.  While I recognize that a week’s worth of exposure isn’t enough for me to jump right into doing all my own experiments as a postdoc — undoubtedly I’ll have to relearn all the stuff from last week again later — getting that first experience definitely gives me confidence for the future.

Biological Science Boot Camp: Bridging Theory and Experiment

Society is a complex network of people needing to effectively communicate. To advance the standard of living, it is imperative that communication exists between people who articulate different perspectives and work towards a common goal.  For example, teams of medical workers are needed to deliver healthcare, groups of politicians are required to debate public policy, and teams of scientists are vital in every branch of society.

In many instances, the complex nature of society requires scientists, politicians, and medical workers to work towards a shared goal. For this to occur, ideas need to be communicated effectively. Medical workers need to know the expected impact of a life saving drug developed by scientists, and politicians need to determine if the new drug meets regulatory policies.

Before a drug can be put in the hands of trained personnel, a team of scientists with diverse expertise in experimentation and theory need to design and thoroughly test the drug. However, theorists may not have the background to understand the limitations of experiments, and experimentalists may not have the theoretical background to simulate and model data. Effective communication and collaboration can bridge the gap between theorists and experimentalists.

This winter break, I am bridging the gaps in my science by attending the intensive two week interdisciplinary boot camp offered by the Rutgers Center for Integrative Proteomics Research. The boot camp offers an immersive experience for scientists interested in finding potential collaborators, and learning new methods, for exploring theoretical and experimental biology. The main tool being used to teach the many aspects of biology is the Green Fluorescent Protein, a Nobel Prize winning subject important for the advancement of biological science. This boot camp is offered Jan. 6-17, 2014, and is open to all.  For more information click here

Communicating science: simple language for complex ideas

For those who don’t know, the Rutgers graduate school (through Project AGER) regularly offers a variety of outstanding workshops on professional development for grad students.  I recently attended one on science communication.  The workshop was run by Sangya Varma, of the Rutgers Professional Science Master’s Program and an alumna of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  (In his post-M*A*S*H career, Alan Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for many years and has been a vocal advocate for popularizing science.)  The center at Stony Brook offers multiple courses, a master’s program, and various workshops to train scientists to better communicate their work with different audiences.  It’s a fascinating and one-of-a-kind place, and I for one would love to take part in some of their activities.

The two-hour workshops at Rutgers provide a small sample of what the center at Stony Brook offers.  After highlighting the basic motivation for scientists to cultivate communication skills and some general principles of how to convey complex ideas in simple ways, we embarked on exercises of “translating” our own research into accessible language.  We also chose from a list of specific audiences (e.g., a family member, a group of investors, a newspaper reporter, etc.) and spontaneously tried to present our research to that audience.

This last activity really hit home for me, since a few months ago I participated in an interview with members of my group about our research for The Daily Targum.  Neither we nor the reporter had much experience with this, and while the resulting article was a nice plug, I was rather dissatisfied with it.  We ended up saying very little in the interview about our specific research activities, instead being sidetracked on general issues about the state of the field.  I also realized how terrible the spontaneous things we say aloud look when put into print.  I learned that one really has to prepare for these things: you have little control over what the reporter will pick to include in the final article from whatever you said in the interview, so you have to give them a very polished set of statements (pretty much at the level of sound bites, which is what they will end up using) that you won’t regret having in print.  Speaking off the cuff makes it too easy to say something careless, incoherent, or just plain silly.

This previous experience and the workshop (plus all those times I felt dissatisfied after trying to explain my work to friends and family) have inspired me to take a more deliberate approach in the future for communicating my science.  I’m starting with a list of audiences that I may likely interact with, based on my research and career interests:

  • Family members and friends
  • Basic life scientists outside of my specific subfield (e.g., molecular biologists)
  • Physicists outside of my subfield (e.g., condensed matter physicists)
  • Biomedical scientists (e.g., cancer biologists)
  • Biotechnology scientists and entrepreneurs
  • Science news media (e.g., Scientific American)
  • Mainstream news media (e.g., NY Times, Rutgers Today)
  • Program officers and review panels at funding agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF, private foundations)

My goal is to prepare short descriptions of my work customized for each of these audiences.  Most of us have at least partially done this implicitly — say, by writing applications to different funding sources or concocting one spiel about your work for your parents and another spiel for your grad student friends.  But I think a more systematic approach is a good future goal.  Even a list of important points or key words to emphasize for each audience is probably helpful; for most of us, we will definitely emphasize slightly different points or use different words for distinct audiences.  For me, I would likely emphasize the “coolness” and basic science relevance of my work when speaking to my friends or peers in science (especially from physics), while to an audience of biotech people I would definitely emphasize future potential applications.

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!

Organizing Events and Programs

Organizing an event can be incredibly taxing and difficult, especially for a graduate student. However, grad students are often brought into projects of this sort. It provides an event or program with capable staff or assistants of whatever sort, and also provides the student with an important type of experience. The managerial and administrative skills grad students can learn and refine from these experiences is important and useful. If anything can teach time-management, putting together a conference or workshop certainly can.

The type of work undertaken can be varied, as can be the time-commitment and intensity of work. Some students may help with the logistics of a conference and wind up incredibly busy for a 3-day period, while others may be junior members of the organizing committee and wind up working a moderate amount* over a longer period of time.

*And keep in mind, such duties and such work are undertaken in addition to existing obligations towards research, teaching, or coursework. So “moderate” is more than it sounds, perhaps.

From my perspective, these skills are sometimes hard to describe or quantify. Some of the skills may be specific to the type of event being organized, while others may be widely applicable. Having been graduate coordinator for the DIMACS REU for several years, I believe some of the experience may only be applicable in scenarios with undergraduate research. Other skills, however, may transfer to scenarios like organizing a conference or working within a department or university bureaucracy. In some sense, one learns how to do things, how to get things done, whether that means learning to adapt to certain scenarios, understanding how to navigate certain structures, or simply having the experience of making something happen. In the future, stepping up to the figurative plate will be easier and more natural.

One important virtue in organizing events and programs that I have come to value as almost universally applicable and of great importance is this: Set yourself up to succeed. Front-load the work, make sure it is done right, have a plan, and always be as prepared as possible.  Don’t forget to follow up on important emails. Make sure that contingencies have been covered. Accidents will happen, disasters will occur, and you will make mistakes. Have a timetable, have back-up plans, and so on.

That sounds like many principles, but to me it really is one coherent guiding idea. Success in organizational and administrative tasks can be decided, or at least heavily weighted, by the organizational and managerial efforts invested, especially those invested early. That lesson, and a little experience, can help a capable grad student or young faculty member successfully bring together virtually any meeting, conference, project, or program.

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.

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.