Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My (fellow)ship's taking on water! Abandon (fellow)ship!

          Fellowship applications…suck. There. I put it all on the table. It isn’t pretty or flowery or even “educated” language, but it’s true. They suck.  I’ve been writing, literally, for eons. And before you ask – yes, I do indeed know what an eon is. And I’ve been writing for that long. Literally. 

          Because I believe in planning life to the nth detail – I began writing last Monday with the intention of writing one section per day. I skipped Wednesday, which turned into a skipped Thursday which turned into “eh, it’s Christmas!” Now, here I am, a week later, with only 2 sections of my application completed, pancakes in my belly, donuts on my mind and application writer’s block weighing down my thinking cap.  Remember those movies where the directors think it to be extremely important to show various clips of the struggling writer as he moves around his home carrying his laptop and coffee with him. He’s lying upside down on the couch with his feet against the wall and his head on the carpet. Or he’s sitting at his desk, leaning back in the desk chair that inevitably goes too far back causing him to fall.   That’s me.  Without the embarrassing “falling out of the desk chair” scene. I’m too classy and nimble footed for that. I’m the Audrey Hepburn of Ninjas. Wait…where was I? Oh yes, fellowship application writer’s block. 

Spending two hours scouring various articles, biotech companies and pubmed web pages regarding information for one single, solitary cell line is not my idea of fun.  Naturally this search brought up various tidbits of information that I did not need, which lead my brain down various woodsy paths to arrive at destinations it had no business at. Every time I read something, I have a Eureka! moment and think of an experiment that is so breathtaking, so earth shattering, so scientifically pivotal that it must be written down! And then, I remember, you’ve only 5 pages in this research proposal, 2 of which are to be spent on research design and methods. I’ve already decreased the spacing of my paragraphs to single and my font to 11. So, my earth shattering, breathtaking, scientifically pivotal experiment will be put to death by the slow strangulation of page limits. I hang my head in shame. In the midst of the research and spontaneous Eureka-ing, I still cannot write a simple research design section. I finally know what cell lines I’ll need, what questions I’ll need to ask – I even know how to answer said questions. I cannot, for the life of me, put it down on paper. Oh, sure, I can think about it out loud to no one but my imaginary friend Bob (and, NO, that is not what one would refer to as talking to oneself. Bob is here. I’m talking to Bob.), but I can’t write it.  I’ve been TRYING so hard, but the dang on cursor just blinks at me on the blank screen taunting me and laughing maliciously as everything I write gets discarded like yesterday’s Christmas wrapping paper.

                I have discovered that it is slightly easier to get things done when I grab a notebook and a pen and write out on paper, in the least jargony language possible, what I plan to do and how I plan to do it. But, for whatever reason, I’m not doing so well at putting it into the language a fellowship panel usually fawns over. I want them to squeal with glee when I use words like “superfluous” and “erroneous” and “bifurcation” correctly. I want them to say – “that is vocabulary that deserves $25,000 a year in funding.” But, alas, the mighty sword pen fails again. I am not slaying my blocked dragons. In the midst of my turmoil, however, I found a blog post.  Gather round kids, it’s advice time. 

                Fellowship and grant proposal writing requires a certain amount of planning, unless you’re name is Sheldon and you’ve been a physicist since you were 13 (that’s a Big Bang Theory plug, in case you missed it). Since most of us aren’t Sheldon, we’ve got to take the time to plan out what we are going to do and how we are going to do it. I take my research proposals section by section, completing those that I think are easiest. For me those are usually background and methods. The background is almost always a breeze because there’s so much information in the form of review articles out there. It practically writes itself. I did encounter, for the first time, something known as “specific aims.” I had no clue what this was. I’d never seen it in any other fellowship application I’d worked on. If you ever come across a portion of the research proposal that you’re unfamiliar with, contact the organization that funds the fellowship/grant.  Ask them if they could provide you with a bit of guidance as to what they are specifically looking for, and don’t be afraid to tell them that the application process (or sections of it) is new to you. They’ll either help or they won’t. Talk to your mentor (if you have one), a research advisor or a peer. If all else fails, Google it.  Or Bing it. Or Yahoo it. Whichever crumbles your particular cookie.               

  Now that you’ve got your questions answered about the aesthetics of the application, you can start thinking about how you structure each section. People do this in all sorts of ways, but the one major commonality between all proposals is continuity. You want your proposal to flow exceedingly well. If you let someone read it and they find themselves confused from section to section, your flow is off. Think of your proposal like a story. A good story keeps its reader intrigued, and says what it has to say without forcing the audience go back and re-read everything, searching for what they missed. You want your proposal to get from A to C without going to Z first.

If you read it, and YOU get confused, there’s definitely a problem.  If you read it, and YOU get confused, there’s definitely a problem. (Notice that's there twice...that's what I like to call "emphasis.")

                I think the most important thing that anyone can do when writing, well…anything, is to make enough time for proofing.  Don’t wait until 5 days before it’s due to start writing.  You want to have enough time to write a rough draft, write a final, and get feedback from your professors and advisors so that you can write the final final, aka the final2.  More importantly, you want to have enough time to take a breather while you’re writing. If you wait, you’ll be rushed, stressed out and feeling pressure that doesn’t need to be felt. Starting well ahead of time allows you to plan for things like, oh I don’t…writer’s block maybe.

                With all of that said, I’m still a newb! Please, please, PLEASE talk to the more experienced people around you. This is all information that I’ve gleaned from my “elders,” if you will, and from reading a lot of how-to guides.  I hope my consolidation of what I consider to be the important points helps at least a little.  I’m off to take another stab at my methods section. I’d really like to give up and lay down in my comfy bed with a nice fantasy novel, but I’ve got miles to go before I sleep, and a (fellow)ship to save. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

IT'S CHRISTMAS...plus 48 hours...

IT’S CHRISTMAS!!!! I took the procrastinator in me and murdered her so that I could study hard for finals and turn in my take home early. Why the bloodthirst you ask? Because I was in a rush to get home.  I’ve got three weeks of bliss and I plan to capitalize on my time at home like any person with a type A personality should.  Based on my calculations I needed an 88 on my Biochem final to get a C in the class (graduate credit, yippee!) and an 80 on my neurobio final to get a B in the class. Isn’t that the worst? Where I was once one of the smartest people in my classes, I find myself at a loss for answers or critically sound responses to questions.  I’ve discovered, and please don’t take this the wrong way, that first year grad students are expected to be dumb. I know this isn’t the case for every first year student, but many of the second and third years have shared their stories with me. In many of them, they experienced the same things I am experiencing now. Mostly, I feel out of place. In class I can’t answer a lot of the questions some of my teachers pose. In lab, I’m constantly asking questions to the point that it borders on annoying. In lab meetings and journal club, I find it hard to draw conclusions about the presented material, or even critically analyze the data of some articles.
                I’ve shared this with my mentor and members of the labs I’ve been a part of thus far – mostly those of my second rotation – and I’ve found that most people feel like this during their first year. I’m starting to realize that I’m not incompetent, just that I’m not a scientist yet. I’m a baby scientist, so I’ve got to take baby steps. I’m still learning how to critically analyze articles and data and I’m not expected to have brilliant answers to questions while in class – I’m still learning. So, dear reader, remind yourself of this everyday while you are in graduate school. You are still learning, and this learning continues outside of the classroom and outside of the lab.  You aren’t expected to be a brilliant thinker in the first semester of your first year! You’re a scrub! The bottom of the pyramid! I recognize this now, at the end of my first semester, and it makes me feel slightly better about not knowing as much as those around me. 
So, I will move forward with this information next semester, and work smarter – not harder. I already work hard enough.  I will know more next semester than I did this one and I’ll grow as a student and a scientist.  I think the most important thing that anyone needs to remember is that whether or not you’re in school, there’s always something you need to learn – most especially in the realm of academia.  I signed up for graduate school because I want to be a teacher and a scientist.  Somewhere along the way, during my one year hiatus, I forgot that science is all about learning. Science is all about finding, gaining and expanding knowledge.  To adequately do something like that requires years of preparation. Those years start with undergrad and, well, they never really end.  I tried to shed my student skin too early.  Onward and upward, as they say; the second semester will be better than the first.
Until next time!

Update: I clearly forgot to post this before Christmas as intended, and, now it’s 2 days after Christmas so…MERRY 2 DAYS AFTER CHRISTMAS! Purdue posted grades a few days after I originally wrote this post and I discovered that I pulled a B in neuro and a C in biochem (the highest grade I could’ve achieved after my dismal performance on the first two exams). I'm just mentioning my grades because I want you to know that the hard work does actually pay off. A 'C' may not seem great, but I was still able to get graduate credit for the course. I feel that I learned what I needed to learn. The grade, for me, isn't that important. 
I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and I wish everyone a safe new year!

Monday, December 6, 2010

L is for the way you Look at me...

I have one word for you: Snow. Terrible, terrible, DASTARDLY snow. I hate how innocent it looks - like it's slowly floating down from on-high to lull you to sleep. Don't fall for it. It's a trap! Because of the snow, now frozen all along the sidewalk, I almost busted my arse 3 times today. It snowed last Wednesday. It snowed Friday night and most of Saturday. This morning (Monday) it was literally 8°F outside. This is the kind of weather that makes this girl want to throw on her thickest pajama pants with her thickets pairs of socks, wrap her hands around a steaming mug of hot cocoa (damn near scalding) and curl up on the couch with her boyfriend. This is the kind of weather that makes this particular nerd remember all too painfully that she’s left her significantly better, other half in North Carolina. 

For many masters or PhD seeking students, the long distance relationship (LDR) is a very serious reality. The decision to stay with the one you love, or go and pursue your dreams is never an easy one.  My boyfriend and I had numerous discussions about him staying in the city that we both loved, or journeying with me to the city (and I use the term loosely) of my dreams.  He chose to stay. I chose to go.

Do I regret the decision? Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. Honestly, it depends on how my day went, how much I messed up in lab and how cold it is outside. Life would be easier if I had someone to come home to, if I had someone to wrap their arms around me and tell me that everything would be okay. I think it goes without saying that my subzero toes would be happier as well. But there are those days when I stop and think about those women that gave up their hopes and their dreams for love. I think about how many women give up parts of who they are to allow their loved ones to attain their greatest desires. And then I think about the sacrifices that I would have made for my significant other and what kind of person that would’ve turned me into – bitter, angry and resentful.  

I’ll admit, there are some days when I find myself a little upset that my boyfriend didn’t come with me, and I’ll even offer that when he came to a final decision about what he was going to do – there was some resentment.  I spent a lot of time focusing on what I would have done for him, while not really considering that those hypothetical things had never been asked of me.  Sometimes, we need to understand that it isn’t fair to expect someone to do something for you simply because you would have done it.  It took me a few months to understand that.  It took me even longer to be okay with it. I had to recognize that his decision to stay in NC was what was best for him and that he did not love me any less. It’s quite possible that he loves me even more now – especially since the left side of his bed is just as cold as the right side of mine.  Difficult, arduous, extremely hard – none of it adequately describes what it means to go from waking up to the same persons face for 4 years to waking up to an empty side of the bed.  It’s like trying to perform open heart surgery with no training….on yourself….and no anesthesia…blindfolded…uphill both ways in the snow. (Too far? Okay, I’ll stop.)

The long distance relationship is a tricky thing. You can’t spend as much time on the phone as you’d like because work/homework/studying/reading/everything almost always gets in the way. Skype is a GODSEND – most notably on those days when you just really need to see a loved one’s face AND hear their voice. My boyfriend and I spend a lot of time on Skype, playing video games and watching movies together and we talk to each other every morning while he’s on his way to work and I’m on my way to class.  The talking may seem excessive – but I’ve been with this man for 5 years now, and we’ve woken up together, driven to work together and pretty much been in each other’s space like that for most of those years. It’d be weird to not talk to him.

So far I’ve seen him every month since I’ve been here, which makes the distance marginally less noticeable, but it’s still not enough for me. I miss my significantly better, other half and there aren’t enough doughnuts in the world to fill that particular hole. (Hehe – get it?)

The decision to embark upon a long distance relationship is hard as hell. It makes a hellish transition even more…hellish.  Not only do you have to contend with making new friends, passing classes and performing well in lab, now you’ve got the added pressure of maintaining a relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend. If ever it seems too tough, or the pressure becomes too much to bear, remember one very important thing: an education will always be there; the person that you love with all of your being may not be. Ask yourself which one you’d rather have. Do not base your decision on what could happen, but base it on what is. If you decide that you want to maintain that relationship – then be prepared to work just as hard at that as you do in the lab or in your classes.  Plan time with your significant other in the same way that you plan time for homework at the end of the day. Send him or her text messages throughout the day just to say hello. The cell phone is a wonderful little thing. Yes, it’s encroached on our lives like the Black Plague, but I can’t adequately explain how happy it makes me to look at my phone and see that my boyfriend has recently texted me. ESPECIALLY when I’m having a crappy day (which, let’s face it, is every day).

So far, that is what’s worked for us. I’d love to hear from you what some of your personal do’s (and don’ts) are.

Until next time!

(Look at me! Two posts in one 7-day period. Master of the clock, that’s me! Or is it mistress…)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ask and you shall receive...an answer...

I betcha thought I forgot didn’t you? I have been busier than a chicken looking for its cleaved head – so posting on my blog has been at the bottom of my to-do list for the last few weeks. I have time for eating, sleeping and studying. If I’m lucky labbing (yes, labbing – look it up in my dictionary…) works its way in as well. My last post requested questions and I got a few which I will answer below. The answers may or may not be helpful to you, dear readers. If not, I will happily tender you a refund for the money you have paid to view this particular post.

What was the worst and best thing about your first day as a graduate student?
I consider my first day as a grad student to be the first day of orientation – though you may have been thinking of my first day of actual class. I will answer this from both perspectives. The first day of orientation was great because I finally got to meet my peers. I was excited because it was the beginning of a new phase of my life – I would be surrounded by fellow science geeks. I was, (danger: exciting language ahead) SUPER STOKED.  The worst part was, unfortunately, realizing that the sort of acceptance I craved as an undergrad would be the same sort of acceptance I craved as a graduate student. We go through life looking for those that “get” us. I found those people in NC. I left most of them in NC. It was a sobering day for me.
My first day of class was terrible because I had to get up before Jesus to be in Biochemistry on time. It was great because, well, how many of us can say that we got up before Jesus?

What would have made the transition easier?
Transitioning from NC to Indiana would have been easier if I’d scooped up Purdue and placed it in NC. Honestly, I don’t know that anything could have made it easier. I think the difficulty of transitioning is part of the process. The only way the transition would have been easy is if I hadn’t found and made a home in NC. I think the worst part was when my boyfriend got in his car and made the 12 hour drive back home. I’m a crier. When he left I didn’t cry. I sat and stared. I think his departure left me a little broken. Now that I think about it, the one thing that would have made it all easier was…vodka. Lots and lots of vodka.

In what way were your expectations met? What disappointed you?
Most of the people at Purdue are always willing to help. The person that stands out for me is the director of interdisciplinary graduate programs on campus. She has always made time to talk to me. She sat with me while I cried about missing home. She offered me advice on mentors that could help me really be successful here. She provided me with open and honest guidance – and not once did she ever make me feel like I was wasting her time. She did these things because she genuinely cares about the students she recruits to this university. If I take nothing else from this university, I will always carry her compassion with me.
As many of you know by now, there are many things that disappointed me about coming here, but the number one thing is the quality of teaching, which is something I plan to discuss extensively in a future post. I’ve no doubt that the instructors here are great SCIENTISTS, but being a great scientist does not necessarily make one a great teacher. As I told my boyfriend the other day, if doing something made you great at teaching it, then professional basketball players would become professional coaches – and how often do we see that?

Is there a forum you can access to help improve grad school for next year's incoming class? Should the school assign mentors to newbies?
I don’t know if there’s a forum available, but I do know that the PULSe program has a student council that has openly welcomed our questions, concerns and thoughts. Every year they solicit information from the most recent class for making the incoming class’ life easier. I don’t know if the graduate school itself assigns mentors, but my program assigned each of the students in my class with a mentor. My mentor is awesome. We’ve met a couple of times thus far, and she’s been really instrumental in helping me adjust. She’s boisterous and fun and reminds me of home.

Can you start a support group so no more students feel as alone as you sometimes feel?
Support group? But that’s what the blog is for! Starting a support group may not be necessary given the many resources that I’m slowly discovering are available on campus. If I was to start a support group, it wouldn’t be until during or after my 3rd year. This gig is hard work. The absolute last thing I want to do at the end of the day (after sitting in poorly taught classes and slaving away on experiments that always seem to go crazy in annoyingly different ways) is think about getting an entirely new program off the ground. I would like to use what I learn from my experiences to help prepare other first years for what grad school is really like, but, as always, the question is when? For now, I just need to find the time/courage to go and participate in one such group already made available to me.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Questions? Comments? Snarky Replies?

I had a brilliant thought today. So brilliant in fact, that I had to spring up from my temporary graduate student desk, thrust my arms into the sky, tilt me head back at an awkward (and painful) angle and shout - MUAHAHAHAHA! (Please  note: scientists typically do this once every few hours. It wakes up sleeping undergrads and boosts the morale of fellow lab members)

I decided today that it would be beneficial to you, the world (and by the world I mean Mom, Dad, Boyfriend, and Friends - aka my faithful followers), to offer up some questions of your own that I might seek out the answers to. My experiences can't possibly cover every minute detail of graduate school. The point of this blog is to answer questions for future graduate students out there. I can't do that if I do not know what those questions are. So, as long as I don't start receiving crazy, mean-spirited, uninformed comments - I'm leaving anonymous posts open for those of you too shy out there to leave your names. Ask me any question regarding graduate school, life as a student, etc, and I will try my very best to find the answer and report back to headquarters.

Until next time, dear readers, I bid you adieu.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

If you're happy and you know it...take a shot!

So, it occurred to me overnight in my infrequent conversations with the Sandman that my blogs are starting to take on a negative nancy (Nathanial? Natasha? Noob?) kind of tone. It got me thinking that maybe I should write about the positives of graduate school.

Thus far I’ve discovered a new donut shop, which, I believe, is my personal gift from God. It’s His way of saying “grad school will suck more often than not. Have a donut to dull the pain.” In all seriousness, I’ve learned a lot in the last few weeks. I may not be performing as well in my classes as I’d like, or meshing with my peers as much as I’d like, but I am learning. And of those people that I have met and that I have befriended, they are amazing.

We all know that classes have the tendency to be dry and boring. Almost nothing changes when you get to graduate school. Most of my learning happens in the lab. I’ve had the pleasure of growing real live cancer cells and watching them shuck and gyrate underneath the microscope. I’ve recently done my first western blot and may even get the chance to engage is mass spec analysis. My principal investigator even told me that depending on the outcome of my project – there’s a very strong possibility for authorship on a paper, which is a big freakin deal! For those of you out there that have no background in science – just trust me: it’s awesome!  I’m surrounded every single day by people that are willing to teach me amazing things. It’s a blessing.

I’ve met people from Singapore (my room-mate), Germany, India, the Phillipines, etc. That’s one of the best things about Purdue, in my opinion – getting the chance to meet people from all across the globe.  I’ve met Boilermakers that bleed Black and Gold. It’s amazing that this tiny corner of Indiana can house so many people that have such spirit and excitement when it comes to Purdue University.

A few weeks ago, I got to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show for the very first time – acted out in front of a big screen. I will never forget that night (Great Scott!).  Tomorrow evening I’m going to my very first poetry slam (in which I wanted to perform, but am too chicken to do so).

It may seem like a paltry list in comparison to how much I’ve ranted about being sad and depressed here. But I am trying to be more positive. So I guess that’s the take away from today’s short (but sweet!) post – try to find the things that make you happy and focus on them.  I’m trying to make my weeks bearable by focusing on the things that I can get lost in – like poetry and movies.  Maybe from now on I’ll temper every frustrating aspect of my day with a positive, bubbly and uplifting one. I must admit that I am a pessimist to my very core so, we’ll see how long this new “focus on the creamy goodness in the middle Geek” lasts.

Until next time readers. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness (Geek Edition)

Hooo-weee biochemistry is kicking my butt! We’re already 10 days into this beautiful month and I have barely had time to even think about a blog post! My new lab occupies a large chunk of my time hoard, and by the time I get home the last thing I want to do is read a chapter. Needless to say, I’ve fallen behind – but I’m catching up. Who needs sleep anyway?

The real reason for this post, ladies and gents, is doubt. Doubt is a soul sucking leech upon the soul of defenseless graduate students. It makes us weary. It makes us weep. It makes us stop by McDonalds and grab an application mere seconds after deciding that flipping “beef” burgers all day is WAY better than pursuing  a masters or a PhD. I like to call doubt the silent dream killer. It’s very difficult to know when doubt has infected your life. It’s even harder to distinguish it from genuine unhappiness. This is the problem I find myself running into every single day (cue tiny violin).

For the past few weeks I’ve found myself questioning my desire to pursue science. If you were to ask me if I loved biology, I’d say yes. But the real question is do I hunger for it? I don’t have a periodic chart for a shower curtain (though I am actually the proud owner of a Virginia Tech Hokie edition periodic table- scaled down to fit in my wallet).  I don’t have a cancerous tumor painstakingly stenciled onto my ceiling (because, let’s face it, that’s creepy) nor do I have every amino acid tattooed on my inner arm (mostly because I’m sure that violates an honor code somewhere…). What I do have is a never-ending headache, a bed that serves no purpose because sleep is a foreign concept to me these days, and an incurable case of what may or may not be doubt. 

 I came to graduate school because I wanted to teach at the college level and beyond. I find myself making up lesson plans, coming up with ways to keep students engaged, lab experiments that I think students would love. I find myself critiquing my current professors teaching styles and trying to use what they do to make myself a better teacher. I want to teach. I want to mentor. I want to someday influence educational policy so that it benefits our students.  But, at the end of every day, I ask myself if science is necessary for me to do that.  It could be that I’m just stressed. It could be that I miss my boyfriend and my family and friends. It could be anything.

If any of you out there find yourself feeling like this – ask yourself if you could honestly wake up every day for the rest of your life and face science (or politics, business,  or whatever your chosen field may be) like it’s the best thing since stripper poles in the bedroom.  Whatever your particular situation may be, you have to try to stop and take a deep breath and deeply examine your situation. Determine if you are just slightly depressed or if you've chosen the wrong path for yourself.  If you’re currently enrolled in the first year of your program, give it until the end of the school year.  If you are considering graduate school, take the time to really examine why you're considering it. Talk to graduate students about what life is like and ask them to be honest with you about everything - the courseloads, advisor/student interactions, free time - EVERYTHING. Whatever path your are choosing or considering switching to, expose yourself to it. If you want to be a writer, take a creative writing class. If you want to professor - shadow a professor for a day and ask them about the work that went into making them a professor. Whoever or whatever you want to be when you grow up - attempt to expose yourself to it. 

As always, you should talk to someone about how you feel before you make any committed decisions. The best way to rid yourself of dark and gloomy thoughts is to expel them. Talk to a counselor, a mentor, a friend and get your thoughts out – the good and the bad. Remember: no one can make this decision for you. Not a parent, not a friend, not a significant other. At the end of the day you have to wake up every day and face the consequences of the decisions you’ve made – good or bad. Good consequences are otherwise known as achievements. When you accept the honor for them, do you want to say, “my Mom made me do it,” or do you want to say “that was ALL me. I’m me-tastic.” This is YOUR life. Maybe you should live it. 

I am personally waiting until May 2011 to make any final decisions. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll return to my site and find a woman that calls herself SciFiGeek or CancerBioGeek or just Geek.  It's just grad school, it isn't the end of the world. If I stay, I stay. If not, well then...HELLO STARBUCKS!

The key here is happiness. It always is, and it always will be. It is not in the pursuit of it that we prosper. It is in the ownership of it. The experience of it. And the desire to have it forever in our lives.  

I leave you with 2 quotes. I’m feeling particularly quotey today:

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” – Helen Keller

Every time we choose safety, we reinforce fear.” – Cheri Huber

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I am all out of clever titles. I will call this one "&?"

It’s yet another late evening for me, but the urge to write about grad school permeates my every thought and that thirst must be quenched before I meet the sandman.  Graduate education is, surprisingly, a hard earned lesson in politics, which is not something I’m good at if you have not noticed.  I’ve become privy to a few observations made about my character over the last few days. To sum it up: I’m unapproachable; lacking in confidence as a scientist; possibly flippant (I believe that was the particular word chosen); and maybe a few other things that I’ve yet to be informed of. (Cue deep inhalation.) Really? Me? Flippant? Ha!

 I’m a first year graduate student who has been inundated with a constant barrage of articles, books, discussions and presentations that remind me every single day of just how much I do not know.  I approach everything that I do with an honest perception of the knowledge I possess and that which I do not, and how that will benefit or hinder me. I think being unsure of one’s current abilities comes with the territory. I’ve got a lot to learn and I’m prepared to do it. But if I don’t know it, I don’t know it and I’m not going to pretend like I do.  I came to grad school because I wanted to expand upon my pool of knowledge. When in lab, it is my purpose to absorb as much as possible and be taught. I contribute when I can, but, for the most part, I want to make sure that I don’t mess up thousands of dollars worth of materials and waste anyone’s time, least of all mine. (Time is a hot commodity for any graduate student. You must hoard it like a dragon and claw out the eyes of anyone that tries to take too much of it. Or, you could use your lab time to create a 28 hour period. Your choice. )

I had no clue how to respond to being told that I lack confidence and am seemingly standoff-ish, so I said nothing…well, as much “nothing” as I’m capable of saying.  I’m not sure I can respond without somehow alienating someone that could potentially hold sway over my graduate career. It is very difficult knowing how sensitive some people are to blunt honesty.  The last few days have shown me that people hear what they want to hear, no matter how careful I am with my word choices. I worry how many times I’ve “offended” a peer or professor or lab mate because I wasn’t enough of a politician.  Unfortunately, these minor things could morph into major, life altering issues. I know it sounds dramatic, but it’s happened – just look at our government or consider the recent media storm surrounding Juan Williams, former host on NPR.  Be careful of politics. You don’t have to play the game to be aware of it.

I’ve come to realize that for many scientists, perception is reality and, let’s face it, you can’t really call yourself a scientist if you don’t gather data, analyze it, weigh the evidence and THEN draw a conclusion.   So, audience, when you get to grad school (or are currently there trying to swim against the riptide), just remember who you are and try to stay true to that. Remind yourself every day of why you chose graduate school, and don’t let anyone’s “evidence” negatively influence you and detract from who you are at your core.

I am aware of who I am and what I am capable of, but maybe my sense of self-importance isn’t inflated enough for grad school.  Ah, well. Maybe in a few years I’ll be the pompous, arrogant bastard I’m supposed to be, but today, I’m just Neurosciencegeek. I can be honest to a fault and sarcasm is literally listed as second language on my resume.  I get excited when my boyfriend calls. I post in front of my television to watch Glee every Tuesday night. And I’m trying my very best not to drown in the flash flood that is grad school. I do not wear confidence on my sleeve.
I leave you with this quote: “That which yields is not always weak –“ Jacqueline Carey

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Misery...meet Company. I think you two would like each other.

So much has happened since I last wrote, but, yet, so little. The euphoria I experienced upon arriving in West Lafayette has long since evaporated and been replaced by little sprouting seeds of doubt. The semester is half over, and already I am tempted to call this journey done. I have been told on multiple occasions at this point that I am “supposed” to feel this way and that there are “many” others out there that feel the same as I. In all honesty, how does that help me? How does knowing that there are other graduate students out there that are just as miserable as me make me feel better? From that perspective, it actually makes me feel quite a bit worse.

I’m going to employ a tactic relatively unknown in this country and speak the truth. I know – it’s shocking. I beg you to read on, and to ignore the fear that that 5 letter word incites in you. I would like to be open and honest about how graduate school is affecting me for many reasons, the chief of which being that I feel that my peers are not being honest with anyone – including themselves. I also believe that if this blog is truly to be used to help anyone out there, even just one person, that I need to be honest about everything. So here goes…

I am doing very poorly in my courses. Some days, I can barely make sense of the articles I have to read for lab. Some days, my spirit is too defeated to even care. There have been days where I felt that I was not smart enough to be here. Not smart enough to contribute anything of note to intellectual discussions regarding lab experiments or legitimate scientific articles read for class. And I wonder, how in the hell did you make it out of undergrad? In addition to that, I wonder why the hell my undergraduate professors are even allowed to call themselves teachers. (Well most, not all.)

I am lonely. I miss my family so much sometimes just hearing a sad musical note in a song brings on the waterworks. I went home to visit my boyfriend and our friends in early October. I am sure I had what my boyfriend would classify as a nervous breakdown, and it was an internal struggle to put myself on the plane to return to what I now adamantly refer to as “Hell.” I’ve already written about the diversity in my program, but my loneliness is the result of more than just that. Are there no scientists that read poetry or science fiction? I’ll even take someone that’s read ANY classic novel and be happy with that. Is there anyone for me to talk politics and/or race relations with? Someone that likes to travel? That likes beaches? So far, the answer is a reverberatingly loud and emphatic – NO.

I am told that this is how I’m supposed to feel. That I am a first year graduate student and that’s just “how it is” during the first year. It seems to me that the status quo is not sufficient, to say the least. But, I am here. If they didn’t think I was capable of handling this program, they wouldn’t have extended an invitation to me to become one of the elite Boilermakers. So, at the end of the day, I have to remember and remind myself of that. I have to take the drive and initiative that I displayed in undergrad and double it. I have to lean on the shoulders that are offered to me, and take help wherever I can get it.

I’m sorry that I don’t have a better or more inspirational message for you, dear readers, but this is me being open and honest about my state of mind at present. Right now, there isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel. But maybe when I wake up tomorrow there will be. Graduate school is not easy, nor did I think it would be, but it is up to me and only me to maintain my status here and recognize that the knowledge that I do not possess in this moment will come in time. Everything takes time.

I can hear you screaming “Wait, what? That’s it!?” Don’t worry your pretty little head. I’ve ALWAYS got time to share. Do not be afraid to employ the resources available to you at your institution when you begin to have feelings such as these. They are there to help you. They want you to stay and, what’s more, they want you to be happy. My resource told me today that “graduate school is only a blip on the grander scale of life,” or something very similar to that. In short, when you start feeling like this (and thank God if you never do), remember that you can do it, that you are worthy and that you have the power to pull on some steel toed boots and kick that PhD’s mighty vociferously pompous ass. Smile while you make grad school your bitch and focus on the life you want to lead after graduating. What’s the worst that could happen? You fail. Then you get back up, dust yourself off, laugh hysterically when you realize that the seam in the ass of your pants split when you fell, and try again. I’m in the process of sewing said seam back together. I’ll try again when I’m done.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Reading is “for”damental…

I am so SICK of reading. Which, if you don’t know me, is saying a lot. It’s a travesty, if you will. I love to read. I read just about anything I can get my hands on. I’m the girl that spends her summers reading classical novels. I read Les Miserables, for fun, and loved it. I fully intend to read it again. But, as I sit here in my lab reading yet another snorool (that’s snore and drool together folks) inducing article, I can’t help but whip out ye olde blogge and vent my frustration. Do scientists have to be so terribly dry? I’ve been reading an 8 page paper for 1.5 hours now. I’m sure I’ve fallen asleep at least 3 times. I tried blasting rock music in my ears to keep me awake – didn’t work. I tried reading the paper out loud to myself – didn’t work. I have no idea what’s going on and if I read this same sentence on more freakin time – that vein in my forebrain that’s been threatening to pop ever since I started grad school is finally going to kick the proverbial bucket. For any of you out there that are entering academia after getting your PhD – please remember what it felt like to be bitch-slapped by boredom. Remember that your work will be read by some poor, sleepless, starving first year grad student out there, and try to infuse some joviality into your work. Bitch-slap somebody with a little happy.

Ahem…frustration officially vented. I can now return to my usual sane, preachy, mentory self. (Yep, I’m still making up words. Look out for Merriam-Webster-NeuroScienceGeek: in stores this Christmas)

Article reading is a part of grad school. Reading in general is a part of grad school. Get used to it. It’ll only get better with practice. Of course, choosing a lab that is working on research that actually interests you is an extra special bonus – but everyone isn’t that lucky. I’ve been told to read the abstract, skip the intro and jump straight to results and discussion. Yeah…NO. Doesn’t work for me. My advice: start reading articles now and come up with your own strategy. Hopefully, by the time you arrive at your first year of graduate education, article reading won’t be such a chore. Trust me, if they weren’t paying me…it wouldn’t get done.

Until text time family, friends and beyond. I hope to post soon about my experience in my very first lab rotation. Cue ominous music now.

P.S. For any of you out there that suffer from insomnia – I HIGHLY recommend any one of Hodgkin and Huxley’s infamous neuro papers or “Thermal Asymmetric Interlaced PCR: Automatable Amplification and Sequencing of Insert End Fragments form P1 and YAC Clones for Chromosome Walking,” by Yao-Guang Liu. Best lab sleep I’ve ever had.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Race of Spades

[I would like to preface this by saying that this blog is in no way affiliated with Purdue University, nor is it a reflection on or discussion about their current or future outreach endeavors in reference to diversity.]

I find myself unable to find an appropriate introduction for this particular topic. My high school English professors are cringing as I type this, I’m sure. Unfortunately, they’ll just have to cope with my seeming inability to write a constructive intro for a very volatile topic. Where do I begin…Ah yes…

It was recently brought to my attention, in an admittedly roundabout way, that I play “the race card” quote “all the time.” Sigh. Heavy sigh.

This comment prompted me to go back and examine how many times I’d actually played this “race card.” I didn’t know that I carried it with me, but apparently it occupies a space in my wallet unbeknownst to me. The comment, in all fairness, may have been made in a joking manner, but, nevertheless, it stimulated my gray matter and induced action potentials within various neurons…I’m sorry. Translation from nerd to English: it got me thinking.

I am black. I am a woman. I am a black woman (hear me roar) in a discipline dominated by white males. I am the only black student in my incoming class of PhD students - 1 of 33. I attend school in a predominately white, predominately right wing, conservative, republican community in which I only see 1, maybe 2, black people a day, if I’m lucky. Is it wrong that I would like to see other black women in male dominated labs or professions that somehow manage to eek out a living in a white, mostly right wing, conservative republican community? AAARRRGGGHHH! The frustration has me pulling out my hair. I could reintroduce one of those ugly, naked cats to fur with the strands that litter my bedroom floor alone.

So, with the unleashing of the aforementioned comment, I find myself at a loss. Who do I turn to? Who can I run to when I need to vent about someone making a comment about my locs (No, they do not stink, have you ever smelled them? Yes I do wash my hair, don't you?)? Am I to simply keep my frustrations to myself and not complain about the lack of Black people in not only my program, but programs across the country? Who do I discuss the state of race relations with, especially in terms of how this country views the current president? Who do I have conversations with about why it is not okay to say things like “don’t you listen to Jay-Z” to a person just because they are black? I’d like to have someone with whom to discuss what it means to be a black woman in the sciences these days. And I don't think I am asking for much.

So, with my whining sufficiently (but not summarily or even comprehensively) over with, I’ve decided that I am going to discuss it with you. Yes, you. Those of you out there that are reading this, prepare yourselves. Prepare your brethren for my apocalyptic wrath of taboo destruction. I wake up a black woman every morning and I go to bed a black woman every night. As long as that continues to happen, race will be a part of my life, my aesthetic, and my manifest. It will follow me around like a love sick freshman strung out on pheromones. So why should I be afraid to both embrace and discuss it, being that it is a part of who I am? I should not and I will not any longer.

I will not apologize because I make a “big deal” about there not being enough black people in my program. I will not apologize for questioning why people think that I know every famous black person that ever lived. I will not apologize for feeling the way I feel or for making those feelings known. I’ve always been told to be the change I want to see in the world. Well this is my very first big change. I want people to be able to discuss race openly. I want to be able to talk about race with people that look like me and people that don’t.

You may not be able to understand why this is important or why it matters at all, but don’t worry your pretty little head. You will.

P.S. I went to www.Purdue.edu and did a search for diversity. I unearthed the following link which you can use to make your own calculations and draw your own conclusions, should you desire to do so: http://www.purdue.edu/datadigest/pages/students/index.htm I think what you’ll find there is a wonderful testament to why I sometimes feel like a guppy in an ocean of bull sharks (i.e. the data showing the enrollment of 7639 graduate students in the fall 2009. 3% of those students were black. 0.4% of those students were classified as “American Indian.” who, I'm sure, feel even less at home than I do. I'd like for you to just take a moment and nibble on that tasty morsel of diversity knowledge.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

When the world comes crashing down…

Take a break and marvel as it crumbles around you. Okay, that’s terrible. I tried for profound and wound up with harbinger of doom-ish. At 730 AM this wonderful Saturday morning I rolled out of bed and over to my desk, hastily grabbed my Biochemistry book and settled in with my hot pink highlighter to begin a fantastical journey into the world of amino acids. Doesn’t get any better than that, kids. This is what my life has become and what it will be for the next year or so. I wake up, I go to class. I come home, I do work for class. I “weekend” and by that I mean study. I roll out of bed just to study. We do what we must for the things we want out of life, but sometimes I take it too far. And yes, I am using weekend as a verb. I can do that I’m a grad student.

Earlier in the week plans were made with a few friends to take a day trip. We wound up in Indianapolis, Indiana. I packed the essentials – a sweater if I got cold, comfy shoes for my aching feet, gum for stinky breath, Carmex for parched lips, my biochemistry book for light reading, an article (or two…okay three) for EXTRA light reading and a notebook for question answering. I tried reading on the way to Indy. My brain rebelled like a frat boy the night after a keg-stand binge. It finally dawned on me – my brain needed a break! It was overflowing with the vast world of neurobiology that it’d been forced into. It was crying for release. My temple literally drummed out the beat to “stop dogging me around (please just leave me alone).” I put the work away and had fun. For the first time in days.

We visited the Indianapolis Zoo and petted sharks. We stopped by the Indianapolis Museum of Art and had a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” moment. We visited a local cultural district and had Mexican for dinner. We laughed, we joked, we took an exorbitant (yes, exorbitant. That GRE prep finally paid off) amount of pictures. I had fun. I gave my brain a break. And, now, as I sit on my living room futon and type this out – my brain feels much better. It absorbed the info, finally.

Moral of the story – don’t spend ALL of your time studying. Leave your books at home, your articles, your highlighters and your notebooks and spend a day in sheer mindlessness. Take a day to not learn. It’s just one day, and, if you’ve budgeted time accordingly and studied as you should, it’ll only be one day. Besides, there’s always tomorrow. At least until December 21,2012….we’ll see about tomorrow then.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What's that thing where you close your eyes and don't think for a few hours called again?

Today was a long and somewhat disheartening day. I’ve never seen so many papers and had so much information crammed down my throat at one time in my life. And boring doesn’t even begin to cover the quality of the articles I am currently abrading my eyeballs with. Not to mention the fact that I missed my bus, again, after darting out into the street, risking life and limb, and sprinting through a crosswalk only to have the pompous bus driver thumb her nose at me, stick out her tongue, wiggle her fingers and say (and this is a direct quote) “nyah, nyah, nyahnyah, nyah.” I swear….true story.

I arrived home only to discover that I was too lazy to cook. I was unable to convince even myself that the excuse of “having too much work to do” was reason enough order Domino’s Pizza, but I did it anyway. I sat. I stared. I thought about thinking about studying. I stared some more. I watched my computer screen anxiously as the Domino’s Pizza online tracker foretold the arrival of intestinal stimulation. I finally managed to corral the neural troops and focus enough to study cellular neurobiology AND biochemistry. So far this week I’ve received 2 homework handouts forcing me to answer questions about organic chemistry and general chemistry – two courses that I happily buried beneath rocks in my memory graveyard. I’ve received 2 papers for cellular neurobiology that must be read by Tuesday. My prof even gift wrapped them with 15 questions for which the answers must be typed and turned in on Tuesday. I must also prepare for detailed discussion of my answers and my thoughts on the articles….for Tuesday. I start my very first rotation on September 1st. I had a lab meeting about it this morning and everything. As a fringe benefit – I get to read 5 more papers concerning Na+ and H+ antiporter membrane pumps. Fun, fun, fun. I’ve never been this excited…Though, that rectal exam comes in a close second.

I thought time management was for those pansies in med school. I am dismayed at the amount of time I have poured into studying this week only to feel like I’ve accomplished nothing. But I think that 2 hours of cellular neurobiology and 3 hours of biochemistry is pretty good for one 24 hour period. I’ve even put myself on a system of reading 2 article pages per hour. I should be done with all of my current articles by 2015 – just in time for graduation.

In short boys and girls, you will be tired. You will be beat. You will shake your fists at the sky and demand, “why!” You will question what the hell made you choose to pursue a PhD. Take whatever you are thinking about the caliber of work required for graduate studies and double it. Better yet, triple it. Class just started on August 23rd. It’s got to get better right? No, seriously…I need an answer.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It’s called grad SCHOOL for a reason boys and girls…

Since last entry I’ve managed to navigate the mean streets of south central West Lafayette, IN, watch dumbfounded as my bus passed me by (4 times at last count), and not be murdered by my roommate. All in all it has turned out to be a decent month.

Orientation was last week (all week long) and let me tell you it is not for the faint of heart! It was about as fun as a rectal exam. I don’t know about you, but being up before Jesus is not my idea of a good time! I and my cohort spent the bulk of the week running back and forth from pointless session to pointless session with a few faculty interviews in between. And by faculty interviews I mean meetings with potential labs. If the program you choose happens to be in the biological or interdisciplinary life sciences – there is a very strong possibility that you will have to complete rotations (usually 2 per semester). The PULSe program requires that incoming first year graduate students interview AT LEAST 5 faculty members to determine 1.) if their research is stimulating enough to spend 7 weeks in their lab and 2.) if you like the PI enough to endure being in their lab for 7 weeks. (HEADS UP PEOPLE! ADVICE AHEAD) The whole point of rotating through multiple labs is to make sure you find the perfect home for the next 5-7 years. Rotations ensure that you like the research in the lab you’ve chosen, that you like the people currently in the lab, that you like the PI, and so on. It is a 7 week long interview. TAKE IT SERIOUSLY!!!!! And as a bonus – any work you do that generates scientifically relevant data can be put into an article that you can be a co-author on! HOW FREAKIN AWESOME IS THAT!? Calm down, it isn’t that awesome (please note the sarcastic tone…)

I must say that I have run into some major issues trying to find a home. If you are a senior in college who is hoping to go to XYZ University for its stellar research in XYZ department – do NOT hesitate to ask any professor you are interested in working with about their funding situation. I repeat do NOT hesitate to ask any professor you are interested in working with about their funding situation. PI’s have to pay grad students out of grant money. If there is no grant money, or grant money is running low, you will be unable to work with your PI or PIs of choice. I learned this the hard way. I didn’t have anyone to tell me how to really navigate grad school (recruitment weekends included). Grad schools invite you to recruitment weekend because they want you. They bring out the shiniest of students and the “fine china” that’s always heard about but never seen. They feed you, put you up in pretty hotels, and pay for your flight – the whole gamut. They want you and they will do whatever it takes to get you – including shake their moneymakers. EVERY school wants what they consider to be the crème de la crème. If they invite you to recruitment - you, my friend, are the crème. Recognize your worth and know that you have the right to ask any question you want.

I did not know this. I chose a school that had 3 professors that were actively engaged in research DIRECTLY linked to what I wanted to study and others who I could tolerably learn from. Only one was up front with me about his funding situation. You have the right to ask professors about funding situations – especially if you are picking XYZ University because of them. When you go to recruitment and you meet with the people who will be your colleagues for the next 5-7 years – ask them how their ongoing research projects mesh with rotation schedules. Ask them about money: do they have it, will they be getting more of it, and when will they potentially be running out of it. You don’t want to choose a school and choose a lab only to have said lab run out of money halfway through your project. Ask them what the future directions of their research entails. Ask them about techniques they are currently using in the lab. You should even ask the graduate students how long it took them to generate data that was meaningful enough to give them a paper with first authorship. PhD programs in the sciences pay you for a reason. You are an employee. You have the right to know about where you will be working for the next 5 or so years.

I say all this because I didn’t ask these questions. I didn’t have anyone around me to tell me to ask these questions. Hopefully someone will be able to walk away from this in a better position than I am in today. I would like to state that this is in no way a fault of the PULSe program. My program has no way of knowing which professors have money which ones don’t. There are over 400 labs conducting research on Purdue’s main campus alone. I simply was not educated in the ways of grad school. I am now, and hopefully, so are you.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Living the high life...from the floor...

I’m here! I arrived in Purdue Country after a long and agonizing 11 hour drive across 3 states that turned into 14.5 due to terrible traffic. But we arrived safely, and that’s what counts…right? My boyfriend, his 16 year old brother and I drove across 3 states in his Chrysler – which, let me tell you, is not big on space. All of the important things were left at home, because my clothes, shoes, gaming systems and books come first! My coffee pot, crock pot, my “I got my crabs from Dirty Dicks” coffee mug, the absolutely essential to the Midwest winter coat, and my TV. Thank God for rent-a-center and its $30 television rental or my small (but hopefully growing) audience would be forced to read daily blogs about what video game held my attention for the day (Half-Life 2, thank you very much). My clothing is tossed hither and yon (yes, hither and yon) with no real organization. I know that my shoes are somewhere over there and my clothes are somewhere in here, so I’ve got a good handle on things.

My snazzy new apartment is empty. I can hear my voice bouncing off the walls. I’m sleeping on an air bed that I stole from my mom that was filled with air from an electric pump that I stole from my mom. My kitchen is fully stocked (thank God) due to Wal-Mart credit and money that I got from my parents. And by “fully stocked” I mean replete with peanut butter and jelly, waffles, eggs, pancake mix, Ramen noodles and pizza rolls. But my pots and pans are nice. When I finally I have something to cook in them it’ll actually be worth it. We made several trips to Wal-Mart, and by several I mean 3 times or more a day. Yes, I wrote a list, but obviously I am a terrible list maker; which is exactly why I’m sticking to science and leaving the list making to the professionals.

So, in my quest to single-handedly boost our sagging economy the following was spent:

Trip from NC to Purdue Country: $71

Rent (divided by 2 because I have a super cool roomie): $440

Final amount of money bequeathed to walmart: $450 (at last check)

Groceries: $130

Pizza for starving grad student: $20

TV rental: $30 for the month

TV Stand for said TV: $30

Cable (including self-installation): $30

Getting a speeding ticket right before arriving: Priceless

Because I didn’t get furniture besides my kick-ass TV stand, I’m currently writing this as I sit on the floor of my living room. Furniture I can live without – food (my dangerously addictive cookies included) – not so much. So, what have we learned boys and girls? Party your last year or summer of freedom away, vacation and have a good time – but remember to put money away for your big (and I do mean BIG) move. I thought I had it covered. I didn’t. Methinks I had a little bit too much fun…But shhhh! Let’s just keep that between us shall we?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Party like it's 1999

Note: I discovered this post lurking in the depths of my vast MyDocuments folder. Apparently it was too shy to be posted. It was written July 31, 2010. Enjoy.

T minus 5 days and counting. I never thought leaving would be this hard. Having been a military brat, I’m quite accustomed to moving away and leaving friends behind – but I do not remember it ever being this hard. The less time I have left in North Carolina, the less happy I seem to be. When I got my acceptance letter in January 2010, I couldn’t wait for August to get here. Now, I’m wishing I could roll the clock back at least 2 months. At least.

My boyfriend says that he gets sad every time he looks in the closet. Suffice it to say, I started packing this week. My side of the closet is bare, save a few hangers. My drawers are empty, save two. I’ve got a backpack on wheels full of books to keep my company while I’m all alone in my shiny new apartment. The end is nigh!

Never underestimate how difficult a task it is to create a life for oneself. I know that grad school is where I’m meant to be at this point in my life. I know that it will shape and mold me into the scientist and teacher that I hope to become. But imposter syndrome is kicking in hard. That small child inside me that is craves for a single place of belonging is begging me to stay in NC. That devil on my shoulder is telling me “you can’t do this.” But the lease has been signed, promises have been made and intentions spoken. So, I guess I’d better go.

My friends and I are planning to paint the town red tonight. Dinner, followed by one last foray into drunken debauchery. Yippee. One last night to remember how we met, all the shenanigans we’ve gotten into, the people we communally hate. It should be fun, but, honestly, I want to curl up into the fetal position and not move. I had the opportunity to go to Purdue a full 2 months early and complete some “extra” research – fully funded of course. I applied. I never heard back. Now, I’m happier than ever that I wasn’t accepted into the program. I wouldn’t have had this time to spend with my boyfriend, to see my pregnant best friend and meet her husband, to rediscover my passion for writing. I wouldn’t have had this time to have pizza parties with my GameStop crew.

So, my advice to you dear reader, should you choose to accept it, is to take the last summer before you start a masters or PhD program to have fun. And by have fun, I mean take a trip somewhere you’d never ordinarily go. Read all the books that strike your fancy and play video games until 3 am. Go out with your friends or stay in with them. Drink adult beverages and take random trips to Wal-mart for play-doh at midnight. The most important thing is that you take the time to do the things you love with the people you love the most. Grad school is already difficult, but it is especially hard if you are moving far, FAR, away from home. You want to have memories of “that time when.”

We are all called to do something of significance in our lives. Those calls take us away from the familiar. Don’t underestimate how difficult that is, as I did. The months leading up to grad school should be spent surrounded by family and friends and doing little devious things (like ballooning your significant other’s car for instance…). It should be spent surrounded by those you love and those that love you. It is during this time that you will need them the most. They are the ones that will remind you that you are capable of greatness. They are the ones that will be there for you during those first few socially awkward weeks.

Until next time audience.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Problem solved!

In my haste to rush off to bed last night I completely forgot to write about the conclusion to Friday night’s suspenseful events! I called my department on Monday morning and had the pleasure of speaking with a delightful person who shall remain nameless. She informed me that the Bursar’s office (more on that later) had indeed been made aware of the students that would be receiving a grad student tuition waiver. I was instructed to call the financial aid office (FAO) to find out about any credits made to my account.

I hurriedly called the FAO and was walked through the process of tuition waivers/credits. Apparently, the FAO needs to receive confirmation that a grad student will be receiving a graduate student assistantship of some sort before they will move on with the waiver process. At this point in time, information regarding my research assistantship has not been received, and my account still shows that I owe them $41,551 (approximately). I was instructed to accept the lowest of my offered loans (a federal subsidized loan) and remain undecided on the remaining two. Once the FAO receives confirmation of my assistantship, I will be considered an in-state student and given a waiver for in-state tuition which is a bit more than $9,000 per semester.

So, in short, a credit will be made to my account, just not yet. I need to learn the ancient delicate art of patience apparently.

Oh, I almost forgot. The Bursar or the Bursar’s Office is responsible for the billing and collection of university charges. I’m not sure how it makes sense that the Bursar’s Office has been made aware of my waiver but the FAO has not, but I’ll just leave that bureaucratic conundrum for another day and stick to science.

Next on my list of things to write about – moving! It’s the worst. The cost of moving and starting a life as a broke (and I do emphasize “broke”) graduate student is ridiculous! Until next time, future students, I bid you adieu.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

So I got in, now what

The only family member that has an advanced degree (that I know of) is my mother – a M.S. in Psychology – and she went back to school for that when I was an adolescent. So, here I am, the next generation of the Reynolds clan, off to graduate school after taking a year off from undergrad (through no personal desire of my own). I’m headed to Purdue University to get a PhD in interdisciplinary life sciences, with a focus on behavioral neuroscience. (Whew! That’s a mouthful.)

I have no idea what I’m doing. Initially, I thought I had every step of the moving/arriving/being brilliant student process lined out, but I don’t. And I don’t have anyone to ask. I’ve consulted grad school self help novels (okay 2, because as a student I am inherently lazy and broke and the closest library to me recently closed), but have yet to come across anything that prepared me for the actual magnitude of MOVING to and STARTING grad school. There was no family member to share the stress and gravity of it with me.

My last year of undergrad my professors and advisors all told me the same thing – grad school for a science major will be free. (Free you say? Really! I’m in!) So, I settled in to apply without really focusing on cost whatsoever, and, as luck would have it, got accepted to an expensive school. My bank account is leaping for joy (that’s sarcasm just in case you missed it, but I doubt you did).

Yesterday evening, I open my financial aid tab on my chosen schools student webpage to discover that I’ve been awarded $41, 551.00 in federal loans. Last I checked, free does not equal loan necessity. Interesting….I am now, of course, newly confused about the entire situation. Scratching my head while simultaneously turning it at a 90 degree angle as though it would make it all make sense, I quickly scampered over to my email to search through the hundreds of messages I’ve left undeleted. I finally find the one obscure email from my department that stated, and I quote,

“PULSe students are exempted from paying tuition, estimated currently at $9,563 (Indiana residents) or $31,503 (out-of-state students) per year.”

So why is the federal government so interested in offering me $41, 551.00 worth of loans for an out of state tuition price of $31,503? Of course this price does not include the “non mid-west” travel allowance, room and board, miscellaneous, books, fees, etc. However, our lovely and ever functional government is still way of base with the loan award. Now my eye is twitching. I’m confused, I’ve got nowhere to turn and until the 14th of July to make a decision about my loans. Today is the 10th. Joy. And it’s a Saturday so I can’t call my department. Double Joy.

Naturally, I assume that my department simply hasn’t applied the credit to my financial account so as far as the graduate school as a whole is concerned, I owe them money and the federal government indentured servitude for taking such a gamble on my education and my “ability” to pay it back upon graduating. Ha! Shame on them…

I think that once I get to school and start my week-long orientation process this little matter will be cleared up. I do wish they were a little more forthcoming with the “how” of it all. I mean, seriously, I’m a Bio major. I deal in “how.” I don’t like things to just appear and disappear – if I did, I’d be going to Criss Angel U, not Purdue U.

Either way, it is my desire and intention to make this process as crystal clear as possible for other students out there like me. Those traditional students that have no clue what it really means to prepare for and start grad school. I hope my mistakes don’t become someone else’s mistakes. This is day one. Let’s see what day two looks like shall we?

Stay tuned for the most likely totally unnecessary phone call that I’ll have to make to my department on Monday. What can I say? Type A personalities unite!