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.