Author: Mel

Formal Applications: How to Stay on Top of Everything

Formal Applications: How to Stay on Top of Everything

For most people, job applications are an occasional frustration. It’s common to stay in the same position for years at a time, and frequently the application process can be bypassed through personal connections. Scientists are not most people.

Whether you are trying to build a career in academia, industry, or government, you will have to fill out complex formal applications at several stages. These applications might be for admission to an undergraduate or graduate program, consideration for permanent or seasonal jobs, or for funding opportunities like scholarships, fellowships, grants, and research assistantships. Intense competition within the natural sciences means you will likely need to handle multiple applications for each academic year, field season, or funding need, and each application will ask for different components.

It can be a lot to keep track of, and I have known the frequency and intensity of these formal applications to drive students away from pursuing academic careers. Further, they can be a double-edged sword for Aspies. While many of us are drawn to the consistency, clear expectations, and sense of progress offered by the application process, we can also be prone to executive dysfunction, increased stress, and anxiety.

The purpose of this post is to share the strategies I have developed for managing the moving pieces involved in a formal application, whether it be for college admissions or a prestigious funding opportunity. The advice I share here is general and some points may not translate well to specific applications. However, the sequence and practices I recommend are valuable tools that can help you feel less anxious and more in control as you navigate your application.

1) Search for Places to Apply

This may seem obvious, but I mention it here because it can be easy to jump on the first decent opportunity you come across and to stop searching after that. Just because the position or program you found is good doesn’t mean that there isn’t another equally good or better opportunity to be found. It would be wise to complete a thorough search at the very beginning of this process to avoid missing anything important. That said, you must know when to end your search. It can be just as easy to get so bogged down making lists of places to apply that you never actually start an application!

My advice is to start by defining your search parameters. Ask yourself what exactly it is you are looking for. If you are choosing an undergraduate program, try to identify the qualities, courses, resources, or programs that you want from your college experience. For graduate programs, consider what research themes and methods you would like to explore, what connections and mentorship style you would like your advisor to have, and what resources for further career preparation you need your program to provide. When looking for jobs of any sort you should start by deciding whether you need a seasonal or permanent position, or if you are open to either. The same should be decided for full-time/part-time. From there you can worry about the kind of work you would like to do. When looking for funding determine exactly what type of research or equipment the funding is needed for and consider the different types of organizations that might be interested. Also consider the amount and type of funding you would like. Do you need a small one-time payment to cover an expensive piece of equipment, or are you looking for a multi-year fellowship to support your graduate education?

Once you have identified these qualities, you should define the length and depth of your search. For example, if you are looking for a seasonal field position in your area, limit yourself to local job postings/fairs and a handful of searches on Google, Indeed, Linkedin, Glassdoor, etc. It will not be worth your time to search for positions on national and international platforms like the Texas A&M Conservation Job Board if you are limited to jobs in your area, because anything local that appears on these bigger lists will likely also appear on your basic local searches. For undergraduate and graduate programs, figure out which desired quality or resource is most important to you or most uncommon, then limit yourself to investigating the programs with that quality. If, for example, you want to do regular field research on salamanders, limit yourself to schools within the natural range of salamanders. If your desired research area is very niche, there may only be a handful of labs working in that area and this step is done for you. For funding, repeated searches are necessary to stay on top of every relevant opportunity. In this case I recommend that you limit yourself to searching one or two funding sites (Pathways to Science, NSF, etc.) at a time. It is always ok to come back later and look for more funding, but you can’t afford to paralyze yourself by searching infinitely either.

2) Make a List of Application Components

Once you have decided to apply for a job, funding opportunity, or academic program, you should thoroughly read over the solicitation and make a list of everything that is expected of you. For some jobs this may be a short list, requiring only a cover letter, resume/CV, and a couple of references. For grant applications and graduate program admissions, there may be as many as 10-15 different required documents and forms. Write all of this down in one place and be sure to separate components into sub-lists for each office if you must send things to multiple emails or offices (very common with graduate admissions).

3) Identify Components that Require Significant Time or Effort

Some application components will require a lot of effort (writing cover letters, statements of intent, various essays) and others, while simple, need time (ordering standardized test scores or official transcripts, waiting for people to write you letters of recommendation). Your next step is to identify every component within each of your applications that fall into either category. These are the requirements that can sneak up on you and give you a nasty surprise if you don’t start on them early enough. I usually put a little asterisk next to components that require me to write more than a paragraph, and a circle next to ones that involve ordering documents by mail or asking for letters of recommendation.

4) Make a Timeline for Completing Components

Find the deadline for your finished application, then lay out a timeline between now and then. You don’t have to write out when you will complete every single component, but find a specific place on the timeline for each of the components that need a lot of time or effort! This is the key to my application strategy. By plotting all of the tough components that have the potential to sneak up on you on the same timeline, you will be completely safe from last-minute crises so long as you stick to the timeline.

Your timeline will be heavily personalized because it has to fit around your existing schedule, but there are a couple of considerations you should make regardless. For anything that involves other people, greatly extend the time allotted from what you think they will need. Depending on the academic level I have heard that the acceptable amount of time to ask for a letter of recommendation is anywhere from four weeks to three months prior to the deadline. My position is that, in academia, earlier is always better and there is no such thing as too early! You will probably have to remind your letter-writers multiple times, depending on how early you ask them. Put those reminders on your timeline. Likewise, you should account for how long it will take for things like standardized test scores and official transcripts to arrive. Some universities can send transcripts digitally through document services like Parchment, but others will need to mail them. Plan for this on your timeline. Finally, you should absolutely seek feedback on your essays, personal statements, cover letters, research proposals, etc. No matter how experienced you get, having a second qualified set of eyes look over your writings can make a huge difference in quality. Especially while you are a student, this will massively improve your chances of landing the job/funding. Remember to incorporate time for feedback into your timeline.

5) Synthesize Your Timelines

For the most part, you are likely applying to more than one job, funding source, or academic program at the same time. Once you have completed steps 2-4 for each of them synthesize your timelines into one master timeline. Now you only need to stick to one timeline, which includes the major components of every application. If you followed these steps completely you won’t have any last-minute surprises about missing documents, forgotten requirements, or sudden deadlines. If you are like me and normally manage your life through a day planner, your application timeline can be easily integrated into your planner and you won’t even have to keep track of a new document!

6) Create If-Then Dependency Plans

For most types of formal applications dependency plans can be simple. When applying for college admission or seasonal jobs that will all start around the same time, you are likely to hear back from each place you applied at about the same time. This will allow you to choose the best program/position that accepted you. For these situations, all you need to do is have a general sense of which jobs or programs you like more.

Things get a little more complicated when timelines aren’t synchronized. Sometimes when applying to multiple jobs, academic programs, or funding sources you will hear back from one and be expected to accept or decline before you hear from another. Other times one application may be dependent on the success of another. This frequently happens when applying for outside funding while simultaneously applying to a graduate program. In these situations, I find it helpful to create an if-then dependency plan. I will consider which entity (job, school, funding agency) I am likely to hear from first, then plan what to do next after being accepted (positive plan) or denied (negative plan). Carefully consider whether you would be happy with this job/program if they made you an offer and needed a response before you hear back from anywhere else. Likewise, if this position is no longer on the table where will your priorities lie? Which opportunity would be best for you excluding this one? These plans can get complex and highly varied, especially when dealing with the world of academic funding. I can’t write out a universal plan here for those reasons, but remember that when making your plan you need to have a thorough understanding of both when you might hear back from your various opportunities and whether/how they depend on each other.

Advice for Specific Types of Applications

Big-System Job Applications

Jobs within massive organizations like universities, state or federal agencies, and big corporations can be subject to extensive regulations and regularly receive hundreds of applicants. This necessitates a complex job application system to advertise positions and screen applicants. You’ll know that you have come across a “big-system” job like this if the application requires you to set up an account on the hiring entity’s website.

There are a couple of things you should know about this type of job application. First, the initial cuts will probably be made by a computer algorithm. If your application doesn’t survive these cuts, it likely won’t ever be seen by a human being. These algorithms generally look for pre-defined keywords in your application materials, so don’t be afraid to mention the desired qualities/skills from the job posting explicitly. You can even use the same phrasing as the job posting. This will increase the chances of your application passing the algorithm and being seen by a hiring manager.

Frustratingly, you will probably have to upload your resume/CV and then later enter pretty much everything from that document into a form. This is so the algorithm can more easily parse through everything. Personally I find this infuriating (If I have to enter the details from every job I’ve had in the last ten years then why do you need my resume???) but it is very much the norm with this type of application and you should be prepared for it.

Lastly, don’t be surprised if you come across a job posting from yesterday with a closing date set for today or tomorrow. Sometimes (particularly for government jobs) there is a requirement that all open positions be posted publicly, even if the intent is to hire internally. I generally don’t bother applying for these jobs.

College Admissions

Undergraduate admission is a different world from most other types of formal applications. Employers, funding entities, and graduate programs will all want to hear about your relevant experience, and in some cases what your specific plans are should you receive the position/funding. Generally you should tailor your resume/CV to the position, emphasizing experience related to what you are applying for and removing things that aren’t relevant. When applying to colleges almost the opposite is true. While this should never come at the expense of writing a coherent personal narrative, you are expected to include as much detail as possible! List every extra-curricular activity you have been involved with, every leadership position you have held, all of your work experience, and maybe even a hobby if it relates to your personal narrative and/or intended field of study. My reason for including this section is to advise against treating your college application like a job application. Colleges want to see a well-rounded person with both refined interest in their intended major and well-rounded experiences outside of that field. Do not be afraid to include something just because it’s unrelated to your program.

Scholarships and Academic Funding

This is the area where I (at the time of writing) have the most experience. I can’t yet speak to applications for funding at the professional level, but as an undergraduate student much of my free time was spent searching for and completing research-centered scholarship applications. The most important piece of advice I have for this type of application is to craft a narrative. If the scholarship is for college students in any program, talk about your journey to your program, how your program is benefitting you, and what you will do with your degree. Don’t get bogged down in technical descriptions of your work. For research-based scholarships, talk about what draws you to the process of research and to your field specifically. Talk about the methods and techniques you find interesting, and don’t forget to link everything back to your personal narrative and future plans. I can’t get more specific than this because the narrative needs to be a personal one but remember that applications with an easy to follow narrative are ones that will appeal to the funding entity.

Photo Credit to Pexels

Fieldwork as an Aspie

Fieldwork as an Aspie

Fieldwork is all but certain to play a part in your career as a natural scientist. Even if you plan on exclusively analyzing data, working in a lab, or teaching, your education will likely include a field component somewhere along the line. Working in the field can create challenging situations for Aspies that aren’t an issue in other types of work. Whether you are taking a course at a field station, occasionally collecting samples for your research, or working a full-time field job, you should be aware of and prepared to meet these challenges.

Perhaps the most obvious issue with fieldwork is socialization. Not only will the number of people with whom you can regularly interact decrease, but you will probably be spending long periods of time in their company. For some work you will have to spend weeks at a time working with only one person. As an Aspie this can be a terrifying prospect. What if interacting with this person drains you too much to work? How do you cope if you don’t get along with this person? How do you move from seeing a person on and off during the workday to spending the full day working exclusively with them? Socially exhausting situations like this are unfortunate, but they may be unavoidable depending on your line of work.

My first full-time field job is a good example of this struggle. After graduating from college I spent a summer working as an electrofishing technician for a state agency. My unit would send out 2-5 person teams on 4-day data collection trips every week, weather allowing. This is what the job demanded. My first time working with a new person was always socially intimidating, especially if it would only be the two of us that week. Working ten plus hour days together, eating dinner together, then doing that three more times can get exhausting even for neurotypicals, so you can understand how an Aspie might be extremely stressed.

Your first line of defense concerning fieldwork is deciding whether a position is right for you. The last thing I want to do is discourage Aspies from pursuing fieldwork, but you should know that the nature of the job often requires situations like the one I’ve just described. It is important that you read up on a job before applying. You need to have a good understanding of what that position will expect of you, and what you need in order work well. Don’t despair if this limits you, though, because there are plenty of jobs that can give you field experience without the socially intimidating conditions. You just need to sort out which ones are which.

When in the field, try to identify and retreat to “your space” whenever you can and feel you need to. This can be your hotel room or cabin if you have one, a walk away from the campsite, etc. It won’t always be possible to do this, but there will be opportunities for you to step away from your partner/group. You can explain that, when appropriate, you need a little alone time. This is not an unreasonable request, and your teammates will understand. Even if the whole group eats dinner together, you are not required to eat with them. Neurotypicals may consider you rude for disappearing without explanation, but most will understand so long as you make it clear that you need time to unwind, and that it isn’t personal.

Another helpful strategy is to familiarize yourself with the expedition details beforehand. If you are preparing for a marine research cruise, there may be an opportunity to do a walkthrough of the ship before departure day. This will allow you to start acclimating to the environment gradually, potentially striking that from your list of stressors. If you will be spending some time at a field station, you are likely to find online photos, videos, and maps of the station that can similarly help. For short-term expeditions, I recommend you participate in the planning process as much as possible. Provided you are not in charge of the trip, hearing those who are discuss equipment and methods that will be used, as well as the team’s goals and priorities will give you a better sense of what to expect. This will also give you a chance to ask questions.

Finally, know that it is ok to discuss your needs and apprehensions with your partner or teammates. If you feel comfortable having an open conversation, your team’s understanding can go a long way toward alleviating your social stresses. In my experience, scientists are generally aware of Asperger’s Syndrome and tend to be supportive of their colleagues on the spectrum. However, you should not feel pressured to share your diagnosis and personal struggles with anyone. Only do this once you trust your teammates and are comfortable enough to be open with them.

I hope these strategies for coping with the challenges of conducting fieldwork as an Aspie are as helpful to you as they have been to me. This post will be updated as I continue my career, encounter new challenges, and develop new ways to meet them. If you have your own related challenges or advice that you would like to share, feel free to reach out. I am always happy to learn from the experiences of others.

I would like to clarify that the above personal anecdote is in no way a criticism of or complaint about any of my coworkers or the agency in general. The people I met in this job were all wonderful, fascinating people, and I did enjoy my time there. I simply want to characterize the fears and frustrations I experienced as an Aspie in this situation that my neurotypical coworkers likely did not.

Am I Doing Enough? Dealing with Work Guilt

Am I Doing Enough? Dealing with Work Guilt

Wasting time and energy comparing yourself to others is generally discouraged, but in a scientific career it can be especially dangerous. This career path can be competitive and cutthroat at times, frequently leading us to ask an important but troubling question: “Am I doing enough?” Whether you are one of seven hundred applicants for a fieldwork job or trying to land a tenure-track faculty position anywhere in the world, you probably feel the need to set yourself apart. You need one more internship, or publication, or certification to give you an edge. This sentiment isn’t necessarily misplaced. Natural science jobs are notoriously competitive, and you likely will benefit from these resume boosters to a certain extent. There is a hidden cost to this mindset though, that you must balance with your effort to do more. As you push yourself further, heaping more tasks and goals onto your plate, your anxiety will likely grow while your mental fortitude crumbles. It is easy to picture how you might take on “just one more thing” beyond your current responsibilities, but it isn’t always easy to see what you will sacrifice for it.

Everyone lets out their stress in different ways, whether it be a hobby, reading, or just taking a nap. When you work these things into your schedule it is natural to feel a little guilty. After all, this is time you could have spent building your career! But I have a theory that without a healthy outlet, your stress will sneak back into your working time and subtly decrease the quality of your work. This principle is repeated by teachers everywhere, who know that a good night’s sleep will benefit you more on a test than staying up all night cramming.

Today is day 71 of my pandemic quarantine, and this idea of work guilt has never been so real to me. With both of my jobs shut down for the past two months and unlikely to open for at least another month, I have been isolating at home and struggling with how to spend my time. My instinctive work guilt is telling me that I should be doing anything and everything with this time to get ahead in my career. I should be reading textbooks for background knowledge and recent papers for new developments. I should be refreshing myself on statistical methods and software because I won’t have this much free time to do so after starting grad school. And of course, I should be making headway writing for this site. I don’t have an excuse not to!

I initially tried to fit each of these projects into a daily and weekly work structure but attempting to worry about everything for several hours each day left me feeling emotionally burned out and anxious. I noticed the quality of my work slipping. I struggled to focus on the technical language I was supposed to be taking in when reading, and my own writing began to stagnate. In the end I decided that the stress and emotional turmoil brought on by my situation could not be ignored or channeled into work. It had to be processed and let out through conscious efforts to exercise, relax, read for fun, interact with friends and family, and maintain a regular sleep schedule. In short, the fun/unproductive activities that often make me feel guilty for not working are, in moderation, necessary outlets for stress and emotional tension.

If you are trying to make a career in the natural sciences, an internalized sense of work guilt will probably help to some extent. You should remember, though, that spending all your time on work and work-related tasks will eventually lead to burnout and lower-quality deliverables. I believe finding a healthy and productive balance between work and stress outlets is the best tactic in the long run, even if that balance changes throughout your career. Find your balance, and don’t let work guilt ruin your relaxation time.

Photo Credit to Pexels

Living with Roommates as an Aspie

Living with Roommates as an Aspie

Moving out of our parents’ house is a scary process for all of us. There are so many things to worry about, from staying in touch with family to remembering to handle utility payments. For Aspies, there is often an additional consideration. Whether you are moving away to attend college or to pursue a job, odds are you will have to deal with roommates at some point. Because the rules that govern these relationships are rarely explicitly established, Aspies often struggle to get along with neurotypical roommates. In anticipation of this, you should prepare yourself for some of the issues you are likely to face.

I can offer advice for living amicably with multiple neurotypical roommates based on my personal experience and that of people I know, but I can’t speak toward your specific roommates. The blanket caveat here is that people, autistic or neurotypical, are incredibly different from one another. If you feel that one of the approaches I recommend here will fail with your roommates, don’t try it. Above all else, I highly recommend laying out ground rules together when you first move in. Not everyone will agree on the same ground rules and this post is not supposed to outline what your rules should be. Instead you should consider each of the following areas where conflict might happen and decide how you feel about each issue. This will prepare you for the “ground rules” conversation. Many of the issues I discuss here will be much easier to handle if you have established basic rules and expectations on day one, and my advice assumes you have done this.

Whose Names are On the Lease Matters

I understand this issue may be either nonexistent or completely inescapable depending on where you live, but I had friends in undergrad that were able to avoid it. In the U.S., zoning laws sometimes limit the number of unrelated tenants that can sign a lease for a particular property. Landlords might get around this by, for example, allowing four or five people to live in the property and pay rent, but only letting two of them sign the lease. Setting aside the questionable legality of the situation, this can become an issue if there is a conflict between roommates or if someone moves out during a lease period. If a tenant whose name is not on the lease decides to leave, they are not under any legal obligation to continue paying their share of rent. The unexpected rent increase for everyone else is inconvenient at best and completely unmanageable at worst. This uneven power dynamic is neither safe nor appealing, so I heavily recommend that you find a place where everyone can sign the lease.

Utilities

Depending on where you live, utilities like water, electricity, gas, trash, sewage, and internet may be included in your rent, billed separately, or a mix of the two. If you anticipate having any non-rent shared expenses (utilities, communal grocery trips, etc.) it is vital that you establish a few ground rules when you first move in.

First, you need to decide how these expenses will be divided. I imagine most people would prefer to split the bills evenly, but some people might suggest other payment schemes. For example, you might have a roommate who never watches TV that doesn’t want to pay for the cable bill, or one who plans to have their significant other stay over much of the time, in which case you might ask them to contribute more toward utility payments. The household doesn’t have to agree to these schemes, but you should hear them out, discuss them, and decide what to do as a group.

Second, you should establish a protocol for making changes. There are situations where a change in your utility payment scheme is necessary. Depending on how many roommates there are, a majority vote or a unanimous agreement might be best. You’ll also want to talk about whether a voter can abstain or must pick a side. Establish that now, so you don’t have to argue about it later.

Finally, you need to talk about new roommates. If you plan on living here for more than one lease period, you may have to find new roommates as the old ones move out. The “ground rules” conversation needs to happen again with the new roommates, especially when talking about utilities/shared expenses. The goal here is to avoid a situation where someone is suddenly stuck paying more money than they originally planned to. What you need to decide now is whether an incoming roommate-

  1. Automatically agrees to the utilities/shared expenses payment scheme that was in place before they arrived, meaning any changes they request must go through the usual decision-making process (majority vote, unanimous agreement, etc.), or-
  2. Gets to renegotiate the utilities/shared expenses payment scheme upon their arrival and is under no obligation to accept the previous scheme.

The benefit of establishing this now is avoiding an argument later when a new roommate tries to get out of paying a bill they were expected to pay, requiring everyone else to pay more. This also prevents new roommates from being surprised by a shared expense because everything will have been discussed with them before they sign the lease. Open communication and agreement on a simple set of rules at the beginning of the roommate relationship is vital when trying to avoid money arguments later, and utilities and other shared expenses are the biggest culprit.

Discussing Non-Monetary Issues when Moving In

So far I’ve talked about leases, rent, utilities, and other shared expenses. Conflicts in each of these areas can be quite serious, as the implications have dollar signs attached. On a day to day basis, however, you are much more likely to experience roommate conflicts with less serious, more socially based implications. For example, a common source of frustration in many college dorms, apartments, and households involves cleaning up after oneself in the kitchen. Standards of cleanliness and motivation to clean vary from person to person, sometimes leading to hostility. The fallout of such arguments won’t require anyone to pay money, so many of us assign less importance to and fail to plan for such situations when moving in.

These situations should be addressed to a certain extent during the “ground rules” conversation, but you’ll need to handle them differently than the money-related topics discussed above. Although an extensive system of household rules may appeal to you, I would caution you against trying to push your neurotypical roommates down this path. Many neurotypicals, especially younger ones, have an innate sense of distrust around rules, particularly when those rules are made by one of their peers rather than an authority figure. Generally, the more rules you push for, the less seriously your roommates will take each subsequent rule and the more they will feel controlled and untrusted. The last thing you want to do is give your new roommates the impression that you are impossibly particular and bent on controlling them. You’ll need to pick your battles by pushing for the most important house rules first. From there, you can work towards the issues that are less important to you, gradually transitioning from “establishing rules” to “feeling out how each other will operate.” For example, in my college household I prioritized a rule against nudity in the common areas (living room, kitchen, etc.). Because this was important to me, I made sure to bring it up first when my roommates still had the energy and enthusiasm to talk about strict rules. Later, we discussed things like cleaning up in the kitchen and acceptable shower lengths. Because I prioritized these issues less, I didn’t push for hard and fast rules. Instead we had a discussion where everyone shared how they felt, so we were on the same page and groundwork was laid for any future issues that came up. This may seem more inefficient than just deciding on rules for everything now, but neurotypicals usually don’t want to do this and will react negatively if you try to make them.

You should also make sure to invite and listen to each of your roommates’ opinions on each issue you discuss. Just because you prioritize an issue highly and want there to be a strict rule doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t have an equally valid point of view. So long as your roommates still have the patience and energy to do so, everyone needs a chance to speak on each issue. Lastly, you should approach this conversation together. Think of your roommates as teammates working together to solve a problem, not opponents to be beaten, proved wrong, or overcome. The “ground rules” conversation, done well, will be vital for you to live healthily and happily with your roommates and should help to prevent future conflicts.

The Chore Chart

Depending on your living situation, there will probably be at least a few communal chores to handle. Whether it is worth the time and effort to set up a system of accountability for these chores is up to you and your roommates and your need for such a system will vary. If, for example, you share a one-room college dorm with one roommate, there is little communal space to clean. You might opt to take turns vacuuming the room every couple of weeks, but beyond that there are probably no other major chores. If you live in an apartment, you’ll likely need to clean the bathroom, wash dishes, clean the kitchen, vacuum and/or mop the floors, and take out the trash and recycling, among other things. If you upgrade to a full house, you might have a yard and/or driveway to maintain, including raking leaves, removing snow, and mowing grass. Personally, I have found semiformal chore accountability systems to be helpful when living with more than one roommate in anything bigger than a basic dorm.

Getting all of these chores done regularly can be a handful, especially if you are a college student or work long hours. Even if you split up responsibilities amongst the roommates, resentment will build if someone appears to be doing less than someone else. If you and your roommate(s) decide the best way to distribute responsibilities fairly while ensuring everything gets done is a chore rotation system, I recommend that the rotation be tracked in a place that everyone can see. In my college household we used a cardboard chart that separated the weekly chores into five categories. Each roommate had a different-colored paperclip which would be rotated to a new category on the same day each week. This literal chore chart was posted in the communal area of the house. If you don’t want to use a physical chart, you can easily set up a comparable system in a roommate group chat. Just make sure everyone agrees on the chore categories and rotation timeline before setting it up and remember to post the new responsibilities on time.

There are situations where a formal rotation is unnecessary. If, for example, you only have one roommate that you know well and get along with, settling into the home and feeling out who will be responsible for which chores and how frequently they need to be done as you go might work fine. However, for the most part you probably won’t know your new roommate(s) very well when moving in and I don’t recommend taking this risk. Even if your roommates are skeptical about needing a chore chart at first, they will probably change their minds after a week or two of living with someone whose standards of cleanliness and motivation to clean are lower than theirs. At the end of the day, how you handle chores is up to you and your roommates, but in my experience the value of a chore chart accountability system cannot be overstated if you have more than one roommate.

Roommate Conflicts

Inevitably, you will find yourself in conflict with one of your roommates. You can’t plan for everything and even if you have planned for a given situation, emotions tend to run high once you’re in the middle of things. When this happens neurotypicals and autistics alike may abandon prior agreements about how the situation should be managed, much to the frustration of others involved. This means that each person participating in the dispute is now relying on their own personal values, sense of fairness, and ideas of right and wrong, rather than whatever agreements you had in place. These vary between individuals, and that gap can only be bridged by calm and rational discussion with the goal of compromise. This is not something that someone in an emotionally heightened state, autistic or neurotypical, can be reasonably expected to do. When you find yourself in a situation like this, you should prioritize defusing the situation by first assessing yourself, determining how you can calm down, and doing so, then by assessing what the other person needs and providing that opportunity to them.

This is where self-reflection will benefit you. My parents taught me from a young age that it is not wrong to experience negative emotions, only to act inappropriately based on those emotions. Applied to a roommate setting, this means that it is ok to feel frustrated or upset with your roommates, so long as you don’t lash out at them. Responsibly handling your feelings in this way requires a healthy amount of self-reflection. As a result, I believe it is the responsibility of every person to spend time thinking about what makes them tick. This can’t be done in a day and is worth a substantial time investment. This also isn’t something that you can learn by reading my blog; you’ll have to ask yourself why you react the way you do to different situations, and eventually notice patterns of behavior that clue you into how you think emotionally. This is a very personal journey, and it may be more difficult for some people than for others. I won’t say any more here because self-reflection is an area where I have a lot more growing to do, but the internet is full of people with better advice on this subject than me.

With the benefit of your time spent reflecting you should be able to recognize why you are upset at a given moment and have the discipline to stop escalating the conflict. From there, you need to assess what the other person needs. In my experience, the vast majority of neurotypicals need space and time. It is usually in everyone’s best interest for you to disengage from the argument and leave the other person alone for a while to calm down, deal with anything else that was bothering them, and return to a state where they can work constructively with you to solve the problem. How long this will take, and how they will reconcile with you, depends on the person. Prepare for this by getting to know how each of your roommates works in a conflict. Observe which sorts of things upset them and which don’t, how they go about solving their problems, and how they calm themselves down after a conflict. Do they take a hot shower? Do they need to be alone in their room for a while? Do they need to vent to their other friends? Once you have this understanding, you can predict what your roommate will need after you disengage from the conflict. Stay out of their way and let them do whatever it is they need to do.

Once everyone has had a chance to calm down, it is important that you reconcile. Regardless of whether you still feel your original argument was right, you should apologize for having had an argument. If you raised your voice at all, if you came on too strong and upset your roommate, or if you didn’t disengage as quickly as you should have, admit it and apologize. The most important lesson I have learned from dealing with neurotypicals is that an olive branch like this can be an immensely powerful thing. If you admit that you both have egg on your face because of the argument, they will be much more likely to reconcile. I reiterate, do this even if you still feel your original position is right. The world of interpersonal relations is incredibly complex and I’m still learning new things every day, but this method has worked very well for me. Handle roommate conflicts like this, and I believe your household will be socially healthier for everyone.

This conflict flow-chart summarizes what I’ve written above about defusing conflicts with your roommates.

Talking to your Roommates about Asperger’s

For some of us this is the most intimidating topic in the post. Unfortunately, it’s also the subject I can say the least about. There is no set of guidelines or rules that will tell you what to do in this situation. To quote Temple Grandin, “Rules are not absolute; they are situation-based and people-based.” Whether your roommates will find out that you are on the spectrum may or may not be a decision you get to make, depending on whether you are trying/able to pass as neurotypical in front of them and how observant or familiar with autism they are. Likewise, how they will react should you choose to share this information with them is not up to you. Good people may have a negative reaction if they are unfamiliar with the autism spectrum because confronting your own ignorance is uncomfortable. The only advice I can give on this subject is to surround yourself with people who care about you and support you, open up to them about your Asperger’s only when you feel comfortable and supported doing so, and remember that you don’t have to pretend to be neurotypical for people to like you.

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I Want to Become a Natural/Marine Scientist. Which Classes Should I Take?

I Want to Become a Natural/Marine Scientist. Which Classes Should I Take?

Right out of the gate, I’ll start with the (often infuriating) caveat that you’ll see all over the internet: There is no single “right” way to become a natural scientist, or any type of scientist for that matter! This is, strictly speaking, true. When scientists say this, they are generally trying their best not to discourage anyone from pursuing a scientific career just because they took time off before college, don’t have a lot of money, have a child to support, or various things like that. They are right to do this of course, but in my experience many of them cast too wide a net and don’t end up giving much practical advice! That’s the niche I hope to fill here. Please note that none of the classes I mention are “required to become a scientist,” they are simply good uses of your time that may be helpful. Your ultimate resource for starting a career in the sciences are the scientists working in your field at your institution. Ask them for more detailed information that may be more relevant to your specific situation.

Brief caveat: I’ve tried to keep this advice generalized to the natural sciences, but my personal experience is mostly marine. If my course recommendations seem heavy on fish and ocean-related topics, that would be why. Use common sense to figure out which of these would be most useful in your career.

High School Students

Priority number one should be locking in a good work ethic and strong study habits. If you can only do one thing I mention here, make it this one!

Most of your important professional science experience will probably come starting in college so now is the time to lay the groundwork. Does your high school offer a marine biology or field science course? Take it. Is there a zoo, aquarium, museum, or science center nearby that you can volunteer at? Do that. Would your parents/authority figures let you set up a small aquarium or terrarium and learn to care for fish or a turtle? Sure, why not. If these aren’t options for you, it’s ok. Most American high school students don’t get to pick their high school, and they probably didn’t have a say in where they live. Colleges know this, and absolutely will not keep you out of your dream program just because your high school doesn’t offer a particular class. Take advantage of what your school and living situation have to offer, study hard, and you will be fine.

A few classes to take if your school offers them:

-Marine Biology

-Statistics

-Chemistry

-General Biology

-Physics

-Follow your school’s track for math classes. Don’t just stop taking math classes if they’ll let you, that stuff might be useful soon!

-Any other relevant sciences that might be available (Ecology, Wildlife Science, things like that).

-Other non-science courses that interest you!

Lastly, don’t pigeon-hole yourself into just science! Take foreign language classes, maybe woodshop or automotive maintenance, cooking, history and political science, music, theater, whatever else you’re interested in! High school isn’t supposed to just prepare you for one career, it’s a chance to expand your knowledge and find new interests. You aren’t in a rat race to take the most science courses. Several of these classes may even prove useful in a science career (Fieldwork in a foreign country is easier if you speak the language, cooking or repair skills always come in handy, etc.). Besides, having diverse interests and skills can only help your college admissions prospects.

College Students (Undergrads)

I assume if you’ve been admitted to an undergraduate program and you want to be a marine/natural scientist, that program probably involves, if it isn’t centered on, natural science or biology. This doesn’t need to be the case however! If for example you want to use big data to understand ecosystem functions and analyze species populations, a statistics or computer science degree might serve you well. Maybe you (like me) chose a land-locked school because in-state tuition is a wonderful thing, but really want to study the ocean. You are still ok!

It all comes down to taking advantage of the opportunities and resources your school offers. If your degree program is in the field where you’d like to make a career, just follow the graduation requirements and add any extra courses that interest you. If (again like me) your school has no program in your desired field take as many relevant courses as you can (Marine Biology, Ecology, Evolution, Zoology, Animal Behavior, Population Biology, Biometry, Oceanography, Ichthyology, Mammalogy, Ornithology, Herpetology, Fisheries and Wildlife Management, Invertebrate Zoology, Marine Biogeochemistry, Organic Chemistry, Cell/Developmental Biology, Plant Biology, etc.). There may even be some study abroad programs that will get you experience in a field that your school generally lacks. For example, I took a Coral Reef Ecology class that involved doing fish and invertebrate surveys on a reef in Honduras. Even if these programs only last a week over winter break, try them out!

If your program is in the biological or physical sciences, you probably have requirements for some of these courses that can be helpful. If one of these isn’t required for you, consider picking it up anyway.

-General Physics (Kinematics, Electricity, and Magnetism)

-General Chemistry

-Statistics

-Biochemistry

-Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

-General Biology

-Public Speaking

To be clear, this is not a checklist of classes that you must take if you want to be successful, it’s more of a vague list of classes that you may find helpful or relevant depending on your interests (I didn’t take all of these as an undergrad!). Your academic advisor and/or research mentor will be able to help you pick out the most relevant and important classes for you.

At the end of the day, choose your degree program and classes based on your interests, then let those interests lead you wherever they will. If you work hard, learn the material, and take advantage of the resources your school offers, you will be just fine.

Working with Neurotypicals

Working with Neurotypicals

As an Aspie or otherwise autistic person, you’re probably aware that the majority of the world isn’t like you. According to the CDC in 2014, approximately 1-2% of the human population is autistic. The harsh truth of living as an autistic person is that this world wasn’t built for us, and in many ways simply isn’t well-adapted to our needs and abilities. This can cause miscommunications and problems in the workplace, especially in high-pressure jobs. Regardless of your career path and goals, you will statistically work for many neurotypicals during your life, and most of your coworkers will be neurotypicals. While your bosses should (key word) make an effort to adapt to your way of communicating on the job, you should always try to meet them in the middle. The importance of getting along with your coworkers should not be forgotten either. This post is meant to share a few lessons I’ve learned while working for and with neurotypicals that apply at several different levels of employment, from minimum-wage high school student to degree-holding scientist.

Better to Ask Sooner than Later

This one applies mostly at lower-level positions where your boss gives you a task to complete unsupervised while they do other work. As soon as you are given the task, think it through from beginning to end. If there is a part of the task that you aren’t sure how to handle or that you know you’ll have to ask your boss about, do that immediately, rather than waiting until you reach that point of the task. I have been very guilty of failing this in the past. It’s often uncomfortable to ask a long series of questions after your boss explains a task, and it can be tempting to just say “Ok, sounds good!” and let your boss walk away. You know you’ll have to go ask for help later, but at least for now your boss isn’t worrying about you and trusts you to handle it, right? While it isn’t the end of the world to interrupt your boss half an hour later to ask them where a tool you need is, or to clarify a detail, it’s simply better to ask about any issues you foresee up front. Your boss will likely appreciate that you think through tasks from the beginning, and you get to avoid interrupting them if they start a different task or take a phone call.

Dealing with a Social Manager

In any job that requires you to work as part of a team, there is always the potential for a bad manager, project leader, or supervisor. The term “bad manager” can have many meanings depending on the context, but I have found a particular flavor of bad manager that often spells disaster for Aspies: a Social Manager. These types of managers tend to prioritize the social environment created by the team over other measures of success. While trying to foster a positive work environment is admirable, these people take it too far by focusing on getting the employees to like each other. Aspie employees are less likely to share this priority, and may find themselves on the manager’s bad side even while doing their jobs well. Social managers rarely have written protocols for work tasks, instead preserving them socially by relying on older employees to teach the newer ones. This can be infuriating for Aspies because communication isn’t always our strong suit and many of us benefit from specific, written directions. Social managers may also play favorites, granting employees with higher social ranks more implicit authority than others, even when everyone officially shares the same rank or job title.

These factors can create a confusing and stressful environment for employees on the spectrum, but there are steps you can take to improve your situation. Step one, buckle down and focus on getting good at your job. Step two, be polite and courteous to your coworkers and manager, but don’t worry about trying to befriend everyone. Step three, do your best to stay out of any workplace drama. Step four, if you would benefit from written protocols or something similar, be the one to write them! With any luck, you will become known as the hardworking employee who handles their responsibilities, doesn’t start any trouble, and measurably improves the workplace. Dealing with a social manager can be intimidating, but if you are diligent about working hard and staying out of any drama, you will probably be just fine.

Take Criticism Gracefully

Neurotypical or otherwise, your boss and coworkers are going to criticize you. Hopefully this will happen in a constructive and respectful way, but it is essential that your priority is to grow and learn from the experience regardless. I’ve been on the receiving end of a handful of dressing-downs over the years, some of which were arguably undeserved. While there is something to be said for standing up for yourself when treated unfairly, there are times when it is better to grit your teeth and move on. Picking your battles is a learned skill, and a vital one at that. I’ve also witnessed a number of coworkers, both autistic and neurotypical, dispute criticism from supervisors that was entirely warranted! Don’t let this be you! To succeed in any workplace, you need to approach each day with humility and in good faith. You are there to get work done, and to maintain a positive work environment. If a coworker or your boss is giving you any kind of criticism, remain calm, apologize for any mistakes, and focus on solving the problem at hand. More than likely this will 1) Get the work done faster, 2) Show your work ethic and drive to improve, and 3) Earn you respect from those involved. If a coworker is bullying or mistreating you, you should always be able to go to your superior about it. Be discrete and professional when doing so, but this is not something you should be afraid of doing! Lastly, if you are frustrated with petty workplace drama or feel that you were unfairly criticized, vent at home! Don’t air your dirty laundry at work, that will only create drama. Find a friend, family member, or significant other you can talk to and get things off your chest.

I’ve made a handy flowchart for handling criticism at work! It’s pretty simple, but this is the kind of thing I would have appreciated when first learning to handle conflict.

Respect Your Colleagues’ Time with Proper Communication

I don’t care if you’re the world’s foremost expert in your field, you need to respect others’ time and treat them fairly, or no one will want to listen to you or work with you. This means responding to emails as promptly as can be reasonably expected, not rudely dismissing the thoughts of your lab-mates or coworkers when planning a project, and actually showing up for meetings/events that you have committed to! This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen high-level professors become essentially unreachable because they were too busy to respond to emails for days at a time. Many of the same people have to reschedule meetings with students multiple times because their time-management skills are lacking. If your job requires frequent scheduling and other communications regarding plans, consider those communications one of your work responsibilities. Responding to any relevant or urgent emails should be on your daily to-do list, and if you decide you can’t make an appointment or event that has already been scheduled, contact the others involved as soon as you can. These habits will show your coworkers, supervisors, and students that you respect them and don’t want to waste their time.

Photo Credit to Pexels

Why and How You Should do Research as an Undergraduate

Why and How You Should do Research as an Undergraduate

Careers in the sciences are centered around research. Whether you want to be a scientist doing the research, a journalist writing about the findings, or a policy-maker or environmental manager using those findings to make decisions, a thorough understanding of the scientific method and the process of research are vital. There is no better time to get acquainted with research than college, when you will likely be surrounded with faculty and graduate students working in a wide variety of fields. Working in a research lab will help you to narrow your professional interests, inform your future career decisions, and give you a taste of what graduate research is like.

How do I get Research Experience?

Depending on your school you have a few options. Most labs are constantly strapped for cash, so they are always willing to accept undergraduate volunteers. If you are a student at a research university (or if you just happen to live near one), all you need to do is find a lab that sounds interesting to you on the school website and email the PI (Principal Investigator) offering your time. In many cases he/she will have a hard time turning away free help! Some schools may offer course credits for working in a lab. If you can get your PI to sign off on it, this is an excellent way to document volunteer research experience on your transcript while (possibly) giving your GPA a boost.

The ideal find would be a paid position working on a research project. Unfortunately for reasons stated above, these are few and far between. There are paid technician roles in many labs that do more repetitive or menial work however, and you may be able to use these as an “in” with the lab manager or PI. For example, if you’ve been working as a tank cleaner or animal feeder for a semester already when the lab has a need for help on an existing project, the PI might offer you the spot before advertising it to other students. Your school might also offer undergraduate research funding that you can apply for, which may or may not include a stipend for you. Consult your PI or your school website to find out what is available to you.

Some schools require an undergraduate thesis or capstone project during your final year. If you haven’t gotten some experience with a research lab by that point, this is your chance! Every school handles this a little differently, and some (mostly American schools as I understand it) only require a thesis of Latin Honors graduates rather than all students. If your school has a formal process of choosing a lab in which to do your thesis then that is the process you should use. Otherwise, it would be wise to start volunteering in a lab well in advance of your thesis time so you are familiar with your lab-mates and the available resources. An undergraduate thesis/capstone project is also a perfect experience to leverage when applying to graduate school.

Finally, I recommend you look into the National Science Foundation REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program. I’ve written about the program here, but the idea is that you apply to one or more REU Sites where, once accepted, you get to conduct a research project in a PI’s lab. You are given a stipend, research mentoring, and sometimes room and board. REUs are typically more involved than research at your home institution because most programs last 3-4 months over the summer and are typically a full-time job. The REU program can be helpful if you want to do research in a field not studied at your home institution, or if you aren’t sure whether graduate school is the right path for you.

These are all excellent ways of getting research experience as an undergraduate student. I heavily recommend that anyone working toward a science degree of any kind gain experience with a research lab before graduating. Having a hand in the scientific process early in your academic career can give you an edge in graduate school applications, help you figure out which career path is best for you, and make you a more scientifically literate citizen.

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When and How to Talk to your Research Advisor about Asperger’s

When and How to Talk to your Research Advisor about Asperger’s

Whether in academia or not, you will almost always have a superior, mentor, manager, or advisor of some sort to work under. In most cases you are under no obligation to become close with this person, but in some settings you would be wise to become friends as well as coworkers. This is particularly true in academia, where your research will more than likely take place under the umbrella of a laboratory, and you will need to work very closely with your lab-mates.

The head of a research lab at a university or research institute is often called the “Principal Investigator” or PI. The lab typically caries the name of this person (e.g. Smith Lab). Under the PI, depending on lab size and funding, are one or more Post-Doctoral Research Fellows, graduate students pursuing doctorates and master’s degrees, and sometimes undergraduate staff or volunteers and/or full-time technicians. Depending on where you fit into this hierarchy, you may report to a technician, the grad student or post-doc in charge of your project, or possibly the PI themselves. In each case, there may come a time when you need to discuss your Asperger’s with your superior.

First, you need to determine whether this conversation is necessary or advisable at all. For short-term positions like seasonal fieldwork or situations where you report to a lab manager or graduate student, you might not have to bring it up. If you are comfortable passing as neurotypical and don’t have any serious sensory issues or stimming requirements that would come up while working, I don’t see how explaining your Asperger’s to your supervisor upfront would be necessary. Small accommodations, like needing noise-cancelling headphones to prevent sensory overload in an office environment are often reasonable and common, and most advisors would probably agree to this without an explanation of your diagnosis. More significant accommodations will probably require you to fully discuss your Asperger’s, but if you can get away without this conversation and are comfortable doing so, go for it. If, however, you are enrolling as a graduate student and plan on studying under a PI for 3-7 years, this conversation will probably need to happen sooner or later. The relationship between a research mentor and their student is a unique one, and it frequently requires very open and comfortable communication. Having your mentor on the same page as you will be necessary.

Once you’ve decided that your working relationship will require a conversation about Asperger’s, the question becomes when to broach the subject. This depends a lot on your social confidence. Over the years I have become comfortable enough discussing my Asperger’s that I consider it no secret. I often mention it when appropriate during job interviews as evidence of my learned ability to understand and work closely with others. If you have built your social confidence and feel the same way, I’m sure you will be able to read your advisor and find an appropriate and relevant time to mention it. If you haven’t yet built this self-confidence, I have some very good news for you: Understanding of the autism spectrum is at an all-time high, particularly amongst educators, and many academics are autistic too. Honestly, there is a decent chance that your advisor is on the spectrum as well. Take a deep breath and remember that your advisor is on your side and wants the best for you. When should you bring it up? If you are a graduate student, you likely have regular meetings with your advisor to discuss your project. These are an excellent time to have a respectful, face-to-face conversation with them, and to answer any questions about Asperger’s they might have. The same goes for post-docs. If you’ve been hired on as a lab manager or full-time technician, you may have a more difficult time getting the PI alone. Travel to and from field sites, if this applies, can be a good time for this. Otherwise, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a one-on-one meeting to discuss this.

Finally, what should this conversation look like? The priority should be making sure everyone is on the same page. Your advisor has a vested interest in supporting you and your work, so make sure they know what you need to succeed. If you struggle with communicating via email or text because you need facial expressions and tone of voice to fully understand, say so. Video chatting exists for a reason, and in my experience advisors are more than willing to accommodate. If you need to wear noise-cancelling headphones while working at your desk to avoid sensory overload, tell them. If you stim in a particular way and need your lab-mates to not make a big deal out of it, explain that. Odds are, you won’t be the first person on the spectrum that they have worked with. Or the tenth. Besides, a good advisor will be willing to learn from you just as you learn from them.

My last piece of advice is to make sure all of this isn’t blurted out suddenly and quickly. I made this mistake with one of my early academic advisors, and the conversation just muddied the water. Your priority should be to calmly, politely, and genuinely explain what Asperger’s means for you, and what that means for the lab. Talk about your strengths and weaknesses, what you feel you add to the work environment, what you need to succeed, and how you would like to improve. Your advisor is training you to be a scientist. These are the sorts of subjects you need to discuss with them even before Asperger’s comes into the picture. I know some of us dread this conversation, but imagine how much it would mean to have your advisor on board as a supporter and an advocate.

Photo Credit to Pexels

The Academic Roadmap Explained: How to Make Science Your Career

The Academic Roadmap Explained: How to Make Science Your Career

I made it all the way to college before knowing the difference between a master’s degree and a PhD. Seriously. I knew they came after your four-year college degree, but not much more. If you’re spending any amount of time on this site you may be considering a career in the sciences, in which case you should be aware of how the academic roadmap generally works. Learn this now and use it to inform your career decisions going forward. The last thing you want is to get a graduate degree only to discover you don’t need it for your intended career path, or to assume your bachelor’s degree will be enough to land your dream job when a PhD is absolutely necessary.

Quick disclaimer: Academic careers are highly variable; no two people will take the same path. This post is not designed to be a be-all, end-all guide. That said, there are some constants. You will not be considered for a full tenure-track professorship without a PhD, for example. My intent here is to show you the general flow between degree programs and jobs in academia.

An academic career generally starts with earning a four-year degree, called a bachelor’s degree. People in a bachelor’s program are called undergraduate students. Two-year associate degrees can be enough to get you into some fields as a technician, but if you want to continue in academia you will need to then earn your bachelor’s. This can be done at essentially any four-year college or university, depending of course on where your desired major/program is offered.

In the natural sciences, a bachelor’s degree is not always enough to start a career. There are exceptions of course, but the pickings can be slim. I know folks working as animal caretakers/zookeepers and government field technicians who only hold bachelor’s degrees, but these jobs are often quite competitive or will only hire you seasonally at first. I don’t mean to discourage you from taking this route, I just want you to be prepared for the job hunt. This is also where people who want to teach grade school science typically exit the academic pipeline. There are teaching programs nested within colleges which net you a teaching license while you earn your bachelor’s, allowing you to pursue, for example, high school science teacher positions. You may also find a paid research position in a university lab that mentors you as a budding scientist while also being a full-time job. This is called a post-baccalaureate (or post-bac) research position.

After earning your bachelor’s degree, the next step in the academic pipeline is often a master’s degree program. Depending on your program, this may take anywhere from 1.5 to 4ish years. It is important to note that, unlike other fields like music or education, you can sometimes skip over a master’s program and start a doctoral (PhD) program right after your bachelor’s! This of course varies from program to program, so check the websites of the schools you are interested in. In any case, while Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees generally teach you what to know, research-based Master of Science (MS) programs begin to teach you how to uncover new knowledge through the research process. There are also course-based MS programs that don’t require any research on your part, only classes. A research-based MS will generally require a capstone research project/report at the end called your master’s thesis. Course-based MS programs don’t often require a thesis. Other master’s options also exist, like a Master of Professional Science (MPS) program. These vary quite a bit from place to place, so you’ll have to check the program’s website to see how exactly each one works.

With an MS, your career options expand significantly. Depending on the subject and type of your degree, you can apply for positions in the public sector (Government positions at the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, various state agencies, etc.), private sector (Company positions at places like Sea World, environmental consulting companies, privates zoos or aquariums, etc.), nonprofit arena (Oceana, The Wildlife Conservation Society, The World Wildlife Fund, The Ocean Conservancy, etc.), academia (Research positions at colleges or universities, often as lab managers or full-time technicians), and any number of other places. Master’s programs are so varied that I can’t possibly list everywhere you might work after completing one.

Continuing along the academic route, you will need to enter a doctoral (PhD) program. These can take anywhere from 3-7 years depending on your program requirements, research project, and even country of study. A PhD graduate needs to have made a significant, original contribution to the body of human knowledge. What this means is that, whether your program requires coursework or not, you will be doing a lot of research. At the end you will present a massive final research report called a dissertation, and upon graduation you get to put “Dr.” in front of your name. In the research sciences, where you earn your doctorate is often much less important that in whose lab you earn it. The school you attend may not be the best, most advanced school in the world, but if the narrow sub-field you’ve chosen to study has three professors working in it you go wherever they are.

In addition to (potentially) higher-level positions with each of the organizations open to master’s degree holders, your doctorate will allow you to apply for tenure-track academic positions! However, you may not be as competitive for those until you complete one or more post-doctoral fellowships (post-docs). These are limited term (often 1-2 years) research positions in a professor’s lab that allow you to better your research and lab-management skills while working on a funded project. They are not easy jobs, and the stress of not having a guaranteed income beyond one or two years turns a lot of people away from this step of academia. But, with perseverance and some (a lot) of luck, you can land a tenure-track professorship! This is kind of the golden goose of academia, and usually allows you to set up your own lab and start taking on graduate (master’s and PhD) students. From there, you can advance along the “tenure track” from Assistant Professor, to Associate Professor, to Professor.

There are also non-tenure-track positions, such as adjunct professors or lecturers. While these are certainly academic teaching jobs, they generally have lower pay, less job security, and little to no research involved. There are also many other academic positions available (research only professorships, teaching professorships, etc.), but these vary a lot from place to place and may be part-time, temporary, or both.

This is the general academic pipeline, from undergraduate student to tenure-track professor. The exact route any one person takes may vary heavily from this roadmap, and your results may vary (especially during the post-PhD period). Many folks take breaks from academia in between these steps, most commonly after earning a bachelor’s degree. That is ok! This post is not intended to funnel everyone down the same path, I just feel that anyone operating at any level of academia should be aware of how the system works. Use this roadmap as a career planning tool, not a set-in-stone path. Best of luck!

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The PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship Competition

The PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship Competition

One of the highest-profile scholarships an American student can earn while in high school, National Merit Scholarships can give you a huge advantage both when paying for and getting into college. The crux of the competition also falls on standardized tests, so if you’ve found those to be a personal strength I would heavily encourage you to apply.

The competition is administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) every year and begins with the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) typically taken during your junior year of high school. You can’t sign up as an individual; you need to talk to your guidance counselor or other school administrator about how to sign up through your school. Many schools require the test and automatically sign up all their students as juniors, so you might not have to do anything to get started! If you aren’t sure, ask your school administrators about it.

To be absolutely clear, the PSAT is not a college admissions test like the ACT or SAT. It is the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship Competition, although it has very similar questions and structure to the SAT.

If you will be taking the PSAT soon familiarize yourself with the test structure and types of questions so you’ll feel prepared on test day. Like the SAT, the PSAT doesn’t test a lot of high-level content. It instead focuses on basic mathematical skills, reading comprehension, and reasoning.

If you do well enough on the test, your school will be notified of your competition status during Fall of your senior year. According to the NMSC website (as of 2019), about 50,000 students are designated as “high-scorers,” with the lower two thirds of this bracket receiving letters of commendation and the upper third progressing to the next stage of the competition. Student scores are also compared against scores from their state, rather than at the national level. This means that moving to the next round might require a higher score in some states than in others.

If you are in the lucky upper third of the “high-scorers,” then you’ll be named a semifinalist and given application materials to become a finalist. As part of this application you’ll need to send in SAT or ACT scores, as well as pick a “first choice college” that you plan to attend. This choice can be very important for getting scholarships sponsored by your school!

Most semifinalists advance to finalist standing and are given another (more involved) application to complete. You will have to explain your student activities and leadership roles, write an essay, and get a letter of recommendation from a school official.

After all of this, about 7,500 finalists are selected as scholarship winners! You will be given a National Merit Scholarship of $2,500 (as of 2019), as well as the title of National Merit Scholar to bolster your college admissions prospects. There are also some corporate-sponsored awards based on the competition that may be available to you if the company operates in your area or employs one of your parents. These may or may not require a separate application. The big money often comes from school-sponsored scholarships, which are usually awarded to students attaining winner or finalist status who listed the given school as their first choice on the finalist application. Many large universities will award tens of thousands of dollars for these awards, so do your research and think carefully about which school to choose on the application!

The National Merit Scholarship Competition can seem intimidating, but I recommend that every student take the PSAT and give it their best! If you prepare and are a good enough test-taker, you may just earn yourself a lot of money for college.


Helpful Links:

NMSC Website

Khan Academy PSAT Study Materials

I have no affiliation with Khan Academy and have received no compensation from them. I link to their site here because it explains the structure of the PSAT and offers free practice tests. There are a multitude of paid test prep services that can be found with a quick web search. I neither encourage nor discourage the use of these services in general, or of any service in particular.

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