Author: Mel

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.

Photo Credit to Pexels

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.

Photo Credit to Pexels

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!

Photo Credit to Pexels

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.

Photo Credit to Pexels

Paying for Undergrad

Paying for Undergrad

One of the biggest obstacles to becoming a scientist can be the financial burden of college. In the United States, high school seniors often commit to colleges and universities without knowing how much they will pay for tuition, fees, textbooks, room and board, etc. (For reference, when I started college at a large state school in 2014 my father and I estimated the total cost of four years at about $100,000). Student loans are marketed extremely well, and most undergraduate students I know have been told that taking out large loans to pay for school is not only normal and necessary, but safe. No one should be ashamed of needing student loans, but if you intend to pursue the sciences as a career you should do everything in your power to minimize your debt as early as possible. Going back to school for an advanced degree or two is difficult enough without student loan debt from undergrad hanging over your head.

The good news is there are ways to fund your education without taking out loans! None of them are easy, but they can all be worthwhile depending on your situation. Preparing for college probably has you feeling overwhelmed already, but putting in the work for scholarship applications or AP classes now can go a long way toward reducing or eliminating the amount you owe at graduation. The goal of this post is to outline a handful of funding sources and strategies you can use to lower the cost of college, better positioning you to pursue a scientific career after graduation.

Earning College Credit in High School

One of the most effective ways of lowering the cost of college is to knock out required credits before you start your freshman year. High schools typically advertise these programs heavily, so you are likely already aware of what your school has to offer. In my experience the three most common programs are:

-Advanced Placement (AP)

-International Baccalaureate (IB)

-Dual Credit Programs (PSEO, College Credit Plus, etc.)

AP classes can be taken individually, so you can usually sign up for as many or as few as your schedule and high school graduation requirements allow you to. At the end of the year, you pay a fee to take the corresponding AP test and are scored on a scale of 1-5 by a nonprofit called the College Board (the same people who administer the SAT). At many colleges, high scores on AP tests can net you credit and get you out of required classes. AP credits are widely accepted, but you should check with specific schools when you are deciding where to go.

IB is a comprehensive program that extends from elementary school all the way through high school, and individual school districts may offer the full program, only a few high school IB classes, or anything in between. The classes typically conclude with a test that might be worth college credit depending on course level. IB and AP are frequently compared, but which program to choose (if your school offers both/if you cannot take advantage of both) is ultimately up to you and your family. I am aware that not all IB tests are accepted for college credit and that IB students often take the corresponding AP tests at the end of IB courses to guarantee credit, but administrators at your school should be able to tell you more and advise you.

Depending on where you live, your school may offer you the opportunity to take classes at a local college for free while still in high school. Programs like this generally give you “dual credit” that counts toward your high school graduation and for college credit at the same time. Examples include Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) and Ohio’s College Credit Plus program. These programs can be very useful, but I recommend you take a careful look at how easily transferrable those credits will be before you start. I knew many people in high school who took classes at a local private liberal arts college through the PSEO program, only to discover that most of those credits could not be transferred to less expensive state schools. They were forced to choose between abandoning the college credits they had worked for and attending a much more expensive private school. These programs can be great ways to earn college credit, but always make sure the credits can be transferred before you start, assuming you want to go to college elsewhere.

The FAFSA

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is an application you should fill out every year starting your senior year of high school. Essentially, the FAFSA takes in detailed information about your and your parents’ financial situations and spits out need-based financial aid to help you go to school. Depending on your financial status, you might be offered loans, grants, and/or work-study funding. You will then have a chance to accept or reject each offer individually. I can’t explain the pros and cons of individual awards because the details may change from year to year, but the general idea is that:

  1. Grants don’t need to be paid back under most circumstances (this includes the Pell Grant for students from low income families). Always read the fine print, but I would generally advise you to seriously consider accepting any grants you are offered.
  2. Work-study funding is a great opportunity to get paid for work that can be related to your major! Again, read the fine print, but these awards are usually helpful.
  3. There are many types of loans, but they usually come in two flavors: subsidized and unsubsidized. As a rule, subsidized loans don’t start to accumulate interest until after you graduate (because the loan is subsidized by the government paying for your interest until that point), and unsubsidized loans do accumulate interest from the get-go.

I am not a financial advisor of any sort and you shouldn’t make potentially life-altering financial decisions based on this blog. Navigating the world of college financial aid (especially loans) is complicated, and you should talk over your options with your family and guidance counselor if possible. There is no single way to pay for school, and the right way forward is something you and your family will need to decide. The only universal piece of advice I can offer here is read the fine print!

Taking Generals at a Cheaper School

This is a relatively common strategy in my experience. Students enroll at a local community college for their first year or two in order to knock out general requirements like freshman writing, chemistry, and physics for a better price. After that, they will transfer to a bigger, more expensive school to take advanced classes and ultimately graduate. Alternately, some students enroll in community college during summer breaks from their regular school. The above warning about making sure your credits will transfer to your desired school before you start applies, as well as a brief caveat regarding research.

If your goal is a career in scientific research, getting research experience as an undergraduate student is a no-brainer. Not only will this experience tell you whether a research career is right for you; it will make you a more attractive applicant for graduate programs. These early research experiences are also where you will begin to build your scientific network, which can produce job contacts and letters of recommendation going forward. I bring up the importance of undergraduate research here because the “community college transfer” strategy can easily hinder your opportunities if you let it. If you arrive on campus as a junior and only spend two or three years there, you will have less time to find, apply to, integrate into, and gain experience with a research lab. It’s certainly possible to do all of this on a shorter timeframe, but I recommend taking your time to try out different labs to find one where you fit academically and communally. If you start at a community college, try to volunteer (or work for pay, if you’re really lucky) in a lab at your desired school before you transfer, even if it’s only one day a week. Volunteer experience with an on-campus lab will absolutely help you find a place in the research community once you do transfer, and you will be a competitive applicant for any other lab positions you decide to pursue. Bottom line: taking general credits at a cheaper school is a great way to save money, as long as you don’t use it as an excuse to put off getting research experience.

Scholarships

Scholarships can be like magic. If you put in a little effort to write essays and ask for letters of recommendation, money might appear out of thin air!

In all seriousness, scholarships are often a much more efficient way to earn money for college than working a part-time job. Some require you to write personal statements about why you want to get a degree in this field (which encourages self-reflection), and best of all, you never have to pay this money back!!! I heavily recommend that you apply for lots and lots of scholarships at every opportunity, especially if you want your career to center on research. What are grant applications, after all, if not massive, bloated, ultra-competitive scholarship applications? Asking for money to further your research will be a central part of your career; applying for college scholarships is excellent practice.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll separate scholarships into two categories: Internal and External. Internal scholarships are offered by your school or department. These are typically a little less competitive because applicants must be from your institution, and you should absolutely take advantage of them. During my undergrad I spent two summers at a field station run by my school. There were a handful of scholarships set aside for students taking classes or doing research at this station, and the open secret was that, because so few students came to the station each year, every applicant got at least $500. The only way to miss out on this money was to not apply! While this may have been a special case, the principle holds true. If you have decent grades and a good letter of recommendation, your chances of netting some cash are probably pretty good. Look over your college/university/department’s website, ask your professors, research mentors, or academic advisors, and apply for everything you can!

External scholarships vary a lot more in both scope and size, but are equally worth pursuing. There are high-profile national scholarship competitions like the Astronaut Scholarship and the National Merit Scholarship (I’ve written about the National Merit Scholarship here), as well as field-specific awards like the Hollings Scholarship. You may also find smaller-scale awards from community organizations like churches or businesses. I can’t list every possible external funding source for science undergrads because they are numerous and constantly changing, but I can advise you to give it a google! Large schools often have an entire office devoted to national-level scholarship competitions; seek them out if you’d like to throw your hat in the ring.

Jobs Related to your Major

Another fantastic way to earn money while in college is to find a job that will get you more experience in your major. The obvious choice for an aspiring researcher would be to find a paid role in a lab, but these are more frequently volunteer positions because labs are usually strapped for cash. In the natural sciences, animal care can be a more viable option. Chances are there are labs on campus with live animals that need to be fed and looked after. This grunt work is often pushed off onto undergrads in exchange for a paycheck and extra exposure to the lab animals and equipment. My undergrad alma mater was landlocked, so I found a position feeding zebrafish that were used by genetics and neuroscience labs. If you don’t want to wash fish tanks, improving your teaching skills by tutoring younger students may appeal to you. Many departments have formal tutoring programs that you can apply to work for; if not, you could put up flyers and freelance! “Weed-out” courses early in a major will always have students that need a little extra help, and teaching material will help to solidify your own understanding. There are plenty of other options for work on campus that don’t involve cleaning plates in the dining hall, but they vary a lot between institutions. Consult your advisor, professors, classmates, and department website to see what’s available!

There are also paid research internships called “REUs” (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) funded by the National Science Foundation. REU programs typically take place during 10-12 weeks over the summer, and pay in the neighborhood of $5,000-$6,000 (as of 2017). Think of it as grad school lite. You spend a summer working on a project under a faculty mentor and participating in seminars, culminating in a final report and presentation. Not only is this fantastic experience, but the pay is usually great. These programs can get uber competitive, but they are absolutely worth the effort. (I’ve written more about the NSF REU program here).


I realize this is a lot of information to take in at once, but if you put in the work, knock out a few generals before starting college, land a couple of scholarships, and work an on-campus job, you’ll be in a much better position to pursue a research career after graduation.

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