Category: Career

Scuba Diving as an Aspie

Scuba Diving as an Aspie

Scuba diving can be a wonderful, potentially life-altering experience. For many people, descending beneath the waves of the ocean, or even into a lake or quarry, can feel like exploring an alien planet filled with unfamiliar forms of life. While humans evolved to live in terrestrial environments, about 71% of the Earth is covered with water and about 97% of that is ocean. Further, all life on Earth is thought to have originated in an aquatic environment. One could then argue that the oceans, with their variety of distinct ecosystems, represent the primary habitat on Earth. This, I feel, drives an intense curiosity about the undersea world for many of us.

Recreational scuba diving is a fast-growing sport and is by no means restricted to those with related jobs, but scuba can also be used in a range of natural science careers (both marine and freshwater). There are many scientists whose fieldwork includes underwater surveys of fish, algae, and invertebrates, collecting samples at depth, or even conducting habitat use, feeding, or reproductive studies while diving. If you are interested in this sort of work, earning scuba certifications while in high school or college can be enormously beneficial.

However, it should be noted that scuba diving is not for everyone, can be quite expensive, and is absolutely not required for a career in marine/aquatic science. The message you take away from this post should not be “I have to spend a lot of money on scuba courses and gear or else I can’t be a marine scientist.” A lot of marine science is done in labs and on computers, rendering scuba training unnecessary. I know many marine scientists who can’t even swim, let alone scuba dive! Even amongst those who are scuba certified, most only dive for fun, not work.

I bring up scuba here because, in addition to being a moderately common tool for marine and freshwater scientists, it can be a unique experience for those on the autism spectrum. In particular, the sensory and organizational aspects of autism and Asperger’s can have massive implications when scuba diving, both positive and negative.

General Therapeutic Effects

There have been anecdotal stories of individuals diagnosed with ASD (DSM IV autism and Asperger’s) experiencing moderate relief from sensory stresses and anxieties while scuba diving for some time. As far as I am aware the only formal study on the subject came out of Midwestern University in about 2014, though this study simply analyzed personal accounts of autistic divers to identify common themes and experiences. Drawing on my experience as an autistic divemaster, I can confirm that many positive aspects of the scuba experience can (sometimes, in some people) impact common types of sensory issues. Neurotypical scuba students frequently report these benefits as well, though they may be more striking for autistic divers.

Many autistic people derive comfort from weighted blankets or similarly thick clothing; this is thought to be the result of increased pressure on the body. While I can’t explain why this works physiologically or psychologically, it is a widespread experience. When scuba diving, the ambient pressure on your body increases rapidly due to the weight of the water above you. That pressure is double what you experience at sea level after descending only 10 meters (33 feet) and increases linearly with depth. Autistic divers have commonly reported that this increased pressure, in addition to the squeeze of their exposure suit, provides a comparable effect to that of a weighted blanket.

For some people on the spectrum oversensitivity to certain stimuli can cause headaches, anxiety, and stress. Because diving narrows your perception through impairment of most senses, it can significantly reduce sensory distractions. When diving, your vision is narrowed by your mask, smell and taste are severely limited, hearing is minimal, and tactile reception can be reduced with gloves. Some have described this as freeing, simultaneously relieving the anxiety and headaches associated with overstimulation and improving focus. I cannot speak to the medical validity of this, though it is an interesting possibility.

Finally, dive training can offer a sense of confidence and accomplishment to anyone willing to put in the time. This is frequently cited as a major benefit of recreational dive training for neurotypicals, and I feel it extends to the autistic community. Particularly for those of us who may not have a lot of agency and control in other areas of our lives, building confidence through dive training and execution can be intensely fulfilling.

Potential Aspie Advantages

In some ways, Aspies are built for scuba diving. Virtually all scuba training makes use of extensive lists, acronyms, and mnemonic devices. Aspies are commonly drawn to this type of mental organization, and many of us already rely heavily on lists and categories to manage our daily lives. Personally, scuba training felt almost familiar because of how it was structured. Neurotypicals face a potentially high barrier to entry during their initial scuba training because they must adapt their existing mental organization system to keep track of gear, conduct equipment and buddy checks, and establish and remember dive plans. For many Aspies, this manner of organization is more naturally grasped.

Humans (except for fluent sign-language speakers) lose our primary means of communication when diving. To compensate for this, the dive community has developed a set of hand signals that allow for limited communication at depth. Although there are small variations in the use of niche signals and the overall syntax when multiple signals are used in sequence, the most important signals are considered universal. However, because these signals are so simple and so few, divers need to be deliberate when communicating. This system will appeal to some Aspies. Because it reduces communication to only the most necessary messages, normalizes the practice of “speaking” methodically, and eliminates confounding factors like tone of voice and facial expression, some Aspie divers I know find this “language” preferable to speaking on land. Aspies may indeed find they are well-suited to this form of communication and therefore better prepared to become divers.

For Aspies, plans and expectations that are thorough, clear, and explicit are frequently a source of comfort. Due to safety concerns and limited communication at depth this is always the case when diving. Every dive training course will emphasize the importance of making thorough plans for each dive and clearly articulating any goals or expectations. Divers are also taught to stick to the plan, erring only on the side of safety. As the saying goes, “Plan your dive and dive your plan.” I imagine many Aspies will find this culture of safety and explicit communication comforting, as I have.

Potential Aspie Disadvantages

I think I’ve made a fair case so far for why Aspies tend to make good divers, but there are some ways in which we may be naturally unprepared. The biggest of these relates to the diving medical requirements and associated sensory issues.

While I am not aware of any proven correlations between autism and other specific medical conditions, the sensory under- and over-stimulation common amongst those on the spectrum can be a problem when diving, depending on how it manifests. For example, the rapid pressure changes involved in diving affect gas pockets in the body including the lungs, inner ears, and sinuses. Divers must compensate for these changes by breathing full, calm breaths and exhaling while ascending (lungs), equalizing/clearing their ears, often manually (inner ears and sinuses), and always ascending slowly (both). Although I have never witnessed autism-related sensory issues prevent a would-be diver from properly performing these tasks, someone prone to over-stimulation in their sinuses, for example, would almost certainly require extra help during training to get used to it. Similar sensory issues could arise with breathing compressed air, which is necessarily cold and dry and can be uncomfortable in the mouth and throat.

Another skill that may present some difficulty to autistic divers with sensory issues is the conscious regulation of breathing rhythm and overcoming the instinct to hold one’s breath. As mentioned above, lungs are fundamentally gas pockets that will expand and contract as the ambient pressure changes. This can cause a serious lung over-expansion injury if a diver, for example, holds their breath and swims upward. Slight changes in lung volume (inhaling and exhaling) will also influence a diver’s buoyancy, allowing for fine mobility control. For these reasons, dive training courses emphasize conscious control of breathing and expect students to maintain that control throughout every dive. I know one individual on the spectrum who struggles with sensory over-stimulation when she starts to think about her breathing. While I imagine this might be a rare issue, it would be a significant problem when undertaking dive training.

I have known some Aspies for whom anxiety is a defining facet of life and who are prone to panic easily. If this sounds like you, I recommend that you approach diving with caution. While scuba diving can be a tool to regulate anxiety and panic through comfortingly thorough training, clear communication, and reduction of sensory over-stimulation, this regulation must be learned early in the training process. The best advice I can give to someone in this situation is to share their concerns with their instructor clearly, and to accept that extended training time in the pool may be necessary. Anxiety does not preclude you from becoming a successful diver but pretending that it isn’t part of the equation might put you in a dangerous situation.

Finally, diving is a social sport. While Aspies generally don’t experience speech delays in childhood, many of us have to work very hard to figure out the unwritten social rules that neurotypicals grasp quickly. Different Aspies do this at different rates during different stages of their lives, and some will probably never understand their neurotypical peers. I don’t personally see this as a failure or shortcoming, but it does create practical issues when entering a highly social activity that is, like most things, dominated by neurotypicals. There is no magic advice that will make your dive peers like or understand you. All you can do is keep a good attitude and open mind, give your best effort, and communicate genuinely. If possible, it may also be best to dive with a friend or family member who knows you well and will not be put off if a social rule is broken.

Getting Started—Finding a Healthy Dive Culture

While the vast majority of dive operations are shining examples of safety, there are plenty of less-than-reputable businesses that cut corners either out of laziness or to minimize expenses. Once you have engaged with such a business, they will frequently use peer-pressure (yes, really) to get you to finish your training while overlooking equipment safety issues or rushed instruction. All prospective divers should make sure that they are pursuing training through a reputable organization, especially those on the spectrum who anticipate needing extra time or assistance.

You’ll want to start by looking for an open water or introductory scuba course (these are common terms for a “basic” recreational scuba certification) offered by an internationally recognized dive training agency. These include the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), Scuba Schools International (SSI), Scuba Diving International (SDI), the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC), the Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques (CMAS, also called the World Underwater Federation), the National Academy of Scuba Educators (NASE), and others.

Visit a dive shop, school, or training center associated with the agency of your choice and inquire about the dive certification process. Voice any questions or concerns you may have, including relevant sensory issues or significant anxieties. This initial conversation can tell you a lot about how a dive operation is run and, when coupled with online reviews, will form the basis of your decision. Learning to dive requires honesty and vulnerability, particularly if you have sensory/autism related concerns. That can be scary! You need to decide whether you feel comfortable being honest and vulnerable while working with this operation’s staff. All the effort will pay off when you receive patience and individual attention during training, and with a certification card that will be recognized by dive operators around the world. If you decide to pursue advanced dive training or even a career as a dive professional, you can rely on this familiar and trusted operation for guidance.

Getting Started—Adaptive Diving

The world of adaptive scuba training is growing rapidly, and new opportunities are popping up all over. This type of training was originally conceived for paraplegic divers, but it has expanded to cover a range of physical and mental conditions including most forms of autism. While the process I’ve outlined above may work for many Aspies who are capable of “passing” as neurotypical and/or who have relatively mild sensory concerns, people (Aspie or otherwise) elsewhere on the autism spectrum may benefit from adaptive training. This includes anyone who struggles with basic verbal communication or learning in a traditional academic setting, has severe sensory issues, or who does not function autonomously to the degree a diver normally would.

If you fall into this second category and want to learn to dive, your best bet (in the U.S., at least) is to find a shop with an instructor certified by the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA). This sort of thing will usually be emphasized on a store’s website. The HSA site (hsascuba.com) is supposed to help you find instructors, divemasters, and dive buddies who are HSA certified, although at time of writing each of these links causes the site to crash. I recommend starting with an internet search for “HSA Instructor” followed by your area.

HSA instructors are scuba instructors who have undergone additional training and are qualified to teach students with a range of physical and mental disabilities and conditions. Depending on the dive operation and your unique situation you may be placed into a class with neurotypical students and given the extra attention and support you need, or you may get entirely private lessons. If you have a friend or family member who dives and would like to dive with you, the HSA offers a Dive Buddy Course (DBC). This course prepares divers who are already certified to partner with paraplegic, quadriplegic, amputee, and blind buddies. I have been told that the most recent version of the DBC includes information about diving and the autism spectrum, though I can’t personally confirm this.


For me, scuba diving is as much about focusing my mind on a single task as it is about exploring. It grounds me, calms me, and keeps me active. While I can’t guarantee that diving will have these effects for all Aspies, I encourage you to try it if you are at all interested.

Your best source of advice about diving in the context of a science career will be faculty mentors engaged in diving research, so seek them out and talk to them. Lastly, remember that diving is far from required in the aquatic sciences; it’s just one of many tools that can be used to study marine or freshwater systems. Whether or not you decide to (or are able to) take up scuba diving, you are welcome in the natural sciences.


I am not a medical professional; the advice and views expressed here do not constitute formal medical advice. Further, these writings are my own and do not necessarily represent the official positions of any dive training or safety agencies with which I am affiliated, including the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Scuba Schools International (SSI), and Divers Alert Network (DAN), or that of any dive operations for which I have worked.

Uncomfortable Situations in the Workplace: Being Courteous while Standing Up for Yourself

Uncomfortable Situations in the Workplace: Being Courteous while Standing Up for Yourself

For Aspies and Neurotypicals alike, entering the workforce can be intimidating. The social etiquette involved with applying for a job is relatively straightforward, but what are you supposed to do when it’s time to move on? How do you juggle multiple job applications (or offers) at the same time? How do you approach your employer if you feel you’ve been treated unfairly? Each of these issues requires careful application of courtesy, self-advocacy, and economics.

The purpose of this post is to present a collection of lessons I have learned, not to outline an exhaustive guide to job market etiquette. I’m still figuring out how to navigate the American capitalist employment landscape myself and am by no means an expert. This blog is, however, aimed at aspiring natural scientists who will likely need to work in the private sector at some point in their careers, and will probably encounter issues unique to this line of work. My advice is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but it is rooted in my experience with this niche of the employment world.

Multiple Job Offers

The process of finding, applying for, and accepting a job has become streamlined and understandable thanks to the internet. Company webpages clearly explain what they are looking for in a candidate and (most times) outline the application and interview process thoroughly. Things on the applicant’s end can be decidedly messier.

For many budding scientists, our first encounter with the full-time job market is after graduating from college. This gives us a clear timeline for when we will be available to work, but also creates a looming deadline by which we all hope to have something lined up. The natural response is to hedge your bets by applying for multiple positions at once. This isn’t against any rules, but it can create an uncomfortable situation if you get multiple offers on different timelines. Some jobs may give you a window of a few days or more to accept or decline their offer, but others may not (it’s almost always acceptable to request a deadline if one isn’t given, by the way). Worse yet, one job may require you to accept or decline their offer before you hear back from other jobs.

An example from my career: While approaching college graduation I applied for multiple seasonal fieldwork positions. In the end I was turned down for all but one of them, which I gladly accepted. I would be working for a small invasive fish monitoring/removal company near campus for just above minimum wage. About two weeks after accepting the position I was contacted by one of the employers that had turned me down. The person they had chosen over me had accepted a job offer elsewhere, so they were willing to hire me after all. I was inclined to say no because I had already verbally accepted another offer, but this position was objectively better in every way (higher pay, more prestigious employer [state agency], better schedule, longer contract, more interesting work, etc.). I struggled with this situation for a while, but a mentor at the university encouraged me to take the better job offer. Her advice was that as a young person just entering a frequently hostile economy, no one can blame you for doing what is best for you. I accepted the new offer and let the small company know I would not be working with them that summer (uncomfortable email, but a good decision).

I feel this advice should apply to all age groups and career levels. Until you sign a contract to work for a specific employer, your primary concern should be getting the best deal for you. Don’t feel bad about it, and don’t feel forced to turn down an offer just because you’ve verbally committed somewhere else.

When Your Coworker is Laid Off

As I write this, I have been out of work for about a month and a half due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I wasn’t necessarily laid off, it’s more that both of my jobs depend almost exclusively on the travel industry which is nonexistent in the United States these days. We have no customers, so there is no work. The lead-up to this sudden shutdown has taught me quite a bit about workplace etiquette regarding lay-offs. As our customer base started to dry up, the higher-ups were faced with a difficult decision. They seemed to have work for some, but not all employees. In the end they chose to temporarily lay off three of the most junior workers. Hindsight is 20/20, and in this case the layoffs were pointless because all work ceased less than a week later anyway. However, there is an important lesson to be learned from this situation. Employees who had been notified that they would be laid off had to come to work for a while before the changes took effect, and were working alongside those of us who still had secure employment (at least, we thought we did). This created an extremely uncomfortable dynamic that neither Aspies nor Neurotypicals are prepared for.

If you find yourself in a situation like this or will soon, there is one significant pitfall you need to work to avoid. If you have any sort of positive relationship with your coworker who has been laid off, you need to be supportive without unintentionally making it about you. This seems obvious, but I have seen Neurotypicals fall into this trap as easily as anyone on the spectrum. Your comment may be intended to communicate a “We’re all in this together, I support you” sentiment, but it can easily come across as “I am equating my situation to yours even though you were laid off and I wasn’t.” Before you speak to your coworker, triple-check what you are about to say to make sure they won’t feel invalidated by it. Once you have expressed support, it would be wise to listen to what they have to say and let them vent if they need to. Generally, try to avoid comparing their problems to yours by recounting a time you dealt with something similar. Your goal here, at least in your first conversation about the layoff, is not to give advice or to “put their problems in perspective.” Your goal is to be supportive. This process won’t be necessary for every coworker, but it is generally good practice with anyone that you would consider a “work friend” or with whom you speak frequently. Just because your workplace is getting chaotic doesn’t mean your relationships with your coworkers should suffer.

If There is a Dispute about Unpaid Wages

Wage theft is a profoundly serious issue, and I sincerely hope you are never victimized by it. Essentially, if you think your employer is not paying you the wages you have earned (whether by paying you less than minimum wage, deducting money from your paycheck beyond tax withholding and other required deductions, or by not giving you overtime pay) the first thing you should do is gather up all of your documents and crunch the numbers. You absolutely do not want to accuse your employer of wage theft without the numbers to back it up. If the math supports your claim, you need to have a respectful conversation with your employer about the situation. Write everything down; it is vital that you document every interaction with your employer regarding your wages from this point forward. If you open the conversation with a polite enquiry, explain your understanding of your contract and how the law applies to your situation, and make clear what you are asking for, you will probably get one of three responses.

  1. If your boss explains that your position is subject to different legal circumstances than you thought (e.g. you fall under a union contract that has different overtime rules than generally apply) or otherwise shares novel information that changes your calculations, you should graciously and politely accept their explanation. Make sure to ask enough questions to fully understand their legal reasoning, then double-check it yourself at home to ensure you are being treated fairly. If your employer’s explanation doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, legal action of some sort may be warranted.
  2. If your boss realizes there has been some sort of mistake in paying you, hopefully they will seek to remedy the situation quickly to avoid further embarrassment.
  3. If your boss denies that you were underpaid or otherwise wronged but does not provide a satisfactory explanation for the discrepancy in your math, you may need to take legal action.

This may seem to be an awfully quick escalation, but it is important to remember that employment is a contract. You provide your employer with your time and effort, and in return they pay you. The terms of your contract are subject to many government regulations. If your employer is not fulfilling their obligations to you under your contract, or if the contract itself does not satisfy employment regulations, your employer is breaking the law. If the result of your initial conversation with your employer is a legally unsatisfactory explanation and you still believe you have been shorted, you generally have two options*. You can file a civil lawsuit, which will almost certainly require you to hire a lawyer and pay other court-related costs while being relatively quick, or you can file a wage claim with the appropriate state agency. The wage claim process is generally cheaper than filing suit, but often takes much longer. Additionally, each state handles this process differently. If you can’t afford a lawyer/the amount you are claiming wouldn’t make a suit worth it, your best course of action is to research your state’s wage claim adjudication process online. Try searching for “state name wage claim.”

This is a very uncomfortable situation, but wage theft is a serious enough offense that you can’t afford to ignore it. Especially in the natural sciences, we need every cent we earn! Situations like this necessitate that you advocate for yourself, and self-advocacy is a valuable life skill we could all use a little more practice at. Future employers will understand why you didn’t list this employer as a reference, and you won’t be blacklisted from all jobs in your field. You will be ok.

*My experience comes exclusively from the United States where lawyers are plentiful, and most state governments will have some form of wage claim process. Depending on your country you may or may not have these or other options available to you. Regardless, an internet search is a good place to start.

Negotiating Your Pay or Salary

In many jobs, your hourly rate of pay or regular salary will vary depending on your experience even when first hired. This is because a more experienced employee may be considered more valuable to an employer than a less experienced person. Large and complex employers, like government agencies or big corporations or universities, often have regulations governing how much a person with a given amount of experience or education should be paid for a given set of responsibilities. The idea behind systems like this is to ensure fair and equitable pay across work units and between individuals. In the natural sciences, you are especially likely to encounter heavily regulated payment systems when working for state or federal agencies, which represent a significant portion of non-academic jobs in our field.

However, there are jobs without such systems in place where your salary or wage may be negotiated during your interview. The examples that come to mind are mid- to high-level environmental consulting positions at private firms, although I’m sure other instances exist in the natural sciences. This is not a blog about the dynamics of corporate hiring, and I am not qualified to coach anyone in subtle or manipulative negotiation tactics, but I can advise you to do your homework! When applying for a position that doesn’t have a clearly defined salary/wage, look online to see how much the average person with this job makes. You likely won’t find an exact number, but you should be able to arrive at a general range of amounts that seem appropriate. From this range, you can decide on the lowest amount you are willing to accept. It’s also wise to reach out to any trusted contacts or advisors that work or have worked in this industry or type of job. Armed with this information, you will be able to tell if the interviewer is trying to low-ball you (offer you a salary or wage that is well below normal for this job) or making a fair offer.

Once you have worked in a position for a while, there may come a time where you need to ask for a raise. Some employers implement regular across-the-board wage increases to counter the increasing cost of living in their area, but this is not guaranteed. Even with cost-of-living increases, over time you may have picked up additional responsibilities and/or become significantly more efficient in your work. At the middle to lower ranges of the income scale, you may also need to ask for a raise because of expenses that have increased faster than anticipated (e.g. Your rent or utilities went up more than you expected, or you incur unexpected medical bills).

Generally, discussions about pay are best handled in a dedicated meeting or discussion, even if only for five minutes. Don’t try to catch your boss as he/she walks through the workplace, as they are almost certainly occupied with something else. Request a one-on-one meeting with them at a defined time, and make clear what the meeting is about (You could say “I’d like to meet with you to discuss my contributions here at X,” not “We need to talk.”).

You should arrive to this meeting with two clear pieces of information. First, know what you want. What is your wage/salary currently, and to what amount do you want it increased? Don’t just vaguely ask for a raise without knowing exactly how much. Second, you need a justification. Your employment is a matter of economics for your boss, so the best way to get what you want is to make a sound economic argument. If you have significantly increased your work output or taken on significant additional responsibilities since your current rate was established, point to those facts as evidence of your increased value to the organization. Conventional wisdom holds that you shouldn’t offer your increasing expenses as justification for a raise, even if that is why you need one. Although some employers might be more predisposed to a “sympathy raise” than others, it is generally considered more professional to make a “workplace-centric” argument for a raise. In this case, it may be appropriate to ask for more responsibility/offer to take on additional work to justify a subsequent request for a raise.

These are general guidelines that likely apply in most work environments, but my most important piece of advice regarding raises is to determine what is and is not acceptable in your specific organization. If you have coworkers that you trust enough to ask about this sort of thing, do so. Determine what the “normal” procedure is, then operate within that range of appropriate behaviors. Asking for a raise is always terrifying, but if you prepare, remain polite and respectful, and make a reasonable request, the worst your boss will say is no.

When You Screw Up at Work

No one goes their entire lives without messing up at work. You are only human, and you will probably make hundreds of mistakes throughout your career. The sooner you accept this inevitability, the sooner you can begin to process mistakes healthily and learn from them.

The first step you should take after realizing your error is problem assessment. Calm down, then determine both the severity and solvability of the problem. Severity is how big the problem is (i.e. How expensive is the thing you broke? How many people will be affected by your error and for how long? What are the ultimate consequences of your mistake?) and solvability is how quickly and easily, and with how much help, the issue can be rectified.

If the problem can be resolved with relatively little time and effort, it may not be worth bothering your supervisor. This of course depends on the situation, but in a lot of cases your boss would probably prefer that you handle the problem yourself if possible. If, however, the problem is more significant/is not immediately solvable you need to be honest and up-front with your supervisor. Apologize for the mistake but try not to dwell on how bad you feel over it. Instead, work to be a part of the solution (“I know I messed up; how can I help to make it right?”). You may still be in some trouble depending on the severity of the consequences, but this will show your ability to learn from your mistakes and your desire to solve problems.

Photo Credit to Pexels

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 falls 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.

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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.

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