Category: Resources for Everyone

Formal Applications: How to Stay on Top of Everything

Formal Applications: How to Stay on Top of Everything

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

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

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

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

1) Search for Places to Apply

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

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

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

2) Make a List of Application Components

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

3) Identify Components that Require Significant Time or Effort

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

4) Make a Timeline for Completing Components

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

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

5) Synthesize Your Timelines

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

6) Create If-Then Dependency Plans

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

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

Advice for Specific Types of Applications

Big-System Job Applications

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

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

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

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

College Admissions

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

Scholarships and Academic Funding

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

Photo Credit to Pexels

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

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.

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

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.

Photo Credit to Pexels

What is an REU, and Should I Apply For One?

What is an REU, and Should I Apply For One?

The Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program is administered by the U.S. National Science Foundation and is an incredible way to gain research experience while still in college. If you are a sophomore or junior I heavily recommend you look into this. I spend a lot of time on this blog advocating for undergraduate research opportunities on your home campus, but with an REU you can study any of a wide variety of research topics at another institution. Plus you’ll probably get paid!

How does the program work? First off, because this is a U.S. federal program, you need to be either a citizen or permanent resident of the U.S. or one of its territories. This is true even if the research will take place in another country. Essentially, the NSF funds many “REU sites,” which are hosted by specific labs or departments at different colleges or universities. Every year these sites will solicit applications from undergraduate students across the country. A handful of students will be selected (usually in the neighborhood of ten, depending on the site) to travel to the REU site, and live and work there for a few months. Most programs are between twelve and sixteen weeks long during summer break, although some take place during a full semester. Exactly what you’ll be doing varies from site to site, but the general idea is to give students a taste of life as a graduate student researcher. You will be conducting a research project under the direction of a professor and may be working alongside his or her graduate students. Depending on how your project goes you may even have the chance to present at a conference or publish your work! Some REU sites may offer additional programming, such as research seminars, networking events, or tours of labs or other facilities. You’ll also have plenty of downtime with your REU cohort, and I suggest you try to make friends because these may be your future professional colleagues! Lastly, you will likely receive a stipend for your work. Some sites provide room and board for their students, others house them but don’t pay for food, and still others require you to find your own housing but may assist you financially with this. The exact rate of pay varies depending on these and other variables, but the aim is to make sure students won’t turn down an REU opportunity because they need to make money at a summer job.

If this sounds exciting to you, or if you’re considering a research career, I heavily recommend you apply to some REU sites! The advice my undergraduate research mentor gave me during my junior year was to “apply to every REU program that interests you, even a little bit. Even if the subject isn’t exactly what you want to make a career studying, the research experience will be pivotal!” Every site has its own application and deadline, but for the most part everything is due around winter break (at least for the summer programs). Most REU sites either prefer or outright require that students be entering their final year of college, so most people apply during their junior year for the following summer. When you apply you will probably be asked to identify one or more professors at the site you would like to work with. Put some time and effort into this process. Read a paper or two of theirs, and most importantly, be able to explain why you are interested in their work! Nothing will shoot down your application faster than listing a specific researcher as your first choice, but when asked why responding with “Their research is really interesting to me.” You should also know that these programs are selective. Like really selective. In my college social circles people would apply to ten or more different REU sites, hoping to get into just one. I don’t have access to any large-scale metrics, but I am aware of one REU site that had more than 400 applicants for about twelve positions in 2017. I don’t know for a fact that this is typical of all REU sites, but it illustrates my point. I don’t bring this up to discourage you, but if you are serious about landing a spot in one of these programs you need to put real effort into the applications. I suggest making a list of all the programs you’d like to apply to well in advance, then submitting one application each weekend in late fall. You can then save the last few for winter break. Separate your applications with enough time that you don’t burn out and start phoning it in.

The REU program is an amazing opportunity to get varied research experience before finishing college, and is a good way to feel out whether graduate study is right for you. It’s no walk in the park to get in, but the connections, experience, and pay are all good enough that you should give it a shot! If you’re sold and are chomping at the bit to find an REU site, check the NSF website and good luck!

Photo Credits to Pexels and the National Science Foundation

What is an Aspie? A Personal Explanation

What is an Aspie? A Personal Explanation

Aspie is an affectionate name for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disorder closely linked to Autism. The syndrome is named after Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician who first described it in the 1940’s. Generally speaking, Asperger’s has similar symptoms to Autism minus the delays in language development during childhood. The most commonly described symptom is the inability to read non-verbal social cues without careful practice. With the publication of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 2013, Asperger’s Syndrome was formally folded into the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. That’s the clinical way of putting it, anyway!

I won’t be trying to define what exactly Autism is here, because I find any time someone tries to do that it ends up getting very impersonal and dehumanizing, and that’s not the goal of this blog. The minutia of Autism and Asperger’s research can be fascinating, but in this post I’d like to focus on, socially and professionally, what the term Aspie means to me. The Autism Spectrum is astonishingly diverse and the differences in experiences, abilities, interests, personalities, and modes of communication between individuals on the spectrum are huge! I won’t pretend to be an expert on ASD, but I can lay out the basics and offer links to other resources. Most importantly, if you’re reading about Autism/Asperger’s and are starting to think you might be on the spectrum, I would, if circumstances allow, encourage you to seek a professional diagnosis. This can get you access to all kinds of support and accommodations, and it’s absolutely something you should consider.

My understanding of Autism and Asperger’s comes primarily from my own experiences as an Aspie. I was diagnosed in about 3rd grade; looking back the signs were obvious. I had a set of toy vehicles that came in a rainbow of colors, and absolutely loved to arrange them into their “proper” patterns. I had a series of “patterns” that heavily governed my movement within a space, the steps that I took, things in the room that I touched, etc. These were all forms of stimming, although not necessarily healthy ones.

As I grew up, I started to hear a lot of “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” labels being thrown around. These days those labels are considered outdated and rude, but at the time I let them undermine my experiences because I was labeled “high-functioning.” Sure, I had difficulty picking up on non-verbal social cues. I struggled with transitions from one activity to another, and my time-management skills were lacking. But I was able to interact with people a little, and I was good at school. For the longest time, I wouldn’t have called myself “really autistic,” because there were people out there who were entirely non-verbal, who couldn’t handle a school environment due to sensory overload, or who in other ways seemed to have it a lot worse than me.

While in college I read Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, and it introduced me to the concept of neurodiversity: the idea that people of different neurological makeups aren’t broken or lesser, just different. This is the concept that now informs how I deal with other people on the spectrum, as well as how I treat myself mentally. Embracing neurodiversity led me to accept one of what I call my “specialist subjects” and to pursue it as a career. A common facet of Aspies is a fixation on one or more specific subjects, often involving categories or lists of things (think species of birds, or car models). Silberman’s book, in part, motivated me to push my career in the direction of my developing obsession with fish biology, and to see my specialist subject not as a weird obsession, but as a career asset.

In short, an Aspie is a person who has probably spent a lot of time confused about other people. Although many of us do learn to pick up non-verbal social signals, that ability isn’t usually present from the beginning for us. Aspies have a variety of talents, interests, methods of stimming, and ways of thinking about the world. We have personal struggles just like everybody else. We have good days and bad days, and we doubt ourselves a lot. I have learned to see my Asperger’s as an asset, and one of the aims of this blog is to help other Aspies do the same thing.

If you have an Aspie in your life or have recently discovered that you are an Aspie, I HEAVILY recommend that you read more than this blog post to get a better grasp on Asperger’s. The best places to start that come to mind are-

Centers for Disease Control

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network

The Website of Dr. Temple Grandin