Tag: Academia

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Academic Roadmap Explained: How to Make Science Your Career

The Academic Roadmap Explained: How to Make Science Your Career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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