Category Archives: Grad School

Grief

This is an obvious departure from my normal biology, but it is now, more than ever, important to showcase our diversity and vulnerability through our individual stories. I had been meaning to write a piece about my road to a career in science, so take this as a precursor for a later post.


I went to bed on Tuesday night numb. Pennsylvania and Arizona hadn’t yet been called. There was technically still some hope, but a miraculous turnaround wouldn’t have filled the pit in my stomach. Despite having spent the evening watching the election coverage in a room full of fellow ecologists and of some of my best friends in Indiana, I felt very alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a competitive person and I hate being on the losing team. But this was different, it was personal. The closeness of the race showed that the country I was born in, that I call home, was attempting to elect a xenophobe, a racist, a misogynist, a climate change denier. As a child of immigrants, as a person of color, as a woman, as a scientist, I felt rejected on the most fundamental level. Whether or not Clinton could win at that point, I was broken.

Like many of my fellow Americans, I slept fitfully that night. Wednesday morning, I saw the BBC and NPR alerts on the lock screen and wept. I was afraid for myself and my family. I could only think about the surge in hate crimes that would accompany this day, and about all the struggles that each of my identities have suffered through to make it in America. I thought about my parents and their journey to Detroit from South India, and wondered if they had any idea the sort of blatant racism they would face there. I thought about my dad at 25. He managed to support both his and my mother’s educations by working as a parking lot monitor, by collecting extra cans to turn in for the recycling money, and by getting a job as a seasonal tax-preparer (and fact-checking Clint Eastwood’s 1988 tax returns!), all while completing a Master’s thesis in artificial intelligence as a mechanical engineer. I thought about my mother’s trials leaving her extensive familial support network in India to become an OB-GYN and family practitioner, as well as the physical tolls that that career path would inflict on her.

Thinking about their struggle to achieve the American Dream makes me cry on a normal day…as does that one episode of Master of None. But it also puts my current Midwest struggles dealing with subtle microaggressions (like my parents in the 80s, I still don’t get served in a timely manner in restaurants) and outright racism (having someone explain why colonialism made Indians so much better than the Chinese) in perspective. Once the initial inspiration fueled tears have passed, I then think about why my parents chose to move to California. My dad was driving my mom to an interview and stopped into Burger King for lunch. The cashier smiled at him while she took his order. That was literally it. My dad decided to raise us in Fairfield, CA, because that was the first place a stranger exhibited a base level of common decency for him as a human being. We would go on to thrive in California, with my mom successfully running a private practice for over 20 years and my dad finally pursuing his lifelong dream – becoming a [walnut] farmer.

Ultimately, they came to the US knowing they would be outsiders and knowing it would be the hardest transition they had ever experienced. They knew that my sister and I would have the greatest opportunity here, that we could do anything. Little did they know that I would be so much like them and how frustrating that would be for them: apparently when you combine my dad’s pragmatism and ambition with my mom’s overwhelming sense of empathy and compassion you get an passionate anthropologically-oriented microbiologist, not a quiet cardiologist.

At this point in my life, at the same age that my parents immigrated to the US, we are very different people. We voted for the same party, but my dad still rolls with the punches much easier. Ever business-minded, he acknowledged the tax breaks as a positive of the new presidency. He understands that things will be bad, but they’ve, honestly, always been pretty bad.

The country was just once again making it clear that it didn’t want us here. The key difference is that I don’t have another country to go back to. I am American, and I’m here to stay, whether it likes it or not. And it’s just a matter of time before we are the collective majority.

Maybe part of him recognizes my anguish and knows it’ll fuel change. I’m going to keep telling myself that, in any case. While the next few days, months, years, will be difficult, I don’t plan on backing down. I won’t hide. I don’t plan on just sitting around and waiting for 2042. I will continue my work on my science, but I will also continue to reach out to anyone and everyone about conservation biology, about climate change, about the inextricable link between social justice and natural resources. I will continue to educate my community at every opportunity.

As I got ready for school, a steady stream of tears would obscure each part of the routine. In an effort to externalize my resolve and passion, I wore my brightest, happiest colored clothing. In a more pragmatic moment, I forewent my normal eye makeup.

Writtens

“You’re about to take your writtens? This is the smartest you’ll ever be!” – Jason

Since I just took my written exams, I’m expound on what I know (or didn’t).

Writtens encompass the major topics relevant to your preliminary research proposal and tend to be taken during the second year of the Ph.D. program, so that you have the necessary background classes to use as a springboard for ideas.

Before we can do our writtens, we have to assemble a committee of 4-5 professors (including your PI). These people are signing up to mentor you in their areas of expertise, as it pertains to your research area. Since Notre Dame has a relatively small department and I have a very specific research topic, it was fairly clear who should be on my committee, but make sure to ask other grad students about how professors actually are on committees. Some are very involved and give great feedback, and others don’t bother to write a new test for you or even look at you during committee meetings.

Once you’ve picked your group, herd your professor-cats into one room (somehow) and present your potential research ideas for them to poke full of holes. Since my committee all knew me but didn’t necessarily know my post Ph.D. goals, I also spent some time telling them about my background (I like gibbons), why I want a Ph.D. (more letters for this BadAss BullShitter), and what I want to do (play with gibbons in the US). After about an hour of (hopefully constructive) criticism, you’ll have finished your first committee meeting!

Post committee meeting, you then go visit each professor’s lair individually and ask them what they think you should know, based on what you presented at the meeting. As I met with each of them individually, I also told them why I had chosen them and what specifically I was looking to learn from them, which helped most of them guide my writtens material. This need not be one-way either, having a continuing dialogue with your committee members while you are studying can be a great way to bounce ideas around. Ask if you can see copies of exam questions given to other graduate students and clarify early on whether the exam is open book or not. With a stack of papers in hand and a bunch of textbooks in your bag, you now get to embark on a lovely month long journey of despair and discovery, depending on the textbooks.

The exams themselves are almost a relief, since they signal that you can stop breathing in nothing but science for a few days (it’s all spent on expulsion!). Ours are three hours a professor and parceled out over two to three days with two professors a day. Your PI sets the order of the exams, so she asked if I had a preference for order – ask about that so you know exactly what’s coming when! All of mine were due by electronic submission, so that was 12 hours (!!) of furious essay question typing. I didn’t study on the evening between the exams because I was honestly too burnt out after the first 6 hours. Have a beer and lay in the grass, because exam fatigue is very real. My last exam was my PI’s, and exam fatigue made the very last question all but impossible to do in a timely manner. Luckily, since it was her exam, it was the most well defined in my head as well as the one I could autopilot answer the best.

That feeling of being done though…that was amazing. The euphoria lasted for at least a day. 10/10 but would not do again. It was strange to know that at that moment right before the exam, you really are the most knowledgeable about all the things, and then you just deflate into a pile of euphoric mush, i.e. the dumbest you’ll ever be.

Reflections of a First Year

Last week I spent over 40 hours in a small room with the same 18 people. As the instructors pointed out, you would think that that would mean we would all hate one another by the end of the week. On the other hand, I hadn’t ever met 13 of them outside of a professional context before, which means that this Social Responsibilities of Researchers boot camp was the quickest way to learn how to meet and tolerate and become incredibly comfortable with a relatively large group of people in the shortest amount of time possible. While I was going to write a blog post solely reflecting on this boot camp experience, I thought it might be more worthwhile to expand out to reflections on my first year (or 9 months, I guess) of graduate school.


I started this by writing out a long winded sad-sack post about how terrible that first few months of grad school was – the ones were I felt like I was in a free float, both in terms of not having a network of friends and of not having anything concrete (like wet lab work) to research. Instead, I think this is best structured as a handy table of do and do nots.

DO NOT DO
Skip out on orientation events, even if it’s raining Really, just fucking bring an umbrella, I know you hate humidity but there will probably be cookies.
Hide while your roommate is having a dinner party Go to happy hours and meet said roommate’s friend network and steal them for your own
Compare yourself to the other first year graduate students, they are both in wet labs and doing rotations so stop freaking out that you just funneled poop and read papers for the entire semester Enjoy Duke despite the literal mountain of shit you have to process. Keep working on whatever you can find obsessively (looking at you, GRFP).
Sign up for literally all the talks Just kidding, you should totally do that. Free snacks and facial recognition by the heads of the professional development departments.
Try to keep track of all your commitments on random loose bits of paper and iPhone notes Use an electronic calendar – set up events in a series
Put up with racist bullshit microaggressions Chug that hard cider and tell that drunk idiot where he can shove his justifications for colonialism
Avoid getting involved in social event planning Plan that Halloween party and also come up with an awesome award winning group costume
Have the same amount of Jell-O shots as someone who is literally twice your size (verified) Aim for the window/toilet/trash can. Sleep on tile floor for easy clean up.
Freak out that someone in your group is useless Just do the work, those people always exist and are also doing grad school all wrong.
Worry about grades Do the work, learn the material – there isn’t a curve anymore. This is grad school, where the classes are made up and the grades don’t matter.
Sign up for literally all the outreach Just kidding, you’ll sleep when you graduate. Go tell those children about biomes right meow!
Freak out about being wrong Let the shame roll off your back and learn from it.
Freak out about your project being in constant flux PIs are like cats – you will never know what they’re thinking or why they seem to cause chaos at regular intervals
Only stick to meeting people in your department Sign up for things that let you interact with less poop obsessed people.
Get too flustered by next week’s commitments. Take grad school one small garbage fire at a time. “You can stand anything for ten seconds, and then another ten seconds, and then another…”
Take for granted how much you do actually know Try to explain your project to anyone unfamiliar with your specific field and realize just how much background and jargon you already have.

In summary, my first year was like a garbage fire that keeps flaring up whenever you thought it was under control. Stop panicking, back up, and roast marshmallows.