Finding (or building) community in grad school

I care a great deal about being a well-rounded person.

I didn’t get a lot of guidance about higher education while I was in high school, and I went off to college at a top institution without a lot of understanding of what possibilities existed. After I graduated, I made a really active decision not to go straight on to the next academic step. Part of this was uncertainty about what I wanted to do, but the other piece of this decision–and it was a big piece–was that I’d felt really sheltered. I’d spent my entire life in school. I didn’t really know what it was to be a “real” person. Continue reading

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More than a scientist

Less than a month into grad school, I had my first potential-PI meeting.  The professor was a Nobel laureate, I’d spoken with him in writing a fellowship proposal, and I’d spent most of my summer envisioning myself in his lab.  He was interested in the fact that I’d left industry to do my PhD, and wanted to know why.

I explained that I wanted to see the culture of science change.  I wanted to work my way up and gain a position from which I could influence policy and make the scientific community more welcoming to folks from different backgrounds—more welcoming to people who looked like me, like my (Latin@) family, like my (queer, trans, low income) communities.  And under all of this, of course, because I wanted to do science!  But when I described my passion for change, the man looked at me across the table with disbelief and said, “That’s why you came to grad school?” Continue reading

“Up” on a pedestal: mental illness and grad school, or mania and research

My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly after I was born, and shortly after her grandfather, who she loved deeply, suddenly died.  As an adult, I can make sense of it:  I can reason that the combined effects of grief and pregnancy on her body did something to bring to light an illness that had been latent; but when she told me when I was a child, I thought maybe if I hadn’t come along, my mom wouldn’t be sick.

Bipolar disorder is highly heritable, and both of my parents have diagnoses.  I’ve known this for most of my life and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me.

It has taken years for me to push back against all of the ableist rhetoric that society has shoved into me.  The thought that depression was something I could just push through if I tried harder.  The idea that if I went on medication I would lose myself, I would change.  The notion that if I went to therapy I was weak.  That I couldn’t seek services because then it would be official, I’d be crazy, and what’s worse than that?

And frankly it’s all utter bullshit—but it took years to deprogram.

So here’s where I am now:  Continue reading

A 3 body problem, part II

Recently I wrote about my family’s newfound challenge to find a place to live in that has both career opportunities for my partner and me – and the medical resources and community support for my special needs kid. Thanks again to all who shared their stories of how they’ve confronted this issue in their own family.   Fortunately, since this last post, my partner (who is currently on the job market while I am a year or two away) landed an academic position with a lot of growth potential in a city with great resources for our kid. To say I am pleased would be an understatement. I’ve been crying a lot – mostly out of gratitude to the universe at large (and probably in part still due to all the new mom hormones).

So with my partner and my kid’s needs apparently taken care of, I’m now the third body. With up to two years of graduate school left, I am trying to line up my ducks for: 1) successfully completing and defending my dissertation while living far away from my lab group   2) (hopefully) successfully lining up employment post-defense in this new locale.   Let’s break these down. Continue reading

Grad student mentorship

One of the biggest sources of both joy and stress in my professional life is working with grad students. Joy because I love working with other people, particularly students, and feel an immense amount of satisfaction watching my students develop into fantastic scientists with their own ideas.  Stress because the process of mentorship is HARD, and also because I need to be able to fund my students- tuition, salary, and research expenses.

It’s that time of the year when I am starting to get emails from prospective students for admission in 2015, so I’m thinking hard about whether and how many students I would like to accept and what types of students I want.

With this post, I would like to accomplish two things: 1) to communicate to prospective students some strategies that will make me consider them beyond their initial email; and 2) to present the various constraints and opportunities that I am trying to balance, so that students know a little bit about what goes on in the minds of their prospective advisors. Continue reading

Do I trust my gut?

Earlier in the year, I had the opportunity to do some amazing fieldwork in a remote, logistically difficult field site. This opportunity was essentially dropped in my lap, by affiliation with the research center I work in. I was thrilled — this would open new doors, and potentially set up a life’s worth of work. Our outside contact sent some emails introducing himself, and said he was excited to have me on board. We started chatting about an in-person meeting at my campus, since there are a few of us who would be participating in this field expedition. The big obstacle would be getting funding, which the director of my center was confident I could do, because of my early-career status (with his guidance; he has a very successful funding rate). Everything looked perfect.

And then things started getting weird. Continue reading

Poverty in the Ivory Tower

This post is a modified and expanded version of a post that originally appeared on my personal blog.

I went to an awesome small conference a few years ago. The location was gorgeous, I got my own room, the talks were all well prepared and about stuff I’m gaga over. There were enough acquaintances attending to feel comfortable and enough new folks to make some useful connections. Plus, the conference sponsors gave away lots of free and super nerdy books.

I also got to interact a lot more with two postdocs from my university who I had developed little science crushes on and really admired. When I prepare for discussion groups, I try to work through the material as deeply as they do. When people ask me questions, I try to respond as carefully and thoughtfully as they do. When they say a book really impressed them, I go read it. So, naturally, I was pretty excited to spend more time with them.

The thing about role models, though, is that they can really let you down. Continue reading