Well being

updated September 2019

 

One of the central missions of the McEwan lab is to:

Create opportunities and guide students in the pursuit of their professional vision in the realm of scientific research, application and outreach.

Toward this end, the lab is committed to providing a healthy framework for student engagement. The pursuit of science can become an overwhelming experience and can create, or interact with, unhealthy patterns in the lives of students in the lab.  Destructive tendencies can flourish in the academic setting and it is our goal, as a lab community, to pursue science while also supporting the overall health and well-being of lab members.

 

Mental and physical health concerns.

If you are not feeling well, either physically or mentally, take the time off you need to seek out help and take care of yourself.  There are many resources at the University of Dayton that you can use and you should always feel free to take time off from the lab, miss a meeting, or otherwise disengage if you are ill or otherwise need to take care of yourself.  Please communicate with Dr. McEwan and other community members you might be working with if you cannot attend a lab activity where others are counting on your presence, or if you will be out for an extended period of time.

 

Personal emergencies.

You may be a member of the McEwan lab for an extended period and during this time it is possible that a life-altering situation or emergency will arise.  We have seen many different things arise in the lives of community members and it is critical that you take the time you need if such a situation arises in your own life.  Please communicate with Dr. McEwan if something happens that will require you to miss a lot of time in the lab.

  

Balance.

Scientists can be both ambitious and obsessive.  The pursuit of scientific knowledge is intoxicating at times and students can easily fall into a routine of working far more than is healthy.  If you are the kind of person who tends to push beyond your limits you can become a Growing Tree Academic and wind up personally destroyed in the pursuit of giving yourself to your project and to Science.  Many of our projects are bottomless, meaning that we can keep working forever and still have more to do.  This can lead to working far more hours that are healthy.  Thus, learning to set limits is an important goal.  For some, managing this comes naturally, while for others it can be extremely complicated.

I want to also note that what is an unhealthy level of work and commitment for some may be perfectly healthy for others.  Rarely are painters or musicians criticized for working obsessively, nor do we criticize the star athlete for working tirelessly on her craft – similarly, it is important that we are also accepting of the fact that for some people, Ecology is truly a labor of love and working “constantly” can be part of a healthy and happy life. If someone says “I don’t want to go to the Avengers movie because I am working on these figures” that does not mean they have a work-life balance issue, they might actually enjoy figure making more than the Avengers.  We encourage each person to find the balance that keeps them inspired, avoids burn-out, and keeps their project on track.

 

Work hours.

Science is a “product” driven enterprise.  The goal is the accumulation of knowledge and communication of that knowledge to the scientific community and the public.  Scientists approach the notion of work hours from a variety of different perspectives.  Some find success in setting up a “normal” 8-5 Monday through Friday work week, and come to campus during those hours and work, then do not work on the weekends.  Others work better from off campus at times and do not have as consistent hours. I have known successful scientists who wake up at 5:00 am every night and are super productive, and I have known successful scientists who did their best work between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am.

Dr. McEwan is normally on campus a lot during the semesters, but isn’t always in his office.  He also works from home a lot as he has found that focus is sometimes easier there away from distractions. Dr. McEwan works at least some most days, including weekends and holidays, also works at night often, but also will simply not come to campus some days and takes a lot of time for family when needed. That Dr. McEwan works on weekends does not indicate that you need to do so!  Your goal ultimately is to fine the working pattern that helps you be maximally productive and happy – nothing else really matters.

 

Email hours.

Email is the primary mode of communication in academia, science and in the McEwan Lab.  As a lab member you will be added to a list and there will be periodic communication over that list.   You must read your email to stay informed.  Further, you may also be involved in projects where Dr. McEwan is involved and those projects will likely prompt email communication.  Dr. McEwan may send emails at odd hours.  Late at night, early in the morning, during holidays, on weekends.  You should not take emails sent at odd times or days as an indication that you need to reply immediately.  You can manage emails in a professional fashion and should not answer emails during times where you normally would be on holiday or sleeping, etc.  Students are responsible for being responsible about when to read and reply to emails in a way that is healthy and productive for them as individuals.

 

Lab and field safety.

The Department of Biology has lab safety training that you should participate in if you are going to be working in the lab.  Let Dr. McEwan know so that can be scheduled.

Field trip safety is also an important concern for McEwan Lab members. Here are some safety rules:

  • Transportation into the field is normally via the Department of Biology field vehicle (truck). Communicate with Dr. McEwan for safety rules and access.  Driver training is required.
  • Do not go into the field alone. You should always have at least one person with you.
  • Generally speaking if you are going into the field for terrestrial sampling you should wear tough closed toe shoes (boots), preferably water proof (think Gortex) and long pants.
    In the summer, pants preferably would be light, loose, and tough – ripstop nylon or something similar (think Army surplus!!).  Additionally, I personally like to wear light long-sleeved shirts.  Something that does not stick to you and that you can roll up or down sleeves. The main idea is to delete from your brain the thought of walking on lawns and trails, and insert the idea that your job as an environmental professional will often mean going perpendicular to the trail directly through briars, nettles, poison ivy, with swarms of biting flies, mosquitoes, etc.  If you have on shorts and sandals you will be sad and distracted and in pain, and therefore not able to do your job.
  • Sunscreen, sun hats, insect repellant are often needed in a field situation. Protect yourself.

 

Commitment to Community.

 One important aspect of safety and well-being in the McEwan lab is a commitment to the lab community. Occasional disagreement is a normal part of a large, interacting, group and we must all acknowledge that potential exists for miscommunication and hurt feelings. Although we seek a “horizontal” structure, there are power imbalances in the lab that must be acknowledged and addressed.

One important thing that you can do to ensure the work environment remains hospitable and safe for everyone is to address any conflict that arises promptly with the individual in question.  If there is some reason that you cannot address the issue immediately or if you feel unable to deal directly with the individual in question, then bring your issue to one of the graduate students or Dr. McEwan. If you feel worried that negative statements might cause problems for you, then you can simply type up a description of the problem you see and leave it as an anonymous note in Dr. McEwan’s mailbox, or a mailbox of one of the graduate students. Doing this is extremely helpful and a highly responsible thing to do.

Nobody in the lab should have to worry that others are talking about them “behind their back” or gossiping about them in a negative way.  It is unacceptable for you to engage in these behaviors.  For example, if you feel slighted by something a grad student says, or you feel one of the other students in the lab is being, e.g., “lazy” you should not form a group chat with other lab members to discuss how “awful” that person is through text messages.  This is harmful (and childish) behavior that is unacceptable in any professional environment. You must not engage in such things, if you see it happening you should tell folks doing it to “stop” and tell Dr. McEwan either in person or anonymously right away.

 

Harassment, Discrimination and Assault.

The McEwan Lab abides by and strongly supports the University of Dayton Nondiscrimination policy:  LINK.  Further, we strongly affirm the University of Dayton’s equity efforts and formally proclaim:

 The McEwan Lab does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, national or ethnic origin, sex/gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, genetic information, military status, veteran status, familial status or any other protected category under applicable local, state or federal law, ordinance or regulation.

Any activity in the lab that violates the anti-harassment policies of the University of Dayton will be addressed promptly through the formal equity compliance process:  LINK.  In particular, we are vigilantly opposed to sexist, misogynistic, racist, homophobic and transphobic behavior and language and will seek to create an open, inclusive, space for the sharing of ideas and professional growth of lab members.

Sexual harassment and assault are prevalent on college campuses and we want members of the McEwan Lab to be safe.  We will not tolerate such behavior in the Lab and will work to rid the campus of the University of Dayton of this behavior.  Members of the lab are encouraged to participate in Green Dot training and we will seek to have a formal lab meeting devoted to this training when possible.

 

Dr. McEwan & McEwan lab Grad Students are Mandatory Reporters 

 If something happens to you and you wish to talk about it to Dr. McEwan or a graduate student in the lab, it is important that you understand that while your privacy is important, we cannot promise to keep what you share confidential if what you share indicates a violation of your rights or the law.  If you are comfortable speaking with us we will take what you say seriously.  We will pursue the appropriate processes carefully and thoughtfully.  There are many different offices and venues for addressing a wide range of issues and we will help you navigate to the appropriate person.  There are people on campus (Doctors, Counselors, Clergy) who are NOT mandatory reporters who I can direct you to.   But, it is important that you know that if what you share with me indicates a violation of your rights I literally cannot meet your request for privacy.

 LINK to more information.

 

Summary

(a) Ensuring that lab activities do not adversely impact the well-being of lab members is a critically important task and something we all take seriously and work on as a community.

(b) Undergraduate students often experience stressful times and mental health is a serious concern.  Many new studies indicate that stress and mental health are also serious concerns for graduate students.  In the McEwan Lab we will work to create an environment of support around mental health challenges.  Respect for work-life balance is fundamental to the McEwan Lab philosophy (LINK).

(c) Working in a research lab can be fun and the quest for scientific knowledge can be truly exhilarating.  Although we all experience pressure related to our lives as academics, we in the McEwan Lab seek to pursue answers to important scientific questions in a way that is mutually supportive and ultimately joyful.

(d) Students in the lab who experience challenges to their wellness are encouraged to seek out help.  Many resources exist at the University of Dayton which can be found by following this LINK.

Outside Reading

 

McEwan’s Mental Health LifeHack Lecture

Charybdis

Data collection, management and sharing

Updated September 2019

 

Data collection practices

(a) If you are leading a project you must keep a field notebook in which you outline your observations and activities.  These are available in the McEwan lab.

data collection needs to be clean, legible to others, in pencil, on waterproof paper, with dates and data collector information on each sheet.  Data collected on paper in this fashion is timeless and superior to digital methods.

(c) When possible there should be uniformity in data collection system.  Preferably have the same person collect the same data in the same way for the whole project and deviate from that only if needed and with caution.

(d) QA/QC your data entry.  Errors are quite common in data collection and data entry.  You need to practice regular QA/QC.  Best is a quick scan of each sheet in the field (or lab) as the sheet is completed to see if anything absurd is written down (oak tree with 8900 cm DBH).  During data entry is a good time to catch mistakes. Then after data entry, depending on the number of sheets, it is useful to go back and re-check the entry.  Minimally, a random 10% sample of the data sheets and re-check with the entered data is needed.  If mistakes are found, then another random 10% sample (without replacement) is needed.

 

Precautions against the loss of data

Computers are only vaguely reliable instruments. 

You are required to assume that your computer, or the one you are using, will fail unexpectedly.

Examples of **unacceptable** reasons for losing data:

(a) my hard drive crashed!  (of course it did!)

(b) I was really busy getting ready for “x” so I didn’t back up the data

(c) there is only one computer with a microscope camera/software package/etc and so I saved everything there and didn’t back it up.

 

McEwan lab data management practices & data sharing

Here are some rules for working in the McEwan lab:

(a) Data ownership.

At the time of graduation, or the ending of any particular project, all data and other information associated with the project must be transferred to Dr. McEwan for curation, storage, publication or sharing.

Students may be entitled to authorship on subsequent publications; however, that is determined on an individual basis depending on the efforts of the students within the context of the overall project.

As Principle Investigator in the lab, and the person responsible to the University of Dayton, funding agencies, etc, Dr. McEwan is the ultimate owner of all data collected in the lab and reserves the right to make datasets publicly available and move forward with publishing or other uses pursuant to the code of ethics surrounding scientific information put forward by the Ecological Society of America.

(b) Everyone will use Excel to enter data and create CSV files and all analysis must be done in R.

(c) We will share data sets across the lab

(d) We will create data products (data sets) that are shared publicly

(e) Everyone will help out with analysis- share in a collaborative fashion

(f) Analysis of data sets will often be open to peers, and, in some instances, will take place live in front of the lab group.  This might feel scary at times if it is your data set, but this is the way we are moving forward

Process:

(a) Every new project in the lab should begin with the creation of a folder that is shared.  Dr. McEwan will create that folder and share it with the participants in the project.  If you are involved in a project and do not have a folder, let Dr. McEwan know via email or in person and he will create the folder.  All activities related to the project must take place within this shared folder.  The shared folder should have a logical sub-folder structure and can include “Literature”  “Analysis,” “Writing,” “Scripts,”  etc.

(b) Data products.  The first priority for any project, once data have been collected is to create data products for the project they are working on.  These data products will be shared in the Project Folder and consist of a written description of the methods,  data entered into the appropriate format for sharing and analysis in R, and explanatory text in the form of meta-data.

Features of a required data product

–  a journal-quality description of methods.  This may need to include images, etc.

–  a Final CSV folder that contains the perfectly cleaned and organized R-ready files

–  metadata for the CSV files

(c)  Projects will advance forward, following the completion of the data products, following normal processes including exploratory data analysis, final analyses and writing.  This could include writing a Thesis, a paper for publication, or preparing various presentations including posters and presentations.

(d) Once analyses are completed, the final, curated, annotated, scripts must be shared with Dr. McEwan.  These scripts may serve as the basis for future analyses.  To determine if you have met this lab requirement – Can a reasonably competent person, familiar with your project, reproduce your graphics and analyses in < 1 hr?

 

McEwan lab data archive

The McEwan lab seeks to publicly share all data collected in the lab through eCommons and the University of Dayton library. The idea is to store curated data set on the site in such a way that they are publicly available and have a citable DOI.  We will seek to publish the final, cleaned, csv files prior to publication and cite the data in the manuscripts we submit to journals.  This is a permanent archive freely available to all collaborators, agencies and other stakeholders.  Dr. McEwan will contact you about storing your data sets in the archive if appropriate.

LINK: https://ecommons.udayton.edu/mcewanlab/

 

 

Managing Literature

Updated September 2019

 

“A few months in the laboratory can save a few hours in the library.”  Frank Westheimer

Overview

Reading and managing scientific literature is one of the most important skills you need to develop.  Scientific literature is the foundation upon which all future work must be built.   Climbing to the top of the mountain of literature is a must for PhD students.  For Master’s students and undergraduates, you must engage the literature.  Reading the literature is a skill, and if you do not develop a commitment to developing that skill then that quality of your science will suffer.  In the McEwan lab all project leaders are required to commit to reading the literature and using that literature to bolster your science.

Mendeley

We use Mendeley as the literature management software in the McEwan Lab.  There is a lab account that you can sign into.  It has a web-based application and a downloadable desktop application including a plug-in.  I use the plug-in for some literature work on manuscripts, but the more important thing is that it serves as a repository.  LINK

The Salty Seven

Every project leader in the lab should find seven peer-reviewed scientific articles that apply to their project.  Use Google Scholar or Web of Science.  Then save PDFs of these articles and place them into a folder that you create in Mendeley.  These articles are then the basis for your work going forward.  Read them carefully.  Look at the figures.  Look at the literature they are citing.  Look at how they are “framing” the project in terms of ideas and concepts.  We will review these articles together as your project moves forward.

 

 

Welcome to the 2019 Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting- Louisville

June 1, 2019

Dear Colleagues,

As a native Kentuckian, and Program Chair of the 2019 Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting, I want to welcome you to the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the city of Louisville.  This city lies at geographic and cultural intersections that create a rich backdrop for what is a truly amazing program.  Louisville is situated in the Outer Bluegrass physiographic region and was founded at the Falls of the Ohio River. The human history of the region stretches back at least 11,000 years and includes a sequence of Native American civilizations.  These peoples founded rich and complex cultures and, at the time of earliest contact with Europeans (~1660s), those reported living near the Falls included Honniasontkeronons, Chiouanons, Outagame, Iskoussogos and Touguenhas.  Contact with Europeans began a period of chaos and bloodshed for Native American peoples due to European-origin diseases and Euro-American military conquest.  The city of Louisville was formally founded in 1778 making it one of the earliest Euro-American cities east of the Appalachian Mountains.  Since its founding, Louisville has been an important and unique hub for commerce and culture in the region.  Celebrating the 20th year since passing its fairness ordinance, and with a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign, I hope that you find Louisville intriguing, welcoming, and fun.

This year’s theme is Bridging Communities and Ecosystems: Inclusion as an Ecological Imperative.  Expanding inclusivity is an urgent objective of the Ecological Society of America.  It is imperative that we provide a supportive framework for advancing individuals who bring the diversities of perspectives needed to address the complex challenges facing the science of ecology.  The Society has invested in a series of initiatives that seek to create opportunities and diversify both the membership and meeting.  These efforts include the SEEDs program, the Extending the Tent initiative, and a variety of other efforts.  The Program Committee and ESA Governing Board are both dedicated to increasing inclusion at the Annual Meeting and to broadening participation in the Society and we will enforce our meeting Code of Conduct.  At this year’s meeting, we have an excellent set of workshops and special sessions, many of which provide state-of-the-art training on issues related to inclusion.  I hope you will attend some of these sessions.  Finally, this year’s meeting is being held in conjunction with the United States Society for Ecological Economics (USSEE) which I hope provides exciting opportunities for bridging science and application and for the establishment of fresh dialog and new collaborations.

I am particularly proud of the slate of Plenary presentations at this year’s meeting.  The Opening Plenary will be on Sunday night by Karen M. Warkentin from Boston University whose talk will be titled All the variations matter: bridging disciplines and communities to study diversity in life history and sexual behavior.  The Scientific Plenary on Monday morning will be Resilience, recovery and the ecology of change by Katharine Suding from the University of Colorado, Boulder.  The New Phytologist Trust Keynote Speaker is Diane Pataki from the University of Utah whose presentation is The Ecology of Cultivated Landscapes: Theoretical, Methodological, and Ethical Considerations.  The Recent Advances Lecture for 2019 will be on Thursday by Robin Kimmerer from SUNY-ESF whose talk will be titled P-values and cultural values: Creating symbiosis among indigenous and western knowledges to advance ecological justice.  One exciting benefit of having our meeting in conjunction with USSEE is the addition to the program of a unique plenary which will be given by Daniel Childers from Arizona State University on Tuesday morning titled Informed interdisciplinary social-ecological approaches in an era of convergence science? Taken together, I believe these presentations offer an expansive perspective on a range of topics and advance the meeting theme in an excellent way.

Local Host, Sarah Emery, from the University of Louisville has done an excellent job organizing field trips.  At the meeting, we will have a variety of evening socials and gatherings to facilitate networking.  In addition, I hope you will find time to relax with colleagues and make new friends while you are visiting Louisville.  The convention center is located in the cultural and culinary epicenter of the city.  You will find yourself in walking distance to a wide variety of dining options.  If time permits I hope you will avail yourself of some of the many nearby attractions unique to Louisville including the Mohammad Ali Center, the Louisville Slugger museum, the Belle of Louisville Steamboat and the many opportunities to learn about the bourbon heritage of the region.  The waterfront redevelopment is a popular spot and includes the opportunity to walk across the Ohio on a pedestrian bridge. If you want to venture a little further away from the Convention Center, I encourage you to check out one of the lovely Fredrick Law Olmstead parks or the JB Speed Art Museum.

This is the 20th anniversary of my first ESA meeting and I eagerly look forward to seeing many old friends in Louisville and to the opportunity to meet and learn from folks who are coming to ESA for the first time.  Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns and I would be particularly grateful if you would stop me at the meeting and share your thoughts.  The Society wants to know what you are thinking and I am happy to field any ideas you may have.

Best wishes and see you in Louisville,

Ryan McEwan, 2019 Program Chair

ryan.mcewan@udayton.edu : @mcewanlab

#ESA2019

 

 

Dayton, Ohio: An audio essay

Dayton_downtown

Nolan Nicaise, one of the first Honors students in the McEwan lab, included an audio essay as part of his Thesis.  His goal was to survey the soundscape of Dayton, Ohio.  To accomplish this goal, Nolan rode his bike through the city on several expeditions and recorded sounds.  Below are the recordings he made.  Nolan graduated UD in 2011.

 


Track 1


Track 2


Track 3


Track 4


Track 5


Track 6


Track 7


Track 8


Track 9


Track 10


Track 11


Track 12


Track 13


Track 14


Track 15


 

Nolan

if you are interested in discussing his work you can contact Nolan

 nolannicaise@gmail.com

if you would like to read the Thesis that accompanied this Soundscape click here:  LINK

 

 

 

 

Path to Grad School: Finding a fit with a future mentor

puzzlephoto by Sarah Frankenberg

The overall objective of the graduate school search in is to settle into a position where you can thrive as a professional and a scientist.  In other posts I have outlined a number of important considerations (LINK) including being careful and picky about the place where you go to graduate school.  For a MS-Thesis option, the program will run 2 years or so and these are two important years in your life so you should take it seriously.  For a PhD, the timeline will normally run 5 years, it can be quite intense at times, and your experience can have a large influence on your future.

In your search for a graduate program, your first consideration is finding a strong fit with a mentor.  Student-mentor sympatico is the single most important factor that will determine your graduate school success.  Here I want to provide some tips that may be helpful

Build a pool of potential mentors

The first step in finding a good graduate program fit is to figure out for yourself a general direction that you want to head in during your career.  The single best way to figure out what you might like to work on as a graduate students is to get involved in undergraduate research, either through an internship program or working with a faculty member on your home campus.

When you begin to search for a graduate program, you do not need to have a project in mind, and in fact, students rarely bring the specific ideas that become their Thesis/Dissertation project with them into the graduate program.  What you probably do need is a sense of the kinds of organisms you might like to work with, the kinds of ecosystems you want to spend time in, and the kinds of questions that you might find exciting. For example, you might have a strong sense that you want to work with plants and stay in the Eastern Deciduous Forest and maybe you had some experience working on ecological invasion in an internship.  If you found these things exciting you might be able to narrow down your focus.

Once you have a general idea, then you can simply search for people using search engines such as Google.  Most scientists have websites that you can peruse.  You also should take a look at peer-reviewed literature published by your potential mentor.  You definitely need to be publishing from your graduate work and if the person you discover has not published anything recently then you might want to think carefully before you join that lab.  Often scientists have a social media account such as Twitter that you can follow to get a sense of their interests.  In a best cast, you might be able to catch a talk by the person or one of their students at a conference.  You may be able to network to that person through a mentor during your undergraduate experience.  Another way to find opportunities is through the ECOLOG List-serve (LINK) and through job boards.  Here is a page where we have accumulated links to various job boards where grad school opportunities are likely to be advertised:  LINK.

First contact

Making contact with a potential future graduate adviser can be a harrowing experience for undergraduates who are looking to launch a career post-graduation.  If your potential mentor has posted an advertisement then you will have instructions that you need to follow to make contact.  If  you have found a person who has not apparently advertised, you can cold email that person to express your interest and inquire as to availability of opportunities in their lab.

If you are going to “cold” email someone, or are following instructions in an AD to email the potential mentor, here are some tips.

Features of a high quality “first contact” email

(a) Make your email relatively short and digestible.  Especially if it is a cold contact, the person receiving the email should not have to “scroll” extensively to read your text.  Keep your text to a couple of short paragraphs.

(b) Be sure that the person you are emailing can tell why you are interested in working with them, in particular.  Faculty with active graduate programs may receive a lot of emails and one of the key indicators of the seriousness of the student is that the email communicates an understanding of the kind of work being done in the lab.  It does not have to be extensive, but you need enough that the reader can tell that you have a reasonable idea of the kinds of questions being asked in the lab, and the organisms and systems the lab focuses on.

(c) Be sure that the email has some pertinent information about your interests and also indicates how you believe you could contribute to the work being done in the lab.  The email should, briefly, highlight the kinds of things you have worked on and what you think you might bring to the lab.  For instance, if you did some undergraduate research, had an internship, or took some specialized courses, you can highlight those experiences.  If you have experience in data analysis (R) or GIS those may also be a good thing to mention.  List your GRE scores if you have them (take the GRE!- LINK)

(d)  Attach a CV to the email.  Here are a few CVs that might help you get ideas of structure and organization (LINK, LINK and LINK).

(e) Be professional.  You need “Dear Dr. YyYyyy” at the top.  In a first contact email, do not address this person by their first name and absolutely never use “Mrs.”  Using “Dr.” in an initial email greeting is a basic courtesy- do not overthink it!  At the conclusion of the email, sign off in a professional way such as “Best wishes,”  or “Sincerely,” and then type your name.

(f) Just send it!  Many undergraduates can get into a kind of fugue state of anxiety related to reaching out in this way, which can delay or prevent first contact.  Be diligent in prepping your email, but then go ahead and hit “send.” Well done!

(g) Once you send the email, do not obsess about it.  Let it go.  You may never get a reply from this person.  That does not mean they are a bad person, or that your materials were inadequate, they might simply be overwhelmed with their work.  That happens.  You might get an email back immediately!  You might get an email back 3 weeks later when the person climbs to the top of the email heap.  Etc.  The point is, you do not know what is going to happen next and it is less stressful if you just send the email, let it go, and move forward with your life.

Here are a few sample emails that might spur your thinking:  LINK, LINK and LINK.

Visit the campus and focus on finding a fit

Finding a fit with a graduate mentor is important for those looking to pursue a Thesis MS and absolutely critical for success during a PhD.

As a way to prepare for this post, I spoke with a student who had a very stressful experience and had to change research labs due to a poor fit with a mentor.  She had a couple of interesting things to say that I want to add here for your consideration:

“Doing a PhD is going to be very difficult under positive circumstances, if the fit with the mentor is poor it becomes practically impossible.”

“If you have to constantly bend your personality and compromise your standards to make things work with your PI, you will end up mentally exhausted and you start to dreading even being in the lab.  This means your project is likely to fail.”

Although email exchanges and phone/skype calls can reveal some of the potential for fit with a mentor, I would urge you to visit the campus.  A campus visit will enable to you to  suss out the features of the lab community and the graduate program and to get a much better idea if your perspective and ambitions match with those of your potential graduate mentor.

Here are some items to look for or ask about while you are visiting:

  • Are there regular lab meetings?
  • Is the PI (mentor) available for consultation and conversation?
  • Does the PI meet with students regularly?
  • How long does it take to get a draft manuscript back with comments?
  • Are there set expectations for students that are communicated to the lab?
  • Are there set expectations for the adviser that are communicated to the lab?
  • What is the level of camaraderie among the students in the lab?
  • What is the level of camaraderie among the lab students and others in the department?
  • Are there adequate supplies and equipment to accomplish your research?
  • When was the last time the students in the lab went to a professional conference?
  • Are there skills-building opportunities in the lab, in the department?
  • Is there positive communication between the PI and existing students?
  • Are current students happy in the lab?  Is there laughter?

If you are interested in diversity in the academy (you | should | be) or want to test whether there are any hidden underlying discriminatory tendencies, one experiment you can do is just use the phrase “women in science”  or “inclusivity” and see what happens.  You can simply say something like:  “One thing I want to do in my career is learn more about inclusivity in science…to help make the field more welcoming to people from a variety of backgrounds.”  If the person says “Ohh, that is interesting, here is something we are working on X” then you can get a feeling for where the lab is headed and whether you like that direction.  If you mention women in science or something similar and the person you are interviewing with starts huffing and puffing, or gives you a snarky reply, or dead silence, then you have useful information that you can take into consideration in your mentor selection process.

Overall, being part of a research lab means being part of a human community.  The features of this human community may play a large role in your success as a graduate student.   No community is perfect, no PI will meet all your needs precisely, and every graduate school experience will likely have both triumph and struggle.

You cannot control all the variables that might influence your grad school experience; however,  if you are careful early in the process, you can minimize the risk of having a poor fit with your mentor and, thus, maximize your probability of success.

 

 


See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Path to Grad School: Things to ask your potential new adviser

IMG_20181102_074109

If you want to do a research-focused graduate degree (Thesis MS or PhD), it is critical that you find the mentor and a good situation for your professional development.  Do not start a graduate degree program at an institution out of convenience.  You should be careful and strategic.   In a separate post, I argue that the most important element to your success in graduate school finding a good match with your mentor (LINK).

Here I aim to provide a list of helpful questions.  I would recommend actually having these in a little notebook while on campus on your visit, so that you don’t forget.  Clearly you want to look for a match in your scientific interests and see if you are a good fit for the community and the personality of the mentor (see related post- LINK).  You do not want to START the conversation with these!  Match is the most important issue at hand.  However, you really need answers to these practical questions at some point along the way.  If you are looking for a PhD program, it would be a good idea to talk to both the potential mentor and the “Graduate Chair” and see if you can get good answers to these:

————————

Questions to ask your potential new graduate mentor

  1. Is there a tuition waiver associated with being a grad. student?
  2. Is there a stipend?  What is the stipend amount?
  3. Who pays for health care? What is the health care like?  Are rates likely to        change soon?
  4. Are there fees besides tuition that are not covered in a waiver?
  5. What is the required course load for graduate students? How many classes do you have to take and what are the required classes?
  6. Are there TA or other duties associated with the position?  Are there other departmental activities that are expected of students beyond what is part of the TA/GA?  What is the hourly load each week?
  7. What is the source of funding to pay for research equipment, supplies and travel?
  8. How much travel funding does the department have?  Will they pay for you to travel to meetings?
  9. How do I contact current students in the lab? From the program?
  10. How do I contact lab alumni? Program alumni?

———————–

Many of these questions are practical and you really should not agree to join a lab as a graduate student until you have the answers.  I would urge you to be really contentious about pursuing the last two.  Talk to current students in the labs that you are interested in. Find out about their experiences.  If you visit campus and there are current students in the lab, and no time is set up to talk to them then you should view this as a potential “red flag.”  Because, why??  And, find students who recently graduated from the labs you are interested in. What are they doing now?  Are they working?  Alumni are a key indicator of how things will work our for you.

 

 


See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK