27 and a PhD

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Some things to know PRIOR to starting in grad school – Part 2

So … continuing with the series of things you may want to consider prior the beginning of the fabulous years in grad school, today I’ll mention some of the things to consider once you’ve narrowed down the list of places to apply.

Let’s say that after considering 20 or 30 schools to apply for grad school, you’ve narrowed it down to a manageable list of 6-10 schools (I applied to 6-7 so this is a reference point … more or less schools depend on your personal preference). Back in 2002-2003 when I started the application process I was a senior in college. It was c-r-a-z-y busy as I had several classes to take each semester. I also had to travel to a few conferences, and adding to that the fact that I needed to travel even more for interviews made the whole process very stressful. I know how hard it is to juggle all these factors and keep your head above water … but it’s doable … especially the earlier you start. Back in ’02-’03 some applications I had were due in January, some even in February …. but that doesn’t mean you can’t send things earlier. In fact, I was close to one of the recruitment ladies at my old school, so after a couple of years in my PhD program I learned a few things … like … the early bird gets the worm. So, with that said, here are some of my recommendations:

  1. As I mentioned a few sentences ago … start early. A good time to start reviewing and composing essays, CV’s and other documents is probably after midterms. I know, you’re all drained and stuff, but a few days after taking the midterm … maybe over a weekend, sit down and check the sites of the schools you are interested in. Possibly make a list of deadlines, number of letters of recommendation needed, types of documents, and possibly scores and tests (like the GRE) needed to at least be considered. The deadlines are important, as they serve to set a timetable and stick to it so your apps will be turned in on time. Because I had done research both at home and in schools abroad, I took the liberty to ask those professors (at both places) for letters …. with enough time. Remember, they are busy …. especially if they have a lab, a family, lectures, trips and all. You can ask them to have the letters written or mailed when you send in your app … and it’s Ok to have the letters and your app packet reach the school on different dates (though, always check, as some places might be pickier than others).
  2. Statement of purpose. OMG …. I hated this part, mainly because you have to be original and rise and shine above possibly thousands to be considered at high profile schools. Some schools give you the freedom to write it in whatever way, as long as it’s not too long, cohesive and succinct. I wrote mine based on how friends that had gone before me write theirs. I wrote about some early experiences with science, how I envisioned myself in the future and the impact I was interested in making. Other schools (like some Ivy League ones I applied to) give you a “form” which you need to use to fill out the purpose part. They are interested in what you have to say, and trust me … people will read them, so try to be unique, to have and edge (without being too edgy).
  3. Check and double check the address at which you’ll send you forms and which other professors that mail their letters will send them.
  4. If you are asked to mail in forms, besides filling info online, send them with enough time, and always ask for either a tracking number or some sort of receipt for the transaction. The last thing you want is to not have evidence of mailing in your materials.
  5. Keep hard and soft copies of the materials in case something is missing, or you totally forgot to mail something … it will save you time, tears and fears.
  6. If you can fill out the application electronically, do it when you are relaxed, preferably at home and with a secure internet connection.
  7. Some schools will ask who you might like to work, so research, research, and do more research. If you have narrowed down the area(s) of interest and you are asked to provide names, that might earn you brownie points for being prepared. If on the contrary, you are applying to an interdisciplinary program you might be asked to provide the name(s) of the department(s) you find most appealing. I entered an interdisciplinary program and I still had to provide info as to what departments were most appealing to me.
  8. Follow up. Email or call the people in charge of receiving/reviewing apps to check that your documents are in order and reached them. I was lucky enough to get online receipts at each step of the way, but it’s possible the school you apply to may not work the same.
  9. If in doubt, ask questions.

In the next installment I’ll write about the interview part. Remember, if you want to ask a question, say hello or something similar, feel free to email me @ stitchick [at] gmail [dot] com …. I’ve written the address like that to prevent junk from reaching me. Good luck 🙂

 

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Some things to do PRIOR to your start in grad school – Part 1

Continuing with series of entries inspired by the search themes that lead people to this blog, this entry deals with a couple of things you would probably like to consider prior to the start of you PhD (may possibly apply to doing any kind of degree after your university degree/diploma). My previous entry dealt with “crazy thing to do AFTER completing your PhD“.

This discussion is not meant to be super extensive. I, by no means, am an autority on relocation issues or super extensive to-do lists, but having moved from a decent-sized city in the South of the US to Canada gives me some insight into the whole application, relocation, etc processes.

Before I started in grad school these were some of the aspects I considered:

  1. Created a list of possible places you’d like to apply for grad school. Do not look at ranks only… check blogs, email people, visit sites and if possible drive up to the place(s) and check out your surroundings. The school I did my PhD at does a fall undergrad open house for any student within 50-100 miles away from school that might be interested in pursuing a degree at that institution (they pay or reimburse students for the expense, so if your unsure of how the process of applying to grad school is, or what topics are the “hottest” at a particular institution, look for open houses). I mentioned the not to pay attention just to the rankings because a school might be #1 in a certain program that you like and may end up not having the specific project (s) or emphasis of that attract you (no, a degree from an Ivy League school in a topic or department you hate is NOT the best thing to do), or may be a hell-hole or any other number of things. I’m not advising that you should completely ignore those rankings, they are there for a reason, but you should also pay attention to quality of life, outdoor activities, proximity to places/cities/etc of interest. Pay attention to what you do or would like to do in your free time, and then look to see if the university or city offer it. I have several friends who ended up quitting their programs at SUPER well known schools because they hated the location. If you like museums, or photography a place like Chicago or NY might be more appealing than a tiny school in the deep south … just sayin’.
  2. I knew I would not like to spend thousands of dollars applying to schools. Some schools waive the costs of applications if done online. The school I ended up going has been waiving application fees since probably around 2002 … while schools like Yale or Harvard used to ask (I currently don’t know if they waive app fees) upwards of 70$. Therefore, in the middle of the recession, it might be better to first consider schoold that waive costs of applications, etc. Now, you might still need to express mail some other documents, but if you are budget conscious, free app places are a first place to look. This info is listed on the sites. Alternatively, if you are like a guy I used to date, he went to the grad school office he was doing a summer internship and asked for a waiver. Schools do have waivers, all you need to do is ask, so if you have this advantage, use it.
  3. You will need to set up things like a bank account (if you currently have one with a bank that’s totally unknown at the place where you’ll be going), cable, internet, electricity, and other services. Add all those costs and see how much money you would usually spend in a month. Candid blogs like mine have mentioned the cost of living as a grad student and now as a postdoc, so that’s another avenue for finding out such info. Ask students or visit sites to get informed about costs of living and plan, plan and plan how to properly budget your money (if you don’t have a clue Dave Ramsey’s site is a good starting place). My advice is always to try and plan and find out as much info as you can, that way you might end up having less pleasant cost “surprises” that if you just went uninformed.
  4. Check out transportation options. I bought my car on the 3rd month of being in the new place since moving about the city I lived in for 6 years was especially difficult for walkers. Check out public transport sites, costs, etc. Some schools might have passes for grad students. Check distances to places like grocery stores, pharmacies, etc and estimate if public transport is an option. Otherwise you might need to consider carpooling, or buying a car .. if you don’t have one already.
  5. If possible … avoid at ALL costs getting into debt. It sucks to be a 1st year grad student, I know. Money is often tight, you might be in a completely different city from the one you did your undergrad, you might feel all alone and it’s tempting to try and get a place of furnished and pretty FAST. But trust me, if you are debt free by the time you’re out of college, try to stay on that track. That way more more can be spent eating a nicer places and avoiding the 33 cent Ramen noodle diet. Used furniture is a smart option to try and start furnishing your place. Warehouses and factory stores for furnishings are another option.
  6. Because of # 5, I’d say try to put as many pennies into a savings account, or an envelope PRIOR to starting grad school. By the end of my senior year in college I had saved ~3000 USDs, which were quickly drained by books, rent, deposits here and there and getting some furniture (bed, mattress, table and a TV). All those things and more add up in the end, causing a major dent to your pocket.
  7. Take the appropriate exams, like the GRE … and if you are not a native speaker, you might need to provide the school with a TOEFL, or similar language proficiency test/proof.

Like I said, those are some of the things to take into account. In the next installment, I’ll discuss some things to take into account during and after the application and interview process. Part 3 will be dedicated to discussing some of the things you may need to take into account after accepting an offer and moving to the place where you’ll end up getting your degree.

******** I claim no financial gain or authorship of the images included in this post. I used them to help illustrate some of the points I mention in this entry. But, if you like them, please visit PhDcomics.com … the site is AWESOME!

Post in one of my fave blogs

Peeps of the Interwebs, amigos todos …. one of my girl crushes fave-awesome-totally-wicked bloggers invited her readers to share their worst dating stories … for reals peeps. I decided to share my tale from hell and she featured it today. Go over to The Naked Redhead (nope, absolutely NO porn) and check it out!

While you’re there, feel free to explore her blog and read up on the other horror stories!!!! Each and everyone of them is SO awesome, incredible and hilarious … or creepy … you just can’t have enough. Enjoy!

Depression, PMDD and grad school

We all know that being in grad school is not the easiest experience … ever. You cram for hours for exams, try to remember equations or theories, think of creative ways to solve a problem, TA, and do research on top of it all. If you add to this formula depression and/or PMDD …. you’ve got a great amount of disaster on your hands.

Let me elaborate. For those who may not be familiar with the term, there is a disorder (that some may call bitchiness of epic proportions) that affects women prior to having a visit of Aunt Flo. This disorder is a serious form of premenstrual syndrome known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder. It is characterized by feelings of desperation, maybe even thoughts of suicide, boobie tenderness, “bitchiness”, depression, tremendous fatigue, among others. Various pills and drugs are on the market from PMDD, from birth control ones to depression ones. Drug companies have targeted sufferers of PMDD and there are all sorts of ads on the subject.

I suffer from PMDD. I know how it feels to have it, to live with it, and how anti-depressants have helped to achieve a somewhat “peaceful” state of mind where I could continue doing my studies and have a “normal” relationship with the boyfriend, the boss and coworkers.

I got my first period when I was really … REALLY young. I was not prepared for it, I freaked out, and I thought I’d die … not really, but let’s just say it was a traumatic experience, made possible in part due to unhealthy amounts of guilt provided by a conservative set of parents who didn’t know how to talk about puberty (after many years I think that it all happened because I am the first child, thus I was more or less their guinea pig, and they had no “training” in dealing with their first-born becoming an adolescent). Anyways, after I got my pads, and things and stuff, I started reading more on the subject, and the biology of the process. I also picked up older copies of Cosmo at my doctor’s office and read about PMS and averting your period and what not. I thought PMS was just a lame excuse to be bitchy, miss work, and that only weak and overly dramatic gals got it.

At first I would not feel when the “P” day arrived. I started carrying pads and period-paraphernalia to cover my bases in case Aunt Flo’ appeared while I was at school. As the years went on, painful “P” days started appearing, and high doses of acetaminophen and heating pads came to my rescue. College was fine, boobie tenderness and such happened, but it wasn’t until I got into grad school that things took a really bad turn.

I started cramping pretty bad during my second year of grad school. I could not touch my chest because it felt like the boobs were about to explode (I seriously thought of not drinking anything so liquid would not retained by my body and take diuretics to help me eliminate whatever liquid was left … but I’m too chicken for that). I also started noticing that 1-2 weeks before “P” day, I was extremely tired (sometimes even sick, like my immune system was all down or something because I was getting my period), I could not stay awake in the lab (even if I’d gone to bed at 10pm the previous night and had woken up at 9:30am the next day) and my mood was pretty bad (like Lucifer himself had possessed my brain for a few days, it was like lakes of sulfur were flowing through my veins). I would cry for no reason, but most of the time I’d be in a really foul mood. I couldn’t understand what was happening. Suddenly “P” days started to become as “happy days” because I’d be happy, not bloated and the world would return to its normal order one the first 2 “P” days were over. It was as if 2 weeks prior to the “P” day a catastrophe switch turned on inside and everything was screwed up until my period.

Before the BF and I started dating I remember going to the student health clinic at my school to see if they had a non-NSAID that would help me during “P” days. I described to the doctors and nurses my symptoms, and they suggested I try taking birth control pills. I had a bit of acne, so I though, “cool, 2 for 1, now both acne and nasty PMS will suck it!” But because I’m so special and awesome, and mother nature likes to remind me that biology is complicated, the birth control pills were a nightmare. Not only did I gain weight, but though my periods were shortened, they were still UBER painful and the PMS was still as nasty.

When I started dating the BF we had various nasty fights. Add to that the fact that my parents were not the sort of people who believed in psychiatrists or psychologists, thus it never occurred to me to approach one at my old school and see what was happening. When the foul mood and increase in tardiness at my lab started getting out of control (and the time of the qualifying exam was approaching), I knew I HAD to do something. I thought I was going crazy!!!!!!!! I was on the verge of losing the boyfriend, losing myself in this emotional roller coaster, and maybe even stop my grad studies.

I started getting therapy at school with a really nice postdoctoral psych. fellow, and she recommended I go and see at psychiatrist at school. I was all like “whoa, am I crazy?” I told her that to me medication seemed too drastic, and that it meant that I was weak, that I was not strong enough to pull through this “situation.”

Reluctantly I visited the psychiatrist and I started taking a drug called Escitalopram. I started taking it, and my mood improved like 1,000%. I felt like myself again …. until I started paying the more than 70$ each month for it (that was as much as I was paying for car insurance). I stopped taking it (and getting all bitchy). It sent me into a bitchy downward spiral … so I changed doctors (the first one was more of a murse). Thank GOD I did that. They new doctor was extremely nice, took the time to really ask me questions, listen to my answers and was super willing to talk about options, side effects, etc.

I ended up trying about 3 different drugs, including one that made me contemplate committing suicide a few times a DAY (the same drug that has a movie with its name on it, and a book, and such). Finally we settled on sertraline …. and though I do not feel as fantastic as with the first (expensive) medicine, this one acts as an Ok “equivalent.”

Looking back I can see the signs and symptoms of having this syndrome, and thinking it was all normal. It seemed all normal to me, because I knew no better, because I was taught that medical or chemical intervention are reserved for extreme cases, and the chemical ways are for the weak. My guess is that the more I learned about physiology, how our bodies and brains are supposed to work and not, I was more convinced that I needed help overcoming these symptoms and this state where my mind was running at 1000 rmps at some points, while at others I was too tired to even think.

I guess I also was mildly depressed, thus the medicine helped that too. I have never taken more than 2 months off from school for vacation. In fact, since I finished college I haven’t had more than 3 weeks of continuous vacay time. The pressure to excel at times seemed too much and what you think is “normal” or just due to stress might be somthing more serious. My only piece of advice is that if something does not feel right, go and see a specialist. Look for opinions, don’t just talk to one doctor, or one friend. Read, think, contemplate and decide which route you want to take.

I hope that once I get my second medical insurance (Oh Canada, how much I love you) I can find the generic form of that other medicine I took first and maybe try it again … but I have to be careful, I don’t want to mess up my system by changing medicines all crazy, all of a sudden. My symptoms are still there, but attenuated …. so I can manage now.

Crazy things to do after finishing your PhD

Since I get a laugh or two when I find out how people have landed in my blog …. I’ve decided to write a few posts inspired by such search terms. The first of such posts was on my salary, which I have no trouble talking about as you can see.

The newest search term that caused me to laugh (in a funny ha-ha, that’s cool kinda way) is the one that serves as title for this post. Thus, let me indulge the random, the curious, the ever funny peeps of the Internetz that visit my site, be it via Nature Blogs, or random search terms. Ha!

Ok, I will start by telling you about what I did after finishing my defense. I went with my mom and the BF to the school’s cafeteria and got myself a slice of pizza. My defense was at 10am, and right after I met with my thesis committee who grilled tested me about my thesis, on both the written and oral parts. I was so hungry! My mom and the BF had all my belongings, thus I couldn’t get a coke or something sugary to get my glucose back to normal after so much stress. I don’t even remember if I had something for breakfast.

After the reception to celebrate moi, my mom, BF and I headed home to rest. I think I slept better than any other time because I was done, there were corrections to add, but I was DONE! No more experiments, nothing.

I have to recognize that I did a couple of “crazy” things while in grad school. I dated a postdoc, had a one night stand, got a tattoo, survived a horrific crash, got a piercing, got into debt, got drunk in 30 minutes, drove at more than 100 mph after a nasty breakup, got into a long distance relationship (that worked) even though I swore I’d never do it again. All those things and more I did while in grad school. Some I regret, others made my life a lot more fun.

If I could got back maybe I’d get the tattoo after finishing the whole thing, but it’s ok. My point is, sometimes we want to wait up for something big to say “hey, once I achieve this goal or point, I’ll do it.” Other than the part of getting in debt, I’d probably do all those things again, some of them sooner. But I don’t think you should wait to get off the beaten path and do something that you’ve always wanted to do, just because you want to have your degree and postpone whatever that goal is.

Even if you decide to do your “crazy” thing or things after, just take a moment to reflect, to breathe the fresh air that comes with adventure. Always be cautious, you don’t want to get yourself in trouble. So, here are a couple of things I would have done after finishing my degree:

  1. If you’re nerd like me, you’ve probably had the same haircut for a long, loooong time (try 10 years in my case). Go get a different haircut. I think it’s a liberating experience if you can let go of your hair. I remember that a few months after my break up, I got bangs. I hated them at first because I looked even nerdier, but I decided to go with it because my ex hated them. Well, not hated, hated, but he said he couldn’t imagine me having bangs. With a big smile and a HUGE desire to say “f*ck YOU” I got them. Once they started growing and getting longer I looked so cool. I love them … and still have them.
  2. Get a tattoo. If you’ve always dreamed of getting one, finishing your PhD is a great reason to go for it. I got it as sort of a survival thing 3 years after my accident. I love it. I may regret it when I’m 60, old and saggy, but for now, I’m enjoying being a nerdy badass.
  3. Go backpacking. Gosh, I wish I’d done this one. I have traveled … a LOT, especially with the BF. But I would have loved to just go with the flow, pack a few things, get a couple of bucks and lose myself in Spain or Italy. I guess I got inspired by a movie (and a college classmate who did it). Top me it’s more of a follow your heart kinda thing, so if you feel like taking some “risk”, bungee jumping, walking butt naked somewhere (or going to a nude beach). Whatever it it, go for it.
  4. Get out of debt, or at least build a plan to help you get out. It may seem a bit crazy for some, but getting out of debt (if you into it) should be at the top of your list. Trust me, now that I’m a postdoc and have no worries, like kids, I’d love to travel more, especially within Canada. It would be possible to do it, if I didn’t have almost 1/3 of my income going into recovering from debt.
  5. Move somewhere exotic. Nuff said.
  6. Leave science or whatever your field is. I don’t know much about you, but sometimes I dream I’m doing something completely opposite of what I currently do. Like being a singer, or an artist. I sort of feel a bit tied down by the routine, but if you ever second guess your choice, and you know you’re awesome at something other than your field of study, go for it.

Well, I could probably add many more things to the list. This is just meant to give you some sort of inspiration. Let you know that you’re not alone.

Now that you’re done, feel free to do whatever you want. Your years of being tied down to tubes and buffers are over (if only for a few weeks), so give yourself the freedom to do as you feel. And most of all, enjoy it 😀