“I’ll try not to eat sushi before lab next week” and other undergrad-isms

As some of you know, I’m TAing a stand-alone introductory geology lab this semester. It’s been a pretty wonderful experience so far, and I’m learning all sorts of glorious things, such as (1) I may be a paleoceanographer and geochemist, but I still know my rocks pretty dang well, and (2) mother nature shares her angst equally with all geology field trips. But perhaps the most hilarious aspect of TAing has to be the plethora of undergrad interactions I’ve had ranging from missed lab excuses to “can’t you just give me the answer?” questions. Now that I’m on the other side of those interactions, I’ve gained a whole new level of respect for my own super-human rockstar TAs (seriously, go you guys), and in order to pass some of that respect on to those of you who have never or will never TA (and to make all you TAers out there giggle a bit), I present a short list of common undergrad-isms from an intro geology lab.

(1) Sorry I can’t/didn’t make it to lab, I have/had….

This is (not surprisingly) a weekly occurrence for all of us 1030 TAs. In recent weeks it’s been the stomach flu–seriously puking students, please stay away from my lab–and I’ve gotten plenty “I hurt myself at practice last night so I can’t come on the field trip.” But my new all time favorite lab miss excuse comes from a fellow TA (thanks Dave) who received an email excuse from a student citing food poisoning as the culprit for missing a lab and ending with “I’ll try not to eat sushi before lab next week.” Made up or not, I have to give this student some mad props for adding some serious laughter to my otherwise Matlab and journal article filled afternoon.

To be fair, I also have to give some serious props to my 8am lab last week when EVERYONE showed up for a field trip… hiking around a mountain… writing while standing up… in the pouring rain. I probably should bake them brownies or something.

(2)…will I/did I miss anything important?

This. So much of this. Of course you will still have to know the material you missed. And yes you will still be tested on the material you missed.


Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

(3) Is this right?

We’re all guilty of this one, but as a TA I do everything I can to side-step this question. Sure, it’s important to let a student know that they’re on the right track. But it’s more important to get a student to a level in which they can critically evaluate the answers they are producing. I only validate a student’s answer(s) after they’ve proven to me that they understand the process behind the answer, and that usually involves me answering their question with another question attempting to get them to tell me why they think they’re right (or wrong). It frustrates them to no end, but it forces them to actually comprehend what they are learning instead of pulling out their smartphone and googling the answer (not that it actually keeps any of them from doing exactly that).

(4) What’s the answer?

This is literally the worst question to ask in the list of all possible questions. Seriously. I don’t give away answers, and I certainly don’t like to give away answers to students who haven’t done the work for themselves.

(5) [Email 5 minutes before pre-lab is due] I waited until the last minute to start this pre-lab and now I’m having technically difficulties, can you extend my time?

No. Starting a lab five minutes before it’s due, when the pre-lab has been available for review all week, doesn’t warrant extra time. And technical difficulties require an actual computer tech (side note: I am not one) who, no matter how skilled, cannot solve those issues for you in the amount of time you have left before your pre-lab is due. So, no. No extra time for you. (Guys, am I turning into a pre-lab nazi?)

(6) I forgot everything I learned last week…

I’ve totally been here (undergrads are expected to learn a lot during the course of a semester), but a face-palm is always warranted when it’s more than half-way through the semester and students keep forgetting how to identify the three basic rock types.


Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

(7) But I don’t want to look/touch/walk up to the rock!

This happens every single field trip. Many of my students have a serious aversion to getting all up in an outcrop’s business to do some serious geologizing. It usually takes a serious pep talk, and my stead-fast refusal to allow the students who do look at the rocks to give away any answers (and sometimes literal physical separation of students who’ve looked at the rocks from the students who refuse), to get everyone involved. I do find ways to reward my students who jump at every opportunity to get a little dirty, like the time I gave extra credit to the students who jumped in freezing water to measure flow velocities and creek dimensions, but ultimately I want to get everyone at least a little excited about being in the field (I mean come on, rocks are pretty cool).

(8) What lab are we doing next week? Do you do make-up labs? When is the final? Where is your office? When are your office hours?

It’s in the syllabus. Seriously, no one reads the syllabus. I’ve emailed my classes copies of the syllabus at least three times, and every week there’s still an email or an in-lab question asking a question about something in the syllabus. READ THE SYLLABUS (pretty please).


Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

A day in the life: Proposal writing grad

It’s crunch time in National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Proposal writing land, and I’ve been spending almost all my free time (and office time) the past few weeks drafting my application. In fact, the very reason I didn’t throw down some serious blogosphere knowledge last week is because I was all drafted out. But here I am (still editing my draft), realizing that this topic is the perfect opportunity to let all you non-graduate students/scientists know a bit what it’s like to have your life turned upside down by a very important grant/fellowship/plead your case for money application. So boom, here’s this weeks knowledge: a day in the life of a proposal writing grad.

  1. Think one draft iteration is enough? Think again. Be prepared to write one draft. And then another. And then another when your advisor or peers tell you your topic is too specific… or not enough. And then another when you find a new critical knowledge gap in your research field. And then yet another after you get a whole new sets of eyes on your proposal. This process will go on until minutes before your deadline, but I think you get the picture.
  2. Page limits will become your arch nemesis. Try fitting your plan for five years of research into two pages without banging your head on. Spoiler: it’s impossible–your head will be sore.


    Source: Daily Dilbert’s, United Feature Syndicate (2002)

  3. Free time? What free time? All your free time is dedicated to either (1) working on your proposal or (2) worrying about your proposal. You’ll probably spend more time worrying than doing, but you’ll also probably spend more time on your proposal than your did actually applying to graduate school. #truth
  4. Don’t like constructive criticism? Too bad. If you want a good proposal, you need to put it in front of as many eyes as you can (or maybe not if you’re a super star advisor like mine). Even if you don’t get others to review your proposal before submitting it, you will get reviews back whether you get funded or not. Sometimes those reviews are harsh, but they are there to help you. So, it’s probably best you get used to criticism now (that is part of the game)


    Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

  5. Oh, you forgot about class and hw and TAing responsibilities and all your other assignments? No one feels sorry for you. Find a way to get those done too.

By the way, all of this is in no way comparable to a little thing called comps (comprehensive exam–usually including the submission of your research proposal to your committee) that PhD students have to suffer through during the beginning(ish) of their third year. So, I guess I have lots to look forward to… right?

The to-do list of a new graduate student


This week’s Wednesday post-day is short and sweet. No quirky intro; just a list of things I’ve been mentally adding to my own to-do list and things others around me have been adding to their own.

  • Read. All. The. Things.
  • Make friends (with people, not lab equipment).
  • Impress your advisor.
  • Find your advisor if he/she is or has gone missing.
  • Start all the glorious research.
  • Hunt down all the advice (like learning where the free pizza is or how not to throw your computer out the window trying to use an online textbook).
  • Find your office.
  • Set-up your office.
  • (And if you’re feeling fancy) Get a name-tag for your office.
  • Don’t get lost.
  • Be a cool TA. Not be an awful TA. Just get your students to turn in their assignments.
  • Add “cheers” to the end of all your mass class emails (because you’re a classy individual).
  • Take all the cool classes you couldn’t as an undergrad.
  • Take less classes than you did as an undergrad.
  • Find the BEST coffee.
  • Find the nearest coffee.
  • Sniff out the free food.
  • Go to the free food.
  • Find the beer. And the bars. (Especially the Wisconsin bars).
  • Learn all the matlab.
  • Get all your keys.
  • Don’t lose your keys.
  • Write a clever blog about how super well-rounded you are (or just ramble on about silly things forever and ever).
  • Mingle with the cooler, more experienced grad students.
  • Find non-geologists to bug sometimes.
  • Exercise… ? Or just learn to bike to class without dying.
  • Attend all the colloquiums.
  • Go outside. Sometimes.
  • Have fun. Don’t cry.

Appreciating the gap year-point-five: Five ways work has prepared me for graduate school

It’s the first week of classes at CU Boulder, and as I find myself being bombarded with quasi-first-week assignments and TA responsibilities (and some logistical where-the-hell can I print this problems), I can’t help but feel quite fortunate for my real world working experiences and the time away from lectures, homework, and the non-stop go-go-go attitude of life in academia. And while I’ve been going non-stop since last Wednesday with training and new graduate trips and TAing and finding the damn ATOC classrooms along the outside of Folsom Field (and I apologize for the scatter brain this post probably is), it’s Wednesday post-day. So here is this week’s genius, straight from the jumbled brain of a busy new grad, all about looking back and appreciating the gap year-point-five between undergrad and grad.


Via “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, http://www.phdcomics.com

Five ways work has prepared me for graduate school:
  1. Effective time-management. Most of us spent undergrad refining our procrastination skills, experimenting with the minimum amount of work necessary for the grade you want and learning how to work at all hours of the day, but this undergrad time-management doesn’t build the most successful worker. Out in the “real world” (you know, the one where people garb themselves in business casual and work in fancy or not-so fancy offices in or near large bustling cities), work usually gets done during the workday. There is no room for procrastination, and there is definitely no room for being lazy (you might slide for a little, but the big guys and gals in charge will find you eventually). You don’t get to take three-hour lunch breaks, and you certainly don’t get middle of the day nap-time. Graduate school is more like a job than our undergraduate years ever were: we’re responsible for our own research (a job) and classes (another job) and even teaching when our funding or interests require (yet another job) all of which must be done by specified deadlines, within certain timeframes, with outcomes elevated above the undergraduate norm, and with expectations that we’re ACTUALLY putting in the amount of work we were brought to graduate school to do. Sure, graduate students procrastinate, sometimes put in the minimum work, and yes, even work at all hours of the day; however, if you want to keep some sanity during you graduate years, you probably don’t want to make a habit of any of these things. Work taught me to be diligent with my time-management–it required constant revision of my work week and longer-term project goals, and it really beat the “I’m just a student with all this glorious workday free-time” mentality out of me (thank god).
  2. Meaningful multitasking. I’m not talking about the undergraduate-esque kind of multitasking where you sit in front of the TV watching Friends while blasting out a research paper or hanging out in the library with your friends to study or even working on two class assignments in the same day. I’m talking about the meaningful kind of multitasking that comes with juggling multiple projects, for multiple clients, with multiple due dates and variable products. I did a lot of this during “vacation” into the environmental consulting world, and while I’m no expert, my experiences prepared me well for the multitude of things I’m having to deal with my first few weeks of my first semester of graduate school. On top of being a new graduate student who is taking classes, attending colloquiums, working on research, and trying to have a life outside of the lab, I am a graduate teaching assistant responsible for 40 students in 2 different introductory lab sections for a class where I am the sole teacher. This requires me not only to be responsible for myself and my research (which is a daunting task in itself), but also for students who have a variety of different interest levels in the geology class they are taking. I feel a little bit more confident taking on all these things at once knowing that I was able to juggle projects of all shapes and sizes at the same time as an environmental consulting geologist.
  3. Embracing group work. Group work might have been the most dreaded works of our undergraduate years, and there are probably many (like myself) who avoided group work like the plague (or just did all the work themselves). But in the real world, all work is group work and there is no way around it. You have to learn how to work with all sorts of people (loud, quiet, shy, obnoxious…). There is very little “OMG, we’re friends so let’s work together.” You are thrown into projects with people you don’t always like or even put in charge or put under a person who just rubs you the wrong way, but you are still expected to get things done. If you’re in graduate school, hopefully you’re working with an advisor and/or research group that you hand picked and get along swimmingly with (if not, dear god what are you doing?)–but you don’t get to pick your new graduate department peers and if you’re a TA you certainly do not get to pick your students. Working exposed me to more group work situations (with consequences beyond a letter grade) and formal training than I ever got during my undergraduate years, and it will help me tremendously over the next five(ish) years as a PhD student.
  4. Getting things done in a busy office. In undergrad, I always went to quietest library with the creepiest cages to avoid being distracted by others while studying, but this was never EVER an option in my big-girl jobs. Instead I got something a little crazier: cube farms. Cube farms teach you a lot about being productive in high-activity environments, and my work over the past two years exposed me to cube-farms ranging in size from the insanely large (100 people on a single office floor) and super small (five people sharing a very small office). In both cases, I struggled with distractions and the seemingly never ending socialization hours. I had to find ways to shut off the outside world when I needed (like spotify and ninja concentration), and to tune back in when I was able. Being in a office room full of other new graduate students is definitely the most exciting part of the beginning of this semester because we’re all super excited about our projects and all bonding over our grumbles in regards to surprisingly un-user friendly online textbook programs, but I won’t always have the time to socialize with everyone. Eventually (even though all you guys are great), I’ll have to find ways to tune out the noise and get (for lack of better words) shit done.
  5. Knowing when to ask for help. In undergraduate, many of us were either one of two things: (1) the compulsive question asker or (2) the diffident question avoider. Neither of these scenarios is particularly ideal, but it takes practice to find the happy medium in the middle of the spectrum. I fell more towards to diffident question avoider end of the spectrum as an undergrad, and it really wasn’t until I was set free into the world of work wonders that I learned how important it was to not settle in the peripheries. It doesn’t take long sitting your desk in the middle of a busy office pretending that you understand you know what you’re doing when you absolutely do not have the slightest idea of what you’re supposed to be doing to make you realize that (OMG) questions are actually super, super useful. And on the other end of the spectrum, it doesn’t take long bugging your boss and/or co-workers every five minutes with unimportant or non-vital questions to realize that (OMG) sometimes you should spend some time trying to answer your own questions before rushing for aid. As a graduate student, you have to learn how to let your advisor advice (who would have thought!?). Advisors are there to guide you through the graduate world, but they are certainly not there to hold your hand through the process. In other words, us graduate students need to be curious not obnoxious.

I could go on and on about all the wonderful things real world work taught me, especially in terms of preparation for grad school, but I’m tired. And hangry. And Mike made me dinner (and it’s ready). So… that’s all she wrote.