Thoughts from an academic introvert

Take a look around you (wherever you are), and it probably won’t take you long to find an extrovert flourishing. Think of your most successful bosses, colleagues, friends or family members–what are their personalities like? Extroverts have no problem speaking their mind; they participate more and they think out-loud. Extroverts thrive in positions of power; they know how to work a room and their presentations almost seem effortless. Extroverts are in their element when surrounded by others; they love being around people and they certainly have no problem befriending them. TLDR: extroverts get noticed. But what about the introverts?

ever-wondered-what-its-like-to-be-an-introvert

It today’s scholarly society, shy has gone out of fashion. Entire courses are graded on participation and presentations with little emphasis on the what goes on behind-the-scenes. Teachers and professors focus on active learning lesson-plans; they push for more participation and more discussion. In graduate school, your superiors expect even more. Course participation still matters, but now it’s time to spread your wings into the global academic world. Be heard. Be assertive. Be confident. Shout your science from the mountain-top. Discuss all the things with [gasp] other people. Being shy in academia doesn’t do you any favors. So let’s be totally honest, extroverts don’t just flourish in academia, they shine.

So, is there really no place for introverts in academia?

As a self-described introvert who’s been [I think] rather successful in the scholarly world, I would have to whole heartedly disagree. Sure, we introverts have to work harder to have our voices heard in a typical academic discussion and to get up in front of a large audience to give a presentation, and we may need some probing from above to speak our minds, but
there’s something to be said about those of us who prefer to sit back and digest information internally. You may not hear our voices as much, but we certainly don’t shy
away from problem solving… we just do it differently (and probably more often).

Introverts don’t like being the center of attention. We stay silent when we want to think things through, and we talk when we have something important to say. Extroverts may always dominate the conversation, but introverts are always there listening and learning. And introverts really don’t mind working behind the scenes; in fact, we thrive there. We care immensely about the work behind the final product, and despite our reservations about having to present those findings in front of a large group of people, we do it because the work matters so much to us. We may never be admired for a public-speaking skills, but that doesn’t make our science any less important.

7b4e3__1684

Despite our constant inward attentiveness and outward attention to detail, there are always those times when others find introverts not well prepared for the academic world. Our quiet demeanor can come off as a lack of trying or, worse, complete disinterest. I can’t even begin to tell you how many course evaluations I’ve got back that have said something along the lines of “fantastic student, but wish she would discuss things in class more…doesn’t actively participate…” I know these teachers and professors meant well (and I truly took most of their advice to heart), but these kind of statements are a harsh reminder that I strive to work in a profession not designed for an introvert like me. My personality is better suited to lab work, writing, and internal problem-solving; so to get where I want to be in academia, I will have to work a little harder than my extroverted academic neighbor.

Can introverts shine in academia?

Definitely. The thing about academia is that ultimately, the science is what matters. Yes, scientists need to be able to communicate and present their science, but scientists also have to be able to write and think about their science. Everyone has different strengths. Academia is [SURPRISE!] about learning, and we all have to use it as an opportunity to push ourselves outside our extroverted/introverted bounds. If your science is smart, unique, and interesting (…world-changing), people will listen regardless of your personality class. So go ahead and get your __________ (insert introvert or extrovert here) on.

#teamintrovert

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons from the laboratory: 5 tips for a successful move

It’s moving time in the lab. As in pack every little possible lab and office thing into a box, try not to break the mass-spec,  wrap all the fragile things (and accidentally yourself) in bubblewrap, re-label all the acids (and then label them again because safety first), dig up things you never even knew existed (do we really need all this melted tubing and why do we still have a lab coat from 1999?), organize thousands of samples (and then pack those too), move all the things 1.2 miles down the road to the giant new beautiful monstrosity of a building called SEEC, and then UNPACK EVERYTHING.

Moving is the worst. Okay, so not worse or more terrifying or seriously more worrisome than just the mere thought of Trump possibly becoming president…but you catch my drift. No one likes to move. It’s stressful. It’s tiresome. It’s tedious. But sometimes is necessary–like when you have a sparkly new lab waiting for you in a glorious giant new research building on campus. Now, imagine being a scientist trying to move your most precious possessions/life’s work (i.e. lab equipment, samples, papers, field equipment, perfect desk chair…) to a new place. It’s total [organized] chaos.

So, because most of you have at least the teeniest experience with moving some important part of your life (college futons don’t just move themselves) and because even less of you are experienced scientific movers (you care about this stuff, right?), I present:

Lessons from the laboratory: 5 tips for a successful move

1. Use all the bubble wrap

Our “official” orders were that every single piece of glassware and fancy-spancy equipment should be wrapped at least twice. But you should probably add 50 more wraps just to be safe, right? And then you should obviously steal some just for your own damn pleasure because you’ll need to relieve some stress after packing for the eighth hour of the day (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you clearly didn’t have a very enjoyable childhood).

2. Label all the things

Unless you want a migraine to end all migraines when you get to your brand-spanking-new lab, LABEL EVERYTHING. And then label it again. Label the outside of boxes. Label bags in boxes. Hell, label the boxes you’re putting in the bigger boxes. Just label everything. Label yourself if you have to (especially when you start losing it after having to to make the sixteenth trip out of the clean lab to get even more bubble wrap to wrap your precious things in).

3. Don’t know what an item is? Better pack it

nuts-and-bolts-steampunk-using-right-screws-for-job

These are probably important

Melted pieces of tubing leftover from some long ago experimental lab set-up? Screws to some long-lost part? Samples from the 70s that are labeled with nothing but a name? Manuals for now can’t be found machines? You never know when you might need those again (or when your advisor or former student will come looking for them sometime in the near future). Better safe than sorry. And I don’t want to be sorry. All these random things are probably super important, right?

4. Don’t touch the expensive thing. Leave that for the pros

Thought warming up/maintaining a mass spectrometer was hard?–you know nothing, Jon Snow. Decomissioning a mass spectrometer is vital to said mass spectrometers survival through even a short travel down any road. Take a piece off and you better make damn sure you memorize what that piece looks like and where it goes. And when you get to the magnet, you better have a serious game plan (like watching your advisor spend an entire workday planning how the movers are going to simply slide the magnet out of the machine without catastrophic failure). Graduate school stipends won’t cover the “oops, I just broke the mass spec.” So, leave all the expensive, super-breakable things for the pros (aka advisors).

Dexter-dexters-laboratory-13130752-445-620

Fabulous Dexter

5. Do daydream about merriments in your new lab

It may be the only way you get through the packing pains. Just pretend that absolutely nothing will go wrong (it will), that everything will arrive in perfect in perfect condition (it won’t), that nothing will get lost (you think it won’t, but…), that removing said magnet above will go flawlessly (please, please do), and that everything you just packed will magically find its way to its perfect home in the new lab (it most certainly will not). Dream about all the happy lab days, crushing, cleaning and dissolving forams (or maybe even dancing when no ones around), you will have once you’re all settled in the new space. Just think happy thoughts–like Fabulous Dexter in his fancy laboratory to the left.

 

#happypacking/moving/unpacking/dancinginyournewlab

 

 

Techno in the lab

Anyone who has any sort of experience with the necessity to focus for long periods of time knows just how important ear candy can be for productivity. Some people enjoy a big fat dish of silence, others can’t get enough of the latest and greatest book on tape, while many, many of us prefer one flavor or another of beautifully (or not so beautifully) constructed tunage. Ear candy has gotten many of us through lots of moments in our lives, and it certainly is getting me through the next phase of mine: lab work.

ea9b46c4-1bfa-4bb4-907d-4412ad22241c

the face of an exhausted undergrad hiding in a library cage (yes, a literal cage)

I’ve graduated from my undergraduate years of hiding away in the library blasting movie soundtracks from Finding Nemo to the glorious wizarding world of Harry Potter so that I could, for lack of better words, get shit done. And while I’m still not ready to let go of those tunes just yet (graduate school does require times of epic concentration comparable to cramming the information from a semester of 5 classes into your brain in the two days you have to prepare for finals), lab work requires the kind of ear candy that brings a little more excitement to my day.

If you’ve never done tedious microscope work or really any kind of tedious lab work, well, it’s a hard thing for me to describe. Not only do you need to brace your eyeballs or pipetting fingers for some serious exhaustion, but you also need to prepare a delicious plate of gourmet ear candy (so that you don’t go insane scanning little box by little box for the teeny tiny little object you’re interested in counting/finding/collecting… or pipetting acids into other acids holding the samples you’ve already dissolved in acid).

brain-training-1Which finally brings me to my title: Techno in the lab. It all started in undergrad, where a graduate student working in the same lab as me would pump some fantastic club music from the makeshift lab speakers. At first it was weird; I had always worked out to that kind of music (trust me, nothing gets me through a horrible run better than some seizure inducing beats), so I always felt like I was about to break out in a serious sweat. But lately, it’s really been growing on me. Being in the lab is like a workout for the brain; seriously, it takes some serious brain power to not drop something you shouldn’t (like HF, don’t drop HF) or to transfer one tiny little foram from a giant vial of forams to a slide of a smaller amount of forams. You have to pump yourself up for an extended period of time of doing shit, and for me, I’ve found that techno and other super-upbeat music (like some crazy wonderful Miike Snow) are fantastic for that. focus Focus FOCUS!!!

I know, I know. Techno is not for everyone (especially my mother… HI MOM!), but I think we all have that one brand of ear candy that can get us excited for a day in the lab, or for all you regular people, a day in the cube farm. We all have to find ways to focus (because we all need to get shit done), and ear candy is a damn good way to do it.

And you should consider yourself lucky if you catch me in that lab dancing from fume hood to fume hood. #earcandy (???)

 

Ice is slippery: We all fall down

I fall down a lot. This week, it was a epic fall-flat-on-my-face in front of lots of people after taking my chances on some exquisitely slippery ice. Last month, it was a trip induced tumble while crossing a teeny tiny little wood bridge near the end of a run. I’ve slipped down stairs in Nepal; I’ve made it through an entire Tough Mudder (literally the entire race) before falling face first in the mud two feet from the finish line; I’ve even forgot to clip out of my road bike and fallen over in the middle of a very busy intersection (bikers, you understand). But probably my most epic fall ever was not being accepted to graduate school the first time I applied.

fallonice-738120

What I looked like falling on ice this week (people saw)

Receiving those graduate school rejection letters was hard. I had done everything I was supposed to: took extra classes, completed two research projects, worked in multiple labs, tutored other undergrads, but all of that experience (for reasons still a little unclear) wasn’t enough to get me where I wanted to be. Nothing was as embarassing as missing out on a dream I’d been working so hard for, especially a dream I was convinced I’d have no problem achieving. But still I fell.

If cliche quotes have taught me anything, it’s that getting up after a fall is everything. But even when it feels like the whole world just watched you smack your face into the cold, icy ground, it’s much easier to get back up after a physical fall than one that’s happened in your head. My own personal Inside Out mind characters probably looked a lot like the image below (Sadness obviously started touching things) when I got that last rejection letter. But up I had to go, and up I went (all the way, in fact, to a higher than mile high mountain town with one hell of a research university).

insideout556500e6a2be0-2040-0

Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear from Inside Out.

We all fall down. Some of us (hi mom), are masters of the hiking/running/oh-just-walking fall and we’re scary good at shaking those physical falls off. But all of us (don’t deny it), have fallen reaching for something great: a job, a dream, a home, even a championship game. The metaphorical ice is slippery, but up we must go.

 

“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.

200761125

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.

BOA1T6-CAAAquK7

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).

phd051013s

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

The to-do list of a new graduate student

To-Do-List-feature

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.
  • DRINK ALL THE COFFEE.
  • Sniff out the free food.
  • Go to the free food.
  • EAT ALL 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.

phd013008s

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.