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?

How on earth did I become a geologist?


Before (in my pretty flower dress)

I didn’t come into the world as the geology-loving adventurer I am today. No one in my immediate family has worked in academia or research. Family vacations weren’t spent hiking or camping across the U.S (though I’m not complaining about the every summer Outer Banks vacations), and the only camping I did as a child was Girl Scouts Camp mouse house “glamping” (although at the time it was traumatizing). Nature was definitely not my thing growing up. I was more of a barbie/princess/fashionista girl than I was a geologist, or any scientist for that matter, in the making. And if you would have asked my mother what I was going to be when I grew up back when I was a no-pants-dress-only-hate-to-be-dirty child, geologist would have been absolutely no where on her list. So, how on earth did I become a geologist? Baby steps.

Baby step #1: Marine Biology

It wasn’t until elementary school that I first discovered my interest in (and real knack for) science. In third grade, I managed to talk my teacher into letting me turn her entire classroom into a giant underwater kelp forest, equipped with floor to ceiling paper mache kelp and cut out seals and fish galore, for a class presentation. I’m still not exactly sure what drove me to design a class project around giant kelp, but I was definitely one excited student who was obsessed with and eager to learn about all things marine. Whether because of the kelp or my own experiences on the Outer Banks or even my childhood obsession with Sea World (recent revelations about animal treatments aside), I spent the next ten years or so truly believing that I would become a marine biologist.

Baby step #2: Earth Science??

By high school, I had mostly grown out of my marine biologist phase, but I hadn’t completely left the physical sciences behind. I knew I was having significantly more fun (and success) in my earth science classes than in my traditional biology and chemistry classes (and exponentially more fun than in my history and literature classes). However, I still hadn’t accepted that earth science could be my career. People told me that my knack for science and math meant that I should be an engineer; no one ever told me I should (or could) be a scientist (it didn’t seem like a profession many thought too highly of at the time). And for some reason, I listened.

Baby step #3: Engineering [fail]

I was admitted directly into the University of Wisconsin-Madison Engineering School as a freshman, and quickly began my undergraduate career chasing down “my goal” of becoming a chemical engineer. However, I immediately became frustrated. The rigid structure of the engineering program made me feel like I was drowning (literally, in classes I was uninterested in and hated to take) and unable to explore the world as I wanted. So, I left (after 1 1/2 semesters), unsure of what I would do next. I felt lost. I felt like I had failed. The dream everyone told me I should have, wasn’t what I wanted after all.

Baby step #4: Environmental Studies and Geography

Two good things came out of my experience in the engineering school: (1) I found out quickly and without a doubt that engineering was not for me; and (2) the engineering school requirement for a certificate (or minor) in another field ushered me to Science Hall, which housed the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (my certificate) and the Geography Department. Despite my huge interest in environmental studies, the institute did not offer a major for undergraduates. However, I realized that my first environmental studies class was cross-listed with geography, and so (because I wasn’t sure what else to do) I decided to take one of the entry level physical geography classes to see if I would like it. I loved it. And despite the many long phone conversations with my parents centering around “what the hell can you do with a physical geography major?,” I was hooked.

Baby step #5: GEOLOGY! (finally)


After (slopping around in Kenya for geology… with dreads)

Most of my physical geography professors were trained (and doctored) geologists, so it wasn’t a big stretch (although it was a long walk across campus) to the Geoscience Department where I quickly fell in love again. My first geology classes were cross-listed with environmental studies (see a theme here?), and initially that was what got me through the front door. But I really couldn’t get enough; everything about geology was interesting to me, and I excelled at it. I had never been a part of a group of people that had so much fun together and worked so hard (I’m not sure any department can top the epic that is UW-Madison geology field trips). By the end of my sophomore year, I had found my new and (yeah, I’ll say it…) favorite major.

Once I had found geology, I dove head first into every research/job opportunity I could find so that I could discover my own geologic research niche. I worked in a paleoecology/paleoclimatology in the Geography Department (The Williams Lab) and a radiogenic isotope lab in the Geoscience Department (UW-Madison Radiogenic Isotope Lab). I even completed two undergraduate research projects: (1) “The effect of land degradation on water resources of the Noolturesh River in the Amboseli Ecosystem, Kenya,” while studying abroad in East Africa (somehow I managed to create a geology research project out of a wildlife management study abroad program with the only other geology major on the trip) and (2) “Cryptotephra detection in a lacustrine sediment core from Spicer Lake, Indiana” as a part of The Williams Lab. If my love of my geology classes wasn’t a big enough sign, these research experiences solidified my obsession with everything geology.

Fast forward through field camp, two graduate school application rounds, one successful acceptance season (don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about my first failed, tear-filled attempt in a future blog post) and two environmental consulting jobs, and I’m finally right where I want to be: getting my PhD at a renowned geology graduate school program (CU-Boulder), working with a fantastic advisor (Dr. Tom Marchitto) and studying paleoceanography, paleoclimatology and stable isotope geochemistry (in my fashionable white bunny suit).