Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Applying for Awards, Grad School, really anything

When you are filling out an application that asks for a personal statement, please, please, please do not do the following:

(see also SOP Fun, Continued) by FemaleScienceProfessor

1. Start your essay with a quote
2. Start your essay with a personal anecdote involving your childhood
3. Start by talking about how much you want to go to graduate school and how it will enrich your life.

Regarding the quotes, most of them are pretty cheesy, and honestly this is about your statement not someone else's so I would rather here your own words than those of Einstein, Feynman, Shakespeare, whatever.

Regarding the personal anecdote, I think almost everyone here can attest that that first chemistry kit, or radio kit, or model bridge, or robot, really got them interested in science, or in the case of biomedical engineering, the dying relative that has inspired you to pursue a cure for XX. If you are going to use an anecdote, it should really set you apart, and I have yet to read one that is truly compelling.

Regarding the I really want to go to graduate school because it will enrich my life and make me a better person...well I should hope so, that is what we strive to do.

What I really want to find out from a personal statement is:

  • Do you have a goal? (e.g., academic position, career in industry) (otherwise known as why do you want a PhD?)
Example: I have been working in industry for 2 years and firmly decided that I would like to be a professor. I worked in research before as an UG; this is my passion, and I want to teach to inspire new generations of scientists. I need a PhD to obtain my goals.
  • Do you understand what is required to obtain a PhD. in X?
Example: Through my previous research experience @ company Y and as an undergraduate I have developed skills in lots of important technical areas. Or, I look forward to spending the next X years developing important scientific discoveries in field X!
  • Have you thoroughly considered the area of research that you would like to pursue?
I really want to pursue a PhD in X, because I find the field of X to combine my skills in math, science, and whatever else, plus my interest in hobby Y. This is the field for me.
  • Do you have any qualifications in this area, or if not, can you demonstrate that you are willing, eager, and capable to learn a new field?
Although I don't know much about field Y, I am eager to learn. I have already begun reading basic textbook for the course and am taking summer classes in Y to learn more.
  • Are you mature enough to complete the program? (PhD's are riddled with periods of failure, do you have the mettle to make it through)
I am responsible and confident that I have the skills to survive your rigorous program. I worked my way through college with three different jobs, all while caring for my ailing parent, etc.
  • What will you, personally, bring the our program in X?
I have already shown that I am an excellent researcher. As an UG, I won awards in X, I presented my research at Y, published at Z, got patents while working for company A. etc.

Obviously, some of this text is a little canned (please don't say making new important discoveries) but the general idea is for you to replace with something specific to your field of interest.

I spent most of this week reading personal statements and it amazes me how little students seem to understand them.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Do what you love

A little over 10 years ago, I was a process engineer at a large company. I really liked my company, but really hated my job. I think the thing I hated most was that I didn't feel challenged. I often felt like college was a complete waste, and that I could have done my job out of high school. I think I also didn't like the fact that the amount of work performed seemed irrelevant. So a coworker who spent pretty much eight hours a day talking about football and one hour working comes off about the same as me who spends eight hours working. Why couldn't I just do the one hour and go home? Anyway, this whole debacle (among other things) led me to a period of sadness in my life.

It was my husband who saved me. He asked me to evaluate all the things I had ever done in my life in school or as a hobby. Rather quickly, I told him that my favorite thing was research and that I thought I wanted to teach. It's kind of difficult to go back to school after being out for two years (and making $$$), but it was really what I wanted. I think graduate school was a little easier for me because I was "doing what I loved." I was willing to quit and try something different if it ever got to crazy, and so I never worked the 80 hour weeks, because that wasn't what I "loved." Yet, I still graduated, still got a faculty position, and here I am now doing ~ 45 hr weeks and I think I am doing just fine.

Now, my husband faces the same question. He just finished his MBA and tried to go back to his pre-MBA field in -ology. Turns out that he hates -ology. Now, he is trying to start a company. This is a little risky because we don't expect a revenue stream (i.e., salary) for some time, but it doesn't really matter because I am working. He is "doing what he loves" and he couldn't be happier. It can be scary to take a risk like quitting a job to go back to school or to start a company, but it is always worth it to "do what you love."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Stories from the Trenches

Basking in the inauguration glow...thought I'd share a few humorous anecdotes.

I received this email recently:
"I forgot to turn in my homework last week. When will you be around and where should I turn it in."
Note that all of this information is in the syllabus. (and who forgets to turn in their HW anyway)

Setting: One week before the final exam
Student: I need to take my exam earlier because I am leaving before the day it is scheduled.
Me: The exam date is clearly listed in the syllabus and had been posted since the week before class started.
Student: Yeah, I just never had an exam on Thursday before and didn't think they did them on those days or that it was special or something.
Me: The exam date is clearly listed in the syllabus and had been posted since the week before class started.
Student: Yeah, but if I don't take it early ... sob story goes here....

Setting: One week before end of term.
Student: Dr. Mom, I need to make an A in this class or my country, which is paying for my education, will make me come home.
Me: Well, let's see how you're doing. Okay, looks like you are making a "C" so you will need to make a nearly perfect score on the exam to achieve that goal.
Student: Yeah, I really need an A.
Me: Well, it sounds like it is possible, ambitious but possible. The practice exam is posted online as well as some review sheets. I suggest you start with those.
Student: Is there anything else I can do to improve my grade?
Me: Well, if you recall the first week of class I asked anyone if they had any particular grade that they needed to see me early in the term so that we can make a plan to help achieve it. It is a little late a week before the final exam. Good luck studying.

"Restore Science to Its Rightful Place"

How are excited are you about that statement from the inauguration speech? I sure hope that means more funding for science. This isn't really the blog post I planned to write, but I couldn't let that go by without commenting on it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

How to get your students in the lab

I just figured out a fantastic way to get students into the lab. The temperature outside is below zero and most of them have poor heating. Presto! This morning ALL yes ALL of my students (except for UGs in class) were busily working in my well-heated lab. I didn't see anyone warming their hands over the hot plates, but its not inconceivable.

I am also pretty excited because my plan to publish is working. I submitted two papers in Dec, and one yesterday, and have three more in the pipeline. So, I am steadily moving forward. Yaaaay.

So other than being freezing cold. Life here is good. (pass me a hotplate)

Friday, January 09, 2009

Third time's a charm

I have been teaching the same class for three years now, and I think I have finally gotten it where it needs to be. The first year was my first year as a faculty member, and I was pretty naive. I am embarrassed to say that I actually had dreams of students calling me "best professor they ever had" by the end of the course. I was lucky to get out with "she's really enthusiastic, but her exams suck."

The second year the class was coordinated with another section taught be another instructor who was new to our department. I had never tried to coordinate a class between sections and it really didn't work well. The worst part was that I didn't know how to coordinate the TAs, which were shared. My colleague was telling them to do some stuff, and I was telling them to do stuff and neither of us knew what the other was doing and the TAs sort of picked and chose what to execute. This led to a lot of sloppy assignments with answers that didn't make sense or exam questions that were really unclear.

This year I am trying a new strategy. I am still coordinating with my colleague, but to a much lower degree (just exams and HW assignments). I also got an article about how to teach the class from the author of our text book, a widely known authority on teaching subdivision engineering. I adopted virtually all of his suggestions, some of which I was already doing, and the class is going really, really well. Students are engaged and seem happy. The key points, which seem obvious in hindsight, are to move slowly and to include the class in the lecture through "active learning" exercises. This means that I will introduce a topic with a few short powerpoint slides. Then I will do a derivation of the key equations on the board. Next, I will work an example that is outlined in their notes, but that they have to fill in with specifics. Finally, they will work a worksheet together in groups on the topic, while I roam the room answering questions. This works really, really well. I also showed a couple of YouTube videos (< 3 min) related to subdivision engineering and that went over pretty well. I am so happy with this result, I think I will apply the method to all my classes.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Reflections on a New Year

In many ways, I am pretty lucky. Every year my husband schedules a winter time Caribbean cruise. (Go Husband!). He grew up in Florida, so he this is a pretty typical vacation for him, and I have to say it really is the best way I can imagine to spend my late Dec-early Jan.

The most important thing that I got out of my cruise was a fantastic feeling of Zen that I am hoping to keep with me for as long as possible. For 5 days I didn't have to worry about grants, papers, teaching, cooking, cleaning, driving kids around, music practice or anything. These kinds of breaks give me a chance to think about what really matters and how to get my life in order to achieve it.

My new years resolution is to learn to say no. Not just to others, but to myself as well. I really want to be successful and it is hard to turn down opportunities to write papers, go to conferences, even to apply for this grant or that grant. But in the interest of sanity, I will try my hardest to manage my commitments. This means:

* No more than 1 paper review per month
* No more than 1 grant per month (2 months is better)
* No more than 2 invited reviews per year
* No more than minimum # of committees that chair will let me get away with
* No more than 1 outreach activity per term

* No more than 1 extracurricular activity per kid per week
* No more than 1 gourmet meal per week (hard for me I love to cook)

Hopefully this plan will work. Here's looking to 2009. What are your resolutions?

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