Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Clarification about my funding

Someone asked me "I thought the school gave you funding? Don't you get a stipend? So why do you need to apply for separate funding?"

These are excellent questions which I did not thoroughly address. This academic year I am funded with a Teaching Assistantship. I have a 50% teaching load (20 hours per week). In exchange for being a TA, my tuition is waived and I get a monthly stipend. From my student stipendI still have to pay for my health insurance and some other miscellaneous fees (about $800 per semester I think). I have no loans for grad school and my undergraduate loans are deferred until I finish.

In biology, you shouldn't go to graduate school unless they're going to pay you. I think this is true for most Ph.D. programs in the sciences. Unless you come with your own funding, the source of your stipend will probably be a Teaching Assistantship, Research Assistantship, or perhaps a university fellowship. Schools and departments are limited to some extent in the number of TAships they can award. In some departments TAships are so scarce that you are basically required to come with your own funding (something like an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship which you can apply for before you being grad school).

So if I have funding this year, why do I need to apply for grants? There are two answers to this question. The first is that research is expensive. My advisor has some money, but not enough for me to do whatever I want. I need to apply for grants that allow me to use the money for supplies and equipment that I don't already have access to. Most importantly (for my research), I need money to cover my transportation costs and supplies for while I'm in the field. I'll most likely be doing my field work in Africa so simply getting there is a significant expense. Hopefully I can get a grant for a few thousand dollars this year to cover the expenses for an initial trip.

The second reason I should apply for additional funding is that some fellowships pay a lot more than being a TA. The NSF GRF pays you $30,000 per year for three years. That's about $8,000 more per year than a TA stipend. Somewhat strangely, the EPA STAR fellowship would actually only pay $20,000 per year for stipend, which is less than I make as a TA. The advantage (if you see it as one) of a big stipend-paying fellowship like that is that you don't have to teach so you should be able to progress more quickly in your research.

I hope this clarifies things somewhat. Please feel free to comment if you have other questions or have something else to add to the discussion from your own experience.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Plans for the semester: be organized and get funded

Classes start tomorrow but I don't have any until Tuesday. Still, I want to make a good impression so I'm going to spend most of tomorrow in my office. There are plenty of miscellaneous things to do like give the place a decent cleaning and figure out how to connect my laptop to the internet. I also need to find the locations of all of my classrooms on campus.

This afternoon I was reading Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Master's or Ph.D. It said that having a good calendar system for keeping track of deadlines, especially long-term ones, is critical to a grad student's success. Then it spends several pages discussing the different merits of computer calendar programs from 10 years ago that I've never even heard of, so I skipped that section and started one on Google Calendar. Then I spent a few hours this evening looking for grants and fellowships and inserting the appropriate deadlines into my Google Calendar.

Applying for grants and fellowships is going to be my main research focus this semester (unless my advisor tells me otherwise). Writing the applications will require extensive literature review and intellectual acuity so it will help me develop and hone my research interests (on paper, at least). I'm definitely planning to apply for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, EPA STAR fellowship, and maybe Sigma Xi. I've bookmarked several others to apply for later in my graduate career because I'm currently ineligible. People I talked to this summer told me to apply for as many grants as possible to increase my odds of getting something since getting funded requires an element of luck as well as talent.

Meanwhile, Jon is still trying to find a job. So far he's been interviewed for a very low-paying part-time bookstore job and has qualified as a participant in a research study. While I'm planning my own course of research, I think we'll both be supplementing our income as participants in other people's studies.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Teaching Reassignment

I thought I was TAing a 200-level vertebrate class, but at some point they reassigned me to Bio 100 and didn't tell me until the beginning of this week. At first I was disappointed but it sounds like Bio 100 will be a good first course to TA. I don't have to attend lectures, grade exams, or lead study sessions. I lead two sections of lab and discussion and grade their lab assignments. It's a big course with many sections so there is a lot of structure in place and I don't have to worry about figuring that out myself.

I was sort of excited about the idea of office hours. I liked the thought of students coming to my office to ask me questions. I never thought about exactly how many hours I'd have, but I thought we'd take the normal working hours of the week and divide them up among the TAs so that there would be someone available when students have questions. Therefore, I was quite surprised when we were informed we were required to have TWO office hours per week for our students. Other TA's students won't know our office hours. I wasn't expecting them to form a queue or anything but it seems this would be incredibly inconvenient for my 60+ students. Perhaps I'll have more office hours than the two required.

From the other TAs I've talked to it sounds like I shouldn't have to spend more than 20 hours per week on average. I'm excited about teaching, but I'm also relieved to hear that it's not going to take over my life this semester. I've got lot of grant proposals to write!

First Impressions

This week was orientation. I got an office, met all of the other incoming biology grad students, and learned more about my responsibilities as a TA. While it's all fresh in my mind I want to record my first impressions.

The department: We met most of the professors and heard a little about their research. I was impressed by their openness and friendliness. Since I didn't get to visit, I was somewhat concerned that the feeling in the department would be one of competition rather than collaboration. All of the professors we talked to expressed enthusiasm for helping us apply their research techniques to our own projects. It's great to know that faculty members other than my advisors are open to future collaborations if our interests converge.

The students (in my department): I wasn't nearly as intimidated as I thought I would be. I haven't started classes yet so this might change, but the first day of Nerd Camp was way scarier. I'm sure I'll have my bouts of inadequacy and "the imposter syndrome" but it hasn't happened yet. From the conversations I've had so far, many of us are in a similar place in the development of our research interests (we have some idea of what we'd like to do but we're not sure exactly how or where to do it). Generally I thought our group of students was kind of socially awkward and shy but I think that will fade as we get to know each other better. I met a few current grad students and had interesting conversations with them about their research (eg. the fieldwork challenges of an urban ecologist- being offered drugs and getting stopped by the police while you try to survey invasive species in rough neighborhoods).

The university: It's big. This place is very different from Small Friendly College, as I knew it would be. Still, wow. During TA training we learned about the demographics of the student body, which I found fascinating. It's incredibly diverse in many ways (the way in which it is least diverse- most come from within the state). My gosh, the buildings are ugly! Except the new recreation center. I like that one. I plan to make good use of my unlimited access and free group fitness classes.

The health insurance: I probably don't have to tell you how awful health insurance is in this country. I've been looking forward to having better health insurance in graduate school for years. For the past two years I've been paying over $100 per month for insurance with a $1500 deductible that is basically just for emergencies. It doesn't cover preventive care or anything useful. Basically it sucks. The only advantage it had was that it covered me abroad (not that I had to use it...)

The university health insurance I'll have during grad school is cheaper and covers almost everything 100% as long as I go to their medical center. I have no problem with that. Overall it seems like a very good plan. The biggest problem with the university health insurance is that it does not cover me abroad and there are no options within their system. As someone who will be doing research outside the United States for this institution, I'm very annoyed. I'm going to be a thorn in someone's side about this particular issue.

Classes: I can't really comment on these yet but I'm taking two real classes and then a seminar and a little research ethics class. I've ordered all of my textbooks online but I'm nervous that the important ones won't get here in time. I think they were only about $100. I'm going to do a separate post about my teaching assignment.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Why didn't the extinct dolphin make more waves?

I'm sorry, I don't know the answer to this riddle.

I first heard about the Yangtze dolphin extinction when it was mentioned in passing on ECOLOG (Ecological Society of America's listserv) yesterday. Lots of people at scienceblogs.com are blogging about the unfortunate news.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

First impressions of life in Big City

Our apartment is really starting to look like an inviting place now that we've unpacked or hidden most of the boxes. I have three very heavy boxes of books that need to be moved to my grad student office one backpackfull at a time. It will take a while before those are gone from the living room. We also need a lot more houseplants.

We've been walking around and getting to know the neighborhood. There's a bike shop, a few small corner groceries, and a hardware store within 2 blocks. Our congressman's office is about 4 blocks away. I like this neighborhood and it's very conveniently close to school for me. Hopefully Jon will find a job nearby. I do, however, have a few substantial complaints about life in Big City so far.

Public Transportation: It's not nearly as good as it should be. I'm sure my list of complaints will get longer, but let's start with infrastructure. I have to walk under train tracks to get to school. The metal beams supporting the tracks are seriously crumbling. I'm talking about a centimeter of airspace at the base where there used to be metal. I am not convinced that this is sufficiently sound in light of the recent Minneapolis bridge collapse. Aside from infrastructure, the whole transit fare system is complicated and not user-friendly. The buses don't give change! You can't buy their stupid fare cards everywhere they can be used! At least if the infrastructure sucks they could make the system user-friendly. I also think the fares are on the expensive side (especially if you're paying cash). If you really want people to use public transportation instead of driving then it should be cheaper because it CAN be a pain to take a bus instead of drive your car... which brings me to the next point.

Air Pollution: It sucks. And it makes my face break out in big, nasty pimples. It took me several years to make a connection between air pollution and acne but I'm absolutely convinced of it. Hopefully in the near future the scientific literature will begin to support me on this (as far as I can tell, there is NO ONE doing research on air pollution and acne so if you're a dermatologist I've just given you a way to make a name for yourself). My coping strategy is to wash my face 2-3 times a day (compared to only when I shower every other day or so in low-pollution areas). The air pollution in Big City isn't helped by the...

Lack of green space: My section of Big City is particularly park deficient which is a shame. I'm keeping my eyes out for community gardens but nearby one was recently turned into a parking lot :-( There are definitely some empty lots with potential. I would LOVE it if a community garden started nearby. Big City doesn't even have very many trees. Trees give us shade to keep us cooler in the summer! They clean our air! Why didn't they have the foresight to plant more trees? I've been taking mental notes on other people's container and window box gardening techniques. I have to admit that I'm usually a bit of native plant snob and frown upon impatiens and other boring water-hogging non-native annuals but in Big City I find myself appreciating ANYTHING green and growing, including the highly invasive tree of heaven. Even an empty lot full of weeds makes me thankful for some green in this sea of concrete!

Ok, enough ranting. I really don't want my blog to be a laundry list of complaints about life. We have a great apartment, we can happily live car-free even with the public transportation shortcomings, and next spring I'm going to have beautiful window boxes.

Interesting or not?

Scientists can have a hard time convincing the wider world that what they study is important. Who in the general public cares about the evolutionary radiation of land snails? Because of that, I think I assumed that ecologists should "band together" by professing interest in each others research. I mean, I'm generally interested in most ecological research. There are plenty of things I wouldn't devote my life to, but I'm willing to attend seminars of lots of different things. So I was caught off guard the first time I heard a well-established ecologist profess their complete lack of interest in someone else's research. I couldn't possibly imagine myself saying anything that blunt about someone's research.

I've been thinking for a while about why these 50-something ecologists so openly declare their disinterest in some threads of ecological research. First of all, ecology is a huge field. There's no way anyone can keep up with all of the research. They've had years to read the literature, attend seminars, and find precisely what excited them and what doesn't. And I imagine as they delve further and further into their own research, threads similar to theirs are what interest them the most. Maybe it's also a way of setting oneself apart from other researchers. And they're well known enough that they probably don't have to worry to much about offending anyone new.

Since I'm just starting grad school and my research plan is only beginning to nucleate, I'm still in the process of figuring out what interests me most (and what I think is boring). I haven't decided yet how much of my specific research interests I'll reveal on the blog. You'll just have to wait and see :-)

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

ESA in San Jose

The Ecological Society of America has its annual meeting this year in San Jose, California. It seems like everyone I know in the field of ecology is at this conference and I have to admit I'm feeling a bit left out of the fun. Friends of mine from the field station, nerd camp, and my advisors are all there. Instead of seeing friends, networking, going on field trips around San Jose, and hearing about exciting new ecological research, I'm in the process of moving halfway across the county in 95+ degree heat.

I've never been to a real research conference so I'm really looking forward to it. I went to an undergraduate research symposium but that hardly counts. I imagine ESA to be an exciting gathering of people who love to talk about the same things I do. Hopefully I'll be able to go next year when it's in Milwaukee, even if I don't have anything to present yet.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Moving to Big City

This past week has been packed. I met up with 'Jon' (my partner/boyfriend/significiant other) in Big City to find an apartment. We couch surfed with friends of ours in the area and looked at at least 16 apartments. We'll be car-free in Big City so we wanted to find a place relatively close to school. We succeeded in finding a great 2 bedroom apartment within our price range that is only about a mile from campus. We signed the lease on Thursday and got the keys!

Now we're back where all of our belongings have been stored for the past year since we left for RFC. This week we have to finish packing misc items and drive it all to Big City. We'll have a week to get settled in the apartment before I start orientation.

I found out that I won't get my first paycheck until the middle of September and Jon doesn't have a job yet. This first month is definitely going to be tough. I hope he finds a job quickly and gets paid sooner than I do. We have barely enough money right now to cover our first month's rent and the moving costs. For the first time in our lives we're counting on spending money we don't have on necessary expenses (food, textbooks, basic household items) and putting it on my credit card with the intention of being able to pay it off in full when I get my first paycheck. Scary.