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Monochrome Spring

I haven't posted much recently, but I thought that I would throw out a recent reflection that I think could help a lot of applicants and current grad students.

Losing sucks. A lot. Not getting something we really want sucks. A lot. But life goes on.

I recently was awarded an Honorable Mention for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. This is a pretty big honor, as 16,000+ students apply each year. I know a few people who have applied multiple years and never even gotten that. But, of course I'm still bitter that I didn't get the full award. To make things worse, the other two students in my cohort were awarded.

This lead to a lot of feelings, including anger, embarrassment, and self-doubt. I feel like maybe I'm not good enough if everyone else can get it but I can't. I feel lied to by my peers when they said my application materials were the best in my cohort during review sessions. I feel jealous that the awardees will make $15-20k more than me and not have to work as a teaching assistant or graduate assistant.

I took all of yesterday to myself to get those feelings out, to scream, to cry, to vent. But life goes on, and today is a new day. I realized a lot of things about not winning the award, which can extend to a lot of future competitions in life. Yeah, I didn't get the award I wanted, but am I a worse person than before I found out the results? No. Actually, I still have another line on my CV to say that I got Honorable Mention. I still have feedback on my application that I can apply to other things in my career.

And the other people in my cohort who got the award are some of my closest friends here. So, at the end of the day, I'm happy that they have a higher stipend that will help them. One is going to buy a house with her new husband. Another can travel more, which is her biggest passion in life. And I'm not making any less stipend next year due to their win, so I should just be happy that something good happened to my friends.

As cliche as it sounds, I realized this morning that I have a lot to be thankful for. I still have a fellowship from my university. I still have another year to reapply for this national fellowship. I still got into an amazing program at only 20 years old and held my own against more experienced students. I still have an amazing partner who supports me in everything I do, completely unconditionally. I still have a online community of people I can vent to about grad school to get out my frustrations. I still have a group of people in real life who I can hang out with when I need to be away from school. I still have a lot. And I didn't really lose anything from not getting that award. Next year will be difficult for funding, but it will work out (it always does).

In our little world of academia, whether it be applications or publications, everything is a competition (even if we don't want it to be). People will constantly make you feel like you need to be the best, you need to have the most awards, you need to have the most publications, you need to have the highest impact, you need to have the best committee. And it's great to aspire to do well in all of these areas. But, school/work is school/work, and it doesn't really change who I am as a person and my value. Yes, having a better CV gets me a more competitive job. Yes, having better funding makes my life a lot easier next year. But, I have a lot beyond what a few pieces of paper say.

No one has everything. Someone may get more awards or publications. Someone may have more friends or a more stable relationship. Someone may make more money or be prettier or have fewer health problems. But no one really has everything. And, after reflection, I'm really happy for the things that I do have. More lines on a CV, more money, and more recognition in my department are great. But they don't define me.

Monochrome Spring

I've finally reached the end of this roller coaster called Graduate Application Season.

I will be attending my top-choice university in a department that I didn't apply to with a professor that was never my main POI. After recruitment, it was a whirlwind of switching advisors, departments, funding nominations, etc. Things change, but they can be for the better. I will be working toward a dual-Ph.D. in Forestry and Ecology, and I couldn't be more excited. My new advisor's research interests are an amazing match and he has long-term research plots at my first-choice field station. I've been awarded the top university fellowship, granting me a first and last year of funding, without any TA or RA requirements, facilitating my transitions into and out of the program.

My advisor offered to let me come over the summer on an RA, doing some temperate field work and analyzing the long-term tropical datasets. So, I'll be moving across the United States a week or two after I graduate with my Bachelors degree, packing only what I can fit in my sedan (including a boyfriend who wants to help me move). Until then, I have two research projects to finish up, permits to get approved, and other countries to visit. I'm going to be busy, not really relaxing much before I start graduate school, but I don't think I'd want to have it any other way.

Monochrome Spring

The day started off great. We had breakfast in the hotel, went to lunch with one of the program directors, and then toured the town with grad students. Later, we went to a hockey game and had dinner with grad students in the next town over.

Then, for reasons I cannot divulge, I fell out of love with parts of the program. I saw a very dark and disturbing side that I had not expected. For that reason, now I am considering another school that I have an interview with in a few weeks.

I've learned a lesson today to not get your hopes up and not to put all of your hopes into one opportunity, especially in academia. I'm not going home as excited as I thought I would be. If anything, I am disappointed. But I'm going to move on and start looking at all of the options that are out there.

Edit: For any applicants who need help with what questions to ask at interviews and how to decide if the atmosphere of the department is for you, I highly recommend this webpage: http://www.esa.org/students/section/node/412

Monochrome Spring

Today was great. I woke up at the equivalent of 3:30AM in my timezone and headed out with a group of other applicants from the department. We got really fancy portfolios with printouts of each professor's research, our personalized itineraries, and some promotional magazines. Then, we had an informational session, during which we got an overview of the departments housed by the larger department we were interviewing in.

After that, we had a group meeting with the director to ask questions, and then went on to five one-on-one interviews with faculty. The faculty interviews were pretty good. Some were so interesting that I wanted more time. And others, I got more nervous and was excited to move on to the next one, though I wouldn't call any of them bad.

After the interviews, we went to two different poster sessions, during which the director handed me my official letter of acceptance (yay!). Then, I got to talk more with my future PI and the other applicants for his lab over dinner.

Now, I'm working in the hotel lobby, reading fervently through papers for meetings on two different projects next week back at my undergraduate university. I'm motivated now more than ever to get my research going forward and strong.

(Also, Michigan is really cold.)

Monochrome Spring

It's finally here. I leave for recruitment weekend at my future home (top choice program!) in only four days. I'm not nervous, per se, but I am definitely over-preparing. I re-read all of the emails between me and my future PI, the itinerary from the department, the research section for each interviewer's webpage, and my application materials. I've also started compiling a list of questions to ask during my one-on-one meetings and the group dinners.

I've already been accepted, since I won a college fellowship after my recruitment invite was extended, so I'm not worried about that aspect, but this weekend is still important. Most of the other interviewees haven't been accepted yet, and we're all going to be fighting for the departmental fellowships whose recipients will be decided after we leave. And of course, we're all trying to make a good impression on our future departmental faculty, make strong connections for collaboration, and figure out if this really is the right place for us to call home for another five to six years.

I plan on writing a new blog post each day of my recruitment weekend. I arrive on Thursday and leave on Sunday, so be prepared to hear all about this wild ride.

Here's a breakdown of my itinerary:

Thursday: Plane. Meet with PI for dinner.

Friday: Breakfast with committee members. Overview of the department facilities. Applicant presentations of research experience and interests. Individual faculty meetings with six different faculty, including my PI., for thirty minutes each. Social event with all current students, postdocs, researchers, and faculty. Meet with PI for dinner.

Saturday: Free time to see the area or have additional faculty meetings. Lunch with committee members. Tour of the city with current students. Hockey game. Dinner and social activities with current students.

Sunday: Leave back home.

Monochrome Spring

Disclaimer 1: The information I have on how admissions committees use GRE scores is entirely based on information I received from professors at the universities and departments that I am applying to. This can also be field specific. Please take this information with a grain of salt and inquire at your own prospective programs for more information. Remember that GRE scores are nowhere close to the most important part of your application, and many programs don't use them beyond a cutoff or correlations with GPA.


GRE scores are primarily used, in conjunction with GPA, to weed out the lower end of applicants from the pool. This does not mean that low GRE scores will immediately disqualify you from a program, however. Committees take a holistic view. If you have another outstanding aspect of your application (e.g. letters of recommendation or publications), low GRE scores may not take you out of the running. But if you already have a weak application, low GRE scores may cut you from the pool. Only one school I looked at had a GRE cutoff listed on the website (70th percentile in all sections).

I've heard that the verbal section matters more for humanities and social sciences, and the quantitative section matters more for the natural sciences, but I approached the test believing that both are equally important. I don't subscribe to the idea that social sciences and humanities don't need to be good at math, and that natural sciences don't need to be good at reading/writing. Of course, ask your programs if they weigh each section differently, but I approached this blog post with the idea that all sections are of equal importance.

Department Fellowships:

GRE scores are also used as one of many factors that can qualify you for a competitive departmental fellowship. Nominations are made based on a variety of factors, including GRE, GPA, publications, letters of recommendation, and prior professor contact. Then, nominees are interviewed and final decisions are made. The professors I talked to told me that competitive GRE scores for their specific programs start at 80th percentile in every section, but the average is much closer to 90th percentile. So I set that as my goal when I was studying.

Disclaimer 2: Going into my GRE preparations, I was already relatively good at the verbal, quantitative, and writing sections. My approach to studying was not to learn new material. It was to refresh the material that I had already learned, since GRE math is mostly high-school level, verbal is common of higher reading levels, and writing is in one of the simpler formats. Remember that everyone is coming into GRE preparation with different levels of schooling, different learning styles, and different life circumstances. I'm merely sharing what I did with the circumstances that I had. I think that the study methods I describe below are best suited for those who know the material, but need more practice to get to the higher score ranges. Adjust your own study methods as you see fit.

How I studied for verbal:

I primarily used Magoosh to study. I watched the verbal video tutorials and took notes throughout to make sure that I retained the tips, but I didn't do any practice questions. Most of the tutorials were on how to approach the questions. I found that the hardest part of the verbal was figuring out what the question was asking and identifying the trick answers. Comprehension for the reading passages comes with practice. The only thing I can say that helped with that was being an avid reader of both fiction and academic journals. For vocabulary, I only used the free vocabulary book (see below) from Magoosh. Again, being an avid reader, my vocabulary already included many of the words on the test.

How I studied for quantitative:

Again, I primarily used Magoosh to study. I didn't watch the video tutorials, but I did read through the free equations book (see below). I didn't try to "memorize" these; instead, I tried to understand each one and how they might be used. All of these equations were from high-school level math, but I had forgotten their applications for standardized tests. When I did the practice questions from Magoosh, I used the custom settings to start with only medium-level questions. Once I had finished all of those, I went on to only hard-level questions. Then I went to only very-hard level questions, until I had finished all of the ones that Magoosh offered.

How I studied for analytical writing:

To study for the writing portion, I read through the sample essays on the ETS GRE website, as well as the reviews for each one. I focused on reading through the two essays that scored 6 and 5, breaking each one apart and thinking about the structure of each. Mostly, I focused on figuring out how my essay would be structured, since the GRE prefers a "formula" of sorts. Essentially, if you stick to the 5-paragraph format that you learned in gradeschool, you'll be good. Don't try to be profound or sound smarter than you are. Just stick to the basic format and make sure that your examples all relate to the prompt and that you writing flows clearly.

Other study materials:

I didn't use any study books, like ETS, Princeton, Barrons, or Kaplan. I did use the Manhattan 5lb Book for quantitative, but I got tired of it after one chapter. Magoosh better suited my study needs and was more adaptive to my learning style. If you can afford it, I would recommend getting Magoosh, instead of buying multiple books.

My practice scores:

Powerprep Test 1: V 158 / Q 160

Powerprep Test 2: V 160 / Q 160

Magoosh Predicted Score Range: Q 155-160 (No V)

Test day:

I'm going to be a hypocrite and say don't freak out on test day. But I did exactly that. Since you can't stop some of the subconscious anxiety that will come up, just do everything that you can to not elevate it. Don't drink coffee right before the test, because you'll get jittery and need to pee every five minutes. Make sure to eat a good breakfast or lunch (I had a subway sandwich and some juice). Don't do anything out of the ordinary, like pull an all-nighter or join a pie-eating contest right before the test. Also, I have heard too many stories about anxiety ending up in lower-than-expected scores on test day. Anxiety can make or break your test, regardless of how much you study. So, try as hard as you can to not let it get the best of you.

When I took the test, the office I went into had four main rooms: the waiting room with lockers, the check-in/security room, and two testing rooms. I left everything, including water, in the lockers in the waiting room before I went to the check-in area. There, I had to have my picture taken, show my I.D., give my signature, turn my pockets out, and get waved down with a metal detector. Then I was taken to a computer that the assistants set up specifically for me. Whenever I wanted to take a break, whether it was scheduled in the test or not, I had to go through the entire procedure again. The actual testing area was pretty nice. I had a padded swivel-chair, so I took off my shoes and sat cross-legged to be comfortable. I was provided with a few sheets of scratch paper and pencils, as well.

Test format:

In order to get used to the testing format of the computer-based GRE, I highly recommend taking the ETS Powerprep Tests, which are available for free via the ETS GRE website.

The test will begin with the two writing sections: issue and argument. Read more about the format and question types here and here. You are given 30 minutes for each essay, including the time to read the prompt. You cannot use standard shortcuts like ctrl+v; you have to use the buttons at the top of the screen. You also cannot use the "find" function. The hardest part is the the program will not autocorrect your misspelled words, and it will not underline your bad sentence structure. This means that you will need to pay close attention to common mistakes like "teh" instead of "the".

Then you will get either a verbal or quantitative section. You are given 30 minutes to complete 20 questions for each section. The first sections for verbal and quantitative will be "medium" difficulty. Depending on how you do in these first sections, the second section for each, verbal and quantitative, will either be "easy", "medium", or "hard"; this is because the test is adaptive by section. You cannot get a top score without advancing to the "hard" section in the second half. For each of the second sections for verbal and quantitative, you are given 35 minutes to complete 20 questions. Read more about test format here, verbal here, and quantitative here.

Halfway through the test, you will get a 10 minute break to walk around, stretch, go to the restroom, get a snack, etc. You can also take a break at any time throughout your test. I took a 5 minute break after my second essay to stretch and take deep breaths to relax, so don't be afraid to take more time if you need to. Just remember that any unscheduled breaks are eating into your allocated test time for that section.

At some point during your test, you will get a non-graded extra section of either verbal or quantitative. You will not know which section is your non-graded section, so treat all of the questions that you encounter for any section as if they are all graded.

My actual scores:

Verbal 164 (93rd percentile)

Quantitative 164 (89th percentile)

Analytical Writing 5.5 (97th percentile)

Free resources:

These resources are in addition to those already available through the ETS GRE website.

Magoosh Vocabulary Flashcards

Magoosh Vocabulary e-Book

Magoosh Math Formula e-Book

If there is anything that I didn't address here, leave a comment and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.

Monochrome Spring

I am a senior undergraduate graduating in spring 2014, applying for Ph.D. programs focusing on tropical plant ecology to start in fall 2014. I don't have much to say yet about applications other than that I submitted them, but I am listing my stats below as part of my introduction (taken from the applicants and admissions thread for biological sciences).

Undergrad Institution: top 10 public, top 40 national, state school

Major: Evolution, Ecology, & Biodiversity

Overall GPA: 3.56 Position in Class: Top 25%

Type of Student: Domestic Female

GRE Scores (revised version): Q 164 (89th percentile) V 164 (93rd percentile) AW 5.5 (97th percentile)

Research Interests:

- The mechanisms that increase and maintain biodiversity of plant communities in tropical ecosystems

- The role herbivores play in phylogenetic and functional relatedness of these plant communities across space and time

Research Experience (at graduation Spring '14):

- 1 year in a plant ecology lab (senior thesis) as a researcher, investigating the Janzen-Connell hypothesis especially as it relates to temperate habitats, and possibly conducting an observational study at a major field station

- 2 years in a plant ecology lab as a research assistant and researcher, investigating higher adult competition in closely-related plant species, and conducting a meta-analysis of increased herbivory in plant neighbor-removal experiments

- 1/2 year in a plant cell wall lab as a research assistant, isolating proteins in the SYP61 golgi network of Arabidopsis thaliana

- 1/2 year in a plant ecology lab as a research assistant, investigating Mendelian segregation in floral color of Mimulus bicolor


- ESA 2014 annual research conference (applying)

- University 2014 undergraduate research conference (expected)

- University 2013 undergraduate research conference

- Submitting 2 manuscripts for publication in spring 2014


- Phi Kappa Phi Honorary Society member

- Dean's List at university

- 2 scholarships for botany students at university

Pertinent Activities or Jobs:

- 7 years as a tutor for junior high through university level students in core biology, core chemistry, Algebra, Plant Biology, and Spanish

- 1 year volunteering with a local habitat restoration group, teaching high school students on field days, reading high school research proposal contest entries

- 2 years volunteering with the Society for Conservation Biology

- 1.5 volunteering with a 2nd local habitat restoration group

- 1 year volunteering with the university Arboretum for plant propagation

Special Bonus Points:

- Field course in Tropical Ecology and Conservation at a large field station in Panamá over winter break

- Enrolled simultaneously in junior college courses throughout 7th-12 grades (GPA 3.95, 62 semester units completed)

Applying to Where:

- Michigan State University - Plant Biology

- University of Maryland College Park - Behavior, Ecology, Evolution, & Systematics

- University of California Berkeley - Integrative Biology

- Stanford University - Ecology & Evolution

- University of Pittsburgh - Ecology & Evolution

My Application Bonuses:

- Contacted every professor I'm applying to work with (phone, skype, or in-person)

- Wrote my NSF GRFP (major science fellowship) with my top-choice professor and he wrote a letter of recommendation for that application

My Application Concerns:

- My GPA is average for applicants in my field

- Graduating in 3 years from my university puts me at a disadvantage for time to complete more research and outreach