NSF GRFP mentorship 2018

Since winning my NSF GRFP, I’ve been coaching fellow graduate students on grant-writing through Rice University’s Center for Written, Oral, & Visual Communication. This year, I worked closely with two students who just received fellowship offers!

Congratulations to Allison Traylor (first year in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and fellow CORE member), and Josh Chen (first year in Bioengineering and fellow Cal alum [Go Bears!]).

CORE Research blog posts

Last semester, two of the wonderful research assistants in my lab interviewed me for our lab blog. In honor of their conscientious investigative work, I am sharing it here. Thank you, Andrea and Lois, for such a thorough and well-written piece!


Update on March 31, 2018:

Lois wrote an additional blog post on the connections between our research and Anne Fadiman’s seminal work, When the Spirit Catches You: and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. I actually came across this novel after beginning my work in cultural competency and only wish I’d read it sooner. Highly recommended!

SIOP Small Grant Award

I am thrilled to share that I’ve been awarded a Small Grant Award from the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (SIOP)! Over the next year, they will be funding a portion of my research on cultural competency in healthcare providers.

This marks the first research grant for which I’m the principal investigator — and it’s a special honor being sponsored by my national professional society. Importantly, this work is a team effort, made possible by the incredible efforts of our group at Rice University and collaborators at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital, and Minerva Work Solutions. I’m fortunate to be in a position to do the work that moves me, and to be surrounded by people who support me in that process.

In which an I/O ventures into PH: APHA

This November, I attended the annual conference of the American Public Health Association (APHA). It was special for a few reasons.

First, I’d never been to Atlanta, home to the CDC and other major health organizations. It was a lovely experience staying near Olympic Centennial Park; the leaves were changing color and the weather was nice and mild (especially coming from still-sweltering Houston).

Second, it was my first time attending APHA. It’s the major gathering of an absolutely enormous field — so it was more than a little intimidating to navigate on my own. At the same time, I felt very at home in the crowd. Another first-timer and I shared how excited we were over the diversity and representation — all ages, ethnicities, disciplines, education levels. It was such an inclusive atmosphere. Moreover, everyone really cared. The theme of the year was climate change. It felt so affirming to be among people who thought progressively. I never felt like I had to defend why I felt strongly about protecting the environment, advocating for marginalized groups, or other causes close to my heart.

Third, it was my first time attending any conference on my own. It was a thrill to travel solo and get a hotel room all to myself — even if it could get a bit lonely at times. Surprisingly, coincidentally, and fortunately, I ran into a large number of people from Houston, many of whom shared mutual connections with me. I also took advantage of student-based events and socials to meet people.

Fourth, I submitted two posters to the conference — and had both accepted! As someone who is passionate about conducting interdisciplinary research, these presentations were a very meaningful affirmation from another field.

Last but not least, a contribution of mine was awarded a Student Award within the Public Health Education and Health Promotion (PHEHP) area! I was one of ten students honored for my research on cultural competency in healthcare providers. The Awards Luncheon provided inspirational insight into the ways in which we can impact the field and world at large. As an honoree, I also unexpectedly received a fancy plaque, which sent me over the moon with excitement. It’s the simple things. 🙂

Work-life balance

The fall semester always seems like the busiest time of year. Conference and grant deadlines, coursework and teaching responsibilities, and holiday and personal obligations all seem to pile on in quick succession. In light of this, I’d like to pause to talk about my favorite ways to de-stress.

Exercise. I’ve never considered myself a particularly athletic person, but there are several practices I’ve begun and sustained in order to keep anxiety at bay. I started practicing yoga 10 years ago, and continue to use it to create meditative, calming spaces. I augmented this by dabbling in different sports (including climbing, social kickball leagues, barre studios, etc) until I found some that really stuck. Nowadays, I like to mix endurance and sprint exercise: long-distance cycling (during which I can also phone home and catch up with my family and friends) and high-intensity cross-training. Whatever your speed, I encourage finding something endorphin-releasing and enjoyable. Moving your body forces you to stay in the moment, which taps into mindfulness and stress relief!

Arts and crafts. When I am feeling wiped out from thinking too much, I like to engage in creative and free-form hobbies. I really enjoyed taking pottery classes last year, though now I am happy to simply watch videos of more capable sculptors throwing clay (harder than it looks!). Less demanding, I’ve picked up candle-making as a nice way to make gifts for my loved ones. Many years ago, as a childcare volunteer at a women’s shelter, I found how meditative coloring can be — and now it’s clearly not just for kids any more.

Cooking. Before graduate school, I used to spend entire evenings in the kitchen, trying out new and elaborate recipes. While I don’t have the luxury of time any more, I still like to use my weekly bulk-cooking night to make something nourishing. It’s a productive break from thinking about manuscripts — and you get to eat homemade food afterwards!

Spending time with loved ones. This is last, but certainly not least. I make sure to stay connected with my communities as much as I can, even when things get busy. I’ve started multitasking during household chores in order to really maximize time; for example, my best friend from home knows to expect a phone call when I’m doing laundry. My officemate and I also make time throughout the week to take walks, have tea, and vent about whatever’s on our minds. At home, my significant other and I have a cozy chat each night, even if it’s only for five minutes, so that we can update and support each other. My people remind me that I am not alone in this hectic, uphill journey of graduate school.

Interview tip: questions to ask

Recently, a student asked me how to best prepare for graduate school interviews.

Triggered. Instantly, I remembered what it was like to be in the hot seat, hoping to impress professors and stave off dead air during meetings.

Being the neurotic person that I am, I looked into my grad school application archives to see if I had any words of wisdom. Lo and behold, Past Me had culled together a list of questions to ask during interviews, organized by person (faculty or graduate student) and topic. I’ve included them after the jump, in the hopes that it may help others out there.

(As an aside, the aforementioned student did wonderfully during the interview, gaining an acceptance to a prestigious business school PhD program. I’m confident, however, that these interviews always turn out exactly as they should, whether or not you come armed with a thousand questions. I’ve left interviews knowing that no amount of preparation could’ve prevented the disconnect — but that the awkwardness had helped me dodge a bullet. I simply was not comfortable in that department. These meetings help determine your fit with an organizational culture, so walk in with an open mind and a discerning eye.)

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Application tip: the brag sheet

A friend recently expressed anxiety over asking for a letter of reference. It can be nerve-racking to ask an authority figure to vouch for you! The first step, of course, is to identify who you can ask. Some considerations:

Who knows you well enough to talk about your knowledge, skills and attitudes? Also consider the “big picture” that your recommendation letters will collectively create. One letter may touch on Important Fact A — does another speak to Important Fact B? Ideally, the letters come together to draw a comprehensive portrait (or, at least, they touch on the most important aspects of your qualifications)!

How will they write the letter of recommendation? Do your recommenders prefer to write completely independently, or will they require input or information from you? I had a few reference-writers who reviewed their letters with me to ensure they hadn’t missed any key pieces. This was, of course, specific to our close professional relationship, our shared level of trust, and the fact that they weren’t familiar with the field I was entering. On the other hand, I know some faculty who want students to draft the entire letter for them, which has both its pros and cons.

In any case, it is always helpful to give your letter-writer as much information as possible. To this end, I created a “brag sheet” (both for my graduate school and NSF grant applications). On it, I listed the “highlights” that should be emphasized in a letter of recommendation. This included sections such as:

  • What are my goals?: Pretty straightforward — but don’t forget to include specifics, like your endgame (e.g., a terminal degree) and research interests.
  • What are [schools, programs, funding agencies] looking for?: That is, what qualities does the ideal candidate possess? This helps the letter-writer understand how to frame the letter.
  • What did we work on together?: Always important to recommend the things you did with your letter-writer! Be sure to mention any obstacles you overcame and goals you met.
  • What are my academic qualifications?: Again, pretty easy – -numbers, facts, and figures about performance (GPA, years serving in research, roles and responsibilities).
  • What else sets me apart?: This should catch all important and relevant things not mentioned above — extracurricular activities, leadership roles, and personal background (e.g., challenges or personal adversity)

By creating (essentially) a “cover letter” for your reference-writer, you do a few things. If you create this before asking them if they’ll write you a letter, you increase the chances that they’ll accept — after all, you’re handing them a “cheat sheet.” Keep in mind that reference-writing can be quite time-consuming, so you’re effectively decreasing the burden on your letter-writers by doing the detective-work beforehand. By providing important information, both about yourself and the organization, you’re also helping hone the letter so that it reflects you more comprehensively and speaks strongly to the goal. Finally, this is a useful exercise, since it forces you to sit down and recount all the great work you’ve done with your letter-writer! You’re making both your lives easier; it’s a win-win.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP)

Celebratory cake!

Celebratory cake, courtesy of Rice’s graduate studies office!

Earlier this year, I found out I was the recipient of the NSF GRFP: the sole winner in the field of Industrial-Organizational Psychology in 2015. It was a tremendous honor and vote of confidence in my abilities as a researcher — the result of years of experience, a ton of preparation and a good dose of luck.

Given the high volume of participants (over 17,000 this previous year), applying for the NSF GRFP is an extremely competitive enterprise. There are plenty of thorough and comprehensive guides out there, some of which I’ve included at the end of this post. In case it would be helpful, however, I’m also including my own take-aways from this grant-writing experience — particularly since I am in a discipline that doesn’t ordinarily garner a lot of STEM-oriented awards.

Statement writing

Understand the reviewers.

Critically important! Like in anything else, you need to know what your target audience is looking for. Luckily, the NSF makes this very clear by telling you their criteria; they want to be assured that you have intellectual merit and that your research promises broader impacts. Remember, too, that they are funding you, as a student — not necessarily your specific research project. Reviewers understand that research can and does change over the course of a graduate career; no one will come knocking on your door four years down the line to make sure you saw your proposal through. What you want to do is prove to them that you are on your way to becoming a contributing, star researcher.

My strategy: I re-read every sentence of my statement to make sure they either emphasized one of the two criteria, or that they pushed forward my narrative in a critical way. Speaking of which…

Find your story.

You are essentially trying to market yourself to the NSF reviewers. Most candidates will have strong academic backgrounds and interesting research ideas. To set yourself apart, find an “angle” — tell a comprehensive, thematically-tied story about yourself and your research, weaving in distinctive characteristics (e.g., overcoming adversity, participating in outreach). Although my research and extracurricular experiences were diverse, spanning many different domains and disciplines, I wrote about the common thread that unified them and propelled my own research forward.

Tip: It’s always a good idea to open with an attention-catching personal anecdote! I dedicated the first few lines of my statement to a story about a very personal experience that exemplified my research interests’ real-world applications. I also mentioned (but did not overly elaborate on) things that helped me stand out, like my experience as a first-generation American, woman, and racial minority.

Consult with others.

Read as many samples as you can, even if they aren’t exactly from students your field — see the below resources section for links with outstanding statements. Talk to experts, other winners, faculty, etc. Ask for extra pairs of eyes on your statements, particularly your personal one (usually the research proposal will be more technical and more scientifically sound). I, personally, carved out time to attend workshops and use free coaching services offered by my university. Take advantage of any resources you might have! This will help you understand what, exactly, reviewers are looking for.

Below, I’ve included a rough outline of my statement structures.

Personal statement

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-4-29-53-pm

Research proposal

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-4-29-24-pm

Make it clear.

Relatedly, you want to make it easy for NSF reviewers to understand why and how you are qualified and exceptional. Early on in my personal statement, I established my driving motivations (what “I’m about”) to give them a strong sense of who I am. I used formatting to be as explicit as possible: I bolded important statements (sparingly), used headers to explicitly outline my intellectual merit and broader impacts sections, and used line breaks between paragraphs to give reviewers’ eyes a break. Think about how many statements reviewers need to go through, and try to make their job easier.

Time yourself wisely.

Give yourself enough time. Start by listing out all the potential things you might ever want to incorporate into your statement, cull through them, develop your narrative, and then sit down and write it up. Know yourself and your work habits, be kind to yourself and allow yourself breaks, and plan accordingly! Easy, right?

Reference letters

Help your recommenders.

Every reference writer works differently. Some may want privacy and full control over the letter; others may want you to develop a draft yourself. In any case, it helps to give them as much information as possible. I referred back to my graduate school application process and created a “brag sheet” to highlight the greatest hits in my CV and the key points of my proposal. Providing your letter-writers with as much information as possible is critical — help them help you.

Resources

  1. Inside Higher Ed
  2. The Climate Code
  3. Philip Guo
  4. Auburn University
  5. Psychological Science
  6. Graduate Mentor

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Applying to graduate school: post-application

To my surprise, the most stressful part of graduate school was not the application itself — it was what followed. Slogging through paperwork to apply to schools? Manageable. Trying to visit schools and, in some cases, impress them? And then deciding where I wanted to spend a sizable chunk of my life? Not so clear-cut.

Hearing back

First of all, rejections happen all the time. Consider that most laboratories/advisors only have room for one new student each year — and that there’s nearly always a strong pool of applicants, sometimes including individuals with strong pre-existing ties. It could also be that the timing is simply not in your favor. Rejection should not discourage you if you hope to enter academia; this won’t be the first or last time you’re turned down.

Waitlisting is also a very common occurrence. Things can change at the last minute. In my experience, major shuffles happen during the days right before the decision deadline. A good number of my friends heard back from great schools at, literally, the nth hour.

Of course, there is the best-case scenario: the school shows interest in you right off the bat. They will usually invite you to visit their campus for a formal day or weekend of activities. As a sidenote, I strongly feel that these visits should be paid for, at least in large part, by the program — it speaks to the financial resources they have available down the line.

Visiting

Here, a distinction should be made between recruitment and interview weekends. If you are lucky enough to be recruited, you already have an acceptance in hand — now, it’s the school’s turn to try and win you over. If you are interviewing, you are still in an advantageous position. The school has decided it likes you enough to send you to the next round with its other top picks. Programs typically only arrange one or the other for all their prospective students, though there are special cases where an exceptional student may be accepted before others.

The rule of thumb for visiting is simple: be on your best behavior. Even when you think you’re “off-duty,” if you’re in a room with people from the program, you are being evaluated on some level (yes, even by the graduate students). *Update: now that I’ve been on the other end of this several times over, I actually don’t think it’s as intense or high-stakes as I initially portrayed — so don’t freak out too much! We just want to get an “authentic sense” of who you are. However, other programs may be less laid-back, so it never hurts to be as polite and genuine as possible.* The program wants to make sure that they can live with you for 5 years. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to mask your true personality. Be yourself; just use common sense. Dress well; it’s always better to be more formal, though I’ve found that business-casual usually does the trick.

Don’t forget, too, that you are assessing the program just as much as they are you. Seriously consider whether or not you can thrive in the social and academic environment. Look for red flags, like unhappy faculty and students. Explore the surroundings, seeking out things that you value in a location.

One of my most helpful practices was journaling immediately after each interview. During each plane ride home, I would try to recount what I saw, heard, and felt, in as much detail as possible. This really helped crystallize my opinions of each program — and make for more accurate decision-making (since we all know how unreliable human memory can be!).

Deciding

If you are fortunate enough to have options, you will also be unfortunate enough to have to choose one door and close the others. Every decision is highly personal, depending on your priorities. Location and quality of life? Family and/or significant others? Funding? Think carefully about what you value. Hear people’s stories on how they made their decisions. Talk to people about the programs — including your would-be advisors. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to take as much time as you need to achieve clarity. Don’t be afraid to reject schools. You have every right to mull over this decision before the deadline. It is one of the few times in your academic career that the ball is in your court.

Personally, I took all the time I had to make a decision. I was faced with very competitive offers and sought input from countless people. At the end of the day, however, it boiled down to something that many had suggested: a gut feeling. Listen to what your instincts tell you. I won’t lie and say I didn’t have doubts about my decision — after all, it meant I had to unwillingly leave my beautiful home state — but now I can’t imagine having chosen any other path.

Know, too, that things will work out in the end. It can seem unlikely at times, but I’ve always seen my peers come to be exactly where they need to be. Life is a very long journey, and the decision to attend a graduate school is just the first step in one very exciting leg of it!


See other posts in this “Applying to Grad School” series!

Applying to graduate school: the application

In theory, applying to graduate school is easy. You fill out a few forms, write a brief essay, convince people to vouch for you, and send off your information into the ether.

In practice, however, the process can be exhausting. I vividly recall sitting in front of my computer for many nights in a row, stress-eating chips and salsa while Googling synonyms for “research” “interests.”

There are, however, a few tips that made my life easier.

Organization

Spreadsheet

A single Excel workbook became my bedrock, starting from the moment I began researching graduate schools. You can download my blank spreadsheet template here. I first used it to compare graduate programs, loading a spreadsheet with as much information as possible in order to narrow down my list. Important factors of comparison included: faculty’s research interests; financial aid; ranking; internship opportunities; and median years to graduation.

Please note that I didn’t fill out this information for every single program in my field — I only compared schools I wanted to attend in locations I might want to live. (Quality of life is a very important factor for me, but you may have a different rubric.) After considering my options, I identified twelve programs that seemed to be a good match.

Tangent: E-mailing faculty

In graduate school, you are typically applying to become someone’s academic apprentice. Your advisor will hold the key to your career. (There are some schools, particularly in industrial-organizational psychology, where there is a shared mentorship model, but this is usually the exception.) An important factor I considered during my search was whether or not my intended faculty advisor was accepting students during the admissions cycle.

I had great success cold-emailing faculty members. I wrote a polite message indicating my interest in their research and explaining why I thought I’d be a good fit for their lab; I included my CV, though this is certainly not necessary nor universally welcome. In all cases but one, I received a reply (this was also helpful in assessing the potential advisor’s demeanor). I was thus able to rule out some schools based on advisors’ statuses.

After this, my Excel workbook then evolved from a tool of comparison to a tracker of progress. I started with a brand new spreadsheet, entering in my shortlist of graduate programs by deadline (from earliest to latest). I then created headings that represented different parts of the application process: “Application,” “Statement of Purpose,” “GREs [sent],” “References,” etc. As I completed each part of a specific school’s application, I’d mark it off on my spreadsheet. I also included columns for important, relevant information: log-in passwords, deadlines, application fees, and so on.

Once the spreadsheet was set up, I was able to (a) comprehensively view the progress of each program’s application and (b) easily update the status of each component within those applications. This was invaluable in keeping track of all the tiny, moving parts involved.

I continued using this workbook during the interview phase, too. It was very helpful in keeping track of my travel, costs (especially as many schools had specific reimbursement policies in place), and other first impressions. You can bet I also created a new spreadsheet to compare my offers once I started receiving letters!

GREs

Speaking of components within a graduate application — most US universities require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). While there are many GRE prep programs available, my personal opinion is that disciplined self-study and tons of practice exams will usually be more than sufficient. (Note that the quantitative section is supposedly no more difficult than the SAT!) I used a combination of the Princeton Review’s online curriculum, a dozen sample tests, and one very strict study and practice testing schedule.

References

It is always a highly personal decision deciding who to ask for recommendation letters. In general, you’d like to be able to find people in your field (or another, closely-related one) who can know you and can speak to your research skills. I have found in talking to others that, oftentimes, recommendation letters from distant disciplines will still be helpful if they are strong.

The one sure thing is that you must give your references enough time to prepare a strong letter. I have aided this by providing each writer with (1) a list of all the programs and their deadlines, (2) a copy of my CV and (3) a “brag sheet” of my accomplishments, research interests, and areas of emphasis. I also made sure to check in one month, two weeks, and (when necessary) days before the deadline to make sure my references were submitted.

The application

Please see this post for tools that constantly organize and streamline my life. I used a few of these tools in new ways during the graduate school process.

  • Google Calendar was used to store all my various deadlines. I also added reminders periodically, especially so that I could “nudge” my reference providers.
  • Dropbox stored all drafts of my personal statements. It gave me peace of mind knowing I could save, edit, and back-up my files on the cloud, anywhere and at all times.
  • XMarks helped me save and sync my many bookmarks. I created folders for each school with links to their admissions requirements, faculty profiles, application portals, etc.
  • LastPass allowed me to save the many, many usernames and passwords I created for each of my applications. (Now, if only there was a centralized application system… but that’s a story for another time.)

Self-care

During this very intense process, it is critical to take care of one’s self! I counteracted the huge amounts of stress hormones in my body with exercise-induced endorphins. I also made sure to see my friends and have a Netflix night a week. These small habits kept me sane throughout a pretty taxing time. Find ways to blow off steam and stay engaged in the real world.


See other posts in this “Applying to Grad School” series!