A 5-step guide to passing your comprehensive exams in grad school

Estimated reading time: 22 mins (4349 words)

One of the great joys of grad school is that exams are not just restricted to coursework.

Nope, PhD students get to go through the fun of taking an exam that determines whether they actually get to stay in grad school. Yay!

Since a few of my very close friends in grad school are preparing to go through this cruel, yet inescapable, rite of passage, I’ve decided to write up all the tips I can think of to help them out on their journey.

In my exceedingly finite wisdom, I have conjured up a list of 5-ish steps to passing comprehensive exams in grad school.

Since I just took these a year ago, the (painful) experience is still very much a recent memory, so this seems as good a time as any to pass on the knowledge I have gained to the next batch of students.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m writing about this so dramatically. If you are, you’re probably not taking these exams any time soon. Because if you were… YOU’D BE FREAKING OUT TOO!

One of the things I hate most is when I’m panicking and someone tells me to ‘calm down’

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Or, even worst, when they tell me “there’s nothing to worry about”…

With all due respect, I am perfectly able to decide what is and what is not worth worrying about. As is every other grad student.

And if you’re about to do some exam that’s going to decide whether you do or don’t get to stay in grad school, then you, my friend, have a perfectly valid reason to freak out.

So, to all my fellow grad students about to go through this ordeal:

YOU’RE FREAKING OUT!

I’M FREAKING OUT!

BUT WE WILL GET THROUGH THIS TOGETHER!!!!

You’ll have moments when you feel totally fine and in control of the situation.

You’ll have moments when you don’t feel okay at all.

These moments will come and go, but they are not an accurate reflection of how prepared you are, or your ability to be a good student.

Accept whatever way you feel right now, whether it is good or bad. It will pass.

The most important thing is that you keep going and keep doing whatever is best for you.

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With that pep talk out of the way, I will share with you what I think are the 5 essential steps to successfully completing your comprehensive exams.

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How does hair get its color?

Estimated reading time: 7 mins (1295 words)

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A micrograph of a light and dark hair shaft crossing each other.

 

Have you ever gotten into a debate about someone’s hair color?

“Remember that blonde?”

“Which blonde? You mean, Jessie? Her hair is light brown” 

“No, it’s clearly dark blonde” 

“You need to get your eyes checked, that’s light brown” 

/end scene

Same goes for dark brown to black. And I’m pretty sure I’ve heard people argue that they’re not ‘redheads’ but actually they’re ‘strawberry blonde’.

But how can hair color be so debatable?

Well, it’s because hair color categories are an illusion.

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Small conferences are great for graduate students. Especially, when they’re in Japan.

Estimated reading time: 7 mins (1289 words)

I was at a conference in Kobe, Japan.

And it was AWESOME!

Funny thing is I only found out I was going to this conference about two weeks before it started.

How did that happen? Well, I’m glad you asked…

So, at the moment, I’m in the process of putting together my doctoral committee. Basically, I’m asking a bunch of professors if they would kindly agree to evaluate my work and be the judges at my defense when I finish up this Ph.D.

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100% real genuine footage of a doctoral committee judging a Ph.D. student on the verge of tears.

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How doing outreach can teach you what you have to offer the world

Estimated reading time 6 minutes (1049 words)

Like many other grad students, I’ve been discouraged from doing outreach.

“You should be working on something you can publish”

“It’s noble but it’s not going to help your career”

“You can do that later in your career”

I never understood this attitude. If we’re not communicating our science and educating others,  who are we doing this for?

But unfortunately, a lot of people get pushback from professors when it comes to outreach.

It’s seen as a nice little activity that you do on the side when you have time and add a line to your CV.

But it can be so much more than that. It can change a kid’s life and give them inspiration to do something they would have never considered otherwise.

It can also change your life, as a grad student.

I didn’t personally have much experience with outreach until this last year of graduate school when I taught in a summer camp.  I honestly didn’t expect much from it, besides that it would be fun to talk to some kids.

But after spending a few days with these kids, I can tell you that they did more for me than I could have possibly done for them.

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The amazing scientists from this summer’s Finding Your Roots camp

It was the first time I felt I could make a difference, that I had something to offer. Instead of just sitting locked away in my little ivory tower, I could make these kids laugh, teach them something and inspire them to be the scientists I knew could be.

After this experience, I knew that I wanted to make this a permanent part of my academic life. I didn’t just want to do science, I wanted to share science.

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Next level science camp: teaching kids about their genetics & genealogy

Estimated reading time: 3 mins (610 words)

I’ve watched enough American TV to know that summer camp is a thing in the USA.

I was introduced to it through the classic twin movies: It Takes Two and The Parent Trap.

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These movies have given me the false expectation that you always meet your twin at summer camp, though…

And the wondrous thing about American summer camps is that they don’t just come in one flavor! There’s band camp, sports camp, adventure camp, space camp, science camp, anything-you-can-come-up-with-camp!

And this summer, I got to see kids doing a very special type of science camp – one that was about genetics and genealogy.

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Surprise! Africans are not all the same! (Or why we need diversity in science)

Estimated reading time: 12 mins (2250 words)

Last week, a research article was published on skin color variation within Africa.

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Last week’s article on African skin color in Science

READ IT! It is great, well-written, and has amazing figures! I would actually show you some of those figures if I wasn’t terrified of publishers coming after me for copyright infringement (look, I’m trying to finish a Ph.D., here, so I don’t have time to get sued by journal publishers…).

If you don’t have access to these journals, hit up your nearest scholar and ask them for a copy (you can email me!).

And one of the things I really appreciate in this article is that it’s a study on variation in Africa that actually includes African authors from African institutions.

This research is important. That’s why it was picked up by The New York Times and The Atlantic. These articles are all full of people emphasizing that African diversity is an amazing thing that we need to pay attention to!

Read both of those articles too because they are full of quotes that got me feeling some type of way:

“We knew quite a lot about why people have pale skin if they had European ancestry,” said Nicholas G. Crawford, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the new study. “But there was very little known about why people have dark skin.”New York Times

Few human traits are more variable, more obvious, and more historically divisive than the color of our skin. And yet, for all its social and scientific importance, we know very little about how our genes influence its pigment. What we do know comes almost entirely from studying people of European descent. Ed Yong via The Atlantic

And there you have it, in bold, the reason I ended up doing a Ph.D. in biological anthropology. I wanted to know more about human biological variation, and I specifically wanted to focus on African diversity.

Why is so much of the research on human trait variation focused on Europeans?

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