Get by with a little help

Advice from students for students

Do you know what you need?

The term “mentor” does not mean one thing to all people. Really how can it? As graduate students we have a number of plates spinning above our heads. We all have needs that range from the personal/emotional to the professional. I find it highly unlikely that a single mentor, no matter how supportive and amazing, can or should be expected to cover each and every one of those needs.

As suggested in a recent email from the President of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity 

So instead of talking about “mentoring” and hoping that everyone means the same thing (when we know we don’t), let’s shift our thinking and our language to focus on two questions: 1) What do I need? and 2) How can I get my needs met?

Possible needs (edited from the list for faculty):

  • Professional Development: project management, attainment of certifications for future employment, etc… Possible sources: CETL, Grad Pathways
  • Emotional Support: dealing with experiments that don’t work, the qualifying exams, and figuring out what to do next is stressful! Possible sources: your fellow neurograds and postdocs
  • Community: UCD and Davis itself has a number of groups that would love to include you. Possible sources: student groups on campus, Rocknasium.
  • Accountability: with projects that span months, even years it can be easy to get lost in the forest. Being accountable can help you progress. Possible sources: PI and quals/dissertation committee.

This is in no way an exhaustive list. What other needs are the list missing?

Elements of training

Somewhere else on the internet (aka Drugmonkey’s blog) there is an interesting discussion about how the editing process qualifies as “training”.

Bill Watterson

Exposure to your PIs grant applications (and really any of their writing drafts he or she is willing to share) and passing on early, clunky drafts is important. Whether you are struggling with the writing process or not I recommend reading the post and its many comments here: Exposure IS training. A crucial comment is copied below:

The reason the back-and-forth is important is only partially based on the notion that the PI is a better writer. More important is that they are a different writer who didn’t write the original text. Anonymous seems to think that the only value to having someone else edit their writing is if they are a better writer. This is completely nutso. If it were true, then a whole [bleep] of professional editors in the publishing business would have no jobs.

Also, the back-and-forth isn’t just about making the writing better. It’s about trying out different things: ways to present data, analyze it, put it into context, structure the flow of the argument, etc. It’s not just about words and sentences, although it is about that, too. This kind of playing around with a manuscript is very difficult for a single person to do, and much easier as a back-and-forth.

— Comradde PhysioProffe

How to pick a graduate advisor


Ben Barres gives advice on how to pick a graduate advisor. He strongly suggests picking an advisor who is not only a good scientist, but also a good mentor. In this talk, he describes a mentor’s qualities and attributes, and gives suggestions on how to identify an advisor who will be a good mentor.

This is a great video and advice–sorry if it comes a little late.

Graduate Training: What should I be doing?

I often wondered in the first couple years of graduate school; what skills should I be working on?  I found this video recently and was surprised at its clarity.  I found it helpful, straightforward and well, short (12 min).  

Parker suggests that graduate training could be improved if science learned a lesson from athletics where the best coaches emphasize skill development, not winning (or, in the case of science, publishing a high profile paper), during training. Parker goes on to outline eight key skills students should acquire during their graduate training.


At least you’re having a better day in lab than Oliver Sacks

oliver_sacksIn lab, sometimes the going gets rough. And for some projects, the going is, was, and ever shall be, rough. If you relate to such feelings of defeat, take heart, for you are not alone. For instance, the beloved doctor and storyteller Oliver Sacks once lost nine months worth of lab notes in one hurried moment. Nine months of notes. He shortly followed this up by losing the accompanying nine months worth of tissue specimens. Sacks lived to tell the sad tale of his brief lab research career to Robert Krulwich of Radiolab.

In the short interview posted below, Sacks tells of how his relegation to a nursing home as punishment for his lab crimes soon set him on his way to becoming the Dr. Sacks we know today. This new trajectory was not without distress, either, as Sacks found himself disregarded by fellow clinicians and scientists who disdained his penchant for stories over quantitative description, a battle that ignited after the publication of his 1973 book Awakenings.

If you have any misery, and it needs company, take a listen as Dr. Sacks spins research heartbreak into pure gold.

Happy Birthday, Good Dr. Sacks

So you want to teach

So you want to teach at a college or university.

How many of them are on facebook and reddit?

The view from your future

Did you know that Teaching Statements are often a part of applications for professorships? Up until recently I did not. Now that I am writing them, I wish I had thought about them sooner.

In a teaching statement you provide the search committee insight into your teaching principles and evidence that you know how to implement them in the lecture hall. The best time to start drafting these principles is WHILE you are a teaching assistant, not months or years afterwards.

So if you stumble upon a moment of pedagogical brilliance make note when it happens! Heck, I’m sure it may be helpful to keep a record of what didn’t work too.

Learning from your missteps

As grad students we are tasked to assimilate into our field at lightening speed. We take in the literature to learn the history of and the current state of our field, with the goal that we learn how to tell the difference between the good and the dubious. We learn research techniques to acquire the tools we need to ask new, exciting* questions.

But how do we come up with these questions? This isn’t trivial since these questions are the meat and potatoes of your Quals2 proposal, your grant proposals, your publication, your dissertations, and your career**.

It means you are pushing yourselfThe Opinion piece published today in PNAS reminded me of my favorite piece of advice that makes my tummy hurt. I’ve heard it said in many ways but the point is that you need to learn to think that sometimes REJECTION can be GOOD. Obviously, you can’t be awarded grants/prizes/accolades if you don’t apply. On top of that, as a student you are standing at the edges of your knowledge and of human knowledge. Your dissertation pushes that border further. I’d like to think that building knowledge is akin to building muscle. Much like a rejection, a hard workout will leave your sore and hurting. But those microtears lead to a growth response that strengthens the muscle and helps it withstand future damage.

The second point is highlighted in my favorite paragraph from the article.

It may feel uneasy to count on the unplanned, and risky to pursue remote associations, but this is calculated risk. When I was discussing these ideas with Kenneth Arrow, he stated: “If you are not wrong two-thirds of your time, you are not doing very well.” He added, “if you are wrong you had better find out yourself, not only because it is more pleasant, but also because it helps you to learn.” Indeed, solid scientific skills are needed to weed out right from wrong. However, our current teaching and routines are focused almost exclusively on those skills, whereas the best science tends to come from a balanced mix of rationality and adventurous association. Why is half of that mix so hidden? If we know unexpected associations are important, and we know how they can be facilitated, why not act accordingly?

Read the whole article here: Scheffer, M (2014) The forgotten half of scientific thinking. PNAS. 111(17) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1404649111

TL;DR train your ego to get stronger by taking a chance. Allow yourself to be wrong*** — it is a great way to eventually be right.

*ideally exciting to the field and you, since you will spend serious time and energy on it.

** yuck, that sounds dramatic.

*** especially in front of your friends/cohort/labmates, even your PI

Effectively manage your writing projects

Are you writing or thinking of writing a quals proposal, grant, manuscript, or dissertation? Do you know when or how to start? Maybe you’ve done some large writing projects but think there could be a better way to go about it.

If that is the case attend the “How To Effectively Manage a Large Writing Project” workshop! This upcoming workshop is spot-on for 2nd and 3rd years and great for everyone else. I attended it earlier this year and wished I had heard it sooner. If you don’t have an experiment scheduled for that time, I think it will be an hour well-spent.

Official description: Managing a large writing project such as a thesis or dissertation involves planning, organization, and practice! Come to this workshop to gain a better understanding of how to set your project up for success without becoming overwhelmed or bogged-down by its complexity! No registration necessary.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
4:40-6:00pm | 21 Olson

Instructor: Sarah Perrault, Ph.D., University Writing Program

Sponsored by University Writing Program: Writing Across the Curriculum Program and Grad Pathways.


“Thinking Outside the Lab,” a webinar on non-research careers

I’m a firm believer that a PhD in Neuroscience opens many doors in your life, even secret doors you never knew existed.  However, while navigating the academic track is straightforward, the “alternative” careers in science are much more disorienting.  We all know the keys to success on the academic track — publications, lab skills, and a good network.  But how can you use your scientific skills off the tenure-track?  How do you identify, get on, and succeed in those career paths?

AAAS saves the day by hosting: “Thinking Outside the Lab,” a webinar on non-research careers (April 8th @ 1PM).  Behold, an introduction to “leaving the bench” for those who refuse to “leave science”.

Panelists include:

  • Marcia McNutt, Science Editor-in-Chief
  • Lori Conlan, Director for the NIH Office of Postdoctoral Studies
  • Anish Goel, former AAAS S&T Policy Fellow and Director of Market Analysis and Geopolitical Affairs at Boeing

Straight from the website:

  • Wondering where can a Ph.D. take you today? Is there life beyond the bench? Absolutely! There are now more non-research jobs for STEM professionals than ever before—in private industry, public policy, government, nonprofit, journalism, grants management, analytics, and a host of emerging career paths.
  • Learn what mix of skills, experience and preparation you need to leap from the lab into a satisfying non-research career.
  • Take this opportunity to learn firsthand from accomplished Ph.D.s who have successfully navigated a career outside of the research realm. They’ll talk about their own experiences, examine a range of career options open to STEM professionals across different sectors, and discuss the analytic, communication and teamworking skills needed for these kinds of roles.

Find out more about the panelists here.  Tweet your questions to #AAASWebinar.  If you can’t make the webinar, watch it afterward when it gets posted to their archive.

Then, once your mind is blown by all the science careers that are out there, head over to  This website is something I highly recommend to every scientist I know. You go through a survey answering questions about your interests, skills, and values. They compare those answers to those of scientists in all sorts of fields who enjoy their jobs. Then, they show you what career paths are a best match for you. Bonus that they point you to all sorts of resources (books, blogs, websites) so you can get a sense of what it’s like to work in that field, how to prepare for those types of jobs, etc. It’s an amazing starting point for anyone wondering what people can do with a (neuro)science PhD.

Happy career-hunting!


Online Mock Interviews with Aggie Job Link

Online Mock Interviews with Aggie Job Link

The Internship and Career Center at UC Davis recently added a feature to their web offerings where you can do a “mock interview” from your home computer whenever you are available (questions are prerecorded).  Interview types include Academic Positions, and you can either watch your recordings or get feedback from someone at the ICC following the interview.

To access, log in to the Aggie Job Link and from the “Resources” menu select “Mock Interviews.”

I haven’t tried it, but it seems like it could be useful!