By Christine A. Waters
My path to graduate school was a mountain, and I was the stone. While many students view this challenge from the perspective of Sisyphus, perpetually rolling their boulders UP the mountain, the momentum with which I left my undergraduate institution flung me over a cliff and off of a ledge. “A rolling stone collects no moss,” is an ancient proverb credited to Publius Syrus, then, of Italy. He was, in fact, a former slave, who by his charisma, wit, and intelligence won his freedom and education. (Today, we refer to the people who create these laconic messages as aphorists.) I’d like to think this particular aphorism encourages me to “keep the ball rolling.” My reasoning for this metaphor, with the mountain and the stone, will become clearer throughout this article, but for undergraduates, uncertain about your future, but/and considering graduate school, I suggest these actions:
TAKE RISKS: Attempt to get research positions or internships during your undergrad. I was an Environmental Hydroscience major at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). During my last two years there, I participated in four Research Experiences for Undergrads (REUs), two consecutive years at my home institution and two summers away from home. When I applied for my first REU, I wanted to get away from El Chuco for a while and to try something new. I didn’t have a defined idea of what I expected, and I didn’t know how to accomplish this, but I did know that I wanted to “gain experience as an undergrad in environmental science”. (This was a good Google Search phrase!) And, because I have never been wicked charming or Stephen Hawking intelligent, any time I’ve applied, beginning with the first REU, I’ve tactically increased my odds by applying for more than one at a time (hint hint). Here is how risk taking, smartly, has boiled down for me:
I participated in four research studies in two years but was rejected for six! Few “successful” people are strangers to rejection. It’s okay. Take risks. Those experiences paid off.
EXPERIMENT: My first undergraduate research experience was at the Sevilleta Long Term Ecological Research facility, in Socorro, New Mexico. While at the Sev (as it is known), I learned many skills that are useful to my graduate research now (collecting water samples, conducting measurements with a multiparameter probe, plotting data in ArcGIS and SigmaPlot Elements software), but the REU also required us to work with other students on their projects while tenured. So, in addition to being exposed to those things particular to the craft of my own choice (geochemistry), I also pulled all-nighters with biologists and learned to “sex” kangaroo rats, for example. (I know you’re giggling now, but to “sex” a kangaroo rat is a familiar way of saying that I learned to identify its gender.) I followed pogo ants in the desert, got peed on by desert turtles in a turtle mobility study, aided in a prairie dog reintroduction program, and facilitated in setting up insect traps at burn plots to see how controlled burns affect wildlife diversity at the refuge. I was introduced to many topics, learned many new things, and made friends and acquaintances that I maintain to this day. When writing about this research to the National Science Foundation (NSF), I talk about the American Geophysical Union (AGU) poster that resulted from my own research and the master’s thesis my samples supported. But when I think about this particular experience, what I remember most are these people and the days and nights I spent working on these other projects. I also hallmark this experience as where I began to want to be a scientist. The exposure I received was just enough for me to finally settle into a discipline. Sometimes, it’s hard to commit to formal wear without trying a few dresses on first.
WORK HARD AND INVEST IN YOUR SUCCESS: My subsequent REUs resulted in much reward, and this is where my metaphor of a boulder rolling downhill (as opposed to me forever pushing one uphill) makes the most sense. I don’t want to bore readers with a previous research essay, but you’re welcome to search me out to ask more about each one of these experiences! In the NSF Pathways to Geosciences Program at UTEP (that I participated in for the two years between summer REUs), I had the opportunity to share my research at the local colloquiums and assist in almost monthly outreach with the local K-12 students. (I love interacting with the kiddie scientists!) I presented at the Students for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans Research Expo. This hard work acted as a gateway through which I was better armed to apply for REUs the summer following my Sevilleta summer. I submit apps to REUs again and ended up going to work for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) as a Summer Student Fellow. There, I was given a travel award to attend the AGU Fall Meeting 2009, to present my results as first author in a poster. Later, I presented a second poster as first author at the Goldschmidt Conference 2010 in Knoxville, TN. The demand for products, given my full-time undergraduate status, my two part-time jobs, and preparation for conferences left me in this frame of mind like a “ball was rolling”… but it was good stress and it was rolling in the direction of success. Graduate school by my last year only seemed like a natural investment – something that would continue to expand my mind, continue to fuel my ability to meet with individuals who piqued my curiosity about the world we live in, that facilitated my travel to new places, and that harnessed my energy for something productive, creative, and helpful.
COMMIT TO HELPING OTHERS ON YOUR JOURNEY: This might be lumped in with, “build a support network,” though there is more to it than that. I’m going to throw to the air that “committing to helping others” is even more important than simply having a support network, but I’m not going to make an argument. You’ve read my article. I’ll leave you with this: Writing this has been cathartic, for me, in that my path to graduate school was rather unplanned. I wanted to vent about it, but after creating this for you, I find that I, inadvertently, did a good job of preparing myself. What I suggest to undergrads thinking about grad school is to utilize the knowledge I’ve presented here to your advantage. Continue to arm yourself with expertise. Continue to build your professional networks. Empower Yourself, consciously, and through it all, do it with humor, care, and a whole lot of patience! Much Aloha, and break a leg!
For more information about:
WHOI Summer Student Fellowship: https://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=36375
Sevilleta REU: http://sev.lternet.edu/REU
To find other NSF REUs: http://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.cfm
Christine A. Waters is a veteran of the United States Army and a third-year graduate student in the Marine Geology section of the Geology and Geophysics Department. She is working with, advisor, Dr. Henrieta Dulaiova, on submarine groundwater discharges off the Kona Coast of Hawaii.