Acceptable time to eat

I TA early this semester.  For example, I arrived to campus at 6:25 this morning for class (really, 6:25 am).  It’s currently 8:51 am, I’m starving, and debating whether or not to eat my lunch (or second breakfast like a hobbit).  Is it ok? Maybe I’ll just have more coffee

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Life update

Since I haven’t been around a ton lately, I thought I would share a bit of what’s going on in my life right now.


For the past 2 months I have been running an experiment.  I hope to get some preliminary data for when I apply to the NSF GRFP this fall.  I’m in my last week of data collection (YAY!).  There have been a couple of setbacks, but hopefully my data will turn out and I can have it analyzed before the NSF fellowship is due. To be honest, I’m looking forward to not having to be in the lab all day.


I’m lucky to be in a department where they offer a 12 month stipend.  The catch is that you have to teach during the summer.  This summer I TAed a lab for an introductory biology course for majors (or premed students).  Overall, I’ve enjoyed it, but I’m glad I’m finished.  The summer version of this class is accelerated, so at times I was spending a ton of time grading and preparing for lab and recitation, which meant that at times I prioritized teaching over my research.  I’m still working on it, and hopefully by fall semester I’ll have a good schedule.

Side job

Some of you may remember that at the beginning of last year, I was debating whether or not to quit my retail job.   I’ve kept it, but because I have worked a grand total of 3 hours there.  Surprisingly, working a shift at the retail store was really nice.  I spent a few hours outside of the lab (made a few bucks), got to move around, and afterwards I felt great.  I had more energy after working that shift than any other time this summer.  Once my experiment is done, I may try to work a shift every couple of weeks for the change of pace.

Family stuff

So you know how there’s a graduation (and party), holiday, or wedding EVERY weekend during summer?  My summer has been especially busy with these type of events.  I had one sister graduate from high school and one graduate from college in May.  They both had their graduation parties and dinners.  Also, my dad got married recently.  All of these things were fun, but it ate up practically every minute I wasn’t in the lab.

New apartment (and moving)

The boyfriend and I moved to a new apartment recently, which is super exciting!  However, the packing and actual moving of stuff was the opposite of super exciting.  We thought we would try to make this new apartment NOT resemble a college kid’s apartment, so we decided to paint. The wonder folks on HGTV make painting look like a breeze.  Well, they are liars.  It takes forever.  It took an entire weekend for my boyfriend, his parents, and me to paint the apartment.  However it looks really good and I’m glad we did it.  Now if we could just unpack a few more boxes…


I’m going on vacation next week!  The boyfriend and I are going on our first real vacation together to South Carolina.  I’m excited to spend some time away from school.

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Speaking of vacation…

I need some sciency books to read while on vacation.  Any suggestions?

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Here’s to August being better

July sucked.  TAing was intense, my experiment has had some major setbacks, I had events every weekend, and I moved. 

I’m hoping August will be kinder to me than July was.  I hope to finish collecting data for my experiment, I’m going on vacation (YAY), and the new school year starts. 

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Who should you write letters of recommendation to?

So it seems like that time of the year where everyone is beginning to look towards the future and apply to graduate school, medical school, internships, etc.  Recently I have had a couple of students who were in my recitation last semester ask if I would write a letter of recommendation for them.

While I’m flattered that they asked me, my first thought is that they should consider asking a lead instructor of faculty member instead.  I am  just a lowly TA at the bottom of the academic totem pole.  When the both of them contacted me, they said that they asked me over the faculty for the course because I interacted with them more.

The first student, who needs this letter for medical school applications, earned a low B in the class.  Looking at her exam grades, she struggled with the material, but overall did well.  She was a pleasure to have in class, in fact she was a model student.  She arrived on time to recitation, she was prepared for class, and she participated in class and group discussions so I agreed to write her a letter.

The second student, who needs this letter for an internship application, began the semester with a very low grade and by the end of the semester earned a C.  She struggled greatly with the material for the course, but worked very hard.  She frequently came to office hours, would use the textbook (a rarity for undergrads here), and always ask questions in recitation.  Like the first student, she was also a model student who worked hard in class and participated.  I also agreed to write her a letter.

But I can’t help but think: should I have agreed to write those letters?  Am I the right person to write this LoR for their application? Would their applications be more competitive if they had asked their professors for this course instead of me?  Also, these students were not my top grades in my classes, but they were great to have in recitation.  So what’s more important when I am deciding whether or not to write these letters: academic performance or work ethic/personality? In this case, I agreed to write both because of how they behaved in my class.

So if I am asked to write letters what should I do?*  Should I encourage them to ask faculty?  If I think I should write their letter, should I look more seriously into their academic performance (grades)? Or is it ok to write letters for students who aren’t the best performers, but show good motivation and work ethic?

If you write LoR, what do you do?  How do you decide whether or not to write a student a LoR?

*Assuming I have time to write one

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When your research gets put on the backburner

Once again, since my TAing has ramped up for the summer, I am buried in a pile of grading.

I’ve noticed that I’ve started to prioritize my teaching (read: grading) over other things, such as reading papers, figuring out what other experiments I should do, and looking into grants.  As I sit here and look at the pile of papers I should grade and the pile of papers I should read for research, I find myself reaching towards the grading.  I’ve noticed that I tend to put the immediately due (but not necessarily more important) over the important, but due later.  For example, while I know I want to apply to the NSF GRF, and that it’s important, I choose to grade instead.

I know that this habit is not going to result in a productive PhD.  So how do I make my research my priority?  Personally, I think I tend to make choices based on what is due first.  And because research is a long term thing, while teaching things (preparing recitations, reviewing labs, grading, attending meetings and lecture) seem to be due all the time I gravitate towards doing things for teaching.

In the last year, I’ve noticed that I also prioritize what I do first by how long it will take to get done.  I tend to do things that I can finish quickly over things that will take longer.  This may be why I do other things over reading papers.  Right now, I have a TON of papers that I should read, and there are always new papers to read.  So reading papers is a never ending task*, there is no point where I can cross it off of my to do list.  Therefore, when it comes time to decide whether or not I should grade my large, but finite number of papers or to read 1 of what seems like infinity number of papers, I will almost always choose to grade. While this makes me a good TA, it does not make me a good researcher.

So I think I need to somehow redefine how I see my research to do list so it looks like my teaching to do list.  I think I need to give myself short tasks that have a hard deadline.  So maybe instead of thinking that I have to read all of the papers in my backlog, maybe I should change my goal to read just 1 paper?  Possibly, instead of thinking of 1 line of my to do list as “find grants to apply to”, maybe I could change it to “look at one grant”?

I think I will try to create my to do lists in this fashion.  Hopefully I begin to do more research stuff as a result.  Fingers crossed.

Do you do this too?  Do you do things that are due immediately over things that are important?

* I think it should be.  I think you should try to keep up with the literature as best as you can.

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What about Wallace?!

When listening to lectures about the history of biology or evolution, I can’t help feeling sad for Wallace.  He always seems to be completely forgotten or quickly stated as an afterthought.

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Advice when reading anything

This is the best advice I’ve seen when reading a paper (or really anything non-fiction):

“Assume that everything you read is bullshit until the author manages to convince you that it isn’t. If you do not understand something, don’t feel bad – it’s not your fault, it’s the author’s. He didn’t write clearly enough.” (from

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Hurry up and get it done!

As I’m sitting here, on a beautiful sunny Saturday (which is pretty rare here), I am running my experiment and wondering, why am I here?  Not in a big picture, philosophical why am I doing research why am I here, but why am I in the lab on a Saturday when I can do this later?

Then I realize, I prefer to do things one at a time, and that I’m a suck it up and finish it kind of person.

Right now, I’m scheduled to finish my experiment at the end of July/beginning of August.  This involves being in the lab almost every day*.  I realize that I could probably run my experiment during the week or only 6 days a week, leaving a day a week for life (read: laundry and grocery shopping), but I’d much rather just get it finished.  Note, that my experiment doesn’t actually require me to be in every day.

I realize that I totally could burn out at any moment… which is the major drawback to my method.

I see it as a tradeoff, I could hurry up and finish, which would lead me to finish collecting data sooner.  This would then let me analyze it earlier and possibly write it up sooner.  However, I might just go crazy doing it.  If I set up a schedule with regular breaks, it may take me longer to collect data, and therefore take longer to do all of the other stuff, but I might keep my sanity.  Either way it has to get done.

I also apply my hurry up and get it done with other things too, such as grading, doing laundry (because I also let it pile up), and reading.   Maybe I just suck at balancing multiple things at once…

What do you prefer to do?  Do you run full speed on one thing, like me? Or do you pace yourself?

*those days that I’m not in the lab, I’m going to a wedding and moving (note to self: start packing)

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Since discovering Mendelay, I’ve had more motivation to read papers.  At least I did until I started TAing again.  But let’s assume that I’ll still make time to read papers.  When I open up Mendelay to read, I’m not exactly sure what I should be reading. I’m at the end of my first year/beginning of my second year and have a general research topic.  Some days, I read papers on my study species.  Other days I read papers on a concept or idea I want to study. Some days, usually days where my brain feels like mush and I don’t feel like reading, I’ll read a paper on whatever sounds interesting at the moment.

I should probably have a strategy because 1) how on earth can I learn about a topic thoroughly if I don’t read a lot on it and 2) I will eventually need to start studying for candidacy.

But what should my system be?  Should I read by author/lab? By species? By topic?

Do you have a method for getting through the literature?  If so, what is your method?

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