Tag Archives: grad school

Useful things: free-writing on your research project or dissertation

tangle

Author: Brianna

I have two similarly slender books on my desk that are both virtually guaranteed to give me a little motivation boost on any given day: How to Write a Lot, by Paul Silvia, and Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, by Joan Bolker. These books are concise and have plenty of concrete advice that can actually get you writing more, so they’re worth a read.

A major decree from both books is that you must write, at least a little, every (work)day.

I haven’t written much over the last year or two (not just on this blog!), mainly because I’ve been amassing a pile of dissertation data that’s involved many museum trips, measuring hundreds of fossils, lots of pictures, more CT scans than you should shake a stick at, and several memorable weeks collecting gait data on the friendly tapirs at our local zoo.

A few weeks ago, as I tried to gather my thoughts and my PowerPoint slides before heading to the ICVM meeting, I was browsing through the Bolker book when I came across her suggestion to begin each day with ten minutes of free-writing. This can take the form of whiny stream-of-consciousness (“I don’t have any ideas. Why do I never have any ideas…?”), posing a series of questions to yourself (about the project in general, or a particular area you’re stuck on), exploring your thoughts and line of reasoning for something, or even just writing out sentences/paragraphs that might go into a paper.

I’m quite familiar with the creative-writing practices of beginning with free-writing, or shitty first drafts (link is to a PDF file), or starting the day with morning pages. I know it’s useful in that context; I spent a year in an intensive creative writing course at the University of Oregon where at one point we were turning in new short stories every couple weeks, and the only option was to write your tired little fingers off. Also, the license to whine or navel-gaze as part of the free-writing is useful for a fairly high-strung person like me so I can get the cluttered, gnawing thoughts out of my head and onto the page.

But for my research?

Once I thought about it, though, it makes a lot of sense. A recurring concept in books like these, whether about creative writing or scientific writing, is that we should write so that we can think—not think so that we can write.

After spending so much time collecting, processing, and analyzing data, I was feeling a distinct lack of big-picture thinking about the broader arc of my dissertation. Also, I’m nearing my favorite time: paper-writing time. One or two of my dissertation projects are very nearly ready to write up as papers, but that means I need to be in a writing frame of mind again!

Enter dissertation free-writing. Most resources on free-writing (/shitty first drafts/morning pages) recommend using a notebook and pen, but I’m lazy and I like things I can search or copy/paste, so I made a Word document. Do whatever works for you.

Let me tell you, it was the best idea I’ve had in awhile.

I started with all the questions I have, or want to answer, or am trying to answer. I wrote out ideas about how I am doing that, and how I might do that in the future. I noted down snags and doubts and areas where I feel like my logic or argument is fuzzy. I brought up papers I’ve read (or need to read) that relate to certain areas. I pondered follow-up projects. I sketched out some plans for my ICVM talk. I made a list of the last bits of data I need to get before writing up a paper. I sketched out the main ideas of each of the next few papers I’ll write. I whined (a little). I spent some time thinking about the Big Ideas that get me excited as a scientist, and how I might pursue those in the long run.

Naturally my overall thinking has been boosted by feedback and conversations at this conference, but even before I got here, I began to feel a nice sense of clarity – like I could actually wrap my brain around the project again instead of being lost in the weeds.

Time will tell how much this pays off in terms of actual writing productivity. I’ve begun writing snippets of actual…well, writing….in my free-write document, the kinds of sentences that might go into a paper. I tend to think pretty hierarchically, so before long I’ll begin working from an actual outline for these manuscripts. We’ll see how much of the material generated in these sessions translates to the draft itself, but I am already convinced of the utility of daily(ish) free-writing to boost productivity on a specific research project.

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Interesting ways we can talk ourselves into productivity

Author: Brianna

This morning I’m working in pajamas, waiting for the utility company folks to send a person to look at the gas meter or whatever it is that they have to do that requires you to be home for a 4-hour window. The subject of my work is a manuscript that I’m rather fond of, one that I and my coauthors are aiming to get submitted next week.

But you know how the end of writing a paper goes: last 2% of the paper, what feels like 50% of the total work.

 

And yet, yesterday I wound up putting in quite a bit of revision and tidying. All this shortly after I’d pretty much written the afternoon off, because I was sleepy and we had lab meeting focused on a really challenging paper that more or less fried my brain for more complicated thinking. So what got me going?

A little task on my Google Calendar that said “Add references for R packages to PC horses paper.”

Because, hey, adding references for R packages is pretty easy and doesn’t require a lot of effort! And my time-tracking app was showing me that I wasn’t putting on much of a good show yesterday. (This is why I have one: to keep me honest.) So I decided I’d rack up a few more points minutes with an easy task.

Well, you know where the rest of this story goes. I added a short paragraph citing the R packages after tracking them all down and adding them to Zotero. I corrected some numbers on the manuscript that had changed a bit when I fixed a mistake in the code. I wrote a new caption for a figure that had changed considerably and then changed the main paper text to reflect the new figure. I found a couple places to improve our phrasing. Then I wandered over to the Discussion section that needed a little more love and found myself revising, and then adding new text…

All that from a Very Easy Item on a to-do list that I happened to see when I was checking my calendar.

I’m not sure what the unsolicited suggestion is here. Perhaps it is: keep in mind what small fiddly tasks you might be able to do as a way to ease into more challenging tasks on the same project.

Little things: small habits that help my science focus and productivity

Author: Brianna

Here’s another old post that was initially drafted some months ago. More thinking about work habits.


Focus is a fickle creature sometimes. Getting consistent, high-quality work done without burning out (or wasting too much time trying to optimize my ability to get that work done) is a challenge — and finding the right balance of routine and change is important, too.

As I switched from “work mode” to “browse the internet for 10 minutes before I meet my friends for lunch mode,” I did a couple things that made the shift more clean mentally. Then I decided I would share with you some of these little things I do, mostly without thinking about them, to help me work when I am working and relax when I am relaxing.

At work, I listen to music when I am working. When I start doing something else (email, chatting to friends who drop by, reading blog posts, tweeting) the music goes off.

After reading this Dynamic Ecology post about work hours in science, I started tracking my time. I do it in a very loose way, tracking only academic-related things (different science projects, email, fun science/academia reading, paper reading, etc) and not any other life activities. I use a free timer for Android called TimeSheet; it’s simple and has nice features. It’s been enlightening seeing how much work I am truly doing during the day. Knowing that it’s running reminds me to stay on task or read just one more paper even though I’m a bit bored. Also interesting: seeing how the peaks and troughs smooth out to a quite respectable average.

If I’m stuck in a procrastination loop or just really struggling with what I’m working on, I reset by going for a walk outside and often by making a cup of tea before I sit back down to the work at hand. Smaller version: close all programs and close my laptop, get up, stretch, sit back down and begin again.

I change my level of planning detail on a pretty regular basis. Right now, my outline for the week is very loose and vague (e.g., today’s list shows work on a phylogeny project in morning, lunch + walk, work on the postcrania project all afternoon plus some dissertation specimen planning, a Skype call, and a library book return task). You’ll notice that those aren’t very accomplishment-focused, other than returning the library book. Other times I work best if I map out very specific tasks to specific times of day. Other times I am motivated by setting discrete tasks and saying I’m done with work for the day when I am done with them. No one thing ever seems to work for me forever, so I’ve learned to just roll with whatever motivates me most at the time.

I use Chrome Nanny to block tempting websites like Twitter during specific times of day. Usually just in the morning; by afternoon, I tend to be in a working groove and capable of discipline.

On days when my focus seems totally shattered, I’ll do the “mental reboot” I mentioned earlier (walk, tea, or shut laptop) and then work in painfully tiny timed increments. When I’m really having a rough time, I start with 15 minutes. (You can type into Google, “Set timer for 15 minutes.” Magic.) I can do whatever I want after the 15 minutes, but for those 15 minutes I am not allowed to do anything but work. No bathroom break, no tea, no just-check-the-email-for-a-second. This bite-sized goal helps me work back up to more usual 50-minute chunks of focused work with short breaks in between.

If I am working on something and have distracting thoughts – about other research projects, about something I just remembered I need to do later, about a really great name for a cat, whatever – I write it down on scrap paper and leave it for after my work session.

Posts I have found useful that are about getting into and going to grad school

Author: Brianna

I had excellent mentoring as an undergraduate. Among the many wonderful things about being in the HopkinsDavis lab was their attention, when the time came, to giving us good and detailed advice throughout the graduate school application/admissions process. Potential labs to apply to, yes you really do need to apply for that NSF GRFP (thanks Sam!), feedback on essay structure, sympathy + a kick of motivation when all the deadlines collided, a sounding board for the Actual Decision About Where To Go For Grad School needed to be made, and more.

Anyway, there’s a new crop of undergrads at the UO pondering grad school, and I promised to write up a collection of blog posts I’d found useful. They’re mostly focused on Biology-type or at least science programs, because that’s what I do. I post the list and my comments here in hopes that it may be useful to other readers too! Feel free to add your own suggestions, particularly more recent posts, in the comments.

Preparation/Misc

Dynamic Ecology (a great blog to read in general!) with some thoughts on what to do before and while applying to graduate school.

Clear and concise advice on the whole thing (with a math/comp sci focus) from Matt Might, including book recommendations, what he looks for in grad students, what to do if you’re rejected, and lots more. Actually, his many posts on grad school/research/academia are well worth taking some time to read as a current or future grad student; you could start with the ‘related posts’ down at the bottom of that one.

Contacting professors

Writing to me” (about graduate school) from Female Science Professor. Discussion of levels of quality, and her likelihood of responding, from form letter to very well-considered.

Advice on choosing and applying, including emphasis on finding a potential advisor, in geology. From Mountain Beltway. (Listen to his advice about file-naming for your CV.)

More specific advice on contacting potential advisors, including some direct examples of emails, from Neurotypical?.

My general advice: be polite (use Dr. or Professor in the salutation, check that you haven’t left any copy/paste errors if you’re reusing parts of an email, don’t go on for paragraphs, show that you’ve done your homework), ask questions, definitely contact current students, try as hard as you can to actually meet professors of interest before applying to work with them, ask friends and colleagues for labs they know of that might be a good fit, and Google is your friend for finding potential labs you might not have otherwise heard of.

Applications

My grad school application essay” from Female Science Professor, including rules on not talking about how you have wanted to do X since you were 5 years old. And a really amusing shot at the Platonic ideal of a bad applications essay.

Things you should do and not do in your personal statement, from Prof-Like Substance.

Excellent advice on asking for letters of recommendation from Arthropod Ecology. (You know it’s a good post if I’m actually linking to a website THAT USES PICTURES OF SPIDERS IN ITS HEADER.)

Another note from me: start early. Submitting things at the last minute = mistakes, and almost certainly means you haven’t had enough people read and give thorough feedback on your application materials. Having good, critical editing is invaluable for the personal statement and research essays. Ask research mentors! Ask current grad students! This can be tough if you’re still taking classes, so plan ahead. (You will probably still end up scrambling at the last minute. If you do, try to take the brunt of the suffering yourself; don’t, for example, ask for a letter of rec with 3 days’ notice.)

Interviews

Good questions to ask current (biomedical) grad students.

It’s not an interview,” pay attention to cost of living, and other advice on grad school interviews from Not the Lab.

If you’re wondering what to wear (which I certainly did), I’d say it’s about comparable to what grad students wear at conferences. Which doesn’t solve the problem if you haven’t been to conferences. Happily advice on conference-wear for my general area of science is much easier to find than on interview-wear. In short, something you’re comfortable in, and that is less casual than jeans but more casual than a suit, is probably fine (though I saw both jeans and suits when I interviewed). Be prepared for weather: cold places are cold, especially during interview season. When I interviewed at Harvard we got ~3ft of snow overnight and it took extra days to get home. Fun! If you want more detailed recommendations than that, here are a few more takes on the idea (mostly aimed at women): How to dress for a conference like a fashionable lady scientist, Women’s attire at AGU (geology meeting!), and a beautifully bitter/rebellious/uplifting “What can I wear to this conference?” poem from the kickass Meaghan at Mary Anning’s Revenge.

Choosing a program

Dr. Isis on two really important features to ponder: funding and placement.

Brief advice on several questions about choosing a program, from advisor choice to geographic preference to teaching opportunities, from Sociobiology.

Note that there are many differing opinions on going for a Masters degree before jumping into a PhD program. For example, this Dynamic Ecology post on choosing a program argues why doing a Masters can be a very good idea (and has other good advice besides). For what it’s worth, both halves of Fossilosophy came out of the same undergrad lab, and one of us is doing a MS first while the other went straight to PhD. We are both happy with our respective choices.

I will note that making the final decision was really tough for me. I think I could have been quite happy and successful in any of the three graduate programs that accepted me; in some ways that made the choice easier because it was probably hard to truly screw it up, but in other ways it made the choice very difficult indeed. Talk to people about it — I had many discussions with my undergrad advisors, my friends and labmates, and my family while mulling the choices over. There are many variables to consider and it’s a deeply personal decision. Don’t forget that, if you have more questions at this stage, you can still be in contact with your potential advisor and/or labmates to ask about more things you want to know.

That seems like a sufficient amount of material for now. Happy reading!

Dealing with the first year of grad school, Part 1: the general sense

Author: Brianna

It occurs to me, as I sit in a cozy chair in a sunny lounge overlooking some pleasantly evergreen trees, that I am currently ‘dealing’ with graduate school. As in, things are going pretty well. I’ve published a paper, submitted another, drafted a couple more, given some presentations, taken some classes, made good friends, found a good first-year project. I haven’t written much lately, in part because I am not always sure what I (we) want this blog to be. Also, blogging is not always high on the priority list.

But I think this blog can be a place for advice. I like giving advice, but I am also “just” a first-year graduate student. (This is why we have an “Unsolicited Advice” category.) I still have some sensible ideas about getting work done, though. At the very least I have my own experience working my way through this first year and ostensibly the years after that. I think that might be a useful and/or interesting thing to people. Especially if you’re, say, a senior-ish undergrad looking to go to grad school. Or a first year grad. Something like that.

So this is the first in a several-part series, which I’ve just now decided will be a loosely organized collection detailing exactly what you’d think from the title: how I am dealing with the first year of graduate school.

For the first post, here’s some things I do to keep myself healthy and relatively happy and chugging along. Maybe in the next one I’ll go into some specifics of the first year, like learning to use a bike to commute (even in a terrifying place like Cambridge/Boston!) and being scared of meetings with your adviser.

I have been spending a lot of time around my fellow first-year grads, or G1s as the parlance here goes. Turns out they are a bunch of brilliant, kind, interesting and interested people. Our new-grad seminar, where we meet professors or work on professional development and do lots of talking, is a highlight every week. As a cohort we’ve been tight-knit socially but also academically, for lack of a better word – there are always several people willing to proofread a paper or grant application, give feedback on a presentation, or sit in the conference room eating lunch while you sketch out your lab meeting talk on the whiteboard. You can’t force cohesion, but you can seek out this contact. The first year is easier when you have some buddies to panic with you. (Same goes for the rest of the grad students in the department, of course. But I think making strong connections with your cohort is important, if you can.)

I have been paying close attention to what works for me and what doesn’t. The things that work for me have fluctuated a lot over the 8 months or so I’ve been here so far, which surprised me quite a bit. I talked about this more in the post on flux, but I’m still surprised just how adaptable I’ve needed to be. I need to remember that when I’m stagnating, I should probably go for a walk or go work somewhere else, like I did just a bit ago by relocating to this lounge. When the usual trick of goal-setting and bouncing ideas around really wasn’t helping me get out of a motivation slump, I accepted it eventually. I slept in a lot (for me, around 9 or 10am). I worked in coffee shops to enjoy the anonymous rumble of cheery conversation flowing around me. I read a lot of non-science books. I went from occasionally doing a few hours of work on weekends to never working weekends. You know what? The world didn’t end. I kept up with my classwork, and I made a little progress on my research each week even if it wasn’t mind-blowing giant steps. And then the sun came out, and it stopped snowing (mostly), and gradually I walked myself back up the hill to the place where I once again get excited by all the things I want to do.

But at the time, it felt a little like everything was ruined forever. It’s okay to feel like that.

When I’m getting overwhelmed by the short-term deadlines, I take a deep breath and remember the long timeline of this PhD. It’s oddly comforting that just about everyone in the program seems to say they didn’t get much of anything directly “useful” (i.e., that went into their dissertations) until their second or sometimes third year. This lets me be content with indirect usefulness.

When I’m getting overwhelmed by the long timeline of this PhD, I take a deep breath and focus on the short-term deadlines.

I lift a lot of weights. It’s satisfying, it makes you ready for bed at the end of the day, and it’s a good chance to chat with a friend if you talk one of them into being your lifting buddy. Also it is really good for you. If I had to pick one thing that helped me pull through the end-of-winter slump, it is starting up with a regular lifting schedule again. (Okay, two things: sleep too.)

I make a conscious effort to stop my stress, or at least mellow it, about things I can’t control.

I don’t go for as many walks as I should, but whenever I do it makes a world of difference to my mental state. I come back calmer, happier, and clearer of mind. Bonus points if you spend some time on your walk coming up with things to be grateful about. I usually start with the healthy legs that are obligingly carrying me around, particularly since I’ve spent enough time in the past with a broken ankle to know a taste of the alternatives.

I try to focus on the parts of my research that I love (planning, data analysis usually, writing, exciting projects) and be a grownup and just matter-of-factly accomplish the parts that I love less (some types of data collection, cleaning up mistakes in data, doing a bunch of revisions after reviews, less exciting projects). Same goes for life: more enjoying things like cooking or rock climbing or thinking about the power tools I’m going to get this fall, less procrastinating on things like taxes or cleaning the bathroom. Just do it and move on.

I go to as many job seminars, departmental seminars, and dissertation defenses as I have the time and energy for. Sometimes I have other priorities or I can’t bear the thought of sitting in a dim room for an hour and a half. Those times I generally don’t feel guilty about.

Good food is important! We get a CSA (community supported agriculture) box with fresh fruit and veggies in it every week, which is nice when you learn to cook new delicious things and annoying when it’s the fifth straight week of way too many dandelion greens.  It helps that I like to cook. It’s easier when you live in a house with roommates who like to cook, too; we all go through cycles where sometimes you’re cooking giant meals all the time and sometimes you have no desire or available time to cook. It’s nice to have hot meals even on evenings when you come home hungry and grouchy at 8pm. I suppose my advice here is to get good roommates! Failing that, learn to make some simple, fairly healthy things that you like to eat. Make them in quantities and freeze some for the busy times.

That’s enough for now. The SVP abstract deadline is coming up, and I have things to finish!

What we are thinking about lately: Bayesian vs. frequentist approaches, R coding, and reading all the things

Authors: Brianna and Kelsey

What are we up to lately at Fossilosophy? Good question. Here’s what was on our minds last week.

Reading Habits

Guys, there are not very many things as satisfying as going on a paper-downloading spree for something related to your research. There is something to be said for deciding what you need to know, flailing around up to your eyeballs in the literature for awhile, and pulling something coherent out of the mess. Lately Brianna has done this for a few different areas, including the painfully general “(evolutionary) locomotor biomechanics and skeleton stuff!” and a much more specific hunt for statistical quirks in using discriminant analysis to classify fossils. Now, to read and/or skim those ~70 papers…

Kelsey, on the other hand, is probably printing about ten papers per week, and greatly enjoying that every single one of them is in color.

Data Analysis in R

Whenever it comes time to do some data analysis in R, you generally have three situations: 1) You have no idea at all where to begin. Time to start asking books, friends, and the internet, 2) You know all the things you want to do but don’t have all the proper tools, or 3) You know what you want to do and are perfectly capable of writing efficient, elegant code to do so.
If you answered situation 3, that’s very nice. (We haven’t run into that very often yet.) Situation1 happens more often than we would like to admit, but right now we have been thinking about situation 2. You can take one of two general approaches: using the tools you have to get the job done, and teaching yourself new tools. The first choice means doing many things stuff manually, repeating lots of code, resorting to programs like JMP for bits and pieces because it’s so much faster, and just doing things in whatever way you can to get the job done. Sometimes this is what you need, especially if you’re crunched for time because of a deadline. It’s the penny-wise and pound-foolish approach, if you will.

Lately the ladies of Fossilosophy have been aiming for the seond approach, where you go teach yourself the tools you need to do things the right way. It takes way longer and it’s frustrating, but it also builds character (and coding skills). Three cheers for doing things the hard, but proper, way.

Kelsey likes to think of coding as a set of nested dolls or a machine where every part has to be hand-made. Every “gear” is tested as you go, which generally cuts down on debugging later on. The overall operation (say, the regression part of a regression analysis) may be the very last bit of surrounding code you add, after all the parts are moving.

Also, we are fond of giving objects amusing names. This will help you remember all the variables and make readers of your shiny published code smile.

If anyone is interested in a very friendly, straightforward introduction to R book, we liked Getting Started with R: An introduction for biologists, by Andrew Beckerman and Owen Petchey. It is written with great clarity, has good examples to work through, and has just enough tongue-in-cheek humor to make the reading fun.

Bayesian vs. frequentist approaches

It’s a giant can of worms. Make that wormholes…a can of wormholes that, once opened, can send you huddling up under the table faster than trying to wrap your head around what exactly a genus or species is. Though Brianna has enough statistical background to understand the broad ideas behind what’s going on in the Bayesian/frequentist/pragmatist arguments, the whole debate is a little overwhelming and difficult to wrap her head around. (Latest round of mental crisis sparked by an older Oikos post on the matter. Good links and comment section there, too.)

More on this later, after we straighten out our thoughts a little more.

Other fleeting things occupying our attention: how awesome flow charts are, how difficult it is to estimate how long some academic/research task will take to complete, and how great it is being able to bounce ideas off of fellow grad students.

Thoughts on being oriented

Author: Brianna

I’ve experienced a week full of orientation in many forms. Learning a new city, for one, and acquiring everything that comes with it: bike, beds, couches, kitchen supplies, rugs, tables, soap. Much browsing of Craigslist, though tomorrow our strategy is to drive around Allston (a primarily undergrad housing area) for “Allston Christmas,” where everyone leaves their unwanted stuff out on the curb. Fear of bedbugs precludes acquiring any soft furniture there, but we still need bookshelves and dressers.

We joined a brand-new climbing gym, BKB Somerville, which is absolutely gorgeous. The walls are light wood panels, they feature grafitti and metal art from local artists, and it’s huge. They also have some really nice work spaces with a variety of features – couches, standing desks, regular desks, obligatory pullup bars. My hands are sore thanks to being out of climbing shape, but at this rate, that will change pretty quickly.

Two days in a row I was oriented to graduate school at Harvard, first for all Graduate School of Arts and Sciences students and the next day for my department. At the broad orientation we were encouraged to both fall in love with Harvard and find love while at Harvard. This was a little odd, though I agree that having a “real life” is important during graduate school and that may include romantic relationships. The emphasis just felt strange. I also learned a good deal of useful things (including that Insomnia Cookies are possibly the best cookies on the planet). I received a nice red folder full of information about resources, and social events, and where to eat nearby, and the like.

Departmental orientation was low-key and friendly. My department is fairly small and I think I’ll like that. We learned even more useful things there, getting down to the nuts and bolts of funding, teaching assignments, qualifying exams, and so on. Next came a tour of our library (yes, there is a library for us), the Ernst Mayr Library. It’s cozy, quite old, and full of the delicious character that comes with old libraries. The stacks, in particular, are spectacular. Libraries have a kind of religious quality for me (SO MUCH KNOWLEDGE IN ONE PLACE AND SO MANY BOOKS) and I suspect I’ll spend a good deal of time in that library. It’s going to be one of my first stops next week.

Sunday is moving day for me and basically the entire Boston/Cambridge/ area. So that will be fun…ideally we can keep driving to a minimum. Classes begin on Tuesday and I can’t wait to get started. Perhaps in a few months all the bright-eyed bushy-tailed-ness will be beaten out of me, but for now I am having an excellent time.

On Road Trips to Graduate School

Author: Brianna

A road trip was the right choice, I think, to take me from Oregon to Boston. Literally cross-country: Pacific to Atlantic, Northwest to Northeast, and all the land in between. It’s 3100 miles as the Google Maps flies, but just shy of 4000 if you take a more Scenic Route. (Which we are.)

Right now I’m watching a mild thunderstorm play out over the hills of a Montana ranch. Two days ago we hiked the Highline Trail at Glacier National Park, which between the alpine meadows and the great sweeping vistas of the glacier-scoured valleys was as awe-inspiring as national parks ought to be. Before that we visited an old friend in Idaho, and before that I dragged my traveling companion to see the Painted Hills and the beautiful Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

Sheep Rock
Sheep Rock in John Day
20130809_200526
A lake at Glacier National Park

I miss my cats already, and my lab (my colleagues and the lab space, that is; I left a dog in Oregon and miss him too, but he’s only half-Lab). But it’s easier to handle these things when day after day presents me with incredible new places. I’ll let you know if I’m still feeling the awe when we’re driving through hundreds of miles of corn fields…

At five days in, I have some thoughts on road-tripping to grad school, or any place really. Shall I pack it into a convenient listicle? I shall.

Brianna’s Remarkably Useful Thoughts on Taking a Road Trip to Graduate School

1. Pre-trip check your car. Les Schwab will do it for free, if you want. At the very least check your fluids and tires; we had a low tire that turned out to have a nail.

2. Chuck a Camelbak full of water up behind one of the seats. Hooray, water has become easily accessible at a moment’s notice! While it may lead to more pit stops, hydrated people = happy people. Also food. Jerky, string cheese, trail mix, fruit, cold slices of ribeye steak, whatever floats your boat.

3. Audiobooks, podcasts, music. We’ve burned through Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane already – both narrated excellently by their authors – and are a few chapters into Ender’s Game. I admit, I am kind of itching to get back on the road so we can keep listening.

4. Baby wipes are insanely useful things. See also: sunglasses, pocket knife, Ziploc bags, duct tape.

5. Do you have ANY idea how much stuff you can fit into a Subaru wagon? We don’t have too many worldly possessions, but we do have more than it seems ought to fit in there. The mind, it boggles.

6. Ship your books media mail. Flat-rate boxes up to 70lbs.

7. Hitting up friends and relatives to stay with on the way is a good thing. Real showers, real beds, real food, real places to do laundry; this balances the camping times. You also get to visit people you care about and maybe don’t see very frequently.

I never thought much about the choice to drive instead of fly. It seemed reasonable: traveling companion wanted his car in Boston, neither of us has all that much stuff to move, August was pretty empty schedule-wise, and there are many cool things to see between the oceans. One of those “obvious” choices that I will later be very grateful for, I suspect–and I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve told me they wish they could take a Big Road Trip like this. I agree that it may not often be a feasible vacation. Road trips can be inconvenient. Expensive. Takes a lot longer to get places because the getting is the point. They require a certain amount of comfort with boredom, or at least long stretches of thinking and staring out the window. I don’t mind those things too much, and the waiting is good for me. While I feel a bit like an excited puppy when I think about starting my program in less than a month, the road trip makes it happen mile by patient mile. The road trip leaves me time to watch thunderstorms roll swiftly in, and darken the sky, and – much later – meander grumbling away.

Thunderstorm coming in over the sunflowers