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What do should I do with my life? How do I get there?

If you are like most of us, you have these questions and more. You might have no idea what you want to do for a career in the future. Or maybe you know what you want to do but are unsure how to get there. Every person's path is individual, but there are alot of tips and tricks that are common to all paths that can help you along your way. In this blog, I try to pass along some of the bits of wisdom and jetsom that I've accumulated lo these many years (!) to help you on your road to success. Search for the topic you need, suggest new topics, send me questions. Dr. A is in.

Monday, October 18, 2010

the cultural significance of fashion

Hello my peanuts--

The title of this posting may seem trivial given the content of the rest of the blog.  But I have a topic that has popped up a few times and bears discussion.  I am talking about--the suit.  Yes, you heard that right--the suit.  As purple was once a symbol of royalty, and bared legs a symbol for, oh, "ease", what you wear can make a big statement about who you are and what you are up to.  While it is true that in modern times we are supposed to be less apt to judge a book by its cover, there are still social norms that dictate a style of attire for certain occasions and chief among these in the science and engineering fields, is the idea that professionals wear suits.  I have been surprised recently by the volume of young men and women who do not own a suit.

This may seem trivial, but a suit is the uniform of choice for the job interview.  Even if you will work in shorts and a T shirt after you are hired, a suit to the interview tells the interviewer that you are taking things seriously, and are making an effort to put your best professional foot forward.  The rules of decorum vary across fields and what you wear to get a job at Vogue, for example, may differ.  But in engineering the suit still has a strong hold on expressing that you are a "serious" candidate.

Suits need not break the bank.  Hit your local thrift store, or check out sample sales.  Take a too large hand me down and have it retailored to fit. Check out "Dress for Success", an organization that accepts donations of suits and distributes them to women in need.  Find a suit that fits well and that is COMFORTABLE.  This is key.  Interviews are typically all day affairs.  You may have to do alot of walking.  An elegant but comfortable shoe should also be in your repertoire.  A too tight, or itchy suit and painful shoes will make that interview day drag on-and-on and get worse as it goes.  Trust me on this. I interviewed for a faculty position once with stylish pumps which turned out to be some sort of medieval torture device for feet.  We walked ALOT on that interview, all over campus from one office to the other, up and down.  By the end of the day I could hardly hear  myself think anymore above the din of screaming coming from my feet.  I now carefully vet my shoes, and use nice cushy inserts. The shoes are still stylish, but now I can stylish and still be able to walk all day.

Another fashion term you'll see in engineering that confuses lots of people is "business casual".  This means not so stiff and formal as the suit, but still radiating the sense of professionalism.  It usually amounts to this:

men = dress slacks (bottom part of suit), button down shirt, tie (optional), no jacket required
women = trousers or skirt (bottom part of suit), blouse, maybe a sweater, no jacket required

So in summary, the suit--get one.  Learn how to use it!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

10 Tips for Women Students in Science Fields

Hi Folks

I saw this helpful article in US News.  It's entitled as tips for women, but these are the same tips I would give to any of you as general life advice.  You can find it at the URL link here:

Happy reading!

Monday, May 3, 2010

How to ask a professor for a research position

Oh my dears, my dears.  This is perhaps a topic most prickly to my soul. Truly a pet peeve of mine.  I cannot tell you how often I get letters that look something like this:

I am a sophomore, that is interested in microfluidics.  I would like to work in your lab next quarter.  Do you have any positions available?


My first reaction when getting a mail like this is to trash it without reply. We are busy people.  This message looks to me like a mass mailing that didn't take the person but 2 seconds to send, so I'm not giving it more than 2 seconds of my attention. Oh, I am so harsh!  But that is the reality, my chicks.  If you sent something like this to an industry recruiter they would do the same thing.  Actually, no, they would probably spend no more that a millisecond on it, not even a whole 2 seconds.

Ok, let's take Dr. A's magic invisible ink revealer and go over that e-mail to show what went wrong. In between the asterisks is the story between the lines...


Hi ****oh!  how much we old people hate this practice!  Who is this letter intended for?  there is no personalization whatsoever.  No title, no formal language.  Back in the day, they used to teach etiquette for how to compose business letters but that practice seems to have languished because I see this too often, so listen to me, grasshoppers!  Young, you are.  But foolish, you must not be!  When writing a professional letter, e-mail, text, ALWAYS address the person by a name and title appropriate with their position.  If you write to a professor say "Dear Dr. Terrific". If you write to a nonPhD use the right title for that person like "Dear Mr. Wonderful" or "Dear Ms. Great". Do not use informal greetings unless you know the person really well.  So it's not "Hi you", it's "Dear Dr. Marvelous".****

I am a sophomore ****class level is good to share, but letting them know your major is helpful also****, that is interested in microfluidics ****"ok, this is great, but my lab does not do anything related to microfluidics.  So right away I am thinking you did not even bother to read my website, or look up any of my papers, begging the question--why do you want to work in my lab? You don't want to pick any old random lab to work in, you want to pick some lab that has a combination of traits that you want, either the research is fascinating or you really want to work with the people.  And you need to convey this information to the reader. If you don't add something personal to it, it looks like a mass mail spam.****.  I would like to work in your lab next quarter.****this is ok to include, but many labs want a year commitment or atleast a couple quarters.  One quarter is very short. Also there is no time flexibility given here, why next quarter?  Are you just trying to get units, any units? That make you much less interesting to invest in."**** Do you have any positions available?**** sadly, by the time you get to asking this question I have already lost interesting in replying to you.***

thanks ****Another business etiquette issue. Who is this message from?  How do I get in contact with them?  Sure it came as an e-mail, but that does not always include a full name.  And what if I want to call instead?  End the letter the same way  you started with a professional greeting, indicating clearly who the letter is from and all the ways to get in contact with you. Something like "Best regards, Student X,, 530-555-5555,"****
See?  Such a short note and so many ways it went wrong.  So what does it take to get an undergrad research position?  It's not that hard.  It will take only a little more effort than this short note above, and it will get alot better results. Write a nice letter.  A NICE letter:

1. Starts with a professional greeting and addresses the recipient by name and title
2. Talks about specific projects in the lab that interest you and gives a reason why you want to work for that lab.  Look up a couple papers from that lab and mention something that you were interested by.  Why do you want to work for this lab?  Try to convey in the letter why you were excited by the idea and motivated enough to send a message about it.  Otherwise it looks like spam.  Especially if your major or interests don't seem to match what the lab does at all; you need to explain why you want to work in that lab anyway.
3. Includes information about yourself sufficient to pique interest.  Do you have an outstanding GPA?  Do you have skills in some area that will of use to the research?  Are you quick learner?  Do your career goals tie in with the lab in any way?  Have you done well in classes relating to this lab's research focus? Mention these things.
4. Offer a timeline of when you might be available. Like you would like to start as soon as possible and would work for a year or more.  Or you can only work summer, but you could work full time in the summer.  Give the professor some options of when you could be brought in.
5. End with polite statement thanking the reader for considering your request and proposing some method of followup (will write again in week month, will talk to you after class any time, etc etc)

And just to keep in mind, my tiny tiny mousies, all this chastising has a reason behind it.  Professors like to have interested, engaged people working in their labs and we field requests all the time. Something has to make your request stand out from the pack.  The average undergrad takes maybe an entire quarter just to train to use specific instruments related to the project, and then takes another 1-2 quarters to become comfortable enough in the lab to make useful contributions.  And this means that people already in the lab will be taking the time to teach you how to do things.  When it works well this is a great experience and you will learn lots of new things, and provide a fresh perspective to problems, and start to contribute new ideas that you could work on as an independent project. But the sheer amount of time and effort it takes to train you to that point makes professors want to be sure that the people they bring in are truly interested in what the lab does.

So make sure your letter conveys why you want to work in my lab. MY lab.  Not the lab next door, not the lab across campus, but MY lab.  Woo us, my beauties, it's simple as that.

There is a song that I like, because it is so funny amongst other things, that sort of reminds me of the situation we have been discussing in this post and it goes something like this:

Lovestruck Romeo
Walks the streets a serenade
He's laying everybody low
With the love song that he made
Finds a convenient street light
Steps out of the shade
Says something like, "You and me, babe.  How 'bout it?"

"You and me, babe. How 'bout it"? Not very effective wooing---don't be sending us letters like that! 

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Getting a great letter of recommendation: Part I Graduate and Medical School

This is a topic that I get lots of questions about all the time.  And late fall/winter is the hot season for getting requests from students for letters.  For a bit of perspective--a faculty person can get something like 20-40 requests for letters from students per year, and each of those students might apply to several schools (do the math).  So your letter is one in a possible SEA of letters that the professor has to write/send.  How can you make your letter stand out?  What compels a professor to write you a great letter?  Excellent questions, my tulips.  There are really only 3 major things that you need to do to help you get a great letter from a professor, and they all happen at different points in the process.  Here they are in order of occurrence:

1. Be memorable (in a good way)
2. Choose the right letter writers
3. Make the job easy

1. Be memorable: Certainly, getting perfect score on all your work tends to make you stand out in a professors mind.  But even the best student, if (s)he never talks to the professor, can be difficult to write a letter for if the prof doesn't know more about them.    How does a prof get to know you?  Ask question in class.  Ask questions in office hours.  Take small group courses where you have more opportunity to interact with a prof 1-on-1.  Do undergraduate research (this is a biggie).  Volunteer at a hospital or clinic.  Do an internship or co-op.  Engage in any of these types of activities that allow a professor to see you "in action" and not just through words on the page.  Shine that light early and often!

2. Choose the right letter writers.  Say you need 3-5 letters from profs.  If you planned ahead, you did many of the things in item 1 so that you have atleast that many people who know you really well. Choose the ones that know you in the specific capacity that will best get you what you need. For example, most grad schools require 3 letters.  And letters from profs that you did research with are the most valued.  If you did not do research in 3 labs (most folks don't), get letters from the labs you did work in and supplement with letters from instructors of courses that were very practical in nature--a lab or senior design course, and from persons who can attest to your leadership abilities (this last one is important for med schools).

Spread your adjectives around the letter writers.  For example, if the school wants your letters of rec to address your "potential for a research career, independence, maturity, leadership abilities, teaching skills, writing ability", split those up so different letter writers address different adjectives according to their best knowledge of that adjective.  The research advisor might be best for the potential for a research career, independence and maturity.  A learning skills center that you tutored for could address teaching skills and leadership. You can overlap adjectives that you would like to = re-iterate to emphasize.  Plotting out your letter this way makes your whole packet look much stronger and more cohesive, which reads well for the admissions committee member that is wading through applicants. How do you get the profs to write about certain adjectives?  see below.

3. Make the job easy.  Send the professor everything they need to write you a great letter.  That includes your resume transcripts, self-addressed stamped envelopes (if needed), etc, and if you have web based recommendations make sure you pre-fill all contact info for the professor and yourself. 

What makes a great letter?  If you read many letters of recommendation you notice what types of letters stand out.  For sure, addressing the specific skills and talents the school you are applying to asks for is a start.  But if the letter only "claims" that you have specific abilities it will read much weaker than a letter that "demonstrates" that you have these abilities by providing detailed evidence.

One of the best ways to be sure your letter contains these sort of golden nuggets is to send the letter writer either a draft letter, or a short summary that gives specific details about things that you have done that illustrate how you embody the traits that you want the professor to talk about.  This is probably the most difficult thing for most students to do.  By and large you are humble folk and are really uncomfortable tooting your own horns.  But believe me, grasshoppers, if you can send me stories that detail specific things that you did in my class, it will jog my memory about other things (we are old, we forget things. it's not that we don't love you), and allow me to write you a much better letter. I ask all students who request letters to send me a draft.  That means that you write a letter as if you were me, addressing the adjectives you want me to cover (ah ha!  that's how to do that last part of #2!) and giving detailed examples that I should know about. In particular, if you worked on a specific project in a class that I taught, I would expect you to summarize for me what the project was, and what specifically YOU did on the the project. This is especially true for team projects where your actual tasks might be buried in the actions of your group.  Remind me what wonderful things YOU did, what problems YOU solved, and how.

Not all professors want/need you to write a draft letter, you can ask them if they do.  If they do not need a draft, you should atleast provide a summary--this will outline for the letter writer what the school asks that letters to address, and then gives short writeup that details how you possess the features of the ideal candidate. 

Most schools ask you to waive your right to review the letters, so you may never know what kind of letter you got (except by if your desired result was achieved, i.e. got into school X) or whether a prof is a good letter writer. So it is best to err on the side of giving as much info as possble, so the letter writer has all the tools they need to really convey how FABulous you are, and how schools should be FIGHTING over you, you are that amazing.

Go out there and be brave!  Good luck!

example of including detail

here is an example of a statement from a draft letter and how it was revised to make it "better".  In the initial draft, the student had this to say about themselves:

"In my class X showed outstanding leadership skills and teamwork when working on research projects in group.  X also showed great skill in performing scientific research"

OK.  so this is complimentary enough, but 400 other people will be having letters that say pretty much the same thing about them (most people do not ask for letters from people who will not say nice things about them).  Without more info the letter will be so short, and an admissions committee has no feeling for how strongly the letter writer feels these things are true.  So what makes your letter stand out from the other 400?  Evidence.  Show HOW you have great skill in performing scientific research.  For example, for research, I expanded 1 sentence to THREE paragraphs.  This is one of them:

"X has also been a tremendous asset as an undergradute researcher in my lab.  He is currently working on two projects: 1) development of magnetic resonance imaging probes that an be activated by electrical activity and 2) design of a device to facilitate delivery of aerosols to rodent models for lung research.  For the first project, X initially worked with a postdoc in the lab, learning chemical syntehsis and characterization methods.  X prepared small molecule gadolinium agents based on DOTA chelators with pendant spiropyran groups.  The spiropyran groups respond to reduction and oxidation to modulate the magnetic properties of the molecule.  With no prior experience in this area, X proved to  be a dedicated worked and quick study, performing many difficult synthetic procedures.  X asks astonishingly insightful questios, some of which have led to redesign of experiments that were proposed by myself and his postdoc mentor.  X's duties and responsibilities have increased as X's proficiency became evident and currently X is performing cell studies to characterize the behavior of these probes in a living system, working mostly independently.  In recognition of X's enormous contribution, X is a co-author on a paper in JACS that describes this work."

So, doesn't that sound WAY more impressive than "X showed great skill in performing research"?

The expanded version provides description of specific things that X did that demonstrate that X worked hard, learned alot, and earned the right to work independently by impressing the faculty mentor.   Make sure your letter writers have access to this sort of detail about things that you did which will illustrate the adjectives that you want to apply to yourself.

Now is not the time to be humble!  :)  Be honest.  Be detailed.  Be brave.

Now go out there and do it!