Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Adventure Begins


Things have been hectic for the last couple of weeks.  Exams finishing up, scholarship deadlines approaching and most of all the start of my journey into science with a summer research scholarship at the Thermophile Research Unit in association with the International Centre of Terrestrial Antarctic Research.  However, in finishing my undergraduate, I have had time to collect my thoughts with regards to the attainment of funding in Science.  So this post will pertain to the different factors regarding funding and the importance of extra-curricular (or extra-research) activities.


On the 31st of October 2013, I completed my last ever exam for my undergraduate degree.  It was a fair exam, not on a topic that I was too familiar with but had a lot of interest in.  As a molecular geneticist, Advanced Zoology was a challenging paper and gave me a lot of general knowledge into scientific theory and the various ways to understand and argue for evolution.  However having completed this exam, I was not thinking about the various nuances of defining evolutionary terms but rather the future I had ahead of me, the scientific career I was about to begin and the challenges I anticipated were about to arise.

On the 11th of November, I started my summer research project with a bang.  Scholarship application numero uno; a panic of trying to come up with a personal statement with two references in four hours, and the beginnings of my summer project, of which I will detail in another entry.

My first scholarship application was for the Tess Embling Memorial Scholarship for students starting their first year of a Master's degree.  This was a scholarship I had scouted as appropriate for myself ("Preference will be given to students studying in the fields of biological or environmental science.") earlier on this year, given my topic of study and the availability of the scholarship to University of Waikato students.  The scholarship application involved the filling out of a basic application form, a normal procedure with all scholarships, two references from two different referees (one required to be academic), a maximum four-page personal statement detailing study intentions and eligibility, and a brief CV.

Materials and Methods

As many graduate students trying to get jobs know, or in fact all people attempting to find employment, not all CV requirement are made equal.  In fact, it is regular practice to have different CVs depending on what kind of job you are applying for.  This does not mean that the CVs are any less accurate (inaccurate description of skills being quickly wormed out during the first week of a job) but rather a relevant description of the experience and skills you have in regards to the job, or in this case scholarship, you are applying for.  Keeping a CV updated with all your current details and skillset is a given, having different CV versions that will give potential employers, or funders, the information that they want is just another level of courtesy.

Personal statements are also an important opportunity to really get across the fact that you are "perfect" for the job/scholarship.  This is where a lot of New Zealanders get stuck.  As one of my favourite lecturers might say "New Zealanders don't know how to toot their own horn!".  From what I know of people around me (including myself) this statement is true.  A CV is different.  A CV is a documentation of the skills you have available and the experience that you have gained.  Truthful, factual, a CV can be written with no concern over looking "humble" or "modest".   In a personal statement, however, "selling" yourself to some extent should be a key point.  Not only does it get the message across that you are worthy but also that you can communicate and are confident, skills that will help you in any field of work.

Getting references is a tricky business.  The first part that people should probably consider are who are the people that would know you well enough and are impressed by you that would write you a personal reference.  Having been asked to write one before, I know it isn't an easy business, you have to both have some amount of emotional detachment regarding the subject (unless of course it is one for character rather than for academia or job-related business) and you also have to think back on what that person has done for you and what you think the person reading the reference would want to know.  In a way it can be harder than writing a personal statement.  So as a person asking for a reference, you should consider this before just going to the closest person around you and asking them this favour.  As a grad student, I think one of the most important groups of people that are a good pool for references are your lecturers and tutors.  By the time you are in third year, you should have had at least a couple of semesters with some lecturers, particularly those pertaining to your field.  These people have been around you and know that you are hard-working and capable, just the sorts of things that they would put in a reference for you.  You may think it an awkward business, especially if you aren't on a friendly one-on-one relationship basis with them but believe me, they will remember you, at least from your name on those tests and exams.  And trust me, those tests and exams say a lot about the work and effort you put in to each paper.

On that matter, as an undergrad it is worth being in a friendly relationship with your lecturers.  Getting to know them and their field can be a good step into the research that you want to do.  Particularly good would be getting into small undergrad-level research projects with them, usually involving helping out a masters or PhD student on their project.  This kind of experience in the lab and the opportunity to show that you are a capable student can really help as both a way to get into a research lab or even as something to put on your CV to show that you have a wide-range of experience.  Also, getting to know your supervisor and the people in the lab that could help you, before you start a masters project will be a useful experience.

Anybody anywhere who has tried to apply for as many scholarships as possible will know that extra-academic activity is a really useful experience to have.  Many scholarships call for people who are both academically able and involved in the community.  For myself, I have guiding, which I started recently, and ballroom dancing which I have done for a few years know.  Both are challenging activities but provide a variety of skills that can reflect well on my ability to manage myself.  Ballroom is physically challenging and requires lots of co-ordination, co-operation and the ability to be comfortable with myself enough to perform.  Guiding requires patience, diligence and a good deal of leadership capability - sometimes it can be hard to convince younger women that you are worthy to lead them especially if you have trouble convincing yourself.  But with any activity such as these, there is always a group of supportive people that can both nurture your skill and show you the way.  And with completing each challenge within these activities, there is more that you can put on your CV or personal statement to show that you are a flexible but hard-working person.


As would be expected in the results section, if I could I would have put in whether or not my scholarship application was successful.  However like all good things, scholarships usually take some time to hear feedback about - usually involving short-listing and interviews.  However I can say that applying for scholarships can be a rewarding process.  The realisation of the work you put in, the relief after the hand-in and the anticipation of the result.  Even if you fail, you can always say that just by putting that application in, you have gained experience that will help you in the future - things you can do better, things you can try.


For me building up a profile of work in the community and self-improving activities is an important consideration for furthering my academic career.  But not only that, it provides a type of satisfaction you can rarely achieve elsewhere in life.  You interact with amazing people not secluded to your field and you end up learning so many skills that can be utilized even within your research.  For me, learning how to vocalise and put myself out there for different experiences has been an important skill to learn.  Taking as many opportunities as you can isn't easy and doing these extra-academia activities has taken me out of my comfort zone many a time.  For instance, at my guides rangers unit the other week, I ended up stripping down to my underwear for an expert to practice massage on for teaching the girls in my unit the art of massaging.  Never before had I done such a thing, but just by being in a leadership position and learning to be comfortable in my own skin allowed me to take myself out of my square.

There are a variety of different activities, volunteering work and experiences available out there that can supplement your academic record.  In New Zealand there are the Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, St John, SPCA and many more volunteering groups you can join that can also be a super rewarding experience.  Through Girl Guides, I hope to start and eventually complete a Duke of Edinburgh Award and I know through St John you can also gain different certificates through first aid courses that can look impressive on your resume.


However, even if the work is not rewarding - whether it be applying for scholarships or supplementing your career with community-level activities - there is an element of requirement when it comes to funding study and research to put yourself out there.  As many grad students begin to learn, post-grad study is not a job and in fact requires copious amounts of money to fund and to live off, especially since the student allowance in New Zealand has been cut off for post-grad level study.  Even the student loan you have to pay back some day!  For me, as someone who has been financially independent from the parents since starting University (and somewhat a bit before that too during an interesting gap year), money and thus funding is a requirement even just to live.  While part-time work can supplement your income (and this is where Summer Research Scholarships at different universities is such an amazing opportunity - money and experience!), there is a limit to how much one can work without hindering their chances at getting a quality post-graduate degree.  For me, and for many other grad students out there, scholarships are definitely the way to go!

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