Work-life balance

The fall semester always seems like the busiest time of year. Conference and grant deadlines, coursework and teaching responsibilities, and holiday and personal obligations all seem to pile on in quick succession. In light of this, I’d like to pause to talk about my favorite ways to de-stress.

Exercise. I’ve never considered myself a particularly athletic person, but there are several practices I’ve begun and sustained in order to keep anxiety at bay. I started practicing yoga 10 years ago, and continue to use it to create meditative, calming spaces. I augmented this by dabbling in different sports (including climbing, social kickball leagues, barre studios, etc) until I found some that really stuck. Nowadays, I like to mix endurance and sprint exercise: long-distance cycling (during which I can also phone home and catch up with my family and friends) and high-intensity cross-training. Whatever your speed, I encourage finding something endorphin-releasing and enjoyable. Moving your body forces you to stay in the moment, which taps into mindfulness and stress relief!

Arts and crafts. When I am feeling wiped out from thinking too much, I like to engage in creative and free-form hobbies. I really enjoyed taking pottery classes last year, though now I am happy to simply watch videos of more capable sculptors throwing clay (harder than it looks!). Less demanding, I’ve picked up candle-making as a nice way to make gifts for my loved ones. Many years ago, as a childcare volunteer at a women’s shelter, I found how meditative coloring can be — and now it’s clearly not just for kids any more.

Cooking. Before graduate school, I used to spend entire evenings in the kitchen, trying out new and elaborate recipes. While I don’t have the luxury of time any more, I still like to use my weekly bulk-cooking night to make something nourishing. It’s a productive break from thinking about manuscripts — and you get to eat homemade food afterwards!

Spending time with loved ones. This is last, but certainly not least. I make sure to stay connected with my communities as much as I can, even when things get busy. I’ve started multitasking during household chores in order to really maximize time; for example, my best friend from home knows to expect a phone call when I’m doing laundry. My officemate and I also make time throughout the week to take walks, have tea, and vent about whatever’s on our minds. At home, my significant other and I have a cozy chat each night, even if it’s only for five minutes, so that we can update and support each other. My people remind me that I am not alone in this hectic, uphill journey of graduate school.

Interview tip: questions to ask

Recently, a student asked me how to best prepare for graduate school interviews.

Triggered. Instantly, I remembered what it was like to be in the hot seat, hoping to impress professors and stave off dead air during meetings.

Being the neurotic person that I am, I looked into my grad school application archives to see if I had any words of wisdom. Lo and behold, Past Me had culled together a list of questions to ask during interviews, organized by person (faculty or graduate student) and topic. I’ve included them after the jump, in the hopes that it may help others out there.

(As an aside, the aforementioned student did wonderfully during the interview, gaining an acceptance to a prestigious business school PhD program. I’m confident, however, that these interviews always turn out exactly as they should, whether or not you come armed with a thousand questions. I’ve left interviews knowing that no amount of preparation could’ve prevented the disconnect — but that the awkwardness had helped me dodge a bullet. I simply was not comfortable in that department. These meetings help determine your fit with an organizational culture, so walk in with an open mind and a discerning eye.)

Continue reading “Interview tip: questions to ask”

Application tip: the brag sheet

A friend recently expressed anxiety over asking for a letter of reference. It can be nerve-racking to ask an authority figure to vouch for you! The first step, of course, is to identify who you can ask. Some considerations:

Who knows you well enough to talk about your knowledge, skills and attitudes? Also consider the “big picture” that your recommendation letters will collectively create. One letter may touch on Important Fact A — does another speak to Important Fact B? Ideally, the letters come together to draw a comprehensive portrait (or, at least, they touch on the most important aspects of your qualifications)!

How will they write the letter of recommendation? Do your recommenders prefer to write completely independently, or will they require input or information from you? I had a few reference-writers who reviewed their letters with me to ensure they hadn’t missed any key pieces. This was, of course, specific to our close professional relationship, our shared level of trust, and the fact that they weren’t familiar with the field I was entering. On the other hand, I know some faculty who want students to draft the entire letter for them, which has both its pros and cons.

In any case, it is always helpful to give your letter-writer as much information as possible. To this end, I created a “brag sheet” (both for my graduate school and NSF grant applications). On it, I listed the “highlights” that should be emphasized in a letter of recommendation. This included sections such as:

  • What are my goals?: Pretty straightforward — but don’t forget to include specifics, like your endgame (e.g., a terminal degree) and research interests.
  • What are [schools, programs, funding agencies] looking for?: That is, what qualities does the ideal candidate possess? This helps the letter-writer understand how to frame the letter.
  • What did we work on together?: Always important to recommend the things you did with your letter-writer! Be sure to mention any obstacles you overcame and goals you met.
  • What are my academic qualifications?: Again, pretty easy – -numbers, facts, and figures about performance (GPA, years serving in research, roles and responsibilities).
  • What else sets me apart?: This should catch all important and relevant things not mentioned above — extracurricular activities, leadership roles, and personal background (e.g., challenges or personal adversity)

By creating (essentially) a “cover letter” for your reference-writer, you do a few things. If you create this before asking them if they’ll write you a letter, you increase the chances that they’ll accept — after all, you’re handing them a “cheat sheet.” Keep in mind that reference-writing can be quite time-consuming, so you’re effectively decreasing the burden on your letter-writers by doing the detective-work beforehand. By providing important information, both about yourself and the organization, you’re also helping hone the letter so that it reflects you more comprehensively and speaks strongly to the goal. Finally, this is a useful exercise, since it forces you to sit down and recount all the great work you’ve done with your letter-writer! You’re making both your lives easier; it’s a win-win.

Applying to graduate school: post-application

To my surprise, the most stressful part of graduate school was not the application itself — it was what followed. Slogging through paperwork to apply to schools? Manageable. Trying to visit schools and, in some cases, impress them? And then deciding where I wanted to spend a sizable chunk of my life? Not so clear-cut.

Hearing back

First of all, rejections happen all the time. Consider that most laboratories/advisors only have room for one new student each year — and that there’s nearly always a strong pool of applicants, sometimes including individuals with strong pre-existing ties. It could also be that the timing is simply not in your favor. Rejection should not discourage you if you hope to enter academia; this won’t be the first or last time you’re turned down.

Waitlisting is also a very common occurrence. Things can change at the last minute. In my experience, major shuffles happen during the days right before the decision deadline. A good number of my friends heard back from great schools at, literally, the nth hour.

Of course, there is the best-case scenario: the school shows interest in you right off the bat. They will usually invite you to visit their campus for a formal day or weekend of activities. As a sidenote, I strongly feel that these visits should be paid for, at least in large part, by the program — it speaks to the financial resources they have available down the line.


Here, a distinction should be made between recruitment and interview weekends. If you are lucky enough to be recruited, you already have an acceptance in hand — now, it’s the school’s turn to try and win you over. If you are interviewing, you are still in an advantageous position. The school has decided it likes you enough to send you to the next round with its other top picks. Programs typically only arrange one or the other for all their prospective students, though there are special cases where an exceptional student may be accepted before others.

The rule of thumb for visiting is simple: be on your best behavior. Even when you think you’re “off-duty,” if you’re in a room with people from the program, you are being evaluated on some level (yes, even by the graduate students). *Update: now that I’ve been on the other end of this several times over, I actually don’t think it’s as intense or high-stakes as I initially portrayed — so don’t freak out too much! We just want to get an “authentic sense” of who you are. However, other programs may be less laid-back, so it never hurts to be as polite and genuine as possible.* The program wants to make sure that they can live with you for 5 years. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to mask your true personality. Be yourself; just use common sense. Dress well; it’s always better to be more formal, though I’ve found that business-casual usually does the trick.

Don’t forget, too, that you are assessing the program just as much as they are you. Seriously consider whether or not you can thrive in the social and academic environment. Look for red flags, like unhappy faculty and students. Explore the surroundings, seeking out things that you value in a location.

One of my most helpful practices was journaling immediately after each interview. During each plane ride home, I would try to recount what I saw, heard, and felt, in as much detail as possible. This really helped crystallize my opinions of each program — and make for more accurate decision-making (since we all know how unreliable human memory can be!).


If you are fortunate enough to have options, you will also be unfortunate enough to have to choose one door and close the others. Every decision is highly personal, depending on your priorities. Location and quality of life? Family and/or significant others? Funding? Think carefully about what you value. Hear people’s stories on how they made their decisions. Talk to people about the programs — including your would-be advisors. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to take as much time as you need to achieve clarity. Don’t be afraid to reject schools. You have every right to mull over this decision before the deadline. It is one of the few times in your academic career that the ball is in your court.

Personally, I took all the time I had to make a decision. I was faced with very competitive offers and sought input from countless people. At the end of the day, however, it boiled down to something that many had suggested: a gut feeling. Listen to what your instincts tell you. I won’t lie and say I didn’t have doubts about my decision — after all, it meant I had to unwillingly leave my beautiful home state — but now I can’t imagine having chosen any other path.

Know, too, that things will work out in the end. It can seem unlikely at times, but I’ve always seen my peers come to be exactly where they need to be. Life is a very long journey, and the decision to attend a graduate school is just the first step in one very exciting leg of it!

See other posts in this “Applying to Grad School” series!

Applying to graduate school: the application

In theory, applying to graduate school is easy. You fill out a few forms, write a brief essay, convince people to vouch for you, and send off your information into the ether.

In practice, however, the process can be exhausting. I vividly recall sitting in front of my computer for many nights in a row, stress-eating chips and salsa while Googling synonyms for “research” “interests.”

There are, however, a few tips that made my life easier.



A single Excel workbook became my bedrock, starting from the moment I began researching graduate schools. You can download my blank spreadsheet template here. I first used it to compare graduate programs, loading a spreadsheet with as much information as possible in order to narrow down my list. Important factors of comparison included: faculty’s research interests; financial aid; ranking; internship opportunities; and median years to graduation.

Please note that I didn’t fill out this information for every single program in my field — I only compared schools I wanted to attend in locations I might want to live. (Quality of life is a very important factor for me, but you may have a different rubric.) After considering my options, I identified twelve programs that seemed to be a good match.

Tangent: E-mailing faculty

In graduate school, you are typically applying to become someone’s academic apprentice. Your advisor will hold the key to your career. (There are some schools, particularly in industrial-organizational psychology, where there is a shared mentorship model, but this is usually the exception.) An important factor I considered during my search was whether or not my intended faculty advisor was accepting students during the admissions cycle.

I had great success cold-emailing faculty members. I wrote a polite message indicating my interest in their research and explaining why I thought I’d be a good fit for their lab; I included my CV, though this is certainly not necessary nor universally welcome. In all cases but one, I received a reply (this was also helpful in assessing the potential advisor’s demeanor). I was thus able to rule out some schools based on advisors’ statuses.

After this, my Excel workbook then evolved from a tool of comparison to a tracker of progress. I started with a brand new spreadsheet, entering in my shortlist of graduate programs by deadline (from earliest to latest). I then created headings that represented different parts of the application process: “Application,” “Statement of Purpose,” “GREs [sent],” “References,” etc. As I completed each part of a specific school’s application, I’d mark it off on my spreadsheet. I also included columns for important, relevant information: log-in passwords, deadlines, application fees, and so on.

Once the spreadsheet was set up, I was able to (a) comprehensively view the progress of each program’s application and (b) easily update the status of each component within those applications. This was invaluable in keeping track of all the tiny, moving parts involved.

I continued using this workbook during the interview phase, too. It was very helpful in keeping track of my travel, costs (especially as many schools had specific reimbursement policies in place), and other first impressions. You can bet I also created a new spreadsheet to compare my offers once I started receiving letters!


Speaking of components within a graduate application — most US universities require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). While there are many GRE prep programs available, my personal opinion is that disciplined self-study and tons of practice exams will usually be more than sufficient. (Note that the quantitative section is supposedly no more difficult than the SAT!) I used a combination of the Princeton Review’s online curriculum, a dozen sample tests, and one very strict study and practice testing schedule.


It is always a highly personal decision deciding who to ask for recommendation letters. In general, you’d like to be able to find people in your field (or another, closely-related one) who can know you and can speak to your research skills. I have found in talking to others that, oftentimes, recommendation letters from distant disciplines will still be helpful if they are strong.

The one sure thing is that you must give your references enough time to prepare a strong letter. I have aided this by providing each writer with (1) a list of all the programs and their deadlines, (2) a copy of my CV and (3) a “brag sheet” of my accomplishments, research interests, and areas of emphasis. I also made sure to check in one month, two weeks, and (when necessary) days before the deadline to make sure my references were submitted.

The application

Please see this post for tools that constantly organize and streamline my life. I used a few of these tools in new ways during the graduate school process.

  • Google Calendar was used to store all my various deadlines. I also added reminders periodically, especially so that I could “nudge” my reference providers.
  • Dropbox stored all drafts of my personal statements. It gave me peace of mind knowing I could save, edit, and back-up my files on the cloud, anywhere and at all times.
  • XMarks helped me save and sync my many bookmarks. I created folders for each school with links to their admissions requirements, faculty profiles, application portals, etc.
  • LastPass allowed me to save the many, many usernames and passwords I created for each of my applications. (Now, if only there was a centralized application system… but that’s a story for another time.)


During this very intense process, it is critical to take care of one’s self! I counteracted the huge amounts of stress hormones in my body with exercise-induced endorphins. I also made sure to see my friends and have a Netflix night a week. These small habits kept me sane throughout a pretty taxing time. Find ways to blow off steam and stay engaged in the real world.

See other posts in this “Applying to Grad School” series!

Applying to graduate school: pre-application

My friend once said to me:

Graduate school is like a Get Out of Jail Free card. You can use it when you run out of career options, but most people play their card too early.

At the time I heard this, I agreed. After all, who wouldn’t want to escape the 9-to-5 by finding refuge in the Ivory Tower? (This same friend, by the way, later enrolled in a M.Arch program.)

Many years later, I find that perspective to be impractical. Graduate school shouldn’t be a last resort, but a meaningful and intentional enterprise. After all, like any major decision, it has the power to shape the trajectory of your personal and professional life. It’s no joke!

Based on my experiences and those of others, there are two steps critical to the pursuit of a graduate degree: identifying passions and gathering information.

Identifying passions

Bad reasons to go to graduate school:

  • It seems like the next logical step. It most certainly doesn’t have to be, no matter what people tell you. In this day and age, there are new and exciting ways to build a life for yourself.
  • You want to impress the people around you. You cannot seek validation externally, especially in graduate school. The compliments of others alone cannot sustain you for 5+ years of your life.
  • You want to increase your earnings potential. You will be spending a significant amount of time out of the job market… watching peers achieve milestones that your graduate student lifestyle does not allow.

A good reason to go to graduate school? You’re truly passionate about your research question. Another important factor? You understand the costs, benefits, risks and rewards of academia. There is plenty of literature out there describing the difficulties (and sometimes near-impossibility) of landing a prized tenure-track position. Information is your friend.

Personally, my own path to graduate school was not always clear. When I reached a crossroads professionally, I grappled with important questions. What did I value? What were my lifelong interests and passions? What was my end game? Would graduate school help me achieve those goals? There are many exercises to help you achieve career-related clarity, including the wonderful flower diagram from Richard Bolles’ bestselling What Color Is Your Parachute? (see worksheet here).

Gathering information

A critical precursor to becoming a researcher should be — surprise! — researching. It’s imperative that prospective students truly understand what life will be like post-graduate school. There are several means to this end.


The more hands-on experience you can get, the better. I’ve found that many labs and researchers are open to taking on volunteers, given that you can demonstrate passion and professionalism.

It’s important to have working knowledge of the research process. Be aware that there are many stages, including (but not limited to): writing grants to secure funding; developing project protocols; obtaining human subjects rights and other regulatory approvals (particularly within the social sciences); running the project itself; cleaning, entering, and analyzing data; preparing manuscripts, posters, and other forms of dissemination; and, of course, the countless stacks of paperwork in between.

It is always helpful to conduct research in the field you want to work in. This demonstrates that you are familiar with, and interested in, relevant themes and topics. In some cases, however, it’s not possible to obtain that sort of directly-related experience. For example, Berkeley didn’t have any industrial-organizational psychologists on faculty. I did, however, gain work extensively in peripherally related fields (social and clinical psychology), which turned out in my favor.


I believe that prospective graduate students should be given a recommended (required?) reading list. Below I’ve included some incredibly insightful pieces, written by leading academics.


Finally, I have found it immensely helpful to conduct informational interviews with professionals. These are essentially informal conversations where you are exploring someone else’s career. In most cases, simply politely asking someone for a moment of their time can open the door to a very useful informational interview. There are many resources on getting the most out of these conversations, including a guide at Berkeley and sample questions at Quintessential Careers. It goes without saying that everyone’s journey is highly individual/anecdotal, though that doesn’t mean they’re not realistic or enlightening.

In arranging my informational interviews, I made sure to cover both breadth and depth: breadth, by talking to people in many different fields (including unrelated ones that I thought might be interesting); and depth, by discussing trajectories with people at various stages in their career (e.g., students, early career, senior faculty, etc.). In doing so, I discovered new and interesting professions — including my current one! — and was able to envision next steps in my career.

Informational interviews can also begin the strange social phenomenon of “networking.” Generally, I have found people are always eager to pay it forward and share advice on their career. If you cultivate these relationships, you can continue to have great mentorship and resources down the line.

See other posts in this “Applying to Grad School” series!

Ph.D. bound

This week, I accepted an offer of admissions from William Marsh Rice University. Come fall, I will begin pursuing my doctoral degree in industrial/organizational psychology.

The best (or worst, depending on who you ask) is yet to come, and already so much has happened. My hope is to document my adventures in academia here, but with a few disclaimers.

  1. n=1. My story is a case study that is, of course, not broadly generalizable. What I found to be useful may not be relevant to you (particularly if you are a student from another discipline).
  2. All opinions shared on this blog are solely my own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of any institutions with which I am associated.