JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

I'm baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack. ... Not that I ever really parted company, but I'm back from vacation, rested, recharged, and reloaded--ready to take on my small world of graduate school. I hope all of you out there have begun to enjoy your summer for at least a few moments a day, lending yourselves to delinquency, basking in the sun, and having an unproductive moment or two to live life.

After 2 weeks away from this wretched place, I was actually excited to get back. Frightening isn't it? Well, things had started to work relatively well just before I left, and upon returning I was actually getting interesting results, much to my delight and surprise. I've been having "ah, this is what I thought graduate school would be like" moments and reveling in my data gathering and experimenting. I'm so perky I'm getting on my own nerves.

The change from the dull delirium and insane drama that characterized my first year and half of graduate school has been welcome. It's nice to get to work and be ready for the day, not thrown by whatever task Jeff might hand me that disrupts what I had scheduled--to be able to accomplish most of my goals for the day and that random task. Lately, it seems, in addition to my work I've been doing a lot that is nothing more than bureaucratic garbage, but I remain relatively unfazed. Maybe this is the peace that comes with turning a year older, taking a vacation, and settling in for the long haul. Or maybe it's what happens when you have interpretable data. Who knows?

Anyway, let's turn to current events in the life of a calmer, happier Micella. I recently prepared for and attended my first conference as a graduate student--"as a graduate student" because I had attended conferences in high school and as an undergrad, but I am now on a new playing field. Preparation included creating my first poster for my current project and trying not to scream as Jeff edited, edited, edited, and ... well, you get the idea.

Because the conference was very close to my university, in Jeff's mind I didn't have to finish my poster until after the conference started--in fact, the day before the poster session! That meant that the 2 weeks leading up to the conference were filled with collecting new data, only to be asked to repeat the experiments again. And we all know what happens when you are trying to collect data that needs to be viewed by the scientific public:

  • You need to learn a new technique or two or three.

  • The instrument you learn this technique on breaks.

  • The one person that can help you with on this instrument is on vacation for the next 3 weeks.

  • You spend an unbelievable amount of time (36-hour days) collecting data and trying to make sense of outliers.

  • Your samples break, become impure, disappear magically, or morph overnight into something that's very, very wrong.

  • The computer eats your data and/or dies.

  • Your results aren't repeatable.

  • You spend hours and hours creating pretty graphics, and then when you need to print, they won't format properly and get destroyed.

  • The printer goes haywire on your poster.

    Or (my personal favorite) ...

  • Your adviser decides to change the focus of your presentation at the last minute, only to leave you to pick up the broken pieces of your work.

  • Fortunately, this time only b and e happened to me, oh, and the continual edit cycle! But I should be happy that my adviser cares about the impression we make in poster presentations, right? It's a great day when you realize that the work you're doing will have a direct impact on whether your adviser gets tenure. ...

    After much preparing, rewriting, data recollecting, and reformatting, the poster was done, and I must say, it was beautiful, a work of art on a big roll of 4' x 3' paper that detailed my scientific life over the past year. It's sad when your life can all be boiled down to that much space. It's even more amusing when a third of it was done within the last month.

    The poster session actually went rather well. I didn't have any detractors, anyone trying to tell me that everything I had done was wrong. On the contrary, people were pretty supportive and impressed with the work that was going on. That happy little ego boost should last for the rest of the summer! It was a pleasure to share the fruits of my labor with bunches of scientists working on the cutting edge of their fields and feel like I knew what I was talking about. Talking to other graduate students who were doing similar work, and knowing that the pitfalls that I had encountered were universal, was also very reassuring.

    On the whole, the conference was a rousing success. The talks were great, I came out with ideas of what I'd like to pursue as I develop over my graduate career, and the opportunities to network and socialize have definitely broadened my contacts. And some of these older scientists are just so darn cute! (Okay, I'm sorry. I've lost it. ... I told you I was too perky!)

    Well, folks, that's all for now, so I'll leave you with some comments on poster prep and conference-going. Happy summer! (If it will ever stop raining?.)

    Playing the Game--Public Presentation and Schmoozing

    As we all know, making contacts and publicizing your work is how you get ahead in the scientific world. Like I've said before, science is not done in a vacuum, and the opportunity to share ideas and collaborate on projects makes science better.

    Posters. If you have the opportunity to present a poster, do so! Work with your adviser to create one that succinctly reflects the following: Why are you doing this work? What is the ultimate goal? What history do you have to stand on? If there is no history, why do you feel that this project will work? What have you done? What results are encouraging? What studies will you be working on when you go back to the dungeon? You should be able to tell a story on your board that shows all of these things.

    Game time. When it comes to actually giving the poster, some people like to stand and read your poster, and others would rather get the "2-minute overview." When someone approaches your poster, introduce yourself, get the person's name, and ask whether he or she wants the overview or would like to browse. Most people I talked to wanted the quickie lowdown. When you talk, again, make sure you tell the story: what you're doing, motivation and background, ultimate goal, and actual accomplishments. Some may ask you to stop and give details at a particular point. Do so, and be engaging; you don't know how this person may help you in later life.

    Business cards. Have cards with you at all times, and ask for a card from your "viewer." Making new contacts at conferences is key. And besides, you'll need to do a postdoc sooner or later, and the scientific community is small; six degrees of separation is more like two or three.

    Enjoy yourself. No one wants to talk to you if you look like you hate your work. Smile--it doesn't hurt--make yourself heard, and talk to your listener, not the poster. No one knows more about your work than you do, so exhibit confidence.

    Socializing. Do some! Try not to be antisocial and evil when the events wind down. Go to the wine tasting! You might make a new friend (and you might get a story or two about your adviser to use as blackmail later). But please, taste in moderation; we don't want any "scientists gone wild" videos or news stories.

    Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the , , , or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.