Category Archives: Personal

Tips for Buying a House

So you have decided to be all adult-y and buy a house. Congrats! I have not regretted it (yet) and I love my house. Here are some tips to help you on your house buying experience. (There’s a tl;dr version at bottom)

1.      Be rich

  • OK, let’s be honest, no graduate student is, but this is what really helps the most. Once you can meet the magical 20% down payment, you can opt out of mortgage insurance and are more likely to obtain a mortgage.
  • But again, we’re not all rich, and as graduate students, it’s evermore unlikely, so… do you have rich relatives? Think any of them would consider giving you a loan to help you to that 20% amount? It is an easier way to get the money without taking out another loan, and relatives usually charge you less in interest (usually!). Family can gift you somewhere between $10,000-13,000. (look it up before asking) [This is what books suggest, not something I’ve had personal success with, FYI]
  • Not related to the Romneys? No worries, the majority of mortgage toting Americans are not. No worries! It is just going to be harder for you to get a mortgage – But not impossible.

2. Tips for getting the mortgage

  • If you have taken some time off between undergrad and grad school, you’re more likely to have a regular job record and some income, which will make it easier to obtain a mortgage.
  • If you are like me, having little money or work experience, it will be harder to obtain a mortgage – But not impossible. Here are some tips:
    i. Credit Unions or banks associated with the university are more likely to understand your situation.

    ii. Keep your acceptance letter &/or teaching/RA contract handy. Especially the one with the numbers ($$$) on it. Banks like proof of income (& enrollment).

3. Preapproval doesn’t mean you have a mortgage 

  • I would bold this twice if I could. This is what tripped up my process.
  • This probably goes under #2, but it is important. (MORE BOLDING)
  •  After a bank preapproves you, check with them and make sure everything is OK. Make sure they know you are a graduate student. Make sure all the t’s are crossed before you start looking for a house.
  • Trust me.

4. When you are absolutely, positively sure that you have a mortgage (See #3) – Feel free to start shopping for houses!!

5. Getting a realtor

  • If you can, get a recommendation from someone, but I’m not sure how important this is. I went in blind and had a positive experience.
  • As a buyer, you should not have to pay for their fees. These are covered in closing costs.

6. Things to keep in mind when shopping for a house:

  • Resale Potential – As a graduate student, your plan is to live there for a few years and GTFO. Make sure you buy somewhere where you expect to sell quickly and at least return your investment, if not grow.
  • “Needs some work”  — These are great properties to increase the value on your investment. But it takes time and effort. You’re not necessarily in the business to house flip – you are a graduate student. And likely buying a house because it’s cheaper than renting. If you want to flip it, that is fine with me, but remember your motivations for buying in the first place.
  • Location —  You probably do not need to hear this, but this was the most important thing for me when choosing a place after its condition. Keep an eye on bus routes and check your university’s parking situation. 

tl;dr Version:

Steps to buying a house

1. Consider your finances/life plan/responsibility level and decide you want to buy
2. Figure out your budget

  •  Use online calculators to determine estimated monthly mortgage
  •  How big of a loan you feel comfortable taking out
  • How much available for down payment

3. Apply for a mortgage

  •   Documents needed – W2s, bank statements, letters of enrollment/employment contracts

4. Double check preapprovals
5. Triple check preapproval
6. Contact a realtor/start looking at houses
7. Put an offer down/haggle/ start buying process

  • Get the seller to pay for closing costs (realtor will help decide how much)
  • And anything else that needs to be fixed (I didn’t have success with this)

8. Usually 45 days from agreeing on price to do following

  • Home inspection
  • Finalize mortgage information
  • Gather finances for down payment

7. Closing date

  • Lots of signing paperwork
  • Switching over utilities
  • Getting title of house

8. Celebrate.

  • I recommend champagne and donuts. 

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Filed under Grad School, Personal

Why I think Grad School is the Bestest Thing Ever

Face it – our decision to go to grad school is often the butt of jokes (See 30 Rock or The Simpsons, for reference), but nevertheless, I absolutely love it. I love it so much I actually told my advisor that I was “blessed to be here” (Not happy about the word choice here, but I still agree with the sentiment).

Don’t get me wrong. Grad school can still be shitty at times. Like, really shitty. I will not lie and say I was not bawling a couple weeks ago and at a point of wanting to quit. There is CONSTANT self-doubt. There is networking, public speaking, long hours, responsibility, jealousy, impostor syndrome, etc. etc. etc. and sometimes just a generous load of good ole fashioned hard work.

However, when you are falling asleep at the lab bench or going through a difficult time, you just need to remind yourself why you are here. If your answer is, to get a degree, to “avoid the real world”, or learn techniques for industry – then you might have gone into grad school for the wrong reason (IMHO). And of course my opinion is wrong for some people, so let me say this – you probably are not going to be as happy as those of us who came here for another reason. Those of us who came here for science or in other words, to increase our understanding of our world.

I have loved science for a long time (aka – I cannot remember a time when I have not), but a recent reminder of this passion hit me when I was watching a 3D movie at the Field Museum about mummies. Random, I know. The movie was about trying to find the secrets about mummification and the steps in the process. So cool, right? How super interesting/what an awesome question/something I would be curious about as well! When the movie focused in on the person who was working on this question,  I thought, this guy gets to spend all day, gets paid to ask questions about ancient Egyptians and gets to work on answering them. How awesome is that? Our innate curiosity, our innate questioning, our innate experimentation – is his career.

And that is science. That is my job. And that’s why I think it is pretty much the bestest thing ever and why I think I’m so incredibly “blessed” to be able to do it. (Seriously)

(Not the point of the post, but other super awesome things about graduate school: independence, responsibility, freedom, flexible hours, inclusion into a group of like-minded people, being in an academic atmosphere, opportunities to meet/hear talks by amazing scientists, etc. . Also note that many of those super awesome things can also be super sucky things at the wrong time in life. And again, I’m not saying grad school is easy – but it is definitely not the worst decision you can make in your life. Which is not voting, by the way. )

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Knowledge of Ignorance

There’s what you know,

What you don’t know,

And what you don’t know that you don’t know. 

I have been thinking about knowledge and ignorance lately thanks to  this new book, “Ignorance: How it Drives Science” by Stuart Firestein. I can’t wait to read it! But here are two great articles about it until we get our hands on it.

I was writing up some plans for my summer research, and I got to the end of it, and I thought, “This is awesome. I don’t know how to do, like, 90% of what I just wrote.” And I’ve had this feeling before, and it is really awesome. Like, non-sarcastic, awesome.

At that point, you’re teetering on the edge of what you know and what you don’t know, and you’re about to dive in. It’s a little scary, but very exciting, never-the-less.

I had the pleasure of sharing these feelings and experiences with one of my mentors tonight. He told me about when he started one of the bigger projects in the lab, he really didn’t know a lot about what they were getting into and having the same sort of feeling. And assured me that while it gets more comfortable to take those dives, the excitement is still there.

thank goodness. 

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City Tour, Holiday Edition

I had the great pleasure of having my undergraduate university (South Dakota State University) be so close to my parent’s home while I was attending but this also allows me to take time to visit there when I’m visiting SD for the holidays. Unfortunately, it’s also the time for many of my mentors to leave the city for the holidays, but I was able to meet up with my research advisor for lunch and catch up on the many changes in my life since I left SD just months ago. I also got to meet with one of my good friends that I did community work with. So I’ve changed since I’ve left the great town of Brookings, SD – but how much has it changed? Well, to start, there’s been a couple of new businesses that have opened (no word on the breweries yet). Obviously as someone who is interested in local community development (and food) I had to check out a couple of the new eateries.

For lunch, I was excited to visit the town’s new, Old Market Eatery ( Located inside a historic bank, this complex contains a variety of businesses – the restaurant and bakery and then a salon, boutique, yoga studio, photography studio and a “honey-do” company. What’s great about this multi-plex is the businesses are mostly owned and managed by local ladies making both my local and feminist hearts happy.

Lunch was delicious and affordable. I got the walleye cake salad ($8) that came with a tasty dressing which made me overlook the fact that the “bed of mixed greens” was 90%  iceberg lettuce (something I detest). The walleye cake was moist and flavorful, making it a successful rendition of the traditional crab cake.  My coffee was the delicious Caribbean Queen roast from CherryBean, locally roasted in Parker, SD ( My lunch partner had the generously sized Market Burger and fries ($9). I didn’t personally taste the burger, but the fries were seasoned well, and clearly made in house. For dessert I enjoyed a soft and chewy mint-chocolate cookie and a piece of a uniquely flavor-paired cranberry-ginger “tart” (that was totally a scone).

The service was a little slow, and we ended up waiting a bit for the main course while the house remained less than full. Also, they stopped serving me coffee after we were finished eating, even though we stayed talking for a while longer. The atmosphere was great- modern but still rustic. We sat inside the indoor patio, which, along with our warm December, had me thinking of summer.  And I’ve heard from a friend that the “mature” bar scene they were aiming for has been achieved, but I’ll look forward to checking that out some other time. Another complaint I have is that I know they aren’t locally sourcing as much food as they could be – but I understand that starting up a new business costs a lot, and I can only hope as they get more successful, they will continue to be more local.

Another local business I checked out while in town was the Buttercrust bakery (  As with traditional bakeries, they have a menu that changes by the day, so I’ll have to make a couple trips in order to try everything. On this trip though, I picked up a loaf of the Honey White bread as well as a cinnamon roll, pecan cinnamon roll and a strawberry danish. I don’t have much more to say than, delicious, but can you really go wrong with a baked good? Especially a fresh, local made one. Since Hagman’s closed, I think Brookings has needed a new bakery – although it now has a couple!  (And Cider Hill might still be selling bread at Nature’s Paradise?)

There are a couple other new changes to my old town. The new visitor center at McCrory Gardens is finished, and looking beautiful complete with a new entrance and parking lot ( Seriously best picture I could find). I can’t wait to check that out the next time I’m in town too.  Along with new entrance to McCrory, there is another new one into Brookings and the SDSU campus Medary, just south of the Hwy 14 bypass. I don’t like money being spent on such things, but man, it does look nice!

It was a great day catching up with my old town and the people in it. I’m so happy to see both the town and the university growing, and I hope that both continue to do so with much success!



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Filed under Food, Personal, Traveling, Uncategorized

Holiday Edition – What to tell you family about what you do

Season Greetings!

It’s that time of year that we love- full of tasty food, delicious goodies, presents, carol singing, and of course, awkward family parties. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky. Along with family gatherings comes that question that we’re always dreading – even during undergrad – “What do you do and what does that mean?” or “What are you going to do with THAT degree?” Unless you come from a family of academics, explaining your position in graduate school is bound to be a little tough. If your family members have heard anything about grad school, it’s probably from a joke, and therefore probably not all that informational or correct. Here are a couple strategies I’ve come up with in order to handle the questions.

1. Answer quickly, and change the subject. Yeah, this isn’t really a solution, but it’s an approach. Face it, sometimes our family members don’t actually want you to answer that question. They asked you out of formality and are just trying to get through the night while making small talk. Aren’t sure if they care or not? Look for the signs: Nodding with a blank stare, A bland “OK….” when you’ve finished, or eyes that are desperately looking for a different conversation to join. If however, they are engaged and ask a follow up question, they may actually be genuinely interested in your life. If so, try the next approach.

2. Educate them! This is part of our job right? Well, also consider yourself a spokesperson for graduate school.  Explain to them what graduate school is like for you- not all that much school, but much more about hands on learning, and developing as person and a scientist. Talk about what motivates you to pursue a graduate degree- your passion for learning, your desire to make changes in the world, etc. And also, the importance of graduate school (this might be more about breaking stereotypes). Scientists aren’t, for some reason, always seen in the best light. Consider this your opportunity to talk about the great thing science has to offer… advances in health, technology, etc.

3. Lie to them. OK, this one you might be too late to do – but if you haven’t told your family you’re in grad school yet – lie to them! I’m not talking a dramatic lie, like you’re an accountant or something- but if that’s your strategy that might be OK too!  No I’m saying, just tell them you took a research position at the university and you’re doing lab work – somehow this seems easier to swallow  than bringing up “Grad School”. Then after 5-7 years, start signing your Holiday Cards with “, Ph.D.” and request to be called Dr. So-and-So when asked to pass the salt at the table. I’m joking, of course.

How about you? How do you talk to your family about your position?

Happy Holidays! Here’s to surviving those awkward family parties!

PS – After reading through this draft, it sounds a little arrogant, like our family members aren’t able to comprehend what we do. That’s not at all what I meant. Instead, our jobs are much less publicized and hardly ever represented in the main stream. We’re usually the butt of jokes and labeled as what poor life decisions look like: ( I genuinely hope your family is interested in what you do, and that you are able to start a dialogue about what grad school is really like. Obviously, that’s kind of the point of this blog.

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My trip to the thumb

I’ve had a couple of stressful weeks pass by recently, so when the weekend opened up and my stress load dropped quite a bit, I took advantage of the last mild days of fall and headed into the woods. Well, kind of.

My first idea was to go camping in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, but with time and money in mind, I decided to make it a day trip and go somewhere else. Some google-mapping informed me that Lake Huron was actually a little closer, or at least the same distance to Lake Michigan, so I left Lansing and headed towards Bay City. Of course, I just punched it into Jeeves (my GPS) and went on my merry way.

For some reason, Jeeves had the idea to go through the town of Frankenmuth – sometimes he takes weird routes, and when I don’t know the area, I can’t correct it. Ordinarily, I’d be in favor of rural roads as opposed to the interstates, but that’s when I’m thinking about roads that don’t go through Frankenmuth. By now, if you don’t already know, you’ve gotta be wondering what’s going on in this town. If you’ve ever driven through MI, you’ve probably seen signs for “Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland” [Emphasis theirs] which is located here. A huge, year round Christmas store with its share of tourist traps and enough billboards to be compared to Wall-Drug. But that’s not the worst part. No, the worst part is that this town also calls itself, “Little Bavaria”, and has every single German stereotype that you can imagine, all bundled with tourist traps and souvenier shops. And of course, crowded with people. (I thought the economy was bad?)

After leaving Frankenmuth as quickly as possible, I was well on my way towards the thumb. Now I had been under the impression that MI was mostly a forested state, and quite a few of my experiences had enforced that. So I assumed the thumb was going to be about the same. However, I soon found myself in familiar territory; flat, straight roads, surrounded by fields and farm equipment. It’s interesting how rural America can be so  similar. This time of the year, trucks parked on the sides of fields either for harvest or hunting. Small towns with run-down shops and cars. Small bars in the middle of nowhere that you know only serve those wearing camo or blaze, and probably both. It’s a depressing thought coming into one of these cities. You look around and wonder, what are the jobs here? What could the opportunities be here? And yet, these struggling communities are all too common across our landscape. Are their voices being heard?  Hmm.

I also started to discover something else I didn’t know about Michigan– they grow a shit ton of potatoes. Now I’m from an ag state, but 99% of the time, the crops I see are corn and soybeans. I was immediately interested with these fallow, tilled croplands I was seeing around me  — I honestly haven’t seen pure tilled land in years now that no-till is being used. But soon, I started seeing semis full of… could it be? Potatoes? I drove past a co-op that just had MOUNTAINS of potatoes. I’m not exaggerating!! Just piles and piles of potatoes, like dirt at a construction site. Nevertheless I was impressed.

Onwards. Most of the city/county parks I stopped at were closed for the season, but I did spend some time at Sleeper State Park near Caseville. Ate dinner at a roadside park that was in  a perfect location to watch the sunset. But these were both looking at Saginaw Bay, and I was hoping to get a look at the actual lake. Unfortunately, darkness came too quickly, so I ended up turning back. However, that still leaves something for next time.

In the end, I got my feet wet in my third Great Lake (!!) and had a relaxing drive with NPR and my own thoughts. Another reason for the trip was to take advantage of the break in between rotations to get back to my own research questions and start developing a thesis project. I can’t say I was too successful at that, but the break was beneficial nevertheless.

How are you spending your last days of fall?

Happy Travels!


Filed under Personal, Traveling