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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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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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Endophytic Insect-Parasitic Fungi Translocate Nitrogen Directly from Insects to Plants


[ A fungal Engophyte (green) growing into plant cells –source

Check this out! A new article came out in Science this week about the relationship between a plant, a fungus, and an insect. Sound like the beginning of a bad joke? Well for the insect it is! 

This fungus doubles as an insect parasite as well as a plant endophyte. The scientists thought that the fugus might be able to kill nearby insects in order to capture nitrogen, a limited nutrient in soil, for itself and its plant host. Using labeled N, they were able to track nitrogen from the insect into the plant matter and confirm their hypothesis! Crazy stuff out there! 🙂

Here’s a link to the article.

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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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I’m not sure how many times I’ve referred to Rotations in my previous posts and assumed that the reader understands what they are, but I’ve come to realize that maybe they aren’t as common and as well known to people as I think they are. In the past couple of weeks, as I’ve started working in a different department, I’ve had to explain the concept several different times, so I thought I’d just write a quick post on what exactly Rotations are.

First of all, let me just remind you that these are my experiences at MSU and may not be the same at every university (although I think they are probably similar in many ways).

Rotations are an opportunitiy for first year graduate students to work in several different labs at the university. At MSU, we have to do 2, most people do 3 and some people do up to 5. These are 10 week sessions where you join in a lab and work on a small project to understand how the advisor mentors students and how the lab group operates. The project is either an original question that stems from a project in the lab, a small part of someone’s project, a pilot or proof of concept idea for a new project (that could be the start of your thesis if you joined), or something else. Basically, a small project that, hopefully, allows for some original thought, new ideas/techniques and an appropriate representation of how things operate in the lab.

Not only are they good opportunities to understand how an advisor and lab operates, they can be great learning experiences. They will add tools to your ever-expanding box. They will also help you sort out what type of research you want to do. Sure, you got accepted to X program, but within that program are a variety of different fields and topics, each of which will inspire you differently.

I like to call them 10 week interviews – for both of you. You’re trying to find out if the lab is a right fit for you, and they’re trying to figure out if you’ll be a good fit in the lab.

Have any more questions about rotations? Let me know! Or, let me know what you think about them!



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Choosing a Thesis Advisor

It’s that time of year! That question everyone has been asking you all year – “Whose lab are you joining?” finally needs to be answered.

Here is a set of questions I got in my oreintation packet, but can also be found here,  that might be helpful in making your decision.

< I’m just finished filling them out myself 🙂 >

Before Choosing a Major Professor Ask Questions

The following list of questions was created by Dr. Ann Matheny, Center for Naval Analysis, Alexandria, VA, in conjunction with the Central Illinois Chapter of AWIS. PI is comparable to major professor.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Where do I want to be in five years? In ten years?
  • What is most important to me-my work environment or my intellectual interest in a field?
  • Do I need direction and motivation from an advisor, or do I prefer to work independently?
  • Do I need to feel comfortable talking to my advisor?
  • Is the field I choose easily adaptable to other fields?
  • Do I prefer to work in a group or on my own?
  • Do I want to work primarily with computers?
  • Will the project be purely theoretical, experimental, or a combination of both?
  • Do I want to start a family in the next five years?

Questions to ask members of the group or the prospective advisor

  • How stable is the advisor’s funding? (Does the advisor have funding?)
  • Do students help to write grant proposals?
  • Do I get to choose my own project or do I work on the Principal Investigator’s (PI) project?
  • How involved is the PI in the research?
  • Does the PI have favorites? Does the PI neglect or give very little attention to some members of the groups?
  • Are students backed by the PI when they run into departmental politics?
  • Does the PI treat male and female students with the same respect as far as their intellectual abilities are concerned?
  • Does the PI promote your work or claim it as her/his own?
  • Does the PI work with you towards your career, or are you on your own?
  • Where have previous students gone?
  • How long does it typically take to get a Ph.D. in the group?
  • What kind of work can I expect to find after graduation if I specialize in this PI’s area of research?
  • Do students publish and attend conferences all along, or only at the end of their research?
  • Does the PI give you tools or are you on your own to develop research capabilities?
  • Does the group meet regularly for group meetings or lunches?
  • Are the group members competitive or cooperative?
  • Does the group collaborate with other groups?
  • Will I need to travel to do my research? How will that affect my lifestyle?
  • Does the PI have tenure?
  • What amount of course work is expected/discouraged after joining the group?

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Political Science

Politics and Science- More alike than you think

So I have an addiction problem. I’m addicted to news channels. And if you’re not living under a rock, you can bet that the majority of news right now is all about the republican candidates and the primaries.

This morning I was watching Melissa Harris-Perry’s new morning show (on msnbc) and she was talking about how she likes a strong two party system because they make each other better. Like they hold each other accountable.

Immediately, my mind went to Lakatos’ research programmes both degenerative and progressive. Let’s picture that the republican party is currently the degenerative programme – They have their theories about how government should work, and this disagrees with the current progressive programme (Democrats). And so they attack the progressive programme – point out where they are wrong and show them ways to do it better.

Exactly what happens in science (as Lakatos would argue)! A new theory and scientific program comes along and the degenerative – fighting to continue to prove their theory – will push the new theory to question every assumption and results

We might think that politics will be different than science because it involves a revolving door, where in politics, every x# of years there’s a chance for the degenerative and progressive parties to change. Instead in science we expect one to always win out and prove to be the better theory. BUT- while this happens a lot less often than in politics – history says, another, better, progressive programme will come along. And the degenerative program will do its job; attack the new theory, point out its flaws, and make it cover its tracks. You know, Science.

And we’re all the better for it.

[By the way, I wish Melissa Harris-Perry’s show was actually called Nerdlandia, as she joked a couple times]

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