Category Archives: Grad School

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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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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Quick Tip

When joining a new lab, the first thing you should do is become best friends with the technician. Or at least learn the best way to make them happy.

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Tis the season to be… recruited!

It’s time for your hard work of searching, choosing, and applying to pay off! If your application makes the admissions cut, you’re likely to be asked to visit your schools of choice for some tours and interviews. If you’re lucky- also for a fellowship! So if you got an invitation – congratulations!

Here’s where the dating analogies start… recruitment is kind of like you, your university’s, and maybe your advisor’s first date.  Not only are they checking you out, but you’re also checking them out – and don’t forget that. You’re going to spend your time trying to impress every person you meet, but don’t forget to take a careful look around yourself.

This is how the recruiting goes at MSU – but I’m guessing it’s similar at other universities.

There are three main components:

  • People getting to know you — this takes place in the form of usually a short introduction or a presentation to the faculty and/or current students. Here’s your chance to shine – make sure you’ve rehearsed your strengths and have a solid idea of where you’re going- and how this school/advisor fits into that. Also if you’re a good communicator, this is a good place to show that too. If you’re not, something you might want to try to improve beforehand.
  •  You getting to know the people — The researchers, the grad students, the support staff – this takes place in various social events (usually around food/drink) or more formally, with potential advisors, with a short “interview” (just a meeting really – and this is also them getting to know you).
  • You getting to know the school and the area — Campus tours as well as tours of highlights around the city. Ask about good places to live- if you decide to move here, that will come in handy later.

How to act/behave

If you’re like me, I was not certain at all that I was admitted to the university. Some people think, if they’re going to spend $1000’s of dollars on bringing you to the school, you’re probably in. And if you’re that secure, that’s fine. But I definitely wasn’t, and I honestly think, better safe than sorry!

On that note, I think there are really two important things to remember here.

  • EVERYONE you meet could be a potential friend/colleague/mentor/etc. for you in the near future. And they WILL remember you (esp. if you do something rude/stupid/inappropriate). Remember that when you meet with grad students, researchers and secretaries- EVERYONE. If you decide to attend this university, it will make things a lot easier. I don’t say that to make you nervous/scared while you’re there, but just don’t act like you’re never going to see these people again.
  • And with that, the only other important thing I want to note is that, if your recruitment is anything like mine, you will be served alcohol. Maybe never-ending supplies.  I know peer pressure is tough here, but if you don’t handle alcohol well, stay away. People may forget if you’re drinking a soda rather than a beer, but they will never forget if you do something rude/stupid/inappropriate whilst drunk.

In the end – have fun, and learn lots.

Be yourself – but be your-best-self.

How about you? How did your recruiting go? Or what else do you have questions about for your upcoming recruitment?

PS. These, “how to behave tips” are probably always a good idea in most social situations.

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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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