Stop Wasting Time! 5 Tips to Help Your Focus on What Counts

We all know the unfortunate cliché about college students and graduate students:   They stay up late and sleep late, they work as little as possible, many stay in school for far too long.  In graduate school we tend to see 2, possibly 3 types of graduate students.  Some of the students are incredibly lazy and do almost nothing.  They enjoy their scholarships, drink beer and smoke, and they hardly work.  The students rarely graduate.  A step up from the students are the students that do the bare minimum in order to move along in their programs.  They spend time in the lab or at the computer but only to do what is necessary and nothing more.  These students graduate and then move to obscurity.  Most graduate students, I would argue, are incredibly hard workers and find themselves working constantly.  Unfortunately, the students spend a lot of time working on things that are not necessary.

I have one piece of advice that will help you graduate faster, smarter, and with better research and job prospects: focus on what counts.  The number one thing you have to do as a graduate student is graduate.  To do this you need to have a plan, you need to stay focused, and you need to work tirelessly and what is going to get you closer to graduation.  If you are asked to work on a project outside of your dissertation research, I suggest you ask your chair, “will this help me graduate and should I do it.”  If it helps you build skills necessary for your dissertation then do it.  If it does not help you advance in your degree program I do not suggest you do it and instead put your energies into something that is fun as well is useful.
Tip 1: have a plan for the length of your graduate program by year and by semester. Follow it.
Tip 2: ask your advisor what your final take dissertation will look like, and if possible have him or her list it by chapter.  This is important, as you will then began writing pieces in your coursework that would build up and provide content for your dissertation.  Be sure to also keep updated citations for your work.
Tip 3: find out what is necessary financially to graduate in the timetable you have chosen and find funding to match that timetable.  Actually, it can’t hurt to find funding for that timetable plus the equivalent amount of funding for 2 more years.  I’m not saying you need two more years of time.  Rather, by adding two additional years of funding over the same period of time you will live a more comfortable life.  Remember the 1 in 5 Rule when applying for grants.
Tip 4: pick a hobby that would help you finish your dissertation.  This is your fun activity.  It can be anything as long as it will help you make progress. For example, I learned web-design and photography.  Both are used in my dissertation.

 5: have fun and make it a game.

Save $ at Conferences by Leaving Them

Congratulations!  You are at an academic conference in either presenting your own worker listening to that of others.  Relieved and happy after your presentation walked over to the hotel bar or restaurant to have a drink and talk at the price: $10 for a beer?  What the Frack!   Getting to a conference is certainly expensive enough and what we have covered ways they can save money in your planning, we have yet to tell you how you can save money when you’re actually at the conference.  If you want to save money at a conference, leave them. 
There are all sorts of ways that you can spend money at a hotel.  Before you even get to the hotel, it’s quite possible that you will have to take a taxi to and from the hotel.  It’s a no-brainer but really you should share a With someone else.  If you flew alone and don’t have a collie, take a look around you and ask someone that you think might be going to a conference.  If there academics, they’re probably nerdy so you know who to ask.

Once you get to the hotel and you unpack, you probably realize that your shirts and pants and dresses are wrinkled.  Fortunately, hotels have services that do this, for only a small arm and a leg.  Instead, iron your clothes as soon as you get to hotel using the iron and ironing board in the closet.  To do this right away you don’t have to worry about it.  Heck if you are good packers and know the tricks you may not even have to worry about this.    (I use Packing Cubes and it makes packing and unpacking really easy).

Once you have unpacked you probably are getting hungry, but no matter what you do not eat at the hotel.   Room service, my personal weakness especially that involves hamburgers, is especially expensive.  Expect dinner for one to be between 18 and $30 depending the quality of the hotel.    If you eat in the hotel restaurant.  Dinner will probably be between 10 and $20.Instead, go out to dinner and enjoy the city.  This is especially true if you read my prior posts about making reservations and already a spot planned for dinner.

Watch your alcohol consumption.   it’s really easy to drink at the conference, especially when you’re in a new place and having fun with colleagues.  But be careful.  1st of all you don’t want to get drunk like a fool in front of your colleagues.  Also, we want to save money.  Nurse your drinks and for specials.  If you’re a graduate student your you know this tip.

So I’m sure you have been to conferences in the past, what are your tricks to save money while away from home?

10 Life or Death Tips for Fellowship/Job Applications

Two weeks ago I was sitting in DC reviewing $1 million health research applications.  Today I’m sitting on my sofa scoring summer research fellowship applications.  Although one application is for a million dollars and the other is for $6,000, the relative stakes are the same for both applicants.  But as I read the student applications I can’t help but cringe when I see an applicant with potential get a poor score because of errors that could have been avoided had the student considered a few essential tips when completing the application.

In order of importance, these are critical steps you must take to make your summer fellowship application or job application, stronger:
  1. Take a close look at the Fellowship/Job eligibility requirements.  If you are eligible for the funds, then consider applying.  If you are not sure you are eligible call the funder and clarify your eligibility.  There is no point in applying for an application if you going to be rejected right off the bat.  Of you are not eligible, find another.
  2. Consider at the timeline and decide if you will be able to complete the application.  Large applications could take 6 months to complete.  Shorter applications could be completed in 3 weeks, maybe less if you have some of the content written already.
  3. Read the application materials carefully before you begin to write your essays.  Applications are broken down into different sections that ask for separate material.  One section will ask about your previous research/work experience, one will ask for publications and presentations, one will ask for essays, etc.  When you read the entire application you can see where you have to place all of the content and begin to outline your content.  If you do not read the application in its entirety, you may end up talking about awards in your personal essay section…. and as an application scorer I can tell you that this results in lost points.
  4. Learn the goal or focus of the fellowship/job/funder and match it.  Each organization has its own subtle long term goal. They may want to increase the number of women in science, solve health issues that impact children, or examine how people with one leg longer than the other cope in society (or whatever, obviously).  If you learn what the long term goal is you can mention it throughout the entire application.  For example, you could say “I have long been dedicated to researching issues that impact adolescent health and look forward to a career where I can research…”
  5. Understand how each application is scored and make sure you address the criteria.  Now that you know (1) what is required in each section of an application, and (2) the goal of the funding organization, you need to know how each application is scored.  You can usually request a copy of the score sheet/criteria, if it is not already available publicly. Take a look at the score sheet and see if there are any critical issues that you must address.  If there are, address them.
  6. Answer each question and essay…. and be deliberate with your answer.  This may seem obvious, but be OBVIOUS with your answers.  I recently read 20 applications and only one stood out.  It stood out because the applicant was upfront and forward with their answers.
  7. Spell check your application. Typos result in lost point, if only because reviewers get annoyed.
  8. Ask your references if they can write excellent letters of recommendation. If not, ask someone else. Letters of recommendation can make or break an application.  I have seen one sentence letters and immediate kill the application. On the flip side, if I see a great letter I boost the applicant.  Be brave and ask references directly if they can write an “excellent” letter.  If not, move on to someone else that knows your work and will write you a great letter.
  9. Follow the 1 in 5 Rule of Grants and expect to get rejected and to apply more than once.  The good thing about applying and being rejected is that you receive grant feedback on your application for the following year.
  10. Celebrate completed applications (won or lost).  You never win anything by being timid and not getting into the ring.
If you follow these tips you will start to be successful at your job or fellowship applications.  These tips certainly apply for funding for research equipment or gear as well.  Do you have a tip that has helped you in the past?

I’ve been Accepted: Go to College/Grad School Scholarship Links

On a previous post I listed information on about college rankings.  Today, I’m providing some GREAT resources for learning about ways to fund your college education, including work study, scholarships and other sources of financial aid. The MOST IMPORTANT site for learning about financial aid and for becoming eligible for financial aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or  FAFSA for short.  If nothing else, fill out this form as soon as possible. 

Other useful blogs and sources for your education include:

Scholarship Search Tools:
Other useful sources include:
Of course, the best advise is to contact your financial aid office and ask them the following questions:
  1. What do I need to do to receive financial aid? The immediate answer – fill out your FAFSA
  2. Are scholarships available and how do I apply for them?
  3. Is work study available and how do I apply for them?
  4. Are subsidized loans available and how do I apply for them?
With diligence and effort you can find funding for school.  I recommend you apply for student loans as a last adoption and instead use work study (or even work part time and go to school apart time).


Do you have a suggestion blog post that specialized on scholarships?  If so, send me the link and I’ll update this post.

Good luck and Go To College or Graduate School!

Tips to Help You Earn $ for Photographic Equipment

Previously I described how I worked to receive over $400,000 in research funds.  I recently received more good news:  I was awarded nearly $5000 for photographic equipment (again) and thought I would share how it was done and how I plan to use this to turn into additional projects.  But first, the list of equipment:

The Latest Research Equipment

This is quite a handy list of equipment and technically the third time I have received a grant for video or photography equipment.
The first was for $1000 for extra photographic equipment, the second for $4000 in video equipment and the third $4000, for the equipment above.  The key was build up in scope over the course of six years, both in term of complexity of project and complexity of equipment.

Specifically, if you can answer the following three questions early in your school career you can build up the skills and awards necessary for advanced research and funding:

1.  What are the small, medium and large grants you wish to receive?  Take some serious time looking at the grants offered at your university and elsewhere for research equipment.  Find a small one such as those offered by a student group, a medium one such as those offered university wide, and a large one offered by a national institute and organization such as the National Institutes of Health or National Science Foundation.  You will obviously start by applying for the first  small one but keep in mind that you will eventually apply for the large one. BUT, you have to smart small in order to build a successful track record.

2.  Can you design related small, medium and large projects (e.g. a project that grows in complexity)?  Now that you have found your funding source you want to design a project that can be scaled up from small to large.  This is of course linked to the next question (who is your partner), for purposes of this exercise, think of a project that can start small and grow in scope and complexity.  For example, consider complexity in access and skill:  perhaps start by photographing a neighborhood, then photograph people in public, then people in their homes.  By starting small you will afford allow yourself time to learn skills for the research and the grant writing process.

Though this goes without saying, you also want to be sure to follow the directions EXACTLY as stated on the application.  This may seem obvious but I can’t tell you how many wonderful applications I have read that unfortunately are disqualified for not providing exactly the material needed.

3.  Who is your partner and how will your partnership grow over the years?  Finally, though not usually considered, I suggest you think long and hard about your partner.  In the case of photography, your partner is a person, family, community, town, geographic area, etc.  Pick a partner that interests you and that you could likely with for years (or decades to come).  If you enjoy urban areas, then perhaps consider an urban area that you would like to photograph.  Like the project, start small.

So what am I doing?  I have been amazed by the US-Mexico border, be it on the southern United States or in the heartland of America.  I started small (my hometown), built up to an urban community, and now am working closely with individuals both in and out of their homes.  I have received small and medium awards, and for my next one I hope to receive a large sum that will also include honorariums for the people that give me their time and views – both of which are precious commodities.

There ya go — three great tips for developing grants from their infancy to large scale.

Deduct Your Student Loan Interest Payments

American Debt Project has a great reminder for those of us with student loans:  You can deduct your student loan interest as long as:

    • 1) Your MAGI (modified adjusted gross income) cannot exceed $75,000 as a single person or $150,000 as a married couple filing jointly.
    • 2) You’re not eligible if you are married filing separately. 
    • 3) The maximum benefit is $2,500.
    • 4) The loan must have been used for educational expenses at an eligible education institution.

 This includes the regular colleges and universities, but also trade schools, for-profit colleges and residencies at hospitals and healthcare facilities.

If you have not received your tax forms check online or give your loan company a call.

Free Project Management Options for Team Science

A colleague asked me to go into further detail regarding software we use for team science.  There are many options out there but finding what works for your team may be confusing, and as we learned, needs may change over the life of the project.(UPDATE:  today we discuss the free or nearly free software that helps the team work together, not the specific scientific software such as STATA12, Nvivo9, Acess, etc.).

Some of the options you are likely to learn about if you google project management are:

When it comes down to it, however, we ended up using simple tools that are free and familiar to both senior faculty as well as early adopters.  Our top tools include:

  • Skype for conference calls and screen sharing (we started by using Wiggio for it’s free conference call option, but the call quality was not always the best)
  • DropBox to store, share, and sync and backup files.
  • MicrosoftWord to write text files (free option: OpenOffice), bought super cheap on campus
  • Endnote and EndnoteWeb to coordinate articles and citations (free option: EndnoteWeb)
  • MicrosoftExcel Useful for making gantt charts to track goals and progress, bought super cheap on campus.  We also have been using this for meeting minutes as its easier to see action items listed on one column.  Of course, this is super useful for budgets, as well.
  • Google Calendar for scheduling and sharing calendars

The best part about these options is that they are free, or have free options available, and translate across PC-Mac working environments.  On the flip side, these items are not integrated into one product, so integration can be challenging.  In future projects we may use all Google products, but only if we can confirm that EndNote works with G-Documents.  To this I may also mention I personally use Remember the Milk but do not like how unwieldy it is becoming with multiple lists and items (please comment if you know of an alternative!).

So there you have it.  A handful of free applications for project management.  We are always looking for something better so please share your suggestions!

How to receive $400,000 in Graduate School Scholarships, Fellowships and Other Funding

We know that graduate school is expensive.  Over the course of 8-15 years a student has to cover basic living expenses as well as 3 to 4 computers, supporting hardware, research equipment, travel to conferences, books, etc.  Fortunately, there are scholarships and fellowships available to the students.

Think of these as institutional investments into future scholars.  I took a look at my fellowships and scholarships since I first entered graduate school and was rather surprised (note, I did take a break after my masters degree, so the lengthy time scale is misleading).

The first chart is of my finding over time.  For awards that stretched over two years, such as 2011-2012, I plotted them to the first year.

The larger amounts are national fellowships while the smaller amounts are general travel or research funds.  Combined, these provided a good basis for support.  You might notice the chart above seems to have a gap from 2002 to 2005.  During this period I taught undergraduate courses. (I may chart out how much I made teaching, in another post.)

The next chart shows funding awarded by type – national fellowships such as National Science Foundation, University specific awards, and scholarships and other awards.  This is pretty interesting, too, as it shows that if you apply to a wide variety of sources you will receive funding, academic or otherwise.

Looking at these chars a reader might wonder (1) why I am in debt, and (2) how can I receive this level of funding?  First, my debt is from my undergraduate education at a private institution and one year of graduate school.  In contrast to other students my debt is not that bad, but I consider any debt as a terrible cloud.
So how can you receive this level of funding?  Here are a few suggestions:
  • Learn how to search for funding.  All universities have access to an assortment of databases for scholarships, and if you ask your department secretary or Deans office they will asset you.
  • Work on awards regularly.  I suggest setting at least three hours every week to search and apply for funding.  If you keep at it you will receive at least 1 in 5, at least accruing to my 1 in 5 Rule.  With practice the ratio will improve.
  • Ask professors and students to review at your applications.  They will give essential feedback.  Revise applications as as possible after your receive funding.
  • Get on review panels at your university, then nationally.  When you review awards, even the small $500 student awards, you learn what works and what fails.
  • Apply to big awards early in your academic career, if only for the feedback.  NSF, NIH, CDC, etc. all offer pre-doctoral fellowships.  It easily takes 4 months to put an application together and the experience builds confidence.  If you win an award, congratulations.  If you don’t win you will at least receive specific feedback for your award. Make corrections and apply to the same award the following year.
  • Apply for the small stuff.  $1000 for a conference, if awarded yearly, adds up to a considerable sum… plus you can practice the pros you will use in the big awards.
With these steps in mind you are sure to start receiving your own funding for graduate school.  Do you have tips that work?

Deduct graduate school expenses from your taxes

We are coming up on the end of the year and its time to get your taxes ready.  Getting your taxes ready when you are a graduate or professional student can be a major pain in the ass… not to mention doing actually doing the taxes.  Having gone through this a few times I have a few suggestions.


  1.  If you are working on a PhD, you are in luck.  I believe that if you are completing a degree you may deduct reasonable expenses.  (please email me if you know the exact tax code citation so I can add it here).  The key word is reasonable.  Whats reasonable?  Computer – yes.  Internet connection to teach and access the library – yes.  Portion of rent for your office – yes.  Conference fees – yes.  Basically, its up to you to decide what is reasonable… but don’t abuse the law and if you have any questions be sure to contact the IRS.  Keeping this in mind, move to #3.
  2. Organize your physical expenses. Graduate school, like other jobs, requires a variety of office expenses.  In graduate school these are often required for completion of your degree:  office, internet, online backup service, website and hosting, etc. Put some good thought into what you use, make a list, and plan a breakdown of your expenses.  Remember, reasonable expenses are okay.
  3. Organize your equipment, software, and other academic receipts.  I do this a couple of ways.  First, I keep a file where I throw all of my paper receipts.  I don’t have many, but I do put them in one place and look them over when the year passes.  Second, I have a smart google folder that scans for several keywords, including receipt, membership, bill, hotel, confirmation, conference, etc.  When I order something the electronic receipt automatically goes to that folder.  Third, I use two wonderful sites that organize and clean receipts:  Slice and OneReceipt.   Basically, each site scans your email account and looks for the word receipt and then you have the option to organize and sort as needed.
  4. Collect your assorted income forms. Your sources of income should send you a tax form depending on the type of source (W2, 1099 Misc, etc.).  You may also get a notice from your university regarding your scholarships and fellowships. These are taxable income, so you want to report these.
  5. Have a professional do your taxes.  I mean a real tax professional, not the H and R Block down the street.  When you are a graduate or professional student your income comes from many confusing sources – grants, scholarships, work, side income, speaker honorariums, etc – and know what is taxable and what is not can get confusing.  Find a good professional by asking them if they work in the academic areas and stick with them.
Lately, I’ve also been wondering how I can better manage and track my expenses and reimbursements next year.  I use a Mac (and boot in PC for some software) and have been rather unhappy with the software out there.  I use Mint, an incredibly useful web application, but want to have the ability to track side income, grants, and reimbursements as well.  Quickbooks looks promising but does not sync with ING Direct (why I have no idea).   Hopefully, a work around will come soon.
What tips do you have for preparing your scholarly taxes?UPDATE: A reader asked me to explain #1 in greater detail. As I mentioned in #5, I have an accountant do my taxes so be sure to ask your own tax professional before making any decision.  That said, as I understand it, reasonable expenses may be deducted if required for completion of the degree.  In the tax code for education expenses I found these statements (the second one is the main one):

164.6 Doctorat degree; college professor.
Educational expenses incurred by a college professor in securing a doctoral degree in order to be retained on the eligibility list for appointment as president of a junior college are deductible busi- ness expenses. §1.162–5. (Sec. 162, ’86 Code.)  Rev. Rul. 68–580, 1968-2 C.B. 72.

164.22 Research and typing doctoral dissertation. Where the cost of the related educational courses qualify as deductible business expenses, reasonable expenses for research and typing incurred in the preparation of a dissertation to obtain a graduate doctoral degree are also deductible business expenses. §1.162–5. (Sec.
162, ’86 Code.) Rev. Rul. 67-421, 1967–2 C.B. 84.

The key part is reasonable.  In 164.22, the cost for typing the dissertation are deductible as typing expenses.  Now you certainly want to be reasonable. So, if you use the internet and computer to type your dissertation I would guess you can deduct the portion of internet costs and computer needed to type the dissertation.

Regarding rent, I believe if you have a home office that you use exclusively for your employment, you can deduct the rent you pay for that space.

When I next talk to my accountant in early April I’ll ask what forms are used and post an update.

Sharing Manuscripts: DropBox vs. Google Documents

Publish or perish. Publish or perish. Publish or perish ..?

That’s the line we learn very quickly and academia. publications serve many purposes. 1st, they get science out in the hands of other scholars and researchers. For purposes of this blog, however, published articles will get you tenure and show what you have been working on. This is crucial for earning a good wage, and securing a long and vibrant academic career.

I’m working on my 1st manuscript, several of which I am lead author, and having considering ways to share drafts with my co-authors. I don’t like the idea of e-mailing documents back and forth with each other. At any given moment I want to know how much we have written and what it looks like. If we e-mail documents back and forth, we will inevitably start working on an old manuscript. This end, I’ve been exploring Dropbox and Google Documents.

Dropbox and Google Documents each have their own features and people and discuss them all over the place.

Dropbox is convenient because you can share any document between multiple computers. For example we could charter documents with your home computer and your work computer, either of those computers and a colleague, or all of the above. Dropbox is easy to use as it looks just like everything else Erie there is however a limitation with dropbox. You can work on documents at the same time, and it is possible we will work on different versions of a document.

Unlike Dropbox, Google documents does not use file system. Instead, your  “files”,  are stored in an online in your Google documents folder, and have to be exported for submitting them in final versions.  This is actually rather convenient, because you always know which version is up-to-date (the version you are working on at any given point), can work on documents at the same time, and you can easily share documents with any other individual assuming that they have a Google account (and these days who doesn’t). I’ve noticed, however, that some more traditional academics and parentheses e.g. Older academics) do not feel as comfortable working with Google documents. Furthermore, you have to have online access to work on the documents, a big bummer if you are flying across country, or in a rural area, or your Internet simply goes down. I have yet to test how citations work once they are included, but I hope to have an answer for you all soon.

So which do you use and why? Had ever use Google documents with a reference manager such as an out or ref works? How do they work? The publishers enjoy working with this format? The more a pain in the end? Let me know what you think.