Graduate Visitation is a MUST

I often get the question from prospective graduate students on whether graduate visitation is a necessary step in the overall graduate admission process as the prospect of taking time off for travel might be difficult on a tight schedule and/or the cost of travel is just too steep for an individual ready to submit to a few more years of ongoing poverty. The short and simple answer is YES. A visit to prospective institutions, in my opinion, is a must.

The collective knowledge gained from every visit was arguably the single most critical element in the process that helped me determine the right place to dedicate the next 4-5 years of my life. Let me explain. It is the universities’ job to put forth their best foot and convince you that their institution is the one for you. Typically this accomplished through a ton of promotional literature and relentless recruitment on behave of the school. It is safe to say that no schools will falsify this information, but by the same token, certainly no schools will represent their institution in a negative way. With that said, it is the responsibility of the prospective student to discern the institution that best fit their personality, as well as career orientation. And the only ways to truly do this is by going straight to the source and investigate. Here are some tips that may be helpful in the process of graduate visitation:

  • Cost of airfare and hotel rooms are expensive and certainly will add up after about 2-3 visitations. Most universities, and depending on structure of each department, typically have money set aside to fund visitations. Do inquire further at the department office of the program in question. The worst that can happen is a polite, “No.”
  • With all the action happening on the admission side of things, administrative employees are often very busy. This can make them a little grouchy and unwilling to help a lowly prospective graduate student, true story. This is where open communication with faculty members pay off and they are usually very effective at making your case to the administrative side. Even if the admissions people remain uncooperative, the faculty can certainly help fund your trip from their own accounts.
  • Cost of living analysis should be carried out at every institution. Getting a $20k annual stipend to live in Los Angeles is certainly very different from living in Bloomington. Choose wisely.
  • Ask about available scholarships, fellowships, and funding sources for your education. A $250k billing at the end of the graduate career is no fun. I know many in this situation.
  • Inquire into research opportunities and well as teaching opportunities available at the institution. This will insure that you are at a place where you can keep your training relevant and skill set diverse.
  • Nightlife. I cannot stress this enough. It is important for your mental health as well as the mental health of those in your program to have places to just relax, have a beer, and unwind. This vital information is often obtained through current graduate students at the institution. Feel free to ask.
  • Lastly, have at least two professors that you’d like to personally speak with regarding the program and what it has to offer. It is a good idea to do research ahead of time on these professors to strengthen your questions in the context of their work.

Good luck, and have a wonderful visitation day!

Graduate Student Emissaries at Work

Along with blogging, giving student tours and being successful Graduate Students the Emissaries for Graduate Student Diversity also give presentations. Three emissaries gave a presentation on “graduate school preparedness” at the Hudson and Holland Scholars Program LEAD Conference on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at the Bloomington Convention Center.

Carl D., Zelideh M-H., and Alfonse P presented two workshops on “Graduate School Preparedness” at the Hudson and Holland Scholars Program LEAD Conference on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at the Bloomington Convention Center.

~ Photo taken by David N.

While you wait for good news

Unlike most graduate students, I went through the graduate admission process twice. The first time around, choosing work over graduate school was the more logical choice at the time. The second time was fueled by the desire to depart from the industrial culture to embrace something more academic in nature. The difference is simple: industry strives to create products as efficiently with the lowest overhead possible whereas academia strives to expand fundamental pursuits by any means possible. They are truly apples and oranges when compared to one another, each direction with their own rightful merits and shortcomings. I eventually chose the academic route as it gives me the chance to explore a specific discipline while being able to share the findings with colleagues and beyond.

The graduate admission process was much smoother and relaxing the second time around. Here what I learned:

  • Use the time to read review articles in the fields that you are interested in. It’ll give you good insight and background to be relevant when given the opportunity to converse with faculty and researchers during the graduate visitation periods.
  • Remain in contact with faculty and researchers whose work you are interested in, it’ll help prepare you to make the right decision while selecting future institutions and faculty advisers to work with.
  • The period just after you’ve sent in all your applications materials until the first acceptance letter can be quite psychologically taxing. You entire future for the next few years is completely in the air and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. And it’s exactly that, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it at the moment, so why waste time and health stressing over it. Use that time to catch up with friends and family before your eventual departure. I am glad I did just that.
  • Once again, just relax. The one thing I wish I did more frequently in California before I left was go to the beach. Not even to tan, surf, or swim. Just to feel the sand between my toes and the sounds of the crashing waves. Homesickness will hit hard, savor the moment.

Foodies’ Alert: Lucky Express

After nearly four years living in Bloomington, I’ve been very fortunate to find individuals who I connected with not only on an intellectual level, but bonded by one of our most basic needs: food. Some eat to live, we live to eat. And thus the first of many “Foodies’ Alert” begins.

Growing up in the Bay Area, the culture of supporting mom-n-pop establishments is ingrained into the fabric of our food souls. I am not just taking about small businesses. Thinking about a lackluster exterior that has seen better days with an eclectic medley of furniture forming the interior, yet the irresistible aroma of food and chattering of excited patrons in lines snaking around the small establishment fills the air. Such pure and soulful dwellings of culinary excellence must be recognized. In need of a Chinese fast-food fix? Look no further, Lucky Express is the answer to those cravings.

So much soul for one tiny hole-in-the-wall. Photo by Marta Shocket and Rashid Williams-Garcia.

Located on 3rd and Lincoln across from the Bloomington Police Headquarters. Image from Google Maps.

Handwritten menu items with Mandarin included just in case you are in the know. Photo by Marta Shocket and Rashid Williams-Garcia.

The small venue provides seating for your eating pleasures. And yes, that is faded mossy oak on the front counter panels. Hilarious. Photo by Marta Shocket and Rashid Williams-Garcia.

The necessary tools of the culinary bliss trade. Photo by Marta Shocket and Rashid Williams-Garcia.

A typical delicious meal at the establishment. Photo by Nancy Q.

An action shot! Hot wok over an industrial gas range stove. Photo by Marta Shocket and Rashid Williams-Garcia.

Remember to bring cash to help your local establishment Rage Against the Machine! Photo by Marta Shocket and Rashid Williams-Garcia.

It has been hailed “The best Chinese fast-food in Indiana,” the place is owned and operated by a very nice Chinese family whose likeness I will challenge you to get acquainted with. If you are a capsaicin fiend, this place will be absolute heaven. If not, they have alternative that will still blow your minds. My girlfriend and I recommend the eggplant w/ garlic sauce (not spicy) and double pork w/ dried tofu and jalapenos (spicy). Have fun and have a wonderful new year!

Graduate Application Checklist

Here is a useful checklist that I personally used while finalizing my graduate school applications.

  • Check and save records of all electronic applications (as .pdf) and written applications (as photocopyies. It’ll be useful to reference if anything goes wrong with your application process in the near future.
  • Carefully read through each personal statement and statement of purpose. If you used a general template tailored to each specific institution, make sure the university and the program names referenced in the statements corresponds to the actual school you’re applying to. This will surely avoid awkward situations.
  • Double-check that your GRE scores (general and field specific) have been sent to the correct university codes. Then check again by calling ETS. They are notorious for ruining applications.
  • Stay in constant contact with the nice folks who will be writing your letters of recommendation. First and foremost, they are people who have lives outside of work. Secondly, they are likely professionals or professors at your institution. These people are arguably the most busy people in the world. Don’t be afraid to offend, remind them OFTEN of upcoming deadlines. They’ll appreciate it.
  • Make a spreadsheet that contains all the schools you are applying to, the status of their applications, and special considerations as the application process for each school is quite unique (and should stay that way to avoid the plague of putting names into “magical black boxes” to determine one’s future that is currently a point consternation in the medical field).
  • Once the last application is sent off, DO NOT DWELL. Find something relaxing to occupy your time that applications has once stolen from you. Absolutely free you are, until bonded and shackled to your graduate project, but you didn’t hear it from me. =)

Best of luck always on all your endeavors! Email me if you have any questions.

United State Particle Accelerator School

For the past four years, I’ve had a unique and worthwhile opportunity attending and helping the United States Particle Accelerator School (USPAS) which provides graduate-level educational programs in the physics of particle beams and relevant accelerator technologies. The goal is to provide training for future scientist, researchers, and engineers by current leaders and prominent researchers in the field.

USPAS is governed and funded by an 11-member consortium comprised of seven national laboratories of the Office of Science of the Department of Energy, two national laboratories of the National Nuclear Security Agency of DOE, and two National Science Foundation university laboratories. The member institutions are as follows:

  • Argonne National Laboratory
  • Brookhaven National Laboratory
  • Cornell’s Laboratory for Nuclear Studies
  • Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory
  • Michigan State University
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
  • Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

The two-week USPAS is held twice a year at a different host institution each time. I have personally attended USPAS hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Old Dominion University, University of Texas at Austin, and Michigan State University. The experiences I’ve gained at the accelerator school I have applied directly to my research and the support network that I’ve establish there I will carry with me the rest of my career. For those of you who are interested in particle accelerators, beam physics, and accelerator technology should visit the USPAS website for more information. They also provide scholarships for those who demonstrate merit and exceptional progress in the field.

For those of you who are not in the field of accelerator and beam physics, do keep an eye out for similar workshops and courses offered in your field as they will be invaluable in your growth as an aspiring scholar. I’ll keep you all updated with photos on the next USPAS that I will be attending at Duke University. Have a wonderful Christmas!


Happy Thanksgiving

It has been a tradition of ours to always have a small Thanksgiving dinner for all those who are far from home away from family and friends during the holidays. The dinners often consist of an eclectic group of friends and acquaintances both domestic and international graduate students spanning across nearly a dozen academic disciplines. We also encourage a cultural potluck where people bring cuisine from different cultures to share with others. Food aplenty, good music in the air and libations flowing makes for an unforgettable night. Numerous interdisciplinary collaborations have sprang forth from these social events aimed to both entertain and as an opportunity to network outside the academic setting. Techniques and tool that a researcher use in his or her specific discipline can be very well applied to another completely different field with profound results. Good times!

Corn & black bean quinoa, 5-cheese mac, garlic bacon mash, collard greens, grilled chicken, and cast-iron rib-eye steaks. All homemade, enough said. Photo by Rashid Williams-Garcia.

Our large vinyl collection sure came in handy for the event. Can you guess what’s playing? Photo by Rashid Williams-Garcia.

Resume vs. Curriculum Vitae

Many graduate students enter graduate school with some experience in writing resumes for previous jobs or even to fulfill requirements in the graduate student application process. Regardless of prior experiences, most face the realization that they must immediately strengthen their current resume and/or upgrade to a curriculum vitae in preparation for grant and scholarship applications during the first year. Having a well-updated curriculum vitae is one of many essential components of academic life, and as a graduate student, could mean the difference between earning that sought-after research fellowship or yet another trip back to the drawing boards.

The expression curriculum vitae originate from the Latin expression curriculum vitæ which loosely translate as “course of life,” or more fluidly, “the course of my life.” A curriculum vitae, or as known colloquially as a CV, is meant to provide a complete overview of a person’s experiences and qualifications rather than an abridged overview of experiences as provided by a resume. A commonly accepted rule of thumb is that resumes are typically limited one sheet of paper (front and back) whereas curricula vitae will require several pages of information to fully articulate one’s accomplishments and experiences. Well-constructed curricula vitae will often minimally include: a cover statement or statement of research interest, educational background, publications, conference proceedings, research experiences, specialized training, teaching experience, service, and awards and honors. In addition, a curriculum vitae may also include sections on invited talks, publications in preparation, relevant work experience, and personal information that you feel will add to the organization or group that you are interested in working with. However, each field has slightly different expectations of content, formatting, and language, so be sure to consult with colleagues, professors, and mentors when constructing and refining your curriculum vitae.

Remember that one’s curriculum vitae is a dynamical piece of work that will need to change to reflect the purpose of its implementation. For example, when applying for a research position or a position in which research is emphasized, it is important to highlight your research experiences and publications right away on the first page. This seems obvious, but it is of the utmost importance that the reader understands how prolific of a scholar you are and on the way to becoming. Whereas applying to a position in which teaching is emphasized requires your teaching experiences to be placed at the beginning. Imagine an impatient reviewer making his or her rounds reviewing potential applicants. You would like to catch their attention immediately upon picking up your curriculum vitae instead of having them flip through many pages to get the essential information that may be critical to your success.

Your curriculum vitae is meant to be a detailed account of all your education, training, and experiences along the way as well as any recognition that you have earned to reflect the effectiveness of your training. Do elaborate fully on your experiences. When listing previous positions held also include a small description of duties carried forth and tools that you have used to accomplished your work. For example, a young astrophysicist whose work included reduction and analysis of spectral data would give a brief description on how the programming languages IDL and C++ were used to complete his or her task. This will not only give the reviewer an idea of your competency in a particular discipline but the tools that you have learned that may also be applicable in future work.

Tasteful verbosity is quite the gift to have in writing a curriculum vitae. Have close colleagues and friends critique your curriculum vitae often to ensure its fluidity. Know your audience and tailor the information that goes on your curriculum vitae to be in parallel with the reviewers’ objectives. Of course this goes without saying, but in light of recent cases of fallen CEOs due to falsification of information on their curriculum vitae, DO NOT attempt to embellish the information on your curriculum vitae as it may hurt you in the long run. Have fun and good luck. Feel free to message me if you have questions.

Personal Statements: edit, Edit, EDIT!

Here are some tips I found useful while writing personal statements in the physical sciences as one continues to hone their skills in the art of producing successful statements.

  • While preparing a personal statement, some choose to use the space as annotations or a preface to their academic records. For example, you didn’t do as well as you’d like in that chemistry course in sophomore year and feel a need to explain the resulting grades. Don’t do this, it’ll waste your time and the time of those who will eventually read your statement. Your academic records are already included for reader to form their opinions of your humble petitions; it’s out of your hands. Instead, focus on the larger questions. How have you grown throughout your undergraduate experience (the successful experiences as well as the not-so-successful experiences)? How will graduate/professional studies help you grow as a young scientist or professional? What do you hope to gain from pursuing a graduate/professional degree?
  • Many choose to open the statement with their heartfelt childhood dreams or goals. Cut that out, it makes you sound naive and not ready for the rigors of the academic environment to come. Remember that they are figuring out whether or not they should invest their time and money on you as a scholar. Your baseless childhood dreams, when compared to diligent preparation and hard work conveyed in other statements, will certain work against you. Save those heartfelt stories for your memoirs.
  • How have your education, work and research experiences thus far prepares you for the graduate/professional training ahead? Show evidence of your preparation for the advance degree. For example, if your goals are to pursue an advance degree for the purpose of research, show that you’ve dabble with research in some capacity. Everyone has to take the required course in preparation, but it takes a special individual to go out of their way to search for much more.
  • Always maintain an archive of past personal statements to draw ideas from and improve upon. Perhaps a sentence that you’ve developed awhile back can be refined with more experience in the field. Remember that writing personal statement is a skill you’d like to refine over time. Reinventing the wheel over and over is just not efficient.
  • Personally, I divide the process of personal statement writing into two modes: free-writing, and editing. I usually free-write early in the morning when my mind is still fresh and ready to produce. Here is where you can add a little stylistic touch to your personal statement. Disregard grammar and just have a conversation in this mode. I usually fall back to editing in the late afternoons or evenings. This is where I refine my ramblings into coherent thoughts in a way that is somewhat presentable to the reader. In the later stages of writing personal statements, editing is emphasized and thus for me is carried out in the mornings.
  • Edit, edit, edit! This process should take the bulk of your time. It is advisable that you start at least a month before the statement is due. Remember that everyone will have similar contents on their personal statements, fine-tuning through diligent editing will give you that edge to set you apart from the pack.

I hope this helps you on your journey into the academic realm. Message me if you have questions.

Far from Home

Daunting was the task of carefully scrutinizing each potential graduate program to ensure the right fit for future aspirations and styles of inquiry. And once the process has come to pass, along with the fairytale-esque courtship of the post-acceptance graduate visitations and the subsiding stress of relocation, only the lack of free time and the realization that you are far removed from any semblance of what could be called home remains. This feeling I know all too well, let me show you what I mean.

Nested in the South Bay, San Jose is the mecca of computer technology and semi-conductors. The innovation and diversity of thought are merely reflections of the cultural demographics of the area. Below is the distribution of racial and ethnic groups in the Bay Area derived from the 2010 U.S. Census data.

Home, sweet home.

In the heart of the Silicon Valley, born and raised.

Colorful isn’t it? San Jose has the largest Vietnamese population in a single city outside Vietnam. This is home; the place where I grew up. This is where my family and many of the people I love and cherish currently reside. It shares a special place in my heart.

To the south, the second most populous city in the United States stands with a population of 3.8 million. It is in this concrete jungle of Los Angeles that I spent most of my adulthood. Life here is fast-paced, and traffic… unsettlingly in utter contrast, but I loved every second of my time there. Neighboring further south is Orange County, which boast the largest Vietnamese population in one county outside Vietnam. See for yourself.

The City of Angels that never sleeps.

Now where the heck am I going with all this? Well, in the summer of 2009, I got on an airplane departing from LAX headed for IND. About an hour out, I finally made it to what would be my dwelling place and the battlegrounds for my intellectual pursuit for the years to come. I understood and accepted earlier on that Indiana will be quite different from any place I’ve ever lived. The census data surely verifies this fact.

Welcome to the Crossroads of America.

Yet despite all the mental preparations, for the first year, I’ve never felt so alone and paralyzed with homesickness. But in this short period of seemingly endless stupor, I had time to reflect and seek out guidance from those who came before. I have come to learn a few things I’d like to share with you:

— This feeling of being overwhelmed is a part of the graduate school experience. It’s only natural to feel like a tiny sapling in the a grand forest of competing minds. Be patient and work hard, you’ll find yourself competing in no time.

— The discomfort of being away is a temporary feeling only to be replaced by a sense of profound appreciation of what you had, what you now have, and the possibility of what is to come. And it is only when we are taken out of our comfort zone that we strive and grow as an individual.

— The world is a vast and interesting place waiting to be explored, especially for a young scholar. Think about it, what other time is there in life where you can just grab your stuff, uproot, and live somewhere completely different. None, there is no other time. Now is the time.

— Lastly, misery always seeks company. Find yourself a good group of friends share your common experiences. A festive night complaining about graduate existence over a cold beer does wonders for the well-being of the graduate student soul.

These are the simple truths that I live by and use on a daily basis to justify near-poverty wages in the pursuit of knowledge. Going into the final years of my graduate studies, I’ve never felt more content with the direction of my life. I stand ready to humbly contribute my knowledge and experiences to uncover and understand the most profound mysteries of our natural world.