Monday, November 17, 2008

Back to the Mentors Thing

I came across this posting by Scicurious, whose blog (I'm sorry to say) I had not previously read. I was a little excited to see that she referred to my comments on a related post as "excellent" and so now I have a new blogger to add to my blogroll. (Yup, it's that easy to get my attention.)

But now that I have a blog of my own instead of just relying on the impact of comments I am able to make on that of others, I wanted to delve a little deeper into my personal tale of mentor woes. I was previously concerned that I would come across as a whiner, but again I say: Fuck it, it's my blog. 

So here's the deal. (And I'm gonna do a little bragging here, because it's warranted.) I have a 4.0 cumulative GPA at MRU and at the community college where I completed half of my coursework. Unless I majorly fuck up the last 3 weeks of this semester, I will be graduating Summa Cum Laude in December. I have done all of this while working full-time in an outside sales position and taking classes full-time. 

Now here's where the tale gets a bit complex and explains how and why my situation is so unique beyond the nontraditional, working student aspect. (Bear with me now, as I think most of you know at this point that I am a long-winded storyteller with a particular love for details). Dammit, I hope no one figures out who I am from this post.  

The first time I went to college I was 17 years old. Same major as I am now, I have always known what I wanted to do. College #1 was a smaller division of a large state U. I was very involved in activities within my department, I was VP of an association for majors in my division. I did all sorts of extra-curricular shit. All of my classes were taught by full professors, and they all knew me by name. It was great, though I didn't realize it at the time. I was forced to leave after a year because they dropped my financial aid. Went to work full-time and stayed away from academia until 2006, when I returned in the summer to start taking classes at the community college in my town. It was there that I met my personal mentor and Favorite Person In The World, but I'll save the info about her for another post. 

At this CC, I knew ALL of my professors, the dean, the president of the college - they all knew me by name and face, and the essential features of my back-story. I had one professor offer to write me a recommendation for anything if I ever needed one after a 6 week summer session in a philosophy course. This person was not my mentor, and I only ever had the one class with him. Still to this day, if I see him outside of campus, he knows who I am and asks how I'm doing. I have a relationship with every single one of the people who taught a course to me at the CC, on varying levels sure, but it's there. 

I was at the CC for 1 year. In my second semester I realized that I needed to apply to 4yr schools to complete my degree. Although I was accepted to some excellent private universities and colleges, some of whom offered me ridiculous scholarships, MRU was still much, much cheaper when it came to out-of-pocket expense. So I ended up there. 

As a nontrad who works full-time at an MRU, it is difficult enough to just get the classes that you need in the timeframes that you can take them, let alone adding in extra-curriculars or undergrad research. In order to complete my degree as quickly as possible, I have taken courses year round for the past 2 years, including summer sessions. Other than a single research methods course, I did not have any courses in my major until this past spring semester, and even then it was only one. It was taught by a full professor whom I absolutely adored, and he is writing letters on my behalf for grad school this fall. He also recruited me into his lab, but he knew that because of work obligations I could not commit to performing work for course credit, so I agreed to contribute on a volunteer basis in order to gain the experience (and of course the letters). 

But within a month after starting at MRU as a transfer student, I began looking into grad programs and what it would take to get in. I knew I needed research experience, so I looked into faculty research interests and found the professor who was studying the stuff I want to do in grad school. I read about 7 of her articles, and then contacted her to let her know I was interested in working in her lab. Provided my GPA and the coursework in my major that I had completed. She responded only to direct me to her lab coordinator, a grad student I have worked with ever since. Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy working with this student a great deal. We're the same age, and she has never treated me like a lowly undergrad. The work I did for her resulted in her offering me second authorship and a primary role in a study she is in the midst of that will result in a presentation and (hopefully) publication in a major journal come spring. 

Although I have expressed interest on multiple occasions in meeting with the professor whose lab I am involved in regularly, the offer was never extended to me. The class that she normally teaches was offered during a summer session with a grad student instructor, so I took it then instead of waiting and hoping that a section with the professor would be offered and available during a time I could take it this fall. As a side note, I did not know how much of a "rockstar" she was until AFTER I started working in the lab and became aware of her connections. I approached her for the sole reason that I found her work fascinating and felt I could learn a lot from her. Unfortunately, in the 7 months that I have spent in her lab, I have met her exactly once. If I came up to her on campus tomorrow and said "hi" she would have no idea who I am. (Unless she has a really, really good photographic memory.)

I was told by my grad student mentor that all the necessary info for the letters would be provided to the professor by her. She essentially acted as the go-between for the professor and I. I have busted my ass for her at every opportunity since I started in the lab, despite working long hours and having tons of homework, exams, and papers to do. I needed the experience, and I like to think that she needed my help. 

But when I provided all of the materials for grad school letters at the grad student's advice, I received an email from the professor reminding me that she had never had me in class, nor had she had much contact with me in the lab. She said she was happy to write the letters and had nothing negative to say, but reminded me that most of the programs I am applying to are extremely competitive and that she didn't feel she had anything to contribute to my application that could put them over the top in an admissions decision. I thanked her for her honesty and explained my predicament - that her lab was the only one in which I had substantial experience, that being a transfer student I did not have as much contact with professors as I would have liked because I have only been a student there for a year, that my advisor who had gotten to know me very well had left for sabbatical at the end of the spring and was therefore unreachable, reminded her of the close working relationship between her lab coordinator and I, and once again expressed a desire to meet with her one-on-one. I also explained that I was not basing my applications on the competition, because I had worked extremely hard for my grades and test scores, and that to apply to schools based solely on competition level would require me to sacrifice my research interests for the sake of earning a degree, and that was not something I was/am willing to do. 

The next response I received was to inform me that the letters had been completed and submitted. She will get a personal, heartfelt, handwritten "thank you" card from me for writing on my behalf. But it saddens me that I did not get to know her or her work on a substantial level for the simple reason that she was unavailable for such contact. I feel like I should have waited and taken her class in the fall, but then I would either be overloaded with work this semester, or I wouldn't be graduating until May. I also would have had to sacrifice the research experience in order to do so. I feel like, at the end of the day, the experience itself is more valuable to my applications than a sparkling letter from a rockstar professor. But who knows? I could be wrong on that. I won't know until Feb./March. 

All but 4 classes in my major at MRU have been taught by grad students. I love taking courses with grad students because they tend to be up on all the latest research. But my opportunity to impress faculty members in my major did not arrive until this semester, and at this point it's too late for anything I do or say to impact my grad school applications. I am relying on the incredibly strong relationship I have with my mentor from the CC, the experience of having taught me, seen how I am in a classroom setting, and seeing some superficial research work I can do from the professor I had in the spring, and I am relying on the blood, sweat, and tears I have put into a grad student's work in rockstar professor's lab to provide a well-rounded picture of who I am and what I can do for grad admissions committees. 

If I wanted to take longer to complete my undergrad degree, wanted to spend exponentially more money on tuition, and/or was able to quit my job to just worry about school like the rest of the 18-21yr olds I attend classes with, I am sure I could have formed stronger relationships with the professors in my department. And maybe that ends up hurting me when Ivy league schools are looking at my apps. But in my mind, grad school was never an option - it was exactly where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. As far as I'm concerned, my undergrad degree is just a formality - just another hoop to jump through on my way to my ultimate goals. I am hoping, praying, crossing my fingers that the admissions committees will recognize that and not hold against me the fact that I didn't do an honors thesis or join Phi Beta Kappa. 

I have angled my entire applications on the fact that I have been a working student in a field with an amount of flexibility that requires the same skills that a doctoral program demands, and that my life experience makes me more qualified than a 21yr old undergrad with the same gpa and a paper with authorship (seeing as I am working on the same). That 21yr old undergrad didn't have a mortgage to pay, a husband to take care of, and a real job with real responsibilities while they were going to school. I did. 

And if that's not multi-tasking at its best, I don't know what is. 


...tom... said...


hey there JLK...

I was also an older, non-traditional student in my particular field. While I was certainly not angling for a grad program I still had requirements I had to meet, courses I had to take when they best worked for me, and opportunities I could not delay for the faint glimmer of a 'better' result. All while working a 40-hour a week graveyard shift job...

As a non-trad student, married, with full-time job responsibilities I kinda understand some of your 'stressors'.

Being married I had limited opportunity to complete my educational program: I applied to two 'stand alone' programs and was accepted by one of them. Wound up completing their program (very successfully) and working happily for the institution ever since.

Anyway . . .just a short note to encourage you to continue plugging away with your best effort and to wish you all due recognition and reward for your long-term hard work.


P.S. Ya know, you could get a freebie web e-mail account and be easily available for your readers to contact. Or vice versa. Gmail is great for keeping the annoying spam down. Just a thought...

Odyssey said...

The prof your are working for may be a rockstar, but she surely does suck. If I were contacted by someone who had bothered to read a bunch of my papers I would do everything in my power to make the time to meet with them. Even if I didn't think I could offer them a position in my lab. Sounds like your rockstar prof has her head so firmly planted up her butt she's forgotten that she didn't make it to rockstar status all by herself.

Professor in Training said...

What Odyssey said.

I also followed a non-traditional route to grad school and it sounds like you are doing every right. Your grad student and post-grad work ethic and experiences are what will set up your career so just keep doing what you've been doing and I'm sure you'll be fine. Just remember to have a life outside of your work ...

JLK said...

Thanks everyone. I don't agree that rockstar professor has her head up her butt. I know that she's super busy and is also planning on retiring next year. But it's still so frustrating when you ask for time to meet with someone in the most unobtrusive way, and they just don't respond.

I also found it odd that she didn't even want to meet me before deciding if she wanted me in her lab - it was entirely up to the grad student, who offered me a position on the spot.

There are only 3 undergrads working in her lab, including myself. I'm the only senior. I'm the only one with a paper in the works that will also have her name on it.

I am so grateful that she was willing to write the letters without personal knowledge of my abilities, I just wish I could've learned from this woman before she takes herself off the radar.

As for the email thing, look for one very soon. I don't want to use my normal gmail account because my full name is attached to it. If I can take my name off of it, I will use that one. If not, I'll come up with a new one because it isn't my primary account anyway.

Ambivalent Academic said...

OT: Made your spinach dip last night w/ fresh basil and spinach...soooo yummy. I had it for dinner.

Re:gmail account - you can set one up with your blogger name. I have two gmail accounts. One with my real name and the other that is attached to my blog. Make sure when you sign into your blog editor it's using your blog gmail...I think you can make that the default.

PhizzleDizzle said...

It is sad that this professor couldn't take the time out to even meet you, that's pretty pathetic.

But you got yourself a paper - and that can be worth quite a bit in grad school applications too. It sounds like you've got your shit toGETHER, girl....I'm sure you will parlay yourself into a great grad school. Good luck!

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