29 April 2007

Writing a personal statement: Part 1

For our REU program, we asked applicants to submit a personal statement. For the benefit of those of you who might want to apply next year, here are some tips.

Step One. Look innocuous.

"But wait," I hear the cries. "What about all those workshops and books that say they can tell you how to write a resume that stands out?" Let me refine that: Your personal statement's first task is just to get past the first round of inspection. Don't draw attention to yourself for the wrong reasons.

"Usually the first task in reviewing job applicants to reduce a large pile of resumes to a small pile--that is to begin to look for quick rejects. So avoid supplying gratuitous reasons for rejection--such as typos, spelling errors (its/it's, for example), unexplained long gaps in employment history, weird designs, statements about "my objective", no contact phone number, email addresses of the form plaigarist@wildthing.enron," wrote Edward Tufte on his forum.

Tufte mentions a personal bugbear above. Quick! Which of these are real words? Its'. It's. Its. The last two are. Now, for the bonus round, which of the last two is a possessive pronoun and which is a contraction? Seth Godin put it well here: apostrophes exist "to expose apostrophe ignorance."

For you biology students, species names are like apostrophes: they expose ignorance. Learn to format species names correctly.

Humans, for example, are Homo sapiens or H. sapiens. Not Homo Sapiens, H. Sapiens, Homo Sapiens, H. Sapiens, Homo sapiens, or H. sapiens.

Species names are always italicized. If it isn't italicized, it's wrong.

The genus name (first word in name) is capitalized, and the species name (second word in name) is not. This is important to recognize, because some word processors want to capitalize anything following a period, because a period normally signifies a new sentence, and the first word in new sentences are capitalized.

Formatting species names incorrectly screams "amateur hour" and can be a fast way to drag an application to the bottom of the pile. And not being able to write a species name correctly has been known to drive some biology instructors into dangerous berserker rages of the sort depicted.

24 April 2007

The pool

We have slightly more applicants that I expected, which is nice. About 30. Now we have to see how quickly we can sort through them.

23 April 2007

The (recruitment) circle is (nearly) complete

Darth Maul recruitment poster
Today is the application deadline, so tomorrow I will have to take down this poster and many others. Yes, it's another riff on the "dark side" theme, playing a bit more with the idea that this is an apprenticeship.

And, say what you will about the faults in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the design is striking. It's pretty hard to not to look at that poster when you see it in the hall printed two and a half feet wide. I've actually had a fair number of compliments and comments on the posters so far.

But back to applications. So far, I have a respectable number of incomplete applications, and a few completed ones. I am going to be very, very curious to see the final total number of applications.

And then, the tough part: choosing from those applications.

20 April 2007

The big honkin' poster

Big recruiting poster
This is the first recruitment poster I made, and it's actually the biggest. Over three feet high and five feet wide.

And let me tell you, it's really embarrassing when you make something that huge and in your face and make a mistake on it.

I don't think you'll find it on the picture at left, since I took advantage of this being the digital age and fixed the mistake before posting it on this blog. I thought about fixing the mistake on the big posters in the hall, but then I thought, "Why draw attention to it? Probably nobody will notice." Unfortunately, at least one person did. Drat.

19 April 2007

I'm not what you're looking for

These aren't the droids you're looking for.
In talking to people as art of recruitment, it's interesting to hear the occasional student saying, "But I'm not..." and list some perceived fault. Not a 4.0 GPA student. Not a pre-med. Not enough experience. Not smart enough. Not tall enough. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not a Bio major (that one came in literally as I was typing this entry up).

Our biggest challenge is to get students to stop taking themselves out of the pool.

Every application is a collection of pluses and minuses. Students look at their minuses, and think they have no pluses. Or that the competition they picture in their imagination has no minuses. To any student reading: That applicant you have in your mind that you think you're competing against? Does. Not. Exist.

So you're not a perfect student. Does that mean you're not even going to try?

Seriously, you can't know what we're looking for. Often, we can barely articulate that ourselves...

Gonna be a party in Kentucky tonight

Congratulations to UTPA alumnus Matt Garcia!

Matt is defending his Ph.D. today. He's in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of Kentucky.

Matt was an Honors student in my first year here. His thesis was the first I was involved in as a committee member, because he had done work in neurobiology. Matt graduated in 2002. I ran into him at a Society for Neuroscience meeting a few years later, and he seemed to be doing well for himself.

Matt did his Honors undergraduate work elsewhere. I think it may have even been Kentucky, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was an REU program. But his story is an excellent example of what we're trying to accomplish in our REU program.

18 April 2007

Another young turk

Watson poster
This poster was another riff on the Goodall poster I posted earlier, trying to remind students that a lot of significant scientific discoveries are made by people when they're young. In mathematics, it's almost cliché.

The downside of making such posters is that they can be quite depressing for the maker. As Tom Lehrer said, "It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years!"

17 April 2007

No excuses

Cook recruiting poster
This recruitment poster came pretty directly out of some email exchanges with an interested student who was worried about whether she could devote enough time to the program because she worked. So I told her that the REU positions were not just honorary things, but that they pay -- and pays pretty darn well.

I had been trying to focus more on other benefits to being in the program besides just the paycheque -- oops, translation to American -- paycheck. There were several reasons for that. One of which was that I didn't want it to appear that I was trying to undercut some other research programs, because the REU actually pays more over the whole program (But students work longer in the program, too.)

But the conversation reminded me that for a lot of our students, the money is a big factor.

16 April 2007

Mike Mignola, we love you!

Fight ignorance!
Today's poster came about just because I saw the art, and wanted to use it.

13 April 2007

Don't wait

Goodall poster
I was listening to an interview with Jane Goodall on the Science Show recently, and as a result, I was tooling around and found the picture I used in this poster at right. Click to enlarge.

I liked it, because it was a reminder that while we often see pictures of "distinguished scientists," but often the work that made their reputations was done when they were quite young. Many major discoveries in biology were made by people in their 20s -- more than now, because the science has become much more regimented than it was in, say, the 19th century. One day, I'll have to start compiling a list.

12 April 2007

The full picture

Recruitment poster
It's getting to be crunch time in the recruitment race. Today I stuck up a series of posters around the buildings. I'll be showing some of them off here over the next few days.

I kind of like how this one turned out. Click to enlarge.

10 April 2007

More recruiting

REU recruitment slide
Another slide I used at a recruiting presentation. This was inspired by our tendency to calling getting into research "joining the dark side," but by this comic from Jorge Cham.

Steal from the best, I always say.

09 April 2007

Truth in advertising

REU recruitment slide
I showed this slide at a Biology Club meeting last week, as I was trying to drum up applications for the REU program. The inspiration for the slide was easy.

Almost every faculty member around here refers to getting a student excited about research as "joining the dark side."

It is, of course, a joke. Just making that clear for the humor-deprived in the audience.

Because so few students come in the door wanting to do research, convincing them to go into research sometimes feels like trying to convince people to turn to a mysterious and often uncertain path.

07 April 2007

Page 3 boy

In certain British tabloids, there's a tradition known as the "Page 3 girl." Let's just say that I don't qualify, but I am on page three of this article (PDF format) in our student newspaper, The Pan American, describing our REU program.

And so it begins

Map of Texas showing UTPA
Science is all about experiments, and this blog is no exception.

I am hoping that the participants in this REU site -- both mentors and students and others -- will occasionally post here to give an idea of what our undergraduate research experience is all about. What makes this an experiment? It's an experiment because program managers of other REU Sites have said there wasn't much interest in blogging among their students.

But then, we have a much different REU program from most others. So we shall see.

Meanwhile, I've added a picture to answer a frequently asked question about anything concerning our university.

"UTPA? Where's that?"