Graduate student and astronomy writer

Archive for January, 2017

On the Road to a PhD: I won…an award?

This blog post is part of a series I’m writing along the road to my dissertation. These posts represent my personal experiences centered around getting a PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and all views expressed within are my own. This is my story.

So…I guess I won an award. Huh. Cool!

Back at the AAS229 meeting in Grapevine, TX about a month ago I presented a poster that summarizes my future thesis chapter on strategies to effectively communicate astronomy. You can see my poster, and come of my commentary, here on a previous blog post. I also, as I usually do, entered my poster into the Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award. This means that during your assigned poster presentation day, your poster and your oral poster presentation will be judged by a few volunteers for content knowledge, clarity, and focus. Two-thirds of the possible points are awarded for the content knowledge as presented orally and on the poster, and one-third of the points are awarded for the design and clarity of the oral presentation and poster itself.

This is the third time I’ve entered the Chambliss competition, and mostly I entered my poster as a “why not?” sort of thing, with no real expectation of winning and no real need to win other than personal validation that my focus on astronomy communication was valued by the community.

But…turns out I won one of the six graduate awards given out this year. Woah! That’s…unexpected and awesome and terrifyingly brilliant and relieving and satisfying and super exciting! The email came through last night, and I just sort of stared at it for a minute not really believing that I wasn’t misreading it and then I might have (read: most definitely did) shout a little and do a happy dance.

Granted, it wasn’t quite to the level of my happy dance after the Cubs won the world series a few months ago (but really, what could top that?), but it was up there.

It’s not so much that I won an award, because in all honesty recognition for academic achievements like that make me uncomfortable and self-conscious more than anything else. But after a lot of uncertainty in my mind about my additional “alternative” focus on astronomy communication as part of my graduate education, this type of validation from the astronomy community is certainly soothes away a bit of my uncertainty.

Since the poster was meant to serve as as an outline and “first draft” of that thesis chapter, I guess it’s full steam ahead!

(also, as an added perk, this award comes with an actual medal…neat!)

On the Road to a PhD: Graduation timeline…yikes!

This blog post is part of a series I’m writing along the road to my dissertation. These posts represent my personal experiences centered around getting a PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and all views expressed within are my own. This is my story.

So, I’ve known that I intended to graduate at the end of this semester since the end of last summer. I met with my thesis committee (which seems to just keep growing!) and presented them with a timeline of work that I intended to finish up, when I would be able to accomplish that work, a (very) rough outline of my thesis and they said…great!

Well, actually, they said, “This is a very ambitious set of goals in a very tight schedule with not much leeway. If it was anyone else but you, Kim, we’d have concerns. But since it’s you…” As if that wasn’t just a little bit of pressure. But hey, it’s always nice when your committee recognizes that you are a ridiculous overachiever capable of serious multitasking and incredible workloads when you put your mind to it.

So I’ve been working hard the past few months to keep on schedule, which has mostly been successful. A few of my projects have taken longer than expected, but that’s how research usually goes.

Only, I didn’t take into account the fact that Penn State requires an absurd amount of lead time between when you defend your dissertation and when they let you walk at graduation. The Penn State Spring Commencement is at the start of May, and in order to walk in the ceremony (and you know, get your diploma and such) you have to defend your dissertation to your committee two months before that. That’s the beginning of March (or a little over a month from now). Yikes! Seriously Penn State, more than two months before graduation?!? Seriously?!? (sidebar: how many of you read that in a “Grey’s Anatomy” voice? No? Just me then…)

So, I had a hard think a few days ago and tried to take an honest look at what I still needed to do, the time frame in which I had to do it, and how long it would really take to finish all that work. And get a mostly final draft of the thesis. And put together a talk. And prepare for the defense. Whilst simultaneously completing a science writing internship and finding a new job.

I came to the pretty tough realization that I couldn’t get all of that done in a month. For all my multitasking and overachieving abilities, I am only human (no radioactive spiders or Gallifreyan DNA over here, thank you very much) and I have limits. I can’t get all of that done in a month, while maintaining a good quality of work, supporting a husband who is also defending his thesis in a month, and keeping myself in good physical and mental health.

So, after having a good and honest talk with my advisor, I decided to wait to officially graduate in August rather than May. However, I don’t actually want to still be in grad school in August doing graduate work (chas v’shalom!). I want to have a real job doing real work in science communication. And my husband will have graduated by then and hopefully have started a new job as well. And research funding would be an issue throughout the summer.

So, the solution is to finish up all of the work I need to do in order to graduate (i.e. apply to graduate, format my thesis, defend, submit my thesis, sign the forms) by May, move on to my new job, and then come back in August to walk the walk. I’ll still technically be enrolled as a student, but will have everything done and a letter from the University stating that I’m ABG (“all but graduation” in the common parlance). It might be messy, but everything will get done, there won’t be two people in this house both frantically trying to defend in a month, funding will stretch, I won’t go spare trying to handle more than I am able to, and I will still be able to start a new job in May. Seems like a solid plan to me!

Now, I’ve actually got to get my committee together to let them know the new plan. Six professors all in the same place at the same time…oi vey.

On the Road to a PhD Blog Series

Hello all! Thanks for joining me on my Road to a PhD…where I blog in semi-real time about the different stages I’m going through now that I’m officially cleared to graduate this year. It’s a lot like the stages of grief only not as grim and with a (hopefully) happy ending. Anyways, here’s a look at my thoughts and experiences while finishing up all the myriad tasks and responsibilities before getting my PhD. This series is part journal, part catharsis, and part chronicle.

Warning: there may be (read: will be) lots of geeky pop culture references, sarcasm, and Yiddish phrases scattered throughout these. These are my default modes when I’m stressed. You are forewarned.

Disclaimer: all thoughts and opinions expressed in this blog series are my own and do not represent the stances of anyone else. Every grad student’s experience is different, and mine is shaped by both the privileges I hold and the challenges I overcome.

Here are the posts in chronological order:

January 6, 2017 – My AAS DTalk

January 24, 2017 – Graduation timeline…yikes!

January 31, 2017 – I won…an award?

February 13, 2017 – Thesis Committee Meetings

March 4, 2017 – Houston, we have a defense date!

On the road to a PhD: My AAS DTalk

This blog post is part of a series I’m writing along the road to my dissertation. These posts represent my personal experiences centered around getting a PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and all views expressed within are my own. This is my story.

(Written during the AAS229 meeting in Grapevine, TX)

The annual winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) is *the* conference to be at. There are many other conferences during the year, most of which are focused on smaller subfields or specialties in astronomy, and there’s even a summer AAS meeting. But the winter meeting is bigger, more well attended, more timely, and more important for a grad student than the other ones. Your collaborators are here. Your peers are here. Your potential future employers are here. And one of the milestones in your astronomy career can only happen at a AAS meeting: giving your public dissertation talk (DTalk).

Oral presentations at AAS meetings are a sprint and a gauntlet: you get a single, 10 minute time slot that they recommend you split into a 5 minute talk, 3 minutes for questions, and 2 minutes for transition to the next person. 5 minutes to explain everything you’ve been working on to a group of hypercritical scientists who are only partially paying attention to you (I’m actually writing this post as I’m sitting in someone else’s talk, not paying as much attention as I should).

But, when you’re within a year of finishing your dissertation (before or after you defend) you can give a *20* minute talk. Once in your career you get the chance to tell the rest of the (U.S.) astronomical community what you’ve spent your graduate career working on, and the DTalk is their way of acknowledging that you’ve arrived. You get one shot, and mine was on Jan. 5th, 2017.

This series of tweets sums things up:

There was sort of a sense of surrealism that I’d finally “made it,” that it was my turn to give the all-important dissertation talk. I felt similarly when I had to apply to give the talk, and there was a checkbox that said “Do you confirm that you are within one year of attaining your PhD?” My brain went “oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh I’m graduating soon…” The sense of “Have I really done enough to graduate? Are they really letting me graduate? I *can’t* have done enough for this.” A serious case of imposter syndrome, that they would actually give *me* a PhD for the work that I’ve done… #omgthesis seemed to sum it up.

That…didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I’ve always had an issue taking credit for the things I’ve done, and I think that it’s only gotten worse over time. I downplay my academic accomplishments, a holdover from “little sibling syndrome” and “try not to brag about being smart in school.” Attempting to make the switch from “we did this work” to “I did this work” was very difficult, and I don’t think I did it well for the DTalk. Maybe it’ll go better for my actual defense…

Yeah, that didn’t help with the nerves. The big room, where all the plenary talks are, large enough to hold the entire meeting. It wasn’t anywhere near full for mine, but when I was trying to get over my nerves and the sense that I shouldn’t be there, being in the largest and most grandiose room possible didn’t help. About the only thing that was good about that room was the huge timer in front of the stage counting down my time. I could have done without that unconscious pressure.

It’s true. I was nervous, and I’m not one that usually gets nervous talking in front of people. I’ve been on a stage since I was 10 years old, performing in school plays and musicals and then later, giving science talks to the general public and participating in radio and web science shows. I know how to speak about science, and I know the work I did, but somehow I don’t think that came across. Though others have said that the talk went well, I was not particularly happy with my own performance. *I* knew that I stumbled and stuttered and flailed a bit, even if it didn’t seem that way to an audience (one of the key rules in theater is that the audience won’t know you messed up if you don’t tell them…I’m usually good at that).

My overall impression of my talk was not the best. I knew that half the things I said I didn’t want to say, and half the things I wanted to say, I didn’t. That doesn’t usually happen to me, which makes me not like how my talk went. I spent the entire 10 minutes of the talk after mine reminding myself that it’s done, I can’t change it, I have to accept what happened and move on because stressing and overanalyzing my performance isn’t going to make it better. I think I might have convinced myself.

Do I feel different? Sort of. Though my advisor and my thesis committee agree that I can graduate in a few months, now the rest of the astronomy community knows it, too. I’m now subject to, “So, you’re on the market now, right?” “Where are you looking for postdocs?” (and doesn’t *that* open up a new can of worms?) “When is your defense date?” (not scheduled yet!) It highlights all of the things that are on my to-do list before I can *actually* graduate. And perhaps the expectations and pressure are all in my mind. It wouldn’t be the first time.

It feels like the DTalk was the starting line for the race to defense. Certainly the past 5 years of grad school, and the 4 years of undergrad, and even the 4 years of high school before that were all training grounds for this race. I’ve trained and I’ve practiced, and I’ve done the smaller races leading up to this one. I know I *can* do it. Now I just have to actually follow through.

Multimedia Astronomy Communication – Poster Page

This is the page for my poster on  Multimedia Astronomy Communications, presented at AAS229 in Grapevine, TX



Click here to download the poster on Multimedia Astronomy Communications

I’ve already had some fantastic interactions at my poster on astro communication. Here are a few of the things that I’ve talked about:

What is the next step? Where do you go from here?

Well, aside from defending and (hopefully) completing my PhD, I would really love to see some sort of course on communicating astronomy integrated into graduate programs. Communication is integrally linked to astronomy research and an astronomy career. As such, graduate programs and graduate advisors should help their students develop those skills just like they help develop research skills. A course, workshop, or seminar on good communication practices (research papers, grant applications, research presentations, etc) would go a long way towards improving communication within our field.

What does it mean to tell a Simple, Concrete, and Credible story?

Simple, Concrete, and Credible are what I call “must haves” when telling your science story. This means that the main message of your story should be straightforward, unambiguous, and believable. This doesn’t mean that your results have to be definite and unambiguous; nevernevernever misrepresent your science. But, you 100% should ensure that you explain your result in an unambiguous way.

What is the biggest hurdle you had to overcome while working on this?

Granted, this one was asked by one of the poster judges, but it’s a good question nonetheless. The single BIGGEST issue here is that little to no research currently exists on communicating astronomy in an effective way. And I mean, astronomy specifically. There is some research (by some awesome people) on teaching astronomy, but while teaching is a specific form of communication, there are many other types that astronomers deal with that haven’t been addressed.

That being said, there is a lot of research that has been done in other fields, like engineering and medicine. Not to mention all of the communication theory research that has been done in the actual field of communications. The AstroComms poster lists some of the available resources that I hunted down. There are a lot more. The biggest hurdle I faced (and continue to face) is finding the appropriate reference material, figuring out which parts could translate to astronomy, and working out the best way to apply the work to astronomy-specific problems.



This page will soon be updated with comments, notes, and suggestions I received at AAS229. Stay tuned for more information!


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