Advice: Your grad school inquiry email better relate directly to the person you’re emailing

Photo of three people looking at a long table full of marine specimens
Approaching prospective faculty advisers can feel daunting (and random). But it doesn’t have to. (Image ©2018, BGMerkle)

I field a fair number of grad student inquiry emails, especially considering I do not maintain a lab/students. My appointment in our department is a capacity-building one which does not involve direct supervision of graduate students pursuing degrees.

What that means is that I say no to every inquiry email I receive. For most of these prospective students, I wouldn’t be the right adviser anyway: they write me with interest in animal behavior, reproductive physiology, and wildlife biology to name a few. These emails are fairly straightforward to reply to. I don’t do that kind of science.

The trickier ones are the emails from people who clearly took time to read my bio/webpage on our department website. These folks tend to be interested in intersections of the same things I am.

Their inquiries are harder to decline, in part because I know there aren’t that many grad school opportunities at these intersections. And, in part because it would be so fun (and yes, hard work!) to jam out with a lab full of people working together on these topics.

In every case, though, I say no.

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Advice: A cover letter should center your expertise *relevant to the position/RFP*, not your career stage (bonus: cover letter template)

When you’re looking for job or funding opportunities, your cover letter does some heavy lifting. (Photo of me (#throwback) doing field research on bison in Canada)

It’s “application season” for fellowships, jobs, grants, and more. This time of year, I field a lot of queries about fine-tuning cover letters and application materials. I’ve shared various resources for them online (like a workshop series on applying for the NSF GRFP that’s applicable to most application types) and on social media.

Today, I want to share something more specific and detailed about what is arguably the most important part of your application: the cover letter.

To my mind, the cover letter is most important because it may be the only part of your application that a hiring manager, grants program officer, editor, or whomever reads.* Your cover letter is your shot at getting them to want to read your CV, references, etc. With the cover letter, your goal is to get on the short list for reading your full packet or even offering a phone/video-call interview.

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Sketching Tip: Sketching Techniques Toolkit

Student practicing simplifying a complex image into essential line work (at a Sketching for Scientists workshop I taught at Harvard Forest)

I teach numerous Sketching for Scientists workshops each semester, for faculty, students, and science/science-allied professionals beyond academia. Each time, we do a lively, evidence-based crash course in habits of mind and foundational drawing techniques. I keep the focus tightly on integrating drawing with doing and sharing science, and for faculty, there is an additional coaching element where I help them think through curricular planning that can make grading feasible and productive and convincingly convey the value and utility of drawing for learning science.

Each time I run these workshops, I share a list of the techniques we’ve discussed, as a memory aid.

Here’s that list, in case it’s also helpful for you!

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SciComm Advice: Start at the End (what are you trying to do?)

Girl drawing in a sketchbook with art supplies on table around her
©2021 – Student sketching in a notebook surrounded by educational materials

I frequently get asked by students and faculty what kind of advice I have for a student interested in sharing science. Some of these students want careers as scicomm professionals. Others want to do scicomm as a scientist. And others still just know someone who is looking for advice. This post is written as direct-to-the-seeker advice.

Feel free to share it and chime in about the advice you share or have found most helpful — share in the comments or on Twitter!


As a starting point, I typically I recommend folks read “Unveiling Impact Identities: A Path for Connecting Science and Society” (link to paper). Julie Risien and Martin Storksdieck’s paper is about about how to meld what they call research and impact identities. Reading this paper can help you orient you to…yourself.

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Canadian Science Publishing interviews me about creative ways of doing science communication and sharing science

I was invited to serve as the People’s Choice Judge for Canadian Science Publishing*’s 2021 Visualizing Science contest (which you can enter now!). In the course of launching the contest, CSP interviewed me about my take on creative approaches to visualizing science and doing science communication.

Here are the cliff notes:

  1. I came to a career scicomm in a round-about way, only to later discover I had been doing scicomm most of my career.
  2. My “creativity+scicomm” soap box centers around 3 principles: (1) Creativity can be practiced and enhanced. (2) Cross-training is essential. (3) Few innovations happen overnight or solo. 
  3. Despite the constraints and our conditioning in academia, we must ground our science communication and public engagement efforts in what our audience or target stakeholders value. “No amount of beautiful art or accessible color palette […] will salvage a visual communication effort that is developed in an echo chamber.”
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