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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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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Article: In the space between: Public information officers in science

This invited article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment clarifies the role that public information officers play in modern science communication. It is essential reading for scientists looking to share their science and for science-trained folks considering moving from research into scicomm. The full article is available for free here.

Excerpt: “To some, the word “promotion” smacks of hype and spin. It’s certainly true that PIOs choose the most interesting and important stories to share, but we’re also keenly aware that our efficacy is contingent upon the trust of the communities we represent, the media, and citizens.

Science PIOs fill a space between scientists and journalists – and increasingly, between scientists and public audiences more directly. Rather than focusing deeply on one area of science, we are constantly scanning the horizon, searching for stories that will catch the attention of our audiences and showcase the accomplishments of our employers or clients. As a result, scientists collaborating with PIOs gain considerably from the PIO’s skillset, experience, and contacts. By working with a good PIO, a researcher can position their work to have real societal impact, far beyond what they could achieve alone.”

Full citation: Invited. Merkle, B.G., M. Downs, and A. Hettinger. 2019. In the space between: Public information officers in science. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 17(8): 474-475. doi.org/10.1002/fee.2102.

The tension and inspiration of place: a conversation about writing & learning

There is a great deal to learn about the work, craft, pleasure, and opportunity of writing by reflecting on what inspires us, what nuanced questions fascinate us. In these videos, two writers do just that.

These two videos were recorded in 2016, when I was an MFA candidate in the top-ranked University of Wyoming MFA program. Looking back at them several years later, the central fixations of these conversations still drive my musing and writing.