November 2013

Navigating Graduate School

Working Effectively with Faculty and Colleagues

To succeed, you need to collaborate effectively with your professors, mentors, and colleagues so you can improve your own work and provide helpful feedback to others.

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Meet Our Graduate Ambassadors

Ambassadors serve as a bridge between graduate students and the Office of Graduate Studies. Get to know our Ambassadors!

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Graduate Students as Stewards of the Discipline

As a graduate student and scholar, you are a steward of your discipline. Learn how scholars are good stewards of their disciplines....

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Good Practices in Graduate Education

Book Review: James Lang's Cheating Lessons

Find out how to prevent cheating in the classroom by focusing on learning.

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Graduate Student Professional Development

Preparing for Your Future Career

Career-wise, you know where you want to be in ten years. But how do you get there? Here are a few tips for jump-starting your future career now while you’re in graduate school....

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Funding Your Dissertation

Whether you’re looking for a few extra dollars to fund research or a larger fellowship that will pay for a year or two of focused work on your dissertation, a research grant can be just the ticket for finishing your dissertation and launching your career.

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Teaching Tip

Teaching Critical Thinking

Learn how to help students move through the process of gathering all available information, weigh possible solutions, and come to a logical hypothesis or conclusion.

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The Graduate Writer

Using Commas Correctly

Correct comma usage is an art, not a science. Here are some helpful hints for using commas correctly in your own writing.

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Student Spotlight

Mario Pesendorfer: From Vienna to Nebraska to Washington DC

When Mario Pesendorfer attended a seminar on avian cognition in Vienna, Austria, where he was working on his Master’s degree, Nebraska was perhaps the furthest thing from his mind.

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News and Notes November 2013

Funding Opportunities November 2013

Current Calendar

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Working Effectively with Faculty and Colleagues

Success in graduate school, whether in course work, research, or teaching does not happen in a vacuum. To succeed, you need to collaborate effectively with your professors, mentors, and colleagues so you can improve your own work and provide helpful feedback to others. Working well together and learning to collaborate in graduate school also prepares you for productive working relationships later in your career. While it may seem like you’d get more done if you were to “go it alone,” there are many benefits to learning to collaborate early in your graduate career. Establishing positive working relationships will provide valuable skills that will pay dividends in any future profession.       

Benefits of working together

Laura B. McGrath of GradHacker writes that working collaboratively taught her to be a better listener, which is a quality valued in faculty members, business leaders, and colleagues in non-profit work. McGrath adds that learning to listen will help you weigh options when considering competing demands. Listening to others also helps you be a better decision maker.

Learning to communicate effectively with advisors and your peers now will equip you with the skills for working productively within an organization. You’ll also collaborate more successfully on scholarship and help build consensus in groups, especially when the members may have strong personalities and conflicting opinions.

There are numerous strategies you can use to develop your collaboration and listening skills. Graduate student instructors can work together to improve their teaching and pool resources. Invite a colleague to observe your class, and ask to sit in on her class. Afterward, discuss what worked well and what can be improved upon. Your colleagues and mentors are also a great resource when you’re unsure of how to approach a topic, or when you want to pool teaching resources, such as handouts. Take advantage of formal or off-the-cuff conversations to share best practices.

Writing, one of those activities that we undertake alone, also improves via collaboration. Get feedback from a peer writing group as you work. This can be beneficial when writing term papers, or when working on a dissertation or an article. Another reader’s perspective can help you find where your argument breaks down or where your language is vague. The reader benefits as well—providing others with feedback heightens his awareness concerning his own writing. Sharing texts and editing early on in the writing process has the added benefit of improving your writing before you share it with an advisor or mentor.

There are some times when your work may feel isolating. To help you feel connected, establish good relationships within your cohort and your mentors. Positive relationships will help you be more productive in graduate school. Peer relationships are vital to your well-being. Research by the Barna Research Group of Glendale, California, found a connection between sharing experience with your peer group and academic success: "Friendships appeared to fuel the search for academic growth by enabling students to learn from the perceptions, experiences, and challenges of their comrades, and they also provided an emotional release from academic intensity" (quoted from Cultivating the Community of Scholars: Peer Relationships for Graduate Students, by Nick Repak).

How to Collaborate Effectively

So, how do you collaborate well with others? The first step to working effectively with anyone is listening. If you aren’t listening, then you aren’t open to having a conversation. When you’re working out details or agreeing to a plan, aid communication by following up with an email. Written documentation gives everyone in the conversation the chance to approve of the details, ask for clarification, and identify any part of the conversation they might remember differently. Later, the email provides a handy reference and can help refresh group memory.

Should conflicts arise, maintain a professional attitude. Repeat any points you aren’t clear about, or any part of the conversation that may seem personal, rather than responding immediately or jumping to conclusions. By repeating what you heard, you give the speaker the opportunity to hear his or her own words and clarify or rephrase. Remember: It may be tempting to ‘win’ an argument, but it’s rarely beneficial. Maintaining strong working relationships with faculty now will help ensure that these colleagues will be valuable working partners and links to more collaborators later in your career. 

 

Resources:

Professional Service, article published at gradhacker.org April 2012 
Working with Faculty of Record, blog entry posted at insidehighered.com August 2013
Peer Relationships for Graduate Students, article published at gradresources.org
A Former Skeptic's Story of Collaboration, blog entry posted at gradhacker.com September 2013
Collaboration, Experimentation, and Solving the World's Problems, blog entry posted at gradhacker.com November 2012
Building Strong Support Networks, blog entry posted at gradhacker.com November 2012

 

Graduate Students as Stewards of the Discipline

When you think of a steward, you might imagine someone in a manor who ensures the household runs smoothly, the tenants are cared for, and the buildings are kept in good repair with an eye toward preserving the enterprise for generations to come. In short, a manager.

Your work as a scholar is in fact not much different from the work of a steward. As a graduate student and scholar, you are a steward of your discipline. To better understand what this means, we’ll look more closely at the role of scholars managing the discipline, or what Chris Golde, Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education at Stanford University, describes as the “stewards of the discipline.”

Stewardship means that you manage resources effectively. Golde argues in “Preparing Stewards of the Discipline” that stewardship in scholarly work involves a “set of roles and skills” and “a set of principles, the former ensures competence and the latter provides the moral compass.” Mastered skills vary from discipline to discipline, but they may include collecting and analyzing data, synthesizing an argument, or developing a new scientific theory. Within this role, scholars are not simply looking narrowly at their own research topics to create knowledge for their own personal advancement, but are looking to transform the field by sharing their work. This taps into the moral aspect of stewardship.

All scholars contribute to a body of knowledge within the discipline. To contribute, the work must be good in a moral sense, which means that the researcher follows a code of conduct or a set of ethics. Working within this system means that the work is reliable (it has not been falsified) and has been conducted in good faith (the researcher has no hidden agenda or conflict of interest). The moral aspect establishes what Hyman Bass, mathematician at the University of Michigan, calls the “integrity of community” (113). Simply put, the community will not be corrupted by academic work that contributes to the larger goal: Good scholarship not only maintains the field; it also pushes the field forward by building the community of scholars.

Work can contribute to the community of scholars within a discipline or, as is increasingly the case with scholarship in the 21st century, contributes to interdisciplinary work that transcends a single discipline’s boundaries. Beyond that, stewards of the discipline also contribute to the greater society by preserving previous knowledge, developing new knowledge that supplements and illuminates previous knowledge, and finally disproving previous knowledge when necessary.

So what does being a good steward look like for graduate students? As developing scholars, you’re learning the roles of an academic. You're gaining the skills you need not only to create new research, but also help run a department and educate the next generation of stewards. You are also part of a closely-knit group, a community of scholars, that can rely upon one another for good work. Graduate education prepares “those to whom we can entrust the vigor, quality, and integrity of the field” (Golde; Preparing the Stewards of the Discipline 5). Take pride in your work as a scholar, and do your best work. Add to the good work that contributes to your field and inspires the next generation of stewards.

 
Sources:

Bass, Hyman. “Developing Scholars and Professionals. The Case of Mathematics.” In EFDE. 101-119.

Elkana, Yehuda. “Unmasking Uncertainties and Embracing Contradictions. Graduate Education in the Sciences.” In EFDE. 65-96.

Golde, Chris. “Preparing Stewards of the Discipline.” In EFDE. 3-22. Republished in abbreviated from on www.carnegiefoundation.org/print/3295

Book Review: James Lang’s Cheating Lessons

James Lang, Associate Professor of English at Assumption College in Massachusetts, offers practical advice to fellow faculty members about how to prevent cheating by focusing on learning in Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (2013). First, Lang offers a theory of cheating (Part I: Building a Theory of Cheating); next he clarifies the motivations for cheating and how to take on cheating indirectly by focusing on learning (Part Two: The (Nearly) Cheating-free Classroom); and finally, he briefly offers advice on how to address cheating once it occurs in the classroom (Part Three: Speaking about Cheating). To educate other educators on how to teach integrity and also how to prevent cheating, Lang relies on a handful of scholarly works, such as Susan Ambrose’s outstanding How Learning Works and two decades of research by ethicist Donald McCabe.

To build a theory of cheating, Lang introduces four real-world scenarios—from ancient times to contemporary society—to illustrate the conditions that contribute to cheating. From each scenario, Lang draws a lesson about when and why cheating happens. Together, the scenarios set up the four conditions Lang believes promote cheating:

    1. An emphasis on performance;
    2. high stakes riding on the outcome;
    3. an extrinsic motivation for success; and
    4. a low expectation of success. (35)

The best remedy for these conditions is a re-emphasis on the learning process over outcome. In the second part of the book, Lang encourages teachers to make connections between old and new material and to help students make these connections on their own.

One helpful tip is also good for graduate students to note: Cheating often occurs when students are overconfident in their abilities and underestimate the time needed to prepare for an exam (145). To avoid this temptation, begin preparing early for exams. Similarly, start writing papers well in advance of their due dates. When preparing for exams, practice with problems and quizzes. Check comprehension of the material, and see if you can make connections across topics. Can you analyze the problem and use higher-order thinking rather than simply regurgitating knowledge?

Finally, Lang addresses originality, which is at the core of a research degree. He asks the question, “How do I produce my own work in this discipline and why does it matter that I produce my own work?” (194). Within the various disciplines, scholars may rely heavily on others’ analyses or thoughts and apply them in  innovative ways. Lang offers the example of a group presentation as original work. In one of his classes, education majors analyze a poem and then present strategies on how they’d teach the poem to middle school students (196). Through the project, the students demonstrate they understand original work, properly attributing the ideas and words of others as they create their own curriculum and lesson plans. While the analysis is not the group’s original work, the application of the analysis is. The presentation of others’ ideas within a novel curriculum framework makes the work original and innovative. This innovative project models the heart of the academic enterprise—adding to a body of knowledge in new ways, all while demonstrating a keen awareness of prior scholarship.

 James Lang’s Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty was published earlier this year by Harvard University Press.

 

Preparing for Your Future Career

You may be in your second or third year of graduate school, and chances are good that you’re already setting long-term goals. Career-wise, you know where you want to be in ten years. But how do you get there? Here are a few tips for jump-starting your future career now while you’re in graduate school:

    1. Take stock. What do you want to get out of a job? Is there a specific set of skills you’d like to use in that job? Is there a specific set of skills required for that job? Julio Peironcely at Nextscientist.com recommends that you “have a clear definition of your job. This will help you to find the right job offers, to target your application documents and to grow your excitement.” An added benefit of taking stock now, in the middle of your graduate career, is having an idea of the skills you already have and the skills you still need to develop.

    2. Figure out who potential employers are and build your network. As Katharine Brooks writes in 10 Tips for Developing an Alternate Career While in Graduate School, start by looking within your program. If your department doesn’t track recent graduates, ask the department for names. Brooks recommends using online resources such as LinkedIn to find the recent graduates, and contacting those with interesting jobs to see about an informational interview (pages 4-5).

    3. Create your brand. If someone looks you up—online or offline—they should get a clear idea of who you are and what you have to offer them in terms of skills, experience and expertise. Gradhacker’s Eva Lantsoght recommends creating a clear picture of who you are and your skill set. Personal branding is less about marketing in a strict sense and more about knowing yourself and portraying that self to the world.

    4. During graduate school and beyond, build your online profile through blogging or other networking sites. Connect with like-minded people, as well as people and companies in the areas you’d like to work.

    5. “Develop varied references,” recommends Katharine Brooks. Your advisor may not be able to write about your transferable skills, but if you’ve volunteered for a non-profit or taken on a small internship, you’ll have a supervisor or colleague who can speak to the skills you’ve transferred from academia to your work, or skills that you’ve developed in your new role.

    6. Create and maintain a network. When you connect with others online, meet at industry events, and meet at disciplinary conferences, put effort into maintaining those relationships. Lantsoght recommends keeping in touch with classmates and old professors as well. You may find yourself collaborating with these people, or they may help you build connections when you begin looking into a job.

Start working your career now; don’t wait until you graduate. By taking a few simple steps while you’re in graduate school, you’ll be in a good position to apply for your dream job when you’ve completed your degree.

 

Sources:

Brooks, Katharine. (October 25, 2011). 10 Tips for Developing an Alternate Career While in Graduate School. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/career-transitions/201110/10-tips-developing-alternate-career-while-in-graduate-school

Lantsoght, Eva. (September 18, 2013). Six Steps to Finding a Job after the PhD. Retrieved from http://www.gradhacker.org/2013/09/18/six-steps-to-find-a-job-after-the-phd-by-using-your-network/

Peironcely, Julio. Leaving Academia: How to get a Job in Industry after the PhD. Retrieved from http://www.nextscientist.com/job-in-industry-after-your-phd/

Funding Your Dissertation

Whether you’re looking for a few extra dollars to fund research or a larger fellowship that will pay for a year or two of focused work on your dissertation, a research grant can be just the ticket for finishing your dissertation and launching your career. A smaller award shows that you’re capable of getting money to fund research and, when it comes time to apply for a larger award, you’ve demonstrated that you are capable of using funds effectively to support your work. Larger dissertation grants may fund an entire year of full-time work on your dissertation, so you don’t have to take on additional jobs as you finish writing it. These awards are harder to get but very prestigious.

Where to Look

The first place you should look for dissertation funding is within your department and the university. The odds of receiving funds from these sources are far better than getting funded by a foundation or another organization. Ideally, you would look for funds early in your doctoral candidacy, so you can build the case for applying for more funds from foundations in a year or two.

Foundations and other organizations may be interested in supporting your research. To find these foundations, you can make use of a few resources, including Foundation Center, a powerful database that you can access from Love Library computers. Contact Associate Professor Bob Bolin (rbolin2@unl.edu) to learn how to use the database. The libraries also maintain a list of grants, many of them local. Another resource for finding foundations may be through your discipline. Check listservs and newsletters specific to your subject. Finally, you may try an online search engine to see if there’s a group or organization that may be interested in your research. Smaller archives sometimes have funds for work that rely on their collections, or there may be an organization that’s interested in your topic.

Applying

Read any and all instructions carefully. Also look at the mission statement of the funding organization and check that your work will further their goals.

Applications often ask for you to present a work plan, clarify your dissertation topic, and explain how the funds will be used. Make sure that you include this information and also follow all directions concerning page length and formatting! When there are far more applications than available funds, a committee will simply move all the applications that didn’t follow directions to another pile and not consider them. Don’t let this be your application’s fate!

Have colleagues double-check your writing; be sure to provide them with the instructions so they can see if you’ve addressed all the prompts. During the application process, be sure to solicit your advisor’s feedback as well.

 

Sources:

http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/07-08/dissertation.aspx

http://libguides.gwu.edu/dissertationfunding

http://libraries.unl.edu/grants

Teaching Critical Thinking

Every student within a discipline needs to learn facts and acquire basic knowledge in introductory classes. Students make flashcards, memorize terms, and gain a basic understanding of the subject. Sometimes, students may be able to apply the knowledge they’ve learned in order to solve basic problems. These lower-level activities are referred to as declarative knowledge, one of the three types of knowledge according to Joanne G. Kurfiss, author of Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities. The challenge for you as a teacher is helping your students learn the two higher-level types of knowledge used in critical thinking: procedural (knowing how to reason, inquire, and present knowledge in a discipline) and metacognition (using cognitive control strategies, such as setting goals, critiquing one’s own thinking, determining when additional knowledge is needed, and assessing whether a line of inquiry has been fruitful) (Kurfiss, iv). So how do you help students move through the process of gathering all available information, weighing possible solutions, and coming to a logical hypothesis or conclusion? How do you help students learn how to think like an expert in the field?

Knowledge cannot simply be recalled and applied; expert learners have well-organized knowledge, not just problem-solving strategies. So knowledge in a field must be well understood and integrated into a mental scheme if the learner is to apply the knowledge to problem-solving. Within this schematic, knowledge must be organized and also accessible (34). This structure is not linear, but hierarchical. Many teachers and text books, however, present information in a linear, logical fashion that follows a sequence, not one that teaches the general procedure and then breaks it down into specific rules (36).

Additionally, novice learners often don’t know the structure and organization of knowledge in a field. As experts, we’ve learned to see the patterns of information and how concepts connect to each other, and so we often assume that students will do the same. But research into how people learn demonstrates that those new to a field don’t necessarily see these connections. Therefore, part of the instructor’s role is to make the organization visible to the students.

Students need a bigger structure, a sort of scaffolding, within which they can organize smaller items of knowledge and establish the relationship between what they know and the new information they acquire. Presenting “material in a chart, matrix, or hierarchical outline” (39) and making use of familiar examples or analogies that students can relate to helps students situate new information.

Kurfiss offers examples of assignments or approaches that develop these critical thinking skills that span the disciplines. How might you adapt her examples in your own classroom to facilitate the development of critical thinking skills?

Biology  Students in introductory biology courses are learning about the scientific method, from developing a hypothesis and determining a methodology to identifying conclusions and considering possible future directions. As students learn the scientific method, they build the foundation of research skills for future work: “description and definition, application, deductive inference, and induction” (73). As students learn these terms, they also learn what their limits are and how they can be either misused or expanded.

Mathematics  Students should move away from trying to plug in numbers to arrive at an answer and instead focus on the metacognitive skills necessary for approaching a problem. Group work can be helpful, since students have the opportunity to work through a problem together and discuss difficulties. The professor does not tell students how to solve the problem, but asks questions that help the students approach and solve the problem on their own. This doesn’t mean that the instructor waits until the students have the answer. Instead, the instructor interacts with the groups, asking questions when a group is stuck or the approach is not clear. Ask questions like those Allen H. Schoenfeld uses:
What (exactly) are you doing? Can you describe it precisely?
Why are you doing it? (How does it fit into the solution?)
How does it help you? (What will you do with the outcome when you obtain it?) (74)
While this teaching method might seem time intensive, students gain a deeper understanding of the work they are doing than if they simply copied examples the instructor put on the board. Students are learning the process of thinking through problems as an expert would approach a problem and practicing higher-order thinking skills.
 
Engineering  Real-world problems make up the backbone of engineering classes and develop critical thinking skills. Kurfiss suggests using guided design, which “slows down the decision process by having students work through a series of steps in teams, pausing after each step to compare their results with those of an imaginary team working on the same problem.” Note that the imaginary team’s answers are not necessarily correct! Students must constantly engage with the steps they are working through, and must reflect on whether their approach was correct, and figure out which approach—their own or the imaginary team’s—was correct and how to correct the other approach (75).
 
Literature  Students may be hesitant to analyze literature on their own. Ease them into the process by asking them to describe a character using a metaphor. Studies have shown that students who develop metaphors to describe a character fare better with literary analysis than students who jump right into analysis because students are connecting what they’ve read on the page with their own background knowledge and understanding (77). Using the metaphors as a starting point, students can then develop an argument for why they chose the metaphor. Journal entries are another way to encourage students to develop their own thoughts about literature. Begin by asking them to respond to the work. Once students have written a few entries, pose questions for the students to work through. Kurfiss writes that in one class “writing often fostered insights and fresh interpretations of the material. Students overcame their initial reluctance to explore poetry this way and developed confidence in their ability to ‘make sense of literary works’” (77).
 
Political science  Students are often limited by their own perspective, and these personal perspectives help develop biases that keep students from engaging with factual information. To help students recognize and overcome their biases, ask students to evaluate multiple perspectives. For example, a project on the Cuban Missile Crisis that asks students to consider the crisis from the American, Soviet, and Cuban points of view encourages students to consider other interpretations. Considering multiple perspectives requires students to leave behind their own opinions when they cannot support them with facts (82).

Psychology  In psychology, teaching students to think critically requires getting students to challenge their “personal theories” and consider all of the data. Kurfiss provides Jane S. Halonen’s classroom as an example. Students practice divergent and critical thinking by designing an intelligence test and administering it to ten people. The class then discusses the results, the problems that came up during testing or analysis, and ethical issues. The resulting discussion reveals a skepticism about such tests, while students may have previously accepted intelligence tests at face value. When used on the first day of class or early in the semester, students have an experiential foundation they can use the rest of the semester.

When preparing your own class, think about how your students are engaging with information and whether they are learning the critical thinking skills that will support their learning in future courses. With a little planning, your class can help students master, not just memorize, knowledge.

 

Source:

 

Kurfiss, Joanne G. Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 2. Washington, D.C.” Association for the Study of Higher Education, 1988.

Using Commas Correctly: Punctuating with Confidence

Correct comma usage is an art, not a science. Writers will sometimes disagree on when to use a comma or omit one; to help you as you write, here are a few general rules for using commas. These examples and the rules they’re based upon are drawn from the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, one of the core texts on proper language usage and formatting.

Serial Comma

Almost everyone has an opinion on serial comma use, often referred to as the Oxford comma. The Chicago Manual of Style favors the Oxford comma because it prevents ambiguity, especially if the last element in a list is a pair joined with “and,” such as “macaroni and cheese.”

Ex:
They are going to the store with my sister, brother, and cousin.

I bought everything for the dinner: pot roast, lettuce, tomatoes, and macaroni and cheese.
 

If there is an ampersand in the sentence, there is no comma before the ampersand, such as in a citation:

Ex:
Colonies of ants have long held a distinct position in ecclesiastical art (Reuben, Johnson & Carlyle). 

Omitting a serial comma can create ambiguity:

Ex:
I had lunch with my parents, the Queen and the Prime Minister of England.

In this sentence, the reader could easily misread this to mean your parents are the Queen and the Prime Minister of England. Adding a comma after “Queen” makes each of the items clearly distinct.

Clauses and Phrases: Restrictive and Non-Restrictive

The restrictive clause “provides information…essential to the meaning of the sentence” (6.22). In other words if the clause is omitted, the meaning of the sentence changes. These clauses are not set off by commas:

Ex:
The man who was coming to dinner was Sidney Poitier.

In this example, “the man” could be anyone. It’s the information that specifies it’s not just any man, but the one who is coming to dinner, that lets us know who the man is.

Non-restrictive clause and phrases don’t change the sentence meaning if they are left out.

Ex:      
John, an African-American man who is coming to dinner, is engaged to the white woman Joanna.

Here we know who the man is—John—and so the clause simply tells you more about John. If the clause is left out, the sentence still has the same meaning.


Independent and Dependent Clauses

If a clause can stand on its own and doesn’t rely on the rest of the sentence for meaning, then it’s an independent clause. Set these clauses off with a comma.

Ex:
The camel stood outside the gates, but I was on the inside of the city. 

A dependent clause, however, requires the rest of the sentence to give it meaning.

Ex:
We will not give the child dessert if she does not finish dinner.

John left with Ted, and Mary left soon after.

 

In the example above, if you don’t use a comma after “Ted,” the reader will momentarily misread it as “John left with Ted and Mary . . .” and then have to reread the sentence to understand what the writer actually intended.

Here’s a general rule for using the comma correctly: Focus on how the reader will interpret your meaning, and eliminate any possible ambiguity. With a little bit of practice, you’ll begin using commas like a pro!

Mario Pesendorfer: From Vienna to Nebraska to Washington, DC

Pesendorfer in the field
Pesendorfer with an Island Scrub Jay. Image courtesy of Biological Sciences.

When Mario Pesendorfer attended a seminar on avian cognition in Vienna, Austria, where he was working on his Master’s degree, Nebraska was perhaps the furthest thing from his mind. But after speaking with Professor Alan Bond after his presentation and learning about the possibility of working on a PhD at Nebraska, Mario decided to visit the University to experience the exciting research possibilities firsthand. After visiting the Center for Avian Cognition, where he had the opportunity to interact with faculty and students, Mario decided to apply to UNL to work with Professors Alan Bond and Alan Kamil. Pesendorfer came to Nebraska not only to work with specific faculty, but also because of the department’s reputation. The opportunity to conduct research with the Center of Avian Cognition, along with a competitive five-year contract guaranteeing funding, sealed the deal for Mario.

Biological Sciences offers research and travel grants to graduate students pursuing their own research. Because Mario wanted to add a fieldwork component to his lab research, he applied for a  grant to study on Santa Cruz Island in California, where Smithsonian researchers had banded Island Scrub-Jays for tracking. The work done by Smithsonian researchers gave Pesendorfer access to a fieldwork infrastructure where he could observe scatter-hoarding behaviors in the wild. That first summer, “I learned a lot,” Mario said. By the second summer in the field, Mario, originally trained as an experimental psychologist, felt at home working as a field ecologist. “That’s the nice thing about working on a PhD in the US,” he explained. “Not only do you have time to do a PhD, you have time to learn a new set of skills. I learned methods ranging from vegetation sampling in the field to simulation modeling of virtual animal behavior.”

The fieldwork over his first two summers set the groundwork for Mario’s future collaboration with the Smithsonian. The project on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Island National Park (CA) is run by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. “From my second year on, I was collaborating with Dr. Scott Sillett, a wildlife ecologist at the Smithsonian,” Pesendorfer told Graduate Connections. The following summer, he received a smaller Smithsonian grad-student fellowship that included 10 weeks of research. Eager to expand on his fieldwork, he began working on a pre-doctoral fellowship application to spend an entire year at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. “Right when I was finishing the application, we joined the Big Ten. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) sent out an email for the CIC–Smithsonian Fellowship. I knew my odds were good, so I applied,” Mario said. He went on to explain that the advantage of applying for a CIC Smithsonian Fellowship was that each university only nominates one student. Six fellows are selected from a pool of thirteen. Pesendorfer’s application was sponsored by Scott Sillett at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which is located in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The fellowship was less of an independent project for Mario, and more of a collaboration with other institutions and researchers.

Working on his application, Mario drew on a number of resources. Faculty mentors Bond and Kamil read drafts and provided feedback, in addition to writing letters of recommendation. Staff in Biological Studies helped him put his application together, and Jane Schneider, Fellowship Coordinator, helped Mario organize and send off his application. Pesendorfor offered an important piece of advice: “They want to give you money, but they’re looking for ways to not have to read your application. Ms. Schneider was helpful in getting all the papers together and making sure it included only the information that was needed.

Mario will be finishing his fellowship at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center this fall. So what’s next? “I’m defending my dissertation on November 15,” Pesendorfer said, “and on January 1st, I’ll begin postdoctoral research at Cornell University. I’ll be working on oak masting (when oaks have a bumper crop of acorns) and scatter-hoarding (where an animal will store food in a number of places) in Jays. Mario chose to go to Cornell because it’s the leading place in the world for bird research. “It really goes to show that UNL graduate degree gets you where you want to go” he emphasized.

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