Berkeley Connect EPSM students talk to Director Justin Brashares about the future

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Berkeley Connect ESPM students recently got to sit down with Professor Justin Brashares,  faculty director of Berkeley Connect in ESPM, for a candid small-group discussion about everything from getting  a good letter of recommendation to finding your passion. Graduate student mentor Manisha Anantharaman set a relaxed tone, joking, “we will start with some questions and end with Bollywood dancing”–which she happens to teach at the Recreational Sports Facility.

Professor Brashares encouraged students to ask him whatever they liked. “I’ve been trying to break down barriers between faculty and undergraduates. Students feel a pressure to ask ‘smart questions,’ but I am here for all questions. Students come to my office hours sometimes just to ask about my sister!” (His sister is none other than Ann Brashares, author of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.) Professor Brashares added he cared so deeply about this because one professor changed his own trajectory. He was originally a creative writing major, but was struggling in his classes. One professor pulled him aside and told him, “I can see how hard you are working. Come to my office hours and I’ll help you figure out how to study.” Professor Brashares eventually changed his major to Biology and got to know other faculty members, people who were willing to vouch for him when he applied to graduate school. “I didn’t have the most competitive GPA, but the letters made all the difference.” Now he is an Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation at Berkeley.

Many students were interested in graduate school and asked his advice about approaching professors outside of class. “The best way to maximize non-class questions and get to know professors better is showing them that you’ve done your work,” Professor Brashares advised. “Show them that you’ve already researched the programs you are interested in. They like to be asked about their own experience.”

One student shared his own experience connecting with faculty. Because his GPA had been too low to apply to the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP), he instead decided to email professors about helping with their research. In his email he explained why he wanted to do the research as well as why his GPA was low. “I think that encouraged them to give me a chance,” he said. “They didn’t care about my GPA, just my passion.” His GPA went up the next semester, and he was ultimately able to get into the laboratory he wanted, because of his experience. “A good story about how to advocate for yourself,” Manisha noted. “A low GPA doesn’t have to hold you back.”

Professor Brashares also had advice about getting a good letter of recommendation. “Start with a  positive short interaction,” he said. “The professor will associate your face with this positive interaction. Drop by their office hours. Just be friendly, say hi, and tell them that you enjoy their class. Ask them if you can come by regularly. It doesn’t add anything to their to-do list, and they will probably say yes. By the second or third visit, broach the question. Ask them, ‘What would you need to be comfortable writing a letter for me?'”

“Don’t be apologetic!,” he added. “Some students act as if they are asking for my kidneys.” But he warned,”You want a good letter, and a good letter takes work.” In response to a student who wanted to go to grad school, but was planning to take a few years off, he suggested students ask about the letters before they graduate. “There is a letter service on campus that will save it for you,” he said. He noted that students could always reach out to the professors when they finally decide to apply. “The first letter is the hardest. You can always go back to them when you officially apply and tell them what you’ve been up to. Then you can ask if they want to update what they’ve written. But this way, you have letters even if they are hard to reach.”

He also encouraged students to start thinking about their direction. “Understanding your narrative is important,” he said. “Being able to say ‘here is my path’ will help you write your curriculum vitae (CV).”

“Do you think you’ve found your passion?,” a student asked.

“I do,” Professor Brashares said. “One of the best things about taking time off after undergrad was working horrible jobs. I really missed being in a place that allowed me to work on my own brain. I’m incredibly lucky because my job never feels like a job to me.”

As for an overarching piece of advice? “Be more selfish. Think of faculty as a resource to help you develop and find your path.”

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant