Starting a Bullet Journal: What I think you should know!

When I started my bullet journal, I had no idea what I was getting in to. I saw a few pretty “notebook” spreads on Pinterest and was enthusiastic to try it myself. It wasn’t until I did a little more research that I realized there is a whole chunk of the Internet dedicated to just bullet journaling.

This hunk of internet is dedicated to creative, beautiful, and debatably impressive journal spreads designed in high quality notebooks and with the most expensive of pens. Bloggers, writers, and journalists convey words of promise that bullet journaling will change your life for the better. They’re talented, artistic, maybe a little obsessed, but you learn from their experiences the “correct” way to journal.

But in reality, there is no “correct” way to journal. Some of these websites and Pinterest-posters are intimidating and ruthless. They may be trying to help, but in reality, they may not be offering the most manageable, healthy, and cost-effective advice. 

While I’m no know-it-all (definitely NOT), I’m here to offer just a smidgen of my own easy peasy, “bullet journaling for dummies” advice. I have been bullet journaling since June of 2018 and have LOVED it ever since. And here’s how you can too! 

Understand what bullet journaling is and what journaling can do for you. But don’t do any more research than that. 

Bullet journaling is a form of writing and organization, often done on dotted notebooks. Dotted notebooks give you the illusion of a blank slate, but include small faded dots to help you create straight lines…by literally connecting the dots. Bullet journaling allows you to create your own planner, your own lists, and so much more! 

Utilizing a bullet journal to its fullest can help you keep your calendar, planner, notebooks, and post-it notes all one place –– truly the epitome of organization. BUT, that’s all you need to know. Put down Pinterest and get off the internet. You now understand what a bullet journal is and are free to go about starting your own. 

Get something to journal on but don’t worry about what it is. 

Real, high quality bullet journals can be Expensive, with a capital E. If you’re worried about price, grab an old notebook or buy a cheap dot-less journal from your local dollar store. Tie a few pieces of loose leaf paper together with a shoe lace, if that’s what is available to you. But don’t feel the pressure to break the bank, especially if you’re not sure you’ll love it. 

However, if you’re sure you’ll love it or you want to make it your goal to try, a sturdy bullet journal may be able to support you. Rule of thumb, think about you much money you usually spend on your annual planner or house-hold calendar and set that amount aside for a bullet journal instead. (Pro Tip: Your local Walmart might have an impressive and cost efficient selection.)

Think about what you want to use your bullet journal for but give yourself grace if you can’t do it consistently. 

Maybe you want to use your bullet journal to replace your planner. Don’t try to write out a year’s worth of spreads right away, but also forgive yourself if you start each week a little later than you wanted.

Maybe you want to use your bullet journal to track your running stats. Make columns for every stat you want to keep track of, but don’t create a running “schedule” that you’ll never follow. 

Your journal should be what you need it to be and when. Think about what you want to put in your bullet journal, but lose all expectation of what it will look like when you’re using it.

Grab a pen and nothing else (for now!)

Again, bullet journaling should not break the bank. Pick up a pen (or pencil) of your choosing and get to work. To fight off your urges to run to Target and purchase something unnecessary, I’m not even going to tell you my favorite products in this post. Now, put your teeth away already. JEEZ.

Get creative but don’t waste time. 

Bullet journaling allows you to do more with your space and can be a source of joy and freedom as a creative outlet. Feel free to draw or doodle in the space where a traditional planner may have included a cheesy quote, or add lots of photos that bring you joy. 

But if you’ve never been interested in doodling or design, don’t waste your time making your bullet journal look too artistic. If you plan to draw a map of London on a page you’ll only use for one week, maybe it’s time to lower your expectations (I know you hated art class. Don’t start now.)

Lose your constant need to be a perfectionist.

Whether your bullet journal will be the most recent addition to the Louvre Museum or not, get rid of your need to make it perfect. Bullet journals are meant to be of service to you, and stress and anxiety are not the way to go. This includes if a page doesn’t “look right” or you forget to track your habits for a week. You don’t always need to be on top of your game and life truly will go on. Maybe you put in some overtime at work or had a friend who needed your help. Whatever got in the way of you bullet journaling in that moment was 100% more important. 

Stay off social media. 

While you’re figuring out this bullet journal thing for yourself, don’t worry about what other journal-users are saying. You are welcome to look for inspiration or read up on the latest tips and tricks, but don’t let it lead you astray from the real reason you started journaling. If you started journaling to track your medications, don’t feel pressured to draw a bajillion flowers next to your check boxes (as you can tell, I’m a firm believer in ugly bullet journals).

Remember, you can stop and start whenever you like. 

And finally, the most amazing benefit of using a bullet journal is that you can stop and start whenever you like. If you stop using for a few months and come back to it, it will always be there with a fresh page. You’ll never need to worry about throwing away another bound book with the wrong year on it ever again (bye bye planners!)

Got a question about bullet journaling? Ask me and I’ll address it in my next post!

What to look for in a Genetic Counseling Program (PART TWO)

A few posts ago, I made a checklist titled “What to look for in a Genetic Counseling Program”, in the hopes that I’d help a few lost souls apply to graduate school. However, I was preaching without a choir and I now realize that I am the most lost soul there is! 

Having plans to take a gap year next year, applications have NOT been a priority, and in the wise words of actress Juno Temple, “You can’t really help people until you’ve helped yourself first”. So today, I am putting my money where my mouth is and I’m using my own checklist to decide my favorite Genetic Counseling Programs. 

Location

Even when applying to my undergraduate university, location was one of my greatest motivators. Having much younger twin brothers, I knew I wanted to stay close to home and am so lucky to have the University of Wisconsin just a short 20 minute drive away.

However, my brothers have grown, and so have I. I’m ready to move away from Wisconsin and hope to find a grad school somewhere new and exciting. I’d love to live in a big city but there are other factors that I need to be aware of –– Will I feel safe as a woman moving to this new city? Will I be able to afford living in this city?

For today’s purposes, I’m going to assume that by saving money during my gap year, I can afford my dream city and dream apartment (with lots of locks and roommates)! Following those guidelines, I was able to narrow down my choices to 29 schools. Though that’s still a lot of schools, I know that there are other factors I’ll need to think about in the future, and I don’t want to narrow down my list too soon. 

Cost of Tuition and Living

Unfortunately, the cost of tuition will make or break my ability to apply to a school. However, this is where my gap year comes into play. By taking a gap year, I will have time to save money to better afford my dream school. Though I still won’t be able to afford the most expensive private school in the country, I hope that my year off will allow me to at least go out-of-state and to a larger city-campus.

I am a spreadsheet queen, so I organized my top 29 schools by cost and color-coded them green, yellow, or red based on their affordability. While I don’t plan to make any further decisions based on these costs, I know that if I feel indifferent about a school later on in my process I can look back on those colors to more easily make a decision about a program. 

Vibe Check (NEW)

I recently spoke with a current genetic counseling student about her application process, and she mentioned that she too felt very lost for a long time. She narrowed down her favorite programs based on location and cost as well, but then she told me about her next step –– the vibe check. 

This amazing woman went to the website of every genetic counseling program in the country and used the quality, look, and feel of the website to determine the character, credibility, and integrity of the program. Using the same thought process, I was able to narrow down my top 29 schools to top 25. Who knew so many awesome schools would pass the vibe check!

Program Focus

Another less-famous detail to keep in mind is if your favorite graduate school program has a specific focus. While all schools introduce most specialties of genetic counseling (prenatal, cancer, etc.), some programs offer dual curriculums or specialize in different areas of the field. 

Determining a program’s focus, however, can be an incredibly large feat. It can take hours of research, many open-houses, and late nights debating your existence to even come up with a list of your Top 10 schools based on their curriculum focus. While I know I can’t apply to all 25 of my current top schools, I don’t have enough information to narrow them down just yet. 

Next time I’ll share my curriculum preferences and speciality interests, and I’ll hopefully find a few schools to match! See you in PART THREE!

TOP 25 (in alphabetical order)

Boise State University
Columbia U
Emory Univerity School of Med
Johns Hopkins U/National Human Genome Research Inst.
Keck Graduate Institute
Long Island U – CW Post
MGH Institute of Health Professions
Mt. Sinai School of Med
Northwestern Med School
Rutgers U
Thomas Jefferson U
U of Colorado – Denver
U of Maryland School of Med
U of Michigan
U of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center
U of Pittsburgh
U of SC
U of Texas Grad School of Biomed at Houston
University of California – Los Angeles
University of Minnesota
University of Pennsylvania
University of Utah
University of Washington
UW-Madison
Vanderbilt University

How to Make “Advocacy Work” Your Friend

If you’re a hopeful, future genetic counselor, you’ve experienced reading the most daunting of application requirements –– “Advocacy Experience”. Your stomach probably dropped to the floor and the little voice inside your head whispered in a high-pitched tone, “what even is that”. 

From volunteering to counseling, “advocacy work” can mean a variety of things. The variety of experiences you could partake in make gaining valuable knowledge a confusing endeavor, but that also means you can pick and choose where to insert yourself in the world of advocacy. You just need a little help navigating the terrain.

So what is advocacy experience? Generally speaking, advocacy experience is any type of volunteer work or job role where you can obtain communication and social skills. Most of these opportunities have you working with the general public or individual people, and are great ways to assist others or learn about people’s differences.

The most valuable and educational advocacy experiences stem from one-one-one interaction. These could include

  • Volunteering with a crisis hotline service
  • Working with a pregnancy center
  • Volunteering at a homeless shelter
  • Volunteering at a shelter for domestic violence
  • Working with individuals with mental or physical disabilities
  • Providing respite care
  • Working in research with human participants
  • And more!

But how do you get involved? The easiest and most effective way to get involved is to simply Google it. Look up your nearest homeless shelter or local hospital, and see if there are any volunteer openings on job sites or bulletins. The institutions offering these services almost ALWAYS need more volunteers, so once you’ve decided what you’re interested in, finding a position can be a breeze.

Once you’ve found an advocacy position, the work you do will make up for the stress of searching. Advocacy experience can be one of the most educational, inspiring, and rewarding experiences of your life. Work hard at it, learn from it, and enjoy it! 

What to Look for in a Genetic Counseling Program

Finding the right graduate school program is hard (ask anyone getting their masters or PhD!) But the struggle can be even greater for students looking to apply to an accredited genetic counseling program, all of which are highly distinguished and incredibly competitive. 

So how do you find the right program for you? 

There are many ways you can narrow down your favorite schools. Here I’ve included MY checklist for finding my dream school. And before you ask, I have NOT narrowed down my top schools…yet. It takes time to do research and to make such a big decision, but I hope you find this checklist as helpful as I do!

Location

Even when applying to my undergraduate university, location was one of my greatest motivators. Having much younger twin brothers, I knew I wanted to stay close to home and am so lucky to have the University of Wisconsin just a short 20 minute drive away.

But my brothers have grown, and so have I. I’m ready to move away from Wisconsin and hope to find a grad school somewhere new and exciting. So wherever you want to live –– closer to home or farther away –– deciding location can drastically narrow down your list of options. Even deciding if you want to live in a big city versus a college town can cut your options by half.

However, be wary of narrowing your options TOO MUCH. If you decide you want to move to Colorado, but find living in Denver too expensive later on, you’ll be SOS when you discover the University of Colorado Denver is the only program within a 200 mile radius. This checklist is just starting and you’ll have many more opportunities to cut your options later.

Cost of Tuition and Living

If cost is not a factor in your graduate school decision, you’re very fortunate. However, the harsh reality for most applicants is that the cost of living and tuition can make or break their thoughts on a school. Most likely, the largest part of your research will fall under this category. You’ll need to look at the cost of rent, tuition, and travel to get to school, and you’ll hopefully find that your favorite school can offer scholarships, TA positions, or more. 

However, this part of the checklist is when you may need to make decisions based on where you are at this time of your life. You may decide that taking a gap year to earn money will help you better afford your dream school, or that waiting to move right before classes start versus a few months early will help you save a few thousand dollars on big-city rent. Whatever best fits your budget, know that there are a lot of factors to consider that could make your grad school experience not just financially feasible but financially responsible.

Program Focus

Another less-famous detail to keep in mind is if your favorite graduate school program has a specific focus. While all schools introduce most specialties of genetic counseling (prenatal, cancer, etc.), some programs offer dual curriculums or specialize in different areas of the field. 

For example, most schools offer the ability to complete  research, but if you’re interested in going into genetic counseling research specifically, completing your degree through the National Human Genome Research Institute at John Hopkins University may be the best option for you.

Or if you’re interested in policy or public health, the dual degrees in public health and genetic counseling offered by the University of Michigan or the University of Pittsburgh may be more your style. Luckily, if you don’t have a preference in program focus at this time, you’ll know you’re getting a great, comprehensive education no matter which accredited program you attend.

Other

While location, cost, and program focus are most important to me, you may find that other factors are more influential in your decision making. Maybe you want a smaller or bigger cohort and are interested in researching the class size of each program. Or maybe you’re looking to gain certain skills from your rotations and want to know more about where and when programs offer them, and in what specialites. 

No matter who you are, it’s important to determine these deal-breakers and use them to your advantage to make the best graduate school decision for YOU.

It doesn’t take “a saint” to love someone with a disability.

A harsh, short essay about something I could write a whole book about.

As the sister of a child with Down syndrome, Ethan and I have had our fair share of tough moments. Many of these tough moments have been in public, perhaps during one of his temper tantrums or sensory overloads. I’ve seen the staring and the pointing from onlookers, and I’ve definitely heard the concerned murmurs from the crowd.

I’ve even heard “it” –– the one phrase I loath and despise more than any other.

I’ve been called ”a saint”.

I’ve heard “you’re a saint” while helping him during a temper tantrum at the zoo. I’ve heard “you’re a saint” while helping him get off the play gym at the park when he was too scared to go down the slide. But am I really being “a saint”?

Right away, I can tell you that I am absolutely not. I am aware of my own humility enough to guarantee you that I am not even an above average human being. 

So why do I seem so special to those onlookers and passersby? Do they believe I’m “a saint” for showing another person compassion and kindness? Do they think I’m “a saint” for being patient and supportive of a child?

Or am I “a saint” to them because they don’t believe they could do the same? Maybe they don’t believe they could ever act as normal as I do around someone they believe to be “not-normal”? 

Well, that’s the kicker isn’t it, because Ethan is a completely normal, average boy. When I interact with my brother, I am just a normal person treating another normal person how a normal person should be treated. I treat him with the same basic respect that all other human beings deserve. 

If you believe I am “a saint” for giving him that respect, doesn’t that mean that you’re…just a bad person? 

Maybe you don’t like people with disabilities, or maybe you don’t like people in general. But I can gaurentee if you believe I’m “a saint”, either your standards for how society treats people with disabilities are extremely low, or your standards for how YOU treat people are at absolute rock bottom.

I’m not “a saint”. You just might be a bad person.  

What Pre-Genetic Counseling Students Want Master’s Programs to Know!

A shadowing, GRE, and money tell-all –– inspired by conversation with fellow pre-genetic counseling students.

I’ve applied to enough jobs and scholarships to have had the humbling experience of writing within a word count. While in the past I’ve struggled to advocate for myself in a few words, today I’ve decided to word-vomit the truth –– a Pre-Genetic Counseling Tell-All, if you will –– covering the struggles of gaining shadowing experience, the monstrosity that is the GRE, and more!

Genetic Counseling Master’s Programs, I’m talking to YOU!

Money, money, MONEY

Applying and attending graduate school is EXPENSIVE (and you can’t deny it). The average pre-genetic counseling student spends a little over $1,000 to participate in a single year’s application process with some students spending upwards of $3,000. With students averaging 5-6 applications a year, the cost of fees and traveling for interviews can add up.

As you and your universities push towards diversity and inclusion, you have to admit that the costs of even applying puts applicants of lower socioeconomic status at a severe disadvantage. Does it really have to be this way?

Get rid of the MONSTROSITY that is the GRE requirement

Help your future students and wave the GRE good riddance! This standardized test creates a plethora of issues for undergraduate students including having time to study, funds to offset the cost, and the resources to take it online due to COVID-19. Not to mention the overwhelming fear that these tests do not accurately represent a student’s ability to perform well in their future profession.

Removing the GRE requirement would open the door for applicants who struggle to afford the application process (remember the convo we just had?) and would give students more time to participate in activities that are important to their professional development (think shadowing and advocacy experience!!!)

Though the GRE creates problems for students outside of genetic counseling, you can be the first to take initiative in removing this requirement.

Speaking of “shadowing” and “advocacy” experience…

…please show mercy to those who may not have a full resume. Gaining LIVE “shadowing experience” from a certified genetic counselor can be time consuming and even impossible. “Advocacy experience” can also be a major time commitment as it often includes regularly volunteering for call centers or working with those with disabilities.

From finding contacts, emailing strangers, setting up interviews, meetings, and a full volunteering schedule –– gaining these experiences is a privilege available to very few. While we’re also studying, working, and participating in organizations, do not be surprised if applicants who want to gain “shadowing” and “advocacy” experience turn in a resume with one but not the other.

Let’s be real. Do interviews NEED to be in-person?

This year, the rise of COVID-19 has been closely followed by the rise of telecommuting and virtually-hosted meetings. Many genetic counseling programs are prepared to offer virtual interviews to this year’s applicants, but as students we wonder why you are not offering virtual interviews all the time?

Among the many other time commitments and financial obligations undergraduate students face when applying to graduate school, flying around the country for in-person interviews is a mind-boggling additive.

Some programs are sensitive to those who cannot afford tickets or to take off work, but students are still afraid to request an exception because of the fear that they will be looked down upon by not visiting in-person.

No Brainer Alert: You should tell us about financial opportunities

Many students make their graduate school decisions solely based on the availability of TA/PA positions, scholarships, or financial aid. While many schools don’t offer these benefits (which is a problem of its own), TONS of schools simply do not disclose opportunities to applicants until interviews. Utilizing this approach is extremely disheartening for applicants as the insane tuition rates likely prevent them from applying to your programs in the first place.

Many regular open-house-attendees have heard program directors address financial questions with “we hope you would choose to attend our program regardless [of scholarships]” as if money is no object, or with “we offer a few scholarships to our top ranked students” as if any of us truly understand what “top ranked” means.

Without full transparency of how many students could receive financial opportunities, your applicants are likely to look for a more financially responsible education elsewhere.

Take our GPAs with a grain of salt

We’ve all heard that students are not defined by their GPA, but if you want applicants who will make successful future genetic counselors, you need to EMBRACE that idea.

Reading applications with word count requirements, you never truly understand an applicant’s work schedule, quality of teachers,  mental health, or other unaccounted circumstances. Admissions committees rarely get to see that part of an applicant because sometimes there is simply no way to explain it.

In a COVID-19 world, we especially ask that you look at other parts of our resume, where you will find information about our work ethic, responsibilities, leadership skills, and more. There you will find information much more important to our future success than if we got a AB versus a C in Organic Chemistry.

Most of us are afraid we’re too late to the party

Many students who discover the field “later in life” fear they are expected to become super-applicants in a short amount of time. When it comes to advocacy, shadowing, GPA, GRE scores, and leadership roles, gaining experience can be really overwhelming to a student learning about genetic counseling as a junior or even sophomore in college.

It’s discouraging for us to be unsure if students who knew they wanted to be a genetic counselor in high school are at a greater advantage of getting in. With very few resources available from programs to help gain these experiences, and with VERY LITTLE information about the EXACT AMOUNT of shadowing, advocacy, or research experience programs expect us to have, some of us are a little lost. 

And that brings us to the kicker –– when do you want us to apply?

Not only do we worry about the basic application requirements  –– advocacy, shadowing, GPA, GRE scores, leadership roles, research –– recently, more programs are expecting applicants to have “life experience”. Some programs value taking a gap year and prefer applicants who have been out of college for a while but often don’t disclose this (shocker), wasting our application fee and time. If you want us to apply at a certain time, DISCLOSE IT.

Let’s talk about COVID-19. Again.

Though the concerns stated above are very much real, we take solace in knowing that COVID-19 may be evening out the playing field –– but is it really? As students, we see programs temporarily taking off the GRE requirement and temporarily halting in-person interviews, but do you truly understand the ways COVID-19 has affected our experience?

Shadowing experience in a clinic is non-existent, and call centers are FULL to the brim with volunteers with no where else to turn. Many of us are out of work, living in unusual circumstances, and dealing with mental and physical health issues as a side effect. 

We see fellow students struggling with the same issues, but we know the competation will still be tough. We’re pushing ourselves to find filler-opportunities, and may be working past our breaking points just to “catch up” to truly impossible standards. We ask that you keep this in mind when judging applicants this year.

Introducing Me

Hi, I’m Madelyn! I have many skills and having opinions is definitely one of them. This new blog is the Hail Mary answer to my “having-opinions” problem, but unfortunately for you, writing is not one of those many skills.

Why start a blog then?

I could lie and say I’ve always wanted to start a blog, but as I just said, writing is not one of my many skills. In all honesty, I am starting a blog because I have to…for a class. But now that I’m here and learning the benefits of having a blog, I’m so excited to have an outlet for my content. However, it took it a lot of work to figure out just what my personal content would be.

Starting a website and blog, I knew I’d have to write that dreaded “About” page as the first step to discovering my personal content path. I knew that putting my entire life into a few short paragraphs would be difficult, and that discovering the few words that would describe my personality would be hard and intense. Being Type A, I was able to categorize millions of thoughts and choose three key phrases that best describe me.

That’s how I decided that this blog is where I will share what it truly means to be a science communicator, disability advocate, and hopeful, future genetic counselor.

Science Communicator

I am getting a degree in Life Sciences Communication, which quite literally means that I like to communicate science. “Science Communicator” is also where I choose to store my graphic design, social media, and marketing strategy experience. I am the Social Media Intern for GiGi’s Playhouse and the Media Director of Mind. Body. Badger., which have shaped the way I communicate with the world around me, including how I communicate science.

Disability Advocate

I am the sibling of three younger brothers, including an amazing young man with Down syndrome. My brother Ethan is my best friend and my inspiration. His genetic disorder introduced me to genetic counseling, my future profession, and his need for therapies and assistance introduced me to GiGi’s Playhouse, the Down syndrome Center where I intern. His needs have taught me compassion, patience, and grace, and have inspired me to advocate for all those with different abilities.

Hopeful, Future Genetic Counselor

Though Ethan originally inspired me to learn about genetic counseling, I’ve fallen in love with the field while earning my second degree in Genetics and Genomics. I am incredibly interested in the ethical, social, and political implications of genetics and am excited to educate the world through my future patients. I founded and am now the President of the Pre-Genetic Counseling Organization of UW-Madison, and will be applying to an Accredited Genetic Counseling Program to start in Fall 2022.

I’m so excited to have a blog that allows me to talk about science, disability, advocacy, and so much more. It will give my personality and experiences an opportunity to shine through, and will hopefully improve my writing.

Buckle up though – it’s going to be a wild ride.