If you are considering graduate school, congratulations on finishing up your undergraduate degree! Less than a third of people over the age of 25 in the US have attained this feat. Although global data on college graduation aren’t available, World Bank data for tertiary education (some tertiary education, rather than a bachelor’s degree) suggest that you are in the minority, regardless of where you’re from. Life can happen pretty fast, so it’s important to stop and appreciate your accomplishments and the people that helped you get where you are. Alright, now on to discussing graduate school.
Picking a graduate program and advisor is a critical determinant of graduate school success. Options include master’s or PhD programs, and identifying the particular advisor that has the type of advising style you are looking for. A recent study evaluating the number of papers researchers published within the first 10 years after finishing their PhD found that the best predictor for this measure of “success” was the number of papers published before receiving their PhD, rather than gender, primary language spoken, or the prestige of the university. While there are many other measures of success, this analysis likely keys in on an important phenomenon: the habits you develop in graduate school follow you for your entire career. It is important then, for you to position yourself in the best scenario for success, whether it to become prolific at publishing papers, become science educators that can inspire and inform students or the general public, or develop innovations that transform industry and society.
There is some great advice for graduate students online, including an article published in Science, advice by John Thompson, and a back-and-forth between Stephen Stearns and Raymond Huey. I would encourage you to read each, as they all have different perspectives, and represent variation in advising styles. To get the right perspective on the back-and-forth between Stearns and Huey, I would suggest first reading Huey’s reply, then Stearns’ advice, starting with the Stearns’ “Postscript” section that provides context. Its important to understand the different approaches to advising and identify the type of advisor you are looking for. I would encourage you to contact current and/or former students of mine to get an idea of my personality. Advisors get information about students’ personalities through reference letters, why shouldn’t you do the same?
If you are interested in joining the Northfield lab and attending graduate school at WSU, you can email me at email@example.com, and find information about the WSU Entomology graduate programs at the WSU website. However, first I suggest you read about my expectations and advice for students, as well as about my advising style below. This will help give you an idea of whether my style would be a good fit for you. I have given each sub-section a title of a song, because…well, why not?
Expectations for students I supervise
Scientists, and particularly academic scientists are generally professional question askers. We develop research questions to evaluate and ask questions of our students. We also regularly ask questions of our collaborators with expertise that differs from our own. In fact, if I’m not consistently feeling the limitations of my knowledge it means that I’m either not collaborating enough, or not collaborating with the right people (i.e., people with sufficiently different expertise than mine). I aim to have the same inquisitive culture in my lab group, where each lab member has experiences and skills that complement each other and regularly ask each other questions. This takes a high level of humility, paired with the confidence in yourself to acknowledge the limitations of your knowledge. Thus, I expect each lab member to contribute to this dynamic of mutual respect and practice question asking. This demands humility. Arrogance, and fear of looking unintelligent, which somewhat ironically often go hand-in-hand are the biggest hindrances to learning and can ruin a good career.
Graduate school can be grueling and takes a significant commitment. Hopefully your undergraduate degree gave you a broad background into science, but now is your opportunity to dive head-first into the part that you found most motivating. If your grad school project focuses on something else, you will have a hard time getting through. However, if you enjoy what you do and are driven to accomplish your goals, you will be much more successful. This may mean including co-advisors that have the different types of expertise you’d like to pair together. Just make sure you make your project your own.
Graduate school is not a 9-5 job. It demands long hours. There will be times when you will have to work very long hours to try to meet a deadline or collect the data you need before the season ends. Pushing through at these critical times will pay off greatly in the end. Conversely, it is good to keep things in perspective and realize that sometimes you need to rest, relax, or focus on something else.
One of the keys to graduate success is to prioritize your time and work efficiently. In particular, one of the best skills to develop is to write efficiently. Bill Laurance has given a great talk, now on Youtube about efficient writing that is a good place to start. Constantly get feedback early on to improve your writing ability. Similarly, taking classes or short courses to improve your statistical skills will pay off in the long run when you don’t need to spend hours doing web searches to find out how to analyze your data. It is also important, however, to separate useful activities from those that will take a great deal of time but do not pay off in the long run. Discuss potential activities with graduate students and postdocs that may have already experienced them, and with me to help you determine what is and isn’t worth your while to meet the specific goals you have for yourself.
It is very true that Raymond Huey says (in the link above): graduate school transforms you from being someone who reads to someone who is read. This is your opportunity to become an independent expert in your field. Work on building your platform so that you have something to stand on. Once you do, be confident in your research. If you have imposter syndrome, that’s fine. A highly respected colleague once told me that there are two types of scientists (with few exceptions): 1) those with imposter syndrome, and 2) narcissists. If you are experiencing imposter syndrome, congratulations, you fall in the better category. It’s okay. If you are nervous when giving a talk, focus on expressing your enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is often indistinguishable from confidence, so no one will be the wiser.
Science is a team sport. Although it may often feel like it, you are not alone in your endeavors. There are peaks and valleys in a graduate program. When you start, you’ll feel motivated and have a head of steam. Eventually you’ll hit some bumps in the road and struggle a bit. Then, you’ll start getting data and start feeling pretty good about things. About ¾ of the way through you’ll start getting really concerned about writing up everything and start to stress out. Finally, with the end in the rearview mirror you will begin to feel relief again. This rollercoaster can be minimized by doing things like publishing your work early so that it doesn’t all build up at the end. However, some of it is unavoidable, like when a flood comes through and wipes out your experiment. Remember that other graduate students and postdocs in the lab have gone through similar experiences and can relate. These relationships will be invaluable. Learn from your lab mates, and when the time comes offer the same wisdom and support for the next cohort.
If you’re struggling with something, whether its with your studies, experiments, or the way I’m advising you, talk to me. Its best to clear up confusion as early as possible. One of the dangers, of writing in particular, is a downward spiral of frustration, where: 1) the student is trying a particular narrative that doesn’t work, 2) s/he struggles on their own trying to make it sound great, 3) spends long enough working on the paper with little progress that the student feels embarrassed, 4) the student is now too embarrassed to talk to the advisor because it’s been too long, 5) repeat steps 2-4. These negative feedback loops can typically be broken down through regular meetings and getting broad-scale feedback on early drafts of papers. For this reason, I usually have students write abstracts first to get feedback on the focus of a paper, and then the rest flows from there. Nonetheless, there is a wide range of ways students can get stuck in various pitfalls (not just writing), and regular meetings to discuss progress can identify paths forward. If you feel there is a problem with the way I’m advising you, we can deal with that too.
My commitment to students
I meet with students weekly, either in person or virtually via video conference, unless I am traveling. This helps ensure regular communication. It also adds accountability for the student to ensure that they are making progress, and for me, to ensure I am giving quick feedback. I will provide feedback quickly on experimental designs, papers or statistics to help maintain momentum while you work through each stage.
A scientist’s impact on the world through mentoring has the potential to far out shadow the impacts of their own work. An excellent example of the impact mentoring can have was documented in the journal Nature, which focused on the influence of the late Robert T. Paine. The article quotes him as saying, “All of my students were smarter than me but just less knowledgeable.” This is something I can relate to. The students I’ve had the opportunity to advise have been incredibly bright. My role therefore, is to provide just enough guidance as needed, but give you enough space to develop into your own niche as a scientist. I will strive to do this as a mentor.
As an advisor there are two methods of attributing attention to students’ work. The first is for the advisor to promote the students work, creating an excellent reputation. The idea is then that the students producing the work associated with that lab group will also have a good reputation by association. The alternative is to encourage students to promote their work themselves as much as possible, leading the promotion of the work in the media and at scientific conferences. This allows students to get attention immediately, while over time the advisor will develop a reputation for supervising excellent students. I much prefer the latter. Of course, students differ in their level of comfort dealing with different types of exposure and have different skill sets. So, particularly early in a students’ career I have done more of the promotion of the students work, with the student playing more of a supportive role. Then, once the student gets the hang of it they lead the charge. To that end, my students have discussed their research in media outlets ranging from the local newspaper to “Science Friday” and Australia’s “Landline” television show. Of course, this entire framework depends on students being successful. So, for all of this to work, you (as the student) need to work hard, persevere, think creatively, and make the most of your opportunities. Then, when the time comes, “Shine on you crazy diamond!”
Thank you Kacie Athey and Vince Jones for comments on a previous version of this page.