Eight reality checks for new grad students

GSMGraduate school is not your undergraduate education on steroids. It is a transformative journey in which you spend most of your waking moments training yourself to think and act like a scientist. Along the way you have many mentors and guides, not least of which are your fellow graduate students, the vast literature, and fussy, know-it-all blogs.

But your advisor is undoubtedly the partner most responsible to help guide your way, protect you from egregious political crap, steer you from some mistakes (you will find ways to make enough the way it is) and basically give you the time and space to transform yourself. The advisor’s role is complex and may best be described as your academic parent.

This realization is hard for some, particularly those who just spent some pretty harrowing years discovering both the joys of puberty and that their parents were batshit crazy. But just as every set of parents is different, advisors come in every stripe. The problem is, it is often not clear at the outset what you are getting yourself into. The more considerate, literate, (and, by definition, not batshit crazy) professors go out of their way to lay out their expectations early on. These vary, obviously, but the most basic advice is timeless.

Toward exploring these issues, I present below just such a “Manifesto of Expectations” (repeat to yourself, “It’s all about M.E.”). The author is a colleague who wishes to remain anonymous. I will respect his wishes, save to say that his short-lived career as a left tackle for the Golden Buffaloes was plagued by scandal, not all of which was his responsibility. What follows is some pretty frank (and dead-on) advice. It is lightly edited (MK: and annotated) toward removing the author’s frequent and rather strained metaphors to offensive line play.

1. Work hard. I have incredibly high expectations for all of my students, but, above all else, I expect you to work hard. For some, this might mean working 60-70 hours a week. For others, it might mean working only 50. But for everyone, it means that I expect you to be continuously engaged in your science, whether that is by reading papers, analyzing data, writing papers and proposals, or discussing ideas with other ecologists. I will say that graduate school is not a 9-5 job. In fact, you shouldn’t even think of it as a job – hopefully it’s your passion. In essence, you’re getting some money to think about things that interest you, to spend time in the field, and to talk with interesting people about interesting ideas.

And impressions count. You’re not expected to be here from 9-5. But if you’re not, you should let folks (your advisor, fellow students, collaborators, and the rest of the faculty) know that you’re working. It doesn’t hurt to send out a late night email or an early morning email so that people will be aware that you’re working, even if you’re not at your desk. MK–this is true and clever. Send every update to your committee at 5:00AM, then go back to bed, if necessary.

2. Read. I expect you to be well read. That means being aware of essentially all current ecology, and the important stuff from the past 30 years (MK–you may wish at this point to get up, get a drink of water, and scream into a pillow. Don’t worry, we’ll wait.). You should read every current issue of Ecology, Ecology Letters, Oikos, and Oecologia. You should be aware of the relevant papers coming out in American Naturalist, Science, Nature, and PNAS. You should also read more specialized journals. If you work on insects, pay attention to Ecological Entomology. If you work on plants, the Journal of Ecology is a good journal. You should also buy and keep handy the following books: Primer of Ecological Statistics by Gotelli and Ellison and How to do Ecology by Karban. MK–Your primary responsibility in the first year of grad school is to train yourself to absorb the literature. It is a skill. Look at past posts here on the subject, and we’ll have more to say about this soon.

3. Talk. You should have a meeting with each of your committee members (not necessarily as a group) at least once a semester to discuss ideas, papers, your projects, and your future prospects. After the meeting, send the committee member an email summarizing the meeting and thanking them. MK–Holy crap! Every semester??? There is a fine line between being ambitious and being a pest. Meet with your advisor regularly, especially in your first year. Your committee’s good will is a renewable resource.

When someone asks you what you’re working on, you should be able to answer in 30 seconds, 2 minutes, 15 minutes (the length of an ESA talk), and 45 minutes (the length of a departmental seminar). The answer to “what do you do” isn’t “I work on ants” or that you’re doing something that’s never been done before. The answer always justifies your work in broad ecological terms. MK–Every time you talk about your work you are giving a presentation. Gauge the audience, take a deep breath, think about your entry point, then teach.

You should also meet with EVERY seminar speaker who comes to EEB who is remotely ecological. There are no exceptions. You can meet with them with one or a few other people in a small meeting,or at the bar. MK–Visiting scholars are there for you to learn from and network with. To my mind one of the single best predictors of success is the grad student who has the reputation for requesting her 30 minutes with a visiting speaker.

4. Write. You will apply for every possible source of funding that you can. This isn’t because we’re tight on money MK–its true, the author is flush. It’s because writing takes practice, and writing proposals helps crystallize your ideas. You will also write papers that will be submitted to top tier peer-reviewed journals. If you’re heading toward academia, the most important thing you can do is publish lots of good papers.

5. Collaborate. I expect you to collaborate with me, with the others students in the lab, with other folks in the department and at other institutions on interesting projects. This could entail writing review papers, developing experiments, or whatever. In the lab, it will also mean that I expect us all to help one another out during big pushes – maybe someone has a huge decomp experiment that needs harvesting. Well, then we should all help. MK: Pay it forward, establish 24 h buddies. In the world of academia, your lab members have your back.

6. Develop a toolkit. You’re going to know how to design experiments and analyze data and think broadly and synthetically about ecology. But you should also develop a toolkit to distinguish yourself from all of the other ecologists who can do those things. Your toolkit might include modeling or null model analyses or genetic techniques or specialized statistics. Just make sure you have one, and make sure everyone knows what it is. MK–make yourself unique and indispensable part of the group.

7. Set goals. Set goals each semester. Some of these goals should be attainable (e.g., read two books; finish manuscript). Other should be a stretch (publish four papers). Set goals each week. Set goals each day. And set goals for your entire graduate career. Write all of these goals down and keep them in a prominent place. MK–Lay out your goals across different time frames (daily, weekly..) and expect much of yourself. You will never be aware of what you can do if you don’t push yourself.

8. Have fun. Graduate school is fun, and ecology is even more fun. Don’t hesitate to go out for a beer (I’ve never hesitated…MK–so true, so true). Feel free to go on a vacation every now and then. Spend time with your family, friends, and pets. Go to meetings in interesting places. And pick a project that you actuallyenjoy working on. Remember – ecology should be a passion, not a burden. MK–A particularly apt dictum to live by: Work hard, play hard, nap strategically.


12 Responses to Eight reality checks for new grad students

  1. sarahosn says:

    I’m a PhD student in neuroscience. Thanks for this great post!

    I really like the idea that seeing my supervisor as “academic parent”. I’ve never thought of it this way. Sometimes students may treat their supervisor as “boss”, a rather authoritative figure. If supervisors are our “parents”, we should definitely try to communicate (=spend time) with them by asking appropriate questions and discussing ideas. I’m still learning how to do this well.

    I didn’t realize the expectations of supervisors are of such a high standard. This post certainly motivates me a lot.

    Work hard, and sleep well.

  2. Rue says:

    While every single semester may be pushing it, meeting with your committee every year is critical. My key mentor and I had one idea and it was only by meeting with one of the other members that it came out that he had a very different one (this was in reference to the content of my Comps). It’s important to know these things before they bite you in the butt.

    Other suggestions: Make yourself invaluable to your advisor by being their brain. Academics have a reputation for forgetfulness for a reason – they have a LOT going on and keep track of while still trying to have “big thoughts”. By playing administrative assistant/brain to my mentor, I have both gotten involved in new and interesting things AND saved his hide a time or two by remembering things he had forgotten. This is good for both of us.

    If your advisor doesn’t yet have tenure (mine doesn’t) it is in your best interest to make sure they get it. Do what you can and take an active interest in their process, since you will likely go through it yourself someday and can learn from their mistakes.

    Review proposals/papers for a conference or student-edited journal. The experience of reading other peoples work will help you start to distinguish good clear writing from bad messy writing.

    (PhD student in the Social Sciences)

  3. Mike Brown says:

    This is great info but *please* insert some carriage returns! Thanks!

  4. Mike says:

    A few replies.

    sarahosn, every advisor is different. You’re mileage may vary. Perhaps one strategy is to send this link to your lab group, including your advisor, and use it as a springboard to conversation. Or better yet, start by asking a senior grad student in your lab which of the author’s points and my rebuttals makes sense.

    Rue is absolutely right. A yearly checkup is key. If your program doesn’t require a yearly face to face, make sure you at least contact each committee member annually with copies of your papers, an updated CV and a short accounting of yourself. The professors on your committee are not, by in large, apathetic. They are busy. Make it easy for them to give you advice.

    Mike Brown, sorry. I opened up this entry in Safari, which magically deleted every carriage return.

  5. Neuheisel says:

    I think many of my committee members were definitely overbooked. So I probably didn’t meet with them every semester. But I at least made sure they knew what I was up to. Now that I’m on a few committee meetings, I’d probably suggest that formal meetings between students and committee members aren’t necessary. But an emailed progress report is good enough.

    Go Deamon Deacons,

  6. […] Mike of Getting Things Done In Academia had a great post that couldn’t go unmentioned on Eight reality checks for new grad students. I’ll just copy the intro and bulleted points here – please go to GTDIA for the explanations. […]

  7. Matt Wedel says:

    Also, even when you can’t meet with your committee members, put copies of the stuff that your produce in their mailboxes. This can be abstracts, reprints, grant proposals, drafts of things, and so on, although in the last two cases it would be polite to also leave a note indicating whether you want feedback or whether you are just keeping them apprised of your progress. All of this will help them keep track of you. Remember that you have only a handful of committee members but they each have dozens of students (their own, or others on whose committees they sit) to keep track of, and the more you can prepare them, the more they can help you with specific, targeted advice. Plus, it shows that you’re keeping busy. If nothing else, your committee members will see this output and know that you are not a complete waste of space.

  8. […] the retreat, I’ll also be thinking about this post from “GTD in Academia”, especially the comment about developing a toolkit. (It reminds me very much of the part of Surely […]

  9. […] we discussed last post, perhaps the most important job in year 1 of grad school is to read. You spend hours a day reading. […]

  10. Carolyn Berdanier says:

    I have advised a lot of students over the years and still mentor some of my outstanding ones. All of the points are well taken and especially relevant. One gimmick I used that was helpful in opening the lines of communication was to have a coffee pot/teapot/water bottle place where all of us would gather from time to time. We would talk about lots of things not just research. sometimes we would shoot the bull and laugh a lot; other times we’d look at data or discuss experimental designs; other times there would be cries for help or scheduling issues. The important thing was that we were in contact with each other on a daily basis. Another gimmick I used was to develop a “job description and standards of performance” for the graduate student and then have a once yearly evaluation of progress using the standards of performance document as the basis of this evaluation. Yearly assistantship awards were based on this evaluation and it was very objective. Since we live in a competitive world where such instruments are used for everything from proposal evaluations by study sections to job performance and candidate selection for a new position, thuis is an invaluble learning device for real world living.

  11. […] yes, dear readers, needs an upgrade), and like an earlier post from another colleague’s lab Eight reality checks for graduate students, it summarizes a lot of useful experience about the graduate student’s life in a short […]

  12. […] yes, dear readers, needs an upgrade), and like an earlier post from another colleague’s lab Eight reality checks for graduate students, it summarizes a lot of useful experience about the graduate student’s life in a short […]

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