The Southern Fried Scientist’s advice for new graduate students

This year marks the beginning of my fourth year as a Ph.D. graduate student. Over the last three years, I’ve participated in five research cruises, organized two of them, had multiple grants get rejected and a few accepted, published papers, failed to publish papers, had my entire thesis fall out from under me, completely change fields, passed my qualifying exams, and discovered that my experience is pretty typical for graduate students. So looking back on the first three year, what do I wish I had known at the start?

1. Have a hobby that is is both intellectually engaging and yields products without demanding huge amounts of time. There will be periods of your graduate work where you will toil for months (or even years) without producing anything tangible. There are single data points in my thesis that literally took months of work to produce. While this time may be incredibly productive, it is also deeply unsatisfying. Having a hobby where you can commit a day or weekend of work to and produce something complete and tangible goes a long way towards maintaining your morale. After my pre-lims, I took up woodworking. A few hours or dedicated work a week has yielded three canoes, several pieces of furniture (double plus for grad students), and most importantly, the feeling that I actually do something. Having a hobby that requires brain power also means that time spent doing it is not time where you’ll be thinking about your thesis.

2. If you couldn’t find the time to commit to a regular exercise routine before entering graduate school, you won’t be able to stick to one during graduate school. I’m sure there are some people who can, but for the rest of us, declaring that you’re going to “finally get in shape” while studying, doing research, and writing a graduate thesis is just setting yourself up to fail at one more thing.

3. You are going to fail, often. Part of the goal of your advisor is to find you limits and push you passed them. They will keep testing you until you fall flat. Don’t be afraid to be wrong or to not know something. Consider the classic paper – The importance of stupidity in scientific research. You’re supposed to screw up, if you already know what you’re doing why are you in grad school?

4. Find out what you’re peers are doing. This is a chance not only to master your own field, but to learn about all the fields around you. Unless you’re at a super-specialized institution, you will meet people who are likely doing things you’ve never thought of or heard of. Join an interdisciplinary journal club. If there isn’t 0ne, start one.

5. Seek out the senior graduate students and find out how the system works from them. These students have already been there. Remember, you’re not breaking new ground, you’re building on the experience that came before you. Use your resources, but be a resource to others. If they’re doing local fieldwork, offer to help them.  These are the people who know where the good freezers are, how to work the obscure piece of equipment, when not to bother the IT staff. For that matter, make friends with the IT staff.

6. All-nighters are for undergrads. Keep a regular work schedule. Pulling all nighters never yields the best results and you end up tired and miserable for the next few days.

7. Your committee is on your side. They are there to help you. Their goal is to take this grad student and turn you into a scientist. Remember that when you feel they’re coming down on you hard. They aren’t trying to make you fail, but they are trying to find out if you will.

8. Your committee is not always on your side. Sometime people have other motives for being on your committee. They may be trying to get in on your project, get more time working with another committee member, boost their own resume by working with senior faculty member.

9. Figure out what those motives are, but don’t assume that just because they have ulterior motives doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t also looking out for you.

10. Have a practice pre-lim. I’ve talked to friends from other schools, and these tend to be either highly recommended or completely unheard of.  Either way, get a group of senior grad students in your field to hold a practice qualifying exam where they pretend to be members of your committee (literally, mine were each assigned to act like specific people on my committee) and put you through the whole gauntlet. Nothing can prepare you for qualifying exams like taking a qualifying exam. Most people I’ve talked to who’ve done this admit that their practice pre-lim was actually harder than their real pre-lim.

11. Read popular science books by authors that inspire you. Some of my favorites are Naturalist (E.O. Wilson), Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin), Bonk (Mary Roach), An Unnatural History of the Sea (Callum Roberts), The Sea Around Us (Rachel Carson), Mycelium Running (Paul Stamets), and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot). Don’t ignore books that aren’t in your field, and always make time for some good literature as well.

12. Write at least one paragraph every day. If doesn’t have to be good, but making sure that you’re always in the process of writing something ensures that you keep moving forward towards a goal. If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up rewriting everything 7or8 times anyway, so don’t worry if your prose isn’t perfect the first time you get your ideas onto paper.

13. Use this time to experiment with what kind of Ph.D. you want to become. Do you want to teach? Sign-up to TA and ask the prof. if you can teach certain lectures. Better yet, try to design your own course and teach it. Want to run a research lab? Set up your thesis so that you can advise undergrads. Learn how to manage multiple people at once. Going into policy? Join a project already underway and start building your network. You may find that you actually don’t enjoy teaching, but really like organizing lab, you may hate the schmoozing that goes along with doing policy work, you may find managing multiple people exhausting and stressful. You may also discover what you really want to do after you graduate.

14. If you really, truly, honestly discover that graduate school is not for you, it’s too stressful, not rewarding, or just not a good fit, leave. The lifestyle is not for everyone, and there’s no shame in admitting that you’re better suited to something else. The worst thing you can do is toil away, making yourself miserable and taking up a spot that could go to someone who wants to be there.

~Southern Fried Scientist

August 2, 2010 • 9:15 am