Things I wish I knew when I started Graduate School.


There are at least two published articles advising graduate students (Stearns 2001; Huey 2001) as well as numerous blog posts. However, with this article we hope to solicit the input of current graduate students and post docs. With a bit of luck this might become a useful resource to those students just starting graduate school.

So, if you have a suggestion please post a comment. However, we'd like to keep this advice as unbiased as possible so we're asking PIs to enjoy the text, but to contribute elsewhere. Hint: at the time of this writing there does not yet exist a 'Guide to motivating recalcitrant Graduate Students'...

On picking a project:

  1. Pick projects based on the novelty of the question not your fondness for the organism.

  2. Don’t take on a big project in your first year or two. Focus on finishing your classes and reading broadly in your discipline. It is easy to waste a lot of time on a bad project in your first few years. You need to develop a taste for good projects before you pick one.

  3. If you aren’t able to collect publishable or potentially publishable data in the first six months of working on a project, consider dropping it and working on something else. The data collection should be the easy part of your research.

  4. Have multiple projects so you have something to fall back on if one doesn't pan out. My suggestion would be at least one project where the methods are worked out and one where they’re not.

  5. Collaborate broadly. Hint: finding people to collaborate with is ‘easy’ if you can program in a computer language.

  6. Have a committee meeting as soon as you possibly can and document it. This can be as simple as sending a follow up email starting with “Yesterday we discussed ... [insert description of meeting] ... thank you for your input.” Document every subsequent committee meeting.

On working with your advisor:

  1. Your advisor's job is to advise. Your job is to do everything else. Don't expect hand holding.

  2. Talk to your advisor about your ideas - both the good and the bad ones. Learning to think and critique your ideas is an important skill to develop. It’s ok to have bad ideas.

  3. Try to talk about authorship as soon as possible. Once you’ve had that discussion write a positive follow up email to document it.

  4. Set up regular meetings with your advisor. Finish what you will 'do' the next several weeks before the meeting. Then present what is already done as 'what you will do' and talk about future work (that you have already started) so that expectations are managed. But be clear when you really need advice, that's their job.

  5. Pick your battles.

  6. Smart people are easy to flatter. Your advisor knows this and so should you.

On being a scholar:

  1. Don’t go crazy studying for your qualifying exams (unless you’re in one of those departments were they actually fail people).

  2. Keep a notebook or an Evernote folder of your ideas.

  3. Join twitter and follow and communicate with people in your field. Twitter is also a great place to discover exciting new literature.

  4. Go to a professional meeting(s) early in your career. It’s ok to talk about incomplete data. The important thing is meeting people early on and developing a network (e.g., future Post Doc advisors).

  5. When at meetings see if you can get a PI to introduce you around. The more famous the better!

On developing skills and taking classes:

  1. You're largely on your own when it comes to your intellectual development so be proactive about filling in any obvious gaps.

  2. Use your time as a graduate student to learn a skill valued outside academia. For example a programming language, GIS mapping, teaching human anatomy, etc.

  3. Don’t worry about grades. Your GPA as a PhD student is meaningless. (Except in some cases for keeping your fellowship). Focus on learning useful skills and publishing papers.

  4. You’ll be happier if you avoid discussing your grades with your fellow graduate students.

  5. Only take classes that more senior graduate students recommend.

  6. Try to collaborate with a more senior graduate student or Post Doc on analyzing some of their data in your first year or two.

  7. Learn a programming language. I recommend starting with Python and R. Don’t wait to do this. Becoming a reasonably adept programmer will take at least a year.

  8. Find a programming mentor(s).

  9. Take classes in statistics.