Advice for Grad Students

Stephen C. Stearns offers advice on taking charge of a doctoral program.
June 6, 2011

Always prepare for the worst.

Some of the greatest catastrophes in graduate education could have been avoided by a little intelligent foresight. Be cynical. Assume that your proposed research might not work, and that one of your faculty advisers might become unsupportive -- or even hostile. Plan for alternatives.

Nobody cares about you.

In fact, some professors care about you and some don't. Most probably do, but all are busy, which means in practice they cannot care about you because they don't have the time. You are on your own, and you had better get used to it. This has a lot of implications. Here are two important ones:

1. You had better decide early on that you are in charge of your program. The degree you get is yours to create. Your major professor can advise you and protect you to a certain extent from bureaucratic and financial demons, but he should not tell you what to do. That is up to you. If you need advice, ask for it: that's his job.

2. If you want to pick somebody's brains, you'll have to go to him or her, because they won't be coming to you.

You must know why your work is important.

When you first arrive, read and think widely and exhaustively for a year. Assume that everything you read is bullshit until the author manages to convince you that it isn't. If you do not understand something, don't feel bad -- it's not your fault, it's the author's. He didn't write clearly enough.

If some authority figure tells you that you aren't accomplishing anything because you aren't taking courses and you aren't gathering data, tell him what you're up to. If he persists, tell him to bug off, because you know what you're doing, dammit.

This is a hard stage to get through because you will feel guilty about not getting going on your own research. You will continually be asking yourself, "What am I doing here?" Be patient. This stage is critical to your personal development and to maintaining the flow of new ideas into science. Here you decide what constitutes an important problem. You must arrive at this decision independently for two reasons.

First, if someone hands you a problem, you won't feel that it is yours; you won't have that possessiveness that makes you want to work on it, defend it, fight for it, and make it come out beautifully. Secondly, your Ph.D. work will shape your future. It is your choice of a field in which to carry out a life's work. It is also important to the dynamic of science that your entry be well thought out. This is one point where you can start a whole new area of research. Remember, what sense does it make to start gathering data if you don't know -- and I mean really know -- why you're doing it?

Psychological problems are the biggest barrier.

You must establish a firm psychological stance early in your graduate career to keep from being buffeted by the many demands that will be made on your time. If you don't watch out, the pressures of course work, teaching, language requirements and who knows what else will push you around like a large, docile molecule in Brownian motion. Here are a few things to watch out for:

1. The initiation-rite nature of the Ph.D. and its power to convince you that your value as a person is being judged. No matter how hard you try, you won't be able to avoid this one. No one does. It stems from the open-ended nature of the thesis problem. You have to decide what a "good" thesis is. A thesis can always be made better, which gets you into an infinite regress of possible improvements.

Recognize that you cannot produce a "perfect" thesis. There are going to be flaws in it, as there are in everything. Settle down to make it as good as you can within the limits of time, money, energy, encouragement and thought at your disposal.

You can alleviate this problem by jumping all the explicit hurdles early in the game. Get all of your course requirements and examinations out of the way as soon as possible. Not only do you thereby clear the decks for your thesis, but you also convince yourself, by successfully jumping each hurdle, that you probably are good enough after all.

2. Nothing elicits dominant behavior like subservient behavior. Expect and demand to be treated like a colleague. The paper requirements are the explicit hurdle you will have to jump, but the implicit hurdle is attaining the status of a colleague. Act like one and you'll be treated like one.

3. Graduate school is only one of the tools that you have at hand for shaping your own development. Be prepared to quit for a while if something better comes up. There are three good reasons to do this.

First, a real opportunity could arise that is more productive and challenging than anything you could do in graduate school and that involves a long enough block of time to justify dropping out. Examples include fieldwork in Africa on a project not directly related to your Ph.D. work, a contract for software development, an opportunity to work as an aide in the nation's capital in the formulation of science policy, or an internship at a major newspaper or magazine as a science journalist.

Secondly, only by keeping this option open can you function with true independence as a graduate student. If you perceive graduate school as your only option, you will be psychologically labile and inclined to get a bit desperate and insecure, and you will not be able to give your best.

Thirdly, if things really are not working out for you, then you are only hurting yourself and denying resources to others by staying in graduate school. There are a lot of interesting things to do in life besides being a scientist, and in some the job market is a lot better. If science is not turning you on, perhaps you should try something else. However, do not go off half-cocked. This is a serious decision. Be sure to talk to fellow graduate students and sympathetic faculty before making up your mind.

Avoid taking lectures. They're usually inefficient.

If you already have a good background in your field, then minimize the number of additional courses you take. This recommendation may seem counterintuitive, but it has a sound basis. Right now, you need to learn how to think for yourself. This requires active engagement, not passive listening and regurgitation.

To learn to think, you need two things: large blocks of time, and as much one-on-one interaction as you can get with someone who thinks more clearly than you do.

Courses just get in the way, and if you are well-motivated, then reading and discussion is much more efficient and broadening than lectures. It is often a good idea to get together with a few colleagues, organize a seminar on a subject of interest, and invite a few faculty to take part. They'll probably be delighted. After all, it will be interesting for them, they'll love your initiative -- and it will give them credit for teaching a course for which they don't have to do any work. How can you lose?

These comments of course do not apply to courses that teach specific skills: e.g., electron microscopy, histological technique, scuba diving.

Manage your advisers.

Keep your advisers aware of what you are doing, but do not bother them. Be an interesting presence, not a pest. At least once a year, submit a written progress report, one to two pages long, on your own initiative. They will appreciate it and be impressed.

Anticipate and work to avoid personality problems. If you do not get along with your professors, change advisers early on. Be very careful about choosing your advisers in the first place. Most important is their interest in your interests.


Stephen C. Stearns is the Edward P. Bass Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University. A subsequent column will focus on advice related to writing.


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