“What is one thing you wish someone had told you

when you were starting grad school?”

Responses from Current and Recent Grad Students in Ecology and Evolution. Asterisks separate individual responses.


When my original project was falling to pieces, I talked to my undergrad adivsor and he told me how his projects had failed his first 3 years - but then it finally turned out great in the end. So my best advice has been - "It's alright if things don't work out from the start. They will eventually!"

 I found this book in the main office that someone was giving away during my last year at Dartmouth. It was entitled something like "Getting what you want" or "Getting what you came for". The book was a little outdated (~1992), but some of the points are probably timeless. The nice thing about the book is that it gave suggestions for graduate students at all different stages of their careers. This might be a good resource and it sometimes helps to sit down and read these things as opposed to having someone tell you in 60 minutes what it takes to be a successful scientist.


I wish someone had told me about the insights of Craig Loehle when I started. [See:

Loehle, C. 1990. A guide to increased creativity in research: inspiration or perspiration? BioScience 40:123-129.

Loehle, Craig. 1996. Thinking strategically : power tools for personal and professional advancements. Cambridge University Press, New York.. Link to holding at Dartmouth Library. ]


Take the time to schedule regular meetings with your advisor and your committee, even if you don't feel like there's much to say. This might be particularly important if your advisor doesn't have regularly scheduled lab meetings, etc.

Also, having external connections, like from going to meetings, etc.



1. Exactly what doors are opened and closed by getting a master's and PhD?

2. You'd better be able to light a fire under your own ass, because no one is going to do it for you (actually I knew that in advance, but I think it's important to reiterate).

3. Do you really have to talk to them? Do you think they're going to remember any of that introductory stuff? It seems like advice administered to a group is usually ignored.

 Choosing a mentor -- I think matching your needs to your advisor's style is important. How much guidance do you expect? If you don't have an MS, you may expect (or need, like it or not) more guidance. Does this mentor expect you to complete a project on a particular subject or are you free to choose the subject and develop it, and how much will that person help you hands-on? Asking grad students in the department about advisors' styles can hlep determine what these people are like before you settle into a project with a particular person and find yourself badly matched. My MS advisor was much more hands-on than John was -- I needed it for my MS and once I had the research/grad school experience, I didn't want/need it for my PhD, so I thought I was brilliantly matched for both. Unfortunately I suppose a lot of grads won't be realistic about how much guidance they will need...

Most grad students need to work harder to publish papers early and often. As you know, many don't submit manuscripts till the end, which means their pubs are not out or not all out till after they need them for post-docs and jobs. They should set a goal to get a paper out in the first couple years.


This ties in generally to the importance of thinking hard and preparing realistically for what to do after a PhD is completed. e.g., networking at meetings, thinking in terms of who you would post-doc with, or what agency you might be able to get a job with. Choosing outside examiners is a typical good step for setting up post-doc work, to form alliances and potentially collaborate outside the department before PhD completion. i.e., not just choosing someone with experience in your field who is friendly, but also someone who is an active researcher and good networker and seems like they're getting grants.

I remember feeling overwhelmed when people kept telling me to consider what I would do after a PhD but it is not trivial unfortunately, is it? Live and learn.


Choosing a good mentor: It's all about money. Choose a mentor that has lots of it. Actually choosing a good mentor is a complicated process and involves several steps including an intense interogation of all previous students. Prospective students should of course be excited about the research that their mentor is conducting. Seek a mentor that is not controlling, allows students to make mistakes, explore the boundaries and be creative, sets reasonable deadlines, and one that focuses on the final products rather than the path to get to the product. The lab atmoshere that the mentor creates is also important. Much that is learned during this time is through peers not through the mentor and creating this atmosphere is not so easy. Good mentors will also work hard to expose students to all aspects of doing science professionally from putting together a proposal to reviewing papers for journals to preparing student for scientific meetings and getting them involved with prof societies. What makes for a successful graduate career? It's all about money. Choose a mentor that has lots of it. Tricky question - see above. Seriously. Lots will be solved if the student is a good match with a mentor. Also important is knowing that a person is ready for graaduate school. Many students enter graduate school with either unreasonable or very high expectations. I believe that students should not proceed with a PhD program until they are certain they want to proceed with a research career. It's important to know that graduate school, while is incredibly fun and can be rewarding, also requires huge personal sacrifices. Students should be clear what they are striving for when they seek a PhD. If garduate students knows these things prior to starting there's a apretty good chance they are following a line of study they are passionate about and everything esle will come pretty easily. I feel strongly that to be successful in graduate school and beyond requires an intense and passionate devotion to either an area of study or an organism or both.


Choosing a good mentor: 1) Find someone who matches your style and needs - profs vary from micromanaging to being completely hands off. 2) Talk to the grad students who work with that person and find out their take What do they see as the strenghs and weakness of their advisor? What kind of science are they doing? Are they getting published? 3) Find out the phiolosphy on funding Some profs run students off of grants while other require they get their own funding 4) Find out how interactive the prof is with writing grants and generation of ideas

 What makes a successful graduate career 1) Having a reason why you want to be there (and not just that nothing else seemed right) 2) Picking the right committtee members

Have you seen the column "some modest advice for graduate students"? There's lots of good stuff in there...

[Stearns, S. 1987. Some modest advice for graduate students. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 68, 145-149.

Huey, R. 1987. Reply to Stearns: some acynical advice for graduate students. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 68, 150-153]



First and foremost, I think its critical to be excited about the research being done in a prospective advisor's lab. Students should read relevant, recent papers from the lab. Deciding to go for a Ph.D. is a big decision that requires lots of sacrifice and l-o-n-g hours. One needs to be motivated and psyched about the research or grad. school will become hell. I'd remind the newbies that being a graduate student is not a career in and of itself. Grad. school is one FINITE step along the way of becoming a professional scientist and academic. I suspect that more than a few people go into grad. school because they're not sure about what they want to be when they grow up, and thus end up piddling along in school for years, racking up debt and disillusionment.

I'd tell the new students to not be shy about asking detailed questions of an advisor, and of his current students. What are the advisor's expectations for grad. student productivity? How much time can the student expect from the advisor in terms of mentoring? What is the advisor's policy on authorship for published thesis chapters? Is the advisor hands-on or hands-off? What type of advisor does the student want (hands-on or hands-off) -- this is a really important thing for any incoming student to know and to clearly articulate to the advisor. In my experience, unclear expectations between an advisor and a student = the biggest potential source of tension. Ask lab mates about what it's like to work with the advisor. What things should the new student be certain to do and to avoid? Respect the lab rules and one's lab mates.

A prospective student should be comfortable with an advisor's personality. This doesn't mean that the advisor and the student need to become close friends. While people like to have friendly relationships with their co-workers, peers, etc., becoming social friends with an advisor can lead to more harm that good, especially if the advisor finds himself needing to reprimand or discipline a student. Welcome honest criticism, and don't be afraid to offer constructive criticism to others.

Grad. school isn't like being an undergrad. Coursework and getting straight A's isn't the name of the game anymore. Take only those classes that are required or directly relevant to one's degree path. Get the coursework done, do well on tests, papers, etc., but don't obsess about getting a "gold star" on every assignment. It can be easy to throw one's self into a class or into studying for a test as a (possibly unconscious) way of avoiding the bigger challenge of writing a proposal or analyzing a messy dataset. One's own research and field work should always be the first priority.

I'd emphasize the importance of setting and meeting deadlines. Be realistic (not an annoying, nervous overachiever) and get the work done in a timely fashion. Don't force the advisor to constantly badger the student about deadlines, especially for grant proposals and manuscripts. One ultimate goal of grad. school is to finish as a respected peer of one's advisor. I suspect it's harder for an advisor to consider a finishing student as a peer if the advisor hand to harangue the student over and over again about getting work done.

Finally, grad. school can and should be a fun experience. Take advantage of the intellectual freedom that grad. school offers. Don't fret over the inevitable botched first field season. Do the interesting, risky experiments. Make the time to have a personal life. Definitely don't work seven days a week, month after month. Time off is important and healthy.


The advisor/student relationship is really challenging. It rarely ever is how you would dream it. So, keep the ball in your court by communicating, making and keeping deadlines. Also get good at reading your advisors eyes to know if this is a good day or a bad day:-)

 I think that one good piece of advice is, in thinking about a project, try to think about what you are actually going to be DOING. I think that there are a lot of interesting questions out there, but when you also consider the best way to answer a question (e.g., in the lab, in the field, using mesocosms, using existing data, doing a big lit. review), that can help you to identify a question that is both interesting and will require that you do something that you enjoy.


I think that the problem with choosing an advisor is that most of us couldn't afford to be choosy. We had to go with someone that would take us!

If you could choose, I'd go with other grad student recommendations -- and I'd only believe the ones that were glowing. It is way too easy to believe "I'll be different. He'll treat me right"...

Then I'd go with someone with money and a good publishing record. You can always get free advice elsewhere, but money's only going to come from your advisor (at least most of the time). Likewise, no-one else is really going to give you the time necessary to learn how to write a good paper.

The good news is that unlike your advisor, it is a little easier to find a 'mentor'. This opportunity shouldn't be overlooked. I'd encourage students to look outside their advisor -- emeritus profs, outside faculty, whatever...


Read: Stearns' "Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students,"

[Stearns, S. 1987. Some modest advice for graduate students. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 68, 145-149.

Huey, R. 1987. Reply to Stearns: some acynical advice for graduate students. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 68, 150-153]

For myself, I would say that the graduate student-advisor relationship is a difficult one, and for graduate students there is an unfortunate culture of complaint. No one has the opportunity to work on their PhD with God (and I suppose that, personally, all that beneficence would get on my nerves after a while, but maybe that's just me), and we need to realize that advisors aren't perfect. So I guess my advice is to try one's best to escape the complaint culture: appreciate one's advisor for what s/he can offer, rather than focusing on that advisor's shortcomings, and capitalize on the fact that--uniquely for this period of academic development--there is an entire department, and beyond that, scientific community, willing and ready to help fill the holes that are left by one's advisor's imperfections. I talk to a lot of students who miss out on the rich opportunities they might have had as a result of interacting more with their committee, non-committee members in their department, and other scientists in their field. I think I may have done relatively well at this latter part of my advice, and I continue to benefit from it. But I managed to do a pretty poor job on part one of this charge, and if I had graduate school to do over again, I would surely focus on this.



Make the office staff like you. They can make your life so much easier in dealing with academic/financial problems since they know all the rules and how to get around them.