Knowing what I know now: Grad school (Jeremy Yoder)

Unsolicited advice for every stage of a scientific career is a genre that predates the blogsophere — I well remember recieving Stephen Stearns’s “Advice for Graduate Students” in my e-mail, as a sort of PDF-formatted samizdat back at the start of my Ph.D. In part, I expect that’s because the educational mission of academia and its semi-institutionalized mentoring relationships make us all a little bit more conscious about the mechanics of getting from the B.Sci. to the Ph.D., and onward from the postdoc to the professorship.

I can’t claim to have any blinding new insights — my own career is very much still under construction. But I’ve been interacting with a number of freshly-arrived graduate students this semester, and I’ve found myself thinking, after conversations with them, about what I might have done differently back when I was looking ahead to five (oops, six) years of grad school — and about what I did that worked out pretty well.

Moreover, one of the nice things about the unsolicited advice genre in the age of the Internet is that it’s possible to hear thoughts from many, many people, and maybe start to winnow out the most important themes. In that spirit, I’m hoping The Molecular Ecologist can start collecting advice from all our contributors, and many guests as well — e-mail me if you want to write something like this. In keeping with “knowing what I know now,” I further propose we limit ourselves to advice about the career stage immediately preceeding the one we currently occupy. That should mean that the advice in this series is given with the freshest possible awareness of challenges we’ve faced, and whether and how we’re prepared for what we’re currently doing. Edited to add: actually, let’s make it a blog carnival! Find out how to submit your advice here.

So, without further ado, here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of what one postdoctoral associate wishes he’d known to do (and what he’s glad he did) in graduate school. In no particular ordering or priority:

Be ambitious, but plan for failure.

Designing a dissertation project is daunting. And then, once you come up with a question that interests you, you’ll want to do exactly what it would take to answer that question. Except there’s almost certainly no way you’ll be able to do it in five (or six) years, as your advisor will doubtless tell you wen you first describe it to her. What you really want to do is to identify a handful of experiments that all collect data towards answering that question. If some of those experiments don’t work out, others will.

And even then, try to build projects that will leave you with informative results even if something goes wrong, or if you don’t get the result you expect. If you’re studying, say, genetic and phenotypic diversity in your favorite spikey desert plant, you have at least one major possiblity for failure ahead of you — maybe the plant doesn’t flower during the two or three years you’ll have for fieldwork. Fortunately, as long as you collect tissue while you’re out hunting for flowering plants (and assuming your lab has the resources, and you’re willing to put in the bench time) you’ll probably get the genetic data. So you’re not going to be left with three years of fieldwork and no results.

Office Bookshelf

Buy books.

As much as the world of scientific knowledge has gone digital — with the right access privileges, you can get the very first issue of The American Naturalist in PDF format — a lot of important ideas in the last century and a half of ecology and evolutionary biology were first (or best) expressed in books rather than journal articles — and those books aren’t yet in the public domain, and therefore aren’t freely available online: Tempo and Mode in Evolution, Geographical Ecology, The Ecology of Adaptive Radiations. Similarly, unless you’re working on especially charismatic taxa, there’s no solid digital substitute for field guides and monographs. These are the works you’ll want to cite in proposals and introductions for the rest of your career. Exhibit A is my well-thumbed copy of The Geographic Mosaic of Coevolution.

A lot of these books are also pricey even in paperback form. So, to accommodate a grad student’s stipend let’s amend that to “acquire books.” Stake out a good used bookstore. Keep an eye out for library sales and renovations, and be willing to dig through piles of out-of-date textbooks for the occasional treasure. Put them on your holiday wish list. (This last netted me several good volumes, and only a little parental perplexity.) And take shameless advantage of foolish colleagues who are moving out and want to lighten their packing load.

Cultivate good habits.

This was going to be “cultivate good work habits.” And that’s really what I wish I’d worked on harder during graduate school — especially after I was done with my coursework, my schedule suddenly became mostly my own to make. And that turns out to be daunting, after years of academic life defined by class schedules. Sure, there are deadlines in the latter half of graduate school, but they don’t provide day-to-day structure. You can utterly fail to plan ahead or pace yourself and still meet deadlines — you just grow to despise the deadlines in the process. So if you can, try to maintain a regular daily schedule, and take the extra bit of effort to plan out the work you’ll need to meet that next deadline. I’m still learning to do this, but to the extent that I pull it off, my life is a lot easier.

But, as I say, don’t just worry about work habits. While you’re building those nice, regular daily routines, put in time for adequate sleep, for exercise, for cooking your own meals — which is excellent stress relief as well as cheaper and healthier — and for the occasional night out with friends. All work and no play, et cetera.

2007 - Day 113 - This England

Drink tea.

Make it properly, too, with loose-leaf tea in boiling water. Get a good sturdy tea pot, and take the time to decide whether you prefer Earl Grey to Darjeeling. Pick out a really nice mug at the local thrift shop. And then brew a pot when you’re up late working to meet that deadline (oops) or at the end of a long day in the lab, or first thing in the morning to get you off to a good start.

Or, you know, if you’re not so fond of the taste of dried leaves boiled in water, brew yourself a nice, strong pot of coffee in the morning instead, using a French press and good beans you grind yourself. The actual point being, find yourself some small and grad-student-stipend-friendly luxury that you can give yourself to unwind on a regular basis — and take the extra effort to make it an indulgence. It really does help.

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About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy Yoder is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota. He also blogs at Denim and Tweed and Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, and tweets under the handle @jbyoder.
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