Knowing what I know now: Grad school (Katie Lotterhos)

Mind your Ps and Qs

Katie Lotterhos completed her PhD in 2011 at Florida State University, and is currently a post-doc with Mike Whitlock at the University of British Columbia. She studies marine ecology, population genetics, and statistical genomics.

If you have advice for yourself in a past career stage, find out how to contribute to the carnival here — we’ve got many great contributions already!

I don’t like wordy posts, but here’s my two cents. I actually put this together for some undergrads I’ve been teaching, but it applies to grad students as well.

  • Be clear and concise.
  • Know your punctuation (The Elements of Style by Strunk & White) and how to write effectively (Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Williams and Colomb)—see below for the 4 most common mistakes.
  • Don’t BS.
  • Disillusionment happens.
  • A**holes happen.
  • Failure happens.
  • Learn probability theory. (It helps rationalize the previous three tips.)
  • Learn how to make nice, high quality .eps and .pdf figures.
  • Have someone else criticize your work/writing—and don’t take it personally.
  • Organization is the key to success.
  • Time is the other key to success and to being “smart”. This advice I think needs some explanation. Basically, the more time you spend thinking about something, or working on something, the better you will be able to understand and to explain that thing. If you look at most of the people that you think are smarter than you, most of the time they will have spent more time than you have thinking about that subject. There is a rule of thumb that it takes 10,000 hours working at one subject to become an expert. If you spend 40 hours every week studying a subject for 6 years (guess what, the average time it takes to complete a PhD), you will clock in at over 12,000 hours.
  • No one is a genius at everything. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and how to communicate them.
  • Finally, take your time choosing a program and an advisor that is right for you, and fits into your future goals. In retrospect, I didn’t spend enough time before I started grad school thinking about what field I really wanted to be an expert in—at the time I was just sick of being a technician. It took the first couple years of grad school for me to figure it out. Before you even apply to graduate school, it’s not a bad idea to spend one or even two years visiting different schools and meeting with potential advisors.

Punctuation tips:

  • Know the difference between a hyphen, en-dash, and em-dash
    • Two adjectives describing the same noun have a hyphen: energy-related debate.
    • A span of numbers or dates have an en-dash: 2–4 years.
    • A point that needs to be emphasized has an em-dash without spaces: Fracking also releases methane—a greenhouse gas 100 times worse than carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere.
  • A comma followed by “and” should have a subject and verb. Otherwise leave out the comma and the subject.
    • He went to the store, and he bought a soda.
    • He went to the store and bought a soda.
  • “Which” always follows a comma, “that” never does
    • The BC energy plan, which was released in 2007, outlines …
    • The BC energy plan that was released in 2007 outlines …
  • “Effect” is a noun and “Affect” is a verb (usually).
    • The policy affected the outcome.
    • The outcome was an effect of the policy.
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About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy Yoder is an Assistant Professor of Biology at California State University, Northridge. He also blogs at Denim and Tweed, and tweets under the handle @jbyoder.
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