Advice to graduate students

When I finished my PhD last year, I had this amazing clarity about the three steps to finishing a successful PhD. I imagined that one day in the future, when my beard is grayer, that I would give the keynote speech at some conference and I would lay out these concise points that would help all graduate students not only enjoy graduate school but graduate with a post doc or job already lined up. Then, I started my post doc and never wrote those ideas down. One year later, I realize that these moments of clarify are fleeting, and that at seasons of transition we receive insights into the season we are coming out of, but these clear ideas may not stick around once we get into the trenches of the next season. All that to say, I am writing this post to try and lay down what I learned about how to succeed in graduate school before I am so far away from my PhD that all is forgotten.


  • Embrace failure. For most of my graduate career I believed that successful academics didn’t fail. It seemed that in my field of evolutionary biology, my advisor and many other advanced academics just always succeeded. When they did lab work, it worked. And their CV showed that when they applied for grants, they received them! Now, what I had to learn through experience was that for every success in the academic field, there may be five failures! In all of my publications, I intended to use more samples than are actually in my papers, but often I had lab work that failed (especially early on). And, for each grant I received, I was rejected by many, many other grant applications. Part of the academic culture is to present the best side of us, but the reality is, with the exception of those few elusive geniuses (or is they a myth too?), most of us fail a lot as we learn new techniques. This is how we learn. Failure is a sign that we are pushing boundaries, and failure is not a reflection on you as a person.


  • Steal Like an Artist. I appropriately stole this title from the book, ‘Steal like an artist,’ but the idea is not unique to that book. The idea is that no idea is really new under the sun. Creativity is primarily the appropriation of ideas from one field to another field, and the building of those ideas onto existing ideas. Early on in the PhD you should not be trying to reinvent the wheel. Rather, I would advocate for copying existing models, applying them to your study system, and using these more standard ways of doing to learn the ropes and build a broader theoretical base. Only when you have a few papers under your belt can you really begin to innovate and think deeply and broadly about a field. This requires reading regularly, and broadly, and of course, being willing to fail. The idea here is that during the PhD, you should be looking for existing ideas to apply to your own system. Look for ways of making figures, look for color schemes, look for formats of writing Introductions and Discussions. Copy successful people and learn how to work the way they do. Eventually, you will think like they do it and then, innovation will happen.


  • Always look ahead. The blog and book ‘The Professor is In’ has a great line about always looking ahead to what is next while in graduate school, rather than being like a hedgehog burrowing into the wood shavings. My first two years of graduate school, I asked almost every visiting seminar speaker what they thought I needed to focus on to get a post doc. I remember a professor from Harvard looking at me and asking, ‘Don’t you think you are thinking about post docs a little soon? You are in the first year of your PhD.” I think this professor was wrong, and the reason is simple. We need to be always aligning ourselves early on with the expectations and requirements of the next job. Typically, in response to my question, faculty members told me I needed to be using Next Generation Sequencing and to learn how to code. This helped me then to design a dissertation and CV that utilized Next Generation Sequencing, and I knew that even though I hated the idea, I had to learn how to code before I graduated. It turns out, everyone in my current lab at the Smithsonian depends almost exclusively on Next Generation Sequencing data, and everyone is at least familiar with coding, while a few of us are fluent at one or two languages. The point is, if you try to prepare for the post doc, or the faculty job, or tenure, at the end of that season, it will be too late to turn the ship. You need to know what metrics will be required and expected from the beginning, and then frame at least most projects around meeting those metrics. Some within the academic community may disagree with this mentality, but I think the job market is too competitive not to think this way.


  • Learn to communicate well early on. This applies to both writing and speaking. Watch TED Talks. Read books about communication. Pay attention to seminars you find engaging. Try to identify what makes those speakers captivating. Become a captivating and effective speaker and writer. Communication skills get you jobs. You have to be able to write well to get your foot in the door. Then, to seal the deal you have to give a really good talk. This is pretty much the case at all levels, from dissertation to faculty jobs.


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