Career advice for graduate students

Read what I wrote for undergraduate students. Scientific networking becomes more important during graduate school, and should not be underestimated.  You obviously spend most of your time and creative energy doing research. It still will be helpful (for both of these goals) to find out stories about other scientists.

The main new things that you are asked to learn in graduate school are:

Taking more responsibility for yourself and your career. In addition to effectively managing time, you should also learn more about how universities and academic careers work (e.g. by reading the pages on this website carefully, including the ones for postdocs, but also by asking more of your senior colleagues about it), and develop professional habits of interaction (see the networking page; do not underestimate this part). Generally with networking, I recommend you make it your goal that every professor in your home department should know you by name and roughly what your work is about, by the time you graduate. This is not that hard, but it does require consistent deliberate investment over the years (at dept. receptions, seminars, and so on, see networking). It also requires genuinely caring about what their research is about.

One part of finding out more about university organization is finding out about the details of how your graduate program works and is administered. You must read your graduate student handbook, given out by your program, and plan to stick to all the requirements to the letter. Discuss deviations with your advisor ideally before they are unavoidable (EEB, EIS handbooks are most relevant for students in my lab). Also find out who at the university really decides what about the requirements for graduate students, how students are funded, etc. Ask your advisor, other faculty, the grad program coordinator.

How to pick research projects and bring them to a published outcome. This is of course what doing research is about. But generally: do not underestimate how important and difficult picking the right project is. The hard part is that you have to nevertheless decide something even when you don't know what you need to know, including whether you're more into field or lab work, collaboration or independence, whether your project is very or just moderately risky, whether other people consider this an unfilled niche or an esoteric side issue. Ask your colleagues, both junior and senior, these questions about their projects and about yours. Also, make it an important goal to become a member of a discipline, and to understand what people in that discipline care about. Going to the same conference regularly is a good way to do this. Obviously I also think that you should take very seriously what your advisor has to say, and generally trust that she will know better which projects are likely to be feasible and impactful. 

The broader picture that your research fits into. You should be spending a lot of time reading. You need to master a field of literature by the end of your PhD, in the sense of knowing the paradigms, where the holes are, the commonly studied organisms, the well-known authors and seminal papers as well as who is working in your area right now (this is also what your >comprehensive exam (='prelim exam') is about). You need to know several angles of how your research is relevant to different communities in science (e.g. applied entomology, robotics, complex systems science, evolutionary theory) and outside science (your mom, your congresswoman, your neighbor, your university administrator).

And the end, you get to apply for postdoc positions if you are planning to stay in academia. I recommend identifying a short list of 2-5 professors you'd like to work with by about 1 year before you graduate, and writing to them then.

I realized all this was quite general and not linked to specific achievements in each semester/year, so here is a timetable if you are looking to evaluate your progress more specifically.

Some other notes

The above is mainly straightforward career-progression advice. However, you are a person, not just a career. For me personally, grad school was a great compromise between independence and 'school' (where you get to experiment without dire consequences), and I was supported by a variety of people and other factors. But, I still felt I needed a 'plan B' if things didn't work out, and I was still plagued with a lot of self-doubt and doubt about my experiments: this is inevitable if you are trying something new (as every good PhD plan does) and because of the long time (often >2 years) between starting a project and seeing a tangible result. So, it can feel like you are working a lot with no progress. 

My advice to stay sane, subjective to be sure.

- choose your advisor well, and then have frequent meetings and confide in them. Say that you feel stuck. Say that you are not sure the experiment will work. Or whatever. Your advisor should be your coauthor and in the same boat, i.e. wanting you to succeed. They are the person with the most knowledge and interest in your situation and your project, and thus your best bet for help. If your advisor it too scary, try writing a letter/email. Be as specific as you can, make it clear that you are committed to sticking it out but asking for help. 

- make sure you are not lonely. Loneliness is poison for the soul, and will make every other frustration feel much more severe than it is. Do what you have to do. Visit family or old friends. Make new friends in classes. Show up to social events organized by fellow graduate students, or organize them yourself. Do not underestimate how important it is to make friends in grad school.

- find out who you are. Academic life may not be what you thought. Be honest with yourself about what matters to you in life, and whether academia, or your other plan for after grad school, is still what it was or should change. Be open to different possibilities. Important: you should get profs to tell you what they think academia is like, and believe them over your fellow grad students. But you should not ask profs what other jobs are like, since they probably don't know. Ask your family members, non-academic friends instead. Grad school is not career training: it is an apprenticeship with a scientist. If you want career training for other jobs than academic science, you have to actively search it out and get it. Do not assume that society/your grad program/your advisor will somehow automatically channel you into a job that is right for you. 

 

Some other websites about graduate school:

10 ways to fail a PhD and what a PhD achieves by Matt Might

How to succeed in graduate school by Marie desJardins

Classic PhD comic with a grain of truth by Jorge Cham (The grain of truth is that your motivation or satisfaction will fluctuate widely because of the long delayed gratification in most research projects. Do NOT be silent about this - discuss with your lab mates, other students, and your advisor to develop stragtegies for progress and to put your work/output in perspective.)

Other prof's advice about grad school, e.g. by Kevin Passino or Stephen Stearns (also here). Also Carlos Scheidegger's advice in general and for his students.

Other specific advice:

How to prepare for your 'prelims' = 'comps' = 'comprehensive examination'

How to transition to a postdoc position and when; check applying for strategy, timeline, and expectations, and then read interviewing.