Friday, March 6, 2015

How to Succeed in Graduate School - Part 1

My last “how to” post was about getting into graduate school, so it seems logical to follow up with a post about how to kick ass once you get into graduate school. Of course, the advice that follows won’t apply in all instances, and some of it is rather obvious, but I hope that I can provide some unique insights that might help you on your way. (Advice from other sources are provided by links at the end.) I also need to note that this post applies most directly to students who wish to make a career of research in academia or, to some extent, in government, industry, or NGOs. In addition, all of the suggestions apply to PhD students, whereas only some apply to MSc students. As an aside, I think MSc projects are great (I got a lot out of mine) but many institutions, including mine (McGill), and funding agencies put the major emphasis on PhD students. As a result, it is more and more common to simply skip the MSc and go straight from undergrad into PhD.

This post will be part 1 of 2 as the topic is super important and too much needs to be said to fit into a single post. Part 2 is here.


We had better get the obvious out of the way first – your success in graduate school is mostly determined by the papers you publish. You want quantity. You want quality. You want quality in quantity. You want it early and often and well. So how to achieve this?

Get started early. The earlier you start publishing the better. I strongly suggest identifying a definable project very early on that you can submit fairly quickly – in your first year. It doesn’t have to be earth-shaking or ground-breaking. A (hopefully novel) review paper on your proposed research area is a good option.) It just gets you started. You learn how the process works. You establish yourself as someone who can see research through to completion, someone who has something to contribute, someone who can get the job done. It will make everything easier: committee meetings, qualifying exams, defenses, future positions, everything. If you conducted undergraduate research, write it up early in your graduate degree (the longer you wait the harder it will be). 

 Shoot high at some point. It is so much easier to dump your work in open-access journals than to work your way through the more picky alternatives. A few papers in open-access journals are fine (especially early on) but you also need some papers in picky journals, ideally society-based journals like Ecology or Evolution or PRSB. These journals are a critical stamp of approval that says your work isn’t just “solid” but also “important” and “interesting.” Of course, the glamour journals (Science, Nature, PNAS) are even better career-wise if you can get into them, but they are a big risk. I have known a number of students who have essentially put their entire thesis into one paper trying to get it into those journals only to have it rejected from all of them after years of trying. The student has then been in such a hurry to publish before graduation that they dumped it in open access. And then they had to scramble to come up with a few more chapters. So it is a risky strategy to shoot for the glamour. Note that your supervisor will likely have strong opinions on these points, and her/his suggestions come before mine. 

First authored papers are by far the best. Collaborations with other students, postdocs, and profs are an extremely rewarding part of graduate school (more on this below) but what is most critical for your future career opportunities is first authored papers. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a bunch of co-authored papers are equivalent to a first-authored paper. Moreover, co-authored efforts can still take an immense amount of time and effort, potentially reducing your ability to produce first-authored papers. So collaborate on other projects but remember that your success will be determined much more strongly by your first-authored publications.


Very early on as a supervisor, I realized that students (in fact, everybody) can be ordered along a continuum from “thinker” to “doer." Thinkers read all the relevant literature. They debate and puzzle and work over every concept and idea in great detail and at great length. Doers see the task and get it done – quickly and efficiently. The truth is that the current competitive academic environment is geared to reward doers given that the sheer volume of papers matters. Or, stated more precisely, a thinker who has very few papers will have trouble moving on, even if those few papers are great. And yet, at the same time, a doer who has tons of papers will sometimes be deemed superficial or a dilettante if those papers are deemed too minor – or folks can be suspicious of people who publish what they deem as “too many papers to do a good job on any of them.” The first step is to realize where you fall on the continuum: “My name is Andrew, and I am doer.” If you are a thinker, you must force yourself in the doer direction. You have to set yourself goals and deadlines and you must meet them. Stop thinking quite so much – and do some more doing. You will publish more papers, which is good. Of course, the opposite applies to doers – slow yourself down and do more reading and thinking. You will publish better papers, which is good.

Key: There are two types of people: those that talk the talk and those that walk the walk. People who walk the walk sometimes talk the talk but most times they don't talk at all, 'cause they walkin'. Now, people who talk the talk, when it comes time for them to walk the walk, you know what they do? They talk people like me into walkin' for them.


Publishing good work (early and often) depends first and foremost on data, which depends on the best possible sampling/experimental design and implementation. Nothing, simply nothing, can fix a poor sampling design or insufficient/inappropriate replication. The subtext here is that stats are great, and need to be done as well as possible, but the data come first and foremost. Data are real and exist without stats. Stats do not exist without data. Thus, don’t get too hung up early with trying to be a #STATSHero – that can come later. Of course, knowledge of the stats you will apply will greatly aid decisions about experimental design and effort. It is just that you have to inflate your football before you can throw it. As an aside, it is true that a #STATSHero will often get lots of publications by helping other students with their stats and will be a desirable commodity as a postdoc and in many other contexts. This is all well and good but remember that first-authored publications are considered much better than a ream of co-authored publications, and also that effort helping others with their stats can reduce the time you can devote to your own work. Don’t let good stats come between you and good data.


Many students agonize over the precise details on drafts of proposals and papers that they are producing before showing them to their supervisor. The undercurrent seems to be that they want to impress their supervisor (a reasonable sentiment) and thus want their writing to be perfect before she/he sees it. The reality is that you will fail in this effort. Your early drafts will NEVER come close to satisfying your supervisor – but that is the point, really. If your supervisor doesn’t trash your drafts, then what good are they to you really? The truth is that your supervisor is best viewed as an experienced and invested collaborator. They are there to help and that help often involves an entire restructuring or reframing of your paper, an effort in which they will usually (but not always) be well informed. Thus, don’t worry so much about making your first (or second or third) draft perfect because, no matter how hard you try, it won’t look anything like what you originally wrote after your supervisor gets a hold of it. Instead, it is much more efficient and less frustrating to get your drafts to your supervisor in the early stages while they are still quite rough. It will save everyone a lot of time and stress and will reduce the chances you will be offended or hurt or crushed by massive changes to something you thought was great. (Even if your paper is great at the start, it can always be better – and that is what supervisors try to do: no matter how good the paper is, they want to make it better.) Before moving on, I need to point out that you should not carry this suggestion to far. That is, supervisors also can get annoyed if your document is too cursory or incomplete. Do a good job, just don’t strive for perfection – that comes later.


Qualifying exams in their various forms are often terrifying for students, who have to stand at the front of the room playing “guess what’s in the professor’s head.” Here are some suggestions that can really help get you through it. First, make sure (if the regulations allow) to talk to all of the committee members well before the exam. Tell them about your project and ask them what they suggest you should read before the exam. This is essential because different profs with different backgrounds often have very different ways of viewing the world and think different ideas and papers are critical for you to know. No matter how much your supervisor helps you prepare, they simply can’t intuit what the other examiners might be thinking. Second, realize from the beginning that you will NOT know the answer to most of the questions. In fact, the way these things play out is that professors are specifically seeking to find out what you DO NOT know. Thus, as soon as it is clear you know the answer to a particular question, they immediately want to move on to something else. They are instead probing for what you DON’T know – and they will find it. Think of it as their attempt to circumscribe the hypervolume of your knowledge so they can decide if it is large enough to proceed toward a PhD. The definition of this hypervolume requires, by definition, the exploration of its edges rather than its center. So relax, you won’t know the answer to many of the questions, which is fine and the point, really. Third, admit when you don’t know the answer (don’t just blather on about stuff that you hope is related) but then, whenever possible, say you are willing to try to figure it out on the fly. Fourth, failure (of the temporary kind) is often a good thing. It gives you an opportunity to improve your knowledge in key areas and can lead to papers on its own. In fact, evolutionary biologist Tim Mousseau turned his remedial paper following a qualifying exam “failure” at McGill into a citation classic.

My Dad's frustration with qualifying exam preparation led him to blast out this poem one afternoon. He posted it on the departmental bulletin board and, apparently, the professors weren't impressed. I would have been.


Like it or not, success in today’s scientific enterprise requires (or at least greatly benefits from) not just good science but also a good “presence.” In fact, after publishing papers, the next most important skill – yes, even more than becoming a #STATSHero – is to give a great research presentation. This is true at every level of your career: undergrad, grad, postdoc, prof. The best way to learn how to give a good presentation is to practice, practice, practice. By this I mean at conferences, retreats, lab meetings, etc. – any opportunity you can get. It doesn’t matter so much what you talk about (don’t worry if you don’t have data) but how you talk about it. So do it early, do it often, and don’t quit doing it. Before each major presentation, practice it for fellow students and, if possible, your supervisor. Lab meetings are great for this. Immediately after a presentation, ask fellow students and, ideally, your supervisor how you can make it even better next time. Some of the advice will be technical (less text, simpler figures, better colours, etc.) and you will gradually adopt what works and jettison what doesn’t. However, the greatest improvement can come simply from increasing your comfort level, which increases with the number of times you give presentations. (If you are petrified by public speaking, think of joining a debating club or taking acting/theater/performance classes – I think my comfort in speaking stems in part from performing arts classes taken in high school.)

For evidence that it doesn't have to matter what you say - but how you say it - check out this Chicken Chicken Chicken: Chicken Chicken presentation.


Following from the above idea of a “presence”, participation in free-form discussions is very important. By this I mean speaking out in discussions and asking questions in lab meetings and seminars and at conferences. Becoming comfortable in such contexts is an extremely valuable skill and it becomes increasingly important as one moves up the career path. For instance, professors are often expected to have a strong opinion about almost everything. Moreover, being animated in discussions is a great way to establish collaborations, develop new ideas, and generally feel connected to your lab, fellow students, and your department. I have a colleague (Mike Kinnison) who challenged his students to ask at least one question per talk they saw at a conference. I think this is a great idea – not just the actual asking but the preparation for it. If you tell yourself that you are going to ask a question at the end of a talk, then you find yourself paying much closer attention and being more critical in your evaluation of the work. Doing so helps you gain a lot more intellectually from a talk. I suggest you write down at least one question per talk and try to ask it at the end. I realize that some people are mortified about speaking out but I can first reassure you that no one ever thinks anything negative of a student who asks a question – regardless of the specific question. (Unless it is rude, which you should never do, or unless you ask too many per talk!) In fact, they are nearly always impressed. So, if you are in this shy category, find a context where you can feel somewhat comfortable asking questions, ask as many questions as possible in that context, then move up to the next context, and keep going.


Side projects can be great. They are an opportunity to do something a bit different from your thesis, often with fellow students or with postdocs/profs. And, returning to the point about publishing early, they are often more defined - and therefore easier to publish quickly than your %&#%^$ thesis that has to be integrated across multiple chapters. Of course, too many side projects can delay your progress and drive your supervisor nuts, so don’t get too carried away. Indeed, side projects are the bread-and-butter of “doers” but, for the reasons discussed earlier, doers need to restrain themselves from too much temptation. The funny part is that side projects are often what people become known for rather than their major thesis focus, so do follow your muse when it strikes.


A social media presence through blogging and Twitter is certainly a way to increase your profile, meet a community of like-minded scholars, and get tips to important papers. I think every student should be on Twitter and be a part of some blog (not an administrator but rather a contributor). However, social media is also a big time-suck and so it is critical to not let it detract from your research. Of course, some people become more famous for their social media presence than for their science, which feels good but (usually) does not translate into a career in research. So focus on the research and use the social media to supplement/promote it and yourself. Some ways to minimize the negative aspects are to only follow a modest number of accounts and restrict yourself to only a few tweets per day and posts per month.


Teaching is a valuable part of any graduate program and you should be certain to do it a bit. Moreover, it can help distinguish you on the job market from someone with an equally-good publication record but no teaching experience. But I suggest not doing it too much (unless you have to) as I can assure you it comes at a trade-off with progress in research.


From an extremely timely tweet by @phoebemaund
Graduate school should be one of the best times of your life. You can help this to happen by being successful, as per the above comments, and by making sure to have fun. Indeed, many of the greatest joys of graduate school come from stuff unrelated to the research. Hell, I learned to fly airplanes while in graduate school and I had a long series of very late nights playing Doom with my office mate (I kicked your butt, Mike!) And the parties. And the fishing and diving trips. And I found my future wife! You obviously need to embrace these activities; and, yet, of course, you can’t get too carried away. You need to make sure that you are progressing in your research. So I guess the other way to say it is “work hard, play hard.”


Previous posts in this "How to" series

4.     How to choose a journal (+ part 2)


LINKS THAT MIGHT OR MIGHT NOT AGREE WITH MY ADVICE (thanks to Kiyoko Gotanda for the list)

From the Bruna Lab
From Dynamic Ecology
From the Hall Lab
From Aerin Jacob
From the Keogh Lab


  1. Given the job market in academia these days, here's a different perspective on what is most important to get out of graduate school:

    "Some 36,000 people earned science and engineering PhDs in the United States in 2011, but US universities create only around 3,000 tenure-track positions annually."

    I think every PhD student these days should have a plan B (or a plan A!) that does not involve a career in academia, and should try to make sure that they acquire skills and knowledge that will be useful outside academia. From that perspective, publications and progress in research would NOT be the most important things to get out of your PhD – nor should they be the things that advisors emphasize the most. For success in a career in research, they are undoubtedly the most important thing; but the simple fact is that most of the grad students reading this post will not, in the end, have a career in research. Sorry to rain on the parade, but I think a reality check is needed.

  2. Thanks for the comments Ben. I guess I would argue that most of the pieces advice will serve you well regardless of what you want to do afterward. But, certainly, they were initially motivated from the perspective of a career in research. Although academic jobs are relatively rare, other jobs in research are fairly common. Of course, this doesn't challenge the validity of your point.


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