Although each different graduate school has its own special flavor, they all provide specialized knowledge in a given field of science, and, organized 1:1 instruction about how to conduct research experiments and be a scientist. Typically, graduate students learn a lot from courses and laboratory work, assemble and defend a doctoral thesis, and, produce one or more research publications. Graduate school usually is followed by intensive semi-independent research as a postdoctoral fellow.
This article is only for graduate students in science! It uses a question and answer format to advise you about how to handle some common problematic situations in graduate school. Further information and other opinions certainly should be sought from your fellow students, your official advisor, and any of your course instructors. My advice is based upon my own experiences and observations as a graduate student and later as a faculty researcher and teacher. I hope all of this will prove interesting and useful to you!
Why do I have to take yet more courses in graduate school? I want to learn how to do research!
Graduate school training provides a number of useful features needed by all research scientists: (1) classroom courses instill in-depth knowledge and advanced understanding about one or several areas of science; (2) laboratory courses provide detailed knowledge about research approaches and methods; (3) coursework with library and internet studies, and making oral presentations, give experience in explaining your research and answering questions. These are directly related to what you will do later, no matter where you will be employed. Any advanced course including critical analysis of research investigations will increase your own skills with design of experiments, picking adequate controls, and drawing valid conclusions from a given set of experimental data. You will learn the practice of doing good lab research when you begin work in the lab of your thesis advisor. Being a scientist is more than just performing experiments!
I’m not good with math! Why must I take a statistics course?
I strongly recommend that all graduate students should take a course in applied statistics because it will help deal with experimental design and data analysis. You don’t have to become an expert, but you almost certainly will need to know how to use the basic concepts and procedures.
How should I pick my thesis advisor?
Ideally, you have enrolled in a graduate school because you already picked one or several faculty scientists you want to train you. If your choice is still open, then the following general criteria seem most important. The best thesis advisor has: (1) a successful research career in the special field you are most interested in, (2) an active research grant (and preferably, this has been renewed), (3) a good record for training and placing graduate students (and postdocs), (4) ambition to excel in the special field of interest, and (5) room for you to work in their lab. Discuss any questions or concerns with your selected professor before you begin.
What do research rotations accomplish? It seems like a waste of time to me!
Most of your research experience in grad school comes under the supervision of your thesis advisor. Picking this person is an extremely important task that will follow you for the rest of your career. Most schools require a rotation through the laboratories of at least 3 different professors; to be meaningful, each rotation should extend for 1-2 months. Via these rotations, new grad students will learn what each supervisor is like, what research questions are being attacked in their lab, what instruments and methods are in use, what staff (technicians, postdocs, collaborators, and other students) are working in each lab, and, what each supervisor expects from their graduate student colleagues. After these rotations, the student should be able to decide who they want to study with; the faculty use this experience to evaluate students with regard to interest, level of energy, intelligence, aptitude to learn and acquire skills, and, mentality. The rotations also provide initial entries into your list of methods and instruments you know how to use, so they are valuable even if you already know which professor you will select.
What do I do if there is no professor working on my main subject of interest?
First, admit that you have made a mistake! You should have seen whether there were suitable mentors before you enrolled in any school. Second, decide if you are willing to make some changes in your main interests so that you can work with faculty that are available. Third, if not, then apply to transfer into another department or a different graduate school having one or more faculty scientists working in your area of interest.
What should my doctoral thesis accomplish?
Successfully completing and defending a graduate school thesis is taken as proof that you are qualified to be a scientific investigator, a teacher of science, and an expert on some aspect of modern science. The findings from your experimental studies show what you can do in research, and are the first basis to establish your reputation as a professional scientist. Any good thesis will provide you with one or more publications in professional science journals, and might also result in your obtaining a patent. Successful defense of your thesis entitles you to be hired in a number of different employment situations.
My thesis advisor just had his grant renewal turned down, so I must hurry up to finish my project! But, I only have worked on it for one year! Help!
You indeed have a difficult problem! You must first discuss all possible options with your thesis advisor. In some cases, there might be another professor working in a similar or related area who will let you continue your current research within their lab. In other cases, you might have to move into some other area of interest, and then find a new thesis advisor. Yet other possibilities include moving into a different department at the same graduate school, or transferring into another school. Depending on all the logistics and the time limitations, it might be good to use what you already have done to first acquire a Master’s Degree with your present advisor.
I am half way to completing my doctoral thesis; how soon should I start looking for a postdoctoral position and for a job?
I recommend starting both today! You can never begin too early with these tasks! At science meetings, observe what other scientists are working on, who is researching in your area(s) of interest, and who gives invited presentations. Go up to some and ask a good question; if you have a poster, you can invite them to view it. Take a look at the job openings displayed at science meetings, and, start deciding what kind of employment and which locations appeal to you. Everything you do as a graduate student says what you are; this will be fully inspected when you later apply for a postdoctoral position or a job.
I have been a grad student for 6 years, and my thesis advisor wants me to do still more work. Maybe I will never be able to finish! What can I do?
This is a common problem! Students always want to finish graduate school and start being a Postdoc as soon as possible, but thesis advisors want them to do a very complete and excellent job with their thesis research. The goals of both parties are natural and good. I know several grad students who finished only after 10 years of work!
I offer the following advice. Above all else, try to maintain good relations with your thesis advisor, and recognize that this person knows more than you do about science and careers in science. Discuss all with him or her, and try to get an explicit list of exactly what you still need to accomplish; then, get to work and monitor your own progress every month. If that only produces more problems, then discuss your situation with one or more members of your thesis advisory committee. I cannot say anything further because I do not know if you are wasting time, fully understand what is needed to get a doctoral degree, are getting good results from your experiments, etc.; your thesis committee should know all of this, so ask for advice from them.
Almost all graduate students encounter some perplexing situation(s) in graduate school. Handling those challenges is part of your advanced education! You do not have to take my advice, but you should carefully consider how and why your views disagree with my recommendations. It often is valuable to discuss everything with a trusted faculty scientist or another graduate student (i.e., one attending a different school). Good luck!
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