Saturday, June 21, 2014

Advice to First-Year Graduate Students in Science

“Scientific truth is beyond loyalty and disloyalty.”  Isaac Asimov, Foundation

When I asked my research friends for their advice for summer undergrad researchers, I got such great responses that I decided to write two posts.  I felt some of their advice was better for first-, second- or even third-year graduate students, people who are still early in their research training but who have some experience under their belts.  As you grow into your career, you’ll have different needs, and the advice you seek should reflect them.  Furthermore, there are different expectations of students at different stages.  Students who are trying their hand at research for the very first time should focus on learning and putting forth their best effort.  That’s a great way to jump into research.  Students who have entered a graduate program need to think more strategically about how they spend their time and efforts.  They need encouragement, of course, but I think it should be more sophisticated than “just keep trying!”  (Which is, to be honest, advice that I got as a postdoc and was far too simple for the level of anxiety I was feeling.  It didn’t work for me.)

The people who offered the following advice represent many levels of graduate school success.  Some, like me, finished PhDs, while others finished Master’s degrees.  Some are still going strong in grad school, while others realized that graduate school was not the right path for them.  Graduate school is nothing if not a learning process, so above all else, embrace that opportunity.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts on graduate school once you’ve committed to a degree path.

* Pick a research advisor who can teach you.  I could write an entire dissertation on picking a research advisor, but I’ll refrain from that here.  The best advice I can offer on picking an advisor is to remember that you are in graduate school, so your number one task is to learn as much as you can about science and yourself.  Pick an advisor who can and will support you in that goal.  In many labs, you’ll have in-lab advisors (postdocs, more senior graduate students) who will teach you.  That’s a good thing.

The best way to learn if a potential advisor is a good match for you?  Ask the other graduate students about their experiences.  Are they learning, improving, succeeding?  Do they like working with their advisor?  Is the advisor good at managing her lab?  Is the advisor fair when dealing with in-lab conflicts? 

* Define the purpose of your research for yourself.  I don’t mean what you tell your family, your dissertation committee, or funding agencies.  What do you tell yourself about your research?  My friend Shawn Marie Wolffersdorff, who earned a Master’s degree in materials science and engineering, says, “It really helps to have a narrative about why what you are doing is good for the world. And it helps even more if you genuinely believe it to be true.”

* Find a mentor.  You’re going to have to make a lot of decisions during and after graduate school.  It’s immensely helpful to find a mentor or even several mentors to offer their perspective and care.  Another friend of mine, Dr. Valerie McCarthy, who earned her PhD in physical chemistry, says, “Find a mentor.  No matter what, you'll need a good sounding board for all kinds of things, big and small.  A great mentor can really help you tap into your strengths and develop them.”

* “Own your project,” advises Dr. Jeff Wilson, a professor of psychology at Albion College, my alma mater. “Don't wait for me to tell you what to do or what needs to be done.  Read the literature, think deeply, and come up with ideas.  I'll tell you if they suck (and why), or I'll tell you to act on those ideas, and I'll help make it happen.  The best research comes out of projects that are owned by the people who carry them out.”

But then there’s also this next opinion…

* Learn to collaborate.  Science is team-driven and deeply collaborative at the getting-shit-done level.  There’s a rhetoric in science about the lone hero who discovered penicillin, developed the polio vaccine, or discovered what causes ulcers.  And while those stories are valuable, today’s science is big, often too big for one person to do all the work for a story.  Learn to be part of a team, and you’ll go far in science.

So how do I square owning your project against learning to collaborate?  Ultimately, you need to be able to do both.  Different situations will require different responses from you.  Additionally, your own work preferences and temperament will shape how you approach science.

* Realize that science is 90% process and 10% success.  We’ve already talked about how failure is to be expected in research.  However, even when things are going well, daily life in a lab can be pretty mundane.  Within that context, I think it’s a good practice to learn to appreciate the processes that are science at work.  Shawn Marie says, “A little bit of statistics and design of experiments is good for the soul. If you find these two points at odds, research will be harder.”

* Get as much hands-on experience as you can.  If your graduate experience is anything like mine, you’ll have the chance to learn a lot of techniques.  Take advantage of them!  My friend Kim (who was a fellow chemistry major with me at Albion College) says, “Ask to use and touch any equipment you can.  Nothing is better than the hands-on experience of actually getting in there and doing the work!  And it is fun.”

Finally, take a deep breath and…

* “Don't forget to enjoy it,” says Dr. Dana Shaw Park, a recent PhD graduate from Texas A&M Health Science Center.  “There are so many parts of research that can be such a bummer, but don't forget to wonder at how cool science is.  You're on the forefront of uncharted territory—you're literally an explorer.  Science is just as much about creativity as it is about rigor and logic!  People forget the creativity part too often, I think.”

My best advice for those times when science is bumming you out?  Read some Carl Sagan.  His words always remind me of how amazing it is to practice science.  Two of my favorite Sagan books are The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

Have some advice to offer to graduate students?  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!

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