It is now roughly 30 years since I started a project in the forests of the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Reserve (TNC) as a PhD student at Florida State University. I still haven’t published a paper on this particular portion of my dissertation. The irony is that remains my intention to write such a paper. Bottom line: I wrote a crappy dissertation. I appreciate all the help I got in graduate school. I worked with some truly great people who helped me enormously. Nevertheless, I look back and think that rather than being fueled by my graduate education, I survived my youthful naivete. Now that I have been a professor for more than a quarter century, I feel I have a perspective on what is a good approach to graduate studies and what is not. I also know that, like myself, most students do not indulge in enough critical thinking about their own graduate studies. Hence, below is some unsolicted advice.
I offer six rules of thumb for being a graduate student.
1. Self-evaluate to set professional career goals. Are you interested in teaching? Do you enjoy field-based research? Do you feel that your science should have an impact beyond the scientific community? Do you enjoy engaging with people in practical problems? Are you principally motivated by curiosity? The answers to these questions should drive your list of the kinds of professional futures that you see for yourself. Research careers can be very rewarding and include a lot of self-direction. However, it is also more difficult to have practical impact by following a research-centric career because of the need to appeal to basic scientific questions in order to achieve research funding. Further, funding research programs is difficult and entails a lot of rejection. Careers that focus on the application of science to real world problems can also be rewarding, but often lack the same level of self-direction and focus on curiosity. These careers also require patience as science often does not, in the end, take on the importance that scientists think it should in a resource management decision. Careers that use scientific training to act principally as translators of science to action (e.g., agency resource managers, NGO professionals) are rewarding in the knowledge that you are working to put scholarship into action. However, people in these careers can be challenged by the bureaucracies within which they work, or frustration with the social constraints and compromises made to balance competing needs for resources. Understanding what makes you happy as well as what sorts of personal frustrations you can live with are important things to consider. Do a formal self-analysis. Write it down so that you can reflect on your perceptions at a later time.
2. Dress for success. No, I don’t mean clothes. I mean that it is relatively straight forward to identify the attributes of successful professionals in different fields. If you would like to be an academic at a top tier research institute, then publishing in top tier journals and demonstrating a capacity to write funded grants are critical skills. Focus on those. Developing a broad social media following, in contrast, is not a priority. Alternartively, if you would like to be a science writer, then publishing in top tier journals is unimportant, but developing a social media following may be. If you have clearly defined objectives it is much easier to prioritize the things you need to do in order to meet those objectives. If your professional goal is a job at a teaching university, then teaching a course where you are the sole instructor of record is incredibly important. Most community colleges can provide this opportunity for advanced graduate students, but only after you demonstrate some capacity to co-lead a course within your graduate institution. These opportunities are not widely available, but are more available than one would think. Ask your major professor about the possibility. If you have done a formal analysis of your objectives, you can identify what constitutes dressing for success and can then score yourself on achievements against some benchmarks you set to achieve goals.
3. Be the captain of your ship. Do not let the graduate program requirements replace your self-evaluation of what you need to be doing to succeed. Graduate school opportunities should overlap with the your self-identified priorities. If not then you are in the wrong graduate program for you. However, well-rounded professional development typically requires obtaining skills (e.g., effective public speaking) in addition to those provided in graduate school training (e.g., giving a seminar). Graduate programs provide training in what they are good at: research and education. Training opportunities abound for those who can specifically identify needs and then seek broader training. If your professional goal is to work for a conservation NGO, then contact a variety of these institutions as a graduate student and work with them early on. There is, as an example, an emerging field of translational science. Translational science places a great deal of emphasis on communication. Translational communication goes well beyond being able to write or speak effectively to include being able to listen to others, understand their objectives and potentiall engage adversaries in difficult discussions without making the issues personal. These are skills that most people need to learn. They are not taught in graduate school, nor are they a component of successfully completing most graduate degrees. They are also not for everyone. It is your job to take aim at what you think you can excel at and that makes you professionally fulfilled and get the training that allows you to compete for the positions that you want. This may place you in conflict with a major professor that would like you to focus entirely on the narrowly defined objectives of your research project, or a research assistantship. You can practice your negotiation skills by working with your major professor to balance your time allocation to meet all of your obligations.
4. Identify and confront your weaknesses. Nobody is good at everything. Some of our weaknesses should point us toward some careers over others. However, a lot of weaknesses can, and should, be overcome through practice. You need to distinguish things that where improvement is needed from those that you actually don’t need for your career. Primary among these weaknesses, I have found, is written communication. Most scientists were not outstanding creative writers in their education prior to graduate school. If they are, often the creative writing emphasis of high school and college can be an impedance to scientific writing. Learning to write effectively for the target audience is a critical skill for everyone. However, learning to do write effectively is only half the battle. Many excellent scientists can write well, but struggle with carving out the time to write. These people simply don’t like to write and would rather be doing other things. And there are a lot of people like this. Thus, it is important to distinguish among three things: 1) skills that you are not inherently good at, but need to improve (e.g., public speaking if you want to teach); 2) areas where you might not be inherently skilled, but strategic career choices may allow you to not pursue further strength in this area (e.g., bowling); versus 3) skills that are essential, but that you do not like spending time doing (e.g., filing taxes). Identification and confrontation are half the battle in conquering weaknesses. Most people can significantly improve weak areas by (a) seeking specialized training; (b) budgeting time to practicing skills that require improvement; and (c) establishing an accountability system that assures that you can reflect on whether you are making progress.
5. Conduct a critical annual self-review. Experiences change us. We may enter graduate school thinking that we will be one thing, only to finish thinking something completely different. Life is a process; so are careers. It is essential to periodically review your objectives to determine if they remain your objectives. Periodic review of your achievements is also necessary. This evaluation is also something different from being programmatically reviewed. Don’t rely on your graduate program to tell you how you are doing. You should evaluate this for yourself. Ask yourself hard questions. Are you following your objectives or the objectives that your major professor and program have defined for you? Are you spending your time working toward your professional objectives? Does this include the full array of tasks you identified, such as professional networking? Are you seeking and obtaining the external learning opportunities you need? Again, do this formally and on keep a record of it so that you can look back over time and evaluate your trajectory.
6. The importance of networking cannot be underestimated. We like to think of the world of science as a meritocracy. And, relative to most other areas, science is a meritocracy. However, people are people. We tend to view people we know more favorably than those we do not know. Scientists are often introverts. Get over it. You need to be able to introduce yourself to thought leaders in your field (vertical networking) and tell them who you are, why you are interested in that area, and what you are doing (an elevator speech). You also need to be able to express these same ideas to your peers (peer networking). Most things that most people end up doing seem to be the result of a conversation they had with someone. Most opportunities come from people we know. The internet is great for information flow, actually maing s cience a meritcocracy and finding opportunities outside our personal network. Nevertheless, having a broad network is useful at all stages of a career. Take this example. Members of the National Academy of Science are elected by other members of the National Academy of Science, based on nominations from current members. Nominating someone is a lot of work. It is not taken on lightly. What do you think having a friend in the club does to your chances of getting invited to the club? Achievement and merit are critical, but insufficient, elements of success. Yup, not that much different than those cliques from high school. Network.
OK, so I did a horrible job of all six of these in graduate school. Not paying enough attention is not a critical flaw. It just makes the road harder. I am now much more mindful at all of these things despite being closer to the end than the start of a career. It is never too late to start being strategic. Get going. This is a force, and may the force be with you.
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