Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Things to keep in mind when finding a PhD

A wonderful student who worked with me when I was a graduate student is in the midst of applying for graduate school, and has been going through the process of finding a suitable program and advisor. It's been nearly 7 years (!?) since I was first in graduate school and, in my case, I mostly lucked my way from undergraduate to a great lab without nearly enough due diligence (and no one I knew or in my family had been to grad school to provide advice).

If asked during grad school, I had a list of advice I would have liked to have received (admin questions, funding issues, how to get to campus on public transport). But the advice I think is important has actually changed a lot, from just “make sure you love research” (although you should, at least most of the time), to more strategic and practical considerations.

I now think the most important thing is to ask yourself while you consider graduate school is, "Why do I want to get a PhD?" Note that there is absolutely no right answer to this question, but there are some wrongs ones, e.g. "I don’t know what else to do next" or "I have good grades". The problem is that these answers aren’t enough to motivate you through a PhD program. And some people find themselves 5 years later, still not knowing what they’re going to do next or why they got a PhD. It’s okay to answer "I like the research I did as an undergrad" or "I want to develop strong quantitative skills", or "I love working with ideas", because these kind of answers mean you want something from your experience and you've thought about what that is.

Educate yourself about the opportunities that a PhD will bring, both academic and non-academic. Continue this education while you are in graduate school. [Departments, offer more opportunities for students to learn about non-academic jobs.] The reality is that getting the oft-desired research professorship is very difficult (e.g. 200+ applicants for a general ecology position is not unusual). But PhDs produce desirable skill sets and there are other opportunities, so long as you are aware of them. There are many LACs (liberal arts schools) in the US, and thus more teaching oriented professorships advertised every year than there are R1 professorships. There are NGO and government research jobs. And as many of my grad school friends leave academia, it’s a relief to see that their skills – strong quantitative abilities, good data management, a clarity of vision on how to ask questions and answer them with appropriate data – make them employable across a range of professions.

Ask questions ask questions ask questions. Don’t go into a program without knowing what it will entail. Ask the same questions of both faculty and students and see how their answers compare. 

To understand a department, you want to know what the teaching load is on average, how funding works (and for how long!). You should find out the average time to completion of a PhD program, what classwork looks like, whether there are student-lead reading or discussion groups? Is there funding for student travel to conferences or meetings?

If you have a lab in mind, you need to similarly learn about that lab. Find out, from both the PI and their students, how the lab works. What is the supervisory style? Does the PI tend to be hands on, or expect more independent research? How does your personal approach to working mesh with their style? Don't assume that if you like to have structure and feedback and the PI only is around once a month, it will just work out. How often are they physically on campus? How often would you meet? What are other students in the lab working on? Is the lab collaborative? Do students publish together? What skills are emphasized in the group? Has the PI published recently (last 2-3 years, depending on context) and, perhaps most importantly, have they graduated any students? If not, try to figure out why.

Once you’ve found a place, remember that how you feel about your PhD will rise and fall all the time. That’s normal. Avoid the worst of these dips by taking care of your mental health. The sort of unstructured, isolating, often un-rewarded work that goes into a PhD can be draining. But it is also 100% okay to change your mind, to decide a Master’s is sufficient, to hate everything you are doing and quit. Seriously. The sunk-cost fallacy will make you (and people around you) miserable.

Of course, grad school—like life—is stochastic and full of uncertainty. But its possible, with care to increase the probability that you find a supportive, nurturing lab and have a wonderful time as a graduate student. 


Dr. Fox said...

Here's another question to ask: does your prospective supervisor have a track record of training people to go on to the sort of career you envision yourself in down the road? In particular, if you are serious about being one of the rare few who will become a prof at an R1 university, you are probably handicapping yourself if you don't go and work with a an active leader in the field. (not dooming yourself, but handicapping yourself). This doesn't necessarily mean you have to work with someone very famous and senior, and indeed someone who's famous for work they did decades ago but who hasn't done any great stuff lately is probably not the best choice. You want someone with an active, well-resourced lab with several grad students (ideally, postdocs and technicians too), who's had at least one and ideally several grad students go on to R1 jobs. Ideally someone who is part of a big strong graduate program with lots of other such people. This is not because working with Dr. Famous gives you an "in" with journals or granting agencies, or because Dr. Famous can pull strings and get you a job, or anything like that (at least, not in N. America; nepotism is a problem in Italy and Spain...). It's because you'll have a supervisor who is in touch with where the field is going, a lot more resources and help, more opportunities to learn from other really good people, more opportunities to collaborate and do cool side projects, etc.

In case it needs saying: in providing this advice, I'm *not* implying that jobs at R1 universities are somehow better than others, or that people who go on to other sorts of jobs (within or outside academia) are somehow failures or not as "good" or wasting their PhDs or whatever. It's your life--pursue whatever job you want! I'm just providing a bit of reality check. If you really, truly do want to go the R1 route (and note that many people who *think* they do realize later that they would actually be just as happy or happier with some other sort of job), it's a good idea to start down that path with someone who's already walked it, and who has a track record of training others to walk it.

Analogous advice could be given for other career paths, I suspect.

Caroline Tucker said...

I completely agree - track record is one of the most important things to consider. Those academic family trees are a good example -plenty of great ecologists with famous supervisors, whose supervisors in turn were also really good.

But it's a bit of a tangled knot: too famous and successful, and you might never see them or get personal mentoring, although funding and a large lab are in place. Young profs may not have been around long enough to have students in faculty positions, but I wouldn't say that necessarily makes them a bad choice. (Plus, famous people probably get lots of high quality applicants, so correlation is probably only partially == causation :) )

Which is all to say, lots of factors can affect what a 'good lab' is.