Advice to Graduate Students

The ultimate goals of graduate students are to obtain a Ph.D. and to become prepared for a professional career in science. A "professional career in science" can be a great many things, e.g., a professor in a research university, a professor in a small liberal arts college, a career in industry, a position in a non-governmental organization, government work or entrepreneurship. Anyone who is admitted to the graduate program at Utah already has all the raw material to obtain a Ph.D. However, self-motivation, self-discipline, and guidance from faculty and peers are also necessary ingredients. The purpose of this guide is to outline the general steps in graduate school and to reassure you that the attainment of this goal is both possible and rewarding.

Graduate school in Biology is very different from undergraduate education, Medical School, Law School, or other professional graduate training programs. In graduate school, you will become your own teacher and your own motivator. There are few formal courses; most training is done informally in laboratories and/or in the field rather than in the classroom. You will have few quantitative assessments of your performance (e.g., exam grades, course grades), however each assessment is of critical importance. Your advisor will help guide the overall course of your project, especially at the beginning, but your rate of progress will depend largely on your own initiative and hard work. The relatively free-form nature of graduate education, the necessity to become a self-motivator, and the diverse challenges can cause stress, anxiety, and self-doubt. Experiencing self-doubt is typical, and is best countered by keeping the lines of communication open between yourself and fellow students, and between yourself and your advisor.

Obtaining a Ph.D. requires a set of skills; whether or not you develop these skills is up to you. Every student comes to the program with different abilities and previous experiences. Unlike other, more tightly structured graduate programs, the possibilities here are nearly infinite. But, you are the one that needs to take control.

Essential Skills for All PH.D. Students

Communication Skills. You need to be able to write clearly and concisely. If you can't do this, consider taking a course in technical writing or find another way to improve your writing ability.

You need to be able to comfortably give oral presentations that are articulate, engaging and informative. The best way to improve you skills here is by giving plenty of talks in both formal and informal contexts.

You need to be able to teach students that know far less than you do. Acting as a Teaching Assistant, and taking the job seriously, is an excellent way to improve your teaching skills. The university also has a variety of yearly workshops to help in this task.

Finally, you need to be able to interact informally and comfortably with other professionals. That is, you need to able to "chat" or "schmooze." The best way to improve these communication skills is by discussing science with your colleagues and with visiting seminar speakers.

Analytical Skills. You will need to develop a set of analytical skills that allow you to evaluate the logic of scientific arguments; develop a research project that is tightly reasoned, realistic, feasible and fundable; and collect and analyze data and/or develop theoretical models, often under less than ideal conditions. The specifics of these skills will depend on your interests and the details of your dissertation project, and are likely to be developed over the course of your graduate career, not all at once.

Another essential analytical skill is to critically evaluate scientific papers. You should read papers related to your research area not just to obtain additional background information, but to also be able to evaluate each paper's data (i.e., why are they good and/or what are their shortcomings). This is a skill you will develop in a mostly informal fashion, such as journal clubs.

Experimental Skills. Regardless of in which lab you ultimately carry out your dissertation research, you will be expected to master a number of experimental procedures. Generally other members of the lab are great for providing hands-on training. However, additional information on experimental approaches is typically available in the literature. The most successful graduate students seek to learn the most about both their projects and the methods used. Understanding the theoretical and technical aspects of your work may help you to find either more robust or simpler approaches, and ultimately, to higher levels of success.

Scheduling Your Journey Through Graduate School

Outlined below is a generalized schedule for graduate school to be completed in five years. Because this document has been written for a diverse group, there are undoubtedly many additional interest- area-specific or lab-group-specific expectations. Often students take longer than five years; this may be because the research project is rewarding and the student doesn't seek rapid completion, or because deadlines are typically not pushed by the mentor, but arise through the self-motivation of the student.

First Year

Fall Semester: Plan to hit the ground running. If you are doing rotations, find your first lab before you arrive. Subsequent rotations should be after you arrive, and using information based on both personal interactions and the literature. A course work plan should be initiated, and usually there is at least one obvious course that should be taken right away. In addition, you should begin reading the primary literature in your selected field, and become involved with a journal club if one is available. You should get to know all the faculty and students who work in your general area of interest. Learn the specific expectations for the lab you are in, for example, are you expected to apply for your own financial support? Read through some recent doctoral dissertations at your institution in your field to get a sense for their scope. Ask you advisor for recommendation.

Spring Semester: If you are doing rotations, make sure you will be able to select a lab that is willing to take you by the end of spring term. Continue with courses, learning lab techniques, or devising a specific research plan. Again, know the expectations for your lab. By the end of spring semester, you should have a very good idea of the lab in which you will carry out your research, your specific research area, and have shown significant improvement in reading the primary literature.

Summer Semester: Ecology and Evolution students will typically spend their first summer engaging in an exploratory research project or in more formal training such as an OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) course. You should be becoming proficient in a set of basic research techniques, and working to identify the specific scientific question that will be addressed by your Ph.D. research. Cell and Molecular students begin their thesis-related projects during the summer. This first research project is usually developed in close consultation with the research advisor. As the student gains experience, s/he will take on a larger role in determining the direction of the project.

Second Year

This is the time that you develop your dissertation project, and begin your odyssey as an independent scholar. In addition to specific semester goals outlined below, you should be doing the following:

  1. Obtain sufficient data to attend a national scientific meeting and make a presentation. During the meeting, you should attend talks and interact with students and professors from other universities. Goals: make important contacts that could serve you well in the future, and develop oral communication skills.
  2. You should plan to give a TGIF (informal, student-organized seminar in ecology and evolution) or FRIP (Friday Research In Progress, presentations by students in the cell and molecular groups). Goal: learn to give well-organized presentations to your peers.

Fall Semester: You should form a graduate supervisory committee and have this committee meet. During this initial meeting, you should work out a schedule for your remaining courses and begin a dialog about prelims. In addition, you should be carrying out additional lab/field/literature work to develop a defensible Ph.D. project proposal.

Spring Semester: Take your preliminary exams. Conscientious students who work hard almost never fail. Keep in touch with your advisor and your fellow students, and don't be afraid to ask for their support. Prelims vary somewhat depending on your research area, but generally entail the following three parts:

  1. (all areas) One or two research proposals formatted in the style of an NSF grant. For cell/molecular areas, typically one proposal is on your dissertation project, and the other is on an outside area to be selected by both you and your committee. Goals: to evaluate your ability to develop and defend a feasible and fundable research project.
  2. (Ecology and Evolution) A review paper on an area that is separate, but perhaps somewhat related, to your primary research. Goal: to evaluate your ability to analyze and synthesize an area of research and present it in a clear and concise manner.
  3. (all areas) An oral exam in which you will be asked to answer questions about your review paper, proposal and any other topic the committee deems relevant. This exam will not occur until the written portions are approved by your committee. Most students find this exam a nerve-wracking, humbling, yet constructive experience. Goals: a) to evaluate your ability to orally explain basic concepts and the more advanced ones behind your proposal research, b) to evaluate your ability to think on your feet; and c) to refine the design of your proposed Ph.D. dissertation research.
    Note that students are expected to continue carrying out some research, course work, and/or teaching at the same time as prelims. Keep in touch with your lab and your research advisor, know his/her expectations, and all should turn out well.

Summer Semester: Dissertation research should be progressing in earnest. Continue to participate in journal clubs or other strategies to keep you reading the literature in your field.

Third Year

This is the year you should begin to develop your independence and expertise. Most of your efforts should be devoted to improving your skills at writing, data collection, and data analysis. Complete all course work, complete your prelims if you've been avoiding it, and continue to participate in lab meetings, journal clubs, FRIP, TGIF, and seminars. With luck and careful planning, you hopefully have made contributions to a manuscript by this year. Try to attend and present at a national meeting in your field.

Fourth Year

Continue to develop as an independent scholar and scientist. By now you should be very comfortable doing your research and talking about it in both an informal and formal way. You should expect to be contributing to your lab in many ways, including new ideas or interpretations of data, sharing data, and finding interesting papers that others in your lab may have missed. You should be writing a manuscript on your own work, and attending/presenting at a national meeting.

Fifth Year

Make a plan, including (1) writing your dissertation; (2) writing up and publishing your papers; (3) finding a career path and begin applying for jobs or postdocs.

Note: Often students stay for a sixth or seventh year. You should be determining what best fits your own career goals, your lab's expectations, and your lab's financial situation. Some research projects are simply too exciting, and students wish to stay to produce the subsequent projects, which leads to long Ph.D. times. In other situations, highly motivated, lucky, and goal-oriented students may complete their Ph.D. before the end of the fifth year.