Make sure your prospective Ph.D. adviser is taking students!!!

Grad school applications are very different from applying to college. It is nearly always the case that in ecology and evolution, you only get admitted if there is an adviser who will take you. This is true even if there is a rotation system. It is true even if nowhere on the application are you required to do this.  It may be less true in other areas of biology, but follow this essential next piece of advice.


I do not know how much more strongly I can convey this. I suppose anyone reading this blog already knows this. It pains me to see otherwise strong looking students name people who are not taking students, who are not still research active, or are not even at the institution any more. THIS CAN KILL YOUR CHANCE OF GETTING IN NO MATTER HOW GOOD YOU ARE!!! The thing is, we admit students that are excellent themselves and are also a good fit. If we don’t have what you want, you probably won’t choose to come here, and if you do, you might not be happy.

It is too late for you if you applied to Wash U because our deadline has passed. But many other schools have later deadlines. Make sure you are not choosing a zombie adviser, a full adviser, a missing adviser, or bugs bunny.

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Ph.D. Qualifying exams: what they do and do not mean

My youngest son went to a very progressive public kindergarten in Houston, La Escuela Rice, that was supposed to be highly technological, multi-grade, and bilingual in Spanish. This school also had a special grading system that did not have letter or number grades. Instead it had levels of things that were supposed to reflect what the child actually knew. I suppose they were fairly standard categories of childhood cognition and development, but I had a big problem with them.

My problem with these categories was that they purported to indicate what the child actually knew rather than how he had performed on some test or assignment. The teachers had to give lower categories early in the year so they could indicate progress. For this and other reasons, we ended up with ridiculous forms that judged my son for what he was, rather than how he performed on specific instruments. And they got it wrong.

I don’t think there is any metric out there that can fully take the measure of a person. Any exam, oral, written, project-based, whatever measures only performance on that exam. This performance might be a good predictor of how one is likely to perform on future such exams. It might even do more than that. But it is not the measure of a person. No one was going to tell me that my son did not know things I knew he knew. They could tell me how he performed on a test, or what assignments he did. They could not go further.

This is also true for Ph.D. qualifying exams. They are the measure of performance on that exam, not an overall measure of the person. Does this mean that people that generally perform well, indicating that they are hard working, dedicated, creative, and smart will not also show this on qualifying exams? Yes, it does mean that, but that is not always the outcome.

Ph.D. qualifying exams take many forms. Some are strictly over a thesis proposal. Some cover general knowledge in a subject. Some are over a literature review, or a set of defined readings. They may be written, oral, or a combination. They may be given by a committee that the student chooses, or that the institution chooses. The prospective major professor may or may not be on the committee. There may be multiple different exams, in the first and third years, for example. They are generally supposed to be an indicator that the student knows the literature in their field, has analyzed it critically, has chosen an important question for their Ph.D., and has identified a research approach to that question that is likely to result in a document that will form the thesis for the Ph.D.

The timing of these exams is either set by the program or determined based on when the student seems ready to do well with them. The outcome of these exams is usually positive. They may be used to indicate a student needs to take more classes, or needs to improve their knowledge in a field. Occasionally they are an indication that the program is a poor fit, resulting in the student leaving with a Master’s degree or less. Since they are a measure of performance on the exam, not a measure of the student, one can have excellent students that struggle with the exams.

“Joan, you don’t know half of what you think you know and it is going to show on your qualifying exam. I bet you’ll end up taking three or more classes to make up your deficiencies.” Said Alan Templeton to me back in 1975 as I prepared for the qualifying exam after a bit more than a year in graduate school at Texas. Few words in my life have stunned me more. I had six weeks to the exam and was determined not to take any more classes than necessary. I began to read everything I could find. I read Wilson and Bossert’s Primer of Population Biology. I especially read Watson’s Molecular biology of the Gene. I read MacArthur and Wilson’s theory of island biogeography. I don’t know what else I read, but it worked. There was a tense moment when I had to draw the lac operon on the board at the request of Guy Bush, but I prevailed without having to take a single extra course. Some of my fellow graduate students were not so fortunate.

The cases that are the hardest are those where a really smart student who generally performs extremely well, struggles with their qualifying exam. This could be because of fear of speaking in front of professors. It could be because the student did not understand the format of the exam. It could also be because the student fails to grasp the subject matter. This is especially likely to happen when the student works on something far removed from the field of the adviser.

I was certainly at risk for this on my second exam over my intended thesis project since my project was on social behavior and kin selection of wasps and I had no mentors at Texas in this area. That I did not fail is probably thanks to broad and smart mentors at Texas, to the visiting professor program which invited leaders in many fields for weeks at a time, and to the careful critiques of other graduate students. It is also likely to be because I kept visiting my undergrad mentor, Richard Alexander, at Michigan, who was an expert in that field.

Having to retake a qualifying exam can be devastating. But it is not a measure of the person. It is a measure of the project, or the person’s preparation in a given area. Worse than retaking a qualifying exam is proceeding with a project that is not as well framed as possible. This could waste years and even compromise a whole career.

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The monastic glory of a seven year Ph.D.

Grad students Sara Kalla, Jennie Kuzdzal-Fick, and Chandra Jack helping undergrads including Julia Ridgeway-Díaz with their posters.

Grad students Sara Kalla, Jennie Kuzdzal-Fick, and Chandra Jack helping undergrads including Julia Ridgeway-Díaz with their posters.

Anything you do for seven years is a way of living, not preparation for something else in the tangle of life. It is the time from birth, when you are just working out that you are no longer a part of someone else’s body, to second grade when you can read and possibly take the bus on your own. It is all of high school and college. It is the time to tenure, or the time between sabbaticals. If you are beginning graduate school right after college, at about age 22, on average you have 60 more years of life in the USA, or about 8.5 more 7 year periods (National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 62, No. 7, January 6, 2014). Seven years is the period of Michael Apted’s famous series, Seven Up, based on a misinterpretation of what the Jesuits want (they don’t want boys under seven, not boys until seven).

So why should you take seven years for your Ph.D. when I argued in an earlier post that a Ph.D. could be accomplished in only three years? If you love learning, if you love research, if you love the freedom to pursue an idea to its conclusion, how could you not want to extend the time to Ph.D.? After all, at no other time in your career will you have more freedom to investigate. I know you might have to take some courses. You might have to be a teaching assistant year after year. You might have to satisfy your adviser and your committee in all kinds of ways. You still have far more time for true curiosity-driven science than I do.

In graduate school you take a vow of poverty, hence the monastic of the title. But you live well anyway. You have a rich social life with fellow graduate students. These will be your friends for life. With them you have a bond hard to match at any other stage. This is your team. At national meetings you will get together. Trust comes easily because you know each other so well. Parties are pot-luck and casual. Living situations are transient, shabby but usually warm. Help with experimental design, with statistics, or with life, comes easily. Funding is generally not that hard to maintain for seven years, though the graduate school might start to grumble.

In some ways my graduate school days were a dream. I read. I met with my friends to try to decide where our field was going. I went to seminars. I went to a single national meeting. I thought about science nearly all the time. I should have written more. But overall it was a glorious period. Once I arrived at a thesis topic, I lived and breathed wasps. I wondered what they did, what experiments I might perform to figure out their social lives. I watched them. I marked them. I took away their queens; I took away their honey; I even took away their nests sometimes. I had time for failure, never getting allozymes to reveal genetic relatedness (something I fixed later). I watched Lake Travis flood out nearly all my marked colonies of Polistes annularis in 1977. I had time to grow slowly into a competent researcher.

So why did I argue for a three year Ph.D. just a few posts ago? It is because there is a difference between choosing a life style and getting an education necessary for a next step. I argued that  what is needed for a Ph.D. can be attained in three years, the way it is in some countries.

1. Identify and solve an important problem.

2. Understand careful experimental design and acquire a set of important techniques.

3. Read the literature carefully and critically.

4. Analyze data and write clearly with excellent visual representation of data.

5. Be collegial and good at teaching.

6. Learn how to learn, for all the questions and skills of a new Ph.D. will change in a decade or less.

What is the same about this post and the previous one is my advice. First of all take charge of your own education. Until you really get that this is the big difference between undergrad and grad, you will be an ineffectual learner. Meet the rules, but go way beyond. Read everything you can get your hands on relevant to what you are doing. When you meet with your advisers, you should have many more new ideas and things to tell them than they have to tell you. If there is a new paper relevant to your research, you should have discovered it first. Set up a slew of Google alerts to help with this.

Mostly on my Facebook page, others argued that a longer Ph.D. makes you more competitive for an academic job. This is true if you are productive the whole time, so my advice on approaching your graduate career is the same here as it was for the shorter Ph.D., though you might work fewer hours, but make them equally strategic. But most Ph.D.s do not arrive at academia. They find other work, often equally compelling and fun, just less familiar. And many long Ph.D.s do not use their time well.

It is also true that the year you get your Ph.D. time stamps you. The next stage, postdoc for many, should generally not last more than 5 years, or at least funding becomes more difficult to get independently after that time. So keep being efficient when you get your Ph.D.

How long did I take? I took 5 years, right in the middle. Was it enough time? That is hard to answer. I did another year of field work on a postdoc right at the same place, so you might argue that I really took 6 years. But even then I had not really learned to write. That would take another year to minimal proficiency. So from the time I started to the time I had a slug of papers published was seven years. But I studied two species of wasps but only put one in my dissertation. I might have used the extra time for more writing, but I loved both species.

Why did I quit, for that is what leaving graduate school feels like? Life intervened. I had a partner in another city. I was ready to have babies. This can be done in graduate school, but then the poverty becomes starker (unless you have a partner with funds), and doing it across the state is a challenge I wasn’t interested in facing.

Well, if grad school is so great, why stop at seven years? Why not ten, twelve, or even twenty years? Lots of reasons. The funding gets more difficult. The poverty gets more trying. If you have been effective, your publications will start to create a reputation in the field that helps make the next step attractive. The main point is to be in charge. It is a big chunk of your life.


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Surprising best gift to my undergraduate students

DSC00978This is the time of year when I start to wonder if I’ve done a good enough job with my large undergraduate class. Have I really shaped a great learning experience for the 46 students in Biology 472, Behavioral Ecology? Might they have learned more with detailed lectures instead of all our activities?

I’m sure they learned something what with the weekly quizzes, the two texts, Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, and Davies, Krebs, and West’s Introduction to behavioral ecology, not to mention Mockingbird Tales: readings in animal behavior, available free at

They learned from the detailed writing for Wikipedia on two wasp species, with several iterations of corrections and responses to comments, not to mention making comments. A couple of weeks ago they taught high school students with some very thoughtful activities and powerpoints.

When I ask them to write fun facts on their wasps on the white papers hung around the room, they do so enthusiastically, then vote on the best ones.

But none of this captures what I think is the biggest gift I’ve given them. It is time to get to know each other, time to work together, to learn together. Some of them have had four classes together and yet never properly got to know each other. I love to see them bonding, to see them helping each other with their work.

Of course these students are likely to have plenty of friends from other circumstances. But there is something really special about friends that share your academic interests. It is something that at Michigan I had to go to the Biological Station in Pellston to get. It is something really small colleges have easily. I hope some of these friendships enrich their lives and their understanding of biology. I’m glad it happened on my watch.

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What is really going to kill you?

I got my teeth cleaned yesterday. Yes, I do still have my wisdom teeth. Yes, they came in remarkably straight, many years ago. No I don’t have any cavities. I know I pay extra for fluoride treatments but feel it is worth it. This is just a small part of my evidence-based approach to medical care. The rest of the visit was the typical one-sided question. No I really can’t answer that. You have your fingers in my mouth, along with some hard metal stuff and that little mirror. Where do I look? At those little magnifying glasses you have over your eyes? That feels a little creepy. At the wall just past you? Couldn’t you put a poem up there, please?

I had to get a little cranky when there were signs everywhere with yellow highlighting warning us that the dentist and his assistants would not treat us if we were ill and had a fever. They mentioned ebola first and enterovirus D68 second.

Really? Isn’t it coming up on influenza season? Why don’t they talk about that? At least my hygienist had her influenza vaccination, unlike the assistant in my internist’s office.  My dentist is wonderful, but he had no idea how many deaths a year in the USA are attributable to influenza, and guessed 10,000. I looked it up, and the best estimate I could find is 41,400 and is probably an underestimate “The regression model attributes an annual average of 41,400 (95% confidence interval: 27,100, 55,700) deaths to influenza over the period 1979–2001.” (Dushoff et al. Am. J. Epidemiol. (15 January 2006) 163 (2): 181-187. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwj024 ).

The dentist said they were sent this ebola warning by some dental society and told to put it up, so I suppose if they didn’t and someone caught ebola at the dentists, they could sue.

He also had a sign up that they sterilized their equipment between uses, and actually had the sterilizer, an autoclave, I assume, in house. Yes, I was glad to hear that, but not surprised. If he didn’t do this, of course he would be shut down, and I could catch all kinds of nasty bugs. Do people not know this?

So, what do I conclude? First, that dentists deal with people who have no idea about microbiology at its most basic levels, sterilization of equipment. Second, that fear of disease has nothing to do with probability of acquiring disease. Third, that the world needs poetry wallpaper!

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Other kinds of graduate school fun

One of the fun things about seminar trips is you get to meet some wonderful graduate students. I am not alone in viewing invitations by graduate students as the hardest to turn down. The trip I made in the fall to Cornell was a great one! One of the results was a request by grad student Joe Welklin to share the guest post below. It is a spoof of the kind I like. I am not big on actual practical jokes, but this is fun.

I suppose I’ll just have to mention my all time favorite spoof, Bad Project, from Baylor College of Medicine. Surely you have seen it? It actually comes up first if you simply enter “bad project” into your search engine:

How to have Fun in Graduate School by Joe Welklin

Do you know how to have fun in grad school? Maybe you’re asking yourself: “is that even possible?” Well I’m here to tell you it is. For the past two years the equipment manager in the Neurobiology and Behavior department at Cornell University has put on a gorilla suit at Halloween and paraded through the building disrupting classrooms and research alike. Last year we had fun with him by dangling a banana in front of his face from a catwalk, but that was mere child’s play.
This year we knew what was coming and came prepared. Through a little bit of peer pressure (ok maybe a lot) 12 of us graduate students purchased banana costumes. But prior to Halloween we had to be sure the gorilla would appear, so four days before that fateful Friday we plastered bait around the building so good that no gorilla could pass up:

When Friday came around we snuck down to the atrium, the gorilla made his appearance, and we had the best 30-minute study break of our graduate school career. At this point you may be thinking, that’s nice, but MY department would NEVER do anything like that. Well why not? Why haven’t you tried? This is a call to arms people! Get out of your desk chair, close down that R-script for a moment and assemble the required goods with a few simple steps:

1. Find someone or a group of people who can take a surprise
2. Convince or pressure your fellow graduate students to join in. They’ll thank you when it’s all over
3. Lay the bait, ambiguous signs claiming free materials (especially free food) have been found to work well to draw a crowd of observers
4. Carefully plan the presentation; the first 10 seconds are key for setting the mood but from then on out let collective behavior take over. The more spontaneous the ideas the better
5. Remember Murphy’s Law. Things will go wrong, be ready to adapt!

So there you have it, go pull a prank that will make even the stodgiest of the stodgy professors crack a smile.

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Why you should aim for a three year Ph.D. degree

Why not get your Ph.D. in three years? Can’t you learn what is needed in this time frame? This may sound ridiculous to an American who may hardly even have identified a thesis topic by their third year. How did we get to this situation is the topic for another column. How to get out of it is my concern here.

After all, in the UK, in Denmark, and a number of other countries, the three-year Ph.D. is standard. Yes students may often extend the period a bit, but the main work is done in those three important years. In my experience the researchers that come out of these programs are every bit as good at the critical skills of a Ph.D. as those American universities languidly produce.

Promising young graduate students in Ecology and Evolution at Wash U.

Promising young graduate students in Ecology and Evolution at Wash U.

What should someone holding a Ph.D. in biology be able to do? They must identify and solve an important problem in their field. They must understand careful experimental design and a set of techniques important to their field. They must know how to read the literature carefully and critically. They must be able to analyze data and write. They must be collegial and good at teaching. They must have learned well how to learn, for all the questions and skills they have as new Ph.D.s will change in a decade or less. Each of these could be a topic sentence for a paragraph, but that is something I’ll write about later. Now I want to move on with how to do this in three years or fewer.

First of all, take charge yourself. You should have three to five papers submitted or published by the time you finish your degree. To do this, you need to be organized. You should read obsessively your first year and begin many experiments, jettisoning those that either don’t work easily, or don’t answer big questions. If your possible advisers have projects in mind, leap on them. You don’t need a unique project. In fact many of the countries with short Ph.D. degrees have students that do projects chosen and funded by professors. Just doing the work and writing it up will make it your own as you solve hurdles not foreseen by advisers.

Your first paper might be a review based on reading everything you can in the field you choose. You might write a draft of it early on, but sit on it for a year or two as you get more experience and perspective and see ways of making the review more novel and creative.

Learn a difficult skill, then collaborate with others that do not have the skill, but could use it in their work. If they do not come to you, go to them with ideas for collaborations in which you do not take the lead. It is your technique, analytical or experimental, but their system.

Sit in on classes so you can learn different methods and perspectives. Don’t forget the ones outside your department, either more mathematical or chemical, or environmental. Be sure to have a historical and philosophical perspective on your field. But generally do not officially take the courses. Your goals will be different, so you don’t have time to jump through their hoops.

In your own main projects, expect failure. Set up experiments, do field work, begin work. Then sit back, take a new direction and repeat. It is better to do several larger scale projects than to tediously tweak a method forever. Get advice and help. Keep moving.

Do the hurdles the department sets for you as quickly and easily as you can. Don’t let them motivate you, for you have your own plans. Do short rotations to learn perspectives or techniques, but do not linger. Do not settle into the comfortable role of permanent grad student. Take all those exams as early as possible. Get them out of the way.

Help others also take charge. Form writing groups, discussion groups, or statistical groups on your own. You don’t need professors for these things.

Unless responsibilities to other people, particularly children, force you to take time away from grad school, don’t do it. This is not the time to choose a balanced life. This is the time for intense focus. You know how medical residents are now limited to 80 hours a week, and some fret that it isn’t enough? Treat this time likewise. It is your chance to fully immerse yourself in ideas and experiments. The synergy of really intense focus for day after day cannot easily be obtained in other ways. This will feel more feasible for three years than for seven.

This does not mean you shouldn’t take vacations, even long ones. After all, all those northern Europeans certainly also do this. They help the work in a different way. Just focus as much of the time as you can when you are not on vacation.

Make your goal the three-year Ph.D.. Don’t worry if it actually takes 4 years for all the final write up and last experiments. But remember that being a student should not be extended. You can learn what it takes in a  much shorter time than many do. Oh, and forget that Master’s degree, unless you need to leave a program that didn’t work out. It serve’s little purpose.

Will this be controversial? Yes. But a focused Ph.D. in a short but intense time will prepare you brilliantly for the next steps and will give you an enduring love of critical thought and discovery with a grip that lasts. The skills you learn during this time are exactly those that will let you have a more balanced life later.

Posted in behavioral ecology, Graduate school, Managing an academic career | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments