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 , , , , , | 1 Comment

St. Louis Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Haiku

DSC01047 Minnows in water/ indicate old ancestry/ and flowing rivers.
Leiopelma frogs/ jumping cannot tuck their legs/ so they belly flop.
How many women/ Make scientific meetings fair?/ We need many more.
Kudzu from China/ Does American climate/ predict invasion?
Burying beetles/ red and black, care for babies/ by feeding them death.

Treehopper males say ooooh/ Willing females answer mmmm/ in treehopper love.

Why recruit grad students/ When there are few future jobs/ in our colleges?

Have the flowers changed?/ Not Chinese rhododendrons/ or herbaria.

Do you have ten times/ a thousand samples of your/ plant? Sigh, I thought not.

Many plants are gone./ But how can we tell? Test on / Puerto Rico now.

Can we restore our / tropical forests somewhere? /Where is the best place?

Seeds rain down on plots,/ but large uncommon seeds count/ Many big or few small?

Big fish mean big brains/ so take what’s left over/ brain costs, liver doesn’t.

Yeast buds or fissions/ Yet only one can make wine,/ how long ago it split.

Weedy rice shatters/ evolved from indica and aus/, but results vary.

He got to travel/ all over Australia/ for honey eaters.

DSC01067Red dots are less fun/ than honey eater’s colors/ convex hulls don’t glow.

Where are the species?/ Are they hiding in refuges?/ Does climate drive them?

Pleistocene breaks up/ Amazonian species/ in last glacial max.

If you study life/ what taxon should you select/ and what will you learn?

Speak in a soft voice/ like a friendly confidant/ so people listen.

Niche, refugia/ lineage, geography/ mitochondria.


Posted in Science writing for the public, Scientific meetings | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Two things you must do when speaking to a broad audience

You know how important it is to be clear in a talk. You need to have a story, a clear flow. Ideally you build the argument rather than giving it all away with an outline at the beginning. You illustrate your science with just the right number of careful figures.

You must label your figures carefully, with titles that tell what we should get out of the figure, not just Trial 1, or Western Blot, or the like. Instead say thing like “Big males get more matings,” or the equivalent for your subject.  If you have lines on the graph, define their colors and make them thick enough to see. Redo the graphs so the axis labels are visible to the audience. Use a sans serif font that is large enough to see. Generally reject the defaults. I could go on. There are lots of places that tell you how to make good figures and give effective explanations in talks.

But there is another thing I look for in talks that is much more difficult to find. It is why you are studying this. Why is it important? Why should I care at all about how mice move in a cage? Why should I care about all these vocalizations? Where does it fit in the big picture of knowledge? If you are trying to figure out a more mechanistic thing and the question is exactly how something works, let us know this clearly, and put it in context of what is known. Whatever it is, make sure you can let us know why it is important. Practice this essential argument on outsiders to be sure you get it down.

If you don’t give me this, even though I understand every piece of the information, I won’t remember it. So take the time to make what you do important to outsiders.

Posted in Presentations and seminars, Public Communication, Scientific meetings | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Do mouse people talk outside their group? Do you?

Creativity research says to reach outside your group to come up with innovative ideas. I’ve written before on this topic, referencing Burt‘s work on structural holes and who is at risk for a new idea. Right now I’m at Janelia Farms, the research campus of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, HHMI. It is in suburban Virginia near Dulles Airport. Many people in this conference called “Life in the aggregate” work on mice or flies, but there is a really impressive variety of other organisms, from worms to fish, from cowbirds to primates to social amoebae. I bet the organizers are successful in encouraging new contacts and even collaborations. But right now I want to talk about mice, or the mouse community.

Mice are a really important model system for all kinds of medical things. They have genes which are knocked out and can exhibit all kinds of human pathologies in ways that are studied more easily. But what I think of is the work of Wayne Potts and others on how differently mice behave when they are in larger more natural habitats. Might these differences not impact nearly everything that gets studied in mice? Even if it is not practical to always study in big multi-mouse barns, is it not important to sometimes do this and to be in touch with what they find?

Apparently not. The people I’ve talked to here seem only vaguely aware of the big arena work. When I ask about the size of cages they work with, they talk about something they call “home cages.” I don’t know what this is. They can’t give the exact dimensions, and seem a little puzzled I ask. Maybe are they the size of a shoebox? I guess the mouse community is so large, they may not need to think more broadly.

But my point is not really to pick on the mouse community. What is your version of the home cage in your research? Are you limiting things in conventional ways that might have an impact on your results? Are you really exploring all the important parameters? Can you even talk to people outside your discipline, knowing when you are using jargon? It is a constant challenge.

Some of the issues are with communication outside your group. Others are perhaps more serious. They may obscure some aspects of what we might call truth, because you have forgotten that your assay for truth is really only an assay and not truth itself.


Posted in New ideas, Presentations and seminars, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No deadline more than a week away really works

DSC01070 IMG_4346In our trimesterly meetings with grad students and postdocs we have been discussing the importance of personal deadlines along with larger goals. One person said she liked deadlines, and would appreciate it if we set them together and then reminded her of them. Another person had three major deadlines, all for December.

It made me think of all the deadlines I’ve completely failed at in my career, though I like to think I am not particularly a procrastinator.

Maybe the problem is how we see time. To the children in these photos, from a local meeting, and a local park, an hour may seem like a long time, forever if your mom is talking to someone and not taking you away from this boring place. But aren’t we adults better at the future? I suppose, but then why do we ever run out of carrots and flour?

My latest thought is that if it is not something I have to do in a week, I won’t possibly be able to find time for it. What does that mean for getting things done, then? First, break up tasks into smaller pieces, each with their own deadline. For the student with three deadlines in December, we encouraged her to think about only working on two things at a time, one main one, and another to turn to when sick of the first. Then dividing up the deadlines.

Another student who often works elsewhere has a weekly meeting and deadline. It is a complex project, so saying be done with this huge thing by 20 October would be unrealistic.

How you manage to get things done will determine in large part your success in your career. I recommend that big tasks be broken into smaller ones, with deadlines. I think no deadline should occur right before or after a major holiday or break. Either way, it could ruin much needed time off.

And above all, remember most projects don’t get worked on until the week before or at most two before the deadline, so make the pieces small. Make them feel both urgent and achievable. I’m all set to revisit my list and some nagging projects I have delayed on for years.

Posted in Managing an academic career, Organization of a scientist | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Giddy with the success of our undergrads and their posters


Stephanie Montenegro presenting her poster in the practice session to Olivia Williams left, Susanne DiSalvo, Suegene Noh, and Libby Ward.

Olivia Williams intently explaining her poster to a parent.

Olivia Williams intently explaining her poster to a parent.


Debbie Brock has been mentoring Kai Jones and Alicia Canas for four years!


They printed our posters for free!


Libby Ward and her mentor, Jason Scott


The group turned out in force to look at the posters!

Even first year Daniela Jimenez had a poster since she got a summer head start!

Even first year Daniela Jimenez had a poster since she got a summer head start!

Today our six research undergraduates, Kai, Alicia, Libby, Stephanie, Olivia, and Daniela, presented their research on posters at the Fall Undergraduate Poster Session, scheduled to fall on parent’s weekend. We began planning at the beginning of the semester how they were going to do their posters. We dedicated our 1 credit evening class with pizza to these posters. First we made sure they knew each other with a quick informal round robin discussion. then they talked about their big ideas, writing them down on stickies. The next week they gave us a couple of slides that illustrated the heart of their work and presented, one after the other. Two weeks ago they had full drafts of their posters for comments and discussion. They also met a lot with each other and their direct lab mentors. By last week their posters were printed so we invited the whole lab to a poster session as a trial run. So today they were ready.

But I don’t think they realized how fun it would be to explain their research to curious strangers. Each had people stop at their poster and ask interested questions. It was wonderful to see. Our undergrads have some great projects. They work hard. They think about the big picture. We teach them not to use jargon. A lot of learning goes on and culminates in this poster session. I hope they get back to research or writing and make their spring poster session posters even better.

Other years we had not been quite so firm in encouraging them to do posters. Perhaps we thought it was something for the last semester. Not any more. Get out there and share your work! It’s fun.

Posted in Posters, Research, Teaching, The joy of teaching, Undergraduates | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Do you celebrate a paper submission with cognac?

There are celebrations for milestones of various kinds. In Japan I hear turning 60 is a big deal. Birthdays, graduations, even publishing can be celebrated. But why not celebrate something that is under your control? How about cheering when you submit a paper?

A paper submission is a lot earlier than a paper acceptance and publication in most cases. So why not celebrate the first birth of a new study, when it leaves your hands? I know it could be back within days as the editor chooses not even to review it, but let’s do everything we can to celebrate a new paper out the door.

At Cornell University in Neurobiology and Behavior, they do it with cognac.  There is something neat about that pure hard liquor statement (who really likes cognac?). But here it was a little soft, with other drinks, some seasonal apples, Michael’s flan, and brownies. The grad students crowded into an office and the celebrations began. I think there was more than one paper being celebrated. It was a Friday afternoon, right before another gathering. It was fun.

I don’t know if they also celebrate when the paper goes out to a new journal when the first turns them down, or maybe these rarefied Cornellians  (is that even a word?) don’t have that experience the way we do.

Maybe we’ll lay in some cognac and start celebrating and get our team to therefore rush those papers out the door! Well, given our roots, I think it should really be tequila.

Posted in Graduate school, Life in a biology department, Publishing your work, Scientific community, Social interactions, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments