What do graduate students want?

This is a tough time to be a graduate student. This is a wonderful time to be a graduate student. It is wonderful for hardly fettered curiosity, freedom to explore, to share, to teach, to learn, to live simply, and to have a glorious group of friends and colleagues that share your interests and will be with you forever.

Why then is it also tough? What happens after graduate school may not be so clear even in the coveted STEM (science, techology, engineering, math) fields. Tenured positions are rare at universities. Other opportunities are unclear, though there are hundreds of them. Dare I therefore say grad school should not be a means to an end, but should be wonderful in itself? Perhaps this is more easily claimed if one earns enough to live on during grad school. But I digress.

What do graduate students want? What do the students in our department today want? What do those interviewing on Friday and hoping for admission want? Is what they want related to what I think they need? This could probably be a book-long answer, but right now I’m thinking of just one thing: help in guiding their intellectual curiosity and research time towards big, solvable problems.

Undergraduates may be happy that they can think of new questions at all. It is so easy to feel that it has all been done, or that what remains is so small as to be trivial. Graduate students need to get past that. They need to read so widely and deeply that they see holes in research. They need to identify projects that matter.

Our role as faculty is not to tell them what to do, not only to show them projects that matter, but to help them explore on their own. One of my own advisers, Alan Templeton, told me that he chose an adviser that asked him questions over one that gave him a list of tasks. I like to think of our funded proposals as defining a sandbox and providing some back hoes that the students are free to sculpt with.

Is it easy to get to the big, solvable questions? No, it is hard, one of the hardest things we do. We faculty should help. We can give projects that we have figured out, especially at first, but the students ultimately have to get there on their own. They have to learn to have and reject nearly all of their ideas as they struggle towards the big one. Some will reject before they ever pick up a pipetteman, a shovel, or a butterfly net. Others require hands-on exploration. I was of the latter type.

Can they get there without criticism? No, but we can be kind. But ultimately we need to let students hear critiques of their ideas. After all, if they don’t hear them from us, they will hear them later, perhaps when years have been spent on the feasible but banal, or the exciting but impossible. How glad I am that my advisers, fellow grad students, and friends crushed nearly all my own ideas, but helped me recognize when I finally had some good ones. Exactly how to do this without snuffing delicate egos is a challenge in this wonderful stage of life..

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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