DEPARTMENT OF INTEGRATIVE BIOLOGY
GRADUATE STUDENT HANDBOOK
As an end to this guide, we have provided an article by Stephen
C. Stearns and Raymond B. Huey, both former Zoology graduate students
at Berkeley. "Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students"
is modest, but very good. It is a less bureaucratic view, and
contains as much good information as all of the above. It is highly
recommended by all the graduate students who have read it. We
also have included reprints of Graduate Division publications
on various topics of concern to graduate students, i.e. Qualifying
Exam, teaching, funding, etc. . . and appendices on the Student
Health Insurance Plan, and Residency.
Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students
Always Prepare for the Worst
Some of the greatest catastrophes in graduate education could
have been avoided by a little intelligent foresight. Be cynical.
Assume that your proposed research might not work and that one
of your faculty advisors might become unsupportive - or even hostile.
Plan for alternatives.
Nobody Cares About You
In fact, some professors care about you and some don't. Most
probably do, but all are busy, which means in practice they cannot
care about you because they don't have the time. You are on your
own, and you had better get used to it. This has a lot of implications.
Here are two important ones:
- You had better decide early on that you are in charge of
your program. The degree you get is yours to create. Your
major professor can advise you and protect you to a certain extent
from bureaucratic and financial demons, but he should not tell
you what to do. That is up to you. If you need advice, ask
for it; that's his job.
- If you want to pick somebody's brains, you'll have to go
to him or her, because they won't be coming to you.
You Must Know Why Your Work is Important
When you first arrive, read and think widely and exhaustively
for a year. Assume that everything you read is hogwash until the
author manages to convince you that it isn't. If you do not understand
something, don't feel bad - it's not your fault, it's the author's.
He didn't write clearly enough.
If some authority figure tells
you that you aren't accomplishing anything because you aren't
taking courses and you aren't gathering data, tell him what you're
up to. If he persists, tell him to bug off, because you know what
you're doing, dammit.
This is a hard stage to get through because
you will feel guilty about not getting going on your own research.
You will continually be asking yourself, "What am I doing
here?" Be patient. This stage is critical to your personal
development and to maintaining the flow of new ideas into science.
Here you decide what constitutes an important problem. You must
arrive at this decision independently for two reasons.
First, if someone hands you a problem, you won't feel that it
is yours, you won't have that possessiveness that makes you want
to work on it, defend it, fight for it, and make it come out beautifully.
Secondly, your Ph.D. work will shape your future. It is your choice
of a field in which to carry out a life's work. It is also important
to the dynamic of science that your entry be well thought out.
This is one point where you can start a whole new area of research.
Remember, what sense does it make to start gathering data if you
don't know - I mean really know - why you're doing it?
Psychological Problems are Usually the Biggest Barrier
You must establish a firm psychological stance early in your
graduate career to keep from being buffeted by the many demands
that will be made on your time. If you don't watch out, the pressures
of course work, teaching, language requirements and who knows
what else will push you around like a large docile molecule in
Brownian motion. Here are a few things to watch out for:
- The initiation-rite nature of the Ph.D. and its power to
convince you that your value as a person is being judged.
No matter how hard you try, you won't be able to avoid this one.
No one does. It stems from the open-ended nature of the thesis
problem. You have to decide what a "good" thesis is.
A thesis can always be made better, which gets you into an infinite
regress of possible improvements.
Recognize that you cannot produce
a "perfect" thesis. There are going to be flaws in it,
as there are in everything. Settle down to make it as good as
you can within the limits of time, money, energy, encouragement,
and thought at your disposal.
You can alleviate this problem by
jumping all the explicit hurdles early in the game. Get all
of your course requirements and examinations out of the way as
soon as possible. Not only do you thereby clear the decks
for your thesis, but you also convince yourself, by successfully
jumping each hurdle, that you probably are good enough after all.
- Nothing elicits dominant behavior like subservient behavior.
Expect and demand to be treated like a colleague. The paper requirements
are the explicit hurdle you will have to jump, but the implicit
hurdle is attaining the status of a colleague. Act like one and
you'll be treated like one.
- Graduate school is only one of the tools that you have at
hand for shaping your development. Be prepared to quit for
awhile if something better comes up. There are three reasons to
- A real opportunity could arise that is more productive
and challenging than anything you could do in graduate school
and that involves a long enough block of time to justify dropping
out. Examples include filed work in Africa on a project not directly
related to your Ph.D. work, a contract for software development,
an opportunity to work as an aide in the nation's capital in the
formulation of science policy, or an internship at a major newspaper
or magazine as a science journalist.
- Only by keeping
this option open can you function with true independence as a
graduate student. If you perceive graduate school as your only
option , you will be psychologically labile, inclined to get a
bit desperate and insecure, and you will not be able to give your
- If things are really not working out for you, then
you are only hurting yourself and denying resources to others
by staying in graduate school. There are a lot of interesting
things to do in life besides being a scientist, and in some the
job market is a lot better. If science is not turning you on,
perhaps you should try something else. However, do not go off
half-cocked. This is a serious decision. Be sure to talk to fellow
graduate students and sympathetic faculty before making up your
Avoid Taking Lectures - They're Usually Inefficient
If you already have a good background in your field, then
minimize the number of additional courses you take. This recommendation
may seem counter-intuitive, but it has a sound basis. Right now,
you need to learn how to think for yourself. This requires active
engagement, not passive listening and regurgitation.
to think you need two things: large blocks of time, and as much
one on one interaction as you can get with someone who thinks
more clearly than you do.
Courses just get in the way, and if
you are well motivated, then reading and discussion is much more
efficient and broadening than lectures. It is often a good idea
to get together with a few colleagues, organize a seminar on a
subject of interest, and invite a few faculty to take part. They'll
probably be delighted. After all, it will be interesting for them,
they'll love your initiative, and it will give them credit for
teaching a course for which they don't have to do any work. How
can you lose? These comments of course do not apply to courses
that teach specific skills: e.g., electron microscopy, histological
technique, scuba diving.
Write a Proposal and Get It Criticized
A research proposal serves many functions:
- By summarizing your year's thinking and reading, it ensures
that you have gotten something out of it.
- It makes it possible for you to defend your independence by
providing a concrete demonstration that you used your time well.
- It literally makes it possible for others to help you. What
you have in mind is too complex to be communicated verbally -
too subtle, and in too many parts. It must be put down in a well
organized, clearly and concisely written document that can be
circulated to a few good minds. Only with a proposal before them
can they give you constructive criticism.
- You need practice writing. We all do.
- Having located your problem and satisfied yourself that it
is important, you will have to convince your colleagues that you
are not totally demented and, infact, deserve
support. One way to organize a proposal to accomplish this goal
- A brief statement of what you propose, couched as
a question or hypothesis.
- Why it is important scientifically, not why it is important
to you personally, and how it fits into the broader scheme of
ideas in your field.
- A literature review that substantiates b).
- Describe your problem as a series of subproblems that can each
be attacked in a series of small steps. Devise experiments, observations
or analyses that will permit you to exclude alternatives at each
stage. Line them up and start knocking them down. By transforming
the big problems into a series of smaller ones, you always know
what to do next, you lower the energy threshold to begin work,
you identify the part that will take the longest or cause the
most problems, and you have available a list of things to do when
something doesn't work out.
- Write down a list of the major problems that could arise and
ruin the whole project. Then write down a list of alternatives
that you will do if things actually do go wrong.
- It is not a bad idea to design two or three projects and start
them in parallel to see which one has the best practical chance
of succeeding. There could be two or three model systems that
all seem to have equally good chances on paper of providing appropriate
tests for your ideas, but in fact practical problems may exclude
some of them. It is much more efficient to discover this at the
start than to design and execute two or three projects in succession
after the first fail for practical reasons.
- Pick a date for the presentation of your thesis and work backwards
in constructing a schedule of how you are going to use your time.
You can expect a stab of terror at this point. Don't worry - it
goes on like this for awhile, then it gradually gets worse.
- Spend two or three weeks writing the proposal after you've
finished your reading, then give it to as many good critics as
you can find. Hope that their comments are tough, and respond
as constructively as you can.
- Get at it. You already have the introduction to your thesis
written, and you have only been here 12 to 18 months.
Manage Your Advisors
Keep your advisors aware of what you are doing, but do not
bother them. Be an interesting presence, not a pet. At least once
a year submit a written progress report 1-2 pages long on your
own initiative. They will appreciate it and be impressed.
and work to avoid personality problems. If you do not get along
with your professors, change advisors early on. Be very careful
about choosing your advisors in the first place. Most important
is their interest in your interests.
Types of Thesis
Never elaborate a baroque excrescence on top of existing but
shaky ideas. Go right to the foundations and test the implicit
but unexamined assumptions of an important body of work, or
lay the foundations for a new research thrust. There are, of course,
other types of theses:
There are really as many kinds of thesis as there are graduate
students. The four types listed serve as limiting cases of the
good, the bad and the ugly. Doctoral work is a chance for you
to try your hand at a number of different research styles and
to discover which suits you best: theory, field work, or lab work.
Ideally, you will balance all three and become the rare person
who can translate
- The classical thesis involves the formulation of a deductive
model that makes novel and surprising predictions which you then
test objectively and confirm under conditions unfavorable to the
hypothesis. Rarely done and highly prized.
- A critique of the foundations of an important body of research.
Again, rare and valuable and a sure winner if properly executed.
- The purely theoretical thesis. This takes courage especially
in a department loaded with bedrock empiricists, but can be pulled
off if you are genuinely good at math and logic.
- Gather data that someone else can synthesize. This is the worst
kind of thesis, but in a pinch it will get you through. To certain
kinds of people lots of data, even if they don't test a hypothesis,
will always be impressive. At least the results show that you
worked hard, a fact with which you can blackmail your committee
into giving you the doctorate.
Start Publishing Early
Don't kid yourself. You may have gotten into this game out
of your love for plants and animals, your curiosity about nature,
and your drive to know the truth, but you won't be able to get
a job and stay in it unless you publish. You need to publish substantial
articles in internationally recognized, refereed journals. Without
them, you can forget a career in science. This sounds brutal,
but there are good reasons for it, and it can be a joyful challenge
and fulfillment. Science is shared knowledge. Until the results
are effectively communicated they in effect do not exist. Publishing
is part of the job, and until it is done, the work is not complete.
You must master the skill of writing clear, concise, well-organized
scientific papers. Here are some tips about getting into the publishing
- Co-author a paper with someone who has more experience. Approach
a professor who is working on an interesting project and offer
your services in return for a junior authorship. He'll appreciate
the help and will give you lots of good comments on the paper
because his name will be on it.
- Do not expect your first paper to be world-shattering. A lot
of eminent people began with a minor piece of work. The amount
of information reported in the average scientific paper may be
less than you think. Work up to the major journals by publishing
one or two short - but competent - papers in less well-recognized
journals. You will quickly discover that no matter what the reputation
of the journal, all editorial boards defend the quality of their
product with jealous pride - and they should!
- If it is good enough, publish your research proposal as
a critical review paper. If it is publishable, you've probably
chosen the right field to work in.
- Do not write your thesis as a monograph. Write it as a series
of publishable manuscripts, and submit them early enough so that
at least one or two chapters of your thesis can be presented as
reprints of your published articles.
- Buy and use a copy of Strunk and White's "Elements of
Style." Read it before you sit down to write your first paper,
then read it again at least once a year for the next three or
four years. Day's book, "How to Write a Scientific Paper"
is also excellent.
- Get your work reviewed before you submit it to the journal
by someone who has the time to criticize your writing as well
as your ideas and organization.
Don't Look Down on a Master's Thesis
The only reason not to do a Master's thesis is to fulfill
the generally false conceit that you're too good for that sort
of thing. The master's has a number of advantages.
- It gives you a natural way of changing schools if you want
to. You can use this to broaden your background. Moreover, your
ideas on what constitutes an important problem will probably be
changing rapidly at this stage of your development. Your knowledge
of who is doing what, and where, will be expanding rapidly. If
you decide to change universities, this is the best way to do
it. You leave behind people satisfied with your performance and
in a position to provide well-informed letters of recommendation.
You arrive with most of your Ph.D. requirements satisfied.
- You get much-needed experience in research and writing in a
context less threatening than doctoral research. You break yourself
in gradually. In research, you learn the size of a soluble problem.
People who have done master's work usually have a much easier
time with a Ph.D.
- You get a publication.
- What's your hurry? If you enter the job market too quickly,
you won't be well prepared. Better to go a bit more slowly, build
up a substantial background, and present yourself a bit later
as a person with more and broader experience.
Publish Regularly but Not Too Much
The pressure to publish has corroded the quality of journals
and the quality of intellectual life. It is far better to have
published a few papers of high quality that are widely read, than
it is to have published a long string of minor articles that are
quickly forgotten. You do have to be realistic. You will need
publications to get a post-doc, and you will need more to get
a faculty position and then tenure. However, to the extent that
you can gather your work together in substantial packages of real
quality, you will be doing both yourself and your field a favor.
Most people publish only a few papers that make any difference.
Most papers are cited little or not at all. About 10% of the articles
published receive 90% of the citations. A paper that is not cited
is time and effort wasted. Go for quality, not quantity. This
will take courage and stubbornness, but you won't regret it. If
you are publishing one or two carefully considered, substantial
papers in refereed journals each year, you're doing very well
- and you've taken time enough to do the job right.
Thanks to Frank Pitelka for providing an opportunity, to Ray
Huey for being a co-conspirator and sounding board and for providing
a number of the comments presented here, to the various unknown
graduate students who kept these ideas in circulation during the
last decade, and to Pete Morin for suggesting that we write them
Back to the top
Some Useful References
Day, R. A. 1983. How to write and publish a scientific paper.
Second Edition. ISI
Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA 181 pp. wise and witty
Smith, R. V. 1984 Graduate research-a guide for students in
the sciences. ISI Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. 182
pp. complete and practical
Strunk, W., Jr., and E. B. White. 1979. The elements of style.
Third Edition. MacMillan. New York, New York, USA. 92 pp. the
paradigm of concision
Stephen C. Stearns
Professor of Zoology
Zoologisches Institut der Universtat Basel
CH-4051 Basel, Switzerland