Modest Advice for Graduate Students

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.

Reply to Stearns: Some Acynical Advice for Graduate Students


When Steve showed me the preliminary outline for his talk, my first response was to say "Steve, this is really cynical, even by your standards! You can't possibly present such a negative view of graduate education." My second response was to draft an alternative outline, which I intended as a direct challenge to Steve's, and which I presented after Steve so rashly stormed out of Ecolunch.

A decade has passed since we performed that amusing little skit. In transcribing our old outlines into text, Steve and I have tried to preserve the intentionally argumentative, point-counterpoint format and flavor of our original presentations. We do so, not because we remained convinced that our old views are necessarily correct (I am pleased to note that Steve now recants his views, at least in part), but because we want to emphasize a diversity of views of how to be a graduate student. Our main point is this: there is no one way to be a graduate student. Each of us is an individual-each of us has individual needs, goals, capacities, and experiences. Advice that is productive for one student may be disastrous for another. So think about these and other views, but don't accept them without question.

Initial Premise

Graduate School provides an opportunity for you to change from being someone who reads to someone who is read. That is a major metamorphosis, indeed. Not surprisingly, it presents challenges as well as opportunities.

Always Expect the Best

If you anticipate the worst, you are likely to experience it. Instead, develop a positive attitude, decide what you want ( TA position, research funds, etc...), and then get it. Go outside your university whenever possible for advice and funds. Don't merely rely on your department or your major professor. In short, be active and independent, not passive and dependent.

Some People Do Care

People are more likely to care about you if you act like a professional (see below) and if you make yourself valuable. Obtain a skill (multivariate statistics, electrophoresis) that you can share (and of course use yourself). Avoid being used, however.

Seek out and collaborate with fellow graduate students, especially ones who are doing interesting work and who are enjoying it. You are likely to learn far more from graduate students than from your advisor, if only because you have more in common and spend more time with them. In short, use these interactions as an opportunity to be introduced to different viewpoints and techniques and to become excited about your career.

Seek out emeritus or near emeritus professors, at least ones who are still active. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience, and often have the time and interest to share it. Moreover, they can give you a personal appreciation for the history of your field. Science is an historical activity, and progress in science is often enhanced by an understanding of the past.

On Exhaustive Thinking

Thinking "widely and exhaustively" can be mentally exhausting if you aren't academically and emotionally prepared. You may instead make better use of your first year by making up deficiencies in your course background (do so as quickly as possible!). Moreover, some people simply need time before they are ready to think independently. That maturation process can sometimes be accelerated by starting your research with a problem that your advisor "hands you." Ultimately, however, you must begin to think and do research independently, and you must understand why you are doing a particular project.

On Psychological Problems

Expect them. Everyone will go through periods of intellectual insecurity or stress, most likely in the first year or two. You can often minimize those problems with some simple tricks.

  1. Get requirements out of the way as soon as possible. You will be surprised at how much your attitude toward graduate school and research will improve once you pass all language requirements and qualifying exams. Keep in mind that faculty are inevitably impressed by students who aren't intimidated or slowed down by academic hurdles.
  2. Some people simply need time to mature academically. So, fight directives and pressure to complete your Ph.D. in 4 years. You may need to take some extra time or even take a leave of absence. Changing schools or advisors sometimes helps, especially if you can first obtain a Master's degree.

Becoming a Professional

Think of yourself as a professional, someone who will be a biologist for the rest of your life. Start to accumulate a library and reprint collection, develop a computerized list of references and of addresses, attend meetings, meet with visiting seminar speakers, correspond with people working on related problems, send out copies of your articles as the are published. etc. . . .

Treat each project (even a literature review) as if it is potentially publishable. Faculty are more likely to treat you as a professional if you act like one. They are a good source of suggestions in this regard. Ask their advice on efficient ways to organize your reprints and reference files, or ask them to recommend key papers (their own or those of others) that influenced their thinking and careers. Read those papers, then go back and discuss them with the professor. (Note: many graduate students have not read most of their advisor's papers, or those of other relevant faculty in their department)

Despite your best efforts (and theirs), the faculty may have a difficult time treating you as a colleague rather than as a student. Therefore, develop contacts outside the department and the university, thereby gaining a new perspective on biology and on your own work. Go on a tour of other universities, meet with faculty and students working in your area, volunteer (if appropriate) to give an informal seminar of your thesis work. If possible, spend a term and take courses at another university (or a field station), especially if a course is special and especially if you are spending your graduate career at one university. These outside contacts not only broaden your perspectives but may also increase your chances for a collaborative research project, a postdoc, or even a job.

Join appropriate scientific societies, attend their yearly meetings, give papers or posters, get to know your future colleagues. Meetings can be exciting and a chance to find out what is new. Moreover, you get practice at speaking in front of a "foreign" (e.g. nonsympathetic) audience.

On Courses

Never pass up a lecture course from a great professor, even if it is somewhat outside your main area. Seek courses that challenge you to think rather than memorize. Auditing courses can often be an efficient way to get an overview of a field, at least if you are self-disciplined.

Take short courses that can save you time over the years. Many libraries give instruction on efficient literature searches (see also Smith's book, cited by Steve); and most universities offer introductions to computers, statistical packages, etc. . . . If you don't know these crucial skills already, immediately learn speed typing and word processing.

On Proposals and Grants

Grant writing is a key skill. Ask professors for copies of their successful grant proposals (perhaps ask them for unsuccessful ones as well!). In other words, find out what makes a good proposal before you start writing; don't waste time "reinventing the wheel."

Be a scholar. Showing that you know and understand the literature makes a good impression, and it gives you an awareness of the key issues in your field.

Use the working proposal Steve describes as a basis for a real grant proposal. Many societies, government agencies (NSF), and organizations give grants to graduate students - ask your major professor and other graduate students for the names of such organizations. Prod your department or advisor to start a permanent file on such grants.

Getting your own grant has important benefits beyond simply funding your research. (1) It gives you something to add to your C.V. (2) It helps establish your independence from your advisor and your department. (3) It really impresses your advisor and your committee!

Interactions With Your Advisors

Your advisory committee is there to help you. You can encourage this by taking their advice seriously. If they recommend a paper, read it. Not surprisingly, faculty will be disinclined to give you additional help (and write strong letters of recommendation) if you habitually ignore their advice. Moreover, practice reciprocal altruism - when they ask for your help (to review a paper or perhaps a proposal of theirs) give it. Seek a symbolic rather than a parasitic relationship.

On Theses

(Tangent. Even after a decade, I can still hear Steve pontificating the first sentence in this section. His expression "A baroque excrescence" is my fondest auditory memory of Berkeley.)
Onward. A thesis shouldn't be the culmination of your research career, but its beginning. You probably never really had your creativity challenged as an undergraduate. Here is your opportunity. Push yourself - you'll respect yourself more than if you are too cautious and try a no-risk project. Remember that your future research directions need not be constrained by the topic of your thesis. In fact, your thesis experiences may convince you that your interests and talents are elsewhere. Use a Master's-to-Ph.D. switch or a postdoc to change directions, if appropriate.


Contrary to widespread opinion, writing and publishing can be fun. More important, the process of writing is a positive learning experience - my understanding of my own research is invariably enhanced while developing a paper or a grant proposal. Writing and publishing aren't always fun, of course, but you can minimize the problems by being careful, by organizing your thoughts before you write, by taking pride in crafting sentences carefully, and by having people critically review your papers before you submit them for publication. This review process should be sequential: first, give it an "Ecolunch." Second, write a draft and have your fellow graduate students and advisor review it critically. Third (optional, but advised) send it to one or a few experts in the field. Fourth, submit the manuscript.

(Having now been an editor of several journals and books, I would add several caveats. Make certain you follow the "Instructions to Authors" for the journal; if you use the wrong format, the editor will suspect that (1) your paper was previously rejected by another journal, or that (2) your work style is casual and not necessarily to be trusted. Also, carefully check the citations in the text against the literature cited section. Check text, tables and figures for accuracy and neatness. (A paper that is neat and well designed is easy to read.) If you are writing an invited chapter for a book, do your very best to meet all deadlines. Editors cherish contributors who actually meet deadlines and follow instructions.)

Publishing is an important responsibility - you share your insights with others. It is also essential. People occasionally get good jobs or a grant despite a weak or non-existent list of publications, but the odds of this happening are slim indeed.

Although overpublishing is a mistake (as Steve notes), don't be embarrassed by writing one or a few minor papers - ample precedents exist. Moreover, we are often our own worst judge of what is truly significant (see Bartholomew 1982). (After gaining the benefits of the experience, you can eventually obscure any truly trivial publications by using the following widely-used technique - simply change your official "List of Publications" to "selected List of Publication" or to a "List of Publications Since 19xx"!)


Watch for and take advantage of opportunities. If someone is organizing a special field trip, ask if you can go along and help. If there is a job search in your department, look through the applications and learn first hand what makes a good C.V. and what makes a clear statement of research and teaching interests. (Note: not all departments permit graduate students to read application files.) Find out your advisors opinion of candidates' job seminars. Thus, when you start applying for jobs, you will have some idea of what works and what doesn't.

Concluding Remarks

Appearances to the contrary, graduate students need not be oppressed. You actually have as much freedom as you will ever have (except perhaps as a postdoc or during a precious sabbatical). Be positive, not cynical.


"Ten years later," I wish to emphasize one comment and then to make one addition. First, do spend some time around students and faculty who are doing significant research and who are excited about their careers. In short, surround yourself with good people. Enthusiasm is contagious. Second, learn to respect and to practice the art of being organized. Thus, be efficient and don't waste time. This will almost certainly enhance your productivity and your enthusiasm for your career.


I am, of course, grateful to Steve Stearns, whose outrageous views prompted this reply. T. Garland, Jr. made useful comments on a draft.

Literature Cited

Bartholomew, G. A. 1982. Scientific innovation and creativity: a zoologist's point of view.
American Zoologist 22: 227-235.

Raymond B. Huey
Department of Zoology NJ-15
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195