Tag: graduate school

Project Management for Scientists

project management notesToday’s topic in my group lab meeting is project management. It took me a long time as a scientist to believe that research projects could actually be managed. I think that I felt this way given the uncertain nature of scientific research; you never know if an experiment will actually work and you often can’t predict in which direction the research will go next. I’ve always been an organized person and it turns out that managing a research project isn’t all that different from other projects that you do in your day to day life such as go grocery shopping, clean out the garage, and plant a vegetable garden. Once I started thinking about science in the same way it’s like a light bulb went on.

I don’t recall ever having explicit conversations with my research mentors and supervisors about project management. That may be because I was fairly productive and am a planner by nature, but these are skills that don’t naturally come to everyone and that can be learned and improved over time. As a purely ridiculous example, I explicitly tell students that they should do something else with their time while PCR is running or they are incubating a sample for an hour. I’d like to think that they know this, but I have heard stories from colleagues, of students who will literally sit there for the duration of the incubation thereby wasting precious time that they could have used doing anything else. It’s like the science equivalent of watching paint dry.

Here are some thoughts on how I approach project management in laboratory science:

1) My first step is to define the project clearly and to determine what success looks like. If you skip this step you’ll never know when the project is done, nor will you know if you did it well. You need to identify the full scope of the work, what resources you’ll need (reagents, people, literature, etc.), and the time that you have available to do it in. Thinking about these limitations up front will decrease the amount of frustration that you and others experience later. At the same time, there is room for flexibility, which I will talk about later.

2) My next step is to think about the major milestones that need to be completed in order for the project to be finished. For even the most basic science experiment this will include things like generation of hypotheses and predictions, experimental design, ordering of reagents, allocation of people, doing the experiments, data collection and analyses, data presentation and communication (i.e. making figures, tables, diagrams, etc.), and generating a manuscript, poster, or talk to communicate your findings. That’s a lot of stuff to complete in order to successfully finish your project! One of the major things that I struggle with is maintaining an interest in projects that span several years of work; I often get bored part way through and struggle with staying motivated to finish.

3) Up next is thinking about the flow of tasks and their relationships to one another in your project. I like to think of the major milestones in a project as parts of a puzzle that need to be put together. When I build puzzles, I always start with the edge pieces first, and then work my way in; this means that the connection of some pieces requires the presence of other pieces first. With your project you want to determine whether some of your milestones are interconnected and have to happen sequentially, or whether some of your milestones are independent and could be worked on in parallel at the same time. For example, if you wanted to clone a particular gene in your critter of interest, you would first want to obtain the DNA sequence from a molecular database, you’d then design and order gene specific primers, you’d then perform PCR with your primers, purify your amplified DNA via gel electrophoresis and a gel extraction kit, clone your DNA product into a plasmid, and sequence the plasmid to ensure that the DNA sequence matched the one in the database. These tasks are sequential and one needs to happen before you move on to the next. Other projects have milestones that could be completed at the same time because one doesn’t depend on the completion of the other. This is also the time to identify what could go wrong. Where might your project go off the rails? Can you come up with a back-up plan to get around the problem should it arise? Can you plan ahead to avoid the problem? Can you ask for help?

4) Now you need to break your project milestones into smaller mini-projects that contain a small number of discrete steps. Ideally, you’d aim to complete a few of the small tasks every day and one of the mini-projects each week in the lab. This will help to keep you motivated as you’ll be able to measure your progress on the project and you will build up lots of little wins and that will keep your mental and emotional state positive.

5) The final step is putting together a timeline for completion. I like to set a deadline that I think is realistic, but I usually add several extra weeks and expect that something will go wrong during the course of the project. I then work backwards from that date when planning my time. I schedule in my major project milestones, my mini-projects, and my smaller tasks at a level of detail that I’m comfortable with. Some projects are tricky and it will be difficult to easily identify all of the mini-projects and small tasks up front. Do your best and don’t get off target because that can lead to project creep where the scope of the project balloons out and doesn’t resemble the scope of what you originally set out to do. You need to be flexible because plans can sometimes change mid-project, but head back up to what you defined in Step 1 if you feel that your project is getting out of control. You’ll often find that you reimagined the scope of the project without really thinking things through because you got excited by a neat result or finding. Think extra hard about whether you really want to commit to expanding the scope or redefining the success of your project before you leap in! That being said, there will be times when you need to retool your plans and timeline due to the unpredictability of lab research, but hopefully because you’ve identified the possible trouble spots in advance (Step 3) this will be minimal.

6) Execute your project management plan. Enter specific tasks and mini-projects in your daily and weekly calendar and set deadlines for your project milestones.

Some great resources:

If you need help with bigger project management concepts, Melanie Nelson’s blog Beyond Managing is great!

If you find that scheduling, prioritizing, and keeping up with your to-do list is a challenge, I recommend reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” . It will change your life – I kid you not!

What tips and resources do you give to your trainees in order to help them manage their research projects?

Funding graduate student travel to conferences

This blog post was prompted by a disturbing post over at Tenure, She Wrote by a graduate student talking about the lack of funding for conferences. I am happy to say that my experiences of conferences as a graduate student were not like the experience that this student is describing, but I was horrified by the situation detailed in the blog post.

I’m now a PI and my goals with regards to graduate student travel funds are to be as transparent and fair with my graduate students as I can be. It is what I would like a supervisor to do for me if I was still a graduate student. Since starting my position 5 years ago, I have had an unwritten policy on this topic, but this student’s post made me realize that I should be more explicit in my policy and perhaps write it down so that there is less chance of a miscommunication with one of my students.

My goal for each of my graduate students is to send them to 1 conference per year of their program. Most of my students complete their program in 2 years, so this usually means two conferences. Usually the first conference is local and therefore lower cost and they usually present on work in progress at this meeting. These are smaller meetings where I am able to help them network and the attendees are friendly. The second meeting involves the presentation of the full story of their thesis work and I try to ensure that this is either a national meeting or an international one. This is my philosophy on meetings. I allow my students to present work in progress or partial stories at the first meeting and I know many PIs who don’t do this; I feel that the experience is worth it for the students even if the work doesn’t yet represent a full story. I tell my graduate students several times during the year that my goal is to send them to one conference per year. If students wish to attend more conferences, then we discuss their reasons for attendance and negotiate my financial contributions based on grant funds available.

I also have a very explicit conversation with my graduate students near the beginning of their program about how the costs of the conference will be handled. I pay for all travel, accommodation, meals, posters, and registration costs. If I can charge the cost directly to my grant (usually using an institutional credit card) I do so. If the cost gets charged upon arrival at the conference I either charge it in person upon arrival, issue the student a travel advance, or if the student is comfortable with it they charge it on their own credit card and get reimbursed. Fortunately our institution is fairly speedy with reimbursements, so students do not have to pay interest on the amount or carry the balance for more than two weeks after our return from the conference. I let the students tell me what they are comfortable with and I don’t judge. I let them know that if funds are tight, we will come up with a solution that works for both of us and that they should not place themselves in financial hardship to attend a conference. If the student wishes to pair travel to a particular location with a vacation and stay for a bit before or after the conference, then I still pay for the return trip, but during those extra days they are responsible for their accommodations and food and I explain that clearly before we make any travel bookings. I also ask my students to apply for all available travel grants that they qualify for to help support their attendance, but these funds do not make or break the trip.

As a graduate student I often had to share rooms with other students. At times this was fine and I expected it and at other times it was awkward (e.g. when I was pumping milk while still breast feeding). I initially ask students if they are comfortable sharing a room or a suite of rooms with other students. Residence and hotel options differ quite a bit and I ask my students to explore all options and let me know their preferences. I have had students who preferred their own room with a washroom, students who share a room and washroom with one other student, students who share a suite with other students (they have their own room, but share 1-2 washrooms with others), students who have their own room and share a communal washroom on the floor, etc. I respect the requests of my students and I assume that they have logical reasons for any limitations that they place on housing arrangements. I do not share accommodations with my students as I am not comfortable with that arrangement.

Affording all graduate students with the opportunity to participate in conferences is one of the commitments that I make to each student that I accept into my laboratory. Whether or not they can financially afford it should not dictate whether they can attend. I consider this philosophy one of the privileges and responsibilities of mentoring graduate students.

How do other people handle conference costs for their graduate students? Any horror stories that you’d like to share?

Moms and babies: Maintaining academic productivity while a mother is not a zero-sum game

My friend Dr. Andrea Kirkwood contacted me on Twitter this morning to direct me to this post at The Guardian. In it a new mother talks about her dismay when several of her colleagues judged her for “taking time off” for maternity leave and held her to higher expectations upon her return to graduate school. She felt she had to “make up for” what was perceived by others as a poor choice that proved that she wasn’t serious about her research. The post really resonated with me and I suspect with many female academics who are parents who have experienced the same biased responses upon returning to school or the workforce.

So let’s flesh out and challenge some of the erroneous assumptions that some faculty in the academy still make about parents.

1) Maternity leave = time off

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! This is a good one and is totally hilarious. It is also totally wrong. By far the hardest thing that I have ever done physically and mentally in my entire life is give birth to and care for my children in the first 2 years of their life. Performing Ph.D. research, writing your dissertation, and defending your thesis is a cake walk compared to feeding, bathing, loving, diaper-changing, and raising a small child. Going back to school was far less challenging and demanding than the first 9 months that I spent with each of my children at home being the primary care giver. It is a trial by fire and you come through it changed forever; usually rising like a phoenix from the ashes. If I can handle that I can take whatever science wants to throw down. I’m ready to rumble…

2) Choosing to have children as a female academic = bad choice

My children have increased my appreciation of my life in a myriad of ways. They have opened up my eyes to seeing the world from entirely new perspectives and have allowed me to recognize that my perspective is not the only viewpoint and is not always correct. This is valuable. Having children exponentially increased my productivity, time-management, and project management skills while a graduate student and post-doc. These skills have directly contributed to my ability to secure a tenure-track faculty position and be successful at it.

Let’s replace these erroneous assumptions with some better realities.

1) Having children = getting a healthy perspective on what really matters

Crappy day in the lab? That’s o.k. because your son still wants to play Thomas the Tank Engine with you that evening and your daughter still thinks that you give great zerberts .I will always make the argument that people are more important than projects. Having kids has also made me a much more empathetic and considerate colleague. Everyone has a tipping point where more time spent on science does not equal greater returns and is in fact detrimental. Kids are great at making you realize the irrationality of your first world problems.

2) Having children = checking your pride at the door and learning it’s o.k. to ask for help

When I was younger I wanted to figure out everything on my own because I was ashamed to ask for help, didn’t think it was necessary, or thought that I knew best. Having children reveals the depth of your ignorance on a wide variety of topics. I’ve found that it’s had a profound mellowing effect on my high-strung, Type-A personality. Sometimes it’s o.k. to have cereal for dinner. Lots of times good enough and finished is better than perfect but not completed. Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. There is no point in reinventing the wheel. Great colleagues are always willing to help you out and you can return the favour when they need assistance later. An ability to admit ignorance is a strength, not a weakness.

I’m happy with my academic and personal choices and wouldn’t change much if I could go back in time for a “do-over”. The only thing that I would change if possible would be the attitudes of some people who seemed to think that I had checked-out of an academic career by choosing to have a family while a woman in science. There is an immense degree of satisfaction in having proved these nay-sayers wrong. I also feel fortunate to be in a position where I can help the women and men who are coming up the ladder behind me who would like to combine having a family with an academic scientific career. The view from up here is after all amazing!

Visiting a potential lab for graduate school

In the past several months I’ve had undergraduate students asking me about the process of applying to graduate school and how to select a research supervisor. I recently posted on how to initially approach a researcher that you are interested in working with. Once you have narrowed the field to 2-3 labs that you are interested in, the next step is to visit those labs in order to really get a feel for the place. In some cases this will be very difficult or impossible due to geography and cost. This post will focus on locations that you can actually visit. You want to visit the campus, department, and lab because you will be spending several years of your life there and you want to make sure that it will be a positive experience. As a researcher I insist that students interested doing graduate school in my lab come for a visit before I make a commitment to take on a graduate student. It allows each party to see what makes the other party tick and whether the personalities and professional skills of each person will be a good fit. Here is what I do when a potential graduate student contacts me.

  • As I mentioned in my previous post the initial contact by the student generates a first impression. If the initial contact is effective, then I will be interested in learning more about the student and potentially pursuing the opportunity.
  • I verify that I have the research funds and time available to effectively mentor a student during an M.Sc. (2 years) or a Ph.D. (4 years). If the timing isn’t right then I tell the student right away and don’t string them along. I only take people into my group if I know that I have funding available for the entire time period of their degree. This is a very conservative approach, but I don’t think that it is right or fair to admit a student into a graduate program knowing that you can only pay for the first year of their stipend; I personally feel that is unethical.
  • I ask the student to send me an email that contains a curriculum vitae or resume, an unofficial copy of all of their transcripts, a one page statement of their research interests and why they are interested in working in my lab, and a short scientific writing sample. This sounds like a lot, but if a student is really interested in my research program, then I feel that this is a reasonable request. What do I do with this information? The CV/resume gives me a broad overview of who the student is and what they’ve been up to academically and in other parts of their lives over the past few years. What kind of degrees do they have? Have they ever been employed? Have they worked during the summers or held down a part-time job while in school? Do they volunteer or have any interesting hobbies? This document gives me lots of valuable information. The transcripts let me know what courses the student has taken and what their strengths and weaknesses are. I expect students to have a minimum B+ average overall and I want to see an improvement in grades over time. Grades are important, but I have found that they sometimes don’t predict how a student will perform in the lab environment. It is very important to me that an applicant have some research experience either as a lab volunteer or in the form of a fourth year undergraduate thesis project. The one page statement lets me know what area of research the student finds exciting and why they are interested in working with me specifically. If this statement is generic then I will not continue with the application. The writing sample lets me know how a student collects, synthesizes, and analyzes information and how effectively they are able to communicate scientific ideas in written format. If the writing sample is of poor quality then I don’t continue with the application.
  • If the student’s materials look solid then I arrange an appointment for a phone call or video chat and let the student know that this is the first step of the interview process for the position. I have a list of interview questions that I ask all potential students and I pay very close attention to their answers. If the student is very general in their answers, clearly hasn’t done their homework on me or my lab, or if I get a sense that we will not work well together, then I end the process here.
  • If the phone chat goes well then I invite the student to come for a visit to the lab. I devote a full day to this visit and put together an itinerary for the student and send it to them in advance. The student meets with me one on one when they arrive for about 1 hour. During this meeting I discuss the research goals of the lab and describe my expectations for graduate students and my management style. I then I take them on a campus tour. I take the student out for lunch on campus and I use that time to try to get to know the student better on a personal and professional level. After lunch I show the student around the department and the lab. I then make arrangements for the student to meet with my current undergraduate and graduate students without me being there so that they can have an open and honest conversation about the laboratory and my supervisory style. I meet again with the student at the end of the day in order to give them the opportunity to ask any questions. At this time, I tell the student that I will be taking the next few days to think about our interactions and that I will let them know within a week whether I am interested in having them join the lab. I use this time to think about my impressions of the candidate during the visit and I also ask for feedback from my students since they will have to work with this person in the future.
  • I send the student an email thanking them for visiting and letting them know whether I would like them to join the lab or whether I will not be pursuing their candidacy further. At this point I leave the ball in the student’s court and ask them to let me know if they are interested in applying to our graduate program by a date that makes sense given our departmental application deadlines.

Over the years I have identified behaviours during the above process that I think are red flags and signal that a fit between a student and a supervisor will be a bad one.

  • First impressions matter. If a professor takes forever to get back to you or doesn’t seem that interested in working with you that is a good prediction of how things are going to go if you join the lab. If a student is not very responsive, communicative, or decisive that is a red flag to me as a supervisor.
  • If a potential supervisor won’t be transparent about funding, expectations, or the research project that is a deal breaker in my book.
  • I only accept students into my lab who have gone through the above process. I do not accept students who directly apply to our graduate programs without having contacted me first.
  • If the supervisor doesn’t want you to come for a visit or refuses to meet with you at a meeting you will both be attending that is a bad sign. It may mean they have something that they are trying to hide.
  • If during the visit, the supervisor won’t let you meet with current students or insists upon being present at that discussion it may indicate the current students are unhappy or that the supervisor is a rigid control freak. Neither situation is good.
  • I take the input from my students very seriously. If you are professional with me, but act rudely to my students you will not be joining my group.

You should do a lot of thinking about where you want to go to graduate school and who you want to study with. You will be making a 2-4 year commitment and you want to end up in a healthy, supportive environment where your needs and goals can be met. Your supervisor is looking to have a project completed efficiently and safely and wants an opportunity to mentor a future scientist. Do your due diligence and make sure that you know what you are getting into when setting up this professional relationship. Your future career and happiness likely depend on it.

What it’s really like to be a pregnant grad student

Meg over at Dynamic Ecology has a great post up about “Sciencing during the first trimester”. First of all let me say that I love the term “sciencing”; it’s awesome! It’s a pretty hot topic as seen from the comments and I think it’s because there isn’t an obvious forum in which to discuss these topics and based on my experiences pregnant graduate students are a rare breed. I wanted to share my story in light of Meg’s post and the comments that it has generated.

I have two children; my son is 12 and my daughter is almost 8. I became pregnant with my son a year and a half into my Ph.D. program on purpose. I say on purpose because one of the more shocking things that happened to me during my first pregnancy as a graduate student was the number of people who seemed to think that it was an accidental pregnancy. The idea that a graduate student would choose to become pregnant during graduate school was pretty racy back then I guess; hopefully this is starting to change. I found out in February 2012 that I was pregnant and it is easily one of the most amazing and terrifying moments of my life. My first trimester was not very fun. Every morning like clockwork I was dry heaving at 7:30 a.m. and I had fairly constant nausea during the day. Eating small meals very frequently is excellent advice. During this time I was performing tissue dissections on oysters for my research project. The combination of the smell of oyster guts and pregnancy nausea was epic!

My husband and I decided not to tell anyone about the pregnancy until after the first trimester due to concerns about miscarriage. After I passed the three month mark I needed to decide who else needed to know and when I needed to disclose that I was pregnant. I decided to tell my supervisor just after the first trimester as a courtesy so that we could plan for my parental leave to minimize my absence from the lab. I worried and stressed about having that conversation for weeks. It doesn’t matter how well you think you know your supervisor and how you think that they’ll react to your news. All of us have heard stories about horrible PIs who eject pregnant graduate students and post-docs from their labs or who write them off once they become pregnant. Fortunately, although my supervisor was very surprised by my announcement, he was very supportive throughout my pregnancy and maternity leave. I was very fortunate to have in my department a graduate student who had recently had a child and a faculty member who was pregnant at the same time that I was. These women offered great advice and support during a time that was pretty alienating. At that time, nothing screamed “other” in academic science like a huge, swollen, pregnancy belly. I heard through the grapevine that other faculty members felt sorry for my PI as they viewed my pregnancy as evidence that I wasn’t serious about science. I expect that many members of the academy still think that way, even if they don’t verbalize it. Being pregnant as a graduate student was good from the perspective that I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule and that youth was on my side. I look at my fellow female faculty members who are pregnant or new mothers in awe as I cannot imagine doing this at my current age while just starting out on the tenure track. I worked in the lab throughout my pregnancy and continued to work with biohazards, chemicals, and radiation during this time. I took the usual safety precautions and wore a radiation counter ring on my hand during this period of time. Once the nausea went away during the second trimester, the biggest challenges were feeling tired, heartburn, carrying around an extra 40 pounds, and the swelling of various body parts. I went into labour 2 hours after TAing a lab and it took my son a few days to make an appearance. Having him is by far the most mentally and physically challenging thing that I have ever done. This helps to put grant writing, manuscript writing, and conference presentations into perspective.

The first trimester of my second pregnancy was rougher than the first. I came home from the lab early one afternoon because I wasn’t feeling well and the nausea hit like a tidal wave. I spent the rest of the afternoon and the evening throwing up very violently. By the time it was done the force of my puking had ruptured several blood vessels in one eye. It was not a good look and there was no way that I could hide it. When I went back into work the next day I told all of my lab mates and my supervisor that I was pregnant. My second pregnancy forced me to disclose my condition much earlier than I wanted to and I ended up taking Diclectin until part way through my second trimester in an attempt to control the vomiting and nausea. The rest of my symptoms were similar to my first pregnancy and there was some comfort in knowing what to expect the second time around. I went into labour 2 weeks after defending my Ph.D. thesis and my daughter arrived in 4 hours start to finish.

Being pregnant as a graduate student taught me many things. Below I’ve listed the ones that are most important.

  • Know and accept your limitations. You can’t do it all and that’s o.k. Do your best. Great days, good days, bad days, and awful days will all average out. Work, sleep, and eat. You are growing a whole new person inside of you; that SDS-PAGE gel will wait.
  • Know your rights and the social supports and programs available to you. Be your own advocate and find allies. Ask for help when you need it; this is not a sign of weakness.
  • Being organized is great and it’s excellent to plan ahead, but you have to roll with the punches. Expect the unexpected. Your best laid plans will go up in flames, so it’s useful to have a Plan B, Plan C, and…you get the idea.
  • Mind the gap. Pregnancy will impact your productivity and so will raising small children. I managed to publish while pregnant and again soon after returning from maternity leave, so there is no gap in my CV.
  • Enjoy your pregnancy and your baby. You will feel guilty. Lock your guilt in a closet and throw away the key.

Academic Speed Dating: The Do’s and Don’ts of Approaching Potential Graduate Research Supervisors

Small Pond Science has a great post up right now on how to “cold call” other scientists in order to set up collaborations. Making a cold call means that you don’t directly know the person that you are contacting, which means that it is often awkward and uncomfortable to do. Experienced researchers find this challenging, so it’s no wonder that undergraduate students looking for potential research supervisors would find it mysterious and terrifying!

As someone who operates a research lab I receive a lot of inquiries that are cold contacts from undergraduate students, graduate students, and post-docs about working in my lab. I’ve seen this approach done really well, but I’ve also seen it done poorly. Below are some tips for making effective first contact with a potential research supervisor.

 1) Please read my previous blog post about narrowing down the potential locations and supervisors for graduate school. Do your homework and investigate the institution, department, programs offered, and the faculty members who supervise graduate students. Identify several potential professors that do research that you think is interesting. Come up with a list of reasons why you would like to work in a particular lab or area of research. Define what it is that you can offer the lab in terms of skills, educational background, experience, work ethic, etc.

2) Draft a short, professional email that clearly explains who you are and what you are currently studying. Explain why you are interested in working with this particular professor. Explain what skills you can bring to the table. Indicate that you are exploring options for graduate programs that have a particular start date (e.g. September 2015) and ask whether the professor has space and funding available to support a graduate student at that time. I usually recommend that students do not attach any additional documents to this first email. The goal of this email is to determine whether the professor is i) able to take on a student, ii) interested in further exploring your candidacy for that opportunity. It would be very helpful if you have multiple people read your draft to catch obvious spelling errors and to ensure that you’ve captured the right tone in your email. Use a professional salutation (e.g. Dear Dr. X) and close (e.g. Sincerely). I am a female professor, so if you start your letter using “Dear Sir” I delete it since it tells me that you can’t be bothered to read my webpage and learn some basic things about me and my lab. You should craft an individualized email for each lab that you are approaching. We can spot a generic letter from miles away and they get deleted. If it is clearly a cut and paste job it goes straight into the trash bin.

3) Make sure that you send the email to the correct email address.

4) If you have done the first 3 steps well, you should get a response from the professor within a few days. That being said, keep in mind that professors are busy people and do take vacations, so don’t panic if you don’t hear back within minutes of sending your email. If you haven’t heard anything back in a few weeks, feel free to send a second email reiterating your interest in joining the lab. If you don’t hear back, move on in your search and don’t take it personally.

When done well this cold call approach can serve to open a conversation between you and a potential supervisor. At this point you are both attempting to collect information in order to determine if a future scholarly relationship will be a good fit and of benefit to both of you.

Thinking about graduate school: How to narrow down your choices

This time of year many undergrads are starting to think about their plans for next year. For some of them this includes exploring the option of pursuing graduate school in a program that requires the production of a thesis based on research done in a laboratory. Based on my past experiences as a graduate student and my current experiences as a faculty member with a lab, I’d like to offer some advice to undergraduate students on how to identify potential graduate school programs and supervisors. This advice is aimed at students who need to find a supervisor before they apply to a graduate program and is not targeted at students who will be entering a grad program where lab rotations are the norm.

 1) Why do you want to go to graduate school? What goals do you want to accomplish in graduate school? What is the value in a graduate degree? Think long and hard on these questions. You should not go to graduate school as a default option or a back-up plan.

 2) Form a realistic view of what graduate school entails and whether the experience is right for you. One of the best ways to do this is to volunteer or do a fourth year undergraduate research thesis or project in a laboratory. It’s also very helpful to talk to graduate students who are in the graduate program in your home department to get their bounce on what it’s like to be a graduate student. You can also get great advice from faculty members who run labs in your home department.

 3) Think about personal and professional constraints that may limit where you can go to graduate school. Can you handle cold winters in Edmonton, or would you rather live in warm, sunny Florida? Are you looking to gain international experience? Do you need to consider the needs of other family members, your partner, or your children? Can you afford to live on a graduate student stipend in a city with a high cost of living? Do you need to live in a culturally vibrant city, or are you a homebody? Some of these questions will serve to narrow your search for graduate school programs in terms of location and characteristics.

4) What discipline or subject area are you most interested in studying? Is there a particular research question that you are interested in answering? For example, if you want to study sharks there will be many departments that will not have that as an option. What kind of department name sounds like a good fit to you? Sometimes department names are not particularly descriptive or representative of the research being pursued within a department. For example, you can do cancer research in a Department of Medicine, a Department of Health Sciences, or a Department of Life Sciences. Ecology can be studied in Ecology and Evolution departments or Biology departments. How narrow or broad do you want your research experience to be?

 After you’ve answered some of these big picture questions you can start the process of identifying particular degree programs, departments and potential supervisors. I’ll provide some tips on how to do that in my next blog post.

 

The Real Value of a Ph.D.

In the past few years, a lot of the blogs that I’ve been reading have been challenging the structure of the Ph.D. in terms of its value and the process of how you get one. There have also been discussions about how there are too many Ph.D. degrees being awarded and not enough jobs (academic, industrial, governmental, etc.) available to graduates. These articles often make me feel guilty for two reasons: I am one of the lucky ones to have a stable, tenure-track position and I am contributing to this perceived glut of scientists problem by training a new generation of scientists in my lab.

This post at Wandering Scientist assuages some of my guilt by talking about some of the non-specific skills that you can pick up by doing a Ph.D. Based on her blog post, I would agree that she has picked up realizations about herself and a skill set that are much more valuable than the piece of paper that represents her degree.

I think that if you were to ask most people with a Ph.D. what the most valuable skill that they came away with from their stint in graduate school they’d probably talk about something technical like becoming a bioinformatics whiz or being able to build the flux capacitor of their dreams. You might get a few people who will talk about the development of time management, project management, or organizational skills or other similar soft skills. You’d get fewer still who would talk about how their Ph.D. experience shaped them as an individual.

Earning that Ph.D. results in your strengths and weaknesses being put under a microscope and being pushed to the limit by the time that you emerge on the other side. It’s pretty cool to go from being a caterpillar, to building your own chrysalis, to ripping that sucker apart to soar on new wings. It’s a transformation and at times it’s very painful, but I think that the experience is a valuable one that tells us more about ourselves than our research question.

Introducing a Blogging Assignment into a Graduate Course

This term I am teaching a graduate course on Ecological Physiology. When I was designing the course I wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to write about science for a more general audience. At the same time, I had recently started blogging and using Twitter and was starting to see the usefulness of these forms of communication and felt strongly that these are practical skills that should be taught to graduate students within the curriculum. I therefore thought that I’d like to add an assignment to my course that required my students to write a blog post.

The assignment requires my students to select a recent scientific paper (less than 5 months since publication) that they find interesting and that they believe would make an interesting blog post. We’ve had several meetings to discuss their papers and their approach to writing and publicizing their blog post. Their performance will be evaluated on the content of their post (e.g. writing style, writing effectiveness, etc.) and the popularity of their post as measured by page views.

This Friday I will feature two guest blog posts by my students on the research papers that they have selected. As this is the first time using this assignment I expect that I and the students will learn a great deal and I look forward to sharing the results of this experiment!