Are you my advisor?

Ok, great news!  You’ve figured out you want to go to graduate school (thanks to this post here) and you have decided on your degree (MS vs PhD).

Now the question is: who will you work with? Graduate school is different from undergraduate in that where you go isn’t nearly as important as who you work with.

A good advisor will increase your number of publications, assist you in avoiding going too far into debt, and generally make your life better. So before you sign up for this person to be a critical, and intrusive part of your life for the next 4-10 years  (there are many people who spend a really long time in graduate school), here are some things to consider.

  1. Do you want a big lab or a small lab? A big lab means your advisor will be splitting his/her time between you and the 10+ other graduate students and postdocs in the lab. This can mean that you’ll have a good community of peers (and suffering together makes your bonds closer, remember), and you might get more help overall. Conversely, a small lab means your advisor spends more time with you. If you want a lot of attention and time from your advisor, fewer other people in the lab might be ideal.  But if you’ve got a problem with authority, or are nervous in front of your advisor,  this might result in problems. There is no right answer to this question, it really is personal preference. But it’s something you need to think through before you seek out an advisor.
  2. What is the funding situation? This is one of those things you need to ask up front, and means more than YOUR funding situation. If you are not independently wealthy, and are seeking financial assistance to complete graduation school, you need to gather critical information.  Are you going to have to teach every semester? If you love teaching and want to inspire young minds, this might be good, but keep in mind, every hour prepping for class, teaching class, and having student office hours is time not doing your primary research. So teaching at lot will likely affect how long it will take you to get your PhD. Are you going to get paid during the summer? Are there opportunities for you to get funded (grants in progress), or does your advisor already have money (multi-year research grant)? Not only are these important for your PhD (having to take a second job really cuts into your PhD time) but also for your future (being in debt forever really sucks).
  3. Are the current and former students of the advisor happy/satisfied/graduated? This one is key. If you want to know what an advisor is like, ask his students. Don’t limit yourself to just the students currently in the lab (especially if they are new), but ask the older students. And the recently graduated. Honestly, towards the end of my PhD, my friend Bobbi and I stopped being invited to the recruitment events… because the department wasn’t wild about the new students seeing how much we were suffering. But these are the people you want to talk to. They will give you the honest opinion on the things the advisor is bad at. And here’s an important point: EVERY ADVISOR IS BAD AT SOMETHING. You need to figure out if their “bad something” is a thing you don’t care about, or things that you actually like/require in an advisor.

Pick someone who is right for you. There are a lot of advisor-advisee interactions that make a  graduate student successful.  An advisor that someone else had difficulty with may be ideal for you, your personality, your interests, and your work ethic.  That’s why the big lab vs. small lab, and the qualities of the advisor are so important. Picking a person who is a really good scientist, but not a good fit for you is going to end up difficult for everyone involved.



Master of Something

Since last week’s post, you’ve decided to go to graduate school. Congrats!

The big question now is which degree are you going to pursue? I don’t mean the subject area you going to study (please see last week’s post to remind yourself that you should have a passion for what you’re studying before your start), but whether you’re going to get an MS or go straight for the PhD*.

There are pros and cons of each approach. Spoiler alert:  I got an MS before I started my PhD, but a lot of my friends did not. So hopefully I’ve got enough perspective on both sides. No guarantees.

The MS isn’t “easier” than the PhD in terms of work, because you have so much less time in a MS program to accomplish an awful lot. I found that my MS was WAY harder in terms of hours working every day than my PhD. There are a lot of ways to view the “MS” vs. “PhD” dichotomy. So I’m going to frame this post as a flow chart.

An MS could be a good option if one of the following applies to you:

The MS is if you are kind of interested in a subject, but aren’t sure you want to commit to graduate school forever. You’re super excited about a certain subject, like the sex life of ants, the eating habits of grizzly bears, or the genetics of salmon. You’ve decided to go to graduate school, but aren’t sure you’ve got it in you to get a PhD. No worries! There’s a degree for that.

The MS is if you want to gain expertise, but you don’t want to go into academia, for which you need a PhD. Let’s say you need to develop  your expertise in an area, either in base knowledge about a particular subject, e.g., machine learning or in research techniques, e.g., statistical analysis. You start learning about it on your own and decide you want to learn more.  An MS is a great way to gain that knowledge in a formal setting (and make clear on a future resume that you’ve developed that expertise, preferably with honors). If that’s what you want/need, then an MS is great.  So stop to think, “Do I really need a PhD in this subject?”  Generally, unless you’re going into academia, the likely answer is “no.”   That makes an MS a great option.

The MS is if you are sure about graduate school, but unsure about what you want to study and need more time to figure it out. You’re super excited about a certain subject, like the sex life of ants, the eating habits of grizzly bears, or the genetics of salmon (yes, deja vu all over again), but you’re not sure what aspect of those subjects you want to study. Are you interested in field work? Are you interested in experimental work? Do you hate statistics and get the urge to throw your computer out of the window when R boots up? If you don’t know how you might respond to these situations, and you’re worried about it, take some more time to figure it out. I’ve found most of the people I know who have a MS come into their PhD more focused and with a better set of skills. They’ve already done the graduate school transition, and know what to expect.  They’ve crystalized what they want to study, so they are ready to go out of the gate.

The MS is if you want to get your PhD, but your undergraduate GPA is really low. Did you spend too much time finding yourself in college, plunging energetically into the social scene, prioritizing partying? Did you discover your love of research only after this extended adolescence had taken its toll on your GPA? Getting an MS can help. In general, it can be easier to get into an MS program for biology than a PhD program. There is less risk to the professor, because MS students don’t stick around as long (2-3 years instead of 5-10 (yes, I know someone who did a 10 year PhD)).  Moreover, if you have an MS in hand, some schools are more likely to overlook your undergraduate deficiencies. You’ve demonstrated that you can do the graduate school thing, and so people are more willing to see that you’ve left your misspent youth behind you.

What if you’ve enrolled in a PhD program, and you find that things aren’t quite right?

The MS may be a good solution if you start your PhD and then decided after two years that graduate school is not for you. There is no shame in realizing this. Seriously, in the previous post, I mentioned that graduate school isn’t for everyone.  You may not discover that before you start but when the romance has faded and you take a hard look, you need an exit strategy.  It may that you decide that you really don’t want to be an academic (see above), and so the PhD stops being the entry ticket to that life career.  You may just decide that you’d rather stop going into debt and start making money, but you want something to show for your time in graduate school.  Then getting an MS might be an option.  (It actually may be a good idea to discreetly explore how viable this is before entering a particular PhD program.  Life happens.)

The MS is if you start your PhD, but after a few years you realize you and your advisor really aren’t compatible. This is a big one, that I don’t think people use enough (entirely anecdotal evidence). We’ll talk next week about picking a PhD advisor, and how important it is that you have someone with whom you are compatible. If you get a few years in, and realize that you and your advisor just aren’t working out, this doesn’t have to be the end of your career. Leaving might be a good choice, and if you leave with an MS, it could open doors to other, better, situations. Importantly, the professor benefits from this situation as well. It’s good for them to get their students to finish (this is a statistic many departments/universities track on their professors), and if you’re not going to work well with them long term, then they lose nothing by you finishing earlier. If you’re miserable with your boss, but you still want to keep pursuing academia, explore this option as a solution.

*This post is American system specific. In the European, Australian, and New Zealand systems, one is REQUIRED to have a MS before pursuing a PhD. I’ll likely talk about the pros and cons of these systems in a later post.


Should I go to grad school?

I have spent the majority of my life as a student. Not too many 33 year olds can say that.  If you include college, people who haven’t spent time in graduate school will now be reaching the break even point on the school/no school ratio, unlike us fools who went to graduate school.

As a result, I get asked “should I go back to school” A LOT. It’s almost always from friends who have been out in the workforce and are thinking of coming back to get a graduate degree. Luckily, since I’ve had to answer this question so many times, I have a well formatted/throughly thought out response.

My short answer is usually, “no”. But here’s why. There are only two reasons you should pursue a graduate degree:

  1. You wake up every morning thinking about the thing you want to study. You are frighteningly passionate about mantis shrimp! You can’t imagine not wanting to know more about the diet of grizzly bears! You wonder about the processes that change organisms over time and can’t help but wonder what parameters affect these processes! In your SPARE TIME you pursue these questions, whether out in nature or on wikipedia. If this is true, then go to graduate school. It’s a number of years (sometimes too many) where you get to study what you want, and answer the questions you find interesting. You will be stimulated by people who are also frighteningly passionate about studying similar questions, and they understand your desires to learn more. If you’re really lucky, you get to teach undergraduates and inspire young and impressionable minds to be as passionate about what you’re passionate about. Go for it – grad school is made for people like you.
  2. You are facing a serious glass ceiling at your current job and getting that graduate degree will allow you to earn SUBSTANTIALLY  more. The first category of people aren’t motivated by money (because despite what you’ve heard, there’s no money in academia, we’re all broke), but if you are, don’t be embarrassed.  Earning a good income and having money is nice, and if getting that masters degree immediately allows you to have greater earning potential, go for it. Get that degree, check those boxes, and get that raise, you deserve it!

If one of these two reasons is not true for you, then you should probably not go to graduate school. There are moments when graduate school is awesome, but there are also long periods when it takes everything out of you. This is true for every graduate student I have ever met. We all look back fondly on those wonderful moments where we bonded or stayed up late studying/working together (some of my favorite memories). But the truth is that you get paid very little or not at all, to do a job that requires all of your time. You’ll always feel like you’re behind, imposter syndrome is a real thing, and it is HARD to get through a graduate degree. But if one of the two bullet points above are true, then you might have enough passion and perseverance to get through. And you might even look back at it fondly.

However, if one of those two doesn’t apply, then I urge you to consider if you’re wasting your time and money.  It is important to be realistic – graduate school years are marked by low pay, and high cost (tuition and living expenses).  Student debt is a national problem, but manifested in your own life, it is a significant mortgage on your future and the choices you will be able to make.  If the reasons below apply to your consideration of graduate study, then you might want to think about a different career trajectory:

  1. You remember college fondly, wouldn’t it be fun to do that more? -Grad school isn’t college. It’s not all football games and frat parties. If you thought you had good time management skills in undergrad, you ain’t seen nothing yet. It is a 60-80 hour a week job, it is meant to grind you down and rebuild you into something better, it is a slog through massive amounts of thankless work. It is not keg stands and afternoon naps.
  2. You don’t know what to do next with your life. – That sucks and I’m sorry. The economy is hard,  and getting a meaningful, professionally satisfying job is difficult. Entry jobs are rarely glamorous or exciting, and “paying your dues” looks (and is) a long and painful process.  None of this will change if you go to grad school. Unlike undergraduate schooling, you have to start grad school having some idea of what you want to do, otherwise you’re just going to leave with more debt, and still not have that job described above. Sorry.

I have had this conversation with dozens of people, and I don’t want to discourage people who are passionate from pursuing their passion. Go for it! The work is hard, but it is sometimes rewarding. The people around you all understand the difficulty of what you are going through, because they are going through it too. Like any group that suffers together, this will make you infinitely closer and build stronger bonds. The friends I have from graduate school are “lifetime” friends, and I still talk to most of them every week. But you need to be sure that you’re going for the right reasons.

What do you think? What were your reasons for going? Do you have regrets?


My PhD cohort: Roxanna Hickey, Genevive Metzger, Hannah Marx, Tim McGinn, Matt Singer and Tyler Heather. I honestly wouldn’t have made it through without their support.


I want to do research: undergraduate version

Are you an undergraduate and think, “I might be interested in research”?  Are you an undergraduate and want your med school application to stand out?  Are you trying to decide if you want to go to med school?  Do you want a better connection to the faculty whose classes you take?

Where do you start?

To anyone on my side of the equation, it seems pretty obvious and easy: just do it. But I have a good memory and remember the utter fear of asking a professor if I could work with her. So let’s break it down in a few simple steps:

1.Figure out who you might like to work with. Did you have a professor whose lectures you loved? Or a subject that you thought was super cool? These are two great places to start. Another place to go is your University/Department website.  Almost EVERY ACADEMIC HAS A WEBSITE (I need to update mine, come to think of it), and usually they talk about what they do and who is in their lab. Keep an eye on students in the lab (PhD and MS students) and whether the focus of their research work looks cool. Get a feel for who might be interesting to work with, and start reading some papers authored by that person.

2. Contact the person/professor you have selected. Brief emails are great, because these people are likely busy, but be professional. Here’s a shell document I used to help students in the past:

Dear Dr. (Professor Name)-

I am a {your year at the University} student majoring in {your major here}. I am interested in doing research in your lab. Do you have any projects available?

Thank you for your time.

{Your Name}

This allows the professor to know who you are quickly, while not having to dig through a long email. Remember, this is just the first step. Don’t be offended if the answer is “I don’t have time for a new student right now.”  It’s not you! Profs are busy people, and you are asking something of them! When I did this, I had 3-4 responses back – a wider choice of people with whom to explore the next step. I happened to get my first choice, but don’t be offended if they turn you down.

3. Plan to work hard. When I started mentoring undergraduates, I was so excited to be in the role of mentor that I found I felt as though I put in twice as much work as they did on their projects. As I got more experienced, I realized I can’t do that and make them successful (live and learn!). So as a mentor, I had a pretty straightforward method of determining “are we going to work out.” I would start by giving them a task that required hard work for one week. Changing water in snail tanks, or feeding my experimental populations, something that required them to come in a few times in the first week and do something tedious. A LOT of students decided at that point that maybe research wasn’t for them, and that’s fine. But if you want to stick around and get your own project (which was what was in store for week 2), then you need to plan to work hard right away. I know you have exams, and homework, and life is hard. I get it, I’ve been there. But I’m not going to hand you a research project that is a priority for me, when it’s REALLY low down on your priority list.  And every single project EVER has the tedious bits that have to be done.  If you’re not willing to do the tedious stuff, you aren’t ready to do research.

4. Learn as much as you can. Ask questions, make mistakes, get messy! (Mrs. Frizzle, My Entire Childhood <-pretty sure that’s how you cite this particular quote). There is nothing I like more than when students ask to know more. They want more reading, more stats notes, more recommendations on classes or experimental designs. I mentioned above that I stopped doing the work for my students after my first year mentoring (my time became valuable at some point… not sure when…). However, if you want to do the work, I WILL BEND OVER BACKWARDS TO HELP YOU IN ANYWAY I CAN. I got into this field because I like teaching, so be someone who is teachable.

There you go. This isn’t a recipe for success (too many other variables there), but how you can start. Also, this is heavily biased by what I’ve done and the students I’ve mentored. Do you have a way to do it better? Do you tell students something different? Have things changed in the decade since I did undergraduate research?

Let me know!


Presenting my undergraduate project at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research.