Getting an advanced degree in biology can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Conducting a five year project develops character and leads to both personal and professional growth. One of the most challenging aspects of graduate school is that the most important decision, that of choosing a thesis laboratory, must be made when students are just beginning the process. There are many different laboratory styles, and there is no such thing as a laboratory that is a good fit for everyone. Each lab will have a different composition and emphasis. One constant, however, is that you will have an important relationship with your Principal Investigator. A Principal Investigator's philosophy towards graduate education should be an important consideration when choosing a lab. I think it is valuable to share my perspectives on training. Here is my philosophy, presented as an easy-to-digest top 10 list.
1) You are in charge of your own success.
I cannot overemphasize this point. While I try to foster a supportive lab environment, your success will depend far more on you than it will on me. I expect graduate students to work exceptionally hard to become successful. There will be setbacks, there will be frustration, but it is the responsibility of the student to persevere and overcome adversity.
2) The journey is at least as important as the destination.
An important point that was not emphasized nearly enough when I chose a laboratory as a graduate student. The reality of graduate school is that most students, if they are willing to work 5 or more years, will eventually be awarded a Ph.D. All Ph.D.s are not created equally, though. Almost all careers that require Ph.D.s are competitive. If you want to get a post-doctoral fellowship in a prestigious lab, become a lecturer at a small liberal arts college, or find a good management post in industry you will be competing against other people who have the same letters after their names. How do you set yourself apart? The answer is simple. Publish. In peer-reviewed journals. If you do not have at least two first-name publications in reputable journals by the end of your Ph.D., you will find it difficult to be competitive for post-doctoral positions. If you want to be really competitive for these positions, aim for four. Publication-quality research is also far more likely to be presented at research meetings and conferences attended by your potential future employers. Is it easy to get 2-4 publications? Absolutely not. That is why it is critical to work passionately and intensely through your entire graduate school career.
Along the same lines, here is some unsolicited advice for prospective graduate students. Look carefully at the publication records of the laboratories that you are considering. If the lab has not published consistently in good journals it is unlikely that you will reverse the trend. Past performance does typically predict future success.
3) It's all about the passion.
I'm looking for passion in graduate students who are considering my lab. Again, I feel that passion is often reflected in ones past performance. While a high college GPA does not predict success, it does show that a prospective student can stay committed to a goal and work hard, qualities that are instrumental in graduate student success. I also want students who are genuinely interested in fighting HIV and other major human pathogens, not just "doing science". I acknowledge that this may turn off a large number of prospective students who might otherwise consider my lab. I don't care. The urgency of AIDS research calls out for committed scientists who are willing to work together for the greater good. I try my absolute best to be this type of person and scientist, and I want and expect the same from members of my laboratory.
4) Graduate school is not the time to learn how to write.
This may be the least fair of my ten points. I expect all prospective students entering a Ph.D. program to have a good command of written English. If you do not write well, you will have a very difficult time succeeding in graduate school or in a scientific career. This may sound harsh, but it is true. Scientists who do not write well will be unable to get their work published or funded.
During graduate school, you will learn how to communicate as a scientist. You will learn how to synthesize others' research findings, develop your own thoughts, and communicate your research. These advanced skills cannot be learned without a mastery of basic English composition. If you cannot write a proper sentence or structure a paragraph, you may not be a good fit for my laboratory.
5) Students should strive to finish their Ph.D.s in four years.
The average student at UW-Madison obtains a Ph.D. in approximately five years. Elsewhere in the world, the average is closer to three years. The beginning of graduate school is designed to expand the scope of a student's knowledge while teaching him or her how to research, while the following years focus on developing a depth of knowledge in a highly specialized niche. Learning *how* to develop this knowledge is important, as is learning how to apply it successfully in a research lab. Unless you are going to continue researching in the same niche, there is a definite point of diminishing returns. Publishing early and often will accelerate Ph.D. completion.
6) Classes are worth what they are worth to you.
If you haven't heard it yet, you will eventually hear the adage "B equals Ph.D." This is largely true. Classes in graduate school are important, but not as important as research. In my opinion, students should be selective and truly apply themselves to those courses that genuinely spark their interest. But remember that most graduate student learning occurs in the lab, not the classroom, and that it is your research pedigree, not your class rank, that will impress your post-graduate employers.
7) It is important to be a good campus citizen.
Our lab does not exist in a vacuum, though it does sometimes seem that way. Graduate students should go out of their way to actively participate in their programs, support their classmates when they have seminars, and be involved in their departments. But at the same time, learning to establish priorities and how to say "no" to untenable requests is also important.
8) Graduate students should be well-rounded.
The philosophy above may lead you to think that I accept nothing less than single-minded dedication to research. I do have high expectations, and meeting these expectations will require hard work. Lots of hard work. But it is important to have outside interests. Burn-out is all too common among graduate students. I personally guard against burnout by carving out time with my wife, keeping a regular schedule, and participating in sports. During graduate school, I ran a lot and found it cathartic. A few years later, I started playing ultimate frisbee. Then basketball. Then softball. When I destroyed my ankle playing frisbee, I started biking. Then soccer...and some racquetball. Most nights in the summer, I have some sports competition after work. Sports are my release from the pressure of work, and I think graduate students need to have something outside of work to counterbalance work demands. But remember that work is demanding. I am not going to count the number of hours a graduate student works because, as I mentioned elsewhere on this website, I fear that this leads to confusion between activity and achievement. I want achievement, not activity. The truth, though, is that the life of a successful graduate student is demanding, with the research imposing hefty demands on his or her time. Success in graduate school is typically incompatible with extremely time-consuming outside interests (e.g., participating on club sports teams or holding a second full time job).
9) A graduate student is not a technician.
It is important that graduate students are responsive and open with me. Early on, students will probably be asked to participate in lab projects, using our existing lab protocols. Throughout graduate school, they will be expected to conform to the systems we have established for notekeeping, oragnization, maintenance, etc. As their projects take shape, students will need to become experts themselves. I am coordinating a large number of projects and feel that my primary job is to provide the resources and environment conducive to success. Students should know more than me about their projects. They should have a better grasp of the literature. They should be driving the evolution of their projects and designing innovative experiments. I expect that graduate students will be the engine that propels my laboratory, and this requires independence both in thought and action. Learning to think independently during graduate school will prepare students for the future, where prospective employers will expect them to think themselves, not simply follow the instructions of others.
10) The laboratory is not just another place to work.
I love the research that we do, and I hope that everyone in my lab does too. Though we are in a competitive area of research, it is important that everyone checks their egos at the door. We try to do work the right way -- that means we share our results with one another and with other labs. That means we cooperate and collaborate with others who want to work with us. That means we remember that there are other people, lots of people, who place their trust in unlocking the secrets of HIV/AIDS to labs like ours, and we should not abuse this trust. Everyone needs to be humble enough to admit their mistakes and accepting enough to work well with others.
If, after reading this, you think that my graduate student philosophy is compatible with your personality, feel free to contact me. Thanks for reading.