Prospectus on Graduate Studies and Advising

(With many thanks and apologies to Dan Binkley, Mike Ryan, and Monica Turner)

A huge part of your graduate education will depend on how you interact with other graduate students in your program, but your interactions with your advisor will truly determine the level of your success and happiness as you finish your degree.  No graduate experience can or should be planned out completely before it occurs, but understanding the basic approach and philosophy of your graduate advisor before you start can help you to decide whether you have chosen or will choose the correct lab.  To help in that regard, what follows is my general approach to advising my graduate students.


I have two basic roles in advising my graduate students.  As a mentor, my job is to support, encourage, and nurture the development of each student.  Separate from mentorship, as a professor I also am here to judge the accomplishments and potential of each student.  I expect my students to be self-motivated and hard-working, and in return my students should expect my support, sometimes including uncomfortable criticism and challenges.  Many students’ initial idea of graduate work may not match reality – perhaps the program requires greater dedication, sharper thinking, or broader knowledge than the student is able or willing to give.  It is my job to help students develop their visions and accomplishments to meet the demands of the program, but I am not a micro-manager.  I work closely with students as to help them develop their research ideas, but I expect students to take charge and ownership of what they are doing.  I don’t prefer deadlines because I hope they are unnecessary.  On rare occasion, a match between myself and a student does not develop, and I have asked students to leave the lab.

Not every graduate education is the same, but all involve developing your ability to think critically, creatively, and independently.  Very rarely does a student enter a graduate program adept at all three of these characteristics.  For example, a beginning student may work well on his/her own, but not in a creative way.  Students are often critical and skeptical of science but in a very non-creative way.  A major goal for students in my lab is to develop all three of these characteristics before graduation.  The level of their development depends on the degree program:

  • At the Masters level, students should develop their ability to participate in science, often at the level of application (such as management or conservation).
  • A doctoral program is quite different from an MS program.  First and foremost,  a PhD program is designed, always, to produce scientists, either academic or professional.  PhDs are also more rigorous than an MS in hours expended as well as in what you are expected to accomplish and develop as a scientist and your ownership of your research.

A student earning an MS should:

  • Have personal motivation, curiosity, and enthusiasm for learning science and how to do research (obtained with help from the advisor);
  • Have a strong grasp of the state of science within the area of his or her interest (obtained by reading the literature);
  • Be able to understand and use basic statistics, sampling procedures, and analytical methods (obtained through coursework and/or research experience);
  • Be able to communicate clearly and effectively, in written and oral presentations;
  • Reach these milestones:
  1. Coursework plan developed by end of first semester;
  2. Committee in place by end of first year;
  3. Proposal written and discussed with committee by the end of third semester;
  4. Steady progress on research, with a goal to finish in three years or less;
  5. Submission of at least one paper for publication by the time of graduation, with a second near-ready for submission (alternatively, one large paper would be fine).

A student earning a PhD should:

  • Have personal motivation, curiosity, and enthusiasm for becoming a scientist (should be already engrained upon becoming a PhD student);
  • Have a broad knowledge of the philosophy, history, and current state of science;
  • Be competent in major techniques used in ecological research, including statistical, field, and laboratory methods, whether or not they are used in his or her research;
  • Be an expert in the state of science within his or her specialty – ideally knowing more about the subject than the advisor knows!;
  • Be able to think clearly, critically, and creatively – beyond the level expected for MS-level students;
  • Attempt to develop his or her own research questions with guidance from the advisor (as opposed to having questions provided);
  • Routinely read the literature;
  • Be able to communicate clearly and effectively, in written and oral presentations; and
  • Reach these milestones:
  1. Coursework plan developed by end of first semester;
  2. Committee formed by end of first year;
  3. Qualifying exam completed by end of third semester;
  4. Research plan developed by end of second year;
  5. Preliminary exam completed by end of fifth semester;
  6. Apply for graduate-level, extramural funding once preliminary exams have been completed;
  7. Steady progress on research, with a goal to finish in five years or less; and
  8. Submission of two original research papers for before graduation and at least 1 more paper ready to submit near the time of graduation.  The number of papers is flexible in cases when large (monograph) papers are produced. 

The graduate advisor should:

  • Make a personal investment in each student’s education, including long- and short-term goals, areas of interest, and abilities;
  • Challenge each student to achieve;
  • Give feedback on progress, and written and oral presentations;
  • Provide insights on the scientific field – proposal writing and funding, publications, manuscript review and publication, and personalities in the profession;
  • Provide or assist with financial support where possible, including facilitating GTAs, providing GRAs, research funds, and travel to a variety of ecosystems and scientific meetings;
  • Allow the student to invest in his/her own success and motivation by allowing them to choose to succeed or fail (but also provide fair warning when failure is increasingly imminent!).

Preparing for the job market

Typically students use graduate school to advance their career or to work toward career goals; that said, much like a B.S. degree, a graduate degree does not guarantee a job after graduation.  Students must invest in their post-graduate school success during the completion of their graduate degree.  Four ways of preparing to be competitive after graduate school include:

  1. Gain as many publications as you can, especially as first author but also as a co-author (collaborative work is also important);
  2. Develop personal contacts with peers (both in or near your cohort as well as well-known folks in the field) by presenting at national and regional meetings;
  3. Give only high-quality publications and publish publications that are as useful as possible.  You don’t want to give a poor presentation (you never know who is watching), and you don’t want to publish a low-quality paper.
  4. Avoid being too focused; develop both breadth and depth of experience, including multiple kinds of ecological questions and a diversity of ecological systems.

There is no one way for a student or a scientist to succeed.  Success is simple for some people because they are extremely intelligent and clever, and are efficient with their time.  For others, they succeed simply through extremely hard work.  Still others are obsessed with their science, to the point they depend on it as much as breathing.  Students and the advisor need to figure out where they fall.  I would encourage a student doing very well to reserve some time for hobbies or family; a struggling student, however, should probably be spending more time figuring out how to get out of the mire (or whether an ecology or science path is the right one for them).

Approach to publication

I hold students responsible for seeing a project through to its end.  This means more than writing a proposal and completing field work and writing a thesis or dissertation.  Research is not considered completed until it is published; this deliverable is a foundation to satisfy funders and to obtain future funding.  I value graduate student’s research much more when he/she is the first author (I hold the right to be the corresponding author on graduate student publications).  However, I have and will obtain control of the project if necessary – usually because the work is not likely to be otherwise completed in a timely manner.  In that case, the student will always remain a co-author on the paper – and I am willing to discuss the student as first author depending on the situation.


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