Choosing a Graduate Program and Advisor

While data are incomplete, estimates put the number of people who enter graduate school, but don’t complete a degree, around 44%Let’s ponder that for a moment.

Nearly half of students admitted to PhD programs, some of the smartest and most motivated folks on the planet, will leave their program without a PhD.

Not a lot of research exists on why students leave graduate school, but what data there are suggest that about 30% of students “drop out” in the first two years of grad school.  They generally seem to leave for one of three reasons:

  • Their graduate program wasn’t right for them
  • Their advisor wasn’t right for them
  • The life of a graduate student wasn’t right for them

I wrote earlier about having the right motivation for deciding to go to graduate school, and how that will improve your experience.

In this post I’ll give you some advice on how to try to identify programs and advisors that are good matches for your interests so you can get what you came for.  If you can make an informed choice about the three factors listed above, your odds of completing your degree in a timely fashion should go up.  More importantly, you will enjoy getting your degree a lot more, and will get more out of it!

Choosing a program: Dollar Bill, Ya’ll

Ok, maybe Coolio isn’t the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about graduate school. But he’s right that money makes a difference; and the good news is that as a graduate student in the sciences, you should be offered a graduate assistantship of some sort, which comes with a stipend.  In exchange for that money, you’re supposed to work for 20 hours/week as either a teaching or research assistant.

You also usually receive a tuition waiver so that you don’t have to pay out of state tuition.  Let me repeat that, since it is something that a lot of students let limit their choices.  Most graduate students are offered an in-state tuition waiver, or total tuition waiver, as part of their graduate stipend.

There is a lot of variation in how much additional support graduate students receive; some get full employee health care benefits, some don’t.  If possible, get information about the financial support you’ll receive in writing.  A lot of students struggle with financial issues in graduate school; 80% of students surveyed in a doctoral completion project said that financial support was key to their success. When evaluating graduate programs, ask questions about money!

Choosing a program: Go Forth and Network

Many graduate programs will pay you to fly out and visit if you are a student they are interested in–or at the very least, they will find you a free place to stay when you visit.   The single most important thing you can do on a visit to a prospective graduate program is to talk to current graduate students. They will tell you the truth about what the climate in the department is like for graduate students, how well grad students are integrated into the life of the department, and what it’s like to live in that area.

It is especially important for students of color and women to check out the departmental climate. Multiple studies have found that these groups have a tougher time in predominantly male, white departments.  This is why in-person visits to departments are critical. Your mentor doesn’t need to look exactly like you for you to be successful; but you do need to feel like you’ll be treated equitably and that you are welcome.  You can best assess the departmental climate for yourself with a visit.

A new trend in many lab science departments is to have “rotations.”  Students are admitted to the department, but don’t have to pick a thesis advisor right away.  They go on a round-robin visitation cycle where they spend 10 weeks or so in different labs they are interested in joining.  This is a great way to learn more and really see the management style of someone before you commit yourself to 6 years with them.  Make sure to ask if this is an option.

Choosing a research advisor (and thesis topic)

The relationship you have with your PhD advisor will be one of the single most important relationships you will have in your life, both professional and personal. It will last longer than most marriages.  Just like getting married, don’t commit to a PhD advising relationship without putting some time and thought into it!

A recent paper surveyed graduate students to find out what they thought was an ideal graduate advisor. Here’s the (condensed) list:

  • Creates structure for labs, meetings, and communication
  • Offers support regardless of student’s career choices
  • Makes time for students
  • Sets high standards
  • Increases challenges as students develop
  • Doesn’t let students flounder
  • Encourages independent thinking and work
  • Encourages attending conferences, writing papers and grants
  • Reflective of one’s own advising style.

That last bullet is the kicker; you need to know something about yourself and how you like to work to be able to make a good choice of an advisor.  How do you like to be managed? Hands-off or hands-on?  Do you need to have deadlines set for you, or can you work without them?  What environments have been successful for you in the past? Getting a sense of the work style of your potential advisor is critical.

Once again, visit and talk to potential advisors in person. Then, talk to their graduate students and post-docs.  Use the characteristics I listed above to frame your questions for the students to get a read on the faculty member’s management style (or lack thereof).

Academics talk about “pedigrees” of graduate students as though they were prize show dogs.  Who your “academic sire” is carries a lot of weight.  There are a lot of good reasons to choose a big name; there are a lot of equally good reasons to not choose someone who is famous.   Usually it’s a tradeoff.  The big dogs have big labs with lots of students, post-docs, and money.  You may not get a lot of face time with Dr. Big, but you will be in an environment that has a lot of activity and opportunities.  The shiny aura of Dr. Big may help open doors for you later….but it’s also possible that people think Dr. Big is a tool. Not everyone who is famous is also well-loved.

On the other hand, if you want a slower, more personal experience, choosing a less well known faculty member might be a better choice for you.  Funding may not be as abundant, but if you know that you want  a more supportive, structured experience, smaller can be better.  The importance again is on gathering as much information as you can so you can make a good decision.

Making the decision to become a Grad Student

Once you’ve done all the things I’ve told you to do above:  Listen To Your Gut.
(Sorry that I don’t have a quantifiable formula for this decision, but guts seem to do a very good job of helping you sort things out.)

If you talked to an advisor, and they seem nice, but for some reason you’re hesitating….Listen to that.
Is this someone you can work with for 6 years? (average time to a PhD)
Is this someone who will help you transition out of being a student and into a working professional?
Is this someone who will take your phone call 5 years after you’ve graduated and need advice about a job offer?

You also want to be excited about your proposed dissertation topic or area.  If your response to a proposed research topic is “Meh”….listen to that too.

I like PhD Comics (Piled Higher and Deeper), but I think his take on graduate school is awfully pessimistic.  There is a lot of truth there, though.   You’ll have ups and downs.  Make sure that you distinguish between the funny feeling in the pit of your stomach that says “OMG I’m about to start something huge” and the kind that says “OMG working with this faculty member will be a disaster.”

It’s normal to feel a little pants-staining terror at the prospect of 6 years of hard work.  But it should also inspire you and excite you, because you will uncover new knowledge that no one in the world but you knows.

External Resources:


Welde, K., & Laursen, S. (2008). The “Ideal Type” Advisor: How Advisors Help STEM Graduate Students Find Their ‘Scientific Feet’ The Open Education Journal, 1 (1), 49-61 DOI: 10.2174/1874920800801010049
Ülkü-Steiner, B., Kurtz-Costes, B., & Kinlaw, C. (2000). Doctoral student experiences in gender-balanced and male-dominated graduate programs. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92 (2), 296-307 DOI:10.1037//0022-0663.92.2.296


Should I do a PhD?

I get this question a lot.  “Should I do a PhD? I want to work in _____.”  I get it so much, in fact, that I thought I’d turn this into a post, and let others chime in.

My answer is usually “No”, and here’s why:  A PhD is NOT a vocational degree.

NEVER get a PhD because you think it will improve your job prospects.   PhDs are trained to do research in an academic setting, for the most part. And that is….not, frankly, where the majority of jobs are.  You will be disappointed and frustrated if you think getting a PhD will make getting a job “easier.”

Pursue a PhD because you love science, or because you have a burning question about a topic that you want to investigate further.    Do it because you want to push your limits, and create new knowledge.  In the sciences, you should expect that you will receive financial support in the form of a graduate assistantship, so a PhD is something that you do for yourself.  Do a PhD if you like having your mind stretched, exploded, occasionally stomped, and then re-assembled into something wonderful and new.

Yes, it would be nice if the Academy would get with the program and make PhDs more aligned with the current job market.   Tiny bits of management training are being added here and there.  But for the most part, there is a reason everyone dresses up in funny robes with capes and poofy hats when you graduate–it’s because academia is firmly rooted in the past.

It may seem like all the jobs advertised require PhDs, but that is an optical illusion.   Advertising costs money.  Organizations only pay money to advertise jobs that are difficult to fill, or that are at a level where you are required to advertise them to attract a certain candidate pool.  PhD level jobs are advertised, not Bachelor’s level jobs.

The Return-on-Investment of advertising for a Bachelor’s level job just isn’t there like it is with a PhD, so organizations just post BS positions on their websites or locally.  You end up with the appearance of more jobs at the PhD level when you look at journals or major job-posting sites–but it isn’t reality.

If you look at 2006 NSF data for people involved in Research and Development–where you would expect a lot of PhDs to end up–you see that they are just  a small slice of this pie.

The other thing to remember is that if you are looking at want-ads, or online advertisements, you are using the least efficient method of job searching.  Surveys of new hires by the Department of Labor consistently find that around 50% of people got their jobs because they knew someone.  People hire people they already know, or that their colleagues know.

If I have a postdoc, or a summer research position, I’m going to talk to grad students and friends I know already, because they are a known quantity.  I’m going to hire someone who is the best personality fit for the job.  I can train them to do anything technical that they might not know.  It really is who you know, not what you know.

It’s most important to me, as an employer, to have someone who can work well in a group and that is reliable.  You might be brilliant and have degrees from the Ivy League, but if you piss everyone off around you and can’t communicate for shit, you are worthless to me.

This is why graduate students (and undergraduates too!) should be focusing on making connections and building a professional network rather than searching for job ads. Blogging is a great way to do that, as long as you don’t focus exclusively on flaming people.  (What?? Do as Bug Girl says, not as she does.)

Going to professional meetings and interacting with others in your field is crucial; volunteering is also an important way to make connections in some fields.

Here’s a good way to see if you are on the right track:  Think about how much time and energy you invest into getting laid.  The mental imagining of what it will be like with person X; time spent building relationships on the possibility of some future putting-out;  the trying-on of clothes and shoes; the mental debates about whether a pint of Ben and Jerry’s now is better than maybe a boyfriend later when you’re thin.
How much total time and energy is that?

Is that comparable to the amount of time you are spending on planning your career and job hunting?  If not, you may need to re-examine your priorities.  (Or, I suppose, fuck really well-connected people.)

I loved my graduate work, and graduate school was one of the best times of my life. I spent 4 years literally crawling around on my hands and knees in North Carolina, focused on solving really interesting research questions and exploring insect behavior. I had wonderful friends, and I drank a lot of beer.  Please don’t think I’m saying don’t go to grad school!

Just go for the right reasons, and don’t expect a PhD to solve all your job hunting problems.   You will get paid slightly more, On Average, with a PhD; and your chances of being unemployed with an advanced degree are lower, On Average, than for someone with no degree or a BS.  But it’s not a path to easy fame and riches.

Do Scientists work too hard?

A recent article in Academe Online had some startling numbers that I had long suspected, but wasn’t able to back up with data until now.

Over half of scientists surveyed–regardless of gender–reported they work 50 hours a week or more.  This work-intensive lifestyle is one of the most frequent topics students (grad and undergrad) ask about when they see how haggard all their professors look.

I think this statement from the article is quite true:

Universities have developed over the past two hundred years to fit men’s lives, both as faculty members and as students. From the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, university professors were predominantly men—with stay-at-home wives who organized and cared for the household.

One of the reasons I jumped off the tenure track was that it was not a healthy choice for me, a person with a disability. I don’t, frankly, think it’s a healthy choice for very many people, aside from a few superstars who thrive on stress. An academic life can be wonderful…but too often it’s a toxic environment.

Too much work/too little time is a problem with academia, and also a problem for Americans in general, since Americans have little or no vacation time, compared to other developed countries.  The Academe Online article caught my eye because it  actually was about the role of housework in adding to the burdens of female scientists:

“female scientists do nearly twice as much housework as their male counterparts. Partnered women scientists at places like Stanford University do 54 percent of the cooking, cleaning, and laundry in their households; partnered men scientists do just 28 percent. This translates to more than ten hours a week for women— in addition to the nearly sixty hours a week they are already working as scientists—and to just five hours for men.”

This pretty much validates what I’ve been hearing from friends for many years. While some women have wonderful husbands that help with parenting and housework, most of them still do the heavy lifting around the house.

When you combine this information with the recent National Academies publicationGender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty“, you realize just how important home/house work can be.

In every science field they measured, the proportion of female applicants for tenure-track jobs was significantly less than the number of women completing PhDs in that field. Women received 45 percent of the Ph.D.s in biology awarded from 1999 to 2003, but they accounted for only 26 percent of applicants to tenure-track positions.  Same story in Chemistry –36% of PhDs earned,  18% of applicants for tenure-track positions.

In every field, women were underrepresented among candidates for tenure relative to the number of female assistant professors.  In chemistry, for example, women made up 22% of assistant professors, but only 15% of the faculty being considered for tenure.

I hear–often–from grad students “I don’t want to work in academia because I want to have a life/family/kids.”  I hear it from both men and women.

What does it mean for Academia that some of our best and brightest see it as a machine that grinds up lives and spits out bitter, tenured dead wood?

Where should I look for a Job?

One of the most common questions I get from students around this time of year is “Where should I look for a job?”

The question they actually are asking is “where ONLINE should I look for a job?”, and it’s the wrong question.  The vast majority of jobs for students are filled informally, without a search.

I always have extra work, and when I manage to have money + work that needs to be done, I usually tend to hire people I know–either a good past student, or someone recommended by a friend.

For full-time jobs, the question is a bit more relevant, but still, applying online doesn’t yield the results that using your network of contacts will.  If I happen to know someone involved in a search, and I send them a copy of your recommendation letter directly….yeah, that immediately moves your resume up to the top of the pile.

So, before I give you my list of places online to look at:  Let me ask, what is the ratio of time you are spending pasting your resume online to the amount of time spent chatting with your friends and professional contacts about where you want to go?

My favorite places to look for Ecological/Environmental type jobs:

Two other things to try:

  1. There are a lot of new job indexes that basically work by harvesting other websites. is a good example of that type of service.
  2. Don’t forget to look at local university and state websites! While the funding may be shaky long term, for those starting out in the job market, there are usually lots of opportunities.

Have I missed an important resource? Please suggest it in the comments!
[Note: I will be especially harsh on spammers for this post–if you are suggesting a link, it needs to relate specifically to finding job postings in environmental science/conservation]