How to be a successful graduate student

I have a weird perspective on what success is, I think.  To me, success is defined as achieving one’s goals, learning valuable lessons along the way and possibly making a significant contribution along the way.  I don’t think many people would argue with that – however, in academia – at least for grad students, success isn’t necessary measured with the same metrics. Instead, it seems to be measured by how many scholarships you get and how many first author papers you publish.  (Fair criteria, if you are looking for future professors.)

Looking around at the graduate students (and ex-graduate students) that I know (or knew) is an interesting opportunity for reflection.  I can ask the questions: Who did well and what did they do to achieve their success?

Just to be clear – I’m not specifically discussing my own lab!   (In fact, “labs” don’t really even exist where I am, so I’m just describing what I’ve seen over the course of all my years as a grad student here and elsewhere!)

First, I think it’s pretty clear that there’s a relationship between time spent with advisors and the success of the student.  This isn’t necessarily an obvious correlation, but it appears to be true.  From my perspective, a PI’s time comes with a lot of benefits:

  • More opportunity to learn from those who already know something about a field.
  • More input into your project from those who have made the mistakes and can guide you to success.
  • Access to more “hot topic” projects that will get you more publications.

These seem pretty self-evident to me.  The more brains you have on a project, the faster you get results, and the more results you have, the more invested your PI will be on your project.  (This is basically a self-reinforcing problem, where one student gets to be the “golden boy” and get all the guidance, and all the others do the work blindly and thus make slower progress… but I’m getting ahead of my self here.)

Second, a students’ ability to drop a project is a huge determining factor in their success.  Those students around me who are able to move from project to project quickly are the ones that get the most papers and opportunities.

Someone I’ve been working with has been forced to analyze and reanalyze the same set of data over and over for YEARS to get it just right.  His data is now old and stale, but he’s just not been allowed to move on.  While I understand that the data probably cost a huge amount, it would likely take all of $6,000 and 3 weeks to generate an infinitely better data set for him – but as long as he’s trapped on that data set, he’ll never be able to progress any further than the limitations of the original data.  Moving on would be the right thing, but he’s just not been allowed to do it.

Meanwhile, those graduate students I know that hop from item to item are always able to make the biggest splash. They spend three months on each project, and crank out four papers a year. TADA.  Instant golden boy material!

My own solution to the problem (of having a a dead weight project)was the wrong one, having tried to pull in side projects to gain success in areas where my main project was holding me back.  While all of my successes did come from those side projects, it led me head first into the next item.

Be clear on what success means. Despite my gains on side projects, I naively thought that getting software into production pipelines was a good thing.  Yes, I learned much from the process, but in hindsight, it was a disaster.

For bioinformatics software, producing an implementation of an algorithm that works is sufficient for getting you a paper.  Everything you do after that is a waste of time.  I invested hours into support, development and meetings that slowed down my graduation time by months if not years – and not one thing I did after the paper came out counts as a “success” in grad school terms.  Those projects were certainly successful for other reasons and there was good justification for doing the work I did, but those were all “fringe benefits” if you’re looking at my core “success” of grad school.  That is to say, no extra publications, no extra scholarships and no real credit where it was needed.

In fact, one graduate student I know wrote some excellent proof-of-concept code for his own project, which everyone realized was a great improvement over the current pipeline.  He was asked to help generalize the code for broader use, and his answer was a resounding “NO”. That’s a pretty gutsy move, but he’s also the one grad student I know with a huge track record of success. Draw what conclusions you like, that student did not get saddled with supporting, maintaining or coding for anything but his own projects – and that makes all the difference, seeing as he has a pretty awesome publication record to show for it.

Third, the resources available to a student determine what a student can achieve.  Again, probably self-evident.

One of my brilliant colleagues has been required to write grants, scrounge for money and spend time looking for sample donors to move forward on their project. I think this is a great learning experience for someone who wants to be an academic, but it does tend to suck away time from other key ingredients – like analyzing data and publishing it.

This also applies to students who lack good lab equipment and access to important reagents.  I knew people in labs that were so poor, they’d spend days doing things “the hard way” when richer labs would simply walk out and buy a kit.  (Yes, kits are expensive, but they work.)  All of these little things add up and can contribute to your success or failure.

Resources also play a part in your ability to network.  Going to conferences does a lot of good for you in so many ways.  You learn about new things, you see other people’s methods (realizing how yours probably don’t stack up), you meet new people (including some very important and interesting people) and you get challenged to elevate your game.  The only problem is that doing this requires more money.  If you don’t have money to do your research, you probably don’t have the money to travel either.

Fortunately, networking can also be done for cheap, such as blogs and twitter – and not to forget the good old standby email and phone techniques.  You may have to go out of the way to make them happen, but you can do it if you invest your (limited) time wisely.  I really don’t think I need to emphasize the value of networking, which would be it’s own post, anyhow, but you can alway tell me if you want to hear me ramble on that topic.

Alright – let me wrap up this topic, then. To be successful, you need:

  • Time with your PI
  • Ability to move on when things aren’t working
  • Resources to do your work and to establish a network

Got it?  Great!

Fortunately, there exists a cure for the resource problem: scholarships!  Your job as a grad student is to get yourself a good source of money to support yourself, thus freeing up resources for your lab while simultaneously enabling yourself to network and travel further to meet new people, who can help you find new and interesting projects and collaborations that will help you get more publications, which will give you more “face-time” with your PI because he’s interested in all these projects…

Did you see that coming?

And suddenly, you’re back to the chicken and the egg problem:  Having more face time with your PI gets you more success, and more success gets you more face time with your PI.

So, I suppose the lesson here is: Find a PI that will invest time, money and effort into your projects, and one who is willing to help you succeed and progress in your project – and is happy to move to new projects when the one you’re working on doesn’t work.

And if you can follow that recipe, you will be set – or, you’ll already be the golden boy and that recipe will follow you.  Either way, happy grad schooling!

1 thought on “How to be a successful graduate student

  1. Pingback: On Selecting Your Thesis Advisor « Organic Chemistry Tips and Techniques

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