Sarah Hosler passed her Master’s of Science these defense (we knew she would succeed)!! Sarah has worked incredibly hard over the last two years to broaden her research skills and conduct four completely different pilot projects. Her defense presentation focused on the two main projects, but was a wonderful way to see that progression all at once and to reflect on her growth as a lab manager and researcher. She has also earned the designation of “second Ishaq Lab grad student to defend”.
The defense was attended by her thesis committee, students in the Ishaq lab, collaborators on this project, friends and family, and Izzy the dog (pictured, and yes, Sarah preferred this picture of her at her defense to a portrait of herself. Sarah will officially pass after a few revisions to her thesis and a formal acceptance by the committee members, which is standard for graduate defenses.
After wrapping up a few things in Maine, Sarah will be heading to Pennsylvania to take a position as Student Program Coordinator for middle and high school aged students at Albright College, where she obtained her Bachelor’s of Science. Congrats on the defense and on the next stage of your career!
“Weaving An Interdisciplinary Microbiome Career Using Threads From Different Ecosystems”.
Johanna Holman passed her Master’s of Science these defense (we knew she would succeed)!! Johanna has worked incredibly hard over the last two years to broaden her research skills and conduct several experiments, and her defense presentation was a wonderful way to see that progression all at once. She has also earned the designation of “first Ishaq Lab grad student to defend”. The defense was attended by her thesis committee, students in the Ishaq lab, collaborators on this project, and friends and family (who brought her a flower and broccoli bouquet that can be seen in the picture below). She will officially pass after a few revisions to her thesis and a formal acceptance by the committee members, which is standard for graduate defenses.
Johanna has been accepted to the Nutrition PhD program at UMaine, and will continue working with Dr. Li and I, as well as the full research team. Based on those preliminary results, Johanna’s doctoral work will focus on developing that new mouse model, synthesizing information from both models, and using those results to develop diet intervention trials in human patients. After her PhD, Johanna intends to conduct research at an institution here in Maine, and to continue her work connecting the biochemistry of nutrition with gut microbiology and human health.
Prevention of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases by Broccoli Sourced and Microbially Produced Bioactives.
Sarah officially joined my lab and started as a Master’s of Animal Science student at UMaine in fall 2020, which was during an extremely tumultuous time in history, and was only a year into my Assistant Professor position here at UMaine and before the lab had built up protocols, collaborations, samples, or momentum. Collectively, this meant that Sarah was part of my work to establish a laboratory and has been blazing that trail along with me. As such, in addition to the technical and analytical skills she has been learning, she has obtained a massive amount of professional development and leadership experience.
Sarah’s research interests are the interaction between the microbial community associated with various animal species, animal health or productivity, and the environment. This work is highly interdisciplinary, and requires extensive imagination and forethought into experimental designs which can capture biological, microbiological, and environmental data. This research theory is directly in line with the One Health in the Environment research group at UMaine, as well as the Microbes and Social Equity working group – an international research collaboration which I lead-, both of which Sarah has obtained mentorship from. This graduate work has focused on developing pilot studies and new research collaborations for three major projects/lines of scientific inquiry.
The first project centered around the tracking of Cryptosporidium parvum in different-aged dairy cattle populations as well as their pens at the University of Maine’s J.F. Witter Farm. Cryptosporidium is a small protozoan; a single-celled organism, and it is found in and around water and soil, as it spends most of its life cycle in those places. Humans and animals may ingest it through contaminated water or the fecal-oral route accidentally. In very young (such as calves) or immunocompromised individuals, an infection can occur, causing diarrhea and dehydration, and leading to death in many cases. Sarah has trained multiple undergraduates on sample collection and processing, as well as cell staining and microscopy, and the project has already collected dozens of samples. As this project will proceed for at least two years, it is not the main focus of Sarah’s thesis, however she will be an author on the eventual publication and she is leading a review manuscript on cryptosporidiosis which we will submit for peer review by fall 2022.
The second project investigated pathogens in wild rodent populations in Maine, in the context of heat stress and northward-shorting range changes due to climate changes. A pilot project collected biological data and samples from live-trapped flying squirrels and white-footed mice in six locations across Maine over summer 2021. The pilot project involved three additional investigators with complementary expertise, as well as their associated student mentees. To investigate disease potential, free catch fecal samples were collected from trapped animals to identify carriage of specific pathogens, and to isolate bacteria and assess heat tolerance. Sarah coordinated the training of undergraduate students in my and other labs, including sample collection and processing, microbial culture, DNA extraction, and more.
The third project project, and primary focus of her second year, investigated the microbial communities associated with sea scallops at different life stages and associated with tank surfaces at different points in a hatchery production run. Overall, there is a dramatic lack of research into the microbial communities involved in aquaculture and fisheries and how these might impact production as well as local ecosystems. Sarah processed a large number of samples for DNA extraction and sequencing preparation, as well as microbial culturing and biofilm assessment, and trained an undergraduate on the culturing work. This project and the piloting work Sarah did has led to a small grant award and a multiple-institutional collaboration. Sarah presented some of this preliminary work to aquaculture and fisheries industry professionals at the Northeast Aquaculture Conference & Exposition/ 41st Milford Aquaculture Seminar in Portland, and the American Society for Microbiology Microbe meetings. Sarah is currently writing this manuscript which will be submitted for peer review by the end of this summer.
This graduate work was highly collaborative, and required a great deal of professionalism. Each of the three research projects that Sarah had been working on involves a primary team of faculty or animal science professionals, most of whom are on campus at UMaine but some of whom are remote at external institutions. Each of the three projects also involved 1 – 4 undergraduate students participating in the research. Not only did Sarah help me organize project team meetings, and facilitate those meetings, but she coordinated data collection and file management for those projects, as well as trained and oversaw undergraduates in the laboratory. These skills are so often overlooked in research training, and are often considered part of the background in science. However, as tenure-track faculty, I would argue that these organization and research coordination skills are the most valuable for advancing complicated projects.
I met Johanna in the fall of 2019, when I was just establishing myself as a new Assistant Professor at UMaine and she was looking for an advisor for a graduate degree. Right away, she impressed me with her background and enthusiasm for research. I learned that Johanna began her undergraduate study as an art student before transitioning fluidly to science. The ability to design visual aids and graphical representations of data is hugely important to science and sadly, not always a skill that scientists are trained to do, and Johanna has made some incredible art for her research.
Once she became a science student during her undergraduate study, she worked in the laboratories of Drs. Yanyan Li, previously an Associate Professor (of nutrition) in the College of Science and Humanities, and Tao Zhang, Assistant Professor of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences, both of Husson University in Bangor. There, she performed nutritional biochemistry, worked with mouse models, and developed an idea of what she wanted to study in graduate school and pursue as a career. Johanna continues to work closely with both researchers, especially now that Dr. Li has taken a position at UMaine.
Johanna and I continued to plan her graduate work and career goals, she officially joined my lab as a Master’s Student of Nutrition at UMaine in fall 2020, and immediately got to work. Not only did she begin preparations for the massive undertaking that is part of her project, but she began mentoring several undergraduates on and off campus, and started as a first time teaching assistant for the Chemistry department, which required navigating virtual labs. She served as a chemistry TA for academic year 20/21 and 21/22, with up to 60 students per semester. For the last year and a half, she has been coordinating a large-scale research project with investigators at 4 different institutions and undergraduate researchers from 3 different institutions, involving hundreds of samples – while being a masters student, a graduate teaching assistant, and mentoring undergrads in the lab, and all during a pandemic! She managed that all so well, that despite being a first-year graduate student, she was awarded a 2020-2021 University of Maine Graduate Student Employee of the Year award, and the 2022 Norris Charles Clements Graduate Student Award from the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture.
Johanna’s project focuses on whether consumption of specific broccoli sprout preparations will elicit changes in the gut microbiota, to the effect of improving the production of microbiota-specific bioactives that have local anti-inflammatory effects, and promoting intestinal homeostasis by reducing dysbiosis. Broccoli sprouts represent an effective, and accessible way to add dietary intervention to existing treatment and prevention strategies for IBD patients. This project is a continuation of previous research on bioactive compounds in broccoli, completed in the labs of Drs. Yanyan Li and Tao Zhang at Husson University in Bangor. While some of the work may be similar, the skill set she has gained in her graduate work is entirely new. For the 2020/2021 winter break, Johanna was managing a 40-mouse study looking at DSS-treatment and different preparations of a broccoli sprout diet for 5 weeks, which resulted in hundreds of samples collected, hundreds of data time points, and enough follow-up laboratory and analysis work to keep her occupied for an entire year. She has learned how to culture bacteria in an anaerobic chamber, which is a notoriously fussy machine that requires regular attention, as well as to grow them under different conditions for biochemical analysis and enzyme activity. She is currently learning additional histology skills, DNA extraction, DNA sequencing library preparation, DNA sequence analysis, and more. Recently, she has participated in a pilot study to develop an immunological model of IBD, using IL-10 knockout mice. While IL-10 mice have been used to study IBD, they have never been applied in this way to study the interaction of diet, microbes, and disease.
She has presented this work at the American Society for Microbiology annual meeting, and at the UC Davis Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) symposium, and has several conference presentations planned for 2022. Johanna has an author on a paper in early 2022 for work she contributed to as an undergraduate, and is preparing 3 manuscripts generated from her masters work which will be submitted for peer review at a scientific journal in 2022.
Johanna has been accepted to the Nutrition PhD program at UMaine, and will continue working with Dr. Li and I, as well as the full research team. Based on those preliminary results, Johanna’s doctoral work will focus on developing that new model, synthesizing information from both models, and using those results to develop diet intervention trials in human patients. After her PhD, Johanna intends to conduct research at an institution here in Maine, and to continue her work connecting the biochemistry of nutrition with gut microbiology and human health.
I frequently receive requests for advice on choosing graduate programs, or to work in my lab, and have conversations with graduates who are struggling with program, department, or university policies which they were not aware of when they began. I decided to put those thoughts and conversations in one place, to create a non-exhaustive list of advice and considerations for choosing a graduate program. This will mostly be applicable to STEM programs, but some aspects will be universal.
Some of this will be discouraging, because graduate school is not a thing to be entered into lightly. But, I also believe that anyone can participate in science, and that many times when people think they couldn’t succeed in science, it’s not because they aren’t good enough, it’s more of a problem with an environment that selects for just one type of researcher.
Define your goal.
What do you want to do with your career and why do you need to go to graduate school to accomplish this?
I spend more time talking people out of graduate school, or into a lesser commitment, than I spend convincing people to go to graduate school, because there is an inflated sense of the need and prestige of having a graduate degree. And, many people assume they need a degree, or the highest degree available, to get the job they want.
When I was in 6th grade, I decided I was going to be a veterinarian because I wanted to help animals, and I refused to consider other career paths which felt like a lesser calling. Three weeks into my undergraduate degree in animal science, I realized that the reality of being a veterinarian is very different from its portrayal, and it wasn’t what I wanted at all. I had only thought I wanted it because I had gotten a very limited exposure to career choices prior to going to college. I see the same mistake with people considering, or in, graduate school. I don’t mean to disparage having a veterinary or graduate degree, I just mean that the way they are portrayed to prospective students is not always accurate. Do your homework before committing to those career paths.
More than that, when you receive career advice or look into career paths, the advice tends to focus on the highlights or major types of jobs and ignore the nuance of interdisciplinary or support-level careers. Not only does this mean that everyone in animal science thinks they can only be a veterinarian or a professor to be in the field, but the way that careers are portrayed makes students think that the only suitable use of their time, and justification for massive financial burden of higher education they incur, is to go for the career with the highest prestige – whether they want that or not. Unfortunately, when students realize they don’t have the grades and the accolades to make it into the career with the most prestige, which also has the most strict entry requirements, it means students are more likely to give up entirely, consider leaving their degree unfinished, and feel guilt or shame for having failed. But here’s something no one tells you up front: choosing a different job doesn’t mean you failed to be the boss, it means you chose a different job. A veterinary technician isn’t a failed veterinarian, and a laboratory technician isn’t a failed researcher, they are performing different functions in a setting which requires collaboration from various job types.
So, I’ll ask you again, like I ask all prospective graduate students: what do you want do with your life, and do you need graduate school to get you there? This question helps you focus on creating stepwise objectives to meet your goals. Maybe you need a specific degree, or a degree in a specific field, or don’t actually need a degree at all, maybe you need an internship or professional training, and those might require a specific order to the events. Do you want to travel for work or not? Do you want to have clear definition of your job responsibilities, or the flexibility to determine your own to-do list? Do you want to be at the bench, in the field, or at the keyboard and to be doing the research, or do you want to be writing proposals and papers, and administrating the research and the lab personnel? And, do you actually want to work alone or are you alright in a social environment? Spoiler alert, most jobs in science actually require daily socialization, communication, and presentation.
All of these aspects will determine the particulars of what you need out of a graduate program and the type of degree you get. It’ll also help you in the future when you need to decide if you have met your grad school goal and are ready to move to the next phase of your life.
You can probably outline your personal goals and constraints, but defining your professional goals will take some homework. I’ve previously described the academic ladder, with descriptions of responsibilities of students, post-doctoral researchers, adjuncts and researchers, and tenure-track faculty. I have also compiled some “science journeys” into a video. Professional research blogs can be a good way to learn about life in academia, although keep in mind many labs only post about their successes and not about their failures. You can also connect with faculty on campus, and most labs will take on undergraduate (or even high school) students to participate in research. If you aren’t sure if you would be interested in research, you can ask to shadow researchers in the lab, attend a few lab meetings, or otherwise participate in a voluntary and commitment-free capacity. There are also plenty of research opportunities off campus, as well.
Define your limits.
Graduate programs can be demanding, and you may need to relocate to find the topic, project, and mentor who is right for you. Before you start applying everywhere and racking up application fees, think about your constraints, your limits, and what would be a “deal-breaker” for you. Defining your limits (especially if you have a lot of them) will feel like you are writing yourself out of the possibility of finding a graduate program that works for you. In reality, it will help you find an institution that matches your life better and will help you focus on what is really important to you. You don’t have to erase all other aspects of your life in order to be a scientist.
Often, you feel pressured to give up everything to go to graduate school or other professional degree programs. The perception is that because there are fewer available positions than applicants that you need to underbid everyone else and give up everything, essentially that you need to recruit the graduate program. You assume you have to relocate and out of your own pocket, you need to put family on hold, you need give up job benefits, and you will have to work all the time.
Some of that may be true, and you should think about what you are able to manage and what you can’t live without. Some of that is just perception cast by work-a-holic culture and you will be able to reject or negotiate aspects. Think of your list of limits as conditions your employer might need to meet in order to convince you to take the position.
Narrow down your interests.
What do you want to do day after day, failure after failure?
If you start to make a list of things you are interested in science and you start writing down all the cool things you saw on social media – stop right there. Science is cool, but most of the time is cool in retrospect after the work has been completed and narrative added in. Science is arduous, iterative, and requires a lot of process improvement and reflection, and that takes time and focus. You need to be able to work on the same thing day after day and maintain interest even if everything you do seems to fail everyday. Especially when you are trying to develop technical skills and analytical skills, you need to be able to focus and dive deep into your topic, and you can’t be distracted by every little thing you think is cool, otherwise you will never get anything done.
You don’t need to commit to your research interest for life, and you don’t need to have an incredibly narrow scope to your interests, but you should be able to identify a common theme or the aspect that draws you in. Which topic makes you ask “yes, and?” over and over. What cool science story made you look for a second similar story, and then a third?
Search for a program.
There are a few different types of graduate degrees available, and each have nuances about the requirements to get in, requirements to graduate, cost to you, salary and benefits to you, and approach for application and acceptance into the program. I recommend looking into programs first, to find a location and institution that best meets your personal and professional goals and limits, and then trying to find a mentor. Don’t underestimate the importance of geographic location, and the environmental and social climate you will find there. You might need to be close to family, or find a location with a job or program for a partner. And if you are used to sun, several years of overcast winters might lose their novelty.
Most people apply to multiple programs and it can take time to find the right match. If you end up applying to multiple programs at a single institution, you can ask them to waive additional application fees, something that is commonly done but not commonly advertised.
Masters of Professional Studies are designed to give you familiarity with research and build skills. MPS is not thesis-based and requires research participation but not your own research project, so it is often used for people who will be in research-adjacent jobs. Students are admitted to programs based on their GPA, exam, or other numeric qualifications, and during their first semester have to identify a research mentor and two other committee members to guide their curricula and career development. MPS students pay for their own tuition, and most program/university policies stipulate that they are not allowed salary for their research, although they usually can be paid summer research salary. MPS students are eligible for teaching assistantships, but few, if any research assistantships. Because you are categorized as students and not employees, you do not receive health insurance or other fringe benefits, but you are eligible for student health insurance plans. MPS are completed in 2 years, but can be completed over longer periods of time to accommodate working professionals.
Master of Science programs are thesis-based, and require research study in a project you co-lead. Applications may be accepted year-round or according to deadlines, depending on the program. Master’s programs are designed to last 2 -3 years (credit hour requirements make it almost impossible to accomplish in fewer than two years), and beware mentors or projects which assign you a PhD-level amount of work to accomplish in just two years. Finding funding for master’s programs can be tricky, as many universities prioritize PhD students in order to boost their Carnegie research rating, but master’s programs are needed for training the majoring of the research workforce. Typically, you are paid a salary for your master’s, including partial coverage of your health insurance, and full coverage of your tuition. Most programs do not cover full health insurance, or semester fees, both of which can cost a thousand dollars of more in each of the spring and fall semesters, but you might be able to negotiate these to be paid by your advisor. You are considered both a student and an employee, but most university policies make graduate students ineligible for university-based or even individual-based pre-tax retirement savings programs for employees, although you can configure a post-tax retirement savings plan on your own.
Doctorate of Science programs are dissertation-based and requires that you (more or less) lead a research study and have contributed significantly to the theory behind its design, or theory behind its analysis and interpretation. PhD programs are designed to take about 5 years in the US (3 years in many other countries which don’t require coursework). Credit hour requirements make it almost impossible to accomplish in fewer than 4 years in the US, and PhD time can vary between 4 – 9 years, depending on the research and other circumstances. Applications are accepted year-round for direct-to-lab admissions (see below), and once or twice a year to be considered for lab-rotation-based fellowships.
Thesis-based science programs have two paths to admission, which is not always common knowledge. You will always have to apply to the graduate college of a university and meet the qualifications set by the university, as well as the program/department. After passing initial qualification checks, the graduate school will forward applications to the department to review, and it is this step that offers two paths.
If graduate programs have a collective fund to support students (teaching or research assistantships), they might accept a certain number of students as a cohort based on their qualifications. The top number of applicants will have some sort of recruitment event in which you are shown the facilities, have a chance to talk to students and faculty, and are interviewed by the program admission committee. Applicants who are admitted as a cohort have salary provided for the first 1 – 2 years as they take classes and rotate through different research labs. At the end of rotations, you match with a lab that has money to continue funding your salary and your research. Most programs will not accept so many students to the cohort that they will be unable to find them funding to continue their graduate work.
However, because thesis-based study is a funded position, you might apply to a department as a “direct admission”. This means that you have already matched with an advisor during prior conversations, the advisor has already looked through your application, and that the advisor and the department have informally agreed to offer you a position. But, this method is entirely dependent on that advisor having funding to pay your salary, tuition, and your research costs. You need to start the conversation with a possible mentor 6 months or more before you want to begin, unless you are applying to an advertised position in their lab. Finding research funding takes 6 – 18 months because of the slow pace of federal funding review and allocation, so if your advisor needs to find funding it will take planing ahead of time. Direct admission can happen on a rolling basis, but you will still need to apply to, and meet the qualifications of, the graduate college. Because of the unpredictable nature of the funding, you can defer a direct admission offer for a year, as needed.
Interviewing and searching for a mentor.
Whether you are applying as part of a cohort or a direct admission, you will have some sort of interview. It might be a series of informal conversations with potential advisors, or a formal interview with a program admission committee. When you are going into a graduate program interview, it feels daunting, and it’s not until you advance your career enough to be on the interviewer side that you realize it is supposed to be a conversation and not a test.
The graduate interview is not really about proving your qualifications because you have already met that hurdle with your application. The interview is to match students to mentors, and to confirm your interest in research. By having conversations and interacting in real time (whether in person or via electronic chat), interviewers can assess your communication skills, and get a better idea of your goals and interests.
The graduate advising relationship is quite different from what you might have experienced with previous instructors or undergraduate advisors, so it’s important that your personal and professional goals line up with those of your advisor. It really helps if you actually get along. You’ll be working together for several years during your degree, and will maintain a mentoring relationship for a good portion of your early career after you graduate. As a member of their lab, you’ll be performing a lot of their research and representing them at conferences and other venues during presentations, collaborations, or future work. It’s important to your career and theirs that you are able to work well together.
Therefore, during your grad school interviews you should remember that you are interviewing them, as well. The interview is an opportunity for your future advisor and institution to impress you and convince you to take a position with them. This is your chance to ask them about the projects you might be doing, where former lab members are now, their expectations of you, and more. Many federal funding proposals require a detailed mentoring plan, so advisors already have an idea what your professional development might look like. Importantly, get an idea about the lab culture. Some advisors feel you should work nights and weekends and during all breaks, others feel that your contributions belong to the lab and you might not have as much access to your own intellectual property than you think. And, not every lab has made a commitment to equity and inclusion. Here’s the policy for the Ishaq Lab.
It’s also a great time to ask grad program coordinators about university policy, departmental expectations, and financial support opportunities which might affect you. Does the program provide some or all financial support for health insurance, tuition, salary, and student fees? If not, what opportunities are in place to secure these? Are you able to switch mentors if there is a professional or personal mismatch? Is childcare available for graduate students? What about time off for maternity leave, and is this paid or unpaid? Family or medical leave? What if you need to take a semester or a year off, can you get back into the program and would you lose your funding? How many papers will you need to publish, or scientific presentations to give, and will there be financial support for those costly endeavors? While no one would ask you to pay publication fees out of pocket, I have heard of researchers refusing to financially support grad student travel to conferences, despite many departments requiring students to present in order to obtain their graduate degree. Travel to scientific conferences can run to several thousand in travel and participation costs per trip, and one trip to a national-level conference could cost an entire month’s graduate student salary.
Adopt healthy habits.
If everything comes together and you’ve been accepted into a graduate program that works for you, congratulations!! I wish you the best on the next step of your journey. If you are looking for more advice for once you get there, check out my previous posts, including preparing yourself before you start by adopting good habits for organization and work-life balance.
I’m pleased to announce that I have been approved for full Graduate Faculty status in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences Program at the University of Maine! EES is an interdisciplinary program that allows for flexibility of scope in research and graduate study. I am now able to:
advise PhD, MS, and non-thesis MS students in EES
serve on the graduate committees of EES students
design and teach EES-designated grad and undergrad courses
Last year, one of my former research groups at Montana State University was awarded a USDA NIFA Foundational program grant, and I am a sub-award PI on that grant. We’ll be working together to investigate the effect of diversified farming systems – such as those that use cover crops, rotations, or integrate livestock grazing into field management – on crop production and soil bacterial communities: “Diversifying cropping systems through cover crops and targeted grazing: impacts on plant-microbe-insect interactions, yield and economic returns.”
The first soil samples were collected in Montana this summer, and I have been processing them for the past few weeks. I am using the opportunity to train a master’s student on microbiology and molecular genetics lab work.
Tindall Ouverson started this fall as a master’s student at MSU, working with Fabian Menalled and Tim Seipel in Bozeman, MT. She’s an environmental and soil scientist, and this is her first time working with microbes. She was here in Eugene for just a few days to learn everything needed for sequencing: DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction, gel electrophoresis and visualization, DNA cleanup using magnetic beads, quantification, and pooling. Despite not having experience in microbiology or molecular biology, Tindall showed a real aptitude and picked up the techniques faster than I expected!
Once the sequences are generated, I’ll be (remotely) training Tindall on DNA sequence analysis. I’ll also be serving as one of her thesis committee members! Tindall will be the first of (hopefully) many cross-trained graduate students between myself and collaborators at MSU.
The Menalled lab has MS and PhD opportunities in agroecology, “Diversifying cropping systems through cover crops and targeted grazing: impacts on plant-microbe-insect interactions, yield, and economic returns”.
In a recent post on The Rare Knowledgesphere, I mentioned that I when I tell people that I went to graduate school or explain what I do now, the replies can be overly modest or self-deprecating. Sometimes, people tell me that they don’t feel smart enough to make it through grad school or to dowhatIdo. Graduate school or other professional schools aren’t for everyone, but there is a big difference between not wanting to go and not feeling good enough to go. In my experience, people who think they can’t do it aren’t so much incapable as incapacitated by Imposter Syndrome. In my 9 total years of acquiring higher education, plus 2 years and counting of post-doctoral training, I find that when it comes to academic success, academic achievement frequently takes a backseat to having the right personality. In this post, I thought it would be helpful to describe some of those qualities that help set the most successful researchers apart.
Learning is a skill
Don’t get me wrong, you need to pass the graduate record examinations (GREs- general and subject) in order to be accepted, be able to understand the material once you are there, do well on exams, and maintain a certain grade point average (GPA). While grades and exam performance can be good metrics for intelligence, there are a lot of circumstances that could preclude someone from doing well, thus they aren’t the only metrics. Certainly you need a solid knowledge base in any subject in order to participate in it. But I don’t usually get asked by people I pass on the sidewalk to explain how 20 different enzymes react instantaneously when you consume a meal in order to alter your metabolism to maintain homeostasis. I am asked on a daily basis to assimilate new information, process it, and then apply it to my work. Whether it is learning a new skill (like learning to perform a laboratory technique or how to analyze data I have not worked with before), whether it is evaluating a proposed experiment and looking for flaws in the experimental design, or whether it is reviewing someone’s manuscript for validity and publish-ability, I need to be able to learn new things efficiently.
Learning is a skill, just like wood-working or weight-lifting: you need to start small and practice regularly. Learning a new skill, language, or activity challenges us. Not only can it broaden our view of the world, but continuing to learn throughout your adult life can improve health and cognitive function: essentially, the more you learn the better you become at learning. In addition to physically performing new tasks, reading is a great way to inform yourself while improving your reading comprehension skills, verbal IQ, and critical thinking so that you can assess the accuracy of the information. Scientific texts, even for those who are trained to read them, can be extremely difficult to fully comprehend. Articles are full of very technical language, explain new concepts, and often rely on a certain amount of knowledge inherent to the field. It’s tempting to read quickly, but in order to do this you efficiently it can help to be systematic and thorough.
You may not feel you are ready for graduate school, that you belong in grad school, or that you are ready to leave, but grad school isn’t the end point- it’s a learning experience to become a good researcher. Even once you leave, you never stop learning. Good graduate students don’t have to know everything, but they do need to know how to learn and how to search for answers.
Put on a happy face
You don’t need to love grad school, your work, or the process of research every second of every day, and you don’t need to pretend to, either. It can be difficult, and like with any job, there are good days and bad days. A hardy personality falls a close second to being able to learn new skills. The road through graduate school is arduous and different for everyone, and it takes a tough person to make it out of the labyrinth of Academia. Moreover, you are truly surrounded by your peers; everyone in graduate school has already maintained a high GPA, passed the GREs, gotten into grad school, etc. You are probably never going to be the smartest or most accomplished person in the room again, certainly not for a long time.
You need to be able to take criticism, and not just the constructive kind: not everyone maintains polite professionalization and at some point, someone will bluntly tell you that you don’t belong in graduate school. For me, this occurred about two years in, when I submitted my first manuscript. A reviewer mistook my statement that a certain type of photosynthetic, water-based bacteria were present in the rumen of moose (who acquire them by drinking swamp water) for saying that those bacteria normally lived in the rumen of the moose, and commented that the latter was incorrect, that I did not know what I was doing, and that I did not belong in science. To be sure, being able to deliver information in journal articles in an accurate manner is critical, and if a reviewer mistakes what you say in a manuscript, then you need to clarify your statements. If a journal article is found to be unsuitable for publication, the reviewer can recommend it be rejected and offer commentary on how to improve re-submissions. However, it is widely accepted to be inappropriate and unprofessional to make personal comments in a review. I was taken aback at how one misinterpreted sentence in a 5,000 word article could lead someone who had never met me to determine that I wasn’t suited for science.
In the end, I clarified that sentence, resubmitted, and the paper got accepted. Four years later, that article has been viewed over 6,500 times and several other papers have come out identifying bacteria of that type living in the gastrointestinal tract of animals. Research is a competitive field, and by its nature requires repetition and trouble-shooting. You need to be able to fail on a daily basis and still find the enthusiasm to learn from the results and try it again tomorrow.
Two heads are better than one
Working well with others is extremely important in graduate school (and really any work environment). In graduate school, other people can challenge you, help you reason through problems, identify holes in your logic, or add a perspective based on their personal experiences. In science, you can never be an expert in everything, and to be able to really answer a research question you need to be able to look at it from different angles, methods, or fields. Collaborations with other scientists allow you to bring a breadth of expertise and techniques to bear in projects, and can improve the quality of your research (1, 2, 3).
However, it can be difficult to wrangle so many researchers, especially when everyone is so busy and projects may span years. Emotional intelligence, the ability to empathize, has been found to contribute to academic intelligence and can foster interpersonal relationships and collaborations. When money, prestige, and ideas are on the line, the drive to be recognized for your work needs to be balanced with empathy in service to completing the experiments and disseminating the results. At some point in academia, personal conflict will jeopardize a project. As much as you have a right to recognition and reward for your hard work, you need to remember that other project members are due the same. That being said, as a graduate student you don’t always feel in a position to negotiate and may feel pressured to minimize your contribution or the thanks to which you are due. Settling on an order for authorship, or credit for contributions, is a conversation that needs to happen early, often throughout the project, and inclusively to acknowledge that you all worked hard for this.
Being able to juggle taking classes, teaching and grading, performing research, attending meetings, and all the other hundred things one must do in an academic day, takes a high degree of coordination. Your calendar is your friend: schedule everything from meetings to reminders about tasks. And using shared calendars really helps to schedule meetings or remind others. There are plenty of apps that are specific to laboratory scheduling needs to help coordinate meetings or assign tasks across multiple parties.
Even more important these days is digital organization: whether it be your email or your hard drive. You need to be able to confidently curate and store data or electronic materials so that you or someone else can find them, even years later. You never know when you will need to resurrect an old project or check on a method you once used, and without a solid paper trail you may not be able to locate or understand your digital breadcrumbs. Lab notebooks, protocols, data files, and knowledge need to be accessible to future members, and it is your responsibility to make them available and intelligible. There is nothing more frustrating than finding an unlabelled box of samples in a freezer and being unable to identify their owner or contents. While the Intellectual Property might be yours, if that research or your salary was paid by a university or governmental agency, you have a responsibility to make that information public at some point.
A high degree of organization can help you manage your time, keep track of your results, coordinate with others, and maintain a project schedule.
A spoonful of extra-curricular helps the biochemistry go down
Work-week expectations, course load, teaching load, research load, and financial compensation of graduate students vary by the nature of their appointment, by university policy, or even by department within a university.
Graduate Teaching Assistants are paid a stipend for providing undergraduate teaching and other miscellaneous help to the department (typically 20 hours per week), and may receive tuition compensation for the classes they take. Depending on the nature of the program, they may do research as well in order to write a thesis (masters) or dissertation (doctorate), or not do any research for their degree (non-thesis major). Graduate Research Assistants (GRAs) are hired strictly to perform research (again, usually 20 hours per week), for which they receive a stipend and/or tuition compensation, and also take classes. Most programs require GRAs to teach for one semester to gain the experience, and GRAs are almost exclusively performing research for a thesis/dissertation-based degree. Regardless of the type of appointment, there are a certain number of classes and hours of research which must be logged before a degree may be obtained. Between courses, teaching, and research, there is enormous pressure on graduate students to work more than 40 hours per week.
It might seem that immersing yourself in graduate school is the best way to be a good student. Or, maybe you are overwhelmed by the amount of work you are being asked to accomplish and feel pressured to spend 12 – 18 hours a day at it just to meet deadlines. Firstly, you are not lab equipment and should not be treated as such. As a student, as an employee, and as a person, you have rights in the workplace. It’s worth looking into university policy to see exactly what it required of you. Secondly, over-working yourself is a terrible way to be more productive, as I discussed in a previous post on work-life balance. To summarize that post, over-working yourself negatively affects your health, your cognitive function, and the quality of your work. On the other hand, taking regular breaks and vacation can help keep you focused and solve abstract problems.
In addition to helping you manage stress, having an active life outside of your program helps give you other experiences from which you can draw upon to aid your graduate work. For example, I worked for several years at a small-animal veterinary hospital before going to graduate school, at which I trained employees and had extensive interactions with customers. There, I gained the skills to manage others, simplify technical information, be very specific in my instructions, or maintain a professional demeanor in the face of emotional or chaotic events. My interests in painting and photography have improved the quality and presentation of graphical results, or visually document my experiments.
Learn to Type
Seriously. I spend most of my time at a computer: reading, writing, cut/pasting. If you can type as quickly as you can gather your thoughts,you’ll find that you are much more productive.
I sometimes get a self-depreciating response when I tell people what I do: “oh I could never do that,” “I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” or my least favorite; “I’m not smart enough to do that myself.” Sure, I’m intelligent, but more importantly I am interested in my work and I put a lot of time and effort into practicing it. I didn’t become a microbiologist overnight. And more than that, in my career path I discovered a lot of people and opportunities that helped me get here. I firmly believe that most people could do my job, given the right amount of education, determination, and support (and a heavy dose of enthusiasm for spread sheets). As I move up the ladder, I’m increasingly in a position to educate, help others network, and bring students closer to their career goals. One day I’ll be able to take on graduate and undergraduate researchers of my own, and I find myself asking, how will I find and recruit those students that just need an opportunity to become amazing scientists? The ones that weren’t told by their teachers that they should be microbiologists but still have an aptitude for it, the ones that think they aren’t “smart enough” when really they just aren’t confident enough?
Lessons from the rare biosphere
One of the emergent theories in microbial ecology over the last few decades is that of the “rare biosphere.” It’s the idea that microbial ecosystems are much more intricate than we realized, and there are a great many microorganisms present in any given environment that have very low populations. We just couldn’t see them under a microscope or grow them in culture because their presence was washed out by more abundant microorganisms. It wasn’t until the emergence of DNA-based technologies that we could really understand the depth of that diversity because this technology was able to sequence all or nearly all the DNA in the entire sample.
When culturing bacteria in the lab, one must try to mimic the original environment as closely as possible in order to get that microbe to grow. It is incredibly difficult to please “everyone” on just one or even dozens of different culture media types, so you end up getting a biased idea of “who” lives in a natural environment based on what species are able to survive in the mock environment you’ve created. DNA-based technologies don’t require live microorganisms; you can extract DNA or RNA strands directly from your environment and sequence them, although you will need a reference database of previously cultured and sequenced microorganisms to make the identification. Sequencing has its own problems, of course, namely being able to discern between a rare microorganism whose DNA represents a very small percentage of your data, and a random sequencing error inherent to your technology that turns a known sequence into a fake novel one. One way bioinformaticians tackle this is by removing rare sequences altogether, but as Sogin et al. argue, you might be getting rid of significant contributors to your ecosystem.
This is just one example of a major theme in science: how do we detect something if we don’t know it’s there? How to do we differentiate what is real (but rare) from the technological errors and background noise? We constantly improve our technology and revise our understanding of the physical world as we get better at investigating it. But as we rely more and more on technology that we have created (which may operate on the biases we have designed into it), and we want to collect more information with less human effort, we need to remember that it’s our intuition and reasoning skills that make humans so good at data analysis and investigation in the first place. This led me to wonder if we weren’t making the same mistakes in education.
One of the most common errors we commit is to mistake education for intelligence. Intelligence is partially a natural ability for learning and understanding, and partially cultivated by an atmosphere of curiosity and interest in learning. Education, on the other hand, has to be earned. While public schools and other learning resources in the United States exist to give all children an equal chance at education, in practice there are significant biases in quality and quantity in education.
The disparity between education and ability
Student to teacher ratio is correlated with student performance, and can vary widely by type of school (public, private, elementary or secondary), geographic location, urban or rural demographics, etc. Because of that, the national trend for student to teacher ratios in public schools appears to have only slightly increased (more students per teacher) from where it was in 2002, with that increase only since 2008. However, much of the increase in student to teacher ratios is localized, specifically in low-income districts, so there is a disproportionate affect by economic status. Many teachers in low-income school districts cite budget cuts that result in overwhelmingly large class sizes to be the main reason they quit education (discussed here). And a poor school budget does more than just crowd students, it depletes the school of educational resources which reduces the quality of the education and student performance.
Therefore, just because someone appears uneducated does not mean they are not intelligent. For example, Linus Pauling, who was competing with Britain’s Watson and Crick to discover the structure of DNA, didn’t obtain his high school diploma until after he won two Nobel Prizes simply because he didn’t finish some required high school history courses. A recent study looked at grade point average (GPA), SATs (previously the Scholastic Aptitude Test), graduate record examinations (GREs- the standardized tests that most schools use as a graduate entrance qualifier), and whether test scores predicted how well someone performed as a graduate student. Like undergraduate study, most graduate programs require a minimum GPA and GRE score even to be considered. However, the study found that students with higher test scores didn’t actually perform better as graduate students. In fact, here’s a whole website about geniuses that failed IQ or other aptitude tests that went on to change the world. Here’s another about artists, politicians, and business tycoons who failed repeatedly before becoming household names.
Another problem is our biased view of the quality of an education based on the country of origin. Indian mathematician and genius Srinivasa Ramanujan was born in a small village in the late 1880s. He started performing advanced geometry and arithmetic at just 13 years old, and began focusing on mathematics in secondary school and at a local college. At 26, he wrote to British mathematicians looking to discuss his ideas, and was dismissed out of hand by almost all of them. G.H. Hardy, however, wrote back, and began a collaboration of ideas that led to an incredible body of work between the two of them.
The Rare Knowledgesphere- The one that almost got away
This idea of overlooking greatness is important to keep in mind when ranking people by their resume or test scores instead of by an interview. After all, just because you attended Yale doesn’t mean you went to all your classes. This concerns me, because we may be passing over potential undergraduate or graduate students who appear less educated on paper, but aren’t less intelligent or less apt.
So, how do we as educators and mentors get beyond this bias and find the students and researchers-to-be that slip through the cracks? The ones that are out there that aren’t even on our radar. I’ll let you know once I’ve figured it out. But from my experience, it comes down to taking the time to interview and really get to know someone before accepting them as a graduate student, not just selecting the best looking resume. It especially means letting go of your ideas about the quality of someone’s education based on the type or location of their school, as well as stereotypes about their abilities.
And it means being creative about marketing your positions, to make sure you are reaching the individuals that aren’t actively looking for you. This may sound counter-intuitive; why try to recruit someone to graduate study if they aren’t interested? Again, I can speak from experience. My undergraduate degree is in Animal Science, and my interests in graduate study at the time centered vaguely around wildlife conservation. Instead, I entered a graduate program where my primary research and laboratory work were focused on microbiology, genetics, microbial ecology, and bioinformatics. I had no formal academic or practical training in these areas. But I joined, and I excelled, all because my mentor-to-be told me that I was capable. And here I am today, in love with my science.
With all this in mind, stay tuned for my post in the next few weeks on what makes a person a good graduate student, if it isn’t test scores.