Unexpected advice

I woke up today feeling that it would be a writing day. It was about time, I should really be getting on with my motivation letters for PhD applications. But then this interesting post about how cuttlefish hold their breath to hide from predators caught my attention. It turns out that by covering their gills they decrease the generation of electrical signals in that area and thus make it more difficult for sharks to sense them.

How cool is that? I wanted to read more about it so I tried to access the paper. However, it proved impossible to access the full text via Pubmed or the website of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. So I went on to check if it was available in the website of the group that conducted the experiment (Sönke Johnsen, Duke University). No luck there either. But then I saw a link in their main page: ‘Advice for potential graduate students’. And after reading it the text struck me as a message worth having in mind and worth sharing, especially with those on the look for or on the initial stages of a PhD, and a message that goes along with last week’s News Feature in Nature (see here and here). I will paste it in this post, but you can find the original here.

Advice for potential graduate students (from Johnsen Lab)

We currently have room in the lab for more graduate students. Before you apply to this lab or any other, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, be realistic about graduate school. Graduate school in biology is not a sure path to success. Many students assume that they will eventually get a job just like their advisor’s. However, the average professor at a research university has three students at a time for about 5 years each. So, over a career of 30 years, this professor has about 18 students. Since the total number of positions has been pretty constant, these 18 people are competing for one spot. So go to grad school assuming that you might not end up at a research university, but instead a teaching college, or a government or industry job. All of these are great jobs, but it’s important to think of all this before you go to school.

Second, choose your advisor wisely. Not only does this person potentially have total control over your graduate career for five or more years, but he/she will also be writing recommendation letters for you for another 5-10 years after that. Also, your advisor will shadow you for the rest of your life. People will always think of you as so-and-so’s student and assume that you two are somewhat alike. Finally, in many ways you will turn into your advisor. Advisors teach very little, but instead provide a role model. Consciously and unconsciously, you will imitate your advisor. You may find this hard to believe now, but fifteen years from now, when you find yourself lining up the tools in your lab cabinets just like your advisor did, you’ll see. My student Alison once said that choosing an advisor is like choosing a spouse after one date. Find out all you can on this date.

Finally, have your fun now. Five years are a long time when you are 23 years old. By the end of graduate school, you will be older, slower, and possibly married and/or a parent. So if you always wanted to walk across Nepal, do it now. Also, do not go to a high-powered lab that you hate assuming that this will promise you long-term happiness. Deferred gratification has its limits. Do something that you have passion for, work in a lab you like, in a place you like, before life starts throwing its many curve balls. Your career will mostly take care of itself, but you can’t get your youth back.

If, after reading this, you want to apply to this lab, we would love to hear from you.

PS1: It still amazes me the places procrastination leads me some times. Well, back to writing.

References and links used

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