Advice for potential graduate students

I wish every single laboratory web-page contained a disclaimer like this one:

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 is 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.

Hmmmmm, Nepal sounds good…..

22 responses to “Advice for potential graduate students

  1. that is utterly wonderful.
    Dr. Johnsen’s personal bio is pretty interesting as well. Gives me hope to return to school eventually – I’ll probably be in my mid-30s when I finally start again

  2. Truer words have never been spoken.
    I took a detour through bench science on the way to what I really wanted to do. The route could have been much shorter. I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made along the way, but not everyone will want to take such a meandering path. Choosing an advisor wisely is the best way to stay on track.

  3. I really like this. I have taken the slow-steady approach to school and it has proved nothing but beneficial to me. Sure I may not be done yet, but my marks are higher and I have lived my life a bit. I have had the chance to see things many of my other classmates have not and I do not regret it.

  4. And if you land where it turns out they eat their own young — RUN, run far, run fast. as soon as you figure it out. It will not get better. Keeping your head down and mouth shut will not keep you from being the next target. Life is too short to be that miserable. There are other options.

  5. Deferred gratification has it’s limmits?! Why was I not informed?
    I can haz 2 marshmallows now?!

  6. 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.

    I think he made a typo–should be:

    “So go to grad school assuming that you might not end up at a research university, or a teaching college, or at a government or industry job.”

  7. I would hope that anyone who wants to be a graduate student is already decided on their career path for [most of their] life.
    I’m only a college freshman, and I’ve been decided for well over 3 years. 😀

  8. Wish I’d seen this, years ago when I was a starting student. I would probably add something about the mental and emotional strength that graduate school often entails. It is competitive, demanding, sometimes monastic. Likely in addition to your budding research, you’ll be a GRA or GTA, you’ll be taking classes, you’ll have expectations of your advisor or labmates to uphold and you will be expected to do all these things well. This is in addition to your personal life, where, yes, you may wish to travel, have friends, date, marry, raise a child, maintain connections to the outside world… It can be a lot to manage. Choose wisely. If you find you did not choose wisely, choose again. And, regardless of your choice, make certain you are well connected outside of your immediate lab group. Use the *entire* department and the connections bring to you to the best of your ability.
    And, despite this, and despite your goals at the start to teach and do research, yes, it doesn’t happen for all of us. Of the 7 students in my advisors joint-lab during my time there, one teaches at a University, one at a community college and the remaining 5 are involved in research at some level. Perhaps I chose well, but there are times when it has not felt that way.

  9. Too many people go into academia simply wanting a degree and it ends up destroying them.
    It’s good, solid, common sense advice.

  10. I thught grad school was a lark and a big goof off. However, I did make sure to pick a school that graduated people faster than the norm. And advisor, who was not a slave driver. And a project that was guaranteed to have publishable reults. (If I didn’t hit gold I would still have lots of new compounds.) And as I went back to school at age 29, had some savings and reserve income to give me extra beer money.
    Can still be a pain since professors are such pussies…but it sure beat working for 4 years.

  11. Johnson has a cool bio. I wish he would include some comments about hot babes doing marine bio so they can pet dolphins though.

  12. 1 in 18 is a competition level I would love to swim into. Current rates are more like 1 in hundreds (locks)… So I suppose this text is all about being not too frightening.

  13. *claps*

  14. actually this kind of integrity might be quite inspiring! at least for those who aren’t afraid of challenges..
    but 1:18 competition indeed seems an underestimation, at least when compared to >1:100 in cellular/molecular/chemical/.. areas.

  15. As a grad student myself, I take this sort of thing to heart. As a somewhat jaded grad student, I can be cynical about it and agree with everything said and then make snarky comments about it and references to my terrifying experiences.
    I’m a mechanical engineering grad student (I can’t really say that I’m an engineer because I haven’t put in the majority of the required years of experience and written the tests to get my papers). But enough of everything else is similar to you biology folks. The one difference is that I never had any desire to go into academia.
    Still, I like to think that I was making a wise decision about my advisor. I asked his current students a bunch of questions and he seemed okay, if a little hands off, which is my preferred style anyway. My advice when following this approach is to ask the current students what they REALLY think. Get them outside campus, off the record, away from eavesdroppers, keep prodding until they finally crack.
    And Angel is right. If it starts bad, it doesn’t get better. Jumping ship to another prof or (if you’re lucky enough to be in a city with more than one university) school may be your best course to escape. I tried to tough it out. Bad idea.
    Also, ask the prof what he (or she, for you biologists who actually have female profs) what he/she plans to be doing. A year and a half into my master’s, my prof switched departments then took a month off without telling me. I had to ask the new department’s secretary to find out where his new office was.
    Oh, get the money up front. I can’t stress that enough. They lie.
    Wow, I’m bitter. Ummm… happy Thanksgiving, Americans!

  16. The other thing I would add is, ask everything up front. Yes, it’s like picking a spouse after one date–ask about everything you need to know. Be upfront and don’t be afraid to ask about delicate subjects (respectfully of course–but still ask). This is your future–the next 5 yrs of your life (on average) literally–and the training that will impact the rest of your career. Don’t be shy–ask everything you need to know.

  17. So, my decision to get a PhD just to have one was a bad one?

  18. Sonke has also allowed his lovely words of wisdom to be presented as a pin up (suitable for presentation in that lab of yours). Anyway, you can check this out at the SCQ (

  19. Send a copy of this to all professors in all humanities disciplines! They’re under the impression that jobs exist for their graduates…!

  20. I think the advice given above is quite sound. My experience at what should be the tail end of a postdoc calls for an anecdotal revision of the job competition. I’ve managed to come across the numbers of applicants that I am competing with for several academic positions: 149, >400, >600, and ~2300(!).
    Perhaps it’s the economy.