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Tips on Graduate School Politics: Politics & Observations

Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!

Editor's note: Dr. Summerour Clemmons continues her series, "Tips on Graduate School." If you missed part I, you can read the article online.

Tip #5: Excellence in your work is extremely important, but merit alone will NOT take you to the head of the class.

If you are thinking that your laboratory work and publication record will speak for themselves, then you are sadly mistaken. You have to learn to speak up for your accomplishments! By now, you must realize that getting ahead in this world is not simply due to meritocracy, as it would be in an ideal world. In fact, who you know is just as important as what you know. Make sure that you and your work are visible within the department and to key opinion leaders in your field. Establish working relationships and collaborations with others on campus. Go to conferences and network with people who can help you along in your project and ask their advice.

These are the types of activities that will get you noticed, not sitting in the laboratory all day and night simply producing results that no one knows about and may never, ever be publishable. Getting good, solid results is certainly important, but making sure that people know about you and what type of work you do is paramount. This is how you will get ahead. Do not isolate yourself. Get out there and be noticed!

Tip #6: Don't think that your research project and getting your Ph.D. is important to anyone except yourself.

This is a major fallacy and I have seen many graduate students fall on this sword. Thinking that your thesis advisor cares about your project as much as you do and that they are just as interested as you are in making sure you get your Ph.D. in a timely fashion is a major faux paus! You are better off to assume that no one cares about these things except yourself. The logic here is that you, and only you, can be the driving force behind getting your thesis project finished and yourself out the proverbial "Ph.D. door."

First of all, your thesis advisor has many other people in his lab to be concerned about and doesn't have time to just worry about you and your progress. Take it upon yourself to report your progress to your advisor if you have not been asked, and talk to him or her often enough to assure that you are moving along toward the Ph.D. on your timeline. Clearly lay out what you are doing and what your expectations are along the way; let's call them Ph.D. milestones. Set up your Ph.D. milestones and keep your thesis advisor in the loop all the way. Think about it this way, if you don't care about your progress enough to keep it on track, who will? In addition, your thesis advisor has other responsibilities. There are grants to write, meetings to attend, publications to review, etc. Therefore, you will be well served to realize that you are your own best friend and ally in the graduate school process.

Tip #7: Be very observant.

Listening to those around you is crucial! If someone gives you a piece of advice regarding a particular advisor, course, thesis project, or anything else pertaining to your graduate experience, listen! Don't assume that you know everything. Definitely take heed to everything that is said. There is a kernel of truth in everything you hear. You just have to be smart enough to figure out how and when to incorporate any useful advice into your graduate school game plan.

For example, if you are exploring which laboratory to join and some of the people in the lab tell you that the principal investigator (PI) is not readily available and does not really take the time to come into the laboratory to give guidance, listen! In that case, you may have to rely on postdocs (or yourself) for a lot of your training. Is this the type of situation you want? Regardless of what a potential advisor may say, the people who already work in his lab are the best source of information.

Furthermore, go one step further and investigate all advice, rumors, and innuendo that you may hear. You just might find out something that can help you avoid troubles down the road. This is a theme that I repeat over and over. Listen very carefully and take heed to the advice you are given. You don't have to learn things the hard way! A major complaint I have is that students often do not listen first, and then act upon the advice I give them. Most of the time they know the advice is in their best interests, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

Tip #8: Don't make the mistake of believing that your advisor has your best interests in mind. There are always potential conflicts of interest to consider.

So, why exactly were you handed this monster of a thesis project to work on? Why have you not been able to graduate although you have done all the work necessary on your thesis project to warrant a Ph.D.? These are the types of questions that often come up when you have not looked at the game from all angles. In the instance of the monstrous Ph.D. project, perhaps your advisor convinced you to work on it because a grant renewal was due and more data needed to be generated? Or, perhaps no one else in the lab would touch the dead-end project and you naively decided that taking on this train wreck of a project would please your advisor. Did you have illusions of grandeur and believe that you would be able to save the day?

These are the types of political situations that can often kill a graduate career, or slow it down at the very least. Knowing about potential conflicts of interest is an important part of the game. In the case of not graduating, but having done all the work agreed upon, perhaps you have just been awarded another year of funding and your advisor knows that you are the most productive member of his laboratory. In this case, you may not graduate on time because of the advisor's own personal conflict of interest (squeezing just a little more work out of you before you go). If you are free to him to use (i.e., you have external funding), then why not? Again, don't expect your advisor to always have your best interests in mind when he or she has an agenda of their own.

Tip #9: Go into graduate school knowing what type of career you would like to have upon graduation, whether it is in academia, industry, government, or as an entrepreneur.

OK, this is an extremely important tip. I am amazed by the number of graduate students who have no clue what they plan to do when they graduate and hence, no plan to get there! This is a no-no. You have to have a plan for life after the Ph.D., or else why pursue the goal? It is much too serious a path to pursue if you don't really have a plan. You need to ask yourself before going to graduate school, "What is it that I want to do that I need a Ph.D.?"

This is an extremely important question to ask yourself up front. Should you be doing something else that will lead you where you want to be a lot faster? If you really need the Ph.D. for your career goal, for example, you really do want to become a university professor, then you must make many critical moves while still a student. People mistakenly go into graduate school thinking that once they have their Ph.D., jobs will follow with very little effort. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the advice I would give to any jobseeker, I would give to a graduate student. You have to sell yourself as a commodity long before you need a job or need seed money to start that biotech company.

You must hit the ground running during graduate school in terms of your career preparation. Too many students make the mistake of believing that it is alright to start these types of activities once they are close to graduation or have already graduated. By then, it is too late and the best opportunities have already gone to the go-getters. If you want to go into industry, start networking with companies in your field now. Do not wait until graduation. The same holds true for academia, government, and other more entrepreneurial ventures. Use your time in graduate school wisely by networking and making key contacts, publishing papers, presenting at conferences, etc.

Also, consider attending a few summer programs that you can use to boost your credentials in the field. There are many to choose from. Even if your advisor tells you not to worry about it, you need to do these things for yourself. It is a different world than it was when they came along and quite frankly, they may not be willing or able to help you with your career plans anyway. Again, you have to look out for yourself. You need to make a name for yourself and tap into career resources long before the time comes for you to find your new life after the Ph.D.

Tip #10: Don't put life on the backburner as you toil in graduate school. Even if you have to push back a few deadlines, life is for the living.

This is one of the most common mistakes made by graduate students and I am even guilty of this one myself. Don't let life pass you by. Those of us who pursue graduate studies are often masochists AND are willing to delay gratification. By doing so, we often delay life. Especially if you are in your 20s or 30s and going through the graduate school process, you should not let the best years of your life go by in a blur.

Get out, have fun. Go on vacations and spend 2 weeks at home every Christmas. It may be the last time that you will get the kind of time off from work that you need to really unwind. Other work situations are much less forgiving. If you have a spouse, start a family if you want. Believe it or not, for you women out there, graduate school is one of the best times to have a baby. You can get more time off than you might at a regular job and you can always take a leave of absence if necessary so that you can be with your child for the first year of his or her life. Trust me on this one. Life just gets more hectic as you go along so don't think that later is necessarily better.

Also, once the Ph.D. is done, treat yourself to something you have put off and don't start another project, job, or anything else for at least 3 months. Believe me, you've earned it. Just make sure you have saved enough money so you can enjoy this time. As I said before, these are some of the best years of your life, if you do it right. Graduate school does not have to get in the way!