How (not to) fail grad school

Grad students can be successful for countless reasons, depending on their unique projects and experiences. But unsuccessful grad students have several things in common. Fall semester starts this week at many universities, and lots of grad students are taking the leap for the first time. Here are a few tips.

I finished grad school in the not-so-distant past, and I’ve seen many students succeed or fall behind—irrespective of their intellectual abilities. Now I’m mentoring grad students of my own, and I’m particularly keen to help them identify and avoid the numerous common pitfalls of grad school in fisheries, wildlife, natural resources, and EEB programs.

So to help me be the best possible mentor for my new lab, I did what anyone would do: I asked Google. I found some great articles (e.g. here and here) about what to do in ecology grad school. However, the ones about what not to do (see this one and that one) were good, but seemed to lack details specific to our field.

So here I go, here’s how to fail in grad school for fisheries/wildlife/natural resources/ecology (don’t do these things).

  1. Save writing for later. Don’t worry about it right now. After all, you have two (or four+) full years to write that thesis or dissertation. Just focus on your courses in your first year. Spending a couple hours each day reading and writing is a waste of time, especially when you can be focusing on that all-too-important class assignment.
  1. Devote as much time as possible to coursework. After all, it worked in undergrad, right? Hiring committees and prospective postdoc advisors like to see evidence of your potential in the form of publications, but they really like to hear about how you aced that midterm exam. Also, it’s probably a good idea to take a few extra classes than what are required, even if they don’t count toward earning some additional certification.
  1. Make sure your writing is perfect before sending it to your advisor/committee. After all, they’ll be writing you reference letters in a year or so and you don’t want them to think you’re a simpleton. Plus, they’re too busy and don’t want to be bothered with your editing your chapters. Impress them with long, drawn-out Introductions and Discussions with implications that will rock the foundations of science.
  1. Learn to say YES! A healthy amount of side projects and volunteer work can enrich your grad school experience (some of my side projects have been the most fulfilling experiences of my career). So what’s healthier and more enriching? More side projects and volunteering! After all, you’ve got plenty of time down the road to knock out that writing (see #1).
  1. Don’t participate in societies or conferences. Firstly, they’re scheduled at the worst possible times—either right at the beginning of fall semester, or smack in the middle of the busiest part of spring semester. You might have to miss some classes (see #2). Plus those conferences are full of official business that have no bearing on your grad school experience. And all those academics and agency professionals aren’t interested in hearing from some lowly grad student anyway.
  1. Work work work! What’s the best way to reward yourself after 10 or 12 hours of hard work? More work! Of course sometimes you just have to knock out a late night analysis after a day in the lab, but that shouldn’t be a rare occurrence. Everyone’s grabbing drinks at 6 tonight? Don’t go—you should be writing…or coding…or grading…or…grad school!

Folks—of course these points are exaggerated. You can’t only write every day. You really do need to get as much as you can from coursework. Please don’t turn in sloppy work to your committee (but don’t let perfect distract you from good and editable). Get involved in groups and side projects, go to conferences, and chill out once in a while.

It’s gonna be a great semester, grad students!

Brandon Peoples

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