Free will exists, if you think about it.
Most people who apply for doctoral programs are intellectually capable of handling the work. The variations in ability that occur among those who actually show up are mostly useful in practical ways - they help secure a fellowship or allow someone to skip a course or two, or take an unusual course or two. A verbal person may help the group as a good critic of written work; a more quantitative person may help with statistical dilemmas. People who need to buff up certain areas do. Yet doctoral programs are not suited for many intelligent or even brilliant people. Very bright people may breeze the degree and secure a job, only to become bored leaden weights in a university slot or government position. They may have the intellect to make it but not the drive to be productive or the thick skin required to handle a career based on giving and receiving criticism. The latter requires unusual self confidence, self-reflection, and self-correction. Successful people are those who do a lot, very well.
The point is that differences in traits other than many attributes favored in college determine success in a doctoral program and beyond. In my view, among those with the intelligence and drive to go to graduate school, variation in success is much more likely to be due to variations in personality characteristics than variations in GREs or even grade averages. My decisions on applicants I strongly support for admission are usually based on attitude, drive, experience, career strategy, maturity, ambition, and interests that are clearly convergent with mine. Admissions people have their own agendas, in which booksmarts figure large. And then there are nitty-gritty issues of space, personality compatibilities with me and others in the group, balance of interest areas, balance of aptitudes, financial support, and what the admissions process will let me get away with; if others need and want students and have good applicants, and I am not seen as “needing students,” admission can be rough regardless of who you are.
The “free will” motto above came to me in a long letter to a student whom I perceived as drifting - making unwise choices by default which ultimately threatened to become traps. The three objectives of this communication are: (1) to make sure that your choice of grad schools is conscious, (2) to introduce you to my attitudes, and (3) to start the process of figuring out how you are going to pull this career stunt off.
1 In I am looking for students with the interest and background suitable for work in experimental restoration in Mexico. Although 67, I have no interest in retiring.
Choice of a doctoral advisor is an important decision. The choice will influence who you associate with on a daily basis, the university group to which you belong, and the particular standards and expectations to which you are held. Moreover, the extent to which an advisor can use leverage in your behalf is influenced by how he or she is viewed within the field of ecology in general and your chosen research area in particular. Whatever the advisor’s affiliations or reputation, nothing will work unless you are comfortable enough to establish a productive working relationship. All of this will determine whether the total experience helps you get what you want out of a career. Incompatibility with a mentor can be a most serious personal earthquake; I exited one graduate group at the University of Michigan years ago and joined two others (with co-advisors, which was possible there). This option to forage among potential advisors was a luxury of a very large graduate program in ecology and evolution (then perhaps 60-70 faculty and 120+ graduate students in ecology) which is not available to students entering a small program like that at UIC. If you are going to come to UIC, you need to be comfortable with the situation and with your limited options for a mentor.
Alternative extremes in graduate approaches
Choice of a graduate student is also a big deal for a faculty member. Even at the lowest advisor involvement in graduate education with student and advisor on autonomous tracks, the student takes space for a few years to a decade, influences other students for better or for worse, and precludes the faculty advisor from accepting another promising applicant. At the other extreme, the graduates are the faculty research program. Without grad student "hands," a faculty member who does no research but keeps the lights turned on with federal support is dead in the water for funding, publications, promotions, merit pay increases, and so on. In the more general case, for most faculty members with graduate groups, students are important professional associates, either as sources of stimulation or inspiration, as essential cogs in a large research machine, or as more or less co-equal collaborators on a variety of topics of mutual interest. Or all three.
For faculty with large, multi-faceted research programs in which many people must contribute to a common goal supported by large federal grants, graduate students can be little more than "hands," who develop some small part of a larger program, get their degrees, and move on to be slightly larger parts of postdoctoral programs, with the eventual hope of creating their own research empires, and grad colonies. To such faculty, graduate students are a jealously sought resource. It is not surprising that in some fields of biology, in some universities, incoming graduate students are assigned by a committee to a doctoral advisor, who then assigns them a dissertation project. Neither faculty member nor student exercises much choice. The advisor must fill certain slots or the project is crippled, and the student must accept what is offered. The advisor provides funding for a particular project and is an author on everything that comes from it; the student uses the money as budgeted. The advantage to the student is an efficient degree in a short time and, if the student chooses wisely, a marketable professional pedigree.
The opposite extreme was my experience as a grad student, and that which I passed on to my earlier Ph.D. students. At Michigan in ecology >35 years ago, almost all students were "free-lancers" who had a doctoral advisor who might know something of the organisms of interest, or perhaps the relevant theory, but had little or no direct involvement in a dissertation project. Students picked what they wanted, got funding as best they could, sank or swam in the project, and finished or (80% of the time) were ushered, discouraged, or kicked out. In many cases the only faculty input of any depth came in preliminary exams and formal committee meetings, with perhaps a few red marks in the margins of a dissertation proposal. Some of my friends talked to their doctoral advisors no more than once a year. One of my advisors, John Vandermeer, talked science with me Fridays over beer for four years, but agreed to chair my committee on the condition that he would never have to read a page of sociobiology of birds (my dissertation). Neither the paradigm nor the critters interested him. The role of the faculty advisor in that system was mostly to pass judgment along the way and certify the result, not help much. An extreme example of that approach was related by a friend whose advisor was a very famous professor at an Ivy League school; the advisor’s idea of a good graduate student was one who slipped published reprints (not proposals, drafts of papers, ideas, etc.) under his door every six months.
My interactions with my earlier grads were more personal and I hope more helpful than that, but they fell well within the "free-lance" rubric. I helped provide a little funding or a trip here or there, but I was not involved in the projects - I did not physically collaborate on fieldwork, help write funding proposals, or revise papers. People did what they wanted, where they wanted, whether or not I had any expertise or interest in the research or any professional clout in the area that would help them later. In early years I co-authored few papers with students. This bred extreme independence. The risk was that some people never recovered from early errors of judgment, or did not get a critical professional break when they needed it because I was not part of a key peer group.
An intermediate approach that is the most common in ecology, and the one to which I now adhere, is to encourage mutually dependent collegial relationships. The assumption is that the student develops an interest and a collaboration on something the advisor knows a lot about, and consequently the advisor has some first-hand insight into the research and first-hand input into design, funding proposals, and papers. In most areas of ecology the project is unlikely to be a grand scheme with many parts funded by some umbrella grant, as is often the case in molecular biology; it is much more likely to be a faculty member mentoring someone in a project involving a faculty interest. An assumption is that the advisor does more than put marginal notations on proposals or manuscripts; he or she will physically rewrite parts of them, may do analyses, and may do fieldwork. The closer involvement comes with co-authorship on papers from the thesis, and often on other subjects of mutual interest.
This approach has produced a stream of papers that, we hope, will change several fields in ecology. These include experimental restoration, spatial pollination, tropical fragmentation, effects of hunting on forest structure, bird reactions to habitat change, and hunting and seed dispersal. Collaboration with former student Cristina Martinez-Garza has established a massive long-term project in restoring biodiversity through dispersal processes in a mosaic agricultural landscape in southern Veracruz, Mexico. This is the major focus for the rest of my career.
Desired attributes in grads
The quality most attractive to me is drive, which I define as the willingness and ability to do what it takes to come up with a good idea, fashion a reasonable proposal, flexibly but effectively execute the study, publish the results in reviewed journals, and proceed to the next project or stage. I have zero interest in a student whose ambition is to simply get a Ph.D. as an end in itself. To me a doctoral degree in ecology is a means to an end, which is to use science to change the way people think about or do things in fundamental ecology, conservation, restoration, education, resource management, society at large, environmental politics, or some other relevant arena. This seems like a tall order for an new student, but I look for signs of intent, or other attributes that are likely to lead in an important direction. John Vandermeer, one of my advisors, called a Ph.D. a fancy union card; the only reason you get one is that you can start work.
It pays to be reflective about what you do, and wish to do. Attempts to change the world may not succeed, but the attempt is important. With greater or lesser success, I have tried to change things in my own career. My dissertation (1974-1977), the least important major project that I have done, showed that birds adjust sex ratio of offspring in ways consistent with adaptation to seasonal conditions (caught on), and that summary stats like the mean sex ratio are far less important than consistent extremes (ignored). The tropical work (1976-1993, 1999- ) was to shape the world’s view of the importance of non-symbiotic mutualisms in ecological communities and in conservation (caught in a large way in a restricted peer group). The desert project (1984- present) was to establish a study that would provide the basis for quantitative understanding long-term demographic and community change. Only because Maria Miriti had the wit to show that one of the true dogmas of desert ecology, that big plants nurse little plants, is insufficient, that program progressed. An unexpected opportunity occurred when more than half of our ‘immortal’ shrubs and cacti, based on mortality during the first 15 years of the study, died during a catastrophic drought in 2002. That is a favorite paper authored by three academic generations (academic daughter, academic granddaughter, and the old guy).
Current projects in experimental restoration (1986- present) are intended to add science to what is mostly art (catching), provide some practical applications of ecological theory to fire management (catching) and to faunal management (who knows?) in restoration, and elucidate general theory (who knows?). The experimental restoration program has produced some increasingly cited papers, has helped shape management at key natural sites, and is presently producing some astounding demonstrations of the effects of rodents in shaping tallgrass communities. The payoff really is in providing the perspective that led to the current research program with Cristina and other colleagues that tests dispersal limitation, and many other things, in a mosaic of pasture, remnant forests, and our establishing stands of trees in southern Mexico.
Studies with John Lyne (1986-1992) probed the rhetorical biases of scientists as they communicated with peers and with those outside of their specialties (caught well in communication, ignored in science). My favorite paper there was ‘Genetalk in sociobiology,’ which was the anti-thesis (antithesis) of my doctoral thesis. Advocacy of the National Institute for the Environment was intended to change the way American scientists conceive and do environmental science, and improve the utility of that science for environmental policy (failed as a grand scheme [new NIH-size agency]; in process at a much smaller scale within the NSF). Although I am no longer active in it, that effort lives on through the National Council for Science and the Environment.
My experience is that international students from developing countries, or Americans from odd backgrounds, often have uncommon presence and perceptions. Those from abroad often have both the extraordinary drive and the professional connections to be employed in positions of unusual responsibility when they return home, either for careers or for research from an international base. They have disproportionate impacts on the world. What these students lack in equivalent training at the undergraduate level and the challenges they face in mastering a second, third, or even fourth language, they more than make up in sheer willpower, political connections, and willingness and desire to effect change. It is far more difficult for American students with a Ph.D. and the usual perceptions of academe and the world to end up in positions of authority that can effect intellectual or political change; my task is to identify driven free-thinkers.
Initiative in Pursuit of the Money Gods
Most ecology grads are teaching assistants for subsistence, and hustle large or small grants, contracts, or jobs from private foundations or government agencies for support of research. I do not have large grants that fund graduate students to do whatever they want to do, as sometimes occurs in much better funded areas of ecology (global change, ecosystem ecology, physiological ecology; note that some of that funding is for "ants"). One of my NSF grants had a small pot of money for one student to do nitrogen work; others had no money for grads (I did virtually all the work), still others had some support for summer research, and two were written with a graduate student as a full collaborator. My impression, having had grad funds cut from virtually all grants for 35 years, is that in most areas of population and community ecology the NSF supports graduates who have the initiative or credentials to apply for their own support (pre-doctoral fellowships or dissertation grants), but sees little training value in freebee research assistantships on faculty grants. Those with initiative in tight fields have a chance for a career; those without initiative have little chance no matter what they get, or where they get it. As part of the collaborative arrangement, I will help my students write proposals for funding or, in exceptional cases with some hope of success, full faculty proposals.
Several of my students have qualified for university or government fellowships to pay the bills. Two had fellowships from Brazil; two more had them from Mexico. Three students from Iowa had four-year deals awarded to the best incoming students in the department; Others had one or several fellowships or grants from UIC. Most worked out sources of support (e.g. multiple NGO grants, teaching unusual courses, NSF fellowships or grants) that fit their interests. These were all pursued on their own initiative.
In short, part of a graduate education with me is the reality of doing what you must do to succeed anyway; learn how to write successful proposals for research expenses, and either teach, work, or rely on exceptional qualifications for other fellowships for living expenses. My experience has been that research expenses are relatively easy to come by in tropical research, and possible for research within the USA.
Initiative in writing and other communication
A Ph.D. is a research degree. While the personal kick that a student may get from research is playing in woods or swamp or greenhouse, the only reason society tolerates the expense is that interesting and useful results are found and communicated. The usual mode is publication. Whatever their ultimate career plans, I expect my students to develop and publish papers early and often, either by themselves, with me, or with others, either as first authors, co-authors, or both. Everyone must have at least two accepted or published with the student as the first and corresponding author before the PhD is granted. These need not be academic blockbusters, and the ideal number appropriate will vary with the interest area. But the process of learning how to deal with the rigmarole required of publication, of handling constructive and destructive reviews, and of shaping analysis and writing for different audiences is so fundamental to the scientific process that it must be learned well before the end of a doctoral program (i.e. the competition sufficient to fill all government, university, and college slots will have learned this before the end of their doctoral programs). The world is much too competitive to encourage students who consistently find excuses not to develop and publish results. Those with legitimate reasons not to write and submit papers early and often may succeed if they have especially critical skills or insights or instructive systems or other attributes, but they will have a monumental task finding and keeping employment.
There are of course wide variations in the scale of research effort and publication effort required of different jobs and institutions, and different styles of research and publication. Even good liberal arts teaching colleges now normally require at least as much of a research effort as UIC did 25 years ago - application for outside funds and a paper every two or three years (I graduated from such a place, Earlham College [a Quaker school]). Now in top-of -the-line colleges, like Williams, Grinnell or Swarthmore, even a temp position may come with a start-up fund and a one course a semester teaching load; the assumption is that a faculty member will be active enough in science to teach science to the future captains of industry, government and major universities - extremely well. This was basically a university load 20 years ago. Struggling colleges with little interest in research often require two to four courses per semester, including labs, which basically have to be taught out of a text a step ahead of the class, at half the salary of better colleges or universities. In government jobs scientists may function like independent operators, much like university faculty (e.g. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute), or may serve on research teams, with primary responsibility for some aspect but author or co-author other collaborative papers, or they may be assigned projects. For some people, a much better option for a career is the private sector, where consulting firms need particular skills that a graduate degree brings.
Publication is the primary form of communication for advancing a scholarly career, but there are others. Teaching at a level where one can actually change the way people think, not just fill out their transcripts, is a form of communication, though not sufficient for a career in most places and not required at all in some. Most such people in full-time jobs also have active research careers. Speaking at scientific meetings and at other institutions is another useful form of communication. For some personalities, networking, and using a blog to further it, are important means of establishing professional connections.
In short, I am most interested in students who want to be productive scientists at whatever level suits their aptitudes in colleges, universities, government agencies, or companies that have creative research agendas. The particular level is of less interest to me than the attitude and drive to communicate in print; some may try to publish everything in Ecology or American Naturalist, others may have a raft of papers in "organism" journals like Auk or Journal of Mammalogy or in regional journals like East African Wildlife, with less common publication in solid but not the most competitive international journals (one of mine published his first in Science and third in Nature; this is something few university faculty could pull off.). I am not interested in students who aspire to teach out of a textbook or occupy space in a government agency without in some way actively advancing the scientific process.
The collegial model
Because most students start without a clear idea how to do any of this, I now expect a collegial relationship in which to sort through student interests, find a convergence which can excite us, and proceed with it as best the circumstances permit. Active collaboration is important. The most important single message is that I want students who can creatively contribute to the ongoing research program in experimental restoration ecology in Mexico. Many opportunities exist.
Grad school and life
A doctoral program usually takes 4-8 years (the mean in the US is 7 years in ecology), and comes at a volatile time of life for most people. It would be an unusual student who could focus on the degree to the exclusion of all else during that time. Chances are pretty good that you or a loved one will have a medical emergency, a marriage, a divorce, a birth of a child, or an unwelcome intrusion (I experienced four of five), and a lost season or two (I lost two years to raccoons - which ate 96% of my birds). Also, it is biologically and for many people professionally the best time to have a kid if you are prone to do that. There is little that you can do about unplanned things or things out of your control. That’s life. But things that can be planned should be thought about at the outset.
Whatever special needs you have, now is the time to start integrating them with the overall career plan. If you are married or otherwise attached, you will have to think about what effective coordination entails with your significant other for 4-8 years. If you are not, you have to think about how you will handle a long period when you are away a lot (one set of career choices), or not (another set of career choices).
What you do may depend on what you want. In the overall plan of an academic career, it may be a good idea to have a first child, if that is a desire, in grad school rather than later in a first job, when demands on your time will be much more pervasive and invasive. You are younger, can get by on less sleep, fertility problems are less likely to intrude, and you actually have much more time to focus on your own development as a doctoral student than you will at any time trying to become or actually being a professor. Once you figure out the TA business, it’s a racket, and some of you will have long-term fellowships. If an academic route with personal obligations is your choice, you need to use your head selecting and planning research that ideally should have moveable time rather than long physically intense seasons 200 km from the nearest paved road. Those headed for government jobs may have more leeway in balancing jobs and personal challenges, since the daily time schedule is predictable and governments are coming around to such things. Those aiming for work with non-governmental organizations need get used to rewards in pushing a cause rather than even an academic salary. The point is to think about the issues, from the outset.
A sage said "the unexamined life is not worth living." I say "the unconscious grad career is usually a bust."