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Students doing research at the University of Southern California Wrigley Marine Science Center located on Catalina Island. Photo: USC Wrigley Institute.

So you made it! You’ve been accepted into a graduate program and are starting your career as a graduate student. Congratulations! You are among a small group of individuals that have the privilege of working beyond your baccalaureate degree. Now what? As I have discussed previously grad school is very different from your undergraduate experience. Your hard work, time management, and study skills will definitely come in handy but you are now in a different world so you need to adapt. In grad school, you need to focus on your ultimate goal — a career in marine biology — and do everything with that in mind. In short, you need to step into your power: be professional, proactive, and never forget where you are going.

Here I provide some tips based on my experience as both a graduate student (I received an MS degree at UC Irvine and a Ph.D. from Oregon State University) and as a faculty adviser to 20+ graduate students (both MS and Ph.D. students) at two different universities.

Be Professional. The single most important advice I give new graduate students is to be professional in everything you do. You are on your way to becoming a marine biologist. If you want to be treated as a professional you must act like one. This is true for everyone you interact with but is especially true in how you interact with your advisor, your committee members, and other mentors key to your career. A big part of your future success will be influenced by these individuals so you need them to respect you and your abilities. The best way to do that is by showing them respect. Write thoughtful, succinct e-mails. Arrange to meet regularly and with ample advance notice. Don’t make last-minute requests of their time. Above all do your homework before you ask for help on anything. Ultimately you want to learn how to solve problems by yourself so do your best first before you ask for help. But if you get stuck don’t hesitate to ask; your advisor is there to help.

Master Everything. Graduate school is not about classes, nor grades, but you are expected to master everything. More importantly, it is how you act in grad school that leaves an impression on others. Were all your assignments top-notch? Were they all turned in on time? Did you go that extra mile in class? On a presentation? On your thesis? Graduate school is not about regurgitating facts or just getting by but about creating new knowledge; pushing your mind and yourself to new levels. Ultimately you want to show your mentors that you know more about what you are studying then they do, especially in a Ph.D. program. You will be asking your advisor, your committee and many of your professors for letters of recommendation for many years. What do you want them to write? We all want you to be successful. We want to write great things about you. But first, you have to show us that you are worthy of those great letters. Our reputations are important.

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Giving presentations is a key part of graduate school. Preparedness and professionalism are keys to a good talk. Photo: Ricardo Scrosati Lab.

Take Charge.  As an undergrad, you were probably used to having your future laid out for you. In grad school, you will fail if you wait to be shown the way. Take charge, because although your professors care about you they are all busy and thus operationally they don’t have time to show it. Your adviser is there to help but you have to go to him/her if you need help. Same with your committee and your other mentors. Early on you need to understand that your graduate degree is yours to create. You will fail or succeed on your own efforts. You will only get out of it what you put into it. Beyond that, it is just a piece of paper. This is your time. The one chance in life where you can focus all your efforts on pushing yourself to the highest possible level of thinking, of dedication, of creating something for yourself that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. No one else will do this for you, so step up and take charge. This does not mean ignoring the advice of others, especially your advisor, but a reminder to be active.

Be Proactive. In order to be productive and professional, you need to be proactive, which may be a new approach to you based on your undergraduate experience. Instead of waiting until the last-minute or being told how and when to do something, take it upon yourself to do what you think you should be doing before it needs to be done. This approach has several practical consequences. First, no more last-minute rushing or overdue assignments. Second, you will have more time to think about things and digest them, which leads to greater comprehension of the material. Third, you will be in a better position to deal with unforeseen events that can derail or delay your work. Overall, being proactive will make you feel and be more professional.

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Read Widely. During your first year in grad school, you should read the primary literature so you have a solid foundation on which to develop your science, your hypotheses. Read widely to lay a foundation in your area of study then focus on papers relevant to your focal area of research. You need to know what has been previously done, and more importantly, how it was done. Question the author’s ideas and their assumptions. Don’t assume just because the work is published it must be right. Use your own observations within the context of the literature to develop your work. Then, once you have an idea of what you plan to work on, begin looking for grant opportunities to fund your research. Once you’ve identified some possibilities discuss these with your advisor. You should plan to publish your thesis or dissertation as this will help you get established in the field. Plan from the beginning on publishing. See below for a reading list I recommend to my graduate students as an example of how to prepare.

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Communicating science is an essential skill for success in marine biology.

Keep your eyes on the prize. Above all don’t forget your ultimate goal in grad school: to further your career. You can get your degree but if you don’t learn anything it is all for naught. Ultimately your success will be based on how competent you are as a scientist, how professional you are, and how effective you are in networking with your mentors and colleagues.

Note: although mentoring graduate students is part of your advisor’s and mentors jobs, most faculty go above and beyond the call of duty. Although they may make it look easy, writing all those letters, reviewing and writing proposals and theses, critiquing presentations, and patiently guiding students with widely different personalities through the rigors of grad school for many years is a tremendous amount of work. Although it is very satisfying to have students graduate and become successful, don’t forget to thank those that guided you through the process once and a while. I’m sure they deserve it.


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