These quotes are some of the responses made on the Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.  The quotes are sorted by discipline.  You can see the response from other disciplines.  These quotes supplement an article of advice for selecting a doctoral program.  Students responded to the question:  "Knowing everything that you know now, what advice would you give others entering or in the early years of graduate school? "

The quotes are sorted into six categories.  Generally, there are a half dozen comments per category, the alternating colors are different student's comments.  These categories were applied by us, as we read through the thousands of comments.  They are the most common categories of advice pertaining to the selection of a doctoral program.  The frequency with which various kinds of advice emerged varies by discipline.  You can see the relative distribution here.

Molecular Biology


Know yourself and know what doctoral study entails

29.0% of the molecular biology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Have a clear goal as to what you want to accomplish and how/when you want to accomplish it, then make sure everyone in the program is aware of what your goal is and agrees to help you achieve it.

Know what you want to do with your degree and why it is necessary.  Just because you excel in a subject in your undergraduate education is not a good reason to get an advanced degree in that area. 

I would strongly advise that people considering graduate school work for a year or two in some capacity in the area they wish to work once they get the advanced degree, in order to determine if they really want/need it.


Don't enter graduate school unless you are sure you need to for your career.  Be aware that non-academic jobs or academic jobs in schools other than Research One institutions are frowned upon. 

Choose your advisor carefully.  Be sure that your advisor will let you develop as a scientist rather than push you to conform to his or her ideas.  Your advisor is a HUGE part of your graduate experience.  Be careful working with a new hire--they may be denied tenure.  Be careful working with a tenured faculty member--they might not give a shit. 

Be aware that the job market is very bad and that many people have to do more than one postdoc to get first faculty job. 

Be aware that a majority of grad students are unhappy.  Be true to your own needs and career goals--don't hang in there just for the sake of not being a quitter. 

Be aware that academic ideals do not play a major role in your career.  Rather, politics, money, and sexy research are more important for career success than good solid work. 


Graduate school is a very arduous process.  You should make sure that you know what the hell you're getting into.  You'd better have spent some time as a research assistant, a tech, or something like that.  It's very difficult and fraught with setbacks and emotionally draining experiences.  And when you're done there's no definite future.  It's very hard to get a job in academic research.  If you don't want to do academic research, don't go to grad school.  If you want to work in industry, go work in industry with a B.S., you don't need a Ph.D.  Unless you just want to do grad school for the mental experience, be very careful about  your experiences.  Of course, when you finish it's quite a sense of personal reward after doing all of this.  (I defend in two weeks.)  Just make sure you've thought through it and know what you're getting into.   


Graduate school in Molecular Biology is not a decision to be take lightly (which is probably true for all fields).  One should choose such a course because he truly enjoys the research, and questions, and the search for answers.  Success does not come easy, so in order to make it through the dry seasons, you should really love what you are doing. 


Make sure you REALLY want to do it, because it is a lot of hard work without readily available gratification or compensation (monetarily or emotionally).  Additionally, it is a huge commitment.  You will have to or be forced to give up most outside interests.  Particularly in science, only those who sell their souls to science will really make major accomplishments or succeed in advancing. 

If you are a woman and want a family as well as a respectful career in science, forget it.  Maybe you'll be a respected, successful scientist if you give up all other hopes and dreams, but this is not a guarantee.  If you happen to become both, a mother and a scientist, one will suffer.  Usually it's motherhood and the children.  Most scientists are crappy parents.  Our society does not encourage bright, talented women to breed.  Particularly in science, women are punished for breeding.  Neither sex is encouraged to be attentive parents, active members of their community, or maintain outside creative interests/hobbies.   

In general, if you have multi and variable interests or if you desire a fulfilling life defined by an active family life, social life, and financial security, and time to enjoy it along the way, do not go into science.


Be prepared for failure of experiments most of the time. 

Also be prepared to stay in the graduate program for a really long time.  4 years is not the norm--more like 6 or 7. 


Make sure you know why you are there and what you want to do with your degree.  Then make sure your advisor knows, too.  Make a plan with your advisor that will both satisfy his/her requirements for your degree, and still get you out in a timely manner so you can go on to the next phase of your life.


I would advise them to have clear goals in mind--personal and long-term goals.  Do you really need to go to graduate school to obtain your goals? 

The first couple years are challenging, but there are milestones, qualifying exams, etc...and it's exciting to go to meetings and get caught up in it all.  But once youíre a dissertator, the pace changes...the learning curve plateaus and everyone wants to know when you're graduating.  And you struggle to get publications and look back on your time and energy and the payoff is very, very little.  Even an outstanding student has only a small chance at getting the academic position (after a post-doc or two).  And there are many other opportunities, but we are trained to be academics and those of us already saying we'll do industry instead are sad at the prospect of only researching ideas that marketing has deemed worthy. 

Do not go to grad school simply because you can...cause you're smart enough, etc.....You have to know that you need the Ph.D. to do the things you want, because that is the easiest way to get through the toughest times, and they are more tough and more depressing than any of my classmates had imagined.  And most of us work in an energetic, positive environment.  Realize that if you are excellent, you will spend 5+ years working 60+ hours a week and finally, you'll write a 200-300 page thesis that only 3 people will read besides yourself.  If you're excellent and lucky, you'll get the great publication and have a little easier of a time getting your foot in the next door.


Consider if graduate school is for you!  I love graduate school, love the challenging environment.  However, I think the amount of energy and time I'm putting into graduate school is way too much for the current career prospects.  After many years of graduate school, you'll have to do a post-doc (4 years is common) and it will be extremely hard to find a job even then.  After graduate school only chances of finding a job in science are null:  You're overqualified for many industry positions and not good enough for others (e.g. academia team leader).  While people that are half as smart and dedicated to work as you are buying their first're just a student with bad job prospects and a lot of work to do!


Determine what your goals are and whether graduate school is necessary to accomplish those goals.  I think a lot of students go into this without any clear idea what they want 10 years in the future.


Investigate the program thoroughly

13.9% of the molecular biology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


I would tell other prospective graduate students to very carefully research whatever prospective graduate program they are considering.  Specifically I would find out exactly how much guidance is given to students after they have completed coursework (i.e., does the program have any formal mechanism in place to help graduate students prepare for their qualifying exams, write their dissertations, etc.), what programs are in place to help grad students find work, and what recent graduates from the program are doing currently (i.e., have they found the work they wanted). 

Also I would advise them to consider taking at least a year off after college to carefully consider their decision to attend grad school.


Obtain as much information as you can about the school, department, program, funding, advisor, previous students, teaching commitments, and typical length of time to complete degree.  Meet your potential advisor and ask many questions, i.e. potential projects, sources of funding, lab resources, your expectations, and your potential advisorís expectations.  Meet with students in the lab, and again ask many questions, like if you had to do it over would you still choose this lab, advisor, etc.  Be sure to talk to other faculty and students in the department that you want to work in.  Be sure to read your potential advisorís previous publications and grant proposals.   

Ask yourself if graduate school is really what you want to do with your life, because it is a considerable commitment with a potentially disappointing outcome!   


Before entering:

1. Research the opportunities (or lack thereof) available to those holding advanced degrees in your field of interest. 

2. Research the field and its direction extensively.  Bounce your ideas off knowledgeable individuals in both academia and industry. 

3. Choose a program that has strong ties to industry (almost every program has ties to academics).

Understand the time and work requirement of the program you are about to enter. 

Take time off before entering. 

Find out if the program allows any tailoring of your education to prepare you more specifically for the type of job you may want after graduate school (teaching, research, writing, etc.). 

Work in a lab as a technician for a while to make sure research is what you want to do for the next half-decade of your life. 

If you are unhappy at any point, pick someone you trust and talk to them!  Don't seethe. 

Don't be afraid to suggest changes in your program.  Don't let faculty argue against change with tradition and history as their prime evidence. 

Don't pick an advisor that thinks you should sacrifice everything for research.

If a prospective graduate student is a science major, make sure the lab he/she is entering (professor whom he/she will be working with)  has a) enough funding, b) enough room in the lab for an additional student, and c) an available project for that prospective student.  This situation was extremely bad for a lot of entering graduate students in the program I am enrolled in and continues to be a big problem.

Be aware that grad school is not easy.  You work long hard hours for very little reward, both monetary and emotionally. 

Choose a program that is well established so you know how long you need to be in the program before you graduate. 

Make sure you know what is expected of you (i.e. will you have to teach to get a stipend) from you program and advisor.

Choose a university that has a strong student support group.  One that many of the students are enthusiastic about doing good research and get together on a regular basis to talk about things. 


Understand the job market

16.2% of the molecular biology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


I think it would be advisable to have specific goals for future employment/ career in mind when deciding on grad coursework and research projects.  This way you can tailor your education to your goals rather than tailor your goals around your education.


Don't delude yourself: check out the pay scale for Ph.D.'s in your field and decide if it's worth it for you.  At least in the short and medium term.  Getting a Ph.D. is an expensive investment of time for lousy to middling returns, so you better enjoy what you do because you won't be paid well enough to compensate if you don't really enjoy it.


Be sure you know what you are getting involved with and that it is what you want to do for a career.  Consider that there are too many doctoral degrees awarded in biological fields relative to the number of career positions available in academic research.

Realize how bleak the opportunities in science are, especially how low-paying jobs are for Ph.D.s in biology.  Getting a faculty position is a crap shoot, but with worse odds you have to spend 3-6 years as a low-paid postdoc, right when you want to get married, have a family, live in a real house, have a nicer car, but instead you're making all of $28,000 a year, a pittance of what a bachelor's would make in computer science.  Then, if you survive the post-doc, you've got more crap-shooting to do if you want to get a tenure-track position someplace where you'd actually want to go.  Most likely, if you decide to stay in academia as opposed to industry, you'll be stuck someplace far from civilization where it is very, very cold and wet.

Don't assume that a permanent job in science, especially academic science, will be available when you graduate.  Get as much experience as possible during grad school in anything outside of your dissertation that might help you to find the jobs outside of science or on the periphery of science. 


Consider other career options.  I am happy with my choice, but many are not.  Faculty positions are both a long way away (5-6 years grad school and 3-6 years post-doc) and very rare.  It's a long haul for an uncertain future.           


Understand and get funding

10.6% of the molecular biology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Check on the financial stability of the lab and project.  Go for a program that pays you better, expects less teaching, has good benefits, and doesn't require you to pay tuition.  You still won't be anywhere near as well off as your non-graduate student friends, but at least you won't have to worry about the cost of your next batch of reagents.    


Make certain that you know the funding situation, the amount of teaching expected of you, etc. before committing to a program.


Be acutely aware of your funding options/opportunities because there is nothing worse than trying to complete your program and being under financial stress.


1.  Be sure you know the status of funding from your advisor/research mentor. 

2.  Be sure you're aware about summer support. 


My advice would be to get everything in writing whether it concerns funding or the requirements for graduation. 

Also, I would emphasize working for someone that has a funded project for at least 3-4 years and that get students out in a timely fashion with several publications.

Make sure you are prepared to deal with the financial aspects of spending 10-15 years of your life making very little money.   


Select your advisor carefully

43.1% of the molecular biology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Be careful about choosing an advisor....Your advisor makes or breaks your career.  Talk to previous students about advisor and lab with whom you think you would like to work.  Make sure your prospective advisor has a good track record, has graduated many students in a reasonable amount of time.  Do a long rotation in the lab you think you would like to do your research.  The dynamics from lab to lab are very different.  And if you decide to work in that lab, the environment will affect your work.  Make sure you can survive in the environment of the lab you choose.  Simple things like radio stations and type of jokes told will become important if you are to stay in one lab for 5 or more years. 


Be extremely careful selecting your advisor. Make sure they have the following qualities:

1. successful graduation of students from their lab

2. good funding 

3. good publication record 

4. good recommendations from former students 

5. good people working for them 

6. time to meet with you


I have learned that the two criteria I used for selecting a major professor to work with were not the best criteria.  I selected the lab I chose to enter based on the availability of funds and my interest in the research project itself.  I should have selected the lab I was going to enter based on the PERSONALITY and MENTORING capabilities of the major professor.  To work for someone who truly has no interest in a graduate student's personal growth is very disheartening.  Learning about science is difficult enough and the learning  process should not be burdened with having to live (yes, lab work requires a lot of living in lab) with someone who really doesn't care about you as a living human being.   


For ethnic minority grad students, talk to your advisor about racial issues.  If he or she says race issues are unimportant or not issues for scientists to discuss, leave hastily.  This person probably doesn't have your best interest in mind.


Find a good advisor who cares about you and your work who will take an active and positive role in getting you successfully through grad school.  The topic is not as important as your advisor.

Lay out your plans for you thesis as early as possible; certainly by the second year.  Have more than one project running right from the start that might turn into a thesis project (not every project will work).  Write the introduction to your thesis by the end of your second year. 

Meet regularly with your advisor AND other faculty about your work/ideas (at least once a year but more is better) you need input from as many of your committee members as possible as early as possible.  Be up-front about your expectations from them and from your time in grad school.  I want to graduate by the year 2000, will this plan of action get me there? 


It doesn't matter what research you end up doing, a bad advisor can screw you over.  The personality of the potential advisor and a proven track record are much more important than your actual work.  They have complete control over whether you succeed or fail.  For one person to have this much power over you is very scary, so choose advisors carefully and negotiate a thesis project before you formally enter the lab.

Find out as much as possible about the style of your advisor, especially from students who have recently come out of the lab (gotten their degree).  Also, try to have a very clear understanding with the advisor about expectations for what constitutes an acceptable thesis, and the type of professional the advisor wants to mentor (i.e., teachers, researchers, etc.).  Try to form a close relationship with a tenured professor outside of your thesis committee, someone who can give unbiased professional advice and help mitigate conflicts with the advisor.

Know yourself--strengths, weaknesses, motivations--and choose your lab according to your ability to learn from that advisor in that environment, NOT on how appealing the research sounds. 

Maintain high expectations for yourself and don't accept your advisor's advice as absolute truth. 

Establish a relationship with a mentor ASAP!, use senior graduate students as guides. 

Insist on regular and constructive evaluations of your work and progress. 

Read.  A lot. 

Talk to people about your work and about theirs, and don't be afraid of wasting their time, because they can always tell you to go away.

Choose an advisor that you have a good relationship with, and a lab that fosters a helping attitude.  Whether the advisor has 6 publications in the last year or 2 doesn't matter as much as their record for training students and being a good mentor.  Don't be afraid to take a chance on a younger faculty member.  Most of the students that changed advisors started with a well-known faculty member, but ended up with someone who was a better mentor.

Do not be naÔve.  Realize that faculty have a different set of priorities, i.e., they need to fund their grants, not get a degree and a job.  It is not in a P.I.'s best interest to have a broadly-educated, interesting person in their lab if they can not produce.  So be sure to sit down with a prospective advisor and make sure that both of you will be happy if you join the lab.  Discuss how long you will be there, how often you will meet, and your project, i.e., what is the goal and how it will be reached in detail.


Take time off between undergraduate and PhD studies

11.2% of the molecular biology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


I would strongly advise all students planning to go into a science Ph.D. program to take 1-2 years post-undergrad as a technician in a lab to make sure they know 1) how competitive and difficult science is, 2) whether or not they really want to pursue a Ph.D. in science, and 3) exactly what field(s) and grad school(s) will meet their needs.

Time off before college is great.  Half of my class of 27 took time off and over the years we've been the more focused and motivated. 


Try and figure out before you go to graduate school what type of research you want to do.  Get experience doing research in an academic setting for at least 6 months to a year.  Figure out if you like the idea of being a faculty with sacrifices and benefits that it has.  Understand the time commitment involved. 


Take time off before graduate school to make sure that you want to go to grad school.  For molecular biology, it would be ideal to work as a tech for a couple of years.  Lots of experience about science, research techniques, and research as a career can be gained in this time that would be greatly beneficial during your graduate career.

I took time off between my Masterís and Ph.D. degrees.  It is the best thing I could've done.  I know why I'm here, what I intended to get out of it, etc.....  It is infinitely better to be in that space than the mindset of a 22-year old.


Quotes from  other disciplines.   | Article of advice for selecting a doctoral program | Distribution of quotes in all fields. | Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.