Dear Prospective Lab Member,
In an effort to be transparent and foster dialog, in the following I have outlined a few logistics related to attending graduate school at Iowa State University (ISU), some of my philosophies regarding graduate and post-doctoral education, and many of my expectations for those working in my lab. I hope to answer many of the questions you may have about working with me, but realize that what I’ve written is far from comprehensive, so please do not hesitate to contact me if you have further questions.
Other resources are also available to assist with your decisions regarding graduate education more generally. You can find much insightful information in journals or on websites of some professional societies, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) or the Ecological Society of America (ESA). Details regarding graduate studies at ISU and in my department (Natural Resource Ecology and Management - NREM) can be found on their websites: Graduate College, NREM. I also encourage you to talk with current and former graduate students to develop a fuller understanding of how graduate school may or may not help you meet your professional goals and how expectations of graduate students can vary among programs and labs.
The Process—Some graduate students and post-docs are able to generate their own funding in advance of entering a graduate or post-doctoral program. More commonly, however, I (often with colleagues) propose projects to various agencies and foundations that will fund students and post-docs. If a project is funded, it serves as the basis for thesis, dissertation, or post-doctoral research. I prefer to advertise positions in the lab as they become available to develop a large, qualified, and diverse applicant pool. Although this is my primary form of soliciting applications, I encourage people interested in working with me to contact me at any time, as I keep the materials of potential candidates on file in the event a project receives new funding.
I will only accept someone into my lab if the majority of the funding needed to support them—including salary, benefits, tuition, and research funding—has been acquired. Once I select an applicant for a project, I then request her/him to submit a formal application to ISU’s Graduate College (for graduate students) or Human Resources Department (for post-docs). Minimum requirements for admission to graduate studies at ISU include a cumulative GPA of 3.0 and GRE scores that are in the upper 50th percentile. In addition to these requirements, I outline minimum and preferred qualifications for specific positions in my lab when advertising the graduate research assistantship. Having good undergraduate grades is rarely enough of a qualification. I also look for a passion for learning that lines up well with the funded project, evidence of a strong work ethic, past success at conducting independent research, a demonstrated ability to get along well with others, maturity, and creativity. For me, positive and relevant work experiences speak as loudly as grades when evaluating potential applicants.
Stipends—Stipends for M.S. and Ph.D. students in my department are generally competitive with natural resource programs at other universities; while lower than some institutions, Ames, Iowa is also a fairly cheap place to live. Graduate programs generally require 2-3 years for M.S. students to complete, whereas Ph.D. programs typically take 4-5 years. During that time, stipends will be supported from funding associated with grants or fellowships. If students are interested in gaining teaching experience, these opportunities are available and encouraged—actually, some teaching is required as a part of graduate degree programs in NREM (see the graduate student handbook on NREM webpage for details). I also encourage my students and post-docs to pursue small grants to fund a portion of their own programs, so they may learn the valuable skill of grantspersonship and develop their professional resumes. I assist students in preparing the application package.
Tuition—ISU waives nonresident tuition for graduate students. Additionally, 50% of in-state tuition costs for M.S. students and 100% of in-state tuition costs for Ph.D. students are paid by other sources (e.g., college funds, departmental funds, grants).
Office Space—Graduate students and post-docs in my lab are provided with office space, furniture, and a computer to help them conduct their research and fulfill their coursework. I prefer that my employees use the lab as their primary work area for several reasons: (1) you are available should questions about your project arise, (2) some of the best learning interactions I have with my employees develop during ad hoc discussions in the lab, (3) you will learn from the questions, discussions, and struggles of other students and post-docs in the department and they will learn from you, (4) you will develop a network of professional contacts in other graduate students and post-docs that will follow you throughout your career, and (5) you will learn to effectively work in a team-based, though sometimes distracting, environments—but that’s real life.
Mentoring—Mentoring is my favorite part of my job. I take a lot of personal satisfaction in helping people grow academically and professionally during their time here. Because no two individuals are the same, I tailor my mentoring to the strengths and weaknesses (we all have both!) of the individual involved. In some cases my approach is fairly “hands on,” and may include sitting side-by-side with a student writing code to perform a statistical test. In others, it is “hands off,” as I find some individuals learn and grow more rapidly if I just occasionally point them in the right direction and get out of the way. These differences should not be perceived as either favoritism or neglect, but rather proceeding in the manner I perceive to be most appropriate in getting someone to the next stage in their academic and professional development. I always welcome constructive input from my students on the approach that best meets their needs, but reserve the right to take different approaches if mutually established milestones are not being met in a timely manner.
I block out time in my schedule each week I am on campus to meet individually with my graduate students and discuss course selection, goal setting, specific methods, specific papers, interpretation of results, preparation for meeting presentations, manuscript drafts, or whatever else the occasion might necessitate. Also to keep track of progress, I periodically ask employees to write a short report on their research. These reports typically include a description of overall research objectives; progress made and new insights gained within the previous quarter; milestones for the upcoming quarter; and a timeline and methods for achieving them. I find that these reports help students develop their technical writing skills, more formally reflect on progress and results of their research, and establish achievable goals for the future. Reports also help me keep track of goals mutually set during weekly discussions and are often incorporated into quarterly or semiannual reports required by funding organizations.
I strive to hold semiweekly lab meetings, to develop a team atmosphere and so we can all learn from the struggles and triumphs of one another. Activities associated with these meeting have included verbal progress report “go ‘rounds”, discussions of papers that all members have read ahead of time, practice presentations for upcoming meetings or defenses, reports on what was learned from attending a professional meeting, discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of job candidates being interviewed by the department, question and answer sessions with a visiting scientist or land manager, or simply ad hoc discussions. Regardless of the activity, I find that everyone gets a lot out of these periods.
Hours—Almost anyone who has been a graduate student or has worked around one will tell you that graduate school is demanding. While I do not have specific “requirements” for the number of hours worked by my students, I expect that students devote as much time as necessary to meet our mutually established project milestones and complete their program in a timely manner. While there may be some lulls and frenzies in work activity, this never averages out to less than 40 hours per week.
While I realize some frenzies are unavoidable, I instead prefer and expect measured progress toward project milestones and open communication about roadblocks. I cannot help a student overcome a roadblock if I don’t know there’s a problem. Last minute requests for feedback furthermore require that I make sacrifices in other portions of my busy work and personal life, which I consider disrespectful. I’ve also seen that last minute work results in poorer quality products, as neither I nor my employee has the necessary time to think through all angles of a project or its communication. I have found that employee procrastination almost always results in a poor quality product and a dissatisfying process for everyone involved. I have also found that the most common roadblock to student progress is just overcoming the hump of getting started on a particular task; once they get going, it becomes so much easier. My recommendation: mentally chunk a task into small steps…then jump in! The positive sensation one gets from accomplishing something small feeds the endurance to keep going.
My graduate students may not hold outside employment. A graduate program constitutes more than a full-time job requiring dedication and undivided attention. It is impossible to be successful in graduate school (research and coursework) while also working on the side.
Time Off—Like most other university programs, graduate students at ISU do not accrue official vacation time, but students can expect to take off major holidays, when the university is closed. Graduate students should not expect that breaks within and in between semester courses (e.g., spring break, Thanksgiving break, winter break) constitute time off from graduate school, as with undergraduate programs. Rather, these times often comprise fantastic, relatively interruption free periods for focused research.
I do accommodate requests for additional time off if project milestones are being met, if activities are on schedule, if the absence will not interfere with scheduled activities, and if there is sufficient notice to preclude any scheduling problems. To be granted, I expect students to provide me with a verbal or written request at least two weeks in advance of the vacation so that potential personnel gaps can be covered. Be aware, however, that graduate school is demanding and taking several weeks off a year will not result in a successful program.
Proposals—Thesis or dissertation proposals are mandatory for all graduate students at ISU and must be approved by a Program of Study Committee. For M.S. students, a draft of the proposal should be completed by the end of the first full semester at ISU; for Ph.D. students, a draft should be completed within the first year. To make sure students are well on their way to meeting this goal, I request that they complete an annotated bibliography and literature review related to their research project within two (for M.S. students) or six (for Ph.D. students) months of beginning their graduate program. This initial step gives students command of the literature relevant to their projects, offers them a strong sense of the journals they should be tracking, provides them with a firm basis for understanding new literature as it is published, and gives them confidence to engage in academic discussions with faculty members and their peers. In sum, it jump starts you on your graduate career.
Publications—I expect graduate students and post-docs in my lab to conduct high-quality research and follow through with the research process until publication, although this final milestone may sometimes be achieved several years after completion of employment in the lab. There are several reasons for this expectation. First, scientific research is not scientific knowledge until it has been through the peer-review process. Second, research universities maintain their reputation and status largely based on the number and quality of peer-reviewed publications produced by its students and faculty. Publishing, therefore, has a direct influence on the quality and value of your own degree. Thirdly, publication is an expectation of the granting organizations that fund graduate research programs—no publications from previous grants = no new grants = no more funding to hire graduate students and post-docs = no more graduate students and post-docs in the lab. This is because most research projects in ecology and natural resources are funded with public funds. Thus, we not only have a responsibility to ensure that our research is of the highest quality, but we also have a responsibility to make sure the knowledge generated is made available to the public. Lastly, publications are the currency of scientific credibility and serve to significantly enhance students’ and post-docs’ resumes and ability to get jobs. Publishing your research demonstrates to employers that you work hard, have critical-thinking skills, can write, are dedicated to the profession, and can finish what you started.
I expect that M.S. students will publish 1-2 peer-reviewed papers from their thesis research and Ph.D. students will publish 3-4 peer-reviewed papers from their dissertations. Extension or outreach publications are highly encouraged and may be produced in addition to these minimums. If you’re feeling this bar is too high, be aware that I work closely alongside my graduate students to make sure that their research will eventually be publishable and mentor them throughout the publication process. A quick conversation with any of my past graduate students will confirm my commitment in this regard.
Presentations—Presentations are another important method of communicating research findings. Furthermore, excellent oral communication skills are important regardless of where you might be employed. Therefore, I encourage my students to give presentations early and often during their graduate careers. Presentations can be made during project meetings, departmental brown bags or seminars, public meetings, and/or professional conferences. I expect M.S. students to present at one or more professional meetings, Ph.D. students to present three or more professional meetings, and post-docs as often as possible; I build travel costs into grant applications. For graduate students, funds for presenting at professional conferences are also available at departmental, college, and university level at ISU.
Side Activities and Projects—I generally encourage my employees to take on professionally related side activities and projects (e.g., NREM seminar committee, government of the student body, mentoring undergraduate research, additional research projects) so long as they do not detract from meeting milestones for the funded, degree-related research project. I find that such activities and projects can foster creativity and be important in helping people to build new skills, professional networks, and their resumes. I also strongly encourage my employees to become actively involved in professional societies relevant to their research and disciplinary trajectory.
Personal and Professional Development—There should be no doubt that if you decide to attend graduate school you will work hard and you will be challenged. Indeed, such hard work and challenges will be critical for your professional growth. Being constantly challenged is one of the most exciting aspects of our profession (there is never a dull day in natural resource professions!), but lacking the skills (i.e., technical, communication, social, time management) necessary to deal with these challenges can be frustrating. Graduate school will provide you with ample opportunities to develop these skills, although not necessarily through your courses. Here are some other resources you should take advantage of during your graduate career that will help to build these skills and achieve success in your ensuing professional career:
- Read, read, read. Through the ISU library you have access to numerous and a wide variety of books and journals. Take advantage of this resource to expand your knowledge horizon. It is likely that, unless you go on to a career in academia, you will never have access to such a diverse and sizable scientific resource again.
- Attend seminars. ISU offers a plethora of seminars at the university, college, departmental, and program level that will also expand your knowledge horizon. Furthermore, attending such seminars is essentially like taking free classes from individuals at the top of their fields. Watch and learn from these individuals. Not only be attentive to their knowledge, but also to the personal attributes that make them successful. At the end of the seminar, introduce yourself, thank them, and ask a question—these individuals offer you a chance to expand your professional network well beyond ISU.
- Learn to efficiently use the variety of software packages relevant to your career trajectory. If this is some form of quantitative ecology, proficiency in R is a must at present. If this is landscape ecology, you must be proficient at both R and GIS; learning a software program that assists with the classification and interpretation of remotely sensed imagery is also advised. If you are pursuing interdisciplinary social-ecological expertise, InVIVO is recommended as a program that facilitates qualitative analysis; learn this in addition to software packages that allow quantitative analysis. Take advantage of the support services offered by ISU (e.g., the statistical help center, ISU GIS facility) to help gain proficiency. Again, working with people in these centers is like taking free classes—classes you likely will not have access to once you complete your graduate career.
- Don’t be overly focused on classes. Probably the biggest challenge I perceive entering graduate students to face is learning to balance course and research expectations. Because (1) most entering graduate students find a lot of satisfaction in performing well in courses, (2) courses tend to have more immediate and “hard” deadlines, and (3) meeting course goals is often intellectually easier than meeting research goals, the tendency is give research the short shrift in terms of focused effort. This is a mistake. Understand that graduate degrees in ecology and natural resources at ISU are research degrees at their core; thus, research should be put first. Coursework should enable students to perform and make progress on their projects, not get in the way of such progress.
- Take advantage of the vibrant social scene that graduate school offers…but don’t go overboard. The people you meet in graduate school, whether faculty or other students, are sure to follow you throughout your professional career. You want to develop these networks and make a good impression. These people can assist you at several levels: for example, they may provide you with timely technical assistance during project roadblocks, act as professional references during job searches, or send qualified employees your way in the future.
Data and File Management Protocols—Also, be prepared to follow these file and data management protocols, which my lab developed in June of 2013. We strive to maintain the highest standards in conducting our science.
Finally, have an honest conversation with yourself about whether you are up for depth learning, new challenges, and hard work before pursuing a position in my lab. If not, that’s okay—once you know this you can more efficiently pursue other professional opportunities. If you are, however, my lab can provide you with several luxuries. First, you will be working in a vibrant environment, full of people with abundant intellect and great ideas, which is super fun. Secondly, you get to pursue meaningful work that seeks to solve persistent natural resource and societal problems, which is super fulfilling. And, lastly, you will be closely mentored by caring individuals, which makes you super lucky. If you work hard and take full advantage of the resources around you, I guarantee I will also work hard to help you achieve your professional goals, both during and after your career in my lab.
Lisa Schulte Moore
June 30, 2013