First of all, please read these two papers for some life-changing advice on ‘how to grad student’:
I consider scientist-training to be my most important work, so I’ve composed a list of expectations for students and mentors that I hope will facilitate excellent advising relationships and mutual success. If you apply to work in my lab, read this carefully and prepare to have an in-depth discussion about your career goals and how we might work together to achieve them. If you eventually join the lab, we will refine this contract together so that it works for your unique strengths and challenges.
Blubaugh Lab Mentoring Contract
We study diverse blend of basic and applied research questions related to the trophic ecology of insects. As agroecologists, our goals are to address pest problems in crop production and provide management tools that reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. As basic ecologists, we seek to understand and predict some of the numerous ecological factors that control predator-prey dynamics. To do this well, we need to be curious, ambitious, adaptive, collaborative, communicative, brave, and extremely hard-working.
I expect students to:
Be excited about ecology. Graduate research is challenging and unfortunately, not well compensated. But it is an incredible opportunity to explore your curiosity about the natural world. If this drives you, you will do well. This means you should be excited to read the literature deeply, watch countless research seminars about multi-trophic interactions, and dig into work in the lab and the field. If these things don’t appeal to you, the many challenges of grad school may not feel worth it. Please make sure this is a path you are passionate about before diving in.
Work hard and full-time on your graduate research. Grad school demands a huge investment of both time and mental energy. While scheduling time off is important, research projects and study will often stretch your schedule outside of a traditional 9-5, and your work hours may be hard to predict. Regardless of what your assistantship specifies, being a graduate student is way more than a full-time job. If you are working part-time elsewhere, you won’t have time to pursue insect ecology as ambitiously as will be required for a successful career.
Communicate regularly and ask for help. I expect to see you regularly and discuss updates in research and professional development. Weekly individual meetings can be scheduled formally if preferred, but I maintain an open door policy. To prepare for constructive meetings, I ask students to use this template to compose agendas:
- What is going well?
- What are your logistical needs?
- What are you struggling with or confused by?
- Did you read any cool papers this week?
- What are your goals for the next week? (make them reasonable and specific)
Be an active member of the lab, department, and academic community. I expect students to work on campus, attend seminars, regularly attend bi-weekly lab meetings, and actively participate in group research and professional development activities. Lab meetings are dedicated to discussing logistics, practicing presentations, reviewing manuscripts (ours and others), and fellowship.
Become an expert in your field. This requires a lot of reading. I will help you identify a preliminary reading list and develop ideas for achievable research objectives but it’s ultimately your responsibility to be familiar with emerging work in your field, identify a worthy question, identify the best system for answering it, and execute the work. I expect you to understand and articulate the applied implications of your work for sustainable agriculture, as well as its basic importance within the context of the current body of knowledge.
Be adaptive. If there is one thing I can guarantee, it’s that you won’t be lucky enough to propose and execute field experiments without some unexpected delays, hiccups, or giant catastrophes. You must be resilient and prepare multiple contingency plans to ensure that you are ready to make data out of misfortune.
Be proactive. I expect students to take primary ownership of the over the logistics of their projects, so don’t wait for prescribed instructions on how to complete your experiments. Your job as a graduate student is to learn how to design and execute your research yourself, and I expect that you will become independent in doing so within the first year. I will be happy (and expect) to give you guidance on a protocol that you draft.
Accept and implement feedback. Advising relationships don’t work unless you trust your mentor and heed their advice. Excellent work requires tons of revision and begins with a lot of mistakes and iterative corrections. Prepare to respond to constructive criticism with grace and hard work.
Prioritize research, presentation, and writing. Especially writing. Coursework is necessary for getting a degree and useful for developing skills, but your career ultimately depends on what you produce for the academic community and for farmers. I don’t care if you earn B’s in courses if your research is on track and you’re becoming an expert in your field. Except statistics courses. Do well in your statistics courses, and take as many as you can.
Send quality material for review in advance. To help you prepare excellent work, I need at least one week of lead time on slides for conference presentations and two weeks for papers and proposals ahead of committee meetings. Please don’t send your advisor poor quality work, and have a friend or labmate do a preliminary review (apologies to my own advisors for making them look at crappy writing!) Any content you would like to discuss in an individual meeting must be ready 24 hrs in advance if you would like my feedback.
Apply for external funding. Grantmaking is a key skill for careers in academics and extension. I promise to provide financial support as long as you meet the expectations of this contract, but composing grant proposals will enhance your training and allow you to expand your research. I will help you identify good resources for seeking funding, and guide you as you develop proposals.
Document your work. Keep physical copies of datasheets organized and identifiable in a known location, and photograph them before they’re deposited. For each project, I recommend updating a shared google doc regularly with precise details about all activities related to data collection. In addition to this, I suggest composing and sharing your methods sections in real time as you complete your experiments. This allows you to notice any details necessary for manuscript preparation that are missing from your log, and makes assessment of progress easy. Finally, deposit electronic data as it’s entered in a shared lab folder on google drive.
Help each other. Someday you will be in over your head, and you’ll depend on friends and labmates to help you with fieldwork emergencies or review your writing. There are several days a year when we experience “all hands on deck” situations, and I expect you to participate joyfully and move as a team. If you’re on the receiving end of help, prepare a clear plan for group work to avoid wasting your labmates’ time. (sorry, dearest labmates, for wasting your time in the past!)
Take care of your business. Students are responsible for paperwork related to degree progress. I’ll provide guidance on useful coursework and selecting committee members, but keeping track of other logistical details and making sure you meet graduate program requirements is your responsibility.
As your advisor, I promise to:
Treat you like a colleague. I will welcome and carefully consider your feedback about your mentoring experience, co-authorship, the direction of research, and even my own writing. Hold me accountable if I’m failing to meet the expectations described below. I value your perspective and depend on input from students to help me do excellent work as a scholar, teacher, and mentor. Students will be included as stakeholders in decisions about the direction of our research program, laboratory facilities, and recruitment of graduate students and undergraduate research assistants.
Guide and challenge you as you develop a powerful research program. I will train you to be an independent and productive scientist, and I consider your success to be my greatest legacy. That means that instead of delivering a prescribed research project to each of my students, I will consider you a part of a collaborative research team. I will leverage my experience and knowledge in our field to help you refine your ideas into interesting, achievable, and valuable projects to jumpstart your career. Sometimes that means I will push you towards a more ambitious question, and sometimes I will help you simplify an unfeasible goal. Masters students can expect a more prescriptive structure from me in project development, whereas PhD students will have an opportunity for more ownership over the process.
Make sure expectations are clear. It’s an art and a science to determine how specific I need to be with my guidance for students. Those with lots of experience and background might be ready to roll with only ‘big picture’ guidance, and some need a more prescriptive approach at first. Ultimately, my goal is for you to function independently to manage your own projects and identify your own steps to success. I will work with you to determine how precisely you need to be advised, and help you cultivate practices that lead to independence. For each of your projects, we’ll discuss specifics about what success looks like early in the process and as they develop.
Answer your questions. Sometimes I accidentally bury emails on my phone, but I never intend to leave questions dangling with my students. If you don’t hear from me in 48 hours during the week, send another message; I won’t take it personally! However, if your question is easily googled, my response might cheerfully indicate as much. I don’t respond to text messages during weekends.
Help you find the help you need. No advisor can be an expert in every area, and there will come times when you need to seek outside advice and collaboration. I will provide guidance on who to contact for help, and help introduce you to leaders in your field that you can consult for supplementary mentorship.
Provide financial and logistical support for your work. As long as you meet the expectations described above, I will make sure you have the resources you need to execute your research. Although I expect students to take ownership over logistics of their own projects, I will help navigate administrative challenges of acquiring space and materials for your work.
Review your writing promptly. Unless I’m at a meeting or approaching a grant deadline, I plan to provide feedback on writing within at least two weeks. A specific timeline will be determined when work is submitted.
Prepare you for a productive career. Your professional and academic success are my highest priorities. I will challenge you to make specific career goals as early as possible so that I can help you are prepared for the rigor of academia or extension. Specifically, I will connect you with opportunities for conferences, workshops, and extension/outreach projects that will beef up your CV. (and I will help you articulate them effectively on your CV!) At the end of a successful graduate program, I will help you find job opportunities, prepare application materials, and provide strong advocacy through reference letters and personal recommendations to my network of colleagues.
Special thanks to three amazing grad students (Katie Holmes, Lauren Brzozowski, and Grace Freundlich) for feedback on my mentoring philosophy and for helping me refine this contract.