Rereading Stearns and Huey’s “Some modest advice to graduate students”

Steve Stearns’ and Ray Huey’s classic “Some modest advice to graduate students” came out in the ESA Bulletin in 1987.* As related in the piece, it’s based on an informal joint talk Stearns and Huey gave back in 1976, titled “Cynical advice to graduate students”. “Nobody Cares About You” is the immortal title of the first subsection.**

I was just rereading it last week, deciding whether to have my new graduate students read it for our first lab meeting. It’s impressive how well it holds up! Yes, there are bits that are most relevant to students who want to go on to tenure-track jobs at research universities. There’s certainly no direct advice on how to prepare for any non-academic career.*** But honestly, I think it sells the piece short to read it as a recipe for how to become an ecology prof at Yale or Washington (Stearns’ and Huey’s respective employers). To me, it mostly just reads like really good advice on how to get the most out of graduate school in science.

But what do you think? Do you still agree with Stearns and Huey’s advice–if you ever did? What other “modest” advice would you give to a new graduate student in ecology? Are there other similar pieces you’d recommend to new graduate students? Looking forward to your comments!

*Search on “stearns huey modest advice”, without the quotes, if that link ever breaks.

**It’s not actually cynical advice. Just very honest and forthright. Stearns and Huey don’t advise doing anything that could be construed as gaming the system. For instance, the piece advises students not to publish too much, for reasons familiar to anyone who’s been reading this blog recently.

***Though you might be surprised to learn that non-academic careers do come up in the piece, and not in a negative way.

18 thoughts on “Rereading Stearns and Huey’s “Some modest advice to graduate students”

  1. This paper is indeed brilliant and timeless. In my experience, the number 1 killer of grad students are psychological problems, especially nowadays, in the Dark Age of Self-Pity. Other nice papers with advice for science padawans were written by Thompson (, Might (, and Katz (, among others.

  2. One bit of their advice I slightly disagree with is “buy a copy of Strunk and White”. Yes, it’s a classic–but a lot of Strunk & White’s advice is debatable at best.
    EDIT: Links to some discussion, from the 50th anniversary of S&W a few years back. Not being a grammarian or professional writer myself, I’m not the best person to judge these criticisms. All I can say is they sound to me like criticisms that at least need to be taken seriously. The general thrust is that S&W’s stylistic advice is anodyne but mostly harmless (although S&W often ignore their own stylistic advice), but that the grammatical advice is debatable at best and dead wrong at worst:–white-language-police/Content?oid=873660

    • Hmm…I think what Stearns & Huey mean by “inefficient” is somewhat different than what pedagogical research means by “inefficient”, isn’t it? “Inefficiency” in Stearns & Huey’s sense isn’t an argument against lecturing to undergrads, I don’t think.

  3. Ideas similar in flavor to Stearns, but more focused on preparing to get an academic job, and not specific to the sciences, can be found at Karen Kelsky’s blog ( and book (“The Professor Is In”), which I recommend. Her style is similar to that of Stearns — pointed and provocative, but always with points worth considering even if you don’t agree with them.

  4. Pingback: Linkfest: 5 October 2015 | Tea 'N' Mango Juice

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