Poll: did you start your ecology PhD by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year? (UPDATED; poll closed)

Stephen Stearns’ classic piece, “Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students,” includes this excellent advice under the heading “You must know why your work is important” (emphasis added):

When you first arrive, read and think widely and exhaustively for a year…

If some authority figure tells you that you aren’t accomplishing anything because you aren’t taking courses and you aren’t gathering data, tell him what you’re up to. If he persists, tell him to bug off, because you know what you’re doing, dammit.

This is a hard stage to get through because you will feel guilty about not getting going on your own research. You will continually be asking yourself, “What am I doing here?” Be patient. This stage is critical to your personal development and to maintaining the flow of new ideas into science. Here you decide what constitutes an important problem. You must arrive at this decision independently for two reasons. First, if someone hands you a problem, you won’t feel that it is yours, you won’t have that possessiveness that makes you want to work on it, defend it, fight for it, and make it come out beautifully. Secondly, your PhD work will shape your future. It is your choice of a field in which to carry out a life’s work. It is also important to the dynamic of science that your entry be well thought out. This is one point where you can start a whole new area of research. Remember, what sense does it make to start gathering data if you don’t know – and I mean really know – why you’re doing it?

I followed this advice. I spent a lot of time my first year in grad school reading any paper that caught my eye, in every one of the many leading ecology and general science journals to which my supervisor had personal subscriptions. Including many papers that realistically weren’t going to form the basis for any research project I might possibly propose. (UPDATE: I’m aware that Stearns’ advice often isn’t practical outside of the US, because outside the US PhDs often are shorter (3-4 years) and often involve students taking on pre-designed projects rather than developing their own projects. That’s why the poll below asks where you got your PhD.)

I’m curious whether this makes me unusual, especially compared to current grad students.

So below is a 4-question poll, for PhD students and PhD holders in ecology and evolution (the fields in which Stearns’ advice is most widely-known). Did you follow Stearns’ advice to begin your PhD by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year?

(UPDATE: responses have slowed to a trickle, so the poll is now closed. Post on the results coming soon!)

33 thoughts on “Poll: did you start your ecology PhD by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year? (UPDATED; poll closed)

  1. Great question! There must be enormous differences between the 3.5 year PhDs of the British system and the more lengthy North American versions.

    I’d also wonder about survivorship bias in the results you’re going to get. A lot of the grad students I know who dropped out lost a lot of time and confidence in the morass of the modern literature. Published papers look a lot different from the sausage-factory of research.

    • “There must be enormous differences between the 3.5 year PhDs of the British system and the more lengthy North American versions. ”

      Yes, that’s why I asked where folks got their PhDs. Steve Stearns’ advice really only applies to American PhDs.

  2. As michaelbode stated in his comment, PhDs in Europe can differ greatly from those in the US in terms of length. In France (I’ve graduated from a French institution) a PhD is typically 3 years long, so many of us can’t afford to spend the first year just “thinking widely”. Also, because of the short length, many PhDs have very fixed goals or belong within a particular project. That said, mine wasn’t like that at all, so I did spend the first 6 months reading and defining my questions and playing around with the models I wanted to use.
    So I agree with michael that the answers will be highly influenced by funding/supervisor-related factors.
    In any case, this is a great question and I still defend that PhD students should spend a great deal of time reading and funding bodies/supervisors should take this into consideration…

    • “Also, because of the short length, many PhDs have very fixed goals or belong within a particular project.”

      Yes, that’s another reason why I asked where folks got their PhDs. I’m aware that, outside N. America, it’s common for PhD students to take on a pre-designed project rather than develop their own from scratch.

  3. I completely agree with both comments: I’ve made my PhD in Canada & France (affiliated to 1 university in each country).
    In France, the subject is usually well defined so that the PhD candidate can go directly to analysis/field work. Sometimes, the PhD candidate has already been in the lab and started to work on the question during a 6-months internship that can help to start the PhD. In Canada, you have to write a proposal for your PhD.
    So, I had to think/read a lot to produce the proposal in the first 6 months of my PhD (and to follow the 2-3 mandatory courses) and then I went to field. Because the funding was canadian (via my supervisor), the length of the PhD was negociated with the French university and it finally last 3.5 yrs. So, the question is definitely context-dependent.

  4. Another voice from outside the US – here in Australia (at least Melbourne) we have pretty strong rules about PhD completion – program is 3 years, you’re cut off at 4. I was afforded the opportunity to read and think widely as I worked in my field prior to starting my project. It was fantastic – however, I’m in a forest ecology group and realistically, there’s not much of a chance for many others to think widely for a year, collect meaningful field data, analyse it all, and write a thesis – and maybe even publish – before the uni boots us out. Though we manage, I guess…

    • Thank you. I think I’ll update the post to let readers know that I’m aware of these differences among countries, which is why the poll asks where folks got their PhDs.

  5. I hadn’t seen the Stearns piece before this, thanks for pointing it out. Agree with Tom, most Aus universities have a 3-4 year timeframe, so most candidates can’t continue past that. I started PhD after a humanities>science career change, a second undergrad degree, and a year of casual jobs/contemplating the purpose of life. So I was pretty ready to get into it when I started. Plus I had to start field work almost immediately, because pollinators//flowering time/phenology…

  6. I agree with the two above comments!

    Although I did my best to read as much as possible, it was not possible to spend nearly all my time defining my project the first year (perhaps 6 month though, like Ceres). In France the effective time is 2.5 years, as we need the time to get the agreement to defend in exactly 3.

    I’ve heard that in Italy you can read for a year though, so there must be some intra-European variability (are there different PhD cultures in the US?). In Norway, it is 4 years if you teach.

    The corollary question is how much are/were you in control of your own PhD? I was lucky enough to be able to shape my own, but I have seen cases where the advisor had predefined the contents of the articles that were going to be written. From the student’s perspective it can be hard to tell a supervisor to “bug off” – which makes Stearns’ piece very useful though!!

    PhD students (in Europe?) seem quite often viewed as a (disposable) workforce for the big projects of their advisors, rather than the next generation of scientists… It is quite hard for a student to come up with his/her own research project and get it funded.

  7. In year 2 of my PhD now. I answered “yes” for question 4, but like some others have commented, this is largely because you have to do so in order to put together a proposal. To be honest, I clearly remember the first year of my M.S. as being an exhaustive dive into the literature of my field driven entirely by my own personal interests and ideas. For my PhD, I came onto a project that already had some strong datasets and a funded proposal based on a broad subject. Therefore, reading during the first year of my PhD was much more targeted and driven by logical “next steps” for the project as a whole.

  8. I answered yes, but I was kinda obligated to…Let me explain: in my university, first-year students have two obligations: 1-Take a doctoral exam, which consist in choosing three themes and reading widely and exhaustively about them; 2- Do a project proposal, for which you read a lot and you decide exactly what you’re going to do.
    You are not necessarely only reading. Some have fieldwork to do, some don’t. Some take classes, some don’t. Still, the first year involves a lot of reading and, because of the exam, it’s larger than one’s project.

  9. Not an ecologist, but this is universal: If you’re contemplating grad school you probably should be reading the literature frequently by end of year three undergrad. A great thing to do is go to the library, grab a stack of recent journals of a title of interest and read all the abstracts. If the abstract is interesting, read the intro, and if its still interesting, continue. Even an hour a week is a good start.

  10. In the early going, it’s looking quite common for US EEB PhDs to start (or have started) their PhDs by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year. But to my (and the commenters’) surprise, it’s not rare outside the US.

    We’ll see if that holds up as more responses come in.

  11. Early on, it’s looking more common for people who completed their PhDs >6 years ago to have followed Stearns’ advice than it is for current PhD students or more recent PhDs. Again, will be interesting to see if that holds up.

    If it does, I wonder if if it’s in part because of a selection bias. Maybe people who spend their 1st year reading and thinking widely and exhaustively are more likely to still be in science >6 years later? If so (and I emphasize this is all speculation), it could be for various reasons. Reading and thinking widely could causally contribute to your longevity in science, for instance by helping you think of more and better research ideas. It could also be a correlate; people who do it might tend to have other attributes and experiences that help them stay in science.

    • Or memories could be biased. I bet a lot of people mid-stream don’t think they’re reading widely but compared to what you end up doing in +5 years, it is much more reading intensive.

  12. Between classes (American-style, so loads) and topics assigned by my committee for my comp exam, I technically read widely but it wasn’t self-driven.

  13. I entered with an expectation to read widely for 1.5 years, then spend 6 months reading more narrowly to prepare proposal and prepare for comps. Then start research in year 3. I finished in a rather US-typical 6 years (probably could have finished in 5 but my first son was born in there).

    I would endorse Stearns advice very, very enthusiastically.

    Being on a faculty in Canada for 3 years, I saw how much not having a year to read widely limited students. About the only benefit I saw is it was two years less living on a subsistence salary, which is nothing to sneeze at, but professionally I didn’t see a lot of benefit. I know a lot of people are chiming in from non-US saying that time frames don’t allow it, professors need projects done. And I’m not arguing that you can read for a year if you are expected to finish in 3. But I think this choice by the national systems has huge impacts on what kind of scientists we turn out.

    Some obvious consequences of not giving students a year to engage with the literature include:
    1) Not developing the ability (or the trust in their ability) to generate new ideas and evaluate their worthiness
    2) Not being a scholar of the prior literature with resulting reinvention of the wheel (something I am seeing more and more of)
    3) Not knowing what topic you like or what field you want to settle into over the long term
    4) I’ve always defined a PhD as a credential that you are capable of being an independent researcher. Diving straight into somebody else’s project, who could know if a student is ready to be an independent researcher? Not hiring committees. Not advising committees. And not the student themselves. To the extent this is the main criteria we screen on, it is deferring the screening later and later. The longer postdocs in Europe may well be related to this. If a student really cannot be an independent researcher isn’t it better to find this out in the first year than late in a postdoc or into a tenure track job?

    • “Being on a faculty in Canada for 3 years, I saw how much not having a year to read widely limited students. ”

      I still struggle with this as a Canadian faculty member. On the one hand, Canadian PhD students are supposed to develop their own projects (with input and feedback from their supervisor and committee, of course). But on the other hand, they’re supposed to finish in 4 years (though in practice many students take more like 5).

      On the other hand, worth noting that undergrads outside N. America often specialize to a greater extent than N. American undergrads. IIRC (commenters, please correct me if I’m wrong), if you’re, say, an ecology major in the UK, the large majority of your classes (or even all of your classes?) are going to be ecology classes. As a N. American undergrad majoring in ecology, ~1/4 of your classes would be ecology classes. Which raises the question of whether or to what extent greater specialization as an undergrad in the field in which you’re going to grad school relieves you from the need to read quite so widely and exhaustively in grad school.

    • I am respectfully uncertain about your conclusions about (1) and (2).

      (1) I’m repeating from above, but I’ve seen a lot of early PhD students lose confidence, lose trust in their own abilities, when they spend a lot of time reading without a specific purpose. The literature feels endless when one paper leads to a half-dozen others you think are worth reading: it’s like gazing at the Milky Way on a cold night. And if you’re not reading for a purpose, each paper can seem both incomprehensible (i.e., “I’m actually an imposter idiot!”) because you don’t know enough of either the literature or methods to understand that each paper is not the final word on a subject.

      (2) Empirically, do you think there’s more re-invention going on outside the US than inside? Also, a relevant contrast is between open-ended reading, and essentially being given your first research question with close guidance by a supervisor. That is, you’re protected against reinvention by (a) your supervisor, (b) your own careful reading of the proximate literature, and (c) long, opportunistic discussions with any other scientist who will listen to your ideas.

      • @ michaelbode:

        Re: your 1, are you suggesting that students *not* be expected to read and think widely and exhaustively to start out because some of them might get discouraged or anxious? I’d say that the solution to the problem of reading-induced discouragement or anxiety is to address the discouragement/anxiousness in other ways that don’t involve changing how much students are expected to read.

        For instance, during my first year in grad school it helped me a lot to also work on a side project that my supervisor handed me, fully designed. It helped me avoid the potentially-depressing feeling of coming home at the end of every day for months on end having not accomplished anything tangible (reading a lot of course accomplishes intangible things; that’s why it’s valuable).

        Another thing supervisors can do is have conversations with students about what they’re reading. I met with my supervisor one-on-one, weekly. As far as I can recall, a lot of those conversations were about whatever I happened to read that week and the ideas I’d had.

        A third thing supervisors can do is recommend to students readings that will give the students a roadmap of the literature. Advanced textbooks, for instance, key review papers, or (in community ecology) a book like Mark Vellend’s.

    • “If a student really cannot be an independent researcher isn’t it better to find this out in the first year than late in a postdoc or into a tenure track job?”

      I’m not certain I understand this comment, Brian. I have mentored many students and employees over my 35 years in science. While not all of them were pursuing PhDs or MDs, many were. To be honest, I had students who during their first and sometimes into their second years I would have sworn were hopeless… and then, low and behold, they blossomed into something very special. I’ve also had students that seemed to be the hottest thing since sliced bread take the proverbial nosedive. I believe it is not possible for a student (or anyone) to *know* what they want to do for the rest of their career, at any stage of their career. I might be wild about one thing today, and then really bored by it sometime later in my career.

      I would say just about anyone is capable of being an independent investigator, but very often students fail to find the mentor and/or environment that allows for that to happen.

  14. Steve’s missive was written in 1976, while he was a postdoc at Berkeley, and was part 1 of a 2 part noon-seminar, with Ray Huey doing the other half;
    Huey’s part is here, or on his UW webpage:
    http://faculty.washington.edu/hueyrb/prospective.php, with a bit of history thrown in, and a more recent advise to grad students …sort of an update after a long research career.
    I would be curious as to modern grad students ‘take on the whole package’ from Steve and Ray.

    Steve’s independence was/is very unusual, from the get-go. His phd was in life history theory,….. BUT there was no faculty member at UBC to guide him. I know because I was then a post-doc at UBC, and Steve and I talked a lot…. I was into foraging and then life history theory. Our answer to having no life-history faculty mentor [ I had Orians down the road at UW for foraging] was simple: we read much life history stuff, derived our own stuff, argued a lot, and together taught a class on it open to anyone; faculty , grad students and postdocs all came. We stayed just ahead of our ‘students’ by reading and writing lectures. Teaching workshops, informal classes, was pretty common at UBC’s Institute of Animal resource Ecology in those days .Holling, my post doc advisor, told me to go teach a class on …something.. for the community…. and I announced to steve that WE were gonna do this life history stuff as a class: he said ‘sure’.
    Steve went much further than I and the result of his reading / thinking while a grad student was the 1976 QRB paper , the 2nd most cited paper ever published in QRB; It may have been his doctoral-prelim exam paper; my memory is a bit cloudy here.

  15. Hm, while I also think this is generally good advice, as with many people I find some pitfalls. I at least practically find this hard to do – I probably get 3 solid hours of reading and absorbing a day, after which I struggle to keep going. Maybe others can do better, but for me even a week of pure reading is a recipe to get bummed out as I fail to work productively all day. Similarly, as mentioned in the paper, going a whole year with zero hands-on progress is psychologically tough for most people (especially when the subsequent years are also likely to yield little data). I think the author is naive in thinking that simply assuring the student that they’re on the right track will alleviate this emotional difficulty.

    On a different note, there’s substantial value to getting a *little* data to guide your future plans. Most of what we do is dictated by what is technically possible, which can’t be predicted ahead of time. In my experience, the beautiful proposal built in the absence of hands-on experiments will certainly fail – but this may vary by field.

    Still, I agree with the general philosophy. A formula that worked for me was about half time reading and about half time on proof-of-concept experiments (of course this requires doing lab work or nearby field work). These experiments were not publishable, but gave me a lot of understanding of how things looked & what I could do – e.g., how to grow animals, what they look like, etc. Also it just gave me something to feel like I was making progress, and not get discouraged!

    • Despite my strong comments above, I agree that a little “tinkering” with data on the side is a good thing (I think Jeremy mentioned this too). The key is that reading is the priority, and the tinkering does not turn into an expectation to have a paper in the 1st or 2nd year.

  16. A PhD in Singapore typically lasts 4 years, of which two semesters are dedicated to coursework leaving approximately three years for research. This is also the time when we read and develop our ideas knowing well that ideas/projects may change in the future. I have found reading on the broad topic of interest greatly helpful. It also helped me to be ‘on the same page’ (mostly) as my advisor when we discussed projects/ideas. Coursework (if interesting,useful and relevant) helps too. It is impossible to dedicate more than 3-4 hours a day to reading. But having sometimes- useful/sometimes-not-so-useful responsibilities such as coursework, teaching assistant-ship balanced out the monotony of skimming through the sea of papers.On a given day, mood ranged from ‘Wow. I learnt so much’ to ‘Heck! I hardly know anything’.
    A counter argument would be that some of us start our PhD after few years of field/research experience and research Masters and then carefully choose (topic and the advisor) what we would want to work on for PhD. Wanting to delve right into developing ideas and working on projects is OK in that case, I suppose?
    Reading always helps (in my experience). Whether in the first year of PhD or before we start is a choice.

    Thanks for posting this. Haven’t read Stephen Stearn’s piece before.

  17. Pingback: Poll results: do ecologists start their PhDs by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year? | Dynamic Ecology

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