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!)