Recently, I polled ecologists and evolutionary biologists (that’s you) (mostly) on whether they started their PhDs by following Steve Stearns’ classic advice to “read and think widely and exhaustively for a year.” I followed this advice. But I was curious if it’s less commonly followed today, and if it’s ever followed at all outside the US where PhD programs are shorter and more often involve students being handed pre-designed projects. Here are the results!
tl;dr: about half of PhD ecologists followed Stearns’ advice. But you might be surprised by who does or doesn’t follow Stearns’ advice; I was!
We got 345 responses, after removing a few respondents who weren’t sure if they’d followed Stearns’ advice. A few respondents left the occasional question blank.
34% of respondents are current PhD students, 38% finished their PhDs 1-5 years ago, 17% finished 6-10 years ago, and 12% finished >10 years ago.
49% of respondents did (or are doing) their PhDs in the US, 10% in Canada, 27% in Europe, 14% elsewhere.
52% of respondents did (or are doing) fundamental research for their PhDs, 11% applied research, 37% a mix of the two.
Respondents aren’t a random sample from any well-defined population, obviously. But there are enough of them, and they’re representative enough of ecologists generally, to make this poll an improvement on anecdotes.
The headline result:
49% of respondents began their PhDs by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year. 51% did not. I had no idea what percentage to expect. I’m intrigued that the respondents split right down the middle!
Predictors of following Stearns’ advice:
Probability of following Stearns’ advice varies significantly with location of PhD (chi-squared test, P=0.007). As you’d expect, North American PhDs are more likely to have followed Stearns’ advice than PhDs from elsewhere. 58% of American PhDs and 60% of Canadians followed Stearns’ advice, but only 33% of Europeans and 42% of respondents from elsewhere did. I am surprised that a substantial minority of respondents from outside N. America followed Stearns’ advice; I thought it would be 10% or less. So to anyone who thinks, as I did, that Stearns’ advice is just totally impractical outside the US: you (and I) are wrong.
There’s a trend for recent PhDs to be less likely to follow Stearns’ advice, though a substantial fraction of current PhD students still do so. That’s the trend I expected. It wasn’t quite significant in a chi-squared test (P=0.095), but I’m confident it’s real (the chi-squared test doesn’t know about my priors). Only 46% of current PhD students began their PhDs by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year, and only 44% of respondents who got their PhDs 1-5 years ago did so. But 58% of respondents who got their PhDs 6-10 years ago and 63% of respondents who got their PhDs >10 years ago followed Stearns’ advice. This trend could be for various reasons. It could be that PhD students used to be more likely to follow Stearns’ advice. But selection bias could also be at work (and I strongly suspect it’s a big effect, though that’s pure speculation on my part). Some people who got an EEB PhD X years ago aren’t in academic science any more and so are much less likely to have responded to this poll. In turn, that selection bias could arise for multiple non-mutually-exclusive reasons. Starting your PhD by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year could cause you to be more likely to stay in academic science, by making you a better scientist. Better able to think independently, able to ask better questions, more knowledgeable about where your field has been and where it’s going, etc. I’m sure that’s a big part of what’s going on, though I don’t have any objective evidence for that view. Starting your PhD by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year could also be a correlate of other attributes and experiences that themselves tend to cause you to stay in academic science. Perhaps people who start their PhDs by following Stearns’ advice tend to come from certain sorts of labs, or have certain sorts of supervisors, or have certain personality traits, or are just more likely to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the full range of things that academic scientists have to do.
Probability of following Stearn’s advice varies significantly with whether your PhD research was fundamental, applied, or a mix (chi-squared test, P=0.032). As I expected, fundamental researchers are more likely to follow Stearns’ advice, though it’s not a massive difference. 55% of respondents who did fundamental research for their PhDs followed Stearns’ advice. Only 36% of respondents who did applied PhD research and 43% who did mixed PhD research followed Stearns’ advice.
I’m not sure if I see the glass as half-full or half-empty on the headline result.
I’m most interested in the fact that a substantial minority of EEB PhD students outside N. America manage to spend their first year reading and thinking widely, despite only having 3-4 years to complete their programs. I’d be very interested to hear from those students–how do you do it?
Looking forward to your comments, as always. Especially if you’re Steve Stearns. 🙂
UPDATE: Steve Stearns comments! At length! Focusing on the background of how he came to write his piece, and the range of ways in which students have reacted to it.