Poll results: do ecologists start their PhDs by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year? (UPDATED)

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!

Demographics:

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.

Final thoughts:

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.

 

25 thoughts on “Poll results: do ecologists start their PhDs by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year? (UPDATED)

    • Yes, it’s possible that the poll results are basically showing that 50% of supervisors encourage/expect their PhD students to read and think widely for a year, while the other 50% encourage/expect their students to start focusing on data collection in their first year. Of course, it’s also possible that some fraction of supervisors largely leave their students to their own devices. I’m now kicking myself for not including a question about this in the poll.

      Stearns advises students to read and think widely even if others tell them not to. But I bet it’s pretty rare for first year PhD students to go against the advice or demands of their advisors for months.

      • I think there are a fair share of absentee PhD mentors in the world. Mine was almost entirely so… which actually wasn’t a bad thing.

  1. It’s also possible that people interested in non-academic careers or needing to generate income for other reasons don’t want to spend an extra year in academics earning low wages.

    I’m not really on-board w/ stearns’ advice. Reading is important but skill and experience with actually doing experiments is just as important and doing a mix of the two generates positive feedbacks for both. I also think people should be reading widely before starting their PhD anyway.

    • Have you read Stearns’ piece? If not, you might be surprised that there are bits encouraging students to pursue non-academic career opportunities, and to not just blindly commit themselves to academia as if there were no other options. He certainly considered his advice on how to spend the first year of your PhD to be good advice even for students aiming for non-academic careers. You could of course argue that he was wrong to think that, though personally I wouldn’t (and I say that as a supervisor whose two PhD students both went on to non-academic careers, with my encouragement).

      Re: people not wanting to spend an extra year in academia earning low wages, that would seem to presume that spending a year reading and thinking is a waste of time. That it won’t cost you in terms of wages or career opportunities down the road. For instance, if you are aiming for academia, do you want to end up doing a second postdoc because you rushed through grad school and didn’t learn to think independently until the end of your first postdoc? Plus, as the poll results indicate, a substantial fraction of students in 3-4 year PhD programs manage to spend their first year reading and thinking widely. And I followed Stearns’ advice and finished in 4 years and 9 months in the US. So I don’t think following Stearns’ advice necessarily is mutually exclusive with finishing your PhD quickly.

      Re: doing a mix of things your first year rather than *only* reading, this came up in the comment thread on the poll. It’s actually what I did; I spent part of my first year (a couple of hours/day for a few months) running a side project my advisor handed me. It certainly helped me psychologically, to come home at the end of each day with some data and not just notes on papers I’d read. And it taught me the technical ins and outs of the experimental system I was going to use for my PhD. I think it’s a question of degree and priorities. My top priority, the one that took up the bulk of my time in my first year (not 100%, but the bulk) was reading and thinking widely and deeply. I think it would’ve been suboptimal to shift that mix to mostly collecting data with only a couple of hours/day devoted to reading.

      • Hi J,

        I read the piece and I agree with the bulk of it. This is the best part of it:

        “Assume that everything you read is bullshit until the author manages to convince you that it isn’t. If you do not understand something, don’t feel bad – it’s not your fault, it’s the author’s. He didn’t write clearly enough.”

        I ran into this a lot back in the grad school days: I’d read something that I couldn’t understand because it was so poorly written. My approach was to tear it apart word by word, figure it out an rewrite it. Sometimes you find it’s not possible to write it clearly because it doesn’t make sense.

        I also like his suggestion to do a Master’s first.

        I strongly endorse wide reading of the literature as a student, but I’m just not on board with reading for a year at the start of the PhD. Many reasons: 1) shouldn’t you be thinking and reading widely before you choose a PhD program so you can choose a program that has the expertise and facilities to support your project?; 2) IMO there’s a lot of great feedback that occurs between doing lab or fieldwork and reading; 3) I’m a strong proponent of course work – a well organized series of lectures can summarize and compress a lot of information and get you deep into new topics quickly (but there’s a caveat: about half of my grad courses were pretty crappy with very little investment of time by the prof, so obviously if the prof isn’t going to work at you may as well go read the book); 4) teaching has lots of benefits too.

        “That it won’t cost you in terms of wages or career opportunities down the road. ”

        The extra $35K you earn in your extra year of work at age 30 is worth about $1M by the time you’re 65 years old at the long term average market return rate. That’s a lot of cash to get back in salary.

        I have many more thoughts, perhaps later…

      • ” I spent part of my first year (a couple of hours/day for a few months) running a side project my advisor handed me. ”

        I think that’s a great thing to do along with reading and thinking. I mean I’m sure different things work better for different people. I did an MS then went on to a PhD at a different school, but I started reading literature when I was in community college, before I ever had a second year course. Eventually, after passing my comps I decided to go to work and I left my PhD.

        It’s hard to know how “Extensive reading and thinking ” (ERT) in the first year of a PhD might impact one’s career down the road, but I think the connections that you’re making are, well, honestly I think they’re kind of poorly constrained. Any number of other factors could cause both ERT and a better career. For example, a well-established supervisor with lots of cash could allow all of h/her students reading and thinking time, as well as have extensive clout to help them haul down choice jobs. Not to mention the fact that self-reporting of what constitutes “extensive reading and thinking” is subject to a fair amount of leeway!

        Whether reading and thinking about the literature is important in your career depends on what you do. My first permanent job out of school was drawing maps and doing GIS work and I stayed in that vein for a while, so it had nothing to do with any literature I had ever read, although I had used some early GIS in my PhD work.

        I think I could also make the argument that, because so much scientific work is provisional, a really solid knowledge of the literature now shouldn’t be much good ten years or so out unless it’s well maintained, and I’m hearing most people say they can’t do that.

        Its great that you finished in under five years. But I’ve met people in year eight. If someone is wanting to get to work, it’s as much the perception of an extended graduate school stay as the reality that could drive people to make choices early on to shorten the time frame.

        cheers,
        jim

  2. Somewhere I read that Jane Goodall went into the jungle with almost no background reading or study at all. The argument being that a thorough reading of the literature canalizes one’s thinking and inhibits creative thinking.

    I guess I walked somewhere between the two extremes – as probably most do. But the key to preparation is THINKING, not just reading. I don’t see enough evidence of thinking about what one has read or observed or measured. Just lots of doing. In my opinion, quality thinking and quality thinkers are very rare commodities at any level in ecology or evolutionary biology.

    • “But the key to preparation is THINKING, not just reading. ”

      Well, I’d say the reading is essential because it gives you something to think *about*, but yes, I totally agree. I only know my own example: I took notes on many of the papers I read (whether in a notebook, or in the margins of the printout), and my notes weren’t just summaries of what I’d read. They were my own thoughts, questions, and criticisms.

      “The argument being that a thorough reading of the literature canalizes one’s thinking and inhibits creative thinking.”

      Robert MacArthur felt the same: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/the-best-thing-youll-read-about-ecology-this-week-fretwell-1975-on-robert-macarthur/. Of course, the familiar counterargument is that not knowing the previous literature just leads to people constantly reinventing the wheel and repeating previous mistakes. We have some old posts on squaring this circle:

      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/how-do-you-read-how-much-do-you-read/

      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/musings-on-reading-older-literature/

    • I think you can defend against getting canalized by the lit by doing exactly what Stearns suggested: Assuming all that you read is BS until the author proves otherwise. Taking that approach also forces you to think about what you’re reading, rather than just gobble it up at face value.

      I think you can do anything – reading, writing, lab / field work or analysis – in a rote way or not. It’s really up to the student whether they want to just chug thru it or think and learn.

      • jim, while I can agree with everything in your second paragraph, I can agree with nothing in the first one, and I do so on multiple levels. Presumption of BS is right in keeping with today’s smack-down, in-your-face, bullying that we see everywhere, but it is neither constructive nor particularly objective. Philosophical skepticism is a very useful approach, in my opinion, but hardly the same as the All is BS-Until-Proven-Otherwise approach. Nor does this avoid canalization, or have anything at all to do with what I consider THINKING in a constructive, progressive, and organized manner.

        When I was a grad student, I was prone to the All is BS approach initially, but I grew out of it thankfully and replaced it with Skepticism, though I did not know it at that at the time.

      • Brent, IMO the “all BS” idea isn’t meant literally. I certainly didn’t take it that way. It’s a figure of speech to remind people pay attention to what’s being said and not be afraid to challenge what’s written in papers. Sometimes that’s an important message for students.

  3. Interesting survey. I wonder how many people thought following his advice in the end was the right thing to do. I didn’t respond to the survey because I knew what I wanted to study right away and began work on it, but I also read widely, mostly because it was the culture in the group I entered (you didn’t have that as an option on the survey!). Stearns’ advice comes off as if one shouldn’t decide on a project in the first year and should read INSTEAD, which I think is useful only if you don’t have a good idea for a project. Sometimes students become paraiized by the urge to find the most impactful project, when it can be better to just start on something. And, finally, reading widely isn’t something to be done only in the first year, although actually continuing to do all the time is hard. Nevertheless, I find it incredibly useful in the long run.

    • “I wonder how many people thought following his advice in the end was the right thing to do. ”

      Good question, I wish I’d asked that in the poll! At a guess, I bet a substantial proportion of respondents think that however much reading they did to start their PhDs was the right amount for them, and that the remainder wish they’d read more. Whether they’d all be *right* to think that they either read enough, or not enough, is a difficult counterfactual to answer. I suspect that few would say they’d read too much.

      “Stearns’ advice comes off as if one shouldn’t decide on a project in the first year and should read INSTEAD, which I think is useful only if you don’t have a good idea for a project.”

      I think it’s fairly rare for students to enter PhD programs with good project ideas, especially if they haven’t done an MSc first. It’s common for students to have a broad idea of the topic they might want to work on, but that’s not the same thing.

      I think the cure to reading-induced paralysis is ongoing discussion with your advisor. I didn’t just read and think on my own, and then struggle to come up with (or settle on) one good project idea. I also talked to my advisor weekly about what I was reading and thinking. That really helped me better understand how what I was reading fit into the larger literature, and helped keep me from floundering. Even though, in the end, I ended up proposing a project I’d first conceived as an undergrad! (which made me very unusual). But all that reading I did turned out to be very useful to me in the long run. For instance, one big reason that I’m a successful blogger is because of all that reading I did in grad school. And I have a bunch of papers on applying the Price equation to ecology that I’d never have written if I hadn’t read Frank (1997) on the Price equation back in grad school. I read it just because it was the lead article in Evolution that month and so I figured it must be important.

      “And, finally, reading widely isn’t something to be done only in the first year, although actually continuing to do all the time is hard. ”

      Yup: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/08/21/it-doesnt-get-any-easier-guest-post/

      https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/a-recap-of-my-year-in-365papers/

  4. HI Jeremy

    It is both gratifying and surprising that a piece I wrote 41 years ago has been so much discussed and had so much influence. Thanks for doing this survey. I have two more substantial responses.

    The first is from Designs for Learning (http://stearnslab.yale.edu/designs-learning), in which I comment, among other things, on how Modest Advice came to be written. I then go on to say:

    “The model for graduate work expressed in Modest advice is not for everyone. When I got my first two PhD students in Basel, Switzerland, in 1984, I treated them as I thought I would want to be treated: I gave them Modest advice to read, and I asked them to come up with their own projects. One of them took to it like a duck to water, enjoyed it, and flourished in science: he is now a full professor at a major research university. The other came up with a great idea that suggested a pilot project involving a trip to a field site in Africa. I bought him a ticket and asked him to go down and do a feasibility study. On the last day we could get the money back for the ticket, he came into my office, handed me the ticket, and told me he would not make the trip because he could not bear the risk of failure. He then had a nervous breakdown, and when he emerged from treatment and returned to work, his personality had changed. He had become, as I perceived him, paranoid and obsessive.

    “He asked me to give him a project for the PhD, which I did, and proceeded to execute it with almost fanatical energy, producing a body of work that will probably never be replicated because no one else would be willing to work so hard and so precisely. He got the PhD, published several good papers from it, did a postdoc, got a starting faculty position in a medical school, then dropped out of academia to take a government job that involved statistics, at which he had become expert. When I had occasion to ask him whether I could show his wonderful PhD proposal (the one whose risk of failure he could not bear) to another student, he reluctantly told me yes, but he made clear that he blamed me for ruining his life by confronting him with unbearable expectations. The proposal later vanished from my files, which were accessible to my students in a public space. At that considerable cost, I learned that each PhD student requires a different approach. I do not think the experience refutes the general stance taken in Modest advice, but it did lead me to moderate it and to explore in a more careful and supportive way the implications that students perceive in my advice.”

    The second is a selection from the email responses to Modest Advice that I have gotten over the years. Note that they come from students in a wide range of fields, not just ecology:

    From a student in molecular biology and microbiology, 2008: “In any case, I wanted to learn more about your work so I visited your website, where I found your article “Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students”. I must admit I had tears in my eyes when I finished. I believe everything I have done in my 7 years here was in exact opposition from what you proposed. For Pete’s sake, I’m a seventh year student with no publications! For many years now, I have felt that I have done everything backwards and that things should be done differently. Consistantly, for many years now, I have been completely miserable (in my career life). Your article has pointed out to me that my gut instinct was right all along. Unfortunately, I could never figure out quite why I had felt off kilter and I surely had no idea how to fix it. Your article enumerated everything I was feeling and actually presented a wonderful rationale as to why this was.

    “I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this, perhaps it’s because you were fond of telling past stories of meetings with students and that perhaps you could use this story one day. Thank you for enlightening me to what graduate school should be. I suppose I’m just glad that my gut has been right all along.”

    From a Korean student working in business, 2012: “I just wanted to say that your advice for graduate students is by far the very best advice that I have ever read! Although my major is business, I find that your words are relevant and succinct – or in the words of hip-hop vocabulary – “very tight.” In particular, I will be implementing points 1 through 6 of your “Start Publishing Early” and when I do graduate, I will keep in mind, “Publish Regularly, But Not Too Much.”

    “From a graduate student working on her Ph.D thesis in Seoul.”

    From someone who did not indicate their field, 2012: “I love your advice to the graduate students on your website – great stuff!”

    From a graduate student going into IEEE, 2012: “I had read your article at the Yale university website regarding advice to graduate students and found it very encouraging.
    I have no background in writing papers but I would like to give it a start soon.

    “About me ,I am pursuing my masters at University of Delaware and would like to go in for PhD.
    Since I am in my initial stages of my research,I don’t have a very novel or thought provoking idea to show my work.
    “But could I start writing review papers as a beginning to my writing skills for IEEE?”

    From a student going into Media and Communications, 2012: “I have recently read your article Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students and I really enjoyed it.
    I found your article very helpful, – thank you! I am currently pursuing my Master’s in Media and Communications at Pace University and hope to apply to PhD program soon.
    In the end of this semester I am doing a presentation on PhD programs, so I was wondering if I could use your article in my presentation.”

    From a student in geosciences in Australia, 2012: “I am a nearly 4th year PhD student studying large caldera volcanoes. This email must seem a little random but i just read your article and wanted to let you know how useful and great i think it is!
    I am going to forward it to our post-graduates in the department asap.
    I wish i had seen in in my first year/few years as there were so many points that would have helped me immeasurably.

    “Albeit wishing i had seen it earlier, it has now reinvigorated me to take better control and try even harder in these last few months, it’s like a fog has been lifted.”

    From an engineering student in Wisconsin (considerably shortened here), 2013: “I write to you with a hint of satisfaction on having discovered your website by chance and having perused through your advice for graduate students and ‘designs for learning’. This discovery comes to me at a critical juncture, having completed my MS at Wisconsin (Go Badgers!), working as a researcher while pondering what I would like to do for a PhD.”

    From an environmental studies master’s student at Yale, 2013: “I write to you with a hint of satisfaction on having discovered your website by chance and having perused through your advice for graduate students and ‘designs for learning’. This discovery comes to me at a critical juncture, having completed my MS at Wisconsin (Go Badgers!), working as a researcher while pondering what I would like to do for a PhD. ”

    From the University of Notre Dame in Australia, 2013: “We really liked reading the advice you gave on your blog post (http://www.eeb.yale.edu/stearns/advice.htm) and we would like to seek permission to publish the article in this month’s edition of the newsletter. We also hope to add some advice alongside your article to make it more relevant to our research students here in Australia (as we follow the a different university system here in Australia)
    We feel that the article you wrote has really good advice for our students. We will, of course, cite you fully and include a link to your website in our newsletter.”

    From a graduate student in neurobiology at Cornell, 2013: “I’m sure you get this a lot. I just read your advice for graduate students through a link someone posted on Facebook. I really wish I had read that years ago; so much rings true. If I could only go back in time…”

    From a graduate student in life sciences, Hangzhou, China, 2014:”Two years ago, I have read your famous article Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students and benefit a lot from the advice. Now I have translated it to Chinese and publish the Chinese version of your article on my personal website (Here is the link: http://sixf.org/cn/2014/04/some-modest-advice-for-graduate-students/).

    “I just write to you and let you know my translation. If you think I should not publish it without your permission, please let me know so that I will withdraw the translated article immediately.

    “By far, Google Analytics shows more than 3000 unique visitors have read this translated article (12 hours after I published it). It is an amazing record!”

    From a graduate student in plant ecology and evolution at UC Riverside, 2014: ” I should also take this opportunity to thank you for writing ‘Some modest advice for grad students.’ I read the piece before starting graduate school, and it had a lot of influence on my decision making process.”

    From a graduate student, field unknown, in Pavia, Italy, 2014: “These are just few words to thank you for your script “Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students”. During academic life is not likely, at least where I am, to find a Mentor who can give you valuable advices for your future or get you exited about a scientific topic. I think some persons are quite self-confident but others are not, the seconds need to meet someone who cares about them because this is the fuel they need to do things better (al least for a period of time). I think this is just a mind form, but I like to consider Scientific Endeavour as based on collaboration and respect instead of a struggling competition, others would consider competition as positive value.
    I need to thank you again because when I feel discouraged I can read your words, and I feel much better.
    From a slightly disappointed guy,”

    From a master’s student in ecology, Southern Connecticut State University, 2014: “I stumbled across your advice for graduate students while googling some things on ecology advisors. I am in a Master’s program now and I just wanted to let you know that everything you have in that article is spot on. I appreciate the accuracy and advice! I look forward to referring to it in the many years to come in academia.”

    From a PhD student in chemistry at UConn, 2015: “I am PhD student in chemistry but I found your website and read the advice. I just wanted to thank you a lot for priceless advice. ”

    From a graduate student in India, 2017: “This is Sulekha from India. I came to know about you when I was seeking for a guidance and found an article “Some modest advice for graduate students”. I wish I had seen it before joining in PhD.
    After spending almost 2 years, now I realized that I can not work with my supervisor and I must find other good labs where I can work happily. But I am afraid because I don’t know many good skills like good writing and speaking. I think that if you already know these two skills, there is a better chance that you will get a good lab and eventually a good PhD.

    “I have decided that I will leave my current lab and then I will learn these skills and then I will do my PhD. Sir, I need your advice to take a right decision.”

    [there are several more like this that go into details that I do not want to repeat]

    From a PhD student in Genetics in Groningen, 2017: “I am a PhD student in the Laboratory of Genetics at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands. I just reread your Modest advise to graduate students. I read it once or twice a year and every time I read it, I read something different which helps me at that particular time.

    “Thank you for writing this piece. It is still very useful.”

    • Thanks very much for commenting Steve! This is very interesting context. It must be very satisfying to know that something you wrote so long ago continues to resonate with so many people (not with everyone, of course, as some of the comments on these posts and the example of your first pair of students highlights).

  5. Outside NAmerica, the trick to define one’s main project the first year, in a new area (where reading is therefore much required) often involves starting a sideproject in a better-known but still related field. At least in places where the criterion to be able to defend is to have at least one paper accepted/published even if all other articles are at manuscript stage (I guess you’ll have different ways to game the system depending on the local PhD defense requirements).

  6. Just curious if you asked what did people WANT to do during their PhD. I would suspect that many students that didn’t spend a year reading broadly might have liked to but weren’t given the option (it’s not an option at my institute for example, students have 3 years to finish, 3.5 max).

    • Yes, as I think I said above, I’m kicking myself for not asking about that in the poll.

      Not sure if the students who wanted to spend more time reading and thinking but couldn’t would outnumber the students who were obliged to spend a lot of time reading and thinking and hated it (see Steve Stearns’ comment for an example).

      Obviously, I can’t speak to what’s feasible at your institute specifically. But as I noted in the post, I’m quite surprised that a substantial minority of PhD students in ecology and evolution outside N. America report spending their first year reading and thinking widely and exhaustively. So perhaps there might be a way for students in your situation to pull it off? Presumably with appropriate support from their supervisors; I’m not suggesting that students could or should spend their first year of graduate school totally differently from how their supervisors want them to.

  7. Hello,
    Nice survey.
    I did not participate in the pool but in some European universities, the pressure to finish the PhD within 3-4 years makes Stearn’s advice very difficult to fulfil. In some universities, economic incentives put a large pressure on the supervisors and on the PhD applicant: research groups receive money only if the applicant finish within 4 years.
    I would have love to have one year to think/read about my subject before starting anything. I arrived at the end of May in my research group and at mid-June of the same year, I was on the field, collecting data on a protocol that I barely understood. To play safe and make sure I would reach the deadlines, my supervisors already “secured” and totally planned 2 (long term) experiments for me to do and I was free to plan a last one from scratch. I basically read and learnt while doing. At some point in the early stage of the PhD, I could not help thinking that I was trained to be a high-quality technician rather than a PhD: a lot of micro-management and little intellectual freedom. All is done to reduce the chance to fail at a minimum.The intellectual step came of course, but a bit late in the process and was a way to check what I would have done differently rather than how I would have planned my own experiment. This generates a lot of frustration, and this might be one of the reasons why people favour master students from their own lab to pursue a PhD?

    • “this might be one of the reasons why people favour master students from their own lab to pursue a PhD?”

      Good point. That’s one of the unintended consequences of pushing people to finish PhDs very quickly.

  8. “this might be one of the reasons why people favour master students from their own lab to pursue a PhD?”

    Not just their own masters students. There is a growing trend to hiring undergrads that have been working in their labs – already trained and productive at certain tasks – to continue on as grad students, generating data to feed the machine. The pressure to produce pubs and especially grants is huge and the underlying cause of most of this, in my opinion.

    • I’d be curious to see time series data on the percentage of grad students going to grad school at the same uni where they obtained their undergraduate degrees. Same for the percentage of grad students doing PhDs in the same lab where they did their MScs (if they did MScs).

      I could do a poll on this, but the results for older cohorts of now-former grad students would be biased toward those who’ve gone on to academic careers. And I wouldn’t be surprised if such students are less likely than others to have done multiple degrees at one place.

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