During the ASIP Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology, attendees took a break from the amazing sessions to wake the artist within the science. See photos of some of the fantastic work and talent that our members produced.
Written by Katie Langin
Earning a Ph.D. takes years and poses many challenges, so it’s important to choose the person who will shepherd you through the process—your Ph.D. adviser—wisely. There’s no single formula for choosing the right Ph.D. adviser; the factors will vary for each student. But the latest research on the topic points to things to look for when making a decision, as well as pitfalls to avoid.
When it comes to student satisfaction, the single most important element is adviser supportiveness, according to a study published this week in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. Getting a Ph.D. is “a very stressful, long process,” says Gerard Dericks, a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom and the lead author of the study. “You’ll have setbacks. You’ll get discouraged. You’ll have doubts about yourself—about your research ideas, about many things.” So, it’s important to have an adviser who “believes in you and is willing to give you that extra support that you need in those trying times,” he says.
Dericks and his colleagues homed in on the importance of adviser supportiveness by surveying 409 Ph.D. students—85% of whom were in the sciences and engineering—at 63 universities in 20 countries. The United States, Australia, and countries in Europe yielded the most survey responses. The team measured student satisfaction by asking the survey participants to rate the degree to which words such as “good,” “happy,” “terrible,” and “disappointing” described their overall Ph.D. experience. Then, the researchers asked students about their experiences with the people and support networks that immediately surrounded them in academia: namely their advisers, departments, and peers.
Adviser supportiveness—whether an adviser was caring, considerate, encouraging, and sympathetic—was the most important factor for student satisfaction. According to the researchers’ findings, switching from an adviser who was strongly unsupportive to one that was highly supportive would be expected to increase the Ph.D. satisfaction score—on a scale of one to six—by nearly two points. None of the other factors considered—including age, gender, years of study, country, and department and peer qualities—had such a strong effect.
It’s also important to figure out whether your working style is compatible with your prospective adviser’s style, says Anna Sverdlik, a psychology postdoc at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada, who studies conditions that promote the success and well-being of Ph.D. students, and co-authored a review article on the topic published in September 2018. What works for individuals varies: Many students don’t want someone constantly looking over their shoulder, but for some it can be helpful to have an adviser who keeps tabs on them more regularly to set deadlines and ensure that they’re making progress, she says.
Either way, it’s best not to have an overly hands-on adviser because that can handicap your future career, says Sotaro Shibayama, an economist and senior lecturer at Lund University in Sweden and the author of a new study of how advising style influences Ph.D. students’ long-term success, published in this month’s issue of Research Policy. Shibayama tracked 791 life scientists who earned a Ph.D. in Japan between 2000 and 2010, counting the papers they published in graduate school and up to 9 years after graduation. He found that when advisers were largely responsible for dictating the design of their students’ research projects, students initially benefited because they published more papers during graduate school than peers who were given more autonomy. But after graduation, researchers who were advised by professors who weren’t so hands-on went on to be more productive.
The study underscores a fundamental disconnect between the interests of advisers and advisees, Shibayama says. Advisers may want to publish as many papers as possible so that they can win more grants and move their research programs forward. But advisees are best served if they are given the space to make mistakes and develop into capable, independent scientists—a process that can take time, and that is more likely to pay off after a student has left an adviser’s lab.
In some labs, graduate students are “treated like labor—like robots in a factory—rather than independent scientists,” he says. “They are just told to do some experiment and they have to stay in the lab day and night, 24/7.” That’s not fun, he says, and the lack of autonomy doesn’t help them learn what it takes to be a successful scientist. Shibayama recommends that prospective Ph.D. students look for advisers who let their students play a role in study design. “Students have to find someone who goes beyond their own interest,” he says. “Some professors are interested in producing good students, so choose those supervisors.”
Sverdlik adds that it’s best to find an adviser who is willing to devote time to nurturing your development during critical phases of graduate school—during the transition from coursework to research, for instance—and who otherwise will give you room to grow on your own. “What we found in the literature is that when your supervisor just monitors your progress, and is willing to make time for you when you really need help, that is really all that is needed for students to succeed.”
To figure out what a professor’s approach to advising is, Sverdlik encourages students to ask a lot of questions of prospective advisers and their advisees when they’re interviewing. For example: “How do they work? Do they check up on you a couple times a week, or do they give you a task and they’re OK not hearing from you until you complete it?” Prospective students will differ in their specific preferences, but overall, it’s probably best to find a balance and avoid overly hands-on and overly hands-off advisers.
When looking for an adviser, prospective students often seek out well-known researchers who are highly cited and respected in their fields. Dericks and his team didn’t find any evidence that showed that’s an effective strategy, though: After taking adviser supportiveness into consideration, students’ satisfaction levels weren’t correlated with their perceptions of their Ph.D. advisers’ intelligence, knowledge, intellect, and scholarly abilities. It’s critical to find “someone you can relate to, who is going to be supportive in a personal way,” Dericks says. “That’s more important than somebody who might have a famous name or someone who’s particularly skilled.”
That said, prestige can be a relevant consideration. The reality is that, in the long term, a reference letter from a well-known professor—and a degree from a top-notch university—can give Ph.D. holders a boost when they’re searching for a job. According to a 2015 study, 25% of U.S. institutions produce roughly three-quarters of all tenure-track faculty members in the three disciplines the team examined: computer science, business, and history. The researchers—led by Aaron Clauset, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Colorado in Boulder—didn’t have any data on the quality of scholars who were awarded faculty positions. But given how much faculty-member production differed between universities, they suspected that faculty positions weren’t given out on merit alone. The reputation or some other characteristic of an institution, they concluded, probably played a role.
So, a prestigious academic pedigree may help you get where you want to go after graduation. But if that’s the only thing you take into consideration, you could wind up having a terrible experience in graduate school. “A bad or even just mediocre adviser can make your time as a doctoral student miserable or simply not pleasant, which could undermine the excitement that got you interested in research to begin with,” Clauset notes. When his students come to him looking for advice about who they should work with next, he tells them not to weigh prestige too heavily. “It’s far more important … to have an adviser who supports your career goals and development, and who has your interests at heart, than it is to have a degree from an elite program.”
So… you worked hard on your paper. You ran the experiments and wrote up the results. You got the cover letter just right, and you made sure to polish the title, the abstract, and the figures . Finally, you submitted your work to a journal, and a few days later you received an email letting you know that the editors have sent your work out for peer review!
And now … you wait.
By Ben Tolkin
Anne Q. Hoy, 26 Apr 2019
Chris Bolden, a Ph.D. candidate researching drug addiction, was thrilled with the outcome of two Arkansas congressional delegation staff meetings as part of an American Association for the Advancement of Science workshop on the role of science in public policy-making.
The capstone meeting with a staffer for Rep. French Hill (R–AR) resulted in an invite to serve on an Arkansas regional advisory board on the state’s methamphetamine epidemic, a focus of Bolden’s research. At a later meeting with aides to Sen. Tom Cotton (R–AR), Bolden was asked to provide a tour of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences lab where he conducts research. “I said, ‘Yes,’ of course.”
“Scientists in this generation want to increase our advocacy beyond the bench, and the best start is to get involved in policy,” said Bolden, one of 173 upper-class undergraduate and graduate science students who participated in intensive activities over 3 days as part of AAAS’s Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop, a crash course for science and public policy-making in the federal arena.
In recent years, the CASE workshop has experienced steady growth that aligns with increasing interest and engagement in policy-making and its impacts on the scientific enterprise among science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students.
Chloe McPherson, an associate in AAAS’s Office of Government Relations and an ambassador to CASE workshop participants, attributes growing workshop participation to the increasing formation of student-run, campus-based public policy and science organizations and outreach networks.
“More science policy groups are forming on campuses around the country, and a lot of graduate and Ph.D. students are looking for different ways to be involved and different options for what to do once they graduate,” said McPherson. “That has been a big factor.”
In 2018, CASE marked the greatest year-over-year jump in attendance when participation shot up to 193 students, the largest group to date, from 93 participants in 2017. In 2014, its inaugural year, CASE drew 64 students. Attendees of this year’s March workshop in Washington, D.C., also came from 28 different states across the country.
The number of scientific societies and universities that support student participation in the workshop also has climbed. Sixty-four institutions and organizations supported student attendance this year, up from 33 sponsors in the workshop’s inaugural year.
CASE has become a go-to workshop for scientists eager to understand science policy-making, particularly in the legislative and executive branches. Speakers addressed forces that transform legislatiion into laws, complex pressures behind annual federal budget proposals and spending decisions, and the operations of federal agencies.
Attendees attribute their interest to the need to expand their professional opportunities and gain knowledge of and participation in public policy-making that favorably impacts scientific research and contributes to public recognition of science’s value to public well-being and economic growth.
“Scientists are displaying a higher interest in learning about public policy because these policies affect our progress at and beyond the bench,” said Bolden. “Policies help influence which public health concerns funding invests in.”
The workshop’s Capitol Hill visits generated extensive enthusiasm among CASE attendees, reactions widely reflected on their Twitter posts with expressions of gratitude for being given platforms to advocate for science, engage in science policy matters, share stories about their research, and make cases for federal scientific support.
Jacy Hyde, a Ph.D. candidate who studies deforestation and energy development in the Brazilian Amazon and a founder of a University of Florida science policy student organization, said her meetings with the staff of Reps. Bill Posey (R–FL), Neal Dunn (R–FL), and Michael Waltz (R–FL) were an important step in building relationships with the state’s delegation, a goal of her university’s student policy organization.
“Both the workshop and my meetings reinforced the idea that simply bringing knowledge is not enough, but that you have to explain why someone should care about your work, and that enthusiasm, passion, and finding common ground really make a difference,” said Hyde.
The workshop also featured CASE alumni. Danielle DaCrema, a Ph.D. candidate in cell biology, now participating in a 12-week science and technology policy fellowship at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, said that the CASE workshop helped jumpstart her science policy work by providing resources and a network of contacts. The program’s federal budget training segments by Matt Hourihan were especially valuable, she said.
In sharing his story with attendees, Drew Story, another CASE alumnus who holds a Ph.D. in chemical and environmental engineering and now serves as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellow in the office of Sen. Chris Coons (D–DE), said he got his start by attending a AAAS annual meeting in 2015. Continuing involvement led him to the CASE workshop and now AAAS’s year-long public policy fellowship program. “Anytime I was involved in AAAS my network grew,” Story said.
The CASE workshop was founded in 2014 by the AAAS Office of Government Relations and five other scientific societies and higher-education institutions to answer increasing calls from students to better understand the bridge between science and policy-making and to gain training in science communications.
“Graduate students have taken an increasing interest in policy because, more than in the past, they want science and evidence used to inform and shape federal policies,” said Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, one of the program’s founding organizations.
Smith, a CASE speaker, underscored the need for effective advocacy from student scientists and praised the establishment on campuses of science policy groups and communications networks to enhance student participation in the public policy arena. Among topics they need to address, he said, are growing pressure on discretionary federal spending that is equivalent to potential cuts for key science agencies and programs, and legislative provisions that can block effective and efficient science.
A proposed tax provision in an early version of the 2018 Tax Reform Act, for instance, would have greatly increased educational costs for graduate students, said Smith. Instead, it served as a wake-up call for them to get more involved in public policy-making and led many to join or establish student-run policy groups. “What they learned from that experience was that if they mobilized, they could make a significant difference in the final outcome of major legislation,” he said.
Throughout the workshop, networking and coalition-building among participants were on full display, as was their energy, enthusiasm, and dedication. As if on cue, the 173 CASE participants quickly stood up at the beginning of each break and launched into conversations with those seated around them.
Staff from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, Senate and House lawmakers’ offices, congressional science committees and NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation shared executive and legislative branch perspectives.
In workshop remarks, Sam Love, an aide to Sen. Cory Gardner (R–CO), advised the community to help lawmakers stay informed about science. Samantha Warren, an aide to Rep. Bill Foster (D–IL), said of policy-making, “If you’re not part of the conversation… not there to be influencing it, it will happen to you, rather than with you, so you might as well get engaged.”
Teresa Davies, a National Science Foundation senior adviser, rallied CASE participants to leverage their value as the nation’s new generation of scientists. “You are critically important. I am hoping that when you get outreach opportunities, you take full advantage.”
Also addressing the workshop were Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive officer, and Shirley Malcom, AAAS senior adviser and director of SEA Change, a program designed to help academic institutions attract, retain, and advance underrepresented minority groups in science. “Laws let things happen. People have to make things happen,” Malcom said.
Showing CASE participants how to be a scientist and engaged in public policy, Holt traced his career as a Ph.D. physicist, college professor, federal employee, assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, 16-year member of New Jersey’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, and now AAAS’s chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Sciencefamily of journals.
Graduate students, Holt said, need to stop science from being ignored, seek out evidence, and connect with audiences by telling “the story of the evidence. Evidence-based thinking leads to more reliable knowledge and that reliable knowledge is what you should base your further research on and any public policy decision-making that you’re going to be doing.”
- Andrea Korte and Tiffany Lohwater contributed to this story.
Manuscripts may have a rigidly defined structure, but there’s still room to tell a compelling story — one that clearly communicates the science and is a pleasure to read. Scientist-authors and editors debate the importance and meaning of creativity and offer tips on how to write a top paper.
by Virginia Gewin