Expectations and Opportunities for Your PhD

Ph.D. Program Overview

The goal of a Ph.D. program is to teach students to perform independent scientific research. This has several components: development of research questions, review of published scientific literature, development of specific hypotheses, selection or development of appropriate methods, performance of those methods, analysis of results, presentation of results, incorporation of feedback from presentations, discussion of results in light of published literature, and publication of the results in a peer-reviewed journal. Students learn this process through a variety of mechanisms, including direct instruction from more advanced researchers, imitation of more advanced researchers, and good old trial and error. To a large degree, Ph.D. programs in ecology are apprenticeships with individual scientists.


Mitchell Lab Drill Presses for extracting viruses
from plant tissue.

Collaboration vs. Independence

The goal of a Ph.D. program is to teach students to perform independent scientific research. Somewhat paradoxically, science in general and ecology in particular is increasingly collaborative in nature. Thus, a Ph.D. dissertation must strike a balance between independence and collaboration. Different students will find different balances along this spectrum. The discipline of ecology has a strong tradition of highly independent graduate students, yet it is increasingly valuable to be able to function well as part of a team. The greater complexity and interdisciplinarity of today’s scientific problems demand increased teamwork. I encourage graduate students to develop collaborations, whether with other lab members, people down the hall, or people around the world. The ability to independently develop productive collaborations is perhaps as crucial a skill today as any. For my part, I seek to offer my graduate students opportunities to collaborate on parts of my research that are relevant to their own interests. For instance, if I am invited to write a book chapter or review, I often offer a student the chance to be lead author. I have collaboratively written major research proposals with students in order to provide funding for them. For students who are being supported by grant funding, performing tasks such as these or helping harvest field experiments will be an explicit requirement of the funding. But, even in situations where specific work is required of students, I will always seek to create a net benefit for the student. I do not see students as cheap labor; I see them as budding colleagues and strive to treat them as such.

Career Paths

While the only stated goal of a Ph.D. program is training to be an independent researcher, many Ph.D.’s do not follow this path. Basic demographic principles dictate that each professor at a research university will, on average, train one student who takes such a job (under the assumption of steady-state; if the field of ecology doubles in size over my career, then my expected contribution would be two). Therefore, I embrace students following diverse career paths. Other possible careers include teaching at smaller colleges, conducting research for government agencies such as USGS or USDA, or working to apply ecological principles to conservation for an organization like The Nature Conservancy. But whether or not you pursue research after your Ph.D., I expect that you will publish your dissertation research in peer-reviewed journals. This isone thing I expect in return for the time, money, and energy that I will spend helping you to receive your Ph.D. Moreover, publication of your results is the only way in which you can make sure that others can learn from your years of hard work!

General Idealized Timeline for an Ecology Ph.D.

Field season 0: If possible, begin to learn organisms, site, people, methods, and questions before start of first academic year.

Academic year 1: Take classes. Read extensively. Get familiar with the lab group(s), cohort, and curriculum / department. Plan for field season 1. Join ESA (the Ecological Society of America) and any other relevant societies. (You are a professional now). Get in the habit of attending weekly seminars. Publish any prior work.

Field season 1: Learn organisms, site, people, and methods. Collect preliminary data as an initial test of at least one hypothesis. Establish one field experiment. Attend ESA.

Academic year 2: Finish required classwork (if necessary, a maximum of 1 or 2 classes can be left for next year). Conduct focused reading for a review / idea paper to be submitted by the end of the academic year. Begin preliminary examinations. Analyze data from field season 1. Make a poster presentation of data from field season 1. Give a short in-house talk on results to date. Write rough title, introduction, and methods sections for one empirical thesis chapter. Plan for field season 2.

Field season 2: Finish data collection for the first empirical thesis chapter. Collect preliminary data and/or establish experiments for two more empirical thesis chapters. Present poster of field season 1 results at ESA.

Academic year 3: Finish all remaining classwork. Finish preliminary examinations. Submit DDIG (doctoral dissertation improvement grant) to NSF. Revise and publish review / idea paper. Analyze data from field season 2. Give one short and one longer in-house talk on results to date. Finish and submit to a journal the first empirical thesis chapter. Prepare a talk for ESA. Outline thesis chapter titles, introductions, and methods sections.

Field season 3: Continue data collection. Present talk at ESA on results of field season 2.

Academic year 4: Resubmit DDIG as appropriate. Continue analysis, presentation, and publication of results. Develop list of possible postdoc advisors and network with them.

Field season 4: Wrap up all data collection. Present talk at ESA.

Academic year 5: Finish analyses. Continue presentation and publication of results. Apply for postdocs or jobs. Finish writing, present, and defend thesis.

Additional Resources

Here are links to web pages, some of ecology faculty at other universities, that contain helpful information, ideas, and advice:

BioDiverse Perspectives (graduate student blog)

Dr. Dan Binkley, Colorado State University
Dr. David Post, Yale University
Dr. Sönke Johnsen, Duke University