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Three Keys for Graduate School Success

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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The advisor-student relationship is the single unifying component of all doctoral degree programs across all academic disciplines. Select your advisor wisely. This relationship is crucial to your ability to learn and grow during your graduate program.


The posting below is an interview by Chris Golde with Maureen Stabio (see further below for more background), an assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado-Denver Anschutz School of Medicine.  Dr. Golde is the assistant director of Career Communities- PhDs & Postdocs, BEAM Stanford Career Education, Stanford University, and this posting is from her excellent blog Grad|Logic: Navigating the Ups and Downs of Graduate School. []. © 2016 Chris Golde.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Graduate Students and Postdocs

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Three Keys for Graduate School Success

(An Interview with Professor Maureen Stabio)

The five years in her PhD program included some of the best and hardest educational experiences of assistant professor Maureen Estevez Stabio’s life. She wants every student to have an equally transformative experience. Your PhD program is a time to learn and grow. To figure out what you love. Don’t let these goals get left behind in the dust of the urgent.

When students ask Dr. Stabio for advice on how to do well in graduate school, she usually offers these three pieces of advice.

•    Follow your passions and talents 

•    Pick your advisor and lab wisely

•    Learn to write well

There is more about Stabio’s story at the end. Let’s get to the three pieces of advice.

Follow Your Passions and Talents

“If it’s not a kick in the pants, it’s time to quit and find something else.” Stabio’s postdoc supervisor said this regularly. Grad school is the time to figure out what you love so much that it will sustain you in the hard times and make the good times feel like you aren’t working at all. Grad school is a time to explore and test out options.

▪   Uncover your passions. What do you love? What do you not like?

▪   Explore your talents: What are you good at? What can you get better at?

Get confused. Try new things. Risk failure. (I advocate compiling a CV of Failures.)

The MyIDP tool can help you identify your strengths. Stabio encourages all of her students to use it.

But, she reminds, pace yourself, so you don’t burn out. Moderation is important. If you try to do too much, you won’t publish or do the other things you need to do to finish your degree. Those goals need to be front and center. If you are going to take on extra commitments, take on something that excites you, not those solely intended to pad your CV. She advocates being very selective and deliberate when you decide how to spend your time. We wrote about this together in “Your Bag of Apples | Set Realistic Goals.”

Also give yourself time and space for reflection. Think about what you get excited about. What are the implications of that self-knowledge? (A blog post coming soon argues for developing Self Awareness.)

What are your passions and talents? As you identify them, be strategic about growing them. (Read more about this in an upcoming Three Keys interview with Versatile PhD founder Paula Chambers.)

Here’s an example from Stabio’s life: If you love teaching, as Stabio does, then find time to teach and improve as a teacher. She minimized teaching, because she wanted to prioritize research in the lab. Nevertheless, the identity “teacher” is on her To Be list. She found ways to keep true to that identity. How to develop as a teacher but not get swallowed in time sinks? She taught in small isolated chunks of time during both her PhD and postdoc:  a summer short course for high school students, and a set of neuroanatomy lectures in the Brain Sciences Block for first year medical students. She also sought out supplemental pedagogical training: Boston University’s Vesalius teaching certificate program and teaching certificates from Brown University’s Sheridan Center. Her plans were always cleared with her PhD advisor and postdoc supervisor.

Since she wanted to be a faculty member at a teaching-intensive university, she figured out how to teach—and improve—without taking a lot of time away from the research bench or publishing her work. Her track record helped her land her current job.

Pick Your Advisor and Lab Wisely

The advisor-student relationship is the single unifying component of all doctoral degree programs across all academic disciplines. Select your advisor wisely. This relationship is crucial to your ability to learn and grow during your graduate program. Dr. M. Carter Cornwall was Stabio’s PhD advisor, whom she describes as “completely committed to my success.” She wrote about him in Change magazine (2009). Seek out high-quality mentorship. (In her Three Keys Interview, Alexandra Wright suggests building mentoring relationships with three advisors.)

It’s important to ask questions of your prospective advisor; and interview other students and postdocs (even former grad students) who work directly with the advisor. In Stabio’s case, Dr. Cornwall offered her the phone numbers of former graduate students when she first spoke to him. She called and asked about his strengths and weaknesses as an advisor and the lab environment. Those phone conversations were the determining factor for picking the lab. Nearly all of Cornwall’s former students and postdocs offered praise, and continued to call him for advice or collaborate with him.

Questions to ask the advisor and students include:

▪   How often do the student and advisor meet? Once a week; once a month; email only; or do you never see him/her?

▪   What is the advisor’s mentoring style? Stabio is a proponent of the coaching style, as described in this essay by Kerry Anne Rockquemore. However, if you prefer to be very independent, you may prefer an advisor who is not around a lot and gives you a lot of freedom.

▪   What’s the best part of working in the lab (or with this advisor) and what’s the worst or most challenging?

▪   What is the culture and mood of the lab? Happy, calm, productive, enthusiastic? Or not?

▪   How does s/he teach students technical skills? Structured training, expecting you to teach yourself, or delegating to postdocs?

▪   Does the advisor see students primarily as junior colleagues to teach and develop, or as tools to advance the science in the lab?

▪   Do former graduate students and postdocs continue to collaborate and stay in touch with the advisor? People continue to work with those they like and respect.

▪   Does the advisor give students affirmations? Many don’t, because they were not encouraged during their own training. If you learn better with actively demonstrated support, then look for it.

Learn to Write Well

In grad school, outside of experiments, writing consumed more of Stabio’s time than any other activity. “To survive in academia you write all of the time,” she noted. You write papers, grants, abstracts, proposals, CVs, cover letters for job applications, letters of recommendation. It never stops. (In Deji Akinwande’s Three Keys interview, his third piece of advice underscores this point.)

Investing in your writing is time well spent.

▪   Take a writing class. Many universities or the local community college offer basic writing courses.

▪   Use your university’s writing center. The center may seem oriented to undergrads, but most are also available to grad students. One-to-one tutoring and special workshops, such as writing grant and fellowship applications, are typical services. You can take drafts of your work and get feedback. When applying for jobs, Stabio took her cover letter and Research Statement to the writing center at Brown. If the writing center doesn’t serve grad students, advocate for them to do so! Great examples are at UCLA, the University of Utah, Washington State University, UC Berkeley, and Stanford.

▪   Seek out peer writing partners. Many students find that Dissertation Writing Groups make them very productive. There are groups for productivity and support, and groups for feedback and motivation.

▪   Find a writing coach. Grad students in the writing-centered fields, like English and composition, might free-lance as coaches. “In the old days, your advisor served as your writing coach,” Stabio pointed out. “But these days, and if you are in a big lab, that might not be possible.” Find someone to give you detailed feedback.


Maureen Stabio, influenced in part by her participation in the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate,* sees herself as a steward of her discipline. Thus she takes mentoring students very seriously. Heed her guidance: Surround yourself with good advisors and colleagues who will help you to thrive. Pace yourself. Make mistakes. Follow your passions.


Dr. Maureen Estevez Stabio is an assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado-Denver Anschutz School of Medicine (CU Anschutz). She is heavily involved in teaching and leadership in the master’s degree program in Modern Human Anatomy. Her research training and expertise is in the structure and function of the mammalian retina.

She completed her PhD in 2007 from the department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Boston University, working in the lab of Dr. Carter Cornwall, where she received excellent mentorship and training in the study of the vertebrate retina. In the Cornwall lab, she used electrophysiology to uncover key features in how rod and cone photoreceptors process bright light signals differently from one another.

Stabio notes that many of Cornwall’s former students and postdocs keep in touch. They share the habit of asking, “What would Carter do?” She explains, “whenever you are in a scientific, administrative, or ethical pickle in your job as a faculty member, try to imagine what Carter would do in this situation and then do that. You’ll never go wrong.”

During her years at BU, her department was a participant in the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID).* (She and I met through the CID.) she was an active participant in three years of work analyzing and revising her doctoral program as part of a departmental team of faculty and students.

Thereafter, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Anita Zimmerman and then in the lab of Dr. David Berson at Brown University, where she studied the structure and function of a new type of photoreceptor in the mammalian retina that can respond to light independent of rods and cones (the intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cell or ipRGC). In 2014, she moved to CU Anschutz as a new tenure-track assistant professor. Right off the bat she was mentoring 8 students and juggling 8 different research and teaching projects. It was too much, but so much fun! It was hard to say “no” to all the opportunities! After having a baby, she realized that she needed to radically restructure her time, commitments and priorities. Parenting was harder than she ever imagined. Her experience inspired the co-authored post “Your Bag of Apples | Set Realistic Goals.”


* The Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate was a 5-year action and research project (2000-2005) intended to catalyze improvement in doctoral programs. Six disciplines were included: chemistry, education, English, history, mathematics and neuroscience. The book The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the Twenty-First Century, by George Walker, Chris M. Golde, Laura Jones, Andrea Conklin Bueschel, and Pat Hutchings (2008) describes the project and advances key ideas emerging from it. One of those is that the purpose of the doctorate is the development of “stewards of the discipline.” This idea was explored in the first book from the project, a collection of essays entitled Envisioning the Future of Doctoral Education: Preparing Stewards of the Discipline, edited by Chris M. Golde and George Walker (2006).