Notes from the Blackboard — on choosing a major professor for grad. school

(1998 Fisheries 23:16-17)
Gary D. Grossman

The recent sustained growth of the United States economy has had a direct impact on the field of fisheries, as more and more individuals have become interested in both revenue-producing and recreational activities involving fishes. Concomitant with this growth is an apparent proliferation of educational opportunities in our field. Although there probably are more jobs available in fisheries today than ever before, a surfeit of well qualified graduates has made competition for these jobs particularly intense. Consequently, it is not uncommon for highly trained fisheries graduates to have difficulty in obtaining employment in the field. These circumstances necessitate that future graduates be highly prepared, if they hope to gain a job as a fisheries manager or researcher. In fact, most professional positions in fisheries now require at least a Masters degree. Given that graduate training is an essential credential for the prospective fisheries biologist, I would like to share several pointers that I have learned over the 16 years that I have been training graduate students. I suspect that these suggestions will be of benefit to a wider audience than just my students alone. Of necessity, I am going to speak in generalities here, and I am well aware that not every strategy works every time, or for every person. In addition, although I recognize that Fisheries has an international readership, my comments probably will be most relevant to residents of the United States, the region of my expertise. I will begin with suggestions on how to choose a major professor or graduate program and end with strategic hints for current graduate students interested in improving their potential employability.

First, your choice of graduate program and major professor probably will have a greater impact on future employment than any other educational decision that you will make. Consequently, before deciding to join a faculty member’s research group, inquire about the placement rate of graduates from her/his lab. Like most activities that engage a variety of people, I suspect students will find that some faculty have high placement rates, whereas other professors have no idea of the number of former students currently working in the field. The same can be said for graduate programs: some have very high placement rates of their students (this tends to most true at the state biologist level), whereas others have a poor record. Despite the importance of these factors, in my years of interviewing prospective graduate students, rarely have I been asked about the placement rates of either former students, or our graduate program. My point is that students must recognize that both graduate programs and major professors vary in quality, and if a choice is made without evaluating the relative merits of a given major professor or program, then a substantial handicap may be incurred.

Second, one of the best ways of evaluating professors or graduate programs is by talking to former students. Although discussions with current students can be helpful, of necessity these students may be less candid than former students are. As with most discussions of important personnel matters, it probably is just as important to register what is not said as to note what is said. Finally, make an attempt to match your strengths and weaknesses as a student to your major professor’s style of supervision. If you function best independently, do not choose a major professor who thinks that graduate students are incapable of washing their hands by themselves. Alternatively, if you require occasional prodding to complete tasks, then working with a more interactive major professor may be best for you. Like all bosses or mentors, major professors come in a wide variety of flavors and sizes and you need to choose one who will best compliment your abilities and needs as a graduate student.

Third, ask for a copy of your potential major professor’s curriculum vita, then examine it carefully. Determine whether or not this professor is actively publishing, and if so, is she/he publishing in first rank journals? Does the professor have publications that are independent of their graduate students? Does she/he have a good record of grant support? Do they regularly attend professional meetings and give invited papers and seminars? Has the professor won teaching awards? Does she/he have strong contacts at other universities, federal and state agencies? Although few professors can meet all of these criteria, a strong major professor will meet most of them.

Fourth, if getting a job is your sole reason for going to graduate school, be sure to examine job postings and talk to perspective employers before choosing a research topic. You will find that there are major discrepancies in the employment opportunities of graduates in the various subdisciplines of fisheries. Make sure you choose a graduate program that provides training in a subdiscipline in which there is high job availability. For example, graduates in quantitative population dynamics seem to have great success gaining positions regardless of the market, whereas students who undertake basic natural history studies of species with little economic importance, frequently have great difficulty finding jobs. (I am not commenting on the relative merits of these two research areas, just on the employability of students who pursue them.) In addition, if time permits try to gain proficiency in a secondary discipline (GIS training, population modeling, etc.). You have to be well qualified to obtain a position in fisheries, but having strengths in more than one area will greatly increase your chances of employment.

Fifth, if you are a PhD student and you want an academic job, try to obtain part-time teaching experience prior to graduation (e.g., small liberal arts schools frequently hire part-time faculty). I am suggesting teaching your own undergraduate lecture class, not being a teaching assistant. And make sure that you have student evaluations for the class. Nothing impresses search committees more than someone who is strong in both research and teaching, and has the publications and teaching evaluations to prove it. Teaching experience, especially diverse teaching experience, is particularly important for positions at small four-year institutions, where a biology department may consist of 3-7 faculty who cover all aspects of the discipline.

Sixth, write your dissertation in chapters which can be submitted for publication independently. (Make sure your committee agrees to this beforehand.) Many students who are close to finishing their degrees are eliminated from searches due to a lack of publications. Publishing prior to graduation will reduce the probability of this occurring. In addition, it shows that you are productive and can meet the standard expected of researchers. Finally, it will greatly increase your chances of securing a position before you finish, if you can say, “Well chapter one is out, chapter two is in press, and I’m almost finished with the final chapter”.

Seventh, network, network, network: go to meetings, present papers and posters, ask your major professor to introduce you to senior scientists and potential employers, or go up and politely introduce yourself. Polite is the operative word here, because being pushy will definitely work against you. All these activities will increase the probability that a potential employer will be able to recall a face when she/he looks at your application. This will yield a definite advantage over other applicants. In addition, you will increase your chances of hearing about positions before they are officially advertised (e.g. many positions are advertised by word of mouth long before the copy appears in Science or Fisheries).

In closing, my list, though hardly exhaustive, is meant to provide students with constructive advice on how to choose a graduate program, or if already enrolled, how to increase your chances of obtaining a job in the field of fisheries. It is clear that the students of today face great uncertainty with respect to future employment, nonetheless the rewards of a career in fisheries can be tremendously satisfying on both personal and professional levels.

Acknowledgments This contribution benefited from the comments of Cecil Jennings and members of the Fish Ecology Internet Newsgroup. In addition, Patton (1996, Fisheries 21:14) has provided many other valuable suggestions on the general topic of how graduate students can improve their qualifications.