What Makes a Great Student in the Lab?

What makes a great student in the lab?Nobody starts graduate school thinking, “I’d like to be average. I’ll be happy just blending into the background and having to remind my PI of my name on my graduation day.” We all want to do our best, become a great graduate student and ultimately blossom into great scientists.  Yet, there’s often one little wrinkle in executing the plan – what exactly is a great student and how do we become one?

The easiest way to answer that question is, well- to ask!  So we turned to the experts- three well-established primary investigators who have each trained dozens of graduate students and postdocs.  Given the number of great (and not-so-great) students they’ve seen throughout their careers, in Part 1 of our interview we asked the professors to reflect upon the characteristics that make a truly great graduate student.

The Experts:

What makes a great student expert 1, Charles CraikCharles Craik, Ph.D. Dr. Craik is a professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco.  He is the Director of the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Graduate Program and the co-Leader of Chemistry and Cancer Program at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.  For more information, see the Craik Lab website.

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What makes a great student expert 2, Michael MarlettaMichael Marletta, Ph.D. Dr. Marletta is the Aldo DeBenedictis Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. He serves on the Board of Editors of ACS Chemical Biology and on the editorial board of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Marletta is a member of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences.  For more information, see the Marletta Lab website.

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What makes a great student expert 3, Larry MarnettLawrence Marnett, Ph.D. Dr. Marnett is the Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research and Professor of Biochemistry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He is Director of the Vanderbilt University Institute of Chemical Biology and founding and current editor of the American Chemical Society journal Chemical Research in Toxicology.  For more information, see the Marnett Lab website.

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What are shared qualities of great students you’ve had in the past?

They realize that they are no longer just a student but a professional researcher who has taken responsibility for their own career. That independence does not mean that they do not listen to my suggestions but they are not waiting for me to tell them what to do at every stage of their experiments. I can provide guidance and enjoy doing so but it helps if it is more interactive and shared. Of course, initially when the student is just beginning in the lab, the balance is more on the PI making direct suggestions but as the student matures, the student should become as much of an expert as the PI, rising to the level of a peer. That is when they are ready to graduate.

Another key trait is curiosity coupled with a passion for answering questions correctly.  Finally, great students show a sense of urgency. Things move fast in science and it is important to move quickly on ideas. That sense of urgency is critical. Students have to be willing to work very hard and put in long hours, particularly when things are working on the project.

It helps to be smart but much more essential is to be inquisitive. Inherently interested in how things work and being excited to figure out answers. Science is hard so drive, determination and confidence are very important features of a successful student.

I’ve had some really good graduate students with very different backgrounds – some who had experience in chemistry and others that had interest primarily in biology. I would say that there are several features that they shared with regard to their ability to really be productive on a research project and to mature as young scientist. Obviously, they have to be smart but in graduate school we’re dealing with a lot of smart people so it’s a matter of how you differentiate yourself from another smart person. I think that the major feature that I saw was that they really became invested in their project within a year – they knew the literature on their project better than I did and could plan the experiments that they wanted to conduct. They went ahead and did experiments and didn’t wait for me to tell them what to do. The really good ones would frequently surprise me at group meetings when I would suggest an experiment and they would say, “yeah, I did that already and here’s the result.” Our interactions then were more along the lines of colleagues. I would help them set priorities perhaps for a fork in the road or maybe when there was another major direction that we wanted to go in and they needed some advice on whether we should do that – and how we should do that. But basically they were working really as if it was their project and it truly was their project so that by the time they graduated they were the world’s expert in that area. Great students also need to incorporate creativity somewhere in their work because that really is a differentiator.

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What weaknesses have you seen even in great graduate students?

Motivation (lack thereof). Science is more of a hobby than an essential interest. The inability to write is sometimes an issue with a ‘great student’ (meaning great at the bench). I tell people when they join the lab that there are only 3 things they have to do: 1. Do the work, 2. Write about the work, and 3. Speak about the work. They are all three important. Some can do all three great. Some can’t.

At the beginning of the project, not listening and paying enough attention to the experts. It is fine to be bold and creative but there is usually a very strong foundation to build off of and not taking advantage of that can be a waste of time. Yes, sometime the experts are wrong but often they have something to offer. The other side of the coin is falling in love with their own model. Models are necessary but do not let them hide the truth when the data does not seem to fit.

I think a big weakness in good graduate students is that some were very poor writers. That’s a significant weakness for a number of reasons. It’s important to design and execute really good experiments but it’s also important to communicate what you did in a very direct, clear fashion either at a seminar, where you’re discussing and presenting actual results, or in or in a research report or publication. Some of the students I’ve had just struggled with that aspect of science. The very best students combined creativity and investment in the project with the ability to deliver on a project. They were not only technically really skilled but they had the ability to describe in a clear, concise fashion what they did. Not only is it important to help communicate what they did but – let’s face it – most principal investigators are very busy and they’ve got a lot of things to do. They’re trying to prioritize what task they’re going to go with next and if somebody gives them a manuscript that is really well-written and pretty much reflects what they’ve agreed this project has been about, it’s going to get through the process of editing and submission much faster than something that’s very poorly written. I’ve had situations where the amount of work that I had to do to edit manuscripts has been so great that it serves as an impediment to me going in and actually doing it. The other thing is that if I spend the amount of time it takes to rescue a really poorly written manuscript, it means that I’m not able to turn my attention to other people’s manuscripts in the laboratory. So I try to provide very detailed comments on early drafts of manuscripts but one wants to see some growth in young investigators. By the time we’ve been through this process a few times, hopefully students a lot better at it because of the input that they’ve gotten from me along the way.

Another major weakness is the lack of creativity. Creativity is something that is really hard to learn and the lack of it makes it tough for students to tackle hard problems or to work their way around roadblocks.

I’ve occasionally seen, not often, but I have occasionally seen fear of failure in people who are very smart, talented and articulate and are capable of doing experiments. But for some reason they are afraid of not getting a good result or of wasting their time. That holds them back from just jumping in and doing a bunch of experiments, getting some data, and then deciding where to go next.

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Is it possible to learn these qualities or are some inherently better prepared/more equipped to be successful?

I think any graduate student coming in the door has the ability to become a very good scientist if they apply themselves. They can learn how to do experiments (there are a variety of resources either in the lab or outside the lab where they can get the instruction they need); they can develop a philosophy about what an experiment should look like (it should be a complete unit with all the appropriate controls); and they can learn how to write. I can help the student do all of those things. But I’m not sure that anybody can come in and be a truly great graduate student. It’s not necessarily that that students are born great, but the combination of creativity and hard work gives students a real edge. Also, throughout their career some students have just assimilated a lot of really important knowledge and they know how to focus on what are important questions to ask. This is another really important property of a great graduate student – they just seem to have an enthusiasm for it. Great students really want to get in and do it and they like to produce, they like to discover new things. Not all students have that.

Motivation can’t be taught. It can be nurtured and brought out but I find in the end you can’t tell someone what to be interested in. Writing and speaking about science can definitely be taught and I have done this many, many times.

Yes, if there is real passion for the work and an intense curiosity then a lot of the rest can be learned. If someone is not curious then they will probably be more of a follower than a leader.

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What qualities do you look for when selecting a graduate student to join your lab?

Same as I mentioned above to be successful: motivation, smarts, interest in science and interest in our work. For example, if you show up having read papers from the lab and ask good questions about them, my interest goes up.

All of the above that have been mentioned: curiosity, independence, willingness to work hard, and an ability to cultivate creativity. In addition, I want to be able to get along with them. If I cannot imagine myself sitting next to them on a long plane ride (more than four hours) and enjoying myself, I probably do not want them in my lab.

The qualities I’m looking either in a potential graduate student or a potential postdoc are the ones I think are important in being a really good scientist. As I said earlier, independence, creativity and initiative are things I’m looking for. And students in my group or postdocs in my group will have anywhere from 2 to 4 years interacting with me to demonstrate to me that they have those qualities or other qualities that I think are important. Obviously, direct interactions with me are important, but so are interactions with their committee members, in seminars that they give, at international meetings, and with the other people in the group. It’s important to see they are not careless or thoughtless about the people they work with and that they value their colleagues and try to be respectful of their space in their experiments while trying to get as much done as possible.

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Armed with our Graduate School Survival Guide, you’re on your way to becoming a superstar! Check out Part 2 of our interview, How to Become a Great Graduate Student, to learn some specific steps you can take towards becoming a truly great student!

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6 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Jenny

    wrote on September 17, 2010 at 8:45 am

    so, to be a great graduate student should be to be great not for PI or for any other authority figure. It is to be thinking for yourself, not proving yourself. Even Francis Crick was on his own journey with the data, He wasn't trying to prove himself.

  2. bigblue

    wrote on September 18, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    I see your point, but I would also add that as a graduate student, your PI will be very influential over your career for the next several years. They decide when you graduate, they might help you find a postdoc and they may even help you get a job after that. Impressing your PI and proving to them that you're an excellent scientist will only benefit your career.

  3. How to Become a Great Graduate Student | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on September 22, 2010 at 5:12 am

    […] on What Makes a Great Graduate Student?, we asked our panel of experts about specific actions we could take to set ourselves up for a […]

  4. smirrims

    wrote on September 28, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    thanks… very helpful..

  5. orchidhunter

    wrote on October 2, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Do not fall in love with your own model. Do not fall in love with your own model. Do not fall in love with your own model.

    I'm putting that up in the lab. Really useful advice. I almost fell into that trap. Almost.

  6. Science Career Development Resources | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    […] What Makes a Great Grad Student – three tenured professors discuss what they’re looking for in a truly outstanding graduate student […]

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