How to Become a Great Graduate Student

Following-up on What Makes a Great Student in the Lab?, we asked our panel of experts about specific actions we could take to set ourselves up for a successful graduate career.  The PIs help set our expectations for how many years we should plan to be in school, how much initiative we should take and what to expect if we decide to leave the bench.


The Experts:

Charles 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.


Michael 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.


Lawrence 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.


Is previous research experience a requirement for success in graduate school?

No, but depending on the project and the discipline, it can make a very big difference. I encourage it since I see more and more, the students who have research experience get more out of their graduate careers.

I think it really helps to have had experience in a laboratory before going to graduate school – the more the better. That being said, somebody who’s a really talented student who hasn’t had that opportunity to do undergraduate research can make it up but it’ll take a while to learn how to move forward in a group. It may even affect how a student chooses a lab – someone who has had some research experience might have a better idea about what smells like a good project and what smells like a dead fish when they’re talking to PI about a rotation.

It is essential and an absolute requirement to join my lab.



What’s the fastest you’ve seen someone develop the skills necessary to graduate?

About 4 years. This student was extremely bright, driven (worked long hours) and came to the lab with a lot of lab experience.


The shortest I had someone get a PhD with me was three years. That student was probably ready to graduate the day came he the door but they had to do a project. I think the average in the country right now is about five a half years from walking in the door to walking out the door with a PhD. That sounds longer than it is because the first couple of years at most graduate schools are really heavily laden with coursework, prelim exams, and other things that really distract from being in the lab. For the most part, once you really get started on research it takes probably somewhere between three and four years of solid research to get it done. I should say that some of this has to do with the luck of the draw on the project. Sometimes really good projects just don’t work as well as expected. So I’ve had really good students who’ve hung around for an extra year or so because the project didn’t work as well. But in the end they were just as mature when they left so when they went out and did good postdoc they were prepared for an independent career and have done extremely well.

Four years from start to finish. They already had skills coming in and were incandescently bright but it was not until their third year that everything started coming together. They also worked in the evening and on weekends.


How can a student maximize their meeting times with you?

The most effective interactions are ones that are pretty well-prepared for by the student. I think the student should come in with some sort of an agenda about what they want to get out of that meeting. Do they need my opinion on the direction to go in; do they need my permission to buy a piece of equipment so they can do an experiment; do they need me to agree to a collaboration that might be important for the next part of the project? They should come in with a clear idea of what they want to accomplish in that time with data that get me excited about the project. Or they should let me know where they are having trouble so we can see what we need to do to move forward.

I meet with my sub-groups once a week plus I have open door policy for any time I am in the office so it’s not an issue for me.


Come prepared with their data and questions. Informal chats are fine but if they want to get more out of me, they should spend time thinking about what the “choke points” are for their project so that I can focus my attention on them.


How much initiative do you want a student to take?

In the end, they should be driving the questions, experiments, etc.. Students will get to this point at different times in their career.  Some very fast, some slower.


Taking initiative is a key metric of success in my opinion. By the time the student graduates, they should be able to ask and answer questions effectively.


I think in the early years when students are really learning about the background of the project, the dynamics of the lab and how you get things done, etc., it’s really important to interact fairly closely with the PI. But an important part of graduate school is developing the independence and the awareness of oneself to be able to leave as an independent scientist. So there’s a progression. By the end of graduate school, the PhD student really needs to be in control of their project. Now, I personally think are a lot of ways to run a laboratory. There’s something like 30,000 principal investigators that are supported by the National Institutes of Health and they’re probably 30,000 ways to run a group. But personally I like students who are thinking about where they can go in new areas but I also like them to be critical about their ideas. That being said, I think enthusiasm and excitement is something you want to build in the laboratory so I don’t punish people for trying to take initiative. But if they continually take initiative in a way that wastes money and doesn’t generate good experimental results, then they have to be reigned in some.


In an earlier poll on BenchFly, one of the most popular requests people had of their PIs was a good letter of reference.  How can students/postdocs avoid a poor recommendation letter from you?

Be willing to deal with adversity and keep trying to solve the problem. If they give up and become lackadaisical, then it will be harder for me to say good things about them.


Seems obvious – work hard, solve problems, work well with others, etc.



I think most PIs try to be as positive as possible if they’ve had four years to deal with somebody. During that period of time, if they’ve seen things that they don’t like, they should try to fix it. So one hopes that a student about to graduate doesn’t get a bunch of things indicated in a letter as being wrong with them that the PI had a chance to do something about. That being said, there can be difficult personalities. People who are not good group citizens, who are selfish or arrogant. I’m honest in the letters especially if I feel like the position fits the person. I try not to push somebody for a position that I think they would just have a hard time dealing with.


How are your expectations different for a postdoc as compared to a graduate student?

Not much different.  Postdocs should arrive with a high level of independence. After that, it’s all the same.


With a graduate student one has a younger individual with much less experience who may or may not have performed previous research so the responsibility is to train the student to become a scientist. With a postdoc, that individual is already trained and is supposed to be an independent scientist when they join your lab. So the purpose of the postdoc is to get more training in a perhaps complementary or different area and also develop the ability to think about a completely new problem in a short period of time and formulate an approach to solving the problem. So my expectations of a postdoc are completely different. I don’t spend nearly as much time with postdocs as I do with graduate students. That doesn’t mean I don’t interact with them but we talk about a project at the beginning of their time in the group and I’ll point them in the direction and then it’s their responsibility to go figure out what needs to be done, plan experiments, and interpret them. So there’s a lot less hand-holding with the postdocs than the graduate students.

Post-docs are supposed to already know how be be scientists so I go to a higher level with them. They should be able to exploit their environment and build their own structured learning more so than a graduate student.


Increasingly, graduate students and postdocs are looking for employment beyond the classic ‘academic or industry’ career options.  How would you advise someone looking for so-called ‘alternative’ careers?

Today’s students have a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different interests and therefore they should have more options. A lot of graduate schools have programs now that help with that. At my institution we have strong postdoctoral mentoring program that has career counseling with formal presentations by people in various professions. There are a variety of other things that PhD’s can do – it’s just that their mentors may not be the sole resource they should seek out regarding how to get into those positions. Most institutions do have these types of resources and I think that postdocs and students need to be aggressive about seeking them out.

I think it’s a big mistake to make only clones of yourself.  I am open to discussing all aspects of student’s career aspirations.  Once I see where that is, I hook them up with let’s say patent lawyer, a science writer, etc.

First, I do not consider it as an alternative career for someone to go into government, law, publishing, venture capital, non profit, etc. These are all important areas in their own right and biotech, pharma and academia are not a higher level in my opinion. As long as you are excellent at what you do and you take advantage of what you learned in graduate school, these are valuable contributions.



8 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Lab Rat

    wrote on September 22, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Great article, some really useful knowledge there for someone whose going to become a PhD student fairly soon. It's great to get advice from people who've worked with many students over the years. It was nice to have a bit of a range of thoughts as well.

    (Although…I have to say this…and I'm very sorry…but it does sort of stand out that your experts are exclusively old(ish) white guys.)

  2. [email protected]

    wrote on September 22, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Thanks- I think there's a bunch of great info in there too! It definitely helps to have some realistic expectations on the front end of grad school so you don't have to figure it out on your own.

    Regarding the second point, we did ask professors of diverse backgrounds but the logistics of their schedules didn't work out for our deadline – we'll definitely circle back with them again for our next round. Representing a variety of populations and perspectives is essential.

  3. Martha

    wrote on September 22, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    Great article for an undergraduate student who is seeking to apply to Graduate school.

    Thank you!

  4. [email protected]

    wrote on September 24, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Thanks, Martha! Let me know if you have any questions you'd like asked in our next round.

  5. Science Career Development Resources | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    […] How to Become a Great Grad Student – follow these steps to stand out from the crowd and be one of your PIs most memorable graduate students […]

  6. What Makes a Great Graduate Student? | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on January 29, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    […] 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 graduate […]

  7. Nwo

    wrote on May 8, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    Wow! Great interview!

  8. meep

    wrote on November 16, 2012 at 12:42 am

    This essentially boils down to "be a slave"…

Leave a comment

will not be published