Advice and expectations for grad students


I am always looking for students to work with me and other members of the lab on funded projects or projects that are closely related. Please email me with your interests and qualifications in addition to applying online. Members of the Hellmann Lab share an interest in biogeography and conservation biology, with students working on population biology (including genetics and genomics), global change (especially climate change), field studies, theory, or policy. We value students of diverse backgrounds with strong quantitative skills and a passion for science and critical thinking. Each student or postdoc fills a unique role in our lab, and we are highly interactive, learning from the expertise of one another.

Graduate students in the Hellmann Lab are enrolled in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior (EEB) and participate in the community of the Institute on the Environment. Hellmann Lab students also participate in Boreas, the Institute on the Environment’s leadership program for interdisciplinary environmental scientists.

Our lab is in the 5th floor of the Ecology Building on the St. Paul campus.

To apply for graduate studies in EEB, visit the department’s admissions webpage. Applications for Fall 2016 are due December 1, 2015.

Philosophy and Expectations:

In general, students working in my lab focus on where species live and why or some aspect of environmental management under climate change. I encourage the application of students interested in becoming professionals (government, NGOs, academia).

To help student earn a PhD (or Master’s), I will: (1) create a stimulating intellectual environment; (2) provide a physical work space that is functional and inspiring; (3) foster students as professional colleagues; and (4) challenge students to make meaningful contributions to science and the global community.

In turn, graduate students in my lab will: (1) collect and analyze data; (2) write manuscripts; (3) act as professional colleagues that collaborate with peers and help mentor undergraduate students; (4) regularly present their research in internal and external settings; and (5) pursue grant or fellowship support. I expect students to contribute to the laboratory community by organizing and assisting with lab functions, helping to train more junior scholars, openly discussing ideas, and providing feedback. Therefore, attendance and participation at lab meetings is a must. I meet with each of my students regularly, at intervals appropriate for each student’s stage. I also expect an annual report from each student that describes growth and adjustments in research objectives and accomplishments for the year. I use these annual reports to consult with each student about her/his objectives and progress.

(The following is adopted from Ted Schurr, University of Florida)
The following outlines expectations for students, as well as an explanation of what students can expect to receive from her/his advisor. You should be reading this  within the first year of your grad studies and preferably at the outset of your graduate degree. It is also good to give it a look-over periodically throughout your graduate studies. If there are things below that you do not feel apply to you, discuss them with your advisor– you could be right! If there are other things that you do that are missing from this document, please do provide this feedback as well. Prioritizing is a key element in your graduate education and the following is written to help you prioritizing toward meeting your research and professional goals.
Each student is different. Despite differences in individual programs, however, expectations for graduate studies are relatively constant. This is because all graduate students are pursuing original, independent research and are following the scientific method and professional standards for ecology and evolutionary biology.  The most important thing to know about being successful in graduate school is that you are in charge—it’s your research, your education, and your reputation that you building and growing. Your advisor can help in many ways, from advice to resources, but it’s your program—self-discipline and self-initiative are critical to success in graduate studies.

Graduate education differs from undergraduate education in many ways.  The most important distinction is that an undergraduate education largely teaches what is known, while graduate education teaches to identify the unknown and make it known.  Science’s fundamental role is to develop new insights and knowledge, and the goal of a graduate education in science is to teach the student how to be a scientist. A master’s program is an introduction and should provide the student with the tools to understand the scientific method and an experience in applying the scientific method to a particular problem. Because identification of an important, solvable problem often requires some experience in a field, master’s students often receive a lot guidance in problem selection. A PhD program aims to produce scientists (whether destined to government, a NGO, or academia), and is both qualitatively and quantitatively more involved than an master’s.  A PhD is expected to make an important, original contribution to her or his field.

The advisor serves a double role in graduate education.  As a mentor, the advisor supports, encourages, and nurtures each student’s development, and provides resources. As a professor, the advisor also judges the accomplishment and potential of each student.  Students should expect support from advisors, but this support may sometimes include challenges and uncomfortable criticism. Remember that nearly all students struggle at some point in their graduate studies, whether it’s a failed experiment, research ideas that take time to gel and take shape, courses challenge your assumptions and background, etc. If you don’t struggle, you are not pushing yourself hard enough. Innovation comes from hard work, collaboration, bantering about ideas, and struggling with ideas and interpretation.


  1. Have personal motivation, curiosity, and enthusiasm for learning how the world works.
  2. Have a good, general background in biology or environmental sciences and good communication, quantitative, and analytical skills. Where these are skills are lacking in your background, work with your advisor to develop a plan to build these skills.
  3. It is up to you to become familiar with the way the department and the lab operates, and to participate in organized events. You are expected to share ideas with others in a collegial environment and help others, just as they will help you.
  4. Become an expert in some aspect(s) of the way the lab functions. Learn these skills from the students and technicians who are here. Share these skills by writing a protocol, helping a fellow student learn a new technique, or by completing a common lab task that will benefit all.
  5. Be a good lab citizen. There are many people that can help you complete your work in the lab. Conversely, know that your actions also affect many. Remember to communicate your plans for using shared resources so we can maximize total output.
  6. Communicate with your advisors about your classes, research, and teaching workload.  There are many opportunities and an advisor can give useful perspective on which might be the best use of your time. You should be sure that your advisor is aware of your key objectives, research questions, and basic approach at all times. This includes information about how mentorship with an undergraduate student might be going, your experimental protocols, and how you are using shared resources. Your advisor plays a critical role in securing equipment, facilities, and assistance that you need to be successful in your research.
  7. Write down your ideas in proposal form, with clear research questions and objectives. These informal proposals can be the basis of dialog with your advisor and are starting points for fellowship applications and a thesis proposal.
  8. Make sure that you read and keep up with the published literature so that you understand what is novel and important in your area of research. Papers in high profile journals result from cutting edge ideas that build on work that has come before.
  9. Present regularly in laboratory meetings. This will vary by a student’s stage, from leading discussion of relevant journal articles, brainstorming, presenting preliminary results, and giving practice talks.

Milestones for PhD students:

  1. Coursework plan developed by end of first semester or year.
  2. Development of a first year research project within the first two months. A first-year project may end up being a thesis chapter, or it can simply be a project that helps you figure out what your thesis will be about.
  3. Meet with our advisor on a regular schedule. This could be weekly or even monthly, depending on your stage and needs, but scheduled, regular conversations with your advisor are crucial.
  4. Submit an annual report to your advisor that outlines your accomplishments for the year and goals for the coming year. This helps foster communication with your advisor and sets the pace for forward progress.
  5. Sketch of a research plan developed by start of the second year.
  6. Completion of written candidacy exam by the end of the second year.
  7. Completion of written thesis proposal by start of third year and completion of oral candidacy exam by the middle of the third year.
  8. Steady progress on research. Know the difference between core research and side projects and make sure that the later is not overwhelming the former.
  9. Submission of at least one, central paper for publication by the time of thesis defense. Ideally, a majority of your dissertation will be published or in review. A plan for publication of remaining chapters/papers also must be completed before the defense. Additional papers, such as a review paper or papers as lead or co-author with fellow students and mentors, will immensely improve your marketability after graduation. These can count as supplemental thesis chapters; consult with advisor about this possibility.

Goals for a finishing PhD student:

  1. Have a broad knowledge of the philosophy, history, and current state of the field.
  2. Be competent in major techniques used in research, including field, laboratory, statistical, and computer methods.
  3. Be an expert in the state of science within his or her specialty – e.g., knowing more about the subject than the thesis committee knows.
  4. Be able to think clearly, critically, and creatively – your PhD program should give you the skills to independently develop important ideas and comfortably analyze and critique the work of others.
  5. Routinely read the literature and keep an organized understanding of what you have read.
  6. Be able to communicate clearly and effectively, in written and oral presentations.
  7. Have accomplished the inception, planning, and execution of a substantial research project.
  8. Be able to mentor junior colleagues and collaborator with mentors and peers in a mutually productive way.
  9. Have some experience teaching, in the classroom and as a mentor.

Expectations for the graduate advisor:

  1. Take a personal interest in each student’s education, including career goals, areas of interest, and abilities.
  2. Challenge each student to achieve.
  3. Encourage independent thought and action and provide space for the student to make mistakes.
  4. Provide feedback on progress, and critique written and oral presentations in a timely manner.
  5. Provide critical and constructive reviews of student outputs and ideas, through group consultation and one-on-one meetings.
  6. Provide insights on the inner workings of science – funding, personalities, publications, manuscript review and publication.
  7. Work with student to secure financial support, including stipend, research funds and travel to a variety of ecosystems and scientific meetings.  Help in preparation of fellowship and grant applications.
  8. Help students find a balance for classes, research, and teaching.
  9. Help students navigate the profession, including introducing the student to colleagues and the larger scientific network.
  10. Provide a collegial and productive work environment where students have access to key equipment, assistance, and consultation to complete their work.
  11. Help navigate departmental and university requirements, such as progress through candidacy and selection of committee members.

Workload for graduate students:

If you want to graduate school to advance your career goals, it’s important to have a clear idea of the professional playing field.  Good job openings have many well-qualified competitors, so a good graduate program needs to produce graduates who are well positioned to win the competition. Different jobs have different emphases, but some or most of each of the following categories will be important for many different career paths:

  1. Quality of publications and presentations. This includes style, but also the pizzazz of the topic (hypothesis, question examined, context of the question, etc.).
  2. Number of publications. Strive for several publications during your graduate education, taking advantage of opportunities to co-author papers to increase the breadth and depth of your publication record. Publications are the most important currency for all academic jobs and most government and NGO jobs because they establish you as an expert in your field.
  3. Successful participation in grant-writing activities at the appropriate level (i.e. graduate student grants, travel fellowships, summer research grants, etc.).
  4. Teaching experience (multiple forms, including: lecturing, teaching assistant, mentoring undergraduate students, etc).
  5. Presentations at meetings, and other direct ways of developing personal contacts with peers and with people that may hire you. This includes interacting with visitors to the lab and department.
  6. Breadth and depth of experience, including multiple ecological questions and ecosystems.


These are great references for understanding the process of getting into graduate school, thriving while there, and some career advice for after graduation.
Bloom, Dale F. et al.  1998. The Ph.D. Process: A student guide to graduate school in the sciences. Oxford University Press, New York.
Ford, E.D. 2000. Scientific method for Ecological Research.  Cambridge University Press. Medawar, P.B. 1981. Advice to a young scientist.  Basic Books.
Oliver, J.E. 1991. The incomplete guide to the art of discovery.  Columbia University Press.
Peters, RL. 1997. Getting what you came for- the smart student’s guide to earning a Masters or PhD. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Reis, Richard M. 1997. Tomorrow’s Professor – Preparing for academic careers in science and engineering. IEEE Press.

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