Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
Graduate School
ACADEMIA ISN'T FOR EVERYONE and there are many ways to be a naturalist, so I ask career-
seeking undergraduates two questions: Which activities do you enjoy, and what kinds of
accomplishments would give your life meaning? Jane Goodall, among the most publicly
admired of all biologists, provides a familiar example for distinguishing between what
one does and how it matters in broader contexts—because if the discomforts and isola-
tion of her early fieldwork had been intolerable, the famous chimp watcher's scientific
stature wouldn't have followed, and her later global activism would not have been pos-
sible. By the same token, for some folks, unlocking secrets of coral reef fishes or rain-
forest birds just isn't fulfilling, no matter how good they are at doing it. Clearly, the trick
is finding short- and long-term satisfaction, be it as herpetologist or humanitarian, police
officer or stay-at-home parent.
Next, I describe to ambitious students what lies ahead. Aspiring professors must gain
admission to graduate school, choose an advisor, and obtain financial support; ten years
may be spent completing the Ph.D., working as a postdoctoral fellow, and landing a job. I
jump-start the process by asking if my advisees prefer certain organisms (“goldfinches”
and “no” are among many possible answers) and particular disciplines (physiology isn't
for the squeamish). Then they tally authors of inspiring articles in publications like Journ-
alofHerpetology,AmericanNaturalist, and ConservationBiology, so I can offer feedback
on potential mentors. I also encourage taking time off before advanced studies and em-
phasize that university jobs aren't necessarily more satisfying or influential than others.
Students can see what works for me, but I want them to consider whether they might
be happier and do just as much good in the world as an environmental consultant or a
As it happens, no such careful planning dictated my own route. During the high school
internship with Henry Fitch I'd learned that a Ph.D. could lead to studying reptiles, and
three years in the army left me hungry for more education, but I had no core interests
with which to choose among specific options. Worse still, my undergraduate record was
utterly unacceptable for established doctoral programs. Given those highly problematic
circumstances, I was lucky to find two supervisors at a time when most biologists thought
snakes unworthy of serious study, and all the more fortunate that they allowed me to go
my own way.
Search WWH ::

Custom Search