Albright, Tom; PhD, 2003-2007
Tip #1: Be mindful of your blessings.
You have an extraordinary opportunity being an ecologist at Wisconsin working with Monica. There’s no doubt you benefited from a bit of luck to land here, but there’s also no doubt that you’ve done some good stuff that that has given layers of smart folks confidence in your abilities to succeed here. In the Turner Lab, you will gain invaluable friendship, skills, knowledge, experience, connections, and even some wisdom in the process – oh, and a degree. You will also touch other people’s lives in important ways while you’re here. There will be periods of self-doubt. Keep these warm and fuzzy thoughts handy in a special part of your brain, write them down, and tell friends and family about this, so they can help remind you of it as well when you need it.
Tip #2: Publish your work before you leave (or as much as possible).
This is good for you, good for Monica, and good for your next employer. Do it. Digging old stuff up on archive CDs months after you leave is about as much fun as fire in an orphanage.
Tip #3: Make a fantasy CV.
You probably already have a CV (or resume). It is time to start keeping two CVs. One is your current CV – pretty standard, but sometimes overlooked early in grad school. Make a habit of entering everything you do or have done in teaching, research, and outreach/service. The second CV is what you want your CV to look like when you leave (aka, the fantasy CV). Sure you want the degree, but how many chapters of your dissertation do you want published when you leave and where do you want them published? Is there a fellowship you want to bag? What kinds of teaching do you want to do? Any new skills or training you want to pick up? Don’t forget the occasional outreach or professional service activity. As you progress, you will edit the second CV by refining your goals and by achieving them! Monica and your lab mates can help you set some goals according to your professional aspirations.
Tip #4: Coffee and country music.
I cared for neither of these things for the first 30 odd years of my life. However, coffee appears to be a fairly healthful thing for most people to consume (in reasonable quantities) and, once I discovered I could drink it, boy did it help me get over the post-lunch siesta period! Also, I’ve heard that some people use ample sleep as a substitute for coffee. If this works for you, great. As for country, you’ll find a surprisingly large common ground at times with the suffering (and often, dry humor) in this music. Like your time as a graduate student, there are also fun and happy songs too. Blues might work as well.
Tip #5: Multitask transportation with exercise.
I made it a personal challenge to bus and bike as much as possible. We all know this is eco-friendly, but it is also a great way to multitask: 40 minutes of commuting= my daily workout + my way get to work. And if you don’t think riding the bus is exercise, you haven’t seen me run to catch the #6 bus. Just try to avoid falling on black ice.
Blank, Pete; Postdoc, 2012-2014
About the lab:
If you’ve been accepted into Monica’s lab you’re an exceptional student or postdoc. But you can’t rest on your laurels here. Monica will push you to excel and to become the best ecologist you can be. Monica expects a lot from her students and postdocs but you’ll get even more in return from being in this lab. The training you receive here will last you a lifetime. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to train with Monica and to learn from my cohort in the lab.
Gear up! You’ll be miserable if you face your first Wisconsin winter without the right gear. Buy a good coat, good boots, good gloves, and get outside all year round. Bike to school and enjoy some of the best bike paths in the country. And try to get outside of the University environment and enjoy Madison: walk the farmers market, have a picnic at the concerts on the square, go ice fishing, bike the Capital City Trail, go salsa dancing, see a show at the Overture Center, and go for a hike at Cherokee Marsh!
Buffam, Ishi; Postdoc, 2007-2010
- Check the fridge every now and then for food items that weren’t originally green, but are now. Chances are, no one will complain if you take it upon yourself to toss them – even if they are neatly labeled and dated with cryptic messages such as “J. Griffin 6/6/2008”.
- Good places to eat your lunch, if you brought it with you: (1) in the lab with your lab mates (2) in the Botany garden behind Birge Hall*. *Not during Nov-March. Good places to eat your lunch, if you have to go buy it: (1) The Union (2) Mediterranean Café (Apricot Chicken on Thursdays, yum!)
- Visit the greenhouse downstairs at least once a week during wintertime, relax and breathe in the tropical air.
- Bike in the summertime, ski in the wintertime! In between, I am still trying to come up with a sport that utilizes slush and muck to their full potential. Hopefully you will have better luck than I!
- There are tons of great State Parks for hiking/skiing and camping within an hour or two’s drive of Madison, they make a great weekend getaway. Take advantage!
- If you want to learn good time management, observe Monica. Try to emulate. You will not succeed, but you’ll be moving in the right direction!
- The perfect is the enemy of the good
- Learn to drink coffee, or else be prepared to suffer abuse from caffeine fanatics.
- If you find yourself running a little late some wintery Monday morning, consider making yourself 5 minutes later still, and pick up a dozen donuts on the way in to work to share with your lab mates. A donut is worth more than 5 minutes by almost any accounting.
- Follow your passion! That goes for research topic as well as life in general.
Burgi, Matthias; Postdoc, 1999-2000
Some words of wisdom from a Swiss postdoc
Disclaimer: This contribution is meant to help Swiss postdocs. I don’t take any responsibility for reactions of non-Swiss citizens reading these lines.
People in Wisconsin think they know quite something about cheese. If you plan to taste local cheese, be prepared to actually like it – or to get homesick. If you get homesick, don’t visit New Glarus – this would make things only worse. Visit instead the Memorial Union Terrace during sunset. Madison is not such a bad place to live!
You might have heard that people in USA always seem to be so friendly. This is not the case in the Turner lab: Here, people really ARE friendly.
Back home, you considered yourself to be a fast thinker. Be prepared that this will change during the first lab meeting you attend. But as people in the Turner lab ARE friendly, they don’t let you feel how slow you are.
Enjoy your stay!
Cardille, Jeff; Postdoc 2002-2005
The main thing that you need to know about the Turner lab is that it’s a really, really, really bad idea to leave dishes in the sink. It’s bad in so many ways. It drives Monica crazy, it attracts ants, and it creates suspicion and defensiveness—even among those of us who never, ever, left even a single dish in the sink. So if you see a colleague’s dish in the sink, clean it! And if you discover that you’ve left your own dish in the sink, act like you’re cleaning the dish for a colleague.
With a sparkling clean sink, you are free to enjoy the great, great opportunities that the Turner Lab, the UW, and Madison have to offer.
Colleagues: Monica surrounds herself with interesting, fun, positive people, and it’s a good idea to learn as much from your colleagues as possible. I did my MS with a professor who didn’t have a shared lab space, and as a result didn’t have lab meetings. For several years, I got that feeling of belonging from Monica’s lab group. The tone that Monica sets gives you and your colleagues the ability to freely bounce ideas around in a supportive, fun setting. It’s a rare opportunity—both in science and in life—and even though I tended to spend way too much time in my office, interacting with only my officemate for the entire day, I can now how lucky I was to have that chance.
Lab Meetings: Lab meetings are really valuable, and Monica sets a great tone for her group’s meetings. It’s a very supportive environment, in which we can toss out our ideas and thoughts, whether barely formed or solid. I’ve seen other groups that were aggressive and competitive, and it was great to have never seen that in Monica’s lab. A similar excellent opportunity is Monica’s insistence on giving practice talks before conferences and defenses. Although I resisted practicing every time, the talks I felt went the best were the ones I practiced the most in front of lab members.
The University: UW-Madison is the greatest university anywhere. There’s something undeniable about the combination of the lake and the university that I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else. It’s somehow got just the right balance of hard work and great talent on one side, and the Terrace and lake on the other. Over the years, I’ve known hundreds of friends who moved into and away from Madison for grad school, and without exception, the place they miss most is the place that someday you’ll miss too, Madison. Highlights on the UW campus for me are the sailing club, brats on the Terrace, music in the Union Theater, and the Lakeshore path.
Madison: Madison is an awesome city, so don’t spend all your time working like I did. If you’re in town for the summer, you might consider playing ultimate Frisbee in the huge summer league, even if you don’t play now. Go for it! For food, Restaurant Magnus is outstanding for high-end eating, and the Great Dane has really good and pub food—try the nachos. For lunch, you might check out Ian’s Pizza. Overall, though, during my time in the Turner lab, the majority of my energy needs were met by Clary’s caramel corn, at the top of State Street. Don’t miss it.
As a member of the Turner lab, you really are very lucky. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn how to be a well-rounded scientist from one of the best—Monica’s commitment to having a life outside of work is inspiring. And as she often says, even though you are busy, you may never be less busy than you are now.
But what to do with all that supposedly plentiful free time? Maybe there are clues in my experience after leaving Madison. At first it was really difficult to have left, and I have unconsciously called Madison ‘home’ for a year since leaving. But little by little, as other friends have moved too, I can feel the allure of Madison fading. With fewer friends there there’s less of a reason to visit, and I’m not quite as desperate to “go home” anymore. The lesson, I think, is that high numbers of publications aren’t as important as high numbers of lunches spent together in the lab (though you can have both in Monica’s group). And you’re more likely to remember a good sunset on the lake than a good R2 in one of your chapters. So I’d say to work hard, but enjoy yourself more than I did. Work on your own, but treasure the opportunity to work with others too. Swallow up your experiences in Madison, because nomatter how long you’re there, it won’t feel like long enough.
And seriously, don’t leave dishes in the sink.
Donato, Dan; Postdoc, 2010-2012
Take the opportunity in this lab to learn the art of communication. At least 75% of conducting high-impact science (or just about any science) is communicating it well. Good conceptual thinking and analytical prowess are important, but, as much as anything else, we are writers. Monica is perhaps the best in the biz at this skill. Observe her approach and techniques. Read her papers. And be prepared to have paper drafts much improved by her reviews; she is frank but extremely constructive. The opportunity for growth as a writer and speaker is better here than anywhere else one could work.
Get comfortable. At first, it’s easy to feel intimidated by the record of accomplishment and high caliber/pace associated with this lab (I know I was), but once you’re here awhile, that all seems to fade. It’s about the most laid back and supportive environment one can imagine – it just happens to generate a lot of good science. As long as a person is putting thought and effort into their work, has a can-do attitude, makes good on deliverables, and contributes to the group dynamic (lab meetings, friendly reviews, etc.), they will excel here.
Enjoy the kool-aid. We often joke with prospective students that we sound like we ‘drank the kool-aid’ when describing working here, because we gush about how great it is working for Monica. But what else can you say? There isn’t a better advisor out there – she sets an admirable example (even if not achievable for most of us) in both science and work/life balance, is genuinely interested in seeing to your professional growth, involves you as a true colleague, and has none of the borderline sociopathy that many highly successful scientists do. Enjoy the lack of a need for cynicism regarding the typical advisor-student relationship; you can pretty much check that at the door here.
Don’t trundle yourself. I found that a great avenue to job security in Monica’s lab is to come up with interesting study ideas in ecosystems that live on really really steep slopes, where a small stumble can lead to a major plunge down the hill or cliff or river below – i.e., ‘trundle.’ Monica is not a fan of going to such places (to understate), so this individual will be a go-to person for these studies. Hint: Douglas-fir forests of Yellowstone are excellent fodder for this (Brian Harvey already knows this, too). But if you take this approach, it’s better not to tell her about the death-defying feats you regularly practice there in the name of science. Or the near misses. Or the time you fell off a high perch and impaled yourself on a sharp branch at Tower Creek. Theoretically speaking, of course.
Go North. As ecologists, most of us appreciate natural spaces. The far northern part of Wisconsin, as well as adjacent Michigan (UP), northern Minnesota, and the north shore of Lake Superior, are under-visited by most grad students and post-docs at UW, but that is where wildness still lives.
Fraterrigo, Jen; PhD, 2001-05
- Start writing, even if you don’t think you’re ready. You’ll probably never feel 100% prepared to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be, but push yourself to start a working draft of the manuscript while you’re still in the throes of data analysis. At a minimum, you can write a good portion of the methods section and possibly the introduction at this stage. Doing so will help clarify your thinking, inform your analysis and make you feel good – like you’re accomplishing something even if you’re floundering with data analysis.
- Don’t be afraid to call people you don’t know if you think they can help you with your research. When I started my doctoral research, I knew very little about the system in which I was working and the processes I was studying. After a little encouragement from Monica, I called a scientist who had addressed similar questions in his research. He didn’t have all the answers; in fact, I came away with more questions than I started with. But I learned a few things from our conversation, and it led me to think more about other factors I had not previously considered. I then called another person, and another, and you get the idea. There are undoubtedly many people with expertise in your area of interest. Contact them and ask if you can talk to them about their work and your work. My impression is that people really love to discuss their research and share their knowledge. And I’ve found that often one learns a lot more from a 40 min conversation than a book chapter or a journal article.
- Take notes as you’re working on your project and store them where you can find them. There is a very good chance that by the time you actually start preparing manuscripts you will have forgotten some of the more minute details of your sampling protocol, approach to data analysis, etc. Taking good notes along the way and putting them somewhere you can easily dig them out will save you a lot of heartache in the future, especially if you have to reanalyze data to address a reviewer’s concerns 6+ months after submitting your manuscript!
- Find a peer you can bounce ideas off of without feeling self-conscious. While I was hashing out my proposal, I met with a very generous postdoc in David Mladenoff’s lab almost every other week to toss around research ideas. This exercise was incredibly helpful to me in large part because I felt comfortable posing even the wackiest questions/ideas in this setting. If you can find someone who has been around a little longer than you, all the better.
- Take it all in and enjoy yourself. Please spend some time hanging out on the Terrace, joking with your labmates, listening to music, and sitting by the lake. Madison is a great town, and the Turner lab is really unique as far as ecology labs go. So, take pleasure in the people and the environment. Someday you’ll miss it – trust me.
Gergel, Sarah; PhD student, 1998-2002
My time spent in the Turner Lab by Sarah E. Gergel
This is a really hard thing for me to write. Really hard. Literally, because of the carpel tunnels that has afflicted me since my M.S. I now must type everything with my toes. Thankfully, I now have my own Canadian undergraduates that can take dictation, typing this for me. I fear they may be destined to jump out the window of my lab once they really know the truth about graduate school. I hope YOU read this before YOU sign on any dotted lines.
The first rule for success in graduate school: KNOW THY (THINE?) ADVISOR
In the case of Monica, well, we all know there are pro’s and con’s.
Here’s what I have learned:
- Her chirpy encouragement and enthusiasm and for you and your work, while all *great* in the beginning, will no doubt start irritating you after about 5 years. So try to finish around then. If you can finish BEFORE YOU start irritating HER, that is also a good strategy. I wish I had accomplished this.
- Her ability to balance her personal life (great husband and two adorable children) will no doubt drive you absolutely insane as your purchase your dinner from the vending machines in the basement of Birge Hall…..for the 3rd night in a row.
- She is not the sharpest tool in the shed, if you know what I mean. So do not be discouraged if you find you must explain (repeatedly) that you could only get 2 manuscripts (1 in Nature) out of that final report that you wrote for her ZOO665 Landscape Ecology class. She just gets easily confused.
2nd Rule: KNOW THINE LAB MATES
- 1. As anyone reading this now is probably aware….I got “in” long before the standards were raised. It’s now a now a much more cut-throat environ in which to work, this is probably a legacy left by the absolutely ruthless Mark Dixon. So watch your back. And your fork.
3rd Rule: KNOW THE LAB SET-UP
- Stay away from the computer in the corner near the window. In my day it was a Mac computer. At almost any time of year you will be virtually unable to maintain your body’s internal core temperature. In the winter, the draft coming in from the window will make you freeze. In the summer, the air conditioning right overhead will blow directly on your head….and will also make you freeze.
- Is that dern Mac computer still even there? There should be a plaque there commemorating the eyes and wrist tendons laid to waste in that exact spot.
- If that Mac computer IS still there, however, would someone mind sending me a file I left on the desktop? It should be easy to find, it is called: C:\Gergel\Phd\Chapter1\FINAL\finalfinal\PENULTIMATE\2NDDRAFT\draft_for_Monica\ 2nd draft\draft_for Steve\is this the right version?\final2\final2.doc
Now, I don’t mean to scare you. But be forewarned, I was forced to leave the country afterwards!
Griffin, Jake; PhD, 2006-2011
For the lab…
- Trust Monica. She is a kind and understanding soul that will not lead you astray, and a talented scientist full of valuable insight, advice, and constructive guidance. Work hard for yourself and for her lab’s strong tradition of accomplishment. You’re a part of something rare and special.
- Rely on your lab mates. Everyone contributes and we’re all better for it.
- Communicate and Collaborate. Take advantage of the broad community of ecologists at your doorstep.
- Writing is a process, even when you think you know what you’re doing. Plan the time for this.
For the field…
- Always keep the big picture of your project in mind when making big decisions. This can save time and frustration on future tasks down the road like data analysis and sample management. As you drive away from Madison packed to the gills with assistants, field gear, and lab equipment, accept the fact that your best laid plans for the summer will change and likely change often. Be prepared to be flexible.
- Keep great notes, organized data, and take lots and lots and lots (and then lots more) of photographs.
- A cohesive and fun team is a must. It’s a long but absolutely incredible summer in the GYE, with little personal space or rest. Be up front and open about this reality, laugh about it, and be appreciative of everyone’s contributions and bruises. Plying them with great food and weekend fun helps (see footnote**).
- Name all of your critical equipment, beginning with the most expensive – your vehicle(s). Traditionally vehicles are a feminine and maternal sort of name, as this is often your home base during camping trips and always your only quick (relatively) way out of the field and back to civilization. Marge, Bertha, etc. are good such names. Electronics are other good candidates for names, and be sure to take a roll call before you leave every site! Also, make the Fleet staff give you an extra set of keys for each vehicle, and have different people carry them.
- Keep perspective. Grad school is but one chapter in a hopefully long life.
- Embrace the winter season. Get out in the snow and enjoy it.
- Explore Wisconsin, and get out of Madison regularly.
- Share your trials and tribulations with other students, your family, partner, or spouse. No one gets through grad school on their own, and these relationships will help you keep perspective.
- Meet people outside of the University. Join clubs, volunteer, talk with non-academics about non-academic things! Not everyone enjoys or is interested in the nuances of SAS programming, soil nitrification fractions, or the relative usefulness of various model selection techniques.
**This recipe has invigorated the tired bodies and souls of many field assistants, and is a staple at lab potluck dinners. Use it wisely, and remember that with great power comes great responsibility.
1 cup (6 oz.) white chocolate chips (doubling the chocolate works well too, and makes a denser cake)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs
3 to 4 tablespoons grated lemon peel, (about 3 medium lemons)
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
1 cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease and flour 10-cup Bundt pan.
Melt chocolate in medium, uncovered, microwave-safe bowl on MEDIUM-HIGH (70%) power for 1 minute; Stir. Morsels may retain some of their original shape. If necessary, microwave at additional 10 to 15-second intervals, stirring just until morsels are melted. Cool slightly.
Combine flour, baking powder and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in lemon peel and melted morsels. Gradually beat in flour mixture alternately with buttermilk. Pour into prepared Bundt pan.
BAKE for 50 to 55 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in cake comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes. Combine powdered sugar and lemon juice in small bowl. Make holes in cake with wooden pick; pour half of lemon glaze over cake. Let stand for 5 minutes. Invert onto plate. Make holes in top of cake; pour remaining glaze over cake. Cool completely before serving.
Hansen, Winslow D; PhD, 2013 -2018
Assume a “midwestern sensibility” when interacting with Monica and the lab
What does this mean? Be assertive but not stubborn. Be confident but not egotistical. Advocate for yourself but do not be greedy. Be independent but know when to ask for help. Most importantly, be kind, generous, supportive, and caring.
Communication is essential for success
Monica wants to know where you are at, how your work is advancing, challenges you are facing, and exciting opportunities that are arising. Be sure to discuss things with her once every week or two. This can occur informally – at lunch or at the coffee pot, if you are an early-to-work person. My favorite memories of the Turner Lab all center around the smell of half-caff hazelnut coffee brewing.
Prepare to converge
During your time in Turner Lab, you and Monica will form a close working relationship. You will build common understanding, language, writing styles, and approaches to the scientific process. This has a few implications. (1) In the beginning, you may be uncomfortable or intimidated when discussing ideas and sharing early drafts of your writing. Maybe you don’t understand each other at times in conversation. Don’t fret, it is normal at the beginning of all relationships. You are starting an amazing and transformative journey. (2) Allow the process to happen, observe Monica and how she thinks through science, critically evaluate her revisions to your early work so you begin to learn how she writes and why she writes that way. This will lead to a strong and comfortable working relationship and If you embrace convergence, you are likely going to emerge a well-prepared and highly competitive scientist, plus the process is going to be more exciting and fun!
You are going to discuss science with some of the greatest living minds in our field. Be sure to value and practice listening while still contributing to interesting conversation. You can talk continuously the rest of your life if you choose. This is your one opportunity to absorb all you can from an epicenter of ecological thought. Soak it up, internalize what people say to you, allow your graduate research and broader scientific directions to be shaped by these conversations.
Become familiar with copyediting marks on the first day
Monica often reads drafts in hard copy and will give it back to you with hand-written notes and copyediting marks. As a child of the internet age, you may be unfamiliar with these markings. They will look alien. Just print off a cheat sheet for yourself the first day. It took me 5 years to do so and I seriously regret it.
With great opportunity comes great responsibility.
Monica takes a chance on each student and commits herself to being their biggest professional advocate. Make her and the rest of the Turner Lab proud.
Harvey, Brian J; PhD, 2010 -2015
Pinch yourself from time to time.
Wow. If you get the chance to work in the Turner Lab, consider yourself among the luckiest scientists in the world. I’m not sure it has really settled in, even now, what an incredible experience the whole thing was. From living in Madison to working with an amazing community of ecologists (and really nice people) throughout campus, your time in the Turner Lab might feel like the most awesome dream you’ve ever had. So pinch yourself. It is real. Soak up every minute.
Embrace Monica’s mentorship.
Working with Monica is not a spectator sport. She expects a lot, but she is also the most supporting mentor and caring person one could imagine. She will give you plenty of feedback, particularly early on. Be ready to have rapid-fire brainstorming sessions about your scientific ideas. Monica is super enthusiastic about science, and if you are in grad school, it’s probably going to be much more fun if you are too. Be OK with getting a paper back with marks all over it. In fact, look forward to it. Monica is a terrific writer, and she will take time to help make you a terrific writer too. Oh yeah, and be careful about overly-abusing hyphens :).
Do a little mentoring of your own.
As an undergrad, do you remember having no idea how to gain research experience (or even having any clue that research was happening on campus)? I certainly do. Well, it turns out that UW-Madison is about the best place to break down the walls between undergrads and real-life scientists (you!). Whether through the Intro Biology Mentored IP program, undergraduate theses/capstones, or undergraduate research grants, there are so many incredible opportunities to mentor students on mini-projects related to your research. It’s a real win-win. The undergrads get a life-changing experience, and you get really valuable training in working one-on-one with the next wave of scientists. Plus, it’s a great way to keep your projects moving forward.
Give Bucky some bling.
One of the coolest traditions in the Turner Lab is hanging a tag on Bucky for every paper that gets submitted. Although it’s intimidating at first to see the impressive numbers of tags in past years, remember that tags are for every paper submitted, not necessarily accepted on the first try. When you submit your manuscript to a journal, it means that you have already climbed the steepest part of the mountain towards getting it published. Congrats! Give Bucky his bling, celebrate with a drink, and then get ready for the rejection letter from Science :), which leads to my next point.
Don’t be afraid of failure.
In our business, you will fail. Not all the time. But funding rates for big grants and acceptance rates at the top journals of ~5-10% means that we will all fail most of the time. But don’t be afraid of this, embrace it! Think of proposals that don’t get funded as successes; you got to the point where you submitted a (hopefully somewhat) well-designed plan for important work. The best learning and growing often occurs through proposal writing. The process is as important as the outcome, and sooner or later the outcome will be in your favor. I can remember Monica saying many times, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” It is so true.
Beware the hazelnut half-caff.
OK. I’d be remiss if I didn’t have a warning in here about this stuff. Every morning (provided you arrive after Monica), the lab will smell like some sort of diluted, hazelnut infused, somewhat translucent, torturous substitute for coffee. That’s because every morning, Monica makes a pot of diluted, hazelnut infused, somewhat translucent, torturous substitute for coffee. Fondly referred to as “half-caff,” this stuff is “whole-disgusting.” As soon as Monica is done making it each morning, do Mr. Coffee a favor and erase his memory of this event by making a strong pot of real coffee, preferably so thick you can chew it.
Don’t be too proud to eat (a lot of) PB & J.
I can’t tell you how many times I saw labmates bring in some dilapidated leftovers for lunch, only to say “well, at least it beats PB&J!” Now, I don’t work for the PB&J anti-defamation league or anything, but come on, seriously, what is wrong with PB&J? I’m not talking about the nasty PB&J your mom used to make for you in 2nd grade that would be smashed in the bottom of your lunch bag and all soggy and warm by the time you ate it. That is gross. I’m talking about freshly made, PB on both slices of bread, and jelly oozing out the middle, PB&J. It’s easy (takes 30 seconds to make), cheap (just buy one jar PB, one jar J, and a loaf of bread per week, and keep it in the lab fridge), and delicious (again, not talking about the 2nd grade version).
Cherish your lab family.
Your labmates are among your most useful resources as a scientist. The great thing about the Turner Lab is that folks work on such a diverse group of projects. Even though my research was on disturbance ecology in Yellowstone, some of my biggest “aha!” moments were while listening to labmates who were working on things like Ecosystem Services in Southern Wisconsin or seagrass beds along the Atlantic Coast. The best science happens when you step outside of your comfort zone, and in the Turner Lab those opportunities arise every day. Oh yeah, and get outside with your labmates and go do fun stuff that has nothing to do with science. They are your friends too!
Take a walk (or paddle, or ski, or bike, or run, or skate) in the woods.
Don’t get too stuck in the office/lab that you forget to get some exercise and fresh air. There are so many great rivers, lakes, and hiking trails throughout Wisconsin, many of them radiating out from campus. And there are activities for every season (yeah, even the -20 deg. F days in winter!). Depending on where you live, you might be lucky enough to canoe to campus in the warm months and ski to campus in the cold months.
Honor the tradition of the University of Wisconsin.
The University of Wisconsin is one of the greatest universities in the world. For over a century and a half, the “Wisconsin Idea” has been held up as the gold standard for research, teaching, and service at public universities worldwide. To be a member of the UW family is an honor and a privilege. Don’t take it for granted. Honor the tradition of those who have worked so hard to make UW-Madison what it is today. Be a staunch advocate for your University while you are there, and after you have moved on. Go Badgers, and On Wisconsin!
Hoecker, Tyler J; PhD, 2017-2021
Congratulations! You are starting a journey where you will grow more as a person than you can now imagine and contribute to science in ways you probably don’t yet expect. Pursuing a PhD is hard – you’ll be reminded of that a lot (especially on Twitter!). But it’s also a huge privilege – you’ve been given the opportunity to dive deeply into a subject that you’re passionate about and improve the world. Now that I am approximately two weeks post-dissertation I can give you some advice:
- Be grateful for this opportunity, to your mentors, to your colleagues. A good way to remind yourself to be grateful is to say thank you.
- Take feedback as a compliment. Science involves a lot of giving and receiving critical feedback. It’s hard not to personalize this. If people didn’t respect you and value your work and potential, they wouldn’t bother to give feedback.
- Build a professional community. Go to seminars, take classes, meet up with your classmates at the Union, eat lunch together in the lab, go to conferences, engage. A community is essential to developing your career and makes it a lot more fun.
- Build a personal community. Despite the importance of your professional community and grad student friends (see above), you are allowed to have other interests, friends, and communities. Join the ultimate frisbee league, go for weekly group bike rides, play in the community orchestra, make friends that aren’t students. These activities actually improve your science by the helping with points 1 and 2.
- Be efficient. Showing up early and staying late are sometimes necessary, but they don’t equal productivity. Define your work space, consistently do work in it, then go home.
Jackson, Michelle; PhD, 2008 -2012
Most of my advice falls under two categories – building relationships and thinking broadly.
Some of these are things I did, and some are things I wish I had done more of.
- Talk to people outside the lab, including other grad students and professors. Make efforts to get to know people in other labs and departments, as they will often have helpful and different perspectives to offer on your work. It’s also important to have friends who can understand what you’re going through and can support you during the hard times and the good times.
- Talk to people in the lab, and hang out with them outside of work if possible. The work environment in the Turner lab is hard to beat, and will be even better if you develop relationships with people that extend outside the work hours.
- Talk to Monica. She’s incredible in how accessible she is to her students, and that’s unusual for an advisor. Don’t take that for granted or feel intimidated – get to know her, and feel comfortable asking her questions or running ideas by her.
- Talk to non-academics about your work. Work on communicating your research to those who aren’t familiar with the ecological lingo. It’s a valuable, much needed skill that shouldn’t be short-changed; there are plenty of opportunities to do this either formally or informally (but you will need to seek them out).
Think broadly about your research
- Read the literature widely, and develop this habit early on. It will open your eyes to new ideas and methods, and will form your thinking about your own project.
- Don’t be afraid to think outside the box with your research. It can feel daunting to go off in an unexplored direction that is new or somewhat risky. But you will come to a point where you know your system better than almost anyone, and new ideas/questions will come to you that aren’t necessarily “built in” to your dissertation. Don’t write these off too quickly – forge ahead with them if you can, because if you are interested in and excited about a topic, the research will be that much better (and more fun!).
- Enjoy fieldwork, and get out in the field as much as possible. When you are in the field, observe, observe, observe. There’s so much going on that can inform your research questions, so pay attention to detail, even if it feels tangential to the task at hand.
Lastly, try to enjoy the whole process. There will be slumps, but on the whole, grad school is a pretty great lifestyle. Monica is an amazing advisor, and will work with you to make the most of your experience in the lab.
Kashian, Daniel M.; PhD student, 1998 -2002
- Never take yourself or your degree program too seriously! They don’t offer a course in self-depreciation, but learning to laugh at yourself, I think, is as critical as passing your prelims (at least in the long term). Don’t ever think that you are smarter than somebody else; you may have just thought about a topic more. This goes for non-academics as well as those in graduate school, and is especially true when you are studying basic ecology. You may find in the real world that many managers or applied scientists have understood your research – at least in part – long before you articulated it in a dissertation or thesis.
- If you are a competitive person, find a way to hide it. It is one thing to be driven, but another to be so at the expense of others. Channel your competitiveness to help motivate yourself, but don’t try to outdo other students in courses, seminars, or at lab meetings. People will rarely tell you when it bothers them, but are surely speaking about it behind closed doors.
- Learn how to be critical without being negative. A “critical review” of a paper does not mean the same thing as “find something wrong with this paper.” If you can teach yourself to see the big picture of the paper and its contribution to our ecological knowledge as well as its flaws, you’ll be better off. It will be a useful skill in the future when reviewing the work of colleagues.
- Don’t be too stressed out over the exams. Exams are only stressful if you let them get into your head:
Qualifiers: You should definitely study, but don’t feel you need to know everything in the world. If you don’t know an answer during the exam, ask the prof about it. Develop a dialogue. Most profs are anxious to start a discussion rather than have an awkward oral exam. And the whole thing will be much more stimulating for everyone.
Prelims: You should be prepared to take some criticism for your work – and remember that this is really the last time (in an exam setting) that your committee will know more about your work than you do. So, you should expect them to be critical and be open to suggestions.
Defense: Realize you will know more about your work than anyone else – but be humble enough to admit its shortcomings or any room for improvement.
- Get out in the field. Ecology is by nature a field-based science, but we are more and more moving towards studies dominated by laboratory or computational methods. If your project has a field component, enjoy it, because in 5 years you’ll remember being in the field much more than the bugs/heat/humidity/rain/poison ivy/large carnivores/cold you might be dealing with today. If your project is not field-based, go out with someone else for a few days during a summer. The field is where ecology happens!
- Don’t underestimate the value of your teaching experience. Teaching can be very fun – even more rewarding that research in many aspects – but it takes effort and practice. Not only is it your obligation to the undergrads to be the best teacher you can be, but entering academia without the necessary skills to be a successful teacher can make for a very miserable component of your career. Consider the teaching requirement to be an opportunity instead of a burden.
- If possible, involve undergrads in your research. Not only can befriending undergrads be pretty fun, they can be important in getting things done and can help you develop your leadership skills. I was surprised how good my field assistants were over my 2 field seasons in Yellowstone – not only would I not have been able to accomplish the workload, but many times I would not have been able to get myself out of bed. They were very inspirational. However, you have to let them inspire you – sometimes ignoring the “under” in undergrad (see #1).
- Interact with other students in the lab. Hang out. Get to know your lab mates. We used to go to the Rathskeller for a few beers every Friday afternoon – affectionately called our “Sour Hour”. We filled Sarah Gergel’s mini-purse with popcorn every single week without her knowing. It was fun, is important to your happiness as a grad student – and the popcorn is free. If done right, it’s likely you will keep in contact with your lab mates the rest of your career as you search for jobs, write grants, and network – support that you can’t overestimate.
- Interact with other students in the Department and across campus. There is life outside the Turner Lab, and some of these people really are interesting, even if you aren’t that interested in what they do. Zoology can lack interaction between grad students, so it can take some effort on your part. Remember that students gain knowledge and understanding from many parts of a university — by hanging out with fellow students, in classes, in journals, as well as in research projects.
- It’s OK to have a life outside of academia. Given the above points about interacting with lab mates and grad students, it’s OK to have a private life. Everyone has things they need to deal with outside of Birge Hall, be they good things or bad. It’s OK to have things you enjoy outside of ecology. You should also feel free to cope with your problems in your own way.
- Appreciate your advisor. It will be rare for you to find another “boss” who is willing to help and become involved in your research without micro-managing. It seems that in ecological fields, your superiors will either show disinterest or will tell you when you should use a different color ink in your pen. Ask around the grad students: It’s not often that really good advisors come around. You have one. Enjoy it while it lasts.
- Give Monica some grief. This is related to #10, and is all in fun of course. Goof around. Joke around. Take the opportunity that is in front of you and have fun with it. Monica likes to laugh, too, but too often her students are either so anxious to joke with her or kid her a little or are intimidated by her success that things become tenser than need be. She might look scary, but she has quite a sense of humor (; .
- Tape record your self-introduction to play each week at the Turner Lab meetings! I can only imagine the amount of time I would have saved. Probably a 3-4 lab meetings’ worth of time. At least.
Kuhman, Tim; PhD, 2005-2009
Take a tip from me…
- Make time for friends, family, and beer on the terrace. It’s easy to let grad school become a 9 to 5 job – that’s 9am to 5am – but it is important to not let it be all-consuming. This will make you a better person as well as a better scientist.
- (Related to tip #1) Learn as much as you can about time-management skills and balancing work/personal life from Monica. If you can figure out all her secrets, there may be an opportunity here to write a book on time management that could fund your graduate career!
- Never take for granted the value of good lab group dynamics. The Turner lab has a long tradition of fostering an environment rich in camaraderie and collaboration. This makes for both an enjoyable and intellectually fruitful place to work. It’s true… the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.
- (Related to tip #3) Among the best ways to maintain good lab group dynamics is to wash your dishes promptly, clean up your mess, and always keep a pot of strong coffee on hand.
Lumpkin, Heather; MS student, 2008-2011
- Be grateful. One thing that I have noticed about graduate school is that it can be easy to become cynical. Maintaining a grateful mindset can help to prevent this. You will likely find, as I did, that even on the most difficult days you are blessed with a caring and helpful advisor, and with very friendly colleagues. As mentioned in the legacies of other past lab members. Take the time to get to know these people and enjoy your time in Madison.
- Get to know your study area. It’s very easy to get so wrapped up in collecting your data that you forget to take the time to enjoy the area that you work in. This time helped remind me of the things that I enjoy the most about ecology and nature and of the reasons that motivated me to study ecology. It also provided an opportunity to step back from the detailed piece that I was collecting data on and to make new observations about the system I work in. You never know what observations may lead to an interesting new research question.
- Share your research with people who aren’t ecologists. Plenty of opportunities will arise to speak about your research in front of fellow scientists, but you often need to seek out opportunities to practice sharing your research with the public. Speaking with garden clubs and rotary clubs in the areas that you work may seem like wasted time, but the bridges that you create with the public will often open up doors in your own research. Don’t overlook outreach opportunities with kids. Through these opportunities you can sharing important ecological messages and foster a love for nature in future generations. I have also discovered that seeing my research through the eyes of a child helps to renew my own enthusiasm and lend fresh perspective to a project.
- Enjoy the winter. It’s very long, so you need to find a way to enjoy it. Compared to the Indiana winter’s that I had been used to (which involved nearly as much cold, harsh winds, lots of ice, and only a few inches of snow that whipped across flat fields and blew it in your face), winter in Madison is great! Buy cross country skis and take advantage of the snow accumulation, or get some ice skates or snowshoes.
Marburg, Anna; M.S./PhD student, 2001-2006
- Grad school only looks like college. The sooner you figure this out the better. Becoming an ecologist has less to do with the acquisition of knowledge than the learning of a trade. Think of grad school as an apprenticeship. Your job is to learn to do all the things that professors do — manage your time, write well, be a good boss, teach, etc. Monica makes it look effortless, but job skills are just that — skills — and skills can be learned.
- The most important skill to master in grad school is not isotope analysis or statistics. The most important skill is accurately predicting how long a project will take you. The second most important skill is learning how to make self-imposed deadlines as fearsome as external ones. Your long-term success depends on being a person that other people want to work with and who wants to work with someone who’s always holding up the show?
- Learn to work regular hours. College is a series of 8 sprints, Grad school is an ultra-marathon. The work doesn’t stop when the semester ends. Learn to work steadily while you’re at the office and it will be easier to carve out time for a personal life. When you procrastinate all afternoon and then tell your friends “oh I can’t go out tonight, I have to work” you’re not being dedicated, you’re saying you’d rather web-surf than talk to real people.
- Read the literature! You will quickly be drowning in small, technical papers about your particular field area/topic. Force yourself to also keep up with the wider field and read big-idea papers. As you read, keep track of the articles that strike you as “really good papers,” no matter how unrelated to your research. Odds are, these papers held your attention because they are exceptionally well-written. Review their style and structure as you prepare to write your first couple of manuscripts.
- Figure out what your research interests are beyond your dissertation. People will eventually ask you “so, what kind of post-doc are you looking for?” It would be good to have an answer other than “one with a salary.”
- Learn how to learn outside of class. For the rest of your career you will need to master new methods and statistical techniques — so you’d better teach yourself to learn out of a book.
- Be flexible! Your success in grad school depends on your personal focus and drive – but don’t get locked in. If you’re reading as widely as you should, you will come across all sorts of big new ideas. Be prepared for your interests to shift, and follow your muse.
- Write metadata as you go! Metadata is any supporting information you provide about a data set. At some point, someone (maybe even you!) will dust off your old data sets. What’s in each file? Where did it come from? Is it good data or a temporary work file? Which results are raw field data and which have been filtered, calculated, and sorted? What does each column mean, and what are the units? Writing metadata is tedious, difficult, and thankless, but it can be the difference between a complete, usable, and trustworthy dataset and a spreadsheet with a bunch of numbers in it. Remember – metadata cannot be too detailed. It’s also a good idea to add some monster appendices to your thesis with your methods and final data summaries. The only person who will ever read beyond the abstract is a fellow student who wants to build on your work. Make it easy for them.
- Use your colleagues! The advice others have written in their lab legacies is great. I wish I had asked them for it when I was still in school. To be surrounded by so many top-notch scientists who are generous with their knowledge is an amazing opportunity – learn everything you can from them.
- like jeff said – play frisbee, drink beer and don’t leave dishes in the sink
Miller, James R.; Postdoc, 1999-2002
Ten Tips (plus one) for Living Life to Its Fullest in the Turner Lab –
- Don’t engage in intra-lab romances – you could wind up in Iowa.
- It might seem extreme, but a timely (say, December or January) injury that actually compromises your mobility can get you a disability parking pass so you can pull right up to Birge and avoid those long walks up the hill from Park St.
- A nice way to break up those 10 hr. days during good weather – take full advantage of the carts on library mall (not every university town has this sort of set-up – take Ames for example…).
- If you find yourself on State St., avoid responding to Scanner Dan if he happens to speak to you. You’ll be sorry. Same for anyone who’s standing on that concrete podium on library mall.
- Another way to break up those 12 hr. days is a quick stroll through Muir woods to the path along the lake. Sometimes hard to break away from Birge, but it’s a great way to beat writer’s block.
- Seriously now, take advantage of the Birge library, especially if you’re doing any work regarding animal ecology. It’s a wonderful resource and you don’t even have to put on your coat to get there. Plus, there’s a key you can use to get in when it’s closed.
- For postdocs, one thing that I learned completely by accident has to do with timing of job searches. Even though you may not intend to start applying until a given year of your postdoc, I strongly suggest you apply for a few the year prior. It was good practice to go through a few interviews, but more importantly you may get an offer or two. There’s no guarantee that the job market will remain stable year-to-year. Case in point, I knew that I would be in the lab through spring of 2002, so didn’t plan on applying for positions in earnest until the fall of 2001. To get a feel for the process, however, I did apply for some jobs during the previous year and was fortunate to get some offers. I deliberated about these and got some good advice from Monica, and accepted one. It wasn’t my dream job, but the market virtually dried up for a while the following fall, after 9-11.
- A related suggestion, try to insert yourself on a search committee (I’m not sure if a postdoc can do this, but grad students sometimes can, at least at ISU) or at least see if you can be privy to what goes on there. It really helps to prepare for job interviews if you’ve seen the process from the other side.
- This might be a no-brainer, but try to take advantage of the fact that there are a fair number of well-known ecologists at UW – again, not the case everywhere. Whether it’s going to seminars or taking classes, try to get some exposure to these folks while you can. If they are working in your area or a closely related one, go out of your way to meet them. I’m still surprised at some of the folks working at UW that I never interacted with until I left.
- If one of your charges is tracking budget sheets for a project, figure out how to read them early on. Accounting errors aren’t unusual, but the longer these problems (or others) go undetected, the harder they are to detect or fix.
- If you happen to ride the bus from the south side, don’t under any circumstances give 29 cents, or 33 cents, or whatever amount he’s asking for to the guy that always has his sweatshirt hood on – he will badger you from that day forward if you do. Also note that if a guy on the bus named Mark is looking directly at you and speaking, however animated he may be, don’t assume he’s really talking to you. Finally, if there’s a guy sitting behind you making a hissing sound, sort of like a snake, I suggest just pretending like you don’t hear him, or at least not turning around.
Qiu, Jiangxiao; PhD student, 2011-2016
- Congratulations! If you are reading this page, and you received an offer from Monica, congratulations! This is an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study and work in a wonderful, fun (type I fun of course), and positive lab where you will receive mentorship from Monica—one of the best scientists and mentors. There are so many aspects of academia you can observe and learn from Monica, from effective writing, big-picture thinking, time management, rigorousness in science and enthusiasm about research, to work/life balance—just to name a few. You will be amazed by how much she cares about her students. She is always patient and supportive, and she is willing to dedicate her time to students and provide as much help as she can for the next stage of your career.Embrace the lunch break and enjoy time with your labmates. It is unique that people from the lab always try to get together for lunch at noon. I really enjoyed the informal environment where we got to know more about each other while we shared stories, experiences, perspectives, and discussed news and other ongoing things beyond our research (of course we did also talk about science during lunch sometimes). Your labmates will also become your friends, and after work, it is always fun to hang out and get together for walks, drinks, celebrations, hiking, and camping trips.
- Lab meeting. Lab meetings are extremely valuable, exciting, and effective ways to learn about other people’s research, and you will also receive feedback and suggestions on your own work (e.g., data analysis, experimental design, preparations for exams, seminars, interviews, etc.). It is a 100% safe and supportive environment. Your presentation does not need to be fully polished for lab meetings, and in my experience, the earlier you present your ideas and ask for feedback, the more valuable it will be. When others present, try to actively contribute your thoughts and suggestions as best you can, and ask questions (but in a friendly and collegial way).
- Get wet and get dirty. One of the coolest of things about being an ecologist is you get to explore, enjoy, and appreciate nature while still at work (yes!). I am always jealous of the cool GYE crews, and I imagine that perhaps one of our next lab retreat will be there :). Even though you consider yourself a computational modeler, try to get some fieldwork experience by helping your colleagues, friends, or having your own. It is super fun, and it can help you better understand the system you are trying to model. You will find that new ideas and ‘Aha’ moments do emerge while in the field. Fieldwork also helps you gain appreciation of the amount of work and long hours that just one simple line in the Method section of an empirical field study entails.
- Celebrate your first Bucky award. “Publish or perish” does hold true most of the time in academia. In the Turner lab, one nice tradition is giving Bucky a tag, and taking a drink underneath after submitting a manuscript as a reward to yourself. If possible, try to write and publish as early as you can. It is by no means any sort of competition (actually there is no room for competition in the Turner lab), but rather a way to mark your milestone and celebrate all your efforts and hard work. You do need to replace the drink for the next person though. There might be a good mechanism to prevent starting from Nature and Science every time and going all the way to Birge Hall weekly. 🙂
- Do not be afraid of asking ‘silly’ questions and feeling ‘stupid’. Stupidity is not a bad thing in science. There is a thoughtful article on the fridge in the lab on “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research”. It is a learning process for many of us. Sometimes the more you know, the more you feel that you actually do not know. Feeling ‘stupid’, especially when you have being working in the field for a while, might mean that you are thinking deeply and getting closer to discoveries that many others do not know as well. So, embrace and enjoy that feeling.
- Appreciate the lakes. Living in Madison, and Wisconsin, taught me to appreciate the lakes. Lakes are beautiful, and also provide many ecosystem services, of course. 🙂 There are thousands in the north, and in Madison we also have the renowned Chain of Lakes. When you get tired and frustrated with R during the summer, hop on a boat in the afternoon, enjoy the breeze, picturesque sunset, and live music at the terrace. You will have a clear mind, and perhaps good ideas arise while pulling yourself away from the screen. If you like sailing, I highly recommend the hoofers club.
- Be proud to be a badger. It is an honor to become a badger and part of the UW community. UW-Madison is among the greatest and leading universities worldwide. It has a glorious history, great traditions and legacies, a beautiful campus, and an inclusive, supportive culture. There are great people and top scientists here, and a wonderful community of ecologists (i.e., Wisconsin Ecology). Enjoy every moment while you are there; I started missing Madison the moment I left.
- A final note to prospective students from China. Read and think broadly, and get familiar with and appreciate the historical and foundational ideas in ecology. Be mindful of not immersing yourself into technical ‘weeds’, and frequently remind yourself of the big picture, long-term vision, and “so what” aspect of your research. Listen to the radio and other media outlets, and pay attention to news and other things going on around you, so you can be more engaged in conversations with your colleagues and friends (I wish I would have done this more and started earlier). Try not to be bounded by the specific topics you are working on for your thesis. At the end of day, you may realize that the topics and areas once deemed ‘irrelevant’ actually have direct and surprising connections.
Ramiadantsoa, Tanjona; Postdoc, 2016-2019
Gosh, information is not lacking here. It already hints at the lab culture, and I am not sure what else to add! However, even if you think you are different because of your native language, hair style, culture, humor, skin complexion, or anything out of the ordinary, you will still magically relate to people in the lab. Monica and your lab mates will do their best for you to feel welcome, succeed personally and academically. And that is more than enough reason to join and be grateful.
Remsburg, Alysa J.; M.S./PhD student, 2002-2007
- Good ecological research contains about 1 part biology, 2 parts creativity, 4 parts collective problem solving, 4 parts statistics, 4 parts clear communication, and 5 parts organization. Or at least that’s my observation of the time breakdown. By that measure, you’re in a great place. You’re surrounded by colleagues and strangers who you’ll soon ask for help. And Monica serves as a great model of organizational prowess.
- Practice talks will last about 5 times as long as you expect. They’re one of the most valuable components of the Turner lab. Always take time to offer constructive comments for your labmates (and Monica).
- Get out of Birge when the weather’s nice. And when it’s not, I highly recommend escaping to the Birge Hall greenhouse for a breath of great fragrances, a quiet reading place, or lunch with a friend.
- Get biking! Madison is the place to do it, and it certainly saves you time in commutes.
- The Birge Hall stairs are faster and have better views than the elevator. Be grateful for this option before your knees wear out.
- If you’re ever sleepy while reading, try standing at the window ledge in the 4th floor hall. You’ll see.
- Keep a Turner lab representative on the Madison Ecology Group (MEG) committee. It’s one of the best ways to get connected to all the ecological expertise in Madison.
- Bring instruments and song books to Turner lab potlucks and retreats!
- In the moments when you’re ready to tear your hair out or introduce your computer to Sir Sledgehammer, relax and remember that you’re fortunate to be in an amazing place with opportunities to learn and grow.
Schoennagel, Tania; PhD student, 1998-2002
What a fun opportunity to connect with all the great new students entering the lab, who I may or may not get to meet face to face!
So advice from my experience getting a PhD under Monica (not in any order of importance) is the following:
- Early on, spread your wings. This is a dynamic lab addressing lots of different questions in many different systems (all at a fast pace!). It is easy to get lost/intimidated. Don’t be. Allow some slack on your leash to your particular topic and use the lab to learn about lots of different ecological systems/processes. Look for conceptual ties between projects. This will broaden your understanding/insight into landscape ecology, and also give you a quick primer on different topics (a quick peek into the world of biogeochemistry if you are an animal person, for example).
- Read widely in ecology and deeply in your topic. Go to talks on campus and be an ecology sponge. This might seem like time wasted when you have lots to do, but early on this is very important to getting exposure to different ways of doing science, and learning how to ask questions and engage professionally. Try to attend a meeting early on. Meetings are a science smorgasbord and you can really get exposure to lots of things. Plus you will learn the important skill of networking with other scientists.
- Don’t waste your time. Try not to waste a lot of time on lots of classes. You are smart and can probably get up to speed much more quickly on topics of interest outside of a formal class. Some things you will definitely benefit from a class (stats in particular), however. Monica will run “D” for you so you don’t have to take too many. Zoology is a good dept for not loading you up with lots of misc. classes. Take advantage of this time to charge ahead on research/read up on what you need to learn.
- Try to kick start a project idea early. Do a pilot study, talk with Monica and others about ideas, begin writing a proposal your first year if possible, don’t get bogged down on one thing for too long. If you get criticism (which you will), take it, learn from it and move on.
- Your lab mates are there for you. Monica is very busy, so use the rest of the lab to its fullest to meet with other students, to ask them to read your proposals (and you theirs), to practice your talks on them (and listen to theirs), ask questions, fly a crazy idea past them, etc. The first proposal I wrote, Monica sent around the lab and everyone critiqued it. I had never had that type of attention in previous labs. I was amazed. I got the proposal funded and I am sure it was due in part to the great feedback I had gotten from the lab. Keep in mind also that you benefit from helping others (seeing how they craft a proposal, present a talk, etc). It is a valuable experience. There is lots of depth in the lab, and this Legacy project is a great example of how you can benefit from this. Monica encourages lots of lab interaction (in fact, I have always wondered if she tries to start grad students in pairs so that they can help each other out as they navigate grad school at different stages). The lab is a great resource that will benefit you if you use it (plus, its fun!).
- Proposals I was amazed when Monica shared proposals (funded and unfunded ones) with me. I always thought these were kind of secret docs no one would share. They are a super way to get immersed quickly in the general literature of your project, to figure out how your project may fit in with a larger one, and very importantly, to generally get a feel for how to craft a good proposal. This is a very important skill in grad school and thereafter. Read other’s proposals (even if on different topics) to get an idea how they were organized, argued, and crafted. Even if you are on a funded project, you might consider applying for a fellowship to get the experience proposal writing. It also looks great on your CV if you successfully secured your own funding.
- Learn organizational skills. I learned a lot by just watching Monica (and other hyper organized people). During meetings she could pull out notes from years ago and jump right into the heart of the matter. Watch people who are very good at organizing many lines of information, documenting and note taking. How do they do it, what are their tricks? Some attention to organization is very important; don’t just wing it. Everyone is different in how they organize their lives, and you can learn from many of them if you keep your eyes open to not just the content of science, but the process of organizing science.
- Get out and play! People work hard in this lab, but you have to have some fun or you will burn out. Join a team, get outside, take on a hobby, spend time with your sweetie. Grad school can be long and intense so make sure you have a good balance or you won’t be happy.
- Follow your passion! There are lots of things to think about and projects to pursue, so make sure you surrounded yourself with topics/activities that really matter to you and that you find stimulating. Almost every day I think how lucky I am to be doing what I do. I love it. If I didn’t, it would not be worth the bother.
Simard, Martin; PhD, 2005-2010
Tip #1. Caffeine, capsaicin, ibuprofen
Tip #2. See tip #1
Smith, Lt. Col. Mark A.; PhD student, 1995-2002
About my Legacy.
I write this Legacy nearly 4 years after I have completed my Ph.D. Consequently, my writings may be tainted with the “wisdom of time.” I might not have written these same words had I made this contribution immediately following the completion of my degree. In addition, much of what I share has been influence by my experience as an Army Officer. Nonetheless, here are the words of wisdom I leave to my legacy:
Focus, focus, focus, on what you are doing and what you intend to accomplish.
With each project or each task, concentrate on slaying the big dragons first. Find out what they are, where they are, and go slay them. Squashing a bunch of ants will just leave you with ants on your feet, and not with a whole lot of accomplishments.
Schedule when you are going to slay your dragons. Prioritize. Slay the dragon that is nearest to eating you, and then quickly proceed to the next one. Don’t spend much time patting yourself on the back. You are only as good as your next slaying. Sometimes you may need to slay a distant dragon in the middle of slaying your near one, but efficient people managing time and can do this.
Work so that you slay dragons further and further away from you.
Don’t get too anxious about things. Relax, focus, and you will be able to handle the situation.
Efficient people manage minutes. You can get a lot done in a minute, if you use it.
Never take the first “no” for an answer. Be persistent. There are always those that will gladly put a road block in your way to make their lives easier. Don’t give up. Find another way. Find someone who will say, yes we can!
Make personal relationships. These will help you get through many a sticky situation.
Maintain personal relationships. Tough one, time is short, we get busy, but it is still necessary. Personal relationship will help to open many doors for you when you need assistance.
Lastly, enjoy life. There are so many things to see and do. Allow time to relax and spend time doing the things you love.
Smithwick, Erica; Postdoc, 2001-2007
Do take advantage of Monica’s advice. She is a sage when it comes to responding to manuscript reviews, planning presentations, understanding directions in the field, and, ultimately helping you plan your future. Make sure you find time to get that guidance from her. Plan a meeting to discuss your future, or that nagging paper. You will walk out of the office feeling much better. And, these are the years in your life (as a grad student or post-doc) when this guidance is critical, invaluable and short-lived.
Don’t be too distressed that Monica’s kids are smarter than you. If you think about it, it will really get you down. Devin is a national award winning artist and an airplane pilot, and Deirdre is an aspiring ballerina and a Girl Scout. Luckily, I had a few years on them during my tenure in Monica’s lab, so I had age in my corner. But you new folks might have to watch out.
Make a mark. Make sure you do something outside of classes and your own designated research each year that is solely for your professional development. Write a review paper, organize a special journal issue, organize a special section at a meeting, and accept invitations to get out and talk about your science to new people. Monica will help you get there. Everybody has a few papers and a degree, so you need to set yourself apart. This will really help you in the interview process.
Find that elusive “balance”. I had two kids during my post-doc. This worked out well for me because I had: a supportive husband, a supportive mentor, lots of flexibility, friendship & laughter, an efficient work ethic, and a conviction that it would work out. Monica’s advice to “keep a foot in the door” helped me navigate those busy years. There are plenty of support network for families (not just moms!) struggling with the work/life balance, so seek them out. And, there are many avenues to success, however defined. A national academy mother-scientist is a great role model, but truly the desire needs to come from within. Given that, Monica and co. will help you succeed, just be flexible with your time and energy.
Enjoy the camaraderie in the lab. Have fun with each other! Go to the Union, take coffee breaks, have lunch outside. Get to know each other outside of the lab. These friendships will make it all worthwhile. Also, don’t be surprised if these conversations ultimately become fodder for new paper ideas and contributions. Your office mate may not just be a colleague, but also a co-author!
Uhrin, Amy V.; PhD, 2012-2018
Explore the city (and state) as much as you possibly can and take advantage of all that is before you. Madison has dozens of live music/performance venues, art galleries and shops, farmers markets, fabulous restaurants, green spaces, and probably one of the best city bike trail networks in the country. It truly is a midwest gem! Embrace the winters. Invest in quality outer wear and spend some time snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and ice fishing. Monitor the winter forecast in case the Lake Superior Ice Caves open up and if so, make the trek! I moved to Madison from sunny, hot, humid North Carolina. If I can do it, so can you! I hope you love cheese. If not (gasp), learn to. Wisco produces some of the greatest cheeses known to man.
At UW you will be surrounded by some of the greatest minds in science. Do not be afraid to engage outside the department including fellow grad students. Do not compromise personal time for school work. I wish I had managed this a bit better. You really do need to take time for yourself each day and week to decompress and stay healthy both mentally and physically. Time management (down to the minute level) will be a challenge, but do not sacrifice “me time”.
Monica’s enthusiasm for science is nothing less than contagious and motivational and she is an extraordinary mentor. Being welcomed into the Turner Lab has been one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. If you find yourself in this situation, you should be very proud. Bear in mind that there will be times where you feel on top of your game and the genius is just oozing from your brain and then there will be times when you wonder how the heck you even got accepted into the program (see Tim Whitby’s legacy on imposter syndrome). Don’t fret – this is the learning process. You are not an expert at everything and that is ok! You are here to learn and sometimes it’s a difficult process that involves blood, sweat, and tears. But the end result is too gratifying and rewarding to put into words.
Whitby, Tim; Post-MS Associate, 2012-2014
I’m coming at this from a unique perspective: neither student nor postdoc but a “postmasters”. Actually a “research intern” on paper, but that’s semantics.
Wisconsin? Really? To us coasties, the Midwest might be imagined as one giant Monsanto corn-field, but I have been pleasantly surprised by all the badger state has to offer. There are plenty of great restaurants, dive bars, nice bars, green spaces, music venues, farmer’s markets (check out the Wednesday market on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd for a more relaxing experience), clubs, and sports. Join one of the Hoofers clubs. I’m a member of the mountaineering club, which sounds intimidating, but is mostly small trips to Devils Lake for some fun one-pitch climbs. Learning to cross country ski, if you don’t know how to already, will keep you active and happy through the long winters. Bike everywhere in Madison. It doesn’t have to be an expensive bike either; your hand-me-down, steel 10-speed from the 70’s will suffice, trust me. It’s a rare privilege to be able to access all you could need to live on without having to pay for a single tank of gas.
Cherish the field work. Try your best to make your way out to Yellowstone, even if your research is in some other place. The beauty and natural history that is offered on the plateau are world class. The feeling of awe and wonder when first driving through the East Entrance of the park is something I’ll never forget. And if you can spend your time there with Monica and/or Bill Romme you’ll get a glimpse into all of the ecological underpinnings and landscape context that make it such an amazing place to work. Long, exhausting days of collecting data or hiking to the remote field sites are a small price to pay for such a unique opportunity.
You’re not an impostor. Without the commiseration of classes, heavy TA work-load, committee meetings, paper publication deadlines… it’s hard at times to fit into the conversation, but I nevertheless felt welcomed and integrated into a very impressive, albeit motley, group of researchers. Read a bit about impostor syndrome, and realize that everyone deals with finding their role within a group, even those that seem to have every aspect of their life wrapped up neatly with a bow. I know this may not apply to everyone, but I’ve found it to be a common concern amongst young scientists. When you do look to others, take away the positive habits and attitudes that you aspire to. There will be plenty of good examples: probably behind every desk in every adjacent office. Speaking of which, take time to loiter in the doorways of those neighboring offices. The personal interactions in and out of Birge Hall are one of the greatest benefits of joining the Turner Lab.
Ziter, Carly; PhD, 2014-2018
On Monica: In the words of an unnamed UW colleague, “If you’re offered a spot in Monica’s lab, you’d be a fool not to take it”. I joined the lab with high expectations (having been somewhat… ok very… reluctantly convinced to venture abroad by a few misty-eyed former Madisonians), and the Turner lab exceeded them. Monica is the kind of academic who is genuinely shocked upon hearing stories of bad advisors, probably because she cannot fathom giving anything less than 100% to her own students. She will not only guide you towards becoming a better scientist, but will do so while genuinely caring about you as a whole person. Monica will not shy away from delivering tough critique when needed, but in seemingly the next moment she will give you a hug to celebrate an accomplishment. She will show genuine enthusiasm for your paper acceptances, your awards, your interviews, and even (or maybe especially) a particularly nice looking set of scatterplots. She will also celebrate your personal milestones (and will fully appreciate your intense longing for a dog). And somehow, amidst all of the lab meetings and potlucks and lunchtime conversations and gentle reminders to stop stealing the lab cutlery, she will prepare you for the challenges ahead without your fully realizing it. Know that she will expect a lot from you – but only because you can do it. She may also occasionally let you bite off more than you can chew, because how else were you going to learn your limits?
Now, for some advice:
Ask for help when you need it. You’re now the driver of your own research program (with a very busy advisor!), and it’s up to you to seek out the necessary expertise and move things forward. There is a wealth of ecology knowledge on UW-Madison’s campus and beyond – use it!
Start to deliberately cultivate a strong network of mentors. This should include folks at different stages (including peers!) and at different institutions/jobs. Get to know your committee, go to the Wisconsin Ecology mixers or LTER meetings, and walk down the hill to the Center for Limnology or over to the Arboretum. Network at conferences and within the community. Join twitter, and learn how to use it. Science is a hard road to go alone, and even a great advisor is not enough. When navigating tricky professional situations or making hard career decisions later it will be invaluable to have many perspectives to draw on, and people to lean on. (Addendum: if you’re from outside the US/Midwest and want to return there, make sure to keep/make connections in your home region, too!)
Take advantage of lab meetings. Monica likes to say lab meetings are “informal”… which means the lab will probably proceed to systematically dissect everything you present to them. This is a good thing! Sign up to present even when you don’t feel like it (perhaps especially when you don’t feel like it). Your ideas will be better thought out, your questions will be clearer, and your presentations will be polished.
Get to know the staff. UW-Madison and the Integrative Biology department are blessed with many incredible people on staff. Appreciate them! You may never again be surrounded by such kind and competent secretaries, financial specialists, instrument makers, communications people, and more, and getting to know them will make your challenges easier and your days brighter.
Embrace scheduled fun. Find something you love to do for fun, and put it on your schedule. Academic guilt is real, and the writing up process can be especially hard. Schedule some (guilt free!) time to put your thesis aside and develop a new hobby, or improve an old one. Taking up pottery may be the smartest choice I made in the last 6 months of my PhD.
Start (or join) a writing group. Or a journal club. Find a group of fellow students to meet regularly, who will hold you accountable. Exposure to how things work in other labs and other fields is eye opening, and having a source of input on your work other than that of your own lab is hugely beneficial.
Find a schedule that works for you. Monica may not at first understand that for some of us, waking up bright eyed and bushy tailed at 6 am (or 7am… or 8am, if we’re being honest) is simply not going to happen outside the field season. A few years of daily reminders that you barely function before 10am will probably do the trick, though. Make sure you’re around to participate in lab life, but don’t be afraid to schedule your work for when you’re most productive. As an added bonus, if you never appear in the lab before 9, you get to totally miss the dreaded “hazelnut half-caff” (see Harvey lab legacy ;)).
Most importantly, cherish your labmates! If your experience is like mine, your labmates will celebrate your accomplishments, commiserate over failures, and be steadfast in their belief in you as a scientist and a colleague. They will edit your drafts, critique your talks, and push you to apply for opportunities you’re worried are beyond your reach. They will take it in stride when you burst into their office crying. More than once. They will also drive you home after a long day at the office, bake you a cake on your birthday, and surprise you with a pint of your all-time-favourite Wisconsin ice-cream on a hard day. Even after leaving, they will share their job materials, advice, and a seemingly endless supply of forgotten PB&J that will get you through some long evenings of labwork (thanks, Brian!). In return, be generous with your time, your expertise, and your support; there is no room for competition here. And remember that once a Turner lab member, always a Turner lab member. Regardless of your next steps, you’ll leave the lab with a set of fascinating, fun, and generous colleagues for life.
And finally, enjoy Madison. You’ll almost certainly miss it once you’ve gone.