Posted by: Jeremy Fox | July 27, 2011

Advice: Things I learned from Peter Morin

Next week I’ll be attending the first ever Morin Lab Alumni Reunion. Peter Morin‘s former graduate students and postdocs are returning to visit him at Rutgers for a weekend of talks, field trips, and celebration. I’m really looking forward to it. I thought I’d mark the occasion on this blog by sharing a few of the many things I learned from my time in Peter’s lab.

Have high expectations (of yourself, and others), but remember that “high” is relative. You don’t get better at science by being easy on yourself, and you don’t help others get better by being easy on them. Peter had some amazing stories about his time as a graduate student at Duke; apparently the students there were really rough on each other (interrupting one another’s seminars with tough questions, for instance). That kind of thing can cross a line into rudeness of course (and Peter himself never crossed that line with any of us). But if you’re not pushing yourself, and pushing those around you, you’re only putting off the day of reckoning. If your work, or the way you present it, is flawed, who would you rather hear that from, and when? Your supervisor and labmates, in the friendly context of a lab meeting? Or the strangers in the audience at a scientific conference or your first job interview? I learned in the Morin lab that your friends aren’t really very good friends if they’re not asking you tough questions. What kind of friend would set you up for embarrassment later by not criticizing you now? Indeed, I recall that the grad student seminars at Rutgers were pretty friendly, to the point where a few of my fellow students and I started brainstorming ways to make them less friendly.

But keep in mind that “high” expectations are relative. Shortly after I joined the Morin lab, I gave the lab group a draft ms to read. It was a monograph-length paper based on my undergraduate honors thesis, which reported mostly non-significant results from a failed field experiment. Peter actually took the time to give me detailed feedback on what I’m sure he instantly recognized as an unpublishable project, and his very first comment was “You write very well!” The paper was terrible in absolute terms, but coming from a brand-new graduate student it apparently had its virtues, and I appreciate that Peter didn’t just shred it (figuratively, or literally). But years later, as I was finishing up, I gave Peter a draft ms based on one of my dissertation chapters. This draft ms was streets better than that first ms, but Peter was pretty unhappy with it, and with me for giving it to him in such an unpolished state. His expectations of me had quite rightly risen, and I hadn’t lived up to the new standard.

Read broadly, and read old as well as new stuff. Peter subscribed to all the leading ecology and evolution journals, as well as to Science and Nature, and had also purchased decades worth of back issues (yes, this was back in the Stone Age, before online editions and JSTOR). He had lots of books, too. Students (and not just his own) were welcome to come into his office anytime and borrow them, which was way more convenient than trekking over to the library, especially for journal back issues. This really helped me develop the habit, which I do my best to maintain to this day, and which I encourage in my own students, of reading broadly, and reading old stuff as well new stuff. It helps you come up with new ideas, and makes you a better judge of others’ ideas.

Keep your door open. Peter had an open-door policy for his students, and was usually willing to drop whatever he was doing and chat with you if you wanted or needed to chat. I have the same policy with my students, which I actually wish they’d take more advantage of (you’re not bothering me, guys—talking to you is one of the most fun parts of my job!) And while I admit I’d probably struggle to maintain this policy if I had a larger lab, I’d consider such a lab to be too large for me to properly supervise.

Seminar series are important. At Rutgers, there was a weekly departmental seminar series, typically with an invited external speaker, and a weekly student-run graduate student seminar series. Peter unfailingly attended both (he was one of the very few faculty to attend the graduate student seminar series), and expected his students to do the same. He also hosted (and paid for) at least one or two invited speakers every year, whom he allowed his students to pick and with whom we were strongly encouraged to meet one-on-one. And he always hosted parties and organized field trips for the visiting speakers, creating additional opportunities for interaction. To this day, I still see seminars as crucial to the collective intellectual life of a department, and visiting speakers as not only a lot of fun, but also a great resource and networking opportunity for graduate students. If nothing else, when it came time for me to interview for faculty positions I wasn’t as nervous as I otherwise would’ve been, because I’d already had a lot of practice talking to visiting speakers about science (mine, theirs, and other people’s).

Faculty should pick up the tab for graduate students. Whenever Peter is out at a restaurant or bar with students (his own, or someone else’s), he always pays for their food and drink. As far as I know, every Morin lab alum who is now a faculty member does the same thing. We faculty members are really fortunate to have the positions we do, and to have graduate students who work their butts off doing most of the lab’s day-to-day work (not to mention a lot of the university’s teaching) for not much money. Picking up the tab for our students is the least we can do. Hopefully someday our students will be in a position to pick up the tab for their own students. This practice also helps keep me grounded as a supervisor: it reminds me what it was like to be a graduate student, which is something I don’t think you can ever forget if you want to be a good supervisor.

Don’t spread wasabi paste on your sushi as if it was butter. I actually learned this from watching a fellow graduate student who had just joined the lab. We were having a lab lunch at a sushi restaurant for Peter’s birthday, and this student had little experience with Japanese food. So when her order arrived, complete with a little mound of some sort of green condiment, she naively (but not unreasonably) spread a bunch of it on a piece of sushi and put it in her mouth before anyone noticed in time to stop her. Oops. ;-)

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