General advice for students interested in joining the lab

by Fred C. Dyer

Graduate training is an important part of the mission of the Zoology Department at MSU, and of this lab.  Students with an interest in animal behavior are invited to take a look at the research activities of people in the lab to see whether this would be the right setting in which to pursue graduate study.  This page is meant to give you a sense of what your experience would be like if you were to join the lab as a Master's or Ph.D. student.

Before reading further, you might want to check here for general advice on how to decide what kind of graduate program is best for you.

Now, here are some answers to some common questions that students have (or should have!):

What is your philosophy of graduate advising?

Graduate study in biology is commonly done on an apprenticeship model, in which a student works closely with a particular professor, often studying the same questions in the same model organism and using the same methods.  Professors vary greatly in the independence and flexibility that they allow their graduate students.  Generally, my expectation is that students will start off requiring a large amount of oversight and guidance, but will progress during graduate school to gain greater and greater independence; in short they start as apprentices but become peers.

I believe that it is very important from the beginning a student to be a self-starter:  to take charge of his or her own education.  Thus, you need to take the initiative to explore the scientific literature related to your research questions, to learn the methods that you need in your research, and to seek out expertise not available in the lab to help you work through problems in your research design or data analysis.  Furthermore, I believe it is important for students to focus on producing publications based on their research as early as possible in their graduate careers, rather than waiting until completing their dissertations.  Also, students are encouraged to apply for their own grant funding to cover research costs specific to their projects.  These activities are an important part of your professional development.

Finally, I am not interested in producing intellectual clones that will carry on my research agenda once they leave the lab.  Instead, I presume that my students will have the tools that they need to follow their own passions as their careers unfold.

Are you accepting new students?


Do I have to work on honey bees?

Most of my graduate students have done their research on honey bees, which is the primary model organism that I have used in my research.  I do not require that students study honey bees.  I am far more concerned that students share an interest in the kinds of questions that I pursue:  concerning the mechanisms and evolution of complex decision-making.  If a student wishes decides that a different model organism besides bees would be better for addressing a particular question, then I would support it.  What I tell students is that the closer their interests to those of their research advisor, then the more they will benefit from his or her expertise and the resources available in the lab (including grant funding).  However, a motivated student will receive a lot of encouragement to pursue exciting questions in other systems.  Currently I have students working on bumble bees and chamleons in addition to  honey bees.

How do I support myself in graduate school?

Most Zoology graduate students have their living expenses covered by teaching assistantships or research assistantships, although some have come with fellowships such as National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships.  Research expenses are typically covered by your advisor.  My lab offers research space, equipment, and expendable supplies for projects on insect decision-making.  For projects on other systems, it may be necessary to find grant funding from other sources.  The MSU Zoology web site has more information on funding for graduate students.


Edited by Fred Dyer October 2009

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