Thinking about science–what do I look for in a graduate student?

One of the questions that I was asked recently is “What do you look for in a graduate student?”

Just as an aside, that vaguely reminds me of a film I saw some time ago where one character asks another “Have you found Jesus?” The answer, of course, was “I didn’t know he was missing…”

But back to the serious issue of what a graduate student should be like. Ideally, I could say many things: honest, curious, meticulous, trustworthy, talented and bright, and the list goes on and on. But the really important trait, that separates the wheat from the chaff–in my humble opinion–is dedication.

Now we’ve had this discussion multiple times over the past year on OT–about what dedication really means. In particular, Jenny’s recent blog extolled the virtues of reasonable work hours, eschewing a 24/7 work mentality. I don’t disagree!

So how do I see dedication? Although some may disagree, I think dedication comes from a willingness to really engage in the science–in a manner that one is willing to keep part of the mind open to thoughts of science even outside the lab.

I don’t mean that every waking second outside the lab needs to be spent planning experiments and reading papers (although a certain amount does help, especially for those early in their careers)–but it is leaving one’s mind open–“on standby” so to speak, that shows me which young scientists are really involved in their work.

Do I have a concrete example? Well these are examples from my own experiences:
I work a lot with membrane tubules and vesicles, that look like this under the confocal microscope:


So during the winter when I looked out the window and saw these icicles, immediate my brain was seeing tubules!


And more recently, as rain pattered down the window on the 7th floor by my office, I was also astonished to see how water drops formed “tubules” and underwent “fission” into vesicles before my very eyes!

Do I expect everyone to have such unusual imaginations to be good scientists? No.

But I do think that a 9-5 workday where science and any vestigial thoughts of it are shutdown down after hours—just won’t cut it in the big leagues.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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3 Responses to Thinking about science–what do I look for in a graduate student?

  1. Heather says:

    I’m still unsure I’m cutting it in the big leagues, myself.

    I like a certain dose of humility mixed with unflagging and creative optimism. Rather than the folks I occasionally encounter who think they know it all until they hit the first wall, when they quit. The ones who figure out a way to scale it, with help initially, are the keepers.

  2. Heather says:

    No, I restrict myself to drinking them.

    I did try keeping a blog for a few years, though 😉

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