Step 1: Find a great program. One with a supportive, fun student scene and an open academic culture. UC Davis, of course, is da bomb on both these fronts, though I’m sure there are other good programs out there. Avoid places where students compete with each other, feel uncomfortable talking to faculty members, or are insecure about wearing pink.
Step 2: Find a great adviser. Wiser men/women than I have already said that your relationship with your major professor is the thing that will make or break your graduate school experience. It is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to be the student of the big name in the field, but if they do not have time to help you, or they make you cry, having access to their notoriety is not worth it. Because you have already completed Step 1, you are part of a wonderfully open academic culture where you can talk to any professor you like (but see steps 4 and 10 for hints on how this works). Therefore, find a major professor who will listen to you, support you, and give constructive criticism on your work. Form temporary collaborations with the big names.
Step 3: Steal other people’s ideas. Unless you have been working in your study system for years, you are a genius, or both (I was neither), chances are the research ideas you come up with during your first month at grad school in order to apply for the NSF GFRP won’t work out. You will probably spend your first year or two starting from scratch two or three times. That’s fine! It’s part of the learning process. However, if you want to get out in four years instead of seven, then you may want to start with an idea that has been partially worked out. Ask your professors, senior grad students, former grad students “What are the big questions that need to be worked out? What do you think needs to be done but you don’t have time to work on?”. Once you get started you will discover your own questions that are useful and feasible, but starting with someone else’s ideas can really help you get going.
Step 4: Be really annoying. Pester your professors constantly. Not just those on your committee or those teaching your classes, but EVERYONE who might have something you want. Talk to the seminar speakers, track down emeritus professors, send an e-mail to the researcher who wrote that really cool paper from New Zealand, and don’t take no for an answer. While you may feel like they have better things to do than help you out, remember that most people love talking about themselves and what they research. Academics live for flattery; so coming to them for their wisdom is paying them a compliment.
Step 5: Write a lot of grants. Coming in to a lab with good funding means you can theoretically spend your time working on research instead of begging for money, but the process of grant writing can be very valuable for framing your ideas, thoroughly reviewing the literature, and making valuable connections. I funded my own research partially through scholarships given out by various fly-fishing clubs, and getting the chance to present my research to them was one of the highlights of my time here. Plus, if you’re lucky, grant writing gets you some money too!
Step 6: Find lots of great collaborators. This includes undergraduates, who will not only sit for hours sorting bugs for you, carry your gear up mountains, and come in on weekends to watch tadpoles with you, but also frequently have great ideas. This also includes other graduate students. You probably are spending happy hour griping about your research over a beer with them anyway, so going in together on a project, or at least trading field help with them, just makes good sense. More difficult but also more rewarding, is looking for collaborators outside the university. Scientists who work for state or federal agencies have a huge wealth of practical knowledge about management of local ecosystems. This is invaluable to a graduate student. (They also often have an inside track to getting scientific collecting permits and using your research in policy).
Step 7: Go outside your comfort zone. If you are a field ecologist, it is easy to want to construct a dissertation comprised of three related field studies. However, some of the questions you want to answer may be better suited to a lab experiment or a computer model. If you approach your question from multiple angles rather than trying to takle multiple questions, the final product will be more well-rounded and rewarding. Furthermore, asking a similar question with multiple techniques can take less time than developing several questions best answered by a single technique. My dissertation involved an ecological field study, a sociological survey, a laboratory experiment, and a computer model. This not only forced me to learn multiple types of scientific techniques, more importantly it taught me how to teach myself scientific techniques quickly and effectively. It also taught me how to find collaborators (See steps 4, 6, and 10)!
Step 8: Trust your own ideas (your professors don’t know everything). While you should listen to everything the tenured Distinguished Professor in Sumthinorother says, you do not have to do what they say. It is your dissertation and if you do not think you can take care of 500 baby frogs at once, do not let them tell you that you can. Similarly, if they say no one cares about fresh water sponges and YOU care about fresh water sponges, study fresh water sponges. You are much more likely to succeed. There is also a good chance you will prove them wrong and the world will see how important fresh water sponges are.
Step 9: Be insane. Seriously, if you want to enjoy your grad school experience with a stress-free lifestyle, I recommend ignoring all of these steps and prioritizing vacations, $1 pint night, Battlestar Gallactica, Burning Man, and sleeping in. You should be out in less than eight years with an intact psyche. Don’t try and get a PhD in ecology in four years.
Step 10: Be really annoying some more. No one answers their e-mails. It is a fact of life. Keep badgering them. Write e-mails with “Are you getting my e-mails?” in the subject line. That usually gets you something. Stand up for yourself. If you are on top of things, do not wait months for your last committee member to get back to you with comments on dissertation chapter 3. Just submit it to a journal. Once it’s accepted by the peer review process, your committee pretty much has to accept it.
Step 11: Have an outlet. While this may appear to contradict Step 9, mental breakdowns can interrupt field seasons, cause mistakes in lab, delay writing, and cause your collaborators to doubt your abilities. Therefore, take a weekend or two in the mountains. Take a pottery class at the craft center. Go to costume dance parties. Frequently. Just make sure to get back before midnight or you turn into a pumpkin.
Step 12: Find a job. At the end of my PhD I applied for a bevy of government agency and non-profit jobs because I wanted to have the most constructive impact on conservation in California that I could, and I landed a job with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. You may want to try the academic route and apply for post-docs and professorships, but the application process is often longer, harder, and more competitive. Since I am just beginning the “what comes next phase” I can offer less advice on step 12 than the steps leading up to the four-year PhD, but when in doubt, follow your dreams. It’s cliché, but if you can get a PhD in four years you can probably tackle just about anything.