Universities that want research but don’t want researchers

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I’ve done most of my fieldwork at a biological field station. Many people come and go, but there are a lot of common interests and some longstanding friendships.

I’ve had the chance to befriend people over the course of several cohorts of doctoral students working on station. A subset of these folks — myself included — have found positions in academia and continued to do research down here. And of course there are lots of active scientists who I see at conferences. The ebb and flow of academic and personal interactions over the decades has its grandeur. Continue reading

Public scientists, the twitterverse, thought police, feminism, and the fanatical mob

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I’m on vacation. But while I was posting a few photos on social media (amazing National Parks and a wooden carving of bigfoot drinking a beer) I stumbled on some extended silliness among fellow scientists that I want to discuss. Luckily, I woke up early, my family is sleeping in, so here goes.

A very-routine event has somehow caused some a great worry: A famous person said something rather hideous. This hideous opinion was put in quotes and got circulated on twitter. A storm-of-righteous-indignation built on twitter, and spilled over onto facebook and other media outlets. Within a few days, this famous person got “in trouble,” insofar as a famous and powerful person can genuinely get in trouble for voicing a contemptuous opinion.

This is a very common story. It’s a little different because of the specifics: Continue reading

Working away from work and making work home

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Guest post by Rosie Burdon, a PhD student at Uppsala University in Amy Parachnowitsch’s lab. She is studying interactions between Penstemon digitalis and its pollinator Bombus impatiens in eastern USA. Here she shares her experiences of spanning multiple countries for a PhD and the benefits and challenges of having the USA as your long distance fieldsite. You can find her on Twitter at @RealRBurdon.

I love my job, it’s a 4-year contract asking questions about nature and ultimately answering some. Yes, it is a real job mum. Specifically, I get paid to ask questions about what plant volatiles and nectar rewards mean to bees/plant reproduction. I don’t do this in the country that employs me, or even the country I was born in. I moved from the UK to Sweden to work (where I spend most of my time) but I do my fieldwork in the US or else dwell in university of Salzburg labs. Continue reading

Universities that work hard to subvert student rights with FERPA waivers

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Imagine this scene: A professor at work gets a phone call.

Phone Voice: Hi, I’m the parent of Bill Smith, a student in your intro class.

Professor: Um, hi..?

Phone Voice: Bill was upset about the score he got on a quiz last week, and he thought some of the questions were unfair.

Professor: I’m sorry but I’m prevented from discussing a student’s academic records under the protection of FERPA [the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act].

Phone Voice: But I am his parent and Bill told me it was okay to speak with you about it.

Professor: That might be true, but without evidence of a FERPA waiver signed by the student, I can’t have this conversation.

Phone Voice: Oh, we had that waiver form signed at orientation.

Professor: Whuaaa?

Phone Voice: During an orientation session together with our son, the university presented to him a waiver form to sign to waive access to FERPA. It’s on record. I can email a copy if you want.

Professor: I prefer the student talk to me about his own grades.

Phone Voice: I realize that, but I have the right to discuss his grades with you and I’d like to talk about question three on the quiz. Continue reading

Recommended reads #54

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Here’s a post from Methods in Ecology and Evolution with the Top Ten Tips for Reviewing Statistics. I do wish people who review my stuff consistently followed these guidelines.

One of the most special things I’ve read in a while. About teaching, love, parenting, grief, and Pixar.

Crap Wildlife Jobs got featured in Nature.

Chris Buddle shares his reflections one year into his service as a “Deanlet,” a term he says he picked up from me. (I picked it up from Mo Donnelly, tropical herpetologist extraordinaire at FIU.)

This interview in Science with a dual-career couple about their job story is fascinating. And the part about their salaries is a doozy.

More evidence that active learning trumps lecturing.

It is very sad news to report that Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist, died in an accident this last week. Jarrett Byrnes, in his blog, wrote a passionate memorial for Dr. Sagarin.

I’m betting that you’ve heard about the messed-up “advice” from former AAAS president Alice Huang to a postdoc who is getting regularly ogled by her advisor: “I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can.” A lot has been written about this. All I have to say is that pretty much all advice says more about the person offering it than the recipient of the advice. (Which is why I do my best to avoid offering advice in these pages.) If you are interested in how the scientific community responded to Alice, Central Command for the “Don’t Ask Alice” responses is at Tenure, She Wrote.

I don’t give advice, but I sometimes link to self-avowed advice. Such as this excellent piece:  Career Advice From an Oldish Not-Quite Geezer. It’s about making sure that you don’t hit the tail end of your career and realizing you had the wrong priorities.

Why blogging is key to the future of higher ed.” Okay, the title for is dumb. But forgive the author, who probably didn’t write the title. The article itself is interesting if you’re interested in student writing.

As the token female member of this action-adventure team, my job is to kick.

CalArts — a relatively highfalutin’ arts school in the LA area — switched to a gender-blind admissions process for its animation program. And they were surprised to find they mostly accepted women!

Gender equality at work depends on gender equality at home:

The impact of the top leadership is profound; changing your workplace culture is going to be an uphill battle unless your management is committed to the idea that it’s a mistake to sacrifice part of the talent pool for reasons completely unrelated to the jobs being performed.

A paper in Biological Conservation claims that peer review is not a crapshoot. Or that’s what they say they can test with their data and that’s their conclusion.

Tenure, She Wrote wrote about supporting other people’s students.

Quality doesn’t have to come from exclusivity: what happened when a highly selective school in stopped being highly selective but still focused on educational quality.

The Good Enough Professor points out how the higher education funding situation is bad for both STEM and humanities faculty. But the way we are prepared to respond to the crisis differs. Below is a snippet, but go on and read the whole thing.

Everyone is feeling the constriction of publicly funded higher education.  As grant money dries up alongside state budgets, STEM faculty and liberal arts faculty alike are coping with dwindling resources. The difference is, non-liberal-arts faculty confront this reality with the tools they already have ready to hand: the capacity to explain why people should pay for what they have to offer.

Jeff Ollerton looks critically at a disagreement in the pages of Science about pollinator declines. He also wonders about the role of conservation biologists as political activists.

While we’re at it, Charley Krebs is asking if Conservation Biology is a science. He’s got a better case than you might initially imagine:

Now this is certainly a silly question. To be sure conservation ecologists collect much data, use rigorous statistical models, and do their best to achieve the general goal of protecting the Earth’s biodiversity, so clearly what they do must be the foundations of a science. But a look through some of the recent literature could give you second thoughts.

This is a fascinating study that quantified the amount of effort that it takes to write grants, and what actions that grant-seekers should take based on the probability of getting money. The take-home message is that with funding rates below 20%, you pretty much have to spend all of your time looking for money. That’s true, but the math behind it is instructive.

Along the same lines, this article in the LA Times lays out a crystal clear case for how funding for basic science in the US is really really horrible. Man, this is grim when you look at the long term trends. If you choose to read very few things about the science funding crisis, I recommend this one.

If you want something done, give it to a busy person. Then, the busy person becomes becomes miserable:

A new paper by a team of researchers from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado looks at not only how extremely competent people are treated by their co-workers and peers, but how those people feel when, at crucial moments, everyone turns to them. They find that responsible employees are not terribly pleased about this dynamic either.

What is model organism Arabidopsis thaliana actually like outdoors?

How temporary economic downturns result in permanent career setbacks for college graduates.

Every little thing about this piece of writing: College students are not customers, is great. As is pretty much everything that Schuman writes. Even on the rare occasion when I disagree with her.

Hippos as meat for the USA:

In 1910, the United States—its population exploding, its frontier all but exhausted—was in the throes of a serious meat shortage. But a small and industrious group of thinkers stepped forward with an answer, a bold idea being endorsed by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and The New York Times. Their plan: to import hippopotamuses to the swamps of Louisiana and convince Americans to eat them.

This New York Times piece on the absurdity and danger of extraordinarily high salaries for university administrators is on the mark. Yeah, this isn’t new news. But it’s important to keep focusing on it.

The acceptances that weren’t acceptances

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Chatting with people at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, the topic from a recent post came up: that journals have cut back on “accept with revisions” decisions.

There was a little disagreement in the comments. Now, on the basis of some conversations, I have to disagree with myself. Talking with three different grad students, this is what I learned:

Some journals are, apparently, still regularly doing “accept-with-revisions.” And they also then are in the habit of rejecting those papers after the revisions come in. Continue reading

This one simple trick to help fight the male scientist stereotype

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This week, I did my one of my first ever phone-interviews with a reporter for a story about black widows in grapes. I was really nervous about being quoted (what if I say something that sounds stupid, or worse, is wrong?) but I agreed to do the interview anyway. Despite my fears, I made this decision for a couple of reasons. I am passionate about spiders and science communication and I think it’s really important to do what I can to correct misconceptions that are often presented in the media. I absolutely want to take every opportunity to provide accurate information about spiders (especially the ones I study) to the public. Furthermore, I think that I have an obligation to do this because taxpayers pay for my research and training, at least in part.

It wasn’t until I thought a bit about it after I gave the interview that I realized there is another really good reason for me to say yes to interview requests from the media. News stories about spiders come up pretty frequently. If a spider expert is quoted in these stories, I often see familiar names: Rick Vetter, Chris Buddle, Robb Bennett (arachnologists who are all doing a fantastic job educating people about spiders). I just did a quick google search for the word arachnologist under “News” and found several more names on the first page or so of hits. With two exceptions (both of which were stories about recent spider research with quotes from study authors) all of the spider experts quoted have one thing in common: they are white men.

Is it possible that this is simply a representative sample of available experts? Maybe… but let’s check. If you google “list of arachnologists” the first hit is a wiki page with a list of arachnologists who are original describers of spider species… not super useful for finding a living expert. The second relevant hit brings you to a page on Arachnological Society of America’s website, listing arachnologists willing to train graduate students. That seems like a more reasonable sample. There are 11 women and 37 men on the list. So assuming this is a representative sample of the population of senior arachnologists, about 23% of available experts are women. I’d be willing to bet that among more junior scientists who study spiders (like me), there are even more women – probably much closer to 50%. Take for example the members of the lab I’ll be joining this fall: 8 of 10 are women.

I’m personally interested in these numbers because I’ve had variations of the following conversation several times, and it’s getting pretty old. It goes something like this:

Man: “So what do you do?”

Me: “I’m a scientist! I study sexual communication in spiders.”

Man: “That’s an unusual career choice for a woman.”

In the past, I haven’t known how to respond to this because I didn’t have actual data on which to base a statement like “actually, XX% of arachnologists are women”. The data (at least for professors) turn out not to look that great, but I think it’s fair to say that female arachnologists are not particularly unusual. Anyway, the men in these conversations often go on to talk about how women in general or some women they know are afraid of spiders. I get that one of the reasons they think it’s strange for me to be a scientist who studies spiders is that women are more likely to be arachnophobic than men (it’s still an untrue stereotype that most or all women are afraid of spiders, but whatever). But it’s a fact that most people think of scientists in general as men. I recently read a piece about the male scientist stereotype and some thoughts on how to kill it on The Conversation. You should read it.

Women are just not seen as often as men talking about science in the media. Think about science TV shows – how many can you name that are hosted by women? A while back I attended a great talk by Dr. Jennifer Gardy for Ada Lovelace Day, and this was one of the things she talked about. Her main message was that things are (very slowly) getting better for women in science, but she made a bunch of suggestions about how to help continue to improve. One was related to increasing the diversity of scientists represented in popular media. Dr. Gardy regularly agrees to do media interviews, and she also occasionally hosts the CBC TV show The Nature of Things. Her advice to the women in the audience was to always say yes (when possible) to interviews. It’s a small thing, but I think it’s one important way to work toward improving diversity in science. If, for example, a girl sees a scientist who looks like her on TV, that could be the first time she realizes that becoming a scientist is something she could do. It just might help encourage her to aspire to become a scientist one day, and that would be awesome.

So great, if you’re a woman and/or a person of colour, saying yes to interviews is a good thing to do. What if you’re not? No problem! I’m definitely not saying that white dudes should avoid giving interviews. But what if you get asked to give an interview and you can’t? Do you suggest a colleague or student the journalist could ask? You almost certainly know some women who would be great choices. Suggest one of them! Even if you can do the interview but you know the journalist will probably be interviewing other experts too, why not suggest a woman they could talk to as well? Simple!

So that interview I gave about spiders this week? It was one of two that I gave, for different stories. Originally, Professor Chris Buddle was asked to give interviews by two journalists (he’s their go-to arachnologist, because he’s done interviews with them before and is always happy to talk about spiders), and he had to turn them down. He gave them both my name, and they contacted me. That easy! It’s not the first time he’s given my name to a reporter, but it’s the first time I said yes. I was busy visiting family last time, but I probably could have made it work – mostly I was afraid, but now I know it’s not so scary! I will be saying yes to interview requests whenever I can in the future. It’s a simple thing to do, and it’s important.

Academic Hazing

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A recent conversation* on twitter made me think about academic customs. The conversation centered on PhD comprehensive exams (PhD candidacy in the US system that happens about halfway through the PhD) but applies to all gate keeping parts of a PhD (or Masters) program. These can vary a lot between countries, universities and even departments (I wrote about the defence a while back). But this conversation was basically about how these hoops/tests can drift towards a hazing function rather than a learning or career building function.

Let me just get my opinion out from the first. I don’t think hazing is useful, respectful or professional. Full stop.

But one of the things that struck me is the difference between true hazing and an experience that can feel like hazing or at least slightly ritualized torture but in hindsight really isn’t. I’m one of the lucky ones it seems in that my experience was more the latter. Continue reading

Receiving an FOIA request for your grant

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I was just about to prepare a blog post about Freedom of Information Act requests and federal grants, when I got this interesting piece of email:

Dr. McGlynn,

I am a Program Advisor for [redacted].  One of my responsibilities is to locate funded proposals upon the request of our members who are primarily sponsored programs officers.

I am writing to request a copy of your NSF IRES funded proposal; Fire, Carbon and Climate Change in Australia. A [redacted] member from [redacted] would like to review a copy of this in preparation for a future submission.

I do understand that this request can be made through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but that is a lengthy process. [Redacted] Program Advisors always prefer to contact funded PIs directly.  Please contact me with any questions and/or concerns.

Thank you in advance for considering this request. I hope to hear from you soon!

Sincerely,

[recacted]

So, what did I do? Obviously, I’ve written a blog post about it. I did not reply to the email. If I did reply, this is what I’d write: Continue reading