How all ecology grad students can benefit from an OTS course


If you’ve only just started grad school, or if you’re getting ready to finish, there are a ton of great reasons to take the OTS course this summer. The Organization for Tropical Studies courses aren’t just for tropical biologists, and the experience is useful for all ecology grad students.

  • Breadth of research methods — Gain experience in running experiments in a great variety of biomes, fields, and taxa. No matter your speciality, it can be useful and important to know how to mark insects, do biogeochemistry and microbial ecology, dissect flowers and do pollination experiments, mist net birds and bats, make and analyze sound recordings, and much, much more.
  • Making connections — You will work very closely with a large number of faculty from universities all over the United States and elsewhere. More important, you’re in the course with a bunch of other grad students who are typically fun-loving and academically talented. The course is work hard-play hard environment and you’ll go back home with new friends and colleagues, some of whom you’ll stay in touch with for the remainder of your career. You want to emerge from grad school with a network that goes well beyond your own institution. This is a great way to make that happen.
  • Experimental design — This course will have you designing and conducting experiments at many different sites in small groups. This really helps you learn how to develop the right questions, design the most appropriate experiments and that you’ve had the best analysis in mind the whole time.
  • Data analysis — Because you are involved in so many experiments, you gain experience with may kinds of analysis. The course has expert faculty including well-recognized statistical gurus who communicate in common English. You’ll get training in R to give you the tools that you need.
  • Science communication skills — Learn how to produce media that communicate your science with the public, by working with PhD scientists/filmmakers. Here are the tremendous results from a brief science communication project on the OTS course, from a post on the National Geographic Explorers Journal. The course runs its own blog and you have an opportunity to create podcasts and posts.
  • Experience with conservation in action — You’ll have the chance to interact with land managers and conservation professionals on the sites of ongoing projects. If you’re thinking about getting into the this aspect of the ecology business, you’ll have experiences and opportunities with making connections.
  • Tropical nature — If you haven’t ever spent time in the tropics, the biological diversity is stunning compared to the meager biota of the temperate zone. You get to see these biomes in the company of researchers who are experts in this environment and conduct a number of experiments. If you want to learn natural history and biodiversity, this is a chance to be in the field with the experts who can show you what you what to learn.
  • Units — You get six credit hours from the University of Costa Rica that (typically) count towards the coursework requirements of your program. So, there’s that, too.

Speaking just from my own experience, the course gave me so many skills — and ideas — that have been useful in many unpredictable ways. I’ve yet to meet anybody who has taken the course who has said it is anything short of incredibly useful, and I think everybody has rated it as a spectacular experience. In the course of your graduate career, it definitely is worth your time.

Here’s a pdf flyer with more info.

Here is the link to the course for summer 2014, with its list of great faculty and remarkable sites the course visits, and instructions on how to apply. The deadline for applications is just over a week away, but then there are rolling admissions afterwards.

4 thoughts on “How all ecology grad students can benefit from an OTS course

  1. Thanks for writing this! It’s interview season in the department I’m in, and I’ve just spent two days making the case to future grad students that they should all take the OTS course, wherever they end up!
    My immediate response to your excellent recent post on natural history was to start writing a blog post on why I love OTS so much (I’m an undergrad and grad alum of the South Africa and Costa Rica programs, respectively), because OTS is where I really learnt the value of natural history. I’ll still be writing that piece, but will make sure to link here, and spread this post to any incoming ecology or evolutionary biology grad student I know!

  2. Great post Terry. What is the opinion on faculty taking an OTS course if they didn’t get to in grad school?

    • A fresh postdoc, perhaps. But for faculty members, I’d recommend one of a variety of OTS speciality courses. I helped out a bit with a Tropical Social Insects course, and when I was at La Selva last time there was a Spider/Arachnid course on station. Upcoming are courses in tropical plant systematics, and another about monitoring vertebrates using camera traps, for example.

      There are also funding opportunities to work at field stations in the tropics that are quite open to people who haven’t worked down there before – the Smithsonian has fellowships to work in Panama at STRI, for example, and I bet this would be a great way for faculty members to get at least some of the exposure that you’d get on an OTS course.

      There has been at least one speciality course for postdocs/junior faculty in the past, but that was for people already experienced with tropical research.

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