I’ve been working on Penstemon digitalis for a long time now. I first met the plant as a starting PhD student looking for a new system to make my own. I wanted something local (to Ithaca, NY), a plant that was dependent on pollinators with pre-dispersal seed predators (those are insects that lay eggs in the fruit and the young larvae eat the seeds). I wanted to study conflicting selection on floral traits by mutualists and antagonists, not what my dissertation ended up being about but that is a story for another day. In my search for a species to work with, I also wanted something with larger seeds than Lobelia siphilitica that I had just spent my masters cursing over and to be taller than Collinsia parviflora that I broke my back over during my undergrad.
Earlier this year an article on aiming for 100 rejections a year in literature was being passed around. The main idea is that by aiming for rejections, rather than accepted things we’re more likely to take risks and apply broadly.
Since reading that article, I’ve been pondering how many rejections I should aim for. What is a good number for a scientist?
This month, I started a writing/productivity challenge for myself. I wanted to start tackling many of the projects that have floundered in my year of unemployment and intensive job searching. One of my goals was to start posting here every week again. Then the USA election happened.
As a Canadian living in Sweden, it was surprising how much this election affected me.
I have had versions of this post topic rattling around in my brain for many months. There are various reasons for me not writing it but ironically probably the biggest one is that I am unemployed.
My story goes like this: I had a position as an assistant professor in Sweden that came with a 4 year contract with no extension possibilities unless I was to bring in my own salary from grant money. Long story short, I applied for grants and other jobs over the 4 years and didn’t get funded or a permanent position. So in January this year the money ran out and I was officially without a paid position. It has been a complicated year since then with a mix of good and bad. Looking back some things have gone as I thought while others were unexpected. Here’s somewhat random list of some of my confessions.
I have been involved with a few conversations in the last month that basically went along the lines of social media is ruining X. It got me thinking is that really true?
There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches.
As often happens to me, I have a post idea banging around in my head (or sometimes started on the page) but before I fully flesh it out, some amazing scientists post about the idea even better than I was thinking. Sometimes that inspires me to finish my own post and put it up, others times I let it drop because what has been said feels like it fills the niche.
This week was no different. But reading the connected posts actually speaks to the topic itself so I’m inspired to write my own piece.
I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and what is novel in science. There are two great posts on creativity (Experimenting with Creativity) and novel ideas (Where do ideas come from and what counts as “novel”?). Both are worth the read.
My own inspiration started outside science with a gift of a colouring book this Christmas. I haven’t coloured in years and here was the opportunity to try again. Perhaps it would even allow me to create a kind of meditative peace to deal with all the unknowns of unemployment*. The book sat around for a few weeks (we had a puzzle to finish) but I eventually picked up the pencils and a picture and went for it. Is colouring in someone else’s lines creative? I’m sure it isn’t nearly as creative as drawing the original outline but the act of colouring is not without choices. Obviously what colour you use is a choice but also how to combine them, how hard to press, whether to use texture all affect the outcome. Here’s an example of the independent choices made by me and my six year old daughter for the same picture:
While navigating the unemployment system in Sweden, I’ve discovered that I need to report every month what I’ve been doing to find a job. It includes applying for jobs of course but also training. I should also include working on my CV, networking and other activities that improve my employability. I’ve also been warned that one shouldn’t “work” during this time and all work has to be reported (you can work for up to 75 days and keep your unemployment status).
All of this has me reflecting on what work is in academia.
It seems to me that few other professions have the same structure as academic research.
A few weeks ago Terry wrote about going to conferences, networking and social capital. The post struck home for me for a couple of reasons. First, I agree wholeheartedly with the diffuse benefits that come from interacting with people at conferences. I’ve made friends, started collaborations, been invited to give departmental seminars and gotten paper invitations, all of which I am sure wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t given a talk and talked to people at conferences. Of course, there are challenges to these intense social and scientific interactions too (e.g. the conference hangover) but conferences are a really important part of developing your scientific career.
This week I am officially unemployed. What does life as an unemployed academic look like? Well, in the first place not so very different from an employed one.
Sweden has a long school break so we’re just getting back into the swing of things here (read the kid is back at school). This is also the first week that I am officially without a contract and have to face the reality that came with grant decisions in November. But work as an academic doesn’t really stop when the money does. I have two masters students and a PhD to see through their defences this year so at the very least, I will continue to help them with their research and writing. Of course I also have a bunch of unfinished projects that I would like to invest in and get published. All this adds up to me doing lots of things that I would normally do as a part of my job.
Or maybe an alternative title could be “The Accidental Academic”.
This November I heard back from the two main Swedish funding agencies that I didn’t receive a grant this round. For me this means not only that I don’t have funds to run my lab, but also that I don’t have a position for myself. Because my temporary professor position is coming to an end, no grant also means no funding for my salary and I’m transitioning to being an unemployed academic.
So, should I stay or should I go now? The question has been rattling round in my head ever since I got the grant rejections.
When I first joined twitter, I was nervous I might mess up somehow. I wanted to use my professional identity but because no one around me* was using twitter, I didn’t know how it would be perceived. Also, we’ve all heard about disastrous mistakes on social media that have lead to personal and professional fallout. Although I didn’t think I would do anything that extreme I was worried about job applications and such. So in short, I was cautious and worried about the dangers of putting myself out there on twitter. Now over two years and some 6000+ tweets later, I am less so**.
Inspired by my own endeavours in science communication and an informal talk I gave to my department, I started to think about offering a course. There isn’t anything like that for PhD students so I went through a few easy hoops and got approval to give a short course on science communication. We finished up the meetings last week and I thought it might be useful to collect and share all the information in one place. Keep on reading if you’re interested in running your own version of such a course or if you are looking for information on topics in science communication.
As a scientist, I am sometimes shy to talk about what I do in social groups. I’m not a constant science communicator, although I do try to be a better one. Yes, I love my job. Yes, I am happy to talk about it. But I don’t always. Some of this is that I can have shy tendencies and can be shy to talk about myself in general. That shyness sometimes extends to talking about what I do and being a scientist is more than a job. Being a scientist is who I am and is fundamental to how I look at the world, so it can sometimes feel pretty personal. I’m not one to call attention to myself, I’m happier chatting with few people than speaking up in a big social circle. However, if the conversation steers to certain topics, I can’t help myself from putting in a few words no matter what the size of the group or how well I know them.
I had been planning this post for a while because the topic has been on my mind but now it seems like a perfect fit. Following up on Terry’s theme about nourishing research at teaching schools, I’m going to extend the plant metaphor to career transition stages.
A few months ago I got a Fitbit, which for those of you who haven’t heard of it is basically a step counter. I’d been thinking about getting one for a while to help me motivate my exercise and keep my work-life balance somewhat on track. Perhaps symptomatic of not managing the balance, it took me awhile to get around to deciding what to get and actually buying it. Luckily for me, in the mean time, my husband bought one as a present and now I get to obsess about how many steps I take in a day.
I am going to go ahead and assume we all want quality reviews of our journal submissions, however you define ‘quality’. Reviewers that take time to seriously evaluate your work, provide constructive feedback and ultimately improve the paper should always be appreciated. But as reviewers ourselves, we know that sometimes we don’t always give each paper our full attention. In general, I try to give good and helpful (to the author and editor) reviews. I try not to take on reviews when I know I don’t have the time to do a good job. Perhaps I am naïve but the impression I get from my colleagues and reviews of my papers is that in general most people are also trying to give good reviews.
I have been fairly absent from here over the last many months. I’ve wanted to write and even started a few posts but they never got completed. The clashing of personal (husband’s surgery) and work stresses (major grant applications that will allow me to continue my position in Sweden) this spring made for a hectic time. I never really regained my balance before summer started. And well, I’m a field ecologist at heart, so between fieldwork and vacation the weeks have flown by. The end result is that I’m out of the habit of writing regularly and I miss it.
As the fall approaches and regular schedules settle in, my plan is to practice what I’m about to teach.
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.
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.