Don’t go to grad school! and other fairy tales

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The fitness of organisms is measured by their reproduction. Successful scientists make more scientists. Successful professors make more professors, so the story goes.

With some folks, honoring a successful academic pedigree is almost a fetish. And it’s not just something that happens at research institutions, For those of us at teaching-focused institutions, sending students on to PhD programs is a source of pride, and often seen as a sign of successful mentorship.

On a day to day basis working with students, there are two huge facts that overshadow my mentoring relationships:

The first fact is that faculty positions are hard to get. Even if you’re very good, there is a huge amount of luck involved in grabbing the brass ring. Many PhD students and postdocs recommend that undergraduate professors not encourage their students to go to graduate school, because of the state of the academic job market. (Of course, there is no PhD problem, there is just an attitude problem.)

The second fact is that, in the United States, blacks and Latinos are scarce in ecology, and in science as a whole. We really do need to increase the representation of these groups in science. That means we need to send more of these students to grad school. This isn’t just an equity problem, it’s also a crisis for the future of scientific enterprise in the country.

My university student body is 90% minority, according to our newly invested president, if such a thing is mathematically possible. If anybody is in a position to “change the face of biology” as one friend of mine put it, then I’m in that place.

This could be seen as a dilemma: If I am trying to help out the field of ecology by diversifying it, I need to send as many of my talented students as possible to grad school. However, because job prospects in academia are so dim, then I’d be sabotaging the success of my students if I send them to grad school!

Katana_cross_section_diagram_showing_different_zones_of_hardness

Cross-section of a not-double-edged sword.

I don’t buy into that dilemma. I think what is good collectively for diversity in science also is good for the students of mine who do go on to earn their PhDs. This sword only has one edge, which I realize is not necessarily a common sword. (A katana, I just learned, has only a single edge, as you can see.

I take money from the federal government with the promise that I’ll be a part of the pipeline to grad school. Consequently, I provide cool research opportunities to students and if they want to go to grad school, I think that’s great. But I don’t steer them in that direction, even though I provide a rental car for free.

I’ve been told that I’m doing a bad thing to my students by sending them off to grad school. I’m just tuning those voices out. Because those voices don’t know me, they don’t know my students, and they don’t know what the alternatives are for my students. For every one of my students who has passed through my lab and gone to grad school, I have a high degree of confidence that they are, or will be, better off for having received a PhD. I can understand how in the humanities, going into debt to get a PhD is a silly or stupid proposition. But some of my former students earning their PhDs are making more money from their relatively small graduate stipend than many members of their families are earning by working full-time back home. They aren’t taking out student loans, and they are getting experience with research, teaching, writing and problem-solving that will be useful in a great variety of possible jobs.

Most important for their career prospects, my students are building a social network that will help them find employment after receiving their PhDs. They will have developed practice hobnobbing with people from wealthier social classes. Even if they didn’t have a friggin’ PhD, they still have spent years in a professional milieu which otherwise would have been inaccessible. Of course they have to know that the odds of getting a tenure-track position are small, and they need to have an open mind with respect to their careers.

Our students should also know that they have more and better options with a PhD than without one, considering the social capital at their disposal when starting out on the job market. They shouldn’t be told they won’t get a job, when most people do.

Let’s put the employment options post-PhD into context with data. Nearly all PhD recipients in biology are gainfully employed, and the number of tenure-track faculty, industry and government researchers, and those with other non-research/teaching jobs greatly outnumber those that end up in non-tenure track academic positions. There are too many contingent faculty, and this is a problem for universities, but the existence of adjuncthood as a possible career option doesn’t mean that opting for a PhD is a bad choice. There is a far greater fraction of unemployed lawyers than unemployed Biology PhDs.

Unemployment rates for those that don’t go to grad school are worse for those who do. And the situation is even worse for first generation college students, who lack the social capital to get their first opportunities. So, no, I won’t be telling my students they can’t get a job if they earn a Ph.D. I’ll just tell them that they’ll be lucky if they land a tenure-track position and that they shouldn’t plan on that from the outset.

The first days of a new tenure-track faculty job

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This is the season when some lucky ones preparing for new jobs in the fall. A few people have asked me what to expect, so I imagine even more are wondering. I’m writing from my own experience (starting 2.5 new faculty jobs), and yours have been different, so please do comment. What can you expect from the start, and what might you want to keep in mind? Here are some observations and some suggestions.

  • It’s more quiet and lonely than you might expect. There is a lot to do, but many tasks are solitary. September is a crazy time for everyone who is recombobulating from summertime adventures. Everybody will be glad to introduce themselves to you, but it won’t take very long before you’re sitting at the desk in your office, alone.

  • It’s busy. If you’re teaching more than you have in the past, be prepared to be overwhelmed. This is normal. It takes a while to figure out how to teach efficiently. At the outset, you can’t afford to not be an effective teacher, so learning how to be efficient is a work in progress, as you learn the acceptable standards in your new environment.

  • Define your boundaries for students at the outset, because your rep will spread quickly. If you want to get to know your students really well outside class, then be sure to leave your office door wide open and chat frequently with students. On the other hand, it’s easy to establish a reputation as a caring, fair and hard-working professor who doesn’t spend much time with students outside of class and office hours, if you set this at the outset. Time spent well with students can be the purpose of the job and the highest pleasure, but some other time spent with students could be a fruitless time sink. Find that line. The range of acceptable positions for that line varies hugely among institutions. So, listen and watch carefully.

  • From day one, decide how you will manage your classroom. The proliferation of communication devices has changed how students spend time in the classroom. Once the digital monster escapes from the box, you can’t put it back in without causing some degree of petulance. However, you can establish a clear pattern of expectations on the first day of class, which will be the structure that you need to help others deal with their addictions. This requires being proactive and isn’t something that you can effectively deal with mid-semester.

  • There is a huge amount of freedom. You have your ID, your email set up, your class schedule, supplies on the way to the lab. And then, you have absolutely nobody telling you what to do. This is, I argue, the most critical moment in your career – how do you spend the limited amount of time that you have? Are you focusing on writing grants, getting projects started, training new students, developing some curriculum, getting new experimental setups running, figuring out which grocery story to shop in, and how to make new friends in a new city? You can’t do all of these things at once, even if they all have to happen at some point. Your priorities will be based on your own circumstances, but don’t fall into a routine or a rut without planning. If you fall into a hole in which 100% of your work time is focused on the classroom, you might never be able to dig your way out. Manage your time at the outset. Of course you’re teaching more your first semesters as you are figuring things out. But it should not be all of the time, even at the start.

  • The most important person in the world can be your departmental admin person. Missing some office furniture? Direct deposit messed up? No book ordered for your course? Copier eating paper? Lab techs are often just as critical, too. Fortunately, I’m blessed with the most spectacular crew ever in my own department. I usually see these people because I need something, and I’m ever so thankful for the help I receive. Be sure to start off on a good foot because at crunch time, having these people in your corner is definitely priceless.

  • It takes years to understand university politics. This stuff affects you, but discussing the prospect for change might not be helpful. Most issues have long histories connected to big personalities, and until you know the stories and the individual players, don’t get involved.

  • If you’re a parent, and particularly if you’re a mom, then you’ve got to make sure that your spouse does his fair share of parenting. Even if you’re not a parent, but if you’re coupled, then you want to make sure that you aren’t doing more than your fair share of the duties at home. Oftentimes, domestic arrangements re-equilibrate with moving. If your career is as important as your spouse’s career, then less pleasant stuff done at home is an equal responsibility, too.

  • Identify senior faculty that you like and can trust, and not necessarily just in your own department. The working conditions and expectations of new faculty are different than those that have been on campus for a while. However, experience sometimes results in wisdom. When you need to learn context, it’s worthwhile to talk with someone who has already been there. Let’s say a couple students in your class are causing problems for you, or you don’t know how to ask the chair about leaving for a week to attend a conference. Or you need to find fresh undergrads to train in your lab, or you want to tap into campus funding for students but don’t know criteria the university-level committee uses when ranking applications. These are topics for your senior faculty mentors.

  • Maintain the time to keep yourself healthy. Make sure you still make the effort to prepare and eat real food, and be physically active however you have in the past. The time you put into exercising doesn’t cut your productivity, but increases it. When you feel good, you’ll work more efficiently and your mind will be more focused.

  • It’s okay to ask for help. You might be anxious about driving people crazy with a variety of minor inquiries, but you’re a newbie and it’s normal to try to figure things out. You were hired because the department already was confident that you’d do a good job, so it’s okay to ask questions that will help you out. Actually, as you make the rounds asking minor questions of people who could be of help, this can be a way to figure out who might evolve to become a trusted mentor.

This was not intended to be a comprehensive list, so additional input would be great, especially from those who have started a new job more recently than I have.

What kind of faculty job do you want?

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Faculty jobs involve teaching, research, and mentoring. Different kinds of universities expect faculty to conduct these activities in different proportions. What is your ideal balance? Consider the figure to find out where you belong.

ChooseYourInstittion

Figure by T McGlynn

For the uninitiated, SLAC indicates “Small Liberal Arts College.”

This figure implies a lot of mechanisms that differentiate institutions, and there are a bunch of reasons why the distribution for a regional comprehensive (where I work currently) fills in the gaps that other institutions don’t occupy.

Which classes should tenure-track faculty deprioritize?

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Academia has an adjunct problem. Most of the verbiage on this topic (that I see, at least) focuses on the plight of adjunct faculty.  I agree that this matters, a lot. But, this isn’t the bottom line for the people who are the designated focus of the teaching institutions: the students.

At the top of my list of worries about adjunctification are educational quality and making sure that we do the best for our students.

I am not suggesting that the quality of classroom instruction by adjuncts is better or worse than their tenure-track colleagues. The problem for students isn’t connected to quality in the classroom. It’s about what happens — or doesn’t happen — outside the classroom.

Take, for example:

There lots of explicit or implicit job expectations of tenure-track faculty, which are not expected of contingent faculty, including

  • Academic advising

  • Research with students

  • Mentorship

  • Career advising

  • Sponsorship of student organizations

  • Development of new curricula

Meanwhile, in some universities, adjuncts don’t even have a shared office space.

Nobody expects adjuncts to do the same kind of service, research and student mentorship activities that are part of the role of full-time tenure-track faculty. Tenure-track faculty are expected to interact with the same population of students throughout their undergraduate careers, especially in smaller institutions, which often sell themselves based on the close professional relationships betweens students and faculty.

In my own department, we have been dealing with one dilemma tied to the fact that we don’t have enough tenure-line faculty to teach our courses. Next semester we will, collectively, have more reassigned time for service and student mentorship that we have had in recent memory. This is great for a number of reasons, but it also means that for some courses that we normally teach ourselves, we’ll have to use non-tenure-track instructors.

Which kinds of courses are we supposed to give up ourselves and assign to adjuncts?

Here are the options:

  • Our introductory for-majors courses. We have a 3-semester intro sequence, and each of these is taught by a single tenure-track faculty member. This has been great because the all students get to know these faculty in the department by going through their course (aside from some transfer students). Though I don’t own any of these courses, I chat a lot with my colleagues who do teach these courses to identify students who could join my lab. These courses are foundational for the rest of the major, and we need to be sure that there is consistency in its instruction so that students are well prepared for the upper division. Having a rotating set of instructors in this course wouldn’t be good.

  • Upper-division speciality courses. We happen to have plenty of adjunct instructors who are qualified to teach most of these classes well. Would it be better to have the tenure-track faculty stay in the majors intro courses and leave some specialty courses to adjuncts?

  • Graduate courses. Our courses for the graduate program should, in theory, be taught by research-active faculty. However, there are so few of us that we are also needed for other parts of the curriculum. Teaching the graduate courses in a seminar format, with smaller class sizes, is lighter on the schedule than an introductory majors course, and keeping this course in the schedule can free up even more time for other activities. However, this would keep faculty from getting to know as many undergraduates.

  • Our non-majors courses lecture and labs. Like many other departments, we have pretty much already abandoned the hope of teaching these. I have taught a few sections of these courses in recent years. My rationale was that these courses which have a large proportion of Liberal Studies majors (those preparing become K-8 teachers), and teacher preparation is a priority of mine.

We aren’t punishing any of our students by having them work with our adjuncts, but when students are taught by our adjuncts that means we are less able to provide them with opportunities and interactions outside the classroom. These interactions are often what makes college valuable. So, which courses do we, as tenure-track faculty, give up?

This is a hard call. We have managed to make sure that all the lectures, if not the labs, of our introductory majors courses are taught by tenure-track faculty. This helps us build a community in our department, in which the faculty who run the department are personally familiar with the students going through the major. It would be a step backward if we divested ourselves from our majors at this early stage. On the other hand, it would be great if research-active faculty continue the speciality courses in the upper division and to graduate students. Moreover, this could be an important part of continuing to support students conducting research in our labs.

For example, I’ve been the instructor of the graduate biostatistics course for several years now. This means that, for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the statistics guy who the students contact (and sometimes ignore) when they are designing experiments and analyzing their results. If our biostatistics course was taught by an adjunct, these students wouldn’t have that adjunct available around the department to discuss experimental design and analysis. While I don’t think I need to serve as a statistical consultant too often, I think being available for these kinds of conversation is a part of my job that I shouldn’t be giving up. If I didn’t teach this class, the students wouldn’t even be aware that I am available in this capacity.

There isn’t a good answer to this problem, but it’s one that we’re facing. I’m really curious about how other departments of different types of decided which classes are kept by tenure-track faculty, and which ones end up being taught by adjuncts on a long-term basis. When these decisions are made, what is the currency behind the decision? Faculty scheduling, available faculty expertise, student familiarity with faculty?

 

 

 

 

Maybe I am a writer after all

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I’ve been head down, focusing on writing grants lately. These days I spend a good deal of my time writing and thinking about writing, which isn’t what I imagined life as a scientist to be.

When I was much younger, I wanted to be a writer. I read voraciously. Mainly fantasy novels and classics like Jane Austen and Lucy Maud Montgomery. I spent a lot of time out in the fields and woods around the places we lived and in my head in worlds far from my own. Being a writer sounded so romantic. But along the way that idea faded. Writing in my English classes was uninspiring and the one thing I didn’t do was write, which is of course what makes one a writer. I continued to read with my tastes broadening (but I still enjoy a good fantasy novel when I get the chance) but honestly I didn’t write that much and most of that was because I had to.

Fast-forward to my first undergraduate research project, I was working on sex-allocation in plants. The measurements came fairly easy (besides all the time they took) but once I had a complete and analyzed dataset, then came the writing. It was my first experience writing and rewriting and rewriting something. And then there was submitting it to a journal and rewriting again. I never had worked so hard at writing something but I definitely done so since then.

As my career in science has progressed, I’ve needed to take writing seriously. As an undergrad, I really had no idea how much writing was involved in most scientific fields. Unfamiliar with such things as peer-review, I was ignorant about the process between doing research and published papers.

These days I’ve published a modest number of papers but the stories behind them have really helped me grow as a writer. There was that paper that we decided to cut a significant number of words (I can’t remember the number but maybe a quarter of the paper) to try for a journal with a strict word limit (where it was rejected from). It meant looking at every single sentence to see if every word was truly necessary. The process was kind of fun and became a little like a game or puzzle. I’m still overly wordy at times but now I’m better at slashing in the later drafts. Then there was that time our paper kept getting rejected and we realized (read: my co-author because I didn’t even want to think about it anymore) that the entire introduction needed to be reframed. So we basically tossed the intro and discussion and started again. It was painful but ultimately what needed to be done. What was there before wasn’t bad writing but was setting up expectations that weren’t fulfilled by our data.

Through all of this and especially writing here, I realised that I became a writer with out even realizing it. My science has taught me more about the craft of writing than any of the English classes I took ever did (but to be fair I stopped taking these after first year of my undergraduate degree). I’m not sure if I’ll ever tackle a fiction story, and that is ok. I turned into a different kind of writer than my childhood self imagined. And I know there is a whole other craft of understanding how to construct a story, which is very different than writing a paper or a grant proposal or a blog post. I’m not arrogant enough to think my writing is a universal skill but if I did want to write a novel I now have a better idea of what that might take (writing and rewriting and rewriting and repeat).

There are lots of scientists who also write books for more general audiences suggesting that the transition from scientist to what most would consider a writer isn’t that farfetched. This Christmas I enjoyed the writing of one of my favourite people from my graduate school days, Harry Greene. “Tracks and Shadows” is a lovely, often poetic read about life as a field biologist, snakes and much more. And I haven’t picked it up yet but another Cornellian I knew has gone on to do science television and write “Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You”. It looks fun. These examples of scientists I know writing books also speak to the possibility of writing beyond scientific papers. And as the Anne Shirley books taught me, you should write what you know.

Maybe someday I’ll decide to write a book, but for now, back to those grants.

Scientists know how to communicate with the public

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I bet that most of us are steady consumers of science designed for the public. Books, magazines, newspaper, museum exhibits, radio, the occasional movie. The people who bring science to the masses are “science communicators.” (The phrase “science communication” is a newish one, and arguably better than “science writing,” as a variety of media involve more than just writing.)

Nearly everything I’ve seen in science communication shares a common denominator: scientists. Science communication doesn’t amount to much without researchers. Science is a human endeavor, and it’s rarely possible to tell a compelling story without directly involving the people who did the science. As restaurant servers bring food to the table and cooks typically stay in the kitchen, science communicators bring the work of scientists to the public while scientists typically focus on publishing scientific papers.

I interact with practitioners of this craft on the uncommon occasions when my research gets notice beyond the scientific community. (My university doesn’t send out press releases when my cooler papers come out, so the communicators need to find me.)

When I listen to what science communicators have said to us scientists, there are two items that are a heavy and steady drumbeat:

  1. It the duty of scientists to some of our time doing science communication, and it’s also in our interests.

  2. Most scientists don’t yet know how to communicate with the public.

I’m not so sure about #1. I have decided the second one is off mark, or at least so overgeneralized that it’s either wrong or useless.

It may or may not be our duty to share science with the public. (Yes, I know the arguments, reviewed here, for example.) Regardless, the last interest group that I’d look to for impartial advice on this matter would be science communicators. This would be like learning about the need for propane grilling from a propane grilling salesperson. It would be like learning about K-12 energy education from a workshop funded by a petroleum company (sadly, this is happening this week in my city). Of course science communicators think that science communication is important!

For most scientists, the division of labor between cooks and servers is just fine. (Of course there is nothing about being a technical scientist that disqualifies someone from being an effective public communicator.) There are many important things in this world, and some of us choose other things. (This next month, for what it’s worth, I’m talking to three community organizations, volunteering for an all-day science non-fair, and writing a blog post about my lab’s latest paper.) My funding agency places science communication as one potential component of broader effects, and I’m definitely listening to them. Scientists, if we want to engage the broader public, that’s great! But it would be disingenuous to tell you that it’s your duty. We all owe many things to society, and I’m cool with it if you choose, or don’t choose, to put science communication on your plate. I’m not going to be that person who is telling you what your duties are with respect to your own career. It’s up to us to forge our own trajectories and priorities.

So we all agree that scientists that don’t spend time on science communication either are, or are not, selfish bastards.

But, is it really true that most of us scientists aren’t capable of sharing our science effectively? I call BS on this canard.

If there happens to be a stray professional science communicator reading this, I imagine that I just induced a few chuckles and a shake of the head. Let me write some more to clarify.

Most of us are wholly capable of sharing our science with the public in an understandable and even interesting fashion. However, that doesn’t mean that, when interacting with the media, that we are always willing to play along. We might not want to provide the sound bite you’re looking for. We might be resisting a brief interpretation because we don’t have enough confidence that the science would end up correct in the final product. Nearly every time some scientific finding is presented to the public, it happens along with some form of a generalization. If you’re familiar with the genre of peer reviewing, you’ll know that scientists typically disdain generalizations.

How is it that we can resist the digestion of our work for public consumption? When someone claims that one of us “doesn’t know how to communicate with the public,” I propose that this overgeneralized diagnosis can almost always be broken down into two distinct categories which might apply.

  1. We don’t want to discuss our science in broad terms for the public because we feel that we are unqualified for the task. While the popular image of the arrogant know-it-all scientist plays well, most of us are driven by the fact that we don’t understand enough about our fields of expertise. We are resistant to analogies or general statements of findings in lay terminology because it involves a generalization from our very specific findings that may be unwarranted. And, if it is warranted, then it falls outside our expertise to comment on such a broad topic. While our experiments were designed to advance knowledge on some general topic, we feel that it is not up to us to make the decision that our findings are informative on that general topic in a way to be digested outside the scientific community.
  2. We actually aren’t doing an experiment that has any general relevance to the public at large. We actually are working on minutia that will not have any broad relationship to the scientific endeavor at large. We are having trouble making a generalization about its scientific importance because it lacks a broad scientific importance.

The prescription for diagnosis #1 is for us to become more arrogant and think that we are qualified to speak with the media about broader issues in science. For us to think that, as scientists sensu lato, we are able to speak broadly about scientific issues. Just as we teach about all kinds of scientific topics in the university classroom, we can interact with the media in the same way. And this is the kind of stuff that scientists who communicate with the public do all the time. They often talk about things outside the realm of their research training and expertise and get away with it. If we’re going to be doing science communication as practicing scientists, then we need to own the fact that we can talk about a whole bunch of scientific topics even though we’re not top experts in a subfield. For example, Richard Feynman once wrote a book chapter about ants. (I thought it was horrible way to illustrate his main point about doing amateur science, actually.)

The prescription for diagnosis #2 is to be a better scientist. If you’re conducting an experiment that, at its roots, lacks a purpose that can be explained to a general audience, then what is the science really work? I can explain that I work on really obscure stuff (the community ecology of litter-dwelling ants, how odors affect nest movements of ants, and how is it that some colonies of ants control the production of different kinds of ants, and how much sunlight and leaf litter ants like, for starters). But I’m working on this obscure stuff to build to a generalized understanding of biodiversity, the role of predators in the evolution of defensive behavior, how ecology and evolution result in optimized allocation patterns, and responses to climate change. I am sometimes reluctant to claim that my results can be generalized to entire fields (I need to get more arrogant in that respect), but I recognize the fact that my work is designed to ask these broad questions. If you don’t have these broad questions in mind while running the experiment, I recommend a sabbatical and a visit to the drawing board. I don’t know how often this phenomenon happens, but I have met some scientists who, when asked for the broadest possible application of their work, can only talk about the effect on a subfield of a subfield that would only influence a few people. If a project, at its greatest success, can only influence a few other scientists in the whole world, then, well, you get the idea.

Yes, scientists are good communicators. And we know how to talk to the public. We just might not think we’re the right people for the job, or that our science isn’t built for the task.

Natural history is important, but not perceived as an academic job skill

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This post is a reflection on a thoughtful post by Jeremy Fox, over on Dynamic Ecology. It encouraged me (and a lot of others, as you see in the comments) to think critically about the laments about the supposed decline of natural history.

I aim to contextualize the core notion of that post. This isn’t a quote, but here in my own words is the gestalt lesson that I took away:

We don’t need to fuss about the decline of natural history, because maybe it’s not even on the decline. Maybe it’s not actually undervalued. Maybe it really is a big part of contemporary ecology after all.

Boy howdy, do I agree with that. And also disagree with that. It depends on what we mean by “value” and “big part.” I think the conversation gets a lot simpler once we agree about the fundamental relationship between natural history and ecology. As the operational definition of the relationship used in the Dynamic Ecology post isn’t workable, I’ll posit a different one.

As a disclaimer, let me explain that I’m not an expert natural historian. Anybody who has been in the field with me is woefully aware of this fact. I know my own critters, but I’m merely okay when it comes to flora and fauna overall. I have been called an entomologist, but if you show me a beetle, there’s a nonzero probability that I won’t be able to tell you its family. There are plenty of birds in my own backyard that I can’t name. Now, with that out of the way:

Let’s make no mistake: natural history is, truly, on the decline. The general public knows less, and cares less, about nature than a few decades ago. Kids are spending more time indoors and are less prone to watch, collect, handle, and learn about plants and creatures. Literacy about nature and biodiversity has declined in concert with a broader decline in scientific literacy in the United States. This is a complex phenomenon, but it’s clear that the youth of today’s America are less engaged in natural history than yesterday’s America.

On the other hand, people love and appreciate natural history as much as they always have. Kids go nuts for any kind of live insect put in front of them, especially when it was just found in their own play area. Adults devour crappy nature documentaries, too. There’s no doubt that people are interested in natural history. They’re just not engaged in it. Just because people like it doesn’t mean that they are doing it or are well informed. That’s enough about natural history and public engagement, now let’s focus on ecologists.

I honestly don’t know if interest in natural history has waned among ecologists. I don’t have enough information to speculate. But this point is moot, because the personal interests of ecologists don’t necessarily have a great bearing on what they publish, and how students are trained.

Natural history is the foundation of ecology. Natural history is the set of facts upon which ecology builds. Ecology is the search to find mechanisms driving the patterns that we observe with natural history. Without natural history, there is no such thing as ecology, just as there is no such thing as a spoken language without words. In the same vein, I once made the following analogy: natural history : ecology :: taxonomy : evolution. The study of evolution depends on a reliable understanding of what our species are on the planet, and how they are related to one another. You really can’t study the evolution of any real-world organism in earnest without having reliable alpha taxonomy. Natural history is important to ecologists in the same way that alpha taxonomy is for evolutionary biologists.

Just as research on evolution in real organisms requires a real understanding of their taxonomy and phylogeny, research in real-world ecology requires a real-world understanding of natural history. (Some taxonomists are often as dejected as advocates for natural history: Taxonomy is on the decline. There is so much unclassified and misclassified biodiversity, but there’s no little funding and even fewer jobs to do the required work. If we are going to make progress in the field of evolutionary biology, then we need to have detailed reconstructions of evolutionary history as a foundation.)

Of course natural history isn’t dead, because if it were, then ecology would not exist. We’d have no facts upon which to base any theories. Natural history isn’t in conflict with ecology, because natural history is the fundamental operational unit of ecology. Natural history comprises the individual bricks of LEGO pieces that ecologists use to build LEGO models.

The germane question is not to ask if natural history is alive or dead. The question is: Is natural history being used to its full potential? Is it valued not just as a product, but as an inherent part of the process of doing ecological research?

LEGO Master Builders know every single individual building element that the company makes. When they are charged with designing a new model, they understand the natural history of LEGO so well that their model is the best model it can be. Likewise, ecologists that know the most about nature are the ones that can build models that best describe how nature works. An ecologist that doesn’t know the pieces that make up nature will have a model that doesn’t look like what it is supposed to represent.

Yes, the best ecological model is the one that is the most parsimonious: an overly complex model is not generalizable. You don’t need to know the natural history of every organism to identify underlying patterns and mechanisms in nature. However, a familiarity with nature to know what can be generalized, and what cannot be generalized, is central to doing good ecology. And that ability is directly tied to knowing nature itself. You can’t think about how generalizable a model is without having an understanding of the organisms and system to which the model could potentially apply.

I made an observation a few months back, that graduate school is no longer designed to train excellent scientists, but instead is built to train students how to publish papers. That was a little simplistic, of course. Let me refine that a bit with this Venn diagram: 

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What’s driving the push to train grad students how to publish? It doesn’t take rocket science to look at the evolutionary arms race for the limited number of academic positions. A record of multiple fancy publications is typically required to get what most graduate advisors regard to be a “good” academic job. If you don’t have those pubs, and you want an academic job, it’s for naught. So graduate programs succeed when students emerge with as their own miniature publication factory.

In terms of career success, it doesn’t really matter what’s in the papers. What matters is the selectivity of the journal that publishes those papers, and how many of them exist. It’s telling that many job search committees ask for a CV, but not for reprints. What matters isn’t what you’ve published, but how much you have and where you’ve published.

So it only makes sense that natural history gets pushed to the side in graduate school. Developing natural history talent is time-intensive, involving long hours in the field, lots of reading in a broad variety of subjects. Foremost, becoming a talented natural historian requires a deliberate focus on information outside your study system. A natural historian knows a lot of stuff about a lot of things. I can tell you a lot about the natural history of litter-nesting ants in the rainforest, but that doesn’t qualify me as a natural historian. Becoming a natural historian requires a deliberate focus on learning about things that are, at first appearance, merely incidental to the topic of one’s dissertation.

Ecology graduate students have many skills to learn, and lots to get done very quickly, if they feel that they’ll be prepared to fend for themselves upon graduation. Who has time for natural history? It’s obvious that ecology grad students love natural history. It’s often the main motivator for going to grad school in the first place. And it’s also just as obvious that many grad students feel a deep need to finish their dissertations with ripe and juicy CVs, and feel that they can’t pause to learn natural history. This is only natural given the structure of the job environment.

Last month I had a bunch of interactions that helped me consider the role of natural history in the profession of ecology. These happened while I was fortunate enough to serve as guest faculty on a graduate field course in tropical biology. This “Fundamentals Course,” run by the Organization for Tropical Studies throughout many sites in in Costa Rica, has been considered to be a historic breeding ground for pioneering ecologists. Graduate students apply for slots in the course, which is a traveling road show throughout many biomes.

I was a grad student on the course, um, almost 20 years ago. I spent a lot of my time playing around with ants, but I also learned about all kinds of plant families, birds, herps, bats, non-ant insects, and a full mess of field methods. And soils, too. I was introduced to many classic coevolved systems, I learned how orchid bees respond to baits, how to mistnet, and I saw firsthand just how idiosyncratic leafcutter ants are in food selection. I came upon a sloth in the middle of its regular, but infrequent, pooping session at the base of a tree. I saw massive flocks of scarlet macaws, and how frog distress calls can bring in the predators of their predators. I also learned a ton about experimental design by running so many experiments with a bunch of brilliant colleagues and mentors, and a lot about communicating by presenting and writing. And I was introduced to new approaches to statistics. And that’s just the start of it the stuff I learned.

I essentially spent a whole summer of grad school on this course. Clearly, it was a transformative experience for me, because now I’m a tropical biologist and nearly all of my work happens at one of the sites that we visited on the course. Not everybody on the course became a tropical biologist, but it’s impossible to avoid learning a ton about nature if you take the course.

The course isn’t that different nowadays. One of the more noticeable things, however, is that fewer grad students are interested, or available, to take the course. I talked to a number of PhD students who wanted to take the course but their advisors steered them away from it because it would take valuable time away from the dissertation. I also talked to an equivalent number of PhD students who really wanted a broad introduction to tropical ecology but were too self-motivated to work on their thesis to make sure that they had a at least few papers out before graduating.

In the past, students would be encouraged to take the course as a part of their training to become an excellent ecologist. Now, students are being dissuaded because it would get in the way of their training to become a successful ecologist.

There was one clear change in the curriculum this year: natural history is no longer included. This wasn’t a surprise, because even though students love natural history, this is no longer an effective draw for the course. When I asked the coordinator why natural history was dropped from the Fundamentals Course, the answer I got had even less varnish than I expected: “Because natural history doesn’t help students get jobs.” And if it doesn’t help them get a job, then they can’t spend too much time doing it in grad school.

Of course we need to prepare grad students for the broad variety of paths they may choose. However, does this mean that something should be pulled from the curriculum because it doesn’t provide a specific transferable job skill? Is the entire purpose of earning a Ph.D. to arm our students for the job market. Is there any room for doing things that make better scientists that are not necessarily valued on the job market?

Are we creating doctors of philosophy, or are we creating highly specialized publication machines?

There are some of grad students (and graduate advisors) who are bucking the trend, and are not shying away from the kind of long-term field experiences that used to be the staple of ecological dissertations. One such person is Kelsey Reider, who among other things is working on frogs that develop in melting Andean glaciers. By no means is she tanking her career by spending years in the field doing research and learning about the natural history of her system. She will emerge from the experience as an even more talented natural historian who, I believe, will have better context and understanding for applying ecological theory to the natural world. Ecology is about patterns, processes and mechanisms in the natural world, right?

Considering that “natural history” is only used as an epithet during the manuscript review process, is natural history valued by the scientific community at all?  Most definitely it is! But keep in mind that this value doesn’t matter when it comes to academic employment, funding, high impact journals, career advancement, or graduate training.

People really like and appreciate experts in natural history. Unfortunately, that value isn’t in the currency that is important to the career of an ecologist. And it’d be silly to focus away from your career while you’re in grad school.

But, as Jeremy pointed out in his piece, many of the brilliant ecologists who he knows are also superb natural historians. I suggest that this is not mere coincidence. Perhaps graduate advisors can best serve their students by making sure that their graduate careers include the opportunity for serious training in natural history. It is unwise to focus exclusively on the production of a mountain of pubs that can be sold to high-impact journals.

We should focus on producing the most brilliant, innovative, and broad-minded ecologists, who also publish well. I humbly suggest that this entails a high degree of competency in natural history.

I grew up poor.

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There are two inspirations for my post. First, a conversation over at Tenure She Wrote is really worth reading. Sarcozona started it up with a great post on poverty in the ivory tower and Acclimatrix has added to the conversation with her own personal musings about coming from poverty and class struggles with family. Both are really wonderful/powerful posts and I highly recommend reading them. One thing that struck me was Sarcozona’s call for people to talk about their own experience with poverty. So here I am.

The second inspiration is that I’m currently traveling (a sign of how far I’ve come). I wanted to attend a conference in California, which is 9 hours time difference from where I live in Sweden. Being someone effected by jetlag, that sounded nearly impossible. So I stopped off in Nova Scotia to spend time with my family and give my daughter a chance to see them all too. Then I travelled on alone for the conference. Being home is always a time to reflect on where I come from, and makes these thoughts come even more naturally.

So my confession is that I also grew up poor. It isn’t something I hide but it also isn’t something I talk about often. My parents were teenagers when they had me and so it is difficult to actually talk about my childhood with any generalizations; my parents were growing up as I did. We moved around a lot, they changed jobs and roles, and we didn’t stay poor forever. I never knew the feeling of going to bed hungry and there was always lots of love and fun when I was a kid, so I didn’t feel poor. But we were. I didn’t have the latest, well, most things. A small example is that I had to make do with hand-me-down clothes from my cousin. I can still remember the mix of excitement and dread when those big boxes showed up. Excitement to see what there was but dread because I wouldn’t have much choice in what I would wear for the next year, even if it wasn’t to my liking. We also lived in houses without electricity or running water from when I was about age two to seven. Although there were lots of hippies getting back to the land in Nova Scotia when my parents were, living without modern conveniences and growing your own food was more of a necessity than a social experiment for them.

In many ways my younger years were really magical and for me and my brother, it was often a big adventure. We spent huge amounts of time wandering around in the woods and fields that surrounded the various houses we lived in. I’m sure my deep routed appreciation for the natural world can be directly attributed to the freedom (sometimes/many times forced: “Go play outside!”) I had to explore it. Our vacations were also outside/cheap. We either visited relatives or went camping. As kids, we loved the camping trips, even if it was hard to compare with vacations to Disney that the some of the other kids at school talked about.

Although my family’s financial situation was stable by the time I went to university, they didn’t have a fund to support me to go to school (I have the student loans to prove that). Although there was no pressure in any particular direction I think financial security drove most of my early university education decisions. I wanted to go into healthcare or something that would ensure I got a ‘good’ job afterwards. I started university for a semester and then quit because I couldn’t manage it even with a partial scholarship and a job. I went back to university after working for a couple of years—it allowed me to apply for a loan independently of my parents and therefore be able to afford it. My parents didn’t have the money to help me out with university but made too much for me to qualify for full loans (although to be fair it was me that decided on a university on the other side of the country and I could have stayed in Halifax instead). Even with loans, I worked a lot during my undergraduate years and it took me about six years to finish my degree. I remember seeing opportunities for things like field courses and exchange programs but there was no way I could afford them. I was lucky to get to work with some labs locally and those experiences steered me on the path to research. However, I was jealous of some of the things my richer peers were able to do.

These days, I’m the richest I’ve ever been and my parents are no longer poor either. I don’t want to glorify my childhood but it did instil an appreciation for nature, good healthy food, and getting by with what you have. But I’m happy for my and my parents’ financial freedom. It allows us to travel the distances between us more easily and I don’t worry about grocery bills like I did as an undergrad. I’m glad that my daughter is growing up in a different way than I did. Perhaps more importantly, I’m happy that as a parent, I don’t have to worry so much about money as they did. But having so little at times, meant that a grad school salary actually felt rich to me and I’m amazed that we were able to buy a row house this past year. In some ways the skills I learned from being poor as a kid and then as an undergraduate has made the relatively lower salary I have as a scientist quite manageable for me. But it does mean that I had a very different experience from many of my fellow grad students. I thought seriously about paying for conference travel at times, although for the first time ever my grad school salary was enough to grow a savings account. Having to buy my own car for fieldwork made an impact and money factored into my working locally instead of elsewhere like many I went to grad school with. I don’t mean to say that others were basing their research decisions on their personal funds but it made me nervous to plan a field season far away, not knowing whether I could fund it or not. So my upbringing and relationship to money did/does factor in to how I approach funding research. Mentally, I have a hard time draining accounts (personal or research) because it feels safer to have something tucked away for a ‘rainy day’. So sometimes my reluctance to spend when I have little is something I need to overcome with my research budgets.

Wandering around downtown Halifax has also emphasized some of the relative poverty I came from. It seems like there are lot more empty storefronts then the last time I was here. Nova Scotia is a ‘have not’ province and I’m sure that affects the kinds of opportunities available for students growing up. I certainly noticed a difference when I moved from the county schools I had been attending to the city schools I started in at age 12 (we moved to Halifax then). I had a lot of really amazing teachers who helped lay the foundations for my science career but I’m guessing their access to supplies, etc. was determined by limited budgets in a poorer province. Having grown up poor also means that I walked through a raging snowstorm in downtown Halifax with my four-year old daughter because for some reason I still think paying for a cab is excessive (by the time we came home, we couldn’t have got one anyway because of the road conditions). It was actually quite fun to walk through a shutdown city in the snow and I’m still amazed at what a little trooper my girl can be. But it is a reminder that no matter how different my life is, some things are hard to change.

Why I write with my own name

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This post was written in concert with four others on the same topic, which can be found at this link on Hope Jahren’s site.

When you click on “about,” you see my unveiled face and my real name. Some of my credibility – and the lack thereof – comes from who I am and what I have done. It’s self-evident that the identity of the messenger affects how the message is received.

It is my hope that my identity gives more credence to my words. If I talk the talk, then I’d like to show that I walk the walk. If I write about research productivity, then I need to show that I actually, you know, publish. If I write about mentorship, then a cranky person can track down my students. Of course, any writer should be judged by one’s words and not by one’s credentials. So, the credence that I might get from my identity would only be temporarily bought, from the population that is unfamiliar with the mores of the pseudonymous science “blogosphere.” That turns out to be most people.

Before I started blogging, I did a little bit of amateur sociological fieldwork. I learned that most people don’t read blogs on a regular basis. I learned that a visit to a blog can be like arriving at an intimate party where you don’t know anybody. In contrast, I want my blog to be approachable to everybody. I want to be the guy who walks over to the front door, says “Hi, I’m Terry. Come on in. Can I get you something to drink? Let me introduce you to these folks.” I want every single blog post to be able to stand on its own, and to not make any references to other people or other blogs that aren’t fully understandable to a novice.

And I want people to know who is addressing them. It’s more approachable to guests who just put their foot through the front door. I’ve written more here about my approach to running my site so that it is transparent, professional, and inclusive. I’m not claiming that my approach is better than others, but I try to be different in a way that, I hope, broadens the audience.

Compared to most other bloggers, it’s easy for me to be public: I represent the trifecta of privilege as a tenured white man. And I’m straight. I don’t have to worry about the job market anymore, and I won’t be attacked because of my gender or ethnicity, like some of my colleagues.

It’s my duty to use this relative comfort to agitate for change. It’s the best and most important part of my job.

I am the great grandchild of wops and micks who immigrated into a low-income ethnic enclave of New York City. I fight a similar battle as my great grandparents, not for myself but on behalf of my students. My lab is mostly composed of students from traditionally underrepresented groups, from low-income backgrounds, who are often the first in their families to attend college. Every day, I work to ameliorate the mountain of prejudice and disadvantage facing my students.

I can stick my neck out on occasion. I can press for student rights, call out bias, and encourage practices that make sure that the future generation of scientists looks like the American populace. My privilege doesn’t come without minor challenges. I need to be clear about my awareness of power differentials and where privilege lies. While I have been working very hard to declare myself as an ally and advocate, I’ve heard far too often that I’m not the right person to advocate for my students. But I won’t shut up, and it’s a challenge that I’m up to, because these things matter.

It’s rare that people accuse me of being out of touch because of my tenured-white-dudeness, but it happens. The last time I touched on the topic of my pseudonymity, I got burned. A formerly-pseudonymous colleague posted my name and picture, right next to a picture of herself with a black eye from a vicious assault, suggesting that attitudes like mine were partly to blame. One commenter remarked that I am a danger to children. My crime was ignorance of the fact that some people have good reasons to use pseudonyms. Like I didn’t know that or something. I was also guilty of not doing a literature search on the history of writing about pseudonymity in the “blogosphere.” You know you’re been shamed when the author has to write a caveat that you’re not actually being shamed.

I’m okay with the occasional potshot because risks are necessary to make change. The real risk is that I am a highly flawed model for the change I wish to see. I write about being an effective professor, but I was denied tenure. I push for more and better mentorship of minority students and women, but I’m a white guy. I write a regular set of posts on efficient teaching but I’m not winning any teaching awards. I write about time management and how to do research with a heavy teaching load, but lately I’ve been in the classroom much less than my departmentmates.

I’d like to help change the environment so that more people find it possible and worthwhile to write with their own names. For some, that environment already, tenuously, exists. This post by tressiemc about her choice to use her own identity is powerful and inspirational. I applaud her courage, and I believe we all stand to gain from it.

Based on the volume of what I’ve written, there is no shortage of people who consider me to be a rube, buffoon, blowhard, or a narcissist. That’s a chance I’ve taken. But these challenges and worries are infinitesimal compared to the truckloads of bunk that my students, and many of my junior colleagues, have to face every day. Because I am capable of using my own name while writing on their behalf, I am.

Tenure denial, seven years later

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Last month, l linked to a series of posts about my job search after tenure denial, and how I settled into my current job.  Here is the promised follow-up to put my tenure denial ordeal, now more than seven years ago, in some deeper context.

As I was getting denied tenure, nobody suggested that tenure denial was actually a blessing. Nevertheless, if anybody would have had the temerity to make such a suggestion, they’d have been right.

I don’t feel a need to get revenge on the people who orchestrated the tenure denial. But if the best revenge is living well, then I’m doing just fine in that department. I’m starting my fourth year as an Associate Professor of Biology in my hometown. Without asking, I was given the green light to go up for promotion to full Professor two years early. In the last few years, I received a university-wide research award and I was elected to a position of honor in my professional society. I feel that all aspects of my work are valued by those who matter, especially the students in my lab. I’ve managed to keep my lab adequately funded, which is no small matter nowadays. Less than a year ago, I started this blog. That’s been working out well.

The rest of my family is also faring well, professionally and personally. We are integrated into the life of our town. We have real friendships, and life is busy, fun and rewarding.

I’m high enough on life that I don’t often reflect on the events surrounding my tenure denial. There’s nothing to be gained by dedicating any synapses to the task. Three years ago, I wrote that hindsight didn’t help me understand why I was denied tenure. One might think that a few more years wouldn’t add additional hindsight. But a recent surprise event put things in perspective.

As part of work for some committees, I’ve been reading a ton of recommendation letters. One of these letters was written for someone who I know quite well, and the letter was written by my former colleague, “Bob.” (I don’t want to out the person for whom the letter was written, so I have to keep things vague.) This letter was both a revelation and a punch to the gut.

Bob was a mentor to me. He was an old hand who knew where the bodies were buried and was an experienced teacher. I knew Bob well, and I thought I understood him. When came upon Bob’s recommendation letter for this other person I know, I was stunned.

Bob primarily wrote in detail about a single and irreparable criticism, and then garnished the letter with faint praise. The two-page letter was written with care. Based on how well I know Bob, or how well I thought I knew him, I am mighty sure that it was not written with any intention of a negative recommendation. (I also happen to know the person about whom the letter was written better than Bob, and it’s also clear that the letter was off the mark.)

Being familiar with Bob’s style, if not his recommendation-writing acumen, I clearly see that he thought he was writing a strong positive letter, short of glowing, and that he was doing a good deed for the person for whom he wrote the letter. He didn’t realize in any way that he was throwing this person under the bus.

How could Bob’s judgment be so clouded? I am pretty sure he merely thought that he was providing an honest assessment to enhance the letter’s credibility. In hindsight, I see that Bob often supported others with ample constructive criticism. (For example, he once gave me a friendly piece of advice, without a dram of sarcasm, that I was making a “huge mistake” by choosing to have only one child.)

It didn’t take long for me to connect some dots.

I remembered something that my former Dean mentioned about his recommendation to the independent college committee (which oddly enough, also included the Dean as a member): the letters from my department were “not positive enough.” (I never had access to any of these letters.) Because my department, and Bob in particular, claimed to support me well, I found this puzzling.

At the time, I suspected that the Dean’s remarks reflected the lack of specific remarks and observations, as most of my colleagues skipped the required task of observing me in the classroom, despite my regular requests. Presumably nobody bothered to visit my classroom because they thought I was meeting their standards.

Then I recalled that one of the few colleagues who actually visited my classroom on a regular basis was Bob. Did his letter for me look like the one that I just read? Did he write that my teaching had some positive attributes, but I that my performance fell short of his standards for a variety of reasons?

Did Bob try to offer some carefully nuanced observations to lend credibility but, instead, inadvertently wrote a hit piece? That seems likely.

Considering the doozy of a letter that he wrote for this other person who I know well, it’s hard to imagine that he even knows how to write a supportive recommendation letter. Since he was my closest mentor and the only other person in my subfield, I’m chilled to think of what he wrote for my secret tenure file.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that my other official mentor wrote a brief, weak, letter, because he couldn’t even spare the time to review the narrative for my tenure file before I submitted it to the department. Thanks to the everlasting memory of gmail, check out what I just dug out of my mailbox:

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So, why was I denied tenure? It’s not Bob’s fault for writing a bad letter. The most parsimonious conclusion is that I just didn’t fit in.

I saw my job differently. At the time, I would have disagreed with that assessment. But now, I see how I didn’t fit. The fact that I didn’t even realize that Bob would be writing bad recommendation letters shows how badly my lens was maladjusted. If I fit in better, I would have been able to anticipate and prepare for that eventuality. I trusted the wrong people and was myopic in a number of ways, including how others saw me. I probably still am too myopic in that regard.

How was I different? I emphasized research more, but I also worked with students in a different manner. Since I’ve left, my trajectory has continued even further away from the emphasis of my old department. I’m teaching less as my research and administrative obligations grow, and my lab’s productivity is greater than could have been tolerated in my old department. My lab is full of extraordinary students that would have been sorely out of place in my old university.

I work in a public university with students whom my former colleagues would call “poor quality.” I am changing more individual lives than I ever could have before, by giving students with few options opportunities that they otherwise could not access.

It is fitting that my current position, at a university that gives second chances to underprepared students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is also a second chance for myself.

I might not have gotten tenure in my last job, but I had lots of opportunities to work with students. These interactions transcended employment; they were mutualistic and some have evolved into friendships. I look on my time there with great fondness, despite the damage that my former colleagues inflicted on me. I am gratified that I made the most in an environment where I didn’t belong.

I hope that it is obvious to those who know me and how I do my job, that my tenure denial does not make me look bad, but makes my former institution look bad. If I were to draw that conclusion at the time it happened, it would seem like, and would have been, sour grapes. Now that more time has passed, I’m inclined to believe the more generous interpretation that others have proffered.

I resisted that interpretation for a long time, because others would correctly point out that I would be the worst person to make such an assessment. I still have that bias, but I also have more information and the perspective of seven years. Is it possible that my post-hoc assessment paints a skewed picture of what happened? Of course; I can’t be objective about what happened. If I have any emotion about that time, it’s primarily relief: not just that I found another job, but that I found one where people make me feel like I belong.

I don’t stay in touch with anybody in my old department, as I snuck away as quietly as possible. Tenure denial is a rough experience, and I didn’t have it in me to maintain a connection with my department mates, even those who claimed to be supportive. We had little in common, other than a love for biology and a love for teaching, but both of those passions manifested quite differently.

I don’t have any special wisdom to offer other professors that have the misfortune of going through tenure denial. Tenure denial was the biggest favor I’ve ever received in my professional life, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else. If it were not for tremendously good luck, I probably would have been writing far grimmer report.

Update: After a couple conversations I realize I should clarify how evaluation letters worked where I was denied. In the system at that time, every professor in the department is required to write an evaluation letter that goes straight into the file. These are all secret evaluations and it’s expected that the candidate is not aware of what is in the letters. If I had the option of asking people to write letters, I don’t think I ever would have asked Bob to write a letter for me, because I had several colleagues who I knew would write me great ones. The surprise about Bob was had the capacity to write such a miserably horrible letter and not even realize it. He is even worse at nuance than I expected.

Getting back to the routine.

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Last year was a pretty big one for me, both personally and professionally. We bought a row house and moved to the city where my husband works, meaning a significantly different commute for me. I also interviewed for two permanent faculty jobs here in Sweden but was offered neither. I started chatting on twitter and writing here. All in all, despite some disappointments, it was a good year for learning and exploring. I’m really excited with the direction both my personal and professional life is going. But by the end of this busy year of challenges and changes, my whole family was exhausted.

This Christmas/New Year holiday, we decided to stay at home. We had some friends visit and share celebrations but we stayed put. Having a 4 year old means that we are also pleasantly forced into taking a real holiday. When the daycare closes, it is family time. In Sweden, Jan 6th is also a holiday, so today is the first day back to reality.

Living without a schedule for a couple of weeks has been relaxing. We enjoyed lazy mornings and unstructured days. Without setting out to do it, this break also became a ‘get fit’ holiday. The weather was depressing here in Sweden; no white Christmas for us. Given that we’re so far north that also means that it is dark and the rainy grey weather really hasn’t helped. But the relatively warm weather was good for getting us out for regular runs. I’m hoping we can continue regular exercise as the semester gears up but I know that it will be harder when balancing few daylight hours, commuting and working.

Academia is a funny place for schedules. Although when you are teaching there is little flexibility for those hours and as the semester gets back under way departmental seminars and meetings start to fill up your schedule, much of our time is quite flexible. There are lots of demands on that time but how you arrange it is often up to you. As a grad student, I used to be much more irregular in my working time, working early or late as it suited. Now with the twin pressures of a commuting schedule and daycare opening hours, my schedule is pretty much set each day. That always makes it challenging to get back in the rhythm after some time away. So this week we all face the challenge of getting back into the regular routine.

How scheduled are your days? Whether you took real holidays or just got away from the scheduled pressures of the semester this break, how do you get back into the routine? I always find that it takes me a bit to get back to being efficient and productive after setting things aside. So I usually tackle small tasks and try to cross off as many things off of a to do list as possible to get me back into work. It helps me feel productive and get a handle on what needs to be done. My first day back includes really reading the review from our recently rejected paper and seeing what to change before submitting elsewhere, pursuing a few papers for a meeting about potential collaborations later this week, finishing up commenting on a student’s work, writing a few emails to collaborators and planning more seriously for the coming days. I’m off to North America in less than two weeks so that should give me just enough time to get back into the swing of things before completely throwing off my schedule again!

Coming out of the closet, tenure denial edition

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With a bit of CV forensics, you can infer a lot about the career of an academic.

One potential indicator of tenure denial is employment as an Assistant Professor for seven years, not immediately followed by an Associate Professorship. An astute person mulling over my CV would notice this.

I don’t hide this fact, but I don’t advertise it either. It’s no secret, by any means.

Volunteering this fact comes with some serious baggage. It’s not like I was denied at Harvard, where denial is the default expectation. In my last job, tenure denial was a rarity. You had to really botch it to get denied. While I had some high-performing colleagues, I also had one colleague who was tenured despite not publishing anything after getting hired. Others moved successfully through the system even though they were notably ineffective in the classroom. Even though the bar was low, I didn’t make it over.

The standard of line of thought must be that I really sucked at my job, or I must have been a major jerk. It’s difficult to argue against that reasoning.

Tenure denial is a failure. Tenure denial can be caused by poor professional performance, poor navigation of politics, or by personal faults. I would bet that, if any of you called up my former colleagues who were involved in the process, that their explanation might be evenly split among the three possible causes, and maybe a trifecta of all three.

The experience of tenure denial is extraordinarily difficult. It’s painful and lonely. There is a mixture of grief and loss, often heavily salted with injustice. Take the angst involved in the path towards a tenure-track position, and mix in six more years of effort. Then, top that with your spouse’s career and bake in your personal finances. It’s hard to describe, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

How, exactly, did this happen? I actually have already explained it elsewhere. Throughout my terminal year, I shared the story over a series of four installments in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I wrote a follow-up column a few years later, as I was waiting to hear the tenure decision at my current institution. Here are the links:

Part 1, October 2006: No warning signs

Part 2: November 2006: A way out of this mess

Part 3: February 2007: Reviving my career

Part 4: May 2007: A fresh start

Part 5, February 2010: Life after tenure denial

[update, Part 6: January 2014: Tenure denial, seven years later]

I also have another installment in the works, which I’ll probably publish later on this site. I have learned some new lessons, and new facts, since the 2010 installment. [update: here is that installment]

These articles were published pseudonymously. Obviously, at the time it would have been unwise to discuss my job search process in real time under my real name, especially in my delicate position. (The only fact that I altered in the columns was that I switched the gender of a couple individuals.) Because I didn’t use my own name, the reach of those articles might have been limited. If I want to make a bigger difference by having written these articles, then connecting my real name to them might create a better understanding because I don’t have to obscure any details about myself.

There are pluses and minuses about coming out. I’ll have detractors who claim that I deserved what I got. Others might think that I fabricated or exaggerated details. Others might think that I’m oblivious to my ample flaws. Still others might think that this fact explains more than it does. I’ll have to deal with those things, because the benefits of coming out are great. There are plenty of people who are looking for a new tenure-track job after tenure denial, but there’s little information to be found from those who have gone through the process. I think those going through this process might benefit from some of the details about the things that worked and didn’t work out for me. (They also might see some hope in my happy ending, which at the outset I never could have foreseen.)

I am, admittedly, more fond of my current job than my last one. I don’t think this difference is caused by my nasty experience, but could reflect that I am genuinely a better fit for my current job. The sources of great pleasure in my current job were scarce in my old job, and the things that I dislike about my current job were in far greater supply at my old job.

So, have at it. If you wish to leave comments about this story, I do recommend that you read the five columns to which I have linked.

Grabbing the brass ring

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Many moons ago, I wrote some friends and colleagues to let them know I was starting a tenure-track position. One of them wrote back to congratulate me on “grabbing the brass ring.”

Grabbing the brass ring involves far more luck than skill. I know this from experience.

Have you ever grabbed the brass ring? I mean, actually, a real brass ring. Do you know the origin of the phrase?

There’s a gorgeous carousel in San Diego’s Balboa Park, more than a hundred years old, with most of the original parts intact. I’ve rode this carousel on occasion. This is one of relatively few places that still runs the classic ‘brass ring game’ that used to be a common feature of carousels.

If you ride on the outside row of the carousel, then you have the opportunity to reach out and grab at an apparatus that delivers metal rings. Most of these rings are made of iron or steel. If you grab a one of those rings , then you can just toss it at a target. But if you grab the brass ring, you get a free ride. At least, that’s the prize in Balboa Park. It takes a little bit of effort and dexterity to grab the ring. You’re going by pretty quickly, and you’ve got to hook your finger in just the right spot. But it’s mostly about being at the right place at the right time. There are lots of riders who grab rings on the carousel. It’s not that difficult if you’re trying to do so and you ride several times. So, when you get the brass ring, it’s mostly luck that you happened to be there when it came down.

I used to think that “grabbing the brass ring” was a phrase that referred to some kind of prize or some kind of achievement. And it is, but for anybody attempting to grab it, whether or not you get it is mostly luck. If you keep riding the carousel, then odds are you’ll grab a ring.

This is a germane analogy for the academic job market. Of course, some people are far more likely to get offers than others, based on their application materials. But once the short list gets drafted, well, everybody’s on a horse in that carousel, and someone’s going to grab the brass ring. There are lots of things that can affect the timing of when that brass ring is dropped, but it’s not under the control of the person riding the carousel horse.

Why I knit (and give thanks)

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I am Canadian, and living in Sweden, I often get comments suggesting that I’m really American (North American, true but somewhere along the line the United States took over the term ‘American’). So, although I know that I am very similar to my American neighbours in many ways, I always bristle a bit at being called an American (probably the one unifying trait of Canadians!). One small thing I could never wrap my head around was American Thanksgiving. I lived in the US for 5 years, so that was 5 Thanksgivings to get used to the idea. But still it always came as a surprise (4-days off work, now?) and I rarely had plans like everyone else seemed to because the date wasn’t engrained on my mental landscape. And it is not like Canadians are foreign to the idea of Thanksgiving… But as a grad student it was often a time to catch my breath during the semester and I usually didn’t leave town or doing anything big.

It is work as usual today in Sweden but Thanksgiving talk on facebook, twitter and whatnot has got me thinking about taking a moment and catching my breath.

As a scientist, a mother to a young child, partner to an also busy man, it is easy to forget to take moments to reflect. I know I’m happier when I do, but that doesn’t mean I always manage it. I like the tradition of taking time to gather your friends and family and remember what you are thankful for. Whenever I take a moment, I realise how much I am truly thankful for.

So Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends! Hope you have a lovely one this year.

As I was thinking of taking a moment to ground yourself and in my case this fall, just calm the f*ck down (interviews, rejections, and other stressors), I starting thinking about on what helps me actually do that. For me, it isn’t surprising given my ecology leaning that being in nature is a good way to restore balance. With our recently purchased row house, I’m also rediscovering the meditation of gardening (although that is mostly come to an end for the season). Exercise always helps. But I also find cooking/baking calming and I’ve always loved to make things with my hands. I come from a crafty family and I have a whole closet full of supplies for beading, sewing and knitting.

In all of this, I started thinking about knitting more and why I do it.

What does knitting have to do with ecology or academics? On the surface, maybe not so much. I happen to do both, so maybe I see connections that few would. Strangely enough, knitting and science came hand in hand for me. When I started my masters program, there was a knitting group starting up. I went out and got some random wool and needles and showed up. One fun discovery was that my hands remembered the motion of knitting learned and quickly abandoned around age 10. I don’t think I ever even finished a scarf then but I guess I did it enough to learn the skill.

Since my knitting has developed along side my science career, the two are loosely linked for me. Here is my semi-random list of what I have learned from knitting and how it applies (in my mind at least) to ecology/academia.

The big picture. It is pretty easy to get caught up in the details of a project. It is only through keeping the big picture in mind that you can troubleshoot along the way and end up with something useful.

Seeking patterns. Now this might mean different things in ecology and knitting but ultimately in both I find that I spend a lot of time collecting information on patterns. In both it is good to know when it is time to stop seeking (reading the literature, etc) and start doing. Research is good but you’ll never have that scarf if you don’t start it. The same applies with a study, experiment or whatever.

Be willing to tear it all apart. Once you’ve constructed a sweater, it would be nice to say, ok, it is done; the same with a manuscript. In both cases, I have had times where things just didn’t fit or weren’t working as I wanted. Whether that means unraveling a sweater or completely reworking an introduction, you need to be able to both accept when it isn’t working and be willing to take it apart to make it better.

Creativity is important. Sure you can always follow someone else’s pattern but some of the best projects are often those that modify an existing pattern. Build on what others have learned but do something new with it. This philosophy works for my knitting and my research.

There is beauty everywhere. Even the most simple, functional items can have a beauty to them. The world around us is a beautiful place. If I pay attention to that beauty, of a well-constructed garment or a weed in a crack in the sidewalk, I tend to be happier and more grounded. In all the hard work (and sometimes frustration) that goes into a project, sometimes it is easy to forget the beauty of it. There is beauty in understanding the world, even the small piece of it that I study. As much as knitting reminds me to keep the big picture/end product in mind, it also helps me appreciate the small things.

Mistakes are common and ok. It’s life. Some mistakes require big fixes but others you need to just let go. Sure it is a lofty goal to make something without mistakes (slipped stitches, typos, …), it is important to remember that we all make them and learn from them. Learning to let go of perfection is important, otherwise the expectation of perfection can be crippling. Although I do admit to cringing at the typos I have missed in a publication.

Everything gets easier with practice. I can now knit simple patterns without constantly looking at the work and there are so many skills that I’ve picked up along the way in my career. Skills all start out slow and awkwardly but with practise can become automatic. It is good to remember that when facing down that new challenge. Maybe someday I’ll try a more complicated colour work pattern (such as Fair Isle) and then there is that spectrophotometer I’ve just order for the lab…

Ultimately, I find knitting calming. It helps clear my mind and lets me feel productive when I just want to shut down my brain. There is something very soothing about being able to directly observe my progress as well. Unlike science, when I learn a knitting technique or stitch or whatever, I can see the results right away. The progress of a project is visible rather than abstract. Sometimes it is nice to have that to contrast the ephemeral accomplishments in science.

What are the things you do to calm down and remind yourself of what you are thankful for?

Are you a fighter? A women in science post.

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Earlier this fall, I had an interview for a tenure-track job here in Sweden. I didn’t get the job, which was of course disappointing, but that isn’t really why I am writing here. The interview process was stressful and it is tough sitting in front of a panel addressing their questions one after another. It feels a bit like everything about you is on trial. I was prepared to answer tough questions about my work, how I would function in the department, as an advisor, etc. But there was one single question that really threw me: ‘Are you a fighter?’

In the interview, my mental response was basically WTF? It felt like a gender-specific question—are you one of those women who will just trying to please everyone and do as you are told or are you a fighter? Now to be fair, I’m pretty sure the question was asked to see how I would respond and I heard the other candidates had a similar kind of experience. Regardless of the reason, the fact that such a question could be construed as gender-specific was disturbing to me.* It pushed a button because I realised that I am a fighter and what is more I have had to be to get where I am.

I have been incredibly fortunate in my scientific career. I’ve had great, if sometimes difficult, relationships with my mentors and advisors. But really, I’ve had lots of support throughout. I also have not experienced any direct sexual harassment in a professional context. So, in that sense, science has been a safe place for me. This fall, twitter and the blogosphere are showing that this is not the case for many (one summary), which is unfortunately not at all surprising (wouldn’t say I’ve lived a harassment-free life). I have been deeply saddened by the revelations about race and gender and sexual harassment. I truly applaud the bravery of the women who are speaking out because I know first-hand how tough that can be. But I’ve been quiet about my own feelings, in part because I haven’t had my own experiences to share.

Unfortunately, there has been another development recently with an inappropriate/offensive joke video where Einstein is seen sexually harassing Curie. If you are not a part of the “online science community”, you’re probably sheltered from these discussions. Being pretty new to blogging and twitter myself, I’ve felt mostly like an outsider—I haven’t been directly affected by what’s happening and I haven’t known any of the players. But all the events have got me thinking about many aspects of privilege and gender.

Of course there have been times where I wonder how my gender plays a role in where I am. Have I been passed over for opportunities because I am female? Have I been asked/hired/etc because I’m female? These doubts can play a role in undermining who we are as women and scientists. Follow #ripplesofdoubt on Twitter to see how pervasive this can be and #ripplesofhope to see positive reflections on change.

Although I haven’t faced direct discrimination, there have been situations where my gender has been at the forefront:

  • On not getting a talk award (think it was meant to be consoling): “Men are more convincing because they have deeper voices and sound more confident. Your voice is too high.”
  • An off-handed comment about having met with someone in a professional context: “He does like talking to the ladies.”
  • Or undermining responses course evaluations about my appearance rather than my teaching.
  • Or those times I’ve watched younger students/mentees turn to a male colleague to seek answers/approval.
  • Or having your male colleagues worry they don’t have a chance at a job because they are male and thereby implying that you have a leg up because of your gender.
  • Or that time I was talking to a high profile evolutionary biologist and I mentioned my daughter as one reason for not staying on in my PhD to do more experiments. The response “Can you publish that?” immediately told me that I wasn’t in a safe place and reminded me that I could be judged for considering anything other than the science when making decisions.

But like many women, I have tended to shrug these incidents off. I haven’t wanted to be too sensitive, and too, well, female. So I pretend that the comments don’t matter and they don’t affect me. But of course they do. Although these are subtle forms of suggesting that I don’t belong or aren’t good enough, they are a part of what many of us experience.

One positive thing that has come out in the last few months has been that people have begun to speak up. I have come to realise that I need to make more effort to do the same. Although it is tough, it is important to speak up both for myself and for other women. Ignoring and internalizing comments changes nothing. We all need to be allies. I’ve been encouraged by the efforts to be positive and change things for the better (e.g., see here for lots of good ideas on supporting other women). Science is a tough gig; it’s what drives many of us. But I hope we can all move towards a more inclusive place where we support each other regardless of race, gender, age, size, hair cut, clothing, family….. Hopefully discussions surrounding causal and not so causal sexism/harassment can help us all get there.

At the interview, when asked if I was a fighter I was thrown off. I was mad and I struggled to regain my footing in the interview. I highly doubt that it cost me the job but I left the interview unsettled.

The next time someone asks me whether I’m a fighter, I know what I’ll say: I am a scientist. I am a woman. I’m here. Of course I am a fighter, what else could I be?**

Post script: writing about sexual harassment and discrimination while simultaneously watching cartoons is both very strange and comforting at the same time. I’m home with my sick 4-year old daughter and being with her reminds me part of why I want to do my bit to change things for the better.

 

*When discussing questions afterwards with two male collaborators who where also interviewing, we were able to match most of the things we were asked, except they were not asked if they were fighters.

**I think that men also face some of the same struggles in academia. You have to have a bit of fight in you to stay in this game.

Journal prestige and publishing from a teaching institution

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Finally. There are journals publishing quality peer-reviewed research, but leave it to the reader to decide whether a paper is sexy or important. Shouldn’t this be better than letting a few editors and reviewers reject work based on whether they personally think that a paper is important or significant?

This newish type of journal uses editors and reviewers to assure quality and accuracy. The biggie is PLoS ONE. A newer one on the block is PeerJ. Another one asked me to shill for them on this site.

The last few years have seen a relatively quick shift in scientific publishing models, and there has been a great upheaval in journals in which some new ones have become relatively prestigious (e.g., Ecology Letters) and some well-established journals have experienced a decline in relative rank (e.g., American Journal of Botany). These hierarchies have a great effect on researchers publishing from small ponds.

Publishing in selective journals is required to establish legitimacy. This is true for everybody. Because researchers in small teaching institutions are inherently legitimacy-challenged, then this is the population that most heavily relies on this mechanism of legitimacy.

Researchers in teaching institutions don’t have a mountain of time for research. Just think about all of the time that could be spent on genuine research, instead of time wasted in the mill of salesmanship that is required to publish in selective journals. (I also find that pitching research as a theory-of-the-moment to be one of the most annoying parts of the business.)

With new journals that verify quality but not the sexiness, we can hop off the salesmanship game and just get stuff published. Sounds great, right?

After all, the research that takes place at teaching institutions can be of high quality and significant within our fields. But, on average, we just don’t publish as much. That makes sense because our employers expect us to focus on teaching above all else.

Since we’re less productive, then every paper counts. We want to get our research out there, but we also need to make sure that every paper represents us well. What we lack for in quantity, we need to make up for in (perceived) quality.

How do people assess research quality? The standard measure is the selectivity of the journal that publishes the paper. It’s natural to think that a paper in American Naturalist (impact factor 4.7) is going to be higher quality than American Midland Naturalist (impact factor 0.6).

People make these judgments all the time. It might not be fair, but it’s normal.

And no matter how dumb people say it might be, no matter how many examples are brought up, assessments of ‘journal quality’ aren’t going away. No matter how much altmetrics picks up as another highly flawed measure of research quality, the name of the journal that publishes a paper really matters. That isn’t changing anytime soon.

The effect of paper on the research community is tied to the prestige of the venue, as well as the prestige of the authors. Fame matters. If any researcher – including those of us at teaching institutions – wants to build an influential research program, we’ve got to build up a personal reputation for high quality research.

Building a reputation for high quality research is not easy at all, but it’s even harder while based at a teaching institution. Just like having a paper in a prestigious journal is supposed to be an indicator of quality research, a faculty position at a well-known research institution is supposed to be an indicator of a quality researcher. Since our institutional affiliations aren’t contributing to our research prestige, we need to make the most of the circumstances to establish the credibility and status of the work that comes out of our labs.

If journal hierarchies didn’t exist, it would be really hard for researchers in lesser-known institutions, who may not publish frequently, to readily convince others that their work is of high quality. Good work doesn’t get cited just because it’s good. It needs to be read first. And work in non-prestigious journals may simply go unread if the author isn’t already well known.

If journal hierarchies somehow faded, it’s not as if the perception of research quality would evolve into some perfect meritocracy. There are lots of conscious and unconscious biases, aside from quality, that affect whether or not work gets into a fancy-pants journal, but it is true that people without a fancy-pants background still can publish in elite venues based on the quality of their work. This means that people without an elite background can gain a high profile based on merit, though they do need to persevere though the biases working against them.

If journals themselves merely published work but without any prestige associated with them, then it would be even more difficult for people without well-connected networks to have their work read and cited. It wouldn’t democratize access to science; it would inherently favor the scientists with great connections. At least now, the decisions of a small number of editors and reviewers can put science from an obscure venue into a position where a large audience will see it. On the other hand, publishing in a journal without any prestige, like PLoS ONE, will allow work to be available to a global audience, but actually read by very few.

If I want my work to be read by ecologists, then publishing it in a perfectly good journal like Oikos will garner me more readers than if I publish it in PLoS ONE. Moreover, people will look at the Oikos paper and realize that at some point in its life, there was a set of reviewers and an editor who agreed that the paper was not only of high quality but also interesting or sexy enough to be accepted. It wasn’t just done well, but it’s also useful or important to the field. That can’t necessarily be said of all PLoS ONE papers.

Not that long ago, I thought that these journals lacking the exclusivity factor were a great thing because it allowed everybody equal access to research. What changed my mind? The paper that I chose to place in PLoS ONEI chose to put a paper that I was really excited about in this journal. It was a really neat discovery, and should lead to a whole new line of inquiry. (Also, the editorial experience was great, the reviewers were very exacting but even-handed, and the handling editor was top notch.)

Since that paper has come out just over a year ago, there have been a number of new papers on this or a closely related topic. But my paper has not been cited yet, even though it really should have been cited. Meanwhile they’re citing my older, far less interesting and useful, paper on the same topic from 2002.

Why has nobody cited the more recent paper? Either people think that it’s not relevant, not high enough quality, or they never found it. (Heck, the blog post about it has been seen more times than the paper itself.) Maybe people found it and then didn’t read it because of the journal. It’s really a goddamn great paper. And it’s getting ignored because I put in PLoS ONE. I have very little doubt that if I chose to put it in a specialized venue like Insectes Sociaux or Myrmecological News, both good journals that are read by social insect biologists, that it would be read more heavily and have been cited at least a few times. This paper could have been in an even higher profile journal, because it’s so frickin’ awesome, but I chose to put it in PLoS ONE. Oh well, I’ve learned my lesson. There are some papers in that venue that get very highly cited, but I think most things in there just get lost.

I would love for people to judge a paper based on the quality of its content rather than the name of the journal. But most people don’t do this. And I’m not going to choose to publish in a venue that may lead people to think that the work isn’t interesting or groundbreaking even before they have chosen to (not) read it. I’ll admit to not placing myself on the front of reform in scientific publishing, even if I make all of my papers immediately and universally available. I have to admit that I’m apt to select a moderately selective venue when possible, because I am concerned that people see my research as not only legitimate but also worthwhile. I’m not worried that my stuff isn’t quite good, but I want to make sure it’s not done in vain. Science is a social enterprise, and as a working scientist I need to put my work into the conversation.

Inequality in computer science curricula

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This is a guest post by Lirael.

I’m a PhD student in computer science at a university where most of the undergrads come from pretty affluent, educationally privileged backgrounds (as I did myself, back in my undergrad days).  I’m a teaching assistant and/or tutor for a couple of different programs that we have for students who are not from such backgrounds.  One is for students who are motivated but have been educationally disadvantaged in some way (whether this was poverty, major illness in high school, an unstable housing situation, war in their home country, or any other life circumstance that would have left them at a disadvantage in their schooling), who take catch-up classes as a cohort and get extensive advising in order to prepare them for a full undergrad program.  The other is for students who are first-generation college students or who come from families with incomes below 150% of the poverty line, and gives them free tutoring, extensive advising, career prep, and leadership development.  Some students are in both programs.  Neither program is exclusively for students of color or poor students, but in practice, most of my students are both.

Computer science has unusual status compared to most science, social science, and humanities programs, because so many people associate it so strongly with a quick and direct path to good jobs.  There is some truth to this association – when I graduated from college at 22 and started my first industry job, I had a salary that put me in the top 20% of all US wage earners, plus excellent benefts and good working conditions.  This gives computer science obvious appeal for my students (and for other marginalized groups — I have a friend, a trans woman, who teaches at a program to ecnomically empower other trans people by teaching them to code).  It also makes it very popular at, for example, many community colleges.

My concern, though, is what sort of computer science marginalized and underrepresented groups are learning in the name of economic advantage.

Some community colleges have excellent offerings, of the sort that will prepare their students well for upper-level classes.   In others, the curriculum seems to be dominated by courses that could be described as “How to use a currently-popular technological tool for immediate commercial applications.”  Sometimes they are “Intro to a currently-popular computer language.”  There’s generally a data structures class, but not much else on the more foundational side of CS.  Some four-year departments like this approach too.  The thing is that in the tech world most of these skills and languages are likely to be archaic in a few years – I don’t often see job listings asking for people who know Pascal or BASIC or who can hand-write websites in HTML or make an eye-catching GeoCities site, all of which were in the currently-popular category when I was in high school.  The CS programs, much more than, say, the biology or history programs, stress the idea that this is vocational training.  Again, I don’t want to imply that every community college or state non-flagship is doing this, but I have noticed that plenty do, especially community colleges.

At schools where the idea that learning specific current tools = employability doesn’t drive the curriculum quite so hard –- which includes affluent schools with affluent student bodies — students focus on subjects like AI, algorithms, operating systems, robotics, computational biology, distributed computing, software design.  They learn specific currently-popular skills in class projects or paid industry internships where they apply, say, AI to creating Android apps, or software design to creating a new video game.  They don’t seem to have a problem getting good tech jobs after they graduate.  Meanwhile, if a student from a vocationally-focused school wants to transfer to a prestigious one, will they be prepared for the classes at the new school?  Will their credits from the vocationally-focused classes transfer?

Are there tech jobs where hiring managers care mostly that applicants have a list of buzzword Skills O’ the Day, and will seriously consider candidates whose whole CS education is an associate’s degree?  Yep.  What kinds of tech jobs, in general, are those?  The crappy tech jobs.  The code monkey jobs.  The ones that pay less.  The ones with less prestige and less respect.  The ones that get outsourced to developing countries.

I think it’s incredibly important that people be able to get jobs after they graduate from college.  It’s often more important for students from poor or working-class backgrounds, who don’t have family money to fall back on if they don’t get a job right away, so I understand why schools with many such students would be very concerned about employability.  But I worry that focus on vocational training will ironically lead to less employability, and less upward mobility, for the people who need it the most.  I also worry that increased focus on college as preparation for the workforce, which has had consequences already for the humanities and social sciences, will push computer science in the direction of vocational training.

I am not saying that there should be no vocational focus at all in computer science (indeed, some affluent schools have been criticized for not having enough of one) only that there needs to be balance.  The course that I TA is an intro to computer science course focused on game design.  Students learn basic computing and engineering concepts along with skills like how to create their own webpage and how to use game-creation software.  I make a point of talking about how they can use what they’re learning in other fields, like biology or public health or economics, as well, since after all not all of them want to go into computer science.  My hope is that they’ll get something out of it no matter what field they go into, and that if they do want to continue in computer science, they’ll be well-prepared to do so.

Collected observations from travels among universities

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Invited seminars and job interviews offer a unique opportunity to learn (and remember) what grad school is like and how universities work. You get to have a lot of intentional sit-down conversations on a wide variety of topics. Spending time meeting new people and learning new stuff rocks. And when you chat with other people about themselves, and their work, labs and universities, you have a chance to put your own way of doing things in perspective.

I’ve had a few such opportunities in the past month. There were a number of recurring conversational themes and undercurrents. During these visits, you get to have conversations to learn not just about all kinds of research, but about how people chose the directions that led to their current trajectories. And, you often learn about how personal lives shape our research directions and priorities, both by design and by hap.

Here are some of the highlights. None of these observations are shocking news by any measure. But I was struck by the obviousness of these ideas and the frequency with which they emerged, even when I wasn’t looking for them:

  • Research universities are no longer primarily oriented towards training excellent scientists. They are now primarily oriented towards teaching students how to publish and to get grants. If a grad student develops the desire to become an excellent practitioner of science, this is probably going to emerge from the undergraduate experience.
  • Anybody currently building a future in the quantitative sciences needs to learn how to write code to promote their own research success. Being able to manage and analyze super-duper huge datasets (bioinformatics) is really useful.
  • High quantity data will never be a substitute for high quality data.
  • People need to get off their goddamn phones.
  • Genomics is now at the point when all flavors of biologists are in a practical position to figure out heritable mechanisms accounting for phenomena involving organisms in nature. For many kinds of questions, any species can now be a model system.
  • Most ecological theories are ephemeral, and are either myopic or wrong. The parenting of popular, ephemeral and myopic theories is the prevailing route to success.
  • It’s difficult to maintain the presence of mind to recognize the power of one’s own authority.
  • In ecology and evolutionary biology, women fall out of academic careers most heavily in the transition phase between from Ph.D. to faculty. Lots of parties are at fault, but the ones that seem to be the most significant are some senior faculty (of both genders) and some spouses. Deans have many opportunities to proactively make positive changes, but that rarely happens.
  • The number of students who want to do serious, long-term, field biology in the service of contemporary research questions has sharply declined. This limits our potential to answer some major wide open questions in biology.
  • Universities that maintain a strong faculty actively keep their professors from going on the market in search of greener pastures. Universities would not lose valued faculty members as often as they do, if they actually supported faculty commensurate with the degree to which they are valued. Once someone is driven to look for a new faculty job on the market, then it’s impossible to not take a great offer seriously, even when there are many good reasons to not move.
  • The beauty of life – both in biodiversity and our relations with fellow humans – is immense beyond words. Humanity might be ugly, but people are gorgeous.

A snapshot of the publication cycle

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I was recently asked:

Q: How do you decide what project you work on?

A: I work on the thing that is most exciting at the moment. Or the one I feel most bad about.

In the early stages, the motivator is excitement, and in the end, the motivator is guilt. (If I worked in a research institution, I guess an additional motivator would be fear.)

Don’t get me wrong: I do science because it’s tremendous fun. But the last part – finessing a manuscript through the final stages – isn’t as fun as the many other pieces. How do I keep track of the production line from conception to publication, and how do I make sure that things keep rolling?

At the top center of my computer desktop lives a document entitled “manuscript progress.” I consult this file when I need to figure out what to work on, which could involve doing something myself or perhaps pestering someone else to get something done.

In this document are three categories:

  1. Manuscript completed
  2. Paper in progress
  3. In development projects

Instead of writing about the publication cycle in the abstract, I thought it might be more illustrative to explain what is in each category at this moment. (It might be perplexing, annoying or overbearing, too. I guess I’m taking that chance.) My list is just that – a list. Here, I amplify to describe how the project was placed on the treadmill and how it’s moving along, or not moving along. I won’t bore those of you with the details of ecology, myrmecology or tropical biology, and I’m not naming names. But you can get the gist.

Any “Student” is my own student – and a “Collaborator” is anybody outside my own institution with whom I’m working, including grad students in other labs. A legend to the characters is at the end.

Manuscript completed

Paper A: Just deleted from this list right now! Accepted a week ago, the page proofs just arrived today! The idea for this project started as the result of a cool and unexpected natural history observation by Student A in 2011. Collaborator A joined in with Student B to do the work on this project later that summer. I and Collab A worked on the manuscript by email, and I once took a couple days to visit Collab A at her university in late 2011 to work together on some manuscripts. After that, it was in Collab A’s hands as first author and she did a rockin’ job (DOI:10.1007/s00114-013-1109-3).

Paper B: I was brought in to work with Collab B and Collab C on a part of this smallish-scale project using my expertise on ants. I conducted this work with Student C in my lab last year and the paper is now in review in a specialized regional journal (I think).

Paper C: This manuscript is finished but not-yet-submitted work by a student of Collab D, which I joined in by doing the ant piece of the project. This manuscript requires some editing, and I owe the other authors my remarks on it. I realize that I promised remarks about three months ago, and it would take only an hour or two, so I should definitely do my part! However, based on my conversations, I’m pretty sure that I’m not holding anything up, and I’m sure they’d let me know if I was. I sure hope so, at least.

Paper D: The main paper out of Student A’s MS thesis in my lab. This paper was built with from Collab E and Collab F and Student D. Student A wrote the paper, I did some fine-tuning, and it’s been on a couple rounds of rejections already. I need to turn it around again, when I have the opportunity. There isn’t anything in the reviews that actually require a change, so I just need to get this done.

Paper E: Collab A mentored Student H in a field project in 2011 at my field site, on a project that was mostly my idea but refined by Collab A and Student H. The project worked out really well, and I worked on this manuscript the same time as Paper A. I can’t remember if it’s been rejected once or not yet submitted, but either way it’s going out soon. I imagine it’ll come to press sometime in the next year.

Manuscripts in Progress

Paper F: Student D conducted the fieldwork in the summer of 2012 on this project, which grew out of a project by student A. The data are complete, and the specific approach to writing the paper has been cooked up with Student D and myself, and now I need to do the full analysis/figures for the manuscript before turning it off to StudentD to finish. She is going away for another extended field season in a couple months, and so I don’t know if I’ll get to it by then. If I do, then we should submit the paper in months. If I don’t, it’ll be by the end of 2014, which is when Student D is applying to grad schools.

Paper G: Student B conducted fieldwork in the summer of 2012 on a project connected to a field experiment set up by Collab C. I spent the spring of 2013 in the lab finishing up the work, and I gave a talk on it this last summer. It’s a really cool set of data though I haven’t had the chance to work it up completely. I contacted Collab G to see if he had someone in his lab that wanted to join me in working on it. Instead, he volunteered himself and we suckered our pal Collab H to join us in on it. The analyses and writing should be straightforward, but we actually need to do it and we’re all committed to other things at the moment. So, now I just need to make the dropbox folder to share the files with those guys and we can take the next step. I imagine it’ll be done somewhere between months to years from now, depending on how much any one of us pushes.

Paper H: So far, this one has been just me. It was built on a set of data that my lab has accumulated over few projects and several years. It’s a unique set of data to ask a long-standing question that others haven’t had the data to approach. The results are cool, and I’m mostly done with them, and the manuscript just needs a couple more analyses to finish up the paper. I, however, have continued to be remiss in my training in newly emerged statistical software. So this manuscript is either waiting for myself to learn the software, or for a collaborator or student eager to take this on and finish up the manuscript. It could be somewhere between weeks to several years from now.

Paper I: I saw a very cool talk by someone a meeting in 2007, which was ripe to be continued into a more complete project, even though it was just a side project. After some conversations, this project evolved into a collaboration, with Student E to do fieldwork in summer 2008 and January 2009. We agreed that Collab I would be first author, Student E would be second author and I’d be last author. The project is now ABM (all but manuscript), and after communicating many times with Collab I over the years, I’m still waiting for the manuscript. A few times I indicated that I would be interested in writing up our half on our own for a lower-tier journal. It’s pretty much fallen off my radar and I don’t see when I’ll have time to write it up. Whenever I see my collaborator he admits to it as a source of guilt and I offer absolution. It remains an interesting and timely would-be paper and hopefully he’ll find the time to get to it. However, being good is better than being right, and I don’t want to hound Collab I because he’s got a lot to do and neither one of us really needs the paper. It is very cool, though, in my opinion, and it’d be nice for this 5-year old project to be shared with the world before it rots on our hard drives. He’s a rocking scholar with a string of great papers, but still, he’s in a position to benefit from being first author way more myself, so I’ll let this one sit on his tray for a while longer. This is a cool enough little story, though, that I’m not going to forget about it and the main findings will not be scooped, nor grow stale, with time.

Paper J: This is a review and meta-analysis that I have been wanting to write for a few years now, which I was going to put into a previous review, but it really will end up standing on its own. I am working with a Student F to aggregate information from a disparate literature. If the student is successful, which I think is likely, then we’ll probably be writing this paper together over the next year, even as she is away doing long-term field research in a distant land.

Paper K: At a conference in 2009, I saw a grad student present a poster with a really cool result and an interesting dataset that came from the same field station as myself. This project was built on an intensively collected set of samples from the field, and those same samples, if processed for a new kind of lab analysis, would be able to test a new question. I sent Student G across the country to the lab of this grad student (Collab J) to process these samples for analysis. We ran the results, and they were cool. To make these results more relevant, the manuscript requires a comprehensive tally of related studies. We decided that this is the task of Student G. She has gotten the bulk of it done over the course of the past year, and should be finishing in the next month or two, and then we can finish writing our share of this manuscript. Collab J has followed through on her end, but, as it’s a side project for both of us, neither of us are in a rush and the ball’s in my court at the moment. I anticipate that we’ll get done with this in a year or two, because I’ll have to analyze the results from Student G and put them into the manuscript, which will be first authored by Collab J.

Paper L: This is a project by Student I, as a follow-up to the project of Student H in paper E, conducted in the summer of 2013. The data are all collected, and a preliminary analysis has been done, and I’m waiting for Student I to turn these data into both a thesis and a manuscript.

Paper M: This is a project by Student L, building on prior projects that I conducted on my own. Fieldwork was conducted in the summer of 2012, and it is in the same place as Paper K, waiting for the student to convert it into a thesis and a manuscript.

Paper N: This was conducted in the field in summer 2013 as a collaboration between Student D and Student N. The field component was successful and now requires me to do about a month’s worth of labwork to finish up the project, as the nature of the work makes it somewhere between impractical and unfeasible to train the students to do themselves. I was hoping to do it this fall, to use these data not just for a paper but also preliminary data for a grant proposal in January, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do it until the spring 2014, which would mean the paper would get submitted in Fall 2014 at the earliest, or maybe 2015. This one will be on the frontburner because Students D and N should end up in awesome labs for grad school and having this paper in press should enhance their applications.

Paper O: This project was conducted in the field in summer 2013, and the labwork is now in the hands of Student O, who is doing it independently, as he is based out of an institution far away from my own and he has the skill set to do this. I need to continue communicating with this student to make sure that it doesn’t fall off the radar or doesn’t get done right.

Paper P: This project is waiting to get published from an older collaborative project, a large multi-PI biocomplexity endeavor at my fieldstation. I had a postdoc for one year on this project, and she published one paper from the project but as she moved on, left behind a number of cool results that I need to write up myself. I’ve been putting this off because it would rely on me also spending some serious lab time doing a lot of specimen identifications to get this integrative project done right. I’ve been putting it off for a few years, and I don’t see that changing, unless I am on a roll from the work for Paper N and just keep moving on in the lab.

Paper Q: A review and meta-analysis that came out of a conversation with Collabs K and L. I have been co-teaching field courses with Collab K a few times, and we share a lot of viewpoints about this topic that go against the incorrect prevailing wisdom, so we thought we’d do something about it. This emerged in the context of a discussion with L. I am now working with Student P to help systematically collect data for this project, which I imagine will come together over the next year or two, depending on how hard the pushing comes from myself or K or L. Again it’s a side project for all of us, so we’ll see. The worst case scenario is that we’ll all see one another again next summer and presumably pick things up from there. Having my student generating data is might keep the engine running.

Paper R: This is something I haven’t thought about in a year or so. Student A, in the course of her project, was able to collect samples and data in a structured fashion that could be used with the tools developed by Collab M and a student working with her. This project is in their hands, as well as first and lead authorship, so we’ve done our share and are just waiting to hear back. There have been some practical problem on their side, that we can’t control, and they’re working to get around it.

Paper S: While I was working with Collab N on an earlier paper in the field in 2008, a very cool natural history observation was made that could result in an even cooler scientific finding. I’ve brought in Collab O to do this part of the work, but because of some practical problems (the same as in Paper R, by pure coincidence) this is taking longer than we thought and is best fixed by bringing in the involvement of a new potential collaborator who has control over a unique required resource. I’ve been lagging on the communication required for this part of the project. After I do the proper consultation, if it works out, we can get rolling and, if it works, I’d drop everything to write it up because it would be the most awesome thing ever. But, there’s plenty to be done between now and then.

Paper T: This is a project by Student M, who is conducted a local research project on a system entirely unrelated to my own, enrolled in a degree program outside my department though I am serving as her advisor. The field and labwork was conducted in the first half of 2013 – and the potential long-shot result come up positive and really interesting! This one is, also, waiting for the student to convert the work into a thesis and manuscript. You might want to note, by the way, that I tell every Master’s student coming into my lab that I won’t sign off on their thesis until they also produce a manuscript in submittable condition.

Projects in development

These are still in the works, and are so primordial there’s little to say. A bunch of this stuff will happen in summer 2014, but a lot of it won’t, even though all of it is exciting.

Summary

I have a lot of irons in the fire, though that’s not going to keep me from collecting new data and working on new ideas. This backlog is growing to an unsustainable size, and I imagine a genuine sabbatical might help me lighten the load. I’m eligible for a sabbatical but I can’t see taking it without putting a few projects on hold that would really deny opportunities to a bunch of students. Could I have promoted one of these manuscripts from one list to the other instead of writing this post? I don’t think so, but I could have at least made a small dent.

Legend to Students and Collaborators

Student A: Former M.S. student, now entering her 2nd year training to become a D.P.T.; actively and reliably working on the manuscript to make sure it gets published

Student B: Former undergrad, now in his first year in mighty great lab and program for his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Student C: Former undergrad, now in a M.S. program studying disease ecology from a public health standpoint, I think.

Student D: Undergrad still active in my lab

Student E: Former undergrad, now working in biology somewhere

Student F: Former undergrad, working in my lab, applying to grad school for animal behavior

Student G: Former undergrad, oriented towards grad school, wavering between something microbial genetics and microbial ecology/evolution (The only distinction is what kind of department to end up in for grad school.)

Student H: Former undergrad, now in a great M.S. program in marine science

Student I: Current M.S. student

Student L: Current M.S. student

Student M: Current M.S. student

Student N: Current undergrad, applying to Ph.D. programs to study community ecology

Student O: Just starting undergrad at a university on the other side of the country

Student P: Current M.S. student

Collab A: Started collaborating as grad student, now a postdoc in the lab of a friend/colleague

Collab B: Grad student in the lab of Collab C

Collab C: Faculty at R1 university

Collab D: Faculty at a small liberal arts college

Collab E: Faculty at a small liberal arts college

Collab F: International collaborator

Collab G: Faculty at an R1 university

Collab H: Started collaborating as postdoc, now faculty at an R1 university

Collab I: Was Ph.D. student, now faculty at a research institution

Collab J: Ph.D. student at R1 university

Collab K: Postdoc at R1 university, same institution as Collab L

Collab L: Ph.D. student who had the same doctoral PI as Collab A

Collab M: Postdoc at research institution

Collab N: Former Ph.D. student of Collab H.; postdoc at research institution

Collab O: Faculty at a teaching-centered institution similar to my own

By the way, if you’re still interested in this topic, there was also a high-quality post on the same topic on Tenure, She Wrote, using a fruit-related metaphor with some really nice fruit-related photos.

Hittin’ the lecture circuit

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Over the next couple weeks, my show is going on the road!

Tour dates:

  • 18 Oct 2013 – Boulder
  • 28 Oct 2013 – Miami

No tickets required. I am likely to entertain, and there’s a good chance of some enlightenment. There’ll be fun natural history, big questions, medium-sized answers, and a refutation of dogma.

It’s not frequent that a person from a teaching-focused university, like myself, ends up getting invited to give a talk at an R1 institution. It’s not a freak of nature or anything like that either. But if you look at the roster of speakers in most seminar series, it’s usually a roll call of other research universities. So, when you see the roster of the departments hosting me, it tends to look something like this:

Moab sticker

If you think that’s self-deprecating humor or some kind of dig at myself, please look in the mirror. Because Moab rocks. I love being from (the metaphorical) Moab. Clearly, Moab is the outlier, just like California State University Dominguez Hills is an outlier among Stanford, UMass, and the University of Vermont. That’s not a bad thing; I think it’s wonderful.

I just read something written by a professor who just left her job at an R1 university for a job at a Liberal Arts College, in order to solve a 2-body problem, and she is still settling into the new job:

I am learning that folks still define themselves as researchers here.

This shows that there is still plenty of work to be done, when a researcher shows up on campus and doesn’t even realize that her own colleagues are also researchers, and perceive of themselves that way!

One of these days, perhaps, it won’t be so surprising that tenure-track faculty at colleges and universities see themselves as researchers, and that the broader community will recognize the same. The more they invite me, and other research-oriented faculty from teaching institutions, to seminars at R1 universities, this fact should become self-evident to grad students before they leave grad school.

If universities aren’t inviting research-active faculty from teaching institutions as a part of their seminar series, then they are only perpetuating the misrepresentation of the status quo in higher education.

But for the moment, these invites are uncommon, and it provides an extraordinary opportunity to show folks what kind of research happens at my university. I’m excited for the trip because it’s going to blow some folks away how badass my stuff is, and how many of them won’t even see it coming.

I’ve got my work cut out for me, because whether I like it or not, I’m representing a whole class of researchers who do great work in teaching institutions. Even after I give a kickass talk, it’s inevitable that at least a few people will think that I’m punching above my weight. But if I go in with that kind of attitude, then that would only reinforce the false notion that I might have a chip on my shoulder about not coming from a research institution. Am I conscious of the issues face by researchers in teaching institutions and how we are perceived? Of course I am – I started a whole blog about it!

So, I’m just visiting to have fun, hang out with fellow biologists, share what I can, and learn what I can. And if you’re on the front range or on the toenail of the Florida panhandle, then maybe we can chat about your stuff, frontiers in the community ecology of rainforests, and, of course, ants.

More on seminar series tomorrow.

Why give a seminar?

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What is the purpose of an invited seminar?

Everybody wants to give a great seminar. But when the speaker gives the talk, what is the purpose or goal of the talk? What is the speaker trying to accomplish?

The purposes of dissertation defenses and job talks are obvious. However, whenever an invited speaker comes to give a seminar as a part of seminar series, the speaker could show up with many different kinds of priorities and purposes. We all have a variety of motivations that are context-dependent. Visiting speakers have overt and tacit messages that they have designed to be delivered in their slightly-less-than-an-hour timeslots.

Here is a classification of the non-exclusive goals that speakers might seek to accomplish in a seminar.

Build a reputation as an important scholar.  Seminars can be used to help the speakers grow the perception that they, and their work, are important. To some extent the invitation to give the seminar itself is a validation, but the delivery of the talk is required to cement that validation and help people spread work.

Being an alpha.  Some speakers know that they don’t need to build their reputation, but they can use the time allotted to them in a seminar to assert their dominant status. These talks might be used to stake out territory of interest to people working in the institution sponsoring the visit.

Be a beta. If the visiting speakers were invited by more prestigious research groups, then the speakers might choose to demonstrate behavioral submissiveness to the dominant hosts.

Bask in one’s legacy.  Some speakers don’t want to say anything particularly new, but want to use the time to provide an overview of the major accomplishments that have been made over a successful career.

Promote students and postdocs.  Seminar speakers are often invited to be the schmoozed, but they also can use seminars to promote the work of the members of their own labs. These kinds of talks heavily feature the roles of lab members in work presented in the talk.

Be entertaining and have fun.  Some talks are designed to entertain the audience rather than inform. Moreover, the speaker could be giving the talk just for the fun of it.

Show off smarts.  On some occasions, the speakers just want to show off how smart they are. This is likely to involve a number of obscure details that the audience wouldn’t want to bother understanding.

Not embarrass oneself.  The imposter syndrome is well described in academia and speakers might not recognize that they are up to the task or are worthy of an invited talk. Other speakers might feel great about their science but are not sure that they can give a great talk. So, just getting through the talk without screwing up might be a goal of its own.

Build collaborations.  When scholars visit one another’s institutions, the social context and resource access can facilitate collaborations more readily than what might occur at a professional conference. The seminar might be constructed to demonstrate opportunities where collaborations could be most fruitful.

Recruit students or postdocs.  Faculty should always be on the lookout for motivated and talented future lab members. If there are potential recruits in the audience, the talk could serve not only as inspiration but also communicate clear possibilities for exciting student projects.

Give a lesson or advocate for an approach to how science is done.  Oftentimes, seminars are most interesting not because of what was learned, but because the person presenting the work explained their rationale for choosing their experiments and provided arguments for the effectiveness of their approach to doing science. Speakers might choose to use their talk to give a lesson about more abstract ideas about the best ways to do science.

Argue for or against a pet theory, or shape the future of the field. Speakers might not be so heavily focused on their own findings, but instead use the seminar to advocate for or against a broader theory or direction for the field.

Pick an unnecessary argument.  Some people are inherently antagonistic. They might think so strongly that the advance of knowledge emerges from arguments among academics, that they pick arguments and intentionally say controversial things to get the ball rolling on arguments.

Be cool.  Some people need to show that what they are doing is cool. Obviously this purpose could overlap with other purposes, such as building a reputation or having fun. But sometimes, being cool is most important.

Inspire a new generation of scientists. Some speakers design their seminars specifically to be inspiration for the grad students in the audience. They might not be working hard to market their own ideas, or promote themselves, but to provide guidance for the junior scientists.

Actually give a science lesson.  This might sound crazy, but some people design their talks so that they are giving a lesson about their own scientific research so that people can understand more about the world.

And that’s it for the list.

So, what are my priorities in giving a talk? I’m all for everybody having fun. If someone in the audience sees potential for collaboration, then that would be really cool. I make sure that my students get appropriate credit when due, and I highlight the fact that my lab is an undergrad-run operation. I also want the grad students there to see what I’m doing and realize that a job at a teaching institution is compatible with mighty awesome research. Of course, I really do want people to learn a bunch about the topic of the seminar, and more generally I like to make the case that we need to change how we do science. (For example, in my next batch of upcoming seminars, I argue that orthodox ideas often are nonsensical and not well supported, and my whole talk is built around one of those ideas.)

And, I’d be dishonest if I ignored the fact that giving a kickass talk makes one look good in the professional arena, which has practical long-term career advantages. It’s all a part of the dumb sociological game in science. While we can pretend to transcend the game, we are on the game board whether we like it or not.

Later this week, I’ll be considering the various priorities that people have in mind when hosting a visiting speaker.

Crossing ‘the pond’ for science*

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This is a second guest post by Amy Parachnowitsch.

Amy learning that glass art is a kind of big deal in Sweden at the Kosta Boda Art Hotel

Amy learning that glass art is a kind of big deal in Sweden at the Kosta Boda Art Hotel

Originally from the Canadian east coast, I first crossed the continent to do my undergraduate on in the west (British Columbia), moved to the middle for my masters (Ontario) and then made the big leap south to the USA (upstate New York) for my PhD (read: 5 hrs drive between where I did my masters and PhD but sometimes worlds apart). Now I am an Assistant Professor/Research Fellow in Uppsala, Sweden. My science career path has not been particularly straight or narrow geographically or otherwise, but one theme that has emerged is the opportunities that have come from changing places and outlooks.

Because it is relevant to my recent experience and my perspective on moving around, I’ll describe what I’m doing in Sweden. My position is always difficult to translate either into English (forskarassistent = research assistant, directly translated but those are actually forskningsassistent) or North American positions because there are no real equivalents. I’m either a Research Fellow or Assistant Professor (there are even internal listings where I am one or the other). As I grow more comfortable in my position, I tend towards saying I’m a non-tenured Assistant Professor because that most accurately describes what I do. The position came with a small start-up fund, guaranteed 4 years of salary, a small teaching responsibility (5-10% of my time, officially), and salary for one PhD student. There is no formal option to continue my job after the 4 years and I’ll need to find either research funds to support my salary (basically like applying to NSF or NSERC and budgeting your salary) or another job. For me, the long-term prospects of staying here are unknown. But so far being a professor in a different country has been interesting, challenging and a fabulous learning experience.

So breaking Terry’s tradition of no lists, here’s my take on the some of the benefits and challenges of taking this path:

Benefits:

  • New ideas/ways of doing things –First and foremost, working somewhere else gives you a different perspective. I’m exposed to all kinds of differences both big and small on a daily basis. I constantly see my own assumptions and expectations exposed when they’re not met. I may have come here thinking that European PhD positions are advisor-driven, and although that can be true, I also now see the tremendous variation in PhD training. Although I had heard about the lack of social security in the US my entire life, I was shocked to learn that there really is no maternal/paternal leave in the US (its basically up to the employers). In my experience, Ivy league students are pretty similar in their abilities to the other university students I’ve taught, they just tend to have more security and confidence (sometimes to their own detriment). I could fill this post with things that I have learned and gained from being immersed in different countries and systems but it is good to remember that the benefits don’t have to be one-way. You also have something to offer others from your own contrasting experience.
  • Meeting fellow scientists—One thing that has been really fun for me is that I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of people that I had only read before. Although there are always some researchers that cross the pond to go to conferences in Europe or North America, it is by far more common that people attend conferences within these regions. And even when scientists do travel to the same conferences, when they are big ones like ESA/Evolution, I get to see people’s talks and might have a chance to chat, but I find some of the most valuable networking happens when you causally go for a meal or to the pub. It seems like these causal interactions tend to happen more with people you know or they know which can mean staying within your continent. It is of course possible to cross these boundaries and some people are very skilled at this, but living in Sweden has made it more natural to get to know more European scientists. The flip side is that it has been more difficult to connect with my old network because it is now more difficult for me to travel to conferences in the USA/Canada.
  • Exploring a new ecosystem—Whenever I travel, I’m often trailing behind, looking at flowers. Curiosity is really why I love my job; so seeing new ecosystems is a delight and offers a kind of understanding that you can’t get from reading papers alone. I had amazing experiences as a graduate student visiting Florida, Hawaii and especially the Rocky Mountain Biological Station, where so much of the literature I had been reading was based. Moving to Sweden has allowed me to explore a whole new place. When I first got here it I had to turn off the internal “introduced/invasive” tag that went with so many plants. This summer I’ve been playing around with a bunch of different species here in the aims of developing a local system. But living here has really given me an understanding of the place that I wouldn’t get if I just came here to visit/do research. For example, although I intellectually knew that the days were long in summer and dark in winter, living here has given me a whole different understanding. Who knew I could complain about too much light (seriously, it is tough to sleep)? And as the days get noticeably shorter I know what I’m in for (noon-day sun like dusk). But this also gives me a deeper understanding of the differences for the organisms I study.
  • Learn a new language—Although I am still hopelessly inadequate in Swedish, when I think back to a few years ago I realise that I actually understand quite a bit. When I first came here, nothing made sense. These days I can get around, talk to someone at a store, and understand quite a bit of what people are saying around me. Now if I could only carve out some time to study each day I think I could actually get somewhere.

Challenges:

  • Isolation—Perhaps one of the harder things is the feeling of isolation that can come from being an ex-pat. This can apply to daily life as much as your job. Although much of science is conducted in English, lots of informal and formal university events tend towards the native language. Here in Sweden, people tend to be ridiculously competent in English but you do miss out on some of the banter. As soon as the non-Swedes leave a room, the conversation slips quickly back to Swedish. Although my grasp of Swedish is improving, I miss jokes and think it would be really hard to make friends speaking only Swedish. It can also be tough for faculty meetings, etc when things are discussed in Swedish. There I tend to hear a lot of words you don’t commonly encounter and although I can often follow the general theme, some of the details are lost.
  • An increase in the imposter syndrome—actually it is difficult to know whether I feel this any more than I would in similar position in North America. Perhaps best not to admit until I get that permanent job, but I can find myself thinking that I have no idea what I am doing. And worse still, it can be because I really don’t know what I am doing (not focusing on the science here because that part is pretty portable). The things I learned watching my mentors or from PhD experiences are often out of sync with what it happening around me. For example, teaching hasn’t been at all how I expected myself to be doing based on years of TAing. I am now involved in team-taught courses and students are only taking a single course at any given time. This means less control over the course as a whole (because I only do a part) and intensive teaching when it happens (e.g. 3hr lecture time slots). So although I can apply lots of my teaching skills to this new situation, it has been another learning curve to figure out how to be the most effective, etc. Another big difference for me is that PhD students are generally hired on specific projects here. So although I was offered salary for my PhD student as a part of my position, I fund the project and had to write an advertisement for the position. In truth, many PhDs do follow their own research here and my own student will not strictly follow the advertised position. However, I interviewed candidates for my PhD position in a completely different way than I myself had done. All these differences can definitely fuel the imposter syndrome but it also gets me talking to my peers much more than I might if I thought I had a clue about how things are done here.
  • Slow start-up – Getting a lab running is not an easy or fast task for anyone and I haven’t even had to think about hiring in the way I would if I was starting a lab somewhere in NA. But starting a research group in another country has its own set of challenges: That craft store you used to buy strange things for your fieldwork? Not here. Chemical you could easily order from Sigma/Fisher? The European branch doesn’t carry it. University finances? You’ll need to figure out the reimbursement system and fill out all the forms in Swedish. Major granting agencies? Where do you start when you haven’t even heard of them? In my experience, people are incredibly helpful and willing to share information, but it does mean that I sometimes feel like I’m a step behind. After two years I am still learning but my footing is a little steadier. I’m sure that many of these issues would apply to moving to any university, anywhere but it probably wouldn’t involve talking to the industrial supplier in broken Swedish.
  • Time zone differences—A huge pain when you want to contact family and  friends, time zone differences can effect how you work as well. It means that I’m often out of sync with my NA collaborators, so there is definitely a time lag between emails, etc. And although skype and google hangouts are great resources to virtually meet, the time difference often mean tight scheduling. And on a personal note, when I travel for research in the USA, it is really tough to skype with my daughter but really important to do so. Somewhat easier but also challenging is talking with my graduate student when she’s in the field and I’m in Sweden. In some ways this might be good because she has more freedom to figure things out on her own but sometimes it would be convenient to not have the six hour time difference. Another drawback is that twitter conversations can be more difficult to participate in with the NA crowd; the plus is that I’m seeing a lot more from fellow Europeans.
  • Not being able to read between the lines—Here’s a funny story to end with. In my first few months I travelled every couple of weeks to the department for a few days while we negotiated the move, etc. One of these trips there was a small conference for Uppsala plant folks just outside of town. There was a program with events for the two days but nowhere, and I mean nowhere, was there anything about staying overnight at the conference center. So I hop in the car with the head of my department and some new colleagues with only my laptop, etc. As the day progresses it slowly dawns on me that everyone is planning to stay the night. Here I am, no change of clothes, no toiletries, nothing. The conference center is far enough outside of town that there is no real way to get back without a car. One of my colleagues with a young child headed home that night but wasn’t coming back the following day. So I remember thinking, do I take this opportunity to go or do I stay? I had committed to being there for two days and it seemed silly to miss out for a change of clothes (how I longed for that overnight bag sitting in my room in Uppsala). So I stayed, was grateful for a single room where I didn’t have to feel stupid in front of anyone. Now I know that it would have been fine and I could have shared a good laugh. But then I didn’t know any of the people I was with. It wasn’t perfect but I’m really glad I just stepped back into my same clothes after showering that morning. In the end staying meant I started a collaboration that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. But it just goes to show that not being a part of the culture around you means that you can miss out on things that seem so obvious to everyone else.

Despite the long list of challenges, I remain pretty positive about my experience here. Mostly the challenges have been opportunities to learn and grow. I’m excited about the collaborations I am developing here and the research we’re doing on both sides of the pond. Of course there are days that I’m tired and wonder if it wouldn’t all be easier if I could find that ideal tenure track job in Canada or the USA. I don’t know where we’ll end up in the long-term but I do know if we return to NA, I will bring with me a broadened perspective on how to be a professor.

*Full disclosure: I came to Sweden for family reasons first (Swedish husband with a job here) and searched for a job from here.

So, teaching is for people who have imposter syndrome?

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Isn’t it a bummer when your research is founded on an invalid premise? This can’t be a good moment for a researcher whose work was featured in Science online. This article would be just silly, if it didn’t take itself so seriously while also being offensive.

As represented in this Science “careers” article, the project was designed to understand what might cause scientists to change their professional ambitions from a tenure-track position at a major research university to, well, something other than a tenure-track position at a major university.

Apparently, that change in career ambition is some kind of flaw in performance, as the study reported these students as “downshifters.”

Apparently, a tenure-track position at a research university is “faster” than other jobs that doctoral students take. According to the study — or at least interpreted by the author of the Science article — a teaching position or policy job is is slower than a running a research lab. Maybe that’s what some tenure-track faculty at R1 institutions might think, but that doesn’t make it true.

Is it just me, or is the notion that deciding against a tenure-track position at research institution is a “downshift” is a load of crap? If you’re designing a study with this as a presumption, then isn’t that going to result in confirmation bias?

If we decide to choose an equally ambitious path in a different direction than the PI of the study, then why is it that we are labeled as having downshifted our expectations of ourselves?

In grad school, at some point, I decided that I didn’t want a job at a research institution. The job that I ended up taking, at a primarily teaching institution, is not any easier and not any slower than running an R1 lab. It’s not easier, it’s just different. There’s a good argument to be made that, after I chose against an R1 job, that I’m running harder and faster than a PI at an R1 institution.

According to this study, I’d be a downshifter. That judgment of me gives me some indigestion.

Moving into a tenure-track position at a research institution is often considered the default route for doctoral students, even if the bulk do not end up in such a position. If a doctoral student decides in the middle of grad school that she wants to pursue a different path, how is this shifting down one’s expectations? How is it that downgrading one’s expectations?

Here’s how the study identified what a “downshifter” is and what she found, as I read the article in Science careers:

The authors interviewed a whole bunch of doctoral students at one university. Only about 25% 33% had a goal of working in a tenure-track position at a major research university. (I found this rather surprising, and a form of good news, actually. Do their advisors know this?!) Of the entire pool, less than ten percent initially had an ambition to become a professor in a tenure-track position, but then changed their minds.  These were the “downshifters.” (There were gender disparities, with fewer women wanting the R1 jobs and more women who chose to against the more-exalted path.)

So, here’s what I see in these data: 75% 66% of grad students don’t want to become R1 professors. During grad school, 10% change their mind and don’t want to become R1 professors. These “downshifters” are more likely to be suffering from imposter syndrome, as it was measured in the study, and the gender disparity results in more women changing their minds about their career goals.

Note: Before going to press with this piece, I corresponded with the PI of the study. She didn’t want to write a response to be included in the original post, but she did clarify some numbers. She wrote:

As far as the numbers go – currently 22.5% of the women in my sample and 27% of men aspire to tenure-track professorships with an emphasis on research. 40% of the students have either changed or seriously considered changing career goals while in graduate school, but only 23% have actually changed. 11% of women and 6% of men were classified as “downshifters” because they shifted from professor with an emphasis on research to one of the 11 other categories. That means that *more* than that 22.5 and 27% originally aspired to the TT – about 1/3.

The take-home message is, then, that if imposter syndrome is causing a leak in the so-called pipeline, where the small fraction of Ph.D. students who want a so-called “fast” job decreases even more when they have imposter syndrome, which disproportionately affects women.

Maybe if we stopped portraying the tenure-track positions at research institutions as the idealized goal of grad school, then perhaps we wouldn’t be so worried about driving people away from academia and research? These gender disparities are real, and very concerning, and by continuing to up the stakes about how special and important R1 faculty jobs are, we’re not helping the problem.

This was not a brief rant, but it was summed up by a colleague of mine in just a few, less testy, words:

In all fairness to the PI of the study, she told me that she had no editorial power over what was published in Science careers. I’m sure the author didn’t do the PI any favors in how he represented her work, and that’s why I offered her the opportunity to clarify and rebut before going to press. She declined to offer a specific rebuttal, but did indicate that both the Science piece and this post itself were not fairly representative of her work or her views.

She did send me a link that represents her views and reassured me that the use of the term downshifter “is not meant normatively in any way and instead to capture the issue as it has been addressed in previous literature.”

Is using the term downshifter acceptable as long as it’s used only because other people have in the literature? Doesn’t the apparently broad use of this term in the literature suggest that this entire line of investigation has some messed-up assumptions built into the hypotheses being tested? If all of the research on women leaking out of the pipeline originates with these kinds of value judgements, are the conclusions trustworthy?

On the speciousness of “work-life balance”

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Too often, people are apt to advise one another on how to live their lives. I’m not intentionally adding to this body of work, but remarking on it. I don’t intend to offer any advice in this post.

Let’s consider two pieces of career and life advice that we often hear.

Standard Piece of Advice #1. Choose a career that you love.

You need to pay the bills, but this should happen with a job that you immensely enjoy. Ideally, we love our job so much that it’s like a hobby. (And it’s that way for me. Science – the whole process – is a wonderful hobby. There are some parts I like more than others, but it’s a smashingly entertaining enterprise.)

Standard Piece of Advice #2. Don’t let work get in the way of living your life.

There was a well-written post about this written by a recently tenured Harvard professor about “how to stop worrying and love the tenure track.” The author, Radhika Nagpal, had a useful list to advise readers about how to not let the pursuit of tenure consume our lives and make us unhappy. Second on the list of seven items was to stop taking advice from others.

Depending on how well you follow Standard Piece of Advice #1, then Standard Piece of Advice #2 seems irrelevant, if not a little misguided.

Should we treat a tenure-track job like a 7-year postdoc? I imagine that this is a healthy attitude for Harvard junior faculty, considering rates of tenure. Is this a good idea outside Harvard? Well, I guess so. I don’t know if postdocs are expected to work with less effort than tenure-track faculty. If the phrase “treat the job like a temporary postdoc” should be read as “don’t let the job consume your entire life” then I suppose the advice is spot-on.

Is it important to make sure that you’re a complete person outside your academic job? Definitely.

Should you prioritize your loved ones over your work, and cultivate relationships outside of academia? Of course!

Should we expect researchers be complete people outside of their research endeavors? Hell yes!

Should we designate and separate working hours from non-working hours as a hard-and-fast rule? Should we make sure that we have a special amount of personal time each week that isn’t tied to research? Umm… I don’t think so.

If you really love research, then isn’t it okay to do it as a hobby?

Here’s what I’ve never understood about the “work-life balance” concept: Is not “work” a part of your “life?” Haven’t we academics argued for many decades that what makes our job cool is that we get to do exactly what we enjoy doing, and we can choose how we do it?

Isn’t my choice to pursue a useful, fun and challenging academic endeavor part of my own life? By trying to create a balance between “work” and “life,” then doesn’t that make work something we do when we are not fully living?

I reject the work-life dichotomy that governs thinking about how academics decide how to invest time into their research.

It seems to me that the methods to achieve “work-life balance” don’t seem to entirely add up.

I don’t want any work-life balance. I want the scale to be tilted to 100% “life.” My job is one of the few that allow me to do that.

When I’m doing research, when I’m mentoring students, and when I’m teaching, I don’t want to have that always placed into the “work” box because it’s part of my life.

At least some of us in academia have argued is that the job is wonderful specifically because the things we do for the job can have personal meaning, tangibly change the world and other people’s lives, and are often enjoyable. That’s something I shoot for. That’s a part of my life. Yes, it’s a source of employment, but I refuse to put it in the “work” box separate from my life.

How about we just shoot for “life balance?”  For some of us, that means “research-family-health balance.” For others, it’s “university-family-pet” balance.  Maybe it’s “university-political activism-family” balance for some of you.

My wife and kid matter everything to me, and as a corollary, so do my own health and happiness for their sake. That means that I can’t do research, teach, (and blog), in a manner that isn’t good for any of us. In all of my decisions about research, teaching and anything else about my employment, all of my decisions take them into account first, as well as myself.

Does my job demand that I spend a huge amount of time on teaching and research? Yes. But I happen to love it, and that’s why I took this job.

Does my job require me to do more teaching and research than is needed for me to have a balanced life? Not at all. Does anybody expect this level of work from me? Maybe, but if they do, I can tell them where they can stick their outrageous expectations.

I am not employed by my University in the summertime. I’m not on their payroll. That means that my summer is mine.  How am I spending it? Mostly on research, and mentoring student research. And a little teaching about ants. At the moment I’m on vacation, and enjoying it tremendously. I’m writing this for fun. I’m not writing it for my career. Is this “work?” Maybe, but that my job is one in which I don’t wish to create that work vs. life dichotomy.

How the heck can I have “life balance” if I’m writing this while away on vacation? Well, the spectacular setting and circumstances in which I’m writing makes it quite possible.

Maybe the phrase “work-life balance” is just a label. However, labels matter. If we academics do start to see our research and teaching as mere “work” in our own lives then we may have lost one of the few benefits that are tied to the profession. I’ll be the first one to point out that my employer is only entitled to about forty hours per week from me, and I’ll also probably be one of the first to exceed the forty-per-week mark partway through the week, if I have the opportunity.

Is it your right to consider a faculty job as a source of employment, to take a paycheck and perform your job description within forty hours per week? Definitely. I just enjoy it enough that I want to sneak in more when I have the chance. And when I do more “work” than necessary, I don’t worry that my life is becoming unbalanced. I’m just having fun.

Stop using “silverback” to describe scientists. It’s sexist.

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Some people have taken to referring to influential senior scientists as “silverbacks.”

This practice should stop.

I’m writing this at a scientific conference, and I’ve heard it several times in independent contexts, in a non-ironic use. I also heard this term at the last three conferences I’ve attended in the last few years by both European and North American researchers. I’ve learned that at least one university has a lecture series called the “silverback” sessions.

I don’t know the specific origin of the term, or when it emerged as a regular term of use. Regardless, I don’t like it.

For those unaware of the behavioral ecology of non-human apes, a “silverback” is an older, large-bodied and behaviorally dominant male gorilla, characterized by silver fur on its back. With respect to at least certain aspects of a social group of gorillas, silverbacks are in charge. Their dominant status emerges from their age, size, interactions with others, experience and ability to advance in the social network of their group.

What’s the problem with the use of the term “silverback?” I don’t have a problem with the practice of using analogies from the behavior of other species to be applied to our own, as long as they’re appropriate.

Labeling influential senior scientists as “silverbacks” is a bad idea for one big reason:

It is sexist.

Female gorillas are never silverbacks. By using the term “silverback” to as a synonym for “influential senior scientist,” one is implying that women are not, or cannot become, influential senior scientists.

This objection isn’t about political correctness. It’s about recognizing the influential women in our midst, and showing respect for them. (Most people with issues about so-called political correctness are those who have trouble showing respect for others.)

What can we do? Join me in calling out the sexism of this word when it gets used. If you hear it in conversation, perhaps you could mention that you don’t think it’s a good use of the term because it excludes women?

(Most of my contemporary scientific heroes are women, after all.)

I’m a less-influential not-that-senior scientist, so I’m not in the best position to bring this issue to the forefront. Maybe we can bring this up with some big-time men and women to take up this issue?

Have you heard this term or is it a new one to you? Any additional observations, ideas, or suggestions?

Teaching universities as the farm league

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Many people seek faculty jobs at teaching universities even though they would prefer to work at a research university.

This isn’t unethical. A job is a job, and just because some people see a job as a calling or a sacred vocation, most people in the world are doing it for a paycheck above all else.

I have seen plenty of professors at teaching institutions look down upon their research-active colleagues in their institution, even though these researchers may be teaching quite well. (Of course, it’s even more common for some faculty at research institutions to look down upon, or feel sorry for, faculty at teaching institutions.)

Which is a more desirable job? Being a professor at a teaching-centered or a research-centered institution? What do objective measures say? There are two obvious ways to use numbers to answer this question. First, there is significantly more demand for the research faculty positions. Second, the salary of research faculty positions is appreciably higher than the salary of faculty at teaching institutions.

More people want research positions. Maybe they’re not more desirable, but they are more desired. (This makes sense, because the training required for a faculty position is all about research training and typically includes no training in teaching whatsoever.) A number of scientists who are excellent in all respects, but still don’t get a research position, might wind up taking a job at a teaching institution, even though they may continue to pursue their primary goal of being a faculty at a research institution. Is this wrong? No, it is not.

Nevertheless, because of the politics and emotions that people invest into their jobs, it is not socially acceptable at a teaching institution to communicate to others that your preferred job is at a research institution. This doesn’t require dishonesty, but it definitely means that you can’t be fully honest and you might have to be a little deceitful if this is your goal. You never want to say at your job that you want to eventually leave, after all, and this might even be true if you’re flipping burgers.

Though more people want jobs at research institutions, jobs at teaching schools are still mighty hard to land. Given this keen competition, and the huge differences between what happens on a research campus and a teaching campus, teaching institutions get to have their pick of candidates and have the latitude to pick out job candidates who, more than anything else, want to be at a teaching university. Ideally, a campus wants to hire someone who isn’t immediately looking to leave. So, teaching campuses prefer to hire people who are dedicated to working on teaching campuses.

That is, if search committees can identify who those people are. Good luck with that.

Faculty who want a research position seeking a job at teaching institution, if they are to be successful, need to mimic the true believers who are passionately interested in spending their careers (if not their lives) at teaching institutions.

To put this in context, let me offer a one-paragraph lesson in mimicry. In biology, we recognize a few kinds of mimicry. Batesian mimics falsely adopt the signal of another organism that honestly signals its status. (The classic example is a viceroy butterfly, which isn’t filled with toxic cardiac glycosides, but it looks a lot like a monarch butterfly, which picks up toxins from feeding on milkweeds as caterpillars.) In contrast, Müllerian mimics are only distantly related to one another but they have evolved a set of characteristics to honestly communicate their defenses. (The classic example is a set of mimicry complexes among Heliconius butterflies). Another kind are aggressive mimics, which could be predators that resemble their prey (such as jumping spiders that often look like their ant prey) or a caterpillar with a pattern that looks like the head of a viper, or a moth that looks like the face of an owl.

So, when scientists who want research positions choose to apply for teaching positions, what kind of mimic are they? It varies.

They could be Batesian mimics, which essentially are parasites on the system and reduce the effectiveness of the honest signal of the organisms that they mimic. These mimics don’t want to teach much at all, aren’t interested in developing that skill, and calculate the amount of effort they have to put in to just keep their job as long as necessary. They want to maintain this mimicry signal, and the quality of mimicry varies. They do hedge bets and are interested in being perceived as teaching-focused just in case they aren’t successful at moving on.

Aggressive mimics of teaching faculty actively reveal their colors as soon as they’re hired. These people are toxic and everyone identifies the mistake right away. Including the person who took the job. Let’s forget about these, because they’re both rare and annoying people in general.

There are Müllerian mimic professors, too. These are those that would prefer a job at a research university but they are also mighty pleased with a teaching institution too. They are showing their true colors when they say that they are dedicated to the teaching mission of the institution. They do belong, and they look like the dedicated faculty of the university because, in fact, they are.

What is the relative proportion of the Müllerian and Batesian mimic varieties? Or, in other words, how many professors in teaching positions who want to move on to research positions are actually dedicated to doing a great job at their current institution?

I don’t know the answer to that question.

Here’s a question to which I do know the answer: Among the faculty who move on to research positions, how many of them were dedicated to doing a great job at the teaching institution before they left?

That’s an easy one. In all of my experience, these people were wholly dedicated to their teaching jobs and before they left, they were recognized locally on their campus as spectacular in all respects before leaving.

I’ve worked with and known a goodly number of people who have moved on from teaching jobs to research institutions (and there are a number of commenters on the site who fall that pool, some of whom I know well and some I don’t). In every case of which I’m aware, the departure of that faculty member was a great loss.

These great losses were not the departures of the research programs, but because of excellence in teaching, collegial performance of service, and contribution to the institution as a whole. The departure of these people was seen as an inevitable “moving up” to bigger and better things. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, but nonetheless people were uniformly happy for them. We all recognize that when dealing with employers, you need to look out for yourself above all else, as only you can be counted on to make choices in your own best interest, even if you have dedicated your career and then some to a specific institution.

I imagine these professors who moved “up” to research jobs may have always wanted such a position, and they essentially published their way out of their teaching position. That’s the standard interpretation. However, if you choose that route, then my experience indicates that you can’t just publish your way out. You have to do it while earning the respect and admiration of your colleagues. (This is something that can’t be done by faking it. There are people on my campus who are faking it, and it’s pretty obvious.) You have to be dedicated and do a good job and have the interests of your students and your institution in mind. All of these people who I know that have made the move have been tremendously nice people above all other identifying characteristics.

This much is clear: most faculty don’t move to a research institution once they start a teaching position. What happens to these people who don’t move, over the course of their careers? Here are a variety of possibilities:

  • Love teaching and accomplish lots of great research too
  • Love teaching and lose the passion for research
  • Teach badly, focus on research and be miserable
  • Hate teaching, give up on research, and be bitter
  • Be ambivalent and focus on doing the minimum
  • Be mediocre with delusions of grandeur
  • Move into administration
  • Don’t get tenure, and find a job outside academia

I’ve seen all of the above, and there are probably varieties I’m missing.

Where do I fall into this pool? I’m not in this group – I deliberately looked for a teaching-centered position from the outset, even though my initial motivation in taking a job at a teaching institution wasn’t well informed.

Since I am doing a decent amount of research at a teaching institution, is a research university a preferred job? I don’t think so. I don’t think I have a single ideal job. I do really want to go to a university where I can do more research and where it is valued, but there are lots of teaching-centered institutions that fit that label. I evolve over time, and my attitude towards research and teaching are very different from when I started out.

I’m mostly satisfied in a teaching institution, and I don’t think I’d be more satisfied at a research institution. Nevertheless, I would consider a good move. There are a few crippling aspects of my current position that I would hope to ameliorate. First, I’d like to be in a department that is adequately staffed to support its own students; I am feeling increasingly guilty for complicity in an organization that is undermining it own mission. As a small example, it’s unfair to our students (as well as myself) that every professor in my department has >100 advisees every semester. Second, our campus research infrastructure is experiencing continued neglect, and the people in charge of promoting research on campus aren’t focused on what matters. (Last, and this isn’t a small thing, I would be nice to be paid market rate.) I’d have to be sure that a job I move into wouldn’t have other hidden problems that are worse than these ones, of course.

If I do move, then I wouldn’t see it as “moving up” even if others at my university would see it that way. Most of my job is working with students, in the classroom, in the lab doing research, and in the field. That would happen wherever I go, and since I’ve been in my current job I’ve been blessed with a string of incomprehensively wonderful students. Every time I bring students to my field station in Costa Rica, my colleagues here uniformly remark, “you always have the best students.” And I agree with them. I’ve been blessed, and I doubt that blessing could transfer to a different institution.

Ultimately, in my book, the desirability of the job is in how much I enjoy each day, on a day to day basis. It doesn’t matter too much if it’s a teaching or research institution. This is regulated by the collegiality and professionalism of my colleagues and the opportunities that are seized by my students.

If you enjoy both research and the teaching, a true move “up” wouldn’t be about the relative emphasis on research or teaching, but the overall capacity to do both well.

Science, math skills, and high school students

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There was a diversity of visceral reactions to EO Wilson’s op-ed piece, which argued that you can be a great scientist without being good at math. The lowdown can be found at Dynamic Ecology (with 15 updates as of this writing!) I wrote my own take on it here.

Before we go any further, I’m curious about all of you, what’s your take on the op-ed piece? Compel yourself to make a choice. (If you have caveats, put them in the comments section of the post, but please pick one or the other).

One common reaction by scientists who teach and train students was, “Thanks, Ed, for making my job harder.” That was my first thought, as I regularly teach Biostatistics.

Another common reaction was, “That’s not the message to send students early on as they still are developing their skills in all aspects.”

With these ideas in mind, I brought the op-ed piece to a bunch of high school teachers. They read it and we discussed it for about half an hour.  How did the discussion go?

First, let me tell you more about the teachers. I regularly meet with this crowd as a part of an NSF-funded Noyce Master Teacher Fellow program that I run with education faculty. They all have their Master’s degree (most in education, some in science) and were competitively selected for this program as a result of their experience, excellence and continued commitment to teach in high-need urban schools in South Los Angeles. These teachers work in rough schools, with kids who have the deck stacked against them even before they enter the classroom. They were picked for this program because they are the ones staying at their schools even though most new teachers leave after a very short time.

These teachers are talented, dedicated, overworked, and mentors to new teachers. I tell them so often how much I respect and admire they work they’re probably sick of hearing it. (I have learned a lot from them about teaching over the past couple years, no surprise there.) One of the reasons I try to praise often is because they hear it so little elsewhere. The newspapers and the mayor and the school board and anybody who has a loud mouth will say that these teachers are the problem that need to be fixed. Let me tell you, that’s entirely backwards. These teachers are the solution to the problem. Free these teachers to do what they were professionally trained to do, with the resources to do it, and you’ll see the positive changes that have been so elusive. (Making this change, sadly, is politically complex).

These teachers know their stuff. Moreover, they teach exactly the population of students that NSF is trying to hard to recruit into the sciences: “underrepresented.”

The opinion of these teachers about the requisite math skills for becoming a scientist matters, more so than anybody else in the whole of the USA.

What did they say about Wilson’s piece? Immediately after we all read it, I did an informal survey: thumbs up or thumbs down, just like in this post. (Rest in peace, Roger Ebert.)

All I saw were thumbs up, or neutralish waves of whatever. I asked, why is that?

The general consensus was that being good at the process of science isn’t inherently mathematical. You don’t want to dissuade someone who is interested in science, after all. Of course, you need to use math, but that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing science and the math can come along for the ride. That was the initial response.

Then, one person (the only physics teacher in the bunch) disagreed, and a biology teacher joined in. They said that to be good at the practice of science, in real life, you have to be able to do math. You can’t really understand some fundamental principles in science unless you can grasp the math.  There were some disagreements, that this was endemic to physics, but then plenty of examples throughout the sciences were brought up. It was also raised that engineering is growing in importance and will be a key feature in new state educational standards soon to be adopted.

The discussion then turned to the fact that specific skill sets are required not just to be able to do science, but also to land positions, perform your job, and be able to adapt to evolving requirements of these jobs. Not all scientists can choose to work on whatever they want, even though E.O. Wilson has that option, and we need to train students to be prepared for the opportunities that rise before them and to be able to use their skills to create the opportunities that they want, or need.

If you’re E.O. Wilson, then you don’t need math, we decided. But if you’re not Wilson, with National Academy mathematicians available for collaboration, then sophisticated math is a very practical skill that will serve you well in the sciences more than almost any other resource. Especially if we are training students from disadvantaged backgrounds, we want to be able to confer upon our students every possible advantage, and being analytically and mathematically adept is key. It’s genuinely a key. It opens doors.

In the end, we agreed that Wilson was right on the fact: It’s possible to be a great scientist and not be great at math; this is a possibility.

We also agreed that this was a downright destructive choice to communicate such an idea.

Wilson’s article lamented that he had a hard time recruiting Harvard students to become scientists because of their math phobia. Nearly all of his students are archetypes of privilege, who also received strong preparation in high school before winding up at Harvard.

Meanwhile, the students in the classes of our master teachers who are lucky enough to graduate and then go to college, are likely to need remedial math. At my university, it’s been normal for a majority of entering students to require remedial math courses right off the bat because they don’t pass the stunningly basic placement exam. Do we want to tell them that math isn’t important to become a scientist? Should we tell them that this remedial math doesn’t matter, and that the calculus course required for our major is pointless?

Perhaps Wilson would like to visit us, and tell my students that they don’t need to worry too much about developing math talents to further their careers as scientists.

Far too often, my students have heard while growing up that they don’t need to work hard at something difficult. They have heard plenty enough that they should just slide into tasks suited to their inherent abilities, whatever they may be, rather than kick it up a notch and genuinely improve one’s talents. If you’re the first one in your family to go to college, expectations are paramount.

Maybe Wilson should limit his don’t-sweat-the-math message to his Harvard students. That way, our students will get jobs over their underprepared Ivy League competitors.

And then I woke up.

On gender, parenting and academic careers

Standard

It used to happen all the time. I’d be out in public, with my son, at the grocery store, zoo or bagel shop. A friendly person would ask,

Babysitting today?

And I want to punch someone. Or punch something else. Or cry.

Instead, I grit my teeth, and reply with masked fury, in a moderately loud and determined voice:

I am not babysitting. I am parenting. This is my own son. We do this all the time.

Then, I mutter under my breath:

Idiot.

I don’t get this remark anymore, now that my kid is approaching ten years of age. Instead, I can see that when I’m hanging out with my kid on a Saturday morning, folks could be jumping to a couple other conclusions. One might be that I have partial custody and am getting in “quality time,” or that I’m letting mom sleep in because she’s worked so hard parenting during the week. They might not jump to these conclusions. But one that is less likely is the truth, is that I’m parenting while my spouse is working.

I regularly get asked about my field research. I go to one place in the rainforest for weeks at a time, during which I am supervising students, working in the field and lab, and am generally really busy.

Do you take your wife down with you?

What is odd, is that people rarely ask if she joins me. They ask if I’m taking her. I do take students down. But if my wife were to go, I wouldn’t be “taking” her. She’d be making the time to come along. I think, “She’s not a possession for me to bring along as I please wherever I go. We both have things to do you know.” Instead, I reply:

No, she’s busy working. I don’t think she can blow so much time to go to watch me work or to volunteer as my field tech. Also, someone has to take our kid to school and feed him, so I’m rather grateful to her to cover for me while I’m gone. She has come down a few times, for some vacation before or after my work, though we’d rather vacation somewhere new when we have the chance. Actually, this summer my kid’s coming along for a couple weeks and I’m looking forward to that.

I’m more inclined to give people a free pass, because most people — even other scientists — can’t really imagine what it’s like down at the field station where I work, nor what I do from moment to moment. Nevertheless, it does seem absurd that someone would think my wife could just drop everything and join me as an accessory.

The bottom line is that If I was a woman, nobody would be asking me if I “take my husband” to the rainforest while I was working. Nobody would ask me if I was “babysitting” my own child if they saw me with him in a jogging stroller at the zoo.

These remarks don’t make me a victim of bias, other than the fact that I find them annoying. These remarks actually have the false presumption that I am the beneficiary of bias.

The unfortunate truth is that these mistaken assumptions have a real basis. Why do I really want to punch someone when they ask if I’m babysitting? Because most of the other guys at the grocery store with their kids probably are babysitting their own children.

Many families that I know well have one parent employed full-time, with the other part-time or not at all. In those cases, the division of parenting and household labor makes sense. In dual-career couples, though, it’s far too often that the guy ends up not holding up his end of the marital bargain.

I don’t know if my wife would tolerate it if I didn’t do my fair share of parenting. She presumably would be annoyed, but if I just abdicated my responsibility, then she would have no choice to pick up the slack. It would be the same the other way around, if she didn’t do her share of the parenting then I would have to.

This is the book I'm reading with my kid now, from a 1927 edition. The token role of fathers in their children's lives has always been important to their development

This is title page of the book that I’m reading with my kid now, from a 1927 printing. Even back then, the token role of fathers in their children’s lives was promoted, perhaps even more robustly than in today’s parenting culture that still emphasizes the role of mothers over fathers.

In our culture, in dual-career couples, many fathers feel perfectly free to let the mothers do more than their fair share. This rarely happens the other way around.

I don’t look at the arc of history and see the need for systemic progress. It would be great if our jobs made more accommodations for working families and the entire NSF work-life balance agenda is great. But this is not the root of the problem, and you can’t fix it by simply giving women more slack or more time or more money. Those fixes just make it less worse.

I see individual people making bad decisions. I see men who choose work over family voluntarily, and I also see some women who step in and parent without giving their spouses the opportunity to carry the load.  The problem starts once a dual-career family lets one spouse assume more responsibility than the other one.

In my family, we’re not equal, but I think we are equivalent. I have to admit that I rarely do our laundry. On the other hand, I spend an equivalent amount of time cooking. I would hope that if a behaviorist were scoring my house with an ethogram, that we’d come out relatively even with respect to domestic duties. The number of nights that I’m out for social affairs or volunteering match hers. (I do teach nights a couple times per week, though that often means that I get other mornings and evenings. It evens out.)

More importantly, we come out equivalent on parenting. I hold this as a point of pride, but it really should not be a point of pride. It should be the status quo, at least when both parents are working as much as the other.

The fact is that women are doing more parenting than their spouses, in most dual-career couples. This is not caused by biology or by the system. It’s caused by individual men screwing up.

I am tired of the trope that biological differences between genders makes women expend more time parenting than men. For most academic work (aside from dealing with reagents, and some fieldwork, and medical complications), women are capable of working for nearly the entire time they are pregnant. A few weeks after giving birth, in some cases, women are as physiologically capable of working as men. The one factor that continues is milk production. However, pumping can often work well and formula isn’t exactly evil. (For what it’s worth, my wife went back to work full time after six weeks and we never spent a dime on formula.)

The only biological difference that causes women to parent more is that men might be more likely to be born as jerks that let their wives’ careers suffer because they are inadequate parents.

Just because women are the producers of milk, shouldn’t that mean that men can just as easily step up to the plate and contribute in other ways?

Especially in academia, men have plenty of latitude to do their fair share of parenting compared to other careers because it’s so flexible. Women partnered with someone working a typical non-academic inflexible job also can get lots of spousal support, from a partner that is available to cover mornings, evenings and weekends.

I essentially took six months off to parent full-time, aside from Tuesdays when Grandma stepped in for us. Did this hurt my career? Actually, it did. I was at a Catholic university at the time, and my male Dean expressed concern about my request for paid parental leave (as clearly specified in faculty handbook), because that was intended only for mothers and not fathers. He told me that he understood my dilemma because he had five children of his own and he never missed a day of work. That conversation was not good for my career.

My point is that there is no inherent biological reason that mothers, more than fathers, may have more negative repercussions at their work because of parenting, because both are equally capable of doing so. There may be sexist reasons that transcend scheduling and effort, like I experienced, but that’s not going to stop me from doing my job as a parent.

(As a side note, have you ever looked inside Parenting magazine? It should be renamed Mothering magazine. There is always a column about fathers, but it is always, without exception, about how women can convince their husbands to do something like change a diaper once in a blue moon or do bedtime reading.)

The only biological difference that makes women parent more is that some men are assholes. These men don’t fulfill their duties to their spouses or they demonstrably care less about raising their families on a day to day basis.

If you tell me that women have more problems at work because of they have more parenting obligations than their spouses, then I tell you: their spouses are doing it wrong. And the women are doing it wrong because they’re accepting less than 50% from their spouses.

As you can tell, I get mad when gender is conflated with work-life balance issues. This is probably a chip on my shoulder from being a dad and spouse that did his fair share, in an environment where this is a rarity.

If you want to fix the dual-career couple inequity issue with respect to parenting, the first step is to tell women to not marry men who don’t parent enough. Women should not be spending more time parenting than their partners if they’re both living in the same house and both working full time. How many times and ways do I have to write this? Apparently, it is a lot, because it doesn’t seem like anybody else is saying it.

Of course, in our country there is so little systemic support, from the government, our own workplaces and our extended families, that we have a greater stress placed on working parents overall. This is not a gender issue, it’s a parenting issue.

If a married woman says that she has a greater challenge at her job because of the time demands of parenting, then she needs to hear that the problem is not the system, it’s her spouse. The problem might be her spouse’s boss, but I’m not convinced that this is a rampant problem. Perhaps this should be the main problem, but right now it isn’t.

I avoid these conversations because I it never has ended well when I’ve told a guy that he needed to spend more time parenting. And I don’t have the temerity to tell a woman that she picked a crappy husband who isn’t willing to accept 50% of the parenting load. (Now, I can just tell people to read my blog post about it and be done with it.) I’m not sure how to implement change when the necessary change requires individual responsibility on the part of others. We can raise sensitive males that understand their roles as partners. Hopefully, I’m doing that by example.

For me, it’s not a problem, because hanging out with my kid is the best thing in the world. I can’t conceive how a man would think otherwise about his own kids. I was lucky that my academic career gave me the flexibility to shut down my research program for a spell, so that I could be at home with my baby. (This I could do because I was at a teaching institution. With a big lab, and pressure for grants and pubs, it wouldn’t have happened that way, and daycare would have started earlier or we would have relied on extended family, both of which also would be fine options.) If I didn’t have that flexibility, I wouldn’t demand it of my wife. We’d solve it together, and it wouldn’t involve sacrificing her career.

There are substantial issues involving sexism in the sciences and academia, independent of parenting. That’s a separate issue, and one that I’m not addressing here. Perhaps I’m addressing it by claiming overtly that it is a separate issue — that parenting should not be a gender issue, and it’s only an issue in dual-career families in which the man is a wretched bum.

Every time I see a story or hear a person remark, “it’s great and inspiring that this woman can be a scientist and a parent” I get mad. You know what? That statement can apply to me, too, aside from the fact that I’m a man. I do just as much parenting as my spouse. My “success” or the lack thereof, that is tied to my status as a parent and a researcher, should represented in equal measure as it is for female scientists. (This would be different, of course, for single parents or those who have demonstrably jerky husbands.)

If you think that notion isn’t broadly applicable to all men, that’s because you think that many male scientists with kids are deadbeats. I might agree with you on that. The father-scientists I’m working with now seem to be dedicated and supportive of both their kids and their spouses, but that’s not the norm. My non-academic father friends are also doing their 50%, or their share depending on the family employment situation, but then again, I feel like I can’t relate to most guys, in part because of a fundamental difference in values. I can accept that some guys would be nuts for basketball, or have a specific religious belief, or drive a fuel-inefficient vehicle. But not parent 50%? That’s a dealbreaker.

If a man says that his full-time job doesn’t allow him the time or flexibility to do what needs to be done as a parent, and that’s why his wife is doing more parenting, I call bullshit. A woman would never say that she is incapable of doing what is necessary to be a good parent. A man should never be able to get away with saying something like that.

That just means that you don’t have the courage to tell your work that you prioritize your family over the job, and it means that you’re letting your wife do that and take the damage to her career as a result. That’s cowardice.

If there’s going to be a change, then men have to stop being cowards and start parenting. Men can address this problem by accepting the same career risks of parenting that are being endured by their partners. Until that happens, any progress is a mirage.