Building and maintaining friendships as an academic


I just made a few new friends, perhaps.

After more than two years of pandemic-induced isolation, I had the privilege of a week of quality in-person time with fellow Earth Leadership Fellows last week, and so many were just wonderful human beings. The experience was highly valuable and I learned from everybody. Having gone through this experience, it makes sense to me how so many of the former fellows (not to mention the current ones) are among most impactful and visible scientists working on critical environmental issues. We’re gaining skills and perspectives that will help us do work that will actually change things. You’ll probably hear more from me about that stuff later, but now I want to talk about the friend thing.

I think one of hardest parts of being an academic is the expectation that you move, often huge distances, several times throughout your professional development. You get close to people, and then you move. What do we do with those roots that we grow? Do we box them up with a root ball and hopefully they’ll survive a transplant? How many of us are just potted plants moving around, never putting roots into the ground?

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Unordered thoughts on the Pruitt situation


If you’re not one of those folks who pays close attention to social media and the lil’ blogosphere of ecology and evolution, it’s possible you haven’t heard about this, yet. But I imagine you will, soon enough. Before this ends up in the pages of Nature and Science and the New York Times, I have some thoughts I’d like to share (though not in any particular order), but first, I’ll give you the lowdown.

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Who you know really matters


People say that it can be important to go to conferences once in a while because “networking” is important.

I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say that, for junior scientists, attending a conference regularly is critical because knowing people in your field is necessary for academic success. This is particularly true if you don’t have prestigious connections.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s a cliché, but it’s one I’ve seen affirmed time and again. Continue reading

On the speciousness of “work-life balance”


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.

Why you should get to know grad students


My favorite thing about conferences, aside from seeing old friends and colleagues, is getting to know grad students.

There are so many great reasons to get to know grad students, and even more if your lab doesn’t have them.

First of all, I’d like to remind everyone that grad students are both professional scientists and individual human beings. Grad students are not interchangeable pieces. They don’t have as much experience as senior researchers, but most of them have dedicated their careers to this fun endeavor of science. Moreover, grad students do the same job as faculty – teaching, research, and even service (seminar series, running journal clubs, and stuff in the lab that is expected of them). My lens is adjusted so that I see that grad students are just like me. I’m just older than most grad students and, now, more grey. From there, the differences are minor unless it’s my position to mentor a student.

If I’m not a mentoring a grad student, then I am this person’s colleague and I will treat them with the appropriate level of attention and respect. Even though some early grad students might not see this in themselves.

I have made number of good friends – or perhaps close colleagues – because I’ve made the time to build these relationships. Though I’m not in grad school, this shouldn’t keep me from continuing to make friends with grad students.

Grad students are great because they are excited about their projects and love to talk about them. By hearing about what they’re working on, you not only get an introduction to their own work, but also all of the recent ideas and discoveries that have contributed to their ideas. Hearing the 10-minute intro to a dissertation is drinking a thick rich idea smoothie, from the person who has probably read more about that combination of ideas than anybody else.

Grad students are great because they are often eager to hear about what you’re working on. There are two big benefits to this. First of all, they comprise a potential audience open to new ideas and your work could be influential. More importantly, if they hear about your project in some detail, it’s likely that they’ll offer a separate perspective, new insights, and relevance from their own line of work. They might suggest a fancy new kind of analysis, a new set of things to measure, or other people who might be interested in your datasets of whom you’re not aware. They might know of datasets that would shed light on your own and they could put you in touch.

Grad students are great to hang out with if your lab is made up of undergraduates, as a resource for your students. It’s not likely that your undergrads are going to pal around with your PI friends at conferences that much, but they are more likely to get to know the grad students as see their successes as a possible model for their own next steps. They also can advise about the whole grad school application/selection process, as they’ve done it recently.

There is another practical benefit from getting to know grad students well. You become a deeper part of the field when you get to know its future leaders before they are breaking new ground. When you befriend a the current generation of grad students, that means that you’ll be friends with the next set of junior faculty. Even mentioning it sounds mighty careerist, but it nevertheless is a long-term positive.

I enjoy people for who they are, and when grad students are doing good work I go out of my way to compliment them. It costs you nothing to mention the truth but it makes a big difference to someone who is just starting out. I’ve tried to be outgoing in this way ever since grad school, and I’ve made a point to not change this as I’ve gotten older.

When I do see old friends at conferences, I met most of them during grad school days (either mine, theirs, or both of ours). While most other professors at an obscure school like mine would be unknown to a new generation of scientists, I’m at least not wholly anonymous, because I’ve continued to make the effort to know people. Being friendly and supportive of your colleagues is itself its own reward, and is one that compounds itself over time. That’s a nice side benefit of being friendly.