Deadline awareness for everybody

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I and my family are now up in Oregon to experience the total solar eclipse. Which will be amazing.

This trip wasn’t hard to plan, but only because we were ready many moons ahead of time. I asked for my buddy’s spare bedroom about a year ago. Also, it’s the first official day of classes on my campus. My spouse’s work has a big exodus for the eclipse, no big deal there, but for our son, that’s the day that the big assignments from summer reading are due. So we all had to sort things out ahead of time.

This is the kind of planning that we need to build for students who we are advising and mentoring. Because applying for opportunities is far, far more than just filling out a form, and students who are not savvy to the mechanics of higher education may not appreciate this reality. Continue reading

How bad is the loss of NSF dissertation improvement grants?

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Last week, NSF announced they have stopped awarding DDIGs – the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants in the divisions of Environmental Biology and Integrative Organismal Systems.

How bad is this decision? In the words of Jane Lubchenco:

Continue reading

The deficit model of STEM recruitment

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As we train the next generation of STEM professionals, we use a filter that selects against marginalized folks, on account of their ethnicity, income, gender, and other aspects of identity. This, I hope you realize, is an ethical and pragmatic problem, and constrains a national imperative to maintain competitiveness in STEM.

When we are working for equity, this usually involves working to remediate perceived deficiencies relative to the template of a well-prepared student — filling in gaps that naturally co-occur with the well-established inequalities that are not going away anytime soon. These efforts at mitigation are bound to come up short, as long as they’re based on our current Deficit Model of STEM Recruitment. Continue reading

Bias in graduate admissions

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Yesterday, I received an epic comment on a recent post of mine about minority recruitment. I want to share it:

This fits my experience so so well. I am first gen American, started at community college, transferred to a good public university and struggled but ultimately graduated with a 3.2 GPA and did OK on GREs. Had zero “social capital” (and had no idea what that was). I was lucky to have a TA (PhD student) who took me under her wing and had me volunteer in her lab a few hours a week and an excellent professor in my last quarter who informed me about internships and helped me secure one specifically targeting minority students (and it was paid!). Anyhow, after gaining a lot of experience though field jobs , I applied and was rejected from many PhD programs and ended up going to a small CSU, racking up student loans and working full time while getting my Master’s. I then applied to one of the better ecology programs with excellent letters of reference and was flatly denied. Again, luckily I had a greater supervisor at a govt agency who was very supportive and together we published a couple of manuscripts. I re-applied to that same ecology programs and was offered a multi-year fellowship (no TAing, no RAing). The only difference in my application was the publications. Now that I am in the program, I look around at a sea of white faces and most of them I have come to find out are straight out of undergrad, no pubs, very little experience, just great grades and test scores and a lot of social capital and opportunity (paid internships, semester at a field station, paid field methods courses, etc) . What a load of crap.

Continue reading

Recruiting underrepresented minority students

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The last couple weeks have posed a challenge, as several people have contacted me (mostly out of the blue), asking me for ideas about specific steps they can take to improve the recruitment of minority students. This isn’t my field, but, I realize I’ve put myself in this position, because it’s a critical issue and I discuss it frequently. I’m just one of many who work in minority-serving institutions.

I realize that most of the suggestions I’ve given to people (but not advice) are generalized. If several folks are writing to me, I imagine there are many more of y’all out there who might be thinking the same thing but not writing. Hence this post. Just with my suggestions. Continue reading

Conference travel awards that you can’t apply for until after the travel is done are bad

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I’m about to make some statements that I think should be obvious. In fact, everything I say in this post about travel awards will probably be obvious, but I feel moved to write about it since these obviously bad travel awards exist.

Grad students are typically on very tight budgets.

Grad students are expected to attend and present their work at conferences (usually at least one per year).

Departments or schools often have funds available (as conference travel grants or similar) to students to help cover the costs of attending conferences, which is good.

Some of these grants require students to wait until after the conference is over and include all receipts for their expenses before they can apply, which is bad. Continue reading

NSF makes its graduate fellowships more accessible

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The US National Science Foundation has changed a rule for their Graduate Fellowships. As of next year, grad students can only make one attempt at landing a graduate fellowship, which is intended to increase the proportion of awards going to undergraduates. Continue reading

If you have a bad advisor in grad school

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A couple weeks ago, I emphasized that most PhD advisors are really good.

In a haphazardly conducted poll, one in four people reported their PhD advisor that was not caring or helpful. Crappy advisors may not be the norm, but we still have 1 in 4 too many.

I’ve seen a variety of situations, choices, and outcomes over the years, and would like to share some thoughts with grad students who are experiencing a bad PI. I’m hoping those of you who have gone through nasty experiences might be able share insights as well. I’ve just been a bystander, and there should be many more voices than my own.

When dealing with a bad PI, I think there are two big questions:

  1. What can be done to ameliorate the situation?
  2. When should you bail on your PI and move to a new lab or even a new institution?

Continue reading

A lot of scientists are kind, careful and caring

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I just returned from a tremendous meeting of the Entomological Society of America. I experienced a lot of moving moments.

I attended my first EntSoc meeting twenty years ago, as an early grad student. I’ve skipped the last few years (because family). This return brought a flush of friends and close colleagues that I don’t see on a regular basis. I got to meet PhD students who are being advised by my own former undergrad students. When I was in grad school, my advisor had two small kids. At this meeting, I got to see his older daughter, now in a MD/PhD program.

There are so many scientists who made a difference in my life — professionally and personally —  and having so many of them gathered under one large roof was overwhelming. Continue reading

Costs and benefits of attending conferences as a student

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Recently I attended the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada, which this year was held jointly with the Société d’entomologie du Québec, in Montréal. While chatting with a (professor) friend at the conference it came up that we both don’t really like attending conferences for a lot of reasons, but attend anyway because we think it is important to do so. At the time I remarked that I thought there were few tangible benefits of attending conferences as a student. Since then I’ve been thinking a bit about the costs and benefits of attending academic conferences as a student, and here I will summarize my thoughts.

The obvious costs of attending conferences are time, money, and energy. Continue reading

There are lots of opportunities for grad students to learn how to teach

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In my last post I complained that grad students don’t generally get taught how to teach in grad school, despite the fact that they are (arguably) there to be trained for a career that requires them to teach. Thanks very much to everyone who commented! As a result of both the comments and getting more information about TA training at my current university, I’ll now write about how there are in fact a lot of opportunities for grad students to learn how to teach. You just have to put a bit of effort into going out and finding them. Continue reading

Working away from work and making work home

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

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

The acceptances that weren’t acceptances

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

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

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

Academic Hazing

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

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

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

How to promote inclusivity in graduate fellowships?

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Students who did their undergraduate work at elite universities are dominating access to federally funded graduate fellowships in the sciences. I pointed out this obvious fact at the beginning of this month, which to my surprise caught quite a bit of attention. I also got a lot of email (which I discuss here — it’s more interesting than you might expect).

A common response was: Okay, that’s the problem, what about solutions? Hence, this post. First, here are some facts that are are germane to the solutions. Continue reading

Elite vs. disadvantaged institutions, and NSF Graduate Fellowships: a peek inside the mailbag

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I’ll be soon be sharing specific ideas about what can be done about the disadvantages experienced by talented students who attend non-prestigious undergraduate institutions. But first, I thought it would be useful for me to share how this topic has affected my inbox.

I barely get any email related to this site. Aside from the site stats, and some interactions on twitter, I wouldn’t have any other indicator about readership. So when I receive the occasional email related to this site, it stands out.

In relative terms, I got several metric tons of emails about last week’s post about NSF graduate fellowships. Continue reading

Academia and friendships

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At one point I thought about writing a post about the difficulties that academia wreaks on friendships. All that moving about means picking up, making new friends and leaving behind the old. It is tough in many respects and it is easy to see the negatives of that part of the career. Check out #academicnomad for the joys and sorrows of traveling/moving so much. Needless to say the post slipped by and I never quite got around to writing it. Continue reading

Graduate training, missed opportunities and the good ol’ days

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A couple of recent conversations have got me thinking about the culture of academia and grad school training.

The first conversation relates more to the general culture of academia. The complaint was that these days people are very selfish; they don’t want to participate in departmental events or even come into their office unless there is a very personal benefit they can see. The research groups are little islands and everything is about me, me, me. Young professors and graduate students aren’t thinking about how that can and should contribute to the academic community but rather always focused on what they need to do for themselves and/or their group. Now we can debate about whether or not this is really the state of academia or even if it is true for the particular department that was being complained about but it is an interesting thing to think about. In these days of extreme competition, for grants, positions, paper publications, and on and on, are we becoming too focused on ourselves? Is it really all about me? Continue reading

One person’s story about post-PhD employment

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I’m an Associate Professor at a regional state university. How did I get here? What choices did I make that led me in this direction? This month, a bunch of folks are telling their post-PhD stories, led by Jacquelyn Gill. (This group effort constitutes a “blog carnival.”) Here’s my contribution.

I went to grad school because I loved to do research in ecology, evolution and behavior. I knew when I started that I’d be better off having been (meagerly) employed for five years to get a PhD.

The default career mode, at least at the time, was that grad students get a postdoc and then become a professor. It was understood that not everybody would want to, or be able to, follow this path. But is still the starting place in any discussion of post-PhD employment. As time progressed in grad school, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to run a lab at a research university, and that I wanted an academic position that combined research, teaching and some outreach.

I liked the idea of working at an R1 institution, but there were three dealbreakers. First, I didn’t want the grant pressure to keep my people employed and to maintain my own security of employment. Second, I wanted to keep it real and run a small lab so that I could be involved in all parts of the science. I didn’t want to be like all of the other PIs that only spent a few days in the field and otherwise were computer jockeys managing people and paper. Third, I was taught in grad school that the life of an R1 PI is less family-friendly than a faculty position at a non-R1 institution. In hindsight, now that I have worked at a few non-R1 institutions, I can tell you that these reasons are total bunk. I was naïve. My reasons for avoiding R1 institutions were not valid and not rooted in reality. Even though I now realize my reasons at the time were screwed up, I was primarily looking for faculty jobs at liberal arts colleges and other teaching-centered institutions.

We muddled through a two-body problem. My spouse wasn’t an academic, but needed a large city to work. She was early enough in her career that she was prepared to move for me while I did the postdoc job hop. I wouldn’t have wanted her to uproot from a good situation. In hindsight, our moves ended up being beneficial for both of us.

As I was approaching the finish to grad school, I was getting nervous about a job. My five years of guaranteed TA support were ending. I recall being very anxious. I landed a postdoc, though the only drawback was starting four months before defending my thesis. I moved from Colorado to Texas for my postdoc, and spent the day on the postdoc and the evenings finishing up my dissertation. As a museum educator, my spouse quickly found a job in the education department at the Houston Museum of Nature and Science.

While I was applying for postdocs, I also applied for faculty positions, even though I was still ABD. And surprisingly enough, I got a couple interviews. (I think I had 2-3 pubs at the time, one of which was in a fancy journal.) I got offered a 2-year sabbatical replacement faculty position at Gettysburg College, an excellent SLAC in south central Pennsylvania. At the same time, my spouse was deciding to go to grad school for more advanced training in museum education. By far, the best choice for her was to study at The George Washington University (don’t forget the ‘The’) in Washington, D.C. This seemed like a relatively magical convergence. With uncertainty for long-term funding in my postdoc (and also no shortage of problems with the project itself), we bailed on Texas and headed back east.

We lived in Frederick, Maryland. Which at the time was the only real city between Washington DC and Gettysburg. (Since then, I’ve heard it’s been converted into an exurb of DC.) I drove past the gorgeous Catoctin mountains every day to go to work, and she took car/metro into DC to work and started grad school. We scheduled her grad school so that she’d finish up when my two-year stint at Gettysburg would be over. I taught a full courseload for the first time, and noticed that I really liked the teaching/research gig at a small college. Grad school was great for my spouse. Life was good. In my first year as a Visiting Assistant Professor, I got four tenure-track job interviews.

Through a magical stroke of fortune, I got a tenure-track job offer in my wife’s hometown, in San Diego, just 2 to 5 hours away from my family in LA (depending on traffic). The only catch was that I’d have to leave my position at Gettyburg one year early, and my wife had one year left in grad school. But, I really needed to focus on starting out my tenure-track position, and she really had to focus on grad school. She could move to DC instead of splitting the commute with me, and I could figure out San Diego without her for a year. If kids were involved, this scenario would have been a lot more complicated. If my spouse’s career was at a more advanced stage, the move from grad school to postdoc to temporary faculty to tenure-track faculty would have a lot messier and would have required more compromises. But somehow we made it work and it felt something resembling normal.

Then, after working in San Diego for seven years, we moved up to Los Angeles. I already have told that story. Which, if you haven’t read it, is a nail-biter.

As I tell the story to non-academics, they find our peregrinations rather surprising. From LA, to Boulder, to Houston, to Maryland, to San Diego, and eventually back to LA, at least for the last seven years. (In the meanwhile, I’ve been going back and forth from my field site Costa Rica on a regular basis). This frequency of moving is entirely normal in academia, even if we look like vagabonds among our friends.

What do I offer as the take-home interpretations of my post-PhD job route?

First: The geography of my tenure-track job offers was lucky. To some extent, I’ve made this luck through persistence, but having landed a job in my wife’s hometown was pretty damn incredible. And after botching the first one entirely, getting one in my hometown was amazing. Now that my spouse is at the senior staff level, openings in her specialized field of museum education are about as rare and prized as in my own field. However, we now live in a big city with many universities and many world-class museums, so we can (theoretically) move jobs without moving our home. We now are juggling a three-body problem.

Second: My early choices constrained later options. Even though I no longer am wary of an R1 faculty position, after spending several years at teaching-focused universities that is a long shot for me. (I do several people who made that move, but it’s still a rarity.) I’m confident that I can operate a helluva research program at a highly-ranked R1, but I’m too senior for an entry-level tenure-track position, and not a rockstar who will be recruited for a senior-level hire. For example, I am confident that I would totally kick butt at UCLA just up the road, but I doubt a search committee there will reach the same conclusion. I am just as pleased to be at a non-prestigious regional university, and when I do move, it’ll be because I’ll be looking for better compensation and working conditions. I’m looking at working at all kinds of universities, and I think my job satisfaction will be more tied to local factors on an individual campus rather than the type of institution.

Third: I applied for jobs that many PhD students and postdocs think are unsuitable for themselves. I spent a lot of time creating applications for universities that I’ve never heard of. I was hired as an “ecosystem ecologist” at CSU Dominguez Hills in Los Angeles. Even though I grew up in Los Angeles, the first time I ever heard of CSU Dominguez Hills is when I saw the job ad. And I’m not an ecosystem ecologist either. That didn’t keep me from spending several hours tailoring my application for this particular job. But I wouldn’t have gotten this job unless I applied, and most postdocs are not applying for jobs like the one I have now. I know this from chairing a search committee for two positions last year. That’s a whole ‘nother story.

Fourth: Is being a professor my most favorite job ever? Actually, no. My employment paradise would be a natural history museum, with a mix of research, outreach and occasional teaching. I’m not a systematist or an evolutionary biologist, so getting hired into this kind of job is not likely. However, I have had a couple interviews for curatorial-esque positions over the last ten years and was exceptionally bummed that I didn’t get them. On the balance, even large museums go through phases of financial instability. It would be hard to give up tenure for a job that might bounce me to the street because of the financial misdeeds of board members and museum leadership. I’ve seen too many talented good museum people lose positions due to cutbacks or toxic administrators. I don’t know what could get me to take off the golden handcuffs of tenure. There are some university museums that hire faculty. That would be wonderful. Maybe someday that could happen. But I am pleased with what I’m doing, and I still am amazed that there are people paying me to do what I love.

Fifth: I ruled out a number of possibilities for family reasons. There are a variety of locations where I would be able to find work but would be unworkable for my spouse. Even in the depth of a job crisis, I opted against a number of options that would’ve given me strong and steady employment.

Sixth: I am not employed as a professor because I deserve it more than others. There are others equally, and more, deserving that are underemployed compared to my position in the academic caste system. The CV I had when I got my first academic position probably wouldn’t be able to do so now, 15 years later.

Is grad school a good time to have a baby?

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I have no clear answer and I had my daughter just after finishing my fourth year…

A post on having kids in grad school has been on my roster basically since I started blogging. I sometimes get asked this question because I had a baby in grad school. While contemplating what to write, I realised I actually know quite a few mothers who started their families in grad school. Some have gone on to continue their careers in academia while others made the decision to leave. Although motherhood plays a part of their personal stories, the mothers I know are not unlike the general population of grad students I came through with, who are all also trying to find their way and decide what to do with their lives and careers.

So last year, I decided that to ask all the people I knew who had babies in grad school about their experiences and what advice they would give to the question “Is grad school a good time to have a baby?”. The one thing that these parents all have in common is an enthusiasm for the idea and a lack of follow through (including me!). I posed the question but then got caught up with other things as I’m wont to, just like I’m sure all the other parents who said they’d like to contribute but ended up being far too busy to write about it. Instead of pestering them after having dropped the ball before, I thought I would write my own perspective first.

What follows is a modified email that I sent to a female grad student who directly asked me for advice on whether grad school was a good time to have a baby. One thing that did come to mind when thinking about this question is that I come from a supportive department in this respect and it clearly shows in the number of grad school babies that born there. So my answer to the question is coloured with the privilege of support, both from my advisor and department. Many are not so lucky.

My advice and perspective is also skewed towards mothers, although I know grad school dads as well. Part of the challenge of having a baby during grad school for a woman is, well, having the baby. Although parenting can be a lot more equal pretty quickly as long as both parents make an effort for it to be, the burden of pregnancy and breastfeeding (if you can/do breastfeed) falls squarely on the mother. There are real physical aspects of this time that means extra support and consideration for mothers that I think shouldn’t be ignored. You’ll see some of that perspective in what follows.

Here is my advice from a couple of years ago to a fellow grad student* pondering having a baby before finishing:

I seriously feel unqualified to offer advice–somehow I managed to make it through but I’m still not sure how. So I’m not sure I have wisdom but here are a few thoughts. First, they always say there is never a good time to have kids and although its true, you should never let that stop you. It is a tough thing to plan and it is always more of a crazy disruptive thing then you imagine it will be. But it is also amazing so if you want it I would say give it a try–you will always make it work somehow–sometimes things go a little slower than planned or differently than planned but that is all part of it. I think you will make your priorities happen–if you want the baby and want the PhD, you will make it work. My story was that I did manage to have a double TA at the end and that helped a lot. But I did it in the opposite direction from (another grad student)–I took off a semester (‘writing’)/had Maiken and then double TAed. Somehow I managed to come back, double TA and finish. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that my committee was very forgiving—I am still working through publishing my chapters and sometimes I am amazed they let me go**. And of course, having a supportive spouse is huge–I couldn’t have done it without my partner’s help.

I think everyone’s situation is unique though. I thought I would do some writing when I was off but I did next to nothing those first few months. The birth was a lot harder than I had hoped (I had to have an emergency c-section). The recovery took more out of me than I thought–emergency means bigger cut and it was a while before I could even get out of bed normally. I also did not do well with the sleep deprivation so that made it tough to think and function–the hormones also can make you a little crazy and seriously effect your brain function. No one told me that I would be more forgetful once I became pregnant, for example…. Not to scare you but things can go in unexpected ways and although it is totally doable, pregnancy/breast feeding, etc is definitely a draining experience–but you will roll with those things as they come and they shouldn’t stop you. And many people have it much easier than me and hopefully you will too!

Ultimately, the decision should be up to you and your partner, so in some ways, I don’t think you need to talk to anyone officially until it is certain you are having a baby. Then the logistics can be worked out as they need to be and my experience with the department is that they are pretty supportive. My opinion is that it is your right to have a baby so they need to deal with it and they want you to graduate so they’re going to work with you to make that happen. When I passed 3 months, I went to my advisor and then my committee and the department chair. I basically started by saying I was pregnant and I had a rough outline of a plan of how to finish up. My biggest request was the double TA*** and they were good enough to give me that. I think they thought I was a little crazy and that I would not manage moving to Sweden, having a baby, coming back and defending but they were definitely supportive. I did lose one committee member because they wasn’t around when I needed to defend but everyone was fine with that and since I had four members I didn’t need to replace them. I guess you just should be prepared to be a little flexible and figure out what is feasible but I think it is definitely possible to manage it.

Having a baby is always going to be a huge disruption of everything else in your life and they only continue to be that. But grad school isn’t a bad time to start. You’re time is actually pretty flexible. So even though it was crazy busy, I’d do it again. The writing/stress of finishing always seems about the same to me, whether or not you have a baby (at least from watching other people). You basically fill up the time. When you have something else so huge going on, you are forced to work more efficiently and not worry about it so much. Revisions can always go on forever, when you don’t have forever, you basically have to stop. Part of the reason I am still working on things from my PhD is because I am trying for good journals so that is also a choice…

Anyway, personally, I wouldn’t ask permission/talk to anyone that I thought would try to dissuade me from doing it, at least if they were in a position of power. If they try to say it isn’t for the best and then you do get pregnant you’re possibly creating unnecessary tension. But once you are pregnant, it isn’t like they can advise you not to be. So the discussion will hopefully be more productive and positive about how to make it work.

I hope this ramble makes some sense. Follow your hearts, do what feels right and it will work out.****

So in short, is grad school a good time to have a baby? It was for me.***** I have a wonderful/stubborn/imaginative/annoying/beautiful/challenging/creative daughter and so far a career in science that I love. I wouldn’t change any of it. But having a baby is a deeply personal choice and I don’t think anyone can truly answer for another whether any particular time is ‘good’ or not.

 

*I’m happy to say said grad student now has a lovely daughter and PhD degree.

**Impostor syndrome alert: I had one published chapter and three manuscripts at the time of my defence. Not such an uncommon combination…but I had high expectations of myself and was disappointed that I hadn’t submitted more at that point.

***My salary support was through TAships and doing all my teaching duties in one semester instead of spread across two meant that I could come to Sweden and be with my partner during the first few months of my daughters life (her due date coincided with the start of the fall semester)

****I tend to live by this philosophy, although the ‘working out’ might not be how you first imagined.

*****A recent twitter conversation about grad school stipends directly relates to the finances of being a parent in grad school. I didn’t have to support my family on my stipend, nor was I a single parent, important distinctions.

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!

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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.

More backyard reflections: connections between farming and fieldwork

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The weekend was beautiful and I spent a good portion of it in the backyard digging up grass. The plan is to have a small raised garden for vegetables, nothing too extensive but enough to plant a few things and enjoy them straight from the earth. You can’t get more local than that. As happens when doing something physical, my mind wandered. I had some “help” from my 4 year old but she would quickly bore of the repetitive nature of the task at hand so I was often left to my own devises.

Beginning of the vegetable plot. Looks easy but my body can attest to the amount of digging it took!

Beginning of the vegetable plot. Looks easy but my body can attest to the amount of digging it took!

Not surprisingly, digging in the dirt got me thinking about the summer I turned 20 and spent 5 months on an organic farm. It was an interesting summer, where I learned a lot but I had no idea I was preparing for a future as a field ecologist. That summer I was a bit lost. I had gone to university for a single semester before dropping out (finances being a major factor) and spent the next year or so working at various service jobs in Vancouver. I knew those weren’t things I wanted to do forever but I wasn’t sure what it was that I wanted. So I headed back across the country to Nova Scotia to live and work on a farm very near where I had spent some of my childhood. The memories of exactly how this plan came to be are foggy for me now (think my mother subtlety encouraged the Nova Scotia angle) but however it came about I ended up living on an organic farm, working for $50/week with three other exploring (or lost depending on how you want to look at it) young women.

Before working on a farm I had a romantic notion that maybe farming was one of things I’d want to do with my life. Farming cured that even though I absolutely loved the summer doing it1. What I saw though was the stress of worrying about the weather, the pests and all the other things that can go wrong. The funny thing is that I face lots of the same problems these days, just in a different context. I’ve lost experiments to deer browsing, mowing and bad weather. One major lesson I took from those farming days is to diversify and protect the truly important “crops” (experiments). I usually have a few field experiments/a few more replicates/etc running ‘just in case’2. A lot of the ‘just in case’ also makes good ecological sense. It is important to know, for example, if the patterns you see are consistent in different populations. It also helps when the deer eat all your plants in one of the populations; at least you still have some data to work with. Protection like fencing is also sometimes a critical part of ecological experiments. If you want to examine plant-insect interactions for example then it doesn’t help if the deer eat everything. If you want to eat the tasty vegetables you plant and know there is at least one hare that prowls your yard, fencing it is.

In plant ecology, often experiments require planting out particular populations or communities. There is the raising of the seeds, planting of the individuals, harvesting of the data and the stress of choosing the right time to do all these things. Sometimes you get it wrong. I always loved this story of a large planting that got hit by a frost; smart and experienced researchers don’t throw up their hands when the frost kills half your plants. If they’re lucky there is variation in survival and they write a paper about that instead.3 However, these decisions aren’t without consequence. While I was a grad student, I witnessed another’s unfortunate loss of an entire experiment to frost shortly after planting one summer.4 So the stress that I thought I was turning away from when I finished at the farm is actually a regular part of my summers. Maybe my income isn’t so directly tied to the harvest as on a farm but if experiments and papers are the currency that allows me to keep going as a scientist, then I’ve definitely paid the price of random events throughout the years.

I learned a lot that summer but probably most things were really about me. I learned I had stamina and that I could push my body and mind to keep going. I learned that I could tolerate bad weather and good to get the job done.5 I learned to laugh at rain and hailstorms and freezing weather and heat that makes you feel like passing out every time you get up.6 I learned that no matter how well you prepare, sometimes you just need to drop everything and change directions. Perhaps most importantly I learned that I liked being out there each day and being proud of what we accomplished. And I learned that some of the best friendships come from sharing the good and the bad of fieldwork (/farm work).

These days I don’t spend 5 months outside maintaining plants and collecting data but when I get to get outside, it is often reminiscent of those farm days. But perhaps that is only since I’ve found myself doing a lot of work in old fields…

And perhaps since I’m not outside toiling in the fields all summer, I have the opportunity/energy to grow my own garden. I know my little garden isn’t enough to even provide for our family. It is really a luxury hobby. But I am growing it because I also want my daughter to have a sense of what it takes to grow food. I want her to be able to recognise what the plants many vegetables come from look like, not just what vegetables look like presented in the store. She’ll probably not grow up to be an ecologist but I want her to appreciate the living world around her, both the wild bits and the tamed.

 

Ecological Life Lessons:

1Try something before you decide! Seriously, think you want to be an ecologist? Then go work in a lab, if you can’t do that, volunteer. Or if volunteering/work aren’t options, take as many courses as you can that expose you to research experience and get on board for a research project/honours/whatever they call it at your institution. The important thing is to get exposure to what ecologists are really doing on a day-to-day basis. Of course, this advice applies to anyone looking to invest a lot of time in training for a job, not just ecologists. But familiarity of the process of research is a really good thing before you start a masters/PhD program.

2The opposite lesson is to avoid spreading yourself too thin. My PhD student has been collecting data like mad and has a lot of really good hints at what is going on in her system but this year we’ve decided that she needs to do less of the different kinds of things and concentrate on a few key studies that will wrap up her experiments nicely. Right now there is a lot of data but often not sufficient to truly say what is going on. Sometimes this is hard to avoid (e.g. we didn’t know that the variation in the things we’re looking at is so great that it is making it hard to detect whether there is a signal in the data) and she’s also had her fair share of run-ins with the deer and mowers.

3I haven’t yet had the opportunity to turn a disaster into an opportunity at this scale but I certainly look at my failed experiments to see if anything is there.

4Learn from other’s misfortune, as well as your own. As a grad student, you’re actively learning how to run your own research but you’re also surrounded by a bunch of people doing the same thing. Talk to them! Hearing about their successes and failures can be just as important as doing the things yourself. This can apply to teaching, writing, analyses, fieldwork, labwork and the list goes on. These days if I know someone who’s done something that is new to me I ask them for advice. There is always so many tricks that make life simpler, once you’ve figured them out.

5Fieldwork is often not for the faint of heart. Know your limitations. I know I need sleep and I don’t function very well without it. More than that, I work pretty poorly at night. So I won’t ever take up a project looking at night pollination. Cool stuff but I know that it would drain me in ways that super strenuous work during the day never would.

6When things get tough you basically have two options: laugh or cry (or get really sour and unpleasant and take it out on those around you). I prefer to laugh (or at least try to), makes for a better field season.

Differences between the sciences and the humanities

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One of the great things about being on a small campus is that I have lots of opportunities to interact with colleagues in different departments and colleges. One positive side effect of being sucked into university-level obligations is that you get to know people you otherwise wouldn’t interact with.

  • Over the years, I’ve observed some huge differences differences between the research cultures of the sciences and the humanities. Most of these things are obvious, I realize.  Understanding these differences can help bridge cultural gaps.
  • In the sciences, journal articles are the primary metric of productivity and success. In the humanities, it’s books. Scientists can write books, and humanities people can write journal articles, but they’re not as important.
  • In many humanities fields, giving a paper at a conference involves actually giving a paper. Standing at a podium and reading, page after page after page. Science talks are far more informal.
  • Research in the sciences is highly collaborative. Many humanities scholars work solitarily.
  • Student mentorship happens everywhere. In the sciences, students often adopt a piece of a larger lab project, whereas in the humanities more often students work on entirely separate questions from their mentors. On average, science professors take on a greater number of student researchers than in the humanities.
  • Scientists are often expected to fund their research programs with external grants. Humanities researchers aren’t necessarily expected to bring in outside funds in order to be perceived as successful, as long as they create the research products in the end.
  • What constitutes a huge grant in the humanities is a small grant in the sciences. An award of $50,000 from the NEH or NEA is a massive success and a windfall, whereas in the sciences this is useful money but not even close to a “big.”
  • Scientists can get big pools of money to start up their labs. In the humanities, you get moving expenses, a computer, maybe some reassigned time and maybe a little bit more.
  • In the humanities, receiving a PhD from a “top 10 program” in the field is critical for professional success. Program prestige matters in the sciences, but not as much. (I couldn’t even tell you what the rankings are in ecology/evolution.)
  • The academic job market is way more messed up in the humanities. Here are two contributing factors: First, the degree of adjunctification is higher outside the sciences because tenure-line science faculty are more likely to bring in overhead to cover salary costs. Second, the job market for research scientists is more robust than for academic (say) historians. In the humanities, it’s more challenging to parlay a PhD into a salaried academic position outside a university.
  • All worthwhile doctoral programs in the sciences fund the students, so tuition and living expenses aren’t covered by loans. Graduate students in the sciences are paid to teach and do research, albeit poorly. In the humanities, PhD recipients often emerge with substantial debt.
  • Scientists need good library access to get current articles. However, physical access to great libraries is far more important in the humanities, as original papers and actual books remains important for research. The physical location of an institution, relative to an impressive library, is important for the humanities scholar.
  • Humanities scholars use the phrase “digital humanities,” and it means something to them.
  • Science professors are less likely to use elbow patches on their tweed jackets, but professors in the humanities are more likely to smoke a pipe.

Feel free to make new contributions, or disabuse me of any mistaken notions, in the comments.