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.

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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?

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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.