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.

Thoughts on the PhD defence

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Last Friday there was a PhD defence in our department and Terry’s post about open defences in the USA got me thinking about the different cultures surrounding PhD defences. The first thing that came to mind is how different they can be, from country to country, university to university and even from department to department within universities.

A few axes in which defences can vary:

  • defence versus none
  • an open versus closed defence
  • external examiner(s) versus none
  • student presentation versus none
  • external examiner gives a presentation on  or not
  • official book printed prior to or after your defence
  • who makes the decision (a unbiased committee or one that has been involved throughout your PhD)

So, why so much variation?

Well clearly, some variation might come about from outside sources, such as the law. Much of the variation might simply arise from traditions of the university and culture (we’ve always done it this way…). But this got me thinking about the purpose of a PhD defence. In our teaching it is always better if we have defined goals and learning outcomes of the activities we do and a PhD at its core is fundamentally a learning process. Being a bit new to the other side of the equation, I don’t really have any idea about how much discussion is given to the purpose and expectations of the defence in departments. Are there clear objectives? What is the point? What does it all mean? These questions and many more may drive the form of the defence across universities. Clearly there could be a difference in the form of a defence where the main purpose is to evaluate the quality of the work versus where it is seen as a time point to gather your various projects into a cohesive story (and presumably the evaluation of the work has been done earlier, e.g. in the decision that you’re ready to defend). [Update: scroll down to the comments for a much more detailed examination of the purpose of a PhD defence by Paul Klawinski]

When I started writing this post I realised that I don’t have strong opinions about how a PhD defence ‘should’ be. It seems to me that there are lots of different and equally good ways of awarding PhDs. What constitutes ‘good’ will likely vary a lot based on how the entire program is formulated. But seeing different traditions now in Sweden has opened my eyes to some of the benefits of doing things differently. And thinking more seriously about PhD defences has gotten me thinking about the broader potential impacts of the event beyond being able to call yourself Dr. afterwards.

First maybe I should lay out my own experience on the table so that my biases are in the open. I have a degree from the USA and so my defence went something like this: I handed in my dissertation to the committee that I had throughout my PhD a few weeks before the day, I gave a seminar (50 mins) on my research to the department and answered questions, then I went into a room with my committee and talked with them. They sent me out of the room and talked about who knows what while I waited (the time went on forever…). Then they brought me back and congratulated me (hooray!). I think I might have been told that an open defence was illegal somewhere in the planning but honestly with juggling a baby, an international move and finishing up, that time is a bit hazy for me….

What I liked about the process that I went through is that it gave me a defined goal to work towards for ‘finishing’ writing. In my department you only print bound copies of your dissertation after the defence. That means there is still more to do and you need to incorporate changes that your committee suggests. But the seminar gave me a chance to communicate with my department and let them know what I had managed to do in my time there. So although it was a little stressful, I appreciated having a defence rather than not. I think I benefited from doing mine. It was the first full length seminar on my work, for example. And getting through your defence is definitely something to celebrate.

I’m not sure what it would have been like to have an open defence. The ones I’ve been to so far here in Sweden are much more focused on the details of the papers included in the dissertation. To be honest, I didn’t really feel like I was defending anything in my ‘defence’. In fact, my yearly committee meetings were always much harder and challenging than my defence and that wasn’t a bad thing. It made sure that my progress was going in the best possible direct rather than challenging details after it was too late to change them. So my committee and I talked very little about my dissertation but they focused more on big picture ideas. It was a really a great conversation that got me thinking about my place in science and how I could contribute. I think I’m still learning that but it was a wonderful broadening conversation. I was definitely asked some challenging questions in that closed-door portion of the defence, but I wasn’t actually defending my specific papers as I’ve seen more recently. Even in my former department, I think what constitutes the defence varies a lot between students but I appreciated the form mine took.

One thing I think I might have missed out on with an internal defence with my committee is that I didn’t get a chance to have an in depth conversation about my work with someone from the outside. Watching the defences here in Sweden, I am beginning to appreciate how valuable that can be. I know of a number of people who ended up doing a post-doc with their external reviewer. It seems like a great way to meet and interact with a leader in your field and also gives them a chance to get to know you. I also know of another example of a paper that came out of discussions during the defence. Generally the process seems like a great way to connect with someone and in our department the external examiner also gives a presentation about your work to put it in a broader context. In a way, this gets them to be an advocate of the student and really get to know their work. So even if future collaborations aren’t an outcome, you’ve had someone new think deeply and carefully about your work. However, if I had an external examiner for my own defence, I don’t think I would have had the same kind of interesting conversation as I did. It could have been just as good but likely pretty different.

So overall, I can see benefits to different PhD defence styles but unfortunately you can’t do everything…

What are the traditions at your department? Are there active discussions about what could be broader outcomes of the process of the PhD defence (besides a point where you can pass/fail a student)? And please share more extended outcomes of the PhD defence process! I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface in this post.

Public thesis defenses are illegal in the USA

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In the United States, PhD students defend their thesis with a public presentation. After this presentation (or sometimes, on another day), the student has a private session with the dissertation committee to evaluate whether the student earned a doctorate.

This practice is legal.

In some other countries — and in some departments in the United States as well — the doctoral students are evaluated by their committees publicly after their thesis defense talk. I’m not naming departments in this post, though several have been brought to my attention in recent days.

In the US, this practice is illegal.

Public oral examinations violate FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Just as it is illegal to post the grades of students with personally identifying information (without prior consent), it’s illegal to administer an oral exam with spectators. I’m not a lawyer, but my reading of the plain-language summary of the bill is mighty unambiguous.

For a thesis defense to be legal, everybody needs to be directed to leave once the public presentation is finished. Alternatively, the student and the committee retreat to a private area for the evaluation.

As long as the defense is genuine, in which student performance is being evaluated, and there a nonzero (though infinitesimal) probability of failure, then it cannot be public unless the student has specifically waived privacy.

I understand that the public grilling of doctoral candidates may be a time-honored tradition. If a student isn’t prepared to have their thesis publicly grilled, then the student shouldn’t be allowed to advance to this stage of the process. However, the public evaluation of the candidate’s performance for work towards the degree is simply straight-up illegal. There are a variety of legitimate reasons that a student may have for wanting to keep the evaluation process private.

When rights protected by FERPA have been violated, students may not sue the institution for damages. However, the overt violation of FERPA can threaten federal funding. Departments that publicly evaluate the performance of doctoral candidates in public are, at least in theory, putting the university at risk.

My have my own misgivings about public defenses as a faculty member, though it’s not about privacy. It has to do with the rigor of the process. While having a public defense might be seen as transparent and a sign of rigor, on the other hand it also can inhibit the members of the committee from providing an adequate evaluation. While there is a stereotype that professors can be vicious with arrogant questions and out to take students down a notch to inflate their own egos, these individuals aren’t that common. More often, committee members may be concerned about the appearance of collegiality and don’t want to be seen as unfairly attacking an unprepared student. If a student hasn’t truly done the work meeting the standard for the doctorate, the levy of that assessment would be unnecessarily cruel in public. Inadequate theses shouldn’t ever come to the defense stage. But by a product of flawed personalities and bad politics, this happens at times. A private defense might be the best way to deal with these occasions. Of course, a private defense also can cause an overstuffed committee member to unfairly sabotage a candidate. That is a flaw in the prevailing model in the US.

I don’t know which one is better. But I do know which one is legal.

Thanks to Canadians Alex Bond and Andrea Kirkwood, with whom I discussed private/public defenses on twitter. I can’t tell you anything about Canadian law, are they still a monarchy?

How all ecology grad students can benefit from an OTS course

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If you’ve only just started grad school, or if you’re getting ready to finish, there are a ton of great reasons to take the OTS course this summer. The Organization for Tropical Studies courses aren’t just for tropical biologists, and the experience is useful for all ecology grad students.

  • Breadth of research methods — Gain experience in running experiments in a great variety of biomes, fields, and taxa. No matter your speciality, it can be useful and important to know how to mark insects, do biogeochemistry and microbial ecology, dissect flowers and do pollination experiments, mist net birds and bats, make and analyze sound recordings, and much, much more.
  • Making connections — You will work very closely with a large number of faculty from universities all over the United States and elsewhere. More important, you’re in the course with a bunch of other grad students who are typically fun-loving and academically talented. The course is work hard-play hard environment and you’ll go back home with new friends and colleagues, some of whom you’ll stay in touch with for the remainder of your career. You want to emerge from grad school with a network that goes well beyond your own institution. This is a great way to make that happen.
  • Experimental design — This course will have you designing and conducting experiments at many different sites in small groups. This really helps you learn how to develop the right questions, design the most appropriate experiments and that you’ve had the best analysis in mind the whole time.
  • Data analysis — Because you are involved in so many experiments, you gain experience with may kinds of analysis. The course has expert faculty including well-recognized statistical gurus who communicate in common English. You’ll get training in R to give you the tools that you need.
  • Science communication skills — Learn how to produce media that communicate your science with the public, by working with PhD scientists/filmmakers. Here are the tremendous results from a brief science communication project on the OTS course, from a post on the National Geographic Explorers Journal. The course runs its own blog and you have an opportunity to create podcasts and posts.
  • Experience with conservation in action — You’ll have the chance to interact with land managers and conservation professionals on the sites of ongoing projects. If you’re thinking about getting into the this aspect of the ecology business, you’ll have experiences and opportunities with making connections.
  • Tropical nature — If you haven’t ever spent time in the tropics, the biological diversity is stunning compared to the meager biota of the temperate zone. You get to see these biomes in the company of researchers who are experts in this environment and conduct a number of experiments. If you want to learn natural history and biodiversity, this is a chance to be in the field with the experts who can show you what you what to learn.
  • Units — You get six credit hours from the University of Costa Rica that (typically) count towards the coursework requirements of your program. So, there’s that, too.

Speaking just from my own experience, the course gave me so many skills — and ideas — that have been useful in many unpredictable ways. I’ve yet to meet anybody who has taken the course who has said it is anything short of incredibly useful, and I think everybody has rated it as a spectacular experience. In the course of your graduate career, it definitely is worth your time.

Here’s a pdf flyer with more info.

Here is the link to the course for summer 2014, with its list of great faculty and remarkable sites the course visits, and instructions on how to apply. The deadline for applications is just over a week away, but then there are rolling admissions afterwards.

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: 

nathistvenndiagram

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.

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.

What happens when you don’t know anything about the subject you’re teaching?

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Biologie & Anatomie & Mensch, via Wikimedia commons

Biologie & Anatomie & Mensch, via Wikimedia commons

Like many grad students in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, I my made a living through grad school as a TA.

One semester, there were open positions in the Human Anatomy cadaver lab. I was foolish enough to allow myself to be assigned to this course. What were my qualifications for teaching an upper-division human anatomy laboratory? I took comparative vertebrate anatomy in college four years earlier. We dissected cats. I barely got a C.

You can imagine what a cadaver lab might be like. The point of the lab was to memorize lots of parts, as well as the parts to which those parts were connected. More happened in lecture, I guess, but in lab nearly the entire grade for students was generated from practical quizzes and exams. These assessments consisted of a series of labeled pins in cadavers.

My job was to work with the students so that they knew all the parts for quizzes and exams. (You might think that memorizing the names of parts is dumb, when you could just look them up in a book. But if you’re getting trained for a career in the health sciences, knowing exactly the names of all these parts and what they are connected to is actually a fundamental part of the job, and not too different from knowing vocabulary as a part of a foreign language.)

The hard part about teaching this class is: once you look inside a human being, we’ve got a helluva lotta parts, all of which have names. I was studying the biogeography of ants. Some of the other grad student TAs spent a huge amount of time prepping, to learn the content that we were teaching each week. Either I didn’t have the time, or didn’t choose to make the time. I also discovered that the odors of the preservatives gave me headaches, even when everything was ventilated properly. Regardless of the excuse that I can invent a posteriori, the bottom line is that I knew far less course material than was expected of the students.

Boy howdy, did I blow it that semester! At the end, my evaluation scores were in the basement. Most of the students thought I sucked. The reason that they thought I sucked is because I sucked. What would you think if you asked your instructor a basic question, like “Is this the Palmaris Longus or the Flexor Carpi Ulnaris?” and your instructor says:

I don’t know? Maybe you should look it up? Let’s figure out what page it is in the book?

The whole point of the lab was for students to learn where all the parts were and what they were called. And I didn’t know how to find the parts and didn’t know the names. I lacked confidence, and my students were far more interested in the subject. It was clear to the students that I didn’t invest the time in doing what was necessary to teach well. They could tell, correctly, that I had higher priorities.

Even though students were in separate lab sections, a big chunk of the grade was based on a single comprehensive practical exam that was administered to all lab sections by the lecture instructor. Even though I taught them all semester – or didn’t teach them at all – their total performance was measured against all other students, including those who were lucky enough to be in other lab sections taught by anatomy groupies. Even I at the time realized that my students drew the short straw.

One of my sections did okay, and was just above the average lab section. The other section – the first of the two – had the best score among all of the lab sections! My students, with the poor excuse of an ignoramus instructor, kicked the butts of all other sections. These are the very same students that gave me the most pathetic evaluation scores of all time. They aced the frickin’ final exam.

What the hell happened?

I inadvertently was using a so-called “best practice” called inquiry-based instruction. That semester, I taught the students nothing, and that’s why they learned.

Now, I know even less human anatomy than I did back then. (I remember the Palmaris Longus, though, because mine is missing.) I bet my students would learn even more now than mine did then, and I also bet that I’d get pretty good evals, to boot. Why is that?

I’d teach the same way I taught back then, but this time around, I’d do it with confidence. If a student asked me to tell the difference between the location of muscle A and muscle B, I’d say:

I don’t know. You should look it up. Find it in the book and let me know when you’ve figured it out.

The only difference between the hypothetical now, and the actual then, is confidence. Of course, there’s no way in heck that I’ll ever be assigned to teach human anatomy again, because the instructors really should have far greater mastery than the students. In this particular lab, I don’t think mastery by the instructor really mattered, as the instructor only needed to tell the students what they needed to know, and the memorization required very little guidance. (For Bloom’s taxonomy people this was all straight-up basic “knowledge.”)

I do not recommend having an ignorant professor teach a course. If a class requires anything more than memorizing a bunch of stuff, then, obviously, the instructor needs to know a lot more than the students. Aside from a laboratory in anatomy, few if any other labs require (or should require) only straight-up memorization of knowledge. Creating the most effective paths for discovery requires an intimate knowledge of the material, especially when working with underprepared students.

For contrasting example, when I’ve taught about the diversity, morphology and evolutionary history of animals, I tell my students the same amount of detail that I told my anatomy students back then: nothing. I provide a framework for learning, and it’s their job to sort it out. If a students asks about the differences between an annelid and a nemadote, I refrain from busting into hours of lecture. But I don’t just lead them to specimens and a book. I need to provide additional lines of inquiry that put their question into context. It’s not just memorizing a muscle. In this case, it’s about learning bigger concepts about evolutionary history and how we study attempt to reconstruct the evolutionary trees of life. I ask them to make specific comparisons and I ask leading questions to make sure that they’re considering certain concepts as they conduct their inquiry. That takes expertise and content knowledge on my part.

To answer the non-rhetorical question that is the title of this post, then I guess the answer is: It will be a disaster.

But if you act with confidence and don’t misrepresent your mastery, then it might be possible to get by with not knowing so much and still have your students learn. Then again, if you’re teaching anything other than an anatomy lab that involves only strict memorization, I’d guess that both you and your students are probably up a creek if you don’t know your stuff.

The semester after was the TA for human anatomy, I taught Insect Biology lab. That was better for everybody.

Advising undergraduates on applications for grad school

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Now’s the time of year when prospective grad students need to get serious about applying to graduate programs.

Students are probably relying on their professors to guide them through the process. While professors are generally well informed, we have to be careful to not overestimate how well we can steer our students.

Please remember a few facts:

  • The grad school application process varies dramatically, even among subdisciplines.
  • Procedures vary greatly among different universities, and many are idiosyncratic.
  • Personal experiences with the grad school application process >5 years ago are outdated.

Undergraduates typically have misconceptions that are particularly difficult to dispel. After all, telling our students a set of facts doesn’t necessarily make them understand how important these facts are.

Undergrads are often very surprised to discover that the process is haphazard, and how their personality and professionalism affect the outcome. Even if you tell them about it in detail before they start.

What is the fix for this? Undergraduates should be getting direct advice from current graduate students who are just a little further down the same road. Ideally these students are alums from your lab or your institution, but if you need to stretch further to find grad students to advise your undergrads, it’s worth your while.

In addition to talking with grad students, it’s not hard to find quality contemporary advice to share with your students, like this post by Christine Boake. Be careful to provide information germane to a particular field, because sometimes it’s not obvious that what appears to be written as generalized advice may work really well only within certain disciplines. If you are in ecology, for example, here’s another great post about the grad school application procedure from Dynamic Ecology. If you know of others that you want to share, please post them in the comments. (You can do it anonymously.) I wouldn’t even know where to start for physics, chemistry, computer science, cell/molecular biology, and so on.

While you’re at it, please don’t give generalized advice to students wondering whether to do a Master’s or Ph.D.

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?

Getting past the comic stereotype of grad student life

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I loved grad school. I have serious nostalgia for grad school. If I could be a grad student forever, that would rock.

In fact, my job as a faculty member is a lot like being a grad student. I do research, I teach, I write grants, I write manuscripts, I work with students less experienced than myself, and I build collaborations.

What about grad school was not awesome? You get to do research on exactly the topic or subsubfield that you chose to work in, you get to hang out with a diverse bunch of smart people with really similar interests, you presumably are traveling to conferences and sharing your work with others, and you have ample opportunity to shape your professional trajectory and identity in the direction you want. Sure, you don’t get paid much, but enough to get by. If you are in grad school later in life, it would cause some anxiety about saving up for retirement, I imagine. But in all, grad school rules.

Of course this might not be true for everyone. There are many kinds of graduate students, with many kinds of attitudes connected to many kinds of experiences. Labs are different, PIs are different, projects are different, and recreational pursuits vary. Some people have a horrible time in grad school. This I understand.

If you read the comics, grad students are pitiable creatures. They’re chronically poor and have no future. I’m not the only one tired of how the media consistently portrays grad school as financially insecure. In the context of the latest media sequester freakout, Joe Hanson agrees.

Humor often relies on stereotypes. In PhD Comics, the caricature of the miserable grad student is the basis of the humor. It’s often funny, and I’m a regular reader. I just hope people don’t buy into this stereotype as a mirror for their own lives, which is a recipe for misery.

The same for Matt Groening.

I realize that, as a fat cat tenured professor, this message might not be welcome to those who are unhappy. I’ll tell you at least this much: if you’re unhappy in grad school, then I don’t imagine you’d be happy as a tenured faculty member either.

Advice on whether to do an M.S. before the Ph.D.

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If you have undergraduates who are thinking about doing a Ph.D., they may be seeking advice about how, or whether, to do an M.S. first.

I’m in a field in which the M.S. is entirely optional. Some people have ’em, and many don’t. (I don’t.) Many folks have strong-ish opinions about whether or not doing a Master’s is good. Some say it’s good because it helps you hone your experience, get into a better lab for the Ph.D., and results in a higher quality dissertation research. Others will say that an M.S. could be an unnecessary, financially and temporally expensive detour that might result in a subpar experience. In addition, sometimes students get trapped in M.S. programs for a long time, as many M.S. granting institutions like to treat their graduate students like the Ph.D. students that they can’t train.

Here’s my suggestion for those who are about to advice a promising undergraduate for or against the M.S.:

Throw your experiences and biases out the window.

There is no generalized reason why an M.S. degree is, or is not, a valuable precursor to a Ph.D.

The reasons that a Ph.D.-bound student should pursue or avoid an M.S. are entirely individualized, based on a given student’s experience, aspirations, and opportunities.

The things you need to take into account in this calculation are many, but they pertain to the student and not any generality that you might have to proffer. These include:

  • How difficult it is to get into a good lab for the PhD
  • Whether professional success in the subfield is associated with having an MS
  • Whether the student can afford the MS financially
  • Whether the experience of the MS would alter the decision to do the PhD
  • The specific program and lab that the student would go to for the M.S.
  • Whether the student has temporary geographic constraints
  • Whether the student has a realistic idea about what life is like in a PhD program
  • The presence, absence, or specifics of the student’s career plans
  • Whether the student’s probability for success in the PhD would be altered by having the experience of an MS
  • and I’m sure there are may more

You know your students well, or at least you should know them well. Dispense your advice on what they, in particular, need and what is in their best interest. Everybody is different, and the landscape is constantly evolving. What worked for us, just a few short years ago, can’t be used much to inform contemporary decisions.