Thinking critically about the ways we help our students

Standard

wskqpFolks can throw around the word “mentoring” rather sloppily. Which can lead students to being told that they’re being mentored, when they’re not.

I’ve seen a bit more of this while reviewing a variety of formal “mentorship plans” (in the context of panel service). A lot of people get what mentorship is about. But a good fraction of the plans weren’t so much about mentorship as they were about supervision — they said what the “mentee” would be doing for the “mentor,” but not specific about how the “mentor” would be supporting the specific needs of the “mentee.”

So what is mentorship and what isn’t? I volunteer an example for your consideration: Continue reading

How bad is the loss of NSF dissertation improvement grants?

Standard

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

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

Continue reading

NSF Graduate Fellowships and the path towards equity

Standard

When I visited the SACNAS conference some weeks ago, I spent most of my time in the exhibit hall, chatting with students at their posters and scoping out the institutional recruitment tables. A few organizations had primo real estate, with a large amount of square footage right by the entrance. They had a small army of representatives, always busy with students. The ones that I recall include USC, Harvard, and NSF.

There’s no doubt that NSF is serious about its institutional mission to develop the most talented scientific workforce in this country, which means we need scientists from all backgrounds. If you think that NSF isn’t committed to the recruitment of underrepresented minorities (URMs), you probably don’t have a lot of experience with NSF. They not only care, but they also put a lot of thought into how to do it right. Continue reading

Parade of professors or solo scholar?

Standard

There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches. Continue reading

NSF makes its graduate fellowships more accessible

Standard

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

Useful science communication resources

Standard

Inspired by my own endeavours in science communication and an informal talk I gave to my department, I started to think about offering a course. There isn’t anything like that for PhD students so I went through a few easy hoops and got approval to give a short course on science communication. We finished up the meetings last week and I thought it might be useful to collect and share all the information in one place. Keep on reading if you’re interested in running your own version of such a course or if you are looking for information on topics in science communication. Continue reading

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

Standard

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

Why aren’t grad students taught how to teach?

Standard

The biology departments at the university I attended for my MSc and the one I just started at for my PhD both have courses for new grad students that are meant to be an introduction to the skills they will need to be successful in grad school and beyond. One is called “Basic skills for a career in science,” which is pretty self-explanatory. The other is called Professional Skills Development “Philosophy and methods” and is “intended to be a forum for students to enhance their current skills and understanding of how to do ‘good’ science and to discuss some issues that they will encounter as scientists.” One used to be optional and is now mandatory; the other used to be mandatory but is now optional. (updated)

The course I took included writing grants and abstracts, making scientific posters and presentations, effective data presentation, time management and advisor-advisee relations, the publication process, and ethics. The one I haven’t taken appears to cover somewhat similar topics. Neither mentions teaching, which I’m pretty sure is an essential skill for a career in science. Continue reading

Practicing what you preach (or rather teach)

Standard

I have been fairly absent from here over the last many months. I’ve wanted to write and even started a few posts but they never got completed. The clashing of personal (husband’s surgery) and work stresses (major grant applications that will allow me to continue my position in Sweden) this spring made for a hectic time. I never really regained my balance before summer started. And well, I’m a field ecologist at heart, so between fieldwork and vacation the weeks have flown by. The end result is that I’m out of the habit of writing regularly and I miss it.

As the fall approaches and regular schedules settle in, my plan is to practice what I’m about to teach. Continue reading

Working away from work and making work home

Standard

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

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

The acceptances that weren’t acceptances

Standard

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

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

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

Academic Hazing

Standard

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

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

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

Graduate training, missed opportunities and the good ol’ days

Standard

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

Is grad school a good time to have a baby?

Standard

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.

The field ecology of a gut microbe inside bullet ants

Standard
The bullet ant Paraponera clavata. Image by Alex Wild.

The bullet ant Paraponera clavata. Image by Alex Wild.

This is the latest paper from my lab, which I’m really excited about. When we designed the project, several people told us that it would be useless. “It’s pointless to study the ecology of a symbiotic microbe in the wild when we have yet to specify its function inside the host.” It was only two days ago that Meg Duffy said that the microbiome is the most important recent conceptual advance in ecology, and I agree with her. That’s one of the reasons we did this project, to look at the ecology of gut microbe in the wild, which appears to be a true frontier.

There are plenty of advances that are yet to be made in the field biology of microbes, and these discoveries do not have an a priori requirement understanding of the comprehensive biology of an organism before understanding its ecology.

The microbial contents the guts of bullet ants are remarkably heterogeneous. In some colonies of bullet ants, we found oodles of a particular Bartonella microbe, closely related to those that facilitate N cycling in other animals. And most closely related (as far as we know) to other Bartonella inside ants on other distant continents. But, many bullet ant colonies lack this microbe. Perhaps not by accident, bullet ants have a remarkably varied diet, and some colonies eat more insects than anything else, and other colonies are functional herbivores. Perhaps the presence of this N-cycling microbe might be associated with – or even respond to – the trophic position of the ants?

Aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves by studying how diet affects microbes in the wild, when we don’t know what the microbes do? I say, phooey. Most of the ants that we study in tropical rainforest are just as mysterious as microbes. We don’t even know what most species of ants even eat! Nobody tells me I can’t study the ecology of ants without doing a comprehensive study of their diets and relationships to other organisms in the ecosystem. So, why do we need to know exactly what the role of microbe is in the gut of an animal before working to understand its distribution and ecology?

Working out the function of these microbes is mighty damn hard, if not impossible at the moment. But we can understand the distribution of these critters among colonies of ants an understand the environmental factors that shape its occurrence, as well as doing experiments to see how we can make incidence increase or decrease.

So, we ran an experiment that gave the ant colonies supplemental carbohydrates, or supplemental protein. (This was not easy at all, though you might think it would be. A post on this is forthcoming.) And we checked to see if how the microbes responded. It turns out that when you feed colonies sugar, this microbe becomes more prevalent. Moreover, the results from the manipulation recapitulate the ambient relationship between diet and microbial prevalence. Some colonies consistently collect more sugary nectar from the canopy than other colonies. (Learning this involved going out into the forest in the middle of the night, for an entire summer, to measure bullet ant colony diets.) The colonies that collect more nectar are more likely to have this microbe. So, we can clearly conclude that a sugary diet is predictive of the incidence of this particular Bartonella inside bullet ants.

And the stable isotopes tell an interesting story, too.

So what does this mean? While most ant species that forage in rainforest canopies are functionally herbivorous, bullet ants are true omnivores. They also don’t have the specialized obligate N-cycling microbes that the more herbivores canopy ants have. We found that the close bullet ant diets get to their competitors in the canopy, the more likely they have this facultative N-cycling microbe. If we’re trying to understand how the evolution of obligate sugar-feeding evolved among the dominant ants of rainforest canopies, then I suggest that understanding the ecology of the facultative bullet ant/Bartonella association is to get a window into the evolution this form of dietary specialization.

How this project happened inside a teaching institution

This was the Master’s thesis project of Hannah Larson. Hannah came to my lab with a specific interest in doing field ecology. Based on preliminary finds predating her arrival, Hannah and I developed this project in collaboration with Shana Goffredi, our microbial ecology collaborator. After taking courses for a semester, Hannah headed to the rainforest for eight months to conduct this project at La Selva Biological Station. Hannah found, marked and measured over a hundred bullet ant colonies (which became the start of a long-term monitoring project), and overcame a series of challenges in getting the molecular work done in a rainforest field station (with substantial help from our collaborating lab at the University of Costa Rica). Undergraduate Erica Parra is the one who (by her own choice I should point out) spent long nights in the pitch black of the rainforest at the base of actively foraging bullet ant colonies. The work was funded by an NSF-IRES grant OISE-1130156, though we scrambled for additional funds for reagents that were not in the project budget.

Reference:

Larson, H.K., S.K. Goffredi, E.L. Parra, O. Vargas, A. Pinto, T.P. McGlynn. 2014. Distribution and dietary regulation of an associated facultative Rhizobiales-related bacterium in the omnivorous Giant Tropical Ant, Paraponera clavata. Naturwissenschaften. DOI: 10.1007/s00114-014-1168-0

You can find a copy of this paper on my lab’s website.

Thoughts on the PhD defence

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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.

Collected observations from travels among universities

Standard

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

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

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

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

A snapshot of the publication cycle

Standard

I was recently asked:

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

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

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

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

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

In this document are three categories:

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

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

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

Manuscript completed

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

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

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

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

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

Manuscripts in Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Projects in development

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

Summary

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

Legend to Students and Collaborators

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

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

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

Student D: Undergrad still active in my lab

Student E: Former undergrad, now working in biology somewhere

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

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

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

Student I: Current M.S. student

Student L: Current M.S. student

Student M: Current M.S. student

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

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

Student P: Current M.S. student

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

Collab B: Grad student in the lab of Collab C

Collab C: Faculty at R1 university

Collab D: Faculty at a small liberal arts college

Collab E: Faculty at a small liberal arts college

Collab F: International collaborator

Collab G: Faculty at an R1 university

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

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

Collab J: Ph.D. student at R1 university

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

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

Collab M: Postdoc at research institution

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

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

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

Why host a speaker?

Standard

I recently went over why seminar speakers might give a talk.  Now, the flipside:

What is to be gained by inviting and hosting a seminar speaker?

There are institutional advantages to running a seminar series: to promote an intellectual atmosphere in a department, build a diversity of viewpoints, train students and keep everybody current. However, when an individual person or laboratory decides to host a particular guest speaker, there are other primary motives at work.

Here is a non-exclusive list of goals of hosts, that could explain why certain speakers are picked for a seminar series.

Schmoozing for a postdoc.  I think this is the main reason that speakers are invited. Grad students want to be able to land a postdoc, and PIs want their students to land postdocs. Bringing in potential postdoc mentors to build relationships with graduate students is an old tradition.

Hang out with your intellectual hero.  There’s something special about academically famous people in your field. The chance to visit just have a coffee with, say, Bert Hölldobler or Dan Janzen would be mighty darn cool. When I was in grad school, one person I invited was Ivette Perfecto. My main motivation was because because her science is just so darn awesome, and the chance to hang out with her was tremendous.

Quality time with a friend. Wouldn’t it good to see an old pal you haven’t seen for a while, and catch up on what work they’ve been doing?

Being an alpha. Hosts could invite junior speakers in their same field which are sure to be flattering of their more esteemed hosts whom they are visiting.

Be a beta. Hosts could invite senior researchers in their field, upon whose feet they may grovel. How is this different from hanging out with your hero? Betas are looking for status and opportunity, while it’s also possible to invite someone for less careerist motives.

Develop the career of another scientist. It could be that you just want to give an a good experience to a junior scientist who does good work, who could stand to benefit from giving an invited seminar.

Work with a collaborator. Some work is a lot easier, or more effective, when you’re in the same room, rather than using various methods of remote communication. Why not bring your collaborator out on the department’s dime?

Build a culture of inclusiveness. It’s no accident that most visiting speakers that I invite to my university’s lecture series are early career women, often with an international background or from underrepresented groups. This helps promote the careers of these scientists who are at a structural disadvantage because of biases in the system. An even stronger motivation, from my standpoint, is that these speakers are inspirational role models for our students, most of whom are minority women. I can talk about a commitment to diversity until my white face turns blue, but the fact of who I am speaks more than my words. Regular exposure to the experiences of senior doctoral students, postdocs, and junior faculty who have backgrounds not so different from my own students are critical. This isn’t the only factor involved in extending an invitation, but it’s a big one for myself and others at my institution.

Trade favors.  Bringing a speaker out might be to make someone owe you a favor or a way to repay a favor. This could be to help out someone’s postdoc, or help out someone with a shaky tenure case who could use a bit of external validation. This might sound like a silly motive, but not without precedent. Once, when I was organizing a symposium, someone asked me for a speaking slot, and if I did this favor, this person said that I would be invited for the seminar series.

Show grad students a variety of career options. The flawed default mode in many universities is that moving onto an R1 faculty position is the natural and expected progression after grad school. However, the majority of Ph.D. recipients don’t go this route. Inviting people who work in industry, NGOs, and governmental agencies can help broaden perspectives.  Also, of course, you could invite a researchers based out of a teaching institution. This will definitely widen the job horizons of grad students.

Entertainment value. Some people are invited because they’re known for giving a really great talk, will fill the house, and will bring not only reflected praise on the hosts but also a good time.

Learning science. Some people actually invite seminar speakers because they want to learn about the science that’s being done by the guest.

And that’s it for the list. Feel free to add the ones that I’m forgetting in the comments. Or to tell a funny story, for that matter. We could use more funny stories in the comments, right?

Hittin’ the lecture circuit

Standard

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

Tour dates:

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

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

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

Moab sticker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on seminar series tomorrow.

Advising undergraduates on applications for grad school

Standard

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.

How a research institution can mentor undergrads better than an undergraduate institution

Standard

More doctoral students emerge from small liberal arts colleges than from the undergraduate populace of research institutions.

This is a point of pride held by liberal arts colleges, that market themselves as the best place to go if you want to become a scientist receiving a Ph.D. from a big-name research institution. Demographically, they’re correct.

Are small teaching schools better equipped to train undergraduate researchers better than big research institutions? I don’t think so.

In practice, liberal arts schools are far better at producing high quality researchers, but it’s not because of any inherent property of liberal arts schools. Some could argue that the curriculum itself might matter – that’s a discussion for another time – I’ll spend the rest of this post thinking about the single reason that people identify about what makes liberal arts schools a special place for budding researchers.

Here is the standard reasoning: Teaching schools provide students with the opportunity to have close professional interactions with their professors. Students in labs in small teaching institutions benefit from direct mentorship from the PI, which will more likely result in a higher quality research experience, better insights into how to do research, and greater opportunities to own their own research projects, enabling them to present at major venues and eventual publication as undergraduates.

How true is the preceding paragraph? It’s a straight-up fact that students at small teaching campuses are more likely to do more original research of their own working with their PI. And, if an undergraduate arbitrarily selects a research lab to join, then they’d probably end up getting a better experience at a teaching institution.

But, though this trend is real, research institutions have tremendous potential for training undergraduates. Without providing any additional resources, any research institution can be a top-notch training ground for undergraduates. After all, there is nothing inherent about teaching institutions that makes them better at training researchers.

There is nothing magical about having the PI as your direct mentor that will make you a better researcher and help you get into a better grad school. Looking closely at what supposedly makes a teaching institution better for training undergraduate researchers – close involvement with the PI – I see a massive handicap.

All of the literature on research mentorship says that the relationship is most successful when the mentor is just a little above the mentee in research experience. Even though the PI is a better academic expert and has mentored more, the Ph.D. student and the postdoc are in a position to be more effective as mentors.

The best mentoring arrangement is a multi-level team, in which the early undergrad works with a senior undergraduate, who then works with a Ph.D. student, who works with a postdoc as well as the PI. The PI knows everyone personally, and spends some time with the undergrads, but the graduate students are the better formal mentors. (A colleague of mine at a research institution recently tried to kick one of her own undergrad researchers out of the lab, because she didn’t recognize her. That’s not good.)

I suppose a young PI can connect more easily with students, but as we get older, then the nature of the relationship evolves. Add on a few years, and the gap between the PI and the student grows. Even if the PI is affable, and might truly understand the perspectives and thoughts of the students, it would be silly to ignore the fact that our students can’t relate to us and that we can’t relate to our students, even if we were once in their position. No matter how much time I spend with my students, now matter how similar our backgrounds are, the fact of who I am limits my ability to serve as a model. I can do all the right things in the mentoring process, but if a grad student did all of the right things, it would be even better. (And for my students from underrepresented groups, having a mentor from the same group is particularly powerful.)

I really like most of my students. I enjoy their company, and over time some have become good friends of mine. But, let’s face it, there’s a big gap. I’m older, have a kid and am married, and we don’t have that many overlapping interests. While I try hard to be transparent, I recognize that I seem like an enigma in a bunch of ways. (For example, earlier this summer one of my students was totally surprised that I use torrents to watch a couple TV shows. He just thought this was outside my realm for some reason.) I didn’t go to grad school in the middle ages, but things have changed since I’ve been there, and this is true for anybody who is at least halfway to tenure. If I try to discuss grad school with my students, I’m not nearly as credible or powerful as the same information coming from a current graduate student.

My position of authority makes me a less influential mentor.

I don’t want to overgeneralize from my experience, but I doubt that I’m alone.

You might be thinking, “Do your students really have to relate to their mentor to have an excellent research experience, and move their career to the next level?” Not necessarily. But I think it really helps. Especially for students who aren’t able to visualize themselves as capable of excelling in graduate school, a proximate model is an essential part of the mentoring process. Having seen my undergrads interact with doctoral students on a regular basis, it’s clear to me that without this kind of opportunity, that my students would missing out, big time.

Having a student know that the path has been blazed in front of them by other students, like them, matters. If students see other students throw themselves into research with great passion, they are more likely to allow themselves to get that excited. Of course, the same was true for me. But now, I’m an old bald dude with kids, and I get really excited about research, but in a different way. I can’t serve as a model for my students, even if I tried.

While grad students might not have the same authority and skill set as the PI, they can offer things that the PI can’t. This is exactly why a multi-level mentoring scheme is the way to go. The PI can choose to become involved when it is wise, and step back and focus on other things when the grad student has things under control.

Research institutions have grad students, but this doesn’t mean that they deliver great research experiences for undergraduates. While the personnel are available for a multi-level mentoring system, in many labs the system is nonfunctional because undergrads are often treated as serfs. I know many R1 labs that that are exceptional for undergraduates who work with graduate student mentors. However, I’m aware of far more labs that do not focus on making sure that undergraduates have their own research experience and are able to focus on building their own academic identity. In general, undergraduates in research institutions that receive their own project (as a piece of their mentor’s work) are the exception rather than the norm.

As for the mass production of Ph.D. students from small liberal arts colleges, I would bet that the outcome is a done deal even before the students enroll in college. The social and economic class that produces doctoral students is the same caste that is able to send students to fancy private liberal arts schools. Yes, there are scholarships and financial aid. But even if you look at small liberal arts colleges that heavily emphasize economic and ethnic diversity, they simply can’t match the diversity of the nation’s populace because, simply, most people can’t afford it. As long as the average cost of a liberal arts college is more than average cost of research universities, of course a higher proportion of doctoral students will emerge from liberal arts colleges.

How do I get my own students a multi-level mentored experience? Well, I don’t have that happen inside my lab on a day-to-day basis. I may have Master’s students around, but I usually have undergrads that are more seasoned than my grad students. That experience helps, but the way I really bring in graduate student and postdoc mentors is by having my students conduct their research in a hub of collaborative activity during the summer at a field station: La Selva Biological Station, in Costa Rica. There, my students build strong relationships with scientists from all over with different levels of experience, and these bonds typically stay tight after they leave the field station. Sometimes their projects become collaborations with grad students and postdocs at other institutions. I like that a lot, for a bunch of reasons.

If multi-level mentoring is important for the success of undergraduates, then what does this mean for you?

If you’re in a research institution: Postdocs and grad students should become genuine mentors and give undergraduates the time and resources to have their own students, and supervise them properly.  Faculty at research institutions should support their lab members, not just in the process of research but also in the process of mentorship. Don’t exploit undergraduates as trained monkeys. If you want someone to be an unthinking data-generating machine, then hire a technician. If you take an undergraduate to do “research,” then do actual research with them. Your own research agenda is easily split up into several smaller questions. Hand one of those questions to your undergraduate researcher, and learn how to mentor them. Give them the same support that you expect to receive from your own research advisor. Yeah, it’s not easy, but it will pay off for both of you in the long run.

If you’re at a teaching institution: Seek routes for multi-level mentoring in the lab. At a minimum, the undergraduates with more than two years of experience in the lab should be given the chance to actively supervise new students. Ideally, you can develop relationships with colleagues in other institutions with graduate students and postdocs. Find a way for your undergrads to become friends with doctoral students. I don’t know how to make this happen, and it varies with institutional context and geography, but from where I sit, it’s an ingredient that really promotes success. (For starters, you can bring students to smaller national meetings where they can build relationships with the students of your colleagues.)

I don’t have a big specific solution to the problem, but recognizing the fact that we as faculty are inherently flawed mentors is a start, and recognizing that the lack of graduate students at teaching institutions isn’t a strength, but a weakness, of the mentorship process.

Why you should get to know grad students

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling in The Wolf

Standard

Part of being a scientist is being so excited that you bite off more than you can chew. You’re busy working on a current project, but there’s another that needs one more analysis, or the grant just needs some polish – or the right preliminary data. Maybe you’ve got a great find but you can’t find the hook to sell it. Sometimes, a project is 98% done. And that 2% is a huge stumbling block, especially when it’s something not yet in your expertise.

If you don’t have a postdoc at hand, you’ve got two choices. A: Let it linger, until you find the spare time, momentum or resources to get that done at some undefined point in the future. B: Call in The Wolf.

Faculty at teaching schools are isolated. You can’t drop by a neighboring department, or look down the hallway, to see if someone might want to join you on an endeavor. There just isn’t anybody there who can help you. If you’re not finishing it after, say, several months of lingering, then call in the finisher who’ll get the job done. Somewhere, out there, exists a person who can deliver what you need, and would benefit from delivering it for you. You need to call in The Wolf.

A finished project is better than any unfinished project. If I’ve done a project, I want it to be done. The “done” part of the prior sentence takes precedence over the “I” part. My guideline is: if bringing someone in will get it done, wonderful! The more the merrier!  While projects overweighted with personnel are hard to manage, it’s a mistake to let a project grow stale for lack of attention.

There are people out there that would give up a couple days of their time, to become coauthor on a paper or a collaborator on a (very promising) grant. Even if you just contact them out of the blue. (As long as your website/CV vouches that you’re bona fide.)

So, this is all well and good, but you make it sound so easy! But how do you get The Wolf’s number? People are so busy, who has the talent and wants to take on more work? There are a few avenues. They all rely on your professional network.

There are a few subspecies of Wolf:

  • Canis lupus parvus: Someone at a teaching institution with the appropriate skill set. You bring them in because the final 2% is easier for them than it is for you. (Because we are isolated at teaching institutions, we may rely on collaborations, as long as they fit our strengths.) Be careful to not mistake this subspecies for a similar one, C. lupus tarduswhich is tied up with teaching and will not be able to meet deadlines.
  • Canis lupus taucetiensis: A grad student or postdoc, who is hungry to get on an additional paper. Hungry like the Wolf.
  • Canis lupus canescens: The PI who is the world expert on the thing you need. If you look up this PI, whether you know her or not, she can presumably knock out the task in no time. Even if you’re small potatoes, you might get referred to someone from the lab.

If I’ve needed a little something to get a project done, I’ve found that reaching out to new people has always been helpful. If the person I’m contacting isn’t available, interested or prepared to do it, then they inevitably refer me to the right person. Just be sure to explain up front what you propose, and clearly specify, timeframe, authorship, funding, and so on.