One person’s story about post-PhD employment


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.

Ant science: Ants try to eat protein beverages like solid food


Collectively, ants are efficient, and you might even call them smart. But individual ants are so dumb that they don’t even know how to feed themselves, as we show in the latest paper to come out of my lab. You could say that these ants have a drinking problem.

A bullet ant with a bubble of sugar solution in its mandibles. Image by Alex Wild

A bullet ant with a bubble of sugar solution in its mandibles. No scale bar is needed; this ant is about the size of your pinky finger, unless you have a small hand. Image by Alex Wild.

If you’re given a protein smoothie, you drink it. But if you give bullet ants a protein drink, they chomp and pull at it. If they knew how to use a fork, they’d probably try that, too.

The bullet ant Paraponera clavata has a boring diet: workers mostly collect sugar water from the rainforest canopy, supplemented with chunky prey items, like other ants and pieces of caterpillars. When they eat carbs, it’s in the form of a liquid which they gather in a droplet held by their mandibles. When they get protein, it’s in the form of a solid which they chomp and bite.

While attempting to do an experiment, we discovered that these ants are absolutely hopeless at drinking a liquid, if it’s a protein solution.

What does it look like when ants try to drink something and when they try to chomp at solid food? Here are two very short videos taken by Jenny Jandt:

We asked: what sensory cues do the ants use to decide whether to drink a fluid or to grasp at it as if it were a solid? We ran a field experiment with factorial combinations of various sugar (sucrose) concentrations and various protein (casein) concentrations, and used ethograms to measure behavioral responses. We replicated this across a bunch of colonies, randomized the order of presentation, and did other good stuff to make sure the experimental design wasn’t messed up. (We’re pros, you know.)

We mostly didn’t get stung while running the experiment. This matters because they are called “bullet ants” for good reason.

We found that the higher the concentration of sugar, the more likely the ants were to drink. If there was a little protein and no sugar at all, the ants would most likely grasp.  Once protein concentrations got near 1 micromolar concentration, however, the concentration of sugar did not affect the grasping response to protein.

So, if these ants are thinking, then this is what they’re thinking to themselves: “If I taste protein, it must be food. So I’ll chomp at it, even though it’s a liquid.” But, it doesn’t look like they’re thinking much at all.

We found that the ants demonstrate a fixed action pattern of feeding behavior in response to assessing the nutritional content of food. This operationally works for them in nature, because texture and nutritional content are coupled. When we experimentally decoupled texture and nutritional content, then we were able to identify the cues that the ants used to make their food handling decision. They decide to drink when they detect carbohydrates and they decide to chomp when they detect protein, and texture has little to do with the decision.

How this project happened in a teaching-centered institution

In the first half of 2011, Hannah Larson (a Master’s student in my lab) was spending several months at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, working with a microbial symbiont of bullet ants. She discovered the phenomenon of bullet ants chomping at protein solutions when she tried to experimentally feed colonies a protein solution, and the colonies opted to dismember the plastic pipets instead of drinking from them. She worked out other ways of delivering protein for her experiments, but we wanted to document and further understand this discovery.

That summer, I paired up my colleague Dr. Jenny Jandt up to mentor a student from my university on a totally different project. We all found this protein-chomping behavior so cool, and Jenny made the time for a second trip to Costa Rica after I helped her flesh the project out. My undergrad Peter Tellez was her wingman, and they did the experiment using the template of the many colonies that Hannah established for her thesis work. In late 2011, I drove out to visit Jenny in Tucson for a couple days, to work on this and another manuscript, in which the bulk of the paper was put together. Jenny put the finishing touches on this paper with just a bit of help from myself, Hannah and Peter. As it was a side project for all of us, it lingered a bit but Jenny persisted and she’s pretty much everything I could ask for in a collaborator and mentor to our students.

Where are they now? Jenny took a postdoc in the rockin’ lab of Amy Toth at Iowa State. Hannah is now in her second year of the DPT program at the Univ. of Washington and Peter is now a PhD student in the lab of Sunshine Van Bael at Tulane.)

In short, this cool paper came together because I was able to talk my postdoc buddy Jenny into coming down to the rainforest to work with my students for about a month. She is otherwise a wasp and bee behavior person, and I was glad to give her an avenue to work with ants and tropical rainforests, and my students greatly benefited from her careful mentorship and expertise in individual and collective behaviors of social insect colonies.

Reference: Jandt, J., H.K. Larson, P. Tellez, and T.P. McGlynn 2013. To drink or grasp? How bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) differentiate between sugars and proteins in liquids. Naturwissenschaften. DOI: 10.1007/s00114-013-1109-3

A copy of this paper is available on my lab website here.

This work was conducted under support of the National Science Foundation (OISE-0854259 and OISE-1130156).

A snapshot of the publication cycle


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.


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?


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?

Crossing ‘the pond’ for science*


This is a second guest post by Amy Parachnowitsch.

Amy learning that glass art is a kind of big deal in Sweden at the Kosta Boda Art Hotel

Amy learning that glass art is a kind of big deal in Sweden at the Kosta Boda Art Hotel

Originally from the Canadian east coast, I first crossed the continent to do my undergraduate on in the west (British Columbia), moved to the middle for my masters (Ontario) and then made the big leap south to the USA (upstate New York) for my PhD (read: 5 hrs drive between where I did my masters and PhD but sometimes worlds apart). Now I am an Assistant Professor/Research Fellow in Uppsala, Sweden. My science career path has not been particularly straight or narrow geographically or otherwise, but one theme that has emerged is the opportunities that have come from changing places and outlooks.

Because it is relevant to my recent experience and my perspective on moving around, I’ll describe what I’m doing in Sweden. My position is always difficult to translate either into English (forskarassistent = research assistant, directly translated but those are actually forskningsassistent) or North American positions because there are no real equivalents. I’m either a Research Fellow or Assistant Professor (there are even internal listings where I am one or the other). As I grow more comfortable in my position, I tend towards saying I’m a non-tenured Assistant Professor because that most accurately describes what I do. The position came with a small start-up fund, guaranteed 4 years of salary, a small teaching responsibility (5-10% of my time, officially), and salary for one PhD student. There is no formal option to continue my job after the 4 years and I’ll need to find either research funds to support my salary (basically like applying to NSF or NSERC and budgeting your salary) or another job. For me, the long-term prospects of staying here are unknown. But so far being a professor in a different country has been interesting, challenging and a fabulous learning experience.

So breaking Terry’s tradition of no lists, here’s my take on the some of the benefits and challenges of taking this path:


  • New ideas/ways of doing things –First and foremost, working somewhere else gives you a different perspective. I’m exposed to all kinds of differences both big and small on a daily basis. I constantly see my own assumptions and expectations exposed when they’re not met. I may have come here thinking that European PhD positions are advisor-driven, and although that can be true, I also now see the tremendous variation in PhD training. Although I had heard about the lack of social security in the US my entire life, I was shocked to learn that there really is no maternal/paternal leave in the US (its basically up to the employers). In my experience, Ivy league students are pretty similar in their abilities to the other university students I’ve taught, they just tend to have more security and confidence (sometimes to their own detriment). I could fill this post with things that I have learned and gained from being immersed in different countries and systems but it is good to remember that the benefits don’t have to be one-way. You also have something to offer others from your own contrasting experience.
  • Meeting fellow scientists—One thing that has been really fun for me is that I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of people that I had only read before. Although there are always some researchers that cross the pond to go to conferences in Europe or North America, it is by far more common that people attend conferences within these regions. And even when scientists do travel to the same conferences, when they are big ones like ESA/Evolution, I get to see people’s talks and might have a chance to chat, but I find some of the most valuable networking happens when you causally go for a meal or to the pub. It seems like these causal interactions tend to happen more with people you know or they know which can mean staying within your continent. It is of course possible to cross these boundaries and some people are very skilled at this, but living in Sweden has made it more natural to get to know more European scientists. The flip side is that it has been more difficult to connect with my old network because it is now more difficult for me to travel to conferences in the USA/Canada.
  • Exploring a new ecosystem—Whenever I travel, I’m often trailing behind, looking at flowers. Curiosity is really why I love my job; so seeing new ecosystems is a delight and offers a kind of understanding that you can’t get from reading papers alone. I had amazing experiences as a graduate student visiting Florida, Hawaii and especially the Rocky Mountain Biological Station, where so much of the literature I had been reading was based. Moving to Sweden has allowed me to explore a whole new place. When I first got here it I had to turn off the internal “introduced/invasive” tag that went with so many plants. This summer I’ve been playing around with a bunch of different species here in the aims of developing a local system. But living here has really given me an understanding of the place that I wouldn’t get if I just came here to visit/do research. For example, although I intellectually knew that the days were long in summer and dark in winter, living here has given me a whole different understanding. Who knew I could complain about too much light (seriously, it is tough to sleep)? And as the days get noticeably shorter I know what I’m in for (noon-day sun like dusk). But this also gives me a deeper understanding of the differences for the organisms I study.
  • Learn a new language—Although I am still hopelessly inadequate in Swedish, when I think back to a few years ago I realise that I actually understand quite a bit. When I first came here, nothing made sense. These days I can get around, talk to someone at a store, and understand quite a bit of what people are saying around me. Now if I could only carve out some time to study each day I think I could actually get somewhere.


  • Isolation—Perhaps one of the harder things is the feeling of isolation that can come from being an ex-pat. This can apply to daily life as much as your job. Although much of science is conducted in English, lots of informal and formal university events tend towards the native language. Here in Sweden, people tend to be ridiculously competent in English but you do miss out on some of the banter. As soon as the non-Swedes leave a room, the conversation slips quickly back to Swedish. Although my grasp of Swedish is improving, I miss jokes and think it would be really hard to make friends speaking only Swedish. It can also be tough for faculty meetings, etc when things are discussed in Swedish. There I tend to hear a lot of words you don’t commonly encounter and although I can often follow the general theme, some of the details are lost.
  • An increase in the imposter syndrome—actually it is difficult to know whether I feel this any more than I would in similar position in North America. Perhaps best not to admit until I get that permanent job, but I can find myself thinking that I have no idea what I am doing. And worse still, it can be because I really don’t know what I am doing (not focusing on the science here because that part is pretty portable). The things I learned watching my mentors or from PhD experiences are often out of sync with what it happening around me. For example, teaching hasn’t been at all how I expected myself to be doing based on years of TAing. I am now involved in team-taught courses and students are only taking a single course at any given time. This means less control over the course as a whole (because I only do a part) and intensive teaching when it happens (e.g. 3hr lecture time slots). So although I can apply lots of my teaching skills to this new situation, it has been another learning curve to figure out how to be the most effective, etc. Another big difference for me is that PhD students are generally hired on specific projects here. So although I was offered salary for my PhD student as a part of my position, I fund the project and had to write an advertisement for the position. In truth, many PhDs do follow their own research here and my own student will not strictly follow the advertised position. However, I interviewed candidates for my PhD position in a completely different way than I myself had done. All these differences can definitely fuel the imposter syndrome but it also gets me talking to my peers much more than I might if I thought I had a clue about how things are done here.
  • Slow start-up – Getting a lab running is not an easy or fast task for anyone and I haven’t even had to think about hiring in the way I would if I was starting a lab somewhere in NA. But starting a research group in another country has its own set of challenges: That craft store you used to buy strange things for your fieldwork? Not here. Chemical you could easily order from Sigma/Fisher? The European branch doesn’t carry it. University finances? You’ll need to figure out the reimbursement system and fill out all the forms in Swedish. Major granting agencies? Where do you start when you haven’t even heard of them? In my experience, people are incredibly helpful and willing to share information, but it does mean that I sometimes feel like I’m a step behind. After two years I am still learning but my footing is a little steadier. I’m sure that many of these issues would apply to moving to any university, anywhere but it probably wouldn’t involve talking to the industrial supplier in broken Swedish.
  • Time zone differences—A huge pain when you want to contact family and  friends, time zone differences can effect how you work as well. It means that I’m often out of sync with my NA collaborators, so there is definitely a time lag between emails, etc. And although skype and google hangouts are great resources to virtually meet, the time difference often mean tight scheduling. And on a personal note, when I travel for research in the USA, it is really tough to skype with my daughter but really important to do so. Somewhat easier but also challenging is talking with my graduate student when she’s in the field and I’m in Sweden. In some ways this might be good because she has more freedom to figure things out on her own but sometimes it would be convenient to not have the six hour time difference. Another drawback is that twitter conversations can be more difficult to participate in with the NA crowd; the plus is that I’m seeing a lot more from fellow Europeans.
  • Not being able to read between the lines—Here’s a funny story to end with. In my first few months I travelled every couple of weeks to the department for a few days while we negotiated the move, etc. One of these trips there was a small conference for Uppsala plant folks just outside of town. There was a program with events for the two days but nowhere, and I mean nowhere, was there anything about staying overnight at the conference center. So I hop in the car with the head of my department and some new colleagues with only my laptop, etc. As the day progresses it slowly dawns on me that everyone is planning to stay the night. Here I am, no change of clothes, no toiletries, nothing. The conference center is far enough outside of town that there is no real way to get back without a car. One of my colleagues with a young child headed home that night but wasn’t coming back the following day. So I remember thinking, do I take this opportunity to go or do I stay? I had committed to being there for two days and it seemed silly to miss out for a change of clothes (how I longed for that overnight bag sitting in my room in Uppsala). So I stayed, was grateful for a single room where I didn’t have to feel stupid in front of anyone. Now I know that it would have been fine and I could have shared a good laugh. But then I didn’t know any of the people I was with. It wasn’t perfect but I’m really glad I just stepped back into my same clothes after showering that morning. In the end staying meant I started a collaboration that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. But it just goes to show that not being a part of the culture around you means that you can miss out on things that seem so obvious to everyone else.

Despite the long list of challenges, I remain pretty positive about my experience here. Mostly the challenges have been opportunities to learn and grow. I’m excited about the collaborations I am developing here and the research we’re doing on both sides of the pond. Of course there are days that I’m tired and wonder if it wouldn’t all be easier if I could find that ideal tenure track job in Canada or the USA. I don’t know where we’ll end up in the long-term but I do know if we return to NA, I will bring with me a broadened perspective on how to be a professor.

*Full disclosure: I came to Sweden for family reasons first (Swedish husband with a job here) and searched for a job from here.

What it’s like to start a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor (guest post)

Carrie Woods in the field

Carrie Woods in the field

This is a guest post by Carrie Woods of Colgate University, a Canadian scientist who studies the ecophysiology and community ecology of tropical rainforest canopies. If you have any questions or remarks for Carrie, please be sure to leave them in the comments.

I just entered my new office as a Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) in the Biology Department at Colgate University, a liberal arts college in upstate New York. My office is one of the nicest I have seen and has an incredible view of hills covered in lush temperate forest – perfect for pondering life, science, or wherever the mind cares to wander. Facing this pondering window, I received and accepted an invitation from Terry to post about my experience thus far in interviewing and becoming a faculty member at a liberal arts institution.

My interview was full of friendly faces offering help, advice, and typical interview questions for a teaching position in a liberal arts college. First and foremost, everyone wanted to know what course I was proposing to teach. Is it novel in the department? Will it broaden the scope of understanding of the students? Do I have the expertise to effectively teach the course? If you have done your research, you will know the answer to all of these questions and will instill confidence in every interviewer that yes, in fact, you have perused the course offerings and believe that the course you are proposing to teach is novel, interesting, great for broadening students’ perspectives, and couldn’t be taught without you. I know this may seem obvious but I was expecting an interview that looked at my entire academic career – not just my teaching experience. I even had prepared answers to questions pertaining to my research. But I guess because a VAP position is used to bring in a professor for a year to teach, and only teach, the lack of focus on my research makes sense.

I was surprised though how little emphasis was placed on my research interests or how many publications I had or in what journals. Having only had experience in Research I universities, this came as a shock. I knew that the primary focus of a professor in a liberal arts college is the education of undergraduate students but I didn’t realize how little importance was placed on your research when deciding if you were right for a teaching position. Not one single person asked me about my research. They did, however, peruse my CV for mentoring and teaching experiences (which I placed ahead of my research experience, as per the suggestion of every liberal arts college faculty I knew). I could be misunderstanding the entire process though. It could be that my research experiences were sufficient and, therefore, not in need of discussion. My seminar was clear and focused on undergraduates but I did not dumb down my research or complicated multivariate analyses. I took those challenges head on to show that I could effectively teach complicated concepts. So maybe, my research was important to show that I was a well-rounded scientist.

I decided to take a teaching position after completing my Ph.D. for several reasons. First, many of my colleagues that had new assistant professor positions, regardless of what type of institution, seemed to be drowning in course development. I had never developed or taught an entire course before so I heeded their calls of distress and decided to find a position where I could develop and teach a course before applying for a post-doc or tenure-track position. A VAP position is exactly that. Second, science is a discipline wrought with waiting. There is little immediate gratification in scientific research – except of course for those moments during data analysis when your hypothesis is accepted or when finally figuring out the story of your paper or when a paper is accepted for publication. But other than those brief moments, science is pretty thankless and requires resilience to pursue an idea from birth to publication. In between these brief gratifying moments in graduate school, I found teaching to be extremely rewarding. Watching someone learn a concept that you taught is a very gratifying experience. These rewarding teaching moments carried me through those times when motivation for my research was waning. I found a love and passion for teaching during graduate school and wanted to pursue those passions a little deeper (hence the VAP position).

Since arriving around 9 am this morning, four different people have come by to welcome me and offer any help they can. I feel grateful for their friendly faces and help in navigating the new avenues of a faculty position at a liberal arts college as I am just starting to get my toes wet. I am super excited about finally teaching my own course. So excited in fact that I have already outlined my lectures, ordered my textbook for the bookstore, written my syllabus, and have some ideas for exam questions and the first day of classes isn’t for two weeks. I would have started sooner if it wasn’t for my busy summer of field research in Costa Rica, two conferences, my dissertation defense, and graduation. Now that those tasks are complete, I can finally focus on what I have been excited to do since I first discovered a passion for teaching in graduate school. It’s a very cool moment.

As for the future, this next year will likely dictate where I end up ultimately in academia: liberal arts or research I. I honestly haven’t fully decided where I want to go yet. However, looking out my window at forest-covered hills and being in a department with such an amazing group of friendly and supportive people, thus far, liberal arts is winning the race.

Calling in The Wolf


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.


Nobody with whom to share cool discoveries


Research institutions build core strengths in particular research areas. However, teaching schools hire faculty to teach their specialty, so that as many subdisciplines as possible can be represented. This means that there is typically one person in each field. There are exceptions, such as a department that houses multiple herpetologists who study different aspects of herps.

The hardest part about being the only expert in social insects at my job, is how lonely it gets when something exciting happens. Without a doubt, most exciting, heart-pounding this-is-awesome experiences happen in front of the computer when I’m analyzing data. (Aside from stumbling on caecilians and big cats in the field.) When I find out something entirely new that changes, just a little bit, how we think the world works. Sometimes it’s a steady realization, but sometimes – BAM – the pattern emerges immediately. Like the one in the figure. This is a genuinely new find, which has a generalized application, and right away I was thrilled. But there was nobody there to revel with me.


A cool pattern.

My undergrad lab members don’t quite get how cool these moments are. My excellent department mates would be happy but it’s not their field. My spouse is as smart as a person gets, but she’s not a biologist and explaining it in a couple minutes takes away the fun. There are tens of thousands of people in the world who would understand exactly how this is cool, but none of them are next door.

There’s one big upside to being isolated when making cool discoveries. The desire to share it can burn for a while, to get me through writing, revision, submission, resubmission, resubmission, revision and publication. If I remember how cool it was to first learn about it, I hang on to that through the more tedious stages.

This is what I miss about grad school and postdoc-ing: a space full of labmates for sharing these moments. Perhaps this is why I particularly enjoy conferences, being invited for talks, and overlapping with others at my field site, because this is when I’m with my kindred.