How many rejections should scientists aim for?

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Earlier this year an article on aiming for 100 rejections a year in literature was being passed around. The main idea is that by aiming for rejections, rather than accepted things we’re more likely to take risks and apply broadly.

Since reading that article, I’ve been pondering how many rejections I should aim for. What is a good number for a scientist? Continue reading

Confessions of an unemployed academic

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I have had versions of this post topic rattling around in my brain for many months. There are various reasons for me not writing it but ironically probably the biggest one is that I am unemployed.

My story goes like this: I had a position as an assistant professor in Sweden that came with a 4 year contract with no extension possibilities unless I was to bring in my own salary from grant money. Long story short, I applied for grants and other jobs over the 4 years and didn’t get funded or a permanent position. So in January this year the money ran out and I was officially without a paid position. It has been a complicated year since then with a mix of good and bad. Looking back some things have gone as I thought while others were unexpected. Here’s somewhat random list of some of my confessions. Continue reading

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

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

Grad students are typically on very tight budgets.

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

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

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

Advice for department chairs

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I recently finished up a three-year stint as chair of my department. (At my institution, the role of department chair rotates among the senior members of the department — basically, anyone with tenure — based on seniority. Three years ago, it was my turn to take the mantle, as the next most senior person in line.) It was an interesting experience and I certainly learned a TON from it, but I am also relieved that it’s now someone else’s turn.

Since relinquishing my post, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the experience of being chair. Continue reading

I think I might be a successful nag

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Has Small Pond Science helped increase broader awareness and respect for university scientists and students working outside the R1 environment?

I think, well, maybe, a little bit. Enough to keep me from closing shop. There are a lot of known unknowns, but I’ll focus on some known knowns. Continue reading

Blurred lines in academia–what is work?

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While navigating the unemployment system in Sweden, I’ve discovered that I need to report every month what I’ve been doing to find a job. It includes applying for jobs of course but also training. I should also include working on my CV, networking and other activities that improve my employability. I’ve also been warned that one shouldn’t “work” during this time and all work has to be reported (you can work for up to 75 days and keep your unemployment status).

All of this has me reflecting on what work is in academia.

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It seems to me that few other professions have the same structure as academic research. Continue reading

Useful science communication resources

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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

Practicing what you preach (or rather teach)

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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

Academic Hazing

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

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

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

The more things change, the more they change

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Monet Kelp Forest. photo by Bruce McGlynn

Monet Kelp Forest. photo by Bruce McGlynn

I just had the pleasure of spending a couple days hiking around the interior of Catalina Island. The last time I did this was about 23 years ago, when I was a student on an undergraduate field trip for a course in Conservation Biology.

I learned a lot from that course, and a lot of specific things from that field trip stuck with me. The biggest thing that I remember from that trip was: Goats. The second biggest thing that I remember from that trip was: Pigs. Continue reading

Be a gracious winner and not a sore loser (or don’t be a jerk)

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There are a bunch of life skills that come in handy in academia. Some are obvious and discussed a lot like time management, setting goals, getting stuff completed, etc. Others fly under the radar but maybe shouldn’t. One of those things is how you handle competition. Academia is one of those careers where competition is constantly part of the gig. As much as collaboration can be an essential part of success, there are also winners and losers throughout. The competitions vary but all of us fall on both sides of the line at least some of the time.

It starts even before grad school with who gets in, on what scholarship (or not) and where. Continue reading

Conferences need students: make them affordable

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People go to conferences for a variety of reasons. Conferences are used to align future research priorities, and students and postdocs can “network.” Meetings also provide an opportunity to travel to cool places and take a vacation.

When conferences are in fancy places, they might attract more people, but only those who can afford to go. We need to have students and postdocs at conferences, for their own sakes and for the future of the field. At least in my fields, international conferences often are designed to make it very hard for students and postdocs to attend. Continue reading

Remetaphoring the “academic pipeline”

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We need to ditch the “academic pipeline” metaphor. Why?

The professional destinations of people who enter academic science are necessarily varied.

We do not intend or plan for everybody training in science to become academic researchers.

The pipeline metaphor dehumanizes people. Continue reading

How honest should I be about my career goals? My post-PhD story.

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My post-PHD journey is peppered throughout the posts I write here but I was inspired by a blog carnival over at the Contemplative Mammoth to put together a single post. After May 28th Jacquelyn Gillpromises to compile all the links, so if you’re interested in what people do after their PhDs, head on over there.

Long before I finished my PhD, my path in academia was never particularly clear. I came to research late in my undergraduate studies and at every stage I have thought: “Well this is interesting, challenging and fun, so lets see if I can find a masters/PhD/position”. I knew that at each of these filters there was a real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to find the next position. So I remained cautiously optimistic but always thought that at some point I would have to figure out what to do when I go up. Since I was aware of the possibility that I wouldn’t find a position along the academic trail, I’ve never been focused on a tenure-track position as the only career choice that will make me happy. But as I have progressed, I wonder how honest I should be about this fact.

You see I’m not convinced that I will end up as a professor. I know that it takes an incredible combination of skill and luck to land a position. Although I ended up doing a PhD in one of the top programs of my field, when I applied there were other top schools that didn’t invite me to interview. So even at that stage I was aware that there is variance in decisions and that I am not one of the applicants with a flawless CV (at that stage I had good research experience but less than top undergraduate grades and GRA scores). Last year I was one of the selected candidates to interview for two positions in Sweden. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get either but what was interesting was that I applied for the positions with two of my colleagues. The person who got one of the positions wasn’t even invited to interview at the other and the two of us that did interview for both flipped in ranking between the two jobs. I don’t take this as a sign that the system is random but rather that when comparing good candidates, how qualities are weighted will always vary between selection committees. But of course it does worry me that I might never quite make it to the top of the list.

So given what I think is a somewhat realistic frame of mind, I have always taken the ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. That means that in conversations throughout my career I have not been dead certain that being a professor is my one and only goal. But when I’m honest about my uncertainty, I find that it can be mistaken for a lack of desire or drive. Like hinting that you are aware that there are few permanent professor positions and the reality is that you might not get one means you aren’t interested in continuing in academia.

To be clear: I love my job. I am sometimes afraid to admit how much I enjoy it, like a kid not wanting to jinx my chances. Sure there are lots of things that stress me out about this path but when I take a moment to think about it, I love my job. I love being able to think about new questions and new problems all the time. I love teaching and getting students excited about the world around them. I love the challenges I face that force me to grow and learn all the time. I love to write and present findings at conferences. I love talking to people about their work and collaborating. As a career, I can’t think of any better and I truly hope that I can keep on doing what I’m doing.

But here’s the catch: I’m not willing to sacrifice everything to achieve a tenure track position. I have a family that I need to consider if we make a move for a position, but I also have a family that I want to spend time with. For me that means I work less than I could and that is certainly is reflected in my publication rate. So when I look at my CV, I see that I could do better but I also know that I don’t want to trade-off my happiness now for some uncertain happiness in the future when I have tenure.

So should I be honest about my uncertainty? I have become wary of talking too frankly because I don’t want the perception to be that I’m not dedicated. Thus far I have been fortunate that I have been able to keep going in academia and I haven’t seriously considered other options. I might have to do that when my current funding runs out but for now I continue on working towards an eventual permanent position.

So for me, my post-PhD story doesn’t have an ending. I still feel in flux and don’t know where I will end up, geographically or otherwise. But for now I’m enjoying the ride.

Learning from a kindergarten teacher

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Teaching has some perennial questions: How do you engage students? How do you make a classroom run smoothly? How does mutual respect make a better working environment? How does curiosity lead to learning? How do you get groups of students to work together effectively? How do you design a lesson that flows conceptually and addresses key ideas?

To figure out some of these answers, in all sincerity, I suggest hanging out in the classroom of a high quality kindergarten teacher at work. My kid has had some remarkable teachers. Just interacting with them over the years on an infrequent basis, I think I’ve picked up as many tips and ideas as I have from my university-level colleagues.

Now that my sole heir is heading off to middle school, I haven’t visited kindergartens too often of late. Last week, though, was our last Open House at his elementary school, and we always make a point to cruise by our kid’s former teachers, see what’s going on in their classrooms, and to say Hi and Thanks.

Every time I have a short chat with his former Kindergarten teacher, I get a pick-me-up and often pick up ideas. She has couple decades more experience then myself — and unimaginably more contact hours. On our last visit, she was explaining the changes that she’s making as the state is shifting to new standards.

She explained to me that the students are now reading more nonfiction in her class. She is doing some of the assignments that she used from previous years, but in addition she is requiring the students to do non-fiction reading and assignments prior to their fictional projects. For example, before writing a fictional story about a particular animal, they would read non-fiction about that animal and do a report on what they learned. Then they’d do a fictional story about these animals.

She told me that she’s always learning something new. In this case, she learned that the quality of the fictional projects was improved by the prior experience with the nonfictional projects. More knowledge led to more creativity. That’s pretty cool.

What I liked about this little story even more is that it comes from the most-experienced amazingly perfect-as-far-as-I-can-tell teacher, who tells me new things that she’s learning about teaching.

I imagine that the reason she is such a a good teacher, is because she always has been working to improve, and no matter how good she is, she still is both open to and working at learning new ways to do things better. At the end of what has felt like a long semester, that’s inspirational.

I’m at a different place on the improvement curve, as I’m well aware of far too many things that I need to improve in my teaching. But I’ve been thinking, well, maybe I have the routine down solid enough for now. Watching great teachers at work puts me on notice: I should be wary whenever I feel that equilibrium can emerge from stasis. This is another sign I should take that overdue sabbatical.

After one year as a Visiting Assistant Professor

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This is a guest post by Carrie Woods, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Colgate University. This is a follow up to her post from last year, about starting out in a VAP position.

I just completed my last lecture of my first year as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a liberal arts University. Each semester I got to design my own course and teach three lab sections of a general biology course called Ecology, Evolution, and Diversity. Having graduated in August 2013, this was my first experience in designing and teaching my own course and it was absolutely amazing.

I did stumble a bit at the beginning though. In the fall I taught Plant Physiology, a junior level course of my own design, and had a bumpy start trying to figure out how to teach. Given that all of my post-secondary education has been at research I universities, I assumed the most familiar teaching format I knew – standing in front of students, powerpoint up, throwing information and numbers at them. That was my first lecture. I blew through what I thought would take me three lectures in one hour.

Then I did what anyone in my position would have done: sought advice from fellow faculty. This is a top-notch liberal arts university after all, and I am surrounded by teaching gurus. Within a couple of hours and several meetings with different faculty post-first lecture, I completely changed how I thought about teaching. As per the advice of the faculty, I abandoned my powerpoints (except for complicated images and figures) and returned to the most basic method of teaching: the chalkboard.

My second lecture, I asked what they had learned from my first lecture and, after many mumbles and looks of confusion, I decided to start from scratch and re-teach the first lecture. I was honest and open about it and told them that if I was doing something that confused them, I wanted them to let me know. I used a socratic method and got them engaged and involved by asking questions constantly. I used the chalkboard to write and explain key concepts. The classroom transformed into an open and engaged learning environment. I was happier, my students were happier, and my teaching was way better. The learning curve wasn’t just steep, it was 180°!

Through my Masters and Ph.D., I had so many opportunities to TA courses as a graduate student that I realized my teaching skills were developed for running labs. So the lab sections of the biology course that I ran were much smoother than my Plant Phys course. I shadowed the faculty member who was the coordinator for the course, by which I mean I went to every MWF lecture and to her Monday lab so that my Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon labs went smoothly. Although it took quite a large time commitment, I learned a lot by doing this and incorporated the same questioning and engaging teaching methods from my classroom into the labs.

With new skills in hand and great feedback from my students in the fall, I designed a CORE science course on agriculture called Food for Thought this spring. By far, this has been my most rewarding teaching experience. The class is for freshmen and sophomores in any discipline. I only have three students from biology the rest being from varying departments – political science, economics, philosophy, English, and sociology. Students discovered biology through the history of agriculture and current farming practices. We examined environmental impacts of farming, GMOs, and had a continuous debate about the global food crisis and how to feed the world. This class (again!) taught me how to be an effective teacher because of the new challenge of teaching non-biology students. The course went so well that I have students knocking on my door asking if I could teach it again in the fall so they could take it. I am so touched.

I am so grateful to have had this experience. I am a much more effective and creative teacher and would recommend this job to anyone looking to better their teaching skills. I liked it so much that I have decided to stay for another year.

Which classes should tenure-track faculty deprioritize?

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Academia has an adjunct problem. Most of the verbiage on this topic (that I see, at least) focuses on the plight of adjunct faculty.  I agree that this matters, a lot. But, this isn’t the bottom line for the people who are the designated focus of the teaching institutions: the students.

At the top of my list of worries about adjunctification are educational quality and making sure that we do the best for our students.

I am not suggesting that the quality of classroom instruction by adjuncts is better or worse than their tenure-track colleagues. The problem for students isn’t connected to quality in the classroom. It’s about what happens — or doesn’t happen — outside the classroom.

Take, for example:

There lots of explicit or implicit job expectations of tenure-track faculty, which are not expected of contingent faculty, including

  • Academic advising

  • Research with students

  • Mentorship

  • Career advising

  • Sponsorship of student organizations

  • Development of new curricula

Meanwhile, in some universities, adjuncts don’t even have a shared office space.

Nobody expects adjuncts to do the same kind of service, research and student mentorship activities that are part of the role of full-time tenure-track faculty. Tenure-track faculty are expected to interact with the same population of students throughout their undergraduate careers, especially in smaller institutions, which often sell themselves based on the close professional relationships betweens students and faculty.

In my own department, we have been dealing with one dilemma tied to the fact that we don’t have enough tenure-line faculty to teach our courses. Next semester we will, collectively, have more reassigned time for service and student mentorship that we have had in recent memory. This is great for a number of reasons, but it also means that for some courses that we normally teach ourselves, we’ll have to use non-tenure-track instructors.

Which kinds of courses are we supposed to give up ourselves and assign to adjuncts?

Here are the options:

  • Our introductory for-majors courses. We have a 3-semester intro sequence, and each of these is taught by a single tenure-track faculty member. This has been great because the all students get to know these faculty in the department by going through their course (aside from some transfer students). Though I don’t own any of these courses, I chat a lot with my colleagues who do teach these courses to identify students who could join my lab. These courses are foundational for the rest of the major, and we need to be sure that there is consistency in its instruction so that students are well prepared for the upper division. Having a rotating set of instructors in this course wouldn’t be good.

  • Upper-division speciality courses. We happen to have plenty of adjunct instructors who are qualified to teach most of these classes well. Would it be better to have the tenure-track faculty stay in the majors intro courses and leave some specialty courses to adjuncts?

  • Graduate courses. Our courses for the graduate program should, in theory, be taught by research-active faculty. However, there are so few of us that we are also needed for other parts of the curriculum. Teaching the graduate courses in a seminar format, with smaller class sizes, is lighter on the schedule than an introductory majors course, and keeping this course in the schedule can free up even more time for other activities. However, this would keep faculty from getting to know as many undergraduates.

  • Our non-majors courses lecture and labs. Like many other departments, we have pretty much already abandoned the hope of teaching these. I have taught a few sections of these courses in recent years. My rationale was that these courses which have a large proportion of Liberal Studies majors (those preparing become K-8 teachers), and teacher preparation is a priority of mine.

We aren’t punishing any of our students by having them work with our adjuncts, but when students are taught by our adjuncts that means we are less able to provide them with opportunities and interactions outside the classroom. These interactions are often what makes college valuable. So, which courses do we, as tenure-track faculty, give up?

This is a hard call. We have managed to make sure that all the lectures, if not the labs, of our introductory majors courses are taught by tenure-track faculty. This helps us build a community in our department, in which the faculty who run the department are personally familiar with the students going through the major. It would be a step backward if we divested ourselves from our majors at this early stage. On the other hand, it would be great if research-active faculty continue the speciality courses in the upper division and to graduate students. Moreover, this could be an important part of continuing to support students conducting research in our labs.

For example, I’ve been the instructor of the graduate biostatistics course for several years now. This means that, for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the statistics guy who the students contact (and sometimes ignore) when they are designing experiments and analyzing their results. If our biostatistics course was taught by an adjunct, these students wouldn’t have that adjunct available around the department to discuss experimental design and analysis. While I don’t think I need to serve as a statistical consultant too often, I think being available for these kinds of conversation is a part of my job that I shouldn’t be giving up. If I didn’t teach this class, the students wouldn’t even be aware that I am available in this capacity.

There isn’t a good answer to this problem, but it’s one that we’re facing. I’m really curious about how other departments of different types of decided which classes are kept by tenure-track faculty, and which ones end up being taught by adjuncts on a long-term basis. When these decisions are made, what is the currency behind the decision? Faculty scheduling, available faculty expertise, student familiarity with faculty?

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on the PhD defence

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

A few axes in which defences can vary:

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

So, why so much variation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural history is important, but not perceived as an academic job skill

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This post is a reflection on a thoughtful post by Jeremy Fox, over on Dynamic Ecology. It encouraged me (and a lot of others, as you see in the comments) to think critically about the laments about the supposed decline of natural history.

I aim to contextualize the core notion of that post. This isn’t a quote, but here in my own words is the gestalt lesson that I took away:

We don’t need to fuss about the decline of natural history, because maybe it’s not even on the decline. Maybe it’s not actually undervalued. Maybe it really is a big part of contemporary ecology after all.

Boy howdy, do I agree with that. And also disagree with that. It depends on what we mean by “value” and “big part.” I think the conversation gets a lot simpler once we agree about the fundamental relationship between natural history and ecology. As the operational definition of the relationship used in the Dynamic Ecology post isn’t workable, I’ll posit a different one.

As a disclaimer, let me explain that I’m not an expert natural historian. Anybody who has been in the field with me is woefully aware of this fact. I know my own critters, but I’m merely okay when it comes to flora and fauna overall. I have been called an entomologist, but if you show me a beetle, there’s a nonzero probability that I won’t be able to tell you its family. There are plenty of birds in my own backyard that I can’t name. Now, with that out of the way:

Let’s make no mistake: natural history is, truly, on the decline. The general public knows less, and cares less, about nature than a few decades ago. Kids are spending more time indoors and are less prone to watch, collect, handle, and learn about plants and creatures. Literacy about nature and biodiversity has declined in concert with a broader decline in scientific literacy in the United States. This is a complex phenomenon, but it’s clear that the youth of today’s America are less engaged in natural history than yesterday’s America.

On the other hand, people love and appreciate natural history as much as they always have. Kids go nuts for any kind of live insect put in front of them, especially when it was just found in their own play area. Adults devour crappy nature documentaries, too. There’s no doubt that people are interested in natural history. They’re just not engaged in it. Just because people like it doesn’t mean that they are doing it or are well informed. That’s enough about natural history and public engagement, now let’s focus on ecologists.

I honestly don’t know if interest in natural history has waned among ecologists. I don’t have enough information to speculate. But this point is moot, because the personal interests of ecologists don’t necessarily have a great bearing on what they publish, and how students are trained.

Natural history is the foundation of ecology. Natural history is the set of facts upon which ecology builds. Ecology is the search to find mechanisms driving the patterns that we observe with natural history. Without natural history, there is no such thing as ecology, just as there is no such thing as a spoken language without words. In the same vein, I once made the following analogy: natural history : ecology :: taxonomy : evolution. The study of evolution depends on a reliable understanding of what our species are on the planet, and how they are related to one another. You really can’t study the evolution of any real-world organism in earnest without having reliable alpha taxonomy. Natural history is important to ecologists in the same way that alpha taxonomy is for evolutionary biologists.

Just as research on evolution in real organisms requires a real understanding of their taxonomy and phylogeny, research in real-world ecology requires a real-world understanding of natural history. (Some taxonomists are often as dejected as advocates for natural history: Taxonomy is on the decline. There is so much unclassified and misclassified biodiversity, but there’s no little funding and even fewer jobs to do the required work. If we are going to make progress in the field of evolutionary biology, then we need to have detailed reconstructions of evolutionary history as a foundation.)

Of course natural history isn’t dead, because if it were, then ecology would not exist. We’d have no facts upon which to base any theories. Natural history isn’t in conflict with ecology, because natural history is the fundamental operational unit of ecology. Natural history comprises the individual bricks of LEGO pieces that ecologists use to build LEGO models.

The germane question is not to ask if natural history is alive or dead. The question is: Is natural history being used to its full potential? Is it valued not just as a product, but as an inherent part of the process of doing ecological research?

LEGO Master Builders know every single individual building element that the company makes. When they are charged with designing a new model, they understand the natural history of LEGO so well that their model is the best model it can be. Likewise, ecologists that know the most about nature are the ones that can build models that best describe how nature works. An ecologist that doesn’t know the pieces that make up nature will have a model that doesn’t look like what it is supposed to represent.

Yes, the best ecological model is the one that is the most parsimonious: an overly complex model is not generalizable. You don’t need to know the natural history of every organism to identify underlying patterns and mechanisms in nature. However, a familiarity with nature to know what can be generalized, and what cannot be generalized, is central to doing good ecology. And that ability is directly tied to knowing nature itself. You can’t think about how generalizable a model is without having an understanding of the organisms and system to which the model could potentially apply.

I made an observation a few months back, that graduate school is no longer designed to train excellent scientists, but instead is built to train students how to publish papers. That was a little simplistic, of course. Let me refine that a bit with this Venn diagram: 

nathistvenndiagram

What’s driving the push to train grad students how to publish? It doesn’t take rocket science to look at the evolutionary arms race for the limited number of academic positions. A record of multiple fancy publications is typically required to get what most graduate advisors regard to be a “good” academic job. If you don’t have those pubs, and you want an academic job, it’s for naught. So graduate programs succeed when students emerge with as their own miniature publication factory.

In terms of career success, it doesn’t really matter what’s in the papers. What matters is the selectivity of the journal that publishes those papers, and how many of them exist. It’s telling that many job search committees ask for a CV, but not for reprints. What matters isn’t what you’ve published, but how much you have and where you’ve published.

So it only makes sense that natural history gets pushed to the side in graduate school. Developing natural history talent is time-intensive, involving long hours in the field, lots of reading in a broad variety of subjects. Foremost, becoming a talented natural historian requires a deliberate focus on information outside your study system. A natural historian knows a lot of stuff about a lot of things. I can tell you a lot about the natural history of litter-nesting ants in the rainforest, but that doesn’t qualify me as a natural historian. Becoming a natural historian requires a deliberate focus on learning about things that are, at first appearance, merely incidental to the topic of one’s dissertation.

Ecology graduate students have many skills to learn, and lots to get done very quickly, if they feel that they’ll be prepared to fend for themselves upon graduation. Who has time for natural history? It’s obvious that ecology grad students love natural history. It’s often the main motivator for going to grad school in the first place. And it’s also just as obvious that many grad students feel a deep need to finish their dissertations with ripe and juicy CVs, and feel that they can’t pause to learn natural history. This is only natural given the structure of the job environment.

Last month I had a bunch of interactions that helped me consider the role of natural history in the profession of ecology. These happened while I was fortunate enough to serve as guest faculty on a graduate field course in tropical biology. This “Fundamentals Course,” run by the Organization for Tropical Studies throughout many sites in in Costa Rica, has been considered to be a historic breeding ground for pioneering ecologists. Graduate students apply for slots in the course, which is a traveling road show throughout many biomes.

I was a grad student on the course, um, almost 20 years ago. I spent a lot of my time playing around with ants, but I also learned about all kinds of plant families, birds, herps, bats, non-ant insects, and a full mess of field methods. And soils, too. I was introduced to many classic coevolved systems, I learned how orchid bees respond to baits, how to mistnet, and I saw firsthand just how idiosyncratic leafcutter ants are in food selection. I came upon a sloth in the middle of its regular, but infrequent, pooping session at the base of a tree. I saw massive flocks of scarlet macaws, and how frog distress calls can bring in the predators of their predators. I also learned a ton about experimental design by running so many experiments with a bunch of brilliant colleagues and mentors, and a lot about communicating by presenting and writing. And I was introduced to new approaches to statistics. And that’s just the start of it the stuff I learned.

I essentially spent a whole summer of grad school on this course. Clearly, it was a transformative experience for me, because now I’m a tropical biologist and nearly all of my work happens at one of the sites that we visited on the course. Not everybody on the course became a tropical biologist, but it’s impossible to avoid learning a ton about nature if you take the course.

The course isn’t that different nowadays. One of the more noticeable things, however, is that fewer grad students are interested, or available, to take the course. I talked to a number of PhD students who wanted to take the course but their advisors steered them away from it because it would take valuable time away from the dissertation. I also talked to an equivalent number of PhD students who really wanted a broad introduction to tropical ecology but were too self-motivated to work on their thesis to make sure that they had a at least few papers out before graduating.

In the past, students would be encouraged to take the course as a part of their training to become an excellent ecologist. Now, students are being dissuaded because it would get in the way of their training to become a successful ecologist.

There was one clear change in the curriculum this year: natural history is no longer included. This wasn’t a surprise, because even though students love natural history, this is no longer an effective draw for the course. When I asked the coordinator why natural history was dropped from the Fundamentals Course, the answer I got had even less varnish than I expected: “Because natural history doesn’t help students get jobs.” And if it doesn’t help them get a job, then they can’t spend too much time doing it in grad school.

Of course we need to prepare grad students for the broad variety of paths they may choose. However, does this mean that something should be pulled from the curriculum because it doesn’t provide a specific transferable job skill? Is the entire purpose of earning a Ph.D. to arm our students for the job market. Is there any room for doing things that make better scientists that are not necessarily valued on the job market?

Are we creating doctors of philosophy, or are we creating highly specialized publication machines?

There are some of grad students (and graduate advisors) who are bucking the trend, and are not shying away from the kind of long-term field experiences that used to be the staple of ecological dissertations. One such person is Kelsey Reider, who among other things is working on frogs that develop in melting Andean glaciers. By no means is she tanking her career by spending years in the field doing research and learning about the natural history of her system. She will emerge from the experience as an even more talented natural historian who, I believe, will have better context and understanding for applying ecological theory to the natural world. Ecology is about patterns, processes and mechanisms in the natural world, right?

Considering that “natural history” is only used as an epithet during the manuscript review process, is natural history valued by the scientific community at all?  Most definitely it is! But keep in mind that this value doesn’t matter when it comes to academic employment, funding, high impact journals, career advancement, or graduate training.

People really like and appreciate experts in natural history. Unfortunately, that value isn’t in the currency that is important to the career of an ecologist. And it’d be silly to focus away from your career while you’re in grad school.

But, as Jeremy pointed out in his piece, many of the brilliant ecologists who he knows are also superb natural historians. I suggest that this is not mere coincidence. Perhaps graduate advisors can best serve their students by making sure that their graduate careers include the opportunity for serious training in natural history. It is unwise to focus exclusively on the production of a mountain of pubs that can be sold to high-impact journals.

We should focus on producing the most brilliant, innovative, and broad-minded ecologists, who also publish well. I humbly suggest that this entails a high degree of competency in natural history.

Tenure denial, seven years later

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Last month, l linked to a series of posts about my job search after tenure denial, and how I settled into my current job.  Here is the promised follow-up to put my tenure denial ordeal, now more than seven years ago, in some deeper context.

As I was getting denied tenure, nobody suggested that tenure denial was actually a blessing. Nevertheless, if anybody would have had the temerity to make such a suggestion, they’d have been right.

I don’t feel a need to get revenge on the people who orchestrated the tenure denial. But if the best revenge is living well, then I’m doing just fine in that department. I’m starting my fourth year as an Associate Professor of Biology in my hometown. Without asking, I was given the green light to go up for promotion to full Professor two years early. In the last few years, I received a university-wide research award and I was elected to a position of honor in my professional society. I feel that all aspects of my work are valued by those who matter, especially the students in my lab. I’ve managed to keep my lab adequately funded, which is no small matter nowadays. Less than a year ago, I started this blog. That’s been working out well.

The rest of my family is also faring well, professionally and personally. We are integrated into the life of our town. We have real friendships, and life is busy, fun and rewarding.

I’m high enough on life that I don’t often reflect on the events surrounding my tenure denial. There’s nothing to be gained by dedicating any synapses to the task. Three years ago, I wrote that hindsight didn’t help me understand why I was denied tenure. One might think that a few more years wouldn’t add additional hindsight. But a recent surprise event put things in perspective.

As part of work for some committees, I’ve been reading a ton of recommendation letters. One of these letters was written for someone who I know quite well, and the letter was written by my former colleague, “Bob.” (I don’t want to out the person for whom the letter was written, so I have to keep things vague.) This letter was both a revelation and a punch to the gut.

Bob was a mentor to me. He was an old hand who knew where the bodies were buried and was an experienced teacher. I knew Bob well, and I thought I understood him. When came upon Bob’s recommendation letter for this other person I know, I was stunned.

Bob primarily wrote in detail about a single and irreparable criticism, and then garnished the letter with faint praise. The two-page letter was written with care. Based on how well I know Bob, or how well I thought I knew him, I am mighty sure that it was not written with any intention of a negative recommendation. (I also happen to know the person about whom the letter was written better than Bob, and it’s also clear that the letter was off the mark.)

Being familiar with Bob’s style, if not his recommendation-writing acumen, I clearly see that he thought he was writing a strong positive letter, short of glowing, and that he was doing a good deed for the person for whom he wrote the letter. He didn’t realize in any way that he was throwing this person under the bus.

How could Bob’s judgment be so clouded? I am pretty sure he merely thought that he was providing an honest assessment to enhance the letter’s credibility. In hindsight, I see that Bob often supported others with ample constructive criticism. (For example, he once gave me a friendly piece of advice, without a dram of sarcasm, that I was making a “huge mistake” by choosing to have only one child.)

It didn’t take long for me to connect some dots.

I remembered something that my former Dean mentioned about his recommendation to the independent college committee (which oddly enough, also included the Dean as a member): the letters from my department were “not positive enough.” (I never had access to any of these letters.) Because my department, and Bob in particular, claimed to support me well, I found this puzzling.

At the time, I suspected that the Dean’s remarks reflected the lack of specific remarks and observations, as most of my colleagues skipped the required task of observing me in the classroom, despite my regular requests. Presumably nobody bothered to visit my classroom because they thought I was meeting their standards.

Then I recalled that one of the few colleagues who actually visited my classroom on a regular basis was Bob. Did his letter for me look like the one that I just read? Did he write that my teaching had some positive attributes, but I that my performance fell short of his standards for a variety of reasons?

Did Bob try to offer some carefully nuanced observations to lend credibility but, instead, inadvertently wrote a hit piece? That seems likely.

Considering the doozy of a letter that he wrote for this other person who I know well, it’s hard to imagine that he even knows how to write a supportive recommendation letter. Since he was my closest mentor and the only other person in my subfield, I’m chilled to think of what he wrote for my secret tenure file.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that my other official mentor wrote a brief, weak, letter, because he couldn’t even spare the time to review the narrative for my tenure file before I submitted it to the department. Thanks to the everlasting memory of gmail, check out what I just dug out of my mailbox:

BeHappySnippet

So, why was I denied tenure? It’s not Bob’s fault for writing a bad letter. The most parsimonious conclusion is that I just didn’t fit in.

I saw my job differently. At the time, I would have disagreed with that assessment. But now, I see how I didn’t fit. The fact that I didn’t even realize that Bob would be writing bad recommendation letters shows how badly my lens was maladjusted. If I fit in better, I would have been able to anticipate and prepare for that eventuality. I trusted the wrong people and was myopic in a number of ways, including how others saw me. I probably still am too myopic in that regard.

How was I different? I emphasized research more, but I also worked with students in a different manner. Since I’ve left, my trajectory has continued even further away from the emphasis of my old department. I’m teaching less as my research and administrative obligations grow, and my lab’s productivity is greater than could have been tolerated in my old department. My lab is full of extraordinary students that would have been sorely out of place in my old university.

I work in a public university with students whom my former colleagues would call “poor quality.” I am changing more individual lives than I ever could have before, by giving students with few options opportunities that they otherwise could not access.

It is fitting that my current position, at a university that gives second chances to underprepared students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is also a second chance for myself.

I might not have gotten tenure in my last job, but I had lots of opportunities to work with students. These interactions transcended employment; they were mutualistic and some have evolved into friendships. I look on my time there with great fondness, despite the damage that my former colleagues inflicted on me. I am gratified that I made the most in an environment where I didn’t belong.

I hope that it is obvious to those who know me and how I do my job, that my tenure denial does not make me look bad, but makes my former institution look bad. If I were to draw that conclusion at the time it happened, it would seem like, and would have been, sour grapes. Now that more time has passed, I’m inclined to believe the more generous interpretation that others have proffered.

I resisted that interpretation for a long time, because others would correctly point out that I would be the worst person to make such an assessment. I still have that bias, but I also have more information and the perspective of seven years. Is it possible that my post-hoc assessment paints a skewed picture of what happened? Of course; I can’t be objective about what happened. If I have any emotion about that time, it’s primarily relief: not just that I found another job, but that I found one where people make me feel like I belong.

I don’t stay in touch with anybody in my old department, as I snuck away as quietly as possible. Tenure denial is a rough experience, and I didn’t have it in me to maintain a connection with my department mates, even those who claimed to be supportive. We had little in common, other than a love for biology and a love for teaching, but both of those passions manifested quite differently.

I don’t have any special wisdom to offer other professors that have the misfortune of going through tenure denial. Tenure denial was the biggest favor I’ve ever received in my professional life, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else. If it were not for tremendously good luck, I probably would have been writing far grimmer report.

Update: After a couple conversations I realize I should clarify how evaluation letters worked where I was denied. In the system at that time, every professor in the department is required to write an evaluation letter that goes straight into the file. These are all secret evaluations and it’s expected that the candidate is not aware of what is in the letters. If I had the option of asking people to write letters, I don’t think I ever would have asked Bob to write a letter for me, because I had several colleagues who I knew would write me great ones. The surprise about Bob was had the capacity to write such a miserably horrible letter and not even realize it. He is even worse at nuance than I expected.