Should the advisor leave the room for part of a student’s committee meeting?

Scrolling through twitter a couple of weekends ago, I saw this tweet:

At first, I misread it and thought it was indicating that the student had been sent out of the room (which is the norm for committees I’ve been on). It took me a second to realize that it was the advisor who had gone out of the room so that the student could have a discussion with their committee without the advisor present. I suspect my misreading wasn’t just a product of quickly scrolling through twitter on the weekend—rather, I think part of the reason why I misread it was because it was such a shift from how things are normally done in departments I’ve been in.*

After realizing what it said, though, I thought it was an interesting idea. I can think of cases where it might have helped to have a discussion without the advisor there to get a better sense of the student’s opinion on things, such as when they would prefer to defend or how excited they are about project 1 vs. project 2 or how they feel about traveling to remote location X to collect samples. And, in the rarer cases where there were major problems, it might have led to those becoming apparent to the committee sooner, which hopefully would lead to the student getting support sooner.

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Poll results: how ecologists find papers to read

Recently we polled y’all on how you filter the literature and find papers to read. This was a follow-up to a similar poll we did five years ago. People’s filtering methods surely are changing–but how, and how fast? Is it only old fogeys faculty who still look at journal TOCs these days, or what?

tl;dr: No major changes from last time, although one filtering method in particular seems to be growing in popularity…

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What academics can learn from business II: the best business books

In the first post in this series I argued that whether you know it or not if you are training to be a PI in an academic (or government or NGO) environment, you basically have to wear a bunch of different hats corresponding to all the different functions a business has from human resources to sales and marketing to management. What you may not know is that the business world is absolutely aflood in advice/self-help books on every topic under the sun. It’s a bit of a joke really. Every year hundreds of books come out claiming to show you how to be the best in the world. But people buy them. And read them. Even if they don’t want to they have to read some of them because they become the lingo du jour. It won’t impress the boss if you have a vacant look when she uses the latest buzz word. From my business days, I recall having to read a book called “Crossing the Chasm” before an executive retreat because the boss expected it and we were all going to talk about it. It was, to say the least, fluffy. It took a couple of hundred pages to say what could have been said in 20. And it was entirely anecdotal. It short it was a typical self-help book. One concept and a bunch of inspiration. And it was totally off target – it was all about moving from selling to early technology adopters to the mass market. Only our products were never going to move to the mass market. Ironically if you’ve ever flipped through an inflight magazine you will see an add promising to save busy executives time by provided digested versions of all the important business books for the year.

For those of you who identified some gaps in skills relative to the list I laid out and want some advice on where to go to develop some of those skills, I want to provide you my own version of the digest. Here I will summarize (but definitely encourage you to read) key points from four books to help develop some of the business skills most academics don’t get trained in. I’m not going to offer anything in human resources, accounting or general counsel (although see this post on intellectual property law). They are boring and country specific and most academics matter them with the patience and kindness of the people doing these functions in their university. And of course I am not going to refer you to a book to learn how to do your core function of science. But I’ve got suggestions for management, marketing, sales, and time management. And I’m not going to say this repeatedly. But every one of these books is short and fluffy and a very quick read. And easily available second hand (business books sell at much higher volume than academic books for some reason …). So if a book on my list interests you, I strongly encourage you to go read it. It will cost you $5-$10 and two hours.

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Do you know a department/program/university/institute/etc. that is doing something worth emulating regarding graduate student mental health?

There is general agreement that too many graduate students experience poor mental health and that more needs to be done to address this problem. A recent well-controlled study found graduate students were at 2.4x greater risk of common mental health disorders. That number won’t surprise anyone in academia—it doesn’t take much time in academia to realize that poor mental health is unfortunately common.

There is still much work to be done to better understand the problem and the factors that contribute to it. But there is also a need to make changes that might help improve graduate student mental health. To list some of the specific things I’ve been thinking about:

  • developing a system for checking in on students who are at stages known to be stressful (e.g., qualifying exams, defending);
  • having a department point person who helps connect graduate students with mental health resources; and
  • how to ensure better access to mental health care and increased normalization of seeking mental health care.

There are also issues related more broadly to the culture in which graduate students carry out their research, including a need to fight against a culture of overwork and to reduce sexual harassment. (1 in 5 targets of sexual harassment will be diagnosed with a depressive disorder, and there is a positive correlation between the amount of sexual harassment a woman experiences and the degree to which she reports depression, stress, and anxiety.)

As I think about things that could be done to better promote and support graduate student, my hope is that there are already departments, programs, universities, institutes, societies, etc. that are already doing good things in this area that others could emulate. It could be something big—one person who responded when I asked about this on twitter talked about a rapid response coordinated care team that works with grad students in crisis and grad chairs—or it could be small:

(Bonus: the dogs are listed as staff on the Emory CAPS website!)

Please let us know in the comments about good things people, departments, institutions, etc. are doing related to graduate student mental health! 

Guest Post: iPads and digital data collection in the field

From Meghan: This is a guest blog post by ecologists Isla Myers-Smith and Gergana Daskalova from the University of Edinburgh. I loved their comment on my post on our new lab notebook backup system and asked them if they could turn it into a guest post. I was very happy that they agreed! Isla and Gergana are off to the Arctic this summer with the Team Shrub field crew for another year of hopefully successful digital data collection. To find out more about their research check out the Team Shrub website and blog (

Guest post:

Two things have really changed my academic life over the past five years: the first is embracing GitHub for version control of code, data, manuscripts and my research group’s individual and combined science, and the other is switching over to digital data collection. For ecologists who haven’t made the switch from paper field books to iPads and digital data collection it is not as scary as you might think!!!

Caption: Collecting plant phenology data – the recorder sitting in the back with an iPad! (photo credit: Jeff Kerby)

The benefits of going digital

Digital data collection can be more rigorous with error checking as data are collected to prevent mistakes. Data can be better backed up. And finally, it forces us to put thought into the structure of data before we collect it (significant digits, continuous or categorical data, are the data unrestricted or constrained to a particular range or particular set of values, etc.), which helps down the road when it comes time for analysis. Digital data collection has saved days, if not months, of data entry each year for my team and has allowed us to go from ecological monitoring in the field to analysis of results within hours instead of days. Our work flows are streamlined and our iPads are waterproof, so data collection can occur under any conditions – and we work in the Arctic, so we experience it all from wet to dry, hot to cold, rain, snow, you name it.

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Happy 6th birthday to us!

A slightly belated happy birthday to ourselves! 🙂

I think of Dynamic Ecology as sort of a respectable middle aged man blog at this point. Our “vital signs” (traffic, etc.) are all pretty much the same as last year. We’re just glad that’s still fine with you–thank you for reading everyone!

Here are some posts that were highlights of our blogging year for me:

My poll on controversial ideas in ecology. Best post idea I’ve had for yonks. So interesting!

My post on ecologists who think in terms of dynamical models vs. those who think in terms of regressions. I think I finally put my finger on something real and important in this one, after struggling for years to articulate it.

Finally, I used the blog to encourage more applications from a more diverse range of applicants for the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Awards, and succeeded more than I had hoped. Having more strong applications than you ever imagined you’d get is a great problem for any awards committee to have.

Brian’s posts on description vs. prediction vs. understanding, and his taxonomy of scientific crises, were right up my alley, and got excellent discussions going.

This past year Meghan continued to provide a lot of excellent nuts-and-bolts advice for doing science. But my own personal favorite posts of hers were her book reviews. And I thought her post critiquing the evidence that grad students are 6x as likely as members of the general population to have depression and anxiety was a timely and brave intervention into the social media discussion going on at the time.

In terms of guest posts, I’d highlight our series on doing ecology in developing countries, particularly Isabela Borges’ post on doing ecology in Canada and Brazil. Also Gina Baucom’s powerful pair of posts categorizing sexist comments in academia. Finally, I might not have quite picked it as one of my personal favorites, but given that it drew 120 comments (!) I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight Mark Vellend’s post on the unbearable hypocrisy of being an ecologist.

Controversial ideas about scientific publishing and peer review: poll results and commentary

Note from Jeremy: I’m traveling today so comment moderation may be slow. Sorry.


Recently we polled y’all on your views on various possibly-controversial changes to the scientific publishing and peer review system. Here are the results!

tl;dr: the “controversial” ideas included in the poll mostly aren’t all that controversial–or all that popular.

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Evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala resigns from UC Irvine for serial sexual harassment

Famous evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala has resigned from UC Irvine following a university investigation which found him guilty of serial sexual harassment.

The university has also removed his name from its School of Biological Sciences, which was named for him after he donated $10 million to it. They’re also removing his name from everything else bearing his name, including the central science library, graduate fellowships, and endowed chairs, and it sounds like he’s no longer welcome to participate in university life in any way.

The university investigation began last November, in response to complaints from four women, who asked to be identified: professor and EEB chair Kathleen Treseder, teaching professor Jessica Pratt, assistant dean Benedicte Shipley, and graduate student Michelle Herrera. A statement from the attorney representing three of the women says that before this investigation, the university systematically ignored complaints from one of these women and others, going back years. The statement also characterizes the outcome of the investigation as “an anemic response to a systemic failure”.

I don’t know anything further beyond what’s in the linked article, of which everything I wrote above is a summary.

I don’t have anything to say about this that many others haven’t already said better, and my voice isn’t the one anyone should be paying attention to regarding this story. But for what it’s worth, I’ll echo what many others have already said: it was incredibly brave of Kathleen Treseder, Jessica Pratt, Benedicte Shipley, and Michelle Herrera to come forward, and not only come forward to UCI but to ask to be named publicly. We all owe them tremendous thanks for having the guts to do this and go through what they’ve gone through (while not implying any criticism of anyone who has been sexually harassed and hasn’t made the same choice). The outcome of this case is much better than that of many other recent cases in which high-profile academics were accused of serial sexual harassment. I’m thinking for instance of Texas Tech’s recent whitewashing of a culture of blatant open sexual harassment in its biological sciences department. From that perspective, this outcome represents progress, although one wonders if the investigation would’ve had the same outcome if the complainants hadn’t included a department chair and an assistant dean, and if the complainants hadn’t had a lawyer. On the other hand, this outcome should’ve happened a long time ago and there’s really no way to retroactively make up for the fact that it didn’t.

Francisco Ayala is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. This case will presumably be the first test of the National Academy’s new policy indicating that in “appropriate circumstances” it will kick members out of the Academy for sexual harassment. If this case doesn’t merit removal from the National Academy under that policy, it’s hard to see what would.