Stephen Stearns’ classic piece, “Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students,” includes this excellent advice under the heading “You must know why your work is important” (emphasis added):
When you first arrive, read and think widely and exhaustively for a year…
If some authority figure tells you that you aren’t accomplishing anything because you aren’t taking courses and you aren’t gathering data, tell him what you’re up to. If he persists, tell him to bug off, because you know what you’re doing, dammit.
This is a hard stage to get through because you will feel guilty about not getting going on your own research. You will continually be asking yourself, “What am I doing here?” Be patient. This stage is critical to your personal development and to maintaining the flow of new ideas into science. Here you decide what constitutes an important problem. You must arrive at this decision independently for two reasons. First, if someone hands you a problem, you won’t feel that it is yours, you won’t have that possessiveness that makes you want to work on it, defend it, fight for it, and make it come out beautifully. Secondly, your PhD work will shape your future. It is your choice of a field in which to carry out a life’s work. It is also important to the dynamic of science that your entry be well thought out. This is one point where you can start a whole new area of research. Remember, what sense does it make to start gathering data if you don’t know – and I mean really know – why you’re doing it?
I followed this advice. I spent a lot of time my first year in grad school reading any paper that caught my eye, in every one of the many leading ecology and general science journals to which my supervisor had personal subscriptions. Including many papers that realistically weren’t going to form the basis for any research project I might possibly propose.
I’m curious whether this makes me unusual, especially compared to current grad students.
So below is a 4-question poll, for PhD students and PhD holders in ecology and evolution (the fields in which Stearns’ advice is most widely-known). Did you follow Stearns’ advice to begin your PhD by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year?
Here’s a picture of what Meghan and I did this week:
Also this week [inhales deep breath]: how to think new thoughts, thinking like an ecologist (?), dean vs. Pulp Fiction, pick your battles (but not too many), PI vs. 7 year postdoc, [gasps] [inhales] British grade inflation, scicomm resources, awkward faculty job interviews, in
Hollywood medicine nobody knows anything, incentives for replication, and MOAR! [passes out]
On the recommendation of our commenters, I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature Of All Things. Here’s my (brief) review.
tl;dr: This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
Warning: a few very mild semi-spoilers ahead. Honestly, I wouldn’t consider them spoilers myself. But I know some people don’t like to know any details about a book before they read it.
I recently finished Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project, which focuses on the lives and work of psychologists Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They changed how we think about how we think, with their work on psychology having major influences in economics and medicine, in particular. I really enjoyed the book, and there were a few points I wanted to write about here, as I think they are important for scientists, mentors, and/or academics to consider. It’s not a full review of the book* – I’m just focusing in on a few areas that I thought were particularly notable.
Also this week: why academics teach as they do, ecological theory vs. economic theory, Rowan Barrett vs. Rowan Barrett, and more.
One year ago, I was sitting at my computer, working on a post in which I talked* about having an anxiety disorder. My hope was that, by being open about having an anxiety disorder, I could help reduce some of the stigma associated with mental health problems, be a more vocal advocate for mental health in academia, and could help other academics with mental health issues know that they are not alone and that help is available and worth seeking. I think the post succeeded in those goals.
Below, I talk more about how people responded, give my thoughts – as well as some crowdsourced from twitter – on how to be a good colleague or advisor to someone with anxiety, talk about ongoing bias against mental health issues in academia and how that might affect early career folks, and summarize some of the key messages that I think are most important related to mental health, anxiety, and academia.
Intro from Meghan: This is the follow up to Gina Baucom’s guest post last week on her experience asking on twitter about sexist comments made about women in academia. In that post, she summarized (and categorized) the variety of sexist comments that occur regularly in academia. The responses to her initial tweet were overwhelming, and her original post generated quite a lot of discussion (some of it, unfortunately, sexist). In this post, Gina has thoughts on how to move forward (with some additions from me at the end). Here’s Gina’s post:
“We need to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves. We have to step up as women and take the lead.” -Beyoncé
In a previous post, I summarized how a small first-person narrative gathering exercise went awry and broke my twitter feed, and that of my twitter friends. It also gave people a place to vent and share the crappiest and most unfair thing they had heard said to or about a woman. In this post, I aim to step up and give my two cents on the wtf-ery*, tell you how I choose to think about this moving forward, and provide a potential set of responses for when such statements occur. Further, in the postscript, Meg adds some more thoughts on responding to crappy statements. Add your own ideas in the comments!
While the tweeted crappy statements were flying all over the place, many DM’d me private and/or anonymous examples. Some people told me they had similar experiences** but didn’t feel comfortable airing them. Some women tweeted that this was making them think science wasn’t the right place for them. Before I address this unfortunate outcome and add what I learned from the experience, I want to stop and acknowledge a few things. Stay with me, because acknowledging someone’s experience is the first step in making a space where change can happen.
Also this week: Robert Boyle’s head, approximately no one will buy your academic book, two sentence math paper, and more
Intro from Meghan: This is a guest post from my colleague Gina Baucom about her experience asking on twitter about sexist comments made about women in academia. It got quite a discussion going on twitter! This is the first of two posts on the topic. In this post, she summarizes (and categorizes) the variety of sexist comments that occur regularly in academia. Next week, she’ll follow up with a post with thoughts and tips related to how to respond to these comments when they occur. (Update: here’s the follow up post. Please read it, too!)
I have an embarrassing confession: I’m just not that into
you trait-based ecology.
Which doesn’t feel like confessing a murder, but does feel like confessing, I dunno, not liking Groundhog Day.* It’s slightly embarrassing. For years now trait-based ecology has been one of the biggest and fastest-growing bandwagons in ecology. Plenty of terrific ecologists whom I really respect are really into it. Which doesn’t mean that I have to be into it too, of course–but which does mean that if I’m not into it, I’d better have a good reason.
Which is a problem, because honestly I’m not sure why I’m not into it. In a field like ecology, where there’s no universal agreement as to what questions are most important to ask or exactly how to go about answering them, I think it becomes more (not less) important that each of us be able to justify our chosen question and approach, in terms that others can appreciate if not necessarily agree with. And also justify not liking any questions or approaches we don’t like. It really bugs me when people object to my own favorite approach for weak reasons that don’t stand up to even casual scrutiny. So I’m embarrassed to admit that there’s lots of trait-based ecology that I just vaguely think of as uninteresting or not likely to go anywhere, even though honestly I don’t know enough about it to really have an informed opinion. It’s embarrassing to not have an informed opinion on what’s probably the most popular current approach to topics that I care a lot about (e.g., species diversity, composition, and coexistence along environmental gradients).
This post is my attempt to do better. I want to think out loud about what I like and don’t like about trait-based ecology. My selfish goal is to clarify my own thinking, and to get comments that will teach me something and help me think better. My less-selfish hope is that buried somewhere within my half-formed thoughts are some useful ideas that trait-based ecology could take on board.
Here’s my plan: I’m going to talk about a body of work in trait-based ecology that I actually do know well and that I do like a lot. Then I’m going to go back to Brian’s old post on where trait-based ecology is at and where it ought to go and see how this body of work stacks up. How do my reasons for liking this particular body of trait-based ecology line up with what an actual trait-based ecologist–Brian–looks for in trait-based ecology?