What do you wish you’d learned as a student, but didn’t?

Ever On and On asks a good question: what do you wish you’d learned as a student, but didn’t?

Most of the commenters over there say “stats, math, and programming”. Not surprising, since those are things that most students don’t like (unless they’re going into statistics, mathematics, or computer science), and things that have increased in importance over time in most every field of science.

I do wish I knew more programming. I often do number crunching in really slow, inefficient ways. I also wish I was a better natural historian, not so much because it would change my science but because it would enrich my appreciation of nature. Of course, if we’re broadening this from “things I wish I’d learned that would make me a better scientist” to “things I wish I’d learned”, then I’d have to list things like “play guitar”. 🙂

What do you wish you’d learned as a student that would make you a better scientist?

HT NeuroDojo

37 thoughts on “What do you wish you’d learned as a student, but didn’t?

  1. I teach a 4th year course in environmental research methods, and explicitly designed it with the guiding principle to include “things I wish I learned as an undergrad”. It is stats heavy, but emphasizes the use of stats as a powerful tool in the ecologist’s toolbox. Students have already taken two undergrad courses in statistics and biostatistics, so in my course they get to apply what they have learned to ecological problems/questions. I love seeing the light bulbs go off over their heads when they make the connections between applying the right statistical tool with the appropriate research question/experimental design. I also include material on critical thinking and communicating science to round out the course. Admittedly, some of the material I cover should have been covered earlier in their program, but better late than never:)

    • Hi Andrea,
      It sounds like your class teaches a very useful toolbox of skills. Would you be willing to share any of your teaching materials for others (like myself) to read? I’m a first year PhD student and am looking to expand my exposure to the quantitative side of ecology.

      • My lecture slides are just a shell, but I can certainly send you a bibliography of my references used in the course. Just message me via andreadotkirkwoodATuoitdotca

  2. 1. Soil science, particularly with respect to physics and chemistry
    2. Mathematical and philosophical issues in statistics, especially with respect to signal:noise determination.
    3. That the ivory tower mentality is in fact very real and that many scientists are divorced from solving practical problems.

  3. First, writing. I would have loved to learn more about writing papers and grant applications. Second (and I say this even as an applied mathematician who did take a few stats courses and was advised by someone in the Ecology/Evolution department) I would also say stats, specifically, advanced computational stats. I would have definitely benefited from taking more eco/evo courses, but I feel like these I can pick up more easily post-grad.

    Fun side note: Before reading this, I had just returned to my office after having coffee with another quantitatively inclined biologist, and the bulk of our conversation revolved around the current need to teach biology grads more prob/stats and scientific computing.

    If I can jump up on my soapbox for a second, I think we’re going to see a lot more universities teaching quantitative methods courses for bio grads and undergrads in the coming decades. The core of these courses will be basic “useful” math, probability, stats (more theory, less “how to read ANOVA tables”) and scientific programming. Students should really be seeing some of this in high school, and getting a second dose of it in undergrad, but until that happens we’ll have to do our best (as educators) to get them caught up in their undergrad and grad courses.

    • Certainly most undergrads aren’t asked to write nearly enough. I am very grateful that I went to a liberals arts college where you had to write a lot, in every course, within as well as outside the sciences.

      I agree that quantitative training is going to move in the direction you suggest. Though my hope is that the emphasis will be on fundamental concepts and principles first and foremost (understanding why we do the computations we do). I also hope there will be an emphasis on mathematical modeling (math as a tool to generate and check the logic of hypotheses, not just a tool to test or evaluate the evidence for hypotheses).

  4. Pingback: “What do you wish you’d learned as a student, but didn’t?” | The Language of Science

  5. I am a current graduate student and have tailored my education to “things I know I will have wanted to learn”– math, stats, and writing. What a dream to emerge from liberal arts college and find that science needed more writers.
    Thanks for writing this post, and for all of the responses so far. It appears that I’m doing something right!

  6. MATH. Before starting my MA I was studying statistics on my own and I asked a friend of mine (who is now a prof. in Finance) what he suggested to study before grad school. He gave me this book, “math for economists”. I discarded the suggestion entirely. I was like “how could linear algebra be useful to me, ever?”. Yeah right.
    Not to mention I feel studying math is crucial to develop deductive thinking skills. I feel with a firm grasp on math, statistics become a fun diversion.

  7. I agree with everything said so far: stats, data management and programming are sadly under-represented in undergrad courses (and I would include GIS to the list too).

    However, it needs to be emphasized that that these are merely technical tools meant to aid good science/ecology and not the stepping stones to being a good scientist/ecologist. What is also needed are those unquantifiable and intangible qualities of curiosity, philosophy and, as Jeremy mentioned, a deep appreciation of natural history.

    Maybe a simple analogy will hammer home my point: reading the manual of a fancy new SLR camera will not make me a good photographer. Despite knowing what all the buttons do, I will be unable to create a scene and convey a message using lighting and perspective- I’ll need something more (on the flip-side, a brilliant artist won’t be able to take a good photo if s/he doesn’t understand all the camera settings).

    I am all for increasing the the training of technical skills as soon as possible, but I believe that these should be secondary to learning critical thinking skills. (unfortunately, I am unsure how to do this in a classroom setting…or any other setting for that matter. Any suggestions?)

    • Re: technical skills, I wouldn’t argue that everyone needs all of the skills you mentioned. Plenty of ecologists don’t need GIS, for instance, and I suspect those who do need it mostly do get trained in it. And I’m living proof that you don’t need a deep appreciation of natural history to be a good ecologist. 😉

      Your camera analogy is a good one, I think.

      Re: critical thinking, one good way to acquire that ability is “go to a small liberal arts college”. That was my solution to the problem, anyway. 😉

      • Small liberal arts colleges are fine…if you have the money and that’s the environment you want to be in. But they certainly don’t guarantee anything about the acquisition of critical thinking skills, and they have some very serious drawbacks in terms of the expertise and experience of the faculty, range of majors offered, opportunities for research, and breadth of extracurricular activities available. To the contrary of your suggestion, I recommend that students attend the land grant institute of their state, where the range of these several factors is the widest (typically, by far, compared to other schools), and tuition among the lowest.

        I have never known anything but large and huge, from high school on, and I would definitely never trade my undergrad experience for that of a small private school.

      • Hi Jim,

        Different strokes for different folks, obviously. I was very fortunate that my family could afford to send me to a place like Williams College without me or them having to go into debt. Deciding how much debt to take on to get an undergrad degree is not an easy call. But for students who can afford to make a choice, I don’t think I’d make a “default” recommendation of any sort of place–liberals arts college, land grant university, whatever. Students need to be fully aware of all the options out there. That there are so many options out there is one of the great strengths of the US higher education system. I’ve lived in other countries–no place has anything like the range of higher education options the US has.

        I stand by my claim that liberal arts colleges absolutely are an option that students interested in going on in science should seriously consider. Liberal arts colleges all share numerous advantages–small class sizes, frequent interaction with profs, obliging students to write a lot, teaching students habits of mind that will be much more valuable to them than any particular bit of specialized scientific knowledge or technical skill, and more. And liberal arts colleges also vary more than your comment indicates. I’m speaking from personal experience here. Williams College and places like it have lots of research-active faculty, who hold grants from major funding institutions like NSF and NIH. You don’t get tenure at a place like Williams without an active research program. In terms of extracurriculars, I’m struggling to think of anything Williams *didn’t* offer (and that includes things like minor sports than many larger universities have dropped because of they way they’ve chosen to comply with Title IX). And while the only life sciences major at Williams was “biology”, you were free to customize that however you wanted by taking whatever upper-level specialized courses suited you. Were there fewer upper-level specialized courses than at a big university? Sure. But frankly, I’ve *never* seen a grad student fail, or even be held back in any significant way, based on not having had some specialized undergrad course. Of all the things that affect whether or not you make a success of grad school and are able to achieve your longer-term goals in science (within or outside of academia), “having enough upper-level undergrad courses” is nowhere near one of the most important. I’m living proof of that!

        Now, Williams is an exceptional place in many respects, and I was an exceptional student. The point of raising my own example, and my own college’s example, is absolutely not to suggest that everyone can or should follow my lead and go to Williams. I’m just raising an example I know well–my own–as one illustration of the variety that’s out there.

        Like I said, none of the above is meant to denigrate land grant universities at all. It’s mainly aimed at students who’ve only thought about one sort of place, to encourage them to search broadly. It’s also aimed at students who are currently at liberal arts colleges, and perhaps discovering for the first time that they might want to go to grad school. To any such students reading this: don’t worry your decision to go to a liberal arts college hasn’t closed any doors. Your training and background may be *different* in some ways than it would’ve been had you gone to a big university–but it’s not *worse*.

      • Not sure how this discussion got focused on the undergraduate years in the first place. I assumed your question was wrt graduate school. I’m also not sure why people seem to be thinking that “critical thinking skills” are not acquired in almost any class you take, certainly in math, statistics and computer programming.

        And I do think one does indeed need a strong sense of natural history to be a good ecologist, especially community ecology.

        Unrelatedly, I would add that most people coming out of grad school are woefully lacking in database management skills, and also in their general understanding of the existence and structure of various highly important data sets that could be used to address ecological questions, including not just biotic data but also climatological, geological, soils, geographic, geodetic, etc etc data sources.

      • Yes, the thread’s gone in a different direction than I anticipated it would. When I wrote the post, I was thinking of grad school, not undergrad.

        Re: natural history, that means I’m not a good ecologist. I leave it to you to decide if that implication reinforces or refutes your claim.

        You’re certainly right that most grad students lack database management skills. I think the broader issue of awareness of datasets is changing, as the “NCEAS ethos” continues to filter through the field.

      • Good point on the natural history comment, I take that back; there are aspects of ecology that do not require extensive natural history knowledge. The importance of such knowledge depends on what system one is working in, the questions one addresses, and specifics of the learning style of the individual. Let me rephrase it to say that the more complex the system, the more important it is not to omit important variables, and that natural history knowledge can go a long way in accomplishing this goal.

  8. I wish someone would’ve taught me to connect together all the things I learnt (not that its too late, considering I begin my PhD in the near future.. Hopefully!).. But I think the way the system works here in my country especially at the undergrad level, I never really learnt to think of things being important beyond the scores in exam.. I learn to make connections much later and sometimes regret not having paid enough attention..But the again.. maybe its just me 😛

    And for the list of non-academics.. playing a guitar and a form of formal ballroom dancing 🙂

  9. I wish I had become fluent in the rich and nuanced language of mathematics. Not just the tools and methods, but the spatial and logical reasoning that makes quantitative problems a creative game for those people who are truly talented at ‘speaking’ math. There is a great quote from R.A. Fisher in his forward to ‘The Genetical Theory’ where he tries to contrast the way a mathematician vs. a biologist can envision biological questions which makes this point better than I ever could. There is a creativity and rigour in this kind of real world-mathematical translation that I am perpetually envious of.

  10. I also agree with math — though the reason I stopped taking it wasn’t that I didn’t like it or wasn’t good at it, but that I had no idea it would be useful in biology. I really wish I had taken more!

    Regarding writing: I was an undergrad at Cornell, where they have something called the Writing in the Majors program. I took the Writing in the Majors sections of Ecology and Evolution. It worked a little differently for the two classes (and I am a little fuzzy on the details), but it involved meeting for an extra hour a week, and doing a LOT more writing. From what I remember, for evolution, we wrote papers instead of taking exams. My Writing in the Majors Evolution course played a big role in me getting into research. Among other things, my evolution TA (Colleen Webb, who is now at Colorado State, and who probably set a record for having the most TAed students go on to grad school) helped me get started in research, including getting into Nelson Hairston’s lab. Those Writing in the Majors classes had a huge effect on me.

    • At Williams we wrote a lot of lab reports and had essay questions on many biology exams, and I wrote an honors thesis. And most every class I took involved a fair bit of writing, except for the one math class and my chemistry classes. So just the cumulative amount of writing you had to do was important. But the best courses for my writing were my philosophy classes (I took several), and freshman English. In all of those classes, you were writing every week, or even twice a week. Often short assignments, 1-2 pages (with longer term papers as well). Those courses gave me a lot of practice at choosing words precisely, making logical arguments, and close reading of texts (most of the assignments had to do with interpretation of philosophical and literary passages). And you got feedback on every single assignment, not just a grade.

      Williams didn’t have anything like your Writing in the Majors program at the time. What Williams had was a student-run Writing Workshop in which volunteer students who were good writers were allowed to help anyone with any take-home written assignment. Potential workshop aides were identified via recommendations by faculty, then chosen based on a sort of interview/writing test by senior workshop members (I was recommended, but didn’t do well enough on the interview). I never used the WW’s services, but I know plenty of students who did, including many science students with technical writing assignments. They all found it very helpful.

      I note with interest that, even though I mostly teach pretty math-heavy classes, you can predict the outstanding students quite reliably simply by looking at who the best writers are.

      • You should do a post on your perceptions of what the undergrad experience is at state universities. I’m a product of one, yet I still managed to write lab reports, essay tests, an honors thesis, and we even had philosophy and English classes!

      • I know you’re kidding with the whole “BEST” thing, but seriously, nothing I wrote said or implied that students from big state universities can’t write lab reports or essays or take philosophy classes or whatever. I would hope we could have an amicable discussion of our personal experiences, and of the strengths of different types of institution, without it turning into an argument about whether Big Evil State Tech or the College of Wooster (COW) (whoops, that’s a real one!) is “the best”. Believe me, you’ll know if I’m actually criticizing something, which I wasn’t in this case. 😉

        I actually have a post coming on perceptions of the undergrad experience at liberal arts colleges. Not because I think liberal arts colleges are “better”, but because that’s the experience I’m familiar with, and because I think that’s the experience with which many current and future academics (who mostly went to big universities) are less familiar. If you want a post on perceptions of the undergrad experience at big state universities, sorry, but you’ll need to get your own blog. 😉

      • Wooster’s kind of an interesting example actually, because the OARDC (Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, the main agricultural research center for the state, part of Ohio State University) is also in Wooster, which presumably increases the chances for College of Wooster students to get some agricultural research experience should they so choose. There, how’s that for compromise…

    • p.s. Re: math, probably lots of readers of this blog think I’m a serious theoretician. Certainly, many undergraduate and graduate students in my own department think so. But I’m not, not really. At least not in the sense of “having been taught lots of math”. I only had one math class in college (in probability; there were no stats courses at Williams at the time). Stats was something you were taught here and there, mostly in an informal or semi-formal way, in your biology labs. Similarly, in grad school I only had one math-y class, Peter’s multivariate stats course, though some basic modeling concepts came up in Peter’s community ecology class and in population genetics.

      So I’m mostly self-taught. I’m sure it helped that I like math, so I enjoyed teaching myself. And I do wish I’d had more formal courses. But for anyone out there who thinks that math is like a foreign language, where if you don’t pick it up early on it’s just a total slog, I’m living proof that that’s not necessarily true. Grad school, and even post-grad school, is not too late to pick this stuff up if you want to pick it up.

    • Meg hit on a biggie — a big challenge in educating the next generation of biologists is that it’s been pretty difficult to find instructors capable of teaching math well, and teaching how to apply it well and how it’s been applied successfully in the past. Lots of ground to cover there! Best solution I’ve seen so far? “Quantitative methods” type bio courses, cross-listed in math and bio, that assume you know very little of either and (importantly!) that are co-taught by a biologist that knows some theory and an applied mathematician of some form or another that knows the math behind different modelling frameworks. One or both would also ideally know some real world stats.

  11. *Applied* statistics that focuses on the types of experiments we actually do in ecology. Experimental design. Advanced statistics and computational data analysis — at least a survey of methods and techniques to let one know what’s out there: Bayesian statistics, AIC analysis, hierarchical modeling, time series analysis, data visualization, meta-analysis, spatial analysis, Structural Equation Modeling, … I’m not turned off by math; these sorts of courses simply aren’t offered.

    Climate, geologic, and oceanographic concepts and research that ecology necessarily intersects with. History of life on earth, in detail. (i.e. ecology in context sorts of things)

    Communicating with the media.

  12. Pingback: How do you train people in a world where standard practices are changing? | Dynamic Ecology

  13. Pingback: Stats vs. scouts, polls vs. pundits, and ecology vs. natural history | Dynamic Ecology

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