Advice: a compilation of all our advice posts, and a call for new advice topics (UPDATED)

We do a fair number of “advice” posts, mostly aimed at grad students but sometimes aimed at postdocs and faculty. But we don’t really have any way to tell if we’re giving readers advice that they need or want (of course, there is a place for advice people didn’t know they needed until they got it…)

So in the comments, tell us: what topics would you like us to give advice on? It helps to be as specific as you can be. “How to do good science” is kind of hard to cover in one post.

Before you answer, check out the list below. It’s an compilation of all of our advice posts, sorted into categories. Quite possibly, we’ve already given the advice you want.

Developing a research project

Common, but bad, reasons for choosing a research project

Good reasons for choosing a research project (plus a few more bad ones)

Choosing a research topic of lasting value

How (not) to choose the right research approach or analytical method

Ecology-relevant advice from an economist on choosing a good research project

The perils of “established” methods

Social media

Why use Twitter

How to blog


Students (mostly) shouldn’t bother with “student friendly” conferences

Why network at conferences

How to network at conferences

Giving and listening to talks

Advice for giving a good talk

How to ask tough questions

How to answer tough questions


Common statistical mistakes

How to choose among different indices of the “same” thing

Alternative methods of model selection

Meta-analysis vs. meta-regression


Why use clickers

Professional skills

How to suggest referees in a cover letter to the journal editor

The wisdom of Peter Morin

Using Google Scholar to keep up with the literature

Protecting grad students, and prospective grad students, from their own optimism

Should you hire a technician or postdoc when starting a new lab?

When it’s ok to skim vs. read for detail (hint: you probably skim too much)

How to cite a blog post

UPDATE: How to write clearly

Job interviews

What to wear to an academic job interview

How to interview for a faculty position

Trials and tribulations of making it in academia

How Jeremy almost quit science

Postdoc stories of trying for an academic career

Overcoming imposter syndrome

Other topics

Why get your bachelor’s at a liberal arts college

Winning the “snake fight” portion of your thesis defense 😉

How to choose a Ph.D. program

How to win the Buell and Braun awards for best student talk and poster at the ESA meeting

Other advice compilations

Evolutionary ecologist (and collaborator with our own Meg Duffy) Spencer Hall has compiled a great list of resources for grad students. Go to his homepage and click on “Grad resources“.

A free e-book of presentation tips from Zen Faulkes (NeuroDojo)

An entire blog about how to write a thesis

Joan Strassman’s advice on writing an NSF preliminary proposal

The Contemplative Mammoth’s crowdsourced advice on writing your first grant.

A carnival of advice for academics: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your former self?

26 thoughts on “Advice: a compilation of all our advice posts, and a call for new advice topics (UPDATED)

  1. Pingback: Rule-bound « Ecology Students' Society

  2. Advice on how to be a good reviewer might be really useful. As grad students, we don’t get a lot of training in this regard. Eventually there are opportunities to practice, but there’s no feedback mechanism to facilitate learning from the practice efficiently (eg, reviews of reviews).

    In particular, while I feel reasonably capable of critiquing manuscripts and identifying specific strengths and weaknesses, I tend to struggle with converting sets of critiques into discrete recommendations (reject/minor revisions/major revisions/accept), except in extreme/obvious cases. I’m sure those of you with experience as both editors or reviewers might have some comments.

    I have a vague notion you might have written some about this in the past, but wasn’t able to turn up a specific post, and didn’t see it on the advice list above.

    • Hi Colin,

      Yes, we certainly can post on this. I think in the past commenters have linked to old articles on this in the ecological literature, but I don’t think we’ve ever posted on it ourselves.

      If you feel good about your ability to identify strengths and weaknesses of mss, that’s by far the most important thing to any decent editor. As a handling editor at Oikos, I never cared much about reviewers’ recommendations on the decision. I felt like it was my job to decide that (which it was!), and further that I was in a much better position to decide that. Unlike the reviewers, the handling editor sees many submissions to the journal, and so has a much better sense of what it takes for an ms to be good enough to make the cut at that journal. The handling editor also is the only one privy to any relevant directives from the EiC (such as “We have a huge backlog, be more selective and quit accepting so many mss”) So as a handling editor, while I very much wanted to see referees’ detailed critiques and suggestions for improvement, I didn’t really care about their decision recommendations. Not all editors take that attitude, but many (and all the good ones) do. And your detailed critiques and suggestions for improvement will be (or at least should be) the most important thing to the author, too.

  3. Pingback: Advice: how to review a manuscript for a journal | Dynamic Ecology

  4. Would love advice/discussion on:
    • Supervising students (grads supervising undergrads, young faculty supervising grads, …, even senior faculty chaperoning young faculty)
    • Shaking up higher education from the inside (how to improve/positively disrupt your department/university as a student or faculty: what needs to be done and how to do it, in spite of endless committees and general inertia)
    • Responding to reviewers wanting more p-values/more stats (and/or how to ask for more meaningful stats as a reviewer, like effect size instead of only p-values)
    •and so much more, since I love to read advice posts on this blog!

    • Thanks for the suggestions. Certainly could see us doing a post, or more than one, on supervision.

      Re: “disrupting” higher education from the inside, not sure I’d use quite that term. “Disruption” per se shouldn’t be a goal, improving how your department operates should be. Could imagine doing a post on being a good “departmental citizen”.

      Re: responding to reviewers wanting more stats, I think that’s very case-specific. Hard to give general advice.

      Re: how to ask for more meaningful stats as a reviewer–just go ahead and ask for them! If you want to see a measure of effect size, or discussion of whether an effect is biologically significant as opposed to statistically significant, or whatever, say so.

  5. Thanks for the response and looking forward to those posts. Department/university citizen is a great potential topic I would love to read about (I am guessing blogging may fit in somewhere in there). I agree that the word “disruption” generally has a negative connotation. Its use here was in line with its use in “Is higher education about to go the way of the music industry? (UPDATED)” or as coined by Christensen. MOOCs, with their pros and cons, are not the only disruptive innovations in education (eg: flipped-class-rooms, problem based learning, blogging vs publishing). There seems to be a generalized feeling that change is needed in higher education and would love to hear your thoughts and those of your guest on what that needed change is and how to make it happen.

  6. Pingback: Advice: on choosing your own path in science | Dynamic Ecology

  7. Pingback: Advice: why should an academic read blogs? | Dynamic Ecology

    • Not really. I guess the main difference is that you should familiarize yourself a little bit with NSERC’s Discovery Grant program, as that will likely be your main source of funding. It’s quite different in philosophy than NSF. We have some old posts on this blog about the NSERC Discovery Grant program.

      Send me an email if you have specific questions.

  8. Pingback: Musings on the culture of ecology | Dynamic Ecology

  9. Pingback: On the tone and content of this blog (feedback encouraged) | Dynamic Ecology

  10. I will keep this post alive with never-ending requests for advice…
    What things should one consider when looking for / choosing a research post-doc? Things I’ve thought a lot about include logistical things like:
    * length of post-doc (because moving is expensive and disruptive and difficult with a 3-body problem)
    * location of post-doc (because of said 3-body problem)
    * money and benefits (ditto)
    * required amount of travel / remote field work (ditto)

    But there are other things that I’m having a harder time thinking about and weighing against logistics like:
    * What’s more important: the research topic or the identity of the post-doc mentor?
    * What are the tradeoffs associated with choosing a well-known, well-established, moneyed post-doc advisor with a gazillion advisees versus an up-and-coming advisor who might have more one-on-one time and energy available for discussing research?
    * How important is it to be really excited about the research topic versus the potential for expanding one’s skills?


    • Hi Margaret,

      I think Meg has an old post on some of this, or at least has talked about it in a comment thread. Can’t recall where, though. So at the risk of recapitulating:

      -Everything you listed is a legitimate consideration.

      -Weighing those considerations is inevitably a somewhat personal decision. Only you can decide, e.g., how far you’re prepared to move your family, or how often you’re willing to go to the field, or how to weight what’s best for you from a career perspective vs. what’s best for your partner.

      -The longer the postdoc, the better, because of how long it takes to get set up in a new place and get a new project going. In ecology, I think anything shorter than 3 years is somewhat problematic, unless it’s a theory postdoc or a postdoc to work in some other system (like my microcosm system) where it’s possible to get lots of results quickly.

      -If someone is paying you off a grant, you can try negotiating on salary and benefits (and for other things, like moving expenses). How successful you’ll be will depend on how much leverage you have (do you have other offers? how badly does your prospective supervisor want to hire you as opposed to the runner-up candidate? Etc.), and how well you negotiate. For instance, if you can point to other comparable positions where comparable people are being paid more than you’re being offered, that can strengthen your bargaining position. Just make sure to negotiate professionally and positively rather than antagonistically. Probably, your prospective mentor isn’t intentionally lowballing you; you don’t want to annoy him/her.

      -Don’t do a postdoc with Dr. Famous if it’s not a project that you really want to work on. I’m assuming you decided to work with Dave Tilman and Craig Packer not because they’re famous, but because that was what allowed you to do the science you really wanted to do. Same thing applies for choosing a postdoctoral mentor.

      -A mentor with a good track record (especially recent track record) of postdocs going on to success is a good sign.

      -Whether to pick a big lab vs. a small one depends a lot on how you prefer to work, I think. And it’s not just a matter of how much you’ll see your mentor. There are all sorts of other considerations. Will you be expected to effectively act as the supervisor for one or more grad students? How much freedom will you have to develop and pursue your own ideas, vs. developing/pursuing the PI’s ideas? (note that a big lab could conceivably give you either more or less freedom and independence…) Will you have work that’s your own (or on which you’re the clear lead person), or will you be part of a large team? (Down the road, faculty hiring committees are going to want to see evidence that you can think and work for yourself and lead a team, rather than just be part of a team). Etc.

      -I recall Meg giving some good advice about how much you want to branch out from your PhD. IIRC, she suggested either learning new techniques but staying in the same system for your postdoc, or switching systems but using the same techniques.

      -If you’re not excited about what you might be doing for your postdoc, don’t take that postdoc. I don’t think you want to dedicate your postdoc to, say, learning some technique that you feel like you *have* to learn rather than one you really *want* to learn. Hopefully, you’re really excited about some range of things, not just “more of the exact same stuff I did for my PhD”, so you can branch out from your PhD while still doing something that really excites you.

      • Thanks, Jeremy. Agreed that all the balances of logistics is personal. Three years, huh? Those appear to be few and far between. I’m hoping for something that’s two years, but 1-years are very common out there.

        I’ve noticed that most of the grant-funded post-doc opportunities have an extensive “required” list of things they want the post-doc to already be able to do, plus several publications… It seems silly to me; why would I want to do that post-doc if I’m not going to learn new things? But there you have it. Actually, what it really seems like to me is that the positions I’m interested in are actually trying to recruit people who are on their 2nd or 3rd post-doc. Ugh.

        Yes, Meg’s advice on how to branch out in your post-doc was a good one. I’ve got a problem, though, in that my dissertation is not particularly cohesive; my four chapters span three systems and three different techniques. I’m actually more interested in trying to build some depth in a particular area, so I can more easily say “I do X,” have a reasonable elevator speech, etc.

        “I’m assuming you decided to work with Dave Tilman and Craig Packer not because they’re famous, but because that was what allowed you to do the science you really wanted to do.”
        Haha! Actually, coming from another field, I didn’t know they were famous. I was geographically limited (my husband had already started a PhD) and so I just cold-called about a dozen ecology professors at Minnesota; about half that many replied and agreed to chat with me. And Packer and Tilman happened to have things I could start on right away during the year of applying and waiting. So I feel like I’ve never really made this sort of (informed) decision about who to work with before…

      • Now I’m imagining you at a conference or something early in your graduate career, and having someone come up to you and say “Wow, you work with Dave Tilman and Craig Packer! What’s that like?” And you replying “Why, are they famous or something?” 😉

        Yes, certainly lots of 2 rather than 3 year postdocs out there. But one year? Really? Wow, if that’s the case then things are even worse out there than I thought.

        Re: people trying to recruit postdocs who’ve already had one postdoc…wish I could say something that would put a positive spin on that. But I can’t. I feel for you, and for everyone in a similar position.

        Yes, if you already have breadth from your PhD (and from your past experience in another field), then it makes total sense to build depth in one area that will become your primary focus going forward.

    • I agree with all that both of you have said. Two thoughts.
      – In the US it is very common to advertise a postdoc as 1 year even though there is money available for two years. Its easier to not renew a 1 year than fire somebody after 1 year. If you make it to the interview and they like you they’re usually quick to tell you “there is an option of a 2nd year if things work out”. (And it would be fair game to ask about that up front). And in reality 90%+ turn into two years (its inefficient to rehire after 1 year). I actually see very few postdocs that are truly one year. Although most potsdocs are not written with 3 years of funding planned, it is quite possible (especially with an advisor getting lots of grants) that they’ll give you a 3rd year if things are going well.
      – The single biggest criteria for judging a postdoc from a career point of view (logistics and family also matter but are more personal so I’m not weighing in on them). is how much time you will have to write papers. The worst postdocs are where you’re a glorified tech and so busy running things you never have time to write papers. The best are ones where you have time to finish up all your thesis chapters to publication and get several more queued up to go out the door during or just after your postdoc.
      – As far as personalities/reputation/style of the postdoc adviser, I would argue you should think about the postdoc adviser as a research collaborator more than a mentor. So depending on what you want in a collaborator, that is what I would look for in a post-doc adviser (and that will vary – some people like famous collaborators, some people like deep on-on-one collaborations, etc). Post-doc advisers do ethically have mentoring responsibilities and the good ones follow through (and if they don’t you should pester them with questions – I learned a lot about the publication process from my postdoc adviser). But really it is a small fraction of what you do in your post-doc.
      – Learning a skill on your postdoc is nice, but I personally wouldn’t rate it at the top of my list of criteria. If you accept my theme above that you are already an independent researcher doing collaborations, then you will be picking up new skills throughout your career through collaborations – it is not do or die to do it during your postdoc (unless you really feel you missed your calling in your PhD and want to make a serious and major pivot obvious to others on your research direction).

      Bottom line – when trying to evaluate postdocs, think about doing research, not about learning new stuff. Its a change in perspective from grad school.

      • Thanks, Brian!

        Your insight into the post-doc lengths make a lot of sense; I see a lot of “1-year, possibly 2-years” and had been interpreting that as “1 year is funded, if we get another year of funding, then we’ll keep you on,” rather than “1-year if you’re not-so-great, 2-years if you’re good.” I think you’re probably right about how adverts are phrased.

        Paper-writing time as part of the post-doc: I hadn’t thought about that explicitly, but again, thanks for pointing it out. That makes a lot of sense.

        And I value your perspective on the other two points, too. Thanks again.

  11. Pingback: Friday links: rejected classic papers, great interview with Peter Kareiva, crowdfunding=bake sale, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  12. Hi! I’ve been enjoying reading your blog this snowy weekend in Wyoming, trying to soak up good advice for working efficiently as an assistant professor. The service and admin parts of the job have been sucking up my time, and I’m working hard to carve out time for writing and lab work. I have also fallen way behind on keeping up with the literature…I saw your post about Google Scholar’s features & skimming vs reading, but I’m curious – how do folks approach keeping up with literature, in general? Ten years ago, my strategy was to have TOC’s emailed to me (and now they just pile up in my email, untouched), and to hit up Web of Science for specific topics when writing. Any other ways I could use technology to help? I’ve also joined ResearchGate recently, which sends updates on people you follow…so I’m trying that out, but it misses all those people who aren’t on there. When I was a grad student, I knew a prof who just went to the library every Friday morning and read…I’m contemplating something like that too. Could be peaceful! Thanks in advance. (A somewhat related idea – not sure if you’ve read the “how i work” series at lifehacker, but I’ve been contemplating interviewing friends to make a series of those from ecologists! Could be fun.).

  13. Pingback: New Grad Student Advice and Resources I wish I would have known about… | The Secret Life of a Field Biologist

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