Hoisted from the comments: are you still improving as an ecologist?

Benjamin Martin had a great comment on my recent post asking “What’s your best paper?”:

Perhaps one reason so few replied to your original question on their best paper is that your audience is largely skewed towards early career types, and if they are like me the title of “best paper” is an ephemeral one.
Nearly every first author paper I have written has at one point been my “best paper” , but was quickly relegated to the ranks of “its a paper…” It’s a little frustrating because it would be really nice to have a paper for which you maintain that initial level of pride. But in another way, the feeling you get when you notice the improvement from one year to the next was probably the most rewarding part of grad school. I don’t fret too much about if I will eventually get a TT job because thinking back on how little I knew about anything as a a newly minted college graduate reminds me it was a worthwhile investment.
I wonder for people further along in their career, if there is a point where you eventually feel like [you’ve] more or less made it, for example there is no longer a significant (positive) temporal trend in the quality of your work? If so about when? Or what was is the functional form of your scientific growth? Linear, exponential, hyperbolic? If I had to guess, I would go with sigmoidal growth with an inflection point around the last year of the phd/first year of a postdoc, but maybe this also varies a lot among disciplines and individuals.

So, what do you think? Are you still improving as an ecologist? How has your rate of improvement changed over time? How do you keep improving if you already have your Ph.D., so that your “official” training is more or less over?

I think it’s good to ask oneself questions like this periodically. It forces you to step back and think self-consciously about what you’re doing, what you want to do, what you should do, and how to make sure those things overlap as much as possible.

Of course, all this kind of begs the question of what it means to “improve” as an ecologist. I’m not going to attempt a definition, except to say that (obviously), the more background knowledge and technical skills you have, the better you are. That’s presumably one important way in which grad students improve–they learn stuff and acquire skills. But “having lots of background knowledge and technical skills” falls way short of completely characterizing what it means to be a good ecologist. Indeed, I doubt there is any single adequate characterization–subjective and personal considerations necessarily are in play here. So in answering Ben’s questions, feel free to assess your own improvement however you see fit.

Looking forward to your comments.

10 thoughts on “Hoisted from the comments: are you still improving as an ecologist?

  1. My measure of improvement is how much I changed/refined my vision of Ecology or science in general. I am just out of my PhD but hope to keep improving (according to this criterion) all my life. I am aware that it won’t be possible to do so at the rate I have known until now…

  2. I have an old post in which I express the hope that I’m still improving, and that I’ll be able to maintain my peak for a long time: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/i-want-to-be-the-famous-non-scientist-of-science/

    My hope is that future improvement will come at least in part from my students, who will dream up projects I wouldn’t have thought of myself, and so take the lab’s work in different and better directions than it would otherwise have gone. So far it’s working–I’ve had a great cohort of students the past few years.

  3. “I wonder for people further along in their career, if there is a point where you eventually feel like [you’ve] more or less made it,”

    Speaking personally, about 20 years post-PhD and with a professorial chair (UK system) I’d say – NO!

    Although my “background knowledge and technical skills” are better than ever, I’m continually learning and continually amazed at how little we (I) really understand about the natural world. I was fortunate enough to spend the whole of November working with grad students in Brazil (see my blog diary starting here: http://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/brazil-diary-1/) and was challenged every day by those students. It was a real joy and I hope I never lose that. The day I think I’ve “made it” is the day I’ll give up!

  4. Interesting question. And, as you noted, the answer depends a lot on how you define “improve”.

    If you go strictly by publications, I don’t know if I’ll ever top 2003 (year I published most of my dissertation) or 2006 (year my postdoc work came to fruition), and those are starting to look increasingly as just in the distance in the rear view mirror.

    But I do have a sense that my understanding of science is improving and particularly, that my preparedness to tackle larger questions and lay out long term strategies to tackle the really big questions has improved. I think time-scale is a big part of it. My early career was more in the bang category. My current career is slower but I feel like I am applying more force on the questions I tackle One is not necessarily better than the other though.

    At least we’re not mathematicians or physicsts were you’re over the hill at 25!

  5. This is an interesting question for me. If my 23-year-old self working towards his M.S. in 1998 could look into the future, he’d likely be bummed that (1) I’m not working in academia, (2) I don’t have a Ph.D., and (3) I only have one publication, and in so-called “lesser” journal at that (Wilson Bulletin). I’ve been working in environmental consulting for the last 12 years and in some ways it is indeed a huge bummer that I don’t get to do “real” science involving testing of hypotheses, analyzing large data sets, and publishing the results in journals. However, part of my job is conducting general biological assessments of various plant communities and wildlife habitats and I therefore need to be familiar with at least basic natural history of a wide variety of organisms. I also have a wide (too many?) variety of interests outside of biology and having a stable position with a consulting firm in the San Francisco Bay Area has enabled to pursue lots of personal interests outside of work.

    Getting back to whether I’m “still improving” as an ecologist, I’d like to think so. However, my personal definition of “improvement” is likely different from most academic ecologists. For me, simply staying current with relevant literature and maintaining at least a basic understanding of statistical methods and natural history of the species we address in our reports (i.e., listed under federal and State ESA or considered “sensitive” by the regulatory agencies) constitutes “improvement” in an industry where billable hours are valued more than professional development. Most of my colleagues in my office don’t really read scientific articles or even maintain interest in natural history since there’s more of an incentive to be a regulatory permitting expert (e.g., wetlands), manage projects effectively and efficiently (i.e., maximizing billable hours), and bring in more work for the company.

  6. Oh yes, yes I’m still improving, and at such a phenomenal rate that I’m a bit concerned about what I will do when I reach omniscience and omnipotence, which should be, well, pretty soon. Might need to run for president or get into nuclear physics a bit or something engaging like that.

    One thing in particular that I think I’ve already perfected really, is the two-hand head grab and involuntary utterance of things that shock even me, typically when trying to write code in R. I really think I’ve maxed out on that one, but hey, tomorrow may surprise me.

  7. RE: How do you keep improving if you already have your Ph.D., so that your “official” training is more or less over?

    I am still a newly minted PhD so I can’t really say for sure, but based on my pre-PhD experience I would say collaborations are the key ingredient for continued growth as a scientist. Collaboration is a unique chance to see how another scientist goes about doing science. To some extent you can get this from reading papers, but at that point you are presented with a very clean and tidy story, that was likely the result of a messy journey.

    It doesn’t take long for people to develop their own way of going about their research. What does take longer I think is actually being able to articulate exactly why you go about it the way that you do. I think collaboration is key in this process, because you get to compare and contrast different ways of viewing a question and going about trying to answer it. You can add approaches you like into your repertoire, or just be able to appreciate and learn from different ways of doing science. On average there is probably diminishing returns with how much you gain with each new collaboration. But I also wouldn’t be surprised that a really good collaboration even late in your career can still drastically improve your research.

    One caveat though. There may be times that collaboration could negatively impact science, if for example it blurs or dilutes original and important ideas that only come from a naive perspective. But I don’t know how common this type of effect actually is. I can safely say my naive perspective as a first year grad student did not have much to offer the discipline of ecology.

    • That’s a great point, very much jives with my own experience. Probably my single biggest leap forward as a scientist, post-grad school, came when I was a postdoc and helped a couple of much more senior colleagues write an NSF grant. It was really eye opening to see how they motivated and justified the proposed work, and caused me to totally rethink how I motivate and justify my own science.

      Collaborations also have helped confirm my sense of my own limitations. I organized a working group on plankton community dynamics a few years ago. Roped in what I think was a great group of people, including some students, postdocs, and junior faculty. They all worked their butts off during our meetings without the least prodding from me (indeed, I had to prod them to quit working and come eat!) But in retrospect I did a poor job of keeping the momentum going after the final group meeting, so that now momentum has been lost and it’s possible we’ll only get one paper out rather than the several we’d been aiming for. And even if we do eventually get several papers out, it’ll end up having taken much longer than it probably should have. I have learned something from the experience and if I ever were to organize another working group I think I’d do a better job of it. But it also confirmed to me something I’d long known (from since I was a kid, really): organizing and leading this sort of effort isn’t my strong suit. My own best collaborations have been smaller–just me and one or two other people, usually.

      The other key ingredient for my own continued improvement has been my grad students, to whom I give considerable freedom to design their own projects. That’s become a big way in which I get drawn into new questions and systems I wouldn’t otherwise have been drawn into.

      • Consider that the baseline for publication timing/quantity of working groups’ output, conference proceedings etc. is way lower than most people guess when they do not think about the baseline. What about special issues of conferences being published 3 years after the conference? Overshooting is common, disaster is not so rare, one paper might be just above the baseline. Khaneman’s story abut the textbook he was writing with other fellas is pretty enlightening.

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