Ask us anything and we’ll answer! (UPDATED)

Here it is again: ask us anything! Got a question about ecology, science, academia, or anything else we blog about? Ask away in the comments, or by tweeting to @DynamicEcology. Ask as many questions as you like. We’ll compile the questions and answer them in future posts. (UPDATE: We now have a bunch of questions–thanks everyone!–and there’s a limit to how many we can handle, so we’re going to close the comments at the end of the day on June 28.)

Past questions have ranged from how we’d fix the entire US research funding system, to the statistical techniques every ecologist needs to know, to how to teach yourself theoretical ecology, to when to give up on a line of research, to how to deal with slow collaborators…

55 thoughts on “Ask us anything and we’ll answer! (UPDATED)

  1. Well, related to one of your previous posts. What about a new one on “How to do networking as a post-doc?” (not just in conference settings)

    I feel a bit awkward position when contacting people (specially professors) from whom I mainly want to learn something (theory, technique, natural history). “Contacting for learning” is pretty much the “strategy” I have done in the past (as undergraduate and graduate student).

    However, now (as a post-doc), I feel I should collaborate in a different way, for example, proposing already a project, with a manuscript, or so.

    So, I would like to know, how you and other collaborators, your opinion on this?

    Thanks for these posts!!

    Ps. So… was there a post about the statistical techniques that “every ecologist” should know?

  2. What exactly does “early career” ecologist mean, anyway? I had a particular definition in my head, but it doesn’t like up exactly with ESA’s (which is a bit vague in any case). And I came across other potential EC ecologists wondering the same thing on Twitter. Do grad students count? Only advanced grad students? Within academia does it make sense to define “early career” by stage (assistant, associate, etc.) or years post PhD? If it’s years, how do you justify a particular cut-off? What about ecologists working outside academia?


    • You’re asking someone who, after he got tenure/promotion to Assoc Prof, thought “Huh, I guess I’d better stop thinking of myself as a ‘junior’ person now.”🙂

  3. What are the best resources out there on designing field studies? I am a forest ecologist working for a land management agency if that helps focus your answer. Thanks!

  4. Since I may actually start earning money soon (Hooray!), I have been reading a little bit about investing… which I have never had to think about in my life because I have never had more money than I need to live. I got to thinking about how investors read charts and actually have to make a decision and “pull the trigger” with their money when and where to invest. Which led to the question: “would I actually place real money on any of the plots I have published”… which was actually a terrifying thought that made my heart tremor. I realized there was a HUGE separation in my mind between real world money and the insects and ecological principals I investigate. So…. my question to Dynamic Ecology is: “Would you place real world money for investment on the plots you publish that your predictions would hold?” and
    “Do you think if we wrote more manuscripts like a company prospectus (outlining management focus, failures and successes over the past year or couple of years and foreseeable risks) we would be able to get stakeholders and policy makers to feel more confident about investing money into the conservation programs we so highly recommend?” Sorry for being too lengthy!

  5. Comment on this opinion piece that talks about severe tests and physics vs. social sciences and medicine.

    Do you think that (at least some) ecologists should be trying to figure out universal — or even conditional — constants (or narrow range of values) for ecological processes, allowing for more severe tests in ecology?

    (Yes, I know there have been a couple posts on a similar vein, but I’m interested in this specific question, rather than severe tests in general.)

    • Cheers for that question and the link. Sounds right up my alley, as I’m sure you guessed. How you cut down “wiggle room” for theories outside the physical sciences is a big and important question. Predicting and measuring the values of universal constants is certainly one way to cut down wiggle room. And there are examples of that sort of thing in ecology and evolution–prediction of allometric scaling exponents is the first one that comes to mine. But I’ll need to think more about whether there are other situations in EEB where that approach might work.

      • To add on (if it’s helpful): Do we need to take a chemistry approach? Materials act differently, but we can put them into groups and draw a pretty table of the elements to help pinpoint their properties from first principles. If we measured the *right things* about species, could we do something similar? I.e. If we had measured parameters for species, could we define general theories (equations) that would describe the real world?

        [DE Ask us anything — a place to unload blog post ideas that I won’t get around to writing about anytime soon…🙂 ]

      • That idea’s been suggested in various forms in ecology over the years. Various people have suggested “periodic tables of niches”. Tom Schoener has a 1989 (?) perspectives paper suggesting a sort of periodic table of food webs. Trouble is, none as far as I’m aware are based on anything worth calling “first principles” or suggest how such principles could be discovered. They’re more like principle-free taxonomy.

      • “DE Ask us anything — a place to unload blog post ideas that I won’t get around to writing about anytime soon…:-)”

        My plan is to wait until you do another Reddit AMA and then ask you your own questions.🙂

      • Argument doesn’t locate the inference in the test capabilities, (one of Mayo’s main points), and persists in conflating substantive and statistical hypothesis testing:

        “In contrast, in a typical psychological experiment, the researcher doesn’t care so much if subjects take 15, 150, or 500 milliseconds longer to respond to apples than to pears; they only care about if this difference is statistically significantly different from zero. … But the way the researcher has laid out their research plan, as long as the difference is not zero, but (e.g.) positive, at p evidence for theory.”

        Yes, I just finished reading Error and the Growth of Experiment Knowledge, why do you ask?😉

    • Trying again. The main point I was trying to make is that as Mayo points out, we can make progress in establishing experimental knowledge without advanced theories.🙂

      • Yes, she does say that. But in practice, that’s not easy. In the absence of any guiding theory as to what you should look for or expect to find, it is very easy to just end up with meaningless measurements, and chasing noise rather than establishing reliable experimental knowledge. At best, you end up just spinning your wheels, getting one null result after another–not getting fooled by noise but not discovering any signal either. This is something Andrew Gelman’s been banging on about lately in the context of the “replication crisis” in psychology and how it won’t be fixed solely by preregistered replications. Deborah Mayo at least partially agrees judging from her recent blog posts.

      • This is kinda why I prefer established theories – you know what the premises are and you can kind of imagine the dynamics of the questions, if that makes sense. But, unless I’m mistaken, psychology doesn’t have something as robust as general relativity or evolution, so what are they going to do? You gotta start with some reliable knowledge, I think…

      • I think we have an old comment thread where I mused about whether there are any examples of a successful science based purely on atheoretical, phenomenological experiments. Modern medicine, at least maybe until fairly recently, might be one. It’s my understanding that, until recently, most drug trials were totally black box affairs. You put drugs or placebos into people, you record their symptoms. Don’t worry about why the drug works or about any sort of theory, just find out if it works and use it if it does.

  6. I would be interested how senior scientist are staying up to date with new papers/books/studies published in their field. Are you checking all the magazines every month to see if something interesting in your field got published or do you have a automatic system (email reminder) which lets you know. When you checking the magazines, are you pre-selecting them? There are so many out there now.
    And also how do you store them so you will find them easy in a year or later. Are you printing them out and than store them in folders under keyfields, or use electronic software like Endnote.
    I am a graduate student and did not yet find a good system to store and keep up within the field of Ecology /Marine Science and therefore probably losing a lot of time in searching for the same thing over and over again.

  7. I’d like to see advice on how to deal with applying and accepting positions (Post-docs, research positions, Faculty, etc) when they may not be ideal or long-term in relation to the applicant. For example, accepting a position out of necessity, but then later receiving a better career offer or opportunity…something akin to the grass is greener somewhere else. Is it best to be up front, laying out caveats for leaving, i.e. the dream job comes up? Should one mention other applications under review for positions more ideal and you’d accept if offered? Or is it best to not even mention this? Is there an implicit understanding that this can or will occur? I have thought about this when applying to jobs and post-docs because I do not want to burn bridges, leave people short-handed, and basically come across as unprofessional. Any insights and thoughts about this would be greatly appreciated!

  8. My question pertains to the challenges of being a reviewer, in particular how to fairly assess a paper submitted to a smaller more local journal. Often the author may be an undergraduate and it is obvious they are just learning how to analyze data. Hence, I have often been confronted by data that is not analyzed “properly.” For example, based on the study design spatial autocorrelation or some other type of pseduoreplication may be biasing the results but the author(s) did not assess this or they may have run 100 separate t-tests when a multivariate analysis may have been a more rigorous approach. Does one just look at other recent papers in the journal and say “oh well, that’s how it’s done at this journal” or does one try and push the author(s) to run more rigorous and comprehensive analyses (where warranted, not for the sake of statistical machismo)? Is the decision best left to the editor?

    I guess the same problem arises as a thesis supervisor: should one be happy your student can run a t-test or an anova even if, say, a generalized additive mixed model accounting for spatial and temporal autocorrelation would have been a more informative analysis?

    • I am just as rigorous about methodology for pretty much all journals. The major difference between reviewing for different journals is about (1) journal fit (2) importance of the piece and (3) novelty. For example applications of widely used methodologies to answer a widely studied question with the only novelty being the geographic location or taxa may be fine for a local journal. However, if they did the stats wrong, I would definitely say so in my review. When it comes to correctness it doesn’t matter what journal it is.

  9. What tips/suggestions do you have for writing a cover letter when submitting a manuscript? Does it vary depending on the outlet (e.g., higher impact journal vs. something narrower in scope)?

  10. What are the most common mistakes you think new (or not so new) scientists make when they start writing grant proposals?

  11. Another question if I may. I am white, tall, male and extroverted. Therefore, the odds are stacked in my favor to get a job and I feel the weight of unfairness. I really do care about increasing rights for women and non-white scientists. The question: “What is the best way that I can actually help with these issues?”.

  12. Research papers are accumulating in ecology faster than ever. In recent decades several papers examine the effect of warming or climate change on different level of ecological organizations mainly the individuals and species. Sometimes I feel that there is a very weak link between data and conclusions or say data is not robust enough to support the claims. Do you think this problem is considerbale and ever growing due to pressure to publish more but at faster pace?

    • Do you have specific papers or conclusions in mind Lila? And can you say more about why you see a potential connection between the robustness of climate change research specifically and pressure to publish? It would help address your question. As I’m sure you’re aware, research on effects of global warming and anthropogenic climate change more broadly attracts a lot of politically-motivated opposition. In order to ensure a productive answer that can’t be abused or taken out of context for political purposes, it would help if you could make your question as specific as you can.

  13. I know I’m a little slow in posting this, but…if you could line up a semester’s worth of all-stars to come to your institution and give a presentation, who would you pick? Money is no issue, and your options are not limited to ecologists!

  14. Pingback: Ask us anything: how to be an ally | Dynamic Ecology

  15. Pingback: Ask us anything: what’s an “early career” ecologist? | Dynamic Ecology

  16. Pingback: Ask us anything: taking a “starter” job | Dynamic Ecology

  17. Pingback: Ask us anything: what are the most common mistakes in grant proposals? | Dynamic Ecology

  18. Searched the site wondering if you had any recommendations for cover letters. Lots of great recommendations for research statements, teaching philosophy statements, but cover letters seem to address a mix of professional and personal things. I’d love to hear your perspectives!

  19. Pingback: Ask us anything: resources for designing field studies | Dynamic Ecology

  20. Pingback: Ask us anything: investing in your scientific beliefs, and applied papers as corporate prospectuses | Dynamic Ecology

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