Ask us anything: how do you change study systems?

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Our next question is from Angela Camargo: I would like to hear the experiences of ecologists who dramatically changed their study system, for either personal or academic reasons (e.g., from tropical forests to the Arctic). How do you learn the new system?

Jeremy’s answer: Sorry, but you’re asking the wrong guy. 🙂 This blog’s motto translates as “the fox knows many things”, but when it comes to study systems I am very much a hedgehog, not a fox. It’s one of my biggest limitations as a scientist.

Many of my graduate students have worked in different systems than me, typically in a system in which one of their supervisory committee members worked. For better or worse (and it’s some of both…), I’ve always treated those collaborations as one-offs, rather than as “dry runs” for a system switch.

Switching systems is hard because you might get tripped up by lack of background knowledge. So I guess my one piece of advice is: learn from somebody who’s worked in the system for a long time.

Ray Huey has a piece on becoming a better scientist. He talks about how switching systems or starting new lines of research can keep you from becoming stale, and has some advice on whether and how to switch.

Hopefully commenters will chime in with better answers than mine!

Brian’s answer:

I find it interesting that nobody questions a theoretician moving from coexistence theory to say metabolic scaling. But moving from small mammals to birds is a big hurdle. I’m not naive. I know there are logistical issues (permits, the art of setting a Sherman trap vs the art of setting a mist net, even the vaccines you need). And there are proclivities of different systems to behave differently that require different experimental designs (e.g. some systems are noisier than others, some can bring ID back to the lab, some cannot etc). But is that really a bigger change than say moving to a new university and having to learn a new curriculum to advise students about, a new sponsored projects office, a new accounting process, etc? I don’t think so personally. And to my mind moving systems in the sense of the question (tropics to tundra but presumably on the same organisms) is an even smaller transition. Most of the survey methods, etc will stay the same. Probably the biggest barrier is getting funded to start in a new system.

So I think my answers are:

a) Definitely do it. There are lots of advantages in being diverse, being exposed to new stuff, and having a fresh eye.

b) The key to transition is to do it through collaborating with somebody who works in the system. That doesn’t necessarily mean being co-PIs on a large grant. But start with a shared student working with somebody who knows the system. Or volunteer to spend some time on somebody else’s project (obviously somebody who you trust who will include you as a co-author)

c) Because of the funding barriers, until you’ve proven yourself, start small and cheap, and work your way up while you keep your old system still spinning.

d) Switch multiple times early in your career (e.g. from PhD to postdoc, postdoc to tenure-track). Once you’ve done it a couple of times it becomes a habit. But if you wait until you’ve got tenure you’ll have worked in the same system for almost 15 years. Its going to be harder to switch then. (Jeremy adds: get out of my head, Brian!)

While I again acknowledge that it is not trivial to switch, I’ve never heard a story of somebody who really tried to switch and failed. Academics have spent 20+ years learning how to learn. A new system is not a big learn compared to the basics of research approaches and career skills that you have already mastered.

12 thoughts on “Ask us anything: how do you change study systems?

  1. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot recently.
    But instead of changing the study system, it would be, learning one. In Graduation, I’ve been working with theory and simulations, without a specific system. That was a strategy that I think worked well for my Masters and Ph.D., but now I feel that it would be good to find a PostDoc position (after I finish my Ph.D., hopefully in ca. 1 year) in which I can acquire a deep understanding of a given system, clade or biome.
    Good to know that I am not too late for this.

    • I definitely think switching from theory to empirical is a powerful combination scientifically, and doing it while you go from PhD to postdoc is good timing.

      If you primarily work on theory it is also possible to extend into fieldwork through graduate students (in a few more years down the road). My own work remains largely theoretical, but nearly all of my graduate students have a field system. I make sure that one of their committee members know the particular field system. And as a result I have been exposed to an enormous range of systems.

  2. Via Twitter:

  3. Since my Master studies, I have basically tackled the same questions (individual variation in life-history strategies and the evolutionary and proximal mechanisms behind them), with various bird and rodent species, before recently switching to migratory fishes. Although I started as a empiricist, I am know incorporating more theoretical approaches in my research. I know people (theoricists and empiricists alike), who went back and forth between animal and plant models. I think we never perceived those changes as really big steps, because we were still in our training phase and always had a advisor who was more knowledgeable in the system. As the last change coincided with my settling on a permanent position as an independent researcher, it was more challenging but previous experience in changing systems regularly and the help from people experienced in your new study system, including technical staff, will definitely make your move smoother.

  4. I’m not bold enough to switch systems but I know some PIs do it when they do a sabbatical to learn a new system, and then bring it back to their lab. My postdoc mentor did that.

  5. I spoke with a retired and well-respected scientist about this once. He had changed from Sierra Nevada ecosystems to tropical islands late in his career. He reassured me it was not too difficult to switch biomes. The trick was, he said, was focusing on the drivers and main disturbance mechanisms of the new system when reading the literature and zeroing in on the details over time. That said, I never had it easy learning the Sierra Nevada after the Rockies, which aren’t THAT different.

  6. An interesting question and some interesting responses. But it begs a bigger question: is the focus that some EEB scientists put on their study “system” helpful for framing their research, and are there advantages to framing it in this way? If so, why? Is it because it defines their specialism? Is it because it provides a kind of intellectual “comfort zone” in which to work and interact with others? Are systems something that mainly early career researchers focus on? Is it more of a North American tradition in science, as one of my old supervisors suggested to me years ago, that has spread worldwide?

    I ask as someone who doesn’t think in terms of having a system. If anyone asks me “what’s your system?” I founder. It’s not something I can define, nor is it how I think about my research. I have a range of ecological and evolutionary phenomena that I’m interested in; I have a variety of taxa on which I focus; I also have a range of geographical scales at which my work is focused; my approach is empirical but has involved both observation and experimental approaches; although most of what I’ve published relates to terrestrial ecology, there’s a bit of marine ecology in there too; some of the work has been closer to sustainability science/policy. Oh, and a bit of history of science too, as it relates to the sorts of questions that drive my scientific research.

    Now, as you can imagine, I think of myself as a bit of a generalist, but all of this feels coherent in my mind, it makes sense to me even though it can’t be defined as a “system”. I wonder how unusual this is, or how common: do the majority of EEB scientists think in terms of having a discrete system? That would make for an interesting DE poll I think.

    • I’m with you Jeff. I never thought of myself as having a system. Indeed on my website when I describe my research the best I can do is say “it has most or all of the following four characteristics” (OK – I lie. When needed I can boil it down to 3-4 words, but I prefer the long version). And these characteristics are really big like “global change ecology” and “ecoinformatics”. And like you it has never felt incoherent and certainly not detrimental to my career.

      When I was applying to grad school, somebody told me there are question people and systems people. Questions people follow their question into whatever system is best to answer it. Systems people follow their system into whatever questions it presents. That has some truth to it. And I can point to people who have followed both of those trajectories very successfully.

      But it still feels limiting to me. I can’t pin my career down to one big question either (although certainly that comes closer than one system). And I can point to plenty of successful people with that trajectory too.

      I agree – it would be an interesting poll.

      • I agree with the system vs. question people but I’d add method people as a category too. Of which I count myself (GIS and (not so much any more) stable isotopes) and probably you (ecoinformatics), and a bunch of modelling folks who I will leave nameless. Of course, given a magic wand to change the entire academic/research structure, I’d be a system person (seabirds) but it wasn’t realistic for me.

        Wrt to switching systems, I’m made some big taxa swings but I joke that I really just have to change the parameters of the models I’m running (birds – big spaces and easy connectivity in all directions; herps – short and specific connectivity in all directions; fish – long connectivity, only two directions, very habitat restricted). I actually find people very interested in what I can bring from another field so it’s been pretty straightforward to get an opportunity to indulge in my curiosity about other systems.

  7. I’ve dabbled in other study systems and would recommend it, although I think good collaboration and recognising ones knowledge limitations is important. I’m a forest ecologist with a forestry degree, but between undergraduate and PhD I spent a couple of years as a volunteer research assistant helping on seabird projects in the antarctic/sub-antarctic. My main qualification for this was background doing remote area fieldwork, since they needed someone who would happily spend months on a tiny island with only one or two other people. Unsurprisingly this was a life changing experience and I had to make a decision whether to go on with seabird research or return to forests. I chose the latter for various reasons and don’t regret it at all, but will aim to revisit Antarctica as a tourist when I retire. When I was a kid I wanted to be a marine ecologist and my Mum talked me out of it based on statistics of % of graduates of various degrees who end up with jobs in the field (way higher for forestry than zoology or marine science). Now I dabble in marine science, doing SCUBA fish and invertebrate surveys with the citizen science Reef Life Survey Foundation. I’ve also collaborated on a few of their papers which has been a great experience. In many ways the ecological statistics are similar (and I’ve learnt a heap from working with very smart marine ecologists) but I’ve also realized my limitations. It’s also made me realize just how much I know about forests from >20 years working in and thinking about them. So for anyone thinking of changing system, I’d recommend it, but suggest teaming up with experts until you’re off your training wheels.

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