Ask us (well, Brian and Jeremy) anything and we’ll answer! (UPDATE: comments now closed)

Every year we invite readers to ask us anything and we’ll answer. So here’s your chance!

In practice, “us” probably means “Brian and I”. Meghan has only ever answered two AUA questions in six years if memory serves. But who knows, maybe this year will be different! We live in totally irrational hope. 🙂

“Anything” means “anything related to ecology or academia, that’s not a homework problem.” Past questions have covered everything from allocating your time, to field work safety, to the most common mistakes in grant proposals, to how we’d fix the entire scientific funding system, to the least-obvious ecological claim that we’re confident is actually true. And if you have any questions about the ecology faculty job market that can be answered with data, I’m your man.*

You have a week-ish to submit questions to this comment thread. You can also try tweeting questions to @DynamicEcology, but you run a bit of a risk that I won’t notice them (@DynamicEcology is just a robot that announces new posts; I’ve stopped checking replies to it all that often). Anonymous questions are fine; you can just enter a fake name and email address if necessary. You can ask more than one question, within reason.

Please be patient while we answer. 🙂 We’ll try to get to all the questions as soon as we can but it might take a little while.

*No, not like that.

UPDATE: Comments are now closed. Thanks to everyone who submitted a question!


38 thoughts on “Ask us (well, Brian and Jeremy) anything and we’ll answer! (UPDATE: comments now closed)

  1. You guys have written a lot of great posts discussing the landscape of ecology as a field, and some thoughts on its future. Along these lines, what insights would you have on “big picture” kinds of things in the future of ecology? Are there particular ways forward that can help consolidate various different strands of work into unified conceptual frameworks, or is it best to focus on our own specialities and not worry so much about big picture things? I am reminded of Rutherford’s famous quote, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Obviously I don’t think this is true, but I do wonder how to piece together much of what we know about diverse and specialized topics, or if that is even the right idea. Should more or less effort be given to framework building and unification?

    Sorry that this is a bit vague, but I’m happy for you to answer any interpretation of this sort of question that you like. 🙂

  2. What aspects statistics do you think we should teach to biology students? And whats aspects of statistics should no longer be taught? In general, how would you structure the “perfect” statistics course for biology undergraduate students?

  3. I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether ecologists from developing countries can be competitive on the international job market. Specifically, I’m curious whether prolonged career stays at less prestigious institutions in poorer countries will harm long-term job prospects (because research productivity will take a dip), or whether it can enhance long-term job prospects (by demonstrating the ability to work independently in resource-constrained environments)?

    I suppose the broader question is whether search committees compare applications equally based only on CVs, or do they use mental correction-factors that accommodate the specific context of each applicant?

  4. For brian; your most influential paper [ most cited anyway] is the ‘rebuilding community ecology with functional traits’ paper, and you commented on it in a blog post a few yrs ago. Well, please update that post, in particular …….what are some of the general rules for community ecology that have emerged from this research program? thanks,


  5. Hi guys! I’ve been reading some old post about descriptive research X hypothesis-based research…I’m working on a scientific paper that is descriptive and I’m having some troubles because I got used to hear the method when we have hypothesis test. How to conduct an ecological question in descriptive research and how to state the results (and answer the question!) once we do not have an statistical answer? What we should think before doing both things?

    Thank you!

    • I am rooting to this question but more on how we write the Introduction.

      I was writing my manuscript about something that should be an exploratory study but my supervisor and other co-authors did not like that there were no statement about hypothesis in the last paragraphs of Introduction because “you have to have a specific hypothesis” and my failure to do that led me to end up investing in hypothesis testing study (but I was studying something rather popular though so it is hard to justify my exploratory approach).

  6. Do ecologists/evolutionary biologists make better administrators as they advance in their careers? (Perhaps because they are used to many moving parts and looking at the big picture.)

    • No, not like that either. 🙂

      Now I’m recalling an old Mad TV sketch (which doesn’t seem to be online) called “The Man”. The premise of which was that the colloquial phrase “The Man keepin’ us down” should be taken literally, because there’s literally one man in the world who keeps everybody else down. I’m not that man, either. 🙂

      p.s. I put that footnote in hoping you’d comment, and you didn’t disappoint! Our commenters are the best. 🙂

      • I’m getting the impression that if we were ever in an informal setting with the kids in tow (assuming you have one/some like I do), we could really torture them with cheesy song references. It’s a form of Dad humor I particular love sharing with my daughter.

  7. So, two parts.

    1. Are there any places beyond the TAMU boards and ECOLOG to look for funded ecology PhD positions?

    2. The current way ecology graduate admissions seem to work (from a grad student perspective) involves either connections your undergraduate adviser has to other labs, or cold-emailing faculty doing research you’re interested in, developing a rapport with the person over email/phone/skype, and having them advocate for your admission. This system seems incredibly prone to bias (how many faculty have training on implicit bias and diversity in hiring? Let alone the legal issues involved in hiring wrt the ADA and other protected categories?), and it’s such an opaque process that it is going to inherently alienate non-traditional graduate students (first generation students, students of color, etc) who are not going to know to engage in this system (and if they do try, how to do so). What changes do you think could be made to make this process better, both systematically/from an institutional perspective, and individually (on a lab-by-lab basis)?

  8. I have a question specifically for Meghan (long shot, I know). I really appreciate everything this blog has covered about working in academia while dealing with mental health issues, including anxiety. My question is, how do you manage the stress/anxiety generated by work in a way that it doesn’t spill over into home life and affect family?

  9. Was researching experimental evolution and came across Jeremy’s article reviewing Rees Kassen’s book and then came across this AUA.. My question is: How do you see your role in your community and society at large?

    Tongue-in-cheek answers pertaining to how humans fit into community food webs are permissible provided the original question is also answered in good faith..

    All the best,


  10. A friend, who I won’t name here, has described Jeremy as “the Skip Bayless of ecology” because of his willingness to express opinions that some consider controversial/inflammatory, e.g. the zombie ideas stuff. As a sports fan, I really appreciate guys like Stephen A. Smith for their hot takes and I think in the world of sports commentary they have a valuable role in creating entertainment and provoking discussion, but they also ride (and sometimes cross) the line between being provocative and being offensive. Would ecology (or science in general) benefit from more hot take artists? Where is (or should be) the line between being more-or-less benignly provocative and being offensive?

    • You aren’t asking me, but I’ll take a stab at this one in the comments, mainly because I happen to share a name with the odious Skip Bayless.

      Let’s hope not. Skip Bayless, Stephen A Smith, and now ARod are only the latest in the line of sports talk loudmouths who have normalized aggressive, fact-free name-calling and controversy-mongering in American discourse. It started in the 80s (I guess, maybe before) and when it became popular it crossed over into politics, leading to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk. You only have to watch Youtube clips of Skip Bayless’s interactions with Richard Sherman from the Seahawks to realize that Bayless simply makes crap up. There are zero facts behind the majority of what he says. So his “hot-take” is really just BS. It’s “I’ll say something to stir the pot, because that sounds like fun” with no research behind it. As far as the line you mention, Bayless et al are so far over it that it isn’t even in sight. It’s farther away than the US/Canada border from the Svalbard fox that is on Ellesmere Island, and she has more chance of finding the border than Bayless has of being respectable.

      Here’s how I imagine a Bayless “hot take” on Ecology to be:
      You say global warming will release a lot of carbon from permafrost. I say that’s baloney because there is more carbon in pine needles in Australia. Plus your co-PI is known to be overly reliant on Baysian statistics. Permafrost is nothing! Lindenmeyer is smarter than that and he’s dead. (And the Seahawks were the most overrated Superbowl team ever.)

      Unlike 98% of anything Skip Bayless and Stephen A Smith have ever offered, Jeremy has research behind his assertions about zombie ideas, and Brian on statistical overuse, Meghan on life in academics, etc. DE is 60 Minutes (or better) compared to sports talk blowhards.

      There are enough personality cults in science now, let’s not encourage that even more. We have enough people around currently trying to discredit science with baseless arguments, we don’t need people (presumably from within) adding to it.

      • First, I want to apologize because my original comment was poorly phrased and was easily taken in a more inflammatory and insulting way than I meant it. I sincerely respect Jeremy (and Brian and Meghan) and didn’t mean to imply that anything they write on DE isn’t thoughtful and fact-based.

        Skip, seeing your response I’d like to respond to what you’ve said and try to clarify what I was getting at in my initial comment and reframe toward something more constructive. I think some of your main objections are to an aggressive and confrontational style that’s prevalent in sports commentary, and I agree that’s not a healthy thing in general or for ecology. I don’t know if there’s much good that can be learned from Skip Bayless and I’m sorry I brought up that comparison. It was made in jest, and bringing it up here was both potentially offensive and served a poor rhetorical purpose.

        Trying to clarify and reframe a bit, I enjoy much of Stephen A Smith’s work on the show First Take, and I think that show is a better example than Bayless of what I was really trying to get at with my question. Smith’s role is to be a provocateur, and on the show many discussions are driven by Smith expressing a provocative opinion, his co-hosts challenging him on it, and each side arguing their point. At least by the standards of sports commentary, it’s relatively civil, probably in no small part because ESPN requires it to be.

        Some thoughts/questions that might be more constructive for folks to engage with than my first effort:

        I think there is potential value in provocative statements for spurring thought and discussion, but also clear potential to offend and alienate.

        There are many provocateurs of varying degrees of effectiveness and assholery in sports commentary, but there seem to be few, if any, of much renown in ecology, and it seems to me that one difference is that while sports commentary rewards being provocative/controversial, ecology seems more so to punish it. I think one of the reasons it’s easier to be provocative in sports commentary (although this is sort of a chicken-egg situation) is that in sports commentary being a provocateur has become a recognized role to such a degree that people expect the Stephen A. Smiths of the world to say something controversial and largely, I think, don’t take it all that seriously or personally, because it’s to some degree a performance.

        Do folks agree that provocative statements (my refined operational definition of a “hot take”) can spur productive thought and discussion? Can the potential benefits outweigh the costs of offense and alienation, particularly considering aspects of culture and privilege that might shape who could be an ecological provocateur and how scientists from diverse backgrounds respond? What would be the practices of an effective ecological provocateur? Is the ecological provocateur a role that a person should take on as a key part of their professional identity, or (assuming there is some benefit to controversy in moving the field forward) would ecology be better served by multiple ecologists each pushing the envelope on a case-by-case basis?

      • Hi Jon. I wasn’t really trying to imply that you thought the DE principals were simply pot-stirrers, mainly just reacting to the analogy and it’s implication if taken too strictly. Anyway, I think ecology has some provocateurs and in the sense that Jeremy is one who fills that role (and some of the other blogs linked here) that seems positive to me). Jeremy should answer that more. Aside from the blog/Twitter world, I think that was part of the point of Hubbell’s neutral theory (whether intentional or not). I think a lot of what Ariel Lugo writes about invasive species and tropical forest succession is provocative too. It’s a good question.

        My wife once had a department chair threaten not to forward a grant proposal because her title was “The consequences of removing invasive species in managed wetlands.” He thought the title put invasives in a too positive light and was in the “all exotics are bad” crowd. He specifically said her title would provoke a bad reaction by reviewers and undermine her argument. She stood by her title and got funded. It was a biogeochem project. Opened an interesting discussion in the halls, but a respectful one.

        By the way, I’ve seen First Take a few times. I really don’t think Stephen A Smith backs his opinions up with evidence any better than Bayless does, but maybe it has improved over time. At this point, as soon as I see either of them on the screen, I change the channel. (Also Colin Cowherd and others–but as far as I know, he’s only on the radio.) My strong reaction to these guys is because I think they are part of progeny of folks that have debased public discourse in the USA. For me, Stephen A Smith/Skip Bayless = Sean Hannity/Rush Limbaugh. But that’s probably getting pretty far afield from DE now, and of course that’s a preference, so I’ll cease now.

  11. I’ve read a lot recently about “bad” or outdated advice for job seekers, on this blog and other places (e.g. I’ve heard less about what is good advice that either stands the test of time or reflects the market today. Does it still come down to publishing more papers? What do job seekers today need to do differently from when their advisors were on the market?

  12. How do you allocate times to multiple research projects ? I am doing my PhD now, and am involved in 3-4 small but related projects. I always have hard time trying to focus on more than one project at a time. So I end up working for few weeks to months on one project and then pick up another. I was wondering if this is a good strategy in long term. How do all of you divide your time for multiple research projects ?

  13. Can you comment on the fact that papers published on top ecology journals are using increasingly complex statistical procedure? It seems to me that good ideas and experiment designs are no longer important as long as one can find a complex method to dig something out from messy data. In addition, papers are less readable those days because of the substantial space devoted to equations and statistical procedures. How can we find a balance between statistics and ecology?

  14. I am currently on the job market and recently learned that a former (disgruntled) committee member is reaching out to potential employers and giving unsolicited (negative) references. I have evidence of this happening at least three times. I am contemplating a defamation claim but not sure I have the mental energy on top of applying for jobs. This person is not mentally stable and I have tried to distance myself as much as possible, to no avail. Thoughts on how to best approach this? They were an external member on my committee and therefore I can’t go to my direct department to report their behavior.

    • We can answer this more in full later, but since it sounds like this is ongoing, I will answer immediately. I can think of 3 options:
      1) complain to the person’s home department
      2) address the issue directly in your cover letters
      3) have your adviser or other close and trusted letter writer address the situation directly in their reference letter

      #1 will depend a lot on the nature of the department, and there is really probably little they can do anyway (you can’t prevent a person from emailing other people and if s/he were to ever get wind that they got fired because of your complaint it would only be worse for you). And my experience (sadly) is that departments stay neutral as long as they can
      #2 – there is some merit to #2, but I think #3 is better. Maybe in your cover letter just a short and elliiptical reference to be sure people read your adviser’s letter (e.g. when describing your research “At this time, I also had complex and challenging interactions with a committee member from which I learned a great deal and which is addressed in detail by X” or “if any questions arise about my interactions with former committee member X during this time I encourage you to contact m PhD adviser X” (where X is name of your letter writer
      #3 – this is almost certainly the best approach. Obviously getting a person who is trusted, politic, and fully on your side is key if you are going to do this. That is more important than it being your adviser. Obviously you want a good science reference from your adviser. But for tackling this topic you want to be 100% sure they will be fully on your side and be delicate and appropriate but also forthcoming about the situation. If that is not your adviser that is fine.

      While it might be tempting to avoid this and just wait until you know it came up, that is probably not the right strategy. If they have done this 3 times already they clearly have a track record, and while it would obviously be better if they never said anything, since it seems they will insert themselves, it is better to head it off, not have it come up at the last minute, and look like you are handling it transparently and maturely.

      I have been on search committees where this came up and the search committee definitely was able to move on and not make this part of the evaluation. It happens more often than we would all like. I am very sorry it has happened to you.

      • PS- I assume you have talked to trusted mentors who are close to the situation as well.

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