About Meghan Duffy

I am an ecologist at the University of Michigan. My research focuses on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, particularly in lake Daphnia populations.

Less obvious signs of reaching a new career stage

Something I’ve been thinking about lately are the less obvious signs of reaching a new career stage. I don’t mean the obvious things like being accepted to grad school, or defending your PhD, or signing your first job contract. I mean things that aren’t generally listed as major milestones but that felt important or noteworthy to you (e.g., the first time you bought coffee for someone who was at an earlier career stage than you were).

I’ll give some more examples:

As a graduate student, I remember other students talking about the first time they did an experiment without running it by their advisor first. The two particular stories I can recall were both senior grad students (one may have been a postdoc) who had a hunch about an interesting thing that might be going on in their system. In one case, the person did the experiment, then went to talk to their advisor, proposing the idea. The advisor said it would never work, leading the advisee to get the extreme satisfaction of dropping a figure showing it did work on the table.

As another example, for me, the point that I felt solidified that I was no longer early career was when I was reviewing the application file of a graduate student applicant and saw that one of the letters of recommendation had come from someone who had been an undergrad in my lab (and who now has a faculty position).

To use some I’ve seen recently on twitter:

Having someone seek you out at a meeting to talk science:

(And, since Rachel was my first PhD student, her experience also felt kind of significant for me!)

Your first paper is perhaps an obvious academic milestone, but your first last author paper also feels big!:

(Related: I remember being extremely happy about the first paper that contained data collected entirely in my lab.)

Receiving your first review request is an academic milestone; a less obvious one is reaching the point where you receive too many review requests to handle:

And here’s one based on a recent Eco-Evo, Evo-Eco blog post: being able to stand in one spot for a day and a half and have non-stop conversations seems to be a sign of having reached a particular (well-known!) career stage. (ht for this one goes to Jeremy!)

So, I’m curious: what were some of the less obvious milestones for you? (Update: If you want to tweet them, use #lessobviousmilestones)

Guest Post: What not to say to a pregnant colleague

Today, we have a bit of a hybrid post. It starts with a guest post from someone who wishes to remain anonymous about things colleagues have said to her during her pregnancy. Her post definitely resonated with me – I thought of writing a similar post when I was pregnant with my third child, because I was so annoyed by some of the comments I received at work. After the guest post, I’ve added some thoughts of mine, as well as some questions that I’d love reader opinions on. My hope is that this post will encourage people to think more carefully about what they say to pregnant colleagues and create a space where people can talk about their preferences.

The guest post:

I am a postdoc who also happens to be pregnant. Around the sixth month of my pregnancy something happened. I must have become large enough that it was obvious to everyone in the department that I was indeed, pregnant. Suddenly, I began receiving comments about my body, my impending delivery, and what my life would look like after having a baby. (This is my second child; I have no delusions as to what postpartum life is like).

Here are a few of the comments I received over the span of two weeks:

My body:

“Wow, you’ve really let yourself go”.

“If a baby weighs 8 lbs then where do the other 25 lbs come from?”

Misconceptions about maternity leave:

“It will be so nice for you to have a break while you’re on maternity leave”.

“Think of all the writing you’ll get done while the baby is sleeping!”

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More on what colleges must do to promote mental health for graduate students

Recently, a piece I wrote with my colleagues Carly Thanhouser and Daniel Eisenberg appeared at The Conversation. The piece focuses on things that can be done to promote graduate student mental health. Our aim was to move beyond the typical self-help things (get enough sleep, exercise, etc.) – those are important, but exercise can only go so far if there are systemic issues contributing to poor mental health.

I encourage you to read the full piece, but I also wanted to follow up on a few things here (tw: discussion of suicide below).

  1. We need to focus on mentoring, too!

Perhaps most notably, during the process of editing the piece from our original submission to what got published, a section focused on what graduate mentors can do to promote mental health got cut. On the one hand, I wish it was in there because a mentor’s advising style can significantly influence graduate student mental health, and there are things mentors can do to promote student mental health. On the other hand, it’s such an important topic that it probably deserves its own piece. I’m planning on writing that (and am open to suggestions about where to submit/publish it!)

  1. It’s good to think about what individual students can do, but we need to also address systemic barriers to mental health

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My strategies for mentoring undergraduate researchers

At this year’s ESA meeting, I was part of an Inspire session organized by Nate Emery on “Students As Ecologists: Collaborating with Undergraduates from Scientific Question to Publication”. It occurred to me that my talk would be good fodder for a blog post. So, here are (some of) my thoughts on some specific strategies for working with undergraduates in the lab. This post includes information both on types of projects that we’ve had undergraduates work on, as well as things that I think are important related to working with undergraduates in the lab.

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Put your take home message at the top of your slides!

Imagine you’re sitting in a talk. It’s Thursday morning at the ESA meeting and your brain is a little fried from sitting in lots of talks all week. You momentarily zone out, then try to turn your attention back to the talk. Which of these would be most useful to see on the slide as you tune back in?

Option 1:

Option 2:

Option 3:

You chose option 3, right? (If you are curious about the data, you can read a preprint here.)

Maybe you aren’t always giving a talk on Thursday morning during a jam-packed meeting, but there will always be people in your audience who are tired or get distracted. Make life easier for your audience by putting your take home message for each slide at the top!

Or, to quote Stanley Dodson*: “Make your top line your bottom line!”

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Call for mentors and mentees for #EEBMentorMatch: linking students from underrepresented groups with grad school and fellowship application mentors

Graduate programs still have a long way to go before they reflect the diversity of society more generally. This is a problem both because it is inherently unjust, and because science is done better when people from diverse backgrounds contribute their ideas and talents. To try to help address this problem, Terry McGlynn and I are once again organizing EEB Mentor Match to pair students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences with mentors who can provide feedback on graduate school and fellowship applications.

We are seeking students from underrepresented groups (including but not limited to racial/ethnic minorities, first generation college students, those who have experienced significant financial hardships, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ folks, and military veterans) who are interested in ecology, evolutionary biology, conservation biology, natural resources, marine science, or aligned fields and who are planning on applying to:

Last year, we restricted our call to students from minority serving institutions, in part because we were concerned about whether we would have enough mentoring capacity to open the call more broadly. Fortunately, our wonderful EEB community stepped up and we had a lot more mentors than students! So, this year, we’re excited to broaden the call and to invite students from underrepresented groups to sign up for mentoring, regardless of whether they attended a minority serving institution.

We encourage you to keep reading, but here’s the link for students seeking mentors.

We are also seeking mentors who can provide feedback on graduate school and fellowship applications! We are looking for graduate students, postdocs, research scientists, faculty, and others with experience with the graduate school application process and/or NSF’s GRFP and/or Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowships who are interested in working with students from underrepresented groups.

One change from last year’s mentor application is that this year we have optional questions asking whether the potential mentor is a member of an underrepresented groups. We are asking because, to quote from Michigan’s guide for mentoring graduate students:

Students from historically underrepresented or marginalized groups have a harder time finding faculty role models who might have had experiences similar to their own.… At the same time, never forget that you can provide excellent mentoring to students whose backgrounds are different from your own.

Again, we encourage you to keep reading, but here’s the link for people interested in serving as mentors.

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Results of poll on preferred number of times to teach a course

Last winter, I did a poll asking about preferences related to the number of times people prefer to teach a particular course. Embarrassingly, I never got around to writing up the results post, even though I think the results were interesting! So, in the spirit of better-late-than-never, here are the results!

tl;dr: Most people prefer to teach the same course over and over and over again. Those preferences don’t seem to change much over a career, but, if they do, they are more likely to move in the direction of preferring to teach a particular course fewer times. Faculty in teaching-intensive positions reported having less control over what they teach and were less likely to say they are happy with their teaching assignments in the past three years (as compared to faculty not in teaching intensive positions); a key driver of that is department teaching needs.

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Should the advisor leave the room for part of a student’s committee meeting?

Scrolling through twitter a couple of weekends ago, I saw this tweet:

At first, I misread it and thought it was indicating that the student had been sent out of the room (which is the norm for committees I’ve been on). It took me a second to realize that it was the advisor who had gone out of the room so that the student could have a discussion with their committee without the advisor present. I suspect my misreading wasn’t just a product of quickly scrolling through twitter on the weekend—rather, I think part of the reason why I misread it was because it was such a shift from how things are normally done in departments I’ve been in.*

After realizing what it said, though, I thought it was an interesting idea. I can think of cases where it might have helped to have a discussion without the advisor there to get a better sense of the student’s opinion on things, such as when they would prefer to defend or how excited they are about project 1 vs. project 2 or how they feel about traveling to remote location X to collect samples. And, in the rarer cases where there were major problems, it might have led to those becoming apparent to the committee sooner, which hopefully would lead to the student getting support sooner.

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Do you know a department/program/university/institute/etc. that is doing something worth emulating regarding graduate student mental health?

There is general agreement that too many graduate students experience poor mental health and that more needs to be done to address this problem. A recent well-controlled study found graduate students were at 2.4x greater risk of common mental health disorders. That number won’t surprise anyone in academia—it doesn’t take much time in academia to realize that poor mental health is unfortunately common.

There is still much work to be done to better understand the problem and the factors that contribute to it. But there is also a need to make changes that might help improve graduate student mental health. To list some of the specific things I’ve been thinking about:

  • developing a system for checking in on students who are at stages known to be stressful (e.g., qualifying exams, defending);
  • having a department point person who helps connect graduate students with mental health resources; and
  • how to ensure better access to mental health care and increased normalization of seeking mental health care.

There are also issues related more broadly to the culture in which graduate students carry out their research, including a need to fight against a culture of overwork and to reduce sexual harassment. (1 in 5 targets of sexual harassment will be diagnosed with a depressive disorder, and there is a positive correlation between the amount of sexual harassment a woman experiences and the degree to which she reports depression, stress, and anxiety.)

As I think about things that could be done to better promote and support graduate student, my hope is that there are already departments, programs, universities, institutes, societies, etc. that are already doing good things in this area that others could emulate. It could be something big—one person who responded when I asked about this on twitter talked about a rapid response coordinated care team that works with grad students in crisis and grad chairs—or it could be small:

(Bonus: the dogs are listed as staff on the Emory CAPS website!)

Please let us know in the comments about good things people, departments, institutions, etc. are doing related to graduate student mental health!