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.

How I think the start of the semester will go vs. how it actually goes

I’m not at ESA this week, and in some ways that’s good, because I’m currently being swamped by the beginning of semester deluge. Last week reminded me that I always misjudge what the start of the semester will be like, as I illustrated will some silly drawings:

Cartoon labeled

 

Cartoon entitled

And that last one doesn’t even include all the other stuff that always pops up (e.g., an uptick in requests for letters of recommendation, finding new undergrads to work in lab and getting them set up in the lab, etc.)

Related: at an event I went to this summer, they asked us to draw pie charts showing how we spend our time. After we attempted to draw them, we had some discussions about how the traditional teaching vs. research vs. service/admin split that we tend to talk about leaves out a lot of things that take up a lot of time. And, yes, this PhD Comics chart was discussed!

 

Good luck to all of us trying to fit 200% as much stuff into the same amount of work time!

(For a previous installment in the “Meg draws things poorly” series, see this post on imposter syndrome)

Job Announcement: Intro Bio Lab teaching position at the University of Michigan!

Not our typical sort of post, but I wanted to share this widely: my department (Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan) is searching for a lecturer (officially, a LEO Lecturer III, where LEO is the lecturers’ union). The search is for someone with a PhD in biology, preferably with a focus on EEB. The person will be expected to teach/coordinate Bio 173, our Intro Bio Lab (which has over 1600 students a year!) and to develop new project-based labs for the course (including authentic research experience labs). Bio 173 has a lot of graduate student instructors, so I’m guessing the position would also involve working with lots of graduate students.

The job posting lists July 19th as the closing date, so apply soon! More info on how to apply is available in the job posting.

Why teaching Intro Bio makes me think we need to radically change qualifying exams

When I first arrived at Michigan and began teaching Intro Bio, the course had four exams. In that first semester, I added in clicker questions. Since then, we have added in frequent quizzing, so the students now have four exams, plus two quizzes a week (completed before coming to class), plus clicker questions in class. We have all of that because we know that frequent testing improves student learning. (Here’s one review, here’s another, and here’s a summary of the changes we made in Intro Bio and their impacts on student performance.) As a side bonus, when the testing is low stakes (as with the quizzes and clicker questions), students get those learning benefits without paying a cost in terms of increased anxiety. Given all that, I would never consider changing the format to one where we have just a single, pass/fail, high stakes assessment at the end of the semester.

Now, let’s consider graduate prelim/qualifying exams.

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Cohort-based mentoring for graduate students: a “bright spot” worth emulating?

I recently learned about an approach to mentoring that I think has a lot of potential. My initial conversations with others suggests they think it has promise, too. The goal of this post is both to share the idea and to (hopefully!) hear from people with experience with this approach.

Here’s the general idea: some larger graduate programs at Michigan use an approach where each cohort is assigned a mentor. So, there is one mentor for all of the first year students, a different one for all of the second year students, etc. That person is an additional resource for those students – someone who they can turn to for advice. They also host regular events (I think maybe ~monthly) for the cohort, which helps them develop skills, explore different topics, and crucially, helps build community.*

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To be sure: advice for writing discussions

When we write, we hopefully have a point we want to make. Brian has called on us to view ourselves as story tellers when writing manuscripts, embracing

the art of story-telling that knows where it is going and does it crisply so that it sucks us in and carries us along with just the right amount of time spent on details of character and setting. Where the characters (questions), the plot (story arc), the setting, the theme (the one sentence take home message) all work together to make a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of the parts

In doing so, Brian says:

Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every section of the paper should be working together, like a well-synchronized team of rowers all pulling towards one common goal. The introduction should introduce the questions in a way that gives them emotional pull and leaves us desperate to know the answer. The methods and results should be a page-turning path towards the answer. And the discussion should be your chance to remind the reader of the story arc you have taken them on and draw sweeping conclusions from it. Any freeloading sentence or paragraph that pulls in a different direction should be mercilessly jettisoned (or at least pushed to supplemental material).

In this post, I am going to disagree with Brian’s last point (gasp! blogging drama!), but, in doing so, I am motivated by the same goal. When trying to make a convincing argument, it can help to address the most obvious concern or counterargument. As you are leading the reader towards your exciting, sweeping conclusion, you don’t want some part of their brain thinking “Well, I guess they are unaware of this thing that sure seems like a problem for their argument.” If it’s something that a reasonably well-informed reader might be wondering about or distracted by, you should consider directly addressing it in the discussion. (This is also important in terms of not over-selling your results.)

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Guest post: Two tenures

Note from Meghan: this is a guest post by Gina Baucom, following up on one she wrote earlier this year.

Most people have a person in life that was highly influential or made them feel understood, and that they in turn loved or deeply appreciated. For me, this was my aunt.

Janie Raye McWhirter*, my mother’s sister, was a painter — she focused on abstract impressionism, and was somehow associated with the Black Mountain Collective. She lived in Swannanoa, North Carolina, in a cabin on some land that she bought straight up with cash even though she was the daughter of a plumber, whom so far as I can determine put the ‘t’ in practicality and, as she told me, sometimes cruelty. Janie had a woodshop for building the frames for her canvases — which enabled her to generate paintings as large as 3 by 2 m (SUPER fun to move btw) — and bookshelves for her gazillions of books. Beyond reading and woodturning, her other hobby was hiking. We are not sure how many times she hiked the Appalachian Trail, but we know it was at least a few. She was incredibly independent and capable, not really interested in men, and never married or had kids. She lived by herself for the majority of her life and taught others how to paint, which in her words, meant she taught people how to think. In my opinion, she was a major badass.

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On getting—and giving—well-meaning but bad advice

Listen to other people’s advice, but that doesn’t mean you should follow it.

– Janet Currie, as quoted in Air & Light & Time & Space by Helen Sword

When I was thinking about coming up for promotion to full professor, I asked some senior colleagues whether they thought it would make sense. Two senior colleagues independently said that, while they thought I was definitely deserving of promotion, they were worried that I hadn’t done enough teaching at Michigan; they thought that might cause problems for promotion. I had actually taught somewhat more than I should have, but had had several leaves, including based on having two children at Michigan. These colleagues were concerned that those gaps in my teaching record might cause problems for promotion. I decided to come up for promotion anyway—I felt confident I could write a strong teaching statement. I was promoted…and got a teaching award as part of the process.

I truly think my colleagues had my best interests in mind when they gave the advice—they have been incredibly strong advocates for women in science. (Indeed, they have surely contributed to a climate and culture that has allowed me to be successful.) But, in my case, following their advice would have led to me postponing a promotion, which would have meant postponing the raise & other benefits that come with it. As one example of the latter—I don’t think I would have been able to do some of the things I’ve done this past year related to grad student mental health without being at the full professor rank.

In the past few months, I’ve shared this story a couple of times, using it as an anecdote about how some people mean well but end up giving advice that isn’t in the best interests of the advisee. Now, based on the results of the poll we did on listing parental & other leaves on CVs, I’m realizing that I have probably* been doing the same thing. I have been advising people not to list parental leave on CVs. I didn’t have direct evidence of listing leaves on a CV being used against anyone, but was focusing on the downsides (we know some people doubt whether moms will really be committed to their work) and not on potential upsides (that committee members might productively use that information).

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Poll results: Good news! Listing parental or family leave on your CV seems more likely to help than to hurt. More committees should give applicants opportunities to list major life events.

Recently, we did a poll asking about parental or other family leave and CVs. It was prompted by both a blog post by Athene Donald, who argues that people should include leaves on their CVs and an email from Tess Grainger who asked:

Is there is any evidence of bias related to parental leave, or it a thing of the past? How many people have been on a search committee (recently) in which someone indicated any kind of negative bias associated with a parental leave (or leave for illness, eldercare etc.)? Is this something that still happens, or should I and others not hesitate put these leaves in our records?

Poll results are below, but the brief answer to Tess’s questions seems to be that listing parental leave on a CV is unlikely to have a big impact but, if these poll responses are indicative of the field as a whole, listing leave seems more likely to help than to hurt. In many countries, applicants are already given specific guidance on when/where/how to list leaves on CVs. At the end of this post, I call on North American search committees (especially those in the US, where we are way behind on this front) to start routinely giving applicants the opportunity to list leaves, career interruptions, and major life events.

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What do you most think you should know but don’t?

I recently attended an event related to graduate student mental health. One point of emphasis was imposter syndrome (something I’ve blogged about before), and one thing the presenter stated was that it’s important to remind ourselves that it’s okay not to know what we’re doing. As a strategy for doing that, he suggested listing what you most think you should know but don’t. I thought this was an interesting idea, and thought it would be interesting to think about this question in three different areas:

  1. a specific area of ecology
  2. something that relates to my professional life but isn’t a content-related thing, and
  3. something outside my professional life.

I then wrote Brian & Jeremy who were on board with thinking about those questions, too, leading to this post. Read on to see what we think we should know but don’t, and please tell us what your responses are in the comments! Continue reading

A quick introduction to anchoring, or, why I am still trying to get Nature Biotechnology to correct the Evans et al. paper more than one year later

Last year, I wrote a blog post about a =piece that had appeared in Nature Biotechnology related to graduate student mental health. There were two big problems: first, Nature Biotechnology had not checked whether there had been IRB oversight of the study before publishing it, which is a huge ethical problem. Second, the major result (that grad students experience anxiety and depression at more than 6x the rate of the general population) was not valid they used an apples to oranges comparison to get that statistic. Unfortunately, that inaccurate statistic has dominated the discourse on graduate student mental health since it appeared.

In addition to writing a blog post, I worked with two behavioral scientists, Carly Thanhouser and Holly Derry, to write a formal response to the Evans et al. study. We submitted it on May 17, 2018. On April 5, 2019, we finally heard back about our submission. It had been peer reviewed (unlike the original Evans et al. submission) and accepted. On April 17, I uploaded the final version and the paperwork. Since then, the manuscript (which, remember, has already been accepted) is still listed in their manuscript system as “under consideration”. No one at the journal office will explain what is going on, despite multiple emails (including one to the Editor in Chief on May 15th).

Here, I am going to explain why I have devoted so much time and energy to this (frustrating!) process over the past year. I care a lot about graduate student mental health, so it might seem weird that I’ve spent so much time trying to point out that we don’t have evidence that grad students experience depression & anxiety at 6x the rate of the general population. To explain why, I need to briefly introduce the idea of anchoring. And, to do that, I’m going to tell you a story.

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