About Jeremy Fox

I'm an ecologist at the University of Calgary. I study population and community dynamics, using mathematical models and experiments.

Did you start your ecology PhD by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year?

Stephen Stearns’ classic piece, “Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students,” includes this excellent advice under the heading “You must know why your work is important” (emphasis added):

When you first arrive, read and think widely and exhaustively for a year…

If some authority figure tells you that you aren’t accomplishing anything because you aren’t taking courses and you aren’t gathering data, tell him what you’re up to. If he persists, tell him to bug off, because you know what you’re doing, dammit.

This is a hard stage to get through because you will feel guilty about not getting going on your own research. You will continually be asking yourself, “What am I doing here?” Be patient. This stage is critical to your personal development and to maintaining the flow of new ideas into science. Here you decide what constitutes an important problem. You must arrive at this decision independently for two reasons. First, if someone hands you a problem, you won’t feel that it is yours, you won’t have that possessiveness that makes you want to work on it, defend it, fight for it, and make it come out beautifully. Secondly, your PhD work will shape your future. It is your choice of a field in which to carry out a life’s work. It is also important to the dynamic of science that your entry be well thought out. This is one point where you can start a whole new area of research. Remember, what sense does it make to start gathering data if you don’t know – and I mean really know – why you’re doing it?

I followed this advice. I spent a lot of time my first year in grad school reading any paper that caught my eye, in every one of the many leading ecology and general science journals to which my supervisor had personal subscriptions. Including many papers that realistically weren’t going to form the basis for any research project I might possibly propose.

I’m curious whether this makes me unusual, especially compared to current grad students.

So below is a 4-question poll, for PhD students and PhD holders in ecology and evolution (the fields in which Stearns’ advice is most widely-known). Did you follow Stearns’ advice to begin your PhD by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year?

Friday links: women in science x 5, and SO MUCH MOAR

Here’s a picture of what Meghan and I did this week:


Also this week [inhales deep breath]: how to think new thoughts, thinking like an ecologist (?), dean vs. Pulp Fiction, pick your battles (but not too many), PI vs. 7 year postdoc, [gasps] [inhales] British grade inflation, scicomm resources, awkward faculty job interviews, in Hollywood medicine nobody knows anything, incentives for replication, and MOAR! [passes out]

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Book review: The Signature Of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

On the recommendation of our commenters, I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature Of All Things. Here’s my (brief) review.

tl;dr: This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

Warning: a few very mild semi-spoilers ahead. Honestly, I wouldn’t consider them spoilers myself. But I know some people don’t like to know any details about a book before they read it.

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Why functional trait ecology needs population ecology

I have an embarrassing confession: I’m just not that into you trait-based ecology.

Which doesn’t feel like confessing a murder, but does feel like confessing, I dunno, not liking Groundhog Day.* It’s slightly embarrassing. For years now trait-based ecology has been one of the biggest and fastest-growing bandwagons in ecology. Plenty of terrific ecologists whom I really respect are really into it. Which doesn’t mean that I have to be into it too, of course–but which does mean that if I’m not into it, I’d better have a good reason.

Which is a problem, because honestly I’m not sure why I’m not into it. In a field like ecology, where there’s no universal agreement as to what questions are most important to ask or exactly how to go about answering them, I think it becomes more (not less) important that each of us be able to justify our chosen question and approach, in terms that others can appreciate if not necessarily agree with. And also justify not liking any questions or approaches we don’t like. It really bugs me when people object to my own favorite approach for weak reasons that don’t stand up to even casual scrutiny. So I’m embarrassed to admit that there’s lots of trait-based ecology that I just vaguely think of as uninteresting or not likely to go anywhere, even though honestly I don’t know enough about it to really have an informed opinion. It’s embarrassing to not have an informed opinion on what’s probably the most popular current approach to topics that I care a lot about (e.g., species diversity, composition, and coexistence along environmental gradients).

This post is my attempt to do better. I want to think out loud about what I like and don’t like about trait-based ecology. My selfish goal is to clarify my own thinking, and to get comments that will teach me something and help me think better. My less-selfish hope is that buried somewhere within my half-formed thoughts are some useful ideas that trait-based ecology could take on board.

Here’s my plan: I’m going to talk about a body of work in trait-based ecology that I actually do know well and that I do like a lot. Then I’m going to go back to Brian’s old post on where trait-based ecology is at and where it ought to go and see how this body of work stacks up. How do my reasons for liking this particular body of trait-based ecology line up with what an actual trait-based ecologist–Brian–looks for in trait-based ecology?

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Brief book reviews: four popular science and history of science books

A while back I asked y’all for recommendations for popular science books that a scientist would enjoy. Meaning, not written a too low a level, not too hype-y, etc. There were so many great recommendations that it was hard to choose! But in the end, I decided to start with:

Brief reviews below the fold. tl;dr: The first three are all well worth your time. The Book That Changed America is a bait and switch and eminently skippable.

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