About Jeremy Fox

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

Is ecology a single coherent scientific discipline? (includes poll)

In order for a coherent scholarly discipline to exist, there has to be a critical mass of people who agree sufficiently on what questions members of the discipline should ask, how they should go about answering those questions, and about how to evaluate those questions and answers so as to distinguish better ones from worse ones. Obviously, not everybody is always going to agree on everything all the time, and if they ever did it would arguably be a sign of groupthink. Obviously, there’s scope for subdisciplines within a discipline–clusters of people who share a specialized interest that isn’t shared by the rest of the discipline. And obviously, there’s no clear bright line between sufficient agreement on the basics to have a scholarly discipline, and insufficient agreement–it’s a continuum. But we can point to examples to illustrate the extremes. Physics is a coherent scholarly discipline, with subdisciplines like particle physics, nuclear physics, fluid dynamics, etc. Chemistry is a coherent discipline too. So is astronomy. And mathematics. History is a non-scientific example of a coherent scholarly discipline. At the other extreme, anthropology isn’t really a single coherent discipline as best I can tell. Physical anthropology and cultural anthropology aren’t two subdisciplines staffed by people with specialized interests who have a shared understanding of the basics of anthropology. Rather, they’re more like two distinct and even opposing fields that just so happen to both be concerned with human societies (e.g., see here). Anthropology certainly has some of the trappings of a discipline, such as academic departments (but see). But those trappings are like wallpaper covering huge cracks.

So, where does ecology fall on this spectrum? Is it a single coherent discipline like physics or astronomy? A non-discipline like anthropology? Or somewhere in between?

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Hardly any ecology faculty jobs are filled by internal candidates. And you can’t identify the ones that will be. (UPDATED)

If you’ve ever looked at the ecoevojobs.net faculty jobs board, you’ve probably seen speculation that position X has an internal candidate, the implication being that others maybe shouldn’t bother applying because the internal candidate will have an edge or even be a shoo-in. Sometimes, the speculation is not merely that a strong internal candidate exists, but that the position is intended for the internal candidate, so that the entire search is a formality with a pre-determined outcome.

But internal candidates have factors working against them as well as for them. As illustrated by the fact that they don’t always get the job–even when they’re confident they will! For instance, see here, here, and here. Those are anecdotes, though, so it’s hard to say if they’re typical. How often are internal candidates hired for ecology faculty positions? And is there any reliable way for outsiders to identify positions for which internal candidates will be hired?

According to the data I’ve compiled, the answers to those questions are “hardly ever” and “no”.

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Ask Us Anything: journal clubs for groups with diverse interests, and the questions we want to study but haven’t yet

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next two questions, from “lb”:

  1. How do you make a good journal club for people working on different topics, ranging from social insects to plants?
  2. What’s one question or idea you’ve always wanted to investigate but haven’t?

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Ask Us Anything: what if your advisor has conflicts with other senior people in your field?

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next question, from an anonymous commenter: What do you do if your advisor has ongoing conflicts with other senior people in your field? Conflicts that you worry might limit your postdoctoral opportunities, and result in overly-negative reviews of papers co-authored with your advisor.

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We’re looking for guest posts on non-academic careers for ecologists

Years ago we did a series of guest posts on non-academic* careers for ecologists, operationally defined as people with graduate degrees in ecology or an allied field. We want to revive it, and already have one guest post in the works, but we want more. Are you someone with a graduate degree in ecology who now works in something other than academic ecology, or do you know someone who fits that description? You (or whoever it is you know) should write a post for us about it!

It’s easy. Just email me (jefox@ucalgary.ca) the answers to the following questions:

  1. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, what sort of ecology did you do in grad school, and what do you do now? (aside: we can make you anonymous to readers, but I need to know who you are)
  2. How did you get into your current career?
  3. Tell us a bit about your current position and how you got it.
  4. Did you get advice (wanted or unwanted) from others about your non-academic career path? If so, what sort of advice did you get, and how did it affect you?
  5. In what ways do you find your career to be a change from academia? Are there aspects of the career that were a surprise or a “culture shock,” or that have required some adjustment on your part?
  6. In what ways (if any) has your academic background helped you in your career?
  7. Any regrets about not pursuing an academic career path?
  8. Anything else you want to say to readers considering your career, or a non-academic career path more generally?

You don’t have to write multi-paragraph answers. Just long enough to be useful to others. As an example of the sort of thing we’re looking for, see here and here.

We’re most interested in posts from people in careers other than those we’ve already covered (see list below). The career needn’t involve ecology.

For reference, here are our previous posts on non-academic careers:

Independent science consulting (aside: one of our very best posts ever)

Government scientist

Data scientist in Silicon Valley

Non-academic research scientist

Environmental consultant

Helping graduate students pursue non-academic careers: Anne Krook’s advice

Training graduate students for non-academic careers

*Note that I didn’t say “alternative” careers. A non-academic career is merely different in some ways from an academic one, not somehow inferior or second-best or whatever.

What currently widely-accepted scientific practices will someday be seen as unethical? (UPDATED)

Ethical norms change over time. What once was widely regarded as wrong can come to be regarded as acceptable, admirable, or even obligatory. And what was one widely regarded as acceptable, admirable, or even obligatory can come to be regarded as wrong. Norms can change so much that it becomes difficult to imagine how the old norms could ever have been seen as ok.

Hence my question: what currently widespread norms regarding the proper conduct or teaching of science will change dramatically in the next few decades?

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Ask Us Anything: the demand for field biologists

A while back, we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next three interrelated questions, from Jeff Hean plus a related fourth question from Andy Park:

  1. Why are biologists paid so little compared to other fields of science and the private sector?
  2. Why do the majority of advertised research positions, particularly in N. America and Europe, seem to require a modeling component these days? Especially when so much baseline empirical data still needs to be collected?
  3. In my personal experience, field biologists don’t make good modelers, and vice-versa. Do field biologists still have a place in ecology, in light of the high demand for young scientists who can “do it all”?
  4. Can we really call someone a biologist if their training has failed to teach them any taxonomic skills whatsoever?

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