About Jeremy Fox

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

Independent projects in large enrollment labs? Part II

Note from Jeremy: this is the second guest post in John DeLong‘s planned three part series on independent projects in large enrollment labs. Here’s part 1 if you missed it.


We are about halfway through our experiment basing the labs of a large enrollment ecology and evolution course on independent projects and student-driven exercises. Our goal is to offer the students an authentic scientific experience that allows them to develop their own initiative, follow their own nose, and to develop skills whose utility they can appreciate. This post is the second of three installments on this endeavor.

The overarching lab philosophy is to put students in charge and to facilitate learning scientific skills in the context of their own work. This means that we try to offer up new ‘learning’ opportunities at the right time. For example, we put data collection ahead of analysis instead of trying to teach statistics before there is a reason to use them. This seems so logical now, but it is a departure from our previous offerings. The pedagogical conflict we run into, however, is that we sacrifice some of the breadth we could cover to give students more time to dig into a smaller set of techniques.

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Statistical vignette of the day as a teaching tool (UPDATED)

Like many biology profs, Meghan often starts class by talking for a few minutes about the “organism of the day“, as a way to engage student interest and illustrate key concepts. I do something similar in my intro biostats course. I start some lectures with “statistical vignettes”: real-world examples that illustrate key statistical concepts and demonstrate their practical importance, hopefully in a fun way.

I’ll say right up front that I have no idea how successful these vignettes are.* I don’t know if they make much difference to how well students like the course, and honestly I doubt they move the needle in terms of student mastery of the material. But I like doing them, I can’t see how they’d do any harm, and I’m sure at least a few students like and appreciate them. So here are some of my statistical vignettes, which I’m sharing in case any of you might want to try them out in your own classes. In the comments, please share your own favorite statistical vignettes!

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Students: here are some tips for meeting one-on-one with a visiting speaker (UPDATEDx2)

Grad students: if your department has a seminar series that brings in visiting speakers, meeting with them one-on-one is a great time investment. Going to the pizza lunch with the speaker and a bunch of other students is fine. So is meeting with the speaker as part of your lab group. But a one-on-one meeting has some unique advantages. It lets you talk with the visiting speaker about your own work. And it’s good practice for going to conferences–it gets you used to talking to strangers, gives you practice explaining your work to strangers, and helps you get over the feeling that faculty are your superiors rather than your professional colleagues.

Here are some tips on how to approach meeting one-on-one with a visiting speaker. Also some reassurance re: some common (?) anxieties about meeting with visiting speakers.

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Ignorance is bliss (sometimes)

Ecologists (and lots of other people) often say that the world, or some feature of it, is ‘random’ or ‘stochastic’. But what exactly does that mean?

One view is that randomness is real; some features of the world are inherently probabilistic. Quantum mechanics is the paradigmatic example here, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others. An alternative view is that calling something ‘random’ is shorthand for our ignorance. If we knew enough about the precise shape of a coin, the force with which it was flipped, the movement of the surrounding air, etc., we could accurately predict the outcome of any particular coin flip, which is deterministic. But we don’t have that information, so we pretend that coin flipping is a random process and make probabilistic statements about the expected aggregate outcome of many flips.

Does the distinction between these two views matter for ecologists? It’s tempting to say no. In practice there’s no possibility we’ll ever have enough information to predict the roll of a die, so we lose nothing by treating it as random. No less an authority than Sewell Wright was of this view. But I’m going to suggest that’s incorrect; I think ecologists do need to decide whether they think randomness is real, or merely determinism disguised by our ignorance. And I’ll further suggest that the appropriate choice can vary from case to case and is only sometimes dictated by empirical facts.

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Is it common for newly-hired TT asst. profs in ecology to have held visiting or TT faculty positions before being hired?

Because I am always on the lookout for easy posts a procrastinator always trying to be helpful*, I keep an eye on the ecoevojobs.net discussion threads to see if ecology faculty job seekers are asking questions about the ecology faculty job market that I can easily answer with my pretty comprehensive list of people who were recently hired into tenure-track asst. professor positions in ecology at N. American colleges and universities.

Here’s one that came up recently: is is true that these days the typical faculty career path in ecology involves holding a visiting assistant professor position before being hired as a tenure-track assistant professor? A closely-related question: were many newly-hired TT ecology faculty already TT assistant professors somewhere else, so that much of the ecology faculty job market is people who are already assistant professors playing musical chairs?

I have no idea how many people were wondering about the answers to those questions. Probably not that many?** Well, whatever. In case you were wondering, the answers to both questions are “no”. For the brief details, read on.

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What proportion of recently-hired tenure-track N. American asst. professors of ecology have Nature/Science/PNAS papers?

One thing that faculty search committees for positions with significant research expectations like to see is applicants who publish in leading selective journals. I have an old post that talks a bit about why that is (tl;dr: there are good reasons for it). For better or worse (and your mileage may vary on which it is…), Nature, Science, and PNAS are at the top of many people’s mental list of the leading journals in ecology (and most other scientific fields).

This has various consequences. One of which is that, anecdotally, papers in Nature/Science/PNAS seem to take on an outsized importance in the minds of at least some faculty job seekers. I’ve heard people say that you have to have a Nature/Science/PNAS paper to be competitive for a faculty position, at least at a research university. And I’ve heard people say that having a Nature/Science/PNAS paper is pretty much a guarantee of obtaining a faculty position in short order. Now, those views are extreme, and I suspect they’re minority views. But as with many aspects of the faculty job market, I’m sure there’s a range of views out there. In part because many people only know how the faculty job market works from hearsay and their own anecdotal experiences. So here’s a bit of data: just how common is it for newly-hired tenure-track asst. professors of ecology in N. America to have Nature/Science/PNAS papers?

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How often are N. American TT ecology faculty positions advertised as “asst./assoc.” or “open rank” filled at a higher rank than asst. prof.?

Rarely. For details, read on.

Junior applicants for faculty positions open to applicants of multiple ranks sometimes worry that senior applicants have a big advantage over junior applicants. Personally, I don’t think they do. Senior applicants are held to higher standards than junior applicants–a cv that is impressive for a postdoc is not impressive for an associate or full professor. Senior applicants also are more expensive to hire (higher salary, more startup), and there’s a greater risk that they’ll turn down the offer after negotiating a counter-offer from their current institution. Finally, senior candidates are “known quantities”, and many hiring institutions prefer the “potential” of junior candidates.

But we don’t just have to rely on anecdotal impressions; we can look at data.

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