One way to make academia less anxiety-inducing: Be specific in your emails!

A few years ago, I asked a senior colleague for feedback on something I’d written. He agreed, and a couple of days later, sent an email saying “Is there a good time to discuss this?” I immediately thought it must mean he’d really hated what I’d written. I replied, suggesting a few times in the next couple of days. In his reply, he choose the latest of those times, saying he needed more time to mull it over. That confirmed my worst fears – it was so bad he needed extra time to figure out how to tell me how bad it was! After spending some time getting no other work done because I was so distracted, I decided to write to say that, based on his emails, I was worried that there was a major problem with what I’d written. He replied immediately saying not to worry, that it read very well, and that he just had a few ideas that he thought would be easier to discuss in person.

I was thinking of this situation again recently when I was emailing a student in my lab. She’d emailed about a proposal she’s working on, laying out two different options for a fellowship proposal she’s working on. My thinking, when reading the ideas, was that both of them could work, but that there might also be other options, and that it would probably be best to discuss all the options in person. Looking at my schedule and comparing with hers, I could see that we wouldn’t be able to meet until the end of the week. So, I initially wrote a reply that said, “Can we meet Friday at 11 to chat about this?” In the brief pause before hitting send, I realized that, if I were in her shoes, I would spend the rest of the week trying to interpret what that email had meant, most likely assuming it meant something bad. I then realized that could be easily addressed by instead saying something like, “Both of these ideas look good to me, but there might be other options worth considering, too. Are you free to meet Friday at 11 to discuss the options more?”

After writing about being a scientist who deals with anxiety, one question I’ve been asked repeatedly is what faculty can do to make their labs friendlier to students with mental health issues. I’m generally unsure of how to respond to this – so much depends on each particular situation. But avoiding unnecessary vagueness in emails is one pretty straightforward, simple thing that people can do to make academia friendlier to everyone, but perhaps especially to those with underlying anxiety issues.

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Work at the times that work for you

A couple of nights ago, I checked the weather forecast for the next day, in part to see how cold it would be for my morning run. I was surprised to see that the forecast was for 3-6 inches of snow overnight. (I hadn’t realized a storm was coming!) I had no interest in trying to slog through a run in 3-6 inches of wet, unshoveled snow in the dark, so decided I would work when I first got up in the morning (in that wonderfully quiet time when I’m the only one in the house who is awake) and go to the gym at the end of my work day. And that’s what I did. I got up, made myself some tea, sat down to check twitter, and then started working, which included replying to some emails that had been hanging around in my inbox.

That was when I remembered a conversation I’d recently had about whether it’s okay to send work emails outside of “typical” work hours. This is a topic that comes up on twitter sometimes, too, as well as on facebook. The concern is that, if you’re sending emails early in the day or in the evening or on weekends: 1) you have an unhealthy work/life balance and/or 2) you are sending a message to others that they should be working at those times, too. I fully, completely support having interests outside of work, and think that working long hours is unhealthy and unproductive. But I don’t think the way to achieve healthy work habits is to be proscriptive about when people work, or to shame others for working outside the hours that we deem acceptable.

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The teaching job that slipped through my fingers, and what I learned from that experience

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from my friend, biologist Greg Crowther. Thanks very much to Greg for being brave enough to share some personal experiences and advice that I’m sure will resonate with many readers. Thanks as well to Greg for only sharing non-embarrassing anecdotes about our time together as undergrads. 🙂

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This blog has featured fascinating personal stories (from Jeremy and Carla) on the often-long, sometimes-quixotic quest for a traditional faculty job.

Today I’d like to add another job-search saga to the pile – this one focused on teaching-focused positions – and to extract some lessons, if possible.

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The importance of saying yes

In July 2012, I received an email that has had a profound effect on my career and life. The email came from Jeremy. He had begun blogging as part of the editorial board of the journal Oikos, but had resigned from their editorial board, so it no longer made sense to blog there. Instead, he had the idea to start a blog written by a small group of ecologists. The blog was to be named Dynamic Ecology, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in writing for it.

I didn’t sleep that night. There were plenty of reasons to say no. I was preparing to move from my job at Georgia Tech to a new faculty position at Michigan, and would, for that year, have labs running in two places. I would be teaching Introductory Biology in my first semester at Michigan, to hundreds of students. I had a toddler and was pregnant with my second child. My first graduate student was working to write up her dissertation. We were setting up new field sites in Michigan. I planned on submitting my tenure dossier the following summer.

Yet, the reason I couldn’t sleep was that I knew I wanted – needed – to say yes, despite all those other things going on. In the months leading up to that, I had been finding myself increasingly interested in speaking out about science and topics related to the process of science, and this was a chance to do just that. I had a hunch that it would end up being an important blog in the ecology community, and that I would regret it if I turned down the opportunity.

So, I wrote back and said yes. I am so glad I did.

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A book is everything a tweet is not (but please tweet about my book)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from Mark Vellend.

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I was not at the ESA meeting this year, but a handful of advance copies of my book, The Theory of Ecological Communities, were, and Margaret Kosmala was kind enough to send me a photo of the first buyers.  I’d like to be able to play it cool and say this was just another ho-hum moment in the life of a scientist, but it wasn’t.  I stared at the photo for a good while with a huge smile on my face.  Maybe that was just because smiling is contagious and it was instinctual to smile back at the two people smiling at me through the screen.  But there was also a sense of deep gratification.  Following in the footsteps of some of my scientific heroes, my name was on the cover of a green and yellow book, the book was now born, and at least two people other than my Mom and Dad were willing to pay money for it.  Success!

Writing a book is a teeny bit like having a child, but also not like it at all.  The similarities: long gestation period, intense anticipation for its arrival, major investment in its success, worry about its uncertain future, and sometimes wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into.  The differences: I (gender: male) actually did most of the work this time getting it to parturition, books are decidedly precocial (no diapers, bottles, tantrums, lunch boxes, or swimming lessons), I’m not sure anything I do now will influence its future, and although one might say the journey was difficult at times (f*$%ing index!), it’s not even in the same universe…I’ll just stop there instead of pretending that words can do justice to the difference on this point (just received stink eye from across the room).  I guess I’m just trying to say that there’s a bit of emotion involved.

This post is the last (I think) in a short series based on thoughts that grew out of the process of writing the book.  The others (here, here, and here) focused largely on scientific issues that flowed directly out of the contents of the book.  In addition to the little story and handful of thoughts above, I figured I’d now step back from the content of the book, and share some thoughts on writing books in general.  (Pretty thin cover story for shamelessly advertising a just-released book now available from amazon.com, I know.)  Before diving into this project, I had a short-lived but intense bout of wondering why anyone would write a really long document that people need to pay for in an age when nobody reads anything they can’t download for free.  Now I can think of several reasons:

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Who’s asked me to review recently, and how I’ve responded

In case you’re curious, here’s every review request I’ve received since July 2013, including those I declined. I haven’t counted counted mss I’ve handled as an editor for Axios Review or as a guest editor for Functional Ecology. First the list, in descending order of number of requests, then a few comments. Unless you have insomnia, you’ll probably just want to scroll to the comments.

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Life as an anxious scientist

Last year, I wrote a post entitled “Academics are humans with human emotions and human problems.” That post was motivated in part by the overwhelmingly positive response to my post on crying in science, and also by having read about a prominent philosopher, Peter Railton, who gave a talk at the American Philosophical Association meeting about his personal battles with depression. In my post, I said, “I very much agree with Railton and others that we need to be more open in these discussions. Being able to be a positive voice on these topics is a very important reason why I blog.” I then went on and talked about different things, including anxiety. But it was anxiety, with a little “a”, because, at that time, I wasn’t ready to be more open about having an anxiety disorder. But now I am. My goals with this post are two-fold: first, to state more openly and definitively that I have an anxiety disorder, and, second, to talk some about how I have managed that.

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Taking a writing-intensive evolution course was transformative for me

Was there one course that had a profound effect on your career path? For me, there were a few courses that were important and influenced my path to ecology. But, without a doubt, the most important one was the Intro Evolution course I took as a second-year undergrad. I took it through Cornell’s Writing in the Majors program, which is “based on the premise that language and learning are vitally connected in every field”. I know others who had similarly transformative experiences in Cornell’s Writing in the Majors class in evolution (and, to a lesser extent, in the WITM version of ecology), and have wondered what it was about that course that was so special. More importantly, I wonder what I can do now as an instructor that might lead to a similarly transformative experience for some of my students.

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