Last Monday, I faced a post-travel inbox filled with emails that needed replies. Some of them were invitations for things that would take up my time, but that seemed interesting or important or valuable or all three. And, then, of course, there were all the other things I needed to do as part of my job – editing manuscripts, writing letters of recommendation, sending emails to get people access to the lab, analyzing data, etc. And it was also the day where my post on seeing a therapist appeared, which led to lots of interactions on social media, via text, and through email. All of that led me to revisit a question that I am constantly asking myself, and that I surely will never stop asking myself: how should I spend my work time?
I couldn’t get this out of my head, and, as I walked to daycare, I realized that there are three questions I should consider as I evaluate whether to do something:
- Is it officially part of my job?
- Am I particularly good at it?
- Do I enjoy doing it?
I thought about how, ideally, I should try to prioritize things where the answer would be “yes” for all three. And I thought about how I spend a lot of time on things where the answer to all three of those questions is “no”.
When I got to daycare, I knew I wanted to think about this more, and was worried I would forget it. So, I pulled out my notebook in the daycare lobby, propped it on top of the stroller, and drew this:
If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.
– Arthur Quiller-Couch, “On Style”, 1914
“Murder your darlings” and its variants is common writing advice.* But what do you do if you’re not quite sure you’re ready to part with those darlings? My strategy is the same as Ethan White’s:
I suspect this is a common strategy (certainly the twitter responses suggest it is), though I don’t think it’s one that gets discussed much.
Last week, I had the honor of being a plenary speaker at the biology19 conference in Zurich. This is an annual meeting of Swiss organismal biologists, where most of the attendees are Swiss graduate students and postdocs. When I first thought about my talk, I debated whether to use the last part to talk about mental health in academia, especially since I am on sabbatical this year and some of my sabbatical projects relate to student mental health. But, when I prepared my talk, I decided to just stick with my normal research.
On the first day of the meeting, I had several conversations with people that veered towards student mental health, which made me wonder if I should have included mental health in my talk. Then, the afternoon plenary on the first day was given by Virpi Lummaa. She gave a really interesting talk about her research, but pivoted at the end to talk more about the human side of science. It was inspirational. So inspirational that I went back to the hotel and changed the end of my talk to focus on mental health in academia. When I decided to make that change, I made another decision: I would admit to a room full of hundreds of my colleagues that I see a therapist regularly, and that doing that is essential to my ability to do everything I do, including my science.
Some ecologists start their careers planning to study climate change, and others make a decision to pivot towards that line of research. But something I find fascinating is that there are ecologists, myself included, who didn’t necessarily set out to study climate change, but who are accidental climate change biologists. To give just one example: if you work on a time series on natural populations, communities, or ecosystems that extends more than a few years, chances are you’ve found that climate change is now a part of what you’re studying.
I’ve thought about this over the years as projects we work on that started out as basic research into host-parasite interactions end up relating to climate change. Some links are obvious—wanting to understand how temperature influences host-parasite interactions leads pretty naturally to thinking about how climate change will influence host-parasite interactions. Some links are less obvious—for example, we wondered whether the light environment might be influencing when and where we saw parasite outbreaks. As I recall, our initial interest in this was not related to climate change. But lakes are getting browner, in part due climate change, so any work we do on how lake light levels influence disease naturally links with climate change. And we now have some data on host-parasite interactions in lakes that spans 1-2 decades. Once you’re into decadal time scales, you have to consider the impact of climate change on what you’re seeing.
I’ve also thought about this in terms of some projects I didn’t work on. When I started grad school, one of the projects I was thinking of working on related to what was going on under the ice in lakes in winter, and how things like snow cover influenced that. So, when I saw news articles about a new study showing that there will be an “extensive loss of lake ice…within the next generation”, I thought back to those grad school plans to work on lake ice & snow cover. My recollection is that my interest in that project was mainly wanting to understand the basic biology of lakes, but clearly it would have ended up being a study of climate change if I’d pursued it.
Based on conversations with colleagues, I know I’m not alone in coming to realize that I am an accidental climate change biologist.
So, I’m curious: for my fellow accidental climate change scientists, when did you realize you were studying climate change?
Two things recently came across my twitter feed that relate to academics moving. First, there’s this piece by Dan Hirschman noting that academics often make multiple long-distance moves (in contrast to most Americans, who live close to family as adults), and asking what effect all this dislocation has on the research people produce. Second, there’s this piece in Nature on how academics navigate tenure denial, which includes advice to seek job offers from other universities while one is up for tenure.
At some point in an Ask Us Anything post, someone asked about things where our views have changed a lot over our careers. As usual, I didn’t manage to answer it, because, for some unknown reason, I stink at AUAs. But here is my very belated response: as an undergrad and a grad student, I bought the idea that I should be willing to move anywhere if I wanted a career in academia. Now I don’t.
Note from Meghan: This is a guest post by Gergana Daskalova, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.
I recently attended the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, one of the biggest scientific conferences in the calendar year of an ecologist. Over the course of just one day, I got asked where I am from 18 times. I counted because in just four years of attending conferences, meeting with seminar speakers and engaging in similar activities, I have been asked where I am from way too many times. When the pattern repeated itself on day one of the BES conference, I thought I could do the actual count on day two of the conference. I, like many other of my fellow conference goers, get these questions at a very high frequency probably because our looks or accents give away that “we are not from here”. Though it may seem like an innocent question – where are you from? – it leaves me feeling like my fellow ecologists are more interested in why I stand out than why I belong.
To counter the question in a productive way and to get the focus back on my science, over the last year, I have made a point of replying that I am from the academic institution where I am doing my PhD. People always follow up with “No, I meant where are you from originally?” The problem is not that I want to hide where I am from, the problem is that in a professional scientific environment, where I am from shouldn’t matter. When people make general chat at conferences with a group of PhD students, most of them get asked what they do. When the conversation makes its way to me, I get asked where I am from. Followed by comments about my country of origin. Cool! Exciting! I’ve never been to that country. Why did you come here? What a poor country. Was it hard living there? The list goes on. Only just over half of the 18 people that asked me where I am from originally then went on to ask me about my work.
Reviewing is something that brings out my imposter syndrome, and I know I’m not alone. Being asked to review implies that someone views us as having expertise in a given area, which means that, if you screw up the review, you will reveal yourself as an imposter (or so our brains tell us). And, for journals that copy reviewers on the decision letter, one way to tell if you’ve messed up and are an imposter is by comparing your review to that of the other reviewer(s). Rarely, I’ve been unable to figure out which was my review, because the reviews were so similar. (Phew, not an imposter!) But what about when the other reviewer notes things I missed? Clearly that means I’m an imposter!
For a long time, I viewed it as a failure on my part if the other reviewer caught something I missed. I felt like it indicated that I hadn’t been careful or critical enough. If we aren’t super critical, we aren’t good scientists, right? (I’m being facetious. I don’t actually believe that being harsh = being a good scientist. And it is definitely not the case that the harshest review is the best review!) But what about cases where the other reviewer raises concerns or criticisms that seem important and insightful and constructive. If I missed those, I failed as a reviewer, right?
Again, not necessarily. The reason relates to something covered in a recent blog post by Stephen Heard, where he talks about finding reviewers. In it, he says he only uses one of the reviewers suggested by the authors, and explains that is because:
Note from Meghan: This is a guest post from my colleague, Gina Baucom.
There has been a procedural error in your tenure case at the college level. I’m going to recommend that we stop your tenure case this year, and redo it again, from the beginning, next year.
This is not what you want to hear when you are going through tenure. Unfortunately, this is what I heard at a meeting the Dean called with me last January, even though the department vote on my tenure case had been unanimous and positive.
I recently got some good work news. (Hooray!) When I heard, one of the first things I did was text a group of friends who are also academics. They have become an essential source of support for me. I wanted to tell them the good news, yes, but I also wanted to thank them. I had almost given up on this thing over the summer—I wasn’t sure it was worth the time I was investing in it, and thought it didn’t stand much of a chance. They told me it was worth it and gave me the encouragement to go forward with it. So, without them, this good thing may well not have happened.
And that’s just one example of a time when I benefitted from my invisible support network. Both in Atlanta and here in Michigan, I’ve benefitted immensely from this behind-the-scenes support. These networks help with specific situations: Is it worth applying for this thing? What do I do about this tricky work situation? I think this behavior by person X seems not okay—am I being overly sensitive? What do you think of the wording on this really important email—is it too strong? Did I screw up when I did Y? I can’t decide between A & B—can you help me think them through? There’s also the general venting and commiserating and celebrating and checking in on each other. These support networks aren’t visible to outsiders, but they feel essential to my ability to do what I do.
It’s possible that the title of this post is an overstatement—maybe I could make it without my behind-the-scenes support networks?—but I’m really, really glad I don’t have to. I don’t want people who will agree with everything I say, but I do want people who I know will be supportive, even if they’re challenging me.
When I first thought about switching to R and doing reproducible data analysis, the idea was daunting. As a grad student, I couldn’t figure out how to even get my data into R. How would I figure out that plus mixed model analyses plus how to make figures in ggplot, with version control and a beautiful github rep for all of my work?! What I eventually accepted is: it’s okay to start small. Or, as a colleague of mine suggests: for any given project, aim to do one thing in R that you couldn’t before.
I’m not sure why I set the bar so high for initially learning R. When I was first learning how to knit (actually knit, with yarn and needles, not the R version of knit), I knit a square washcloth, not a sweater. So when learning R, why was I expecting I’d be able to start out with the coding version of knitting a sweater with multiple colors, a fancy pattern, and buttons?
Julian Paren / Fair Isle knitwear in the Shetland Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0 via wikimedia.org