Recently, there was a twitter discussion about whether to compress all teaching into one semester. I suspect this discussion is most relevant to folks at research-oriented institutions, since high teaching loads at teaching-oriented institutions often make it impossible to combine all teaching into one semester. Thinking of tenure track faculty at US & Canadian research-oriented institutions, I know several folks who prefer to do all their teaching in one semester. I do all my teaching in one semester right now, but would prefer that it not be arranged that way. So, I’m curious about how much variation there is in preferences, in actual practices, and in reasons for preferences. I could get all fancy and do this as a google form that would allow for cross-tabs, but I’m not sure I’ll have time to do the analyses. So, here’s the quick-and-dirty approach:
Last week, I did a quick poll asking people how much math they think is involved in ecology, evolutionary biology, and genetics, and also how much math they use in their own research. What counts as a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math is up for debate, of course. But I am most interested in the comparison between the three fields and, especially, in comparing the responses of DE readers with those of my intro bio students.
To give more explanation: it seems clear to me that undergrads are generally surprised by the amount of math that is in ecology. And, from talking with colleagues (here and elsewhere), it’s clear I’m not the only person who has the impression that college students do not expect ecology to involve math.
I’ve been thinking about how to try to address this with students. I want to try to better prepare them for what the ecology section of the course will involve. I worked with Susan Cheng (Cornell) to design a survey for students, polling them on their views of ecology, evolution, and genetics. We ran the survey at the beginning of the semester and plan on running it again at the end of the semester to see whether/how views change.
What did we find?
75% of incoming Intro Bio students think geneticists use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math. But only 33% think ecologists do.
How does that compare with DE readers?
64.7% of Dynamic Ecology poll respondents think geneticists use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math. 78.5% think ecologists do.
And how does that compare with what ecologists report in terms of how much math they use in their own research? 80% of DE poll respondents who identified as ecologists said they use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math.
(Sample sizes: For Intro Bio, n = 271; for the DE poll, n = 349; for the subset of just ecologists, n = 225)
In other words: there is a really big difference between the amount of math that students just starting Intro Bio think ecology will involve vs. how much ecologists say it involves.
I’ve been thinking about how I will talk about this with students. I think that, at the start of the population ecology lecture, I will tell them that there’s something that often surprises students: ecology involves math. I will note that most people haven’t been exposed to ecology before taking the course – it was certainly true for me that I never thought about ecology before getting to college. I think that, as a first year college student, I didn’t really know what ecology was, but probably had a vague sense that it was what you see in the nature videos on PBS. It definitely did not occur to me that it involved math! I can then transition to saying this is similar to what students in this year’s course think. I then plan on presenting the same set of numbers that I have above. My hope with this is not to scare them, but to better prepare them for what is coming.
I think it’s problematic that, this year and the two previous times I’ve taught Intro Bio, I’ve only taught the ecology half of the course. That means I haven’t worked with the students through all the genetics stuff — which is hard but in a way that they expect. So, I haven’t developed a rapport with the students as we work through that material. That means one potential explanation for why there’s an unexpected about of math in the ecology portion of the course is simply that I’m a mean person who likes to make things hard. So, I’ve asked to teach the entire semester the next time I teach. I think it will help a lot.
We plan on surveying the students at the end of the semester to see how their views have changed. I’m very interested in seeing those results, but I’m not sure they will change much. Again, because I’m only teaching the second half of the course, some of them might not change their views on how much math is involved in ecology because they might still think that I was just making things unnecessarily hard. (We actually don’t do a lot of math, in my opinion. There’s no Lotka-Volterra, for example. But it’s more than they expect.) So, I’m interested not just in seeing how the views change this semester, but also how they change in future semesters. My hope is that, in the future, I will be able to prepare them for ecology involving math by showing them data on how views of previous students changed over the course of the semester.
Do you find undergraduates who are new to ecology are surprised by what ecology is, including the amount of math it involves? What (if anything) do you do to try to prepare them for what ecology is?
Something I’ve been interested in is student views on ecology, evolutionary biology, and genetics, including how much math they think is involved in the different disciplines. I’ve surveyed my Intro Bio students to get their views, and realized it would be interesting to compare it to what ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and geneticists think. Hence this poll! The poll is brief, but I’m doing it in google forms so I can do the cross tabs.
Here’s the link to the poll in case the embedding doesn’t work. The embedded poll is below the break.
My collaborators and I just published “Population extinctions can increase metapopulation persistence“. New Scientist did a piece on it, which is the first time any media outlet other than my local newspaper has written up my work. I’m chuffed about this, because I think this is the coolest paper I’ve ever done by some distance.
Or, maybe it’s just a cute result–a fun curiosity. I could even imagine someone arguing that it’s oversold fluff. So why do I think it’s so cool? And what’s the difference between “cool” and “cute”?
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. (UPDATE: I’m aware that Stearns’ advice often isn’t practical outside of the US, because outside the US PhDs often are shorter (3-4 years) and often involve students taking on pre-designed projects rather than developing their own projects. That’s why the poll below asks where you got your PhD.)
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?
(UPDATE: responses have slowed to a trickle, so the poll is now closed. Post on the results coming soon!)
Last week, there was a Nature News piece on time-management that included interviews with several academics, including myself. The article quotes ecologist Richard Primack as saying, “I hire professional editors to help me polish my articles, grant proposals and reports.” he says. “I can do this myself, but it’s more efficient for me to pay someone to help.” This stuck out to me. I had heard of professional editing services that aim to improve the grammar of a manuscript (my impression was that these are generally aimed at non-native English speakers), but that someone in Primack’s position might use a professional editor had never occurred to me. And it made me think: should I be doing this?
It led me to wonder (on twitter) about how common this practice is, and how easy/hard it is to find good professional editors. It sparked a lively conversation, but I was still left wanting to know how common this is. So, here I’m going to do a quick poll to try to find out. Obviously this is not a scientific poll, but I still think it will be interesting to see the results.
What does it mean for someone to be corresponding author on a paper? Does it mean they are taking full responsibility for the project, or does it simply mean that they uploaded the files to Manuscript Central? The answer to this question is important because authorship carries with it not only credit for a paper, but responsibility for it as well. At present, there is variation in what ecologists think is conveyed by corresponding authorship (more on this below). In working on a manuscript related to last and corresponding authorship practices in ecology, I have come across the idea of having guarantors of a manuscript — that is, one or more authors of the paper who are willing and able to vouch for the integrity of the project as a whole. This idea has been suggested repeatedly over the years (Rennie et al. 1997, Cozzarelli 2004, Weltzin et al. 2006) but has not been widely adopted. My goal with this post is to explore the idea of manuscript guarantors for papers in ecology, since this is the main point I’m stuck on with this manuscript.
Here are the results of the quick poll I did last week related to whether figures should be placed in line or at the end of a manuscript. I prefer having the figures at the end of a manuscript (because this way I know where to find figures that are referred to multiple times), but I suspected I was in the minority. That suspicion was correct. Below, I also give results of where people want their figure legends placed: almost everyone wants the legend on the same page as the figure itself.
A couple of months ago, a reader of the blog sent me an email containing a figure she’d made from this year’s ecology job wiki, using data from the “anonymous qualifications” sheet. That figure suggested that women might be waiting longer than men to start applying for tenure track jobs — or, more specifically, that men might be more likely that women to apply for faculty positions while still in grad school or within the first year after getting their PhD. After recreating the figure myself and also looking at the 2015-2016 job wiki and finding a similar pattern, I decided to do a poll to see whether this pattern held up with more data. Results are below, but the quick summary is that women do not seem to be waiting longer to apply for faculty positions (at least based on the poll data).
We’ve been thinking a lot about publishing lately here at Dynamic Ecology, including issues such as whether to sign reviews (I generally don’t), changes in authorship practices, whether all reviewers should be satisfied before a paper is accepted (Jeremy says reviewers advise, the editor decides), and whether reviewers are gate-keepers or editors (Brian thinks that, unfortunately, it’s increasingly the latter). But now I want to tackle two truly weighty topics related to the publication process: whether figures should go at the end of a manuscript and whether figure legends should appear on the same page as the figure. Two polls are below, along with some of my thoughts.