Tell me again what “risky” or “potentially transformative” research is? (UPDATED)

Everybody complains that scientific funding agencies are too risk-averse (e.g.,here and here).That they prefer low risk, low reward, incremental research to riskier, potentially transformative projects.

I really ought to have an opinion about this. After all, I’m an experienced academic researcher and like all academic researchers I have a professional interest in government research funding policies. But to my embarrassment, I have no opinion. Because in all honesty, I have no idea what “risky” means in this context. And so I have no idea why “riskier” projects should have either higher expected payoffs, or higher odds of “transformative” payoffs.

But at least I’m in good company in puzzlement. Because by their own admission funding agencies don’t seem to know what “risky” or “transformative” mean either!

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How much do you–and should you–tailor your ecology faculty job application to the hiring institution? Poll results and commentary

Recently we polled people who’ve applied for faculty jobs in ecology and allied fields on how they tailored their applications to the hiring institutions (as opposed to tailoring them to the type of institution, or not tailoring them at all). We also polled people who’ve sat on search committees for ecology faculty positions on how much tailoring they like to see. Here are the results, along with some commentary!

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Poll on tailoring faculty job applications to the hiring institution, for faculty job applicants and search committee members

This excellent recent Small Pond Science post and subsequent comment thread (in which I participated) got me wondering about tailoring faculty job applications to the hiring institution. One can imagine three levels of customization (really, they’re three points on a gradient):

  • No customization at all. You have one “generic” cv, research statement, teaching statement, cover letter, etc. that you use for every application. Note that in practice this might be equivalent to the next level of customization below, if you only apply to one type of institution.
  • Customization to the type of institution. This is the level of customization I used, and that I advised in an old post. For instance, back when I was applying for assistant professor positions, I was applying to two very different types of institutions: research universities, and selective liberal arts colleges. I had different research statements, teaching statements, and cover letters for each type of institution. But I didn’t do any further customization except as necessary to respond to specifics of the job ad (e.g., if the ad said that the successful candidate would teach course X, I’d explain that I was qualified to teach course X). I got a dozen interviews, so clearly this approach can work, or at least it used to. But it’s not the only approach…
  • Customization to the specific institution. This is what Terry recommends. In the comments on his post he writes:

For example, in the teaching statement for Oberlin, a short paragraph about what you can teach and might be able to teach for their particular curriculum. Something like, “I am well qualified to teach Biology 128, 129, 250, 330, and I already have taught a General Biology course similar to Biology 104. I would be interested in developing new classes in Insect Biology or Biogeography, or perhaps Climate Change Ecology, if these courses would meet departmental needs.” And a research statement can make specific reference to field sites in the area or a field station run by the campus…I know in our search committee, it made a huge difference when the teaching statement showed that our candidates had actually read the courses that we offer (and noticed the ones we don’t), and remarked on which ones they can teach, the ones they wanted to teach, and how their expertise fits into our strengths and weaknesses.

Which is definitely different than what I used to do. For instance, my teaching statement used to say something like “I am qualified to teach courses in general biology, general ecology, biostatistics, and population and community ecology.” I figured that took less time to write than the more customized statement Terry suggests, but conveyed the same information.

But did it convey the same information? Maybe not! Ok, perhaps it conveyed the same information about what subjects I could teach. But arguably, my phrasing failed to convey the seriousness of my interest in the position–or even conveyed lack of serious interest. An application customized to the specific institution could be seen as an “honest signal” that the applicant is seriously interested in the position. And perhaps also as a sign that the applicant would take the job if offered, would stay for the long term rather than leaving in a year or two, and would “fit in” and do the job well.

On the other hand, is there such a thing as too much customization? Maybe! For instance, I think it looks a little odd for your research statement to propose detailed collaborative research projects with faculty at the hiring institution. Collaboration is a two-way street, so proposing a detailed collaboration with a total stranger seems forced to me. But I dunno, maybe some search committee members like to see that, perhaps as further evidence of the seriousness of your interest in the position.

It seems like this is something many applicants want advice on, and that different applicants receive contrasting advice. Which matters, because many people (including me) also advise applicants to apply widely. Which can take a lot more time if you’re heavily customizing every application.

So let’s crowdsource people’s experiences on this. Below the fold are two short polls about customization of faculty job applications. The first one is for people who’ve applied for faculty positions in ecology or allied fields in the past (whether or not you’re currently doing so or currently have a faculty position). The second one is for people who’ve sat on search committees for faculty positions in ecology or allied fields. If you fall into both categories, you can complete both polls. Both polls are totally anonymous; we can’t even see the IP addresses of the respondents.

Looking forward to your poll responses, and to your comments!

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Ask us anything, and we’ll answer! (UPDATE: this post is now closed)

Time for our annual summer doldrums tradition: ask us anything! Have a question for Meghan*, Brian, and I about ecology, academia, or anything else we blog about? Ask away in the comments, or tweet to @DynamicEcology! We’ll compile the questions and answer them in future posts.

Note that we won’t answer homework questions. And if it’s a question we’ve addressed in an old post, we might answer by just linking to the old post.

Submit as many questions as you like. You have one week to submit questions.

*In the past, Meghan hasn’t answered many AUAs, so this year she promises to make up for it by dancing her answers and posting the videos.**

**Yes, really.***

***No, not really. But now that I’ve suggested it, maybe we can talk her into it. Here’s some inspiration Meghan!

UPDATE: This AUA is now closed. Thank you to everyone who submitted questions; we will answer in future posts.

Many ecologists’ beliefs about various aspects of the ecology faculty job market are too pessimistic

As most of you know, every year for three years now I’ve tried to identify everyone hired into a N. American tenure-track asst. professor position in ecology or an allied field such as fish & wildlife.* One reason I do this is to provide information and context to faculty job seekers. I’ve also been conducting polls here and on Twitter to see what ecologists know about the N. American tenure-track faculty job market in ecology. I’m sure everyone knows that the faculty job market is very competitive, in the sense that there are many more people seeking tenure-track jobs than there are tenure-track jobs. But what do ecologists (well, the ones who take our polls, who surely aren’t a random sample of all ecologists) know about other aspects of N. American ecology faculty job market? Do they know, say, the percentage of women among recent hires, or how rare it is for positions to be filled by internal candidates, and so on?

Our polls suggest that inaccurate impressions of the ecology faculty job market are common. But it’s not just that poll respondents’ impressions of the ecology faculty job market often are inaccurate. It’s that they’re statistically biased: in aggregate, the responses almost invariably are more pessimistic than the data. Well, “pessimistic” isn’t quite the right word, but I couldn’t think of a better one. Anyway, here’s what I mean:

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Should the advisor leave the room for part of a student’s committee meeting?

Scrolling through twitter a couple of weekends ago, I saw this tweet:

At first, I misread it and thought it was indicating that the student had been sent out of the room (which is the norm for committees I’ve been on). It took me a second to realize that it was the advisor who had gone out of the room so that the student could have a discussion with their committee without the advisor present. I suspect my misreading wasn’t just a product of quickly scrolling through twitter on the weekend—rather, I think part of the reason why I misread it was because it was such a shift from how things are normally done in departments I’ve been in.*

After realizing what it said, though, I thought it was an interesting idea. I can think of cases where it might have helped to have a discussion without the advisor there to get a better sense of the student’s opinion on things, such as when they would prefer to defend or how excited they are about project 1 vs. project 2 or how they feel about traveling to remote location X to collect samples. And, in the rarer cases where there were major problems, it might have led to those becoming apparent to the committee sooner, which hopefully would lead to the student getting support sooner.

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Poll results: how ecologists find papers to read

Recently we polled y’all on how you filter the literature and find papers to read. This was a follow-up to a similar poll we did five years ago. People’s filtering methods surely are changing–but how, and how fast? Is it only old fogeys faculty who still look at journal TOCs these days, or what?

tl;dr: No major changes from last time, although one filtering method in particular seems to be growing in popularity…

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What academics can learn from business II: the best business books

In the first post in this series I argued that whether you know it or not if you are training to be a PI in an academic (or government or NGO) environment, you basically have to wear a bunch of different hats corresponding to all the different functions a business has from human resources to sales and marketing to management. What you may not know is that the business world is absolutely aflood in advice/self-help books on every topic under the sun. It’s a bit of a joke really. Every year hundreds of books come out claiming to show you how to be the best in the world. But people buy them. And read them. Even if they don’t want to they have to read some of them because they become the lingo du jour. It won’t impress the boss if you have a vacant look when she uses the latest buzz word. From my business days, I recall having to read a book called “Crossing the Chasm” before an executive retreat because the boss expected it and we were all going to talk about it. It was, to say the least, fluffy. It took a couple of hundred pages to say what could have been said in 20. And it was entirely anecdotal. It short it was a typical self-help book. One concept and a bunch of inspiration. And it was totally off target – it was all about moving from selling to early technology adopters to the mass market. Only our products were never going to move to the mass market. Ironically if you’ve ever flipped through an inflight magazine you will see an add promising to save busy executives time by provided digested versions of all the important business books for the year.

For those of you who identified some gaps in skills relative to the list I laid out and want some advice on where to go to develop some of those skills, I want to provide you my own version of the digest. Here I will summarize (but definitely encourage you to read) key points from four books to help develop some of the business skills most academics don’t get trained in. I’m not going to offer anything in human resources, accounting or general counsel (although see this post on intellectual property law). They are boring and country specific and most academics matter them with the patience and kindness of the people doing these functions in their university. And of course I am not going to refer you to a book to learn how to do your core function of science. But I’ve got suggestions for management, marketing, sales, and time management. And I’m not going to say this repeatedly. But every one of these books is short and fluffy and a very quick read. And easily available second hand (business books sell at much higher volume than academic books for some reason …). So if a book on my list interests you, I strongly encourage you to go read it. It will cost you $5-$10 and two hours.

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