Ask us anything: finding ecology PhD positions, and improving the graduate admissions process

Every year we invite readers to ask us anything! Today’s question (paraphrased and summarized, click through for the original) is a two-parter from Nicole:

Are there any places besides the TAMU boards and Ecolog to look for funded ecology PhD positions?

The current way ecology graduate admissions seem to work (from a grad student perspective) involves either connections your undergraduate adviser has to other labs, or cold-emailing faculty doing research you’re interested in, developing a rapport with the person over email/phone/skype, and having them advocate for your admission. This system seems opaque and bias-prone. What changes do you think could be made to make this process better, both systematically/from an institutional perspective, and individually (on a lab-by-lab basis)?

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Ask us anything: writing descriptive or exploratory papers

Every year we invite you to ask us anything! Today’s question is actually two closely-related questions we’ve combined into one, from Fernanda Henrique and sagitanita (paraphrased; click that link for the originals):

How do you introduce and write a descriptive or exploratory paper when you don’t have a specific hypothesis, or a statistical answer to your question?

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Ask us anything: how can ecologists from developing countries be competitive on the international academic job market?

Every year we invite you to ask us anything! Here’s today’s question, from Falko Buschke (paraphrased; click that last link for the original):

How can ecologists from developing countries can be competitive on the international academic job market? Specifically, do prolonged career stays at less prestigious institutions in poorer countries help or harm long-term job prospects? I suppose the broader question is whether search committees compare applications equally based only on CVs, or do they use mental correction-factors that accommodate the specific context of each applicant?

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Ask us anything: good advice for today’s ecology faculty job seekers

Every year we invite readers to ask us anything! Today’s question (paraphrased, click that link for the original) comes from Liz:

What’s some good advice for ecology faculty job seekers today? How, if at all, does it differ from when their advisors were on the market?

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Ask us anything: what if a disgruntled committee member is going behind your back to wreck your career?

The next question in our annual “ask us anything” series comes from HB, who asks (paraphrased, click through for the original):

I am currently on the job market and recently learned that a former (disgruntled) committee member is reaching out to potential employers and giving unsolicited (negative) references. I have evidence of this happening at least three times. This person is not mentally stable and I have tried to distance myself as much as possible, to no avail. Thoughts on how to best approach this? They were an external member on my committee and therefore I can’t go to my department to report their behavior.

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Ask us anything: do EEB profs make the best administrators?

Every year we invite readers to ask us anything! Today’s question from Skip asks (paraphrased; click through for the original):

Do ecologists and evolutionary biologists make the best administrators, perhaps because they’re used to many moving parts and looking at the big picture?

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If we already understood community ecology, would we even know it? (includes poll)

Recently, I happened across this old post from psychologist Tal Yarkoni, asking how we would even know if we “understand” the brain. His motivation for asking the question is the observation that, if you ask neuroscientists if they understand the brain, they’ll say “no” and emphasize how little they know about the brain. But yet, many thousands of smart people have been studying the brain for over 100 years. Individually and collectively, they’ve learned a lot! Which suggests one of two possibilities. First, that collectively we do understand the brain–but that no one individual understands the brain (or recognizes the existence of our collective understanding). Or, that we will never understand the brain, individually or collectively, because that’s impossible. For instance, because the questions we’re asking about the brain are ill-posed and so don’t have answers, at least not the sort of answers we’re looking for.

Question: is the same true of community ecology? Anecdotally, many community ecologists are always banging on about how complicated and idiosyncratic ecological communities are, how there are so many basic things we don’t know about them, how we can’t predict many of their features with any precision, how we don’t have any good general theory of community ecology, etc. But yet, lots of smart people have been studying what we now call community ecology since before the term “ecology” was coined over a century ago. For instance, substantial chunks of the Origin of Species concern topics that now comprise part of community ecology. And like any community ecologist, I could and do spend many hours telling other people things that I know about community ecology. I teach classes, I write papers, I give research seminars, and so on. So does that mean that, collectively, we already do understand community ecology, even if no individual community ecologist would cop to understanding community ecology? Or does that mean we’ll never feel like we understand community ecology, because it’s not clear what it would even mean to “understand” community ecology, or have a “theory” of community ecology, or etc.?

Note: I personally would actually say that I understand a fair bit about community ecology, and that community ecologists collectively understand even more. Does that make me unusual? Let’s find out! Take the two-question poll below.

Related old posts:

Synthesizing ecology

Are there inherently complex ecological phenomena? (aside: that’s one of the first posts I wrote back when I was blogging for Oikos Blog, and remains a personal favorite. Man, I used to be a good blogger.)

The many roads to generality in ecology

Why ecology is hard, and fun: multicausality


Statistical Balkanization – is it a problem?

Aside from the question about what statistical methods are appropriate to use in ecology, there is a mostly independent question about how many statistical methods is optimal for use across the field of ecology. That optimum might be driven by how many techniques we could reasonably expect people to be taught in grad school and to rigorously evaluate during peer review. Beyond that limit, the marginal benefits of a more perfect statistical technique could easily be outweighed by the fact only a very small fraction of the audience could read or critique the method. To the extent we exceed that optimum and are using too many different methods, I think it is fair to talk about statistical Balkanization. Balkanization is of course a reference to the Balkans (the region in the former Yugoslavia) and how the increasing splintering into smaller geographic, linguistic and cultural groups became unsustainable and led to multiple wars. I think there is a pretty clear case that too many statistical methods in use is bad for ecology and thus the label of that state as Balkanization is fair (I’ll make that case below). I am less sure if we are there yet or not.

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