What is the motivation for pursuing graduate school?

Last week an interesting hashtag was floating around twitter:  #whyididaphd.  It was great to see reflections on this topic, and during our most recent lab meeting, I asked my students why they were pursuing advanced research-based degrees, and here are some of their responses:

  • Graduate school allows an opportunity for freedom to do the things you find interesting, every day.
  • Doing research means you can follow your interests and curiosity.
  • Doing a MSc is a perfect transition between an undergraduate degree and whatever might come next!
  • Doing research is an opportunity to work independently, and this is important to me.
  • Research is about gaining knowledge and learning on  your own. It’s like the best kind of drug: you can get hooked and it’s good for you, and it never ends.
  • Graduate school develops my network of collaborators, and I need this as I enter the work force.
  • I want to do things that are relevant, and are my ‘own’. Research allows this.
  • Doing an advanced degree was an important career stage, because I need it in order to do what I really want to do into the future (i.e., academic position).

These reflections were insightful, and showed that the students had wonderful motivations for pursing advanced degrees in a research-based laboratory. I agree that doing a MSc or PhD is perfect for people who are curiosity-driven, and who appreciate the independent nature of the work.

I had two responses to #whyididaphd. The first one certainly reflects my thinking now:

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The second response is a little more honest, and reflects my thinking at the time I decided to continue with research, about 20 years ago:

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Is it wrong to pursue a MSc or PhD “just because there’s nothing better to do”, or “because I don’t have another plan and I like University”?  We had a heated debate about this, and the lab was divided. One argument is that it’s a total waste of time, energy, money and resources to pursue a MSc or PhD “just because”. Sure it’s nice to stay in a University after the undergrad degree is done, but why pursue it unless you know you need that advanced degree!  Have a plan, have a career goal, and if a MSc or PhD is part of that plan, pursue graduate school.

In contrast, if you don’t have a plan, or a specific career in mind, perhaps graduate school is the *perfect* place to develop your research skills in an exciting, and familiar environment. Graduate school is a perfect transition to many, many careers, so if there is nothing else on your horizons, keep on trucking along at a University! If you are a curious person, and independent thinker, it’s an ideal learning environment.

I suspect many people fall somewhere in the middle (I think that was the case for me).  I always felt I might eventually like a career at a University, and since I seemed to like research, and be good at it, pursuing graduate school was a natural progression. So, even if the motivations for doing graduate school aren’t always based on a clear career path, those motivations can still be more than enough to give it a try.

I’ll finish by expanding that last point: “give it a try” does not mean “stick with it even when it’s not working”.  It’s important to know when to quit if grad school is not for you. It’s an awfully difficult and frustrating process if it’s not going well. Give it a try if it floats your boat, or it’s what you need. However, also know when to quit.

 

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Meet the lab: Crystal Ernst

This is the first in a series of posts where each Arthropod Ecology lab member can introduce themselves. First up is PhD student Crystal Ernst:

I’m a Ph.D. candidate in the final stages of my program: these days I’m crunching out analyses and writing papers as I prepare to submit my thesis at the end of the term. As a community ecologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how and why different species assemble together in space and time. These questions are foundational to the study of ecology and provide the overall framework for my research program, which uses beetles and other ground-dwelling arthropods to study the structure and determinants of terrestrial animal assemblages.

PhD student Crystal Ernst installing pan traps along the Dempster Highway (Yukon)

PhD student Crystal Ernst installing pan traps along the Dempster Highway (Yukon)

I have spent my summers conducting field research in gorgeous, remote regions of our northern territories, including Kugluktuk Nunavut and the Dempster Highway in the Yukon. My colleagues, members of the Northern Biodiversity Program, have contributed to the collection efforts as well, resulting in specimens being obtained from twelve different locations in the boreal forest, the subarctic and high arctic, spanning Canada coast to coast. I’m now neck-deep in the joy of interpreting the stories contained in my collection of specimens.

Specimens in pan trap (photo by C Ernst)

Specimens in pan trap (photo by C Ernst)

 

Sorting specimens back in the lab

Sorting specimens back in the lab

I’ve taken two approaches with this work. First, I’ve used a fairly traditional taxonomic approach to studying these animals: by identifying them morphologically (with a microscope and identification keys), I can associate each individual with a known insect species – although some new species have also been discovered! With this information I can describe the species richness (diversity) and distributions of different beetles in the north, and see which species are associated with each other at different northern locations. Secondly, I’ve looked at my arthropods from the perspective of their ecological functions – their roles in their environments. For example, some insects are responsible for pollenating plants, others are important decomposers, and others still are predators; arthropod assemblages can therefore be described in terms of the diversity and dominance of different functional groups. I am in the process of comparing taxonomic and functional assemblages found across northern Canada, and working to determine what aspects of their ecosystems (things like: temperature, wind, and sunlight; the diversity and structure of the plant community in which they live; soil characteristics) are associated with the way these assemblages are structured, and how they change over time and across space.

Three color morphs of Blethisa catenaria, a rare subarctic species (H. Goulet)

Three color morphs of Blethisa catenaria, a rare subarctic species (H. Goulet)

A fun complementary topic I’ve researched is the relationships between some high arctic ground beetles and a fascinating group of parasites called hairworms. I found a number of beetles from different locations to be infested with these worms; in one instance almost a quarter of the beetles were infected! The parasites are aquatic as adults and must first infect an aquatic insect (like a mosquito larva) before being transmitted to a terrestrial host (like a beetle) via the predation of the aquatic host by the terrestrial insect. To complete their life cycles, the worms somehow compel the beetles to enter the water, effectively forcing them to drown themselves so that the worms can emerge safely into their aquatic habitat. This discovery suggests an important link between the creatures living in terrestrial habitats and those in aquatic habitats and tells us about the arctic food chain: beetles must be eating mosquitos or other insects that have aquatic larval/immature stages. These prey items may, in fact, be a very important source of food. More work needs to be done to confirm this! In the meantime, I am excited to have found these associations – the fact that these particular species of beetles can be hosts for hairworm parasites is new information, and it appears that the parasite itself is a new species!

Pterostichus caribou with hairworms (C. Ernst)

Pterostichus caribou with hairworms (C. Ernst)

When I’m not writing my thesis or putting obscure little black beetles on pins, you can probably find me working at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, enjoying my time as a teaching assistant, networking on Twitter, mucking around in my vegetable garden (or putting said veggies in jars), walking my dogs, enjoying nature while canoe tripping with my partner, poking wildlife, or lifting heavy things at the gym. I’m on the hunt for a fantastic postdoctoral position that will allow me to continue studying different communities of living things in other ecosystems, and that factors that affect how they’re put together, and I’m excited about the many opportunities out there!

Meet the 2014 Arthropod Ecology Lab!

Welcome back to the new Academic term!  We had our first lab meeting yesterday, and made sure to run outside to get a “Start of year” lab photo:

The Arthropod Ecology Lab (2014)

The Arthropod Ecology Lab (2014)

From left to right we are: Yifu Wang, Anne-Sophie Caron, Sarah Loboda, Shaun Turney, Chris Buddle, Elyssa Cameron, Jessica Turgeon, Crystal Ernst, Etienne Normandin, and Chris Cloutier.  (missing is Dorothy Maguire)

We are smiling for good reason: September brings enthusiasm, and optimism. We are ready to have an exciting year. Learning from each other, doing science, and sharing our passion for arthropods.  This year, this blog will hopefully host a lot of news from the lab, and will include posts from many of the students. Starting next week, we will roll out “Meet the lab” posts, where each student will write a short post about themselves, and about their projects.  Stay tuned!

Quiescence

Quiescence is defined as a period of rest; being quiet, still or inactive. It’s often used to describe period of inactivity in insects, but I think also applies well to my current of state of blogging, and what I see as the state of my blogging into the near future.  This short post is really just to update my followers and readers, and to explain my current situation.

Life has ups and downs, and cycles around a career and work similarly have periods of intense activity, change, and new challenges. As many of you know, I’ve taken on a role as an Associate Dean in my Faculty, and coupled with upcoming (remote) field work to Nunavut, summer vacation, and conferences in the summer, I must admit that regular blogging over the next little just isn’t going to be possible.

 

Nunavut awaits...

Nunavut awaits…

It’s hard to admit defeat, and face the reality that it’s just not possible to do everything I would like to do. I’ve always prided myself of being a regular blogger (until recently, I’ve posted once or more per week, for over two years, on this blog or on my other blogs), and I was even was bold enough to proclaim that my new administrative position wouldn’t interfere with science blogging! However, it’s just not fair to my readers to publish just for the sake of posting, as quick, hurried posts will certainly suffer in quality. It’s also not appropriate for me to feel guilty for not blogging (heck, I do not get paid to blog!), and even though it’s something I love to do, I just can’t make it work right now.

To my followers: I am sorry that this blog will be quiet for a while, and I must thank you all sincerely for all the support and positive feedback: regular blogging is fun and validating because of all of you.

All that being said, I would like to continue with the ‘ten facts’ series on Expiscor, so if you would like to contribute to that, drop me a line! I’m also very excited about some other ongoing outreach and science communication projects – stay tuned for news about these initiatives.

Quiescence is a wonderful state: it’s a calming, soothing place, and unlike diapause, doesn’t have an end-date. It’s without pressure, without expectation and without stress. It’s a state that I need as I strive to balance life and work, and it will help me slow down.  I do look forward to returning to regular blogging, but I just can’t promise when this will be.  For now, please follow me on Twitter for updates and news.

As they byline of Expiscor states: there are many legs out there in the world of arthropods, and many stories to be told. Discoveries certainly await, but they can also wait!

 

 

 

 

 

Congratulations to the new Doctor of spider behaviour

I’m delighted to announce that lab member Raphaël Royauté successfully defended his PhD yesterday….  and he did it with grace, maturity, and poise. The defence was fair, but tough, and Raphael was able to show his breadth and depth of expertise on the broad topic of behaviour in arthropods.

Raphaël’s thesis was titled “Factors influencing behavioural variation in apple orchard populations of the jumping spider Eris militaris (Araneae: Salticidae)” and the during the defence, he was asked (not by me, remarkably!) to offer a ‘tweet’ of the his thesis. Here it is, coming in at almost exactly 140 characters.

Raph's thesis, in a tweet.

Raph’s thesis, in a tweet.

So, his research looked at behavioural syndromes in this remarkable jumping spider: Raphaël collected spiders in apple orchards, maintained them in a laboratory and ran them through a battery of behavioural test. He defined behaviours, looked at correlations among these behaviours (sometimes called ‘personality’), and how these traits varied during the development of individuals, consistency of these behaviours and whether behaviours differed depending on whether the spiders came from insecticide-free on insecticide-treated orchards.  Raphaël also looked at the direct effect of sub-lethel effects of insecticides on behaviour and will soon be publishing the ways that insecticides mess up their personalities.

Raphaël has really done incredible work – but looking back, I should not be surprised. Soon after he arrived in the lab we worked together on a short project about the activity of spiders right after snowmelt, at at that point, I was impressed with his intellectual curiosity, drive and motivation, and overall approach to scientific research.

Raphael and me, in 2008

Working together on Raph’s first project at McGill

After that first project, Raphaël came back to McGill to work on a PhD with me and Dr. Charles Vincent as co-supervisors. And now, many years later, he is now successfully defended a PhD. What a marvellous journey, and I can honestly say that I’ve learned far more from Raphaël than he could have learned from me.

Good luck Raph! (And you’ll be missed in the lab)

Charles Vincent (l), Raphaël (c) and me (r), just after the Defence (17 March 2014)

Charles Vincent (l), Raphaël (c) and me (r), just after the Defence (17 March 2014)

Teaching with mobile technology: seeking help!

I need your help!

Tomorrow I’m attending a conference on Education Technologies, and I will be giving a talk about using mobile technology, and social media tools, in ‘out of the classroom’ environments.  I am excited about the opportunity and I welcome the chance to discuss the topic, highlighting my field biology course as a case study.  Here’s an overview of what I will discuss:

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As part of this talk, I would like to engage a broader community of educators, using social media tools.  More specifically, if you have comments or ideas on some of the discussion questions (below), please comment on this post, or tweet at me, or use the twitter hashtag #EdTechMobile to give your perspective. (Note: For ‘real time’ interaction, you can tweet using that hashtag between 330-415 PM (Eastern) on 5 March)

Here are the discussion questions:

1) What are the challenges and opportunities when using social media tools in the classroom?

2) How might mobile technology (e.g., smartphones, tablets) facilitate learning? How might it interfere?

3) How might the approach of linking ‘out of class’ learning environments with mobile technology and social media tools be adapted for other teaching environments? (i.e., other than University-level, the context in which I have used these tools).

Thanks, everyone!

Operation zero: how to achieve an empty inbox every day

I’m continually fascinated by how people deal with to-do lists, projects, contacts, and emails. All of these things relate to the broader issues around time management and productivity. If you can ‘take control’ of time management, I believe this is a key ingredient for success. My friend and colleague Dezene recently published a terrific blog post about email management. His ideas are great, and he’s found a wonderful system. His post was partially initiated by a conversation on twitter about how (overworked) scientists manage their emails. This is a very significant problem, and one that’s quite universal. One problem that I share with all my colleagues is the feeling of being inundated by email (I easily get over 100 emails each day). It’s a real challenge to deal with emails, and takes a lot of time and mental energy.

I wanted to offer you a peek into my email management system – not because I don’t like Dezene’s (I do!) but rather to offer an alternative. It’s a method that’s quick, and offers you an opportunity to achieve the joy of having a ‘zero-inbox’ EVERY day! It’s also pretty simple:

1) Simplify: I only use two addresses: my work email, and a gmail account. The latter is for family / social (‘non-work’) things, and it’s the email address I give out to my kids schools, or when I register for on-line accounts. I NEVER delete any of those emails, and just let all of that reside away on google’s servers. The gmail search function is so amazing that it’s always possible to find an old message.

2) Consolidate: I only manage email on my one, main computer using one program (Mac Mail) and when I read mail on other devices (mobile device, webmail), I never manage messages or tasks. This is so the system is consolidated. With my main Mac Mail, I have the gmail and my work accounts set up (but separated, so I don’t confuse work and family business).

3) Minimal rules: I set up a few rules, but not too many, since the system I will outline reduces the need for too many rules. I do set up rules for all my ‘calendar invites’ I receive over email, so that I can deal with scheduling things on my own time – that means all invites go to a separate folder. I also set up rules for my editorial work, so that all emails related to editing end up in one folder on my computer.

4) Moving messages: In addition to folders associated with rules, I use only two (or so) other main folders: one is called ‘IMPORTANT‘ (yes, in all caps!) –> into this goes stuff that’s really REALLY important. The sorts of emails that need to be found quickly.  There only about 20 emails in that folder, related to flight confirmations, or exam scheduling, or other emails whose content is important to access regularly and quickly. The other folder is called “short-term archive”. At the end of every day, any emails that are in the ‘inbox’ get dropped into the short-term archive.  After a month or two, all of those emails get moved into a ‘long-term archive’ (which is on my computer), and after about a year or two, those all go into a long-term ‘deep’ archive (e.g., external drive). I will occasionally set up another folder for a specific project (e.g., research project, or grant proposal).

This system means I NEVER have to delete any emails (megabytes are cheap – why bother deleting anything? … and it takes time to delete stuff), and I always achieve ‘zero inbox’ at the end of each day. That is a very nice feeling!

Operation zero, daily.

Operation zero, daily.

5) Flags: If I can’t deal with an email quickly, or during the course of the work-day, but it still requires some kind of action, I simply flag that email, and then after all emails are sent to the short-term archive, I simply look in the ‘flagged email’ folder (which is a feature of Mac Mail) and all those emails are in one place. This is sort of like a to-do list, although I prefer to think of those emails simply as needing some kind of attention, sometime. That attention can be because they are part of a conversation with important contacts or content, or perhaps are waiting for some follow-up, or or perhaps a review request, etc.  I have come to realize that there are always between about 70 and 100 ‘flagged’ emails. Every now and then I go back and double check how many of those flags can be removed and thus there is turnover in those ‘action item’ emails.

6) Search: Finally, I depend very heavily on the search function to retrieve old emails.  Because nothing is ever deleted, I can almost always find it again. If I can’t, you can bet someone else has that email in one of their folders.

In sum, hopefully some of you might find this system to be worth trying. In my time using it, I’ve never lost an email, and I’ve been fooled into thinking I’ve dealt with all my emails each day.

Now.. what isn’t included, above, is the dreaded ‘to do’ list. For this, I generally depend on a rather inefficient combination of scratching things down on sheets of paper. Recent conversations are causing me to re-think this approach. I do think I need to write things on paper in order to keep the tasks on my mind. I also block of time in my calendar to specifically tackle big jobs. It’s the only way I’ll protect the time and get productive work done – that is only moderately successful. So, my next task is to rethink how I manage my tasks…