Questions from grad students: on stress, being a generalist, and publishing

I was recently invited down to the Arkansas to be a “student-selected” speaker for their entomology Department. Their graduate students decide on someone to invite down to Fayetteville, and the honouree gets to visit that lovely part of the world, meet with grad students and professors in the Department, and give a seminar. It was a fabulous trip, and it was incredibly special to be recognized by graduate students. Thank you!

Quite a lot of my discussions with students ended up focusing on career development, pressures of the tenure-track run, and professional development. The students asked great questions, so great that I thought I would post them here, with some responses. (Surely other people will have better advice than what I have written, and please comment if you are so inclined!)

So many professors I know are always so stressed. How do you avoid burn-out, and why would anyone want to be a prof since it takes a real toll!

Indeed, there are days when the work is stressful, and pressures of the tenure run can be really tough. Grant writing, learning to run a lab, teaching and supervising all happen at the same time. Even after 14 years as a Prof, the stress can remain and still rears its ugly head. The job doesn’t get easier or stress-free over time.

I know this seems somewhat counter-intuitive at first, but for me, the best way to reduce work-related stress is to not work too much. You do not need to work 80 hrs a week to succeed in Academia, and finding balance between work and life is critically important. Even if you *love* everything about your research, take time away from it. Real time. Proper weekends. Find hobbies or activities that take your mind and body to somewhere else, whether it’s playing the ukulele or learning to bake. Making time for exercise is important too. A healthy body really does help with work productivity and lets you get a little distance.

The work will always be there. No matter how hard you try to get ahead on a project, the next task or project will be waiting for you. Nagging you and calling you name… Don’t give in!

This relates very much to the overwhelming urge to be a perfectionist, and do *everything* at an unattainable level. This must be jettisoned. Now. When you start to work a little less, you will actually start an important process of prioritizing and leaning the skill of time management. With less time at work, you will get more efficient with the time you do spend at work!

Why would anyone want to be a stressed-out Prof? Well… It remains a rather amazing job, and if that’s your career goal, go for it! But it doesn’t have to be a career goal, and we need to all do a better job at recognizing and valuing PhD career paths outside of higher education (check this out about “life after Academia“). Regardless, however, leaning how to manage stress and time are a part of the work, whether at a university, research institute, in government, or elsewhere. If you are doing grad work, it’s unlikely you will work in a “stress free” environment in your future.

We have to be so specialized during grad school, yet also need to figure out how to be generalists. How do we make that transition?

This is a great question, and very true! We become experts at the end of a MSc or PhD, and then are suddenly thrust into teaching an intro Biology class, or having to write a collaborative grant on a topic at arm’s length from our own expertise. For those interested in a career in Academia, the job requires people to be specialists and generalists, and that’s not always easy.

However, the transition is easier if you start taking small steps towards being a generalist early on. Often a qualifying (or comprehensive) exam during a PhD gets us thinking in more general terms, as that’s a time we are thinking a lot about how our research fits into a broader conceptual framework, or perhaps we are asked questions outside of our area, as a means for the committee to assess limits of knowledge. After these exams, it’s easy to slip back into our projects with a sigh of relief, and we delve back into become experts. It becomes a nice and cozy comfort zone. However, it’s important to start and keep some habits and continue on the path of being a generalist. Here are some ideas:

  • Spend a bit of time, every day, reading interesting stories at the periphery of your subject areas, whether that means checking out science blogs, listening to podcasts or following interesting people on social media. I do this every morning with a cup of coffee: I have a number of blogs I follow regularly, and I always check out tweets from scientists with an eye for interesting stories (e.g., Malcolm Campbell is a great person to follow). Most of these stories are not related directly to my area of research, but they help me keep up on what is happening in ecology, evolutionary biology, entomology and Arachnology, Heck, these stories sometimes help me rethink my own research, or give me ideas for new avenues of research. It’s a great use of time.
  • Try to attend any seminars offered by guest speakers, whether in your own department, or elsewhere. Often these guests are excellent speakers, and are doing interesting things worth hearing about. It is sometimes tricky to justify getting away from the lab bench, but exposure to different areas of study will help you become more of a generalist.
  • If your department offers a journal club, take part as much as you can, as this will expose you to new literature in other areas of study. The papers you will discuss may end up being great case studies when you first teach that intro ecology class. This will also help you learn methods, techniques and language from other disciplines, which will also help you later in your career, especially when you write collaborative and interdisciplinary grants.

How do we play the “impact factor” game with publications, knowing how flawed that index is! It’s sometimes so hard to know where to try to publish! Help!

Groan. This is a tough one! Despite the known issues with impact factors, some people/search committees still put value on perceived value of journals, and want to see a CV that has publications in “top tier” journals. The push for publishing open access (OA) is sometimes at odds with this, since not all OA journals are indexed in the same way as other journals, and some of the great OA journals coming on stream are not well known to some of the people that may be reviewing your CV.

So, the best advice I can have is to try to diversify your publications as much as you can, showing that you *can* publish in higher “impact” journals, but that you are also well aware of other publications venues, and most of all, that your work is of high quality. You can make a direct case on your CV or cover letter to help explain your logic, and there are excellent reasons why you might choose one journal over another despite a perceived difference in that journal’s impact.

What remains important in publishing as an early-career researcher is that it’s clear to any committee what *your* research is, and how you have made important contributions to your discipline, even if all your papers aren’t in top-tier journals. Any search committee  wants to know you can be a leader in your discipline.

Sometimes it seems “frowned upon” to say you want to work at a more teaching-focused college instead of a big R1 school. Why does this bias exist? 

I think this actually comes from a good place in that supervisors want the very best for their students, and the “best” is often thought of as a select group of R1 (research-intensive) schools. This ends up being pervasive in the culture of higher education, and there becomes an assumption that everyone wants to work in R1 schools but many end up “settling” for a lesser-known University. So, this means that all the profs not at R1 schools done really want to be there, and everyone is looking longingly towards greener pastures. This is, of course, entirely flawed logic because rankings are fundamentally flawed. But, speaking as both a parent and a supervisor, we don’t often think logically about those we care about and are mentoring. However, I firmly believe that it’s generally bad advice to bias any student’s thinking around their career path. An open mind is much, much better.

That being said, it is important to look critically at yourself and figure out what gives you the most joy and happiness. If you love being in the classroom, embrace it! If you can’t stand teaching but are at ease behind a lab bench or writing grants, embrace it! Then, once you have done this self-examination, stick to your guns and have an honest and frank discussion about this with those doing the frowning. Your supervisors and mentors really need to know what you want, in the best-case scenario, because they are a strong ally for you when you are looking for a job, whether it’s giving an informal reference over the phone, or writing a letter of reference.

Now, we all know that academic jobs are not that easy to get, and despite what you may *want* as a perfect job, this should not stop you from applying to any positions that you might be qualified: keep a open mind because you may find yourself in a R1 school, and you might love it (I know this from personal experience: I always saw myself at a smaller college/University yet managed to land a job at one of the big research Universities in Canada, even though I didn’t think I had a chance of landing the job! And, I’m very happy with the job).

Once you do land a job, and you are happy about it, spread the word. Discuss how great it is to be at your University, whether a liberal arts college, Land grant University, or Ivy League. They are all great.

The pillars of the ivory tower remain deeply planted, and despite increased interest in public engagement and outreach, Universities remain slow-moving, old, conservative institutions. Will this ever change? 

Ok, so this is a pretty big question. So big that it will wait for another post since this one is getting a little too long… I will save that for another time.

In sum, interacting with grad students at Arkansas was truly a delight. They were confident, bright, engaged and inquisitive. Spending time with a group of graduate students gives me great hope and optimism, and their insightful questions are an indication of this.


We are in for a great month. It’s not October… it’s Arachtober. It’s a month to celebrate all things Arachnid, from photos, to blog posts and stories about our eight-legged friends. It’s a month to appreciate Arachnids for what they are: stunningly beautiful animals.

A beautiful long-jawed orb-weaver (image by Alex Wild, from "Insects Unlocked".

A beautiful long-jawed orb-weaver (image by Alex Wild, from “Insects Unlocked”.)

To get all set for Arachtober, here are some ways to get involved and to learn about spiders:

First, do check out Africa Gomez’s blog – she’s promised to do daily (yes, DAILY) posts about spiders. Yay!

Be sure to follow Catherine Scott – she is on a terrific campaign to help educate people about spiders, and calm down the nerves and assure folks that the spiders they find are *not* brown recluse spiders. 

This is Catherine Scott, wearing a t-shirt with an important message.

This is Catherine Scott, wearing a t-shirt with an important message.

Be sure to keep an eye on the Arachtober Flickr group. Amazing photos to be found there; this was the first place that Arachtober got started… members of that group tried to post new spider photos daily, throughout the month of October.

For other photos about arachnids, do check out work by Sam Martin, or Thomas Shahan, or Sean McCann, or Alex Wild, to name a few. Here’s an example of Sean’s work:


If you want to find other Archnologists on Twitter, here’s a Twitter List for you.

Want to learn more about Arachnology? Check out the American Arachnological Society, or the International Society of Arachnology. Here’s a more general post about what to do if you want to be an arachnologist.

Arachnology has a rich and fascinating history. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a wonderful resource: here, you can look at old titles about spiders and on their Flickr page, view stunning plates from those old books and journals.

Have some interests in drawing spiders? Don’t forget to get the anatomy correct! Here’s a post from a 10 year-old who did it right:


Have a read through these great Arachtober posts from the past, from Bug Gwen.

Another great blog to check out, for wonderful spider natural history, comes from “Bug Eric”.

Have a spider and not sure what it is? Sometimes you can surf around on BugGuide and work towards an identification with that. It’s a great resource for Arachnophiles.

Arachtober ends with Halloween, of course. Perhaps viewing some movies featuring spiders is a fine idea.

Oh, and for Halloween, here’s how to make your 3D spider cake (um, too bad about the spider’s anatomy is all wrong. Sigh)

And, finally: SPIDER ROBOT (check around the 7:00 mark):

So, how else will you celebrate Arachtober? Share your thoughts in the comment section, below!

[As many of you know, I’ve been posting weekly with links to stories about arachnids, called “SPIDERDAY“. Given a busy travel schedule this month, Spiderday may be a bit ‘irregular’ – sorry!]

Ecology from geology

I recently asked a geologist* to come to speak to my field biology class. The course is about the “St Lawrence Lowlands“, and throughout the term we visit farms, forests, lakes and streams, and we do natural history research.

Why then, do I have a geologist come and speak to us?

A result of glacial till: it's now supporting biodiversity.

A result of glacial till: it’s now supporting biodiversity.

Ecology is built upon geology. This may seem obvious, but requires a deeper discussion: after hearing this guest lecture year after year, I no longer see my local landscape as some farm fields, patches of forests, and some big bodies of water**. I see lands and waters shaped by a history before our time. The local landscape is a product of past geological events. We have farm fields around the Montérégie because the Champlain Sea deposited its sediments and after it departed; what remained is a flat expanse, perfect for farming. As the sea departed, it left behind remnants of beaches still visible today, as the Plateau district of Montreal, or where apple orchards grow next to Mont St Hilaire. We have some slight elevation here and there because of sandy deposits left by the departure of the last great glacier that covered our land in the very recent past. That’s where we find great white pines, stretching up above the canopies of the deciduous trees. We have Mount Rigaud because of processes hundreds of millions of years ago: an igneous intrusion that happened long, long before the age of dinosaurs. More recent igneous intrusions created the Lachine rapids, historically important as this became a key place where First Nations people, and later Europeans, set up camp along their journey up or down the big river. This was the one of the birthplaces of Montreal.

Our landscape, and the ecology of our landscape, is built upon slow but incredible processes, and I think biologists don’t consider those processes as dynamic forces that are constantly influencing our current view of the world. Ecologists often think of time in scales of decades or centuries, and we spend considerable time looking at time frames that resonate with our own life spans (in contrast, evolutionary biologists and taxonomists look much further back, and are accustomed to time frames of ‘millions of years’. I think We need to meet in the middle a little more).

As field biologists, knowing the origin of those big rocks in the forest matters a great deal: glacial till from the past creates habitats today. Moss creeps on these ancient boulders; centipedes and spiders crawl underneath. Their ephemeral life depends on much longer time frames. It’s hard to imagine how to consider discussion land management or wildlife conservation in the region without appreciating how past geological events can either help or hinder the process. There’s a geological reason why soil development is slow in some parts of our local ecosystems; why the land may be rocky, and why it’s well-drained in some areas, and wet in others. This affects long-term planning around wildlife preserves, or housing developments. There’s good reason why Mont St Hilaire is a biosphere reserve, and how it’s flora and fauna will be different that what we find elsewhere in the St Lawrence Lowlands.

Hiking at Mont St Hilaire: there are so many reasons why it's a special place, including geology.

Hiking at Mont St Hilaire: there are so many reasons why it’s a special place, including geology.

The longer I spend living here and learning about my region’s natural history, the more I recognize the value of some knowledge about geology, and this is why I have a geologist give a guest lecture. The students also tell me, year after year, that they appreciate and value this perspective, and their understanding of this part of the world is enriched by a deeper discussion about ‘why’ the St Lawrence Lowlands exists as it does.

How often do ecological classes include discussion about geology? Perhaps not often enough.

*the geologist in question is Dr. George McCourt, who teaches often in the McGill School of Environment. I am immensely thankful for him taking time to teach us about his passion.

**when I commute to work, this is what I see: forests, field and lakes. Others in the St Lawrence Lowlands will have a different story, perhaps one that involves highrises and concrete.

Spiderday (#18)

Whoop! Three cheers for SPIDERDAY (or would it be more apt to say “eight cheers”?. All the arachnid links from the past week, in one place.

Meet your dock spiders. Photo by Sean McCann.

Meet your dock spiders. Photo by Sean McCann.

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 11.16.16 AM

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 11.19.30 AM

Spiderday (#17)

Arachnids: cool, amazing animals with lots of legs and lots of fascinating biology. SPIDERDAY brings you the best arachnid links from the past week. Here’s your 17th edition:

A wonderful shot of a crab spider: part of the brilliant "insects unlocked" project.

A wonderful shot of a crab spider: part of the brilliant “insects unlocked” project.

Spiderday (#16)

You latest edition of SPIDERDAY!  (sorry, folks, it’s been a busy week, so I just don’t have as many links as usual)

An amazing photo of a Solifuges (aka Camel Spider), by Sean McCann

An amazing photo of a Solifuges (aka Camel Spider), by Sean McCann


Rethinking the University Classroom: Ban the podium-style lecture, not the laptop

There has been a lot of recent coverage/chatter about bans on laptops in the lecture halls of Universities and colleges (e.g., see here, here and here). I am particularly interested when instructors implement outright bans on laptops in their classes, citing reasons related to distraction, both by students on their computers, but also distraction for students sitting nearby classmates with their screens aglow. There have also been some recent studies about how students retain and learn content more effectively when taking hand-written notes instead of typing notes. Are laptop bans the solution?

What bothers me about this debate is that most coverage actually skirts around the true issue, which to me is about a fundamental problem of podium-style teaching. A traditional lecture hall environment is not always a great place for teaching and learning. It is in those environments where the issues of note-taking and distraction arise, and where laptop bans occur. I certainly don’t hear complaints about laptops in seminar/discussion courses, or in those occurring in active learning classrooms.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

I was student for a day once. This as a view from my seat in the lecture hall. Students were using laptops to take lecture notes.

Here is my opinion: in most teaching environments*, laptop bans are unnecessary and should be avoided. Some students need to take notes with a laptop, perhaps because of a disability (eg, arthritis), and accommodation is needed. Sometimes it is useful for students to follow along a PowerPoint presentation, or fact-check or Google some of the content during the lecture (heck that could even provide opportunity for some class discussion!). If students are distracted, this likely indicates a bigger problem, and the instructor should look into ways to make the classroom more active and engaging. It is perhaps easier to look to issues with distracted students and laptops than it is to rethink the way material is being taught. We are living in a digital age with our students being true digital natives, and I worry that sometimes a ban on laptops is a reflection on biases by the instructor and, frankly, doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

Let’s make our lecture halls inclusive environments, and perhaps ban policies about banning laptops!

Ok, fine, but… but … but… what if other students are bothered by their peers with laptops? What if students just don’t want to be in that “required” course, and are grumpy… and become easily distracted? I think some of this can be solved. I suggest that all instructors have a frank and open conversation about technology in the classroom. A discussion about your concerns, and the concerns by students, can go a long way. It also may be useful and necessary to develop some guidelines around technology in the classroom – and perhaps adjust the seating plan to avoid issues with students being distracted. Check out if your University has a formal policy about this, and see how your thinking aligns with this policy (as an example, here is McGill’s policy). Another option to help with the “boredom” factor (a potential reason for distraction) is to allow “tech time” mid-way through a lecture. Stop halfway through**, give everyone a break for a few minutes (to stretch, nap, text or post to Facebook).

Or even better, rethink the fundamental ways you are teaching.

I posit that boredom and distraction in a classroom, and the broader concern about laptops, learning, and note taking, are because instructors are stuck in the “lecture hall rut”. The debate points again to a need to embrace active learning, and work to increase engagement within the classroom. Most profs only learned one way to teach: at the podium. It’s what we were exposed to during our undergraduate degrees: the podium is the standard. But it’s not the gold standard and a serious rethink is long overdue.

How to break the tradition? How about taking the active learning challenge? There are small, simple things instructors can do, even in large lecture halls (yes, there are infrastructure constraints – not enough of our learning spaces are built for active learning). There are amazing resources out there to better understand active learning, and why it’s important.

Learn from other instructors who are doing different things in the classroom – hang out with the innovators, and use their strategies in your classroom. Watch videos, take workshops from your teaching and learning units, and work with your chairs and Deans to rethink the classroom context.

Work to integrate technology (and laptops!) into the classroom – on-line quizzes can be done in class, with technology – perhaps with mobile devices, laptops or student response systems (aka, clickers). Try integrating social media to the classroom, via a course hashtag or course blog. Use the tools that students are using: this will work to increase engagement in the classroom. We are truly living in an exiting time for the integration of technology into teaching – it’s time to harness the possibilities and harness the power of technology, instead of ban it.

I won’t lie: rethinking why and how you teach the way you do will take time and energy. But the short term pain will lead to long term gains. Students will appreciate the efforts, the classroom dynamics will change, and I believe the amount of boredom and distraction will decrease. Active leaning is not just a catch phrase, it’s a meaningful and important way to improve the classroom experience, for the students but also for the instructor.

There is little need to ban laptops in classrooms that are active, engaging and break from the traditional podium-style lectures.


*There are some kinds of classes in which laptop use can be questioned, such as a hands-on laboratory, field course, studio-class or with some seminar/discussion classes. However I believe these are a minority. (If there are other examples you know about, please leave a comment!)

** this strategy was shared by Prof. Matthew Cobb, at Manchester – he says it works very well!