It started with the crickets

It all started with the crickets.

And it got a lot bigger than that.

I couple of weeks ago I received a gift from one of my MSc students – a lovely little tarantula that we affectionately call “Shelob”. My family was reasonably tolerant of this new addition. Shelob is a Chilean Rose-hair, a sort of pet that is sometimes referred to as a pet rock. But it’s a rock that needs feeding, hence the crickets. “Feeder crickets” are crafty little insects and despite my assumption that the terrarium for the crickets was sealed tightly, that was not the case. Unfortunately we had guests over for the weekend, and they were unimpressed by the cheeping crickets from under their bed in the middle of the night. And my teenage son was very angry one morning, having been woken up a bit too early by crickets in his bedroom*. The crickets were everywhere:

 

Crickets: Everywhere

Crickets: Everywhere

 

I'm not the only one with a cricket problem.

I’m not the only one with a cricket problem.

Living with an Entomologist (or Arachnologist) can be a challenge. It requires our partners / families / roommates / friends to be very tolerant of some odd behaviours. In my experience entomologists really know how to bring their work home with them. Our field of study is a passion that moves beyond the research lab or field site. It’s a passion that means we need to have sweep nets at home as well as at work, and most entomologists I know have a vial (or two) in their pocket, so they can collect their study specimens wherever they are (although we sometimes forget). This means, by extension, that our freezers at home become a place for frozen food AND dead insects. This is clearly something that is shared with entomologists around the world (which means, of course, that there are thousands and thousands of freezers in homes that act has a short-term specimen storage location as well as a place for ice cream and frozen peas – that may either impress you, or creep you out).

A typical freezer: note the food AND the vials with dead insects.

A typical freezer: note the food AND the vials with dead insects.

Another generality that emerges from these Tweets is that our partners, friends and/or families often have to be our ‘helpers’: holding up a thumb for scale, being a good landing spot for mosquitoes, or holding various entomological equipment while we scramble on hands and knees to grab that elusive specimen.

LizzyLowe

Holidays? They sure are fun when living with an entomologist…

The division between “work” and “play” is a difficult one to make for entomologists: there is a single-minded joy associated with collecting our study species, no matter where you are (honeymoon?) and no matter the time of day. It’s actually quite fun to run around the backyard with a sweep net, chasing *that* butterfly. A few years ago I recall seeing a very lovely butterfly heading from my backyard to the front yard – I was barbequing (in bare-feet) at the time – thankfully the trusty sweep net was right next to the house. I made a dash for it, hooting and hollering the whole time. The butterfly was quick – so much so that it was about 200 ft up the street before I collected it. My neighbors then became very well aware of what I “do”: the barefoot entomologist.

The final personal anecdote I will share is the “Specimens on the doorstep” phenomenon, shared among many entomologists: once you are known as the “bug person” in your town or city, BEWARE – people will drop off mason jars with odd critters in them. You know, the beetle that is eating Samantha’s roses, or the ant found in a neighbor’s dishwasher. So often I come home and one of my kids says to me “Dad – there’s another jar for you on the kitchen table”. I guess this isn’t all that normal…?

Fire ants at the foot of the bed. Oh my.

Fire ants at the foot of the bed. Oh my.

The hashtag #LivingWithAnEntomologist certainly took off: It’s clear that this concept hit a nerve, and that my own observations were actually quite general. SO many people tweeted their stories about what it’s like to live with an entomologist. Thank you to a most wonderful community of friends and colleagues.

To my dear and loving family: I’m sorry (But not really).

Cheep cheep.

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* Note: I have some minor hearing loss, and despite EVERYONE telling me about chirping crickets in our house, I just don’t hear them. Lucky me, I suppose.

The Challenges and Opportunities of University Administration: reflections from a Deanlet

A “Deanlet” is a cutesy name for an Associate Dean. I have no idea who came up with this title, but I first heard it from Terry McGlynn about a year ago, just before I started my first year as an Associate Dean of Student Affairs. Yes, it’s been a year. A very quick and exciting year. And a year is a good point to stop, pause and reflect on life as an Associate Dean*.

An Associate Dean is a level of the university administration just below a Dean (who typically oversees a Faculty). A Deanlet helps run a Faculty because there are too many bits and pieces for one person to handle. In my case, I oversee the affairs of undergraduate students in our Faculty (of which there are about 1,400 undergraduates). This includes recruitment efforts, aspects of student records, dealing with and helping students in academic difficulty, sitting on various committees at various levels in the University, working closely with my Faculty’s executive committee to help establish and oversee larger projects, and a myriad of other tasks (for example, reading names at convocation – something I get to do tomorrow!). In my role I spend a lot of time communicating and collaborating with students, staff, professors, and administrators. I see and experience many aspects of our Faculty.

So, let me report and reflect on three challenges with being a Deanlet, and three of the greatest opportunities that the position has offered me in the first year.

Challenges:

1) Perhaps the biggest challenge in my role has been learning how to help students in difficulty. Student wellness is a priority for me, but it’s not always easy to navigate and find the best solutions when students are struggling, and every situation is context-specific so few ‘generalities’ exist. Sometimes the struggles are academic, and sometimes they involve issues of mental or physical health. I’m often on the front line, and have to make difficult decisions: decisions that affect people. This can be stressful and difficult at times, and certainly means the work doesn’t always stay at the office. Thankfully I have received some excellent training, and have a great team to help, I feel supported, and I am gaining experience that will certainly help me into the future.

2) A second challenge is time management: I have meetings scheduled almost every day, and although they are worthwhile and important, they take time. I remain active as a teacher and a researcher, and I will continue to have a lab and teach my classes, but it can be difficult to balance everything. Before becoming a Deanlet I had a high degree of flexibility in my schedule, which is something many Professors value. However, that flexibility is much diminished, and it has required a lot of adapting. I have no regrets and I expected this (and no, I’m NOT complaining about how busy I am), but I would be lying if I didn’t state that this year has been a big adjustment. The other issue around time management is that when many hours are spent in meetings, this means squeezing other work into weird times of the day.

3) Being a Deanlet sometimes places me in a position of having navigate collegiality: being a colleague in one circumstance, but an Associate Dean in another, can be a challenge. I sometime have to make decisions that do not always please my colleagues (e.g., here’s a new policy XYZ that required you to change how you fill in paperwork XYZ), but also collaborate with my colleagues in research projects, in teaching and on committees. Another example is when a student brings an issue to my attention, perhaps in reference to a grade they received – I sometimes need to bring this to the attention of an instructor and these are not necessary simple or easy discussions. We are all adults, of course, but there is sometimes a divide between administrators and academics, and a professor who is an administrator (this is more-or-less the model at my institution) needs to be cognizant of the different hats, when to wear them, and how to strike the right balance. That being said, I can honestly say that my colleagues have truly been collegial. In my opinion, our institution runs relatively smoothly and effectively in part because our administrators keep one foot in the classroom and research lab.

Opportunities:

1) It may sound cliché, but the best part of my Deanlet position is the people I get to interact with. A professor sees students in a classroom or research lab, and interacts with her or his peers, and certainly a Departmental chair, on a regular basis. A Deanlet gets to do this, and more: I see students for a suite of reasons (beyond teaching), and I meet Profs from many different corners of the University, largely because of the University-level committees I sit on. I also work in an office with *amazing* staff, who really run the show! These are individuals deeply committed to the University, and who have the students’ best interests in mind. A university runs well because of its staff, and the Deanlet appointment has afforded me very new and important perspectives on this. In general, Academic staff do not always appreciate the administrative and support staff, and the stresses and challenges they face. This is among the most valuable lesson that my Deanlet appointment has given me so far.

2) The second reason being a Deanlet is a great opportunity is because it places you in a position to understand the inner workings of a University. I have been able to see how the different arms of the University operate, and been in a position to compare and contrast operations in different Faculties with those in my own. It has allowed me wonderful insights into my institution, and allowed me to be an active player in the future directions of my Faculty, something I had hoped to do as part of this appointment. It is sometimes easy to criticize the ‘administration’ from the outside, but once being part of the process, I am much more sympathetic and sensitive to the reasons why some processes, policies and procedures are a certain way, and I am learning about how the system of collegiality at a University works to make change, and why that change sometimes takes time.

3) From a more selfish reason, a valuable gift of my Deanlet appointment is the constant learning it has provided: every day is different, there are always new projects, and the academic year brings different waves of activity, with each wave bringing its own sense of adventure. I’m the sort of person who thrives on variation, and thrives on new problems to solve, whether it be learning the finer points of a student assessment policy, or figuring out the best wording for recruitment materials. A University is a complex place, and delightful in this complexity. University Administration is another set of doors, levers and handles, and figuring out what they all do, and where they all go, is a good fit for me.

I hope this post provides some insights into the role of an Associate Dean in a University (don’t believe everything you read!). Of course, every University is different, and many of the challenges and opportunities will depend on institutional contexts and culture, but I would also think that some of the challenges and opportunities are relatively general (any Associate Dean’s out there wish to comment, below?). When others are afforded the opportunity for administrative appointments, I hope it’s considered seriously, as it’s certainly been a rewarding experience for me.

I will end with a sincere thanks to all the people who have supported me over the past year. The learning curve has been steep but my colleagues, staff, mentors, and my family have been patient and supportive. I’m excited and feeling ready for the years ahead.

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* I’m not 100% sure why I wrote and published this post. And it was one that I wavered on for a while. However, I suppose it’s a way to time stamp my own thoughts, for selfish reasons – at the end of my term as a Deanlet, in four years from now, it will be interesting to see how my perspectives change. Perhaps it also because many people don’t know what a Deanlet does and I wanted to provide a glimpse into this portfolio.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

The art of delegation: Perspectives from Academia

The talented graduate student (and all-around great guy) Morgan Jackson recently posted a question on twitter, asking for advice on the art of delegation, from an Academic perspective. This question really struck me as important, for graduate students who are pursuing academic careers and for tenure-track academics.  The reason why is pretty obvious: without learning how to delegate, burnout is inevitable.

To delegate means to entrust (a task or responsibility) to another person, typically one who is less senior than oneself.

The issue of how to delegate is, of course, common and widespread in the business community but academia is a bit peculiar. Let me explain my perspective: In some cases, delegation is straightforward, especially if a staff member is paid to do a particular job and if roles and responsibilities are well defined. Although these kinds of hierarchies exist in Universities and research institutes, these environments often include a high amount of volunteerism and some aspects of Universities (and research more generally) are run on collegiality and community-minded thinking.  Scientific societies would disintegrate if people didn’t share the work-load, and if society president’s weren’t able to delegate work to (often unpaid!) treasurers, web-masters and scholarship committees.  Universities wouldn’t operate effectively if Professors didn’t agree to sit on committees, often delegated by the Chairperson. Research laboratories would be unhappy places if some of the chores weren’t delegated, from making sure coffee supplies are well stocked, to ordering supplies – sometimes a paid technician does this work, but not always….

Academia is also full of “reverse hierarchies” – sometimes a more junior person has to ask a more senior person do take on a responsibility or task – this happens all the time: from seeking help putting together a symposium at a conference, to getting people to agree to sit on an editorial board.  Bottom line: there are COUNTLESS tasks in Academia that depend on delegation and often the tasks, roles and responsibilities don’t fit neatly into one person’s formal (paid) job description, and often the ‘senior to junior’ hierarchy isn’t straightforward .

And perhaps the most important point of all….  one of the biggest obstacles to delegation is the fact that many Academics are perfectionists. Academics, by in large, like to be in control of ALL THE THINGS, from preparing a CV, to setting up committee meetings, to driving a car to a field site. Professors, in general, have got to their position because of their ability to DO ALL THE THINGS and do them well. You can’t publish good papers without knowing how to write; you can’t publish papers without solid research funding, so you have to perfect the art of writing grants; you can’t get a post-doc position of tenure-track position without being able to put together a top-notch presentation and deliver it with the skills of a seasoned orator; you can’t get good teaching scores without investing time and energy into perfecting Powerpoint slides and learning the content….  etc., etc., etc.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 4.17.57 PM

However, as Peter Adler wrote over at Dynamic Ecology recently, it doesn’t get any easier. In fact, the job gets more demanding on time, expectations on productivity remain, teaching can be time-intensive, and the Academics are expected to do some administration. From a personal perspective, I am far busier now than I have ever been in the past (but I try not to complain about it).  Good time management skills are not enough to get everything done. What’s needed is an ability to delegate. Again, without effective delegation, burnout is inevitable.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 4.18.53 PM

With that backdrop, how do you delegate?

1) Know the players. Delegation requires knowing your community and knowing the skills and abilities of people within your community, whether it be a graduate student secretary, the treasurer of a scientific society, or a colleague down the hall. Before you can even think of delegation, realize that delegating any kind of work has a real, profound affect on somebody and on how they spend their time. It’s about people, so you must get to know these people! This means networking, whether it be around a coffee maker at work, over twitter, or attending a poster session at a conference.  Pay close attention to everyone you interact with, listen to them, learn their passions, learn what they like to spend their time doing.

2) Play nice. In addition to knowing your community, don’t be a jerk to your community! I mentioned Morgan Jackson at the start of this post; he’s an example of someone who is always willing to lend a hand, say a kind word, and be a team player. He plays nice. I am always happy to help Morgan in return, even though I am (in academic terms) his ‘senior’. This seems SO obvious, but I also know that not everyone plays nice. Some people are selfish, ignore those they deem as ‘inferior’, and require you to grovel to get an answer to an email.  It’s a tough world, and there are big personalities in Academia, and everyone has their own agendas.  This can be difficult to navigate, and politics in Academia can be fierce. However, a strategy that always wins is to play nice. Be collegial, polite, and try not to burn bridges. It’s hard to delegate if there’s nobody left that respects you.

3) Prioritize. Delegation is an art, and one of the trickiest parts is learning what to delegate and what to keep on your own plate. It’s also important to avoid delegating everything. Some things are too close to your own expertise, part of your job description and/or are tasks that you just love too much to give up. However, some tasks can be shared effectively among others, and can move away from your to-do list. Write down ALL that you have to do, and put a star beside those that you cannot see anyone else doing (ahem, if there are stars next to all of the tasks, you will burn out. Start again, and see point #6, below). If your are lead-author on a paper, you sure ought to read over those final page proofs! However, maybe your co-author could do a final check over all references, especially if s/he hasn’t contributed as much to the paper..?

4) Have a vision (& communicate it!). Delegation will not be successful if those you delegate to are not sure what role they are playing in the ‘big picture’.  No matter the size of the task, it is being done for some reason. Having someone give a guest lecture is pretty obvious: the guest lecture helps achieve the learning objectives of the class and gives students a new perspective on the content. Sure, that makes sense. But did you communicate that to both the students and the person giving the lecture? EVERYONE involved needs to understand the ‘why’ behind the jobs and tasks at hand. This means effective delegation requires carefully assessing why tasks are being done, and working to communicate this. If people are part of a vision (even one they may not 100% agree with), it’s a lot easier to get them to take part.

5) Ask and Explain. Sometimes it’s as easy as asking (nicely). This goes much smoother if you have a vision and that you have communicated this vision, as mentioned above. In addition to asking, it’s essential that the tasks you are delegating are clearly defined. A volunteer might agree to sort specimens if you ask them. However, a simple ask may result the job getting done, but perhaps with a lot of mistakes. Asking, and then giving someone a 1 hour tutorial and access to resources on-line will result in fewer errors. Preparing a living document that explains your protocols for sorting and letting them refine and improve the document is even better!  All tasks, regardless of their size, need to be defined. Just because you think it’s easy to do, straightforward, and simple doesn’t mean everyone else will.

6) Let go. (TRUST) I have noticed that many Academics (myself included!) don’t delegate because they say “Ah heck, I already know how to do that, it’ll take too much time to explain or show them how to do it…” or “I’ll do that myself, it’ll be faster“. There are a few problems here. First, if you say this about everything, burnout is inevitable. Second, as an Academic / Researchers/ Post-doc, etc, you are responsible for sharing knowledge and training others, and this takes time. In the time it takes you to ‘just do the task’ five times, you could have trained someone else. Third, this may indicate that you don’t ‘trust’ anyone else to do the job. You must let go of this! Be a perfectionist at the right times, but let some things go. There are errors in everything we do, so sharing them around is fine, for some tasks.  Remember, you have developed a network, you are team player, and you have shared your visions and prioritized, and defined the tasks. It’s time to let go.

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7) Verify. Letting go does not mean letting go forever. There must be follow-up and discussion to ensure the job is done well. Accountability is key. Review the job, first on your own, and then with the person to whom the work was delegated. You must provide constructive feedback, but also listen to ideas, complaints and comments. This will help you redefine the task in the future, and they will feel more responsibility and ownership over the task. This also starts the amazing process of creating someone who can later become a delegator of tasks. This is what mentoring is all about… in your laboratory or classroom, you want people to walk away with confidence in what they do, and with an ability to take their skills sets and pass them along to others.

8) Reward. It’s absolutely essential that you reward those to whom you have entrusted a task or responsibility. If people do not feel their work is valued, and that they have not contributed in an important way, you have failed in effective delegation. If you reward, your vision will grow, your team will respect you, your (positive) network will increase. Rewards can be small or big: A few kind words, a big “THANK YOU”, some homemade cookies, a promotion, or a letter of reference. Here’s an example: I often get graduate students to give guest lectures in my courses. This saves me time, and helps me out when I’m overwhelmed. When students do these lectures, I offer to write them letters or recommendation specifically about their abilities in the classroom. Most take me up on this, and it’s a kind of reward. I also ensure to pass along kind words from the students in the class.

9) Get some training. The art of delegation is seldom on an Academic’s CV. It’s often learned by trial and error, and sometimes never really perfected. Like any skill, training is required. In some cases, informal training is enough. This can be via sitting on committees in scientific societies, learning from effective mentors, or just practicing. However, I think that most Academics are not very good at delegation, and more formal training is required. This could be in the form of workshops, perhaps for all incoming Profs at a University, or as part of a research conference. I would like to see these kinds of ‘management’ skills as part of EVERY graduate student’s program, as perhaps part of the seminar/course work often required during a graduate degree. WE MUST DELEGATE ergo WE MUST HAVE TRAINING.

10) Be a leader. Don’t shy away from leadership. Everything mentioned above is about leadership.  Professors are leaders, perhaps a leader in front of the classroom, as a research leader within your institution, a leading expert in an op-ed piece, or a leader on a committee about academic programs. Effective leaders are effective at delegation; in fact, I might argue it’s impossible to be a leader without being effective at delegation.  Behind every good leader is an even better team. It’s so cliché, but also so very true.

In sum, delegation is about empowerment and leadership. It’s about giving someone else ‘ownership’ over a task that is part of something bigger. Delegation will help you work on things that YOU need to work on, and help you avoid burnout. It’s a required skill for success in Academia.

(BIG thanks to twitter-folks to took part in the conversation about delegation, especially Morgan, Terry, Chris, Staffan, and others)

Please stop telling me how busy you are

I’m guilty of this. And I apologize. This post is for me as well as you.

We are both overworked. We say “yes” to things when we should say “no”. Our to-do lists never end. We are distracted during dinner, and check our email or twitter feed obsessively. We want to slow down, but it’s easier said than done.

Here’s a proposal: if you and I stopped complaining to each other about how busy we were, I think we could start to wrestle back some control.

As Barbara Frei stated in a tweet yesterday, there seems to be some cultural context to this complaint: it’s some kind of badge of honour – bragging rights – self-importance:

“I’m busier than you are, look how important I am”. 

How very troubling.

Stop. Please stop. You are not busier than I am. I am not busier than you are. We are in this together. We need to stop comparing ourselves to others: it is unfair, makes us question what we are doing, and whether we are ‘busy enough’.

Complaining about how busy we are adds fuel to an already out-of-control fire. It adds to frenetic behaviour. It makes me feel bad and anxious, and I make you feel bad and anxious when I complain.

Fine, then. We agree? Good. Let’s shake on it.

But what do we do about our out-of-control lives?

Here are some ideas (and, by the way, I do all of these very, very poorly. Maybe by writing them down, it will help?):

1. Small things: Let’s take some moments to enjoy the little things that make us happy, be it strumming a mandolin, going for a run, or watching a sitcom.

 2. Priorities: I think we can prioritize more carefully, and think about what’s really important and deal with those things. Let’s stop using ‘I’m too busy’ as an excuse and be more honest about why we have or have not followed through on a commitment.

 3. Say no. If we don’t start saying no, it will never get better. Let’s say yes to things that are either required as part of our job, or things that bring us much personal satisfaction and joy.

4. Deflate that self-importance.  Um, sorry, but we are not *that* important. The world won’t stop if we stop or slow down. We are fortunate to be busy. Many people need a job, can’t find food for their family, or are sick. Let’s keep things in perspective.

 5. Lower expectations: time is the most limiting of resources, and the current state of instantaneous communication, and rapid access to everything is creating unreasonable expectations on time.  Let’s work to lower expectations on how quickly things ought to be done, by us and by others.

This post was inspired by recent writings about time, by Terry McGlynn and David Maddison. And by discussions I have with colleagues (and my wife), almost every day.

 

How to succeed at University: 12 tips for undergraduate students

About a year ago I wrote a post about “10 tips to success at University“. Since that time, this list has increased, and it’s also clear that these tips don’t just apply to incoming students. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to update this post … and it’s now 12 Tips for success!  Hope you find this helpful!

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The start of term is an exciting time for those of us involved in Academia – new students are arriving on campus, full of enthusiasm, hope, and questions.  As a Program Director for McGill’s Environmental Biology Major, I am asked a lot of these questions, and I am sometimes asked for advice.  I thought it worthwhile providing some tips for incoming and in-course students, and perhaps some of these will help make your time at University a little easier..

1. Work hard. At the end of the day, hard work pays off. You made it into University, which suggests you have the fundamental skill set required for higher education, but don’t forget to keep your eye on the ball and buckle down and get the work done! It’s easy to get swayed by social life, engagement in students clubs and activities, and by trips home to see family. These things are all important, but success largely rests with a student’s ability to develop and maintain a strong work ethic. Make lists, prioritize, and focus on getting the “job” of being a student done well.

2.  Meet your academic advisor:  Most academic programs have an ‘academic advisor’ associated with them (e.g., see here for McGill’s website about advising).  These individuals are there to help students get through their program, and advisors typically help students with course selection, and help plan a student’s academic program.  When arriving on campus, you should book a meeting with your advisor, and more importantly, listen to their advice!  Advisors know the ins and outs of your program, and paying attention to them will help you in the long run.  You don’t want to end up messing up your academic program because you decided to avoid taking required courses early on in your program!

3.  Have an agenda, and use it:  This seems like pretty obvious advice, but you would be surprised how many students (and Professors!) don’t have a good system for managing time.  University is a lot about managing your time: getting to classes, dealing with e-mails, assignments, planning for exams, facebook, and squeezing in a social life, or a part-time job.  It’s a struggle to manage all these tasks, and to help with this, develop a clear and straightforward system of ‘calendar + tasks‘.  Under calendar, include your class schedule, important dates and meetings, and most importantly, LOOK at the calendar regularly!  I personally prefer using an on-line calendar that syncs with my phone – but some people prefer the old-fashion (yet dependable) hard-copy calendar.  For tasks, include short-term tasks (with deadlines – cross-referenced with your calendar) and long-term tasks, so that you are reminded of deadlines.  I use a small notebook for my task list, and it is always with me – for me, the act of physically writing down a task list helps me remember what I need to work on.   A good system for your agenda and tasks will make your life a lot easier.  Furthermore, effective use of an agenda and task list will help you refine your time management skills, and these skills are truly essential to success at University (and for your career, beyond…).

4.  Show up on time and don’t miss deadlines:  Again, this seems pretty obvious, but it’s also pretty easy to mess up.  Treat University like a professional job – you need to be mature, you must be on time, and you never miss deadlines.  In fact, aim to have everything done early (with good time management skills, this is very possible!).    Being late to lectures, or having to ask for extensions on papers or projects, does you no favours.  Professors, generally speaking, are not impressed by these behaviours.    At some point, you may need to ask your Professors for a letter of reference, and it is much better to be remembered as the students who hands in papers early.

5.  Go to lectures:   Lectures are there for a reason:  they provide you with value-added content.  It’s true that some of the content may be available on-line, or with a text-book, but in most cases, lectures will help to draw connections between different content, and/or provide a valuable context to the material that might be in the textbook or on-line.   Professors take a lot of pride in lecturing, and work hard to make the lectures engaging, interesting, and thought-provoking.  You will soak up an amazing amount of material by just being in lectures, and paying attention.

6. Keep up! This point is closely related to the previous few ideas – but is important to keep in mind as a separate item.  Assignments at University do tend to sneak up on you – deadlines seem so far away, until you realize that there are three written reports due within a two week period, with Thanksgiving in the middle! Similarly, lecture content builds upon itself, and assuming you will just naturally be able to keep up may not be the best idea. Try to build some habits in your life so that you review the content soon after each lecture and/or spend a bit of time each morning prepping for you day and keeping an eye on the week ahead.  Do your best to stay on top of the material: in my experience, if students start to fall behind a little bit, this quickly spirals as the weeks pass by, and the stress level increases as you try cram for an assignment or final exam.

7.  Ask questions:  In most of my classes, I tell students that there are no stupid questions (except for “Will this be on the exam?”).  This is very, very true.  If you are confused about a concept, or failed to get the point of a slide, or discussion, you must ask for clarification. Although it can be intimidating to ask a question in a large lecture hall, it’s important to try.  If you are confused, it’s highly likely that other student’s are also confused.  You are helping yourself, and your peers, when you put your hand up.

8.  Get to know your instructors:    Whenever possible, get to know the instructors of your courses, be they Professors, Lecturers, or Teaching Assistants.  Most instructors have office hours, and these hours are there for good reason – they provide time to meet your instructor, ask questions, and have a personal connection with them.  Don’t be intimidated by the Professors: we are people, too, and most of us recognize that life as an  undergraduate student can be stressful and difficult.  We can provide you help with course content, but also help direct you to other resources.  Getting to know your instructors also helps when you might be seeking a summer job in the future, or when you need a letter of recommendation.

9.  Get help when you are struggling:  At some point in your University career you will likely need help, whether it is with difficulties with a personal relationship, failing a course, or getting sick.  The University system is a compassionate and collegial environment and it’s a place with a lot of wonderful resources to help you when you are struggling.  Don’t hesitate to seek help when you need it – visit health services when you are sick, or talk to your academic advisor if you are having difficulties with your program.  Most importantly: know what services are available ahead of time (e.g., see this example for McGill), so when you need assistance, you know how to get it.

10. Avoid ‘grade panic':  I am living proof that it is possible to do poorly at undergraduate courses yet still have a successful career!  When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, I just about failed my first year physics course and I was terrified that this would make it impossible to succeed in any kind of career.  Of course this was not the case – a University education is much more than a single course, or a single quiz or examination – an academic program has many components and even if some of the components slow down occasionally, this does not mean the program is broken.   Aim for excellence in your academics, but also remember that EVERYONE has bad days, performs poorly on an exam, or just can’t seem to figure out a particular University subject.  This is normal, and you must keep everything in perspective!  Your University career is not defined by a single moment of failure – keep the bigger picture in perspective, and don’t sweat the small failures.  In a University environment, success at everything is nearly impossible to achieve.   Keep a level head,  keep calm, aim for excellence, but don’t panic when things go wrong.

11.  Stay healthy: Your mother was right – eat your vegetable and get some sleep.  Invariably, influenza and/or a bout of gastro will whip through residence halls sometime around when mid-term exams are starting.  Your best line of defense is a healthy immune system, and part of that includes nutrition, sleep, and exercise.  I think it’s more important to be less prepared but well rested than over-prepared and exhausted – and if you attended lectures (see point 5, above), your rested mind will be in a good position to access the course content.

12.  Have fun!   Life as an undergraduate student is incredibly enriching on intellectual, emotional, and social levels.  Slow down every now and then, breath deeply, and remember what an amazing environment you are in. University provides a wealth of opportunities (student groups, sports, lectures, laboratories, and more), and these are all extremely rewarding in many ways.  Don’t forget to take it all in – in the future, you will remember a lot of details from your University days and you want these memories to be more than sweating over deadlines.

How I traded field biology for a desk job

As I was looking at my summer schedule, it occurred to me that my time out in the field (here defined as outside, collecting data, probably wearing zip-off pants and carrying a field book, insect net and a set of vials) has been getting less and less, every year. As a PhD student I spent most of my summer collecting data. I loved it – the rugged joys of bumpy back-roads in Alberta, the sticky and smelly combination of sweat and bug spray, the cold beer at the end of a long field day.  As I moved on to a post-doc in Ohio, I still spent a lot of time collecting spiders in soybean fields, helping other graduate students in the field, although the summers also included some lab work, and substantial time writing manuscripts.

When starting at McGill over 10 years ago, I kick-started my research program by spending weeks in the field, and seemed to manage a lot of time with each of my graduate students during the field season.  However, time in the field was measured as weeks, and not months.  Now, as I look at my schedule, I’m “maybe” going to get one full week in the field this summer, and a fews days here and there helping with other projects going on in the lab. My time doing field work, actively collecting data, is minimal.

Deep thoughts: field work in the Arctic. Are these days long gone...?

Deep thoughts: field work in the Arctic. Are these days long gone…?

Wait a second. One reason I got into this business was because I like to figure out neat stuff about nature, while being in nature. As a child, I always enjoyed beingin the field‘ (this is also known as ‘playing outside‘) and wanted to continue this as an adult. What happened?

Academics in my discipline of study (let’s call it ‘field ecology‘) and at my career stage (i.e., some years into the job) spend relatively little time in the field and the bulk of their time is a desk job, click-click-clicking away on a keyboard. Staring at a monitor. I know there are exceptions (and BIG congratulations on those of you who do manage to get outside to collect data, regularly!), but when I look around to my colleagues, most of them spend more looking out a window instead of being out that window. The time gets chewed up by other (important) priorities: grant writing, editing manuscripts, writing manuscripts, answering emails, reading papers, attending meetings, chairing meetings, going to conferences, preparing talks for those conferences, writing lectures, delivering lectures and so on. These are all the current demands on our time, and they are the things that the job requires! (for other relevant discussions about this, have a peek at this post by Sarah Boon, and I’ve previously written about how I spend my time).

Bottom line: most of my work duties are indoor activities. I am fortunate in that some of my teaching occurs outside, but that is not the norm.  The other thing that happens is ‘life’ – time with family is important to me, and time away from family is difficult. One reason I’ve spent less weeks away is because it’s tough on all of us and I like being around when the kids are growing up. There’s also that thing called a vacation – Academics typically their vacation time during the summer. (related to this is a post over at Dynamic Ecology titled “how often do you travel”, by Meg Duffy)

That is how I have traded field biology for a desk job.

I’m not alone: here are some responses from folks on Twitter when I asked about their experiences, and whether they have traded field biology for a desk job:

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This is not a lament; this is not a sob story. In fact, perhaps many of us are OK with this transition from field biologist to ‘research manager':

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There is an important message here for people moving up through the Academic system: current PhD and MSc students need to recognize that the idea of landing an Academic job that gets you ‘out in the field’ a lot is probably a pipe dream.

I’ll end with some optimism: Even though things have changed, I think I can still call myself a  ‘field ecologist’ and here’s why:

1) “Field Trips” can be short. It’s possible to capture an hour outside over lunch and collect data on Agelenopsis spiders in a hedge near the picnic table, or stop off at a bird banding station in the AM before work, or swing by a forest to check a pitfall trap on the way home. I have come to realize that field work need not be ‘weeks away’.  In many cases, it’s worth starting up a project that takes you outside regularly, at a local field site. This makes the field work an easier part of the day and you don’t need to schedule weeks away (nor will you need to schedule it months in advance). Keeping it simple, and keeping in manageable is important for me, given the other constraints on time.

2) Trade-offs: I spend time in the field instead of attending a lot of conferences. I have always enjoyed going to scientific conferences, but given the difficulties in getting away for extended periods of time, I realized that I could do field work, or attend conferences, but doing both is not always possible. One of my academic mentors discussed this with me soon after I had started my job at McGill (ironically, at a conference!); he said that when the weather is good, time was better spent collecting flies rather than sitting in a hotel basement. Good point. (By the way, summer-conference are kind of annoying because of this conflict!).  Networking at conferences is very valuable, but that face-to-face networking may not be as essential later in a career. Thanks to social media, it’s also possible to attend conferences virtually.

3) Live vicariously through students: My thoughts about field work are somewhat nostalgic and dreamy, and I forget about the problems. I forget about the flat tires, encounters with bears, the biting flies, and the exhaustion. I’m reminded of these things when my graduate students come back from the field, and sometimes I am happy I wasn’t with them. I can, instead, spend a day or two with them in the field, troubleshoot, help but not have to suffer through it all. I’m a ‘gentleman field biologist’ now. Is that lame? Is that pathetic? Nope. I’ve put in my time and can now have my field trips field with all the fun parts and less of the annoying parts.

4) Mixing vacations with field biology: I’ve not been all that successful at this, but I do know colleagues who manage to mix extended vacation time with field work. I do this on a smaller scale, and it typically includes carrying vials along with every trip, whether it is to the family cottage, or just a walk in the local forest. I’m always after records of pseudoscorpions, and have managed some nice finds while on vacation.  My family does, however, gives me strange looks when I go chasing after spiders or butterflies during lunch break while on a road trip. I can handle the ridicule –> it’s for science!

Although I have largely traded field work for a desk job, there are still glimmers of exciting field work, and still opportunities to get outside and be reminded of the reasons why I originally got into this line of work. I am not depressed or sad about my desk job – I have the best job in the world, despite the the fact that I stare out the window and sometimes dream of field work. I also maintain that these things come in cycles – a few years ago I was away for a few weeks in the field, even if this year is less intensive. It’ll come around again, and perhaps I will write a post in the future that discusses how it’s possible to be a gritty, smelly, rough and tough field biologist again. For now, though, I must stop typing. It’s hard work and my fingers are a little sore.