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.

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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.

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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.

What is loss?

I’m not sure I have much comprehension or real understanding of loss. I’m healthy and happy, as are my kids, as is my wife. I’ve lived a life that has so far been full of joy, love, opportunity, laughs and I have been surrounded by family and friends. I live in an amazing community – I work in an amazing place with good people. My parents are still alive. In short, I’ve not suffered any tremendous personal loss.

But loss can be small and I have surely felt it at times. Loss can be a kind of disappointment or inconvenience. Loss can be in sports, a broken leg or dislocated shoulder; it can be an inability to get that paper published, or a graduate student deciding to leave the laboratory, or some form of rejection. Small losses can sting for a little while. They are not insignificant when viewed at small scales, but they are small.

Loss can be significant. Life throws curve balls, gives some pretty sharp kicks and pays no attention to ‘good timing’. There are big losses that take up larger chunks of emotion, and affect us physically and mentally.  Kids get sick (…how many of us have stayed awake all night, laying next to our child who may have laboured breathing and suffering high fever?).  I’ve lost grandparents, I’ve had friends who have passed away, and I’ve had pets who have died. I’ve also been near to people who have suffered tremendous loss, especially recently. If it stings and hurts for me, it must be unbearable for them. I think I’m dreadfully scared of large-scale loss and I don’t know how people get through it.

From a broader perspective, this has me reflecting on what is constant about our lives. Are there any constants? Perhaps only that life is both fragile and unpredictable – that’s a difficult combination.  When things are good, at their most basic level (health, food, roof), things are really, really good. That is an important thing to remember. When things go south, life makes little sense, it seems unfair and we despair.  This is a confirmation of the fragile and the unpredictable.

When facing significant loss, why should we not despair and call it unfair?

Here’s why: the people I have seen go through significant loss, and who have been in dark places, do emerge from those places. The continue, they fight, they move on. They don’t forget, they don’t get over grief, they don’t get over the loss, but they do carry on. These are my heroes.  Of course, this is my view, from the outside, and I certainly don’t pretend to understand. But I do take inspiration from people who move on and eventually laugh and smile again, after what must be the unbearable context of tremendous loss.

I’ve talked and written before about the importance of ‘slowing down‘. I believe this more strongly now than ever before. Be mindful, be caring. Curve balls are coming. None of us will be be spared those sharp kicks.

To end, a few lyrics from Tom Petty – I heard these while driving in to work, after just learning of a friend who suffered tremendous loss.

Well I know what’s right, I got just one life

In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around

But I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down

 

Landing an tenure track job in entomology: perfecting the practice of academic kung fu

This is re-posted from the Entomological Society of Canada’s blog, and is written by Chris Buddle (McGill University) and Dezene Huber (University of Northern British Columbia)

Last autumn there was quite an interesting discussion on twitter among some entomologists in Canada about the ‘job search’ – more specifically focused on the process of seeking tenure-track academic appointments.  Many of us shared our sob stories, and although the time, place and characters varied, the common element was REJECTION.  Those of us who currently are lucky enough to hold faculty appointments remember the rejection to success ratio, and some of us still have stacks of rejection letters.  While most of us really enjoyed the academic freedom that came with working as a postdoc, the job-search process was more often than not discouraging and deflating, and a really difficult time in our lives.

Towards the end of the PhD program, most of us are riding high – our papers are getting published, we are truly ‘experts’ in our fields of study, we are being congratulated, buoyed by our peers and mentors, and we are ready to take on the world.   We found ways to get a post-doc and perhaps traveled to a different country for additional experience, with a sense of hope, optimism, and enthusiasm for the next stage of our careers.

Then, like the world supply of helium, our hopes were quickly diminished.

“I will easily get a job interview at THAT University”.

Nope.  Not even an interview.

“Perfect – that job advertisement was MADE for me – they will hire me.  It’s a perfect fit”.

Nope. A mass e-mail rejection letter instead.

“I’m the GREATEST in my field of study.  Universities will be asking me to apply”

Nope.  That never happens.

I’m sure that I’ll be seriously considered for this position

Nope. The rejection letter came back saying that there were more than 400 applicants for the position.

Even if I don’t get the job, I’ll be able to get feedback from someone on the committee.”

Nope. It’s highly unlikely that, among the 400 applicants, anyone on the committee even remembers you.

There are really two ways to look at this.  It is possible to get discouraged and frustrated, and give up hope OR it’s possible to see that persistence can pay off and eventually the right job will come along, and you will be competitive.  Sure, the opportunities have to be there, but that kind of timing and ‘luck’ isn’t something you can control.

Here are a few pointers that will hopefully help you think about that tenure-track job search, and give you a sense of optimism:

  • It will take a huge dose of patience and persistence, but there ARE tenure-track jobs out there for people with Entomological interests, even in Canada. Recently, Manitoba hired an entomologist, and University of Ottawa just hired an assistant professor on the evolution of plant-pollinator interactions.
  • University professors do eventually retire! (…Although it needs to be noted that the reality in the current economy is that their positions are not always replaced)
  • You don’t have to restrict your options to only University positions.  We know of faculty members who worked in private companies, or in government, and made a lateral transfer, eventually, to academia.  Your holy grail may be a tenure-track job, but other opportunities are equally rewarding and could eventually get you a tenure-track job. Or you may find that life “beyond the ivory tower” is much to your liking anyhow. In fact, you may be interested in the advice column at Chronicle.com by that very name.
  • Be creative with your CV.  There are relatively few jobs for entomologists, sensu stricto, but there are jobs for evolutionary biologists, ecologists, or other more ‘general’ disciplines (Look: you can apply for a term position in biology at St Mary’s!)  Re-work your cover letters and CV to reflect your potential in these jobs, and that you use insects as ‘model organisms’. And always tailor your cover letter and CV to any job for which you apply. Don’t just send in the same material to every search committee. Search committees are looking for that elusive thing that we call “fit.”
  • Keep your eye on the ball:  to get that coveted university position, the peer-reviewed publication remains the MOST IMPORTANT item on your CV.  Publish, publish, publish. During this stage of your career, keep the focus on that part of the research process. In particular, enjoy the fact that, as a postdoc, you are relatively free to conduct research and publish without many of the other responsibilities (e.g., teaching, administration) that will come with a tenure-track post.
  • Be realistic. If a job ad states that the committee is looking for an acarologist specializing in the mites of toucans, and you are an acarologist who studies toucan mites, then you have a good chance of landing an interview. If the job ad asks for a “terrestrial ecologist working at any scale from microbial to landscape” and you fit somewhere in there, chances are so do a few hundred other recent graduates.
  • When you see something that looks potentially appropriate for you, apply. Rejection is painful but costs nothing; not applying to something that might have worked out is doubly painful.  People who have agreed to write you letters of recommendation will be patient with you (if they are not, perhaps they are not the right people to give you a letter…?)
  • Have another postdoc or your mentor read through your application material. Chances are your mentor has been on a few search committees and can give you useful tips.
  • Every time you apply for a job, consider it a chance to improve your application material.
  • When you do land an interview, prepare for it like there’s no tomorrow. You are a researcher, do your best to figure out everything that you possibly can about the department to which you are applying and, even more, the personalities that make up that department.  Once you get an interview, this means your CV is strong enough, and the job interview is about the ‘fit’.
  • Landing an academic position is not always going to be in the cards for everyone. It is best to have alternate plans so that you don’t get stuck in the so-called postdoctoral holding pattern for years and years. At least one of us (DH) committed to himself to start to explore alternate options at the five year mark after walking the convocation stage. Have a plan B. Your Plan B might actually turn out better than your Plan A in the end.
  • Rejection in terms of tenure-track jobs is really just a warm-up to the continual sense of rejection you will feel if you do end up working as a Professor.  You might as well get used to it.  This is not a statement to bring on doom and gloom: it’s the reality.  You must develop broad shoulders.

Rejection is a fundamental and core part of the academic life: The publication process is becoming so difficult that you can pretty much assume that your paper will get rejected the first few times around (check out this paper about rejection rates…).  Funding agencies are cash-strapped, and it’s getting harder and harder to find ways to fund research projects.  High caliber graduate students will ‘shop around’ for the best graduate program, and will often reject your laboratory. Be a practitioner of academic kung fu – use the weight of rejection against rejection itself by learning from it and applying it to your next attempt.

Depressed yet?

Don’t be.  A tenure track has so many advantages, and these far outweigh the annoying stream of rejections. And the other options available to a bright, young researcher are often as appealing (and usually pay more) than being on the tenure track anyhow.  ..but that’s a topic for another post.