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The conversations we don’t have (but should)

A few people have noticed that I have been entirely silent on this blog for quite some time.  Others have noticed that I’ve been absent from my personal blog as well as Facebook, Twitter – pretty much all of my usual online haunts – since the fall.  Their somewhat apprehensive inquiries – “How are you doing?” – have been appreciated, even if they’ve been met with rather vague replies: “I’m ok”, or, “I’m hanging in there”.  Or sometimes they’ve received no reply at all, because I haven’t known what to say.

I read a blog post recently, forwarded to me by someone who I consider a good, considerate friend as well as a colleague and mentor. That blog post shook me a bit, I think because I recognized myself in its words so prominently.  It prompted me to write a post of my own, because I think it’s important and because I think it might help me, personally.  So … deep breath … here we go.

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Where?

Warning: this post contains angst.

The third year of my PhD work is quickly coming to a close (Omg. Aak. Eeek.) I’ve been thinking a lot about post-docs. About the type of research I want to do and the type of researcher I want to become in the long run. About fellowships and funding applications. About finding a great lab and a great mentor.

There’s one other unknown that seems to consistently overshadow all these other considerations, no matter how much I try to convince myself that it shouldn’t be super-important:

where am I going to work?

That one word – “where” – stirs up a flurry of other stressful, intrusive thoughts: where will my wife and I live? Will we stay in Canada, or will we have to move to the US or even overseas? Will we be able to find a nice place that lets us maintain the quiet country existence we’ve both come to love? Will we have to sell our beloved old schoolhouse – or maybe we could just rent it out for a while? Will we be ABLE to sell our beloved old schoolhouse if we need to (the real estate market isn’t exactly on fire right now)? And then there’s our pets – if we move overseas we’ll almost certainly have to put them in quarantine – would we be able to manage that? What about our families? What about my partner’s career (she also returned to school last year to pursue a new path as a social worker)? Will we be able to live someplace that recognizes our marriage – will we both be able to get health care and feel safe in a new community?

This issue of “where” is awfully big. I feel like everything else is manageable, but this one…I don’t know. There are a lot of long-term implications and emotional investments wrapped up in “where”, and frankly it scares the poop out of me if I allow myself to think about it too much

I’m not sure what will ultimately settle the “where” question. We might have to simply follow the available funding. Maybe funding won’t be an issue and I’ll be able to carve out a nice niche for myself in a lab more of my choosing, and someplace where my wife can equally pursue her own dreams. (And maybe pigs will fly?)

I know many of you reading this have either recently made the decision to move to Montreal to attend McGill, or perhaps you are still contemplating it. Others among you may be at a similar point in your grad school careers and are having similarly angst thought. To all of you: what were/are your primary considerations when looking for post-docs/jobs/higher degrees, in terms of the “where” question?

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cross-posted at www.thebuggeek.com

Why I spend so much time on the internet, part II (tips for grad students)

I’m finally back from an incredible whirlwind tour of entomology conferences. I’ve travelled from Ottawa, Ontario (ESO) to Edmonton, Alberta (ESC) to Knoxville, Tennessee (ESA). I am pooped and my brain is saturated with awesome science.

I was invited to give a talk as part of a special symposium, “From the Lab to the Web”. It featured other awesome people like Morgan Jackson, Dave Walters, Adrian Thysse, Greg Courtney and fellow McGillian Chris Buddle. In my (not-so-) humble opinion, I think it was a highlight of the conference proceedings. My talk was called “A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science”.

You can check out some voiced-over slides here, but if you don’t feel like sitting through the entire 30 minutes, here’s a quick round-up of the main points:

1. Social media doesn’t need to be scary or overwhelming. Try to think of it as “hallway talk” – the informal socializing, networking, collaborating and community-building that we do as grad students every day, already.

Our peers are using social media at work. You should too. Image from: syracuse.com

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Why I spend so much time on the internet

Internet Forever! (Image from: Allie Brosh at www.hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com) )

Internet Forever! (Image from: A. Brosh www.hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com)

This is a recycled post from my personal blog, The Bug Geek. I’m sharing it here now because it’s rather timely for me: I’m preparing a talk on this subject, with an emphasis on its relevance to grad students, for the Entomological Society of Canada annual meeting in about two weeks; it’s part of a special symposium entitled “From the Lab to the Web”. Also, it’s clear that McGill is one academic institution that is embracing online activities as an important component of learning, teaching, and outreach. These are exciting times, folks….


I’ll update in November with some tips and caveats for grad students. In the meantime, enjoy, and please share your experiences and opinions!

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During the course of an average day, when I’m working on any number of academic pursuits from my home office, I visit a bunch of web sites: library data bases, insect identification aids, online scientific journals, statistical software help pages, how-to lab/procedural pages, etc.

I also spend time on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Flickr and a big ol’ pile of blogs.

I’ve been thinking about the title of a talk I’d like to give. It would sound something like, “Why I spend so much time on the internet.” Lately, I’ve had a number of very interesting discussions with other grad students, faculty members, and online sciencey-folks about the roles and effects of social media on the way we think about science, do science, and communicate about science.

Let me be frank: I’m really, really excited by the buzz about the topic (Morgan Jackson provides a great round-up of blog posts at his blog Biodiversity in Focus ), not only in different social media venues, but also in more traditional, academic forums.

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Yes or no?

One professional philosophy that I’ve tried very hard to embrace is, “be open to the possibility of doing new things or taking on new responsibilities”: a new collaboration, a new side-project, a new outreach activity, a new workshop.  In other words, to say, “yes” whenever possible.

I’ve observed a trend towards grad students saying, “I don’t have time”. They spend most of their waking hours working on their research, their papers and their theses: in other words, being good, conscientious students.

I do get why so many grad students balk at doing something new:  “new things” almost invariably translate into “more work added to an already stupidly busy student workload”. And while I have no doubt that these students will be great successes academically, I do worry that some of them are letting important professional opportunities slip away.

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Getting the most out of academic conferences

In my field, the first few months of the fall term represent “conference season”. Last year I went to my first entomology conference as a PhD student. This year I’m upping the ante considerably: I’m giving a total of 4 talks at three conferences (one is provincial, one national and one international). Larger conferences are pretty darned fun and full of awesome brain-candy. In addition to the beer and free food and hotel rooms and t-shirts and field trips and bookslighter, more social aspects, they also provide excellent opportunities to interact with people in your field and to learn about exciting new research.

A plenary talk at the 2010 ESC conference (Photo by Rick West)

I’m now at what I consider to be a fairly crucial stage of my PhD, in terms of completing projects I’ve started and developing quick additional projects to round out my thesis. As such, I’m considering this conference tour to be (potentially) very important.

I’ve read some blog posts in the last year or so that provided students some sound advice for maximizing the conference experience. One idea that I’ve come across has stuck with me: have a focus. I think this can apply to any number of things the conference-goer might wish to accomplish. (more…)

Hobbies can teach you how to have a life and can yield unexpected professional benefits

The summer is quickly winding to a close, and a shiny new fall term is just around the corner. This year promises to be extremely busy – I’m attending three conferences, have plans for two (or three!) more manuscripts, will be TAing two courses, and there’s an absolute pile of beetles still screaming for my attention. Add to that my online activities and the other time-consuming miscellany of academia, and this geek’s schedule is looking pretty darned full! (Note to advisor: yes, I will get some research done too, promise!)

I’m sure you all often find yourselves in similar situations. I’m also willing to bet that many of you have hobbies and personal interests that you wish you could spend more time pursuing, but often feel obligated to leave to the end of the “to do” list since it’s not “real work”.

I would argue that it’s not only important, but also necessary, to carve out a bit of time to do these things that make you happy. Academics (and students) have a terrible tendency to have one-track (tenure-track?) minds: it’s all research, all the time. It can turn into a viscous and chronic bout of workaholism, leading to dissatisfaction, stress, depression and ultimately burnout.

I think that the grad student years are a great time to practice the arts of time management, priority-setting, and even the very difficult skill of saying “no” to things that maybe aren’t all that interesting or important to you,  so that you can learn how to have a life in spite of your academic obligations.

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Field season report #2: the research

Now that the “oooh, aaaah” part of my field work is out of the way, let’s talk research, shall we?

My PhD work is a component of a research program called the Northern Biodiversity Program. It involves several professors from several universities, about a dozen grad students, a postdoctoral researcher, and a multitude of private and public partners.  The word that must best describe a project of this scope is: “collaborative”.

col·lab·o·rate  (k-lb-rt)intr.v. col·lab·o·rat·ed, col·lab·o·rat·ing, col·lab·o·rates

1. To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.
Although we all share the same overarching objective, our personal research goals and areas of specialization are quite different. On this trip to the Yukon, I traveled with: an arachnologist studying spider population genetics; a hymenopterist doing biodiversity inventories of wasps using molecular techniques; another arachnologist interested in the distribution and life history of a species of pseudoscorpion; and another hymenopterist working on parasitic wasps and their caterpillar prey.  Me – I study beetles.
Our sampling methods and research questions essentially had zero overlap, with the exception of the locality: it’s what brought us together for this particular field trip.  In a nutshell, it meant five different types of critters being targeted for sampling/collection using five completely different methods in five different habitat/terrain types.
Hm.
This is the kind of situation that has serious potential to turn a group of nice, sane, rational adults into cranky, snarly, whiny ass-pains. It’s true. I’ve seen it happen. It’s very easy to get all “ME ME ME” in the field, wanting nothing more than to spend all your time basking in the glow of your own beloved study subjects, and getting royally snarky over any time “wasted” on other people’s work.
Happily, this is not what happened on my trip.  I have proof:

Happy campers, L-R: Barb (wasps), Katie (spiders), me (beetles), Laura (wasps and prey), Chris (pseudoscorpions). Photo by Chris Buddle.

Field season report #1: the beauty

Yours truly at the Arctic Circle - km 405.5 of the Dempster Highway

I’m back from my adventures in the breathtakingly beautiful Yukon territory, and can now proudly claim to have survived a trek up and down the infamous Dempster Highway!

The science was awesome and the the team I worked with was incredible, but first I just want to share the tourist-ey bits of my trip.

We landed in Whitehorse late on on Sunday evening; by noon the next day we were equipped with an SUV, RV (i.e., transportable lab space), groceries and protective gear (it’s bear country after all!) and were on the road with Tombstone Territorial Park as our goal for the first night’s camp.

The caravan heading north from Whitehorse on the Klondike Highway

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If science is cake, then this is the icing…

I can honestly say that I love 95% of my work, 95% of the time. Doing Science makes me feel happy and satisfied, and I can’t imagine doing anything else as a career.

That said, if science is my cake, then this is the time of year is the icing on top – it’s field season! Elsewhere, I’ve chronicled some of my Arctic adventures from the past two field seasons, from my first incredible summer living in Kugluktuk (for example, here and here) to my stay in beautiful Yellowknife last year. This summer, my research will take me with a small team to the Dempster Highway, in the Yukon.

Photo by Chris Buddle, used with permission

I’m excited about this for a few reasons, the first of which is that, after this summer, I will have visited every province and territory in Canada. I think this is pretty neat. Second, according to my advisor, the Dempster is the most beautiful place on the entire planet to visit. From his photos, I have to think he’s not exaggerating. (more…)

Science blogging gets some street cred…

I’ve been unfaithful to the Grad Life blog. You may have noticed that I’ve been absent for the past month. I have been spending time with … *gasp* …another blog.

Yes, it’s true.

Logo of the Entomological Society of Canada

But is was all for a greater good.

Today, a very exciting new online venture was launched, and I was a part of it. University of Guelph co-conspirator (er, I mean, c0-administrator), Morgan Jackson, and I have been working like mad fiends behind the scenes for the past few months so that we could announce that the blog of the Entomological Society of Canada is now officially live!

This is kind of a big deal.

Blogging (generally) and science blogging (more specifically) is slowly gaining recognition for its value as a venue for meaningful information dissemination, discussion, critique, collaboration, networking, and outreach.  However, there is still a lot of resistance to blogging, especially in some academic circles. (more…)

A challenge: can you talk to kids about your research?

image from http://www.childrenandfamily.org

I’m working on an application. If this thing pans out I’ll be doing science outreach with kids a few times a year. In addition to the usual “describe your research” and “describe your publications”-type sections one typically finds in applications,  it also included this: “Describe your research as you would to a group of 8- to 12-year-olds during an outreach program in half a page or less“.

I have to be honest: this was one of the most challenging exercises I’ve ever been asked to do for any application.  Ever. (more…)

(mis)Adventures in manuscript-writing

I’ve been working on a manuscript on and off for a few months, but diligently for the past few weeks.

I enjoy writing, and usually start these things with a positive outlook (“My research is awesomesauce 😀 <3!”), but things go off-kilter when I start to tackle the introduction, and then all hell breaks lose once I get to the discussion.

Usually by the time I hand it in for review, I hate it and wonder why I ever wanted to write the stupid thing in the first place. (In reality, they’re never actually that bad, but I am very supremely excellent at being my own worst critic.)

I got the dratted draft paper off to my advisor mere moments ago.

And then, probably because I’ve been immersed in the creation (and re-creation… and re-re-creation) of figures for days, I felt compelled to share my manuscript-writing experience in the form of a graph. Behold:

Do any of you go through similar cycles when working on papers? Also. I would be super-entertained if you felt compelled to create your own graph, and share it with me (I’m collecting and posting them on my personal blog, you can check out the first submissions here!)

cross-posted at www.thebuggeek.com

Go play outside!!!

A photo I took today, of a beetle, while I was playing outside. GO PLAY OUTSIDE!!!

Although it’s usually a good idea to make sure you’ve got a handle on your work load (i.e., have a schedule figured out, know when things are due, get started on assignments well in advance of their due date), I think it’s an ESPECIALLY good idea to be on top of things when spring rolls around. Why? Because sometimes, you need to be able to give yourself permission to take a serious brain-break and go play outside.

I know, I know, mid-March in Quebec isn’t really “spring” by most conventions, but it’s close. And, um, have you been outside lately? If not, you should. BECAUSE IT IS SO NICE OUTSIDE RIGHT NOW IT’S RIDICULOUS.

I have been staying on top of my work pretty well lately (impressive for a person who suffers from last-minute-itis and something-shiny syndrome), so for the past 2 days, in addition to getting a bit of school stuff done,  I’ve been outside. A lot. I’ve been doing yard work and cycling and hanging laundry on the line and walking the dogs and taking pictures and sitting on my back porch watching the birds flirt and make nests.

I have a sunburn. And freckles. And a big, silly grin on my face.

Tomorrow will look a lot more like a “normal” work day for me, with more time spent at my desk than anywhere else. but this kind of weather is so good for my mental well-being that I just had to take advantage of it. I feel like I’ve been on a mini-vacation of sorts, and I’m ready to forge ahead with “real” work.

So, grad school survival tip of the day: try to stay a little step ahead of your work so you can take advantage of unexpected opportunities to do something nice for yourself. Like play outside.

(Seriously, go play outside.)

Outreach may not be a useful currency for grad students – but we should do it anyway

The Buddle Lab, with Nalini Nadkarni (centre)

About two weeks ago, an email from my advisor turned up in my inbox that said something to the effect of, “Canopy researcher Nalini Nadkarni is coming to McGill to give a talk and hang out with our lab. This is a great opportunity, so please come.” When I pulled out my Top-Secret Graduate Advisor Decoder Ring and reread the email, it clearly said, “BE THERE OR I WILL THROTTLE YOU”.

I immediately marked the dates on my calendar.

Now, canopies are not my area of expertise. In fact, I mostly work in climatic zones where there are NO trees (or else the trees are small enough that you can reach up and touch the so-called “canopy”), so I really had no idea what the big deal was. I just figured that my advisor’s excitement stemmed from the fact that canopy work is one of the tools he uses to address questions about arthropod ecology. Nevertheless, a few days before Dr. Nadkarni’s talk, I thought it would be prudent to take some time to acquaint myself with our visitor. So I googled, found her web page at Evergreen State College, and read her CV.

Result: MIND BLOWN. TOTAL BRAIN-CRUSH.

Then I watched both of her TED talks. Yes, that TED. You can watch them here and here. My brain-crush amplified exponentially. Not only was she an incredibly prolific and well-respected scientist, she was also an extraordinary advocate of science outreach**. In the final days leading up to the talk, I was all ohboyohboyohboy.

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Undergraduate “advising”

Sometimes, being a grad student means that you are perceived by undergrads as being something like A Person With Knowledge and Authority. They assume that you’re someone who has seen things and done stuff and, rightly or wrongly, that you might be more approachable (or perhaps simply “safer”) than a professor if they’ve got something they need to get off their chest.

So, every now and then, an undergrad lingers at the end of class or finds me in my lab, not to talk about their course work, but to chat more generally about their schooling, their interests, and the next steps they’re considering in their academic careers.  Sometimes my role is simply that of a sympathetic ear (“I have no clue why I’m here or what I’m doing with my life.”); sometimes it’s that of someone with experience (“What things did you do to help you get into grad school?” “What’s it like working with so-and-so?”); and other times it’s that of an advice-offerer (“What should I be looking for in a future advisor/job opportunity/grad program?” “How can I make my resume better?”)

I’m always flattered when I’m approached by these students, but I’m also always hyper-aware that they’re likely actually LISTENING to what I tell them, so I have to choose my words carefully and be certain that they understand that THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE IS THE OPINION OF ONE GRAD STUDENT ONLY, AND DOES NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF OTHER, BETTER, SANER, MORE EXPERIENCED PEOPLE.

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Making time for myself

As an undergraduate, my day-to-day existence was a predictable weekly pattern consisting of lectures and lab sessions, homework, shifts at my part-time jobs, and time to just chill and have fun with my friends and flatmates.   This prescribed and comfortable routine changed a LOT when I entered the strange universe of grad school as a M.Sc. student; suddenly I was only taking a course or two each term, and spending the rest of my time figuring out how to do this thing called “research”.  Now, as a Ph.D. candidate, my time has become very much my own to manage.

It’s funny: at first I assumed that the lack of course work would translate into a nice, stable, 9-to-5-ish existence, similar to the one I had when I was in the workforce and had a Real Job.  Then the reality of the enormous amount of work I had to do hit me.  Sometimes it seems like there are simply not enough hours in the day to get it all done and that I’m forever juggling how I prioritize items on my to-do list   One thing that I am consistently guilty of shuffling onto the “To attend to later – way later” pile – is me.

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Does teaching matter?

I’ve written about teaching already this year, and I find myself writing about it again now, in the hopes of getting some opinions from other grad students.

I’ve been the teaching assistant for a lab the past few years. When the powers that be restructured the lab in a major way last year, I made some fairly significant contributions to its new format, in terms of the material being taught and how it was presented. I am tweaking things even more this term, based on feedback from last year’s students and on some new pedagogical approaches I’ve learned.

I think that the current labs are definitely better but not best, and would really benefit from a thoughtful and thorough revision and updating. So I got this idea that I would approach the chair of our department and offer my (paid) services to do the work, perhaps over the summer since my field component won’t be so heavy this year. Not knowing whether this was even remotely feasible, I went and spoke to my advisor and told him my idea.

I mostly expected him to say: “It’s not really appropriate for a student to take on that kind of role,” and I would have accepted that. If that didn’t happen, the alternative I’d imagined was something like, “Cool. This would be a great course development/teaching experience. Approach the chair and check it out, but make sure you’re still getting your research/publications done in a timely way,” which I would have perceived as both awesome and perfectly reasonable.

But what I heard, and what surprised me, was this: “No one reading your CV is going to care about something like that. It’s not a good use of your time. Write and publish papers. That’s really all that matters.***”

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Giving back by speaking out!

O hai, terrifically neglected blog and blog-readers! I totally got sucked into that weird swirly vortex of work/rest/procrastination that sometimes happens over the winter break (you grad students know the one I mean), then suddenly found myself back in action at school (including teaching three days a week) and I am just now getting my spinning head above water again. Phew! Anyways, I’m back now.

The start of this new term was marked by my latest presentation. I didn’t give this talk at a conference, nor at a departmental seminar or even for a grad course. No, this talk was given to a special interest group called the Arctic Circle – a group of people with experience working in the Arctic and/or who are simply interested in what goes on in Canada’s northerly latitudes. I had been invited to speak about my research on beetles from Nunavut and the program of which I’m a part (www.northernbiodiversity.com).

Now, consider this:

The audience members were not people in my field. The networking opportunities were therefore not ideal and it was unlikely that I would get the chance to schmooze with any potential future advisers or employers. I did not get paid.  This was not an academic event. There was no press coverage. There wasn’t even any free swag or food.

So why on earth would I spend hours carefully preparing slides and rehearsing? What was in it for me?

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Uncomfortable

This makes me very uncomfortable. (Image from Wikipedia)

The ESC conference I attended earlier this month got me thinking (as any good conference should).

Not only was I thinking about all the really cool research going on around the country, but also about future directions for my own work, and for my growth as a grad student.  As I watched talk after talk, it became apparent that certain high-tech molecular tools are rapidly becoming prevalent in entomological research, which I tend to think of as being a very field-based (and not high-tech) science.  This view is, of course, heavily influenced by my own largely field-based, whole-organism research and the community-level ecological framework in which I tend to like to work.

By the time I got home from the conference, I was  a little worked up about all this molecular mumb0-jumbo.  I didn’t want anything to do with it. I didn’t want to feel obligated to incorporate it into my own research. It seemed unnecessarily complicated.  “Screw you, molecular junk”, I thought.

Then I thought about it some more. And I came to the realization that I was being a little rash. A little judgmental. A little, well…a little terrified, actually.

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