Scavenging the fossil record for clues to Earth's climate and life
Byte of Life
Advice from all Time Scavenger collaborators on how to navigate academia at a variety of levels. This often relates to our scientific lives but does not always contain scientific content. We hope that our experiences can aid others in similar positions.
I started my postdoc position at the Florida Museum of Natural History this past August and my time is split between two projects. One is with the FOSSIL project, a social paleontology project with the goal of connecting all levels of paleontologists (enthusiasts to professionals and all of those in between), and the other is with the Thompson Earth Systems Institute where I do a whole variety of different things from coordinating events, researching collaborators, and helping grow the team and institute.
Something many of us are not taught during our graduate programs is best practices for project management. I think of myself as a highly organized person. I use Google Calendar, Todoist, and other organizational tools to keep me on task. But it is still incredibly hard to separate my two projects, and it’s made more confusing since our teams have significant overlap. I’m on more projects than just these two, other research projects that also take up some time. So my weeks usually have several two hour meetings and many one hour meetings. A few weeks ago was particularly bad with each day having a two hour meeting with several one hour meetings surrounding them. I usually stay at work from about 8:30-4:00 pm, so about 7.5 hours. It doesn’t leave a lot of spare time to get work done when I spend time in meetings. I’ve been learning a lot about how to use 30 minute blocks for power productivity.
Each week, I organize my to-do list for all of my various projects and try to prioritize what I can get done quickly or efficiently compared to other tasks. I do my best to get these tasks done around my meetings and save the longer or more intense work tasks for when I have much longer. If I have a lot of things that require intense concentration, i’ll stay home and work on it for an entire day. Obviously, this is not ideal for many people but I am most comfortable at home so can be highly productive.
Is this something we should be trained for in graduate school? It is something I think of often and have had several conversations on Twitter about this exact issue. Some said they sought out courses at local community colleges to augment their formal training. Others went to workshops in different colleges during their graduate program. Since I’m working full time and doing several other projects in my ‘free’ time, I haven’t been able to find something that will fit into my schedule. It is also hard as my position is not permanent, so I have flexibility but different flexibility from permanent positions.
Tools that I use for productivity and management:
Google Suites: Content and project document organization, calendar
The idea to write this post spurred from conversations with colleagues (thanks, David!). A commonly asked question is ‘What do I need to do to become a paleontologist’? or ‘How did you become a paleontologist?’. Rather than write up a post on my experiences as an individual, I sent around a survey to collect data from as many paleontologists as I could. I requested information (via Twitter) from individuals that are professional paleontologists, meaning they are in some regard paid for the knowledge and expertise as it relates to paleontology. I ended up with 125 responses, including my own. I’ll provide the initial questions as headers with the data or comments represented below it.
TLDR: The responses provides evidence that there is not a single way of navigating your educational and professional life to becoming a paleontologist. It is by no means a linear path for all of us, but in many cases a twisting, winding road.
Did you always want to be a paleontologist?
Along my own paleontological journey I have asked friends, mentors, and colleagues how they have found paleontology. It is most often not a clear path. The options to select for this question included: (1) always; (2) discovered along my educational journey and; (3) much later in life.
50.4% of responders (n=125) said they had always wanted to be a paleontologist. This was unsurprising to me as many people I have met actually collected fossils from a young age. 43.2% of responders said that paleontology was not their original educational goal but that’s where they ended up. This indicates that although may responders knew their career path early in life, just as many did not.
What level of education have you received?
The options to select for this question include: high school, some undergraduate, undergraduate degree, some graduate level work, masters, PhD, or an ‘other’ box where people could write in their answer.
The majority of responders (56.8%) hold a Ph.D., followed by 26.4% holding an MS degree. The remainder includes ‘some undergraduate’, ‘undergraduate degree’, and ‘some graduate level work’. An important takeaway from this plot, that many people often forget, is that anyone with questions about the natural world can be a scientist. People with a variety of backgrounds hold careers or jobs as paleontologists. Additional degrees and fancy diplomas are not what define paleontologists, or scientists in general.
Did you start at a community college or return to one?
Other countries do not have a community college option or similar educational structure, paleontologists outside of the US were included in the ‘NA’ category. Largely, responders did not attend a community college as part of their educational path (71.3%), but 24.6% of responders did attend a community college. This category includes paleontologists that went back to restart their educational journey, those who took summer courses, those that took community college credits in high school, and those who attended a community college to begin their undergraduate degree. In general, there is still stigma in the academic community about the value of community colleges. These data show otherwise: Community colleges are wildly under-appreciated institutes that are often the catalyst for sparking an interest in STEM fields, including paleontology.
What was your undergraduate degree focused on?
Responders had the option of selecting multiple options or writing in their own. The options included: biology, geology, earth science, chemistry, environmental science, or paleontology. This question was intended to reflect a major or focus of the graduation but the results may include other specialties as well.
Clearly shown from this diagram is that over 50% of users studied biology, geology, or a combination of both. Which rings true with my experiences and anecdotal evidence I have gathered over the years. This diagram clearly indicates that although more than 50% of paleontologists studied the aforementioned subjects, these are simply not the only routes to entering the field of paleontology.
Did you do research as an undergraduate or high school student?
Research is an integral part of higher education and often can provide the learner with information on their path forward. Not everyone has the opportunities or time to pursue research during undergraduate programs. Especially when paid positions are not always readily available.
The results of this survey question show that the large majority of responders (85.6%) did conduct research as an undergraduate or high school student. This indicates that research at an early stage is common among professional paleontologists, but not necessary.
If you said yes to the above question on research, was this research related to paleontology?
Undergraduate or high school research can come in many forms. I was interested in determining if everyone that had conducting research early in their academic career was in a paleo-related lab group or not. This plot had a lower total response than the previous question, at 108 responders. 81.5% of responders said that the research they conducted was directly related to paleontology whereas 18.5% replied that their research was not directly related to paleontology.
This indicates that conducting paleontological research at an early stage in your career is not vital to becoming a paleontologist, but many professional paleontologists were exposed to paleontological research at an early stage in their career.
Where are you currently employed as a paleontologist?
The three largest portions of the pie chart include those in academia, specifically faculty members and students working toward their graduate degree. The next highest value corresponds to people working in the museum sector – either education or research related roles.
Not everything could appear on the pie chart so here is what was included with response amount in parenthesis:
Faculty member (39); Graduate school (28); Museum staff (research or education; 17); Postdoctoral researcher (8); Research specialist/scientist (5);Paleontological resource mitigation consulting (4); Museum staff & high school educator (3); Museum staff (research or education) & Faculty member (3); Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (2); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education; 2); Non-profit (2); Government (1); Higher education staff (1); Biology education staff (1); Cultural Resource Management: Field and lab technician (1); National Parks (1); High school educator (1); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (1); Freelance paleontologist, author, science communicator (1).
If you discovered paleontology later, what was your original career path?
In the first question of this survey, many people responded that paleontology was something that came to them later in their lives. I was interested in what these people’s original career paths were. Many had different original aims in terms of field of study. I would also like to include a few quotes to showcase how variable career paths can be.
“Minored in geology while getting a BA in Spanish, paleontology was my favorite class in my minor. Worked in sales, but the science of the products I worked with reminded me of my childhood love of science leading to my return to school for a bachelor’s degree in Geology.”
“Geology undergrad, then police officer for >30 years, then Geoscience MSc (masters degree), now PhD”
“I started taking graphic design classes at the local community college at 27 and took historical geology as a general education requirement. That introduced me to the idea of being a paleontologist.”
What experiences outside of formal education helped you maintain interest in paleontology?
Total responders to this question were 115 individuals, with a lot of overlap among responses. I’ve sprinkle some quotes throughout to bring light to several specific examples. Something that struck me is that many people included aspects of their research, but many more included information on informal learning settings such as public lectures, museums, fossil collecting, and joining clubs and groups in the area. Many responders indicated that they were volunteers at museums, and some had even mentioned this experience had provided them an avenue into their current positions. Others had led summer camps to engage young scientists in paleontology, and this helped them stay excited about fossils.
“There was an older fellow around town who was an amateur fossil hunter and knew a lot about the local history, archaeological, and paleontological record of the area. He’d take my dad and I out to fossil and archaeological sites. Also, definitely fossil activities at museums! I was always the kid chipping away at rocks. “
Other responses included aspects of various media: books, TV shows and series, documentaries, and internet resources. People of influence that came up by name include: Neil Shubin (with specific mention of Your Inner Fish), Stephen Jay Gould, David Attenborough, and Ned Colbert. Topics mentioned included: geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology.
“Lots of museum visits, as well as books on dinosaurs, paleontology, and evolution. I also got involved doing fossil preparation for a commercial paleontology company which allowed me to experience the non-academic side of the field.“
Another major theme involved communication. Respondents indicated they would reach out to paleontologists, members of the USGS, museum staff, and educators with their questions. To me, this indicates that communication helped these now-paleontologists foster passion and commitment to a subject or topic. Taking the time to respond to questions from those interested in the field can really change lives. The paleontology community on Twitter was mentioned as a way to find like-minded people and get a peek into their science lives. Another responder explained that their interest was maintained by the supportive and friendly community they had found in paleontology. Much of this indicates that maintaining interest in a topic relates to strong connections made with others through communication and shared interests.
“I have watched many paleontology documentaries and love visiting natural history museums. Those two mainly are what shaped my interest in paleontology. I later volunteered at a paleontology research center, in which I was able to get my foot in the door.”
“I volunteered at the San Diego Natural History Museum while I attended school at University of California San Diego. Books are also very helpful, especially if you want to maintain a sense of familiarity with topics that you’re not directly interfacing with (example: I worked mainly with invertebrate specimens, so I had to feed my hunger for vertebrate work with lots of mammal/dinosaur texts). Social media is a huge source for feeding my general curiosity. Follow as many paleontologists as you can and reach out!”
“Museum visits, reading, and the classic -David Attenborough. Having said that, I have never been nuts for dinosaurs, or so very interested in palaeontology growing up. It wasn’t until college (Geology A-Level) that I discovered how much more there is to Palaeontology, and its applications in different industries. I loved being outdoors and I wanted to travel, and palaeontology is great for that -there is fieldwork travelling season, and then there’s conference travelling season.”
What advice do you have for students interested in becoming a paleontologist?
This was an open answer question that had 114 responses. I did my best to synthesize them. There was considerable overlap so I’ve attempted to summarize a few key aspects. I’ll also include lots of quotes throughout this section. Some may be abbreviated from their original version.
Reach for the stars. And take math.
First, there were a lot of actions that I could easily pick out: explore, read, get involved, collaborate, communicate, learn, get experience, volunteer, engage, share, be flexible, apply for everything, ask questions, network, go to class, and find a supportive mentor. Other skills and subjects that were mentioned include: data science, programming, and 3D modeling.
Network and start gathering research experiences early! Don’t be shy to just cold call/email researchers (and follow up if you don’t get a response after a while). The worst they can say is no! Also, it’s great to make friends and talk to researchers outside your field, particularly biologists and ecologists. You’ll learn a lot just by being around them, naturally develop your communication skills, and might even find that it can lead to awesome collaborations! It’s also so important to protect your hobbies outside of school.
Networking, collaboration, and communication are another three answers that came up often. This could be in regards to attending conferences, engaging others on Twitter, or asking questions about jobs/research/etc. Responders indicated that science is not an isolated endeavor but is more enjoyable when you can collaborate with others that share your interests on the material or questions. Others noted about how their supportive mentors and supervisors helped them pursue their passions. Often mentors outside your department or exact field can really help you grow and see past any difficulties that may be occurring.
Don’t drop the humanities. Being good at maths is great, but learn to write properly and construct an argument. The most important skill any scientist can have is the ability to write concisely and well.
Find a mentor who supports you. I had several professors along the way try to talk me out of a career in paleontology, but it only took one professor to spark my interest and kept me interested by mentoring me through independent studies and undergraduate research. I should mention that this professor was not in my own department, but went out of her way to help me!
Be flexible – many responders indicated that their path had been altered along the way and being flexible allowed them more freedom and the ability to shift focus. Someone event went from studying dinosaurs to crinoids! That’s a huge shift but remember that the organism you study is not just because they are super cool but because they allow you to ask specific questions that you are interested in answering. It is also okay to change your mind. You should not stay in a program or field that you are uncomfortable in or that you are no longer passionate about.
Always keep your goal in mind. It’s not always an easy journey but the subject and its community are just wonderful. And also stay educated on related topics like geology, ecology, or evolution. Even if you won’t find a job in paleontology, you are likely also qualified for several other jobs. Keep on rockin’.
Share your passion and seek out colleagues and mentors. Science is not done alone. Your ideas will improve as you talk with people in and outside your field of interest. When I think about my journey I think most about the people that guided my path with their suggestions and encouragement.
There were a few other terms that came up regularly in responses: enthusiasm, perseverance, persistence, patience, and dedication. There is no correct path into paleontology and many paths are challenging. There were several responders that suggested they would not recommend you/young scientists go into the field of paleontology and that the field is highly competitive, and that you need to be aware of this before entering it. This is not limited to paleontology.
Every experience in life is relevant to helping you pursue a career in paleontology. As a high school student, I had a part-time job cleaning toilets, typing news articles, and developing film at my local newspaper. It wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t science, but I learned people skills, teamwork, and how to stick to a deadline as part of this–all skills that I use now. Also, learn how to communicate. This is just as important if not more important than proficiency with science. An effective paleontologist, no matter what they do (field collector, preparator, educator, researcher, student) needs to be able to communicate effectively in multiple media. Practice writing, and practice writing a lot. Good writing takes work.
If you are interested in becoming a paleontologist, these folks left their information so you could check them out line to see what they are investigating or doing at this time.
These paleontologists have left their handles so you can follow them on Twitter/Facebook/social media. A lot of these scientists also have their personal websites linked in their profile if you want to learn more about what they do and the research they’re involved with. Feel free to reach out to them if you have questions about being or becoming a paleontologist!
Academia is complicated. Each position has complicating factors that are unrelated to the work you’ll do, or who you’ll do it with. Considering the money and benefits are important. Here’s a discussion of some of the things that we have had to consider as we’ve moved around the world. Andy is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Bristol, Susanna is his very supportive and wonderful wife who’s been dragged all around the United States, and now world.
Susanna: I didn’t know what the life of an academic looked like. I’m not sure Andy did either, when we first got together, but the things listed here certainly affected us both.
Funding is not guaranteed for an advanced degree.
Susanna: There are different benefit scenarios which might be offered to someone applying for a Masters or Ph.D. program. My husband’s Masters program offered him a Research Assistant (RA) position, which basically meant he was paid to do his work. For his Ph.D., he was offered two years of funding as a Teaching Assistant (TA), which paid our living expenses, but it meant he had to spend time for teaching first before attending to his own research work.
Andy: Though I did get teaching experience, which helped build my CV. That’s something I actively pursued, even at the expense of money/research time.
Susanna: After the two years ran out, we were fortunate that his advisor helped provide opportunities for grants, fellowships, or other ways to stay in the program.
Andy: This can be a good thing also, to be finding grants as a PhD student, as once out of a PhD program you have to fight for money as well. It makes for a much more stressful early PhD process, though.
Benefits are not guaranteed.
Susanna: Our insurance coverage has run the gamut from fully covered with no copays, to paying $400+ a month for our own coverage under the Affordable Care Act. When Andy held a postdoctoral position as an independent contractor (Peter Buck “Deep-Time” Paleobiology Postdoctoral Fellow) with the Smithsonian Institution – National Museum for Natural History, he was allowed to purchase a healthcare plan through them. Let me walk you through what that would have been like.
Andy was paid $3766 a month. As an independent contractor, we had to deduct our own money for taxes and make quarterly tax payments. So we always immediately deducted $755 per paycheck. We lived in Arlington, VA, outside of D.C., and our rent was $1850 (Andy: That was cheap for the area. D.C. is expensive.). So far we are down to $1161. If we had opted to purchase the Smithsonian plan, we would have had $161 left per month. That would have had to cover utilities, food for a family of three, a Metro pass to get Andy to work (Andy: As an independent contractor the museum doesn’t have to pay for commuting expenses, as they would for a true employee.), gas for our car, auto insurance, any other expense that could and would crop up.
Andy: Susanna also could not get a job, as our daughter was not school-aged and childcare is outrageously expensive in the area.I did get a $2,000 per-year healthcare stipend, though that is not standard with that fellowship; many of my colleagues did not get one.
Susanna: We opted to buy our own coverage through the Affordable Care Act for about $400 a month instead, leaving us with $761 a month for all the above-listed expenses and the ones I’m surely forgetting. It didn’t leave much for anything unexpected, and certainly not much for leisure.
Affordable Cares Act
Total per month:
At UMASS during Andy’s Ph.D. program, we had the same insurance as undergraduate students, including being seen at the campus health services. It was a very different atmosphere sitting in a waiting room full of students. To make a broad generalization, students were often there to get notes to get out of class; I was there because our daughter was vomiting.
Andy: The actual coverage varied quite a bit as well, as the university (UMass) and the Graduate Student Union were in the middle of a series of contentious negotiations. It varied enough that we decided to go onto Susanna’s employer insurance for a while, because if we had had a kid it would have cost thousands of dollars out-of-pocket.
Susanna: Conversely, the coverage for graduate students at University of Wisconsin while we were there was the same coverage granted to the professors. It was, if healthcare can be such a thing, luxurious.
The applicant is usually expected to pay their own moving expenses.
Susanna: When a job does offer relocation funds, they are almost always after-the-fact and you will have to submit a receipt and wait to be reimbursed. Depending on the length of the move, the amount of stuff you have, and the size of your family, this can be a huge burden or a minor inconvenience. In my experience, moving always costs more than you think it will, on both the leaving and arriving ends. We have been lucky to have family financial help when we’ve needed it. We’ve done renting and loading a truck ourselves, hired movers to help pack, load, and drive, multi-day drives with our daughter in tow (and once, dog). We also flew from the United States to England, where we live currently, with only 200 lbs of stuff to start a new British life.
I will point out how frequently there has been a delay in receiving a first paycheck, too, since that appears to be a common complaint. How are you supposed to pay for a move upfront, and then wait 1.5 months to be paid?
Andy: Some places will help you with this. Some of our travel to the UK, and some of our visas were covered by the University and the grant supporting me. The NMNH provided a bit of money as well. Sam Houston State University helped us move from DC to Texas. You will likely not find that in graduate programs, and I also expect it’s less frequent in postdoc programs. It’s also never enough money to cover moving, which is so unexpectedly expensive every time.
Moving somewhere you never considered
Susanna: I am from Michigan originally. After college, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin (Andy: to be with me!), and it wasn’t much of a change. I liked it quite a bit. Western Massachusetts after that was more hilly than I was used to, but again, there were still four discernible seasons. Just the way I like it. Northern Virginia was too hot for too many months in a row.
So what did we do after that? Moved to Texas.
Andy: Something I will apologize for years for.
Susanna: When job-hunting, my husband will sometimes throw out questions to me like, “How do you feel about living in New Zealand?” and I can hardly say no. He has applied all over the world. Around the same time he got the postdoc at the National Museum of Natural History, he had also got a Royal Society Fellowship that would have taken us to Southampton, England. We thought we had missed the chance to live in England by accepting the position in Washington D.C., but another position in Bristol opened up last spring and here we are.
You (Might) Travel
Susanna: Andy has gotten to travel a lot for work. He has gone to conferences, school, meetings, and even sailed onboard the research vessel the JOIDES Resolution for seven weeks. In no order, he’s been to: Germany, Italy, San Francisco, Puerto Rico, Montserrat (Andy: Technically I was just off the coast, never on Montserrat, but close enough), Vancouver B.C., New Orleans, surely others. Unfortunately we could rarely afford for me to tag along, but I did meet him in Curacao when he got off the JOIDES Resolution and we took a vacation there.
When in-person interviews start getting scheduled again, there will be more travel.
Andy: Get a frequent flyer card! It won’t matter because you’ll almost constantly be forced to fly whatever flight is cheapest, but I hold out hope it’ll help someday.
Job-Seeking Starts Earlier Than You Think, and Takes Longer Too
Susanna: Most US places start looking for candidates about a year ahead of time. In this case, that means that Andy started looking for jobs pretty much as soon as he started teaching at a Visiting Assistant Professor position at Sam Houston State University. Each job application required a few hours’ work. The standard documents requested from each candidate are: cover letter, CV, teaching statement, and research statement. Of course, it’s best to spend some time on the boilerplate document and make sure it addresses specifics about the department for which you’re applying. This takes real time.
Andy: I once calculated the time spent on it. A job with 75 applicants, each spending an average of 3 hrs on that application, with letter writers spending 30 minute each, means that 337 hours is spent by people on the applicant side for each academic job. In our case, that means that during job season Susanna is the primary parent on weekends and I’m stuck on my computer typing and editing (until she takes over and edits everything).
Andy: Finding postdoc positions is tough. I’m balancing a family, a research focus, a strong urge to teach or do something where I’m interacting with non-scientists, and more. I got lucky when I blind emailed a potential advisor with a project, he immediately wrote back, we Skyped, and then wrote countless (ok, 6 or 7) postdoc funding applications together. He mentored me though the entire process. Sometimes you get lucky with good timing or just finding the right people.
I’m not one to normally be able to email somebody out of the blue, but having a supportive partner through this experience has made it more possible for me to do my best work.
Andy: All of these are things that we’ve considered over the years about different positions. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list. Certain places have built up structures to exploit graduate students or postdocs. They might have excellent name recognition, but always consider carefully the cost of living, pay, and benefits of a place. It’s a lot harder to get your best science done when you’re worried about the basic necessities of life.
Heading home for the holidays always provides a nice break from being a graduate student–no classes, no grading, no lab work. But being home around family and friends still involves at least thinking about graduate school and answering the many questions concerning what I study, or what I do every day, or most frustrating: when I plan to finish school. Thus, I give you this introduction to life as a graduate student in which I address the most common questions I’ve received. Of course, this is just one student’s experience and every graduate experience varies based on the school, the program, the advisor, etc. Regardless, I hope this provides a small gleam of insight into the simultaneously exciting and boring life of a graduate student.
“What kind of classes do you take?”
Every graduate student’s course load varies depending on their area of focus, their university’s available classes, and their advisor. I study glaciology, which means that a strong understanding of math and physics are key to my research. Thus far, I’ve taken three math courses as a graduate student, on top of the required calculus at my undergraduate university. Aside from those, I’ve taken a handful of courses in my own Department of Geology & Geophysics, which range from Paleoclimates to Advanced Data Analysis. I’ve found that choosing classes has required an interdisciplinary approach that extends beyond pure glaciology.
“What do you actually do every day?”
I love this question because it makes me pause and consider what I do and accomplish on a daily basis. I even tried to track my daily habits and activities in order to better explain what I do. Turns out I’m not very good at tracking as I quit writing things down on the second day. However, here is what a typical Monday looked like during the Fall 2018 semester:
08:45 – Bike to campus
09:00 – Differential Equations
10:00 – Do homework while holding office hours
11:00 – Meet with professor who teaches the class I TA
11:30 – Homework and read paper for weekly reading group on Tuesday
15:00 – Work on research (write code, organize and look at data)
17:00 – Bike home
18:00 – Pottery class
20:00 – Finish any remaining homework
Every day is a bit different depending on classes, homework, and meetings. Sometimes I have a nice, normal, 8-hour day and sometimes I’m in my office and working in the lab for 12 hours. Classes and homework, teaching labs, and working on my own research project comprise the majority of my time each day. I often have to work at least one day of the weekend, if not both. However, finding some degree of personal time is important to me. An occasional pottery class, ski trip, or yoga class keeps me happy and balanced.
“You must enjoy your long winter and summer breaks; what plans do you have?”
Sure, my winter break is six weeks long and the summer is two to three months without classes. Unfortunately that does not mean no research or lab work or reading papers. Those long breaks are often the times when my research productivity is highest because my schedule is void of classes and homework. The summer is also an excellent time for field work in Greenland, which means that a full month of my summer is spent abroad. I even spent an extra two weeks of my summer doing field with in California with a fellow graduate student. Breaks tend to be very busy and productive times with the occasional vacation mixed in.
“When will you finish your master’s?”
I don’t know. And many other students are also unsure. In my particular department, a master’s project usually takes two to three years and is thesis-based. This means that there are a required number of course credits a student must take; but ultimately, finishing a degree is contingent upon completing an adequate research project, writing a thesis, and defending that thesis. Research projects are not always straightforward, and often require learning new computer programs or lab techniques. The data I work with is collected and processed, so now I’m in the analysis stage. Assuming the analysis goes well, the next step will be writing my thesis and finally defending it. The potential for issues to arise or things to simply take longer than expected makes setting an actual end date nearly impossible. I usually have a basic timeline in my head, but I’m far too uncertain to divulge should it change.
“What are you going to do with your degree? Are you going to get a PhD next?”
Again, I’m not really sure. Thinking too far ahead tends to make me anxious about the present day. Until I know when I’ll finish, I’m not too keen on looking for jobs or applying to future programs. That said, I always have some rudimentary idea of what I hope to do upon finishing my master’s. Getting a job in geology or a related field is likely my next big goal. I enjoyed my internship with the National Park Service, which offers a variety of education and geosciences jobs. Environmental consulting is a popular path among geoscientists, as is environmental education. Any of these types of jobs could be a good fit for me, but ultimately I do want to pursue a PhD and stay in academia–just not quite yet. A year or two of not being in school could be an excellent opportunity to explore other paths or options. I went straight from high school to college, and straight from that to my master’s. That means I’ve been in school for two straight decades–a terrifying yet remarkable thought. I think that I could benefit from an academic break and see what else the world can offer to a geoscientist.
If I had a dime for every time I heard this sentence…well, let’s just say I’d probably be free of student loans by this point! I teach hundreds of introductory geology and the large majority (95% or so) are not science majors. So, suffice to say, I teach students with a range in interest and self-assumed ability in science. But after three semesters of teaching full time and nearly 1,000 students, I’m putting a ban on this phrase in my classes and I’ll tell you why.
I want to talk about what it does to your ability to learn when you come into a classroom with the idea that you’re bad at something. You come in with a mental block that will stay with you for the duration of the class. If you struggle with the material, you’ll only give yourself a confirmation bias (see? I don’t get this stuff. I must be bad at science/math/French/whatever it is). How are you supposed to learn with that attitude? You can’t! And before you say “it’s easy for you to say-you’re a scientist with a Ph.D. You weren’t bad at science”. This simply isn’t true.
I struggled with learning math and science through middle school, high school, and through college. I’d sit down to study-I’d feel overwhelmed instantly. I’d tell myself “you’re not good at this stuff” so much that no matter how hard I’d study, I’d second guess myself on just about every problem, leading to even worse self esteem (and not surprisingly, worse grades on assignments). By the time I got to classes like Calculus and Physics in college, I had only made this even worse for myself. I told my professors when I went for help “I’m bad at math” or “I’m bad at chemistry”. Finally, a professor looked at me in my final math class (Calculus II) and said, “Sarah, you know you’re actually quite good at math. You just need to give yourself a little more time to learn it. And you need to be kind to yourself”. That idea stayed with me for a very long time- it freed me to be patient with myself. And to let me love learning without the fear of grades a little bit more. I made my highest grade on a college math exam that semester (a B-!) and you know what-I was (and still am) proud of myself for that exam grade-I even hung it on my apartment fridge for the entire rest of the semester so I could celebrate it every day. Achievement isn’t always measured by A’s!
Many of us (myself included) automatically assume that what we’re good at and what comes easily to us is one in the same. On the flip side, we assume that we’re bad at things we’re not automatically good at, especially in the world of academics. This simply isn’t true. To take an easy example, one that you’re familiar with if you’re reading this blog, is learning to read. Learning to read is incredibly complex! It took you months to years just to master your alphabet- learning to recognize each individual letter. Then, it took you even longer to figure out how to string bizarre patterns of these letters together to form words, sentences, and paragraphs. No became good at reading overnight-it’s a skill that you worked on for years. And, just like reading, none of us were born to learn science instantly! It takes time to learn how to learn science, just like you learn anything else.
So how can you boost your confidence in science? I’m glad you asked! If you’re taking a high school or college course, ask for help. Visit your professors and ask them to help you! We can explain concepts to you in different ways, help you relate the knowledge to something you’re more familiar with, or just assure you that you’re on the right track. Many times, my students have asked questions that have forced me to learn how to make a concept clearer (so professors actually really appreciate it when you tell us what you’re struggling with). Also, seek out cool articles or blogs or even popular science books in the subject you’re learning about! It can really help to boost your enthusiasm about a concept, which can help your confidence, too.
So give yourself permission to be patient with yourself. Science may not come easily you to-it’s never come easily to me. I worked hard to pass chemistry and even geology classes (looking at you, structure and tectonics!). It’s OK to love something that takes you more time to learn. And it’s also OK to pick a major or to take classes in something that you might need a little more help with. Science is a wide and complex field that takes dedication to master. It can take years to learn how to learn science to the point where you feel confident enough to proclaim, “I’m good at science!”- so why do so many of us automatically label ourselves bad at science? Just like learning to read, learning science isn’t easy! It takes time!
So here’s my warning to my students starting this semester-I’m no longer going to let you say that you’re bad at science in my class (and I don’t want to hear it from people reading this blog, either!). Your science education is a work in progress- and we’re going to work together to help you love science.
Recently I was provided with an opportunity to travel across the world, from Tennessee, USA to Nagoya, Japan for the 16th International Echinoderm Conference. When presented with a fully funded trip to an international conference your first answer would normally be, “Yes, of course!” I had not originally planned to go on this trip because I had recently graduated and no longer had access to apply for departmental funds. I had planned other adventures for that weekend, a bit more localized and affordable.
Unfortunately, my mentor and collaborator fell terribly ill the week that he was to travel to Japan and was no longer able to present our most recent work on understanding the taxonomy of blastoids. Being the only other co-author I was faced with a serious question – three days before I would have to leave the country. I am not an impulsive traveler. I like to spend time researching hotels, places to visit, and local historical sites. I like to spend time thinking and processing the whole thing. Having time to conceptualize the trip makes me so much more comfortable traveling.
I had to quickly weigh the pros and cons and make sure that I still had a valid passport! My initial thought was – no way can I go on this trip. I am one of those people that hates surprises and the thought of having to cancel plans, leave the country, and more in only a few days made me absolutely sick with anxiety. I told Colin, my advisor, that I would need one night to think about it and check to make sure I had valid travel documents. The next morning I decided that this opportunity to network with a global echinoderm community was too precious to not take the trip. I would be able to make new collaborations and rekindle my connection with old friends and colleagues. So, three days after the offer, I was off on a plane to Japan.
To say the trip was last minute is an understatement. I was incredibly overwhelmed, had to fix up a talk that I had not prepared, and be away from my family for 10 days. That being said, I am beyond grateful for this last-minute opportunity, especially as a junior scientist that is looking to make new collaborations and network with peers. Also, who doesn’t want to eat echinoid gonads with a bunch of echinoderm workers?! It was an unforgettable experience.
I think the moral of this story is to take these opportunities, no matter how fast and unprepared you may feel. It was a whirlwind of a trip but not only did I learn a lot, I made valuable connections within the echinoderm community that I would otherwise have not made.
Often one of the biggest challenges academics and scientists face is writing- namely, getting our research written up as a manuscript and published in an academic journal. We, as scientists, always commiserate about how hard writing is, and how we loath doing it, but I want to talk about a different aspect of writing and publishing that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough: collaborating with other scientists and working together as a team to get research published.
In the early years of academic publishing, it was very common for scientists to publish articles by themselves, or what is called a single-author manuscript. Today, however, the tide has changed, and it’s rare to find a published article with just one author! In fact, it’s not uncommon to find papers with more than 30 authors (such as those published that include an entire science tea, like a International Ocean Discovery Program expedition teams). Finding, working, and publishing with collaborators can be tricky, and at times seem daunting. However, if you know how to work as a team and navigate the collaborative waters, these partnerships will give back tenfold! In this post is some advice from some of the Time Scavengers collaborators on how to find, work with, and publish with scientific collaborators.
On Finding Project Collaborators
Jen: Start with people you know that are excited about similar ideas; these can be old lab members, peers or colleagues you have met along your career. For example, Adriane and I were in the same masters program and even though they parted ways to begin new paths as PhD students we kept in contact. So, starting this website was a simple task with two people in different fields who are passionate about educating the public. This connection has fostered further collaborations with Adriane and Sarah, who I found during her PhD program. We worked to create a web of scientists with similar drives but different technical toolkits. If you are new to a field, attending a large conference where you can be exposed to new people and ideas is a brilliant way to find new collaborators.
Adriane: Think of a collaboration with a colleague as you would any friendship: you want trust, clear and constant communication, and you want to have fun and be yourself with your friend! A collaborator is no different. When choosing who to collaborate with, make sure you get along with the person, and are able to have open and honest conversations with them. For example, Jen and I are great friends, and had a ton of fun together in graduate school at Ohio University. We have similar career goals, interests, and hobbies, and we can be totally goofy and honest with one another. For this reason, I knew we would make excellent collaborators building this website together.
If you are a graduate student, you are likely doing your projects on a tight timeline. For this reason, you need to be sure that your collaborator is someone who is willing to put time into the project so that it is finished on time. When collaborating with more senior scientists, make sure this person is invested in your success as a scientist. One of my dissertation chapters involves collaborating with a professor at another university across the country. I have worked all summer to pick foraminifera for stable isotope analyses, and when I have enough, I mail them to my collaborator who will analyze the samples in his lab. Some of my samples weigh almost nothing, which means they will be tricky to analyze. However, I communicated my concern to my collaborator, and he has been wonderful in working his geochemical superpowers to ensure most of my samples are analyzed correctly (of the ~300 samples I sent him, only ~15 were unable to be analyzed!). Most importantly, he has gotten my results to me within weeks of me mailing my samples to him, which has put me ahead of schedule to complete all of my analyses (this is a rare occurrence in graduate school). So, I have excellent results from my samples, and I’m ahead of my research schedule for this project because my collaborator is invested in my success and the success of my research.
Andy: I have two sets of collaborators, basically. As a graduate student I started collaborating mostly within my lab. My work with Chris Lowery (@CLowery806) has produced one paper, another in review, and a third building on the second, with an additional collaborator. We’ve also done a workshop together, and gotten each other talks, etc. Even though we’re directly competing for jobs at this stage in our career, it doesn’t affect our working relationship. That’s the kind of collaboration you should look for, one that makes both people better candidates for future jobs.
The second is with a couple of people. I was sitting at a wedding celebration for my then-supervisor, and another scientist and I started talking about work (as happens whenever you put two of us in a room together). She and I continued emailing, she brought in a friend who’d also been thinking about the same problem. These people have no connection to my lab, we’re just friends who are now working on grants and doing workshops together. We all bring different skills to the table, but most importantly we actually like each other. That makes working on projects easier. Working with people you don’t like sucks (this is also good advice for picking graduate advisors & postdoc supervisors).
On Working with Collaborators
Adriane: I can’t stress communication enough; this is THE MOST important factor when it comes to working with with collaborators. Bad communication can lead to assumptions, and well, you know what they say about assumptions. It can also lead to projects not being completed on time or people not understanding their role or responsibility within the project.
When you begin a new project with a collaborator or bring a collaborator on board to work with you, the first thing you should do is talk with them about your timeline, goals, and what everyone’s responsibility will be in regards to work done to complete the project. When I develop a new project with a collaborator, I like to outline the main hypothesis (or hypotheses) of the project, the methods, and the deadline for when each goal or analysis should be completed, and who will complete each goal or analysis. It is also a good idea to talk with your collaborator about how they prefer to share documents. Google Drive is my preferred method of sharing documents and writing papers with collaborators, but there are other options out there as well (e.g., Dropbox, Box, and Slack).
If I haven’t heard from my collaborator in a while regarding a project, I like to send them an email with the progress I’ve made on my part and check in with them. Like I stated earlier, it is very easy for all of us (students, postdocs, professors), to ignore one project for another. Sending an email to your collaborator and staying in touch is a good way to keep them motivated to compete their part of the project.
Andy: Skype or Google Hangouts are worth many emails when starting out and finishing. Depending on what you’re doing (workshops are very different than publications) but having every few month Skype meetings is well worth carving out the time for.
Adriane is correct, in the above, but optimistic. Best laid plans are wonderful, but all of the deadlines will fall apart. Don’t let that be discouraging. If you’re working with folks above the graduate level they’re managing students, writing papers and grants, teaching classes, and usually working on several other collaborative projects at once.
Jen: I agree with both Adriane and Andy and would like to add that you should maintain reasonable expectations. Somethings will go very quickly when you and other collaborators are really excited but you can’t shirk all other personal and professional responsibilities for a single project, that is unreasonable. Give yourself a flexible timeline but if you have set deadlines work within those confines.
Also, if something bothers you and you aren’t the PI or lead author say something anyway. You wouldn’t be on the project if the team didn’t value your input. Often times people get too close to their work and either lose sight of something or they implicitly understand the meaning but it may not always be clear to others.
On Publishing with Collaborators
Publishing with collaborators can be a tricky arena to navigate; Who will be the first author? How will the authorship list read? Does your collaborator even deserve co authorship on your paper? Does anyone else deserve co authorship? Different scientists may have different ‘rules’ pertaining to these questions, but here are some of our guidelines:
Who will be the first author of a study?
Adriane: Usually, the person that conceives the study and develops the hypothesis is the first author on a publication. There are exceptions to this, especially when a graduate student’s advisor helps the student conceive the study and leads them to develop the hypotheses. Outside of graduate school, the lead author of the study is the person who develops the project, invites collaborators, and does the majority of the writing and figure making.
Andy: When it’s a pair or group that works together frequently, then the first authorship can rotate. Sometimes there’s a handshake agreement that if the first authorship goes to one person on paper A, then it’ll go to the second person on paper B. This can lock you into a certain number of publications.
Jen: I agree with both Andy and Adriane and have used both techniques to determine authorship. Who is graduating first and in most dire need for publications can dictates authorship with rotations in the future as Andy said. Generally, it should be the person who conducted the most work on the project.
How will the co-authorship list read?
Adriane: This is a situation where communication is key. In a few of my projects, I have stated up front where my collaborator will fall in the authorship list. In other cases, the person that does the most work (after the first author of the study) receives second authorship, and so on. On other publications where everyone has contributed equally to the project, the authorship list is alphabetical by last name after the first author. However, this can cause issues if one (or more) of your collaborators feel like they have contributed more to the study, as alphabetical authorship allows nothing to be inferred about the contribution of the scientist to the study. Again, having open and honest conversations about authorship and how the authorship list will read early in the process is a great starting point.
Jen: This is also quite variable and field dependent. Sometimes names are all alphabetical, many times the PI of the lab is last indicating seniority, etc. I think there are effective and convoluted ways to describe and detail contributions per individual that lead to appropriate authorship lists. I generally tend to think in decreasing order of work contributed with the lab PI at the end unless there was no umbrella PI.
Who deserves co-authorship on your publication?
Adriane: My rule of thumb when it comes to co authorship is that whoever has contributed significantly to the study, i.e., you couldn’t have completed the project without them, deserves to be included as a co author on your publication. For example, I am currently developing a stable isotope record for the Tasman Sea in collaboration with my collaborator who is in California. Our geochemist at UMass who manages our stable isotope lab has been an essential part of making sure my analyses have ran properly in the lab. Therefore, he is being included as a co author on the study, even though he hasn’t helped to develop the hypotheses of the study or the methods. Without him, I wouldn’t have the data to even write a paper in the first place. Co authorship can also be offered to researchers who significantly contribute to the paper’s conclusions through discussions and suggestions of the data. However, this varies on a case-by-case basis. In these situations, I suggest using your intuition as to whether you think the study has been greatly enhanced through discussions.
I also have rules about who does not deserve co authorship on a study. If a person offers you off-handed advice, or you ask an outside researcher about a question pertaining to your study, this does not warrant co authorship on a paper. Scientists who have previously published data that you use in your study, whether that be in the form of a published thesis, dissertation, or journal publication, also does not deserve co authorship on your study. However, if you do use unpublished data from another researcher, you must absolutely include that researcher on your paper as a coauthor.
Jen: I wholeheartedly agree with Adriane. Significant efforts including but not limited to: data gathering, prepping, or analyzing and writing portions of the paper. Also, do not let people bully you into giving them co-authorship. If a related researcher wants to contribute to your body of work, fine. But just because they have strong ideas or opinions does not mean they get to commandeer your work.
In a previous post, Sarah outlined some excellent advice for graduate students (read it here). This is a continuation of that post with additional advice for surviving graduate school and growing into a successful, happy, independent scientist.
Guard your time. There’s a saying I’ve heard that I really love: your MS degree is a sprint, but your PhD is a marathon. This is the best metaphor for graduate school I’ve heard, mostly because of the truth it holds. My MS degree was only 18 months long, so I had to be very careful of how I spent my time. I am funded for 4 years for my PhD, which is quite a bit of time, but I also have more responsibilities and obligations. Research should be your second priority during your degree, with extracurricular activities (including but not limited to teaching assistantship responsibilities and outreach and mentoring events) coming in third. But wait, you might be saying, what is your first responsibility during grad school?!? That’s next:
Take care of yourself. Undoubtedly, your first and most important responsibility during grad school is to take care of your mental and physical health. There are piles of studies that show increased mental health is linked to physical health and activity, and vice versa (e.g., Bize et al., 2007). There will be times when you feel like you won’t have time to exercise, go to the doctor and dentist, or even have time to plan and shop for healthy meals. You should prioritize these tasks, and don’t feel bad or guilty for doing so.
Eat well. When I was doing my MS degree at Ohio University, I made sure that I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. There were often times I felt I had no time to cook, so I came up with some ways to meal plan. For breakfast, I made breakfast burritos, and would pre-cook the rice, black beans, and scramble eggs twice a week and keep them in containers. This way, I could throw all of the ingredients in a bowl, heat it up in the microwave, and have a wholesome breakfast ready in less than 5 minutes. For dinner, I would pick one afternoon a week to cook a crock-pot meal. I would then split the food into Mason jars and freeze them for later. In this way, I could come home late and heat up dinner (I would often have at least 4 different dinners frozen at any given time for variety).
While we’re on the subject, another piece of food-related advice: Beer/alcoholic drinks and coffee ARE NOT your best friends in graduate school. Alcohol is especially hard on your body, and can severely affect your energy and ability to function at your best. Studies have shown that students are particularly susceptible to abusing alcohol in college (e.g., Weitzman, 2004), especially students that are women, people of color, and/or from low socioeconomic statuses. When graduate school gets stressful, several people turn to drinking to cope. Instead, schedule time for yoga, running, or some other physical activity that is stress-reducing and healthy for you. Coffee and other caffeinated drinks are fine in moderation, but too much can cause your body to feel jittery, increase feelings of stress and anxiety, and cause you to crash after the effects wear off. When in graduate school, there is a culture of coffee-drinking that is rampant; walk down any hall at any time of the day and you’re almost guaranteed to smell a fresh pot being brewed. But coffee doesn’t work for everyone’s body, as it can be hard on your digestive system and cause upset stomach. Instead, try tea, some of which has lower amounts of caffeine per cup and doesn’t cause a huge crash like coffee can. Personally, tea works better for me, as I am especially prone to blood sugar crashes after a coffee caffeine spike and feelings of increased anxiety and stress.
Get plenty of sleep every night. You might have heard of your friends in undergrad or even in grad school pulling all-nighters and working at weird times of the day. Chances are you’ve even done this yourself. STOP IT. While in grad school, you will need your brain to work at maximum efficiency everyday (some days that’s not possible and that’s okay). But one way to make sure your brain is functional is to get a good night’s sleep, whatever that means for you and your body. Some people operate well on 6 hours of sleep, others on 8 hours, etc.
You might feel like you don’t have time to sleep while doing your degree, but this is absolute BS. You will thank yourself at the end of your degree for sleeping, and realize that it is a crucial component of your success as a scientist. Of my cohort of grad students that I started my degree with in Ohio, I was the only one to finish my MS degree on time. I also published two papers from my thesis, one during my first year as an MS student. I’m quite certain I was also the only one who made sure I got at least 7 hours of sleep every night. Don’t underestimate the power of a well-rested brain.
Don’t ignore stress. There are several ways to reduce stress in graduate school, with several students opting to swim, run, or do yoga. These are all good options, as physical activity is linked to reduced stress and increased mental health (e.g., Penedo and Dahn, 2005). I would often run in the afternoons, especially when I was writing my thesis. Running helped me clear my mind, and I would often have awesome ideas regarding how to write my thesis or how to make figures while I was running (showers are also great places to come up with great research ideas). There are also non-physical ways in which to reduce stress. Netflix was my best friend in grad school (and it’s still a guilty pleasure during my PhD), as I enjoyed nothing more than coming home from a day in the lab and tuning out to a favorite movie or episode in a series. I also read fiction novels voraciously when I’m writing up my science, which helps me clear my mind and zone out when my brain is too tired to keep writing any given day. This brings me to my third piece of advice:
READ. As a graduate student, you can’t read enough. Specifically, you should be reading studies from the published literature that relate to your thesis or dissertation. When I was in Ohio, I read at least 6 papers a week. I’ve slowed down reading this much during the later phase of my PhD, but will probably start reading more as I begin writing more dissertation chapters. The point is, there are times in your degree where you’ll need to commit more time to reading, and times when you may need to dedicate more time to analyses, field work, etc. Regardless, never stop reading. Also read studies that interest you but may not be directly related to your project. Reading publications for fun is a great way to expand your knowledge and relate to other students in your department and their research.
When I began my MS degree in Ohio, I also didn’t know the correct way to read publications. It’s okay to ask your advisor and colleagues how they read and interpret papers. When I go through a publication, I always have a highlighter and pen at hand. Important points get highlighted, and I almost always write a quick comment beside what I highlight so I can quickly know its significance when I look back at the paper a year later. When I’m finished reading a paper, I write at least 3 main points or the most important information related to my studies on the front page of the paper. I’m also old-fashioned in the sense that I can only read printed papers. But there are some good programs that allow you to comment and highlight PDFs on your laptop or desktop computer (I am particularly fond of Adobe Acrobat DC).
Another way I keep myself motivated was to form a reading club this past summer. The club is composed of myself and five other graduate students (MS and PhD) who meet once a week for about an hour. We focus on newer studies related to Antarctica and the Miocene, but we have also focused on paleoclimate concepts (such as the effect of shifting Westerlies on upwelling around Antarctica and current strength) and phenomenon that we don’t quite understand. Forming a group where you feel comfortable to ask questions and admit that you don’t understand something, then finding papers to better your understanding, is a great way to tackle the published literature. Meeting with friends once a week is also a great way to bond, form friendships, and commiserate with other graduate students.
Write. Like reading, writing is another crucial part of your survival as a graduate student. Writing is hard, and often boring, but the more you do it, the better you will become at it! When you first get to graduate school, likely some of the first documents you’ll have to write are grants. Your first draft will be absolute garbage, just accept that. But also understand that your advisor’s job is to help you recycle garbage into a shiny, awesome document. It’s also a good idea to reach out to friends and colleagues to ask for writing help, tips, and edits. I often reach out to Sarah and Jen for advice on writing and to ask them to edit my documents. I have also begun to apply for jobs this year, and I’ve reached out to other professors in my department as well as my MS thesis advisor at Ohio for advice on writing job application documents. These same people have also edited my documents, which has improved them tenfold at least.
Writing grants isn’t the only writing practice you should be getting. While taking classes, it may help you to re-type your notes, or even re-word written notes to make more sense. If you have a blog, practice your science communication writing there! As soon as you begin reading publications related to your thesis or dissertation, begin writing down the major concepts and ideas that you come across. Later, this text can be reworked into a grant or your thesis. Likewise, as soon as you begin doing research, begin writing your methods section! It’s much easier to write your methods as you do them rather than trying to remember what you did a year later (trust me, I know this one from personal experience).
Get outside of your comfort zone. This should be obvious, but graduate school is a time for your to grow as a researcher, scientist, and teacher. You will do things that make you nervous, anxious, or just plain scared, such as giving a presentation at a conference, attending an overseas conference, doing field work for the first time, or teaching a class. These feelings are totally normal, and for me, they usually mean I’m outside of my comfort zone and learning to navigate new spaces and experiences.
I have two main examples of times I’ve been completely shoved out of my comfort zone (by my own doing and choices), but grew as a scientist and teacher. The first is when I was given the opportunity by my department to build and teach my own upper-level undergraduate course. I was scared to death, but ended up loving my class and had a great time! And, I now have more teaching experience than most, something that will give me an edge when applying for jobs. I have no doubt that I’ll be able to build and teach any class I want in the future, and this feeling is priceless.
The second time I went way outside of my comfort zone is when I sailed on a two-month long expedition in the Tasman Sea. I was selected as on of the shipboard paleontologists, and thus it was part of my responsibility to let the other scientists know where we were in time as we drilled through seafloor sediments. This was a huge responsibility, and I had never been away from home for two months with people I didn’t even know. But the experience was awesome, I learned a ton, and I’m a much stronger researcher and scientist because I participated in the expedition. And I also have several new colleagues and collaborators all over the world!
I would like to add a cautionary note to this section. You shouldn’t participate in anything in graduate school that can cause you physical or mental harm, and don’t let yourself be bullied into doing something you’re not comfortable doing by your peers, advisor, or others. Remember that your physical and mental health should always come first, and that you need to guard your time. So don’t partake in activities that put these factors in jeopardy (although teaching my own course and sailing did take up huge amounts of my time, I felt those activities would benefit me in the long-term).
I hope this advice is helpful to some, as some of these tips were never told to me but rather learned through experience. If you have additional tips for surviving grad school, leave a comment below!
Political polarization, the ever-widening divide between Right and Left in the US, is an obvious problem. We have lost our ability to communicate with one another: using different sets of ‘facts’ to back up our arguments, with the ‘facts’ depending on our side of the political spectrum. The internet has in large part facilitated this fracturing. One can spend 10 minutes on Google to find support for anything that they believe. For example, Youtube videos link to increasingly conspiratorial videos, pushing us farther apart. This loss to our collective conversation is damaging in most arenas, even in the classroom or lecture halls. When a collection of outright lies masquerading as facts meets science, it causes problems. When a student population has firmly-held beliefs in concepts that are simply not true, as a facet of their personal values or beliefs, this presents a difficult and unique challenge for an instructor. I was a visiting assistant professor in a conservative area, dealt with these issues, and hope to provide some help for those who are walking into a similar task in this post.
I loved teaching at Sam Houston State University (SHSU), enjoyed my time with both my students and colleagues. Some of this is going to read as if I was combative the entire time I was at SHSU. I wasn’t. I truly enjoyed interacting with my students (and most liked interacting with me, from reading my evaluations), especially the ones who thought about topics differently than I do. College is supposed to be about exposure to new ideas, after all. I find it difficult to let people believe in materially incorrect things however, especially when they’re detrimental to their lives, and to my own or my family’s lives. SHSU is in a very conservative area in East Texas, and my introductory, general education course covered both climate change and evolution. Covering these subjects meant that the students signing up for “Historical Geology” as an easy science credit got a more ‘controversial’ course than they expected.
To say that climate change or evolution is controversial is imprecise. Both subjects, scientifically, are not controversial, especially at the introductory level. Evolution is a multifaceted theory that is accepted by scientists and there are no competing arguments; this has been understood for 150 years. Scientists also agree that the climate has been changing for decades, and that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a potent greenhouse gas since Svante Arrhenius calculated the extent to which increases in CO2 can cause heating in the atmosphere (he was alive in 1859-1927). Both subjects, unfortunately, are controversial in the public’s eye. Today, 29% of the American public believe scientists do not agree that humans have evolved over time, and 32% reject the scientific fact that is human-caused climate change (and 24% are uncertain!). Walker County, TX, which SHSU is in, has 7% lower acceptance rate than the national average. When I asked my students if scientists agree or do not agree that evolution is a fundamental process describing change through time, ~20% said scientists did not agree. To say that my classes were comprised of more conservative students, with strong personal beliefs, than an average introductory science course in the US is probably accurate.
Educating a student population with strongly held personal beliefs counter to course material doesn’t work well with traditional teaching methods. We not only have to teach students the material that they need them to understand for the course (past greenhouse gas changes, radiative forcing, proxy data, feedback mechanisms, etc.) but we also have to convince them of barefaced reality. We have to convince them that, no, scientists aren’t lying to them or the public. We have to convince them that we’re not in the pocket of ‘big-environment’, reaping the benefits of ‘big’ grants. We have to recover their idea that there can be legitimacy of the scientific process. If you say the words ‘climate change’ to someone of a Right ideology, they are likely to not listen to what you say afterwards because you’ve been written off as ‘far-Left’. How do you teach when your students might react that way?
A Hybrid Teaching Approach
Instructors, professors, and educators have to engage in science communication rather than teaching. Not entirely, but to a degree that can be uncomfortable. To explain: Science communication is sharing scientific results with the non-expert public. It relies heavily on a ‘values-based’ model, which is empirically more effective than the older ‘information-deficit’ model. The information-deficit model said that “People just don’t know enough, so if I explain what I know, they’ll agree with me.” That’s standard teaching. The professor explains the subject, the students take notes, everybody agrees the professor is telling the truth and that the professor has the most thorough understanding and information. The information-deficit model assumes that facts win, which simply isn’t the case. We resist facts that don’t conform to our strongly held beliefs. It doesn’t work if everyone does not agrees that the professor has authority in the subject. If a large enough number of the class think the professor is a member of a global conspiracy of attempted wealth redistribution, then the information deficit model falls completely apart. If the information-deficit model worked, then no one walking out of a (properly taught) high school biology course would believe intelligent design or creationism. That’s simply not the case.
The values-model says that the communicator (professor, instructor, educator) establishes shared values with their audience and communicates with them in a back-and-forth exchange. They then explain why a scientific concept is important to them, and why it should also be important for those who share the same values. That’s not teaching, in the purest sense, because it’s broader than just pure information conveying. That’s also not possible in the lectures we frequently find ourselves teaching.
Let’s assume that our goal is to take students who are uncertain about climate change, or don’t believe that evolution has occurred through time, and get them to accept scientific truths. Information-deficit isn’t going to get us to students accepting the truth, if we’re dealing with a resistant population. While not all of my students were resistant, I like to ‘swing for the fences’ and get everybody to understand concepts. Past students said they liked the ‘nobody left behind’ classroom ethos I set out. The values-model is uncomfortable for scientists, in particular. A scientific-upbringing, like one has while you get a Ph.D., prizes the ultra-rational and eschews ‘values’ for data (click here for a discussion about science being inherently political).
Blending both the values-based and information-deficit models of teaching might be the right approach. We need to communicate information, but if we demonstrate to students why the subject matters, how it fits with their previously held ideas, or even provide space for them to blend their faith with known biology, then we move them away from irrational, ill-placed skepticism.
I had these concepts gnawing at the back of my head while I was teaching my introductory course (Historical Geology). There was one particular moment that help me see a blending as the correct way forward. In class I occasionally asked students to submit anonymous questions to me on note cards about either impending or just-covered subject material. I’m one of the only research-centric scientists these students might ever meet, and I know from conversations with students that they have questions that weren’t covered in the course. Sometimes I answered the note card questions in lecture alongside the regular material, like in my climate lectures. Other times they exchanged cards with 5 other people, then the last person decided if they wanted to ask that now-anonymous question right then. At the end of my evolution section I got the question “What are your values?” from a student. I used my answer to that question as my first slide when discussing climate change.
That’s me sharing a value that most folks should share: that truth is important, something that we should respect. I used it to set the stage for a series of lectures on climate change that talks primarily about the mechanism and past examples, but also talked about climate models, future projections, and why we’re still arguing about it.
The following are my suggestions for how to teach a subject that folks in your classes think is controversial.
I opted for an overt structure to the roughly two weeks that I discussed climate change. I went methodically through a series of questions, going from “What can change climate?” to “Has climate changed in the past?” and “Why might it matter?”. Touching back to the objections that folks have to climate change and systematically explaining why they are wrong is useful, and makes a really compelling way to organize your lectures. Just be sure not to reinforce the incorrect material by stating it as a statement, rather phrase them as questions. So, you shouldn’t say things like “‘Climate changes all the time, so it doesn’t matter if it does now’ is wrong”, instead it should be “Has climate changed in the past? Yes, but here’s why that’s important”.
Spend Time with Contrarian ‘Evidence’
I had a student bring up a conspiracy theory: the Rothschilds were funding research in climate change and if the research came up counter to human-caused climate change they’d bury it. The student then brought up a ‘fact’ which I’d never encountered before, which they said had been buried by the Rothschilds company. The fact was counter to a huge amount of real research. All I was able to do in the moment was to explain the way things really are, but if the student has decided that the underlying data is falsified it’s difficult to counter. Since then, all I’ve been able to find is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory from the Napoleonic Wars and a Democratic DC Council member talking about how the Rothschilds control the weather. I still do not know where the student got their ‘fact’. I feel like I was under prepared to handle that interaction.
The index card activity that I mentioned above allowed me time to prep for these kinds of questions from my students, when I ask them for questions for the next lecture. I prompt them with “What’s a question that you’ve always wanted to ask a climate scientist? Something you heard about that sounds wrong or is confusing?”. On the spot, it’s difficult to do the due-diligence of tracking down the source of the student’s misconception. A student in another class wrote a question about Al Gore’s prediction of a sea-ice free Arctic Ocean by a certain deadline. The student missed several key points; it was about Arctic summer ice, Gore is not a scientist, the actual analysis Gore got that from was correct, Gore just used the most pessimistic number rather than the scientists preferred value, etc. Those aren’t facts I keep in my head, but I was able to collate them and present them one-after-the-other as a way to dismantle that piece of misinformation.
One way to view the interactions is as an accidental “Gish Gallop”. Dwayne T. Gish was a debater of evolutionary biologists. He was infamous for his rapid-fire objections to evolutionary science. He would place a simple objection, “There are no transitional forms,” and then another and another, then the scientist would need to explain why that’s clearly not true. The explanation requires a great deal more time. Any unanswered objection is then assumed by the audience to be correct. Such is the way in these classes. If you don’t clarify or correct a student’s point, that point is assumed to be correct, at least by the students you’re trying to reach the most, the ones that don’t accept the legitimacy of climate or evolutionary science.
In an ideal world a student would say, “Did you know crazy-thing-X?” and you respond, “I saw that somewhere, but that’s completely wrong because of A-B-C-D, and have you considered that person-backing-X does so because of E-F-G?”. It’s easier to catch something out of left field if you have some knowledge of the outfield.
Consider Your Approach
Telling somebody to their face that they’re an idiot for voting for somebody might be both cathartic and true sometimes, but it’s not that effective. Changing minds doesn’t involve hurling epithets, even if the president and his supporters are doing it (please see section My Perspective below for an important caveat). Scientists have facts on our side. Proving your point without literally cursing the name of the current president during a lecture in class is more effective than adding “*&@^ Trump”. Are you just venting your own frustration or are you trying to actively convince these folks who are wrong to join the correct side? By all means, force your students to grapple with the underlying long-term consequences of their voting choices, if they voted for him, but do it in the most effective way possible. Yelling at them is just going to stop them from listening.
An example: three students and I are having a conversation that explicitly turns to voting for Trump*. One student voted for Trump because Trump was going to redistribute wealth to the little guy, the other voted for Trump because Trump was going to engage in trickle-down economics (a failed style of economic policy that gives taxes breaks to the ultra-wealthy that then increases economic benefit down the class structure [it fundamentally does not work]). I tried to make sure they realized that they voted for him for polar opposite reasons, and that at least one of them had to be wrong about what Trump would do in office. Just like we try to do in education: making them walk down the path themselves, providing a guiding hand when necessary, and not just telling them, is more effective than yelling it at them (I’ll admit I laughed at the idea that trickle-down economics would actually be effective, but it took me by surprise).
I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the students perceived me as the messenger. I am originally from the Northern Midwest, where “hey guys” is a gender-nonspecific greeting for a group. In Texas it’s “y’all”, which is actually gender-nonspecific, unlike guys which is just used as nonspecific while being male. It’s very easy to adopt regionalisms accidentally or when it appeals to you for good reason. I’m living in the UK now and I’ve no reason to start saying trousers but I have. I fought the “y’all” change because it felt like the students would perceive me trying to co-opt their language to be more like them, which if you add me trying to push them away from strongly held viewpoints, would lead to resentment.
*This happened without me trying to get the conversation there. I try to discuss the political issues with my students, not the individuals involved in politics, when possible.
One of the questions that stuck out in my mind most from the folks who already accepted and had seemed like they might have a solid understanding of climate change was “Why do some people not believe in climate change?”.
Besides the word ‘believe’ in there, it’s a really astute question. Why is it? The physical basis is solid and fairly simple. The question ends up being more of a social science question. Leaving that unanswered though, falls into a serious trap. If you’re presenting the physical science of climate change you leave questions in your students’ minds. They know there’s another side to the ‘debate’. While the ‘there are two sides to every story’ journalism trope has plenty of faults, we’re conditioned to expect to hear the other side’s opinions. So cover it! Without it you seem like you’re trying to obfuscate.
Lastly, while this might lose your conservative students, it’s important to discuss with your students the actions that can be taken. While individual actions are useful and important, we all have our roles to play in conservation, those individual actions aren’t going to solve anything by themselves. The issue in climate change isn’t solved by one, two, or a hundred people starting to recycle (though that is a good end), it’s systemic change that is required to fix this problem. The end goal of doing this is to motivate the students to vote or to engage with their policy makers in some fashion. Them driving less is important, but the impact is not of the magnitude that we need.
I’m deeply uncomfortable with advocating for individual solutions. As a physical scientist teaching a physical science course at a public institution, it’s not really my purview to go into what solutions are politically feasible, unless asked. I explain the situation, I go through some of the solutions we have, and the implication is that the most effective one is to get involved politically. Because it is. That’s the solution to the community action; to involve the community in solving the problem.
All of this has been from my individual perspective. I’m a straight white dude in my thirties. I look, and probably outwardly project, a more traditional set of values than I actually hold. That affords me a whole lot of privilege in certain situations. Particularly in conservative areas there’s a baseline respect that comes with students having to call you ‘Sir’, ‘Doctor’, or ‘Professor’. It works, I think, really well to act as a Trojan horse for these students as someone who is not immediately othered within their views. For example, I don’t appear as and am not queer, so there aren’t quick barriers thrown up that my views or perspective is from ‘one of them’, similar to how when the words “climate change” are used, conservative individuals ignore the rest of the argument made.
So your mileage may vary. This advice may not work, some might actually be horribly counter productive for somebody who doesn’t have a similar background or the assumed respect that goes with being a white, male professor. I chose to keep my preferred pronouns out of my email signature while at SHSU, because that’s a clear sign I’m a lefty. Part of my privilege is that it’s not a life-and-death or job-or-no-job situation for me to fight for those rights. I don’t have the level of righteous anger of someone marginalized, targeted, or worse by our government, which allows me the privilege to not having to worry about getting into many possible unsafe situations. I opted to not engage on some issues in my first semester teaching, and to only deal with very specific battles. Making sure that I taught my course material, including those viewed as political, as effectively as possible seemed like a good first step.
This post was originally written as a response to an email that was sent out in my department. That email was worded in a way that suggested that women are not underrepresented in STEM fields. I’ve reworded and rewritten my original email here. Included in this article are numerous links to studies to support the claim that women and other diverse groups of researchers are discriminated against.
More specifically, data has been mined from the Paleontological Society and the North American Paleontological Convention to explore gender gap trends in paleontology. The gender breakdown data of members of these societies depicts a near even 50-50 split among graduate students, but a reduction to 25% women and 75% men at the professional membership level. This indicates that at somewhere between grad school and academic careers stages, women are being lost from the geosciences. There are easy steps to support these women graduate students as they transition to early-career stages in all areas of the sciences, such as: providing childcare at meetings, fostering mentoring opportunities, confronting internal biases, and conscious efforts to invite women as speakers. Women are less likely to be asked as invited speakers in a variety of venues, for example: TED talks and conferences. Additionally, work has been conducted to explore the likelihood of choosing women speakers at mathematics conferences compared to the observed outcomes. The author provided evidence that underrepresentation of women as invited speakers in mathematics should, in fact, be an overrepresentation given individuals in the field (easily digestible article on the content here).
Further complicating the idea that women ‘publish less than men’, women in academia-namely, those in a university setting, are much more likely to be asked of favors from students. Meaning, women are much more likely to spend extended time with students who ask for ‘special favors’ (e.g., second chances on assignments, etc.), Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests. Women statistically also do more internal service than men, says a study that surveyed approximately 19,000 faculty members across the country. Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?This increased service load leads to lower productivity in other areas such as research and teaching, which can directly affect salary and success in academia.
All of these issues are even further compounded when you consider that women of color, women with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community are under considerably more discrimination than white, heterosexual, cisgender, nondisabled women (accessibility in the geosciences). There are a multitude of studies indicating that academics that are part of more than one underrepresented group are further discriminated against (e.g. Racial Microaggressions Against Black Counseling and Counseling Psychology Faculty; Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards). While there are numerous variables involved in understanding these biases, we do know that these biases affect people very early in life, as there are many studies that identify problems like students of color are less likely to be identified as gifted by their teachers, thus taking away opportunities at a formative time (read more here).
To create a more inclusive and diverse scientific community we must recognize our implicit bias and work to support and encourage diversity. The onus should not rest on women and other underrepresented groups to fix the systemic discrimination in academia, as well as provide evidence that it exists every time issues arise concerning it.
Related article (here) by Dr. Phoebe Cohen that has similar goals and is easy to read and well organized.