Contempt and its role in academia; #GradSchoolSearch

When I was younger, I had a partner who told me that “contempt is the one emotion that kills everything. Whether its a professional or personal relationship, contempt is the one thing you cannot work past unaddressed. You either destroy it, or it destroys the relationship.”

That partner is no longer part of my life, but as I’ve continued on the academic path, I’m struck with how often his words come back to me. In truth, most of the power in academia is allocated less by what you (personally) know and more about who you know. Academia is all about relationships- between you and your adviisor, you and other peers, and between you and other faculty. This is true for faculty and staff, too.

Relationships in academia largely influence who you work with in graduate school, who you work with afterwards, and your own collaborations as you proceed down the academic pathway. Often, we academics try and pretend that our motivations for the tangible benefits of these relationships (service,projects, collaborations, or hiring and promotion) are solely practical or merit-based decisions–especially when it comes to the relationships we do or don’t foster with other people. However, as we often talk about on Twitter, relationships are both foundational to academic success and more complex than simply meritocratic notions would suggest. I think we are doing students a disservice when we pretend that advisor-mentee, student-faculty, and faculty-faculty relationships are driven solely by meritocratic ideals (i.e. we share research interests, or core methods, or mentorship goals, etc).

Truthfully, the end goals of those ideals can only happen if you form a relationship with said person. But, while those relationships can form initially because of a shared idea, talent, or goal, they cannot be solely sustained in a healthy way by those motives. Relationships are a two way street, regardless who is participating in them. The magnitude of the reciprocity is different depending on the power differential between the people in the relationship, Ultimately, the people in the relationship have to feel safe enough to communicate to one another when boundaries-either personal, professional, moral, or some combination-are overstepped. This kind of interpersonal communication, as well as personal introspection and realignment to moral praxis–is vital for conserving healthy human relationships, free from contempt.

However, academia doesn’t readily reward this kind of open communication–it instead rewards whatever relationships accrue the most grant money, the most publications, the highest H index, and the most prestigious academic pedigrees. This is a recipe for people at all levels staying in toxic relationships, just to be able to do that science that they want (and even some they don’t). This is a recipe for breeding contempt between people.

Its obviously one thing to have contempt for people who deserve it–for PIs who harass their students, to despotic players in the system, to bad actors in general. But typically, you aren’t expected to maintain connections to those bad actors throughout your career. In academic fields, especially those of small size, we are expected to simply ignore people in our contempt in order to keep working–a whole institution of “getting along to get along”–in order to maintain academic successs regardless of how the relationship is affecting us in other facets of life.

Not all of academia is like this, but there are whole departments and even whole schools in which this toxic dynamic plays out between all players. This is extremely unhealthy, and its why some students are lucky to finish or drop out; or why some faculty are denied tenure; and even why whole departments are restructured. My warning to perspective graudate students is to try as hard as possible to sniff out contempt. If you feel it on your visit day, curdling down your spine like cold wetland water, do not join that department. If you start to feel contempt for your advisor, or feel contempt from them, confront that issue directly (especially with the help of a neutral player like an ombudsman).  If there is widespread contempt between cliques of faculty in your department and you feel it affecting your committee and advancement, find a new one before their infighting affects your ability to graduate on time. Squash contempt with honest communication wherever you feel it, because its high time that academia stops trading the humanity between people for material success. There are *many* successful labs which run on principles of open communication, honest dialogue, and the patience of introspection. You can find those labs, and those people.

Contempt is the thing that kills all relationships, and I’m tired of academia letting contempt ruin how we relate to and do science with one another. We can be human, and care for one another as such, and still do good science.

Thanks for reading, and good luck.

 

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#GradSchoolSearch- a postmortem

Hello all,

It’s been a full year since the end of my #GradSchoolSearch–Facebook Memories told me so. For the uninitiated, the TL;DR version is that I applied to five graduate programs, interviewed at four of them, and got into three. I ended up picking the Ecosystem Science and Management (ESSM) program at Texas A&M University, because reasons. I’ve been in school 1.5 semesters now, and I think its time for an autopsy for the body of thought that went into my choice of grad school. I also think I have some things to say about how grad school labs (in ecology, at least) differ, even if they are in similar programs.

First, I chose TAMU and their ESSM program for a few reasons. The primary reason is that I won two fellowships there, which gave me a very pretty penny of a grad stipend. As a first-gen student, money was a big issue for me; especially in the wake of the grad school tax (which thankfully didn’t pass). If I couldn’t afford to live alone in grad school (ie, without my family helping with rent, etc) then I wasn’t going to go. TAMU had the most coin to offer, and since we could rent vehicles for the project, I didn’t feel that there was the impetus to buy a car right away. So, point 1 for TAMU because I could afford to live completely alone and apart from my family without financial burden.

Secondly, TAMU had the project I felt aligned most with what I wanted to investigate in grad school without neccesarily trapping me into the mold of a specific kind of scientist. I wanted a place where I felt like I had the freedom to pursue both my interests in landscape and large scale biogeochemistry, but also my science writing. While I was interviewing at TAMU, I felt that I could co-opt a space within a larger project while also having a little corner to myself. In this little corner, I could do all my regular schmegular brown girl things: fight for equity and inclusion, write about science, and also do the twittery bits of scicomm and critique of academia that I wanted. But, TAMU (and my department) would be big enough for me to step out of the corner whenever I wanted.  In undergrad, I always felt claustrophobic because everyone knew who my advisors were and who I was. I had a reputation, and I could never get away from being (redacted prof’s name) “lab princess”. When I visited other schools, I got some of those vibes, and I didn’t want to live my grad school life that way. This isn’t to say those schools are bad, and all cohorts have cliques. I just didn’t feel I had the personal emotional capacity to live at large that way, again. (This also isn’t to say I regret the close ties I had with professors in undergrad–what I do regret is never confronting the bullying I recieved from other students.)

Finally, I decided I wanted a “methods driven” lab rather than a “central question(s) driven” lab. What do I mean by this? In ecology labs, I’ve seen two broad patters to how labs are organized. Some labs are driven by specific methods: you can work on any study species you want, or in any system, et cetera, but you have to use ABC methods no matter what. A lot of population genomics and EEB labs are like this. Labs like this give students the flexibility to ask their own questions or do descriptive research in new study organisms/systems, but are typically pretty rigid in the ways you’re allowed to investigate said system.

Other labs are central-hypothesis or idea driven labs. They ask one (or a few) questions about certain habitats, ecosystems, organisms, or processes. For example, a lot of restoration ecology is driven by central questions like “how do tallgrass prairies respond to the reintroduction of fire as a management tool?” or “how does the season in which fires are applied change restoration success?”. They are big, open-ended questions, and students in those labs can usually use a diversity of field and lab experiements to answer them. So, if you are someone who feels comfortable when driven by larger questions or processes, then these idea driven labs are for you. However, if you’re more interested in testing the limits of methods or creating novel methods across a broad array of systems, then you should pick a methods-driven lab. I (thought) I was into exploring how methods for analyzing and describing soil respiration was my thing, so I went with a methods driven lab.

So, those are the reasons I picked TAMU: I could afford it the most, it was the place I felt was both big enough to deal with me and my science, and it aligned with that I thought I wanted from a PhD project. I will also add that TAMU had me the longest of any of my visit days (6 days), and that I already knew people in the department. In the moment that I made my decision, I wanted to make the transition from gap year to academe easier. Already knowing and getting along with people in the department made me think that the activation energy of the first year of grad school would be lessened and it would be easier to fully bloom as a PhD student.

In reality, things are never this clear cut. Grad school definitely is not. Truthfully, I barely talk to the people I had been friendly with on my visit to my department. This isn’t a me vs a them issue, either; I simply realized that my end goals as a PhD holder and their goals as faculty didn’t align and there was no real reason to keep wasting their time with me. The people I talk most to in my department aren’t even in my subfield, but they have professional and personal goals around STEM equity, mentorship, and teaching that I share; and they celebrate my successes and goals as a science communicator. I am not really a methods person anymore, because delving into the savanna literature made me realize how much we kind of don’t know about the system. I would love to describe how savanna’s ability to store carbon changes as management is applied, and I am not attached to what methods I use to quantify that. I am also no longer sure I want to be a career academic, because so much of what I value about myself and my talents seem antithetical to having a successful career in a largely white and male STEM field.

There are really bright spots in my first year as a PhD student. I mesh well with my lab mates, and I love doing the labwork and fieldwork. When I visit my field site, sitting beneath the juniper groves or in the soft verdant green of the forbs and grasses feels so peaceful and fulfilling as to almost pass into the sacred. I have had great side-gigs, like being the Social Media Intern for the International Biogeography Society and now as the USA Contributor to the BES’s magazine The Niche now that I have a home institution. I truly value the economic stability that I have, and I wouldn’t trade the mentorship I get from the faculty I do talk to here for anything.

I think that when it comes to evaluating your own school choices, you have to really sit down with it. And I think it’s okay if you don’t come to the right choice on the first go around. Sometimes, the department you see and interact with isn’t the department you actually sit down and do the science tango with. Sometimes, the person you are after diving into the relevant literature isn’t the person who signed the contract 6 or 8 or even 12 months ago. And sometimes, you just realize that a certain place isn’t for you: whether that’s because you don’t like the local community, the department, or even the project you thought you were in love with. There’s plenty of people who leave graduate programs, and if you think your program is actively injurious to your well-being, then you should leave. If you sit down and feel

-actively alienated

-unable to talk to certain people/faculty/staff

-talked down to by faculty and older students

-unable to make connections within and outside the department, especially to form a committee

-unable to speak honestly with your advisor about professional and personal issues, goals, setbacks, and successes

-as a means to an end instead of a person

at any point during your #GradSchoolSearch or during your first year of grad school, then you should get out. It is best to leave with a plan in place of where you want to land, but if that isn’t possible then that is okay too. Try and leave before year 2, because that will help you transition quickly without having wasted too much time on an extraneous project. Also: don’t ever feel guilty about leaving. Graduate school is a two way street, a collaboration between you and your department. If you aren’t getting what you need out of them, you deserve to go to a place where you can become who and what you want to be.

Happy one year anniversary to my #GradSchoolSearch, and good luck everyone.

~itati

 

Becky Barak’s talk at Texas A&M

Its @BeckSamBar –Design and establishment of seed mixes for prairie restoration.

The tiny acorn becomes a might oak is an expression that has been used for centuries. However, the truth is that most seeds do not become oaks. Maybe 1 of them will germinate;most will be lost. This is true of prairie seeds, too-most don’t become plants.
What are the drivers of which seeds sporut in tallgrass prairies?

In chicago, there is only a tiny sliver of native prairie that remains. Most prairies were destroyed by agrucultural plowing, so there is very little ecological memory left in the prairie for it to regrow from. To put this ecological information back in, we need to re-seed the prairie. We ask questions about re-seeding in three ways. 1. How do we design seed mixes? 2. how and when do we plant, and who establishes after seeding? Additionally, how do we decide those 2 things?

For researchers like us, we might want to design seed mixes and make choices based on the biodiversity of the prairie plant community. We can measure diversity in a lot of ways, such as taxonomic diversity. Or, we might also think about bloom time diversity (phenological diversity). Bloom time diversity is about having flowers years round to support pollinators. In addition to bloom time diversity, we also think about phylogenetic diversity. Having a lot of functional types represented could increase the ecosystem services in the prairie. Functional diversity can happen a couple of different ways. You could broadly represent different families of plants across the prairie phylogeny, or you could cluster them within a few families–both can be diverse. There is also “floristic quality” or the conservatism score; having a spectrum of ruderal to high maintenence plants populate the prairie.

So, if we are operating under this biodiversity metric for management, we are also constrained by seed availability and cost. 32 distinct species of seeds is usually the median number of species commercial available seed mix.  Between the 200 plant species that can occur in a prairie, there are 1.49*10^39 ways to design a seed mix. We use machine learning to help us decide what seeds should go into a seed mix, and which are the best seed mixes for the things we want to do in the restoration of the prairie. We use a multiobjective evolutionary learning algorithm, governed by natural selection. In this algorithm, the seed mixes are evaluated based on how well they meet your objectives–successful ones go into the next generation, and mix with other successful seed mixes, and so on and so forth. We give the machine learning protocol the data from 230 commercially available species and give ask it to evaluate seed mixes to increase taxonomic, C (conservatism) value, bloom time, and phylogenetic diversity as well as cost of the seed mix.

How do we know if these mixes are good? We compare them to already commercially available seed mixes+to diversity in remnant and restored prairies. Looking at conservatism versus cost analyses, we see that at most price points, our AI mixes perform better than traditional mixes. For species eveness, the AI mixes perfrom well. however, for phylogenetic and bloom time diversity, the AI preforms poorly. This is likely bc traditional seed mixes can contain up to 91 different species, while our AI capped the number at 30. When we normlaized for the cap in the AI, we see that the AI does perform pretty well. We can also identify high impact species which show up in the majority or plurality of mixes.

But why is this important? Because if restoration objectives can be met for less money, managers can restore more acreage. Additionally, this shows that computational methods can be a tool for solving complex restoration problems.
However, some nuance is needed here. Seeds are living beings–how do they actually establish in real life? The seeds you plant are not neccesarily the seeds that come out when you resample the prairie post-bloom. In reality, many planted species don’t establish.

Seed mix diversity (at 19 sites) did not predict the site level diversity for species richness and phylogenetic diversity. Seed mix diversity did predict the diversity of the planted assemblage when you ignored the species that happened to disperse to the prairie. So, the more species planted, the more diverse the eventual assemblage. It is likely to be nonrandom which planted species are dropping out. So, what is the mean conservatism values? The conservatism scores are higher in AI made mixes than in commercial mixes, and are lower in remnant and restored prairies.

What does site assemblage-seed mix mismatch mean for phylogenetic diversity? These are prairie plots at the Morton Arboretum ; there are 127 species. All species here are planted as monocultures or mixtures of 15 spedies. What is plug vs seed growth like?
There are 2 levels of functional diversity (high and low) and of phylogenetic diversity (high, medium, and low). Does phylogenetic diversity actually mean anything if its divorced from functional diversity? Between monoculture and and mixed plots, pollinators were making decisions about which plots to choose. For species richness, low phylogenetic diversity mixes acutally establish better than high phylogenetic diversity mixes. You lose species richness along the way.

How do managers make decisions on which seeds to plant, knowing all these facts?
Well, we don’t actually really know, because we”ve never asked them! SO far, based on interviews, we see that managers have a diversity of objectives when they are restoring a landscape. They also have a lot more constraints than costs and availability. Dealing with invasives, public safety, seed transfer and land use hiistory are some on MANY constraints that managers shared with us. Asking about native seed mixes, we see that managers kind of want unlimited seed of every species. One of the most common species that managers wanted were spring ephemerals (beautiful, short lived flowering prairie plants). These are important for pollinators bc they bloom early in the season, but aren’t avaiable in the seed mixes. Managers are also in to hemiparasites as a means of biologic control on dominant taxa, to give rarer species a chance to establish and grow.

Finally, when asked, what do you wish researchers knew? managers replied
1) Restoration takes time: 70-80, 100 years.
2) Land managers are actually experts. We don’t focus on the problems land managers have on land they know intimately, even though managers want to be partners in the research process.
3) Monitoring isn’t everything. Restoration is worthwhile in and of itself, regardless of how the restoration was done. If we are going to ignore restorations that weren’t built with long term monitoring in mind, what are we missing?

REU: a do and do not list

hello all,

twitter thinks I should write about REU apps because its app szn, and who am I to disagree? For the uninitiated, an REU is a Research Opportunity for Undergraduates. These can be institutionally funded, federal agency funded, or NSF funded. In fact, NSF has a list of REUs on their website.

I actually think it’s pretty important for PIs to explain to their students-or at least, to their advisees-what REUs are, what they mean, and how to find them. But, once you do have students interested in REU’s, here’s what I think are the do and do nots of the REU application process.

1.Do: Start your search for REUs early–I started looking in October, and had most of my initial application materials together by January. This made it easy to determine which apps I would put the most effort into, and time to find letters of recommendation writers. Also, don’t limit your search to just EXACT TINY THING you want to study. I’m not saying that if you’re interested in biomedicine, to go out and do a physics REU. But, for example, I am a biogeochemist–so I applied to REUs in both terrestrial and aquatic biogeochemistry, with people who focused on the cycling of different elements and nutrients. Your undergrad education is supposed to give you breadth in your subject of study: REU’s are meant more to give you depth, and help you figure out what you truly want to study in the future.

Don’t: Wait until Jan 1st to start looking for REU positions. There are a lot of kinds of REUs out there, and it will take time for you and your advisor to filter out the ones you really want to fight for. Additionally, professors are more likely to write you letters of rec if you give them at least two weeks lee-way time. The earliest apps close Feb1st-14th, so keep this in mind.

2.Do: Apply to multiple REUs. I know this sounds hard on top of all your classes, but you really cannot put all your eggs in one basket on this one. For my NSF REU at Marine Biological Labs, there were so many applicants that there were only two spots left by the closing date. Try applying to 4-6 REUs at least. For me, I applied to four REUs my junior year- 2 were “reaches”, one was a “probably”, and one was a “safety”. “Reach” ones are REU’s at prestigious universities or research stations–these ones need near-perfect apps sent in before the closing date, with glowing letters of rec and a lot of luck to get in. “Probably” ones are where you feel confident in your app and your fit in the program. “Safety” apps are the ones where you send them places without a real emotional stake if you lose out. This isn’t to mean that you don’t put your all into the app. What I mean is, you would be happy to work here even if it doesn’t fit your personal research agenda entirely; but you won’t be emotionally devastated either if you don’t get in. For me, that meant I applied to an aquatic biogeochemistry REU at a freshwater lab–I would’ve loved to work in that setting with those people, but I understood their decision when they told my terrestrial biogeochemistry-looking self that I wasn’t selected.

The easiest way to apply to multiple REUs while taking classes is to give yourself at least a week to focus on each application-so it helps to start your search early. It also helps to make a general working body for your personal statement, which is then nuanced with the details specific to each REU position. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel for each personal statement.

Don’t: Apply to only one REU. When I applied to my REUs at MBL and RMBL, there was a 2.6% chance of getting in. For each REU, there were 8-12 spots and hundreds of applicants. The odds are not automatically in your favor, and you need to maximize your chances by applying to as many REU’s as you and your advisor feel confident in.

3. Do: Write a personal statement that tells a narrative of who you are, the research you love, and why you’re a good candidate for this program. Make a point about why X mentor at this REU is a great match for you, and what you plan on doing with that research experience. Let the reviewers know how this REU experience will genuinely help you and your career goals. Make sure the organization of your personal statement is tight, and its flow smooth. Reviewers, especially for competitive REUs, are looking for any excuse to axe you from the applicant pool–make them stumble in their search by ensuring your statement is golden. Go to the writing center, swap with peers, and finally try and go over your statement with your advisor before you hit that submit button.

Don’t: Write a personal statement that is a laundry list of your skills and the classes you’ve taken.

4. Do: Rework your CV to highlight your prior experiences, your skillset, and your publications first.

Don’t: just throw a CV onto the application that you haven’t looked at since Flume was popular. Update your CV at least once a semester and then once again before you finalize your personal statement(s) for your REU to ensure the information is conveyed well, and attractively. Sarah Myhre has a great one.

5. Do: Ask for letters of rec from professors who you did good class work for, who you have built up a good rapport through office hour talk or similar small talks, and who you trust on a day-to-day basis. Give them a month, or at least two weeks to write your letters, remind them when they’re due, and if you want them to highlight something specific about your work.

Don’t: Ask that one professor whose class you did mediocre in freshman year to write you a letter of rec, a week before the app is due. They probably won’t say yes; but even if they did, they wouldn’t actually be able to write you a good letter of rec. They would write you a bad one, and it doesn’t matter what you say about yourself in a personal statement if your letters of rec are trash. My letters of rec literally saved my PINEMAP REU after I bombed the interview with the PI, so take these seriously.

6: Do: Believe in yourself. I know that especially for URM students, REUs can be really tough in ways that aren’t as visible or visceral for people already familiar with maneuvering around academia.

For me, it was really hard to justify to my family that I wasn’t coming home for the summer. My first REU also didn’t cover my housing or food costs-it just paid us a big stipend over 8 months. That lack of security was scary to face without my family’s emotional support; and it was only exacerbated by the shame I felt everytime I had to ask my stepdad for grocery money after rent ate away my stipend. However, my lab mates from my REU were always there to help me. My lab mates in Forestry Service often brought extra food with them to the field to share with us undergrads; and my office mates and I in Forestry Service often exchanged food with one another to cheer each other up.

My family also didn’t really know how to help me secure housing or help me move-my mom has only ever lived with my grandparents and I or her husband. For months, I alone scrambled around Craigslist and other rental sites to find housing, to little avail. I ended up renting a room through the lab I worked in and moving down to Raleigh in a Greyhound bus. It felt insurmountable to think about, but once I actually reached out to my lab for help finding housing, they helped me fit everything into place. Other REU’s cover housing, food, and even travel for you–if you win one of these, the leap away from home will be much easier and worth it.

REUs can also be lonely; especially if your cohort is spread out across multiple universities, or if you don’t see yourself reflected in your cohort. However, REUs are a chance for deep introspection away from factors that might otherwise be influencing you (like a domineering advisor or parent). REUs are a chance away from home, and from your home institutions, for you to figure out both the scientist and the person you really want to be. When you feel lonely or lost in the city or in the lab, try to grapple with that feeling and contextualize it. When I was alone in Raleigh for my first REU, I used to split my time evenly between the bench lab work, my time in my office blogging, and doing data sorting for the Forestry Service. However, it was a 25 minute walk from my lab space to the space to my office space. I would often use that time to think about how the lab work I was doing made me feel, how I felt about going to the office to work, and how I felt about the relationships I was forming in the lab and in this REU. I encourage you, especially in the early weeks of the REU, to do this kind of deep thinking.

It’s also hard to feel accepted at a scientist at some elite institutions, where a lot of people rest on where they got their degrees and not necessarily on how inclusive their praxis is. When I was at MBL, I talked to David Kingsley about not feeling accepted in academia. He gave me a good piece of advice: don’t let how other people see you define how you see yourself, and don’t let it limit who you talk to. If you carry yourself confidently in the face of people who won’t accept your value as a URM scientist, the good people will tend to gravitate towards you.  I will admit that this can be really hard; and if you ever feel that an REU situation is becoming toxic, its okay to leave.

Don’t: Be too hard on yourself, isolate yourself, or otherwise feel that you need to apply to or stay in an REU because “people expect it from me” or “its the only way to get into grad school”. If you are applying to spend 10-14 weeks away from your family or your home institution, make sure its because you believe fundamentally that the program you’re committing to will help you achieve your long term goals.

 

This blog was way longer than I thought it would be. tl;dr: work hard on a half dozen applications, get letters of rec from faculty you trust, and both believe in and listen to yourself. Other than that, may the odds ever be in your favor.

 

p.s. It’s okay if you win an REU, do it, and don’t love it. It’s okay to leave a bad REU. And if you end up like me–sticking it through a toxic REU to find yourself questioning everything that ever made you love science-reach out to the people you love. Reach out to people like me who’ve been through it. I promise we will be here to help, to uplift you, and do whatever we can to rebuild you and help you find peace.

 

 

 

The heartbreak of academia

For the last semester, I’ve been enrolled in seminar as a class for my department. I’m actually really grateful for this, because it’s given me access to a lot of diverse scientific research. However, there are only 2 perspectives that I’ve encountered on the state of academia and the pathways that people in it can use to survive. I’ve gotten both of these perspectives from Very Famous Men In Ecology(TM), and their opinions are as divergent as their approaches to answering ecological questions. I’m not going to name names, because what is important here is the fact that these two men are at the peak of their careers, and have come away with wildly different perspectives on what it means to thrive in academia.

 

First, there is the opinion that is mainstream. We, as academics, must publish or perish. None of our research means anything unless it is published in a journal, the higher end the better. If you aren’t writing papers, then you need to be writing grants. You’ll need that grant money, because the likelihood of university backed funds is diminishing each and every year. Mentorship is important insofar as you create an academic legacy of people who also publish forever, get grants forever, and dominate the pages of journals in your field. Service – to your department, your community, etc-should all be minimized, because those activities won’t garner you any of the recognition you need to get you hired more or tenured or promoted. Put everything into 4 boxes of important-urgent, important-not urgent, nonimportant-urgent, and nonimportant-nonurgent. Try to ignore that last box as much as possible while maximizing your publishing record. Oh, and science communication? Talking to the public? Much like cookies, those are a sometimes snack–do it only so often to remind yourself of why you locked yourself in the ivory tower anyways, because talking to a scientifically illiterate public is Really Hard And Taxing. In fact, why are you even reading this blog? You should be writing.

 

The second opinion is that we, as scientists, have fallen critically out of touch with the world around us to the detriment of both society and ourselves. How much do we know about the sociopolitical and natural resource issues of the very university towns we live in? How many of us know people in a social science, in business, in the arts; and are we actually able to communicate with these people effectively to solve problems? Is our science actually generating valuable information for the people we share land with, or is it simply generating an H index statistic that looks good to a handful of other people? We should be training new scientists not just to produce information; but to produce useful information and communicate it to the public. We should be teaching students to form interdisciplinary teams, teaching them how to communicate their science to the public, and teaching them how to manage their time effectively so that our lives outside the ivory tower can mean as much as the one inside it. If we aren’t doing this, if students cannot communicate their research to the public well enough to inform sound public policy, then graduate school education is failing. If we are training 100% of students solely so that they can have a 14% at a tenure track position, then graduate school education is failing.

 

And this, I think, is the great heartbreak of academia. We can see ourselves becoming irrelevant to everyone but each other; but we remain as participants in a broken system. Think about it–one of the big election wins from a few days ago was the fact the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will now be led by someone with a STEM background for the first time since 2011. If we had been communicating our science, the importance of even basic research science to the public since the get-go, would we be in this position?

We, as scientists, are suddenly understanding that we have been training students to communicate to one another but not to the people who actively need the research to make management decisions. We understand that the publish or perish mentality leads to a toxic work environment, to the dissolution of friendships and romantic partnerships, and in some cases the need to publish over all things can lead to some truly toxic department cultures held together only by the motto “get along to get along”. We keep congratulating ourselves in cyclical social media conversations that “some of us” are doing scicomm, are doing outreach, are committed to service and to providing equity in STEM–but are we valuing those people as much as we are valuing the H index of someone else?

We, as scientists, can see ourselves and what we do in the ivory tower becoming irrelevant. So why are we continuing to fester in this heartbreak, and training 100% of students for a system that will only reward 14% of them, in a house slowly being consumed by the society that no longer cares for it?

 

Conflating “research experience” with student “drive”

Today, I woke up to a really good Small Pond Science post about the relative shortage of summer undergrad research experiences. I made a comment on Twitter about how while research experience as part of an REU or lab can be valuable, it shouldn’t be the operating filter when accepting people into a graduate program. People pushed back on this idea, implying that lack of research experience on a CV reflected a lack of drive in a student.

My big serious question to you is: do you really think anyone applies to a PhD program without having an incredible amount of drive?

 

Perhaps I am not the best person to say this, because I’ve done two REUs and one summer tech position abroad. I have /lots/ of research experience–or, at least, it looks like I have lots of research experience. But I have to ask: who do you think hears about REU opportunities, and why? Whenever I have participated on panels on REUs/external research experiences at my alma mater, I was the only person of color on the panel. I also found both REUs that I won (and indeed, the five overall that I applied to) through my advisors in undergrad who direct emailed me the opportunities as it came through the academic grapevine. If I hadn’t fallen into my advisors’ good graces, I don’t actually know if I as a first-gen Latina would’ve found out about REUs at all. Others have echoed this sentiment; or have brought up exclusionary requirements for most REUs around documentation or the extreme competition for limited spaces (see replies to this thread).

Additionally, a lot of the comments on my tweets seem to imply that finding research opportunities are easy. This is categorically not true for people who don’t have the socioeconomic backing of their family, or the feeling of middle class entitlement required to feel confident talking to professors outside of class or cold-emailing PIs. Even when my professors finally did coax me to cold email PIs at the end of my freshmen year looking for research opportunities, I was told that I didn’t have enough experience to work in the lab. First gen and POC students also often have to contend with choosing between volunteer research experience or having a job that supports their needs on campus–when I was fishing tampax out of abandoned dorms summer of my freshman year, or working multiple jobs on campus to cover my needs, I definitely wasn’t thinking about doing research for free. I was remarkably lucky to have close to full ride at Kenyon–in total I only had to pay about 5K overall for my schooling. Other POC and first gens are not as lucky; and its unfair to penalize them for lacking research experience when they might be looking poverty in the face if they don’t work during undergrad.

The last sticking point for me re:research experience is how much even PIs who teach undergraduate labs seem to discount labwork and independent projects done as coursework. There is apparently even graduate schools which explicitly ask for students not to include lab coursework in their graduate applications. To me, this is even more ironic, since may sophomore and junior year students use those same lab coursework skills on the CVs to get the immaculate REU experience that PIs seem to want.

 

I think this points to a bigger issue in academia-that everyone wants a “high-quality” student, but no one wants the work that goes into actually creating one. What a lot of people actually seem to mean by “high quality” student, is that you want students who can largely run solo without much effort on behalf of the PI. The good track record of having research experience-either by volunteering in labs, working in a lab in undergrad, or REUs- is a virtue signal that the student in question will need relatively little effort from you to succeed and pump out labwork and papers for your lab. This isn’t how we should be approaching mentorship in STEM, nor is it the best way to find and foster the brightest minds for the next generation of academics.

 

If you all are going to start using research experience as an unwritten metric for grad school admission, then y’all need to sit and consider what that means. And, if we are actually going to diversify the academy; then we need to start realizing that access to things like research experience doesn’t reflect the actual motivation of the student. Any student applying to graduate school is already signalling that they are willing to put in the work to get there. If you want them to lay out their traumas, familial situations, or otherwise in order to make up for a “lack of research experience”; ask yourself if you would probe wealthy/middle class students about how they managed to have multiple research experiences. If you wouldn’t, that means you are equating access with merit and hard-workingness, which plainly isn’t true.

Things could be really different for me right now, had I not been a part of PINEMAP in 2015. I likely would’ve never ended up doing any research,won subsequent REUs and research jobs,  never switched majors, and never applied to graduate school. With how a lot of graduate programs and PIs act, even if I had applied to graduate school I wouldn’t have gotten in. And I don’t think that’s okay. I think we, as academics, can do better than letting talented students fall through the cracks.

How to Be Online, But Yourself

Hi everyone! I had a really interesting conversation with a few people on campus this week. It was honestly such a relief because for once it didn’t feel like 4D chess playing or like a confrontation over my Twitter/real meatspace persona . Instead, it was comfortably honest talk between two humans just attempting to reclaim their humanity in the corporeal space.

Which brings me to my real point: it is really possible to be both your authentic self on Social Media (TM) while also not getting into an internet flame war that immolates you in the corporeal zone. (I also think it’s possible to be your authentic self in academia but that is a spicy topic for another time).

 

I think people older than me largely view social media-especially Twitter-as a space where kids vent outrage. I’m not going to try and claim this isn’t true, but I also no longer think it’s the only purpose of social media. The nature of social media is in its name-its to be social. The nice thing about blogging, Twitter, and other platforms is that *you* choose the nature of how that sociality comes about.

For me, I got on Twitter as a way to vent my initial frustrations with Academia(TM). At the time (fall2016), I didn’t think I was returning to academia at all–so I had a very scorched-earth, no holds barred policy. However, as I did research at Universitetet i Bergen, I realized that a lot of people enjoyed not only my true tea content but also my #scicomm . I made a decision: my personal Twitter brand would be providing to everyone the true tea ™ of the moment–whether that be about the inner machinations of academia, the banality of American evils, or the juicy research I am doing at the moment. I like to think I’ve done a pretty good job being a noted Social Justice Person Online, but also of communicating science. (feel free to drag me in the comments)

And I think everyone has that moment, or a glimmer of a moment, when they first start the voyage into the foray of social media. This can be an active or a passive choice: but it’s still a choice. I think a lot of academics favor the passive choice: because it makes it easier to be a “professional” and just talk about work or whatever topic is in vogue at the moment. You’ll accumulate a following slowly, and no one will have bad things to say about you because there will be nothing to say. You will simply exist. The issue with passivity, though, is that it necessarily depersonalizes you.

The way to avoid depersonalization-and the subsequent inauthentication of the self- is to be active in your content creation. There’s a very unifying factor among science|social justice twitter–and its that we’ve all made the active choice to generate a unique content stream around our science that necessarily opens the door to content on social justice and vice versa. Think of it like riding a bike: you need both wheels, and to get anywhere you must keep pedaling. So, reclaim both your time and your content. Talk to who you want to talk to;but say what you need to say. Participate in dialogue and even The Discourse, and take corrections politely.

Pedal on, friends.

(until next time)