Tag Archives: careers

Diary of an academic mid-life crisis

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I won’t be needing these any more.

In a few weeks I’ll be moving to a new position at University College Cork in Ireland, in the wonderfully named School of BEES. This entails moving home, family and job to another country. Combined with the recent birth of our son, it has been a summer of upheaval, reflection and transformation. It’s a chance to reconsider who I am and what I aspire to do with the remainder of my career. In short, I’m having an academic mid-life crisis.

After 13 years at Nottingham, occupying the same office the entire time, I’ve accumulated a lot of detritus. The last few weeks have been long process of throwing away many things that I don’t need (reprints, project reports, old posters), giving away others (books, consumables) and whittling down the remainder until I only retain what I think I’ll need. After carefully preparing a list of my career objectives, the criterion for whether I pack something into a box is whether it will directly help me to achieve those goals.

This seems like an obvious strategy, almost trite. But the urge to retain only what I need comes into conflict with the things I might keep ‘just in case’ or because they have some sentimental value. For example, should I keep hard copies of the PhD theses of former students? I have them in electronic form, and the only reason they’re on the shelf is for display. I literally don’t need them.* But looking at them fills me with fond memories, so into the box they go.

The other and most difficult set of decisions surrounds datasheets and specimens. Some of these have been in my possession for 20 years or more. Simply being aware of them raises pangs of guilt that they have never given rise to the publications that would reveal them to the world, not that the world would show a great deal of interest either way.** My rule has been that if I haven’t touched them, have no intention of ever using them, and can foresee no future role for them, then they go in the skip.

The idea of disposing of data or specimens provokes a visceral feeling of dismay among scientists. All that work, the long hours in the field, the grant money spent in obtaining them, and it’s come to nothing. No wonder that people have tried to stop me:

Scanning is a nice idea but there are simply too many. I would be spending days that I don’t have stood in front of the scanner, collecting files that will then sit instead on a hard drive and be ignored for another decade or two. Time is my most precious resource and using up more of it on lost causes is Concorde fallacy.

Even in the most optimistic scenario, if I kept the files, what might happen? I would spend still more time entering and analysing the data, then writing and submitting a manuscript, which even if published would simply add to the growing mountain of mediocre and unimportant science that lies unread, uncited and uncared for. It’s not only my time but that of several editors and reviewers. With the best will in the world, these data probably don’t deserve to be published. There are bigger and better things I want to do.

There is an even more powerful case for throwing these old projects away, and it comes down to my mental health. A new job is an opportunity to make a fresh start, to redefine myself. It’s a chance to shed some baggage that I acquired during my PhD, added to over the course of a few post-docs, then shoved in the corner of my office and ignored.

In the same way as there are positive reasons for retaining possessions, such as the warm glow an old PhD thesis gives, there are also negative ones. Data can go bad, and after a while it begins to influence your mental health. I don’t need the guilt to follow me any longer. It doesn’t need to cross the Irish Sea with me, and reminders of previous failures don’t need to take up space in my office or on my hard drive. Some projects are also bundled up with more personal recollections of the people or events they were associated with, and which make them even harder to return to. I’m not the person I was then; I’m not the scientist I was then either.

So away it goes. I can tell myself that I no longer care about the canopy heights which orang utan occupy as they go through rehabilitation; the frequency of leaf damage types in different rain forest environments; the distribution of sub-canopy scrub pine in Russian forests; succession in herbivore exclosure plots on the island of Lundy. It was all interesting to me once and, to be honest, it still is. It was all worth doing at the time and I don’t regret it. But enough is enough.

I’ve got some big ideas and several exciting projects that I can’t wait to start. I’ve made space for them now and I’m looking to the future. Wish me luck.

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For some reason I still had four pre-viva copies of my doctoral thesis. Four! One for me, one each for the examiners, and one spare… All now in the bin.


* The only time they come down is to show a current student the overall structure of a thesis. That’s a very limited task and one that could be accomplished by showing them almost any thesis.

** There is the remote possibility that someone might read the appendices of one of my minor papers and demand to see the physical evidence. This is a moral reason for retaining specimens but not, to my mind, a strong one. It happens so seldom in the career of any scientist (and never yet to me) that I doubt it will ever occur. And one day I will inevitably die, retire or leave science, at which point they will be lost regardless. Pretending that anyone will mourn the specific loss of my collections is just vanity.

Trumpets are meant for blowing

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The Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band perform at the Boston women’s march, as captured in an excellent article by Amelie Mason which shows exactly how a trumpet can be more than just a musical instrument.

A man walks up to a brass band, and asks one of the musicians whether he can buy her trumpet. Confused by the request, the musician replies that she wasn’t planning to sell the instrument, but could be persuaded for the right price. She asks why the man is so keen on buying her trumpet. Is he perhaps a musician himself? “Oh no,” the man responds. “I only want it for the brass.”

I’d like to use this analogy to think about the value of a university education. The story is adapted from Bertolt Brecht’s Messingkauf dialogues, a series of observations and parables on theatrical theory that he began in 1938 but never finished*. Brecht was making a point about the differing criteria of value that might be held by an artist and their audience.

Right now is a good time to have this conversation, just as undergraduate students are about to find out their exam results. Soon our graduates will be launched into the job market and have to sell their capabilities to potential employers. To employ a metaphor that Brecht didn’t intend, they will have to blow their own trumpets. This does however depend upon them still having trumpets and knowing how to use them.

Throughout his career, Brecht was obsessed with the idea of how theatre could be used as a means of instruction. Sometimes this was an explicit aim, for example in his Lehrstücke, or learning plays. Other times it was intended to be subliminal, distracting the audience while ensuring that their subconcious absorbed the intended message**.

The challenge was that audiences don’t go to the theatre to learn something. They are there to be entertained, to relax, to see what all the fuss in the newspapers is about, to associate themselves with a political faction, or as a signifier of their intellectual credentials. Over dinner or in the workplace they could then tell friends and colleagues “Oh yes, I went to see that Brecht play the other night,” and offer some personal observations.

Surely, you might think, the problem for an academic isn’t the same as for a playwright or our trumpeter. The audience have come to university to learn. We perform in some way, whether that’s through lecturing, tutorials or other pedagogical forms. While we try to make our lectures engaging and entertaining, the performative aspects are very much secondary. The message is the important element; what we want to say is what the students want to hear.

Except that it isn’t. In a university, teaching is always taking place. Students are there because, by and large, they want to learn the material and pass their exams. This is not always for the intrinsic value of knowledge, although having some passion for the discipline certainly helps. Rather they need evidence that they have moved some material. They absorb, recite, then obtain a reward for having done so. For a brief period they have been the bearers of information which can be returned and assessed.

This is of course a cynical viewpoint and not meant as an insult to the many committed, dedicated students who care deeply about the subjects they study. But the commodification of higher education encourages them to think as customers. Teaching is simply part of the compact: we deliver information, they demonstrate that it was received, we get paid.

And how much brass can you get for a degree? Helpfully, the Institute for Fiscal Studies have produced a report where you can find out exactly how much previous graduates have benefitted from sitting a particular subject at a given university. This is being circulated as a tool to help students make an informed decision on how best to spend the loans they receive in order to pay for their tuition. It gets worse though; the UK government is determined that this be used as a measure of value-for-money, and even as a stand-in for teaching quality. These are evaluations based on brass, not music.

We understand the sinking feeling of the trumpeter every time a student asks us what they need to know to pass the exam, how to get a first in our module, or whether the assigned reading is compulsory. We feel it when our students select modules based on the previous cohort’s grades, whether the lecturer is perceived as a ‘hard’ marker, or if the assessment is of their preferred type (exams or coursework). We see it when the conversation about supporting a student begins not with “I want to understand this subject more deeply” but “I need to get a 2i”***. I don’t blame them for taking this approach; they have been led to believe that this is the purpose of a university education.

When academics teach material, we do it not for the necessity of saying something (although lecturers, like musicians, still need to get paid). We want our audience to feel something, to respond to the narratives we weave, and to act accordingly. When we fail to move them to value the story behind the information, something has gone wrong: with our own abilities as teachers, with a system that encourages purely functional attitudes towards learning, with the willingness of the audience to see beyond the original reason they might have turned up.

A university education is more than just a certificate that can be leveraged to obtain a better salaried job. If that’s all a graduate does with their degree then they are in the same place as our fictional trumpet buyer. Perhaps that’s all they wanted all along, which is itself a shame. But that’s not what got me into doing this job. I’m here for the music.

 


* I have of course modified it for didactic reasons, but that’s surely just being a good Brecht disciple. The original is Dialoge aus dem Messingkauf, and Messingkauf can be translated as ‘buying brass’.

** To a modern audience these efforts can seem forced or inappropriate, but at a time when the arts were being deployed by fascists for political indoctrination it was essential that the left fought back with its own tools. In universities we’re not playing for the same stakes.

*** For non-UK readers, a 2i (or ‘two-one’) is an upper second-class degree. In most universities it represents an average mark of around 60%, and shows that the student has learnt enough to have a basic understanding of the subject. A number of graduate employers stipulate this as a minimum requirement. It’s roughly equivalent to a 3.0 GPA in the North American system.

A lie about my childhood

 

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I would like you to believe that this is how I spent my entire childhood. It would be a lie, of course, but climbing trees was not uncharacteristic behaviour.

Anyone involved in admissions or graduate recruitment in ecology will be familiar with the stereotypical opening of the personal statement:

“When I was a child, I loved to play outside in nature. I watched the birds and the insects and the flowers and I knew that I wanted to spend my life studying them.”

Something along these lines opens the majority of the applications I read each year. Perhaps for some it’s actually true, though I suspect that most are teleological. Either the author is trying to convince me, or has already convinced themselves, that the whole direction of their life has been moving steadily and inexorably towards ecological research from their very first awakenings of consciousness.* Who am I, hard-hearted cynic, to stand in the way of manifest destiny?

Why am I so sceptical? I too am passionate about nature. I genuinely love being outdoors, collecting data, or simply observing natural systems and trying to figure out how they work. I grew up in the countryside and was most at peace when taking my dog for long walks through the fields and woodland or climbing trees. This bucolic upbringing is bound to have had a lasting influence on my chosen direction in life.

And yet… the evidence for a similar effect isn’t there from anyone else in the village, other than those who have continued on the family farm, for whom options were more limited. My siblings and friends from childhood include a doctor, dinner lady, teacher, policeman… none of whom are remotely associated with nature. There is one other academic, my older brother, who actually works on wood, or more strictly cellulose. That said, he’s a materials scientist and predominantly investigates its structural properties in the lab. He might enjoy long walks but he’s not an ecologist.**

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Another typical shot of my childhood. Note favourite dog just out of shot.

There are other anecdotes I could pull together to tell a partial story. We did tie old wellies to a rope and throw them in a pond to try and catch newts. That probably happened a handful of times and I don’t recall ever reeling in anything but mud. I remember my father encouraging me to help in the vegetable garden, and the excitement at eating my first crop of radishes. They were to be my only harvest, and any further assistance was through compulsion. It may be true that I once took myself off into the woods in Germany, disappearing for a whole day to the great consternation of my parents, then casually strolling back into town at dusk as the search parties were being assembled. I wasn’t lost in the embrace of nature; I just wanted to get away from the family for a bit.

I could tell a different story, of the boy who came home from school every evening and promptly ran upstairs to play Sensible Soccer on his Amiga until his hands developed callouses. The child who lagged behind on family walks bleating about the imposition.*** A bookworm, happier sat indoors reading science fiction than out in the sunshine. All these would be equally accurate, if similarly selective.

At no point was I ever a spotter or a collector, two traits that I frequently hear colleagues assert are key indicators of those with a great future in ecology. My plant taxonomy is entirely self-taught but was developed late and only in order to allow me to do fieldwork. It would be a lie to claim that I spent sunny afternoons as a child learning flowers. I do collect — mainly West African music and obscure European electronica. The boxes of entomological specimens I brought back from Borneo have languished in my office for over a decade, unidentified, and I retain them more through guilt than any abiding intention of rectifying this.

To this day I still have a profound disinterest in many aspects of the natural world. Quite honestly, I don’t care about birds. I couldn’t identify any British bird by song and the few I know by sight are only the most common. The idea of birdwatching as a leisure pursuit is anathema to me. Give me a glass of wine and a book any day.

There is at least one thing I recall from childhood that links directly to my current career, and where the narrative thread is not stretched to breaking point. I always — always — wanted to travel. My parents were well known for welcoming people from all over the world into their home. Their hospitality knew no bounds and I was lucky enough to be exposed to visitors from all manner of cultures and backgrounds. The superficial details are forgotten, and probably left little impression, but the undercurrent was an awareness of a wider and exotic world out there that I needed to see.

It was for that reason that I was so keen, while an undergraduate, to take part in an expedition to Kamchatka. It was there that I first realised that forest ecology was the path for me. Since then, and probably missing a few, I’ve worked in China, Malaysia, Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania, Russia, Australia, Uganda and all over Europe. I’ve made friends across the globe, eaten strange foods, drunk peculiar alcoholic beverages and danced awkwardly to mesmerising beats. I can sing songs in languages that I don’t even understand. I lost my religion and replaced it with a ever-widening appreciation of the breadth of human culture. And yes, I’ve seen some of the most incredible wild places on the planet, and returned with beautiful data.

Ecology was an excuse to travel, and the travel remains one of the great blessings of my job. It’s not the reason I do it — unravelling the mysteries of forest growth has long since taken over as my main obsession. Nevertheless, I’m fortunate enough to be writing this from a research station in Portugal where I’m teaching an undergraduate field course. Tonight I will drink local wine and plan the next adventure. It’s Mexico this summer, and I have an awesome collaborator in Ghana who really wants me to visit…

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This is the Quinta de Sao Pedro, just outside Lisbon, Portugal. If you’re looking for a location to run a field course then I can’t recommend it highly enough.


* Other ecologists have written about how the path into their current obsession was not a straight line, and involved large elements of chance and coincidence. Childhood experience may have played a part, but not the defining one.

** He did once cite me, although mostly for humorous reasons, and not entirely positively.

*** Like any child, I had phases. There were periods when I would run ahead, dashing round before collapsing in a heap exhausted. But to emphasise those while ignoring my awkward patches would create a false narrative.

Unpublished works

A few years ago I attended a workshop session on publishing for early-career scientists. One earnest delegate spoke up in favour of submitting work to local journals, especially if you work overseas. It helps build science in your host country, demonstrates willingness to engage with their institutions, and ensures that all your research gets published — even the bits that more prestigious journals might look down upon. For many natural history observations this is about the only way to get such findings into the literature.

I politely disagreed, specifically for early-career researchers, while accepting all the points they made. There is an important skill to learn, and it’s that of letting go. If you can write the big prestigious paper, then write the big prestigious paper. If you can’t, go back to the field/lab/computer and get the data you need to write it. Don’t waste time on the small stuff. It won’t help your CV, and all these noble intentions count for little if you don’t get a job. Recruitment panels won’t care about your lovely paper in the Guatemalan Nature Journal*.

Some people believe that all this unpublished work is a problem for science. Jarrod Hadfield recently wrote, in a provocative meeting report for the Methods in Ecology and Evolution blog, that preregistration of analyses would ensure that “the underworld of unpublished studies would be exposed and their detrimental effects could be adjusted for.” He notes, then dismisses, concerns about the extra workload involved or the frequent changes of plans that take place due to unforeseen circumstances.

Would you, as Orpheus, wish to venture into the underworld? Then look upon my file drawer and weep.

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The cabinet of broken dreams. Beware: when you gaze into the file drawer, the file drawer also gazes into you.

This is filled with countless manuscripts at various stages of abandonment. Much sound data collected during my PhD with blood, sweat and tears (all quite literally) languishes here, almost certain to never see the light of day. Likewise there is still unpublished data from my second post-doc. Why have I allowed so many potential publications to rot? How can I live with myself while denying the wider scientific community access to this information?

There’s a simple answer — I had more important things to do. Every active decision you make in life to do something has a consequence elsewhere. Even writing this post. Sometimes I needed to work on another, better paper. The rest of the time I had to do all the things that keep me employed (teaching, administration, grant applications) or sane (sleeping, reading, holidays, drinking).

One thing I’ve learnt in recent years is that the hassle of publishing in a small journal isn’t that much lower than a large journal. There are several reasons for this:

  • Preparing the manuscript is no less time-consuming. Even though the expectations for data quality might be lower, the processes of analysing data, finding and reading the literature, preparing figures and putting everything together are much the same.
  • The quality of reviews is often lower for smaller journals (or at least the variance in quality is higher), increasing the amount of time it takes to respond to them. This shouldn’t be the case, but experience clearly indicates that it is.** Don’t vainly expect the journal to be simply grateful to receive your submission.
  • Lower-ranking journals employ smaller editing teams working with fewer resources. This might not seem like a big deal, but once your paper is accepted it makes all the difference. In a mainstream journal the proofs are turned around quickly and without fuss. It can be on the website in no time. In minor journals you might end up doing much of the legwork yourself. ***

There are sometimes good reasons to publish in a small journal. If you’ve put all the effort into writing a manuscript that was rejected higher up, then go for it, you’ve already invested the time ****. When moving into a new field I like to publish something small just to prove to myself that I can; it also helps with getting my head around a new literature. As a student there’s also great value in getting your first publication anywhere you can, just to experience the process.

What I advise against is writing a paper which you intend from the outset to submit to a small journal. Many studies in ecology don’t get published solely because there’s something better to do. Maybe the results were too complicated to tell a neat story, or couldn’t be easily explained. Maybe all the tests came out insignificant. Given a choice, any scientist should write up the paper with the greatest chance of getting published in a good journal. The small ones are unlikely to provide the same return on your time investment.

The file drawer problem doesn’t occur because we have something to hide, although this may well be true of medical trials or in some highly competitive fields. It’s mostly because we don’t have time. Learn to let go or else the ghosts of unpublished papers will haunt you for the rest of your career.

 


 

* Don’t get upset with me over whether they should, the point is that they don’t.

** The reason is pretty obvious. If I receive a review request from Big Name Journal then I know that (a) the authors thought it was important enough to submit there and (b) a specialist editor agreed with them. I’m therefore likely to be interested in it. On the other hand, if I receive a review request from Journal Named After Taxon, I might see which of the post-grads is checking Facebook and offer them a valuable learning experience.

*** In one case I’ve spent more time on editing post-acceptance than I did on writing the paper. I won’t reveal which, but let’s just say that their demands corresponded to neither the website’s Instructions to Authors nor the Chicago Manual of Style.

**** This is only true if your paper was rejected either for not being a good fit or for not quite being interesting or novel enough. If there were fundamental and irredeemable errors with the work then persisting would be a case of Concorde fallacy. Chalk it down to experience and concentrate on fixing the problems for the next manuscript.

The most important day of my scientific career

You might imagine that the most important day in my career would be linked to a significant achievement. Perhaps my PhD viva, or my first paper being accepted, or when I was offered a permanent academic job. It could be the day on which I had a Eureka! moment of discovery*. It’s none of these. Actually it took place when I was an undergraduate, only 20 years old, entirely alone and a long way from home. No data were collected. I spoke to no-one. And yet I can trace my whole academic trajectory from that day.

The location was Kamchatka, a volcanic peninsula that protrudes from the far eastern edge of Russia. It’s 12 time zones from the UK, and even nine from Moscow. This is the wild east. I was there as part of a University of Cambridge expedition to visit the newly-created Bystrinsky Nature Park, which had been designated part of the Volcanoes of Kamchatka World Heritage Site. The region had only recently been opened to foreign visitors; a few years previously it was closed even to Russian tourists. There had been almost no work published in the international scientific literature since the great botanist Eric Hultén‘s Flora of Kamchatka, completed in 1930. It had nevertheless fascinated scientists, anthropologists and explorers since at least the pioneering expeditions of Krashenninikov (1711–1755). We were treading in noble footsteps.

The main difference was that we were idiots. That doesn’t mean that we were stupid; more that we were young, naive and nowhere near as well-prepared as we thought we were. I’m still very relaxed about sending undergraduates off to far-flung parts of the world in much the same state because it was such a formative experience. We learnt more through throwing ourselves into it than any lecture could have taught us. So long as you’ve made reasonable plans and thought about safety, go for it.

At the foot of Anaun volcano, September 1998. Photo by Valeri Vassilevich Yakubov.

Younger and with much longer hair, at the foot of Anaun volcano, September 1998. Photo by Valeri Vassilevich Yakubov.

As the flight landed in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the only notable town and regional capital, a full moon was bathing low clouds with an ethereal glow, punctured by the immaculate conical peaks of the volcanoes. I distinctly remember watching this mystical landscape beneath us and thinking — before I had even set foot in it — I must find a way to come here again.

Our chosen project was to examine the spatial patterns of the local forests. I’d read that they were a mix of birch and larch, which I was assured by the legendary Peter Grubb was impossible, since both species are highly light-demanding and unable to recruit beneath a canopy. It turned out that they were exactly as Hultén had described (which is documented in a later paper). Sadly we never published our findings; they were used for our undergraduate final-year projects then shelved as we moved on to other things. I have since returned, however, and am still following up on those first hazy impressions.

Enough of the background, what of the most important day? We had been surveying a forest of stone birch (Betula ermanii) a few kilometres east of the village of Esso. Stone birch is unlike any European birch — the wood is incredibly tough and the trees have a gnarled, low-branching form as a result of heavy snowfall in the long, cold winters, which gives them an interesting architecture. If anyone ever asks for my favourite tree, or favourite forest, then I can wax lyrical about them, but for now I’ll save that for another post.

Stone birch (Betula ermanii) in the Uxychan valley, west of Esso, Kamchatka.

Stone birch (Betula ermanii) in the upper slopes of the Bystrya valley, south of Esso, Kamchatka.

Our small team had finished work in the area and decided to head back to the village for a clean-up, change of clothes, hot meal and indoor bed. I wasn’t quite ready yet though, and opted to remain behind alone. Earlier in the trip we had attempted to climb the small mountain to the east but turned back in poor weather. I was determined not to be defeated and wanted a second shot.

It was that night that I had my epiphany. Alone in the forest, sat by a roaring fire and surrounded by nothing but trees, I realised that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I sat and wrote a letter to a friend **, drank the remainder of the vodka and watched a curious mink dance through the branches above me in the flickering light ***. Nothing much happened. I sang a few songs to keep myself company (and the bears away), went to bed and passed an uneventful night. There is no doubt in my mind though — that was the crucial moment to which I can trace back my passion to work in, describe and understand the architecture of forests. It’s what I’ve devoted my life to ever since.

The next day, almost incidentally, my strike at the summit was successful. I climbed back down, collected the tent, and walked back to the village to rejoin the team around nightfall. I revisited the same peak in 2008 on another expedition. Being especially eager to see it again, I reached the summit long before the students and other scientists. This was fortunate because I promptly burst into tears. That wasn’t the only time I cried with emotion on that expedition; the second time was a few month later, on what was the best day in my scientific life so far, almost exactly ten years after that solitary night in the woods. But that’s a story for another time.


* I’m still waiting for one of those. Or at least one that doesn’t, a few days down the line, turn out to have been completely misguided.

** An interesting side-story in itself. She was at the time on another expedition in New Caledonia. Not only did she eventually receive my letter, she replied, and I received it — perhaps the only time that letters have been exchanged between Kamchatka and New Caledonia. This was of course long before the days of global internet and constant e-mail access. She is now a well-known conservation biologist in her own right and has probably forgotten our correspondence.

*** Mink were introduced to the peninsula centuries ago by fur-trappers and were once one of its most important exports. They are now fully naturalised, and with so little hunting taking place, they have almost no fear of humans.