First steps

I wrote last week about feeling like I wanted to be more active, politically, socially, but not having the wherewithal to actually do much. I have friends, fired up and passionate, doing their 5 phone calls a day and still wishing they could do more. But I’ve just felt overwhelmed by everything as it coincides with my personal life.

I know, from my time in DC, where everything is politics all the time, that I have to tune out regularly. When I first lived in the DC area, I listened to public radio during my commutes, and it was lots of news on the national and international stage. Every day. And what was going on in 2001 and 2002 was upsetting to me. And so one day I just gave myself permission to not pay attention to the news for a while. That turned out to be a great decision for my mental health.

So now, I pay enough attention to know the outline of what’s going on. But I don’t read everything, I don’t spend a lot of time to know all the details of everything that is going on. And I am willing to go for days not knowing anything. One thing I did read, early on, was the Indivisible guide written by former congressional staffers. While being in DC, I learned that the staffers run everything, know everything. I have friends who have been staffers. I’ve done a tiny bit of science lobbying through BESC (you can too!) and have talked with staffers. I respect them and their perspective.

Since reading that document, I’ve wanted to get connected locally. But how? Normally, I’m a keen organizer and could put together an event myself to find other like-minded people. But I am off my game right now. I can’t be a leader right now. I’ve also only lived here a few years and most of that was filled with baby-having and baby-raising and my job. I’ve talked to a couple neighbors, but none of them knew of any groups smaller than state-level ones.

So I was glad when I saw a District 5 event being organized through social media. I need one of these events because it’s not clear to me what I can do that’s useful. I live in very liberal Massachusetts in a very liberal district. To give you an idea, Elizabeth Warren (of #shepersisted fame) is my senator. Katherine Clark (who was one of the first to announce she’d boycott the inauguration) is my representative. Supportive phone calls are nice, but isn’t there more?

So on Saturday, I drove to a nearby community center along with about 75 other people. The organizers had had to switch venues twice, originally planning for a dozen participants, and then 50. It was really encouraging to go. Here’s what I learned.

  • It’s been less than a month since the inauguration. It feels like longer, but it’s really just been several weeks. Grassroots organizations — some for resisting, some tied directly to the Democratic Party, some for building something new — are just starting to organize. And there are a lot of them. And it’s not clear yet how they’re all going to interact. That will play out over time. (For example, the District 5 group splintered off a similar Boston group. Now this District 5 group is so big, it’s likely it will break into smaller groups, as well.)
  • If you haven’t done anything yet or you feel overwhelmed by all you want to do, but can’t, breathe. It’s only been a few weeks. There will be passion and energy needed over the next two years, over the next four years. If you can’t do anything now, that’s okay. You’ll be needed later when other people tire out.
  • Figure out a long-term strategy that you can do regularly. Can you make phone calls? Yes? How often? Some people can make five calls a day. Others might need to commit to just once per week. That’s okay. Pick something you can stick with. Not a calling person? Can you connect to a local group? What talents can you provide? If all you can do is join an email list and be in the loop, that’s great. For me, I’m committing to doing one thing per week. Last week I went to a meeting. This week I’m writing this post. Next week, I’ll gather contact and voting info on my senators, representatives, governor, and state-level senator and representative. One thing at a time. Slowly.
  • There are SO MANY people who are energized and motivated right now.[1]They appear to be mostly middle-aged and older liberal white women. One challenge I see is to bring a diverse group of people together. I think it’s possible, but it’s going to require direct attention and effort. It gives me a lot of hope. Our meeting of 75 split into four discussion groups. My group talked about what we want to say to Katherine Clark, what we want to ask of her, what we want her to tell us. It was led by a woman who introduced herself like this: “I’ve always followed politics. Always cared about what’s going on. But I was complacent and thought things were going in the right direction. I never DID anything. Now I’m kicking myself. Why didn’t I volunteer last summer to get out the vote? I’m green. I don’t know how to do this. But I’m passionate.” I think this sentiment resonated widely. And, as it turned out, our group included two former congressional staffers. This mixing of energized passion and knowledge of how the system works is awesome. I’m very hopeful.

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A missing voice

This post is about why I haven’t been writing more blog posts lately.

They say you should take care of yourself first and foremost — put on your oxygen mask before helping others — and that’s what I’ve been doing. There are several things going on in my life right now, but I’ll tell you about two major ones. Of course, you already know about the state of politics in the U.S. As a former federal employee and female scientist, not to mention U.S. citizen, I’ve struggled first with the implications and then the actions of the Trump presidency. And then parallel to that, something in my personal life: less than a week before the U.S. election in November, my dad was was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, his fourth cancer, this time terminal. Less than a week after the inauguration, he died. 

I’m sad my dad had to witness Trump’s rise to power and not see the end resolution, which I hope will be a repudiation of fascism and authoritarianism. My dad was born in Germany in 1932, during the rise of Hitler and his Nazi party. His father was a Protestant theologian who studied Judaism and worked to promote tolerance and understanding between the two faiths. Unsurprisingly, my dad’s family was targeted by the government. When my dad was 3, the family fled to Austria. After the Anschluss, when my dad was 6, they fled again, eventually ending up in England. 

My grandmother — my dad’s mom — wrote her autobiography and I’m reading it again. There are stories about having the home searched, about previously kindly neighbors refusing to talk to her because the family was perceived as “dangerous,” about my grandfather’s risky defiance when he was brought in for questioning. The first time I read this autobiography, I was just out of college. This time, I’m a mother with a son the same age my dad was during the harrowing time his family lived in Vienna. This time I read the autobiography through a mother’s eyes. My grandmother had three kids six-and-under during this time. She had no connections. She had to try to blend in to protect her family, and writes about my dad starting first grade, about having to heil and salute with the same gusto as the other kids. She wrote that she hoped it didn’t leave a permanent scar on his soul.

What’s always impressed me about my grandmother’s stories is how she struggled along as everyday life was transformed almost unquestionably around her under Hitler, where neighbor was pitted against neighbor. What impresses me now is how she was able to survive in a new country (in England), alone with three small children [1]Once “safe” in England, my grandfather was interned in a camp for “enemy aliens,” just as Americans interned people of Japanese ancestry during WWII, where she didn’t speak the language, during wartime and labeled as an ‘enemy alien’, and subsisting on the charity of new acquaintances. My father had suffered serious burns during the travels to England and was hospitalized for four months when they arrived [2] He received some of the first-ever skin grafts.. Six years later, my grandmother and my dad’s younger sister were injured when a doodlebug landed in the backyard.

What scares me now are the stark similarities between the U.S. under Trump’s early actions and the events of the early 1930’s in Germany, time points that frame my father’s life. I’ve spent several years living in the Washington DC area. I’ve been party to its politics on a day-to-day basis. I’ve had friends and family who’ve worked on the Hill. And I was, for eight years, a federal employee of the Department of Defense. I was there in a federal building when a plane crashed into the Pentagon (and two New York buildings and a Pennsylvania field), killing colleagues — not mine directly, but colleagues of people I worked with. I saw firsthand the aftermath of policy and legal changes in the intelligence community. I worked for the Department of Defense when President Bush invaded Iraq. My job, indirectly, supported it. And I struggled mightily with that implication. I tried talking to other employees. I made what little fuss a bottom-rung 24-year-old could make. But I came away knowing that at least 95% of federal employees — probably at least 95% of people anywhere — will justify any action, absolve themselves of personal responsibility, to maintain their job, their lifestyle, their security, the protection of their immediate families. We like to think that in the face of things that challenge our principles and ethics that we would act heroically. But in reality, most of us do nothing. In reality, most of us are heavily invested in our personal lives.

I quit working for the Defense Department. But not right away. Not until I, myself, was financially secure, not until the month Bush was re-elected. And I was no Snowden. I left all the secrets, even those that rankled or seemed not quite right, behind. I had the luxury of quitting. I had no dependents, no obligations. Now I’m older, more knowledgeable about how politics and the world at large work. Now I’ve traveled widely, seen how people live in cities and in the remotest rural areas, in wealthy countries and in poor ones. I’ve lived abroad. I know how much the politics and policies of the U.S. affect people across the whole world. Now I have connections and developed organizational skill. Now I have more power. But I now also have dependents and obligations.

Now I have to answer my son’s fears: “My friends are saying Trump will start a world war. Are we going to be in a war?” I have to try to explain about death and its consequences to both my 7-year-old child (“What is cremation? Why can’t I go visit Grampa’s grave?”) and my 2-year-old child (“Grampa is not dead! I will go and ask him if he is okay. Are you happy about grandma?”) Now I have to try to find little chunks of time for myself, among a life already filled to brimming with work obligations and parenting and remaining connected to friends and family. Little chunks of time to reflect, to love, to allow myself to feel, to grieve. 

Now, as much as I care about what’s happening to the country, I haven’t the time or emotional energy to do much for it. I took my family to the 21st in Boston’s Women’s March. I want to do more, but right now I have to sit out a bit. Right now I need to take care of myself and my kids first. And the blog, of course, falls to the wayside. Because amongst everything going on, writing about Excel bugs or letters of recommendation seems so trivial. I do have some posts brewing on things I think are important, but they take more time and emotional energy to write than the average post. The irony of a blog is that regular posts are best for maintaining people’s interest. But regular posts can also use up the personal resources needed to write pieces that take longer, but are more meaningful.

So for now, posts will be somewhat sporadic. In time, I expect I’ll be able to regain my regular weekly posting. Thanks for reading.

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On requesting letters of recommendation

Letters of rec have been on my mind a lot recently because I have both requested them (poorly) and read my first ones in the past month. This post is aimed at grad students and postdocs who will be requesting letters of recommendations from people who know them fairly well.

The letters I requested were for a faculty position. I guess this would be the year I’d be applying for jobs, except I’m not willing to relocate. So there was just this one position I applied for. The job announcement asked for names and contact information for three or more references. But when I filled out the online application, it became clear that the institution actually wanted the letters themselves. Since I had submitted my application on the due date, I was panicked. The number one rule of asking for letters of recommendation is to give your writers time to do a good job writing them. And I was about to completely break that rule. I emailed (and called) four mentors and asked for letters ASAP and explained what had happened. One, who had never written me a letter before, declined due to not having the time to do so right away. I also emailed the contact person for the faculty position to explain what had happened and that my letters of recommendation would be coming in soon. The reply was encouraging.

Nevertheless, do not do as I did! If you’re applying for a faculty position, assume that they want actual letters, not just names, unless the announcement explicitly says otherwise. (Twitter folks have told me that something like two-thirds or more of positions want letters up front, even if they don’t explicitly say so in the announcement.) 

And again, give your letter writers time to write for you. Three to four weeks is a good rule of thumb. If you happen to know that one letter-writer is particularly prone to doing things at the last minute, give them a false due date of a day or two ahead of the actual due date. That way, you won’t stress as much about whether the letter gets in on time. Most letter writers will tell you when they’ve submitted their letter. About a week before the due date, gently remind those who haven’t yet.

Other tips when requesting letters of recommendation:

  • Asking the same people to write you recommendations for different things is helpful. The most effort goes into writing a letter the first time; subsequent times, the letters can just be adjusted to fit the position in question. So don’t feel bad about asking for multiple letters of recommendation from the same person.
  • When asking for a letter of recommendation, send the writer your CV, and explain very clearly where their letter should go. Give them the link if they should submit it online. Give the due date (and adjust a few days early if you’re paranoid). You should also give your letter writer a sense of what you would like to be in the letter. For example, if you’re applying for a highly technical position, ask your letter writer to stress your technical abilities. If this letter writer has unique knowledge of a particular accomplishment you want to be highlighted, ask them to do that. It can also be helpful to provide the position announcement, so the letter writer can get a sense of how you fit the position.
  • Most positions ask for about 3 letters of recommendation. Think about how those three letters might complement one another. Perhaps one letter writer is your advisor and knows you well all-around, another letter writer is a collaborator or committee member who can speak to a particular research skill, and another is someone you’ve worked with to develop your teaching or outreach skills. Let the letter writers know what parts or angles of your work you would like them to highlight.
  • Ask your primary letter writer (likely your current advisor) to tell your story. This is something I only just realized reading letters for the first time. Letters are read in random order, and it wasn’t until I read the main advisor’s letter that the context for some of the other letters became clear. This is because these letters gave the career arc of the applicant — how they started, what changed along the way, and where the applicant is now in their career. Other writers talk about a piece of the story, but knowing the whole story helped put the pieces in context. Make sure one of your letters tells your story.
  • More is not always better. If a position announcement says you can submit “three or more” letters of recommendation, don’t assume that more letters is better. Letter readers get fatigued and once they feel like they have a sense for a candidate, their interest wanes. Since letters can be read in any order, it may be that letter #4 is the first one read and is the least enthusiastic. Consider that that’s the reader’s first impression! The only reason I can think of to submit more than the minimum number of letters of recommendation is if you need that many to cover unique angles of your story. 

Finally, don’t forget to thank your letter writers when they’ve submitted your letter. And definitely don’t forget to tell them if you get the position! It feels great when someone you’ve written a letter for gets what they applied for.

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First year retrospective

This is that mandatory post that blog writers write once they’ve been blogging for a year. I started Ecology Bits about a year ago (I’m not a stickler for exact dates) and here’s my take on what it’s been like to be writing in the ecology blogosphere. (Yes, it does, too, exist.) 

One thing that I thought — and still think — is missing from the ecology blogosphere is the voice of early career scientists. And in particular, postdocs. But blogging as a postdoc can be a bit scary, because putting your opinion out there might be risky to future job prospects. I think many potential postdoc bloggers see it as some risk with little reward. I tend towards risk-prone and I have a need to write, so I went for it anyway. And in my experience — with just a year of blogging under my belt — the rewards of blogging are many and potentially particularly large for postdocs and other early-career people who are just starting to form a scientific reputation. 

Here are some things that surprised me about academic blogging:

The time investment was greater than I expectedMy goal in starting out was to blog about once per week on Wednesdays. I had a #50posts goal. From having written science outreach blogs, I figured that each post should be about 500 words long. That was a good bite-sized length for conveying science things to non-scientists with enough depth to be meaningful, but not so long as to lose people’s interest. But almost none of my Ecology Bits posts are that short. Most are around 1000 words, some get up to 2000. It turns out that I tend to want to write longer pieces that have more nuance to them. And it turns out people are willing to read 1000 words at a time. The result is that while I did write 48 posts in my first year (and some partial drafts of unpublished posts), writing them took longer than I expected. Perhaps an hour or more apiece. What that meant is that when I had deadlines or big things going on in my personal life, the blog is what got dropped. And I’m okay with that. 

People actually read what I write. I don’t really mind blogging for an audience of one. Long ago when blogging was fairly new, I wrote a travel blog that was mainly aimed at and read by my family. Writing Ecology Bits, I figured that at least a couple other blog writers would check it out. But I’ve been delightfully surprised. On average, at least 300 people read each of my posts. (“Read” meaning visit the page, since I don’t have any way of knowing how much is actually read.) And it turns out that a variety of topics hold people’s interests. My most-read posts are on open data, family planning, an Excel bug, and advice for postdocs and grad students.

I started using Twitter as the result of having a blog. I had an account on Twitter and lurked occasionally and had participated in the 2015 March Mammal Madness. But I wasn’t a Twitter user. That changed with the blog, in large part because some discussion of some posts happened on Twitter and not in the blog comments. As I began following my readers, I was introduced to more perspectives on science and sciencing. I began to be involved in discussions and cheerings-on and consolations and eventually discovered there were enough interested ecologists to start an online book club. I found a community. It’s been enlightening.

Having a blog forced me to create a professional website. I wanted to have a blog, but I didn’t want my online presence to be defined by it. Part of this is due to the unease of blogging as a postdoc. So while I had planned to put together a professional website, starting the blog really kicked me into taking the personal website seriously. Having a personal website has then meant that I’ve been found for reviewing purposes (including paid reviewing) and it’s helped me define my research program.

I’ve become “known” to some fraction of the ecology community. At the ESA Meeting in Fort Lauderdale this past summer, several people that I was just meeting for the first time told me they enjoyed reading my blog. That is a really weird — and really satisfying — thing to hear. (In talking to other bloggers, this is apparently a common experience.) I was asked to lunch by a grad student blogger who enjoyed reading my blog. When my graduate advisor (who definitely doesn’t read blogs) told me on the phone that he heard I was “writing some things on the Internet” and to keep it up, I realized that some of my blog posts were being mentioned and discussed offline. Very satisfying. And I feel a certain camaraderie with other blog writers, many of whom are also on Twitter.

I’ve been more willing to comment on other blogs. By having a defined presence as a blogger, I’ve felt emboldened to comment on other blogs. What I mean is that I’m not worried that I’m only going to be defined by my comments, but rather a larger corpus of online material. One day, while procrastinating, I read and commented on a Chronicle of Higher Education piece. In my comment, I expressed an opinion and linked to a few of my own blog posts to support that opinion. Within a couple days, the original writer contacted me and we had an interesting email discussion. Separately, an editor from another publication saw my comment and the linked posts and must have been impressed, because she asked me to write a new piece for her publication. I agreed and we are working on that piece now.

I had a post that went viral. One Wednesday in March, I turned on my computer only to discover a bazillion emails in my inbox — all from Twitter. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “Something happened.” I quickly realized that my post on the problem of multiple moves for the early career academic had touched a nerve and was being shared widely. After turning off Twitter email notifications, I spent the morning marveling at how quickly the post was being read. It was surreal — and a little scary, as the post broke outside what I saw as my safe little ecology bubble. By the end of the day, it had been read more than 9,000 times, and as of now has been read 26,500 times. And that’s just on Ecology Bits. A couple days after the initial post, an editor for Inside Higher Ed approached me about publishing on their site. A slightly modified version was published in April, and they paid me for it. Based on the number of comments and using the 1%-of-readers-comment rule, it’s likely that this one piece has been read more than 50,000 times on both sites combined. I find that amazing. More satisfying than that, though, have been the many comments — both on the posts and via Twitter — of thanks: “Thank you for putting this into words. It’s so hard. I’m moving again.”

In summary, writing Ecology Bits has been a surprisingly good experience this past year. I have met many people I wouldn’t have otherwise — both in person and online. I have felt welcomed by an online ecology community that spans blogs, Twitter, and video conference, and very smoothly translates into in-person relationships. The blog has opened doors to more writing. It has increased my income. And it has had a positive effect on my professional life by increasing my visibility and forcing me to define my online presence. I hope this year that more ecology postdocs take the challenge to put their voices out there. The ecology community needs to hear us and it can be a great experience personally.

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How NOT to get a postdoc position

The other day I was talking to a last-year PhD student about finding a postdoc position. I’ve written before about the various ways I’m aware of to get a postdoc position, but in this conversation, I was recalling all the things I tried that were utter failures. 

My situation at the time was a tricky one. I had a three-year-old at the time, and my young family needed two incomes. If I couldn’t find a postdoc position, I’d have to get a job in industry, and for me that pretty much meant leaving ecology, which I didn’t want to do.

I had missed most of the deadlines for the big national independent grants. The timeline on those is so slow that you have to apply more than a year before you need the money. I wasn’t on the ball for that, in part because I had been moving cross-country again at the time, and in part because I wasn’t really sure exactly when I’d be finishing.

One thought I had was to approach professors with similar interests and see if they had any money just lying around. I’d seen this sort of thing happen — or at least, I thought I had. A senior grad student comes and talks to Prof A and then a while later the student shows up as a postdoc. Poof!

I was eager to move closer to family and it just happened that my advisor Dave was going to be spending some time at a university close to my in-laws. So I arranged to drive there to spend a couple days and set up meetings with a few professors at the university.

I remember the first meeting I had with well-known Professor X. I went in and we exchanged a little chit-chat, and then I asked him what he was most excited about in his research. (Always a great question to get a professor talking, by the way.) I was familiar with what he had been doing, but was looking for where he saw his future directions. Part-way through the meeting, Dave arrived; he’d intended to be there for the whole thing, but had been delayed. After Professor X said a few things about what he was interested in, he asked me the same. I floundered. I hadn’t really thought too much about future directions, so I talked a bit about the projects I was working on, which didn’t, on the surface, seem to have much to do with Professor X’s interests. There were some awkward silences. Finally, a “nice meeting you.” I should say that Professor X was completely courteous and kind the whole time. But we definitely didn’t click. 

Dave was quiet for most of the meeting, and after, when we had left, he looked at me and asked, “what were you doing?” I asked for clarification. And he explained that when you go and meet a future advisor, you’re not fishing for commonalities, like I was doing. Rather, you pitch ideas. You get the potential advisor excited about working with you because he or she is super excited about your idea.

During that same trip, another well-known ecologist was giving a public seminar. He had done a postdoc at this university and his former advisor introduced him. The former advisor recalled that many years ago a grad student he didn’t know from another institution had asked to meet with him. When the grad student showed up, he was bursting with enthusiasm. He had a cool idea and the technical skills to answer a really important ecology question, while the to-become-postdoc-advisor had the perfect system. It was, in short, a great match.

And that’s exactly what I should have been doing. Approaching potential postdoc advisors with an idea and presenting the combination of our skills, knowledge, and resources as the perfect match for answering a science question. 

It’s not easy, of course. I was so focused on finishing my dissertation that I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about potential new research directions. And for me, my dissertation was so broad that it was difficult me for to figure out where I wanted to focus next. But several months later, I arranged to meet with more potential postdoc advisors at the annual ESA meeting. I think that those meetings went a little bit better, though none of them turned into a position. (Eventually, I found a postdoc position by responding to a job ad.)

In general, I’ve seen that the people who get ahead in academic ecology are those who have a clear vision of what research they want to pursue and why it matters. As you finish your PhD, spend time thinking about a few possible future research directions. What do you want to discover? Why? And what will it take to make those discoveries?

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How to run an online academic book club

Back in August, the first copies of Mark Vellend’s book The Theory of Ecological Communities were released. I got one of them and found out from the publisher and from the Twitter-sphere that the books were in high demand. A couple people on Twitter suggested forming a book club, and being a compulsive organizer, I figured I could gather 6 or 7 or 8 people who wanted to read the book together this fall semester and we could find a time to meet online. So I set up a Google Sheet and sent out a tweet.

More than 40 people responded as word spread on Twitter and beyond. Huh. That would be a bit too many for one group. Instead, I organized everyone into six groups, each of which were to meet once per week online. An additional group formed at UBC of people who met in person, and who kept in touch with the rest of us. I definitely didn’t want to be in charge of 6 or 7 groups and so after setting up the time slots, I asked each group to be autonomous, with a “group organizer” to help keep it on track. Most of the groups have now finished reading the book and I asked the group organizers for feedback on their experiences. Overall, it was successful, and here I’ll talk about some of what worked and what didn’t. I hope this post can help guide anyone else who wants to do something similar in the future.

Since each group was autonomous, the members chose their own schedule and rules. One group set up the reading schedule ahead of time and posted it for group reference online. My group figured out its schedule as we went along; at the end of each meeting, we would look ahead in the book and decide if we wanted to read the next one or two chapters for the following week. Both methods seemed to work fine. 

Attendance is always the key thing for any group meeting on a volunteer basis. The groups comprised 5 to 7 people, and most groups decided upon a quorum of 3 or 4 people to hold the meeting that week and cancelled if not enough people could make it. Not surprisingly, some people who signed up — who really wanted to read the book — found that their schedules were over-full and couldn’t attend regularly. One group stopped meeting because of consistently low attendance. In general, group organizers reported really liking the size of the groups. It seems that a group size of about 6 or 7 works well to ensure that enough people can meet regularly without being too big if most everyone shows up. The group that met in person had many more participants; 10-20 people showed up each week(!) But attendance declined over time, perhaps because it was too big a group for good discussions.

In forming groups, I had to be aware of time zones, as participants hailed from New Zealand, Australia, mainland Europe, the UK, Brazil, and all across North America. This was the trickiest part, because wanted to try to keep groups diverse. The one group that dissolved, however, was the one that had the biggest time differential. It included participants from Australia and New Zealand (who met during their early afternoons) and participants from North America (who met in their evenings). This group’s organizer said that coordinating across such a large time difference proved somewhat difficult. 

Another point that group organizers mentioned was diversity of career stages. I didn’t think to ask about this when forming groups, so there was no attempt at making sure there was a good mix of career stages within groups. My group, for example, was mostly postdocs and ran fine. One group that ended up being all grad students reported wishing that they had had some participants who were postdocs or faculty.

One thing that seemed to work great for most groups was the diversity of areas of expertise among group members. (This was another thing I didn’t think to ask about ahead of time, but most groups seemed to get a good mix by chance.) I think this diversity of expertise is one benefit that can be gleaned from arranging online groups. Groups had people studying things ranging as widely as core community ecology, population genetics, ecosystem ecology, animal behavior, theoretical ecology, and evolutionary ecology. Study systems also ranged widely. Group organizers reported that this diversity of perspectives really contributed to interesting conversations.

Technology-wise, all the online groups used Google Hangouts for their discussions, which seemed to work just fine. One group organizer pointed out that it’s possible to make a permanent link to use each week, which made organizing easier. A couple groups used Google Docs and one made a Google Site to take group notes and share resources (links to papers, TED talks, etc.). I made an open Google Doc that anyone from any group (or no group) could contribute to. These appear to have been used a little bit, especially at the beginning, but there wasn’t a huge interest in using a collaborative tool for notes or continued discussion.

In November, I arranged for Mark Vellend to chat with book club members directly as a nice end-of-book wrap-up. (Thanks again, Mark!) I created a Google Doc ahead of time and asked people to brainstorm questions to ask Mark. We held three one-hour chats during times that three of the groups normally met, but the chats were open to anyone interested. I advertised them directly to all book club members by email and also on Twitter. In total, about 25 people took part. The first one was the most well-attended. Because Google Hangouts only allows ten participants at a time, Mark and I were on Google Hangouts and the stream was broadcast to YouTube, where viewers could post questions via chat feed [1] To do this, go to YouTube’s Live Events page and click the “New live event” button. Quick start instructions. This worked okay, but there wasn’t nearly the interaction that I would have liked for something that was supposedly a “chat”. Instead I asked the majority of the questions, drawing heavily from the questions book club members had brainstormed. For the second two chats, I asked people to join the Hangout directly, and these were much more interactive and lively. If you’re interested in seeing the archived chats, they’re available here: Chat Nov 9 [2] WHAT! This video has 126 views already! (Who ARE you all?) | Chat Nov 18 | Chat Nov 22

All in all, I think it was a successful endeavor. The bulk of my time and effort was upfront in organizing times for all the groups, and that wasn’t actually too much work. Having distributed and autonomous groups definitely made it logistically manageable, although there were several people who were interested in cross-group communication or conversations that just never took off. (Efforts were made by Google Doc as well as on Twitter with hashtag #TOEC.) Initial group sizes of 5-7 worked well, and diversity of career stage and scientific area of expertise seem to be key for engaging conversations. Having an interactive chat with the author at the end was straightforward to organize and was a lot of fun.

So… what book are we all reading next?

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Thoughts on preregistering my research

Last week, I submitted the methods for the project I’ve recently started to the Center for Open Science’s Preregistration Challenge. Briefly, the goal of the challenge is to get more scientists to preregister their research, and it’s got a monetary incentive. The goals of preregistration itself are to increase transparency and reproducibility in scientific research.

I’d never done a preregistration before, but it seemed like a Good Thing to Do in the name of Open Science. And the monetary incentive pushed me over the learning-curve barrier and the fact that it involves a bit more work than usual. I consider my preregistration a bit of an experiment. Having written one now, I have some opinions of the pluses and minuses.

Let’s start with the drawbacks. I found three significant drawbacks, the first of which is simply that preregistration is a foreign concept to most ecologists, and so I had to explain what I was doing — and justify it — a number of times to other people. That was only a slight annoyance in of itself, but it made the other two drawbacks harder.

It took me a few months to put together the preregistration plan. The reason for this is due to the nature of the project. I am using data produced by NEON and doing a series of complex statistical analyses on them. To do a preregistration means thinking about all the parts of analyses in depth: what variables am I going to use, how am I going to transform them, what will be the structure of my equations, and how am I going to do inference from model results to scientific meaning. In addition, I had to think about all the “what ifs”: What if I found that some variable was far from normally distributed? What if the data didn’t have good coverage or the response variables didn’t vary in the way I thought they would? What follow-on tests or modeling was I going to do if I got result A versus result B? Note that I didn’t look at the data while I was doing any of this, as part of the conditions on the preregistration challenge.

These are all very important things to think about, but like most everyone else in ecology, I am accustomed to figuring out many of the answers to these questions when — and if — the situation arises. This classical approach may lead to “researcher degrees of freedom” however, and I understand why it might be a good idea to preregister. On the other hand, having to figure out so many different contingencies might be a waste of time. If I have to figure out a bunch of contingencies that never happen, that’s time I could have been moving forward with analyses. I haven’t yet done the analyses, so we’ll see how much this drawback matters.

The final and probably biggest drawback was that I didn’t have any progress to report for three months. No doubt about it — I was making progress, but I didn’t have anything to show for it. I didn’t have any preliminary analyses or graphs or numbers or anything to show that was doing something. My lab does weekly progress updates and many of mine were feeble sounding: “I worked on some more mathematical modeling.” Blah. Because the NEON staff know I am working with their data, I was also asked by NEON my opinions about some of the data for their annual review. But because I hadn’t performed any analyses yet, I couldn’t provide any useful feedback, other than “ask me next year! I’ll have all the answers.” Pushing all the results to the end of the project can be a real detriment to projects focused on an analysis of existing data and/or applied projects.

Now the advantages of doing a preregistration plan.

Working through the full scope of my analysis without playing with the real data made me think very hard and carefully about the questions I wanted to ask and the kind of results I expected to get. Instead of just plugging data in, I had to ask, “What if the data are like this? What if the data are like that? What would that mean?” It made me figure out my assumptions in a way that I don’t think I usually do when I figure out analyses as I go along. It made me clarify my qualitative thoughts into quantitative predictions. I think the process made me a better scientist.

I think that having scoped out all my analyses in detail at the start will mean that doing the analyses themselves will go really quickly. In fact, if they do, I think figuring out analyses ahead of time will have saved me time in the long run. I remember playing with a big data set as a grad student and trying to figure out all the various questions I could ask of it. Instead of thinking about what questions were important to ask, I tried to ask as many questions as possible. It took a lot of time and left me with many loose threads that were hard to tie together into a coherent story (for a paper). Being super clear about my questions means, I hope, that writing the paper will be fairly straightforward, which would be yet another time-saver. But all of this depends on the analyses working out okay. That is, hopefully I have enough data with enough variation and that at least some of my predictors do actually contribute to predicting the response.

The preregistration queries on the Center for Open Science’s website were super useful in helping me think through my research. I’d recommend using them even if you don’t plan to file an official plan. In particular, when I got to the question about drawing scientific inference from analytical results, I realized I didn’t have a concrete plan. While a p-value of 0.05 is a pretty standard cutoff for a lot of traditional ecology research, I am using Bayesian statistics and am not a fan of arbitrary cutoffs generally. I didn’t have a good answer off the top of my head, so I emailed some colleagues and that turned into an interesting discussion about good/normal/accepted ways to report Bayesian posterior distributions. I don’t think I’d ever have made a conscious effort to figure out how to interpret results otherwise.

Finally, if you do want to take the Preregistration Challenge, I have a couple more notes to recommend it. First, David Mellor has been super responsive and helpful as I waded through my preregistration. Any questions? Ask him. And while the Preregistration Challenge website states that it can take up to two weeks to have your preregistration approved — and that you shouldn’t start your analyses until it is — mine was approved within 24 hours. I’m looking forward to actually putting the data through my models now!

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Some advice on applying for faculty jobs, according to six Harvard assistant professors

This is the year — the first year I’d be applying for faculty jobs, if I wasn’t so adamant about not relocating. I finally have first-author papers, the last checkbox to check on an otherwise pretty decent CV. [1] The trouble with doing too many things is not finishing any of them. I had too many projects plus birthed two babies. (Okay, the birthing does get done, whether it’s your top priority or not!) In 2016, I’ll have had my first three first-author papers published: one from grad school, one from my first postdoc, and one independent. But by the end of 2016, I’ll be three years post-PhD… Even if I was willing to relocate (and I have to say, some of those job announcements are tempting), I’m not entirely sure I’d want to pursue the academic track. Over the years, I’ve befriended a number of junior faculty. And honestly, I’m not sure I want to live like them.

But I think it’s always good to be prepared and keep doors open, if doing so isn’t too costly. So last week, when there was a “how to apply for academic jobs” panel, I went. Just to see. I actually did send a long-shot application for a tenure track position several years ago, and I read a ton of job-seeking advice on the internet at the time. I wanted to see what more this panel could offer. Was there advice that no one was willing to commit to the Internet?

Here are the things I took away that were new to me (someone who has never really been on the job market, but is familiar with the standard set of advice you can find online), with the caveat that the panel consisted of folks who ended up securing tenure track jobs at Harvard [2] which likely means some sort of bias:

  • Applying for jobs is wildly different in different fields. I guess I sort of knew this. But it’s super important that when you find Internet advice, that it makes sense for your field! The panel was six assistant professors in the fields of EEB, EEB, physical anthropology, mathematics, biomed, and applied math. For the latter three, “going on the job market” was a single-year endeavor that entailed sending applications to many tens of institutions. The mathematician and his wife, trying to solve the two-body problem, sent off a combined 100 applications! All three got many interviews and multiple job offers. For ecology and its sister fields, “going on the job market” meant (for 2 of 3 panelists) a multiple-year search consisting of sending out a dozen or two applications per year to targeted positions. (The final panelist applied for just the job at Harvard, because she didn’t think she was ready to be on the job market, but the job description fit her perfectly and some mentors convinced her to apply.)
  • Five out of six said that being completely geographically open and completely open to the idea of institutions you might be skeptical about is necessary to get a good offer. The sixth decided she wanted to be geographically constrained and was happily willing to leave academia if she couldn’t get a job in the right (large) area. I pretty much never hear of this latter perspective, but it makes a lot of sense.
  • All six agreed that you shouldn’t tailor your research or teaching statements to the institutions you’re applying to. They’re about you and not the job opening. The cover letter can be a little bit customized — one panelist suggested a single paragraph that can be changed to talk about how you see yourself fitting in at that institution. (FWIW, a panel of four assistant professors the week before advised the exact opposite: that you should tailor all your materials for each application.)
  • All six agreed that being on the job market can be like a full-time job and is not fun, and that you need to have the support of whoever is paying your paycheck during this time.
  • For interviews, you shouldn’t ask too many questions. That is, sure, ask some questions to show that you’re really interested, but you don’t need to ask about all the little diddly details until you get an offer. And if you’re asking so many questions that the people interviewing you don’t feel like they get a chance to ask you questions, you’re doing it wrong. Related, don’t make it look like you’re interviewing the university. Of course, you want to know if it would be a good fit for you, but if you come across as “I’m interviewing you, too!” then you’re going to be seen as a bit stand-offish. The way you want to be seen is likable. These people aren’t just evaluating your research; they have to decide if they want to be around you for the next couple decades.
  • If you are a member of a group against which there are implicit biases, know these biases and play against them. For example, one panelist mentioned that, as a woman, she would never bring up teaching when interviewing at R1 institutions, although she was ready to talk about teaching if someone else brought it up.

Know of any applying-and-interviewing-for-faculty-jobs tidbits that you don’t regularly see online?

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Making science products Open: an informal guide to copyright and licensing

I grew up a hacker (in the original sense) and thus a True Believer in open knowledge. And so, when it came time to start publishing science, I figured I’d make all my products Open. But it turns out that there’s a bewildering array of things to think about if you want to do so. More recently, I’ve been wanting to incorporate other people’s creations in my own, and have encountered various difficulties in using Open products. I’m writing this post, in part, so I have notes I can easily reference in the future. But I figure if it helps me, it can help others, so here you go.

I have to put a note here that I am not a lawyer, and so this is not legal advice. This is just my good faith understanding of the intersection of U.S. copyright law, licensing, and academic products.

What is copyright, and why do I care?

When you make a Thing, you get to decide how to it’s used and how to distribute it to other people. That’s copyright. The sorts of Things we’re concerned with here are scientific writing (journal papers, reports, dissertations, etc.) and other media (photos, video, audio, etc.), scientific data, and software. You’ll see these Things referred to as “creative works” if you read a lot about copyright. Copyright is a type of intellectual property, and is different from patents, which cover inventions [1] specifically a physical thing or a process, and trademarks, which distinguish products and services from similar ones. And most likely, if you make a scientific Thing, you are automatically granted copyright. [2] There are exceptions, though. If you work for the U.S. government, your Things will automatically be in the public domain. And if you are the employee of a University or other institute, you may have signed away your rights in that flurry of paperwork you got when you were hired; in other words, your institution may own the copyright on Things you make, not you.

What do I do with my copyright?

Whatever you want.

The historical use of copyright goes something like this… I wrote a scientific paper and now Journal of Things (JoT) wants to publish it. I assign a license to JoT saying that they can use my writing to make a new Thing — a journal article — and that this journal article can be disseminated as JoT sees fit. Note that I retain the copyright to my actual writing, but JoT has copyright to the formatted, spiffed-up, published version. Now, let’s say someone else wants to use a figure from the published article, they now need JoT to assign a license to them for the use of that figure.

This model of assignment can work fine if the Thing you make is just used once or twice by others, or if you feel strongly about how your Thing is used and distributed. But otherwise, it can get cumbersome. Instead of (or in addition to) assigning licenses on a case-by-case basis, you can assign a general non-exclusive license that automatically allows people to use and disseminate your Things.

How do I assign one of these general non-exclusive licenses?

The first thing you have to do is pick one. And sadly, there are a lot of options for you out there. I really like the Choose A License site to get a sense of what the possibilities are. But if you just have time for a single blog post, here’s a quick run-down. Answer these questions:

  • Are you willing to let your Thing be distributed to anyone who wants it, free of charge?
  • Are you willing to let your Thing be modified into some other Thing by others? (e.g. If you take a picture that someone else wants to use, is it okay if they crop it differently or change the lighting or include it in a collage?)
  • Are you willing to let your Thing and its modifications be distributed by someone else for commercial purposes? (i.e. They might make money off of it.)
  • Do you require attribution? (i.e. You require that your name be attached to your Thing.)
  • Do you want to make sure everyone who uses or distributes your Thing (or modifications of it) uses the same set of answers to these questions as you do?

This seems straightforward enough until you realize that your answers to these questions might have complicated ramifications. For example, if you decide you do not want your beautiful photo of a rail to be used for commercial purposes without your explicit permission, I would totally understand that. But what that means is that when I want to use it in my Ecology article, I probably still need to contact your for explicit permission. That’s because Ecology, although a publication of the non-profit Ecological Society of America, is published by Wiley, a for-profit publisher. This is, of course, a murky area, but none of us are lawyers, right? So I should ask permission. Now, if you had put an open license on that image that didn’t curtail commercial use, then I could have used it in my article without asking. Even within the Open Source community, there are arguments about which are the best licenses to use. (That’s why there are so many of them.)

Ugh, this all sounds like a lot of effort. What if I just don’t do anything?

If you don’t do anything, you retain the strictest copyright allowable under law. In other words, if you don’t assign a general license to your Thing, then legally, it can’t be used, modified, or disseminated by anyone else without getting explicit permission from you.

Well, huh. I’d like to be more Open than that. What do you suggest?

Here’s where I’m at in my thinking of open licenses, though my thoughts may continue to evolve. For creative things I write, such as blog posts, scientific articles, and so forth, I usually retain full copyright, and don’t assign an open license.

For other media, such as photos, videos, and audio, I typically assign Creative Commons license CC BY. I used to care more about commercial use and so some of my stuff is licensed CC BY-NC. But as someone who’s been stymied by the NC (“non-commercial”) designation when trying to use something for not-for-profit purposes because there’s an awful gray area, I’ve given it up. If there is something that I think might have actual commercial value (such as our Snapshot Serengeti photos), I am more conservative with licensing and will slap on an NC. If anyone does wants to use it for a commercial purpose, they can ask and I can issue a separate non-exclusive commercial license that provides me with some slice of the income (as royalties or a one-time payment).

I also used to be a fan of Creative Commons’ “share alike” (SA) restriction, e.g. CC BY-NC-SA, which forces people who use your Thing to use the same license as you. But I’ve found that such “copylefts” are severely limiting for reuse of material. For example, I am never going to be able to persuade a publisher — even a clearly non-profit one — to make a journal article CC BY-NC-SA, so if you give that license to your rail photo, I’m going to have to ask you for explicit permission if I want to use it in an article. Every. Single. Time. So for me, CC BY is where it’s at, unless I think my Thing has actual commercial value. It essentially mirrors what we do in academia already: reuse and distribute work with attribution.

For data, I make it truly Open. I assign it to the public domain, meaning that anyone can use it for any purpose, without attribution. I do this both because it aligns with standard academic practice and because I don’t want anything to get in the way of anyone using my data. [3] Note: please use my data! (Of course, there are potential ramifications of doing so.)

I divide code into two types: code that I consider “end code” that is very specific to particular scientific study and “general code” that might reasonably be expected to be built upon by others. An example of the former is the specific agent-based model I used for a paper on disease dynamics. And for this sort of code, I tend towards a CC BY license because it’s simple and easy and I don’t have much expectation of reuse. An example of the latter is an R package. For this sort of code, I lean towards GPL-compatible licenses to make sure that my code license meshes easily with the code licenses of others. And since I’m no longer a fan of copyleft, the MIT license works just fine most of the time. It essentially says, “go ahead and use my code as you like, but I’m not providing any guarantees that it’s any good.”

Still seems complicated. Any other thoughts?

I have read a convincing argument [4] that I can’t find now, despite lots of searching. If you know it, can you send me the link? that as academics we might reasonably put everything under a public domain or MIT license (which limits liability). The reasoning is essentially that (1) academic culture already provides for attribution by default; (2) there are lots of murky gray waters in the copyright code such that definitions may vary between people (e.g. my definition of “commercial” may be different than yours), meaning that it’s hard to know what people’s real intentions are when they choose an Open license; and (3) we aren’t prone to go around suing each other over copyright infringement. After all, copyright only really matters if you’re willing to enforce it. And that takes time and money and effort.

I’m still chewing on this argument.

And I’m happy to hear others. How do you license your scientific Things?

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Demands for 48-hour proof turnarounds are unacceptable

Perhaps this sounds familiar… You wrote a manuscript and it got sent out for review. It got generally good reviews, and so you revised the manuscript once or twice. Then it was accepted. Hurrah! Break out the milkshakes. [1] or other beverage of choice Then … crickets … nothing. After a few months, you email the editor, who says, yes, it’s in the queue, just going to be a bit longer. Then one day, out of nowhere, whack! An email appears in your inbox. It’s final edits or proofs and the editor wants it back immediately. Forty-eight hours. Or in one business day.

My immediate reaction to this is always, “I’m sorry, your lack of planning is not my emergency,” and I push back. I really, really don’t get this behavior. It has now happened to me for 3 out of 3 first-author papers. [2] Case 1: proofs sent on a Sunday morning demanding 48-hour turnaround; Case 2: proofs sent on a Wednesday while I was on vacation and without Internet demanding a 48-hour turnaround; Case 3: final edits sent on a Thursday evening, demanding turnaround by end of day on Monday, a holiday. And I find it really, really rude.

I freely admit that I am not an editor nor do I understand the inner workings of academic publishing. But I see no reason for such a short deadline. Academic journals are published on regular schedules with regularly formatted content and with each manuscript on independent pages. It’s not like my article relies on the layout of the article before mine. Proofs and final edits can be prepared weeks in advance of submission to the printer (or posting online).

Dear editors, please understand that my job is busy and that I have a life outside of my job. I cannot just drop everything to attend to the task you want me to do. I have childcare responsibilities and so do not work evenings, weekends, or holidays. Do not expect me to. I have previously scheduled deadlines and meetings that I am not willing to cancel. Do not expect me to. Sometimes I am traveling or on vacation and sometimes I encounter emergencies. If I am away from the Internet for a few days, if my schedule is packed, if I am in the hospital caring for a loved one, you are going to have to wait. And you need to plan for such things, because they are a normal part of life.

Dear editors, I see us as partners in this publishing game. I create content. You publish it. I receive prestige from the deal. You fulfill your organization’s mission and/or receive money from the deal. So let’s treat one another as partners when it comes to final edits and proofs. If possible, please prepare final edits and proofs and send them to me several weeks before you need them. If that’s not possible, then please send me a heads-up email a week or two ahead of time telling me when you expect to need my time. I will put you on my schedule. I value our partnership.

I imagine that by creating this false sense of urgency, editors do tend to get fast turnarounds. But I want to suggest to early career academics that you think about something before you cancel that date to work on proofs, before you stay up all night to do edits, before you stick your kids in front of a screen so you can focus on your work and not them. By the time your paper gets to proof stage, the journal has already invested a lot of time and effort in your manuscript. They’ve even scheduled it for a particular issue. It may be more challenging for them to move articles around than wait a few extra days for you. So do what I do and prioritize the edits or proof, but not to the extent it upends your life. And say so, very politely: [3] Feel free to use my words.

Thank you for sending proofs. Unfortunately, I am unable to return them by [date], but I am prioritizing them, and will get them back to you no later than [date]. Thank you for your understanding.

Then absolutely and without fail, return your proofs or edits by your self-imposed deadline.

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