Don’t you want to share your slides? Here’s an easy way to do it!

A friend of mine here at Wash U, Liz Dorland, shares all her talks. She works on effective science teaching, so I refer to her talks often. Liz uses Slideshare for this. Since she discovered it, it might be good if I use her words for it:

“Actually, Slideshare doesn’t require you to login to view. You can also click to view full screen, and the links in it are live.
You can also download a copy directly from the same webpage. It’s too big to email, so that’s the best option.
This page has all 20+ of my slideshare uploads going back quite a few years.
I’m a huge Slideshare fan. You can find presentations on just about subject you want, and it’s great for students to share their work or to get ideas.”

I can’t say I’ve researched this very much, or that I’m aware of other such services, but I like this one so far. I’m going to start putting talks here. Thus far I’ve only put three up. One is on how I made the transition from wasps to social amoebae. One is on creativity in research. One is on women’s and minority issues.

I would love to put up more of my talks, including the ones I used to use in classes before I jettisoned that approach. I’ll just have to be sure I don’t violate other people’s copyrights too much with the images!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all shared our talks and images?

Posted in Scientific meetings, Presentations and seminars, Helping others, Seminars, Scientific community, Teaching, Talks | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What to do when a postdoc isn’t working out

Your postdoctoral years should be glorious. You’ve proven yourself with a Ph.D., showing you can master your field and find something new to solve, often in collaboration with an adviser, solve it, write it up, and publish it. You have learned the secret handshakes of academia, how to write grant proposals, how to present at meetings, how to meet new people, how to forge collaborations, and how to carve out an exciting niche for yourself.

Your reward is the lollipop stage of an academic career, the postdoc. Postdocs get to focus on research. They have left behind course requirements, dissertation margin rules, and the often capricious rules for a degree at their institution. They do not yet have to face the complex balance of a faculty position with teaching, research, and committee work, to name only the formal stuff.

This is not to say postdocs don’t face challenges. If your funding comes from your mentor, the project may be much more specific than anything you had before. If you have your own funding, with increased independence, challenges in deciding on appropriate methods and approaches will fall more on your shoulders.

You may not have written up all your previous work and need to carve out time to do that if you are to succeed at the next step, a fulfilling faculty position, or something else that uses your considerable skills. A good productivity yardstick is to publish at least a paper a year during your postdoc, mixing work from before, work you take the lead on, and work you are a middle author on. Always choose for publishing the highest level journal you can.

Whether the project is your own or one you joined, a crucial component is independence. For example, no one should pay attention to when you arrive at the lab in the morning, unless you are planning something like a joint pipetting marathon and scheduled it specifically. No one should tell you when you work on the new stuff and when you take time to finish earlier work. No one should look over your shoulder more often than mutually agreed on scheduled meetings, except for if you both enjoy informal contact.

So, this is what it should be like. It is a stage, no more than five years long, ideally, that precedes the next, more permanent step. If you come to hate the project, figure out what to do. Switch projects or identify aspects of it you like. Researchers thrive only with a love of the question, the organism, and the project. You may still be defining your best love in this period and no one will fault you if you decide what first looked glittery is in fact not for you. A considerate mentor will help you with this project.

If you do not get along with your adviser, you should start with working on the relationship. The commonest relationship failure is excessive oversight. Coax the adviser away by offering meetings based on productivity, not random checks for things like open doors. Resist being micro-managed, but offer up written summaries. The micromanaging adviser is probably dealing with consequences of this behavior in a lot of areas of life.  One approach that might work may be to turn the adviser’s attention from you personally and your schedule to written accounts of research progress and struggles. Or this may not work. Identify what you can change about the relationship and your interpretation of it, and what you cannot change. If the part that you cannot change is making you miserable, leave.

Keep front and center the belief that the postdoctoral period should be wonderful for everyone. If it is not and you cannot fix it using the tips above, then it is time to move on. No one will hold it against you. Odds are others already know your adviser is difficult. Just remember your job is to flourish academically and intellectually. This is not a shop floor. There is no time clock. There is no boss. Don’t settle for misery!

Posted in Collaboration, Managing an academic career, Postdocs | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The problem with describing author contribution

Did you ever read the author contribution box on a paper you have contributed to with horror? Did you not realize you were hardly a part of the study, that someone else is claiming the idea, the analysis, or all the writing? What went wrong? The project was so much fun, such teamwork, such discovery, bit by bit, resulting in a manuscript that went through months of rewriting. Then when boiled down into a few categories of contribution, it turns out the other party really did nearly everything, according to them.

What went wrong? I see several sources of confusion. Each person involved in a study will be much more aware of their own contribution than of that made by others. This may particularly be a problem if the work is a result of teams at two different universities. Since these pieces are often filled in at the last minute, they may not even be considered worthy of discussion.

But let’s get one thing straight first off: what does it take to be an author on a study? This could be a big topic, but let’s make it a small one. You have to have done something to contribute to the study. How much varies. It used to be the technicians, often women, were not authors, though they may have done all the experimental work. I remember having this explained to me as an undergraduate when I interviewed for a job at Michigan’s medical campus. The male professor told me when I asked that the technicians got acknowledged and that was all they wanted. I decided not to work in that lab. So, for authorship you have to conceive of the study, impact it in some way, analyze data, write it up, or somehow make it better. You may do this and not be an author, but to be an author you have to actually contribute to the study. Being in the lab, or providing general funding is not enough, though teaching someone to do the techniques they need for a study should count.

But let’s get back to those author contribution boxes that are becoming more and more common. PNAS in an editorial in 2004 by Nicholas Cozzarelli, “strongly encourages” specification of author contributions. He suggests that author contribution categories might be: “designed research, performed research, contributed new reagents or analytic tools, analyzed data, or wrote the paper.” These are suggestions, but they are what we see in many papers now.

Besides the problem of each person seeing their own contribution more clearly than other people’s contributions, there is the problem of definition for every category. It would be tedious to list all the possibilities, but there are a few systematic areas of differing perspective. What if a student plans out a study, brings it to others who go over it carefully, ending up in a redesign? Is that designed by one or more? The answer depends on how important the changes were, often a judgement call.

How about the writing? What if a student writes the paper, but it is repeatedly commented and revised by others? Does that count as also writing? Usually the more senior members of a team do the revising and commenting and the more junior members bring first drafts of experiments, analyses, and writing. There may also be a power difference. How to balance all this?

I’m unconvinced that those author contribution boxes are ever accurate. In ones I have been involved in they have been variously grossly inaccurate, over generous, over stingy, or accurate but uselessly vague. How can you really break out what members of a collaborating team did exactly? If you list contributions, you should be sure to get input from everyone, ideally by asking each person what they contributed, not sending a pre-made list with inaccuracies that develop a life of their own. Keep notes so you can document your contributions and remember to stick up for the weakest team member that might get forgotten.

Posted in Collaboration, Ethics, Publishing your work | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

What if you assume your hypothesis is wrong when you design an experiment?

Designing experiments is deceptively simple. After all, you know what’s going on, right? So you just design an experiment that manipulates or otherwise examines the variable of interest, with an appropriate control, then show the pattern you expected, write it up and publish. Easy.

Or not? What if you assume you are always wrong and just need to design your experiments to reveal the way in which you are wrong. What additional controls might you think of? What confounding variables might hard thought reveal? What if you did think about all those issues that might mess up your work right from the start? Could you ever do the experiment?

There is a hard balance between paralyzing yourself as you struggle to design the perfect experiment and doing the less than perfect experiment only to discover a comparatively easy control might have revealed certain problems a lot earlier.

We struggle with this balance. All too often an additional control becomes obvious only after an experiment is complete. This means we have to do it all over, or redo part of it. This is an issue that comes up a lot in experimental evolution, where density and genetic relatedness interact. It can come up in ecological experiments. It is important even in experiments that use the comparative method without actually manipulating living things.

I do not know the answer to efficiently designing the perfect experiments. I do know that most ideas are eventually proven wrong, incomplete, or irrelevant, so keeping that humbly in mind might help one develop a certain humility and caution in experiments. And never forget that the most difficult to explain results might point to the next big idea.

Posted in Experimental design | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Bring on your questions! I’ll answer.

Some of my readers in ticklish academic dilemmas have emailed me with questions. I answer these questions, privately first, and sometimes I then address the topic with a general blog on it. I do this later and without giving any particulars of course, for I respect your privacy. I’ll even change the story around a bit for further concealment, since there will always be details that can be changed without impacting the main point.

You don’t need to conceal your identity because I won’t ever share it. Not only will I not share it, but I am highly unlikely to remember it, the best form of concealment of all! But of course, if you like you can use your friend’s email or some such device.

Often you will be able to answer your own questions in the process of writing them down. That is where much of my confidence in answers comes from. After all, you know the particulars of your case better than anyone else. You also know how they make you feel. I can usually see loud and clear what you think the solution is, though getting there might sometimes be tricky. Also, the forty years since I began graduate school have given me perspective. I suppose one of the hardest situations is when someone you like and trust is pushing you in a direction you know is not right for you.

A constant challenge for mentors is to understand that our students and colleagues are not the same as us. We have to help them discover their own answers, not follow in our footsteps. Even if we are very happy with where we are now, there are in everyone’s life and career some phases or circumstances we would not have wished on anyone, formative as they might have been. So discover in yourself your own best solutions, but ask others, including me, too. Ultimately it is up to you.

Posted in Mentoring | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Is tenure failure a social failure, not an individual failure?

A great piece by Cin-Ty Lee in his blog, Down to earth questions, makes the wise point that tenure denied is a problem from many levels other than the individual. It could be a hiring problem, a mentoring problem, an overburdening problem. In short, what the department does is a huge part of the tragedy of tenure failure. We should all do our best to avoid the million dollar loss of tenure failure.

One of the problems with switching universities is you are farther away from some very good friends. Cin-Ty is one of those friends we left behind. We taught bird field biology with him, but his is academically an exceptional geologist. He also paints expertly. Currently he seems to be accepting some highly responsible positions and sharing his ever frank opinions on his blog, Downtoearthquestions. At least in this way we can keep up, though as April approaches, birding in Texas becomes ever more enticing.

Posted in Tenure | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How to motivate a graduate student

When you are motivated, ideas bubble up in the middle of any activity. When you are motivated, you find solutions and links across different areas of your endeavor. When you are motivated, you find joy that carries you through the boring parts of any activity.

Since this is a blog about becoming a biology professor, the kind of motivation I’m thinking about has to do with research. The particular focus is on graduate students, but could apply to other levels. Post-docs and faculty are likely to have passed the great self-motivation divide. Undergrads have many academic demands on their time and may not yet have figured out where their motivation lies.

So, how exactly do you motivate a graduate student in your group who does not seem to be very motivated? I’m afraid the short answer is that you cannot. Motivation has to come from within. The student has to want to discover for themselves. Motivation is an extremely personal quality.

If you cannot motivate a graduate student, does this mean no one can ever motivate anyone? I would not say that, just that motivation comes earlier in life. Perhaps it comes from earliest childhood, when you are encouraged to explore, when your ideas are treated as if they mean something, when you are shown the natural world, and given simple tools for exploration like a butterfly net, or a child’s microscope. Besides encouragement, a little pushing is a good thing, for it challenges you to find a best performance past what you might have thought possible.

Motivation arises in Fairchild Botanical Gardens butterfly house

Motivation arises in Fairchild Botanical Gardens butterfly house

My earliest memories come from exploring, from trying to follow rabbits in a Washington D.C. park. They extended to a catholic interest in all things wild and natural. By the time I was 12 and tried to smuggle two jars of formaldehyde into the tiny suitcase my parents allowed me to pack myself for a year in England, I was set as a curious naturalist and motivation was never a problem. I could go on about the various teachers through the years that encouraged and pushed me, but I bet it would be more fun to tune into your own memories on the topic.


Is he thinking that when he grows up he will study butterflies?


While it is true you cannot motivate a graduate student, I think it is possible to unmotivate them. Give them a narrow already defined project, criticize frequently, pay attention to when they come to work and when they leave, compare them unfavorably to others, encourage competition rather than collaboration, and steal or crush their ideas. Do several of these for only a few months and you will go a long way towards unmotivating a student. The lucky ones will simply leave your group. But of course, you are not this kind of person, so you will not do any of these things.

So, what do you do with the unmotivated student? First, think of your own needs. How is the student impacting you? How is he impacting your group? Meet with him and set up a list of clear expectations. Also make it clear that there is no place for someone who does not love what they do in research science because it is impossible to flourish against those that love this field. Help him to understand that he needs to discover what he loves, and do that, leaving your lab and science, if necessary.

Posted in Graduate school, Research | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment