Advice to grad students: How I got here
I recently attended the 2017 Evolution Meeting in Portland, OR, where I had several conversations with graduate students who were curious about my path and advice I can offer about continuing in academia. These students said they thought my insights were refreshing and helpful, and that they appreciated my honesty. So I thought I would share some of them here.
Me, at my Phd graduation in 2014
1. Did you always know you wanted to teach?
No. In fact, when I started my master's I hated teaching. I didn't feel like I was good at it, and all those undergraduate eyes staring back at me were intimidating. During my PhD I finally started to see that I did know a little about teaching, and my student evaluations showed me that they appreciated my approach. During the final years of my PhD I realized that I was able to help them in ways they weren't necessarily getting in class, and that I had something to offer that they needed. Specifically, I spend a lot of time laying out logical arguments, and often that means re-drawing figures so they make an exact point, re-arranging lecture material to explain it a different way, or pulling material or examples from beyond the lecture to provide additional analogies and examples. I learned how useful the students found this approach particularly when teaching levers in a mid-level anatomy course. At that time I realized that if I had something the students found valuable, if I can provide a resource that they don't feel like they're getting somewhere else, I owe it to them to keep trying to help.
During my postdoc I wanted to take this one step further and actually learn about the pedagogy behind teaching. I had an intuitive sense, but I didn't know if I was doing it right or if I could be doing it better. By working on the guppy kit project with another graduate student, Dale Broder, I learned about inquiry teaching and authentic science, as well as why this is an effective teaching technique. I have tried to apply these techniques in other areas since then, but I am still learning how to extend this beyond what I have already done. When I started my new position as an Assistant professor, teaching a non-majors intro biology course, I entered the course ready to intellectually challenge students and watch them grow, but instead I was eaten alive. I had many tough days, which often made me question if I was still a good teacher and whether I wanted to do this anymore. After the semester was over I realized, through feedback from a handful of students, that I did make a difference to those students. I was also validated by other professors who had similar experiences and were able to give me tips for the next time.
There are ups and downs with teaching, but in the end, knowing that I can make a difference for even just one of my students is enough for me to want to continue. Again, if I still have something to offer them, I owe it to them to keep trying. They may not realize that now, but hopefully some day they will.
That's me again, this time teaching about the role of genes and environment to visiting middle school students
2. Did you always want to be a professor?
No. When I finished my Master's I didn't want to continue to a PhD. I didn't think I had what it takes. It was only when I began writing my thesis, and I realized that was the part I really enjoyed - thinking critically about an idea and interpreting results - that I thought maybe a PhD actually was for me. I ended up applying late to 1 graduate program (note, I don't recommend this strategy). I got in but I had to re-take the GRE because my scores weren't high enough. I was pretty committed to the PhD, even when I failed my oral exams the first time through. My committee said they were very happy with how I answered their questions, but they wanted me to redo my stats and weren't confident I would do that if they conditionally passed me. At UC Riverside you can change your committee between your orals and dissertation defense so there is a possibility of little accountability. I worked through their comments and another oral exam, that I still didn't pass unanimously, and applied for 3 postdocs. When I got the NSF postdoc, it was a no-brainer to accept it and I did.
However, as a postdoc, I began to see behind the curtain a bit more. I began to start seeing myself in the position of my advisors, who often had conflicts between their work and family. I also saw how tough it is to get those big juicy grants, and began to feel like the expectations of academia were unreasonable and didn't agree with my goals. I was seriously considering opening a fish store with my friend and colleague Porsche. We were going to call it "Fish Doctors" and it would focus on rehabilitating fish and teaching customers how to quarantine and treat their pet fish. We were just shy of picking out a store front when I got the interview at Georgia Southern. During that interview I felt like "they get it", and that as an institution, they understand how hard it is as well and have taken steps to provide positive resources and make sure I would be successful as an academic. I really do enjoy research and mentoring and teaching others about things I am passionate about, so I took the job. Even 6 months in, I still feel this way.
That's me back there, helping to raise the Main sail on the Irving Johnson at a tall ship festival
3. How do you deal with the pressures/expectations of academia?
So I said that "they get it" here at GSU, but that doesn't mean there aren't high standards to meet. We are still expected to do research, publish 1-2 papers a year, apply for grants (with that hope that you will get at least some), and teach 9 contact hours (~3 classes) per semester. Oh plus service as doled out by the department chair. As a postdoc I made a commitment to myself that I didn't want to work 80 hours a week, and that daily and weekly personal time was important to me. That meant I had to come to terms with the fact that I may not finish all the data analysis before I started my job, and I may not get that second publication out before I moved, but that was a level of productivity I was comfortable with. If I didn't get a job because of it, then I probably didn't want to be at that place anyway. It's harder as a professor, and I have been worse about my time commitments these past 6 months, but I still feel similarly. I want to work at a level that I am comfortable with, and if I don't get tenure because of it, then my husband and I will move to the Bahamas, buy a sailboat, and start our own ecotour business taking people snorkeling on our boat. I understand this is coming from a place of privilege since we have a decent savings account and no kids or dependents to support, plus its easier to say when you have a relatively permanent position, so this may not be for everyone.
Kayaking in Colorado
4. How should I approach applying for postdocs?
Most of this advice comes from my PhD advisor, Tim Higham, and looking back I think he was right. First, start early. But make sure it's not so early that you can't graduate if you get a position. I thought Tim was nuts asking me where I was planning to do a postdoc only 2 days after I finally passed my oral exams! But that was year 4 and he was right that I needed to think about the next steps. It ended up coming together sooner rather than later, but I guess he knew I was ready.
Second, think about what you want to get out of it. What do you want to "be" as a professor or professional? How would you sell yourself? Do you want to learn a skill? Maybe learn a new topic? Maybe work with certain collaborators or a new study system? Build your teaching repertoire? What kind of advisor would you want during a postdoc? Make a list of all of these things, without thinking necessarily of how you will get them. Once you have your list, start thinking of people and how many of your categories each person fits. Then pick the top few to approach. I did this and Cameron Ghalambor fit all the things I wanted to get out of a postdoc. I also wanted to try to get my own funding to work with him, so I decided to try the NSF postdoctoral research fellowship in biology. Again, Tim advised me to think of the best project I could, if I had all the resources I needed and could do anything. That's what I wrote in my grant proposal. I was also pursuing two other opportunities, but had invested much more of my own intellect into the grant, and was thrilled to be able to pursue it.
Me at a field site in Trinidad
I also want to note that there are increasingly more types of postdoc opportunities becoming available - they aren't all just research. For example, Dale got a position with the Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of (In)Equality (IRISE) at Denver University. There is also a center headquartered at Michigan State University (BEACON) that recruits postdocs for projects including evolution education and outreach. Recently, I have also seen advertised positions for science communicators as well! Life after a PhD can be more than the typical research position, and I'm glad to see so many interesting and creative opportunities being supported!
5. Final thoughts
My sample size is 1. I know how I feel and how I approach this job, but that doesn't mean it will work for everyone. My best piece of advice to graduate students is to think honestly about what you want and what you are willing to do to get there. If you are honest with yourself, you will be happy with where you are. I'm sure your advisor expects some kind of product out of your PhD, likely a thesis and some manuscripts, but YOU are the one who is living your life, so make it something you are happy with as well.
Good luck out there!