The Molecular Ecologist: The Carnival of knowing what I know now

This advice won’t even cost you five cents. Image via

That carnival of advice based on personal experience from previous career stages? Yep, it’s online today at The Molecular Ecologist. Head on over for a heaping helping of introspection, snark, and (mostly) sober reflection from across the science blogosphere.◼

Knowing what I know now: Let’s make it a carnival!

County Fair Photo by Justin in SD.

Cross-posted from The Molecular Ecologist.

So, not long after I posted my advice for grad school, and said I hoped that The Molecular Ecologist ultimately collect similar posts from a whole bunch of people, Scicurious e-mailed to point out that there’s a thing we do in the blogosphere when we want to collect a bunch of posts on a particular topic: we hold a carnival!

So the plan is now that The Molecular Ecologist will host a “Knowing What I Know Now” carnival on Monday, December 10, and if you’re working in science at any career stage, you’re invited! All you need to do is write up a few things you wish you’d known in your previous career stage that would’ve helped you prepare for your current career stage. (i.e., grad students, write about undergrad; postdocs, about grad school; and so on.) In my original post I may have over-emphasized the academic career track — we’d love to hear advice about preparing for work in industry, or with a non-academic nonprofit, or in government, too.

If you have a blog, write up your advice as a post and either e-mail the link to me or post it in the comments below. If you don’t have a blog, we’ll be happy to post your contribution at The Molecular Ecologist — again, e-mail me to set that up. Please send all your links and post contributions by Saturday, December 8, and I’ll pull them together for the carnival post on the 10th.

Ready? Set? Start your advice-ing.◼

The road ahead

Minneapolis, one of my two new hometowns. Photo by jby.

So, now that I’ve defended my dissertation, there’s really not much of grad school left for me. I have to turn in a final, committee-approved version of the dissertation text, and then on May 14 I’ll put on some Hogwarts-worthy getup and accept my diploma from the University of Idaho. I also have some final grading to deal with (Whose bright idea was it to add an independent reading report to the lab curriculum? Oh, right. Mine.) and I’d like very much to get my last Joshua tree paper ready for submission. But, after all that—what’s next?

As it happens, I’ve known that for some time, but there didn’t seem to be a good opportunity to cover it here before now: I’m going to Minnesota.

Specifically, I’ll be starting a post-doctoral position with Peter Tiffin’s lab at the University of Minnesota, Saint Paul. I’m going to be joining a project studying the population genetics of the interaction between plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, using the legume Medicago truncatula as an experimental model. It’s a big, multi-lab, multi-institution collaboration, working with genomic data for both Medicago and the bacteria it hosts, Sinorhizobia.

My new favorite plant, Medicago truncatula. Photo by Minette Layne.

So I’ll be studying a mutualism that might work a bit like yucca pollination—but then again, it might not. The plant-rhizobium interaction is much more widespread than obligate pollination mutualism, and has probably played a big role in the diversification of land plants. Plus, I’ll be working with genome-scale data—it’s all on a totally different scale from anything I’ve done before. There are possibilities for experiments and analyses that we’ll never be able to do with Joshua trees—ye gads, greenhouse experiments!—and it’ll be a learning experience at every step. And, equally importantly, my new collaborators at the Tiffin lab and the other research groups involved in the Medicago genome project are a smart, friendly bunch—I’m looking forward to working with them. All in all, it’s exactly what I want in a postdoc.

Saint Paul and Minneapolis look like a pretty nice place to spend the next couple years, too. It’s not just that they’re cities after six years in small-town Idaho—they’ve got solid mass transit and they’re ranked alongside Portland, Oregon for bicycle-friendliness. One of my new senators will be Al Franken. The Twin Cities are the home turf for Public Radio powerhouse American Public Media. Minneapolis was even named the gayest city in America by the Advocate, and I don’t think that was meant as some sort of elaborate joke.

It’s hard to complain about the new neighbors, either: My new U of M colleagues will include George Weiblen, an expert on the other classic obligate pollination mutualism; G. David Tilman, who’s done pioneering work on the ways competition and other species interactions structure natural communities; and Ruth Shaw, who helped lay the foundation for the ways we measure natural selection today. On the science blogging front, none other than P.Z. Myers will be another U of M colleague (at the Morris campus), and BoingBoing’s science guru Maggie Koerth-Baker is in town.

Of course, as I’ve learned from years of Garrison Keillor exposure, winter in Minnesota does not mess around. Fortunately I’m moving immediately after graduation in mid-May, so I’ll have some time to brace myself. Apartment-hunting priorities include covered parking.

All of this is a long and digressive way of saying, yet again, that I’m making some pretty major changes in the next few weeks. Expect further irregularities in posting, and maybe even a radical reconsideration of how D&T fits in my schedule—I don’t yet know what my life will look like once I’ve settled into postdoc-hood, though I’m excited to find out.

Defending my dissertation

A week from Friday, I’m finally going to present six years’ worth of doctoral research to my dissertation committee, and they’ll tell me whether or not it’s enough to warrant a Ph.D. I am given to understand that the process will go something like this:

Which is to say, a lot of frantic running around culminating in a highly formalized event at which my fate will depend on answering potentially arbitrary questions. Maybe involving swallows.

I’m still in the running-around bit, which involves tasks like taking my written dissertation to have the College of Graduate studies check the width of the page margins. So, um, wish me luck.

Totally swamped

Fellowship proposal writing, teaching, research, job hunting. No sign yet of the rodents of unusual size, but they’re coming up later in the semester for my mammalogy students, if I remember the curriculum correctly. Much as I hate to watch my pageview count decay, I’m suspending regular posting until I get back onto solid ground.

Graduate degrees underwater

Emily Bazelon discusses how freshly-minted PhDs, Masters, and JDs say they’re coping in the Great Downturn.

The studies that show [the economic benefit of an advanced degree] typically crunch broad swaths of data. They look at the census, or other large population samples, and show a positive correlation between income and years of education. This means that college and graduate school are generally a good bet. But it doesn’t tell you that every single degree pays off financially at every single point in time.

And so there are lots of just-graduated grad students, many with debt from student loans, unable to do the work they’re highly qualified to do.

I’m fortunate in multiple regards, here; I’ve probably got another two years to go, thanks to a just-received DDIG, so I’m not hitting the job market until the worst has (hopefully) passed. Because I’ve been lucky enough to be funded as either a teaching assistant or a research assistant (and can expect continued funding as one or the other), I don’t have new debt related to grad school, even if I’m not exactly getting rich doing it. Being in a mostly NSF-funded field has been harrowing in recent years, but under the new administration things are looking better for funding in pure science – NSF did pretty well under the stimulus package, and should see better treatment in the regular budget, too. My only major worry is that when I graduate, I’ll be competing for post-doctoral spots with an extra-large cohort of other folks who waited out the downturn as students.