foxspotting.

A week ago I was walking home late at night after catching the last tram from the central station. I had been at a friend’s house playing board games, talking science, and mulling over the ideal level of involvement by a PhD supervisor. We drank quite a bit of red wine.

As I padded up Restelbergstrasse, what I thought was a large cat walked across the road. Then it lay down in the grass between the street and a parking lot.

It wasn’t a cat. It was a fox. There were two of them: one stood on the far side of the parking lot, its dark coat almost completely blending in to the inky night. Without the nearby street lamp to partially illuminate the parking lot, I might not have noticed it.

A week ago I was walking home late at night after catching the last tram from the central station. I had been at a friend’s house playing board games, talking science, and mulling over the ideal level of involvement by a PhD supervisor. We drank quite a bit of red wine.

As I padded up Restelbergstrasse, what I thought was a large cat walked across the road. Then it lay down in the grass between the street and a parking lot.

It wasn’t a cat. It was a fox. There were two of them: one stood on the far side of the parking lot, its dark coat almost completely blending in to the inky night. Without the nearby street lamp to partially illuminate the parking lot, I might not have noticed it.

I watched the lying-down fox for a moment, then slowly reached to pull out my phone. I wanted to take a picture of this wildlife in my neighborhood. But my hand movement was too disruptive, and the fox hopped up, turned around, and jogged to the other side of the parking lot. From there it watched me.

I stood for five minutes on the sidewalk, looking across the parking lot at this fox. We stared each other down. Mentally I willed it to come closer, but no surprise, the fox was stronger. As the bell in the square rang 12:30, I walked up the street and home to my bed.

The larger Zurich metropolitan area has over a million people, and I thought it was very cool that I had seen foxes just trotting in between people’s houses, through their yards, past their driveways. There are many foxes around our farm in New Hampshire, but we rarely see them. It seems notable when you do.

But after a bit of research, I found that my experience wasn’t unique at all.

“The urban fox population is on the rise in Switzerland,” SwissInfo reported in 2011, complete with adorable pictures of foxes in yards. As of that writing, there were about 1,200 foxes in Zurich.

Shows what I know, as a country bumpkin: I thought that wildlife belonged to rural areas. Sure, there’s lots of birds and biodiversity even in urban areas, but foxes?

In 2002, a PhD student from my department wrote a five-manuscript dissertation about the foxes of Zurich. You can skim the whole thing here. It’s fascinating: it appears that there is a clear separation between urban and rural foxes, even when foxes living in rural settings on the outskirts of Zurich could easily shift their ranges into the city. In Zurich, as of 2002, Sandra Gloor found a density of ~10-11 foxes per square kilometer. To avoid contact with humans (i.e., me walking home drunk at night), the foxes used urban parks and cemeteries mostly during the early part of the night, then ventured into residential neighborhoods in the second half of the night, when people were more scarce; during the day, the rest in parks, cemeteries, and fallow land on the outskirts of the city.

Foxes only moved into the city proper in the mid-80s in any large numbers. It’s a phenomenon that has happened all over the world: London has more than 10,000 urban foxes and a significant amount of human-fox conflict.

I like our Zurich foxes, though. It reminds me that wherever you go, there’s a little more nature than you might suspect, and that animals are highly adaptable.

(P.S. Are you a fan of foxes? Check out my friend Jean’s artwork at WildLines Studio, and you can buy beautiful prints like this one of a jumping red fox.)

open access for who?

IMG_1090Beautiful Uppsala.

A lot has been written about the push for open access publishing in academia. In case you’re not familiar with it, it means publishing in journals where content is available, free of charge, online, to everyone. This is very different than the traditional journal model, where libraries pay exorbitant fees to publishers for access to the journals, and if you aren’t working through one of those libraries you will hit a paywall where access to a single article is likely to cost $30-45 if not more.

In a lot of ways I feel like I can’t add much: it’s a great idea, it helps science be more accessible, it often helps data be more accessible, it opens the conversation. It’s another high cost, borne to authors instead of to libraries. It’s confusing how the journals make all the money no matter what way we publish.

I fully support the idea of open access, and most of my papers so far have been published in open-access journals. That includes one, about climate change effects on a seemingly unassuming (but actually ecologically and reproductively fascinating) arctic/alpine cushion plant, Silene acaulis. That paper went on to be one of the most highly-accessed articles on the Springer’s catch-all open access journal, SpringerPlus. To date it has over 4,000 accesses, according to the article metrics. Would this have been more if it were published in a different journal? I have no idea, but it is much more popular than I had expected.

Based partly on this positive experience, my masters supervisor (Juha Alatalo) and I decided to publish in primarily open-access journals. (I did not make the same decision about my other work, and have a different manuscript based on my research in Davos submitted at a traditional journal.) Which brings me to the unique question I have: how do I pay for it?

In traditional journals, there might not be a fee to get a manuscript published. There might be, but more likely (at least in the better journals) there is a fee for color figure printing, or perhaps a per-page fee. In open access, that goes out the window. Because journals can’t charge libraries fees to access these manuscripts, instead they charge the authors. Fees usually run greater than $1000, sometimes up to $3000.

Some departments and lab groups work this into their budgets. Some researchers also include a category on their grant applications to cover publication fees. However, some funding agencies also explicitly do not pay for publication fees. If you are a researcher in between grants, money might be tight. Or, like me, you might be a graduate student working to publish your first first-authored paper. It would take more than a month’s worth of my masters scholarship payment just to pay the open access fees. And, like me, you might work in a small lab group that does not have additional funding to easily cover these sorts of things.

I looked around and found that many universities (not all, but a chunk of the R1 schools in the U.S.) have special funds to cover open-access publishing. Just via google, here are a few examples: Harvard; University of Calgary; Cornell; University of Arizona.

The University of Heidelberg in Germany has a funny way of describing the rationale for their fund: “Heidelberg University supports researchers who are willing to publish articles in open access journals with a publishing fund to cover article processing charges.” Are willing. As if it’s some burden.

PLoS One even has a list of universities which have funds to cover PLoS (a journal consortium which stands for Public Library of Science) publishing. That’s really nice on first read, but then you think about it more and it seems less “open”: the publishing house itself is referring people to ways to convince third parties to pay the publishing house.

It also, and I am being petty and jealous here, makes it much easier for some researchers to publish in open access journals than others. The university where I did my masters, Uppsala University in Sweden, does not have such a fund. During the time when I wrote the paper I am seeking to publish, I was supported only by a small scholarship from my masters program. I received no funding from my supervisor or his lab. It’s not like I have leftover grant money with which I can pay publication fees.

Being in Sweden, home of Pirate Bay and the Pirate Party, Uppsala of course loves the idea of making science publicly available. Sweden has a program, OpenAccess.se, which promotes open access. Trolling through the Uppsala library archives, I am unable to find any evidence of funding to cover open access fees, but I did find a powerpoint presentation which stated, awkwardly, that there was at the moment no available funding to cover these expenses even though they really would like researchers to publish open-access.

Instead, Uppsala has a database called DiVA, which they call an open-access repository. This type of “repository” is listed as one of the main goals of OpenAccess.se. Up until recently, students were required to submit their theses to DiVA, so that they could be read by all; departments then realized that actually, if a student tried to then publish some part of that thesis, the journals might balk since it had already actually been published. When I finished my masters, we were first told to submit our theses, and then told not to because the university had to sort out some legal issues.

There are also published articles in DiVA, and researchers are encouraged to upload their work which is published in journals. There are a few problems with this: copyright on journal articles is complex, and you aren’t necessarily allowed to “make” an article open access by posting it online. The journal owns the copyright, even if you own the data. As such, there are not so many full-text articles in DiVA. If I do a keyword search for the major ecological concept I am studying in my PhD, dendritic networks, nothing comes up. If I search for “dendritic”, I get some clinical medicine articles.

And DiVA is Uppsala’s crowning library achievement, in some sense. It is heavily promoted within the university, and touted as their contribution to open access.

(It also has other functions. “All publications by researchers and staff at Uppsala University should be registered in DiVA,” the FAQ reads. “The reason for this is to produce a complete picture of what is being published by staff at the university. In addition departments can use this information to facilitate the evaluation and distribution of funds.” There are many records of publications which do not have the actual full-text articles attached to them.)

It’s pretty clear that while DiVA might be useful for many applications, it is not the same thing as an open-access journal. And if you want your work to be accessed by all, Uppsala – consistently ranked in the top 100 universities in the world, and the second-best in Sweden – is not going to help you.

Here’s another example of how I’m stuck: the Ecological Society of America, which publishes multiple highly-regarded journals, waives page fees (for the first 15 pages per year, at least) for members who lack grant money, for its flagship publications Ecology, Ecological Applications, and Ecological Monographs. For their open-access journal Ecosphere, members get a reduced price for publication: $1250 instead of $1500. There are no grant funds available to further cover costs for researchers who lack grant money.

And so, I’d like to ask: open access publishing is frequently discussed in very idealistic terms, with lofty goals for the future. But is it so egalitarian? If you lack funding, for instance if you are early in your career – not coincidentally the point where open access to your work might be extremely beneficial – there seems to be a clear message: open access is not for you. Finding a broader audience for your publication might be unattainable, as is your hope of sharing knowledge with all.

reality (of) settling in.

IMG_1337

By now I’m a pro at traveling and moving. Over the last two years I lived in four different countries; at this point I’m up to 16 months straight where I haven’t stayed in one country for a whole month, whether it means a “permanent” move or a conference or vacation.

When I left the U.S. on Halloween to move to Zurich, things were easy. Packing went more smoothly than it ever has in the past. The travel was no problem; at JFK I talked my way into the U.S. Airways Lounge by charming the front desk lady. There, I enjoyed free breakfast and stocked up on snacks for my trip. I even managed to actually sleep on the overnight flight.

Moving in and settling down, I thought, would be just as easy. Paperwork? I’ve done that before. Bureaucratic rules? Check. Learning where the nearest grocery store is? Yeah, I’ve done that. (Not to mention, I now have an iPhone so I can actually get directions and maps on the fly, which is huge.)

After all, I have been looking forward to this so much: coming to Zurich, working in an amazing institute, living in one place for three years. Making myself a home and finding a community. Traveling with a backpack, instead of a duffel bag and a ski bag each weighing 50 pounds. Having a kitchen; having a living room. Having a bedroom that is separate from those rooms. Having a yard! Having plants. Being able to get into a routine, to have habits like going for a run in the morning. Having space to plan in.

I’m certainly well on my way to those goals.

IMG_1319

But surprisingly, the moving-in and settling-down part is proving harder than I had expected. Way harder. And I don’t mean that it’s a stuggle: most things were checked off my list in the first day. I have a phone number, a bank account, a train pass, some furniture. The main things remaining are university registration (all my documents are in but the University of Zurich inexplicably takes up to three months to process it?) and, once that’s complete, insurance. And the migration board. Switzerland lets you in as long as you have a visa, but then waits to offer you an appointment to get a residence permit – so for weeks, potentially, you’re living with no Swiss-issued permission or ID. Which prevents you from checking a whole bunch of other things off your list.

What’s hard is that every day when I come home from work, I’m exhausted. Totally, completely done with the world. As I recently wrote in an e-mail to one friend, ” I get home and I melt into a puddle of useless sofa-glop.” (At least I have a sofa.)

The things that I want to do in my evenings don’t get done. I don’t go for that jog or do that circuit workout. I don’t read that paper or work on that manuscript left over from my masters degree. I don’t even reply to e-mails from my friends – the act of typing out my thoughts is too much. I don’t write the article for FasterSkier.

Probably, I peruse the internet and, in a haze, read some pop culture news that doesn’t even absorb into my brain.

Why this is so, I can’t seem to explain.

There’s been a lot of discussion in academic circles recently about how we all complain about how busy and stressed we are, but that’s only because we choose to see ourselves as busy and stressed. There have been some fabulous rebuttals, my favorite of which comes from Timothée Poisot:

“the raw volume of things we have to do increases over time; so does our productivity, but with a delay. We are essentially in a Red-Queen dynamics with ourselves: more work to do means that we have to develop a new coping strategy, in the form of more productive habits. Then when we feel comfortable, we take on more work, and become overworked again.”

(If you’re not familiar with the Red Queen hypothesis, here‘s a nice explanation of how a chapter in Through The Looking Glass is related to evolutionary theory.)

Looking back over the last few years, I totally see this in my life. That’s why I think it’s such a great explanation. I’ve gone from producing 50 to 75 to over 100 race reports (of increasingly better quality) for FasterSkier every winter, while simultaneously holding better and more serious jobs – hell, I did a masters degree which involved writing my own grants and administering a field season. I never feel totally comfortable, but as I pile on more things, they always seem to get done with no more stress than the previous, slightly-smaller workload.

Do things get lost in the lurch? Yeah. Personal relationships. But I still have good epistolary (ok, e-mail) relationships with some great friends, and things always fall back into place when I see them. I still wish I was better though, and wish I was closer to some of the people I care most about. And I wish I had more time to exercise – that for sure gets lost. I’m in the worst shape of my life since high school, but on the other hand, I’m still certainly in better shape than most people. It’s just my personality and life experience that keep me saying that this isn’t good enough.

Business, and busy-ness, marches onward, to both ever-new heights and exactly the same height.

What I can’t reason my way around is my sudden crash once I moved to Zurich. If anything, I’m less “busy” than I have been: the grind of the PhD has barely started. I’m still reading papers and trying to feel my way out. I will start seminars and journal clubs for the first time this week; up until now I got out of many of the demands of my position by virtue of being “new” and “still settling in”. Compared to my classmates all around me, life is a breeze.

So perhaps it comes down to this. For the last two years, I have known that every move is more or less temporary. That I need to make friends, but maybe not worry about them too much because I’ll just leave them soon. That the main thing I need to do is keep myself happy from day to day. (And in the course of being happy, of course, you end up making friends who are much more than temporary.)

Now, there’s a lot more pressure. I have to find the things that can keep me happy for the next three years. I have to make better, lasting relationships. If I go for a run, I’m thinking, oh yes, this is how my morning run will be! Which means, wait, what if I don’t like that morning run?

Which is silly, of course.

Yesterday I went for a hike with my friend Timothée (not the same as the guy who wrote the blog post). I randomly picked a place on the map where there were nice-looking mountains (at least according to contour lines) that wasn’t too far from Zurich. We took the train for an hour and set out.

It turned out to be up, for 3000+ feet straight. No breaks, no little flats or downhills as you head for the next ridge. It took impossibly long (well, just 1 1/2 hours with some breaks to look at chamois and sketchy cable cars) to reach the point I had marked on the map as where we could decide which of several routes to take onward. Sweating profusely and out of breath, I’d look at my watch and realize that it had only been ten minutes since the last time I looked at my watch, thinking, we must be getting somewhere by now.

Of course, we eventually got somewhere – somewhere with beautiful views. It was rewarding and I was thrilled to be in the mountains. All of the things that you remember when hiking as soon as the part that sucks stops.

And that’s a little bit like what starting in Zurich is like. It’s uphill and I am more and more exhausted, and I keep thinking, somewhere up ahead is a trail that traverses across the side of the mountain. Sometime it won’t be uphill anymore. It must be right around the next corner.

The bottom line is that moving takes a lot more out of you than you expect. Over the next few months, things will get easier. Routines will develop without me consciously thinking, “oh yes, this is a routine which is developing.” Days will become a blur of office, seminars, meetings, lunch with the lab group, German class, presentations. Weekends will be for skiing and reporting. I won’t notice so much the weird starkness of settling in before you are settled in.

And I will get back to being busy as a student, as a writer, as a crazy-ass human being. You know, like usual. For some reason, that doesn’t exhaust me.

IMG_1345

up by the bootstraps.

IMG_0695

Amid the recent economic downturn, there has been a lot of criticism of my generation. We say we have no jobs? Well, we’re lazy; we expect everything to be handed to us; we don’t plan for the future and then complain when the future is not good. That’s why we don’t have jobs. One common refrain is “well you should have majored in a STEM field, not the humanities, and you’d have a reliable job.”

It’s certainly true that there are jobs in the STEM fields. It’s true that a degree in biology, for instance, teaches you skills like data management and statistics which may be transferable to normal jobs. Recent census data shows that only 1 in 4 people with a bachelors degree in a STEM field go on to a job in those fields. So: there aren’t that many jobs available, actually. Good luck getting one. (Also, no shock here, most of the people who do get these jobs are men.)

It’s also interesting to hear people’s reactions when I say that I am about to start a PhD program. Getting a PhD is still so respected, so mythical: people tell me that they could never imagine receiving a PhD offer, much less doing the work to get the degree. Maybe I’ll learn otherwise, but I disagree. Do you have to be smart? Yes. Do you have to have done good work in your career up to this point? Yes. But in my mind, the biggest challenge to a long-term research degree is working really hard, working long hours, and staying motivated when there is no end in sight and things aren’t going well. It can be a very discouraging slog; many people hate their PhD project by the time they finish.

But more and more people are finishing. More and more degrees are being handed out. According to the NSF, the number of doctorates awarded increases by 3.4% annually. Clearly, achieving this is not an impossible feat: it just takes a lot of sacrifices and hard work.

Hard work is something I’m good at. That’s why I feel comfortable taking on a PhD. I think I can muscle my way through. But will it matter, in the long run?

For people in our grandparents’ generation, becoming a college professor was a good, secure, respected life. By no means easy or necessarily affluent, but solidly middle-class. Things have changed. In 1969, 78% of faculty positions were tenure-track; today that number has dipped to just 33%. The good jobs are disappearing. There are three times as many part-time faculty jobs as there were then, and reports of adjunct professors who have to work at multiple schools to pay the bills, or go on food stamps. Obviously it’s not like that for every person, but it’s not good.

So once you have gotten a doctorate, the future is really no clearer or more rosy than it was before. Friends and family might consider the achievement some sort of pinnacle or achievement; the labor market might not agree.  The same NSF report states,

“The proportion of doctorate recipients with definite commitments for employment or postdoctoral (postdoc) study fell in 2012 for life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering, the third consecutive year of decline in these fields. In every broad science and engineering (S&E) field, the proportion of 2012 doctorate recipients who reported definite commitments for employment or postdoc study was at or near the lowest level of the past 10 years, 2 to 11 percentage points lower than the proportion of 2002 doctorate recipients reporting such commitments.”

Only 2/3 of PhD recipients in science fields had definite employment commitments after graduation, in 2012; this was lower (closer to 60%) for life sciences, my field, than for others. If you want to stay in academia the costs are high, as a post-doctoral position earns less than half the average salary of an industry job.

I’m still not sure if I want to go down this road all the way, to become a PI (Principal Investigator: usually a professor, someone who gets a grant is in charge of a research project). But it’s clear to me that if I do, it will be challenging. I’m confident in my ability to finish a PhD, do good work, and continue to publish papers. But is this good enough to be able to have the type of life that I eventually want to have? Being smart is not enough to guarantee a professorship.

The journal/magazine Science recently made a widget for young career scientists to figure out what their chances are of becoming a PI. I filled in the information on a whim. I feel like I’m doing pretty well compared to many people at a similar point in their masters; I have a lot of research experience both in my masters and as a technician, I have a few papers published, I have made connections. I have applied for and received my own grant funding, something which is rare for students of my cohort.

Even if I don’t become a PI (or don’t want to become a PI), I think of other dream jobs – “reach goals” – and imagine that they might have similar requirements. Want to get a National Geographic Explorers Grant? Work for a nonprofit nature research group you admire in a cool part of the world? In order to choose your own future, you need to be pretty much a badass.

So I was discouraged when I saw this.

current

I’m a girl, so lucky me, I’m sitting at 6% with my chance of becoming a PI.

I have written, maybe on this blog or maybe just on facebook, about why there are fewer women in science. There are more women in the life sciences, actually, than men, at early career stages. But that changes over time. There was a great article about why in the New York Times last fall. Read it. But regardless, I’m pissed: it’s not fair that I’m down at 6% while the boys are so much higher.

6%!? With all the hard work I’ve already put it? It felt like an insult.

The cool thing about the widget is that you can toggle the different variables and see how the line changes. The most important thing, it seems, is the number of first-author publications you have. I began thinking about what I could change in the next year. I will move universities to a more prestigious one and start a PhD program. But hopefully, I’ll also publish more. Publication is a long process, so the odds that anything from my work this summer is published by Christmas is zero. There’s hope though. We have one paper in review which has actually come back from reviewers and is sitting on the editor’s desk: hopefully, with revisions, they will take it. I have two other papers in progress where drafts are already being circulated among co-authors. On those two, I would be first author – the coveted position which I haven’t occupied so far.

The thing that makes a difference.

If all goes well, by the end of the year my chances could look more like this.

goal by the end of September

So I have to get to work. And that’s science, for you: there is no relaxing. You’re in the field in a remote location? Doesn’t matter. You have to be working on papers. Haven’t seen your family in months? Too bad, keep working on papers. On vacation? Keep working on papers.

That’s the future I maybe have to look forward to – if I’m lucky and make it through.

I knew that it was tough to become a PI. Over the last decade, getting a tenure-track job is no longer the most common outcome for PhD recipients (and to be clear, I don’t mean the most common immediate outcome: I mean, outcome at all, even after one or a few postdoctoral positions). In the biological sciences, only 8% of PhDs receive a tenure-track job within 5 years of getting their doctorate.

If you get a postdoc, the future isn’t much better. 10% of postdocs are unemployed: that’s actually higher than our country’s unemployment rate. In 2012, 20% of postdocs were handed a faculty position.

There are many pros and cons to getting a faculty position, or a tenure-track one, at that. I’m years away from deciding if that’s right for me. But the knowledge that despite everything I’m doing, I might not be able to? It’s frustrating. It motivates me to work harder, but also to hate the system a little bit.

I have pride in the work that I do. I’m not asking anyone to hand anything to me. What irks me is that for myself and the many very talented, motivated students I work with, our work is not valued.

I hate being told I can’t do something, when I know that if I was just given a chance, I’d hit the ball out of the park.

It’s the worst feeling.

Science today is not the same as science used to be.

***

On a final strange yet amusing note, here’s a predatory publishing e-mail I received today! Good for some laughs – until you think that people fall for this scheme. The paper they are asking about has already been published in an established journal, downloaded hundreds of times, and has copyright. So, nope, I’m not interested in paying you to publish it in paperback…. just no.

I guess to one extent, you know you’ve made it when you start receiving predatory publishing e-mails.

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 2.01.06 PM

on top of the world!

IMG_0460

I’m in Davos, and I’m on top of the world! Okay, not quite literally, I’m not on top of the biggest mountain here and the mountains here certainly aren’t the biggest in Switzerland. But I’m on top of something, and I can see quite far, and thankgodI’mbackinthemountains.

IMG_0445

But also… I feel emotionally like I’m on top of the world. I have an exciting announcement: I’ve been accepted to do a PhD at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. I will be working in the lab of Dr. Florian Altermatt, which I’m really looking forward to. My project on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning using a meta-ecosystem framework will be fun and challenging. I’ll have to learn a lot! Already, I know that I will need to learn to identify and work with amphipods, small crustaceans which will serve as our main study taxa, and how to set up mesocosm experiments. There’s also talk of using stable isotopes to track carbon and other fluxes through ecosystems, which I’m excited to tackle. I was at Eawag on Thursday for a visit and interview, and I think that it will be great group to work with. A lot of smart people but all really friendly and, most importantly, everyone seemed very happy. That’s something important when you are deciding whether to make a 3-year commitment!

I’m really relieved to have my future worked out a little bit and to think that I won’t be unemployed once I finish my masters. I’m looking forward to settling down in one place for 3 years – I want to continue traveling and having adventures, but I haven’t felt like I have had a home base to come back to in my time in Europe so far, so that will be a very welcome change. I can have a few more belongings than fit into one suitcase, and hopefully my road bike too. I never realized how much I would look forward to a little bit of stability.

And, I’m excited to be at Eawag for a few more reasons. It is a very amazing research institute, highly respected and covering all aspects of freshwater research, not only ecology but also more applied things. For instance, on the news page you can find, in close proximity, an announcement of Dr. Altermatt getting the big grant which will fund my project; “Combining the best of both toilet worlds“; “Cocktail of pesticides in Swiss rivers“; and a notice about extending the wastewater treatment plant. I think that working in a place which has multiple fields of focus will be a great opportunity and hopefully make my research more dynamic. It’s great to think of being able to check ideas with people looking at other aspects of river ecosystems. And, because of their focus on sustainability, the main building is the amazing Forum Chriesbach which is built from a lot of prototype materials, harvests rainwater for the bathrooms, and is so energy-efficient that it doesn’t have a heating or cooling system!!

Finally, my degree will be through University of Zurich, which is also pretty cool. While I was in town for the interview I stayed with my friend Timothée and visited the campus and his lab. There is a lot of very cool research going on there, and in general, Zurich is an amazing academic environment. There’s also ETH Zurich, the Swiss university, and the two institutions collaborate on seminars and courses. It is going to be a very stimulating few years.

So, I have a lot of joy in my life right now. For the weekend, I’m focusing on tying up some loose ends and spending a bit of time in the mountains which I have missed so dearly.

IMG_0449

IMG_0455

another paper.

In case you missed it – we had another paper published! I’m really happy that things seem to be getting out there, little by little. Of course, about the same day, I also got some comments from co-authors on another manuscript which left me with tears of frustration thinking of all the months I had spent on this darn paper, only to have to basically start all over again…. if only I had known what they thought earlier! well, such is life.

At least we have one more published to celebrate.

Here it is (open-access, free for anyone to download): ta-dah!!

online dating, academic-style.

Being as I defend my masters thesis in November, I recently started looking for a PhD position.

I wasn’t looking hard: most positions being advertised right now start in the fall, which I can’t do because I’ll still be working on that thesis. I assumed I’d finish up, move home and spend a few months with my parents while I searched for my next job. I just wanted to keep an eye out for what was being posted.

So I was surprised when I saw an advertisement for a position studying something I was interested in, starting in January. The lab’s research topics were like a list of my own favorite concepts in ecology. The supervisor wrote a widely-read and sometimes witty blog about theoretical concepts in ecology. It was in Canada, and I had just spent a few e-mails discussing with my friend Jean how happy she is in her PhD at the University of Manitoba and how she feels that in some respects she is ahead of her peers who are at American universities.

The posting was like an online dating profile of a match designed especially for me. If this was Tinder, I would have swiped right immediately. I was excited. (was I being catfished? stay tuned)

It wasn’t Tinder though – it was a slightly more involved online dating program, with more than a one-night stand on the line. What I had to decide was whether I would be auditioning for the chance to be married to this guy for five years. And I did want that. I wanted to reply right then, right away – pick me!! But you don’t want to seem too desperate when you’re marketing yourself around, do you? You have to play hard to get, nonchalant. I waited a day.

(just to be clear: I have no romantic designs on any potential supervisors. this one, in fact, is married.)

The PI (principal investigator) had set out a series of questions for potential applicants – what are your interests? your background? your goals? your math skills? send some unofficial transcripts too, please. I spent one weekend evening crafting an introduction letter, answering each question in turn, then realizing that an entire 15-line paragraph for one question was too much and cutting it down. My tone was lighthearted and I joked around, but then I wondered if I wasn’t being serious enough. I didn’t want to depict myself as boring, either, though. Luckily my fingernails were painted a blaring warning-red color at the time or else I would have, unnoticing, bit them down to the nubs as I wrote and rewrote each sentence, wondering if it was good enough.

I attached my CV, my million transcripts (three universities during my masters alone), contact info for my references, and a project proposal from a recent grant application to prove how I thought about experimental design. It was Sunday morning. I hit send.

Immediately I was overcome by nerves.

Would I get a first date?

On Monday, I got a reply to my e-mail. The PI wrote that I was “clearly bright and experienced, and you have a very clear-eyed sense of yourself” and he was interested in learning more about whether we’d work together well.

He likes me. I felt a flush of pride and validation. Lately nobody had been telling me I’d been doing a good job at work, because my current supervisor doesn’t even usually read the methods sections for the analyses that I do for him. He’s the equivalent of a deadbeat boyfriend in that regard.

But this new guy? He had picked me out of a crowd. Yeahhhhhh.

The response included a few more questions, as well as asking if I had any questions for him. I tried to think of good ones: how does funding work in Canada? What is the department like? How big is his lab and what is their working style? What about the school or the city make you want to stay there? Would there be money for me to go to meetings and conferences, or to external courses if I needed to learn a new statistical technique that nobody taught at the university?

Again, I had to delete about two different versions of this e-mail so that I wouldn’t seem overeager. Maybe my perception of the first date and his perception of the first date were different. I didn’t want to demand a second date, like, tomorrow. Maybe he was just being polite when he told me he was impressed with my CV; maybe he was telling that to all the other girls (um, I mean applicants). How many were there, anyway?

After I fired off that missive, the PI told me he’d start looking into my references and get back to me later. I fervently hoped that they’d say nice things about me, and then began to worry that they wouldn’t say the right things.

I also began to do my own homework. After all, me and this PI were about to get into a pretty serious relationship. It would be a five-year partnership – that’s longer than 20% of marriages last in the US – and breaking up would be hard to do. This has got to be one of the very few fields where you make such a long, binding commitment to someone after knowing them only very briefly. Seriously, it’s like getting married – and in a hurry. You see the person almost every day, and your success depends to a huge extent on them. If the relationship sours, or never even starts off right, a quick divorce looks a lot worse on the “education” section of your CV than it does in a real-world dating scenario.

Worse, you can’t make it through life just being single, which has been my (non-)dating approach for about four years now. You have to have a supervisor. You can’t do an independent-study PhD.

This was a lot of pressure. To put it differently: in no part of my life have I ever made as large a commitment to anything as I am potentially about to make to a PhD supervisor. And I hadn’t even talked to the guy yet. Our relationship was online-only.

I found that I had two friends who had worked in the department at various times, so I began asking them what they thought of the PI. It was like asking your buddies about that cute guy you hung out with at the last party, but aren’t sure if you should call. “Well he seemed nice, but I only met him that one time – what do you guys think?”

They – and their friends they put me in touch with – had decidedly mixed responses. Some thought he was a nice guy, a great explainer of ecological theory. Others thought he was not a good supervisor. They pointed to potential red flags I should pay attention to, like how some of his students had dropped out.

(That’s not unusual, exactly, and in case I end up working with this PI I won’t go into too much detail about my deliberations and conversations about his relationships with his students….)

After all of this, I was intrigued. The university and its city sounded like great places to work and live, and I have other friends living in the area. There was nothing about the PI that made me feel like running in the other direction. One friend said she thought I’d be “a great candidate to have a healthy relationship with him”.

Apparently my references/friends also said nice things about me. Later in the week, the PI asked for a skype meeting. It happened. We were both nervous and very awkward when we picked up the phone (er, the webcam). In the middle of the call, his computer crashed, although I didn’t realize it right way. All I saw was that our call was dropped, and I freaked out wondering if it was my fault and if he was offended. Hanging up on your boss isn’t exactly a good interview strategy.

We spent a lot of time talking about ourselves, trying to make ourselves appealing to the other person. Actually, this is kind of the part of dating that I find disgusting and hate.

“Well, I’m a pretty strong writer, or at least a fast one so I don’t think that finishing my manuscripts from my masters thesis will be a problem,” I said at one point, before turning bright red because I hate giving myself compliments and sounding like a self-congratulatory asshole.

“Wow, that’s something most students don’t say about themselves,” he laughed. “That’s great.”

Ugh. barf.

But things seemed possible. The project seemed right up my alley. He invited me to come to the university to visit his lab.

Wow, our relationship was moving quickly.

Then he offered to pay for the trip.

$1500, it costs to fly from Stockholm to this part of Canada on two weeks notice. Yeah, our relationship was moving really quickly.

I’m excited to go on the trip, but at this point I face an emotional conundrum that has ensnared many a woman. I like the research and learning opportunities that are being offered to me. I’m not sure yet if I will fit in well with the lab and the PI. Obviously, going to visit is the best way to find out, and even if I decide “no”, it will be really useful for me in my future searches. Free vacation! (actually, a whole day flying, two days there, and then another whole day flying – not sure that counts as a vacation)

But it’s like when you get taken out to a really fancy expensive dinner. At the end of the night, the enlightened feminist in you thinks, “I don’t owe this guy anything, we just enjoyed a lovely evening in each other’s company.” The vestiges of female guilt bred into us for generations upon generations make you think, “wow, this guy just spent a lot of money on me, I probably owe him at least a kiss.”

Basically, if I fly to Canada on this PI’s dime, he’s probably expecting me to put out. i.e., take the PhD position.

Should I go if I’m not completely certain I want to do that?

Am I using him if I spend $1500 of his money and eventually say “no”?

What kind of person am I? Do we have any independence in this life?

Ah heck, I’m going. I’m sure even shotgun weddings occasionally have runaway brides.

And maybe I’ll decide that we will have a fun and productive five-year PhD student-supervisor marriage.