Academia

Academic etiquette: Tips on conducting yourself at an academic conference

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This is a joint post by Dani Rabaiotti and Jeff Clements. You can find the sister version of this post over at Dani’s website.

Ah! Conferences. A time take in the cool work that others are doing, and share the cool work that you’ve been doing – and a time to relax and network. Well, maybe for some. But a concerning number of researchers (particularly students and early career researchers, or ECRs) are unable to relax and network at conferences because of negative experiences.  While there are a number of factors that can influence one’s experience at a conference, the theme of negative associations with colleagues has emerged as an ongoing issue (see twitter discussion HERE and tweets below). Given this seemingly common issue, I teamed up with Dani Rabaiotti (@DaniRabaiotti) to share experiences and put together the following guide.

What’s the issue?

In a largely unscientific Twitter poll of 488 fellow academic tweeters, only 28% had never had a negative experience with conference criticism, whilst 40% had had a negative experience with criticism that was done respectfully (generally part of conference experience but can be tough!). However, nearly 1/3 of people polled had had negative experiences where others had been disrespectful, or had engaged in an ‘all-out war’ with an audience member.

Sadly, for us as authors, this was unsurprising. For example, Dani has been told she was wrong about her own study species because the questioner ‘had seen them hunting’ (anecdote vs data, anyone?), while Jeff has been publicly told that his work will do nothing for his career and may even hinder his progression. In addition, we have both witnessed some incredibly aggressive questioning styles at conferences. A wide variety of respondents to the Twitter poll also shared their experiences, many of which were, we think you’d agree, pretty awful:

This brings us onto a second issue – one that nearly all of us have experienced – the ‘this isn’t a question but a comment’ during conference QUESTION sessions. Of 387 people polled nearly 1/3 had experienced comment-not-questions lasting more than 5 minutes!

During the question period, if you need to preface your ‘question’ with, “This is more of a comment than a question, but…” and subsequently go on to add your thoughts about the work, save it for after! Likewise, if you know that your question is a lengthy one that will take up most of the question period, save it! Not only does this approach allow others to ask questions (providing the speaker with a broader degree of feedback), but it provides an opportunity for networking and discussion after the talk. This is a much better use of time and is a more productive way of providing commentary feedback to presenters (not to mention that it can facilitate collaborations and potentially enhance a field of research!).

Top tips for conference etiquette:

It appears that negative experiences with peers at conferences are quite common. These experiences can have lasting effects on the people involved, particularly for students and early career researchers. Such instances can be easily avoided by following some simple rules and avoiding conflict. Yet, while a quick google search of “behaviour/etiquette at academic conferences” provides a laundry list of tips for grad students and ECRs, little information is provided for senior researchers on how to engage appropriately with grad students and ECRs, nor on how to conduct oneself during question periods, etc.  To facilitate this, we have compiled a few tips for ‘conference etiquette’, which can be found below (you can also find other tips here, here, and here, among others). We suggest that if a predominance of conference goers follow these guidelines the frequency negative conference experiences can be reduced and research efforts and quality can be enhanced.

Some conference Do’s and Don’ts:
Should you ask that question?:

Open up! On the Benefits of Open Access Publishing

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This post is also published as a guest post on the Canadian Science Publishing Blog. You can access that version of the post here.

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During my undergraduate degree, I remember all too well the many times in which I would search for a journal article that I needed to write a paper, only to be stymied by my institution’s inability to afford a journal or publisher. Of course, Interlibrary Loans could help me get my hands on those papers eventually, but rarely was it sufficient. As a result, I ended up spending out-of-pocket for journal articles during a time in which personal finances were dismal.

This reality is commonplace for many students both near and far. For many Canadian undergraduates, access to journals has been dwindling. Particularly in developing nations, scholars-in-training have limited access to journals published by conglomerate publishers. Furthermore, expensive subscriptions to scholarly journals can deprive everyday citizens from becoming more scientifically literate. So, what are we to do?

Cue the open access movement.

Open access publishing – making access to published works free for readers – has recently been adopted by many academic journals in attempt to remove barriers to scholarly works. Open access publishing in academia typically comes in two forms: green and gold. While the ‘green’ option allows scholarly authors to openly share their work through different outlets (e.g. personal webpage, social media, etc.), the gold option provides readers with free access to an article directly from the publisher. This has resulted in the establishment of fully-open access journals (such as the brand new on from Canadian Science Publishing, FACETS), as well as hybrid journals (where the journal offers the option for authors to pay for their article to be open access) Nonetheless, by enforcing an open access method, barriers to accessing scholarly works begin to dwindle and readership can be increased.

While open access certainly seems like a great idea from the readers’ perspective, it comes at an expense to authors – literally. Currently, the cost of making a scholarly article is substantial, generally running authors more than USD $1000 per article. So, is there any benefit from the authors’ side of the coin? It turns out that there is!

The prestige and productivity of scholarly authors is often gauged on citations – when another scholar references the work of a scholarly author in a subsequent article. The more citations that an author gains on their publications, the better. So, for authors, increasing citations is a benefit to authors for increasing the impact of their work and for career development. Interestingly, one way that appears effective in increasing citations is publishing open access.

In a study recently published in FACETS, I was able to show that open access articles in hybrid marine science journals received more citations than articles that were closed access. For my study, I collected citation data from articles in 3 hybrid marine ecology journals with similar impact factors as a microcosm to test for open access effects on citations: ICES Journal of Marine Science (Oxford Press), Marine Ecology Progress Series (Inter-Research), and Marine Biology (Springer). I also controlled for a number of other factors that could potentially influence citation rates, including self-citations, article type, time since publication, the number of authors, and the year that the article was published. I found that open access articles received, on average, 57%, 38%, and 24% more citations than closed access articles in for ICES Journal of Marine Science, Marine Ecology Progress Series, & Marine Biology respectively.

Although the trend observed in my study could be driven by authors’ self-selection to publish only their best work open access, the results are in line with numerous other studies showing a citation advantage of open access articles. In addition, my study only focused on a narrow field of academia: marine science. However, these ‘microcosmic’ studies are important for highlighting the benefits of open access to authors that reside within a defined academic discipline, and more of them are certainly needed.

Ultimately, the consistently-documented citation advantage of open access for authors of scholarly works should motivate authors to publish open access and, in turn, increase the accessibility of scholarly works for students, researchers, and the public. However, the financial burden to doing so is still substantial. Given the documented benefits of open access publishing to both authors and readers, it’s about time that both authors and readers push for reduced costs to publish open access. Alleviating the financial burden to authors will help to stimulate open access publishing and will lead to more efficient scientific communication between scientists and with the public. Such a transition is crucial in an age where scientific literacy is increasingly needed.

It’s time to act now! It’s time to open-up.

My CV of Failures

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In professional discussions with a number of colleagues, a common comment from those I talk to is that I’m very successful and productive for the stage of my career. While I do consider myself a productive and (thus far) successful early career researcher (ECR), such productivity does not come without failure. In fact, depending on how one wishes to measure academic productivity and success, my failures either match or supersede my successes. At times, such failures can weigh heavily on graduate students and ECRs (as well as veteran scientists), and can result in severe impacts to mental health, often driven by imposter syndrome. Having experienced imposter syndrome-driven anxiety and depression personally, I have elected to join the small number of academics who have confronted their failures and have made them publicly accessible. My hope is that more researchers – including “famous” experts and others leading their fields – will publish their CVs of failures to dismantle the idea that scientists (even the most famous) rarely fail. Ultimately, I hope that such CVs will provide graduate students, ECRs, and any other researcher struggling with their competency with an understanding that most (if not all) researchers fail, and that failure and success are not distinct attributes of researchers.

Disclaimer: I am not the first (and hopefully will not be the last) to publish a CV of failures. The idea was introduced by Melanie I. Stefan (check out her website and follow her on Twitter) in a 2010 Nature article. More recently, Johannes Haushofer published his CV of failures online as well.

I will strive to keep this CV updated as much as my CV of accomplishments.

CVfail

 

Common names suck; stop using them

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This afternoon I engaged in a Twitter conversation with some colleagues regarding the use of the term dreissenid in the context of “dreissenid mussels”. Colleague A wanted to know if dreissenid should be italicized. I assured her that it indeed does not, because Dreissenidae is a family of mussels containing 3 genera and is not a single genus (to which she obliged). Colleague B then questioned this and asked what to do if using the term when only referring to the genus Dreissena, whereby I suggested using a more specific term (i.e., Dreissena spp.). Colleague A then responded that she originally wanted to use the term to describe only the genus Dreissena, and that this was common practice. Then I got annoyed (again) at common names in general…

So which is it – does dreissenid refer to the family Dreissenidae or the genus Dreissena?

Figure 1. Total number of dreissenid mussel species when “dreissenid” refers to the family Dreissenidae (16) versus the genus Dreissena (7). Data obtained from MUSSELp (http://mussel-project.uwsp.edu/index.html).
Figure 1. Total number of dreissenid mussel species when “dreissenid” refers to the family Dreissenidae (16) versus the genus Dreissena (7). Data obtained from MUSSELp (http://mussel-project.uwsp.edu/index.html).

The answer is that it’s commonly used for both. Although many scientists may not care about or acknowledge this, the interchangeability of common names across different taxonomic resolutions can be problematic for a number of reasons.

Let’s first look at a relatively simple example. Say I published a paper on “dreissenid mussels” in the Journal of Crappy Nomenclature, and in the introduction made the claim that there are 16 species of dreissenid mussels. Without context, the reader has no idea as to whether there are 16 species within the family Dreissenidae or 16 species within the genus Dreissena unless they search this information themselves (there are 16 species in the family Dreissenidae; Figure 1).

Likewise, let’s say that in the same paper I was to claim that dreissenid mussels reside in supraterranean (above ground) freshwater systems. While that is true for the genus Dreissena, there exists a subterraneous genus of Dreissenidae (Congeria; resides solely in cave river systems). Again, without context, the reader would be left searching such information. Unfortunately, many readers would not recognize the need to search for this information and would likely apply the information obtained from the two statements outlined above in the context of how they interpret the term “dreissenid mussels”, which may be correct or incorrect depending on my definition of “dreissenid mussels”. Thus, in subsequent publications obtaining information from my hypothetical paper on dreissenid mussels, information may be incorrect, but nonetheless become “common knowledge”.

Figure 2. Extant Dreissenidae species of the genus A) Congeria (Congeria kusceri), and B) Dreissena (Dreissena polymorpha).
Figure 2. Extant Dreissenidae species of the genus A) Congeria (Congeria kusceri), and B) Dreissena (Dreissena polymorpha).

While the above examples may appear extreme, particularly for those who study these mussels, the points still stand – and for many more taxa than the example herein. Researchers conducting work on species new to them must learn as much about their new study species and related taxa as possible. In this way, using common names interchangeably across levels of taxonomic resolution can easily create problems for these researchers and the propagation of incorrect biological information may result. Furthermore, other problems with common names arise when even more generic terminology is used, like “cushion stars”.

Ultimately, there are two ways to solve the problems outlined above: either define the range of taxa (up front) that a common name being used encompasses, or stop using common names all together. If we are to follow the biological writing rules of Dr. Pechenik (i.e., more concise = better), scientific works would benefit from the elimination of common names (for example, “Dreissena spp.” consumes less space than “dreissenid mussels”, and the former would not require a formal definition). Not only does the use of precise taxonomic nomenclature reduce verbiage, but it would remove the potential for misinterpretation with respect to the breadth of biological processes across various levels of taxonomic resolution. That, and we would negate complex Twitter conversations regarding how to use common nomenclature and have more time to spend on writing our actual papers…

So, in conclusion, just stop using common names. They suck.

Social media and science: using online media tools to enhance research impact

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This post also appears as a guest blog on the COAStNet website. COAStNet is a network of undergraduate students, graduate students, and coastal researchers who are studying, or have studied, ocean science at Canadian institutions. Their mission is to unite Canadian students and scientists in a network to enhance the communication of ocean research and to promote evidence-based ocean policy that ensures healthy and sustainable oceans. You can find them online, on Facebook, or on Twitter.social media blog post image

It was 2007, and my significant other at the time proposed that I join the most recent online fad – Facebook. As a studious second-year undergraduate and an avoider of online chatter, I vehemently declined. Though I was not immediately interested, I began to observe the ways in which she was using Facebook. Seeing her connect with old friends who had moved away, chatting with family who lived on the other side of the country, and discovering online material that may have otherwise taken hours to find, I began to see the immediate benefits of this new online tool. It wasn’t until much later during my Ph.D. research, however, that I began to see (and reap) the academic benefits of social media.

Though it has greatly enhanced communication among the general public, social media can also be of great benefit to specific groups of individuals, including scientists. Although they are numerous, many social media platforms offer benefits that, as collective, scientists are often seeking out in other ways. Networking, collaboration, education, public outreach, research impact – social media can provide researchers and educators with a plethora of opportunities that otherwise may be time consuming to simply get off the ground.

Indeed social media has allowed me to publish collaborative papers with international ecologists, engage in public outreach and education, establish networks that I otherwise may not have been able to, and substantially enhance my academic CV. So how exactly can social media benefit scientists and like-minded professionals and which platforms are most useful?

The benefits

  1. Networking

A critical aspect of academia is networking with your peers. Connecting with peers who share similar research interests can lead to collaboration, new and exciting projects, and can ultimately enhance a researcher’s scientific impact. However, academic networking is often limited to within-department networking, annual conferences/meetings, or through invited lectures and seminars. With the advent of social media, academic networking has been greatly enhanced.

Many social media platforms provide an informal arena for scientists to discuss their research and build their network. In addition, social media provides an easy and fast way to find like-minded researchers. For example, the use of hashtags on Twitter can allow a user to follow a particular topic and find other Twitter users who are engaged in similar discussions. Given the large and growing scientific community on Twitter, this provides a quick and easy-to-use way of finding and reaching out to academics with similar research interests.

Finally, many social media platforms are now used by entire labs, with PIs, students, and interns all contributing to the lab’s social media page(s). This provides a great communication platform for undergraduate and graduate students seeking positions to chat with lab members and get a feel for whether or not the lab dynamics and research suit their needs.

The approximate number of users for 5 social media platforms utilized by academics (Facebook=1.23 billion; LinkedIn=347 million; Twitter=288 million; Academia.edu=18.2 million; ResearchGate=6 million). Numbers represent the total number of users in 2014 reported by each social media site.
The approximate number of users for 5 social media platforms utilized by academics reported for 2014 (Facebook=1.35 billion; LinkedIn=347 million; Twitter=288 million; Academia.edu=18.2 million; ResearchGate=6 million). Values for Facebook and Twitter represent the total number of active monthly users (source: statista.com); value for LinkedIn represents the total number of users (source: statista.com); values for Academia.edu and RG represent total number of users reported by each site.
  1. International collaboration

As mentioned above, academic networking can often be limited to short periods of time spaced far apart, which can make collaboration difficult. Searching institutional websites and highlighting individual researchers for potential collaboration can also be time consuming for researchers and often gets pushed aside as a result. Furthermore, graduate students don’t often get opportunities for international collaboration due to financial constraints and a lack of an established reputation within their fields.

One of the biggest academic benefits of social media is that it offers a fast and convenient way to build international collaborations and expand scientific research. This allows not only established researchers to expand their research, but can also allow keen graduate students to engage in collaborative research projects (whether they be international, national, or local), gain additional publications, and substantially enhance their academic CVs.

  1. Education and public outreach

Academics and scientists share a common responsibility to educate. Designing and delivering courses, giving public lectures, and reaching out to various public groups is critical for enhancing the scientific literacy of those around us who do not directly engage in the faculty of science. However, the aforementioned duties of researchers can be extremely time consuming, which can limit the ability of scientists to educate to the fullest extent possible.

With its massive outreach potential (Figure 1), social media can serve as a fantastic public outreach and educational tool. For example, David Shiffman, a Ph.D. student at the University of Miami has used Twitter and Facebook to spread education and awareness about sharks to an astounding number of social media users (>5,000 Facebook followers; >20,700 Twitter followers). Furthermore, social media platforms can be used to increase engagement in the classroom. Given the familiarity that today’s students have with platforms like Facebook, students may be more likely to engage with and share additional material through social media outlets rather than traditional classroom platforms such as email or classroom management tools (Clements, unpublished data).

  1. Research Impact

The ways in which academics and researchers are evaluated are limited and, in some ways, flawed. Scientists are often assessed on the number and the quality of their research publications. Given that quality is often gaged by journal prestige (which is most often a product of impact factor, which comes with its own variety of flaws), additional ways of measuring scientific impact are always welcome (of course, within logical reason).

Recently, social media has been established as a metric for scientific impact. Termed “altmetrics”, a variety of statistics surrounding peer-reviewed publications that appear on social media can be extracted and used to gauge the online impact of a given publication and, in turn, its authors. Indeed many journals now include an altmetric section for published articles, including the prestigious journal Nature (among numerous others; Figure 2) Furthermore, social media platforms designed specifically for scientists, such as ResearchGate, have developed their own algorithm to derive a single metric of scholarly impact for an individual researcher within the ResearchGate community. Though these metrics do come with their own set of problems and limitations, they also highlight the ways in which scholars can utilize social media to enhance their scholarly impact and outreach within and outside of the academic community.

Figure 2. Examples of altmetric pages for three separate scientific journals which publish coastal research: Nature (A), Journal of Shellfish Research (B), and Estuaries and Coasts (C).
Figure 2. Examples of altmetric pages for three separate scientific journals which publish coastal research: Nature (A), Journal of Shellfish Research (B), and Estuaries and Coasts (C).

The platforms

Though many social media platforms exist (see here for an exhaustive list), some are better suited for scientists and academics than others. Furthermore, the variety of needs that individual researchers may want social media to aid in can be optimized by using certain platforms. Though not exhaustive by any means, a list of social media sites commonly used by researchers (from Van Noorden 2014), along with their optimal use, is provided below:

  1. Facebook

Facebook is one of the most common social media sites and is often credited with initiating the social media revolution. Though it does not necessarily make networking or collaborating much easier for a researcher (Facebook has implemented hashtags, but they are not commonly used), it is a tool that can optimize public outreach and communication (though some studies suggest it is not suitable for this purpose; e.g. Fauville et al. 2014). In addition, Facebook groups can serve as a classroom tool for individual courses and can greatly enhance the engagement of undergraduate students (Clements, unpublished data).

  1. Twitter

Like Facebook, Twitter is an extremely popular social media site with an enormous amount of followers (Figure 1). However, Twitter offers some additional benefits for academics that Facebook does not. Alongside public outreach and education, Twitter utilizes the hashtag to link users to common topics being discussed within the Twitter community. Given the large and continually growing scientific community on Twitter, following hashtags related to your research can allow for extensive networking and collaboration. Furthermore, the large numbers of users coupled with the fact that tweets must be short and to-the-point (140 characters or less) make it a very efficient and useful tool for public outreach and education.

  1. LinkedIn

Acting as a platform for professionals, LinkedIn allows researchers to connect with other professionals to increase networking and potentially lead to collaboration. However, LinkedIn is likely better suited for researchers looking to hire employees or graduate students, as individual profiles essentially serve as CVs. On the flip-side, graduate students and employees can use this social media platform to connect with researchers that they may be interested in working with.

  1. Academia.edu

A great site for displaying and sharing work, Academia.edu allows researchers to share their publications with the academic community and follow like-minded researchers. This platform is great for sharing work with others and building academic connections, but is not overly useful for public outreach or finding graduate students (researchers).

  1. ResearchGate

The most used social media site by scientists (Van Noorden 2014), ResearchGate acts much in the same way as Academia.edu. ResearchGate allows researchers to upload and share their publications and network with other similar researchers. Furthermore, you can upload research before it is published, which can help to expedite the communication of scientific knowledge/research and provide a basis for additional peer-review. Students can also join the ResearchGate community to find publications and network with researchers.

The real uniqueness of ResearchGate, however, lies in its novel approach to quantifying scholarly impact. Unlike the h-index or other metrics of impact, the “RG Score” takes into account various aspects of a researcher’s work and uses them to represent that researcher’s academic impact. The fault in this, however, is that it is biased toward researchers that are actively engaged in the ResearchGate community, and individual RG Scores can become inflated fairly easily (for example, my RG Score is higher than my PhD supervisor’s, yet I haven’t finished my PhD).

Though the RG Score may be flawed, the collaborative nature of ResearchGate is of great benefit to researchers at all levels of their career. For example, I have personally established an international collaboration with Iranian ecologists working in the Caspian Sea, which has led to two publications in well-known journals.

  1. Others

Other social media sites promoted directly at scientists include Mendeley, a site much like ResearchGate, and FigShare, a fantastic site where researchers can openly share data which is published on the FigShare site with full attribution to the researcher(s) who publish their data there (indeed the use of the data must be accompanied by a citation).

Optimizing use

Along with the descriptions above, Van Noorden (2014) outlines the ways in which scientists use social media. The already-large and continually growing scientific presence on social media is a testament to its utility within the scientific community. However, being careful to not let such platforms dominate your time is an important aspect to consider when contemplating joining social media as a researcher or lab group. As such, strategically choosing a few platforms to best suit your research needs is key to establishing a solid social media presence while not substantially decreasing productivity or academic output.

Aside from individual researchers, scientific societies and organizations can benefit from using social media. Many coastal organizations (e.g. CERF, NOAA) utilize social media to connect with their members and, more importantly, recruit new members. Social media can also serve well in the promotion of an organization’s events, such as conferences or meetings. Contests and special events being held by organizations can also be promoted through social media – a great example of this was the 2014 NOAA photo contest.

Ultimately, it is up to the researcher to decide which social media platform suits him/her best. Social media can be of great benefit to scientists, but needs to be utilized appropriately in order to maximize its utility for individual researchers. If these aspects are taken into account, social media can serve academics and like-minded professionals very well, acting to enhance their careers and scholarly impact in a variety of ways.

REFERENCES

  1. Van Noordern, R. 2014. Online collaboration: scientists and the social network. Nature 512: 126-129.
  2. Fauville, G., Dupont, S., von Thun, S., and Lundin, J. 2015. Can Facebook be used to increase scientific literacy? A case study of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute Facebook page and ocean literacy. Computers & Education 82: 60-73.

The useless debate of school vs. education

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diplomaAs of late, I’ve been seeing a video resurfacing among some friends on social media that I criticized when I first watched. The release and subsequent virility of the video below in 2012 – Why I Hate School But Love Education by poet Suli Breaks – seemed to have people questioning the distinction between education and school and suggested that university was worthless and we don’t need it. I beg to differ.
First of all,  of course university isn’t always necessary; it’s all in what you want to do. The problem with this “debate” is that it is stirring the pot in terms of whether or not higher education is useless. Although Suli Breaks’ voice and argument, fueled by his personal experience, appear to portray the idea that institutionalized education is utterly obsolete, this stance is dead wrong. Here’s why:
Throughout the video, many faults in his arguments are immediately evident. The first is that he uses outliers – outstanding individuals – rather than average people to make his point. In terms of ‘the statistics’ (a term which seems to be misunderstood and overused in the video), these people are extremely rare; one-in-a-million if you will.

Secondly, some of the facts Suli presents are just simply incorrect. Some of the people referred to as having no post-secondary (higher) education, actually do. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, had an outstanding level of education before attending Harvard, where he learned lessons which helped him get to where he is today. Just because he dropped out to pursue Facebook and ‘technically’ didn’t graduate does not render his university level education obsolete.
The video also uses many historical examples to make the case that school is unnecessary. Though today anyone can put forward great ideas without scholastic education, there is no evidence that this leads to more valid idea generation. Furthermore, although Socrates had his own ideas, he was the teacher of Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle, and so on. Without Socrates teaching the likes of Plato and Aristotle you could argue that they may never have come up with their philosophies independently. The ‘Socratic method’ and Plato’s foundation of the Academy were early versions of institutionalized learning and proved to be huge assets to the progression of society at that time, without which the shape and direction of progress may have been very different. Additionally, given the preliminary state of human knowledge, it was likely easier to put forward thoughts and ideas without scholastic education in historical times than it is now, if simply because we didn’t know as much. The amount of information that must be comprehended before forming truly great ideas is outstanding and, again, only one in a million may be able to present such ideas without a high degree of formal education.zuckerberg
All the while, Suli Breaks forgets to mention such great minds as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Gandhi and the countless other such individuals who did go to school and did receive degrees. Without a higher education, these individuals may never have gained the knowledge they needed to propose their theories, or enact their paths; and our current knowledge of the way the world works may have never come about to be.
It’s great that people are starting to question the nature of higher education — a degree is not something that everyone needs to or should pursue. But the fact of the matter is that post-secondary education does have its place and is a necessity. Without universities and degrees, academia and our breadth of knowledge wouldn’t be where it is today. Great scientists, philosophers, businessmen, politicians, and others from a multitude of fields often need the guidance of professors in order to better formulate their thoughts and gain the necessary information needed to make substantial contributions and breakthroughs — not to mention the benefit that can be garnered from ones’ peers.
Before jumping on this bandwagon of higher education being useless, ask yourself this question (or one similar, pertaining to your passion and goals):
“If I wanted to be a scientist, business mogul, great philosopher; or a nurse, veterinarian, doctor – could I really do so by teaching myself, without the aid of a professor or mentor?”
platoNo, not everyone needs to go to school to be successful and make money; but a lot of people do. Very few of us can learn entirely as autodidacts, while the majority of us need some sort of guidance, at least initially, to steer us on the right path. Furthermore, universities are often exactly the place where individuals find their true passion to go on to live their lives doing what they love. I am a living example of the great things that higher education can do for people and am certainly not alone. Without going to university I never would have discovered my passion.  University is not just about getting marked – if you feel it is, then you are there for the wrong reasons.
People can argue until they’re blue in the face that ‘school’ is fundamentally unnecessary, but they’re absolutely and unequivocally wrong, not to mention naive. Higher education isn’t necessary for everyone – perhaps you don’t need school – but for most people it is. Not just to learn and get marked, but to discover passions and learn how to contribute to the benefit and progression of humanity. Without the extensive success of institutionalized learning, our knowledge of the world wouldn’t even be close to what it is today. Instead of debating as to why schooling is useless, I proffer that we debate how it might be improved.

Should you go to grad school?

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evolve copy copy
    During my three-year (and counting) tenure as a Ph.D. student at the University of New Brunswick, I’ve held numerous positions as a teaching assistant (TA) within my academic department. Teaching grade school is something that I had initially considered as a career path until I was introduced to the wonderful world of research, but teaching is something that I continue to take quite seriously as a prospecting academic. Given the unique relationship between TA and student, I’ve been able to mentor and help undergraduate students in a myriad of different ways. However, one recurring theme that students continue to seek advice for is whether or not to attend graduate school.
      Personally, I love graduate school, so I am a great promotional tool. I’m of the mindset that graduate school is a very unique time in a researcher’s career that can be a great experience (and indeed it has been just that for me). Yet, I see and hear of so many graduate students having a very difficult time in grad school, and ultimately seeing it as a negative part of their life. As a result, many students drop out of graduate school, particularly Ph.D. students (sometimes dropping out can be for the best; see a great post on this topic here). I think it’s true that it takes a certain type of person to endure graduate school, but it also takes a series of strategic and well researched decisions to optimize your graduate school experience. And so here I want to offer some personal suggestions on how to decide whether or not to enroll in and attend graduate school and, once in, how to maximize your grad school experience.

I’m thinking about grad school, what should I consider?

Don’t attend grad school because you “don’t know what to do next”: Contrary paperto popular belief, graduate school should not be a consideration that’s taken lightly. Like any other endeavor in life, some people are not cut out for graduate school; others are perfect for it. And so going to grad school for the sole reason of being unsure what to do next in life is a bad idea. Make sure you are choosing graduate school for the right reasons – because you are passionate about what you study and you are committed to standing on the forefront of knowledge. Otherwise, you may very well be wasting your time and that of others, and having a bad time doing it.

Choose a PI, not a school: I hear of far too many graduate students choosing a school over a PI or project simply because of the prestige of that school – BAD IDEA! Although some schools don’t allow you to hand-pick a PI, many do, and it’s worth investigating what these schools have to offer. A Ph.D. program is a 4-year (usually longer) commitment that will be optimized by choosing a supervisor who is compatible with you as both a researcher and a person.

Follow your passion, not the letters after your name: If you’re considering graduate school, it’s likely that you’ve been involved with some sort of research program or are excited about a particular field that you studied in your undergraduate courses. Credentials are great, but it’s important to recognize that passion most often fuels success and happiness in graduate school. Choosing a topic that gets you excited to no end is going to make your experience all the more enjoyable and can promote important novel discoveries as a developing researcher.

Is it the right time? Be sure to take into consideration where you are in life. Graduate school can be tough when you have a family, job, and/or debt. All of these personal life attributes are important to consider when thinking about graduate studies.

Alright, I’m in! What now?

Take the lead: Independence is essential in graduate school, and if you’ve followed your passion and have chosen a compatible supervisor, then you should have the ability to take the lead! Remember, this is your project, and so it should reflect the questions you’re interested in. Utilize your PI’s expertise to optimize the quality of your work, but make the project your own.

Be realistic: It’s important to be realistic with respect to your research project. Here in Canada, a Master’s thesis is scheduled to be finished in two years and a Ph.D. in four (although they most often take longer). Be sure to structure your project with this timeline in mind. It’s easy to get excited about new research opportunities and waddle outside of the scope of a degree. If your PI suggests a project that you think is impossible to get done in the time frame given, be realistic and say no!

Learn to say ‘no’: If you’re in graduate school, it’s most likely that you’re an excelling person with an overachieving work ethic. Great! But this may result in people taking advantage of you – even your own PI! Make sure you know when to say no to a request that you don’t have the time to do. Of course, do this in a respectful manner, but your job as a graduate student isn’t to organize your PI’s thirty year collection of journal articles.

Criticism is a good thing: As a prospecting academic, you must learn to accept criticism in all forms, whether it’s positive or negative. Although it may be difficult, learning to harness that criticism to become a better researcher rather than treating it as a hurdle will make your time in graduate school much easier. One way to do this is to remember that all academics are criticized, not just you! You are smart enough for grad school, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Criticism is an aspect of academia at all levels – don’t take it personally.

Dhikeon’t stop learning: This goes beyond graduate school as well. You don’t know everything there is to know – nobody does – so remember to never stop learning. This is one of the best things about graduate school! Not only are you continually learning from your colleagues, but you are at the forefront of knowledge! You are now contributing to how we, as humans, understand the ways in which the world works, and that is exciting!

Try not to compare yourself to the merits of other graduate students: It’s easier said than done. But remember: different projects move at different paces. If a colleague is publishing and you aren’t, don’t sweat it! In ecology, for example, a purely field based study is going to take longer to publish than an experimental study. At the very least, consider all the variables before you reach a conclusion about your performance.

Take time to de-stress: In graduate school, your work should certainly be a top priority, but that doesn’t mean that you should spend every waking day working. Some graduate students enjoy the work so much that it doesn’t really feel like work (myself included), but even they need to step back at times and spend a couple of days to de-stress. Go for a hike, head out on a road trip, or simply relax – it’s important to make time for the other passions in your life, and coupling those with de-stressing can help to optimize productivity and overall happiness.

      Giving these aspects of graduate school some thought and trying to implement them into the duration of your degree can help to optimize productivity, efficiency, and your overall grad school experience. Many of these tips can help you beyond graduate school as well, as your research career evolves. Of course, personal aspects that vary from person to person are also things you will want to consider, but that’s another post for another time. Above all else, remember that graduate school should be a fun and enjoyable time, not a miserable one – so do the things that makes this possible for you!