The grad school challenge: balancing diversity and depth


Last spring, Carlos Martinez del Rio visited our program. After one discussion, I asked (as I am wont to do) if he had any advice for beginning graduate students. I recall at the time many of the faculty nodding, and some of the students looking at Carlos, looking at each other, looking at Carlos again, then looking down at their notes, slowly transcribing.

I might be mistaken, but I could have sworn I heard the muted buzz of molars grinding.

His remarks, and my commentary, below.

Carlos recommended that every student should develop two tools, at least one of which was a programming language. Since so many advances in science are limited by available technology, being a maven of molecular methods, or a guru of geographical information systems has obvious benefits (moreover, when it comes time to look for post-docs, having a useful tool can ingratiate you to future mentors). Programming, in particular, can free you from the canned software out there, allow you to explore hypotheses with simulations, and is an excellent practice in applied logic.

When I wrote Carlos recently for any follow up, he made two more points worth considering:

I believe that the programming skill is important. I also have a soft spot for knowledge about a taxon (“the virtues of monotaxophylia”). I think that it grounds you.

In ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) there is a healthy tension between folks who ask a variety of questions about a given critter, and those who ask the same question of a variety of critters. (I suspect some form of this is true in other disciplines-let me know in the comments). Each approach has its proponents. Part of it lies in the culture of your lab, and how steep the learning curve is for your critters and your theory.

It also depends on why you chose to be a scientist.

When I was a grad student, a pal of mine and I starting asking other grad students why they chose to pursue biology. The answers fell rather cleanly into two camps. “Skin-in” students (folks who work on molecules, cells, and tissues) pretty much always invoked childhood predilections for taking things apart to see how they tick, solving crossword puzzles, and the like. EEBies, in contrast, pretty much always invoked an early childhood memory of an organism: snakes, fish, hawks, and (in my case) watching a Cecropia moth emerge from it’s chrysalis (a good way to freak out a three year old, btw).

Non sequitur alert:

For what it’s worth, I think going to “critter meetings” is a helluva lot more fun than going to “question meetings”. The reasons are not entirely clear to me.

Regardless of which tactic you choose, each is a good example of mixing diversity and depth. One without the other makes you a dilettante or a drudge (unless you are really, really, really good, in which case you are smirking right now and I hate you).

Carlos closed with a comment about incorporating diversity in the way you approach a problem.

I like my students to have 3 ingredients in their dissertation: 1) theory, 2) field, 3) experimentation. The proportions vary depending on what Goethe calls “elective affinities“, but I think that it is good to try their hand at these three axes. Steve Fretwell has a lovely (albeit dated) fitness set analysis on whether to specialize or not in the intro to “populations in a changing environment”. (MK: Fretwell’s book is, sadly, out of print, but it’s worth a visit to the library.)

If this causes sweaty palms, rapid breathing, and the urge to scream into a pillow, note that he softens the first sentence with “I think that it is good to try their hand at these three axes”. Two out of three can produce a good dissertation. If you can pull off the triple play, and publish each, you letters of rec will ascend commensurately.

I think much reluctance however arises because a lot of grad students have a feeling that theory is done by fuzzy haired, coffee-swilling, dreamy antisocials. Much is (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

However, if you really want to answer a question, nothing beats closing your door, taking out a blank piece of paper, and trying to get your ideas down in the simplest possible language. Sure it’s humbling, but you have to be humble before challenging problems. And even if you don’t find a neat solution, your messy dissection will inevitably give you a deeper understanding of the data that needs to be collected to kick the problem down the road a bit.

And there is a further benefit to this exercise. Nothing endears a field biologist to a theoretician like a workmanlike, if incomplete, attempt at theory. Now it’s time to walk down the hallway and knock on the door of the theoretical type, with your notes clenched in one hand, and a tray of coffee in the other.


5 Responses to The grad school challenge: balancing diversity and depth

  1. RPM says:

    What about skin-in EEBies? That is, people that are interested in evolution at an inner-organismal level?

    As for the difference between critter meetings and question meetings: I find critter meetings more fun, but I get a helluva lot more out of question meetings. This is partly because at the critter meeting I go to (the Drosophila conference, or fly meeting) I end up hanging out with the group of people who ask the same questions as me. It’s a much smaller group (the ones that work on the same questions and critter), and we get to know each other pretty well. At the question meeting, there’s just so many more people I want to meet and talk to that it’s harder to have the same experience. But with all those people studying stuff I’m interested in, I’m in non-stop learning/networking/smartening mode.

  2. Pascal says:

    It’s similar in Paleobiology. Although it’s more of a taxo-centric or process-centric mindset. Those that study evo/devo of a particular group or those that study large-scale patterns affecting “critters.”

    I’m in the process camp and I find question meetings much more engaging most of the time.

  3. […] The Grad School Challenge, from GTDA […]

  4. Ben Clark says:

    In public administration studying budgeting and finance would probably be one of the tools to develop. That was a bit of advice I got prior to enrolling in my masters and it got me two successive jobs. We don’t study the critters so much, unless you are talking about politicians.

  5. […] vigorous advocacy of learning basic programming and tech tools reminds me of this post from the blog “Getting Things Done in Academia,” where Physiological Ecologist Carlos […]

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