Example interview questions in conservation

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One of the things I tend to do a fair bit of is recruitment/hiring, usually for seasonal or short (<2 year) contracts. In the last two years, I’ve been involved in well over a dozen competitions as part of the interview or selection panel for what would be termed alt-ac or field tech science jobs.

Recently, several friends have asked for my advice on what to expect from an interview, so I thought it would be worth posting here. I’ve already written a bit geared towards applying for field jobs.

I’ll heavily caveat this, though – my take isn’t everyone’s take, and practices likely vary among (and even within!) organizations. Always remember to consider the albatross. And I’ll assume that you’ve already passed the hurdle of the paper application.

My general take is that if you’re being interviewed, chances are you tick all the basic boxes and the organization is at least considering hiring you. Basically, you meet all the technical requirements; the interview will be about how you approach problems, and other things that can’t be easily assessed on paper.

I always advise folks to think of the sorts of questions the interview panel is likely to ask, and how you might answer them.

Usually, there is some sort of fact-based questions pertinent to the job. For a recent post about marine protected areas (MPAs), we asked which international agreements/treaties were important for MPA designation. The purpose here is to see that you know your stuff (or at least where to look for it). The interview panel will likely have various keywords that they’re looking for here (or their general gists), so there can be a right/wrong answer.

There is often a problem solving part of the interview. “How would you do X”? These are almost always technical in nature, and interview panels will probably be looking for broad grasp of how you approach a problem. This could be analysis, data manipulation, supervision, … the content depends on what the job specification includes. No right/wrong answers here, but trying to understand how you might do in the work environment.

And there are usually a couple of more personal questions. Why did you apply for this job? What is your greatest strength? What is your greatest weakness? We ask these, or similar variations, almost every time. In these cases, there are no right or wrong answers, but are about seeing how your self-assessment might match up against what your referees might say about you (we often ask referees similar questions). Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, so the “I can’t think of any” cop-out isn’t advisable.

In all cases, look for “added value” – moving beyond the question to the next logical step. And if at all possible, use concrete examples of how you’ve done X (or similar to X) in the past successfully, e.g., “We did something similar in a recent paper…”. And in all cases, specific, tangible examples are to be encouraged (yay evidence!).

Lastly, we always give candidates an opportunity to ask questions of the panel, so it’s always good to prepare a few queries in a couple of areas – technical specifications about the job like start/decision dates, questions about resources available, like computing, employment policies and benefits, scope of the job and possibility of branching out, details about the ultimate goals or deliverables, etc.

As I said, these are highly directed towards those looking for work in the non-academic conservation sector, but some of the themes are likely to be broadly applicable based on my experiences in academia as well. And feel free to add your 2¢ in the comments below!

On finding an error in my own published paper

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Dan Bolnick (on Eco-Evo-Evo-Eco) and Meg Duffy on Dynamic Ecology have both posted stories of how they were confronted with, and subsequently addressed, the need to retract or correct their published papers. This fall into the “scientists are humans; humans make mistakes; therefore scientists make mistakes” logical tenet, and they both addressed it wonderfully. Sadly, that’s not always the case.

So to further demonstrate that scientists, as all humans, make mistakes, here is my tale of finding a fairly significant error in my first ever paper.

In my undergrad, I spent a spring at the Point Lepreau Bird Observatory in southern New Brunswick. Yes, past the nuclear exclusion zone and next to a 19th-century lighthouse was a little hut with electricity, a portable heater, radio, and view of the majestic Bay of Fundy. As a one of the more southerly points in the area, it was also a hotspot for migratory birds, mostly seaducks, on their way north to breed. My job: figuring out how many scoters (3 species of mostly-dark seaducks: the Black, Surf, and White-winged Scoters) passed the site in April and early May. I was also generously allowed to analyse the previous 8 years’ data (and have since heard through the grapevine that a student may be updating this work soon!).

The Point Lepreau Bird Observatory

The Point Lepreau Bird Observatory in 2004.

I was, at the time, terrible at data analysis and statistics. I had more pivot tables than I knew what to do with, graphs were made in Excel, and I think I used JMP for the various ANOVAs.

But I, and my supervisors, were able to churn out some basic stats on the timing of migration, the peaks, and come up with a crude estimate of how many birds passed the point each year. I would almost certainly analyse the data completely differently today (and I hope the aforementioned student does!). After some fairly minor revisions, it was published in 2007 in Waterbirds, and I was elated – my first publication!

One of the challenges was that the counts were done in 15-minute stints (15 on, 15 off), so in essence I had to double all the counts with the assumption that the number and composition of birds was identical in the counted and uncounted periods.

Except I forgot to do that.

Is that one Black Scoter?

Is that one Black Scoter?

Is that one Black Scoter?

Or two?

I got an email from a member of one of the naturalist club’s members (the observatory was run by the Saint John Naturalists Club at the time) in 2009 pointing out that he thought my numbers were too low. I dug into the terribly formatted awkward files, and realised what we had done (or rather, not done).

I was devastated.

I immediately wrote my supervisors, contrite, and apologetic. We quickly prepared a correction (which essentially doubled the population, so not that insignificant), and emailed the editor who agreed a correction was in order, which we subsequently published.

Unlike Dan or Meg’s stories, this wasn’t a high profile paper, but it was my first one, and one of the very few for which I have a printed issue of the journal on my shelf. But everyone understood it was an honest mistake, and we did what we could to fix it.

I’ve opined before about why there are so few retractions or corrections in conservation biology/ecology, and I don’t see this changing, or being any different. But in the meantime, if anyone finds an error in any of my other published papers (I’m sure there are some floating around), I will happily try to set the scientific record straight.

Best Practices

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When I started my career in science more than a decade ago, I had no idea that I would find aspects of how and why we science so interesting. When I first came across scientific papers on these subjects (rather than on birds or mercury or migration, which I was studying at the time), I put them in a folder called “Thought Papers”, and even blogged about one of them here.

I think it was this folder of papers (which now stands at >100) has generated more “deep thought” about science than an equivalent number of ecological / marine / conservation papers. I’ve even written what I would call a “thought paper” on the problems with unpaid work, which is prevalent in science. But lately I’ve wondered about the efficacy and impact of these contributions.

Back in 2012, Fields Medalist Tim Gowers initiated a campaign dubbed “The Cost of Knowledge” aimed at publishing giant Elsevier, wherein signatories pledged to not serve on editorial boards, review for journals, or submit their work to titles published by Elsevier in protest of its practices. This week, an analysis published in the journal Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics examined the publishing record of approximately 1000 signatories from psychology and chemistry (out of the roughly 16,000 signatories in total) who had pledged to not publish in an Elsevier title, and found that more than a third had actually done just that in the intervening four years. They outline a number explanations and interpretations of the data, and I encourage your to check it out.

My point here isn’t to dive into the potentially questionable business practices of Elsevier, but to contemplate the laundry list of things that significant portions of the scientific community view as “bad”, and that have been pointed out in a variety of fora, yet continue. One could add to this list the proper citation of computer packages/software or taxonomic authorities, reporting effect sizes rather than just p-values, acknowledging reviewers, putting figures & legends together, making meaningful statements about author contributions, using reproducible methods (or describing methods in sufficient detail that they could be recreated), managing and archiving data, the relative importance of the Impact Factor, and more. In fact, PLOS Computational Biology has a very successful series called “10 simple rules“, which invited authors to propose, well, 10 simple rules for their topic of choice.

The social scientists among you are probably all to familiar for the reasons why these practices, which as a scientific community we generally see as Good Things, aren’t adopted more widely, or are adopted in only a “flash in the pan” way, and quickly die off. I certainly don’t expect the ideas espoused <5 years ago to propagate across all of Science in such a short time, but I find myself exasperated when, for the nth time, I mention these ideas and am met with a blank stare.

One reason for this is that very often these ideas are broadcast to those who are already likely to espouse them (the whole “preaching to the choir” syndrome). Most recently, as Morgan Jackson pointed out on Twitter, a paper that highlights the importance of citing taxonomic papers was published in a taxonomic journal.

The other is that science is a very distributed community – there’s no Head of World Science, and even influential organizations like the Royal Society, or the National Academy of Science of the USA, or Росси́йская Aкаде́мия Hау́к (Russian Academy of Sciences) have little, if any, influence on their members to follow what might be called “best practices”. Ultimately, it comes down to journal editors and reviewers (and even if I make some of these points as a reviewer, they can easily be ignored by authors or over-ruled by editors). And given that there are ever more suggestions for How To Science each year, it can be tough to keep up with them all.

As a MSc student, my supervisor mandated that we attach a checklist to the front of our manuscripts for his review (yes, we printed them off!). Were all tables necessary? All figures? Were any duplicative? Were all references cited listed, and vice versa? Had it been reviewed by another lab member? Were pages numbered? He would only read it if these were all checked off. Is it time to think about a broader checklist? True, many journals have something equivalent in their Author’s Guidelines, but they’re often ignored or inconsistent.

While I could come up with some things with which to populate such a list, it’s likely to be very field specific. And even then, dear reader, I’m likely already preaching to the choir, and adoption, anyway, will be far less than 100% and likely decrease with time.

What’s in an affiliation?

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Every scientific paper has a few key ingredients, but the one that may receive rather little attention is the authors’ affiliation(s). Absent until the early/mid 20th century, authors’ affiliations were probably added to facilitate correspondence with an ever-growing community of readers.

Nowadays, it can be a loaded, political, and/or much discussed part of putting a paper together for a variety of reasons. Organizations, departments, and schools use it as evidence of research output for publicity, or internal and external evaluations. Indeed, in some places, authors (or their departments/institutions) receive financial renumeration for published papers, which hinges on the affiliations. Sometimes this can be gamed (in obvious ways), as more and more researchers are offered honourary positions at institutions where they used to work*, or collaborate frequently. Seeing authors repeatedly list 3, or even 4 affiliations often causes me to raise my eyebrows. Most (some?) of these are legit, but how many simply list affiliations so the institution can add the paper to their list of “papers published by our department/school/institute”? Adding such affiliations has no material cost to the authors, is highly unlikely to be questioned, and so becomes a question of personal ethics. I should add, though, that I suspect this is an extreme minority of cases.

As a general rule, authors should list their affiliation as the place where they did most of the work. In my case, this is fairly straightforward: if I primarily use data collected during my MSc, my affiliation is the University of New Brunswick (and I list my current affiliation as “Present/current address”). In some cases, though, the distinction between data/ideas/projects started at Affiliation A and those at Affiliation B may be more opaque.

Author affiliations can also be a political tool. Some institutions (primarily those outside academia) require approvals to publish, or authors may want to publish on topics that are outside the scope of their work. In extreme cases, authors may wish to make particular points or conclusions that could be counter to those of their employer (e.g., government policy), or their employer may not wish to be affiliated with a particular piece of work. I discussed this last scenario with a friend of mine who was told he couldn’t list his institution’s affiliation on a manuscript. His solution was to basically invent an affiliation (we amusingly settled on the nonsensical “Giraffe & Sons, Ltd.”, though I don’t think he ended up using it in the end, sadly) for work that he did outside of his day job. Similarly, it’s fairly common in ecology/conservation for researchers to do small bits of independent consultancy, which could include publication based on work done while on one’s own dime, so to speak.

On a more annoying/foolish/sinister side, affiliations have likely been used by some to infer the quality of the output (“Check out this new paper from Cambridge” can, to some, sound more impressive than “Check out this new paper from North-central Podunk State University” because some use affiliations as a proxy for quality. Which is utter bollocks).

I think affiliations do matter, though perhaps more so outside academia.

 

*I’m an adjunct professor at the university where I did a postdoc, but this was a requirement to co-supervise a student, and this affiliation appears only on papers associated with that student’s work.

Scientific meetings and diversity

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At the end of the day, science is people and their interactions, whether that’s face-to-face, through a journal submission system, or by email. And having a diverse array of people present a diverse array of views and doing science in a diverse set of ways is a Good Thing. And as the scientific community gradually comes to the realization that the diverse scientists in its midst put up with a heck of a lot of diverse crap in their day-to-day lives, especially those from minority groups, women, and the financially insecure, for example, there’s been what one might call an evolution towards considering people when thinking about science.

One of the major ways scientists interact is at conferences or meetings, united by a common research area or theme, and it’s at these meetings where some not-that-good stuff can happen, which has prompted many organizations (though still a small minority) to establish codes of conduct for attendees. Huzzah progress! There are also things you can do to be an ally at conferences.

It was with this floating around in my noggin that I was very interested to see the tweet below from the 2016 Animal Behavior Society:

HB2, or the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act is a large piece of rubbish that discriminates again transfolk by preventing them from using the toilet of their gender. Like I said, utter rubbish. So it was rather heartening to see a scientific society taking a stand on a social and legal issue that affects some of its members.

So it was with some sadness that, 2 days later, the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress announced its location:

 

Malaysia is rather unfriendly to LGBTQ folk (to put it mildly), and even depictions of them in film must show “good triumphing over evil.” Good grief. So needless to say, I won’t be attending. Which is sad personally, and professionally. And while I do understand the international nature of science, and the need to engage with a diverse range of scientists from across the world, I wonder if the topic of LGBTQ attendees even came up.

Is it the job or the purview of professional scientific societies to consider all these various factors when choosing their meeting location? Or should their goal be to be as international as possible regardless of the social or legal conditions of some of their members? Societies are of course welcome to have their meetings wherever they wish, but I think they should also think about what message that sends (be it positive or negative) to the full diversity of its membership.

 

Pastoral care in science

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I work at an NGO, and largely outside the academy, in what could be termed an alt-ac job. One of the biggest differences is that there aren’t (m)any students around. Sure, there’s the occasional PhD researcher, but they’re more treated like the other staff (which can be both good and bad), but in the last 3 years, I’ve found that the lack of students is what I miss the most about not being affiliated with a university.

In addition to the discovery of knowledge and education of students, I think that universities have a significant role to play in pastoral care. Deriving from the religious origins of the university as a societal institution, pastoral care is the assistance in personal wellbeing of students. There is a whole corpus of research and literature on the role of universities in modern society, and of their faculty and staff in student development and wellbeing; I remember some of it from my liberal arts undergrad aeons ago, but I am wholly unqualified to summarize or discuss it here. This is more of a personal reflection.

When I went off to university 15+ years ago, I was only the second in my family to do so, and the first to move away for university (both my parents did 1-2 years in various programs, but always based at home). I was 18, still in the closet (and in oblivious denial), and realizing for the first time that there was a great big world outside my small/suburban upbringing. I had 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the Columbia space shuttle disaster, and my first introduction to the studies of globalisation, religion, colonialism, gender, and philosophy. I loved (nearly) every minute, but I was very much a fish out of water. Socially awkward, didn’t drink or party, and figuring out for the first time in my life who I was and who I wanted to be. In retrospect, I likely showed signs of depression, and anxiety, and I had at least one experience in 2002 that I still find discomforting and troubling (though that is for another day).

And in my four years of undergrad, I was fortunate enough to know two faculty members who made my life and experience so much better. One of them did so consciously (and we’ve since discussed it), while the other might not have, and we lost touch years ago. And though I said I was fortunate, I know in speaking with others in my cohort of students, years later, that this was the norm at Mount Allison. These were people I could call at 11pm on a Sunday if I had to, who helped me, and many others, far beyond our academic studies, and were invested in the success of the whole person. (How well this tradition is continued with increasing university corporatization remains to be seen).

And after I graduated, and became more comfortable in my own skin, I began to notice that others around me were going through tough times – whether that was related to science, academia, or their personal lives. I helped where I could. As a PhD student and postdoc, I knew the system and resources better, and could start to point people in appropriate directions. I was also often one of the few people talking about how we do science, and about scientists as people, which I hypothesize might have made me more approachable.*

When I was involved with the Canadian Improv Games (which I maintain is one of the absolute best organizations in the world for young adults – seriously, just check out this video), it was our mission to maximize each individuals’ success. And in many of the students that I coached, or adjudicated over the years, I saw glimpses of myself, which only made me want to foster that success even more. Their successes brought me ever greater joy that has, to date, been unparalleled by any other professional experience.

But now that I find myself outside the university, and in the UK (without a comparable improv program for students), I find myself thinking more and more about pastoral care in science more broadly, and the culture of research and wellbeing of scientists outside university environments. Some of the challenges I had in undergrad persist (I still tend to be quite anxious, for example), but unlike the university, I feel much more like I’m flying solo. Sure, part of that is the progression from an 18-year-old student to a 30-something research scientist, but occasionally, the support that I would like seems to be missing. And equally, the opportunities to support others in a meaningful way are much more difficult to cultivate. Why is this?

I think part of it relates to the general workplace culture. Here, we’ve all got a job to do, and not enough time to do it. Interactions are either entirely spontaneous or involve coordinating Outlook calendars of >3 people. I have an open-plan office, which doesn’t encourage pastoral interactions. But perhaps most critically, there’s no culture of support or mentorship, and a sense that asking anyone to do anything must be predicated by the phrase “I know you’re incredibly busy, but…”.

I think that the culture of mentorship is incredibly important (and I’ve argued before how this applies specifically to the LGBTQ scientific community). Many of the same arguments apply far more broadly, too. Mentors don’t have all the answers, but they’re (hopefully) invested in the success of their mentees, whether this relationship is formalized or not. And as a friend recently put it, sometimes we’re helpers, and sometimes we need help – pastoral activities aren’t something we do OR receive, it’s both.

Maybe I’m just waxing nostalgic and have an undue rosy expectation based on my own experiences. Pastoral care doesn’t get added to a tenure dossier, or used in annual job evaluations. We are too busy, and have enough problems of our own to deal with without having to deal with someone else’s on top of that. But, no one’s epitaph reads “they wish they’d spent more time at the office”, and very few of us are remembered for the reports we reviewed or strategy sessions we chaired. What matters are people and relationships. And non-university research organizations (and increasingly corporatized universities) need to do a better job looking after, and nurturing them.

 

With thanks to Terry Wheeler for fruitful discussions

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*I’m not trying to blow my own horn here. I’m sure (and I hope!) that many others fulfilled this/these role(s); this is just my own perception. YMMV.

Writing retreats

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One of the things I certainly struggle with now that I’m in a job that involves managing people and programs as much as doing Actual Science™ is finding time to write. About 18 months ago, a colleague forwarded this post from Thesis Whisperer on how to write 10,000 words a day. The secret: turning off distractions, working in a mutually supportive group, and editing later. It’s called Shut Up And Write (or SUAW), because that’s what you do. We’ve merged it with the Pomodoro Technique, and do 25 minutes of writing, with a 5-10 minute break, and repeat 4 times in a morning or afternoon about once every 3 weeks.

But sometimes, that’s just not enough.

In 2015, we had a 6-month expedition to Henderson Island which generated a metric boatload of data. Now, 6 months after the expedition ended, we’d had a preliminary look through the data, and outlined what we thought were the sensible papers that would come out of the trip. We just needed to crunch some data and write some papers.

So I went hiking in Switzerland.

Well, I actually went to a friend’s house, where he, I, and another colleague spent about 2 weeks crunch data, writing papers, and hiking in the Alps and the countryside. We’d get up at about 0630, work for a bit, have breakfast, work for a bit more, and then head outside for 3 or 4 hours, work a bit before supper, and a bit after supper. We still put in at least 8 hours each day on “work”, recharge mid-day (often discussing results, angles for papers, strategies for analysis, and implications of findings along the way). And it was amazingly productive. The last time I had so many related papers in such an advanced stage of preparation (all are now just about complete first drafts for coauthors, if not further along) was in the heady days of my Ph.D.

Now, I realize that I was very lucky in that the only cost of doing this was a train ticket (along with the mental anguish of Paris’s Gare du Nord, and the occasional overly vocal football/soccer fan on the Eurostar), and my boss and workplace was also highly supportive of me basically putting my other work responsibilities largely on hold for 2 weeks (we had only intermittent email, and weren’t checking phones for messages). During my Ph.D. in Newfoundland, especially towards the end, I lamented that there wasn’t a nice saltbox in Trepassey where grad students could go and write up their theses.

So if you’re a PI or department head or anyone else who manages people who need concerted time to write, try Shut Up And Write, and throw in the occasional writing retreat. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

On energy & reflection

Hello faithful readers (if, indeed, there are many of you left). As might be deduced by scrolling through the blog archives, my frequency of posting has waned significantly of late. Believe me, this is not a reflection of any lack of ideas, topics, or Things I Think Are Important, but rather a lack of energy, and a re-evaluation of what I see as the purpose of The Lab and Field.

When I started blogging back in 2013, I was about 18 months into my first postdoc, and the only person in the lab, aside from the PI. We were the only ecologists in an entire building of hydrologists and meteorologists, and I saw blogging as an outlet for looking at neat papers, expressing ideas and opinions, and sharing personal anecdotes from my professional journey.

In the intervening 3+ years, I did a second postdoc, went to faculty interviews (got rejected from by of them), ended up working for a massive environmental NGO, moved continents, lost family, gained friends, and visited some of the most remote and spectacular places on Earth. And the whole time I’ve questioned decisions, second-guessed all the what-ifs imaginable, struggled, worked far too much, and been exhausted. I’ve fought what I see as a few good fights, and lost a number of them (or at least that’s how it sometimes feels).

I’m not normally one for too much navel-gazing, but rather a few people have asked recently when I would blog next, or mentioned that they missed seeing new posts. And while that’s deeply gratifying, I think I’ll be taking a break. Not indefinite, but of uncertain length.

A very dear friend and I discussed at some length recently how working in conservation, whether as a solo researcher or as part of a massive machine, is emotionally exhausting, how we often compromise to fit funding requirements, and put ourselves in less-than-ideal places, all while struggling to make ends meet at home. Conservation work, like most things I see as Very Important, tends to not pay well, can involve significant time away from home, and huge emotional investment (and a good dose of tilting at windmills, with often predictable consequences).

Years ago (and despite extensive searching, I can’t re-find it), I heard a public talk on a podcast where the speaker would set aside 4 weeks each year, in two chunks, to simply disappear, usually to a Buddhist monastery or equally quiet, contemplative place, free from phones, clutter, jumble, and what I’ll call “ancillary crap” (the associated un-fun things about daily life). I always found that appealing, if financially unattainable.

I sense an increasingly rant-y wave of posts in my drafts folder, and we all have enough negativity in our personal and professional lives. But it’s often this negativity that makes being positive and encouraging so energetically expensive – a feeling I knew all too well before coming out, and, well, am starting to see again from time to time.

So time to take a break (though without the monastic setting, jokes about Bedfordshire aside). You can still find me on Twitter, if you’re so inclined.

Volunteer field techs are bad for wildlife ecology: the response

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This is a joint post by Auriel Fournier and Alex Bond

Over the last several years, we’ve both been advocates for eliminating unpaid field technician positions (see here, here, and here for our previous posts on the topic, and this piece from Nature News). About a year ago, we were both quite frustrated, and decided to make the same arguments we had made on our blogs to a different audience – to those who read the peer-reviewed literature.

So we crafted our best arguments, found appropriate references, and had some wonderful colleagues read it over before submitting it. When the reviews came back, they were more startling than we had expected. In essence, we were asked to prove our assertion that diversity is a Good Thing. Nevertheless, two rounds of revisions (and $150 in page charges from our own pockets) later, our peer-reviewed article entitled “Volunteer Field Technicians Are Bad for Wildlife Ecology” appeared in the Wildlife Society Bulletin in mid-November, and was also posted on ResearchGate.

The reaction has been beyond anything either of us could have imagined.

On ResearchGate, the article had (as of 9 March 2016) 11,724 reads, and an Altmetric score of 173 (the highest for any paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin). To say we were surprised at the amount of interest would be an understatement.

We also received several emails or comments that we will share here (anonymized, of course). The overwhelming majority have been positive or constructive, but we’ll start with the negative comments, including the one that was the most hurtful.

To paraphrase the anonymous emailer who created a new email address just to send this one message:

Your career is over. No one will hire you because of this.

Well, thank you, anonymous emailer. You are an utter ass-hat of the most contemptible kind. Now kindly sod off.

One of us also had one potential collaborator who pulled out because of our position on unpaid technicians. Which is annoying and it means some very interesting and potentially important science won’t get done. But chances are we would have found something else to disagree on, so we’re not that put out.

And really, those were the only negative comments we’ve received so far. No doubt there have been those muttering in disagreement, but they’ve not yet muttered to us.

The positive feedback has, however, been rather abundant.

A field technician wrote:

I’M SO HAPPY PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT THIS PROBLEM! SO EXCITING TO SEE THIS! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU SO DAMN MUCH. YOU ARE OFFICIALLY MY FAVORITE SCIENTIST RIGHT NOW!

This was just one of several similar notes, each of which brought (and continues to bring) smiles to our faces.

A scientist at a non-profit wrote:

Hope you are well! I just came across your JWM opinion paper on volunteers and want to say how great I think it is!! I totally agree that it presents challenges to those doing full-time work worthy of pay, and are not getting paid. Even young people doing tough fieldwork getting paid more than $300/month often struggle with feeling grossly under-appreciated. I shared it with my coworkers and we reflected on how to treat our interns better. Thanks for taking the leap to write this!

This was one of our goals – getting people to talk about the issue of unpaid/underpaid technicians in their own institutions.

From another research technician:

Interesting article and I agree wholeheartedly. Although I think these volunteer positions will continue (even the pay to work ones) because they are often sought after. The organizations offering them probably don’t struggle with applicants because people are willing to volunteer just to visit remote nature reserves. Along the same line as your article, there is also a larger issue in that jobs in the wildlife ecology sector generally are not well paid, which essentially causes the same issues as volunteer positions (undermines professionalism, excludes certain groups if people etc.).

Indeed, we see no end in sight for volunteer and pay-to-work positions. Though we’ve started tracking them monthly, and you can see the results over at our Github repository.

Some comments were less clear

The unpaid/underpaid intern situation has bothered me for many years, and someone had call “us” out. One thing I would add is that money is soooo tight that often the PI can’t afford to include the unpaid/underpaid intern’s name in the acknowledgement section of the resulting peer review paper. “We” may also have some issues with acknowledgement.

We are not sure how this comment was intended since neither of us is aware of any monetary limitation from any angle in including anyone, even one’s dog or one’s beard (PDF), in the acknowledgements of a paper.

We also received one long email giving a clear example of how paying technicians to be part of a project does not mean the science is being done well, which was not the argument we were making.

The following came from a professor at a U.S. small liberal arts college:

I have wondered occasionally if a two-pronged approach to this issue would be effective. Writing an editorial to suggest that PIs should incorporate funding for technician seems like a good start. It also seems like it would be worthwhile to write something from the student perspective, suggesting guidelines for when they should consider taking a low-paying (or non-paying) temporary position, how to identify good opportunities, etc.

This is, indeed, an interesting proposition. Auriel has written a bit about applying for field jobs, but as we emphasized in our WSB piece, the decision to accept a position at any salary level is very much an individual decision, and the continued existence of unpaid work and pay-to-work positions is a testament to this (and the number of people willing to accept such positions). The benefits (and costs) vary considerably among individual circumstances, so we’re hesitant to be prescriptive. The most important factor for potential employees (regardless of the level of compensation) is to know your rights, and to make sure the expectations of employer and employee are compatible.

The feedback provided by this person was reflective of several comments we received, and discussions we’ve had:

My take on internships/volunteer jobs. Their role should only be reserved for undergraduates that are still working on a degree. I had no compunctions taking an internship for such low pay. I had very little experience at that point, so the internship was a way for me to learn many different skills to work as a field biologist. I’ve had a few people ask how I got such good experience, and as such good paying field jobs, right after college. working the right internship, that offers lots of learning opportunity, is a good way to help in that regard.

While we’re quite glad that it worked out for this particular person, such experiences and benefits are not exclusive to unpaid jobs. The implicit argument, we think, is that there simply aren’t enough paid positions for everyone, but this is the case in nearly every profession but we don’t see volunteer teachers, for example. In some places, like the UK, trainees have a lower minimum wage. But while many undergraduate students are fresh out of high school with few other obligations (financial, family, or otherwise), this is nowhere near universal, particularly for groups that are under-represented in science (as we argued in our paper).

An African-American faculty member wrote:

But look at undergraduate wildlife classes. You will see already that there are very few of us present. At [research university], I was the only AA (even just minority, I believe) in wildlife for my year (a year later, another AA woman came in). What’s filtering minorities out comes before college, probably before high school. If we want to increase the diversity of our field, outreach efforts need to be concentrated towards childhood and the early teen years, and ideally, we’d have some sort of mentorship program to keep people on a track towards declaring a wildlife/related major once they enter college.

This is, indeed, a very good point. Unpaid positions are just one barrier to diversity in science, and eliminating them won’t solve the problem, but it will help those who’ve made it through to the point where they are looking for such positions. As Simphiwe Dana tweeted recently, “Just because one individual succeeded against all odds doesn’t make the odds acceptable”. Eliminating unpaid positions will help even the odds.

We also received a lengthy message from a female tenured professor at a US research (R1) university:

1) I suspect that many (most?) of your dataset probably consists of technicians recruited to help graduate students. If you make providing not only room and board but also wages sufficient to pay off student loans or supporting sick relatives a requirement, what you are saying is that the only grad students who are allowed to benefit from help in the field are students from well-funded labs and/or working on a project funded by their advisor. Many graduate students do not have access to the types of funding that permit this, yet are doing great science and being highly productive members of our scientific community, precisely because they are able to make things happen on a shoe-string. I firmly believe that PhD students should have a major role in shaping their intellectual development, designing their project, and taking ownership of the direction of their project. This is fundamentally incompatible with a funding model of PI getting a big grant and essentially hiring a PhD student to run it with the help of well-paid technicians. I think your statements that “Unpaid technician positions are bad for science. They are bad for the conservation of our natural world. They are bad for society.” …are wrong because they can make possible a degree of intellectual freedom that is crucial to inventive, original, student-driven research that con contribute substantially to the conservation of our natural world.

Here, we think there are two issues at play. While it’s true that many (though not most) unpaid positions are from academic institutions, we’re not arguing that they should be paid extravagant salaries, but at a minimum, those in line with minimum wage requirements in the jurisdiction of their employer. That is, the minimum legal wage for a set amount of work. We feel this is an ethical issue, which could impede intellectual freedom, but just like other ethical dilemmas within science should not be ignored because of that.

We could also do more research if we didn’t have to pay overhead/incidental costs, pay for fuel or travel, or field station fees or to run PCRs. Field technician salary is no different and should be included in budgets and planning. Even things like applying for and reviewing grants costs money, which could be spent on conservation. But we, as a scientific society, have prioritized this (either consciously or unconsciously) over other uses.

It continues:

For PIs providing minimal compensation, there are undoubtedly fewer justifications. But there are some! You acknowledge that everyone has tight funding and is always looking for the way to maximize data/$. That is not going to change, ever. In a hypothetical situation where you had $3000 allocated for technician support. Let’s image that could pay 1 person well for a field season or 3 at rate where they are able to live and eat but not do such things as pay off student loans. If you chose 1 person, you’d be crazy not to ONLY accept the most skilled, experienced people for the job. If you have the freedom to take 3, you can afford to pick people with ZERO experience, and provide a lot more training. People pay through the nose for formal classroom education. Why should they not “pay” in effect, for training?

This really depends on the situation. Alex, for example, hired completely fresh inexperienced field staff for 3 of his 4 PhD field seasons because they were engaged, excited, and would get on well in the field. Skills and experience aren’t the only factors when hiring. But there is a general trend in closing field stations and fewer offerings of field courses at universities, which is concerning. Indeed, some are even claiming that “We have already lost a generation of field biologists”. But this again comes down to priorities and one’s frame of mind. If you have $3000, and a field technician costs $3000, you hire one field technician. We also feel that part of hiring a field technician is to mentor them as a scientist, and to train them, not just give them $X and get back X data. All projects should include time to train technicians in their schedules, even if they hire experienced staff, to ensure the consistency and validity of the entire project.

This commenter concludes:

3) The people who get the most funding are the old white guys. If only old white guys can have technicians, then we hurt the ability to creative, smart, less-advantaged people of doing science and inspiring others to make things happen for them, even if they work on a shoe-string.

Don’t get me wrong… I do understand the logic of trying to make things easier for less-advantaged students. But I think some of your arguments are a little over-stated. Take this: “How is someone—often with student debt, no outside financial support, a child, a sick parent, an expensive medical condition, any kind of regular life expense, or no family to buy a plane ticket for them—supposed to take these positions?” First, if the potential technician has a small child, a sick parent that requires their assistance, or a serious medical condition, then it is not a good idea to fly off to a remote field site, regardless of the compensation. Like it or not, remote field camps are bad places to bring infants and to be sick. It would be irresponsible of the person hiring to put a sick person or child into situations that put them at risk. What are they to do? Only ever study things within an easy drive of medical attention within North America? I also would like to see data on how much biologists are selecting from the privileged for such positions? That data probably doesn’t exist, but it is crucial to your arguments, and without data, I think it might be premature to state your conclusions so forcefully. I can’t speak for others, but I have actively sought to promote diversity from grad-student days onwards. I also can’t see how these policies affect gender or sexual orientation issues.

The issue of diversity in funding outcomes is, of course, important. And it will take a long time for change to trickle down because those in charge often benefit disproportionately in biased systems.

Field camps also need not be remote, either.  Many field positions occur within range of a hospital that someone who needs regular medical tests or even just access to a pharmacy for expensive medications can do that. Yes there are situations where some will be too sick or otherwise unable to participate in field work, but that is certainly not the rule.

This commenter is correct that we have no data on the affluence of field technicians (nor are we aware of any such data collected). But what we do have is information on diversity at later stages of scientific careers, and where women and people of colour tend to be under-represented. Like one of the previous commenters stated, fostering diversity must begin at an early stage.

There are several references in our paper on the effects of unpaid positions on women (and therefore gender composition). And LGBT folk comprise a vastly disproportionate number of homeless. This is, of course, a very extreme example, but LGBT folk are often less likely to have the support of family who could bankroll their time spent on an unpaid job. While the peer reviewed literature we cited in our editorial is not collected from within the scientific field we do not see a reason that the disproportionate impact had on gender diversity in other fields because of unpaid work would be different in science.

Ultimately we are glad that this article is being read and discussed and we hope that it will continue to be so that in another 12 years another editorial will not need to be written that cites ours and Whitaker 2003. If we value diversity in science we need to stop making excuses and start letting our actions match our priorities.

And lastly, from a tenured professor in Canada:

PS: I am just back from a meeting where we kicked off an international research network that will involve massive amounts of field work.  We used your editorial as a justification to write “no unpaid jobs” in the bylaws. I know it’s usually the angry people that are the more vocal, so I wanted to let you know.

One small change along the road to improving how we do science.

When we first floated this idea about a year ago, we had no idea it would strike such a chord with so many people (both positively and negatively). After all, we don’t think that the suggestion that people should be paid for the work they do was so radical.

Amusing bird names explained: Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler

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When I taught ornithology labs, we usually included a free-form answer on the lab exam asking students for their favourite bird(s). Students would usually write “snowy owl” or “Blackburnian Warbler” – actual species – but invariably, and despite not being covered in the course (as they were outside the local collection of avifauna), we would get tits, boobies, and shags. And the prof and I would chuckle, point it out to the other, and move on.

The history of common English names for birds is rife with double (or even single) entendre, and the sort of names that make non-ornithologists question whether we’ve really completely lost it.

Therefore, as a public service, I shall present an irregular series describing some of the more “colourful” common English bird names. Steve Heard has done something similar for Latin scientific names. And as our first subject, I will take what I find to be, perhaps, one of the most amusing common English bird names: the Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler, Maconus ptilosus.

The first thing to understand is that common English names were given to species by, well, the English, mostly. It’s therefore not surprising that the same names crop up in a wide array of species, many of them unrelated (e.g., the American Robin, European Robin, and North Island Robin). And it was quite common to see a bird in a foreign land, and think that it looked like a cross between two different species/groups. Such was the case with the tit-babblers.

The Old-world Babblers (family Timaliidae) are a group of passerines (perching birds) found in Eurasia (and not to be confused with the Australo-Papuan babblers found in Australia, which are unrelated and in the family Pomatostomidae. See what I mean?). For the sake of simplicity (and minimizing repetitive strain), I’ll just call them babblers. This group has the somewhat annoying feature of being a taxonomic dumping ground. Not sure where to put a new species? Babbler! Something no quite fit in with another family? Babbler! Thankfully, we’re getting most of this sorted now (though the family may not even be monophyletic (Sigh. There’s always something, isn’t there?)). The term was first used for this group of birds in 1832/3 by William Swainson in his wonderfully-titled tome “Zoological Illustrations, or original figures and descriptions of new, rare, or interesting Animals, selected chiefly from the classes of Ornithology, Entomology, and Conchology, &c” (which you can read here). Sadly, Swainson doesn’t give any explanation as to why he chose the name. Perhaps because the birds tend to be quite vocal, babbling along?

Tits, of course (hey – stop that) are part of the family Paridae, which includes chickadees in North America, and the well-known garden tits of Europe. But it was, ultimately, Alfred Newton who first used “tit-babbler” in his 1890s A Dictionary of Birds (read it here), though the name may have existed previously. Likely, the birds were babblers that reminded someone of the tits they knew from back home in Europe. And thus the tit-babblers (Macronus spp.) were born.

All of the tit-babblers (snicker) are, thankfully, in one genus, Macronus, likely referring to their large-ish size compared to other babblers (from the Greek macro for large), and coined by William Jardine and Prideaux Selby in their 1835 Illustrations of Ornithology (read it here). Jardine & Selby also first described Macronus ptilosus, the Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler, in the same volume. The species epithet, ptilosus, likely comes from the Greek ptilon for feather or wing and refers to the fluffy feathers on the aptly-named bird.

Fluffy-backed-tit-babbler

Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler by Mervin Quah on Arkive.org (educational use permitted)

Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler, then called Timalia trichorrhos, from Nicolas Huet le Jeune - Nouveau recueil de planches coloriées d'oiseaux. (public domain)

Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler, then called Timalia trichorrhos, from Nicolas Huet le Jeune’s 1838 volume “Nouveau recueil de planches coloriées d’oiseaux”  (public domain). Note the fluffy back.

The Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler is classified by the IUCN as Near Threatened, owing to the loss of lowland forests in its native range (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei).

It is also an excellent Shakespearean-esque insult (though calling someone a lowland forest bird from SE Asia isn’t that insulting).

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If there’s there a common English (or even scientific) bird name you’d like explained, leave it in the comments!