Archives: Graduate School

Hug an advisor today.

Hug an advisor today.

It’s inevitable.  Put two or more grad students1 in a room, and sooner or later the talk will turn to advisors;  wait a little while longer and chances are good that someone will start complaining about their advisor.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  Bosses all over are fair targets for griping, and the power imbalance inherent to the student-advisor relationship certainly doesn’t help matters2.  After being stuck in a lab together for several years, it’s a wonder that the average science department doesn’t have hallways littered with bodies.

But there’s a flip side to this, which I think might be under-appreciated:  advisors can also be awesome.  No relationship like this is going to be perfect, but a good advisor will teach you, guide you, and give you a leg up the academic ladder.  They’ll help you when you trip and faceplant, they’ll give you the advice you need (even if you don’t want to hear it), they’ll introduce you to the right people, they’ll make you better scientists.

Grad student


I’ve gotten very lucky along the way3.  Michael advised me on the undergraduate independent study that first inspired to take the idea of a research career seriously;  he also humoured me when I bit off a project that was far too much for me to chew and helped me sort through the resulting mess.  Pete, my M.Sc. advisor, got me into studying biological questions and gave me a place to work when my Ph.D. went sideways.  Luc-Alain, my Ph.D. advisor, turned me into an independent scientist and put up with far more than I had any right to ask for.  Finally, my postdoc advisor Mark has to be one of the nicest (and smartest) people that I’ve ever met and has been supportive in all the ways that have made being a postdoc enjoyable.  I’ve been privileged to work with a succession of people who’ve taught me and made me better at this science thing, and today I’d like to take a moment to be thankful for them.

Many people have poor relationships with their advisors, and there are a lot of valid questions to be asked about the grad school experience.  I don’t want to diminish the problems of anyone who has had a poor relationship with their advisor (I’ve known my fair share of bad advisors, even if I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid having them myself).  But if you have a good boss, now might be the time to take a moment and reflect on the things that they’ve done for you.  Give them a hug, a handshake, a friendly email, or a fresh data set.  And one day, when you’re in their position:  remember what it felt like to be the student.

  1. Honours students, postdocs, RAs, …
  2.  And yes, people have done research on this.  Are you surprised?
  3. Seriously lucky.  I didn’t do any of the things you’re supposed to do when picking an advisor.

Are grad students just lonely?

I was reading a paper today on computational modelling approaches to an interesting information situation known as the ‘standing ovation problem’, by Miller and Page (2004) (free pdf here), when I came across this nugget:

Methodological perspectives can be deeply ingrained. Prior to presenting the SOP to graduate students in economics, we tested it on Cal Tech undergraduates. Though Cal Tech undergraduates are hardly a random sample, we found that their modeling efforts differed in fundamental ways from those of graduate students in economics. The undergraduates assumed that individuals sat next to close friends (or, even went to the lecture with dates). In contrast, very few economic graduate students included the possibility of friends in their models. This difference might be a reflection of the social life of budding economists, but we remind you that the comparison group here is Cal Tech undergraduates. We suspect that the divergence in assumptions is much more due to the emphasis on individual choice that pervades most of modern economic theory, rather than social differences between the two groups of students. (p.9,emphasis mine).

I make no comment, but I invite comparison to the students of other disciplines or the reader’s own experiences.

A note on work-life balance.

Presented without comment, from Darwin by Desmond and Moore (Kindle edition, ch. 19):

The days became alike ‘as two peas:’ up at seven leaving Emma asleep, tinker with Coral Reefs until ten, ‘eat our breakfast, sit in our arm-chairs – and I watch the clock as. the hand travels sadly too fast to half past eleven – Then to my study & work till 2 o’clock luncheon time.’ Off to town after lunch, back in time for dinner at six.  ‘Sit in an apoplectic state, with slight snatches of reading till half past seven – tea, lesson of German, occasionally a little music & a little reading & then bed-time makes a charming close to the day.’  It was monotonous but, he comforted himself, ‘how much worse it would have been if I had been in any business.’


Standing for science..

Okay, the title makes the post sound dramatic, but it’s a bit of misdirection. Really, what I’m talking about is the standing desk phenomenon that’s been getting some attention lately. Given how much of my day is spent sitting hunched over staring at a computer screen, I decided to throw caution to the winds and give it a shot. Mind you, I didn’t feel like spending a bunch of money on the project – and my office space comes complete with a desk heavy enough to withstand your basic nuclear strike – so I decided to get on my feet on the cheap. A trip to IKEA last night and $30 later (and with the help of the guys in the shop downstairs who operate those awesome power tools), here’s what I’ve come up with:

1000000280.JPG by Winawer0
1000000280.JPG, a photo by Winawer0 on Flickr.

Valuable lessons were learned…

At UQAM, one of the required activities to achieve the Ph.D. is to complete a seminar for the department, which I bused into Montréal yesterday to give today.  As I have been reading and thinking about presentations in science lately (including Presentation Zen, the great book by Garr Reynolds), I spent a long time working on the visuals for my talk and doing my best to create a talk with a coherent narrative and a sound logical structure.  Having arrived in Montréal yesterday, it occurred to me to actually – well, you know – practice the talk I had spent so long on.  Now, I don’t usually have timing troubles with my talks, but when I practiced it last night I came in way over time.  And I mean well over time – to the tune of at least a half an hour if not more.  Much panicked re-arranging and paring-down ensued, ending with me cutting nearly a quarter of my slides.

I had to practice the talk several more times over the evening and then again in the morning, and then race into the lab to give the bloody.  Of course, due to a series of awesome coincidences – including my talk apparently being scheduled during a large training session which soaked up most of my audience – I ended up giving my talk to a mostly empty room.  Add to that a MacBook which has developed a new and exciting habit of randomly rebooting without warning and a projector that flickered on and off in a stochastic fashion, and it was a pretty stressful couple of days.

But I can’t complain too much:  the talk went off okay and was received well, I passed the “course”, and my advisor tells me that my thesis is ready to submit.  So despite the issues, it’s been a good couple of days.

One thing that makes me a bit sad, however, is that many of the slides I had to cut contained illustrations from my wife;  her work greatly enhanced the visual presentation of the work, and it’s a shame that no-one got to see some of them.  With that in mind (and following up on this post), I’ll wrap this up with a few slides from the cutting room floor and a couple that were actually in the talk.

The incompatibility slide.

A slide about the incompatibility assumption in producer-scrounger games.

A slide about the patch discovery rate in producer-scrounger games.

The scrounger convergence assumption in producer-scrounger games.

And one of my favorite slides of the whole talk:

A slide I used while I was arguing for the importance of spatial processes in social foraging.

Ooh, and one final one that I can’t forget:

And a slide introducing a model I worked on about foraging and animal personality...

(Note:  she gave me permission to post these, so please don’t rip them off.  If for some reason you think that they could be useful to you, drop me an e-mail).