Gang aft agly

Well, despite my posts of late saying no new students and no new funding, at least one of those is now proven wrong. I’m pleased to have Karen Bobier, a fish-focused student who came here from UC Santa Cruz and entered through the Integrated Life Sciences program, join the lab. She will be co-advised by my good colleague Bud Freeman, who does a lot of his molecular work in “my” lab anyway. Beyond that, who knows? I’ve assigned Song of the Dodo by David Quammen for holiday travel reading. Hard to find a more readable and intriguing book that lays out the history of biogeography and community ecology so well, from Wallace to Macarthur & Wilson and more. Below, she and new Dyer student Amanda Shaver are snooping through the massive GMNH fish collections!

I suppose what I’ve learned from this semester is that my ban on bringing in students, while perhaps practical, was also sort of arbitrary. Sort of like when the grocery checkout person suddenly puts the “LANE CLOSED” sign down while you are in line. I’m going to continue training undergraduates, graduates, and postdocs as long as it is useful to them and makes sense to me. And, I was impressed by how much Karen got done despite 99% of my focus being on getting 2 PhD students finished up this Fall! The difficulties are standard in science: we have to find funding to support some good work, and that will happen sooner or later.

The whole semester also gave me a lot of reason to evaluate what I think about rotation programs in grad school. Though I entered Duke on a rotation program through the University Program in Genetics, it was known all along that I was only “rotating” in labs to pick up some skills and techniques; I would end up in Cliff Cunningham’s lab, and was happy about that. Other schools I’ve been at had direct admission, so that a student only ends up somewhere they are already guaranteed a spot (though student and mentor may later decide they don’t interact well, I’m not sure that 5 weeks in a lab is enough to determine that). I see graduate training as an apprenticeship, as ancient as learning to blacksmith or learning astronomy from a mentor who takes the apprentice in and teaches them what they know. It is a fundamentally personal relationship and one that I invest myself in as best as I can (given multiple trainees, a family, and the rest of my life).

So, the problem with rotation programs is that on the surface they enable students to find a “best fit” by trying out several options, but underneath they have the potential for students to fall off the conveyor belt at the end if some mentors are being very selective, e.g. having many students rotate for a single position, or if - like I had been doing - there is just not an intent to take a student. Rotations have set up anxious situations for a number of students, both related to my lab as well as in other cases around the university - and why? I don’t think I will participate in the rotation program through ILS in the near future. It appears to me that it fundamentally gives even more advantage to the faculty, and at the risk of a student spending precious money, time, and psychological well-being in joining such a system if they aren’t going to be able to study what they want to study.

Pursuing a doctorate should not be taken lightly. I would worry about a student who really didn’t know what she or he wanted to study, and I would worry about a student who ended up devoting five or more years of their life to something that doesn’t really motivate them in the first place. I know some students are here primarily for training for the next position, and some students are good at adapting the situation to their needs. In general, though, I think those students could do just as well if we had direct admission (which we do, both in Genetics as well as in Ecology) and both student and advisor agreed to work together from the start.