I am an American citizen who did her PhD in the UK. This was a bit accidental on my part, but I am often asked by folks -- who want to go the non-accidental route -- how to do this.
This is a blog post for those people!
PhDs are different in the US and the UK
The first question you should ask yourself is: do you want to do a PhD in the UK? PhDs are really different on this side of the pond, particularly the sorts of PhDs available to non-EU citizens.
In the UK, PhDs typically last only 3-4 years. You go in knowing exactly which lab you'll be joining and what project you'll be working on. You don't take classes, and teaching's typically often optional. Admission comes with no guarantee of funding; you'll need to find that separately. In the US, you'll probably spend some time taking classes and doing lab rotations before you settle into a topic. Funding for 5 years is common, and it's rare to be offered admission without some sort of funding (though something like the NSF might give you a better offer than what your department is willing to give you), though said funding typically mandates a particular teaching load.
At the moment, with an exchange rate of about 1 GBP = 1.25 USD, US PhDs pay more than UK PhDs, though this will vary widely. (A widely unscientific survey of "PhD students I know" suggests that £12-£14 per year, untaxed, would be pretty normal for non-EU students in the UK, with higher stipends for folks in London.) Cost of living's generally pretty high in the UK, though post-Brexit the exchange rate is terrible, and of course healthcare is much cheaper in the UK than in the US. (£150 per year will get you access to the NHS, though there will be additional add-on fees for things like prescriptions depending on where you live, and some things you'll probably need to go private for, like physiotherapy and mental health care.)
Work-life balance is generally much better in the UK than in the US -- though, again, this widely varies. As a non-EU student, you may or may not have access to things like sick leave, maternity/paternity leave, disability accommodations, etc, but this has been getting better recently.
Also: all of Europe is on your doorstep. You can get dirt cheap flights between major British cities and dozens of European destinations (plus cool non-European places like Morocco or Turkey), and there's fantastic public transportation pretty much everywhere. If you enjoy traveling, the UK is a great way to get to experience the diversity of Europe while still getting to deal with all your bureaucracy in English.
The US is also big enough to host its own academic community; you can go pretty far in science only attending US-based conferences and only collaborating with US-based colleagues. This isn't so in the rest of the world. Spending some time abroad really broadens your network, and the UK's absolutely a major hub for the international scientific community.
Okay, that's nice, but how do I get a PhD in the UK??
So, you've thought long and hard about the pros and cons of moving into the British system, and you've decided you'd like to go for it. Now what?
In the UK, admissions is separate from funding, and I'm only going to focus on funding. People can and do self-fund their PhD, though, so if that's a viable option for you, great! You can stop reading now. :-)
For EU citizens, there are three main ways of getting funding for a PhD. Not all of these will be available to non-EU citizens, but it's useful to know how the system works.
What's this prestigious-sounding fellowship of which you speak?
The timeline for these is early. If you want to start your PhD in autumn of year X, you should be starting the application process in the spring of year X-1. I started in May 2011 for entrance in September 2012, and I definitely missed one scholarship's deadline and generally put off things to the last minute. To give you an idea, my key deadlines were August (Rhodes/Marshall), September (Fulbright), and January (Clarendon), having decided not to apply for the Gates (November), but that was many moons ago, so check what things look like these days!
If you're at a university in the States, your university may have some sort of fellowships advisor who can help with the application process. (I said "may"! My n = 2 is St. Lawrence and Yale.) In fact, your university may be limited in the number of people they can endorse for a given award -- in 2011, Yale could only endorse 20 people total for Rhodes/Mitchell/Marshall -- so you may be required to work with them. UK universities, especially Oxbridge, are pretty opaque to outsiders, and the fellowship process even more so, so if you can network your way into talking to a recent recipient of a major UK fellowship, I'd highly recommend it.
Some of the major national fellowships are:
There will then be international fellowships offered by the university itself. Oxford's scheme is called Clarendon; Cambridge's is called Gates. Bristol had one, and St. Andrews has one, so it's likely that whatever university you're applying to has something similar. Application procedures will vary widely, and there may be secret ways to game the system, so do try to ask around the department you'd like to join.
Finally, your undergraduate university may have fellowships specifically for graduates of that university to do a postgraduate degree in the UK. (Yale's is called the Henry and is good for unmarried students to do a year at Oxford or Cambridge.)
Image description: Oxford's Radcliffe Camera in the snow. (c) Oxford Today. It doesn't actually snow that much in southern England, but it's certainly picturesque when it does!
The British Ecological Society ("BES") -- the oldest ecological society in the world, fun fact -- has a number of Special Interest Groups ("SIGs"), volunteer groups focused on one subfield of ecology. I am on the organising committee of one of them, BES Macro, which is devoted to macroecology and macroevolution. As part of my role on this committee, I run the Twitter account @BESMacroecol.
(This is a duty I share with Natalie Cooper, Vanessa Cutts, and Emma Higgins, and that I used to share with Simon Tarr; they are all awesome, and I do not want to take any credit away from them!)
As I write this, we have 3,740 followers, which I find surprising, because I do not think that I do very much with this account. Specifically, I view this account's current role as:
1) Tweet anything the BES tells us to tweet.
2) Tweet out any new macroecology or macroevolution papers that I happen to encounter. In practice this means papers from journals whose ToCs I subscribe to, and you can tell when I'm busy, because sometimes I'm weeks behind.
3) Live-tweet BES Macro, our annual macroecology conference. Ideally also live-tweet any other macro-related talks at any other conference one of us attends, but this only sometimes happens.
4) Retweet macro-related adverts (jobs, student positions, conferences, etc) or papers that I happen to encounter, either via my own timeline (strong biases towards birds and cultural evolution) or via @BESMacroecol's timeline, which is all current and former committee members, plus all official BES twitter accounts. Occasionally I'll make a new tweet for an advert or a paper, but most of the time that's too much effort.
I have no Grand Lessons, but I do have musings on what seems to make a tolerable academic Twitter account:
My tweets tend to do better if they have GIFs, but I'm wary of GIF over-use, as it can seem pretty disrespectful to Serious Science. The official BES guidance is that every tweet should have a picture, and that's really good advice, but sometimes when I schedule tweets the attached picture doesn't make it through the scheduling, so if I tweeted about your work and there was no picture, I'm sorry, blame Hootsuite!
If I'm re-tweeting something, that's probably in real time and honestly could be at any time of day or night. If I'm composing a tweet from scratch, I try to schedule them for weekdays, between late morning and mid-evening UK time; even though we do have followers all over the world, tweets at other times just don't get traffic.
If the journal's on Twitter I try to tag the journal when tweeting about a paper; occasionally AmNat or Nature E&E will re-tweet me. I have no insight into what they're looking for in a tweet from someone like me. If I happen to know that the first author is on Twitter, I'll tag the first author, but otherwise authors rarely get tagged, because Hootsuite's awful for searching twitter handles.
If you have a map or a phylogeny in your paper, I'll use that as the image for the tweet. Otherwise I go for what's asthetically pleasing to me.
Some abstracts are really good at nailing down tweet-able takeaway messages. Some abstracts really aren't. The quality of the tweet about your paper will be some function of how readable your abstract is, how close your paper topic is to my own research, and how busy I happen to be when I'm scheduling a bunch of tweets.
Want someone like us to advertise your macro-related job/new paper/talk/conference/whatever? Tag us! I love it when folks tag @BESMacroecol into things related to macroecology -- it makes my job easier! I always feel weird about advertising this, though, because sometimes we don't re-tweet things we're tagged in. Maybe the link to macroecology or macroevolution isn't immediately clear. Maybe the tweet's in a language I can't read. Maybe you caught me on a high-traffic day, and I plain missed your tweet. (This happens a lot, especially when I'm not the only person tweeting from the account.)
I'll never be Sue the T-Rex or the Monterey Bay Aquarium or even the journal IBIS, all phenomenal institutional Twitter accounts. But without very much effort, I've helped to build a platform where I can share cool scientific research with several thousand research. If that sounds like a good long-term goal for your society/group/institution, hopefully this random collection of thoughts can give you a place to start.
BES Macro, the annual meeting of the British Ecological Society Macroecology/Macroevolution Special Interest Group (say that 5 times fast), was held this year in St Andrews, Scotland. The three BES Macro SIG committee members currently based in St Andrews (Maria Dornelas, Kevin Healy, and me), plus four local macroecologists (Faith Jones, Laura Antao, Faye Moyes, and Jess Haghkerdar), were tasked with organising it.
It was a ton of fun! I love the BES Macro community, and organising a conference is a great networking experience. But, to quote one of my fellow organisers: "we are never doing this again".
In case this is helpful to any future organisers of BES Macro, or of any medium conference, I figured I would make public the lessons I've learned over the past few months.
1) Don't take on more than you have to. It's okay to delegate.
I actually learned this lesson during BES Macro 2017, when I tried to run the official @BESMacroecol Twitter account and simultaneously chair. Turns out it's not possible to multitask quite that much, whoops! So this year I purposefully didn't schedule myself to chair and asked my co-rep Simon to do the bulk of the tweeting, so that I could be free to run around solving any other problems that came up. That was the right call!
2) No matter how clear you are in your emails, you're still going to be fielding a lot of questions.
I didn't mind communicating with folks, but it surprised me how much communicating I had to do! Whatever you're guessing for the rate that folks email conference organisers, triple it, at least.
3) Cooperating with strangers is harder than cooperating with people you know well.
I've organised a whole bunch of events before, including small conferences, but my co-organisers had always been with people I knew well, people whose reactions I could generally predict and who could generally predict my reactions. My BES Macro co-organisers are all really awesome and fantastic, but we definitely had a few mind-reading fails. A stitch in time saves nine, and all that jazz -- take the time to be clearer with your co-organisers than you think you need to be.
4) It's useful to have someone, or something, official to fall back on.
Conference organisers have to make all sorts of decisions that will end up annoying someone. Having a senior person who can support your decision and/or having official policies you can point at to say "sorry, these are the rules", can ameliorate the power dynamics that ECR organisers are up against. So senior people, back your junior people; junior people, don't be afraid to ask senior people to weigh in, even if it's about something relatively minor; and everyone, the more codified your policies are (say, via a code of conduct that all attendees must agree to), the more everyone's protected.
5) Gender diversity is harder than you think, but it's important. (Let's try for other types of diversity too, okay?)
I was surprised at the number of times someone had to say "wait, this [list][group][whatever] is all men" (or, in one case, "this is all women"). The BES has official policies about gender diversity (again, SUPER helpful to have this codified, so we can just implement the rules rather than arguing about them), but you need to be paying attention to realise that you're in a situation where these rules apply. Keep paying attention. We need to make STEM more welcoming.
Also, you'll notice that BES Macro's racial composition is largely reflective of UK academia, which is to say, extremely white. We also rarely talk about other axes of diversity, such as how we can be more inclusive of our LGBTQ members or our disabled members. (The truly detailed-oriented of you will notice that we changed venues? That's because it turned out that our original venue wasn't as wheelchair-accessible as we originally thought. That was unacceptable to us. It turns out actual wheelchair-accessible venues in St Andrews are few and far between, which is itself unacceptable. How, exactly, are students and staff who can't climb stairs supposed to get to their classes and offices and meetings?)
Anyway, we can do better.
6) Make your systems redundant.
If anything about the conference running smoothly requires a specific person being at a specific place at a specific time, you're doing it wrong. Minor crises happen; miscommunications happen; people are fallible. Make sure at least two people know how to do "the thing", for every possible value of "the thing". Ditto for physical items -- as much as you can, have two copies of every important item, with two different people.
7) People won't notice your minor screw-ups, and even if they do they will be super nice about it.
I only heard/over-heard positive things from attendees during the conference about how the conference is going, and the results from the feedback form we sent around have been overwhelmingly positive and complimentary.
8) If people do give you negative feedback, don't necessarily take it to heart.
The feedback form currently includes about a dozen people saying that they hate the 5-minute talk format and we should get rid of it...as well as about a dozen people saying that they love the 5-minute talk format and we should never get rid of it because it's the greatest thing ever. No matter what format BESMacro2019 takes for their talks, some of those people are going to be unhappy. Let feedback indicate what sorts of potential changes should be discussed, absolutely, but seriously, you can't please everyone.
8) Don't get in people's faces for not attending your conference.
There were a number of folks who I expected to attend BES Macro 2018 who didn't. But you know what? It's none of my business why they didn't. Folks have family commitments and medical problems and limited travel funds and limited time to do their research, and it's all okay.
9) Have an intermediate registration price for postdocs.
Postdocs don't necessarily have travel funds, and though they do generally make more money than students, they also tend to be in really precarious employment situations. I know how scary conference budgets can be, but making things easier for ECRs is generally a good thing.
10) Folks seem to appreciate live-tweeting.
There wasn't as much Twitter activity this year as previous years, but I got a lot of appreciation from folks who couldn't attend for the live tweets on both my personal account and the official @BESMacroecol account, so let's keep valuing that, okay?
BESMacro2018 attendees. Photo by Catherine Sheard.
I'm frequently asked if I have any food recommendations for London. The answer is "DO I EVER", but it's annoying to dig through my email to copy-paste my list each time. Therefore: a blog post, that I can just send folks the link to whenever they ask.
Bodean's BBQ (Soho, but there are a bunch around London): delicious, reasonably-priced Kansas City style BBQ. Alcohol drinkers tell me that their cocktails are also good/interesting.
Kati Roll Company (Soho): cheap, fast, amazing. Kati rolls originate in Kolkata and are kind of like burritos. These folks also have several restaurants in New York City.
Paul A Young (Soho, but there are other locations): over-priced fancy chocolate shop, but their brownies are incredible and are almost affordable, sometimes they have other reasonably priced things as well.
Bali Bali (Covent Garden): Indonesian. Best I've had outside of Indonesia / Amsterdam, though admittedly that's a pretty low bar.
Andu Cafe (Dalson): Ethiopian, vegan, cheap.
Tas the Cut (Southbank, but there are a bunch of other branches around London): Turkish, a bit pricey.
Aladin (Brick Lane): Indian, very popular, very tasty. If you know what you're doing, you can often bargain at Brick Lane curry houses (and curry houses elsewhere -- I once got 10% off in Edinburgh, and a free bottle of wine in Bloomsbury), though probably not here.
Also, the food markets in Greenwich and Camden, and the weekend Brick Lane Foodhall, are solid bets for really good, really interesting, fairly cheap food.
I love the round-up of links that various bloggers post (most obvious contenders being Dynamic Ecology and Small Pond Science). It's been a while since I kept a blog, and I've had this bookmarks folder piling up of "things to post when I start blogging again." Even though I am most definitely not "blogging again", I am currently waiting for some code to compile, so I figure, hey, why not post some of those links?
Once I get through the backlog, "Dispatches from the Internet Machine" will hopefully become a slightly more regular feature!
First off, did you know that you can negotiate your salary and a mysterious thing called a "start-up package" when you're hired as tenure-track faculty?
Start lectures with a short video. This is amazing advice from Meghan Duffy that I am totally stealing.
Meghan also suggests using online discussion threads to guide lecture classes' review sessions. I've never personally witnessed this working well, even when the students were bribed with participation points to use the online boards, so it's great to have a functional example. I also really like Matthew Holden's suggestion in the comments to ask the students "if you were me, what topics would you put on the exam?"
Is it possible to run a lab class based on independent projects for 108 students? John DeLong is trying it; his structure sounds both ambitious and excellent, and I look forward to hearing how it turns out. If nothing else, this post made me reflect on what labs should be teaching versus what labs are teaching, a question I hadn't fully considered before.
Spencer Lenfield has proposed a fantastic "Great Books" syllabus.
As a recovering math major, I really liked Jeremy Fox's discussion of the "elegance" of scientific methods sections. We don't often talk about clever papers, and that's usually a good thing, but there are certainly some experiments so beautifully designed as to be in a category all their own.
I've recently discovered Ask A Manager, an amazing advice column about professional conduct in the workplace. AAM also has great advice for things like how to start a cover letter (each post is typically short, like this one, but there will be links at the bottom to other relevant content).
Alternatively, Meghan Duffy explains how to format a CV for a faculty job application.
Jeremy Fox argues that there are two types of ecologists: those who think in terms of dynamical models, and those who think in terms of linear regressions. I think this is a brilliant first-order approximation of the field.
In wonderfully nerdy fashion, Stephen Heard explains why it's Western Australia and Southern blot but northern Australia and eastern blot.
Think you might have a U-shaped relationship between variables? Want to test it using quadratic regression? Be very, very careful.
Salacca zalacca, aka "snakefruit" (an Indonesian palm), is almost a tautonym -- scientific names with the same genus and species, something that's not allowed in plants. Stephen Heard explains how this came about.
If that wasn't sufficiently linguistically obscure for you, did you know that there are some animals whose scientific names come from Elvish? Now, thanks to Stephan Heard, you do.
Claire Bowern taught a postgraduate class on journal article writing by, among other things, forcing students to submit manuscripts, and it sounds excellent. (Uh, says the person who's owed Claire a paper draft for way too many months. Sorry Claire.)
And finally: I had no idea that trans-oceanic tortoise dispersal was actually a thing.
Some time ago, there was a lively discussion on the Ecological Society of America's listserv "Ecolog" about mathematics requirements in undergraduate biology/ecology curricula. The original question was about calculus -- should undergrad biology/ecology majors be required to take calculus, and if so, how much? -- but the discussion quickly broadened to include the entire quantitative side of ecology and evolutionary biology.
How much math(s) and stats should undergraduate biologists learn? And at what opportunity cost?
To give a quick bit of context for any non-American readers: at American universities, over the course of a four-year degree, a student typically takes approximately 1/3 of their coursework within their "major" (degree concentration, in this case some flavor of ecology and evolutionary biology), 1/3 of their coursework on what is often called "distribution requirements" (classes spread out over many different disciplines or skill sets, e.g., humanities, social sciences, STEM, writing-intensive, foreign languages), and 1/3 on electives (advanced coursework within the major, adding a second major, courses for fun in other disciplines, etc). Americans generally don't apply to do a particular major -- they apply to the university itself, and then during their first or second year they declare which major they're going to be.
I did my undergraduate degree at Yale, where I double-majored in Mathematics and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB). At the time, the EEB degree required two semesters of calculus and one semester of statistics, though you could place out of the organic chemistry requirement if you took two or more advanced mathematics courses. (I actually really enjoyed my intro to chemistry course, but I was already petitioning the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing nearly every semester for special permission to take a greater-than-normal courseload -- orgo just didn't make the cut.) Anyway, that was it for required quantitative training, though you were highly encouraged to seek out more.
As a math major, I had coursework in multivariate calculus, linear algebra, real analysis, group theory, set theory, game theory, graph theory, and both theoretical and applied probability and statistics; I did my math senior thesis on representation theory and Fourier analysis. (Yes, I'm missing complex analysis -- I decided to take a class on macroevolution that met at the same time. Yes, that's why I have honors in EEB but not in math. Give that I now have a PhD in, esssentially, macroevolution, it was the right call.) As a teenager, I attended Canada/USA Mathcamp, so I also have all sorts of random knowledge of topics that I studied there, like cryptography and number theory.
Some of these topics that I just listed are tremendously useful to my daily life as a professional biologist. Linear algebra, for example, came up about 10 minutes into my PhD viva. At Oxford I taught tutorials on game theory. I use information I learned in my stochastic processes class something like a weekly basis. Graph theory? Maybe a monthly basis. I don't personally ever use Fourier analysis, but I can easily point you toward a biologist who does.
Moreover, numbers don't scare me. Logic doesn't scare me. Programming doesn't scare me. Even if I'm never, ever going to need to prove that a 17-gon can be constructed with a ruler and compass (something that comes up towards the end of an undergraduate Galois Theory class), I'm grateful for the rigorous mental training that a mathematical education provided. I'm grateful that I have enough of a mathematical education that I can teach myself anything else that I need to know to do my job as a biologist.
Should all ecologists double-major in mathematics? No, of course not. But every single biologist I know wishes that she knew more stats, myself included. And if you're going to go beyond first-semester stats, you're going to need to know basic calculus, which is where this whole debate started.
So why is statement this controversial? I think this is controversial because in higher education, mathematics, statistics, and programming are often taught to too general an audience. (And also by people who aren't trained to teach and/or by people who aren't incentivized to be effective teachers, but oh boy is that a can of worms I'm not touching.)
So what do we do? We design classes specifically for the biological sciences. The type of mathematics you need to know if you're going to be an physicist is very different from the type of mathematics you need to know if you're going to be an ornithologist. We also know our audience -- teaching stats to someone who did A-level Further Maths (UK) or who is considering a math major (US) is very different from teaching stats to someone who shuts down at the sight of arithmetic. Teaching R to someone who's fluent in Python is very different than teaching R to someone who has been told all of their life that people from their minority group "can't code." All of these factors have to be worked into the framework of the class itself, though if we as individuals have no control over the syllabus, we do our best with what we have.
There are many different ways to be a "biologist." But every single one of us applies the scientific method. Which means testing a hypothesis. Which means using statistics. Which is a type of mathematics. A poorly-taught mathematics class is a waste of an undergraduate's time, sure, but I think that we can do better than that.
How much mathematics should an undergraduate learn? At least some, preferably well-taught. Enough to build their confidence. Enough to show them that numbers aren't scary. Enough so that when they have to learn more, they can teach themselves.