“Zen Ecology” and the Origin of Scientific Ideas

by: Nick Waser and Mary Price [;]

Professors of Biology Emeritus, University of California Riverside, Adjunct Professors, University of Arizona, Senior Investigators, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory


Recent evidence from cognitive science validates an older perception that creative thinking in humans involves two distinct processes—one that generates a sudden, intuitive insight, followed by a second process of deliberate rational analysis that error-checks and develops the insight. As Scheffer et al. (2015) point out (see also Scheffer 2014), modern science stresses the second approach at the expense of the first.  We are trained in a “scientific method” that is wonderfully efficient for evaluating alternative hypotheses against empirical evidence, but we receive virtually no training in how to generate novel ideas.  Scheffer and colleagues argue that taking time off from focused work to let the mind wander aimlessly is essential to the creative process both in science and in the arts (and when done in a natural setting seems to contribute as well to overall mental and physical health; see e.g., Fleischner 2017). But how many of us are encouraged to take time off for walks or daydreams, and how many conferences schedule unstructured free time?

In 2012 we had the good luck to help teach a field course for the Tropical Biology Association (TBA; at the Amani Reserve in the Usambara Mountains of northern Tanzania.  Our co-teacher was the late Brian Moss, a retired lake ecologist from the University of Liverpool (see Jeppesen and Johnes 2016 for a lovely summary of his life’s work).  Our course brought together beginning graduate students from European and African countries.  The intent was to build connections and capacity and confidence for the students, beyond an introduction to local natural history, and this was done during a month of living together in Spartan facilities embedded in nature.

During the first week of the course Brian Moss led a “Zen Ecology” exercise.  “Zen” refers here to what Zen Buddhists call Zazen—a practice of seated meditation that is intended to lead to insight into the nature of existence.  After a brief discussion with each small group of students, Brian asked them to leave behind digital cameras and cell phones and to wander individually into the forest, armed only with notebook and pencil.  They were encouraged to engage directly with nature through their senses rather than through a device, and with no preconceptions about what they might encounter. When something caught their attention—a pattern of insect damage on a leaf, for instance—they were to observe quietly, then sketch what they saw, using words and arrows to clarify as they wished.  In essence, this is meditative, open-minded observation of the natural world. Brian talks more of this approach in an essay in the International Society of Limnology newsletter (see, without using the term “Zen Ecology” (but he did use the term with the TBA students.)

For many students the experience was transformative:  they had never before gone into nature without a goal or preconceived idea, and had never thought to use sketching as a way to see more completely.  And when they returned and shared what they had drawn and experienced with the other students, all sorts of ideas and questions emerged spontaneously and intuitively. These at first tended to be vague, but as students talked among themselves (gently guided by Brian) questions emerged more fully developed.  Some student research projects later in the course came from the Zen Ecology exercise.

Zen Ecology was a revelation for us as well.  We had struggled over decades to find a way to help students master the entire scientific process, from generating questions to devising and testing hypotheses, and had long thought that starting with unplanned observation and curiosity was key.  For years we tried the “fifty questions” exercise we had learned in Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) field courses.  In this exercise, participants go into nature and return with questions to share with the group.  We had found, to our disappointment, that students often felt pressure to produce “clever” or “cutting edge” questions, and as a result to filter the thoughts that came into their heads rather than going into the experience with an open mind and heart.

We have found Zen Ecology less threatening than “fifty questions” for helping us attend to nature directly and completely, without barriers. For many people this exercise—contact with nature without the filter of devices or goals—truly seems to get at a wellspring of creativity.  What do we all want, if it is not access to such a wellspring, a source of ideas that can be winnowed and refined into novel and interesting research questions?

You may recoil at the idea of drawing insect damage on a leaf, or drawing anything at all.  You are no artist!  Grit your teeth and remember this:  the drawing is not intended as “art”.  It is a private record that helps you solidify and remember what you experience; think of it as a visual diary or journal. Consider that sketching was an essential tool for recording impressions in the days before photography, and that naturalists in those days surely had the same distribution of “artistic talent” (and lack thereof) that we all now have.  Most of all, recognize that sketching as a means of gaining “ownership” of an observation of nature has no substitute in electronic imaging, no matter how sophisticated that imaging is.

Since 2012 we have tried out versions of Zen Ecology with high school classes, undergraduate research interns, graduate classes, even groups of senior citizens (that moniker would include the two of us!).  We encourage you whenever possible to try your own version.  Try it for yourselves, and in your teaching and mentoring.  Please share with each other (and with us) what works and doesn’t!



Fleischner, T. L. (Ed.). (2017). Nature Love Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness.  Torrey House Press, Salt Lake City.

Jeppesen, E. and P. J. Johnes (2016). Obituary: Brian Moss (1943–2016).  Hydrobiologia 778: 1–7. DOI 10.1007/s10750-016-2882-8.

Scheffer, M., J. Bascompte, T. K. Bjordam, S. R. Carpenter, L. B. Clarke, C. Folke, P. Marquet, N. Mazzeo, M. Meerhoff, O. Sala, and F. R. Westley. 2015. Dual thinking for scientists. Ecology and Society 20(2): 3.

Scheffer, M. (2014).The forgotten half of scientific thinking. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, 6119.

Congressional Visits Day: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love policy


By Abigail Pastore

On April 26th, 2017 scientists from around the nation traveled to Washington, DC to meet with over 70 offices of US representatives to discuss the future of biological research in the United States.  This event was coordinated by American Institute of Biological Science and Biological Ecological Science Coalition.  I was honored to attend this event to represent the American Society of Naturalists.

During my two days in DC, I learned a lot about science policy and how capital hill works.  Below I describe what I learned during my experience.  On Day 1, I heard from many scientists who have worked in policy positions in DC, I learned how science funding works and I was trained on how to talk to politicians about science. On Day 2, we had congressional meetings!


As much as we sometimes ignore it, policy and science and inextricably linked.  To start with, most science is funded by government agencies like, NSF, NOAA, and NIH.   Subsequently we have a duty to disseminate our work to the population that is funding this research.  Ultimately, civilians who understand and value science will elect representatives who care about science as well.  Those politicians have the power to make the budgets that fund NSF and other organizations.  And ultimately management of our natural lands and wildlife comes from policy, not directly from scientists.  So scientists have a vested interested in being involved in all of these steps, not just the science part.


Policy careers

Many of the participants at the congressional visit day spoke about their individual journeys that merged science and policy.  In fact there are many avenues and careers paths for scientists that include policy. For example, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows facilitates scientists’ interactions with government organization as consultants, there are internships at the White House in the Office Science and Technology Policy, and NOAA’s Knauss Fellowship is for those interested in marine policy.  There are also several state level policy fellowships.  Furthermore, ESA has a policy section, where you can find the Ecologists Guidebook to Policy among other things.  Or check out ESEP, a science policy engagement coalition.  Most policy jobs involve a lot of communicating and translating science for a broader audience.

Public Engagement

Getting involved in science policy goes hand-in-hand with communicating to the public about science, and the benefits of science research for society.  For tips, check out Frontiers’ issue on public engagement.  Additionally, check out AAAS’s workshops for communicating science.  Ultimately, the most meaningful change happens at the local level, engaging with representatives in your home state puts a face and a story to these issues that is influential for politicians when they are making decisions about policy.

How the National Budget gets Made

Congress is the body of government that makes expenditures.  The president must make a budget request which must be approved by congress.  Every fiscal year, the president puts forth a budget which congress must approve.  Once congress gets the budget, it undergoes congressional hearings and budget resolutions.  Then an appropriations bill is drafted which would authorize the government to spend money.  This bill must be approved by the house and the senate before it is resolved in conferences, then signed by the president into law.  So ultimately representatives in the house and the senate are very influential in how the government spends money.


Science funding makes up about 1% of the national budget.  And funding is expected to decrease due to sequestration and the new administration.

Preparing ‘the ask’

The goal of the congressional visit day was to advocate for science funding.  We went into each meeting asking for $8 billion for the National Science Foundation for fiscal year 2018.  We each prepared our own personal stories about how the NSF has affected us and the states we live in.  When preparing our stories we were charged to make three points that were, specific, memorable and demonstrative.  


Visiting Congress

I personally visited with 7 congressional offices from Florida, Maine and New Hampshire with a few other scientists.  In general, we met with congressional assistants that took notes in the meetings so they could report back to our representatives.  Everyone was very friendly, respectful and engaged.  I told my story about how NSF funding has allowed me to get training in cutting edge technologies to study bacterial communities which have broad applications for plants in an agricultural setting.  Others with me told stories of invasive species, wetland restoration and marine lab outreach programs.

I learned that congressional aids really love talking about invasive species.  I was impressed with all the positive feedback and support these offices expressed.  Even Marco Rubio’s office offered that Senator Rubio is in favor of research and development.  Ultimately we all have the power to make these kinds of connections in our home states.  Office visits are said to be the most influential visits for politicians.  It’s important to remember that these politicians are our representatives and it is their job to listen to us.  At the end of the day, we don’t know the balance of things to consider in the minds of politicians so our best chance is to lend support and tell compelling stories where we can.



ASN takes on the March for Science: The society that organizes together, stays together

Authors:  Emlyn Resetarits, Sheela Turbek, Shengpei Wang and Abigail Pastore

Note: The views in this article represent those of the ASN graduate council. 

How to get involved in DC?

You can get organized with other ASN, SSE and SSB members by filling out the survey here.

Looking for a ride?  Hotel sharing?  Want to organize a meet-up with other ecologists and evolutionary biologists?  Get organized in this Google Sheet!


Why Get Involved?

On April 22, 2017, thousands of advocates of scientific research will take to the streets in Washington D.C. and around the world through the March for Science to demand government support for the open exchange of scientific ideas. Many of the participants will be scientists themselves, who are concerned with the new administration’s steps to censor the scientific community and deny scientific findings on the basis of personal convictions.

The March for Science and its sister marches around the country have an inclusive mission – to bring together a diverse, non partisan group of people united by their respect for science as a tool for understanding the world around us and their desire to defend scientific integrity. The march seeks to humanize science by showcasing the diverse body of people dedicated to scientific research, encourage open communication between scientists and the public, and advocate for diversity and inclusion in scientific fields. However, above all, the march will be calling for evidence-based legislation that serves the public good.

Since assuming power, the new administration has threatened to roll back numerous environmental regulations originally put in place as a result of scientific findings regarding human and environmental health. The president’s persistent denial of climate change despite scientific consensus has raised fears that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and overturn or weaken legislation enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions. Given the current administration’s ties to the oil and gas industries, many worry that public lands could be sold to private interests and the Endangered Species Act could go under fire, opening up protected habitat to energy development.

Also at stake is the ability of scientists’ to freely carry out research and publicly communicate their findings. In January, for example, a regulation was passed requiring that scientific studies from the EPA undergo political review prior to publication. The federal government froze all agency grants and contracts and imposed a gag rule against EPA employees, prohibiting them from posting on social media and communicating with reporters. The immigration restrictions reinstated by the president last month have additionally hindered scientific progress by jeopardizing international collaborations and leaving many scientists uncertain about whether to attend scientific conferences and conduct international fieldwork.

Historically, scientists have avoided getting involved in political advocacy in order to prevent science from being mischaracterized as a partisan issue. However, with the future of scientific research and evidenced-based policy so uncertain, the scientific community arguably cannot afford to remain silent. The March for Science this April will provide an opportunity for scientists to take a stand and demand continued support for publicly funded, openly communicated research.


How to get involved locally?

Getting involved in science policy can feel overwhelming.  How does one even begin to have an influence on such an old and established system?  The first step is to start at home!  Getting your friends and colleagues organized can be tremendously helpful to not only hold yourself accountable, but also by amplifying your voice and actions through your peer group.  Additionally, there are lots of groups that are already organized, finding them in your community means you don’t have to start from scratch.  Finally, contacting your representatives is the cornerstone of our democracy, your congresswomen and men, and senators were elected to represent the will of the people, so let them know what you want!  Find out who your local representatives are and email, call, or meet them in person. Getting on their email list will keep you updated, especially on when and where they can meet with the public. Most congresswomen and men, and senators have town hall style meetings locally that are open to the public, and these are one of the best places to express your concerns.

Creating a political action peer group.  – With so many important issues on the table, it’s challenging for any one individual to be informed and active on every issue.  Getting your friends together to meet, vent and divvy up the work is a great way to manage things.  Luckily technology is readily available to help you organize such an endeavor.  Google groups and google docs help facilitate organizing without the need for excessive emailing.  Use google sheets to outline the issues and have your friends sign up for the issues they want to follow closely and inform the group about.  Have a “weekly actions” to do list or find one online that you can share or divvy up with your friends.  Finally have a weekly/biweekly meeting with your friends in a comfortable space (perhaps with relaxing beverages) where you can vent, share and learn with each other.

Satellite Marches for Science: One easy way to get involved now is to attend the March for Science. Even if you can’t make it to DC, you can still make an impact and contribute to the cause by attending one of the satellite marches that’s close to you. Official information is available at . If there’s no local march planned for your city yet, hosting a satellite march is an even better way to get involved!


How to get involved digitally?

The power of the media is ever more prominent in our lives now, both personally and professionally, so is making your voices heard through digital platforms. Share your messages on your favorite social media, be it blogpost, twitter, facebook, or instagram. You can either create your own content or simply share contents from the community. In addition, contacting mainstream media allows you to reach an even greater audience, for example, the New York Times has a survey on the March for Science. Social media also allows us to infiltrate into circles with different opinions, by tagging them or commenting on their posts. This can alleviate information bias for us as well as people with different opinions. Regardless of the method, get involved is the best we can do.

In addition to getting involved with the March for Science specifically, sharing the spirit of science should be a persistent goal. We are in an age when facts don’t speak for themselves a lot of times. It’s increasingly a scientist’s job to communicate his/her scientific findings, and to advocate for the actions supported by current evidence. Even though connecting and persuading people with different opinions is hard, we need to persevere with the stakes so high. Using simple language and having a clear message is essential to communicate science to non-experts. And be open to different opinions. However, being open to alternative interpretations doesn’t mean that we should keep quiet about blatantly unsupported claims. Everyone has the freedom to express his/her opinions, regardless of accuracy, but we also have the right to, and should stand up when facts and evidence are being ignored or denied.


Call for Blog Contribution

Do you like our past blogs? Do you have something you want to share? Please contact us at

This space is designed to provide a platform for students of biology to share their experience, advise, and resources. We aim to keep our blogs relevant to graduate students, but we are a pretty diverse bunch. So if you think your voices should be heard, please let us know.


Believing Science

by Shengpei Wang Feb 2017

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the American Society of Naturalists.

Section 1. Should we think before believing?

A simple sentence caught my attention today. “We believe […] that a unified ecology must start from individual-based ecology.” 1 It read naturally to me at first, but something seemed amiss: Is it legitimate for scientists to say we believe?

Since the earliest forms of civilization, we have pondered questions such as “How do we gain knowledge?” and “What do we believe?” Given the recent social and cultural climate, questions such as these should concern us now more than ever. In my opinion, science is the only reliable way of obtaining knowledge. Not everyone agrees, however.

Historically, knowledge had been derived from the views of leading political and religious authorities, but in time, theories and observations overtook the role as the primary source of scientific knowledge around the seventeenth century. This change was pioneered by early scientists such as Galileo, whose scientific discoveries not only laid the foundations to modern astronomy and physics, but more importantly, challenged the authoritarian view of knowledge. I don’t think any of us question the importance of observable facts, but many people in the US still question whether we can believe science. Can we truly believe patterns inferred from observations made by the scientific community? And can we truly understand what is not directly observed or even observable?

Scientific statements arise from logical deductions and inductions. Deductive reasoning generates definitive conclusions that are true as long all the premises are true. But scientific premises usually need to be tested or are derived from inductive reasoning. Induction, however, does not necessarily ‘test’ a premise but provides multiple lines of evidence of support. I regard the inductive approach as the source of open-mindedness that characterizes science, but to others it seems to be their source of doubts. If we truly believe in science and believe its findings, shouldn’t we know what makes scientific knowledge justified? And hopefully, we can persuade others to trust our logical conclusions if we are explicit about our reasons.

Section 2: What I have learned about epistemology.

Knowledge is generally accepted as justified beliefs, but there is no consensus of what makes knowledge justified. There is even skepticism about whether knowledge is possible at all.2 Although I will omit arguments of skepticism for practical reasons, I argue that we should judge scientific claims critically. Science seeks truth, but it does not possess it. Rather, science approximates truth.

Modern science is characterized by falsifiable claims, which can be demonstrated to be wrong if appropriate evidence is discovered. However, falsification is not the totality of scientific pursuit, because it does not generate new hypotheses by itself. This was also why I stumbled over the claim of we believe earlier. This claim is not an easily falsifiable claim, at least not with observations currently available. But is it not scientific? Other philosophical theories disagree that science should be solely characterized by falsification. For example, Imre Lakatos emphasized the development of theory through scientific programs, where existing principles guide new theories.3 By this token, claiming that we believe a novel prediction in light of existing theories and evidence is justified. Additionally, other approaches even allow for the quantification of levels of confidence based on existing knowledge, such as using conditional probabilities developed by Thomas Bayes. Despite the differences of these different philosophical theories, science is based upon the assumption of Uniformity of Nature, i.e. invariance of natural laws.4 This is necessary because we cannot possibly test a hypothesis in every possibly instance, and must generalize from limited observations.

Scientific methods discussed above ensure that scientific claims can be judged heuristically and beyond the specific context where observations are made; however, the claims are not objective in the sense that there is always subjective involvement. Even observations themselves are intrinsically influenced by our subjective experience, because all truth claims are states of minds.3 For example, an entomologist and a mycologist would notice very different types of organisms if they went on a nature hike together, and they would learn very different things regarding the local habitat. Furthermore, even if we were to start with the same observations, how we interpret our observations depends on both our existing knowledge and our expectations. This is also why some great findings, such as Mendel’s genetic theory, only gained prominence until rediscovered by scientist with very different mindsets. After all, science is not merely a collection of facts (observations), but a systematic synthesis of generalized claims. It results from our interaction with the natural world. We are part of both the process and the outcome.

I want to make a point here: I think the human aspect of science should be cherished rather than avoided. Even though scientific arguments are almost always influenced by subjective judgments, why shouldn’t I believe a premise if it is based upon all available evidence and the best judgment possible. The value of science for me is that it generates justified beliefs. I can believe a scientific claim if all existing evidence supports it, while maintaining an openness to change in light of new evidence. Additionally, just as there is no single view of the value of nature, the pursuit of knowledge can take on different meanings for different people. This is liberating rather than constraining, because it opens up opportunities for each person to define why and how nature or knowledge matters to them. Knowledge can be valuable to us in different but intimate ways. We can believe what we know.

Section 3: Resources

I hope I have incited some interest in you to learn about epistemology if you haven’t already. I have been inspired greatly by the book “What is this thing called Science?” by A. F. Charmers. It is a great read and very easy to follow. If you don’t want to read a whole book, the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” is a reputable online resource open to the public. And there are always more journal articles waiting for discovery and many more exciting reads. Scientific findings are leading many philosophical developments, including evolutionary epistemology, neuroethics, and neuroesthetics.


  1. Grimm, Volker, Daniel Ayllón, and Steven F. Railsback. “Next-Generation Individual-Based Models Integrate Biodiversity and Ecosystems: Yes We Can, and Yes We Must.” Ecosystems (2016): 1-8.
  1. Steup, Matthias, “Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.
  1. Chalmers, Alan F. What is this thing called science?. Hackett Publishing, 2013.
  1. Gould, Stephen Jay. “Is uniformitarianism necessary?.” American Journal of Science 263, no. 3 (1965): 223-228.

Guide to the graduate interview season: Making the most out of your visits.

By Emlyn Resetarits Jan. 2017

It’s interview season for prospective graduate students! If you were lucky enough to be asked to come out for an interview, congratulations! Although acceptance is not a done deal, you have a good chance of getting accepted. Why else would they fly you out there? So, relax! The interview process is a two-way street: yes, your potential mentor and faculty are interviewing you, but you are also interviewing THEM. Finding the right mentor and department is very important for your later success as a graduate student.

Make the most out of your visit! This is your chance to assess how well a given department or advisor will fit you! All departments and mentors are looking for something slightly different in their graduate students, but here are a few tips on how to impress:

Before you arrive:

  • Read up on the faculty. Get a sense of what everyone does (in general terms), so that you are more prepared if/when you run into them. You don’t need to memorize their research, just get a sense of what they do. If you have a schedule beforehand of whom you will be meeting, focus on looking up these faculty members.
  • Make sure you can answer the following questions:
    • Why do you want to get a PhD/Masters?
    • What are your research interests?
    • Why are you interested in this university, specifically?
  • If there are specific faculty that you want to meet with besides your potential advisor, make sure to mention that when scheduling your trip. You want to make this visit as informative as possible.

During the interview/recruitment weekend:

  • Dress comfortably! You will be running around all day, continuously meeting faculty and students, and the last thing you want is to feel self-conscious or in pain because you decided to break in a new pair of shoes during this visit. A suit may be overkill, but also don’t wear sweatpants and a t-shirt. You’re not there to impress anyone with your sense of fashion, but looking sharp will help you give a good first impression.
  • Meet as many people as you can! This is your chance to get the details on the department, the university, and the people! Get to know what your potential faculty work on and what graduate school is like in this department!
  • For your meetings, treat them like a first date. What I mean is, give a quick summary of your interests and experiences, ask about what the other person does, actively listen and engage, and don’t be a creep. You should try and make all of your meetings (with graduate students, prospective advisors, and other faculty members) a conversation rather than an interview.

One way to impress people is to be prepared with questions. Even if you aren’t looking at any other places, asking probing questions makes you seem more desirable and more sought after. Also, it’s the best way for you to make your decision of where to go, if you do have multiple programs you are looking at.

Here are a few questions to ask when interviewing:

Ask your potential advisor(s):

  • What is their mentoring style? Are they hands off or hands on? Do they give deadlines to their graduate students or do they let their graduate students work at their own pace? Are they open to weekly meetings? Different students flourish under different mentoring styles. It’s important that you have a sense of what type of mentoring style you would like from an advisor, and see if you and your advisor are compatible.
  • What type of funding do they have and what funding are they applying for? What could that funding provide for you? Research money? RA positions? Conference fees? Some faculty may have a large grant, but if you aren’t interested in working on that specific project, then that funding might be unavailable for you. It is important that you figure out how much funding you may have to come up with yourself and how realistic that is.
  • Is your advisor thinking of moving from their current institution? This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but is important to know before you move to that institution for them. If your potential advisor is thinking of moving, make sure that there are other faculty members in the department that you could be advised by. I’ve know many students who have had to change labs because their advisors decided to move half way across the world for a new academic position. Most of these switches were successful, however, because there were other faculty members who had similar research.

Ask advisor’s graduate students:

  • What is your favorite and least favorite thing about your advisor? About the lab in general?
  • How collaborative is the lab? It’s nice to have the flexibility to do whatever project you want, but it can also get a bit lonely if you don’t have anyone working on a similar topic. Does your advisor collaborate with graduate students on projects? Do graduate students collaborate together?
  • How cohesive/social is the lab together? Does the lab do anything outside of work? Does everyone go home to their families at 5pm? Or does the lab go out for beers monthly and have a Christmas party? It’s surprising how much lab events can impact how you feel about graduate school and your lab in general.
  • Are you planning on pursuing a career outside of academia? How helpful has your advisor been in preparing you for this alternative career?
  • Does your advisor give quick and thorough comments on your papers? Does your advisor prioritize graduate students getting their papers out quickly? These questions are ones that are rarely asked during the interview process, but I think are some of the most important. I’ve known many fellow graduate students who have had a paper completed to the best of their ability, and are just waiting for comments from their advisor. For some students, getting feedback on their paper takes months and is like pulling teeth. There is very little more frustrating and demoralizing than waiting and waiting to submit a paper and feeling like you are getting farther and farther away from your goals. I have even known late-stage graduate students that have given up on academia entirely, because they are 6 years in and have not been able to submit any papers yet. Of course, if you just ask your advisor, it’s likely that they will tell you, “Yes, of course! I think it’s vitally important to help graduate students publish early and often.” Of course, faculty want this, but the question is, do they emphasize it in actuality? The best way to determine this is to ask late-stage graduate students in the lab if their advisor prioritizes this.

Ask any graduate student:

  • Do you think my potential advisor is a good advisor? If you ask enough graduate students this, you will be able to piece together an accurate representation of them, one that is perhaps more comprehensive than if you just ask graduate students from your potential lab. Graduate students from your potential lab may be more hesitant to give you the dirt on their advisor than others are.
  • Are you happy? This may seem like a stupid question, but it can tell you a lot about the graduate student climate.
  • Is the graduate student stipend sufficient for you to live comfortably? How will you get paid through the summer? Are you expected to teach your entire graduate career, or will you never be seen in a classroom? This is a big consideration. If you are applying for a PhD program in the biological sciences, you should NOT be taking out any loans, nor should you be eating only rice and beans and living in the windowless basement of some creepy man’s house to afford to go to school. While a program that offers teaching assistant positions only to students might provide you with the living wage you need to survive, you also have to consider how teaching time will impact your ability to finish your own research. During my interview at one school, I was scared away because many graduate students had to take out loans to afford to live there. While most graduate students are entering PhD programs without expectations of large wages in the future, that doesn’t mean finances should not be an important consideration when choosing your graduate school.
  • In a similar vein, ask what the housing market is like. You will be living in a place for 5-6 years and buying a house, if feasible, is a great alternative to paying rent for that whole time.
  • How cohesive is the graduate community as a whole? Do you feel like people are pretty social, outgoing, and have diverse hobbies? These will be your peers and your social circle for 5-6 years, so it’s important that you feel like you could have fun with them!

Ask faculty:

  • Ask them what they do! What projects are they most excited about currently? What projects are they planning for the future?
  • What do your graduate students do?
  • What graduate courses will you be teaching?
  • What resources are available for graduate students? Departmental grants? Sequencing facilities?
  • How collaborative is the department? This will give you a sense of the environment of the department. If the department isn’t very collaborative or a faculty member gives you a knowing look, then perhaps there is a lot of departmental drama or factions. A collaborative department is a good sign!

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of questions to ask, but it should help you get the most out of your interview visit. Most of all, have fun and engage with people! Faculty, advisors, and current graduate students are looking for students that will be active members of the scientific community, that means they want you to be a dynamic human, not a work-obsessed robot!

Good luck!


A Grad Student’s Guide to Conferences Part I. Planning for conferences

by Matthew Nielsen Dec. 2016

Don’t know where to start? Please check out our list of upcoming major conferences.

When should I start thinking about conferences?


“But conference season isn’t until Summer,” you might protest. It’s true, the majority of conferences are in summer, but abstract and registration deadlines are earlier, sometimes much earlier. As an extreme example, the deadline to submit a presentation to the European Society for Evolutionary Biology’s conference is January 10, when the conference itself isn’t until August. Thus, the time to start thinking about conference is now. You don’t need to sort everything out, but you should at least make a list of conferences you would want to go to, and make sure you know the relevant deadlines. Thinking about conferences sooner rather than later can also help keep costs down (see below).

Should I attend a conference?


Of course there are always caveats and cases where attending conferences may not be possible (e.g. summer field seasons), but in general attending conferences is valuable at any stage of your career. Late in your graduate career, conferences are obviously important for networking, sharing your research, and finding postdoc opportunities, but even early in graduate school you can get a lot from conferences. For a new graduate student, conferences can give you feedback on your research ideas from your field outside your department, as well as new ideas from what others in your field are doing. By attending conferences early, you’ll get these ideas and feedback in time to actually address them in your own graduate research. Attending conferences early can also give you a head start on the networking you’ll eventually need, so while it may be more intimidating, it can really pay off in the long run.

Which conference should I attend?

Unsurprisingly, this is a much harder question. There are so many conferences you could attend, and each is unique. That said, one of the clearest distinctions among conferences is their size. The smallest conferences, either regional meetings or on very specific topics, may have fewer than 100 attendees, while the biggest may have over 4,000. Both sizes have their pros and cons. Small conferences are usually less overwhelming, and it can be easier to meet specific people at them; however, that same smaller size means you can’t reach as broad an audience and you may miss good connections outside of your subdiscipline. Large conferences, on the other hand, give you the opportunity to expose yourself to a wide range of ideas and approaches. Although their size can make them intimidating and make finding specific people hard, with some planning they can be quite manageable. If you’re considering several large conferences, look to see what symposiums they have that year and if any fit your own research interests. These symposia can give you some of the benefits of a smaller conference within the context of a large one.

I’ve listed some of the major North American conferences that would be relevant to ASN members at the end of this post, but there’s no way I could list all of the smaller conferences available. Ask your advisor members of the lab about conferences they’ve attended. They can provide some of the best advice, but if you find a different conference that seems relevant to your interests, don’t be afraid to give it a try.

What if no-one else from my lab is going?

 Go anyway.

While having your advisor present at a conference can make networking a lot easier, it’s not impossible on your own (I’ll give more advice for this in a future post). Smaller conferences may be easier to attend on your own, but even large conferences can be worthwhile. An advantage of going to conferences independently from your advisor is that it helps distinguish you and your research from theirs, which will ultimately be important for finding a job. My first time attending evolution, there not only was no-one else from my lab, but only a couple others from my university. It was certainly intimidating, but it forced me to introduce myself to people (including other graduate students) that I may never have met if I could have just hung out with people I already knew. In the years since, I’ve not only built a broader professional network because of this first experience, but I’ve become good friends with many of these people.

Should I present?


If you truly have nothing, you can still get some networking benefits and ideas from a conference that you only attend, but you will get much more out of your conference if you have something to present, even if it’s uncertain or small. Early in a research project, I find presenting a poster quite valuable because it facilitates deeper discussions of your current research and future plans. I’ve gotten some great ideas for how to improve my projects from poster presentations, and had the time to pick the brain of the folks suggesting the ideas. I wouldn’t have had that time with an oral presentation. Once you’re more confident in your results, you can start giving talks, which are good for telling a specific story to a larger audience.

But what if I don’t have my data yet?

Not a problem.

Most titles and details of the abstract change between submission and presentation, often substantially, and conferences understand that. If you already knew the answer, the results wouldn’t be very exciting, would they? So long as you’re reasonably confident that you’ll have some data by the conference, go ahead and register to present on it. It can be a great incentive to keep yourself on task and actually get the research done. That said, since many people will be choosing to attend your talk or poster based on its title, do try to keep to the same overall subject. If you’re highly uncertain, keep the title and abstract a little more ambiguous, but otherwise specific details are important for convincing people to attend your presentation.

How can I afford to attend a conference?

Sometimes, you’ll be fortunate, and your advisor will be able to cover your attendance at a conference, but this won’t always be the case. Travel isn’t cheap, especially on a graduate student budget, but with proper planning you can go a long way on a little. First, you can look for places to apply for travel funding. Often departments or universities will have travel grants from $500-$1000 you can apply for specifically to attend conferences. Also look to the conferences and societies themselves, which will often provide some form of funding. In some cases this will be awarded by lottery among eligible students. Funding from conferences can also come in the form of reduced registration for volunteering for part of the conference.

Often, you’ll still need to chip in some of your own money, but this is where careful planning and budgeting comes in. Make sure to register early to get the discounted rate (where the planning ahead mentioned above comes in). Also, make sure you’re a member of the relevant society. The cost of membership is usually much less than the savings when registering for the conference. Another easy way to save money is on housing. Sharing a room is the first step, but not the only. Official conference housing is rarely the cheapest (with the exception of dorms, which sometimes still aren’t the cheapest). If you’re willing to walk 10-20 minutes to get to the conference venue, you can often save $50 or more a night on a room. Hostels and airbnb can provide especially cheap lodging if you’re travelling solo and don’t need as much privacy. Airfare is the last major cost of attending most conferences. It’s more difficult to save on, but buying your ticket in advance can help a lot. Also, sometimes you can find a much cheaper tickets one to two days before or after the conference. If you’ve found cheaper housing (such as a dorm or hostel), this can still be a net savings while giving you a little time for sight-seeing. Applying for additional funding and careful budgeting tips can make the difference between being able to attend two to three conferences a year and none.

How long should I plan to attend?

The whole conference.

Plus a couple more days if possible. Conferences usually start with an opening reception the evening of the first day. It may be tempting to skip it and show up late that evening or early the next day, but these are often some of the best networking opportunities of the conference. Closing receptions can be a bit more hit-or-miss, but if they are free or inexpensive (not always the case) they usually worth giving a try, and you usually want to stay for the last afternoon of talks regardless. If you can at all find the time and budget, I would strongly recommend either arriving a day or two before or leaving a day or two after the conference to do some sightseeing. Conferences are usually in really cool places easily worth visiting on their own. The cost of an extra day or two is usually small relative to the cost of getting there, so this provides an easy way to fit some personal travel into your schedule which can otherwise be hard as a grad student. I’ve personally found that the extra time helps to either energize me for the conference or going back to work afterwards.


Once we get closer to the summer, I’ll post another guide about making the most of your conferences, but for now, I hope this helps you better prepare for the coming year of conferences.