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For prospective grads who wish to work with Hank Howe1
2010 - 2011

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Free will exists, if you think about it.

Most people who apply for doctoral programs are intellectually capable of handling the work. The variations in ability that occur among those who actually show up are mostly useful in practical ways - they help secure a fellowship or allow someone to skip a course or two, or take an unusual course or two. A verbal person may help the group as a good critic of written work; a more quantitative person may help with statistical dilemmas. People who need to buff up certain areas do. Yet doctoral programs are not suited for many intelligent or even brilliant people. Very bright people can sometimes breeze the degree and secure a job, only to become bored leaden weights in a university slot or government position. They may have the intellect to make it but not the drive to be productive or the thick skin required to handle a career based on criticism, self-reflection, and self-correction. Successful people are those who do a lot, very well, regardless of facility with multiple-choice tests.

The point is that differences in traits other than many attributes favored in college determine success in a doctoral program and beyond. In my view, among those with the intelligence and drive to go to graduate school, variation in success is much more likely to be due to variations in personality characteristics than variations in GREs or even grade averages. My decisions on applicants I strongly support for admission are usually based on attitude, drive, experience, career strategy, maturity, ambition, and interests that are clearly convergent with mine. Admissions people have their own agendas, in which booksmarts figure large. And then there are nitty-gritty issues of space, personality compatibilities with me and others in the group, balance of interest areas, balance of aptitudes, financial support, and what the admissions process will let me get away with; if others need and want students and have good applicants, and I am not seen as ‘needing’ students, admission can be rough regardless of who you are.

The ‘free will’ motto above came to me in a long letter to a student whom I perceived as drifting - making unwise choices by default which ultimately threatened to become traps. The three objectives of this communication are: (1) to make sure that your choice of grad schools is conscious, (2) to introduce you to my attitudes, and (3) to start the process of figuring out how you are going to pull this career stunt off.

1 With eight doctoral students in 2008-2009, I do not expect to accept new students for 2009. In the future I may be looking for students with the interest and background suitable for work in experimental restoration in Mexico for 2010-2011. Although 61, I have no interest in retiring.

The choice

Choice of a doctoral advisor is an important decision. The choice will influence who you associate with on a daily basis, the university group to which you belong, and the particular standards and expectations to which you are held. Moreover, the extent to which an advisor can use leverage in your behalf is strongly influenced by how he or she is viewed within the field of ecology in general and your chosen research area in particular. Whatever the advisor’s affiliations or reputation, nothing will work unless you are comfortable enough to establish a productive working relationship. All of this will determine whether the total experience helps you get what you want out of a career. I know from my own experience that incompatibility with a mentor can be a most serious personal earthquake; I exited one graduate group at the University of Michigan years ago and joined two others (with co-advisors, which was possible there). This option to forage among potential advisors was a luxury of a very large graduate program in ecology and evolution (then perhaps 60-70 faculty and 120+ graduate students in ecology) which is not available to students entering a small program like that at UIC. If you are going to come to UIC, you need to be comfortable and confident with the situation and with your limited options for a mentor.

Alternative extremes in graduate approaches

What you may not realize is that the choice of a graduate student is also a big deal for a faculty member. Even at the lowest advisor involvement in graduate education in which the student and advisor are on autonomous tracks, the student takes space for a few years to a decade, influences other students for better or for worse, and precludes the faculty advisor from accepting another promising applicant. At the other extreme, the graduates are the faculty research program. Without grad student "hands," a faculty member who does no research but keeps the lights turned on with federal support is dead in the water for funding, publications, promotions, merit pay increases, and so on. In the more general case, for most faculty members with graduate groups, students are important professional associates, either as sources of stimulation or inspiration, as essential cogs in a large research machine, or as more or less co-equal collaborators on a variety of topics of mutual interest. Or all three.


For faculty with large, multi-faceted research programs in which many people must contribute to a common goal supported by large federal grants, graduate students can be little more than "hands," who develop some small part of a larger program, get their degrees, and move on to be slightly larger parts of postdoctoral programs, with the eventual hope of creating their own research empires, and grad colonies. To such faculty, graduate students are a jealously sought resource. It is not surprising that in some fields of biology, in some universities, incoming graduate students are assigned by a committee to a doctoral advisor, who then assigns them a dissertation project. Neither faculty member nor student exercises much choice. The advisor must fill certain slots or the project is crippled, and the student must accept what is offered. The advisor provides funding for a particular project and is an author on everything that comes from it; the student uses the money as budgeted. The advantage to the student is an efficient degree in a short time and, if the student chooses wisely, a marketable professional pedigree.


The opposite extreme is my experience as a grad student, and that which I passed on to my earlier Ph.D. students. At Michigan in ecology 25+ years ago, almost all students were "free-lancers" who had a doctoral advisor who might know something of the organisms of interest, or perhaps the relevant theory, but had little or no direct involvement in a dissertation project. Students picked what they wanted, got funding as best they could, sank or swam in the project, and finished or (80% of the time) didn’t. In many cases the only faculty input of any depth came in preliminary exams and formal committee meetings, with perhaps a few red marks in the margins of a dissertation proposal. Some of my friends talked to their doctoral advisors (i.e. a conversation of a few minutes) no more than once a year. One of my advisors, John Vandermeer, talked science with me every Friday over beer for four years, but agreed to chair my committee on the condition that he would never have to read a page of sociobiology of birds (my dissertation). Neither the paradigm nor the critters interested him, period. The role of the faculty advisor in that system was mostly to pass judgment along the way and certify the result, not help develop much of anything. Perhaps an extreme example of the same phenomenon was from a friend whose advisor was a very famous professor at an Ivy League school; the advisor’s idea of a good graduate student was one who slipped published reprints (not proposals, drafts of papers, ideas, etc.) under his door every six months.

My interactions with my earlier and some recent grads (Denie Costich, Alan Herre, Diane Larson, Manolo Pacheco, Gene Schupp, Bill Sluis) were more personal and I hope more helpful than that, but they fell well within the "free-lance" rubric. I helped provide a little funding or a trip here or there, but I was not involved in the projects - I did not physically collaborate on fieldwork, help write funding proposals, or revise papers. People did what they wanted, where they wanted, whether or not I had any expertise or interest in the research or any professional clout in the area that would help them later. In early years I co-authored few papers with students. This bred extreme independence, which can be good. The risk is that some people never recover from early errors of judgment, or do not get a critical professional break when they need it because the advisor is not part of a key peer group.


An intermediate approach that is the most common in ecology, and the one to which I now adhere, is to encourage a mutually dependent collegial relationships. The assumption is that the student develops an interest and a collaboration on something the advisor knows a lot about, and consequently the advisor has some first-hand insight into the research and first-hand input into design, funding proposals, and papers. In most areas of ecology the project is unlikely to be a grand scheme with many parts funded by some umbrella grant, as is often the case in molecular biology; it is much more likely to be a faculty member mentoring someone in a project involving one of several faculty interests. An assumption is that the advisor does more than put marginal notations on proposals or manuscripts; he or she will physically rewrite parts of them, may do analyses, and may do fieldwork. The closer involvement comes with co-authorship on papers from the thesis, and often on other subjects of mutual interest.

This approach started for me with Maria Miriti, who in 1994 took over a desert mapping project started by Joe Wright (STRI) and myself in 1984. One day I found myself physically rewriting a dissertation proposal after the first round had received super scores but no money from NSF. This direct help was at the time out of character. It might have helped. The revision was funded, and more importantly I added some experience in writing and handling the proposal and publication game to Maria’s vastly superior grasp of modeling and analysis. I count her as a close colleague, and I hope the collaborative relationship lasts as she continues to get established at Ohio State.

The approach worked with other people, too. It was replicated with variations with Nobby Cordeiro, who has many interests but chose to converge on bird/fruit interactions for his dissertation. Together we wrote a full faculty NSF proposal to study effects of forest fragmentation on disperser assemblages, and ultimately tree recruitment, in montane forests of Tanzania. On the third round, we got a full (not dissertation) NSF grant. This returned me to tropical ecology. He got more money to do his research than private foundation grants could have secured, and many times more than he might have gotten from an NSF dissertation grant. Nobby could be a co-PI on that grant proposal because he had already established himself as a mover in East African natural history (in his case 30 publications at age 33). Cristina Martinez-Garza and Sonali Saha were grandmothered in to the free-lance option, but chose to converge with jointly written proposals and papers. More recent grads Amy Sullivan, Barbara Zorn-Arnold, Malu Jorge, and Gabriela Nunez-Iturri have produced a stream of manuscripts and papers that, we hope, will change the field in experimental restoration ecology, spatial pollination ecology, tropical fragmentation ecology, and effects of hunting on forest structure, respectively. Senior students Luca Borghesio and Pia Sethi are pursuing experimental studies of bird reactions to forest habitat change and effects of hunting hornbills on seed dispersal in East Africa and northeastern India, respectively. Collaboration with Cristina has established a massive long-term project in restoring biodiversity through dispersal processes to mosaic agricultural landscapes in southern Veracruz, Mexico. This will likely be the major focus for the rest of my career.

Desired attributes in grads


The quality most attractive to me is drive, which I define as the willingness and ability to do what it takes to come up with a good idea, fashion a reasonable proposal, flexibly but effectively execute the study, publish the results in prominent places, and proceed to the next project or stage. I have zero interest in a student whose ambition is to simply get a Ph.D. as an end in itself. To me a doctoral degree in ecology is a means to an end, which is to use science to change the way people think about or do things in fundamental ecology, conservation, restoration, education, resource management, society at large, environmental politics, or some other relevant arena. This may seem like a tall order for an incoming student, but I look for signs of intent, or other attributes that are likely to lead in an important direction whether intent is evident or not. More simply, one of my mentors called a Ph.D. a fancy union card; the only reason you have one is that you can start work.

It pays to be reflective about what you do, and wish to do. Attempts to change the world may not succeed, but the attempt is important. With greater or lesser success, I have tried to change things in my own career. My dissertation (1974-1977), the least important major project that I have done, showed that birds adjust sex ratio of offspring in ways consistent with adaptation to seasonal conditions (caught on), and that summary stats like the mean sex ratio are far less important than consistent extremes (ignored). The tropical work (1976-1993, 1999- ) was to shape the world’s view of the importance of non-symbiotic mutualisms in ecological communities and in conservation (caught in a large way in a restricted peer group). The desert project (1984- present) was to establish a study that would provide the basis for quantitative understanding long-term demographic and community change. Only because Maria Miriti had the wit to show that one of the true dogmas of desert ecology, that big plants nurse little plants, is insufficient, that program is progressing (likely to catch). An unexpected opportunity occurred when more than half of our “immortal” shrubs and cacti, based on mortality during the first 15 years of the study, died during a catastrophic drought in 2002. That is a favorite paper representing three academic generations in authorship (academic daughter, academic granddaughter, and the old guy).

Current projects in experimental restoration (1986- present) are intended to add science to what is mostly art (catching), provide some practical applications of ecological theory to fire management (catching) and to faunal management (who knows?) in restoration, and elucidate general theory (who knows?). The experimental restoration program has produced some increasingly cited papers, has helped shape management at key natural sites, and is presently producing some astounding demonstrations of the effects of rodents in shaping tallgrass communities. The payoff really is in providing the perspective that led to the current research program with Cristina and other colleagues that tests dispersal limitation, and many other things, in a mosaic of pasture, remnant forests, and our establishing stands of trees in southern Mexico.

Rhetoric studies with John Lyne (1986-1992) probed the rhetorical biases of scientists as they communicated with peers and with those outside of their specialties (caught well in communication, ignored in science). My favorite paper there was “Genetalk in sociobiology,” which was the anti-thesis (antithesis) of my doctoral thesis. Advocacy of the National Institute for the Environment was intended to change the way American scientists conceive and do environmental science, and improve the utility of that science for environmental policy (failed as a grand scheme [new NIH-size agency]; in process within the NSF). Although I am no longer active in it, that effort lives on through the National Council for Science and the Environment.

My experience is that international students from developing countries, or Americans from odd backgrounds, often have uncommon presence and perceptions. Those from abroad often have both the extraordinary drive and the professional connections to be employed in positions of unusual responsibility when they return home, either for careers or for research from an international base. They have disproportionate impacts on the world. What these students lack in equivalent training at the undergraduate level and the challenges they face in mastering a second, third, or even fourth language, they more than make up in sheer willpower, political connections, and willingness and desire to effect change. It is far more difficult for American students with a Ph.D. and the usual perceptions of academe and the world to end up in positions of authority that can effect intellectual or political change; my task is to identify driven free-thinkers.

Initiative Pursuit of the Money Gods

Most ecology grads are teaching assistants for subsistence, and hustle large or small grants, contracts, or jobs from private foundations or government agencies for support of research. I do not have large grants that fund graduate students to do whatever they want to do, as sometimes occurs in much better funded areas of ecology (global change, ecosystem ecology, physiological ecology; note that some of that funding is for "ants"). One of my recent NSF grants had a small pot of money for one student to do nitrogen work (Erin O’Brien in Joel Brown’s group); another other had no money for grads (I did virtually all the work), a third had some support for summer research (Amy Sullivan has taken over), and the fourth was written with Nobby Cordeiro as a full collaborator. My impression, having had grad funds cut from virtually all grants for 25 years, is that in most areas of population and community ecology the NSF supports graduates who have the initiative or credentials to apply for their own support (pre-doctoral fellowships or dissertation grants), but sees little training value in freebee research assistantships on faculty grants. Those with initiative in tight fields have a chance for a career; those without initiative have little chance no matter what they get, or where they get it. As part of the collaborative arrangement, I will help my students write dissertation proposals or in exceptional cases with some hope of success full faculty proposals.

Several of my students have qualified for university or government fellowships to pay the bills. Manolo had one from Brazil, as did Malu, and Cris has one from Mexico . Three students from Iowa had four-year deals awarded to the best incoming students in the department; Amy, Maria and Nobby had a series of important one year fellowships from UIC. Sometimes people find useful professional employment. Diane Larson had a full-time job with NJ Fish and Game (or whatever it was called); Bill Sluis worked for the National Park Service and Fermilab while he was a student. Barbara had a good run with a research assistantship with the library and Chicago Botanical Garden. These were all pursued on their own initiative. Gabriela won a WCS grant and then a Canon Fellowship, which fully funds her last four years of graduate school. Luca and Pia had university fellowships and have won WCS and other NGO fellowships to support their fieldwork. New students Kesha Braunskill, Carrie Seltzer, Mariana Valencia, and Jenny Zambrano arrived with extensive research experience on feral horses, New Zealand bats, Panamian endophytes, and Colombian primates.

In short, part of a graduate education with me is the reality of doing what you must do to succeed anyway; learn how to write successful proposals for research expenses, and either teach, work, or rely on exceptional qualifications for other fellowships for living expenses. My experience has been that research expenses are relatively easy to come by in tropical research, and possible for research within the USA.

Initiative in writing and other communication

A Ph.D. is a research degree. While the personal kick that a student may get from research is playing in woods or swamp or greenhouse, the only reason a university or society tolerates the expense is that interesting and useful results are found and communicated. The usual mode is publication. I expect my students to attempt to develop and publish papers early and often, either by themselves, with me, or with others, either as first authors, co-authors, or both. These need not be academic blockbusters, and the ideal number appropriate will vary with the interest area. But the process of learning how to deal with the rigmarole required of publication, of handling constructive and destructive reviews, and of shaping analysis and writing for different audiences is so fundamental to the scientific process that it must be learned well before the end of a doctoral program (i.e. the competition sufficient to fill all government, university, and college slots will have learned this before the end of their doctoral programs). Sometimes particular circumstances or the nature of the project delays this critical learning experience, but the world is much too competitive to encourage students who consistently find excuses not to develop and publish results. Those with legitimate reasons not to write and submit papers early and often may succeed if they have especially critical skills or insights or instructive systems or other attributes, but they will have a monumental task finding and keeping employment.

There are of course wide variations in the scale of research effort and publication effort required of different jobs and institutions, and different styles of research and publication. But even good liberal arts teaching colleges now normally require at least as much of a research effort as UIC did 25 years ago - application for outside funds and a paper every two or three years (I graduated from such a place, Earlham College [a Quaker school]). Now in top-of -the-line colleges, like Williams, Grinnell or Swarthmore, even a temp position may come with a start-up fund and a one course a semester teaching load; the assumption is that a faculty member will be active enough in science to teach science to the future captains of industry , government and major universities - extremely well. This is basically a university load. Struggling colleges with little interest in research often require two to four courses per semester, including labs, which basically have to be taught out of a text a step ahead of the class, at half the salary of better colleges or universities. In government jobs scientists may function like independent operators, much like university faculty (e.g. my former student E Allen Herre at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute), or may serve on research teams, with primary responsibility for some aspect but have their names on other collaborative papers (e.g. my former student Diane Larson with the National Biological Service), or they may be assigned projects. For some people, a much better option for a career is the private sector, where consulting firms need particular skills that a graduate degree brings; Bill Sluis, Manolo Pacheco, and Tanya Copeland have all pursued these opportunities very effectively.

Publication is the primary form of communication for advancing a scholarly career, but there are others. Teaching at a level where one can actually change the way people think, not just fill out their transcripts, is a form of communication, though not sufficient for a career in most places and not required at all in some. Almost all such people in full-time jobs also have active research careers. Speaking at scientific meetings and at other institutions is another useful form of communication. The extreme is probably my student Allen Herre, who as a third year grad student at Iowa got himself invited to give seminars at Utah, Texas, Chicago, and Lewontin’s group at Harvard, among others. He was not shy. More usual and for most people more appropriate venues include wise use of annual meetings of scientific societies, like the ATB, ESA, SRM, or ASN, with a presented oral paper or poster each year after the first year. I see this as critical for students in small groups, like that at UIC.

In short, I am most interested in students who want to be productive scientists at whatever level suits their aptitudes in colleges, universities, government agencies, or companies that have creative research agendas. The particular level is of less interest to me than the attitude and drive to communicate in print; some may try to publish everything in Ecology or American Naturalist, others may have a raft of papers in "organism" journals like Auk or Journal of Mammalogy or in regional journals like East African Wildlife, with less common publication in solid but not the most competitive international journals (Allen, the not shy guy, put his first in Science and third in Nature; this is something few university faculty could pull off.). I am not interested in students who aspire to teach out of a textbook or occupy space in a government agency without in some way actively advancing the scientific process.

The collegial model

Because most students start without a clear idea how to do any of this, I now expect a collegial relationship in which to sort through student interests, find a convergence which can excite us both, and proceed with it as best the circumstances permit. My interests are broad, but not limitless. I could imagine many potential projects that I just wouldn’t find interesting, that ask questions that no one wants answered, or some student approaches which I would find counterproductive. And some very capable students could really dislike my personal style or intellectual habits. Active collaboration is important The general areas in which I have some expertise and professional clout are evident from my CV (e.g. dispersal ecology and consequences, fire ecology, experimental restoration, plant and animal interactions, grassland ecology, etc.); students in my lab are expected to develop a dissertation convergent with one of these or other joint interests.

Balance of interest areas and aptitudes

Ideally, a lab group balances interests and aptitudes. I now have one senior students (Amy), two mid-level students (Luca and Pia), and four new students (Carrie, Kesha, Jenny, Mariana). We also get a great deal from visiting people who come to lab meetings for a year or more. Recently they have included Nina Ingle, who just won the Conservation Leadership Award, Paul Fine, now moved on to a postdoc in Ann Arbor, and Eric Lonsdorf, who offered needed breadth to our understanding of evolutionary genetics. Postdoc (with Mary Ashley) Helena Puche offers perspectives on modeling seed dispersal. Although not my students, ecological geneticists Andrea Kramer and Jennifer Ison regularly attend our lab meetings for their "ecology fix," and have provided useful perspectives to our discussions. Others, of course, are welcome.

Grad school and life

A doctoral program usually takes 5-7 years (the mean in the US is 7 years in ecology), and comes at a volatile time of life for most people. It would be an unusual student who could focus on the degree to the exclusion of all else during that time. Chances are pretty good that you or a loved one will have a medical emergency, a marriage, a divorce, a birth of a child, or an unwelcome intrusion (I experienced four of five), and a lost season or two (I lost two years to raccoons - which ate 96% of my birds). Also, it is biologically and for many people professionally the best time to have a kid if you are prone to do that. There is little that you can do about unplanned things or things out of your control. That’s life. But things that can be planned should be thought about at the outset.

Whatever special needs you have, now is the time to start integrating them with the overall career plan. If you are married or otherwise attached, you will have to think about what effective coordination entails with your significant other for 5-7 years. If you are not, you have to think about how you will handle a long period when you are away a lot (one set of career choices), or not (another set of career choices). What you do may depend on what you want. In the overall plan of an academic career, it may be a good idea to have a first child, if that is a desire, in grad school rather than later in a first job, when demands on your time will be much more pervasive and invasive. You are younger, can get by on less sleep, fertility problems are less likely to intrude, and you actually have much more time as a doctoral student than you will at any time trying to become or actually being a professor. Once you figure out the TA business, it’s a racket, and some of you will have long-term fellowships. If this is your choice, you need to use your head selecting and planning research, which ideally should have moveable time rather than long physically intense seasons 100 km from the nearest paved road, etc. Those headed for government jobs may have more leeway in taking on such challenges, since the daily time schedule is predictable and governments are coming around to such things. The point is to think about the issues, from the outset.

A sage said "the unexamined life is not worth living." I say "the unconscious grad career is usually a bust."
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