The Job Search in France – Part II

Fig 1. Lots of hallways to get lost in.

Fig 1. Lots of hallways to get lost in.

So, after writing the last blog post, futzing, practicing my talk, calling home, saving my talk as a PDF, remembering semi-transparent layers in PowerPoint don’t save properly as PDF, fixing the whole talk again, and then saving the files twice, to two different memory sticks, I headed out to the UPMC. The building itself is one giant interconnected set of hallways, all raised up in the air, and all under construction (apparently), but I got to walk to it through the beautiful botanical gardens (once I got out of an alleyway I inadvertently got myself locked into).

The Botanic Gardens in the 5th Arrondissment just before a storm blows over them.

The Botanic Gardens in the 5th Arrondissment just before a storm blows over them.

So I arrived at the site of the interview about 20 minutes ahead of time, just incase there was last minute paperwork or anything. It was a pretty nondescript room in the hallway of a geosciences department (from what I could tell), the two other candidates scheduled in the same block as I was were already there waiting. The jury gets a break just before each session, so before we got started they all came out. They were very nice, an represented a broad cross-section in terms of disciplines.

I was the second to go in, I just had to show my drivers license (in case I had sent a ringer in my place), sign a paper, and then I was off. 12 minutes and a couple seconds later I was done. I answered my questions in English, but was able to answer questions asked in French (thankfully). And then, after 15 minutes. . . pouf! Done.

It was strangely anti-climatic. There were answers I wanted to explore more, but obviously, there was one other candidate waiting, and I’m sure the jury wanted to go eat dinner, or just sleep!

So that’s it. In a week or so we’ll find out. Had I applied for other sessions this all would have been more complicated. Section 52, the interdisciplinary (human, nature, climate) section doesn’t meet for another two weeks, so it makes coming for an interview much more difficult if you are not on the Continent. I had intended to apply for two sections next year, but I think I might keep it to a minimum, if I do apply again. It’s very difficult to take this much time away from family, friends and work, even if it is, effectively, work-related.

The Job Hunt in France

I am currently in Paris waiting to present a 12 minute talk that will help to decide whether I have a full time position with the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, or the CNRS. I wanted to write about the experience briefly because it is quite unique, particularly with respect to the more common tenure-track experience that many of us go through.

The location and number of CNRS Labs, from the CNRS website.

The location and number of CNRS Labs, from the CNRS website.

The CNRS operates 10 distinct institutes, these include the INSB for biological sciences, and the INEE for ecological and environmental research. There are also institutes for chemistry, physics, computer sciences and earth and planetary sciences. Each of these institutes operates laboratories, or research stations within France - in fact, they operate over 1,100 research centers across the country.

The interesting thing about the CNRS is that these labs do not hire people individually.  As far as I know, you wouldn’t see ads for full time researchers at the Laboratoire des Animaux Méchantes in Nimes (if such a lab existed).  Instead, you apply to a particular section of the CNRS (one of 41) associated with your research background (and associated with one or more Institutes) in the hopes of getting a position in that section, and in your lab of choice.  These are full time, tenured positions. Each year the CNRS posts the number of positions available to applicants at various career stages (DR1, DR2, CR1, and CR2, in order of seniority) within each section. You submit your package (which also includes a ~10 page summary of research to date, a bunch of biographical information, and some other stuff) through a central website, citing the appropriate sections, and then you wait to see whether you are allowed to continue to the interview stage.

I want to make it clear that it is extremely helpful to have someone within the CNRS system to help you through this process.  There are instructions in French and in English that help walk you through the application procedure, but they do not discuss expectations.  Had I not known that the research proposal was expected to be very detailed I would have simply submitted something similar to my standard research statement.  The same goes for my statement of research to date.  It helps to have an insider on your side!

In January of this year I submitted a twenty-something page mid-term research proposal, detailing a set of research goals, outlining the methodologies I would use and providing some of the background for these proposed ideas.  This is your typical research statement on steroids.  It includes statements on your own abilities, your potential network of expertise and the reasons you would like to work in the lab that you’re asking to be associated with.  I applied within section 30, Continental Surfaces and Interfaces and I could probably also have applied to the interdisciplinary Section 42 (the sections numbers seem to change each year so be careful!).  I asked to work with the Centre de Bio-Archéologie et d’Écologie, the CBAE, in Montpellier.  A colleague of mine, Odile Peyron, is there now, and there is some excellent work being done in the lab, along with colleagues such as Walter Finsinger, Christelle Hély, and many others.  I’ll post the proposal once I find out how I did :)

I submitted this package in early January.  Out of approximately 120 people who submitted as CR2 applicants to Section 30 this year there about 40 selected to move on to the interview and I was one of them.  Now, this is the tough part:

  1. They don’t pay for you to come
  2. It’s a 12 minute interview in front of a jury of about 15 senior researchers
  3. Hardly anyone makes it their first time.

Okay.  Well, for me it’s still a better than 10% chance, the CNRS position is a full-time, tenured research position, it’s with an excellent group of highly productive researchers at the CBAE, and it’s in the south of France, so my elementary school French Immersion program will finally pay off.  But did I mention that the interview is only 12 minutes long?  And it’s going to happen in less than 4 hours from now?

Granted, they’ll ask questions for about 15 minutes afterwards, but still.  This is completely different from the successive phone interviews, reference letters and then sometimes multi-day interviews that people go through for tenure track jobs.  But that multi-day process is replaced by the need to produce a high-quality research document prior to selection.

So, I’ll say again, hardly anyone makes it the first time (although people have), which means that by the time you do get hired (if you’re not culled) they’ll have seen you talk for nearly an hour over successive years.  That’s long enough I suppose.

I’m not sure exactly what to expect.  I already walked down to the room at the Pierre and Marie Curie University where the interview will be held, just to make sure I don’t get lost, I’ve corrected and re-corrected my talk.  I’ve timed it (still a bit under time!) and I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, or at least, as ready-ish as I’ll ever be.

I’d love to hear from other people who have gone through this process though.  It was a bit tough finding resources for foreign researchers about the CNRS process, so this could be a useful place to post tips, suggestions and comments.  I’ll be happy to expand on my experience if anyone is interested.

I’ll leave you with this.  Two of my favorite French (Canadian) songs, by the great Robert Charlebois and by the equally great Stereolab.

The Little Prince argues for the intrinsic value of biodiversity.

The most beautiful rose on Asteroid B-612.  One of a set of species described from only a single specimen.

The most beautiful rose on Asteroid B-612. One of a set of species described from only a single specimen.

“The flowers have been growing thorns for millions of years. For millions of years the sheep have been eating them just the same. And is it not a matter of consequence to try to understand why the flowers go to so much trouble to grow thorns which are never of any use to them? Is the warfare between the sheep and the flowers not important? Is this not of more consequence than a fat red-faced gentleman’s sums? And if I know– I, myself– one flower which is unique in the world, which grows nowhere but on my planet, but which one little sheep can destroy in a single bite some morning, without even noticing what he is doing– Oh! You think that is not important!”

His face turned from white to red as he continued:
“If some one loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there…’ But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened… And you think that is not important!”


Et en français:

-Il y a des millions d’années que les fleurs fabriquent des épines. Il y a des millions d’années que les moutons mangent quand même les fleurs. Et ce n’est pas sérieux de chercher à comprendre pourquoi elles se donnent tant de mal pour se fabriquer des épines qui ne servent jamais à rien? Ce n’est pas important la guerre des moutons et des fleurs? Ce n’est pas sérieux et plus important que les additions d’un gros Monsieur rouge? Et si je connais, moi, une fleur unique au monde, qui n’existe nulle part, sauf dans ma planète, et qu’un petit mouton peut anéantir d’un seul coup, comme ça, un matin, sans se rendre compte de ce qu’il fait, ce n’est pas important ça?

Il rougit, puis reprit:

-Si quelqu’un aime une fleur qui n’existe qu’à un exemplaire dans les millions d’étoiles, ça suffit pour qu’il soit heureux quand il les regarde. Il se dit: “Ma fleur est là quelque part…” Mais si le mouton mange la fleur, c’est pour lui comme si, brusquement, toutes les étoiles s’éteignaient! Et ce n’est pas important ça!

- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 1943.

A pollen short course. The best way to spend early June!

This summer I will be working with Jacquelyn Gill and Andrea Nurse in beautiful Orono, Maine to deliver a workshop for researchers interested in using both modern and fossil pollen as part of their research. Pollen has a long and fantastic history in the scientific literature. It is used in biomedical, paleoecological, forensic, evolutionary, agricultural and nutritional research, but as with any specialized tool, pollen requires training to learn how to collect, process and analyze it properly. The workshop is supported by the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, and by the PalEON Project.

We will be leading participants through collection, processing and analysis of pollen, using both fossil and modern samples. We will be using R and some specialized tools to do the statistical analysis, and I’ll walk people through some of the newer features of Neotoma as part of the course. This is also an opportunity for early career researchers to make connections outside their home institutions with others who are engaged in the incredibly exciting world of palynological analysis! (I’m allowed to talk up my field right?)

One feature of this workshop that I’m really excited about are the evening mini-courses. These are focused on providing an introduction to early career researchers about topics that relate more to the sociology of science. What is open science? How do scientists use social media to improve outreach? How do I make the most of interdisciplinary collaboration?

If you’re interested in the course please feel free to contact any of us, and be sure to get your application in by April 15, 2014. We’re looking forward to seeing you!


GSA Sessions and Scholarship Information

I’ve been a member of the Canadian Association of Palynologists for several years now, both as a student member and now as a member of the Executive. We are a small society but we have been very active over the past few years, hosting sessions at various conferences and producing a great (open access!) newsletter (back-issues here). Alwynne Beaudoin (who you may remember from an earlier post here) has also curated a fantastic website for CAP.

One recent initiative has been the creation of a graduate scholarship. The deadline is coming up, so please consider submitting an application:

The Canadian Association of Palynologists Annual Student Research Award was established in 2009 to recognize students’ contributions to palynological research. The award is open to any undergraduate or graduate student who is a member, in good standing, of CAP, regardless of their nationality or country of residence. The intent of the research award is to support student research with a strong palynological component. The award consists of a three-year membership in the Association and $300 CDN, to be put toward some aspect of the student’s research.
The application should consist of: 1) a one-page statement outlining the nature of the research project, its scientific importance, the approximate timeline to completion of the project, and the aspect of the research the funds would be directed toward; (2) a CV; and, (3) a letter of support from the student’s supervisor.

Applications may be submitted in French or English and should be submitted by email. Completed applications are due by March 1.

Applications or questions concerning the award should be sent to the CAP President, Dr. Francine McCarthy (fmccarthy[at]brocku[dot]ca), by March 1 2014.

From the CAP Website

In addition to the scholarship, CAP is also hosting a session at GSA 2014 in Vancouver, BC. The session, titled “Palynology in Geoarcheological and Environmental Studies” is one of the technical sessions that you will be able to submit to this year. Please consider it when you submit your abstract this year (deadline is July 29th!).

Land use, environmental history, Bascom Hall, tumblr and novel ecosystems all in one post!

You probably don’t know that we’ve been using tumblr as part of the PalEON Project.  That’s okay, a few PalEONistas are also unaware, but it’s been interesting playing around with the micro-blogging platform as a tool for academic outreach.  We’re not the first by any stretch of the imagination.  Dave Moore at the University of Arizona was the one who suggested it, and he’s got a good handle on what tumblr could turn into, and it’s been discussed on the Chronicle of Higher Education and in this SpotOn post for, among other places.

Figure 1.  Martin Stein's house was the only Euro-American home in the Milwaukee area until at least the 1840s (image from the Wisconsin Historical Archives).

Figure 1. Martin Stein’s house was the only Euro-American home in the Milwaukee area until at least the 1840s (image from the Wisconsin Historical Archives).

I’ve been using tumblr to try to document a really exciting component of our research, but I think that it also deserves a blog post to do it more justice. As I’ve said before, a key component of PalEON is using the Public Land Survey records from the Upper Midwestern United States to estimate pre-settlement vegetation composition and structure.  As a paleoecologist, firmly embedded in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of “place” in these records.  Each point in the Public Land Survey is firmly rooted in space, we know exactly where these point are, and surveyors still use them (hence the PLSS Finder by the Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office), but these points also have a place-based context. When these points were originally surveyed, very little of our modern anthropogenic landscape existed:  Milwaukee had only a single Euro-American home until at least the 1840s; the Madison area wasn’t surveyed until 1834s, and now Metro Transit’s Number 4 bus runs up and down Mill Street (one of the original survey lines) every day bringing students to the University of Wisconsin. For me, this context adds a tremendous sense of place to my daily bus ride (caveat, I bike most days, but it’s been <-10oC lately). I’ve been using the PalEON tumblr account to post these juxtapositions and to show how much the landscape in many of our lived environments has changed over a relatively short period of time (here, here and here).

The changes in the Midwestern landscape have been tremendous (as we showed at AGU) and these PLSS records are invaluable in tracing the history of the landscape back to a historical baseline, however, that’s only half of the story. The forests that occupied the landscape at the time of the PLSS were themselves in flux. Regionally we were coming out of droughts during the Medieval Warm Period (e.g., Grimm et al., 2011) and the Little Ice Age (e.g., Trouet et al., 2013), and at a broader time scale, less than 20 thousand years before the whole region was covered in ice. The rapid changes in the landscape over the past 200 years should give us pause, and help put future change into perspective. We are interested in novel ecosystems, in part because we think they inform our knowledge of ecosystem generally, but what if everything is novel? Caroline Tucker had an interesting article on The EEB and Flow back in September discussing the importance of studying novel ecosystems, but this framing implies that we generally study ecosystems that are not novel. The PLSS records, and paleoecological analysis in general, are beginning to show that, at least in large parts of North America, most ecosystems are novel. So now what?

Macrosystems Ecology: The more we know the less we know.

Dynamic Ecology had a post recently asking why there wasn’t an Ecology Blogosphere. One of the answers was simply that as ecologists we often recognize the depth of knowledge of our peers and as such, are unlikely (or are unwilling) to comment in an area that we have little expertise. This is an important point. I often feel like the longer I stay in academia the more I am surprised when I can explain a concept outside my (fairly broad) subject area clearly and concisely.  It surprises me that I have depth of knowledge in a subject that I don’t directly study.

Of course, it makes sense.  We are constantly exposed to ideas outside our disciplines in seminars, papers, on blogs & twitter, and in general discussions, but at the same time we are also exposed to people with years of intense disciplinary knowledge, who understand the subtleties and implications of their arguments.  This is exciting and frightening.  The more we know about a subject, the more we know what we don’t know.  Plus, we’re trained to listen to other people.  We ‘grew up’ academically under the guidance of others, who often had to correct us, so when we get corrected out of our disciplines we are often likely to defer, rather than fight.

This speaks to a broader issue though, and one that is addressed in the latest issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.  The challenges of global change require us to come out of our disciplinary shells and to address challenges with a new approach, defined here as Macrosystems Ecology.  At large spatial and temporal scales – the kinds of scales at which we experience life – ecosystems cease being disciplinary.  Jim Heffernan and Pat Soranno, in the lead paper (Heffernan et al., 2014) detail three ecological systems that can’t be understood without cross-scale synthesis using multi-disciplinary teams.

Figure 1.  From Heffernan et al. (2014), multiple scales and disciplines interact to explain patterns of change in the Amazon basin.

Figure 1. From Heffernan et al. (2014), multiple scales and disciplines interact to explain patterns of change in the Amazon basin.

The Amazonian rain forest is a perfect example of a region that is imperiled by global change, and can benefit from a Macrosystems approach.  Climate change and anthropogenic land use drives vegetation change, but vegetation change also drives climate (and, ultimately, land use decisions). This is further compounded by teleconnections related to societal demand for agricultural products around the world and the regional political climate.  To understand and address ecological problems in this region then, we need to understand cross-scale phenomena in ecology, climatology, physical geography, human geography, economics and political science.

Macrosystems proposes a cross-scale effort, linking disciplines through common questions to examine how systems operate at regional to continental scales, and at multiple temporal scales.  These problems are necessarily complex, but by bringing together researchers in multiple disciplines we can begin to develop a more complete understanding of broad-scale ecological systems.

Interdisciplinary research is not something that many of us have trained for as ecologists (or biogeographers, or paleoecologists, or physical geographers. . . but that’s another post).  It is a complex, inter-personal interaction that requires understanding of the cultural norms within other disciplines.  Cheruvelil et al. (2014) do a great job of describing how to achieve and maintain high-functioning teams in large interdisciplinary projects, and Kendra also discusses this further in a post on her own academic blog.

Figure 2.  Interdisciplinary research requires effort in a number of different areas, and these efforts are not recognized under traditional reward structures.

Figure 2. From Goring et al., (2014). Interdisciplinary research requires effort in a number of different areas, and these efforts are not recognized under traditional reward structures.

In Goring et al. (2014) we discuss a peculiar issue that is posed by interdisciplinary research.  The reward system in academia is largely structured to favor disciplinary research.  We refer to this in our paper as a disciplinary silo.  You are in a department of X, you publish in the Journal of X, you go to the International Congress of X and you submit grant requests to the X Program of your funding agency.  All of these pathways are rewarded, and even though we often claim that teaching and broader outreach are important, they are important inasmuch as you need to not screw them up completely (a generalization, but one I’ve heard often enough).

As we move towards greater interdisciplinarity we begin to recognize that simply superimposing the traditional rewards structure onto interdisciplinary projects (Figure 2) leaves a lot to be desired.  This is particularly critical for early-career researchers.  We are asking these researchers (people like me) to collaborate broadly with researchers around the globe, to tackle complex issues in global change ecology, but, when it comes time to assess their research productivity we don’t account for the added burden that interdisciplinary research can require of a researcher.

Now, I admit, this is self-serving.  As an early career researcher, and member of a large interdisciplinary team (PalEON), much of what we propose in Goring et al. (2014) strongly reflects on my own personal experience.  Outreach activities, the complexities of dealing with multiple data sources, large multi-authored papers, posters and talks, and the coordination of researchers across disciplines are all realities for me, and for others in the project, but ultimately, we get evaluated on grants and papers.  The interdisciplinary model of research requires effort that never gets valuated by hiring or tenure committees.

That’s not to say that hiring committees don’t consider this complexity, and I know they’re not just looking for Nature and Science papers, but at the same time, there is a new landscape for researchers out there, and we’re trying to evaluate them with an old map.

In Goring et al. (2014) we propose a broader set of metrics against which to evaluate members of large interdisciplinary teams (or small teams, there’s no reason to be picky).  This list of new metrics (here) includes traditional metrics (numbers of papers, size of grants), but expands the value of co-authorship, recognizing that only one person is first in the authorship list, even if people make critical contributions; provides support for non-disciplinary outputs, like policy reports, dataset generation, non-disciplinary research products (white papers, books) and the creation of tools and teaching materials; and adds value to qualitative contributions, such as facilitation roles, helping people communicate or interact across disciplinary divides.

This was an exciting set of papers to be involved with, all arising from two meetings associated with the NSF Macrosystems Biology program (part of NSF BIO’s Emerging Frontiers program).  I was lucky enough to attend both meetings, the first in Boulder CO, the second in Washington DC.  As a post-doctoral researcher these are the kinds of meetings that are formative for early-career researchers, and clearly, I got a lot out of it.  The Macrosystems Biology program is funding some very exciting programs, and this Frontiers issue attempts to get to the heart of the Macrosystems approach.  It is the result of many hours and days of discussion, and many of the projects are already coming to fruition.  It is an exciting time to be an early-career researcher, hopefully you agree!