Four basic skill areas for a macroecologist [Guest post]

This is a guest post by Elita Baldridge (@elitabaldridge), a graduate student in Ethan White’s lab in the Ecology Center at Utah State University.

As a budding macroecologist, I have thought a lot about what skills I need to acquire during my Ph.D. This is my model of the four basic attributes for a macroecologist, although I think it is more generally applicable to many ecologists as well:

  • Data
  • Statistics
  • Math
  • Programming

Data:

  • Knowledge of SQL
  • Dealing with proper database format and structure
  • Finding data
  • Appropriate treatments of data
  • Understanding what good data are

Statistics:

  • Bayesian
  • Monte Carlo methods
  • Maximum likelihood methods
  • Power analysis
  • etc.

Math:

  • Higher level calculus
  • Should be able to derive analytical solutions for problems
  • Modelling

Programming:

  • Should be able to write programs for analysis, not just simple statistics and simple graphs.
  • Able to use version control
  • Once you can program in one language, you should be able to program in other languages without much effort, but should be fluent in at least one language.

General recommendations:

Achieve expertise in at least 2 out of the 4 basic areas, but be able to communicate with people who have skills in the other areas.  However, if you are good at collaboration and come up with really good questions, you can make up for skill deficiencies by collaborating with others who possess those skills.  Start with smaller collaborations with the people in your lab, then expand outside your lab or increase the number of collaborators as your collaboration skills improve.

Gaining skills:

Achieving proficiency in an area is best done by using it for a project that you are interested in.  The more you struggle with something, the better you understand it eventually, so working on a project is a better way to learn than trying to learn by completing exercises.

The attribute should be generalizable to other problems:  For example, if you need to learn maximum likelihood for your project, you should understand how to apply it to other questions.  If you need to run an SQL query to get data from one database, you should understand how to write an SQL query to get data from a different database.

In graduate school:

Someone who wants to compile their own data or work with existing data sets needs to develop a good intuitive feel for data; even if they cannot write SQL code, they need to understand what good and bad databases look like and develop a good sense for questionable data, and how known issues with data could affect the appropriateness of data for a given question. The data skill is also useful if a student is collecting field data, because a little bit of thought before data collection goes a long way toward preventing problems later on.

A student who is getting a terminal master’s and is planning on using pre-existing data should probably be focusing on the data skill (because data is a highly marketable skill, and understanding data prevents major mistakes).  If the data are not coming from a central database, like the BBS, where the quality of the data is known, additional time will have to be added for time to compile data, time to clean the data, and time to figure out if the data can be used responsibly, and time to fill holes in the data.

Master’s students who want to go on for a Ph.D. should decide what questions they are interested in and should try to pick a project that focuses on learning a good skill that will give them a headstart- more empirical (programming or stats), more theoretical (math), more applied (math (e.g., for developing models), stats(e.g., applying pre-existing models and evaluating models, etc.), or programming (e.g. making tools for people to use)).

Ph.D. students need to figure out what types of questions they are interested in, and learn those skills that will allow them to answer those questions.  Don’t learn a skill because it is trendy or you think it will help you get a job later if you don’t actually want to use that skill.  Conversely, don’t shy away from learning a skill if it is essential for you to pursue the questions you are interested in.

Right now, as a Ph.D. student, I am specializing in data and programming.  I speak enough math and stats that I can communicate with other scientists and learn the specific analytical techniques I need for a given project.  For my interests (testing questions with large datasets), I think that by the time I am done with my Ph.D., I will have the skills I need to be fairly independent with my research.

2 Comments on “Four basic skill areas for a macroecologist [Guest post]

  1. You have a good plan, but I think you, at least once, need to get out in the field and collect some data. Get some impression of the sources of error, of misidentification and of observer fatigue. When you look at occupancy data it looks so clean, just 1s and 0s, but this hides a whole lot of error prone work. There is never a shortage of ecologists who would like help with their fieldwork.

  2. I have done veg transects, small mammal trapping, trapped for rails, and mist netted for birds and bats as a master’s student in Kansas, and one of the benefits of being a Weecologist has been the ability to tag along to Portal for small mammal trapping (https://portalproject.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/summer-in-the-desert/), which is a blast. It really gives an appreciation of the work that it is involved with collecting all of that data, and I think it has been valuable experience in seeing how different sites and taxa have different problems with detection and identification. But, I have found that compiling data from many different studies or looking at data across years has more clearly indicated to me the importance of selecting the right data for a question, and seeing the problems in the data. When you are compiling data, and comparing data from different studies side by side, it becomes easier to see how sampling effort, etc. affects the data. When you are out in the field, I think it can be easier to think that the error is less because you put a lot of effort into collecting the data.

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