One of the things I love to share with my students is how my own academic path has influenced how I teach and what research questions I pursue. I don’t do this because I am one of those people locked in the ‘glory days’; instead, I use it in hopes that I might inspire them to look around and appreciate the journey on which they are traveling. Sometimes implied, and sometimes explicitly stated, I also try to convey to my students that it is important to maintain strong connections with people, places, and things that were an important part of one’s past. When we put the grown-up pants on after completing graduate school, we all have to move forward and move into our realized niche given that large parts of our fundamental niche are excluded by occupation by the advisor who trained us, but if past experiences have been positive ones, it is a good idea to maintain a spirit of collaboration and cooperation with the individuals who facilitated those experiences
I was privileged to work in an excellent study system (with Florida scrub-jays) while working on my dissertation. Although the benefits of working with such a well-established system are immense, I found that the value of my scrub-jay research has gone well beyond simply answering the questions I had within the field of physiological ecology. Not only was my study species an excellent one, my study site, Archbold Biological Station, was phenomenal as well. The P.I. in my lab encouraged collaboration with other graduate students within our lab as well as with other individuals at the university and at the field station. Although I think the collaborative spirit is important at all universities, I find it particularly important at PUI’s given the challenges we face with course loads and equipment availability. I still work to maintain professional relationships with individuals with whom I collaborated in graduate school while also welcoming new collaborations, but I can say with certainty that the quality of my own research, and my teaching, is greatly improved by keeping those strong connections that were developed many years ago.
I published a couple of papers that were peripherally related to my dissertation which I finished after I started my faculty position, and thus, were essentially a direct extension of my graduate research activities and were coauthored by my advisor and lab mates. Though continuing research very much in line with dissertation work may have some appeal, in many cases, such as my own, this is really not feasible. First, most universities are looking to employ faculty who can come up with their own research program and not appear to simply be an extension of the program they recently left. Second, there was no way I could work at a small university in Illinois and travel to Florida for the entire Spring semester to study reproduction and physiology in scrub jays as my teaching duties certainly prohibit that. I have, however, found that as other individuals who were either in my lab at the same time as I, or those that have joined the lab after, me develop their own, new, projects, our common experiences, different interests and new areas of expertise have really made for interesting new research opportunities. I will write a blog entry on a future date about strategies for developing in-house and external collaborations at a university like mine, but as blog co-author, Matt Venesky, has noted before, he and I have pursued collaborative opportunities, the senior grad student in our lab during my graduate studies and I have collaborated on many projects, and I have even had a student complete a research internship at Archbold Biological Station, where I completed the field component of all of my graduate research, bringing the connection of my current students with my own past experiences as a student full circle.
In addition to keeping those connections intact for research purposes, I can proudly say that my connection with Archbold Biological Station has also positively influenced my teaching. I have developed an Ecological Journeys: South Florida course (taught in Summer 2012 and Summer 2014), where I take students from Millikin University down to Archbold Biological Station for a two-week field ecology course. Just studying at a place like that for two weeks is an excellent opportunity for students, but my connection to Archbold makes it stronger, and they are given an opportunity for in-depth interaction with other scientists have been an important part of my experience with Archbold from 10 years ago to today.
Building a strong network is critical to success in this field, and I think even more important at a PUI. Maintaining collaborative relationships with individuals from the formative years of graduate school can greatly facilitate transitions into new positions and also initiate new ideas and research opportunities. However, it is also important to nurture new collaborations and a professional identity that sets you apart from your past role as a graduate student for each the purpose of showing your university of employment that you are entirely capable of creating a successful and productive lab and, more importantly, the self-fulfillment of taking what you learned from the past, and making something that is your own.