Becoming a Cichlid Researcher

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Updated: December 18, 2009

The Long and Winding Road...

I frequently get questions from young people interested in how they can become a cichlid researcher (which is great!), so I have added this page to help answer some of the most general questions.

There are many ways to pursue research in the area of biology. Some people work on very practical issues, such as how to improve crop harvests, or the development of medicines. We call this applied research. Others strive to understand how nature works. The latter is called pure research. The goal of pure research is knowledge. Pure researchers feel that the quest for knowledge is in itself a worthwhile pursuit. They may also point out that science makes its greatest leaps forward through pure research and that most of our major technological breakthroughs are the result of pure research opening up entirely new possibilities.

My own interest is in pure research and so, my bias revealed, here is how you go about becoming a pure researcher.

The most important thing about pursuing this path is that you must be very committed to it. It is an extremely satisfying thing to do with your life, but it is a long path to get there. By comparision, it is at least as long, and possibly more competitive, than medical school. It is however a different kind of competitiveness than you typically find in medical school. Grades are very important, but so are creativity, ingenuity and determination. Many friends of mine insist that a certain amount of "being in the right place at the right time" helps as well.

The general scheme and time frame is as follows:

1. Undergraduate degree. You start by getting an undergraduate degree, usually a Bachelors degree in some aspect of biological sciences, but not necessarily. I know of people who started out in chemistry and even engineering. The purpose of an undergraduate degree is to teach you how to think. You also learn some specific material but this is secondary to learning the process.

How important is the choice of college/university? Opinions vary on this. Different kinds of schools have different things to offer. Large universities often offer a broad range of courses, a large faculty with diverse interests and lots of resources and equipment. In many cases, though certainly not always, it can be more difficult to distinguish yourself at a larger school and to strike up personal relationships with the faculty (e.g., as a research or field assistant). Smaller schools offer a more personalized experience, but usually have less choices and almost always have less resources.

The most important thing is that whatever path you choose, make the most of the opportunities available at that school.

Probably the most valuable thing you can do as an undergraduate is to get involved with a research lab as a volunteer. See what it is like to work in a lab and see if you like it. Each professor runs their lab differently, ranging from very easy-going to very intense. There are advantages to both. Although it would be wonderful to get into a lab that is doing exactly what you want to do, the particular topic of the research at this point is less important than the experience of seeing how science is actually done.

Some schools offer an Honors program in which you conduct an individual research project. Do this if it is available at your school.

Keep an eye out (and search the internet for) REU programs. An REU is a Research Experience for Undergraduates. They are particularly designed for students attending colleges and universities where there are limited research experiences on campus. For example, I have been a mentor in the REU run by OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies). A dozen students from around the US get to spend 8-10 weeks each summer doing research in the tropics. Not only do they cover your expenses, they actually even pay you a nice stipend. Naturally these positions are highly competitive but this is key -- you never know what they are looking for so NEVER discount yourself.

When you are in the beginning of your last year as an undergraduate, or ideally even a bit before that, you need to start seriously considering and researching the idea of going to graduate school. You do this by finding out at which institutions are the people that you would most like to do a graduate degree with. You then need to contact a number of possible candidate supervisors and establish a line of communication with them. Students often say to me, "but I don't know exactly what I want to do". That is fine. Some people have very definite ideas, others have very vague ideas. Sometimes I find it helps if you list the things you absolutely DO NOT want to do and then you will find that the list of things you really might like to do is quite a bit more narrow than what you originally thought. For instance, does the thought of spending long hours working at the lab bench doing chemistry appeal to you? If not, then biochemistry is probably not your best choice. Do you dislike the outdoors? Then field biology is not the way to go. Do you like concrete solid answers or do you prefer to explore the possibilities of the universe? If the latter, then consider theoretical biology.

(Bachelor's degree: 4-5 years)

2. Graduate degree(s). Again there are several options. In Canada, it is most usual to do a Masters degree, then proceed to a PhD. In the US, it is more common to go straight from an undergraduate degree to the PhD, though Masters degrees are becoming increasingly common. To my knowledge, people that get a Masters degree do not necessarily take less time to do a PhD, but often they do a better job of the latter.

There is substantial variation among fields with respect to what you do in graduate school. In some fields of study and at particular universities, graduate school may involve a lot of classes, much like a continuation of your undergraduate experience. In other schools, you take a minimum of classes and devote yourself to conducting your own research. For a person interested in research as a career, strongly consider the latter kind of school.

A surprising number of young people say to me, "By the time I get to graduate school, all the interesting stuff will be done". As far as biology is concerned, this is completely false. Every year we discover more questions that need to be answered, and we discover questions at a far faster rate than we can ever answer them. Most people would be amazed to find out how few pure researchers there actually are in any given field of knowledge. So don't worry, there is lots of interesting stuff yet to be done. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that in biology, what we know is an almost insignificantly small fraction of what there is to know.

During either of these degrees, you will take some courses, but most importantly you will become intensely interested and involved in a particular area of research. This is where you actually get to do science; hopefully and ideally including all aspects such as formulating original questions, devising methods and experiments, conducting the experiments, analyzing the results and presenting the results at conferences and in written publications.

The other question that I often get is this: do I have to go to a university physically near the research I want to study? For example, if I want to study African cichlids, do I go to a university in Africa? The answer is: ABSOLUTELY NOT. The topic and location of a person's research often has little to do with where their university is physically located. For instance, there are cichlid researchers in universities all over North America. It is true that university researchers often take on local projects (for example, I have students studying local California fishes) but my main research is in Costa Rica, which is not very close to California at all. Similarly, there is no reason (other than money -- and don't let that stop you) that a graduate student in Nebraska cannot study cichlids in South Africa. In fact, sometimes it is of great benefit NOT to study local animals but rather to "head into the field" for the distinct purpose of doing research. I find that this makes research time much more focussed and productive.

(Masters degree: 2-3 years; PhD 4-5+ years).

3. Postdoctoral Fellowship. Years ago, a PostDoc position was uncommon. Now it is almost always the case that you spend some time, and perhaps even a long time, as a PostDoctoral Fellow. It is very rare these days for a person to get an academic position (i.e., a job as a professor) straight out of graduate school. The length of time spent as a PostDoc is highly variable both by field and by individuals. It is increasingly common in fields like behavior and ecology for people to spend 5+ years as a PostDoc. The difficulty of being a PostDoc is that it is usually on a short-term basis of a year or two, then you have to find another one, often somewhere else.

What does a PostDoc do? A PostDoc is sort of like an extension of a PhD, though again there is much variation. You conduct research, write publications, and often do some teaching. During this time you apply for a position as an Assistant Professor at a University or College. It is not uncommon to apply to 50+ such positions a year. It is also quite common to be unsuccessful at all 50. (~5 years)

4. Assistant Professor. In the US and Canada, academics proceed through a series of ranks going from Assistant Professor (~5 years), Associate Professor (~5 years), to Professor. Of course the biggest difficulty is getting the initial Assistant Professor position. These are highly competitve and typical job searches have anywhere from 50 to many hundreds of qualified candidates applying. A typical assistant professor's position involves teaching (often 1/3 of your time), doing research (1/3) and administrative duty (1/3). The percentages vary widely. In some colleges, teaching and administration may occupy virtually all of your time. Included in the research time is a substantial amount of time devoted to writing grants to obtain funding to perform future research.

Bottom line: If you start out this process at age 18, you are looking at being in your early to mid-thirties before you will have a full-time, paying job. Sometimes it goes faster, often more slowly. Many people that would like to get a job in academics do not get such a job, even after many years of trying. That is the downside. The other downside is that as far as professions go, becoming an academic researcher is one of the most poorly paid professions. If you are interested in making lots of money, don't go into academics.

The upside is that should you be successful, you get to explore the world of biology for a living and there are few occupations which offer as much pleasure as the pursuit of knowledge, interacting with interesting people passionate about their work and teaching cutting-edge knowledge to young people.

While many people in other fields work during the week to have time-off on the weekend, many academics look forward to going to work everyday (I certainly do).

More Questions?

The most important thing you can do is ask questions and find out things for yourself. Too often I find that young people plan their careers and even their lives based on rumors or misconceptions. If you are interested in this career (or any other) find out as much as you can about it so you can make informed choices.

You will find that a true, strong interest in something is probably your biggest asset and that many people genuinely want to answer your questions if you are really interested in knowing the answers.

Further reading:

Carl Sindermann has written several wonderful books on the process and issues of becoming a scientist. They are interesting and entertaining reading and I highly recommend them to anyone considering science as a career. You don't have to agree with what he says but, as he cautions, you ignore what he says at your own peril:

Sindermann, Carl J. (1982) Winning the Games Scientists Play. Plenum, New York. ISBN: 0-306-41075-3.

This book was recently updated as follows:

Sindermann, Carl J. (2001) Winning the Games Scientists Play. Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts. ISBN: 0-7382-0425-0


Sindermann, Carl J. (1985) The Joy of Science. Plenum, New York. ISBN: 0-306-42035-X.

Sindermann, Carl J. (1987) Survival Strategies for New Scientists. Plenum, New York. ISBN: 0-306-42703-6.


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