Life Lessons

I don’t know everything, but I’ve learned a few nuggets along the way. Hopefully, I’ll keep learning, and keep updating this page as I do!

Research – Field Work

When trapping or otherwise working in terrestrial systems, it behooves you to wear latex gloves. This protects your hands from coming in contact with urine, fecal matter, and urushiol (poison ivy oils). Put them on first thing when arriving to a site, and take them off before getting into a vehicle or touching your skin anywhere else. Tuck extras into a Ziploc bag and carry them with you. Latex are better than nitrile because they resist snags and don’t shred as easily. Nitrile is still an option if you have – or develop – a latex allergy.

Don’t talk to wildlife while you’re handling them. It does not help to calm them down. It is not cute. Work quietly, efficiently, and as gently as possible. They want to get on with their day/night, just like you do.

If you have the option to switch, use 4-wheel-drive on all gravel roads; it helps to reduce spraying gravel and thusly helps keep the roads in better shape. Use 2-wheel-drive on all paved roads (weather permitting), as it cuts down on gas use.

No matter how much you deal with it, do not become cavalier about handling wildlife poop. There can be some nasty stuff in there (Hantavirus, roundworm eggs, etc.) that could get under your fingernails or into your eyes. Wear gloves and wash your hands as often as possible. Bring moistened wipes and hand sanitizer into the field with you, and use them thoroughly if you need to eat in the field. Try to eat without touching your food directly. Assume that you’ve got poop on your field clothes, and change those everyday while you’re working in the field, if possible. Changing your clothes everyday will also help reduce exposure to poison ivy oils (urushiol).

DEET is great, but it doesn’t help much to repel ticks. Get a product with permethrin in it, and spray-saturate your field clothes with it (outdoors, avoid breathing this stuff). Let your clothes dry before putting them on. DO NOT spray it on yourself. The permethrin will retain its repellent characteristics through several laundry cycles. My personal preference was to mark the treatment date on the clothing somewhere with a Sharpie marker, then update about once every three weeks. Here’s a good site:

If you’re working in a region with chiggers, I recommend getting powdered sulphur from a pharmacy (you’ll have to ask the pharmacist for it). One container lasted me over three years. Every day while getting ready, I’d shake my socks in a Ziploc bag with some bright yellow sulphur powder. My chigger bites stopped immediately when I did this. Permethrin also keeps chiggers away, but this also seemed to work. BTW, you may have heard that chiggers get under your skin; this is complete myth. They inject chemicals that dissolve flesh, and in response our bodies create a hardened tube of flesh (stylostome) as protection. Unfortunately, the hard tube is then used by the chigger as a drinking straw to suck up the dissolved tissues. By the time the body develops a response to the chigger’s fluids, the chigger is likely gone. Chiggers are easily brushed away, and have no means of holding on to humans. When they interact with their primary host, snakes and other reptiles with scales, they burrow under the scale which then holds them in place while they feed. This may be why the worst bites occur under clothing straps, socks, underwear lines, and under backpack straps, as these are the areas where the chigger could be held closely to the skin for an extended period of time.

Research – Writing and Lab Work

Always assume that something is going to take longer than you think it will. Especially analyses and other people reviewing your manuscript.

If you’re presenting a similar paper or poster at a different talk than the first presentation, give it a new title. Be creative. Otherwise, presentations look like you just kept trotting out the same exact paper/poster to several conferences when they’re listed on your CV.


Read your students, look at their faces, make eye contact. They might not raise their hands every time they have a question, but a quizzical look can tell you everything you need to know.

Don’t save the “any questions?” for the end of class, right as the students are packing up. Every student knows that they’ll be slowing down their compadres if they ask a question at this point, so the impetus is pretty strong to stay silent. Touch base with them throughout the lecture.

If students email you digital copies of their work, you can add in comments and track changes in Word. This may be more useful to students, especially if you have terrible handwriting, no matter how legibly you thought you were writing. Make sure every student emails you a test email in the first week of class, so you can reply and they know they have the correct address.

Grad School, Postdoctoral Work

Before accepting any position, make sure you interview with the current grad students in the lab, separately from the advisor/supervisor. Ask pointed questions, such as:

Do you find that the advisor has time for you?

Can you give a recent example of a problem you encountered and how they helped you through it?

Do you feel as though your advisor respects you and your input (that you’re not just treated as a technician, for example)?

Has the advisor done a sufficient job of financing you and your project, and of encouraging you to seek external funding?

Are the other faculty supportive? Is there a collegial atmosphere in the department? Remember, you’re going to need committee members.

While visiting for the interview, see how other faculty interact with your potential advisor, and especially if you get introduced as part of your visit.

Direct questions are needed, as students are likely not going to volunteer negative information. Write these down and any you come up with (suggestions in the comments section welcome!), and take lots of notes during your interview. Another important issue is how many students the advisor has graduated, and how many have left before finishing. If one has left, no big deal, a lot of people change their mind about grad school. However, multiple students not finishing raises a major red flag about the compatibility of the advisor with students. Proceed with caution.


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