Moving to a new position as faculty is both exciting and a little daunting. Having spent my entire postgraduate career so far in the USA, first as a PhD student and then as a postdoc, taking up a job at a UK university in March this year has been an interesting transition. In the last 5 months here at Bangor University, in Wales, I have been figuring out the way teaching is done in the UK (a lot of team-taught modules, a lot of forms and meetings involved in marking papers, exams, and theses), figuring out my own teaching load for the next academic year, and supervising 10 undergraduate students as they begin work on their final year research projects over the summer.
On the research activity front I’ve been learning about all the new agencies that one can apply for funding here. The EU’s Research Council is technically still an option, and then there are the two main Research Councils of the UK, the remit of which my work easily falls under –NERC and BBSRC*. I’ve even managed to submit one rather succinct application for a modest amount of starter funds to the Royal Society and am preparing two further applications that would, if successful, provide studentships and some research funds for a couple of PhD students.
This latter part is one of the main differences I’ve noticed so far between UK and US academia. Funding for PhD students here is virtually non-existent at the School/Department or University level and always has to come from outside sources. British PhDs are typically 3 – 3.5 years long (compared to 5 – 7 years in the USA) and are often pre-designed by the supervisor (unless the student comes with their own ideas and money). There is no time (or £) here for a student to spend 2 years doing coursework, reading widely within and around their subfield to gradually discover where their interests take them as they put together their thesis research proposal.
The downside of this arrangement is that as new faculty you don’t just get PhD students through the regular annual intake of the Department you’re at but you rather have to compete with other faculty at your institution and beyond to secure a studentship for a project of your choice.
The upside is that this system really pushes you as a researcher to identify and develop good topics for PhD projects that would be feasible to address in the span of 3.5 years. And coming up with new ideas and making plans for future discoveries is one of the most fun parts of academia, really.
Having spent 2 – 3 years figuring out my own PhD plans, I am now noticing that I’ve much improved in my ability to identify potential project ideas and can actually do this on a substantially tighter timeline than I was able to as a 1-st year student in grad school. Which is a relief. Both for me and, hopefully, for my future students.
One of the most exciting parts of the transition to being a newly independent researcher has been to decide where I want to go with my research in the future (both topically and geographically). As a postdoctoral researcher I was lucky enough to have PIs who allowed me considerable freedom in the types of studies I initiated or joined within the scope of their labs’ overall research programs. But now I was the one who had to set the direction for my own fledgling (currently 1-person) lab/research group.
There are few things in academia as exhilarating and a little terrifying as having a virtual blank piece of paper in front of you as the starting point for a new project, especially if the decisions you make now might conceivably make or break your career down the line. The options seem endless. All the things you’ve wanted to do for a while now but didn’t have the time and the money for. All the new things you didn’t know you wanted to do but have recently thought about as very cool things to do. So many things. Primate things.
To begin with, I wanted to start a new primate study in the wild. That narrows down the options a bit.
Studying primates requires a long-term investment: first because they are long-lived mammals and to get good data on some of the important questions that many primatologists are interested in can take a while; and second because initially it might be difficult to even see them long enough to collect any useful observations (unless one wants to study their population density, distribution and the ecology of their habitats; not so much if you’re interested in documenting their social lives or want to study their physiology by non-invasively collecting urine and faecal samples from individually recognisable animals).
Most wild primates are not too keen on being followed around by nosy humans on a daily basis – they usually flee if you try to approach them. Those who don’t – tend to try and steal your food (e.g. baboons and macaques that have become too comfortable with tourists in national parks or cities). One can, of course, study such groups – there are plenty of interesting questions to be addressed in conditions where humans and non-human primates interact regularly and sometimes come into conflict of varying intensity.
But if your chosen study species does not do well in areas where humans live, then you’d need to go away from cities and villages and find groups, which are generally weary of humans. Such groups need to be followed long enough in their wild habitat until they stop caring you are there and ignore you – a process called habituation. Habituation can take years if you want to study great apes, and months – for the smaller monkey species. Given the scarcity of funding and the pressure to produce publishable results fast, the prospect of starting out afresh with a group of primates that are initially afraid of you is not necessarily reassuring – so that is another thing to take into account when planning a new project.
In most cases, there are three options for starting a new study: (a) gain access to a well-established research site where primates have been already habituated and studied for a number of years; (b) start from scratch and be ready for a long period of investment with little to show for your work; or (c) find places where groups of primates are rather tolerant of human presence but have still been little studied by researchers.
Option (a) – joining a well-established long-term study – is appealing but it also has its drawbacks. Long-term primate research projects offer really well habituated animals, most often with detailed records on their life histories and demography (e.g. Kappeler & Watts 2012). A lot of existing experience and knowledge among past and current researchers working at such field sites can be a huge plus when starting out in primatology as a graduate student. But with decades worth of person hours already spent watching such groups of primates, the likelihood of you seeing something that nobody else has before is low. Not that this is all that matters but there is something to be said for spreading out to cover more ground in terms of research questions, species, and areas. Primates are not doing too well overall – in most places where they live their populations are under growing pressure from human-induced changes to their habitat (e.g. logging) and from hunting. Given that the presence of long-term research stations and projects has been shown to have some positive effect in terms of safe-guarding populations at least at the local level (e.g., Wrangham & Ross 2008) – the conservation case for going out to new places and establishing new long-term monitoring programs and researcher presence is strong. Finally, the fact that well established projects are so well established means that for a new PI, there would be limited opportunity to get involved in setting the direction of long-term research priorities and some topics might even be off-limits, given existing priority in areas of interest among senior investigators who have already invested in these studies years, and often decades, of work.
Option (b): going off and starting work with completely unhabituated primates is tempting, potentially hugely rewarding, but risky in the short term. Unless you have unlimited funding and very limited pressure to publish highly influential papers in the first few years of your new position as faculty – spending 1 or more years just getting primates to accept your presence, before you can even start collecting data at a reliable pace can be a problem. Additionally, since most of the time you’d be teaching back at the University, this work would have to be carried out primarily by students and postdocs (if you’re lucky enough to get funding for those). By the time their funding runs out (typically 2 years for a postdoc, and 3 – 3.5 for a PhD student) they should be able to show something for their efforts and be able to publish papers of their own. If they spend half their project time or longer chasing after primates with few direct observations to show for the frustrations of the habituation process – this would not be too good for their careers either. This is not to say that one cannot come up with a suitably interesting set of research questions around a study of totally unhabituated primates but this is a different topic.
After pondering the options above, the most appealing one to me, personally, was option (c) – finding a place where primates (or at least a group or two) are well enough habituated to human presence but are not already subject of a long-term study.
The next step was to identify a place where these two conditions were met but also, and even more importantly, make sure that the species in question would offer an opportunity to address exciting, and as yet unresolved questions in the fields of primatology and behavioural ecology.
Tomorrow I travel back to Africa, for the first time since the summer of 2011, to scope out one such potential location and meet a primate that I have never seen before.
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* On a related note, if you want to find out more about UK funding and how to go about it, check out this recent blog post: https://gavinbuckingham.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/applying-for-funding-in-the-uk