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Above: Rob tries to chip out of the rough during the lab mini-golf outing, Aug. 2016. You may or may not be surprised to learn that Rob won.

Undergraduate openings

Every summer I hire 1-3 undergraduate research assistants to work with me and my graduate students. It’s a lot of fun for you and great experience, especially if you’re thinking of going on to graduate school. If you are interested, please contact me in December or early January. You need to contact me that early because deadlines to apply for summer scholarships–PURE and NSERC USRA awards–are in late Jan. or early Feb.

Graduate openings

I am always open to enquiries from prospective graduate students at both the MSc and PhD levels. I expect PhD students to develop their own projects, with my guidance. MSc students would have a choice of projects. See Research for more.

If you scroll down this page a bit, you’ll find a letter I ask all prospective grad students to read. It talks about my approach to science and mentoring, and includes some questions I ask of all prospective students.

For information on how to apply to our graduate program, information on admissions standards, funding, and deadlines, etc., go here.

Graduate students are funded through a combination of TAships, scholarships, and fellowships during the academic year, and by my research grant during the summer. Mathematically-inclined students can pursue funding from PIMS.

Postdoctoral openings

If you are less than 3 years post-PhD, you can apply to do a postdoc with me via the Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship program. This is a competitive 2-year award, with health benefits and a relocation/research allowance, given out once/year by the University of Calgary. The application deadline is usually in January or February. Alternatively, if you have your own funding, I’m more than happy to hear from you!

A letter to prospective graduate students

Thanks for your interest in my lab! Below is some information on the sort of work I do and my mentoring philosophy. It also includes a few questions for you, to help me to get to know you better.

My science   

I work on population, community, and evolutionary ecology. Currently, I’m most interested in spatial synchrony, and species coexistence, but my interests are pretty broad. I’m the kind of scientist who has lots of medium-sized ideas rather than one big idea. My work is question-driven and fundamental rather than applied. I’m not averse to taking on students interested in applied problems, but I would want an “applied” student to select an applied problem that also has interesting fundamental aspects. It’s not that I don’t value applied work, it’s just not what I do.

Because my work is question-driven, I don’t focus on a particular favorite organism. I work in whatever system is most appropriate for addressing the question of interest. I encourage you to do the same. Past students of mine have worked with protists, bean beetles, alpine plants and their pollinators, and lake bacteria. The key things are that you have a good question, that we have experts on our faculty who can give you good advice about your chosen study system, and that I have (or can obtain) the equipment and other resources needed to work in your chosen system.

My own work involves a combination of experiments and mathematical theory. In particular, I do a lot work with “model” communities of protists, bacteria, and small zooplankton growing in bottles (laboratory microcosms). Much as an engineer can learn a lot about aerodynamics by studying model planes in a wind tunnel, I believe ecologists can learn a lot about communities and ecosystems by studying model ecosystems under controlled conditions. One advantages of microcosms is that you can collect long-term data (hundreds of generations) in a few months. I use these model communities to test the predictions about the fundamental “rules” that all (or at least many) populations and communities should obey.

My mentoring philosophy

My philosophy is to treat my students as mentees, not employees or students. Nobody in my lab works for me, and it’s not my job to teach you ecology (at least, not in the same sense that it’s my job to teach ecology to students in my ecology classes). Rather, it’s my job to help you learn to do good science and to support you in reaching your long-term goals.

Even before you join my lab, I’ll ask you what you’re thinking of doing after grad school. It’s ok if the answer is that you’re not sure; many prospective grad students aren’t sure. But it’s good to start thinking about your answer. Grad school is a stepping stone—a short-term goal, not a long-term one. A big part of my job as your mentor is to help you get the most out of grad school, and that means helping you think about your long-term goals and how to achieve them.

To that end, when you join my lab we’ll sit down together and write down an individual mentoring plan. The plan spells out your short- and long-term goals, milestones on the way to those goals, and the concrete things you and I will do to help you achieve your goals. We’ll revisit the plan periodically and revise it as necessary (for instance, as your long-term goals evolve, which they might well do). The point of the plan is to help you succeed by breaking grad school down into manageable chunks, and help you exercise independence and agency. I want to help you make your graduate program what you want it to be.

I expect my students to think and work quantitatively. You won’t have to become a modeler, but you’ll probably need to understand the models others have produced, and you’ll probably have to learn some statistics more advanced than regression or ANOVA. I also expect my students to learn how to write and speak well, both of which require a lot of practice. Quantitative thinking and communication skills will come in handy no matter what you go on to do in life.

I expect my students to participate actively in the intellectual life of the lab and the department (and hopefully in the social life as well!) You will learn as much from your fellow students as you will from me. This means I expect you to participate actively in lab meetings, attend seminars, meet with visiting speakers, etc. Grad school is about more than simply putting your head down and doggedly pursuing your own research. It’s about taking advantage of myriad opportunities for intellectual and professional growth. It’s your graduate program—take charge of it and get the most out of it!

You’ll also learn a lot from other people besides me and your labmates. Part of my job as your mentor is to connect you to other people who can support you and help you succeed. That means everything from bringing in visiting speakers doing research related to yours, to introducing you to my colleagues at conferences, to putting you in touch with people in whatever line of work you want to pursue after grad school (my students have gone on to everything from academia to consulting to schoolteaching…), to pointing you towards the many skills training programs my university offers, to connecting you with mental health and other support services that you might need to draw on. Grad school can be a stressful and challenging experience for all sorts of reasons, some of them not specific to grad school. Everybody needs to draw on others for support sometimes, very much including me.

Finally, I won’t expect you to be in the lab 24/7 or anything silly like that (if you do start sleeping in the lab, I’ll tell you to go home!). And I won’t put my name on any work to which I haven’t made a significant intellectual contribution. Your work is yours.

Some questions for you

Being a graduate student is very different from being an undergraduate. Graduate students are producers rather than consumers of knowledge. For that reason, here are a few questions I ask all prospective graduate students:

  • What gets you excited about ecology and evolution?
  • What’s your academic background (courses taken and grades received)?
  • Do you have any research experience (e.g., honors thesis, field assistant)?
  • Why do you want to go to graduate school?
  • Are you thinking of getting an M.Sc., or a Ph.D.?
  • What do you think you might want to do after graduate school?
  • What interests you about my work, and/or about the U of Calgary?

What next?

Deciding to go to graduate school is a big commitment. You want to be as sure as you can be that graduate school, and my lab, are the right choice for you. If after reading this you’re still interested in working with me, send me an e-mail; the questions above are intended to guide you in what to talk about. At that time, send me a transcript (unofficial is fine) and a CV. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can and we’ll go from there. If you and I both feel I might be the right advisor for you, I’ll pay for you to come to Calgary for a visit (ideally 6-9 months before you plan to start). Thanks again for your interest, looking forward to hearing from you.