Thought I’d follow up to Brendan's great first post. I’m Matt and I graduated IBH in 2012. I worked in Alison Bell’s group on the antipredator benefits of schooling. After graduating, I spent a year working with Niels Dingemanse at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology on a Fulbright grant, studying social foraging and sleep in great tits. I’m now in my third year of a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton with Iain Couzin.
Alison and Niels are well-known in the field of animal personality, or consistent individual differences in behavior. Some animals are consistently more aggressive than their conspecifics, for example, when it’s beneficial but also when it’s not. The entire field is based on individual differences, so it was quite a surprise to read big papers from collective behavior (what I study now) and to see every paper treat all group members as identical. It’s mathematically convenient and has allowed us to develop key insights (e.g. you can get sophisticated group behavior without any sort of central control, just individuals following simple rules), but this assumption of homogeneity is pretty biologically unrealistic. I’m trying to see what role heterogeneity plays in a collective behavior with crucial ties to fitness: coordinated antipredator behavior. When predators attack some species of fish, waves of escape response move through the group so fast that it’s really hard for a predator to catch anyone. I’m curious how variation in perception of risk affects how these waves propagate. Some fish, for example, will perceive the environment as much riskier than others due to inherent skittishness or previous experience with predators. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of consensus emerges from this variation, whether the group just averages every individual’s perception, whether skittish individuals hold disproportionate influence, etc.
No BBC program to catch here, unfortunately. tongue emoticon I do have a blog that I semi-regularly post in called The Headbanging Behaviorist:mattgrobis.blogspot.com. It has academia advice, summaries of articles, and posts about metal music I like. I figured I’d put it all in one blog in case the occasional metalhead stumbles into a science post and finds something interesting, as opposed to never Googling it in the first place. I have a few posts with advice for college students in the Academia Advice section if anyone’s interested.
IBH was excellent preparation for grad school but a PhD is still pretty hard. My advisor left Princeton a few months ago to become the director of a Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (go figure!), so everyone in the lab has had to be a lot more independent than we’d anticipated. I'll likely move to Germany in a year or so once a big chunk of the lab graduates. In the meantime, we've been doing things pretty much on our own here. While it’s hard to make mistakes and not know what you’re doing, pushing through it is a vital learning experience for becoming self-sufficient. No one in grad school will tell you to do something (unless you have a really hands-on advisor); it’s up to you to justify why you’re studying what you are, and you have to understand it deeply enough to eventually be able to convince others that it’s important and interesting, too. The benefits are that you’re being paid to learn all day, you often have huge flexibility in your work schedule, and you’re likely to be surrounded by really smart and interesting people.
If you’re considering doing a PhD in animal behavior or ecology, I strongly suggest taking as much statistics and coding as you can fit into your schedule. Like it or not, you’ll end up taking them eventually, and it’ll be easier if you’ve already gone through it once. Learn as much as you can of an open-source language like R or Python; skip SASS, SPSS, or MATLAB, all which require paid licenses. A colleague of mine who uses MATLAB just finished her PhD and was actually having a hard time finding data science jobs in industry because companies didn’t want to pay the annual MATLAB fees. It’s ok if you don’t understand the stats or coding the first time; believe me, you’ll try again and again in grad school until you get it. :)
Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any questions.
IBH students travel the world, publish research papers, and do all sorts of amazing things