Most commonly, these correspondents are in high school or college, with questions pertaining to education and career. How can I study cephalopods? What classes should I take? Where should I go to grad school? What careers can I have?
I am utterly charmed by these queries, because they are so familiar. I have wondered many of the same things over the course of my development. Of course, I'm far from finished developing and can hardly pretend to have all the answers, but I am happy to share the answers that I do have.
So I've decided to write up a FAQ.
Q: Where can I go to study cephalopods?
A: I wish I'd been clever enough to figure this out earlier: you can study cephalopods anywhere, even in a lab where no one else is studying them. All you have to do is convince everyone that a cephalopod is the right system to answer your research questions.
Want to gaze lovingly into an octopus' eyes? Go to a vision lab or an evolution lab, and tell them about the amazing convergence between cephalopod and vertebrate vision. Love to jig for squid? Join a fisheries lab and point out that squid fisheries are rapidly expanding to take the place of collapsed vertebrate fisheries.
But if your heart is set on joining a cephalopod group--and I can't blame you, since we cephalofreaks are pretty hilarious in high concentrations--then here are some places to start.
In the US: Michelle Nishiguchi and Margaret McFall-Ngai both study symbiosis in the world's cutest squid; Roger Hanlon looks at deviant cephalopod behavior; Brad Seibel does X-TREME squid; David Scheel plays with the gentle giant pacific octopus; Roy Caldwell covers warm tropical cephalopods, and of course my own almus pater, Bill Gilly, focuses on Humboldt squid.
Around the world: In Australia, Natalie Moltschaniwskyj researches the growth and ecology of modest-sized squid, while Steve O'Shea in New Zealand rummages around for very big squid. Spain's Ángel Guerra wrote a whole book about giant squid, and Japan's Tsunemi Kubodera took the first in situ video of the beast. Japan is also home to squid baby-maker Yasunori Sakurai. In Mexico, César Salinas-Zavala supervises all kinds of squid work and Unai Markaida crosses from coast to coast and from octopus to squid.
All of these people are crazy in one way or another (or several). See below for advice on matching your crazy to theirs.
This list is in no way exhaustive. To find more, go to Google Scholar and search for scientific papers about your favorite species or topic. (Flamboyant cuttlefish? Self-mutilating octopuses?) Scour the web for information about the authors--or just e-mail and ask directly if they're taking students/technicians/volunteers.
Q: Should I get a master's degree or a Ph.D.?
A: Whoa there, tiger. Are we talking about grad school? Have you read Piled Higher and Deeper? If not, go browse the comic archives until you've obtained a sobering perspective on the grad student lifestyle. I'll wait.
Still think you want to go to grad school? Okay, then, I'll answer the question--it just depends on what you want. When I started looking at grad schools, someone told me that if you're sure that you want a Ph.D., then go for it. Do not stop at a master's degree, do not collect two hundred (thousand) dollars of student loans. But, if you're not sure that you want a Ph.D., or if you're sure you don't want one, then a master's is for you.
In my case, I was accepted to two grad programs: I could go for a master's with Roger Hanlon at Boston University (at the time, BU had a joint program with the Marine Biological Laboratory where Hanlon works; it has since dissolved) or I could go for a Ph.D. at Stanford with Bill Gilly. I visited both labs, and loved them both. What to do?
Well, there was one pretty obvious difference: I would have to pay for the master's, whereas Stanford was offering to pay me for the Ph.D. And although I was intrigued by the idea of living on the East Coast, I adore California. The scales were tipped. I did the Ph.D.
Q: How do I choose the right lab/advisor?
A: Grad school can be wonderful. Grad school can be miserable. While much of the difference can be made up by your attitude, it helps to give your attitude a good starting point. Please, please, please do not underestimate the importance of picking the right lab and advisor! As Don Kennedy wrote in Academic Duty (which I've quoted before):
The graduate student's experience depends heavily on the good will and conscientiousness of a single mentor. . . . The experience is often lonely and may be profoundly alienating. Yet at its best, with an inspiring and compassionate mentor, it can be positive and even transforming.Advisors come in many flavors: from distant to micromanaging, from predictable to mercurial, from affectionate to abusive. The best thing you can do is spend time in the labs you're considering and observe your potential advisor's behavior. Take current and past students out to dinner and get them talking. What do they love? What do they hate? What do they wish they'd known ahead of time?
I can't say, "Look for an advisor that has X, Y, Z qualities," because every student is different. Some flourish under micromanagement; others wilt. Some thrive on conflict; others fall into insecurity and despair. Listen to what the advisor's students have to say, and then put yourself in their place. Would I enjoy that interaction? Would I want something this advisor doesn't give?
Know thyself, as the ancients say. What you are looking for from grad school? One student I know deliberately chose an abrasive situation in order to develop thicker skin.
Is it working? Yes it is!
Q: So would you recommend Stanford/Hopkins/Gilly to someone who wants to study cephalopods?
A: It depends what aspect of cephalopods you want to study! There are better destinations for tropical octopuses, for example, or for squid-bacteria symbioses. Right now the Gilly lab is rather bullish on Humboldt squid, but there are always some market squid projects going on, and Gilly loves neurobiology so there's bound to be some of that in the corners. For my research, I managed to cover squid genetics, embryology, biomechanics, and oceanography--there's certainly opportunity to diversify.
This brings us to another key recommendation: it's all well and good to love cephalopods (they are so loveable!) but if you can figure out what it is you love about them, you stand a better chance of making a good match in labs, advisors, and research projects. Which brings us to . . .
Q: How do I choose the right thesis project?
A: In my opinion, you probably don't. Not the first time, anyway. You'll bumble around, thinking you've found the most brilliant project ever which will win you a Science paper and a Nobel prize (not to mention a degree)--and then it won't work. This process can be iterated indefinitely.
It's a natural progression. Keep reading, keep thinking, keep talking. Talk with your advisor, but also with all the other mentors you can get--anyone more experienced in your field--professors, post-docs, government scientists, aquarium scientists, park rangers--when you're looking for advice, cast a broad net! Eventually you will find the right project.
In my case, it wasn't so much finding the right project as realizing after several years that I was already working on a few projects that could become my thesis. That's not how it works for everyone, but if you have chosen the right lab & advisor, I dare to suggest that the thesis will follow, one way or another.
Q: How is the job market for a cephalopod fanatic?
A: Hahahahaha. Next.
Okay, for serious, let's consider this. Many people feel drawn to a particular career: a pilot, a doctor, a physicist. But many others are more drawn to a particular interest: video games, for example, or cephalopods. Those of us in that category have to wrestle with the question of how to turn an interest into a career.
If you love video games, you can get a job in retail, selling them. Or you can get a job creating them, as an artist or an engineer or a programmer or a writer. Or you can write about them, chronicling the industry, critiquing the work of others. And there are probably other options as well.
Similarly, if you love cephalopods, you can raise them in a public aquarium, or in a commercial fish store. You can go into research and study cephalopods in academia, or at a museum, or in the non-profit sector. You can make beautiful cephalopod-themed art.
Or you can write about cephalopods--which is the route I took when I realized academia didn't suit me.
Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.
- Henry David Thoreau