Experiencing long-term ecological research projects as a graduate student: benefits and challenges

Canadian Science Publishing
FACETS
Published in
3 min readMar 28, 2024

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Three people in protective suits take water samples from a shallow river in a green forest.
Image from iStock.

Long-term monitoring of plant and animal populations in natural systems following similar protocols year after year, decade after decade, can generate valuable datasets and the opportunity to derive powerful insights into ecology and evolution. Many such projects exist globally, with some countries even hosting national networks of projects to further connect data and researchers. The scientific value of long-term ecological research (LTER) is indisputable.

Less well known is how LTER projects can also serve as a valuable training ground for graduate students. For students joining LTER projects for their graduate research, existing data as well as standard protocols and even physical infrastructure can provide scaffolding from which new ideas can grow. Often, LTER projects are collaborative, sometimes involving several research groups studying different aspects of the same system. However, whether students themselves experienced conducting research within these frameworks had not been centered in discussion of these projects.

Read this open access paper on the FACETS website.

We surveyed current and former students who had done at least some part of their graduate thesis research as part of an LTER project to investigate hypothesized benefits and challenges around aspects such as existing long-term datasets and networks of collaborators. We also asked respondents to volunteer any unexpected benefits or challenges they encountered in their studies.

We found broad support for the general claim that conducting graduate research within LTER projects was beneficial. For example, 89% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that existing infrastructure of the project was beneficial, and 81% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they felt valued and supported within the project.

There was overall less agreement around the challenges associated with doing graduate research within LTER projects, but the challenges that were presented were numerous and varied. For example, concerns were raised around local community consultation, using existing datasets, and how data ownership and authorship were handled. Just over half of the people who volunteered an unexpected challenge (54%) brought up interpersonal and/or hierarchical conflict.

On further exploration, we found some correlations between identified benefits and challenges. For example, respondents who prioritized collaboration and networking as a benefit tended to identify interpersonal conflict as a challenge, while those who identified skill-related benefits were more likely to identify data-related challenges. These groupings suggest that participants hold different motivations and values coming into these projects.

Bringing together our survey results with published literature, we provide LTER managers with recommendations in four main areas: 1) management and interpersonal relations; 2) communication, 3) data; and 4) authorship. Above all, we recommend holding conversations on these topics early and often to ensure graduate students, and LTER projects themselves, continue to succeed.

Read the paper — Graduate student experiences and perspectives related to conducting thesis research within long-term ecological projects by Andrea E. Wishart, Melanie R. Boudreau, and Allyson K. Menzies.

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Canadian Science Publishing
FACETS

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