Sunday, October 9, 2011

How To Become A Cephalopodiatrist

[updated 23 July 2019]

I receive a fair number of communiqués from passionate cephalopod-lovers, some as young as I was when I first fell for an octopus, others in grad school and beyond. They ask all kinds of wonderful questions and, because the questions are so wonderful, it sometimes takes me a very long time to compose suitable replies.

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 the mind-blowing complexity of cephalopod behavior; David Scheel plays with the gentle giant Pacific octopus; Roy Caldwell covers warm tropical cephalopods, and of course my almus paterBill Gilly, focuses on Humboldt squid.

Around the world: Kat Bolstad explores the many mysteries of deep-sea squid in New Zealand. Japan is home to Tsunemi Kubodera, who took the first in situ video of giant squid, and also to the master of cephalopod baby-making Yasunori Sakurai. In Mexico, Unai Markaida delves into the secrets of octopus and squid alike. Germany's Christian Klug is an expert on extinct cephalopods and Louise Allcock in the UK knows all about octopus evolution.

All of these people are strange in one way or another (or several). See below for advice on matching your strangeness 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, fine, I'll answer the question--it just depends on what you want. When I started looking at grad school, 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 for lunch 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. When I was there, the Gilly lab was 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. 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


  1. "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."

    Why do I strongly suspect this is easier said than done?

  2. Well, grad school in general is easier said than done. ;) But it's true, this takes more oomph than simply joining on to a project that's already in the works. Here's one example of an awesome person who pulled it off, though:

    Kathleen joined a paleo lab and started her own project on ammonites (ancient cephalopods). She basically rocks.


  3. I can see how this is easy with a paleo lab.

    But with extant cephalopods, not only do you have to negotiate a project (how on earth do they let you work on organisms that the advisor has no experience with?), you also have to negotiate tanks and crap to keep the animals in.

    How does one bring the oomph?

  4. Ah, but this sort of thing is actually quite common. It may not be a new organism, it may be a new lab technique or a new geographic area, but many graduate students branch into an area where their advisor has little to no experience. For some advisors, this could even be a goal of recruiting graduate students--broadening or diversifying the lab. It's just one more aspect of the matching process, one more reason to talk to the advisor, talk to the current students, find out how open they are to new directions.

    Of course, effort must be made to garner support for any project. I think the best way to generate oomph is to do all the background research and prove you really know your stuff. For example, say you want to rear cephalopods in a lab where they've never been reared before. You can scour the TONMO forums, make contact with cephalopod hobbyists in the area, visit other labs where cephs are reared, write up a detailed budget and contingency plans, and so forth.

  5. Collaborations!!! chances are that there is a public aquarium nearby - they have tanks and expertise! It may be that there is a different research group at the same university that has tanks. Or, hate this option, it may be that you have to spend much much time in the field instead :-) I would alway opt for the latter - better to work with animals in their own habitat. or as close as possible (e.g. look for a marine lab near your research site - or make your research site near a marine lab).

  6. Oh, I am a VERY active TONMO member. I actually chaired a panel at the last TONMOCON.

    I'm aware of the nuts and bolts of cephalopodkeeping and how much it tends to cost (which is a bunch). Given the money and the facilities, I have no doubt I'd be able to set up a handful of functioning octopus tanks (how many I'd need is another question, and that's dependent on the topic).

    I guess I may be erring too much on the cynical side here, but I'm skeptical about what, short of coming in with my own fellowship and even a couple of thousand dollars' worth of graduate-student-eligible private grant money, would convince a PI - especially in this economy - to drop a few grand on something they don't know about. Obviously it happens, but it sounds like a freak occurrence to me, though risk-taking regarding research is inherent in our profession and is required for progress.

    Then again when it comes to money I'm a bit of a tightwad.

    I suppose I just have to search around.

    I've gradually narrowed down a topic of interest that I'd like to look at for my PhD (out of the many topics I intend to do my best to look at during my career): what happens in a senescing octopus. This applies well, I think, to studies of neurodegeneration, except the thing is that there are a metric ass-ton of neurodegeneration labs out there on top of the handful of ceph labs that I'm already looking at (and even when there are so few ceph labs, I don't know which of those wouldn't have the flexibility to allow me to pursue such a project), and I don't know how to narrow them down.

  7. But this is perfect! You have the background oomph, a large number of labs to narrow down, and the mechanism for doing the narrowing: finding someone who is excited about your topic. For doing this, I can't stress enough the importance of talking to the professors and their current students. By e-mail, by phone, and, if there are so many of them, some might be close enough to visit in person. If you really don't know where to start, go alphabetically, but I urge you to get in touch with all potential advisors and ask if they would be interested in your topic. The perfect match might be waiting out there.

    You are absolutely right about looking to bring in your own funding, too. This is always a plus regardless of how connected your research is to the rest of the lab's work. Depending on school and field, there are lots of small (and large) graduate-student specific grants and fellowships to apply for. If you can muster the time and energy, it's worth applying for an NSF graduate fellowship at the same time as applying to grad school. That's not cynical, that's practical!

    It sounds like you're feeling a little overwhelmed by the process, and I'm sorry for that. It can definitely be daunting, but I hope that your determination and enthusiasm carry you through.

  8. One more question, because I am feeling somewhat better about the whole process:

    What would you say would constitute sufficient background for the projects I'm interested in? Because it's a little hard to figure out how much is enough background.

  9. Man, that's a hard question! I get the impression that you already have a great deal more background and direction than many incoming graduate students, but then again one can always learn more.

    Ideally you'd want to be pretty familiar with current literature in your field(s), in this case, octopus sensescence and neurodegeneration. That doesn't mean you have to read every paper that's come out in the last ten years, but it would be good to read some of them, and to have a general idea of the research programs of the big names in the field.

    Erk, that sounds pretty vague I guess, but I hope it helps.

  10. You are a lucky person.You have the chance to work with gilly and hanlon. I am a master degree students studying octopus in China. I would like to carry on my research.

  11. Hi, I am a 12 year old cephalopod lover, and I want to know: what schools should I consider that I can study cuttlefish at?
    Also, is Cephalopodiatrist a real word?

    1. To answer your second question first: "cephalopodiatrist" is not real enough to show up in any dictionary that I know, but it is real enough to make people smile.

      I'm not quite sure if you are wondering about high schools or colleges. I don't know of any high schools that have programs of cephalopod study (though I'd love to hear about them if they exist!) and even when it comes to college, you'll have better luck looking for a program in marine biology than a program in cephalopods, specifically. If you are interested in cephalopods, you can probably work out how to do some independent research on them--living cephalopods if you have access to salt-water aquariums, museum specimens if you are close to a good museum, or just reading and perhaps working on data from scientific papers. Lots of possibilities. Good luck!

  12. This article is EXACTLY what I needed to make me smile about the grad program search and gain some confidence. Thank you! :)

  13. Cephalopod themed art it's what I do the best I think! ^^
    Although not much people I know feel interested on them, so I feel kind of lonely sometimes...But I keep doing the art because it makes me happy and warms up my heart! ^^
    Your post it's awesome! It's so cool it helps a lot to cephalopod admirers who want to make a career with their passion! I'm particularly amazed with cephalopod's intelligence! They're such a smart animals and I'm sure they're smarter than the human eye gazes! I think if something I'd dedicate to study about them it will be that!

    1. Fantastic! Cephalopods are such an inspiring subject for art, and I fully agree with you about their intelligence. ;) Best wishes for your work!


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