Based on a Twitter discussion with Steve Hamblin (@BehavEcology) I am a little too excited about comparing postdocs and grad students to an ant colony. Biochem Belle (@BiochemBelle) posted a few months ago about how tired the indentured servant analogy is- and how inaccurate (I’m sure others have said similar things). 

However, the ant idea has legs…six of them. 

  1. Ant colonies are collectively smart, so are Ph.D.’s and postdocs (and the scientific enterprise generally).
  2. In ant colonies individuals are expendable, so are Ph.D’s and postdocs
  3. Ant colonies are very persistent and collaborative, following other ants to food, etc…sounds like Ph.D.’s and postdocs
  4. Ant colonies are adaptable. Ph.D.’s and postdocs also adapt to solve problems in their environments
  5. Ants are very strong. Ph.D.’s and postdocs have strong brains at least
  6. Ants can have fungi infect their brains. Ph.D’s and postdocs seem very prone to depression, anxiety, impostor syndrome and other brain issues (I’ll raise my hand and say I have had to deal with these things & I don’t think I’m alone)
I like this analogy…there’s at least dignity in it (ants are cool!). It acknowledges the difficulties faced by individuals and can be put into an ecosystem context- currently there are too many ants for the resources available. I have no idea if this actually ever happens in the real world. It is certainly the case with Ph.D’s and postdocs. Hopefully it’s not so dire that only the lucky few make it to ‘old age’ as it might be with an ant colony. 

I also realize that ant colonies are all female…which is obviously not the case amongst the scientific population (especially at the faculty level), but that may be taking the analogy to the breaking point. 

I might well be crazy here, but it was fun to think about this. 

As an addendum, I’ve basically disabled comments here- I’d prefer to interact via Twitter. Such a great medium for discussion. 


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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