Tag Archives: Early career researchers

Advice for senior scientists and the importance of first-author publications

The internet is awash with bloggers and dedicated sites giving advice to early-career scientists and graduate research students (what I’ll collectively refer to as ECRs).  Much of it is very good (see for example The Thesis Whisperer, any number of posts over at Dynamic Ecology and Small Pond Science, and the University of Northampton’s own Research Support Hub), though sometimes it’s contradictory and comes down to matters of taste and opinion (see for example the differing comments on a post of mine about giving effective conference presentations).

There are also any number of books, including Peter Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist and James Watson’s Avoid Boring People (hopefully to be followed up with a sequel entitled Avoid Alienating People With Crass Statements)*.

But there is very little guidance and advice out there for more senior scientists who are mid- to late-career.  I did a quick search and found only one article that mentioned this topic, specifically about mid-career mentoring, and that was from 2012.

Why is this?  Is it because (as I suspect) more senior scientists are assumed to have their careers sorted out, they “know the ropes”, they are networked and publish, and have only a bright sunny future in academia to look forward to?  Clearly this is nonsense; as that article I linked to stated:

Do complicated career issues evaporate after tenure** and/or do we all magically know how to deal with everything that academe throws at us? No, and no

So I’d be interested in hearing any bits of advice or guidance, or links to useful resources, and would encourage new posts by other bloggers, related specifically to more senior scientists in academia.  To get the ball rolling, my contribution would be: make sure you keep publishing as a first-author (and preferably single-author) throughout your career.

In academia it’s easy to get lost as to what it actually is to be a scientist (idea generator/data collector/analyser/writer) in amongst all of the other requirements and pressures of the job at a senior level (grant writing/committee memberships/teaching/administration and paperwork/manuscript and grant reviewing/editorial duties/ECR supervision and line management/external meetings and advisory groups/etc.)

As a senior scientist it’s possible to publish good papers frequently as last author (indicating seniority as head of the research group and/or ECR supervisor), and as mid author in amongst tens or hundreds of other scientists with whom you are collaborating on some level.  In these papers other people are conducting the bulk of the “science”, and that’s fine, I publish in both of these ways myself.  But the question then arises, that if this is all that a senior scientist is currently doing, have they lost something of themselves as scientists?  Have they become something more akin to a science-manager than a “real” scientist (whatever that actually means)?

Personally, I try to publish at least one first-author output (not necessarily a peer-reviewed paper, could be a commentary or a popular article) each year, and have succeeded in most years.  I believe (though I may be fooling myself) that it keeps me in touch with what it is to be a scientist and why I became one in the first place.  For reasons I can’t fully articulate it feels important to me to be involved in research and writing in which I do the bulk of the data collection, analysis, and/or writing myself, and to see an output through the editorial process from manuscript preparation to submission, dealing with reviewers’ comments, and to final publication.

Is this a reasonable goal/expectation for a senior scientist?  It’s important for me but I can well understand that other scientists will have other priorities, different things that they focus on.

Coincidentally, as I was finishing off writing this post, Dr Kath Baldock drew my attention to this short piece by Kaushal et al. entitled Avoiding an Ecological Midlife Crisis that’s just been published in the January issue of the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.  Although specifically focused on professional ecologists, their advice to “nurture the original connection to nature” will surely resonate with scientists from all fields if we substitute “nature” for other, discipline-specific words and phrases.

 

*This is all very positive and as it should be: ECRs need advice and guidance as to how to navigate their profession, and that needs to come from multiple sources because sometimes (often?) their own institution doesn’t give adequate guidance.  However I do have some misgivings about more senior scientists advising their more junior colleagues based on their own experiences: the world of academia is a fasting-moving place and what applied to a previous generation may not necessarily apply to the current one.

**It’s an American article: British universities don’t even know how to spell “tenure”.

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The uneasy academic and the importance of dipping outside your discipline: reflections on The Urban University conference

Uneasy Academic 20141011_144756

It’s important for academics to occasionally move out of their disciplinary comfort zones and to interact with academics and practitioners from beyond their own silos, experiencing approaches that are alien and hearing voices that are not repeating the normative values of their own subject area.  Time spent in this way can be both stimulating and mundane, enlightening and boring, exciting and frustrating.  Above all, unpredictable.  At an ecological conference I know what I will experience; drop me into one devoted to the arts or social sciences, and anything can happen.  It’s an uneasy experience.

With that in mind I spent the end of last week attending a conference at which I was the lone scientist speaker, and indeed one of the very few people with a science background in the audience, as far as I could tell. The Urban University was sub-titled “Universities as place makers and agents of civic success in medium sized towns and cities” and was largely aimed at urban planners, architects, policy makers, and social geographers.  Not muddy boots ecologists.  However I’d offered the organisers (the University of Northampton’s Collaborative Centre for the Built Environment) a 30 minute talk about the monitoring work we’ve been doing on the bird assemblage at Northampton’s new Waterside Campus, which I discussed in an earlier post. The abstract for my talk is below, co-authored with my colleagues Janet Jackson and Duncan McCollin, plus two of our undergraduate students, Jo Underwood and Charlie Baker.

I had hoped that providing a very different perspective on the role of an urban campus, one focussed on the biodiversity it can potentially support and the ecosystem services that stem from it, might be of interest to this broad-based audience.  In the back of my mind I also thought it might be fun to reverse roles and, for 30 minutes, make them the uneasy ones.  It’s always hard to judge but I got the impression afterwards that the talk was well received and it elicited some discussion and questions.

Overall it was a stimulating couple of days and (I think) I’ve learned a lot, or at least learned more about the approaches and priorities of academics and practitioners beyond my immediate field. The talks ranged from the rather abstract to the very practical, from theoretical discussions to local activism. Particular highlights for me were:

John Goddard‘s overview of the relationship between the university and the city, and the fact that many academics don’t feel a personal link, or responsibility, to the urban centre in which they work.

Allan Cochrane discussing the unintended consequences of a university’s economic and social power, including gentrification and studentification of local residential areas.

Robin Hambleton on universities as a corrective to “placeless power”, i.e. multinational firms that can facilitate enormous social and economic change in an area despite having no geographic connection to the place.  Of course the internationalisation agenda of most UK universities means that they may themselves be in danger of wielding placeless power overseas.

Michael Edwards recounting how UCL academics and students have engaged in local activism in North London, for example fighting destructive planning applications, and sometimes positioned on the opposing side to the university itself.

Wendy Cukier on the experience of her Canadian university’s role as a “changemaker”, and the value of the Ashoka U Changemaker Campus programme, to which the University of Northampton is committed.

Cathy Smith on the medieval origins of the original University of Northampton, which was dissolved in 1265.  By happy coincidence 2015 is both the 750th anniversary of that dissolution and the 10th anniversary of the current University of Northampton’s full upgrade to university status in 2005.

The conference strongly impressed upon me the fact that academics sometimes take their institutions for granted in the sense that they don’t reflect on, or even challenge, the role of higher education within their geographical location. There may even be a danger of this becoming more pronounced as, in the rush to internationalise and chase overseas student fees, we in fact forget the physical and historical roots of our institutions.

Above all the two days I spent trying to navigate these unfamiliar waters reinforced my belief that it can be very dangerous for academics to isolate themselves within their disciplines, no matter how comforting and familiar that may be.  If the only voices that you are hearing (audibly and on the page) are the ones that are telling you stories that you already know and understand (even if you don’t agree with them) then it can be very easy to drift into a kind of disciplinary complacency in which you take the (self) importance and role of your own subject area for granted, without any external perspective on how it might be perceived by those beyond your academic boundaries.

Taking the occasional disciplinary leap could involve as little as going to a seminar in another department, or widening your reading to include areas beyond your subject.  Attending and presenting at a two day conference involves a greater commitment of time and energy, but it’s worth the effort.  It’s an approach to academia that I’ve tried to follow over the past 25 years and I’d recommend it as a way of broadening perspectives.  Sometimes it’s good to feel uneasy.

Many thanks to the organisers of The Urban University conference, particualrly Sabine Coady Schaebitz and Bob Colenutt, for their hard work in putting together such a great couple of days.  Here’s the details of my talk:

Biodiversity monitoring on urban university campuses

Jeff Ollerton, Joanne Underwood, Janet Jackson, Charles Baker & Duncan McCollin

Biodiversity, the variety of species and habitats to be found in a defined area, is a critical component of the natural world, and the ecosystem services that it provides supports modern society in economically tangible ways.  Urban campuses have long been acknowledged as supporting significant biodiversity, as evidenced by the many universities that have written biodiversity action plans.  However there has been relatively little quantitative research published on the biodiversity of British urban campuses, and how that diversity changes over time, particularly with respect to large-scale infrastructure development.  Academics and students in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences have been collecting data on the biodiversity of Park and Avenue Campuses for more than 20 years, including plants, invertebrates, mammals, and birds.  This talk focuses on bird diversity as birds are an indicator group for assessing ecosystems, and are arguably the best understood group of species in the UK.  We present data on the birds that have been recorded on these campuses from 1993 to 2015, assessed in terms of their UK conservation status.  We then discuss the potential impact of the new Waterside Campus on the existing bird assemblage of the site, and present preliminary data showing how bird diversity has changed since building work began.  We end by discussing whether it is possible to maintain or even enhance bird diversity and abundance at the new campus.   The location of Waterside Campus, within the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area and in close proximity to internationally important wetland bird sites, means that the University of Northampton has a civic duty to maintain the biodiversity of its campuses.

Note: in the end I actually didn’t include the data from Park and Avenue campuses, there wasn’t time to fit everything in!

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Some basic tips for PhD students for giving effective conference presentations

One of the advantages of working in a relatively small, non-research intensive institution such as the University of Northampton is that events such as yesterday’s Annual Postgraduate Research Conference expose staff and research students to a diversity of topics and approaches, beyond the narrow silos of our own disciplines.  I spent the day listening to talks as varied as 21st century Gothic fiction, sediment sources in an English river; automating traffic control systems; and the role of younger grandmothers in raising their grandchildren.

It was a great day, very stimulating. However it struck me that whilst the research was sound, in some cases (certainly not all) the presentation of the research could have been improved.  I’m writing this in the spirit of a recent discussion over at Dynamic Ecology about the “advice” posts that they present and why they are so popular.  It seems like the consensus in the discussion is that often supervisors (or advisors as they are called in North America) often neglect to give some basic advice to their graduate students, assuming that they already know those “basics”, and focus instead on very detailed, technical advice.

Conference presentation skills are one such set of basics which, although covered by many universities in their training programmes (Northampton included) need to be reinforced by supervisors and by practice.  In my opinion, the following advice applies to all disciplines, not just the sciences:

1.  Always use a visual aid, such as PowerPoint, even if you think you don’t need it. Even a single slide with your name and the title of your presentation provides a context and focus for your talk.  Better still would be some information about the structure of your talk  on a second slide – “free-form” talks rarely work unless you’re an exceptional presenter.

2.  On PowerPoint, etc. use an absolute minimum text size of 18pt, preferably larger.  This includes graphs, tables, figure legends, screen shots, etc.  Anything smaller is not going to be visible beyond the third row of the audience unless you’re projecting onto a giant screen.  And do you know for certain that the venue has a big screen?

3.  Related to that, use the full width and height of your slides, don’t cram text and figures into the middle.

4.  Keep text to a minimum – just bullet points to give you a prompt as to what you’re going to say.  These bullet points don’t need to make complete sense to the audience as long as they give you that prompt: you’re talking, not reading.

5.  Ask someone (a friend, your supervisor) to double-check all your spelling, grammar, spacing, formatting, etc.  It’s well known that we read what we think is there, not what is actually there.

6.  A good rule of thumb for most presentations is to use more-or-less one slide per minute.  So if your allotted time is 10 minutes, use about 10 slides; if it’s 30 minutes, use about 30 (not including introduction and acknowledgements slides).  Do not try to fit 15 minutes worth of material into a 10 minute talk, it will irritate your audience and your conclusions at the end will be garbled and unclear as you rush to finish.  You can ALWAYS effectively summarise your research into the time allotted – don’t complain that you can’t.

7.  PowerPoint etc. provide all sorts of fancy backgrounds for slides, wonderful fonts, including shading and 3D, tricksy text animations, etc.  Don’t use any of them.  Keep your backgrounds a plain neutral colour, your font a basic sans serif (Trebuchet is my personal favourite), and don’t use animations unless they are really adding to what you’re saying, or building suspense by introducing elements one at a time.

8.  Tell a story.  Start with a broad introduction, take the audience on a journey through your work in logical order, and sum up at the end.  Then let your audience know that you’ve finished by saying something like: “Thanks for your attention, I’d be happy to answer any questions”.  Don’t just stop talking and stare at the audience.

9.  Stay focused and relevant to what you’re presenting.

10.  Enjoy yourself.  It’s hard the first few times but it gets easier.

Finally I should add that I’ve seen mid- and late-career researchers make these kinds of errors, it’s not just PhD students! Feel free to share your own tips, or to disagree with any of these.

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What do academics do once the research is published?

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At the University of Northampton we run a programme of generic training workshops aimed at research students (MPhil and PhD) from across all disciplines.  I contribute to several, including one called “Getting Published”, usually run with my colleague Professor Ian Livingstone.  This focuses on academic papers/articles (phraseology varies with subject) and covers all of what you might expect such a workshop to feature, including asking about motivations for wanting to publish research*, when is the right time to publish your research**, issues about co-authorship***, and so forth.

One of the key aspects of the workshop is a flow chart of the process of getting published, beginning at “do the research”, moving on to writing it up, choosing a journal, submitting to a journal, peer review, dealing with reviewers’ comments, writing a covering letter, coping with rejection, re-submission to the same or a different journal, celebrating acceptance, etc.  All fairly standard stuff.

By this point we’re about three-quarters of the way through the workshop, so I ask a question:

“OK, you’ve gone through the whole process (which can take anything from months to years) and your paper has been published.  You’re very pleased, of course.  What do you do next?”

Responses at this point are typically a blank expression, or perhaps “What else is there to do?  The paper’s published, we’ve done our job.  Move on to the next”.  In other words, the general feeling seems to be that the process stops when the research is published.  I politely suggest that this is not so, that you’re still only part-way through the process, and explain why, starting with this table:

Clinical:                                  48.9%

Biological Sciences:           37.8%

Environment:                       37.3%

Physical Sciences:              42.3%

Social Sciences:                   55.4%

Business:                                57.2%

Humanities:                          77.5%

These figures are the percentages of un-cited research papers (in 2005, by broad discipline) published in the UK for the period 2000 to 2004.   The total number of un-cited papers is 122,771****.  There are other similar statistics available, some with broader time windows, but they all point to the same conclusion: in all disciplines, a high proportion of research papers are never referred to by other researchers in the field.  And in some disciplines it’s the majority of papers.

That’s not to say that the research is no good, or even that it’s not being read, but it’s certainly not being cited.  Citation is not the only measure of the “quality” of a piece of work of course, but it at least indicates that peers have read the work, and citation is central to a range of widely used metrics, including the h-index.

This usually comes as a shock to the postgrads, as it does to many established academics!  The low average citation rate of papers is mainly a response to the sheer volume of research currently being published, as I’ve discussed previously in relation to the field of pollination ecology.

How do researchers in a field decide which papers they are going to read and/or cite, and which they ignore?  It’s been suggested that academics often have quite conservative citing patterns, referring again and again to the same work or authors in their own papers.  How can a researcher break through this conservatism and have their own work cited?

One answer is to promote your work after it’s published and the workshop offers some ideas on how to do this:

  • Send PDFs of your papers to other researchers, whether you know them personally or not.  I’m always happy to receive copies of papers that I might otherwise miss.
  • Deposit copies with your institutional electronic repository (at Northampton that’s NECTAR)
  • Tell the world about it using social media, either general (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) or academic (ResearchGate, academia.edu)
  • Send announcements to email discussion groups in your field
  • If you blog, write a post about it (as I did for the pollinator extinctions paper last month)
  • If the work is particularly novel/important/high impact, consider writing a press release with your institution’s press office, or at least a news item on the website.
  • Consider writing up your research as a non-academic piece in a magazine or newspaper for a wider, public audience (see comment below)
  • Present the work (and cite it) at conferences & seminars (the old fashioned way…..)

This kind of “self promotion” is anathema to some academics, for reasons that are not clear to me but may relate to misguided notions about sullying the purity of their work with grubby advertising, something that’s been discussed over at the Dynamic Ecology blog.

But if you don’t promote your work, no one else will do it for you!  Doing research and writing books and papers is a creative endeavour just as much as any of the arts or music.  Would we expect an artist to not advertise the work they do?  Or a musician to keep compositions to themselves.  No, they have exhibitions and concerts, and use advertising in all its forms, to promote their work.

Ultimately a piece of research is only as good as its reception by the audience at which it’s aimed: some brilliant research findings have been ignored for decades because it had disappeared into academic obscurity.  This is likely to happen even more in the future, I’d suggest, given the amount of work that’s being published.

Do you have other strategies for promoting your work?  Or do you disagree with some of what I’ve said?  Feel free to comment, I’d be happy to hear from you.

*”earning money” occasionally pops up as a (naive) reason, so we have to point out that academics rarely get paid for their academic publishing, other than (meagre) book royalties.

**As soon as is feasible, even if it’s a short literature review.

***Make sure everyone, especially supervisors, is clear about which work will be co-authored, which will not, and why.

****Source: PSA target metrics for the UK research base, Office of Science and Technology, DTI (2005)

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