Archive for June, 2014

Among the specificities that make academic research a really special world, one stands out as an amazing achievement: the peer review process. Scientific results exist from the moment they are published and available to the scientific community. So we need to publish, but we need to publish good, verified science and for that, we have developed a system whereby each scientific study must go through a thorough check by independent experts in the field before it can be deemed worthy of publication.

For the reviewer, it means taking time on your already very busy schedule, to provide constructive comments on the work of someone who is likely a competitor, who may even be doing something you didn’t think of, or on which you are currently working.So picture this: you are going to help this competitor publish – because this really should be the ultimate goal of a reviewer – either by accepting the manuscript for publication, and/or by making suggestions for improvement. You will do so on you own time, meaning at the expend of your own work and your student’s progress. You will do it for free. And your altruism and professional conscience will not even be rewarded by gratitude, because you will likely do it anonymously.

So, are we scientists utterly stupid? How can such a system really work in this world? Could you picture Ford sending (anonymously and for free) constructive comments on how to improve the latest prototype of Toyota? Yes, it works for us, and pretty well with that, thank you very much. Of course, there are glitches, with the occasional sloppiness, unfairness or other form of unprofessional behaviour. But globally these are exceptions and this system is really something I am proud to be part of.

There are many reasons why reviewing papers is good not only for the community but also for the reviewer, if only to hone skills of critical thinking. But here I want to insist on the necessity to participate to the system. Indeed, for this system to work, we need reviewers and these are increasingly difficult to find, especially with the rise of publication numbers. Each paper is reviewed by two to three experts, obviously more if it is rejected and submitted elsewhere. So do the maths.

I’ll do a post later on how I consider one should approach and conduct a manuscript review, but for now the message is this: for the system to function, everyone must play along and review at least as many times as he/she has been reviewed. If you count on average four reviews per publication, you can easily check if you are giving to the community, or profiting from it.

Chances are you should review more papers than you currently do! Or, you could also decline the next review request and instead send my post to 100 people, hoping that one of them will be convinced and do more reviews. That will probably even the balance…

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If you have been following my blog – or if you know me IRL – you know that I am a bit provocative at times, and you are probably cynically rubbing your hands at the title of this post. Tsss. This is serious.

So, we’ve seen already how students should choose their research topic (here) and how they should select their supervisor (here). Fortunately, we supervisors also have a say in the matter. In fact, many of us receive loads of applications, and we have to make a selection. So, what are the criteria of this selection? Or rather, what should they be? I mean, apart from the check in the envelope.

Someone made a retrospective study about this, looking at criteria that matched best the less and most achieving students (here). Her finding, quite unsurprisingly, is that previous research experience is the largest discriminator. Not the university grades. Nor the university of origin. The previous experience. Successful, or course: recommendation letters from previous supervisors are one of the most important items in your application file.

This shows that having done some research internships, preferably several, in several places (abroad is even better), is a big plus. Or in this era of ultra-competitiveness, not having done several might be a big deterrent. Also, it is noteworthy that in the European system at least, but it is true elsewhere as well, supervisors tend to take their own Master students into PhDs, both because they know them (and know they get along, that’s important – see here – and how well they work) and because the student has advanced on the project. But then the students were often selected for the Master because they had an earlier research experience.

So it is very clear: if you think you want to do some research later on, stack as much research experience as you can, from early on. If you don’t know, doing an internship in a lab will help you know.

Ultimately, everyone has his/her own system for selecting Master and PhD students. Some rely overly on grades (probably unwisely), some solely on previous experience at earlier levels and some mostly on gut feeling. The Chair of the Anatomy Department of Cambridge once told me that he had, for years, recorded the speed at which graduate students walked in the corridors of the lab, and that it was highly correlated with scientific production. I believe him. Obviously, each one of us has honed a personal method of appreciation over the years, but it seems safe to say that to get that Master/PhD it is easier if this is not your first research experience. And if you don’t come in dragging your feet.

 

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Personnaly, I use the very effective selection method of paper plane throwing

Students of today… not only students, the young in general! Pfff… when I was young…

Take these two quotes, by famous people:

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?

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I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”

This seems very fitting to our times, right? The first quote is attributed to Plato, 4th century BC, while the second is attributed to Hesiod, 8th century B.C. There are similar quotes dating from a papyrus of pharaonic Egypt of 3000 BC, or on a Babylonian clay tablet even older. If this shows a thing, it’s that “mature” generations always tend to see the replacing ones as worst than their own.

I cannot recall the number of times I’ve heard that students now were really bad at this or that, and that the general level of knowledge and competence had really decreased a lot. That in our generation students were stronger in science, more dedicated, more autonomous, working harder, …

The truth is, previous generations of students have probably never known the current level of competitiveness and difficulty to get an academic position. As a result, most students now know very early on a lot on stats, how to program in R, how to write papers, how to present their results orally or analyse and criticise a scientific paper.

I’ve supervised perhaps over 75 students by now and few were bad. In fact, most were better skilled and more knowledgeable than I was at the same study level. My seven PhD students were all brilliant, and some were even stunningly bright and competent. I wouldn’t want to compete now for a job with this generation. Very few of us would.

This is a very nice thought: the science of tomorrow will be in good hands.

Especially with our generation as mentors (because without our wisdom, these little ungrateful pricks would do nothing good).

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When you were a kid, you probably have at least once fantasized about meeting your dream actress/singer/sportsman/whatever. And in your worst nightmares, when you actually met them, you were unable to say something that did not sound stupid.

Now that you are all grownup, you may be confronted to a quite similar situation. Imagine meeting a scientist whose work you admire, or whose lab would be a tremendous postdoc place for you (it should go together). Now imagine (no, really, do it) meeting that prof, and having the opportunity to tell him/her what your research is about. “Hello, young anonymous student, what’s your research about?”. And imagine that you come nothing structured with. That you stutter trivialities and forget the essential. And that you keep the rest of your PhD thinking “I should’ve said that!”.

But fear not, my friend, for I come with an advice!

That advice is quite simple really: “be prepared”. Don’t wait to meet a prospective employer/collaborator to know how to expose optimally your projects in a tiny amount of time. Now let me develop a bit (or that post will be too short, and I will again be yelled at): if someone, at a congress or elsewhere, asks you “so, what’s your research about?”, there are only two things you should know.

First, you should be receptive to the attention span your interlocutor is likely to devote to your response. Is it likely to be short? Like you can see behind that someone is already waiting to steal the prof’s attention? Or is it longer, like you’re sitting together in the bus to the tour congress?

The second thing is to prepare for two types of response: one short, and one super short. If a long one is needed, you don’t really need to prepare it. The super short one is what I’ve heard called “the Elevator Talk”: imagine you’ve entered in an elevator with that prof, and she/he asks you what’s your project about. You know you don’t have minutes before one of you leaves. You have to be able to explain not only the question, but also the interest and the approach of your project in about 20 seconds. So the best is to prepare that in advance. Write a few sentences. Straight to the point, but as appealing as possible. About 100-150 words. It should be sufficient to explain what you are doing and why this is super-interesting.

Elevator

The short version is if the attention span is likely to be a bit longer. For example, you meet the prof in the poster room, or during a coffee break or if after the Elevator talk, you hear “that sounds great, tell me more!”. That’s the “Hall Talk”: you’ll have a bit more time, but you should still prepare what to say and how most effectively and interestingly describe your project. Aim for a few minutes, something like 500 words (but be flexible, pay attention to the prof’s responsiveness, to reduce or expand).

Of course, if you are able also to make a nano-short response, that can be handy; like answering in one single sentence, but in such a way that one wants to hear the rest.

There. That’s all. Oh, and yes, needless to say, for all that there is a third thing that you should know very well: what you research is really about.