Archive for the ‘Blatantly Patronizing’ Category

yes, ok, I know, you’re from the new generation, you like infographics. Or you’re simply plain lazy and you can’t read a whole page (let alone several posts) even though it’s about your carrier, your future, and probably the most important thing in your life: your future PhD Thesis. But who am I to judge, I’m lazy too. Unable to make the effort to do that much-needed infographics.

And now, thanks to my colleague and friend Fernando Mateos-González (his blog is here), who is both clever and hard-working (and good at this kind of things), most of the tips I’ve given in my posts are gathered in a flashy and powerful infographics, that you can see below.

Enjoy. Perhaps not all in one go, read only half and keep the rest for another day, we don’t want to exhaust you…

Y si hablas español, pero no inglés, aquí puedes leer la versión en español (¡aunque deberías aprender inglés rápido, si quieres hacer un doctorado!)

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I’ve heard so many times the saying that curiosity killed the cat. In French we say that quality is a naughty defect (generally to kids, in order to discourage it). That’s utter-bullshit, pardon my English. Curiosity saved men. It’s because we’re curious that we founds ways to compensate our tiny constitution, our ridiculous speed, our feeble health and so on. And it’s because we’re curious that we invented a special job: researcher. People devoted for the sole purpose of satisfying the curiosity of the society, and/or their own.

In return, the very minimum that these researchers can do, it tell the results of their investigations. Otherwise, that’s a bit unfair, no? It’s called staying in the Ivory Tower, the tower where intellectuals selfishly do their work, while staying disconnected from the society. We get paid by the society to find stuff, and we don’t tell what we find? Apart from fueling the lunatic nature of conspiracy theorists, who think every researcher in the world participate covertly to global machinations, this is just failing to do the full spectrum of our very responsibility as researchers. Every researcher should do popularization work, be it public conferences, press interviews, books or documentaries or just press release and let the journalists communicate for them. That’s the fair thing to do, and that’s also a very good exercise to be able to explain complicated concepts, and ultimately also to get more people interested in our discipline.

With that in mind, I’ve been popularizing quite a lot, since my very early carrier. I’ve written a piece about my thesis research during my first year of PhD, against the advice not to do so of my supervisor, who thought – like almost everybody else at the time – that popularization was the realm of bad scientists: those who where not sufficiently strong in research to stay with their peers went to shine with the public, pretending to be smarter than their colleagues knew them to be. Now I’ve written more, from articles to books, initiated several documentaries, participated in several others, given conferences in front of many different audiences, including about every age of school children, and interviews to radio, tv channels and written press. And apart from one or two exceptions, every single one has been a great experience.

In some countries, like my own, the public tends to think that researchers are at best immature society parasites who work on useless questions just because they can. In others, like the USA, they tend to have a better reputation, sometimes up to selfless saviors of the society. Regardless of the general view of our profession, communicating with the public is profitable for the public, is profitable for us and is profitable for our profession.

Of course, when  I say communicate to the public, don’t go telling them all everything. We want to keep all our global conspiracies safely concealed, otherwise our secret plot to take over all the governments of Earth might be delayed…

Communication

A previous postdoc of mine just asked me to post a blog article on how I manage my time. I chose to think that this was meant to be for an advice, rather than for things to avoid.  So there it is: how do I do everything I do in research, while also spending considerable amount of time having a family, running long-distance and playing World of Warcraft, all four of which being notoriously time-consuming.
Researchers are now expected to spend time for (and be good at) a large number of various tasks, often requiring totally different skills, including doing research, writing articles about it (well, and a lot), speaking at scientific congresses but also for at public conferences, popularizing in various formats (written, interviews, etc), networking with colleagues, communicating with journalists and stakeholders, finding, securing and managing grants, acting as an editorial member and a reviewer for several scientific journals, evaluating colleagues, students and grants in juries and committees, teaching various classes, supervising internships, mentoring graduate students and directing postdocs (which is quite different), and sometimes heading a group of research. And if time allows, going to pee every other day.

 

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So how do I fit all this into my days? Come to think of it, I don’t have a carefully designed strategy, but over the years I have naturally developed a way of working that allows me to cram in quite a lot.  Here are a few things that I do that help me manage.
First of all, I manage my tasks; I set up priorities. Everyday I have a list of things I have to finish by the end of the day, and while being realistic (otherwise it’s useless), I try to have an ambitious list, and to finish it every day (otherwise it’s useless). So I put in this lists the urgent tasks, those that can’t be further pushed away, plus the important ones that still can fit.
Then, I play Tetris with my priorities: I try to tightly fit various tasks into time holes of the corresponding time and concentration need. If I just spent four hours focusing on a manuscript, I’ll respond to some emails that don’t require a sharp brain, or I’ll browse the Internet for some fitting illustrations for an upcoming talk. If I just have half an hour left before leaving, I’ll find a task that takes me 40 min, and do it more efficiently. Or two tasks of 15-20 min, but I’ll try not to let gaps, unless purposely. And that’s the second point.
Staying efficient. I’m lazy, and I don’t want to spend more time than necessary on things, so I do them as efficiently as I can (because I’m also perfectionist and I don’t want to make them bad). And of course, being efficient is tiring, if you give yourself 100%, then you burn energy, even sitting at your desk. So in addition to managing my tasks and my time, I manage my energy and my motivation. Because without one or the other, you’ll achieve nothing, or at least nothing efficiently. And in the long term, you’ll get a burnout (see my post here about that).
Managing your energy is crucial. The more and the harder you work, the less effective you become, and the more you need to take breaks – either during the days or during the week (or the year). So this may seem like GrandMa’s advices, but you need to sleep well (there are many studies on the effect of one more hour of sleep on work efficiency), to eat well and to rest (your brain) well. That is one of the reasons why I take my whole group to the staff restaurant every lunch so that we can all have a large break at mid day. Plus the food is good there (and remembers, that’s France: while humans eat to live, we live to eat).
When asked to present the distribution of his different research activities, I remember a colleague and friend of mine giving percentages of various tasks, and when I mentioned that the sum was over 100%, he simply answered that he worked longer than 100% of a normal day. That can work, but I think a more efficient (and pleasant) way is to know when you get tired and less sharp, and stop to rest. It’s way better to work 8 hours fully (with breaks) than 6 hours fully without, followed by 3 hours at 50% speed and 3 hours at 25% speed. You’ll achieve less in the end, and will have spent more time, be less rested or entertained and in the end, you’ll like your work less. Rest a lot so that when you work, you can work at 100%. You must remain driven, never dragging.
When I say rest between tasks during the day, you can do like most of my San Diego lab pals when I was in postdoc, play ball in the yard (or go surfing, but that’s not easy here in Paris); you can do like my grand father, who in his time got the world record of criminal case solving by taking a 5 minutes nap twice a day; you can goof off on Facebook, clean up the coffee room, go hunt a roller blader, you can do whatever you find most resting, provided it works for you (and it’s not illegal (or you don’t get caught)).
And last bit of advice: manage your motivation as well. If you have a task that is boring you or that you don’t like, procrastinate a bit. Push it back if you can and do things that are more motivating until either you can’t push it back further, or you have enough motivation/energy to do it.

 

Multitasking
A happy researcher must have three things full at all time: daily planning, energy level, motivation level. Too often they also have a full bladder, but that’s just bad managing. Now I’ve spent a good hour writing this page; remember I told you to alternate hard work and rest/fun. Time for a quick run then…

It may seem odd that someone often known as a conservation biologist would promote and defend basic ecology. Yet, I do. I do because I feel basic ecology needs promoting and defending. In a time when environmental crises are so worrying (at least for those who are aware of them), it is normal that people, including scientists, would want to favour applied ecology. That is, after all, a science directly committed to solving environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradations, food security, emerging diseases, climate change and the likes.

As a result, the trend has been in the past decades to increasingly favour applied ecology; and because budgets are not extensible, that has been at the expense of basic ecology.

Yet, there are many reasons why basic ecology – or fundamental ecology – is important. I will not enumerate them all here, you’ll probably want to read the article I just wrote, with 4 other authors in the last issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, here if you subscribe, for for free here*. But I can still pick up a few, just to arouse your curiosity, because I’m sure you didn’t think of them all, and several might surprise you a bit.

And then not! Go read the paper, I’m feeling lazy today and I’ve been told to keep my posts shorts. But of course, you can use this blog to tell me why you disagree. Because, unlike applied ecology, debate is fundamental in science.

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by Ari Weinkle

* you can download the paper from the link on this post or directly from my lab web page here. I shouldn’t offer it like that, but I am in the process to pay for the Open Access and I don’t want to wait until it is available for readers to access it easily.

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

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.

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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.