Long-time readers of this blog might remember me as the Master’s student with a terrible five-year plan. Well, now I’m the PhD student with a terrible five-year plan, and I’ve found myself in the position of guiding our lab’s newest Master’s students through the same hurdles I stumbled across for the last two years. While many of my insights from that time are very specific to the German academic system, or to the expectations I had as an American, I’d like to share some of the broader takeaways from my experiences navigating a completely foreign (pun intended) academic environment.
In parts I and II of this series, I discussed how to get involved in peer review and how to critically read a manuscript. The final step is to communicate your opinions about the manuscript to the editor and to the authors. There are three parts to this: (i) your recommendation about what steps the editor should take next with the manuscript, (ii) confidential comments to the editor, and (iii) formally writing a review that will be seen by the editor and the authors. In this third installment of our series on how to review papers, I discuss how to make a recommendation and how to structure the written review.
Peer-review is a central part of the scientific process that involves independent (often anonymous) evaluations of the work by specialists in the field and by one or more editor. The aim of peer-review is to maintain integrity in research by ensuring published studies draw accurate conclusions. This process is only sustainable if scientists that publish also participate in reviewing for others. However, few institutions or journals provide young scientists with formal training or opportunities for peer-reviewing. In this week’s instalment of a 3-part series on how to review papers, we focus on how to read for reviewing.
One of the first stages in progressing through the academic system is starting to review papers. Every paper that is published in a journal is seen by at least two reviewers and an editor. If you’ve been thinking that keeping up with the literature is daunting, consider that editors have needed to find people willing not only to read each of the manuscripts you’ve not found time to read, but also to invest the time to evaluate it critically and write up a review about it. Further, considering that ~70% of manuscripts are rejected means that this process can occur a number of times before a paper is published. This process generates a huge demand for time from experts, meaning that editors often rely on postdocs and senior PhD students to review manuscripts. Having established your expertise on a topic, you may find it valuable to spend some time reviewing others’ work. But how do you go about reviewing papers? As an author, reviewer, and now an editor, I’ve been lucky to experience peer review from all sides, giving me a much better understand the entire process. In this first of three posts on how to review manuscripts for journals, I’ll discuss how to put yourself forward for getting asked to review.
‘I finally submitted my first paper!!’ a colleague of mine cheerfully told me a few weeks ago. I was happy for him and replied: “Wow, congratulations!” but actually this was the last thing I wanted to hear… We started together in the same PhD cohort and my first paper was still pretty far from submission. I felt lazy, unproductive and simply miserable.
The next day, I had lunch with another colleague of mine and we started chatting about plans for the weekend when she said: “Well, I think I will go to work. Have you heard that Sam submitted his first paper? I started my PhD a year earlier than him and I still don’t have anything!” This conversation made me realize two things: 1: While I thought I’m the only one comparing myself to others and feeling miserable about it, this actually seems to be very common. 2: This behaviour, and the negative emotions it leads to, can have a very real impact on each of us.
Since I started visiting conferences, I have always been amongst the youngest attendants, if not youngest, at least academically. I never quite understood why that was. Of course, I am lucky enough to be in a very supportive lab that encourages and supports its master’s students to visit and present at conferences, and it’s hard to tell if I had gone and looked up conferences by myself if that wasn’t the case. Maybe this is the reason for the absence for students that haven’t started their PhD yet, maybe all it takes is a push, somebody telling them that it is a good idea to go to a conference that early in their career. If you’re an undergraduate/master’s student and this is true for you, here’s the push: go to a conference, it’s worth it!
Each year I teach several courses on social network analysis. These are mainly attended by PhD students, and the courses give me the opportunity to interact and discuss a range of projects and ideas with students. These discussions span well beyond the realm of social network analysis, and often throw up plans that I can find somewhat surprising. What has struck me is the frequency at which there is a mismatch between the types of questions a student wants to ask and the system they are applying the questions to. In my experience, this mismatch can be costly, and ultimately reduces the potential for the student to develop a strong publication record.
Poster are very different from conference talks. Both types of presentations have to achieve the same goal, which is communicate the rationale of a study, the results and the significance of the study, but posters need to A) stand alone and be able to still tell a story and B) compete for the attention of your colleagues in the arena of other posters.
Recently, I was going through some old files and came across the first draft of the poster I presented earlier in August at the Joint Evolution meeting. I compared it side by side with my final version. One was much more detailed, whereas the other focused on just a few key messages. This it made me think… under what circumstances would a more thorough poster be useful?
Reflecting the rapid growth in its economy, China is increasingly developing its scientific research infrastructure and expanding its investment in the scientific community. There is a strong demand for academic talents to work for China. As a result, China offers lots of opportunities for foreign scholars to move to China and for international collaborations by encouraging foreigner scholars to engage with researchers in China (as recently been highlighted in news from Science). However, cross-border academic engagement can be challenging, especially when facing major cultural and administrative differences. For many researchers, the academic system in China still remains a mystery.
Almost every PhD student I’ve known has had a final rush to submit their thesis. There are many reasons that cause this. Common reasons include procrastination, waiting for supervisors to give comments, or fieldwork failures. However, a common and much-underestimated time sink is the analysis step. For example, the most challenging chapter of my thesis literally took me two years to figure out how to analyse (whereas the data collection took just a few days). If I asked any student to dig up early PhD proposal timelines, I’m sure most would laugh at how little time they estimated analysing their data would take. But why does analysis take so long, and how can we better plan for this?