Academic life is, in a nutshell, a never-ending challenge of trying to manage competing expectations. Publishing more versus publishing well, supervising to educate versus delivering results to funding agencies, telling a simple narrative versus explaining everything in detail, etc.. Such tension can feel like it reaches the breaking point at the postdoc level. Two particular concerns, which are closely related to teaching and the job market, that I often hear raised by early career researchers are (i) how much to focus on maximising research outputs versus teaching (or other service/work activities that are not explicitly research), and (ii) how to make opportunities to teach when they aren’t immediately obvious. I ponder on these questions some more in this second instalment on the need for teaching experience in the job market.
Entering the academic job market is daunting. There are few jobs, many applicants, and for most of us every prospective position involves some degree of compromise like having to move to a new country or live separately from a partner. What is also particularly stressful is that job descriptions often outline many requirements from candidates, way more than what seems possible to achieve. This includes having high impact publications, a track record in getting grant money, and demonstrated teaching experience. However, their relative importance, and in particular the importance of teaching experience, in an applicant’s CV is something I’m asked about quite a lot, but have struggled to give an informed answer. So I turned to Twitter to ask this question, and in the next two posts I will share some of what I’ve learnt.
I still remember it very well: it was a Monday morning in late January of 2018 when I was sitting in my office and suddenly received an email from the European Commission regarding the outcome of my Marie Skłodowska-Curie (MSC) application (Individual Fellowship). Immediately, my heart rate went up, I started sweating and it took me quite some time until I was mentally prepared to open this email. Almost five months of waiting with an increasing level of stress and anxiety over the last days I finally received a response – and I couldn’t even understand what they were telling me! I was simply too nervous and unconfident to understand all the technical and bureaucratic language. I read it again and again—at least I didn’t see anything about “rejection”. I asked my office mate, a native English speaker, to read it for me, just to make sure I didn’t misunderstand anything. – Turned out, I got the grant! I could not believe it, I was lucky this time! After a very long process – a rejection in the year before and a few other rejections from other funding agencies, it finally worked out! Nine months later, I even found myself “on the other side”. I became a reviewer for 13 MSC applications and again I learned a lot. In the following I want to share some thoughts based on my experience with an unsuccessful proposal, a successful proposal and from being a MSC reviewer.
A PhD can feel like a lifetime, or be over in a flash. How long it takes will, in large part, be determined by what country you’re studying in. In North America, it’s common for PhDs to last more than 5 years, whereas in Europe it can be quite rare for them to go for more than 4. System-differences aside, at some point, students are also faced with the decision of when to hand in and defend their thesis. So what is the best programme length, and when should you opt for a quicker submission or a later one? Turns out, there are lots of factors that might influence what decision is best for you.
Writing can be one of the most emotionally taxing parts of our research. It often requires us to overcome at least some of our demons, including procrastination, limitations to our understanding of English, or even the feeling that all of this is pointless. Yet, writing can also be one of the most creative and enjoyable parts of doing research. In my opinion, a common reason why writing brings fear to Scientists is because it’s generally seen as a challenge that has to be overcome individually. Why is this so? As Science becomes increasingly collaborative, and research papers have longer and longer lists of authors, why are most papers written by one person and edited independently by others? The best papers I’ve been involved in—in terms of the quality of writing and my overall excitement in the work—have been those that have been written collaboratively. In this post, I suggest that writing as a group is not only fun and rewarding, but it can substantially improve the final piece.
The writing and editing process can be time consuming and emotionally sapping. Sitting in front of the same piece of text, day after day, can make it really difficult to keep focused on the task at hand. This focus becomes particularly challenging after having read through the manuscript several times over—it becomes impossible to see the woods for the trees. How can one edit effectively without being able to focus on any of the words? One strategy that I have found works extremely well, but does take some practice, is to read the work aloud. Here’s why.
The ultimate goal of a scientific paper is to effectively convey information about a set of results, how these were obtained, and their implications. The operative words here are ‘effectively convey’. Achieving clarity in writing can boost the impact of a study—the messages are clearer, and thus easier to remember—but it is not easy to come by. What is important to remember is that clarity comes from different scales: the structure of each sentence, the structure of each paragraph, the linkages between paragraphs, and the overall construction of each over-arching section of the paper. Time spent perfecting the writing at one scale (e.g. getting a perfectly-constructed sentence or a great logic in the flow between paragraphs) can be pointless if other scales are not considered. In the last three posts I provided some strategies on how to work on clarity at broader scales (i.e. the construction of the text as a whole). In these next three posts, I’ll provide some advice on how to maximise the effectiveness of writing to achieve clarity at the finer scales. This week, I’ll start by trying to convince you to write your manuscript while already having a plan to re-write it later.
Scientific writing is hard. But, in my experience, complaints about a particular piece of writing proving difficult often correspond with a missing piece the writing process: a roadmap. The roadmap represents an abstracted form of the work that captures the key messages and the order that they are presented in. Does this sound familiar? In this post, I’m going to suggest something that is an unpopular opinion: start your manuscripts by writing the abstract. In my experience, proposing this approach almost always draws the following argument: it is not possible to write the abstract if the paper has not yet been written, because one cannot yet know what to write in the abstract. Here I provide the counter-argument—if you don’t know what to write in the abstract, how can you possibly write a whole paper?
Writing is widely acknowledged to be among the most challenging parts of a Scientist’s job. Much of the success of our research rides on the back of our ability to communicate our findings clearly, succinctly, and eloquently. Constructing a good manuscript can be painstakingly difficult—the narrative has to be clear from start to finish, each paragraph needs to be well-structured, and every sentence has to be carefully crafted. For many researchers, science writing comes with the added challenge of expressing nuanced ideas in their non-native language. However, although the writing itself is difficult, in my experience the major hurdle for inexperienced writers is not one of language (e.g. grammar) but rather the construction of the overall manuscript. Most writing is done without a clear, forward-looking vision. This week, I’ll make a case for why making a presentation, which requires laying out ideas in a linear sequence, can help make writing substantially easier.
There’s an almost universal paradox that takes place during a PhD. From the student’s perspective, it feels like you’ve never been busier as you juggle some of the biggest projects you’ve done in your life. Yet, at the same time, students get told by their advisors to enjoy themselves as they’ll never have as much time to enjoy doing Science (the same is often true for postdocs). Of course, both are true to some degree. But, what tends to happen is that the feelings of time pressure during a PhD or postdoc—there’s not enough time to do everything—can lead researchers to de-prioritise activities that appear peripheral but in fact are central to success. The most common to be dropped is reading the literature. However, the idea that not reading saves time for other activities (like writing) is a fallacy. In the first instalment in a series of posts outlining some strategies to help with becoming a better writer, I highlight why reading is absolutely necessary to producing well-executed manuscripts in a timely manner.