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?
Many university students believe that the point of a PhD is the doctorate itself, just like the point of medical school is to become a doctor. It’s clear where students get this (wrong) idea. From kindergarten to university, you confront a well-defined obstacle course of classes and exams. Reach these benchmarks ahead of schedule and you’re doing well. When you go to medical school, you receive standard training, you again must pass certain exams, and if you graduate you’re on your way to becoming a doctor and somewhere there is a job waiting for you. It’s easy to come away from this believing that success in graduate school is similar: get good grades, graduate as fast as possible, and then scramble up the academic ladder where a tenured professorship awaits...
The recent debate about why many research findings are not confirmed in later follow-up studies has raised people’s awareness of how much subjectivity is often inherent in our work. During data analysis we typically allow ourselves to explore the data in all possible ways in an effort to reveal interesting patterns. We take the freedom to transform or subset our data, to add covariates and interaction terms until the resulting picture appears plausible in the light of what we think we know about our study system. This process of data exploration may sometimes work out well if our prior ‘knowledge’ is largely correct to begin with, yet it may lead us completely astray if our preconceptions were incorrect, and most likely we will never find out that this was the case. Given the risks of being misled by our own preconceptions, it may be a good idea to remove as many aspects of subjectivity from our research by pre-registering our precise study plans before conducting the study. When all arbitrary decisions are made in advance, or at least blind to the study outcome, we may be able to judge the outcome of a study in a more objective way. Having tried such pre-registration myself, I would like to report about my experiences in this post.
There are many reasons why budding young researchers hit a seemingly insurmountable wall during their PhD studies. Today I want to talk about one issue that affects almost everyone, yet few are prepared for it: the reality that most scientific contributions are minor and incremental. This is the first post of what I hope will be a series on some of the major obstacles faced by graduate students.