Prioritising your academic tasks

18 04 2018

The following is an abridged version of one of the chapters in my recent book, The Effective Scientist, regarding how to prioritise your tasks in academia. For a more complete treatise of the issue, access the full book here.

splitting tasks

Splitting tasks. © René Campbell

How the hell do you balance all the requirements of an academic life in science? From actually doing the science, analysing the data, writing papers, reviewing, writing grants, to mentoring students — not to mention trying to have a modicum of a life outside of the lab — you can quickly end up feeling a little daunted. While there is no empirical formula that make you run your academic life efficiently all the time, I can offer a few suggestions that might make your life just a little less chaotic.

Priority 1: Revise articles submitted to high-ranked journals

Barring a family emergency, my top priority is always revising an article that has been sent back to me from a high-ranking journal for revisions. Spend the necessary time to complete the necessary revisions.

Priority 2: Revise articles submitted to lower-ranked journals

I could have lumped this priority with the previous, but I think it is necessary to distinguish the two should you find yourself in the fortunate position of having to do more than one revision at a time.

Priority 3: Experimentation and field work

Most of us need data before we can write papers, so this is high on my personal priority list. If field work is required, then obviously this will be your dominant preoccupation for sometimes extended periods. Many experiments can also be highly time-consuming, while others can be done in stages or run in the background while you complete other tasks.

Priority 4: Databasing

This one could be easily forgotten, but it is a task that can take up a disproportionate amount of your time if do not deliberately fit it into your schedule. Well-organised, abundantly meta-tagged, intuitive, and backed-up databases are essential for effective scientific analysis; good data are useless if you cannot find them or understand to what they refer. Read the rest of this entry »

The Effective Scientist

22 03 2018

final coverWhat is an effective scientist?

The more I have tried to answer this question, the more it has eluded me. Before I even venture an attempt, it is necessary to distinguish the more esoteric term ‘effective’ from the more pedestrian term ‘success’. Even ‘success’ can be defined and quantified in many different ways. Is the most successful scientist the one who publishes the most papers, gains the most citations, earns the most grant money, gives the most keynote addresses, lectures the most undergraduate students, supervises the most PhD students, appears on the most television shows, or the one whose results improves the most lives? The unfortunate and wholly unsatisfying answer to each of those components is ‘yes’, but neither is the answer restricted to the superlative of any one of those. What I mean here is that you need to do reasonably well (i.e., relative to your peers, at any rate) in most of these things if you want to be considered ‘successful’. The relative contribution of your performance in these components will vary from person to person, and from discipline to discipline, but most undeniably ‘successful’ scientists do well in many or most of these areas.

That’s the opening paragraph for my new book that has finally been release for sale today in the United Kingdom and Europe (the Australasian release is scheduled for 7 April, and 30 April for North America). Published by Cambridge University Press, The Effective ScientistA Handy Guide to a Successful Academic Career is the culmination of many years of work on all the things an academic scientist today needs to know, but was never taught formally.

Several people have asked me why I decided to write this book, so a little history of its genesis is in order. I suppose my over-arching drive was to create something that I sincerely wish had existed when I was a young scientist just starting out on the academic career path. I was focussed on learning my science, and didn’t necessarily have any formal instruction in all the other varied duties I’d eventually be expected to do well, from how to write papers efficiently, to how to review properly, how to manage my grant money, how to organise and store my data, how to run a lab smoothly, how to get the most out of a conference, how to deal with the media, to how to engage in social media effectively (even though the latter didn’t really exist yet at the time) — all of these so-called ‘extra-curricular’ activities associated with an academic career were things I would eventually just have to learn as I went along. I’m sure you’ll agree, there has to be a better way than just muddling through one’s career picking up haphazard experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Write English well? Help get published someone who doesn’t

27 01 2015

imagesI’ve written before about how sometimes I can feel a little exasperated by what seems to be a constant barrage of bad English from some of my co-authors. No, I’m not focussing solely on students, or even native English speakers for that matter. In fact, one of the best (English) science writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working is a Spaniard (he also happens to write particularly well in Castellano). He was also fairly high up on the command-of-English ladder when he started out as my PhD student. So. There.

In other words, just because you grew up speaking the Queen’s doesn’t automatically guarantee that you’ll bust a phrase as easily as Shakespeare, Tolkien, Gould or Flannery; in fact, it might put you at a decided disadvantage compared to your English-as-a-second- (-third-, -fourth-, -fifth- …) language peers because they avoided learning all those terrible habits you picked up as you grunted your way through adolescence. Being forced to learn the grammar of another language often tends to make you grasp that of your mother tongue a little better.

So regardless of your background, if you’ve managed to beat the odds and know in your heart that you are in fact a good writer of science in English (you know who you are), I think you have a moral duty to help out those who still struggle with it. I’m not referring necessarily to the inevitable corrections you’ll make to your co-authors’ prose when drafting manuscripts1. I am instead talking about going out of your way to help someone who really, really needs it. Read the rest of this entry »

How to review a scientific paper

30 09 2014

F6a00d834521baf69e200e55471d80f8833-800wiollowing one of the most popular posts on, as well as in response to several requests, I’ve decided to provide a few pointers for early-career scientists for reviewing manuscripts submitted to peer-reviewed journals.

Apart from publishing your first peer-reviewed paper – whether it’s in Nature or Corey’s Journal of Bullshit – receiving that first request to review a manuscript is one of the best indications that you’ve finally ‘made it’ as a recognised scientist. Finally, someone is acknowledging that you are an expert and that your opinions and critiques are important. You deserve to feel proud when this happens.

Of course, reviewing is the backbone of the scientific process, because it is the main component of science’s pursuit of objectivity (i.e., subjectivity reduction). No other human endeavour can claim likewise.

It is therefore essential to take the reviewing process seriously, even if you do so only from the entirely selfish perspective that if you do not, no one will seriously review your own work. It is therefore much more than an altruistic effort to advance human knowledge – it is at the very least a survival mechanism. Sooner or later if you get a reputation for providing bad reviews, or refuse to do them, your own publication track record will suffer as a result.

Just like there are probably as many different (successful) ways to write a scientific paper as there are journals, most people develop their own approaches for reviewing their colleagues’ work. But just as it’s my opinion that many journal editors do an awful job of editing, I know that many reviewers do rather a shit job at their assigned tasks. This perspective comes from many years as an author, a reviewer, an editor and a mentor.

So take my advice as you will – hopefully some of it will prove useful when you review manuscripts. Read the rest of this entry »

Time to put significance out of its misery

28 07 2014

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll be no stranger to my views on what I believe is one of the most abused, and therefore now meaningless, words in scientific writing: ‘significance’ and her adjective sister, ‘significant’. I hold that it should be stricken entirely from the language of science writing.

Most science writing has become burdened with archaic language that perhaps at one time meant something, but now given the ubiquity of certain terms in most walks of life and their subsequent misapplication, many terms no longer have a precise meaning. Given that good scientific writing must ideally strive to employ the language of precision, transparency and simplicity, now-useless terminology should be completely expunged from our vocabulary.

‘Significance’ is just such a term.

Most interviews on radio or television, most lectures by politicians or business leaders, and nearly all presentations by academics at meetings of learned societies invoke ‘significant’ merely to add emphasis to the discourse. Usually it involves some sort of comparison – a ‘significant’ decline, a ‘significant’ change or a ‘significant’ number relative to some other number in the past or in some other place, and so on. Rarely is the word quantified: how much has the trend declined, how much did it change and how many is that ‘number’? What is ‘significant’ to a mouse is rather unimportant to an elephant, so most uses are as entirely subjective qualifiers employed to add some sort of ‘expert’ emphasis to the phenomenon under discussion. To most, ‘significant’ just sounds more authoritative, educated and erudite than ‘a lot’ or ‘big’. This is, of course, complete rubbish because it is the practice of using big words to hide the fact that the speaker isn’t quite as clever as he thinks he is.

While I could occasionally forgive non-scientists for not quantifying their use of ‘significance’ because they haven’t necessarily been trained to do so, I utterly condemn scientists who use the word that way. We are specifically trained to quantify, so throwing ‘significant’ around without a very clear quantification (it changed by x amount, it declined by 50 % in two years, etc.) runs counter to the very essence of our discipline. To make matters worse, you can often hear a vocal emphasis placed on the word when uttered, along with a patronising hand gesture, to make that subjectivity even more obvious.

If you are a scientist reading this, then you are surely waiting for my rationale as to why we should also ignore the word’s statistical meaning. While I’ve explained this before, it bears repeating. Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t torture your readers III

23 06 2014

TortureIt has been quite some time since I did one of these kinds of posts (see Don’t torture your readers and Don’t torture your readers II). However, given how popular they seem to be, I have decided to do a follow-up post on grammar problems that I tend to see far too often in science writing.

COMPOUND ADJECTIVES: This is a particularly abused component of scientific writing. Although it’s fairly straightforward, I’m amazed just how many people get it wrong. Most people appear to understand that when an adjective (that’s a qualifier for a noun, just in case you are a grammarling) is composed of more than one word, there is normally a hyphen that connects them:

  • e.g., ’10-m fence’, ‘high-ranking journal’, ‘population-level metric’, ‘cost-effective policy’

If two or more adjectives are given in a row, but none modifies the meaning of the others, then it is simply a case of separating them with commas:

  • e.g., ‘a long, high fence’, ‘an old, respected journal’, ‘an effective, enduring policy’

However, if the compound adjective is composed of a leading adverb (that’s a qualifier for a verb), then there is NO hyphenation:

  • e.g., ‘an extremely long fence’, ‘a closely associated phenomenon’, ‘a legally mandated policy’

There are other instances when no hyphenation is required, such as when the qualifiers are proper nouns (e.g., ‘a Shark Bay jetty’), from another language such as Latin (e.g., an ‘ab initio course’) or enclosed in quotation marks (e.g., ‘a “do it yourself” guide). Note in the last example, without the quotations, it would become ‘a do-it-yourself guide’).

A quick way to recognise whether a compound adjective should be hyphenated is to examine the terminal letters of the leading word; if the leading component ends in ‘ly’, then it is likely an adverb, and so the compound should not be hyphenated (although watch for sneaky exceptions like ‘early-career researcher’!). Read the rest of this entry »

Scientists should blog

27 05 2014
© Bill Porter

© Bill Porter

As is about to tick over 1 million hits since its inception in mid-2008, I thought I’d share why I think more scientists should blog about their work and interests.

As many of you know, I regularly give talks and short courses on the value of social and other media for scientists; in fact, my next planned ‘workshop’ (Make Your Science Matter) on this and related subjects will be held at the Ecological Society of Australia‘s Annual Conference in Alice Springs later this year.

I’ve written before about the importance of having a vibrant, attractive and up-to-date online profile (along with plenty of other tips), but I don’t think I’ve ever put down my thoughts on blogging in particular. So here goes.

  1. The main reasons scientists should consider blogging is the hard, cold fact that not nearly enough people read scientific papers. Most scientists are lucky if a few of their papers ever top 100 citations, and I’d wager that most are read by only a handful of specialists (there are exceptions, of course, but these are rare). If you’re a scientist, I don’t have to tell you the disappointment of realising that the blood, sweat and tears shed over each and every paper is largely for nought considering just how few people will ever read our hard-won results. It’s simply too depressing to contemplate, especially considering that the sum of human knowledge is so vast and expanding that this trend will only ever get worse. For those reasons alone, blogging about your own work widens the readership by orders of magnitude. More people read my blog every day than will probably ever read the majority of my papers. Read the rest of this entry »