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 »

Twenty tips for writing a research proposal

4 05 2015

Proposal FormatThis post’s title might promise a lot, but it would be disingenuous of me to imply that I could cover all of the essential components of this massive topic in one blog post. Many people (my wife included) have made careers out of teaching people how to write successful grant proposals, so I won’t pretend to be comprehensive and insult their expertise. That said, I’ve been reasonably successful on the grants’ side of the science game, and I’ve assessed a fair few grant proposals in my day, so I think I can offer at least a few pointers. As usual, each person probably has her or his own way of doing things, so there’s unlikely to be a single, winning method. Approaches will also vary by funding agency and country of origin. I am therefore targeting the earlier-career people who have yet to get fully indoctrinated into the funding cycle, with generalities that should apply to most grant proposals.

1. A proposal is not an article, so don’t try to write it as one.

In the huge list of things ‘they never taught you as a student, but need to know to be a successful scientist’, this has got to be one of the biggies. Now I’m mainly talking about science here, but grant proposals cannot and should not follow the standard format of peer-reviewed articles. Articles tend to put an elaborate background up front, a complex description of hypotheses followed by an even more complex description of methods and results. Do not do this for a proposal. A proposal should be viewed more as a ‘pitch’ that hooks the assessor’s attention from the get-go. More on this aspect below.

2. Understand what the funder actually fundsRead the rest of this entry »

How to contact a potential PhD supervisor

1 04 2015

It’s probably fair to say that most university-based academics regularly receive requests from people around the world wishing to be considered as prospective postgraduate students (mostly PhD). I probably receive an average of 3-4 such requests per week via e-mail, as do many of my collaborators. Unfortunately for those making the inquiry, I trash most of them almost immediately.

It’s not that I’m a (complete) bastard; rather, it seems that few of these people have given very much thought to their requests, or how they might be perceived. Indeed, I’d say that about 90% of them are one-liners that go something like this:

Dear Professor,

I wish to write you to seek for supervision towards PhD degree. If you not intersted, assist me to get other supervisor.


Yes, with all the bad English, impoliteness and lack of any detail, these types of requests get deleted even before I get to the close. One recent e-mail even addressed me as “Dear Sir Hubert Wilkins …”. Sometimes, you really must wonder how some people have enough common sense even to turn on the computer.

I’m not naïve enough to think that most of these are serious requests for supervision; indeed, many of them seem to be desperate cries for help to assist people to quit their country of origin, for reasons that have nothing to do with academic pursuits.

So for those people who are genuinely seeking academic supervision, and in a vain attempt to stem the number of pointless e-mails I receive (yeah, right), I offer some tips on how to contact a potential PhD supervisor: Read the rest of this entry »

Arguing for scientific socialism in ecology funding

26 06 2012

What makes an ecologist ‘successful’? How do you measure ‘success’? We’d all like to believe that success is measured by our results’ transformation of ecological theory and practice – in a conservation sense, this would ultimately mean our work’s ability to prevent (or at least, slow down) extinctions.

Alas, we’re not that good at quantifying such successes, and if you use the global metric of species threats, deforestation, pollution, invasive species and habitat degradation, we’ve failed utterly.

So instead, we measure scientific ‘success’ via peer-reviewed publications, and the citations (essentially, scientific cross-referencing) that arise from these. These are blunt instruments, to be sure, but they are really the only real metrics we have. If you’re not being cited, no one is reading your work; and if no one is reading you’re work, your cleverness goes unnoticed and you help nothing and no one.

A paper I just read in the latest issue of Oikos goes some way to examine what makes a ‘successful’ ecologist (i.e., in terms of publications, citations and funding), and there are some very interesting results. Read the rest of this entry »