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 »





Tips for scientists to deal with the media

21 11 2016

rita-skeeter2

I regularly give science communication workshops that include tips for dealing with reporters and journalists in the mass media. Most of these tips come from my own experience, or from stories I’ve heard from close colleagues. Instead of just teaching these important lessons to a select few who get to hear about them in person, I’ve decided to write a little post listing the most important points. Most of the following has little to do with maximising the likelihood of getting an interview, but these tips should help you avoid problems should a reporter notice your important work.

Welcome to the jungle.

1. The best way to get noticed by the media is to write a press release, although this is no guarantee in itself that anyone will pay attention. A good rule of thumb is to write a release for nearly every peer-reviewed article you publish, even if you think no one will be that interested. You’d be surprised how seemingly innocuous and run-of-the-mill papers can go viral if the press release is well-written. On that latter point, engage closely with your institution’s media office, and help them write the release by, for example, sending them a link to the lucid blog post you wrote about your own paper.

2. You can maximise the probability of uptake of your press release if you foster good working relationships with journalists. If you’ve ever had positive interactions with some before, keep the names on record and send a pre-release version of the article and the press release itself before the main event. Every journalist loves a scoop.

3. Register on expert media sites so that journalists can find you (e.g., like Scimex, Expert Guide, Ocean Expert, etc.). Most countries have such things.

4. If a journalist contacts you, make sure you respond immediately. Often even 30 minutes is too long before they seek opinions from some other scientist. If you are travelling, make sure you have an emergency contact auto-responder designed specifically for deadline-enslaved journalists.

Remember, you're smarter than they are (© Monty Python)

Remember, you’re smarter than they are (© Monty Python)

5. Once you do manage to gain an interview, whether it is live radio, recorded television or just as a chat for a newspaper article, avoid jargon like the plague. And make sure you test your language on a non-expert — what’s jargon to a non-specialist might not appear to be jargon at all to you. This often comes with experience, but at the very least try to avoid big, technical-sounding words (they do not make you sound more intelligent; rather, they make you sound boring and up-yourself).

6. Still on the issue of language, use short, punchy answers, analogies and a little humour. Try to relax (again, this comes with experience) by remembering that you know your shit more than 99.99% of the people that will be listening to you.

Read the rest of this entry »





Shadow of ignorance veiling society despite more science communication

19 04 2016

imagesI’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but it wasn’t until having some long, deep chats today with staff and students at Simon Fraser University‘s Department of Biological Sciences (with a particular hat-tip to the lovely Nick Dulvy, Isabelle Côté & John Reynolds) that the full idea began to take shape in my brain. It seems my presentation was a two-way street: I think I taught a few people some things, and they taught me something back. Nice.

There’s no question at all that science communication has never before been so widespread and of such high quality. More and more scientists and science students are now blogging, tweeting and generally engaging the world about their science findings. There is also an increasing number of professional science communication associations out there, and a growing population of professional science communicators. It is possibly the best time in history to be involved in the generation and/or communication of scientific results.

Why then is the public appreciation, acceptance and understanding of science declining? It really doesn’t make much sense if you merely consider that there has never been more good science ‘out there’ in the media — both social and traditional. For the source literature itself, there has never before been as many scientific journals, articles and even scientists writing. Read the rest of this entry »





Getting your conservation science to the right people

22 01 2016

argument-cartoon-yellingA perennial lament of nearly every conservation scientist — at least at some point (often later in one’s career) — is that the years of blood, sweat and tears spent to obtain those precious results count for nought in terms of improving real biodiversity conservation.

Conservation scientists often claim, especially in the first and last paragraphs of their papers and research proposals, that by collecting such-and-such data and doing such-and-such analyses they will transform how we manage landscapes and species to the overall betterment of biodiversity. Unfortunately, most of these claims are hollow (or just plain bullshit) because the results are either: (i) never read by people who actually make conservation decisions, (ii) not understood by them even if they read the work, or (iii) never implemented because they are too vague or too unrealistic to translate into a tangible, positive shift in policy.

A depressing state of being, I know.

This isn’t any sort of novel revelation, for we’ve been discussing the divide between policy makers and scientists for donkey’s years. Regardless, the whinges can be summarised succinctly: Read the rest of this entry »





Only thing worse than being labelled ‘deadly’, is not being called anything at all

13 10 2015

11034-Snake-BiteI had an interesting exchange on Twitter today that deserves some discussion, not because the brief internet argument that ensued offers some insightful wisdom (internet debates rarely do anything more than identify all those involved as fuckwits), but because it raises an interesting issue in conservation.

The abbreviated (and slightly expurgated) main message of the exchange was whether drawing attention to the potential for a species to cause harm to humans is good or bad (for the species in question).

The elasmobranchologists in particular usually become apoplectic whenever anyone calls a shark ‘deadly’, or some such similar adjective. As it turns out, the ophidiologists appear to be equally sensitive. I admit that they do have a point — it’s probably fair to assume that films like Jaws and Anaconda (or, Darwin-forbid, Sharknado) haven’t done much to make most people appreciate the amazing diversity, evolutionary adaptations and wonderful life histories of these subclasses & clades (respectively).

In fact, most marine biologists assume that Jaws in particular was responsible for decades of overt prosecution of sharks that has led to the massive population declines. However, I sincerely wonder whether the bad media was in the real culprit and over-fishing was instead the principal cause of today’s observed shark declines (the questionable nature of the numbers often cited notwithstanding).  Read the rest of this entry »





Why every scientist needs an online profile

31 01 2013
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Don’t be guilty of this.

It astounds me every time I hear about a scientist who is reluctant to place her or his track record on the internet. Now, I may be a little over-the-top when it comes to my own web-presence (some have labelled me a ‘media tart’, but I don’t mind), but I am convinced that without a strong, regularly updated web presence, you’re doing yourself a horrible disservice.

Let’s go through the regularly raised objections that some academics make for avoiding the investment in a strong web presence:

  1. My employer will get angry
  2. My track record isn’t good enough (i.e., I’m embarrassed)
  3. What I do is no one else’s business
  4. I couldn’t be bothered; it’s too much work
  5. No one reads it anyway

While there might be some truth to items 1 & 2 (although the justification is weak or often plainly untrue), the last three are pure bullshit.

Let’s start by analysing the bullshit (rolls up sleeves, starts digging…).

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Appalling behaviour of even the most influential journalists

4 11 2010

 

 

© J. Dunn

 

I’ve said it a few times in public and in private – one of the main reasons I, as a busy scientist with probably insufficient time to devote to a lay blog (no different to any busy scientist, mind), got into this whole gig in the first place was to fight back against dodgy reporters and shonky ‘journalists’.

For the most part I have to say that I’ve been represented reasonably well in the media – even if most of it is owned by a few highly questionable moguls who espouse wildly partisan views. There have been a few occasions though where I’ve been the victim of simply crap reporting, terribly investigation and downright dirty tactics done by so-called journalists. I’ve talked about this on a few occasions on ConservationBytes.com (see ‘Crap environmental reporting‘, ‘Science turned bad by the media‘ and ‘Poor media coverage promotes environmental apathy and untruths‘).

In a bit of a coincidental turn of events, Bill Laurance sent me an interesting piece published in Nature on this very subject just while Paul Ehrlich and I (most of you know that Paul is in Adelaide at the moment) were talking about ways in which scientists could turn around public opinion from one of suspicion of science, logic and intellectualism, to one applauding the application of objective techniques to solve the world’s worst problems. Paul half-jokingly said “what if there is no solution?” – but I suspect that one such as he has found that constant writing, outreach and excellent research are the only ways to tear down the walls of ignorance, despite all the stupidity of certain elected officials. Two steps forward, one step back.

Bill suggested ConservationBytes would be a good place to reproduce this excellent article by Simon Lewis of the University of Leeds, and I agree. So here it is: Read the rest of this entry »