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 »

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 »

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 »

Making the scientific workshop work

28 10 2013
I don't mean this

I don’t mean this

I’ve been a little delayed in blogging this month, but for a very good reason – I’ve just experienced one of the best workshops of my career. I’d like to share a little of that perfect science recipe with you now.

I’ve said it before, but it can stand being repeated: done right, workshops can be some of the most efficient structures for doing big science.

First, let me define ‘workshop’ for those of you who might have only a vague notion of what it entails. To me, a workshop is a small group of like-minded scientists – all of whom possess different skills and specialities – who are brought together to achieve one goal. That goal is writing the superlative manuscript for publication.

So I don’t mean just a bog-standard chin-wag infected with motherhoods and diatribes. Workshops are not mini-conferences; neither are they soap boxes. It is my personal view that nothing can waste a scientist’s precious time more than an ill-planned and aimless workshop.

But with a little planning and some key ingredients that I’ll list shortly, you can turn a moderately good idea into something that can potentially shake the foundations of an entire discipline. So what are these secret ingredients? Read the rest of this entry »