Enjoying your PhD

My PhD is now officially over! The 3rd and final year was extremely busy, what with finishing writing up my thesis while simultaneously applying for post-doc funding. This didn’t leave me with much energy for writing blog posts so now that it’s all done and dusted (I passed my viva with no corrections and secured some amazing funding for a 4-year research project!) I thought I would post one final entry on this blog before moving on to post-doc life.

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I genuinely really enjoyed the time I spent doing my PhD but I am aware that not everyone does. I guess I was extremely lucky in a number of ways but here are some of my thoughts on what you can do to try to have a positive and successful experience. Just to note that my PhD was in the UK, in science (child psychiatry & genetics) and my plan was to carry on working in academia afterwards so my PhD experiences and the advice below might not apply to other situations.

Make PhD friends

This might seem a bit obvious, but you can’t underestimate the importance of having a strong social network while doing your PhD. It’s particularly nice to have friends who are also doing PhDs, especially a few who are a step or two ahead of you. While your specific topic is likely to be fairly unique (even niche) within your research group, some of the methodology you will be using and background literature is likely to overlap with what your colleagues are familiar with. They may have already overcome the problems, issues and obstacles that you come across and asking for their advice and help could save you hours of confusion and futile googling! What’s more, regularly offering to help your colleagues (e.g. by proof-reading some of their work) can create the positive and supportive environment necessary to make PhD life easier and more pleasant for everyone. If you don’t have any colleagues nearby doing PhDs, you could consider attending any available postgraduate social events that might help you meet other PhD students.

Your supervisors are there to help

Senior researchers are busy people so it might be useful to have more than one official supervisor to turn to for advice. Every supervisor-student relationship is different, so depending on the person, you might need to initiate contact and make an effort to book in regular meetings. I found that weekly or fortnightly meetings worked best in my first year, with less frequent meetings afterwards. I’ve also previously written a post about the possible benefits and pitfalls of socialising with your supervisors (probably my most read post ever!). You might also find it useful to have an independent mentor – you could speak to your supervisors or postgraduate office to see if there is a possibility of being assigned a mentor, just so you have another experienced researcher to turn to for advice.

Find the right work environment

I treated my PhD as a real job (minimum 9am-5pm Mon-Fri), which meant I paced myself well with my work and got a lot of work done every month. I found it essential to have a consistent work routine, surrounded by colleagues who were working at the same time and also to have clear boundaries between work time and home/relaxing time.

Seek out interesting events

It’s a good idea to keep an eye out for local and national courses, summer schools and seminars and pick the most relevant and interesting ones to attend. You will definitely need to learn how to use a reference manager (I thoroughly recommend Mendeley, which is free and really easy to use) and at least a couple of statistical packages (I really recommend Stata to be one of these). I also suggest getting familiar well ahead of time with how to write long documents in Word or whatever software you will be writing your thesis in – one of the most useful courses I went on during my entire PhD was the one that taught me how to use Word Styles, insert figure captions, tables of contents, section breaks etc. Most courses have discounts (or are even free) for PhD students and so this is a great opportunity to learn useful, new things.

And I definitely recommend going to relevant international conferences – these are extremely useful for a number of reasons. Presenting your work (even in poster form) is great for getting your name out there, speaking to other researchers and it also looks very good on your CV. Conference sessions can give you a sneak preview of exciting new research that will be published imminently in your field and also give you an appreciation of some of the wider research context beyond your narrow topic of interest. You get the opportunity to put faces to names of some of the top researchers whose work you have been reading and citing. And although it can be somewhat intimidating, this is also a great opportunity for networking, at the very least with other PhD students from around the world. It also gives you the chance to apply for a travel grant or maybe even win a poster prize, which, if successful, all look great on your CV. And of course, you get to travel for free and might get a half day for sightseeing, which is a lovely perk, especially when you are on a low PhD stipend and can’t afford to travel for holidays!

Keep on top of the literature

I’ve written a whole post about this before. It’s really handy to keep reading papers throughout your PhD. It’s not only necessary for your thesis literature review/introduction chapter(s) but can also be helpful for idea generation, and steering your thesis in terms of what you are most interested in.

Submit chapters for publication

A good PhD thesis is one that is “publishable”. This means that if you have already published some or most of it, you are on the right track for your PhD viva/defence. The process of publishing your work can also give you some helpful feedback from reviewers, which could improve your thesis chapters and prepare you for possible viva questions. To make the last few months of your PhD less ridiculously stressful, you probably want to start writing your thesis in the 2nd year, the earlier the better. Writing up some of your results as a paper for submission makes a lot of sense at this point. If your research topic is quite novel, you could also consider trying to publish a systematic review paper which could double as your first thesis chapter. Other than getting some of your work written up early on, publishing papers is likely to also give you an edge for getting your first post-doc. Whether you like it or not, publications are the single most important addition to an early career researcher’s CV.

Have an online presence

I definitely recommend joining Twitter and if you are already on there, make the most of it. There is a whole world of academic link-sharing and (brief) discussing of various academic and scientific issues that is worth keeping an eye on. If you’re hesitant about contributing, just follow interesting people and read what they are saying.

Another idea is to keep your university profile page updated and once you’ve got a publication or 2, make a profile on Google Scholar, ResearchGateORCID, and maybe also Academia.edu, LinkedIn or other websites. Consider tweeting and blogging about your papers and check out who else is talking about them on social media using Altmetric.

Get involved in some other stuff

The advice I had early on was that you should try your hand at several things during your PhD, beyond the core requirements. This could be getting involved in public engagement, blogging, getting some undergraduate teaching/supervision experience, organising a local conference or inter-disciplinary meeting etc. These are all ways to gain some skills that look good on your CV and to learn more about what it is you enjoy and are good at within the academic environment. But remember that this is just to dip your toes in the water and try some things so don’t let any of these extra-curricular things take over too much of your research time.

All things considered, I got a lot more out of my PhD than the right to use the “Dr” title and I feel as prepared as I’ll ever be for being a post-doc. So, thanks for reading this blog and feel free to leave any other suggestions in the comments!

Writing a research proposal – first steps

Science takes a lot of hard work, which can occasionally be a little repetitive and even uninspiring. At other times, it is an incredibly creative process, which requires a lot of insight into seeing how pieces of information are connected and what the bigger picture might look like.

As I mentioned before, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about post-PhD options and trying to come up with ideas for a possible project proposal. Although reading has been immensely useful for seeing what has been done already in my subject of interest, it’s been a lot trickier to identify potential gaps in the literature. This kind of creative idea generation is difficult as it can’t really be forced and just takes time and perhaps some luck. I’m reminded of the early days of my PhD, when I was trying to decide on specific analyses I could do within my chosen topic.

So, how exactly are you supposed to come up with a brilliant proposal idea? Although I don’t really know the answer to that, here is my attempt at muddling through and having a go at it.

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The first step of idea generation is getting something, anything down on paper, i.e. doing some brainstorming. A reasonable way to begin could be by jotting down any random ideas that come to mind and trying to think about possible gaps (no matter how frivolous or vague) regarding the existing literature in a fairly narrow topic of interest. It might also be useful to draw some diagrams. It sounds simple enough, but the longer you stare at an empty white page, the clearer it becomes that starting from scratch is daunting. I began by writing a literature summary of any studies that were relevant to an interesting observation I’ve noticed. This was a good starting point but I felt like I spent hours staring at my computer screen, trying (and most days, failing) to think of an insightful or clever way of exploring this observation further.

Once you do have some vague ideas, it’s useful to share them with colleagues, supervisors or even family and friends (particularly if they are academically-inclined) to get some feedback and have a discussion. It’s really easy to feel like you are going around in circles thinking about an idea and so having a general chat with someone else can give you new insights. If they don’t understand the connections you are trying to make, this might suggest that you need to think of the issues in simpler terms or take a step or two back. The media and popular beliefs paint a picture of science being about grand discoveries and great leaps in knowledge. In reality, we know that science is a cumulative process, typically involving many much smaller steps towards increasing our knowledge and understanding.

After some initial brainstorming and informal chats, a possible helpful next step is to do a short presentation and have a longer discussion with several supervisors/colleagues. Although this may feel slightly daunting to begin with, in my experience the prospect of doing a presentation is good motivation for transforming random half-formed ideas and jotted-down thoughts into a more coherent whole. Within the first 3 months of starting my PhD, I had to give a couple of departmental talks (the first on a research paper relevant to my PhD topic for a journal club and a second talk introducing my topic and research plans). I spent the first few months of my PhD doing little other than reading papers and preparing these 2 talks. The talks gave me a target for finalising my aims and the feedback was really useful.

The feedback from my more recent talk about my fellowship proposal ideas has similarly helped to steer me in the right direction. I’m now at the no-less-difficult stage of formulating specific aims and hypotheses and trying to design a method to address them. I have a long way to go with my fellowship proposal and I am conscious that all this effort might not even result in any funding, as the schemes are all extremely competitive. Part of my thinking was always that I would just try my best with this and learn something from the process.

Getting your paper through peer review

Whether you like it or not, productivity in academia/science is judged (at least in part) based on your publication rate. This focus on quantity is associated with various problems – see for example “Problem 4: Pressure to publish” of Chris Chamber’s recent post. Although the goal of doing science should not be the publications themselves, they remain an important method of disseminating our results and ideas to other researchers and the public. Learning how to write a concise, informative, thorough, accurate and all-round good research paper is clearly an important skill to acquire during your PhD, particularly if you hope to continue your academic career.

However, learning how to get your paper through the peer review process is also a skill that you need to acquire. The quality of your writing and your ability to include important details in your manuscript (i.e. the content) are of course directly linked to this but there are other important things too. I’m glad that the attitude of my supervisors and more generally, in my department, is that I should be publishing my PhD work when ready, as this gives me targets for writing up my thesis. Being involved in analyses and manuscripts outside of my core PhD has given me additional experience in navigating the peer review process.

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Step 1: Choosing a journal

Once you are happy with your analysis and have started writing a manuscript, you need to decide on a target journal for your work. I have written about this before and I have to agree with my previous thoughts on the matter: it just takes experience and time to get a sense of what journals publish what kinds of papers, in terms of their specific focus etc. When I’m reading papers, I tend to ignore what journal they came from, though sometimes I make a conscious effort to check this. Journal homepages frequently have a little blurb about what sorts of papers they will publish and scanning through the titles/abstracts of some of their recent issues can help. There are a couple of online tools which allow you to paste your abstract in and then scan it for keywords to give you some suggestions of appropriate journals. I’ve also tended to chat to my supervisors to get their more experienced thoughts on the matter.

Step 2: Choosing reviewers

Perhaps my least favourite part of submitting a paper is the need to identify potential reviewers. Some journals even require six different reviewers. How do you know who to suggest? Ideally, you want to identify people who have a good understanding of the background to your work and the methods you have used, are fair and have a good reputation and don’t have a clear conflict of interest. For my first few papers I relied heavily on my supervisors to suggest people based on their research interests and reputations. I kept a list of these suggestions and have re-used names for other submissions, where appropriate. Although in cases where my paper was rejected, unsurprisingly, I’ve tried to come up with alternatives.

I think the main way of identifying potential appropriate peer reviewers is by checking the author lists of the papers that are most closely linked to your own work. I’ve also found that going to seminars, talks and conferences is also useful. Seeing somebody present their work, especially if it is relevant to yours, means you are much more likely to remember their name. If you get the opportunity to speak to them, for example if you are lucky enough for them to visit your poster presentation at a conference, you can even get a sense of what kind of person they are and what they think about your work. I think this may also be particularly helpful for trying to identify potential PhD thesis examiners.

One other thing to bear in mind is that the anonymity of the peer review process means you are unlikely to find out which of the people you suggested did end up reviewing your work and which of them were the ones who gave the positive and useful comments or indeed, the less polite ones.

Dealing with rejection – back to step 1

Even after writing as a good a paper as you can, having it internally reviewed by your supervisors and co-authors, proof-read by your colleagues and settling on a journal and possible reviewers, the chances of having your publication rejected can feel depressingly high. It happens to the best of academics, sometimes for the wrong reasons (e.g. null results from a well-powered good study design) and sometimes because of bad luck in having reviewers who have misunderstood your work and not given you a chance to clarify it. I think that being able to cope  with the occasional rejection and carry on without letting it get to you personally is an important thing to learn too.

Step 3: Responding to reviewers’ comments

It’s important to bear in mind that (almost) regardless of what the comments are, being asked to do revisions is good news! I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a paper being accepted for publication without at least some minor revisions. More frequently, major revisions are called for, oftentimes multiple rounds of these. Whether it is the anonymity of peer review or tactlessness to blame, reviewers’ comments can sometimes be a little upsetting in their negativity. For some examples of particularly harsh comments, see FemaleScienceProfessor’s recent “Fake Review Contest” blog posts. Alternatively, for some slightly more humorous examples, see this Storify of the recent #SixWordPeerReview Twitter meme.

In an ideal world, the reviewers’ comments would all be very insightful, sensible and constructive, with a view to improving the manuscript. Although many comments will be quite reasonable, there are a few things to learn about writing your response to them. What should you do if you disagree on a certain point or if the reviewer is asking for something that you had actually already mentioned? I’ve been told by colleagues that if a reviewer is asking for something that is already there, you might need to make this item clearer and more prominent (especially if it’s hidden away in supplementary text for instance). As for disagreeing, if you have a genuine scientific reason, you should probably defend your work and the decisions you made, although perhaps also amend your manuscript to discuss the issue further.

Another question concerns the tone of your response. Should you be excessively polite, thanking the reviewers for their useful comments multiple times, or just get straight to the point of addressing them? You don’t want to come across as abrupt or rude. Generally speaking, you probably need to be professional and polite, but assertive if you have solid reasons backing up how you performed your experiment or chose to present the results. It can be quite useful to look at how other people write their responses to reviewers, which you can do by looking at the “peer review history” of articles published at PeerJ.

Having a little bit of experience with how peer review works may help you anticipate the sorts of comments that you might get. Being a reviewer yourself (something I have only a little experience of so far) and discussing research articles during a journal club can also highlight what kinds of things will make a good publishable research article.

A quick guide to being a well-read researcher

Staying on top of the literature is a vital part of academia, but a part that can easily slip to the bottom of your to-do list and be neglected. Analyses, paperwork, meetings, preparing presentations and other proactive everyday tasks are frequently prioritised ahead of the more passive act of reading. Of course, when you are working on a research proposal, analysis plan, grant or writing a paper, reading suddenly becomes an integral part of an important and practical task.

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Yet reading research papers is also important in and of itself and not just a means to an end. Regular reading can provide you with a range of perspectives on key issues, insight into what types of methods and statistical analyses are used in your area and ideas for interesting research questions that you might wish to address. It can be particularly motivating when you notice some incidental or unusual result that has no clear explanation but could lead to a potential research avenue. Discussion sections can sometimes also have intriguing suggestions for future research.

It is as important to have a good grasp of what has already been said and done in your topic area as it is to keep an eye out for new methods, ideas and results. What’s more, not only should you aim to become an expert in your specific research area, it seems that you should also have a firm understanding of where your topic fits into the larger body of literature. Friends have mentioned to me that PhD viva/thesis examiners tend to ask questions about how your work fits into the broader area of research.

Sometimes reading papers can feel a bit like “choose your own adventure”, where you end up chasing references and going off on tangents; an attempt to read one research article can thus lead to a highlighted mess of papers and dozens of open bookmarks in your browser. Trying to stay on top of the ever-expanding body of relevant literature can quickly get overwhelming.

When I first started my PhD, I had a long stretch of familiarising myself with the existing literature of my chosen topic. At the time, I was advised by an eminent visiting researcher that there was no need to read every single paper in my area of interest because, after a while, the papers (particularly the introductions and discussions) become quite repetitive. True enough, but my problem is, where do you draw the line?

There are several steps to becoming well-read in your area of interest. The first of these is identifying which papers it is actually useful to read. The best way to look for key papers in your area of interest is searching Google Scholar (or another database) and looking at the most cited papers or identifying a recent review of the literature. There are numerous ways of keeping an eye out for the brand-new literature that you should be reading. I have written about these before; they include reading relevant blogs, using Twitter, RSS feeds (e.g. Feedly) and services like PubCrawler (for medical research).

Finding the time to read papers can be the tricky part. I tend to always have a small pile of printed papers that I want to read next. These come in handy when our University computer network is down (which happens every now and again), I’m travelling somewhere by train, I’m in between things I’m working on or I want a break from what I’ve been working on. Other options include scheduling a regular time for paper-reading, such as Friday afternoon, or organising a journal club in your team, which will give you a deadline for reading chosen papers. It also helps not to read papers cover to cover. After a while, Introductions can mostly be skipped through and you probably want to focus most on the Results & Method, though a glance through the Discussion can also be fruitful.

The next vital step is organising your papers. This helps with being able to keep track of which ones you have read, finding the right one when you need it and also with referencing. I have my downloaded PDFs organised by first author and year, as well as labelled with key words. However, I have recently transferred my references to Mendeley (after finally declaring defeat in my ongoing battle with Endnote, perhaps the world’s most bug-filled and frustrating reference manager) and from my limited use of Mendeley, I can definitely recommend checking it out. The best things about it are that it’s free and available online, which makes working from multiple computers hassle-free. Google have also recently introduced Google Scholar library, which looks really easy to use.

Finally, a key part of being well-read is remembering what you have read. It can feel a little embarrassing when you download an interesting-looking paper only to find that you already have 2 copies of it, each with different highlights and notes. I tend to highlight important sections of papers on PDF versions or paper copies. I also have a Word document (now approaching 20,000 words) divided into topic sub-sections, where I write some notes and a quick summary and perhaps include a screenshot of a crucial figure, after reading a paper. Having these notes in one document makes searching for a specific study or keyword really quick and easy.

I tend to find that although I don’t often set aside a chunk of time to read papers, saving interesting-looking papers regularly and keeping my reading list organised helps me feel like I am not drowning in the literature. I’m very grateful to whoever came up with the concept of the academic abstract. Reading abstracts not only helps with getting an idea of whether you would benefit from reading the whole paper or not but is also a quick first glance at the paper itself. Even if you are pushed for time, reading abstracts can give you a pretty good overview of what sorts of things are out there to be read, making it seem a little more like you are on top of that mountain of literature.

One step ahead of the game

It’s that time of year again, when my friends and peers are busily editing, formatting, referencing and proofreading their final PhD thesis drafts. Inevitably, this has brought the goal of my PhD to the forefront of my mind. But more so than at the end of my first year, this has come with an additional sense of impending panic about my post-PhD plans.

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I’ve written before about the stressful consequences of not thinking about and planning my career soon enough. So I know all too well that it’s never too early to start preparations for the next step. Naturally, these preparations involve researching available options.

So what are they? These generally split into options that involve staying in academia and research vs. options that do not. Much has been said recently about the general difficulties facing PhD graduates in terms of leaving academia, even though statistically speaking, the majority of us are going to do just that. As a psychology postgraduate, I could:

  • Leave research and compete against the 100s of other graduates to try to get a place on a training course to specialise as a clinical, educational or other psychologist
  • Leave psychology for a vaguely related but new subject (e.g. medicine, social work or teaching)
  • Leave both psychology and research all together and get into science communication or join some graduate scheme or something entirely different

Yes, those are all viable options… but not ones I am keen on. I want to stay in research because I love it and this is what I really want to do. According to my “individual development plan”, my skills, interests and values are most compatible with being “Research staff in a research-intensive institution”. So, with that in mind, what should the next step be?

  1. Becoming a lecturer in the hope that in between preparing and delivering lectures, marking coursework, supervising and mentoring students and doing admin work, there will be time to squeeze in a bit of research
  2. Competing for a coveted but short-lived post-doc position on somebody else’s grant
  3. Failing getting a post-doc position, trying for a research assistant post (for which you wouldn’t need a PhD). Judging by the difficulty of getting one of these without a PhD, I’m pretty certain a lot of PhD students end up doing this.
  4. Applying for your own grant money via one of the supremely competitive “early career” fellowship schemes

Every option is bound to be competitive and all options (except perhaps the lecturer route) are going to be short-term (1-4 years from what I’ve gathered) before you need to try for a new post. Many of the options may also involve moving to a new university/city, which can come with all sorts of complications.

At the moment, it is far too early for me to think about the first 3 of these options as positions will only be advertised at most a couple of months in advance. I have just over a year to go before my funding runs out. The fellowship route on the other hand would involve about a year-long application process, so now would be the time to start considering this option.

I’ve recently been to a few talks and workshops on fellowships and have been looking into specific schemes that offer something I might be eligible for. Although it sounds like a really exciting and appealing option, it also looks pretty tough and competitive.

One of the trickiest parts is coming up with a brand new, exciting and viable research idea. I’ve already had to come up with an idea for my undergraduate dissertation and then an idea for my PhD, followed by several more specific ideas for my PhD research chapters. The trouble is trying to find time to work on developing a new project idea (fellowship), while still working on the last one, which is still far from done (PhD).

Perhaps that in itself is a useful skill I should practice, given that that is what the cycle of grant-writing appears to be like. From my limited experience of seeing supervisors and professors writing grants, there is only a short grace period in between successfully receiving grant funding and beginning the next grant application, while the current work is being done. Well, it can’t hurt (too much) to try, right?

PhD productivity vs. having a life – both please!

Scientific research is pretty competitive, especially when it comes to securing funding. As such, our work is never truly done and to-do lists can feel endless. These two things frequently result in researchers working extremely long hours. A fascinating article on this subject was making the rounds on Twitter last week. In the post, a tenure track researcher at Harvard University mentions that some people believe that success in academia can only be achieved by working 80 hours/week. She points out that this “would mean ~11 hour work days all 7 days of the week. That’s crazy, and *completely* unreasonable”. I agree wholeheartedly.

This workaholic mentality is quite pervasive though, both in academia and beyond. PhD comics frequently illustrate the absurd idea that PhD students are expected by their supervisors to dedicate all their time to their research (see a recent comic here). Although the comics are fortunately an exaggeration, many PhD students do feel the pressure to work long hours to compete for the precious few post doc positions out there. I’m reminded of this excellent article by Scicurious from a couple years ago, commenting on the many problems with fostering this kind of attitude in early career researchers.

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Surely working excessively long hours is counter-productive. After a certain amount of hard work and mental effort, one’s ability to concentrate and the quality of work decreases dramatically. Our brains need adequate sleep and nutrition in order to perform optimally. Similarly, relaxing, spending time with family and friends, exercising and doing hobbies are necessary to stay mentally healthy and combat stress. A quick route to an unhealthy and overly stressful lifestyle involves trying to get by on caffeine rather than getting enough sleep (see this fascinating article), repeatedly missing out on social events and skipping meals or eating take-away/microwave meals.

There is no question that we need a work-life balance. The question is, can you succeed in science by working “only” 40-45 hours a week? Where I work, most people go home by 6pm and do not lament or brag about working at weekends. I occasionally receive work emails that have been sent on weekends or late in the evening, suggesting that at least some of my colleagues work from home outside of core office hours. I certainly check and reply to emails/do other work from home on occasion too. However, I strongly doubt that anyone in my research group regularly works more than 50 hours/week. And yet, as a group we seem to be reasonably scientifically productive, healthy and happy.

Just to clarify, I completely understand the occasional need to work longer hours in order to get something important done or to meet a deadline. Friends approaching their PhD thesis submission deadlines definitely put in more hours of work a week than average. Similarly, professors writing grants clearly also work longer hours in the weeks before submission. These are understandable exceptions though and they happen for a finite time period.

Perhaps I am really lucky to have found myself in such a healthy work environment or maybe I am incredibly naïve and underestimate how long my colleagues work. Either way, I would much rather work efficiently for 40 hours a week and take the time to recharge my batteries. There are plenty of technological tricks that can increase productivity and cut the length of time tasks take. For example, most statistical packages (Stata, R, SPSS etc.) allow one to use do-files/scripts/syntax to easily run, annotate and repeat analyses. Referencing programs (Endnote, Papers for Windows, Zotero or Mendeley) can cut out days of work, particularly when you need to re-do references after having an article rejected and preparing it to re-submit somewhere else. Microsoft Word has many built-in options that make working with long word documents a breeze (e.g. formatting styles, automatic table of contents). Learning how to use software fully and efficiently (i.e. understanding all the quirks and options) is an investment of time that will pay out exponentially.

In my (as yet limited) experience, I fail to understand how working 50+ hours a week can lead to increased scientific productivity that is worth the cost to one’s physical and mental well-being.


The privilege of writing

Apologies to my few regular readers for my sparse posts in the last few months. In addition to concentrating on actual PhD work, I’ve been doing a bit of other writing. I’ve started dabbling in science communication, mostly because it’s cool and a good thing to do and partly because I need the practice. As far as I’m concerned, any writing I do is useful training for the thesis-writing marathon I need to complete. Coming up with interesting ideas for this blog (though my success here is arguable) and phrasing things coherently (again, an arguable statement) helps get me in the habit of phrasing thoughts into sentences and writing. It’s also kind of fun and vaguely cathartic to chronicle my first forays into academia like this.

The style I use here is pretty casual and writing blog posts is substantially easier than writing scientific papers. The writing style needed for science communication is very different from both of these. I’ve recently written a couple of posts for the Mental Elf blog and also a guest post about my first PhD paper at Counterbalanced.

Most recently, I’ve poured quite a lot of time and energy into an attempt at an entry for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award for MRC-funded researchers. The competition has 3 parts: answering the question “why does my research matter?”, imagining what advances might occur in your area of research in the next century, and coming up with a good title.

I found this competition so difficult I nearly gave up about a dozen times, only to start from a completely different angle and delete loads of stuff and carry on. I’m not entirely sure why or how I persevered, except perhaps through sheer stubbornness; I had already put in so much time that I needed to somehow justify this to myself. The only way to do so was to actually see it through to the end. Suffice it to say that I doubt my entry will be selected but I am glad that I went through with it. And I learned some useful things about writing in lay language in the process.

Possibly the trickiest part of the competition was coming up with a good title. There is a £100 prize for the article with the best title, which was sufficient to motivate me to make an attempt at something that wasn’t the world’s most boring and generic 3-word title. I sought the advice of the internet. Unsurprisingly, everyone writing on the matter agreed that article titles are really important. They are the first, and often only, thing a reader will see. No matter how amazing an article is, the title needs to instil at least some sense of curiosity or interest in a reader to attract their attention. This is equally the case for newspaper headlines, books and blog posts as it is for academic journal articles, conference talks or posters.

I have an issue with titles. I always leave them till last when writing a blog post or other article, though I often have a “working title”. I’ve seen some advice which recommended spending as much time working on your title as you spend on the main article, which frankly, seems a bit like overkill.

I can just about briefly and accurately convey the gist of an article in a handful of words but how do you make it exciting, curiosity-piquing or fun….without making a terrible, cheesy or lame pun? There seem to be a fair amount of the latter out in the world of academia – see some amusing examples of fake psychology titles here. You can normally forgive these if the title still makes some kind of sense and gives you an impression of what the article might actually be about. Many academic journals make things more difficult by restricting your word or character limit, while also demanding that you use no acronyms. Some academic journals also make further restrictions by explicitly forbidding you from giving away the results in the title.

Some options for reasonable titles are using questions, clever cultural references or double meanings. But this is easier said than done and requires a bit of creativity. Sometimes you just need to give up and stick with what you’ve come up with, hoping that an older, wiser you would not cringe too much (something I may have failed at). I spent far too much time trying to come up with a title for my competition entry. In the end, I hope I struck a balance between accurately representing the article and not putting the reader to sleep on the spot. I doubt it’s a winner but I gave it my best shot. I also seem to have spent far too much time reflecting on the importance of titles.