Reflection in science

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And no, not as in the mirror kind.

In what’s becoming (or seeming to become) an increasingly frenetic research environment, where turn-around times at journals, strict (and too short) deadlines on studentships, and the drive (either from perceived need or desire) to “get papers out” are often thought of as the default. I’ve noticed it lately as I supervise students and collaborate on projects, and as a result, my list of “current projects” falls into a highly bimodal distribution: 1) languishing for months, 2) needed my attention yesterday.

It seems astonishing that this cultural emphasis has shifted to much (or perhaps just how I perceived it shifting) in the 8 years since I obtained my PhD. This also makes mentoring students today all the more challenging, because their experiences are already diverging from my own (and we all know the “I got a tenure-track professorship before I’d handed in my PhD and with only a paper in a mid-tier specialist journal” argument gets really old really fast).

Now, I am wary of this becoming a “when I was your age” post, written from the opulent luxury of a permanent job in my field. Jobs are seemingly getting harder to get, grants are most certainly more competitive, and the mighty Journal Impact Factor and h-index are (foolishly, in my view) used by those who make decisions about hiring, promotion, and funding. To say nothing of the biases some of my friends & colleagues experience (where it seems that nothing is ever enough to merit X). And this is all made easier by the electronic modes of communication (physically posting 3 copies of a paper to a journal, who posted it to reviewers took longer… and yes, I have indeed experienced it!).

From a PI perspective, this all manifests in how I prioritise the science I work on – student manuscripts, and funded work to the front. Which has relegated a great deal of “my science” to the back-burner. Projects from my postdoc that I had to shelve, important, but “low impact” research that I think needs done, and work that I would love to do, but is more often funnelled into student projects (which is a mixed blessing in the UK). In the past I’ve been too eager to say yes to things that were tangential to my focus or interests.

Sure, part of this is down to career progression as well as temporal effects (herein lies one of the main challenges of longitudinal studies!). But I wonder if two tools I’ve used frequently in the theatre might help, or at least not be a complete waste of time.

 

The first is an analogy to workshopping. In theatre, a playwright can often take a partially finished work to a theatre troupe and they work together in a methodical way to try different things out. It could be everything from new lines of dialogue to whole new directions of entire acts. The workshopping I’ve been involved in typically lasted 2-3 days and always resulted in a stronger work.

Some departments do something similar with a periodic external audit or “departmental review”, where outside peers assess criteria, speak with department members, and present a series of recommendations for making the department better.

What if we had something similar, but for research programmes? I don’t mean in a harsh “you’re awful, why did you bother doing that” sense, but rather in the theatrical spirit of coming up with a focused and better piece. This is perhaps a more formalized, structured, and intervening way of mentorship (which itself is lacking at the PI level). I’d love to spend 2-3 days with someone without a vested interest in my research to plot strategically which grants to pursue, which to pass, which projects to drive forward, and which new areas of research to look into because at the moment it feels a little too hodge-podge for my liking.

 

The second is the somewhat controversial concept of Slow Science, which advocates for more thinking and a more deliberate, slower pace to scientific production. The challenge is that this call is often made by those not facing the same pressures as students or postdocs looking to secure employment (and to whom so many PIs are inexorably linked), and that long-term funding (more than on a 2-4 year basis) isn’t really forthcoming. Perhaps it would also be helped along by the first exercise, if we assume that “time for science” is finite and at a set level, the more projects in which one becomes involved, the less time each project receives.

My most recent experience with this was 3 (!) years ago when several of us absconded to a friend’s parent’s house in the Swiss Alps for 2 weeks and immersed ourselves in a series of related projects, interspersed with lovely cheese, bizarre German boardgames, and of course hikes in the mountains. I felt truly immersed in what we were doing, and for the first (and only!) time since my PhD focused solely on a group of interrelated publications (and which resulted in all 6 being published, with the overwhelming majority of work taking place on this retreat).

 

But as I said, these ideas may well be luxuries given that my students and collaborators are facing different pressures and have different priorities. In the meantime, I’ve already started trying to refocus some efforts, and have actively discussed a “reset” with a few close colleagues (we’ll find out soon if the grant application that would allow this reset was successful!). And by carving out dedicated time for research (right now, 1 day a week plus an annual writing retreat for 2-3 weeks), I hope to get things back to where I want them: less frenetic and more focused.

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The unreconciled dimensions

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I grew up in Atlantic Canada, a region comprising the provinces of Newfoundland & Labrador (9+ years), Nova Scotia (4+ years), Prince Edward Island (sadly never lived there), and New Brunswick (15+ years). It’s the sort of area where within about 5 minutes you can easily find a common connection (you both went to school with Jack’s cousin’s brother), where doors are still kept unlocked, and if you’re lost you just knock on the nearest door, and they set you right (after a cup of Red Rose tea and a Dare maple leaf cookie).

I spent uncountable nights camping in fields, forests, beaches, mountains, and rivers and was totally at home. I’ve hiked every marked trail in Fundy National Park (including two complete “Fundy Circuit” treks, a connected loop of 45 km of trail, including about half a dozen river crossings traversing the park). It’s where I did my very first field work, at the Point Lepreau Bird Observatory back in 2004. Where I discovered my love of the outdoors, working at Cape Enrage from 2002-2004. And where, despite not living “back home” for almost a decade, I still feel drawn.

I cut my teeth as a field biologist, working 3+ month field seasons for 9 years between 2005-2015, in some pretty remote places (check out a map here), some of which were me and one other person with no resupply for 11 weeks. I loved it. I had amazing techs and collaborators in the field, and I’d hire each and every one of them again if I could. We weathered massive gales, volcanic eruptions, semi-aquatic beach landings, and even one 3-day stranding. We lost generators and batteries halfway through the season, tents were destroyed, water in short supply, and challenges seemingly insurmountable. But we always made it through. I loved it.

What links my time in the field with growing up (and living) in Atlantic Canada is remoteness. They’re both places where there are few people, where it’s easy to get away or be alone, and teeming with nature. They’re also both not the most queer-friendly.

Here, dear reader, is the reconciliation I have yet to achieve: my love of ruralness/remoteness and my queerness.

And that pains me.

So it was with a stomach-clenching feeling that I read about the intentional vandalism of a rainbow crosswalk outside Riverview High School earlier this summer. That was my high school. The place where, for four years, I successfully(?) hid who I was out of fear while savouring my first introduction to science and research.

I’ve also had two field work instances where I’ve felt either unsafe or purposefully excluded because I was out (though lots of others where I’ve felt isolated).

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Being a queer scientist has been, for me, a series of reconciliations. I still remember when I was told that my out-of-semester research component of my honours thesis (4 weeks counting migrating seabirds in southern New Brunswick) would be *paid*. Until then I had no idea one could be paid to do science. I mean, I obviously knew several professional scientists at the university and the local Canadian Wildlife Service office, but that *I* could be paid to do science was revolutionary. I still remember telling a good friend and mentor, and he simply smiled.

And of course, the process of coming out is one giant reconciliation, of two lives lived in parallel, neither of which was entirely satisfactory. And at the time I first came out (September 2005), the advice included “have some cash, and a place to stay if things go badly”, and was only a few short years after Mathew Shepard’s murder.

Then for several years I thought I had squared every circle, and was wonderfully out and wonderfully science-ing. But it took meeting a visiting speaker in 2010 for the other shoe to drop: I could be a queer scientist. It seems silly to say, but I’d had no concept of what that meant, how to do it, or why one would even want to. But over lunch, it was like a wall came down (the product, dear reader, is a growing corpus of posts on this increasingly queer blog).

So it’s in this vein that I share with you the latest challenge I find myself facing: my love of rural places, the very places where I find it more challenging to be open and out.

Atlantic Canada has a reputation for being relatively conservative (particularly outside of major centres), strongly religious, and where “the men are men, and the women are too”. Of Canadian regions, it had the lowest support for same-sex marriage in a 2019 poll (PDF). Yes, there are wonderfully accepting pockets, and of course it will have a different level of acceptance than where we currently live, half an hour from central London on a fast train. I just wish it was slightly less awkward for queer folk.

This reconciliation was brought to the fore when I watched the 2017 British film God’s Own Country which, without spoiling, features the struggles of a young Yorkshire farmer, and the two lives he seems forced to lead. I do highly recommended it. Though not parallel, there were definitely glimmers of similarity between myself and Johnny Saxby (though, thankfully, not the drinking to excess), both looking to merge who we are with where we are (or indeed where we might want to be).

– –

On the field work side, it was particularly wonderful to see the British Antarctic Survey’s team at King Edward Point raising the rainbow flag on LGBT STEM Day. And it reminded me how much I ended up code-switching in the field, even through I’m still out, and that’s generally known among my fellow field workers. But I’ve never brought a rainbow flag to the field, though that will change on my next field trip.

And perhaps, eventually, we’ll end up back in Atlantic Canada, queer, happy, and rural.

The system of student research in the UK fundamentally broken

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Hot take alert.

Having worked in university-adjacent and research-based institutions for the last 5 years in the UK, I’m acutely aware of the challenges around getting research done. A common solution is, of course, to have undergraduate or graduate student researchers. This can be for an honours, masters, or PhD degree, for example. And while student training hasn’t been a formalised part of my job, I recognize it as essential for the progress of professional science (and not just in research, but cutting across many spheres, like communication, policy, industry, and more). Long story short, the way to get more research done is, unsurprisingly, to have more people working on it. And I know I’m not alone in having a lengthy list of projects that I think need doing.

So what are the mechanics of this in the UK? Unfortunately they do not tend to work in researchers’ favour.

The first is the masters programmes. The museum participates in three such programmes, run through two London universities. Students cycle through varying numbers of modules (taught, and research projects) over the course of a year, meaning a student dedicates ca. 4 months to a single project. There are also longer MRes programmes which tend to be 8-12 months as well, but we’re not formally partnered in any of those at the moment.

Leaving aside the £9000 tuition fees and other barriers to entry from an undergrad degree, the reality is that 4 months is frighteningly short to accomplish a research project, particularly if any data collection is required. The result is the prioritisation of the student’s research report so that they can achieve their degree, which inevitably means a lot of “we can do that later when we turn it into a paper”. But upon graduation, seldom do students have the time (and indeed they are doing it in their own time if at all) to revise reports, do additional analyses, and turn their thesis into a manuscript. It then falls to the supervisor who must often engage in manuscript necromancy and spend a not inconsiderable amount of time doing the revisions, submitting the manuscript, responding to reviewer comments, and more. And this assumes that the analyses are correct and complete, that the data are collected appropriately, and analyses can be reproduced/altered. In my experience (n = 4), only one (my masters first student) has gone on to getting it published, and that was thanks to an additional collaborator who took the brunt of the work. The whole process took 4 years after graduation. And this is by no means a dig at the students! They’re in a tough spot where increasingly masters degrees are seen as an essential precursor to a PhD (in a way that North American research-based masters degrees haven’t been over here). But the time allowed just isn’t enough.

What then of PhD students?

In the UK, there are basically 2 ways of securing a PhD student for your research group: a) have a huge grant that can pay for it (the full cost of a PhD student is ca. £25k a year, plus research costs), or work through one of the Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs). For those not in the know, NERC, the Natural Environment Research Council (and it’s companions in other fields) funds these studentships. But rather than dish them out directly, and likely in an attempt to make sure not everyone who gets one goes to Oxbridge, they award the funds to consortia of universities. There are 17 DTPs through NERC, each of which covers a particularly theme/group of universities. Note that if your university isn’t covered, you don’t get students through this route.

But there are also all kinds of unwritten allocation rules to prevent one university in the consortium from taking all the students (and all the money, which happened in the first year at one place). But it means a rigid system of quotas. For example, the museum is part of the GW4+ DTP, covering Bath, Exeter, Cardiff, and Plymouth. But we only get one “lead-supervised” studentship in the whole 5-year cohort (It could be one a year, but that’s not entirely clear). Either way, given the same student, same project, and same supervisory team (we need someone at a uni because the NHM can’t award degrees) the student may or may not get funded because of who’s listed as the “lead” applicant. This happened to me last year.

Take another case: the London NERC DTP receives >700 applications for a measly 13 PhD studentships. This means that one must basically have an absolute top undergrad degree, an absolute top masters, have publications, volunteer (yes, volunteer!) experience, and more. That’s imply not attainable for many students, and is a sure fire way to limit diversity.

As a consequence, it means that at conferences, students want to come and talk about doing a PhD, but even if we work with them, carefully craft a project around their interests and for which they’re uniquely qualified (i.e., game the system), they could still not be awarded the studentship. Equally, a student need not be in touch directly with a potential supervisor before applying, so if they’re admitted to the DTP, the DTP is essentially forced to get them a project.

Lastly on DTPs, because students aren’t linked with specific projects (in some DTPs) until after a 12-week “rotation” across the different partners, there’s a lot of wooing and spoiling of potential students who know they are valuable to supervisors, and I have been dragged on and on by some in the past who ultimately choose a different project.

The system, dear reader, is broken.

I’m not saying it’s better or worse than what came before (I wasn’t here), but it’s pretty clear to me that my time as a PI is better spent just doing the science myself, or working with students overseas where entry requirements aren’t as convoluted and disconnected (e.g., Australia, Canada, US). Which is quite sad for me, as it means I’m unlikely to have “my own” lab, or cohort of students to whom I can impart what I think the culture of science and scholarship should look like. And I really miss that.

If you’re a current (!), or prospective student reading this, though, don’t take it as a signal that you shouldn’t get in touch. There may well be other ways of making things work, but so far I’ve found discussion of the frustrations of supervisors in student recruitment in the UK to be largely hush-hush.

NERC, and other research councils, need to rethink this system. I’m happy to consult, at my usual rate.

 

Post edited 02 Aug to clarify the masters-level courses and their varying requirements.

Keeping track of projects and prioritising work

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One of the perennial discussions that crops up in science circles (both academic and non-academic) is how to keep track of projects and prioritise what to work on in away that doesn’t feel like using a parasol to combat a fire hose at close range.

I know there are bits of project management software, but I have enough Gantt charts in my life, and nearly everyone in science has a spreadsheet program. Plus, it’s the system I’ve used for the last 10 years or so, from near the end of my PhD through two postdocs, and now two research positions.

First, some basics. I keep track of a lot of projects… some are mine, some are my students, some I haven’t heard anything about in more than a year and may be dead in the water. Some of mine may in fact be floundering in the intertidal as we speak. Details have been redacted to protect the procrastinating and overworked.

It’s also not a “set in stone” priority list. In my hierarchy, first come student papers, followed by papers with colleagues who need them for jobs, tenure, promotion, etc. And of course those requiring little input from me at the time quickly rise to the top regardless of where they fall on the spreadsheet.

I’ve set up rules to auto-colour cells based on whether something sits with me (ALB), a coauthor, or a journal, and whether a particular state is done (Yes), in progress (Part), or not yet started (No). I then sort these in descending order across columns to get … the final product. The grey bars are the projects that I really want ot try and focus on, for one reason or another (student, been-around-for-a-long-time, for a coauthor’s job/application/tenure/etc).

Following each line is a note to myself about what the next steps are (e.g., “review draft”, or “re-run stats with 2019 data”), and for those with coauthors, who it’s sitting with (“With JK”). The last column is the planned journal, or where it’s been submitted. I don’t keep track of unsuccessful submissions here (I do that in both the project’s folder and in email correspondence). I also don’t keep track of dates because I’ve not really had a need or desire to.

And lastly, there are two tabs, with identical headings: one for, well, current projects, and another for what I’ve affectionately called “dormant projects” – those where I’m not sure if they’ll ever amount to anything, or are shelved, on hiatus, or otherwise inactive. They’re not yet binned totally, and some do come back to being active (if an interested student comes along, for example).

So I hope this might be helpful, and I’m sure there are ways I can make it better, but it’s a system that seems to work for me.

Some rambling thoughts on field work to wrap up Pride Month

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I’ve just returned from a month in the field on Henderson Island in the South Pacific. The trip was, for several reasons, a career highlight for me. I’ve known about the Pitcairn Island since I was an awkward, precocial, pain in my grade 5 teacher’s side and we were asked to do a Geography project on a country (Pitcairn, I should point out, is a UK Overseas Territory, and was therefore not eligible because they are not totally self-governing. I think I ended up doing another obscure Micronesian island state, which largely entailed copying sections from the World Book Encyclopedia in the library). But I digress. The point is, this was the first field expedition in 15 years where I didn’t know (or hire) everyone beforehand. We had scientists, journalists, storytellers, divers, artists, and more amongst our group of 13. We were based on the supply ship that runs between New Zealand, the Gambier Islands of French Polynesia, and Pitcairn – the MV Silver Supporter – which was on this occasion crewed by a Russian & Lithuanian crew of absolutely fantastic people. And if any of them happen to be reading this, what follows isn’t directed at you or anyone else, but is the confluence of years of collective societal directions, expectations, and norms.

Since returning, the inevitable first question to come from 95% of people is “so how was it?”. In a scientific sense, it was pretty successful. We got most of the data we wanted (only one of about 8 projects didn’t materialise for reasons we couldn’t control), which is pretty good for a 2-week expedition. And I definitely met some colleagues that I would love to work with again. So after describing that, and mentioning that I did manage to see all 5 endemic bird species on Henderson and the one on Pitcairn (yay!), I often wrap it up or start in on some of the longer stories. But when the person asking how it was is one of my queer pals, before we get to the stories, I wrap up the summary of my experience with one more tidbit: it was *exceptionally* heterosexual.

Now, I’m a white, male, cis scientist with a permanent job and from a country where my human rights are, for the most part, protected. I carry a lot of privilege. But being the “only gay on the boat” for a month, despite the presence of two good friends, was still … noticeable.

Well so what? I’m sure no one cares, I hear some (non-queer) folk say. But field work brings that extra layer of social interaction – there are only 12 other people with whom you will interact for a month. You’ve no choice but to interact with them, and them with you, during work, meal times, and even in shared cabins on the ship. And you can’t just take a break or get away.

What many straight friends & colleagues may not appreciate is that, to some degree, every new interaction, every new place, and every new person has a layer of risk assessment for lots of queer folk (including yours truly). Will I come out? If so how? What will the likely reactions be? How safe will I be? How will it affect social interactions? Will that have professional consequences? Can I get out if I need to? What should I say if they mention my wedding ring? Or assume the opposite-sex person I’m with is my partner? Is it safe to speak up and call out someone’s heterosexist comment? If you think queer folk don’t go through such questions several times a day, think again. It happens in the field, in the department, at conferences and meetings… everywhere. For my last month-long field expedition, I need both hands and feet at least twice over to count all the times these questions passed through my thoughts, however fleetingly.

And in an international context, there are additional layers about local laws, customs, cultures, and that of the other international expedition members, conference attendees, etc. The consequences manifest differently for different folks. I tend to “straighten” myself and my vocabulary (yes, ugh, I know, and I wish I didn’t but hey there’s lots of fun consequences of growing up closeted in the 90s!).

So why am I telling you this? I’m a pretty resilient chap and won’t suffer any lasting harm from this trip (especially now that the 2cm bit of tree is out of my left shin). It’s because I’m reminded of something one of my first field techs told me on a pretty grim day in 2006 when all our field kit kept breaking and it was pouring with rain — “It could be worse!”, I quipped. “Yes, but it could also be a hell of a lot better” was their reply.

I often get asked “What’s it like being queer in science?”, and this is partly prompted from a fab twitter discussion. What if we shifted the question to be “what can I do to make it better for queer folks in science?”. In that twitter thread, Dan Simpson flagged something that I’ve really struggled to articulate, writing that queer folk don’t have “object permanence” for most folks. That is, “they kinda forget about us and organise everything accordingly. Then when they have to remember we exist, they often fall apart.” There’s also no way for me to know someone’s thoughts… you could be the most wonderfully accepting, affirming, validating ally, but allyship is demonstrated through actions, not self-identification. And unless you demonstrate that, many of those questions will pass through my stream of consciousness.

So what can you do to make it better for queer folk in science, and particularly in the field? Here are a few random thoughts:

  • ditch the macho temptation to lift the most field gear, hike the fastest, carry the most.
  • have a rainbow sticker on your office door? Why not have one on some of your field kit?
  • Call. Out. Heteronormative. Crap. From. Others. On. The. Expedition.
  • if your trip is international, read up on the local climate for queer folk in advance and offer support if needed
  • if your accommodation is split by binary perceived gender, might want to think a bit about that one (h/t Lewis Bartlett)
  • think about how things will be perceived by a queer colleague. What’s that, don’t want to me thinking about it all the time? Tough beans, because we certainly do.

I’ll post more about the expedition, its science and stories in the coming months as we go through thousands of images, crunch thousands of data points, and as projects come from the various expedition members. Working on Henderson has been a goal of mine for more than 5 years, and I’m thrilled that I was able to go. Next time, though, I’ll try to make it just a bit more queer.

Pre-emptive thoughts on Pride Month 2019 & a look ahead

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June is Pride Month, and for the first time since 2012, I will be away in the field, this time on the remote Henderson Island in the South Pacific Ocean with no email/phone. To be honest I’m quite looking forward to it.

But it does mean that I’ll be largely absent for Pride Month this year, which is a bit sad because I see it as an important time, to celebrate successes and renew battles for the year ahead. I wrote a fair bit last year about queer issues in science, and since I won’t get a chance to do so (at least not as timely), I thought this year I would look back at the last 12 months, and forward to the year ahead.

 

The last year

In the last year, I had two “Queer in science” talks, including one at my own institution. Both were… ok. There were definitely things that I want to do differently, and bits that I think fell flat which I’m hoping to tweak before I give it again. I think part of my struggle is that I feel there’s just so much information I want to convey, and I worry that not everyone has the same understanding of some of the nuance, history, implications, or gravity. That may be true, but it’s something I need to get over. As a storyteller, I can’t just present facts and citations, especially for something this personal. If you suffered through one of these early attempts, thank you for being gentle.

There was also a noticeable uptick in strangers reaching out for advice. Being rather vocal about LGBTQ+ issues in science (and in general), I’ve received a few queries, usually from folks I knew already, asking questions, looking for advice, or just needing an ear. This year, though, the number of “out of the blue” messages was more than I’d had before. And figuring out how to navigate those in a sensible & compassionate way was certainly challenging. It was also quite sobering. Only last month did I receive a message that started “Hello, how are you. I’m gay from Iraq. I need help”. Now, I’m no expert in things like international aid, asylum, or the like, but thanks to some help from some organizations like Stonewall and Outright International, this person got some hopefully helpful resources. With increased connectivity and visibility I expect such queries to only increase, especially for those of us with our heads above the parapets.

I also had equity, diversity, and inclusions activities written into my annual job plan explicitly, including committees, and hopefully attending an LGBTQ+ leadership course later this year. I’m quite lucky that I can do this, and I know not everyone is able to do so, but it’s an important way that employers can actually demonstrate their commitment to diversity beyond a boilerplate statement and basic policy.

 

The year ahead

The main event for me will, as ever, be the LGBT STEMinar in January in Birmingham. This will be the 5th iteration, and it has really taken off! It’s always heart warming to hear others react so positively to this event, and catch up with the many friends I’ve made at STEMinars past.

As I mentioned, I’ve had LGBTQ+ leadership added to my personal development plan through work this year, so I will be looking to sort that out once I’m back from the field.

I’d very much like to think more about how to make my field work less heteronormative, but that will require some mental space, which is at a premium these days.

Lastly, I’d really like to pin down my “LGBT in STEM” seminar to something that feels less clunky & disjointed.

 

And lastly…

I’m curious to know what you, dear reader (of whatever orientation & identity you happen to be) would like to hear about. I keep yammering on about things as they pop into my mind, so do give a shout if there’s something on your mind (either here, or here)

Subtle markers of career progression

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Last September, Meg Duffy wrote a really nice piece about what she saw as some of the markers of a shift in career stage – like seeing a reference letter in a grad school application from one of your former undergrad students. This phenomenon is something of which I’ve been acutely aware recently, though I’m not sure why. But every few weeks, I keep finding another example, and I thought I would collate them here.

Similar to Meg’s example above, last December I found myself being the external examiner for a MSc thesis that was the logical progression from my own honours thesis 15 years ago. It was neat to look back and see what I would have done differently, how someone else approached the same challenges, and how they took my rambling suggestions for “future research” and actually implemented some of them!

Back in 2017, I noted that my “Manuscripts” link folder in my browser was empty because all my current submissions were being handled by collaborators or students. That was also the year I had no first-authored papers. There could be an interesting study in how authorship position shifts over career stages (I mean, it’s another example of quantifying the obvious but hey that’s basically ecology & conservation, isn’t it?)

More recently, I have become increasingly frustrated with some of the cultural systems in research in general (and academia specifically) and how difficult it’s been to change/fix, but because of how others (trainees, mentees, or other folks earlier in their career were being treated. I’ve been trying for some time to push our collective system towards a more equitable, inclusive one; my equivalent of reaching down to hold the metaphorical ladder. Or put another way, trying to be the kind of person I would have benefited earlier in my career.

Some not-so-obvious markers come from increased experience, and how long we expect things to take. For example, 7 days out, I hadn’t really done much to prepare for a seminar (because it was a minor alteration of one that I had given just a few months previously), and that didn’t faze me like it would have when I was a postdoc.

And the most recent example was from just yesterday. My good friend & colleague Ingrid Pollet & I, along with some other coauthors, submitted a huge 24,000-word monograph as an updated species account for the Birds of North America series. We’d been working on it since we first hatched the idea at a conference in Barcelona in September 2016, and so submitting it yesterday was a huge cause for celebration. But aside from telling colleagues, I had to make my own celebration. In grad school, or as a postdoc, for example, my supervisor/lab would have chipped in and we would have had some celebratory cake, or a trip to the pub after work. I came home and had a celebratory cinnamon bun (which was delicious).

For the above, I don’t have a particular “good vs bad” take on them; they all seem largely a part of the typical progression for someone in a permanent job 8 years from my PhD. I’ll probably update this post with others as & when they manifest.

When the inclusive science spaces we build meet the orthodoxy

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As a proud non-academic scientist, I find some of the short-hands (shorts-hand?) for career stages don’t really mesh with my experiences so far. I got my PhD in 2011, didn’t have a career break, and am in my second permanent job, so I’m not really an “early-career researcher” any more (or at least, I don’t really feel like one). One big difference between the academy and science writ large is the presence of permanent staff that one manages. I have five permanent staff in my team. For that reason, I’ve sort of dubbed my current career stage “early-career management”.

But whether you’re managing a team of staff, or of research students and postdocs, there are still some common threads and challenges. One of the biggest that I struggle with, be it with staff or the grad students I co-supervise, is how to balance our collective ethos for the way we work with that of the broader community.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that scientific research as a whole has some pretty significant issues, particularly around power dynamics, valuing contributions, and the pressure to produce. Many of these are analogous (or directly applicable) in other fields as well. I, and many others, have been fighting back against these broken systems in our own way, making our little corner of the world just a little bit less crap. And I think I can safely say that the people we work with in building A Better Science World appreciate, and thrive in such environments.

But what about when we come into contact with the brutal, oppressive, harsh “outside world” of the current orthodoxy?

Two examples come to mind. In our lab, and where I work, we often work by consensus, especially on larger cross-cutting issues that affect everyone. Achieving that consensus is important because it means that decisions aren’t regarded as edicts promulgated from upon high, arguments are made and heard, and everyone has a chance to weigh in. This, of course, takes time which is often at odds with the desire of others for a rapid response, or a quick turn-around and if they’re not used to this kind of system of working, it can be seen as needlessly wasting time, or putting decisions off.

The other example is around writing manuscripts which will eventually (hopefully) become journal articles or book chapters or monographs. I’ve alluded to some of this before. Trying to be inclusive with who gets credit (go read Max Liboiron’s blog and paper on equity in authorship… it was quite honestly revolutionary in my own thinking about this), or making sure everyone has a chance to comment, feed back, and sign-off on things like the text, images, and plan (e.g., where to submit it, or whether they agree with the responses to reviewer comments).

Now on the whole, I think our approaches work well, and they are important to me as someone who manages staff and supervises research students and postdocs. But having experienced some situations in the last 2 years that have been so counter to my own approaches, I’ve been left wondering how I can become more resilient to these transgressions, and also prepare my staff and students for their own encounters with a less inclusive, less consensus-driven science world. Some were small (a paper was submitted to a journal other than what we had agreed), others were larger or more chronic.

Because if I find it jarring and upsetting, so will the folks in the work environment I try to nurture. And trying to push back (again, and again) with institutions or a myriad of coauthors (often new, and sometimes one-off) just isn’t sustainable.

I genuinely don’t know the answers, but until Science™ is more inclusive, diverse, and compassionate, and less cut-throat, metrics-driven, and injurious it’s something that those of us trying to change the system, or hold the ladder for those coming behind us will need to think about. And it’s one of my biggest struggles as an Early-Career Manager.

Good science happens because of good people – thoughts on coauthorship

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The title of this post if often how I end my talks and show that even though I’ve been the one talking for the last 45-50 minutes, there’s a whole cadre of students, mentors, and collaborators behind the science. And I will admit that I have had, on the whole, generally good experiences with coauthors. Perhaps so much so that when things don’t go as smoothly, I really notice it. And I’ve only had one coauthoring experience that I would describe as truly awful (and perhaps unsurprisingly, that paper was never published).

So below are a few nuggets. It’s not advice, or meant to be prescriptive, but is more about the ethos that we (my coauthors and I) have tried to adopt over the last 15 years. It’s never been something that someone sat me down to explain, and I’ve picked it up over the years working for (and with) folks at universities, NGOs, quasi-NGOs, government, and community groups.

 

Authorship

Always (ALWAYS) discuss this up front, but be open enough to discuss it again as projects change. I am a huge fan of the CLEAR Lab’s Equity in Author Order post, and highly recommend it. Different folks in different places (geographically, career-wise) have different pressures. Read Max’s post above which lays it out better than I ever could.

 

Journal

We all have preferences for journals, and different factors that go into picking one. Some folks do/don’t have funds for open access. Some have to play the impact factor game. Some need something out quick (more on this below). We always try to come up with a list of 2-3 so that there isn’t a lot of back-and-forth in the case of desk rejects (which happen often enough).

 

Time

With very few exceptions, there are no hard limits on getting things submitted. Not necessarily everyone on the team has a huge time allocation for research, and speaking from personal experience, timelines of “get this back in a week” aren’t likely to be met with compliance. It obviously depends on one’s team, but I found that at least 3 weeks for minor comments worked for a bunch of our papers (especially with larger teams). And obviously longer for things like first drafts or major changes. Whenever we suggest a deadline, we usually include the caveat that if someone feels they can’t make it, we can happily accommodate if they let us know.

The same goes for revisions. I have yet to be denied additional time from a journal to complete revisions, so long as they know it’s coming. And believe me, I have certainly asked frequently.

 

Software

There are lots of tools for writing papers these days. Overleaf, Google docs, Word, TeX, papyrus, and no doubt others. There are likely to be legitimate preferences for one over the other, and finding a consensus (with rationale for why) is another piece that brings everyone on board. For several years, I was in the field & working offline for large chunks of time so Google Docs was less than ideal, for example. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

 

Communication

I mean, this one is pretty universal. But in this context, I mean keeping everyone in the loop about where things are. Not all journals email all coauthors about decisions, and sometimes folks who aren’t coauthors will need to be kept in the loop. Send around submitted (and indeed accepted versions) of manuscripts for folks to decide to keep for their records. In the case of accepted versions, many institutional repositories need these, and so it saves an email.

 

Develop a checklist

If you work with the same team, or supervise students, having a quick checklist for common issues can be helpful and save time. Are all references cited listed? Are the figures colour-blind-friendly? Our students submit this checklist with each new submission, and it means we can focus on the more substantive parts of the manuscript.

 

A note about process

With all the above, we try to come to a decision by consensus and after hearing from everyone. Sure, we have suggestions and can have informed starting suggestions, but we get the OK from all before proceeding. Yes, it can take a bit longer, but it means that everyone’s involved in the decisions, and has a bit more invested in the project and its success. At the end of the day, everyone’s name is going to appear on it, so if there’s something grating someone the wrong way, it’s not great (from either side).

The above is just a few of the major “process” things we think about when writing a paper. There are indeed more, and as I said, this isn’t meant to be prescriptive or a complete list. My point is that finding a system that eliminates (or mitigates hurdles before they manifest in a collaborative way has been a huge benefit for us, and when we end up working in other collaborative circles without some (or any) of these, it’s quite noticeable, and sometime unpleasant.

An understanding of everyone’s pressures, institutional requirements, and logistical situation up-front can help ensure smooth(er) passage of papers through the part of science publication where we have the most direct control – producing that manuscript for submission.

 

Happy coauthoring!

2019 goals

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I’ve done an end-of-year “By the Numbers” post for the last 6 years, but last year was the first time I did a looking-forward post on goals for the year ahead. How’d it go?

Well, one of the long-languishing projects got submitted in December. The other remains largely untouched :/

Research kickstarted: tick!

Grant application: err, no. Sigh.

First main supervisor PhD student: Yep! And there’s still a week to apply if anyone’s interested!

Museum digitisation: Oh yeah. Lots of fundraising around this one, but it’s paid off. Hopefully more on this soon.

Natural history paper: not quite.

Genetic barcoding: uh, sorta?

Photography: that’s a hard “no”, sadly.

L&F posts: made 17, which is far more than I thought.

 

So what about 2019?

Get that languishing project off that was missed in 2018 off my desk. I mean honestly, it’s been forever. With a paper submitted in December, this is now my “oldest” active project. Sorry, postdoc supervisors & collaborators… it’s coming, I promise!

Same goes for that grant application. But at least there was some logistical progress (and the granting agency ditched deadlines!).

Build a local group of friends – it always (n = 4) takes me about 2 years to build a group of outside-work friends. A mix of not having kids, not living where I work, and moderate introversion. So far so good for 2019.

Provide better mentorship – I think “mentor” is a title best applied by others to someone who provides mentorship. But ultimately who mentors the mentors? Thoughts on this one gratefully received!

Make STEM (or at least my little corner of it) a better place for queer folk. Part of that is keeping up the same battles, but part of it is also looking to gear up for what’s next on the horizon. There’s some exciting stuff already planned for 2019, but I know I already operate in a very queer-friendly online bubble. Thoughts? Let me know what I might be able to help with.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, and safe 2019 everyone!