Prioritizing the flood of ideas


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If you’ve been involved in research for more than a couple of years, chances are you quite quickly start to accumulate a list, even if only in your mind, of Things It Would Be Neat To Do. These could be things that you identify as gaps while pursuing your main research theme, or ideas that spark out of a paper you happened to leaf through while waiting for a meeting to start.

And typically starting around the later years of a PhD, and through postdocs and early career positions, the flood of ideas for things to do keeps, well, flooding. You see gaps, methods that need improving, sites that need investigating, and questions that need answering. And very quickly you realize that you do not have time to do it all.

And so it begins: the search for minions!

Or rather, students, collaborators, or others upon whom you can foist your ideas, your existing data, your passion, in the hopes that they will take the torch and run. At some stage, the list becomes too large for your head, and perhaps like me you make a nice text document on your desktop called “Project Ideas.txt”, and just keep adding to it as the ideas pop in, with the hopes that when a prospective minion comes along, you’ll have just the project for them.

But good heavens is that ever difficult. Perhaps I’ve had a skewed view, having never actually worked in a university, but I have tried several mechanisms to try and get homes for existing datasets, or convince others that the project ideas I’ve had are worth pursuing and met with exceptionally low success.

A few years ago, I tried setting up a page here called Languishing Projects, and every 6 months or so I would update it, send around some tweets or emails, and I might get one or two queries. Usually, though, the query didn’t go anywhere because the querier wasn’t at the right career stage (I had several emails from first or second year undergrads – and not to say that those cohorts aren’t suitable for research, but as they would have been in different cities than I, I couldn’t provide them with the mentorship and guidance needed for projects done at that career stage).

It seems ironic, but I just couldn’t give away data.

Now, some of you would surely suggest simply posting the data somewhere like figshare and someone, somewhere would use it. This wasn’t practical because I wasn’t the sole owner of these data, and in many cases, the data would have needed some significant attention before I would want them released into the wild.

A particular challenge I’ve found is funding and recruiting to studentships. I do marvel at PIs who seemingly receive countless emails asking about being a student in their lab – I can’t remember the last time I had one, let alone one that was in my field (again, though, I’m not at a degree-granting institution). And in the few cases where I’ve been able to find a partnering faculty member, the number of applicants, despite quite broad advertising, has been quite low. And university faculty also have their own flood of ideas, so why would they want to take on yet more?

And then there’s the funding. The way the UK funds postgraduate research is, in my view, quite silly. Students don’t apply to PIs, but to thematic or regional Doctoral Training Partnerships, and those admitted to these DTPs then must be wooed by PIs with projects in the hopes that the student will finally settle on theirs. There’s nothing wrong with a little competition, but it means that if a prospective student contacts me, and I think they might be a great fit for a project I have, they can be rejected by the DTP and that’s the end of that. The success rate, particularly for some (like the London DTP) is more akin to a major NERC or NSF grant, <7% last year.

To say nothing of funding for postdocs.

I think that part of the difficulty is that while I work on seabirds and islands, many of the project ideas are desk- or collections-based. This is advantageous on one hand because they involve very little cost, but at the same time, most students in ecology & conservation are in it (largely) for the field work. Which costs money. Sigh.

So as I often, too, I took to Twitter to ask folks how they dealt with the flood of project ideas. The response were basically to prioritize those that had either students or money associated with them. Not great for me, since mine had neither. And without either of those, partnering with a university PI becomes increasingly difficult (because, well, students and money are hard to find, it seems).

But rather than have this a whinging tirade, my question, dear reader, is what do you do with the projects for which you have no time? The bits of data that could be something if they just had some time put into them (time that none of us have)? Are you resigned to letting them slide off this mortal coil?

And lastly, many of my languishing projects or Ideas That Have Little Chance Of Being Realized are perfectly suitable for honours or UK/Australian MSc/MRes degrees, and some could be bundled up into a nice PhD. So if you fancy collaborating, or have a steady stream of students in need of projects, let’s chat!


2018 goals


Ive already done 2017 by the numbers, and inspired by Auriel Fournier, here are some goals for 2018, in no particular order…


Get two long-languishing papers submitted. One is from my postdoc (and formed a pretty bit part of it), and the other is a long-standing collaboration that just needs some dedicated attention. I’m reminded of this lovely cartoon.


Kick-start my own research again. This may sound silly, but when I worked for the RSPB, the research was driven by the organization, so lots of things I wanted to do get dropped, or I passed along to others.

Submit one grant application (in reference to the above).

Find funding for, and recruit, my first student as primary supervisor.

Acquire a typewriter.

Make serious inroads into digitizing the NHM collection. This is a big part of my job, and hopefully it will take off in 2018 in a major way.

Submit 2 natural history papers. I think I know what one of them might be, but to get #2 I’ll clearly need to get out and do some natural history-ing!

Learn what “genetic barcoding” means, and how to do it.

Get back into photography after a 4-year hiatus.

Write 18 new posts for The Lab and Field. This blog has really slowed in recent years, and I’d like to rejuvenate it a bit. It’s been a struggle lately to write things that aren’t making me cranky, or to find the time to write at all.


Whatever your goals, here’s to a happy and productive 2018 (defined however you want)!

2017 by the numbers

Read previous years’ By the Numbers: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013



The number of new posts this year. Definitely a low, but some classics remain popular. The top 10:

  1. Personal academic websites for faculty & grad students: the why, what, and how
  2. How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark
  3. Beware the academic hipster (or, use what works for you) UPDATED
  4. Volunteer field techs are bad for wildlife ecology: the response
  5. How much to charge for independent consulting work
  6. The advantages of Google Scholar for early-career academics
  7. How to apply for a field job
  8. Amusing bird names: The Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler
  9. Another year of male-dominated NSERC prizes
  10. On the loss of a friend


31,000 (±)

The number of visitors to The Lab and Field. Thanks, all!



The number of countries/autonomous regions from which those visitors came. I can’t query these for individual posts, but I often wonder how many of them landed on pages about being an LGBTQ+ scientist.



Countries where there are legal impediments to being out, including but not limited to jail time and execution. And something I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about in the last year, for various reasons.



Days spent in the field this year. Not brilliant by my estimation, but plans are afoot for some more field work in 2018. (Including in a couple of days, hence the slightly earlier posting than usual)



New papers this year, again driven by some fantastic co-authors, and research students. High fives to everyone!



The rank of the Altmetric score of our paper on plastic accumulation on the remote Henderson Island among all papers in 2017. We knew this would be a big one, but had no idea we’d spent a week doing nothing but media from two sides of the globe.



The paper’s Altmetric score (which has increased since the list came out)


1 in 61 trillion

The odds that the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, still persists, as calculated in one of my favourite papers from 2017.



The number of papers on which I was first author. A sign of career progression, or of heavy investment in future work? Time will tell. Also, transitioning to a new job took a little bit of time. There is one book chapter, though, which started as a blog post!



The number of amazing coauthors I worked with in publishing those 2017 papers <waves!>



My Gender Gap. A marked improvement on 0.48 last year, and 0.29 in 2015, but lower than the 0.96 I had in 2014. My coauthors were 25 female and 29 male this year.



Countries / autonomous regions visited in 2017 (not counting airport stopovers): Australia, South Africa, France, Faroe Islands


ca. 50,000

Number of bird encounter records that I databased as my last big job at the RSPB. These are from ringing and resights on Gough dating back to 1955, and was the major source of my #OtherPeoplesData frustrations. I really hope something good comes out of this work, because it’s one of the accomplishments from my time there of which I’m proudest.



The number of emails sent in 2017, a 15% drop over last year. The battle continues!


>1 million

The number of avian specimens at The Natural History Museum, where I now work. A treasure trove of science, history, and the natural world.


Here’s to the successes, and struggles, of 2017, and best wishes for a safe, positive, and productive 2018!

FAQ, and answers thereto (Christmas 2017 edition)


The latest summary of amusing search terms (and some often facetious answers) that brought people to The Lab and Field in 2017. Find previous iterations here.


Who are scientists

We all are!


how do people learn about migratory birds

Blog posts, ornithology classes, naturalist societies, spear-throwing competitions…


data error in published paper

*clutches pearls* SURELY NOT!. Eh, it happens. Most of the time it’s not intentional.


easy scientific names for lab

Repetition is nice. Puffinus puffinus, Gorilla gorilla, Crex crex. You get the idea.


how to host any sceince confrence

ANY science conference? I’d suggest a TARDIS as the venue given the difficulty in estimating attendance.


charles morton swallows moon

… Is then hospitalized when moon appears in his orbit.


people who study birds are called

Indeed they are. Frequently, too.


institutional homophobia in academia

Heck yes (and outside academia, too). Sometimes not intentional, or even malicious, but always eternal. I think about/experience this at least once a week, and it’s tiring.



This search term is exceptionally broad, and yet it brought you here. The chances of disappointment might be high.


when seminar gets suck

Make it not suck. Some tips.


published paper no affiliations

I don’t actually know of an ecology/conservation paper without an affiliation. Do you? Put it in the comments!


always have a plan b dave. always have a plan b

And watch out for Winnebago!

How much to charge for independent consulting work



A significant non-zero number of scientists do additional paid work on top of their day job in the form of consulting, or being paid for their expertise by someone other than their main employer (a university or research organization, for example). This inevitably leads to the question of how much a given service/task will cost, and as a the usual outcome is an under-estimate on the part of the would-be consultant.

As someone who’s done a bit of this in the past, and in both the scientific & artistic/theatrical side (two areas where professionals, especially early in their careers, low-ball their own value), here are a few tips to get yourself started.

There’s all sorts of geographic variation in how much a given service costs, and that’s a horrendously complex factor that will obviously depend where you are. As a starting point, though, salaries are an imperfect but widely interpretable proxy. I suggest making a spreadsheet. We’ll make two column: one for your day job and one for consulting.

In the first row, enter your gross annual salary (i.e., the pre-tax, pre-deduction “advertised price”).

In the second row, enter your net annual salary (i.e., after tax & other deductions).

From these, you can easily calculate monthly net & gross (divide by 12), weekly (divide by 52), and an hourly rate (divide weekly by something between 36-40 depending on the norms of your area).

In the next column, we’ll calculate the starting point for consultancy pricing. First, multiply all these rates by at least 1.5. Why? Because you cost more than your salary. Organizations recover some/all of this in overhead/incidental costs or some other accounting term. Electricity, furniture, phone, computer, heat, and the general support like admin & finance, HR, IT and everything else. And in some places, this also includes the employer’s pension and social safety net (e.g., National Insurance, Employment Insurance) contribution which you as an individual also need to manage.

Taking the consultancy hourly gross rate, figure out what 2 days would cost. This is the absolute minimum to charge. Admin burden & infrastructure don’t scale well with length of consultancy. It takes just as much time to deal with the paperwork for a 1-day contract as a 1-month contract. One option is to use this (or some variation) as a base price on top of which any hourly work is billed. Admin carries on after the contract is over, remember, when filing taxes, or maintaining records.

And of course, this assumes your work is based at your home and on a computer. Travel and field work costs would be extra, of course.

When estimating the time tasks will take, I generally adopt the Montgomery Scott Method for Time Estimating (MSMTE): multiply your original estimate by a factor of at least four (two may be more realistic), particularly for more complex projects. And don’t forget to track your time using a timesheet or other method so you know how much time the task is taking. If you think it’s going to go over, flag this with your client. Chances are it will rarely (if ever) be under.

So let’s walk through an example.

You’re asked to do some desk-based analysis or writing, and you reckon it would take you a week to do (that is, about 40 hours of work). Your current annual gross is $50k (which is about $25/hour), so your consulting rate is $38/hour. The base cost is $1520. Add 2 days’ for admin ($570) and the total contract would be $2090.

This is, of course, just a starting point. It’s at your discretion to change any of the parameters here, of course, and they may also vary depending on the situation (NGO vs government agency vs corporate body for example). But my suggestion here is to simply alter the multiplication factor (for example, 1.3x for NGOs & non-profits, 1.5x for universities/government, 2x for for-profit companies). And this also assumes that you feel your salary accurately reflects the job/skills that you do (which may not always be the case, though I suspect few of us would describe ourselves as overpaid).

One final note – be prepared for there to be negotiations, and don’t undervalue yourself. It’s ok to turn down some work if you don’t think it’s worth your time, but equally there may be personal/professional situations where you might take on a piece of work at a lower rate than you would do otherwise (e.g., when first starting up). And recall that these numbers/figures I’ve thrown around are just a starting point, and will depend on where you are, the kind of work you do, the field, and the competition. But they’re a good place to start.

See also this post by Emilio Bruna on the same topic.

Happy consulting!


On generality, centrism, and science blogging


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There has been much discussion in the last decade about how to better prepare graduate students for jobs outside the research-driven ivory tower, so called “alternative academic” or “altac” jobs, for example those in corporate, government, or NGO organizations to name just a few. And I think it’s generally recognized that not every graduate student defending their thesis or dissertation, and passing their oral exam or viva will end up a tenured research professor. Which is fine and good and a simple fact.

I’ve taken one such route. Not intentionally, but just because that’s where the opportunities lay. After my PhD, I did 2 postdocs in a government lab, then worked for a larger NGO, and now a museum. All involved research, writing papers, supervising staff, managing budgets, serving on committees, and just about everything a tenured professor does, aside from teaching, just in different proportions and with a different aim (usually to provide the science to inform the organization’s decisions, directions, and objectives).

I’m also a Canadian living in the UK. Yes, the US produces a large amount of science and research, and influences many aspects of the associated culture, but Canada and the UK also punch above their weight in terms of research output and initiatives.

Why then are so many blogs aimed at graduate students, researchers, and scientists written with only US (or North American) university academics in mind?

“Write what you know,” sure, and many of the most prolific and widely-read bloggers, at least in ecology, conservation, and general biology are US university faculty. But at the same time, occasionally the assumptions that go into that writing assume that the audience is the same, or at least striving to end up in the same place. I’m not going to name names, but simply look at your favourite blog author, and how they use these terms:

  • scientist
  • academic
  • researecher
  • scholar

Do they use them interchangeably? Do they use “researcher” when in reality they mean an “academic”? Do they write “scientist” when they mean “researcher”? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a terrible Venn diagram to try and draw, and there’s no giant all-encompassing circle into which those all fit. But I quite often get excited about a post by reading its title, for example, only to see that the information is directed exclusively (or very largely) at academics or those wanting to become academics. The same is particularly true when soliciting information from readers about jobs, working conditions, career stage, or questions that include those variables to illustrate the demographic make-up of the sample. And I readily admit that I have fallen into this habit.

To say nothing of non-US readers. It won’t be surprising to know that universities and degree programmes differ among countries, as do the norms, expectations, consequences, and even more fundamental things like how classes are taught, or even how long the degree programme is.

Yes, I understand that for many of these sites, that group of American university faculty (or those interested in the views of that group, or their trainees/staff) is a significant proportion of the readership, so why not write for that biggest group, which also happens to contain the author? In a sense, though, that’s a circular argument… that’s the biggest readership because that’s the content that’s being written about.

Now, this is by no means a criticism of any particular writer or site in particular, but a broader trend. Many of the issues that are regularly discussed (e.g., careers, mental health, reviewing papers, women in science, under-represented groups) are issues outside American universities and their associated people. But sometimes, the solutions proposed, or the angle taken betrays the writer’s narrow focus.

It’s difficult to try and include everyone that you think would fall into the four vague, nebulous, and highly overlapping categories in the list above. But simple things like word choice, and how some ideas or questions are framed would make them more relevant to those of us outside both the US, and its ivory tower. And if we want to ensure that students are prepared for as broad a selection of careers as is feasible, and that science blogging helps in that regard, we need to think much more widely.

A new adventure


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When I first visited the American Museum of Natural History during my PhD, I was amazed at many things. The room of extinct specimens, the diversity of species represented, the wide array of collections (skins, skeletons, eggs, nests, fluid-preserved, mounts), and the fact that friendly curators basically let me loose in the rooms and I could explore. All for free. It was transformative.

Years later as a postdoc, I visited yet more large museums (the Royal Ontario Museum and Canadian Museum of Nature, to be precise), and found the same thing. And at smaller collections, too, like the New Brunswick Museum, or The Rooms Provincial Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador.

And then four years ago I found an excuse to visit THE Natural History Museum when I moved to the UK. The veritable Mecca of ornithological natural history and museum research. I managed to visit, for research or to drop off specimens collected from my various field travels, a couple of times a year.

Now, I’ll be visiting almost daily.

I’m absolutely thrilled to let you all know that I’ve been appointed the Senior Curator in Charge of the Bird Group at The Natural History Museum, starting this autumn.

I’ve spent nearly four years at the RSPB, and in that time have learned a great deal, done some interesting work, and visited some fascinating places. But the opportunity to work at the NHM in this role was simply too good to pass up. I’ll continue to not be an academic.

The NHM houses 750,000 skins covering 95% of extant bird species, >200,000 egg sets, 17,000 fluid-preserved specimens, 16,000 skeletons, 6000 mounts, and 4000 nests. It also has one of the most extensive (and historically valuable) ornithological libraries in the world, and hosts >1000 visitor-days a year. And like my experiences in New York, Toronto, Gatineau, Saint John, and St. John’s, it has a dedicated team of five fantastic curators who have made my previous visits there welcoming, productive, and exciting.

The bird collection is based at Tring, in Hertfordshire, on an estate donated by Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild, in the 1930s, which is where I’ll be based, but with regular time spent at the NHM’s larger site at South Kensington in central London, which is where all the fantastic analytical equipment, and other taxonomic groups are based.

My role is a mix of curation and research, and will no doubt feature #OtherPeoplesData, and the challenges of museum documentation as well as my own collections-based and field research. I’ll also be promoting the use of the ornithological collections by other researchers at the museum and from outside, too.

So now begins the transition, the frantic packing as we relocate, and the impending excitement of the next adventure.

On the loss of a friend

Earlier this week, Terry Wheeler passed away. Terry taught at McGill, and was curator of the Lyman Entomological Museum. He was a fantastic naturalist, praised the role of museums and natural history in modern science, and was generally quite a lot of fun. About 10 months ago, he was diagnosed with fairly aggressive brain cancer, which eventually took him from us.

Terry was what I would call an Exceptionally Very Good Person. Over the years that we knew each other, he was championing those who needed a voice, promoting those who needed more volume, and often acting as a sounding board for those in need, myself included.

In particular, Terry and I often ended up discussing what role modern universities played in the nurturing of the whole person, rather than the provision of qualifications or job-relevant skills, which may not be that surprising given we were both strong advocated of the importance of natural history. We also both came from a strong liberal arts background, and this culminated in my take on pastoral care in science, which I wrote a year ago this week. Which now seems very fitting.

We shared a connection to Newfoundland (him by birth, me by long residence), and we would often banter about Jam Jams, Jigg’s Dinner, and our fondness for turr and single malt whisky. We often joked about meeting there, on George Street, or up in Twilingate.

I will, however, always regret never meeting him in person. We connected online (first via Twitter, then via email), and I can only imagine what it must have been like to spend time with him in the field, in the kitchen, by the fire.

So tonight I break out the Laphroaig, turn up the Shannygannock, and celebrate the life of someone genuinely loved by so many.

Long may your big jib draw, Terry.

So you want to “do something about/for diversity”


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In the last several months/years, I’ve seen an increasing number of “diversity initiatives”, and attention paid to issues of diversity in STEM fields. Which is, on the whole, good. But as a member of a minority community, these can often come across as botched jobs. Scientists are good at science, but not necessarily (or one might say not at all good) at sociology and psychology.

And it’s become tiring.

Here, dear reader, is a handy, easily digested checklist (because who in science doesn’t like checklists) for how not to completely miss the mark with whatever “diversity initiative” you might want to do. As you’ll see, these are all inter-related, and some/many of them aren’t easy or to be taken lightly.

  1. What? What do you want to get out of this exercise, tangibly? Cut the vagueness. Make your objectives SMART. If you can’t articulate your goals in these terms, you’ll never achieve them (or be able to demonstrate beyond vague hand-waving that “things are better”). Are you trying to have better representation at conferences or on editorial boards? Or perhaps increased membership in your society by under-represented groups? The processes for achieving these will differ. See also: where?
  2. Who? “Diversity” as usually applied in STEM fields typically covers sex and ethnicity. There are many facets of diversity, some of which can’t be perceived without interaction. Gender, orientation, and ableness are just three others that quickly come to mind. Each brings a different viewpoint. Or rather, the same multitude of viewpoints found in any grouping of people. And each of these is just a conglomeration of different groups. Gay men aren’t representative of transfolk, who aren’t representative of bisexuals. Which of these groups do you want to reach? See also: why? Also see also: what?
  3. Where? The US isn’t the only place with issues around the over-representation of straight white cismen in STEM, and there are local (and regional) areas for improvement, laws, traditions, and solutions to the problems. Even though the pattern may be widespread, what works in one place may (or may not) work in another. Don’t parachute in. Work with someone on the ground (see also: who (part 2)).
  4. Who? (part 2). Nothing dooms these kinds of initiatives like the lack of involvement of the groups you’re trying to reach. They will know the language and issues better, and excluding them is patronizing, like saying “we know diversity is an issue, so we’ll fix it for you!” Without this involvement your initiative is almost certainly doomed to failure.
  5. Who? (part 3). If I had a dollar for every time I was asked to talk about “Diversity 101” I would have >$1. In this scenario, I should be broke. Do your research. Google is your friend. We’re (often) too busy trying to keep up with a systematically damaging professional culture to “point you in the right direction”. If you actually care about it, read about it or contact organizations who are explicitly designed to help, and then engage on specifics. See also: who (part 2). You might be getting the idea that people are rather important here. Good.
  6. What (next)? Don’t just gather information, or email blitz a vague surveymonkey link to your members. What will you do once you’ve identified the problem/need? If you don’t do anything, or don’t follow through (see also: what), think of the potentially hours of collectively wasted time. I’ve filled in enough “it will only take 20-30 minutes of your time” surveys to know this is often true. And it makes me less likely to help you out in the future. Failure to do anything is paying mere lip-service to the careers and lives of honest to goodness people.
  7. Danger, Will Robinson! Whatever you decide to do, think (and have others think) about how it will be perceived, especially by those in the group you’re trying to reach. Academic conferences get this one wrong rather often (I’m looking at you, ESA “Ally” ribbons!). Don’t roll something this important out without a thorough look-over. See also: who (part 2). Also see also: when?
  8. When? Don’t rush this. It’s important. If you can’t get something together for this year’s meeting, wait for next year. Something good, but delivered later is better than a hatchet-job thrown together to meet an arbitrary deadline. I mean, you should’ve been thinking about and actually DOING something about this ages ago anyway.
  9. Expect pushback. In all likelihood, if you get things (mostly) right, you will get pushback from the straight white cismen already entrenched in whatever group you’re trying to diversify. If you don’t, you might get pushback from the groups you’re trying to include. Listen to the second. See also: what (next).

Listing grants on one’s CV


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I was going through my semi-regular update of my CV because, frankly, if I don’t I won’t be able to keep track of everything! It’s as much for me as it is for others (and arguably more so these days).

Which got me thinking about grants, and how they’re recorded. On my CV, it’s a combination of year(s), project title, funding source, and grant amount. So far, all the grants that I’ve received have been one of two kinds:

  1. a grant / award for which I was the only applicant, like my two postdoc grants
  2. a grant where a small group (<5) of us wrote the application and got the funding

These have all been relatively small, bar our work on Northern Rockhopper Penguins, which was funded by the Darwin Initiative to the tune of £200,000, but where each of the five project partners is involved in just about everything. But as I progress, I expect more and more I’ll be just one part of a bigger piece of work. This inevitably leads to the question of how to list those grants.

I clearly didn’t have a hand in writing the whole grant, and would only be participating in a part of it (i.e., there will be funded activities and outcomes to which I know I won’t contribute, just because of the way the project was designed). So it seems disingenuous to list the full value of the grant (which, for these kinds of collaborative projects is likely to be in the £200,000-£1,000,000+ range). But equally, my specific part of the work package was part of the reason the project was funded.

So over to you, dear readers:


I’ll tally the results in a week or so.