2019 by the numbers

Read previous years’ By the Numbers: 2018, 20172016201520142013

 

This year’s top 10 posts by views:

Personal academic websites for faculty & grad students: the why, what, and how (again!)

Amusing bird names explained: Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler

What’s in an affiliation?

The system of student research in the UK fundamentally broken

Some rambling thoughts on field work to wrap up Pride Month

How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark

Listing grants on one’s CV

The advantages of Google Scholar for early-career academics (also, again!)

Keeping track of projects and prioritising work

Reflection in science

 

18,500 (ish)

The number of visitors to The Lab and Field this year, an all-time low! Readership of The Lab and Field continues to fall, perhaps mirroring a broader trend in blogs. It’s increasingly hard to know what resonates, or what’s useful. Twitter is great for “in the moment” interactions, but anything that’s older than a couple of days gets lost and nearly impossible to find (and certainly not serendipitously). L&F has never been a traffic-driven project, so it will continue.

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146

The number of countries, according to WordPress’s stats, that these visitors came from. Shout to the single people who visited from Swaziland, Namibia, Albania, Côte d’Ivoire, Cambodia, British Virgin Islands, Montenegro, Falkland Islands, Jersey, Jamaica, Belize, Guyana, Mozambique, St. Kitts & Nevis, Benin, Afghanistan, Sudan, Bermuda, and Oman!

 

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Trips to the Southern Hemisphere, for field work on Lord Howe Island, and Henderson Island, and my annual visit to the University of Tasmania. Hoping to bring that down to 2 this coming year because it’s getting more and more exhausting (especially coming back to the UK)

 

46

Days in the field this year, in bouts of 17 (Lord Howe Island) and 29 (Henderson). That’s the most field work I’ve done since I was outposted to Tristan da Cunha for 4 months in 2015. I used to absolutely LIVE for field work, but as I continue to get not-younger, less so which I find particularly sad.

 

26

New publications in 2019. Ack! How on earth did that happen? A conference proceedings was published, which accounts for 4, and about 4 appeared online in 2018 but ended up in 2019 issues. Some were massive consortium-type papers, and there were 2 Commentary pieces. Some were also massive collaborations, some (most!) were driven by coauthors and students, but some particular highlights include:

-The first paper by a student I supervised

-A paper we worked HARD on for YEARS, and seemingly couldn’t interest anyone else in

-The first paper from a PhD student in the Adrift Lab, and a cracker at that!

-Our paper with huge media coverage this year, on crabs trapped in plastic waste on beaches. Sad, but important.

 

85

The number of coauthors, not counting the two large consortium papers I was involved in (that would push this to nearly 140, I’d guess).

 

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My Gender Gap – better than last year, but still not parity. Also excluding the two consortium papers. And still in a binary format, which I’m increasingly less pleased about because that’s not what gender is. I need to think more about how I use this metric and frame this discussion in the future.

 

7726

The number of emails sent. Yikes. That’s back to 2016 levels, the first year I kept track. Especially yikes given the number of days I was in the field (and therefore not really emailing). I attribute this rise to some big projects at work (our building being re-clad), an increase in the number of PhD students I co-supervise from 2 to 4, and trying to coordinate a few professional initiatives.

 

28

The number of people who found The Lab and Field by searching for tits (as in the birds, of course). Including this gem: “why are burds called tits”

 

5

The number of years that I’ve been involved with LGBTQ+ STEM, which remains an absolute career highlight, and something I never imagined would happen.

 

Here’s to a happy & healthy 2020!

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Me, exhausted after running through the scrub/forest and catching a Henderson Petrel during field work in June 2019. Photo by Jon Slayer.

 

Lessons for the academy from non-academic research: on management

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I’ve never technically worked for a university. Two postdocs in government research centres, a stint at an NGO, and now at a museum mean the structures, pressures, and opportunities I’ve had in my professional research career of the last decade have been different to those of my academic (university-based) colleagues. It’s a useful comparison because, at least research-wise, we share many of the same goals. And whereas my friends at universities have teaching & admin, I have curation & admin (or more often, admin and more admin).

One area where I think universities can take a lesson from non-academic research environments is in management. As a rule, researchers make terrible managers, and managers make terrible researchers (exceptions do apply, of course), but when I compare the management I do/receive with that of academic colleagues, it strikes me as an easy win for universities.

By management, I mean the formal reporting, oversight, and support system in place for workers. This includes graduate students. Everything from taking leave to annual reviews and career progression to setting work plans and hiring in academia (as I’ve experienced it) could take something from outside and be improved.

 

Recruitment

Here, I’m mainly talking about graduate student recruitment. Often, it’s up to just the supervisor to deal with recruitment, resulting in a veritable mishmash of processes. Of course, the university will have a formal application/admissions procedure, but the steps before there (or in some cases where students are allocated after admission) is a bit of a mess. A few things to think about:

  • are adverts written in a way that minimizes gender bias?
  • what essential (required) and desirable (optional) criteria are there for the role? Are these assessed by the application, CV, or interview?
  • who else is short-listing applicants for an interview?
  • who else is sitting on the interview panel?
  • what set questions are being asked of every candidate?
  • how are criteria being scored & evaluated?

Daily management

Academics are used to a pretty loose reign and that flexibility is one of the incentives. The same goes for grad school. But there should be expectations of a standard set number of hours worked per week on an agreed schedule (allowing flexibility where possible) that takes into account other university-related tasks, such as courses, TAing, and professional development. I often say that students/staff I manage should work 36-40 hours/week, but I don’t have strong feelings on when those hours occur. Equally, there’s an expectation that once that agreed schedule is in place, deviations should be agreed or at least communicated (e.g., days working from home).

The same applies to annual leave. Staff and students do (should!) get a certain number of days off as annual leave, which should be taken with the approval of the manager. My take has always been that it’s up to each individual to manage their own time, and I will approve leave so long as there is leave remaining. But the key thing is that everyone knows how much annual leave there is, and when it’s occurring (which is particularly important when folks work remotely, and it’s not possible to easily tell on a given day whether they were working or on leave).

Annual reviews & work plans

One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is in how annual work plans are set, agreed, and evaluated. At the museum, I spent about 2-3 hours with each person I manage setting out their plan for the coming year (they put the first draft together themselves). We then go over it, look at how realistic is, what resources they might need, balance it with other commitments, and then monitor it about half-way through the year. At the RSPB, we allocated defined percentages of time for specific projects; we don’t do that at the museum in part because we had more externally-funded work at RSPB, and at the museum many projects run together and separating time isn’t terribly efficient or useful. The key, though, is that both the staff member and manager agree on the plan, and when progress isn’t being made, it’s reevaluated and actions put in place to allow the person to succeed.

At the end of the year, we again sit down and look over the work plan, see where the successes and challenges were, and use that to inform our plan for the year ahead. This can be easier for permanent staff, where HR structures are in place to support them, and their managers, when goals aren’t met. For short-term/contract staff and graduate students, this is harder because the length of the period of employment is set by external funding.

And the same principles apply when doing one’s OWN review/work plan. Many academics are left to their own devices, except for a short chat with a head of department once a year. A friend of mine at a university has less than half an hour a year with their nominal boss. This is woefully inadequate and results in a plethora of requests for activities throughout the year, often at short notice. Granted, it’s also trickier in universities where one can be beholden to several functional managers — one person assigns teaching roles, another has more interest in the research & admin side, and they don’t always (ever?) talk to each other when setting annual workloads.

 

Now, I’m not advocating for micromanagement (which seldom works, and takes a LOT of time), but I think the pendulum needs to swing back somewhat in university environments. Structures to support managers, both in their own work and in managing the work of others, just aren’t there and this causes a great deal of frustration, anger, and chaos. The flexibility, freedom, and independence is why many pursue careers in academia, but in many places (certainly not all, but most that I’ve encountered/heard of) there needs to be better and appropriate support.

Few in research get any training in effective management; heck, I’ve picked it up along the way. But a combination of being sensible, compassionate, and understanding combined with structures to support both my staff and I have resulted in, I like to think, most successes, and dealt with any bumps along the road in an appropriate way. There’s always room for improvement in any organization, granted, but I’ve found it to be one of the areas where academia lags behind non-academic science institutions significantly (for a variety of reasons).

5 years of LGBTQ+ STEM

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For the last 4 years or so, I’ve helped run an organization called LGBTQ+ STEM, which seeks to promote and support LGBTQ+ folks in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We achieve this mainly through two outlets right now – a blog with interview profiles, and an annual one-day free-to-attend fully-catered science conference, the LGBTQ+ STEMinar, which will have it’s 5th iteration in Birmingham in January.

Last week, I spent a day with Beth Montague-Hellen, the founder and other force behind the group, as we celebrated and reflected on 5 years of successes, and looked ahead to the next 5.

In 2014, there weren’t many other organizations dedicated to queer folks in STEM, and now there are quite a few, all over the world, and who rally together to celebrate LGBTSTEM Day each year. We certainly never would have guessed that there would be so much progress in the scientific community in such a short time.

Looking inward, the LGBTQ+ STEMinar went from about 40 people at the first one in Sheffield in 2016, to the first externally-organized one in York two years later, and now with >300 registered participants for the 2020 edition in Birmingham. Clearly, there was a gap that we were able to fill.

The website now boasts >115 profiles of LGBTQ+ folk in all areas of STEM subjects, from all career stages, and covering a huge swath of the world, and we continue to get new submissions regularly. The fine folks at 500 Queer Scientists have done something similar, with shorter paragraphs, but I’ve always favoured our longer form, which lets readers know a bit more about the interviewee, and lets them elaborate without space restrictions. And they’re still quite popular – we get about 2000-3000 visitors a month to the site.

So what do the next 5 years have in store?

First off, as an organization that is directed at queer folks in STEM, we want to hear from queer folk in STEM! We put together a short survey, which can be found here, and should only take a few minutes for anyone to fill in, and tell us what they’d like to see from us as an organization.

And secondly, we have our own thoughts – becoming an officially registered charity is top among them, and something we’re working on actively at the moment.

Personally speaking, it’s amazing to be even having that kind of discussion when I lamented only a few years ago that finding other LGBTQ+ scientists was nigh on impossible. There’s a fantastic community here, and one I’m proud to have played a roll, however small, in building.

Two’s company. Three’s a crowd. Breaking away from the ‘limited choice’ between emails or conference calls.

This is a guest post from Ed Morris, an ecologist practitioner for a large protected areas network in Canada.

 

I work for a large organization. I’m a public servant and an applied scientist. We have a main office, but many of us work in regional offices that are each separated by several hundred kilometres. Face to face meetings are increasingly rare, and you won’t see us attending conferences. So how do we stay in contact with one another? Mostly through email and conference calls. We’re addicted to Outlook.

It’s too easy to compose an email, add attachments and just keep adding names to the distribution list. Everyone does this, causing our in-boxes to balloon. Then the senders of emails are often disappointed with low response rates, and those few responses that do arrive are sometimes hastily thrown together at the eleventh hour. That’s not the outcome anyone wants.

As for conference calls, it’s easy to snoop into peoples’ calendars and schedule them into meetings. We’ve dropped the formality of using Robert’s Rules of Order. Yet, too few of us have the self-awareness to be a good participant, and fewer still have the skills to be a good moderator. We can all think of people who speak long and often, and others that never speak. Big booming voices that sit next to the phone, and quiet voices that sit beyond the microphones’ range. We’ve experienced people who have difficulty staying on topic. We’ve experienced people who derail the discussion with their alternate takes. Full disclosure: I am sometimes one of those people too.

I was about to make major revisions to a landscape ecology model, but wanted to discuss it with certain peers first. I loathed the prospect of writing a long-winded email, as it is a complicated subject. I also loathed scheduling a conference call with this particular combination of personalities. Neither communications tool was going to give a satisfactory outcome.

What did I do? After some thought I booked individual person-to-person phone calls. This decision will be obvious to some of you, but it was a lightbulb moment for me. It felt weird to break away from the ‘limited choice’ of email or a conference call. This is the unintentional corporate culture we’ve created.  

Those calls were fabulous. I set my phone to hands-free, and recorded them with a voice recorder. I posed questions, and did my best to be quiet while my peers spoke uninterrupted. Personality traits that would have been disruptive in a conference call never surfaced. We explored subjects in a way that we never could in a conference call. At one point I wondered if I should go to the trouble of editing the recordings into a podcast-like summary. Maybe. In any case, I have the information I need to proceed, and I know that my peers are more likely to endorse the final product.

Think about breaking away from the false, limited choice between email or conference call. A series of person-to-person phone calls can take more time, but it will be productive time. It is also more personal, which contributes to making you and your peers form a team in practice, not just in name. Maybe that too will help the next time you find yourselves in yet another conference call.

 

Giving feedback on graduate student writing

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It doesn’t take long for any nascent scientist who (co/)supervises graduate students (hereafter “PI”) to realise that a significant part of the job is reviewing graduate student writing – paper drafts, thesis chapters, grant applications, and more. It’s often the students’ first time working in a collaborative environment where the concept of multiple iterations of the same document is expected and the norm, and where it can be very confronting to have a draft returned with the digital equivalent of red ink (track changes… and why is the default for the first editor always red?! Can you change it?).

And for PIs, it only take 3 students to realize that one finds oneself making the same suggestions rather frequently, which can feel annoying (even though it may be the first time the student has had that piece of feedback), and put the PI in a mental space that is less than perfect, perhaps even overly critical.

I asked on Twitter what I think is one of the biggest questions any PI-student relationship deals with – when and how often do students send their PI drafts. Ultimately, as with everything, it comes down to what works best for the relationship between the student and the PI.

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There was a slight preference for piecemeal, section by section, but a higher proportion than I was expecting for “the whole thing at once”. My personal preference is somewhere in the middle – each section once, perhaps twice if there are significant changes, but no more until the whole thing is together. I think that after 2 rounds of back-and-forth, it becomes less about ideas and structure, and more about flow and connections, which I like to consider in a whole document.

There are all kinds of strategies out there for where to start (abstract! results! methods! outline! figures & tables!), and that ultimately comes down to the individual student and their writing style. If they are just starting out, I’ll usually ask for 5 bullet points for the intro, their hypotheses, objectives, and/or predictions to kick start the process.

But what about all those niggling things that come up nearly every time? When I was a MSc student, any complete drafts for review would be printed and placed in my PIs mailbox. But importantly, on top of each we had to put a coversheet that covered some of the common bits of feedback, like making sure all the references were cited in the text & listed in the reference list, all the tables & figures were referred to (and didn’t duplicate each other), and that another member of the lab had read it over first. It functioned as a checklist to supplement the post-it notes I had stuck above my desk with my own personal common blunders (“Adverbs follow verbs!” was a common one).

Now that I supervise my own students, and in particularly through the Adrift Lab, we decided to take the same idea and make it fit for our own lab.

You can download a PDF version of it here, with a second page that features some common writing advice for scientific papers.

One could argue that many of these are largely typographical or aesthetic, and indeed they are, but they also serve a function of ensuring that the text gets a thorough review, and save time downstream (both for us as PIs, and the student). The volume of graduate student writing is increasing (literature reviews, chapters, grants, and more) so even a modest saving of our time, across the entirety of the students in the lab, makes a real difference.

Now, every student-PI relationship is different, and some require more or less input to make them productive, healthy, and beneficial to both. But so far, this seems to be a system that’s worked reasonably well for us.

Wanderlust

There’s lots of discussion in scientific fields that involve travel about the relative merits of going somewhere far away for field work, a conference, or seminar. This post is not about those things.

As a kid growing up in eastern Canada, I remember the first time I went to British Columbia (for a lawn bowling tournament. Yes, you read that right). I remember touching the Pacific Ocean for the first time. I recall my first international trip, to Jamaica in 2003, and landing at the airport in Kingston. I remember my first flight to Australia in 2009, with a long layover in Melbourne (and a very nice chap who complimented me on my watch while I was too clueless and jetlagged to realize he has likely hitting on me).

In my professional life, I’ve been lucky enough to visit some incredibly amazing places, some where few others have been, and places where I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was the first person to step in a particular spot. It’s awe-inspiring.

A Google Map of the places I’ve done field work, and from where I’ve analysed data

In the field, we always brought an atlas, and could spend hours (HOURS!) just browsing its pages, imagining the landscape, the people, and cultures, the foods, the weather, and more. So over the last several months, I’ve been starting another map, one of places, for one reason or another, I’d quite like to see some day. Some I have almost zero chance of visiting, others are quite likely. Some are for professional reasons, others are more personal, and a couple are a mix of both. And with today being the autumnal equinox, with the days getting progressively shorter, the dark evenings are an opportunity to daydream, to wonder, and to flip through the pages of an atlas.

A Google Map of some places I’d quite like to see some day

 

So here’s to that sense of wanderlust that takes so many of us to the field, and to exploring our world.

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.

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).

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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.