This is a joint post by Dani Rabaiotti and Jeff Clements. You can find the sister version of this post over at Dani’s website.
Ah! Conferences. A time take in the cool work that others are doing, and share the cool work that you’ve been doing – and a time to relax and network. Well, maybe for some. But a concerning number of researchers (particularly students and early career researchers, or ECRs) are unable to relax and network at conferences because of negative experiences. While there are a number of factors that can influence one’s experience at a conference, the theme of negative associations with colleagues has emerged as an ongoing issue (see twitter discussion HERE and tweets below). Given this seemingly common issue, I teamed up with Dani Rabaiotti (@DaniRabaiotti) to share experiences and put together the following guide.
What’s the issue?
In a largely unscientific Twitter poll of 488 fellow academic tweeters, only 28% had never had a negative experience with conference criticism, whilst 40% had had a negative experience with criticism that was done respectfully (generally part of conference experience but can be tough!). However, nearly 1/3 of people polled had had negative experiences where others had been disrespectful, or had engaged in an ‘all-out war’ with an audience member.
Sadly, for us as authors, this was unsurprising. For example, Dani has been told she was wrong about her own study species because the questioner ‘had seen them hunting’ (anecdote vs data, anyone?), while Jeff has been publicly told that his work will do nothing for his career and may even hinder his progression. In addition, we have both witnessed some incredibly aggressive questioning styles at conferences. A wide variety of respondents to the Twitter poll also shared their experiences, many of which were, we think you’d agree, pretty awful:
This brings us onto a second issue – one that nearly all of us have experienced – the ‘this isn’t a question but a comment’ during conference QUESTION sessions. Of 387 people polled nearly 1/3 had experienced comment-not-questions lasting more than 5 minutes!
During the question period, if you need to preface your ‘question’ with, “This is more of a comment than a question, but…” and subsequently go on to add your thoughts about the work, save it for after! Likewise, if you know that your question is a lengthy one that will take up most of the question period, save it! Not only does this approach allow others to ask questions (providing the speaker with a broader degree of feedback), but it provides an opportunity for networking and discussion after the talk. This is a much better use of time and is a more productive way of providing commentary feedback to presenters (not to mention that it can facilitate collaborations and potentially enhance a field of research!).
Top tips for conference etiquette:
It appears that negative experiences with peers at conferences are quite common. These experiences can have lasting effects on the people involved, particularly for students and early career researchers. Such instances can be easily avoided by following some simple rules and avoiding conflict. Yet, while a quick google search of “behaviour/etiquette at academic conferences” provides a laundry list of tips for grad students and ECRs, little information is provided for senior researchers on how to engage appropriately with grad students and ECRs, nor on how to conduct oneself during question periods, etc. To facilitate this, we have compiled a few tips for ‘conference etiquette’, which can be found below (you can also find other tips here, here, and here, among others). We suggest that if a predominance of conference goers follow these guidelines the frequency negative conference experiences can be reduced and research efforts and quality can be enhanced.
Some conference Do’s and Don’ts:
Should you ask that question?:
During my undergraduate degree, I remember all too well the many times in which I would search for a journal article that I needed to write a paper, only to be stymied by my institution’s inability to afford a journal or publisher. Of course, Interlibrary Loans could help me get my hands on those papers eventually, but rarely was it sufficient. As a result, I ended up spending out-of-pocket for journal articles during a time in which personal finances were dismal.
This reality is commonplace for many students both near and far. For many Canadian undergraduates, access to journals has been dwindling. Particularly in developing nations, scholars-in-training have limited access to journals published by conglomerate publishers. Furthermore, expensive subscriptions to scholarly journals can deprive everyday citizens from becoming more scientifically literate. So, what are we to do?
Cue the open access movement.
Open access publishing – making access to published works free for readers – has recently been adopted by many academic journals in attempt to remove barriers to scholarly works. Open access publishing in academia typically comes in two forms: green and gold. While the ‘green’ option allows scholarly authors to openly share their work through different outlets (e.g. personal webpage, social media, etc.), the gold option provides readers with free access to an article directly from the publisher. This has resulted in the establishment of fully-open access journals (such as the brand new on from Canadian Science Publishing, FACETS), as well as hybrid journals (where the journal offers the option for authors to pay for their article to be open access) Nonetheless, by enforcing an open access method, barriers to accessing scholarly works begin to dwindle and readership can be increased.
While open access certainly seems like a great idea from the readers’ perspective, it comes at an expense to authors – literally. Currently, the cost of making a scholarly article is substantial, generally running authors more than USD $1000 per article. So, is there any benefit from the authors’ side of the coin? It turns out that there is!
The prestige and productivity of scholarly authors is often gauged on citations – when another scholar references the work of a scholarly author in a subsequent article. The more citations that an author gains on their publications, the better. So, for authors, increasing citations is a benefit to authors for increasing the impact of their work and for career development. Interestingly, one way that appears effective in increasing citations is publishing open access.
In a study recently published in FACETS, I was able to show that open access articles in hybrid marine science journals received more citations than articles that were closed access. For my study, I collected citation data from articles in 3 hybrid marine ecology journals with similar impact factors as a microcosm to test for open access effects on citations: ICES Journal of Marine Science (Oxford Press), Marine Ecology Progress Series (Inter-Research), and Marine Biology (Springer). I also controlled for a number of other factors that could potentially influence citation rates, including self-citations, article type, time since publication, the number of authors, and the year that the article was published. I found that open access articles received, on average, 57%, 38%, and 24% more citations than closed access articles in for ICES Journal of Marine Science, Marine Ecology Progress Series, & Marine Biology respectively.
Although the trend observed in my study could be driven by authors’ self-selection to publish only their best work open access, the results are in line with numerous other studies showing a citation advantage of open access articles. In addition, my study only focused on a narrow field of academia: marine science. However, these ‘microcosmic’ studies are important for highlighting the benefits of open access to authors that reside within a defined academic discipline, and more of them are certainly needed.
Ultimately, the consistently-documented citation advantage of open access for authors of scholarly works should motivate authors to publish open access and, in turn, increase the accessibility of scholarly works for students, researchers, and the public. However, the financial burden to doing so is still substantial. Given the documented benefits of open access publishing to both authors and readers, it’s about time that both authors and readers push for reduced costs to publish open access. Alleviating the financial burden to authors will help to stimulate open access publishing and will lead to more efficient scientific communication between scientists and with the public. Such a transition is crucial in an age where scientific literacy is increasingly needed.
It’s time to act now! It’s time to open-up.
In professional discussions with a number of colleagues, a common comment from those I talk to is that I’m very successful and productive for the stage of my career. While I do consider myself a productive and (thus far) successful early career researcher (ECR), such productivity does not come without failure. In fact, depending on how one wishes to measure academic productivity and success, my failures either match or supersede my successes. At times, such failures can weigh heavily on graduate students and ECRs (as well as veteran scientists), and can result in severe impacts to mental health, often driven by imposter syndrome. Having experienced imposter syndrome-driven anxiety and depression personally, I have elected to join the small number of academics who have confronted their failures and have made them publicly accessible. My hope is that more researchers – including “famous” experts and others leading their fields – will publish their CVs of failures to dismantle the idea that scientists (even the most famous) rarely fail. Ultimately, I hope that such CVs will provide graduate students, ECRs, and any other researcher struggling with their competency with an understanding that most (if not all) researchers fail, and that failure and success are not distinct attributes of researchers.
Disclaimer: I am not the first (and hopefully will not be the last) to publish a CV of failures. The idea was introduced by Melanie I. Stefan (check out her website and follow her on Twitter) in a 2010 Nature article. More recently, Johannes Haushofer published his CV of failures online as well.
I will strive to keep this CV updated as much as my CV of accomplishments.
This afternoon I engaged in a Twitter conversation with some colleagues regarding the use of the term dreissenid in the context of “dreissenid mussels”. Colleague A wanted to know if dreissenid should be italicized. I assured her that it indeed does not, because Dreissenidae is a family of mussels containing 3 genera and is not a single genus (to which she obliged). Colleague B then questioned this and asked what to do if using the term when only referring to the genus Dreissena, whereby I suggested using a more specific term (i.e., Dreissena spp.). Colleague A then responded that she originally wanted to use the term to describe only the genus Dreissena, and that this was common practice. Then I got annoyed (again) at common names in general…
So which is it – does dreissenid refer to the family Dreissenidae or the genus Dreissena?
The answer is that it’s commonly used for both. Although many scientists may not care about or acknowledge this, the interchangeability of common names across different taxonomic resolutions can be problematic for a number of reasons.
Let’s first look at a relatively simple example. Say I published a paper on “dreissenid mussels” in the Journal of Crappy Nomenclature, and in the introduction made the claim that there are 16 species of dreissenid mussels. Without context, the reader has no idea as to whether there are 16 species within the family Dreissenidae or 16 species within the genus Dreissena unless they search this information themselves (there are 16 species in the family Dreissenidae; Figure 1).
Likewise, let’s say that in the same paper I was to claim that dreissenid mussels reside in supraterranean (above ground) freshwater systems. While that is true for the genus Dreissena, there exists a subterraneous genus of Dreissenidae (Congeria; resides solely in cave river systems). Again, without context, the reader would be left searching such information. Unfortunately, many readers would not recognize the need to search for this information and would likely apply the information obtained from the two statements outlined above in the context of how they interpret the term “dreissenid mussels”, which may be correct or incorrect depending on my definition of “dreissenid mussels”. Thus, in subsequent publications obtaining information from my hypothetical paper on dreissenid mussels, information may be incorrect, but nonetheless become “common knowledge”.
While the above examples may appear extreme, particularly for those who study these mussels, the points still stand – and for many more taxa than the example herein. Researchers conducting work on species new to them must learn as much about their new study species and related taxa as possible. In this way, using common names interchangeably across levels of taxonomic resolution can easily create problems for these researchers and the propagation of incorrect biological information may result. Furthermore, other problems with common names arise when even more generic terminology is used, like “cushion stars”.
Ultimately, there are two ways to solve the problems outlined above: either define the range of taxa (up front) that a common name being used encompasses, or stop using common names all together. If we are to follow the biological writing rules of Dr. Pechenik (i.e., more concise = better), scientific works would benefit from the elimination of common names (for example, “Dreissena spp.” consumes less space than “dreissenid mussels”, and the former would not require a formal definition). Not only does the use of precise taxonomic nomenclature reduce verbiage, but it would remove the potential for misinterpretation with respect to the breadth of biological processes across various levels of taxonomic resolution. That, and we would negate complex Twitter conversations regarding how to use common nomenclature and have more time to spend on writing our actual papers…
So, in conclusion, just stop using common names. They suck.
As of late, I’ve been seeing a video resurfacing among some friends on social media that I criticized when I first watched. The release and subsequent virility of the video below in 2012 – Why I Hate School But Love Education by poet Suli Breaks – seemed to have people questioning the distinction between education and school and suggested that university was worthless and we don’t need it. I beg to differ.
First of all, of course university isn’t always necessary; it’s all in what you want to do. The problem with this “debate” is that it is stirring the pot in terms of whether or not higher education is useless. Although Suli Breaks’ voice and argument, fueled by his personal experience, appear to portray the idea that institutionalized education is utterly obsolete, this stance is dead wrong. Here’s why:
Throughout the video, many faults in his arguments are immediately evident. The first is that he uses outliers – outstanding individuals – rather than average people to make his point. In terms of ‘the statistics’ (a term which seems to be misunderstood and overused in the video), these people are extremely rare; one-in-a-million if you will.
Secondly, some of the facts Suli presents are just simply incorrect. Some of the people referred to as having no post-secondary (higher) education, actually do. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, had an outstanding level of education before attending Harvard, where he learned lessons which helped him get to where he is today. Just because he dropped out to pursue Facebook and ‘technically’ didn’t graduate does not render his university level education obsolete.
The video also uses many historical examples to make the case that school is unnecessary. Though today anyone can put forward great ideas without scholastic education, there is no evidence that this leads to more valid idea generation. Furthermore, although Socrates had his own ideas, he was the teacher of Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle, and so on. Without Socrates teaching the likes of Plato and Aristotle you could argue that they may never have come up with their philosophies independently. The ‘Socratic method’ and Plato’s foundation of the Academy were early versions of institutionalized learning and proved to be huge assets to the progression of society at that time, without which the shape and direction of progress may have been very different. Additionally, given the preliminary state of human knowledge, it was likely easier to put forward thoughts and ideas without scholastic education in historical times than it is now, if simply because we didn’t know as much. The amount of information that must be comprehended before forming truly great ideas is outstanding and, again, only one in a million may be able to present such ideas without a high degree of formal education.
All the while, Suli Breaks forgets to mention such great minds as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Gandhi and the countless other such individuals who did go to school and did receive degrees. Without a higher education, these individuals may never have gained the knowledge they needed to propose their theories, or enact their paths; and our current knowledge of the way the world works may have never come about to be.
It’s great that people are starting to question the nature of higher education — a degree is not something that everyone needs to or should pursue. But the fact of the matter is that post-secondary education does have its place and is a necessity. Without universities and degrees, academia and our breadth of knowledge wouldn’t be where it is today. Great scientists, philosophers, businessmen, politicians, and others from a multitude of fields often need the guidance of professors in order to better formulate their thoughts and gain the necessary information needed to make substantial contributions and breakthroughs — not to mention the benefit that can be garnered from ones’ peers.
Before jumping on this bandwagon of higher education being useless, ask yourself this question (or one similar, pertaining to your passion and goals):
“If I wanted to be a scientist, business mogul, great philosopher; or a nurse, veterinarian, doctor – could I really do so by teaching myself, without the aid of a professor or mentor?”
No, not everyone needs to go to school to be successful and make money; but a lot of people do. Very few of us can learn entirely as autodidacts, while the majority of us need some sort of guidance, at least initially, to steer us on the right path. Furthermore, universities are often exactly the place where individuals find their true passion to go on to live their lives doing what they love. I am a living example of the great things that higher education can do for people and am certainly not alone. Without going to university I never would have discovered my passion. University is not just about getting marked – if you feel it is, then you are there for the wrong reasons.
People can argue until they’re blue in the face that ‘school’ is fundamentally unnecessary, but they’re absolutely and unequivocally wrong, not to mention naive. Higher education isn’t necessary for everyone – perhaps you don’t need school – but for most people it is. Not just to learn and get marked, but to discover passions and learn how to contribute to the benefit and progression of humanity. Without the extensive success of institutionalized learning, our knowledge of the world wouldn’t even be close to what it is today. Instead of debating as to why schooling is useless, I proffer that we debate how it might be improved.
During my three-year (and counting) tenure as a Ph.D. student at the University of New Brunswick, I’ve held numerous positions as a teaching assistant (TA) within my academic department. Teaching grade school is something that I had initially considered as a career path until I was introduced to the wonderful world of research, but teaching is something that I continue to take quite seriously as a prospecting academic. Given the unique relationship between TA and student, I’ve been able to mentor and help undergraduate students in a myriad of different ways. However, one recurring theme that students continue to seek advice for is whether or not to attend graduate school.
Personally, I love graduate school, so I am a great promotional tool. I’m of the mindset that graduate school is a very unique time in a researcher’s career that can be a great experience (and indeed it has been just that for me). Yet, I see and hear of so many graduate students having a very difficult time in grad school, and ultimately seeing it as a negative part of their life. As a result, many students drop out of graduate school, particularly Ph.D. students (sometimes dropping out can be for the best; see a great post on this topic here). I think it’s true that it takes a certain type of person to endure graduate school, but it also takes a series of strategic and well researched decisions to optimize your graduate school experience. And so here I want to offer some personal suggestions on how to decide whether or not to enroll in and attend graduate school and, once in, how to maximize your grad school experience.
I’m thinking about grad school, what should I consider?
Don’t attend grad school because you “don’t know what to do next”: Contrary to popular belief, graduate school should not be a consideration that’s taken lightly. Like any other endeavor in life, some people are not cut out for graduate school; others are perfect for it. And so going to grad school for the sole reason of being unsure what to do next in life is a bad idea. Make sure you are choosing graduate school for the right reasons – because you are passionate about what you study and you are committed to standing on the forefront of knowledge. Otherwise, you may very well be wasting your time and that of others, and having a bad time doing it.
Choose a PI, not a school: I hear of far too many graduate students choosing a school over a PI or project simply because of the prestige of that school – BAD IDEA! Although some schools don’t allow you to hand-pick a PI, many do, and it’s worth investigating what these schools have to offer. A Ph.D. program is a 4-year (usually longer) commitment that will be optimized by choosing a supervisor who is compatible with you as both a researcher and a person.
Follow your passion, not the letters after your name: If you’re considering graduate school, it’s likely that you’ve been involved with some sort of research program or are excited about a particular field that you studied in your undergraduate courses. Credentials are great, but it’s important to recognize that passion most often fuels success and happiness in graduate school. Choosing a topic that gets you excited to no end is going to make your experience all the more enjoyable and can promote important novel discoveries as a developing researcher.
Is it the right time? Be sure to take into consideration where you are in life. Graduate school can be tough when you have a family, job, and/or debt. All of these personal life attributes are important to consider when thinking about graduate studies.
Alright, I’m in! What now?
Take the lead: Independence is essential in graduate school, and if you’ve followed your passion and have chosen a compatible supervisor, then you should have the ability to take the lead! Remember, this is your project, and so it should reflect the questions you’re interested in. Utilize your PI’s expertise to optimize the quality of your work, but make the project your own.
Be realistic: It’s important to be realistic with respect to your research project. Here in Canada, a Master’s thesis is scheduled to be finished in two years and a Ph.D. in four (although they most often take longer). Be sure to structure your project with this timeline in mind. It’s easy to get excited about new research opportunities and waddle outside of the scope of a degree. If your PI suggests a project that you think is impossible to get done in the time frame given, be realistic and say no!
Learn to say ‘no’: If you’re in graduate school, it’s most likely that you’re an excelling person with an overachieving work ethic. Great! But this may result in people taking advantage of you – even your own PI! Make sure you know when to say no to a request that you don’t have the time to do. Of course, do this in a respectful manner, but your job as a graduate student isn’t to organize your PI’s thirty year collection of journal articles.
Criticism is a good thing: As a prospecting academic, you must learn to accept criticism in all forms, whether it’s positive or negative. Although it may be difficult, learning to harness that criticism to become a better researcher rather than treating it as a hurdle will make your time in graduate school much easier. One way to do this is to remember that all academics are criticized, not just you! You are smart enough for grad school, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Criticism is an aspect of academia at all levels – don’t take it personally.
Don’t stop learning: This goes beyond graduate school as well. You don’t know everything there is to know – nobody does – so remember to never stop learning. This is one of the best things about graduate school! Not only are you continually learning from your colleagues, but you are at the forefront of knowledge! You are now contributing to how we, as humans, understand the ways in which the world works, and that is exciting!
Try not to compare yourself to the merits of other graduate students: It’s easier said than done. But remember: different projects move at different paces. If a colleague is publishing and you aren’t, don’t sweat it! In ecology, for example, a purely field based study is going to take longer to publish than an experimental study. At the very least, consider all the variables before you reach a conclusion about your performance.
Take time to de-stress: In graduate school, your work should certainly be a top priority, but that doesn’t mean that you should spend every waking day working. Some graduate students enjoy the work so much that it doesn’t really feel like work (myself included), but even they need to step back at times and spend a couple of days to de-stress. Go for a hike, head out on a road trip, or simply relax – it’s important to make time for the other passions in your life, and coupling those with de-stressing can help to optimize productivity and overall happiness.