How to get a post-doc

Why do I need a post-doctoral position?

In an era when PhD students are rising in number and the amount of highly qualified early career scientists is huge, competition for post-docs are intense. These fixed-term research positions, which can be thought of as apprenticeships, are essential for scientists wishing to move to permanent positions in research leading universities. Lectureships at good universities seem to require at least 5 years of post-doc experience, at least 10 first-author publications in strong journals, a significant amount of grant income, and ideally a prestigious independent research fellowship. Continue reading

Writing up a PhD thesis

At some point in the journey to the PhD, it is time to stop experimentation, stop data collection, stop fieldwork, and consider how to convert this huge pile of data into a PhD. It’s not easy. No one said it would be easy. But it is achievable. Here are some coping strategies that I used when I was writing up – and still use today – that might be useful to anyone contemplating a large writing project, be that undergraduate or masters’ dissertation or a PhD. Continue reading

Why I Blog (and why you should too)

This is a brief article on why I blog, some things I have learned by blogging, and how I think it benefits me. Lots of people have written articles about why blogging is important for outreach (for example, to counter misunderstandings like this), but I also think that blogging is good to do for you yourself, as well. For an entirely ego-centric blog post, read on…

Continue reading

Doing a PhD

When I was a Masters student, I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I should do a PhD. And now, people often ask me if they should do one, and what doing a PhD is like. So, if you’re thinking about continuing in higher education, here are some personal thoughts on doing a PhD and working in academia.

Pros of doing a PhD

800px-PhD's

Several faculty members in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Emory University’s graduation ceremony, May 12, 2008. By Uri Rosenheck. From Wikimedia Commons.

If you decide to study for a PhD, then you get to do something that you are passionate about, something that you think is important, and something that could make a difference. This is very satisfying and highly motivating. You also get to travel the world, going on fieldwork and to conferences, meet lots of exciting and interesting people, and have lots of very exciting experiences. You have far more flexibility in how and where you work and in what you do; your work is self-driven, and you decide yourself the direction that you would like to take it in (with guidance from your supervisor, of course!). You can work from home, work in the garden, work at night – whatever best suits you. If you want to go to a conference, and you can find the money to go (and there are many sources of funding for these things), then you can go, and present your work to the best in the field. I thoroughly enjoyed doing my PhD (OK, I was stressed out at times as well!), but I do think that my job satisfaction was higher than most of my friends, and I was doing something I thought important and interesting.

Cons of doing a PhD

A note of clarification: doing a PhD is not like continuing your undergraduate or masters degree. It is a job with typically long hours, pressure and stress, and you don’t get the long summer holidays that the undergraduates get!

Doing a PhD is not all fun and games, and you need to think carefully about whether it would suit you. You’re not an (undergraduate) student but you will still have the finances of one; your friends will buy houses and start to go on expensive holidays and things that you just can’t afford. It can make you feel younger than your friends, or left behind. Job security in academia is notoriously bad, with a position at a university not guaranteed at all. When you finish your PhD, you will be competing for jobs in academia with many many other very highly qualified young scientists. Yet if you decide to leave academia, most large organisations will expect you to enter their training schemes as a graduate. So, do a PhD because you want to and because it is something that is important to you, not to enhance your employment prospects.

PhD students are also expected to work hard, and it can be a very stressful job. Writing up is notoriously hard; a long, drawn-out processes that is emotionally draining. But if you’re motivated, dedicated and enthusiastic, you’ll finish that book.

Considerations for a young scientist

Think about whether a PhD would suit you. You need to be good at working on your own, be highly organised and efficient, and be self motivated. If you’re more of a team person, think about whether you’d enjoy working in a lab on your own for three years. If you need deadlines and urgency to motivate you, you’re unlikely to get them – you’ll be expected to set your own deadlines and keep to them yourself. But if you’re enthusiastic, motivated and well organised, go for it!

So, you’re hooked – I haven’t managed to put you off, and you’ve decided that you want to do a PhD. So, here are some things to consider. Firstly, what to study? Take a look around at university websites and see what topics are on offer. Email the potential supervisor and ask about funding opportunities. If you have an idea of your own, email people and see if they’d be willing to supervise you. You may find (depending on your field) that, although people are easily willing to offer you a PhD, funding opportunities are much harder to come by, and they are awarded competitively. Staying in your own institution may be logistically easier, but think about moving on – you’ll come into contact with different people and different research groups, which will help your growth as an independent researcher.

Secondly, what should you look for in a supervisor? A young, enthusiastic lecturer is likely to have more time to give you. A more experienced professor may have better contacts and more funding, and there may be more chance of a position as a research associate at the end of your PhD. However, they are likely to be away more, and to have less time. I think that the most important consideration is to choose a supervisor that you get on with, and that is researching something you think exciting and interesting.

What opportunities are available in the department? Things to ask could be, are there opportunities for teaching – to earn some extra cash and get that crucial experience? Are there training and development opportunities for graduate students? Is there a departmental fund into which you can dip to go to conferences or do fieldwork?

Advice to young scientists

Already doing a PhD? Then there are some things that you should consider to enhance your employability once you have finished. It’s a publish or perish world – so make sure you start thinking about publishing papers from the start. Plan your publishing, and think about where and what you’ll publish.

Going to conferences and networking is vital for your career. Talk to established researchers and make sure they know who you are and what you’re doing. If they ever interview you, then it may just help!

Take every opportunity given to you. Say no to nothing. Even if it means you have to stay up all night. Supervisor going on fieldwork? Ask if he needs a research assistant. Someone can’t do a lecture? Offer your services. Undergraduate field trip? Go along as a demonstrator. Read up on the work they’re doing so you’re actually of some use! These things are all CV points.

Try and apply for some external funding, especially if it gets you somewhere, like visiting another lab and getting exposure to other people and other ways of working. Going to an additional conference would also be good.

Taking an interest in outreach and education is important, and looks good on your CV. But remember that what really will get you that elusive RA job or lectureship when you finish is papers, papers, papers.

Working in academia

You’re doing a PhD but you’re not sure if you want to stay in academia. Well, I think that much of the above applies; working as an RA is similar to a PhD, you’re just expected to know what you’re doing a bit more and have more of a free reign! So, it’s rewarding and enjoyable, there are great travel opportunities and you get to work with some of the best and brightest. Your work is self-driven and very rewarding. Teaching bright students and post-graduates is great, and working with the less able students, when they show improvement, is rewarding. Pay is not great, but you are paid partly in ‘cool’, as I read somewhere recently!

The main issue with working in academia is that the nature of the career path means that you could be well into your thirties by the time you get a permanent job. This job insecurity puts lots of people off, especially if you have a partner who you keep either (a) dragging around the country, or (b) are forced to maintain a long-distance relationship with. Academia can also be a cut-throat, aggressive world, with funding awarded competitively, harsh reviewer comments, and people being protective about their own work. So, you need a thick skin and ambition to succeed! Again, the mantra is publish, publish, publish.

Resources

Here are some resources for PhD students:

The Thesis Whisperer blog

PhD Comics for a little light relief!

Further reading

Article by Bethan Davies.

Writing your first academic paper

Writing academic papers is important

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If you are a PhD student in the Geosciences and are wanting to go forward into an academic or research career, then it is imperative that you write papers. The process can seem daunting, but it is excellent training, and seeing your name in print is intensely rewarding. So, here are some thoughts for people starting to write their first academic paper.

Your supervisors would normally be co-authors on anything you write, and they are an excellent source of guidance and knowledge, just waiting to be tapped. Do not be afraid to ask them. It is their job to help you!

Choose the right journal

Your journal should be peer-reviewed and ISI-linked (so that citations of your work will be counted on databases). You should aim for the highest impact factor possible, but bear in mind that if your paper is a regional study that is only relevant to Britain, getting it published in a major international journal could be difficult. Ultimately, the citations that your paper receives is a way of deeming its success, so choose a journal that is read by the right people, who will want to cite your work.

It is very important that you choose a journal that will be interested in publishing your work. One first step could be to look at who you have referenced, and see where they are publishing. Also take a look at the journal’s homepage, and see if your work falls within their scope. Do they publish reviews, or only original work?

Other considerations could be, does the journal provide free colour images online? Will you have to pay page charges? Is the journal open access? Can you upload supplementary information or supplementary datasets? How long are the articles typically published by this journal?

Tell a story

Each paper should have one key message. You should be able to summarise it in a couple of sentences. Your goal, as author of the paper, is to get that key message across as well as possible. If your message is rather complicated, or you have a very large dataset, consider writing two shorter papers instead of one long one.

Early on, work out what your message is, and stick to it. Set out your paper so that this key message is introduced, examined, tested and summarised.

Try the And, But, Therefore technique – the main points are linked with an ‘and’, conflict or why-this-matters points are introduced with a ‘but’, and things are tied together with a ‘therefore’ (see Hotaling, 2020).

Writing a paper takes a long time

You should understand that getting a paper out takes a long time. You will need to start writing papers in your second year or start of your third year if you want them to be published by the time you finish your PhD. It can take a year to go through the review and published process, and that’s before you’ve written your paper.

Writing your first paper is likely to be a learning process, and you will go through many drafts with your supervisors. You should not be disheartened if your first draft comes back covered in red ink!

I personally find it very helpful to finish a draft, and then lay it aside for a little while. Coming at it with fresh eyes helps me see the problems and understand the solutions much better.

Writing gets better with practice. The more you write, the more it will flow. Try to write every day, and try to set aside designated periods of time to write.

Write first, edit later

The hardest part about writing is the blank screen. Get around this by not worrying about making your writing perfect first time. Just write anything, and edit later. If you’re stuck, try thinking about planning out headings or paragraphs. Just putting something down will build those creative juices and help the writing process.

Later, set aside time to edit. Expect to go through many versions of any paper. Ask for, and listen to, any constructive feedback.

Writing a paper is formulaic

Most papers will follow a rather set pattern or structure:

  1. Introduction and rationale. Here, you should set out your reasons for doing the research and identifiy the key unknowns. You should have identified these already before starting your research project (see Research Design).
  2. Aims and Objectives. Here you should set out your aim, hypotheses to be tested (if relevant; see this blog post), and specific research objectives.
  3. Study Area and Previous Work. It may be relevant here to give an overview of your area, the region’s geology, previous work on the area. You can also use this section to further emphasise your research questions.
  4. Methodology. Here you should have a brief overview of your methodology. Unless your paper is about pioneering a new technique, you should keep this section brief and reference the relevant papers, but it should contain enough information to make the work reproduceable.
  5. Results. In this section, present the results of your work. Some large datasets may be published as supplementary data. You should include some clear figures and diagrams at this stage.
  6. Discussion. In this section, you should place your results in the broader context. This section is often the hardest to write! What are the implications of your work, and how is it relevant to other scientists? What does it mean? Have you identified any more research questions? How has it moved the science on?
  7. Conclusions. In this section, you should summarise what you have found out. You may want to use bullet points. You could consider starting with your aim and summarising a brief rationale in one or two sentences. Then state what you did, then your results, and then your main conclusion: what did you find out? What have you changed? Did you accept or refute your hypotheses.
  8. Acknowledgements. Acknowledge any funding, financial support, fieldwork or lab assistance, people who gave you data or read the manuscript. Do not acknowledge your parents, dog, or informal support from colleagues.
  9. References. List your references in alphabetical and then chronological order. Check the referencing style with the journal.

Some journals will rearrange the order (e.g. short format papers may put the Methods at the end, as an appendix), but most papers will follow this kind of order.

Figures

Your figures should, if possible, be presented in black and white. This makes it easier for people to print out, saves on page charges, and means that your paper will be consistent between the online PDF version and printed version. However, they should be clear, concise, unique and well drawn.

Each figure should stand on its own, and should not necessarily need a long caption explaining it.

Writing style

Writing style is something that takes time to develop, and we could discuss at length. Your supervisor is the best person to learn writing style. Needless to say, your spelling and grammar need to be impeccable. Other variables are open to discussion. However, there are some pointers.

Write clear, direct, short sentences. Try to make the writing as concise and as clear as possible, to encourage people to read and understand your paper. This helps to transfer your message as efficiently as possible, and ensures that people will read your paper and, most importantly, cite it.

Remove unnecessary words. Avoid lead ins and padding. If you can cut out a word, cut it out.

Use simple language. This will help your message get across. Complicated words and clever phrases take up space, slow down how quickly people can read your paper, and can make it harder for your message to be understood. Write as clearly and as simply as you can; try to reduce your manuscript’s syllable count by using shorter, more simple words.

Be concise: long set ups and extra details befuddle the point and dilute your argument. They may even cause people to stop reading. Get to your point as efficiently as possible.

Important style pointers:

  1. Make sure you follow the journal’s prescribed format for headings and subheadings.
  2. Make sure you use references appropriately.
  3. Always be precise, do not be vague. Give facts and figures, not vague statements.
  4. Consider whether you are using the active (I caught the ball) or the passive (the ball was caught). Nelson et al., 1996, provide a good example of writing in the active voice. You can also see this article by Gopen and Swann, The Science of Academic Writing. It is more acceptable these days to use the first person in writing, as it comes across as more direct, it is shorter, and can be more interesting to read.
  5. Use ‘which’ after a comma, ‘that’ if you haven’t used a comma.
  6. It is composed of, but it comprises (it certainly does not comprise of).
  7. Try and avoid abbreviations or acronyms, as they can make it hard for the reader to follow you, unless they are very commonly used in your field.
  8. Structure is very important. Reread your article several times to make sure that you have not repeated yourself.
  9. You are writing for your peers. You can expect them to understand key words and concepts. You should use references to outline key ideas, but you should not necessarily need to define words, unless they are very new and original.

Writing an abstract

The abstract is possibly the most important part of your paper, and also probably the hardest to write. Leave it until last, when you have a clear idea of your paper’s content and outcomes.Most should be 200-300 words, but check your journal’s guidelines. You should try and be as succinct as possible. There is more information on writing an abstract here.

Your abstract should follow the same basic layout as your paper. Your abstract should start with a clear sentence about your motivation; this should summarised your rationale and it should be a ‘call to arms’! This could be followed by what you did; state your aim, because this is how you answered the problem. Outline next how you addressed these aims; the principal methodologies employed and what data you used. Next you should summarise your key findings, and then place them within the wider context. Why are they important? Finish with your main conclusions.

Here are some more resources:

The peer-review process

Once you have submitted your manuscript, it will be assigned an editor. The editor will examine the paper and decide if it is appropriate, within scope of the journal, and of a high enough standard to be publishable. Then they will send it to peer review, normally to two independent experts in your field. They will read the paper and decide whether it would be publishable, normally dependent on the author revising the manuscript in light of their comments.

Reviewer’s comments can be quite varied and range from disinterested to commenting on every single sentence, but are usually thorough and helpful. This constructive criticism, although it can be painful, is extremely valuable and will, in the end, make your paper better.

Put line numbers on your manuscript to make it easy for the reviewers.

Responding to reviewers’ comments

Once you have received your reviewers’ comments, read them, then put them aside for a day or two and recover from the process! When you come to write your response, you need to answer each one of their points.

Your letter to the editor should be formal and polite. State that you have amended your manuscript thoroughly according to the reviewer’s comments, and that it is much improved as a result. You now hope that it is suitable for publication in journal AAA.

Copy the reviewers’ letter into a new document and make all the text blue. Write your responses in black underneath. The key is to make it easy for the editor to see that you have done everything that you were asked. Give line numbers to make it simple to see where you have made changes. You could also, if they have given you some particularly helpful advice, say that this is an excellent idea, and that you have done as requested.

Sometimes reviewers may not understand your manuscript, or make a point that you feel is not valid. If this is the case, you can rebutt the comment and argue your case. You could state that you have clarified the text in question so that the misunderstanding does not happen again.

Acceptance and checking proofs

Hopefully, once you have responded to your reviews, your paper will be accepted! From there, it is but a short step to publication. Once your proofs come, read them carefully. Check all your figures, figure captions, authors names, tables and references (these are typically ignored and having a mistake in them is very embarrassing!). You may have to respond to questions by the type setters. Once you have proof read your manuscript, put it away for 3 days and then proof read it again. And perhaps once more for luck. You will not be able to make any changes after this point.

Reviewing a manuscript yourself

Once you have published a paper or two yourself, you may find that you get asked to review someone else’s. That’s a topic for another post, but here are some useful links:

PLos 10 simple rules

The PLoS 10 simple rules series has a number of articles that are useful for writing good academic papers:

These articles, in other journals, are also very worth reading:

This article has some straightforward advice, and is very useful

Further reading

Further Resources

Careers with Geoscience

Careers with Geoscience | Getting into University | Working in Antarctica |

Careers with Geoscience

Geoscience degrees (Geography, Geology, Geophysics or associated) are an excellent choice for undergraduate students, and offer graduates a wide range of opportunities. Geoscience graduates have well developed transferable skills, such as verbal reasoning skills, time management, debating skills, are literate and numerate, and can construct arguments, summarise complex situations, and write persuasively. With a good Geoscience degree, students can go on a wide number of careers, including graduate schemes, law (following a conversion course), accounting, marketing, media, business, finance, banking, tourism, industry, manufacturing and so on.

Of course, Geoscience graduates have more to offer than this. Specific skills learnt at university may include (depending on courses taken):

  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS), map making and cartography
  • Laboratory and field skills
  • Illustrative and graphic design skills
  • Good IT, writing and numeracy skills
  • Environmental, political and social awareness
  • Independent researcher

Professions that use these skills could include: environmental management, town or civic planning, GIS specialist (working in a huge number of sectors), geology, risk and hazard assessment, conservation, housing and social planning, chartered surveying, development, teaching, research, academia etc. Many of these will, however, require further training and often will require a masters degree or a PhD.

There are lots of things you can do to enhance your employability beyond your degree. Employers are looking for commitment, work experience, intelligence, responsibility, ability to work in a team and unsupervised. Think about voluntary work or work experience you could do enhance your employability beyond your degree, such as being the president of a student society. However, bear in mind that if your voluntary work looks like a holiday, employers will probably treat it as such.

There is more useful information available from the Royal Geographical Society.

Getting into University

If you’re thinking about studying Geography, Geology or another Geoscience degree at University, you’re probably thinking about your UCAS form and possibly even an interview. What can you do to make sure you ace it and get that all-important offer? Well, here are some thoughts straight from the horse’s mouth.

Undergraduate admissions tutors are looking for passion, excitement and committment to their degree programme. You may be playing Rubgy for England, in the National Youth Orchestra and President of the Debating Society, but if you’re not really interested, it’ll show and they won’t be impressed. So write and think about why you want to study this particular degree. Have you done any field trips or anything else that is relevant? What about Gap Year experiences or expeditions, such as with British Exploring Society or World Challenge? Why is Geography/Geology important to you, and what is its role in the wider world? Show that you think the subject is interesting, important and relevant to society, and you’ll fly through the application procedures.

Working in Antarctica

This is all very well I hear you say, but how do I get to go to Antarctica? In Britain, there are two obvious ways to go to Antarctica: as a researcher at a university, or by working for the British Antarctic Survey. BAS needs people to run their bases (base commanders, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, doctors, engineers, weather forecasters, communications managers, builders, aeroplane pilots, chefs, field assistants, general base assistants and many others) as well as scientists.

The breadth of science carried out in Antarctica is breathtaking, and far broader than that covered in this website. There are oceanographers (who mainly work from ships), marine and terrestrial biologists (including penguinologists), atmospheric scientists, physicists, geologists, as well as numerical ice sheet modellers, glaciologists and glacial geologists. If you’d like to know more about academia, take a look at my blog post: Doing a PhD.

Further reading