Tag Archives: academic life

Why should you join an academic society?

In the last month I’ve spent a lot of time, over and above the duties of my actual job, doing unpaid work for one academic society. I turned down an invitation to apply for the council of another, though I remain an active member and attend their conferences. Finally, when the renewal for a third society came up, despite having been a member for many years, I decided that it was no longer meeting my needs and will allow my membership to lapse at the end of 2016.

There’s a good reason why I haven’t actually named the societies concerned; I’d like to use this as an opportunity to think about the general reasons for joining an academic society (or not) rather than the benefits of any in particular. Here are some of the common benefits:

  • You believe in their mission. In this sense you might view membership in the same was as supporting a charity: you’re making sure that work you care about gets done, and opinions you share have a collective voice. Every society should have a clear mission statement. Here’s a few random choices:

Like those? Then head to the membership pages and sign up. That said, I’m only a member of one of the above, despite warmly supporting all of their objectives. This again is much like charities. In general it’s hard to disagree with what they aspire to do, but that doesn’t mean we can give to all of them. Another filter is required.

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Head to their website, and it’s immediately clear what BES aspire to do. Join if you agree!

  • You want something back. Joining a society isn’t just about supporting them; you may have an expectation that they will provide some benefits to you. Some of the common ones include:
    • Professional membership and accreditation. Having membership of a society on your CV demonstrates a commitment to the academic field in which you are working. Some societies, such as the Ecological Society of America, provide certification schemes to demonstrate your standing in your field.
    • Discounts for meeting attendance. For the British Ecological Society the equation is pretty simple: if you’re attending the Annual Meeting then it’s cheaper to join for a year than to pay non-member rates. This is at least in part why the headline costs of many conferences are so high; it increases the incentive to join the society.
    • Receiving their in-house magazines. Only members of the BES can receive the quarterly Bulletin, which contains news, opinion articles and reviews.  ESA members get a print copy of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which you might not otherwise have access to (other than via dodgy links).
    • Journal access. Most societies give their members free access to their journals, or the option of discounted print copies, which are cheaper than subscribing independently. Digital access is also a normal offering, although I’ve never managed to log into the online version of a society journal successfully.
    • Members-only grants. This is a big one. The early stages of my career were made possible by small grants of a few thousand pounds from societies and charities that were kind enough to invest in me, provided that I signed up to them. This was awesome.
    • Support and mentorship. Societies are a great way to get advice, access dedicated support and training, or to meet and learn from role models in your field. Many place a particular focus on developing graduate students or early-career researchers. You will also build confidence through finding and sharing with other people like yourself.
    • Discounts on books and journals, often those produced by the society, but sometimes through deals with other publishers. This is a nice bonus but I doubt that it draws in great numbers of new members.
    • Reduced page charges. If you join the American Society of Naturalists, you get discounts for publishing in American Naturalist. This is common for many society journals, and as with attending their conferences, it usually saves money in any given year. Whether this acts as a sufficient incentive to depends on whether you pay directly for page charges and membership from your own money or a grant. Remaining a member implies that you believe that you will continue to publish regularly in that journal, which seems rather aspirational.
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Want to feel good about your research? Join an academic society and meet people who will be really enthusiastic (and want to help you). I’m on the right next to my collaborator Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz examining his student’s poster at SCB-Asia 2015.

  • It’s affordable. This does rather depend on your career status, amount of disposable income, and whether your employer (or grant) will cover the costs. Many societies offer cheap rates for students, or are even free for introductory periods. Joining international societies can depend on exchange rates; if your currency is plummeting the way Sterling has in recent months, think twice before adding to your direct debit list. A cost-benefit analysis comes into play. It’s likely that you will accumulate memberships as your career progresses, but sometimes these will need trimming because you can’t participate in everything.
  • Become part of a community. You care about your research area, right? Of course you do, otherwise you’d be doing something soulless that’s better remunerated for shorter hours*. Being a member of an academic society puts you in contact with other people who are passionate about the same things and are investing their lives in them as well. They will be interested in what you do, supportive of your work, and looking to share and collaborate. In time, after running into them for a few years, they become friends. I met many of my closest friends at conferences; some of them I’ve worked with, most are just awesome people that I wouldn’t otherwise have come across.
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Meeting new friends at ATBC 2016 in Montpellier. Food and wine help.

Back to my opening comments. I won’t name the society I’m leaving, other than to say that the fall in the value of Sterling following Brexit shifted my equation and made me feel that it was no longer worthwhile. But it’s no secret that the one I do a lot of work for is, of course, the British Ecological Society (I’m on their Council). Not a member yet? Well you should join, and it’s free for students for the first year, so you’ve got nothing to lose!


* Quick disclaimer: I write mainly for an academic audience, but am aware that many members of scientific societies are actually interested parties who just want to keep abreast of developments in a field that they’re enthusiastic about. If that applies to you then please don’t flame me, but I’d love to hear about a job that is well-paid, intellectually satisfying, allows an appropriate work-more work-life balance and still allows you to measure trees occasionally.

 

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In praise of backwards thinking

What is science? This is a favourite opening gambit of some external examiners in viva voce examinations. PhD students, be warned! Imagine yourself in that position, caught off-guard, expected to produce some pithy epithet that somehow encompasses exactly what it is that we do.

It’s likely that in such a situation most of us would jabber something regarding the standard narrative progression from observation to hypothesis then testing through experimentation. We may even mumble about the need for statistical analysis of data to test whether the outcome differs from a reasonable null hypothesis. This is, after all, the sine qua non of scientific enquiry, and we’re all aware of such pronouncements on the correct way to do science, or at least some garbled approximation of them.* It’s the model followed by multiple textbooks aimed at biology students.

Pause and think about this in a little more depth. How many great advances in ecology, or how many publications on your own CV, have come through that route? Maybe some, and if so then well done, but many people will recognise the following routes:

  • You stumble upon a fantastic data repository. It takes you a little while to work out what to do with it (there must be something…) but eventually an idea springs to mind. It might even be your own data — this paper of mine only came about because I was learning about a new statistical technique and remembered that I still had some old data to play with.
  • In an experiment designed to test something entirely different, you spot a serendipitous pattern that suggests something more interesting. Tossing away your original idea, you analyse the data with another question in mind.
  • After years of monitoring an ecological community, you commence descriptive analyses with the aim of getting something out of it. It takes time to work out what’s going on, but on the basis of this you come up with some retrospective hypotheses as to what might have happened.

Are any of these bad ways to do science, or are they just realistic? Purists may object, but I would say that all of these are perfectly valid and can lead to excellent research. Why is it then that, when writing up our manuscripts, we feel obliged — or are compelled — to contort our work into a fantasy in which we had the prescience to sense the outcome before we even began?

We maintain this stance despite the fact that most major advances in science have not proceeded through this route. We need to recognise that descriptive science is both valid and necessary. Parameter estimation and refinement often has more impact than testing a daring new hypothesis. I for one am entranced by a simple question: over what range do individual forest trees compete with one another? The question is one that can only be answered with an empirical value. To quote a favourite passage from a review:

“Biology is pervaded by the mistaken idea that the formulation of qualitative hypotheses, which can be resolved in a discrete unequivocal way, is the benchmark of incisive scientific thinking. We should embrace the idea that important biological answers truly come in a quantitative form and that parameter estimation from data is as important an activity in biology as it is in the other sciences.”Brookfield (2010)

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Over what distance do these Betula ermanii trees in Kamchatka compete with one another? I reckon around three metres but it’s not straightforward to work that out. That’s me on the far left, employing the most high-tech equipment available.

It might appear that I’m creating a straw man of scientific maxims, but I’m basing this rant on tenets I have received from reviewers of manuscripts, grant applications or been given as advice in person. Here are some things I’ve been told repeatedly:

  • Hypotheses should precede data collection. We all know this is nonsense. Take, for example, the global forest plot network established by the Center For Tropical Forest Science (CTFS). When Steve Hubbell and Robin Foster set up the first 50 ha plot on Barro Colorado Island, they did it because they needed data. The plots have led to many discoveries, with new papers coming out continuously. Much the same could be said of other fields, such as genome mapping. It would be absurd to claim that all the hypotheses should have been known at the start. Many people would refine this to say that the hypothesis should precede data analyses (as in most of macroecology) but that’s still not the way that our papers are structured.
  • Observations are not as powerful as experiments. This view is perhaps shifting with the acknowledgement that sophisticated methods of inference can strip patterns from detailed observations. For example, this nice paper using Bayesian analyses of a global dataset of tropical forests to discern the relationship between wood density and tree mortality. Ecologists frequently complain that there isn’t enough funding for long-term or large-scale datasets to be produced; we need to demonstrate that they are just as valuable as experiments, and recognising the importance of post-hoc explanations is an essential part of making this case. Perfect experimental design isn’t the ideal metric of scientific quality either; even weak experiments can yield interesting findings if interpreted appropriately.
  • Every good study should be a hypothesis test. We need to get over this idea. Many of the major questions in ecology are not hypothesis tests.** Over what horizontal scales do plants interact? To my mind the best element of this paper by Nicolas Barbier was that they determined the answer for desert shrubs empirically, by digging them up. If he’d tried to publish using that as the main focus, I doubt it would have made it into a top ecological journal. Yet that was the real, lasting contribution.

Still wondering what to say when the examiner turns to you and asks what science is? My answer would be: whatever gets you to an answer to the question at hand. I recommend reading up on the anarchistic model of science advocated by Paul Feyerabend. That’ll make your examiner pause for thought.


* What I’ve written is definitely a garbled approximation of Popper, but the more specific and doctrinaire one gets, the harder it becomes to achieve any form of consensus. Which is kind of my point.

** I’m not even considering applied ecology, where a practical outcome is in mind from the outset.

EDIT: added the direct quotation from Brookfield (2010) to make my point clearer.

Unpublished works

A few years ago I attended a workshop session on publishing for early-career scientists. One earnest delegate spoke up in favour of submitting work to local journals, especially if you work overseas. It helps build science in your host country, demonstrates willingness to engage with their institutions, and ensures that all your research gets published — even the bits that more prestigious journals might look down upon. For many natural history observations this is about the only way to get such findings into the literature.

I politely disagreed, specifically for early-career researchers, while accepting all the points they made. There is an important skill to learn, and it’s that of letting go. If you can write the big prestigious paper, then write the big prestigious paper. If you can’t, go back to the field/lab/computer and get the data you need to write it. Don’t waste time on the small stuff. It won’t help your CV, and all these noble intentions count for little if you don’t get a job. Recruitment panels won’t care about your lovely paper in the Guatemalan Nature Journal*.

Some people believe that all this unpublished work is a problem for science. Jarrod Hadfield recently wrote, in a provocative meeting report for the Methods in Ecology and Evolution blog, that preregistration of analyses would ensure that “the underworld of unpublished studies would be exposed and their detrimental effects could be adjusted for.” He notes, then dismisses, concerns about the extra workload involved or the frequent changes of plans that take place due to unforeseen circumstances.

Would you, as Orpheus, wish to venture into the underworld? Then look upon my file drawer and weep.

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The cabinet of broken dreams. Beware: when you gaze into the file drawer, the file drawer also gazes into you.

This is filled with countless manuscripts at various stages of abandonment. Much sound data collected during my PhD with blood, sweat and tears (all quite literally) languishes here, almost certain to never see the light of day. Likewise there is still unpublished data from my second post-doc. Why have I allowed so many potential publications to rot? How can I live with myself while denying the wider scientific community access to this information?

There’s a simple answer — I had more important things to do. Every active decision you make in life to do something has a consequence elsewhere. Even writing this post. Sometimes I needed to work on another, better paper. The rest of the time I had to do all the things that keep me employed (teaching, administration, grant applications) or sane (sleeping, reading, holidays, drinking).

One thing I’ve learnt in recent years is that the hassle of publishing in a small journal isn’t that much lower than a large journal. There are several reasons for this:

  • Preparing the manuscript is no less time-consuming. Even though the expectations for data quality might be lower, the processes of analysing data, finding and reading the literature, preparing figures and putting everything together are much the same.
  • The quality of reviews is often lower for smaller journals (or at least the variance in quality is higher), increasing the amount of time it takes to respond to them. This shouldn’t be the case, but experience clearly indicates that it is.** Don’t vainly expect the journal to be simply grateful to receive your submission.
  • Lower-ranking journals employ smaller editing teams working with fewer resources. This might not seem like a big deal, but once your paper is accepted it makes all the difference. In a mainstream journal the proofs are turned around quickly and without fuss. It can be on the website in no time. In minor journals you might end up doing much of the legwork yourself. ***

There are sometimes good reasons to publish in a small journal. If you’ve put all the effort into writing a manuscript that was rejected higher up, then go for it, you’ve already invested the time ****. When moving into a new field I like to publish something small just to prove to myself that I can; it also helps with getting my head around a new literature. As a student there’s also great value in getting your first publication anywhere you can, just to experience the process.

What I advise against is writing a paper which you intend from the outset to submit to a small journal. Many studies in ecology don’t get published solely because there’s something better to do. Maybe the results were too complicated to tell a neat story, or couldn’t be easily explained. Maybe all the tests came out insignificant. Given a choice, any scientist should write up the paper with the greatest chance of getting published in a good journal. The small ones are unlikely to provide the same return on your time investment.

The file drawer problem doesn’t occur because we have something to hide, although this may well be true of medical trials or in some highly competitive fields. It’s mostly because we don’t have time. Learn to let go or else the ghosts of unpublished papers will haunt you for the rest of your career.

 


 

* Don’t get upset with me over whether they should, the point is that they don’t.

** The reason is pretty obvious. If I receive a review request from Big Name Journal then I know that (a) the authors thought it was important enough to submit there and (b) a specialist editor agreed with them. I’m therefore likely to be interested in it. On the other hand, if I receive a review request from Journal Named After Taxon, I might see which of the post-grads is checking Facebook and offer them a valuable learning experience.

*** In one case I’ve spent more time on editing post-acceptance than I did on writing the paper. I won’t reveal which, but let’s just say that their demands corresponded to neither the website’s Instructions to Authors nor the Chicago Manual of Style.

**** This is only true if your paper was rejected either for not being a good fit or for not quite being interesting or novel enough. If there were fundamental and irredeemable errors with the work then persisting would be a case of Concorde fallacy. Chalk it down to experience and concentrate on fixing the problems for the next manuscript.

Why I stopped reading the literature

This year I stopped reading the academic literature. Not entirely, of course — that would be career suicide. Nor is this a deliberately awkward response to the latest hashtag tyranny of #365papers, where fellow academics post how many papers they’ve read either to impress others or make them feel guilty. Mine was an accident that has settled into a default state.

For the last decade I have been able to claim with confidence that I read roughly 1000 papers a year. Now when I say read, you should be given to understand that this doesn’t mean poring over every single word. The normal protocol is to read the abstract, skim the introduction, flick through the figures then read the discussion until it gets boring*. If there’s anything that needs further scrutiny then I’ll look more closely, but it’s rare that the methods will receive more than cursory attention, perhaps checking for a few key words or standard techniques. I think most academics would say that in practice this is how they read papers.

By the end of the week I’m not mentally capable of intellectually-demanding work like writing manuscripts or analysing data, unless the pressure of a deadline forces me into it. So I’ve tended to hold Friday afternoons as a drop-in time for my group, and spent the gaps between meetings looking through recent journal issues and reading papers. This has helped me keep up to date with novel ideas, exposed me to new studies, and honed my awareness of what types of things are getting published.

My pattern of work all changed in the last academic year because I was inflicted with a new module with sessions scheduled in the Friday afternoon slot. No-one wants that time, least of all the students. It’s perhaps only marginally less unpopular than 9am on a Monday morning. Who wants to be in a lecture when there are pubs to go to? (I mean on Fridays, not 9am on Mondays. We’re not all alcoholics in the UK.)

My journal alerts system (I use Zetoc) has build up over the years to incorporate a wide array of sources. There are tables of contents for particular journals, search terms for the fields that I specialise in, and even a few names of colleagues whose work particularly interests me. I’m lucky enough to not need to keep track of competitors because I work in a field that no-one cares about so there’s little risk of being scooped**. At this moment the total number of unread alerts is about to pass 300. Catching up on all of those has reached the point where it’s simply impossible, unless I take a few weeks’ holiday and spend the whole time on academic reading. Which I’m not going to do.

When I was a (more) junior academic I remember being told by (more) senior academics that they didn’t read the literature any more. This struck me as a great pity. One phrase that I heard second-hand, supposedly from Chris Thomas, was that he no longer reads the literature — he raids it. If you’re writing a manuscript and need a reference to make a specific point then you go looking for an appropriate paper rather than attempting to follow everything. Another colleague told me that he expects his group to be his eyes into the literature, and relies on them to spot important new publications, which he gleans from their manuscripts and recycles into the next grant proposal.

With mixed feelings I’ve realised that I’m now headed in the same direction. I’m coming to terms with the idea that, in many cases, my graduate students have a firmer grasp of the frontline of the field than I do. Perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing. Over the last few years while writing a textbook it’s been necessary for me to keep on top of the literature to make sure I’m up-to-date. When covering so many subjects at once this is an overwhelming task. Delivering the final copy to the publishers removed the ongoing pressure to read and read more. But why was that process not fun? How can someone who loves his research and is passionate about his field not unequivocally enjoy the process of reading and discovering more about it?

A clue comes from a Masters-level class on science writing that I’ve just finished. This year I introduced a new exercise: the students were asked to come along with a piece of writing that they enjoyed reading. This could be anything at all — a book, website, magazine, paper — so long as it was in prose. Out of a class of 35, only one brought an article from a scientific journal. There were a handful with popular science books (Dawkins, E.O. Wilson), but the overwhelming majority arrived carrying fiction books.

What does this tell us? A small sample size, I know, but at least it’s an indication. These keen and bright students, at a top university***, immersed in the scientific literature, don’t first think of an academic paper when they’re asked about the most enjoyable things they read. This is probably because, for the most part, academic writing is terrible. Not many people would choose to read it for fun in their spare time. I read constantly at home — but the pile of papers in the corner isn’t the first thing I reach for.

The purpose of our class exercise was to look at the structure of enjoyable writing and see whether there are lessons that can be learnt for our own work. The pointers were perhaps predictable but nonetheless helpful: shorter sentences, simpler words, a focus on engaging rather than impressing the reader. My hope is that one day some of these students go on to produce a higher quality of scientific prose than the general average. Perhaps, in our small ways, we can redirect the tenor of academic writing and make it more pleasurable to read. Who knows, it might get me reading again.


* They all do, even mine. It’s the point where the author switches from actually discussing the results and their implications, and moves on to tenuous speculation or unnecessary criticism of other people’s work.

** This isn’t quite true on two counts. Firstly, there are plenty of people working on spatial self-organisation in natural systems. My experience, however, is that they’re (almost) all nice, supportive and collegiate people who encourage one another. I’ve never got the impression that there’s any competition. The other reason why scooping isn’t so much of a risk is that in ecology, data is king. No-one is going to beat me to publishing papers on Kamchatkan forest organisation because I’m pretty sure that no-one else has those kinds of data.

*** That’s what we’d like to believe, anyway. We do pretty well in some league tables but aren’t as impressive in others. Mostly we end up in the global top 100 and the UK top 20.

Consult the index

I’m presently mired in what is one of the most tiresome, tedious tasks I’ve had to perform in my academic career. Bear in mind that I say this as someone who spent three years tracking levels of herbivore damage on 20 000 individual leaves as part of my PhD. I’ve counted pollen. I’ve catalogued herbarium specimens. This is an order of magnitude worse.

The task at hand is to produce an index for my textbook, Natural Systems: The Organisation of Life*, which is finally due to be published in March 2016. I knew that indexing would be hard. I didn’t quite appreciate how hard. And that’ while using LaTeX, which makes everything much more straightforward. I can’t even imagine having to do this in hard copy or (shudder) in Microsoft Word**.  There are some useful guides to indexing. There’s even a book called Index Your Book Fast, though one suspects that the time taken in reading it would more than offset any gains. None of them make it any easier.

While it’s not difficult to imagine an ideal index in abstract terms, actually putting one together is trickier. I’m currently working through the book sentence-by-sentence, deciding whether this or that term is a passing or substantive mention, whether it needs to be nested within other groups, and when I might ever finish. Who or what deserves a place in the index? Main concepts are obviously in. What about taxa, important people, study sites, species… where does it end?

As a book reviews editor myself (for Frontiers of Biogeography) I’m acutely aware of that typical complaint by reviewers that ‘subject X doesn’t even make it into the index!’ This could mean any number of things: that the subject isn’t covered by the book, that the index has omitted to mention it, or that the reviewer hasn’t read the book properly. A skim of the index is often one of the first things a prospective purchaser does while browsing and forms a central element of the impression a book makes. Getting it right is crucial because it makes a book more useful to future readers. Too long or trivial and it’s overwhelming; too short and it looks skimpy.

One might ask why I’ve bothered writing a blog post about a topic so dull as indexing (although if you’re finding this particularly fascinating then you should read The Indexer, the international journal of indexing). In part it’s as a corrective to recent posts which may have given the false impression of my life as one of tropical jaunts spent being pursued by dangerous animals. All that happens, but actually 9 months of my year is spent in front of a computer screen. I’m also keen that you realise, when you turn to the back of a book and flick through the index, that a surprising amount of work has gone into preparing it. And, in my case, a surprising amount of wine.


* The blurb on this site is a cut-and-paste from the original proposal, submitted three years ago, and doesn’t really capture the book content. The cover image is also under review right now. All this will be filled in over the next couple of months.

** I haven’t used Word in several years, and it’s made my life immeasurably happier. You could do the same.

We’re all stupid to someone

I spend an increasing proportion of my time collaborating with engineers and theoretical physicists. It keeps me on my toes and I’ve had to adjust to very different research cultures. The engineers, for example, get particularly excited by designing a technical solution to a problem. The long haul of data collection and statistical analysis has less appeal; once they’ve proven it can be done then they’re itching to move on to the next challenge. Likewise physicists genuinely do spend meetings in front of whiteboards sketching equations, which leaves me feeling a bit frazzled. Nevertheless, I’ve learnt that if an idea can’t be expressed mathematically then it hasn’t been properly defined. That turns out to apply to a lot of verbal models in ecology.

Both engineers and physicists are ready to publish at an earlier stage than most ecologists would, and their papers are a model of efficiency in preparation. Not for them a lengthy waffle of an introduction, followed by an even more prolonged and rambling discussion. Cut to the point, make it clearly, then wrap up. It makes me wonder whether we’re doing something wrong in ecology. I certainly don’t enjoy either reading or writing long papers, and I can’t fully justify our practice.

I also find myself fielding questions or tackling issues that would never come up when chatting to an ecologist. One of the misapprehensions I’ve had to counter is that trees are not lollipops. It might be more computationally efficient to assume that trees are spheres of leaves on a stick, and it can lead to some elegant mathematical solutions, but the outcomes are going to depart from natural systems pretty rapidly. Our disciplinary training leads us to consider particular assumptions to be perfectly reasonable, despite them sounding ridiculous to others or bearing little resemblance to the real world. (Even within their own field, forest ecologists are not immune to this syndrome).

Understanding how another researcher arrived at their assumptions can be informative — sometimes it boils down to analytical frameworks, computational efficiency or technological limitations, all of which are valid reasons to consider accepting a proposition that on first hearing might sound far-fetched. Likewise it helps to have our own assumptions challenged. Sometimes we are able to justify and defend them. Other times they leave us exposed, which is when we know we’re onto something important.

It’s also a sad but common trait within all social groups to mock outsiders for making mistakes about things that appear self-evident to those on the inside. Ecologists can easily play the same game, but make no friends by doing so. I had a chat with one of my collaborators this week who was itching to find a small tree on campus, scan it using ground-based LiDAR, then strip and record the sizes of all its leaves. It’s a perfectly reasonable idea (if a lot of hard work). The main stumbling block is that it’s the middle of February and we’re a good three months at least from having full leaf canopies to play with. An obvious problem? Only to someone who spends their life thinking about trees the whole time. We had a laugh about it then moved back to our simulations, which have the considerable benefit of not shedding their leaves seasonally.

This kind of interaction only makes me wonder what crazy things I’m responsible for coming out with in our meetings. It also makes me grateful to my collaborators for their patience in humouring me, because I’m pretty sure that I come across as an idiot more often than I realise. This to me is the greatest pleasure of interdisciplinary collaborations. We could all spend the rest of our careers treading the same academic paths, publishing in the same journals, and not need to stretch ourselves quite as far. By heading way outside our comfort zones we all end up learning more than we expected to, so long as we don’t mind feeling stupid every now and again (which happens every time I get tangled in algebra). If you’re not willing to be wrong then you’re not willing to learn. And if I end up the subject of an amusing anecdote at a theoretical physics meeting? That’s fine by me. I hope it raises a good laugh. As a wise man once said, ridicule is nothing to be scared of.

The Law of Good Enough (or why your thesis will never be finished)

I spent quite a bit of time recently meeting our section’s post-graduate students for tutorials. In some cases this is to welcome new arrivals, or to catch up on progress from those who have been away on lengthy field seasons. The ones I most enjoy seeing are those  who are busy writing up — because they’re the ones I’m most able to help.

It can be difficult to persuade a postgrad staring down their thesis deadline that 15 minutes in my office is time well spent, which I fully understand. Usually they are stressed, feeling the pressure and unable to focus on anything other than the thesis. Much of this derives from a sentiment I hear echoed again and again in various forms: “I just want to do the best job I can”.

No. Stop. This is not the way to approach a thesis. You need your thesis to be good enough.

This shift in attitude is hard to accomplish when your whole academic career has been geared towards achieving the highest mark possible, or at the end of four years when you want to have something on your shelf to be proud of, that you can look at and think “I wrote that” and feel a warm glow inside. Allowing yourself to fall into this vanity trap is pathological, and the root cause of a lot of unnecessary stress on the part of post-graduates.

Your thesis is the means to an end, which is graduation. When the day comes, you will walk across a stage for 20 seconds, shake someone’s hand, collect a piece of paper and get a photo taken in a silly gown. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written the most perlucid, inspiring and impressive thesis of all time. No-one will clap any louder, or any longer. No-one will ever judge you on the quality of that thesis, good or bad. All that matters is that it was good enough.

In one of the labs I worked in we had a thesis that did the rounds of the post-graduates who were writing up. You might think that they were sharing a particularly wonderful thesis so as to learn best practice and be inspired by the achievements of others. I’m sure all the supervisors would have preferred that. But no, the thesis everyone wanted to see was singularly atrocious. No-one reading it could fail to spot glaring errors, hideous formatting and some of the worst figures ever committed to print. That’s exactly why everyone was so keen to read it — if this person passed then surely there was hope for others!

I’m not going to reveal whose thesis it was, because that doesn’t matter. They have gone on to a successful academic career where they are respected in their field with an international profile. Does anyone care that they submitted a shoddy thesis? Of course not. It was good enough. On the other hand, the best thesis I ever read remains that by Mike Shanahan, who preceded me by a couple of years and even worked at the same desk. Nothing could be more demoralising than to witness a standard of writing to which I had no hope of aspiring (at the time). Perhaps he still looks with satisfaction upon that thesis. He might do so again if he reads this. My bet is that it hasn’t crossed his mind in a decade or more. Did it benefit his career? Maybe, but probably not that much.

There is an argument that a better thesis will lead to an easier viva, and that’s perhaps the case, but my suspicion is that the correlation is not strong. How a viva goes depends on the personality of the examiners, their particular bugbears, the wind direction and the alignment of the stars. You can no more predict the questions than you can anticipate how many corrections you’re likely to get. The time to be a perfectionist, or at least to aim for the highest standards you can, is when you’re preparing a manuscript for publication. Then you know it’s going to be pored over in great detail. A publication is your contribution to the legacy of science, a work that will be forever associated with you. The thesis? That’s a bookend.

The best advice I ever received while writing up was from another old hand in the group who told me that a thesis is never finished. Eventually you just relinquish it to the examiners. Bear this in mind if you’re tempted to read and reread chapters, add more references, or tinker endlessly with the figures. There’s always something else you could do. Just get it done, make sure it’s good enough, then move on to the rest of your career.

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Edit: @ZarahPattison made an interesting point on Twitter about thesis by publication. Although this is arguably the best possible way to prepare a thesis, it’s not for everyone, and many universities don’t even allow it. I wouldn’t like to give any student the idea that it was an expectation, not least because I didn’t manage it myself. It’s certainly true that a well-written chapter is easier to turn into a manuscript, but that’s missing the point. If you want to write a manuscript, write a manuscript. If you have a manuscript then turning it into a chapter is easy. If you need to finish a thesis then get the chapters done and worry about the manuscripts later.