Tag Archives: academic life

The importance of luck in academic careers


As usual, there’s an XKCD comic for everything.

Not long after I received my first permanent academic contract I attended a conference and went out drinking after the sessions. By the end of the evening I found myself amongst a large group of people around my own age, mainly post-docs and PhD students. Conversation turned to careers and it so happened that I was the only one with a secure position, which prompted an immediate question. What was the secret? Everyone was feverishly after the same thing, and here was someone in the room who knew the trick.

My answer, ‘luck’, went down like a glass of cold sick. It was honest but unpopular. I now regret saying it, and realise that I should have added ‘privilege’. At the time I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which privilege played a part in the relatively smooth passage of my career*. It didn’t seem that way to me, but in retrospect I certainly had it easier than most. The truth, however, is that ‘luck’ is often the secret, insofar as it’s the element no-one wants to talk about. All the other things, the ones we can either control or are imposed upon us, are obvious. I had none of the magic bullets: no Nature paper or prestigious research fellowship**. Objectively there was nothing on my CV that set me apart from most other post-docs on the job circuit. It certainly felt a lot like luck to me.

Why don’t people like to hear this? Accepting the importance of luck downplays the extent to which anyone has agency in their professional lives. We like to hear that working hard and chasing our dreams brings success in the end. I think for the most part that it’s true, and almost everyone who manages to get into the ivory tower will tell you that backstory. But it’s akin to hearing an Olympic gold medalist tell you that their secret is dedication and never giving up. As if all the people that didn’t come first just weren’t dreaming hard enough.

Telling people to keep plugging away until they get their break also assumes that there are no costs to them doing so. It’s the mindset that leads to the eternal post-doc, a restless soul traveling from university to university, country to country, for the chance of another year or two of funding, then having to pack up their things and move on once again. While still young and relatively carefree, that can be fun for some. When you’re 40 and want to get married, buy a house, have children or care for your parents, it becomes impossible. I never had to go through that and I’m extremely grateful for it.

Declaring the importance of luck and privilege also somehow diminishes the achievement of those who have made it, and therefore provokes hostility from those who are already through the door. It’s not the story we like to tell ourselves, and it’s certainly not one we like other people to tell about us.

So let me lay my own cards on the table. I believe that I deserve to have a permanent academic job***. I worked hard to get here, and I’m pretty good at it. But I can also say without any equivocation that I’ve known people who worked much harder than me and were demonstrably smarter than me but who didn’t manage to capture one. I’m comfortable admitting that although I surpassed the minimum expectation, if it were a true meritocracy then the outcome would have been different.

My first job came about because I was in the right place at the right time. I had hung around long enough in a university department to pick up the necessary ticks on my CV, despite substantial periods of that being spent on unemployment benefit. Small bits of consultancy through personal connections and a peppercorn rent from a friend made a big difference. I had the privilege of being in a position to loiter long enough for a job to come up, and the good fortune to find one that fit. Lots of others wouldn’t have had the luxury of doing so, and had it taken another six months, I wonder whether I would have been hunting for another career as well.

Does any of this change the advice given to an eager young academic? No. You still need to publish papers, get some teaching experience, win some competitive grant income, take on some service roles, promote yourself and your work as widely as possible. The formula remains exactly the same. It’s not easy, and it’s got even harder over the last 15 years. Good luck. And if you don’t have luck, make sure that you have a Plan B in your back pocket.

Any change needs to come from the academy itself. Its us who have the problem and it’s our responsibility to fix it****. There’s no way to entirely remove luck from the hiring equation (think of it as a stochastic model term) but we can influence the other parameters. I was wrong to think that privilege wasn’t part of the equation that got me here, but I can try to minimise its distorting effects in future.



* I have the ‘full house’ of privileges, being a white, male, heterosexual, tall, healthy, able-bodied, native English-speaking, middle class… did I miss anything out? Don’t bother talking to me about my struggle because I didn’t have one.

** The one thing jobs, Nature papers and grants all have in common is that your probability of getting one increases with the number of times you try. It’s not entirely a lottery but there is a cost to every attempt and some can afford more of them. And I still don’t have a Nature paper.

*** There are almost certainly people who will disagree with this, but let them.

**** As pointed out in this post, however, our survivorship bias can prevent us from recognising that those following us are facing very different challenges to the ones we went through.



Postscript: I already had this post lined up to publish when an excellent and complementary thread appeared on Twitter.

Junk pedagogical research


Can I teach? I think so. Should I aspire to publish papers telling other people how to teach? Probably not. This is me showing students how to estimate tree height.

In my last job I was employed on a teaching-track position*. For many years this worked reasonably well for me. I enjoy teaching, I think I’m quite good at it, and I didn’t mind a slightly higher load as the price of not needing to satisfy arbitrary targets for research grant income or publication in high-impact journals. That’s not to say I stopped doing research, because obviously that didn’t happen, but I accepted that there was a trade-off between the two and that I was closer to one end of the spectrum. It still left me three clear months every summer to get out into the field and collect data.

Many UK universities developed teaching-track positions in response to the national research assessment exercise (the REF**) which incentivised them to concentrate resources in the hands of a smaller number of staff whilst ensuring that someone else got on with the unimportant business of running the university and the distraction of educating undergraduates. Such is the true meaning of research-led teaching.

A problem began to arise when those staff who had been shuffled into teaching-track positions applied for promotion. The conventional signifiers of academic success weren’t relevant; you could hardly expect them to bring in large grants, publish in top-tier journals or deliver keynotes at major conferences if they weren’t being given the time or support to do so.

Some head-scratching took place and alternative means were sought out to decide who was performing well. It’s hard enough to determine what quality teaching looks like at an institutional level***, and assessing individuals is correspondingly even more difficult.

The first thing to turn to is student evaluations. These largely measure how good a lecturer is at entertaining and pleasing their students, or how much the students enjoy the subject. Evidence suggests that evaluations are inversely proportional to the amount that students learn, as well as being biased against women and protected minorities. In short they’re not just the wrong measure, they’re actively regressive in their effects. Not that this stops many universities using them of course.

What else is there? Well, being academics, the natural form of output to aim for is publications. It’s the only currency some academics understand. Not scientific research papers, of course, because teaching staff aren’t supposed to be active researchers. So instead the expectation became that they would publish papers based on pedagogical research****. This sounds, on the face of it, quite sensible, which is why many universities went down that route. But there are three major problems.

1. Pedagogical research isn’t easy. There are whole fields of study, often based in departments of psychology, who have developed approaches and standards to ensure that work is of appropriate quality. Expecting an academic with a background in biochemistry or condensed matter physics to publish in a competitive journal of pedagogical research without the necessary training is unreasonable. Moreover, it’s an implicit insult to those colleagues for whom such work is their main focus. Demanding that all teachers should publish pedagogical research implies that anyone can do it. They can’t.

2. Very few academics follow pedagogical research. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t. Most academics teach and are genuinely interested in doing so as effectively as possible. But the simple truth is that it’s hard enough to keep track of the literature in our areas of research specialism. Not many can make time to add another, usually unrelated field to their reading list. I consider myself more engaged than most and even I encounter relevant studies only through social media or articles for a general readership.

3. A lot of pedagogical research is junk. Please don’t think I’m talking about the excellent, specialist work done by expert researchers into effective education practice. There is great work out there in internationally respected journals. I’m talking about the many unlisted, low-quality journals that have proliferated over recent years, and which give education research a bad name. Even if they contain some peer review process, many are effectively pay-to-publish, and some are actively predatory. I won’t name any here because that’s just asking for abusive e-mails.

Why to these weak journals exist? Well, we have created an incentive structure in which a class of academics needs to publish something — anything — in order to gain recognition and progress in their careers. A practice which we would frown upon in ‘normal’ research is actively encouraged by many of the world’s top universities. Junk journals and even junk conferences proliferate as a way to satisfy universities’ own internal contradictions.

What’s the alternative? I have three suggestions:

1. Stop imposing an expectation based on research onto educators. If research and teaching are to be separated (a trend I disagree with anyway) then they can’t continue to be judged by the same metrics. Incentivising publications for their own sake helps no-one. Some educators will of course want to carry out their own independent studies, and this should be encouraged and respected, but it isn’t the right approach for everyone.

2. Put some effort into finding out whether teachers are good at their job. This means peer assessments of teaching, student performance and effective innovation. All this is difficult and time-consuming but if we want to recognise good teachers then we need to take the time to do it properly. Proxy measures are no substitute. Whether someone can write a paper about teaching doesn’t imply that they can teach.

3. Support serious pedagogical researchers. If you’re based in a large university then there’s almost certainly a group of specialist researchers already there. How much have you heard about their work? Have you collaborated with them? Universities have native expertise which could be used to improve teaching practice, usually much more efficiently than forcing non-specialists to jump through hoops. If the objective is genuinely to improve teaching standards then ask the people who know how to do it.

If there’s one thing that shows how evaluations of teaching aren’t working or taken seriously it’s that universities don’t make high-level appointments based on teaching. Prestige chairs exist to hire big-hitters in research based on their international profile, grant income and publication record. When was the last time you heard of a university recruiting a senior professor because they were great at teaching? Tell me once you’ve stopped laughing.



* This is now relatively common among universities in Europe and North America. The basic principle is that some staff are given workloads that allow them to carry out research, whilst others are given heavier teaching and administrative loads but the expectations for their research income and outputs are correspondingly reduced.

** If you don’t know about the Research Evaluation Framework and how it has poisoned academic life in the UK then don’t ask. Reactions from those involved may vary from gentle sobs to inchoate screaming.

*** Which gave rise to the Teaching Evaluation Framework, or TEF, and yet more anguish for UK academics. Because the obvious way to deal with the distorting effect of one ranking system is to create another. Surely that’s enough assessment of universities based on flawed data? No, of course not, because there’s also the Knowledge Evaluation Framework (KEF) coming up. I’m not even joking.

**** Oddly textbooks often don’t count. No, I can’t explain this. But I was told that publishing a textbook didn’t count as scholarship in education.

Moving jobs as a mid-career academic


Why would anyone leave a permanent academic position at a research-intensive university?* After all, for many (if not most) PhD students, post-doc researchers and temporary lecturers, this is the ultimate dream. Openings for permanent posts don’t arise very often and competition for them is fierce. Once you’re ensconced in your own office with your name on the door then to most observers outside the ivory tower you’re living the dream.

And yet academics do move. Although it happens relatively infrequently in the career of a given individual, at least once they become permanent members of faculty, at any time all departments have a turnover of staff departing and (usually) being replaced. When this moves above a trickle it indicates problems, but there remains a background rate, even if on the surface everything is going well.

Having completed such a move just over a year ago, the rest of this post explains my thinking in doing so. I won’t mention who my former employer was, not that it’s hard to find out. That’s simply because I don’t want this post to even carry the suggestion of hard feelings or criticism of any individual or institution. But first: a story.

Two years ago I completed a job application on a flight home from the US. The flight was delayed and the deadline was the same day, which meant that on arrival at my parents’ house I rushed through the door and submitted online with minutes to spare. Recovering from the jetlag or even showering had to wait. A few weeks later I received notification that I had been shortlisted, then not long afterwards found myself back at the airport flying over to Ireland for an interview.

This had only been the second job application I had made that academic year and the first response.** That I only made a handful of applications was in part through being selective but also because mid-career positions don’t come up very often. There are often places at the bottom of the ladder for junior (tenure-track) lecturers, though nowhere near enough to meet demand, but by the time you’ve been in the business for over a decade, your skills and experience are so specialised that you either need to be lucky enough to find a opening for someone exactly like you or a call so broad that you can engineer your CV to fit. I also wasn’t going to risk moving for anything other than a permanent position.

Given all this, I went to the interview with the intention of treating it as practice and continued applying elsewhere. It’s always worth having several lines in the water, even if you don’t end up needing them. I wasn’t desperate for a job because I was in the fortunate position of already having that security. Maybe this relaxed, open-minded approach helped, because I got an offer.

There’s a slightly embarrassing element to the next part. When the phone call first came through to offer me the position I hung up. At that precise moment there was a tearful post-grad in my office who had come to see me for help. I will always put supporting a student in distress ahead of any phone call, however important. Luckily UCC weren’t offended by my rudeness and called back later.

To end the story, here I am. There are lots of great reasons for being in Ireland right now, and specifically at UCC. These include a growing focus on my field, national investment in forestry and agroforestry, and a booming higher education sector. The reasons for leaving UK Higher Education would surprise no-one.***

Why though did I leave a permanent academic position at a global top-100 university with international recognition? Several junior colleagues were aghast at what looked like folly. I had invested 13 years in the institution, built up a research group, developed teaching materials that were tried-and-tested, and no-one was trying to get rid of me. On the contrary, at the same time as I was trying to leave, they gave me an award and a performance bonus. I loved my colleagues in ecology and evolution; they’re a wonderful group and remain friends. The opening to replace me attracted a host of well-qualified applicants and they had no difficulty recruiting someone brilliant.

Why then did I leave? More generally, why would anyone disrupt their stable work and family life to move mid-career? These are my reasons, which may not translate to everyone’s circumstances, but perhaps might help clarify my thinking for anyone in a similar situation.

  1. I had gone as far as possible in the context of my existing position. After 13 years without a sabbatical the lack of respite from accumulated responsibilities left no space to reflect or develop. The backlogged manuscripts weren’t getting written; new projects were grounded; every year the expectations rolled over and incrementally increased. The thought of spending another year (or more) doing the same thing in the same place filled me with existential dread. Had I felt as though an alternative was within reach then I would have stayed. There’s no complaint implied here; the job had just became one that didn’t fit me any more.
  2. This was a quiet period with several major projects recently completed. Although I had four PhD students on the books (all with co-supervisors), actually the group was at a relatively low ebb, and nothing new was on the horizon. This was partly deliberate; having made the decision to go, I didn’t want to leave too many people in the lurch.
  3. It was time for a new challenge. When I returned to the UK from Malaysia in 2002 I had no intention of staying for long. That it took 16 years for me to leave again was simply because the opportunities lined up that way. Life had become comfortable but also a bit boring.
  4. I wanted to shake up my perspective. After over a decade working in the same place you know your colleagues well and if collaborations haven’t sparked then there’s little chance that they will. Working with new people is the best way to expose yourself to new ideas. This either means moving yourself or hoping that fresh recruits will restore energy in the place you’re already based. It had been a very long time since the latter had happened (after 13 years I was still the youngest permanent member of staff in the building) so I left instead.
  5. We were starting a family, which prompted reflection on my approach to work-life balance. Long hours, working evenings and weekends throughout the semester, were not compatible with the life I wanted or the parent I hoped to be. Nor was I going to be taking extended trips overseas to visit field sites and collaborators. The fieldwork had been one of the compensations of my old job; if that was being scaled back then I wanted the possibility of stronger research interests at home.

I can’t say just yet whether the move has been successful, and at any rate there’s no way to know for sure without a controlled comparison of some partial metric. But what I can say is that I’m enthusiastic about science again, enjoy coming into work every morning, and optimistic about getting some projects I care about off the ground. On that basis alone it’s been worth it. In fact, the department will be recruiting more people very soon — if you want to join us then keep your eyes open for forthcoming positions!


* For ‘permanent’ you can read ‘tenured’ if you like, but the truth is that tenure doesn’t mean quite the same thing outside North America. Universities generally can’t fire us for no reason but the level of protection isn’t equivalent. For ‘research-intensive’ you can read R1 in the USA, or Russell Group in the UK, or whatever your local class of prestige universities is.

** I’m not telling you how many failed applications had gone in over the preceding few years, but there were plenty. These had however been rather speculative; what changed was that I put serious effort into developing much stronger applications.

*** Brexit, HE funding issues, Brexit, low pay, Brexit, workload, Brexit, managerialism… did I mention Brexit?

Books I haven’t read

V.D10 Origin 1st edn title page_0

The opening pages of Darwin’s classic text in its first edition as held by the library of St John’s College, Cambridge.

A number of years ago on a UK radio show there was a flurry of attention when Richard Dawkins, under pressure from a religious interviewer, was unable to recall the full title of Darwin’s most famous book*. This was perceived as a flaw in his authority as an evolutionary biologist. How could he claim to support evolution if he couldn’t even name the book which launched the theory?

There was a prompt backlash to this line of argument from scientists who pointed out that we don’t have sacred texts in science. Unlike religions which fixate upon a single original source**, we recognise those who made contributions to the development of our field but don’t treat them as inviolable truth. Darwin, like all scientists, got some things wrong, didn’t quite manage to figure out some other problems, and occasionally changed his mind. None of this undermines his brilliance; the overwhelming majority of his ideas have stood the test of time, and given the resources and knowledge he had available to him (remembering that it was another century until we understood the structure of DNA), his achievement was astonishing.

Confession time: I haven’t read On the Origin. Maybe I will one day, but right now it’s not on my very long reading list.

There are many good reasons for reading On the Origin, none of which I need to be told. By all accounts it’s a fascinating, well-written and detailed argument from first principles for the centrality of natural selection in evolution. As a historical document and inspiration for the entire field of biology its importance is unquestionable. I’m certain that Richard Dawkins has read it, even if he didn’t memorise the title.

None of this means that I have to read it. The fundamental insight has been affirmed, repeated and strengthened by over 150 years of scientific study and publication. Even though I used to be a creationist, it didn’t take reading Darwin to change my mind***. What we know now makes a modern account more convincing than a Victorian naturalist could ever have managed.

An even more embarrassing confession is that I haven’t read The Theory of Island Biogeography****. This admission is likely to provoke horror in anyone from that generation of ecologists (my own lecturers) who remember the seismic impact that MacArthur & Wilson’s 1967 book had on the field. It defined the direction of enquiry in many areas of ecology for decades afterwards and effectively founded the scientific discipline of conservation biology. Some of their ideas turned out to be flawed, but the majority of ecologists still view the central model as effectively proven.

I’m not one of them. Yes, I apparently fall among the minority of ecologists, albeit led by some pretty influential voices, who view the model as so partial and incomplete as to lack predictive value in the real world (I’m not going to lay out my argument here, I’ve done that before). That I’ve reached this decision without reading the original book doesn’t perturb me in the slightest. In the same way as I’m confident that I can understand evolutionary theory without reading Darwin, I’ve read enough accounts of the Equilibrium Model of Island Biogeography (and taught it to undergraduates) that it’s not as if going back to the original source will change my mind.

If this upsets you then consider whether you’re happy to agree with the majority of evolutionary biologists that Lamarck’s model of inheritance was wrong without without bothering to read Lamarck (or his later advocate Lysenko). Lamarck made many great contributions to science; this wasn’t among them. For similar reasons I’m happy to make judgements on Haeckel’s embryological model of evolution (rejected), Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics (accepted), or Hubbell’s neutral theory (ambivalent), all without reading the original books.

What have I actually read then? Among the great classics of our field I’m pleased to have gone through a large number of Wallace’s original works, which were contemporaneous to Darwin, and Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807). I can strongly recommend them. But they didn’t change my mind about anything. It was enjoyable to go back to the original sources, and by the end I was even more impressed by the authors’ achievements than before, but my understanding of the world remained unaltered. For that reason I wouldn’t ever claim that everyone should read them.

There are, however, a number of books which have changed my mind or radically reorganised my understanding of the world. These include Chase & Leibold’s 2003 book about niches or Whittaker & Fernandez-Palacios on islands. Without having read them I wouldn’t hold the opinions that I do today. I’m glad that I placed those higher on my reading list than On the Origin. But that certainly doesn’t make them essential reading for everyone.

We all follow our own intellectual journeys through science and there is no one true path. For this reason I’m always sceptical of attempts to set essential reading lists, such as the 100 papers every ecologist needs to read, which I and others disagreed with more on principle than content. So yes, if you like, you can think less of me for the reading that I haven’t done. But my guess is that many people who read this post will be feeling a quiet reassurance that it’s not just them, and that it’s nothing to be ashamed about.


* It is, of course, the barely memorable “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”

** This in itself is baffling given that sacred texts have their own complex histories of assembly from multiple sources. Most modern Christians don’t dwell on the fact that the issue of which books to include in the Bible was so contentious, especially for the Old Testament, and some traditions persist with quite different Bibles. Why include Daniel but not Enoch? Then there’s deciding which version should be seen as definitive, and whose translation… it’s not as simple as picking the one true book.

*** Notably a dominant theme in creationist critiques of evolution is to pick away at perceived errors or inconsistencies in Darwin’s writings on the assumption that undermining its originator will unravel the whole enterprise of modern biology.

**** And this from a former book reviews editor of the journal Frontiers of Biogeography. They’ll be throwing me out of the Irritable Biogeography Society next.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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)

Picture 212

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.


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.