Mar 212017
 
time for a career change

If you’ve come across this post because your last set of experiments went to shit and your supervisor is currently being a massive paper-demanding douche, now is absolutely not the time for you to leave research. I know that it would feel awesome to march into your supervisor’s office, flip the bird, expose yourself and leave a shit in the corner of the room, but this need’s a little more thought than your last break up.

On the other hand, if you can’t get to sleep at night for thinking about ripping off your lab coat and fingering it, unceremoniously, into the vice chancellor’s bum, and you’re desperate to try something else, perhaps it is time to for an exit strategy.

This is assuming that you’ve got the time to figure something out. More than ever, post-docs are relying on short-term contracts to feed and clothe themselves. If this is you, do what you can to live – don’t make any rash decisions.

Before you start planning your exit, you have to remember that short-term disappointment, feelings of anxiety and self-negativity are normal in the research arena. They shouldn’t be, but they are. Addressing them, and seeking help if they persist, will ensure that you start your new career path in the right frame of mind and not as a way of running away from problems. Mental health issues have a way of following you wherever you go.

The start part:

You have got to where you are because there’s something you like about science. Perhaps there are things that you prefer over everything else. Maybe it’s the fact you’re teaching, writing, doing new experiments, presenting your research, learning new skills, operating fancy equipment. Whatever it is, find it and write it down. Don’t rush this part – it’ll be the foundations for your new career.

 

There are certain professions that will absorb science graduates in all their forms. Some even love Ph.D. graduates. Patent Attorneys, IP examiners, and R&D companies are examples of places that employ PhD graduates. If you want to use all of your skills in a new forum then this is a great option for you. If you are not sure if you’d enjoy these jobs speak to someone who’s doing one.

You could be in the “I fucking hate science in all its forms and wish I could do *insert hobby here* as a job” box. That is OK too. All we need to do at this point is identify what you enjoy doing.

The hard part:

Once you have identified what you like doing (besides wanking and injecting marijuana) you need to start doing more of those things. Simply build skills in the things you like doing.

For skills like writing, consider starting a blog (not like this one, you fucking copy cat), you could write alongside your day job for a publication in order to produce a portfolio of work. Many publications offer internships and opportunities, all you have to do is ask.

Get actual qualifications, if you can. Real paper qualifications that your mum hangs on the wall. There are plenty of masters courses, diplomas and vocational courses that you can take alongside your job, in the evenings for example. Like I said, it won’t be easy, but it is completely doable. And, if you like what you are doing, you’ll make time for it.

If you want to turn your hobby into a job, start small. One day/evening a week and see how you go. The important question when turning a hobby into a job is: Do you actually like it as a job or do you prefer it as a hobby? It’s fine that it’s the latter, now you know.

NETWORK YOUR FUCKING ARSE OFF.

Start making contacts in jobs you may want to do. Sneak your way into their office by asking for a discussion about their profession. Everyone I’ve asked is more than happy to help. Once they’ve seen that you aren’t a psycho, and you don’t have sticky hands, you’ve made a new professional friend that may help you in the future.

The scary part:

After a while, apply for those dream jobs with the new skills you’ve gained. If the answer is no, ask why. Put that academic thick skin to work and think of it as professional peer-review. You may not like what you hear but it’ll make sure you are focused on the skills that your dream job needs.

 

It’s rare that as one job finishes your next begins. You may find yourself having to take a leap into the unknown. If you’ve done the hard part, it’ll be way less scary. Leverage your networks, let them know about your new availability, get a mentor and be open to new opportunities. These things, along with some good old fashioned hard work, will eventually pay off and you’ll be on your way to a brand new career.

What’s your story? Do you have any advice for leaving research?


Further reading:

Young researchers thrive in life after academia

Is academia a happier life than a life in industry?

Why So Many Academics Quit and Tell

The ‘system’ failed me. It should have failed me sooner.

 

Feb 212017
 
smiling business man

Dear misogynist,

Maybe you have stumbled upon this post accidentally while looking for the men’s rights facebook page, or while trying to get your head around male privilege (That’s why I put google food in the first paragraph on these things). In the worst case, you are here because you have been sent a link to this article, anonymously. That’s almost certainly because someone thinks you have a serious personality flaw.

Whatever the reason, buckle up and strap those saggy testicles to your leg because you’re about to get the lesson of a lifetime. And don’t worry, I’ll be talking to you on your own level: I’ll be mansplaining everything you need to know so you won’t have to take advice from those annoying bossy women.




Recently, I was lucky enough to be a guest host of the @iamscicomm twitter handle. This came with tremendous power…tremendous power and I thought that I would use this power to ask the question that you are too scared to ask:

Now, we don’t want you to feel overwhelmed by the answers. So I have created a handy guide which will give you all the information you need. If in doubt print out this article and take it around with you as a quick reference guide.


You are on an organising committee because you are very important.

Look at you, you big successful hunk of burning man meat, you’ve made it onto a committee. How exciting! You get to make loads of decisions and talk loud at meetings – WAIT! Here comes the first bit of advice from twitter:

I know it’s tempting to fly all of your golf buddies over to give a talk, but this is where you need to use your power for good. Take a good hard, long look at the number of women and men in the room/ skype call – is it even close to the gender split in ABBA? Your first challenge will be to make it the committee like ABBA. Keep asking yourself the question and make changes until you can look at yourself in the urinal reflection and say “yes, the committee is like ABBA”.

Perhaps someone on the committee is being a massive pain in the arse about your new requirements for an equal representation of genders. The person may even say “you’ve changed” and it hurts your feelings. Stay strong, and don’t budge. You may not get invited to their next naked Man Kind retreat, but you’ll be able to sleep at night. Winning.


You are in a meeting

Meetings are a great place to dominate people and demand the admiration that your kids won’t give you. Luckily, you have a nice loud, boomy voice and you can talk over any meek individual with ease. But how about trying this for a change:

You’ll hear something that sounds like a voice but it won’t be coming from your mouth. That is the sound of someone else talking.

Have you ever wondered what other people are doing while you are talking? They are doing a thing called listening. Now it’s your turn. Try it, it’s fun.

Listening involves not making any mouth noise and using the things, that keep the glasses on your head, to absorb sound. The sound enters your head and if you listen to it close enough – it may form sentences that contain information that may be useful.

At some point, you’ll feel the need to interject with your own opinions and views. Push these urges down, way down, use your well-honed skills of oppression for this purpose. This is who you are now.


You are at a conference or networking event

How fun. A big meeting with loads of people that you can have unspoken power wars with. If you look a little closer, however, you’ll see that there are lots of different types of people there:

Even though it’s fun to find your doppelgangers and make jokes about football teams and cars, we need you to go and speak to other types of people. But don’t be scary or weird. Ask questions and, just like the previous tip, practice your listening skills.

Here’s the challenge: at the next conference you go to approach someone who you’d never normally talk to. Break out of the loud-laugh-man circle and go and ask them about their research. I bet that you’ll find out something new.


Oh no, someone wants mentoring

Because of your new found mission, you may find yourself with a few more female students that need mentoring.

You probably can’t remember what it is like to be at the bottom of the pile trying to make your voice heard, but it’s tough and it’s even tougher for women in STEM. Here’s your chance to build a philanthropic moment that you can brag about for years to come: you can help these promising young female scientists by using the power you have worked so hard to build to give them a voice.

And the biggest thing for your new mentoring relationship:

In other words, don’t be a massive dick head about feelings and shit. Remember – you have developed a really thick skin from years of combative peer-review others haven’t…yet!


You have now gained an interest supporting women in STEM

Check out whether your university or research institute has any women-in-STEM meetups.

I’ve asked the question for you and there’s nothing to be afraid of:


The last bit of advice from twitter:


So here is some further reading as recommended by the twitter, IAmScicomm, community:

  1. What can men do to stem the exodus of women from science?
  2. Ask us anything: how to be an ally
  3. Ally Skills Workshop
Jan 172017
 
Game of thrones throne

When you work in a university for long enough you start to notice a worrying trend: High (not the fun drug way) level professors are in a state of continuous flux, changing institution at the drop of a hat for a better offer elsewhere. The better offer is likely to include working at a more prestigious university, more money for research and lab monkeys and better labs. Or, perhaps, the aggressively ambitious professor has pissed off so many people while clamoring their way to the top that it is better for everyone if they fuck off – I know of a number of instances where this is certainly the case, because I love gossip.

These max-level professors are really, really expensive. Deakin University has the level E rate set at $171,299 per annum or, to put it another way, approximately 571 tweed jackets per anus. But to the university, that doesn’t matter. These professors satisfy all of the selection criteria universities drool over. They bring in loads of money, have a butt-load of collaborations and they publish papers by the adult nappy load. AND THEY DO IT NOW, right now, as in, the university can instantly get these things and make its statistics appear way better overnight – with very little effort. If institutions do this enough, they can fill every office with a success hungry professor. Just imagine the fun workplace environment – like going for a relaxing swim, in shark infested waters, with a self-harm support group.

But here’s the thing, for every professor who moves institution, the universities replace them with another shiny headed professor, like a really shit Game of Thrones. Giving them fancy names like “strategic professors” which satisfies the sticky soul of the egocentric professor. After years of researching the same area, it is very unlikely that any professor will bring new ideas to the table. I once sat in a room as scribe for the formation of a new institute. After hours of talking it was clear to me that the only thing each academic brought to the table was a different, watered-down version of their own research applied in a slightly different way, not innovative solutions for a changing world, but safe options that have worked in the past.

It is very short sighted of the universities to perpetually employ recycled professors instead of two fresh-faced and eager young academics, for the same amount of money, who will bring new ideas, new enthusiasm and new direction to a research institute. Sure, maybe one of the level B early career academics will be a lazy little shit who just wants an easy ride after landing a cushy position – but that’s no different to some tenured professors now.

With a little time, support and encouragement I am certain that early career academics will lead the way in providing Australia with the innovation boom they are looking for. It won’t happen overnight, but I can assure you that it is an investment worth making. Let’s put put the metrics aside for one moment and invest in people, not statistics.

It’s about time the universities got called out on their bullshit academic appointments, what do you think?

Jan 102017
 
Fancy New Labs

One thing that I’ve noticed during my 10 years in a moderately productive scientific career is that, over time, the laboratories have become less busy. I remember times, early in my PhD, having to elbow-fight for lab space on 1960’s style wooden benches. The labs looked like how an escape room business would furnish a murder mystery theme. The benches would be stained with decades worth of chemical spills and scorches from hot glassware. Each discolored ring telling the story of an experiment that could have gone a little better.

Nowadays, researchers regularly receive a call to action, flaccidly ejaculated from the supervisor’s omnipresent email account: “I have visitors/photographers/collaborators visiting this morning, please make the lab look busy by scheduling your experiments for this time.”




Here are some of my favorite pictures of academics holding things:

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A never ending battle is fought between research leaders over scientific territory. Once the territory is won, they need the troops to fill it, and sometimes they just don’t have the numbers. Instead of giving up some space to a larger group, academics will fiercely defend space by marking it with their expensive equipment and not-so-expensive urine. Gone are the days of finding out the door code from a drunk lab member. Should you want swipe card access to their lab, you’ll have to go through an extensive process of chasing the elusive academic around the various campuses of the university.  Should you trap them, this will be followed by *another* lab induction from a dead-eyed lab manager, come post-doc, who will un-enthusiastically gesture towards the first-aid kit and chemical manifests before asking you to kill them under their breath.

An overly excited OH&S representative will easily dash any hopes you have of entering the lab this week. I once wanted to dissolve magnesium sulfate in water for one of my experiments. It sounds scary, but it is most commonly found in bath salts. In order for my carbon nanotubes to take a relaxing bath, I was required to fill out a 24 page form, print off three copies, take them to my supervisor to be signed, place one in the tray in the office, take one to the OH&a;akkjnasljhvci[‘ae9qw[ewfj – what a fucking huge waste of time. To the best of my knowledge, the chemical is still sat in the store room waiting to be picked up. Every OH&S manager should have to shadow an active researcher so that they can see the effect one simple form can have on the productivity of a scientist.

Maybe, just maybe, the labs have always been this empty. The desire for senior management in a university to “show an active research environment” has seen the installation of scientist goldfish bowls and may have backfired. Big windows with inspirational quotes such as, “I will do myself proud” and “fuck yeah, science”, adorn the echoey glass science cage and researchers are forever on show. They cannot pick their noses, pick out their wedgies or scream-swear at the computer without the potential of being watched by a visiting member of parliament.

Surely, if Australia is to become an innovation nation the first thing to do is to remove the reasons for clever people to not be in the lab. That way, they are actually doing science. Give them the freedom to try new things without the burden of excessive paperwork. Allow them access to fancy new equipment without the invisible borders that dissect the research institute’s battleground. And get rid of those creativity killing glass cages of despair.





Dec 202016
 

Last week, while most young scientists were participating in awkward Christmas parties and celebrating the prospect of another 3-month contract extension, a publication was released which looked at the career aspirations and postdoctoral experiences in Australia. The question posed by the publication is “What do postdocs need to succeed?.

The publication is co-authored by Margaret Hardy, Adrian Carter and Nikola Bowden and, even though they look like the cast of an ALDI version of Three’s Company,

ecrs

the clever trio analysed the responses of 284 early career researchers (ECRs) to questions including “How many hours a week do you work on average?” and “How confident do you feel that your career aims will be met?”. Should the study be repeated I think the question “Are you sad?” would be much more revealing.

Between the moments of watery eyed self-realisation, ECRs have revealed that although 80% of them have a plan to stay in research for the medium to long-term, there’s a significant amount of concern around long-term viability due to job security and the shortage of funding. These results will come as no surprise to those currently fighting their way through the system, or to the unemployed scientists currently sat on a stained sofa wearing nothing but a rented academic robe.

The paper also revealed that 75% of the ECR respondents work more than 41 hours per week (above the 30 hours legal maximum for full time-work). Perhaps the study can be re-titled “How much free labour do universities receive from success hungry ECR’s?”.

The report culminates in a number of recommendations such as mentoring, closer connection to industry partners/collaborators and more high fives in the workplace. Although they’re all probably useful, they’ll do nothing to actually help the plight of ECRs because they rely solely on Australian Universities implementing change. It’s as futile as asking your dog to stop humping its toys when guests are over because it makes you feel uncomfortable.

References

  1. What do postdocs need to succeed? A survey of current standing and future directions for Australian researchers
Sep 272016
 
free money falling from the sky

Look, it seems amazing, but there is an actual way to get free money from science. It will take a little bit of effort, but not nearly as much effort as killing your rich uncle and making it look like a natural death. By following my simple guide you’ll be a cool $60k better off – imagine all the shit that you could convince yourself you need with that amount of money!

Let’s start.

First, you’ll need to find a field of science that you feel like you can lie about being passionate about. If you choose something about kids with cancer, or cute animals who aren’t very good at fucking, it’ll be much easier to convince your family that you’ve just given up three years of your life to make the world a better place.

Next, find an academic supervisor who is in the field of study that you have chosen. This choice is going to be the first crucial decision you need to make. The perfect primary supervisor is someone who has the right combination of just wanting to be loved and someone who makes you/people feel uncomfortable – think racist grandparent with an MDMA addiction. This person should regularly say outrageous things like “who’s the brown one in the lab?” and “I thought it was the little Indian fella…”.

This is now were you earn your money – don’t worry it’s as easy as Facebook stalking someone. Collect as much information about this person as humanly possible. You need to find something from their past that they are ashamed of. Something dark. Something they’ll want to keep secret. Because you chose the best “gurning granddad” in the last step, this will be very easy. Everyone has a dark secret, mine is that my first ever music purchase was the Spice Girls – I spent the next few years of my life throwing the peace symbol around and the saying “girl power”, creating the perfect virginity force field.

Once you have found their dark secret. We are ready for the next step.

Approach your prospective PhD supervisor and say that you want to work for them. Use buzz words/phrases that no self respecting PhD supervisor could ignore. Examples include “I live to work” and “I can’t remember the last time I took a day off” and “papers” – you’ll have their undivided attention and the contract will be winging its way to you in no time at all. Sign the contract and ignore all of its contents – it doesn’t apply to you anyway.

Start your PhD. Do it for six months. Don’t worry, nothing will be expected of you, print off some peer-reviewed papers and scatter them all around your desk. Nothing says “I’m busy doing science” like a literature review and coffee stained teeth.

Here comes the fun part: after six months, stop turning up to the lab/office. Do not answer emails. Your goal is to be out of contact long enough that the glassware in the lab – the stuff with your name on it – has collected a thick layer of dust. Because science is so slow, it’ll take about three months before people actually realise that you aren’t there – this is the benefit of the new concept of “hot desks” in wanky open planned offices.

At this point your supervisor will be really mad. Answer their calls and to reveal what you know about them – that in 1986 they smoked crack, put all of their fingers in their friends bum, individually, and set a man on fire. Your supervisor will quickly back off and you shall continue to receive your PhD scholarship whilst traveling around Europe and posting the pictures on Facebook. Be sure to drop secret hints to your supervisor in the photos that you post: medical picture of a finger in a bum

Enjoy your ~$60k and spend it wisely. It’ll only last for three years (the length of a PhD scholarship) and you won’t actually get a PhD at the end. Apparently, quitting isn’t such a bad thing anyway!


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Sep 202016
 
Red Dice being thrown

More and more scientists are becoming disenfranchised about the prospect of a long and rewarding academic career. It’s harder than ever to secure an academic position. Even academics are becoming annoyed with the prospect of staying in an academic career –  presumably because they looked in the mirror and saw what the physical effects of “success” looked like. I’ve always thought that at the beginning of a science degree academics should line up at the front of the lecture theater so the graduates can see what success really looks like. To me, it kind of looks like heart attack drizzled in sadness with a side of future knee problems.

A 2010 study from the tea sipping, pomp-loving Royal Society in the UK investigated the career prospects for PhD’s. After finishing scones with The Queen and listening to Prince Phillip’s racist jokes, they found that only 0.45 % of PhD graduates ended up with a permanent academic position.

percentage breakdown of career pathways from PhD

The most “why the fuck did I do this” moment for me came when I found out that 53% of the graduates found a career outside of science. “Fuck me” because science is hard, and even though there’s a bunch of transferable skills that get picked up along the way, lot’s of people (who probably like doing science, because that’s why they did it) end up sat in little grey cubical’s pretending they enjoy instant coffee.

Don’t be sad, just because you are very, very unlikely to find an academic position it doesn’t mean that life hasn’t got more probable surprises in store for you. Here are some fun things are are more likely to happen to you:

Getting cancer

There is a 1 in 2 (50 %) chance for men and about a 1 in 3 (33 %) chance for women

You may find out you’re a descendant of someone more interesting than you

Hemorrhoids

About 75 % of people are likely to have hemorrhoids at some point in their life.

Being underweight

In Australia between 2010 – 2012,  1.7% of people were considered underweight and, based on the number of chins per capita being greater than 1, this value is likely to only be getting smaller.

Becoming a millionaire with your own business.

Our fat cat mates over at Barclays recon that 1 in 200 (0.5%) of businesses end up making 1 million in their first year.

So, there you have it: start a business and remember to eat lots of fibre. No-one will want to do business with someone who scratches their arse and shuffles in their chair too much. Also, a moment of reflection for hungry, permanent academics with spin-off companies and cancerous hemorrhoids who are related to Genghis Khan – they’re the ones that have been truly blessed!


Support Andy Matter and feel good without having to clean yourself up.

It’ll help with running costs and combating sobriety.

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Sep 132016
 
Mr Clever, Mr Men

I love being told I’m clever. It gives me the same sense of accomplishment that I get when I do a poo in the wild and not get it on my legs. Although I am no better than anyone else, when I am told that I am clever it makes me feel better than everyone else and that’s what we all live for.

In science there are a number of pathways to being told you are clever and enjoy the assumed success which accompanies it. The most difficult pathway is trying to get other scientists to call you clever. This is really fucking difficult and that’s because most other scientists have a really good bullshit detector and are also trying to do the same thing.

For this approach to work, you’ll need to have the right combination of luck and opportunity. Much like being able to kiss The Queen on her Prince Edward stained lips. To be called clever by other scientists, you’ll need to publish as many papers as humanly possible as quickly as possible. To maximise the soul crushing effect of comparison, we typically compare a single number so there’s an actual quantifiable amount of how much people are better than you.

The metrics used for comparing academics include the H-index, m-index, h2 index, g-index, c-index, s-index, e-index, I10 and the O-index. H-index is probably the most commonly used and although it seems confusing, just make sure you tell people about the one that makes you look the best.

At some point, after sustaining the minimal effort to scrape by (for long enough that you’ve reached the age where masturbation is a boredom activity) perhaps you’ve come to realise that science is really difficult and you are too scared to just leave to try something else? Well, my friends, it’s time to self-sabotage.

Self-sabotage is the perfect way to appear like “it just wasn’t meant to be” whilst not having the balls to quit and just do something else. Here are 3 quick techniques to help you along your way:

1.The internet is the perfect place to start. When asked about your H-index, tell people that you don’t really care about metrics then go back to your desk and zombie your way though countless hours of YouTubeFacebook and Twitter. It’ll make the time pass really fast and you can always pretend that you were looking at sciencey stuff.

2.Be a dick to everyone. If someone sends an email to you immediately send a pissy reply and be sure to copy in your boss and their boss.

3.Constantly compare yourself to others and their metrics. Become overwhelmed by the amount of work you’ll have to do to match their stats and dwell on it – a lot. So much in fact, it should take hours out of your day and only be interrupted by toilet breaks and sending pissy emails.

These techniques should start to work within about 3 months. If these techniques don’t work, just punch someone in the balls and/or boobs  – that’ll quickly get you on your way to a forced career decision.

Sep 062016
 
A picture of the best scientist in the world

I have been told that my advice is the best in the office. My office mates have told me that I have improved their lives so much that I should move to another office to help the people there. The best thing about open plan offices is that as soon as you think about advice you can pop your head up over the sad, grey dividers and instantly say it before you get a chance to double guess yourself. You have to say it loud enough so that they can hear it over the headphones they always wear.

Because I am so good at giving advice and everyone is jealous of my career, here are some things that have really helped me over the years:

1.Only take career advice from your academic supervisors

The only way to be successful is to listen in minute detail to what they have to say. These people have been through it all and have the emotional battle scars/alcoholics nose to prove it. Your academic supervisors know exactly what you want to do with your life because it’s exactly the same as what they wanted to do with their life. The key thing to remember about every academic relationship is the more successful they become, the more successful you become – it’s just how the system works. Spend your time helping them and success will follow. Look at their cheeky little faces. How could something so asymmetrically adorable not have your best interests at heart?

2. Spend all 7 days of the week in the lab

How on earth are you meant to get that Nobel Prize if you don’t absolutely dedicate your life to science? It’s time to cut out the people who want to spend anytime with you, at all. These people will drain valuable energy that could otherwise be funneled towards your one true love – research. What’s more important: seeing your new born niece or nephew for the first time or writing a research paper? Well, unless that baby is going to format that graph for you you’d better start writing. The baby won’t even remember you anyway. Wait until it’s lucid (about 13 – 14 years old) then ask it to format your graph for you. If you are reading this, I’m actually mad you are not actively doing science.

3. Sleep your way to the top

The good thing about the push for gender equality in academia is that it’s equally easy for hot young scientists (like me) of either sex (not like me) to sleep their way to the top of the academic pile-on. Listen up, you have to make sure you are alone with your supervisor as often as possible. At each successive encounter your aim is to reduce the distance between you and your supervisor until they have entered you or you have entered them. There are also some steps in the middle but they are less important. The warm rush of feel-good hormones people experience during intimate contact will ensure you are their favorite when it comes to promotion time.

4. Only do the hard experiments

Who the fuck wants to read about boring science? NO-ONE! Get rid of all that preliminary shit and launch into the experiments with “quantum” or “nano” in the name. Preliminary stuff NEVER leads to more interesting stuff. I can’t imagine anyone at the Large Hadron Collider saying “we’ll just warm it up first and do some checks”. They wouldn’t because they’re not losers. If your experiment doesn’t include lasers or expensive equipment you’re doing it all wrong and you should be ashamed of your science, because science is ashamed of you. Hard experiments often require extensive occupational health and safety sheet to be filled out. These are boring and pointless. Do not fill them out. They only matter if something goes wrong and you are clever enough that if something does go wrong you’ll be able to cover it up.

5. Take everything to heart

How are your superiors meant to know you really want this if you’re not crying in their office at least once a day? Didn’t get that grant? Cry. Experiment failed? Cry. Someone asks you to leave their office: cry. This also means if anyone else in the group is successful you definitely CANNOT be happy for them. Draw attention back to yourself by suggesting the only reason they are successful is because they satisfy a quota the university/government has to fill. Top tip: everything is about you.

By following these, and only these rules, you will be sure to have a long and prosperous science career that everyone will be jealous of.


Remember to like the official Andy Matter Facebook page!

Aug 092016
 
Grid of animals representing academic personalities

When young(ish) scientists are lucky enough to score a 1-2 year contract to participate in a research project, they may ask themselves this question: “I wonder if I will enjoy the research?”. Arguably, the more important question they will need to ask themselves is: “How much of an insufferable bastard will my supervisor be?”.

Sure, it’s possible to throw countless hours at a scientific problem to get the results you require to tame the academic beast. But it is not possible to change the nature of a being that has been molded by the academic environment. Just like the variety of species that have evolved on earth, supervisors are the result of natural selection; survival of the fittest, or perhaps more commonly, the most ruthless. Different environmental factors will reward different personality characteristics and only the most well-adapted academics will survive.

During my time in academia I have seen my fair share of supervisors. I have been lucky with the ones I have had and any of my misbehaving supervisors I have been able to quickly tame with a quick, metaphorical tap on the nose. If academics had spirit animals, I am certain that they would consist of these:

The Queen Bee

This type of supervisor is the head of a very, very large research group. They tuck themselves away busily giving birth to new PhD students who they’ll set to work as post-docs in their labs. They are the academic parent of most, if not all, in the lab. Should the queen bee academic move to a new university, the worker bees will travel with them.

The Dog

Just like dogs, this supervisor will try their absolute best to be your friend, forever. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they are not good supervisors, it’s just that the dog academic will often invite themselves to afternoon/evening drinks that they overhear their students/postdoc organising. Don’t feel bad for them, all this supervisor is doing is trying to claim back the youth they lost while they were fighting their way to the top of the pile – They’ll even buy you a fuckload of drinks. Kindhearted and loyal, this supervisor will do anything they can to help you in exchange for a belly rub and scratch behind their ear.

The Black Mamba

Fuck this person. The black mamba is the most aggressive snake on the planet. Also, in agreement with the euphemistic naming convention, this person is also a big dick. This supervisor lives for passive aggressive emails and intimidation. They leave behind them a contrail of destroyed careers. There’s no confusion about how this person made it to the top of the academic ladder – they fucked people over the entire way. Often this person will feel guilty and attempt to make themselves feel better by organising a group lunch. Don’t be fooled, they are listening to your conversation to create a catalogue of psychological pressure points to hit when they haven’t made someone cry that day.

The Arctic Tern

The Arctic Tern travels 44,000 miles (70,811 kilometers) in its migration pattern. This, my friends, is the academic international traveler. Chasing their favorite seasons around the globe in the name of ‘collaboration’. This academic has collaborations all over the world – so many in fact, that it starts to look suspicious. Why do they always collaborate with people in tropical places and near good golf courses? The air miles these supervisors accumulate could pay off the US national debt. If you end up with the Artic Tern as a supervisor get used to completing your project via email at any time of the day or night.

The Prairie Dog

This pesky little shit is always in everyone’s business – we have ladies and gents, the micromanager. Get used to everyday meetings, continuous feedback and for them to have your mobile number on speed dial. You think that is your research project? Nope. You are their extra pair of hands which wipe someone else’s bum hole.

The Whale

At the end of our list is the supervisor we all wish we had. This supervisor doesn’t need to show off. They are successful and gracious winners of the academic arms race. They don’t need to prey on other people’s careers to get ahead. They’ll put in the effort and are happy to drag others along in their success slip stream. This type of supervisor is also quite a bit older than their competition and it appears like they will never die. In fact, they haven’t changed in appearance for 30 years, as evidenced from the departmental photographs hanging in the hallway.

Remember to let me know what your supervisor’s spirit animal is!


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Aug 022016
 
Scientists in lab looking busy while the supervisor gets all the credit

Scientists are precious beings and nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to deciding author order on a paper. For those who have made good life choices and are not currently fighting their way up the academic pyramid, I shall explain why this is such a big deal for the people in the ivory tower – you know, the people who pride themselves on knowing a lot about very little. Peer-reviewed papers are the scout badges of the academic world. Academics must acquire as many as possible, at any cost, to prove productivity and worth. The more papers an academic has, the more they can feel like an important person.

Here’s the catch. When a paper is written, everyone who has contributed intellectually to the ideas and results in the paper is listed as an author. Only two positions really matter: first and last place. First place is typically reserved for the poor bastard who has done the majority of the experimental work and they’ve typically written a large portion of the paper.

Last place is reserved for the principal supervisor. Sometimes it can be hard to actually quantify what this person has done and in some cases their sole contribution is as the gate keeper to the project’s money. Most of the time, the last author has contributed large amounts of time/tears/whiskey/caffeine/arse-kissing in order to get the project up and running.

The names in the middle of the paper can be the hardest to position. They consist of people who have done something, not a lot, but enough to have their names on a paper. Sometimes these central authors have actually done nothing other than be in the right place at the right time. It’s easier to name people on a paper than have a fight with them about why they are not on the paper. Much like a bukkake session, no-one wants to be in the middle, but someone has to, otherwise it doesn’t work.

If you find yourself in a situation where people’s egos are getting in the way of publication and you can’t work out the order of names try one, or a combination, of these approaches:

1. Pop Quiz 

People love meetings. It is the perfect way to feel like you are doing work when you’re actually thinking about all of the things that aren’t work, such as sex, holidays, sex on holidays and why the person across the table always has chocolate in the corners of his mouth. It’s only 9 am. Who eats chocolate for breakfast?

Organize a meeting that quickly turns into a pop quiz about the paper. To encourage full attendance, tell prospective authors there will be cake. Questions such as “what’s the main conclusion of the paper?” and “what’s my name?” will quickly weed out the hangers on. You’ll need to supply your own buzzers. Any bonus round must include slime.

2. Dirtiest lab coat

Line up all of the lab coats from the authors and place them in order from dirtiest to cleanest – this is your author order. If someone doesn’t have a lab coat they are clearly not a real scientists and cannot be included on the paper.

3. Do a beep test

The person to get the furthest in the test gets positioned as first author. The academic career path doesn’t lend itself to a fit and healthy lifestyle. If you were to line up academics in order of seniority, from least to most, on average I’d hazard a guess that you’d find the sweatiest people towards the senior end on the line – even standing in line may be too much effort. Subjecting everyone to a beep test will ensure that the person who has ruined their health the most, in the name of science, is compensated by being last author.

4. Haiku

Ask each author to write a haiku on their contributions to the paper. Points awarded for creativity and reference to the paper that you are submitting. Here’s an example for a recent paper of mine:

Thanks for completing

my PhD ideas

I didn’t want to

I guess this is why I didn’t get first author.

What would be your research Haiku to get first author placement?

 


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Jul 122016
 
audience sat in a conference

Yes, we get it. You’re clever. Or at very least, you have played the academic game well enough to have manoeuvred yourself to the top of the academic ladder. A while back I wrote about how not to give a shit presentation, but now it’s time to address you and your shitty, always over time, overly complicated and patchwork-like presentation.

Without a doubt, Professors have given some of the worst scientific presentations I have ever seen. It’s the perfect storm of self-importance and complicated graphs which make professor level presentations insufferable. I’d much rather listen to a PhD student who has taken the time and effort to rehearse and, most importantly, cares about giving a well thought out presentation than sit through another look-at-all-the-cool-things-I-had-my-students-do presentation.

Alright, first things first, we know what happened. You got invited to give a talk because you are a well-known scientist and, because you haven’t stepped in the lab for the best part of a decade, you asked your PhD students and/or post-docs to send you “a couple of slides about your research”. So far, you have not done anything wrong. We know being a professor is a tough gig. You have to secure grant funding, publish papers and more recently, hobnob with industry, in order to convince the Vice-Chancellor not to sack you when the inevitable latest round of redundancies happen.




What you continue to get wrong is assuming your notoriety excludes you from providing a well-structured and focused presentation that…wait for it…runs on time – you can’t rely on the chair person with an anxiety disorder to stop you when your time is up.

Perhaps you think a sizable portion of the people who are attending your talk will know who you are and also be familiar with your acronyms and field specific language. The reality is that a large portion of the audience have been told to turn up because “it makes the department look like a busy and thriving research environment”. These people will be the ones sneaking a look at their phone while you’re distracted trying to operate the laser pointer (middle button).

Before your talk ask yourself these simple yes or no questions:

  1. Do I know who my audience are? If it’s a general audience, chill out. We don’t want a run down on your entire career. Choose your favourite bit(s) and stick to it.
  2. Have I looked over all the slides and made sure I can connect them with a coherent story? You should not be surprised by any of the slides your post-doc gave you and the story should flow nicely between them.
  3. Have I removed slides that I plan on skipping over? It is not OK to say “ignore these slides, and if you have epilepsy, cover your eyes”.
  4. Have I been to the toilet? Your bladder isn’t what it used to be.
  5. Are my slides free of any undefined, not commonly used, acronyms or specialised language that a non-specific science audience would not know? – save the specific terminology stuff for a conference that’s in your field.
  6. Did I practice my talk in front of an audience before today? Just like talking dirty, if you haven’t said it out loud it’s probably going to come out wrong.
  7. Can people read the axis of my graphs? Copy and pasting from the Nature paper you’re desperate to talk about is not going to help.
  8. Are all these slides necessary?

If you have answered “no” to any of these questions you need to stop and ask what the f**k you are doing.

Failing everything, pay careful attention to your audience. They’re the best indicators of whether you need to stop talking. Once the lecture theatre chairs start squeaking, as the audience shuffle around to get blood back into their legs and bums, consider stopping and letting the person who invited you ask a couple questions. They will always start with “Thank you for a great presentation”, don’t be fooled, they are lying.





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Jul 052016
 
full time part time road sign

Have you ever sat in work, looked out the window and thought “I wish I didn’t have basic human desires, like eating, mating and bitching about Ken in accounts, so I could just do my jobs 24 hours a day”? we’ve all been there. If the answer is no that’s mental, read on…

The typical scientific working week comprises at least 5 days (or 40 hours) worth of work. Although, many academics and scientists work as if their success depends on not seeing or interacting with another human being – unless it’s through email. That work can consist of hands-on research, writing for angry reviewers or the physical pantomime of productivity whilst not actually getting anything done. For those that aren’t strict with their time, the pressures of an academic appointment can start eating its way into weekends, holidays and time sat watching Netflix, drinking wine, multi-screen Facebook stalking and taking pictures of your dog or cat in adorable positions.

For the past 2 years, I have been a part-time scientist and this is why you should consider it too:

  • People get jealous of your “every weekend is a long weekend” lifestyle.
  • I have been using Fridays to do the things I really enjoy, which includes being in my underwear for large parts of the day, pretending I’m a pirate and also editing for the best podcast on earth (yet to be recognised as such) Publish, Perish or Podcast.
  • I am learning new things (video editing, a new language and how to convince my partner I did NOT eat most of the chocolate), although not directly related to my day job, they’ve all been used in my job at some point…

The strange thing is, despite my extra underwear time I feel just as good at my job, more creative while I’m in work and Mondays now feel like a Tuesday, Tuesdays feel like a Wednesday, Wednesdays feel like a Wednesday and Thursday feels like a Wednesday. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays are rolled into an orgy of cafes, beer and writing shit for the internet and invited contributions to things (yes, despite this blog people still invite me to write stuff – I don’t understand either).

When I first asked to go part-time in my previous job my boss looked worried. Supportive, but worried. That is, until I said that the day would be used to follow my science communication desires. So, if you are going to ask your boss if you can go part-time, make up something that sounds productive. That way they feel good about the decision even if you are planning to stay at home and see how many clothes pegs you can cram onto your genitalia before passing out.


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Jun 222016
 
Science and nature journals

The only thing harder than doing science is writing a peer reviewed paper that may end up in a journal that no-one has heard of, such as JOT, Journal fuer Oberflaechentechnik.

While enrolled as a PhD student, I had lots of feedback on my writing style. The feedback always included encouraging stuff like “strange”, “inconsistent” and “not an actual sentence”. Academic writing, just like wiping your bum, needs to be practiced before you get any good at it. The bad thing about academic writing however, is that your mum may not be able to take over half way through.

It’s important to practice your academic/technical writing skills so that the next time you need to write a heartfelt note in a card for someone at your workplace, you will be able to make it unambiguous and dry – just like the cakes they made and you had to pretend were moist. Here are Andy Matter’s top tips to ensure academic writing is as painless as possible:

  1. Start a blog. The artificially enhanced level of self-importance you will feel is the perfect catalyst for writing to a journal editor.
  2. Your writing style should intimidate the reader – keep the language dense and technical as if you are a beat poet reading from an instruction manual for a jet engine.
  3. Get constant feedback from supervisors and mentors about how you can improve. They’ll absolutely love tearing your writing apart in order to fill the hole in their heart from years of writing research grant applications.  Nothing feels quite like seeing the chapter you spent hours writing peering at you from behind a tangled mess of red pen. Don’t worry though, the feeling never changes but you’ll get used to it.
  4. Remember, even though the paper you’re writing means a lot to you and your feelings of self-worth, a surprisingly large number of articles are never cited (27% of natural science papers are not cited) and even when your pride and joy does get cited, it may be in the “insert generic reference here” category.

Good luck, and I am sure with practice you will do OK (insert generic reference here)

(post dedicated to Simon)

 

 

May 232016
 

Sometimes, I like to introduce acute panic and anxiety in my life by browsing the LinkedIn profiles of people who have jobs that I wish I had, or people who I consider much more ‘successful’ than me. As I run the cursor across the smiling faces of professional smug bastards (I often pretend to pick their noses) one word keeps popping up – passionate.

Now, I normally associate that word with the moments between wanting to kiss someone and offering to fall asleep in the wet patch. Clearly, there is something wrong with me if I’m unwilling to fall asleep in the wet patch of my research.  Is it a fundamental flaw in my plan that I am not passionate about what I do? Should I be the smug smiling bastard, looking soullessly down the lens of a camera? I would argue that being passionate is not a prerequisite for success and, in some cases, it can hinder the career progression of early career researchers (ECRs).

Being passionate about the research you are doing is every scientists dream. The fact that a person is genuinely passionate about their research normally implies that they are very lucky, or have developed some sort of sweaty palm Stockholm syndrome towards their research captor. Ultimately, whatever the reason, I am in no doubt that these people will end up living with cats and their many turds.

I get the feeling that it’s much easier, and more common, for someone to say they are passionate about their research than actually be passionate about it. That one word acts as a Teflon shield easily explaining why someone would be willing to enter a competitive job market, with fewer and fewer jobs, and seek funding which is becoming harder and harder to come by. It may be difficult to admit to Auntie Jane, during the annual Christmas pilgrimage to her strange smelling house, that you never had a plan and you don’t know how you got to where you are now. So yeah, Auntie Jane, I’m passionate about thin film coatings, that’s why I cry myself to sleep – they’re tears of passionate joy.

Being forcefully passionate about a vanishingly small part of the world will limit the opportunities that ECRs allow themselves to be open to. In the same way that telling your mum you like blue limits the type of presents you get. You will find yourself receiving the same blue-themed presents, every year, for 10 years’ worth of birthdays and Christmases when, actually, you stopped liking blue 5 years ago – you just can’t bring yourself to tell her the truth.

In today’s increasingly unstable research and academic job market, the ability to still find enjoyment in whatever you turn your hand to is much more valuable than pretending that finding the chemical composition of toe nail clippings rocks your world. You can still do your job, be good at it, and not want to fuck its brains out.

 

May 162016
 
wrong way sign

Everyone knows the feeling of being wrong. It’s a combination of needing to go for a wee mixed with the feeling you get when you see someone you fancy hug an attractive person who always has food in their teeth. When science is wrong it corrects itself. Simple. It rewrites textbooks, retracts papers and adjusts its lectures to indoctrinate the next wave of scientists with the new truth. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about scientists. Scientists try their very best to be objective but are still humans who, like everyone else, feel the social pressure to shave their private parts to impress people.

In science, being wrong about something is not a weakness at all. However, being a dick about being wrong is a huge weakness. Being on the other side of the fence and catching someone out for being wrong is a great feeling, it feels just as good as catching your mum eating chocolate even though she and your dad are on a diet. A simple protocol to follow if you catch someone being wrong is as follows:

  1. Suppress your excitement and limit physical tells to a punchable smirk.
  2. Tell the person they are wrong and politely explain to them why.
    1. If the person becomes confrontational, the quick rush of adrenaline will serve to limit your ability to put a sentence together and save you from infuriating them further (evolution working wonders).
  3. After explaining yourself (with increased hand gestures), remove yourself from the situation and tell everyone for the next week about how right you were – perhaps blog about it.

When you are the unknowing Pinocchio of science, the first instinct after realising you are wrong is to proclaim that you are still right. I’ve done it. It’s easy to do because if you are found to be wrong by a very small number of people it doesn’t really matter. Academics are busy enough to not really care about you and your shitty opinions that you parade as fact. The most embarrassing time is when you are wrong and you have either been wrong for a very long time or you are wrong about something someone else is excited about. I once spent a week analysing what I thought was a nanocomposite fibre of interwoven carbon nanotubes and silver nanowires – a super strong conductive fibre for flexible electronics and fabrics. Whilst perusing the fibres through a microscope a forensic scientist looked over my shoulder and, while I was explaining about the awesome new fibres I had spent all week making, he said with a punchable smirk on his face “they look a lot like polyester fibres from a T-shirt”. After the warm rush of embarrassment left my face and I had proclaimed that I was still in fact right, I slowly came to realise that the fibres which, I had spent the last week telling everyone about, were indeed the result of a poor cleaning procedure and a student in the lab who had a preference for shitty polyester T-shirts.

I spent the next week batting away questions asking how my wires were turning out. I felt deflated and embarrassed. However, upon arriving home I needed a little pick me up and said to my partner “say those three little words to me” and knowing how to cheer me up she said “Andy, you are right”.

 

 

Apr 172016
 
motivatinal presentation grey

Initially, presenting science and research to your peers and experts feels incredibly intimidating. Imagine looking out at a room full of wobbly necked professors who don’t quite understand what it is to feel the embrace of another human being, and then having to tell them stuff that, sometimes, you don’t really understand yourself. It can feel like everyone is judging how clever you are, and you can’t help but be overcome with a sense that the majority of the audience is thinking “This person is as stupid as their university’s PowerPoint template”.

Don’t worry, the audience’s sense of self-importance overpowers their ability to concentrate on you and your presentation for very long at all. In fact, the audience want the same thing as you: to get through your presentation in the allotted time and eat or drink whatever is being served during the next break.

It is for his reason that you’ll need to up your game and hold your audience’s attention throughout your presentation. Strangely, the presentations that I remember are not from their awesome science but a series of strange events such as, the guy who screamed into the lectern microphone for 20 mins, the guy who never turned off his laser pointer and constantly waved it across the audience, a key note address that was essentially a magic show and another key note from a professor who seemed absolutely baffled by every slide they put up. Now that I think of it, I remember what each presentation was about, so I guess it worked.

To help you give a memorable-for-all-right-reasons presentation I have put together my top tips:

  1. Your job is not to make us think “I didn’t understand a thing, this person must be so much more clever than me”. Your job is to make us understand every single slide and follow your story. You want people to ask questions at the end of your talk. If there are no questions, you have lost your audience at some point. If the thought of questions scares the shit out of you, quietly excuse yourself by saying “I have worms and need to take my tablets now”.
  2. Don’t fill the slides with words. The reason I’m at your presentation is so you can tell me about what you are doing. I don’t want to power read your research. Use the slides to support the words that fall out of your mouth. If you need prompts plant a friend in the audience to shout key words at you like an actor who has forgotten their lines.
  3. Acceptable fonts include everything other than comics sans and wingdings because you are not a 5 year old girl or a cryptologist.
  4. It doesn’t matter how important you think you are, I’m looking at you professors. We don’t want to sit through 20 redundant slides while you find the one you want to talk about. Sort that shit out before you stand up. Give a practice presentation to someone with acute epilepsy. If your quick succession of slides induce an epileptic seizure, you’ve fucked it up.