Jabberwocky Ecology

How I stay sane in science and academia: My Why File

Doing science in academia involves a lot of rejection and negative feedback. Between grant agencies single digit funding rates, pressure to publish in a few "top" journals all of which have rejection rates of 90% or higher [1], and the growing gulf between the number of academic jobs and the number of graduate students and postdocs [2], spending even a small amount of time in academia pretty much guarantees that you’ll see a lot of rejection. In addition, even when things are going well we tend to focus on providing as much negative feedback as possible. Paper reviews, grant reviews, and most university evaluation and committee meetings are focused on the negatives. Even students with awesome projects that are progressing well and junior faculty who are cruising towards tenure have at least one meeting a year where someone in a position of power will try their best to enumerate all of things you could be doing better [3]. This isn’t always a bad thing [4] and I’m sure it isn’t restricted to academia or science (these are just the worlds I know), but it does make keeping a positive attitude and reasonable sense of self-worth a bit… challenging.

One of the things that I do to help me remember why I keep doing this is my Why File. It’s a file where I copy and paste reminders of the positive things that happen throughout the year [5]. These typically aren’t the sort of things that end up on my CV. I have my CV for tracking that sort of thing and frankly the number of papers I’ve published and grants I’ve received isn’t really what gets me out of bed in the morning. My Why File contains things like:

  • Email from students in my courses, or comments on evaluations, telling me how much of an impact the skills they learned have had on their ability to do science
  • Notes from my graduate students, postdocs, and undergraduate researchers thanking me for supporting them, inspiring them, or giving them good advice
  • Positive feedback from mentors and people I respect that help remind me that I’m not an impostor
  • Tweets from folks reaffirming that an issue or approach I’m advocating for is changing what they do or how they do it
  • Pictures of thank you cards or creative things that people in my lab have done
  • And even things that in a lot of ways are kind of silly, but that still make me smile, like screen shots of being retweeted by Jimmy Wales or of Tim O’Reilly plugging one of my papers.

If you’ve said something nice to me in the past few years be it in person, by email, on twitter, or in a handwritten note, there’s a good chance that it’s in my Why File helping me keep going at the end of a long week or a long day. And that’s the other key message of this post. We often don’t realize how important it is to say thanks to the folks who are having a positive influence on us from time to time. Or, maybe we feel uncomfortable doing so because we think these folks are so talented and awesome that they don’t need it, or won’t care, or might see this positive feedback as silly or disingenuous. Well, as Julio Betancourt once said, "You can’t hug your reprints", so don’t be afraid to tell a mentor, a student, or a colleague when you think they’re doing a great job. You might just end up in their Why File.

What do you do to help you stay sane in academia, science, or any other job that regularly reminds you of how imperfect you really are?


[1] This idea that where you publish not what you publish is a problem, but not the subject of this post.

[2] There are lots of great ways to use a PhD, but unfortunately not everyone takes that to heart.

[3] Of course the people doing this are (at least sometimes) doing so with the best intentions, but I personally think it would be surprisingly productive to just say, "You’re doing an awesome job. Keep it up." every once in a while.

[4] There is often a goal to the negativity, e.g., helping a paper or person reach their maximum potential, but again I think we tend to undervalue the consequences of this negativity in terms of motivation [4b].

[4b] Hmm, apparently I should write a blog post on this since it now has two footnotes worth of material.

[5] I use a Markdown file, but a simple text file or a MS Word document would work just fine as well for most things.

Michael Nielsen on the importance and value of Open Science

We are pretty excited about what modern technology can do for science and in particular the potential for increasingly rapid sharing of, and collaboration on, data and ideas. It’s the big picture that explains why we like to blog, tweet, publish data and code, and we’ve benefited greatly from others who do the same. So, when we saw this great talk by Michael Nielsen about Open Science, we just had to share.

(via, appropriately enough, @gvwilson and @TEDxWaterloo on Twitter)

Oikos has a blog? [Blogrolling]

Thanks to an email from Jeremy Fox I just found out that Oikos has started a blog. It clearly isn’t on most folks radars (I represent 50% of its Google Reader subscribers), and Jeremy has been putting up some really interesting posts over there so I thought it was worth a mention. According to Jeremy:

I view the Oikos blog as a place where the Oikos editors can try to do the sort of wonderful armchair ecology that John [Lawton] used to do in his ‘View From the Park’ column. I say ‘try’ because I doubt any of us could live up to John’s high standard (I’m sure I don’t!). I’m going to try to do posts that will be thought-provoking for students in particular. Oikos used to be the place to go with interesting, provocative ideas that were well worth publishing even if they were a bit off the wall or not totally correct. It’s our hope (well, my hope anyway) that this blog will become one way for Oikos to reclaim that niche.

I think they’re doing a pretty good job of accomplishing their goal, so go check out recent posts on the importance of hand waving and synthesizing ecology, and then think about subscribing to keep up on the new provocative things they’re up to.

A GitHub of Science? [Things you should read]

There is an excellent post on open science, prestige economies, and the social web over at Marciovm’s posterous*. For those of you who aren’t insanely nerdy** GitHub is… well… let’s just call it a very impressive collaborative tool for developing and sharing software***. But don’t worry, you don’t need to spend your days tied to a computer or have any interest in writing your own software to enjoy gems like:

Evangelists for Open Science should focus on promoting new, post-publication prestige metrics that will properly incentivize scientists to focus on the utility of their work, which will allow them to start worrying less about publishing in the right journals.

Thanks to Carl Boettiger for pointing me to the post. It’s definitely worth reading in its entirety.

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*A blog I’d never heard of before, but I subscribed to it’s RSS feed before I’d even finished the entire post.

**As far as biologists go. And, yes, when I say “insanely nerdy” I do mean it as a complement.

***For those interested in slightly more detail it’s a social application wrapped around the popular distributed version control system named Git. Kind of like Sourceforge on steroids.

Journal Article 2.0

Cell Press has recently announced what I considered to be the most interesting advance in journal publishing since articles started being posted online. Basically they have started to harness the power of the web to aggregate the information present in in articles in more useful and efficient ways. For example, there is a Data tab for each article that provides an overview of all figures, and large amounts of information on the selected figure including both it’s caption and the actual context for its citation from the text. Raw data files are also readily accessible from this same screen. References are dynamically expandable to show their context in the text (without refreshing, which is awesome), filterable by year or author, and linked directly to the original publication. You’ll also notice an comments tab where editor moderated comments related to be paper will be posted (showing the kind of integrated commenting system that I expect we will see everywhere eventually).

I have seen a lot of discussion of how the web is going to revolutionize publishing, but to quote one of my favorite movies “Talking ain’t doing.” Cell Press is actually doing.

I’d strongly encourage you to check out their blog post and video and then go play around with one of the articles in the new format. This is really exciting stuff.

Ideas in Ecology and Evolution

I just read the excellently forward thinking year end editorial of the new journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution. The editorial was written by Lonnie Aarssen and Christopher Lortie and is filled with Aarssen’s trademark,creative, outside the proverbial box, thinking. In this case it applies to the field of scientific publishing, the things they’ve tried to change with their new journal and those attempts that have failed and required rethinking. There are a lot of great ideas embodied in this editorial and that from the launch of the journal the previous year.

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