Friday, 13 December 2013

Seven secrets of successful students (part 2)

This post is a short reflection following a training event at which postgraduate research students and research supervisors at Teagasc attended a training day provided by Dr Hugh Kearns of Flinders University, Australia. This second post about this event (see the first post) focuses on some of the take-home messages. This report is neither intended to be exhaustive, nor highly original. However, it gives an insight into some (and only some) of the useful discussions that occurred.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Sharing science through story (link to TEDx talk)

Fergus McAuliffe is a regular and popular contributor on 'Scientific Communication' to our Agri-Food Graduate Development Programme (3-day training modules for postgrads and postdocs).

Sharing science through story: Fergus McAuliffe at TEDxDublin

Fergus is a PhD student at University College Cork. See here why he is an award-winning presenter and a presenter on RTE's Science Squad. This presentation is a masterclass in the communication of research, is wonderful, and is only 14 minutes long...


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Early career researchers: prepare now for funding success later

Eligibility criteria for research funding- start with the end in mind
What kind of criteria might be used to assess the eligibility of early career researchers who may be applying for their first research grant? Read on to find out...

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Monday, 23 September 2013

From unknown to known: making an impact

‘So young, and already so unknown’
Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958)

The start of a PhD is a very daunting time for many reasons, and one of the most humbling is the feeling that you are at the foot of a mountain of work to be done, things to read and understand, and targets to be met, not least the production of a thesis and other outputs that communicate your findings, such as papers.

It is hopefully comforting to know that as you stand there bewildered at base camp you have an experienced guide beside you, who has been up the mountain and indeed helped others to survive the climb: your supervisor (or supervisors).

They are hopefully known and established experts in their field, and presumably their reputation for their research is one of the primary factors that drew you to them in the fist place.

They are known; you are unknown.

Then you start reading, and you quickly become aware of the key figures in your field around the world, the names which most frequently appear on the publications you are finding and reading.

They are known; you are unknown.

For those PhD students who wish to build their career in research and stay in their field for their career, one thing is clear; the unknown must become the known.  But how?

To answer this requires acceptance of one simple fact; every single one of those names, near or far, that are intimidating you by their achievements were once unknown too, a novice researcher, perhaps at the start of their PhD just like you.

So, how do you get from unknown to known, and how do you know you are heading in the right direction?

We must again start with a basic principle, that advancement and recognition in any field depends principally on the quality of the research that one does and the effectiveness with which this is communicated widely through reputable (i.e., peer-reviewed) academic channels.  Other things count as well of course, such as the skills required to build networks, communicate informally as well as formally, and the under-rated skills of diplomacy in how you build relationships with those in your field (all topics to be covered in other posts on this blog), but the sine qua non is the quality of the research that you produce.

So, once you start to produce results and outputs that you think are of importance and interest to others, you seek to disseminate and share them as widely as possible; submissions to journals, posters and talks at conferences, letters and emails to other researchers seeking advice or reprints, and all the other channels of academic communication. 

At this point, the traffic is all flowing in one direction; from you to the world.  You are still the unknown, but raising your head above the parapet and hoping someone will notice, and care.

So how do you know it is working?

At some point, the traffic starts to flow both ways.  Every researcher probably remembers the first time they were communicated unprompted by someone about their research, perhaps asking a question or for a copy of a paper, or even by a journal (hopefully a respectable one!) to review a paper.

That is the day you can sit back and breathe a little easier; someone has heard of you, and what’s more they care what you have to say.  Unknown is becoming known.

This is when you know you are really making an impact, and when the novice becomes the professional.

PhD skill: list five outputs you could envisage from your work that will improve your professional profile and visibility other then academic papers.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Ten tips for (novice) conference presenters

A presentation to a farmer group on the Aran Islands on a wonderful summer's evening.
Not all presentations require slides!
Having recently attended a number of major international conference, I’ve seen a lot of good and not so good practices. If you are a novice presenter and willing to learn, here are a few pieces of advice, and some relevant further reading...

1.  Know your main message. Communicate your main message, and repeat it for emphasis. Ensure that the audience receives your main message. Again, the the most important point here is that your presentation (and you) actually has a main message – I’ve attended a few talks in which I don’t think the speaker knew their own main message (and neither did I). A good sign that you don’t have a main message is when you have three finishing slides called Conclusions 1, Conclusions 2 and Conclusions 3! And why not finish with a tweetable 140 character summary of your work? (latter two points from @entoprof)

2.  Familiarise yourself with your environment. This includes the room, the pointer, the screen, the lighting etc. Check that fonts, formatting and any animations are compatible with the local software/hardware – long before your talk begins. Larger conferences often have a dedicated room where you can upload and check this. Even if there is not a dedicated room, use the time during the coffee or lunch breaks to familiarise yourself with the room and the equipment. Have a glass of water poured and nearby the lectern (and away from electronics!).

3.  Introduce yourself to the session chairman well in advance of the session. Don’t leave them guessing until the last moment about whether or not you are attending, whether you are in the room, or whether you’ve uploaded your presentation.

4.  Include your Twitter handle/blog address, and keep it apparent on a few consecutive slides where people can get enough time to record/type it.

5.  This is especially for novice presenters: spend less time on your background and methods, and more time on your results and why they are important/influential. This is extremely important when the amount of time spent on methods starts threatening the time that’s available to present the results – this happens far too often. Looking at experienced presenters at plenary talks, they spend the minimum of time on methods, and most of their time on results and the impact of their results.

6.  Take time to explain your main points/results/figures/graphs. You may be familiar with them, but the audience is not.
Rehearse your talk in front of people who have not seen your talk before, and ask them questions about your main points/results/figures/graphs. You'll very quickly discover that they will not quite understand you in the way that you expect! This can happen to the best of presenters – which is why the best of presenters always spend a lot of time preparing.
You should never have to begin your explanation of a slide with an apology- this is a sign that something is wrong, which is also sign that something needs to be fixed. The most common apologies are: “I know there is too much text on this slide but…”, “I know that there is a lot going on in this table, but…”, and “It’s not so clear here, but…”.

7.  Don't run out of time at the expense of your most important messages. As a presenter, this is a wasted opportunity for your work and you to make on impression on the audience. As an audience, it is a waste of our time.
If time is tight, then make sure you prioritise your most important points, and that they appear well before, for example, the 10-minute mark of a 12-minute presentation. If you do run out of time, be very clear (beforehand) about which slides you will sacrifice toward the end, without compromising your main message.

8.  Leave time for questions -questions from the audience are your most important reward for presenting. Questions and comments from your audience represent a wonderful opportunity to receive feedback from other experts.

9.  Don't interrupt someone who is asking a question. This is surprisingly common. The longer you let the questioner talk, the more likely they are to further develop, explain and even paraphrase their question. This helps you to understand their question, and gives you more time to consider a response. Let the person finish their question in its entirety before you say anything- and then give yourself a few seconds of silence to think. If it helps your answer, then go to the slide that addresses the question – not everyone will remember it, and it will almost certainly assist your answer. In addition, you should be able to anticipate some questions, so why not have a few additional slides that you don’t present in the main talk, but that you can refer to if needed?

10.  Make sure that your last slide contains your main conclusions (which should reflect your main message – see point 1). While the chairman intervenes to ask the audience for questions, your main points will remain up on the screen and be reinforced, as well as being a good prompt for questions from the audience. This is far better than leaving the acknowledgements slide on-screen. You can provide acknowledgements somewhere else in your presentation. Lately, I provide acknowledgements as my second slide (after the title), and get them out of the way as part of some introductory comments.

PhD Skill: Conference presentations are a wonderful opportunity to impress others with your work and your skills. Prepare and practice, and make the most of the 15 or 20 minutes when you are centre stage. 

Further online reading
How to Be a Successful Speaker at a Conference: Advice from the Experts (blog post from Search Engine Journal). This is a great resource with three tips from each of several different experienced presenters. A must-read!

DonnaM. 10 tips for conference presentations. A great blog post. 

Sharon Goldwater. Advice on designing and giving presentations (Especially conference presentations). Also includes some other useful links and some specific examples.

Get a life, PhD (blog). How to Give a Fabulous Academic Presentation: Five Tips to Follow

UPDATE: Next Scientist. How to improve the Presentation Skills of PhD Students. Comprehensive treatment by Susanne Ulm - well worth a read, and very engaging.

Monday, 26 August 2013

How long is the average PhD dissertation? (link)

How long is the average PhD dissertation? This is a link to a blog post by Robert T. Gonzalez.
A question that everyone PhD researcher asks, and doesn't dare to answer...

This post compares thesis length across disciplines, with the reminder that length is not necessarily correlated with quality.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Ten tips for the first 100 days of a PhD

To date, we have focused more on issues that affect students in the later stages of their PhD. Here, we make ten suggestions on key activities for PhD students during their first 100 days.

1. Agree/develop a modus operandi with your supervisor(s) (e.g. agree where and how often you expect to meet, how to assess progress when the supervisor is away, the different types of feedback expected etc.).  In some universities, there may be a form to facilitate this (e.g. a learning plan or candidature plan). The following questionnaire may help you to investigate (and discuss with your supervisor) your underlying beliefs (and supervisors) about the student-supervisor relationship: Expectations in supervision questionnaire.

2. Take responsibility for arranging meetings with your supervisor, and provide an agenda in advance of the meeting, ideally with a few short explanatory notes about each topic. This will help your supervisor to understand the issue, and give them more time, subconsciously at least, to spend more time thinking about your agenda items. Make written notes (minutes) of the plans that are agreed with your supervisor.  Even a quick email to your supervisor can be very helpful to enquire ‘this is what I think we agreed, am I on the right track?’  Thinkwell provides a Thesis Meeting Template that should help you structure the main outputs to be achieved from meetings.

3. Write a project plan listing some key initial research objectives and preliminary deadlines (at least). This is easier said than done! This can then become the basis for more detailed planning. See Chapter 3 of Getting a PhD, which addresses project management for PhD students, and there is a multitude of project management resources available online. Remember that a key feature of the assessment of the PhD degree is based on the quality of work - see our earlier post and resources therein for more on this. For planning within shorter timescales, here is a template for a weekly planner.

4. Produce a Gantt chart based on the above for your project activities for the first, say, 6 months. This is a tangible output from your planning, and can serve as the basis for useful discussion with your supervisor.

5. Read journal articles, take notes and write a short literature review (even a few thousand words). You will learn a lot more by writing about what you read than by reading alone, and there is a huge satisfaction in feeling you have a folder on your computer labelled ‘my thesis’ with something in it.  This also makes sure you practice academic writing - a key skill- from your first day.

6. Get feedback from your supervisor(s) on this literature review; on your writing style and how to improve it where necessary; on whether you have read the right articles and; whether you are understanding the knowledge and uncertainties associated with your topic.

7. Read recent PhD theses in your topic to see what is ultimately expected of you. It is amazing how many PhD students do not do this, or leave it until they are almost finished their thesis!

8. Learn and practice new methods that you will need to use - before you start your research. Ensure that you can implement methods correctly - there is no point in progressing with methods and work if you cannot rely on the outputs and results.

9. Develop good professional habits for keeping all your information and data safe and organised (hard copies, papers, data, electronic files etc.). Think about everything that could go wrong (fires, floods, computer viruses) and make sure that data loss will never happen to you.  Increasingly, funding agencies require researchers to protect and archive their data in a secure manner. Check what storage facilities or formal requirements for data storage is available in your lab or institution.

10. Formally or informally review your skills (probably with your supervisor) and do a self-assessment of your training needs. This should help you to work out what skills you need to develop and what opportunities are available to develop these. Then, make a plan to participate in any relevant training events as soon as possible, and before you get really busy. In a previous post, we highlighted resources that should be essential reading, and another post discussed various forms of training.

Of course, there will be many other activities that you should be doing, and different people will have different priorities. Please let us know what other issues or resources that you think are priorities for settling in during the first 100 days!

PhDSkill: Actively manage the early stages of your PhD. The time in your first three months of your PhD is as precious as the last three months - use it as productively as possible!
John Finn and Alan Kelly

Useful resources 
John Finn. 2005. Getting a PhD: an action plan to help manage your research, your project and your supervisor. Routledge. (Contains lots of advice on starting a PhD, and develops many of the above points in more detail.)

Bench 21. Starting well: how to do a good first year in your PhD. (Blog post)

Introduction to resources by Thinkwell: Seven Secrets of Succesful Students
photo credit: emdot via photopin cc

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Dealing with reviewers' comments on submitted manuscripts

Addressing reviewers' comments is a milestone in the publication process. This post follows from a recent training event at which we discussed the role of reviewers in journal publishing with PhD students who had not yet published their research in a journal. Here, I introduce the role of reviewers in the publishing process, and share some of the lessons from the questions posed by PhD students about how to address the comments from journal reviewers. 

Monday, 10 June 2013

Surviving the politics of a PhD: think The Hunger Games looked tough?

Diplomacy is a key skill for PhD students. Help others and you never know when they will help you back.  At a critical time, you will need them more than they will probably ever need you.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Six reasons why PhD students should make poster presentations

When visiting other institutions, I love learning about people's research  by reading their posters. Here's a picture of the wall outside my own office...
Are research posters a good use of time and effort? I've been intending to write a post about posters since PhDSkills here it is! I've been putting it off because there is so much to talk about, and this will be the first of several posts on posters. Here, I outline six advantages of posters. 

Monday, 22 April 2013

A PhD skill is not just for academia: it’s for life

Not that long ago, relatively few graduates went on to study for a PhD, and those that did planned (and were expected) to go into academia, frequently following their thesis area as they build their careers around research.  Most of the PhD supervisors of today are products of this system.

However, today it is well recognized that this is no longer the case, and that a wide range of employers recognize the value of the skill set that is developed during a PhD.  Projects in a number of countries have explicitly articulated these skills, as in the UK:

Monday, 15 April 2013

Examination of the PhD thesis: first impressions last

The PhD viva is a highly charged event, with an immense emotional investment in the face-to-face interview that is such an important examination of whether your thesis passes or fails. But is it the most important? Here, I consider the importance of the thesis in shaping first impressions and influencing PhD examiners' decisions.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Telling others about your research – no, not experts, real people!

Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people’.
W.B. Yeats

Yes, but was he talking about PhD students??

The core of any PhD is of course the generation of new knowledge, but research is not complete until this knowledge is passed on.  What would be the point of doing the most important and significant research in the world if you were not to tell anyone what was found, or were to tell the wrong people, for whom it would not have an impact, or tell people in such a way that they do not understand the message and its significance?

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Manage the authorship of your journal publications

Libraries are full of journals - but how is journal authorship defined?
One of my duties involves being a point of contact and support for PhD students who may have a problem that they cannot discuss with their supervisor. The most common issue that I'm approached about is journal authorship, and clarification on the conventions and guidance associated with who should be an author, and why. This post provides some guidance and resources on this topic.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Thinking about the end game: the last year of the PhD

At its heart, the key to success for many PhD students is their relationship with their supervisor or supervisors, which is of course a human relationship, just like any other.  Also like any other relationship, this one can have its ups and downs, and navigating these at key times, like the final stages of the PhD, is hugely important.  This is just one of the things which have to be managed just right to make sure the best thesis is submitted, on time, and with the least stress possible.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Positions in journal author lists- do they matter?

Here, I briefly focus on some of the conventions associated with the order of authors on journal articles, and discuss some of the interpretations and significance of these. Read on to find out how your authorship decisions now may affect your future career...

Friday, 8 February 2013

Seven secrets of successful students - report on training event

This post is a short report on a training event at which postgraduate research students and research supervisors at Teagasc attended a training day provided by Dr Hugh Kearns of Flinders University, Australia.  Hugh is an expert on procrastination (!), an internationally renowned speaker for his motivational seminars, and an accomplished educational researcher.

Here, I want to give an overview of some of the main messages from the day, and also provide further links to some of the resources that Hugh referred to. I aim to have a follow up post with some examples of practical lessons that I took from the event.

Hugh's consultancy provides a number of resources for PhD students and supervisors, and are well worth exploring.

The training focused on 'The Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Students'. A central focus of the day was the supervisory relationship, and the importance for students to write early and often. Whilst students and supervisors are often told this, there was a lot of practical advice on how to better ensure that this aspiration is realised. The table of contents of the accompanying book outlines the seven secrets:

  • Care and maintenance of your supervisor
  • Write and show as you go: This is show and tell not hide and seek
  • Be realistic: It's not a Nobel Prize
  • Say no to distractions: Even the fun ones and the ones you think you must do
  • It's a job: That means working nine to five but you get holidays
  • Get help: You are not an owner-operator single person business
  • You can do it: A PhD is 90% persistence and 10% intelligence

Hugh's presentation is peppered with evidence-based analysis, relevant anecdotes and large doses of practical actions for both students and supervisors.
In the session for supervisors, the following questionnaire generated quite a deal of interest as a means of investigating the underlying beliefs of supervisors and students about the student-supervisor relationship:
Expectations in supervision questionnaire

Selected publications by Hugh Kearns
Gardiner, M. & Kearns, H. (2012). The ABCDE of Writing: Coaching high-quality high-quantity writing. International Coaching Psychology Review, 237-249.

Kearns, H. & Gardiner, M.L. (2011). Waiting for the motivation fairy. Nature, 472, 127.

Gardiner, M. & Kearns, H. (2011). Turbocharge your writing today. Nature, 475, 129.

Kearns, H. & Gardiner, M.L., (2011). The care and maintenance of your adviser. Nature, 469(7331), 570-570.

PhD Skill: learn how to improve your quantity and quality of writing and eliminate procrastination.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Training comes in many guises

Training helps to realise your potential.

The award of a PhD degree recognises your successful training to be an independent researcher. 
Therefore, it's not surprising that PhD research involves a lot of training and learning! Some of the usual training needs include project management, time management, statistics, research methods, reference management software, oral presentations, poster presentations, career development and many others. 

So when was the last time you had some training?

Unfortunately, some PhD students do not receive as many training courses as they expect. However, we often have more opportunities for training than we think. Training is not just something that happens when someone from somewhere else turns up and gives a course. 

A lot of training happens without courses. A few examples should make it clear how training and learning occur in many different forms: 
- attendance at departmental seminars
- discussions with your supervisor about research methods, ethics, publication practices etc.
- reading books about a specific topic
- learning by doing (even if it means making mistakes at first)
- receiving instruction on equipment or methods from a technician
- reading online material about a specific topic (this is how I first learned to create a blog)
- discussions with other researchers about your work or related research
- journal clubs
- receiving advice from other students about software packages
- presenting your work as a poster or seminar, and receiving feedback.

This variety of forms of training doesn't mean that courses are not important. But if you can't get to as many courses as you would like, there's still plenty of training that's available. 

PhD Skill: identify your training needs, some of which may require courses. Be aware of the training that you are receiving, in all its forms, and how it contributes to your professional development.  

photo credit: kevinpoh via photopin cc

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Rejection of your work by a journal

Had your paper rejected? You're not the only one.

It's easy to think that everyone is publishing more than you are, and receiving far fewer rejections. Even experienced researchers feel some apprehension upon receipt of referees' comments and the decisions that journal editors make. Little wonder then that PhD researchers would also feel the same apprehension. And the same intense disappointment when the journal editor's response begins "I regret to inform you...".

I re-discovered an old paper about "Publication rejection among ecologists" by Phillip Cassey and Tim Blackburn. It asked successful ecologists (or at least those who had published a lot) about their experiences of rejection. Overall, the 61 respondents had experienced rejection of their papers - about a quarter of their combined total of 2907 publications (a prolific bunch...) had been rejected at least once. Their take-home message: if at first you don't succeed, try try again.

My very first submission to a journal was a co-authored manuscript with my PhD supervisor and a postdoc. It received glowing reviews, with one of the reviewers complimenting our work and recommending that it should be published without any changes. (Stay with me: I'm not bragging and will get my come-uppance...). The postdoc told me to frame the review. (Now I understand why - it took another fifteen years before I saw another review like it). My next (also co-authored) manuscript was submitted soon after. The first referee began their review by saying "I can't believe these people claim to be ecologists..."

In their paper, Cassey and Blackburn emphasised that "publication success and manuscript rejection are not strangers".

Thus, it seems a thick hide is another skill to develop. But how can PhD researchers improve their ability to address reviewers' comments and to cope with rejections? One way to manage your expectations about the refereeing process is to discuss your supervisor's previous reviews of their own work - they may even be willing to share some of these with you on a confidential basis. Other PhD researchers in your group may also be willing to share their reviews with you. And on the day that you do get a rejection, remember that you are in good company. Put away the reviews for a few days, let the dust settle, discuss with your supervisor and decide on the next action.

Update: another paper highlighting the widespread rejection of submissions, followed by their subsequent acceptance. For another quite sophisticated example of rejection rates and impact factors in ecology journals see this paper.

PhD Skill: persevere with the publication process.

Update: See great post on Statistical Horizons blog by Andrew Hayes: Rejected? Keep at it.

photo credit: howpinz via photopin cc

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

What questions are asked during a PhD viva?

"I'd like to know how much of this thesis is really yours - which chapters have the questions that weren't given to you by your supervisor?"
This was the opening question for one student in a PhD viva. Although we've all heard about the more unusual viva questions and behaviour, the one-to-one (or few-to-one) nature of most vivas makes it pretty tough for other PhD students to get a good insight into what happens. How to learn about what kinds of questions crop up, and avoid the biases of individual student accounts?

One way is to read the results of a survey of PhD vivas, published by Vernon Trafford and Shosh Leshem in a 2002 paper in Higher Education Review. It provides a list of questions that give an overview of questions asked across a sample of 25 doctoral vivas. This work achieves a generalisation across multiple vivas that few supervisors could hope to achieve, let alone doctoral candidates. An important point is that these issues are not only relevant to those researchers who are just a few months or weeks from their viva - these issues are of high relevance to students just beginning their PhD research. What better way for a new PhD researcher to know the standards expected of a PhD degree other than to know the questions posed by the examiners in their reading of the thesis (a topic for another day), and in the viva?

The research results showed that the broad categories of examiners' questions ranged from the choice of topic, conceptual issues being addressed, the choice and justification of methodology, the selection of instruments/materials/respondents/, the contribution to knowledge made by the work, and candidate's critique of their own work. Each category had about five questions associated with it. These questions will be very useful for any PhD student. 

As an example of the topic 'being critical' (of your own work), the questions are: 
- How else might you have undertaken your research? 
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of your research? 
- What would you do differently if you repeated your research?
Other questions include: 
- How did you use your conceptual framework to design your research analyse your findings?
- How generalisable are your findings - and why?

I was so impressed by this work that I asked for permission to reproduce the list of questions in 'Getting a PhD', and ensure that all  of my students have addressed these questions before their viva. They have all found the questions to be extremely helpful in preparing for the external examiners' questions, and in reassuring them ahead of their own viva. I have even known these questions to be read in advance of the viva by a number of colleagues acting as PhD external examiners! 

Of course, these specific questions may not be asked during your PhD viva in the exact same way as presented in the paper. Nevertheless, the questions in the paper reflect broad categories of questions that test 'doctorateness', and PhD candidates can be certain that variants of these will be prominent in the viva. And although it doesn't appear in Trafford and Leshem's (2002), it's also a good idea to know which of your chapters have the questions that weren't given to you by your supervisor!

PhD Skill: prepare for the PhD viva by considering the questions in Trafford and Leshem's (2002) paper, and how they may be applied to your work 

Update: See related blog post on Doctoral Writing SIG by Susan Carter: Defending research choices in doctoral writing: getting the habit at the start of the research

Trafford, V. and Leshem, S. 2002. Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: predictable questions as stepping stones. Higher Education Review 35 (1): 31-49.

These same authors published a book in 2008 'Stepping Stones to Achieving your Doctorate: By focusing on your viva from the start.'

If you have some great questions from a PhD viva, I 'd love to hear about them, and share them in another post - I will accredit all contributions. 

photo credit: mnadi via photopin cc