Thursday, 12 December 2013

Does playing the publishing game make us hypocrites?

As I'm sure any scientist or academic who spends any time on the internet will know,   Randy Schekman (recent nobel prize winner) wrote an article in the guardian about how we shouldn't be publishing in 'Glamour mags' like Nature, Science and Cell.  Of course his caveat is that we should all publish in his not quite glamour mag (because its open access) e-Life.

Obviously, there's been a lot of talk on twitter about this...

I've seen a lot of "Hurrah!" responses and a lot of re-post with out much comment. But there's also an undercurrent of people who aren't as happy as might be expected.  Mick Watson wrote a really good blog post explaining why some people are annoyed at Schekman and feel he's a hypocryte and that we shouldn't be praising him for something that will ultimately help him out (i.e. get us to publish in his new journal instead).

While I really respect this position, I have to disagree.  While maybe he doesn't deserve praise exactly, we need these people.  He's won a nobel prize, he's published lots in these closed-access journal, his credentials are sorted. So now he has both power and nothing to lose, he can say what he likes.  

I know from trying to persuade my former Boss to go with PeerJ, that people in this position (not that he's won a nobel prize!) aren't always interested in change, they know the system, they've worked out how to do well in the system and while they don't have much to lose, they also don't have much to gain by changing it.  Those of us without much power (Phd student, postdocs, ECRs), we may be idealistic and really want the paradigm to change, but we can't do it on our own, we need the senior people.  I know I have pressure from colleagues and bosses to publish in these journals if I can. Committees for fellowships and future jobs lap these things up, and I'm not in a position to change that.  But Schekman is one of the lucky few who are.

I think on our way up, all of us play the game to some extent.  As long as we know that we're playing the game and doing all we can to change the rules at the same time, I don't think that makes us hypocrites.  We just have to not end up believing in the game if we manage to win it.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Sharing too early or just early enough?

I've been seeing a Guardian article around twitter this week which has kind of hit a nerve.  It was this post about having your blog plagiarised. Not because I've had the same thing happen to me, but because I've been known to be a bit worried about telling people too much, too early about what I'm working on.

This is the second year that I'm going to Popgroup (The UK population genetics/evolution conference) and not talking about the work that I'm hoping to publish in the near future, because we're too worried about plagiarism (Last years work ended up in this paper).  This was due to the fact that both analyses were fairly simple to do, they just hadn't been done that way before, and someone could pretty easily have gone and replicated the study and beaten us to the punch.

But would they?

Although I, along with my colleagues, wanted to protect against competitors, is it actually that likely that anyone would have gone and replicated it?  After all, there would be a room full of people who saw me present the work, it'd be pretty obvious if someone who was there then went and published it a couple of months later.

Science is littered with examples of people 'borrowing' bits of other peoples data (the whole Watson, Crick, Franklin debacle being the main one we think about in genetics).  But, maybe we should give people the benefit of the doubt more.  There are lots of advantages of talking about your science as it progresses, people can pick you up on mistakes and pitfalls and you can get new ideas to improve the work.  So, in the spirit of open science, I think I'm going to try to be a bit more open in the future, I hope it doesn't come back and bite me.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Thinking about the next step

So I'm 2 weeks in to this postdoc, which means I pretty much have to start thinking about the next step now.  It seems slightly ridiculous, but I felt I left it too long to start thinking about it during my last postdoc, and its possible that this job may only be 1 or 2 years long anyway.

So what is the next step? I'm on my 2nd postdoc.  Two seems fairly justifiable to me, particularly since I've moved to a really great lab in the US for the second one (where I'm hoping to pump out a lot of papers).  Three would probably be less justifiable...

So this leaves three options a) Lecturship b) Fellowship c) Doing something else.
Lets throw c away now, I'm not ready to contemplate that yet (although one day I might).

When I was looking at postdoc jobs this time around, I did a bit of looking at Lecturing jobs too.  The issue with these seems to be money, in that you need to have had some of your own to be seriously considered, which excluding a small travel grant, I haven't.   Which leads us onto Fellowships.  An enormous unknown for me, its hard to even know where to start really, although I guess by seeing what I'm even eligible for.

A quick look around the internet showed a big lack of information about applying for Fellowships written by people who have do it.  There are quite a lot of pages written by specific universities on their policies, but not much about the experience.  Does anyone know of any links?  I'll continue to document here anyway.

Friday, 8 November 2013

My problems with AcWriMo

AcWriMo stands for Academic Writing Month.  It came about as an off shoot of NANOWRIMO, which stands for National Novel Writing Month and is basically a challenge to try and write a novel in a month.  AcWriMo was started by Charlotte Frost, and if you'd like to learn more, I recommend going to her blog which you can find here -

Both last year and this year I have signed up to AcWriMo full of good intentions to improve my writing habits and to become more productive.

Last year I gave myself a word count for each day, but I think I ended up giving up halfway through as I wasn't really in the right place in my research to do lots of writing, just finished one project, too much actual research to do for the next one.

So this year, I decided that I would just block out an hour a day for writing.  Any writing e.g. this counts as part of today's hour.  But I can already see myself slipping off the wagon.  So I'm going to try and work out the reasons for this and use my realisation of these to re-new my vigour.

1. New Job - The 1st week of November (Academic Writing Month) has coincided with the first week of my new postdoc.  I think because it's a new job and I've had quite a lot of admin things I had to get done etc. I've not found it easy to say "This is my writing hour".  But a lot of those things are over now, so from Monday 9am-10am is going to be my writing hour and we'll see how that goes.

2. I don't have a paper in need of writing up - I think when I envision AcWriMo I think about having a bunch of research that I've done over the Summer that needs writing up into a paper, spending November doing that, and then submitting said paper at the beginning of December.  Of course the big problem with that is that I don't write like that, I do it as I'm going along, so what I actually have is a half written paper that needs more analysis.  However, this year rather than a word count, I've just got an hour I need to write in.  That leaves a lot of other hours to do research in.  Also, since I'm starting some new projects, there's a whole bunch of literature searching to write up.

3. I find writing in chunks kind of boring - I'm going to try and use pomodoros to get over this one.  It makes it into a kind of game - and games I like.  

Does anyone else have a problem like this, i.e. they find the idea of something like AcWriMo really exiting, but the reality seems like hard drudgery?  Anyone got any ideas of how I can buck myself up?

Sunday, 3 November 2013

First post from the USA

So I've been in America for almost 2 weeks, although only one day of that has been at work so far.  I figure I should write out some of my thoughts about what seems to be the same and what seems to be different.

Firstly, Rutgers seems to run in a similar way to every other University I've been at.  I've probably been to every admin building in the several campuses we have, clutching various forms.  I now have an email account and login, but it's Department of Life Sciences specific, I'm still working out how to get the full one.  My login card now lets me into my flat (it didn't to start with), but I've discovered this weekend that it won't let me into my department out of hours, I suspect I'll have problems with the Library too.  But I'd expect this sort of thing at a UK University as well!

There are two main things that seem to be very different from the UK. Firstly, alcohol.  The age limit of 21 in the US means that the vast majority of Undergrads aren't allowed to drink.  Therefore, you can't get a beer on my campus.  There's no bar - the student centre has fast food outlets instead.  But more than that, you can't buy alcohol in the convenience store.  This is the first way that it's a very different experience to being in the UK.

The second way is all the 'School Spirit'.  It turns out that the weekend after I arrived was Homecoming.  There were banners everywhere!  Even now that Homecoming's over, there are pennants saying Rutgers on every single lampost on campus.  I guess they think we might forget where we were otherwise.  Probably a quarter of the people you see are wearing some kind of Rutgers themed clothing and the Barnes and Nobel store has a whole floor of the stuff.  They have every type of clothing you could imagine, rugs, cushions, bottles, mugs, banners.  But it's basically all in either red, or grey or black.  Scarlet is the school colour, so that's the colour (sorry color) you get!

I'm guessing I'll get used to these things eventually, and I'll probably find all sorts of other things that are different, but these are the things that seem to be standing out right now.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Leaving projects behind

One of the things that holds true for the vast majority of Early Career Researchers (Postdocs, Fellows etc.) is that life is transitory.  You have a short time working on a project and then you move on to the next contract, maybe another institution, maybe another topic, maybe another field entirely.

This is a problem that has quite a lot of repercussions in Bioinformatics.  I suspect it does in other fields too, but Bioinformatics is what I know.

The problem is this -
You're going along happily using a piece of software in your research, it's great software, it does exactly what you want and it saved you a lot of time and effort.  But then, one day, it breaks.  Maybe a server that it takes information from has changed it's file formats? Or it's just not updating properly any more.  What ever the problem was, you find you can't fix it yourself, so you email the person who wrote it, seeing if they can help.  Only to find that they were a Phd student who no longer works on the project.  If you're lucky, they still work in research and they still care enough about their old software that they'll help you out.  If you're not lucky, they probably work for a bank now and are completely un-contactable!

This is a problem that's endemic in Bioinformatics and it definitely feeds into the reinventing the wheel culture that we have.  How can you trust that someone else's software will still be around in 5 years time?

Unfortunately, this isn't a problem that just exists in software development.  Over the last year, I've been running an event called Ignite Sheffield.  It's been pretty popular, particularly with undergrads / postgrads and postdocs.  We've had lots of Phd students use it to help them gain confidence in speaking about their work, and I believe it's a fantastic tool for this.  However, due to the transitory nature of ECRs, I'm off to New Jersey in 2 weeks time.

I tried my best to get someone to take over, but people have their own projects and don't really have time to take on someone else's - much like with software upkeep.  So sadly Ignite Sheffield will be having to have some down time.

Maybe I'll be able to start it up again if I come back.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

USA J1 Visa process (from the UK)

There are quite a few blog posts and websites that talk about the process of getting an American Visa.  Some of them are fairly full of doom and gloom, so I thought I'd give my much more positive take on it.


The DS-2019 is a document that your future employers have to generate before you can apply for a Visa.
This stage seemed to take the longest.

There was an on-line form I had to fill out first, I suspect that different universities/workplaces have different procedures at this point.  I had to provide proof of medical insurance (provided by the department and an email seemed to count for this), a scan of my passport, my Phd certificate and a letter of invitation from the Dean.  This whole process seemed a bit circular since the letter of invitation and the medical insurance were both coming from the department I had to send them to!

Once I'd fill the form out, it took 2 weeks for them to generate the form and fed-ex it to me.


When you get your DS-2019 there will be information included about how to go about paying your SEVIS fee.  I don't really know what this one is for, but you have to do it.  Make sure you have a credit/debit card handy and that your printer is connected.  You'll need to print out the receipt to show them at the embassy.

DS-160 Nonimmigrant Visa Application Form

This is the form that allows you to apply to go for a visa interview.  It is very long.

Things you need to make sure you have:
Your DS-2019, you can't apply without it
A US Visa style photo.  This has to be square, so a UK passport photo won't do.  You can get more info from here:
Your SEVIS I-901

Keep printing out everything, particularly your 'instructions page'.

Apply for a Visa interview

This was pretty easy, choose a time and a day.  They don't make you stick to your time, but I'd suggest an early one anyway.  If you go early you don't get a backlog of people.

Visa Interview

My interview was at 9.30 in London.  I arrived at 8.20, there was already a queue, but only a small one. First you have to join the queue to say you're there.  They'll check you don't have anything like a mobile phone/laptop/ipad/kindle etc. They'll also give you a plastic bag to put you watch and belt into for security. Try and only take in what you need, there is a pharmacy near by where you can store stuff, but I was lucky in that I could leave everything at someone's house. All I took was my debit card, my oyster card, the paperwork and a (hardcopy) book.

Once you've been checked in you join another queue.  They'll check your paperwork again and then send you through to security.  Security here is less scary than at the airport, and they don't make you take your shoes off.

Once inside, you'll be directed to a reception desk.  Here they'll check your paperwork (sensing a pattern?) and give you a number (well it's a letter and a number, but you get the jist).

Now you just have to wait until your number is called.  It'll blink up on the screen with the number window you have to go to.  There are also hand instructions about exactly what you need to give them.  They'll take everything off you.  I felt quite naked sitting in the US embassy without my passport!

Then they'll send you back to wait to be called up again.  The second time you're called is your actual Visa interview.  I was asked what my job was and then she got me to explain what that meant.  But it almost seemed like a friendly conversation.  Also she enthused about Rutgers a bit.  That was it.  I was told I'd be given a Visa and that my documents would be returned in ~ 5 working days.

In all the visit to the embassy only took 45mins which wasn't bad considering some of the scare stories of waiting for 5 hours etc. that I heard!

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Right Time, Right Place

As regular readers of this blog will know, I've spend the majority of 2013 (and a little bit of 2012) looking for a second postdoc position.

One of the things I've been thinking about recently is just how stressful most of these interviews were, until the last one, the one I got.  Don't get me wrong, I still did quite a lot of preparation, but in the end I didn't even need most of it.  My future boss had been seriously interested in me from the moment he saw my CV, and then we just really clicked.  So I'm coming to the conclusion that when applying for postdocs the really important thing is to just get into as many interviews as possible, eventually you'll find one where you just click (provided you are actually applying for the right sort of thing).

When I've talked to some other postdoc job hunters, they've been saying they found it hard to get interviews, that they were sending out their CV to hundreds of jobs and only getting a handful of responses.  This didn't happen to me, I got about a 3/4 interview rate.  So I just thought I'd put down a few approaches I take to applying for jobs in the hope that it might help someone else out. N.B I'm am definitely not an expert in this area, so don't take it as gospel!

1. Don't apply to hundreds of jobs.

I applied for 12 jobs in total.  It seems like a lot at the time, because in order to actually have a got chance of getting to the interview, you've got to tailor you CV and cover letter to each one.

I was also really picky about what I applied for.  Each job (at least in the UK) should have a person criteria attached to it, with a list of essential and desirable criteria.  If you don't have the essential criteria, don't apply for this job.  You should probably have most of the desirable criteria too.  If you really feel like you would be great in the job, but don't fit the criteria, I suggest sending the PI an  informal email to find out why that aspect is essential.  It's possible you might be able to persuade them around, but you're unlikely to do this through a CV & cover letter.  By then its too late.

2. Write a very specific cover letter for each job

I had a template that I worked from, but for each job I very carefully went though the person criteria and showed that I fit the specs.  Make it really obvious that you're worth meeting.  Even if it says "judged at interview in the criteria", get a head start on it in the cover letter.

3. Don't big yourself up too much on your CV

By making your CV self seem more experienced etc. than you really are, you're just  wasting everyone's time.  You can probably get yourself to a lot more interviews this way, but when they meet you, if you can't measure up in person, they're unlikely to give you the position.

4. Don't do yourself down on your CV

Although you shouldn't big yourself up more than you deserve, don't do yourself down either.  It's really important to put everything in that you think might be worthwhile.  Although by now you probably shouldn't be putting your school swimming badges on...

5. Don't worry too much about your CV format, as long as its clear

There are so many blog posts on the internet giving advice on how your CV should look.

Mine has :

Contact Info
Research Experience
Teaching Experience
Admin Experience (including running societies as a student)
Computational Skills
Public Engagement

I don't think by any means this is the 'best' way of doing it.  But it got me a lot of interviews, and I think that was mostly just because it was clear and easy to see the info.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Moving on

I've been waiting until things were a bit more secure to write this post, but now I've had some official confirmation I can finally write it.

I've been offered a postdoc at Rutger University, New Jersey, USA.

It's an enormous move, and my wife can't come with me, her job is going too well at the moment, so it'll mean doing a long distance marriage thing.

But in general it's very exciting.

I'll try and write updates to the blog as things happen, not least because it might help other postdocs who are about to make a big move.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Reflections on my 1st Postdoc

As regular readers of this (or followers of me on twitter - @phdgeek) will know, I've spent the last three years working as a postdoc at the University of Nottingham.  This is my penultimate day here as the grant we were hoping for wasn't funded (this wasn't a huge shock, it seemed hit or miss from the reviews).  So, I thought I'd take some time to review the things that went well and the things that I might have done differently.

Great Stuff

Supervisor - I really landed on my feet here, my PI's been great.  He's let me follow my own direction in the research but still been really interested in what's going on.  Also he's a pretty big name in the field (at least in europe) and I think that's been helping in the job search.

Papers - I only got one paper out of my Phd (there is another one floating around in the ether, but whether that ever get published is anyone's guess), so I really needed to get a few out from this postdoc.  Which I did - 3 research articles and a commentary piece.  I'm also still working on a further two articles, which when published will make a fairly respectable haul.

Conferences - I love conferences, I come back really buzzed about the work.  Plus, it's really important to get known and to talk about your work if you're ever going to get a permanent position! So it was really nice that the grant that I've been funded on had funding for three designated conferences a year, Popgroup, SMBE and a further one which I decided I wasn't interested.  This was great because it meant that there was no persuading needed, I could just go.

Travel Award - As well as the already funded conferences, I managed to get a travel award to go to Basel to the ECCB meeting.  Getting any money is great, it's not much, but it shows an independent attitude and that someone else thought your research was interesting enough to fund you talking about it!

Less Good Stuff

All the other things - My PI has done a remarkable job of shielding me from all the other things academics have to do and just letting me get on with research, and it's been really productive.  But sometimes what you actually need is for someone to send all the other stuff your way - paper reviews, admin stuff, project students, teaching - just so that you can get the experience of doing those things and having a huge work load.  I'm happy I didn't have to do all that in this postdoc, but where ever I end I next I really need to start doing it.

Money - One of the things about being a computational biologist, who doesn't tend to even work with big datasets, is that it's hard to find things to spend money on.  In my next job I've definitely got to start ramping up the rate at which I ask for small grants, travel grants etc.

Learning about my new field - I've been allowed to take my research in the direction I wanted, as mentioned before.  The problem with this is that I was new to the field of evolutionary genetics and had several big gaps in my knowledge.  I haven't felt the need to fill these in order to get on with my research and now I feel like I have a huge amount of reading to do to catch up.

So those are my thoughts on the postdoc.  Anyone else got any postdoc/phd regrets, things you'd do differently or things that were awesome and you'd like to persuade everyone else to do them to?

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Looming Unemployment

One week today will be my last day at the University of Nottingham.  I've loved my time at Nottingham, but this is the nature of ECR research isn't it?

Unfortunately, although I've applied for a number of jobs, and had interviews for most of them, I've yet to secure my next position.  It's a little bit daunting, but I know I'm not alone in being in this between research jobs limbo. So I thought I'd talk a bit about how I'm going to deal with the time off.  If anyone has any experience or advice I'd love to hear your comments.

1. Get up at the normal time

Actually I'm not quite going to do this.  I normally get up at 5.20am so that I can have left the house by 6am.  However, now that my day won't include a ridiculous commute I'm going to let myself stay in bed until 6am.  Ooh, the luxury!

2. Continue Research

I've got a number of research questions that I've been working on over the last few months which still need some work.  The advantage of being a computational biologist (who isn't even working with massive data files) is that it's relatively easy to continue with the research.  The hope will be to continue to publish even though I'm unemployed.

3. Sign up to the Elsevier Postdoc Free Access Passport

I just discovered that if you got your Phd within the last 5 years and your last job finished between 31st Dec 2012 and 31st Aug 2013 you can get free access to science direct. So this should help a bit in the wasteland.

4. Do some other projects

I'm keen to use the time to start some projects that I wouldn't normally be able to fit in.  Firstly, I'm hoping to write a popular science book (aiming to self publish on the Kindle) and secondly I'd like to make a documentary about being LGBT in academic STEMM departments and try and get this funded by Kickstarter (There will be more about this here in the coming weeks).

5. Exercise

I'm always complaining that I can't go for a run first thing in the morning because the commute gets in the way.  Well, there's no excuse any more.  Plus, I think getting out of the house and getting the endorphins going everyday will probably help my mood.

6. Job Search

I'm not going to let this take over my life and I'm not going to apply for jobs I know I'd be unhappy in.  We can survive for a while on my wife's salary and my savings/redundancy money.  However, I am going to spend about an hour a day checking for jobs etc.

So it seems to me that if I stick to this I'll have a pretty busy, productive schedule.  Not sure how I'd have time for a job!

Monday, 22 July 2013

Difficulties in Conference Socialising

I recently went to a conference in Chicago. I had an excellent time and met lots of great people, but as at every conference I had a bit of a dilemma every time I met someone new - do I come out, when do I come out, how do I come out?

As anyone who knows me personally, and some people who only know me online will know, I'm very out. In every aspect of life, home, work, the hairdressers etc.  I just can't be bothered with the whole hiding who I am thing.  Plus I've got a wife, I spend a lot of time socialising with her, and I'm not going to play the pronoun game every time someone asks me what I did at the weekend.

However, I know lots of people who like to keep their private lives out of work.  They might be out in a general way, but they tend to keep quite about it.  But when you go to a conference the world of work merges with your social world. You're often meeting people in a social way, but it's still work.  The people you're talking to after a number of drinks in the bar might be a possible future colleague or collaborator or boss.  So there's always that split second of decisions, which camp does this new interaction fall into.  Future friend, future colleague, both, neither?

Then there's the heteronormitivity of conferences (maybe of science in general?) which I find a bit overwhelming.  I tend to think that people go away from conferences remembering me as the lesbian who talks about transposons (possibly without remembering the bit about transposons).  This is probably not even true, but the fact that I find myself having to come out over and over (particularly if my wife has come along to take advantage of a tagged on holiday) to people who assume everyone, including me, is straight (and I don't look straight), makes me hyper aware of it.

Although I've talked about conferences here, I think it extends quite a bit into more general areas of academic life.  We're expected to spend so much of our time and energy trying to make it in this career that there is often little room for friends outside of work, forcing people to mix social and work yet again.

I'm thinking of putting a project together to see how other LGBT people find this work socialising issue.  It's only in a concept stage, but stay tuned for more info.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Homophobia, STEM and the NUS

In 2011 my girlfriend (now my wife) went to the NUS LGBT Compaign Conference. She and a number of her fellow delegates were particularly disturbed by the following motion that was passed by the conference:

604 Homophobia in Science

Conference believes:
1. Students of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects suffer the highest amount of homophobia from staff and other students than any other subject areas.
2. Due to overt homophobia displayed by members of staff or lecturers, LGBT STEM students are far less likely to reveal their sexuality.
3. Because of this institutional homophobia LGBT people do not feel safe or comfortable studying STEM subjects so are more likely to chose a more liberal subject.

Conference further believes:
1. The grades and mental health of science LGBT students suffer due to the homophobia
2. Less LGBT people go into STEM subjects due to isolation and perceived homophobia

This motion was brought by some non-STEM students and passed by a conference that was overwhelmingly made up of arts and humanities students. So I wondered if there was any basis in this and whether it was mostly based on arts vs science prejudices and assumptions.

I was particularly worried about the 2nd point "Due to overt homophobia displayed by members of staff or lecturers ..."

If the points made here are true, then this is very serious and action needs to be taken to change things. Overt homophobia could well be an illegal and sack-able offence in the UK if it was detrimental to a students ability to participate in their course.

If these allegations are not true, then this motion may well add to the assumption that STEM subjects are homophobic, increasing the difficulty in encouraging LGBT+ students into STEM subjects. I would hope that this outcome is the exact opposite of what the conference were hoping to achieve.

As a response to this, I set up a survey. However, not being a social scientist and having a full time job doing other research I didn't really have the time to chase up responses and I didn't really feel I had enouh data to publish properly. So, it now being a few years down the line, I thought I would report the results here instead. However, if any social scientists are reading this and would like to help take this research further, I would be happy to talk about a collaboration...


We asked both LGBT defining respondents and non-LGBT defining respondents to answer the survey and had approximately equal numbers of response:

Both LGBT defining and non-LGBT defining students reported very low numbers of having seen homophobia by STEM Staff (should be pointed out that not all respondents were STEM based and so some many have had limited exposure to STEM staff).


Non- LGBT:

Here are the comments that were left by those that had seen homophobia:

- Friends neglecting, and change of attitude as if my identity was finally known due to something I did

- Very mild, due to carelessness rather than malice. Use of "gay" as a mild pejorative, stereotyping of LGBT people (e.g. gay male == always camp, gay female == always butch), etc in conversation. I've never seen what seemed to be deliberate malice, just things that could contribute toward an unwelcoming environment for anyone feeling vulnerable about their orientation.

- Jokes and comments - on one occasion about another postgrad who was not present. However, mostly the level of homophobia has felt consistent with the 'outside world'.

- Disparaging remarks, said in joking manner, about gay members of staff but highly offensive e.g in reference to anal sex or other gay stereotypes

There were also some comments which suggested that Transphobia was a big problem, however I have not address Transphobia as it was not mentioned in the original motion.

It would have been nice at this point to see whether the numbers of homophobic incidents were similar in other departments, however we neglected to ask this (see, I said this wasn't my field).

We were interested in whether the atmosphere or perceived atmosphere had an effect on whether people come out or not and how comfortable people were in their department. The majority of respondents (LGBT only) did not feel that the atmosphere in their department had any effect on their decision to come out to people. It was also encouraging in that of the people who were influenced by the atmosphere, more people suggested it was welcoming rather than not.

The majority of respondent did not feel isolated due to homophobia in their departments. However, it is disappointing that in the UK in the 21st Century we should have any respondents who felt they were isolated.

If we split these questions into STEM responders and non-STEM responders. We see no real difference in response for the question of whether the atmosphere in the department encourages or discourages people to come out. The vast majority said that it didn't make a difference, this suggests that question 2 of the motion is not true.

The responses on whether the department felt isolating were slightly different between the two groups, however this may be partly due to the small sampling.

Finally, we asked whether perceived departmental homophobia had an effect on the choice of subject.

It appears not.


Although the rooting out of homophobia in academia as elsewhere is an ongoing project, there does not appear to be a pervading culture of homophobia in STEM departments as the NUS seems to believe. 'Overt Homophobia' does not appear to be preventing STEM students from coming out and does not appear to be affecting LGBT students choice of subject.

Although, I'm sure the vast majority of students had no idea that this motion was passed, statements like this can actually be hugely damaging to the perception of STEM subjects. It may be that in the past these subjects were filled with a macho homophobic culture, but in the 13 years that I've been studying and working in STEM I have never come across it.

If any LGBT students are reading this and thinking about heading into STEM - do it. I think you'll actually find that it's a hugely welcoming and rewarding field to work in.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Does the Journal really matter?

I was reading some blog posts on which journals you should send your paper to and what strategies to use to decide.

And it made me wonder - Does anyone actually sit down and just read a journal through any more?

I used to do it with Bioinformatics, it got sent to our lab, so every so often I'd just sit down and read the journal through.  The only time I do this now is during occasional down time when I'm at a conference, since they tend to give out journal editions for free.  It seems like a waste of my finite time resources these days to read through a journal.

What I do instead is just search for what I'm interested in and read the relevant papers.  And here comes the important bit.  I read the papers regardless of where they are published.  I probably won't even look at what journal they're in until I have to make a note of the reference, which considering I can add it to my Mendeley library with one click, may not be until I'm just about to submit a paper, some months down the line.

So if I work like this, I'm assuming at least some proportion of other people do too (I'm thinking this is likely to be skewed by age, but not necessarily).  It just seems to me to be another reason that the whole impact factor / prestigious journal thing is redundant.  I don't read the papers because they're in Nature, I read them because they're interesting, so other than a line on your CV what is the actual point in trying to get your paper published in a high IF journal?

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Making the peer review process public

I've just had a paper accepted by PeerJ (hurrah!).  I'm really happy about this as I love their ethos:

"We aim to drive the costs of publishing down, while improving the overall publishing experience, and providing authors with a publication venue suitable for the 21st Century.  Our tag line is : "Your Peers, Your Science. Academic Publishing is Evolving" and we are committed to improving the process of scholarly publishing."

Coming from a very small field which isn't often thought to be very exciting by those outside of it (transposon evolution), a publisher who doesn't care whether the research is 'exciting' or not is a great thing for us.

Another thing that I've really liked is that they encourage the reviewers to sign their reviews, although they don't have to (ours didn't by the way).  I think this is great, it makes for much more honest and positive reviews and prevents competitors putting road blocks in your way (we don't really have any competitors, but still...).  My boss however is a bit worried that if you were critical of a powerful group, it could end up costing you.

Which is why I think the next point is so important.

PeerJ are also encouraging authors to make their review process publicly available.  This would hopefully prevent any repercussion as the rest of the community would be able to vouch for whether you had been fair or not.  It would also keep us honest.  A further thing that I've enjoyed about this is that it shows that no-one is perfect.  Papers getting reviewers who just go, "yes publish it" is basically unheard of, so you can see that even scientists that you're totally in awe of have to go through the same process.  This is particularly great for Phd students and ECR researchers who can suffer from imposter syndrome due to the habit of suggesting that we were perfect the first time around that goes on in academia.

It's this habit that has left me feeling rather unstuck.  I'm sure you can tell from the gushing that I'm a big far of  transparency, I love these innovations.  However, when I got the email saying would I like to make my peer review history public, I suddenly wasn't sure.  Standing out there among the few who are doing it and saying  "I'm not perfect" is kind of scary.  My boss isn't that keen, but then having been in academia for longer, his habits are more ingrained.  I think I'm going to do it, but it does seem rather a leap into the unknown.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The highs and lows of academia (and my other potential career)

When I was in the 6th form, 3 of my A-levels were a fairly normal mix - Biology, Chemistry and Maths.  Loads of people do that.  What they don't normally do is include Theatre Studies.

I loved acting, really loved it, and by all accounts I was quite good at it. I thought about doing it professionally.  The thing that stopped me, and has in fact stopped me continuing in an amateur way as well, is the constant fear of rejection and the highs and lows that go with performing and ending a run.  I was never very good at handling it, I'd take the rejection too personally and when I was in a show, it was all that mattered and once it was over I had a massive emotional crash.

So I decided not to pursue acting and went into science instead.  Only no-one told me that it's exactly the same!

The application for grants,short term jobs and the submitting of papers are all very similar to the casting process.  You're putting your work out there, you're saying look at me, like me, like what I do.  And the chance of rejection is pretty damn high.  Even once you do get a paper accepted (or get a role), if it's important enough to get noticed you get some people who love it, but equally you'll get some people who really hate it.  And they'll be happy to tell you so.

There are also massive highs and lows.  I just had a paper accepted for publication by PeerJ, an open source publication with an ethos that I believe very strongly in.  This gave me a massive high, a 'you know what, I'm actually good at this' feeling.  It was great.  But very soon afterwards I remembered that in 3 months time I won't have a job any more and I crashed back down to Earth.

I seem to have ended up in a career with lots of the problems that I rejected another one for, and I really didn't see it coming.

Friday, 5 April 2013

When's it right to quit?

The PhD student in our group just quit her phd (if you read this, I hope you don't mind that I'm writing a blog post based on it).  She's got a new job lined up, if not for a while, and pretty much everyone agrees that it seems like the right thing to do.  I knew she wasn't happy, I knew she didn't want to end up an academic, but it still kinda feels like a shock.

It seems strange that I'm surprised that someone else would leave a PhD that they hated.  After all I did it and it was absolutely the right thing for me (although I now have one in a different field).  I'm a big advocate of people not slogging away at things they hate, make the leap, do what's right for you.

But there's an undercurrent that says, if you leave halfway through your PhD you're a quitter.  I suspect that lots of people continue on for this very reason.  Maybe that's why so many people have a terribly hard time with their PhD.  Obviously for people who want to stay in academia and in that field it's probably best to just slog it out, but if you don't want to be an academic anyway, what are you doing it for?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not encouraging people to quit.  I'm not one of these people who think you shouldn't get a PhD if you don't want to go into academia, either.  But you've got to want to do it.  There are a lot of things I think need changing about academia and the concept of the quitter (you get it if you bail out after a postdoc as well) is definitely one of them.  Everyone should be free to follow the path that's right for them without other people looking down on them

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Twitter is the Old Boys Club we can all join #1 & #2

I went to a comprehensive high school, I went to a Red Brick University. My parents know people, but not 'those' people.  Oh, and I'm a woman.  All those 'Old Boys Club' networks are pretty closed to me.

The thing is, from what I can see, there's a 'New, Old Boys Club' and it's twitter.  These old fashioned clubs were basically a way of getting to know the people who mattered, getting an in with the important people.  And twitter can do that for you.

I was going to write a really long post about all the ways twitter can help you in the way 'Old Boys Clubs' could, but it was REALLY LONG!  So here are just a couple and I might elaborate in the future.

#1 - Talking to people at the top of your field

One of the great things about twitter is that you can send a tweet to pretty much anyone and if they reply, hurrah!, and if they ignore you, no harm done, and if they think you're an idiot they probably won't remember who you are in the real world anyway.

All of this makes it much easier to get a dialogue going with 'important' people, the kind of people you probably wouldn't approach at a conference unless they were old buddies with you supervisor (i.e. Old Boys).  And if you did approach them at a conference and found you had nothing to say, or only things they thought were stupid etc., that could be pretty embarrassing.  But twitter removes that for you.  So go and tweet the scary people, you never know who'll find you really interesting!

#2 - Job Adverts

My contract is coming to an end, so I've been looking for jobs.  I check everyday.  But the 2 most interesting job adverts came from twitter.  

The first one, I sent out a tweet saying "Anyone know of any postdoc jobs going in Bioinf or comp genetics?".  And someone replied and I got an interview, I didn't get the job, but you can't win them all.  Another job was posted on twitter recently, one I didn't find on the job websites, and I've applied and I've got an  interview.  Fingers crossed this time.

So although I check all the websites regularly, the really good jobs came from twitter, jobs you wouldn't necessarily find otherwise, because this is the insiders network.