Tag Archives: Careers

Advice for senior scientists and the importance of first-author publications

The internet is awash with bloggers and dedicated sites giving advice to early-career scientists and graduate research students (what I’ll collectively refer to as ECRs).  Much of it is very good (see for example The Thesis Whisperer, any number of posts over at Dynamic Ecology and Small Pond Science, and the University of Northampton’s own Research Support Hub), though sometimes it’s contradictory and comes down to matters of taste and opinion (see for example the differing comments on a post of mine about giving effective conference presentations).

There are also any number of books, including Peter Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist and James Watson’s Avoid Boring People (hopefully to be followed up with a sequel entitled Avoid Alienating People With Crass Statements)*.

But there is very little guidance and advice out there for more senior scientists who are mid- to late-career.  I did a quick search and found only one article that mentioned this topic, specifically about mid-career mentoring, and that was from 2012.

Why is this?  Is it because (as I suspect) more senior scientists are assumed to have their careers sorted out, they “know the ropes”, they are networked and publish, and have only a bright sunny future in academia to look forward to?  Clearly this is nonsense; as that article I linked to stated:

Do complicated career issues evaporate after tenure** and/or do we all magically know how to deal with everything that academe throws at us? No, and no

So I’d be interested in hearing any bits of advice or guidance, or links to useful resources, and would encourage new posts by other bloggers, related specifically to more senior scientists in academia.  To get the ball rolling, my contribution would be: make sure you keep publishing as a first-author (and preferably single-author) throughout your career.

In academia it’s easy to get lost as to what it actually is to be a scientist (idea generator/data collector/analyser/writer) in amongst all of the other requirements and pressures of the job at a senior level (grant writing/committee memberships/teaching/administration and paperwork/manuscript and grant reviewing/editorial duties/ECR supervision and line management/external meetings and advisory groups/etc.)

As a senior scientist it’s possible to publish good papers frequently as last author (indicating seniority as head of the research group and/or ECR supervisor), and as mid author in amongst tens or hundreds of other scientists with whom you are collaborating on some level.  In these papers other people are conducting the bulk of the “science”, and that’s fine, I publish in both of these ways myself.  But the question then arises, that if this is all that a senior scientist is currently doing, have they lost something of themselves as scientists?  Have they become something more akin to a science-manager than a “real” scientist (whatever that actually means)?

Personally, I try to publish at least one first-author output (not necessarily a peer-reviewed paper, could be a commentary or a popular article) each year, and have succeeded in most years.  I believe (though I may be fooling myself) that it keeps me in touch with what it is to be a scientist and why I became one in the first place.  For reasons I can’t fully articulate it feels important to me to be involved in research and writing in which I do the bulk of the data collection, analysis, and/or writing myself, and to see an output through the editorial process from manuscript preparation to submission, dealing with reviewers’ comments, and to final publication.

Is this a reasonable goal/expectation for a senior scientist?  It’s important for me but I can well understand that other scientists will have other priorities, different things that they focus on.

Coincidentally, as I was finishing off writing this post, Dr Kath Baldock drew my attention to this short piece by Kaushal et al. entitled Avoiding an Ecological Midlife Crisis that’s just been published in the January issue of the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.  Although specifically focused on professional ecologists, their advice to “nurture the original connection to nature” will surely resonate with scientists from all fields if we substitute “nature” for other, discipline-specific words and phrases.


*This is all very positive and as it should be: ECRs need advice and guidance as to how to navigate their profession, and that needs to come from multiple sources because sometimes (often?) their own institution doesn’t give adequate guidance.  However I do have some misgivings about more senior scientists advising their more junior colleagues based on their own experiences: the world of academia is a fasting-moving place and what applied to a previous generation may not necessarily apply to the current one.

**It’s an American article: British universities don’t even know how to spell “tenure”.

A day of contrasts

2012-10-27 14.06.12

Some students pass through the university system barely touching the sides: they arrive, they study, they graduate, and they are gone, fate and whereabouts unknown.  Other students stick in our minds, sometimes in our lives, because of their personality, their abilities, or their personal issues, and are remembered and talked of long after their graduation.  They may go on to become friends and stay in touch, perhaps via social media such as our Department’s Facebook group.

These are just two extremes of a continuum of course, and whatever type of student they were, we hope that they all enjoy their time at university and go on to lead full and happy lives.

This was on my mind last Thursday, a day of contrasts.  In the morning I joined colleagues on the stage at Northampton’s Derngate Theatre to watch as this summer’s graduands filed across the stage, shook hands with the Vice Chancellor, received their certificates, and left the stage as graduates.   The accompanying applause from family, other students, and staff was constant and genuine: everyone wishes these new graduates well in their futures.

Chatting with a group of them afterwards, it was clear that a number have a good idea of what they wish to do, though others are less sure.  One will be heading to Tanzania for a month of fieldwork with the Tropical Biology Association, an organisation I’ve become involved with over the last few years.  Others are planning to work for the summer then launch into Master’s degrees.  Some have already found jobs and are beginning their careers.  Lots of possibilities and uncertainties, an exciting time for them.  It was the kind of morning that made me realise how the work we do as university lecturers and researchers changes the lives of individuals, hopefully for the better.

These thoughts were reinforced in the afternoon when my colleague Janet Jackson and I attended the funeral of one of our 2006 graduates, Nick Wallis.  It could have been a very sombre event, but it was not, thanks mainly to Nick himself and the way he interacted with people.  Nick was a student who stuck in our minds, in part because of his intelligence, his passionate interest in the natural world, his willingness to ask questions, and his dry, sardonic wit.  Nick was also the most physically disadvantaged student we have ever taught: muscular dystrophy had confined him to a motorised wheelchair and he had limited movement of his body.  So we had to accommodate Nick’s disabilities but also had the opportunity to get to know him and enjoy his contributions to class discussions and the life of the Department.

Nick’s funeral was well attended, St Luke’s church in Kislingbury packed with family, friends, and neighbours.  His brother Tom read a moving tribute, and the reverend, who had known Nick for some time, gave a heartfelt account of his life and personality, his love of gardening and of the natural world, his sense of humour.  He also touched upon Nick’s controversial, though widely admired, decision to write about his own views and experiences of relationships, intimacy and sex as a profoundly physically disabled man.  It was a tremendously brave thing for Nick to do and aired important issues that are still largely ignored by our society.  Yes, Nick was certainly one of those students we were guaranteed to remember.

That evening I headed to London to catch up with some of my old university friends, a group of mates I’ve written about in the past.  In the pub we talked families and jobs, politics and recent news; and friendships, about how the friends you make at university tend to be the ones that remain closest to you for the rest of your life.  Twenty five years after graduation we are still able to enjoy one another’s company, something we all value in ways that we can’t always express.

So to this year’s summer graduates, the best of luck to you, and whatever you do now, don’t forget the friends that you’ve made during your time at Northampton.

And to Nick, thanks for being part of our lives; rest in peace.