New achievement milestones for academic life

Overall job satisfaction in academia has been steadily declining for many independent reasons I won’t get into here (see Nature 1 and 2). However, we do need to accept some ownership for this dissatisfaction. Our expectations and goal posts are understandable set very high.  Indeed for many of us, our impossible standards and stubborn determination are the only reasons we got this far, so it can be painful – nigh impossible – for those who are hardwired to overachieve to step back and be happy with the big picture. We need to, because the stakes are as high as health, sanity, and relationships.

This inspired me to develop a new set of milestones to measure our academic careers by. Not only for our sanity, but especially for those younger scientists and students still fighting their way up the ladder.

Here are 12 new milestones of achievement I recommend we measure our career success by:
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The Worlds First Empirical ‘How-To’ Get Into Graduate School Book

Many years ago as a graduate student at the College of William & Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, my former officemate (Noelle Relles) and I came up with a novel idea: take all the disparate information out there about strategies for getting into graduate school in the natural sciences and coalesce them into a single concise yet comprehensive text. Essentially develop a How-To book about graduate school. But we wanted the book to be more than just instructional anecdotes. We were scientist, and thought it would be useful to add a level of empiricism to the book. We wanted to write a How-To book where the conclusion were driven by results from a national survey of graduate admissions offices in the USA. At the time, writing a book based on a national survey of graduate programs seemed like quite a long-shot as we were both a number of years removed from getting our PhDs, and the most pressing issues in our lives at that time were graduating and finding free food and alcohol.

Living the life of a graduate student at VIMS’ infamous Fall Party. (Photo credit: Kersey Sturdivant)

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Applications now open for the Elasmobranch Society’s diversity in marine science initiative

The American Elasmobranch Society is the world's oldest and largest professional association of shark and ray scientists

The American Elasmobranch Society is the world’s oldest and largest professional association of shark and ray scientists

The American Elasmobranch Society, the world’s oldest and largest professional society focusing on the scientific study and management of sharks and their relatives, is now welcoming applications for the 2nd year of our Young Professional Recruitment Fund diversity initiative. Awardees will be given one year of Society membership, in addition to specialized professional development training, mentorship, and networking opportunities specific to their needs as scientists and professionals from developing nations or historically underrepresented minority groups.

Applications, which can be found here, are due by 5 P.M. U.S. eastern standard time on Tuesday, November 15th. All winners will be notified by Friday, December 16th.

To be eligible for a Young Professional Recruitment Fund award, applicants must fill out the application and demonstrate that they:

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Scientific literature needs discipline – an example from a killer whale life expectancy study

If you let a puppy piddle on the carpet without discipline, it will keep doing it. It will grow into a big dog that destroys your carpeting and rugs and makes your whole house stink.

So it is with scientific literature.


We all know bad papers are out there. When you read them, you’re left scratching your head and wondering, “How on earth did these pass peer-review?” Worse still, there are “ugly” science articles, where the scientific method goes by the wayside and data are cherry-picked, misinterpreted or manipulated to justify a political or ideological agenda or to undermine science that interferes with that agenda.

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Everything you need to know about working in conservation you can learn from Game of Thrones

Learned scholars and respected leaders of society warn that a major environmental change is coming and everyone should prepare. However, heads of state, politicians and wealthy oligarchs argue and bicker, more interested in riches and power than the imminent threat. Some realize that the oncoming change will be accompanied by a host of problems, to which no one has given the necessary consideration. Those who understand the situation try to set up systems to protect against this threat but are constantly having to argue with, and even fight, their own allies. In the end, just as some progress is being made, one of the champions of these vital preparations is stabbed through the heart by his closest colleagues, who stage a coup instead of dealing with the oncoming threat.

Sound familiar? It is of course the plot of Game of Thrones, but could also be a history of most conservation issues, whether it be the threat of DDT, ozone depletion, biodiversity loss or climate change. Read More

Trading blue collars for scarlet robes, my working-class experience of academic life

More people are going to college, graduate school, and obtaining PhDs in STEM fields than ever before (Figure 1), and a growing minority of these PhD candidates are non-traditional or not white affluent males. While we celebrate this change, let us not forget that academia was built by – and for – the “traditional” student. My favourite analogy to explain this type of ingrown privilege is bicycles on USA streets. Bicycles are legally allowed to be on streets, some streets even have extra space just for bicycles, but streets were designed for automobiles. You may be allowed and, in some areas, encouraged to get on the street with your bicycle, but biking a street is going to be intrinsically more difficult than if you were driving a car.


Like Marconi and La Bamba in a city built on rock and roll, you will inevitably end up in situations that conflict with your way of life. You will not receive a warning before you stumble upon these bumps, and you will be judged by how quickly you accept traditional standards (if you can).  I remember a conversation with traditional tenured and tenure-track scientists discussing proposals for a large grant scheme. One tenure-track scientist was lamenting the process of shopping for editors for his proposal. He talked about it freely, how there were two companies that charged different rates and he was in talks with one but that company felt a conflict of interest that he had worked with another rival editing company. The rest of the traditional scientists nodded in mutual understanding. Finding good, cheap editors to improve your work is hard. My working-class ethos was busy screaming inside my head.  How can hiring someone to edit and improve written works that you will ultimately be rewarded for be so blithely acceptable? You’re not allowed to hire editors for any task throughout your training. You learn how to write from earning disappointing grades (or failing grant applications). You read more, you study written works, you develop a voice, and you try again. The results get better until you are at an appropriate level to move up another notch on the ladder, right? Not for traditionals.

Here are some more bizarre “traditional” customs you should expect if you are biking down the academic street:

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Title is the new abstract

There are an increasing number of scientific articles being produced and posted at a frantic rate. How can you make your paper stand out and be memorable amongst this plethora of publications? Moreover, if your work is conservation-related, how do you ensure that the people who matter see and remember your work?

The one part of your paper all readers see and read is the title. From my own experience as an editor of scientific journals, as well as from the page-view statistics I have seen, the percentage of people that go on to read your abstract is less than a tenth of those that read the title. The percentage that read beyond the abstract to look at the whole article is a tenth of that again.

This why I have entitled this blog “Title is the new abstract“. You want to maximize the amount of information in the title of your paper.

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The decline and fall of the literature review

I’m currently doing an annual review of environmental impacts on whales and dolphins for the International Whaling Commission, which involves assessing, reading and potentially summarizing almost everything that’s published on cetacean conservation. Every year this exercise gives me an ulcer because: (a) climate change and pollution threats are accelerating; (b) reiterated recommendations from scientists from many, many previous years have yet again gone unheeded; and (c) some endangered species get closer and closer to extinction, yet most of the funding goes to research questions whose answers we really already know rather than to practical conservation. It’s all rather depressing …


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Why scientists sometimes need to be a bit more Sith and a bit less Jedi


Darth Maul

Being a scientist can be very frustrating, even infuriating. It might well be because of the inequalities and unfairness of academic life (such as incompetent administrators, a lack of funding, poor career prospects, or academic bullying and harassment ). However, if you work in the conservation field, the frustrations will positively abound. In addition to the depressingly high likelihood that you will see your study habitat or species disappear before your eyes, there  are potentially the vexing roadblocks of your science being ignored  – or being actively distorted  – by policy makers, other scientists actively working against your efforts – either through their naivety or by deliberate design  – or being attacked by crazy whacktivists because they think your approach is the wrong one .

Stress is often high among scientists, especially those involved in conservation. However, I have found one of easiest solutions to relieve the stress is to write about your problems. Putting all the anger and frustrations down on paper (or on screen) can be sublimely cathartic. You can feel your blood pressure literally dropping points with every word you write.

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This Paper Should Not Have Been Retracted: #HandofGod highlights the worst aspects of science twitter

I really didn’t want to care about this paper, at all.

When news broke Wednesday afternoon that a paper in PLOS One referenced the “Creator” in the abstract, introduction, and discussion, I took a look, read through the methodology and results, asked a few colleagues in that field if there were any methodological problems that would indicate that the actual science was unsound, and concluded it was… fine. Not phenomenal, earth-shattering, or paradigm shifting, but methodologically sound.

Incidentally, publishing based on the soundness of the methodology rather than the ground-breakingness of the research, is one of PLOS ONE’s mandates.

But the paper was awkwardly framed around a few phrases referencing the role of the Creator. This framework didn’t bleed into the methods or results but it was there, and the scientific community noticed. I noted, under the assumption that the authors were inserting creationist language into their paper, that there are numerous papers that try to hang their studies on tenuous frameworks and draw not entirely supportable conclusions, and not just in PLOS. Then I chatted with a few colleagues about it and called it a day.

Here’s the weird thing about Twitter: sometimes even your apathy is newsworthy. Read More