Science basics – ‘A day in the life’

There seems to have been a few posts recently on various blogs talking about science communication through blogging and it has made me think about my own efforts. Broadly speaking my posts fit into two categories, either talking about research and archosaurs in a fairly technical manner, or talking about science communication (doing it, and how it should be done) in a very general manner. In hindsight, this is an odd dichotomy – not that I am talking about two rather different topics, but that by definition when I am writing about archosaurs (doing science communication) I am actively making a decision to do it at a technical level inaccessible to most people. This does not make me a hypocrite – it’s my choice and I know people will still read it and understand it, there ae other blogs, websites and books that deal at a more mainstream level and right now I am choosing to avoid that. Still, it is odd, given the time and attention I give to the actual pattern and process of science communication itself.

Looking over my stats and these recent posts, it seemed clear that what was required was more information on the basics of science itself, both the pattern and process. I’m no philosopher of science, but certainly there are some fundamental concepts (like peer review, parsimony, and the need for qualifications) that could do with a bit of explanation. Some of these are actually covered by me and others on AAB here, but here I am not limited by space or the fact that the target audience there is teenagers. So here is the first of (possibly) many posts on the basics of science and science research:

When I first went to university and came into contact with actual proper academics, it really was still some time before I really understood what it was they did and how. What it meant to be a real researcher and the work and responsibility that went into it. As an undergraduate, I was only in touch through lectures, tutorials or later on my research projects and while they obviously ‘did research’ in some manner it was never clear what or how. My guess therefore is that few people have any real idea of what we do. Maybe I simply failed to grasp it, (though it certainly was not taught at any point) but I do think the average graduate will not necessarily have a firm idea of what went on outside of their direct interactions with their lecturers and supervisors. Here then (as briefly as possible) is a list of things done by a typical academic scientist. Of course not all of them happen every week or even every six months, and it varies at different levels and in different institutions (few museum curators teach at all for example, and at a teaching university, there will be little time for writing grant proposals) but overall I think this is pretty representative.

1. Teaching – even for a short course this can take a long time. Not to denigrate their efforts, but at least teachers have to work to a curriculum and typically have text books available to cover it and exams are created elsewhere. We have to work out what we will teach and how, do the research to create the lectures, write them and give them, take practical session, set and mark exams and assessment coursework as well as taking tutorials.

2. Student research – in addition to the basic work of lectures, there are student projects to consider (sometimes including fieldwork) as well as PhDs and Postdocs under your supervision. These need to be set-up as well as monitored and require your input at various points. People are also often required as external examiners for PhD projects or to take vivas for graduating students.

3. Helping colleagues – while the internet and e-mail has made communication with distant colleagues instant and accessible, it now means you spend more time sending out reprints, PDFs, photos and notes to various colleagues around the world, in addition to doing the same in requesting information.

4. Meetings – something almost invisible to a student as they are by definition held outside of normal semesters or terms. Much work goes into writing talks or posters, submitting abstracts etc. as well as the actual time of travelling and attending the meetings themselves. Occasionally you will need to do the extra work required to arrange one too.

5. Peer review – sooner or later you will have papers sent to you to review and referee, and of course many people also act as editors as well. This can also include occasional book reviews, or opinion pieces etc.

6. Work admin – keeping track of student marks, dealing with accounts for equipment and travel, departmental meetings, budget s and the rest need to be taken care of.

7. Science admin – at a higher level, many people sit on committees either for the university as a whole, or for journals, societies, government policy sessions or research funding bodies.

8. Science communication – this includes not just classic outreach to the public (public lectures, websites, teaching in schools, media interviews and even the odd book etc.) but also ‘internal’ outreach to colleagues (departmental newsletters, society magazines, essays etc.).

9. Keep up with the literature – simple and obvious, but it can be hard to find the time. Ironically with more things far more accessible thanks to the internet, there is in fact far more to keep up with. Time was you could go to the library once a month and scan a few new issues of the volumes stocked that might be of interest, now hundreds of relevant journals are accessible online to almost everyone, and literature is often available as ‘in press online’ months before ‘publication’.

10. Grants – your work will often not get far without research funds, and these take time to write. Not just your own projects, but those for PhDs or Postdocs, and of course you then need to write reports on them afterwards, and act as a referee for those of others.

11. Research travel – in addition to going to meetings, you will often have to travel to get to certain specimens, specialist laboratories or facilities, and in the case of biology and palaeontology particularly get into the field.

12. Research – yes finally, when you have got past the teaching, student supervision, reviews, grants, administration, sorted out e-mails and letters, checked what new research might be appropriate, been to your meetings, and sorted out your travel, you might just have time to do some research. And that includes writing papers, dealing with reviews, editors, and journals, preparing figures and datasets, collecting data, creating analyses, checking research, reading papers and the rest.

In the IVPP basement with the Jehol iguanodontid

In the IVPP basement with the Jehol iguanodontid

So there you have it. Of course ‘research’ should take up the majority of your time and indeed it does. But the idea that academia consists of sitting in an office ‘researching’ only appearing occasionally to check on a specimen or give the odd lecture is far from the truth. I found to my cost that just writing a one hour lecture on a subject from significantly outside my normal field took four or five hours at least. So in terms of writing, rehearsal, the creation of student notes and actually *giving* the lecture, a ‘one hour’ lecture basically took a whole working day. Now that’s OK in the long time, the next year when most of that lecture can be reused is fine, but for important one offs, or when starting to teach a new course, teaching can be a huge burden. Combined with the various other issues that crop up intermittently through the year, in my experience, the problem is not finding the time to do research, but finding a block of time to do research. A few hours a day does not allow you to immerse yourself in a project properly, and when it is broken up by phone calls, e-mails, meetings, lectures, tutorials etc. it can be hard. You read through a few papers and make some notes, but then have to come back the next day or often next week and need to start again. That’s not a complaint, just an illustration of how academic life really is.

Hopefully this provides a small snapshot of life in science academia. In short it’s not all ‘research, research, research’ much as many would like it to be. I actually enjoy teaching (well, some of the time) but even at my relatively lowly level where many of these pressures do not affect me (like departmental administration) already suck up too much time (as far as I’m concerned) and make life difficult. That’s enough on this for now, I do have a few more posts in preparation on this theme that I will add in as they are completed.

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