A ‘how to’ summary.

This latest week-long series of posts on ‘how to’ do various things (combined with other earlier ones) seems to have generated a few comments (overwhelmingly positive, I am pleased to see) and have been read by a great many people (hits over the last week in general, and for the specific posts have been way above my normal averages). Between these points and few other things that have cropped up, it seemed well worth adding a short off the cuff summary to what all of this has been about and what I tried to achieve with these posts (and I hope to have more in the future).

First off, it was noted by Dr David Raikow in the comments, seeking funding is of course very important fora great many young researchers as it can allow you to continue your work (such as getting funding for a postdoc position once you have finished your PhD) or to improve your work in general (such as getting the money to see a specimen in another continent that otherwise you could not afford to visit, or investing in some extra software etc.). I had hoped to deal with that in a later post and had at least mentioned it before, but that should not have stopped me including it. Secondly, there was also his superb advice to try and get some knowledge of things outside of your ‘natural’ field. Even among vertebrate palaeontologists I seem to stick out a bit as I have quite a background in behaviour and ecology which are not commonly studied by those wishing to get into palaeo (where, understandably, stratigraphy, geology, evolution, taxonomy and anatomy tend to dominate in a biological or geological background). Certainly I have found superb collaborators in maths and engineering departments, and one only has to look at the number of technologies or techniques that have been adapted for biological research (and vice versa) to see that it is worthwhile checking up on other people!

The most important thing to stress though, which for some reason I never really said before in detail, is who this lot of posts is aimed at. It’s a mixed bunch, with various groups targeted for different reasons, so I’ll try and lay it out here and hopefully it’ll make sense.In order of priority:

1. Postgraduate students. The primary target of these posts based largely on my ignorance when I started (see below) and the fact that there is so much pressure to publish, and get the thesis done that the actual mechanics of how that is done, and what your peers are doing can pass you by. These posts will hopefully serve as a useful guide, not just about how to get things done, but also to show how others do them, and not to worry about the very different approaches others can take to the same problem – you are not wrong, just different. (OK, you might be wrong, but not necessarily).

2. Amateurs and undergrads. There are plenty of people out there who love science (or other fields) and read up on the new discoveries, and get hold of original papers and books, and go to meetings and visit exhibitions and so on. They can have important and genuine contributions to make (a classic sauropod example being the great John McIntosh, though admittedly he had a big head start when it came to the actual ‘being a scientist’  bit) but are held back or intimidated from trying to publish a paper or make the leap to getting extra qualifications because the whole ‘publishing’ thing a great mystery and a huge wall. This should serve to get past at least some of that and encourage people to try and publish a paper. It might take a long time and involve a ton or mistakes and disappointment while you learn, but it’s more than possible.

3. Professional researchers. I’m not telling these guys anything they do not know already, however, I hope that it provides some inspiration for them to teach these kinds of ideas to their students, or direct them this way to help them out.

4. Lay public. There is not much for them to gain directly from these posts, but I do hope that it dispels a few myths about scientists sitting in labs doing ‘stuff’ and that papers get mysteriously published in journals just becuase researchers send them in.

The real basis of these posts are that these are largely all things which I did not know about when I started in research (and indeed when I was trying to get into research) and would have helped me enormously had I known. You get given books to read and assignments to do and are told to go to meetings, and meet people, and write papers, but that hardly covers *how* or *why* you should do things. You get tons of advice on which papers to read, but not necessarily how you should write one yourself. I would have worked harder on some things and not others had I realised all of this that I am trying now to pass on, and while I doubt it would have affected my career and progression as a whole, it would have made it easier I am sure, and i would have missed some huge potholes had i know where they tended to lie.

Finally, a couple of excellent links have also subsequently turned up that are pertinent to all of this. Firstly from Dr Raikow again, this excellent guide and source of links, downloads, documents  etc. etc. for postgraduate researchers from Indianan University. Secondly, i recently found the UK group ‘Sense About Science‘ who produce various documents aimed at the general public to combat ignorance and scientific misrepresentation. Most notably, their guide to peer review is very well done, and should be of interest to many. Last but not least, in a bit of self-promotion, there is an Archosaur Musings group on the Networked Blogs part of Facebook for any interested.

As noted above and elsewhere, there is more to come in this series in the future when I have some inspiration and time to get it all down on paper. There are some things I have deliberately avoided so far  becuase they can be too general (like how to get a PhD – it’s so varied fro country to country or even between different departments of a single university) or I simply don’t have much experience in them (like getting hold of grants) but there are others on the way, and I’m happy to take suggestions (not that I’ll necessarily write about them). I hope these are of use, and do feel free to pass them around to colleagues and friends – I jsut want to make people’s lives easier when it coems to research.

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