In addition to the various ‘how to’ posts that I have put up here in the past (check out the science basics section for those who have missed them), I thought it high time I offered a less directed and more general set of advice for young or aspiring scientists. This is the first in a big series this week trying to add substantially more to the existing ones which I hope will build up into a decent collection of useful short essays on being a scientist.
So here is a more or less random list of ideas, points, tips and hints that I have found useful to stick to over the years. All of them I am fairly sure will apply to pretty much any scientific or even academic field and while most are probably blindingly obvious, the difference between something you know and something you know that you know, or that you do can be profound, so here they are written down…
1. Back up your files. I don’t know anyone who does this as often as they should, and I would hate to estimate how much work gets lost by computer crashes, thefts, accidents and breakages. I have known people lose months of data because they had not backed-up.
2. Keep your files in order. Similar to the point above, you will waste loads of time searching for lost files, or those put in unusual places, or even the back-ups themselves you *did* make if not everything is ordered practically and regularly updated. It’s far better to take two days organising your files than waste an hour every couple of weeks trying to find lost photos or important papers that are ‘somewhere’ in the piles around your desk.
3. Make note of something at the time. Good ideas are precious, so make sure you write it down. I have a Word document full of all kinds of odd lines, half notes, paragraphs, and even single words that have occurred to me as things I might want to investigate at some point, will add to papers I am doing or whatever. It’s no good having a great idea if that is not remembered or is committed to a lost scrap of paper.
4. Take opportunities when you get them. In palaeo especially you will often travel half-way round the world to say look at the teeth of a specimen. Take the opportunity to look at the rest of the animal, make a few notes and take photos, and do this with other specimens if you can. You never know when you might want to refer back to them even a decade in the future and can’t because you just took notes on the teeth. This applies to all manner of things though, like grabbing freely available PDFs or reprints even if you are not sure you need them (you might on your next job, or might know someone who does need them), taking free courses, going to seminars or whatever.
5. Don’t set deadlines you can’t meet. Don’t take on jobs you don’t think you can do, or promise people you can do something in two weeks if it will take a month. Even then, give yourself some leeway – things might take longer than you expect, something more important might crop up at short notice etc. You will only get yourself a reputation of being unreliable and that makes it harder to work with people, and you might genuinely cause real problems with other peoples deadlines etc.
6. Make contacts. You will meet all manner of people during your early years, so make an effort to get to know visitors as they pass through your institute, or you pass through theirs, at meetings, conferences etc. Most people in academia are really helpful, but you can’t ask for help from someone you do not have an e-mail address or phone number for. Some people will be alongside you in your career for decades so get to know them, and others can give you a helping, but only if they know who you are.
7. Stay in touch. If you promise to send someone an e-mail then do so. Then they have your details. Send out an annual Christmas e-mail or something if you can, or send out odd ‘reminders’ so people know what you are up to. This is especially important when you move as even in this electronic age it can be incredibly hard to hunt down someone if you do not know where they are.
8. Go to meetings. Meet people. Give talks or present posters. Listen and learn.
9. Practice or acquire essential skills. Students seem fascinated by my ability to do my own drawings of specimens or reconstructions for my papers, but I am no artist. I learned to do it by putting in the hours until I was good (well, adequate) at it. I am still pretty useless with Photoshop however, that’s a skill I need to acquire, but I’ll keep going.
10. Get experience with all kinds of things. Do give talks, help arrange meetings, organise fieldtrips, do some tutoring or lecturing etc. This will help you get a broad range of important skills, and will show people that you are prepared to work hard to learn. This also applies to research, don’t just spend your whole PhD or postdoc working on one single topic but try and branch out by doing a short review paper of another field or contribution to your colleagues’ research.
11. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s easy to be paralysed with indecision when you don’t know what to do, but ask. People will help you, and give you advice or practical assistance. Initially I was overwhelmed with the generosity of other researchers when I first started my PhD and while I hardly take it for granted, in hindsight it is far closer to the norm than the exception.
12. Try and publish a paper. Your thesis will dominate your time as a PhD student, but try and package up part of it as a paper or work on another small project and get that into submission. You might fail badly several times over, but the practice at writing, submissions, and getting feedback from referees will give you great experience and dramatically improve your ability to produce good papers. It will also help you get a job or a grant if you have a couple of papers accepted or published to prove you can really do it.
That should do it for now. It’s easy and facetious just to say work hard and try to be good at everything, but truth be told that is what you have to do. These are all things I wish I had been told before I had started and while I worked most of them out pretty quickly, others I did not and my life would have been much easier if I had known in advance. I look forward to being acknowledged in future PhD ‘dedication’ pages.