Basic advice to budding researchers

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.

12 Responses to “Basic advice to budding researchers”

  1. 1 Zach Miller 17/02/2009 at 5:06 am

    Well, I have some ideas for a BOOK. I have ideas for papers, too, but without a degree, I doubt I’d be taken seriously. Book seems more doable. I don’t trust computers for holding all my papers, so with a few exceptions, I print out ALL of my technical papers and organize them in boxes.

  2. 2 Michael P. Taylor 17/02/2009 at 6:40 pm


    Not having a degree is not a factor in whether or not you are “taken seriously” when submitting a paper. Submissions are not in the name of “Mike Taylor, BSc.” or “Dr. David Hone”, but just “Mike Taylor” and “David Hone” — and “Zach Miller”. The handling editor will not even KNOW what qualifications you do or don’t have, which is as it should be: they are there to judge your work, not you. If you can do the science and write the paper, you should. None of the reasons not to make any sense.

  3. 3 Michael P. Taylor 17/02/2009 at 6:54 pm

    On backing up: one of the very best ways you can invest your time is to install and learn a version-control system. There are plenty of good, free ones that you can download and install easily, including CVS, Subversion and git.

    I use CVS, which is widely thought to be the least good of these, but being an old-timer I have a regrettable tendency to stick with what I know. What this means is :

    * every time I finish editing a manuscript I just do “cvs commit” and the new version is backed up not just locally but on a safe server in Denmark.
    * And not just backed up, but held with complete version history, so at any time I can get back any older version of the file.
    * And not just on the computer where I was originally working on the ms., but on any other computer that I tell where to find the repository.
    * This also means that CVS is a simple method of synchronising my work between the two computers that I habitually use, and would generalise to n computers (if, say, I had home, office and laptop computers).
    * And because the master archive is in Denmark, I could still retrieve all my work, including all version history, if all my computers were simultaneously destroyed, say by a fire in the house.

    Finally, if my collaborators also used this system (none of them yet do, to my knowledge), it would be an excellent, reliable way of sharing manuscripts, keeping up to date, etc.

    Check it out:

  4. 4 Nathan Myers 18/02/2009 at 1:47 pm

    If you used git, monotone, or mercurial, you wouldn’t need a server somewhere. You would have repositories on your laptop and on Matt’s and Darren’s, and every time you synchronized with them you would be backing up their stuff and they yours. You could keep a repositories on your respective wives’ machines too, and synchronize to those.

    You’re writing your papers in LaTeX, right? Right?

  5. 5 Dr. Raikow 19/02/2009 at 3:21 am

    Your post appears to be geared more-or-less towards graduate students, so I would add to your list:

    Seek Funding. Always be thinking about funding, and start writing proposals as quickly as possible.

    Examine other subjects. Some of the best innovations in a field come from the application of theories or methods from another field. Just explore until something fires your imagination.

    Here’s a link to some more resources:

  6. 6 David Hone 19/02/2009 at 10:32 pm

    Dear Dr. Raikow, thanks for those comments.
    This series of posts is certainly aimed primarily at postgrads but also those amateurs who want to get into palaeo (and there are a ton of them) and thus, for those at least, obtaining funding is of little consequence. However, the points are well made and fit well with this series (te funding one also sneaked into the post on ‘how to do a PhD’ but it should certainly feature here too). Thanks for your input and that link is excellent.

  7. 7 Andy 19/02/2009 at 11:23 pm

    I would second Dr. Raikow’s suggestion to keep an eye on other fields. One of the best parts of my graduate education was to be in a department with a bunch of physical anthropologists. These guys are masters of squeezing the most out of fragmentary specimens! (often a good thing, but not always, of course) I also learned that about 50 percent of the things presented at SVP as “totally cool new techniques that this vertebrate paleontologist invented” were often used, evaluated and sometimes discarded as useless by the phys anthro types several years previous.

  8. 8 David Hone 19/02/2009 at 11:29 pm

    Not only that Andy, but also lots of new and exciing techniques have been in other fields for decades in soem cases and we have only just cottoned onto them, and other scienists are now adapting biological techniques to their fields. It cuts both ways.

  9. 9 Mike Taylor 20/02/2009 at 8:29 pm

    Nathan: as it happen I am gradually moving towards git; but not because of the lack of a remote repository: I’d still push everything to Denmark, because it’s just so much safer having it all on two different continents.

  10. 10 Rattanaphorn Hanta 20/10/2009 at 9:23 pm

    I first met you in Bristol, 69th SVP meeting. I introduced myself that I’m your blog fan. This section seems simple, but very useful, especially to me myself. I think i’m disorganizted people. I got many idea from the blog and the following comments

  1. 1 The complete ‘how to’ guide for young researchers (so far) « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 04/10/2009 at 7:40 pm
  2. 2 Useful Links | Dave Attempts a PhD Trackback on 08/10/2012 at 1:45 pm
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