Sunday 12 November 2017

Include open science statements in ethical approval applications: an open letter to researchers and ethical committees

Include open science statements in ethics applications:
An open letter to researchers and ethical committees

tl/dr; I ask that ethical committees require that researchers make a statement about the sharing of data generated in a research project. I also ask that researchers do this anyway. Oh, and I include a few to many Harry Potter references.

like this one
Open science is awesome. Near the end of 2017 I shouldn't need to bang on about how necessary open science is or how shitty the alternative of locking away research outputs so that only the special people with the right access can look at the interesting things (I'm looking at you academic publishers, your ridiculous journal bundles, and your business structure that any online scammer would be jealous of).

What I love about the open science movement is the fact that researchers themselves want to break down the ivory tower of research institutions and share their work with everyone. It builds transparency and raises the bar for science. It gives anybody with access to the internet the capacity to learn about current research, why it is important, and how it is done.

New book idea: Harry Potter and the Open Science High Five

For the most part, taxpayers and philanthropy fund science. They pay for the equipment we use, the data we collect, and they pay researchers wages to play with that equipment and data. The fact that research outputs in the form of journal articles are often behind publishers paywalls to the very people that funded that research (and the publication costs) in the first place is a cluster-fuck of awfulness.

All of the blame cannot go to the publishers or journals, the fact that the materials and data generated from research is usually hidden is another problem. Why? I hear somebody asking from the void.

Here's an analogy borrowed from the Black Goat Podcast (FYI they're awesome, give them a listen). You trust your boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other, they are nice to you and they have interesting things to say, but, they spend a lot of time on their phone. Say that every time that you are in a position to see the screen, they lock the phone and move away from you. Eventually you might get suspicious and ask kindly what is on their phone that they do not want you to see. If they show you without a hassle, then your fears are relieved and maybe they were actually using the private browsing tab to find you a birthday present. Great, problem solved. Alternatively, if they tell you to mind your own business and get fucked, your trust in them is hardly likely to improve. No, you're going to suspect that something terrible is going on behind closed doors.

Hiding data and black boxes of analyses procedures does not inspire confidence in your research.

You know what does inspire trust, if your partner leaves their phone open on the table for anybody to see. Open to check, because they have nothing to hide. Wait, we can do that with our raw data and analysis scripts, say waaaaaaaaaaaaaaat. Yes, open science is awesome, and data/materials can be shared easily online.

I also had a Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets analogy. If you're data are hidden and protected by a huge ass snake behind a door of snakes, you are also not inspiring confidence in your hidden practices.

In the analogy, Ginny was the data left to die in a dungeon. Too graphic?

An easy proposal to ethical committees and researchers

Here is my small proposal.  It will take a little work on behalf of ethical committees, but I believe that it would have a wide impact on open research practices. At the very least, it will force researchers to think about open research. It will not take more than a few minutes effort on the part of researchers applying for ethical approval for their next research project.

Ethical committees

You give us forms to fill out before we do research. We moan about them and doing more paperwork, etc. Eventually you assess our research plan for ethical implications. Sometimes our moans are valid, like removing the word "experiment(er)" because it conveys an impression of "human guinea pigs". Most of the time, however, the issues raised are valid and important, including ensuring adequate information and debriefing is given to our human guinea pigs participants.

the three stages of writing ethics applications
Catching researchers on ethical oversights is important. So, you could also catch us on how the research outputs will be distributed. One massive ethical oversight is publishing research in a journal that requires data sharing as a condition of publication and then refusing to share the data (special thanks to James Heathers on Everything Hertz Podcast for raising this point - also highly recommended listening).

There is usually already a section on anonymised data, that could easily be added to. All it needs is another box in the application "Please provide a summary of how the anonymised data will be distributed, e.g. to an online data hosting service. If the data will not be openly shared, please state why and include a description of what conditions need to be met for another researcher to access the data.

I already have to include a statement about publishing the results as a paper or in my Thesis as part of the participant informed consent forms. So, what about a statement like "I understand that data that I provide for this study may be shared openly on a platform such as the Open Science Framework. I also understand that the data will be anonymised and every attempt will be made to ensure that my data cannot be linked to me in the future".

The potential ethical issue is that, without a statement like this, is it OK to share the data in the first place? For me it seems to be a grey area. One problem is that feasibly, there is no way that researchers could recontact all participants to try to get consent to share their anonymised data


If you have published a paper under the condition of sharing of data, then the data should be shared. You already made that decision when submitting to that particular journal.

Just do what I suggested above, please. Give a summary of how the data, materials, and analysis scripts from the research will be shared in the ethical application. Think about these issues before you even start the study and leave yourself open to share data in the future. Let participants know what you plan to do with the data. They might even like you more if you say that you will make the research available to the public.

There are valid reasons for not sharing data. For example, the population studied was so specific and the data so detailed that anonymity cannot be guaranteed. In this case, discussing this before the research has been conducted and having a record of why you will not share openly (but will do under a direct request) can only be a benefit to the transparency and honesty of your specific case. At least then you're not freaking out your partner by always hiding the phone, "I'm searching for a birthday present, you'll unwrap it soon!".


If you have a statement that requires data sharing, maybe ask for a link to the accessible data when the paper is accepted. Or, require that the data is submitted or archived in a specified way alongside the initial paper submission. It's hardly a condition of publication if a moody researcher can still tell people that they would sooner throw bricks at them than share their data.

The take home

A requirement to share data probably cant be added as a condition for institutional research ethics approval. There would be too many complications, winging and genuine problems with that approach. What can be done is including a statement about where, when, and how the research outputs (papers, data, code, etc) will be shared, and if not, then why. We need more of this kind of transparency, and it is exactly the kind of ethical issue that should be overseen by ethical committees.

From now on I'll have this kind of ridiculous image in my head when hearing stories of people flat out refusing to share data when they have completely agreed to doing just that.

Also, sorry for getting carried away with Harry Potter references

Friday 27 October 2017

Students Questions 5 - what grades do I need to get into psychology?

In this series, I respond to questions that I was asked as part of "I'm a Researcher, get me out of here". See my earlier post on the event for more detail on the event as a whole. Students in secondary schools asked questions about my research, experiences, and researcher life. There was much less time and space to talk about these questions / issues than needed to give a full picture. So, this series has more of my thoughts and reflections on those questions. I'll keep the editing to a minimum, so that this is a more organic process, maybe I'll even get a podcast or two recorded on this topic. Comment or contact me directly to pose new questions, and I'll aim to answer them!

Today's question;

What subjects/grades do I need to get into Psychology?

These kinds of questions were asked regularly during the I'm a Researcher live chats. So, to procrastinate from writing my thesis, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on what subjects and grades you need to get into psychology. I'll assume that by asking one of these kinds of questions that you are the sort of student that a) turns up to lessons, b) cares at least a little bit about grades, and c) maybe wants to go to university. I have no idea how other systems work in terms of getting to university, so I wont speculate on ones outside of the UK. But, if you do know more, leave a comment because I'd love to know what is different and where.

The Living Library Librarian (Hint: not me)

My story

A few folk at the Living Library event (I got to be a book and talk about my research in quick-fire chats to loads of people. God my throat was sore afterwards) were surprised that I didn't follow a direct route into studying psychology at university. I think that it's expected that to work / research in a particular area that you must have done that subject at GCSE, A levels and so on. But, that's not always the case. So, here's my quick story. 

GCSEs: We didn't get too much choice in subjects for GCSE, so I just went with the flow and got relatively decent grades (mostly Bs). That was back when my memory was better, and I benefited from managing to get a lessons work done quickly and well enough that I could doss about for the remainder of the lesson (at least I'm being honest here, I guess). Note, I did get the work done, so I learned and remembered enough for the exams. Back then I had zero exam anxiety as well, which helped. During my degree it got worse, mainly because there was more riding on each grade. 

A levels: I took Maths, Further Maths, Philosophy for A level, as well as an AS (1st year of A levels) in Physics, and blagged my way to an A level in general studies (whatever that means).

BSc in Psychology: I needed three Cs to get in to my Psychology/Philosophy course at the University of Stirling (beautiful place, worth a visit even if you don't want to study there). So, I was confident that my conditional offer would go through without an issue based on grades. About a year and a half into my 4 year course (Scottish undergraduate degrees tend to be 4 years), I switched to study Psychology alone. 

There are people that took a whole other route as well. I met quite a few people during my MSc at Oxford Brookes that were taking the course in order to get the BPS accreditation (after I think a years course beforehand) so that they could pursue clinical psychology, for example. These routes take a bit longer overall, but give the opportunity to transfer between fields.

Honestly, it's OK to not have been studying psychology super early on

"We don't want to hear any more about you Sam, get to answering the question!". Fine, imaginary grumpy teenager (maybe the ghost of myself, who knows), I'll get to the point, geez. 

Which subjects?
You don't have to have to do the exact subject you might want to study at university in your GCSEs or A levels. For some subjects it may be a necessity, for me at the time it was not (but check, because I'd hate to be caught out on this). Psychology Undergrad degrees are so general and introductory that if you want a career in psychology, it's just the first step anyway. It will be easier if you've already studied something for awhile to continue studying it. But, don't kick yourself if your school doesn't offer Psychology, or the specific subject you want. I took further maths at A level because I was always in advanced maths classes and I was basically told that if I took that I'd get into University easily. Now I realise that was a complete over exaggeration, but it was well intended I suppose. If you can try the subject that you're interested in, that's great. It might light a fire in you to study further, or it might explode in your face and you hate it, but at least you tried it early. If you cant try it, then do some research into what it's like to do that subject. Hopefully this blog is useful, but there are many more that talk about similar issues across fields. Either way, it's possible to take a university course in your chosen subject. I'll discuss being able to stay working in that field in academia in a future post.

Quick aside. If you know that psychology is for you and it's your chosen path, try to take some statistics classes, and maybe some programming classes. They will really help. It's not necessary to get onto the course, but it will help a lot, even just to relieve some of the numbers anxiety that I see in some undergrad psych students.

What grades?
My guess is that this is the question that you are really interested in. It's also why I left it until the end, so I could trick you into reading the rest of my waffle, muwahahaha. Anyway, grades. You'll have a rough idea of what sort of student you are, on average. Whether you are a solid A student, or more of a CCC grade kind of person, or like me somewhere in the middle, there'll be a University for you. If your grades fall below that and you're keen on studying psychology for example, there will be conversion courses that you can take first to bridge the gap before an undergraduate degree.

Here's my honest truth. You don't need to be a A+++ student to get into university, nor do I think its healthy for the government to continue making things extra stressful with more and harder exams and standards. I don't think that it is reasonable to expect that of people. You do need to work hard, you do need to get whatever grades your chosen university requires. But, it should not be at the expense of your own wellbeing. Also remember that the "best" university for you may not necessarily be the one that requires the highest grades. My secondary choice required higher grades than Stirling, but I knew from visiting there that it was where I wanted to be for the next few years. The point is that there are lots of routes and required standards to get onto a psychology degree. there is not a single or "right" path that you have to follow.

Thought this was funny and relevant enough to get away with including

Saturday 21 October 2017

Student's Questions 4 - What is imposter syndrome?

In this series, I respond to questions that I was asked as part of "I'm a Researcher, get me out of here". See my earlier post on the event for more detail on the event as a whole. Students in secondary schools asked questions about my research, experiences, and researcher life. There was much less time and space to talk about these questions / issues than needed to give a full picture. So, this series has more of my thoughts and reflections on those questions. I'll keep the editing to a minimum, so that this is a more organic process, maybe I'll even get a podcast or two recorded on this topic. Comment or contact me directly to pose new questions, and I'll aim to answer them!

Today's question;

What is imposter syndrome?

My plan was to write a longer post about imposter (or impostor apparently, depending on your persuasion) syndrome, and my own experiences of it. But, that will have to wait because I'm angry. I'm angry because I have just seen the kind of insensitive comment about imposter syndrome that helps only in making peoples imposter syndrome worse. I'll save the rants about where those kinds of people should shove things. What I'll do instead is cover what imposter syndrome is, for an early career researcher. 

These snippets are all part of my own experience these past few months, feel free to add yours in the comments. Perhaps then those looking down on people who have experienced imposter syndrome might begin to understand.

Imposter syndrome is...

Imposter syndrome is working for years to become an expert in your area, develop practical skills, and come on leaps and bounds in your quality of work; but, constantly feeling like you still ‘aren’t good enough’.

Imposter syndrome is knowing on a logical level that you are good at what you do, but psych yourself out of job applications because you do not feel good enough for that role, or, because you “know” that somebody more qualified / better will get the job anyway.

Imposter syndrome is judging yourself poorly every time a colleague posts that they have just published a new paper. Wondering why you cannot be as productive yourself. 

Imposter syndrome is getting rejection letters with no feedback and coming up with hundreds of reasons why you weren’t good enough for the job. Then realising that the reason is probably something simple like other people had more publications and would be higher on the list. Then feeling much worse because if that's the case then that is how every application is going to be received.

Imposter syndrome is kicking yourself for having such a long list of things you would like to learn. It's thinking that these are things that you have to learn to be of any worth to your research field. 

Imposter syndrome is having a super productive day/week, but as soon as you've congratulated yourself on doing the work, you assume that it's garbage.

Imposter syndrome is holding up a mask of "everything is/will be fine", because admitting that you're struggling is harder than shoveling it down deep. It's doing this so often that perhaps others assume that you are "so well-adjusted". 

Imposter syndrome gets worse when...

Imposter syndrome gets worse when you are not allowed to be included on a grant application (that you spent months writing) because you are “too junior”.

Imposter syndrome is propagated when asshats like @jim_bouldin say things like “if you’re obsessed with being an Imposter, then either get over it, or get out of it, one of the two… because maybe you shouldn’t be there in the first place”. Thanks for inspiring this post, I hope you get mauled by a ferret.

Imposter syndrome gets worse when we let people think that they need to be in the top 1% to be "successful" or on a more basic level to be employable. 

Imposter syndrome syndrome gets worse when keeping on the "I'm ok" mask becomes less of hiding your doubts, and more about trying to convince yourself that everything will work out.

Imposter syndrome gets better when...

When we receive congratulations on our hard work, and not deride them for not achieving enough, quickly enough, or for simply having doubts. (Thank you @t_awkr for praise() ).

When people like @StephEvz43 write "If you get imposter syndrome, you should ABSOLUTELY be doing what you’re doing because you CARE ENOUGH TO BE WORRIED ABOUT YOUR PERFORMANCE". These positive messages need to be shared more

Hopefully when experiences like this are shared. Knowing that so many people experience these kinds of feelings that it's nothing to be ashamed of. 

Having support, any support. Family and friends are gold dust here. My wife is always a source of strength and support, even when I don't admit that I'm worrying or hurting.

That was quite cathartic, even if I am somewhat uncertain and apprehensive about putting this 'out there'. Its the first time that I've gotten some of these feelings out of my head, in any format. I'm hoping that anybody that reads this that is experiencing imposter syndrome understands that you're not alone. I hope that somebody reading this that has a poorer opinion of imposter syndrome will themselves "get over it, or get fired from a cannon out". This isn't a tone thing, this is supporting other researchers, especially early career researchers to let them know that they are doing a good job. Imposter syndrome is almost a direct by-product of the misaligned incentive structures and high competition in academia. But, maybe we can help each other a bit?

Thanks for reading, please remember that you're awesome.

- SP

Monday 16 October 2017

Student Questions 3 - How do you get your research published?

In this series, I respond to questions that I was asked as part of "I'm a Researcher, get me out of here". See my earlier post on the event for more detail on the event as a whole. Students in secondary schools asked questions about my research, experiences, and researcher life. There was much less time and space to talk about these questions / issues than needed to give a full picture. So, this series has more of my thoughts and reflections on those questions. I'll keep the editing to a minimum, so that this is a more organic process, maybe I'll even get a podcast or two recorded on this topic. Comment or contact me directly to pose new questions, and I'll aim to answer them!

Today's question;

How do you get your research published?

Let me just say first that I am definitely not an expert in academic publishing. I currently have one published theoretical paper (A cognitive model of psychological resilience, which you can find here). Technically, I have no publication record for my empirical research. Fingers crossed that will change soon, when one or more of the around 6 or 7 papers that I have either submitted or are very close to submission with colleagues are published. Here, I'll talk about the research publishing cycle. Next time, I'll complain about it to show how it can be better.

So, you've completed a piece of research. The data have been analysed and the paper has been written in a format that will help others understand; what you did, how you did it, where it fits with other research in the field, and why people should care. Congrats! you have written a research paper. Now, how about we try to publish it?

Maybe you already have an idea of which journal you would like to see your paper published in. If not, then picking a journal comes next. You might ask yourself which journals are "good" in your area (I'm trying to save discussing journal metrics and other arbitrary judgements about quality for another post). Maybe your paper picks up where another one left off, and publishing in the same journal makes sense. In all likelihood, your supervisor will have an idea of which journal might make a good fit for your paper.

Now, you've picked a journal. You'll then head to the submissions page, probably find that you need to reformat a figure or something similar, eventually you'll fill in some information about the author(s) and the paper itself. You'll declare that it's your own work, and any conflicts of interest that would interfere with the research being conducted in a rigorous and objective way. Finally, you'll hit "submit" (and then "Yes, I agree to submit"). Apparently, this is where people tend to find/remember a typo. But, lets ignore little things like that.

Congratulations on submitting your paper. Party time.

small piece of advice - celebrate submitting, not just getting accepted. That's where you have most control. 

What comes next? Here's a super quick overview

The editor, or a handling editor will decide whether to send your manuscript to reviewers. They will gauge whether the paper might be a good fit for the journal itself. "Why did you submit a Psych paper to the Journal Of Kinetic Epistemology?" (to my knowledge not an actual journal, I just wanted to spell JOKE, because I am a child). If the paper is a good fit based on whatever the editors feel is important, they'll send it out to reviewers. Otherwise, they will usually get back to you fairly quickly with a reject decision letter.

Now the paper is out to reviewers. The number of reviewers depends on the journal/editor. Let's say your paper has two reviewers that kindly agreed to review the paper. Good reviewers will carefully read through the paper, give solid critical feedback, and make a recommendation to the editor on whether the paper should be published. (look up @YourPaperSucks for amazingly cruel responses to papers.

probably reviewer 2

The editor aggregates the reviews with their own review and emails you to give you their (hopefully good) decision on the paper. you'll likely get one of the following decisions.

  • Accepted with no revisions (unlikely for a first submission) - Amazing! pretty soon the paper will be out there for some to see
  • Accepted with major/minor revisions - still amazing! there's some work to do based on the feedback from reviewers, but the paper has been accepted. What more could you ask for?
  • Revise and resubmit - great! there's a blurred line between a revise and resubmit and accepted with revisions that I don't fully understand. But, importantly, it's not a "no, get away from me" response, which is always nice
  • Somewhere in between a R&R and a rejection is a grey area which amounts to "yes you can resubmit, but you have loads of work to fix this paper". At least it's not a rejection.
  • Reject - unfortunately the editor has decided based on the reviewers comments that the paper will not be published in this journal. This sucks, and can be based on loads of different factors. It's not just a case of whether the research / paper is good enough, it may still not be a good fit. 
There are still a few things still to happen after the paper is accepted (especially if there are additional rounds of revisions and re-submissions needed). There's typesetting, copyright statements and other bits and pieces. If the journal has a good set-up, the paper will be accessible online well in advance of the print version. This is great for getting things 'out there' quickly, before the paper gets put onto a bunch of dead trees for people to hold and love. Eventually, people will read your research and know your greatness

There you go, a super quick overview of getting your research published. Of course, there are loads of finer points that go into getting a paper published, and things can differ quite a bit from field to field and journal to journal. Next time, I'll complain about some parts of the publication cycle and talk about registered reports, a much better way of running and reporting research projects.

- SP

Tuesday 10 October 2017

Student Questions pt 2 - How many hours do you work?

In this series, I respond to questions that I was asked as part of "I'm a Researcher, get me out of here". See my earlier post on the event for more detail on the event as a whole. Students in secondary schools asked questions about my research, experiences, and researcher life. There was much less time and space to talk about these questions / issues than needed to give a full picture. So, this series has more of my thoughts and reflections on those questions. I'll keep the editing to a minimum, so that this is a more organic process, maybe I'll even get a podcast or two recorded on this topic. Comment or contact me directly to pose new questions, and I'll aim to answer them!

Today's question;

How much time do you spend working on research in a typical week?

This came up pretty commonly during I'm a Researcher. I didn't feel too strongly to talk about it in more detail until this morning. The short answer is that I try to work roughly on a 9-5 Monday-Friday kind of schedule, to fit with family life. When there are deadlines or revisions that need to be completed, or when there are applications to get ready I'll of course put in weekend and evening hours to get things done. But, I try to draw the distinction between home and work life where I can.

That's the short answer specific to me. But, what I want to write (rant) about is the expectations in academia to work excessive hours. I came across the below tweet yesterday, which riled me up for the reasons that I'll explain next (and hopefully give some information about working life in academia as well). The tweet was a higher response to a Times Higher Education survey which asked academics how many hours they work each weekend. If its not immediately apparent why lots of people (myself included) chimed in with less than positive reactions, maybe the problem needs elaboration.

this annoys me less now, but still, c'mon dude

 First, I should say that I am completely fine with the idea that if you love your work and want to spend time on it that's great; whether weekend, evening, or whatever. Its also fair to say that sometimes in academia we just have to put in some weekend time, perhaps there's a grant application deadline upcoming, or you really want to get a paper finished, or the problem is playing on your mind anyway. On a positive note, if this post was only a passionate statement about how this person loves their research that that's literally all they want to do with their time, great. That passion is great and in many ways something to be appreciated.

There are loads of good reasons for putting extra time in outside of the standard 9-5 Monday to Friday. There are also a hoard of bad ones, which is why this particular tweeter hacked me off, because they managed to hit most of them. This kind of statement rings true with the joke that 'one of the best things about academia is that you get to pick the 60/80/100 hours you work each week'.

Most of my objection comes from the "real academics" phrase. This adds a judgement that I despise and my honest opinion is that throw away comments like this contribute towards junior researchers hardships, impostor syndrome, and perpetrates a harmful work/life balance.

Lets talk impostor syndrome. I'm pretty sure most of us have felt like this at some point, and it seems particularly common in academia. That feeling that, despite your own achievements, that everybody else is better qualified and able to do the job. That you will get found out for being a fraud and not being good enough to be where you are now. You can google impostor syndrome for a huge collection that suggests how pervasive this problem is. Part of the problem is that we intrinsically compare ourselves and our achievements to others, and this is magnified when we are in a competitive job market like academia. This part is not entirely unavoidable, but makes sense, and we can do things to combat it.

One thing that the opinion that more hours = better work or a better academic lead to is burnout. Trust me, burnout sucks. The feeling that you cant function and actually get things completed, the constant mental fatigue, and if we are frank high-functioning depression and anxiety, suck so hard. Nobody should expect that to be the norm in any field. What makes it worse is people like the tweeter above putting out there that we should expect people to do nothing, or have nothing else important, but work. Add this to impostor syndrome and job insecurities and you have a recipe for disaster.

But, statements like this, which basically amount to "to be a real academic, you need to work weekends" to early career researchers (like myself) is a bigger part of the problem. It places a stigma on those who have other aspects of their lives (i.e. most of us). Family are important, in case that was not immediately obvious. I'm not going to miss spending time with my wife on the weekend so that some jumped up "real" academic on his/her ivory tower can look at me more positively. Even worse, to say to people wanting to work in research that their work is their life now is a reprehensible contribution to the public discourse around academic work/life balance (super trying not to swear lots and screaming into pillows).

be excited - not knowing something is an opportunity to learn something new

The take home message

Before I get into full ranting mode, I want to swing this back to the students that asked this question. If you want to work in academia, you will probably need to put in hours outside of the 9-5 schedule that many people work in. In the same way as having homework and exams means that you have stuff to do in your own time; you might have access to the lab equipment only on a Saturday for awhile, or there might be a few big deadlines close together so you don't have too much free time for a few weeks.

In all honesty, it isn't predictable, and will affect some people more than others. But, if somebody tells you (for any job) that you aren't allowed a life outside of that job you need to do one of two things. First, tell that person where to get off. Second, consider whether that advice is accurate (probably not) and whether it is worth it to you. If you truly love the work great, but don't sacrifice the other things that are important to you.

This is the important bit. You do not need to work weekends to be a "real" academic. You do not need to work yourself until you burnout to be good at your job. You should not be made to feel like you are not working enough (obviously unless you're super lazy). If you need help to get work done in fewer hours and not work every weekend, then you should be able to ask for help. Academia is awesome and I want to work in research for a long time. So, ignore statements like this particular tweet, you do not deserve to feel like you do not deserve your place as a "real academic".

What are your thoughts? happy to answer comments :)

Sunday 8 October 2017

Student Questions pt 1: barriers I've faced

In this series, I respond to questions that I was asked as part of "I'm a Researcher, get me out of here". See my earlier post on the event for more detail on the event as a whole. Students in secondary schools asked questions about my research, experiences, and researcher life. There was much less time and space to talk about these questions / issues than needed to give a full picture. So, this series has more of my thoughts and reflections on those questions. I'll keep the editing to a minimum, so that this is a more organic process, maybe I'll even get a podcast or two recorded on this topic. Comment or contact me directly to pose new questions, and I'll aim to answer them!

Today's question;

what is the biggest barrier you have had to overcome in your research in order to get where you are today?

First, this is a great question. It bypasses a much easier one about what I don't like or what is difficult about research, though I'll cover this in a future post. It also captures one thing that I think is often missed when we talk about research careers, and even going to university more broadly. I suspect, that these kinds of realities are well known to us already along the research career path (however junior I might be), but, are not communicated well (or at all) to the future generations of researchers. 

That aside, I can break down my answer into a few different areas. In my 'official' answer to the question, posed to all of the researchers (here), I talked a bit about how I can be my own barrier. In particular, I am so guilty of taking on extra projects and always saying "yes", that I am left with way too much to get on with. Add my general disposition to want to work on things at the ideas and development stage, with less drive to get the final write up finished, and this creates a general barrier to progressing my career further. This is something that I am working on, and I am better at getting projects finished and papers submitted, before moving on to the next goal or project. We can all hold ourselves back, and I am beginning to see that good self-management is the best remedy. Planning in such a way that projects get the final push that they need to check them off completely, rather than going on a two week tangent into a barely-started project, is a really good strategy. 

I'm super lucky to be where I am today. I don't mean that I have overcome some massive obstacle to get where I am, but more that I was lucky to not have any of the disadvantages that would have prevented me pursuing a research career. I do think that I have earned the skills that I have developed and I earned my place where I am. But, I didn't have to deal with any of the major issues that I know some have struggled with to work in academia. Whether it is sexism, racism, lots of other -ism's, inability to afford University costs, or the other hundreds of reasons that would make it more difficult to reach the near-end of my DPhil where I am today. I admit that this doesn't actually answer the question, because these are exactly the barriers that I did not have to overcome. But, it is worth mentioning, if only to highlight that everybody has a very different experience and set of challenges to begin, continue, and succeed in a research career. I'm hopeful that each of the barriers that any of the students that read this (if any do) are surmountable, we need their talent to move our fields forward. 

How about the barriers that I still need to overcome? I'll cover the academic job landscape in more detail some time in the future. But, for now, the biggest barrier is that I am on a knife edge between being 'too junior' (I haven't submitted my thesis yet, or having too few published papers) and desperately needing to progress into a postdoctoral researcher position. There are way more PhDs than there are postdoctoral researcher positions, that is a simple fact of academia. So, the biggest barrier is how to stand out from the crowd and knowing what skills or experience that actually entails. Knowing what skills would be best to develop is the first barrier. I could spend a few months learning a specific technique or analysis for example, only to find that if I had spent that time teaching, or getting a paper submitted sooner would have been the thing that tipped me from "we regret to inform you..." to "come along for an interview, you seem like an awesome dude". Another barrier is that I have what I've heard referred to as a 'two-body' problem. It is basically expected that early career researchers will be super-mobile and move from country to country every few years. Last year I married my wife and the year before that we bought our first home. At the very least I need to carefully consider where and when I apply for research positions, as it affects us both. This has the potential to narrow my search for research positions considerably. Because of this, I need to be in a much more competitive position for the job market in order to maximise my chances of being able to work where I want to, rather than wherever I can find work. This is a difficulty shared, I think, by many and unfortunately the academic system can make this difficult. Though, I do know of positive stories and that some universities are very supporting, so its not all bad news. 

Putting this together, every prospective researcher will face some hurdles to overcome, at some stage in their careers. Some of these (race, gender, and so on) should not be a barrier in the first place, but unfortunately people will have to deal with them. I am so lucky to have not been held back early on to get to where I am now, and I was very fortunate that my current supervisor posted the DPhil advert when she did, or else I could have easily missed out on the awesome opportunity that I am enjoying now. I also have some significant barriers to overcome now. So to summarise, its not easy and you will have to persist through some barriers at some point. But, if research is your thing, then it's totally worth it. 

I hope that I've hit this question better than before. It is my first post of this type, so be gentle in your comments and critiques. I'd love to hear your feedback though, and any more questions about research life, my own research, academia, and so on. I want this to be a platform for students thinking about what studying at university and working in research to ask questions that they may not have a chance to otherwise. Throw me some more questions either in the comments, or contact me directly. 

Happy studies!

Tuesday 3 October 2017

I'm a Researcher: Thoughts, reflections, and more questions

On Friday I became a runner-up in the Curiosity Carnival's "I'm a Researcher; Get me out of here" event (check out my profile page for this here). I'm a Researcher was a collection of interactions between Researchers from a range of areas and backgrounds and secondary school students in the Oxfordshire area. There were three kinds of interactions between the researchers, and the students. ASK questions, in which students were able to ask questions directly to one or more of the 22 researchers that were involved over a three week period. There were fast-paced live chats, where a small group of the researchers would be involved in a live chat with a full class of students. These 30 minute chats passed by in what felt like seconds with the speed that questions were posted and the wide scope of questions asked to each of us. Finally, on Friday we had the live final. I was super excited to have been voted in to the final, where five of the researchers got to speak a little about themselves and their work, and answer questions from the live audience. Congratulations to Priyanka Dhopade who took the win, and donated the winnings to a charity that works to get girls into STEM subjects. It was a well deserved win, and I love the charity of choice. I also love my lego runner-up prize!

My runner-up prize. I've named him gReg the R jester. He judges me on my R scripts. Look at that smug face, mocking me.

The range of questions (in each of the formats) was inspiring, ranging from simple "how long have you been a researcher?" or "what's your thesis about?", to the more difficult "What part of your research can improve mental health to make people happier?" or "what do you hope to achieve with your research?". The latter questions took some time for me to consider, and I do feel like some required a much more in-depth response. Sadly, in a chat room, writing a long post to fully address all angles of a question is somewhat challenging.

The whole event was an eye-opening experience, and now that I have had some time to process what started as 'just' a public engagement exercise for me. Now, I am fully convinced in the importance of these events as an additional avenue to interact with the next generation of researchers. They deserve to know more about what research and being a researcher entails. Also, for those of them considering university and research more broadly, they should know what they might be getting themselves in for.

"Umm, my name is Sam and I, er, try to do science..."

An example; "what is the best thing about being a researcher?". The answers cover so many aspects that make working in research an awesome thing to have as a career. But, by the nature of the question itself, it completely misses what are the bad things about being a researcher. 

So, are we giving potential future researchers an accurate picture of research life? I don't think so.

What I am planning to do therefore, is to take a selection of the questions that I have recorded and spend some more time answering them from my current perspective. These are questions from teenagers interested at the very least in a direct answer. But, at the most, these questions might come from someone who is interested in pursuing a career in psychological research. I'm not coming from any privileged perspective on what things are like for everyone, but I can give an honest account of my experiences.

Watch this space for blog posts and maybe a podcast or two (if I can figure out recording one and don't hate my voice too much). Feel free to comment with questions you wish you had an answer to before heading into research or University. Also, post them to my twitter so we can discuss them more broadly!