Thursday 31 May 2012

Tough Love II: 25 tips for early-career scientists

My first post in this series focused on how to make the most from your PhD. The PhD is a critical step in the career path of a scientist, but it is just that – a step. Doing well in your PhD will increase your chances of securing a good post-doc position but it won’t guarantee a successful academic career. It just buys you a ticket to the game.

So in this second ‘tough love’ post I'm going to focus on how you can get ahead in that game as an early-career post-doc. Let me say at the outset that a lot of this advice overlaps with my earlier blog post for PhD students, so I recommend you read that one first. There is also some useful advice for post-docs to be found here.

As with my earlier post, this advice is intended for readers who want a career in academia – i.e. those who want to be principal investigators (PIs) and run their own labs. And again, the guide is targeted to those in biomedical science, especially psychology and neuroscience. Some of the advice here is based on a seminar ‘How to get a research fellowship’, which I gave in 2010 at a Marie Curie FP7 Advanced Training Course on brain imaging.

Just who am I to be dishing out advice on how to succeed as an early-career scientist? The short answer is, nobody in particular! You can find out about my background here, but my track record is  nothing exceptional among PIs in my field. Maybe this is actually a good thing because it shows that an independent research career is achievable and doesn’t require special academic pedigree or genius. In brief, I did my post-doctoral research from 2002-2005 at the University of Melbourne, before moving to the UK in 2006 and taking up a BBSRC research fellowship at University College London. Since 2008 I've directed my own research group at Cardiff University. To date I have managed three post-doctoral researchers to the completion of 2-4 year contracts. So, overall, the advice stems from three sources of knowledge: things I’ve done myself, things I’ve seen others do, and things I’ve encouraged my own post-docs to do.

Your early post-doctoral years are formative. One of the troubling aspects of academia is that many good, even brilliant, scientists struggle to cope with the unrelenting pressure of post-doctoral science. The salary is modest at best, depressing at worst. The clock ticks faster than ever, and the pressure to publish hangs over everything like a merciless force of nature.

That’s the down side. On the up side, the publication pressure is certainly motivating and the post-doctoral life brings some pretty unique opportunities. I’ve heard it said that, second only to an independent research fellowship, the post-doctoral years provide the greatest professional freedom you can experience as a scientist. Emerging fresh from your PhD, you have a finely honed set of skills and knowledge, while at the same time you are (as yet) unencumbered by a heavy teaching load and the grind of administration. In many respects you are in the ‘zone’. Regardless of whether you succeed or fail, your time in the zone is limited, so make the most of it!

Before we get into the specifics, one final warning. This post is about the real, not the ideal. There are many absurd and unfair aspects of the research culture in academia. You aren’t going to solve them as an early-career scientist, so I’m not going to discuss them here. Succeeding in your post-doc is about learning the rules of the game, such as they are, rather than moaning about them or trying to change them. 
1.     Throughout your academic career, nothing – and I repeat nothing – is more important than your publication profile. To succeed you need to think like a farmer and build a pipeline that includes periods for seeding (design), growth (experimentation), and harvesting (analysis and write-up). During your post-doc, ensure that you always have at least one paper under review and one in preparation. This means you are always waiting for reviews and writing. Always. When you begin your post-doc this pipeline will probably consist of papers from your PhD. Maintaining this pipeline will ensure a healthy output, and if you starting falling behind then you need to take a good look in the mirror. Am I procrastinating about writing? Am I endlessly reanalysing old data rather than eyeing it pragmatically? Does my portfolio of studies include an adequate balance between slow-burn and rapid-fire experiments? Facing your problems is crucial; otherwise that blur in the corner of your eye will be your competitors racing past you.

2.     Be strategic about publishing. If, for instance, you have two studies that could be published either as two lower-impact papers or as one more definitive higher-impact paper, my general advice would be to combine them and shoot for a more prominent journal. You can always split them again later if the attempt fails. At the same time, keep an eye out for potboilers – results that will only ever be suitable for less prominent journals but which will be relatively quick and easy to publish. Don't waste precious time sending everything to Nature and Science.

3.     When it comes to publications, quality is paramount but that doesn’t make quantity unimportant. There is an obvious truth that junior researchers sometimes forget: publishing a lot of papers proves that you can write, and write fast. It declares to the world that you can communicate your science in an effective and efficient manner. This is absolutely crucial as you move forward in your academic career; you must be recognised by your peers and funders not only as an effective scientist, but also as a capable communicator.

4.     Aim to publish every year. Never allow a year's gap in your CV unless your career has been interrupted unavoidably or you have taken a justifiable career break. Otherwise a publication gap is extremely unattractive and akin to dangling a sign around your neck proclaiming “I struggle at publishing. You’ve been warned.” The rule of thumb in psychology and cognitive neuroscience is to publish four good papers per year, but this can vary. Whatever happens, be sure to publish something every year. If your experiments are slow or not yet producing publishable data, then publish a review paper.

5.     Aim for as many first-authorships as possible. It is crucial in your early professional life to build your own ‘brand’ as a scientist, and to do this you need to stamp out your intellectual contribution. I recommend always bringing up the issue of authorship in job interviews with prospective PIs. This will show that you are ambitious and serious about achieving the output that is crucial for both you and your PI. And unless there are no other job options available, don’t ever take a post-doc position where the PI cannot guarantee you first authorship on the majority (and preferably 100%) of papers stemming from your own work.

6.     Be sure to publish everything possible from your PhD. When you start your post-doc, you will probably have a lot of PhD experiments left to write up. Many post-docs have a strong aversion to doing this, bemoaning how much they are "over it" or how imperfect it all was. As natural as this instinct is, it must be firmly repelled because your future depends on maintaining your publication pipeline. If your PI is generous, s/he may be happy with you using some of your work hours for writing up PhD publications, but more often than not you will need to do this in your own time.

7.     Minimise time spent on collaborations where you are neither first nor second author. In psychology and neuroscience, second authorships carry modest weight. But at a post-doc level, anything lower down the list is basically just padding. Watch out if your CV starts to fill up with middle authorships at the expense of first authorships. Doing so will earn you a reputation as a technician or assistant. This can haunt you when applying for senior post-docs, fellowships or lectureships.

8.     Don’t waste time trying to be last author on papers. In the psych/biomedical world the final author position conveys seniority, but doing this as an early post-doc is like putting a toddler in a tuxedo. At best, readers will ignore it. At worst, you may come across as a careerist who elbowed their way into to a position they haven’t yet earned.

9.     Even though you are a junior member of the academic pyramid, it’s important to realise that you are no longer a PhD student or research assistant. As a post-doc you are a research professional on the road to autonomy. Your PI will expect you to work relatively independently, showing research initiative and leadership. You shouldn’t be merely dancing to the beat of your PI’s drum.

10.  Be proactive with the media and get to know your university press officer. Talking to journalists can be daunting at first, but it will help build your communication skills and your confidence. Discussing your own research with journalists is the gold standard, but it isn’t the only way you can interact. For instance, when emails get sent around your department from a journalist seeking  comments on a particular issue, come forward if you know about the topic (and remember, you don't need to the world leader in the subject to have something worthwhile to say). If you’re based in the UK then register with the Science Media Centre. Many of your academic colleagues will, by default, shy away from such opportunities. But they do so at their peril, not least because funders are increasingly regarding public engagement as an important responsibility of professional scientists. Speaking up in the media is not without risks, but it is one way of fulfilling your public engagement obligations, while providing evidence of your independence and communication skills to a future employer or fellowship panel.

11. When it comes to running experiments, the motto of the day is parallelise, parallelise, parallelise. A great way of achieving this is to embrace the opportunities afforded by student supervision. Get involved in the co-supervision of PhD students with your PI, and be proactive in the supervision of undergraduate projects. Take on capable students as voluntary interns to run side projects. In my experience there is no shortage of intelligent and motivated undergraduates who are willing to give up their free time to get involved in research – it helps them and it can help you.

12.  One of the best nuggets of advice I got as a post-doc was to aim to become the first to do something. It doesn’t have to discovering the Higgs boson, but aim to put your name to something new. This might be a new technique or behavioural task that overcomes limitations in existing paradigms, or a whole new way of thinking about a problem.

13.  Start a blog. It’s a great way of communicating with the public and honing your writing skills. It’s for you to decide whether this is best done under your real name or under a pseudonym. There are sensible arguments on both sides and many excellent pseudonymous bloggers in psychology and neuroscience (e.g. Neuroskeptic and scicurious). But keep in mind that working behind a pseudonym offers fewer benefits for your own career and limits your ability for public outreach.

14.  If you are employed on a grant held by your PI then negotiate carefully about which experiments are ‘hardwired’ and which can be modified through your input. This is a delicate piece of diplomacy. A good PI will listen if you bring creativity and insight to the table; on the other hand, s/he may be committed to prioritising certain aspects of the research grant even if your idea is better. So don’t be disheartened if your idea is shelved. Have a thick skin and return to it later.

15.  It may seem obvious but be sure to arrange regular meetings with your PI. If s/he is extremely busy then those meetings may be infrequent, but try to ensure regularity and keep in touch by email. Speaking with my PI hat on, I can say that I very much like being updated about progress and important developments without having to ask.

16.  Aim to write at least one successful grant application during your post-doc, either as PI or Co-I. Aside from the direct benefits to your research, being awarded grants is a sign of independence, creativity, and leadership potential.

17.  Unlike a PhD, a post-doc position is a job – at least that’s what your Human Resources division will tell you. However, if you go into a post-doc job interview with that mindset then you will struggle to compete with those who have similar CVs but approach science with zeal. A wise mentor once told me that when PIs appoint post-docs, they aren't looking for slaves; they're looking for junior versions of themselves. And since few PIs have a 9-5 mentality, few will employ post-docs with one.

18.  Aim to give at least 2-3 talks per year outside your own department. You don't need to wait for an invitation; you can always contact the seminar organisers directly and put yourself forward. Give local seminars as well. It is important to get noticed both within your own department and beyond.

19.  Networking in science is crucial and not always easy. The two factors that I think are most important are your publication record and your social confidence. There is some great advice about how to network effectively over at Scicurious’ blog. One comment in the discussion stood out for me, As soon as you publish noteworthy papers as a first- or senior-author, people will want to talk to you.” As a post-doc I found this to be true. So my advice is to publish hard and well. Then try to go to one good conference per year and meet people both independently and through your PI. Organising seminars can also be a great way to build important links with other researchers. When your PI has a visiting collaborator or speaker, get to know them. Join in with dinners and drinks at the pub. Don’t be shy.

20.  Review papers for journals. If you haven't yet published enough to be invited to review, tell your PI that you would be happy to review papers that s/he is sent. Trust me, your PI will thank you!
21.  Give yourself time to think. It’s easy to get swept up in the “chickens go in, pies come out” mentality of academia, but knowing when to stop and think is crucial for having much sought ‘Eureka’ moments. Give yourself time for reading and pondering.

22.  Keep your website up to date. It never ceases to amaze me how many junior post-docs are sloppy with their web pages, failing to update their lists of publications, talks, or other achievements. If you don’t manage your public image, nobody else will do it for you.

23.  Start developing your own big ideas for the future. As a post-doc I kept a notebook of random musings and it’s amazing how many of them bore fruit in later years, leading to successful fellowship and grant applications.
24.  For better or worse, funding agencies are increasingly seeking to defer a portion of research costs to the private sector. If your PI has industry links then take advantage of opportunities to talk to / work with industry during your post-doc. These can be valuable links to forge as you advance in your career.

25.  Finally, as you progress through your post-doc, be aware of the double-edged sword that is ‘larger than life’ syndrome. If your supervisor is famous then you will have a stronger chance of publishing in prominent journals, but many readers will also attribute the work to your PI. As a post-doc, publishing in good journals is of course paramount, but there are some techniques you can deploy to draw attention to yourself. The key one is to ensure that you are both the first author and the corresponding author. This means you will be the point of contact for reprint requests and media enquiries about your work.

So there it is. I hope you found it helpful. Much of this advice is common sense - and it isn't even particularly 'tough', in fact. As a post-doctoral scientist, you’ve passed through a major bottleneck in science. If you do good science and publish well, you’ll go even further and could be a PI within 5 years.

Good luck! Please do comment and leave any of your own tips for post-doctoral success.

Monday 28 May 2012

The Geek Manifesto and my open letter to Jenny Willott MP

Mark Henderson’s Geek Manifesto is a remarkable book. It succeeds in articulating what many scientists and other STEM professionals have believed for years: that Westminster's blatant disregard for science and evidence underlies many failures of our socio-political system. The book trumpets this message with flair and eloquence. As I was reading it, I found myself repeatedly thinking – or even shouting – yeah! But the book does more than just point out where things have gone wrong. It also provides a recipe for change.

When it comes to politics, I'm definitely toward the cynical end of the scale. Yet Geek Manifesto achieved something for me that no other book about science and politics has been able to. It lifted me out of my state of sedentary cynicism (and consequent inaction), and convinced me to do something about it.

The book succeeded at changing my mind because it showed using evidence that the political system is the way it is precisely because of inaction by me and my fellow scientists. The paradox is deftly unravelled.

Dave Watts has already initiated a drive via PledgeBank to purchase a copy of the book for every sitting MP. I signed it last week but, to be honest, patience is not one of my virtues. So today I posted a copy of the book to my local MP, Jenny Willott (Lib Dems), along with the open letter below. I've never written to an MP before, let alone sent a present!

I may be a political cynic, but actually I think we’re fortunate to have Jenny as an MP. I’m especially glad not to be living in Bosworth, for instance. One of the reasons I respect Jenny is that she continued to oppose the tuition fee increase after Nick Clegg sold his soul. And even more importantly, she also has a good record of rational pro-science views, with the odd exception of endorsing homeopathy. Perhaps she will be willing to explain that in her reply.

My letter is more than just a note to say “here’s a book, hope you like it”. I'm also using this opportunity to try something that Mark suggests at the end of Geek Manifesto: geeks need to get involved. So I’ve offered my services to Jenny as a “constituent scientist”. Perhaps this is na├»ve, and I don't yet know what it will involve, but let's see where it leads. It's an idea in progress, and it will be a travesty if the Geek Manifesto is but a flash in the pan. Some concerted action is needed by scientists to get our message across in a constructive way. And what better way than to help our MPs in the tricky business of developing evidence-based policy?

If I offer my expertise in isolation, my influence will be small. But if other scientists get involved too then we may be able to achieve something significant here. So please join in!

I’m not saying science has all the answers, but it has a lot to contribute to politics. If the Geek Manifesto convinced me of one thing, it’s that scientists aren’t doing nearly enough to see that potential realised.

I’ll update this post and announce on Twitter as soon as I receive Jenny’s response.

** Update 12/6: we have initiated a call to send a copy of the Geek Manifesto to each member of the National Assembly for Wales. Please help us by signing the pledge **


My open letter to Jenny Willott

Ms Jenny Willott MP
House of Commons

28 May 2012

Dear Jenny,

Mark Henderson’s ‘Geek Manifesto’ and the importance of science in politics

I am a psychologist and neuroscientist at Cardiff University, and a member of your borough constituency. I am writing to enquire regarding your positions on a number of science and evidence-based policy issues, and to offer my services in a capacity that might be loosely referred to as a “constituent scientist”.

First, please find enclosed a copy of a new book by Mark Henderson, Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, titled “The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters”. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Henderson’s book laments the undervalued role of science in British politics, and I personally found it quite depressing in places. For many MPs, science has become a tool to be exploited when it supports a predetermined policy position, and an inconvenience to be distorted or discarded when it does not. As Henderson puts it, the cynical quest for policy-based evidence has trumped the desperate need for evidence-based policy.

Viewed through the lens of science, the world of politics can appear irrational, even mercurial. Yet Henderson’s book has led to me to an unsettling realisation. The current state of affairs is, in fact, not the fault of MPs. It is my fault. Like many professionals in the STEM community, I have accepted that science and evidence have little to no place in Westminster.

But this view is wrong-headed. It disconnects scientists from government decision-making and surrenders an influence that could have significant socio-political benefits. Furthermore, it creates a vacuum that is eagerly filled by lobby groups – many of which are as skilled in public relations as they are at cherry picking.

So my main purpose in writing to you – and publishing this letter on my blog – is to let you know that I have changed my position. I have been inspired to speak up, and I hope more STEM professionals will do the same.

Your positions on science-related policy issues

At the outset, I would be interested to learn more about your current views on a number of science-related policy issues. From the website, I can see that you respect science; in the past you have expressed views consistent with evidence for MMR vaccination, climate change, and evolution. I also see that you support libel law reform and that you have taken part in the Royal Society’s MP-Scientist pairing scheme.

I would be grateful if you could briefly outline your current views on the following specific issues.

·      Climate change

·      Nuclear energy as a green alternative

·      Homeopathy

·      GM foods, including the experiments on GM wheat at the Rothamsted Institute

·      The current classification status of cannabis and ecstasy; and the extent to which you agreed or disagreed with the dismissal of David Nutt by the previous government

·      The teaching of intelligent design and creationism in schools

·      The indoctrination of religion in children through state-funded faith schools

·      Open access of publically funded scientific research

·      Finally, I would be interested hear about any specific instance in which you have changed your position on a policy issue following consideration of the available evidence

An offer to help

MPs are often asked how they can better serve their constituents. But to ensure a greater role of science in democracy, I believe members of the STEM community must do more to help their MPs. I would therefore like to offer you my services, at no cost, in helping to form evidence-based views or decisions.

Precisely what this would involve is open to discussion. In general, though, I would be happy to offer my advice and assistance whenever you seek to gather or interpret scientific evidence underpinning a policy or viewpoint. My specialist scientific expertise lies in psychology and neuroscience (please see my Cardiff University website below for details), but I also have advanced training in more general areas, including statistical analysis.

Like all scientists, and I am also accustomed to dispassionately appraising arguments through logic and evidence. Indeed, one of the most widespread misconceptions about science is that it comprises a body of facts. By extension, many people (and perhaps some MPs) think of scientists as fact-accumulators with highly specialised skills that have little applicability in the real world. Yet, in reality, scientific skills are highly transferrable. What scientists learn, above all, are rational ways of asking questions and solving problems.

As a member of staff at Cardiff University I also have ready access to the peer reviewed academic literature and would be pleased to provide you with research papers and even help summarise their contents. I am also connected to a wide range of scientists in many disciplines, so even if your needs are beyond my expertise I would be happy to help facilitate contacts. If enough scientists come forward, perhaps we could form a local advisory group on STEM issues.

I genuinely believe that if more scientists offered their services to their local MPs we could positively influence British politics and society.

I look forward to your reply, which I will post on my blog:


Chris Chambers

Christopher D. Chambers BSc PhD CPsychol FBPsS
Senior Research Fellow
School of Psychology
Cardiff University
CF10 3AT
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)29-208-70331
Twitter: @chrisdc77

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Tough love: An insensitive guide to thriving in your PhD

Want to be a leader in science one day? Think you’ve got what it takes?

There’s a lot of advice kicking around about how to do a successful PhD. You can now attend all manner of courses taught by a range of self-appointed experts. You may come away with some good ideas, but the advice may also seem pretty banal and obvious. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll also need a shower and a stiff drink to recover from the cloying potpourri of politically-correct edu-speak. Well done for being you, and so forth.

Some of the advice out there on doing a PhD is excellent and thorough, but I find much to be superficial, obvious, or even misleading. Above all, I’ve hardly ever come across a PhD ‘how to’ guide without getting to the end of it and thinking, is that it? Seriously?

When it comes to doing PhDs, I’m not an ‘expert’, self-appointed or otherwise. What I am is a scientist who operates full-time in the muddy and bloody trenches. Somehow I’ve survived, so maybe I can help you as well.

Before getting to the meat of it all, a couple of home truths.

The first is that, like a career in science, a PhD is not for everyone. It requires a peculiar mix of intelligence, discipline, creativity, rationalism, stubbornness – and sheer nerdiness. Different people have these in different measure, but a successful PhD student has a healthy dose of all.

The second is that a PhD is hard. It’s meant to be hard, not because inflicting pain is necessarily fun, nor because some scientists are ‘dementors’ (see this interesting post by Zuska on that subject), and not because your PhD is expected to solve the mysteries of the universe. It’s hard because it is an apprenticeship in science: a frustrating, triumphant, exhausting, and ultimately Darwinian career that will require everything you can muster.

A PhD is essentially a test. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you pass this test by passing your PhD. Wrong. The fact is that passing a PhD is like getting a certificate of participation. Why? Because almost everyone who starts a PhD and sticks around long enough ends up getting one. No, the real test is what happens after your PhD. That’s when you’ll know whether you’ve really passed. Do well and it will open the door to a career of unparalleled intellectual freedom.

With this in mind I’ve put together a list of pointers. Interestingly, it turns out to be 42 points, which is either random or awesome. It’s drawn largely from my own experience as a PhD student (1999-2002), as a PhD supervisor, and through the countless conversations I’ve had over the years with students and supervisors about all manner of supervision-related issues and dramas. I was fortunate to do my PhD with the best supervisor you could ask for, and during my doctoral and post-doctoral years I became a sponge for information. And I’m still learning.
My tips are designed for science PhDs only, with biomedical sciences in mind (particularly neuroscience and psychology). Maybe some of the tips will translate to PhDs in other disciplines, but I'll let you be the judge of that. They are written in the real-life politically-incorrect language your supervisors use when they’re at the pub talking about you behind your back. Edu-speak verbiage may sound sensible and respectful, but it can also reinforce the fallacy that you, as a PhD student, are a unique and beautiful snowflake. Don’t be fooled – the reality is that PhD students face a stiffer competition for career progression than ever before. To stand a chance of scientific leadership you need to be smart, make the right moves at the right time, and have a thick skin.

WARNING: Read no further unless you’re looking for tough love.

1.     Do not under any circumstances start a PhD merely because you like the idea of having one, or because your family or friends think you should have one. These days you can buy all kinds of degrees online, so save the world a headache and go shopping instead.

2.     Despite what you may have read, a PhD is not a job, and it’s definitely not 9 to 5. The clock starts ticking on Day 1 and it never stops. A common misnomer among PhD students is the concept of your “own time”. This is wrongheaded because a PhD is entirely your own time, ticking continuously, day-in, day-out, 24/7. If you treat your PhD like a 9-5 job and then find yourself getting passed over for post-doc positions, you’ll have only yourself to blame. If there are circumstances in your life that prevent you from committing to this extent, then consider doing your PhD part time rather than full time.

3.     Get to know your supervisor before doing a PhD with them. It’s important to try before you buy. You need to ensure that your supervisor’s research interests, expertise, personality, and availability are right for you.

4.     Once you start your PhD, aim to collect data fast. Don’t wait too long before getting started. The longer you wait, the more anxious you will get. This anxiety can cripple you.

5.     Ensure that your PhD includes a combination of low- and high-risk experiments. It’s great to be ambitious and aim for high-impact papers, but don’t assume that every study will end up in Nature or Science. Even if your design is incredible on paper, high-impact publications depend ultimately on the results being straightforward and groundbreaking. Treat your PhD like a financial investment and build a portfolio of studies that balances risk, feasibility, and potential impact.

6.     Don’t expect every experiment to work, and don’t persecute yourself or others if your experiment fails. In short, figure out why, suck it up, and move forward. Nature does not reveal her secrets easily. Why should she?

7.     Don’t obsess over data, and don’t be a perfectionist. How many leading scientists do you know who are perfectionists? Be pragmatic.

8.     Don’t be sloppy with data. Your supervisor shouldn’t have to check your raw data for errors. Don’t expect smiles or a good reference if your supervisor loses trust in your data management skills.

9.     Don’t take holiday leave as though you have a paying job. Only take time off when you achieve a major goal or reach an important milestone. Using holidays as a reward will avoid feelings of guilt that prevent genuine relaxation. And during your time off, do absolutely no work whatsoever. Reward yourself when you do well. You deserve it!

10. If you need to take time off for other reasons (e.g. bereavement, serious illness etc.) then do so, and be sure to speak to your supervisor for advice. S/he can help you arrange a leave of absence and may even be able to extend your stipend.

11. Stay physically fit and healthy throughout your PhD, and watch your alcohol intake. A sharp mind requires a healthy body. During a PhD it’s easy to become dependent on unhealthy forms of stress management (e.g. daily drinking).

12. Publish as you go. Do not wait until the end! In the competition for post-doc positions and early-career fellowships, nothing counts more than publications. C’est tout.

13. Don’t procrastinate, and learn to detect the signs if you are. By procrastinating and being lazy you are not only flushing your own career down the bog but possibly your supervisor’s career too, especially if s/he is toward the junior end of the academic scale and needs to cultivate shiny successful PhD students. If you do waste time, then don’t expect your supervisor to write you a glowing reference at the end simply because you think you got it together when the submission deadline loomed.

14. Don’t get distracted by pointless, time-wasting crap. Minimise time spent on Facebook and expect a growly look if your supervisor finds you pissing around leaving messages on your mate’s wall at 10.30am on a Tuesday. Join Twitter (it’s a fantastic resource), but learn when to turn it off, and avoid pointless crowd-pleasing tweets to boost your follower count. Above all, quit smoking. Smoking is a colossal waste of time, money, and life. Even ignoring the health consequences, smoking for 30 minutes a day during your PhD will cost you nearly a month of wasted time by the end. Smoking is just stupid.

15. If you share an office, buy a set of beefy noise-cancellation headphones and stock up your music collection. Don’t be afraid to shut the world out when you need to think, read, and write.

16. Write. And then write some more. Then keeping writing. Many PhD students are initially very poor at writing but they get better with practice. Blogging can help, but you might want to do it pseudonymously at first. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of letting your PhD thesis be the first thing you ever seriously write.

17. Don’t be a schmo: learn a programming language and automate your analyses. It will save you valuable time and could even provide a technical publication or useful resource for other scientists. Last year, one of my PhD students published an impressive technical paper based on equipment and software that he designed and built himself. Look for similar opportunities in your area.

18. Be mindful of your weaknesses. Own them and target them. It is human nature for people to take the path of least resistance, avoiding doing the things we find most difficult. But successful people recognise their frailties and do the opposite: they force themselves to do difficult things precisely because they find them difficult or scary. If you don’t seek to overcome your weaknesses then you will never reach your potential. So if you are afraid of public speaking then volunteer to give more talks. If you hate writing then start a blog. Be mindful, self-critical, and proactive.

19. In your third year, start taking courses that will help prepare you for the future. Depending on your plans, this could include media training, commercialisation, or even project management. Talk to your supervisor about it.

20. If there are opportunities available for small grants during your PhD, take advantage of them. Several of my PhD students have applied and won grants for research and travel. They look great on their CVs and have provided them with extra resources.

21. Be active in public engagement and outreach. It’s fun and it needn’t take up much time. It is also increasingly important for your CV.

22. Don’t do too much teaching. Do enough to keep your department happy and to show prospective employers that you know how to teach. But no more than that. If you want a post-doc position or a fellowship, publications count far more than teaching experience.

23. Minimise administration. I would advise against sitting on committees or organising seminars, unless you are especially well organised and highly motivated. Administration takes up valuable time and, for the most part, is meaningless on your CV.

24. Don’t get drawn into sanctimonious supervisor bashing. There will always be someone in your network of fellow PhD students who has an axe to grind about their supervisor. Yes, their supervisor may be an arse, or maybe the student is. Or both. Whatever the situation, you aren’t going to solve their problem so avoid getting drawn into it, and don’t let other people’s negativity wear you down. It will waste time and mental resources you cannot afford.

25. During tough times – and you will have them – remember two things. The first is the passion and enthusiasm for science that got you where you are, right now. This is your guiding light throughout the PhD. The second is to remember how darn competitive it was getting on a PhD programme in the first place. How many applicants would chew their arm off to be in your position? Suck it up, stop complaining, and move forward.

26. Get into the habit of asking questions in talks. This insight by a commenter on Dorothy Bishop’s blog says it all. Being shy is only protecting your own fragile ego.

27. Don’t attend too many talks. Pick and choose. Sitting in a boring or peripheral talk is usually an unholy waste of time. Don’t turn up to talks merely as an exercise in presenteeism.

28. When you give a presentation and get asked a difficult question, don’t make the classic student mistake of being defensive. Doing so will make you look scared, foolish, and childish. Never view a question as an attack on your character, even if it is intended to be. When the meanest crustiest professor asks you a left-field question from hell, focus on content rather than style. If you need to clarify then reflect the question (“So what you’re asking is…”). Never be ashamed to admit you don’t have an answer to hand, and always say that you’d “be happy to chat about it afterwards”. You will learn a lot from engaging positively with your critics, and it will build your confidence.

29. Never get drunk in front of your supervisor. While your supervisor will find it hilarious, it is ultimately quite embarrassing for you, and you can expect several months of smirks from your supervisor and his/her colleagues when they pass you in the hall. [Case study of what not to do: A colleague's PhD student once got trashed on a night out, and in the space of two sentences declared loudly to me that (a) he was a libertarian; and (b) he wanted a job in my lab]

30. Don’t infantalise yourself. The supervisor-student relationship is, in many ways, peculiar and unnatural. It’s a bit parental, a bit collegial, a bit managerial. But that doesn’t make you a child: it is a professional relationship between intelligent adults. If you act like a child, your supervisor will probably treat you like one. Is that what you want?

31. Don’t become “best friends” with your supervisor. There are times when your supervisor will need to be your boss, and being pals can get in the way. Save the friendship for the years after you’ve graduated and the power dynamic is gone.

32. Don’t have sexual relationships with other members of your lab. If the relationship goes sour, it could destroy your PhD and theirs too. And though it pains me to say anything so obvious, don’t even think about doing the dirty with your supervisor!

33. Many a romantic relationship has been sacrificed on the altar of PhD-dom. Be aware that if your partner hasn’t done a PhD then s/he may find it hard to understand WTF you are doing and why. This is a completely understandable sentiment, so try and involve him/her as much as possible (think of it as outreach). Just don’t expect your partner to ever understand why in same way you do.

34. By all means help other students solve problems (that’s what labs are for), but don’t get duped into doing other people’s PhDs for them. Just because they’re struggling and you’re cruising doesn’t make it your job to save them. That’s between them and their supervisor.

35. Most universities in the UK require PhD students to have more than one supervisor. But, in my experience, few students take full advantage of multiple supervision, instead focusing attention on their main supervisor. Build links with all of your supervisors and become a sponge for knowledge.

36. Set realistic goals of what you want to achieve and stick to them. Have short and long-term goals. I recommend setting weekly, monthly, six-monthly, and yearly milestones.

37. Be prepared for supervision meetings. Send an agenda beforehand and always take notes. There are few things supervisors find more infuriating than repeating the same meeting week after week.

38. Don’t be jealous of students who may appear to be getting more attention than you are. Don’t assume you know why, and don’t fool yourself into thinking it is any of your business. Focus on your own situation and what you need. If you need more of your supervisor’s time, be a squeaky wheel but, above all, be a positive force. Never ever (ever) say “You give more time to X than to me”.

39. When your supervisor asks for a draft of a chapter or paper, don’t hand over some piece of crap you threw together one Sunday with a hangover. Always stick to agreed deadlines or, if you must miss a deadline, provide an advance warning and a reasonable explanation. Don’t make the mistake of viewing your supervisor as some kind of middle manager who just needs to be placated.

40. Don’t rely on your supervisor to rewrite everything you write. You can expect to learn a lot about scientific writing during your PhD, but don’t expect your supervisor to teach you how to write. That’s your responsibility.

41. Expect everything to take longer than expected. It is wise to save money early in your PhD, in case you need an extra few months beyond your stipend to finish.

42. Above all, remember that you and your supervisor are in this together. Those three years can be an energizing, productive, and career-making partnership. But they can also be a frustrating waste of time and energy. If you want your supervisor to go above and beyond for you, then lead by example and work your butt off.

So there it is. If any of this pissed you off, don’t blame me – I warned you about that.

Got any stories you want to share as a student or supervisor? Got any problems you want to discuss? Feel free to leave a comment.

** Update 15/5: Don't miss the following insightful responses to my article, here and here.