Organizing a conference/workshop

Some colleagues and I were recently awarded some funding to organize a research workshop, in the format of a one-day conference. This sort of thing is worth thinking about for an ECR for a number of reasons. For one, it’s a good way of building networks and meeting the movers and shakers in your field. Second, organizing an event of your own provides tangible evidence of a number of important, but hard to quantify, drivers for promotion (leadership, industry engagement, outreach etc etc). The workshop itself was excellent experience on the day, and went really well. But the setup was an interesting process with a fairly steep learning curve, and there was quite a lot to reflect on afterward.

We were awarded money from the Experimental Psychology Society, and as you can see from our application here, we had a modest budget to work with. If you find yourself similarly fortunate, first take stock of what you have access to for free (i.e., provided by your university/department) and what you must pay an external company for. Usually finding a room will not cost you anything a university, but it’s not trivial to organize a big space during term time – we ended up in the University Council Chamber because there were no teaching spaces available (which was very plush). Also beware bespoke university conference facilities – even if they are in-house they probably are run as a profit-making enterprise, and will make you pay. Printing programmes and signs can usually be done for free. Poster boards, on the other hand, are unlikely to be freely available through your university, and if they are, they probably will be poor quality. Thankfully, there are plenty of companies which provide poster boards, but they are expensive, so budget accordingly. You should ask for these to be delivered as early as possible on the day (get in touch with campus services to facilitate entry to buildings and provide guidance about where to put a big van) and provide a diagram of the layout, otherwise you’ll have to babysit their setup. Similarly, make sure you have at least two (paid, probably undergraduate) helpers for the day, to staff the registration desk, guide people where they need to go, and help point the catering in the right direction.

Web presence is key for advertising and dealing with the logistics of abstract submission and registration, so spending some time looking at the options. Some universities will prefer this to be done in-house using their own platforms, which can mean that all registration fee-taking and abstract submission can be taken out of your hands (this could be a good thing and a bad thing). If you do it yourself, various free web platforms can automate much of the process – we used Wix to create our workshop website. Spend a bit of time testing it on various devices – particularly important is compatibility with phones/tablets. Of course, this is the perfect job to outsource to a skilled (and paid!) student helper, who will do a better job than you and gain more from the experience than you would.

If you’re providing food and refreshments, you’ll need this order placed about a week in advance, which means you’ll need to know final numbers and close registration around that time. Don’t take for granted the space you’ll need for all of this. We ended up with 2 rooms – one for the spoken portion and one for the lunch. Posters were split across both rooms. This worked well because it meant that the coffee break and lunch setup/clean-up wasn’t interfering with the ongoing talks. We could have been more explicit with the catering about exactly when we wanted the various clean-ups and setups to occur, but having the extra room really made all the difference to the available space to mill around, meet colleagues, and enjoy the posters.

We made a real effort to not over-stock the programme – our final schedule had a pair of hour-long coffee breaks, as well as an hour-long lunch break (all ostensibly opportunities to look at the posters) – over a third the day devoted to standing around not listening to talks. And we have no regrets on that front – although the talks were great, the real value of the workshop was getting to meet people properly. Similarly, the dinner after the workshop which we explicitly budgeted in our application gave the ECRs (and organizers) to really get to follow up on the science and get to know the speakers better.

Finally, some random thoughts/things we forgot/things we thought could have gone better for next time:

  1. There will probably be an administrative person who knows how to do everything you need – who to get in touch with to sort out cost, who to help book rooms, who to sort the catering. This kind of internal institutional knowledge is invaluable, particularly if you’re new. Find this person and make them your friend!
  2. Acquire a cost code and ideally a credit card for this cost code early in the process – you’ll likely have to pay for things up front.
  3. If you want name tags, figure this out in advance – the plastic holders cost money! Not having them wasn’t a disaster, but made small things like identifying the speakers that little bit more stressful.
  4. Do a final email sweep of those who have registered – particularly if your workshop if free. We had 76 register fairly rapidly, far outstripping our expectations, and had to turn away about 20 late requests. Only 50 showed up on the day, which was a real shame for those who we had to say no to. A quick email, or perhaps a token registration fee, would have changed things.

 

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Lecturing

There’s no getting away from it – as a lecturer at a UK university, you’ll almost certainly be lecturing. The thought might horrify you, but you’re going to need to put a brave face on to (1) get the job and (2) command the confidence of the students. I’m certainly no expert in pedagogy (I’ve not done nearly as much reading on the topic as I should), but I’ve been lecturing several courses per year for the past 6 years, and care deeply about doing this part of my job well. As such, a blog post seemed the best way to articulate my thoughts on the stand-up lecturing part, and on the course design aspect (which I’ll return to in a later post).

It’s important, especially in your first year when you won’t be particularly comfortable in your new environment or with the material, to do all your can to make yourself feel confident. Find the lecture theater, and figure out how to turn on all the stuff. Find out what to do and who to call if there’s a technical hitch. You should also make your peace with the fact that the audience is, in some senses, a captive one (and not in a good way). So instead of looking around the room to see people who have chosen to attend your scientific presentation (and are thus interested), you’ll see a large variety of behaviors. Particularly in a large class, you can expect up to a quarter of them (the back quarter) chatting, looking disengaged, messing about with phones. It’s a real challenge not to let this distract you. Some take the strategy of zero-tolerance to tech in the lectures (not usually feasible in the UK due to various disability-related issues), and roam the aisles to keep people quiet. Personally I just try to zone these areas of the theater out, instead making eye contact with the more engaged listeners in the middle and front of the room (who I’m sure have no idea of the help they are giving me by looking interested!). But don’t be afraid to tell people to keep quiet or leave during the break if they are really getting on your nerves.

Even if you enjoy public speaking, it’s important to realize that lecturing is a fundamentally different beast from giving an academic presentation or running a public engagement event. Being a compelling speaker, and knowing your material, will only get you so far. Indeed, you’ll probably know your material far far less well than any academic presentation you’ve ever given. In my first year of teaching, I spoke through every slide of my lecture in the hour beforehand. Now I don’t have the time for that and it was probably counterproductive in terms of energy expenditure (it’s an exhausting performance, particularly for a 2-hour lecture). It’s also likely to be more boring to you than talking about your academic work, so you’re going to have to work that bit harder to get your enthusiasm going. It’s a rare individual who can make the deadpan Alan Rickman routine for a 2-hour lecture, so enthusiasm is likely to be your safest bet. The other major difference between lecturing and giving an academic presentation is in the content of your PowerPoint presentation (warning: unpopular viewpoint ahead). Lecture slides are usually given to students as a way to facilitate their note-taking (save your ppt as .pdf -> notes pages -> 3 slides per page) and, unless you want them frantically trying to write down every word you say (even with lecture capture, this will happen), present a good amount of text on each slide. If the thought of boring, text-heavy presentations horrifies you, another strategy I’ve seen successfully employed is to provide a blog-style series of notes on the lectures themselves – something akin to a modified slide-by-slide script. But who has the time? Text-heavy slides help to keep me from forgetting what I’m supposed to be saying, and give the students more incentive to actually listen to my words. There is, of course, a balance – if you are simply reading your bullet points without filling them out with some narrative, you’ll be hearing about that at course feedback time. And the other horrifying difference – no one in the room is going to give you a round of applause (or even thank you) for your efforts. Despite this, you’ll feel pretty happy when you read a good exam script or essay which was crafted around the content you delivered – how often does that happen when you give a departmental seminar or a conference presentation?

I’ve lectured for 6 years, and every year have tried to reflect a bit about what has and hasn’t worked. I don’t have the fortitude to watch any of my lectures back, so I’m clearly not engaging with this process as effectively as I should, but I do only have a finite amount of energy to burn on this front. But there are certainly a few things I’m able to say with some certainty. My first years’ worth of teaching a course I was clearly trying to deliver too much content and make sure the students got value for money. In your first year you run the real risk of doing the same, particularly if you’re developing a course from scratch with no pre-existing syllabus to calibrate you. Scale it back. Talk more slowly. Reiterate points that are difficult. If you’re running a 2-hr lecture (students don’t particularly like it, but it’s an efficient way to manage the demands on your own time), make sure to have breaks (I have two 5-min breaks in a 2-hr lecture). I like to try to focus my lectures such that the talking points/cool videos happen just before the breaks, with the idea that students will continue talking about the cool thing they have just seen. Another tactic which I have yet to employ is to fill your breaks with some big-screen multiple choice quiz action, where students can all respond on their phones and you can tell them the correct answers after the break. Just doesn’t really seem like much of a break to me though, and I like to recharge a bit during breaks (usually by discreetly eating chocolate). Finish early, so that students have time to come and talk to you afterwards before the next lecture come flooding in. Narrative is everything – try to wrap up the facts and concepts into stories, anecdotes, metaphors (ideally all three). This doesn’t mean you have to be doing a Bill Hicks stand up routine, but you need to put enough meat on the bones for your audience to want to hear the punchline. Don’t be afraid to mix it up with different forms of media – a short video and/or demonstration of some effect in each lecture can be a very effective way to snap attention back. Finally, try to save your energy a bit on the days you lecture, to give you time to tinker with your slides and make sure they are what you want them to be.

Clearly most of these points are geared toward those lucky few who have managed to get a lectureship. But even if you aren’t yet in a position where stand-up lecturing is part of your daily life, these are things you should consider becoming involved in. Teaching a course is probably not an option for you from a university perspective, and even if it was it would be outside of the bounds of your possible workload, but offer to give a guest lecture on a supervisor’s course, or a course you enjoyed as an undergraduate. This is how I got my first teaching experience as a postdoc which was something to talk about at early lecturer interviews, and gave me person to put down as a teaching reference for my CV (ask the lecturer to get you some feedback from the class, so that you have quotes!).

Managing your workload

With the start of the new academic semester comes the inevitable influx of tweets/posts on social media about the appropriate number of hours an academic should work and how to manage the competing demands of your work life. First major caveat to start out this post with is that it’s become clear over the past five years that I’ve had a very well-protected lecturing career to date (read: limited teaching duties compared to many of my peers). I’m not entirely sure why this is (my track record is ok, but not amazing). Perhaps it stems from landing in a lectureship with a decent amount of momentum following a productive postdoctoral fellowship in North America (again, due to having complete freedom to do what I wanted and unlimited resources), and starting my lecturing role at the exciting end of a REF cycle. In short, the start of my career has been the very embodiment of early-career academic privilege, and the focus of this post is thus certainly not to tell you that you’re working too hard and that you can take your foot off the gas. All that being said, I typically work a 40hr week, and have done so at all stages of my academic career (lucky me). A lot of this is down to working in a discipline without much time-consuming baggage attached it it (cf. neuroimagers, developmental people, or the poor trainees from animal labs). There’s certainly heavy weeks when things are due and I’m doing stuff in the evenings, and light weeks when the sun is shining and I’m leaving early to hang around with the kids after school. On the whole, however, I don’t usually have the energy for any serious work on the evenings or weekends (this was true even before I had kids) – if I’m working outside of my normal hours, it has to be something I’m really motivated to do.

Compared to the typical life of a postdoc or PhD student, the days of a lecturer are a lot more varied. My typical day is filled with teaching, supervision, administrative stuff, and email-jockeying, all of which shifts the balance of time away from actual research. I have noticed that as my roles in my respective institutions have become more ‘serious’, I’ve had to change the way in which I work at completing various tasks. This is shorthand for: you will have to do some things a lot more rapidly and probably with a lot less care than you’re happy with. This is particularly true for writing – I’m no longer able to agonize over the clarity of the writing in grant applications like I once did – it’s usually sent off for internal review shortly after the first draft (there’s a degree of self-protection here as well – no one wants to have their perfect document rejected).

Your workload will fall into three categories – research, teaching, and admin. You might be tempted to rank them in that order of importance (because your promotion case likely will), but I’d argue this is a mistake for a junior academic. For one, the teaching deadlines are typically more fixed than the research ones, and if you miss some of these deadlines, all hell will break loose. The times of your lectures and seminars are not something which can be easily changed. The coursework deadlines exams will be fixed, and there will be (at best) a 3-week deadline to have all the marking done. The knock-on effects of missing teaching and/or marking deadlines reverberate further than you might imagine, and cause a lot of stress to students and the administrative team behind the scenes who are trying to organise exam boards and external examination etc. I routinely seem to cause myself untold stress and drama by scheduling my holidays to clash with the exam boards, and thus have to rush a ton of stuff to meet my newly-shortened deadline.

Similar to stand-up lecturing, you have to be on-the-ball with the supervision of dissertation students – arguably the most difficult part of your first year. This course is usually the most valuable (in terms of % of degree) for students, and they get understandably annoyed about not receiving quick responses. There’s some ways to manage this – set the ground rules about what kind of emails you want from them (bulletin-style emails are better than a lot of single queries), and use a meeting-management solution to avoid wasting too much playing scheduling ping-pong (I use Calendly, which has genuinely changed my life as an academic). Identify when you work best, and schedule meetings to occur in the other times so as not to interfere with your reading and writing too much. I like to arrange all these meetings for after my lectures, when I’m typically too exhausted to read anything but can just about manage some one-on-one human interaction. Stay on top of it though – if you fall behind in this aspect of your teaching it’ll cause you more grief than it’s worth – final year students know who to complain too about this and are usually under a significant amount of stress themselves. Of course, these dramas are often not one way traffic – if you find a relationship with a dissertation student heading south, flag it up with your director of teaching (ideally making sure that you have emailed the student at least as much as the student has emailed you…).

Administrative duties are hard to quantify. They typically fall into two categories – roles which are focused strictly on your department (programme director, year coordinator, library coordinator, admissions officer etc) or roles which are more outward facing (international, research etc). Typically at the entry level to admin, you’ll be given administrative duties which you can’t ‘break’ (read: not too important) until you get the hang of the ins and outs of your workplace. As administrative roles often swap around you will, however, rapidly find yourself in a position where you are ordered to do something by a more senior member of your department/college. Probably best to act on these requests rapidly though, at the very least to be a good colleague and make a decent impression early on. And, as you administrative responsibilities become more important, the merits of completing the work rapidly only increase. Take on external responsibilities such as reviewing, external examining, or editorial duties with caution – my advice would be to review only what you are certain you would read anyway (i.e., scale this part of your life way way back), and save the more visible external service for closer to promotion.

Research, by contrast, has few fixed deadlines. Papers are sometimes due on a particular date for special issues (but these are few and far between). Grants often have deadlines, but there’s usually another round in a few months (although be aware that you will probably have an internal deadline well in advance of the actual deadline, especially for bigger calls). The firmest deadline you’ll likely have to deal with would be those associated with conference abstract submission, but until you get some grant income that’s unlikely to be a problem as soon as your startup funds dry up.

With so few deadlines, it’s easy to let the research side of your portfolio slide away. But it’s important to keep up momentum and publish new work to show that you are an independent scientist. I’ve never really had a strategy for segregating research from other duties because I naturally lack the focus to stick on a task for any serious length of time. I’ve also been pretty lucky to have all my teaching fall in a single semester, so my unbroken period of research runs from May until January (and this is certainly long enough for me!). This coming semester, as I’m teaching, I’m going to try to keep a dedicated research day for myself (a quick look at the diary suggests that Tuesday is the only feasible day for this) – I may well blog about whether this has been feasible and successful.

Examining a PhD thesis

One of the things which will eventually land on your lap as a new lecturer is a request to examine a doctoral thesis. In the UK (where the vast majority of these requests will come from, if you are based in the UK), this typically means that an external examiner and an internal examiner will read the thesis, then provide the candidate with the opportunity to verbally defend their thesis (the viva). You probably went through this process, or something similar, in the past decade.

Being an external examiner is something I’ve not actually done, so can’t give much concrete advice on. Different institutions have their own processes – the internal examiner should simply guide you through the booking of hotels etc (don’t forget your bloody passport if you want to get paid). Suffice to say, most of the externals I’ve worked with come up with their own techniques to deal with the process. There is a tendency for early career scientists to be the real bulldogs, giving the candidates a much harder time than a more experienced academic would. My advice would be to try to hone your examining skills by volunteering for departmental upgrades/conversions (roughly equivalent to North American Comprehensive Exams) – the process by which most UK PhD students are allowed to process out of their first year. Another view (possibly not a popular one) is that you are making an assessment less about the nitty-gritty of the body of work you are reading, but whether you feel the candidate has provided sufficient evidence they are ready to become a fully-fledged academic. And please don’t, for the love of God, feel that you should use your experience and/or superior knowledge of the literature to spank the candidate and, by proxy, their supervisor. Choosing an external examiner is, in part, an act of faith on the part of the candidate and the supervisor – think hard before abusing that trust.

Most likely, as an early career academic, you’ll be asked to be an internal examiner at your own institution long before engaging in any external examining. There are several key differences between the role of the internal and the external. First, you don’t get paid as an internal – it’s simply part of your expected ‘good citizen’ duties. That’s not to say it’s unsatisfying – you’ll probably know the candidate to a degree so seeing them through the process is quite nice. But this leads rapidly to the first point, which will far pre-date your invitation to be an examiner. Keep your distance a bit from the doctoral student community who you feel you may be a likely candidate to be an examiner for. There’s no need to be aloof or anything – we all draw our lines in different places. But bear in mind that the transition from friend to examiner on the most important academic day of their life can be a jarring one for you both. If you have any hint of a conflict of interest (co-publication, for example), recuse yourself of the duty and hand it off to someone who is prima facie impartial.

Second, you’ll have a bunch of paperwork to organize. Usually both examiners write a short report on the thesis (their views on what they will ask the candidate about in the viva), followed by a short report on the viva (how it actually went). Find the paperwork, read the guidelines, and have a plan of how the day will go. The external might well have to run off rapidly after the viva to catch a train (or they might equally want be taken out for dinner). Get a room booked, and check it our beforehand – a viva is a bit strange to do in a large room, distracting to do in a room with large glass windows, and unpleasant to do in a room with a lot of traffic (foot or road) outside. Organize refreshments/lunch. Print out a ‘do not disturb, examination in progress’ sign and put it on the door.

For the actual viva itself, you’ll probably be about as nervous as the candidate. But in reality you probably won’t need to do a vast amount of preparation – the external will do most of the heavy intellectual lifting. A typical ‘workload’ for me so far has been that the internal will ask one question for every three or four questions posed by the external. It’s not inappropriate to dip into your own knowledge base, but bear in mind the context under which the thesis has been written – don’t fire in too many left-field questions. As an internal, I like to focus on statistical matters, while letting the externals focus on the conceptual stuff. Some externals like the candidate to give a short informal presentation, some prefer to get right into it. The viva will probably run for somewhere between 2.5 and 4 hours, so offer the candidate comfort (toilet/cigarette) breaks after a couple of hours, or if you feel things are getting too spicy.

Which brings us to one of the main difficult (but largely unspoken) roles of the internal – to protect the candidate and defuse the situation if things get out of hand with the external. I’ve never experienced this myself, but there are occasional horror stories (from both the candidate and internal) or external examiners who push inappropriately hard or a candidate who freezes up completely. To be honest, I have no idea how I’d deal with this, but I assume that I’d assume the role of debate moderator and work hard to steer the conversation back on to safe ground with a soft ball question to get everything back on track. The best way to avoid any nasty surprises will be to engage with the external early in the process. Arrange a phone call with the external well in advance of the date (this mean, of course, you have to read it well in advance) and make sure you’re all on the same page. If you aren’t on the same page, and worry the external is going to fail the candidate unfairly, elevate the matter to someone more senior in your department or the university’s doctoral college – don’t agonize over this alone (probably best initially to keep the candidate, and their supervisory team, out of the conversation).

At the end of the viva, you send the candidate out of the room (probably back to their supervisor’s office for a bit of a debrief) and discuss your decision. There will be a number of possible outcomes – accept with no corrections (rare), accept with minor correction (common), accept with major corrections (the only difference between this and minor is the timescale to complete them, so if the candidate is in unusual circumstances such as a carer/parent you might want to consider this option as a kindness to them), major corrections with re-viva (usually the worst case scenario), or fail (usually downgrade to an MPhil). I’ve never heard of this latter case happening, although I’m sure it must occasionally with students who have been poorly supervised or passed around from academic to academic when the primary supervisor moves institution (probably appropriate context to bear in mind when making your decision though…). Then go and hunt them back down, and bring them back in the room to deliver the, hopefully good, news (this is the best part). Give the candidate feedback, and tell them not to worry about taking notes at this stage – you and the external will prepare them a full list of corrections they need to undertake. Explain what they will need to do, and the time frame they will have to do it in, and if appropriate congratulate them. Then enjoy their happiness and re-live the good times vicariously. It’s all in all a pretty fun experience – you get to spend time talking to a smart person at the start of their career (the candidate) and a smart established person (the external) from slightly outside your field – so try to enjoy the day.

Pastoral care

One of the main changes from postdoc to lecturer is the amount of student-facing time, which shoots up from very rarely to at least once a day during term-time. But you’re ready for this – you’ve maybe even done a bit of teaching prep, guest lecturing, or taking a whole course to prepare. But one of the things that which I certainly didn’t appreciate at all before becoming a student-facing lecturer is the level of pastoral support which is typically built into the infrastructure of UK universities.

Typically, an undergraduate student in will be assigned a personal tutor (or some other such strangely parental-sounding term). This means that you, as a lecturer, will have upwards of 20 individuals who are supposed to have you as their first point of contact when something goes wrong. You will likely be supposed to briefly meet with them at least once per term to catch up with/ask how exams went/provide general advice. The majority won’t bother coming at all. With the students who do show up, these meetings are usually pretty painless, albeit often at inconvenient times of the year when you’re feeling pretty busy. As neither of you particularly wants to be making small talk with one another or sit in silence, it’s worth coming up with a series of questions relevant to their stage (how did exams go? what are you working toward career wise? have you got an up to date CV looked over by the careers service?). Your main duty will be to be constantly telling them to get a doctor’s note if they come knocking at your door requiring an extension for coursework or mitigation for an exam so they can do it in the resit period for free. Similarly, you will also point them in the right direction if they are struggling with their writing/exam performance as they might have issues with anxiety or dyslexia – typically students in these cases will have special allowances made so that they aren’t disadvantaged (but only if they’ve told someone).

Things get tricky when a student comes to you with serious personal problems. This happens to be once or twice a year – it’s not uncommon for, at some point in their degree, a student to have either a mental health crisis, personal problems, or a combination of the two which render them unable to adequately focus on their work (or, indeed, much else). It took me totally by surprise that I was all of a sudden forced to act as a (completely untrained) counselor for these individuals. This can become a particular issue for the more popular and approachable-seeming (often more junior female) members of staff who students actively seek out to talk to about non-academic matters. You should, however, resist the urge to try to actively council the student too much – you don’t have the training for this and it can be very emotionally draining. Instead, try to take the role of a sympathetic ear and someone who can provide a signpost to the more appropriate person to talk to. Have a look at the web pages associated with the student health services, so you know roughly what the students have to navigate though. Universities have mental health provisions associated with their student welfare services and you need to try to encourage the student to make an appointment right away. This doesn’t mean you should be passive though – email through the direct link that the student needs to make an appointment with at the end of the meeting, and follow up with them shortly after to make sure they have followed through. The continued prompting is often what will make sure the student gets the help they really need. Set yourself an diary alert to contact them – it’s easy to forget when your other duties are stacking up, but it can really make a huge difference to their wellbeing. Finally, don’t try to take on the difficult cases alone – ask colleagues for advice, either with the student’s permission or describing the situation more abstractly. It can become incredibly taxing to take on these worries all by yourself, and the training provided for such situations is usually thin on the ground, or only sought when it’s too late.

 

*This post wouldn’t have been possible without input from my colleague, Rosa James-Watling, who helped me tons with this, including input into the post itself.

Reference/recommendation letters

As I mentioned in on of my earlier posts it that, as you progress through your academic career, you’ll find yourself writing more and more letters of recommendation for former PhD students, undergraduate dissertation students, personal tutees etc etc. These typically come all at once (toward the end of the teaching term) when you are at your busiest. One of the jobs you will have to do when you become a lecturer is writing the annual splurge of reference letters. Most of these will be ‘forced’ upon you as one of your duties as a personal tutor (i.e., in a non-academic context) for a small (or not-so-small) number of undergraduate of taught postgraduate students. In these cases, you’ll typically have little to say about the student themselves beyond their grades and your general impression of them, so you can save yourself a lot of time by preparing a standard ‘form’ letter, plugging in the relevant names, values, and niceties. A word of caution though – students (everyone actually) has a right to request to see their letters of reference, and there are even anecdotal reports of disgruntled individuals taking their referee to court for ruining their chances of employment. You could always just refuse to write the reference, but that’s probably not helping anyone either – people need two letters for a job, one of which usually has to be academic. So keep it reasonably neutral and don’t agonize too much over the detail/personalization unless you genuinely feel the student has made an impression on you (and, even in this non-academic context, some will).

But what about writing a good reference letter for a cherished former trainee who you want to help really get that job? I recently found myself in this position shortly after conducting a bunch of job interviews for a postdoc. The combination of these really made me question what makes a good reference letter. Some were clearly far to brief to be of any positive (or negative) value, but the ones which were incredibly effusive also perhaps didn’t quite have the effect they were intended to (reading, in effect, as if trying rather too hard…). Clearly this is a difficult skill to master and I’m still far from sure, but lots of the good people on Twitter had lots of helpful advice.

 

 

Not sure if it’s possible to derive any consistent themes from these, but if I had to really try I’d say concrete examples seem like they’d catch my eye. Also take care to avoid the gendered language pitfalls – there’s academic work showing that letters of recommendation written for women fall into cliched language which might be disadvantageous. If you want to double check your own letter, there’s a nice website where you can paste and evaluate your writing for gender bias.

Should I choose to supervise a student?

I’ve already blogged about the supervision of undergraduate project students from the perspective of an early career researcher. In short, it’s hard (arguably the hardest part of the job for a new lecturer) and requires a fair bit of juggling to manage up to 10 independent projects simultaneously run by students with varying degrees of skill and enthusiasm for the work. But, long before you reach your first permanent position, you will likely be offered the opportunity to supervise BSc or MSc project students. This seems like a fantastic opportunity (and indeed it can be) – you get to be the boss of people who’s shoes you were sitting in a few short years ago. And, better yet, you get and extended recruitment network and the sweet satisfaction of data that you don’t actually have to collect. But beware – it’s not all roses!

The first thing to consider is that you will be, for the first time, working to the timeline of another. Typically PhD students and postdocs get to set their own pace, and setbacks can often be absorbed in the the multiple-year-long timescales of these positions. Undergraduate project students, however, have to design a project, submit an ethics form, collect data, and perform statistical analysis in the space of a single academic year. This might seem perfectly manageable (you did it, right?), but the kicker here is that most students aren’t as motivated as you presumably were. In five years of being a lecturer, I consistently have 1 or 2 dissertation students a year who, maddeningly, completely fail to engage with the process, despite the fact that it’s worth about 1/4 to 1/3rd of their degree award. Furthermore, the most motivated students will often have different problems, biting off more than they can chew in terms of experimental design or data collection ambitions. And, early in your academic career, it’s hard not to get caught up in the infectiousness.

That’s not to say that it’s not an opportunity you should embrace. It’s an important first step toward filling out the teaching portion of you CV, and will help you answer several of the vague difficult interview questions you’ll eventually be faced with (“can you give me an example of a time when you’ve had to resolve a difficult situation?” etc). It can also be incredibly rewarding. I’ve had fantastic experiences throughout my PhD and postdoc supervising single students. One, in my postdoc in particular, really kick started my time in my new lab, doing her dissertation with me and getting summer funding to continue working with me (and ending up on three publications. With hindsight though, it’s clear that my various supervisors did a fine careful job of selecting my student trainees for me to keep my life free from such difficulties.

So, some tangible bits of advice for ECRs who are keen to get their hands dirty with a bit of supervision:

  1. Find the student yourself instead of being handed one by your supervisor. This can be difficult depending on the mechanisms for assigning students to supervisors – maybe someone you’ve tested, who showed an interest in your experiment (note – this is a major reason to fully engage in the debrief of your participants). Ask your supervisor and/or ask the coordinator of the dissertation module if you aren’t sure how this process works.
  2. Don’t try out a new paradigm, unless you are 100% that there are not technical issues. Delays with coding the experiment, building the equipment, preparing the stimuli, or gaining ethical approval will stress out your student, which will in turn stress you out. So, choose a project which is foolproof/well-established from a technical viewpoint. I think the right ‘time’ to add a student to a project is about experiment 2 of an incremental three-experiment sequence.
  3. Make sure it’s a small and feasible project. Not just in terms of the data collection, but also in terms of the literature the student will have to engage with. Can you articulate a directional single-sentence hypothesis? If not, then it’s too big for student work.
  4. Related, make sure the project seems interesting and important enough in its own right. Giving students one condition or ‘arm’ of a larger project is a risky maneuver – it’s difficult for them to see the context of the work in the same way as you, especially if the rest of the data was collected a while back. Giving them a simple control condition, when you’ve done the cool stuff, also doesn’t lead to a particularly satisfying thesis for the student.
  5. Resist the urge to take multiple students on a single project (or, god forbid, distinct projects).  It might seem efficient, but usually they are not twice as useful, they will be twice as much trouble. Save the grief of supervising multiple students for when you are being paid to do it!
  6. Teach them good research habits, and don’t let them get a sense that there is a ‘wrong’ result for the project. Make them practice the introductory participant chat and experimental protocol in front of you – they will invariably not fully understand what you tell them.
  7. Check with your supervisor about how much help you should be giving them for data organization/stats etc. Also, ask if you can co-mark their final thesis. In most places, the ‘context’ of the project is taken into account for the final mark, and learning how to do this is a skill all in itself.
  8. Stay in touch with the student if you are at all invested in the project so you ask them details which you have forgotten/left out of their thesis and can include them as an author (if appropriate given their contribution). This does your CV no harm by building up your ‘successful educator’ and ‘independence from supervisor’ narrative early on. Best practice here would be to have them do something beyond the work they did for the project – be it making some better graphs, doing some supplementary analysis, or simply (and this is important anyway) providing feedback on the draft.
  9. Following on from above, you should be drafting the paper based on the project (assuming the idea was largely yours) – unless it’s an exceptional student, you don’t yet need/want the grief of helping someone write a paper, and turning a dissertation into a paper is a total nightmare. And if you do let them write it, make sure you take the final author position rather than being dumped in the middle of the author list as a reward for all your hard work (assuming you feel comfortable negotiating these things with your supervisor).

As per usual, that was far more than I planned to write when I started this list. Anyways, happy supervising!