So, it’s been a while. I’m now in the UK having left my research fellow post in the USA to take up a permanent Lecturer (Assistant Professor) position at a UK university so I can start to build my own group.
It’s been a year today since I started my new role and I’m sad to report, I thought I would have achieved much more this year. I’ve come to a department that was research-intensive, then wasn’t, and now they want to be again. They brought in a group of new lecturers, me included, as part of this endeavor. Unfortunately, the research facilities are not all up to scratch. The cupboard door on my fume hood fell off a couple of days ago and we’re about to have the fifth or sixth fume cupboard shutdown since I’ve been here next week. Progress has, therefore, been slow. Let me say this, if I can do what I’ve done here, I can do it anywhere! It’s not all bad and the investments being made will turn things around eventually. However, it’s been a rough year.
Setting up your own lab is difficult. When it’s just you for the year, it can be really rough. I was given a couple of undergraduate project students to do research, but nothing much came of it as they struggled with the projects they were given. I spent a lot of time assisting them with their research, and was sad that after a lot of effort nothing had really been delivered. The rest of the time I’ve been learning to teach, teaching and squeezing in my own research. Luckily, I came here with a little grant that has allowed me to purchase the chemicals I need. Without that, I do not know how I would have survived.
I managed to talk a first year undergraduate student into working on a computational project this summer. He seems happy modeling proteins while I spend the summer in the lab synthesizing peptides. I’ve heard a lot of new academics are given PhD students by their department. This did not happen, so once my undergraduate finishes this summer, my research group will be back down to a number of 1. I’m frantically writing grants to get money for a postdoc and technician so that it’s not just me and my research activities can become productive while I’m teaching. I actually love what I do, but I wish it were just a little bit easier here.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing. Trying to get data and money to start a research group while doing my first proper teaching role. Challenging, tiring, but fun.
You know how there’s all those jokes about trying to get on the tenure track, trying to stay on it and actually making it through review? You know, all those stories about the hell that is trying to survive and get by in academia where some of it seems like an undocumented feature? Well, this week I had a day where I felt like I was acting out a metaphor for academic life. All I had to do was find a room.
There was a seminar. A networking session. Free pizza. An opportunity to meet new
drinking buddies peers who could assist my slow climb to world domination the next boulder up the academic mountain. The instructions were simple enough; go to room 747, in the Health Sciences building, at 12. Simples. The building is logical enough (I thought), rooms number 100 – 199 are on the first floor, rooms 200+ on the second, etc. Pretty straight forward. I’ve never been to the 700s before though, so I go early incase I happen to get lost.
I get to the building excited at the possibility of meeting more like-minded people and I find there are only 6 floors. It’s either the 6th floor or the roof. I pick 6th. This is when I learn that rabbit warrens have been built within our university buildings. There are corridors hidden within corridors. Some seem to shut themselves off from others once you are in them. Some corridors look like you shouldn’t be there, either that or they ran out of money for paint and adequate lighting.
I figure I’ll handle this logically. If there is no 7th floor then the 700s should be somewhere here, a split level floor perhaps? So I start walking in the direction where the 600 numbers increase. I trudge onwards, turning corners into more corners. No one else appeared to be here. I saw cadavers. No seminar room. Still alone. Is the 6th floor out of bounds and no one told me? The 600s started decreasing. I took a door that linked me to more corridors that enclosed the corridors I’d been wandering down. Numbers started increasing and then I found the 700s… they increased, for a bit. Then they stopped. The 600s started again. This madness continues for a while as the inclination to keep looking over my shoulder grows. I start to wonder if this is some hidden camera show for tenured faculty to watch. There is no room 747. Tenured faculty send out those emails and then watch the rest of us come and visit their maze of hell.
But, I did check… and there was a room 747 listed on the university webpage. Having met professors who have eschewed excel files for a print out of a graph so they can check a line of fit is straight or asked me to weigh cutouts of my peaks instead of using a computer to integrate them – talk about old school – I can’t imagine tenured professors would have the know how to hack the university web just for a joke.
Then it dawned on me. These corridors don’t lead to room 747. It was obvious. I work at Hogwarts! I’ve overlooked the possibility that the staircases change! It’s just a matter of waiting for the staircase to move so I can gain access to room 747. But then… which staircase? It appears this may be a group only for those fledgling faculty who are in “the know”. If you can find it, you can move your piece forward in the game of tenure. I have not yet received the staircase knowledge. Must I go back to “Go”? Do I collect $200?
Or, is it like the room of requirement? Where, if I had wanted it hard enough, the magical room 747 would have appeared to serve my needs. I thought I really wanted this career, but the door didn’t appear when I hovered by the other 700s. Maybe I don’t want to be a professor as much as I thought? But then, they did have free pizza. And, I really did want that pizza.
I’m an academic. In search of a room.
I’ve been playing around with the format of our weekly journal club. The weekly activity now alternates between critiquing the draft manuscript of a group member and the published works of others. The motivation for this format is to engage the students more by making clearer links between reviewing others work to strengthening their own writing, as well as keeping us up-to-date with research outside of the group.
Having worked in industry, I’m very passionate about ensuring any students I mentor are taught skills that they will need in business as well as helping them with their academic work. Hence, I decided to introduce an often used business procedure to our journal club, the SWOT report. A SWOT report is a short document that succinctly summarizes the strengths, weakness, opportunities, threats (and sometimes also trends) of a project. It can be used in many contexts, from assessing human resource requirements to assessing whether a new marketing plan needs to be adopted.
T: Threats and Trends
I know many of my students won’t have heard of SWOT analysis or reports, yet I know it’s likely they will have to write one if they progress to a management level outside of academia. I also know that some of these techniques used in business are used precisely because of their effectiveness for assessing information.
So, how can the SWOT report be utilized in an academic journal club setting and what are the advantages?
It helps when critiquing literature to have a structure to how you are going to group your various thoughts about what is good and bad about an article, as well as where you see the work positioned within the field and the future prospects for that avenue of research or the approach being employed.
When reviewing literature the last thing you want is to increase the time involved by writing an in-depth report. Writing such a report is not what the SWOT analysis is about. The SWOT approach can be harnessed to help quickly digest a research article in a structured manner by using it as a method to create a one page summary critique.
1. Separate a single letter or A4 sized piece of paper into four quarters and write at the top of each quadrant the letters S, W, O and T.
2. As you read through the paper try to identify both strengths and weaknesses and start entering them as bullet points in the relevant quarter of your page.
Questions to keep in mind as you do this are:
- Is there something you think is missing, such as an analysis you deem essential to be able to draw their conclusions
- Were the results significant?
- Were the statistical tests and analysis used appropriate?
- Was the paper written in a clear and understandable way?
- Does the study contribute to the body of knowledge?
- Is the approach used, experimental or theoretical, appropriate for this work?
- Is the work reliable, in your opinion?
- Based on the methods and analysis used, do you think the results are valid?
- Are the methods well described?
- Could the work be reproduced from the information given?
3. Now identify opportunities. Re-scan the article if you need to.
Consider the following:
- How could the research be extended?
- What would you do next if this were your research?
- Was there a set of results that you think warrant further examination/confirmation in a follow up paper?
- Does the paper reveal something new, a new approach or hypothesis, which could open a new direction of research and perhaps be the start of a new field with lots of opportunities for future research?
- Do you see an opportunity for a study to try and refute the conclusions?
4. The last step is to identify threats and trends. This is a little bit different from what we’d consider direct weaknesses of a paper and more about considering how the work presented sits within the field.
Trends can be the increasingly common use of an experimental method for examining a certain property, or the popularity of a certain area of research, such as that illustrated by the sudden growth in research articles regarding intrinsically disordered proteins.
Threats are usually aspects of the work in opposition to those that you would list under “opportunities.” For example, it could be that the researchers have used an approach about to be superseded by more modern techniques. It could be that the authors have used experimental methods with known limitations that could bring the results of the article into question when more advanced experiments become available.
Threats could also be other groups that are known to be performing the same (or similar) research, possibly with different results that conflict with the conclusions made in the article. This would lead us to consider if both sets of results are valid and whether real controversy exists or whether it is a case of one group being limited to using methods that may not report on the properties being measured accurately enough.
Other questions to consider are:
- Is the research methodology following old trends?
- Are they introducing new methods?
- Or using methods, recently introduced by others, that seems to becoming a popular approach in the field over other older methods?
- Is the research presenting anything that builds on current knowledge or is it clear that this research avenue is coming to a close?
- Have the researchers taken advantage of recent advancements in experimental or theoretical methods?
- Is the continuance of this line of research threatened by a lack of resources?
- Are the methods they used soon to be superseded by advancements that might bring their results into question?
Here I am! I’m here!! Finally!!!!
After exploding and malting some weeks ago… Bench Monkee is finally ready and filming begins.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for… your host is here! Let me introduce, for the first time, Bench Monkee.
You know when you have one of those days where your puppet is just about ready to start filming and you’re all excited that you might get to upload something to YouTube, but then stuffing explodes out of the side of the monkee’s face? I just had two of these sorts of days, each involving unpicking, de-stuffing, re-sewing, re-stuffing and a lot of cursing. To add insult to injury, I have made the most terrible decision in regard to the stuffing I selected. If you ever make a puppet or teddy bear yourself, do not use SynFeather stuffing. I ordered it because it’s supposed to be great for creating firm shapes but it sticks everywhere! It’s migrated to every room, it’s in my bed, in my pants… everywhere. My house currently looks like a giant with a bad case of dandruff danced by. I even got home from work yesterday, which was a day in itself where my workplace was surrounded by SWAT teams (see here and here), only to embrace my partner and find that he and his beard were also covered in this stuff.
Since I will be moving in four days and am currently surrounded by empty boxes that need filling with everything I own, now also covered in the stuffing that will never go away, I will not be uploading anything to YouTube yet. I am so sorry for those of you I know were looking forward to seeing the puppet and checking out my channel. I will be back in touch once I’ve settled down at the new pad and I am no longer being tormented by my ill choice of stuffing.
Until then, take care and beware any white synthetic stuffing, it looks friendly but it will suffocate you while you sleep.
Things have been frantic here, but me and SZ found an apartment and are moving in a weeks time. It’s all happened so fast that I’m afraid my Bench Monkee activities were neglected. Apologies for not posting something today, as promised. I will get something to you this weekend though as I just finished the assembly of the puppet 🙂
Hope you are all having a great weekend!
So, Sequester Zone mentions me on YouTube and my readership stats go crazy. Thank you all for coming to visit my blog and check out what this Bench Monkee thing is all about.
As SZ mentioned in his video (The Mismeasure of Man Criticisms), we are having landlord issues at the moment so my original plans to launch on March 28th have been sidetracked. I will be trying to upload something on that day, unfortunately not the episode I’d originally planned, which was going to be about the scientific method and recent discussions that have occurred about retiring certain concepts, such as falsifiability. One of my previous entries was about this, if that sort of thing interests you. So, although the episode I’d planned will not be ready, I will upload something, even if all I get to do is a small intro vid so you guys can get to meet Bench Monkee.
As a reward for stopping by my blog, I give you pictures… of severed limbs and eye balls… eek! Actually, this pile of hairy body parts is Bench Monkee, pre-assembly, who will be the superstar of the channel (one hopes). Hope to be entertaining you soon on YouTube, until then, ttfn. :(|)