Archive for January, 2015

I work at Hogwarts

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.


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Journal Club: SWOT Report Style

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.

S: Strengths
W: Weaknesses
O: Opportunities
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?

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