With my first post to this blog I wanted to talk about an exciting new frontier in scientific reserach and clinical medicine. A recent article on darkdaily.com discussed setbacks of the clinical utility of artificial intelligence systems for oncologists and anatomic pathologists. Understandably so, medical professionals do not want to be replaced by computers. However, it seems that every day we get new toys to play with that involve machine learning. So, how can we utilize these tools to improve the quality of science without losing rigor and responsibility? In February of this year, Steven A. Wartman and C. Donald Combs published an article in the AMA Journal of Ethics describing the potential use of AI in medical education. They explain how AI can be used to improve knowledge management in the classroom which can further be translated to greater efficiency in the clinic.
I think we can be doing more! AI can have applications in all fields of science and medicine. We need to work to continue to improve this new tool and use it to better our scientific progress. At the University of South Carolina we have recently created an Artificial Intelligence Institute to boost AI applications in both the research and classroom settings. This is one of many steps we are taking to improve the impact of AI in STEM.
Do you have an exciting way you use AI in your science? Do you want to see AI used more in the classroom? Share your opinion on the use of AI in science and medicine!
Have you ever wondered if a journal has open peer review? Or if a journal allows co-reviewing by students and post-docs? It can seem as if this information is impossible to find. Transpose is a new database aimed at making journal editorial policies more transparent and accessible.
So… you worked hard on your paper. You ran the experiments and wrote up the results. You got the cover letter just right, and you made sure to polish the title, the abstract, and the figures . Finally, you submitted your work to a journal, and a few days later you received an email letting you know that the editors have sent your work out for peer review!
A recent investigation finds that an alarming number of “academic” journals offered a completely fake scientist a position on their editorial boards. Read the article, published in Nature, in which the authors describe their sting and give further information on avoiding predatory journals.
Finding time to write can be difficult. As a young scientist, one can be constantly bombarded with experiments, classes, meetings… The list goes on and on. It can seem as if writing gets pushed further and further back in the “To Do List”. Developing a strategy early in one’s career to stay on top of writing projects can be extremely important. One thought is to try “the 1-hour workday”:
In my day job, I’m the chief of corporate development at Summit Consulting, a Washington, D.C.-based data analytics and quantitative consulting firm. We’re about as STEM as you get. We hire statisticians, coders, programmers, economists and data scientists.
Women have consistently been underrepresented in STEM degrees and careers. According to a 2017 Department of Commerce report, women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015 but held only 24 percent of STEM jobs.
At Summit, 38 percent of our staff are women. This wasn’t by accident. In going after the very best talent, we created a corporate culture that attracts and supports many incredible women who in turn grow the careers of other female technical consultants. Here’s some of their top advice on how to work in STEM when you may be the only woman in the room:Don’t be afraid to give and get feedback.
Instead of being offended by feedback, try to understand where the individual is coming from and learn how to grow from it. Even if it is not delivered well. “Don’t limit yourself to giving feedback to your team,” said Tori Puryear, a senior consultant at Summit. “Oftentimes, your leaders are put into new situations or positions they have never been in before and could use your perspective as well. People will respect you if you can give and take thoughtful feedback.”Have confidence to share your opinions
It can be difficult to speak up when you’re the only woman in the room. “It always bothered me when others received opportunities because they were more vocal, even though I believed that I was more informed,” said Katie Lettunich, a senior analyst at Summit. “Gaining confidence to state my opinion, whether it be to a boss, client, or over-confident colleague, has presented me with more opportunities than simply holding back and waiting for my work to be recognized.”
Learning a little about a lot of projects can help you see connections where others don’t. Learning at least cursory skills in multiple technologies makes you in demand when project teams are staffing up and new roles are opened. “Coding in multiple software languages has made me very valuable internally,” said Laura Hoesly, a consultant at Summit. “I can work on lots of different projects and really influence the direction of my career.”Follow the footsteps of other women whose careers you admire
While there may be limited women in leadership to serve as mentors or sponsors, simply observe the career trajectory of women whose career paths you want want to emulate, said senior consultant Natalie Patten, “I use Kaye — a manager — as a template for parts of my career, and I either ask her, observe her or think to myself ‘what would Kaye do’ when I’m trying to advance my career through promotion, place myself well for a new case/project, or handle a tough client or situation.”Look around the corner
And what happens when you’re the only woman in the room? Olivia Hebner, a senior analyst at Summit, advised, “Look outside the room!” You might be the only woman in the current room, but there are absolutely other women just around the corner who are readily available to chat and help me solve problems. Women’s Affinity Groups within your organization are a great place to start. If one doesn’t exist, seek out professional groups in person like Meetups or online through LinkedIn Groups.
In previous letters, we have given advice about launching research labs, giving talks about the research done in those labs, and writing about that research for peers and the broader world. An assumption lurking behind those pieces of advice is that you have the resources to do all that great work. In this letter, we’re addressing that elephant in the room head on: getting funding for your research.
Regardless of your funding history, you probably already have some experience with the basic relevant skills. As a prospective student, you had to persuade a committee that you belonged in a certain training program. For those now in faculty or other principal investigator positions, you had to persuade other committees to hire you into those roles. Funding is not all that different. You are making a pitch to persuade a committee that you are the right person with the right idea at the right place at the right moment in time to execute the project you are proposing, and if awarded the money you will advance knowledge in a manner consistent with its mission.
How do you do that, exactly? Here are five tips to guide the way.
Have a clear, testable, idea and an explanation of why it is important
The first rule of grants is to be clear about what the “big idea” is that you are trying to test and to articulate why it is worth spending money to test that idea. It is not sufficient to say no one has examined that process before; there are plenty of things that have never been studied, many for good reason. Explain why your idea is worthy of investment. Explain the intellectual merits and broader impacts of your research. It’s likely that some of the reviewers or panelists are not experts in your research area, so do not assume they will immediately understand the cosmic significance of your research. If a reviewer gets to the end of the proposal and does not have a sense of why your work matters, the proposal is unlikely to be funded.
The goal is to clearly demonstrate that you can test your specific question and that you have thought through the challenges and alternative hypotheses to your idea—not to demonstrate everything that you know or could do with the project, as Wil was reminded when he submitted a grant to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). He included a section listing a number of directions for possible exploratory analysis, thinking this would be interpreted as “value added.” But the grant was rejected because reviewers struggled to understand how these details fit into the larger research proposal. He resubmitted the next round deleting that extraneous paragraph and was funded.
If you are unsure about whether your research idea is a good fit for a particular grant or a funding opportunity is worth your time to apply for, some agencies welcome you to schedule a phone call with a program officer to discuss the idea and whether it fits with their priorities. If this isn’t an option, ask your mentors and colleagues for feedback about your ideas and their fit with different funding agencies. Their input will help you determine whether and where to send your proposal, as well as how to tailor it if you do.
Explain the idea in a clear and concise manner
Scientists are notorious for our jargon and dense, convoluted writing, which can make it difficult to understand even the most brilliant of ideas. When writing and revising grant proposals, ask yourself—and even better, a friend—whether there are clearer, more concise ways to convey the central points in the proposal. It is often tempting to use the complex jargon of our sub-sub-discipline, but that can undermine our success. If our reviewers do not understand what we are trying to communicate because it is written in an overly complex manner, then they are unlikely to fund us. Remember that grant panelists often have a large stack of dense grant applications to read. Assume they are tired when reading and make yours as easy to read as possible.
Consider this road sign: “No person shall on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday the day preceding a public holiday, or on a public holiday, drive or cause to be driven between the hours of 6 p.m. and midnight, a motor vehicle which exceeds 10.5 M in length in all main roads.” It conveys an important message, but that message is incredibly difficult to understand. Here is a clearer and more concise way to say the same thing: “No trucks on weekends and holidays.” As William Strunk, Jr. and E. B White advise in their classic guide The Elements of Style, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. … This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Writing concisely also helps you craft a proposal without holes in it. Most grants have hard page limits, and funders and reviewers expect you to cover a lot of ground on those pages. Leah once had an impossible time staying within the page limit for a National Institute of Mental Health R01 grant, so in the eleventh hour she decided to cut a substantial section unpacking an analysis technique. She didn’t get the grant. What red flag did the reviewers raise? They weren’t sure about that analysis technique and whether she was ready to use it. Every single question the reviewers raised was covered in the section that ended up on the cutting room floor. Instead of deleting sections that may be important, make your entire proposal more concise. To avoid eleventh-hour scrambles, build “streamlining time” into your writing schedule.
Know your funders’ priorities and tailor the proposal accordingly
Scientists often get frustrated with funders because we believe our ideas are brilliant—therefore, any funder should just see that brilliance and fund us accordingly. The reality is that every funder has a mission statement that declares the scope of research they are interested in, and many funders have statements about their current priorities. Read. Those. Statements. Carefully. And incorporate them into your proposals.
Your proposal needs to explicitly address how it fits with the funder’s general mission and current priority areas. Those areas often have pots of money earmarked for projects, so you need to persuade the funder that your project is eligible for one or more of those pots. Behind the scenes, program officers look at the proposals that come to them, look at their budgets, and make decisions about which projects are a good fit given the amount of money they have left in that budget cycle. Sometimes they will work together to co-fund proposals, but only if you have made the case that your idea fits with those programs.
Take the perspective of your busy, overworked, and tired reviewers
Grant reviewers are often reviewing grants on top of their already busy schedules of conducting research, teaching, conducting professional service, and managing their lives. Help your exhausted reviewers help you. Write a concise proposal that has clear headlines, is easy to read and visually appealing, has a logical flow from one paragraph to the next, contains visuals that complement the words, and connects to a broad audience in that field. Write a proposal that identifies a specific, concrete problem and a group that this problem affects. Walk them through how the knowledge generated by this research may help solve this problem. Cite the literature this work is building on, but don’t get stuck in the minutiae of that literature—what you plan to do matters more than adding extra noise to a long debate in your field. Show the reviewers that your research team has the expertise to carry out this project, and that when you finish, we will learn something that is worth knowing. In some ways, you are writing a story; it just doesn’t have an ending yet. If they give you the money to do that research, it will. That is the kind of proposal that gets funded—it is the kind of proposal that gets overworked reviewers excited about science.
Page limits make it tempting to cram as much information as possible into each square inch, using every trick to compress information and leave no white space. Grants like this are sometimes impossible to read and are frequently full of acronyms that require a table to translate. Avoid this trap. You don’t want reviewer frustrations to color their perceptions of the grant. The easier it is to read and find the critical information, the happier the reviewers will be. For example, Wil was once on an NSF panel where one of the most highly rated grants only used 13 of the 15 pages allowed. It was clear, compelling, and an idea that needed to be funded. Use what you need, not what you can squeeze in.
Grant proposals, like journal articles and other elements of scientific life, are often rejected on the first attempt. Those rejections should not be interpreted as indictments of your idea; they are opportunities to revise the proposal and resubmit either in the next cycle or to a different funder. With many funding agencies, it is extremely unlikely to get funded on the first round.
Read the reviews you get carefully, and if there are no reviews, ask whether you can speak with a program officer to learn what went wrong. Take the critiques seriously, address them, and move forward with the proposal. That persistence will often pay off.
Neil thanks Dr. Jacinta Beehner at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for the many insights she shared in her graduate seminar on how to write a grant (and get it funded!) that he took when he was a graduate student. Many of the tips in this letter were inspired by lessons learned in that course.
When one of us—John—started as an assistant professor, he was surprised at how much his day-to-day work differed from when he had been a trainee. He had known it would change, of course, but suddenly he found himself drawing on a totally different set of skills. He was no longer a researcher, but rather a project manager. Peering into a microscope, pipetting, and dissecting were replaced with grant writing, budgeting, and managing students.
This experience is common. Many who make that transition to principal investigator (PI) find themselves utterly unprepared for their new duties. Their training failed them in preparing for their real job! But it doesn’t have to be that way. Trainees can seek out opportunities to expand their skills and render themselves better prepared to lead a research program down the line. It means taking a little time away from research to develop additional expertise, but it’s a trade-off that’s well worth it. Here are our tips for getting started down that path.
Apply for external funding. Junior PIs spend the vast majority of their time asking for research dollars. You can hone the skills you’ll need to succeed at this crucial task while you’re a trainee. Your first responsibility is securing and extending your own funding, so apply for as many awards—such as fellowships and travel awards—as humanly possible. These funding opportunities don’t just come to you; you have to seek them out. Regularly check websites of government agencies, private nonprofit organizations, and your institution. Actually read those newsletters you get from your department that fill up your inbox. Spend at least an hour each week actively searching for these funding opportunities; this is an ideal post-lunch slump activity. And be creative: Think of all the ways your work can apply to different areas. When Jacquelyn and Leanne studied cardiovascular complications of spinal cord injury, for example, they applied to any and every funding opportunity related to these topics—including ones focused on general health, neurology, neuroscience, spinal cord injury, disability, musculoskeletal health, heart and stroke, and multiple sclerosis. Together, these approaches will help you find opportunities that others typically overlook.
Participate in grant writing. Another way to hone your grant-writing skills is to ask your supervisor whether you can help with their funding applications. Frame your request as both a learning exercise for you and as an offer to help them by taking some of the work off their plate. Although it may feel intimidating to contribute to your PI’s very important grant application, remember that there’s lots you can do that would be helpful, and that you may actually be the best person for the job because you are closest to the results. For example, if your supervisor asks you to provide data to support a funding application, offer to write a figure legend and contribute to the literature review relevant to those results. Regardless of the size of your contribution, it can be mutually beneficial.
Learn how money works. Funding crucially dictates the direction of research, but some trainees work on a project for years without knowing how it is funded, or how much funding is planned or available for the work. Don’t let that be you. Ask to help with—or at least see—how your PI keeps track of grant dollars. Look at budgets for research grants. Create a budget for your own research project. The more you learn about keeping track of grant dollars and navigating the details of inventory, ordering, shipping, and payment, the better off you’ll be when you start running your own research program.
Publish throughout your training. Publishing regularly not only builds your CV, but also improves your writing skills (necessary for grantsmanship, among other things). What many don’t realize is that you can start building your publication record even if you aren’t ready to submit your big paper. Consider publishing systematic reviews, narrative reviews, letters to the editor, and other commentaries as a way to work on your writing chops and expand your expertise. Doing so will also familiarize you with the journal submission process, which can be complicated—formatting for a specific journal, writing a cover letter, suggesting reviewers, and navigating the journal’s online submission system—but the more you do it, the easier it will get.
Gain experience as a mentor and supervisor. Effective supervision is another crucial skill that you should start developing and fostering as early as possible. Helping other people do good work is different—and sometimes more difficult—than doing it yourself, so you’ll need to practice, just like anything else. Research groups have different organizational systems, but opportunities for mentorship exist in most places. Don’t dismiss the responsibility; embrace it as an opportunity to extend your mentorship skills. Even if you are early in your training, you can seek out mentorship opportunities. If you have a mini-project that would be suitable for undergraduate student involvement, for example, approach your supervisor with a short project description and ask if you can take on a student to start working with you.
When serving as a supervisor, extend your mentorship beyond the basics. In addition to teaching your trainee how to perform techniques in the lab, provide rationale and background reading for their project, help them manage their time in the lab, and edit their work. Look for opportunities for them to present at a departmental or institutional research day, or—even better—at a conference in the field. Acting as a good mentor will serve both of you: They will have an enriching training experience, and their achievements will provide a valuable example of your ability to help coach someone to success.
Teach and serve on committees. For just about any junior faculty posting, teaching and other leadership experience is an absolute must. You cannot go through your Ph.D. without teaching. This doesn’t mean you need to be the primary lecturer for a course; Jacquelyn, for example, served as a teaching assistant, assisting with grading, giving guest lectures, and helping create course content. Leanne served on committees that steered curriculum development. You can also serve on student committees in outreach, ethics, and conference organization. Any experience you can refer to will strengthen your application down the line.
Gaining early experience in these important arenas will better prepare you for a career in academia, so if you are considering such a career, it’s important to take a little time away from research to develop these other skills as well. And as an added benefit, doing so can also provide a little variety to break up the monotony of doing lab work all day!
Researchers who incorporate ideas and techniques from multiple mentors while still forging their own paths are the most likely to succeed in academia, according to a study of 18,865 biomedical researchers published in Nature Communications1.
The authors also suggest that mentoring received during postdoctoral training had a bigger impact than mentoring received during graduate school.
The study analysed data from the Academic Family Tree, an online database of academic relationships that launched in January 2005. The authors identified ‘triplets’ — trios comprised of a scientist, their graduate mentor and their postdoctoral mentor — dating back to 1970.
Professional success was gauged in part by the number of trainees a researcher mentored per decade, and an analysis of terms used in abstracts made it possible to track similarity of scientific approaches.
The results give empirical evidence to support some popular career strategies, says study co-author Stephen David, a neuroscientist at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. For example, the most successful scientists transferred concepts they learnt in graduate school to their postdoctoral work, suggesting that prospective postdocs should try to join labs that lack their particular skill set.
“You want to be able to offer something new,” David says. That requires stepping beyond the shadow of a graduate mentor without becoming a facsimile of a postdoctoral mentor. “You have to stake out some unique territory, which is always a challenge for postdocs,” he says.
The study found that joining the lab of a prolific mentor — one who has trained many researchers over the years — also increases a scientist’s chance of success. This held true for both graduate and postdoctoral mentors, but a closer look at the data revealed that the qualities of a postdoctoral mentor were especially predictive of success. “You can get a graduate education just about anywhere,” David says. “Postdoc labs are where you establish professional relationships and develop collaborations.”
Researchers should be especially discerning when accepting postdoctoral positions, David says. “You can take a data-driven approach to choosing your mentor.”
The ad was for the first public workshop on a technique used in K-12 classroom settings called the Question Formulation Technique, which had been created by the Right Question Institute. He attended the workshop and saw tremendous potential for the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) in college classrooms, but no one was using it in higher education – yet. Perlman soon adopted the method in his undergraduate courses at Brandeis and he became active with the Right Question Institute.
Five years later, the institute was approached by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to apply for a grant to fund a project that the NSF hoped could result in more impactful questions from researchers seeking funding. Working with his colleagues at the Right Question Institute, Perlman is now principal investigator on a project to systematically introduce the QFT to graduate education – “The Question Improvement Model: A Simple and Scalable Model for Improving the Question Formulation Skills of PhD Students.”
BrandeisNOW asked Perlman, founding director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of biology and environmental studies about this approach to teaching and the reaction of his students.
What is the Question Formulation Technique?
In the QFT, instead of the teacher asking a question, the teacher gives the students a prompt and they then brainstorm questions in response to the prompt in small groups. They don’t stop to discuss the questions; they’re just trying to generate questions. The next step is to think about which questions seemed the most interesting, and work with those to improve the questions.
I use the QFT at the beginning of the semester to shift the focus from me, the professor, to the students, and in so doing I signal that I want to hear from them. This is very beneficial because while they’re developing their question-asking skills, they feel that they are helping to shape the curriculum, rather than having it coming from a teacher who is dumping it onto them.
How does the QFT work?
The QFT uses four rules for producing questions. The Right Question folks spent years honing them, to get these in exactly the form they’re in.
1. Ask as many questions as you can.
2. Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions.
3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated, and
4. Change any statement into a question.
A key part of the QFT is choosing the prompt, such as a phrase or a book title. For my Animal Behavior class, we used a visit to the Franklin Park Zoo as our prompt. We came back to the classroom and students broke into small groups and started asking questions about things they’d observed.
We took all of their questions and sorted them. In the first round of the QFT, students asked questions like, “How do animals know how to behave?” And then the next week, they used the most interesting of their questions as a prompt to generate further questions. In the second week students generated more targeted questions, “Were the animals making noises, and if so, what do these noises mean and how do they differ from noises made in the wild?” Out of this second round came almost all their term paper projects; they came up with really good ideas for studies. For example, after the second round of going through the QFT, one student’s term paper was about the effects of the zoo environment on lemurs, “Vocalizations of Ringtailed Lemurs: Are they affected by captivity?” So we started with the trip to the zoo, went through two rounds of the QFT, and we got term paper projects.
What’s the impact on students?
Students come to the Question Formulation Technique from a variety of backgrounds, and the QFT helps all of them. Students learn to ask broader ranging and deeper questions. And I think even the sharpest students, who are already asking really good questions, get to take it a step further. Students who are only asking very concrete, straightforward, simple questions, learn how to ask better questions through working with a group of their peers.
The QFT is being used in hundreds of thousands of K-12 classrooms, and with undergrads at other universities. Is Brandeis the only place where this new method is being used with graduate students?
As far as I know, our work with PhD students in the Life Sciences at Brandeis was the first such use. Since then we’ve worked with Engineering and Science PhD students at both UMass Lowell and Northeastern University – and well over 100 students have gone through the NSF-funded program.
Do you think it’s been a success?
As educators, we don’t typically teach the skill of asking questions, but I think you can argue that it’s one of the three or four most important skills that a college student, or any student, can learn. The QFT is one very good way to help students develop their question asking skills. We’re encouraged by the early results from the study and we are developing ways to objectively assess students’ progress in question formulation.
Do students get frustrated because the focus is on asking questions and not getting answers?
This came up when I gave a workshop at UMass Lowell, as many of the professors there asked, “Don’t the students want answers?” I told them that you can use the QFT in different ways, some of which put the onus for finding answers on the students. In the case of my Animal Behavior course, the Franklin Park Zoo trip and two rounds of the QFT helped the students create research questions that they were going to attempt to answer through semester-long research papers. So that was perfect. And the better questions they were asking were not something that they could answer right away. It took months and 25 pages to answer them. For PhD students, this is a great way to jump-start their thinking about research questions. As one noted after a training session, “It was remarkable how very unique and unexpected questions can be generated with this process.” In fact, a senior professor who sat in on a training was surprised that the QFT led to a new research question.
Women have played just as pivotal roles in the emergence and development of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) technologies over the last century as men have. It is a great source of shame for the scientific community, and society as a whole, that these contributions were not recognized sooner. However, a silver lining to this has been that, in recent years, many women have finally received recognition and there has been a huge increase in the public awareness of many of these women.
As a result of this, and other general shifts in attitudes, young girls and women are being encouraged to consider STEM subjects as potential future career paths. So far, this has been a successful endeavor around the world, and obviously a worthwhile one. The number of women studying STEM subjects and working in STEM fields is higher than ever before.
So, What’s the Problem?
In the UK, the benefits of this drive to attract more women into STEM fields is overwhelmingly benefiting relatively wealthy white women. Poor women, women of color, and women who lack academic certification, are all still hugely underrepresented in STEM.
There are also regional disparities. Consider a city like Manchester – home to a world class university that has produced some of the most ground-breaking science in the world since the industrial revolution. And yet, there are a great many STEM industries that are focused almost entirely around London. Women from Manchester who aren’t able to afford the move to London after graduating can end up being kept from jobs that they are perfectly suited for.
It is important to remember that just because the number of women in any organization or group of people has increased, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all women are being afforded the same opportunities. There are lots of STEM jobs that require a university degree, but there are plenty that can be taught to people who have few prior skills. For example, learning to code doesn’t require you to know anything else.
We need to do more than just represent women at university events; we should be striving for a STEM industry that is more diverse than the STEM education sector. This requires us to think more creatively, but there are still some simple things that we can do to help the situation.
Engage in Outreach
Ideally, we want to be getting the message out to girls from a young age that they can work towards a career in STEM. As it stands, this advice is often given with the heavy implication that women should be aiming to pursue academic careers in science, maths, or engineering. However, we should also be making them aware that there are STEM careers involving more practical things like coding, or more creative things like design.
This is also important knowledge for older women who already have careers, but would like to transition into STEM. They may be put off from doing so because they think they require a university degree. But let’s take something like cad courses – they offer the opportunity to learn an entirely new and sought-after skill with no degree required. professionals who want to expand their skill set in any field they choose without the need for a degree. This helps reach out to women over the usual barriers and across the divides that have conventionally meant that some women have been able to access better education services than others.
The number of women studying some STEM subjects is now on-par or almost on par with men. However, there is still a significant gender imbalance when it comes to STEM industries. This means that lots of women working in STEM are in male-dominated environments. Women working in these environments sometimes feel apprehensive about asking for help in case they are perceived as less capable.
It is important that women working in STEM have superiors and colleagues who they can approach for support if and when they need it. This will save them the kind of stress and anxiety that many women feel if they have to admit to a gap in their knowledge.
Teaching women how they can help themselves to advance their careers is just as important as helping them to do it. There are lots of steps that women can take on their own initiative in order to improve their career prospects, acquire new skills, and access fresh opportunities. Once women understand that they can do things outside of the classroom to help them access STEM, many people who would otherwise not have considered a STEM career will start taking those steps.
One of the most important things that anyone can do is to take the initiative and enroll on any courses or classes that are available and will teach skills and knowledge relevant to the field they want to go into. Making sure that women are aware of the value of some of these courses can help give them the direction they need to take their first steps towards a new career.
Within the worlds of business and academia, networking is a vital tool for enabling people to connect with others within their chosen field. It’s never too early to start building a professional network. Women who are transitioning into a STEM field from another field should check their current network to see if there’s anyone useful they can bring along for the journey.
Girls and young women who are studying for STEM subjects should try and attend any conferences or other events if they have the opportunity; these are excellent places to meet new people and to get an idea of what the professional landscape is looking like.
The internet is also a great place to network today. There are sites like LinkedIn, which is widely used by professionals operating in a number of different industries. Or there are the myriad online communities dedicated to STEM subjects, and even women in STEM specifically. Anywhere where you can meet people who have relevant experience and advice can help you build your network.
We should be doing all we can to make sure that we focus not just on recruiting women into STEM professions, but on recruiting women from all walks of life. There is such a wide variety of potential career paths available that there should be something that is ideally suited for just about anyone, no matter what their individual ambitions.
It shouldn’t therefore be beyond our capabilities to encourage more women from minority and working-class backgrounds to aim for a career in a STEM field, all they need is the right encouragement. Seeing themselves represented in the profession will certainly mean more women thinking of a STEM subject as a viable choice for their future.
Great strides have been taken in recent times to raise the number of women who are working in STEM professions. While we are definitely moving in the right direction, there is still more that can be done to improve the representation of women in STEM. We need to encourage girls from all backgrounds to consider STEM career paths from the earliest age possible.
The technicalities of good scientific writing are well established1,2 and important, but for your writing to have an impact, you need to resurrect the excitement of research — something that is often lost in day-to-day work. Successfully communicating the impact of your research is crucial for making your work more accessible, and for career progression. Here are the key elements to make your data stand out.
Research tells a story. Your research is a story with an important message — otherwise you would not be writing a manuscript. It is essential that you have clarity in your mind around your overarching storyline; without this, it is impossible to write clearly. Do not simply present the experiments and results in chronological order, instead consider how each piece of information fits with the unfolding story. Ask yourself why the research is important and clearly share that point with your audience. A good technique is to think how your research story could make your results something that people might be excited to share with their neighbours at a dinner party.
Learn when to write and when to use a figure. Consider how people read a paper. After a quick glance over the abstract, they often move to the data and figures. Cryptically presented data do not speak for themselves. Data collected over months or years deserve beautiful figures. Learn to use a vector program, such as Adobe Illustrator or Sketch, and make figures that you are proud to display both in print and on a screen.
Know your audience. Colleagues in your immediate field are the people most likely to be interested in your work, but also think about how to reach a wider audience. Some of the most exciting research is on the borders of multiple fields. Make your writing as clear as possible so it can be easily understood by readers from various fields. Ask colleagues outside your specific area of research to review your work to make sure it is understandable and interesting to your target audience.
Stay clean and clear. Research is international and, although using rich language is important, make sure that the message is clear to readers whose first language is not English. Write as simply as possible. Ask someone to review the language in your manuscript. The Elements of Style (Pearson, 1999) and The Economist Style Guide (Economist Books, 2015) are both English-language style guides that focus on developing a clear message, and I have found them useful for improving my writing.
Ask an English speaker to review your writing. Although peer reviewers forgive minor language errors if English is not your first language, such mistakes are not going to help your chances of a favourable review. The manuscript will eventually need an English-language edit anyway, so have it reviewed by a native English speaker before you submit the manuscript.
Try to highlight a link to a current topic. Editors want their journal to contribute to current issues in academia or the popular press. For example, last year a colleague and I reported finding elevated levels of lead in the blood of a person who ate meat from animals he had shot with lead bullets3. In the cover letter and manuscript, we highlighted the 2017 reversal of a ban of lead ammunition on certain US federal lands. We linked that policy change to the increased risk of lead exposure to hunters and their families through eating wild game shot with lead bullets. The cover letter is a way for you to sell your manuscript to the editor, so take the opportunity to pique their interest in your work.
Review and cut words. Space and time are always at a premium, so the shorter the manuscript, the better your chances of acceptance — and the more likely people are to read the published article.
The abstract is the most important section.Editors will use the abstract to decide whether the topic is of interest to their journal, and reviewers will use it to decide whether they are suitable to review the manuscript. Most people will only ever read this section. Make the abstract captivating.
There is no rule to say that science cannot be entertaining. Editors want their journal to be pleasurable and enlightening reading. Enjoy the writing process — your research effort deserves brilliant writing.