SCIENTIFIC WRITING FOR DUMMIES

Some weeks ago my first postdoc paper was accepted. Some of you might be familiar with what a paper is and what is mean “accepted”. Today´s post is for those of you who are not.
So after you come back from a cruise and analyze your samples, one has a huge amount of data to organize and graph. Then comes the funniest and more difficult part, writing stories about what’s going on in the field/experiments. Let’s say it is like, “Once upon a time…” but with scientific writing and structure: Abstract, Introduction, Material and methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusion, Acknowledgments and References. I should say this is the part I find more challenging; when I am starting a new paper, it takes me forever to speed up my typing. Some weeks are 0 words and at other times while revising, everything written before is deleted which equals negative writing speed.
However, suddenly, a good idea lights my brain, and then another and the words flows without effort. Once you have the structure, the main message, the main character (in my case it is normally CO2 with its different outfits) and an end, you send to the co-authors (people who participate in the same project, your bosses…). After this stage, I have different experiences: sometimes some co-authors do not bother to read, some flick through and pick typo mistakes, sometimes they disagree with the structure itself (and you have to reinvent your story) and others nit-pick the little details and the manuscript that returns has more of his/her works than yours. After some toing and froing with your co-authors, you send the manuscripts to a journal. You choose the journal depending upon your subject, the importance of your work, your past (or your boss) experience, free or open access…
Once submitted, you wait for the editor’s response. If the editor thinks the subject or the quality of your job is inadequate for his/her journal he/she rejects it immediately (that case never happens to me!) What the editor normally does is send the manuscript to different referees (expert in the area) who may agree to comment on your work. Of course, when you are in the play, you will be asked to review other authors’ papers (I still remember how happy I was after I received my first invitation! But now it starts to be too much work).

These referees can choose to be anonymous and a few, under the anonymity umbrella can be really rude (I have one in a paper from my PhD who even started writing in capital letters like he/she was shouting at me!!) They can be, like co-authors, skimming or diving through my work. Normally, one receive constructive comments that greatly improve your manuscript. These referees make a suggestion to the editor: reject, invite to submit again, major changes, minor changes or accept as it is. I have always had to make adjustments. Again, you modify your manuscripts according to the referees’ comments and send back the manuscripts. Some referees ask to read the manuscripts again and at other times the editor makes his/her own decision.

It’s like a tennis play, you fight to get the ball to the other end against co-authors, editors, referees and it takes a lot of back and forwards until you succeed.
After so much effort and pain (and time, the whole process can take more than a year), you can imagine who happy you feel when you received this email:

Email informing about acceptance of my last paper

I received the email confirming my first accepted paper when my partner was in my office and in the attempt to embrace him, I was so excited that I erroneous bit his head, hahahaha… now we always laugh when I tell him I have another acceptance, he always answers: “Congrats my darling, should I need to put on a helmet?!”

Helmet and papers :)

Helmet and papers 🙂

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PAPERWORK NIGHTMARES

I have been away from the blog for a while because these last weeks have been crazy. As I told you in the last post, I had an interview for a new postdoctoral position and was offered the post. So after several pros and cons lists, a lot of talking with my family and colleagues and a phrase written on a wall on my way to work saying: “taking risks is better than taking none”

Taking risks are better than taking none

Taking risks are better than taking none

I decided to take the job. LET’S GO TO GERMANY!

Anyone who has any small relationship with the Spanish government knows that it is a nightmare of paperwork even doing the most simple formality. So you can imagine if we move towards a more complex administration: I have an international marriage so believe me it is difficult/expensive/annoying to sort that out!!

So, when I arrived in the UK I was amazed how simple things can be (they don’t even ask for my PhD certificate to sign my contract as a postdoc!) and sometimes faces stared strangely at me when I ask “that’s all?” or I ask for a “certificate of attendance”. Because we quickly adapted to the “good life” and it’s more than a year since my partner received his European passport (so we forgot about any kind of formalities), I was shocked when faced with German bureaucracy… all the difficulties of the Spanish way plus the handicap of sworn German translations (by the way, this service does not even exist in the UK!!). What is this European PhD certificate (with the nice blue stars) worth all the trouble?!?!

Of course they need the originals to complete all the paperwork, so I wear my heart on my sleeve and put in one envelope the most valuable papers I have kept in “important papers folder”: PhD certificate, Master certificate, Marriage certificate, past employment contracts… You will never guest where the addressee of this envelop finds it… In the store window of a Taylor shop underneath a bench of clothes!!! Track and sign service are not as trustful as I thought and this gave me sleep problems for three days.

Anyway, now it is all sorted out: I’m looking forward to meeting the friendly lady from Human Resources who helped me through the process and the translator who went on the hunt for my documents. We have booked the ferry, and short-term accommodation in Wilhelmshaven, we informed our landlady in Southampton, and registered with a German course (all these years going to the official language school in Spain wondering “why in hell I’m doing this, I know English, why should I learn German?” I finally have the answer), we end our contract with phones and internet, I sign my resignation letter (first time ever, it feels rare!!)… how exciting, tiring, expensive… it can be to move from one country to another!

Measuring carbon at sea

Here my colleagues at sea!!

UK OSNAP at sea

by Eithne Tynan

My name is Eithne Tynan and I am a chemical oceanographer at the University of Southampton. I am involved in the Ragnarocc project and I’m in charge of the CO2 measurements on this cruise. This is a big task and one that involves a five person team, six different instruments, boxes and boxes of consumables and a large supply of chocolates and haribos! As was explained on an earlier post the measurements on this transect will be combined with those on the subtropics cruise next year to calculate the carbon budget for the North Atlantic. So how do we go about transforming a sample of salty seawater into a number that tells us how much CO2 there is in the ocean? Well, easy, we take last year’s measurements and just adjust them up a little bit. No, just kidding!

I’ll try to keep it simple. Sampling is…

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To travel without money, sailor (or scientist)

There have been few weeks I haven’t upload a map in the blog so this week I thought I will talk about conferences, or “scientific travel”. These are different from project meetings (see post “What oceanographers do”), not all the people work in the same project. Some conferences host a small number of scientist and some are huge (the biggest I have been was this year in Hawaii and we were just under 5600!!). Some are really specific (for example, focus on calculation of a constant the control air-water interchanges) and some are really general (Ocean Science Meeting: http://www.sgmeet.com/osm2014/).

I have to admit that (mostly during my PhD) the decision to go or not to a conference was more dependent upon where the conferences were held than on the scientific content. There is a phrase in Spanish that says “para viajar sin dinero, marinero” that means “to travel without money you should become a sailor” so we have to add scientist to sailor. Well, at least with less money, so what I normally do is stay some days before or after the conference visiting around. I convince myself that it is good for my CO2 foot-print, it’s not worth travelling to the other end of the word just to be inside a dark room or conference building. The last international conferences I attended, I invited my dad to join me so we could enjoy holidays together, otherwise it would be really difficult to organize. He is my best judge when I do my presentation, even if he has no idea of English.

European Conferences

European Conferences

In total I have been to 15 different cities because of conferences (some cities, like Gran Canaria I have been twice). There are some conferences that you are unable to attend but some colleague can. So, you send your poster with him/her or he/she presents a work you have done together. Even if they are in my CV, I will not put these on the map because I haven’t been there physically.

Non European Conferences

Non European Conferences

One big part of what we do during a conference is similar to project meetings: room/coffee/room. Another important part of the meeting is poster sessions. When you have a poster, you arrive with your big printed poster; not all the people you see in the airport with poster tubes are architects. Although lately some conferences offer you the opportunity to print on site or you can print in textile so you transport your poster like your t-shirts. Then you located the spot you have been assigned to display your poster and in the time you’ve been allocated, you stand in front of your poster hoping someone will stop by and discuss your work. Most of the time you have really nice discussions with other people, because the clock is not pushing against you like in a presentation and you are normally more relaxed with time to talk one-one than in front of an audience (except if this one is a big fish, then your heart rate also speeds).

Finally, another important thing to do during conference is networking: you try and talk with people in whose work you are interested (and match a face with a famous name you have been reading a lot!). Or because you are interested in working with them or have been reviewing some of their work… If this talking can be with a beer (or two) and as an early career move you manage to impress this person that they remember your face for the next conference, you have been successful (or they remember your name, that will be even more of a success).

Women and Science

One other thing which keeps Oceanographers busy, is meetings. These meetings are not always related to my field of study or projects. This week I want to tell you about one subject I have been involved in for 10 months now “Women in Science”. I choose this theme this week because I was in the Embassy of Spain in a ‘roundtable Women in Science’ organized by the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom (http://www.sruk.org.uk/).
It began in this way; during August last year, I received an email from the Professional Development Unit saying that the head of Ocean and Earth Science had nominated me to take part on the programme “Women into Leadership and Management” which the university runs for women in Level 4 (postdoctoral, fellows, junior lectures…). I still have a hard time believing that the head of the school knows who I am or knows which level I am. However, personal assistants do a marvellous job, hahaha.
So, I said to myself “Why not? Let’s see what this is all about”. I communicated my decision to my partner and my dad and the first reaction I had, from both of them, was more or less “Oh no!! You don’t need more teaching about being bossy!!”
So, the programme turned out to be really interesting. We had a two day residential workshop where small groups were formed (I was part of the red team!!) and we explored leadership and team -worker styles (like summer camp activities but under the rain, to prove our resilience!!). We then had regular red team mentoring meetings with a nice female Professor, where we talked about career paths, networking, elevator speech… We networked with other women at the same level from other areas. We had a lot of courses and workshops, like “Face the fear” or “Influence and Persuasion”. We recently had our Belbin test results (http://www.belbin.com/) where it turns out I am seen by my closer colleague and by myself as a team-worker, implementer and specialist but not as a really creative person.
During this process I was amazed to realize that even today, there is still a great difference between the small number of women compared to men in positions of leadership. An unconscious bias exists and works against the women in academia. Women need to be at least 2.5 times better to get the same job. Motherhood is deemed to be a problem, but works the other way for fatherhood and is an extra-point to father’s CV. We have to learn to say “NO” to tasks we don’t want to do. We need to self-promoted themselves more. And, after all, being bossy is not at all a bad thing!!
I want to end by saying that the ‘roundtable’ at the Embassy was really productive with great speakers and interesting questions,only comparable in quality with the Spanish ham which was served in the reception that followed.

INTERVIEW AND LITTLE BOXES

Those of us who have no permanent job in science, when our contract is close to an end (that means more or less a year) it is time to start applying for a new job.

Normally, how it works is as follows: You see an advertisement of a position on offer. Normally they ask for your curriculum vitae, a cover letter, the list of publications and the name of referees. You put them all together (at first, this is a lot of work, but then it is only a matter of adapting them according to the job description), you send the completed application and wait.

Suddenly you receive an email: you don’t need to read it all, you fast scan to find either “unfortunately” or “we’re happy to…” If “unfortunately” appears, I just put a “X” in front of the folder name where I save the rejection documents. If the happiness appears in the response email, I find the folder to remind myself what the job was about; what did I put in my application? (and sometimes, google-map where in the World is this city?) You should by now know that I love maps!! Then I prepare for the interview. Interviews can be in person, by phone or videoconference. This week I had one job interview for a job in Wilhelmshaven (it is your time to google it now, hahahaha).

One advantage of having being in a distance-relationship for a while is that you spend so much time talking in front of the computer that you end up being as natural as in real life (as my mum said: “what a hell are you doing laughing in front of this machine”). The science interviews have standard interview questions: what are your strengths; where do you see yourself in five years… And science questions: what is the most important result in your last publication (yeah! At least one person has read it!!). They finish with the typical: “we will get back to you”

And they come back to me, and offer the job!!

Then starts a storm in my brain, first check: how are flights from the new job to home in Ibiza? I again remember my mum, when I was deciding where to do my PhD, saying “you go where you want but try to keep less than two flights and less than half day of travel” Check one, not too bad, as travel is always better summer than winter. Check two, how is housing there? Check three, how much will I earn? Check four, when should I start? It never coincides with the end our your actual contract. Check five; check six… Oh my gosh!!! Moving again, boxes and more boxes (fortunately, there has not being too long since we last moved and our studio is too small to accumulate a lot of things).

I have yet to decide, I need to think, ask my pillow, ask my family, go to swim, go to run… we’ll see . . .

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CRUISES AND HORSES DRUGS

As I said in the last post, one of the things oceanographers do is going to sea on research cruises. In the maps you can see the ports I have been, either to start, finish or just calling in. In total, there are 16 cities (some of them in different cruises, some of them last several days and some of them only a few hours). Overall, I have been 227 days at sea (that means, almost 8 month of my life!).

Every cruise is different, although they have things in common:

–          They always start after two or three days of complete chaos in the harbour; unpacking and setting up the equipment in the labs on board. If you are fortunate with the equipment and the weather, this chaos will decrease and you will have a pleasant cruise (unfortunately, this does not happen too often, and you normally deal with unimaginable problems of all types).

–          You disconnect from real life: forget about money, about cell phone, about checking email, Facebook, twitter… every two minutes. At the beginning it is hard but then, believe it or not, it’s RELAXING!!

–          You are in a limited space for 24/7, with a completely different routine from normal life. Thus, special relationships are created between people on board. They are not friends (normally) but they become friends with whom you share more than with normal land friends; they are not family but they became part of your family during these days (and in some occasion, for the rest of your life because many oceanography couples begin their relationship during cruises, including mine!)

–          I always get seasick at least once during the cruise. It has improved over the years but I think it will never go away. On my first cruise, I was so bad the crew gave me an anti-seasickness suppository and I used it without thinking anything against it (I think they were military horse drugs because it worked quickly and miraculously. I still have the little box at my dad’s as a souvenir). On the other hand, the last one, in the middle of the Southern Ocean, my day of seasickness was a mixture of hangover and bad mood.

 

On the other hand, each cruise is different, a complete “Big brother season”:

–          There are one week cruises and there are looooooooooong cruises.

–          There are open ocean cruises and there are coastal cruises. In open ocean, you are lucky if you are able to see land in the middle of the cruise. This much-deserved stop comes as you step on land and feel “land-sick”. You see different faces to the ones you’ve been seeing for weeks. Along the coast, (like coastal fisheries) you normally go to harbour every night, although you’ve been working non-stop the whole day.

–          There are dry cruises and there are cruises with different bars on board. When you disembark from a dry cruise, you feel completely detoxed but the first instinct you have is to look for a beer!

–          Normally in cruises you work in shift: some are 4 hours on- 8 hours off (so you can have a “baby” shift from 8 to 12 (am and pm) or you can have the “dog” shift from 4 to 8 (am and pm); some are 12 hours on- 12 hours out. So, at the end of a cruise, a part of you has to adapt to normal life again, taking care about purse and calls, sometimes you feel a kind of rare jetlag.

Cities I visited during cruises

Cities I visited during cruises