Student - June 5, 2008

Physicist gives personal survival tips for scientists

Originally written for physics students, the Survival Guide for Scientists offers practical advice for junior and senior scientists on scientific writing, presenting data and research information, and dealing with work-related e-mails. The author, Ad Lagendijk, is a respected physicist and has supplemented the book with a blog. Wageningen entomologist Bart Knols reviews the package.

Each of the topics covered in the book is organised into a series of short rules, and the sections do not have to be read in chronological order. The Writing Guide section has some novel ideas for manuscript handling. Although it’s morally questionable, Lagendijk suggests putting deliberate mistakes in manuscripts to check whether a co-author has really studied the writing in detail. If mistakes come back to you, take him off the author list. It will be interesting to see how supervisors respond to seeing their names removed from their PhD student’s first paper.

Numerous details on text formatting, structure and content are given and though some of these are useful, many reflect the author’s personal preference – ‘if you apply full justification without hyphenation you deserve to be banned’ – or have not been considered properly. For instance, a hotly debated topic, the order of authors on a paper, is dealt with in only seven sentences. Lagendijk claims that the last author should be the group leader, the PhD student the first, and all authors should appear in alphabetical order in between. This is clearly not the procedure followed in many labs. And then, will an editor of a journal really be impressed if you submit your manuscript by courier rather than regular mail?

In the Presentation Guide, Lagendijk rightly points out the often very low quality of talks given by natural scientists. Frequently too long, held without preparation, and consisting of a blur of non-related slides, a lot of time and money is indeed wasted at scientific conferences. From knowing who your audience is and what they need from you, to font sizes on slides and dealing with failing equipment as you’re called on stage; all steps are discussed. While not as comprehensive as books dedicated entirely to scientific presentations, the Guide contains useful and compact reminders. And yes, the golden rule appears twice ‘A talk cannot be too simple’.

The E-mail Guide offers hope for those swamped by e-mail. Lagendijk adopts a typically Dutch approach here: refuse to take immediate action on an e-mail, refuse to read e-mails from those sending you complete fairy tales. In short, trying to be nice to everyone will result in an ever-increasing workload. There are useful tips for managing accounts and archiving e-mail in the Guide. Many are familiar, but may help to refresh your memory.

The Guide is supplemented by a blog, where the author and others post articles on writing, publishing, presentation and other skills scientists need. They invite readers to post suggestions for topics they have not covered.

Regretfully, many important survival topics are not covered by the book. Grant proposal writing, career planning and managing your staff are likely to be more important than managing e-mail. There is an urgent need for a more comprehensive guide to being a successful scientist. Your contribution to the blog may help make a more satisfactory second edition of the book.