13 Great Gifts for Academics

It’s hard enough to understand what PhD students and professors actually do, let alone find them that perfect gift. While I dislike the rampant consumerism of the festive season, I nonetheless had fun putting together this list, and I hope it will help you find a unique and/or useful gift to bring some festive cheer to the academic in your life.

1. SciArt

There’s a bunch of super creative researchers making beautiful and quirky stuff as a sideline to their science (great list here). My favourites:

2. A cool desk toy

As an incorrigible fidgeter, I am always on the lookout for interesting office toys. Current favorites include the Rubik’s cubefidget cube, and fidget spinner (don’t judge!). These spinning tops are high on my wish list, but are well out of the postdoc price range.

3. A nice notebook

Since discovering Moleskine notebooks last year, I have refused to write in anything else. They look great, the quality is tangible, and writing on the silky pages is nothing short of joyous. Each one ages in a subtly different way, taking on a distinct character as you fill the pages. I am so enamoured with them that I don’t even feel slightly apologetic about how pretentious this paragraph must sound.

4. A posh pen

A nice notebook without a posh pen is like an academic talk without refreshments – mostly empty. I swear by my Lamy pen – inexpensive, writes beautifully, has that understated angular German design aesthetic.1 I’ve nonetheless occasionally considered upgrading.

5. A non-academic book

Remind them that they can also read for pleasure! Here are some of my favourite non-academic non-fiction books. If the prospect of choosing is too daunting, a book voucher is always appreciated. A digital alternative is a subscription to something like Audible (I recently started trialling this, mostly so I could listen to Esther Perel’s fantastic podcast, but I’ve found listening to books to be a lovely way to relax at the end of a long day).

6. Lab Wars

A highly entertaining card game where you aim to build up your lab while sabotaging competitors.

7. A Cat

Because #AcademicsWithCats.

8. Headphones

My PhD office was in a neglected annex building scheduled for demolition. When the scorching Australian summer rolled around and the faulty air conditioning unit fired up, my office sounded, and felt, like an industrial refrigerator. I stuck on a woolly jumper and invested in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, which remain one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. My trusty pair are still going strong after 6 years (having recently been resuscitated with a couple of inexpensive replacement parts). 

9. A backup plan

Being derailed by a sudden hard drive failure is a distressing rite of passage in academia, yet many continue to rely on a faith-based approach to backup. Be their saviour: get a decent external hard drive and/or a subscription to an automated online backup service (Backblaze and Carbonite both get good reviews).2 

10. A book about writing

Academics spend countless hours writing, “writing”, and complaining about writing. Yet journals are still littered with rambling prose and obfuscating waffle. We need help. The classics remain an invaluable reference (Strunk & WhiteOn Writing Well), and I regularly consult Josh Bernoff’s Writing Without Bullshit (which both tightened up my academic writing and greatly improved my everyday emails).3 There’s been a slew of intriguing new books on academic writing in recent years. My friend Raul Pacheco-Vega has read many of them; his extensive reading notes should help you find the right one.

11. An academic book

Every academic covets at least one prohibitively expensive magnum opus from their field (here’s mine – used copies start at £371.97). Treat them to this nerdiest of pleasures and you will forever be their favourite. I advise spoiling the surprise and asking for a hint: no use getting The History and Social Influence of the Potato if your niece is doing her PhD on the properties of expanding universes. If in doubt, Doodling for Academics is sure to make any academic smile (some samples here).

12. The usual novelty nonsense

I’ve mostly tried to steer clear of generic novelty items here, but I couldn’t resist a few: stationery (syringe highlighters and bone-shaped pens); a USB-disk surgeon; periodic table lunchbox; and lab flasks for salad dressing.

13. The Academia Obscura book

Shameless self-promotion, but I think the Academia Obscura book makes a great gift. I had the idea to write it precisely because I wished someone had given me a copy before I started my PhD – it just didn’t exist yet. It probably won’t help explain what we actually do, but will almost certainly bring some much-needed comic relief to the stressed academic in your life. And it’s cheaper than a cat.

Happy holidays!

 

 

Full disclosure: Most of the links are affiliate links, i.e. if you buy stuff, Amazon tosses me a few cents. Please don’t hold this against me! I have been paying the blog’s running costs out of my own pocket for the last 4 years (domain name, hosting, etc.), while also living in one of the world’s most expensive cities on a postdoc salary and paying off the monthly minimum on my undergraduate student loan. I wanted to write this post anyway, and I hope that readers won’t begrudge me trying to recoup some of my costs.

 

  1. Lamy’s website promises that their pens will “turn customers into personalities” – and you thought my Moleskine proselytising was pretentious!
  2. I use CrashPlan, but they will soon discontinue their consumer product. Existing customers are being transferred to Carbonite.
  3. Declaration of competing interests: Josh sent me a free copy of his book a couple of years back following some Twitter interactions. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Josh subsequently helped me with the book, kindly offering to do a last-minute panic-edit. In return, I was happy to send him a copy and share his nuggets of advice on Twitter.
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The Fourth Annual Academics with Cats Awards

How to enter

Tweet your finest cat pics (preferably with an amusing caption) to #AcademicsWithCats. We’ll collate them and our expert panel will shortlist the best.

Entries close Saturday 2 December.

CATegories

We’ll automatically put your cat pics into the appropriate category, feel free to get creative:

  • Academics and their Cats
  • Writing
  • Outreach
  • Teaching
  • Bonus: Academics without Cats! We’ll pick a non-feline furry friend to represent the academics sans chat!

Dates

  • Saturday 25 November: Launch!
  • Saturday 2 December: Entries close
  • Monday 4 December: Voting opens
  • Sunday 10 December: Voting closes
  • 11-15 December: Winner announcements

The shortlisting panel

The shortlist will be diligently put together by the following panel of experts.

Chris BrookeChris Brooke
@chrisbrooke
Chris is a Lecturer at Cambridge and co-winner of the first Academics with Cats Awards.

Deborah Fisher
@DrDeborahFisher
Deborah is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Duke University and co-winner of the first Academics with Cats Awards.
Nadine MullerNadine Muller
@Nadine_Muller
Nadine is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker, and an academic with both cats and dogs.
Cristina RiguttoCristina Rigutto
@cristinarigutto
Cristina is an avid golfer, Sci Comm expert, and tweeter.

 

Camera 360Glen Wright
@AcademiaObscura
Glen is the founder of Academia Obscura. A catless academic, he started #AcademicsWithCats to fill the void.
 
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Academia Obscura book – out now!

 

The book is finally here! Like all good academic publications, it is way over the deadline, with excessive footnotes, and petty comments from Reviewer 2. (I just hope more than 3 people read it).

If you’ve ever been bored to tears at a conference or meeting, driven to the brink of insanity by your co-authors, or wanted to see a rat in underpants, I think you will love the book!

Academia Obscura is an irreverent glimpse inside the ivory tower, exposing the eccentric and slightly unhinged world of university life. Take a trip through the spectrum of academic oddities and unearth the Easter eggs buried in peer reviewed papers, the weird and wonderful world of scholarly social media, and rats in underpants.

Procrastinating PhD student Glen Wright invites you to peruse his cabinet of curiosities and discover what academics get up to when no one’s looking. Welcome to the hidden silly side of higher education.

You can read the first chapter here. The book is available in all the usual places, like Amazon and Book Depository. There’s also still a few special first edition copies (with shiny cover and in-built bookmark) available at Unbound.

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404 – Buffalo not found



If you are here looking for the full references from the Academia Obscura book, you are indeed in the right place.

Unfortunately, as foreshadowed in the book, I have not got around to creating the multimedia extravaganza I had once planned. Like a true academic, I lost all interest in referencing as soon as I finished the first draft. As a result, you are not going to find whatever you were looking for here. Unless you want the rat in underpants paper, which is here. You’re welcome.

I do have almost all of the papers mentioned in the book on file – if you want something, please do get in touch.

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Oops!

Finding typos in a paper post-publication is dismaying, if inevitable. This isn’t usually fatal and will generally go unnoticed. Even after sinking hours of labour into it there are bound to be some miner errors. 

References to ‘screwed data’ and a ‘screwed distribution’ have not stopped a 2004 paper in the International Journal of Obesity from garnering over 300 citations. Likewise, a group of Japanese researchers concluded: ‘There were no significunt differences in the IAA content of shoots or roots between mycorrhizal and non-mycorrhizal plants’. The paper has racked up 22 citations in spite of the significunt slipup.

An unintentionally honest method appears in another paper, where the authors state: ‘In this study, we have used (insert statistical method here) to compile unique DNA methylation signatures.’

A couple of cringeworthy blunders have drawn the attention of the academic community in recent years. The Gabor scandal started when an internal author note was accidentally included in the final published version of an ecology paper:

Although association preferences documented in our study theoretically could be a consequence of either mating or shoaling preferences in the different female groups investigated (should we cite the crappy Gabor paper here?), shoaling preferences are unlikely drivers of the documented patterns…

The comment was added following peer review during the revision process and unfortunately slipped through the cracks in subsequent rounds of editing. 

A similar mix-up shook the chemistry world in 2014, when an internal note was published that apparently asked an author to fake some data:

Emma, please insert NMR data here! where are they? and for this compound, just make up an elemental analysis…

Elemental analyses are readily fabricated and are easy to slip into a paper if the journal does not ask for a copy of the independent laboratory report (in this case, however, the journal ultimately found no evidence of falsified analyses).

Rest assured that it is not only researchers who make mistakes. The London School of Economics once sent an email to around 200 students to confirm that they had accepted their place at the university, but due to an administrative error the email was addressed to Kung Fu Panda. This error caused some concern in a school where 25% of students are Asian, but apparently the choice of name merely reflected one staff member’s fondness for the film.

Other names in the test database included Piglet, Paddington, Homer, Bob and Tinkerbell.

 

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The Story Behind a Moving Academic Acknowledgement

This post discusses mental health and suicide. If these issues affect you, or somebody you know, you can contact the Samaritans. Whatever you’re going through, the Samaritans are available by free phone call 24/7

A few weeks ago, I came across a moving tribute to a lost friend in the unlikeliest of places: the acknowledgements section of an academic paper.

I reached out to the author, Oliver Rosten, to ask him about his motivation for penning the acknowledgement and how it came to be published.

Can you tell me a bit about Francis and the circumstances that led to this tragedy?

Francis and I met in 2006 at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), where we had both just started two-year research fellowships. We instantly hit it off, having a shared sense of humour and similar outlook on the absurdity of existence. I soon learnt that Francis suffered from depression. Over the years I knew him, I tried to support him as much as I could.

Both of us felt under pressure at DIAS. Two-year fellowships are short and, in our particular field, that gives you a little over a year to produce something in time for the next application deadline. Francis also had to deal with being in a different country from his partner.

After DIAS, I moved to Sussex and Francis got a position in Amsterdam. He was extremely isolated there and also frustrated at the lack of recognition his work was getting. (Since his death, it has become highly regarded.) After Amsterdam he secured a position in Crete but, around the time he was due to start, he returned to the UK and died by suicide.

What gave you the idea to include this acknowledgement?

As soon as I started the paper – which I did after leaving academia in 2011 – I knew I wanted to dedicate it to Francis. I can’t remember when the exact words of the acknowledgement crystalised but I knew that this was something I had to say. 

Did you have any difficulty getting it published?

I had considerable difficulty getting it published! 

I first posted the paper on arXiv in late 2014. Then, after making some corrections, I submitted to the Journal of High Energy Physics (JHEP) early 2015. The paper was accepted by the referee, but the acknowledgements were flagged for editorial review. The editor asked that I remove them. I refused and gave my reasons, and the editor responded:

The required corrections concern the last paragraph of the acknowledgements. We would remove it completely. I think the first phrase is too much: I guess there were more basic problems in Dolan’s life than the pressure put by physics work. Certainly people, say in business, behave more brutally than in academia. The second phrase could be OK but a bit out of place: in a scientific paper we discuss about science, not about life.

If you will have a chance to write a history paper or even some special proceedings about him, you can put descriptions of his life and commentaries, but they are out of place in JHEP.

I objected and it was taken up by the scientific director, who came down on the side of the editor. I withdrew the paper and submitted it to Physical Review D. It was seen by 3 referees, one of whom provided some very useful scientific feedback. Ultimately we ended up at loggerheads over certain changes demanded by the referee, so the paper was rejected.

Two referees for Journal of Physics A then accepted the paper with glowing reports, but the editor asked for me to remove the second paragraph of the acknowledgements. I again refused and ended up withdrawing the paper

I changed my strategy and tried emailing journal editors directly to ask whether, if the paper were accepted for scientific content, it could be published with the acknowledgements intact. The European Physical Journal C responded in the affirmative – they were actually very supportive. After making some minor changes following peer review, the paper was accepted, almost 3 years after it first appeared on arXiv.

In your view, what are the main causes of the ‘psychological brutality’ of the postdoc system?

  • Short term positions;
  • Low salaries. I’ve personally known postdocs trying to live on a pittance;
  • People are frequently separated from their partner;
  • In some fields it is hard to work on your own ideas and, if you do, there can be a lot of pressure to do more mainstream work;
  • For people with medical issues, there is the prospect of no continuity of care. I think this can be a severe problem for those with mental health issues (compounded by the fact that your local support network evaporates every few years).
  • The cliff edge: What happens if you don’t get another job? Every few years, this comes around and I think, generally, each time it gets more stressful as there is more at stake: Am I too old to retrain? Can I support my family? But if I give up now is all my research for nothing?

What can university leaders do to change this?

Regarding the post-doctoral system, I’ve given this a lot of though over the years and have the following suggestions. The first two are important but perhaps not as radical as the last two.

  1. Postdoctoral positions should be for a minimum of 3 years. For my (old) field – theoretical high-energy physics – there is a distinct application season: generally job applications must all be done by the end of any particular year (I assume things are as they were when I Ieft academia in 2011). When starting a new position (typically September), this generally means that postdocs have a little over one year in which they must produce new work. The pressure of this can be almost unbearable. I know that there are some institutions which (as far as I know) only offer 3 or 5-year positions, which should be applauded.
  2. Postdoctoral positions should be well paid. When low salary impacts quality of life there may be a commensurate impact on mental health. I’ve always been fortunate that my wife and I have travelled together and she’s always been able to work – this has made a big difference. Indeed, during my time in Dublin she earned much more than me which enabled us to live far more comfortably than we’d have otherwise been able to do.
  3. Every institution should have members of staff, ideally with training in mental health issues, whose sole job is to support the postdoctoral community. I envisage this a a key part of institutions taking true responsibility for the gifted and dedicated people they hire on temporary academic contracts. This would have a number of facets:
    • For those with known mental health issues, the staff would help to ensure continuity of care when someone moves institutions. This is a vital point in my opinion because postdocs find themselves, every few years, in a situation where their entire local support network disappears. For those with mental health issues this can be extremely damaging, not least because one may have no familiarity whatsoever with the mental health care provision that exists in a potentially new area or country.
    • When postdocs come to the point where none of their applications have been successful or they otherwise decide to leave academia, these staff would be there to provide emotional support and also to offer advice on how to transition into industry.
  4. Institutions should, for postdocs who have reached the end of their academic careers, offer a period of paid retraining. The cliff-edge that many post-docs experience can be incredibly stressful – this was certainly the case for me. Institutions prepared to hire incredibly talented and dedicated people on temporary contracts have (or should have) a duty to make sure these people have the best and smoothest transition to whatever it is they go on to do. While I can see a gut reaction that this may overburden academic institutions, I think there is real scope to make this positive and beneficial for all involved, particularly if local industries are involved in the process. And, of course, it would not be the case that institutions would have to do this for every postdoc; plenty will remain in academia.

What can we do as a community to make sure such tragedies are not repeated?

As a community, I think we must try to engage those in positions to implement change in a dialog. Optimistically, perhaps it may be possible to draw up a ‘charter for postdocs’ to which institutes can subscribe to, which would guarantee that they agree to certain standards of treatment for postdocs.

 

If these issues affect you, or somebody you know, you can contact the Samaritans, free, 24/7.

 

 

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You Must Be Very Intelligent – The PhD Delusion

Most academics are so passionate about their work that it is a struggle to separate work from life. I have long resisted this urge, trying my best to keep the inbox off over the weekends and taking proper holidays (i.e. non-academic books only). This reluctance extended to banning anything vaguely academic from my personal world, including academic novels and films depicting campus life. 

The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy’s deliciously scathing commentary on liberal arts schools, was the first to change my mind, and just in time. The rise of the academic novel in recent years has seen the publication of many truly unmissable books that beg to be read, from The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s ambitious and intellectual murder not-so mystery, to Lab GirlHope Jahren’s quirky memoir and ode to friendship, plants, and the tenacity of the unsung women of science.

A new addition to my growing collection of academic novels recently landed on my desk – Karin Bodewits new book You Must Be Very Intelligent: The PhD DelusionYou Must Be Very Intelligent promises a “witty, warts-and-all account of post-grad life” featuring “success and failure, passion and pathos, insight, farce and warm-hearted disillusionment.”

As Karin puts it:

Ever since I finished my PhD, I knew I had to write this book. While it isn’t a diary of my time as a PhD student, it isn’t quite a work of fiction either. If it were, I would probably have described some secretive, unethical research taking place in dank basements beneath cloisters, proving that scientists are amoral psychopaths (I did meet some people I could imagine creating a three-headed sheep for shits and giggles but I never actually saw anyone trying it).

I nonetheless saw stuff that was dramatically dark, barking mad and hilariously ridiculous, but in an everyday way. I saw the monsters beneath the meniscus of human nature surfacing in a supposedly sedate world; of frustrated egos the size of Africa, where competition is pathological, volcanic rages seethe and tin pot dictators are drunk on oh-such petty power. It’s a world where glory is the goal and desperation is the order of the day; a world where young adults are forced into roles that make Lord of the Flies look like Enid Blyton.

It was an education. And it taught me to be wary of education.

Karin kindly agreed to share a couple of chapters, including the all-important Chapter One, and Chapter 35 (look out for the surprisingly saucy illustration of academic ”collaboration”!).

Karin Bodewits has a PhD in Biology from the University of Edinburgh. In 2012, she co-founded the company NaturalScience.Careers. She published her first book, a career guide for female natural scientists, in 2015, and just won the Science Slam in Munich. She writes short stories, career columns and opinion pieces for magazines like Chemistry World and Naturejobs.

 

Full disclosure: I didn’t get paid for this post, but I did get a free copy of the book. I do have a fledgling Amazon affiliate account, which means that if you buy the book after clicking on a link here, I get 3 cents or something.

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Doodling for Academics

In recent weeks, I have been slowing down a little in an attempt to find some of that ever-elusive ‘work-life balance’. Amongst other fledgling self-care efforts, I have started exercising again (following an unintentional but extensive hiatus) and reading more. Now, I am adding colouring to my list of relaxing activities, and here’s why.

A few months ago, I was contacted by University of Chicago Press asking if I’d be willing to take a look at a new book, Doodling for Academics by Julie Schumacher. This sounded like a lot of fun and the book is awesome, so I was happy to provide a blurb:

The wonderfully weird illustrations in Doodling for Academics brilliantly capture the bizarre highs, and arcane lows, of academic life. Full of fun activities to pass the time at staff meetings, this book will be a quirky addition to any academic office.

In Julie’s own words:

The original idea for Doodling for Academics came from University of Chicago Press editor Christie Henry. When she proposed it to me, my first instinct was to dismiss it, but then I found myself laughing while day-dreaming through a few possible images. I had never collaborated on a writing project before, so the matching of concept, illustration, title and caption for the forty different panels was initially overwhelming. Illustrator Lauren Nassef and I exchanged hundreds of emails and drafts, and had several very long conference calls, but never met until after the book was finished.

As soon as copies became available, my department chair held a coloring party. We stuck our finished artwork on the staff fridge when we were done.

I loved the book so much I asked the publisher if I could post a few free pages for fellow academic doodlers to print out and colour in. Three free doodles are provided below, and you can click here to get your hands on the full book, which contains 40 of these wonderfully silly and snarky illustrations.)

 

Julie Schumacher is professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of the best-selling Dear Committee Members, winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Lauren Nassef is a freelance illustrator and artist living in Chicago.

Full disclosure: I didn’t get paid for the blurb, but I did get a free copy of the book. I also didn’t get paid for this post, I just wanted to share the fun so I reached out to the publisher for the free pages. I did however set up an Amazon affiliate account (an idea I had only when finding a link to buy the book for this post), which I believe means that if you buy the book after clicking the link above I will get 3 cents or something.

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This Study is Subject to Certain Limitations: Overly Honest Academic Caveats

Alison Edwards is an independent researcher, translator, editor, writer, and lover of tennis, infrastructure, and collared shirts done all the way up. This post originally appeared on her blog The Rogue Linguist. Follow Alison on twitter @rogue_linguist

This study is subject to certain limitations. For starters, it is imperceptibly different to the last six studies we salami-sliced into articles. Just as with those papers, we tortured something out of one and the same dataset and had a copyeditor repackage the intro so that it looks sort of newish.

***

One possible objection to our work may be that it appears to have insubstantial theoretical underpinning. That would be a correct, if mild, assessment, given that it has no underpinning of any kind at all.

***

The literature review can at best be described as thin, as we read exactly none of the papers referred to. Instead we pursued the following three-pronged information-gathering strategy. 1) We took what Author X said about Author Y’s work and passed it off as our own interpretation without bothering to cite Author X. 2) We perused the reference lists of previous papers and intuited the content of seemingly relevant articles from their titles alone. 3) On a few rare occasions we were compelled to hunt down a paper ourselves; a shout-out to Sci-hub and internet piracy is in order here. In such cases any direct quotes come from the abstracts, as that is as far as we got in terms of actually reading them.

***

The results of the study are tempered somewhat by the fact that we plucked the methodological technique out of thin air, neglected to validate it in any way and described it in as deliberately vague terms as possible. As a consequence, future researchers trying to replicate the study will almost certainly get entirely different results.

***

This study requires the reader to ingest a good dose of LSD before reading.

***

The generalisability of the results is limited due to the sample size of exactly N=1, namely my three-year-old daughter. Oh sure, I’ve dressed it up as a qualitative, longitudinal study of child language development, but Blind Freddy can see I’ve just recorded my kid at random, cherry-picked a few select utterances and even mimicked her myself when her actual developmental process didn’t align with the fictional one I invented for the paper. Oh, and I don’t have a daughter.

***

At this point in time our conclusions necessarily remain tentative, as we came up with them at the tail end of a heavy night of drinking long before actually having conducted the study. Only by a great leap of the imagination could one accept that they genuinely follow from the results.

***

The device tested in the study was developed by the same body that funded the research. In this sense, should one wish to be all pedantic about it, one could speak of a so-called “conflict of interest”.

***

Arguably, this is actually a pretty solid study in terms of execution; it’s just that the entire underlying premise is wildly wrong. In our view, the traditional imperative to come up with something both well-considered and well-executed falls beyond the scope of the present study; we leave it to future researchers who are more masochistic than ourselves to rectify this minor shortcoming.

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