During my career as a research scientist, I will go on to generate more new ideas and continue to add to our collective understanding about ecology and conservation biology. But, even in the very best-case scenario, these advances will be dwarfed by the collective contribution made by my collaborators. Research students—Honours, Masters and PhD students, interns and extra-keen undergrads—are a particular class of collaborator for whom I have certain preconceptions (for both myself and the student): this document is a summary of those standards and expectations. Rather than the term supervisor, the American term “advisor” is a more fitting description of the relationship. To date, I have advised 29 students and doubt that I will take on another 70 in the coming decades. So, while ideas, papers and grants come and go by the dozen, I treat working with this finite group of early-career researchers as *the* most important aspect of my job. It is something about which I have thought a great deal so, for those interested in joining this group, you should know what you’re getting yourself into…
Generic skills. Like any job, there’s a requisite set of skills needed to perform it properly, and the three most important ones in the research sphere are 1) the ability to read critically; 2) the ability to write clearly; 3) creativity. I don’t expect commencing research students to have all three, but two out of three aint bad (you’ll get used to the humour). Reading critically is fundamentally important: learning what’s been done before; identifying shortcomings with previous work; looking beyond what’s on the page to what is assumed or left unsaid. It takes a solid understanding of a particular area to be able to summarize what is known. It takes a deeper and more complete understanding to identify what isn’t known—the gaps in our knowledge. Reading is work—it is an active process and an essential component of any project. I read at least 40 papers a week as a matter of course and expect you to read at least half that. Writing clearly is one of the most important skills of a research scientist—using simple language to explain complex ideas can be difficult, but gets progressively easier. Jargon and specialized terms are occasionally needed, but can generally be replaced with more widely understood terms that demonstrate you *really* know what you’re talking about. Finally, creativity is the trickiest one of all—it may not be essential in all scientific fields and too much of it can be counter-productive, but recognizing its importance, setting aside time to brainstorm, reading widely (including blogs, magazines, fiction) and talking to researchers outside your field will maximize your creative streak.
Specific skills. In addition to these core skills you will need many others, from specific project-related ones (identifying plants, radio-tracking animals, reconstructing phylogenies) to more generic skills that will be useful in future jobs (data visualization, prioritization, first aid). Regardless of your research topic, a large proportion of your time as a researcher will necessarily be consumed by repetitive tasks so picking a topic and study design that matches what you enjoy doing is crucial. If you do your best thinking and feel most alive when you’re outdoors with the wind in your hair, crunching through hundreds of invertebrate samples in the lab is a recipe for frustration. Give this careful consideration before deciding on your final research topic / study design. As well as what sort of activities are involved, consider locations and the skills you really want to have once you graduate. As a child I became fascinated with the Amazon rainforest and the neotropics generally—factors instrumental in my decision to undertake my doctoral research in Mesoamerica.
Being a research student is a full time job. Like other full-time jobs, you do it during defined periods. I don’t take work home and I don’t expect my research students to work any more than 40 or so hours per week. You need to maintain your life outside research—your relationships with others, your personal / domestic affairs, all that stuff that keeps you grounded. There are many reasons for this but the most relevant relate to productivity. If you get to the office on Monday morning after pulling a couple of all-nighters to get that grant proposal finished, you’re not going to be very focused on the job at hand. Rather, you’ll be distracted, tired, worried about all the home-stuff that was left undone. In contrast, if you spent the weekend fishing / dancing / playing croquet, then you’ll arrive at work fresh, grounded and ready to get into it. Indeed, while fishing / dancing / playing croquet, you were thinking about the analyses / invertebrate sorting / permit applications awaiting you on Monday, so will already be in the right state of mind. By placing explicit limits on the amount of research work you do, you are thereby allocating time to all those other things in your life—things that you will become reliant on to support you when you have a crap day in the office, lab or field.
Productivity. Unlike most of the research that I perform which is relatively open-ended (if I knew where it would end up, it wouldn’t be worth doing) your research has definite bounds, externally imposed by your degree program. This means that time management is critical. At a given moment, there will be multiple tasks that need to be done. Rather than working through them in a particular order, for most people it is far more efficient to match the task to your present state of mind. This is especially the case with writing. Designating Tuesday mornings as writing periods doesn’t work. On some Tuesday mornings, you’re alert and focused; on others, you’re distracted and vague (which may relate to working out of hours). Instead, when you get to the office / lab / research station, sit down and ask yourself: “What needs doing?” followed closely by “What am I in the best frame of mind to do?” If you’ve had a great weekend, you’re thinking clearly and had a revelation about your research on the walk to the office, then write. Don’t write then stop to chase up the relevant reference, wander around on the web to find the appropriate citation details or leaf through reference books to find the correct spelling of a scientific name. Just write. When I’m working on a manuscript, I can achieve more in half an hour of lucid thinking than in two or three weeks of designated ‘writing sessions’ where I end up going through the motions only to delete the resultant garbage next time around. If you’re a bit distracted, then chase up some references, catch up on filing or format some graphs. Having an up-to-date ‘to do’ list and an awareness of your present state of mind / capability will allow you to make the very most of your limited candidature (and minimize frustration and angst along the way).
Your project is yours. I intentionally select project areas for student projects from the periphery of my own research program rather than entirely inside it. While partly to expand my horizons and stretch my thinking it is also to clarify ownership and intellectual property right from the outset. Depending on how much the project area overlaps with my area of expertise, I will be more or less useful when it comes to specific input but, regardless, half-way through your project, YOU will be the expert with a far more current and fine-grained understanding of your research topic than I. This has important implications for authorship on resultant manuscripts. I have a very simple approach to authorship—if I am involved in writing the paper, then I am an author; but papers emanating from your research need not include me (or anyone else). While an acknowledgment might be nice, it’s your call. I will work with you on a paper, make suggestions about target journal, scope and structure. More than that, including writing, analysis or further data collection would typically warrant authorship but, before doing any of this, I will check with you first. Most of my previous students have published single authored papers and/or papers co-authored with other collaborators.
We need to talk. Setting aside time to sit down and talk through your research project is essential. To make best use of these meetings, they should be both regular and minuted, if only via a follow-up email. There are many things that will need doing by specific dates (grant proposals, ethics applications, progress reports) so mapping out these tasks early will ensure nothing is left to the last minute or forgotten about. As well as research and paperwork, these meetings serve several other functions. They are a useful opportunity for me to gauge how well you are travelling, learn what you’ve been finding out, and share ideas with you from my reading and research. Sometimes, these discussions may lead to tweaking your project, or the incorporation of a new component or different method; other times, to a co-authored manuscript or an adjustment to one of my projects. These catch-ups are also where we can discuss anything else—good or bad—and, if I can’t help sort it out, I’ll probably know who can.
Your thesis is a performance piece. As well as constituting a substantial body of novel research, your dissertation will be critically examined by experts—it is for these examiners that your thesis is primarily written. I won’t tell you who they are until the comments have been received, but will help you make the most of your research findings—identify which ones have the widest significance, highlight which aspects of your approach are the most novel and suggest links with research in other areas. Having supervised almost 30 high degree research students and acted as external examiner for almost as many theses, I know what characteristics distinguish an outstanding thesis and will work closely with you towards this goal. Some of these are easy—include old references as well as stuff published a month ago (demonstrating that you’re both thorough and up-to-date), choose case studies and worked examples from completely different systems (demonstrating your breadth), write in active language, insert meaningful sub-headings (= signposts) and use em and en dashes correctly (demonstrating you’re organized and careful). Other things can take more time, especially sequencing the thesis to build the examiner’s confidence in you, moving the revolutionary stuff to the end, demonstrating you have really thought through your results and their shortcomings as well as the broader ramifications of your findings. Along the way, there’ll be manuscripts, grant proposals, ethics applications and agency reports to write as well, each of which requires a different style and approach.
No, you can’t continue. This is the toughest bit (at least for me). If you have completed your Honours or Masters with me, then I will not take you on as a PhD student. If you have completed your PhD with me, you can’t stay on as a post-doc. It would be far simpler but it’s not in your best interests. Having completed a research project with me, you will have learned many of my tricks. So, even though we may get on really well and have all manner of ideas we want to pursue, it’s time to go and learn someone else’s tricks. Research is all about perspective; different ways of thinking, so working with multiple advisers (ideally at multiple institutions) will expose you to a far broader conceptual space than simply sticking with who / what / where you know. It’s tough but will make you a more independent researcher in the long run (and we can always continue to collaborate!).