The PhD thesis and how to boost its impact

Podcast: Working Scientist (LS 31 · TOP 5% what is this?)
Episode: The PhD thesis and how to boost its impact
Pub date: 2019-12-06

The thesis is a central element of how graduate students are assessed. But is it time for an overhaul? Julie Gould finds out.

How do you decide whether or not somebody is a fully trained researcher? Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae, a non-profit that supports the professional development of researchers, tells Julie Gould that it’s time to be “really brave” and look at how doctoral degrees are examined.

But what role should the thesis play in that assessment? Does it need overhauling, updating, or even scrapping?

Inger Mewburn, who leads research training at the Australian National University in Canberra and who founded of The Thesis Whisperer blog in 2010, suggests science could learn from architecture. Student architects are required to produce a portfolio, creating a “look book” for assessors or potential employers to examine as part as part of a candidate’s career narrative. For graduate students in science, this could include papers, journals, articles, presentations, certificates, or even video files.

“The PhD is meant to turn out individual, beautifully crafted, entirely bespoke and unique knowledge creators,” she tells Gould. “And we need people like that. We need creative people with really different sorts of talents. We don’t want to turn out ‘cookie cutter’ researchers.”

David Bogle, who leads early career researcher development at University College London, tells Gould that UCL’s three-pronged mission statement includes impact.

“We want our research to make an impact, and in order to support and reinforce that it is now mandatory to include a one page impact statement at the front saying ‘this is the difference it will make in the world,'” he tells Gould. “Any impact — curriculum, society, business, anything. It might not end up making that difference, but we want people to think about it.”

What about the pressure to publish? In October 2019 Anne-Marie Coriat, Head of UK and EU Research Landscape at the Wellcome Trust in London, argued in a World View article published in Nature Human Behaviour that PhD merit needs to be defined by more than publications.

She tells Gould that the experience of getting published is a good thing, but making it mandatory is not. “Learning writing skills is a hugely important part of PhD training. Should it be a requirement that all students publish in peer reviewed journals in order to pass the PhD? My answer is absolutely and emphatically no.”


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Episode 52: The Embedded Entrepreneurship Initiative

Podcast: Voices from DARPA (LS 43 · TOP 1.5% what is this?)
Episode: Episode 52: The Embedded Entrepreneurship Initiative
Pub date: 2021-12-01

In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, listeners will learn about an emerging component of DARPA’s institutional culture for delivering technologies that strengthen the nation and redefine what is possible. Called the Embedded Entrepreneurship Initiative (EEI), this effort is designed to help creative scientists and engineers usher their new high-technology visions all of the way to real in-field, hold-in-your-hand, useful-in-the-world technologies. The mission of EEI, now entering its second year following a pilot phase, is to provide early-stage technology-development teams with veteran innovators who bring with them the proven business savvy it takes to make it through the proverbial Valley of Death. That’s when anything from insufficient funding, missed deadlines, unexpected supply-chain issues, intellectual property disputes, market fluctuations, a federal policy change, or any number of other hazards can kill off even the best of technology ideas. Listeners will hear from Kacy Gerst, DARPA’s Chief of Commercial Strategy; Scott Cunningham, a Senior Commercialization Advisor with In-Q-Tel-Emerge, a technology-acceleration organization that is partnering with DARPA to make EEI work; and Jeff Conroy, CEO of Embody, an emerging biotechnology company that credits EEI with accelerating its success in launching what is now its first FDA-approved biomedical technology for improving ligament and tendon repair, a common need for athletes and military personnel. Gerst is happy to note that EEI already is working with more than 50 entrepreneurial teams and she expects the initiative to ramp up over the next few years to a portfolio of 150 such teams. 

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086. Five Resolutions for Happier, Healthier Scientists (R)

Podcast: Hello PhD (LS 45 · TOP 1% what is this?)
Episode: 086. Five Resolutions for Happier, Healthier Scientists (R)
Pub date: 2022-01-01

Turning over the last page of the calendar seems to naturally invite some reflection on the previous 365 days. When you look back at 2021, what went well? And what do you wish you could change in the coming year?

This week, we take the opportunity to reflect back much farther – to our days in graduate and postdoctoral training!  With years of hindsight, we offer advice and perspective to the scientists we were, and devise some resolutions you can adopt in your scientific training.

Grad School Resolutions

 1.  Remember that training is temporary

When you’re ‘on the inside,’ graduate training can seem like an endless tunnel – the light at the end just a distant pin-prick.  For many, the daily stress of lab life closes in and we begin to feel trapped and hopeless.  This year, pause to consider that your training is just a brief step in your scientific career, and that people do finish! We promise!

2. Be mindful of your unique skills and motivations

Many students wait to think about a suitable career until they have a degree in their hands and a PI’s foot on their backside.  We recommend taking stock of your natural motivation and skill patterns early AND often.

It can be as simple as reflecting at the end of the day or on a Friday afternoon.  What did you accomplish this week? Which activities left you feeling energized?  Which left you drained? When did you lose track of time because you were engrossed in the task? Jot each item in a notebook or on a post-it and save them.

After a few months, you’ll have a detailed list of skills and activities you like to use and those you’d like to avoid.  These patterns can persist over a lifetime, so spend some time examining the notes and identifying the common themes.  That way, when you’re reading job postings, you’ll know exactly which positions fit your personality.

3. Push beyond your comfort zone

Starting a graduate program often means moving to a new town, meeting hundreds of new people, and dropping the support networks you enjoyed in college. That makes many introverted science-types turn further inward as we try to avoid the stress of new situations.

But remember that many of the people you meet feel exactly the same way.  Push yourself to engage, and you’ll be rewarded with new friends and colleagues that will last a lifetime.  Graduate training is full of never-to-be-repeated opportunities if you’re willing to step up and take them.

4. Make science fun again #MSFA

Don’t forget that you chose a career in science because science is amazing.  Maybe it fascinated you as a child, but we quickly lose that child-like curiosity the moment Figure 4 of our paper is due.

Every once in awhile, it’s okay to let loose and try an experiment because you think it’s fun, or you just can’t predict how it will turn out. This will not only stoke your love of science, it may lead to your next line of inquiry.

5. Find emotional support before you think you need it

Graduate training may be one of the most stressful periods of your life.  That’s not unusual. But too many of us try to ‘power through’ on our own.  Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and worse are the rewards.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Your mental health is as vitally important as your physical health.  If eating right and going to the gym are admirable,

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146: Skills pay bills

Podcast: Everything Hertz (LS 42 · TOP 1.5% what is this?)
Episode: 146: Skills pay bills
Pub date: 2021-12-27

We answer a series of questions from a listener on whether to start a PhD, what to ask potential supervisors, the financial perils of being a PhD student, the future of higher education, the importance of skills, what keeps us going, and more.

Here are the specific questions that we answered in this episode (the background to these questions is shared in the episode):

  1. Would you have any advice on how I can even decide whether to commence a PhD?
  2. Are there any questions in particular that you think are important to ask prospective supervisors?
  3. How do people make PhDs work financially? You are supposed to treat the degree like a regular 40 hour/ week job (and students commonly fail to do so). However, what full-time job pays ~$540 per week and expects this?! You are not supposed to work > 8 hours/ week outside of this?! I thought I could at least work 2-3 full days a week if I needed to.
  4. Why do people generally leave academia, or not continue, after their PhD, despite obvious potential?
  5. In what form do you think universities will be around in 5 and 10 years?
  6. Are one-year progress reports from the PhD committee enough to stay on track?
  7. What utility do PhDs hold inside and outside of academia? Apparently, skills matter more than a topic, and you have a better chance of getting a postdoc etc… if you have worked on a hot topic with a well-known supervisor.
  8. How can one start the PhD prepared enough to finish it on time and earlier?
  9. I am wondering what keeps academics going. I may be jaded, but lab environments don’t seem collaborative, and academics seem to be ruled by the admin people and hedge fund managers (or whoever). They also seem to make their money off students (i.e., the customer). I see a reverence for science and people trying to game the system, but not people wanting to seek truth in science. I now wonder how much of academia is motivated by pride, comfort, and not knowing what else to do. In my mind (and I am exaggerating a little), the PhD journey is coming to resemble an abusive relationship between the student and the uni, facilitated by the supervisor who hopefully gets something out of it. I assume it only gets worse from here.
  10. I have been told that the PhD is the only program that offers solid research training and the ability to do your original research (something an industry job does not offer). Even if I accept those premises, I now wonder what it is all for.
  11. Where do you both see yourselves in 5 and 10 years?
  12. What keeps you both going?
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Episode citation

Quintana, D.S., Heathers, J.A.J. (Hosts). (2021, December 27) “146: Skills pay bills”, Everything Hertz [Audio podcast], DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/PUW6N

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UnDisciplined: Let’s Talk Toads

Podcast: UnDisciplined
Episode: UnDisciplined: Let’s Talk Toads
Pub date: 2021-12-02

They’ve got warts, they sometimes smell like roasted peanuts, and in Wyoming, they’re changing how they move because of a fungus. This week, we’ll be discussing a concept known as behavioral fever in boreal toads, and how this fever is helping toads fight chytrid fungus.Dr. Barrile studies how individual toads’ movement and habitat choices scale up to influence population growth and demographic rates. His research uniquely documents toads altering their behavior to cope with chytrid fungus, a concept referred to as “behavioral fever”.

The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from Matthew LaPlante, Shoshannah Buxbaum, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.


How to get media coverage for your research

Podcast: Working Scientist (LS 31 · TOP 5% what is this?)
Episode: How to get media coverage for your research
Pub date: 2020-02-27

Your paper has been accepted, reviewed and published. Now you need to get it talked about by journalists, the public, your peers and funders.

Pippa Whitehouse recalls seeking advice and media training from colleagues in her university press office when her first paper was published.

“I recorded some soundbites and listened back to them and reflected on how to communicate information very clearly. It gave me a lot of confidence,” says Whitehouse, an Antarctica researcher at the University of Durham, UK.

”All of the interaction I’ve had with the press has been really positive,” she adds. “It can seem a little bit daunting to begin with, but if you give it a go I think you’ll find the media are very interested in finding out about science.”

In the third episode of this four-part podcast series about getting published, Jane Hughes describes her role as director of communications and public engagement at The Francis Crick Institute in London.

She and her team help 1,500 researchers communicate their science to the press, public, policymakers and funders. Hughes recommends reaching out to press-office colleagues as soon as possible to discuss a paper’s potential for attracting newspaper, broadcast or online media coverage.

Researchers can take other steps themselves to get a paper talked about, she tells Levy. ”One thing that can make a difference is an image, a video or something alongside the paper that you can share on social media,” says Hughes.

She also warns against over-hyping a paper’s findings. ”Try not to sensationalize or over-simplify. You can work with your press office to make sure the message gets across properly.”


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151. Avoid These Phrases in Your Peer Review

Podcast: Hello PhD (LS 45 · TOP 1% what is this?)
Episode: 151. Avoid These Phrases in Your Peer Review
Pub date: 2021-03-01

The Peer Review villain, alternatively known as ‘Reviewer 2’ or ‘Reviewer 3’, has gained meme status. This is the person who takes your submitted journal article, drenches it in red ink, shreds it, burns it, and feeds the ashes to feral pigs.

And unfortunately, it has happened to all of us. There always seems to be one reviewer that doesn’t just ask for additional experiments, but finds a way to cut a little deeper.

Maybe it comes in the form of an emotive shaming (“Disappointingly, the authors failed to cite Smith, 2015”) or a veiled accusation (“It seems possible that the outlier data has been scrubbed from this report.”), but however it happens, it can affect something more than your experiments.

Some hostile comments might make you wonder whether you belong in science at all.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be this way.

This week, we talk with a linguist and a psychologist about carefully crafting your peer reviews.

Peer Review Detox

Dr. Rebekah Baglini and Dr. Christine Parsons realized there was a toxic undercurrent in some reviewers’ writing.

“Rejection is always difficult, but reviews that use emotive or sarcastic language are often the hardest for recipients to deal with, particularly if they are early-career researchers,” the two wrote in their recent article “If you can’t be kind in peer review, be neutral” published in Nature, November 30, 2020.

They argue that scientific reviews should look more like scientific writing: reviews should be neutral, fact-based, and not reflect the personality or emotions of the author.

But the shift to negativity can be subtle, and their article gives many examples:

The fact-based statement “The project proposal didn’t fulfill the stated requirements” can be modified to:

“The project proposal didn’t bother to fulfill the stated requirements.”


“The ‘project proposal’ didn’t fulfill the stated requirements.”

Both modifications drip with contempt, but neither adds value or new information. They just tell us how the reviewer was feeling in that moment.

This week, we talk with Drs. Baglini and Parsons as they unpack the importance of neutral peer review, the words to watch for, and some simple things you can do to make your own writing more appropriate and helpful.

And isn’t that the point?

Dr. Parsons concludes, “You don’t go around punching players on your own team. One of the objectives of peer review is to improve scholarship. Not just your own scholarship, but to improve scholarship in your field.”

For a full list of expressive words and phrases to avoid, see their article in Nature.

To follow their work, find them on Twitter (@RebekahBaglini and @ce_parsons ), or at the


Cecilia Aragon | Aerobatic Pilot, Author and Data Scientist

Podcast: Women in Data Science (LS 40 · TOP 2% what is this?)
Episode: Cecilia Aragon | Aerobatic Pilot, Author and Data Scientist
Pub date: 2021-05-06

The multi-talented Cecilia Aragon is a data scientist, professor, author and champion aerobatic pilot. In this podcast, she explains how learning to fly gave her the confidence to pursue her career in human-centered data science and as an author.

Her book, Flying Free: My Victory Over Fear to Become the First Latina Pilot on the US Aerobatic Team, is the story of how a timid daughter of immigrants who had terrible phobias overcame her fears to become a champion pilot. Learning to fly and excelling at it helped her overcome emotional barriers from childhood when she was fearful and doubted her abilities.

In her mid-20s, she was pursuing her PhD and felt a lack of confidence, so dropped out of the program. “It wasn’t that I had failed life, but I was living a very narrow life. I was just saying no to everything that might be exciting or interesting. And I saw my life stretching in front of me as incredibly narrow. A colleague offered me a ride in a small airplane…It suddenly occurred to me that living life too safely was dangerous for my spirit.” So, she took her first ride in the small plane and knew that she was going to learn how to fly.

She was very fearful as she was learning to fly and realized it was the same feeling she had in grad school when she didn’t think she knew enough to be there. She practiced a discipline of constant learning, trying, making mistakes, relearning, and trying again until you get it right. She builds in safety protocols to anticipate potential problems, and most of all, never gives up.

She applies these same techniques in data science. As director of the Human-Centered Data Science Lab, Cecilia explains that every algorithm you write has potential human impact. A small error can be magnified and can have dramatic effects for thousands or millions of people.

She has co-authored a book called Human Centered Data Science: An Introduction to help experienced and new data scientists learn how to plan for and manage the unintended consequences from the automated collection, analysis, and distribution of very large data sets. There are human decisions at every stage of the work of data science, and we discuss how bias and inequality may result from these choices and what to do to help prevent this. She says we need to put human needs and ethics at the center of data science and place data in its social context.

Connect with Cecilia Aragon on LinkedIN and Twitter
Find out more about Cecilia on her University of Washington profile page
Find out more about Cecilia’s book
Learn more about the Human-Centered Data Science Lab at the University of Washington
Connect with Margot Gerritsen on Twitter (@margootjeg) and LinkedIn
Find out more about Margot on her Stanford Profile

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