Things You Are Allowed To Do, Academic Edition

Tags: academia, musings, research

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Since it’s application season again, I thought that I would share some things that you are ‘allowed’ to do in academia but may not be aware of. This post is inspired by Milan Cvitkovic’s post on ‘Things you’re allowed to do’ and Veronika Cheplygina’s posts on advice for Ph.D. students, in particular her post ‘7 things I wish I had done during my PhD’.

Interpolating between the two posts, I thus present you a list of seven items that you might want to try out if you are somehow connected to academia.

  1. Give someone feedback on a preprint or a paper you liked. Academics are mostly used to negative feedback loops: reviewers criticising a paper, evaluators criticising a proposal, etc. Why not flip it around for a change and provide positive feedback? It does not have to be long, but a brief, genuine message along the lines of ‘Your paper on X was really inspiring.’ may go a long way, in particular if you are writing it to an early-career researcher!

  2. Ask someone for access to a paper or its materials. If you want to read a paper but cannot find an accessible version, most authors will be more than happy to accommodate your request. We are not paid anything by the publishers when you buy our paper from them, by the way.

    (This piece of advice also pertains to other materials in a paper, such as code or even the original sources for figures. In the worst case, your request will be ignored.1 I have shared a lot of my own materials in the past and I am always happy to see stuff I created being actually useful to people.)

  3. Ask someone for a potential collaboration. This one might require more guts, but can be even more rewarding. If you know that someone has a specific set of skills that would come in handy for your project, why not try to include them and ask them for a collaboration?

    When you do this, however, make sure that your request is as specific as possible. The chances that you will receive a response will go up immediately. At the same time, you should also be prepared to receive no response; especially the ‘big shots’ in every field are probably inundated by both external and internal collaboration requests.

  4. Ask someone to mentor you. Similar to the previous point, this one might not get you a direct response. But if you are looking for some advice and think you know exactly the person that should give it to you, reach out to them and tell them. Again, be aware that mentoring is a large time commitment, so you might not always get a positive response—but it’s worth a try!

  5. Invite someone for a workshop or another event. If you are planning an event of any sort, why not consider inviting someone whose work you always admired? You would be surprised about the response rate. There are already programmes such as Skype a Scientist that aim to connect researchers with the general public, but if you want to have a specific person at your event, why not invite them directly? You could invite them to be speakers for your reading group, your workshop, your lab meeting, …

    Previously, this used to be much more problematic as it required a large amount of logistics, but now that many meetings are of a virtual or hybrid nature, there is a higher probability that people can easily join your event. Use that to your advantage!

  6. Contribute to someone’s research project. Did you find an error in a paper? Were you able—or unable—to reproduce certain results? Did you like the code? Even if something has been published, most authors will be happy to learn that someone is using their project or thinking more deeply about it.

    Contributing to someone’s (research) project, even if it’s only a seemingly small contribution, can be a nice way to brighten their day. Personally, I am delighted when someone opens a pull request on one of my projects, because that implies that the project was useful to at least one other person!

  7. Acknowledge someone. If someone had a positive impact on you in any way, why not take the time to acknowledge that person? Academia currently only ‘permits’ acknowledgements in dissertations or papers, but that should not be stopping you!2 You could have a separate page or write a nice personalised message, for instance. Even if you do not receive a response, being aware of the positive things in your life makes you more grateful and more balanced in general!

Hope you try out a few of these things and find them useful! Let me know if I missed your personal favourite ‘permission’ in the list. Until next time!

  1. Probably due to time reasons or because we lost control of our inbox. ↩︎

  2. Moreover, since academia consists of people like you and me, we should also get a vote about what is and is not allowed. ↩︎