Academia has always been pretty competitive. It took me about 2 years of looking to get a job as a academic, including a somewhat bruising and unsuccessful interview at Imperial (the question “Do you consider yourself a loner?” did rather throw me). And if anything 2 years is shorter than average. If you apply for a job as an academic you should accept that maybe 30 to 100 others will be applying for the same job, including some smart, hard working and ambitious people. But despite the pressure and work load, being an academic is still a good job, with a lot more freedom than most other jobs. And, as I tell my tutees “Good jobs are hard to get as the competition is strong, so you need to work on getting a good CV”, so you should expect getting a job as an academic to be competitive.
How to get the right one?
All models are wrong, unless you have limited data, in which case most models are right
I am very fond of the quote by the statistician George Box: “essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”. It is true, all our models are wrong if you look carefully enough. For example, Newton’s model of gravity is pretty good for calculating our orbit around the Sun, but if you look carefully enough you will see it is wrong. Careful measurements and general relativity have told us that it is an approximation. The same thing applies to pretty much every model we have.
Fair and balanced
I hope you enjoyed this, I did. If only the BBC, for example, would follow suit and do this for balance, instead of their usual use of one sensible scientist and one fruitcake for “balance”.
300 years is a long time in hi-tech research
Three hundred years ago, an act of parliament created a prize for the solving a then highly pressing technological problem: How a ship at see could work out where on Earth it actually was, in particular what its longitude was. If you are like me and always get longitude and latitude mixed up, longitude is position east-west, while latitude is north-south. As I learnt last week in a IoP South Central general talk by Dr Rebekah Higgitt, the biggest (of several) contributions to solving this was by John Harrison, who made the first clocks that were very accurate at sea.
Paper after paper rejected, yet no front page story for me
Yesterday The Times led with a story that a paper on climate science was rejected by the journal Environmental Research Letters. Sorry, it is behind a paywall so you will have to take my word for it. But the Telegraph and Mail both have articles on it, both of which manage to imply ‘McCarthy’ style persecution of Prof Benngtsson, one of the authors of the paper. I have had many papers rejected from a number of journals. Also as a peer-reviewer I have recommended the rejection of more papers than I care to remember. I am upset. Despite my heroic efforts none of the Times, Mail or Telegraph have ever run articles either lamenting my fate at the hands of McCarthyite persecutors, or when I was the reviewer, making me feel important by claiming that I am part of such a conspiracy.
Over the weekend I was at workshop in Cornwall. It was mainly people from the Universities of Bristol and Bath, but they were a few people like me from further afield. It was in a very pretty village in Cornwall. During the Saturday lunch break we went for a stroll along a wooded river bank. It is the time of year that blue bells flower, and the fields of blue bells in the wood were beautiful.
A post on drugs
I am reading David Nutt’s book Drugs – Without the Hot Air, which is excellent, although as I will get to later, my timing is not great. Incidentally, as he admits in the book, he is best known as the scientific advisor that the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacked a few years ago. He says a number of things in the book, but I can illustrate a key point he is making as follows. Consider two drugs: A and B. Large doses of A can kill you on the spot, it is responsible for damage to society on a huge scale, tens of thousands of deaths every year, and can be addictive. Drug B does not, even in very large doses, kill you directly, although it is harmful. It is also not addictive. If you tell you one of these in legal and the other illegal, can you guess which one is illegal?
Did a Swedish statistician reveal the secret of a 100% germ free toilet bowl?
I guess we have all seen the ads for bleach that claim they kill 99% of germs dead. Maybe you have wondered about the other 1%? Killing the last 1% may be harder than you think. Naively you might think that bleach just kills bacteria, and that’s the end of it. But scientists working on bacteria like E. Coli have found that the individual bacteria are surprising diverse, in the following sense. Consider a population of millions of E. Coli, and assume that they are all clones, i.e., are genetically identical. If they are all descendents of a single bacterium then this would be true. You might assume that these genetically identical clones would all behave identically, e.g., would all require the same dose of something nasty like bleach, to kill them.
A molecular David slaying Goliath
At the start of this week I was at an excellent conference hosted in Cambridge’s Homerton College – the building where we had our meals is shown on the left. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and I learnt a lot. There were some superb talks. I thought the best was one by Prof David Klenerman. It was on the molecular and cell behaviour that underlies Alzheimer’s disease.