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Guidelines and Expectations for PGR Students – Guest post from Prof Andy Jones

December 20, 2018

Professor Andrew M. Jones from Exeter University has written a superb set of basic guidelines for research students to consider and has kindly shared them with me.  In an age of target and metric-driven academia, it gets to the essence of what being a postgrad is all about, and stands as a good indicator of what a great supervisor Andy was to me and is to others still. He’s a professor who has never lost contact with the lab, and is always keen to roll his sleeves up and get involved. Usually these sleeves are part of a Gary Numan or Rammstein shirt, which only makes it better.  So here they are:

1. Integrity

A research degree involves the pursuit of the truth. Sometimes a hypothesis will be accepted, sometimes it will be rejected; either way, you will employ a scientific process and you will be contributing to the development of knowledge. You should conduct research honestly and diligently and not in haste or for self-gain. Never be tempted to cut corners. You need to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and know that your research was ethical and authentic. Research is hard work and it can involve challenges and disappointment as well as joy – but the journey is just as important as the destination. Take no short cuts. Have exemplary standards and aim for excellence.

2. Organisation and Attention to Detail
Keep a lab book and note down everything relevant to your research and your experiments, and make ‘to-do’ lists to keep yourself on track. Learn how things work and develop your lab and technical skills to a high standard. Plan, conduct and report your research meticulously and with the utmost attention to detail so that you and others can replicate your methods.

3. Data Storage and Analysis
Store your data carefully and become adept at using spreadsheets and statistical software and graphical programmes for interrogating your data and presenting your results. Label everything so you always know which version you’re working on.

4. Deadlines
Creating and hitting deadlines is important for progress. If you negotiate a deadline with your supervisors, try to produce your piece of work within the agreed timeframe. Your supervisors will consider your work carefully and provide detailed feedback; you should respond to that feedback with equally careful revisions. Your supervisors will be much more impressed with the care you take than the speed with which you return the next version.

5. Team Work
Research is a team game. At any time, there will be people with more knowledge and experience than you in the research group and other people with less. Everybody gains if experience and knowledge are shared. Be generous with your time: be a study participant; help out in the lab; share data; read draft manuscripts; discuss research articles – others will do the same for you and your research and career will benefit. Never be afraid to admit you don’t know how to do something nor to ask for help from your team.

6. Courtesy and Etiquette
Be helpful and understanding to people both within and outside your research group. In particular, be nice to professional services staff in the department and university: the administrative staff, security staff and, maybe especially, the technical services staff. You’ll enhance your reputation and, when you need them (which will be often) they’ll be much more inclined to help you out! Remember that lab technicians are there to advise and help you but not to do your work for you. Use e-mail wisely: check your wording and attachments and don’t send a stream of e-mails when one good one will do.

7. Trust
Have confidence in your supervisors’ ability to guide and coordinate your research activities to your best advantage. Appreciate that, at times, research can be competitive and treat new results confidentially. Consult your supervisors before reaching out to people beyond your immediate team for advice.

8. Reading and Writing
Read widely. You should become the master of your research topic. Read the newest literature so that you’re up-to-date but also read the classics and read other papers you find interesting too. The best way to improve your own writing is to read good scientific literature. Scientific writing is a skill and it takes time to develop. Expect to write multiple drafts of every article. Keep honing every sentence until they’re ‘perfect’ but realise draft articles can always be enhanced so don’t be shy about sharing them. Always seek to clarify and not to obfuscate.

9. Appreciate Lineage and Legacy
Know the history of your research topic and therefore your place in the story. Learn about the people that came before you that made discoveries on which your work builds. Ask your supervisors about their successes and failures and learn from their experiences. Practise humility. Celebrate your own achievements, take note of your errors, and keep it all in perspective.

10. Conferencing
Research involves communication in writing but also in person. Attend research seminars in your department even if the topic appears to lack direct relevance; you’ll always learn something including about effective presentation techniques. Work on your ability to communicate your research findings and their implications simply and succinctly both to fellow scientists and to members of the general public who may benefit from them. Remember that you are an ambassador for your research team. Represent.

11. And Finally!
Stay excited. Conducting original research is an enormous privilege. It is so exciting to have the opportunity to discover new facts and to communicate them across the world. Appreciate that opportunity, enjoy your studies and have fun.


Andy Jones



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