A first for everything

I recently had a nerve-wracking experience, my very first manuscript was finally ready to be submitted to a journal but when it came time to press the “submit” button, I froze. I had been working on this manuscript since my honours year in 2015, it has been 4 years, there have been countless drafts, my co-authors (my supervisors) were happy with it and they were ready to let it go. I think I reread the final draft 87 times, checking if I had dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s, I found myself making excuses to not submit, it wasn’t ready (after 4 years it really REALLY was though!), I wasn’t ready and, frankly, I was TERRIFIED. This would be my introduction into the ‘real world’ of research, the very first piece of writing I put out to my research community for them to critique and read.

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So, what did this millennial do before pressing submit? Naturally, I went to Twitter and told my online support system that my impostor syndrome had crippled me. I was overwhelmed at the response, many people offered advice, words of encouragement and some even offered to press submit for me, it helped me feel less afraid. Many researchers shared their feelings about their first submission and their first rejections. It has now been just over a month since I submitted, I am still anxious and check the submission status constantly but I feel more confident now, even if the paper is rejected, my online support helped me realise that it is not the end of the world, it is simply a hurdle that I will overcome.

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So, in honour of my first baby, my first paper, I thought I should put together a post that helps guide other first-timers in the world of publication! There are many fantastic detailed guides online, one of my favourites is from Dr Melanie Seiler on the blog The Female Scientist. This is a good guideline for writing a paper, outlining what is expected in each section and how to go about writing your first paper. Also check out this guideline on Enago, How to Write a Research Paper. These are REALLY helpful to start your writing process! Below I detail a few of my own tips, the last one being my favourite. My editor, Prof Inglesi- Lotz, has also contributed to this area of interest in a SAYAS blog post which is worth the read before going into a panic about publishing your first paper.

  • Find a good support system

I was fortunate enough to attend a publication workshop early last year hosted by The Centre of Excellence in Paleosciences at WITS University and led by the phenomenal publishing machine that is Dr Jennifer Fitchett. Dr Fitchett covered the publication process, she explained things like H-indexes and choosing journals and navigating this scary space. If your institution offers writing support like this, I encourage you to attend, it is great to work through problems in groups and to bounce your ideas off researchers that could be in a completely different field in order to test the clarity of your work.

Your support system can also consist of your co-authors, your supervisors and your peers. They are probably familiar with your work and if you ask, would be happy to provide feedback. If you love Twitter, like I do, then an online community can also help you navigate through your fears.

  • Choose your journal wisely

Most journals have an outline of the research work they publish and often a guideline for authors. Make sure to check your prospective journals’ homepage and learn about their format, submission and review processes. This will help you decide if it is the right journal for your work and assist in preparing your manuscript. Another way to decide if a journal is a good fit for you is to look at your own reference list and the journals you frequently cite, this could be an indicator of the right type of journal for your research work. Aim high and even if you are rejected, chances are you will receive some feedback that can be helpful in revising your paper. If that is not for you though, try to pick a suitable journal based on the research at hand, this requires an honest look at your work.

  • Get a second, third or fourth opinion

It is okay to feel unsure! It is great to bounce your ideas off other people whose opinions and input you value. The manuscript can be circulated (confidentially) for you to get some constructive feedback. This is also why conferences and seminars are so important, they offer an opportunity to present to an audience who can provide feedback and act as a room of reviewers. Discussing your work with others may encourage new ideas and insights and take you out of your mental bubble.

  • Stop that impostor syndrome

ff8827a44ceb7590b70c0fe0f5e63bbe.jpgMy wonderful SAYAS editor also reminded me that just a few weeks before my panic, I had written a blog post on Impostor Syndrome and my dealings with it, she reminded me that I was capable and that my voice, my research and my perspective mattered. Sometimes that is all you need. It is going to be difficult and your fears are valid, but you cannot let that stop you from sharing your research work. You matter!

  • Press SUBMIT!

This is probably the hardest part, once you press submit, your work is out there to be judged. Reviewer 2 is real, and they will probably have feedback but that can all assist you in presenting the best possible work. If you need a gentle nudge, you could always ask someone you trust to press the button for you. I promise once it is done you will feel a sense of relief! Sometimes it is about changing your perspective, although it is nerve-wracking, think of the feedback and how it will help you improve your work.

  • Don’t let the fear of rejection stop you

If your paper comes back with revisions, or it is rejected, do not let that stop you. Take a moment, maybe more, reflect on the feedback, dust yourself off and TRY AGAIN. There are many reasons why manuscripts are rejected and take the feedback and rework it, change your approach, change the journal possibly but do not give up.

  • Congratulate yourself

I pressed submit before 11AM on a Monday and you know what? I had a glass of wine and didn’t feel an ounce of guilt. Celebrate that you were brave enough to do it, you deserve it!Instagram-Simple-as-that-6a4430

10 Things to do to prepare for your studies

Since many of us are getting back to our courses and research, I thought I’d share 10 things that I believe will help me to prepare for my Masters. These are things that will help you save time, stay organized, focus on what’s important for your research and feel more confident. While my experience is limited to being a Masters student in Astrophysics, many of these tips are broadly applicable.

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A research notebook is a place to dump all your thoughts, questions, to-do lists, calculations, meeting notes and general research. I personally love pen and paper, and I’m partial to dot-grid notebooks, but any notebook or even a digital Google Doc could serve this purpose. Having a notebook dedicated for your rough work is so much easier than having dozens of loose sheets of paper that get lost. Because there’s no pressure for this notebook to be any form of neat, it’s easier to make productive mistakes in it.

Listing (academic) strengths and weaknesses

Your Masters studies are the perfect opportunity to improve on your weaknesses and take advantage of your strengths. While there are some things that I am ‘good at’ (like reading and understanding journal articles), there are several other skills in my field that could use some work (like radio astronomy, for example). Knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are can help you find a balance between the stress you can handle, the areas you would like to grow and the intensity of your work.

Deciding on research interests

At Masters level, the academic research world is your oyster. You might want to veer off into something totally new; you might want to stay where you are because of how interesting it is, or where it looks like your field is going. For example, I love extragalactic astronomy so I’m staying right here. However, I might incorporate some relevant techniques from other areas. Since MeerKAT is taking its first data, and the SKA continues to develop, getting more experience with radio observations is vital for me as a South African astronomer.

Choosing a supervisor

Your choice of a supervisor can dictate whether you thrive or survive through postgraduate studies. The best advice I ever got about research was “Choose your supervisor – not your project”. I would suggest meeting with several potential supervisors within your research interests and going with the person you feel like you can comfortably work with. Then develop a project you are interested in together. 

Brainstorming a topic

I haven’t done this (yet) but it is high up on my agenda. After choosing your supervisor, spend a meeting with them brainstorming a few possible ideas for your research project. After this meeting, you can follow up by reading research articles and thinking about what resources you have available (in terms of data, equipment, etc). Although your topic will naturally evolve and change over time, it’s good to have an idea of where to start and where you’d like to be heading.

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My Masters’ programme requires 6 months of coursework and I have to – of course – choose my courses. One of the easiest ways to do this is to talk to students who have done the programme already and are in the same field to find out which courses are most relevant and which ones are not that great. Take your skills, strengths and weaknesses into account to choose courses that will have the most benefit!

Choosing a system to stay organized

As I mentioned in the first point, my notebook is really important for keeping my thoughts organized. However, I will need a system that can handle scheduling and the digital components of my academic life. Since we are in 2019, there are thousands of apps and programmes that make it a lot easier to keep track of papers, references, notes, meetings and classes. Choose a system you like, that is accessible to your devices, and most importantly – works for you (I will be using Google Calendar, Google Docs and my bullet journal for this).

Creating templates

A recent problem I have had is trying to create figures that are all the same size, with readable fonts and colour schemes, that work within A4 journal-article layouts. It’s awful and time-consuming to be fiddling around with plotting parameters and googling fixes for ‘how to make my errorbars thicker in Python’. To solve this, I am going to create templates that I can easily copy and adapt.

Having templates ready will ensure that your work is presented in a consistent way and will save you a lot of time. I will be creating templates for plots, presentations and my actual thesis draft (if you don’t use LaTeX – I would suggest learning it as soon as possible!). Github is a good place to store these templates, and you can have a look at websites like Overleaf for example templates of several types of academic documents.

Updating my CV & LinkedIn account

By the time this post is live, I will be able to officially add ‘MSc Student: Astrophysics & Space Science’ to my CV. It is always good to check if there is anything new that might be missing from your CV and LinkedIn accounts. You never know when there may be a conference, workshop or summer school that you want to apply for on short notice. Having your CV ready to go can save you a lot of stress in these situations.

Reading relevant books

WhatsApp Image 2019-02-20 at 20.30.48.jpegI don’t know about you, but I don’t how to write a thesis. Fortunately, I was recommended a book called ‘How to Succeed in Your Masters and Doctoral Studies’ by Johann Mouton that can (hopefully) teach me. Most university libraries will have a copy of this book or something similar. Have a look around, ask other students for recommendations and try to find a book that appeals to you!

If you are not much of a reader, there may be workshops that you can sign up for offered by your university. Learning how to write a thesis is not something that we’re typically taught in the way Calculus or Statistics are taught and there’s no harm in getting some help!

 

Even if you’ve done just a few of these things, you’ll feel much more prepared and ready to tackle anything that comes your way this year! All the best for 2019’s academic year.