Category Archives: For graduate students (mostly)

Scientists’ social networks

In some older posts, I mentioned some strategies for keeping up with the scientific literature, one of which was to use RSS. In recent years, social networks for scientists have emerged. These allow for both targeted and serendipitous discoveries of literature that is relevant to you. I want to emphasize that these networks are not enough. It’s still important to know how to search for specific information, for example. However, they do nicely complement the other techniques I have mentioned and, as an added bonus, they can raise your profile in the scientific community too.

There are lots of specialized social networks for scientists, but only three that cover all of the sciences and are open to all that I know about: ResearchGate, Mendeley, and

I’m not going to talk about less-specialized social networks, but of course, they have their uses too. In particular, if you’re eventually going to be looking for a job, a LinkedIn profile is not a bad thing to have. I have just one piece of advice for you there: if you do get a LinkedIn profile, make sure you maintain it. At the very least, make sure that your current employment is up to date. Potential employers will look you up on the web. Having an out-of-date LinkedIn profile makes it look like you’re not taking a professional approach to your career. If you don’t think that you can adequately maintain a LinkedIn profile, you would be better off not having one at all.

I should say before I go any further that this post reflects my views, based on what I’ve found effective for me. The choice of social networks is, in the end, a personal one.


I like ResearchGate. It’s free. (They pay for themselves using ad revenue.) It’s easy to use. And it doesn’t clutter your mailbox with lots of unwanted emails. And despite the fact that they support themselves with ads, the ads are neither intrusive nor excessive in number. I’m not alone in thinking that ResearchGate is the scientists’ social network of choice. Most of the scientists whose work I try to follow are on this site.

ResearchGate’s basic paradigm is not that different from Facebook‘s: You follow researchers or specific research projects. Updates from these researchers or projects show up in your ResearchGate home page, so all you have to do is to check in once or twice a week to see what has been going on among the people you follow. Based on your activity, ResearchGate will add papers into your feed that it thinks you might find interesting. Most of those suggestions are quite reasonable and useful. Once in a while, you also get recommendations for projects or researchers you might want to follow. I personally find that a bit less useful, although once in a while someone will pop up that it would make sense for me to follow and that I wasn’t already following.

Like most social networks, ResearchGate will be most useful if you restrain your enthusiasm for following everybody in sight. Follow researchers whose ideas and research you find useful. Maybe follow a friend or two. Don’t automatically follow back everyone who follows you. If your home feed is full of useless junk, ResearchGate will become much less useful to you.

From the point of view of advertising your own presence, ResearchGate has some really nice features. You can add your publications manually, but it also scours the journals for papers you might have written. When you first sign up, you may find that you receive a lot of notifications that it may have found papers you authored. However, this dies down fairly quickly, and once it learns who you are (how you sign your papers, what universities you have worked at), it not only suggests fewer and fewer papers you didn’t author, it also tends to find your papers and suggest you add them before you have time to add them yourself.

ResearchGate also has question-and-answer forums, where you can ask questions (e.g. on techniques), or answer them. You can also follow questions when someone asks one that is of interest to you.


Mendeley is interesting because it’s not just a social networking site. It’s also a reference manager. I can’t say I’ve looked into it a lot. But I know that people who like it say very good things about it. It’s worth a look if you haven’t settled on a reference manager and want a Swiss-army knife that both keeps your bibliography and lets you find interesting references.

I’m not a fan of this one. It has a free version that has very limited features, and a pay version they are forever trying to get you to sign up for. If you sign up for, you will receive many, many emails from them. It’s probably possible to control this behaviour, but Microsoft Outlook’s Clutter feature does a good job of keeping these emails out of my sight, so I haven’t bothered. I think that some universities have subscriptions to I would tend to stay away from this one unless you work at a place that has a subscription.

Some tips for research scholarship applications

Last term, I sat on a graduate scholarship committee for the first time in a few years. I noticed a few common errors, and at the encouragement of a colleague, I have turned this experience into the blog post you are now reading.

Many scholarship applications will require a brief research proposal. Here are some things you should think about if you have to include a proposal in your application:

  1. The proposal has to be well written. If you’re not naturally a good writer, show your proposal to someone who is. Bad spelling and grammar reflect badly on you. Poorly constructed sentences and paragraphs that obscure the point you are trying to make are even worse. They suggest that you don’t care enough to proofread your work carefully and/or to get someone to proofread it for you. This advice of course extends to other parts of your application.
  2. It should be clear how your work fits in a larger context. Here’s a made-up example: Student X wants to synthesize molecules containing some weird new functional group. That’s great, but unless you explain it to me, I don’t know why anyone would want to do that. Are these molecules theoretically interesting? Do they have potential applications? Do they extend our knowledge of chemistry in a new direction, and if so, what is that direction and why should I care? This comment is, of course, more general than the example above, and would extend to a proposal to prove a theorem, to study distant galaxies, etc.
  3. Almost all scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships are judged by panels of non-experts, so write your proposal for a general scientific audience. In part, this connects to my previous point: It may seem self-evident to you why you would want to study protein Y, and perhaps it is to people in your field, but it may not be obvious to a scientist outside of your field. Beyond that, you need to define non-obvious abbreviations, avoid highly specialized jargon if possible, etc.
  4. The proposal’s scope should align with the level at which you are applying. Don’t propose 20 years of work in an M.Sc. application. Don’t propose something very limited (in time and/or intellectually) in a Ph.D. or postdoc proposal. The latter is a surprisingly common (and fatal) error. We might forgive the over-eager M.Sc. applicant, but we can’t forgive a Ph.D. applicant whose proposal doesn’t look exciting. If you are competing for a scholarship, you are competing with other people who have proposals that have some real intellectual interest. If you are making systematic measurements of some property, unless you tell me otherwise, it might look like work for a technician.How does your work tie in to major theories in your field? What is the potential for it to change how we think about certain issues? Do you need to develop new measurement methods that will be more broadly applicable?

Some Canadian (especially Tri-Council) scholarship applications ask you to comment on your most significant contributions. Other scholarship competitions may ask for something like this with different wording. Such a section is not about why the work is significant to you. It is about the significance of your work to your field. In some cases, especially if you’re just getting started in research, your most significant contribution may be a conference presentation. If it is, nobody cares that you really enjoyed presenting your work to leaders in your field. What we care about is if your work represents a real advance. Interest from leaders in your field may be evidence of that, especially if they followed up with you after your talk. But the emphasis is on what they got out of it, not what you got out of it. If you can, try to tell us how your work requires new thinking about some issue or other in your field. Or maybe tell us how your work opens up new vistas. The same goes for publications. I’m sure it was exciting to get your paper published in the Elbonian Journal of Science, but what I really care about is the science in the paper, and whether you can tell me why it was important. (In fact, I probably care more about whether you are effectively communicating the importance of your work than whether I fully buy your argument. When I sit on these committees, I’m evaluating you. One of the things I want to know is whether you can craft a coherent argument.) Since you probably don’t have any experience writing this kind of text, it is imperative that you get an experienced pair of eyes (e.g. your supervisor’s) on this section of your application.

Many scholarship applications will ask for a summary of most recent completed thesis (or equivalent). When an application has a section like this, we expect you to use most of the space to tell us about your past work. What did you do? How did you do it? Why was this a hard thing to do? What was learned? And yes, why was it important? If you write three lines when we gave you a page, it’s not good. You need to give us some details here. It’s your work. You should be able to was poetic about it.

In fact, as a rule, you should use most of the space allowed for any given part of your application, provided of course the section is relevant. (On occasion, there will be sections that you can’t use. For example, if you’re asked to list publications and you don’t have any, you clearly can’t use this space.) Don’t make stuff up, but not having much to say about yourself or your work is generally considered a negative.

Academia is slowly becoming more progressive. Accordingly, most scholarship applications will have a section in which you can talk about any obstacles life threw in your way, good or bad, that might have affected your performance. I know that some people are afraid of using these sections, but in fact you should if there is something we should know about. We are genuinely trying to take life circumstances into account when we evaluate scholarship applications, among other things. The kinds of things you might want to let us know about include having a disability (that you could document on request), taking time off to start a family, having to look after a sick parent or child, and so on. If anything has held you back from taking a full course load, completing a degree in the “usual” amount of time, or negatively affected your grades over some period of time, let us know. We can’t take it into account if we don’t know about it.

Maybe I can close with a bit of general advice: The best way to learn to write good proposals is to work with someone who has been successful at this skill. Ask your supervisor or other mentors who are more advanced than you to look over what you have produced. Take their advice to heart. Don’t take it personally if they are very critical. In fact, you should especially thank the people who are very critical of your applications. They’re usually the ones who are giving you the most important feedback.

Publications in CVs

I’m currently chairing the Ph.D. program committee at the University of Lethbridge, and I just finished reading the files of the applicants who have applied to our program for admission later this year. At the UofL (and elsewhere), students applying to the Ph.D. program have to submit a CV. And of course, if you have publications, they should be in your CV. The trouble I’m having with many files I’m reading is that students don’t give full bibliographic details for their papers, which means that I sometimes have to do some additional digging if there is something I want to check on. Here are some things I sometimes find missing:

  1. A page range or article number. Yes, I know, the DOI should be enough, but if I decide to go looking for your paper for some reason, it’s often more convenient to have the first page number or article number (along with the volume number) than the DOI. Why? Because some journals make it particularly efficient to find papers with the volume and page number.
  2. The DOI. At the risk of contradicting myself, it’s sometimes easier to have a DOI. The DOI is especially useful if the journal is a bit obscure.
  3. The volume number. Well, duh!, you might say. But a surprising number of people forget to put that in.
  4. The year. Ditto.
  5. The issue number can be useful, depending on the journal, so by all means include that, too.
  6. For articles in journals that use article numbers rather than pages, the number of pages. This gives me some idea whether I’m looking at a letter-style publication or a full paper. I know it’s not foolproof, but it does help.

The point is that the more bibliographic details you include, the easier you make it to find your paper should someone wish to do so.

Finally, make sure that those bibliographic details are correct! You would be surprised at how many slightly mangled journal titles there are in people’s CVs, for example. That makes it hard to find the paper. It might cast doubt on whether the paper exists at all. Or it might just convince a person reading your CV that you don’t pay much attention to detail. Probably not the impression you want to leave.

On a related note, if you have multi-authored conference presentations in your CV, please clearly indicate if you were the presenter or not. You can use a special mark (asterisk, boldface or italics) for the presenter, or you can separate your presentations into ones you have made and ones that author people presented. Without this, long lists of multi-authored presentations are uninformative, and may be seen as padding your CV.

Before you write your thesis, read the instructions

I have a little tip today for those of you preparing to write a thesis: Before you start, read your university’s or department’s thesis guidelines. There are some things that are easy to do as you’re writing your thesis, but a pain to do after, like compiling a table of abbreviations, which is usually required. If you read the thesis guidelines before you start writing, you can make notes of the things that you will need to do, and probably save a lot of time later on. It’s quite likely that you will discover things you’re supposed to do that you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of on your own.

I would also suggest that you frequently go back to those guidelines during the writing process. If you’re wondering how you’re supposed to format figure captions, the thesis guidelines probably answer this question. If you’re not sure what is expected in a thesis abstract (it varies from school to school), or whether you need to write a longer summary in addition to the abstract (required in some places), look no further than your university’s thesis guidelines.

Every School of Graduate Studies has a person whose job is to make sure that theses meet the local requirements. This person generally doesn’t look at your thesis until you have defended it and have completed your revisions. It’s a lousy time to find out that you need to add something, or rewrite the abstract, or reformat the whole thing. A few minutes of reasonably careful reading ahead of time will save you all these headaches. It’s a smart investment of your time.

Incidentally, the same principle applies to lots of other things: Reading instructions for scholarship or grant applications, or instructions in job ads about what you are supposed to submit in your application, will generally repay handsomely the small amount of time you devote to this activity. In the case of a thesis, the worst that will happen if you mess something up is that you will be told to fix it. For a grant or job application, not following the instructions may mean that your application isn’t even considered.

So just “read the instructions, that’s how you get it right”, as the Doodlebops so eloquently put it.

Using RSS to help you keep up with the literature

This is a followup to my 2014 post about “Keeping up with the literature“. I’m a strong advocate of arranging for the information to come to you rather than you having to go looking for it. I’ll look at stuff that shows up in my mailbox, or is otherwise put right in front of me, but I’m unlikely to do literature searches unless I’m looking for something fairly specific. One trick that I have perhaps not used as much as I should is RSS feeds. An RSS feed sends you a one-line summary of new content added to a web site. Some RSS feeds allow you to narrow what is sent to you according to your field of interest. Some journals provide RSS feeds. You might find this a useful alternative to receiving tables of contents by email. In some cases, RSS feeds might be useful because they will only show you content from a specific section of a journal, so you don’t get overwhelmed with lots of irrelevant stuff.

I currently subscribe to a couple of RSS feeds from the Physical Review journals. The Physical Review journals cover a huge range of topics, most of which are of no interest to me. Getting their complete tables of contents would waste a lot of my time. However, they have specialized RSS feeds broken down by area of interest. I subscribe to the Physical Review Letters Soft Matter, Biological, and Interdisciplinary Physics feed, as well as to the Physical Review E Biological Physics feed. The volume on these feeds is very manageable, and I can quickly find the few articles of interest to me.

To get started, you need to install an RSS reader application. Journals (or other web sites) with RSS feeds will display this logo:

(The logo may be quite small, and may not be colored.) If you click on this logo, you will typically end up at the actual RSS feed page. You want to copy the URL of this page, and then give it to your RSS reader application. The RSS reader will typically sit in your toolbar (or equivalent for your computer’s OS) and let you know when something new appears in your feed. And that’s it! When you see material in which you’re interested, you just have to click on it, and you will be taken to the article.

Surviving, and maybe enjoying, your thesis defense

It’s the big day. Today, you defend your thesis. So what can you expect?

There are variations in the format of the thesis defense from university to university, and certainly from one country to another. What I’m going to say is necessarily going to apply most directly to the system we have here at the University of Lethbridge, which is similar to what you would see at most North American universities. But I think there may be elements of this post that will apply no matter where you are. With that caveat in place, I’m going to focus mainly on the questioning phase of the thesis defense.

What to bring to your defense

If your defense is to start with a presentation, make sure you have your presentation on a memory stick or two, and in your email, and maybe in some other backup place so that you’re sure to have it when you get there. It is likely that chalk or whiteboard pens will be provided, but it doesn’t hurt to have a piece of chalk or a whiteboard pen in your pocket so you can generate a quick sketch or write down an equation in the course of answering a question. If possible, check out the room first so you have some idea of what the audiovisual situation is going to be, including what kind of boards the room has.

I strongly recommend that you bring a printed copy of your thesis. The defense proper is normally conducted around some kind of table. In our case, defenses are usually conducted in classrooms, so we do our best with furniture that isn’t quite right for the purpose, but in any event you will likely be sitting for most of the defense. The examiners will invariably want to refer to specific pages of your thesis, and expect that you will have a copy on hand. I personally think that flipping through the pages of a physical copy is easier than dealing with an electronic copy, but that’s a personal choice. Either way, you need to be able to refer to a copy of your thesis during the examination. By the way, you shouldn’t count on being able to plug in a laptop in the thesis examination room. There may or may not be available outlets. Don’t take anything for granted. Charge up your device(s) or, again, bring a printed copy. You can’t go wrong with paper.

The opening presentation

Depending on the system at your university, the questioning may or may not be preceded by a presentation, which may or may not be open to the public. There are just too many variations on this theme to properly address it in a blog post. If you do have to make a presentation, tell yourself that your main audience is the examiners, who are likely to use what you say in your presentation as a springboard for questions. The same comment therefore applies to your presentation as to your thesis: Don’t say anything in your presentation that isn’t completely clear in your head.

Ready for the questions?

Because here they come! You can expect many types of questions, sometimes interspersed with comments, some of which I mentioned in my previous blog post.

  • There are likely to be some direct technical questions about the contents of your thesis. “What did you mean by that?” “Could you explain the logic behind this part of your thesis?” “Explain how technique A, which you used in your thesis, works and how the results are interpreted.” “Walk us through the analysis of experiment P.” And so on. As I explained previously, you almost always need to be able to answer these questions.
  • There may be criticisms disguised as questions. These pseudo-questions often sound like questions from the first category. For example, an examiner may ask a question about your use of terminology, or about an assumption you made. The examiner already knows that you will give an answer that violates some orthodoxy within which they work because of what you wrote in your thesis. They will then explain to you the error of your ways. Some examiners will dispense with the pseudo-question and just tell you outright that there is an error of some sort in your thesis. You need to be mentally prepared for these events, which are fairly common, although not typically a major component of a defense. Showing some understanding of the issues once they have been explained to you is good, provided of course you do understand the issues. Humility is absolutely required. Do not argue with the examiner if they tell you that something you wrote is wrong. Even if you don’t think it is, the examiner is at least pointing out something in your thesis that is liable to misinterpretation and that therefore needs to be clarified. Do ask questions if you do not understand the examiner’s point. Other than asking to have questions clarified, on which more below, this is the one situation where you will likely be allowed to ask questions during your defense.
  • Examiners may make suggestions about revisions to your thesis. Many students are tempted to take notes when this happens. This isn’t necessary. You will be provided with lists of suggested and required revisions from the examiners after the defense.
  • There are likely to be questions about where your thesis fits into the overall scientific enterprise. Why is your work important? How does it connect to other open questions? What new insights do we get from your work? There should already be material along these lines in your thesis, particularly in the introductory and concluding chapters. The examiners will likely want to go a bit deeper than what you wrote. You should be able to take a stab at questions like these although, on occasion, the questions will veer off into areas of science you really know nothing about.
  • Someone will almost certainly ask about what the next logical step in your research would be, were you to continue this line of research. Again, you need to be able to give some sort of answer to a question like this. Ideally, you would have answers to such questions that go beyond trivial “one more experiment” answers, and that show that you have a vision for your field of research.
  • You may be asked to revisit your work, i.e. to think about what you might have done differently, given what you know now. Usually these questions are fairly specific. “You used method B to determine property X. Are there other, possibly better ways you could have done that?” It’s great if you can answer these. You don’t have to constrain yourself to the facilities you had access to during your degree. Go ahead a propose a cool cyclotron experiment! If you really can’t think of an answer to one of these questions, an examiner may offer a suggestion and ask you to comment. Typically, an examiner would not be drawing on obscure knowledge to frame questions like these, and you should be able to provide some intelligent comment on what you would have learned (or not) from a different method.
  • On occasion, you will get an examiner who likes to steer the conversation towards their area of research. Unless the examiner’s area is very close to yours, this can get you into deep waters fairly quickly. Bonus credit if you can give a sensible answer, but it’s probably OK if you can’t answer these questions in much depth.

How to answer questions at your defense

Rule number one is: think! You don’t have to blurt something out instantly. Take a few seconds to compose your thoughts. Make sure you understood the question. If you’re not sure, ask for clarifications.

Rule number two is that answers to technical questions should be technically correct. You should understand the experiments or calculations you did thoroughly. You should know the key scientific theories, methods and observations from your field.

Rule number three is don’t overinterpret the question. Not all of the questions will be ultra-sophisticated. Remember that some of your examiners may be from a different field, and may have very simple questions. Even examiners in your own area may want to ask you a simple question, either to help you relax towards the beginning of the defense, or to set up a deeper question. Listen carefully and answer the questions that were actually asked. Don’t look for complex interpretations of simple questions. You would be surprised how often students fail to answer questions satisfactorily because they are interpreting a question in the most complicated way possible when an examiner was really asking a very simple question.

Many of the questions will invite you to speculate. Rule number four is that speculation should be based on sound science, but that it’s OK to extrapolate, even into areas you’re not comfortable with. You should however make it clear when you are doing so. “I’m not an expert on X, but I know P and Q, so I think perhaps T will hold.” Interesting conversations often evolve from such questions and answers. The examiner may give you additional information and ask you to incorporate that into your thinking. Again, give yourself a little time to think, and then tell us something interesting.

But what if I really don’t know?

Then say so. (I guess this is rule number five.) There may be questions that you genuinely don’t know anything about. Don’t try to bluff. That will end badly. Just say you don’t know. Depending on the nature of the question, any of the following may occur:

  • If the examiner knows that the question is really a stretch, they may simply move on.
  • If it’s a question the examiner thinks you should be able to answer, they may try to rephrase it, or to give you a hint about what they’re looking for. Listen carefully. Try to keep calm and to process the information provided in the question or hint. Think. Hopefully it will become clear what the examiner wants and you can proceed to answer.
  • Examiners often come to an exam with a set of related questions that build on each other. If you fail to answer a question that is part of one of these sequences, they may provide you with an answer so that they can carry on with their line of questioning.

Be aware though that you are expected to answer most of the questions. If you answer “I don’t know” more than once or twice, you’re usually in trouble. What examiners are looking for, above all, is intelligent engagement.

What happens after the examiners send you outside?

Once the questions are finished, the examiners will send you outside so they can deliberate. This can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. What exactly the examiners have to decide depends on the rules at your graduate school, but typically there are two questions, whether they are evaluated separately or not:

  1. Was your thesis, on the whole, acceptable?
  2. During your oral examination, did you show an adequate grasp of your project and of your area of science?

Your thesis should have been read and extensively commented on by your supervisor before you submitted, so in most cases, it will be found acceptable, but expect to be asked to make revisions. It is very rare that the examiners don’t find at least a few passages that aren’t as clear as they could be, or some particular issue that you glossed over. In some cases, they will have more serious concerns about some parts of the thesis, and you may be asked to make major revisions.

If deliberations go on for more than 20 minutes, it’s usually because major deficiencies were identified during the defense. You either said “I don’t know” much too often, or you gave incorrect or badly incomplete answers to more than a few questions. In these cases, the examiners need to decide if they want you to do it again, possibly after revising the thesis. Deliberations that are dragging on are a sign that the examiners are having trouble agreeing. They will eventually vote, but if you had a weak defense, the discussions are much tougher and more drawn out because everyone wants to make sure they do the right thing in the end.

Of course, most of the time—and I want to end on this note—the thesis needs only minor revisions, and the defense went well enough that there is no real controversy about giving you a pass. Congratulations. You can now move on to the next stage in your life. Or at least you will be able to do so once you complete those revisions. But tonight, go out and celebrate. You can start working on the revisions tomorrow.

Preparing for your thesis defense

The thesis defense. The very name suggests a confrontational event. And yet, in my experience, it doesn’t have to be. A well-prepared student should have nothing to fear from their defense. Indeed, it’s often more like a conversation among peers than like an examination. However, if you’re not well prepared, it can turn into a highly unpleasant grilling.

You will of course wonder how you can prepare for an event that seems, to many students, unpredictable. And yet, it’s not.

Know your thesis.

The examiners are going to ask you questions about your thesis. This sounds obvious, and yet it often seems as if students show up unprepared for this eventuality. You should be the foremost expert in the room on the material in your thesis, with the possible exception of your supervisor, who ought to be on your side. (And if he or she is not, then you have problems that predate your defense. But that might be a topic for a future blog post.) A fairly common question, usually prompted by genuine curiosity about a passage an examiner didn’t quite understand, runs along the lines of “You wrote such and such on page x. What did you mean by that?” If you can’t answer this question, or if you give an obviously incorrect answer, you are in trouble. This should be an easy question for you to field since you wrote your thesis and should know exactly what every word and phrase in it means. Examiners think of such a question as a gimme, and often ask questions of this sort early in the defense to relax the candidate. Again, you’re supposed to be able to answer these easily.

So why can’t some people answer such questions? Putting aside brain freeze, there are only two answers I can think of:

  1. You didn’t actually write parts of your thesis. In today’s world where a thesis is often a collection of papers, it’s not unusual for a student’s thesis to contain text that they didn’t actually write, which is OK (if your university allows a thesis that is compiled in this way) provided you acknowledge it properly (which students sometimes fail to do). Of course, you may simply have plagiarized some of your text from somewhere. If it’s the latter, you’re in serious trouble now, because the examiners can smell a rat and will likely find you out. You should have read my posts about plagiarism (here and here) before you started writing your thesis, or at least before you submitted.
  2. You wrote it, but you borrowed some wording from somewhere (a paper, your supervisor) that you didn’t fully understand.

Whether parts of your thesis were written collaboratively or you used a clever turn of phrase you heard somewhere, there’s simply no excuse for not knowing what the words in your thesis mean. In either case, you need to make sure that you have read and understood every line in your thesis. If someone else wrote some of the text and you’re not sure what it means, ask them. If you ended up using a phrase that sounded good but that you didn’t quite understand, find out what it means. Again, questions like this often come early, so you’re getting off on the wrong foot if you can’t answer them, or if you answer them in a way that shows you have no idea what parts of your thesis mean.

A closely related issue is understanding the techniques used in your thesis. This is often a problem in collaborative work. It’s fine if other students or collaborators carried out an experiment that is discussed in your thesis. What is not fine is not understanding the experiment. You really ought to be able to explain every experiment described in your thesis, as well as the results of those experiments.

Yet another related point is that you ought to be able to explain results or experiments from other papers that you mention in your thesis. If you say “property X was measured by method Γ”, then you ought to understand how Γ works.

Be broadly aware of your field.

I always tell my students that they need to read papers in their general area of research. This goes double for students preparing for a defense. A lot of the questions at your defense will ask you to think about how your work connects with other work, or about how your work fits in to the bigger picture in your field. You can’t do that unless you have read papers in your general area outside of the specific, narrow topic of your thesis. You should be taking opportunities to broaden your knowledge base throughout your time as a graduate student by reading, but also by attending seminars and conferences. Even if you have been doing that, the gap between thesis submission and the day of the defense is definitely a time you should use to do some extra reading and to think about how your work fits into a bigger picture.

Because this is actually where most of the time in your thesis examination is likely to be spent, I’m going to emphasize this again: Be prepared for big picture questions. Think about what kinds of big picture questions the examiners might ask. Read materials that will help solidify your own understanding of the big picture in which your research is embedded.

Know your examiners.

The identities of a student’s examiners aren’t a secret, and yet some students take no account of their examination committee when preparing for their defense. If one or more of your examiners works in your field (typically the case for your external examiner, for example), you need to read a few of their papers. Perhaps you have already, and you may even have cited these papers in your thesis. For the other examiners, you should at least find out what they do, say from their web pages, and think a bit about questions they might ask given the perspective they bring to your defense. If one of your examiners is a protein structure person, even if it’s only tangentially related to your thesis, that person may ask structural questions about some of the molecules you mention. If you can ace those questions, you get lots of bonus credit. These may not be critical pass/fail questions, but knowing a little bit about an examiner’s interests can help the whole event go more smoothly.

Check out another student’s thesis defense.

At the University of Lethbridge, thesis defenses are open events, meaning that anyone can sit in on a defense. If that’s the case where you are, make sure to sit in on one or two thesis defenses before your big day. This will give you an idea of what happens at these things, and might help you get past the fear many students experience regarding their defense. It’s really not that bad.

Get some sleep!

You’ve had the pedal to the metal for several months leading up to your thesis submission. You’ve been burning the midnight oil, in fact, burning the candle at both ends. You’ve been busy as a beaver, working like a dog, going at it hammer and tongs. You’re tired.

Now that you have submitted, take some time for you. Make sure you get your sleep, eat well, and exercise. A well rested candidate is one who is likely to be able to think on his or her feet. A tired candidate is likely to flub the easy questions.

Some closing thoughts

When you were an undergraduate, you didn’t know what questions the professor was going to put on the exam. You did not let the uncertainty paralyze you. You studied, reasoning that if you had a good understanding of the material, you would do OK. Maybe you used what you knew about the professor to guess where the major emphasis might be. A thesis defense is not all that different. The material consists of your thesis and of closely related areas of science. Knowing who the examiners are, you can guess what their general areas of questioning might be. Now all you have to do is to study the material. If you made it all the way to thesis submission, you’ll be fine.

In a future blog post, I will talk about the thesis defense itself. Stay tuned.

Why you should join a scientific society

Again, this post is mostly addressed to students, since I assume that most scientists with a permanent job are already members of at least one scientific society. I will keep these comments general, although I will mention specific societies as examples from time to time.

Scientific societies vary greatly in focus, size, organization, and, yes, personality. Some, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), cover all the sciences and are, accordingly, massive—Wikipedia says that the AAAS had over 125,000 members in 2008. Others, such as the Canadian Society for Chemistry, target a major scientific discipline. Still others, like the 750-member Society for Mathematical Biology, narrow their focus to a specialized field. As some of their names suggest, scientific societies tend to be organized at the national level, although almost all of them will have significant numbers of foreign members, and many explicitly think of themselves as international societies. The larger societies tend to be run much more like businesses, with large complements of staff responsible for day-to-day operations. The smaller societies typically have few or no staff, and run on the labor of volunteers.

Scientific societies serve many, many purposes. Selfishly, they are conduits for information and provide networking opportunities for their members. In the case of societies organized at the national level, especially the larger ones, they are often important lobbying organizations that make sure that governments regularly hear scientists’ perspectives on various issues. The good societies are communities whose conferences are gatherings of people with common interests, even when those interests are uncommon as in the case of the small, specialized societies.

That last point is the one I want to emphasize: Joining a scientific community, in the ideal case, is joining a community. A member of a scientific society, whether a student or a famous professor, is “one of us” to other members of that society. And there are benefits to being a member, in the full sense of the word, of a group.

Some of the benefits are obvious: Every professional society has some kind of regular newsletter. These can vary from very simply reproduced amateur newsletters to professional-looking newspapers or magazines. These newsletters typically contain news stories about what is going on in the field, society news, profiles of members, conference announcements and job ads. Modern scientific societies will also have mailing lists that are restricted to their members. These are typically used to disseminate more time-sensitive information including, again, job ads and conference announcements, but can contain a variety of other content, as is the case for the public mailing lists discussed in my last blog post. Scientific societies usually hold conferences, and members always get discounted conference fees. And of course, attending a society conference is an ideal way to meet other members of the society.

In fact, society conferences can be invaluable networking opportunities. The people you meet there may one day be in a position to offer you a job. Even if that doesn’t happen, being known within your field means that people who make decisions about your career, about things like scholarship applications or grants for example, are likely to know you. Now we try really hard to screen out our biases when we’re refereeing grants or papers, but the truth is that it’s much easier to be a harsh judge when we don’t know the person whose file we’re judging.

In addition, many scientific societies have mentorship programs, as well as a variety of professional development events, often during their conferences, or in the days immediately preceding or following a conference. The latter can be technical seminars (for example, chemical safety mini-courses run by chemical societies), or they can be oriented toward career building, such as workshops on job interviews. The latter can be extremely worthwhile to young scholars.

But, you might say, I’m not interested in a career in academia. Then you should think hard about which society you join, but you should still join a society. Find one that has many non-academic members. Chemical societies, for example, typically have many members from industry. Some societies, like the Canadian Applied and Industrial Mathematics Society, try really hard to bridge the academic-industrial divide, and could be expected to have a number of industrial members, or at the very least some programs intended to help connect those two worlds.

Hopefully, I have convinced you that you should join a scientific society. But how do you choose one? Do you join your national society or a larger American society, for instance? Low student membership fees and reciprocal membership arrangements, in which members of a national society get reduced fees in another national society at a reduced rate, may make this a false dichotomy. However, money is tight for many students, so you may have to make an initial decision. Advice from your supervisor can be helpful here, but you should do a bit of thinking, too. What are your career objectives, and how can one society or another help you get there? What society do most of the people in your field and in the geographic area where you would eventually like to work belong to? What conferences do you want to attend? These are all factors you should consider. In the end, you are looking for a society in which you will feel comfortable, and find fellow travelers.

Beyond the society itself, the larger societies (and even some of the not-so-large ones) often have divisions to create smaller communities within the large community. For example, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) has several highly active activity groups. Often, the real community is found at the level of these divisions. They would typically have their own mailing lists and conferences. Most societies with divisions will allow you to choose one division for free as part of the overall cost of membership. So if the really big societies seem intimidating to you, they need not be, provided they have a strong division in your area of interest.

The good news for students is a student membership fees are usually really low. Some societies, like SIAM, even allow their full members to nominate a certain number of students for free memberships. Scientific societies really want student members, because today’s student member is tomorrow’s full member.

So talk to your boss, and do a bit of research and thinking on your own. Join a society. It’s a small step towards building your career, but potentially a really pivotal one.

Useful mailing lists for mathematical biology

One of the toughest things to do as an academic is to keep informed about what is going on out there, in a professional sense. An earlier blog post addressed the issue of keeping up with the literature. But there are other things you need to know about: upcoming conferences and workshops, calls for papers, funding programs, new software, books published in the field, and of course, especially for younger scholars, Ph.D., postdoctoral, and job opportunities. So where do you find all of this stuff? A great place to start is to get on a few key mailing lists in your field. Yes, it’s old fashioned, but it’s a really effective way to have important announcements come to you. Perhaps in a few years, Twitter or other social media mechanisms will replace mailing lists. For now though, a lot of the people who have information you need are of my generation, and they’re sending their postings to mailing lists.

There’s a bit of vocabulary to learn to make effective use of mailing lists. Some mailing lists allow postings to flow directly to users as soon as they are received (or approved, in the case of moderated lists). Others function as digests, which means that contents are collected for a certain period of time (which can vary according to the list) and are then sent out in one larger email. Some lists offer the option of either getting postings immediately or as daily or weekly digests. Do look at the options when you subscribe to a mailing list.

I will be focusing particularly here on mailing lists for people in mathematical biology, since that is the community I most closely associate with. If you work in another field, ask your supervisor about mailing lists you should join. He or she should be a good resource person on this topic.

With that out of the way, here are some mailing lists I recommend for mathematical biologists:

  • SMB Digest: SMB Digest is a mailing list of the Society for Mathematical Biology. It is easily the most useful mailing list for mathematical biologists. It’s also highly unusual in that it’s a society mailing list that is open to non-members. (Most societies treat their mailing lists as a perk of membership. I will have more to say on joining scientific societies in a later blog post.) As a result of the SMB Digest being open to anyone, almost everyone will post items of interest to the community here. To join this mailing list, go to for instructions. If you’re in mathematical biology, you simply must subscribe to this mailing list.
  • Non Linear Science Network Digest: Strictly speaking, this isn’t a mathematical biology mailing list, but many of us work on biological problems for which the appropriate methods come from nonlinear dynamics, so there is a lot of overlap between the audience for this list and the mathematical biology community. You can join this mailing list at
  • NIMBIOS Newsletter: This one is a bit different. The other mailing lists mentioned above are intended to distribute information of general interest. The NIMBIOS Newsletter on the other hand is a publication of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (hence the acronym) whose purpose is to publicize NIMBIOS activities and programs. This is however a very active institute with many interesting programs (visiting fellowships, postdoctoral fellowships, workshops, etc.), so I think it’s worthwhile being on this mailing list even if you have no direct plans and no immediate interest in visiting them. You can join this list here:
  • University of Lethbridge theoretical biology mailing list: This mailing list will only be of interest to people at or near the UofL. We use it to distribute information about seminars, courses, or other items of strictly local interest. If you want to join this list, go to The volume on this list is very low, although I always hope that more list members will share what’s going on in their area through this list.

If you know of other mailing lists that are useful for mathematical biologists, let me know and I may add them to this post.

How to not find a graduate supervisor

Several times a week, I receive emails from prospective graduate students. The overwhelming majority of these emails get a boilerplate “no thanks” response from me. (I have actually automated these responses so I can send them with just a few quick mouse clicks.) Most of my colleagues don’t even bother to respond. Why? Because the emails I (and my colleagues) get almost always look like mass emails sent to (probably) hundreds of scientists worldwide without any indication that the student knows what I do or, worse, with clear indications that they don’t know what I do.

To those of you sending these emails: If you don’t want to go to graduate school, stop reading this post and keep sending those emails. My colleagues and I will keep deleting them.

Here’s what a typical one of these emails looks like, with my comments in square brackets:

Dear Professor, [What, you couldn’t be bothered to find out my name?]

I have read your website, and I am really excited about your research. [It would be a nice touch if you actually included some text in your email that showed that you knew what that research was.] I would like to join your group as a Ph.D. student starting in September.

I have an M.Sc. from U. of Wherever, where I completed a project in organic synthesis with Professor Whoever. [First you tell me you looked at my website. Now you tell me that you have experience in organic synthesis which is completely irrelevant to me. What you’re really saying is that you have not read my website and have no idea what I do. The email started off badly. Now I’m annoyed at you for wasting my time.] I think this background prepares me to contribute to your research.

I look forward to a positive response.


A. Student

Look, students. It’s never been easier to figure out what a professor does. We all have websites that contain detailed descriptions of our research because we all want to find good graduate students. All you have to do is to look at those web sites and write emails that contain specific details relating to a particular professor’s interests. Sending out several hundred generic emails won’t get you a response even from people who might otherwise be interested. If you’re too lazy to look at my web site and to write an email that has been customized to my interests, I’m not likely to take your email very seriously.

If you like rejection, go ahead and send those generic emails. If you actually want to go to graduate school, do some research, write a few targeted emails to people who are actually in your area of interest and explain to them how you’re excited about their research (mentioning actual details of what they do), and how your background is, you think, good preparation for work in that person’s lab. Professors actually answer emails that have been written to them, and not just written to a professor. So if you’re not getting answers to your emails to professors, the problem isn’t the professors. It’s your emails.