I often bang on about how useful twitter is for crowd-sourcing a research community. Today I was reminded of quite brilliant the people on twitter can be at helping to overcome an ‘I don’t know where to start’-type information problem.

I’m currently helping to design an fMRI study which could benefit considerably from the application of multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA). Having no practical experience with MVPA means I’m trying to figure out what I need to do to make the MVPA bit of the study a success. After a few hours of searching, I have come across and read a number of broad theoretical methods papers, but nothing that gives me the confidence that anything I come up with will be viableOf course, there’s no right way of designing a study, but there are a tonne of wrong ways, and I definitely want to avoid those.

So, I turned to twitter:

Relays and Retweets from @hugospiers, @zarinahagnew and @neuroconscience led to the following tweets coming my way (stripped of @s for ease of reading… kind of).

Sure, I could have come up with as many articles to read by typing “MVPA” into Google Scholar (as I have done in the past), but the best thing about my twitter-sourced reading list is that I’m confident it’s pitched at the right level.

I’m humbled by how generous people are with their time, and glad so many friendly academics are on twitter. I hope collegiality and friendliness like this encourages many more to join our ranks.

On Monday I gave a talk on how internet tools can be used to make the job of being an academic a little easier.  I had given a very short version of the talk to faculty in the department over a year ago, but this time I was given an hour in a forum for  early career researchers, PhD students and postdocs.  The subject of twitter, covered early on in the talk, aroused a lot of interest, probably because I got very animated about its benefits for those in the early stages of their careers.

To provide a little context for my enthusiasm, it probably helps to know a few things about me, about my situation, and about my recent experiences.

  1. I am an introvert.  Despite my best (and occasionally successful) efforts to project a different image, I do not find talking to people I don’t know very enjoyable.
  2. I am an early career cognitive neuroscientist keen to build my own research programme and develop links with other researchers.
  3. Last month I attended the Society for Neuroscience conference, at which I attended the best conference social I have ever attended.

Given the received wisdom that people in my position ought to be networking, I often drag myself kicking and screaming to conference socials. The result tends to be a lot of standing around on my own drinking beer, which gives me something to do, but which I could do much more comfortably with one or two people I know well.  The major problem at these events is not my nature, or my status as an early career researcher, but the fact that the people I have imagined myself talking to usually don’t know who I am.  Conversation is therefore awkward, one-sided and introductory.  Once the niceties have dried up, and the level of accumulated conversational silence edges into awkward territory I invariably finish my drink and bugger off to get another one, ending the misery for all involved.  This is probably a universal experience for those starting out in academia, though thankfully it is happening less and less to me as I build something of network of real friends who attend the same conferences as me.  But as a PhD student and postdoc, the experience was excruciating.

I had a totally different experience when I attended the SfN Banter tweetup*.  The event, organised by @doc_becca and @neuropolarbear, was a social for neuroscientists who use twitter and changed my view of conference socials.  They do not have to be endured, even by those doing PhDs and postdocs. They can be enjoyed.

I was excited about going and that excitement didn’t leave me feeling shortchanged by the time I left.  I spoke (actually spoke!) to everyone I wanted to speak to.  Moreover, I had good conversations with people to whom I was speaking for the first time. The reason is fairly obvious – twitter allowed us to build on a body of shared (or at least assumed) knowledge. I follow people, they follow me,  I reply to or retweet their tweets, they do the same – and this is all before we’ve introduced ourselves. When I finally meet someone with whom I have such a history of communication, introducing myself is the least awkward thing I can do. The barriers to conversation are removed**.

Sure, this pattern followed for most interactions at the tweetup because we were all there to do exactly that.  Would the experience be the same at the ‘fMRI social’? No.  But, I don’t think that matters.  If I could have had one of those conference social experience during my time as a PhD student, it would have given me an idea of what I might have to look forward to from conferences if I stuck at it.  Light at the end of the tunnel, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a variable-ratio schedule-determined stimulation of the limbic system following an umpteenth lever press.

It will take a while (there’s no point joining in September 2013 and expecting great things at the SfN tweetup in San Diego), and it’s probably not the primary reason to join twitter (see  Dorothy Bishop’s blog and Tom Hartley’s blog for far more comprehensive discussions  of how and why you should join), but it’s another reason, and it’s one that could make you feel good about your role in academia.  It’s worth a shot.

 

* tw(itter) (m)eetup, see?

** What you do afterwards is up to you.  I still had some awkward interactions, but I think that’s probably down to me (see context point 1).

Points and badges

For the past week or so, I have been working my way through Codecademy’s JavaScript tutorials. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

As things stand, I have a full house of 480 points and 35 badges and, as the Codecademy creators would undoubtedly hope, I am rather satisfied with the JavaScript proficiency I have attained. ‘Attained’ is probably the wrong word to use though. Being a self-taught Matlab hacker, I have found most of my coding know-how has translated fairly well into Javascript. A few concepts (recursion in particular) have presented me with some difficulty, but the overall experience has been more like learning a new coding dialect  than a new language altogether. I haven’t attained a proficiency, so much as uncovered a hidden one.

Which brings me to why I sought out Codecademy in the first place (thanks to @m_wall for the twitter-solicited tip-off) – I am preparing to teach Psychology undergrads how to code. From 2012/2013 onwards, my academic life is going to be a little more ‘balanced’. As well as the research, admin and small-group teaching I currently enjoy, I’m also going to be doing some large-group teaching. Although I have plenty to say to undergraduates on cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology, I think giving them some coding skills will actually be much more useful to most. As my experience with Codecademy has recently reinforced to me, coding basics are the fundamental building-blocks of programming in any language. They will hold you in good stead whatever dialect you end up speaking to your computer in. What’s more, they will hold you in good stead whatever you end up doing, as long as it involves a computer: coding is the most versatile of transferable skills to be imparting to psychology graduates who (rightly) believe they are leaving university with the most versatile of degrees.

With all this in mind, one of Codecademy’s limitations is the difficulty with which its students can translate their new-found JavaScript skills into useful ‘stuff’ implemented outside the Codecademy editor. As Audrey Watters points out, there is barely any acknowledgement within the Codecademy tutorials that the goal of all of these points and badges is to encourage you to write interactive web contact in an IDE. Indeed, last night when I thought about how I would use JavaScript to administer online  memory experiments, I had to do a lot more reading. This could all be about to change though. If the latest Code Year class on HTML is anything to go by, the folks at Codecademy are mindful of this limitation, and are attempting to remedy it.

It’s just a shame that the html integration has come so late in the Code Year (yes, I say this with full awareness that we’re only on week 13).  If the HTML-Javascript confluence had come a little further upstream, I think there probably would have been a fledgling memory experiment linked to from this blogpost!

Having deleted my facebook account nearly two years ago, as I activated a Google+ account this week I was wary of repeating previous mistakes.  Back in 2009 I had decided that I wasn’t getting as much out of facebook as I was putting into it. Specifically, I was ashamed at the amount of my time it consumed, I was worried, not so much about my privacy, as the disregard of my right to it (even if I chose not to take it up), and I was anxious about expressing myself too freely lest I cause offence to my friends.  Google+ has lessened my anxiety with its subdivision of friends into circles, though, of course, its potential to cause me shame and worry over my time and privacy are just as real as they ever were with facebook.

With all this in mind, my early experiences of Google+ have been very positive. As I was hoping to, I have re-connected with some lovely friends who had remained on facebook and never ventured onto twitter. Perhaps most encouragingly though, it looks like Google+ might be able to reach beyond the social, and enrich my professional life too. The following exchange, which I started to try and learn more about the use of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in psychological research, is the sort of thing that’s making me very excited about this possibility.

Full Google Plus conversation

The discussion went in to far more detail than I could have hoped, and for those who are interested, a text-searchable pdf of the exchange complete with clickable links is available here.  (Incidentally, the reason I have had to go to so much trouble to provide a link to the thread with jpgs and pdfs, as opposed to the sort of easy html permalinking offered by twitter, is down to Google’s as-yet imperfect post-hoc sharing system. Once I decided that the thread deserved a wider audience, the options available to me were a) to re-share my original post, without the comments, to anyone on the web, or b) to provide a permalink to the whole thread that was only accessible to those with whom I had originally shared my first post. An option to change the sharing permissions for the entire thread, with the permission of all contributors of course, would be highly appreciated!)

As to why the question about Mechanical Turk generated so much useful information, there are three reasons I can think of.  The first is a simple affordance of the length of posts and comments.  Unlike twitter, detail can be provided when detail is required.  Whilst I have read the thoughts of writers praising the cognitive workout required to condense their tweets to be both eloquent and informative, it is limited medium that doesn’t lend itself to information-rich content or detailed evaluation.  Google+provides a clean, long-format forum in which ideas can be effectively transferred.

The second reason lies in the flexibility of the medium to provide relevant information to those who care.  Circles can be used to selectively share updates with certain groups.  This means that scientific updates can be restricted to my ‘Science’ circle, posts on running can be restricted to my ‘Runners’ circle,  and users may be feeling the effects of a more targeted dose of updates and information.  Comments aren’t driven by a desire to appear funny to a large number of people who probably share your boredom at the fact that, as it’s Sunday, Akira has once again completed a 6.3 mile run in a smidgen over 50 minutes – you’d probably only reach 5 people who would actually be rather preoccupied with trying to work out why Akira hasn’t managed to improve on his 6-mile time despite having done the same run every week for about 6 months.  Depending on your willingness to invest time in the categorisation of contacts, you can be taken as seriously as you want.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Google+ is current rife with early-adopters. These are technologically ‘switched-on’ folk, who are willing to take a punt on a new medium, testing its capabilities and its uses as they go. To illustrate, Tom Hartley, Tal Yarkoni and Yana Weinstein all maintain current blogs/websites of their own and all contributors to the above thread are active twitter users (and well worth following).  Asking a question about how to conduct science using a nascent technology via a nascent communication technology stood every chance of being successful given the overlap in the Venn diagram of technology users.  Add to that the diminished risk of being called out as a ‘geek’, we’re all geeks here even before uber-geeks are further isolated within the ‘Geek’ circle, and we have the optimum conditions in which to find out about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

This isn’t to say that Google+ won’t be successful for non-technological academic discussion, or for technological discussion even after the the laggards arrive.  But I think that success depends on the parameters for its use in academia being established now.  If academics recognise that Google+ can be used to exchange work-related ideas early on in its life-cycle, then it has a much better chance of taking off and even being further developed with this use in mind. It already seems to me a far more attractive site for academics than academia.edu which has comprehensively failed to do anything other than act as a repository for electronic papers and CVs.

So, I’m quietly optimistic… until the next big thing comes along and I jump ship, desperately trying to keep up with all the other early-adopters.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suJgV9HhJp8]

I have almost emerged from one of the most challenging times in my first year at St Andrews, a period of sustained grant-writing.

Below are some tips and resources that have helped me during the past few months.  Some of the resources are specific to St Andrews (where I am) and the BBSRC (who I am applying to) but most are non-specific.

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Overview

– A condensed guide to grant-writing from Edinburgh’s Prof. Alan Bundy
http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-Fail-in-Grant-Writing/125620/

– The Chronicle’s guide to how to fail at grant-writing
http://homepages.inf.ed.ac.uk/bundy/how-tos/rsg-how-to-get-funding.html

– Chapters 8 and 9 of The Compleat Academic.

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Guidance 

- Read the grant-, scheme- and electronic application-specific guidance notes and organise your application, particularly your Case for Support according to their requirements.
e.g. BBSRC (funding body) http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/apply/grants-guide.aspx
Je-S (electronic submission system) https://je-s.rcuk.ac.uk/jesHandBook/jesHelp.aspx

– Get hold of applications that others have submitted to the same or similar funding bodies. This is probably the most reassuring thing you can do in the early stages of an application.

– Make sure you keep up with changes in funding policy. Twitter, RSS feeds, e-mails doing the rounds at work will help you to make sure you’re not tailoring your grant proposal to a priority that recently been de-prioritised.

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Finances

– Go through official channels with your costings
e.g. http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/rfo/Costingadvice/ResearchProjectCosts/
but beware of accepting place-holder values that your finance representative puts in for you, for example, in pooled staff costs.

– Should you be successful, you will have authority to spend funds that you have applied for as directly incurred but not those applied for as directly allocated. (Just so you know.)

– Read the guidance notes. Don’t apply for stuff that seems reasonable, but that the guidance notes state should be provided by your home institution (e.g. a desktop computer for day-to-day work)

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Time

– Give yourself plenty of it. Not only will it make the experience less stressful, it will also allow you to take time out of the all-consuming process every now and again. A fresh eye spots mistakes in text that a tired one doesn’t even bother reading.

– Be aware of the deadlines
http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/apply/deadlines.aspx

- Speak to people (Head of School, Director of Research, your friends in academia) about when you aim to have the grant submitted.  They will give you an indication of when you need to submit it at your end in order that it can by submitted to the research council or charity at their end and still make it in before the deadline.

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Finishing touches

- Daniel Higginbotham’s guide to visual design. Great for polishing those figures and making pages of dense text comprehensible.
http://www.visualmess.com/