Tuesday 25 November 2014

Journal club to beat you with

Lots of academic institutions have a periodical Journal Club, when people can get round a table and go through a scientific paper with a fine tooth comb to hone their critical faculties and inform themselves about some new progression in their field.  It is great mental exercise and, by flagging the defects in somebody else's work, we can resolve not to make similar mistakes in our own.  And, more positively, we can recognise really good, apparently unflawed, papers and strive to be as good.  I've run and participated in these things for the last ###ty years and almost always found it half-an-hour well spent. I'm in a minority on this; most other people put JC way down their list of priorities.  In my last job, the Principal Investigators and senior post-doctoral researchers would come if a) one of their students was presenting and b) they didn't need more urgently to write a grant proposal, redraft a paper, slog through the monthly accounts, prepare a lecture, go shopping or stare at the ceiling.

This term - bummer! - our journal club has been scheduled for the same time as my second Human Physiology lecture, so I've been unable to attend.  But this last week to accommodate a graduate student from the government institute on the other side of town, the JC was shifted to lunchtime on Friday and I could go. Oh joy!  My HoD had been asked by the regular organiser (who had to be elsewhere) to chair the session, so I wasn't the only salaryman there.  But we were collectively very thin on the ground: two lecturing staff, two presenters and . . . five other people: from a community of perhaps 30 post-grads; 30 lecturers; and 20 from the government institute!  Thge numbers suggest that 90% of our community believes they are too busy to turn up.  But honestly, if you're too busy to go to journal club or the local series of visiting speakers then you really need to take some time out to go to journal club or the local series of visiting speakers!  Why?
  • you might learn something new
  • you're taking your mind out for a run
  • you're showing respect for the presenters
    • and support: many graduate students find this really hard
  • you're respecting the organiser
  • you're participating in the community
  • you're doing something different
When I was a lad in the Genetics Department of TCD way back in the last century, the then Professor of Genetics hosted a monthly symposium on a midweek evening in the Winter.  A vaguely-genetics speaker would be invited: from the Guinness brewery or a chap who had just returned from collecting potatoes in South America or a silviculturist who was breeding trees. Three of the undergraduate students would be told off with a modest handful of cash to cook a meal for thirty that could be eaten off a lap-balanced plate. Everyone turned up to those meetings, and it wasn't because of my chili con carne. 15 years later, after working in Rotterdam, Boston and Newcastle upon Tyne, I was back in my alma mater.  Symposia were a thing of the past - altogether tooo Aristotelian; but there was a weekly seminar series scheduled towards the end of the working day at 5pm.  Afterwards everyone was invited round the corner to the boozer: speaker, faculty, students, post-docs, the cat. That was the symposium (from συμπίνειν - drinking together) and the craic was often mighty and not just because the alcohol lowered our standards.  But the academic staff who went out for a jar after work all grew up  and got married and were rushing home for diapers and telly rather than collegial discourse, so the weekly seminar series was shifted to the middle of the day. It made experiments more difficult to schedule but did ensure the working day finished shortly after 5pm.  This sort of compromise doesn't encourage young scientists to work all the hours god sends the way I did when I was starting out. harrrumph!

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