Top 10 Minor Assignment Mistakes that Grind my Gears (+1 bonus)


When grading assessments as a demonstrator, I try really hard to give helpful, constructive feedback. It’s important for everyone to learn from their mistakes and develop both as scientific thinkers and as writers. However, there are a few mistakes that happen very often and really grind my gears. If you want to impress your grader and improve your marks, avoid the mistakes below like the plague.

  1. Species notation. A species should be written this way: Genus species and abbreviated species. The italics are crucial.
  2. Please, do not misuse commas. A great brief on this can be found here. As a side note, all of Mignon Fogarty’s tips can be helpful and her podcast is stellar.
  3. Spell check. Your word processing software should run this automatically. In case it doesn’t, please run your assignment through one. There are even free ones on the internet.
  4. Please write in full, complete sentences in the English language. Make sure your sentences have both a subject and a verb at minimum. Avoid fragments:
  5. Parenthetical phrases. It’s (sorta) annoying that this colloquial writing technique infiltrates your writing. Either say it, or don’t.
  6. Vague statements. Avoid phrases like “understanding is good” or “pollution is bad”. Be descriptive. If it seems like filler, it probably is filler. You can write meaningful things, so please do.
  7. Don’t go too far the other way. Saying that “Nothing of value has been done without X” is pretty hyperbolic and will definitely get my ire up.
  8. Lists are generally not part of scientific writing and should be avoided. Don’t tell me everything you needed in a list. Don’t tell me what you did in a list. Write me a beautiful, descriptive, informative paragraph.
  9. I love abbreviations as much as any millennial raised on internet speak, but it’s really important to let people know what the abbreviations you’re using mean. Write it out, then give the abbreviation immediately. Oh my goodness, OMG, is a great example here. Otherwise we’re in this situation:
  10. The dreaded /. Please don’t do/try this at home. It’s so frustrating! Write out a conjunction. You can reference this for clarification:
  11. It’s perfectly ok to start a sentence with the word “this”, but you must be incredibly crystal clear about what you’re referencing. There is ALWAYS another word you could use that would add clarity to your writing, and it’s almost always better to just use the word you mean.

That’s all. Avoid these issues and your grader might work through your assignments with a smile. Always remember to write CLEARLY and CONCISELY. Now, you’ve just got to nail down the actual science…

Author: Maureen Williams @MoDubs11

Are you Shutting Up and Writing?

Smiling_boy_seating_at_a_table_writing,_China,_ca._1918-1938_(MFB-LS0248A)Inspired by the awesome blog, the Thesis Whisperer and under the constant reminder that we must publish or perish, post docs from the School of Natural Sciences have been meeting on a weekly basis, on and off for the past year to sit down, shut up and write. Here is a bit of background on the Shut Up and Write ‘movement’, a little bit of what we’ve learned along the way and a big invite to any post grads, post docs and PIs in TCD’s School of Natural Sciences to come along and join us.

The post docs shutting up and writing. It’s that simple!
The post docs shutting up and writing. It’s that simple!

One of the most fun things to do while procrastinating on the internet is to read productivity hacks. There is a treasure trove of resources out there telling you how much better you would be at your job if you ate better, slept better, exercised more and bought their productivity app. Funnily enough, none of them tell you to just close the browser window and get on with it. On one of these jaunts through the internet I stumbled upon Dr Inger Mewburn’s, ‘The Thesis Whisperer’ blog and while I have spent longer than I should have trawling through her blog’s archives, it is such a great resource that I now annoy all the post grads in our lab with recommendations to do the same. One of the great ideas I found while procrastinating reading was that of setting up a Shut Up and Write group. These do exactly what they say on the tin, providing a place for interested people to come together and write. For some, this may seem counter-intuitive, going somewhere to meet takes time that could be better spent just getting on with the project in question. However, as Mewburn and fellow Shut Up and Write enthusiasts find, the problem with staying at your desk is one of continued interruption by email and requests for time by those who assume that because you are at your desk, you are ‘free’. Having a dedicated time to write also means that you are less likely to schedule other meetings/activities over it.

So, having met a couple of the School’s post docs and recognising in each other a desire to organise ourselves and meet with some sort of regularity, I proposed that we try out Shut Up and Write. What better group to sell the idea of regular writing sessions to, than post docs? Our group is small and we try to meet every week. We’ve tried the busy coffee house, but as our campus is in the city centre, busy is definitely too busy for our tastes, and we now meet on campus (in very close vicinity to tea and coffee facilities!!). We have also been derailed at times by the changes to our schedules that the switch between term time and holidays can bring. However, having regrouped recently after a bit of a break, I think the key is not to stress out about having spent time away from the group, or from writing and to just get on with it.

Once we’ve all come together, the session works something like this; we all grab a cup of tea/coffee and have a good natter. After about 15 minutes we sit down to our computers/notebooks and write for 25 minutes. We then have a quick breather (maybe 5 minutes) and then work for another uninterrupted 25 minutes (yes, that is the Pomodoro Technique). We currently tend to work on our own writing projects, but new collaborations and assistance with reading and editing manuscripts are all part of the potential a Shut Up and Write group has. Over the year we’ve worked on journal articles, grant proposals, blog posts, book chapters, technical reports and project management reports and the fact that we are still making time in our schedules suggests that it’s been a pretty productive experience all ’round. If you’re a post grad, post doc or PI in the School and would like to know more, please let us know in the comments!

Author: Caroline Wynne (@wynne_caroline)

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

On the writing of a PhD thesis

writing“Writing a [thesis] is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.” Winston Churchill

I’ve just finished my PhD thesis and thought I’d share some of my opinions on how best to go about writing one. But before we get there I’d like to express my skepticism of the value of writing a thesis as a means to evaluate a budding scientist. I don’t know of any papers in journals that run over a 100 pages but classically this is what was expected of us at PhD level. It’s rare that a scientist writes a monograph. Instead we compose pieces of research that can be explained in around 10 pages. Scientists use mathematics and statistics to make our points, in that way our numbers do the talking so we can afford to be succinct. This is in contrast to students of the arts who typically draw on argument and rhetoric in their works building to a singular point or thesis! But that’s irrelevant to this topic because you still have to write one and many departments are quite flexible with their definition of thesis.

So my first piece of advice is write chapters with the aim of publishing them. You’re training to be a scientist and papers are your currency so keep that in mind. Three or four data chapters with a general introduction and discussion seem to be the way to go. If you have this approach you’ll be able to finish up parts long before the deadline. If you can get papers published, all the better, a peer-reviewed chapter looks very well and will be an improved piece of work for having gone through the process. The final body should be a coherent whole but these are not book chapters in a story. That said be aware of how you want to frame the whole thing.

Try to be concise; it’ll be easier for you to write, easier for your examiners to correct and more attractive to anyone else who wants to read it. There may be some work you did over the course of your PhD that has to get the chop to achieve this.

There’s no problem in seeking help. Science is meant to be collaborative, even more so today. In 2012 only 11% of all papers were single authored. You’ll be able to get much better chapters if you include people who can add a bulwark to any of your weaknesses. Just make sure you do the bulk of the work and properly credit your collaborators where necessary.

Give some thought to the program you’ll use to write up the project. MS Word isn’t the only way. I found assembling the whole thing in LaTeX went quite smoothly because it’s specifically made for writing technical documents. The downside was it was difficult for others to comment on it. There are ways to do this but I was a novice at the time.

Step back from the cult of the busy too. I found giving myself a break from the write up helped me come up with a much better frame for my discussion.

Start early, don’t write much, aim for papers, and use LaTeX. Simple. How’s that for concise?

(The contents of this post are subject to change after my thesis defence)

Author: Adam Kane, @P1zPalu, kanead[at]
Photo credit:

We have a winner!


We’re delighted that one of our regular EcoEvo@TCD writers, Sarah Hearne (@SarahVHearne) has won a prize from the Association for British Science Writers. Sarah won first place in the new Good Thinking student science blog category for her piece, Sea Serpents off the Port Bow! published in November last year. These prestigious awards recognise excellence in scientific journalism and writing from both students and professionals and it’s a great achievement to have been singled out among such stiff competition.

Congratulations Sarah!