Grinding the crack – contemplating on rejection times

Our minimum NRT at the time of writing.

Our minimum NRT at the time of writing.

Science is slow and tedious. And that is how it should be. There is a beauty to behold in the accumulated data points in supplementary files and appendixes. A life worth of time, poured into tables. Neatly ordered references with doi numbers. Ordnung.

However, at times science is also dead fast. Try the last months of your PhD, for instance – that time just is surreal. But the fastest of all is NRT – the average timespan between the click on the button on Nature’s submission form to the email back in your inbox with a rejection letter. Most senior scientists I know have tried at least once to publish in Nature or Science, the two most famous journals across disciplines.

Most of them without success.

This makes for great conversation, and it is common to hear people telling stories of their NRT. Our record is 2 hours. TWO HOURS! Damn, that’s fast. A friend of a friend apparently was rejected within 22 minutes. That’s impressive!

At present we are up at 27 hours, 11 minutes and 31 seconds. Pretty good – at least we joke about it in the little cohort of authors. This likely means it will be read properly by an Editor, and hopefully make it out on review.

And if it doesn’t cut it for Nature, I am sure it will find a good home elsewhere – it is a very nice piece of work that taken us 3 years to analyze.

Meanwhile, enjoy Jeb Corlis in his Grinding the crack video. It summarizes the processes of publishing in top-notch journals better than any words could.

Just click it.

For you, Jo.



The final NRT for our manuscript was 49:30:21,92. Something to beat next time. Now this little baby needs to find another journal home

Some thoughts after the 9th International Workshop on Avian Influenza, Athens, Georgia

Every three years, the avian influenza research community meets up and share the latest developments in the field. The conference name is International Workshop on Avian Influenza, and last week Athens, Georgia, was host for the 9th workshop in the series. It is sort of a standing joke that something bad happens just before the conference, and this year was no exception: the HPAI H5N8 incursion in North America warranted several late breaking sessions (and things are still unfolding as I write these lines, with confirmed new HPAI H5 outbreaks in several states).

My main focus was (needless to say) the wild bird session, where we had two talks, and where a lot of other interesting talks were given. Sharing new information is a vital part of a conference, but perhaps more important is the ability to meet colleagues in real life, have a chat and a beer. It is good to get a face to names that you just have seen in print before, and an informal setting can do wonders for sparking of new projects. Actually, many of my papers have started as a napkin drawing on a conference.

So what were the main things that were shared on this conference? Of course, H5N8 in wild birds and domestic poultry partly stole the show, with important talks on epidemiology from Europe (UK, Germany, Netherlands), Asia (South Korea) and North America (US, Canada), plus presentations of pathogenicity in different animal models. Importantly, this virus (and its reassorted descendants) seems to be carried more or less asymptomatically in dabbling ducks. This makes it more prone to be spread geographically with wild ducks, and perhaps will make it endemic in wild birds for the coming years. Those are dire prospects.

Also the wild bird session dealt a lot with H5N8, and the efforts made for ramping up surveillance. There were also talks from Georgia (the real Georgia, in central Asia), where Nicola Lewis and Zurab Javakhishvili have a monitoring scheme rolling since a few years. Our map of avian influenza in wild birds is totally dominated by studies in US, Southeast Asia, and northwestern Europe, and it is therefore extremely important to get more data from other flyways. This also goes for Africa (where surveillance is going down) and South America (where it is going up – yay!). One of the talks I enjoyed the most was on the existence of influenza viruses in wintering Ruddy Turnstones in south US, showing that viruses persists in this host despite low densities of birds at the wintering grounds. That is important stuff!

Although most work in wild birds is screening based, a couple of talks were based on experiments, including our vaccine study (which we are submitting soon – will get back to that once it is published), Josanne Verhagen’s work on gull viruses, and Neus Latorre-Margalef’s studies on heterosubtypic immunity in mallards. I think the hypothesis driven experimental setups should be explored much more, ideally by joining forces between virologists and ecologists. We have work to do.

What did I lack? Not too much actually, it was a good mix of talks and a great meeting venue. If I had to say something, it would be the absence of true evolution talks. Many trees were presented at this conference, generally to say that this segment was of North American avian or Eurasian avian origin, but only little was presented on how to understand the evolutionary processes of these viruses in their natural reservoirs. There are some great molecular geneticists working with flu, so next time I would love to see some plenary talks on this. And if topped up with more host immunology processes I will salute you!

So, back in the office, a bit jet lagged but inspired. Time to write up a few of the studies we have been working on. Let’s get moving.

An illustrated guide to Academic life

Have you just started grad school? Does it seem scary? Fear not, young Padawan – below you’ll find guidance on your road to PhDoom.

(Disclaimer – this is yet another list. The internet is full of them. You don’t have to read it. And more importantly, you don’t need to follow the advice. I wrote the list today mainly because I was bored and tired after handed in a giant application yesterday, and after spent the major part of the night awake with a sick child).


1. Read the god damn literature

But, hey, read the literature - find out what people have done before.

You’ll be surprised how much knowledge there already is out there. The Great Idea you want to test in your thesis likely has been thought many times before,  and chances are that it has already been tested by others. A professor at my former university used to remind graduating students about the repetitiveness of science by handing over old books (like 19th century books) on the exact subject of the thesis during the dissertation party. Hence, the best advice I can give is to plow the relevant literature in your field. Follow the references to the original sources, and learn first hand. There are no shortcuts.

2. Get some friends

You may feel lonely at first. It is all new and you have no one to ask.

You may feel lonely at first. It is all new and it feels like everyone is smarter than you. Don’t despair, get some friends instead. Academia is a great place to get to know other people, in your laboratory, in the cohort of PhD students and postdocs, and with the faculty folks (although they are generally more dull). Think of them as your hive mind – knowledge to gain, and knowledge to share. Don’t lock yourself inside your room – go have a coffee with the others (see Swedish fika), have a beer (or coke) at after work sessions, go birdwatching, go whatever as long as it makes you connect with your colleagues. And another free advice: everyone thinks that everyone else is smarter, it is the impostor syndrome – a widespread epidemic in academia – just try to get over it.

3. Water that plant

Water that plant, and watch it grow.

Water that plant, and watch it grow.

Science is a gradual process. There are the occasional big leaps, but generally it is a slow and tedious ride. Have patience, water your manuscript plant every day and after a few weeks, months, or a year, from now it will be a flowering plant published in a glossy magazine. You can not cut corners, science has to be done thoroughly, or not at all.

 4. Broaden your perspectives

You will make friends, see places, explore new things.

Try to get out of your box, your comfort zone. Read studies that don’t relate immediately to your own field. Go to seminars about jelly fish, CRISPRs, dinosaur teeth, or sexual selection – it is a great privilege to have the ability to listen to other peoples’ talks. Use that.

Furthermore, you SHOULD visit conferences and/or other research groups during your PhD studies. This is something your supervisor should help arrange, and most importantly pay for. You. Need. To. Travel. And. See. Places.

 5. Broadcast your findings

And soon you'll give the best talks ever.

Tell the world of your findings! In a conference, on social media, to your grandma, to your cat, to the strangers on the bus – spread your gospel. You could even start a blog…

Importantly, if you believe your findings have a relevance for society at large YOU are the one best suited to broadcast that information. I can guarantee you that policymakers will not read your scientific articles, even if they are printed in high impact journals. Thus, if you have a message it needs to be put forward in the right forum. This is a responsibility that comes with being an expert.

6. Have a social life

Have a social life.

In order to function at work we need to have a life that stretches beyond the university offices. Well, this is advice most people don’t need – most students engage in a range of social activities. But over the years I have met people that always work, and never do anything non-sciency. They often break down in the final year.

And social life does not need to be binge drinking.

7. In the end, focus

Remember to breath.

Remember to breath.

The last stretch of a PhD is writing, writing, and writing. For some even #madwriting. You need to produce a thesis, and the last months are a major undertaking for everyone. In order to make it bearable, make a time line and stick to it. Inform your supervisor(s) and co-authors when to expect drafts of chapters and manuscript, and make sure to follow up associated deadlines. Supervisors are humans, too. Giving a full thesis to read over the weekend is not  a precious gift.

8. Have a mock defense

Don't fear the thesis.

Don’t fear the thesis.

One of the best advice I can give you is to have a mock defense before the real one. Let your friends and colleagues pepper you with questions. Ask them to play the role of the panel, and do it as realistic as possible. You’ll be surprised how well this little exercise can help chase the thesis demon away.

9. Choose your thesis panel with care

As regards thesis, beware the committee.

Each country has their own system, but normally there is some sort of appointed committee that will read and evaluate your thesis. In the Swedish system the opponent (external examiner) has a big role, where he/she discusses the merits of the thesis in an open session. The choice of opponent has great bearings on how the thesis defense will play out, so discuss this carefully with your supervisor. If your goal is to continue in science, a good advice is to choose an opponent in which lab you would like to do a postdoc. Just sayin’.

10. Make plans, and keep to them.

Plan for a life after the completion of thesis.

You can do wonders in life, and a PhD is a bridge to the future, not a dead-end street. Too many students think of post-PhD life as a black hole filled with unemployment and broken dreams. In reality it is often not, but one has to be realistic about the prospects of different career paths. To get a tenure faculty position is hard, and requires skill, heaps of luck, and a vagabond lifestyle for some years ahead. But most people will not carry on in science, and you have to see the non-academic path as excellent alternative, not as a failure. Halfway through grad school is probably a good time to start think about the future, and to plan for how those dreams should be fulfilled.

 12. Enjoy the show

I don’t say it is easy, because it isn’t, but try to enjoy the final show. It is the culmination of a lot of hard work and you get the chance to show the world how good you are in your field. And that is pretty amazing, after all.