2013 in review


Happy New Year to you, my reader, wherever you are!


The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 28,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

holiday question 1: Why are there so few Academic Writing courses?

Marialuisa Aliotta:

An interesting question, still awaiting an answer…

A post from Julia Molinari, currently doing a PhD on ‘academic writing’ at the School of Education, The University of Nottingham.

Originally posted on patter:

This is a guest post from Julia Molinari from the School of Education, The University of Nottingham. Julia is currently doing doctoral research into ‘academic writing’.

A range of motivations, both personal and professional, have triggered the following observations, and the main reason for writing this is to see who else – ‘out there’ – has been wondering why Creative Writing courses abound and Academic Writing ones are much less likely to be found!

I know many undergraduates, postgraduates and fully-established academics – all ‘native’ speakers of English – who find it hard to write ‘academically’ and who rely on copy-editors not just to proofread, but to do the stuff that transforms a text from mere writing, to ‘good’ writing, writing that will draw in and inform an intended reader (writing that is authoritative, has a voice and a clear take-home message, to name just a handful from Pat’s blog)…

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It’s Not Worth It – In Memoriam

ImageSome days ago, I woke up to unexpected and desolate news. A colleague of mine, from Italy, had died. He was 37. He had just got a permanent position at an American University. He had taken his own life.

It’s never easy to figure out why in such circumstances. One is left with only guesses or speculations. And above all, a vague sense of guilt: could I – could anyone – have done something to prevent this?

I had had a Skype chat with him just over a month ago. Nothing in his words (which I re-read on my Skype account, just in case I had missed a hint) seemed to indicate that he was unhappy. Apart from multiple commitments landed on him, he seemed to be pleased to have finally secured a long-searched-for position in a job he so much loved. Yet, he must have been under considerable pressure. Simply too much, it appears.

In many ways, an academic career is very unusual. It demands things from you that other jobs normally don’t. It demands that you move around from one post-doctoral position to another, often for many years, before you manage to get a permanent post – if you ever do!

It demands that you leave behind family and friends. Often, relationships end because distances make them unpractical to pursue any further. It demands that you adapt to new countries, new cultures, new languages. It demands that you re-establish your roots where none had been before and build from scratch a sense of belonging.

For some, this is – or becomes – too high a price to pay in exchange for the excitement that comes with a life in academia.

To make things worse, the competition in many research-intensive universities is often fierce and the human factor seems to become secondary to academic success. An individual’s personal history, background, and well-being are generally ignored in favour of one’s track record or potential for further achievements.

To an extent, one may claim this is as it should be. A job environment is precisely that. It’s all about the job, with little – if at all – space for concerns about emotional distress. No matter if emotions are what ultimately makes us human beings and elevates us above everything else.

I know from personal experience the sense of isolation, loneliness and hopelessness that can prevail when you are away from everything familiar to you. These feelings are made only more acute when you are under the pressure to deliver and to perform. Reclaiming stability in such situations may seem unachievable.

In many ways I have been fortunate. Not because things have been easy for me. But because, luckily, I’ve always been able to ask for help every time I felt so distressed I thought I couldn’t take anymore. Perhaps it’s easier for a woman. We seem to be better at opening up and reaching for help.

I wish my colleague had managed to do the same. I wish he had found a way to believe that there would still be a future despite the temporary darkness. I wish he too had been able to ask for help.

And the reason I am telling you all this is because I sincerely hope that if you ever find yourself in such despair, you might be able to stretch out your hand.

Do not give up. You are not alone. There is always someone out there who will be willing to listen and offer some comfort. It doesn’t have to be someone you know. But, please, do ask for help. No job in the world is worth your life.

As for you, my colleague and friend, may you now find peace wherever you are.

Academic scattering

Marialuisa Aliotta:

A fantastic post by Katie Mack on the two-body problem in academia (from a woman’s perspective).

Originally posted on The Research Whisperer:

Katie Mack, smiling for the cameraKatie Mack has been training as a cosmologist since about the age of 10 when she decided she wanted Stephen Hawking’s job. She got her bachelor’s in physics at Caltech, PhD in astrophysics at Princeton, did an STFC postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge, and is now a DECRA postdoctoral researcher in theoretical astrophysics at the University of Melbourne.

Her work focuses on finding new ways to learn about the early universe and fundamental physics using astronomical observations, probing the very building blocks of nature by examining the cosmos on the largest scales. Throughout her career, she has been working on the interface between astronomy and particle physics, studying dark matter, black holes, cosmic strings, and the formation of the first galaxies in the Universe.

Katie is also an active science communicator, participating in a range of science outreach programs such as Scientists in Schools and Telescopes in Schools. Her popular writing…

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How to Master Academic Writing in the Sciences

Ok, this is an announcement more than a post.


But first…

…did you know that only 2% of academics have ever undertaken any formal training in academic writing [1]?

This is amazing when you consider how critical it is for academics to be able to write well. Think about a PhD thesis. Or a research paper. Or a proposal to obtain research time at some international facility (a major lab or a big telescope). Or even a grant application. Or a job at a prestigious university.

Your chances of being successful at any of these hinges greatly on one simple factor: How well you can write!

Sadly, most PhD students (and, dare I say, academics!) are expected to (magically!) master academic writing with very little guidance, almost by osmosis. Of course, there is much you can learn by trial and error and by attempting to emulate the work of the masters. But this is a lengthy, inefficient, and serendipitous path to take. And one that does not guarantee success either! (Do you really want to find out how to write a good job application by trial and error?)

Far better is to understand what makes for good writing, to learn the dos and don’ts of academic discourse, and to follow some simple strategies that can massively improve the quality of your writing. Then, you realise that scientific academic writing is a craft. And one that you can learn!

Yes, I know. There are hundreds of books out there, which could teach you how to write successfully in academia. And actually many of them are really great.

But here is the problem. Do you actually ever read them? I suspect, your answer is no.

And if you do, have you ever wished you could get in touch with the author to ask any question you may have? If that’s the case, then here is my announcement for you:

I have developed a step-by-step programme specifically designed to take you through the process of academic writing, at your own pace, but with my support.

Interested? Then, have a look at

Hands on Writing: How to Master Academic Writing in the Sciences.

In this course, I will share with you some simple tools and techniques that I regularly use in my own writing and that have proved helpful to many students already.

Whether you are working at your PhD thesis or a research paper, this course will provide you with an easy-to-follow framework to become a more effective, confident and productive writer.

And even if you are not in a scientific discipline, you can still benefit from plenty of very general strategies and tips to help you improve on your skills.

Now, here is the important bit!

The course will go live online for the first time on November 4th and then registration will be over until next year.

And because this is the course debut, I’m going to offer it at a very special price for this time only.

So, now is the time to take action. Click here to register.

But hurry up! This offer expires on Sunday, November 3rd.

PS Oh, and if you think that this post may be relevant to someone you know, please be so kind to pass it on.

[1] Source: Helen Sword, Author of Stylish Academic Writing, Harvard University Press (2012)