Better science writing

How many times do you read a journal article and feel like you are wading through a thick swamp of jargon and abstract concepts? I know I’ve been guilty of writing some pretty stodgy prose myself, so lately I’ve been working on how to make my writing a little more lively.

Science writing shouldn’t have to bore you to death to convince you that the science presented in the article is sound. Unfortunately it’s often easier to write lethargic, heavy text than it is to write creatively using active and concrete language. Writing well requires a lot of effort but I think it is well worth it. Not only is great writing more likely to get your point across more clearly to your scientist peers, but you are also more likely to make your work readable to a non-specialist audience.

There are lots of great texts available for those wanting to improve their writing. On one weekend away last year I lounged about in a hammock on a tropical island reading Helen Sword‘s fantastic “Stylish Academic Writing“. With a cocktail in one hand and book in the other, Helen took me on a surprisingly fun journey from arresting abstracts to zombie nouns.


I can highly recommend a beach-side cabin next time you need to brush up on your academic writing skills

The main points I took away were that, to communicate the often abstract ideas we are talking about in science, we should aim to use concrete examples and active language. This takes a lot of practice but luckily for us, Helen has a fabulous online test to accompany the new edition of her other book “The Writers Diet“.  This test works best if you have read the book so that you have some clue of what to do next if you find you have some problem areas you need to work on. The Writers Diet is a tiny little gem of a book, and takes very little time to read and absorb the basics.

In the online test you can plug in pieces of your own writing, and find out where your writing is most flabby – or if you are unlucky, in heart-attack zone. As you can see from a piece of my own (published) writing, I am in serious need of a makeover.

Writers Diet

An embarrassingly obese bit of writing that I’ve put through the test

Most importantly, I’m on the way to cardiac arrest with the way I use verbs and nouns. My abuse of boring, abstract “to be” verbs plagues much of my writing, and is something that I need to work on most. It is so much easier to say “my writing is boring” rather than constructing a sentence around an active verb that makes the reader visualise what you are trying to say. Helen recommends appealing to the human senses with your verb usage – make your readers taste, smell or see your ideas.

All those blue highlighted words in the picture above are nasty nominalizations, or the aforementioned zombie nouns. Funnily enough, the word “nominalization” is a nominalization in itself! These are abstract nouns that have suffixes ending in -ion, -ism, -ment, etc. They are words that once were verbs or adjectives, that have been morphed into long-winded nouns. They may sound clever, but as Helen says, they suck the life out of your sentence and are best avoided. Check out this great TED animation on zombie nouns if you want to laugh and learn at the same time.

I think that perhaps one of the best benefits of reading Helen’s work is to gain the confidence to write creatively and with humour, without feeling like the science itself shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’m encouraged to see that quite a few of my peers are embracing creative writing in formal publications. A recent (open access) review paper by Robert Jackson and Fiona Cross in the Journal of Arachnology is an elegant example of how to write informatively AND with style. From the very first sentence, the authors grab the reader: “As arachnologists, we like spiders, but we are all too familiar with people who enjoy telling us, often with considerable pride, about their fear and loathing for our favorite animals”. They don’t disappoint throughout the rest of the paper either, taking us on a journey to learn about mosquito-terminator spiders using vivid metaphors and simple but enjoyable sentences.

In today’s world where we are bombarded with a never ending stack of papers to read,  being able to really enjoy the writing style of a paper ensures that we stick around for the whole story, rather than giving up before the end of the first paragraph. In Stephen Heard’s (@StephenBHeard) very recently published guide book on writing for scientists, he mentions* that spending all this time learning to write well is not just to make your readers life more enjoyable. From a purely selfish point of view, you don’t want  your paper to be one of those that gets set aside because it is too hard-going. You are doing yourself a favour by writing prose that an editor, reviewers and peers enjoy, because then you are helping them see the point of your work without having to trudge through tedious text.

It’s all very well to want to learn to write better stories, but a fairly important part of this is actually sitting down and committing to doing the writing.  One of the biggest impediments to writing is having a quiet space to think. Given that so many of us – particularly students –  now work in large open plan offices – getting into the writing zone is becoming increasingly difficult. The constant buzz of activity around me and the poorly timed interruptions is certainly one of the reasons I ended up writing most of my PhD thesis from home.

So how then to find time and space to write?

For me, starting early in the morning is key to success, and usually from a very quiet space like my dining room table. Sometimes even a bustling cafe can be a great writing space, as long as you can zone out white noise. Sometimes I NEED to have music playing to relax and other times I need total silence. Just be open to exploring the best avenue for you and then once you figure it out, make sure you actually set aside writing time every day/week where you create that perfect environment. There’s always something more urgent to do, like sending off that email or making that new cake recipe you found**, but if you factor in writing time into your diary and stick with it, you are much more likely to have success!

If being confronted by a blank white page is what frightens you, try making a mind map or the figures for your paper first, as this may help to make a plan for your story. This was advice I heard in a talk by Gavin Lear a couple of years ago***. I sometimes follow the figures with an abstract, as a kind of elevator pitch that hits home what I want my main take-home message to be. Other times I simply start with a whole bunch of randomly placed bullet-points that I flesh out over time (this can be good if you have 20 minutes spare, here and there).

I also find spending a few days on writing retreats a great way to clear the head and focus on a piece of writing. A few of us from the ecology group at UoA recently spent a couple of days writing from the Forest & Bird lodge at Piha Beach, as a break from the city office. A lack of internet access is great for avoiding email and other commitments, and having a set amount of time to get something on paper can be a great way to be productive. Setting some ground rules for when it is ok to chat might be a good idea, and I’ve found a small number of similarly stressed people who need the quiet time as much as you do works well. A beach setting to provide much needed long walks to clear the head is imperative, as are several bottles of good wine or a well-placed pub.

Writing a blog (or some other form of creative outlet) is also really great for exercising the brain. My hope is that over time better writing will become natural, so that I eventually have to make less effort to make my scientific manuscripts more captivating. Today I submitted a manuscript that I worked really hard to shape into a nice piece of prose using Helen’s tips. I put it through the writers diet test with great results (it was fit & lean!) – fingers crossed the editor likes it.

Happy writing!

writing retreat piha

Blissful evening walk to stretch the legs & brains after a day writing at Piha Beach (Photo taken by Megan Friesen)

*I must confess here that I am yet to get a hold of Stephen’s book. I have, however, had a cheeky read of the first chapter available on the publisher’s website, where I picked up the point made here about writing to improve your own chances of being read.

**Procastibaking became my favourite hobby during the final stages of my PhD. It was great to feel like I was doing something productive (like providing my lab mates with cake) while also avoiding the tortuous beast that was my thesis.

*** Gavin’s talk was based on this piece by Corey Bradshaw, not to be confused with Carrie Bradshaw from Sex & the City who I’m sure would also have lots of tips for doing good writing.

Glamerous and glittery spiders

Today I’ve been busy writing up a manuscript on a very special spider that I worked on in Singapore, called Orsima ichneumon. It’s early days to report our findings yet, but in the meantime I couldn’t help but share a couple of these beautiful images that my husband (Caleb Nicholson) took during some sessions in the lab.

Orsima female_sideview1_small

A very plump (gravid) female showing off her splendid colours

Orsima male_sideview4_small

A typical male with a much slimmer and constricted abdomen, brighter colours, and very long forelegs

Male Orsima3.jpg

Males perform courtship displays to females, including showing off their brightly coloured abdomen by bending it upwards to face her

Mating pair.jpg

A mating pair – after a series of complex courtship maneuvers, the male spider (right) inserts his pedipalp into the female’s genital opening (epigynum) to transfer sperm


Locked in battle.jpg

Two males, front legs outstretched, about to lock jaws in battle


Juveniles have translucent legs and a cute orange mask


The photographer being a great field assistant, watching spiders near Gombak Field Station in Malaysia


Even roadside collecting for these spiders in Malaysia is pretty special, here we could hear gibbons calling in the valley


Checking out the umbrella “beat sheet” for Orsima spiders on the roadside

Autumn fun with giraffe weevils

In the weeks I’ve been back in Auckland I’ve been largely stuck to my desk finishing off a couple of papers and grant applications, and getting myself organised for the harvestmen project.Luckily I was able to head out yesterday to Matuku Reserve, my old PhD field site in west Auckland for a few hours of searching for giraffe weevils. Despite the weather cooling off, there were still plenty of those goofy critters around to watch and get inspiration for new projects.

Giraffe weevil pair

A pair of giraffe weevils hanging out on a mossy karaka branch

It was really interesting to see how much the forest has changed since the last time I was out there. Huge karaka trees that had consistently hosted giraffe weevils each summer during the 5 years I spent at the reserve are now completely rotted or fallen down. I also spotted a few trees that were currently playing host to the weevils, either already filled with larvae, as revealed by fresh piles of sawdust piled up underneath the tree, or covered in adult pairs busily mating and laying eggs.

Rotted tree

A multi-stemmed karaka tree now almost completely rotted and partially collapsed after years of giraffe weevil (& other insect) attack

new sawdust

Fresh sawdust kicked out of larva tunnels and piled up underneath a karaka tree

Although officially working on harvestmen for the new postdoc, I still have lots of ideas for taking my research on this fascinating species further. Giraffe weevils have also been on my mind over the last week as Nicola Toki chose them as her Critter of the Week on Radio New Zealand. It’s always great to spread the word about some of our smaller but no less interesting species. Also, Mike Dickison (@adzebill) and his team noticed that the Wikipedia page for the giraffe weevils was pretty awful, so they did a very speedy but thorough job in updating the page and it now looks great! It’s worth checking out if you want to learn what we already know about this species and if you’ve always wanted giraffe weevils as your desk top photo you’re in luck because I’ve donated a few photos for public use.

The reason I was out in the bush yesterday was that I’m hoping to start a new project on my favourite invertebrate, looking at trade-offs between traits that allow them to win mating opportunities through fights (i.e. their long heads used as weapons) versus traits that allow them to gain more fertilizations (i.e. more and better quality sperm).

Sperm competition in the giraffe weevil is likely to be a really important factor affecting  a male’s reproductive success, because females can mate multiple times before they lay their egg. This means that competition between males continues after any physical combat that has allowed them to mate, because sperm from other males that have also mated with the female are vying to fertilize the egg. Sperm competition has led to all sorts of ways that males increase their fertilization success, including investing in more sperm (bigger ejaculates) and extensive post-copulation (after mating) guarding behaviour to stop any other males from having a chance to mate.

There is a lot of discussion in the scientific literature about these theorized trade-offs between competition among males that occurs before and after mating. The main idea is that males often have to invest in either big weapons and traits that allow them to find and secure mates, OR traits like big volumes of really high quality sperm that allow them to ensure paternity. Because energetic resources are limited, they shouldn’t be able to freely invest in both sets of traits. So, when considering that big giraffe weevil males are investing a lot into really big weapons (their long ‘noses’), we might expect them to be investing less into sperm traits than smaller males. This is because during larval development, the cells that eventually become adult body parts in beetles are formed after the larvae has stopped feeding, meaning that there is a limited pool of resources.

Sperm competition is particularly interesting when considering the giraffe weevils, as not only do female’s mate lots of times before egg-laying, there are also tiny little males running around and sneaking matings while the big males stand over females and try to guard them. As you can see from a scene I witnessed yesterday, big males are often not to so successful in preventing sneaker males from mating, as the little guys literally mate under the ‘nose’ of the guarding male.

Sneaky male with pair 2

A little sneaker male mating with a female while bigger male stands guard

Despite their devious behaviour, small males probably suffer from higher levels of sperm competition than big males, especially if guarding males end up mating again after they detect a sneaker’s presence as a form of retaliation.We might then expect small males to invest more into each mating than a larger male, in the form of big ejaculates in an attempt to flood the female with lots of his sperm. This has been observed in other insect systems with sneaky males, such as dung beetles, where little males ejaculate more per mating than large males and also have relatively bigger testes than their larger male counterparts.

Sneaky male with pair

The same sneaky male mating while a larger male guards

We still have so much to learn about the mating systems of insects, and the giraffe weevils provide us with a really great opportunity to study these questions. Unlike lots of insects they are easy to observe in the wild, in big numbers, and in daylight hours (after long nights in the field watching harvestmen, the giraffe weevils seem like little angels). They also tend to stick around on one tree as adults which makes it easy to mark them with a unique colour combo on their bodies, and then track them through their lifetime.

marking weevil

Marking a female giraffe weevil with coloured paints for easy ID in the wild

Having an abundant population at Matuku Reserve so close to Auckland makes life as a behavioural ecologist much easier too, as we can do lots of work in nature without too much travel. It’s not a bad spot to do research either…


Taking a break to listen out for fern birds in the wetland at Matuku Reserve







The end of a year abroad

Last week, after a year of doing science in Singapore, we packed our bags and headed back to our home town of Auckland, New Zealand. In a few weeks I’ll start back at the University of Auckland to kick off our project on the evolution of weaponry in harvestmen. In the meantime I’m enjoying taking time to catch up with friends and family, and even managed to find a few of my old pals, NZ giraffe weevils, on our first weekend back.


Reuniting with friends!

Omanawa Falls

Paradise! Omanawa Falls near Tauranga

The last month in Singapore was hectic as I was trying to wrap up the project as best I could and make sure my undergraduate students were all sorted for carrying on their research. We also spent lots of time out in the jungle in a last ditch attempt to try and find my study species in Singapore (we found 1 male, 1 female and 1 juvenile!) and to try and glimpse some of the missing animals from our wish list.

These last few weeks happily coincided with a visit by Ummat Somjee, a PhD student from Dr Christine Miller’s lab at the University of Florida. Ummat is working on sexually selected traits in coreid bugs and was keen to find some nice candidates with exaggerated hind legs to work on. We found a fantastic species, Anoplocnemis phasiana, which has extraordinarily huge hind legs. Ummat spent his time in Singapore looking at how males and females invest into these huge hind legs and other body parts, and how males use these as weapons during fights with other males to secure females.


The incredible hind legs of a male Anoplocnemis phasiana


Ummat’s visit was a great excuse to revisit some of our favourite haunts too, including a final cycle around Palau Ubin, a little island off the east coast of Singapore. We were lucky to spot the flock of Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) that tend to hang around Jelutong Campground. However, we also noticed a completely black hornbill hanging around and realised it was a female Black Hornbill (A. malayanus), perhaps dispersed across from Peninsula Malaysia or an escaped pet.


A male oriental pied hornbill (left) and a female black hornbill (right)

Back on the mainland we were also lucky to come across some great finds including a Wagler’s pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri), a paradise gliding snake (Chrysopelea paradisi), and several colugos or flying lemurs (Galeopterus variegatus).

Waglers Viper

A juvenile or male Wagler’s pit viper at Bukit Timah Reserve

Paradise gliding snake

Paradise gliding snake at Dairy Farm Reserve


A curious colugo checking out Caleb with his camera

One of the most interesting finds was this Portia labiata jumping spider feeding on a huge Argiope spider. Portia are araneophagic (spider-eating) spiders that have incredible cognitive ability, leading to fascinating strategies for hunting different species. Portia are able to sneak up on their prey using very slow stalking behaviour combined with their leaf litter-like appearance. They are also known to pluck a spider’s web, imitating a struggling insect, to lure the resident spider towards them. When stalking venomous spitting spiders, Portia will approach from behind to avoid being perceived and attacked.


A female Portia hanging from a silk thread and munching on a huge Argiope spider

As well as all these fun trips around the island, I’ve also been reflecting on my year abroad and what is has offered me in terms of both professional and personal experience. Despite the challenges of adjusting to a very different culture and way of life in Singapore I am so happy I took the plunge. I was lucky to be able to go at a time in my life where I had few responsibilities (i.e. no kids or mortgage) and had the financial means to move both myself and my husband across the world to live off one income. This is important to recognise because I think there is an enormous amount of pressure on postdocs (actually all academics) to be super flexible and travel anywhere in the world to take up a job. Sophie Lewis wrote an excellent article about the expectation of academics to spread their career across multiple institutes and countries, and why she believes this is no longer necessary. I largely agree with Sophie and would have to say that a lot of the benefits to working abroad that I discuss below could have also been achieved via shorter-term research visits, conferences, and online networking.

The major benefits that I took away from my year in Singapore:

  • Research experience: The most obvious and biggest benefit to working at NUS was working in a very different lab, working on a new study system in a different area of behavioural ecology. Although I’m keen to get stuck back in to my main research interest, I have come away with a new set of skills and lots of new knowledge about spiders and visual ecology that I didn’t have before. This has the potential to lead to all sorts of future opportunities and collaborations! Importantly this has also helped me to be better at problem solving, has stretched my brain to move into a field I knew little about and has helped me cross paths with a different group of researchers that I hadn’t interacted with before.
  • Networking: There’s nothing like arriving in a new place with no friends to force one to get out there and make new contacts! NZ is far away from just about anywhere, so it has been a great to be somewhere a little more central to meet scientists based at NUS or travelling through Singapore.
  • Tropical biodiversity: My knowledge of biodiversity is much richer than when I first arrived in Singapore. Working in the tropics was so different to temperate NZ and I found it incredible that I saw numerous new species every time I went out to the forest. I like to think this will be a source of inspiration for future project ideas, and help me to make comparisons to the temperate regions I’ve worked in. I have loads of great photographs (mostly taken by Caleb) that can be used as examples in teaching.
  • Travel opportunities: Related to the point above, working in SE Asia led to so many amazing trips abroad to collect spiders or go on mini-vacations. Whether mucking around in the central catchment of Singapore or wandering the jungles & highlands of Malaysia it was exciting every time. Field work is the best part of my job and doing it across multiple countries in tropical Asia was just so fun.
  • Learning to work with new people: Any new job requires learning to fit in with new people, but for me, working in a region of the world with a very different culture to my own has been a novel challenge. Our lab was made up of students from Singapore, China, Taiwan and Malaysia which has been so great for learning about cultural and religious practices from countries other than my own. I think it will help me to be better at supervising a diverse range of students in the future.
  • My relationship: My husband didn’t work while in Singapore but spent a lot of time helping me in the lab and the field. We lived without a TV and had really great discussions each night over dinner or on evening walks. Having lots of days and every evening together was a big change for us after many years of shift work for Caleb. So, bizarrely given the strain that this job could have put on our relationship had we decided to do it long distance, Caleb’s unemployed “sabbatical” turned out to be a really great move for us.

The biggest challenges:

  • Culture shock: It took a lot longer to settle in than I thought it would and despite Singapore being a rather westernized part of Asia, we still experienced culture shock. We got around this by really trying to learn as much as possible about our new country, going to festivals and eating/shopping where locals did. 2015 turned out to be a fascinating time to be in Singapore with the huge celebrations of 50 years of independence and the death of the beloved founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It took ages to learn the basics though and sometimes tasks that would take me half an hour in NZ took me all day. One day it took me about 6 hours and 4 expensive taxi rides to source a piece of sandpaper that ended up costing me 40 cents!
  • Pressure to hit the ground running: Largely driven by my own anxieties and self-expectations, I really struggled to get the project underway and feel like I was being a good postdoc. I guess it could be said that I was suffering from imposter syndrome, although at the time it just felt like I was a terrible scientist and about to waste a whole bunch of time and money doing something that a better qualified person should be doing. The first 5 months or so were pretty tough and I felt ungrateful for being given such a neat opportunity to live and work in a new place. Things got a lot better once we did a couple of lengthy field trips to Malaysia & China where we came “home”to our apartment in Singapore.
  • Finding friends: I always thought I was good at making friends but I struggled a lot in Singapore. I found that just getting through a work day in a new environment was enough of a challenge without adding the extra pressure of going out and networking with expats or joining clubs. It got better with time but in hindsight I wish that I had tried harder early on because I’m sure it would have helped with those anxious first few months. Other friends who’ve moved abroad have had success using which is a online notice board with a whole bunch of different groups that you can join from tennis to conversational language to philosophy.
  • Project achievements: One year just isn’t really long enough to really sink your teeth into a project and get a lot out of it. If I could recommend a time period I would say a postdoc of at least 2 years would be a smart choice, especially if you have to make major changes to the project after a few months like I did. Getting outputs in a short period of time would be less risky, however, if slotting into a lab where you are taking up one part of a larger project, or working on a very well-established system.

Overall, for me the year away ended up as one rolling adventure from start to finish. I think we knew early on that we weren’t going to settle in to Singapore easily or want to stay for the long term, so by using the year as a big learning opportunity we were able to keep enthusiasm up throughout. I’m definitely going to miss the food culture in Singapore too…


The best Nonya cendol in Malacca!




Public talk on animal weapons in Singapore

I’m giving a public talk on animal weapons this Friday at the Nature Society of Singapore.

Details in case anyone is interested:

Little creatures with big guns: exploring the diversity of weapon evolution in beetles and harvestmen

Many animal species have evolved exaggerated structures like antlers, claws or spines. They use these as weapons during fights. Despite a long fascination with animal weapons, we still do not know a lot about why there is such remarkable diversity in the types of animal weapons. Dr Chrissie Painting has researched the evolution of weapons and the mating systems of several charismatic invertebrates including the New Zealand Giraffe Weevil and long-legged Harvestmen. Come along to learn why some animals have weapons and discover the curious behaviours used by males to win mates.


New Zealand giraffe weevil males competing for a female (one sneaking, one guarding!)

About the Speaker: Dr Chrissie Painting is a behavioural ecologist, currently working as a Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore. Chrissie is from New Zealand, having completed a Bachelor of Science with Honours at Lincoln University in Canterbury in 2007, followed by a PhD at the University of Auckland in 2013. Although she has a broad interest in many aspects of natural history, Chrissie’s research to date has focused on understanding the fascinating mating systems of several small but charismatic insects and arachnids.

Friday 22nd Jan 7pm – 8pm

510 Geylang Road #02-05 The Sunflower Singapore 389466 (see red star on the map below)

Nature Society office


PhD opportunity in the Holwell lab

Wahoo! Greg Holwell at the University of Auckland is hiring a PhD student to work on a very exciting Marsden Funded project on the evolution of weaponry in Opiliones (harvestpeople). This is an exciting opportunity for a student to work on an incredible group of organisms in a beautiful part of the world.

CT scan of chelicerae

CT scanned jaws!

The details:

PhD Scholarship: Evolution of exaggerated male weaponry in harvestmen

$27,000 NZD per year for 3 years.

School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Supervisor: Dr Greg Holwell

I invite suitably motivated and dedicated applicants to apply for a fully funded PhD scholarship to work on the evolution of extreme male weaponry in New Zealand harvestmen (Opiliones). Males from the genera Pantopsalis and Forsteropsalis possess among the most exaggerated weapons in the animal kingdom. Their chelicerae can comprise 50% of their body weight and in some species are polymorphic with males displaying either elongated or short broad forms within the same population. The specific details of the student’s project is up to negotiation but would combine some of the following: field observations throughout New Zealand, behavioural experiments, microCT imaging, geometric morphometrics, molecular phylogenetics and/or comparative methods. The scholarship is available for application now. The successful candidate will have research experience, a strong academic record and possess a MSc or Honours research degree in behavioural ecology, evolutionary biology and/or morphology. The successful candidate will work under the supervision of Dr Greg Holwell (The University of Auckland, NZ), and will have access to a range of world-class facilities at the University of Auckland with the opportunity to travel for both fieldwork and collaboration. This position is funded through the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and the successful applicant is expected to begin in early 2016.

Please submit applications directly to Dr Greg Holwell at and provide a CV, academic transcript and a letter detailing your research interests and motivation for considering the project

monoscutid cave harvestman

An Opiliones with huge chelicerae hanging out on a cave wall in Waitomo


Navigating the postdoc journey in NZ & Australia

Recently I’ve been asked by quite a few newly or soon-to-be fledged PhD students about where to look for postdoctoral jobs in academia. Everyone knows finding a postdoc isn’t easy, but it is good to know what is out there and start applying for as many opportunities as possible. Here, as well as describing a little about my own experience so far, I wanted to put together a list of postdoc funds that are available in NZ and Australia for (non-medical) biologists.

My own postdoc journey so far has been the result of a combination of luck, incredible support from my mentors, and of course a fair amount of hard work. As well as landing two one-year postdocs I have also strung together smaller pots of cash to make things work, resulting in an almost continuous 2.5 years of funding since completing my PhD. I think the postdoc years are rarely smooth and it can be stressful to find a job that suits your skills as well as being a good fit for you personally (especially thinking about juggling relationships with loved ones and how to balance the whole research abroad thing). Somehow though, I’ve made it work for me so far despite the journey not necessarily being all that well thought out, and my little hodge-podge career so far has resulted in some fantastic experiences with super interesting people and study animals.

I handed in my PhD thesis in June 2013 and was able to jump immediately into a previously applied for University of Auckland Faculty of Science Postdoctoral Fellowship. This one year award was given to Greg Holwell (also my PhD supervisor) to employ me as a postdoc to build up data in support of a new project that we were trying to get more funding for. Continuing on in Greg’s lab and at the same university as my PhD turned out to be hugely beneficial to me for a few reasons. One of the most important benefits was being able to have time to write up the major papers from my PhD thesis in a reasonably fast amount of time, without worrying about annoying a new boss. Of course I spent a lot of time laying the foundations for the new project on harvestmen weaponry, doing lab and field work, and supervising honours and masters students,  but I felt lucky to be granted valuable work hours to also get this writing done. As a side note, I think it should be ok for postdocs to work on some writing from previous stages of their career during work hours. Obviously your current project should be the major priority and most time spent on this. However, my experience so far has shown that I’ll always be writing up something from an earlier project, but I like to think this flows on and will benefit my current boss later when I am writing up my manuscripts at a time when he is no longer paying me. I have talked to other postdocs about this who strongly feel they should only work on those manuscripts after hours, but I think if you can negotiate some freedom around this with your employer then that would make life easier for you!

Another nice part about sticking around Auckland for a little longer was that I picked up a lecturing stint to cover another faculty member going on maternity leave. During this time I was able to gain loads of experience writing and delivering lectures, labs and a field trip for a reasonably large class (~175 students). I think this was a fantastic way to pick up more teaching skills, and it was nice to learn that I really enjoy that aspect of what would  become a major part of my job if I ever pick up a permanent faculty position.

After the end of my first one-year post doc I did two shorter term stints. A chance meeting with Prof Pat Backwell at ANU resulted in the invitation to visit her field site for 6 weeks in late 2014 and do a short-term paid project on fiddler crab behaviour. Although a short time in the field, I managed to help complete an older project with the agreement to write up the manuscript (trying to publish this now) as well as setting out my own experiment in the field (with mixed success). I also wrote and won a Kate Edger Postdoctoral Award which gave me 4 months of half-time salary over the 2014/2015 summer to work on a project that I wanted to get off the ground on weapon shape in anthribid weevils. These awards are designed for women who have recently finished a PhD and want to do a short-term project in the Auckland area. Again this wasn’t much time to get the project off the ground but I’m pleased to have some pilot data that I can use to develop this as a more robust project in the future.

In 2014 I was also writing or co-writing grant applications, most of which were not successful. Eventually though, I was offered a postdoc in A/Prof Daiqin Li‘s lab at NUS in Singapore and in the same week an Endeavour Research Fellowship to work at Deakin University with Dr Matthew Symonds. I chose to go to Singapore given it was an opportunity for several years of salary and research funding as opposed to the Endeavour which was a shorter 4-6 month research experience. More recently, after several years of trying, I managed to land a 3 year postdoc back in NZ via the Marsden Fund through a grant that Dr Greg Holwell and I wrote with our collaborators (Dr Glauco Machado at University of Sao Paulo, and Prof Gonzalo Giribet at Harvard University). Although this means skipping out on an extra year in Singapore, the time was right for my husband and I to move back to New Zealand so it has all worked out rather nicely.

I guess all this rambling is to show that there are lots of ways to put together a career in academia in Australasia (with jaunts to SE Asia!). It is definitely not easy and I know luck has played a significant role in where I’ve been so far, but I think if you are keen, creative about making new collaborations and finding opportunities, and doing good research then it is quite possible to make it work….at least for a few years!

What I’ve taken away from all of this so far:

  • Be brave about making connections with new people that you want to work with – knocking on Pat Backwell’s door on my visit through Canberra turned out to be a really fortuitous meeting for me!
  • Apply for lots of funds & jobs to increase your chances of success. I’ve had the advice to apply widely and worry later about whether you really want to take the position if you get an offer, but personally I like to only apply for things I realistically would take up.
  • If you are in a relationship, talk to your loved one about expectations of where in the world you both want to live/work, how to compromise and whether either of you are ok with living apart if need be. Set time limits. Another scientist I know made 6 month check in points with her husband when they were living apart to see if both were coping ok and if anything needed changing.
  • It’s hard to cope with the unknown that comes with going from short-term contract to short-term contract. I was lucky to have a supportive partner who had a full time job outside of academia during the periods where I wasn’t sure what would come next, and this certainly made me feel more secure financially. I tried to go with the flow about this with the thought in mind that if it really started to bother me and opportunities ran out I could look at other options outside of academia (i.e. government agencies, consultancies, teaching). I also talked a lot with my mentors and other postdoc friends to bounce ideas and reduce the anxiety.
  • A possibly negative aspect of my dabbling in various shorter-term projects is that I haven’t really been able to sink my teeth into a larger scale project and get bigger and better publications. I’ve had a lot of fun hopping around the place but output productivity is something to consider when taking on smaller contracts. I’m hoping my next, longer postdoc will allow me to develop my longer term research plans.

Below are some suggestions for grants and ways to find postdocs in Australasia. This list is by no means complete as these are just the options that I am currently aware of and have applied for or considered myself. They are aimed at earlier career researchers, rather than postdocs further down the line (so less than ~5 years post-PhD). I’ve got a mix here of bigger awards, as well as some of the smaller pots of cash that I’ve applied for over the last couple of years. Obviously this ignores all the possibilities for jobs away from Australasia, but hopefully it is helpful to those that might want to come and work down under, or for those that want to stick around the region.

Nationwide awards (Australia & NZ)

Rutherford Foundation New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowships: Two year-long funding, $75,000 per year salary + $10,000 research funding.

Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) Australia: Up to three years of salary + research funds for the awardee, up to 5 years post-PhD and can only apply twice – so best to apply for these once already quite competitive!

Marsden Fund Fast Starts: (NZ) Supports researchers already employed at a University of research institute, although you can negotiate for an institute to host you during the award period. Up to $100,000 per year for 3 years, up to 7 years post-PhD. Go here for the 2016 application details.

Australian Museum Chadwick Biodiversity Fellowship: (Australia) Two years of salary + research funding, must be an Australian citizen. There are a few other fellowships offered by the Australian museum too.

Australian Biological Resources Study Research Grants: (Australia) Three year grants. Can support a postdoctoral fellow + research funding but requires co-funding from another source to support application.

Ian Potter Foundation: (Australia) Large grants of $100,000+

University postdoctoral schemes (a couple of examples)

Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellowship: Deakin University, Melbourne, Two years of salary + $10,000 research funding.

Macquarie University Research Fellowships: Sydney, Australia, Three years salary.

Quite a few other Australian universities offer their own postdoctoral fellowship scheme. I can recommend checking out Professor Scott Keogh’s fantastic & helpful list of postdoc opportunities on his website. It’s worthwhile to note that university postdocs usually require sponsorship from a faculty member that you want to work with, but I’ve often heard that staff can only support one applicant per funding round. Get in touch early with the person you want to work!

Smaller pots of cash (sometimes with small stipends)

Endeavour Research Fellowship: One round opening in April, closing in June(?) each year, up to AUD$24,500 of stipend and travel funding. Good for Aussies wanting to go abroad for a few months or for postdocs from other countries wanting to visit Australia.

Fullbright Scholar Awards: Various awards for Kiwis & Aussies to go to the USA or vice versa for short research/teaching stints.

Australia & Pacific Science Foundation: up to $15,000 research funding per year for 3 years to do a project in Australasia. Not a salary but great for funding the project itself.

Hermon Slade Foundation: up to $30,000 per year for up to 3 years for research in Australia at Australian institutions. Generally not used as salary for research staff or students but can employ a technician.

Australian National Geographic: project sponsorship of up to $15,000 + the Nancy Bird Walton sponsorship for female adventurers ($5,000)/

National Geographic: various awards for research around USD$15-$20,000 for research projects, no salary.

Mohammed Bin Sayed Conservation Grants: up to $25,000 to support conservation projects.

Also check out Dr Kate Umbers great list of smaller research funding opportunities. It’s also worth asking around your department or talking to faculty at other universities about small funding opportunities within the school that may offer some salary or cover research costs. These could tide you over between larger contracts.

Women in Science Awards

Kate Edger Trust Postdoctoral Award: Two rounds a year in February & July, NZD$16,000 research funds, part of which can be used as a stipend, for research in the Auckland area of NZ.

Zonta Science Award: Biannual award for New Zealand women in science, NZD$15,000 award + $3000 travel (NOTE: this one is closing really soon on 8th Feb 2016 if any women based in NZ are keen!)

L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Awards: Annual, 2016 round closes in April 2016, $25,000 one-year fellowships in NZ & Australia.

Websites and listserves to check out:

I can highly recommend signing up to alerts from EvolDir and Ecolog-L as these are a great source of opportunities for advertised postdoc jobs, usually funded by a PI who has won a large grant.

Lots of societies post job opportunities, so its good to join up to some relevant societies in your field. For example, I look after the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB) social media pages (Twitter & Facebook) and try to keep my eye out for postdocs and faculty jobs to share with our followers. We also post jobs on our website and through the mailing list too.

In general, if you are not already doing so, Twitter is one of the best places for spotting jobs and networking with other scientists – get onto it!

#### Please feel free to suggest other funding opportunities for postdocs in NZ & Australia and I’ll add them to the list here! ####