I will soon be graduating. It’s time to focus on wrapping up my thesis, and to leave the field open to new astrobiters to step in. So I am retiring as a regular writer; this is my very last contribution. I wanted to make it special. I spent a few hours trying to find an impressive result that had not yet been covered on Astrobites. However, we are (proudly) very thorough. Latest impactful results were of course already explored (such as a visitor from outer space, or the possibility to sail to other worlds). Then I realised that the best way to make my last contribution special was to write something that only I could write.
Today’s post summarises a few things that I have learned during my two years as an astrobiter. This list is of course not exhaustive, I bet other astrobiters would have brilliant lessons to add based on their own experiences (and I hope they do in the comments!). It only contains a few things that I believe made me a better researcher, and that I hope will also be useful to other people starting to climb the ladder of research life.
Be bold, and stay optimistic
When I applied for Astrobites I thought it was a long shot. English is not my first language, and I couldn’t speak it fluently until I was already halfway through my undergrad. Writing was an even greater challenge, so I feared I wasn’t yet good enough. Still, I wrote my piece, sent it over, and hoped for the best. I had nothing to lose. In this case, it payed off, and here I am. It won’t always be like that, of course. I am now boldly applying for postdoc positions, and I have already gotten quite a few rejection letters. However, I only got them because, first of all, I applied. If I hadn’t done that, my chances would have been zero. I wouldn’t even have gotten a rejection letter, and I wouldn’t know that I have to work more on my application. My unexpected success when I applied for Astrobites taught me to always try, even if I don’t think my chances are the best. It sometimes pays off.
Check astro-ph everyday
One of the hardest things for me as an astrobiter was to choose the paper about which I was going to write. I couldn’t simply wait for something to appear in the news. I had to decide for myself what was important and what was not. And not only for myself or for my research, but for other young researchers out there too. In order to be able to do that, I started to be very keen on doing something my supervisor always told me I should: check astro-ph everyday. It often happened that, when I had a meeting with him, he would comment “have you seen this cool paper with that awesome result that can be extremely useful to your ongoing research?”. The answer was more often “yes” than “no”, but, after I started being more rigorous about my daily astro-ph screening, the roles were actually swapped: I would ask my supervisor if he had seen that paper. It happened more and more that I was the one bringing to his attention something he had missed. This habit that started because of my struggle to always have a nice paper to write about ended up being one of the things that made grow the most as a researcher.
There’s more than one way to read a paper
There’s so many papers on astro-ph everyday; how to keep up with it? Some notions about this are quite obvious: first read the title, if it sounds interesting to you, read the abstract. Still interested? Read the paper. But how do you read a paper? I asked this question a few years ago at a research group meeting, and surprisingly there were different answers. The most popular way, which is also the way I do it, is not the most obvious one. You don’t start by the introduction, especially if you’re reading in your own field. You start with the figures. They usually give you a very good notion of everything in the paper: sample selection, main results, models that work or don’t. After that, most people I talked to simply skip to the conclusions. Usually that is enough to tell you what is new about that paper. If upon reading that you notice something specific, like a new technique about which you want to learn more, you go back and read about it. Or, in my case, if the results sounded interesting enough, I went back and read it all to write a thorough astrobite. The lesson is: don’t worry about reading every paper you come by from beginning to end. Chances are you won’t remember it all anyway. Find the best reading technique that works for you, don’t invest so much time in one single paper, and you’ll be able to read more.
Keep up to date on other fields
Sometimes when I was out of ideas about what to write, I would turn to a colleague and ask them if they had seen any cool papers recently. Not only if they were working on my favourite things, but also, and even preferably, if they worked in a field which was far from my main interests. That didn’t always help me find a paper to write my astrobite on, but it surely helped me learn more about what is going on out there. That is important not only to help you answer all the questions your relatives may have asked you this Christmas starting with “so, you’re an astronomer, right?”, but also because, even if the results themselves do not apply to your research, the analysis might. Something that someone originally designed for analysing galaxies might be very helpful for a stellar astronomer. Techniques are not restricted to a field. Even the telescope was not initially meant for astronomy, and what would be of us now without it?
Hopefully these lessons are helpful! Now that I have passed them on I can focus on procrastinating my thesis. I mean, writing my thesis. I hope you all enjoyed reading my astrobites as much as I enjoyed writing them! So long, and thanks for all the fish.