Early career questions: Is writing a book review really worth it?

You probably agree that writing book reviews is a worst of time. Why spend a month critically reading a book, and then another week or two writing a review that will never be cited or counted as a scientific publication? You probably should have written an original research article or finished your experiments. However, book reviews deserve a better PR because they serve as an important resource for a busy faculty and a curious public.

Advising an early career researcher who had just written a book reviewer, Karen Kelsky wrote, “The important thing is that you don’t write any more.” She continued, “The problem with book reviews at your stage is opportunity cost. While you’re writing the review, you’re not writing the peer-reviewed publication that will actually count.”

I agreed with Karen Kelsky’s position. Until a family friend recommended me a book that was a deceptive pseudoscience quagmire. The writer of the book claimed he knew numerous natural treatments for cancer. And the US government did too, but didn’t want to disclose them last the big bucks in big pharma get ruined.

Sadly, my friend thought the claims were true. He wanted the miracle herb. After reading the book, I told him my thoughts – the book was rubbish. And using my little knowledge on cancer development, I pointed out the shortcomings of the book.

I’m sure he was disappointed. After all, who doesn’t want a miracle drug? Despite his disappointment, I’m glad I used my knowledge of the philosophy of science and mechanisms of toxicity to help him. Of course, my informal review of Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures will probably never appear on my resume. And I’m sure it will never count on tenure. But that book review, helped a person who was on the verge of being deceived.

Isn’t that the purpose of book reviews; fostering accessibility while promoting scientific integrity?

Writing a book review: My journey

A couple of months ago, I decided to write my first book review on climate change. As an African, climate change is a serious issue because we’re the ones who are going to be the worst affected. I contacted the book review editor at Science if they would consider my book review. They couldn’t because they had scheduled for the whole year. My inquiry on possible submission in 2018 went unanswered.

Since my book review was on climate change, I decided to submit it to Climate Change Journal. The editor told me they ‘consider book reviews by invitation only, and only those contributions which provide insight or stimulate discourse beyond a limited review are successful.’ I thought my review was up to scratch. It wasn’t, the editor rejected it because it was ‘too straight forward.’

I don’t consider the rejection a loss but I lesson. Because the next book review I wrote I made sure it provided insight and stimulated serious discourse. I submitted the review to Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management and it was accepted. There were two other books on climate change I wanted to review separately, but the editor advised me to consider a combined book review where I compare and contrast the two books. I loved it. And it was accepted too.

Working with book review editors helped me to become a better writer. But the best lesson came from the editor who rejected my book – a book review should provide insight and stimulate discussion. Doing that might take a lot of time, but I’m convinced it’s worth it. After all, even professors busy with research need book reviews for their own books and the ones they want to use in their classrooms.

Let me end this by quoting the wise words of Gary Natriello:

Reviewing books is truly a service to the community of scholars. Those who prepare careful reviews should be commended for their efforts. If all of us take the time to review books now and then, the resulting catalog of reviews will offer an efficient entre into our growing literature.

Image by Giammarco Boscaro

Early career research path: Walking in the jungle without a compass

I recently discovered that mapping a career path as a researcher is like walking through the jungle.

Some forests have beautiful roads adorned with scenic views, and even have a convenience store. But others, well, they are jungles – no roads just a plain old fashioned jungle.

A few weeks before my wedding, my brother and I walked through such a jungle. This is what happened.

My brother and I visited my aunt at her village. I was a teaching assistant and adjunct faculty at a college in Bulawayo, so I had to go back the following day. Unfortunately, my brother and I slept late and we missed the bus. And that meant we had to walk for about 30 miles to the nearest growth point.

At first, we followed the winding gravel road hoping to find a car heading to Karoi. We walked for more than ten miles and there was nothing. Exhausted, we decided to abandon the fancy road for the jungle. After all, we knew the direction we were had to take to reach the nearest growth point.

After walking for more than four hours, I was hungry and tired. Luckily, there were lots of mazhanje (brown berries) that season. So, after walking for an hour or so, we would eat mazhanje. But the problem with mazhanje is they make you thirsty.

Fortunately, we found a grocery store and asked for water. The shop attendant refused. The borehole was far and she couldn’t sacrifice her water for us. I understood. What else could I do.

We walked for another mile and found a homestead where folks were there. It was the farming season, most people had gone to their fields. My brother asked for water and they gladly gave us. But they forgot to clean the cup or cover the water container. There were floating dead cockroaches inside the cup. I drank the water.

As I look at my career prospects today, that tragic trip with my brother comes into my mind. Unfortunately, on this trip I have a wife and two kids who never never volunteered for a crazy trip.

Sometimes, I am filled with envy as I watch my peers getting better opportunities. Their graduate supervisor helped them find a postdoc or faculty position, appointed them an associate editor or board member at a high impact factor journal, and even recognized their effort in most of the research groups publications through co-authorship. They are walking through the jungle on a paved road lined up with convenient stores.

My case is different. I have to create my own opportunities. This is why I have sent probably 2,000 job application letters. This is why I wrote book chapters thinking that they were considered for tenure. I have even written book reviews. I am just trying to dig up a road through a dense forest.

Once or twice a week, I commit myself to writing a peer review report. I’m really serious about peer review. Because I heard when you’re a good peer review, the editors might consider you for associate editor or editorial board membership appointments. I don’t know but I will keep on trying everything and see what works.

I have met people who are worse than the shop attendant in this jungle. On numerous occasions, I rewrote manuscripts for peers. They would go on to submit the manuscripts, and they got published. But my name would not be on the authors list, or even the acknowledgement – an unwitting ghost author. It’s a jungle out there.

I have realized that no one is going to come to me and tell me what I should do if I want a career in academia. I know there are numerous books and blogs about securing tenure after PhD. But none of them are for an African researcher working in a foreign land. It’s a jungle out there.

Image by Kiwihug

My wife sacrificed her career for me: early career researcher confession

My wife sacrificed her career for me to become an early career researcher. And I’m not sure if it was worth it. I am currently a postdoc in South East Asia. But my story begins in January 2011.

Shortly after our honeymoon, I received a call from the US consulate public affairs office. “Congratulations, you are a 2011 recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship.” I always wanted to study in America. And I always wanted to be a professor. My dream was fast becoming a reality.

What about my wife? I had been married to Surprise for less than a month and I was about to tell her that I was leaving for America. In our perfect dream, America was a land of opportunities; I will go there, save money for her air ticket, and she would join me shortly after.

As someone who grew up in extreme poverty, saving from my $1200 Fulbright stipend wasn’t hard. In three months, I had enough money to buy the ticket and my bank statement had enough balance to act as proof of financial support. So Surprise went for the US visa interview, excited that she was finally going to be with me.

My wife’s visa application was rejected. I was dejected. The consular made me chase a white rabbit. And I lost more than $2,000 in the process. He knew I was a Fulbright Fellow earning peanuts while leaving in the most expensive state. There are some sadistic people out there.

On first visit, the consular said he could only give Surprise a visa if she had a proof of insurance cover. I bought the J2 health insurance from Seven Corners. And I lost $1,000 in the process.

The consular changed his mind, he demanded a letter from a doctor who would attend to Surprise in the US. She was pregnant. I found the doctor, but he said he can only make that recommendation if he did a physical examination of Surprise. I gave up. My wife gave up.

Surprise finally joined me seven months later. My wife had a teaching qualification from Zimbabwe but didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. For several months, we searched for cheap colleges but couldn’t find any.

Reality finally struck, we were too poor to afford college. My Fulbright stipend wasn’t enough for one person, but we were a family of three. And soon enough, we were four. At that moment, my wife shelved her dream and took up a jobs in retail; Kmart, Ross, and even at an Amazon Fulfillment Center.

Our family life became non-existent. Surprise kept two jobs for us to survive. She left the house at 5 am, drove an hour to Amazon, break her back packing or retrieving orders. Around 5pm5 pm, she would drive for an hour to Kmart. Most of the times, she would stagger home at almost midnight.

My wife was exhausted all the time, but I felt terrible. Our dream had become a nightmare. But I had hope. We had hope. After I receiving my PhD, I was going to get a good job. Surprise would go back to college and get her bachelor’s degree in education or psychology.

I got my PhD but didn’t get a job. One thousand three hundred applications, five months, and one job interview later, I got a job at a university in Zimbabwe. The salary was modest, but the country’s economy was showing signs of fatigue.

After working for two semesters, my family left Zimbabwe for China. I took up a job as a postdoc hoping to publish enough articles so that I could easily get a faculty position. Again, my wife applied for undergrad at universities in China. She got a place at one university, it was too far and priced out of our range.

My postdoc contract is for two years. Surprise is shelving her dreams for another two years. I want to settle down after the postdoc. I want to live in a country where my wife and kids can get a good education.

By now, my wife could be holding a master’s degree in education, seven years teaching experience, and a career. Fulbright might have paid for my grad school tuition using cash, my wife paid for my career by sacrificing her dream.

Image by Joanna Kosinska

Why early career researchers should care about teaching

Teaching is the art of enabling learning. For that reason, knowledge of the subject matter is not an adequate impetus to learning. A good teacher understands knowing how people learn is critical in facilitating learning. Sadly, many universities across the world are staffed by subject experts who have no formal training in higher education.

After completing my PhD studies in the US, I returned home and took a position as a lecturer. I enjoyed teaching but there was one problem; I had no idea how students learn. Of course, like most instructors in higher education, I knew how I learned. And I assumed that’s how everyone else learned.

No one taught me how to prepare course materials that addressed the learning objectives. But I had to. No one showed me how to draft a course schedule that guarantees students would master the subject content. But I had to. Importantly, no one showed me how to create a lesson plan, deliver a lecture or assess the students’ performance. But I had to.

Each day, as I stood in front of my zealous students, I became more aware of my inadequacy. My students deserved better. Although I had an impressive resume, a Fulbright Fellow, numerous awards, and a couple of papers in reputable journals, I had zero qualifications in education. How would I enable learning if I didn’t know how people learned?

I had to learn how people learn.

1. Enroll for a postgraduate certificate in higher education

After teaching in Zimbabwe for one academic year, I decided to take a postdoc position. It has been a year now since I started my postdoc. In January, I enrolled for a postgraduate certificate in higher education at Falmouth University. I realized that if I want to return to the classroom, I had to be better equipped.

2. Take online classes on teaching

They’re numerous MOOCs offering courses on teaching for free. During the Christmas holidays, I enrolled for a class on inclusive learning offered by University of Southampton at FutureLearn. The good news was studying for a certificate was free for learners in developing nations.

3. Take advantage of the free faculty prep courses on your campus

When I was doing my PhD at the University of California Riverside, I failed to enroll for the certificate in university teaching. I regret it because I ended up getting a postdoc at university that didn’t offer the certificate. Some universities offer it, and it’s probably wise enrolling in the course.

4. Reflect on your teaching practice

One of the best ways to learn how people learn is by stopping and reflecting on your practice. I learned this during in my PGCHE class. In the past week, I went back to an online discussion and peer review assignment I gave my students when I was still a lecturer. Reading the comments, I learned a lot about student engagement. I never realized I was sitting on a gold mine all along.

There’s much to learn, and even more when it comes to learn about learning. As an early career researcher, you probably need to learn about learning if you want to be an academic. I know the jobs in academia are scarce, but it never hurts to learn. Does it?