Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tax season is upon us!

Tax season is upon us! I wrote about the complicated business of filing taxes as a postdoc last year, and this post by Paul Krzyzanowski is very useful. Good luck everyone!

One fun wrinkle I've encountered this year is that people with a >$3000 tax bill (e.g., postdocs holding NSERC PDFs) for the current year plus either of the previous two years are required by the CRA to paying the next year's taxes in instalments, probably to avoid scenarios where us poor suckers haven't put anything aside all year.

However, if you're certain your next year's tax liability will be below $3000, it looks like you can safely ignore the notices the CRA will send you about this- since the PDF award is for two years, it's likely that most postdocs will not have to worry about this. You can read more about instalments here.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The chemistry of beer!

I was a guest on a podcast on the Chemistry of Beer (full disclosure: the host of the show, Talking Pints, is my brother Lewis Kelly). We talked about the chemistry of malt, hops and yeast! Also we were sampling the beers while discussing them, so I hope I didn't screw up any of the chemistry. Please let me know if I do!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Effective Strategies for creating Scientific Graphics

I'm giving a seminar to undergrad researchers at UBC today on "Effective strategies for creating scientific graphics". If you're interested, I also uploaded my presentation slides here:

 I also made a handout that summarizes the software/textbook/internet resources I've found useful that you can download here.

Everyone in science has their own set of tools to create graphics. I'd like to give a shoutout to gnuplot, a free, scriptable tool that I've found indispensable. You can see some of the amazing graphics people are making with gnuplot on the blog gnuplotting.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Survey of Canadian Postdocs

An organization I'm peripherally involved with (CAPS- the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars) just released a comprehensive survey of postdocs in Canada. It has some interesting findings that speak to the overlooked status of postdocs in research:

  • There are many, many more postdocs than there are faculty positions. 
  • 2/3 make less than $45,000, and many are unsatistified with their access to employment benefits
  • They are classified as independent contractors, employees, trainees or sometimes even students, depending on the institution and their funding source- this can make them ineligible for benefits such as the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP), Employment Insurance (EI), maternity leave, etc (I posted previously about the confusing way postdocs are taxed in Canada)
You can read some of the coverage on the survey here, here and here. (Press release)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Altmetric rankings

Humble brag: our group had two papers published in Angewandte Chemie recently! Both of them are about making different kinds of brilliantly iridescent polymer films through the self-assembly of nanocrystalline cellulose [1].


 In the first paper, we showed that we can make hydrogel composites using hydrophilic polymers such as polyacrylamide, which can swell when placed in water and change their color as a result. This can be used to make a coloured pattern (shown in the above image on the right), where one part of the film swells faster than the rest and changes its color as a result.

In the second paper, we made thermoset resin composites, and showed that we could remove the nanocrystalline cellulose to generate mesoporous plastics. These samples also have very interesting tunable optical properties!

(Unfortunately, you'll need a journal subscription to read the full text of those articles- if you are interested in learning more about them, leave a comment and I'll see what I can do to help!)

These were the first articles that I've published in Angewandte (a fairly prestigious journal for chemists), so I was very interested to see their Altmetric rankings- Altmetric is a new system that tracks "article level metrics as a way to measure the social impact of scholarly literature"- in other words, the audience each article receives on Twitter, Facebook and blogs.

I tweeted about each article (here and here) and was gratified to see that the Altmetric score for each paper increase (Angewandte also has a twitter account that tweets a link to each article). Surprisingly, this action alone was enough to raise the resulting Altmetric scores into the ~75th percentile of all articles ever tracked by Altmetric!

Then, a blog called Nanowerk wrote a post about our research, linking to both articles. This additional step was enough to raise the Altmetric scores into the 92nd and 95th percentile for all articles ever tracked by Altmetric! The articles are currently ranked 346th and 400th out of all Angewandte articles ever tracked by Altmetric, simply by a single tweet and a blog post. This tells me two things:

a) I'm a sucker for gamification of publication metrics (to be honest, I'm curious to see how this post might change my Altmetric scores; I'll update if there's any change see below!) , and

b) It doesn't really look like the Altmetric system is catching on yet, at least for chemistry journals. I don't know if Altmetric is being taken seriously as an additional way to evaluate scholarly research. I'd be very curious to see how Altmetric scores work for other disciplines, or for anyone else who has published in an Altmetric-tracked journal.

The ACS recently released their own article-level metrics platform, although those stats aren't public (yet?)- they will tell you the number of times each of your articles have been downloaded. I'm curious to see if there's any correlation between number of downloads and citations!

Update: Altmetric located this post within a day, and the scores went up by ~4 (reaching into the 96th percentile)- less than the effect of the Nanowerk post, but more than my tweets. I guess it might be possible that Nanowerk is recognized as more influential than my blog post, given that they actually post more than twice a year.

1. Nanocrystalline cellulose (or NCC) is also referred to as cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) or a bunch of other closely-related terms depending on who you talk to. It's super confusing, so recently the ISO decreed that cellulose nanocrystals was the term to use, which was after our hydrogel paper was submitted (and after I had spent a bunch of time making samples for the pretty pictures!), but before the resin paper was submitted. So that's why the papers have different titles.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

87 chemical reaction gifs

87 chemical reaction GIFs, from the consistently great and well named subreddit r/chemicalreactiongifs, such as this one featuring nitrogen triiodide:

Sunday, May 12, 2013

taxes, ugh

Taxes, man. Ugh!

Paying your taxes as a grad student here in Canada is fairly straightforward. You generally don't have very much money to be taxed, scholarships are tax-free,and you get to claim tax credits for tuition. Most students will find themselves with a decent refund after tax season. Which will probably be spent all on beer and nachos, thus stimulating our economy, and completing the circle of life for Canada's national bird, the loonie.

Since joining the ranks of the working world as a postdoc, I have come to the cold, nasty realization that taxes are actually kind of a huge pain in the butt to deal with. Now, I fully concede that taxes are A Thing That Adults Do. But the system seems especially confusing for postdocs! This is because of three reasons:

1. Postdocs in Canada are a transient, heterogeneous and tiny group- every postdoc is supported through wildly different fellowships or grants, and the nature of the job changes quite a bit between supervisors, universities and disciplines, etc. In fact, there's quite a bit of uncertainty across Canadian universities whether or not if postdocs should be classified as employees, trainees or independent contractor, which can complicate the tax situation quite a bit. Postdocs are only around for a few years, tops, and are generally focused on moving onto the next step as quickly as possible-- there are some university/departmental resources for postdocs to access for things like tax advice, but nothing comparable to what's offered to students.

2. Due in part to the complexity of taxation issue for postdocs, the funding agency that gives me my salary for my fellowship (the National Science and Engineering Research Council, NSERC) sends me my salary in 6 month chunks, with absolutely nothing deducted from it. No federal or provincial income tax, no unemployment insurance (EI), no Canada Pension Plan (CPP). It's a pretty sweet feeling to hand a bank teller a giant cheque like that (and seems to always garner some excellent customer service...), but it's 100% up to the postdoc to figure out how much money to set aside to pay their taxes and make sure they budget the rest to last the whole 6 months. I have a few friends who had no idea they were supposed to save anything for their taxes and had to scramble to cover their tax debts.

3. A few years ago, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) ruled that all student fellowships are tax free, whereas postdoc fellowships are fully taxable (before that, some postdocs did not pay any taxes!). The net result is that an NSERC-supported postdoctoral fellow receives less take-home salary than an NSERC-supported PhD student with a Canada Graduate Scholarship, which is kind of crazy (especially considering that many universities top up CGS students to cover tuition, etc.). The thing is, NSERC (or any of the other government funding agencies such as CIHR, SSHRC, etc.) didn't decide this-- the CRA did. NSERC and the CRA aren't the same entity, despite their peripheral relationship-- it's like complaining to the bookstore that your professor picked a terrible textbook for your class. As much as I like to complain about stupid issues in academia, I much preferred figuring out what I needed to do and executing my plan.

Having filed my taxes for 2012, I offer the following tips for any other postdocs in a similar position. This isn't intended as actual legal tax advice (or am I anything close to a qualified accountant), only as a guide to get you started. If you are concerned about your tax situation, it may be worth your while to call the CRA (who are typically exceedingly helpful) or consult with an actual accountant who actually knows what they are doing.

 Tax Tips for Tricouncil-Supported Postdoctoral Fellows (e.g., NSERC, CIHR & SSHRC):

1. Plan ahead! As soon as you get your salary cheque, set aside the money that you think you'll need to pay your taxes. Add a little extra just to be sure. I saved $7,500 ($3,750 per cheque), (based on this calculator) and put it in a separate account with PC Financial, a no-fee banking account that gives pretty good interest (right now they're offering 2.6%, which will net you ~$150 or so for your patience). You may also be on the hook for any taxable benefits that your supervisor pays (such as vision/dental) which are harder to predict. Setting aside the money ahead of time means you won't have to worry come April.

 2. Make sure you know your employment status at your university! It seems like every university in Canada classifies their postdocs differently. Check with the Human Resources department at your school, or if your school has them, with your Postdoctoral Association, postdoc union or Postdoctoral Fellow's Office (I've linked the corresponding sites for the University of British Columbia that were helpful for me). At UBC, my fellowship means I'm designated as a trainee, which renders me ineligible for programs such as EI and CPP. Which is kind of crappy if I think about it too much, but also means I don't have to pay any extra taxes- this would probably be about an extra ~7% or so.

3. If you did your PhD in Canada, you may be eligible to claim tuition tax credits, which you can find out from last year's return. This may save you a ton of money, but sadly it will likely be the last year you'll ever get to claim them, boo.

 4. If you moved to take up your postdoc, you may be eligible to claim moving expenses as long as they weren't reimbursed by your department. Be forewarned that the CRA is very likely to audit your return if you claim moving expenses, so make sure you have all of your documentation on file. I got audited for my move last year, and it was a hassle, but didn't cost me anything extra.

 5. I prepared my return using the well-designed and free SimpleTax-- I'm sure the other software out there is also good.

 If I've got anything wrong with these tips, or if you have any advice of your own for postdocs filing their taxes, please let me know in the comments!