Scientific Writing Tips

Writing is one of those skills that is useful in almost any profession.  Turning a blank page into a first draft is a daunting task, this is especially true in a scientific context because a high value is placed on accurate and precise prose, but it also needs to be easy to read and understand.

In 2017, I co-authored 10 scientific publications and played a major role in the writing of many of these. By far the largest work among these was the monograph on cucurbiturils. During this time, I found and tried many writing tips and techniques. Those that I found most useful are given below.

  1. Make a good outline

The writing process consists of three steps: outlining, prose construction, and editing. Each of these steps is quite intensive and should be focused on individually.  The most important of these is the outline. George Whitesides (one of the most prolific chemists ever) detailed his groups’ approach to writing manuscripts in his paper, ‘Whitesides group: Writing a paper’ and preparing an outline is key. The group I currently work in has some Whitesides alumni in it, and we use their system to great effect. The major advantage of this approach is that it allows you to collect your thoughts at a high level, arrange and re-arrange them before you begin writing. A good outline will give you the story, and make the prose much easier to write. In technical papers, a good outline gives you a bird’s eye view of the story that can help you see where the gaps are, and what the story’s strengths and weakness are. The outline should be written as early as possible so you can see where the missing data are, and see if a more compelling demonstration is needed to convince the reader of the usefulness of your science.

  1. The first draft doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done

Prose construction and editing are both difficult skills and require different mindsets. Usually, attempting to write the perfect first draft (or even a perfect sentence) is challenging and progress will be very slow. It is far easier to come back to a first draft -no matter how messy- than it is to a blank page.

  1. Set a word target and try and hit it every day

I set myself a word target every day, I didn’t care too much about the quality of those words, as long as they represented some coherent thoughts. I also set a target for the number of words or sections that I wanted to edit on a given day

  1. Write in short sentences

Short sentences are easier to understand, especially when complex concepts are being discussed. A good rule of thumb is 30-35 words. If you think that this might make your writing too simplistic, remember that no one ever complains about something being too easy to understand!

  1. Write in your own voice

Christopher Hitchens wrote that “if something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading.” Most people can speak more fluently than they can write, so writing the words as if you were speaking them is one way that you can get words from your head and onto the page. Afterwards, you can polish these words into a better piece of prose. On a related note, reaching for the thesaurus at every opportunity can make your writing difficult to read. Good writing has a rhythm to it; words that are not naturally in your vocabulary somehow don’t quite fit and that disrupts the rhythm of the writing.

  1. Don’t overuse the thesaurus

Sometimes the overuse of words can make writing repetitive and boring. However, using different words to describe the same concept or phenomenon in different ways in the same text can be confusing. The question you have to ask is: Are you trying to make something more readable by sacrificing clarity? Clarity is usually more important.

  1. Write at times that suit you

I find that fresh eyes in the morning are better suited to the surgical work of proofreading and editing. Later in the day, perhaps when inhibitions are reduced due to tiredness, prose construction is easier and the words tend to flow more freely. For you, It might be the case that words flow in the morning, and you are a better proofreader in the afternoon. Take note of what works for you and plan your day accordingly.

  1. Proofreading techniques

Without a doubt, the best way to get some critical feedback is to have someone else read your draft. However, there are some proof-reading tricks that you can do yourself. Among these, the most useful for me was to read the writing in a different medium to the one I wrote it. For example, if I wrote on a computer, I would proofread a hard copy. Or for relatively small chunks of text, I would email to myself and read on a phone. Every time I read the text through a different medium, I would see something different.  Reading out loud is also a good technique to proofread a paragraph. You can also make a computer read a sentence back to you, albeit in a clunky machine voice.

  1. Use resources

There are better spelling and grammar checkers available than Word’s inbuilt one. Grammarly, for example, does a great job of catching spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. The Stanford writing course, ‘writing in the sciences’ is a free online course you can register for that has a lot of tips on how to revise and edit a first draft; it also facilitates practice exercises and peer feedback.


New Paper: Enrichment of Specifically Labeled Protein Using an Immobilized Host Molecule

A paper detailing some of the work that I have been doing in Korea has recently been published in Angewandte Chemie.

The paper describes how high affinity host-guest complexes can be used in proteomic studies to enrich target proteins. The synthetic host-guest complexes have similar affinity to high affinity complexes typically used in the life sciences (Biotin-streptavidin). Unlike the protein based complexes, the synthetic system can be dissociated under mild conditions simply by adding a higher affinity guest.



The Cost of Living in Korea as a Postdoc

Korea is much, much cheaper. Things just cost less out here. From public transport, eating out, health care. The quality might not be quite as high as some places in the West, but it is still good. Korea is certainly a little ‘rougher around the edges’, but in my opinion, the cost of living to quality of life is far better value out here. I can save around 2/3 of my paycheck most months, even when I eat out and travel.

Let’s look at some examples of where Korea’s cost of living is much cheaper than the in the West: Source for the numbers (I think these are quite Seoul-centric) and my personal experience. Numbers are in Korean Won, or USD (rule of thumb W 1000 = $1)

 Housing and utilities:  

Apartment rent is quite cheap, a single bedroom apartment in a city it can be around W 600,000 / month, less in smaller cities. In my experience, it’s a little cheaper than that, closer to W 300,000. On campus housing is cheaper still.

Utilities are quite cheap around W150, 000 per month according to the figures from Numbeo. I think that’s pretty reasonable compared the West. In my experience campus housing, usually bills you for rent and utilities together, I pay less than W 300 000 /month.

The one thing that is a little different is the deposit (Key money) which can be several thousand dollars, but like a deposit you get it back at the end of the tenancy.

Eating out

Korean food is usually less than 10, 000 per serving for most restaurants, Western food and more upmarket restaurants will set you back a bit more. If you eat mostly Korean, you will eat much cheaper. Beer is at most W 5000 for 0.5L bottle.

Public transport

The local buses are very cheap, you pay a single fare no matter how far you travel and it’s only $1-$1.50 depending on the city.

Subway. Some of the larger cities have a subway and the cost is comparable to the buses.

Taxis are a little bit more expensive, but they are still cheaper than other parts of the world.

Slow trains are the cheapest way to get between cities, although it is quite slow and the schedule can be quite sparse.

Buses. There are two classes, the intercity and the express buses. The intercity buses are the easiest way to get around. They are cheap and regular (every 10 mins between some cities). The express buses are good for getting to and from Seoul (or Incheon airport), they can take a bit of time (up to 6 hours to get across the country but are reasonably priced).

KTX The fastest way to get around is the high-speed train, the KTX. It is expensive for Korea but is still reasonable compared to western countries (you can traverse the country for around $60, in three hours). There’s complimentary wi-fi, too.

If you prefer to use a car, that’s possible too. Gas is very cheap and you can often pick up used car for ~1-3 million won from another expat who’s leaving. Another thing to note is compacts qualify for discounted parking, tolls and gas.


Healthcare costs are subsided by your insurance (either national or employer). A simple doctor’s visit is around W 10, 000. The cost is not the major difference between healthcare here and the UK for example. Hospitals operate on a walk-in basis, and you’ll normally get seen by a doctor quickly. If not, another hospital is probably not too far away.


At the postdoc paygrade, income tax is 17% on everything after your first 10 million won. Other withholdings include pension contributions and health insurance. In total, withholdings are ~10% of the paycheck.

There are some things that are more expensive. These are mostly the imported or the seasonal goods. The cost of living is higher in Seoul, too.

Being a science PhD, your skill-set travels. Doing science is more or a less the same wherever you go in the world. So you can absolutely take into account economic considerations when deciding where you want to do a postdoc. The prestige of postdoc-ing in the US or some top labs in Europe means that there’s always going to be many more people trying to get in than there are jobs, which drives down your value. It’s a basic law of economics: Supply and demand.  There’s not much point in fighting against this, if you want to make maximum economic benefit from your skills, then you need to go look for where demand is high and or supply is low.

You can reach out to me if you have any questions about living and working in Korea as a scientist.

How to get a job as a postdoc in South Korea

Traveling from the West to the Asia is not the typical postdoc route, but there are opportunities to be found in the far east.

Traveling from the west to the far east is not the typical postdoc experience so there isn’t that many established routes. You don’t often see Korean universities posting on job boards for example.

Despite the high level of education of South Korea, they have a manpower shortage for PhD level chemists. This is beneficial for two reasons: Firstly, it’s likely that a prospective PI has money to hire you, particularly if they are established. Secondly, the financial compensation is much better than it would be in most cases in the US or Europe. There will be a later post on the cost of living in Korea and how that compares to the West.

Here is a step-by-step guide of how I got a job in Korea.


The Institute for Basic Science is a Korean government-funded research institute centered in Daejeon but has campuses all over Korea. It currently has 26 centers, each with a specialization, these centers are given an annual budget (so they don’t have to worry about applying for external funding) and are headed by a world leader in the field. There are several ways in which one can join the IBS. They have a job board, a young scientist scheme, and a talent pool where you can upload your CV. Indeed, this is the route I went down. If you have a group in mind it may well be worth an email and see what they say. There are several other research funding sources in Korea, so even if they are not an IBS center they may well still be able to support you.  When selecting a group, one thing I would recommend is looking at how many international students or postdocs there are, or have recently been, in the group. Many groups conduct their business in English, but it’s not always the case. You’ll probably have more luck and, ultimately, a better experience if it’s a group that is experienced in hosting international researchers.


Soon after uploading my CV I was contacted by the IBS center I now work at, and we arranged a skype interview. The interview process was much like a western one, i.e. there was a presentation of previous research and questions associated with that, career aspirations etc. Don’t be surprised if you get asked more personal questions, such as age and marital status. After the interview, they asked for a letter of recommendation and after they collected those I was offered a position soon after.

Visa process.

Researchers are granted an E3 (research) visa, these are very straightforward to acquire once you have a job offer from an institution in Korea. The research institute will likely handle most of it for you. It is certainly the case with the IBS. The only thing that you need to supply is copies of your qualification certificates; there is no background or criminal record checks for the E3 visa. Your employer will apply for your visa issuance number which you then put on your visa application form and apply at an embassy, usually in your home country. Another consideration is that, unless you are married to a Korean, spouses can’t work on a spouse visa; they will need their own.


I can only speak for the university I work at it but it seems to be quite normal for the university to offer on-campus housing. If this is the case, then your host university will take care of that.

That’s the process that I went through, if you have any questions about it, feel free to reach out!