A name to recognise

To get ahead in science I recommend you take a distinctive name

Any one who publishes will know that they want their name to stand out among the crowd and be unique to them. If you set up an email account or use twitter you have probably invented a name for yourself.  

I changed my name when I started publishing science articles when I was about 27 years old. Up until then I had three names: first, middle and last (surname).  My second (middle) name was the same middle name as my two sibblings, my father and a couple of cousins. The name came from my great-grandfather who was Rev. Morgan Richards. He married a girl with the surname Morgan and they then used it as a middle name for their two sons. The elder, my grandfather, and his elder son carried on the tradition. Providing me with a middle name that was also a ‘family’ name.

There are many reasons why it helps to have an unusual name. For a career in science it does help to be easily found and cited. You don’t want your views confused with the crazy professor and you do want to be contacted for the opportunity to give a keynote speech at an international conference in Madeira. Try searching the world-wide-web and see how many people share your name. When I narrowed my search down just to people who write in science journals, my double-barrelled last name was unique.

Searching using the author tool in the “scopus” database finds many people (authors) with the same name

When I was looking back over 25-years of Molecular Ecology meetings in NZ I tried to find where the original participants had moved to. Some people were easy to track down just because they had an interesting combination of initals, but many names were surpringly common.  I never did find the Luis Medrano, Alex Quinn or James Bower I was looking for.

Hyphen or not?

Initally I thought I’d emulate John Maynard Smith and have a double surname without a hyphen – but it was hard to get other people to see the difference between John Maynard Smith and John Maynard Smith. Try using a software tool for formating and inserting references and you’ll see that the designers didn’t consider recognising Maynard Smith as a double barrelled surname.  So, I add the hyphen. 20 years later I had a student who tried to be B. Taylor Smith without a hyphen and she pullled it off for her first paper but then gave up and converted to Dr Taylor-Smith.

Over the years I became Dr Morgan-Richards and have never regetted it. I do feel its a pity both names come from my fathers side, but lots of people take their partner’s father’s name – so at least I’m related to both originals.  My mother’s father’s name is ‘Wild’ which might have been more fun to play with but would I have choosen to be so close to the end of the alphabet?  There are still plenty of lists when the Abbots come long before the Witches. And you don’t want to queue for research funding with a name at the end of the list.  

Family names

Some people like the idea of sharing a surname – even one that is quite boring. And if the guy is ready to change his name to her name then that feels like an imbalance is being redressed. At the school gate you’ll be able to match child with parent using just their last name but I think there must be better ways to do that. Once you are famous you’ll probably want to keep your own name but creating a new double barrel surname that you both use is a great solution if the names are short – I think the kids of Dr Charlesworth and Dr Pattabiraman might not thank their parents for creating a unique mouthful of a last name. One of my good friends gave her first born child her husband’s surname, and gave her second child her own surname. That way each offspring had one parent easily identifed on letters to the school (e.g. please excuse little Moana from class today…. signed person with the same surname (must be mother/father)).

I could have formally changed my name at no cost when I got married in 2000 – don’t know why I didn’t. I blame baby-brain. The only time it mattered was getting airline tickets in the same name as that on my passport – and that really does matter. So, I paid to changed my name some years later.  Now its offical and I’ve been using this name for almost 30 years- but that doesn’t change how my mother and sister and sister-in-law address their letters to me. You can put an interesting name on a girl but you can’t change her family. 

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