Getting The Most Out Of Conferences: How Not To Suck In Graduate School

SR Shaw

Professional conferences are strange activities. We travel long distances and at great expense (sometimes personal expense) to participate in what is often a glorified middle school science fair. Sometimes we are nervous about putting up our posters, playing Vanna White as we try to draw attention to our work while conference goers walk by, afraid to make eye contact. Other times we are semi-terrified to have the opportunity to engage in public speaking to an army of critical or supportive colleagues. We often go to listen to super impressive rock star colleagues hold court in a two-star hotel ballroom and then later at happy hour. It is nice to catch up with friends and colleagues. For the most part, professional conferences are a good opportunity to escape from the day- to-day work and have a nice time. Conferences are also essential career opportunities.

As a disclaimer, I do not tend to like conferences much anymore. I am quite introverted and often need to retreat to my hotel room to rest and recover at some point in the middle of the day. At about midway through the second day of the conference, I am ready to go home. I do not find most of the breakout talks interesting and the keynotes are about 90% entertainment and 10% information. At this point in my career, I do not have to go conferences and only go if there is a specific purpose for my attendance. Often, I go because someone is paying me to do a talk or I am doing a favour for a friend. Other times, I attend to have dinner with a friend or engage in a happy hour working session with a colleague (I outlined 3 books with a colleague on napkins at a happy hour). And sometimes I go simply to support my students. I would say that I am now a reluctant attendee of conferences.

Graduate students and new scholars in the developing stages of their careers often must go to a few major conferences to make professional connections, to develop a positive reputation, and to disseminate research findings. Conferences are required and exciting for graduate students and early career researchers. No matter your career stage, level of misanthropy, or the norms of your profession; there are ways to make the most out of your professional experiences at conferences.

Agenda

Develop an agenda with at least five specific and actionable goals for your conference experience. The conference needs to forward your professional agenda or else there is no reason for attending. There are many specific goals that you can address: promote your research, sell books, have dinner with a former colleague, acquire partners and collaborators for the next grant project, establish yourself as a leader in the profession, to meet and speak with a leader in the field, or whatever. It really does not matter what your goals are. But setting an agenda creates a mindful approach to what you are doing at a conference and provides a structure for how you spend your time and energy. This does not mean that you should avoid spontaneous activities, opportunities to grab a coffee with a potential collaborator, or just having fun with colleagues; but a mindful agenda with specific and written goals helps make conferences useful professional activities.

Schedule

Most people make a personal conference schedule. The schedule should reflect your agenda. The hard part about conferences as they are not typically eight-hour days, but typically 12 to 14-hour days. In addition, be sure to make some allowance for any time changes. For example, I tend not to schedule a late night on the first day of a conference when I travel to the West Coast. Generally, you fill your calendar with your talks and meetings first; talks and poster sessions that you want to attend to see colleagues or support students; make breakfast, lunch, happy hour, dinner plans well in advance with people that you want to spend time with (do not forget to make reservations if necessary); some talks that you may be interested in hearing; meetings; and plans for rest, recovery, and naps.

Wedge In

Conferences are amazing opportunities to establish your name as a leader in your field. The Woody Allen phrase that 90% of life is just showing up truly applies to professional conferences. There are many important business meetings that take place at conferences, which are open to all conference goers. In many cases, these business meetings are actively seeking participants. For example, often journals have editorial board meetings at conferences and frequently these board meetings are open to the general membership. Show up, express interest, be productive, and instantly you are considered a research leader. Interest groups and policy-making groups are often similar. Graduate students are rarely dismissed as mere beginners, but are embraced as future leaders. It is inappropriate to crash these meetings that are closed to the general membership, but few are. This is a golden opportunity to wedge in and take a leadership position by simply showing up.

You can also establish yourself on a small scale by asking questions at research presentations. I tend not to ask questions of the presenter during the question time. I do not want to fluster an inexperienced presenter nor do I wish to directly challenge a senior researcher. I am just not a fan of trying to establish myself by pointing out a flaw in the research of a colleague in a public setting — I know some people live for this, but it just does not work for me. My preference is to wait until the talk is over and the presenter is packing up and asked them productive questions while walking out of the room together. This creates an informality, opportunity to exchange business cards, and have a chance for a productive give-and-take discussion. If it works well, ask the presenter out for a coffee. This is a way to wedge in to the discussion of top research.

Follow-Up

Conferences are like most meetings: about 30 % of the value of a conference is in the preparation and 50% is in the follow-up. Collecting business cards and having informal chats or drinks with colleagues is not especially useful unless it leads to something long-lasting. It is appropriate and necessary to follow-up by sending a simple email, ensuring that you send appropriate copies of papers to people who requested them, and otherwise continue to engage long after everyone flies home.

Summary

Conferences are strange professional and scientific gatherings. They are often confusing and intimidating for graduate students and early career researchers, but are often an expectation in the profession. It is easiest, most productive, and safest to have a clear and purposeful approach to your conference activities.

Also see:

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/academic-conferencing-dummies#survey-answer

https://nataliematosin.com/2015/09/09/resource-networking/

Advertisements

Developing Extra Skills: The Meta-Skills of How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

Graduate school is a force that sucks all your time and the very life force from your body. Each discipline has its own demands, whether they are classwork, clinical work, labs, teaching and grading, fieldwork, writing, or some combination thereof; and then there is the reading (oh, good Lord, the reading). I went from nine hours of sleep per night, heavy drinking, much socializing, with a job, and with a lot of hobbies as an undergraduate to a monk-like existence of little more than grad school and four hours of sleep per night. Not particularly healthy, but there it is. These are not even the frustrating and demoralizing parts of graduate school. To me, the worst part is that I was magically expected to have a set of skills that I did not learn as an undergraduate and was never sufficiently taught as a graduate student. As a professor, I see that the difference between okay students and outstanding students is their pursuit of extra skills, the meta-skills of being an effective graduate student. Although the specific skills vary across disciplines, every graduate student has extra skills to be learned. Rather than being accidental and due to some random experiences, the pursuit of extra skills is best met with mindful and strategic effort.

Nearly every graduate student has had the experience of meeting with their supervisor or PI and hearing, “I thought you knew how to do this.” Good supervisors tend to say, “Okay, let me teach you.” Poor supervisors tend to say, “That is disappointing. I need to find someone who knows how to do this.” This missing skill could be anything from a statistical procedure, assessment technique, lab procedure, ethics proposal formatting, giving feedback, writing skills, oral presentation, or some other specific skill. Usually we acquire the skills in such an ad hoc manner that we usually do not appreciate the skill development until we look back and simply label this as “experience.”

The most difficult part of any problem-solving process is identifying the problem. For new graduate students the hard part is that you do not know what you do not know. Rarely will a PI have a task analysis prepared consisting of the skills necessary to be successful in that lab. Although some professional programs have a list of competencies that need to be developed for professional success, those are typically incomplete. It is always worth checking with your PI, postdoc, or senior graduate student as to whether it is worth the effort to learn a specific extra skill; but the initiative will always be on you. That said here is the process and some common extra skills that are worth learning.

There is a good rule from Stephen Covey’s popular book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that some time needs to be invested in sharpening the saw. This is a form of professional development, skill acquisition, and self-improvement. Sharpening the saw does not only happen after graduation, but is part of graduate school as well. The general rule is to dedicate 10% of your work time to developing the extra skills that sharpen the saw. Therefore, figure a minimum of four hours per week planned and protected. I am not saying that this is easy — in fact, it is difficult and exhausting. But the ability to protect and use these four hours per week in a strategic approach to developing the meta-skills of graduate school will pay off.

Collective peer improvement sessions are fantastic ways to pool resources and priorities. Many students generate and hold journal club meetings, which are a form of developing extra skills. However, journal club meetings could just as easily be repurposed as coding lessons, organization, writing workshops, lab procedure tutorials, and so on. Working as a team can share the burden and validate the value of the extra skill being learned.

Most extra skill development will be via reading. There is already so much to read that it is overwhelming. Where do you start? I am of the mindset that breadth of skills and knowledge is extraordinarily important, and only a few subsets of knowledge need to be known in depth. For most areas of study, I recommend three domains of extra reading: methods, philosophical underpinnings, and history of your field of study. In nearly every field, a deep dive into the specifics and even minutia of methodology can present golden opportunities. At the least, methods are a tool box; and the more tools that you have the more questions you can answer. Philosophical underpinnings of any field can result in some pretty dry reading. But understanding the philosophy of science for the general context in which your field is situated can help to provide the big picture of your research. Finally, the history of your field is important to provide a temporal context and because many of us experience the ontology recapitulates phylogeny issue. Often, new graduate students think that they have come up with a brilliant novel research question when, in fact, that question was already asked and answered over 30 years ago. You will read the basics in your field through classroom work and suggested papers from your PI. But to be effective, you must go beyond. Focus on methods, philosophical underpinnings, and history are great places to start your literature search and extra readings.

Although the other extra skills vary across disciplines, here are some suggestions that have been helpful for me:

  • Finances and Bookkeeping. I am fortunate to have learned these skills as part of a part-time restaurant job I had as an undergraduate and during my first year of graduate school (I also learned to cook at this job). In my career, I have been a lead psychologist in a hospital setting where I was responsible for a budget. The success of grant writing is largely due to the ability to justify budgets. Universities always audit any component of the work that involves money or purchased goods. My elementary bookkeeping skills have served me well.
  • Programming and Software Development. Basic coding and programming skills are requirements for many fields of study. These needs will always be changing and evolving. Typically, once you understand the logic of language acquisition, it is easier to learn new skills along the way. I am now in the middle of learning the basics of R for statistical analysis. It reminds me of the old school approaches as we used in the late 1980s era SAS and LISREL, but far more flexible. That I have basic coding skills is quite likely making learning a new method easier than it would otherwise have been.
  • Social Media. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and others are second-languages for the current generation of graduate students. However, the ability to use these approaches (and website design and development) for branding, crowd sourcing information, finding and acquiring funding, inter-university collaboration, and international research sharing is a specific and mindful skill that is worth developing.
  • Organization and Planning. Carefully organizing limited time is not something that people are born with. It is worth learning the techniques for study skills, time management, self-care, and structured learning. There is no need to waste time reinventing the wheel, there are excellent approaches and techniques available. It is a good investment of time to develop a highly organized and strategic approach to work.
  • Teaching and Supervising. Learning how to provide feedback and communicate complex information takes a lot of practice and experience. If you ask most senior professors how they developed the skills (if they have the skills), then they probably do not have a good answer for you. They will likely say that they learned on the streets or through trial and error. This is not necessary. There are many courses, tutorials, podcasts, and readings that support high-quality teaching and supervision. It is worth developing these skills even early in a graduate career.
  • Networking. Go meet people, you nerds. It is much easier to be social at conferences and other professional events than purely social events because you all have one thing in common – your field of study. For most senior scholars, at least one-third of their published papers (likely more) are due to a collaboration or inspiration of someone you have met at a conference or interacted with online. I have a colleague whose entire career success is because he is excellent at conferences. Everyone knows this gregarious professional. Any time there is an invited paper for a special issue, need for a chapter in a book, need for collaborator on a grant, or someone needs support for co-authorship on an article; they remember this guy they met at a conference and invite him. Meet people, find common ground, support those people, and follow-up. Overall, it is somewhat surprising that so many experienced researchers have poor networking skills.
  • Blogging. This seems simple, but blogging is an opportunity to write in an experimental fashion without judgment. This is an opportunity to communicate personal, professional, or scientific information in a simple manner. Blogging can range from a sophisticated outreach and knowledge translation activity to personal rants. Whatever works for you is fine. This is an opportunity to develop and practice a professional writing style that is clear, accessible, and makes you mindful as to the tone of your writing.

There are certainly extra meta-skills that will further your graduate and professional career (e.g., laboratory techniques, cleaning and sterilizing, electronics, computer design, construction, welding). Quite a few of those skills are discipline specific. Do not wait for random experiences to inform the meta-skills that you develop as a graduate student. Dedicate at least four hours per week, work with your peers, read extra papers strategically, and develop useful skills.

 

 

Getting the Writing Mojo Back: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

Being an academic or grad student is a good life. We research, teach, mentor, engage the public, edit, promote, organize, administer, discover, counsel, and a host of other roles and functions. Ultimately, academics write. Writing is how our ideas have the furthest possible reach. Writing is how our ideas become fully formed and permanent. Writing is also how we are evaluated and is the currency by which we acquire things (e.g., grants, tenure, promotion, reputation). Moreover, most academics have solid writing habits that work well for them. But there are times…

Non-writing sneaks up on you. I am generally a 1,000 word per day person five days per week. Yet… you do a favor for a colleague, a student is having a personal crisis, you accept a travel commitment, you are on a search committee, the dean asks you to serve on another committee, 212 emails per day (yes, this is my median received email count in the winter and fall semesters), program director reports are due, teaching activities pile up, relationships with clinical supervisors in the community need to be nurtured, accreditation self-studies are due, need to take the dog to the vet, some students bring a complaint to you that requires a complex adjudication, you need to read theses, the dean wants to you to speak to a parent group, editing and review responsibilities pile up, and before you know it you have gone 6 weeks and written 140 words total. And you have fallen into the habit of non-writing. Then there are the consequences for not writing. Co-authors are not happy, deadlines are missed, student co-authors miss opportunities, small grant call for proposals are ignored, and there is a potential ugly hole in your CV. A primal scream ensues — followed closely by frustration and despair. A writer who does not write is courting insanity. A researcher who does not write is a technician and a tinkerer.

I would really like to have a full-on meltdown and declare commitment bankruptcy. Then start from scratch, only better. But overwhelming frustration is simply the nature of the job. Even the best planner gets overwhelmed. So, time to re-build the writing habit.

Stop digging. No matter how awesome a new opportunity might be, say no. Or better yet, say I cannot start on this project until X date. No more new crap. Delegate. Disappoint your boss. Frustrate your students. Say no to an editor. You cannot add to the mess.

What can be put off or cancelled? Professionals keep their commitments. But if any deadline can be extended or projects delegated, then do it. You are trying to make writing time now.

Inertia is now the enemy. When you are on a typical schedule, writing 1000 words per day is so easy that you cannot imagine that you will ever stop this level of production. But now, opening a word processing file is aversive and you cannot imagine committing any thought to a file. Do not worry too much about word count. It is like a marathon runner recovering from an injury. You do not step back from the injury and expect to be able to prepare for a marathon. Write a few words that can be completed without pain or frustration. Then the next day, write a few more. The goal is to simply improve productivity every single day. Although it will not be easy, you can regain your form quickly.

Examine your schedule for scraps of time. Even in a full schedule there are 15 minutes here and an hour there that can be filled with writing. Keep your writing project open on your desk top. When you have a few minutes, write a few words. Twenty words, 50 words, 100 words. They add up.

For my schedule, from May 1 to August 31 is the productivity zone. Over 80% of my writing productivity takes place over these four months. I really do not want to spend this prime productivity period working on getting my writing Mojo back. I have about two weeks to rebuild the habit and be completely ready to hit the ground running on May 1. The plan is to dig out completely from the massive number of tasks and get the writing momentum moving in a positive direction. As an aside, Mojo is defined as a magic power. When things are going well, it seems like a magic power. Yet, writing Mojo is not magic, but the result of discipline and habit building — those are the magic ingredients.

I need to get back up to speed in not only the volume and speed of productivity, but also in the complexity of the writing. I typically ramp up with increasing complexity of projects. The first stage is to write a blog post, which I try to produce monthly. These blog post are intended to be helpful, but often are self-indulgent and the level of prose is not especially complex. The next level is writing manuscript reviews. These reviews require critical thinking and teaching. However, it is easier to respond to someone else’s ideas then to create one’s own ideas. The third level is for short and important projects that require discipline and will be read by others, but are not especially innovative or groundbreaking. Examples of level three projects are test reviews, book reviews, newsletter articles, website content, and the like. These forms of writing are fine and important, but they are for show. Level four writing is for the dough. These are grant proposals, books, and articles for refereed scholarly journals. This is where it is necessary to integrate scholarship, data and analysis, innovative thinking, and word count into a coherent expression of a contribution to advance your profession. The complexity of thinking and execution of writing are at the absolute highest levels. Getting on that level is challenging to attain and even harder to maintain. I have fallen, but am building my way back up. Here is the blog post. I wrote a manuscript review this morning. Today, tomorrow, and Wednesday I am writing two test reviews; while tapering down the large administrative load. Getting at the highest level of thinking and speed of productivity does not happen by accident or all at once. Have a plan and go to grab your writing Mojo back.

International Collaboration: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

I recently completed a nine-day visit to explore research collaboration with faculty members of The Education University of Hong Kong. I had a great time, was kept busy for a full week, learned a lot, and ate ridiculously well. I also met several colleagues who are potential collaborators and learned about methods of funding for my own research. I continue to work and write with scholars in Poland and Brazil as well, and have benefited from collaboration with researchers from a variety of nations, cultures, and languages. The focus of my research is not any specific issue in international work, but I still find this type of collaborative work energizing, creative, and useful. There are a few observations that affect how my international research collaboration is conducted.

Research Culture. My experience is limited, but I have found highly skilled researchers everywhere. Yet, p-hacking and harking are the norm. Researchers engage in specific and detailed projects. Direct testing of theory and addressing larger professional issues are not common. I presented on implementation science and open science in Hong Kong and was surprised that the scholars I spoke with immediately saw the value of these issues. On the spot, three researchers proposed pre-registered studies in their areas of research. Several researchers were forced to consider, for the first time, that scientific practices need to answer the “so what?” (i.e., utility) question. Previously, internal consistency and p < .05 were the driving force in research design to the exclusion of utility or generalizability. The value of transparent science was obviously clear, but scholars had not been exposed to these ideas (but I spoke about how to use open science concepts to improve research productivity—so I had their attention). The research culture in several countries is less about the big picture and more about narrow salami slicing of large data sets. Well, maybe this is not necessarily an international thing, but happens everywhere.

Academic Colonialism. My experience is that colleagues in other countries are only given scholarly credit when they publish in English language professional journals. The problem is that data collected in Poland, for example, but must be developed and designed so that the study is valued in a journal published in North America or England. So it seems that any research is only determined to be useful if it is valuable to North American or English audiences. There is little value placed on studies that are only useful for the specific culture or systems of other (non-US) countries. And likely, such nation-specific studies might be the most useful and the highest-quality studies possible, but are not attempted as they are unlikely to be published in English language journals. This appears to be a significant problem, but I have not heard a scholar in South America, continental Europe, or Asia express concerns over this issue.

American Narrative. A related issue is that psychology and education are heavily influenced by the American narrative. There are several good examples. Studies of intelligence, specifically g, are not part of the American narrative of Marxist equality and the notion that everyone has equal opportunity to become whatever they want with hard work. This American narrative is so strong that intelligence is largely dismissed, despite it being the most robust and useful construct in education and psychology. The American narrative is also responsible for embracing ideas that have little, if any, evidential support, but we want very badly for them to be true and are consistent with our cultural beliefs. Examples include multiple intelligences, multicultural education, grit, social justice-based interventions, mindsets, and power posing. Scholars from other countries may follow the evidence only and do not completely understand the American narrative that often affects editor, reviewer, and granting body decisions. I have told scholars that their study ideas are extremely important, but are unlikely to be published in some US journals. Scholars in many countries are not current on the American narrative that affects the acceptability of their research.

Validation and Robustness. In education and psychology, the most powerful constructs cut across systems, languages, traditions, culture, and history. Embracing the Academic colonialism and the American narrative so closely means that some research is not universal, but is specific and only valued in America. If science is often to be used for universal principles, then validating robust ideas benefit from multiple conceptual replications across nations. International collaboration presents strong tests of the universal validity and robustness of constructs.

Writing. Another problem is that due to pressures to published in English-language journals, many scholars are writing in their second or third languages. My experience is that my international collaborators are excellent writers. However, they report that they require many hours more to complete a writing assignment than I do. One co-author prefers to write the first draft in her first language and then the revision is actually her translation to English. Several folks have experience with native non-English speakers being poor writers. I have not observed this. But I try to respect that more time is required for them to complete writing tasks.

The major reason for international collaboration is that it is energizing. New concepts, new cultures, new colleagues will hopefully bring new ideas and interesting methods. Embracing the different and sharing uniqueness is an excellent way to promote high quality scientific work.

Issues in Letters of Recommendation: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

I put out a poorly worded Tweet last week that generated more attention and heat than makes me comfortable. Typically, attention on such an important topic is good and fine, but the Tweet in question is misleading (accurate, but still misleading). Here is the Tweet:

Just read about 60 applications to grad school. Letter writers who say applicants are cute, petite, lovely, sweet, appropriately dressed, has a great smile, has a supportive spouse–I’m judging you. Do better for these people.

11:17 AM – 1 Feb 2018

Here are the misleading points that I regret:

·       I read over 400 pages of letters of recommendation in three days. Then I cherry-picked eight or nine words and phrases that seemed a bit icky. These are not common words and phrases in the letters I read.

·       Twitter is a brief format that does not allow context to be presented. These phrases are presented with no context. Then the outrage machine of Twitter can be cranked up, context assumed by the reader, and results can be interpreted in a way that suits the theme and agenda of the reader.

·       I do not feel I could add any contextual information because I did not want to break the implied confidentiality of letter writers. I appreciate and respect the time and energy that all letter writers put in to this process. Their efforts support our program and support new applicants. Shaming or otherwise criticizing people who volunteer their time and energy does not support or improve the process.

·       Some of these words are discipline specific. These letters are for a school psychology program. Words like kind, generous, caring, thoughtful, and compassionate are considered positive characteristics for potential psychologists of any gender. Not only do these words have something of a gendered component, they are not far in meaning from clearly gendered words such as sweet, lovely, and nurturing.

·       The program for these letters has 137 applicants for eight positions in the 2018 cohort. I will be accepting one or zero students under my supervision. I read these letters carefully. I am not sure I read letters of recommendation as carefully in the past.

·       All of letters containing the words that made me feel somewhat uncomfortable and elicited outrage were extremely positive. The writers of these letters wrote at least two pages describing the leadership, scholarship, energy, experience, innovation, and other important characteristics that support admissions to a graduate program. In nearly every case, the offending words were in the final paragraph where testimonials concerning the real human characteristics of the applicant were described. The language in this final paragraph became problematic.

What to do?

Because the language bothered me and apparently about 800,000 other people, some action is warranted. I respectfully choose not to employ some of the suggestions by commenters. They will not be publicly shamed, reprimanded, stabbed with cocktail forks, reported to their universities, murdered, or otherwise be taught a lesson. Power is the ability to get things done. I have power. I will use power to address this issue.

I am not big on outrage, but I am big on solving problems. Here is what I have done so far: reported my concerns to our equity officer, who has set up an opportunity to work with our Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies) and also a professor in Law to find solutions; spoke with our graduate program director to put this item on the agenda in order to address discipline-specific approaches to educate letter writers; and I am writing this blog post to provide my perspective on letters of recommendation that I hope is helpful. I also plan on working with our faculty development unit (Teaching and Learning Services) to publicize and expand their instruction of faculty members on letter writing. There is a culture that needs to be changed. These are small contributions, but it has only been 48 hours.

Writing Effective Letters of Recommendation

As always on this blog, I am not an expert in this area and these are only my ideas. For those looking for more expert information on how to write effective letters of recommendation, I recommend these sites and documents as good places to start. There are many more resources available.

https://www.thebalance.com/academic-recommendation-letters-2062959

https://theprofessorisin.com/2016/09/07/how-to-write-a-recommendation-letter/

https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/documents/equality/HHMI_WriteReference.pdf

https://www.pace.edu/career-services/sites/default/files/files/pdf/writing-letters-of-recommendation.pdf

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/982/02/

Writing Letters

I write letters for 45 to 55 different students per year. Given that students often need multiple letters for multiple job opportunities, internship sites, grant applications, and such — there are approximately 200 documents per year from me. There are other faculty members in my program who write more. It is extraordinarily time-consuming, but I enjoy the process of writing letters. I am afraid that I do not follow many of the recommendations here for letter writers.

I appreciate that requesting letters of recommendation is difficult for students. I always want to be helpful to their cause. If I cannot write a letter that will substantially help their cause, then I will tell them that I cannot write a letter that helps them. I will not write a poor letter or a lukewarm letter. I understand those who feel a responsibility to warn colleagues of a poor student, but I do not do that. If I agree to write the letter, then I am all in. I will write an honest letter that does everything possible to attain the goal for the student.

I only write what I see. The student may be awesome in many ways, but I only write about my personal experiences with the student. The value of letters of recommendation is that they go beyond the CV and transcript. I have no desire to rehash the CV.

I typically do not use boilerplate information for letters. There are small things such as the details of the activities of the research lab or a specific class that I have taught. I try to write an original letter for everybody. I have tried boilerplate writing in the past, but it never seems to read well.

I do not ask students to write a letter that I will sign. That is not a letter of recommendation. Of course, people are busy. When people say that they are busy, what they are saying is that something else is a higher priority. If it is not that important to you, then do not write the letter.

I attempt to be transparent. If there is enough time and the students wants to see it, then I like students to see what I have written about them before I send it out. Mostly, I ask them to look for typos or factual inaccuracies. I will now ask students to also look for sexist or insensitive language. I have sent letters out without them reading it, but students can read letters of recommendation at any time. I write so many letters and documents, that it is always wise to have someone else review the letters for typos. No one is more motivated than the subject of the letter.

A framework helps with the efficiency of writing letters of recommendation. I divide a letter into eight sections.

1.       Why I am writing this letter, how long I have known the applicant, and the context of the relationship between me and the applicant.

2.       Describing the top accomplishment of the applicant. Describing exactly what the applicant did and the role they played in achieving this top accomplishment.

3.       The professional goals of the applicant and how a positive outcome by the target of the letter will help the person achieve those goals. The logic here is that the applicant has a thoughtful, ambitious, and planful approach to achieving career goals.

4.       Describe the process that the person is following to achieve future goals. What are they doing now, what are plans for the immediate future, what are the plans for the long-term future, and what is the trajectory of their work.

5.       Lesser accomplishments. This is often a laundry list of professional presentations, publications, and general everyday awesomeness.

6.       Clinical skills and experience. Sometimes this section is moved up to the second section (when the student is applying for a field placement or internship or clinical job). This relates to training, experiences, and special expertise in clinical skills. Special attention is given to the applicant’s development of unusual skills that the applicant has taken the initiative to develop.

7.       Citizenship. I want to indicate the role of the applicant in the research lab or the classroom. Most often, this involves discussions of leadership, creativity, initiative, and team approaches. This is the danger paragraph when it comes to sexist language. Review it carefully, because this paragraph will be read closely.

8.       I keep open all contacts. Readers are welcome to contact me and I invite questions or additional requests for more information.

This is not too hard. I find this process easy simply because my students are wonderfully skilled, good people to work with, and I truly believe that they deserve the job, experience, or funding. I believe that my sincere enthusiasm and belief that the students deserve to achieve their goals comes through in the letter. I do not use flowery or exaggerated language. Their talents and accomplishments speak for themselves. If the letter is hard to write, then I probably should not be writing it.

Reading Letters

I read a lot of letters. Admissions letters, letters for funding, and all other forms of letters of people applying for limited spaces or resources. I only focus on a few things and generally ignore the rest.

1.       In my world, the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. I want to know what this person has done. I do not care about their goals, dreams, plans, or anything else. What have they done. This is, by far, the most important aspect.

2.       I want evidence of leadership, initiative, and creativity. I am a trainer of professionals. Those people cannot be passive or passengers. I want a future professional.

3.       Many negative things do not bother me. There can always be disagreements or relationship issues, even with a letter writer. That said, any hint of laziness, treating other people poorly, or ethical complaints is a major problem. I do not expect applicants to be perfect, but I want evidence of professionalism.

4.       Is there any evidence that they do things for others? Selflessness and support of peers is far more valuable than ambition.

5.       What skills, abilities, or characteristics does the applicant have that will contribute to our program or research lab?

6.       Evidence of enthusiasm for growth. I want to know what the applicant has done to take the initiative for their own personal and professional growth. Sometimes, I need to look for a hint.

7.       How did the applicant manage or work around difficult times or other challenges?

I really do not care about many of the adjectives that are used in letters. Whether they are called a fine student or the greatest student in the history of civilization, that simply does not matter much. Sexist language in a letter does not really affect my decision of the applicant. I look for specific items. Everything else is extraneous or of minimal value to me.

Let us be mindful in how we communicate on behalf of students. We are their second-best advocates and bear significant responsibility for their success. Letters that are focused, clear, and describe an accomplished professional are most effective.

Communicating Research: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Communicating Research: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

Advancing knowledge in all fields through research and other forms of scholarship requires much training, guidance, and experience. The challenges of literature reviews, research design, data collection, data management, data analysis, theory testing, and theory development are daunting. This is especially true in the context of reduced funding, tenure pressures, and increased competition. Most researchers in science are well-versed in writing standard formatted scientific reports. Grant reports, government reports, formatting for scientific journals in various fields, and proposals are common mechanisms for written communication of scientific knowledge to peers. However, scientists are now under pressure to communicate findings to the public, mass media outlets, and lay audiences. This form of communication can be challenging for scientists who are trained, experience, and socialized to communicate primarily with scientific peers.

The differences between scholarly communication and communication for knowledge transfer and communicating with the public are not as great as many people believe. The goal of all communication is to move the knowledge base of the audience from point A to point B. The ease of communicating to professional audiences is that there is an assumption that all professional audiences have the same point A. That is, professionals who read journals or evaluate grants have similar pre-existing knowledge, interests, and experiences. In many cases, those pre-existing experiences are the same as the scientists attempting to communicate new findings. For public audiences, existing knowledge, interests, and experiences vary widely. Moreover, almost certainly the public has less existing knowledge than the scientist attempting to communicate new findings. Empathy is required to understand the perspective, needs, knowledge, and values of the public audience. Identifying the exact needs of the audience and having the ability to meet those needs is a baseline skill for communicating complex findings to the public. In addition to empathy and knowing the audience, a formula for communicating to nonprofessional audiences can be helpful.

I am a big fan of B movies. These are usually low-budget, cheesy, and poorly written movies that are often in the horror, action and adventure, or science fiction genre. Yet, for some reason these movies never disappoint and are often hugely entertaining. The reason for this consistency of appealing entertainment is that there is a clear and well-developed formula for an effective B-movie. The ARKOFF formula (after Samuel Z. Arkoff) has six components and the most entertaining B movies contain all six elements.

Action — exciting and visual drama

Revolution — novel or controversial themes and ideas

Killing — violence

Oratory — a memorable speech or dialogue

Fantasy — acted out fantasies that are common to the audience

Fornication — some level of sex appeal

For scientists trained and socialized in communicating with peers, who are just beginning to communicate with the public, a formula can be helpful in organizing information. Clearly, I am not going to recommend that communication of scientific information to the public use the ARKOFF formula. For most types of research, that would just be too weird. In the effort to use just the appropriate amount of weird, I am immodestly proposing the SHAW formula. The SHAW formula contains four components that strongly support effective communication to the public.

Story — Information is most effectively communicated as a narrative with a strong theme, structured just like a short story.

Harrowing — The salience of the study must be communicated so that people’s attention is captured, often by explicitly raising stress or upsetting widely held beliefs. Addressing common anxiety provoking concerns (e.g., parenting, health, finances), life on earth, support for a counterintuitive idea, improving quality of life, and enhancing marital quality are often widely popular harrowing themes.

Applied — Some immediate or long-term, but tangible, application of the results of the scientific study need to be described to engage interest fully. This does not necessarily preclude advances in theory. “Completely changing our understanding of X…” is a useful phrase in describing basic research.

Wonder — The information must elicit interest and wonder in the general topic. Hopefully, some readers will be motivated to learn more about the topic. This section is analogous to the “future research” sections at the end of scientific papers.

Science communication to the public is a novel and foreign activity for many scientists. However, it is now part of the job and is expected from nearly all researchers. Understanding your audience is a large step toward being an effective communicator. At least in the initial stages of becoming a science communicator using a formula to engage your audience effectively and explain complex scientific results may make the process easier. Most scholars want to avoid the B-movie quality that often accompanies science journalism and public communication. Try using the SHAW formula. But unlike the author of this blog, use it modestly and with full descriptions of the limitations of your research.

Lessons Learned from Sport: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Lessons Learned from Sport: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

The influence of sport is pervasive in society. For example, every news or political chat show is always peppered with sports references. There are always references to a home run, Hail Mary, horse race, prevent defence, red card, or slam dunk. I am a sports fan, but find this use of language tiresome. Beyond the superficial contributions to language and simplistic cultural touchstones, there are some positive and constructive lessons to be learned from sport and applied to the academic world.

Life is not fair. I am always surprised and envious of people who believe that life is or should be fair. In my experience, it is not. Although there are elements of a meritocracy in both sport and academia, true meritocracy is an illusion. I know five athletes who played professional sports: two in the NFL, one in the NBA, one who played AA baseball, and one who played pro hockey in Germany. But the best athlete I ever have been around had his athletic career ended with multiple concussions in high school. Other amazing athletes I know personally had careers ended through injury, sexual abuse by coach, dropped out of sports to work to support his family, automobile accident, drug and alcohol addiction, and a farming accident. They were better athletes than those who had tangible success. No matter how awesome you are and how hard you work, being derailed is common and rarely fair.

Differentiating injury from pain. Every athlete faces physical pain. A successful athlete will power through. But if the problem is an injury, then powering through is dangerous. When there is injury, then healing, rest, and getting professional help are necessary. When an academic is tired and does not feel like working, a successful academic will power through. But successful academics know when there are elements of burnout, exhaustion, physical problems, or mental health issues; then healing, rest, and getting professional help are necessary. Understanding the difference is a challenging and critical skill.

Work does not always lead to success, but not working always leads to failure. Work as hard as you possibly can. Exhaust yourself. Train with discipline and purpose. But do not presume that hard work entitles you to anything. The only thing that hard work entitles you to is more work and the possibility of success. So I hope you enjoy the work.

Every day needs to be a personal best. Comparisons to others often lead to being discouraged and general unhappiness. The person that you were yesterday is the fairest and best competition to consider. My personal goal is to do something better than I have ever done that thing before. I find it highly motivating to be completely driven to be better every single day.

Work when no one else is working. Academia has a competitive component. It can never be assumed that one has more talent than the competition. The only thing that anyone has control over is outworking competition.

Rest is part of the program. Resting is not something one does only when exhaustion has been reached. Rest and recreation are fundamental elements of success. Physical and mental rest are preventative medicine. Rest must be scheduled into the agenda the same as any other high priority activity.

Competition drives improvement. The only way to get better is to face the highest level of competition that you can. Work with the most accomplished partners, apply for the most difficult grants, submit your papers to the highest impact factor journals. Every failure or disappointment will lead to improve skills.

Failure is part of the process. Losing can be discouraging. Most successful athletes hate losing far more than they enjoy winning. Yet, losing is a necessary part of the process to improve skills. Identify the important lessons and areas for improvement in all failures. The old martial arts saying, “either I win or I learn” applies here.

Adapt. There are many approaches to being successful as an academic. Breadth of skills and understanding the context in which you are functioning is necessary for success. It is not necessarily the smartest or most talented who thrive, those who can adapt to new situations and contexts have success.

Sometimes, you are not good enough. This is a hard one to face. Sometimes you do not have the requisite talent or skills or work habits to be at the level you wish or believe you deserve. At this point, it is necessary to either work to improve your skills or to realize that your goals may not be realistic. The biggest mistake that you can make is ignoring this information, blaming other people for your failures, or making excuses.

Some people have advantages. When competition appears to have unfair advantages, frustration can set in. In athletics, it does not seem fair that some people are born exceptionally tall or fast, have access to the best and most expensive coaching, have exceptional family support, can afford the best and most nutritious foods, or have no competing responsibilities that reduce training and practice time. Academia is like that, too. Life is not fair.

Conclusions. The sport-as-life analogy is a bit worn out. Sport is more than a popular culture touchstone for middle-age people who are laying on their couch or the purview former athletes who wax poetic about the glory days. There is a reason why I train judo well into my middle-age years. There are lessons that are still to be learned from sport that can be applied to many walks of life.

In many fields of study, it appears that the likelihood of getting a tenure-track academic position are about the same as making a living in sport. Despite hard lessons, sport and academia both work best when they are pursued with joy.