Editing and Revising Written Work: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Editing and Revising Written Work: How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

There are as many different approaches to revising and editing written work as there are writers. Everyone has their own approach. And, quite likely, different styles are more compatible with different fields of study. It does not matter what the approach is, but for maximum productivity and efficiency it is good to have a consistent process that you use for all written work. An organized process tends to lead to more creative outcomes.

Here is the description of my process as an illustration. This is certainly not the best method for everyone and I am always trying to improve it for me, but this is what I have now.

Before any process can take place, developing the goals for the process is important. Here are the primary goals of my writing process:

  • To be as efficient and rapid in the production of written material as possible
  • To be as clear and transparent as possible. An important part of transparent science is to have clear writing. And I know, but do not care, that jargon heavy articles have a higher probability of getting accepted in journals. I want to be clear always.
  • To establish a strong and compelling narrative. Even the most intensely data-driven scientific manuscript must have a well-developed narrative and tell the story completely.
  1. Concept Formation: The first phase is to link all the concepts involved in the paper and determine how they are connected. I tend to draw this out on paper and it usually looks like an incoherent mess of lines connecting circles with concepts written in. The purpose here is to identify the major concepts that are being communicated in the paper and determine the relationships among those concepts.
  2. Outline: The primary purpose of the outline is to sequence all the components of the concept formation. In Concept formation, many of the concepts have equal weight and are presented simultaneously. Obviously, writing must take place in sequential order. A detailed outline is helpful. I like to try to write the most detailed outline possible. In the best of all worlds, the outline includes all the headings (in APA style) and includes paragraphs. Sometimes it is difficult to include paragraphs in such a detailed outline, but the more detail in the outline the more quickly and efficiently the writing proceeds.
  3. Zero Draft: The goal of the zero draft is to have the entire text written out as quickly as possible. I dictate the zero draft using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Although it takes practice to be able to dictate in an efficient style consistent with written language, the speed of writing is a major advantage. I type at a pedestrian 55 words per minute, but can dictate at about 140 words a minute. I find that the speed results in improved quality of expression of the ideas for the zero draft. This draft is where the narrative becomes clearer and easier to evaluate. Anytime you end up deviating from the outline in the zero draft, it is important to check to ensure that you are describing the intended paper accurately. The primary purpose is to write as quickly as possible and put a little bit of muscle on the bones.
    1. Troubleshooting: If you become stuck in developing the zero draft, the first step is to write topic sentences for each paragraph. Usually that begins to make the writing flow. If I am really stuck, then I write the closing sentence for each paragraph as well.
    2. Advanced Troubleshooting: If the writing is still not flowing, then it is time to go back and revisit the concept formation and outline. A paper that is not flowing well typically has symptoms of a paper that is not well thought out.
  4. First Draft: This draft results in a fully formed document with all the pieces in place. after you are completed with this draft, it is acceptable to share with co-authors and colleagues without too much embarrassment. Each section should have a coherent beginning, middle, and end, the narrative needs to be well-developed, tables written, and rough figures installed. The first draft is also where I ensure that I am not saying anything outrageous and that all statements are supported by the extant literature or the data from the study. Humble conclusions are preferred to extreme conclusions that are mostly bullshit. This may be the most time-consuming element of the process.
  5. Paragraph Draft: Each paragraph is considered to ensure that there is a topic sentence, a closing sentence, and supporting sentences. Any citations that have not been included in previous drafts are installed here.
  6. Sentence Draft: This is a close-editing draft that considers grammar, word choice, and clarity of each sentence.
  7. Flow Draft: Most of the drafts consider the flow from section to section, paragraph to paragraph, and sentence to sentence. Usually the flow is fairly good by this stage and all of the words contribute to the narrative. But focusing on the support of the narrative by making all the transitions as smooth, clear, and productive as possible is the goal of this draft. This is typically the stage where words are cut. I find that the word count is typically reduced by about 10% during this draft as I remove all sentences and words that do not serve the flow of the narrative.
  8. Formatting: Most of the papers that I end up writing are written in APA style. As an editor, I find that about 80% of papers have significant and systematic deviations from APA style. Appropriate formatting is a marker of competence. It sends a message that care and effort were taken into the development of the document. This is where level of heading, tables and figures, title page formatting, and the other meticulous details are covered. It is also worth checking citation and reference format because there are frequent errors in the details of reference formatting in common reference management systems.
  9. One of the advantages of using Dragon is that you can have the program read back the document to you. Most translation software, Adobe, and other programs also have this capability. I find that typos, unclear sentences, and grammatical clunkers are more apparent when you listen to the text being read than when you read. It is a nice finishing pass on any project.

The type of writing also influences how much of this process is implemented. Grant proposals and refereed journal submission go through this entire process. Invited papers, book chapters, and books are edited professionally; but not quite as closely. This is because those works are not being evaluated initially and there is typically available copy editing. So the sentence draft and flow draft are usually undertaken very quickly. And products like blog posts usually only get a zero draft and a first draft before they are posted.

For the most part, the process is consistent. There are always challenges because writing is hard. Writing is extremely helpful to overall thinking. I have had a few papers that I thought were describing well-designed studies. However, once I got past the concept formation and outlining stage, I realize that I was fooling myself and the research was poorly designed. The clearest writing does not lie. You do not want to lie to your audience and you do not want to lie to yourself. A strong process with the goal of producing clear and productive scholarly output leads to improved quality and quantity of written documents.

 

 

 

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Managing Your Academic Reputation: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Managing Your Academic Reputation: How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

This is the hardest blog post I have tried to write. In fact, this is a failed blog post, but I prefer to be transparent about it (there is much to be learned in sucking). I typically write one of these blog posts in about an hour and take maybe another hour to read it over before posting. This post started the same way, except about 30 minutes into writing and I realized that most of it was garbage. The entire concept of academic reputation may be important to many, but that does not stop it from being an extremely silly idea. So here are shreds of ideas that are not fully baked.

I am not a great student of literature, but I do have a library card. And I remember Othello:

“Reputation! Reputation! Reputation! O I have lost my reputation!” –Cassio

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition oft got without merit and lost without deserving.” –Iago. Iago is correct, but the context was that he was being manipulative. (spoiler: Iago literally stabs Cassio in the back.) Being overly concerned about reputation makes one vulnerable to manipulation and betrayal by others.

Academics are obsessed with their reputations. This is reasonable as academic reputations are the commodities that are used to recruit students, achieve promotion and tenure, gain collaborators, and acquire research funding. Efforts to quantify reputation are inherently flawed and certainly have significant non-random error (i.e., bias) whether they be teaching evaluations, H indices, citation counts, total grant funding awarded, formal awards and recognitions, and other metrics. All academics desire a good reputation, but often we are unclear as to what that is or how to achieve it. Figurative backstabbing over reputation is not uncommon in academia.

What Is a Reputation?

Reputation is defined as the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something. Reputation is largely about marketing. We all know academics who spend far more time on marketing and expanding their fame and influence than teaching, research, or service to the university and profession. Likewise, there are outstanding researchers, influential researchers, and university leaders who spend no time on marketing. Somewhere along this continuum is the degree of reputation management that works well as a function of your personal goals and the needs of your system.

Reputation can be thought of as desired breadth and quality. Breadth of reputation concerns whether the focus of your reputation will be specific to your subspecialty or whether you want to be influential with the public. To some degree this is field specific. It is unlikely that a great mathematical advance would merit an appearance on The View. Whereas a psychologist, nutritionist, or physician can generate widespread interest. Quality of reputation refers to the standing of an academic by people respected by that individual. To be held in high regard by people whose opinion you value is a hallmark of reputational quality. Breadth and quality are not orthogonal. Popular and public scholars are often dismissed as dilettantes or opportunists and are not respected by scholarly peers. Those without breadth of reputation are considered dusty and irrelevant outside their specific field.

Mindful Approaches

Reputation is more than good or bad. Academic reputation is how you are perceived as a professional. We know professors who are perceived as odd geniuses, supportive aunties, father figures, work to exhaustion machines, social and friendly, people know how to game the system, charismatic performers, hyper competent, innovative, or a host of other evaluative terms. Academia is a broad field. The freedom to select our reputational goals is exciting for some and terrifying for others.

Given how difficult it is to gain a tenure track position or any position in academia, invest a lot of time in thinking why you are taking this career track, what you want to accomplish, and how cultivating a specific reputation can help you accomplish goals. Also important is to consider how having a specific reputation can improve or diminish your well being (e.g., a reputation as a driven and tireless worker is nearly impossible to sustain).

What Is under Individual Control?

Reputation is not always under the control of the individual. Reputation is the area in which sexism, racism, subtle and not so subtle anti-LGBTQ views, and other prejudices rear their heads. Fighting for a positive reputation and against prejudice is exhausting. It is not helpful simply to state that this is a situation that should not exist. Obviously, but it does.

So You Want to Be a Rock Star

If you are one of those people who has become an academic because you want to be famous, then you are a top-drawer looney. I would recommend selecting a different career such as Instagram model, professional right-wing troll, porn star, YouTuber, or some other activity with higher status than being an academic. The more attractive and charismatic among us often attempt to parlay research findings into Ted talks, frequent news releases, media events, becoming a guru or cult leader, and other approaches to increase visibility. None of these activities is especially problematic. However, the real problem arises when the goal of academics is to attempt to find the next big thing to gain more and more attention. Anytime a scholar is committed to the results of studies going in only one direction or thinking designed to garner attention over scholarship, then there is potential for trouble. In this case, there is incentive for scholars to deliver results that are most likely to yield attention. This is fundamentally anti-science, anti-intellectual, and is destructive.

Conclusions                                          

Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Be the real thing. The shadow will change, come and go, but the tree remains and grows. The best way to maintain a positive academic reputation in breath and quality is to align your desired reputation with what you do. Attempting to promote the specific type of reputation that is not consistent with your behaviour will certainly backfire and make you disreputable.

 

 

Surviving Your Doctoral Defense: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Surviving Your Doctoral Defense: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SRShaw

The defense of the doctoral dissertation, also known as the viva, is the final stage of the doctoral program. There are a variety of styles, traditions, processes, and methods of the dissertation defense process. These vary across nations, universities, and fields of study. However, there are a set of common approaches that students can apply to reduce the potentially paralyzing anxiety and stress surrounding the doctoral dissertation defense.

As is usual on this blog, the suggestions reflect my experiences and are not intended to be a substitute for real expertise in the matter. But after serving as a supervisor for six successful doctoral theses and a member of the defense committee for 49 doctoral theses, there are some behaviours of candidates that differentiate high-quality versus low-quality dissertation defenses.

Prior to Defense

Wait until the dissertation is ready. There are many candidates who have artificial deadlines and timelines due to job commitments, financial considerations, or other requirements that the defense take place by a certain date. Rushing to meet a specific defense date increases the likelihood that the dissertation is rushed. Take the time to make sure that all appropriate supervisors, peers, and other trusted reviewers have the time to read the document carefully. This is a situation where it is critically important to ensure that the document is sound and well-developed before moving on to the defense.

Presentation rules apply. The general rule of presentation is to know the information so well that you could carry out your entire defense if your computer locks up, the projector fails, or there is some other technological problem.

Select external examiners. Nearly all universities require that an expert from outside of the university reviews the document. This can be a challenge. I usually recommend the following steps be taken. Early in the literature review process, students are asked to take note of leading scholars specific to the field. Students are encouraged to email those scholars with questions and inquiries about current and soon to be published research. Those scholars who respond productively and seem somewhat reasonable can be put on the list of potential external examiners. There have been cases of unfair external reviewers giving poor evaluations because of disagreements concerning theoretical orientation or other problematic evaluation approaches. In selecting external reviewers, cultural traditions are also important. For example, there been cases of reviewers from the United Kingdom who have expectations of extraordinarily long dissertations, who have rejected North American dissertations for being too short and lacking detail. There are no guarantees, but it helps to have external reviewers who do not have an agenda or are from an academic culture are far different from the candidate.

Practice the presentation. Most dissertation defenses begin with a short presentation by the candidate. A 15 to 20-minute presentation is an extraordinarily difficult timeframe to present multiple years worth of work. This is the part of the doctoral defense in which candidates have the most control. This needs to be practised repeatedly with significant feedback. In some places, the time limitation is strictly enforced, so be sure to time all of your practice activities.

Attend several dissertation defenses. It is valuable to understand the process and dynamics by observing them firsthand. You can also find styles and approaches that candidates use that are worth emulating.

Preview with your supervisor. Asked the supervisor to share potential questions and assist in developing reasonable responses.

Choose your guests mindfully. Dissertation defenses are typically publicly open. There are some departments on lab cultures where 20 to 30 peers attend for support and others were only the candidate and the committee are in attendance. I am surprised how often parents and significant others attend the defenses. That would never work for me. Although it is difficult to go against these cultural trends, you can invite who you need for support, but not distraction.

Sleep. The doctoral dissertation defense is an extremely stressful experience, but get some sleep.

During the Defense

Enjoy the Experience. Attitudes towards the dissertation defense vary across universities, but often the experience is more of a coronation or celebration rather than a rigorous evaluation with a high risk of failure. Your supervisor would not allow you to defend the dissertation and was the project and your presentation was in good shape. You are ready and you have been preparing for this for years. Honestly, there is something that inspires confidence in a candidate who smiles and appears as comfortable as possible.

Stamina is a key. Dissertation defenses can last from 90 minutes up to three hours. Understand and prepare for your local norms. Many people will want to sit while answering questions. Have water available. It is also good to have a piece of fruit or something else to eat to prevent any blood sugar crashes. Maintaining concentration and focus throughout is a major factor.

Understand the questions. Listen carefully to the questions being asked. Most committee members are not nearly as expert as the candidate who has spent years researching the specific topic. Questions from the defense committee usually consist of: some form of a question asking why a different study was not done; specific details to the point of minutia on methodology and analysis; there will be questions about larger theory, context; and which studies you choose to reference; and there may be committee members who make long statements intended to show off for their peers. And most of the time someone will ask if you could change one aspect of your project, what would you change? My experience is that it is rare to have a committee member be hostile or extremely adversarial, but it does happen sometimes. The key to all these issues is composure. Listen carefully, take a deep breath, ask the committee member to repeat the question if necessary, and take some time to formulate your answer.

Do not BS. Some of the questions being asked are not relevant to the document at hand and generally far afield. If you do not know the answer at all, say that you do not know. Attempting a long and convoluted BS answer does not leave a favourable impression.

Depth and breadth. The secret is to have a depth and breadth of knowledge that you can marshal to answer the questions. Given that you have lived with this material for some time, this should not be too challenging. Knowing the major scholars and year of publication can be helpful in demonstrating your detailed knowledge. Understanding how your research could be applied, used for future investigations, influence theory, or otherwise placed in the larger context are also critical.

Managing impressions. It is rarely a problem if a candidate does not know an answer to a specific question or two. Overall impression counts. I have been surprised that how incredibly poised nearly all candidates are at their defense. Even students I have known to be very nervous, seem confident and poised when it comes to their dissertation defense. Confidence and poise will go a long way.

Develop a strategy if you get lost. Losing composure or getting lost under a barrage of questions for an hour and a half or longer is common. The candidate has a lot of control in setting the pace and tone of how questions can be answered. A frequently used an effective approach is to have a set script when you are stumped by a question. A decent script is to say, “That is a really useful question, I have not given that much thought before, so give me a moment to put my answer together.” If you have the script prepared in advance, then you can say it and typically buy a little bit of time to develop and articulate an answer. Likewise, it is always possible that you realize that you have no idea how to answer the question and it is best to say, “I do not know the answer to that.”

Bringing back around. Given that you only have a 15 to 20-minute initial presentation, it is unlikely that all your information will be covered during that introduction. Have several extra slides prepared with additional figures or data. If a question is relevant, then you can go to the appropriate extra slide and spend a lot more time on some of the information that you do not have time for an initial presentation, and this approach also signals that you are well prepared to answer questions.

Have a copy of your full dissertation document with you. You never know when a question or may get very specific. For example, “On page 172, paragraph three, line 4 you made this statement. Is that inconsistent with your similar statement on page 87, paragraph one, line 5?” You will need to be able to move quickly to compare detailed text. Whether this is done in paper or print depends on your comfort level.

Post Defense

Be happy. I am really surprised how rarely I see a successful candidate look happy. The predominant expression is relief and fatigue. I have seen quite a few tears of release or disbelief. This seems like a good time to be happy. Enjoy your hard-earned success.

Schedule a meeting with your supervisor. Almost certainly someone on the committee will find typos, requirement for clarification, or maybe even additional need for changes in the dissertation document. Schedule that meeting quickly so that your supervisor can guide any changes, revisions, and edits that need to be made.

Thank your committee.  Be sure to thank everyone on the committee, even those who were difficult during the defense process, after the process over. It is also good to take note of the first person to refer to you as Doctor.

Contact and thank everyone involved in your project. This could be anyone from technicians, support staff, administrative staff, undergraduates, and others. Acknowledging all the people essential to your success is a responsible thing to do. Many people who provided important services to your project may not know that the project was a success until you contact them. Say thank you.

Contact and thank personal friends and family. Sharing your success is an important part of the process. A lot of people have made sacrifices that have led to your accomplishment. They have certainly provided support and have been there for you in difficult times.

Do not be weird. I really wanted to write and gloat to my 11th grade physics teacher who told me I was “too lazy and stupid to consider college. And if I did manage to get into college would certainly fail.” I wrote the letter, but did not mail it.

Closing

The doctoral defense is a ritual that can be mysterious and scary. With the use of your supervisor, peers and others, learn as much about the process as possible to demystify the activity. Understand the specific procedures that are written in your faculty or University guidelines. Observe how other people manage this. There is nothing wrong with having a series of meetings with peers at similar stages in your degree program to share and brainstorm ideas.

If you are at this stage in your degree program, congratulations. Listen to your supervisor, take deep breaths, and you have got this. It will be a short period of time until you hear the words, “Congratulations, Doctor.”

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/

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.