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.

Advertisements

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.

 

 

Finishing Projects with the Sprint Method: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Finishing Projects with the Sprint Method: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

Mini – Meta-Blog

As always, this monthly blog post is a palate cleanser between deadlines and projects. I usually write these monthly missives after I complete a project and need to take a breath before starting the next. I find blogging to be a strong method to keep the writing momentum going, but without having to put too much energy into it.

Main Event

All academic positions have their own challenges to research productivity. My situation is that I am in a professional training program. My primary job is to train practicing psychologists to provide the best possible educational and mental health services to children and their families. Very few of our students plan on a research career and most of them would prefer spending their time as a graduate student advancing clinical skills, rather than doing research. Therefore, the labbies have large numbers of classes to take, extensive fieldwork and clinical experiences, and theses. Working on day-to-day research that is important to me is not high on my students’ agenda.

Moreover, our program has changed to increase the amount of clinical activities and increase the clinical requirements for students. These are extraordinarily talented people who would like to be productive researchers, but it is simply unrealistic given the demands on their time. The result is that I have a laundry list of projects that were started with enthusiasm, but got lost in the fog of competing demands for time and energy. Half-completed projects are clear signs of an inefficient research lab. As our training program has become more clinical, my research lab has become less efficient. Finishing projects is hard for everyone and everyone has factors that interfere with productivity. This is why #GetYourManuscriptOut is a useful hashtag on Twitter. In my own head, I identify projects that are “in preparation” as a sign of failure. I have stumbled upon an approach to improving efficiency to improve our finish rate and to make the lab productive despite the clinical demands on the students and the administrative and book writing demands on my time.

We have designated the winter 2018 term to be all about cleaning house. We have been efficient at completing masters and doctoral theses, but it is the other projects that have become low priority. As my time has been spent writing a book and a major book chapter project, my supervision has been lax. Here is how we plan on cleaning house and finishing projects using a sprint method.

The logic of the sprint method is to work intensely on a project over a short period of time until completed. The time periods of the sprinting are negotiated. Accountability for deadlines is clear and strict. Failure to meet exact timelines will result in being dropped as a co-author. In this fashion, students will save a lot of time for clinical, thesis, and classroom responsibilities because they know that they will only need to work intensely for one or two weeks on the specific projects.

Identify the projects. Identify which manuscripts, grant proposals, or other lab task would benefit from an intense sprint in order to bring them to completion. For winter 2018, we have identified six (!) unfinished manuscripts, a website restructuring, and reformatting educational materials as our eight projects that would benefit from a sprint to completion.

Define the team. These unfinished projects tend to have multiple co-authors. Often it is the diffusion of responsibility have led to these papers being not completed. Define exactly who is going to be on this team and earn co-authorship.

Define the project. Most projects are half completed, data are collected and may be analysed, literature reviewed, and project outlined. Some sections may already be completed. Sometimes a project may be unfinished because the original outlined or data analysis may be problematic. Review the current nature of the project, decide what needs to be changed, and what needs to be continued. And develop a plan. Another purpose of defining the project is that sometimes projects that are unfinished are simply not very good. This is the time to be honest and decide that an unfinished projects needs to be deleted from the agenda and move forward with more promising projects.

Hold a team meeting. All responsible parties meet to develop multiple goals. Goal one is to reach consensus on the definition of the project and components that require work to prepare the project for final submission. Goal two is to assign responsibilities to discrete components of the project (e.g., James’s job is to develop figures 1 through 3). Goal three is to negotiate timelines and deadlines. The important part for goal three is to ensure that the sprint period is convenient for each member. Determining that a student has no competing major projects, exams, or clinical responsibilities during that week is an important factor. The sprint timeframes are most typically seven days. Some projects that may require additional time may take two weeks.

Negotiate a submission date. Each co-author will have a deadline for their projects, yet there is always integration of multiple authors and final polishing of the manuscript that needs to take place. So the submission date should be a week or two after the sprint period ends, but still needs to be explicitly defined and set.

Be available. When any member of the team runs into trouble or get stuck, they are responsible for solving the problem as quickly as possible. As such, the PI or other senior member on the project team must be available to address concerns, consult, and problem solve within 24 hours.

Celebrate success. Success is the submission of the project. If a project is eventually a rejected manuscript or unfunded grant proposal, then the revision or improve grant proposal can be recycled and put into another sprint list. Generally, I assume that the project is good — but no idea is truly good until it is finished. Celebrate finishing.

Most of us work from deadline to deadline. Usually these deadline-driven projects do not require the sprint method because completion dates are so firm. But our most important works are most typically those that are submitted without deadlines. Sometimes unfinished projects are relatively small projects, literature reviews, or secondary analyses of data. These are also the projects that are most likely to be put off to some unknown date in the future due to systemic constraints, time, or projects that are simply not well-organized. By focusing on discrete and intense work, we can finish projects that have been languishing.

So now — off to start the next project.

Why Do Professors Do That? How Not to Suck in Grad School

Why Do Professors Do That? How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

The general population does not appear to really understand the role and function of a university professor. Students, even most grad students, are unaware of the number of roles and functions that the professors manage each day. I am not trying to make excuses for rudeness or lack of support for students, but there are some genuine reasons why professors behave in ways that seem bizarre. Of course, there is that little issue of academia being one of the few professions where reasonable social skills are not an absolute requirement. You know it must be true because there are several television shows that revolve around the theme of socially awkward scientists. Most professors have reasonable social skills, yet the demands of the job can create challenges.

Why are professors’ emails so rude? Although some professors may be rude, most are simply terse. I average 215 emails per day during the fall and winter semester, about half that during summer. Of these, an average of 45 require some response from me. Even if they only require two minutes each, that is an hour and a half out of my day simply answering emails. As such, politely worded prose is unlikely and one-word answers are the norm.

Why are professors so rigid when it comes to grades and deadlines? Students are under intense pressure to receive strong grades. They seem to read course syllabi like attorneys who are looking for loopholes in a contract. And every professor has had a variety of students begging for a better grade, flirting, having parents call the professor to insist on a higher grade, threatening to appeal the grade, and otherwise spending an inordinate amount of energy not related to classroom work to get a higher grade. Then, there are the excuses. Family emergencies, medical crises, general hardships, mental health concerns, and the proverbial dead grandparent have all been tried with nearly every professor who teaches. The problem here is that these can be legitimate and very serious issues that deserve respect and consideration from professors. However, we know that many of these stories are not based in reality. Most professors do not want to be put in the position to make the judgment on which excuse is legitimate and which is not. They also do not want to be taken advantage of or played by students. The result is that professors become rigid and can be quite unfair for those with legitimate reasons for requiring accommodations.

Why does the concept of absent-minded professor see more reality than fiction? I can only speak for myself, but I do spend a lot of time working on problems in my head. I also seem to have the ability to focus and block out anything distracting. People may say hello to me in the hallway and I just walk on by without acknowledging them. There is no intent to be rude, I swear I did not see them. In addition, there are so many different activities in the course of the day ranging from committee meetings, large class lectures, Skype meetings with collaborators, grading papers, writing, conducting data analysis, and much more; that it can be difficult to shift sets completely and focus on the task at hand.

Why do professors seem to never be available? Many of us consider ourselves to be public scholars. Travelling to meet with collaborators, conduct workshops, conferences, conduct media interviews, provide keynote talks, consult with business and industry, and other activities take us off campus. In addition, we are often all over campus as we go from one meeting to another. Also, some of us spend a significant amount of our writing time at home where we can ensure that we are not interrupted. When this is put together, we tend not to be on campus, in our lab, or in our office all of that often.

Why are professors so selfish? This is especially related to authorship of papers. It is common for established professors to take credit and authorship when students or postdocs did most of the work. Also, students are frequently denied authorship or demoted from 1st to 2nd author without appropriate negotiation or rationale. To be clear, such behaviour is unethical without exception. However, there are some universities that only give professors credit for purposes of promotion or merit if they are the first author or sole author of the manuscript. Grant funding agencies often perceive scholars more favourably who have mostly sole or first author publications. These universities and granting agencies create incentive for professors to behave unethically and minimize opportunities for students. Fortunately, such universities and granting agencies are becoming less common, but they still exist.

Rant. This is started out as a lighthearted ramble, but I am going to go off the rails here into a full-blown rant. Every day I read about harassment, abuse, and unwanted sexual advances by professors towards students. I do not think I am a prude or overly judgmental. If older professors wish to hook up with younger partners or if someone wants to have relationships outside of their committed partnership, then I really do not care and it is none of my business. Once a person is under direct supervision or there is any sense of major status, control, or power differential; then that person is no longer a member of the set of potential romantic partners. The reason is that whether intended or not, the basis of the relationship is exploitation and this nearly always creates harm for students or those being supervised. This may seem clear, but I really do not think that unwanted sexual advances are about potential romantic partners. In most cases. I suspect that unwanted sexual advances are about establishing power and control; in the same way that other forms of harassment and abuse of students are about power and control. These forms of gaining power and control are common and toxic. I do not know why professors do this. I can only assume insecurity, entitlement, and lack of consequences are primary causes.

Conclusions

Professors often do stuff that is strange or confusing to others. Most of these behaviours have a reasonable rationale that are based on the context in which work is conducted. However, some behaviours are not simply strange or confusing to others, but are dangerous and harmful. There is no context or rationale in which this behaviour is excused. Few things are as harmful as the insecurity of entitled people with power.

Strategic Preparation for Oral Communication: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Strategic Preparation for Oral Communication: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

Now that I am officially an old professor, there are three skills that even very talented graduate students in my field seem to lack: quantitative skills, writing skills, and oral communication skills. Oral communication skills are among the most surprising deficits. Yet, as a research program develops for graduate students, one of the hardest activities is to be able to articulate your research to several different audiences. If you do not believe that is difficult, then try explaining your research to a distant relative at a family reunion. Most often your options are to bore them to tears or to confuse them with a blizzard of jargon. Except for those of you who are extraordinarily quick witted and articulate, it helps to prepare for different forms of oral communication with which you will come in contact. All graduate students and academics require at least four different forms of oral communication: the one-minute research program talk, the one-minute specific project talk, the 10-minute self-promotion talk, and the 45-minute research explanation talk. There are certainly other forms of oral communication that are important, but these are the ones you need to have prepared and ready to deliver at a moment’s notice.

The one-minute research program talk. “So, what kind of research do you do?” This is the type of question that can be asked at a professional conference elevator meeting or cocktail party, at a first date, by polite relatives, or even during a job interview. The biggest mistake that most people make in their one-minute research program talk is to go into the weeds of details. This is the opportunity to describe the big and important topic of most of your research projects. For example, I say, “We are working to shrink the research-to-practice gap to improve the education and mental-health of children who are left behind in school and society.” It should be something that everyone from a senior scholar to your aunt Dorothy can understand and can capture attention. The second point is the general methods that you use. No details or jargon here. Something like, “We capture the collective expertise of teachers and evaluate their ideas.” Next, the hero narrative is useful. This is where you quickly discuss the unique, exciting, and enthusiastic aspect of your work. An example is, “We are the only research lab harnessing the exciting potential of international collaboration to solve the problem.” Finally, reiterate the big picture conclusion. “If we are successful, we can disrupt the school – to – prison pipeline and have a society that leaves no one behind.”

The one-minute specific project talk. This is a more detailed talk that you would give to professionals, colleagues, or maybe even potential donors or members of a foundation board. Although similar to the one-minute research program talk, the specific project talk focuses on the how of research. The intro involves a specific research question you are addressing. Then the specific hypothesis being tested. Information on the specific methodology comes next. And finally, the ramifications of potential findings for future research or application. The focus here is to convince the listener that you have a well-thought-out project, the expertise to carry out the project, the resources to carry out the project, and understand the relevance of your project. It takes quite a bit of practice to make the specific project talk interesting, brief, and detailed enough to be compelling to a listener.

The 10-minute self-promotion talk. This is the type of talk that you would give as part of a symposium, at a leisurely bar meeting to someone who is expressed interest, when recruiting new lab members, or even to potential donors. This is quite a bit like an oral version of a grant proposal. And this form of talk is not for the modest. There are elements of the first two one-minute talks above, but the purpose is to brag a little bit. In addition to describing the big picture of the major issue that you are addressing, you also add elements that are special in your research lab. This is the talk where you say that your lab is fully funded by the following organizations; you have published X number of papers in high-impact journals; your research has had a major influence on research, theory, or profession; graduates of your lab have gone on to great success; X percentage of your students have won prestigious fellowships; and so on. Talking about the intuitively appealing aspects of your work is a major focus of the 10-minute promotional talk. The conclusion of this talk is to state what your goals are in the near future. The basics of this talk are: we are addressing an important topic, we are doing this research in an exciting way, the lab team is generally awesome and can carry out this important research, and our goals for the future are even more exciting than the present.

The 45-minute research explanation talk. This talk is for a guest lecturer in a class, a job interview talk, invited colloquium, and other long form opportunities. The format of this talk varies across settings, but the general principle is to begin with your 10-minute promotional talk, describe the details of at least two studies, and then conclude with future broad future goals and specific planned research projects. A long talk take significant preparation. Again, in most of the situations you are trying to sell your self, your research, and your team. Having the details of this talk worked out in advance so that you can conduct this talk with little notice is a valuable skill. Developing this relatively long research talk in such a manner allows you to free up time and mental energy to be entertaining, amusing, and sell your overall awesomeness.

There are many forms of talks about your research that you will need to conduct. However, preparing in advance for at least these four forms of a research talk will serve you well. The secondary value of preparing these talks is that it helps you to simplify and completely understand and articulate the goals of your research. Sometimes it appears that oral communication comes naturally and without effort. The reality is nearly all of us must prepare, practice, and be mindful in how we conduct oral communication of our research. The investment of time nearly always pays off.

 

 

 

Establishing a lab culture: How not to suck in graduate school

Establishing a lab culture: How not to suck in graduate school

SR Shaw

The fall term brings new graduate students, visiting scholars, post-docs, and undergraduate research volunteers into research labs. Integrating new people into the lab and re-incorporating returning students and collaborators creates new issues. It is important to establish a culture quickly, so that the work can be done efficiently, cooperatively, and even joyfully. Sometimes, as an older scholar I make the mistake of assuming that returning members of lab remember the key features of the lab culture and that new members will somehow magically absorb the values that I wish the lab to possess. My twitter account and this blog are ways for me to put the values of the lab and our work in writing, so that there is an archive of ideas and tone. But in the hustle of day-to-day work, values and culture can be forgotten or lost due to busyness. And some labs find themselves adrift and moving in a direction that the director did not intend.

There is nothing that replaces the modeling of these values by the principal investigator. They must be lived or members of the lab will not buy-in and accept these cultural touchstones. In addition, these values must be emphasized explicitly, evaluated, rewarded, and established. Building a culture is a long-term process. However, a quick overview of the established credo of the lab can be a starting place and set expectations and aspirations for all lab work. Below are the 10 components that are the most heavily valued in my lab. I will be sending these to my students over the next week so we know where to begin our work this fall.

The 10 core values of the Connections Lab at McGill University:

  1. Strive to become a professional, but do not forget to be a human

Work every single day to become a useful professional. That is, conscientious, independent, skilled, knowledgeable, ethical, and courageous; but realize that you will fall short some days. Always focus on being better tomorrow than you were today. You will never have a problem with me if you do something every day to improve.

  1. You will need to trust that I define my success by your success.

My job is to prepare students as professionals. I know what it takes to be a successful school psychologist and the more successful you are, the more successful I am. I welcome challenges from you. A very reasonable question that you should ask me frequently is, “how will this task help me to achieve my professional goals?”

  1. Wellness: yours and your team’s.

Consider your mental and physical well-being a central part of your graduate education and work in this lab. Feel comfortable discussing issues and concerns that you may have. Your long-term development as a person and as a professional require attention to your physical and emotional well-being. At the first sign of any issues, let me know and we will develop a plan. In addition, look after your peers. We are a team and need to take care of each other. Although it may be obvious; harassment, sabotage, creating a hostile environment, or any other behaviours detrimental to the wellness of the team, our clients, or individuals will result in removal from the lab.

  1. Write it down or it did not happen.

Writing is an essential component of graduate school. Any thoughts, ideas, findings, notions, and other contributions are only real if they are written. This is the most effective way to communicate and to create a trail of your thinking that will have an important influence on research and clinical practice. Writing is also a mechanism of accountability, minimizing misunderstandings, and improving communication.

  1. We all do better when we all do better.

There is inevitable competition for authorship, grants, fellowships, and time and attention of senior members. However, this lab is a team. The success of any one of us reflects on all. Share credit, be generous with authorship, listen to the ideas of others, be genuinely happy for the success of your peers, and assist the work of others. When this becomes a habit, everyone benefits.

  1. Do more: everything takes three times longer than you expect.

Doing more than the bare minimum is an essential part of professionalism. In addition, it is nearly impossible to plan your time and work accurately. No matter how much time you devote and plan to a specific task, you need to multiply the number of hours by three. Just achieving minimum expectations will require much more time and energy than you expect.

  1. Attention to detail.

I completely dismiss the concept that “idea people” are important and effective parts of the lab. Ideas are only important if they are paired with an intense work habit, focus on implementation, and single-minded attention to detail. The focus on detail will certainly annoy most of the lab members at some point. Attention to detail is the difference between a vague idea that is floating in the ether and high-quality research and clinical practice.

  1. Ethical behaviour.

Too often, students and professionals gloss over ethical behaviour because they believe that they are a good person who would not ever do anything evil or wrong. Ethical violations are not usually due to bad actors. Ethical violations are usually committed by good people who are tired, emotionally overwhelmed, stressed, overloaded with work, up against timelines, or ignorant of the exact ethical standards and procedures to be followed. Ethical guidelines need to be memorized, automatized, and second nature. They will be challenged when life becomes chaotic.

  1. Invest in preparation.

Writing activity is the tip of the iceberg. For every hour of writing there is at least two hours of planning and four hours of reading (not to mention: seemingly endless hours of data collection and analysis). Be prepared for every meeting by having questions or information to present. Investment in preparation allows you to be a better worker, have more clear thinking, reduce stress, and leads to improved overall productivity and success.

  1. Develop productive habits.

Inspiration comes and goes, but habit remains. To be an effective worker in this research lab, your aspirational goal should be to read 100 pages per day and write 1000 words per day. This will take time, practice, and training. Whatever habits you develop, focus on being the most productive person you can be. Positive habits create professionalism.

 

Developing a culture is far more than 10 simple and vague ideas. This only becomes a culture when these 10 points are modeled and lived. However, starting by communicating goals and expectations is a good way to begin the term.

 

Leading Team Projects and Papers: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Leading Team Projects and Papers: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SRShaw

I recently tweeted a form that helps with organizing and writing papers from the brilliant website by Hugh Kearns (http://www.ithinkwell.com.au). The site has excellent forms, checklists, timelines, and other helpful information for graduate students and those doing long-term research projects. A Twitter colleague (@jillian_Swaine) asked if someone could write up details on how to lead team papers. I thought I would describe the detailed process that we use in my lab.

Context

I am a professor in a professional training program. The students in the program will almost all go into professional practice in psychology. The result is that students are extremely competent, they appreciate the value of research, but only a few have plans to be professional researchers. Too bad because my field is one of the few with a shortage of academics. Moreover, our graduate program has extensive coursework requirements and has an emphasis on developing professional skills as a psychologist in schools, hospitals, and clinic settings. And finally, our research takes place in school settings that requires coordination in developing relationships with school boards. Just to add an extra degree of difficulty, I have always felt that self-report data or surveys are of minimal use for most important research questions (no offense — I know, I know, much of psychological research is based on these methods) and I prefer to use outcome data. Bottom line: projects are challenging, require a lot of planning, and student responsibilities are divided.

There are also some lab rules and expectations that are relevant. Each student is expected to be a co-author on at least two submitted papers per calendar year to receive a satisfactory annual evaluation. Publications are also critically important because over 75% of students in my lab receive multi year funding from the provincial or federal government. However, this funding is highly competitive and the primary criteria for success is number and quality of refereed scientific publications. Masters and doctoral theses are priorities for all data collection projects. All lab members are expected to help one another with data collection, data entry, sharing expertise, and supervising undergraduate research assistants. We all do better when we all do better.

I typically develop at least one major team manuscript per year. This is often a literature review, meta-analysis, theoretical paper, big book chapter, or some other major project. Currently, our lab has developed a new theoretical and methodological model of research that requires multiple large literature reviews and theoretical papers. I have recently been invited to write a chapter for a major textbook in the field and have been given an extraordinarily short deadline. This textbook chapter will use the team process.

Preparation

For nearly all projects, preparation for the completion of the project; which includes building foundational knowledge, supporting improving writing skills, motivation for project completion, development of a trusting and coherent team, and clarity of the proposed project; are typically the differences between a successful and unsuccessful team project or paper.

Goals

The goals of team projects are to provide opportunities for students to improve their writing skills, scientific reasoning and logic abilities, understand the process of manuscript preparation, and have experience navigating the journal review process.

The Team Process

The team process for developing projects is variable and can be adjusted to meet the needs of a project and the needs of the individuals working on the project. In cases with an experienced team, the team-developed paper can be quick and efficient because all the duties are shared. In other cases, the team develop project is slower and less efficient than a solo publication or a project with a single co-author. However, efficiency is not the most important goal in these cases. Extra time is spent on writing instruction and development of the manuscript. Time invested in instruction using a team development approach will hopefully result in a more efficient and well-written doctoral thesis.

The pre-stage task for the Project Director is to know exactly what you want project to be, the intended audience, and three outlets (i.e., scientific journals or funding sources) that are ranked in order of desirability. Sometimes a student comes to me with a good idea that may be best served through the team process. But know what you want to do and why you want to do it.

Stage I — deadlines. The most important lesson that I learned as a graduate student is that the difference between a professional and amateur writer is deadlines. Deadlines may be self-imposed or externally imposed (i.e., grants, editor established, publisher established). Knowing when a project is due is always the first step. Before starting the process, knowing the end date will allow you to work backwards to work through each stage. Surprisingly, my experience is that stages 2 through 7 tend to take equal amounts of time (i.e., 10 days to two weeks).

Stage II — team development. Team development has three major steps: who will be on the team, what is the proposed order of authorship, and what will the role and function of each team member be. This issue is clearly dependent on the field of study. In psychology and education there is not typically any problems with having multiple authors. Practically, I find that having more than four co-authors becomes unwieldy and difficult to manage for theoretical or literature review papers. I invite members of the lab to participate on projects with a level of strategy. I like to have at least one member of the team who is experienced and I know I can count on to set a good example. Another member of the team is typically conducting their own research on a related area and I want to ensure that they have a head start on reading all the relevant research literature and is making substantive contributions to literature before their data collection begins. The third member is usually a first-year student who needs the experience and is typically following the more experienced members. Authorship is based upon responsibility and is negotiated ahead of time. Sometimes I have a student serve as Project Director and they lead the rest of the team through the process. That student is the first author. In those cases, I am typically the last author. About half of the time I am the first author and am just seeking some help. I also let each member know why they are on the team and what I expect them to contribute in terms of participating in the process, reasoning and developing ideas, reading and mastering the literature, and approximate number of words to be written.

Stage III — big picture and brainstorm. Stage III is an in-person meeting of the team for a freewheeling discussion. The project director is expected to have much of the basic information and a paper outline prepared ahead of time. This meeting has four major goals: communicate the theme and tone of the project, create paragraph level outlines with approximate word count for each paragraph, discussion of new ideas and negotiation of specific tasks, and assign core readings and concepts to be considered.

Stage IV — the walk-through. This stage is like a table read of a new play. Each person has had time to develop some ideas about their sections of the paper that were first described in the big picture and brainstorming session of stage III. Each person takes turns talking through their section of the paper to ensure that all the pieces flow together. Quite often, readers can easily tell who wrote which section of the paper by differences in tone and clumsy transitions from one section to the next. There are some tools that can help smooth differences among authors. Each section, major paragraph, or table can be described on an individual slide in a PowerPoint presentation. The cork board feature of Scrivener can also be helpful. Any clunky passages or transitions can be discussed. This section seems like an extra meeting, but it saves time by ensuring that everyone has a clear set of tasks as their ideas have been vetted through the entire team. The final section is to develop a specific deadline for each section.

Stage V — the drafts. The section is when each person goes to write their own components of the paper based on the information shared in stages three and four. Sometimes, sections may sound great during the brainstorming and walk-through phases, but when the actual writing takes place; sections may not work out well. Any time that the drafting of the sections of the paper deviate from that agreed to directions in stage IV than this contributor needs to consult with the Project Director to assure that these deviations do not detract from the entire paper.

Stage VI — the shared edit. The project director compiles all of the sections and posts the manuscript on Google Docs so that the entire team can read the manuscript. Any member of the team can make edits, comments, and suggestions. It is also helpful that the references are stored in a common reference management system such as a project folder in EndNote, Zotero, or Mendalay.

Stage VII — final revisions and copy edits. The Project Director is then responsible for smoothing out all the sections of the manuscript and incorporating edits and revisions from stage VI.

Stage VIII – public submission of the manuscript. Submitting a manuscript for publication has become an incredibly complex event. Each journal has a different set of requirements and sometimes the websites can be daunting. Little components such as writing a cover letter are challenging for students. It is helpful to have a team meeting with the screen projected so that everybody can see the journal manuscript submission interface as the process is completed. Because everyone is together, this is also not a bad time to have a celebratory sparkling adult beverage after submission.

Stage IX — debriefing. At the debriefing, the project director gives feedback to each member of the team. The golden rule of group feedback remains: praise publicly and criticize privately. The goal of this feedback is to improve the process so that the next opportunity will be smoother. In addition, a plan will be put in place for the inevitable revisions and contingency plans made for secondary journal or funding source should there be a rejection. Making plans for a rejected paper helps to ease the feelings of disappointment because most papers and projects receive an initial rejection.

Stage X — revisions and follow-up. The project director is usually the corresponding author. Among the responsibilities are to keep the team informed of the manuscript status. Upon receipt of the decision and reviews, the project director should share the editor’s comments and then recycle through the stage system as needed. Monitor behaviour of the team because some members may get discouraged with rejection or especially harsh critiques. The mindset needs to be that rejection is simply one step on the way to success. It is much easier to have this mindset when it is shared amongst the team

This 10 stage approach is enormously complex and time-consuming. All of these stages are investments of time to improve the clarity and quality of the manuscript writing process. The more detailed the support system, the easier writing becomes. The purpose to this team approach is to teach members how to be effective writers of scientific projects, work as a team, and produce high quality literature reviews and research proposals.