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.

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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.

 

 

Fitness journey: How not to suck at grad school

Fitness Journey: How not to suck at grad school

SR Shaw

During my summer schedule, I typically take a break between 12 PM and 2:30 PM to go to the gym, take my dog for a run, and shower. And like most obnoxious exercising types, I announced that I was going to the gym on my twitter feed (@Shawpsych). One of my twitter colleagues, Karim R. Lakhani (@klakhani) wrote: “I am waiting for @Shawpsych to write the book on academic fitness – like Art DeVaney’s diet book!” That sounds pretty cool. Unlike DeVaney (an economist who developed the framework for the popular paleo diet), I am not that sure I know enough about fitness to write a book. However, a blog post seems appropriate.

Academics tend to be remarkably fit group. On my twitter feed and in real life, I know academics who are mountain climbers, bodybuilders, power lifters, triathletes, rowers, swimmers, roller derby skaters, jujitsu rollers, weekend basketball players, and a lot of marathoners. My own research lab consists of a volleyball player, marathoner, bodybuilder, dancer, hockey coach, soccer player, and generally evidence that my grad students are staying in good physical shape. But I am just a guy. If I were in the Avengers, then I would be Middle-Aged Man: A walking example of dad bod.

My fitness journey is typical of a middle-age person in academia. I played and enjoyed all sports as a kid and generally sucked at all of them. Then I had one of those weird late bloomer things where I went from scrawny and uncoordinated to athletic over what seems like a one week period when I was 16 years old. My new 40-yard dash times, vertical jump, and bench press caught the attention of the football and basketball coaches; but I honestly had no idea how to play football or basketball. I played soccer in high school and in an under-19 team while in college; and my roommate got me involved in martial arts. But when I was lucky enough to be accepted to graduate school, I stopped everything physical. Very long days of studying, little sleep, poor eating habits, too much alcohol, and limited physical activity were the norm. Then I got married, got a job, had kids, and got fat.

At age 48, I read about this thing called a Spartan race and it sounded like a lot of fun. I also had a sabbatical year. This was the perfect opportunity to get back into physical condition with the Spartan race as the final exam. Every day I wish that I had not stopped exercising and I paid for 25 years of sloth. Training hurt every day. Stretching, running, doing burpees, and learning the basics of an obstacle course (e.g., climb a rope, get over 8 foot walls, run muddy trails without falling). I finished the Spartan race, but had torn my rotator cuff during the training — and that was unpleasant. That injury took about a year to heal.

When my young daughter wanted to try martial arts, my wife (who had long trained in Aikido) and I encouraged it, and I drove her to class every week. After a few years, she got good. When her instructor finally encouraged me to join the adult judo class, all I could imagine was semi-permanent pain, severe injuries, and being required to wear orthopedic tweed sport coats forever (good thing Canada has a quality health care system). My dad encouraged me to hit the weight room and do yoga to reduce the severity of judo injury (“it isn’t if you are going to be hurt, it is how often and how severely“). He is a shockingly good athlete. Dad is 79 years old, I am still not sure if I can bench press more than him. A combination of my dad being correct with the training idea and having a first-rate judo instructor (who excels at teaching falling with skill and confidence), and I have returned to being a pretty good judoka who competes well with younger, bigger, stronger, and more athletic people. My favourite complement was after a difficult, but fairly even, randori (i.e., sparring session) with a bigger and more experienced partner, I asked my daughter how I looked. She said, “he is better than you, but you look more like a fighter.” (Yes, she is sweet.)

When compared to my far more athletically accomplished and knowledgeable academic peers, I am not an expert on fitness. But as a middle-aged man I understand how to keep motivated, grind, find time, nurse injuries, be disciplined, and take great joy in being physical. I do not take it for granted. Exercising is physical, psychological, and spiritual therapy during difficult times. I also find that I am much sharper mentally than I was six years ago. I can work longer and with more intense concentration than ever. My recommendation is for graduate students to do something physical at least three times a week and to make that one of your high priorities. In my lab, students are required to write two yearly wellness goals. These wellness goals can be anything from spending time with friends and calling your mother to improved diet to exercising. I encourage regular exercise, even if it is long walks. Do not make the mistakes that I have made. Getting back in shape as an old man is far harder than maintaining good physical condition. I appreciate the fitness journey.

Motivation is not hard for me now. I became very good at going to the gym regularly after my wife became ill. It was an important form of therapy during her long and challenging treatments. That therapy has turned into a habit. We often stretch or go to Tai Chi classes together as she is healthy, but still regaining her former strength and fitness. Hard workouts are excellent at keeping depression at bay or at least minimizing the bouts. It is also motivating to look and feel stronger.

My plan is to have my exercise mesh with my work schedule as closely as is possible. I like to try new things and new techniques to avoid overuse injuries and simply to keep the exercises fresh. I always modify programs and ideas to take account of my physical limitations. I divide the calendar year into three segments with a long winter break thrown in. The fall is difficult because grant proposals, teaching, training and orienting new students, heavy administration loads, and writing large numbers of letters of recommendation make maintaining a routine difficult because of the long days/nights and frequent deadlines. The winter is a little bit smoother, but data collection projects demand a lot of time. The summer is the writing term, which involves flexible hours but a lot of solitary writing time. About 75% of writing takes place during the summer. My workout schedules designed to fit this approach.

I steal a lot of specific workouts from www.bodybuilding.com. They have several great programs and a library of videos to help with form. I am also comfortable checking with trainers/partners at the gym to ensure that my form is solid and reduce the chance of injury. I like to work fast and do not want to loiter. I am on the weights for 35-45 minutes and cardio is a 26 minute session. I have become good at the habit working out. Now if only I could improve my diet with some consistency….I should check with Dr. DeVaney.

Fall (Sept 1 to Dec 8) (Goal: keep the momentum going–60-70% of one rep max)

Monday – pulling muscles (back/bicep)

Tuesday – evening judo

Wednesday – off

Thursday- evening judo

Friday – off

Saturday – pushing muscles (chest/tricep)

Sunday – legs/abs

Winter break (Dec 9 to Jan 6) (Goal: change of pace)

Monday – pushing muscles

Tuesday – cardio and judo

Wednesday – yoga

Thursday – legs/abs and judo

Friday – yoga

Saturday – cardio

Sunday – pulling muscles and judo

Winter (Jan 7 to April 30) (Goal: strength increase with a 5 x 5 program–80% of one rep max)

https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/sclark70.htm?searchTerm=5%20x%205

Monday – gym

Tuesday – evening judo

Wednesday – off

Thursday – evening judo

Friday – gym

Saturday – yoga/cardio

Sunday – gym

Summer (May 1 to August 31) (Goal: weight loss and flexibility)

https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/lee-labrada-12-week-lean-body-trainer-week-1-day-1.html

Monday – yoga/pulling muscles/cardio

Tuesday – yoga/pushing muscles/cardio

Wednesday – off

Thursday – legs/abs

Friday – yoga/pulling muscles/cardio

Saturday – tai chi/pushing muscles/cardio

Sunday – legs/abs

 

 

 

 

Being an Expert: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Being an Expert
Congratulations! You are an expert. You may be extraordinarily modest or have some degree of impostor syndrome, but you are an expert whether you like it or not. There are few people with the perseverance, intelligence, work habits, and collective wisdom of all your teachers to have developed expertise in a specific area the way that you have. As you complete your Masters thesis and doctoral dissertation you have read every paper, all books, and contacted every expert in the field. There is nobody who knows more about your topic than you. Now that you are an expert, what are you going to do with this magical designation as expert?

As I am sure you have read, these are difficult time for the experts. There is a lot of talk about the death of expertise. The public clearly would prefer to accept comfortable untruths than face uncomfortable truths. Your expertise will be challenged repeatedly by your peers, colleagues, editors, and your family. You will be referred to as a “so-called” expert by those who disagree with you, are jealous of you, or are insecure in your presence. You will hear, “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich.” Your family will remember every stupid thing you did as a child and remind you that you are not that smart. Moreover, discovering that the only people influenced by your research publications are other people who are experts and publish research can be frustrating and lead to existential crises.

Sometimes, your expertise is recognized and you will be invited to consult, testify, lecture, be interviewed, or appear on radio or television. This sounds exciting and flattering. However, there are times that this can be more frustrating and fruitless than trying to convince your beer swilling uncle that you should be called “Doctor.” The frustration arises because no one truly cares about the details of your expertise, but they care about how they can use your expertise as a commodity. Businesses may want to provide information to reassure stockholders. Lawyers may wish you to provide expert testimony that supports their side of the case. Television and radio may look for entertaining information. Everyone is looking for a way to use your expertise to their advantage and they get you to provide that expertise with the compelling combination of flattery and money.

There are multiple pitfalls. Expert creep is an issue. The chances are that your true expertise is quite limited in scope. Those using your expertise will frequently ask you to make statements or answer questions beyond the scope of your expertise. You have something like a halo effect in that they assume an expert in one area must be an expert in all related things. And our ego is such that we rarely can utter the words, “I do not know” without fear of losing your status as an expert. Selling your soul is another issue. There is an extremely prominent person in my field who makes significant money providing expert testimony to major corporations with a history of environmental pollution — and given my field of study, this is problematic. He keeps this part of his work private. The third major risk is attention seduction. This happens when you begin to crave the attention of interviewers and audiences at workshops. You prefer putting on a show and showing off your expertise to learning more and increasing your expertise. You may have been seduced by the attention if you prepared one-liners that will appear to be spontaneous, had a spray tan before an interview, and worry more about the audience reaction than the quality of the content that you deliver. When you engage in these three pitfalls you become simply a provider of a commodity. You are like any other salesman. There is nothing wrong with selling and promoting yourself, but to become little more than a salesman means that you have lost the special rarefied position as an expert. I would argue that the widely reported death of expertise is in large part the fault of experts experiencing the pitfalls of using their expertise as a commodity.

There are five ideas that can help you avoid pitfalls while sharing your expertise and spreading knowledge in ways that can be useful to others.

  • Negotiate terms carefully. Once you understand that most people want to commodify your expertise, then you need to understand exactly how it will be used. What deliverable information are they expecting from you? Often you must do your homework to understand exactly what information they are looking for. Once you understand the goals of the people who would like you to share your expertise, then you must be very comfortable saying no. This is difficult, because when people approach you to share your expertise it validates that your work is valuable. If there are potential pitfalls that you are not sure how to address, then you are better off declining the opportunity.
  • Define the scope of your expertise. Ensure that anyone who wants your expertise is extremely clear on exactly what you are expert in and what is beyond your expertise. Inevitably, there will be expertise creep where you are asked to provide information outside of the parameters of your expertise. This is where you need to have the discipline to swallow much of your ego and say, “I do not know.” Even if you may know the answer to their concern because it is adjacent to your expertise, it is still best to say, “That question is a bit outside of my area of expertise.”
  • Define loose terms. Nonexperts who wish to use your expertise frequently use non-scientific terms that are difficult to interpret for people with narrow subject expertise. For example, “What is the best method of using X?” These types of questions cannot be answered simply. Often, a true expert will say, “it depends.” Although true, that type of equivocation makes your expertise less useful and enhances the reputation that specific expertise may not be particularly useful for any important decision making or policy. The secret is to ask your interviewer or consultee to define the term “best.” A reasonable request for clarification would be, “by ‘best’ do you mean the largest effect size, greatest efficiency, cheapest, most acceptable to people implementing the ideas, most popular with parents? There are many ways to define best.” By putting the onus on the person using your expertise, you reduce the probability of speaking incorrectly, reduce equivocation and losing your expert power, and help your interviewer or consultee gain the exact information that they want.
  • Define science. Often there is a belief that your expertise is defined by having access to a fund of information that no one else does. This is only partially true. Usually an expert in any area has a firm understanding of the process by which information is learned. This confusion is part of the death of expertise. It is common for people using expertise to note that one study concludes X and another study concludes Y. Often people infer that science must be useless because two papers using scientific methods yield very different results. You may have to explain to people that science is an evolving process and results are functions of sampling, methods, procedures, analyses, and many other factors. There is a risk of being pedantic. However, there are a great many people who are surprised that science is a process and not a collection of facts to be discovered. Of course, there are multiple philosophies of science — but sometimes an explanation of why science can be so maddening to scientists and non-scientists can be helpful and provide information that is much needed.
  • Focus on process rather than results. The emphasis of any presentation should be on what you did, how you did it, why you did it, and how the information is important. Related to the previous point, science is a process. If you have managed to find some results that are flashy and exciting, then the next step is to de-emphasize that result and focus on the next project you will be undertaking. This seems counter-intuitive. Information about the process (even when it is something ugly such as the phrase “how the sausages are made”) provides inside information that many people appreciate and find valuable. Flashy and exciting results will speak for themselves, your real value and expertise is focusing on how you found those exciting and flashy results. This approach further defines science and minimizes the possibility of running into major pitfalls.

So congratulations on becoming an expert. Now it is time to develop the next phase, which is how to use your expertise for the benefit of others without running into pitfalls that can derail your reputation, your ability to share your expertise for the benefit of others, and your work in science.

SRShaw

 

 

The Value of Rest: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Today is a holiday. And I will be working most of the day. Most academics probably are putting in either a full day or taking care of administrative odds and ends (or grading). Despite my apparent inability to use a holiday for its intended purpose, I wanted to write about the value of rest in being a productive academic.

Rest is an essential component of long-term productivity. Rest is considered by many academics to be a luxury. Rest is something that takes place after a deadline is met. But there is always another deadline coming that permanently pushes rest to the back burner. Rest is something that is done intermittently at best and almost always without a planful approach. Rest is too often something that only happens when an academic nearly passes out from physical or emotional exhaustion or illness. Even more problematic is that for highly ambitious academics; rest is considered something for the weak, unambitious, and mediocre. At some level, most academics realize that rest is a good thing in the abstract, but not something that needs to be made a priority. I would argue that rest is not just desirable to grab when you can, but is required for long-term productivity.

There are many forms and definitions of rest. I am making the case for serious downtime, where the world of academic thought (and that includes guilt for not working) is put aside so that the scholar has an opportunity to rest and recharge. Weightlifters have scheduled days off that are part of the program. Gym rats hate days off because of how much they enjoy their workouts. But over-training is a real problem that can lead to injuries, burnout, and long term setbacks. Rest prevents these issues. No offense to my serious weightlifting brothers and sisters, but picking things up and putting them down is not exactly a high cognitively loaded task — yet weightlifters have figured this out long ago and academics have not. If downtime is an important part of long-term productivity, then what does it mean and how can we do it?

The first element of effective rest is sleep. People require 6 ½ to 8 ½ hours of sleep every night. Sleeping less than 6 ½ hours reduces cognitive functioning, attention, physical recovery, weight management, emotional regulation, and a host of other factors critical for health and academic success. There is a minuscule percentage of the population who function effectively on 2 to 4 hours of sleep per night. Almost certainly that is not you. There are many people who believe they are among this small low sleep requirement population, but nearly all of these people are simply used to being constantly sleep deprived and believe that their sleep deprived state is normal (e.g., the current US President). Those people are impaired due to insufficient sleep. Historically, there are many figures who slept poorly or inconsistently, yet one of the few documented low sleep requirement figures was Margaret Thatcher. Low sleep requirement people are extremely rare. Nearly all of us cannot even begin to have a strong approach to rest unless we are getting at least 6 ½ hours of sleep. A good rule of thumb is that if you are in a situation that you can sleep, then you should sleep. Naps can be recharging and count toward for 6 ½ total hours of sleep, especially for those with problems sleeping at night. Sleep is a non-negotiable.

The notion of “work hard, play hard” is as common in academia as it is fatuous. Socializing academics to work ridiculously long hours followed by concentrated and intense travel vacations is common. As if you can make up for a highly intense work life with a highly intense vacation. Travel vacations are often not restful. If your vacation has a formal itinerary of places to see and things to do, then it is not a holiday from work and is not restful. You have simply exchanged one form of intense effort for another. The work hard, play hard mindset also leads to the idea in parenting that “quality time” where parent-child time is small, but focused on highly eventful and memorable activities. For some people this might work; but I am a fan of parenting via big fat massive hunks of quantity time. This works for both parenting and rest. Vacations, quality time, and special events are wonderful; but are a small part of a comprehensive resting program.

Most of us approach rest as an ad hoc period of non-activity that simply appears concurrently with our spare time. The trope of “you should be writing” colours how we think of rest. Many academics define rest as the period of procrastination, wasting time, avoiding work, or what we do when we are distracted from the things that are important (i.e., writing). Given that most academics eschew the idea of spare time because they believe they should be working every day and all day, the assumption is that spare time equals wasted time. This mindset detracts from the importance of an effective rest diet.

Rest is mindfully pursued downtime with the intent of recharging both physically and mentally. Rest means different things to different people. For some people, going to a party is part of the resting program and for others this adds stress. For me, rest does not include much of life outside of academia such as cooking, commuting, cleaning, managing finances, medical treatments, parenting, exercise, shopping, or being in a relationship. Rest is a balanced and organized program that includes sleep, vacations, socializing, and guilt-free laying about. The guilt-free component is most relevant for academics — we love self-flagellation for not working more than most professions. The nature and frequency of rest is determined by the individual and their specific needs.

Schedule your daily program of rest as carefully as you schedule your program of work. Critical elements of rest programs are that time is not used thinking about work, worrying, or experiencing guilt because you are not writing. Although I have a work schedule, if I have trouble thinking because of fatigue, stress, or need for a break; then there is no trouble or guilt in obtaining additional rest. I need it just like I need food. Rest means that you must turn work off for a while and do something that is recharging. I think I am a high-energy person, who genuinely enjoys long work hours. Even as I get older (I am now 54), sometimes I still believe that I do not need to rest or to take breaks. To quote Dilbert, “There is no kill switch on awesome.” Thus, I need to be disciplined in obtaining rest to prevent burn out and exhaustion, to recharge, and to keep my thinking fresh. Or else I tend to work until I drop — not healthy. Rest is engaging in simple preventative maintenance, even when I am not in the mood to rest. Any program of rest that works for you can be helpful for recharging, but be mindful and experimental in exactly what works best to recharge you. Below are the elements of my regular rest program:

  • daily
    • in bed between 10 and 11 PM
    • waking between 530 and 6 AM
    • 15 minutes breathing meditation after waking
    • 20 minutes for lunch (when I often play a videogame or work a crossword puzzle)
    • 60 minutes watching television (either sports or something really stupid)
    • 60 minutes reading non-academic books (latest reads, When Buddhists Attack and The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr, Vol 4 Causality and Complementarity)
    • 20 minutes of a meditative stretch (usually with Joyce)
  • vacation
    • at least 3 four-day weekend vacations through the summer
    • at least one seven-day vacation that involves some travel (not conference related)

Take care of yourself and get some rest. You and your work will thank you.

SRShaw