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.


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.






Stupid Idea Time: How Not to Suck at Being Creative in a Lab Setting

Running a lab as a principal investigator, postdoc, or lab coordinator can be a tedious job. Organizing personnel, managing data, running experiments, managing ethics proposals, maintaining and repairing equipment, paying personnel, managing and monitoring adherence to protocols, completing evaluations, preparing for audits, writing grant proposals, and preparing and managing manuscripts can seem like a treadmill of activity. The harder and more efficient a lab works the more likely they are to be producing scientific widgets like a factory. The high quality grind results in paper publications and grant money, but rarely big discoveries or major contributions. Becoming stuck in a rut of unimaginative studies that can be produced efficiently is real and common in research labs.

One of the problems is that work in such a lab is rarely fun or inspiring. Students often have a fear of fouling up the efficient assembly line with new and creative ideas. They become factory workers. Creativity, creative thinking, and creative mindsets lead to a fun environment that can produce high quality work without fear of failure. Most importantly, the probability of increasing innovative and important research conducted by highly motivated and creative students can be increased.

Establishing a professional culture that involves careful skills and exact following of the research protocol and a creative mindset is a challenging culture to create. Integrating volunteers and new students into an innovative, but exacting culture can be difficult. There are a host of exercises and activities that can be implemented to create an ideal environment for productivity, precision, and innovation

One of the basic exercises that we use in my lab is referred to as “Stupid Idea Time.” This concept is in large part inspired by Martin Schwartz’s 2008 article entitled, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research.” The goal of the exercise is to reduce the fear of being wrong that many students in lab members may have and to encourage consideration of new ideas. It is a suggestion box that comes to life in a group laboratory setting. The concept that there is no such thing as a stupid question is bizarre and incorrect. Of course, there are stupid questions. But these questions are not to be shamed or punished, but to be celebrated. The goal of stupid idea time is to challenge widely accepted assumptions and to say things like, “Why won’t this work?” “What if our assumptions are wrong?“ ”What if we examine this process from an entirely different perspective?” These novel, sometimes naïve, ideas are actually challenges to the status quo. The team needs to take these ideas seriously and come up with an explanation or play the “what if” game to imagine what the science would look like if these new ideas were integrated into the existing paradigm of a research lab.

The process is not quite the same as brainstorming. In brainstorming, ideas on a specific topic are tossed out in a rapidfire fashion with no judgment. The goal is to generate via a group stream of consciousness as many possibilities and solutions as possible. Evaluation, discussion, and group interaction are not typically parts of brainstorming; but are used in subsequent meetings to consider the products of brainstorming at a later time.

Here is how we do it:

  • Try not to have stupid idea time very often. We may only do it once or twice per term. It is a useful idea when ideas have gone stale, there is low morale, when the energy of the lab is low, or there needs to be a shakeup in the dynamics of the lab. When you decide to use this method, give the students one-day notice that stupid idea time will be on the agenda. If you give people too much time, they will write formal list and make proposals and generally defeat the spontaneity of the exercise. But one day allows them to think about what they would like to change, or innovate; and allows the energy and anticipation of a fun session to grow.
  • Students are often reluctant to be the first to start with the ideas. It is a good idea for the PI or leading postdoc to provide the first of the ideas, just to get the ball rolling. Then challenge the others to come up with something weirder and more creative. Ideally, the first idea should be something that all of the other students in lab members laugh at. (e.g., so how would we analyze zombie DNA?)
  • Encourage discussion and reaction to new ideas. A general atmosphere of silliness is often helpful. The goal is to encourage lighthearted camaraderie, good humour, and allow the group to expand and clarify upon an idea.
  • Do not worry about feasibility of the stupid idea. Challenge other members of the lab to develop a more practical variation, how the new idea fits into the general theoretical concepts used by the lab, and generally keep the discussion going.
  • Because quite often a lot of people have ideas, it is okay to run with an idea for a limit of 10 minutes before moving on to the next idea. Everyone needs to be encouraged to engage in refining, judging, and even mocking of the idea. Whatever you do, dream and think big. Ultimately, the goal is to increase the excitement, novelty, and potential for breakthrough findings in your research lab.
  • Make sure that all the stupid ideas are recorded because some of the ideas might be mentioned, but do not register as especially notable until well after the meeting takes place.

For example, the idea arose that we remember that annoying little animated paper clip figure that would pop up and give you ideas from old versions of Microsoft Word. Someone thought an idea like that help with interactivity of our classroom-based lesson plans. We agreed that it should be a cat instead of a paper clip (Shaw sounds like chat, French for cat. Many of the children we work with believe that Dr. Shaw is actually a cat). And if we are going to increase interactivity, then why don’t we make our ideas applicable to be used on a SmartBoard in front of a classroom with strong graphics, video, and hyperlinks. Then we can code animation, voiceover, and teacher modifications into an interactive website. For several minutes, the ideas continued to escalate, refine, and develop into something that could be actionable. Most importantly, the atmosphere of the lab became more engaged, energetic, humorous, open, and creative. Although the specific idea may be extremely helpful, the process has reinforced the value of creativity and pushing limits of projects. Especially valuable in this exercise are undergraduate volunteers and new research assistants. They are often naïve to the background and history of projects and are not constrained by ingrained habits of thinking.

In an era of tight funding, novelty and thinking outside of the box can jump start a research program to gain attention of granting agencies and donors. Even if nothing actionable comes of the exercise, there is nothing wrong with fun and positive interactions in a lab meeting.

Losing Your Way as a Scientist: How Not to Suck

Nearly every researcher feels as if they have lost their way at one time or another. The big plans may not have worked out. The daily stressors and environment of their employment place are not conducive to achieving professional goals. A series of projects have worked themselves into an intellectual cul-de-sac that do not advance the big goals. Personal stressors and responsibilities restrict the time necessary to achieve professional goals. Work is tiring and tedious. There is a vague, but loud and persistent, feeling that what you are doing right now is not what you are meant to do with your career. These are not same as the day-to-day hassles of a researcher. Some of these hassles involve things like broken equipment, spoiled samples, difficult relationships with collaborators, data collection sites falling through, disagreements with supervisors, papers rejected, and grants unfunded. These day-to-day hassles are the price of admission to being a researcher. The big question is what to do when one finds that the big and slow moving ship of the research program and career are going in the wrong direction.

Frankly, many researchers do not have this dread because they never look up from their day-to-day work to see the big picture. They go from project to project with little mindfulness—usually conducting the research that is the most fundable. But many have goals, strategies, and an understanding of how their work fits into the big picture of scientific thought and discovery. Quite often these scientists survey the road map, find the point on the map that says “YOU ARE HERE,” locate the desired destination, and determine, “I cannot get there from here because I am on the wrong road.” Sometimes this conclusion is based on an analytical consideration, other times it is a feeling that things are just not going right. How does one get back on track?


In any problem-solving situation, at least half of the time and energy needs to be spent identifying exactly what the problem is. There are three big questions that need to be asked before you determine that you have completely lost your way. First, is this a short-term or long-term problem? Success takes time and patience. Rarely are the big goals quick and easy. Also, estimating how long it takes to achieve goals is something that nearly everyone underestimates. Be patient. Making a radical change may result in deviating so far off of your career path that you may end up in the swamp. Second, is this simply a nonlinear path that is different than your expectations, but will take you to the same destination? Success is not a linear path. In our minds, achieving dreams and goals are always linear and stepwise. In reality, success is winding path with starts, bypasses, and stops. Step back and determine whether you are lost or have simply found a less direct way to travel to your goals. There is nothing wrong with the scenic route. What may seem to be a dead-end position, evil or ineffectual supervisors or colleagues, a series of failures, or a research program that is not as fruitful as desired; all may be opportunities in disguise. They can all get you to the same place. Third, are the original goals, plans, and paths that you set out for yourself the correct ones? We often cling to goals out of habit. The goals we made in our undergraduate days may not be realistic or useful anymore. You now have more experience. Changing goals is perfectly fine.

Implied in the above paragraph is that I do not find timelines for career goals useful, but once did. Things like, “Earn a PhD before the 25th birthday.” “Tenure track position before 30.” “Full prof by 40.” I had all of these types of goals. As a middle-ager in retrospect, the journey is infinitely more important than the destination. And if you have a destination, reaching it by a certain time is more stressful than helpful. This is your life, not a train schedule.


Problem analysis involves careful consideration of the personal, environmental, and situational elements that are negatively influencing the trajectory toward your goals. Be brutally honest. Maybe you do not have the talent or drive to achieve your goals. Maybe your supervisor is not supporting you in a fashion that leads to excellence. Maybe you would prefer culinary school. What would need to change to get you back on the path to your goals? Are you willing to do those things?

I am a terrible person to give advice on this because I am completely without ambition as a scientist. I am not that smart, disciplined, or driven. I once missed a grant deadline to help my daughter study for an exam. Because my partner tends to burn food or cut herself, I try to be home early to cook dinner every night. I publish 3 to 6 papers per year and write a book every few years. I try to make the papers good and helpful to my profession. But I am never going to be a rock star academic. I have incredible respect for those who are and do not begrudge their ambition and skill. My goal is to ensure that upon graduation all of my students are better and more skilled than me. I have a pretty good idea what it would take for me to be a major scientist and I am not willing to that (even when entertaining the possibility that I have the requisite abilities).


Once you are certain that you have fallen off of the desired path into a large ditch and are willing to do what it takes to get back on, then it is time for action. This is more than searching for greener pastures, this is about meeting essential professional goals and achieving what you desire as a professional. Nearly all academics I know are constantly searching for new and different academic posts. That is a normal activity. However, setting fire to the lab or otherwise rage quitting is not normal. Nearly as bad is breaking contracts and agreements. Not meeting your end of a contract is something that could shadow your entire career—and not in a good way. So do not walk away, except under extraordinary circumstances. New jobs, research programs, supervisors, employers all require massive and painful amounts of work. Are you sure you want to and need to make changes?  Once you are sure, then pull the trigger and give the new situation full and complete energy. Do not look back, just begin sprinting on your new path to your destination.


All of the above recommendations are logical and reasonable. However, often the first signs that you are losing your way as a scientist are feelings of dread, confusion, frustration, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, disappointment, homesickness, and other emotions. Any solution to the idea of losing your way is not only a matter of career strategy, but emotional factors as well. Most scientists are passionate, serious, and conscientious. The negative side effect is that all career issues are heavy and fundamentally alter scientists’ self-image. Feeling that your science career is going in a bad direction almost by definition means that your life is going in a bad direction. For most scientists finding the right path to their professional goals is the essence of their being.

I am on the other end of the spectrum and tend to be light in being for a university professor. I take the work seriously, but not myself. If academics does not work out for me, then I am sure I will be happy as a school psychologist, window washer, farmer, or street sweeper. This sounds a bit silly, but it is far easier to experiment and try new paths when you do not feel the weight of the world on your professional shoulders.

The vast majority of times that a scholar feels lost, the issue is primarily that of emotional upset, frustration, or general unhappiness rather than a fundamental strategic career mistake that requires a dramatic course correction. I would make the case that the feelings of frustration and being on the wrong track is a sign of an impending positive major breakthrough. When engaging in difficult work, there are often setbacks, self-doubt, and frustration. Rather than despair, the best approach is to seek counsel, acknowledge the emotional component, take a short rest, and approach the problem from a new angle. This increases the likelihood of a reinvigorating breakthrough. Most often uncomfortable emotions related to scientific progress are signs to make very minor changes with the reinforcement of a major breakthrough on the way. If you have the major breakthrough or have a big success and still feel that you are going in the wrong career direction, then a change is justified. But dramatic change prior to success could disrupt the process and minimize the chance of scientific breakthrough.

This is where courage is necessary. When you believe that your entire professional life is at stake, you know that your situation requires a course correction, and your emotions are screaming that you are on the wrong track but are too scared to change; then a change is required because it is terrifying. By far the largest mistake you can make is failing to steer away from a path that is leading you in the wrong direction. But make absolutely sure that your direction is wrong first.


All scientists feel that they are going in the wrong direction at one time or another. There is a significant emotional component to this that needs to be addressed. Most importantly a scientist needs to step back from the emotions, make the best possible assessment of the current scientific trajectory, make a realistic assessment of goals; and then make a difficult decision. The majority of times a major course correction is not required — they are simply negative emotions to be processed with difficult, tedious work ahead before a major scientific breakthrough can be earned. However, if you are clear that the change is needed (preferably after a success), then make the leap quickly, completely and do not look back. The most difficult part is being honest with yourself.

SR Shaw





Communicating Science: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Science, and especially the way science is funded, is changing dramatically. A laboratory that produces only esoteric work with results published in esoteric scientific journals will find that funding, attracting new and high quality students, collaborating with other laboratories, and receiving necessary support from the university is far more challenging than in the past. Government and foundation funding agencies want to know the applied applications of nearly all research, no matter how basic. Science communication is now a required activity. However, there is so much energy and expertise concerning science communication that it is overwhelming for graduate students and new scientists to figure out how to allocate their time and resources. Sometimes so much time is spent updating CVs, creating websites, and managing communication that there is little time left for actual research and data generation.

As always, I am not an expert in science communication, but that does not stop me for offering my two cents about what works for me. I am a director of a professional program in school psychology at a large research university. Certainly, some of the strategies will not work in other fields or in more basic science areas.

Tree-Shaped Communication

The communication of thinking, science, implementation, and data produced by the lab is most effectively thought of as a tree-shaped process. The first stage is the trunk and roots of the tree, which serves as the foundation for all communication. The trunk consists of refereed scholarly articles. The roots are the data and theory development upon which ideas are created. Scientific articles that have been peer reviewed begin to form the trunk from which science communication spreads. Without such foundation, communications can be speculative, fictional, aspirational, or otherwise not tethered to any scientific thought. The branches and leaves of the tree spread communication to professionals in your subfield, to related professionals, to policymakers, to thinkers in other fields, to implementing professionals, to the general public. The traditional academic laboratory consists solely of the trunk — although it is a strong foundation, there is no reach beyond the restricted group of dedicated colleagues. Speakers, popular science communicators, talk show hosts, and other communicators may have a broad popular reach; but those communications consist only of the branches and leaves (like a shrub or vine) — a broad reach with an uncertain anchor in science. We all know people who do this and view them as dilatants who have sold their soul, but are still someone envious of their notoriety and bank accounts. As a graduate student or new scientist, this framework allows for strategic use of time and energy to both create a respectable core of knowledge and communicate findings to the most appropriate audiences.

Possessing a framework is only a tool. Every graduate student or young scholar must have a communication goal in mind. For me, that goal is to be respected by my research peers and also have the opportunity to influence the clinical practice in education and psychology. There is a necessary middle ground to occupy between being a dusty tweedy professor writing papers that collect dust and are only read by other people who write papers; and serving as a spray-tanned veneer-smiled consultant and media personality. There are many types of trees in this framework that you can choose to emulate. Some professional goals are more like a lodge pole pine that is tall and narrow; and others are more like an oak tree that is shorter, but spreads far and wide. The tree analogy can work, but you must know what your goals are.

The Trunk

Within the building of a foundation for communication there are a variety of options. Every field in science has narrow journals that focus on a subset of knowledge. Narrow focus journals allow for strong peer review by experts in the field. This level of professional journal most typically serves as the foundational aspects of any research program. These narrow focus journals serve as the core of the trunk of the tree. The next level is the broad journal. These journals have a wider readership and cross into many related areas of study. Most fields have multiple levels of journals. For example, in my field of school psychology there are narrow journals such as the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment and Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation; more broad journals such as School Psychology Review; and very broad journals such as Psychological Bulletin or American Psychologist. Typically, the foundation of a research program begins at narrow journals and works its way out to broad journals as the theoretical implications of data become more mature. Both types of journals are necessary for building the strongest possible roots and trunk of the communication tree.

The Branches and Leaves

Not all research programs are intended for a broad audience. It is helpful to grow from the established trunk of the tree outward to the broad and general audience. Most people in science prefer to stay close to the scientific community (i.e., thick branches). The further the communication spreads to a general audience, the less structure and less control the scientist has (i.e., the leaves).

Professional newsletters/professional organization websites/magazines — Many fields of study have professional newsletters, websites, or related magazines that are widely read in the field, but are not refereed or a primary outlet for scientific results. These outlets may include interviews with scholars, book and paper reviews, and broad descriptions of scientific activities. Such outlets reach a wide professional audience and the editors of newsletters and magazines are familiar with the language of science and your discipline, specifically. Although these outlets tend to have a larger reach than broad refereed journals, they lack professional status. These are excellent communication resources when you want to publicize your research activities within your broader field.

Blogs — The value of blogs varies from field to field. In some areas blogs are often the first repository for new data and new thinking. In other fields of study blogs are used to provide overviews of research. There is no guarantee of size or reach of the readership of a blog. The nature of the readership is difficult to control as well. However, the advantage is that you have complete control of the editorial content and tone of what you wish to communicate. Often referring wide and general audiences to a blog in order to communicate details of research can be valuable.

Social media – Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and others provide a general outlet for information. Savvy marketing is necessary to ensure that the audience to whom you wish to communicate is receiving the information. Most often social media serves as an excellent method of interacting with colleagues and the general public. Scholarly connections frequently began as social media communication. These frequently lead to collaborative work and other partnerships.

Public and professional talks — Scientists are often asked to engage in public or professional talks. In my field, school boards/districts and professional organizations need speakers for professional development opportunities for psychologists or teachers. Engaging professionals with the information developed in the research lab and applying it to clinical activities is a difficult skill. However, developing public speaking skills to assist in having your research information communicate to audiences of potential policy makers and implementing professionals is worth the time and energy.

Press — Newspapers are always looking for interesting stories. As such, they frequently interview scholars to receive an expert perspective on their news story or feature a scientist who has made discoveries. Being interviewed for a newspaper reporter story is a difficult skill. Nearly every scientist who is interviewed for a newspaper claims that they have been misquoted or so heavily edited that their primary message did not appear in the final article. An effective reporter or interviewer will ask an open-ended question upon which a scientist will go into a long and rambling explanation, then the interviewer will select components of the long and rambling explanation that fits into the reporter’s narrative. That selected information is what appears in a newspaper article. Although it goes against the nature of most scientists, answer newspaper interviews with short declarative sentences. An interview is not a social conversation. Taking several seconds to articulate a short and simple answer is perfectly acceptable. If your responses are short and on point, then you are unlikely to be misquoted.

Media — Radio and television interviews reach fairly large audiences, but are extremely difficult to do well. The hardest part about television and radio interviews is that everything is in first draft, there is no opportunity to revise an answer once you speak it out loud. This is also a foreign environment where you need to worry about audio and visual equipment, dress and make up, the tone of your voice, camera angles, strict time limits, and other issues that are irrelevant to most scientists. Engaging with television and radio interviews can be nerve-wracking, is a specific skill, and depends in large part on the quality of the people in the media. The major advantage is that you will immediately reach a large number of people in the general population.

All-Purpose Communication

There are other forms of communication of scientific progress that can cover both trunk and branches and leave of the tree framework.

Grant proposals — Although grant proposals are essential to funding core research, many grant proposals are read and evaluated by people who are not area experts in your field of study (I know, weird). In any grant proposal there must be a weaving of deep foundational aspects of the research with broad implications for application and social import. Writing successful grant proposals often requires mastery of both directions of the tree framework.

Website — All labs require a website that communicates the foundation and the reach/scope of the topics studied. The website is used to recruit new students, indicate the importance of the research for the general public, and provide detailed methodology of current projects. Like a blog, the website is the home for interested parties to receive additional information and more communication than they received from the snippet of information in a television interview or newspaper article. All communication requires a reference to the website. The website is as much the home to your laboratory as the physical space of your lab.

Nerd social media — Nerd social media involves repositories and scientist-focused websites such as Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and related sites. On these sites scientists can search any scholar to view their catalogue of publications and the reach of those publications. Many of these sites have opportunities to interact, share papers and data. Nerd social media is an excellent forum from which to meet and reach collaborators, future research supervisors, and scientific leaders in the field.


Conducting and reporting scientific findings in narrow focused refereed scholarly journals is no longer adequate for any scientist in any field. A communication strategy is required to maximize the reach of a research program and therefore possibilities for funding, recognition, collaboration, and application of science to the larger community. Each graduate student or scientist is now required to develop specific communication skills; whether they are writing for a general audience, public speaking, creating videos, or other methods of communication. Selecting a strategy that fits with scientific and professional goals based on the tree framework of scientific communication is an effective way to create a reputation based on sound scientific principles, yet reach a broad and important audience.


How Not to Suck at Summer Work Habits

As often happens, I was inspired by Raul Pacheco-Vega’s recent blog post. This one is entitled, “My daily workflow: On focusing on ONE task at a time.” ( I always learn a lot from his insights and experiences. Moreover, I am always fascinated by the variations in work habits that productive people enjoy. Although I have written about my organization, work habits, and approaches to completing tasks before; summertime work schedules, priorities, and tasks change.

For me, summer is four months without teaching, few grant deadlines, and minimal numbers of meetings. About 75% of my writing volume is completed over the summer. Because so much writing is completed in such a short time, maximum efficiency of work habits is needed. In addition, there are vacations, downtime, children home from school, and wonderful weather that demands time be spent outside. The best part is the flexibility. I have few 10 to 12 hour days. Many days I can complete my daily work in six hours. Even taking a few days off is perfectly fine in the summer. The goal is not to allow this flexible and enjoyable time to slip away without achieving maximum productivity.

Organization. Before the summer begins, I catalog all of  the projects that need to be completed over this four-month period. For me, this is fairly easy. I have several papers and book chapters that are being co-authored with students, there are student theses that require editing, and I have a book contract where I have promised to present a completed manuscript by September 1. I noticed that Raul uses conference deadlines to guide much of his scheduling. At this stage in my career, my personal life, and the priorities of McGill University, travelling and presenting at conferences is a low priority for me. About 90% of my summer work revolves around refereed publications, books, and grant proposals. So my list of projects to be completed over the summer is made with hard deadlines primary and self-imposed deadlines secondary.

Prioritization. I use the website/app Priority Matrix to organize my to do lists and projects. Typically, projects with hard deadlines and long difficult projects are attacked first. I have a tendency to procrastinate productively. In other words when I get tired of working on a long and difficult project, that I will automatically begin working on a shorter easier project just to break up the day (this blog post being an example—I wrote it during the night shift [about 7:30-8:00pm] after a day of writing).

Outlining. Most of my work has extremely detailed outlines. Every heading is written before I begin writing. Usually paragraphs that do not receive headings are also placed within the outline. Any figures or tables are completed before writing begins. The goal is that once writing begins, it should go quickly. The time required to write any manuscript typically involves about one third outlining, one third drafting, and one third revising and editing.

Writing. I write nearly all of the text via dictation with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. This approach increases my speed over typing from about 50 words per minute to 140 words a minute. I typically have Zotero open to the folder related specifically to the project I am working on. I usually have tabs open for four or five PDF papers that have sections I want to emphasize in my papers highlighted. These open papers are most frequently data-heavy papers where I will be citing complex details in the literature review. For me, writing is about getting as much on the page as I possibly can in the shortest amount of time. Given the amount of time and energy I spent outlining, most often writing runs fairly smoothly. Sometimes I find that an outline that appeared to be solid is less so when I actually start writing. Then I go back and fix the outline for future writing sessions. There is always a reciprocal process between outlining and writing.

Editing. Revising and editing is where the differences between a professional writer and a beginning writer are most apparent. The first revision is called the FLOAT pass and works to perfect the bones and muscles of the paper. Float stands for Flow, Logic, Order, Accuracy, and Tone. Flow refers to an easy-to-read paper with strong transitions. Logic refers to whether the arguments supporting the thesis or hypotheses are clear and meet logical standards. Order is related to flow and logic, and refers to the sequence of paragraphs that creates a consistently deductive or inductive approach to making the thesis or testing the hypotheses. Accuracy is simple fact checking and includes appropriate attribution and citation of ideas. Tone refers to word choice and quality of expression. The second pass is editing. Paragraph structure, complete sentences, grammar, and punctuation are the foci. The third pass is formatting. The details of APA or AMA (or other) style are important. In addition to the general professional style, often journals have their own idiosyncratic stylistic issues that must be adhered to. Often the difference between acceptance and rejection of a paper can be traced to style and presentation.

Time Working. I like to work from home mostly because I have an 80 minute commute from my house to my office. Working from home allows me to have almost 3 more hours of productive time in the day. The goal is to work for 40 pomodoros (30 minute segments) per week. I usually exceed this or work without the Pomodoro timer running. There is flexibility for when these hours are worked. 6 to 10 Pomodoro’s per day is typical.

Weekends. My family tends to be fairly late risers on weekends. Since I typically wake up about 5:30 (dogs do not comprehend weekends — all she cares is that it is pee o’clock) in the morning, I have plenty of time to complete at least six Pomodoros on each weekend day before the family is awake. Household chores and family time take up most of the afternoon and evening. I also tend to work with the television on during weekends, but do not watch television on weekdays.

Daily Grind. I go to the office once or twice per week during summers to meet with students, pick up mail, and attend the odd meeting. But if I do not need to go to the office, then I do not. My typical summer day is as follows:

  • 530 to 6 wake up and walk dog
  • 6 to 630 meditation and brief yoga
  • 630 to 830 shower, coffee, breakfast, twitter, farting around
  • 830 to 12 writing
  • 12 to 230 gym, lunch, long dog walk
  • 230 to 5 editorial duties, thesis reading, correspondence, editing (I do this on the patio if the weather is nice)
  • 5 to 7 cooking, family dinner, cleaning
  • 7 to 9 administration, reading, and answering emails
  • 9 to 10 family time

Although this schedule is the default, it is realized maybe 3 to 4 days a week. Real life always is the primary activity, no matter what deadline is pending. Medical tasks, therapies, chatting, and just being together take priorities over any work. And sometimes I just need a nap or to spend some time doing absolutely nothing. I do not worry about days where not much work is done. Guilt is not helpful and robs the day of joy. When the work habits are established, tasks will get accomplished. It takes a lot of planning and hard work to make any task appear effortless.

SR Shaw