Communicating Research: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Communicating Research: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

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

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

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

Action — exciting and visual drama

Revolution — novel or controversial themes and ideas

Killing — violence

Oratory — a memorable speech or dialogue

Fantasy — acted out fantasies that are common to the audience

Fornication — some level of sex appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SR Shaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

SR Shaw

Mini – Meta-Blog

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

Main Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So now — off to start the next project.

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.

SRShaw

 

 

 

 

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.