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

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

SRShaw

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

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

Prior to Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

During the Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing

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

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

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Developing Extra Skills: The Meta-Skills of How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

Graduate school is a force that sucks all your time and the very life force from your body. Each discipline has its own demands, whether they are classwork, clinical work, labs, teaching and grading, fieldwork, writing, or some combination thereof; and then there is the reading (oh, good Lord, the reading). I went from nine hours of sleep per night, heavy drinking, much socializing, with a job, and with a lot of hobbies as an undergraduate to a monk-like existence of little more than grad school and four hours of sleep per night. Not particularly healthy, but there it is. These are not even the frustrating and demoralizing parts of graduate school. To me, the worst part is that I was magically expected to have a set of skills that I did not learn as an undergraduate and was never sufficiently taught as a graduate student. As a professor, I see that the difference between okay students and outstanding students is their pursuit of extra skills, the meta-skills of being an effective graduate student. Although the specific skills vary across disciplines, every graduate student has extra skills to be learned. Rather than being accidental and due to some random experiences, the pursuit of extra skills is best met with mindful and strategic effort.

Nearly every graduate student has had the experience of meeting with their supervisor or PI and hearing, “I thought you knew how to do this.” Good supervisors tend to say, “Okay, let me teach you.” Poor supervisors tend to say, “That is disappointing. I need to find someone who knows how to do this.” This missing skill could be anything from a statistical procedure, assessment technique, lab procedure, ethics proposal formatting, giving feedback, writing skills, oral presentation, or some other specific skill. Usually we acquire the skills in such an ad hoc manner that we usually do not appreciate the skill development until we look back and simply label this as “experience.”

The most difficult part of any problem-solving process is identifying the problem. For new graduate students the hard part is that you do not know what you do not know. Rarely will a PI have a task analysis prepared consisting of the skills necessary to be successful in that lab. Although some professional programs have a list of competencies that need to be developed for professional success, those are typically incomplete. It is always worth checking with your PI, postdoc, or senior graduate student as to whether it is worth the effort to learn a specific extra skill; but the initiative will always be on you. That said here is the process and some common extra skills that are worth learning.

There is a good rule from Stephen Covey’s popular book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that some time needs to be invested in sharpening the saw. This is a form of professional development, skill acquisition, and self-improvement. Sharpening the saw does not only happen after graduation, but is part of graduate school as well. The general rule is to dedicate 10% of your work time to developing the extra skills that sharpen the saw. Therefore, figure a minimum of four hours per week planned and protected. I am not saying that this is easy — in fact, it is difficult and exhausting. But the ability to protect and use these four hours per week in a strategic approach to developing the meta-skills of graduate school will pay off.

Collective peer improvement sessions are fantastic ways to pool resources and priorities. Many students generate and hold journal club meetings, which are a form of developing extra skills. However, journal club meetings could just as easily be repurposed as coding lessons, organization, writing workshops, lab procedure tutorials, and so on. Working as a team can share the burden and validate the value of the extra skill being learned.

Most extra skill development will be via reading. There is already so much to read that it is overwhelming. Where do you start? I am of the mindset that breadth of skills and knowledge is extraordinarily important, and only a few subsets of knowledge need to be known in depth. For most areas of study, I recommend three domains of extra reading: methods, philosophical underpinnings, and history of your field of study. In nearly every field, a deep dive into the specifics and even minutia of methodology can present golden opportunities. At the least, methods are a tool box; and the more tools that you have the more questions you can answer. Philosophical underpinnings of any field can result in some pretty dry reading. But understanding the philosophy of science for the general context in which your field is situated can help to provide the big picture of your research. Finally, the history of your field is important to provide a temporal context and because many of us experience the ontology recapitulates phylogeny issue. Often, new graduate students think that they have come up with a brilliant novel research question when, in fact, that question was already asked and answered over 30 years ago. You will read the basics in your field through classroom work and suggested papers from your PI. But to be effective, you must go beyond. Focus on methods, philosophical underpinnings, and history are great places to start your literature search and extra readings.

Although the other extra skills vary across disciplines, here are some suggestions that have been helpful for me:

  • Finances and Bookkeeping. I am fortunate to have learned these skills as part of a part-time restaurant job I had as an undergraduate and during my first year of graduate school (I also learned to cook at this job). In my career, I have been a lead psychologist in a hospital setting where I was responsible for a budget. The success of grant writing is largely due to the ability to justify budgets. Universities always audit any component of the work that involves money or purchased goods. My elementary bookkeeping skills have served me well.
  • Programming and Software Development. Basic coding and programming skills are requirements for many fields of study. These needs will always be changing and evolving. Typically, once you understand the logic of language acquisition, it is easier to learn new skills along the way. I am now in the middle of learning the basics of R for statistical analysis. It reminds me of the old school approaches as we used in the late 1980s era SAS and LISREL, but far more flexible. That I have basic coding skills is quite likely making learning a new method easier than it would otherwise have been.
  • Social Media. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and others are second-languages for the current generation of graduate students. However, the ability to use these approaches (and website design and development) for branding, crowd sourcing information, finding and acquiring funding, inter-university collaboration, and international research sharing is a specific and mindful skill that is worth developing.
  • Organization and Planning. Carefully organizing limited time is not something that people are born with. It is worth learning the techniques for study skills, time management, self-care, and structured learning. There is no need to waste time reinventing the wheel, there are excellent approaches and techniques available. It is a good investment of time to develop a highly organized and strategic approach to work.
  • Teaching and Supervising. Learning how to provide feedback and communicate complex information takes a lot of practice and experience. If you ask most senior professors how they developed the skills (if they have the skills), then they probably do not have a good answer for you. They will likely say that they learned on the streets or through trial and error. This is not necessary. There are many courses, tutorials, podcasts, and readings that support high-quality teaching and supervision. It is worth developing these skills even early in a graduate career.
  • Networking. Go meet people, you nerds. It is much easier to be social at conferences and other professional events than purely social events because you all have one thing in common – your field of study. For most senior scholars, at least one-third of their published papers (likely more) are due to a collaboration or inspiration of someone you have met at a conference or interacted with online. I have a colleague whose entire career success is because he is excellent at conferences. Everyone knows this gregarious professional. Any time there is an invited paper for a special issue, need for a chapter in a book, need for collaborator on a grant, or someone needs support for co-authorship on an article; they remember this guy they met at a conference and invite him. Meet people, find common ground, support those people, and follow-up. Overall, it is somewhat surprising that so many experienced researchers have poor networking skills.
  • Blogging. This seems simple, but blogging is an opportunity to write in an experimental fashion without judgment. This is an opportunity to communicate personal, professional, or scientific information in a simple manner. Blogging can range from a sophisticated outreach and knowledge translation activity to personal rants. Whatever works for you is fine. This is an opportunity to develop and practice a professional writing style that is clear, accessible, and makes you mindful as to the tone of your writing.

There are certainly extra meta-skills that will further your graduate and professional career (e.g., laboratory techniques, cleaning and sterilizing, electronics, computer design, construction, welding). Quite a few of those skills are discipline specific. Do not wait for random experiences to inform the meta-skills that you develop as a graduate student. Dedicate at least four hours per week, work with your peers, read extra papers strategically, and develop useful skills.

 

 

Getting the Writing Mojo Back: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

Being an academic or grad student is a good life. We research, teach, mentor, engage the public, edit, promote, organize, administer, discover, counsel, and a host of other roles and functions. Ultimately, academics write. Writing is how our ideas have the furthest possible reach. Writing is how our ideas become fully formed and permanent. Writing is also how we are evaluated and is the currency by which we acquire things (e.g., grants, tenure, promotion, reputation). Moreover, most academics have solid writing habits that work well for them. But there are times…

Non-writing sneaks up on you. I am generally a 1,000 word per day person five days per week. Yet… you do a favor for a colleague, a student is having a personal crisis, you accept a travel commitment, you are on a search committee, the dean asks you to serve on another committee, 212 emails per day (yes, this is my median received email count in the winter and fall semesters), program director reports are due, teaching activities pile up, relationships with clinical supervisors in the community need to be nurtured, accreditation self-studies are due, need to take the dog to the vet, some students bring a complaint to you that requires a complex adjudication, you need to read theses, the dean wants to you to speak to a parent group, editing and review responsibilities pile up, and before you know it you have gone 6 weeks and written 140 words total. And you have fallen into the habit of non-writing. Then there are the consequences for not writing. Co-authors are not happy, deadlines are missed, student co-authors miss opportunities, small grant call for proposals are ignored, and there is a potential ugly hole in your CV. A primal scream ensues — followed closely by frustration and despair. A writer who does not write is courting insanity. A researcher who does not write is a technician and a tinkerer.

I would really like to have a full-on meltdown and declare commitment bankruptcy. Then start from scratch, only better. But overwhelming frustration is simply the nature of the job. Even the best planner gets overwhelmed. So, time to re-build the writing habit.

Stop digging. No matter how awesome a new opportunity might be, say no. Or better yet, say I cannot start on this project until X date. No more new crap. Delegate. Disappoint your boss. Frustrate your students. Say no to an editor. You cannot add to the mess.

What can be put off or cancelled? Professionals keep their commitments. But if any deadline can be extended or projects delegated, then do it. You are trying to make writing time now.

Inertia is now the enemy. When you are on a typical schedule, writing 1000 words per day is so easy that you cannot imagine that you will ever stop this level of production. But now, opening a word processing file is aversive and you cannot imagine committing any thought to a file. Do not worry too much about word count. It is like a marathon runner recovering from an injury. You do not step back from the injury and expect to be able to prepare for a marathon. Write a few words that can be completed without pain or frustration. Then the next day, write a few more. The goal is to simply improve productivity every single day. Although it will not be easy, you can regain your form quickly.

Examine your schedule for scraps of time. Even in a full schedule there are 15 minutes here and an hour there that can be filled with writing. Keep your writing project open on your desk top. When you have a few minutes, write a few words. Twenty words, 50 words, 100 words. They add up.

For my schedule, from May 1 to August 31 is the productivity zone. Over 80% of my writing productivity takes place over these four months. I really do not want to spend this prime productivity period working on getting my writing Mojo back. I have about two weeks to rebuild the habit and be completely ready to hit the ground running on May 1. The plan is to dig out completely from the massive number of tasks and get the writing momentum moving in a positive direction. As an aside, Mojo is defined as a magic power. When things are going well, it seems like a magic power. Yet, writing Mojo is not magic, but the result of discipline and habit building — those are the magic ingredients.

I need to get back up to speed in not only the volume and speed of productivity, but also in the complexity of the writing. I typically ramp up with increasing complexity of projects. The first stage is to write a blog post, which I try to produce monthly. These blog post are intended to be helpful, but often are self-indulgent and the level of prose is not especially complex. The next level is writing manuscript reviews. These reviews require critical thinking and teaching. However, it is easier to respond to someone else’s ideas then to create one’s own ideas. The third level is for short and important projects that require discipline and will be read by others, but are not especially innovative or groundbreaking. Examples of level three projects are test reviews, book reviews, newsletter articles, website content, and the like. These forms of writing are fine and important, but they are for show. Level four writing is for the dough. These are grant proposals, books, and articles for refereed scholarly journals. This is where it is necessary to integrate scholarship, data and analysis, innovative thinking, and word count into a coherent expression of a contribution to advance your profession. The complexity of thinking and execution of writing are at the absolute highest levels. Getting on that level is challenging to attain and even harder to maintain. I have fallen, but am building my way back up. Here is the blog post. I wrote a manuscript review this morning. Today, tomorrow, and Wednesday I am writing two test reviews; while tapering down the large administrative load. Getting at the highest level of thinking and speed of productivity does not happen by accident or all at once. Have a plan and go to grab your writing Mojo back.

Issues in Letters of Recommendation: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

I put out a poorly worded Tweet last week that generated more attention and heat than makes me comfortable. Typically, attention on such an important topic is good and fine, but the Tweet in question is misleading (accurate, but still misleading). Here is the Tweet:

Just read about 60 applications to grad school. Letter writers who say applicants are cute, petite, lovely, sweet, appropriately dressed, has a great smile, has a supportive spouse–I’m judging you. Do better for these people.

11:17 AM – 1 Feb 2018

Here are the misleading points that I regret:

·       I read over 400 pages of letters of recommendation in three days. Then I cherry-picked eight or nine words and phrases that seemed a bit icky. These are not common words and phrases in the letters I read.

·       Twitter is a brief format that does not allow context to be presented. These phrases are presented with no context. Then the outrage machine of Twitter can be cranked up, context assumed by the reader, and results can be interpreted in a way that suits the theme and agenda of the reader.

·       I do not feel I could add any contextual information because I did not want to break the implied confidentiality of letter writers. I appreciate and respect the time and energy that all letter writers put in to this process. Their efforts support our program and support new applicants. Shaming or otherwise criticizing people who volunteer their time and energy does not support or improve the process.

·       Some of these words are discipline specific. These letters are for a school psychology program. Words like kind, generous, caring, thoughtful, and compassionate are considered positive characteristics for potential psychologists of any gender. Not only do these words have something of a gendered component, they are not far in meaning from clearly gendered words such as sweet, lovely, and nurturing.

·       The program for these letters has 137 applicants for eight positions in the 2018 cohort. I will be accepting one or zero students under my supervision. I read these letters carefully. I am not sure I read letters of recommendation as carefully in the past.

·       All of letters containing the words that made me feel somewhat uncomfortable and elicited outrage were extremely positive. The writers of these letters wrote at least two pages describing the leadership, scholarship, energy, experience, innovation, and other important characteristics that support admissions to a graduate program. In nearly every case, the offending words were in the final paragraph where testimonials concerning the real human characteristics of the applicant were described. The language in this final paragraph became problematic.

What to do?

Because the language bothered me and apparently about 800,000 other people, some action is warranted. I respectfully choose not to employ some of the suggestions by commenters. They will not be publicly shamed, reprimanded, stabbed with cocktail forks, reported to their universities, murdered, or otherwise be taught a lesson. Power is the ability to get things done. I have power. I will use power to address this issue.

I am not big on outrage, but I am big on solving problems. Here is what I have done so far: reported my concerns to our equity officer, who has set up an opportunity to work with our Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies) and also a professor in Law to find solutions; spoke with our graduate program director to put this item on the agenda in order to address discipline-specific approaches to educate letter writers; and I am writing this blog post to provide my perspective on letters of recommendation that I hope is helpful. I also plan on working with our faculty development unit (Teaching and Learning Services) to publicize and expand their instruction of faculty members on letter writing. There is a culture that needs to be changed. These are small contributions, but it has only been 48 hours.

Writing Effective Letters of Recommendation

As always on this blog, I am not an expert in this area and these are only my ideas. For those looking for more expert information on how to write effective letters of recommendation, I recommend these sites and documents as good places to start. There are many more resources available.

https://www.thebalance.com/academic-recommendation-letters-2062959

https://theprofessorisin.com/2016/09/07/how-to-write-a-recommendation-letter/

https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/documents/equality/HHMI_WriteReference.pdf

https://www.pace.edu/career-services/sites/default/files/files/pdf/writing-letters-of-recommendation.pdf

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/982/02/

Writing Letters

I write letters for 45 to 55 different students per year. Given that students often need multiple letters for multiple job opportunities, internship sites, grant applications, and such — there are approximately 200 documents per year from me. There are other faculty members in my program who write more. It is extraordinarily time-consuming, but I enjoy the process of writing letters. I am afraid that I do not follow many of the recommendations here for letter writers.

I appreciate that requesting letters of recommendation is difficult for students. I always want to be helpful to their cause. If I cannot write a letter that will substantially help their cause, then I will tell them that I cannot write a letter that helps them. I will not write a poor letter or a lukewarm letter. I understand those who feel a responsibility to warn colleagues of a poor student, but I do not do that. If I agree to write the letter, then I am all in. I will write an honest letter that does everything possible to attain the goal for the student.

I only write what I see. The student may be awesome in many ways, but I only write about my personal experiences with the student. The value of letters of recommendation is that they go beyond the CV and transcript. I have no desire to rehash the CV.

I typically do not use boilerplate information for letters. There are small things such as the details of the activities of the research lab or a specific class that I have taught. I try to write an original letter for everybody. I have tried boilerplate writing in the past, but it never seems to read well.

I do not ask students to write a letter that I will sign. That is not a letter of recommendation. Of course, people are busy. When people say that they are busy, what they are saying is that something else is a higher priority. If it is not that important to you, then do not write the letter.

I attempt to be transparent. If there is enough time and the students wants to see it, then I like students to see what I have written about them before I send it out. Mostly, I ask them to look for typos or factual inaccuracies. I will now ask students to also look for sexist or insensitive language. I have sent letters out without them reading it, but students can read letters of recommendation at any time. I write so many letters and documents, that it is always wise to have someone else review the letters for typos. No one is more motivated than the subject of the letter.

A framework helps with the efficiency of writing letters of recommendation. I divide a letter into eight sections.

1.       Why I am writing this letter, how long I have known the applicant, and the context of the relationship between me and the applicant.

2.       Describing the top accomplishment of the applicant. Describing exactly what the applicant did and the role they played in achieving this top accomplishment.

3.       The professional goals of the applicant and how a positive outcome by the target of the letter will help the person achieve those goals. The logic here is that the applicant has a thoughtful, ambitious, and planful approach to achieving career goals.

4.       Describe the process that the person is following to achieve future goals. What are they doing now, what are plans for the immediate future, what are the plans for the long-term future, and what is the trajectory of their work.

5.       Lesser accomplishments. This is often a laundry list of professional presentations, publications, and general everyday awesomeness.

6.       Clinical skills and experience. Sometimes this section is moved up to the second section (when the student is applying for a field placement or internship or clinical job). This relates to training, experiences, and special expertise in clinical skills. Special attention is given to the applicant’s development of unusual skills that the applicant has taken the initiative to develop.

7.       Citizenship. I want to indicate the role of the applicant in the research lab or the classroom. Most often, this involves discussions of leadership, creativity, initiative, and team approaches. This is the danger paragraph when it comes to sexist language. Review it carefully, because this paragraph will be read closely.

8.       I keep open all contacts. Readers are welcome to contact me and I invite questions or additional requests for more information.

This is not too hard. I find this process easy simply because my students are wonderfully skilled, good people to work with, and I truly believe that they deserve the job, experience, or funding. I believe that my sincere enthusiasm and belief that the students deserve to achieve their goals comes through in the letter. I do not use flowery or exaggerated language. Their talents and accomplishments speak for themselves. If the letter is hard to write, then I probably should not be writing it.

Reading Letters

I read a lot of letters. Admissions letters, letters for funding, and all other forms of letters of people applying for limited spaces or resources. I only focus on a few things and generally ignore the rest.

1.       In my world, the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. I want to know what this person has done. I do not care about their goals, dreams, plans, or anything else. What have they done. This is, by far, the most important aspect.

2.       I want evidence of leadership, initiative, and creativity. I am a trainer of professionals. Those people cannot be passive or passengers. I want a future professional.

3.       Many negative things do not bother me. There can always be disagreements or relationship issues, even with a letter writer. That said, any hint of laziness, treating other people poorly, or ethical complaints is a major problem. I do not expect applicants to be perfect, but I want evidence of professionalism.

4.       Is there any evidence that they do things for others? Selflessness and support of peers is far more valuable than ambition.

5.       What skills, abilities, or characteristics does the applicant have that will contribute to our program or research lab?

6.       Evidence of enthusiasm for growth. I want to know what the applicant has done to take the initiative for their own personal and professional growth. Sometimes, I need to look for a hint.

7.       How did the applicant manage or work around difficult times or other challenges?

I really do not care about many of the adjectives that are used in letters. Whether they are called a fine student or the greatest student in the history of civilization, that simply does not matter much. Sexist language in a letter does not really affect my decision of the applicant. I look for specific items. Everything else is extraneous or of minimal value to me.

Let us be mindful in how we communicate on behalf of students. We are their second-best advocates and bear significant responsibility for their success. Letters that are focused, clear, and describe an accomplished professional are most effective.

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.

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.