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.




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.



How Not to Suck at Co-authorship

December 30, 2014

Among the most common sources of conflict between supervisors and graduate students involve credit for authorship in scholarly papers. Although most professions have formal guidelines concerning the ethics of authorship and order of authorship, it is fairly rare for supervisors and students to read these ethical practices. Read your professional guidelines for authorship or read these solid papers: and At McGill University we have an excellent website devoted to issues in graduate level supervision. However, I am not sure how many supervisors or students read and follow the suggestions ( Most commonly, students are left to negotiate issues of co-authorship with their supervisors. Yet, the primary problems are that students do not know what is reasonable, have little leverage in negotiation, and are not clear as to the expectations of authorship.

The culture of the University and scientific field sets the context for graduate student authorship. For example, it was once extremely common for university professors to receive university credit for publication only if they were the first author or sole author of a published paper. In these cultures, graduate students rarely received appropriate credit for their work or were completely shut out of any authorship. Fortunately, most universities value student authorship and professors receive significant benefits from having students as first authors and co-authors. Most supervisors behave in the way that they were trained. As such, some supervisors have been trained in this old-fashioned model and make it extremely difficult for students to receive co-authorship. Also, different fields of study have different norms concerning authorship. For example, papers in medical journals are generous with authorship. It is not uncommon to find papers with 15 or 20 co-authors. This is in contrast to the humanities, where single-author publications are often the norm. Although there may be general professional guidelines for what constitutes authorship understanding the philosophy of the University, training and philosophy of the supervisor, and culture of the field of study are critical contexts for graduate student authorship.

What Typically Constitutes Co-authorship
I have a research lab in the field of school psychology. Most of my students plan on going into clinical practice after graduation. As such the motivation for most of my students is to become competitive for national and provincial fellowships and bursaries. Career prospects are more dependent on their clinical skills than their publication record. This culture makes for far less competitive attitudes toward publication and students are much less stressed in my lab than in other fields of study. Because I have a large number of graduate and undergraduate students in my lab, it is easiest to have general rules of what constitutes co-authorship.
• Authorship is earned by anyone who makes substantive contributions to the product.
• Data entry, line editing of manuscript, statistical analysis, brainstorming of initial ideas, data entry, and locating research to be cited do not necessarily constitute a substantive contribution.
• Substantive contributions involve design of the project and writing of the manuscript.
• Authorship and order of authorship are negotiated before the project is begun.
• Renegotiation of order of authorship can be initiated by any contributor of the project at any time. A consensus among all co-authors will be attempted before any change of order of authorship can take place. The most common situation is that someone who has planned to have a small role turns out to a larger role in the project and I recommend that that person moved to a higher level of authorship. And in these cases, consultation and consensus building with other authors is sought.
• Authorship and order of authorship are not dependent on seniority or status. Undergraduates, new graduate students, or collaborators external to the University are equal. The exception is that as lab director, my default order of authorship will be to serve as the last author.
This is a fairly new approach in my lab. Most of my previous work was with medical professionals from outside of the University. I am now in the process of developing a self-contained lab culture within McGill and within my lab. So far, so good. However, I may need to revisit this topic when flaws in the system are uncovered.

There are generally four types of projects in my lab. The first type is a Masters or doctoral thesis. For this type of project one student conducts and carries out all of the substantive work. However, they may receive administrative or other logistical support. The expectation is that any published manuscripts derived from the theses will have the student as first author and lab director as second author. The second type is an invited or theoretical paper. These are projects in which I take initiative and do most of the substantive writing and organization. I may invite students to make contributions or assist as second or third author. The third type is a substantive literature review. We tend to write one or two papers of this type each year. Although such papers are difficult to write and organize, they are good opportunities for new students to learn the literature extremely well and make an early and substantive contribution. Typically, a senior level student runs this project, is expected to be first author, selects and manages a team of co-authors, and negotiates roles and expectations with each member of the team. These papers often have four or five co-authors. The fourth type of paper are the single-study projects. These papers are typically the easiest to write. Like in the literature review paper, one student is designated as the lead student who selects the team for that project. We tend to have small group paper team meetings. This is where the 2 to 5 co-authors meet weekly to discuss progress and make plans for the next stage.

Becoming a Co-author
New graduate students know that authoring papers that are published in refereed scientific journals or presented at professional conferences is the currency that will make them competitive for fellowships, internships, postdocs, and desirable academic jobs. I have had many students approach me or an advanced graduate student and say, “Do you have any papers that I can be a co-author on?” This is not an effective method of entrée into co-authorship. Two better ways to become a co-author on a paper are to say, “I have an idea for a paper and would like to talk it through with you.” Or “I see that the lab has a paper in progress and I believe I can make the following contributions to that paper.” Initiative, preparation, and the presentation of new ideas communicate that the student is prepared to make a substantive contribution that is worthy of authorship. Earn it.

Revisions and Journal Communications
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of publishing scientific papers for graduate students is communication with journal editors. Most submitted papers receive a final decision of accept with major revisions or reject and resubmit. Both outcomes require a detailed, point-by-point description of how the revised manuscript meets the specific concerns of the editor and reviewers. This is a task that requires experience. There are cases where writing the letter to the editor is my primary contribution to the published paper. Communicating with journal editors may be the task in which I work most closely with students. We often sit side-by-side as this letter is discussed, planned, and composed. This task seems to be a rite of passage for students in my lab. When a student receives an editorial decision and says to me, “I’ve got this.” And I say, “Yes, you can do this on your own.” Then that student is ready to graduate and engage in independent research.

Communicating Expectations
I have written in previous blogs about the importance of interviewing and understanding how supervisors work before entering a graduate program agreeing to a supervisory relaitonship with a professor. I still think that the biggest mistake that many students make is selecting a supervisor based on a shared content area of interest. Although content is important, supervision style and match with student needs is even more important. Students need to research to determine how many of a professor’s publications have student co-authors and how many students have first authored publications. Moreover, professors should be asked about the expectations and supervisor support for publications. Some supervisors work closely with students, meet weekly, and are actively involved in every aspect of data collection and writing. Other supervisors may meet with students as little as twice per year. The expectation is that students will figure out how to conduct research on their own when given maximum independence and freedom to succeed. Students should know what they are getting into. A list of yearly expectations developed between student and supervisor in September is extremely valuable and is required by most universities. Revisiting these goals and evaluating the success in meeting the goals at year end is equally as important.

Quality of Work
We talk a lot about writing in the lab. Helping students to revise and improve their writing is a part of this process. I expect their work to show care, professionalism, and expertise. But I do not expect the work to be perfect. I refer to any project as the project or the paper, not your project or your paper. Keeping a distance between the work and the person takes practice. But I want the students to be open contributors to a paper and not paralyzed by perfectionism, ownership, and criticism. Students know that a heavily marked up paper is a good sign—it means I was engaged enough to meticulously consider every word. A bad sign is that the first three pages are heavily marked up, but later pages receive few marks. That usually means that I got bored. If each draft is better and more clear than the last, then I am happy with the progress of the work of my co-authors.

Conflicts and Problems
I am not a fan of drama in research. Life is too short for avoidable drama, stress, and strain. Projects are planned out so that we meet deadlines without having to do all-nighters. Cooperation rather than competition is stressed. Authorship is negotiated in advance and everyone knows what role they have to play in order to earn their authorship. The intent is that preparation, planning, and a culture of open communication will head off any conflict. However, conflict still occurs. Most conflicts occur within a project team. There is a perception that one member is missing deadlines, doing poor quality work, or trying to have other people do their work for them. I hope I have made it clear that letting down your team is among the worst offenses possible in my lab. I have had a student resign from a project because they did not feel they could meet the demands. I appreciated that sentiment. And that student went on to be successful on other projects. However, I have had students who simply did not reach the levels of work quality expected, had interpersonal problems with other members of the lab, or believe that their work merited first authorship. Meeting surrounding these problems are private. We attempt to renegotiate expectations and develop a plan for remediation. That plan is also sent to students via e-mail to provide clarity, mutual agreement, and create a paper trail. Sometimes students are asked to seek a different supervisor and other times students choose to leave voluntarily.

Students are encouraged to be open as to their limitations of time and energy. I do not mind when a student requests to renegotiate a deadline due to a conflict with exams, conferences, exhaustion, or other issues. I also encourage students to seek help or renegotiate when a task proves to be beyond their current levels of expertise (usually because such situations are due to my error). Stress and anxiety are also common for graduate students. Some students receive reduced research expectations if we agree that too many research projects may be overwhelming. Recall that I am in an accredited school psychology program with a large student class load, and field and clinical practica experiences, in addition to research. As such allowances are made for the time demands of their program.

Co-authorship does not have to be difficult. Problems are almost always due to conflicting needs and misunderstandings. Keeping students from earned co-authorship due to massive ego, power issues, or control is simply evidence of unethical and poor supervisory practices. Some old school professors have been socialized along these lines. Trying to force a professor socialized in these practices to comply with the ethics in university policies concerning co-authorship is unlikely to be resolved in a positive way for the student or the supervisor. Receiving co-authorship on a scientific paper does wonders for the confidence and careers of students. Witnessing and contributing to student success is one of the best parts of being a supervisor.

S. R. Shaw

How Not to Suck at Speaking to Difficult Audiences

Following this post, a classic post (I don’t say “rerun”) on the basics of public speaking for graduate students is included.

Once you develop the basics of speaking at professional conferences, you have built a sense of confidence. You have conducted a series of good to outstanding conference presentations and each presentation is better than the last. But then you apply your speaking skills to a new situation, new audience, or new environment and you bomb completely and totally. The audience is napping, updating Facebook status, yawning, having side conversations, or just leaving. Your confidence crashes. You used the same skills and techniques that proved successful in the past, but this time everything failed. What happened? Some examples of the scary and new types of talks that often provide speakers with challenges: symposia, professional development activities, long-form workshops (i.e., 6-8 hours), keynote addresses, guest lecturing in classes, and professional colloquia. Each of these scenarios present unique challenges.

The general idea is that you are trying to move your audience with your speaking skills from Point A to Point B. Conference presentations are easy because we know Point A, who the audience is and what they know; and we know that Point B, to communicate the findings of research. But to survive difficult talks you must make the effort to identify Point A and Point B. There are two major reasons why new situations often lead to failure even for competent and experienced speakers: audience is different (i.e., Point A) and the goals of the talk are different (i.e., Point B).

Audiences at conferences are usually in your sweet spot. They are professionals in your area who choose to attend your talk specifically because they share an interest. You already share a vocabulary, professional culture, and knowledge base. They are your people. Difficult audiences have little in common with you. As a school psychologist, I have spoken to audiences of teachers, nurses, physicians, medical residents, parents, social workers, and school principals. This is a matter of homework. What does each audience require. Where is their Point A? What is the current state of their knowledge in the subject area on which you will be speaking? What is their perceived need to know about what you will be speaking? How can we speak the same language and work toward a common goal? In consultation, this is referred to as “referent power.” That is, the power that you gain by sharing similar experiences and goals. Make explicit how your topic directly influences the day-to-day work of each audience. You need to investigate what types of talks that are common to the culture of the audience. For example, parents tend to like activities in workshops and do not sit well for long periods; but activities for medical residents are usually disasters. I ask the coordinator of the talks and often interview potential members of the audience on what they know related to your topic. Know where they are (Point A).

The second concern is the goal of the talk (Point B). Does the audience want to be inspired, informed, supported, influenced, surprised, entertained, or learn more about you? Do they want knowledge or to develop a specific skill? Unless you know the goal of the talk, it is difficult to meet the needs of the audience. I usually negotiate this and interview several potential audience members on this topic. If I cannot or do not want to take the group where they want to go, then I decline the opportunity to speak. Know where they want to go or where they are willing to go (Point B).

Some specific challenges:
Symposia—I hate symposia at conferences. The audiences are nearly the same as for conference presentations, so that is easy. Yet, usually each speaker has only 15 minutes (the most difficult length for any talk). The problem is that fellow speakers do not time their talks and always run over. The last speaker is left with 7 minutes and it creates a mess. You lose friends this way.

Professional Development Activities—Audiences usually want to gain practical skills rather than knowledge. The problem is that truly useful skills are extremely narrow in scope and often apply to only a small segment of the audience, leaving others to be bored. My strategy is to weave specific practical skills with bigger picture theories and ideas, then back to a new specific practical skills. So big picture and rationale, detailed and focus skill, back to big picture, then return to a slightly different detailed and focus skill development.

Long-form Workshops—These 6 to 8 hours talks are physically demanding. You need to stand, move, and constantly bring the energy for an entire day. These are my favorite kinds of talks. You need to have a tour de force of experiences, research results, specific practical skills, jokes, big picture ideas, and integrate the whole thing into a full day. You need to be entertaining and authoritative. They have to like you. These talks are also forgiving. I can go on a rant, anecdote, or tangent and still stay on time. I like audience members to interrupt with questions and comments. I can engage them at all times and ensure that I am meeting their needs. I use the same general strategy as for the professional development activities, but can cover many related concepts. I usually divide the day into 4 equal parts with a mid-morning break, lunch, and mid-afternoon break. As in all talks, never ever, ever run over time. You are taking the audience on a journey with you to get them to their Point B. The hardest part is continuously bringing the energy all day. Another thing is your voice. Make sure that you are physically able to speak for so long. I ask for a microphone for even the smallest rooms. I once took voice lessons to learn how to project and protect my voice.

Keynote Addresses—These are fun. 70% inspiration and 30% information. You usually only have time for one or two points. Usually you want to engage the audience on an emotional level first, but buttress your engagement with research. This is where poignant stories, humour, and anecdotes lead. You are usually there to empower and engage the audience and set the stage for an excellent conference or event.

Guest Lectures in Classes-The main thing here is that you want to be different from the regular course instructor. As an outsider, you are often being given the benefit of your expertise. So engage the class by actually spending time identifying the Point A of the classroom. This starts a brief discussion. Then you can go into your content. Remind the class that you will be giving your outline or slides to the regular instructor for use on exams.

Professional Colloquium—You are being judged. Being judged is the Point B. These are brutal. A group of professors in the same setting is a mine field of score settling, insecurity, and showing off. Whether you are an invited speaker or on a job interview, there are some key points that I use. You must be the alpha dog. They smell fear. I usually start with a warm smile, thanking everyone, making reference to my travel to the site or a meal I before the talk, and make a humorous comment or story. Then I launch into the most detailed and arcane aspect of my talk. Unlike other talks, you do not need to communicate content at first. You are communicating that you are the most knowledgeable person in the room in this area and don’t fuck with me. At least in this small component of science that you are presenting, you are the true expert. All with a smile, of course. Then you can relax and explain the arcane stuff in great and clear detail. If someone is a jerk and is openly hostile, then smile and say, “That is an interesting point. But here is why that is wrong (or irrelevant, dated thinking, or something like that)…” My job talk for my current job, I actually said, “If this was the 1980s you would be right, but much has changed over the last 30 years and here is the current thinking on that.” You put them down hard. Everyone in the room knows who the jerk is, so taking control will not hurt you. Challenging, but respectful questions need respectful answers. Student questions need to be treated with the most respect. Remember the most respectful thing that you can do is expand on someone’s questions and work it into your talk. If someone says something brilliant, insightful, or corrects an error, then say, “I love this idea. Can we talk afterward? I see potential collaboration.”

Speaking is so hard. You have to be an actor, entertainer, wit, truly organized, and be able to  muster your knowledge automatically for rapid use. It just takes practice. The more you practice, the more confident you become. You cannot really conduct a good talk when anxious. Relax and bring the energy. You are doing the talk because someone thinks that you have expertise. But the biggest thing to remember is to identify Point A and Point B.


How Not to Suck at Public Speaking

November 1, 2013

There are few things that will turn a confident graduate student into a quivering mess like having to speak in public at a professional event. However, most graduate students have conducted oral presentations in classes for years and, with few exceptions, these sorts of presentations go off without a hitch. Classroom lectures are generally presented in a smooth and easy manner. In some cases, the graduate student has taught classes and has conducted weekly lectures to undergraduates with few nerves. Yet, when a graduate student is faced with an oral presentation to an audience of professionals at a conference, research colloquium, or workshop; the butterflies, nausea, and perspiration of anxiety go into overdrive. There are ways to manage fear, develop a professional speaking style, and glide through these events with excitement and not with panic and dread.


I am a pretty good person to discuss public speaking. You know those people who seem confident and brilliant in front of a crowd. Those people are wonderful, but I am not one of them. Now I am an accomplished and in demand speaker, but have certainly not always been such. I was a terrified and terrible public speaker with distracting nervous tics and a panicky delivery. To evolve into a good speaker, I needed to learn every step along the way to being a confident and strong speaker. Here is how I did it.

Identifying and Analyzing the Problem

All problem solving involves identifying and analyzing the problem. Paralyzing nervousness usually comes from the unknown circumstance and not knowing what to do. Of what are we truly afraid? Here are the big ones: we are afraid that we will have a panic attack and fall into a whimpering, crying, sweating, fetal ball of humiliation; have a nausea attack and be forced to run out of the room; be verbally attacked and filleted by some sadistic expert who wants to figuratively undress you and expose your ignorance for all to see and hear; you simply suck and you might prove to the entire audience that you are a useless know-nothing and imposter; and you might forget the entire presentation and stand in front of 200 people saying, “…um….uh….” for 50 minutes. Maybe I am projecting my worries on to you, but here they are. Are these things harsh and unlikely? Of course they are and you know these things will not happen. But that does not stop you from worrying about them. Personally, I like a little bit of excited energy—it makes me sharper. But that is not paralyzing fear that is energizing motivation.

Developing Solutions

Preparation is the key to managing nerves. Anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong and have a plan. Here are some things that I have learned: I carry 3 different types of batteries in case the microphone goes out, my laser point gets tired, or the hotel’s TV remote fails to work. I have extra shoelaces, a handkerchief, a ziploc bag (useful for everything from a airsick bag, holding wet clothes, storing food, and a waterproof container if you get caught in the rain), an extra shirt (I once squirted ketchup on myself at lunch), hand sanitizer, instant stain removers, aspirin, candied vanilla ginger (a delicious candy and a powerful anti-nausea aid), a water bottle with built-in filter, a knife/corkscrew (only if you check your bags), sewing kit for popped buttons, glasses repair kit, chewing gum, and an LED mini-flashlight (twice have experienced power failures at workshops). If you have problems, your hotel concierge can save you. Do not forget to eat. Not a big meal, but eat a high protein meal. Crashing blood sugar can be lead to lightheadedness and upset stomach. Rule #1—check yourself in the washroom mirror immediately before your talk. Make sure you are appropriately fastened, zipped, tied, and buttoned. Make sure there is no spinach in your teeth, toilet paper on your shoes, or other appearance issues. Look professional and feel professional.

Preparing the talk is a major issue. I like PowerPoint, but do not rely on it. I use it as an outline. Make sure that you have 3 to 6 points on each slide—no more. Graphics, animations, and other tricks can be used, but sparingly. Often such presentation tricks are distracting. If you want the audience to look at you, then make the presentation screen go blank. Have your presentation on a flash drive in case your computer dies; in which case you can borrow someone’s computer and keep going. Make sure that you have a hardcopy of your slides in case the projector dies. My best talk ever was when the projector died. I just kept going from memory for 30 minutes until the tech people brought a new one. That is the level of preparedness you need. Sounding natural can take a lot of work. Rule #2—have your talk memorized. If you get nervous and go blank, then rely on your slides to help get you back on track.

There are hosts of presentation basics that everyone needs to know. Remember that people are terrible listeners. The trope: “say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you said” is something that I take seriously. Repetition is okay and desirable. You are trying to move people’s knowledge from point A to point B. A critical issue is to know where point A is for the audience. What do they know? What are their experiences? If you do not know, then find out well in advance or simply ask them. You also need to know what they want to gain from the presentation. If it is not completely clear, then I start out workshops by asking what they want to know from the workshop. Even if you do not or cannot change anything in your presentation, they know that you are listening and responsive to the audience. Rule #3—know your audience’s current knowledge and desired outcomes.

How you speak is often more important than what you say. Presenting tables upon tables of data will put even the keenest audience member to sleep. Present data via figures, if possible. However, shadow pictures on the screen and interpretive dance also work. Only kidding a little bit as both methods are preferable to tables. Speak with energy and conviction. Even if you are quiet, little person with a soft voice—you can radiate power and confidence. No upspeak. This is the rising inflection used mostly by young woman. End all sentences on a down note. Watch how TV news anchors do it. An ending down note is authoritative. If you have nervous energy, then move. There is a tendency to grab hold of the dais for dear life. This makes you look more nervous and small. Walk out around the people—it shows power, energy, and eases your nerves. It helps you own the room, which is what all very good presenters do. Hand gestures also can be valuable. They animate your style of presenting. Know your verbal and physical tics. Everyone has these, but try to minimize the most distracting ones. I tend to play with the keys in my pocket—so I remove everything from my pockets beforehand. If you say, “um”, “uh”, “basically” (I hate when people say this), “well”, and other filler words, then you tend to lose credibility. This should go without saying, but never ever read a paper in front of people. Speaking loudly, clearly, with energy and confidence actually addresses a fear. Remember that this is a performance—no matter how technical the information that you are presenting might be. People may forget your data or your points, but they will remember that you presented it well. Rule #4–The only thing that can derail your talk is you being nervous.

Organize, practice, and time your presentation. You do not want to run out of time. This is a disaster. It is also unprofessional and rude. The first thing you do when developing the presentation is create the take home points. What do you want to make sure that the audience knows? You can only create a maximum of one take home point for every 20 minutes of presenting. Say your take home point, support your take home point, and then review the take home point. If you have long talks with multiple points, then be sure to sum up all take home points at the end of the talk. Rule #5—keep the primary points simple and few, but you can use complex data or arguments to support them.

There are distractions and rude people all of the time. People will get up and leave in the middle of your talk. Others are texting and updating Facebook. It would be kind of cool if audience members are live tweeting the talk, but not likely. Some people even have their phone ring during the conference and answer it! Audience members will sleep, sneeze, have conversations, and be rude. Rule #6—take charge, it is your room and your time. When people talk, I tell them to be quiet. When the phone rings, I tell them to take it outside. When someone sneezes, I say bless you. Turn distractions into opportunities.

There are many things that make good speakers; humor, presence, organization, energy, and so on. You will find your own style and turn yourself into the best possible speaker. Being natural (or appearing natural) is a large aspect to being a good speaker. As Joss Whedon said, “Always be yourself, unless you suck.” And if you suck, then listen to a lot of speakers and find parts of their style that you can copy and incorporate into your own style. Rule #7—it is okay to steal style from others until you get your own style.


The big thing. What happens when an impressive and well-known big shot in the field is sitting in the audience? Usually it is a great experience that has helped to build many academic careers. This happened to me, when I was doing a presentation that criticized the big shot’s theories. I was terrified, but he could not have been nicer and more supportive. But what if it goes south? What do you do when some big shot says something such as, “Your presentation sucks, you suck, and you are stupid.” It has never happened, but we all fear this. Telling them to eff-off or punching them in the nose are off limits, but I have a close friend [female] who told a heckler to eff-off and received an ovation from the audience—I admit, it was kind of awesome. But the better thing to do is take a deep breath, keep calm, and say, “I am having a hard time interpreting your comments as productive. Could you please reframe your comments so that I can interpret them in a manner that is conducive to appropriate academic discourse?” Then the person needs to rephrase the comment or question so you can respond well—and give you time to think; or they need to acknowledge that their comments were not productive and they are just being an a-hole. Other issues: many people ask questions that start with “how come you did not do…..” Usually, the meaning of the question is “why did you not do a different study?” The answer is nearly always, “That is an interesting point and potentially a valuable study. But that is not my study. My study answered different questions and used appropriate methodology to answer my question.” If you are feeling cheeky, then you can add, “But I look forward to reading your study that takes into account your ideas.” The third problem is when someone says something like, “Why didn’t you use the 1936 Haggelstein Phister correction in your analysis?” The correct answer is the true answer, “I don’t know.” And make no further comment. The questioner is usually trying to show how smart they are and there is no need to play into that game. If someone says something condescending or stupid, like, “Well, young lady, you clearly do not have much experience, but….” What you do is repeat exactly what they said very slowly. In this fashion, the arrogance and stupidity of the statement is clear for all to see. No need to be witty or cutting. Just allow the stupid to enter the ears of everyone. Then laugh at them and say that you do not need to comment on that.

Constant Evaluation and Improvement

No matter how good you are at presenting, there is always room for improvement. Videotape your presentations. It is painful for most of us to watch. Once you get over the way your voice sounds and how odd your shoes look, it is extremely valuable. Ask your friends to list one thing that you can improve in every talk that you make. Keep improving.


Oral presentations will provide both highlights and low lights of your academic career. Many of us are introverts, anxious, or actually quite shy; making presenting in front of people a major personal challenge. But once you address your fears you can be an outstanding presenter of your ideas and research.