Essential reading

Grown Ups Enjoy Reading, Also.
New York Public Library / Flickr

This fortnight’s links roundup moves from leadership and management in the tech world (which, surprise surprise, has a few parallels with science) to a few bits of beautifully written wisdom. Happy reading, everyone!

Kate Heddleston has written an interesting essay on the ineffectiveness of critical feedback in the tech world, which applies directly to the academic world.

Apparently Kate is catching my interest this month. Here’s another very relevant piece she wrote on argument culture that gets into what this culture promotes and how it can adversely affect women. I don’t know about you guys, but I found myself nodding along to this one.

Here’s a post on engineering leadership from First Round Review that has some useful lessons on how to manage a technical team. There are also some interesting thoughts on management and technical career tracks, which could apply equally well in academia (if more than one career track actually existed … but that is a whole different post).

I remember learning about Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience experiment as an undergrad at Yale. It seems his citation numbers are still growing, thanks to a renewed interest in “the question of what causes evil.”

Andrew Solomon shares some advice for young writers, but there is wisdom in his words for us all.

A lesson scientists can learn from elite athletes

Elite Women (with 3x Marathon winner, Jeptoo)
John Hoey / Flickr (CC)

We may not be shaving seconds off the Boston Marathon record, but we are constantly being asked to perform at well beyond maximum capacity. At least, that’s been my experience. Between late nights pouring over grant applications, long teaching prep sessions, experiments, supervisory tasks, and yet more admin, there is always something on my to do list that never seems to get done, no matter how many hours I put in.

But despite all those essential tasks, the one thing I get judged on most frequently is the quality of my research. If that’s not up to par, well, there are several hundred other people waiting for my job. So how do I cope? And what do elite sports have to do with any of this?

It turns out, elite sports offer a lot of techniques we can use to our advantage in improving our own performance.

Let’s take training cycles, for example. Elite athletes train in waves, going from easy days, to medium days, to hard days. Easy days really are easy–in fact, they may not involve any activity at all. Hard days are designed to stress the body, to push it beyond its current abilities. Both extremes are essential to a training cycle. Without rest, our bodies break down; without stress, our bodies never improve. Perfect training strikes a balance between these two extremes, improving the body as much as possible and ensuring that the athlete’s mind is ready for whatever challenge lies ahead.

As it turns out, intellectual pursuits are also best suited to a kind of wave of effort, from easy to medium to hard. Have you ever had a long period over which you didn’t take any breaks? Maybe you had a big project due, or needed to get a bunch done before teaching started again. How did you feel after a while? Exhausted? Uneven? Inaccurate? If you go too hard for too long, you burn out, or even worse, become completely ineffective. Your brain (a part of the body, after all) also needs rest periods and relaxation to perform at its best when you sit down to work.

So take a vacation, plan breaks into your day, eat healthy, sleep plenty, and please, try not to spend too many nights at the lab. Your research will thank you for it.

I’ll talk more about elite sports psychology in later posts. It’s a fascinating field, and many of the research findings translate well to any high level pursuit.

A few fascinating links

Camp fire!

I was going to write some big post about leadership, but it’s been a long week already and I have an ultramarathon (my very first 45 km trail race!) to prepare for on the weekend. So instead, I’ll share a few of my favourite recent reads.

The first is a beautifully written article from Marina Warner on the “disfiguring of higher education.” She speaks primarily for the humanities, but I found quite a lot of my own realizations and observations within her statements. I believe it’s worth considering what we think academia and higher education should be, and whether the latest metrics and funding requirements (whatever they are where you happen to be) actually help achieve that.

If you have students or lead a research group, you must read this. Brené Brown shares some excellent advice on creating a sane workplace culture, which made me think more critically about the examples I’m setting for my students.

This one’s for the night owls out there.

And if you have ever been asked to present at something because they need a woman on the panel, or if you happen to be involved in organizing yet another women in science event, please read this.

Have a good weekend, folks. I’ll be out here, running as fast as my legs will go.

walking

Pulling an all-nighter? Try these simple nutrition hacks

More night sky... These are out of order!

In my world, experiments run all night long. Time on the accelerator is too precious, and getting started again is too hard, so night shifts are a fact of life. So are the packets of biscuits on the control room table, which are a kind way of saying: “We know you won’t have time to eat dinner. Or 3 a.m. breakfast. Here, have a sugar bomb consolation prize. Or five!” Towards the end of each experiment, we all start joking about how we gain a kilo for each experiment, and how coffee has replaced the contents of our veins. It became a tie that bound us all together in some kind of brutal physics team building exercise.

But as I got older, I started having a harder time with night shifts. I’d have more trouble doing my job after a certain hour, and found myself unable to get back into some semi-productive mode once my schedule had been shifted so dramatically. Eventually, I realized I had two options: (1) Quit physics, or (2) Find a better way. Given the decade of time I had invested, I chose to pursue option 2 first. This was right around the time I started training for my first marathon, and I was reading all about performance nutrition for the race. Eventually, it occurred to me that performance nutrition didn’t just matter for marathon training—it could, in fact, apply to life as well.

And so, I embarked upon an experiment, to see if my “beamtime diet” could improve my performance during (and recovery after) a long experiment. Here are the changes I found helped me the most.

Back away from the sugar

I know, it’s nearly impossible. But you need to do it. Stay away from the biscuits, sweets, anything with simple sugar in the ingredient list. While you’re at it, cut out the simple carbs, too. Why? Because consuming these things causes your blood sugar to shoot up and then crash down, requiring another hit of sugary sweets far too soon when you have a full day and night ahead of you. For me, keeping my blood sugar steady was the first and most important nutritional tweak I (attempt to) keep in place for each experiment.

Put the caffeine hound to bed

I know, this seems contrary to what you should be doing, but caffeine causes the same kind of ebb and flow as sugar, if you keep going at it too hard. A cup or two a day is fine, but if you absolutely need coffee to get through a day, you’re probably making your night shift problems worse, not better. If I’m lucky and get a nap before my shift, I’ll have one cup at the start of the night, and then stick to water or herbal tea for the rest of the night.

Mmmm, protein and fat

This is all about keeping your energy levels, well, level. I keep a few handfuls of raw nuts in my bag, and tend to snack on hard-boiled eggs, healthy meats, and various combinations of dips with veg. Which brings me to my next point…

Make fruit and veg your midnight snacks of choice

I find that I can skip the biscuit table if I have beautiful, already prepared fruit and veg in the fridge during experiments. My favourite is a selection of red peppers, cucumbers and broccoli with some kind of creamy sauce (chili mayo, hummus, or even a vinaigrette).

I also keep apples on hand for a sweet kick. Yes, they include sugar, but the fibre+nutrient-rich package this sugar comes in tends to mitigate the negative effects.

If I’m short on time, I’ll pick up prepared fruit and veg from the grocery store. It’s still better than the biscuits.

Water is your friend

Last but not least, dehydration is not good for your brain. Keeping hydrated is a good way to help your body cope with the long nights. I like to keep a cold bottle of sparkling water in the fridge, maybe with some lemon slices for variety.

***

Most of these tips are pretty well in line with solid nutritional advice, anyway, but since biological variability is a beautiful reality, your results may vary. I encourage you to perform a few experiments of your own, to see what works best for you. It all comes down to figuring out how to take care of yourself as well as possible in a sometimes physically and mentally demanding lab environment.

(All photos are from a blog I wrote in what feels like a previous life. Maybe I’ll turn some of my healthier recipes into an occasional post here, in case you’re hungry for dinner at three a.m. and need some inspiration.)

In case it needs to be said: my PhD is in physics, not in nutrition. These suggestions are based on my own personal experiences, and should not be taken as professional medical or nutritional advice by anyone.

Grant writing for scientists: Part 2

The grant clock is ticking, isn’t it? I can hear the sweat trickling down your brow as you revise your proposal one more time, all the while listening to that voice in the back of your head debate over whether another font in Figure 3 would perhaps look more worthy? So, dear reader, it’s time to pick up where we left off in Part 1 of this series and begin to develop a method for understanding your model readers.

The subject-matter expert

Let’s begin with the expert. How do you go about figuring out what she wants? Since this conversation is completely irrelevant if you can simply ask her opinion directly, let’s assume you don’t have access to her editorial comments. She’s simply a potential expert referee. So how can you predict her needs?

First, let’s figure out where we might learn more about her.

  • Have you seen her talk or ask questions at a conference? (Or can you check out one of her talks on YouTube?) If so, you might have a sense of what her pet peeves are. Does she hate tiny figure fonts? Think method A is much better than method B? Have a thing against model C? This is all good information to have. You might also know what excites her–where she thinks the field is going, what she thinks the important problems are. You don’t need to choose your research topic based on her likes and dislikes, but you do need to think about how someone with her point of view might evaluate your work. More likely than not, if you’ve chosen your model expert well and she’s representative of a subset of your field, you can make sure to address any concerns for this type of reader as you write.
  • Next, check out her publications. Recent ones are best, and those that relate directly to your work are even better. Choose a few and scrutinize them for any patterns. Does she tend to use particular methods in her research? Does she (gently) criticize any particular approach? You want to identify any patterns that might give you some clue about how she might read your work.
  • If you’re really brave (and spot a potential opportunity for collaboration), come up with some questions that relate to your proposal that she might be able to answer, and send her an email. Really. Collaborations do come out of exactly this sort of cold email, as long as your questions are appropriate. If she’s the world’s expert on some particular method you want to use, for example, perhaps she’ll be able to share some insight on your proposed research. Perhaps she’ll even volunteer to get involved.  (Ok, there is a flip side to this–your query could go unanswered, or get some negative feedback. That’s part of taking a risk. If you do get negative feedback, though, take it on board, learn from it, and keep going.)

Now that you have all the information you can gather on this reader, try and think about what questions this reader might ask about your proposal as it is currently written. Are there any points that she might criticize? Is there anything she might find unusual or unclear? Is there anything you might need to investigate further or explain in more depth? And is there anything she would think you wouldn’t have the background for? Write down your thoughts for each of these points. Now, as you go through your proposal, consider this question: Can you concisely strengthen your argument, or provide sound reasoning for why you’re doing something a certain way? If so, add this in.

The field expert

Here, we’ll move on to the non-expert reader with a scientific background. This category could include scientists from your research field but different sub-field, but could also include those with a scientific background in an unrelated field. In this case, we’ll use a Nature editor as our model reader, because they have to select articles with a wide range of scientific audiences in mind.

For this case, the best thing to do is choose an article or two that relates closely to your proposal. (If you’re interdisciplinary, choose one for each area). How do these articles tell the story of the research? What big questions do they build on? What information do they provide that you wouldn’t typically find in a more specialist journal article? You’ll typically find that most Nature writers connect their work to some broader goal through introductory storytelling. Doing the same in the introductory portion of a grant proposal can help engage your non-expert reader.

The non-scientist

Finally, we reach the general audience reader, who can be the most challenging person to address. This person is unlikely to read your proposal in detail, but they may read your 100-word summary (applicable if you’re applying for Australian Research Council grants), or page through your introduction.

For this case, I recommend you come up with an elevator speech about your research. Subject a few friends to the speech and see what they respond to (or don’t get). What is your research? Why is it important? You’ll want to have a plain English answer to both of these questions in your 100 word summary and also somewhere on the first page of your proposal. (For the record? It also comes in handy at the pub.)

Now, I’m not going to pretend this whole process is easy. It isn’t. But learning how to edit your work with your reader in mind does get easier over time. And it’s a practice that isn’t limited to grant writing. You can use a similar method to edit research papers or put together talks, as long as you consider which of the above readers might be included in your potential audience.

You can also collect information about your potential readers every time you submit refereed journal articles or present at conferences. Think of it all as a learning experience that builds up your proposal writing arsenal come grant season.  Now who wouldn’t want that?

Grant writing for scientists: Part 1

 “They never told us that a career in science would require all this empathy.”

This was my husband’s revelation for the night. He’s going through the grant process for the first time, in an interdisciplinary field, and is finding something lacking in our graduate school training. I, er, empathize with him, having been through the process a few times myself. We were never told that our careers as scientists would depend so much on what our readers / referees / grant committees might think about our painstakingly crafted scientific prose.

Turns out, a career in science not just about the science. It’s also about how well we communicate complicated ideas to a rather broad spectrum of audiences.

There are easier roads to take. The right co-authors can help by serving as your readers, and sticking to proven methods of “selling” your research can make the whole process a bit less difficult. But what if your work explores a new idea, or happens to combine approaches from several different fields? Or perhaps must be published before your contract ends, because how are you going to get the next job? Or, worse still, may appear in the hands of a grant committee member that has no science training at all?

If you find yourself growing increasingly agitated by that last paragraph, my friend, then you are probably procrastinating away your evening, hiding from your worries, hoping your grant will write itself. Or you happen to be working on your PhD thesis and are only now realizing the sort of snake’s den you are about to throw yourself into. Either way, don’t worry. (a) I’ve so been there, and (b) You’ve come to the right place.

Not long ago, I put together a workshop on scientific writing for my department in order to help students and postdocs write better papers and grants.  I’ve distilled this course down into a series of posts, all of which will focus on the grant writing process. In this first post, I’ll give you a three-step plan that will help you identify your potential readers.

Continue reading

On writing and science

I see a lot of students come through my lab with poor writing skills.  Usually, these same students have somehow gotten the impression that scientists don’t need to write–that  mathematical skill and one’s ability to interpret data is all that’s important. If only this were true.

In academia (science or otherwise), the better you write, the more successful you are likely to be. This statement is based on anecdotal evidence I have gathered over the years (if you know of any relevant studies, please send them my way), but makes perfect sense when considering how academic performance is assessed.  We measure our productivity with publication and citation numbers, and attempt to secure our future with grant proposals judged by committees of (mostly) mysterious composition. Success in both of these areas heavily depends on how well (and how quickly) you can explain your ideas to your readers, whomever they may be.

So how exactly do you improve your writing? Let’s say you don’t have access to a patient editor, or perhaps you’ve always found writing difficult. Either way, you’ll find yourself in good company. Even writers find writing difficult, after all.  But there’s some good news: if you’re a scientist, you are no stranger to the wonders of dogged persistence. Writing, like science, is something you get better at with practice.

In addition to practice, here are a few other tips my students have found useful over the years:

  • Read good writing. When you’re reading papers, pay attention to the ones that are clearest to you, and figure out how the writer has achieved this clarity. Can you apply some of these techniques to your own work?
  • Start early. Even the most accomplished writers produce terrible first drafts.
  • If you’re not sure where to begin, give yourself the permission to write down whatever comes to mind. This is called free writing, and is a good way to conquer the fear of the blank page.
  • For a more structured approach to getting started, try writing an outline or creating an ideas map.
  • Start writing the easiest section / paragraph / sentence first. You don’t have to start at the beginning!
  • If you’re better at giving talks than you are at writing, put together a talk outline for a paper or grant proposal first. How would you explain your ideas when speaking at a conference, or lecturing to a classroom? (For an amusing look at why people might be better at writing than speaking, or vice versa, have a look here).
  • Along these lines, if you learn more from a conference talk or lecture than you do from a research paper, you might find it easier to edit your work with the help of speech-to-text software. MS Word has some functionality for this already.  Alternatively, have a friend read your work aloud, or read it aloud yourself. You’ll often find yourself stumbling in places where the structure of your work isn’t quite right.
  • If you struggle with grammar, pick up a short guide. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a good place to start.
  • Finally, and most importantly: before you start writing, spend some time trying to understand what your audience expects from you. Who are your readers? What will they know? What won’t they know? Why should they read your work? What do you hope they’ll take away from your writing? Answering these questions will help you understand what you need to explain in your work, and what knowledge you can assume. This exercise should also help you figure out which ideas to emphasize in your all-important introduction.

I hope some of these will be useful for you.  If you have other tips you’d like to share, please leave a comment!

Welcome

Hello, reader. My name is L., and I’m a research scientist based at an Australian university. I’m starting this blog because I want a place to share stories and advice about all aspects of life in academia–not just the ones you might have heard of during graduate school. These are based on my experiences, but I’m hoping you’ll find something here that resonates with you.

If there’s anything you’d like to see me explore in a future post, just send me an email. You’ll find me at theadaptablescientist@gmail.com.