Better Grad Student

Be the best grad student you can be!

Archive for January 2011

Regain Your Freedom

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Distractions! It’s what the internet was practically built upon and it’s what keeps you from being productive during the day. I know from personal experience how a simple visit to Wikipedia can turn into 20 minutes of your day lost. The habits that have formed from years of internet use are practically ingrained in my hands. In my quest to be a better grad student, I finally came upon a solution to beat the distractions of the internet and actually get some work done. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Taylor M.

January 28, 2011 at 6:00 pm

How to Make Your Failures into Success

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One of the most frustrating moments in research is when you spend a ton of time on some project and it just doesn’t work. Even if you prepare yourself mentally ahead of time, that feeling of failure can be overwhelming when you get the final result. A very natural tendency when this occurs is to let it completely bum you out. A single failure can ruin an entire today and it can have an effect in other areas of your life, not just research. So what can be done to change this failure? How can the positive be found in a situation which is just screaming failure?

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Written by Taylor M.

January 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

How to Be Productive Even When You’re Stuck at Home

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So you’re stuck at home. Maybe it’s because of the weather, or maybe your car died, or maybe a loved one needs you to stay home and be there for them while they’re sick. Whatever the reason, you’re not going into work today. Don’t get too excited just yet! Your advisor probably wouldn’t look too kindly on you not working even if there is 6 feet of snow outside. You need to do something productive today while you’re trapped inside. But you may cry, “I can’t be productive today! All my stuff is at school! I can’t do anything from home!” Au contraire! You are a better grad student than most and you can be productive from home! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Taylor M.

January 21, 2011 at 11:45 am

Elements of Style

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Photo Credit: Amazon.com

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. is an absolutely essential read for any grad student. In fact, anyone who is doing any sort of writing should read this writing guide (I’m looking at you commenters of the internet). The Elements of Style is a book that was originally published in 1918 and its main purpose is to lay out some of the rules of english. Rules for clarity, accuracy and brevity. This guide is a resource for many writers today and it definitely should be a resource for you as a graduate student.

The importance of clear writing in a scientific article cannot be understated. If you cannot simply and accurately express the results of your work, then you might as well not have done the work! It is up to you, the author, to make the material easy for the reader to understand. The first step to better writing is practice (a.k.a persistence); the second is to read Elements of Style.  Make it a yearly habit of reading through Strunk’s work and you will be a better author for it. It has been said that you must know the rules in order to break them, and to better learn the rules you need to go through this book.

Elements is broken up into five chapters: Introductory, Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matter of Form, and Words and Expressions Commonly Misused. Each chapter gives insight into the proper use of the English language and you are sure to discover nuances that are new to you. The styling of the text and sentences does show its age a bit, but it is a delight to read. Sentences such as

“Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.”

Will make you realize the eloquence of the English language. Many examples on proper usage abound in the text and I definitely recommend a cover-to-cover reading of the entire text. Of significant importance to graduate students is chapter 5, discussing Words and Expressions Commonly Misused. It was, and somewhat still is, common for me to use words and phrases that have no meaning (e.g. very, really, sort of). They may add several words to a text, but they give no additional useful meaning. There is no place for this in scientific literature and we all should strive to minimize such phrases in our manuscripts. Such familiar phrases as certainly, kind of, and respective/respectively are also recommended to be removed and replaced. Be sure to dive into detail in this chapter and absorb what it has to say.

The Elements of Style should be essential reading for any graduate student. Google Elements of Style and you will be able to find a downloadable copy of the guide or you can purchase one from Amazon. Hopefully, a yearly read through of this useful guide will yield better authors and better scientific literature. Enjoy!

Amazon.com Link to purchase the book.

So now you’re reading, but are you writing? Link to one of my other posts on writing.

Written by Taylor M.

January 18, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Posted in The Basics, Writing

The Lure of Solitaire

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We’ve all been there. It’s three-thirty in the afternoon. You’re bored, maybe a little tired, and your computer is staring at you offering all the possibilities of the internet. You think about doing something productive: reading, writing, researching. But your hands take on a life of their own and before you know it, you’re wasting the day playing solitaire or some other distracting game. Several hours go by and you realize what you’ve just spent that chunk of your life on. Panic sets in when you recognize all the amazing potential you’ve just wasted and you start berating yourself for not being better focused and lazy.

Now take a deep breath. It’s ok. It really is. You’re not a bad person for being distracted on the computer and you’re certainly not a bad grad student because you played twenty games of solitaire in a row. It may not have been the most productive time of your life, but you’re certainly not going to get kicked out of university for it. But there is still that nagging guilt, isn’t there? That frustration that you weren’t more productive; the self-loathing because you know you have things to do but you just didn’t do them. Here’s the good news: it’s really not as bad as it seems. The bad news: it will take some effort to work on this habit, but that’s why you’re here, right? To become a better grad student!

Let us now take a look at the real driving force behind the distractions: procrastination. This noun is something that we have all experienced at one point or another. We rationalize that we don’t need to work about task A right now, and we might as well do something else real quick before hand. I’ve had the conversation many times in my head, “Oh, let me check so-and-so blog before working on that, it’ll just take a minute.” But in reality it doesn’t, and it winds up sucking down way more time than it should. So the question is, because this is something that we all experience and are familiar with, how can we recognize when procrastination is going to occur, and what can we do to minimize its effects?

First, though, you have to be realistic with yourself. You are not going to be able to be a perfect robot and never procrastinate. You should, however, be able to recognize these situations when they may occur, and control them to the point that they don’t take over your life (or afternoon as the case may be).

Step One: Recognize You can’t begin to have some sort of control over your procrastination if you don’t even recognize when it’s occurring or when it’s about to occur. Be honest with yourself about the times you have procrastinated. Think about the thoughts or actions that led you to that point. Did you just finish something and felt like you needed a break? Were you just bored or tired? Did a friend send you a link to something interesting? Recognize the catalyst for this behavior and you will have a better chance of dealing with it.

Step Two: Minimize Now that you are familiar with what has led you to procrastinate, think about steps that you can take to minimize this from occurring or limit the access to the distractions. If you just completed some task and you feel like you’re about to go waste time, why not go for a walk to clear your head and get refocused. If you’re really tired, perhaps a short nap would be the best bet, or if that’s not possible, a high-energy food like a banana or protein bar. If a friend sent you a link, why not turn off your IM client for a while. Take steps to limit access to distractions so that you can better focus.

Step Three: Prioritize If you have recognized the potential sources of distraction and you have been honest with yourself and minimized the potential for distraction, the next step is to prioritize your work. The whole reason behind doing this is that you have some tasks that you feel are important and you believe that your time would be better spent working than goofing off. So be honest with yourself and your work and figure out what is the next important task for you to do. What is the next assignment that, if you accomplish it, will make you feel like you have had a productive day. Figure that out and write it down.

Step Four: Time It If you’ve been able to really be honest with yourself and do these previous steps, the next step will be hardest for you: actually working on the task or project. Procrastination can really stem from a fear of working on a project. You may, subconsciously, be afraid of how you might perform while working on said project, and this fear can be almost paralyzing. Paralyzing to the point of procrastination. You’re going to have to trick yourself into working on this project. Set a timer for 15 minutes and make a deal with yourself: work hard on the task or project for 15 minutes, and after that time you can take a break or move on to something else. But you have to work for those 15 minutes. If after the allotted time you really feel the need to take a break, then do so. You have earned it. However, what generally happens is that you’ll get into a groove and you’ll continue working for longer than the timer. You’ll start to recognize that what you had built up in your head really isn’t that bad. Another aspect to this timing is recognizing when you’re best suited for doing certain tasks. Trying to force yourself to read a paper at three in the afternoon may not be the best thing. If you know that you’re a better writer or reading in the morning, then do that task in the morning; don’t force yourself to do something in the afternoon if you know it’s especially difficult to do.

Step Five: Reward It Now you should be on your way to minimizing your procrastination. You have recognized the problem, sought ways to minimize the problems effect on your work, you have prioritized the tasks that you want to do, and you have used time to your advantage. So what’s the next step? Reward yourself. Take that break. Play that game. Realize that you are human and that you are not perfect. You cannot be expected to work 100% all the time, it’s just not healthy. If you have been honest with yourself, and you’ve done the work that is expected of you, and you can be real and say that you are proud of the work you’ve done, then you definitely deserve a break! Take the time to clear your head and get refocused. Your mind and body will thank you.

These main steps are what I use all the time to really help me accomplish tasks. I’ve recognized that my biggest distraction is the internet. I love to read different gadget blogs or science news sites. I tried for a long time to use will power alone to fight this, but I finally became honest with myself. I could not focus, on my own, for more than 10 minutes at a time. So I took the steps to minimize my distraction. I downloaded an app for my mac that will block the internet completely for a certain amount of time. The only way to reset it before the time is up is to restart my computer. This forced away the distraction and because of it my productivity has shot way up. It doesn’t stress me out to use this program either because of how much I’m getting done and how good it feels to know that I’ve been productive. Once I have this distraction away from me, I generally have one specific task that I want to work on. My timer is basically built into this program and so I get to work for a little bit. As soon as I get into it, I really am able to start cranking out results and at the end of it, the feeling of having accomplished something really is great. Then, after I’ve accomplished something, I will allow myself a break to clear my thoughts, refocus, and perhaps beat one more game of solitaire.

Here are some more resources dealing with procrastination and other associated topics:

You are not so smart: Procrastination I love this blog because it really analyzes the tendencies of humans and why we do things.

Lifehacker Great blog for general productivity tips. Search for procrastination and you’re bound to find something.

Freedom This is the app I use to block internet access for a set amount of time. Works for both Windows and Mac.

4 Hour Workweek Very good book that deals with a lot of topics. The Elimination chapter is the most relevant to this topic.

So now you’re reading… but are you writing?

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Previously I posted about the importance of reading as much as you can. Now it’s on to something just as important and very closely related: writing! Writing can be one of the scariest tasks that you as a grad student will have to undertake (right next to presentations), but it is one that you absolutely must do every single dat. What you write and publish is how you will be judged when you earn your Ph.D. No amount of arguing will convince your committee or potential employer that you’ve been productive if you haven’t published a single paper. On the flip side, if you have tons of published works, then nobody can say you haven’t been productive. The work that you share with the greater scientific community should be your only measure of success in graduate school.

But you may beg the question, well how come I need to write everyday? Can I not just do my work and when I have all the data then I’ll write a paper? Sure, you can totally do that… if you want to stay in grad school longer that you have to. The downside to waiting until you have all the data, is that it will be very hard to tell when you actually have all the data. Let me take you through this thought process.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience. My first paper (which is on its way to the journal almost as we speak) was quite the eye-opener for me. The intimidation I felt every time I started to attempt to write something was almost unbearable. A million thoughts went through my head about how I didn’t know the material, or how the data wasn’t ready to be put into a paper, or how I just plain sucked at writing. The pressure and the fear that I placed on this paper was, quite frankly, ridiculous.

Out of the sea of ridiculousness I was finally able to start writing. I just started writing something that was related to the topic of the paper. At first, it was crap. It really was. It looked like something that I would’ve written in 6th grade. But as time went on and I began to write everyday, something changed. First, the actual topic of the paper came into focus. As I was writing I realized that what I had originally planned to write about wouldn’t work. So some modifications were needed. That worked out well though because it gave me a clearer direction of where I needed to be. As I began to work through the introductory section, I could see in my mind what sort of figures I would need to support the story I wanted to tell. Slowly, over the course of several weeks, this paper that I had originally feared, started becoming a paper that I couldn’t wait to finish. I kept rereading what I had written and making changes to improve it. I had a draft that I submitted to my advisor and he made some suggestions about improvements from there. I worked on it and molded it until it was a complete product. It took time and effort, but eventually it became something better than how it started. I ended up with a manuscript that I am proud of and cannot wait until I can finally get it published and move on.

One main key to this mini-success story was persistence. I did my best to set, and keep, some sort of a writing schedule. I made myself write something every day of the workweek, even if it was a single sentence. This forced me to keep my paper in focus and not let the thought of working on it become a bigger deal than it actually was. You need to find for yourself what works in terms of a schedule or minimum goal, but whatever you do, make sure that you write something everyday.

Another key to this success was constraints. Constraints in your writing can actually be quite liberating. This seems counterintuitive, but let me explain. When you are staring at a blank page, the possibilities are literally endless. You can write one page or a thousand pages; you can have no pictures or a picture per page. The options can almost be too much to handle and it can really paralyze your thought process with fear. When you are writing a scientific manuscript, it really helps to have a journal and type of manuscript in mind. Generally, these journals will have constraints on the length of paper that you can write, the number of figures you can have, and the number of references you can have. They may also specify what sections you are allowed to use in your paper (such as Introduction, Discussion, etc.). These constraints give you a framework to build your document that can guide you in the right direction. For me, knowing that I could have a maximum of 8 pages, 4 figures, and 20 references gave me a ceiling on the amount I could write and made me focus my work tighter on the relevant topic. As oxymoronic it can seem, constraints in scientific writing can be a very liberating experience.

The final main key that I will leave you with is story. Story, as applied to a grad student, represents the flow of information in your manuscript. You cannot have a very successful research article if you can’t tell some sort of story with the data. This is an aspect of writing that must be done with your advisor. However, YOU must do the legwork in gathering the parts of the story and learning how to recognize good storytelling in the literature that is available. You know that, based off of all the reading that you’ve been doing, whether what you’re reading is a good article or a bad article. It takes practice to write a good article (this goes back to persistence) and it takes focus to make your manuscript a good one (this goes back to both constraints and story). Publishing a poorly organized and written paper not only discredits your ability as a scientist, but it also is a disservice to the larger scientific community as a whole.  A bigger disservice though is not publishing an impactful and relevant paper because you don’t have the focus or persistence required to record your work and share it with others.

With my first paper nearing publication, I look forward to writing more and sharing the hard work that I’ve done with my time here in grad school. My hope is that you will be inspired to write more than you currently are and that you will take the time to learn how to be a better author. You owe it to all of your peers to make the best representation of your work possible.

For some further reading on scientific writing, I have a few articles that I definitely recommend:

The Science of Scientific Writing

Publish and Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar Summary This is a link directly to the PDF

Right your Writing: The Scientist

Written by Taylor M.

January 14, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Read, read, read if you want to succeed!

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Reading is one of the most essential skills that any grad student has at their disposal. The ability to read, fast or slow, gives you access to a massive amount of knowledge. Everyday you read many pages on the internet: the news, the weather, and (probably more than you should) facebook. Let’s face it, without reading, you cannot get by in this life, let alone your research. So how come reading is practically the last thing that we want to do as a grad student?

When I first joined my lab, the first thing my advisor told me to do is read several papers by some of the leaders in my field. I went to the internet, found a few papers by these scientists, read them, thought about them, and then went to entertain my mind elsewhere on the internet. I looked at reading scholarly articles as I did when I was an undergrad: I glanced through the articles and then decided I’ll look up something when I need to know it. I’m here to tell you right now, this is definitely NOT the way to approach scientific articles. When it came time for my first presentation at a conference, my lack of in-depth reading into the literature really came through in the question and answer session. An alarm went off in mine and my advisors head: I had not read enough in the literature to become familiar, let alone proficient, in my field. I was way behind and I felt like I had wasted a lot of time in my graduate career.

Fast forward just a year or so and my story is significantly different. I read quite a bit and I’ve gained the experience I need to be able to critically analyze the literature and gain what I need from it. I’ll tell you the steps I took to get to this point and how I significantly increased my confidence in my knowledge of my field.

1. Read Avidly This first secret is to be persistent. The only way to gain the knowledge and confidence that you need to succeed in your field is to be aggressive with the amount that you read. Download and print off as many papers as you can and start reading them. Be doggedly relentless in your reading. If you’re waiting for an experiment to finish or you feel bored, then that is the time to pick up an article and read it!

2. Record It A strong motivator for me was to always right down what I read. I have a notebook handy where I write down every single paper that I read. I record the authors (Last Name, First Initials format) the title of the article and the year it was published. I also keep track of how many articles I’ve read and the date I read it. Making a spreadsheet and keeping track of the total papers you read during a week will give a you good accounting of how much you’ve actually read over the past year.

3. Start with Review Articles Sometimes staring at a search bar in Google Scholar or PubMed can be a bit intimidating. I’ve found the best place to start is with a review article in your field. If you don’t know any, ask a fellow lab mate or your advisor for some good review articles. These manuscripts will give you good overview of the research that has been done in your field, plus it gives you a great jumping point for getting more articles. Read through the references and mark any that seem interesting or relevant and then go read them!

4. Read grant proposals Grant proposals, particularly those written by your advisor, can be immensely helpful in directing you towards better literature. By critically reading the proposal, you can get an accurate picture of what is the current state of the research and you will be able to see which articles the proposal author deems most important. You really cannot go wrong by selecting a few of these citations and seeking out the manuscripts.

5. Do not fear Wikipedia Some professors may still hate on Wikipedia, but ask any grad student and they will tell you that they spend a ton of time on Wikipedia. If there is a term, phrase, symbol, gene, chemical, or really anything that you don’t know, then go to Wikipedia. Chances are you will find your answer. If you don’t find it, then I would make it your goal to make that page and fill it in once you figure out the answer. Wikipedia can be ten times faster in helping you look information up than can other sources.

6. Think Critically As you become more familiar with the research in your field, really start thinking about the work being presented in the manuscripts that you read. Don’t take everything you read at face value. These people in other labs are humans too and they are prone to errors as well. Especially with controversial data, take the time to really analyze the data and convince yourself that their conclusions are logically sound and fit with the data.

7. Don’t neglect the oldies Just because a paper was published before you were born doesn’t mean it can’t be valuable to your work. In my field in particular, the majority of the pioneering work was done in the 80’s and 90’s. Being able to see where the field came from can give you great perspective on knowledge base and help you draw new conclusions and new directions in your work.

8. Literature Presentations Many labs may do this already, but if they don’t, you should definitely recommend your lab add these. Literature presentations involve one member of the lab selecting a true research article (not a review article) and presenting the main data in the paper and then offering criticisms of the work. Generally this would be done during a lab meeting and all the students would then discuss the together the conclusions of the paper and why they think the authors were correct/incorrect. This can be very helpful for you as a student because it will give you feedback from your peers about how well you can critically think and you may gain new insight into the work based on others’ criticisms. Literature presentations are a positive tool all around and I highly recommend them for any lab group.

9. Know what you need This tip will come a bit later in the game after you’ve become comfortable with some of the literature in your field (100+ papers). As you get into your research and the literature, you will start to have a picture of where your work is going. At this point, you will want to make more selective choices about what you are reading. You will probably recognize areas that you may not be as familiar with or concepts that aren’t as strong in your mind; in this case you will want to seek out papers that address these topics. Recognizing where the gaps are in your knowledge base can aide you in seeking out new papers to read.

10. Be organized My last tip comes mainly from a personal desire to be organized. Organizing all of your scholarly articles can significantly help you down the road. I use an Apple computer and there is a nifty program called Papers that organizes your scholarly articles. I call it iTunes for research articles. The advantage to using this program is that it instantly makes all of my articles searchable. Now I can enter one term and immediately pull up all the articles associated with that term. In addition to electronic organization, I have 25 file folders that I use to organize the physical copies of my papers based on the first author’s last name. Using this in combination with my digital management allows me very quick access to any paper that I have read. The advantages to this system are that my desk remains less cluttered, I can find what I’m looking for quickly, and I won’t waste my time or resources reprinting or rereading articles I’ve already looked at. Different things work for different people, so if you have another way of organizing your research articles, please let me know!

Following these tips will guarantee that you will gain valuable knowledge about your field. You will be able to dig deep into an article and draw on your knowledge to assess the authors conclusions for validity. If you leave here remembering only two things from this list of advice, remember these: read avidly and record it. You cannot assess progress without observation and observation will practically guilt you into reading more. Read, read, read and you definitely will succeed!

Click on my Very Useful Links for the websites I use to find my articles as well as some handy tools to help you read more.

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” ~Oscar Wilde

Written by Taylor M.

January 12, 2011 at 9:27 am