A Better Place

“A Better Place” Blog consists of my words to support academic trainees – especially doctoral students, in all disciplines. Here you will find content ranging from practical tips, writing advice, tools of the trade, and philosophies about being in graduate school (and beyond) and also being happy! Becoming a contributing citizen of the world of knowledge is a fabulous way to grow your potential and make the world a better place. You can DO this!

On December 1, 2019, I renamed this blog “A Better Place”.

I believe that researchers are motivated by, and obligated to, make the world a better place. Along the way, let’s make your university a better place to work and grow. Maybe even let’s allow the space you really spend time – your mind, to be a better place.

(Posts about weekly. Subscribe button below right).

(The fine print: While much of this blog will speak to many disciplines, there are differences in culture and practices. I write grounded in public health.)

Healthy competition?

I don’t see academic pursuits as a zero sum game. Yes, funding may truly be limited at any given point of time. But academics can also be part of the force toward more funding, thereby increasing the size of the pie rather than fighting for each piece. And we can all support each other with the funding we do receive. So where then is the role of competition?

I have experienced 3 types of competition so far in my career. Let’s break it down:

Competition in my own mind that makes me feel inadequate
Comparing myself harshly to highly-productive colleagues is more likely to discourage me, rather than inspiring me toward good work. I try to be aware of this and give it a pause. (Hint: this feels yucky).

Friendly competition that builds connections
I have had fun, engaging, multi-year interactions with colleague-friends where a touch of competition feels like part of our connection with each other. This competition feels like something that inspires me and is a force gently pushing me forward with the other person (or group), strengthening our connection. (Hint: this feels good).

Destructive competitive interactions
I have also been treated quite terribly by colleagues. I have been blocked from doing my work and have been accused of not being competent or supportive in front of other colleagues. It is only in retrospect that I realized this was largely due to competitive drives. Walk away from destructive competition. Remember that whenever someone cuts you down, it is about them. Another may be promoting herself in a non-skilled way, by cutting you down. Notice. Walk away. Protect yourself. (Hint: this feels awful).

Be aware of the competitive drive in yourself and coming from others. If it feels good, it may have a place in helping you make your maximum contribution to the world.

Oxygen Mask

On airplanes, they warn you that during loss of cabin pressure, you must first secure your own oxygen mask before those of others. (You can’t help them if you pass out). Similarly, you must support your mental and physical health before you can do the work of graduate school. OK, so maybe there will be a crunch time that requires a lapse in sleep, food, breaks, (friends, procreation, nutrition, exercise, vacation, romance, pets, movies . . . .). Hey! You can’t keep that up! And it doesn’t have to be that way!
Rescue yourself before you rescue your class paper, or dissertation, or . . .

You cannot continue to make the world a better place if you pass out, or drop out, along the way.

Write. With a Point of View

What do you think of this sentiment: “Science writing and science communication should be neutral, objective, and devoid of human elements of emotion or point of view”? You might agree. I don’t, and I encourage your openness to my perspective here.

It is not possible (nor desirable) for a human to become a computer when selecting a research topic, designing a study, interpreting results, or writing. Indeed, there is no way that a computer could do these things. There is simply too much intention, awareness, accumulated lived experience, and understanding of the human world required to do these things. So, if it is not possible (nor desirable) to strip out the human element, what is a researcher to do to put ethical, balanced work into the world? (Side note. “Science” has f-ed up in so many big and small ways. If you find this a surprising sentiment, educate yourself about this).

It’s about awareness of yourself and your motivation. Are you going for fame? Are you out to get “the man”? Are you putting one foot in front of the other to earn a paycheck? Are you trying to “one up” other researchers that have come before? Are you entirely confused about your motivations? Do you have a burning hypothesis that you are out to prove, whether true or not? Are you running scared, obfuscating what you are doing, fearing that others will find out you aren’t measuring up?

Don’t despair if you see yourself in any of the previous questions. We are all human, and embody the mixture that is “human nature”. But be honest. Recognize where you may have work to do to bolster the better human elements inside you.

Surround yourself with others who want to contribute. Enhance your tolerance for revealing your weaknesses, or for not seeming cool. Aim for the truth. Strengthen your desire to make the world a better place, and your confidence that your small acts are a meaningful part of a collective effort to do this.

So here’s the idea. You cannot strip out your point of view. So be aware of it, strive to make it something you can be proud of, and when you write, let these points of view guide all of it.

Find Your Squad

A new semester is starting. If you have not yet, consider this the time to find your squad. In graduate school, more minds are better than one. They have to be the right folks, of course: smart, accountable, ready to work and collaborate, and someone you will enjoy spending time with. And remember that BOTH being the “teacher” and being the “taught” in any given interaction, have tremendous value to you.

I remain so very grateful to my squad during my doctoral studies. We divided up complex programming work for a course (when permitted) to knock out the work more efficiently. We would share code, teach each other, grapple verbally with complex concepts, and studied hard and frequently for our methodologic qualifying exam. It was more than the academic supports that we gave each other, of course. Graduate school can be isolating. Having others disclose their understanding gaps, celebrate your successes, and simply be there for a walk or a break, helps keep your entire mind-body ship afloat and sailing toward that PhD. I never would have learned epidemiology so deeply and clearly without them, nor enjoyed my time in doctoral studies, without my squad. I stay in touch with them to this day.

With deep gratitude to CHD, CA, and JL

Use the Visible Metrics

Your publications will be out there. Others will be able to see the government funding (grants) you’ve received. Google Scholar and similar platforms allow easy summaries of your scholarly output. Your CV (should be) freely posted on your website. Your productivity is easily, publicly, visible.

I remember when someone asked me if the pressure to publish and get grants was a barrier to me wanting an academic career. My response? I’ve been prepared to hit these marks. They aren’t a mystery or a surprise. (And they should not be a surprise for you). Also, I believe in these activities. Publishing will share your new knowledge widely and lift the field. Grant receipt is a gate-keeper that fosters quality research, and will provide the resources that bring you independence and institutional support. While neither are perfect, of course, both play their part in making the world a better place. Furthermore, the visibility of these metrics helps academia function close to a meritocracy. The myth of meritocracy in many other careers (presidency, anyone?), is deep, but largely false.

Don’t be scared off by publishing, grant-getting, or the visibility of these metrics. Consider their pursuit part of your training. The good news is that both can be taught, and learned, and respond to practice. You can do this! And we (your mentors) will help!

Productivity and Your Affective State

I recently reviewed for an NIH study section, providing the feedback that will help decide whether people and institutions get millions of dollars to do good work. It is kicking my a$$. There is nothing else that I have done that requires this much intense focus and holding multiple components in my mind simultaneously (scientific to budget), while also creating balanced judgements that are strategic, thoughtful, fair, and follow set criteria. I wonder if this is so challenging to me because it is largely receptive – taking in someone else’s work and their written presentation of it, instead of being an outflowing of my mind (creative), where I engage my own inner process to write a paper or grant. At any rate, the work is reminding me of the importance of managing my mental state. I have needed to not only clear the external distractions, but more importantly, the inner ones. I cannot be thinking of the weird encounter with a friend, the needs of my children or dogs, the needs of my ongoing funded projects which need to show productivity. I cannot be too hot or too cold, too hungry or too full, or too tired. I’m aware of the influence of time of day on my productivity.

Of course, all of these influences matter to my productivity all of the time. I am just especially aware of them right now that I am challenged and on deadline.

The number 1 lesson has been that the time I spend first optimizing my state is absolutely required to do this work. I’ve tried simply forcing myself into my office in the evening. I find myself reading and meandering and reading (and facebooking) and . . . .The actual progress per clock minute is pathetic. But if I invest the time in preparing my mind, my productivity is rock solid. For me, this could involve 15 minutes of yoga followed by 10 minutes of meditating. At other times of day it involves match tea and a short walk. After this, I can knock out some integrated perspective on these applications that I can be proud of.

You don’t need to follow my strategies. But find your own. Most importantly, be aware of your state of mind, and invest the time to optimize it.

B Minus Work

We’ve got a lot of work to do, kids, to make the world a better place. You’ve worked hard to get where you are. You have excelled. You likely work toward perfection. Have you ever heard that perfect is the enemy of the good? (My translation: holding on to work to perfect it may stall the work altogether; preventing the good that may result from completing the work and putting it into the world.) You are now on a trajectory of learning how much is required to do good work. You might also be on a trajectory of learning about your own nature to perfect work, perhaps facing fear that you are not quite good enough. Here is an idea: consider being comfortable with B- work. (Shhhhh – don’t tell your professors that I suggested this). I don’t just mean not beating yourself up if you get a grade of B-. Actually plan on it. And don’t just consider this for classes, but in all the work that you do. Wrap it up and move it out. Why? Our amazing human lives here are not endless. And our amazing human bodies and brains need sleep, movement, and care. The more you put your work into the world, the more chances it has of making the world a better place.

Truth be told, there may be situations where you need to strive for A level work. You may be a faculty member competing for grant funding, where the competition is fierce for limited funding. But you know what? The process of funding grants has a bit of randomness in it. I wonder myself if I submitted more grants that were pretty good, if I wouldn’t receive more funding than if I submitted fewer that were excellent. I’m considering this, anyway.

For now – ward against perfection. Protect your time by wrapping up work that is pretty good. Because here is the thing that I know for sure: Your B- work is rock solid.

Good News

Want to maximize your productivity and contribution to the world? Try this: share professional good news. Did someone perform well in their role, assisting you? Did a process work well? Did an instructor, committee member, or graduate program manager shine? Did a paper get published, or a grant get funded? Did a fellow student help you learn something? Share it with them. Share it with someone that may care about their success. Do it simply, with a hallway high-five or quick “nice job”, or by email. It doesn’t have to be formal.

So, how on earth does this contribute to productivity? Your colleagues and professional companions will smile to see you if you are the good-news-bearer and will be more excited to work with you. But be careful. If your praise and positivity has even a whiff of pandering/brown-nosing or forced-ness, you will not smell good. It has to be authentic. The biggest bonus of this is its impact on your own mind. By truly noticing the good things happening around you, your mind will get a little jolt of happiness. You will feel a bit more right with the world. And this, no matter how small, will support your mind and your work.

You may notice that this is in line with the movement toward practicing gratitude, and positive psychology in general. These things work.

Do you feel that this just isn’t “you”? I challenge you to ask yourself why. Consider moving the needle just a bit.

Tools: NIH Reporter

It’s necessary, of course, to have a good handle on research that is published. But did you know that you can look into the future of research? Do this by querying databases of research that has been funded. For the National Institutes of Health, you can search funded work using the NIH Reporter tool –


Search some keywords of your research interests, or put in the name of authors that you are following. Explore the various search options. Read the abstracts of the projects. Pay attention to the people that are currently funded to work in your area. You might want to then search their prior publications, or look for what they are presenting at upcoming conferences. Think critically about the aims of the work, looking for themes and angles. Remember that these funded projects represent a highly selective group of work judged to be the most likely to have an impact. There is a tremendous amount of information here that can be used to foster your understanding of your field and help guide and refine the work that you will do.

Write. With Respect

Words matter. All scientific writing involves people, at a minimum the author and the reader. Respect your reader by writing authentically about your methods, your results, the limitations, and what might not be known.

You will likely be writing about other publications – work that came before – work that demonstrates the importance, plausibility, or validity of your question or methods. Cite these people appropriately. You may discuss the limitations of their work, and this is OK, but should be done in a balanced and honest way.

Many of you study people. Consider that traditional ways of referring to people in a study (“subject”, “participant”) may not be the most accurate and respectful. I suspect that these words serve to clinicalize our writing – providing distance and artificial objectivity that are misguided. How did the person come to be in the study and how would they like to be called? Did they really “volunteer”? They may be “patients”, but is this considered a term people choose?

Instead, perhaps refer to them with a neutral and appropriate term, such as “students” or “children”? Increasingly, I like the term “people” or “persons”. (There is no need to belabor that they are in your study. This is clear.)

Especially note that people are not “cases” (or “controls”). They are “people with colon cancer”, and you should refer to them as such. Yes, it takes more words. Respect them by using those words.