OK Kids, We can do this!

Let me tuck you under my wing for a bit and help you fly in your doctoral studies and beyond. Kid? Consider this my term of affection for you, whether you be 19 or 89, and whether you know me or not. 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!

(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.)

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 –

https://projectreporter.nih.gov/reporter.cfm

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.

Practice Effect

Why is a dissertation difficult? Because you have not done this before. You have no practice.

There was a time you did not know how to speak, or walk. The practice you have done has launched you to mastery.

There is so much that you will gain by your practice. Remember that practice is not repetition alone. So much deserves the effort of try – fail – learn – improve – repeat.

Practice writing, literature searching, communicating, writing statistical code, and tweaking that laboratory experiment.

Practice saying no. Practice seeking advice. Practice acting outside of your comfort zone to make connections, seek clarity, pursue an idea, or give a presentation.

Practice identifying flaws in a publication. Practice incorporating the limitations in how you interpret research results. Practice the common tools of your discipline.

Practice your organization and management of your email.

Practice your confidence.

Even charisma itself can be learned, and improved, with practice.

NY Times Article on Charisma

Write. Professionally

Even the driest type of academic writing (in my opinion, a publication) has tone, that is, subtle cues that give hints about the author. In all of your writing (even email), beware of your tone. Strive for a tone that is authoritative (but not over-stating or boastful), ethical (without being preachy), and concerned (without being emotional). Be respectful of all persons (your reader, those you cite, the people in your study). Be honest and acknowledge what you do not know (such as the full explanation for strange results).

Beware vague or colloquial phrases which lack clarity and might make you sound “junior”:
• Just to name a few
• Payout
• In the here and now
• Have come to discover
• Speaks volumes
• Heavy lifting

Limit overly emotional or loaded terms unless you have good reason for use:
• Maimed
• Lied
• Accused

Aim for clarity. Have a point of view. Give your reader every reason to respect you and attend to your writing.

Everybody Ps

“Significant or not significant?” You’ve had classes on this. You have had practice on this. You are motivated to perform this statistical practice of examining p values. P values are everywhere in your training and in the published literature.

If you have not heard this in your training, begin to listen up for how limited this use of the beloved p is. We can do so much better.

So then why? Why have you already been drilled in p values? Why do journals sometimes still only publish results with findings of p < 0.05? Ultimately, getting a computer to generate a p value and then examining whether it is above or below a threshold is truly easy. It makes results interpretation a breeze. There is no room for nuance, for examining patterns, for comparing to the wider world of published literature or real-world ranges of the constructs being studied, or for other messy considerations. (In practice, much messiness may have actually gone into forcing that p value just a tad lower, or in interpreting a p value as “marginal”). Perhaps more importantly, it appears so very objective. It’s math! It’s a rule! Everybody does it! This ease and perceived objectivity of p value interpretation has led to its widespread overuse. If your goal is to make the world a better place, and to do this by discerning truth, learn to interpret results without p values. P values are no portal to truth.

Adulting It

As a child, I remember asking my mother repeatedly – When will I be an adult? I was so much looking forward to crossing a threshold and being the one who could know the things and do the things and be in charge. Honestly, I’m still waiting for the lights and ceremony to induct me into the adult world. (It doesn’t work that way, I know.)

Being a parent especially taught me that the reason I’m in charge is because someone has to be. I do so even when I don’t know enough or have it all figured out.

As a doctoral student, you are going to have to step up and step out. Propose an idea. Speak up in class. Create a journal club. Write a grant. Disagree with your chair. Do it even if you haven’t read every paper on the subject 5 times. There isn’t going to be a tap on the shoulder that says you are ready. It’s not just about faking it until you make it. I bet you know more than you think. And honestly, there is a lot more “winging it” going on all around you than you realize.

Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to do the things, step by step, is an unwritten requirement of getting a doctoral degree. It is also what the world needs.

Happy back to school everyone!

Formalize Your Networking

Imagine walking up to a group of researchers at a conference opening gathering. They are older than you, wearing fabulous clothes, standing in a closed circle, with glasses of wine in hand, connected in amusement. You know one of them, but not the others, and judging by their physical poses of confidence, they might just be scientific rock stars. If you are like me, unless someone catches my eye or smiles, I am likely to shift course. (If you are not like me and you know how to get right in there and join the fun – go for it!). For the rest of us – what to do?

One option is to formalize your networking. This can help lift you above the nervous middle school vibe that can contaminate anyone’s mojo.

Formalize by doing your homework, preparing, and setting up connections ahead of time.

1. Be interested in the work. Focusing on the research, instead of leading with small talk or charisma, is a simple way to spark connection with fellow academics.
2. Prepare, by discovering researchers doing interesting work and reading their websites and recent publications (or at least abstracts). Do this before reaching out or attending a conference, of course.
3. Leapfrog. Ask your advisor (or other colleague) to suggest individuals who you may share research interests with. (And then ask that person, and so on).
4. Reach out, by email initially, to set up an informational interview by phone, or lunch at a conference.
5. Invite your advisor or colleagues to meet you at a specific time/place at a conference or other gathering rather than just showing up.

As you gain connections with individuals in your field, and gain confidence and an understanding of academic culture, networking becomes more natural and fun.

Tools: Citation Management Software

Learn how to use citation management software. Do so when you are writing a class paper or as you are writing your dissertation proposal. These are programs such as EndNote, RefMan, Zotero, and others that are specialized databases that serve to organize your digital library and also work together with writing programs (e.g. MS Word) to format your references to fit a particular journal’s requirements. Pick one used by your advisor, fellow students, or the one supported by your university. Some cost money and some are free. They are web-enabled and allow collaborative use. I have had great luck with the program called Zotero. (They are non-profit and do not know that I am mentioning their product here). See if your university library offers a course to get you started.

Allow yourself a big smile the first time you are searching in google scholar or pubmed and with one click bring both the citation and pdf into your own digital library.

Sigh gently when you digitally insert the correct citation into your excellent prose.

Laugh out loud when your entire bibliography is built with one click.

(Bang your head against the wall when you realize that your collaborative grant document has been corrupted because of competes between track changes and your citation management software. But then realize that fixing it still saves time because inserting hundreds of citations and correctly formatting the bibliography just isn’t how you want to spend your weekend). 

Time Management

You may not have noticed (ha!), but graduate school places a lot of competing demands on your time. The bad news is that the more you progress, and the better you do, the more you will be asked to do. But the good news is that you are largely in charge of what opportunities you pursue, and over what time frame.

Consider these time management philosophies:

First decide how much you will work. If you don’t protect your time off, you won’t have any, and you have to do this first. You deserve time off. (You require time off.)

Honor and plan your commitments to yourself just like would a colleague. Mark on your calendar when you will work on something and then follow through. This includes saying no to competing appointments that may present. Build trust with yourself by your consistency in this.

Also make appointments for time off, and honor these appointments.

Be very clear on items that require your 100% versus those that will truly be OK with your 80%. A dissertation idea requires all you’ve got. Studying for a test might not. It’s OK not to give 100% to all items at all times.

Know when to say no, and do so.

Beware email. Responding to email all day may not be furthering your work, or the work you really need to focus on. Consider email management strategies, which might include having a set time every day for email response, always emptying your inbox, only ever opening an email once and then acting (rather than coming back to it multiple times), and others. A few hours spent researching email management might have big pay-offs.

Notice, and manage, emotion that might be in reality taking up a lot of time. Are you stressing that you don’t know how to proceed? Do you think you aren’t up to the task? Are you irritated at colleagues or manuscript reviewers? Are you bored? Is there a personal matter that you really need to take care of? The goal is not to prevent the emotion from cropping up, but in recognizing and dealing with it pro-actively rather than letting it constantly storm across your fabulous mind, preventing it from focusing on the work at hand.

Work with your inherent mental reward system by finishing work. Every finish will itself give you a little mental hit. Wrapping something up can be really difficult. So notice your finish. And then do it again, and again, and again.

With gratitude to D.S.

Information Curation

OK, kids, we really are living in the age of information, and this is an absolutely fabulous thing for science! Virtually at your fingertips are datasets, publications, informed opinion-pieces, reams of information collected by smart devices, videos of experts sharing their wisdom, and more. It’s a smorgasbord of inputs that can really give a leg-up to your contribution to making the world a better place, and you must avail yourself of this wealth to some degree.

But you have to be careful not to drown. There is so much, so accessible. Attempting to keep up with it all can be overwhelming, and in the end, non-productive. You’ve got to surf on top of the information, dipping in when purposeful. It is absolutely essential that you have an active plan to curate the information onslaught.

Make use of technical tools. Be attuned to automated literature searches, effective use of social media, and improving your literature searching skills. This is a changing world and you are ready to participate. Determine your own style, to include whether you prefer to go to the information, or have information come to you. Be real about whether you are keeping up, or piling up (for later perusal), and alter your methods until they are truly working.

Seek people to help. Your advisor may recommend an advocacy organization that puts out helpful content or a media aggregator to skim. A colleague may share information on pre-publication repositories. But don’t forget the people who are trained to navigate this world – librarians. Indeed, there are individuals who have spent years knowing how to find and sift information and they likely will provide individualized consultation to you, free of charge. And remember that you don’t have to know it all, yourself. You are participating in a community of science where the knowledge is held in aggregate.

Participate in the age of information, by aligning and curating the stream that you swim in, until it maximizes your ability to make the world a better place.