Prioritizing Writing (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

At this point in the semester, I am surrounded by individuals trying to ride out the wave of work that surges through a semester.  The most important task is the one that is due next, and those long term projects are put off until it is too close to really give them the time they deserve.  For example, learning science and doing science are important, but so is communicating it.  Between courses, exams, teaching, lab work, mentoring, family and other commitments, how do grad students find time for writing?  One of my greatest struggles is determining where in the “To do” list to prioritize this long term task.

While it may seem like this is something that would come at the end of a large study or after a great deal of research/reading, I recently read a book that convinced me otherwise.  The book, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva, is a fast read that discusses how to be successful in writing more consistently and productively.  There are some specific tips about writing articles v books, but the main points are

  1.  Set aside time dedicated to writing and all of its associated tasks
  2. Commit to and defend  this time

Continue reading “Prioritizing Writing (Throwback Thursday)”

The Magic of Motivation

At some point, while you have been reading articles for classes, attending seminars, teaching and occasionally collecting data, you have progressed into the later years of your PhD.  One day you will realize, “Hey, I’m getting there!” and simultaneously feel “Ugh, so much more to do.”  This is the point in time when your motivation is as necessary as your experimental controls.  Why does this point in time happen so abruptly and how do you keep moving past it?

First, let’s briefly consider why this dichotomy of optimism and frustration occurs.  I think it has to do with the grand scope of a PhD program.  The large, amorphous goal is to develop, execute and communicate a project of to-be-determined size, depth and importance.  What you find at the end may be completely different than what you thought when you started.  And there is no simple roadmap of how to get from Point A to Point B while hitting all the landmarks in between.

From Point A to Point B

Our minds (and hearts) often have difficulty wading through the small details of a big picture. To better allow our brains to get to the end point, we need to set smaller, intermediate goals.  Now you may think, “Goal setting is obviously important for getting my papers written and my   experiments completed, but how does this help my motivation?”   Not only do these intermediate goals enable us to manage the day-to-day, they help us see progress on the messy path to Point B.  This article on mindtools.com has some great tips for goal setting and utilizing these goals as a compass toward your big picture.

Goal setting seems like the practical explanation to the question of how to maintain motivation.  I really appreciated this TIME article’s not-so-logical explanation of productivity loss.   Life is not just logic, and emotions alter our productivity and motivation.  So, what to do when you have an experiment that is just not working, your advisor asking you to do more and the feeling of frustration and fatigue inhibiting every reasonable plan of action? Here are three magical suggestions:

  1. Stay Positive: Whatever is going wrong is temporary and not the end.  If you are relating to this article, it is because you are in the middle of the long journey.  This means you have accomplished A LOT on your way to this point.  Remember all of those experiments that have gone well, those papers that you have really liked, that conference talk that was awesome.
  2. Get Rewarded: Tom and Donna from Parks and Recreation have this one solid with “Treat Yo’self Day.”  You don’t need a reason – you’ll feel happy and much more excited to get back to the grind.
  3. Get Peer Pressure: You care what your friends think, so use them!  Ask them to push you toward that scholarship deadline or paper outline.  Be deadline buddies and set dates to check in on your progress.

There is no one path to a PhD or one solution for staying motivated, so these tips are as good a place to start as any.  Slow days will come and go.  Stick with it.  There is light at the end of the tunnel…

March Mad-Scientist

It’s probably been too long since I wrote when I have trouble remembering my password to submit this post. There have been times during grad school when I could easily blame laziness as an excuse, but the past four weeks have been the most taxing and stressful of my academic career: finalizing my dissertation.

So here I am, writing this, in my possession a fully revised and edited document containing over 31,000 words thinking that while my defense is still ahead of me, do I feel much different than I did before sending my final draft to my committee? Okay, bad example, that e-mail had so many emotions tangled together before hitting that Send button.  Let’s go back an hour earlier to when I packaged my Word document into a .pdf and finally had time to exhale. Breath in……and…..out.

I was surprised at how little I felt. Now, maybe this isn’t the case for other people, but I had this preconceived notion that finishing your dissertation should feel like this monumental moment in your life, the culmination of 4+ years potentially ending in you never being labeled a “student” again.  That all those sleepless nights or worse, nights you slept and dreamt about your dissertation, were going to stand for something and you’d have this sense of pride and accomplishment. For me, nothing.

Through the process of writing, editing, yelling obscenities at Microsoft Word, editing, fixing graphs in Excel, and (still more) editing, I started to see places in my results that opened up not holes, but passages for future and additional work that could show critical information. Information that would allow our whole research group to make stronger conclusions about our respective individual projects and potentially what they could mean for the scientific community. So, despite not feeling any changes, those thoughts made me realize one thing. It was time for me to go and maybe that was THE difference.

Workshop: Turning your dissertation into a book

The Graduate School-New Brunswick is organizing a workshop, led by Rutgers faculty, on issues to consider in turning your dissertation into a book or article.

Monday, April 6
12:00 – 1:30 PM
College Ave Student Center, Rm. 411

Please RSVP to: cfarber@rci.rutgers.edu

The Truest Sentence You Know: How to Get Un-stuck

The greatest frustration of graduate school has to be that, no matter how often I hope it will, the dissertation never writes itself. How convenient that would be! Alas. It’s one thing to feel confident and assured that you know what you’re doing in the archive. You found a seventeenth-century piece of parchment, and you actually managed to decipher a line of chancery hand? Congratulations, and well done you! You’ve earned a slice of cake and sit-down. And while you savor that pastry, it all comes together in your head – chapter titles, concluding paragraphs, clever introductions. You can see it all. Then you sit down to write it. And that’s another thing entirely.

I can’t be the only one who knows this feeling. It’s like that liminal space between waking and dreaming when your limbs don’t quite work. The fear of failure or – worse – mediocrity can be paralyzing. I’ve always fashioned myself a writer, but what if this time…what if this time…

And then I know I need him. I need Ernest Hemingway.

Hem may have led a disastrous personal life, but he knew a thing or two about putting pen to paper. And even he, the (so to speak) consummate professional, had his bad days. But, thankfully, because he was the consummate professional, he soldiered through them, and, lucky for us, he wrote about it. His advice, recounted in A Moveable Feast, was directed at himself as he struggled with a story in his Paris years. But he might have been talking to me too.

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

By some miracle, it works. It always works. It gives my writing the strength and attitude it needs to be convincing and, if luck is shining on me that day, stylish. Excavating my draft for the core truth I want to convey – in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter – and being able to communicate it in a simple declarative sentence makes me a powerful writer for a moment.

Because that has to be part of the goal, doesn’t it? I’d like the dissertation to be more than passable, more than good. I’d like it to be stylish. Readable. Art historians like me write about people who created, but we’re creating something too. Shouldn’t we recognize that we are engaging in a creative act and try to act accordingly? Shouldn’t we try to write something worth reading? Something that contributes not only to our field or to the humanities but to humanity? (Did I go too far there?) I don’t flatter myself that I’m the next Simon Schama, Paul Barolsky or John Summerson, whose work I would gleefully read under the shade of an elm tree. But what was the point of doing all this if I’m not going to try?

Hemingway rented a room in the Latin Quarter of Paris – no heat, no toilet, no fun of any kind. When he was stuck, he stared into the fire, peeling an orange until he settled on the truest sentence he knew at that moment. He knew the fear of failure would be there, and he had a strategy for facing it. And Lord knows, he wasn’t alone. A list provided by my good friend and writer Michael Fuchs includes a series of successful writers lamenting their own fear of failure, including himself as he prepares his fifteenth manuscript. And Nora Ephron famously said, “I think the hardest thing about writing is writing.” We all get stuck. What is your strategy for getting un-stuck? In the end, I suppose it all comes down to discipline, whatever your discipline.

Prioritizing Writing

At this point in the semester, I am surrounded by individuals trying to ride out the wave of work that surges through a semester.  The most important task is the one that is due next, and those long term projects are put off until it is too close to really give them the time they deserve.  For example, learning science and doing science are important, but so is communicating it.  Between courses, exams, teaching, lab work, mentoring, family and other commitments, how do grad students find time for writing?  One of my greatest struggles is determining where in the “To do” list to prioritize this long term task.

While it may seem like this is something that would come at the end of a large study or after a great deal of research/reading, I recently read a book that convinced me otherwise.  The book, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva, is a fast read that discusses how to be successful in writing more consistently and productively.  There are some specific tips about writing articles v books, but the main points are

  1.  Set aside time dedicated to writing and all of its associated tasks
  2. Commit to and defend  this time

To learn more about the author’s suggestions, I suggest borrowing the book from the library or purchasing it.  This book has totally changed my perspective on writing.  While I understand that writing and preparing presentations of my work is just as important as reading background information and working in the lab, I have not been dividing my time accordingly.  Now, I am taking the authors suggestion and planning a few hours every week, on my calendar, just for writing.

So far this strategy has allowed me to more efficiently organize my thoughts and make progress writing emails, blog posts and my dissertation proposal.  I know that writing is viewed differently between humanities and sciences, but this point is relevant for any field.  So, I am eager for others to comment on their own trials and successes with writing productively.

What do you do to prioritize writing?

Workshop Podcasts Now Available

In response to requests, selected Project AGER workshops will now be recorded, when feasible, and posted on the new “Podcasts” page on this blog.

Two podcasts are now available:  Turning your dissertation into a book or article, presented by Chie Ikeya, Assistant Professor, History Department, 2/12/2014, and Careers in Academe: Issues to Consider, presented by Dean Barbara Bender, GSNB.  They are here.

Workshop: How to turn your Dissertation into a Book or Article

This interactive workshop is organized and sponsored by the Graduate School-New Brunswick and Project AGER (Advancing Graduate Education at Rutgers) and will be presented by Rutgers faculty members from the social science and humanities disciplines.  RSVP not required, but preferred.  The workshop will be held:

Wednesday, February 12
3:00 – 4:30 PM
Rutgers (College Ave) Student Center, Room 411

Communicating science: the elevator speech

In a previous post, I described my experience at a workshop (organized by the Rutgers Graduate School-New Brunswick) on communicating science.  I described the importance of preparing descriptions of your work for a spectrum of likely audiences – having at least some idea of what aspects of your work to emphasize to different audiences and what language or ideas to use are critical.  However, in addition to these more customized versions, having a more generic but highly-polished description of your research that you can recite from memory at any time is probably worth having.  This is often known as the “elevator speech,” since it’s supposed to be something simple and short enough that you can say it during the time you’d spend with a stranger in an elevator.

I’ve had a murky version of this for a while, but it was largely a vague set of examples and analogies I liked to use when describing my research to a friend or family member rather than a well-crafted summary.  But the workshop motivated me to finally develop a better version, so here is my latest attempt:

Every cell in your body contains thousands of different kinds of molecules, stuffed into a very small space and interacting with each other in complex ways.  How does this mess of molecules ultimately do all things that cells do, such as making new cells, extracting energy from food, and transporting nutrients?  And how did the precise interactions of all these molecules develop over millions of years of evolution?  This knowledge is important both for treating human diseases in which these cellular functions go wrong (e.g., runaway cancer cell growth), as well as engineering microorganisms to perform useful jobs, such as synthesizing biofuels with bacteria or making better beer with yeast.  My research uses mathematical models and computational techniques to understand how natural selection changes these molecules and their interactions over time.  We want to use this both to understand how organisms naturally evolved in the past and to predict how they might evolve in the future.

What are community land trusts, anyway?

For the last five years, I’ve been reading, studying, and working with a form of tenureship called the community land trust (CLT).  I’ve become very personally involved, serving both on the research and policy development committee for the National Community Land Trust Network and as a board member for the Essex Community Land Trust in Essex County. But what are they, you might ask?

A CLT is a participatory, community-based nonprofit organization that owns and holds land in trust for the common good. It leases that land to households that purchase the improvements (houses and whatnot) located on the trust’s land. When these households sign the ground lease, they are granted all the rights of more traditional homeownership. The main limitation in the lease comes with the resale of the home. They can only realize a certain percentage of any increase in the home’s value (usually between 10-15%), and can only sell the home to a household that falls within a certain income range. This allows them to realize a certain amount of equity while keeping the home affordable for the next low- to moderate-income household.

It was originally created in the late 1960s as a means for black farmers in rural Georgia to gain and control land. While it remained on the fringe of the affordable housing scene for a few decades after that, its star has been on the rise for the last ten years or so. It has attracted the attention of HUD, the Ford Foundation, and a few other major players on the community development scene. Why did I get interested in it? After spending time walking through neighborhoods in Essex County that had been hit hard by the housing/foreclosure/credit crisis, I became interested in forms of tenureship that would prevent housing from being entwined in the volatility of finance markets and speculative ownership. CLTs and another form of tenureship called limited equity cooperatives caught my eye, and the rest is history. My research is currently focusing on how CLTs are handling their emerging popularity and whether or not their radical ideological heritage as the means to fundamentally altering property relationships will survive the attempt at making them a viable alternative to traditional homeownership.

Any questions? Feel free to leave a comment! I love talking about this stuff.

Randomly Walking through Research

From reading papers, it’s easy to gain the following picture of what the research process looks like: someone starts at point A, a known point in the space of knowledge, then directly proceeds through various arguments and data to one’s conclusion at the previously unknown point B.  However, thinking that research actually works this way based on what you see in a paper is like thinking that Michael Jordan just awoke one day and suddenly starting dunking from the free throw line.

No, MJ almost certainly traveled a long road to get that much air.  The same goes for research.  The real research process more resembles the famous physics concept of a “random walk” (or more colorfully, the “drunkard’s walk”).  In a random walk, some process is imagined as an object, perhaps an inebriated human, taking a step in a random direction at regular time intervals [1].  This idea is used to model everything from chemical reactions to stock markets.

The random walk provides an interesting visualization of the research process as well.  Uri Alon, a scientist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel (whose outstanding set of resources for “Nurturing Scientists” will be a topic for future posts), has described the process as the following [2].  You indeed start out at A, headed for B.  (See figure below.)  But instead of a nice straight route, you embark on an irregular trajectory with many detours, barriers, and delays.  Often you are eventually forced to abandon B altogether: B was already discovered by some Russian guys in the 1970s, or maybe it’s impossible, or perhaps it just can’t be reached if you hope to graduate within the current decade.Image

At this point your random walk enters a limbo state that Uri Alon calls “the cloud”: you know you can’t go to B anymore, but you don’t know where else to go.  Being stuck in the cloud is probably the most difficult part of doing research.  But the key is recognizing this is a natural and inevitable part of the process.  If you persevere, you will leave the cloud by eventually finding a new place to go: point C.  In fact, often C is much more interesting than B would have been anyway — the unexpected almost always is.  Of course, sometimes C also fails to work out, too, in which case you redirect to D, E, F, etc.  (Hopefully you don’t run out of letters!)  The point is that research is less like a direct path from A to B and more like a random walk with an unknown trajectory and an unknown destination.  But after all, it is this journey into the unknown that makes research so exciting and so important.

[1]  Mlodinow L.  (2008)  The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives.  Pantheon, New York.
[2]  Alon U.  (2009)  “How To Choose a Good Scientific Problem.”  Molecular Cell 35: 726-728

Research Methodologies in Laboratory Sciences- The Joys of Analytical Instrumentation

Obtaining a graduate degree would be so much easier if the analytical instrumentation would just work…For those of you would don’t have to run various chromatography instruments (ICs, HPLCs, GCs), thermo-cyclers, spectrophotometers, or any of the other numerous finicky pieces of laboratory equipment, I envy you.  You haven’t had to start your day thinking you would be able to run 100+ samples and get another figure for your thesis, only to spend not just a day but a whole week troubleshooting a mysterious problem, eventually determining you’ll have to order a part that will be delivered in three more weeks just to determine the concentration of your chemical of interest.  This of course holds up all the other experiments you had planned to set up.  I welcome you all to the joys of basic wet science research.

When I find myself in these situations I take a deep breath and think of all the reading I’ll be able to get done while I wait.  In my experience these situations usually arise from a few common problems and are a major part of the experimental process.  First, make sure you really read the instrument manual before you attempt to use anything or try to fix it.  Many times an instrument isn’t working because someone else, who had no idea what they were doing, decided to make a “repair.”  This is one reason it is important for senior members of the lab to instruct the new lab members on proper usage.  Secondly, remember to perform routine maintenance, as neglected instruments are like high maintenance boyfriends and girlfriends.  They will not work solely out of spite if ignored for too long.  Instruments work best when used and maintained on a regular basis. Third, always remember that this is part of the “learning” process.  You never really understand how something works until you have taken it apart and put it back together a million times.   Now not only are you an expert on the instrument, but you can also understand and interpret your data better since you know the limitations of the measurement. Your advisor and other graduate students will agree that this is a large part of the experimental process.

Lastly, if all else fails, blame an undergraduate and take a long weekend or a mental health day.  Delays are only to be expected when relying on group used equipment and if you are lucky someone else will have fixed it by the time you get back.  Plus working this hard makes obtaining the data that much sweeter.  So the next time an instrument, computer, or your “favorite” piece of equipment gives you a strange error message remember that you are not alone and that this is all part of the process.

Creating Structure in a Formless Summer

This may be the greatest challenge thrown your way since you started graduate school…it threatens to take you down roads of untold temptation and laziness…it could undo everything for which you have fought so hard…

What is this horror?   A structure-free summer! [Gasp!]

If you are anything like me, you (grudgingly) crave structure. You require a tidy schedule to keep you on track. In fact, a little deadline-related pressure helps you to focus and, in turn, makes you more productive. And since a positive, productive day results in a happier you, this is good! So what do you do when that externally-imposed structure is temporarily absent? And, to make matters more frightening, you actually do have a deadline of sorts, but it feels oh so far away.  You…

Read. A lot. And, in my case, come up with a solid dissertation plan. In your case, it might be to explore possible research topics. Regardless, there is no defined finish line in terms of the quantity of readings. You have three months. Go!  How much is “a lot” and how will you know when you have “enough?”  In lieu of answers to those impossible questions, you can at least make a plan for some self-imposed structure:

1. Create structure by engaging in activities at appointed times, on specific days (e.g., Exercise regularly, cook dinner on Tuesdays and Thursdays, clean the bathroom every Friday afternoon, etc.)

2. Set a goal to read a certain number of hours per day, articles per day, books per week.

3. Set aside an hour or two per week to do further research online, print out articles, etc.

4. Vary your location. Go to the library, coffee shop, park – someplace where you will not have the weight of household chores and “other things” pulling you away from your work.

5. Put the computer to sleep while you are reading. It is so tempting to look something up while you are reading or to answer an email if the computer is on. Make a note to do that online work later.

6. Figure out what time of the day you are most mentally productive. I do well in the late morning and early afternoon. After about 7pm, all I want to do is cook dinner and watch The Twilight Zone.

7. Make time for friends. Plan dates in advance or allow for down time when you can call someone up to have dinner or go to the park. You evolved to be social! Don’t lock yourself into your own head and avoid the world. It’s not healthy.

Of course this advice is all perfectly rational, but frankly, the temptation to be lazy on a sunny, summer afternoon when you are able to live off of grant or loan money for three months and don’t actually need to work a “normal” job, is incredibly strong! So, allow yourself those times now and then. But force yourself to create the schedule so that even your lazy time is somewhat structured. This is advice to myself as much as to anyone else. I am fighting this temptation as I write. Good luck to us all!

Feet in (At Least) Two Worlds

Every discipline has its subfields…and subfields of subfields. This is very much the case in Anthropology where the Cultural (and Linguistic) wing is a completely different world from the Physical (and Archaeological) wing. Of course there is a shared history, but they have diverged considerably over the years. In a tiny (reductionist) nutshell, the cultural wing focuses on understanding modern humans through the lens of culture, whereas the physical wing emphasizes biological features of modern humans and our ancient ancestors, such as the study of human origins. But I come from a four-field Anthropology background. “Four-field” means that I took courses in all of the aforementioned subfields, especially Cultural and Physical, and I always get a little thrill upon finding intersections where culture meets biology, such as in Medical Anthropology.

This appreciation for both the Physical and the Cultural has recently come to the forefront of my academic studies. Up until last fall, I studied the hominin fossil record. After about a year of hair-pulling and soul-searching I made the decision to switch my dissertation topic in my fourth year to the study of how we teach evolutionary theory. This switch means that now I will do my dissertation with real, live people! No more fossils for me (though I hope to visit them now and then). I am diving headlong into the world of interviews, surveys, and participant observation. Yet I am still grounded in evolutionary theory since that is my topic. This puts me in a rather unusual situation. I am still in the Physical Anthropology wing of my department, but I am also a little bit in the Cultural wing. In fact I will have committee members from both wings. As my advisor said, I’m a hybrid.

What will this mean once I finish? It could place me in a kind of disciplinary limbo, but I am choosing to look at it differently. Instead of focusing exclusively on tenure track positions, I will look beyond academia, whether it is in the realm of curriculum consulting, policy-making, or creating educational materials. The point is that taking this risk was worth every moment of anguish and anxiety leading up to the moment when I told my advisor what I wanted to do. He and others in both wings of my department have been incredibly supportive. Most importantly, what I am doing now is something that I will always be passionate about.

Lesson learned? While a big dissertation change can have its logistical drawbacks, if it will enable you to do what you love, don’t be afraid to switch direction even when you are halfway done! Graduate school is extremely challenging…emotionally, intellectually, and even physically. It’s only worth the immense effort if you are doing something that will drive you beyond the completion of that coveted PhD.