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)”

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?

Teaching Issues: Behavioral Ethics

As graduate students, we share our opinions with the force of fact.  In many fields, this unwavering confidence is necessary for ideas to be considered.  We are required to frame our ideas so we receive thoughtful insight,  constructive criticism and no nit-picking.  Typically, this means significant amounts of preparation and burrowing into the ideas which we support.  What a fantastic skill to develop!

Have you ever considered what happens when you stand up in front of an audience with this strong bias towards your own ideas?  As a presenter, you are serving as an “expert” on a topic.  While you may want to persuade your audience of an opinion (yours, your advisor’s your department chair’s), doing so without all of the relevant information, including opposing points, is deceptive.

As teachers and mentors, what is our responsibility to our students?  Is it ethical to share your opinion without letting them form their own?  Or to present one side of a research argument without at least mentioning the other?  The one-sided or incomplete seminars I have experienced left me skeptical and unexcited.  The classes I’ve taken taught by stubbornly opinionated professors have left me questioning the expertise of the professor.  Perhaps these are conscious choices of the presenter, but it is unclear if these individuals understand the mistrust they instill in their audience by forcing their own perspective or missing important information.

I found an interesting series of videos on behavioral ethics that discusses social influences on individual choice.  As leaders in the classroom, laboratory or organization, graduate students have influence on undergraduates and peers.  It is important to acknowledge this influence and use it carefully and thoughtfully.  When you prepare for your next class just consider what you are sharing, or not sharing, with your audience.  Consider if you are being honest about what you do and don’t know to support your conclusions.

Have you ever considered this perspective or your responsibility as an authority figure?  Leave comments on the post to continue this discussion…

Communicating science: simple language for complex ideas

For those who don’t know, the Rutgers graduate school (through Project AGER) regularly offers a variety of outstanding workshops on professional development for grad students.  I recently attended one on science communication.  The workshop was run by Sangya Varma, of the Rutgers Professional Science Master’s Program and an alumna of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  (In his post-M*A*S*H career, Alan Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for many years and has been a vocal advocate for popularizing science.)  The center at Stony Brook offers multiple courses, a master’s program, and various workshops to train scientists to better communicate their work with different audiences.  It’s a fascinating and one-of-a-kind place, and I for one would love to take part in some of their activities.

The two-hour workshops at Rutgers provide a small sample of what the center at Stony Brook offers.  After highlighting the basic motivation for scientists to cultivate communication skills and some general principles of how to convey complex ideas in simple ways, we embarked on exercises of “translating” our own research into accessible language.  We also chose from a list of specific audiences (e.g., a family member, a group of investors, a newspaper reporter, etc.) and spontaneously tried to present our research to that audience.

This last activity really hit home for me, since a few months ago I participated in an interview with members of my group about our research for The Daily Targum.  Neither we nor the reporter had much experience with this, and while the resulting article was a nice plug, I was rather dissatisfied with it.  We ended up saying very little in the interview about our specific research activities, instead being sidetracked on general issues about the state of the field.  I also realized how terrible the spontaneous things we say aloud look when put into print.  I learned that one really has to prepare for these things: you have little control over what the reporter will pick to include in the final article from whatever you said in the interview, so you have to give them a very polished set of statements (pretty much at the level of sound bites, which is what they will end up using) that you won’t regret having in print.  Speaking off the cuff makes it too easy to say something careless, incoherent, or just plain silly.

This previous experience and the workshop (plus all those times I felt dissatisfied after trying to explain my work to friends and family) have inspired me to take a more deliberate approach in the future for communicating my science.  I’m starting with a list of audiences that I may likely interact with, based on my research and career interests:

  • Family members and friends
  • Basic life scientists outside of my specific subfield (e.g., molecular biologists)
  • Physicists outside of my subfield (e.g., condensed matter physicists)
  • Biomedical scientists (e.g., cancer biologists)
  • Biotechnology scientists and entrepreneurs
  • Science news media (e.g., Scientific American)
  • Mainstream news media (e.g., NY Times, Rutgers Today)
  • Program officers and review panels at funding agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF, private foundations)

My goal is to prepare short descriptions of my work customized for each of these audiences.  Most of us have at least partially done this implicitly — say, by writing applications to different funding sources or concocting one spiel about your work for your parents and another spiel for your grad student friends.  But I think a more systematic approach is a good future goal.  Even a list of important points or key words to emphasize for each audience is probably helpful; for most of us, we will definitely emphasize slightly different points or use different words for distinct audiences.  For me, I would likely emphasize the “coolness” and basic science relevance of my work when speaking to my friends or peers in science (especially from physics), while to an audience of biotech people I would definitely emphasize future potential applications.

A new language to learn

It is often difficult to recognize jargon in the everyday life of a graduate student. In lab all day, the terms polymerase chain reaction (PCR), nanodrop, and reverse transcription (RT) seem like mundane words used in a classroom. However, it is most difficult when you try to explain what you do to friends and family members outside the sciences. I first encountered this when attempting to explain what I hope to accomplish in my dissertation to a friend. What could be explained in one simple sentence to a science student took me twenty minutes to explain. Most of this explanation came not from not understanding the topics, but rather in explaining the terms.

It gets harder when you have to explain this in a different language. I am a Taiwanese-American. I speak Mandarin Chinese to my parents, but I don’t know how to read and write the language. When they ask me about the concepts I am interested in, it becomes a day long expedition. I say a word such as nanodrop and I just get blank stares. Then begins my explanation—and when you learn all these scientific terms in English, you realize how difficult it is to translate them (or even to attempt to explain them) in Chinese. It is difficult. It is like learning a new Chinese language.

And so it hit home. Jargon can be something great, but it can also be a huge hazard, for people outside your field, in understanding concepts. It is like learning a new language—it is not something that can be done in a day. Rather, it requires practice, reading, and even more reading.