Impatient

I have been a slacker blogger… But for a good reason! A lot of technical writing is happening these days, making sure papers variously get submitted/revised/come out before the proposal-writing lockdown commences in August.

But there’s always time for a little rant!

If you have been reading my blog for some time, you might remember that I think one of my defining qualities is impatience. I am intense and a real pain in the butt, so says pretty much everyone who knows me. I am irritated when people talk really slowly or can’t get to the point fast for whatever reason. I have colleagues whose emails I dread receiving, because they always respond to even the shortest of inquiries with multi-screen emails and I just get queasy at the thought of parsing through all that verbiage.

I do try (and unfortunately sometimes fail) to be cognizant and respectful of the fact that not everyone has the same priorities or timelines as me. However, for my own sanity, I try to stay away from people whose relevant timescales are longer than mine by an order of magnitude or more.

When it comes to writing papers, it seems I want them written up and published more passionately than most people I work with, even when those other people are first author. That’s a source of puzzlement and irritation on my part, perhaps on theirs as well.

First of all, I love working on papers. I love doing the figures, writing the text, I love all of the aspects of organizing my thoughts into something fluid and cogent. And I LOOOVE the process of uploading and submitting a paper. It’s like Christmas morning every time. I felt this way even when I was a student.

These days, my students do the uploading and paper tracking for the most part. I consider it part of training to learn to correspond with editors and referees, to fight for the publication of their work (I oversee and edit all the correspondence). But I almost never see in my students that crazy enthusiasm, which has followed and still does every submission on my part; it confuses and saddens me.

I wonder to what extent I and the likes of me really understand what motivates most graduate students to go to graduate school.  I mean, I understand intellectually — in my field, most people want to put in the time to get a degree that leads to a well-paying job — but I don’t think I actually get it at my very core. Many students have multiple hobbies to which they devote considerable energy and time. Graduate school seems just another thing they do, and not a particularly important one at that, or one that brings them much joy. Basically, it’s like a job. They do what they are told competently, but very little creativity goes into the work. I see very little pride about their work, very little desire to show their cool contributions to the world. This is very different from how I felt about graduate school or how I feel about my job even now, with the ups and downs and funding uncertainties and post-tenure slump. Being in grad school is a freakin’ privilege!

This post is motivated by a recent experience with a former group member (FGM) who is now a junior faculty member elsewehere. We are writing up our last paper together, one that should have been published a year or more ago, but FGM was preoccupied with job applications, then moving, getting settled into their first year teaching, etc., so I didn’t want to get on their case. But it’s time, and FGM really needs papers (I know they do, I hope they realize how much they do), yet working with them on this last one has been like pulling teeth. I did a large share of edits, a very lengthy referee response (3 referees), not to mention cleaning up the text and have recently had to redo a figure in a way that completely pissed me off because, while I love fiddling with figures, I am far too senior to do things like this (such as doing a point-by-point capture of experimental data from a graph in another group’s paper, to which we compare our theory). I was pissed because I was doing this work as I apparently wanted this manuscript submitted and done more than FGM, the person who is first author and considerably junior to me, and they were acting nearly disinterested. I have had to prod and poke them to submit every revision.

Another student told me that I am the only professor he knows who actually works on the figures themselves;  everybody else’s advisors just mark corrections on the paper and do that as many times as needed. I do go back and forth with students several times, but then at some point I need minor layout tweaks and to try different combinations of panels or colors etc. and with all but one or two students, who seem to have a naturally good aesthetic sense and are able to produce appealing visuals on their own without excessive intervention, it’s sometimes much less painful for me to do the tweaks than for us to exchange 6 gazillion emails.

So WTF do I want? Good question. I seem to whine about doing figures, yet also enjoy doing them.

Doing science and getting data is hard. Writing papers and making figures is necessary, but it is also much easier than doing science and and is super fun (for me, at least), and I don’t know why junior folks don’t savor it. Savor it, damnit!

What I want is for my trainees to take pride in their work and to be hungry to publish their work. I want them to chase me and nag me to finish the paper and to send me 15 versions of each figure and to be engaged in writing their work up for publication. I don’t expect them to do anything perfectly, but wish they would want to do things, on their own, without prodding. I know being effective at presenting takes time and practice, but I don’t think you can learn to have a fire in the belly.  Apparently, what I need are students with chronic indigestion…

16 comments

  1. What you want are students just like you. What you are finding out is that such people are rare indeed.

  2. I get why the students on the industry track don’t want to write papers. What I don’t get is (1) why they don’t just get an MS and then start making money a few years sooner and (2) why the student on the academic path doesn’t want to write papers.

  3. I had the same problem with a student who was close to graduating, wanted an academic job, and needed the publication. At some point, I realized that this student had begun to expect me to take all the initiative and do all the pushing. Perhaps this was through years of practice — after all, when he was an younger student, I had done all the pushing. Perhaps to some extent, I was responsible for this dynamic myself; I tried too hard to prove that I was a good advisor. My story does not have a happy ending; at that point in time, I needed the paper — my review was coming up — and in spite of this realization, I ended up doing most of the work myself.

    It is possible something like this is going on with your student.

  4. (I’m giving myself a nickname, since I’ve commented as “Anonymous” here a few times before. It’s not very creative, I know….)

    While I don’t share your enthusiasm about paper-writing — I do it, just not as gleefully as you seem to — this totally resonates with me:

    “Many students have multiple hobbies to which they devote considerable energy and time. Graduate school seems just another thing they do, and not a particularly important one at that, or one that brings them much joy. Basically, it’s like a job. They do what they are told competently, but very little creativity goes into the work. I see very little pride about their work, very little desire to show their cool contributions to the world.”

    This is what I see around me, too. I used to think that it was because I was a grad student at an R2, but given your experience, I guess that’s not it. So yeah, I don’t get it either … and I feel really isolated as a result. And it’s not like I expect people to live and breathe their work 24/7. I worked at a national lab for several years before going back to school for my PhD, and my former colleagues — many with family obligations that my peers here don’t have, most of whom worked 40-45 hrs/wk — could always find time to chat about really cool data, an unexpected result, or an interesting paper. I feel like I’m in an intellectual desert here, and I don’t think it’s very healthy. How can I make sure that don’t I wind up in a similar environment for my postdoc?

    As for FGM, I think I’m with Luna here. Why should he put in the effort when he knows you’ll get it done and he’ll get the credit? Kind of nasty, yes, but very efficient for him, no?

  5. I agree. I really don’t think there are too many things more exciting than finishing the paper and sending it off for others to read. I don’t understand why students aren’t as excited. However, I do agree with some of the other posters. Why should junior people put in the effort when they know that you will do the work (and most likely do it better than they could)? They can concentrate on other things that help their career, secure in the knowledge that their bad-ass (and I mean that in the most complimentary way!) former advisor will take care of this chore for them.

  6. Its not just students who are passive aggressive and let others do the work for them. My colleagues in my department are horrible in this way. They know that others (e.g. me) care about getting the job done right and so they know if they drop the ball, and go have hobbies and a life, I’ll pick up the pieces. We all still get paid the same. Well, they actually get paid more than me, since I’m female and salaries are not equitable.

  7. Related to Annon’s point, all too often “work-life balance” means “I get stuck doing the work while somebody else has a life.” Yes, there’s a very important and valuable concept in “work-life balance”, one appreciated by many people on this blog (including the blog’s illustrious owner and author) but the implementation in too many setting is all too often more about “I get stuck doing the work while somebody else has a life.”

  8. “Graduate school seems just another thing they do, and not a particularly important one at that, or one that brings them much joy. Basically, it’s like a job. They do what they are told competently, but very little creativity goes into the work. I see very little pride about their work, very little desire to show their cool contributions to the world.”

    None of my graduate students over the years have ever been like this, and all of them have been excited and passionate about their research, and ambitious about publishing and presenting it. Some of my post-docs, on the other hand…

  9. Many students have multiple hobbies to which they devote considerable energy and time. Graduate school seems just another thing they do, and not a particularly important one at that, or one that brings them much joy. Basically, it’s like a job. They do what they are told competently, but very little creativity goes into the work. I see very little pride about their work, very little desire to show their cool contributions to the world.

    Maybe this is a rational response to the realities on the ground today: if one is extremely to get a TT job, much less at a R1 school, why not leave the office a little earlier and develop one’s ju jitsu skills?

  10. @Astra: I see nothing “rational” about this response. The job market today should motivate students to care about publishing even more. If you’re going to go to grad school and half-ass it, almost guaranteeing that you won’t be competitive later on, then why do it in the first place? And if all you want is an industry job, then the TT job market should make no difference to you one way or the other.

  11. I have perhaps a bit more sympathy for the grad students. I’ve always loved doing the research, coming up with new ideas, solving the problems, getting the programs implemented and cleaned up—writing the papers, not so much. I have probably half a dozen papers I should have written up 5–15 years ago. Unless I have a co-author who needs to get a paper out, I have a hard time getting together the energy to finish and submit papers.

    Actually submitting manuscripts through some of the awful web portals like ManuscriptCentral, where it can take 5 hours to submit a single paper with a few figures, is close to torture. I won’t do it, and make co-authors do that part. For my single-author papers, well some of them never get submitted.

  12. “I have probably half a dozen papers I should have written up 5–15 years ago.”

    The time, effort, and resources devoted to those studies was as useful to the scientific enterprise as jackeing offe onto the ground is to the reproductive enterprise. Rather than your experiences representing a justification for cutting grad students slack, they should lead to some serious self reflection about your pointless frittering away of time, effort, and resources–presumably financially supported by some third party–on scientific masturbation.

  13. The job market today should motivate students to care about publishing even more. If you’re going to go to grad school and half-ass it, almost guaranteeing that you won’t be competitive later on, then why do it in the first place?

    I’m not talking about half-assing it. I’m saying that the sense I get is that grad students look around, realize that they can work all-out, publish great science, and still find themselves with no permanent job prospects at the end of it. In my field (astrophysics) there are now more prize postdocs awarded each year than faculty openings. That is to say, even the top candidates who are doing everything “right” can find themselves with nothing to show for it. When I hear older faculty say that students should be devoting all of their time and energies to science, I see people who assume that that effort will be rewarded as it was for them. There is still this pervasive belief that the “good” scientists will all get TT jobs that seems to persist in the older generation in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

    IMO, the academic model is breaking down. How it will play out in the next few decades I don’t know but I get cranky when people suggest that the old nose to the grindstone approach is going to pay off for all the deserving scientists.

    All of this is a bit off the original topic. Unlike our hostess, writing papers is difficult for me and when I hit submit I mostly feel drained rather than exhilarated. I agree with xykademiqz and CPP though that if you don’t publish your work, it’s effectively useless, so students have to keep focusing on the end result. I don’t agree that a lack of excitement is the sign of a poor scientist. I’m pretty good at my job but writing papers is like pulling teeth and, while necessary, it’s not what gets my juices flowing.

  14. A few years ago, I watched the show Friday Night Lights. It was a great drama, about high-school football in Texas. In the last season, we see one character, Luke, realize he will not be getting to play in college, as only very low-level schools showed any interest in bringing him on board. At the same time, his high-school team has qualified for the state finals; that’s the biggest deal for these kids in every season (whether or not they go to “state”).

    Here’s the advice that Tim Riggins (a year or two senior to Luke and the bad boy, eye candy, and unlikely sage of the show) gives to Luke. “Let me give you some advice, Luke. You’re going to State, correct? Nothing is going to be bigger than that. Play it that way. Play it like it’s the last time you’re ever going to lace up. Then let go. And move on. That’s my advice.

    This is my outlook. If you ever really wanted to be a scientist and are now having doubts about your ability to continue being one after the PhD, because of the bad market or thinking you are not good enough or whatever, then half-assing it during the PhD is really betraying yourself. If you don’t think you will continue to do research in the future, that’s all the more reason to do it really hard, with all you’ve got, while you still can — in grad school. And then graduate and move on.

  15. I’m not talking about half-assing it. I’m saying that the sense I get is that grad students look around, realize that they can work all-out, publish great science, and still find themselves with no permanent job prospects at the end of it. In my field (astrophysics) there are now more prize postdocs awarded each year than faculty openings. That is to say, even the top candidates who are doing everything “right” can find themselves with nothing to show for it.

    IMO, the academic model is breaking down. How it will play out in the next few decades I don’t know but I get cranky when people suggest that the old nose to the grindstone approach is going to pay off for all the deserving scientists.

    This is right. Publishing the paper is mainly for the benefit of the lab’s future, not the trainee’s future. Unless it’s a super-prestigious paper it won’t help the trainee become a PI, it’ll just help them graduate. And it seems like it takes years between writing a first draft and getting a paper accepted. About 10% of the way through the process, the predominant emotion is “Ugh, I wish this was off my desk”.

    Also, it’s weird to say that planning/doing experiments is hard and writing/submitting papers is easy. They are totally unrelated skills. Trainees spend every minute of a given working week doing experiments, and then occasionally have to take time off and write something. Most dread these periods when they have to switch into “writing mode” for who knows how long, and be on their own in front of the computer trying to synthesize infinite amounts of background reading and data into twelve extremely hard-to-read pages.

  16. I see what Astra is saying. It’s demoralizing to some and invigorating to others for a job market to be so tight. People are going to react in their own way.

    Saying that graduate students should focus only on work and not on anything else (or at least not on anything else until after they get tenure) is to put academia on a martyred pedestal that isn’t there for other career choices. There actually can be life in between “slacking off” and “never leaving the office,” though, and this is true for all jobs. Not everyone ends up with a job that defines his or her entire being, and not everyone wants one.

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