Scientists As Non-Technical Writers

Occasionally it occurs to me that, in terms of my job as an academic scientist, I really still think of myself as junior. Intellectually, I know I am a full professor and I am not getting any younger, but I don’t really feel that I now truly belong to the most senior segment of the professoriate, the segment that produces the leaders of federally funded centers and the writers of textbooks.

A little while ago, I reviewed big center grants for a federal agency, and this is the first time I ever thought I could totally write this type of grant (which is not to say that I should or would). Center grants are really different beasts than single-investigator or small-team grants, and much hinges on the capability of the PI to bring everyone together (which I think I could); however, even more hinges on the perceived awesomeness of the PI. I am a theorist and a woman, yet any center (unless it’s one heavily focused on theory, and those are exceedingly rare) would involve me and a whole bunch of experimentalists.  People expect a senior male experimentalist at the helm, or  a male young-gun experimentalist, or perhaps a senior woman experimentalist. To lead most centers, I would probably have two if not three demerits as the PI — female, theorist and perhaps not sufficiently senior. Sure, this may be my impostor syndrome talking, but I don’t think I am imagining this.

Anyway, I think I will be trying my hand at leading some larger proposals in the next year or two, even though they are likely not to get funded. I will try hard to think of it as practice for bigger and better things, and not just as a ginormous waste of time.

***

For reasons of intradepartmental service, I recently had the pleasure of reading the CV of a senior colleague. The colleague wrote a well-regarded textbook a couple of decades ago, when he was about my age or perhaps even younger. He’s not in my subfield, so I don’t know if that text was really necessary and novel at the time, something much-needed to fill a void in the education of graduate students. What I know is that the book has been broadly adopted and has sold nearly 100,000 copies.

I teach courses from low-level undergrad to upper-level graduate, and I provide detailed hand-written lecture notes for all my courses. Occasionally, people ask if I plan on writing a textbook for the course.

As for the low-level undergraduate courses, I don’t think I have enough original to say about these basic and well-known topics that hasn’t been already said in one text or another. I certainly don’t see that there is a dearth of undergraduate texts in my field — on the contrary;  too many people have already spent time writing textbooks that very few students outside of their own classrooms will ever buy.

When it comes to graduate education, there is a small number of texts available and I have things to say, but I feel that my most original thoughts fit just as well into journal publications. I don’t feel that it’s worth my time to write a textbook, that there is a pressing need for it, or that there is a sufficiently large market for it. I am also fairly non-committal in terms of what I teach: I like changing up my lectures, especially at the graduate level, as I see fit, in response to both new field developments and to class composition and interest. New discoveries lead to new homework problems, projects, and additions to the course readings.

In other words, I could write a textbook or textbooks, but in all honesty I can’t say that the world really needs one (or three) from me, so I cannot justify spending time on this endeavor… Although I would probably really enjoy the writing.

***

Another thing I have been mulling over: scientists as non-technical writers, i.e., as writers of fiction or popular non-fiction.

I know a few successful examples off the top of my head. Daniel H. Wilson, the author or Robopocalypse (being presently adapted into a movie) and Robogenesis, has a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon (although he seems to write full time these days). Paul McEuen, an accomplished Cornell condensed-matter physicist and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is also a recognized fiction writer, whose thriller Spiral was welcomed with positive reviews. Jennifer Rohn, who blogs at Occam’s Typewriter, is (to paraphrase her own words) a cell biologist at the University College London by day and a novelist, pundit, and editor by night. She has published two novels (Experimental Heart and The Honest Look) as well as shorter pieces. This year’s Hugo Award winner in the novel category, The Three-Body Problem (can’t wait to read it!) was written by Cixin Liu, who used to work as a computer  engineer at a power plant.

There are people who write non-fiction that is based on their experiences in their main line of work. There are Harvard’s well-known Stephen Pinker with The Sense of Style and a particle physicist Lisa Randall with Warped Passages. M.R. Nelson wrote the short and delightful Taming the Work Week and Navigating the Path to Industry based on her years of working as a manager in the biotech industry. Academic examples are also Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded and Karen Kelsky’s book, The Professor Is In, based on her blog (I admit to not being the biggest fan).

Clearly some people can be both gifted writers and accomplished professionls. I like writing, as evidenced by nearly 6 years of blogging (has it been that long?) and I have been enamored of the idea of even more writing. Sure, I have no time, but the lack of time never stopped me from doing anything; I do have ideas and zeal. It’s the fear of suckitude at a scale grander than my small blog and the fear of of contributing meaninglessly to the legions of the unread (and the undead) at a great sacrifice of time and energy — both of which should be channeled into my family and my day job — that generally serves as a powerful antidote to the impetus to write more.

I will say, though, that many books and publications related to the life in academia, like the CHE and IHE, don’t resonate with my experiences. For instance, while I understand and am sympathetic to the plights of adjuncts, we simply don’t have them in my college at all. We have a handful of full-time teaching staff with MS degrees. They have long-term contracts, good salaries, and benefits. They are beloved teachers who are involved in developing the curriculum and fully partake in faculty meetings. Once in a blue moon, when there is a need to staff a course last minute, those are covered either as teaching overload by a member of faculty or teaching staff, or by a highly qualified senior graduate student who’s mere months from graduation and who would like some teaching experience.

Academia is very heterogeneous and I understand the mainstream publications are tailored towards non-STEM folks and non-R1 universities and colleges. No one should shed a tear for a well-compensated tenured academic at a large research university.  But I will say that people reading about academia in mainstream outlets probably have almost no idea (or worse yet, have a very unrealistic one) about the world that my colleagues and I live and work in. Maybe that’s not a loss, but maybe it is.

9 comments

  1. Two thoughts:

    On “I will try hard to think of it as practice for bigger and better things, and not just as a ginormous waste of time”: I suppose that if you are going to do it, that is a way to make it somewhat less frustrating. I finally gave up on all grant writing as a huge waste of my time—the chances of getting funded were too small for the enormous effort it took.

    On “Occasionally, people ask if I plan on writing a textbook for the course”: I had no intention of ever writing a book, for much the reasons you cite. I don’t even rely on textbooks much in the classes I teach. But I am now writing a textbook for my “Applied Electronics for Bioengineers”course, because there wasn’t a decent book available and I was writing voluminous lab handouts. The current draft is now available (cheap) at https://leanpub.com/applied_electronics_for_bioengineers
    Writing a textbook is taking even longer than I expected, but it is a lot more fun than writing grant proposals.

    Leanpub provides a good resource for developing a textbook—you can release early drafts, give free coupons to students in your classes, and purchasers can get updated drafts for as long as you are publishing with leanpub (you can withdraw your book and publish elsewhere at any time).

  2. As a theorist I am often asked if I am collaborating with an experimentalist. (Answer: yes) Experimentalists are rarely asked if they are collaborating with a theorist.

  3. @Alex: Oh, yes. We theorists are unruly kids, always about to get into mischief without the oversight by experimentalists.

    I always have at least one letter of support from experimentalists in my single-PI proposals, otherwise I run the risk of being told that I should have more connection to experiment. Experimentalists don’t need a letter from a theorist (or any involvement from theory) to be considered worthwhile. (Yes, I am a little bitter.)

  4. @gasstationwithoutpumps: Congrats on the book! Looks great and does seem like you put a ton of work into it. Thank you for the info about leanpub, I am actually considering it for one of my classes.

  5. I also used leanpub to publish a mini-book and found it quite enjoyable. I call it a mini-book because the book part is short (40-some pages) and the worksheets and solutions part is huge (140-ish pages). Leanpub has a very smooth workflow and has pretty decent support for math formulas. https://leanpub.com/earthcalculusthebook

    I am now using Softcover to write up my class notes for the coming year (at softcover.io). The startup energy there is higher as you need to be comfortable with the command line and troubleshooting your installation, but you can LaTeX your heart out and I need that extra LaTeX capacity for math for finance! (and I could copy & paste in some old notes from previous years).

  6. Also I heard something recently about the new band with Dan Auerbach, the Arcs. I want a review from Xykademiqz.

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