Shopping and Mentoring


You know, I believe I’m doing quite well during this quarantine time. Generally in good spirits, productive, having time for extracurriculars, and keeping the family going.

Then I go shopping and get reminded that we all live in the middle of a shitshow.

The zombie-apocalypse (i.e., nonexistent) traffic; everyone at the store subdued, with masks and gloves on. Never before was the aisle with toilet paper and paper towels the first stopping point. At 7 am on a midweek shopping trip. I wish I could do it biweekly, but we go through A LOT of food (did I mention that the not-yet-13-y.o. Middle Boy is 6’1″?), and I don’t have the space to store two weeks worth of all that meat and produce.

Yesterday, one man in his sixties snickered at me as I picked out fruit while wearing a mask and gloves. I allow that my mask was ridiculous, but I don’t think that was it. He was the only shopper I saw all morning who wore neither a mask nor gloves. He probably thinks we’re all morons.

These days, every shopping trip completely drains me.

Blogosphere, how are you holding up? 



I have a postdoc (PD) who’s been with me about 18 months. Very energetic and productive, but communication has been an issue from the get-go. The problems stem from PD’s poor command of the language, as PD is a foreigner who got their PhD in their native country.

I just looked at a draft of our first joint paper, and my heart sank. On the first page in the preprint form (meaning the page contains the title and the abstract of some ~150 words), I made more than forty comments. There were multiple syntax, grammar, and punctuation issues in each sentence. It’s completely unreadable.

PD said they consulted the two native speakers we have in the group before sending to me, which I highly doubt. I can give some general remarks, but the line edits would just be too numerous. I don’t have the time or the bandwidth right now to teach someone English as a second language, especially remotely. Even if I were to mark everything up on the pdf, then send it back, it would only achieve readable English at the sentence level. We still have to rewrite completely for structure, clarity, and emphasis.

Even in the best of times, I cannot do as much hand-holding for a postdoc as I do for a graduate student, and these are far from the best of times. I said I would just rewrite the whole thing, and hopefully PD can learn from side-by-side comparison. 

Blogosphere, how would you handle this? In normal times vs. corona times? 


  1. Has the side-by-side comparison thing worked for you in the past? I’ve never tried that and am hesitant to do so because I feel like it won’t work.

    Was this manuscript the first you’ve seen of PD’s writing process? Did y’all discuss outlines including figures, equations, tables, relevant results, and basic “thesis” statement or abstract for the paper? If you weren’t involved in the outlining, perhaps ask PD to take a couple steps back and make an outline, or a reverse outline. Can PD give you a 15 minute Zoom presentation on the manuscript? Basically like a mock conference presentation?

  2. Positive Definite: Yeah, we’ve done the skeleton-of-paper check, figure check (and redux, several times), several discussions on what the story and the pitch should be about, all that preliminary stuff. PD presents updates nearly every week; verbal communication is OK, but far from flawless, and PD often needs to be stopped to clarify what they’ve said. I’ve also seen and edited some conference abstracts by them. This is the first time I’m seeing a full draft. The written language is so bad that it obscures everything else. I’m guessing the abstracts I saw before might’ve been ironed out by PD’s native-speaking labmates before they got to me, whereas I am now seeing the unvarnished truth, which is that writing complete sentences in English is a real struggle for PD.

  3. If it is any consolation, I sometimes see that level of writing non-fluency in native speakers of English. That is why it sometimes takes me 2 hours apiece to grade design reports from my undergrads—just marking the most egregious problems.

    You can suggest to the postdoc that they must hire an editor or writing tutor to help them with the paper before you see it again. There are plenty of free-lance editors working fairly cheaply over the internet—some of them probably specialize in helping non-native academic writers. They can try .

    I think that finding a solution that they can continue to use once they leave your lab is more valuable than your rewriting the paper for them, though rewriting yourself would undoubtedly be faster—how critically do YOU (not the postdoc) need this paper?

  4. gasstationwithoutpumps: Maybe I can schedule editing sessions, where I edit and share the screen so PD can watch me edit and we discuss what I am doing and why. That might be the way to offer PD a learning opportunity as well as make all this faster.

    You know I periodically get frustrated with this issue (and I’ve certainly blogged about it extensively) precisely because I am a non-native speaker, so I know it’s possible to learn to write in English at a high level. My PhD advisor didn’t spend nearly as much time on editing my papers as I do with my group members. Maybe I’m being unfair and it has to do with natural aptitude (or lack thereof) for writing. I just know that it’s really exhausting.

    Btw, I do need that paper sooner rather than later.

  5. If you need the paper, then your idea of editing the paper while the student watches (and maybe learns) is probably the best compromise. If you could afford to wait, forcing the postdoc to find editing solutions (and realizing that the work you are doing for them is normally expensive) might give them more incentive to learn to do it for themselves.

  6. gasstationwithoutpumps: I know it’s my duty to teach, but it’s hard to teach technical writing when the command of the language just isn’t there. I am not an ESL instructor. I don’t want to farm out the work to external editors; I want people to want to improve their command of the language and work on it. There are so many resources available.

  7. Seems like he needs to go through a full ESL course asap. And this corona crisis time may be the best time to do it. It could be built into the updates he gives you regularly to let you know that he is working on it. I would make it mandatory and make a clear point that improvement is a must to move along in his career, and for you to write a good recommendation letter when he leaves. Because how can anyone recommend someone that cannot write, no matter how good technically? That should get the PD very interested in the ESL course. I agree writing the paper yourself is unavoidable, unless you want to wait a full year until he improves.

  8. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s not really your job to rewrite this person’s paper for them. The only way this is going to get better is for them to do it themselves. It IS your job to tell them that this deficiency is going to get in the way of them having a successful career, and to make suggestions about how to rectify that. Writing tutors are available, and there are many people whom he can hire to do editing for him. That person should not be you. An ESL course may be another option. Hell, Duo Lingo might help.

    You are correct: it is completely possible for a non-native speaker to become an excellent writer. I think that some people just haven’t invested in writing the way they have in physics (or whatever field) because of the perception that writing is a lesser thing compared to math or science.

  9. I recently sent an undergrad to the writing center with his senior thesis because I couldn’t handle the sentence and paragraph structure level problems. His virtual appointment is today so I’ll let you know how it works out.

    If your uni has a remedial freshman comp class that may or may not be helpful. (Some actually do teach writing while others are a waste of time.)

  10. I work with a PhD student with similar issues. I ask him to take his papers to the writing center before sharing with me. This has not resulted in better papers – which astounds me bc we are at an ivy league university. Why isn’t the writing support and education better? I feel like there need to be technical writing for non-native speaker classes at universities (with low numbers of students for maximal feedback). I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that.

  11. Sorry but if you hire a post-doc, you can’t then tell them that they need to hire at their own expense their own editor or writing tutor!

  12. “you can’t then tell them that they need to hire at their own expense their own editor or writing tutor!”
    Pretty sure you can. It would be the same as telling a student who has exhausted office hours that they might want to hire a tutor. State universities don’t have the infinite resources that an ivy league does and the end goal is the post-doc writing decent papers without using up all the professor’s time. Plus an editor/tutor is probably less expensive than forcing them to take a 3 credit hour class.

  13. It’s not at all like that & while you “can” tell a post-doc to hire at their own expense a tutor and/or editor, it’s grotesquely exploitative to do so. When you recruit a post-doc into yr lab, yr committing to mentoring & training them to, among other things, be able to produce decent drafts of manuscripts. If they are incapable of ever doing so without outside paid consultants *and* you are unwilling to pay for such consultants, then you should not have brought them into yr lab, bcs you are unable or unwilling to provide the mentoring & training you committed to.

  14. There’s a level that you’re committing to. Basically, the argument you’re making is that you should fire them? Because “should not have brought them into your lab” is a sunk cost. And maybe they have crystal balls at Yale, but most universities don’t.

    I am guessing that you have never been in this situation and never will be because you’re at an Ivy league school in commuting distance of a major city AND Yale has funds that public universities don’t. I seriously doubt that you would spend the time needed to teach someone at this level to produce decent drafts of manuscripts, nor do you likely have the skills to because you’re not trained in ESL.

    What you’re doing is you’re saying that this woman with way less privilege than you have should sacrifice herself completely for some guy who has never put in the effort to learn how to write a draft in English despite having a PhD all because she made the mistake of hiring him, even though there are plenty of other options that he could take that don’t involve her not having time for any of her other commitments.

    That seems pretty ridiculous. And I bet he’d prefer to hire a tutor than to leave the lab (and the US).

  15. You’re “guessing” & “doubting” numerous things you haven’t the faintest knowledge of.

  16. And BTW, the blogger isn’t the one who suggested telling post-doc to hire their own consultants & in fact she explicitly rejected that idea.

  17. Teaching someone how to write well (or even passably) is hard. The first thing is they have to genuinely want to improve. They have to be willing to put time, effort, and mindfulness into their writing. Leading a horse to water and all that.

    That said, here are a few suggestions. First, for issues of spelling, typography, and grammar, I find that Grammarly is decent (obviously it won’t help with the technical aspects of the writing). I got it for another purpose but found it useful for email and the like. I override some of its suggestions, but it does help me catch typos. Using the university’s writing center might serve a similar purpose if the writer would benefit from explanations for why something should be one way versus another.

    For writing like a scientist, I’ve found with my students and postdocs that it helps a lot to do editing in front of them and to talk through the “why” of my choices. Often the root problem is that they aren’t being meta enough about their writing. They have to be forced to step back and look at it through a barely interested reader’s eyes.

  18. I have found Grammarly to be very useful for non-native speakers. Maybe ask them to run through Grammarly before sending the draft to you. It will at least catch most common errors. After that working side by side online seems to be the best suggestion.

  19. @nicoleandmaggie
    “I recently sent an undergrad to the writing center with his senior thesis because I couldn’t handle the sentence and paragraph structure level problems.” I’ve tried that approach with undergrads in my electronics lab course, where the design reports are the biggest part of the grade. They have routinely reported that the writing center provided almost no help—it was staffed with literature undergrads who wrote no better than they did, who didn’t know anything about punctuation, who didn’t know anything about the formatting of STEM reports, and who couldn’t understand the content of the report to find problems with flow or terminology. I hope that your writing center works better. The approach our program has taken is to hire a writing instructor to teach a full writing course for students doing a senior thesis (in the 2nd of the three terms that the senior thesis spans). We were lucky enough to get a very good writing instructor with enough background in biology to understand the papers that the students were writing—the improvement in the theses was dramatic, and students in our program now win the competitive “Dean’s and Chancellor’s Awards” at about 10 times the rate of students in other programs.

    @wallis “I work with a PhD student with similar issues. I ask him to take his papers to the writing center before sharing with me. This has not resulted in better papers – which astounds me …” I’m not surprised—writing centers are rarely staffed with top-notch scientific editors. Our department’s solution was to require a writing course of all grad students, taught by one of our ladder-rank faculty (luckily not me—I’ve taught way too many writing and writing-intensive courses). The course is timed so that the students are working on their thesis proposal needed for advancement to candidacy.

  20. Xyk, I went to the store today too, and I used exactly the same word to describe it when I got home. Shitshow. I saw a fight break out because someone cut in line. Omfg. And after two hours of anxiety and extra attention to everything I touched, after loading all the groceries into our makeshift decontamination station, my kid ran out and shouted “pudding cups!!!!” and grabbed one. With her bare hands.

    I am happy to be back in my safe little isolation home.

  21. I guess depending on my bandwidth at the time (right now low), I would be tempted to rewrite the paper myself, which is way faster/easier (the postdoc can do figures/analysis/lit review/etc) and put the learning-to-write part back on the postdoc.

    Quite frankly, I would expect a postdoc to be able to write at a passable level, and even though the advisor should certainly be mentoring the postdoc, I would hope this mentoring is more at the level of more advanced skills (managing projects, mentoring other students, writing proposals, etc.).

    Of course, it all depends how burned out you are on dealing with the tedium of this process.

  22. I feel very fortunate—I’m in a county with only 0.73 deaths/100,000 and people are being pretty good about complying with shelter-in-place rules. I walked to the corner store today, which is only letting in 4 people at a time and everyone (staff and customers) has to wear masks. Customers who come without masks can give the staff a shopping list, but have to wait outside. The store has just about all their usual stock (no yeast, but plenty of flour of all types). They’re even keeping the bulk sales going, by closing that aisle and having a staff person fetch from the bulk bins. (That’s probably why they still have flour—bulk sales to bakeries and restaurants are down, so large bags of flour are easily obtained, and only retail-packaged flour is hard to get.) The store has been getting a lot of approval on Nextdoor for their early adoption of sensible safety measures. We’ll be doing more of our shopping there in future, as they have shown themselves to be good neighbors.

    I’ve not been in the bigger stores (like Safeway or Trader Joe’s) for a couple of weeks—I’ve bicycled past and not wanted to wait in long lines. Our usual main shopping store (New Leaf) has been ok, but not nearly as good about keeping customers and staff safe as our corner store has been.

  23. I am a postdoc, not a native English speaker and have had my share of frustrations in trying to work on my paper writing. My PhD advisor also had a frustrating habit of only making line edits without ever giving any top level advice or reasoning behind those line edits, which is why I’ve felt I’ve had to find other sources of information on what it is specifically that I should focus on when writing to avoid said line edits in the first place.

    The current paper will likely not benefit from this suggestion, but your postdoc might: I have found Stephen Heard’s “The Scientist’s Guide to Writing” helpful in learning to better understand how paragraphs & sentences are typically structured in English scientific writing. My copy is at the office, so I can’t check now, but I think it also has a very good section on self-revising for logic, clarity and grammar. Of course, it’s more of a style guide, so it will likely be more beneficial if your postdoc’s grasp of English in general is good enough for them to understand when a sentence (or paragraph or a section) gets improved and when they’re actually making it worse.

    PS. I would jump at a chance to get real time commentary of my PI editing my paper & discussing the reasoning behind different grammatical choices. It sounds like it might be a great learning experience for your postdoc assuming they are good enough at English to be able to follow that kind of input. (I would not benefit from something like that if I was made to write a paper in my third or fourth languages, which I’ve studied and use significantly less than English. I would just be happy to be able to produce rough sentences that barely hang together)

  24. I’m also going to suggest hiring a professional scientific editor. There are plenty of individual freelancers out there working in specific fields, and there are also many editing companies. You tend to get what you pay for when you hire an editor: some of the companies that offer low rates hire freelancers at ridiculously low rates (less than minimum wage for a skilled job that requires specialized knowledge), so the editing provided is likely to be sub-par. Others, such as Nature Research Editing Services (NRES) pay better and have much higher standards, but also obviously cost more.

    How do I know this? Because I am an academic editor myself. [Note: my field is life sciences so this comment is not motivated by hopes of gaining you as a client.] Most of my clients are professors who do excellent research but who have English as a second language. While it may be most desirable for your postdoc to learn how to write completely fluently by themselves, it is not completely necessary for an academic career, as long as the PD understands that they will continue to have to pay for editing if they do not improve sufficiently. As well as substantive editing (correcting grammatical errors, rewriting sentences to improve clarity) some editors and companies (including NRES) also offer developmental editing, which provides detailed feedback on structural issues in additional to substantive editing. However, developmental editing is very time consuming (as you know!) and is thus expensive.

    As to who should pay for professional editing: that would be your call, not mine. Many of my overseas clients pay for editing of most or all manuscripts from their group (because their own language skills are not good enough to make the corrections themselves) but expectations may be different for PDs working in US labs. If you had any funds available for editing (a big “if”, I know) you could view it as paying someone to free up your time? (I have one US-based client who sends me all ESL manuscripts from her group with this rationale.)

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