publishing

Writing Papers with Graduate Students Who Don’t Want to Write Papers, Take Seven Gajillion

Over the past few weeks I have been working on papers with several students in parallel, and I am again pulling my hair out and wondering if there is a  way to get the writing done and the students trained without me going bald.

Reporting findings in written form is an inherent part of doing science. If you don’t publish your work, it’s as good as nonexistent. But, even more generally, scientists and engineers with advanced degrees will likely have to write technical texts one way or another, regardless of where they work, so it is important to train graduate students to write.

To me, writing has always been the easy, enjoyable part of every project. Sure, literature survey for the introduction is a bit of a pain the butt, but starting to write a paper means that the technical hurdles have (mostly) been overcome, that we have done the hard stuff and now it’s time for the frosting on the cake. Getting to write the paper has always been the reward part for me. Also, writing helps me distill my thoughts: the process of trying to explain what was done and how the reasoning went in a coherent, fluid form, often helps me understand the problem even better than before.

In contrast, I find that most of my students dislike writing. While for international students it may be the insecurity about their command of English, I find that even native speakers and non-natives with excellent command of English would largely still rather not write than write. Even students who may be very good and engaging presenters are often surprisingly lackluster writers or just horrible procrastinators when the time comes to start putting words on paper. “That’s because they are novice writers,” you say, “surely they will learn with practice, and writing will become easier;” that’s true, but only to a degree. Many simply really, really don’t want to write, don’t want to learn how to write, and would rather I left them to do their reading, derivations, and coding. They love being immersed in the technical nitty-gritty of their projects.

Writing is to science what eating fiber is to diet: necessary to keep things moving.

When you were little your mother probably bugged you about getting fiber through fruits, vegetables, and grains. Once you are all grown up, you probably understand the importance and include it in your diet, even if you don’t really like eating it. With my PhD students, I definitely stress very strongly the importance of technical writing. I used to iterate ad nauseam with each student until each paper was perfect; that took forever and the process often didn’t converge, so I had to take over. Right now, after the framework of the paper is agreed upon, I have a policy of 3 back-and-forths with edits before I take over and do the final rewrites; I ask the student if he or she wants to iterate more, as occasionally I do have a student who does want to keep going a little more to perfect their craft. However, most students are very happy when I take over; some procrastinate endlessly with their edits, some will tell me that they hate writing and don’t want to do it, or that it’s just really hard and they would rather I did it.

You know, it’s my duty to emphasize the importance of technical writing to students and to offer them the opportunity to learn. But do I actually have to shove the writing down their throats? I mean, if they are resisting learning, is it really my duty to force them to learn to write? We are dealing with young adults, but adults nonetheless.

I am wondering if I should reduce the mininum technical writing requirements to “full drafts for those who want to learn how to write, figure and figure captions for those who decide they don’t care to learn how to write,” or some similar scenario. Basically, when I see someone is fighting me and just does not want to write, perhaps it is OK for me to say “Fine. You supply the figures I tell you to make, I will write the paper. But don’t tell me that I didn’t tell you it’s important to learn how to write, and if you ever want to have another crack at it, let me know. In the meantime, you are relieved of this ominous duty.”

What say you, blogosphere? Is it OK to relieve the suffering of both myself and the students who really really don’t want to write?  Sure, that will leave them scientifically constipated, but I’m tired of having to chase them in order to force-feed them professional whole grains. I am not sure it’s in my job description or in anyone’s best interest.

April Showers Bring May Semester End and Thoughts on Learning New Things

For faculty on the semester system, there are only a couple of weeks of teaching left. This is probably the busiest time of the year, due to the sinister convergence of the semester ending and the conference season approaching. Program committees of many conferences are working hard these days to evaluate the abstracts; I am on three. On top of it, I am about to go to DC, again, for the third time in the last six months. This year has, so far, been very busy for me.

With perpetual busyness, how does one find the time to learn new things? I mean, where does the time come from to learn new techniques or the tenets of new fields of inquiry, but learn them really, really well?

I am working on topics that are somewhat but not far removed from my core expertise. You pick up related stuff along the way, as you work with students and postdocs, listen to talks by others, read up on papers in order to write proposals. But I feel I am not really an expert in any of these topics, as what I know about them has been acquired in a non-systematic fashion, by assembling the bits and pieces from various sources over time. I always worry that there are things I am overlooking, the literature I am missing.

There is something to be said for being introduced to a topic through taking a class or reading a textbook. Yet, the only way I have the time to read a textbook is if I teach a class based on it, and even so I may not get to read the whole thing. There are several topics that I find interesting and where I could potentially have something new and nontrivial to say, but the time to properly learn about any of them is just not there. I am itching to venture further out, to learn more and seek challenges and connections with fields that are more foreign to me.

I have been asking people how they find the time to learn new things, and the answer they often give me is “sabbatical.” I don’t see that happening with me; having small and school-aged kids and a working husband, I don’t see us leaving this place for a real sabbatical any time soon. During my previous sabbatical, I had a kid and also organized a major conference; I wrote several proposals, of which a major one got funded; I worked with students and wrote papers, and I think I did quite well keeping my head above water on all fronts, considering that my brain was mush due to no sleep and out-of-whack hormones. My next sabbatical is years away, and I need/want to learn and do some new things sooner than that. But there is just never enough time to pick up a book and work through it, for real. On top of teaching, I continually have students to work with, papers to edit, grants to write, service, travel. Summers are prime-time for conference travel, writing papers, and preparing fall proposals (this fall is really important for me grant-wise, I really need to do a good job with the NSF). There always seems to be something more urgent. Yet learning new things that can support your long-term research vision is important, like investing in education and infrastructure is important for long-term economic growth.

Now, I have a pretty good system for getting uninterrupted blocks of time. There is one day of the week when everyone knows I am MIA, and I have been successfully blocking out a second day in recent years; this also means that the other three days are chock full of teaching and meetings and I feel positively drained after them. My 1-2 blocked-out days are spent on writing papers or grants or whatever else needs tending to urgently; for instance, I spent a whole day grading last week, because that was the most urgent thing to do.

Being a working parent means that your time is always maximally obligated. Becoming older, I find that I can’t keep the pace of little sleep and burning the candle on both ends, which I used to be able to pull off when I was younger to squeeze some extra time for work out of the stubbornly 24-hour-long days. For instance, after a day of wrangling the Littles, like today, I can barely blog, let alone read something technically challenging.

How does one find the time to learn new things for work? I suppose this somewhat extends to — how does one find the time to exercise or have a hobby? People will offer answers that I have always found irritating: “You just have to make it (or yourself) a priority.” When you have kids, that means (1) you take the time from your work, (2) you take the time from your sleep, or (3) you take the time from your family time, which means your partner or additional caregivers bear the brunt of you taking the time for yourself or your new endeavors. I want to learn new things to do my job better, so I don’t think I should be sacrificing too much from (2) or (3), because I don’t have the stamina to skimp on sleep any more and the kids are only little once and my DH is entitled to weekends too. I want to find the time during my work day to accommodate more learning.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you find the time to learn new things for work, and learn them well?

Following Up with New Connections

In a comment to my recent post, “Musings on Networking,” TheGrinch asked:

Any advice on how to follow up / be in touch with new connections?

How to follow up depends a little on what type of interaction you had. With some people you just had a nice brief chat, but you didn’t connect either professionally or personally. I would say you don’t have to follow up with them at all, just be friendly if you meet them again somewhere in the future.

If you connected with someone personally, like if you are both grad students and went bar-hopping, then just do the usual friendly stuff that you young folks do :): email, text, Facebook, tweet. Whatever feels comfortable.

But if you connected with someone mostly professionally, if you do similar research, that’s actually quite easy because scientists are huge geeks in the best sense of the word: they are passionate about their work and LOVE to find someone else who shares their passion. In this case, a few days after the conference, I usually send an email saying something like this (unless I get a similar email from the other party first!):

Hi NewSciBuddy,

This is Xykademiqz from the University of New Caprica. It was a real pleasure to meet you last week at the 15th International Conference of Awesome. I enjoyed hearing about your research on superawesome spins and ultraawesome laser pulses. As promised, I am sending you a PDF of my presentation, as well as the preprints of the Glam Mag and Reputable Society Journal papers that I mentioned when we spoke; they are about to come out in the next month. 

[Optional 1: Invite  them to come give a talk at your place, such as “Would you like to come give a talk at UNC? Our seminar series is on Tuesdays. If you are interested, send me a few dates that work.” If they tentatively invited you to their institution and you really want to go, you can throw it out there and say “About me coming to give a talk at your place, I could do mid-April or early May. Let me know which dates would work. Thanks again!

Optional 2: Insert joke about weather/sport/food in exotic locales/travel/something not entirely technical that you might have discussed.]

Best wishes/regards, 

Xykademiqz

When someone I know sends me their papers, I always at least briefly take a look, and I think most people do.  I have several colleagues with whom I have a relationship where we will just send each other our new papers that we think the other one might find interesting, accompanied by  a few pleasantries and general information about life (for instance, if you send your new papers, you might also add that you are moving institutions). Then, we hang out whenever we meet at conferences again, but usually not all the time, a few meals or coffee breaks. With a few colleagues the relationship has become a tad closer, in that we will actually send each other emails to the effect of “Long time no see, what have you been up to?” In that case, I would say mentioning that you got married or pregnant or that someone close had passed away would probably be OK. A couple of my European colleagues send me Christmas cards. With quite a few I have an open invitation to come and give a talk whenever I am in Europe, which I did take advantage of once or twice.

Also, if you see the other person’s new paper in a journal, that’s an excellent excuse to ping them  (“Just saw your paper in Nature, congratulations!” ) The same holds if you see they won an award — be happy for them and let them know you are!

Overall, try to keep it friendly and light, perhaps a little aloof.  You certainly shouldn’t push anything. 

I will shut up now and let others chime in.

What say you, blogosphere: Once you have met new people at a conference, how do you stay in touch? 

Cited

Google Scholar is a wonderful service that tracks citations of individual artricles around the web. In contrast to the ISI Thompson Web of Science Citation Index, Google Scholar is not only free, but it collects citations from a much wider variety of journals, as well as from sources like books, arXiv, PhD and MS theses, and conference abstracts; in my opinion, these are all legitimate citations. It also seems to do corrections for double counting, at least to some degree, i.e. if the same-titled paper on arXiv and in a journal cite you, the citation won’t be counted twice.

One great element of Google Scholar is the ability to setup your own Google Scholar Profile, with a pic and summary of papers and the corresponding citations. Part of Google Scholar Citation profile is that you can set up alert (i.e. follow) to your own or someone else’s record. Here is an example:

EinsteinGoogleScholar

Scholar calculates the ever-important Hirsch or h-index (if you have N papers that have been cited N times or more, then your h-index equals N). Increasingly, people are looking up citations when evaluating job candidates. Unfortunately, one thing with the h-index is that we must never forget that it scales with the size of the field. For instance, h-indices in the biomedical sciences tend to be higher than in many physical sciences simply because there are many more people working in these areas, so more papers are published per unit time. For instance, a brilliant mathematician may not have a high h-index simply because there are few people working on these problems and each publishes maybe 1-2 papers per year, so the publication rate of the whole field is not very high.

I work on theory/computation in a  pretty fast-moving field. I have papers that I think are very original and technically complicated and of which I am very proud. Then I have papers that I think are good and solid but, technically, they are nothing earth-shattering, and some of them happen to be in currently fashionable areas. Which ones do you think get cited the most and pick up the citations most rapidly? *waiting for 5 seconds with bated breath* Exactly. I periodically look at my profile and I see these hot-area papers quickly shoot towards the top of my citation list; they do so because there are many other people who read them and build on them, as the topics are in vogue. In contrast, the papers that are very complicated and that may represent a real technical breakthrough get citations much more slowly. While I am well respected for these results in the communities where people understand them and I get recognition through invited talks, these communities are smaller and produce relatively fewer papers per year than others I am associated with, and the citation rates scale accordingly. 

My poor beloved technically complicated papers — so great, yet so underappreciated. But at least they are a constant reminder that, when I evaluate others, I should not be lazy and rely solely on the easily obtained numerical metrics.

Which ones of your papers are your personal favorites and why? Are they also the most widely accepted and cited?