Mental health and senior faculty: How not to suck in grad school (a post for your future) 

Disclaimer 

As always, this is a personal blog. If you want research on the matter, this is not the place. This is my place to rant and try to be helpful. Welcome. 

Mental health and senior faculty: How not to suck in grad school (a post for your future) 

SRShaw 

Twitter is lousy with comments about how academia is bad for mental health. It seems to be. Here is my perspective, a white male who has had some career success, good luck in life, and is in mid-career; but also has experienced a host of stressors and the onset of mental health issues. The nature of the stressors is serious, but personal. Not a secret, but I will keep these things to myself for purposes of this post. I hope that it is helpful for people to read that no matter how events might appear on the outside, mental health issues can happen to anyone. 

Academia as a Cause of MH Issues

I am not sure that academia causes MH problems. I have worked in far more stressful, pathogenic, and competitive environments. Remember that in my last jobs I had to make profit or my unit (with 21 employees) would be eliminated, I was threatened with a gun, cut with a knife, conducted CPR twice, attended 32 child and adolescent funerals, bitten twice, and a host of other challenging stuff I do not want to discuss. I am reasonably well tempered to stress. A paper rejection, senior colleagues with world-class toxic insecurity issues, and general unfairness and pettiness do not phase me much. I have a minor fear of beating colleagues, who abuse or harass students and junior colleagues, to a life-altering pulp, but I am a gentle soul—so that feeling passes quickly. But I get it, the sometimes arbitrary and often actively unfair nature of the work can be dispiriting, maddening, and is a stressor.       

Self selection in academia tends to collect a population of people who are conscientious, driven, and often feed on heavy workloads and stress. These traits have much overlap with anxious traits. We probably start out at higher risk for MH problems. To survive graduate school and pursue a tenure-track position or persist in adjunct positions requires a set of characteristics and skills that are far different than most non-academics require and may place us at risk for mental health issues. 

Deviation from norm. Academics are unusually smart folks (if you persist in not believing this, then you are clearly sheltered, only hang out with other high intelligence people, and are ignoring over 100 years of solid research). Typically, academics differ from the mean in intelligence, ambition, focus, and many other traits. And academia seems to be one of a handful of endeavors where a lack of social skills does not disqualify a person from achieving at the highest levels. I suspect that the more a person deviates from the mean on any trait, the higher stressors they are required to address (this is why changing and broadening norms and means in academia are valuable goals).  

High competition environments that are zero sum tend to lead to isolation, feelings of failure, and distrust of others. Adding to the isolation is the cloistered aspect of academia that creates a feeling that no one understands the rarified work and culture of the profession. The only people who understand are those who are potential competitors. Not much support.      

Senior Academic Issues 

Bad news. Many of you think that grad student or early career mental health concerns will get better when you graduate, when you get married or have life stability, when you gain a tenure track job, when you save money, when you get tenure, when you win a grant, when you make full professor. Nope. Hate to spoil your life. Mental health problems get worse. Even those of you without mental health issues still can develop problems even if all seems good from the outside. 

Worse coping. I always thought that my coping skills would improve as I become older and wiser. Not so much. For me, stressors hit harder emotionally and require more energy to cope. Regulating emotions is no longer an effortless activity, it takes a lot more of energy and work as I age.  

Accumulation of issues. Stressors do not come and go, they accumulate. The older you get, the more challenging the barnacles of life become. Stressors stick, they do not slide off, no matter how skilled you may be at coping. Every stressor leaves a heavier and deeper mark as I get older. 

Defending the old. The saying that “the first half of the life of an academic is building and creating ideas and the second half is defending those ideas against inevitable change” has some truth. Even if the destructive nature of this thinking is apparent, problems remain. Staying relevant as new ideas surpass and replace the ideas that one has learned, mastered, and has had success with is difficult and consuming. As mental energy is not what it was, the task of continuously growing becomes more challenging. 

You will be passed. Every scholar will find that their ideas are surpassed or disproved. That is what should happen. The ideas and mistakes are the foundation on which the next generation builds. It is still a blow to ego when the field has moved on and you are still alive and working. Training and socializing the next generation of scholars and thinkers is the only real way to have long term influence. So support and help those people. Simply leaving as solid a collection of errors and rubble for others to build upon needs to be good enough. 

Loss. This is the worst. At some point, you realize that you are attending more funerals than marriages and baptisms. As a side note, this is why academics should attend their students’ graduation ceremonies—a rare positive major event. There is a loss of hair, energy, mental clarity, fitness, and health is no longer taken for granted. People lose their parents, spouses, and friends drift away. It happens to everyone. And the coping with inevitable stressors of life becomes more challenging. Loss accumulates. And each one is more difficult than the last.  

None of this is terrible. I am among the fortunate who have had these things arise later in life. Many, if not most people, are forced to face these issues much earlier.   

Some Ideas for Preventing or Addressing the Issues 

Continuously build social supports. From the age of 28 to 48, I made no new friends. I never thought about it. I met many people I liked very much, but cannot call them good friends. I think men tend to do this. There is work and there is family. Not much energy for anything else. The unfortunate saying that “friends come and go, but enemies accumulate” is quite true for me. These social supports are needed. I have met a truly special person in the last few years that I can safely call my best friend. I have been open to developing other close friendships. I appreciate how important these people are. I wish I had invested more energy into keeping old friends close and being open to new friends when I was younger. It makes a difference. I am lucky to have learned this later, rather than never. 

Get help sooner rather than later. Being very sad or extremely anxious happens to most people occasionally. Despite the discomfort, most often these issues will pass or are effectively coped with. When these issues affect family life, work life, or any other aspect of functioning; then immediately seek support. Perhaps the supports are informal at first. But don’t wait. Do not believe that you have always handled stress well and the present feelings are no different. Avoid common maladaptive coping skills—working more hours, drugs/alcohol, risky behaviours, and so on. When functioning is affected seek formal support, if needed, rather than assuming this too will pass. 

Keep pursuing the new. Becoming stagnant is becoming old, both physically and mentally. I am fortunate to have returned to judo training and regular gym work over the last 5 years. I am tackling a brand-new research program, I have come to learn the promise of ideas that I once dismissed, and trying to keep thoughts fresh and continuously improve. This is hard work. But it is renewing work and I value it.   

Conclusions 

This is not a pity situation. I remain among the luckiest of people. Few people have the quality of supports, privilege, and stability that I possess. The point is that there is no finish line. There is no time at which all your problems will disappear, and everything will be perfect. Every stage, even the most stable and successful bring challenges. And those issues are inevitable. Graduate students and early career researchers can continue to build supports and relationships that will prepare them for hard times now and in the future. Mental health issues for senior academics are common and only slightly different than the issues affecting more junior colleagues. Managing these issues well is a wonderful opportunity to grow and re-invent oneself and avoid the stagnant life that will certainly lead to a permanent decline. This is an opportunity and a challenge.  

Making Sense of the Avalanche of Advice Given to Students, Postdocs, and ECRs: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Making Sense of the Avalanche of Advice Given to Students, Postdocs, and ECRs: How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

Advice is everywhere for academics. The paths, roles, and functions for new academics are so inscrutable that there is an entire library of books, academic Twitter, and hundreds of blog posts with advice on how to make the path knowable. For example, an article entitled, “23 books that fix 99% of PhD problems” (http://www.nextscientist.com/books-phd-problems/) is typical. There is the risk that little progress will be made on the research that needs to be accomplished because so much time and energy are spent reading books, developing increasingly efficient calendars and to do lists, and learning the latest planning and organizing software. The irony is not lost on me in that this blog post is yet another piece of advice on the topic of advice. A little meta-advice might be helpful for organizing the volumes of information that are available.

Advice has traditionally been the purview of old men who are too tired and decrepit to serve as a bad example. But given the wildly variable criteria for success as a graduate student, postdoc, or early career researcher; advice giving is a cottage industry that is mostly populated by well-meaning and talented professors. To some degree, the widely varied advice is a sure sign that no one knows what they are doing. Contrary to the common belief, academics are often kind and helpful to peers and students. Because we are all in this together, sharing information is most often a kind act.

Be Skeptical

There are still a few families of advice that are not particularly helpful. One is the meaningless advice that includes words such as should, must, ought, needs to, and similar judgment words. This is not honest advice. This is someone’s opinion of the way the world should be if they oversaw everything. This form of advice is rarely useful. Old man status quo advice is also not useful. This is the type of advice that reports on the way things used to be and assumes that there is a universal and one-track approach to success. This form of advice ignores the heterogeneous paths to success, diversity, changes in culture, and consideration that there might be a better way. A related type of useless advice is “this is what I do, so unless you want to fail, you should do it, too.” When advice glorifies the advisor without providing ideas that can be implemented, and there may be a different agenda than being helpful.

Beware of Cynicism

The response to much academic advice is cynicism. I recently heard an experienced academic give the advice that he has no advice to give because the job market is so different than it was 20 years ago. This was lauded as excellent and accurate advice. This is not useful advice, but it is accurate. That this comment was given such plaudits is a good measure of the degree of cynicism concerning academic advice.

Much advice from senior academics is dismissed as survivorship bias. This is certainly an issue if the assumption is that the advice is essential to discriminate successful from unsuccessful people. I doubt there is any advice that can withstand scrutiny of a serious program evaluation. This claim takes the validity and importance of advice a little too seriously.

Another popular cynical line of thought is that luck plays such a large role in academic success that any advice on behaviour is not useful. This way of thinking is not only cynical, but absurd. Just about everything in life is a stochastic process. It is true that luck plays a large role in the job I have, whether grants are funded, or papers accepted. But luck also played a role in my parents meeting, surviving an auto accident when I was two years old, being assigned an inspirational teacher in grade 6, not getting meningitis during a local outbreak, and countless events that did or did not happen and which I had no control over. Academia, like life, is a noisy system. I believe that any information that can change the probability, even a little bit, can be helpful.

Criticizing the source of information is also cynical and not particularly useful. If advice comes from people of a different age, discipline, gender, ethnic group, linguistic group, or sexual orientation; information can still prove helpful. The assumption of such criticisms is that there is that advice is necessarily universal. Only the truly arrogant and addled make the case that their advice is perfect, universal, and should be implemented by everyone. As in nearly all cases when information is intended to change behaviours to result in a better outcome, context is everything. There is likely a slightly higher probability that advice will be effective if it comes from individuals with similar life experiences and applied in similar contexts, yet valuable information can come from any source.

Organization

Communicating specific information to be implemented in a public platform is always difficult. Broad information is universally appealing, but not useful. Specific information may be useful, but has appealed to only a limited number of users. Information such as “be kind” is appealing to a large number of people, but is so vague as to be functionally useless. Specific information such as “the time spent disinfecting materials when working with preschoolers is a sound investment” is helpful, but only applies to a few people. Knowing exactly what you are looking for helps to locate narrow and useful advice that may not receive a lot of retweets and likes, but is extraordinarily useful. Broad information is like other aphorisms: may be true and are nice inspiration, but not practical advice to change your behavior.

Purpose

The true value of advice found in books, blogs, and on the Internet is what purpose that you have for these nuggets of potential wisdom. Knowing your purpose is a critical component of accepting and implementing any advice or wisdom. What you hope to gain from the advice? Where are your systemic limitations? What skills do you already possess? What goals would you like to achieve with new advice? What are the values that you wish to communicate and implement following advice? Unless you know where you want to go, there can be no filter to determine which advice is valuable and which is useless.

Change. If you are trying to change from an unsuccessful process or behaviour, then searching about the Internet and books for life-changing bits of information is inefficient and barely more useful than random. If you have inefficient work habits or ideas and wish to change, the most efficient and best approach is to have a consultant, mentor, instructor, coach, or therapist listen carefully to your needs, resources and previous efforts to address the issue, the needs of your context and environment; and then develop a detailed strategy with you. That strategy can then be modified, implemented, evaluated, adjusted, re-implemented, and reevaluated with guidance.  

Confirmation. Many times, we read bits of advice from experienced scholars to confirm that what were already doing is the right thing. Given the diversity of work habits, procedures, and processes; it is easy to be insecure about such things. If your approaches and processes result in efficient and quality outcomes, then do not worry about it. Second-guessing is not an efficient way to go through your career. There are no magic bullets for academic work. You are doing fine. If there is a need to change, then see the above paragraph.

Exploring ideas. The best reason to seek out advice books is to browse. Academic advice is very much like aphorisms for life, easy to read, witty, insightful, but rarely useful. Browse advice because it is fun and possible to find minor bits of information and tweaking of your current process. I find this to be the most useful approach to advice books, blogs, and tweets.

Conclusions

Most advice is probably useful for someone in some conditions. The utility of the advice tends to depend on context. And no one knows your context better than you. Because something does not work for you, does not mean the advice is bad. Most typically, the most effective advice requires an educated consumer who knows the purpose of the advice they are seeking and finds advice givers who tend to understand your values and context. Seeking professional advice on Twitter, blogs, or other Internet sites is a bit of a scavenger hunt. The best advice is to search for a mentor who can assist you in creating custom made process wisdom rather than off-the-rack advice from the Internet.

 

 

 

Is Academia Evil? How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Disclaimer

As always, these are simply my views now. I had a career outside of academia for 16 years (professional and academia adjacent) and then entered the academia at age 42 with trepidation and a >40% pay cut. My wife said, “It’s okay if you don’t get tenure. Because then we can go back to making real money again.” My business partner and great friend yelled at me for over an hour about how I was abandoning children who need me, so I can write papers for other people who write papers simply to grow my ego (yep, that hurt). But I like academia. After 13 years in academia, I have been assimilated. After much resistance, I acknowledge that I am an academic. With this identity, it is important to consider whether I have gone over to the dark side and embraced a profession that is evil (or at least fundamentally flawed).

Problems

On Twitter, most of my timeline consists of folks whose experience in grad school and academia has ranged from suboptimal to traumatic. Racism, misogyny, ableism, and classism seem to be the norm. Exploitation, harassment, and assault are common. Unfair, arbitrary, capricious, and unethical decision making are the rule. Mentoring ranges from neglectful to indentured servitude to worse. Funding is low, poor, and unevenly distributed. The currency of academic success is a publication model more conducive to publisher profit than science curation. There are also the endlessly humourless tone enforcers, grammar pendants, and formatting fops. Hard and high-quality work receives lean intermittent and delayed reinforcement that can crush motivation to continue. And so many people are cripplingly insecure, have mental health issues, or are just plain mean and horrible that developing and maintaining relationships are challenging. There is also the fun realization that everything I spent many hard years learning in graduate school is now wrong, so starting over is the norm. Sounds kinda like an evil system to enter willingly.    

Academia has Value

My view is that academia is overrepresented in the vanguard of advances in civilization for science, art, philosophy, engineering, drama, medicine, economics, and many other fields. To step out and away from the known to discover new ideas necessarily means that being wrong, facing ridicule, aggressively breaking from the old, repeated failure, and offending the status quo go with the territory. Moreover, communicating and implementing novel and challenging ideas with stakeholders is extraordinarily difficult and likely to result in rejection, accidental misunderstanding, and willful misconstruing of the new ideas. When academia is at its best, these features can grind normal humans down intellectually, physically, and emotionally.

There are systemic protections to protect academics: sabbaticals, tenure, and peer supports. All these protections are under external assault from society and policy makers who are either invested in continuing the status quo of society, do not see the long-term value of advancing society, or believe that there are better mechanisms for advancing a dynamic society than universities (i.e., private sector). These external pressures have resulted in increased teaching loads, cutting sabbatical leaves, reducing government funding for arts and science, reducing tenure track positions in favour of sessional and adjunct positions, and instilling a capitalist model of competition over cooperation. Rather than pulling together as professionals, we are fracturing as academic communities under these external pressures and the subsequent erosion of protections. Obtaining and maintaining power, excluding outsiders, gaming the system, cutting corners, financial gain, reputation management, and quantifiable metrics of evaluation have replaced communities of discovery in academia.  

Other professions and work environments are also difficult, face challenges, and advance civilization. The primary differences are that reinforcements in other professions are shorter term, more clearly defined, and competition is often more explicit. Evaluations, and supervision are equally, if not more, abusive and of lower quality than academia. Peers are often competitors more so than partners. The primary difference is that working for a corporation usually involves more short-term accountability and structure. There is nothing inherently less free or less scientific about working in the private or non-academic government sectors when compared to academia. Opportunities to make discoveries, advancements, and be creative are just as available in non-academic jobs as in academia. The major advantage is that there are more non-academic employment opportunities than tenure-track academic positions.

Academia is a system that is inherently challenging to individual ego. The structural, emotional, and reward system supports are eroding. Graduate students and academics are now to the point that one must wonder if the entire enterprise is hopelessly spoiled or possibly evil. Promoting approaches to adding supports and supporting academic communities is one approach to making academia sustainable as a system and for its members.

Gross Rules

Academia is too heterogeneous as a system and the goals of individuals and higher education institutions vary, but there are four themes of activities to assist in making the profession personally and systemically sustainable.

Identify system valued units and do a lot of them. System valued units are the activities and products that each system most values. Often SVUs are grants, publications, supervising graduating students, publishing books, awards, high teaching evaluations, and such. Identifying the appropriate SVUs for each system are critical. Everyone works hard and accomplishes a lot, but many fail because their efforts are placed in activities that are not high level SVUs in their current environment. And do a lot. Submitting a single paper for publication, a job application, or a grant proposal is incredibly stressful due to the low probability and near randomness of success for each unit. Do a lot and the odds will eventually rise to generally your level of merit.

Be generous, but reserve time. Give heavily to your system, support your colleagues and students, and share expertise and data. Selfishness tends to lead to short-term advantage, but long-term problems. Moreover, academia is supported when there is a togetherness about the work. Much of open science involves assumptions of sharing and supporting, so I have become a supporter of this movement. That said, some time in the weekly schedule must be zealously reserved for individual work that is necessary to develop large numbers of SVUs.  

Building communities large and small is important for building academia. Communities range from a supportive research lab, inter-university research or teaching consortia, productive social media communities, supporting and building unions, supporting adjuncts and sessional instructors, promoting professional associations, making conferences more effective and equitable, building advocacy communities for self and others (e.g., #MeTooSTEM), journal clubs, and creating any other formal and informal system to create peer and student support. With systemic supports eroding, building communities from within academia is important.  

Fighting evil is a priority. SVUs are necessary, but not sufficient to protect the light side of academia. Make a difference through broad level advocacy, humane administration, kindness, public outreach, equity, justice, government lobbying, and using your skills and knowledge to make differences in the advancement and improvement of civilization. I had a judo instructor who was becoming frustrated with a student’s attitude*. He quoted the legendary Sensei Hatsumi, who said, “I’m not teaching you how to fight. I am teaching you how to control evil. That’s what we are really doing here.” Yeah, I know that sounds bizarre and grandiose. But I truly believe that stuff and it helps me make decisions. Will this activity promote good and contain evil or is the activity entirely self serving? This is how my activities are prioritized. Through the work of every individual academic, the system can be saved from evil.

Conclusions

I do not believe that academia is evil or fatally flawed. Certainly, academia is no more evil than other professions that value power, concentration of resources, or conflate expertise with influence. We have a lot of problems and always have had them (especially racism, abuses of power, and sexism). But as business efficiencies, market forces, and other factors that make academia more like other professions expand, the work environment is getting worse. External pressures have eroded the supports that make the best and most sustainable work possible. External pressures require academics to come together rather than turn against each other. Find your best ways to improve your little part of the world—it adds up and affects us all.

*No. The student was not me.

Bonus: See this great Twitter rant from @chuckwendig for more: https://twitter.com/ChuckWendig/status/1062341964631326720

SR Shaw

Managing Your Academic Reputation: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Managing Your Academic Reputation: How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

This is the hardest blog post I have tried to write. In fact, this a failed blog post, but prefer to be transparent about it (there is much to be learned in sucking). I typically write one of these blog posts in about an hour and take maybe another hour to read it over before posting. This post started the same way, except about 30 minutes into writing and I realized that most of it was garbage. The entire concept of academic reputation may be important to many, but that does not stop it from being extremely silly idea. So here are shreds of ideas that are not fully baked.

I am not a great student of literature, but I do have a library card. And I remember Othello:

“Reputation! Reputation! Reputation! O I have lost my reputation!” –Cassio

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition oft got without merit and lost without deserving.” –Iago. Iago is correct, but the context was that he was being manipulative. (spoiler: Iago literally stabs Cassio in the back.) Being overly concerned about reputation makes one vulnerable to manipulation and betrayal by others.

Academics are obsessed with their reputations. This is reasonable as academic reputations are the commodities that are used to recruit students, achieve promotion and tenure, gain collaborators, and acquire research funding. Efforts to quantify reputation are inherently flawed and certainly have significant non-random error (i.e., bias) whether they be teaching evaluations, H indices, citation counts, total grant funding awarded, formal awards and recognitions, and other metrics. All academics desire a good reputation, but often we are unclear as to what that is or how to achieve it. Figurative backstabbing over reputation is not uncommon in academia.

What Is a Reputation?

Reputation is defined as the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something. Reputation is largely about marketing. We all know academics who spend far more time on marketing and expanding their fame and influence than teaching, research, or service to the university and profession. Likewise, there are outstanding researchers, influential researchers, and university leaders who spend no time on marketing. Somewhere along this continuum is the degree of reputation management that works well as a function of your personal goals and the needs of your system.

Reputation can be thought of as desired breadth and quality. Breadth of reputation concerns whether the focus of your reputation will be specific to your subspecialty or whether you want to be influential with the public. To some degree this is field specific. It is unlikely that a great mathematical advance would merit an appearance on The View. Whereas a psychologist, nutritionist, or physician can generate widespread interest. Quality of reputation refers to the standing of an academic by people respected by that individual. To be held in high regard by people whose opinion you value is a hallmark of reputational quality. Breadth and quality are not orthogonal. Popular and public scholars are often dismissed as dilettantes or opportunists and are not respected by scholarly peers. Those without breadth of reputation are considered dusty and irrelevant outside their specific field.

Mindful Approaches

Reputation is more than good or bad. Academic reputation is how you are perceived as a professional. We know professors who are perceived as odd geniuses, supportive aunties, father figures, work to exhaustion machines, social and friendly, people know how to game the system, charismatic performers, hyper competent, innovative, or fit a host of other evaluative terms. Academia is a broad field. The freedom to select our reputational goals is exciting for some and terrifying for others.

Given how difficult it is to gain a tenure track position or any position in academia, invest a lot of time in thinking why you are taking this career track, what you want to accomplish, and how cultivating a specific reputation can help you accomplish goals. Also important is to consider how having a specific reputation can improve or diminish your well being (e.g., a reputation as a driven and tireless worker is nearly impossible to sustain).

What Is under Individual Control?

Reputation is not always under the control of the individual. Reputation is the area in which sexism, racism, subtle and not so subtle anti-LGBTQ views, and other prejudices rear their heads. Fighting for a positive reputation and against prejudice is exhausting. It is not helpful simply to state that this is a situation that should not exist. Obviously, but it does.

So You Want to Be a Rock Star

If you are one of those people who has become an academic because you want to be famous, then you are a top-drawer looney. I would recommend selecting a different career such as Instagram model, professional right-wing troll, porn star, YouTuber, or some other activity with higher status than being an academic. The more attractive and charismatic among us often attempt to parlay research findings into Ted talks, frequent news releases, media events, becoming a guru or cult leader, and other approaches to increase visibility. None of these activities is especially problematic. However, the real problem arises when the goal of academics is to attempt to find the next big thing to gain more and more attention. Anytime a scholar is committed to the results of studies going in only one direction or thinking designed to garner attention over scholarship, then there is potential for trouble. In this case, there is incentive for scholars to deliver results that are most likely to yield attention. This is fundamentally anti-science, anti-intellectual, and is destructive.

Conclusions                                          

Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Be the real thing. The shadow will change, come and go, but the tree remains and grows. The best way to maintain a positive academic reputation in breath and quality is to align your desired reputation with what you do. Attempting to promote the specific type of reputation that is not consistent with your behaviour will certainly backfire and make you disreputable.

Surviving Your Doctoral Defense: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SRShaw

The defense of the doctoral dissertation, also known as the viva, is the final stage of the doctoral program. There are a variety of styles, traditions, processes, and methods of the dissertation defense process. These vary across nations, universities, and fields of study. However, there are a set of common approaches that students can apply to reduce the potentially paralyzing anxiety and stress surrounding the doctoral dissertation defense.

As is usual on this blog, the suggestions reflect my experiences and are not intended to be a substitute for real expertise in the matter. But after serving as a supervisor for six successful doctoral theses and a member of the defense committee for 49 doctoral theses, there are some behaviours of candidates that differentiate high-quality versus low-quality dissertation defenses.

Prior to Defense

Wait until the dissertation is ready. There are many candidates who have artificial deadlines and timelines due to job commitments, financial considerations, or other requirements that the defense take place by a certain date. Rushing to meet a specific defense date increases the likelihood that the dissertation is rushed. Take the time to make sure that all appropriate supervisors, peers, and other trusted reviewers have the time to read the document carefully. This is a situation where it is critically important to ensure that the document is sound and well-developed before moving on to the defense.

Presentation rules apply. The general rule of presentation is to know the information so well that you could carry out your entire defense if your computer locks up, the projector fails, or there is some other technological problem.

Select external examiners. Nearly all universities require that an expert from outside of the university reviews the document. This can be a challenge. I usually recommend the following steps be taken. Early in the literature review process, students are asked to take note of leading scholars specific to the field. Students are encouraged to email those scholars with questions and inquiries about current and soon to be published research. Those scholars who respond productively and seem somewhat reasonable can be put on the list of potential external examiners. There have been cases of unfair external reviewers giving poor evaluations because of disagreements concerning theoretical orientation or other problematic evaluation approaches. In selecting external reviewers, cultural traditions are also important. For example, there been cases of reviewers from the United Kingdom who have expectations of extraordinarily long dissertations, who have rejected North American dissertations for being too short and lacking detail. There are no guarantees, but it helps to have external reviewers who do not have an agenda or are from an academic culture are far different from the candidate.

Practice the presentation. Most dissertation defenses begin with a short presentation by the candidate. A 15 to 20-minute presentation is an extraordinarily difficult timeframe to present multiple years worth of work. This is the part of the doctoral defense in which candidates have the most control. This needs to be practised repeatedly with significant feedback. In some places, the time limitation is strictly enforced, so be sure to time all of your practice activities.

Attend several dissertation defenses. It is valuable to understand the process and dynamics by observing them firsthand. You can also find styles and approaches that candidates use that are worth emulating.

Preview with your supervisor. Asked the supervisor to share potential questions and assist in developing reasonable responses.

Choose your guests mindfully. Dissertation defenses are typically publicly open. There are some departments on lab cultures where 20 to 30 peers attend for support and others were only the candidate and the committee are in attendance. I am surprised how often parents and significant others attend the defenses. That would never work for me. Although it is difficult to go against these cultural trends, you can invite who you need for support, but not distraction.

Sleep. The doctoral dissertation defense is an extremely stressful experience, but get some sleep.

During the Defense

Enjoy the Experience. Attitudes towards the dissertation defense vary across universities, but often the experience is more of a coronation or celebration rather than a rigorous evaluation with a high risk of failure. Your supervisor would not allow you to defend the dissertation and was the project and your presentation was in good shape. You are ready and you have been preparing for this for years. Honestly, there is something that inspires confidence in a candidate who smiles and appears as comfortable as possible.

Stamina is a key. Dissertation defenses can last from 90 minutes up to three hours. Understand and prepare for your local norms. Many people will want to sit while answering questions. Have water available. It is also good to have a piece of fruit or something else to eat to prevent any blood sugar crashes. Maintaining concentration and focus throughout is a major factor.

Understand the questions. Listen carefully to the questions being asked. Most committee members are not nearly as expert as the candidate who has spent years researching the specific topic. Questions from the defense committee usually consist of: some form of a question asking why a different study was not done; specific details to the point of minutia on methodology and analysis; there will be questions about larger theory, context; and which studies you choose to reference; and there may be committee members who make long statements intended to show off for their peers. And most of the time someone will ask if you could change one aspect of your project, what would you change? My experience is that it is rare to have a committee member be hostile or extremely adversarial, but it does happen sometimes. The key to all these issues is composure. Listen carefully, take a deep breath, ask the committee member to repeat the question if necessary, and take some time to formulate your answer.

Do not BS. Some of the questions being asked are not relevant to the document at hand and generally far afield. If you do not know the answer at all, say that you do not know. Attempting a long and convoluted BS answer does not leave a favourable impression.

Depth and breadth. The secret is to have a depth and breadth of knowledge that you can marshal to answer the questions. Given that you have lived with this material for some time, this should not be too challenging. Knowing the major scholars and year of publication can be helpful in demonstrating your detailed knowledge. Understanding how your research could be applied, used for future investigations, influence theory, or otherwise placed in the larger context are also critical.

Managing impressions. It is rarely a problem if a candidate does not know an answer to a specific question or two. Overall impression counts. I have been surprised that how incredibly poised nearly all candidates are at their defense. Even students I have known to be very nervous, seem confident and poised when it comes to their dissertation defense. Confidence and poise will go a long way.

Develop a strategy if you get lost. Losing composure or getting lost under a barrage of questions for an hour and a half or longer is common. The candidate has a lot of control in setting the pace and tone of how questions can be answered. A frequently used an effective approach is to have a set script when you are stumped by a question. A decent script is to say, “That is a really useful question, I have not given that much thought before, so give me a moment to put my answer together.” If you have the script prepared in advance, then you can say it and typically buy a little bit of time to develop and articulate an answer. Likewise, it is always possible that you realize that you have no idea how to answer the question and it is best to say, “I do not know the answer to that.”

Bringing back around. Given that you only have a 15 to 20-minute initial presentation, it is unlikely that all your information will be covered during that introduction. Have several extra slides prepared with additional figures or data. If a question is relevant, then you can go to the appropriate extra slide and spend a lot more time on some of the information that you do not have time for an initial presentation, and this approach also signals that you are well prepared to answer questions.

Have a copy of your full dissertation document with you. You never know when a question or may get very specific. For example, “On page 172, paragraph three, line 4 you made this statement. Is that inconsistent with your similar statement on page 87, paragraph one, line 5?” You will need to be able to move quickly to compare detailed text. Whether this is done in paper or print depends on your comfort level.

Post Defense

Be happy. I am really surprised how rarely I see a successful candidate look happy. The predominant expression is relief and fatigue. I have seen quite a few tears of release or disbelief. This seems like a good time to be happy. Enjoy your hard-earned success.

Schedule a meeting with your supervisor. Almost certainly someone on the committee will find typos, requirement for clarification, or maybe even additional need for changes in the dissertation document. Schedule that meeting quickly so that your supervisor can guide any changes, revisions, and edits that need to be made.

Thank your committee.  Be sure to thank everyone on the committee, even those who were difficult during the defense process, after the process over. It is also good to take note of the first person to refer to you as Doctor.

Contact and thank everyone involved in your project. This could be anyone from technicians, support staff, administrative staff, undergraduates, and others. Acknowledging all the people essential to your success is a responsible thing to do. Many people who provided important services to your project may not know that the project was a success until you contact them. Say thank you.

Contact and thank personal friends and family. Sharing your success is an important part of the process. A lot of people have made sacrifices that have led to your accomplishment. They have certainly provided support and have been there for you in difficult times.

Do not be weird. I really wanted to write and gloat to my 11th grade physics teacher who told me I was “too lazy and stupid to consider college. And if I did manage to get into college would certainly fail.” I wrote the letter, but did not mail it.

Closing

The doctoral defense is a ritual that can be mysterious and scary. With the use of your supervisor, peers and others, learn as much about the process as possible to demystify the activity. Understand the specific procedures that are written in your faculty or University guidelines. Observe how other people manage this. There is nothing wrong with having a series of meetings with peers at similar stages in your degree program to share and brainstorm ideas.

If you are at this stage in your degree program, congratulations. Listen to your supervisor, take deep breaths, and you have got this. It will be a short period of time until you hear the words, “Congratulations, Doctor.”

Getting the Most Out of Conferences: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

Professional conferences are strange activities. We travel long distances and at great expense (sometimes personal expense) to participate in what is often a glorified middle school science fair. Sometimes we are nervous about putting up our posters, playing Vanna White as we try to draw attention to our work while conference goers walk by, afraid to make eye contact. Other times we are semi-terrified to have the opportunity to engage in public speaking to an army of critical or supportive colleagues. We often go to listen to super impressive rock star colleagues hold court in a two-star hotel ballroom and then later at happy hour. It is nice to catch up with friends and colleagues. For the most part, professional conferences are a good opportunity to escape from the day- to-day work and have a nice time. Conferences are also essential career opportunities.

As a disclaimer, I do not tend to like conferences much anymore. I am quite introverted and often need to retreat to my hotel room to rest and recover at some point in the middle of the day. At about midway through the second day of the conference, I am ready to go home. I do not find most of the breakout talks interesting and the keynotes are about 90% entertainment and 10% information. At this point in my career, I do not have to go conferences and only go if there is a specific purpose for my attendance. Often, I go because someone is paying me to do a talk or I am doing a favour for a friend. Other times, I attend to have dinner with a friend or engage in a happy hour working session with a colleague (I outlined 3 books with a colleague on napkins at a happy hour). And sometimes I go simply to support my students. I would say that I am now a reluctant attendee of conferences.

Graduate students and new scholars in the developing stages of their careers often must go to a few major conferences to make professional connections, to develop a positive reputation, and to disseminate research findings. Conferences are required and exciting for graduate students and early career researchers. No matter your career stage, level of misanthropy, or the norms of your profession; there are ways to make the most out of your professional experiences at conferences.

Agenda

Develop an agenda with at least five specific and actionable goals for your conference experience. The conference needs to forward your professional agenda or else there is no reason for attending. There are many specific goals that you can address: promote your research, sell books, have dinner with a former colleague, acquire partners and collaborators for the next grant project, establish yourself as a leader in the profession, to meet and speak with a leader in the field, or whatever. It really does not matter what your goals are. But setting an agenda creates a mindful approach to what you are doing at a conference and provides a structure for how you spend your time and energy. This does not mean that you should avoid spontaneous activities, opportunities to grab a coffee with a potential collaborator, or just having fun with colleagues; but a mindful agenda with specific and written goals helps make conferences useful professional activities.

Schedule

Most people make a personal conference schedule. The schedule should reflect your agenda. The hard part about conferences as they are not typically eight-hour days, but typically 12 to 14-hour days. In addition, be sure to make some allowance for any time changes. For example, I tend not to schedule a late night on the first day of a conference when I travel to the West Coast. Generally, you fill your calendar with your talks and meetings first; talks and poster sessions that you want to attend to see colleagues or support students; make breakfast, lunch, happy hour, dinner plans well in advance with people that you want to spend time with (do not forget to make reservations if necessary); some talks that you may be interested in hearing; meetings; and plans for rest, recovery, and naps.

Wedge In

Conferences are amazing opportunities to establish your name as a leader in your field. The Woody Allen phrase that 90% of life is just showing up truly applies to professional conferences. There are many important business meetings that take place at conferences, which are open to all conference goers. In many cases, these business meetings are actively seeking participants. For example, often journals have editorial board meetings at conferences and frequently these board meetings are open to the general membership. Show up, express interest, be productive, and instantly you are considered a research leader. Interest groups and policy-making groups are often similar. Graduate students are rarely dismissed as mere beginners, but are embraced as future leaders. It is inappropriate to crash these meetings that are closed to the general membership, but few are. This is a golden opportunity to wedge in and take a leadership position by simply showing up.

You can also establish yourself on a small scale by asking questions at research presentations. I tend not to ask questions of the presenter during the question time. I do not want to fluster an inexperienced presenter nor do I wish to directly challenge a senior researcher. I am just not a fan of trying to establish myself by pointing out a flaw in the research of a colleague in a public setting — I know some people live for this, but it just does not work for me. My preference is to wait until the talk is over and the presenter is packing up and asked them productive questions while walking out of the room together. This creates an informality, opportunity to exchange business cards, and have a chance for a productive give-and-take discussion. If it works well, ask the presenter out for a coffee. This is a way to wedge in to the discussion of top research.

Follow-Up

Conferences are like most meetings: about 30 % of the value of a conference is in the preparation and 50% is in the follow-up. Collecting business cards and having informal chats or drinks with colleagues is not especially useful unless it leads to something long-lasting. It is appropriate and necessary to follow-up by sending a simple email, ensuring that you send appropriate copies of papers to people who requested them, and otherwise continue to engage long after everyone flies home.

Summary

Conferences are strange professional and scientific gatherings. They are often confusing and intimidating for graduate students and early career researchers, but are often an expectation in the profession. It is easiest, most productive, and safest to have a clear and purposeful approach to your conference activities.

Also see:

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/academic-conferencing-dummies#survey-answer

https://nataliematosin.com/2015/09/09/resource-networking/

Developing Extra Skills: The Meta-Skills of How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

Graduate school is a force that sucks all your time and the very life force from your body. Each discipline has its own demands, whether they are classwork, clinical work, labs, teaching and grading, fieldwork, writing, or some combination thereof; and then there is the reading (oh, good Lord, the reading). I went from nine hours of sleep per night, heavy drinking, much socializing, with a job, and with a lot of hobbies as an undergraduate to a monk-like existence of little more than grad school and four hours of sleep per night. Not particularly healthy, but there it is. These are not even the frustrating and demoralizing parts of graduate school. To me, the worst part is that I was magically expected to have a set of skills that I did not learn as an undergraduate and was never sufficiently taught as a graduate student. As a professor, I see that the difference between okay students and outstanding students is their pursuit of extra skills, the meta-skills of being an effective graduate student. Although the specific skills vary across disciplines, every graduate student has extra skills to be learned. Rather than being accidental and due to some random experiences, the pursuit of extra skills is best met with mindful and strategic effort.

Nearly every graduate student has had the experience of meeting with their supervisor or PI and hearing, “I thought you know how to do this.” Good supervisors tend to say, “Okay, let me teach you.” Poor supervisors tend to say, “That is disappointing. I need to find someone who knows how to do this.” This missing skill could be anything from a statistical procedure, assessment technique, lab procedure, ethics proposal formatting, giving feedback, writing skills, oral presentation, or some other specific skill. Usually we acquire the skills in such an ad hoc manner that we usually do not appreciate the skill development until we look back and simply label this as “experience.”

The most difficult part of any problem-solving process is identifying the problem. For new graduate students the hard part is that you do not know what you do not know. Rarely will a PI have a task analysis prepared consisting of the skills necessary to be successful in that lab. Although some professional programs have a list of competencies that need to be developed for professional success, those are typically incomplete. It is always worth checking with your PI, postdoc, or senior graduate student as to whether it is worth the effort to learn a specific extra skill; but the initiative will always be on you. That said here is the process and some common extra skills that are worth learning.

There is a good rule from Stephen Covey’s popular book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that some time needs to be invested in sharpening the saw. This is a form of professional development, skill acquisition, and self-improvement. Sharpening the saw does not only happen after graduation, but is part of graduate school as well. The general rule is to dedicate 10% of your work time to developing the extra skills that sharpen the saw. Therefore, figure a minimum of four hours per week planned and protected. I am not saying that this is easy — in fact, it is difficult and exhausting. But the ability to protect and use these four hours per week in a strategic approach to developing the meta-skills of graduate school will pay off.

Collective peer improvement sessions are fantastic ways to pool resources and priorities. Many students generate and hold journal club meetings, which are a form of developing extra skills. However, journal club meetings could just as easily be repurposed as coding lessons, organization, writing workshops, lab procedure tutorials, and so on. Working as a team can share the burden and validate the value of the extra skill being learned.

Most extra skill development will be via reading. There is already so much to read that it is overwhelming. Where do you start? I am of the mindset that breadth of skills and knowledge is extraordinarily important, and only a few subsets of knowledge need to be known at extreme depth. For most areas of study, I recommend three domains of extra reading: methods, philosophical underpinnings, and history of your field of study. In nearly every field, a deep dive into the specifics and even minutia of methodology can present golden opportunities. At the very least, methods are a tool box; and the more tools that you have the more questions you can answer. Philosophical underpinnings of any field can result in some pretty dry reading. But understand the philosophy of science for the general context in which your field is situated can help to provide the big picture of your research. Finally, the history of your field is important to provide a temporal context and because many of us experience the ontology recapitulates phylogeny issue. Often, new graduate students think that they have come up with a brilliant novel research question when in fact, that question was already asked and answered over 30 years ago. You will read the basics in your field through classroom work and suggested papers from your PI. But to be effective, you must go beyond. Focus on methods, philosophical underpinnings, and history are great places to start your literature search and extra readings.

Although the other extra skills vary across disciplines, here are some suggestions that have been helpful for me:

·       Finances and Bookkeeping. I am fortunate to have learned these skills as part of a part-time restaurant job I had as an undergraduate and during my first year of graduate school (I also learned to cook at this job). In my career, I have been a lead psychologist in a hospital setting where I was responsible for a budget. The success of grant writing is largely due to the ability to justify budgets. Universities always audit any component of the work that involves money or purchase goods. My elementary bookkeeping skills have served me well.

·       Programming and Software Development. Basic coding and programming skills are requirements for many fields of study. These needs will always be changing and evolving. Typically, once you understand the logic of language acquisition, it is easier to learn new skills along the way. I am now in the middle of learning the basics of R for statistical analysis. It reminds me of the old school approaches as we used in the late 1980s era SAS and LISREL, but far more flexible. That I have basic coding skills is quite likely making learning a new method easier than it would otherwise have been.

·       Social Media. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and others are second-languages for the current generation of graduate students. However, the ability to use these approaches (and website design and development) for branding, crowd sourcing information, finding and acquiring funding, inter-university collaboration, and international research sharing is a specific and mindful skill that is worth developing.

·       Organization and Planning. Carefully organizing limited time is not something that people are born with. It is worth learning the techniques for study skills, time management, self-care, and structured learning. There is no need to waste time reinventing the wheel, there are excellent approaches and techniques available. It is a good investment of time to develop a highly organized and strategic approach to work.

·       Teaching and Supervising. Learning how to provide feedback and communicate complex information takes a lot of practice and experience. If you ask most senior professors how they developed the skills (if they have the skills), then they probably do not have a good answer for you. They will likely say that they learned on the streets or through trial and error. This is not necessary. There are many courses, tutorials, podcasts, and readings that support high-quality teaching and supervision. It is worth developing these skills even early in a graduate career.

·       Networking. Go meet people, you nerds. It is much easier to be social at conferences and other professional events than purely social events because you all have one thing in common – your field of study. For most senior scholars, at least one-third of their published papers (likely more) are due to a collaboration or inspiration of someone you have met at a conference or interacted with online. I have a colleague whose entire career success is because he is excellent at conferences. Everyone knows this gregarious professional. Any time there is an invited paper for a special issue, need for a chapter in a book, need for collaborator on a grant, or someone need support for co-authorship on an article; they remember this guy they met at a conference and invite him. Meet people, find common ground, support those people, and follow-up. Overall, it is somewhat surprising that so many experienced researchers have poor networking skills.

·       Blogging. This seems simple, but blogging is an opportunity to write in an experimental fashion without judgment. This is an opportunity to communicate personal, professional, or scientific information in a simple manner. Blogging can range from a sophisticated outreach and knowledge translation activity to personal rants. Whatever works for you is fine. This is an opportunity to develop and practice a professional writing style that is clear, accessible, and makes you mindful as to the tone of your writing.

There are certainly many extra meta-skills that will further your graduate and professional career (e.g., laboratory techniques, cleaning and sterilizing, electronics, computer design, construction, welding). Quite a few of those skills are discipline specific. Do not wait for random experiences to inform the meta-skills that you develop as a graduate student. Dedicate at least four hours per week, work with your peers, read extra papers strategically, and develop useful skills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting the Writing Mojo Back: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

Being an academic or grad student is a good life. We research, teach, mentor, engage the public, edit, promote, organize, administer, discover, counsel, and a host of other roles and functions. Ultimately, academics write. Writing is how our ideas have the furthest possible reach. Writing is how our ideas become fully formed and permanent. Writing is also how we are evaluated and is the currency by which we acquire things (e.g., grants, tenure, promotion, reputation). Moreover, most academics have solid writing habits that work well for them. But there are times...

Non-writing sneaks up on you. I am generally a 1,000 word per day person five days per week. Yet… you do a favor for a colleague, a student is having a personal crisis, you accept a travel commitment, you are on a search committee, the dean asks you to serve on another committee, 212 emails per day (yes, this is my median received email count in the winter and fall semesters), program director reports are due, teaching activities pile up, relationships with clinical supervisors in the community need to be nurtured, accreditation self-studies are due, need to take the dog to the vet, some students bring a complaint to you that requires a complex adjudication, you need to read theses, the dean wants to you to speak to a parent group, editing and review responsibilities pile up, and before you know it you have gone 6 weeks and written 140 words total. And you have fallen into the habit of non-writing. Then there are the consequences for not writing. Co-authors are not happy, deadlines are missed, student co-authors miss opportunities, small grant call for proposals are ignored, and there is a potential ugly hole in your CV. A primal scream ensues — followed closely by frustration and despair. A writer who does not write is courting insanity. A researcher who does not write is a technician and a tinkerer.

I would really like to have a full-on meltdown and declare commitment bankruptcy. Then start from scratch, only better. But overwhelming frustration is simply the nature of the job. Even the best planner gets overwhelmed. So, time to re-build the writing habit.

Stop digging. No matter how awesome a new opportunity might be, say no. Or better yet, say I cannot start on this project until X date. No more new crap. Delegate. Disappoint your boss. Frustrate your students. Say no to an editor. You cannot add to the mess.

What can be put off or cancelled? Professionals keep their commitments. But if any deadline can be extended or projects delegated, then do it. You are trying to make writing time now. 

Inertia is now the enemy. When you are on a typical schedule, writing 1000 words per day is so easy that you cannot imagine that you will ever stop this level of production. But now, opening a word processing file is aversive and you cannot imagine committing any thought to a file. Do not worry too much about word count. It is like a marathon runner recovering from an injury. You do not step back from the injury and expect to be able to prepare for a marathon. Write a few words that can be completed without pain or frustration. Then the next day, write a few more. The goal is to simply improve productivity every single day. Although it will not be easy, you can regain your form quickly.

Examine your schedule for scraps of time. Even in a full schedule there are 15 minutes here and an hour there that can be filled with writing. Keep your writing project open on your desk top. When you have a few minutes, write a few words. Twenty words, 50 words, 100 words. They add up.   

For my schedule, from May 1 to August 31 is the productivity zone. Over 80% of my writing productivity takes place over these four months. I really do not want to spend this prime productivity period working on getting my writing Mojo back. I have about two weeks to rebuild the habit and be completely ready to hit the ground running on May 1. The plan is to dig out completely from the massive number of tasks and get the writing momentum moving in a positive direction. As an aside, Mojo is defined as a magic power. When things are going well, it seems like a magic power. Yet, writing Mojo is not magic, but the result of discipline and habit building — those are the magic ingredients.

I need to get back up to speed in not only the volume and speed of productivity, but also in the complexity of the writing. I typically ramp up with increasing complexity of projects. The first stage is to write a blog post, which I try to produce monthly. These blog post are intended to be helpful, but often are self-indulgent and the level of prose is not especially complex. The next level is writing manuscript reviews. These reviews require critical thinking and teaching. However, it is easier to respond to someone else’s ideas then to create one’s own ideas. The third level is for short and important projects that require discipline and will be read by others, but are not especially innovative or groundbreaking. Examples of level three projects are test reviews, book reviews, newsletter articles, website content, and the like. These forms of writing are fine and important, but they are for show. Level four writing is for the dough. These are grant proposals, books, and articles for refereed scholarly journals. This is where it is necessary to integrate scholarship, data and analysis, innovative thinking, and word count into a coherent expression of a contribution to advance your profession. The complexity of thinking and execution of writing are at the absolute highest levels. Getting on that level is challenging to attain and even harder to maintain. I have fallen, but am building my way back up. Here is the blog post. I wrote a manuscript review this morning. Today, tomorrow, and Wednesday I am writing two test reviews; while tapering down the large administrative load. Getting at the highest level of thinking and speed of productivity does not happen by accident or all at once. Have a plan and go to grab your writing Mojo back.

 

International Collaboration: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

I recently completed a nine-day visit to explore research collaboration with faculty members of The Education University of Hong Kong. I had a great time, was kept busy for a full week, learned a lot, and ate ridiculously well. I also met several colleagues who are potential collaborators and learned about methods of funding for my own research. I continue to work and write with scholars in Poland and Brazil as well, and have benefited from collaboration with researchers from a variety of nations, cultures, and languages. The focus of my research is not any specific issue in international work, but I still find this type of collaborative work energizing, creative, and useful. There are a few observations that affect how my international research collaboration is conducted.

Research Culture. My experience is limited, but I have found highly skilled researchers everywhere. Yet, p-hacking and harking are the norm. Researchers engage in specific and detailed projects. Direct testing of theory and addressing larger professional issues are not common. I presented on implementation science and open science in Hong Kong and was surprised that the scholars I spoke with immediately saw the value of these issues. On the spot, three researchers proposed pre-registered studies in their areas of research. Several researchers were forced to consider, for the first time, that scientific practices need to answer the “so what?” (i.e., utility) question. Previously, internal consistency and p < .05 were the driving force in research design to the exclusion of utility or generalizability. The value of transparent science was obviously clear, but scholars had not been exposed to these ideas (but I spoke about how to use open science concepts to improve research productivity—so I have their attention). The research culture in several countries is less about the big picture and more about narrow salami slicing of large data sets. Well, maybe this is not necessarily an international thing, but happens everywhere.   

Academic Colonialism. My experience is that colleagues in other countries are only given scholarly credit when they publish in English language professional journals. The problem is that data collected in Poland, for example, but must be developed and designed so that the study is valued in a journal published in North America or England. So it seems that any research is only determined to be useful if it is valuable to North American or English audiences. There is little value placed on studies that are only useful for the specific culture or systems of other (non-US) countries. And likely, such nation-specific studies might be the most useful and the highest-quality studies possible, but are not attempted as they are unlikely to be published in English language journals. This appears to be a significant problem, but I have not heard a scholar in South America, continental Europe, or Asia express concerns over this issue.

American Narrative. A related issue is that psychology and education are heavily influenced by the American narrative. There are several good examples. Studies of intelligence, specifically g, are not part of the American narrative of Marxist equality and the notion that everyone has equal opportunity to become whatever they want with hard work. This American narrative is so strong that intelligence is largely dismissed, despite it being the most robust and useful construct in education and psychology. The American narrative is also responsible for embracing ideas that have little, if any, evidential support, but we want very badly for them to be true and are consistent with our cultural beliefs. Examples include multiple intelligences, multicultural education, grit, social justice-based interventions, mindsets, and power posing. Scholars from other countries may follow the evidence only and do not completely understand the American narrative that often affects editor, reviewer, and granting body decisions. I have told scholars that their study ideas are extremely important, but are unlikely to be published in some US journals. Scholars in many countries are not current on the American narrative that affects the acceptability of their research.

Validation and Robustness. In education and psychology, the most powerful constructs cut across systems, languages, traditions, culture, and history. Embracing the Academic colonialism and the American narrative so closely means that some research is not universal, but is specific and only valued in America. If science is often to be used for universal principles, then validating robust ideas benefit from multiple conceptual replications across nations. International collaboration presents strong tests of the universal validity and robustness of constructs.

Writing. Another problem is that due to pressures to published in English-language journals, many scholars are writing in their second or third languages. My experience is that my international collaborators are excellent writers. However, they report that they require many hours more to complete a writing assignment than I do. One co-author prefers to write the first draft in her first language and then the revision is actually her translation to English. Several folks have experience with native non-English speakers being poor writers. I have not observed this. But I try to respect that more time is required for them to complete writing tasks.

The major reason for international collaboration is that it is energizing. New concepts, new cultures, new colleagues will hopefully bring new ideas and interesting methods. Embracing the different and sharing uniqueness is an excellent way to promote high quality scientific work.

 

Issues in Letters of Recommendation: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

I put out a poorly worded Tweet last week that generated more attention and heat than makes me comfortable. Typically, attention on such an important topic is good and fine, but the Tweet in question is misleading (accurate, but still misleading). Here is the Tweet:

Just read about 60 applications to grad school. Letter writers who say applicants are cute, petite, lovely, sweet, appropriately dressed, has a great smile, has a supportive spouse--I'm judging you. Do better for these people.

11:17 AM - 1 Feb 2018

Here are the misleading points that I regret:

·       I read over 400 pages of letters of recommendation in three days. Then I cherry-picked eight or nine words and phrases that seemed a bit icky. These are not common words and phrases in the letters I read.

·       Twitter is a brief format that does not allow context to be presented. These phrases are presented with no context. Then the outrage machine of Twitter can be cranked up, context assumed by the reader, and results can be interpreted in a way that suits the theme and agenda of the reader.

·       I do not feel I could add any contextual information because I did not want to break the implied confidentiality of letter writers. I appreciate and respect the time and energy that all letter writers put in to this process. Their efforts support our program and support new applicants. Shaming or otherwise criticizing people who volunteer their time and energy does not support or improve the process.

·       Some of these words are discipline specific. These letters are for a school psychology program. Words like kind, generous, caring, thoughtful, and compassionate are considered positive characteristics for potential psychologists of any gender. Not only do these words have something of a gendered component, they are not far in meaning from clearly gendered words such as sweet, lovely, and nurturing.

·       The program for these letters has 137 applicants for eight positions in the 2018 cohort. I will be accepting one or zero students under my supervision. I read these letters carefully. I am not sure I read letters of recommendation as carefully in the past.

·       All of letters containing the words that made me feel somewhat uncomfortable and elicited outrage were extremely positive. The writers of these letters wrote at least two pages describing the leadership, scholarship, energy, experience, innovation, and other important characteristics that support admissions to a graduate program. In nearly every case, the offending words were in the final paragraph where testimonials concerning the real human characteristics of the applicant were described. The language in this final paragraph became problematic.

What to do?

Because the language bothered me and apparently about 800,000 other people, some action is warranted. I respectfully choose not to employ some of the suggestions by commenters. They will not be publicly shamed, reprimanded, stabbed with cocktail forks, reported to their universities, murdered, or otherwise be taught a lesson. Power is the ability to get things done. I have power. I will use power to address this issue.

I am not big on outrage, but I am big on solving problems. Here is what I have done so far: reported my concerns to our equity officer, who has set up an opportunity to work with our Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies) and also a professor in Law to find solutions; spoke with our graduate program director to put this item on the agenda in order to address discipline-specific approaches to educate letter writers; and I am writing this blog post to provide my perspective on letters of recommendation that I hope is helpful. I also plan on working with our faculty development unit (Teaching and Learning Services) to publicize and expand their instruction of faculty members on letter writing. There is a culture that needs to be changed. These are small contributions, but it has only been 48 hours.

Writing Effective Letters of Recommendation

As always on this blog, I am not an expert in this area and these are only my ideas. For those looking for more expert information on how to write effective letters of recommendation, I recommend these sites and documents as good places to start. There are many more resources available.

https://www.thebalance.com/academic-recommendation-letters-2062959

https://theprofessorisin.com/2016/09/07/how-to-write-a-recommendation-letter/

https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/documents/equality/HHMI_WriteReference.pdf

https://www.pace.edu/career-services/sites/default/files/files/pdf/writing-letters-of-recommendation.pdf

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/982/02/

Writing Letters

I write letters for 45 to 55 different students per year. Given that students often need multiple letters for multiple job opportunities, internship sites, grant applications, and such — there are approximately 200 documents per year from me. There are other faculty members in my program who write more. It is extraordinarily time-consuming, but I enjoy the process of writing letters. I am afraid that I do not follow many of the recommendations here for letter writers.

I appreciate that requesting letters of recommendation is difficult for students. I always want to be helpful to their cause. If I cannot write a letter that will substantially help their cause, then I will tell them that I cannot write a letter that helps them. I will not write a poor letter or a lukewarm letter. I understand those who feel a responsibility to warn colleagues of a poor student, but I do not do that. If I agree to write the letter, then I am all in. I will write an honest letter that does everything possible to attain the goal for the student.

I only write what I see. The student may be awesome in many ways, but I only write about my personal experiences with the student. The value of letters of recommendation is that they go beyond the CV and transcript. I have no desire to rehash the CV.

I typically do not use boilerplate information for letters. There are small things such as the details of the activities of the research lab or a specific class that I have taught. I try to write an original letter for everybody. I have tried boilerplate writing in the past, but it never seems to read well.

I do not ask students to write a letter that I will sign. That is not a letter of recommendation. Of course, people are busy. When people say that they are busy, what they are saying is that something else is a higher priority. If it is not that important to you, then do not write the letter.

I attempt to be transparent. If there is enough time and the students wants to see it, then I like students to see what I have written about them before I send it out. Mostly, I ask them to look for typos or factual inaccuracies. I will now ask students to also look for sexist or insensitive language. I have sent letters out without them reading it, but students can read letters of recommendation at any time. I write so many letters and documents, that it is always wise to have someone else review the letters for typos. No one is more motivated than the subject of the letter.

A framework helps with the efficiency of writing letters of recommendation. I divide a letter into eight sections.

1.       Why I am writing this letter, how long I have known the applicant, and the context of the relationship between me and the applicant.

2.       Describing the top accomplishment of the applicant. Describing exactly what the applicant did and the role they played in achieving this top accomplishment.

3.       The professional goals of the applicant and how a positive outcome by the target of the letter will help the person achieve those goals. The logic here is that the applicant has a thoughtful, ambitious, and planful approach to achieving career goals.

4.       Describe the process that the person is following to achieve future goals. What are they doing now, what are plans for the immediate future, what are the plans for the long-term future, and what is the trajectory of their work.

5.       Lesser accomplishments. This is often a laundry list of professional presentations, publications, and general everyday awesomeness.

6.       Clinical skills and experience. Sometimes this section is moved up to the second section (when the student is applying for a field placement or internship or clinical job). This relates to training, experiences, and special expertise in clinical skills. Special attention is given to the applicant’s development of unusual skills that the applicant has taken the initiative to develop.

7.       Citizenship. I want to indicate the role of the applicant in the research lab or the classroom. Most often, this involves discussions of leadership, creativity, initiative, and team approaches. This is the danger paragraph when it comes to sexist language. Review it carefully, because this paragraph will be read closely.

8.       I keep open all contacts. Readers are welcome to contact me and I invite questions or additional requests for more information.

This is not too hard. I find this process easy simply because my students are wonderfully skilled, good people to work with, and I truly believe that they deserve the job, experience, or funding. I believe that my sincere enthusiasm and belief that the students deserve to achieve their goals comes through in the letter. I do not use flowery or exaggerated language. Their talents and accomplishments speak for themselves. If the letter is hard to write, then I probably should not be writing it.

Reading Letters

I read a lot of letters. Admissions letters, letters for funding, and all other forms of letters of people applying for limited spaces or resources. I only focus on a few things and generally ignore the rest.

1.       In my world, the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. I want to know what this person has done. I do not care about their goals, dreams, plans, or anything else. What have they done. This is, by far, the most important aspect.

2.       I want evidence of leadership, initiative, and creativity. I am a trainer of professionals. Those people cannot be passive or passengers. I want a future professional.

3.       Many negative things do not bother me. There can always be disagreements or relationship issues, even with a letter writer. That said, any hint of laziness, treating other people poorly, or ethical complaints is a major problem. I do not expect applicants to be perfect, but I want evidence of professionalism.

4.       Is there any evidence that they do things for others? Selflessness and support of peers is far more valuable than ambition.

5.       What skills, abilities, or characteristics does the applicant have that will contribute to our program or research lab?

6.       Evidence of enthusiasm for growth. I want to know what the applicant has done to take the initiative for their own personal and professional growth. Sometimes, I need to look for a hint.

7.       How did the applicant manage or work around difficult times or other challenges?

I really do not care about many of the adjectives that are used in letters. Whether they are called a fine student or the greatest student in the history of civilization, that simply does not matter much. Sexist language in a letter does not really affect my decision of the applicant. I look for specific items. Everything else is extraneous or of minimal value to me.

Let us be mindful in how we communicate on behalf of students. We are their second-best advocates and bear significant responsibility for their success. Letters that are focused, clear, and describe an accomplished professional are most effective.