Communicating Research: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Communicating Research: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SR Shaw

Advancing knowledge in all fields through research and other forms of scholarship requires much training, guidance, and experience. The challenges of literature reviews, research design, data collection, data management, data analysis, theory testing, and theory development are daunting. This is especially true in the context of reduced funding, tenure pressures, and increased competition. Most researchers in science are well-versed in writing standard formatted scientific reports. Grant reports, government reports, formatting for scientific journals in various fields, and proposals are common mechanisms for written communication of scientific knowledge to peers. However, scientists are now under pressure to communicate findings to the public, mass media outlets, and lay audiences. This form of communication can be challenging for scientists who are trained, experience, and socialized to communicate primarily with scientific peers.

The differences between scholarly communication and communication for knowledge transfer and communicating with the public are not as great as many people believe. The goal of all communication is to move the knowledge base of the audience from point A to point B. The ease of communicating to professional audiences is that there is an assumption that all professional audiences have the same point A. That is, professionals who read journals or evaluate grants have similar pre-existing knowledge, interests, and experiences. In many cases, those pre-existing experiences are the same as the scientists attempting to communicate new findings. For public audiences, existing knowledge, interests, and experiences vary widely. Moreover, almost certainly the public has less existing knowledge than the scientist attempting to communicate new findings. Empathy is required to understand the perspective, needs, knowledge, and values of the public audience. Identifying the exact needs of the audience and having the ability to meet those needs is a baseline skill for communicating complex findings to the public. In addition to empathy and knowing the audience, a formula for communicating to nonprofessional audiences can be helpful.

I am a big fan of B movies. These are usually low-budget, cheesy, and poorly written movies that are often in the horror, action and adventure, or science fiction genre. Yet, for some reason these movies never disappoint and are often hugely entertaining. The reason for this consistency of appealing entertainment is that there is a clear and well-developed formula for an effective B-movie. The ARKOFF formula (after Samuel Z. Arkoff) has six components and the most entertaining B movies contain all six elements.

Action — exciting and visual drama

Revolution — novel or controversial themes and ideas

Killing — violence

Oratory — a memorable speech or dialogue

Fantasy — acted out fantasies that are common to the audience

Fornication — some level of sex appeal

For scientists trained and socialized in communicating with peers, who are just beginning to communicate with the public, a formula can be helpful in organizing information. Clearly, I am not going to recommend that communication of scientific information to the public use the ARKOFF formula. For most types of research, that would just be too weird. In the effort to use just the appropriate amount of weird, I am immodestly proposing the SHAW formula. The SHAW formula contains four components that strongly support effective communication to the public.

Story — Information is most effectively communicated as a narrative with a strong theme, structured just like a short story.

Harrowing — The salience of the study must be communicated so that people’s attention is captured, often by explicitly raising stress or upsetting widely held beliefs. Addressing common anxiety provoking concerns (e.g., parenting, health, finances), life on earth, support for a counterintuitive idea, improving quality of life, and enhancing marital quality are often widely popular harrowing themes.

Applied — Some immediate or long-term, but tangible, application of the results of the scientific study need to be described to engage interest fully. This does not necessarily preclude advances in theory. “Completely changing our understanding of X…” is a useful phrase in describing basic research.

Wonder — The information must elicit interest and wonder in the general topic. Hopefully, some readers will be motivated to learn more about the topic. This section is analogous to the “future research” sections at the end of scientific papers.

Science communication to the public is a novel and foreign activity for many scientists. However, it is now part of the job and is expected from nearly all researchers. Understanding your audience is a large step toward being an effective communicator. At least in the initial stages of becoming a science communicator using a formula to engage your audience effectively and explain complex scientific results may make the process easier. Most scholars want to avoid the B-movie quality that often accompanies science journalism and public communication. Try using the SHAW formula. But unlike the author of this blog, use it modestly and with full descriptions of the limitations of your research.

 

Establishing a Lab Culture: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Establishing a lab culture: How not to suck in graduate school

SR Shaw

The fall term brings new graduate students, visiting scholars, post-docs, and undergraduate research volunteers into research labs. Integrating new people into the lab and re-incorporating returning students and collaborators creates new issues. It is important to establish a culture quickly, so that the work can be done efficiently, cooperatively, and even joyfully. Sometimes, as an older scholar I make the mistake of assuming that returning members of lab remember the key features of the lab culture and that new members will somehow magically absorb the values that I wish the lab to possess. My twitter account and this blog are ways for me to put the values of the lab and our work in writing, so that there is an archive of ideas and tone. But in the hustle of day-to-day work, values and culture can be forgotten or lost due to busyness. And some labs find themselves adrift and moving in a direction that the director did not intend.

There is nothing that replaces the modeling of these values by the principal investigator. They must be lived or members of the lab will not buy-in and accept these cultural touchstones. In addition, these values must be emphasized explicitly, evaluated, rewarded, and established. Building a culture is a long-term process. However, a quick overview of the established credo of the lab can be a starting place and set expectations and aspirations for all lab work. Below are the 10 components that are the most heavily valued in my lab. I will be sending these to my students over the next week so we know where to begin our work this fall.

The 10 core values of the Connections Lab at McGill University:

Strive to become a professional, but do not forget to be a human
Work every single day to become a useful professional. That is, conscientious, independent, skilled, knowledgeable, ethical, and courageous; but realize that you will fall short some days. Always focus on being better tomorrow than you were today. You will never have a problem with me if you do something every day to improve.

You will need to trust that I define my success by your success.
My job is to prepare students as professionals. I know what it takes to be a successful school psychologist and the more successful you are, the more successful I am. I welcome challenges from you. A very reasonable question that you should ask me frequently is, “how will this task help me to achieve my professional goals?”

Wellness: yours and your team's.
Consider your mental and physical well-being a central part of your graduate education and work in this lab. Feel comfortable discussing issues and concerns that you may have. Your long-term development as a person and as a professional require attention to your physical and emotional well-being. At the first sign of any issues, let me know and we will develop a plan. In addition, look after your peers. We are a team and need to take care of each other. Although it may be obvious; harassment, sabotage, creating a hostile environment, or any other behaviours detrimental to the wellness of the team, our clients, or individuals will result in removal from the lab.

Write it down or it did not happen.
Writing is an essential component of graduate school. Any thoughts, ideas, findings, notions, and other contributions are only real if they are written. This is the most effective way to communicate and to create a trail of your thinking that will have an important influence on research and clinical practice. Writing is also a mechanism of accountability, minimizing misunderstandings, and improving communication.

We all do better when we all do better.
There is inevitable competition for authorship, grants, fellowships, and time and attention of senior members. However, this lab is a team. The success of any one of us reflects on all. Share credit, be generous with authorship, listen to the ideas of others, be genuinely happy for the success of your peers, and assist the work of others. When this becomes a habit, everyone benefits.

Do more: everything takes three times longer than you expect.
Doing more than the bare minimum is an essential part of professionalism. In addition, it is nearly impossible to plan your time and work accurately. No matter how much time you devote and plan to a specific task, you need to multiply the number of hours by three. Just achieving minimum expectations will require much more time and energy than you expect.

Attention to detail.
I completely dismiss the concept that “idea people” are important and effective parts of the lab. Ideas are only important if they are paired with an intense work habit, focus on implementation, and single-minded attention to detail. The focus on detail will certainly annoy most of the lab members at some point. Attention to detail is the difference between a vague idea that is floating in the ether and high-quality research and clinical practice.

Ethical behaviour.
Too often, students and professionals gloss over ethical behaviour because they believe that they are a good person who would not ever do anything evil or wrong. Ethical violations are not usually due to bad actors. Ethical violations are usually committed by good people who are tired, emotionally overwhelmed, stressed, overloaded with work, up against timelines, or ignorant of the exact ethical standards and procedures to be followed. Ethical guidelines need to be memorized, automatized, and second nature. They will be challenged when life becomes chaotic.

Invest in preparation.
Writing activity is the tip of the iceberg. For every hour of writing there is at least two hours of planning and four hours of reading (not to mention: seemingly endless hours of data collection and analysis). Be prepared for every meeting by having questions or information to present. Investment in preparation allows you to be a better worker, have more clear thinking, reduce stress, and leads to improved overall productivity and success.

Develop productive habits.
Inspiration comes and goes, but habit remains. To be an effective worker in this research lab, your aspirational goal should be to read 100 pages per day and write 1000 words per day. This will take time, practice, and training. Whatever habits you develop, focus on being the most productive person you can be. Positive habits create professionalism.

Developing a culture is far more than 10 simple and vague ideas. This only becomes a culture when these 10 points are modeled and lived. However, starting by communicating goals and expectations is a good way to begin the term.

Lessons Learned from Sport: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Lessons Learned from Sport: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

SRShaw

The influence of sport is pervasive in society. For example, every news or political chat show is always peppered with sports references. There are always references to a home run, Hail Mary, horse race, prevent defence, red card, or slam dunk. I am a sports fan, but find this use of language tiresome. Beyond the superficial contributions to language and simplistic cultural touchstones, there are some positive and constructive lessons to be learned from sport and applied to the academic world.

Life is not fair. I am always surprised and envious of people who believe that life is or should be fair. In my experience, it is not. Although there are elements of a meritocracy in both sport and academia, true meritocracy is an illusion. I know five athletes who played professional sports: two in the NFL, one in the NBA, one who played AA baseball, and one who played pro hockey in Germany. But the best athlete I ever have been around had his athletic career ended with multiple concussions in high school. Other amazing athletes I know personally had careers ended through injury, sexual abuse by coach, dropped out of sports to work to support his family, automobile accident, drug and alcohol addiction, and a farming accident. They were better athletes than those who had tangible success. No matter how awesome you are and how hard you work, being derailed is common and rarely fair.

Differentiating injury from pain. Every athlete faces physical pain. A successful athlete will power through. But if the problem is an injury, then powering through is dangerous. When there is injury, then healing, rest, and getting professional help are necessary. When an academic is tired and does not feel like working, a successful academic will power through. But successful academics know when there are elements of burnout, exhaustion, physical problems, or mental health issues; then healing, rest, and getting professional help are necessary. Understanding the difference is a challenging and critical skill.

Work does not always lead to success, but not working always leads to failure. Work as hard as you possibly can. Exhaust yourself. Train with discipline and purpose. But do not presume that hard work entitles you to anything. The only thing that hard work entitles you to is more work and the possibility of success. So I hope you enjoy the work.

Every day needs to be a personal best. Comparisons to others often lead to being discouraged and general unhappiness. The person that you were yesterday is the fairest and best competition to consider. My personal goal is to do something better than I have ever done that thing before. I find it highly motivating to be completely driven to be better every single day.

Work when no one else is working. Academia has a competitive component. It can never be assumed that one has more talent than the competition. The only thing that anyone has control over is outworking competition.

Rest is part of the program. Resting is not something one does only when exhaustion has been reached. Rest and recreation are fundamental elements of success. Physical and mental rest are preventative medicine. Rest must be scheduled into the agenda the same as any other high priority activity.

Competition drives improvement. The only way to get better is to face the highest level of competition that you can. Work with the most accomplished partners, apply for the most difficult grants, submit your papers to the highest impact factor journals. Every failure or disappointment will lead to improve skills.

Failure is part of the process. Losing can be discouraging. Most successful athletes hate losing far more than they enjoy winning. Yet, losing is a necessary part of the process to improve skills. Identify the important lessons and areas for improvement in all failures. The old martial arts saying, “either I win or I learn” applies here.

Adapt. There are many approaches to being successful as an academic. Breadth of skills and understanding the context in which you are functioning is necessary for success. It is not necessarily the smartest or most talented who thrive, those who can adapt to new situations and contexts have success.

Sometimes, you are not good enough. This is a hard one to face. Sometimes you do not have the requisite talent or skills or work habits to be at the level you wish or believe you deserve. At this point, it is necessary to either work to improve your skills or to realize that your goals may not be realistic. The biggest mistake that you can make is ignoring this information, blaming other people for your failures, or making excuses.

Some people have advantages. When competition appears to have unfair advantages, frustration can set in. In athletics, it does not seem fair that some people are born exceptionally tall or fast, have access to the best and most expensive coaching, have exceptional family support, can afford the best and most nutritious foods, or have no competing responsibilities that reduce training and practice time. Academia is like that, too. Life is not fair.

Conclusions. The sport-as-life analogy is a bit worn out. Sport is more than a popular culture touchstone for middle-age people who are laying on their couch or the purview former athletes who wax poetic about the glory days. There is a reason why I train judo well into my middle-age years. There are lessons that are still to be learned from sport that can be applied to many walks of life.

In many fields of study, it appears that the likelihood of getting a tenure-track academic position are about the same as making a living in sport. Despite hard lessons, sport and academia both work best when they are pursued with joy.