Showing posts with label graduate school. Show all posts
Showing posts with label graduate school. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Things to keep in mind when finding a PhD

A wonderful student who worked with me when I was a graduate student is in the midst of applying for graduate school, and has been going through the process of finding a suitable program and advisor. It's been nearly 7 years (!?) since I was first in graduate school and, in my case, I mostly lucked my way from undergraduate to a great lab without nearly enough due diligence (and no one I knew or in my family had been to grad school to provide advice).

If asked during grad school, I had a list of advice I would have liked to have received (admin questions, funding issues, how to get to campus on public transport). But the advice I think is important has actually changed a lot, from just “make sure you love research” (although you should, at least most of the time), to more strategic and practical considerations.

I now think the most important thing is to ask yourself while you consider graduate school is, "Why do I want to get a PhD?" Note that there is absolutely no right answer to this question, but there are some wrongs ones, e.g. "I don’t know what else to do next" or "I have good grades". The problem is that these answers aren’t enough to motivate you through a PhD program. And some people find themselves 5 years later, still not knowing what they’re going to do next or why they got a PhD. It’s okay to answer "I like the research I did as an undergrad" or "I want to develop strong quantitative skills", or "I love working with ideas", because these kind of answers mean you want something from your experience and you've thought about what that is.

Educate yourself about the opportunities that a PhD will bring, both academic and non-academic. Continue this education while you are in graduate school. [Departments, offer more opportunities for students to learn about non-academic jobs.] The reality is that getting the oft-desired research professorship is very difficult (e.g. 200+ applicants for a general ecology position is not unusual). But PhDs produce desirable skill sets and there are other opportunities, so long as you are aware of them. There are many LACs (liberal arts schools) in the US, and thus more teaching oriented professorships advertised every year than there are R1 professorships. There are NGO and government research jobs. And as many of my grad school friends leave academia, it’s a relief to see that their skills – strong quantitative abilities, good data management, a clarity of vision on how to ask questions and answer them with appropriate data – make them employable across a range of professions.

Ask questions ask questions ask questions. Don’t go into a program without knowing what it will entail. Ask the same questions of both faculty and students and see how their answers compare. 

To understand a department, you want to know what the teaching load is on average, how funding works (and for how long!). You should find out the average time to completion of a PhD program, what classwork looks like, whether there are student-lead reading or discussion groups? Is there funding for student travel to conferences or meetings?

If you have a lab in mind, you need to similarly learn about that lab. Find out, from both the PI and their students, how the lab works. What is the supervisory style? Does the PI tend to be hands on, or expect more independent research? How does your personal approach to working mesh with their style? Don't assume that if you like to have structure and feedback and the PI only is around once a month, it will just work out. How often are they physically on campus? How often would you meet? What are other students in the lab working on? Is the lab collaborative? Do students publish together? What skills are emphasized in the group? Has the PI published recently (last 2-3 years, depending on context) and, perhaps most importantly, have they graduated any students? If not, try to figure out why.

Once you’ve found a place, remember that how you feel about your PhD will rise and fall all the time. That’s normal. Avoid the worst of these dips by taking care of your mental health. The sort of unstructured, isolating, often un-rewarded work that goes into a PhD can be draining. But it is also 100% okay to change your mind, to decide a Master’s is sufficient, to hate everything you are doing and quit. Seriously. The sunk-cost fallacy will make you (and people around you) miserable.

Of course, grad school—like life—is stochastic and full of uncertainty. But its possible, with care to increase the probability that you find a supportive, nurturing lab and have a wonderful time as a graduate student. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Paper of the lustrum*

(*lustrum = five years)

I’m co-teaching (with Kendi Davies and Julian Resasco) a graduate seminar focused on current trends and advances in community ecology. It’s been great, and having a small group with varied backgrounds (disease ecology, microbial ecology, restoration, community ecology theory, etc) allows for flexible and interesting discussions. Somehow the topic last week drifted to favourite papers, and we ended up with a plan to choose and defend the paper that was—in our opinion—the best one published in ecology in the last 5 years.

Today we described and defended our choices and tried to decide what the ‘best’ actually means, anyways. I don’t think anyone quite realised just how difficult this exercise would be. First, 5 years isn’t actually a very long time when measured in academic publishing years. That’s only the time of the average PhD, or less than the entire tenure-track period. I immediately thought of several papers I love, only to realize that sadly, they were from before 2010 (e.g. papers like these). 

Nearly everyone started their search the same way: with a Google Scholar search, looking at the most cited papers between 2010-2015. Some people looked at the most popular papers from high impact journals (Ecology Letters, Science, Nature, PNAS, etc); others looked at the output of eminent ecologists during that time period. At least one used his committee members for advice, and for the new grad students this was a nice crash course in the recent literature. Citations, quality journals, or eminent names might have been starting points for finding these papers, but it was interesting how little these actually seemed to matter. When defending their choice of paper, absolutely no one mentioned citations or journal as deciding factors. 

The papers we chose, and why: 
Conceptual synthesis in community ecology. (The Quarterly Review of Biology) Vellend 2010  
This was my choice, although I went back and forth between a short list of papers. For me, the ‘best’ paper had to either change how we do ecology, or how we think about ecology. I think Vellend 2010 has a lot of value as a pedagogical tool, and a device for organizing ecological knowledge. It has the potential to aggregate the varied, context dependent data that ecologists have been collecting for generations. Further, rather than the disjointed approach my undergraduate texts took for community ecology (productivity here, lynx-hare plot there), a single framework should help students understand community ecology as a cohesive set of ideas. And I admire papers that have big ideas.

 This was a cool choice, because it turns out to be a massively important development that many of the less molecularly-inclined knew little about. This paper introduced the use of CRISPR/Cas for gene editing. The CRISPR system is been found in archaea and bacteria, and provides a form of adaptive immunity against viruses. Importantly, it has been developed for use in incredibly precise genome editing that is heritable. It has massive implications for the study of evolution, microbial ecology, disease, population genetics, and everything in between. It is also the source of ethical concerns because it can (and has) be used to modify human embryos. 

Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. (Nature) Cardinale et al. 2012 
This was the choice of two students, so it may have been the de facto winner. It is a massively cited paper (>1000), and both students chose it in part because it makes a clear contribution to human welfare and society. It represents a massive undertaking (they analysed more than 1000 papers) reviewing research on how biodiversity relates to a large number of relevant ecosystem services. In particular, Table 1 (below) can be used for applied and basic research, and shows where research and data agree, disagree, or are lacking. This is certainly a must read for ecologists.

This paper helped to concentrate and inspire research on intraspecific variation and to highlight the areas of research that are still poorly studied (and it actually made my short list too). There is obvious variation within species (long acknowledged as important to evolution, starting with Darwin) but this is often ignored in community ecology. Bolnick et al. point out the many possible and important implications that arise from such variation. The writing is clear and highlights extremely well the general mechanisms that might interact with intraspecific variation. For the student who chose it, it was inspiring enough when it first came out, that they changed their research direction. 
Table 1: Bolnick et al. 
This paper was chosen in an opposite fashion: it is brand new, and rather than having inspired current research, the student thought it would inspire future approaches. The paper integrates community ecology and disease ecology in a novel and sophisticated way, advancing an area of research currently receiving a lot of attention. In this paper, mice are ‘mesocosms’ in which the importance of bottom-up versus top-down control of infection (by malaria and a nematode) could be tested. (Quote: "It's a real page-turner"). 

This was another paper chosen because it inspired the student's current studies. Ladau et al. brought together a massive data set for marine bacterial biodiversity, allowing them to map it on a global scale and develop predictive distribution models. Interestingly, they found that diversity patterns were lower at the equator, contrary to typical findings in other organisms. The student cited the careful methodology, extensive data, and comparison of results to those in macro-scale systems as the paper’s strengths. 
From Ladau et al. "Maps of predicted global marine bacterial diversity. Color scale shows relative richness of marine surface waters as predicted by SDM. Samples were rarefied to 4266 rDNA sequences to enable accurate estimation of relative richness patterns on a global scale from data sets with different sequencing depths. True richness is expected to exceed estimated values. (a) In December, OTU richness peaks in temperate and higher latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. (b) In June, OTU richness peaks in temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere..."

The final paper was Kendi’s choice. Community ecology has struggled with weak connections between pattern and process. The experimental and quantitative work coming from this research group has provided multiple examples for how to connect theory, statistics, and experimental results in a very rigourous fashion. In this paper, the focus is particularly on functional/trait approaches to community assembly and coexistence, and the authors manage to connect careful experimental data with Chessonian coexistence theory, using trait data to estimate species’ fitness and niche differences, and then using these to predict species coexistence.

After the fact, of course, lots of other great papers came to mind. It isn't really possible to choose one best paper, either. But the characteristics people looked for in a great paper were pretty similar - inspiring, providing novel approaches to particular questions, focused on big questions or ideas, and making contributions that go beyond academic ecology.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Science in China –feeding the juggernaut*

For those of us involved in scientific research, especially those that edit journals, review manuscripts or read published papers, it is obvious that there has been a fundamental transformation in the scientific output coming from China. Both the number and quality of papers have drastically increased over the past 5-10 years. China is poised to become a global leader in not only scientific output, but also in the ideas, hypotheses and theories that shape modern scientific investigation.

I have been living in China for a couple of months now (and will be here for 7 months more), working in a laboratory at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, and I have been trying to identify the reasons for this shift in scientific culture in China. Moreover, I see evidence that China will soon be a science juggernaut (or already is), and there are clear reasons why this is. Here are some reasons why I believe that China has become a science leader, and there are lessons for other national systems.

The reasons for China’s science success:

1.      University culture.

China is a country with a long history of scholarly endeavours. We can look to the philosophical traditions of Confucius 2500 years ago as a prime example of the respect and admiration of scholarly traditions. Though modern universities are younger in China than elsewhere (the oldest being about 130 years old), China has invested heavily in building Universities throughout the country. In the mid-1990s, the government built 100 new universities in China, and now graduates more than 6 million students every year from undergraduate programs.
Confucius (551-479 BC), the grand-pappy of all Chinese scholars

This rapid increase in the number of universities means that many are very modern with state-of-the-art facilities. This availability of infrastructure has fostered the growth of new colleges, institutes and departments, meaning that new faculty and staff have been hired. Many departments that I have visited have large numbers of younger Assistant and Associate Professors, many having been trained elsewhere, that approach scientific problems with energy and new ideas.
My new digs

2.      Funding

From my conversations with various scientists, labs are typically very well funded. With the expansion of the number of universities seems to have been an expansion in funds available for research projects. Professors need to write a fair number of grant proposals to have all of their projects funded, but it seems that success rates are relatively high, and with larger grants available to more senior researchers. This is in stark contrast to other countries, where funding is inadequate. In the USA, National Science Foundation funding rates are often below 10% (only 1 in 10 proposals are funded). This abysmal funding rate means that good, well-trained researchers are either not able to realize their ideas or spend too much of their time applying for funding. In China, new researchers are given opportunities to succeed.

3.      Collaboration

Chinese researchers are very collaborative. There are several national level ecological research networks (e.g., dynamic forest plots) that involve researchers from many institutions, as well as international collaborative projects (e.g., BEF China). In my visits to different universities, Chinese researchers are very eager to discuss shared research interests and explore the potential for collaboration. Further, there are a number of funding schemes to get students, postdocs and junior Professors out of China and into foreign labs, which promotes international collaboration. Collaborations provide the creative capital for new ideas, and allow for larger, more expansive research projects.

4.      Environmental problems

It is safe to say that the environment in China has been greatly impacted by economic growth and development over the past 30 years. This degradation of the environment has made ecological science extremely relevant to the management of natural resources and dealing with contaminated soil, air and water. Ecological research appears to have a relatively high profile in China and is well supported by government funding and agencies.

5.      Laboratory culture

In my lab in Canada, I give my students a great deal of freedom to pursue their own ideas and allow them much latitude in how they do it. Some students say that they work best at night, others in spurts, and some just like to have four-day weekends every week. While Chinese students seem equally able to pursue their own ideas and interests, students tend to have more strict requirements about how they do their work. Students are often expected to be in the lab from 9-5 (at least) and often six days a week. This expectation is not seen as demanding or unreasonable (as it probably would be in the US or Canada), but rather in line with general expectations for success (see next point).

Labs are larger in China. The lab I work in has about 25 Masters students and a further 6 PhD students, plus postdocs and technicians. Further, labs typically have a head professor and several Assistant or Associate Professors. When everyone is there everyday, there is definitely a vibe and culture that emerges that is not possible if everyone is off doing their own thing.

The lab I'm working in -"the intellectual factory"

Another major difference is that there is a clear hierarchy of respect. Masters students are expected to respect and listen to PhD students, PhD students respect postdocs and so on up to the head professor. This respect is fundamental to interactions among people. As it has been described to me, the Professor is not like your friend, but more like a father that you should listen to.

What’s clear is that lab culture and expectations are built around the success of the individual people and the overall lab. And success is very important –see next point.

6.      Researcher/student expectations

I left the expectations on researchers for last because this needs a longer and more nuanced discussion. My own view of strict expectations has changed since coming to China, and I can now see the motivating effect these can have.

For Chinese researchers it is safe to say that publications are gold. Publishing papers, and especially the type of journal those papers appear determine career success in a direct way. A masters student is required to publish one paper, which could be in a local Chinese journal. A PhD student is required to publish two papers in international journals. PhD students who receive a 2-year fellowship to travel to foreign labs are required to publish a paper from that work as well. For researchers to get a professor position, they must have a certain number of publications in high-impact international journals (e.g., Impact Factor above 5).

Professors are not immune from these types of expectations. Junior professors are not tenured, nor are they able to get tenure until they qualify for the next tier, and they need to constantly publish. To get a permanent position as a full professor or group leader, they need to have a certain number of high impact papers. For funding applications, their publication records are quantified (number and impact factors of journals) and they must surpass some threshold.

Of course in any country, your publication record is the most important component for your success as a researcher, but in China the expectations are clearly stated.

While there are pros and cons of such a reward based system, and certainly the pressure can be overwhelming, I’ve witnessed the results of this system. Students are extremely motivated and have a clear idea what it means to be successful. To get two publications in a four year PhD requires a lot of focus and hard work; there is no time for drifting or procrastinating.

So why has Chinese science been so successful? It is because a number of factors have coalesced around and support a general high demand for success. Regardless of the number of institutional and funding resources available, this success is only truly realized because of researchers' desire to exceed strict expectations. And they are doing so wonderfully.  

*over the next several months I will write a series of posts on science and the environment in China

Friday, March 6, 2015

Distilling an ocean of theory and adding a few of your own drops

I recently completed my PhD qualifying exam at the University of Toronto-Scarborough for the Department of Physical and Environmental Science. Prior to going through the process the exam took on a sort of “black box” quality where I’d seen colleagues pass through unscathed but the depth of questioning that took place during the oral examination remained unclear. So I thought it might be of some value to comment on my experience with the process.

The format of these exams is fairly variable across departments and between institutions with some requiring the production of several essays in a short period of time, some based on an extensive readings list, some formatted as a proposal defense and others including some or all of these components. My exam took the form of a proposal defense which required submitting a 9000-word proposal outlining the theoretical framework & justifications for my research questions, hypotheses, objectives, methodologies, preliminary results, discussion and thoughts on the significance of the work, a 25-minute presentation of this proposal followed by an oral examination that lasted about an hour and 30 minutes. These exams are typically meant to be taken at the early stages of one’s PhD, but it seems that they often get kicked further down the road, as was the case with mine which I completed half way into my 3rd year of a 5 year program. This had its advantages and disadvantages where further progress allowed presentation and discussion of some interesting findings and a clearer picture of what my thesis is going to look like, but also came with the colossal challenge of organizing everything into what seemed like a miniscule 25-minute presentation. This was probably the most challenging academic exercise I have faced.

I finalized my presentation a few days before my exam, and felt that it had a nice balance between theory and my contributions, but this only after “throwing away” 100+ slides in the 2 weeks leading up to the exam… And while that might sound like a total waste of time, it actually forced me to distill what seemed like an “ocean of theory” to the essential elements that grounded my work. Further, developing slides that can visually communicate complex theory is a great form of study that can serve you well during the oral exam; even if you can’t show the slides you will know the material. Also, I can’t overstate the importance of peer and supervisory assistance here. I was extremely lucky to have my presentation lovingly torn to shreds by my lab mates. This can be a terrifying process as we know that imposter syndrome is alive and well in academia ( Yet, we of course survive these practice talks and our presentations benefit greatly.

Once I was happy with the content and flow of my talk I decided to inject a little humour by photoshopping some images and spattering in a couple silly animations. This was probably some kind of self-defense mechanism where I was hoping that by putting a smile on the face of an examiner I might be able to ease my own nerves and the general tension that goes along with a comprehensive exam. Of course, whether this succeeds or not will depend on the demeanor of your examiners, your delivery and probably the general quality of the rest of the presentation. In my case, I found that the humour worked and offered a nice lull in the tension. I highly recommend trying this, once you’ve nailed down the meat of the talk of course. Beyond attempts at humour, you should know the talk. You shouldn’t be reading off any notes and should only read out points on the slide that are essential theory items or specific research questions, hypotheses or findings. There will be an upcoming blog post on presentation tips, so I’ll stop there… Just remember that in this exam, your presentation sets the tone. It is your opportunity to articulate your comprehension of the subject and the novelty of your work.

The written component of the proposal, on the other hand, can seem to be propelled by a perpetual motion machine generating an endless sprawl of “conceptual axes”, “synthetic approaches” and “novel perspectives” about your thesis topic. Here, you can definitely produce a fairly comprehensive picture of the subject and your perspectives but you’ll still have to tug the reigns so as not to irritate your readers with a bloated document. If you find yourself delving into the linkages between your thesis and systems theory, and you’re not in physics, odds are you’ve gone too far. Everything in your written proposal is essentially fair-game for the oral examination, so don’t let it disappear from your desktop once you’ve submitted it. You will most certainly get questions about the methods you’ve proposed or have employed, and you will need to be able to justify your choices and situate your studies within the literature.

The oral examination will surely be one of the most unnerving experiences of your academic life, but you can minimize your unease by continually drawing those links between your thesis and the literature in the weeks leading up to the exam. I found the oral exam to be a very fair process where I was tested on the biophysical interactions that I was examining, the measures that I used, and the conceptual links between my thesis components and the trends in the literature. Now, my thesis is fairly atypical in that it takes a multi-disciplinary approach to a larger topic, and this definitely generated some questions about the linkages between the various components. But beyond that challenge I think any questions about the “grand scheme” of your thesis can be addressed by highlighting those initial motivations that you included in your application to your program. In my application, I was required to write a page about why interdisciplinary perspectives are essential in the field of environmental science, and I was able to pull from that motivation to answer these kinds of questions. Odds are that your initial reasons for engaging with a certain research topic will ground a lot of your answers during the oral examination. One question that I didn’t anticipate was essentially “where do you see yourself in 10 years”?  I think in our PhD’s we can easily get tunnel vision and forget that there is an end to the process at which point we’ll move on to something new. So don’t forget about that light at the end of the tunnel during the exam. Think about your future aspirations and how far you’ve come since you became fascinated with your topic. Your examiners want to feel that engagement and passion. And you will get questions about the theory that are right in your wheelhouse, so take advantage when they appear and highlight both your understanding of the unanswered questions and how your work is not just adding to the complexity but is helping to bridge those gaps.

In the end, after all the late nights of writing, pecking at bowls of nuts (because cooking takes too long) and re-arranging your presentation slides for the 100th time, you’ll most likely find that this process has probably been the most constructive thing that you’ve ever been a part of.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Graduate students- employees, scholars, or something in between?

Graduate school has always required that students balance research, classwork, and teaching activities (perhaps with some time for complaining). Though many aspects of graduate school are unchanged, there can be a tension between grad students and their employers driven by a shift in both these groups’ expectations, and the complex nature of STEM graduate school.

This is illustrated well by the current strikes of teaching assistants (primarily graduate students) at University of Toronto and York University – both major Canadian institutions. [And even more extreme cases exist]. The union at U of T has become a defacto union for graduate student issues as well, and the primary sticking point appears to be graduate student stipends, which are far below the poverty line. The students there are striking as teaching assistants (so research work can continue) but their main issue is a holistic “graduate student” issue.

Supposing the components of graduate school have remained similar over the years, why might tension be increasing between what graduate students and faculty/departments expect? Partly because so many other things have changed-–the economy, the workforce, cultural expectations. I think that in the past, it was easier to consider graduate school as a place of passion and intellectual curiosity, where one would make a lousy salary, but consider it “worth it”.  Today, the cost-benefit analysis for getting a PhD is considerably less positive – it takes longer to get a PhD, on average, and the payoff in terms of obtaining a faculty or other job, makes this less clear. The cost of education, particularly in the US, is immense: the possibility of student loan debt from 4-8 years of postgraduate education is fairly unpalatable.

From Nature.
As the realities change, so too do the expectations. That on its own would be the source of some tension. But the dual nature of graduate school compounds the tensions since it is difficult for graduate students, faculty, and department heads to evaluate what reasonable expectations are for things such as pay, hours, vacation time. For most students, graduate school has aspects of both a clear job (usually teaching duties—running labs, marking tests and assignments, sometimes lecture duties) and a clear studentship (class work, appraisal exams, all culminating in a defense). It also includes research, done in a lab or the field, which may vary between being a job (doing tasks primarily for the PI, monitoring undergrads, ordering supplies) and an intense learning experience. Employment involves contracts with expectations and restrictions, set hours and wages; being a student lacks the same expectations but is often associated with greater freedom and personal growth. The extent to which faculty and graduate students see the position as “student” or as “job” may well differ.

The interaction of economic realities with the duality of graduate school is an important issue. Should graduate school be considered the start of one's working life? If so, is it equivalent to an entry-level position? After all, TAs do a lot of grunt work -- marking, marking, and more marking, run simple labs and tutoring sessions -- and many universities hire undergraduates to do similar tasks. On the other hand, graduate students are also high-achievers doing complicated analyses for research, and have reasonably high education levels. Graduate school may come with opportunity costs  - peers with similar educations tend to have jobs and retirement funds. In contrast, the pure academic path usually means you will live frugally for many years before your first "real" position (and you may be in your 30s or later before you get it).

There may be some generational changes as well. It is suggested that Millenials/Generation Y have different priorities than previous generations: they strongly desire fulfilment from their work, but also competitive compensation and job flexibility (e.g.). The downsides of graduate school are greater and perhaps more obvious to this generation: if it is a job, it is poorly paid and entry-level, if it is a studentship, it comes with an opportunity cost. But how to evaluate it when it is both? It is undeniably easier to go through graduate school for those who don't have to deal with the dualities - such as through having a fellowship that allows a student to do research and classes only. Most people are still in graduate school for the same reasons as they always have been - love of science and learning. That hasn't changed. But the meaning of graduate school itself may well have changed. There is no one or easy solution to the issue. But no doubt a recognition by both sides of the realities of being a graduate student (and a supervisor) and honest communication about expectations on both sides (and sometimes, perhaps a little pressure) would go far. 

The real truth about graduate school according to the Simpsons...

**I just want to note that this is inspired by--but not addressing--the U of Toronto situation, and any comments that simply want to debate specific circumstances in particular universities will be deleted...
Larger discussion of the general issue always welcome.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Addressing the mental health problem in academia

The Guardian UK is publishing an insightful series this May called “Mental health: a university crisis”, as part of Mental Health Month. Although mental health issues for undergraduates are the focus of a variety of different services and programs at most universities, the Guardian includes a unique focus on the issues of academics—graduate students, postdocs, professors and other researchers—for whom it seems that mental health issues are disproportionately common.

The whole series is an important read, and comes at the issue from many different perspectives. A recent survey of university employees not surprisingly found that academics have higher stress levels than other university employees, which they attribute to heavy workloads (!), lack of support (from the department or otherwise), and particularly for early career researchers, feelings of isolation. One particularly insightful piece (with the tagline "I drink too much and haven't had a good night's sleep since last year. Why? Research") argues that academics have particularly unique problems leading to mental health issues. There are typical issues that many high stress jobs include—the ever-regenerating todo list, and the many teaching, research, and service tasks that academics need to accomplish. But academia also seems to attract a high proportion of intense, perfectionistic, passionate people willing to go the extra mile (and encouraged to, given the difficult job market). Worse, research is a creative, even emotional activity – there are highs and lows and periods of intense work that come at the expense of everything else. Ideas are personal, and so the separation between person and research is very slim. The result is often a lack of work-life balance that might produce academic success, but strains mental health. Mental health issues further have dire implications for most research activities, since the symptoms – loss of motivation, concentration and clarity of thought – affect crucial academic skills.

If such issues are so common in academia (and there’s a form of anxiety ubiquitous among graduate students, the imposter syndrome; other common illnesses include anxiety, depression, and panic attacks), why are most of the lecturers and postdocs writing about their mental health experiences for the Guardian choosing to be anonymous? It still seems common to simply downplay or hide problems with stress and mental illness (in the linked study, 61% of academics with mental health problems say their colleagues are unaware of their problems). This may be a reflection of the fact that academia is focused individual performance and individual reputation. Colleagues choose to work with you, to invite you to their department, to hire you, based in no small part on your reputation. Admitting to having suffered from mental illness can feel like adding an obstacle to the already difficult academic landscape. For many, admitting to struggling can feel like failure, particularly since everyone around them seems to be managing the harsh conditions just fine (whether or not that is really true). Academic workdays have less structure than most, which can be isolating. Academics can keep unpredictable hours, disappear for days, send emails at 2 am, sleep at work, and be unkempt and exhausted without much comment; as a result, it can be difficult to identify those colleagues who are at risk (compared to those who are simply unconventional :-) ).

It will be interesting to see where the Guardian series goes. Mental health issues in academia are in many ways the same as those that have affected women and minorities looking for inclusion in academia – subtle comments or stigma, lack of practical support. I remember once hearing a department chair disgusted a co-author who had failed to respond to emails because they were “certifiably crazy; in a mental hospital”. No doubt that was exactly the response the co-author was hoping to avoid. More subtle but more common is lip-service to work-life balance that is counterbalanced by proud references to how hard one or one’s lab works. There is nothing wrong with working hard, but maybe we should temper our praise of sleeping in the lab, coming in every holiday and weekend. It happens and it may be necessary, but is that the badge of honour we really want to claim? It would be sad if the nature of academia, its competitiveness and atmosphere of masochism (“my students are in the lab on Christmas”) limits progress.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Scaling the publication obstacle: the graduate student’s Achilles’ heel

There is no doubt that graduate school can be extremely stressful and overwhelming. Increasingly, evidence points to these grad school stressors contributing to mental health problems (articles here and here). Many aspects of grad school contribute to self-doubt and unrelenting stress: is there a job for me after? am I as smart as everyone else? is what I’m doing even interesting?

But what seems to really exacerbate grad school stress is the prospect of trying to publish*. The importance of publishing can’t be dismissed. To be a scientist, you need to publish. There are differing opinions about what makes a scientist (e.g., is it knowledge, job title, etc.), but it is clear that if you are not publishing, then you are not contributing to science. This is what grad students hear, and it is easy to see how statements like this do not help with the pressure of grad school.

There are other aspects of the grad school experience that are important, like teaching, taking courses, outreach activities, and serving on University committees or in leadership positions. These other aspects can be rewarding because they expand the grad school experience. There is also the sense that they are under your control and the rewards are more directly influenced by your efforts. Here then, publishing is different. The publication process does not feel like it is under your control and that the rewards are not necessarily commensurate with your efforts.

Cartoon by Nick Kim, Massey University, Wellington, accessed here

Given the publishing necessity, how then can grad students approach it with as little trauma as possible? The publication process will be experienced differently by different people, some seem like they can shrug off negative experiences while others internalize them, with negative experiences gnawing away at their confidence. There is no magic solution to making the publishing experience better, but here are some suggestions and reassurances.

1) It will never be perfect! I find myself often telling students to just submit already. There is a tendency to hold on to a manuscript and read and re-read it. Part of this is the anxiety of actually submitting it, and procrastination is a result of anxiety. But often students say that it doesn’t feel ready, or that they are unhappy with part of the discussion, or that it is not yet perfect. Don’t ever convince yourself that you will make it perfect –you are setting yourself up for a major disappointment. Referees ALWAYS criticize, even when they say a paper is good. There is always room for improvement and you should view the review process as part of the process that improves papers. If you think of it this way, then criticisms are less personal (i.e., why didn’t they think it was perfect too?) and feel more constructive, and you are at peace with submitting something that is less than perfect.

2) Let's dwell on part of the first point: reviewers ALWAYS criticize. It is part of their job. It is not personal. Remember, the reviewers are putting time and effort into your paper, and their comments should be used to make the product better. Reviewers are very honest and will tell you exactly what could be done to improve a manuscript. They are not attacking you personally, but rather assessing the manuscript. 

3) Building on point 2, the reviewers may not always be correct or provide the best advice. It is OK to state why you disagree with them. You should always appreciate their efforts (unless they are unprofessional), but you don’t have to always agree with them.

4) Not every paper is a literature masterpiece. Effective scientific communication is sometimes best served by very concise and precise papers. If you have an uncomplicated, relatively simple experiment, don’t make more complex by writing 20 pages. Notes, Brevia, Forum papers are all legitimate contributions.

5) Not every paper should be a Science or Nature paper (or whatever the top journals are in a given subdiscipline). Confirmatory or localized studies are helpful and necessary. Large meta-analyses and reviews are not possible without published evidence. Students should try to think how their work is novel or broadly general (this is important for selling yourself later on), but it is ok to acknowledge that your paper is limited in scope or context, and to just send it to the appropriate journal. It takes practice to fit papers to the best journals, so ask colleagues where they would send it. This journal matching can save time and trauma.

6) And here is the important one: rejection is ok, natural, and normal. We all get rejections. What I mean by this is that we all get rejections. Your rejection is not abnormal, you don’t suck more than others, and your experience has been experienced by all the best scientists. When your paper is reviewed, and then rejected, there is usually helpful information that should be useful in revising your work to submit elsewhere. Many journals are inundated with papers and are looking for reasons to reject. In the journal I edit, we accept only about 18% of submissions, and so it doesn’t take much to reject a paper. This is unfortunate, but currently unavoidable (though with the changing publishing landscape, this norm may change). Rejection is hard, but don’t take it personally, and feel free to express your rage to your friends.

Publishing is a tricky, but necessary, business for scientists. When you are having problems with publishing, don’t internalize it. Instead complain about it to your friends and colleagues. They will undoubtedly have very similar experiences. Students can be hesitant to share rejections with other students because they feel inferior, but sharing can be therapeutic. When I was a postdoc at NCEAS, the postdocs would share quotes from their worst rejection letters. What would have normally been a difficult, confidence-bashing experience, became a supportive, reassuring experience.

Publishing is necessary, but also very stressful and potentially adding to low-confidence and a feeling that grad school is overwhelming. I hope that the pointers above can help make the experience less onerous. But when you do get that acceptance letter telling you that your paper will be published, hang on to that. Celebrate and know that you have been rewarded for your hard work, but move on from the rejections.

*I should state that my perspective is from science, and my views on publishing are very much informed by the publishing culture in science. I have no way of knowing if the pressures in the humanities or economics are the same for science students.