There are a lot of things I love about Danielle Lee. She makes me laugh more than anyone I know. She shares my love of cheese. She’s been there to pull my tights up under my bra when I’ve needed it. But, most of all, I love her because she will put your shit on blast for putting her shit on blast. In her most recent blog post, she writes…
I have so many things I need to finish. I mean desperately finish. Thanks to a
kick in the buttpep talk from Dr. Isis, my first priority is my research writing. All other writing tasks are secondary – that includes blogging. Though blogging is very much a professional (and personally satisfying) activity for me, she is correct in assessing that I’ve been putting my first energies into extra-curricular writing and presentations. I need to shore up my the academic subtitles of my CV; and this year and this time is the time to do it.
I was very fortunate as a postdoc to have someone in my mentoring army who asked me every time I saw her,”Where are your papers? What are you writing?’ I came to dread seeing her, but in retrospect I appreciate what she was doing for me. The currency of science is publication and, without enough good papers, I was basically walking around with an empty wallet. This is what I expressed to my friend lately and I have now become the person who says “Where are your papers?”
My friend is brilliant in more ways that I can tell you, but that is not enough. A PhD is also not enough and that’s been the source of my not-so-gentle prodding lately…
Even if you’re not staying in academia, the only way to gain acceptance as a productive scientist who does good work is to have taken a project all the way to publication. Publication is one sign that you are not only respected by your local community, but that your work is accepted by the community-at-large. Write something. Anything.
I think a lot about Neil deGrasse Tyson, in this regard. As an academic scientist goes, he has not been productive, having only 13 publications since 1985. In his job as director of the Hayden Planetarium, these publications are sufficient to give him the cache necessary to say “I’ve been a real scientist and I have done some actual shit.” Otherwise, the alternative is the following conversation:
Scientist: Yeah, I’ve done some stuff and I know how to do science.
Other folks: Can I read about it anywhere?
Scientist: Well, no….
Other folks: Then so says you…
But I know that my friend is struggling. She also writes:
It doesn’t take a fancy-pants meta-physics degree to read these dreams. I am afraid getting things done and I am the only one in my own way. I am in the middle of bad dream. I so badly need to do academic writing and get ALL of my research projects written up. I want to get them done. I’m ready for it and I have the time to do it, finally. I don’t have any pressing research data to collect or meetings to attend. Neither am I worried about my finances. It’s like I’m on my own post-doctoral research sabbatical – moving between institutions.
So what’s my problem? How can I push past this anxiety and fear and paralysis?
Today has been a good day for me, in terms of publications. I submitted one new paper, one revision, and I hope to get to resubmitting a paper that was previously rejected from another journal. I’ve come to look forward to writing and submitting papers, but I didn’t always feel that way. I used to be terrified of writing, mostly because I was overwhelmed by the amount ahead of me and because I had been told I wasn’t very good at it. This both paralyzed me and contributed to my paralysis. The longer I went without writing, the more I felt behind the curve for not having published. Before I knew it, I was sitting on a metric fuckton of data and was doing nothing with it. Luckily, I had someone who identified this, hassled me about my publications, and taught me “how” to write a paper. The good news is that, like most skills, it gets easier with experience.
Part of what was making me fail was that I was trying to write linearly. That’s a recipe for pain and self-flagellation. This is how I write a paper now…
1) I try to remember the question(s) I started with and I write it on my board.
2) I make my figures or tables with the data that directly answer that question. I tape my figures and table under the question.
3) I ask whether I have follow-up questions and analysis and I write those questions and make those figures and tables. I tape them to the board.
4) I harass the fuck out of everyone I know and I make them come look at my board. When I get them there, I try to tell them the story of what I’ve done, using my figures and table. I reorder the figures and tables based on their feedback. I write questions they ask next to the figures and tables and revise accordingly. I keep making people come back to my board until they say “Huh. That’s a pretty good story.” I bring everyone who will listen to my board. Undergrads, grad students, postdocs, more senior colleagues. Everyone. This is the most crucial step of the process – getting your story.
5) I write the results.
6) I write the methods in a way that parallels the outline of the results.
7) I ask myself if we have anything unexpected, whether we’ve changed what we know about our field, or whether we have any limitations that must be address. I write that shit on my board and use it to write the discussion.
8) I go back and write the introduction based on the story that ended up in my results. I am a believer in using the phrase “We hypothesized that…” so that there is no damned question about what we were trying to address. This might be different than the hypothesis we sought out to test when the experiments were conceived, but I am not one to be made slave to a hypothesis. I also am a believer in giving a general description of the methods and major findings. If my introduction is more than 1.5 pages, it is too damned long. And probably boring as fuck.
9) I add all the other shit.
10) This is the 2nd most critical step. I give that paper to anyone that will read it and give me feedback. It is better to get criticism from people you know than people you don’t. Anyone that will read it gets a copy.
11) I submit the shit.
As I have learned, sometimes the paper is well-received. Sometimes not. But, I have also learned that a paper cannot be accepted if you don’t write it and submit it in the first place and an accepted paper feels really, really good.