My insomnia really has the better of me right now. I’ve been up in the middle of the night for 4 out of 7 nights this past week. Part of my sleeplessness comes from having some brewing news that isn’t quite ready to share (but soon), part comes from an injury to my lower back that has me freaking out because I agreed to start training for a marathon with Dr. Rubidium this week, and part comes from indecisiveness over when and how to submit an R01 that I’ve been planning. It’s not quite as simple as “just submit all the grants all the time” right now.
So, I’m using my sleepless free time to do what I seem to be doing best lately – writing and revising papers. The paper I’ve worked on tonight is being written primarily by a graduate student. When it’s finished, it will be a nice thesis chapter for her and a cute senior author publication for me. As I look at the most recent progress on it, I’m really proud of her. She is so darned smart and each revision yields a better product. Still, writing is an iterative process and, if there is one lesson that I’ve learned that I wish I could pass on to the folks that I am mentoring, it’s to learn from this process instead of seeing it as judgment. Every new writer has habits that need to be broken. Removing much of the passive voice. Eliminating the overuse of the phrase “Studies have shown that..”, citing properly, and getting the difference between “sex” and “gender” right. Formatting the paper correctly for submission. Getting these little nuances right makes better papers.
This student has been exceptionally mature in her thinking and understanding of the process, but I still felt the need to offer as I sent the paper back:
When you open this, don’t be discouraged by the red. I really, really like it and like where you’re taking it. At this point, I think that [it's] like a diamond. You’ve done all the major cutting and now we just need to keep polishing to make it sparkle.
I’m so, so excited for this student and can’t help but reflect on how the process of learning to write was different for me. This student’s timing in terms of submitting her first paper is flawless. She has the time and luxury to enjoy and learn from (as much as one can) the process. When I was a graduate student, I didn’t appreciate the importance of papers as the currency of academic productivity. My mentor retired and the lab was closing. Many of my colleagues in engineering went on to industry positions where papers were less important. I was more eager to move on to my next training experience, but didn’t understand that people at my next venture would see me as a risky and unproven prospect. I’ll never forget an interaction where a mentor of mine told me that I was not productive. I was stunned and replied “But, I’ve done X, Y, and Z.” “Yes,” he answered. “But you can’t prove it and your peers haven’t reviewed and accepted it.”
I learned that I would not be competitive for fellowship applications without showing some productivity and that made getting a paper from my thesis published absolutely critical. The process was neither fun, nor especially informative. I felt the need to move quickly and didn’t give myself the liberty of really learning from the process. I didn’t realize how many revisions my first paper would (and should) go through to be something of publishable quality. From that point, I felt so much pressure to catch up that it gave me anxiety write, let alone having to wait a few days or a week to get a draft back. I’ve reached a point that people don’t question my productivity anymore, but I still have that nagging feeling in my head of being a risky venture or an unproven prospect. That can be hard to shake.
I am so thankful to the mentor who initially pointed out that, for as great as I thought I was, people around me saw me as non-productive. It was hard to hear, and many of our interactions ended with tears, but it gave me the push that I needed to right my ship before it sank. There seems to be a critical period where you can’t really recover from the label of “non-productive” and I was, luckily, saved from it by some painfully honest advice. I am now watching the careers of a couple of young people around me capsize and fall to the bottom of the ocean because people were too nice. It’s painful, but it was preventable. No one made it exceptionally clear to these folks that not publishing *now* was going to permanently label them and hurt their chances for future success.
It’s funny to me to look back at the things that I have written on my blog over the years, When I started writing I was of the belief that, if a student’s thesis was done and they had a viable job prospect, good ’nuff. Let them graduate. My thinking has completely changed since then. It is the most profound of disservices to let a student graduate without a first author publication. They may be eager to graduate and move on, but it’s like putting them in a boat with no sails and no paddles.