Writing At Much Less Than the Speed of Light

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.

13 responses to “Writing At Much Less Than the Speed of Light

  1. Viviane Vincent

    C’est intéressant j’aime votre blog ,Bonne Continuation

  2. 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.


  3. Pingback: The 5 Top Traits of the Worst Advisors | The Professor Is In

  4. Agree with all. I heard one of my proteges say to someone, when I handed back my comments on a draft “OH, you don’t panic when you see all the red. You read it through carefully – then you panic.” I used to have the same reaction when my first couple of papers came back from the reviewers …. read the comments, but try not to panic, put it aside for a couple of days, re-read – then panic if necessary (but usually not necessary).

  5. Agreed. In fact, getting a 1st-authored, peer-reviewed paper as a physiology graduate student is so important that one is not allowed to schedule the dissertation defense in my department until one has the acceptance letter in hand!

  6. Isis the Scientist

    I wish more departments were that way, glfadkt. I think it would save a lot of people a lot of heartache.

  7. You are correct that publishing a first-author paper as a grad student is immensely helpful.

    You are right that a mentor who does not work toward this goal with the student is not doing their duty.

    You are still wrong to applaud this as a necessary criterion for the PhD.

  8. I have three first and two second author papers from my PhD. None of the first author papers came out before I graduated. I had even moved across the country for a post-doc while I was still working on them. Over the next two years, all three were published (in good journals too) and I had another two from my post-doc. I know that I am an anomaly as I know many students who left and never pushed their papers through. But I would not have wanted to just hang out in grad school for an extra 8 months just because departmental politics was holding back my first submission.

  9. We have found that requiring at least 1 accepted first-authored paper prior to graduation has been a blessing. Students (and mentors) are well-aware of the requirement from day-one, so they get their first paper submitted/revised/accepted in a timely manner. (Usually, they have more than one publication by graduation.) This is good for everyone involved, especially because the likelihood of writing & submitting those manuscripts diminishes dramatically once the student moves on to his/her postdoctoral life.

  10. I am facing the troubling case of one of my doctoral students who is convinced that as long as she finishes her PhD it will all be OK. I have been short of forcing her to present at conferences and writing anything other than her chapters seems to be out of the question for her. As someone who is part of selection panels, I am 100% sure she will not be OK with the PhD alone. That is indeed the unfortunate state of affairs in academia at the minute but it is what it is and competition is ruthless. I work at a research-intensive institution in England where recent PhDs only get shortlisted if they have at least two publications, one which must be as first author.

  11. For my doctorate (in France), dissertations are in three-paper format and it was required to have, at minimum, one paper published or in press, one in revise-and-resubmit, and one submitted in order to defend. At the time it felt like a burden, but it was a blessing. I was able to publish so much more in my postdoc because I didn’t have to spend the first 6-8 months trying to get my dissertation papers out. Plus, I got better at paper-writing, and learned to respond to and anticipate reviewer comments, so the postdoc papers are better and moved faster.

    I also think that this format creates a positive incentive to have advisors move their students’ papers along, because the advisor then gets a senior-author paper out of it. Thus, the advisor has a personal stake in helping the trainee produce a good, publishable piece in a timely manner.

  12. “Removing much of the passive voice. ”

    Ah, this canard again! Strunk and White used the passive voice often in their very section on getting rid of the passive voice.

  13. On the polishing process:

    “Commonly, students’ ability to see their errors and technical failings
    increases faster than their ability to correct them. Then the instructor
    faces the problem of discouraged students who believe they are actually
    getting worse through training rather than better….An analogy that may
    help the intermediate student is that of ‘carving a cube into a sphere’.
    Training is the process of chopping off corners. Initially, the corners are
    lage and easy to see–as is progress. Later, each corner cut off reveals
    three new corners, albeit smaller ones. This process is endless, and while
    an advanced student may appear to others of lesser experience to be a
    perfect sphere, the individual is often painfully aware of the many corners
    that still need polishing.”
    –Elmar T. Schmeisser, “The University Dojo” in
    _Martial Arts Teachers on Teaching_, Carol A. Wiley, ed.

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