My goal as a reviewer: pass the Poulin test

As a graduate student, I attended my first infectious disease-themed meeting shortly after receiving the reviews on my first thesis chapter. I was excited about the work, and had sent it to Ecology Letters, which reviewed it but rejected it. I talked about the same study at that meeting. It was a small meeting, and one of the great things about the meeting was getting to interact with senior people in the field. This included Robert Poulin, someone whose work I really admired. I was really excited to get to talk to him! During our conversation, he asked about the status of the work I’d presented at the meeting. I said that it had just been rejected by Ecology Letters and then was about to launch into a vent about the reviewers. As soon as I said (in what I’m sure was an exasperated tone), “One of the reviewers”, he stopped me and said “I was one of the reviewers.” I will be eternally grateful for that.

That moment has stood with me throughout my career. In addition to preventing me from embarrassing myself (more!) in front of him, it taught me a really important lesson about peer review. We complain about Reviewer 2 and shake our fist at that mythical beast, but there’s a decent chance that Reviewer 2 is someone who carefully reviewed the manuscript and thought something was problematic. Or maybe it’s that, with a bit of distance from the work, Reviewer 2 thought the work wasn’t as novel as I did as an author, making rejection from a journal like Ecology Letters completely reasonable.

This interaction taught me an important lesson about how easy it is to think of an anonymous reviewer as an adversary, when there’s a good chance they’re a scientist whose work I admire and whose feedback I would value.

There’s an idea that anonymity leads to animosity. I think that’s more often discussed in terms of the person making the comments – for example, as a reason for the toxic nature of the comments on websites. But it also applies in the other direction – in an anonymous interaction, it can be easy to assume the person writing the comment is unreasonable (unless they think our work is brilliant – then clearly they are totally reasonable!) I think the way the scientific community discusses reviews (including on twitter) probably doesn’t help.

Personally, when I receive reviews, I have to work to put myself in the mindset that these reviews can help my paper, even if they’re negative. There are still occasions where my first reaction is something like “How is it possible for reviewers to be so clueless?!?!” but then, after coming back to the reviews a few weeks later, I realize that the reviewers were pointing out something that we didn’t explain very well or a part of the literature we really should have discussed more or an alternate explanation we hadn’t fully considered.

As I’ve blogged about before, I don’t sign most of my reviews. But I still write them with that interaction I had with Poulin in mind. My goal is to write reviews where, if I ended up in that same situation at a meeting, I would be okay with identifying myself as the reviewer, even in cases where my review was a critical one. In other words, I want to pass what I’ve come to think of as the Poulin test.

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Guest Post: What not to say to a pregnant colleague

Today, we have a bit of a hybrid post. It starts with a guest post from someone who wishes to remain anonymous about things colleagues have said to her during her pregnancy. Her post definitely resonated with me – I thought of writing a similar post when I was pregnant with my third child, because I was so annoyed by some of the comments I received at work. After the guest post, I’ve added some thoughts of mine, as well as some questions that I’d love reader opinions on. My hope is that this post will encourage people to think more carefully about what they say to pregnant colleagues and create a space where people can talk about their preferences.

The guest post:

I am a postdoc who also happens to be pregnant. Around the sixth month of my pregnancy something happened. I must have become large enough that it was obvious to everyone in the department that I was indeed, pregnant. Suddenly, I began receiving comments about my body, my impending delivery, and what my life would look like after having a baby. (This is my second child; I have no delusions as to what postpartum life is like).

Here are a few of the comments I received over the span of two weeks:

My body:

“Wow, you’ve really let yourself go”.

“If a baby weighs 8 lbs then where do the other 25 lbs come from?”

Misconceptions about maternity leave:

“It will be so nice for you to have a break while you’re on maternity leave”.

“Think of all the writing you’ll get done while the baby is sleeping!”

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More on what colleges must do to promote mental health for graduate students

Recently, a piece I wrote with my colleagues Carly Thanhouser and Daniel Eisenberg appeared at The Conversation. The piece focuses on things that can be done to promote graduate student mental health. Our aim was to move beyond the typical self-help things (get enough sleep, exercise, etc.) – those are important, but exercise can only go so far if there are systemic issues contributing to poor mental health.

I encourage you to read the full piece, but I also wanted to follow up on a few things here (tw: discussion of suicide below).

  1. We need to focus on mentoring, too!

Perhaps most notably, during the process of editing the piece from our original submission to what got published, a section focused on what graduate mentors can do to promote mental health got cut. On the one hand, I wish it was in there because a mentor’s advising style can significantly influence graduate student mental health, and there are things mentors can do to promote student mental health. On the other hand, it’s such an important topic that it probably deserves its own piece. I’m planning on writing that (and am open to suggestions about where to submit/publish it!)

  1. It’s good to think about what individual students can do, but we need to also address systemic barriers to mental health

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Results of poll on preferred number of times to teach a course

Last winter, I did a poll asking about preferences related to the number of times people prefer to teach a particular course. Embarrassingly, I never got around to writing up the results post, even though I think the results were interesting! So, in the spirit of better-late-than-never, here are the results!

tl;dr: Most people prefer to teach the same course over and over and over again. Those preferences don’t seem to change much over a career, but, if they do, they are more likely to move in the direction of preferring to teach a particular course fewer times. Faculty in teaching-intensive positions reported having less control over what they teach and were less likely to say they are happy with their teaching assignments in the past three years (as compared to faculty not in teaching intensive positions); a key driver of that is department teaching needs.

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Should the advisor leave the room for part of a student’s committee meeting?

Scrolling through twitter a couple of weekends ago, I saw this tweet:

At first, I misread it and thought it was indicating that the student had been sent out of the room (which is the norm for committees I’ve been on). It took me a second to realize that it was the advisor who had gone out of the room so that the student could have a discussion with their committee without the advisor present. I suspect my misreading wasn’t just a product of quickly scrolling through twitter on the weekend—rather, I think part of the reason why I misread it was because it was such a shift from how things are normally done in departments I’ve been in.*

After realizing what it said, though, I thought it was an interesting idea. I can think of cases where it might have helped to have a discussion without the advisor there to get a better sense of the student’s opinion on things, such as when they would prefer to defend or how excited they are about project 1 vs. project 2 or how they feel about traveling to remote location X to collect samples. And, in the rarer cases where there were major problems, it might have led to those becoming apparent to the committee sooner, which hopefully would lead to the student getting support sooner.

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Do you know a department/program/university/institute/etc. that is doing something worth emulating regarding graduate student mental health?

There is general agreement that too many graduate students experience poor mental health and that more needs to be done to address this problem. A recent well-controlled study found graduate students were at 2.4x greater risk of common mental health disorders. That number won’t surprise anyone in academia—it doesn’t take much time in academia to realize that poor mental health is unfortunately common.

There is still much work to be done to better understand the problem and the factors that contribute to it. But there is also a need to make changes that might help improve graduate student mental health. To list some of the specific things I’ve been thinking about:

  • developing a system for checking in on students who are at stages known to be stressful (e.g., qualifying exams, defending);
  • having a department point person who helps connect graduate students with mental health resources; and
  • how to ensure better access to mental health care and increased normalization of seeking mental health care.

There are also issues related more broadly to the culture in which graduate students carry out their research, including a need to fight against a culture of overwork and to reduce sexual harassment. (1 in 5 targets of sexual harassment will be diagnosed with a depressive disorder, and there is a positive correlation between the amount of sexual harassment a woman experiences and the degree to which she reports depression, stress, and anxiety.)

As I think about things that could be done to better promote and support graduate student, my hope is that there are already departments, programs, universities, institutes, societies, etc. that are already doing good things in this area that others could emulate. It could be something big—one person who responded when I asked about this on twitter talked about a rapid response coordinated care team that works with grad students in crisis and grad chairs—or it could be small:

(Bonus: the dogs are listed as staff on the Emory CAPS website!)

Please let us know in the comments about good things people, departments, institutions, etc. are doing related to graduate student mental health! 

Guest Post: iPads and digital data collection in the field

From Meghan: This is a guest blog post by ecologists Isla Myers-Smith and Gergana Daskalova from the University of Edinburgh. I loved their comment on my post on our new lab notebook backup system and asked them if they could turn it into a guest post. I was very happy that they agreed! Isla and Gergana are off to the Arctic this summer with the Team Shrub field crew for another year of hopefully successful digital data collection. To find out more about their research check out the Team Shrub website and blog (

Guest post:

Two things have really changed my academic life over the past five years: the first is embracing GitHub for version control of code, data, manuscripts and my research group’s individual and combined science, and the other is switching over to digital data collection. For ecologists who haven’t made the switch from paper field books to iPads and digital data collection it is not as scary as you might think!!!

Caption: Collecting plant phenology data – the recorder sitting in the back with an iPad! (photo credit: Jeff Kerby)

The benefits of going digital

Digital data collection can be more rigorous with error checking as data are collected to prevent mistakes. Data can be better backed up. And finally, it forces us to put thought into the structure of data before we collect it (significant digits, continuous or categorical data, are the data unrestricted or constrained to a particular range or particular set of values, etc.), which helps down the road when it comes time for analysis. Digital data collection has saved days, if not months, of data entry each year for my team and has allowed us to go from ecological monitoring in the field to analysis of results within hours instead of days. Our work flows are streamlined and our iPads are waterproof, so data collection can occur under any conditions – and we work in the Arctic, so we experience it all from wet to dry, hot to cold, rain, snow, you name it.

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Downsides of writing harder: musings on the need to pace myself

When I was thinking about whether to try to be more social about how I write, I thought about how I can run harder and further and faster and without it seeming so hard if I run with a friend. That was one of the things that led me to start a writing accountability group with some friends and to set up a write-on-site session once a week, as I described in Monday’s blog post. I think these changes have led me to write more. That’s a good thing, right?

In the weeks since adopting these new approaches, I’ve started to wonder about possible downsides. To go back to my running analogy: I can run further and faster and harder with a friend – but might end up getting hurt in the process if I push myself too much. Last week, I ran with a friend and was so distracted by our conversation that I didn’t notice that I had forgotten to put on a brace that I’m supposed to wear while I run. My back noticed, though, and that night it let me know that I had overdone it. I had to take a few days off from running afterwards to recover.

Clearly pushing myself harder while running can backfire – could the same be true of writing?

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Social aspects of writing

Intro: this is the second of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. The first post focused on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing. This post focuses on social aspects of writing.


Writing is inherently social – at a minimum, your article is read by reviewers and, of course, we write hoping that colleagues will read and understand (and maybe even like!) our article once it comes out. But the process of actually doing the writing can sometimes feel very isolated. Certainly my general approach is to hole up in my office and try to crank out some text. I get feedback from coauthors, but that’s done at a distance and with little interaction outside Word.

So, I was interested to see that Helen Sword has social habits as one of the four components of a strong writing practice. She devotes a chapter specifically to writing among others, talking about writing groups, write-on-site boot camps and retreats, and online writing forums. Each chapter of Sword’s book ends with a “Things to Try” section; for the chapter on writing among others, it includes “start a writing group” and “retreat in the company of others” as two of the four suggestions.

Right after reading that section of Sword’s book, I read a Monday Motivator email from NCFDD (written by Kerry Ann Rockquemore) that also emphasized the social aspects of writing. That email also focused on social aspects of writing, including traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups, write-on-site groups, and boot camps.

Reading those back-to-back made me realize that I severely lacked social components in my writing. I have gotten very used to setting my own goals and not sharing them with anyone else, and to holing up in my office to write. But I also don’t feel like writing is generally a problem for me, so wasn’t sure if I really needed to address the lack of social habits. If there isn’t a problem, why try to fix it?

But then, on a solo morning run, I thought about how much further and faster and more enjoyably I can run on the days where I go with a friend. And I thought about how, when I first got into distance running, I would tell some friends and family members about my race plans, which made me more committed to sticking with my training runs. And I’m much less likely to skip a run if I am meeting a running buddy, which explains why I ended up running in a downpour recently. Could these same social habits help with writing?

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Rough drafts, getting words on the page, and the pain – and pleasure – of writing

Intro: this is the first of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books I’ve read recently that relate to writing: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. (And, yes, one of those is not like the other.) This post focuses on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing.

The post:

Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.

     – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Unfortunately, a universal experience of writing is that getting started can be hard. Rocket knows this:

The next day, Rocket returned to his classroom. It was time to begin. He looked down at the blank page and the blank page looked up at him. But no story would come.

From Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story

This is something that all writers struggle with, but that can be especially problematic for new writers. The task can seem so big and daunting – and there’s a decent chance that you are feeling like an imposter who is about to be exposed.

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