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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My lab’s new lab notebook backup system. Part 2: The system

In yesterday’s post, I talked about my motivations for seeking a new system for backing up lab notebooks and data sheets. Here, I describe the system we’re now using for backing up lab notebooks, data sheets, etc. I think it’s working well. At the end, I ask for suggestions of systems that work for backing up files on lab members’ laptops, which I think we could do a better job of.

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My lab’s new lab notebook backup system. Part 1: The backstory

Back when I was an undergrad, the fire alarm went off while I was working in the lab. As people gathered outside the building, it became clear that it wasn’t a drill – I don’t recall specifics, but I think it was actually an issue in a neighboring building that caused someone in our building to pull the fire alarm. In the end, it wasn’t a big deal (even for the neighboring building!) But while people were standing around outside, the conversation turned to how much data would be lost if there was a full-on fire. It was clear that lots of people did not have complete backups of their lab notebooks and other data files.

When I was telling about this experience to a friend, Brooks Kuykendall, he told me of his father Bill’s related horror story. In the fall of 1963, Bill had completed his PhD research at Johns Hopkins in Archaeology, and started teaching at Erskine College in rural South Carolina. In the summer and early fall of 1964, after his first year of teaching, he had managed to finish writing his dissertation. In early October, he had assembled the six copies (and these were the days of carbon copies) ready to be submitted to his committee. They were stacked on the floor of his office, needing only to be packed off to go in the mail.

And then that night Bill heard the sirens. Rushing to his office, he found that the building was on fire. The firemen had cordoned it off, but somehow two students—of whom he forever after spoke with gratitude—managed to get in through the window of his ground-floor office, recovering only 1) a single rough draft for the whole text, and 2) a box that had the originals for all of the illustrations. The copies on the floor—and virtually everything else in the office—were ruined by the water.

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Journals have a responsibility to ensure ethical oversight of mental health research (and we do not currently have evidence that grad students are 6x as likely as the general population to have depression and anxiety)

I care deeply about mental health in academia (and have blogged about it in the past, including here and here and here). Given that, I was really interested when a recent paper by Evans et al. came out on graduate student mental health. However, when I read it, two things stood out to me: it didn’t mention IRB approval, and the most striking conclusion – that graduate students experience anxiety and depression at 6x the rate of the general population – is not supported by the study. The key messages of this blog post are:

  1. the authors did have IRB approval to do this work, but Nature Biotechnology did not know that when they published the study. The editor of Nature Biotechnology claims that, since they published this in their Career & Recruitment section, it is not a research article and therefore didn’t require peer review or questions about IRB. This is problematic, as the study is clearly written and presented as presenting new findings, and journals have a responsibility to ensure ethical oversight of work they publish.
  2. While the Evans et al. paper claims “Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” that claim is not supported by their study. Their survey was not a representative sample of the graduate student body (it was a voluntary survey, distributed via social media and email), but they compare it to a representative survey of the general population to get the 6x statistic.

Again, I want to be clear: the authors did have IRB approval for the work, but I only know that because I wrote the authors directly (after being dissatisfied with the responsiveness at Nature Biotechnology), and Nature Biotechnology did not know they had IRB approval when they published the study. In addition, this study does not provide evidence that grad students are six times as likely as the general population to experience depression and anxiety.

Graduate student mental health is really important, so we need to get as accurate a picture as we can of the current situation regarding graduate student mental health. As discussed below, a study (by Levecque et al.) with a more carefully controlled comparison group found a 2.4 increase in risk in graduate students compared to the highly educated general population. This is definitely something that is still a problem and that still needs to be addressed, but it’s not a 6 times greater risk.

To expand on these points more:

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When writing, tell us your biological results!

Quick quiz! Let’s imagine you are reading the results section of a manuscript. Which of these is the most useful/interesting/compelling/informative?:

  1. Figure 2 shows the relationship between infection and lifespan.
  2. Our experiment on the relationship between infection and lifespan found unambiguous results (Figure 2).
  3. Including infection treatment as a predictor improved model fit for lifespan (stats, Figure 2).
  4. Infected hosts lived, on average, half as long as uninfected hosts (20 days vs. 40 days; stats, Figure 2).

I think we’d mostly agree that option 4 is the most informative and interesting by a long shot. It focuses on the biological results, which, as ecologists, are usually our primary interest – presumably you did the experiment because you wanted to know whether and how infection impacted reproduction, not because you just really like making figures or doing stats!

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Do your figures tell your story?

When I review papers, I often read the introduction and methods, and then skip to the figures to see what I take away from them before reading the results. This can also be done the opposite way: read the results and imagine what they would look like in figure-form, then go look at the figures. I find this really useful when reviewing for making me get out of the passive reading of a manuscript and for encouraging me to think critically about the results. Sometimes, there’s a great match. Sometimes there isn’t and I realize I misunderstood something (which sometimes is just me messing up, but sometimes suggests something that is unclear in the paper). And sometimes I can’t figure out the reason for the discrepancy, which ends up being something I bring up in my review.

I was originally thinking about this as a tip for reviewing – as I said, it helps me think more deeply and critically about a paper. But, over time, I’ve realized it relates to a bigger issue: the accessibility of a paper. If you have a figure that clearly summarizes your results, your paper will be much more accessible to everyone from specialists in your area (the people who review your manuscript!) to non-specialists (including people who serve on search committees and award committees) and perhaps even to the general public.

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#Readinghour: My plan to read more in 2018

A common theme that comes up when talking with other scientists and academics is that we wish we had more time to read. I’ve been trying to figure out how to do a better job of reading for years, and spent 2015 tracking my reading using #365papers. The goal of that was to read a paper every day – I wasn’t planning on reading work papers on weekends, but I thought there would be enough work days where I read more than one paper that it would offset it. I was wrong. I didn’t get anywhere near 365 (I got to 181), but it still motivated me to read more than I would have – at least, until teaching Intro Bio completely took over.

Having just completed another semester of teaching Intro Bio (and having it take over), I was thinking again about how to reprioritize reading. I decided that I would prefer to have a time goal (30 minutes per day) rather than a paper goal, since I felt like having a paper goal was distorting my reading habits in a way that wasn’t useful.

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Concerned about the US tax bill? Here’s what to do.

Last week, the United States Senate passed a tax bill that would have major implications for universities. This comes on the heels of a bill that passed the US House of Representatives, which contained provisions that would make it much more costly to be a student. To quote from a piece by the University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Michael V. Drake,

The House bill would repeal current tax incentives, including the Student Loan Interest Deduction (which in 2014 helped 12 million taxpayers), the tax-exempt status of tuition waivers for graduate students serving as teaching and research assistants (which helped close to 145,000 people in 2011-12), and the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses.

 

This means interest on student loans would be treated just like credit card interest — neither would be deductible, at a time when many are struggling to repay their student loans. Graduate students who work their way through school by serving as research or teaching assistants receive tuition waivers that would be taxed. And students and parents from families with moderate incomes will no longer be able to deduct up to $4,000 in qualified higher education expenses from their taxable income.

The House bill would also repeal or devalue key credits that help low- and middle-income students, including the Lifetime Learning Credit, the Hope Scholarship Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The lower-income students who use these credits are those who can least afford to pay more for their educations.

The main hope at this point comes from the House and Senate having passed very different bills. The House bill contains the provision that would mean tuition waivers are no longer tax-exempt. The Senate bill does not contain this provision.

We’ve now reached the stage where the House and Senate bills have be reconciled — that is, where legislators and their staffers need to work out the differences between the two bills (which, as I said above, are pretty different). Universities are working hard to make sure that the final legislation does not include the House version of the grad student tuition waiver (or lack thereof).

One piece of information that came to light yesterday about a mistake in how the Senate bill taxes corporations means that it is more likely that the reconciled bill will also get rid of the grad student tuition waiver, which is not good news for graduate students or universities. The reason for this is that legislators will want to fix that mistake to add back corporate tax deductions, which will increase the cost of the bill. They’re already at the $1.5 trillion max, so they need to do other things to increase revenue. Like tax grad students. In other words:

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the mistake also means the Senate is likely to have to vote again on the bill. But I think focus yesterday was on how ridiculous it is that Republicans passed legislation with such a major mistake in it (which is true), without also focusing on the implications of this for the grad student tax.

I asked people who know a lot about this what someone like me or the students I know who are concerned about this can do. There was universal agreement that it is really important for students and others who care about this to contact their Representatives and Senators to let them know how they feel. The National Humanities Alliance has a tool that will make this easier for you. You can use the standardized language they provide, or you can personalize things to your situation. I always get nervous when calling my policymakers (even though I usually end up just leaving a message rather than speaking to an actual person and, when I have spoken to a person, they’ve always been very polite). So, I write out what I want to say ahead of time.

One thing to consider for students: if you live somewhere like Ann Arbor where our representative (Debbie Dingell) already shares our concerns with the bills but are still registered to vote in another area (say, the place you grew up) and the person in that area does not share your concerns about the bill, it might be more effective to contact the person who does not currently share your concerns. And, if the debate continues through the holiday break, you can try to visit your Representative and Senators at their district offices!

Another question that comes up is whether to contact the local office number or the DC office. I’ve been told by some people that it’s better to call the DC office (and the tool I linked to above will help you figure out those numbers). But if you can’t get through there, you can try the local offices. If you are unsure of who your representative is, you can click here. (By the way, other folks say it doesn’t matter which office you call. Everyone agrees that the most important thing is that you call somewhere, with where you call being less important!)

So, I like Ethan White’s strategy:

You can change “review big chunk of PR” to “count one sample” or “write two paragraphs” or “make two slides” or whatever works for you. But, if you’re concerned about the potential changes to the tax code, make sure you carry out steps 2, 4, and 6!
December 8th Updates:
  1. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has more information on the proposed tax overhaul, suggestions for things you might want to highlight when talking to legislators, and information on how to take action.
  2. The National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) is organizing a #DontTaxEducation campaign. Their message “Don’t let Congress deliver a disproportionate and unprecedented hit on higher education. Ask lawmakers to accept the Senate position on these provisions.” Their page will help you contact your legislators.

Poll: What’s your preferred teaching arrangement?

Recently, there was a twitter discussion about whether to compress all teaching into one semester. I suspect this discussion is most relevant to folks at research-oriented institutions, since high teaching loads at teaching-oriented institutions often make it impossible to combine all teaching into one semester. Thinking of tenure track faculty at US & Canadian research-oriented institutions, I know several folks who prefer to do all their teaching in one semester. I do all my teaching in one semester right now, but would prefer that it not be arranged that way. So, I’m curious about how much variation there is in preferences, in actual practices, and in reasons for preferences. I could get all fancy and do this as a google form that would allow for cross-tabs, but I’m not sure I’ll have time to do the analyses. So, here’s the quick-and-dirty approach:

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Imposter syndrome and cognitive distortions: some thoughts and poorly drawn cartoons

I’ve been thinking a lot about imposter syndrome lately – both because of feeling impostery myself, and because of seeing others who are feeling impostery. I find it helpful to realize how common it is for people to feel like imposters – sometimes I think that pretty much everyone is using the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy. But it’s also disheartening when I realize that people who I think are fantastic scientists, teachers, and/or communicators also feel like frauds.

There are three particular flavors of imposter syndrome that I’ve particularly been thinking about. I wanted to write a post on them but surprisingly (to me, at least) I could only picture them in cartoon form. I suspect part of the reason for that is the influence of this really great cartoon on filtering out the positive and focusing on the negative. So, here are three poorly drawn cartoons on the topic. I feel a little silly sharing them (yes, of course I’m feeling impostery about a post on imposter syndrome!), but here goes:

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