What is the likelihood you will successfully complete graduate school?

September 21, 2011

Not Dan Janzen.

What are good predictors of success and how do we use them to reach our life goals? One of the best pieces of advice I have received for success in academia came from Ecologist Extraordinaire, Dan Janzen. “Always be finishing something”.

So here’s the deal. An elite prep school and a charter school in New York both confronted the same problem. Students with every economic advantage and/or that were intellectually gifted would be admitted to elite colleges upon graduation but quit before they completed their college degree.

In a fascinating article in the New York Times magazine, Paul Tough reviews how both schools are turning to the work of U. Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth.

People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to acheive that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this aquality, and she chose the word “grit.

Duckworth’s simple 12 question “grit” score has exceeded other, more complex tests, in predicting success. For example, West Point, the U.S. Army’s elite office training school, pitted their test against the Grit Scale. The simple Grit Test was better at predicting who will finish the arduous “Beast Barracks” that begins a students time at West Point.

Grit, apparently, is it.

Dan Janzen has grit.

Importantly, these educators believe, grit can be taught. And they are adjusting their curriculum to highlight examples of grit in history, literature, and civics. Moreover, they are monitoring student progress with a “character report card” that assigns grades in personality traits like zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. You can imagine how many of those traits would be good ones to cultivate.

So take the Grit test. And for the more senior readers of this blog, post your score if you dare.

I scored a very respectable 4.1.  I suspect anybody scoring a perfect “5” would be an absolute joy to share an office with.

Download the grit test here.

See also:

Will you earn your Ph. D.?


Ask GTDA: using subject lines as the whole email

September 18, 2011

One more question: Since we were talking in class about minimizing the emails that you force other people to read, what are your thoughts on sending an email that simply says “Thanks” when someone responds to a request you sent them?  It seems rude to not acknowledge their response, but it does force them to open/delete another email…

Good question. You have three options when you receive a useful email. Read the rest of this entry »


Keep your writing on schedule

December 3, 2007

Research as a second language has a nice review of the concisely titled How to write a lot.

The money quotes:

Its basic argument is that if you write on a schedule, rather than according to whim, you will be more productive and happier as an academic writer.

and

Writing projects (even whole writing careers) too often go off the rails when writers abandon their schedule and start waiting for inspiration. Or they never get started because they never consider the question of exactly when they will put all their great ideas into writing.

and, the de-mystifying

Silvia takes great pains to make academic writing seem like an ordinary, non-existential activity. “Academic writers,” for example, “cannot get writer’s block”.

This is wonderfully true. Granted, there are days when you are “on fire” and days when the mind is sludge, the hands cramp, and the heebie jeebies multiply.  On the former days you compose the Introduction and Discussion–easily the most literary parts of a scientific paper. On the latter days, work on your Materials and Methods, draft a figure, even type in your references.

Just write…every….day.  The currency of academia is still publications. And you want to leave grad school with pocket full of cash…


Bunch your obligations-earn yourself a “Big Idea Day”

October 19, 2007

OklahomaSunsetWe are big here on the notion that there are some activities, like reading and writing, you want to do every day. This kind of repeated attention builds good habits, allows you to get big projects done by breaking them down into little chunks, and keeps those projects in the forebrain, where you can cogitate about them.

But there is a case to be made that certain more mind-numbing activities should be allowed to accrue until you have a day’s worth of emails to return, forms to fill out, and papers to grade. This is the argument made by Cal Newport in a nifty discussion of “best practices” by professors and graduate students.

The gem here is the notion of carving out one day a week (or one more likely, one morning or afternoon) for “Administrative Nonsense Day“. This can be anything from doing your monthly bills to updating your web pages. The point is you want to maximize your creative time, uninterrupted by the (oft seductive) siren call of the piddly stuff. If you know that stuff will get done soon, it’s off your radar screen and allows you to concentrate on the stuff that matters long-term.

This leads to the doppleganger of “Administrative Nonsense Day” your “Big Idea Day” (sound of harp glissandos and angels singing). This is the day that you don’t answer your phone, hide at home and give yourself the luxury of a 15 hours of reading and sketching out the next paper, grant, or project. Nothing replaces large chunks of time to think. Nothing. You deserve them.

There is one more tactic that you may want to consider if you are one of the many grad students paying your way by being a Teaching Assistant. Say you are required to teach two (or, three) lab sections a week. Try to schedule them all on the same day. That’s right, the 9:00-12:00, the 1:00-4:00, and the 6:00-9:00 night lab. There is a good chance you will teach better (and be damned relaxed by the night lab) if you focus all your attentions on a subject in one day. If you maintain your proper balance of caffeine, water, Gatorade, and Cliff Bars, you will sail through.

Having done this myself at the ole UofA, the bonus comes with that gorgeous feeling of walking out into the cool desert air at 9:30PM, knowing that you have Big Idea Day waiting for you tomorrow and no teaching for six whole days.

Sweet.


Five sensible steps to increase your productivity

September 13, 2007

Steven Covey’s Four QuadratsI’ve got a date with a tropical rain forest for the next 12 days or so, so posting will be light. What follows is my basic system for deciding what to do, day by day. It is accrued, accreted, and amalgamated from GTD, 7 Habits, and lots of trial and error.

The basic idea: combine strategic planning with a simple rule that guarantees you do stuff daily that promotes your long-term academic fitness. Its simple and professor-proof. Here’s the gist:

Read the rest of this entry »


Eight reality checks for new grad students

September 1, 2007

GSMGraduate school is not your undergraduate education on steroids. It is a transformative journey in which you spend most of your waking moments training yourself to think and act like a scientist. Along the way you have many mentors and guides, not least of which are your fellow graduate students, the vast literature, and fussy, know-it-all blogs.

But your advisor is undoubtedly the partner most responsible to help guide your way, protect you from egregious political crap, steer you from some mistakes (you will find ways to make enough the way it is) and basically give you the time and space to transform yourself. The advisor’s role is complex and may best be described as your academic parent.

This realization is hard for some, particularly those who just spent some pretty harrowing years discovering both the joys of puberty and that their parents were batshit crazy. But just as every set of parents is different, advisors come in every stripe. The problem is, it is often not clear at the outset what you are getting yourself into. The more considerate, literate, (and, by definition, not batshit crazy) professors go out of their way to lay out their expectations early on. These vary, obviously, but the most basic advice is timeless.

Toward exploring these issues, I present below just such a “Manifesto of Expectations” (repeat to yourself, “It’s all about M.E.”). The author is a colleague who wishes to remain anonymous. I will respect his wishes, save to say that his short-lived career as a left tackle for the Golden Buffaloes was plagued by scandal, not all of which was his responsibility. What follows is some pretty frank (and dead-on) advice. It is lightly edited (MK: and annotated) toward removing the author’s frequent and rather strained metaphors to offensive line play. Read the rest of this entry »


5 essentials for your grad school survival kit

August 23, 2007

Calvin CoolidgeWelcome back all. I hope your past few months were productive and restful. I had a blast.

When I was thinking about easing back into the blogging thing, I thought it good to return to first principles. And what could be more first principlish than a set of fives–the first five things a grad student should add to her psycho-social-survival kit as she walks through those ivy-covered doors. So here goes… Read the rest of this entry »


5 steps to building your scientific muscle

February 27, 2007

One of Monet's bridges

One of the basic variables of behavioral ecology is the GUT (Giving Up Time)–the amount of time an organism spends at one activity before quitting to do something else. The optimal solution to calculating an organism’s GUT is simple in principle: you quit one task when the opportunity costs–the costs of ignoring all the other stuff you could be doing–exceed the benefits of what you’re doing now.

That rodents are able to do these calculations with ease is a subject of much resentment among the scientists that study them.

But when do you stick with a project for the long haul? And what can you expect for all the effort? How do you avoid being an active participant in, gulp! an exercise in futility?

One answer is staked out in a recent article in the NYT summarizing the research of Andre Ericsson and colleagues. These are psychologists who study the correlates of expert performance. In other words, what does it take to get really, really, good at something? As their work is summarized in a 918 page tome, and I’m a wee bit behind in my reading the way it is, I will summarize the summary.

…the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice….Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

and…

“I think the most general claim here,” Ericsson says of his work, “is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.” This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn’t spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.

So before we get into a knicker-twist over genes versus the environment, the message of this work seems to be that if you want to get really good at something, you have to practice, practice, practice.

But genius = good genes x workaholism.

To me, the more interesting issue relevant to this blog is the question: What sort of deliberate practice, focusing on technique and not outcome, would make one a good scientist?

An artist may paint the same bridge over and over, a dancer may practice her Tai Chi, a guitarist will work on progressions until their spinal. But what should a young scientist do over and over, focusing on the skill and not the outcome? Sure, each profession has a skill set (for me, its fixing tiny ants on tiny triangles of paper attached to stainless steel pins, so as not to immerse said ant in a sarcophagus of Elmer’s Glue)

Carebara reina, a damn tiny ant

But what intellectual practice makes you a better scientist? Here are my fives for today: Read the rest of this entry »


Does GTD foster OCD?

February 17, 2007

Holy crap. It’s a useful book people.

I have visions of the “Church of Allen” sometime in the not so distant future, complete with special digital watches that incessantly blink your Mastery Number.

Reach number 100? Time for the fiery carousel.


5 steps to capturing and storing your ideas

February 4, 2007

5 parts to an academics system for capturing and storing ideas

An an academic, you need a system to effectively capture and curate your ideas. Such systems are infinitely flexible–part of the fun is playing around with different components until you find a set that fits you. That said, I suspect that the following components are pretty much universal in any such system:

you need a means of capturing an idea anywhere,

you need centralized, temporary storage,

you need an arena for right-brain and left-brain play,

you need long-term storage.

We’ll spend time over the next couple of weeks examining each of these in more detail; consider this the opening chapter.

OK, here’s my system in, of course, 5 parts: Read the rest of this entry »


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