You need your advisor…think of the rhinos

January 27, 2007


OK, the next time you’re complaining about your advisor consider this cautionary tale of what happens when you lose your mentor.

The notion of packs of mentor-less grad students roaming the hallways……….shudder.

h/t to David’s Logic +Emotion


QOTD: John Irving

January 26, 2007

John Irving“If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel like you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.”

Is there room in your dissertation for a chapter that is a bit risky? Discuss amongst yourselves.

h/t Kathy at (and I write this advisedly) Screw You!

5 steps to overcome dissertation block–the hive’s perspective

January 26, 2007

typist_reporter_scribe_small.jpgThe dissertation is a big deal in terms of the work involved and just its sheer psychological import. Not surprisingly, most folks working on their dissertation at one point or the other face a wee bit of writer’s block.

Its OK. Its normal.

But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Here is what Metafilter’s hive has to say about it. The upshot? Anne Lamott’s advice is still the best

1) Bird by Bird–write a little bit every day.

2) Shitty first drafts–perfectionism is a killer. Get the ideas down, then polish the logic and language.

along with

3) Use visits to your adivsor as a motivation. Verrry clever.  If you give her regular opportunities to say “How’s the writing goin?” this may focus the mind wonderfully.

4) 24 hour buddies–the dissertation version–in the same way that setting up a runner’s date will get you out expending calories, setting up a regular opportunity to proof other’s work can act the same way. And nothing makes for a tighter cohort of friends than those who slaved to finish together.

5) 45 minutes on, 15 minutes off–on those days when it is really hard, give yourself chunks of time to laze between writing bouts.  Better yet, get in the habit of scheduling full or half day breaks.  Some procrastination can be simple exhaustion.  Writing, after all, is physically demanding work.

Brown Food Web Friday–in praise of litter ants

January 26, 2007



How’re y’all doing this fine Friday? I’m slogging through a cold once thought vanquished. Now seems intent on hanging over me like a stale chain mail party dress. Bleah.

    In today’s BFWF we contemplate one of the great biological systems on earth–the litter ant nest. Litter ants live on the forest floor in small hollow twigs, empty acorns, or even between leaves. The whole colony may consist of only 100 or so ants, just enough to cover the tip of your pinky. This small size allows litter ants to be incredibly abundant: in a tropical rainforest there may be 5-10 species living together in a meter square plot. Yes, I will admit it, litter ants changed my life.

Every scientist has the occasional “aha!” moment. Mine came sitting on my butt on the forest floor at La Selva, cracking twigs with Margaret Byrne, a graduate student at the University of Florida at the time. I was in the middle of a PhD project happily placing bits of seed and bird poop across the forest floor to see what ants arrived, who consumed what, and if they preferred some bits of habitat and climate more than others. I only saw the ants when they emerged from the leaf litter to crawl on my baits, but that was fine. I was getting my data, and every night at the microscope I would empty my vials and see the biodiversity.

Margaret was collecting litter ant colonies for her research and she offered to show me how. Turns out, it wasn’t hard. Read the rest of this entry »

5 ways to minimize Stuff part I: Email

January 25, 2007

stuff.jpgWe’ve spent some time talking about the big goals for a developing academic, developing the “uber-skills” of scholarship, creativity, communication and time management. These four (and the other parts of your life) underlie your strategic vision, your basic roadmap. But while having a map is an essential part of reaching a destination, you still need a detailed set of steps to get there.

One psychological barrier, as outlined by David Allen’s Getting Things Done, is “stuff”. The central idea is that much of our day to day anxiety arises from unresolved, ambiguous list of expectations. Allen defines stuff as

anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.

In other words, only by dealing with “stuff” can you feel on top of things. Furthermore, as you proceed through graduate school you will find, without active preemption of “stuff”, this will be harder and harder to do. This is because you will accumulate projects as a natural result of being an active productive scientist. The insight of GTD is that nothing drives away the desire to tackle hard, creative, and worthwhile tasks like the nagging feeling that you should be doing something else.

Stuff comes in various flavors (and we’ll address many of them) but the kind that is easiest to deal with, and with the least effort (i.e., more “stuff for the buck”) is email. Read the rest of this entry »

5 steps to writing an effective paragraph

January 21, 2007

hemingway.jpgWe have already discussed why writing an effective title is the key to getting your paper read. But the title of a paper is paint and trim on your house. The paragraph is its bricks and mortar. Each paragraph is a self-contained logical argument, crafted to stand on its own (like an abstract, or a letter to the editor of Nature) or to be strung together to form a larger thing of persuasive beauty: a well-written scientific manuscript. All the best writers in science write gorgeous, tight paragraphs. Most of the good science writers I know personally take great pride in the fact that they write well. Furthermore, they are constantly on the lookout for ways to hone their style. Here are some key principles toward making your paragraphs sparkle. Read the rest of this entry »

What worked and what didn’t in GTD (one scientist’s perspective)

January 21, 2007

Life of Brian, Crowd Scene, The goal of time management is to implement a set of tools and practices that let you achieve you’re life goals. That said, we are all different, a mosaic of strengths and weaknesses that makes a “one-size fits all” approach downright loony.

This is why posts like this one from Fumbling towards Geekdom are so valuable. It reviews the productivity tools that worked in  2006 for this academic with a parrot fixation. A short summary: Read the rest of this entry »