The most important line in your grant proposal–DIGG version

September 30, 2011

Now’s the time that many of you are crafting an NSF DIGG proposal, a nice chunk of money available to grad students for the purpose, as the acronym implies, of shoring up your dissertation research. I suspect of all the work done by scientists, dissertations are unusually well represented in high-profile journals. One reason is that they are designed in part by a committee of well intentioned professors, and the constant feedback to the student and her advisor promotes a study that is thorough and thoughtful. DIGGs allow a good dissertation to rise to greatness. And nothing puts you on track to success in Academia like a well known dissertation.

So, here’s a piece of advice for you grant writers. First the general rule, then one specific to DIGGs.

Pay special, extra-special, attention to the formatting requirements. They are there for a reason. Program officers and reviewers need that kind of uniformity so they can find and compare proposal content. If they are looking for a heading that says “Timeline”, and that heading ain’t there, you will peeve somebody who is deciding whether you get a big chunk of money.  A grant proposal is no place to freelance.

And when it comes to DIGGs, you had better have a pretty close to verbatim version of the following statement, near the beginning and near the end of the proposal:

“Based on the results from these experiments, an important extension of this dissertation research will be to _________. And that is exactly what we propose next.”

Tip of the hat to NS


And, because it’s not all about grit, productivity, and getting things done.

September 21, 2011

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 »

Why we do science: quantum mechanics remixed

September 18, 2011

These guys give me hope.

Your mission statement: a meaningful life defined

September 18, 2011

We spend a fair bit of time on this blog differentiating between strategy–delineating one’s goals–and tactics–carrying out those goals. Many of us nowadays, myself included, get so wrapped up in finding the perfect suite of technologies and habits (i.e., the optimal tactics) that we lose track of what we are actually trying to do. If we don’t review our life strategies every once in a while, we run the risk of going nowhere, but doing it very efficiently.

I came across an opinion piece by Todd May at the New York Times asking just how we identify a meaningful life. After the requisite nod to, and dismissal of, that happy go lucky man about town, Jean-Paul Sartre, May mentioned a recent book by Susan Wolf,  “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters.”

A meaningful life, she claims, is distinct from a happy life or a morally good one. In her view, “meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” A meaningful life must, in some sense then, feel worthwhile.  The person living the life must be engaged by it.  A life of commitment to causes that are generally defined as worthy — like feeding and clothing the poor or ministering to the ill — but that do not move the person participating in them will lack meaningfulness in this sense. However, for a life to be meaningful, it must also be worthwhile. Engagement in a life of tiddlywinks does not rise to the level of a meaningful life, no matter how gripped one might be by the game.

In the interest of brevity, this appears to boil down to the following equation:

The meaningfulness of an act = likelihood of performing an act * the social utility of the action

(and yes, for those who know me, there were units in an earlier draft, and the equation included the terms “work”, “activation energy”, and “fitness”, but hey, I’m trying to get a few hits from the philosophy blogs around here).

A perhaps more practical approach to the problem of finding meaning is to write your own mission statement–a concise outline of what is important to you. Mission statements are ultimately useful in their ability to clarify one’s own thoughts and focus the mind like a laser beam on the tasks at hand. Next, I present a five step process toward crafting your own mission statement.  Read the rest of this entry »

My new favorite global map

September 18, 2011



Most scientists I know are map-geeks. What’s not to love about a 2-dimensional abstraction that captures gobs of information in an economical way? For those of us who love biogeography–the study of the distribution of life across the planet–how one renders the globe is vital to understanding where and why the diversity is. And the Mercator projection, the view of the world one sees from most North American classrooms, leaves, let us say, a little bit to be desired in that department. In the Mercator, the area of the continents around the equator–where most of the diversity of life can be found, is shrunk relative to poles. The story goes that Mercator, a German, devised a map that made Germany look as big as possible (but, in a karmic backfire, made Russia look even bigger, and let’s not even get started about Greenland).


So enter the The Peirce Quincunial, where the equator is a square. Sheer beauty.

Big tip of the hat to Victoria Johnson at The Awl.

Work happily and productively by cultivating a sense of progress

September 10, 2011

Theresa Amabile from the Harvard Business School–a ready source of good advice on working productively–wrote an insightful  New York Times editorial  that should be useful to grad students and their professor mentors. It’s behind a pay wall, but I summarize the main points after the break. Read the rest of this entry »

Telling a story: from the creator’s of South Park

September 9, 2011


In this video clip, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan, Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park talk about how their writer’s room works. Their two steps are just as valid as you design your talk or outline a grant proposal.

Step 1 is random brainstorming. They use a huge whiteboard to jot down scenes and situations they think would be funny. At this point its all about getting down the ideas. Structure comes later.

When your designing an essay, take a notebook and pen and just scribble down things you think should go in. Don’t censor yourself too much. If it sounds interesting, it probably is. Without compelling bits, you won’t have much.

Step 2 links the ideas together. The classic formula for South Park is three Acts, strung together make a show. How do they recognize which bits go together? It’s definitely *not* Act 1, and then, Act 2, and then Act 3. Act 2 can’t just follow Act 1, it has to be introduced. They way they put it, it’s Act 1 therefore Act 2 but Act 3. That’s when Matt and Trey know they have something interesting.

When you’re presenting a seminar, you don’t want the first thought in their mind “why did they put that slide there?”.  You want, instead, to create a tension. In the seconds before you hit that clicker, create the anticipation of your next slide. Likewise, in the introduction to a paper, the best writers make sure that each paragraph is foreshadowed by the one that came before. For example…

There is increasing evidence that the globe is one really gynnormous turtle. What we think of as mountains are the ridges of the turtles shell. When we see flat plains, we are seeing the smooth plates, arching subtly to the horizon. Valleys are, of course, the sutures between the plates. Our turtle world hypothesis is complete and consistent with known facts as presented by geologists. Astrophysicists, on the other hand, have raised the logical question as to how “Turtle-earth” is suspended in known space.

Here we present the hypothesis, backed up by Hubbell satellite photos, that it is “turtles all the way down”….

Remember its all about…

An academic’s short guide to achieving balance

September 9, 2011

From the website of the amazing artist Andrew Goldsworthy

Over the coming weeks we will be covering a number of overlapping topics, all toward the goal of making graduate school more fun and useful. This week we will focus on time management, next week on how to read the literature, and the week after *that*, a bit on writing, particularly grant writing.

Luckily, as this blog has been around, off and on, for five years, we have some blogposts to mine on the way toward introducing new stuff (and updating the old). So check out these five oldies but goldies.

  1. If we want to achieve balance, we have to articulate what we are balancing. For that, see The Five Uber Skills of Academia .
  2. Every day we find ourselves encountering a long list of things we would like to do. Each has its own timeframe; each its own difficulty and reward. To get some sense of how you can begin to organize those tasks, and immediately feel better about yourself, read Getting Things Done: getting started. 
  3. How do you keep track of all the things you want to do? I am a big fan of The List–one big outline you open at the beginning of the day that remains parked on your desktop until you power down at the end of the day. We’ll have more to say about it over the week.
  4. OK, as we move from strategic (big picture) to tactical (simple tools) let’s tackle one of the biggest hurdles between you and a productive day: email. Here is a simple set of rules that allow you to master email, not the other way around.
  5. Finally, one of the single most encouraging developments in the past decade for academics is the evolution of Second Brain Software. It contains a link to James Fallow’s introduction of software that allows you to achieve a mastery of your reprint collection.  Things have come some way since this post (one of the first on the blog) Fallow’s is still one of the best introductions I know.