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


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.?

Honestly, it’s not me, it’s you

September 2, 2011

In the “trying a little too hard to become a citation classic” category of title-crafting, it’s hard to surpass Martin Schwartz’s “The importance of stupidity in scientific research“. Regardless, this is a gripping short essay for the grad student feeling just a wee bit overwhelmed. Some key points:

I’d like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research.

Yes, very, very, very, hard indeed with the occasional redeeming bits of dizzying fun, yawping pride, and profound satisfaction.

…we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about ‘relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our ‘absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown.

All good points. We must humbly seek out the great unknown, and be prepared to feel a mite confused for years on end.  However just as I would eschew phrases like “comfortably numb” and “passively agressive”, “productively stupid” should at most be a state of mind but not an item from the mission statement of your CV.

But the capper is the best rationalization for the hazing that grad students go through at the hands of the inquisitorial boards we ominously call “your committee”…

Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, ‘I don’t know’. The point of the exam isn’t to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it’s the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student’s weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

Yes, we reduce you to a mass of quivering jelly because we care…too much.

Definitely worth a read.

The anxiety of influence

September 25, 2008

In all creative endeavors there is a phenomenon called the anxiety of influence–the angst arising from the suspicion that your ideas are supposed to be your own, but that they are in fact related to, or derivative of, those that have gone before.

Among grad students in the sciences, this can set up a tension between advisor and graduate student.

Now tension is not necessarily a bad thing. In measured doses, the anxiety of influence pushes you forward to do something new. And one hallmark of good science is novelty.

Don’t let it worry you too much. It is expected that a grad student, at least in their first year or so, will be doing something closely related to your advisor. Hopefully, you two will be discussing lots of ideas. The last thing you want to do is constantly dwell on ownership of ideas.

It is your advisor’s job to recognize and nurture your insights. In most cases, those insights will constitute a “rediscovery” (the nature of 99% of all insights). In other words, you will have made a cool and valid connection that someone has made before.

Some small proportion of the time, you will make a connection that is the genesis of a new, truly cool idea.

Both represent progress, in that you are learning to think creatively.

After a time, you will even begin to recognize which is which by the way your advisor reacts. A “rediscovery” will illicit a warm smile (“progress!”, your advisor thinks); the genuine, new, cool idea will involve more expressive body language.

At some point, the anxiety of influence magically disappears. This event is often associated with your first paper, or the corpus of your dissertation.

Five chunks of career advice from Dan Pink

May 3, 2008

Daniel Pink is a keen observer of the changing workplace and its implications for the way we think about, and train for, our careers. His A Whole New Mind describes the challenges and opportunities in the transition from an “information age”-based economy to a “conceptual age”-based economy.

Now, in The Adventures of Johnny Bunko Pink has created a comic full of advice for college graduates as they prepare to enter the world of business. It is a joy to read. The manga illustrations of Rob Ten Pas give one a new appreciation of this art form. It is also meant to be digested in one sitting, and there is enough good stuff that, upon completion, you feel as if you’ve just eaten a tasty bag of nacho cheese Doritos, only to discover they are 0-fat and full of protein.

Get yourself a copy and pass it among your colleagues. It ought to spur some healthy conversation. Below the fold, I translate some of Johnny Bunko’s life lessons to the world of grad school, with a wee bit of commentary. Read the rest of this entry »

The grad school challenge: balancing diversity and depth

March 19, 2008


Last spring, Carlos Martinez del Rio visited our program. After one discussion, I asked (as I am wont to do) if he had any advice for beginning graduate students. I recall at the time many of the faculty nodding, and some of the students looking at Carlos, looking at each other, looking at Carlos again, then looking down at their notes, slowly transcribing.

I might be mistaken, but I could have sworn I heard the muted buzz of molars grinding.

His remarks, and my commentary, below. Read the rest of this entry »

Will you earn your Ph. D.?

January 20, 2008

images-3.jpegAn interesting post from the political science blog The Monkey Cage. Some folks at Syracuse University looked for the best predictors of graduate student success in their Economics program, using as data the records of their past students.

The upshot: the best predictor of passing comps: your GRE scores, having an M. A. degree, and having an economics major.

However, the best predictors of completing the Ph. D. program were different. They combined something very concrete–a student’s preparation in mathematics, with something far more intangible–the strength of their research motivation, as gleaned from the personal statements in their application to grad school.

My take, for what’s it worth.

In most programs, your written and oral comprehensive exam tests your mastery of a set of material, and, indirectly, the work habits that allow you to teach yourself.

But there is a reason grad school is often described as a process of transformation from someone who reads to someone who is read.

Because the second hurdle is the ability to design, and analyze novel research. This takes a mastery of logic (and mathematics is, at its heart, logical calisthenics) and a stubborn drive to see a project through. Those students who work on mastering the literature, but avoid the often lonely process of designing, collecting, and cranking methodically through data and manuscripts, risk the scarlet ABD of academia–All But Dissertation.

We’ll be spending some time in the upcoming posts working on your analytical chops. But in the meantime, don’t skimp on math. Even if your dissertation never requires matrix algebra or integration and differentiation, studying math trains your mind to think clearly.

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.


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…

5 essentials for that committee meeting

October 4, 2007


Congratulations. You now have five academics that have agreed to mentor you as work toward your degree. Although not usually the most socially adept barnacles on the rock, academics expect to occasionally find themselves dragged from their lab benches, their desks, and their comfy “thinking-chairs”, to work with you, as a group, to advise you on your path. Here are a few tips to make the meeting go smoothly.

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 »