All of us write, and all of us learn to write; but virtually none of us do so alone. Which is a good thing, both for the doing and the learning! For that latter part: there’s an early-career phase in which you work closely with a mentor. Most often, that mentor will be an honours or graduate supervisor, and you’ll be working together while you write a thesis, or perhaps a manuscript for publication derived from a thesis. This kind of close collaboration can be extremely helpful as you learn the craft of scientific writing; but it can also be frustrating for both parties.
Before going further, it’s worth acknowledging just how much can be involved – on both sides. For the developing writer: writing the thesis is an enormous project that consumes many months (if not years). For most, it’s also a time of rapid learning. And the stakes are high, because the entire graduate program culminates in the thesis, and the first few publications have outsize weight on an early career CV. For the mentor, it’s also a big deal and extremely time-consuming. A mentor might read and comment on three or four drafts, or maybe a dozen, of each of your thesis chapters – and they aren’t likely to have a single mentee, so you can multiply that by the population of a lab.
So if the collaboration can be either helpful or frustrating, it’s very much worth trying to push the needle towards the former and away from the latter. Here are some ways you can do that. Continue reading
I’ve been working on writing with grad students, and other early-career writers, for a startlingly long time now. It’s the usual way for scientific writers to learn their craft: the more junior writer produces drafts, and the more senior writer receives and comments on them. But the process isn’t as simple as I used to think. Instead, there’s a developmental sequence that both parties go through – junior and senior – and I think it’s useful for each to think explicitly about this sequence: about their own position in it, and the opposite party’s. This is the sequence I have in mind: from grading writing, to correcting writing, to mentoring a writer.
Let’s work with a simplified cartoon of this. Imagine that my brand-new (and fictional) grad student Jane has given me a draft of a manuscript about biological control of citrus scale insect. Throughout, she’s spelled “lemon” with a double m.* I notice this. What Jane and I each do next, and what we each expect from the other, depends on where each of us is along that the sequence. When we don’t understand this, frustration ensues. Continue reading
Images: The bottles in question (© S Heard CC BY 4.0); and the video screen that sparked the question (© Alex Smith).
Warning: might be considered navel-gazing.
If you’ve ever seen my office, you’ll know that it’s a disaster zone. Piles of books, unruly sheaves of paper, empty binders and full ones, cases and boxes of pinned insects, and sometimes my lunch – all strewn wildly across every horizontal surface. I’ve long since stopped pretending this is a temporary condition (except, of course, for the lunch). I do still find myself apologizing for it – most recently two weeks ago when I skyped into a class at the University of Guelph to talk with the students about scientific writing. Turns out they didn’t even notice the heaping mounds of detritus (or at least, they were polite enough to pretend they didn’t); but they were curious about the long row of empty champagne bottles above my bookshelves, just at the top edge of the video frame. So I explained. Continue reading
Photos: “Mentor”, from my cherished Oxford Universal Dictionary (1933; 1955 reprint). As a very small child, I sat on this dictionary at my grandmother’s dinner table. When I no longer needed a boost in height, it provided a boost to my vocabulary instead. Yes, I’m a nerd. Longtail widowbird: Public Domain by Mohanr53 via wikimedia.org.
It’s grant reviewing season*, and that’s gotten me thinking about mentorship. NSERC (Canada’s main basic-science granting agency) refers to the students and employees a PI supervises as HQP (for highly qualified personnel), and weights both past HQP training record and future HQP training plan very heavily in its deliberations**. Although NSERC funding rates are relatively high (and the grants correspondingly small, and that’s good), they’ve been tightening somewhat, and this seems to be driving some remarkable supervisory inflation.
What do I mean by “supervisory inflation”? Continue reading