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
This is a guest post from Carly Ziter – liberally red-penned by Steve, who couldn’t agree more!
As a PhD student, I’d often arrive at my office (characteristically, late in the morning) to find a marked up manuscript waiting on my desk chair. My advisor preferred to comment in hard copy, you see. The comments were typically in bright red ink, often plentiful (and then some!), and included comments in shorthand – a lost art to me and to my millennial lab-mates.
As grad students do, we shared stories (and a few laughs, and a few complaints) about these comments over the years. One unnamed lab-mate had trouble reading the cursive – now becoming another lost art – and only admitted 4 years into their PhD that they’d secretly relied on a since-graduated colleague to decipher the comments. Another lab-mate came across an online key for shorthand symbols just months before graduating, throwing years of comments into much sharper relief.
While we may have joked about our mentor’s (excellent!) feedback, all of us shared one sentiment. 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
Image: The PhD monomyth. Compare with the monomyth narrative structure, the Hero’s Journey (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero’s_journey). Adaptation by J. Drake.
This is Part II of a guest post by Joe Drake, a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Part I is here. Joe’s own blog is The Secret Life of a Field Biologist, and you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part II: In which our hero returns…. “enlightened”?
Our story up to now: I am a student learning how to write (and to do science, which involves a batch of writing). I haven’t been very good at it, and I’m still not that great, but through valiantly misguided (misguidedly valiant?) efforts, I’m here telling you how I’ve started to get better. Perhaps this will help you too (for more details see part 1). Continue reading
Image: Part of the conference programme for the 2016 International Congress of Entomology.
I’m never surprised when I open up the programme for a conference and see a “Student Competition Session” – a bunch of grad (or sometimes, undergrad) student talks gathered together and judged for prizes*. Not surprised, but mystified, because I find this distinctly weird. Continue reading
Illustration by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky (Carroll 1871, in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There). Public domain.
I’ve been reading a thesis, getting ready for the defence. I’ve probably been an examiner (internal, external, or opponent) for close to a hundred defences, and I almost always enjoy them. Most students do, too – at least, those who have realized that their defence is more than (and less than) an exam. It’s a chance to share their pride in what they’ve done, and as they do so, they know more about that work than anybody else in the room. The defence is new for each student, of course, but by now they’re a comfortable routine for me.
Last year, though, I found myself an examiner for a thesis that yanked me out of my routine. It was a creative-writing MA thesis in our Department of English. Continue reading
Photo: “I’m stumped” (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one). Geocaching Hanley Park, by Martyn Wright via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
As I write this I’ve just come from a great talk: Kim Hughes’ SSE Presidential Address at Evolution 2016 (Variety is the spice of life: death, sex, and the maintenance of genetic variation). Presidential addresses are very much a mixed bag: sometimes a ramble from a superannuated blowhard with a big captive audience; sometimes a charmingly offbeat mix of reflection and experimentation. This was neither – it was just a terrific talk. Continue reading
Last week I blogged about what used to be one of my pet peeves: the apparent inability of senior academics to finish conference talks on time. I’ve been forced to move this off my pet-peeve list partly because I’ve joined the ranks of those ramblers-on. That means I’ve got room to add something new to the list, and here it is: why are students (both undergraduate and graduate) so reluctant to identify themselves as scientists?
It may not be obvious what I mean by that, so bear with me. Continue reading
Image credit: xkcd https://what-if.xkcd.com/76/
Warning: long post!
Writing is an absolutely essential skill for grad students. I’ve seen many flounder (and some fail to finish the degree) not because their research was poorly conceived or their experiments didn’t yield data, but because they just couldn’t convert their data into theses and publications. With writing skills so crucial, it might seem surprising that most grad students never receive any formal instruction in writing. There isn’t even any consensus as to how or whether grad students should receive such instruction (and there’s little formal research on the topic).
So how should grad students learn to write? Continue reading