Tag Archives: graduate students

(Continued) From the trenches: How I’m learning to write (guest post)

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 jdrake@umass.edu.


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


“Student competition sessions” at conferences are weird

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


Fish out of water: a scientist examines a poetry thesis

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

"I'm stumped!"

Every qualifying-exam candidate should say “I don’t know”

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

Are scientists “we” or “they”?

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

How should grad students learn to write?

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