Advice for Grad Students -- II

Stephen C. Stearns outlines writing issues facing those in doctoral programs.
June 8, 2011

A previous column offered advice on non-writing issues. This piece focuses on writing issues for science graduate students.

Write a Proposal and Get It Criticized.

A research proposal serves many functions.

1. Summarizing your year's thinking and reading ensures that you have gotten something out of it.

2. It makes it possible for you to defend your independence by providing a concrete demonstration that you used your time well.

3. It literally makes it possible for others to help you. What you have in mind is too complex to be communicated orally -- too subtle, and in too many parts. It must be put down in a well-organized, clearly and concisely written document that can be circulated to a few good minds. Only with a proposal before them can they give you constructive criticism.

4. You need practice writing. We all do.

5. Having located your problem and satisfied yourself that it is important, you will have to convince your colleagues that you are not totally demented and, in fact, deserve support. One way to organize a proposal to accomplish this goal is:

a. A brief statement of what you propose, couched as a question or hypothesis.

b. Why it is important scientifically -- not why it is important to you personally -- and how it fits into the broader scheme of ideas in your field.

c. A literature review that substantiates (b).

d. Describe your problem as a series of subproblems that can each be attacked in a series of small steps. Devise experiments, observations or analyses that will permit you to exclude alternatives at each stage. Line them up and start knocking them down. By transforming the big problem into a series of smaller ones, you always know what to do next, you lower the energy threshold to begin work, you identify the part that will take the longest or cause the most problems, and you have available a list of things to do when something doesn't work out.

6. Write down a list of the major problems that could arise and ruin the whole project. Then write down a list of alternatives that you will do if things actually do go wrong.

7. It is not a bad idea to design two or three projects and start them in parallel to see which one has the best practical chance of succeeding. There could be two or three model systems that all seem to have equally good chances on paper of providing appropriate tests for your ideas, but in fact practical problems may exclude some of them. It is much more efficient to discover this at the start than to design and execute two or three projects in succession after the first fail for practical reasons.

8. Pick a date for the presentation of your thesis and work backwards in constructing a schedule of how you are going to use your time. You can expect a stab of terror at this point. Don't worry -- it goes on like this for a while, then it gradually gets worse.

9. Spend two to three weeks writing the proposal after you've finished your reading, then give it to as many good critics as you can find. Hope that their comments are tough, and respond as constructively as you can.

10. Get at it. You already have the introduction to your thesis written, and you have only been here 12 to 18 months.

Types of Theses

Never elaborate a baroque excrescence on top of existing but shaky ideas. Go right to the foundations and test the implicit but unexamined assumptions of an important body of work, or lay the foundations for a new research thrust. There are, of course, other types of theses:

1. The classical thesis involves the formulation of a deductive model that makes novel and surprising predictions which you then test objectively and confirm under conditions unfavorable to the hypothesis. Rarely done and highly prized.

2. A critique of the foundations of an important body of research. Again, rare and valuable and a sure winner if properly executed.

3. The purely theoretical thesis. This takes courage, especially in a department loaded with bedrock empiricists, but can be pulled off if you are genuinely good at math and logic.

4. Gather data that someone else can synthesize. This is the worst kind of thesis, but in a pinch it will get you through. To certain kinds of people lots of data, even if they don't test a hypothesis, will always be impressive. At least the results show that you worked hard, a fact with which you can blackmail your committee into giving you the doctorate.

There are really as many kinds of theses as there are graduate students. The four types listed serve as limiting cases of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Doctoral work is a chance for you to try your hand at a number of different research styles and to discover which suits you best: theory, field work, or lab work. Ideally, you will balance all three and become the rare person who can translate the theory for the empiricists and the real world for the theoreticians.

Start Publishing Early.

Don't kid yourself. You may have gotten into this game out of your love for plants and animals, your curiosity about nature, and your drive to know the truth, but you won't be able to get a job and stay in it unless you publish. You need to publish substantial articles in internationally recognized, refereed journals. Without them, you can forget a career in science. This sounds brutal, but there are good reasons for it, and it can be a joyful challenge and fulfillment. Science is shared knowledge. Until the results are effectively communicated, they in effect do not exist. Publishing is part of the job, and until it is done, the work is not complete. You must master the skill of writing clear, concise, well-organized scientific papers. Here are some tips about getting into the publishing game.

1. Co-author a paper with someone who has more experience. Approach a professor who is working on an interesting project and offer your services in return for a junior authorship. He'll appreciate the help and will give you lots of good comments on the paper because his name will be on it.

2. Do not expect your first paper to be world-shattering. A lot of eminent people began with a minor piece of work. The amount of information reported in the average scientific paper may be less than you think. Work up to the major journals by publishing one or two short -- but competent -- papers in less well-recognized journals. You will quickly discover that no matter what the reputation of the journal, all editorial boards defend the quality of their product with jealous pride -- and they should!

3. If it is good enough, publish your research proposal as a critical review paper. If it is publishable, you've probably chosen the right field to work in.

4. Do not write your thesis as a monograph. Write it as a series of publishable manuscripts, and submit them early enough so that at least one or two chapters of your thesis can be presented as reprints of published articles.

5. Buy and use a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Read it before you sit down to write your first paper, then read it again at least once a year for the next three or four years. Day's book How to Write a Scientific Paper is also excellent.

6. Get your work reviewed before you submit it to the journal by someone who has the time to criticize your writing as well as your ideas and organization.

Don't Look Down on a Master's Thesis.

The only reason not to do a master's is to fulfill the generally false conceit that you're too good for that sort of thing. The master's has a number of advantages.

1. It gives you a natural way of changing schools if you want to. You can use this to broaden your background. Moreover, your ideas on what constitutes an important problem will probably be changing rapidly at this stage of your development. Your knowledge of who is doing what, and where, will be expanding rapidly. If you decide to change universities, this is the best way to do it. You leave behind people satisfied with your performance and in a position to provide well-informed letters of recommendation. You arrive with most of your Ph.D. requirements satisfied.

2. You get much-needed experience in research and writing in a context less threatening than doctoral research. You break yourself in gradually. In research, you learn the size of a soluble problem. People who have done master's work usually have a much easier time with the Ph.D.

3. You get a publication.

4. What's your hurry? If you enter the job market too quickly, you won't be well prepared. Better to go a bit more slowly, build up a substantial background, and present yourself a bit later as a person with more and broader experience.

Publish Regularly, But Not Too Much.

The pressure to publish has corroded the quality of journals and the quality of intellectual life. It is far better to have published a few papers of high quality that are widely read than it is to have published a long string of minor articles that are quickly forgotten. You do have to be realistic. You will need publications to get a postdoc, and you will need more to get a faculty position and then tenure. However, to the extent that you can gather your work together in substantial packages of real quality, you will be doing both yourself and your field a favor.

Most people publish only a few papers that make any difference. Most papers are cited little or not at all. About 10 percent of the articles published receive 90 percent of the citations. A paper that is not cited is time and effort wasted. Go for quality, not for quantity. This will take courage and stubbornness, but you won't regret it. If you are publishing one or two carefully considered, substantial papers in good, refereed journals each year, you're doing very well -- and you've taken time to do the job right.


Stephen C. Stearns is the Edward P. Bass Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University.


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