Erin Bedford is a PhD student in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the Pierre and Marie Curie University (Paris VI) in a co-supervised program. You can find her on Twitter @erinellyse.
Every once in a while, you read something that really resonates with you. Something that makes its way into your brain, carves a place for itself, and changes how you see the world.
Rather than keeping these to myself, stored as bookmarked pages on my computer or printed sheets stapled above my desk, I’m sharing them with you. Here are a few short articles about being a grad student and doing research that have stuck with me.
The Illustrated Guide to a PhD, by Matt Might
Doing a PhD involves making a dent in the boundary of knowledge. It can be easy to forget why we’re doing what we’re doing, what has led us to it, and why it can be so hard, but this simple and clear post (also available as a book!) gives a beautiful explanation and reminder of what it is to do a PhD.
The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research, by Martin A. Schwartz
“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. It's a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don't know what we're doing. We can't be sure whether we're asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result.”
Research is hard. We’re pushing at the boundary of what is known and that can make us feel pretty stupid. In this post, Martin Schwartz encourages us to embrace feeling stupid. Sure, it’s scary, but that’s how great research is done.
Why Academics Stink at Writing, by Steven Pinker
When I began writing my first scientific paper, I thought that part of the process of writing would involve learning a new language—one that most of the papers I read seemed to use—a language that Steven Pinker calls academese. Luckily, there are people like Steven Pinker out there fighting for clarity in writing. The ideas in the article are expanded on in his book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. If current grad students can learn to write well and to not emulate so much of the bad writing that exists today, maybe we can make the lives of future grad students—the grad students who will be reading our papers—just a little bit easier.
Whitesides’ Group: Writing a Paper, by George M. Whitesides
“A paper is not just an archival device for storing a completed research program; it is also a structure for planning your research in progress.”
I came across this three-page guide to writing a paper a few years ago and now, whenever I begin a new writing project, I turn to it for a quick review of the process. Rather than just describing what goes into a scientific paper, the article describes the process of writing and how interwoven doing research and writing should be. In particular, Whitesides encourages the use of outlines as a way to guide your thinking and your writing.
It’s incredible how much great writing there is on being a grad student and doing research. While I’ve touched on a few of my favorite short articles here, I know that there are mountains of others hiding in our bookmark folders, waiting to be shared. So share them in the comments and let us all appreciate what those who have been successful at doing what we’re doing have to say.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Pedro Mira and used under a Creative Commons license.]
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