The three PhD Comic strips that are actually good research advice

By Charles Sutton on February 18, 2019

If you’re reading this blog, then you already know about PhD Comics. If you really haven’t seen them before, click the link and read them now. They are more insightful and funnier than anything in this blog.

It goes without saying, however, that you should not model your own career on the characters in the PhD comics strip. For one thing, they’ve been in grad school for more than 20 years.

Amazingly, though, there are three PhD comic strips, and probably only three, that are actually good research advice:

  • Writing your thesis outline. A thesis is daunting. How do you write an entire book over five-plus years? Instead, I like to tell my students to think and plan at the level of individual papers. Basically, you have three content chapters of your thesis, and so if you have three strong papers that fit together thematically, then you set up one paper per each chapter, and there you are! No sweat. I call this the “PhD Comics Guide to Writing Your Thesis.”

  • Amount of time writing one email. I saw this comic when I was a junior professor, and I immediately realized: (a) this is so true, and (b) I needed to act more like the professor in the comic strip. This is how I learned that when you have many things to decide, you must decide quickly.

  • The evolution of intellectual freedom. Sometimes you have to take big risks in your work and follow your own star. Once you learn the basic technical skills needed for research, it is so easy to do only incremental work, follow what the cool people are doing, and focus on what’s likely to get you jobs and funding. There are good reasons to do some of this, but if this is all that you do, then why are you in research?

Know thyself. The New Year's resolution that underlies all productivity advice

By Charles Sutton on January 5, 2019

I’m a sucker for New Year’s resolutions. Every year I make up a half dozen resolutions, usually the same ones each year, and carefully track my progress for at least two or three months before I get busy and forget all about them. And in all seriousness, I’m happy about this, because sometimes, for maybe one resolution in four, I’m still able to make a lasting change in my habits. That’s more than enough to justify the effort, as long as I take the failures in good humor.

You don’t have to be as silly about resolutions as I am, or even to have any resolutions at all, but the underlying principle is important for any creative work. You could say that it’s the underlying principle behind all of the advice in this blog.

You need to know yourself, understand the way you think, adapt the way you work to the way you think, and always keep looking for ways to work better.

You will have all kinds of little preferences about when you are most alert, creative, and productive. Maybe you like to work in the morning. Maybe you like to have a bit of background noise, like in a coffee shop. Maybe you need almost absolute quiet. Maybe you like to work from home, or maybe you prefer the structure of having an office, where your work space is separate from home. Maybe you like to pace around the office, talking to yourself and gesticulating wildly. Or maybe that’s just me. Ahem.

Whatever it is, you need to learn what makes you think most effectively, and seek out that environment. No one can do that for you. Your best work space will be different for you than it is for me. (And good thing, too, otherwise all of Google would be people bumping into each other in the hallways because they were too busy talking to themselves.) The only way to know is to experiment and find out what works for you.

And it’s also vital for us to keep experimenting, no matter how senior we are in our careers. One reason is (I think this is from David Allen), “The better you get, the better you’d better get.” As you become more accomplished, you gain a reputation which means that more demands are placed on you. Another reason is that no matter how good you are, you haven’t learned all of the tricks. Your mental rhythms change as you get older, just as an athlete in his thirties trains differently than a teenager. Finally, the creative challenges change as you get later in your career, as you need to learn to adapt to the way that the field has changed in twenty years.

What’s always appealed to me about the research career is that you never stop learning. This is as much true for how you set up the environment of your work as it is for the content of your work.

How to Present a Scientific Poster at a Mega-Conference

By Charles Sutton on December 30, 2018

A lot of scientific communication happens at poster sessions. It’s a great way to learn about the field, and to meet new people with similar research interests. It’s also a great way to be noticed in a crowded research field. Presenting a poster is just as important, and requires as much specialized skill, as giving a 25-minute talk. Way back when, before this blog became what it is, I wrote advice for presenting research posters. Back when I started attending research conferences, advice like that was probably good enough.

But these days, I think we need a few more tricks in our poster-presenting sleeves. One of my favourite recent conferences, NeurIPS, had over 9000 attendees this year. Unavoidably, the room was a little bit loud, and it wasn’t unusual for a poster to have twenty people around it. When the conference gets this large, you need to present your poster differently. I saw posters where one presenter carefully and quietly explained the poster to one person, both of them intently facing the poster, cheerfully oblivious to the fact that ten people were standing behind them, patiently reading the poster. If you are the presenter, don’t do this!

Instead, follow Sutton’s Three Rules for Presenting a Popular Poster at a Mega-Conference:

  1. Be aware of what’s going on around you. While you’re talking about your poster, people will be both joining and leaving your audience. You need to keep track of this. First, this lets you acknowledge someone who joins, by making eye contact and giving a quick smile or nod as you speak. (I’m not too proud to admit that although I try to do this for everyone, I’m even more likely to do this when the new person is someone I know, or someone famous.) Second, having awareness lets you adapt your presentation, because the way you talk to 2 or 3 people is different than the way you talk to a crowd of 15 people. How so? See the next two points.

  2. Use your body language. Congratulations! Your work has attracted a crowd, and you have maintained the presence of mind to notice. Now what?

    Continue your short talk about the paper, just like you had before. You just need to make clear that you are talking to the whole group rather than one person. You do that with your body language.

    Face the entire group. Make yourself big. Put your feet just a bit farther apart, your shoulders up, your arms away from your body, and your gestures large, so that everyone can see you. Look around the entire group as you speak. If you are doing this right, there will be a large semicircle around the poster, and you will be in a prominent position at one side.

  3. You need to speak up. If people can’t hear you, they will move on to the next poster. You need to speak loudly enough that you can be heard 15 feet away in a loud room. My voice is naturally on the loud side, but even I had to consciously exert my full effort to project my voice while I was presenting our NeurIPS poster.

    There are techniques for doing this without straining your voice. If your profession involves speaking, as is common in academia, it might help to learn about this. “The Right to Speak” by Patsy Rosenberg is one book that has been recommended to me.

What’s that you say? It’s hard to do all of that while talking about research at the same time? Yes! It is. That’s why you need to practice your short presentation until you know it well. This leaves you with mental space that you can use to focus on your audience. (Actually, this is good advice for all talks.)

The transition from “small group poster talk” to “large group poster talk” can be awkward, but you manage it. You can say something to the earlier group like, “I’m going to reset the presentation for these new people, but feel free to jump in if you think of more questions.” Stuff like that.

One time, I had just started presenting the poster to one person when a group seemed to come up out of nowhere. I just looked at my faithful original audience and said, “You might want to take a step back, because I’m about to shout.” I did, and he did. I didn’t restart my talk, but I added in a few background phrases here and there to help the larger group get context.

Stress in Research. Part V: If you really are an Impostor, then it's not a Syndrome

By Charles Sutton on September 3, 2018
As you know, there isn’t really any solution to self-doubt. In the end, you just have to write and doubt simultaneously.
Zadie Smith

The final post of a series on stress in research.

A nice way to end this series would be to talk about impostor syndrome, but I’m the wrong person to write that blog, because I don’t think that I’ve ever literally felt like an impostor. My self-doubt comes out in a different way.

I’ll need to get a bit more personal, but an important warning first. If you are currently serving on a committee that is considering whether to offer me a new job, promotion, prize, or award, please can you stop reading now. Thank you.

My self-doubt comes out like this. I am secretly convinced that I am not good enough.

We have already discussed how the Tournament of Research is public. So I can see the accomplishments of those who have surpassed me in the Tournament, and secretly doubt whether I am good enough to compete.

I can see how quickly the field is moving, and how many new ideas are being introduced every few weeks, and secretly doubt whether I am good enough to keep up.

I can see the pressing problems that our research field is facing. I secretly doubt whether I am clever enough to create new ideas that are subtle enough to solve these tricky problems. I doubt whether I am good enough to create the kind of work that I would like to create.

This series of articles has had three themes: one theoretical, one practical, and one psychological. The theoretical insight is that the research community is structured in a way to grow and foster your self-doubt, and it succeeds in almost all of us. Self-doubt is, therefore, not your fault. More practically, self-talk can be a good way to continue doing good work in the face of self doubt. The psychological theme has been on the role of ego in research: necessary, but always carrying the dangers of jealousy and doubt. Combining the final two themes, the last advice I will give about self-doubt is about using self-talk to manage your ego.

A lot of advice suggests fighting self-doubt with positive self-talk: “I really am good enough! I belong here!” Try this and see if it helps you. Different strategies will work for different people. For me, positive self-talk does not seem to help; it is too hard for me for disregard the objective evidence that there really are people out there who are better than me.

So instead of reaffirming my ego, I use self-talk to deny my ego. I push my thoughts away from myself, and towards the tasks in front of me, which are easy to get excited about, and then the fear goes away. Imagine an actor, petrified with fear while waiting to go on, who once onstage and forced to perform, slips into the role without effort or doubt. I try to feel like that when I sit down to my laptop. Said another way: People report the fear that they are an impostor. But it does not matter what you are, it matters what you do.

Because, in the end, none of the dark thoughts matter. I am inadequate, I am not good enough, and it does not matter. It does not matter because all the doubts, all the dark thoughts, are self centered claptrap, exercises in destructive solipsism. The doubts are all about me, but when it comes to work, how I feel is unimportant.

It does not matter how good I am.

As long as I love the work that I do, and people are willing to pay me to do it,

As long as I continue to learn through my work, to learn from my students, colleagues, and collaborators, at the same time that they seem to be learning from me,

As long as I can see new directions for my work, to expand my knowledge and perhaps others’ as well,

As long as there is a chance, even a slim one, that I can create something that will change the way people think, or in a small way, improve the way the world works,

As long as I can do all this, it does not matter how good I am. As long as there remains much to do, I am going to try to do it, whether I am good enough or not.

Even if I reach the end of my career, and never do something that ever fully matches my ambitions, my work will have accomplished something, even if indirectly and in a small way. I have had the privilege to participate in the worldwide, centuries-long conversation of the community of scholars. And this larger conversation has made a difference, I am sure, even if my own part has been small. I have been part of the life of the research community, preserving, growing, and sharing knowledge. That is enough to make my professional life worthwhile, even after all the papers that I’ve written have faded into obscurity.

And that’s how I deal with self doubt.

Ill-Judged Britishness, and Self-Deprecation within a Power Dynamic

By Charles Sutton on August 5, 2018

I really should know better. Twice now, I’ve done this to myself. I was a social event with one of my PhD students, like a party during a conference, where I was introducing them to a colleague. Feeling relaxed after a beer or two, I attempted an ill-judged joke, “So-and-so has the misfortune of being one of my students.”

Often that type of humour works well for me, and is enjoyed all around. Well, maybe I’m not perceptive enough to tell if anyone else enjoys it, but I do.

The misfortunate joke never works, though. Both times the student turned and looked at me like I had three heads. Why would I say something like that about myself? Why would being my PhD student be a bad thing?

The second time this happened, I at least maintained enough poise to explain myself. “Nothing to worry about,” I said quietly to my student. “I’m just feeling a bit British.”


“Self-deprecation,” I said.

“Oh, of course.” Immediate understanding.