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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”