Straight talk about graduate school

When a student sent me this article by Professor Stephen C. Stearns, titled “Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students“, she warned me that it might be a bit intimidating for this blog. Indeed, to those of you who are not cynical by nature*, it will probably come across as a bit harsh. But I think you will find some useful nuggets here, as long as you can avoid falling into the ‘grad school sucks and we all die alone’ mentality.

*Personally, I actively resist becoming a cynic. Cynics don’t usually do much to make the world a better place; they just tend to complain and/or disengage when it falls short of their expectations.

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Women in science, & Handy tips for the male academic

As graduate students who work with undergrads both in the lab and in class, you have an important role to play in encouraging young talent to pursue careers in science. Are you doing enough on this front? Might implicit biases be affecting how much support you give to one student or another?

In this New York Times Magazine piece, titled “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science?, Eileen Pollack discusses her experience as a Physics major in the late 1970s, and her efforts to discover how much things have changed for female would-be-scientists today. Dr. Pollack argues that “[t]he most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.”

Over time, graduate students tend to model the behavior and attitudes of their advisors, which is only natural after a long apprenticeship. This is a tried-and-true method for learning the trade of an academic, but one of the potential downsides is the transmission of bias and problematic behavior from generation to generation of sciences. This blog post, aptly titled “Don’t Be That Dude: Handy Tips for the Male Academic“, covers some important concepts that you may not yet be familiar with.

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Perfectionism: Too much of a good thing?

…le mieux est l’ennemi du bien
– Voltaire, as far as we know

None of my close friends would describe me as a perfectionist. In fact, one of my favorite colleagues recently nominated me “most likely to lose a shoe on the subway”. I know that I’m nowhere near perfect, and I’m fine with that. In fact, I subscribe to the mantra that ‘perfect is the enemy of the good’. (Except when it comes to grant-writing.*)

The most obvious problem with perfectionism is reduced productivity. No surprise there – the more you obsess over every word, the less you write. But a 2010 study of professors by Simon Sherry and colleagues at Dalhousie showed that perfectionistic professors not only published less than their sloppier peers — their papers also tended to have lower impact:

Does perfectionism hold you back?


* In the current funding climate, and especially with the NIH “two strikes and you’re out” rule, the difference between a stellar 12-page proposal and an excellent one can be on the order of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in research funds. When each page is worth $10k or more, it had better be damn-near perfect…

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On the importance of strong inference research

This classic introduces the concept of ‘strong inference’ – it’s well worth a read, even for those who have been doing research for years. Following its guidelines will make you a better scientist (and a better grant-writer).

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Feeling like an imposter leads some away from academia

Thanks to the faculty member who pointed me toward this valuable article in Science Careers section of Science magazine, which has lots of great stuff: Recognizing “Imposter syndrome” for what it is

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Why are there so few female leaders?

With all the discussion around ‘leaning in’ these days, I thought this was a great little piece on the subject of gender and leadership.

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Need a stats refresher?

My friend and colleague Andrew Conway-Spera, a faculty member in Psychology at Princeton, is a gifted statistics instructor. He created an online intro to stats MOOC last year for Coursera, and it went phenomenally well. He has made numerous tweaks to the course since then, and is preparing to launch a new 12-week course.

You might want to recommend it to your undergrad research assistants – and/or take a look yourself if you need a refresher.

Statistics One, by Andrew Conway

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