On Ideas and Fear of Academic Writing

Recently there’s been a lot of talk on blogs and twitter related to academic writing and ideas. I’ve been struggling a bit (maybe more than a bit) in these areas lately.

DNLee’s piece on fear of academic writing struck a real chord with me. We’ll not discuss how many papers I’m essentially sitting on right now. Several literally only need to be formatted and submitted (side note: can scientific journals please just agree on at least reference format already?). Others were recently rejected and I need to spend some time with the reviewer comments before sending them back out again.

And yet they sit, sometimes untouched for months. This is Not Good. Why do I do this?

Where’s a girl to start? (source)

In response to DNLee’s post, the always brilliant Dr. Isis shared her thoughts on the writing process. My process is similar to hers in some ways, different in others. While I wish it had occurred to me to put a giant whiteboard in my startup budget, it didn’t. Even so, when I sit down to analyze some new data I start by writing my research question(s) on a blank piece of paper. Usually with a Sharpie because this seems like an important occasion to be bold. Then, I write out what each table will be and then each figure. If I’m not sure whether something is better in a table or figure, I note that too.

Every single time I analyze my descriptive variables first. This is usually Table 1., though I’ve occasionally written a paper that didn’t require that standard descriptive information. Each subsequent step of the analysis is dictated by my research questions and the data I need to show to address the question. Sometime during grad school I also started writing exactly which statistics I ran (because I would sometimes forget which confounders were included) and any findings that come out of each step. Explicitly. With a Sharpie. Then it’s back to the computer and I actually make the tables and figures. Then, I print out all of my tables and figures and move away from the computer, somewhere that I can spread everything out and look at it. At this point I usually scribble down some thoughts about interpretation. Sometimes I talk to other people, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I wait a day before I do anything else. Next, I write the results. While I’m writing the results I will also scroll down and add bullets to the discussion because that’s usually when I make most of the connections that need to be made in that section.

This is the first place I tend to get hung up. At first I would self-edit too much while trying to write the discussion. I’d get hung up on whether that sentence sounded weird or if that transition sucked. Eventually I realized that and started forcing myself to quit it already. Now, if I hate a sentence, I’ll actually type something like “that sentence sucks – fix it” in italics and just keep going. Unfortunately, I’ve sent a draft off to a coauthor with a statement like that in there more than once – they’ve come to expect it from me. When I really get stuck on those types of editorial things, I at least try to get bullets and fragments for each of the points I want to make. Paragraphs wind up filled with italicized sentences and fragments. Eventually, I leave it and go back to write the methods and introduction.

And then I’m stuck. I have one paper that’s been sitting in exactly that state for over a year. Introduction, methods, results done – discussion points down, no transitions. It’s not that I’m having trouble interpreting the findings and synthesizing them with what we already know…it’s the filler. I get caught up on it not sounding right. Frequently I wind up going back, cutting the italicized criticisms, and leaving it how it was in the first place. More often I do edit, but sometimes I think I just need to get fed up with it, accept that it will never be perfect, turn it into a complete sentence, and stop screwing around.

I need to do this, now. Today I set some deadlines for myself to finally get some of these 99% finished papers off my desk. Two grants due on 2/3 and self-imposed deadlines for 3 papers over the rest of February. Completely and totally doable. I just have to do it already.

Now, while I’m thinking about sucky transitions…Scicurious and InBabyAttachMode have both written recently about generating ideas. Timely, because as previously mentioned, it’s grant time.

When I started in my doctoral program, I was afraid I would never make it because I didn’t have any good ideas. At the time I was working for a PI who had been exceptionally well-funded for decades. He always knew what the next step would be – we could see it in the planning phase of a grant. He didn’t just know what this study would address, he knew what the next two, or maybe even three, would address. That was something I really was worried I wouldn’t have. This fear pops up again every few months or so, usually when I start thinking about conferences I’d like to attend over the next couple years and what I could present at each one.

How awesome would that be? (source)

In March of last year, right before Miss Baby was born, I received a call for an early investigator award from a society closely related to my discipline. It required a letter of intent within a month, and I knew just the study I wanted to propose. But, in the process of planning for that LOI and, hopefully, the full proposal, I realized my idea was way too big. I didn’t have one idea, I had done what my former PI did without realizing it. All he did was take one big idea and break it down into steps, and that was what I needed to do.

In that process I also realized I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do in the timeline dictated by that grant. It was a one-year award and I have one very involved and one lesser study ramping up this year, and three brand new masters students who can’t take a lead role in any of them. Couldn’t have done it. Instead, I decided I would spend the fall planning, break that big idea down into smaller ones, and identify a series of funding opportunities to knock off one piece at a time.

The first of those proposals went in this past Friday. The next will go in at this time next year. This plan – this one big idea that I didn’t realize was as big as it is – may realistically take 5 years (unless a bigger funding opportunity comes along to tackle more aims at once). If I had rushed it and proposed the big idea, and if it had gotten funded, I don’t think I would have done a very good job, realistically. The science will be a lot better this way and it’s much more manageable given the resources available in my department and at my university.

For really the first time in my career I feel like maybe I can come up with enough ideas, now that I’ve suddenly realized they don’t all have to be the idea.

Now if I could just submit those papers. Because unproductive scientists don’t get grants.

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Midsemester

Howdy.

Wow, this semester is just flying by. Training and travel since my last post have kept me very busy and meant too much time out of the office, so I’m even more behind. As I sit at the kitchen table watching the snow fall, it seems like a good time for reflection and a look ahead.

The second year on the tenure track has certainly been an interesting one thus far. Most times it feels like a roller coaster – the kind people stand in line for hours to ride – lots of twists and turns, steep drop offs, and maybe some inversions just for kicks. The scenery flashes by as the coaster careens around bends but occasionally there are mechanical problems and the roller coaster comes to a complete, and jolting, halt. This seems to especially apply to my research this year. Currently I have 10 papers at some degree of completion. Eight of them could be submitted in a matter of hours if I could just gather the hours (when I have enough mental power remaining) to polish them up and send them out. On top of that I’m percolating several ideas for new studies and really need to get grants out for at least a couple of them…but which? An opportunity opened up completely unexpectedly last week and necessitated pushing one of those ideas to the forefront when I’d really been planning to wait a year or more on that one. That leaves me with the options of pushing another idea back for a year or submitting something extra and taking the chance of winding up with more funded projects than I’d planned on. Of course, nothing’s ever guaranteed til the money actually comes through, so…

We’re settling into a routine at home though I have to admit I never really feel caught up there, either. Now and then – like earlier this week – my old fears of doing a mediocre job of everything come roaring back in again. I mean really, how hard is it to fold and put away laundry? Nevertheless, two-thirds of my wardrobe seems to be piled in the corner of our bedroom. At least most of it is folded. The baby is doing well at her new daycare facility and learns something new every day. She is sitting like a champ and no other position will do. Unless, of course, she can put her feet in her mouth and then she’s happy on her back for ages. She isn’t trying to crawl yet but as active as she is in her relatively immobile state I think we’re in for it when she can figure out how to crawl.

Finally, it hardly seems possible to blog this week without mentioning the large issues surrounding sexual harassment that have surfaced on twitter this week. To be honest, I’m having a hard time keeping up with it all amidst everything else that’s going on, and I find myself having a hard time coming to grips with it all and forming coherent thoughts to share. It has been an eye-opening week as a young scientist and someone who is relatively new to twitter. Prior to this week I would have told you I’ve never experienced any sexual harassment. Some of the stories I’ve read – particularly the blog post by Hannah Waters – have made me rethink that and question why I interpreted things as harmless in the past when maybe, really, they weren’t. Perhaps one day soon I’ll have contemplated this enough to have clearer feelings but for now I just feel…lost.

The snow is really coming down hard now, it’s becoming quite the winter wonderland out there. Baby is sleeping and I think I’ll make myself a cup of tea before the roller coaster starts up again.