Feeling scared and guilty because your teacher or boss has asked for a meeting without telling you its subject?

Why when someone above me asks for a meeting without telling me why do I feel scared and guilty? I try to think of what I might have done to offend, but nothing comes to mind. It is a little nagging worry until the meeting happens. Why does this worry keep coming up? Is it just me?

It reminds me of a time when I had a possible plagiarizer in my class at Rice. There were slightly complex issues around the case which I cannot go into here. I wanted to give the student a chance to come forward and explain, so I told the class I was worried about plagiarism, so if anyone felt they might have plagiarized on the last assignment that they should come see me. I also explained again what plagiarism is. The result of this was about seven women came to see me. Each felt they might have plagiarized. None of them had, but I had inadvertently made them feel guilty. It was a chance to go over their work and show them why it was not plagiarism when comparing to the cited sources. The culprit did not come forward so it became a case for Rice’s Honor Council.

I don’t think it does any good to make people feel guilty for no reason. I know meetings get called without a topic when someone wants to ask someone a favor, or for many other reasons.  So whenever possible, please give a general idea of the topic of a meeting so people like me don’t stew, even a little. Remember to do this for your students also. Just because someone has nothing to worry about doesn’t mean they won’t worry.

Posted in Department politics, Group leadership, Life in a biology department | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

How to make your vote count in scientific competitions

One of the things we do at meetings and at this time of year in universities is we judge posters and sometimes talks or papers. The winning poster gets a ribbon and maybe a hundred dollars. It is another line on the resumé.

This is very different from the kind of judging that goes on at NSF or NIH where proposals are discussed in detail and judged carefully on scientific merits after group discussion of the strengths and weaknesses. In poster sessions there are a lot of judges. Usually only two people see any one poster. How can this kind of process possibly end up with a winner?

It gets  worse. Often the forms for judging are broken down into a lot of categories. You are supposed to give points for each, perhaps presentation, importance of project, use of statistics, or other such categories. You struggle to divide up the points. You struggle to be fair.

At the end, there is usually a simple averaging of points from different judges and the posters with the most points wins. This means two things. First, pay attention to the total points, more than to the different sub-categories. Second and most important is to use the full range of point possibilities. Give your best poster the full points on everything. Bring it down from there only slightly if you think your next few posters are also highly worthy.

If you think of yourself as a hard grader and therefore stay shy of the top marks even for the best posters, then your marks simply won’t count. They will be swamped out by other judges who used more of the range. This could be fixed if each judge’s scores were Z transformed or something like that. More simple than this would be if each judge’s top poster were noted. But these things usually don’t happen when votes are compiled, just as there is usually no or little group discussion of the science of each poster. There just isn’t time.

Does this mean you should also go down to the low end and mark some down a lot? No, because no decisions get made there. There will be very few winners, so marking down the weaker posters even a little will suffice to keep them from winning. There is no point in being discouraging to the lower scorers, though often the students do not even see the scores.

If students do get feedback, written comments are best. I think each student should get a substantive positive comment and a substantive negative (but gentle) comment, so they can feel both rewarded and see where they can improve.

There are other circumstances where a larger group judges papers or proposals with little room for substantive discussion. These suggestions hold there too. Just remember to make your top score full points, with very high points to those following close behind. This way your vote will count.

Posted in Judging | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why this editor won’t be sending your paper out for further review at PNAS

As of 15 March 2015, I’m taking a 3 year stint on the editorial board of PNAS. Right now there are ten of us in the evolution section, so I’m likely to handle a lot of papers. What we do is read the paper and then decide whether to forward it to a handling editor. That person will also decide if the paper is worth reviewing and if it is choose reviewers and make a decision. We have been encouraged to reject without further review about two thirds of the papers we receive. Since the editor that agrees to actually handle the paper also has this option, you have two hurdles to actually having your paper go to reviewers.

This does not mean your paper has not been reviewed. I will be reading every paper I receive, though if the paper does not go out for review, I will not be sending you detailed comments. When I read your paper, I will be using the same kinds of criteria an actual reviewer will use, but there are some important differences. First of all, I see a lot of papers, so I’m developing a sense of what is likely to make it further through the review process. I want to save time for everyone by not sending on papers that are likely to fail. Second, I am usually likely to be more distant from your field than an assigned reviewer would be. Therefore you will have to be really good at framing your work. Of course you have to do this anyway before the work can be published in a general journal like PNAS.

If the work is in a more distant field, I’m likely to get a quick sense of the importance of your paper by going to Google Scholar and typing in a few key words from your work. I’ll look at abstracts of papers that come up first to see some history. Then I’ll restrict the search to the last five years to see what the current excitement is. I realize this will sound very inadequate to really understanding a field, but it is what I do.

What does it take to convince me that your paper is important, well-framed, and likely to excite the impatient readers of PNAS? Soon I’ll be posting a check list on this. But for now know that the most important things are that you frame your paper well. Don’t just tell your story, but put it in context of what else has been done in the field. This should happen in the introduction and also in the discussion. The broader you make these perspectives, the more likely you are to convince me of the importance of your work.

The other thing I’ve noticed about successful work for PNAS is that the papers tell a fairly complete story. They do not make a small advance, but pursue the first results with follow-up experiments so they have a full story.

I’m guessing you already think your work is important and complete or you wouldn’t be sending it to PNAS, so maybe your biggest challenge is to understand that others also do great work. Put your results in the context of what went before so we have an even more complete story, not just your own new nugget. I’ll be writing more on this interesting process. It is important to add, of course, that these are my opinions, and mine alone. They have not been endorsed by PNAS, NAS, or anyone else.

Posted in Publishing your work | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Exactly how independent should your research be?

Anna Mueller, Ph.D.

Anna Mueller, Ph.D., changing study systems

The significance of a Ph.D. degree is that you can do much more than excellent research. You can also think of what questions to ask. You know how to push at the most important unknowns. You can read the literature of a field and see not just what is there, but also what is missing. You can tell which missing pieces are important and which are details. You also have a sense of what is feasible and what is not. If there is a new tool developed in this or another discipline, you are quickly able to apply it in new ways to answer things that were previously unanswerable. You are amazing, at least for that brief well-read time when you are embarking on a specific project, before your days are filled with censusing, pipetting, counting, or whatever other routine tedium comes with actually testing hypotheses.

So how can you become amazing if you do a project handed to you by someone else? If you never need to sink or swim according to what your own intellect has discovered, how can you own a field? If you are a cog in someone else’s research machine, even if you get out all the papers, even if you learn well how to do a complex project, have you really learned what it takes for a degree called Doctor of Philosophy, literally from the Latin, philosophiae doctor? I think not, but it depends on the details.

Jennie Kudzdal-Fick, Ph.D. and glory!

Jennie Kudzdal-Fick, Ph.D. and glory!

What is the optimum balance between independence and guidance? The answer is less clear than you might think. At one extreme you might be a nearly completely independent agent, working in a place, on an organism, and on a question separate from your mentor. He might work on grasshoppers, or butterflies, or even Drosophila, asking questions of speciation, crypsis, or population genetics in South Africa, Costa Rica, or Hawaii while you work on Texas wasps with questions of social behavior. Why would you do this? How will you be gently guided between better and worse approaches? How will you learn new techniques or even know what they might be for your field? How will you fund your research? Honestly, this extreme level of independence makes no sense to me.

Yet a few decades ago it was practically the norm in ecology and evolution. I suppose it was only possible because the techniques were few and cheap and science was booming. Yet this system left a lot of people floundering, often leaving the program before finishing, though I can’t say I have any numbers to indicate that this has changed. Some people still adhere to this extreme independence idea, perhaps to justify their own hands-off mentoring, perhaps because it worked for them.

Owen and Larry Gilbert, Ph.D.s several decades apart.

Owen and Larry Gilbert, Ph.D.s several decades apart.

The other extreme is to be given a project that is very specific. It might be one of the aims of a research proposal an adviser wrote. It might be a gap in what the rest of the lab is doing. It might even be heavy on technique development. Is this a terrible thing? Will it keep you from being a Ph.D. in the full sense of the word? I think it depends on how independently you then approach the question. This kind of project can be excellent. It might be the only kind expensive work in a difficult system allows. After all, you might take three years learning some complex cell biology techniques and approaches. If it is your problem, you can learn what it takes.

So, in my opinion, the problem comes in if you are micro-managed, or not allowed to explore your own solutions to the system, even a very specific one. But too close a project assignment has a risk. The risk is that it might not feel like your own. It might not mesh well with your ever evolving interests. Even if you own it, if you don’t love it, it won’t be optimal.

Where does the balance lie? I like to think it is best to do a project in the general area of your mentor’s interests and expertise. What I like to do is to give a new student our papers and our funded grant proposals and suggest that they find in this rich soil something that entrances. It does not have to be something that we directly proposed, though that would be fine. But it should be directly relevant to our general area of expertise and what the rest of the lab is doing. That way help, sympathy, and collaboration are more likely. If someone wants, we are always happy to suggest two or three things to do for a first project. Then the student can soar on their own, having shepherded a project all the way through.

Once we had a student working on stingless bees, on a project central to our interests for which we had funding. Her work went exceptionally well. She published a series of important papers. But the rest of the lab were working on either wasps or social amoebae, so she did not have a team helping her think about bees. I know she felt a bit isolated, though leaving bees was never what she wanted.

So think hard about the program you choose for graduate school. You need to learn a lot to own a field. Mentors can help, but only if they are neither too restricting nor too hands off. It might seem like a delicate balance, but it is one that is often successfully achieved.

Posted in Graduate school, New ideas, Postdocs, Undergraduates | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Choosing a graduate program: only three things matter

It is that wonderful time of year when you have heard where you have been accepted.  You will be told about the hundreds of advantages of the program that is trying to recruit you. Your offer letters most likely have information on how you will be assisted in paying for graduate school, though the points I make here also apply to undergraduate colleges and professional programs. How do you choose? Only three things really matter.

First is finances. You should avoid putting yourself into debt if at all possible. Debt will taint your opportunities once you are done studying. Debt is a burden. Debt is staying up at night wondering how you will afford to take the next step when the previous step is weighing you down. Debt cripples your choices. What exactly did you expect to get with that expensive degree? Was that program really better than the one that offered you funding you could live on? The point of this stage is not to profit from studying, just not to have it  hijack the rest of your life. So choose a program that offers clear funding, unless you are one of the very rare for whom money is not an issue.

Second most important is to surround yourself with smart people. Programs with smart people will have you thinking in ways you could hardly imagine before. There are lots of ways of being smart and lots of programs with smart people. In these programs questioning will be encouraged. Exploration will be a team process, with “what if” being an exciting challenge. Smart people are interested in ideas and will talk about the papers they just read, or the talks they heard. I was formed by the smart people, faculty and students, at my own universities, Michigan in Ann Arbor and Texas in Austin. I continued to learn and discover from smart people at meetings from all over the world and at the universities where I have been employed, Rice and Washington University.

Seek out the smart people wherever you are, for they will delight and challenge, though also sometimes annoy. There are smart people in every university and college, but they are more concentrated and more free to discover in some places than others. If you wonder whether your prospective program has smart people, look at their funding. It should be from curiosity driven funding agencies like NSF or NIH in large part. The funding should not be from outfits demanding very specific answers to small problems. It should not be mostly contracts. This is advice my own undergraduate adviser gave me many years ago when I was choosing a graduate program.

There is probably a level above which smartness no longer is a variable that has an impact. I would guess the top 50 or so programs in any field have plenty of smart people to challenge you. They will vary more in the third important component important for your decision.

Third most important is that you should choose a program that reflects your interests. At this level it is not true that all programs do all things. The world experts in something you love may not be at the program that is top rated by US News and World Report, or by any other rating program. At this level the name of the university has little bearing on whether it is a good fit for you. Even if your interests are not very well defined, they are likely to be defined enough for you to see that some universities are much stronger than others in the area of your interests.

That’s it, funding, smart people, and a program that is a good fit. If your offers differ in these variables, your choice should be easy. If they do not vary in these, then other things might influence you. Probably tops for these are collegiality and productivity. Smart people all around do no good to you if there is no time to talk to them, if all are holed up and on their own desperate paths to glory. Your ability to take the next step will be influenced by your productivity in papers and grants, so you should find a program where publishing and grant writing by graduate students is encouraged, assisted, and viewed as normal.

You’re about to embark on a wonderful phase of life, the Ph.D., 3 year or 7 year, or something in between. It is a time when ideas are important, when experiments enthrall, and you’ll make friends for life. Choose and enjoy.


Posted in Graduate school, Undergraduates | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

No, you can’t acknowledge me in your paper without asking!

Most scientific papers have a brief acknowledgements section where people who helped in some small way with the study are mentioned. It used to be the place where the technicians, often female, who might have done all the work were credited. Now these people get authorship.

Perhaps the most usual kind of assistance is reading the paper after it is complete and making comments that improve the paper. A key suggestion or help with a technique might also get someone a mention in the acknowledgements section.

No unauthorized acknowledgements!


The acknowledgements section is also a place to credit funding sources.

Some journals require that everyone mentioned in the acknowledgements section authorize the mention. Even without that requirement, most authors check with the people they are going to mention.

So imagine my surprise when a friend told me I was acknowledged in a recent paper in Nature by Jonathan Pruitt and Charles Goodnight. I said no, it could not be. I had not even read that paper yet and certainly had not seen it before it was published. Moreover, I had seen both authors recently and neither one mentioned it.

But of course my friend was right. This is what the paper says: “J. E. Strassmann and W. P. Carson were invaluable in aiding in the submission of this paper.” What does that even mean? It kind of sounds like I have the secret password to Nature, or that I greased the wheels somehow. I didn’t. Am I being acknowledged for some random conversation about publishing, or for something in this blog? Is putting my name in the acknowledgements some indication that I had an opinion on the paper? I might, but not before I read it, or even know of its existence. I have no idea how W. P. Carson contributed either.

No unauthorized acknowledgements!

I don’t understand why anyone would do this, but it is a really bad idea. Check with the people you acknowledge and be sure they are all right with it. Only acknowledge people who actually have helped with the work.


Posted in Publishing your work, Scientific community, Writing | 13 Comments

Why you won’t learn to write from Steven Pinker’s The sense of style

I think Pinker is just the best. I love his writing. I love his perspective. I love the way he takes on complex and often controversial topics and finds convincing clarity. I think I’ve read all his books. So when I saw he had a new one, The Sense of Style, I bought it. Maybe I could learn to write as effectively as he does if I read it carefully.

It sat on my night table for a few weeks, so I got it on Audible to listen to instead.  I got through a lot of it on a long drive to Fayetteville Arkansas. I loved it.

The first three chapters should be required reading for everyone. The first two make a  case for clear writing. They also show what’s clear and simple and what’s complex and confusing. They poke a bit of fun at the writing bible too, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. In many ways they are Pinker at his best. He is strong and opinionated but never pedantic. He points to authority as a reason to do things, except when he disagrees. These are themes throughout the book, especially in the more technical later chapters.

The third chapter is something I could just kiss, if I still relied on the paper copy. My reaction to it was similar to that of my then five year old when I told him I was reading a book called “Bad guys don’t have birthdays.” I could have written it myself, if only I could write as well as Pinker does. In this chapter Pinker begs us to think about what our readers know. Give us some background, don’t just launch into a story as if we lived like little parasites inside your brain. Don’t be like the three year old I met decades ago who told me we could play together when I got to his house, the white one in Illinois.

The chapter is called “The curse of knowledge,” and is subtitled “The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know what you know.” How true. I wish there were a magic drug I could give all my students that would make them step back after writing and think about what they can add to frame the piece. This could be small things like putting their last name first in the file name, so the professor doesn’t get a pile of papers named “Assignment 1.” Or it could be as complicated as an introductory paragraph on what big question their experiment is addressing and what progress they have previously made. But really, taking a reader’s perspective should permeate writing. It should impact every sentence.

These first three chapters are worth the price of the book, but this is no reason to stop reading on page 76. The last chapter is a lot of fun too. I just listened to a read version of Pinker’s long table on incorrect interpretations of words, the place where he says he gets to be a purist. I agree with Pinker on nearly everything. I guess that means we are both Americans of a certain age who probably like to read similar kinds of books. Or maybe it means something more, that this is really the best way to write clearly if you want to reach an educated audience.

If I so love this book, why don’t I think it will teach you to write more clearly? It is because you can’t learn to write by learning a bunch of rules, or memorizing correct usage of words. Why, you can’t even seem to learn to correct certain consistent writing errors when I correct them directly on your paper. Next time you write for me, there they are again, cropping up like lamb’s quarters in a recently tilled garden. If my comments right on your paper make no difference, how could Pinker’s necessarily much more general book ever reach you? I don’t think it can, unless you are nearly there already and just use it to firm up things you already knew.

Does this mean there is no hope for either teaching writing or learning to write more clearly? No. It just means that the only way to learn to write is to write. And read. Play with your words. Try out different sentences that say the same thing. See what is simple and what is hard. Read your writing out loud. Read everything you can get your hands on. Write every day. Even just half an hour can help.

I suppose if it were Daniel Kahneman writing about writing, he would say that system 1 is largely in charge of writing, while comments on writing address system 2. System 1 is that innate system, the spontaneous response to things we call auto pilot, or knee jerk reactions. We do it without thinking. System 2 is much harder, covers reasoned responses and shuts down when we are tired or stressed. Writing is essentially speech and we just can’t think out every sentence without going crazy.

So the challenge of writing well is to get it into system 1. I think the only way to do that is to write a lot, to read a lot, to have correct language be your default. Reading Pinker should be part of that reading.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment