Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Science writing’

Criticism – Take it

Julio_Ruelas_-_Criticism_-_Google_Art_ProjectI was chatting a few months ago to a AllyManOfScience who complimented me by saying he uses a lot of the laboratory organizational ideas I present here to organize his lab. (Lab organizational stuff can be found here, here, here, here.) I asked if he had anything to add or modify from what I said, and he added something very interesting. He said that he prefers to hire students who have had some background as an athlete or musician at a high level. He said that people who have done sports or music at a high level are very comfortable with criticism. They have an inherent understanding that even a good performance can still be made better and that critiques are not personal. Critiques are made to make their performance better. I started thinking about it, and I realized that a lot of scientists I know did do sports or music. I was a gymnast who competed at a fairly high level and worked out 24 hours per week to hone my skills. I wasn’t Olympic level, but high enough to be getting a lot of criticism after each routine on a regular basis. HusbandOfScience was a band nerd who taught himself guitar. He spent hours practicing guitar in high school. If you have a good musical ear, you can self-correct, and do not need others to tell you you did it wrong. Other WomenOfScience friends were cheerleaders, synchronized swimmers, and even champion dog show groomers/runners. All of these sports take skills and practice and involve getting criticism.

Science is full of criticism. You have to take it and say thank you. Then ask for more if you want to make it. You do an experiment – you get criticism. You make a figure – you get criticism. You give a talk – you get criticism. You make a poster – you get criticism. You write a paper – you get criticism. You apply for a grant – you get criticism. Over and over and over. It doesn’t stop. It won’t stop. The most famous people in science still get criticism when they submit a paper or a grant – even if they get the paper accepted or grant money a lot easier than you.

If you have a hard time taking criticism, I say practice and get better at it, or leave. You can get better at getting criticism. The first time I got a paper review as a graduate student, I cried. We made the changes and the paper got in. The second time I got a paper review as a graduate student, I cried… OK, so I didn’t learn how to take criticism over night. By the time I was a postdoc, I didn’t cry. I was learning how to take criticism. As a professor, my first couple grant rejections got to me, but after writing 10 proposals and finally getting one funded, I didn’t get so bummed when I didn’t get funded.

Reviews can be too harsh. Sometimes reviews are too harsh, too emotional, or just plain mean. And this sucks. But, your job as a logical scientist is to try to see through the crazy and find the truth in the words. Of course, you are entitled to be pissed off at a mean review or overly harsh or unhelpful critique. But, after you have cooled down, try to figure out what is actually wrong with what you did. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps they misread something that was perfectly clear…but perhaps you could make it clearer. Even bat sh*t crazy reviewer number 3 probably has some point.

There are bad reviews. I don’t want to say that all reviews are equal. I am on the editorial board for a journal, and I serve to find the reviewers and make the editorial decisions. Some reviews are, frankly, emotional. As an editor, I don’t want to see, nor do I care about, your emotions as a reviewer. I also don’t care about your personal opinions about science. I care about facts. Your reviews should be full of science facts. If you think that cats can fly, and that is your scientific opinion, you need to back that up with some references. I am OK with your opinions about the style of the writing as long as you make helpful suggestions to make it a better paper. If your review is emotional and not helpful, I’m not going to take it seriously. You are reviewing a scientific paper – not TROLLING your favorite blog.

So, what do you think? Add your two cents here in a comment, or send me a post. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Writing a Grant

Power of WordsWe had a nice post previously from Robin about the importance of grant writing. This post had some very good suggestions, and you can find it here. This post is more on the mechanics of writing  grant. Most importantly, you are staring at a blank screen, and you need to get some stuff out because the deadline in maybe a month away. Where do you start? What do you write? What needs to be in there and be included?

Apparently, there is big money to be made in answering these questions, because I get science spam at least once a day trying to sell me books, seminars, and webinars to address these questions. I actually do have one of these books – my university gave them out to us all at some point. I have to say that it was fairly useful because it listed all the parts of the grant that needs to be included. Obviously, if you don’t include a particular part of the grant, it is far less likely to get funded. But, so many people have these books now that the particular style described in these books has become a bit of a joke during review panels. Even so, it is better to follow one of those books and their format than to have no idea and do entirely the wrong thing.

When starting to write a grant, the first step is two fold: (1) read the call for proposals. Many calls, especially special calls, have specific required sections. ALSO, simultaneously (2) get some example proposals.  The last post on requesting proposals from others is a good guide on how to do this. It is best to get examples from the exact agency, division, and panel where you are going to submit.  Use these together to check come up with an outline for the components of the proposal.

Outline. Yes, outline. I know, it is boring and old fashioned to outline, and I am not suggesting anything too detailed. I am suggestions coming up with the headers for different sections of your proposal. To get you started, I am pasting in an outline I use (you can probably tell this is for proposals to the National Science Foundation):


1. SIGNIFICANCE: Why is this important? You need to have the why before the what.

2. HYPOTHESIS: Not all divisions expect hypothesis-driven research. Get an example to see it this section is typical.



4.1 Experimental Methods and Preliminary Results: Here we outline our experimental approach and present preliminary results.

Experiment Type 1:

Experiment Type 2:

Experiment Type 3:

4.2 Simulation Methods and Preliminary Results: Here we outline our simulations/analytical approach and present preliminary results.


Objective 1: State it here.

Rationale:  Why do we want to study this? Why is this objective important? Everyone needs a reminder.

Proposed Experiments for Objective 1: No methods. That is all described above. This is just the “what” experiments – not the “how” experiments.

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 1: You must have something about controls and alternatives. They will look for it!

Significance of Expected Outcomes for Objective 1: This is where you drive it home why these experiments and results are important. Again.

Objective 2:


Proposed Experiments for Objective 2:

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 2: 

Significance of Expected Outcomes for Objective 2:

Objective 3: This is the objective that can be a little more out there with less preliminary data.


Proposed Experiments for Objective 3:

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 3:


6.1 Interdisciplinarity.

6.2 Collaboration Work Plan. I will do this. Collaborator will do that. I like to include a ven diagram figure that cartoons the roles of each person.

6.3 Timeline. You must have a timeline. I like to make a chart. Funding agencies requests it.


8. BROADER IMPACTS: Here is where I put grad student training, undergraduate student training, and any other outreach plans.

9. RESULTS FROM PRIOR SUPPORT: This has a specific format. Make sure you use it. If you don’t have prior support, you can remove this section.

10. SUMMARY. Reiterate the significance again.

Another secret to getting a grant done is to take advantage of the time you have. There will always be a time when you have time to work on the proposal, but not the drive to write. If that happens, use the time to work on the myriad of other things that need to be apart of the grant such as the Budget, Budget Justification, Your Biosketch (you the correct format!), your Current and Pending, your Facilities and Resources, your Postdoc Mentoring Plan, and other documents. These documents are pretty boiler plate with tweaks, so they don’t require a ton of thought, but you still need to do them. Or, just get your proposal started on the online submission system and input all the data.

So, this is my method. And, as far as grant writing goes, I have done a lot of it – almost a dozen per year. I might even be good at it. I am batting 1000 on my last 4 proposals. What do you do to actually write a proposal? Post or comment here. Click +Follow to get email updates when I write new posts.

Writing, writing, writing

write-on-november-is-national-novel-writing-month-a5349cc216There is a lot of reading and writing in science. This is ironic for me, personally, because I went into science because I am a slow reader and I hated humanities classes where I had to read all day. I liked my math and science classes where I solved problems with pencil and paper. My professors delivered content, so I never read textbooks. It is true, despite the fact that I endorse active learning now where students have to read for themselves.

So, here I am, a tenured professor and all I do it read and write all day long. I rarely solve problems with pencil and paper, and I joy in the chance to do so for courses I teach or just snag some back-of-the-envelope time while reading a paper or writing up my own work. I also cannot get most of the content I need delivered, although I go to journal clubs and talks because I am a great auditory learner and I learn best that way. I even have to read papers to myself out loud. This is embarrassing, and I have to close my office door when I review manuscripts or proposals.

After writing that past post about how best to give presentations, I realize there a lot of aspects of this job that we can write how-to posts about. Writing has an seemingly unlimited supply, since we do so many types of writing. I think we will have a few posts (a theme, if you will) on writing. I am happy to entertain guest posts to describe your best practices for writing different things. I am going to list a few that come to mine, comment if you have more types of writing you can think of in addition to these.

  • Manuscripts
  • Proposals
  • Abstracts for posters/platform talks
  • Chapters
  • Books of research
  • Thesis
  • Textbooks
  • Lecture notes
  • Reviews of manuscripts for peer review
  • Reviews of proposals for peer review
  • Grant reports
  • Committee reports
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Letters of Support
  • Job Application Materials for various stages and types of jobs
  • Published proceedings
  • Biosketches
  • Biographical Information
  • Webpages
  • Blog entries on science
  • Book reviews for publication
  • Articles for general audiences
  • Highlights of research articles
  • Annual personnel reports/highlights
  • Memoranda of understanding
  • Requests for waivers

OK, that is all I can think of. I have written almost all of these types of writing assignments over my career. I haven’t written a textbook, yet, but I really want to. I think I have worked out schemes for writing each of these types of things, and I will write a couple entries about some of the most prevalent ones (or you will). Do you have any advise to offer? Post or comment!

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