Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Writing’

Organizing Your Group: Semester Reports

TypingAlthough I have mentioned the semester report in prior posts (management, lab rules, management), I realize that I haven’t made it explicit what the report is for, what it asks for, and how I use it to manage the lab. First, I should say there are lot of ways to do something like this. I started having my students write reports after talking to a very senior WomanOfScience about how she organizes her group. She makes her students write monthly reports. I tried that, but it was too frequent for them and for me. I decided one per semester and one in the summer (3 per year) was a better rate for reporting. I give the students a specific deadline, usually September 1, June 1, and February 1. I also encourage them to take time away from performing new experiments so they can spend time reflecting and writing the report.

Q: Why do this? A: Pedagogy. As most of us are, I am an educator. I noticed that my students were not getting practice with their writing. We would have enough data for a paper, and they would freak out about having to write it. Or, they would write it very poorly. Sometimes they would not include information that they should (data, methods) in the paper because they literally forgot what they did. I decided that the students needed more practice and they needed to routinely recap what they did and their results before it all piled up. I also decided to use this report as a mechanism to help them plan ahead and to do a little self assessment.

Q: What? A: Specific questions. Unlike writing a paper that has a specific format, I wanted the report to be a historical recap of what the students did over the previous semester. I wanted them to think about what their plan had been, what they tried, what worked, what didn’t work, what they accomplished, and give them a place to think about the next 3-4 months. To do this, I ask them to address specific questions in their report. I paste in here the format I use:

  1. A list of goals that the student had for the previous semester/summer;
  2. A description of the experiments the student performed to reach those goals including:
    • The reagents and methods used to perform experiments
    • A description of any analysis you did including the programs you used and the metric you measured and why you measured them
    • A description of the results you found (using words in paragraph form)
    • Figures to illustrate the methods and results you found including images, timeseries of movie data, and plots of quantified data
    • A description of what you think your data means and what the next steps might be
  3. A list of unmet goals;
    • Any problems or issues that the student encountered in attaining those goals
    • Any improvements made or ways that progress can be made faster
  4. A list of goals for the next semester/summer;
    • Is this a reasonable amount of work?
    • What milestones do you expect to meet and when?
  5. A personal statement that addresses the following:
    • What is your personal career goal?
    • How will your work in this lab help you to achieve that goal?
    • What is your personal goal for completing your tenure in this lab? (If you plan to leave the lab eventually – most of you do!)
    • What are your personal goals for achieving your timeline? What skills are needed? What milestones and achievements do you need to make along the way?
  6. A self-evaluation of your progress and work in the lab, what you have done well, and what you need to improve on. For this section, please consider your:
    • Planning and completion of experiments
    • Organization, interpretation and presentation of data (written & oral)
    • Ability to think of “the next logical step” in your experimental design
    • Time management and commitment to research
    • Ability to work independently, troubleshoot & seek outside help when necessary
  7. Any new protocols developed over the last semester, typed, and as separate word documents. The protocols will be posted on the lab website for others to use.

Q: What do you do with these reports? A: Read and comment. I make all the spring reports due June 1, and I get a bunch in all around the same time. Then I have to spend some time reading and commenting. Sometimes I print them out, write comments on the papers, scan for my records, and give the comments back to the student. Other times, I write the comments in a word document and send that to the students. Interestingly, the part that the students are often most hung up on is their self-evaluation. Undergraduate students are especially hard on themselves often saying they are not dedicated enough to the lab. For the more senior students, it is great to see all the experiments they did over the last semester in one place. They often realize how much they did and are proud.

Q: Results? A: Awesome. These reports are super awesome. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The students get a chance to look at what they have done. As I said above, they are often shocked by how much they were able to complete. If they are balancing multiple projects, they are able to look at which projects made progress and which are struggling, and evaluate where to put their efforts.
  2. They get a chance to see what they are going to do. Sometimes students are so excited about taking data, they aren’t thinking about their progress, how much more they really need for a story, or if they might be done. Taking this time to rehash what they did often helps them to sort out where they are and what they still need to do.
  3. They get a chance to self-evaluate. Similar to giving them time to plan, giving time to self-evaluate is really important to stay motivated and keep things moving.
  4. Sometimes we realize they have enough for a paper. This has happened 3 times, in fact. I’m not sure how your science works, but in my field, it often takes a year to figure out how to take the data, but once you figure it out, you can basically take all the data in a couple months. Three different times, when I read a student’s report, there was enough data in there for a paper. Maybe a few new experiments were needed. Maybe a re-analysis, but the meat of a paper was there. Isn’t that amazing?

The only downside of this process is that sometimes I am too busy to do a good job reading the reports. That is bad, and I need to make time to do it. I am going to get many of them on June 1, and I need to make time to read and respond to them. It is especially important during my current situation (sabbatical) that I take the time to read and respond to all the reports.

What are your thoughts? Post or comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post!

 

Writing a Draft Manuscript

typewriterI have been working on a manuscript about some pretty nifty science. I have been working on it for some time, and I finally just submitted it last week. As part of the “how to write” series, I thought I would give my personal process for how to write a manuscript. I am sure there are as many ways to write a manuscript as there are manuscripts that have been written and published. This is my way, and it also how I instruct to my students to help them get over the hurtles of writing.

1. Make figures. Science is all about the data. The data is the story, so the first thing I do is make figures. This can be pretty challenging in and of itself. When working with students, I often have them make the figures – or at least the first draft of the figures. They often don’t know exactly what to do – even if they have presented some nice plots and graphs in group meetings. I usually sketch out the figures with them on the white board before I set them to work getting the data into figure form. Also, I try to get the students to think about the figures as they are taking the data. I usually sketch out plots when we discuss the experiments. If you are already thinking about your data in figure format as you take it, making the figures becomes much easier.

If you figures are missing data, if often become clear at this step. It is obvious that something – some data, some plot – is missing in the figures. We don’t go onto the next step until we have all the data in figure form.

Just FYI, I use Illustrator to make my figures. I hate Powerpoint. It does not allow very much control or good resolution. I know some people love Powerpoint for figures, but I think it is clumsy compared to Illustrator.

2. Long figure captions. After the figures are all made – with ALL the data – we write long figure captions. The figure captions include how we did the experiments, what the figure results show, and what the results mean. The point of a long figure caption is to have an easy way to move from the data to the rest of the manuscript. The “how we did it” becomes part of the materials and methods. The “what the figure results show” become the results section. The “what the results mean” becomes part of the discussion section. The point of the long figure captions is just to help students get over their fear of writing. It is much easier to write while you have a figure to look at and to write about.

3. Methods. I find that the methods are often one of the easier parts to write – especially for students. This is where they get to say what they did. One issue I find, especially when working with undergraduate authors, is that this section can be harder to write than it seems. Yes, it is just what you did, but it has a specific style. For instance, it is not helpful to describe the volumes used in your assays – it is important to describe the concentrations of the reagents. The experiment *should* work the same if you mix up 1 ml or 100 ml, as long as the concentrations are the same.  I have a few favorite papers of my own or from others that I think have particularly good methods sections. I often give these to students to read to help them get the style and tone in their heads before they write.

4. Results. I, personally, find the results easiest to write – especially if you have the figures made up already. Often, each figure is a section of the paper’s results section. Again, this is where one can just describe what the data says. I write as stream of conciousness from the images and describe the data. Doing it this way tends to make the paper a bit long-winded, and it needs a lot of editing, but it is better than to stare at a blank page. It is always easier to cut and edit than to come up with perfect words the first time. A lot of times, I end up writing implications or how the data relates to other work in this section. These ideas are really better suited for the discussion, but it is easier to write them here and move them, if they belong somewhere else.

5. Discussion. After writing the results, I write a discussion section. Sometimes, the results and discussion sections are melded together, and for each figure, I write results and then discussion/implications. If they are separate, I still often write discussion-like ideas in the results and just cut and paste them into the discussion afterwards. These are the starting point, and I expand the discussion from there. At this point, I often have to do additional reading of the literature in order to put my work into context. I add in the references as I think of them with some sort of demarkation that my citation software can recognize. I use {curly brackets} and author name and year. If I know I need a citation as I am writing, I might highlight {cite}, so I can go back and find it later.

6. Introduction. I write the introduction after the discussion. How else will I know what topics I need to introduce and background literature to ground the work until I know the results and implications. I often need to do more reading at this point to make sure I have good and correct references. I insert the citations as I describe above in the text as they come up in the introduction. I often have to read other introductions, especially if I am stuck for words. By this point, I have a good idea of where I am sending the manuscript, so I read introductions from published papers in the same journal to get the style in my head.

7. Abstract. After the paper is pretty much written, I then write the abstract. The abstract is difficult because you need to be brief, for some journals less than 150 words! But, you have to get all the information of why it is important, what you did, and why is matters to the field. Again, I often write something much longer and have to cut cut cut. I think of an abstract as an inverted pyramid – start broad and focus down. You also want to hook the reader – tell them why this work is important early on so they want to read the paper.

8. Other stuff. This stuff I kind of do when the whim hits me. If I am having a hard time writing, then I might write the Acknowledgements section. This takes looking up all the funding agencies and getting the numbers. I had it on a sticky note (an electronic one on computer – not an actual sticky note), but I started being more organized with it all in an excel spreadsheet. Something like the title might change as the paper is being written and different important parts come into view. I like it to represent the results or the implications – it depends on the journal. The authors and author order are usually obvious and depend on the amount of effort, type of person, and the field you are in.

9. Cover letter. The cover letter. I think this is very important, and I think I have been doing it wrong until recently. Once you know the story, the cover letter is the place where you sell it to the editor. The higher “impact” the journal, the more important the cover letter is. This is especially true if the scientific editors are professional science editors and not Principle Investigators acting as editors. You have to educate the editor about how important your field is and why your work is an important piece of the puzzle that was missing until now. You have to discuss what your results are in laymen’s terms – like when you write a proposal for generally educated scientists who might not be right in your field. It must be clear and convincing.  I hope my recent cover letter works. It is far superior to any cover letter I have even submitted before now.

10. References. This is the absolutely last thing I do. Many of the references are being inserted in {curly brackets} along the way, but some will still be missing. They will also be missing from my reference software, so I have to spend some time getting all the citations into that, too. I personally do not use EndNote, but many people do. I use a program called Sente. Either way, I have to get the references into this software system to get inserted at the end. Once my references are inserted in the journal’s style, I cannot modify them or add more, so this is why I wait until the very very last to insert them – otherwise, I am wasting my time.

Before putting in final references, I have my entire lab read and edit the paper. They edit for typos, grammar, spelling, and tell me if things are not clear or confusing.

After all these steps, then I spend a lot of time submitting. The submission processes online are actually easier now than when I was a graduate student, but they still take several hours of inputting names by hand and getting the figures, tables, and writing all uploaded. So, even when you are done with the manuscript, you aren’t quite done.

And there it is, now you have a submitted manuscript! Easy, right? No, but it works, and it is relatively painless – at least for me. So, what are your tricks for writing manuscripts? Comment or post here.

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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