How to Master Academic Writing in the Sciences

Ok, this is an announcement more than a post.

writing

But first…

…did you know that only 2% of academics have ever undertaken any formal training in academic writing [1]?

This is amazing when you consider how critical it is for academics to be able to write well. Think about a PhD thesis. Or a research paper. Or a proposal to obtain research time at some international facility (a major lab or a big telescope). Or even a grant application. Or a job at a prestigious university.

Your chances of being successful at any of these hinges greatly on one simple factor: How well you can write!

Sadly, most PhD students (and, dare I say, academics!) are expected to (magically!) master academic writing with very little guidance, almost by osmosis. Of course, there is much you can learn by trial and error and by attempting to emulate the work of the masters. But this is a lengthy, inefficient, and serendipitous path to take. And one that does not guarantee success either! (Do you really want to find out how to write a good job application by trial and error?)

Far better is to understand what makes for good writing, to learn the dos and don’ts of academic discourse, and to follow some simple strategies that can massively improve the quality of your writing. Then, you realise that scientific academic writing is a craft. And one that you can learn!

Yes, I know. There are hundreds of books out there, which could teach you how to write successfully in academia. And actually many of them are really great.

But here is the problem. Do you actually ever read them? I suspect, your answer is no.

And if you do, have you ever wished you could get in touch with the author to ask any question you may have? If that’s the case, then here is my announcement for you:

I have developed a step-by-step programme specifically designed to take you through the process of academic writing, at your own pace, but with my support.

Interested? Then, have a look at

Hands on Writing: How to Master Academic Writing in the Sciences.

In this course, I will share with you some simple tools and techniques that I regularly use in my own writing and that have proved helpful to many students already.

Whether you are working at your PhD thesis or a research paper, this course will provide you with an easy-to-follow framework to become a more effective, confident and productive writer.

And even if you are not in a scientific discipline, you can still benefit from plenty of very general strategies and tips to help you improve on your skills.

Now, here is the important bit!

The course will go live online for the first time on November 4th and then registration will be over until next year.

And because this is the course debut, I’m going to offer it at a very special price for this time only.

So, now is the time to take action. Click here to register.

But hurry up! This offer expires on Sunday, November 3rd.

PS Oh, and if you think that this post may be relevant to someone you know, please be so kind to pass it on.

[1] Source: Helen Sword, Author of Stylish Academic Writing, Harvard University Press (2012)

How to Stand Out When Applying for An Academic Job

pedone_re“I regret to inform you that your application has not been successful.”

The letter you were so eagerly awaiting has arrived. You were full of anticipation for your latest application. But this was not what you were hoping to hear! So, now you feel disappointed, frustrated, and hopeless. Wondering whether you’ll ever succeed at securing that post.

Getting a job in academia is hugely competitive. If you want to stand a chance of succeeding, you’ve got to stand out.

As a very first step, you need to make it to the shortlist and be invited for an interview. That’s where you become alive and not just another CV on paper. That’s when you get to show who you really are and why they should hire you.

But getting shortlisted for that one position when there are at least another ninety-nine applicants is certainly tough. So, what can you do?

How do you stand out when almost everyone else has a similar track record as yours, an equivalent number of papers, a similar h-index, an equally appropriate experience, the same excellent reference letters and a comparable potential for leadership?

Not easy, I know.

If that wasn’t enough, all too often, panel members have only a few days to skim through a huge amount of paper work and select candidates for the shortlist.

Typically, this task comes in the middle of several others with similar degrees of urgency and impending deadlines: grant applications; papers submissions; multiple trips; high-level meetings; teaching; exams; marking; experiments; supervision; preparing a keynote talk for a major international conference.

This means that you are not only competing with all other applicants; you are also competing against scarcity of time, urgent issues, and general busy-ness.

It’s not that the panel members are lazy. Or don’t care. Or are unprofessional. It’s just that they have to juggle the multiple demands of their time… in a very short time.

Of course, they will do the best they can, but if you can help them making up their mind fast (one way or another!), they’ll jump at the opportunity.

Make it hard for them to find the information they are looking for, and they’ll be more likely to discard your application altogether. Forget to show how you match the job requirements, and you are out. Fail to include your vision and ambition, and they’ll wonder what to do with you.

So, what can you do to stand out? How can you shine above all other applicants?

Distinguish yourself in your Personal Statement and in your Research Plan.

In the personal statement, most people write about what they have done so far, the projects they have been leading, the papers they have published.

In the research plan, they typically reflect back on what they have already achieved and briefly mention the research they intend to carry out.

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that, but none of it will make you stand out.

Here is what you can do instead.

Personal Statement

Answer this question: Why are you the best person for the job?

Make it relevant; be bold; recall what you have already achieved as a way to support your statements with facts.

Show that you have taken the time to find out about the department you will be working in; the directions in which it’s going; what challenges you would be facing; how you intend to contribute to the host group’s activities. Explain why you would be a perfect match and what new and unique skills you will bring to benefit that group.

Be brief, convincing and to the point. Speak to your strengths without dragging  and let the facts speak for you. But guide your reader to make the appropriate connections.

Research plan

Most of the research plans I read evolve along the lines: in the first two years of my post, I intend to do… ; then, I will… ; in the final year of this fellowship, I plan…

This is all fine, but with nothing else to make it spark, it’s just a timeline without any vision.

Answer this question: What is your ultimate ambition? If money, time, resources were not an issue, what would you like to be, do, accomplish over the next five to ten years?

Again, think big! Be specific, without making it sound unrealistic. Share your vision. For yourself and for the group/department/university you will be working with.

Once you have affirmed your ambition, say why this particular job position is the best opportunity for you to achieve your goals. Explain how it will allow you to realize your dreams. Illustrate why it would make a difference in your career.

Be bold. Think big. And you’ll stand a better chance to stand out.

In general, it pays to get in touch with someone in the host department so that you can get useful insights about the post and the type of person they are looking for. Then, once your application is ready, get some feedback from an experienced colleague. Ideally, someone who has been there and has succeeded. Their help can be invaluable.

Are you applying for an academic job any time soon? Do you need further help and guidance? If so, get in touch for a 30 min free strategy session. I’d love to be able to help you.

You ARE a Writer, Whether You Know It or Not

writerPaul*, a colleague and dear friend of mine, called me on Skype the other day to mourn about the referee response he had received for a recent paper.

He was clearly annoyed, and probably rightly so. I have known him for many years and without doubts he is one of the best researchers I know. And I could share his frustration.

I let him speak and vent off his resentment.

Then, after a while, I asked him half-jokingly whether he wanted to write a guest post for my blog and share his experience.

His reply, however, took me by surprise!

“No, it’s not really my thing – he said – I am not a writer.”

I was baffled, but decided not to insist as he probably would not be bothered and certainly was not in the right mood to discuss this further. In my mind, however, I could not avoid thinking that he was wrong.

You see, as an academic, writing is really at the core of what you do.

Actually – you may argue – research is our top concern!

Fine.

But what would our research be worth if we were not able (or willing) to write about it and to communicate it effectively to our readers?

How could we pass on the knowledge, advances, and breakthroughs if not by writing about them in a way that would make sense to others?

And yet, arguing the importance of writing as a vehicle to communicate our research is only too easy. Of course – you’d agree – we need to write and share the results of our research!

But, perhaps you too, like my friend Paul, do not regard yourself as a writer.

But think about this… As an academic, you are expected to write all sorts of things: grant applications, research proposals, letters of reference, articles for journals and magazines, review papers, books or book chapters, conference papers, facility-time applications, annual reports, research statements, job applications, cases for promotion, resumes, Curriculum Vitae, exam papers. The list goes on.

I cannot think of any other job – apart from being a professional book writer or a journalist – whose core activity is so much centered on writing.

So, even if you do not regard yourself as a writer, the truth is that you are!

More than that, your success as an academic may well hinge on how well (and how much) you write, as Patricia Goodson rightly argues in her recent book, Becoming an Academic Writer. In fact, writing may well be the single most important tool of a successful academic career [1].

And it certainly pays off to learn to do it properly.

[1] P. Goodson, 2013: Becoming an Academic Writer – 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing, SAGE Publications Inc.

*Not his real name

Mastering the Art: The Two Stages of Writing

Some years ago I attended a workshop on academic writing at the University of Edinburgh. To be honest with you, I do not remember much about it. But at some point the instructor said something that really resonated with me.

struggling_writer

She said that writing happens in two main stages – drafting and editing – and that it is imperative that one should approach each separately.

Now, this may sound pretty obvious to you, but for me it was a revelation. I had never realized the importance of such a distinction, even though – with hindsight – this is exactly what my PhD supervisor used to do every time we were writing something together.

In truth, writing has never come easily to me. Being a perfectionist, I would like to produce the perfect draft in one go. Sadly, this is the worse possible recipe for major frustration. So, over the years, I have had to remind myself about keeping the two stages separate.

So, how does it work? and why can this improve your writing?

Here is the answer.

In the drafting stage, all you have to do is to fix concepts to the paper. Put down your thoughts, ideas, and key concepts. Do not worry about their proper layout or whether something should actually come before or after. Do not bother too much about style. In fact, do not even worry about grammar, or punctuation. Make sure you draft something as quickly as possible, almost without interrupting the flow of thoughts in your mind.

At this stage, your main focus should remain on the message you want to convey. To use the analogy with cookery from my previous post, this is when you mix all your ingredients together (it is not the time to put the decoration on your cake!).

Then, once you feel you have committed most of your content to the page, move away from your piece. Literally. Save it and store it. Hide your printout in a drawer and forget about it for a day or two.

When the time has passed, retrieve your script and critically review what you have written. This is the editing stage. Here – first and foremost – remember that “the structure is king”. Make sure that the content flows in the right logical order and strive for clarity.

This is often achieved by going from the general to the specific. At this point, you can still retain most of what you have written in its original form (again no worries about style, grammar, or punctuation. Yet!). If you need to re-arrange any material, just cut and paste entire blocks of text until you are satisfied that the order in which they appear makes sense.

Now, you can proceed to the next level down: editing individual sections, paragraphs, and sentences. This is the time to experiment with better ways of expressing a concept; refining the language; getting rid of the clutter. Probably, you will need to iterate this process a number of times before producing a text that flows and is stylistically pleasing to the reader.

Some people find editing boring, but in fact this is where elegant writing is crafted. It is in the final polishing of style that mastery is achieved. Keep this in mind and you may find editing a very rewarding aspect of your writing.

So, why do you need to keep the two stages separate? Well, if you are anything like me, chances are you will start writing something (just a sentence or two), read it, realize you do not like it, and start it all over again.

Some people call it zig-zag writing: going back and forth on the same line without actually achieving much. It is a surefire way to spend hours after hours trying to compose something, only to realize that the page is still mostly blank at the end of the day. Frustrating, isn’t it?

So then, every time you sit down to write up, resist the temptation to achieve something good the first time round. And remember: (almost) anything you read that has been published will have undergone far more editing and polishing that the authors themselves are willing to admit. And most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself expecting your first draft to be the polished final one.

Mastering good academic writing takes time. And effort.

The good news?

It can be learned.

PS Want to find out more about ways to improve your writing? I am preparing an on-line course fully packed with advice, tips, and strategies for mastering scientific academic writing. Email me to register your interest and I will get in touch once the course goes live.

Do You Also Say “Yes” When You Actually Mean “No”?

I certainly do (in fact more often than I am willing to admit). And judging from what I hear, other people do too.

You know? The kind of situation when somebody asks you to help out in the labs and you think “Oh yes, why not? It’s going to be fun”. Or when a colleague suggests you as a marker for his student’s project and you agree (the deadline is so far away anyway) only to regret it later when eventually your calendar has filled with commitments that are – let’s face it – more important to you. That’s when you start wondering “Why on earth did I agree to do this?!”

Life as an academic is busy, but you do not have to be a full time faculty member to face requests of your time from all sides.

Recently, I got an email from a PhD student asking for help. For the past two years, this student had been only too keen to say “yes” to continuous requests of his time to prepare materials for conferences, meetings, and papers.

The student was eager to offer his help. After all, it was a great opportunity for him to learn new skills and be seen as a collaborative member of his group and a reliable fellow in the department. Unsurprisingly, various other people started landing more tasks on his desk. Not being able to say “no” to any of these, the student had ended up with loads of extra work, little time to do any reading of his own, even less to move on with his own project, and barely able to prepare for exams. Sadly, neither his supervisor nor his fellow scientists had ever acknowledged his work, which of course did nothing to mitigate the student’s frustration.

The email ended with a laconic “what should I do?”.

I know from experience how hard it can be to say NO to a colleague or a friend. But when the asker is your superior or someone who holds authority over you, saying NO can be next to impossible.

Yet, learning to say NO when appropriate is vital to our well-being.

It seems that the two most common reasons why we feel compelled to say YES even if we mean NO are: sense of guilt (in saying no), and need for approval (whether conscious or not). So, clearly, dealing with these issues may be necessary to stop trying to please everyone.

On a more practical level, however, there are a few things that we can do to put boundaries to other people’s requests of our time. Here, I share some useful techniques that I have borrowed from Olga Degtyareva and Christine Kane.

Take time

Often, we let people approach us at any time of the day, in person, by email, on the phone. Because we may not be in the best frame of mind when put under the spotlight of an unexpected request, we may end up re-acting rather than acting on the call. This means we rarely check whether what we are being asked is something we actually want to do, or whether we are able to, or whether we have time for it. So, a useful tactic here is to take time. Say that you need to “think about it”, or to check your calendar, and you will get back to them as soon as possible with a yes or no answer.

The pro-active NO

Another approach consists in developing and rehearsing a set of useful phrases to say NO in an assertive way. For example:

  • I need to focus on writing my thesis at the moment
  • I have already committed to another task
  • I am not taking any new responsibility for the time being (or until I finish…)
  • I am working on several projects and I do not have any more time in my calendar

Think of more examples to fit your specific circumstances. You may have fun with this one :)

Is this in line with my priorities?

Before agreeing to take on board any new task, ask yourself if this brings you any closer to your goals. If the answer is yes, go ahead. If not, simply and politely refuse. Using one of you pro-active “no” will help you decline gracefully.

Bargain and compromise

Sometimes, saying NO is not appropriate (e.g. you are asked to do something that is part of your job description), but you may still try to negotiate. Can you claim some free time at the end of your assignment? Can you delegate someone else to do some of the other tasks you are doing so that you can make time for this new request? Go a step further and be explicit about exactly what you would like to have in return and try to put yourself and the other person in a win-win situation. Of course, be prepared to hear a NO in return! :)

In general, remember that:

  • if it is not an absolute YES it is a most likely NO
  • when you say NO to others, you say YES to yourself
  • you can say NO without explaining as long as you are clear about your decision

Saying NO will feel awkward at first. But with some practice you may even enjoy it!

Let me know how it goes!