Effective, Easy, and Enjoyable: The Best Way I Know to Improve Your Academic Critical Skills

I’m sure you have heard this before!

If you want to write a good literature review you need to develop your critical skills.

‘But how?!’ – you may ask.

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Physics Journal Club Presentation, R. T. Birge Lecturing seated at left: Lawrence and Oppenheimer [UARC PIC 04:268]

Simple: Join a Journal Club!

(and if you don’t have one to join, create your own – keep reading and I’ll tell you how)

A journal club is a group of people who meet regularly to critically evaluate recent articles in the academic literature and to discuss in detail a specific research paper.

The members of the club can range from PhD students and post-docs, to more experienced researchers and highly accomplished professors. A mix of people at different stages in their careers is a blessing to further stimulate discussion (even though it may feel slightly intimidating to the inexperienced student).

Regardless of its composition, a journal club will help you to:

  • Keep up-to-date with the latest literature in your field
  • Become a more careful reader (and therefore a better writer!)
  • Learn and practice your critical skills
  • Improve your presentation skills
  • Build your confidence and ability to evaluate the work of others
  • Promote your sense of belonging (to your research group or department)
  • Turn a social occasion into an enjoyable educational treat.

Of course, you may be in the unfortunate position of not having a journal club to join.

If so, just start one yourself!

Ideally, you should aim for a group of four or five members, but again don’t let this stop you dead in your tracks. All you need to make a start is just one more person. So, ask a fellow PhD student or an early-career post-doctoral fellow from your own discipline.

And if you are still complaining that you can’t (I know… you are the only student in your group!), then consider creating a virtual Journal Club that meets online.

Once you have found and assembled your buddies, here is what you need to do:

  • Schedule your meetings to take place regularly (ideally once a week, for about one hour)
  • Design a facilitator before each meeting (make sure this role is taken in turn by all members of the group)
  • The facilitator chooses a paper for discussion and distributes it to all members a few days before the meeting
  • The facilitator circulates a few questions about the paper (this is optional, but may prove useful to focus people’s minds to specific issues, especially if the paper is very long)
  • Each member commits to reading the paper before the meeting and to think about the questions posed
  • At the meeting, the facilitator presents a brief overview of the paper. Keep this informal: no need to prepare slides or anything. A piece of chalk and a blackboard is all you need to write down key points if necessary
  • The facilitator initiates the discussion and encourages everyone to take part (see below for suggestions of possible topics)
  • Before the meeting ends, agree on the date, time and facilitator for the following meeting
  • Make sure you start and finish at the agreed times. 

If you are in doubt as to what to discuss about, here some pointers to get you started (feel free to add your own)

Description of the study:

  • What was the purpose of the research?
  • Why is the research important in the wider context?
  • Were the key objectives clearly stated?
  • What was the nature of the study (experimental, theoretical, computational)?

Literature evaluation

  • Was the literature review well presented and sufficiently up to date?
  • Was any major recent study left out? If so try to figure out why
  • Is the paper clear and well written?

Approach and Analysis

  • What was the method used in the study? Can you clearly identify it?
  • How were data obtained and analysed?
  • Is/was there any fault in the approach used?
  • Is the statistical analysis of the data appropriate and sound?

Results and Conclusions

  • What were the key findings of the study?
  • Were results clearly presented and properly discussed?
  • Did the author(s) offer an interpretation of their results?
  • Did the study suffer from any potential limitations? Were these discussed?
  • Could the study be replicated?
  • Was the study successful in solving the research gap(s) identified?
  • What additional questions does the study raise?

I hope this post serves you well.

A final secret for success?

Just take action now. Go talk to one of your colleagues or friends, share this post and arrange your first meeting.

I’ll wait to hear from you :)

The Productivity Code Video Series

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Very often people think that being a researcher is all about excitement, discoveries, and success. And while some of this may eventually be achieved, the day-to-day reality of it is rather different.

We often struggle to keep up with running a lab, taking new data, analyzing them, writing papers, applying for grants. And all of this while also trying to have a full and fulfilled life!

Some of us may also constantly battle with negative thoughts:

“what if this is not good enough?”

“what if I don’t manage to make good progress?”

“why did I not do this earlier when I had more time?”

No wonder, we often feel exhausted, overwhelmed and just simply run down.

I have been there myself. And I have personally discovered what a huge difference it can make to just follow the advice and support of those who have been there and have found a way to succeed.

In fact, soon after becoming a mom, some years ago, I realized I needed to set new priorities both at work and in my private life. That’s when I started working with Olga Degtyareva, a friend and former colleague of mine.

Olga has become an expert on productivity and she has already helped many students and researchers all over the world to make huge progress in their careers without feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, or stressed out.

The good news is that Olga has now put together a great free training series to show you exactly how to overcome overwhelm, become more productive and stay productive for good!! Over 150 people from around the world have already joined in this training. You can still register to access the full training series at the link below:

FULL SERIES: The Productivity Code Video Series

(make sure you also download the handouts by clicking on the link below each video)

But that’s not all!

Olga emailed me the other day to let me know that she is going to release one more video today!

BONUS video #4… it’s all about you moving forward on your path. And she’ll be telling you about two biggest problems that most researchers come across.

Also, towards the end of the video, she’ll give you the details about the Productivity Code Quick Start Online Course and Coaching Program.

So, if you are struggling with making progress with your work, don’t miss out!

Registrations are opening up TODAY (11th of September) at 12:00pm London time.

Enjoy!
Marialuisa

PS Oh, and remember that the free training will remain available only until September 18th!

 

Are You Struggling With Your Writing?

Computer-Frustration-Cartoon-2‘How do I write an introduction?’

‘What do I put in my conclusions?

‘How do I manage to keep on track when I feel I have completely lost my motivation?’

‘My submission deadline is approaching fast but I still haven’t completed my thesis and I’m now panicking. What can I do?’

‘How do I decide what to reference in my text?’

These are just some of the questions that I get asked all the time.

Do you relate with any of these? If so, don’t miss my FREE Webinar:

‘How to Write Your PhD Thesis, Proposal, or Research Paper in 5 Easy Steps That Will Save You Time, Stress, and Sleepless Nights’

In this webinar, I’ll be sharing:

  • The single most important thing to get right in your thesis, proposal or research paper
  • My top 3 tips for productive and effective writing
  • The worst mistake you can make and how to avoid it
  • My proven 5-step approach to writing that will help you enjoy it and become more confident

Interested? Then, make sure you register now as spaces are limited and they are filling up quickly.
http://www.handsonwriting.com/webinar

After the webinar, I’m also going to open up registrations to my online course ‘Hands on Writing: How to Master Academic Writing (in the Sciences)’ where I teach the very same strategy that I now use for my own writing and when supervising my PhD students.

And… I’ll be telling you about some juicy bonuses on how to avoid procrastination, stay on track, enjoy a great work-life balance so you can feel confident and in charge again.

I’ll tell you more at the webinar, so just make sure you do not miss it! :)

Here is the link again:
http://www.handsonwriting.com/webinar

Tips for a Successful PhD

If you have recently started your PhD, you may still be at a stage where you wonder what is actually expected of you and more generally, what is the secret for a successful PhD.

adviceSome time ago, I was asked to write a guest post on Nature’s Soapbox Science Blog to provide some advice to new PhD student.

If you are a new PhD student, or an aspiring one, here is a re-post of my original article Beginnings – Top 10 Tips to Succeed in Your PhD. I hope you’ll find it useful.

***

So, you have just graduated and are about to start a PhD. Well done and congratulations! This is certainly an important milestone in your education and you deserve to celebrate both an end and a new beginning. No doubt you are expecting exciting times ahead and plenty of new experiences and opportunities. For the luckiest of you, your PhD might turn out to be an easy ride. For most, however, it will not be all rosy as you first thought.

There are good reasons why this is the case.

The acronym PhD comes from the Latin Philosophiae Doctor (or Doctor of Philosophy), where philosophy is not to be understood as a branch of science, but as its original Greek meaning of “love of wisdom” or “the pursuit of in-depth knowledge”. In itself, a PhD is just a title: an advanced academic degree awarded by a university for original contributions to knowledge. However, the PhD has become a requirement for a career as a university professor or researcher in most fields. Although the roots of the “doctorate” degree can be traced back to the Middle Ages (see for example [1]), its status as an advanced research degree is much more recent and dates to the early nineteenth century, when the doctorate was first introduced at Berlin University.

The requirements for a PhD vary greatly from country to country. In the US, Canada and Denmark, for example, specific coursework is required over a prescribed minimum amount of time, in addition to the research project that forms the core of a PhD. In other countries (such as the UK, although things are gradually changing), there is no such prescription but other activities, e.g. contribution to teaching, are equally expected. The culmination of the PhD consists in the submission of a written thesis describing a suitable body of original academic research, which is deemed worthy of publication in peer-reviewed journals. The candidate is then expected to defend his work before a panel of experts (their number varies greatly across countries), in a process known as the “Viva” (Latin from Viva voce, i.e. “by live voice”). Provided the panel is satisfied by the work carried out and by its oral defense, the PhD title (at last, a Dr in front on your name!) is finally and formally awarded.

Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that this is the end of the story for, ultimately, a PhD is merely a professional qualification. Stated simply, it is a qualification that certifies your aptitude to be a practitioner in your own field of expertise. Thus, rather than an end, this is just the beginning: the beginning of your profession and your career. In this respect, a PhD is nothing more (or less!) than an “apprenticeship in science: a frustrating, triumphant, exhausting, and ultimately Darwinian career that will require everything you can muster” [2].

Maybe then, it comes as no surprise that a PhD is not for everyone! Independence, self-drive, persistence, adaptability, brightness, commitment, motivation, reliability, discipline, creativity, are only some of the key traits that make for a successful PhD student. Sadly, excellent academic grades alone are not enough as the requirements for a good PhD student can be very different from those of a good undergraduate student [4].

Having worked in academia for almost 15 years, I have seen many students becoming disillusioned with their PhDs at a very early stage because of misplaced expectations of what it would be all about. I have also seen students making the same mistakes over and over again. And while it is true that every PhD is a blend of unique and distinctive circumstances (project, supervision, personal abilities), some aspects of it remain unchanged throughout countries and across disciplines.

So, you may want to learn from the pitfalls and setbacks of others to save yourself months (if not years!) of frustration and dissatisfaction. The advice I offer below is mainly aimed at PhD students in science (my background being Physics), but some of it can equally be extended to other fields of research.

Here, my top ten tips:

1) Choose your project and your supervisor wisely (see [3] for more advice on this). Nothing can make your life a misery as an ill matched supervision or project.

2) If you are going to do experimental work, be prepared for unexpected setbacks. Despite your best efforts, things can (and sadly will!) go wrong at some point or other. Just stick with it and be patient. Also, be open to take a different direction if the original one proves unworkable.

3) Devote your mind and soul to your PhD. This is a unique time in your career as a scientist to work almost exclusively on your research project. You will hardly ever have the same luxury again! (Well, unless you start another PhD, that is).

4) Be reliable. Follow through with your words, stick to what agreed with your supervisor, and always communicate as early as possible if you are prevented from fulfilling your commitments for any reason (make sure it is a good one).

5) Ban perfectionism, but be professional! Be scrupulous, careful and accurate. Check, double check and check again your data and your results. Do not let your supervisor lose trust in your results, or worse, in you as a researcher. Reward yourself for major achievements and stop working when you are on holiday.

6) Write at every opportunity. Be it a report, a first year summary of your progress, a proposal to gain access time at international facilities for your research, a first draft of an article, always make sure you work at it with the highest dedication and professionalism. Do not make the mistake to assume that your year report is not worth the hassle. Look at it as a useful training towards the writing up of your thesis. Ask for feedback and act upon it. Most people are not naturally gifted writers, and writing well always takes far longer than expected. On the positive side, scientific writing can be learnt and luckily there are plenty of resources out there.

7) If you are required to take on teaching commitments, choose courses which you feel genuinely interested in, or courses from which you can learn something useful for your PhD project (whether it is directly related to it, or whether it just allows you to acquire new skills). Also, make sure you strike the right balance between teaching and research.

8) When attending conferences or summer schools, use these opportunities to network and expand your circle of influential contacts and to increase your knowledge base. Ask questions and be interested in what others are doing. Focusing on others is the best way to make an impression and to get others interested in you and your work.

9) Be prepared and accept that there will be tough times. It is in the nature of doing a PhD and everyone goes through such times sooner or later. If this happens to you, try and keep the right perspective on things. Do whatever you can to address any specific problem that may have led to a hault. If you cannot solve the problem, adopt a constructive attitude: remind yourself that you are privileged to be doing a PhD and that soon enough you will see the end of it. If things get seriously worrying, ask for help. Many departments have organizations specifically designed to provide help and advice to students on all sorts of matters.

10) Be careful about initiating personal relationships with fellow students or other colleagues in your own department and for sure stay well away from your supervisor! It is often heartbreaking when a relationship ends. If this happens with someone whom you are likely to meet again every day, or worse, with someone who has some sort of power over you (as is the case with your supervisor) this can be the end of your PhD too. Do not risk it!

And finally, for as much as you can, enjoy it! It can be the beginning of a fabulous career.

References

[1] http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Philosophiae+Doctor

[2] Though love: An insensitive guide to thriving in you PhD  

[3] How to Choose Your Supervisor and Sail Happily Through Your PhD 

[4] Top Ten Tips to a Great PhD Start (part I and part II)

Insiders Views on Doing a PhD (Video)

A new academic year starts today at the University of Edinburgh.

This also coincides with the arrival of all our new PhD students. For some, this is the time to start thinking about choosing a project, or a supervisor, and finding out what to do to begin in the best possible way.

For others, this is the time to start thinking about applying for a PhD, or even finding out whether a PhD is a good idea for them. Last year, I posted some advice in this blog and you may find it useful to read Ten Good Reasons for Doing PhD (part I) and (part II) or to read my guest post at Nature’s SoapBox Science Blog.

This year, we decided to ask some insiders about what a PhD means to them.

In the video below, three of our PhD students (Daniel Doherty, Salome Matos, and Tim Bush) speak about their experience as a PhD student in the School of Physics and Astronomy.

These are the questions we have asked them:

  • What made you want to study for a PhD?
  • What are your career aspirations and how do you think a PhD will help?
  • Is your PhD related to previous studies?
  • Do you have any advice on how to approach a potential supervisor?
  • So far, what have been the hardest and most rewarding moments of your PhD?
  • So far, has the PhD been what you expected?
  • Do you have any advice for prospective PhD applicants?

Click on the image below to start watching the video. I hope you will find it useful.

Video credits: Noe Ardanaz-Ugalde 

Do you have any comment or question? Just let us know and share your experience.