Getting Started with your Research Paper: the Challenge

In November, we organised Academic Life’s first ever Facebook Challenge! It was three days long and aimed to help the participants Getting Started with their Research Paper! Every day had a specific relevant theme and related tasks that the participants had to complete and submit in order to receive feedback. I personally really enjoyed the whole procedure, from organising the material with my assistant (Dr Athina Frantzana) to giving feedback and answering questions in the daily live sessions. And from the feedback we received, it seems like the challenge achieved its purpose and the participants learnt from it while also having some fun!


Here, we have gathered for all of you the most important tips and advice from each of the three days of the challenge. I hope you find them useful and they make the beginning of drafting your research paper easier and more enjoyable!

Day 1: What is the message of your paper?

When we start writing a paper, we usually want to write about everything we have done. However, it is important to think about the key message that we want to convey with our paper and focus more on this rather than the very specific details. The key message needs to be crystal clear and fit in a sentence that is easily understood when read by other people (not just yourself!)


If you struggle to minimise all you want to say in a sentence, try first reading other people’s papers, and understanding their message. Write a paragraph explaining what a paper is about, then cut it down to three sentences, and then down to one sentence. Finally, do this for your paper, and you will get the one sentence with the message of your paper! You might find it difficult to write a paragraph for a paper that you haven’t written yet, so maybe instead try to create a list of bullet points, which may include key words or short sentences of important material of your paper. Then move to the three sentences and then to one sentence, as explained earlier.

Finally, be careful with the use of too much technical language. Depending on your intended audience and the journal you are planning to publish your paper in, adjust your language and avoid jargon as much as possible. For, example if you are aiming for a journal like Nature, your message has to be understood by the wider scientific community, and possibly by the general public. However, try not to oversimplify your language when it needs to be more specific, to avoid confusing or misleading your audience.

Day 2: What is the right journal for publishing your paper?

Ideally, if you have done extraordinary science, you should aim to publish your research paper in the best journal, the one with the highest impact factor amongst the journals of your research area. However, this might also mean that you will have a lower chance of being published, because there will be more competition, i.e. it will be more difficult to publish in Nature or Science than in other more specialised journals. But what does impact factor mean exactly? It is a number that represents the popularity and size of readership. In the best case scenario, you should aim for higher impact factor journals, especially if your research is scientifically significant to the general community.


Other parameters to consider when choosing journals are: the speed of publication, which is how quick the publication process is and how quickly you want it to be, for example, in the case you want to add it in your CV for a Postdoc application; and how technical you paper is, which means that if it is highly technical, it needs to be published in a more specific journal. The choice of the journal affects the way you are going to write your paper. As we mentioned earlier, if you aim for an audience from various backgrounds of the broader scientific community, you will have to use more accessible language with limited use of jargon. Reading some papers published in the chosen journal could help you identify the background knowledge of the readers, so you can adjust your content.

Make sure that you familiarise yourself with the guidelines of the journals of your choice, i.e. the format of the figures, templates etc. For example, in some journals, the methodology/experiments part is not included in the main paper content, but it is added as supplementary material. Also, make sure you read and understand the rules and guidelines regarding copyright and reproduction of your paper’s material.


Please try to submit the best draft you can, and follow the criteria for acceptance required by the journal of your choice, so the referee process is as smooth as possible. Also, do not submit the same manuscript to more than one journal at the same time, until the case you receive a rejection from the one you submitted first. Finally, you need to understand that if you have published in a journal before, it does not play a role in the acceptance of your new paper. It does help you though that you are familiar with the writing and submitting process from before.

Day 3: Prepare your display

In order to decide if we should invest time to read a paper, we often first look at its figures and read their captions to get an idea if this paper is relevant to our research and worth reading. Figures are crucial but often overlooked part of drafting a paper, so it’s important to put a little more effort on deciding the appropriate number of them and writing good quality captions. Figures and tables should be able to stand alone, so a reader can understand what they say without having to read the whole paper.


There is usually a limited number of figures that you can include in the main paper. Of course, different journals give you different options, that’s why it is important to choose the journal first and avoid preparing figures and tables that you eventually won’t be able to use. In review papers you might have space for more figures and tables. In research papers, try to minimise the number of figures and tables, even if you are allowed more; unless they are all absolutely necessary. Ask yourself “is this figure really critical for conveying the message of my paper?”.

After you decide the number, start preparing the figures in the best possible quality, i.e. label axes, include units and appropriate legends etc. Be careful with the use of colours, considering how they will look in a Black&White printed version. Sometimes you cannot avoid using and printing in colour, especially when you have a lot of different data to present in the same figure, so make sure you explain what all these colours mean in the legend and/or the caption. One thing to avoid is an inappropriate combination of colours for the data and the background, that might make your data not easily readable. Also consider the size and the resolution of your figure and make sure it’s readable when printed or when magnified in the electronic version. Finally, make sure you make effective use of your figure space, for example, if the legend fits in the figure, do that and present a larger figure rather than a smaller one with a side legend.


And then write the captions. Captions seem like a trivial part, and that’s why they are often one of the most problematic ones in a paper. Remember figure captions should always be placed below the figure, and table captions above the table. Similarly with the rest of your paper, captions’ language should be tailored to reflect the type of the chosen journal and its readership. In the caption, describe where the data come from, explain error bars, legends, axes and units, and all the elements of the figure. However, it is important to also explain what the figure tells us and how it contributes to the research. As mentioned earlier, the reader should be able to look at the figure and read the caption, and be able to understand what it means without having to read the rest of the paper’s text. But try to keep the caption short and tidy.

These are some of the main points discussed during the challenge, and the attendees found the related tasks helpful in order to achieve all these important details that lead to better drafting of a paper. However, it definitely takes time and practice to become a better academic writer, so keep an eye for the next challenge or course!

Of course the Hands on Writing Online Course is always available for you to register for more tips and advice!

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The Art of Receiving Feedback

Most of us love giving our opinion on things, like leaving reviews on items we bought online, places we visited or services we used; especially when we were happy with them. And yes, some people surely enjoy living a bad review, too. Both good and bad reviews are helpful to other people interested in the same products, places or services; but reviews will also be useful also to those who offer the goods in order to improve on their quality or celebrate an achievement. Well, the same applies to receiving feedback on our writing.

Feedback can be one of the most effective ways to becoming better at writing (and anything you do, for that matter).

Of course, the effectiveness of feedback depends on how well it is given, for if it is offered in a skilful way, it can be extremely helpful and easily accepted. We call this “constructive feedback”. On the other hand, “destructive criticism”, which is feedback given without any positive advice on how to improve things, can harm the self-esteem of the receiving person and will not lead to any positive outcome. Yet this post is not about giving feedback, but rather about receiving it so you can learn how to make the most of it.

Picture from flip.it

As I explain in my book (Chapter 4, Section 4.8), a very good way to avoid receiving either too little or too much feedback, or either too generic or overwhelmingly detailed feedback is to know when to ask for it throughout your writing process, what specifically to ask for, and whom to ask. At the stage of an early draft, what you really want to know is if your content is appropriate, enough and relevant. At this stage, you do not have to ask your supervisor for feedback; a fellow student or colleague can help. At the stage of middle draft, when you need to make sure that your ideas are clear, coherent and well-structured, you can ask for feedback from a more experienced person, like your supervisor or a postdoc. And finally, at the stage of the final draft, you need feedback from an expert, that is your supervisor, to check if the overall content is correct, accurate and comprehensive.

Now, there might be cases when you do not agree with (or do not like) the feedback you receive, and you might get into your defence mode thinking of your next response. Try to control yourself, take a moment and a breath before you say something. Make sure you 100% listen and understand the feedback to avoid misjudgement and unnecessary bad reactions. Always keep in mind that one’s opinion comes from their perception of things and it might not be right, maybe because they do not know or understand fully the situation. Help them by giving them all the necessary information and background, so their feedback is more accurate. 

If you are angry about the feedback you received, avoid conflict by repeating the discussion again on a later date. I always recommend not to take feedback personally. Also, if you are still unsure about the validity of the feedback you received from one person, ask also for feedback from others. This approach, though, might end up confusing you, if you receive many different opinions. So be careful with this one, and always try to ask feedback from the most appropriate person, as we mentioned earlier, and someone you trust and appreciate. 

Picture from Shutterstock

However, the best way of avoiding feelings like anger and uncertainty is asking questions to clarify things, like specific examples that could help you better understand the meaning of the feedback. And in order to ask good questions, you have to be a good listener. Take notes if needed, summarise and reflect on what you are hearing, and ask for concrete solutions if you are unsure how to proceed after receiving comments on a piece of your work. It is better to get all the answers and advice you need at the time you receive feedback than wondering later and getting frustrated. 

Finally, show your appreciation to the person that gives you feedback. Giving feedback can be tough and stressful, and it takes time, so even if you don’t agree or like it, make sure to thank the person for it and make the process easier for both of you. This way you encourage them to repeat the process with you, and feel more comfortable to give you more honest -and hence more constructive and useful- feedback. However, most likely they will feel more appreciated if you actually take their feedback into consideration and make use of it in order to improve your work!

I hope this is helpful, but if you have any questions, do not hesitate to get in touch.

Take care!

PS. If you are looking for feedback on your research paper writing, join our 3-day Facebook Challenge – Getting Started with you Research Paper, and receive instant advice by the expert!

Achieve your Goals by Setting Intentions

I am sure that you have heard multiple times from teachers, coaches or even your parents telling you to have or set goal(s) in your life. Easy to say, but what is actually the best way of setting and, more importantly, achieving your goals?

A goal is something concrete and specific that you usually set to achieve within a certain amount of time, a deadline. For example, completing your studies, moving to a new place or even losing weight by your wedding day! 

I recommend you to follow the S.M.A.R.T. goal process and set a goal which is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This way you avoid the tendency that most people have to set vague goals, which makes setting specific steps towards achieving them more difficult. It’s also important to set a goal that is realistic, so you are more likley to achieve it and avoid disappointment, and that is meaningful, so you are more committed to achieve it within the given time. Well, again though that’s easier said than done. 

To keep your goals S.M.A.R.T. and achieve them, you need to set intentions. Firstly, we need to clarify the main difference between goals and intentions: Goals are focused on achieving something specific in the future; intentions are set in the present, your every day, and they might or might not be connected to a specific goal, but they certainly can help you achieve it. So their main difference is the time-frame when goals and intentions act and change your life.

When you have a specific goal, you need to identify the steps and the actions that will get you there. You have to be precise and detailed. This is how you can set your intentions. Intentions are the little daily actions, the little wins, that make you feel one step closer to your goal. If you approach your goal setting without milestones, it’s very likely that you won’t achieve it. 

Life coaches usually recommend to set intentions that are pure, which basically means that you need to have a clear picture of where you are aiming to go and have a plan of how to get there. If you set and accomplish your daily intentions, you will learn to use them to feel good all the time, even after you achieve your goal, which otherwise could leave you aimless. 

But remember, similarly if you set intentions without a specific vision or desired outcome, they might not be as effective. Also, before you set your intentions and goals, make sure that you have identified why you want to achieve them and how they can make your life better. Answering our whys always gives us clarity and motivation. However, if in some cases you are not 100% clear on exactly what you want to achieve, or at least not yet, you could go a different way and specify what you don’t want to happen in the set future. This way you will avoid setting the wrong intentions. Be careful though not to set negative intentions! For example, if you do not want to stay in the same position at work in the future, this should not be your intention; this will help you specify what you want. In this case your intention could be “I want to get a promotion” or  “I want to make a career change”. 

It is also important to acknowledge that a goal that is too big can become overwhelming and affect your actions towards achieving it. This is where intentions can help you break down this very big goal into smaller specific actions that you can accomplish in small steps. Creating a ritual that is unique to how you want things to be done and easy to follow even on a daily basis will make you feel closer to your goal every day.  For example, if your set goal is to write your thesis and complete your studies, setting smaller steps can make the process easier. If you break down your plan into monthly, then weekly and then daily actions and intentions, this big task and important goal will be achieved without feeling overwhelmed, losing motivation and perspective. 

Finally, sharing your intentions with a friend or your mentor can help you stay focused. Trying to articulate something specific to someone else always helps to think more clearly and to be more determined. 

And here is a video that can help you set your intentions in order to achieve your goals:

Enjoy and good luck!

PS Oh, and if you wish to discuss your goals and intentions with me, please get in touch. Simply book a free consultation call on my calendar here.

Mentoring in Social Distancing Times

Mentoring is a people-centred activity, and a lot of mentors and mentees enjoy the social aspect of it, which involves the two parties meeting somewhere to chat. “Social interaction” is usually one of the many benefits gained from mentoring that mentors and mentees highlight in feedback responses. So, how can someone keep going with mentoring in these times of self-isolation?

E-mentoring is not a new concept. Mihram (2004) defines e-mentoring as the linking of a senior, more experienced person with a lesser skilled individual, independent of geography. It is considered to be similar to traditional mentoring, with primary form of communication between the two parties being electronic (Knouse, 2001; Risquez, 2008; Hamilton & Scandura, 2003).

We have already just highlighted an advantage of e-mentoring: mentoring interactions that otherwise would be impossible. Connecting people from all over the world to help each other is not something to ignore. It widens the pool of mentors and gives the opportunity for more flexible and frequent meetings, by cutting down commuting time, and meeting even when one is away – or both in self-isolation, from the comfort of your home!

However, the virtual nature of e-mentoring could have a negative impact on the development of meaningful relationships, since it requires a certain level of emotional maturity, and some people might find being able to share their emotions through a video/phone call challenging. But in the tough times we are all going through, e-mentoring is the only way to go to preserve our mentoring relationships and receive/give the support needed; maybe now more than ever.

Even though you might not like how you look on Zoom, avoid the temptation to cancel your meeting, because it’s now easier. Yes, it definitely works better if you have a stable network and know how to use the right online tools; so, try to spend some time “playing” with them before your meeting. Also, make sure you prepare for your online meeting as you would for an in-person one; just because it is online it doesn’t mean that the established agenda should not be followed.

E-mentoring certainly takes the relationship in a different setting, but it can still be the useful and meaningful relationship you want to have in your life. So, don’t let the current situation affect it. You might even like it that much that when life goes back to normal you blend online with face-to-face meetings for a super-effective relationship!

Stay strong. 

References:

Mihram, D. (2004). E-mentoring. USC: Center for Excellence in Teaching

Knouse, S. B. (2001). Virtual mentors: Mentoring on the Internet. Journal of Employment Counseling, 38(4), 162-169

Risquez, A. (2008). E-mentoring: An extended practice, an emerging discipline. In F. J. GarciaPenalvo (Ed.), Advances in e-learning: Experiences and methodologies (pp. 61-82). Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing

Hamilton, B. A., & Scandura, T. A. (2003). E-mentoring: Implications for organizational learning and development in a wired world. Organizational Dynamics, 31(4), 388-402

Shrestha et al. (2009). From Face‐to‐Face to e‐Mentoring: Does the “e” Add Any Value for Mentors?International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 20(2), 116-124 

(Version of this article was previously published by Athina Frantzana, PhD on LinkedIn)

Am I an Imposter? – How to identify and manage your imposter feelings

[Guest post by Athina Frantzana, PhD]

Do you believe that others have an inflated view of your abilities or skills? Do you fear that they will find out the truth and expose you as a fake? Do you constantly attribute your success to external factors such as luck?

Then you almost certainly suffer from Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome (IS), or Phenomenon, was first coined in 1978 by P. Clance and S. Imes in a paper on the characteristics and dynamics of IS in high-achieving women. However, we now know that IS symptoms have been noticed not only on women, but a lot of people; for example, someone starts a new job or a new course, or someone who has been promoted or assigned a big project.

Some specific groups of people and lifestyles are also at high risk of IS: students, academics, underrepresented groups, people with high-achieving parents or first generation graduates, people in creative fields. Actually, research has shown that IS affects more than 70% of both women and men at some point in their career!

IS1b

 

So, what are the symptoms that make it clear to you that you suffer from IS and you need to take action?

Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Working exceptionally hard
  • Hiding true opinions
  • Perfectionism
  • Undermining achievements
  • Discounting praise
  • Sabotaging performance
  • Finding a “superior” mentor to impress

We need to notice that if you have other symptoms that are not common to IS, like anxiety or obsessive behaviours, you should seek medical help and advice. IS is not classified as a mental illness or condition.

And what if you have these symptoms? How can they affect you?

Potential consequences of  IS include:

  • Minimising interactions with others in fear of being discovered which leads to isolation;
  • Fear of taking up new tasks by creating unrealistic standards which leads to missing out opportunities;
  • Feeling unworthy and not good enough to progress in your job which leads to staying stuck in the same position and responsibilities;
  • Comparing yourself to others, like family or friends, which can lead to isolation from important people in your life;
  • All the above can lead to fatigue and depression, which can worsen all the IS symptoms.

Well now, I know many of you might be going through one of the above situations, but do not despair! It is possible to move beyond your imposter and be the best version of yourself!

How?

Brené Brown talks about the 3 C’s, the 3 things you need to take on your life-career journey: Courage, Compassion, Connection. You need to be yourself, feel the pain and still move forward, keep in touch with your values and the people who love and respect you. Focus on facts and on your strengths.

Do you own your success? Having a strong self-awareness of your personal successes is the first step to overcoming IS! Equally important is to get clear on your strengths. People who suffer from IS tend to overlook their strengths and focus on their weaknesses. And finally, it is important to talk about it. Talk about your feelings to your peers, your mentor, your coach, an expert..

Professor P. Arnold once told me how she deals with her IS: “I write down all the nice things I have done or been told, keep them in a folder on my desk, and I reach out for them whenever I need to.”

Do not feel discouraged if your imposter feeling don’t vanish quickly or completely. As you work on it, you learn; and there is always more to learn!

 

EVERYONE FEELS LIKE AN imPOSTER SOMETIMES, AND THAT'S OK. (1)

 

If you feel like you need more help with this, I run a 7-week 1-2-1 Coaching Program focused on managing your Imposter Syndrome and boosting your self-confidence. Click here to have a look using the password LETMEHELPYOU and enjoy 50% off the program! The offer expires on the 31st of August (midnight UK time), and it is available for a limited number of programs starting from the 7th of September until December, on a first come, first served basis. So, be quick! 

 

 

Athina Frantzana,PhD is an Equality, Diversity & Inclusion and Mentoring in STEM specialist-researcher. She is the founder of Spread the Word, which helps individuals, companies and organisations to create inclusive workplaces through innovative, evidence-based and tailored strategies.