Where does knowledge come from?

A recent study found that people older than 65 are more likely to share fake news on social media (read a more accessible account of the study as covered in The Verge). We live in a very confusing information environment. Most people, especially those over 65, gained their education and experience in a completely different world that did not prepare them for the information chaos the Internet has become. Information literacy must have been very different 50 years ago.

There are a few things we take for granted in academia – one of them is how knowledge is produced and validated. That was, actually, one of my favorite topics to teach. I always opened courses on research methods (most recently, the PhD level seminar on Qualitative Research Methods I used to teach at Purdue), with the following questions: What is knowledge? Where does knowledge come from? Who decides what counts as (credible) knowledge?

What do I mean by knowledge? Things like the opening statement of this post – that people older than 65 are more likely to share fake news; nutrition/medical information, such as X is good for you, or what are the causes and effects of high cholesterol; theories that explain human behavior; principles that prescribe how computers should behave; and so on.

In academia, we have a system, however flawed, for creating and validating knowledge. Let’s call it the knowledge pipeline. The goal of this post is to explain this knowledge pipeline to people outside academia, in hopes that it will help them determine what is credible knowledge.

Like most non-academic explanations, this one will be over-simplified. Roughly speaking, the academic pipeline looks like this:

  1. Knowledge production – one or more experts (the researchers) conduct a study that results in some insights (knowledge). Once the study is written up in a paper, the researchers submit it to an academic journal or conference for review and publication.
  2. Review – a team of experts (the reviewers), not associated with the study, review it for credibility and validity and make a recommendation whether the study is good enough to be published or not. If not, the study goes back to the researchers for improvement, and several rounds of steps 1 & 2 occur. Sometimes the study is abandoned and it doesn’t proceed to the next phase.
  3. Publication in an academic journal or conference.

Now, let’s look at each step more closely and see what questions we can ask that can help us determine whether we should believe this knowledge or not.

1. Knowledge production

If the research team is employed by a university or independent research center, they are more likely to have sincere intentions. If the researchers are employed by a cigarette company and their study finds that cigarettes are not harmful to health, we have reason to be skeptical of the findings.

Question 1a: What is the researchers’ affiliation? Who do they work for?

Even for researchers affiliated with universities, we might want to ask – what university? Not all universities are created equal. Some universities’ research programs are stronger than others. This is why many news media articles that cover research mention the researchers’ affiliations. For example:

Older Americans are disproportionately more likely to share fake news on Facebook, according to a new analysis by researchers at New York and Princeton Universities.

source

Let’s say the research originates from a reputable university. Even then, we might ask, who funded the research? Conducting research is expensive. It takes time, equipment, staff. Someone has to pay for it. Many, but not all, research studies are funded from a source external to the university. In many countries, there are government agencies that fund research, but also, corporations, non-profit organizations, and other associations might provide money to fund the work. In theory, university researchers do not allow the source of funding to influence their research results. In practice, that is sometimes difficult.

Published research articles include an acknowledgment disclosing the source of funding (if any). For example, the study on fake news dissemination includes the following acknowledgment:

Funding: This research was supported by the INSPIRE program of the NSF (Award SES-1248077).

source

“NSF” is an abbreviation for the National Science Foundation, one of the primary agencies of the US federal government that funds research.

This other study, on the benefits of carbohydrate restriction on diabetes, was funded by a startup that sells ketogenic diet services for $370/month. That raises a red flag. But we can investigate it further. Let’s examine the authors’ affiliations:

The primary authors, 1-3 are affiliated with the startup, with a weight loss organization, or with… no one. Authors 4-7 are affiliated with reputable universities and lend credibility to this study. So, this is a mixed bag. The study only has 3 citations, and it was published one year ago. All of these signals combined, without getting into question 1b, raise some questions about the study’s credibility.

Question 1b: Was the research conducted well?

This question is hard to answer without specialized knowledge in research methods. This is why we need independent experts to review the study before it sees the light of day. Which brings me to the next phase in the academic pipeline:

2. Review

There are debates in the academic world about this, but for a long time the gold standard for reviewing research has been the double-blind peer review. What does this mean?

Double-blind – means that the reviewers do not know who the authors are, and the authors do not know who the reviewers are. The review process is anonymized at both ends. This is meant to ensure that the work is reviewed purely on its merits.

Peer – means that the reviewers are experts, and they are in the same field as the researchers. Most of us researchers are also reviewers. For example, I submitted 2 papers to the conference CHI 2019, but I also reviewed a number of papers that were within my area of expertise.

We are skeptical of “scientific knowledge” that is not peer reviewed. There are a lot of “experts” out there who publish their own insights. Writing this blog, for example, is a form of self-publishing. So you should make a decision whether you want to believe this very post. Who is this author, Dr. V? How come she knows about this? What is her experience? What are her credentials? Who are her employers? Did anyone pay her to write this? If so, who? Of course, this post is not a form of research in any way.

3. Publication

The journal or conference where the research is published matters.

But first, is the work published in a journal, conference or book, or is it self-published? If self-published, be very careful about believing it unless you have the necessary expertise to evaluate it. Self-published work, like this blog post, has not undergone phase 2, Review, and therefore you have to play the role of the reviewer.

This is one of the main reasons why we kept the Guidelines for Human-AI Interaction secret until we heard that they were accepted at the conference CHI 2019. We wanted the credibility of steps 2 and 3 and wanted to avoid self-publishing.

Now, let’s assume the work was published in an academic journal or conference. Well, which one? There are many fake journals and conferences where authors pay to publish (self-publishing, again).

Once again, we ask: who is behind this journal/conference? Most reputable journals are published by professional associations, such as ACM, IEEE, the National Communication Association, etc. These associations are comprised of researchers and scientists who work together to advance an academic discipline. Other factors we take into consideration when assessing a journal/conference are:

  • publisher – is the journal published by a well-known academic publisher (e.g., Elsevier, Springer Verlag, Sage, Taylor & Francis)? This is not a guarantee of quality, but it is a good sign.
  • editorial board – who are the editors and the reviewers, and what are their affiliations? Do they work at reputable research institutions?
  • what is the review process, and what is the acceptance rate? Does this journal accept 90% of what’s submitted? In this case, it’s very close to self-publishing. For example, Science Magazine accepts less than 7% of what’s submitted.
  • impact factor is another (controversial) measure we might look at when assessing a journal’s credibility.

Another question you might wonder about is, who organizes and maintains this academic knowledge production system? Who is behind it? For the most part, this system is self-governed. We, researchers and scientists, gather at meetings and conventions, and have associations, where we debate how the system should work. The science of doing science is also part of what we work on. We research the very methods we use to create knowledge, and continuously seek to improve them. We disagree, we debate, and in the process, we hold each other accountable. We are skeptical of our own system and are currently debating, for example, whether blind peer review is realistic or useful.

I hope this not-so-short explanation of where knowledge comes from helps you a bit in navigating our complex information environment. I recognize that most people do not read academic journals and conference papers. The knowledge is disseminated to the public through articles in the news media, “expert” videos on YouTube, and blog posts such as this one. All of that is second-hand information (and we’ll tackle it in a future post). When you encounter second-hand information, maybe you remember to ask yourself: Where does this knowledge actually come from?

Why do academics have big egos?

I’m sitting in a meeting with colleagues from industry and showing them the persona of a mid-career academic. They ask, “But where’s the EGO? We heard faculty members have big egos.”

So, I’ve been thinking about that… actually, for the past 20 years or so, since I was a graduate student. I think I’m only now beginning to see it – or to have the courage to articulate it:

Academia is bad for the soul. It is bad for mental health, for psychological well-being. The individual reward system of academia, the secrecy and ambiguity of evaluation criteria, the lack of control over the products academics are evaluated on – they all create a culture of fear. Fear invites different coping and protection mechanisms, one of which is the ego. Fed on a diet of fear and occasional success that carries the author’s name in bold letters, the ego inflates.

Or, at least that’s my experience of academia, from my point of view. (See what I did there? I am qualifying, minimizing, making my opinion smaller, more precise. Good academic thinking. Powered by years of learned fear of merciless critics.)

In my earlier years [of writing in academia] I tried the opposite approach – filling my mind with critics and naysayers. I would sit at my desk and picture the faces of my least favorite professors, my harshest and most cynical colleagues, and my most unforgiving online critics.  If I keep them happy,  I thought,  or at the very least quiet, I’ll be good to go. The outcome was the worst-case scenario for a researcher or a social scientist: findings that were gently folded into a preexisting way of seeing the world; findings that carefully nudged existing ideas but did so without upsetting anyone; findings that were safe, filtered, and comfortable. But none of that was authentic. — Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, p. 4

If you’re an academic – I bet you hear those voices in your head. I bet your advisor, reviewer #2, or that scared, mean kid back in grad school – they are in your head. You write for them. They are in my head right now. I write in spite of them, pushing, fearfully, letter by letter, through the thick fog of fear.

I bet that most of the successful research you do is just that – careful, comfortable, safe. How else would it get published? You can’t take the risk now. You’ll take it after you get tenure. Then, you will shake that tree.

The truth is, it is awfully hard to be your authentic self in the publish or perish environment of scholarly research. And, ironically, it is hard to do your best work.

At the end of the day, success in academia rewards the individual – the sole hero, HIS name (and yes, it’s mostly his name, still, unfortunately). It is HE who won the prize, who got the grants, who created The Theory. There’s no account of the team – of the nameless, faceless graduate students, for example, who were instrumental to the work. No, it’s just HIM. The Professor. The Researcher. He is worshipped, adored, and dreaded at conferences. A cloud of timid, hopeful, terrified graduate students surrounds him. He hides, he tries to protect himself from the annoyance of people without whom THERE WOULD NOT BE A UNIVERSITY. Oh, wait. Those are undergraduate students. He doesn’t know much about those. He hasn’t taught an undergraduate course since his first years as an assistant professor. Undergraduates are a complete waste of time. They distract from The Research.

Comic showing the food chain of academia

In academia, mentorship is a joke. Mentors fear mentees – the young, eager faculty, with so much more energy, enthusiasm, and hope. They are on the fast track, and they publish more, accomplish more. That’s threatening. As a mentor, I look bad by comparison. Old. Tired. Blase. I don’t publish as many papers each year. I don’t have the same kind of pressure, so I don’t. I’m worn out. I’ve got tenure. Counting down to retirement. In my own life, the mentors I’ve met who are not threatened by mentees can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The pattern is, tenured faculty bully talented, untenured ones.

Back to the ego. It is fostered, encouraged, demanded, by the nature of the system of evaluation and rewards. But, is it necessary? The most successful people I’ve met (by academic standards) are kind and humble. That is, I think, because they are free of fear. They have nothing to prove. The rest of us, are drenched in fear. Fear that our publications are not good enough. And it’s true, they are not good enough. Any research paper can be criticized and ripped apart. Any research study can be done better. Fear that our publication number is not high enough. How many publications does it take to be “good”? To be productive? The target is moving and ambiguous. The evaluators are anonymous, cranky, sometimes uninformed. We call them blind peer reviewers. Their assessment is unreliable. The same paper that is an embarrassing disaster in reviewer 1’s eyes is brilliant in reviewer 2’s eyes. The same paper that got painfully rejected from conference A got an award at conference B. Hilarious, isn’t it? Not when those are the standards that define your success.

You cannot know whether your work is ever good enough, not by the gold standard of peer review. You cannot know if you are good enough.

A healthy mind requires we divorce ourselves from our behaviors. Just because an act, or a behavior, is not good enough, this does not mean the person is not good enough. Bullshit. In academia, it does not work that way. As a researcher, as a writer, I put my heart and soul into those papers. My mind works on them day and night, during a movie, during vacation, who knows, maybe even during sex (do academics even do that anymore?). It’s non stop. You can’t turn it off. You can’t stop thinking about it. You see the solution in a dream, and then panic when you wake up having forgotten it. The work consumes so much of your life. Most of us have a hard time turning it off. I remember working on my dissertation, and how I could not take a break, even when I did take a break. I worked on it non-stop for 2 years. It was exhausting. But, you ask, don’t you have something else in your life, something else to make you feel worthy, accomplished, outside your work? I don’t know, maybe children. I don’t have children, I don’t know. I don’t have a life. I don’t have a hobby. Academics who have hobbies are losers. Who has time for that? Or for taking the weekend off? I remember the advice of a well meaning mentor, or maybe it was a workshop on academic life: You should be sure to take half day off during the weekend (oh, no – it was a talk from a university provost, at a celebration of accomplishments, telling us we can relax a bit now). Half a day. How generous! (Note for the assistant professors out there: this does not apply to you. Please work all weekend.) So, no, there’s not much else. If there is, you are lucky, and you must have worked really hard at it. Because, if you’re an academic, as long as you are awake, you are working. And your brain continues working on problems when you are asleep. So, then, you bet your smartest body part that that paper is not divorced from the sense of self. When anonymous reviewer #2 writes a snarky comment about your research methodology, you read it as a comment about your own self, your worth. Many a therapist would say that is not healthy.

As you can gather, this entire experience is rather unpleasant. It is full of fear. Fear of the snarky comments. Fear that my work is not enough in quantity or quality. Fear that I am not enough. So then, what does the poor psyche do, to protect itself? It builds a big bubble around it, a big bubble I’ll call ego, and it fills it with hot air and it feeds it with acts of bullying that reassure it that, after all, I do have some power – power over something, someone, that starry-eyed assistant professor, that hapless student who dared write me an email.

I’ve been noticing a lot lately, in various writings (Tara Brach, Brene Brown, Gary Zukov) – that fear is related to feelings of powerlessness. I plan to explore that in the near future.

Academia operates on powerlessness. You are trained to be fiercely independent. Yet you have no power over whether you even get to do the work you want. You depend on the unpredictable game or research grant funding (oh, what a circus that is!). You have no power over your publications. You write them, but you don’t know if and when they will see the light of day. And yet, your success – your job, your salary, depend on a certain number of high quality publications seeing the light of day in a given time frame that you have NO CONTROL over. You try to please anonymous reviewers, and to work to standards that are not only secret – they are infinitely ambiguous and debatable. It’s not that you’re being judged, like in a Kafkian novel, in secret, by criteria unknown to you. You are being judged, in secret, by criteria that evolve and shift as the evaluation is being conducted. What would Kafka say about that?!

It is no surprise then that this environment of powerlessness breeds fear. Fear breeds ego – and we create a world where we are too scared to be kind, vulnerable, authentic. So we become assholes. Yes, yes, there are exceptions. Fortunately, a lot of us academics are decent enough human beings, and introspective enough, that we are able, to varying degrees, to keep these fears under control, and to not let them rule our behavior. But it’s not easy. And it is not healthy.

Let me get it straight. I loved my job in academia. I loved what I was able to do, and that I was able to do it. A lot of great work gets done, a lot of lives are changed. But this does not make the environment healthy or positive for the people who call it home.

I’ve been thinking about the authentic self a lot. For me, the moments when I was able to be my authentic self in academia happened only in the classroom. A lot of magic happened in my classes, I think. Enough to keep me alive, happy, and in love with my job.

If it’s all so bad/sad, what is the solution? I don’t know. Perhaps we need to rethink “Publish or Perish.” Many much more informed minds have already thought about that. I believe it takes a systemic solution, but I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it.

On an individual level, I can tell you what helped me: yoga, meditation, therapy, friends who could see and love my authentic self, antidepressants, books, my love for students, my husband, my cats.

That being said, I love academia. I love the way it teaches you to think, the freedom it provides (tenure is not all bad!), the privilege of living a life of the mind. I know many people who thrive there, and some say I might be one of those. I was even happy there. I was very much in love with many aspects of my work. Yet I’ve always known that parts of it (well, the Publish or Perish part, specifically), is not healthy. I have a lot of fear, and it’s deep in my bones, and I know it is still keeping me from being my authentic self. But I think I’m beginning to feel ready to look it in the eye, thank it very much for trying to protect me, and work my way to authenticity.

I leave you with another quote from Brene Brown, something she said during her interview at Microsoft the other day:

I had so much fear about my career that I engineered smallness.

And the first sentence of her latest book, Braving the Wilderness:

When I start writing, I inevitably feel myself swallowed by fear.

What do we do about that fear, babies? How’s your soul doing in academia? Are you able to find a home there for your authentic self? Teach me.

P.S.

Like any good academic, I leave you with a reading list. Here are some of my favorite books about academia:

#1 – Jane Tompkins, A Life if School: What the Teacher Learned (nonfiction)

#2 – David Lodge’s trilogy of satirical novels about academia 

Guest post: Advice for succeeding in grad school from Geovon

Geovon graduated with an MS in Technology specializing in Innovation. After a couple of great years with Mongo DB, he is starting a new position at a large company whose name may or may not begin with G. Here is his advice:


Find the right advisor

Grad school is a journey, and you’ll need someone to guide you through it. So quickly and carefully seek out an academic advisor who has the following:

  • a stellar reputation among current and former undergraduate and graduate students
  • a personality and work ethic that aligns with yours—or what you hope to become
  • a schedule that’s focused on student interaction

Treat grad school like it’s a training ground for your dream job

Be self-motivated, work hard at everything you do, and aim to succeed—to be the top of your class, field of research, etc. If you don’t do this in grad school, you likely won’t in your post-grad professional career.

Get involved

Join clubs, attend socials, and take electives in different departments or schools. Use your free time as an opportunity to meet your peers, grow your professional network, and increase your chances of landing a job.

Guest post: Advice for succeeding in grad school from Emma

I’ve asked some of my very successful students who graduated recently to sum up some advice for succeeding in graduate school. The first guest post comes from Zhihua “Emma” Dong. Here is her advice:


I am flattered to be invited to write this blog post. Before you go ahead to read whatever advice I give, probably it is better for you to know who I am and the scope of this post so you can decide how much you buy in.:)

I spent 2011 to 2014 in two graduate programs here at Purdue: Industrial Engineering and Computer Graphics Technology. After graduation, I got a job with Microsoft as a program manager (similar to product manager in other companies). When I thought about “advice” I should give, I included both those made my graduate life smooth and relatively successful, and things I could have done better to be more successful. In addition, I decided to list only 5 most important ones from my point of view, to not look like a grandma. So here you go:

1. Make wiser choices

I say “wiser” because I assume you are here because you made wise decisions.:) This is something I didn’t intentionally train myself doing in graduate school, but just realized its importance recently. It applies to both career and graduate life. I hope you come to graduate school with a relatively clear goal to achieve, whether it is finding a job in certain area, or prepare yourself for PhD study. Let your goal(s) serve as a filter when you make decisions. For example, what course should you take? Check out those dream jobs, find the skill gaps you need to fill, find corresponding courses, and talk to course instructors to verify if it is something you need. Another example, who to hangout with? Find someone who shares similar visions and has a plan. I am not suggesting that your party friends are not important, but redistribute your time to connect with those who are in the same camp, and can inspire and motivate you. Never make random decisions because master study is very short, and you don’t have unlimited bandwidth to try out everything.

2. Don’t procrastinate

After you make decisions, execute well – don’t wait until deadlines hit you. This is much easier said than done, as procrastination is very much like gravity, which is difficult if not impossible to escape from. However, still make honest efforts to overcome it as much as possible. I too, suffer from procrastination sometimes, which really hurts. It hurts your performance, your emotional status, and eventually your physical health. Discipline yourself, do your work with friends in the library, find a time-management technique that works for you (e.g., GTD, and Pomodoro), and prepare to be happy and successful.

3. Talk to your advisor

It’s not difficult to reach out to families and peers if you are in trouble, but your advisor might not in the list while he/she should. Your advisor might be hands-on or hands-off type, but you should always be proactive in communicating with him/her. There are several major things you should be constantly communicating with your advisor:

(1) What are the expectations for each other. It’s crucial to clarify and understand each other’s expectations rather than guessing them. Ask you advisor how he/she defines a good student and constantly check if you are progressing towards it. At the same time, let your advisor know if you need from him/her: wether it is more of his/her time, or his/her coach on certain aspect. Make sure your ask for things you need as it is the most efficient way.

(2) Address his/her feedbacks timely. I found this super important because the mentor/mentee relationship can be prosper only if the mentee takes feedback seriously and react on it.

(3) Discuss any confusions or difficulties you have. Your advisor has much more experience since he/she oversaw many graduate students and himself/herself was one before. Don’t be afraid to expose personal vulnerability because school and advisor might be the last resort…

Whatever topic you have in mind, take the action to schedule regular one-on-one meeting with your advisor – even though they are very busy, if you ask, there is always time for you. Be responsible for your own graduate life and career.

4. Find an internship

If you are job-oriented, find an internship. If you are not job-oriented or plan to do a Ph.D., find an internship. You are all familiar with benefits of an internship: resume builder, industry connections, real-world experience, and much more. What I want to add here is: spend your time research different positions, apply those can help you get closer to your dream job. I interned with Siemens UX group one year before my graduation, which is not exactly my dream job but certainly a step towards one. In addition, it serves as a test for your to re-examine your career goal – you might confirm something is exactly what you want to do, or you might find another practice is your true passion. In any case, give it a try before your land a serious full-time job.

When you find the internship, practice 1~3 during your internship.:)

5. Take graduate-level courses seriously

You might think graduate study is more about research rather than taking courses. I would like to remind you that is simply not true. I benefited a lot from graduate-level courses, especially those project-oriented. Courses loaded with projects are essentially resume- or portfolio-builder for you. Keep detailed notes on the process, deliver good results and presentations, and put them up in your personal site – boom, You have a portfolio ready for job hunting! Treat these mini-internship seriously, also apply 1~3 throughout the process.

I hope you find the above helpful in one way or another. Take this journey mindfully, you might be surprised to find your career passion, friends who speak the same language, and life-long mentors coming out of this 2-year study. That happens to me and I am grateful for the experience.

Feel free to reach out if you have any question! My email address: zhihuaemma.dong@gmail.com.

Lastly, wish you all a happy and successful graduate study.

So, you want an assistantship?

doctoralgownI’ve written before my advice on how to be a successful graduate student. But to even get to be a graduate student in the first place, you may need a graduate teaching or research assistantship – especially if you’re an international student not eligible for loans in the U.S.

I get it, I understand how important an assistantship is to you (the ticket to graduate education in the U.S.!) and how much you need it. I’ve been an international graduate student myself. Granted, I didn’t have to ask for assistantships – I always got them, maybe because I was lucky, maybe because my file spoke for itself.

But here you are, you got admitted to Purdue (congratulations!) yet you don’t have funding. What do you do??

The first thing NOT to do is to type (or copy from some website) a letter along the lines of the one below and send it to ALL professors in several departments:

“Dear Professor,

I’ve been admitted to Purdue… I’ve read about your research and I’m very interested… I am highly qualified in… (areas usually not related to the professor’s research). My resume is attached… Will you please consider me for a research assistantship?”

You know what happens to these emails? DELETE. Most of us don’t even bother to answer. Hey, you didn’t bother to look up my research interests – or even spell my name in the opening of the email.

Whoever advised you that you get ahead in life by sending template letters to lots of people was WRONG.

If you want to get my attention and have a chance at being considered for funding, here’s how to go about it:

  • Write a clear, specific subject line that refers to something I do or I’ve worked on (I=me, the professor, not you). This will get my attention and will tell me the email is relevant to me personally.
  • Use my name in the opening of the email. Copy and paste it from my website, to make sure you spell it correctly.
  • DO actually read about my research interests, peruse my list of publications, read one or more of them – or at least spend a few minutes reading my blog.
  • Convince me you are ACTUALLY interested in the research I do. Be specific about what you’re interested in and why. Show me you’ve done the work to learn about my research. A strong interest in my research is the #1 qualification I look for in students. I can teach you the rest.
  • Argue how your skills will actually be applicable to the research I’m doing. Give me some ideas about what you would like to work on.

Yes, this type of letter is more work. You won’t be able to write 500 of them. But the 10 you will be able to write are more likely to get you an assistantship than the other 500.

You should know a few more things about how this process works. If you are admitted as a graduate student in my department, chances are I saw your file. I might have even voted on your admission. If I wanted to offer you an assistantship, I would have done so by now. If you are in another department on campus, I have not seen your file. Although I am more motivated to fund students in my own department, I will consider you if you are a very good fit.

If you’ve applied for admission in my department, don’t send me the form letter above the week before classes start – or ever. If you were REALLY interested in my research, you would have mentioned that on your application to graduate school, and you would have been in touch with me a LONG time ago.

And here’s the last part. Not all my faculty colleagues will work this way, but it may work with me: If you’re just applying to graduate school and you’re VERY interested in working with me, contact me as early as possible – even before you send in your file. Be prepared to explain what about my research you’re interested in and why.

Research is the most valuable skill you need (and will learn) as a graduate student. Show you have potential for it by DOING YOUR RESEARCH before approaching professors and asking them to invest in you.

[Photo credit: http://academicregaliaforpurchase.com]

How to be a successful grad. student

I asked my TECH621 students to interview 3 professors each and get tips about graduate school success.

Here are their posts: Scott S., Stephen W., Jenny S., Zheng Z., Andrew B., Scott K.

A bit late, here are my tips & expectations about being a successful graduate student. They are derived from my experience in grad. school, both as a student and professor:

Be self-motivated

You don’t have to be in grad school. Your parents may have forced you to get an undergrad degree, but you are in grad school because you want to learn. So, learn.

A successful graduate student doesn’t only “absorb” information. She actively seeks knowledge.

Professors might mention something in passing, and the grad. student goes out to research that topic in depth and learn about it, because he wants to, because he’s curious – because he’s a born researcher (you know who’s a born researcher? Don Bulmer. He has an innate curiosity and the drive to pursue knowledge. Those are characteristics of the ideal grad. student.)

Actually, several other tips follow from the first one:

  • work hard. As a grad student, I put at least 4 hours of reading & other work preparing for each 3 hour class I took.
  • be conscientious. Grad students don’t miss assignments, don’t turn them in late. They don’t miss class (there was never an attendance policy in my grad. classes, but I didn’t even dream of missing class unless I was very sick).
  • be critical. Try to view different points of view. Question. Explore. Ask:
    • “why?”
    • “does it have to be so?”
    • “what/who are we leaving out?”
    • “what’s the downside of that?”
    • “what are the long-term effects?”
  • create knowledge. Most grad. students learn to be researchers. Assume your researcher role and if there’s no easy answer to a question, go ahead and research it – create new knowledge.

Try to learn the culture of academia & to fit in

You can’t succeed in academia without doing good work. But you can do good work and not succeed in academia, because you don’t understand how to present your work in ways that are valued by academic culture. The values vary by field and even by department, but be on the lookout, try to identify and learn things such as:

  • the accepted/valued outlets for presenting research (posters, conference papers, or panels, and at what conferences?)
  • the accepted/value format and writing style
  • and even… the accepted/valued topics. There are certain “hot topics” at any given time, just as there are certain “passe topics.”

A mentor can help you figure these things out – but it doesn’t have to be your academic adviser. Ask faculty members, we love to give advice. You learn a lot just by hanging out with faculty or senior grad students. Create these opportunities. Organize a seminar or a get-together, or ask if you can go to lunch with someone.

Think long-term

Every class you take is a potential job interview. I’ve had several professors approach me and offer me teaching or research assistantships while I was taking their course, or as soon as the course was over. In fact, many classes ARE job interviews.

Maybe today’s class or assignment is boring, or seems irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Try to do your best anyway. Keep in mind that 2 or 4 years down the road, you might need to ask that professor for a recommendation letter. The best thing we can write about a student is that she consistently exceeded expectations. Great work is great. Doing great work consistently and repeatedly is even greater.

As always, please add your tips, comments, reactions, comments or… cabbage jokes 😉

“Too academic”

I’m not getting into this. But what I picked up was the use of being “too academic” as an explanation – as if being “too academic” were a bad thing. It’s not, not always [1].

Here’s my list [2] of the main characteristics of being “academic:”

Has this been said before?

Academics research thoroughly what has been written before on their topic and related concepts, in one or more disciplines. They don’t reinvent the wheel. Lack of familiarity with previous literature reduces one’s credibility and increases the risk of reinventing the wheel. Keyword: library (yes, library!)

I remember of a dear and very much appreciated analyst who was working on a report on communities and was crowd-sourcing the definition of “community.” There are full library shelves on the concept. Read ’em. Cite ’em. Think of the literature review as a different from of crowd-sourcing 🙂

Claim + Supporting evidence

Academics follow this formula very rigorously. For every single claim (every single sentence, sometimes word in a publication), you need evidence.

Claim: Tomatoes are red.

Evidence: ??? Can be empirical (inductive) – based on observations, surveys, etc. or can be a logical argument. In which case, avoid fallacies.

My dear mentor [3] would question every single statement in my papers and in the process taught me that you cannot make a claim without solid supporting evidence. And when you only have this much evidence, you make a smaller, more specific, claim.

So, if: “The public has been ignored in public relations” = claim, what is the evidence for that? What kind of evidence would you provide, and are you sure that the evidence is sufficient and valid?

Academic writing is specific & precise

… and that’s what makes it inaccessible. Oh, why do we need the word “stakeholder” when we have “public”? Well, because we define concepts and we need words to refer to the specific concepts. We need to avoid confusion with the general usage of the word. Inaccessibility is the downside.

The upside is that, good academic writing is not vague – it has (almost – see[1]) surgical precision. You need that surgical precision to stand up to scrutiny, to make sure you don’t over-generalize, and that there’s good fit between the evidence and the claim.

I strive to produce both academic AND accessible writing, and maybe so should you. Go ahead. Be academic.

Footnotes:

[1] Academic thinking will teach you to avoid overstatements and over-generalizations; to be specific if possible, inclusive or ambivalent otherwise.

[2] I can hear my dear mentor’s [3] voice: Why do you put only these things on the list? How do you know you’ve exhausted all possibilities? What are the criteria for inclusion/exclusion/sorting of the list? Beware the laundry list fallacy.

[3] Carl Botan

Post-script:

This is why I recommend graduate school. I don’t care if it will make you more money or get you a better job. It will sharpen your mind, enhance your critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and teach you humility – at least you know what you don’t know, and you learn to question everything, your work and yourself included (downside: bye-bye, self-esteem!).