Category: Science writing

How attractive are you for postgraduate students?

700 active research supervisors provide support to post/graduate students in University College Dublin. 17 of them took part in the second out of five last Friday afternoons about research supervisor development. Today’s topic was how to optimise quality applicant attraction. Mr Justin Synnott, Ms Una Condron and Professor Tadhg O’Keeffe explored characteristics of an ‘ideal’ or successful research student:

ii)                   Considering the measurement of applicant ‘success’
iii)                 Optimising your ability to attract desirable applicants
iv)                 Managing applicant expectations
v)                  What International students look for / have concerns about – case study
vi)                 Who sets the doctoral funding agenda / what is Europe’s approach?

Danger on the road

If I knew then… the presentation warned developing supervisors about the dangers of making wrong choices based on wrong expectations. The promotions metrics pressurize some scientists to take many doctoral students. Under pressure, many supervisors make wrong choices. A stressed supervisor typically fears three main things: i) whether the student would complete PhD, ii) if they don’t complete, whether the supervisor would be blamed for it, and iii) whether the thesis would meet the quality standards. A student’s dissertation can be a disaster or a success based on two early warning signs:
1. Ability (motivation is part of ability)
2. Writing – if students’ work isn’t written well, you’re in trouble

As supervisors and scientists, we grow. The speaker illustrated his growth using the PEED model shown in Figure 1 below. With age, concern for Promotions decreases and so do Ego (I care less) and Experience. But the Experience increases over years. The Danger of making wrong choices is biggest at the start. Midway through the career, the conditions for supervising students, as well as supervisors’ ability to make choices, improve.


Figure 1. Peed model


Going international

1.2 billion people live in India, where over 600 universities and 20000 colleges fail to satisfy the growing demand for research training. University College Dublin reached out and started to recruit Indian students. Several roadshows explain the advantages of studying in Ireland to Indian students every year. One of the benefits for supervisors who decide to take on an international student is attracting better fit candidates.

Funding agenda and policy setting

Internationalisation of the university environment remains on the top of agendas of post/graduate research funders. More and more people complete funded doctoral programmes every year. Although the number of PhDs awarded in US over the last couple of years reached 50000, the number of faculty positions didn’t grow so rapidly and stagnates at 5000. The situation is similar in Europe. The question is whether we need so many new PhDs? The growing relationship with industry may offer an answer. A PhD stops being an academia-specific training; acquisition of transferable skills is coming to the forefront of doctoral training, because they can be utilised anywhere outside academia. The challenge for supervisors and universities failing to employ the PhDs is whether they can at least prepare students for some sort of a zig-zag career in- or outside academia.
This post summarised my observations from the UCD Research Supervisor Support and Development Programme Workshop 2: 28-2-14.

Building research leaders and supervisors with Hugh Kearns

Are you sometimes worried about the progress of your research students and what happens with them?

Hugh Kearns, a Sligo-born research coach from Australia, ran two courses on this topic in the last week of January in Dublin: Building research leaders and Research supervisor support& development workshop. Hugh gave us best-practice tips, some of which I bring in this post.

Figure 1. The long road to project completion
  1. Supervisor vs advisor
    Language matters. While both of the above terms imply a person who ‘sees’ more than the other person, nobody’s view is really super-ior in science. A more experienced researcher can provide an add-itional perspective on student’s work only.
  2. PhD students never die; they just fade away
    Proper supervision perfects students. Busy advisors often overlook this simple truth. A PhD research project is a long-distance run that requires a lot of motivation and support. The former can be instilled by the latter. Think about your time before you take on a research student.
  3. Give them small victories
    Midway through the project, many students fade away simply because of the time that it takes to complete it. Breaking the bigger task into smaller steps creates opportunities for instilling a sense of mastery when students complete a smaller step, for example, a paper on a related subject.
  4. That’s enough – stop now
    The advisor’s perspective and experience is most valuable here. Data collection can go on forever. The literature review can reveal new and interesting studies all the time. This way, the research project won’t end. The golden rule applies to this problem perfectly: Less is more.
  5. GYO PhDs…
    Mentoring relationship and quality of the mentor are the most important factors of a successful student project. If the student and mentor have a chance to work together on a smaller project first, they can better decide whether they want to continue working on a PhD. A great way to start growing your own PhDs is to advertise your research topics on your website or notice board: “Here are the topics that I’m interested in supervising”
  6. Listen to your tummy
    Our research intuition is often the best indicator when deciding about a new student or when the progress is slow. If your tummy tells you something’s wrong, step back and take a moment to think about what caused it.
  7. Meetings build structure into a relationship
    Each mentoring meeting should have an agenda. Ask to student to take the ownership of agendas and meeting minutes, e.g., send in advance, remind me of what I’m supposed to do? Where’s the agenda?
  8. Airtime?
    If your speech takes too much of the meeting airtime, the student might not learn anything. Good questions for prompting students are:
    Tell me what you’ve been doing? Tell me what you think we’ve agreed? Tell me what you’re going to do next.
  9. Quick sneak peek at your results
    Some students might find it intimidating to send whole chapters for review by their mentor. To make it easier for them, you could ask then to send you an outline, a draft or bring a copy to the meeting. The key is to instill hope that the review won’t be shredded their work into pieces.
  10. Grains of sand on the beach
    Some PhD projects lead to Nobel prizes, but most don’t. Most graduate students understand the impact they can make on the world, but it’s no harm to emphasize that however small, their work counts.

The second workshop was part of the new Research support and supervisor development programme at the University College Dublin. This programme is targeted at both new, inexperienced research supervisors and those more experienced staff who would like to refresh their knowledge in the area. The 6 last-Friday workshops will be based on sharing of practices with experienced supervisors and students, case studies, open forum discussions and knowledge sharing with colleagues on policy in the research supervisory field. Watch this space for my observations from these workshops.

The David and Goliath tour: Gladwell live in Dublin

The unmissable Malcolm Gladwell showcased his book in RDS hall, Dublin, on 1 November 2013. After the show, he signed hundreds of books for his perserverant fans.

David and GoliathI’ve got it. His face was much paler than his photos on the book covers. After 27 minutes of queuing and reading the 1st chapter of his most recent book, I got Malcolm Gladwell’s signature. I waited patiently as hundreds of people in the queue ahead of me got their books signed and photographs taken. When he finished, he said to me: “These two are yours?” and the magical moment passed away.

Cycling back home, I passed by the US embassy where I got my visas for the sabbatical in Portland, Oregon, only 9 months ago. I loved Portland and thought it was a strange coincidence when I met Malcolm personally just next door from a place where my latest life story started. The cycle closed.

Pondering these coincidences, I almost hit a jaywalker. Jaywalking in Ireland is the norm and it illustrates one of the key points of Gladwell’s talk – the principle of legitimacy.

Malcolm lectured about why people obey rules or become radical. Citing from his new book, he argued that people will comply with the system if they believe it’s legitimate. 

“Legitimacy is based on fairness, voice and legitimacy” (p.293) he continues: ”People accept authority when they see that it treats everyone equally, when it is possible to speak up and be heard, and when there are rules in place” that don’t change radically from day to day.


Irish pedestrians must be convinced that the traffic lights system is not legitimate and that one must jaywalk to get where they want to be in time. There must be something seriously wrong with the traffic lights in Dublin if they are disrespected there, but respected in most other countries. In fact, the pedestrian lights have 3 symbols instead of 2 – one more than most countries. There is an orange-coloured light between the red& green lights. The green light is very short an orange flashes for the most of the walking interval. See figure below 

The 2nd principle of legitimacy theory says that people will break the rules if they don’t see the negative consequences of breaking the law as outweighing the benefits of obeying the rules. The enforcement of traffic light law for pedestrians in Dublin is virtually non-existent. Jaywalking will remain legitimate in Dublin until the system becomes more legitimate.

Literature:

Gladwell, M (2013). David and Goliath. Penguin books
Tyler, T (2006). Why people obey the law. Princeton University Press
Kennedy, D (2008). Deference and crime prevention. Routlege

Sherman, L (2006). Evidence-based crime prevention. Routlege

Does enthusiasm improve outcomes?

What drives you at your research work?

What do you want to do when you grow up?

What jobs did you have before your career in research?

These, and other, questions came to me during my recent sabbatical in Portland, Oregon. I had time to reflect and step back from the hectic research life. The frenetic chase for money and articles can disconnect researchers from their internal motivation – their primary drive.

If goals are too distant, and are obstructed by too many obstacles, they can get out of site. Continuous re-connection with personal motivated and awareness of own goals keep us driven. Enthusiasm can improve professional performance.

In his book, Clueless in Academe (2003), Gerald Graff argues that schools should use students’ drive to read sports or music magazines for academic purposes. Their interest, if directed properly, should one day bring them to libraries, he hopes.

Many students are not interested in academic topics. Their motivation is weak and affects results. At my final undergraduate exam from personality psychology, the examining professor disagreed with Graff’s assertion. He was convinced that students should spend more time studying subjects which they disliked than their favourite subjects.

Although I disagreed with him, I fully endorsed his conclusion that the disliked subjects are likely to attract less practice time, followed by academic failure, provided that students’ talents do not compensate for lack of practice. At the same time, I think that students need not to excel in every subject. Each day has only 24 hours and no one can do everything – some things have to be neglected. Students need to prioritize their activities. The decisions about preferences shape their lives and future careers. Natural interests are likely to draw students closer to themselves, leading to better self-understanding. Natural interests should be supported.

Book:
Gerald Graff (2003). Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003, 320 pages

Saying bye slowly makes parting easier

Last days of my INVEST fellowship

Visiting research scholars make new friends quickly and parting is not always easy for them. I said bye in Portland (OR) five times:

First, I said bye to my writing group. This was my second group in the last 15 weeks. The first, 10-week course of prompt-based writing was a birthday gift from my wife. I enjoyed the first course so much that I decided to go for a second round. The new beginnings were difficult, because we had a new group and group dynamics; dynamics matters most in writing groups. By the 3rd-4thmeeting, the group juice started to flow and we shared more and more feedback on our writings. Parting with the second group wasn’t easy, but much smoother thanks to my experience with the first group; I felt I belong there.

Second, I said bye to the members of the Western States Node from the Clinical Trials Network. The network has 13 nodes funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) to conduct clinical trials in addiction science. From the very beginning of my fellowship, I have attended weekly meetings of the team – around 20 in total. Marie made delicious cookies and Lynn gave me clock made of bike parts by a Portland artist. This was a well-chosen gift, because I cycled around Portland every day and really enjoyed it.

Third, I said bye to my colleagues from the Department of Public Health at the Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU). The lunch invite went to all faculty and staff, but I was worried that no one would come. I was worried that if I left, nobody will care about it. When I came there, I saw many familiar faces. It felt good because it made me feel like I have an impact on people that I managed to make a connection in a short time. We had a BYO lunch on the lawn. The sky didn’t look like 88 Fahrenheit but the sun shone on us eventually. Some of us sat on a white blanket from the ED which used to warm up patients as they came to ED. Many people showed up, including my mentor Dr Dennis McCartywith his wife; Dennis commissioned cookies and Sarah baked them.

In the evening, I said bye to the three of my best friends and neighbours plus their dog – Sonic. We stayed up late, talked, ate and listened to great music. Sonic honoured us with two carpet pees which destined him into his kennel for the rest of the night.

Fourth, I said bye to my dentist. Seth was a 3rd year dentistry student at OHSU School of Dentistry and helped me through many long visits. He reminded me about my appointments every Sunday night. Seth called me on Friday evenings and when he didn’t get an answer, he called back on Sunday night. He even called me when he had a cancellation to check if I had time to get some work done. When we parted, he pushed a bag full of toothbrushes and toothpastes into my hand; so that I take care of myself and my teeth. We had a lot in common, especially the taste for adventure. I surprised my wife with a hot balloon ride for her birthday last Thursday and he treated his wife with the same ride for their 3rd anniversary.

Fifth, I said bye to my mentor, Dr Dennis McCarty. When I arrived to the department that morning, it was pretty empty and my heart sank because I haven’t had a chance to say bye to Dennis. But he came later. Dennis helped me to improve and expand my writing. I’ve read four books on writing, borrowed from him, during the my fellowship. I’ve never read so much about writing in my life. Dennis introduced me to science writers, e.g. Atul Gawandeor Carol Cruzan Morton, science writing, e.g. JRF publications, and science writing competition – the Wellcome trust prize. We met at the career crossroads – an emerging science apprentice and a seasoned mentor. He taught me that research project management is unlike any other research skills: you don’t learn these things by reading books or in the classroom, but through the apprenticeship. He was not only my mentor, but at times, acted like my guide, counsellor, teacher, proof reader, father and friend.


My point here – that saying bye slowly makes parting easier – should interest most visiting research scholars. Beyond this limited audience, however, my point should speak to anyone who faces parting with many good friends.