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Publishing papers while keeping everything in balance: Practical advice for a productive graduate school experience

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Pursuing a graduate degree is difficult. To succeed, students must overcome a myriad of ill-defined, and often unforeseen, challenges. One major obstacle lies in publishing their work. In this perspective, I provide a detailed description of my own working system that matured late in my graduate career but still paid dividends in terms of my publication record, funding success, and work-life balance. I also include brief vignettes of other topics that were crucial to my own scientific development. While I organized this essay as a series of “rules”—I don’t mean to imply that graduate school nor academia has a specific formula for success. Not only does it not, but as a first-year postdoctoral researcher, I can only speak to what works in graduate school through the lens of my own experiences. My experience is particularly relevant, however, because unlike many who have offered similar advice in the past, I drafted this perspective in the months that followed my degree. Rather, I offer these rules as a starting point for you to take, consider, and mold into your own framework. I am confident, however, that there is commonality among the ideas described here and the general habits of successful academics. In writing this perspective, I had three primary goals: (1) To add a more detailed, recent perspective to previous, more general essays on this topic. (2) To bridge an apparent disconnect between successful faculty and graduate students. Essentially, the advice in this essay may be obvious to a seasoned academic while simultaneously highly relevant, and interesting, to an early career student. And finally, (3) I hope to help dispel myths graduate students may hold about the innate talent or expertise needed to succeed in graduate school and to demystify the day-to-day work side of the equation. Simply put, I’m not a scientific outlier. But with good organizational skills, a diligent writing habit, and some invaluable mentoring, I made it to the light at the end of the tunnel (and into a career-progressing position). You can too.
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Content may be subject to copyright.
iee 11 (2018) 35
11: 3546, 2018
doi:10.4033/iee.2018.11.5.f
© 2018 The Author. © Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 2018
Received 18 February 2018; Accepted 7 June 2018
Future of Publishing
Publishing papers while keeping everything in balance: Practical advice for a
productive graduate school experience
Scott Hotaling
Scott Hotaling (scott.hotaling@wsu.edu), School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA,
99164, USA
Abstract
Pursuing a graduate degree is difficult. To succeed,
students must overcome a myriad of ill-defined, and often
unforeseen, challenges. One major obstacle lies in pub-
lishing their work. In this perspective, I provide a detailed
description of my own working system that matured late
in my graduate career but still paid dividends in terms of
my publication record, funding success, and work-life
balance. I also include brief vignettes of other topics that
were crucial to my own scientific development. While I
organized this essay as a series of “rules”, I don’t mean
to imply that graduate school nor academia has a specific
formula for success. Not only does it not, but as a first-
year postdoctoral researcher, I can only speak to what
works in graduate school through the lens of my own
experiences. My experience is particularly relevant,
however, because unlike many who have offered similar
advice in the past, I drafted this perspective in the months
that followed my degree. Rather, I offer these rules as a
starting point for you to take, consider, and mold into
your own framework. I am confident, however, that there
is commonality among the ideas described here and the
general habits of successful academics. In writing this
perspective, I had three primary goals: (1) To add a more
detailed, recent perspective to previous, more general
essays on this topic. (2) To bridge an apparent disconnect
between successful faculty and graduate students.
Essentially, the advice in this essay may be obvious to a
seasoned academic while simultaneously highly relevant,
and interesting, to an early career student. And finally, (3)
I hope to help dispel myths graduate students may hold
about the innate talent or expertise needed to succeed in
graduate school and to demystify the day-to-day work
side of the equation. Simply put, I’m not a scientific
outlier. But with good organizational skills, a diligent
writing habit, and some invaluable mentoring, I made it
to the light at the end of the tunnel (and into a career-
progressing position). You can too.
Keywords graduate student productivity; work-life
balance; graduate training; publishing; scientific
communication; career perspective.
Graduate school is hard. It’s confusing, challenging, and
can feel like walking into a party where everyone knows
each other and you didn’t realize there was a theme. It’s
hard to know how to succeed or even what success looks
like. Much of the oft-cited graduate school misery stems
from this uncertainty. I don’t think it has to be this way.
Mentorship and experience, often of the trial-and-error
variety, are key in gaining a better sense of knowing what
to do, when to do it, and what you hope to achieve.
Through a clearer understanding of where to spend your
time and how to be most effective when you work, you
can transform the mountain of graduate school into a
series of more manageable molehills. So we’re on the
same page: my long-term goal, like many others, is a
tenure-track academic job at one of the 222 R1 or R2
research universities in the United States (McCormick
and Zhao 2005). As a 1st-year postdoctoral researcher,
whether I achieve that goal or my trajectory shifts
remains to be seen, but it won’t be for lack of
commitment. Perhaps that’s my first piece of advice for
having a productive, successful graduate school exper-
ience: fully commit yourself to your efforts.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
iee 11 (2018) 36
Figure 1. A summary of the 12
rules for having a productive,
well-balanced graduate school
experience outlined in this
perspective.
In this perspective, I outline 12 rules (summarized in
Figure 1) that helped me wade through the chaos of
graduate school to settle on a healthy, productive path
that will (hopefully!) form the foundation of a successful
academic career. While I focus heavily on academic
“success”, it is important to consider (and re-evaluate
often) how you define success for your own experience.
Your definition will likely be different from some of your
peers and it should evolve with you as needed throughout
graduate school. While many of the rules described here
were developed in the moment, others only came into
focus through the lens of retrospection. By “productive,”
I mean that during my PhD, I met my degree require-
ments, developed and funded a research system of my
own, and published a dozen or so papers. Over my six-
year tenure, this productivity wasn’t as nicely balanced
as it sounds. Rather, it all came in the final two years of
my degree when my “system” was maturingan
outcome that I don’t think was a coincidence. I would
argue my newfound productivity stemmed from an
increasingly refined approach to how I worked, a glut of
data, flourishing collaborations, and a bit of luck. This
bucks the notion I had early in my career that outsized
productivity must stem from similarly outsized intellect
or research talent. I’m sure it does in some cases, but I’m
proof that it doesn’t have to.
Still, my own path isn’t fully resolved; it is, and will
continue to be, a work in progress. By writing this article,
my primary aim was to demystify what it means to work
effectively through a detailed account of my own exper-
iences. Tied into this was the need to address a disconnect
between seasoned academics and early career research-
ers. Because academia has already self-selected for the
general concepts included in this perspective among
senior researchers, this essay may feel redundant and
largely unnecessary to anyone reading it from that
perspective. I’m also not the first person who has
attempted to convey advice to future graduate students
(e.g. Gu and Bourne 2007, Huey 1987, Stearns 1987). I
am, however, a rare early career voice in this discussion
having finished my degree less than a year ago. Similar
perspectives are also largely rooted in broad pieces of
advice and lack crucial specifics. While I don’t avoid this
entirely, my goal was to provide a combination of both
specific strategies for working effectively alongside
broader ideals. My final aim was to add my own
perspectives to questions that I don’t think are discussed
as widely as they should be. Does getting a lot done in
iee 11 (2018) 37
graduate school have to come at a major cost to work-life
balance? Is it possible to be both happy and productive in
graduate school? Based on my experience, I would argue
the answers are “no” and “yes, definitely.” While this
guide is focused on graduate students and academia, the
general ideas aren’t necessarily career, professional
stage, or path-specific. Anyone in a professional setting
can take something away from this discussion and/or a
thoughtful examination of their own working habits.
(1) Identify your priorities
Rarely have I encountered a graduate student who
doesn’t work hard. Unfortunately, hard work doesn’t
necessarily translate to useful productivity. The most
important decision(s) you’ll make throughout your
career, especially in the first few years, are of priorities.
This isn’t where you want to spend your time, this is
where you should spend your time. Start by having
explicit conversations with your advisor(s) and com-
mittee. It is important to trust these people (you selected
them for a reason!) while also remembering that you
know yourself, your own skill set, and aspirations best.
You should come away from these discussions with clear
ideas about where to devote your effort. For instance, if
you’re a 2nd-semester teaching assistant working on a
PhD, you may need to spend 40% of your time on
teaching, 40% on coursework, and 20% on reading the
literature and developing your specific dissertation plans.
That’s okay. Your priorities should be re-evaluated
whenever your professional situation changes (e.g., you
receive a research assistantship) or every ~6 months,
whichever comes first.
(2) Develop a system for working effectively
Careful planning is essential to academic success. It’s
easy to spend time on tasks that don’t matter in the long
run while neglecting those that do. For the most part, we
like to do things that are easy and/or straightforward
while avoiding tasks that are difficult or unclear. Often,
however, those more difficult tasks are exactly the ones
that we should be spending our time on. For me, I chased
far too many threads early in my career and wasted my
fair share of time by not buckling down on the most
promising ones. I also waited too long to sit down to write
my first paper or even fully commit to becoming a better
writer. Some of that was waiting for the right data, but a
significant portion was simply not realizing just how
important publishing (and writing) would be to my
career. In this section, I lay out the foundation for how I
work. There is certainly no one size fits all strategy. My
approach is just an example, and ultimately, your goal
should be to identify what works for you, then refine and
improve your method as you climb the academic ranks.
For additional insight into the diversity of ways that
academics work, I recommend perusing the “How
Molecular Ecologists Work” interview series
(http://www.molecularecologist.com/tag/how-molecular
-ecologists-work/).
For me, staying on track begins with an overarching
rundown of the major writing projects I have in process
or planned, the current status of each (e.g., complete
draft, submitted, in revision, etc.), target deadlines for
submission (if applicable), and brief progress notes (see
Figure 2A). These writing projects are typically linked to
empirical data sets so this list doubles as an outline of
major research goals. I re-write my list four times per
year (January 1st, April 1st, July 1st, October 1st) and
manuscripts that were published or grants that were
submitted are removed. All remaining items are re-
ordered according to an updated timeline. When a new
project arises, it’s added to this list and carried forward
until finished. To plan my weeks, I use an online tool
(Google calendar is my preference) that includes
scheduled commitments, both personal and professional,
and a rolling task list spanning the next two weeks or so.
Each working day, you have a set amount of time
“currency” to spend. And like money, it’s best to spend
wisely. For me, I have found it works best to explicitly
account for where I spend my time, letting priorities for
the day inform how I structure my efforts. I begin by
transcribing the day’s tasks from my online calendar to a
handwritten list, ranking them by their importance as I
go. A typical day consists of 6-10 “tasks”—some are easy
to accomplish (e.g., sending a specific email), some
require a set amount of time (e.g., attending a seminar),
and some are large, long-term efforts (e.g., working on a
manuscript). After making my list of tasks for the day, I
look at my scheduled commitments and consider
realistically how many hours I have available to work.
Next to meetings, seminars, etc., I note how long I expect
them to take and subtract these pre-committed amounts
from my working total for the day. So, say, after
scheduled commitments, 5.5 hours remain, next I
subtract another two hours for general work day activities
(interruptions, eating, etc.). This leaves 3.5 hours of time
to “spend” on what really matters. Since I lack the
attention span for long periods of sustained effort, I break
this total into 30-minute intervals which I allocate to tasks
based upon importance (see Figure 2B). For instance, if
a particular manuscript is my top priority for the day, it
may get 4 of 7 intervals (two hours), while responding to
emails, a teaching plan for next week, and a funding
report only get 30 minutes each. If a task doesn’t get
completed when planned (and doesn’t have an imminent
deadline), I don’t worry about it. Instead, I move it to a
future date to be revisited. No task gets removed without
careful consideration. Is it finished? Has the situation
changed and it’s no longer important? If the answer to
either question is “yes,” it’s gone.
iee 11 (2018) 38
Figure 2. I make three lists to stay organized, manage my productivity, and track progress. A) My writing list is
updated quarterly and keeps big picture research, manuscript, and grant goals on track. B) Each morning, I transfer
the day’s tasks from my online calendar to a journal and allocate how much anticipated free time to devote to each
task (in 30-minute intervals). C) Every study, grant, or presentation gets its own project-specific list. When finished,
project-specific lists may span just a few to hundreds of tasks.
(3) Cultivate a writing habit
At the end of the day, we’re professional writers
(García-Granda 2013, MacDonald 1994). The sooner you
take that to heart, the better off you’ll be. I recently asked
a prominent figure in my field what piece of advice
they’d give to early career scientists. Without hesitation,
they replied: “Develop a writing habit.” When I look
back at my own grants and papers, I can’t agree more.
When I started writing with a purpose every working day,
my career trajectory shifted. Writing grants and papers
are daunting tasks. They require mountains of effort with
hard-to-define progress. Regularly scheduled effort is the
only way to get them done in a timely fashion.
Let’s focus for a moment on the “habit” part. This is
key because it’s more than just writing—that’s a great
startbut it is equally about developing a routine that
allows for plenty of writing time in a productive environ-
ment. For me, I’m most effective early in the morning so
I write for around two hours every day, typically from
7:00–9:00 AM. There’s a ritual to this work. I go
somewhere with the right ambience, I drink my tea,
decide which writing project(s) needs the most attention
(see rule 2 Develop a system for working effectively”),
put in my headphones, and dive in. Above all else, I
absolutely defend this time. I consider it an appointment
I have with myself every day. Only my supervisor or an
emergency can impinge on it. I don’t schedule meetings
or appointments during it, I don’t take phone calls, and I
try to not respond to emails or let small tasks get in my
way. For me, it’s important that I don’t work in my
primary office or lab space during this time as it’s too
easy to be distracted. As I see it, there are three main
benefits to this approach: (i) Because it’s early in the
morning, social engagements don’t affect my writing
time as seemingly always happens if I try to write in the
evening. (ii) There is an undeniable mental health benefit
that comes from progress early in the day; often, success
in my writing window jumpstarts success in other areas
of my day. And (iii) I get a lot of writing done. When I’m
starting a paper, I can usually get ~500 words down per
hour, which adds up quickly. To be clear: when I say
“writing,” I’m not always referring to actual writing. It’s
more about doing whatever is necessary to make progress
on projects that will result in either a submitted grant or
published manuscript, so this time can also include figure
making, editing, formatting, etc.
For the actual act of writing (here I do mean putting
words on the page), many tomes have been written about
being effective at it generally (e.g., King 2002, Kress
2003, Silvia 2007), as an academic (e.g., García-Granda
2013, Sword 2017), and for publishing scientific papers
(e.g., Bourne 2005). I have summarized the published
resources included in this perspective in Table 1. To this
body of work, I’ll add four brief thoughts. First, practice
doesn’t make perfect, but it does make you a more
efficient, thoughtful writer. Early in my PhD, I started
writing a review of my field (see Hotaling et al. 2017a).
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Table 1. A summary of the resources for early career scientists included in this article.
Year
Topic
Type
Focus
1987
Advice
Article
Graduate students
1987
Advice
Article
Graduate students
1992
Advice
Article
Graduate students
2007
Advice
Article
Doing your best research
2007
Advice
Article
Early career scientists
2016
Advice
Article
Early career scientists
2018
Advice
Article
Working and publishing effectively
2002
Writing (general)
Book
The act of writing
2003
Writing (general)
Book
Learning to write
2007
Writing (general)
Book
How to write a lot
1994
Writing (science)
Book
Thoughts on academic writing at large
2005
Writing (science)
Article
Publishing scientific papers
2013
Writing (science)
Book
Writing impactful papers and grants
2013
Writing (science)
Article
Writing review papers
2014
Writing (science)
Article
Writing research papers
2015
Writing (science)
Article
General thoughts on scientific writing
2017
Writing (science)
Article
Structuring a paper
2017
Writing (science)
Book
The act of writing
It didn’t require any data or money to write, and I found
several experienced co-authors [see rule 5 Build (and
take advantage of) a strong network” below] to help in
the process. While it would ultimately take years to be
published, the lessons in writing and collaboration I
learned from it were invaluable. Later, once my working
approach was more refined, it only took a year to write
another, related review with a new set of collaborators
(see Hotaling et al. 2017b). Second, recognize honest,
thorough feedback for what it is: someone cares enough
to sit down with you and your writing and tell you what’s
wrong with it. Without saying it, that person is telling you
that they care about your success. Embrace that and them
(see rule 9 “Embrace feedbackfor more on this point).
Third, and perhaps most importantly, write a shitty first
draft (SFD). Don’t worry about minor details, do only
minimal editing, just get the words down. You can fill in
details and refine issues in subsequent drafts. When the
SFD is complete may be a good time to solicit quick
feedback from your advisor or a collaboratormake it
clear you aren’t asking for edits, but instead you’d like
them to give the paper a quick look for any obviously
missing components. Finally, track your progress! When
writing the SFD of a manuscript, I track my daily word
count. This psychological trick only takes a few seconds
and can transform how you feel about the time you spend
writing (I’ve written 376 words today!).
(4) Manage your projects (and deadlines) effectively
It’s difficult (at best) to succeed in academia if you
only work on one project at a time. As your network and
collaborations grow, you’ll be involved in projects on
many fronts, often with non-overlapping sets of collabor-
ators. This is a good thing, but, as a general rule of thumb,
you should always be wary of spreading yourself too thin.
To manage your projects effectively, consider three
goals: (i) Carefully identify your role in each project and
prioritize which ones you should spend the bulk of your
time on (hint: whichever ones you are lead-author on
and/or those that contribute directly to your thesis). These
decisions are best discussed with your advisor(s) and
collaborators you trust. (ii) Next, identify some approp-
riate deadlines. Early on, it’s best to take your own
estimates of how long something will take and at least
double, if not triple, them. Remember that for some
deadlines (e.g., submitting a proposal to your committee)
you should ask those involved how much time in advance
iee 11 (2018) 40
they would like to have it (two weeks minimum) and aim
for that. (iii) Once you’ve established which projects
should take priority and key deadlines for each, your next
goal is tracking the tasks for each project that you’re
responsible for. Again, I make project-specific lists (I use
“Notes” on my MacBook Pro) and write down everything
from structural changes (e.g., re-frame/broaden Intro-
duction) to small details (e.g., fix typo on map; see Figure
2C for an example). When a task is completed, I put a
check next to it and move it to the project-specific
“Done” list. This serves as both useful accounting to keep
track of what still needs to be done and another important
metric of progress. Looking back at the growing list of
completed tasks and the dwindling list of things to do
reminds me how far the project has come and makes it
easier to see it through to the end. For manuscripts, this
“end” is not when the paper is submitted for peer review,
but when the corrected manuscript proofs have been sent
back to the publisher, the copyright agreement is signed,
and there’s nothing left to do but wait for publication.
(5) Build (and take advantage of) a strong network
Collaboration and network-building are key to long-
term success. Networks can extend your productivity,
yield the necessary resources (human and otherwise) for
solving complex problems, and provide an important
support structure during trying times of your academic
career. However, the template for building networks is
rarely discussed beyond generalities (i.e., “networking is
important!”). To be fair, it’s a hard subject to pin down
and for some, the networking side of academia comes
naturally. For others, it’s a major struggle. Here are some
general rules for establishing and maintaining connect-
ions throughout your career. First and foremost, make
time for socializing with your colleagues. If that sentence
makes you shudder, take a moment and listen: being a
good colleague who plays well with others is half the
battle in academia. Like anything, your social skills
improve with practice, so say “yes” to that next
invitation. Go to conference mixers and happy hours.
You may be pleasantly surprised. Also, there is no need
to limit yourself to face-to-face interaction. Scientific
networking on platforms like Twitter is an increasingly
common, and effective, part of the modern research
experience. Second, don’t treat people like economic
equations. You never know how someone’s expertise,
connections, or friendship can benefit your own path (or
how you can influence theirs). In an often too cutthroat
academic landscape, I, perhaps naively, still believe that
a rising tide lifts all ships. There don’t have to be winners
and losers in every situation, and you’ll do well to avoid
treating interactions that way. Third, don’t be afraid of
people. You didn’t wind up where you are without many
people thinking that you deserved to be there. Internalize
that knowledge and remind yourself of it the next time
you’re wondering if you should send that email or
introduce yourself to someone. Go do it.
Similarly, don’t be afraid to propose an idea. Have a
review you want to write and you’d like a more senior
person in your field to be a co-author? Ask them. One
useful tip: when emailing a potential collaborator, discuss
it with your advisor first, and perhaps have them give
your introductory email a read before hitting send. Last
but not least, follow through on your commitments. This
cannot be stressed enough. Doing what you say you’ll do,
when you said you’d do it, will endear you to
collaborators in a way that little else can. For me, it also
helps that I don’t mind doing the “dirty work” on
manuscripts my collaborators and I are working on
managing revisions and co-author comments, putting
together the SFD of sections that need it, any reference or
journal-specific formatting, etc. This is another way to
build goodwill while keeping things moving forward, as
these are often sticking points where publications stall
because people don’t have the time and/or inclination for
them.
Tied into this networking discussion is a common
graduate student pitfall: the perception that you need to
do everything on your own. This feeling is partially based
in a useful ideal: struggling is an important part of the
training process and helps cultivate perseverance, which
is likely the most important skill for academic success.
But, there comes a timeprobably around the 3rd or 4th
year of a Ph.D.when some self-evaluation is in order.
At this point, it’s time to stop struggling for the sake of
struggling and start thinking critically about the skills you
possess. There’s no place for being humble or under-
estimating yourself in this discussion; you need to be
realistic about the skills (there are many!) you’ve
acquired. I encourage you to first take your own internal
measure, then reach out to your mentors (your advisor,
collaborators, etc.) for added perspective. Me? I’m an
efficient project manager, fast writer, and I make a heck
of a figure. I’m also adept at developing and maintaining
productive collaborations and I’m usually a quick study
of new things. Notice anything missing? Lots of things!
I’m rarely, if ever, the most knowledgeable person in a
scientific discussion, I don’t possess encyclopedic know-
ledge of anything, I’m not particularly creative or
thoughtful about experimental design, and my statistical
talents are passable at best. That’s okay. I’m still learning
new things, I have collaborators and peers who excel in
the areas where I’m weak, and we rely on one another for
success.
Finally, remember that manyif not allof the
struggles you experience in graduate school are shared by
others. Networking isn’t just for CV-building, networks
are also important reservoirs of support and easily access-
ible pools of additional perspectives that you can learn
from. Since academic research has no one-size-fits-all
strategy, it may also be useful to reach out to more senior
iee 11 (2018) 41
students or postdocs for a casual meeting to get their
perspective on a specific issue you’re having or ask about
how they approach their work. I have never turned down
one of these meetings and I doubt many others have.
Your network also doesn’t need to be limited to people at
your home university, conference friends, and collab-
orators. We, scientists and humanity, are more connected
than ever before. While this age of connectivity can have
negative impacts (e.g., it’s easier than ever to compare
your CV to everyone else’s—I’m looking at you, Google
Scholar), there are positive aspects too. On Twitter, a
myriad of tips, ideas, and relevant discussions are shared
among scientists every day, and early career scientists
should check out the hashtag #phdchat (and similar) for
a curated experience aimed at students. A wealth of
resources for scientific development are also being
produced and shared freely. For instance, the Broad
Institute’s CommKit is a collection of resources designed
to cultivate successful communication across the
sciences (http://mitcommlab.mit.edu/broad/use-the-com
mkit). Similarly, the PLOS Computational Biology “10
simple rules” collection contains dozens of short articles
focused on specific, useful topics (http://collections.
plos.org/ten-simple-rules): rules for structuring papers
(Mensh and Kording 2017), writing science (Pautasso
2013, Weinberger et al. 2015, Zhang 2014), doing your
best research (Erren et al. 2007), advice for graduate
students generally (Gu and Bourne 2007), and many
more. I’d also recommend reading Stearns (1987) and the
reply from Huey (1987), as well as Lawton (1992) and
Smol (2016) for additional early career advice from a
range of perspectives (see a summary of these resources
in Table 1).
(6) Seek an existing data set
Early on, it can be particularly useful to seek out an
existing data setperhaps something small (but still
interesting) that your advisor or a collaborator doesn’t
have the time to publish. This won’t be possible for
everyone, but if your situation and network allows, it can
be rewarding on many fronts. Above all, it provides a
hands-on, publishable training opportunity that doesn’t
require time or resources to collect. I have a difficult time
devoting myself to purely learning-based pursuits so it
helps immensely if the learning opportunity will translate
into something tangible for my career (beyond a new
skill). In this regard, an existing data set provides a
perfect fit, as the experience gained spans data analysis,
making figures, writing, and ultimately, the publication
process (e.g., drafting a cover letter, responding to peer
reviewers, etc.).
During my career, I’ve been lucky to form a close
professional relationship with an aquatic ecologist who
spends much of her time collecting data for specific
management objectives. These data go into reports for
funding agencies and would form the basis for solid
publications if she could find the time to write them. Her
situation provided ample opportunity for a motivated
graduate student (me) to collaborate and help her move
projects forward. This relationship yielded invaluable
training in the nuts and bolts of scientific publication, the
analysis of community ecology data, and spawned my
first publication (Tronstad et al. 2016) which was
followed by two more the next year (Hotaling et al.
2017c, Tronstad and Hotaling 2017). Our relationship has
been successful because we enjoy working together (we
are now close friends outside of science), I had a data-
deficit and she had a glut, and I was highly motivated to
learn from her and support what she needed. In turn, she
looked out for my best interests as a student. This last part
is essential to such a collaboration. The person you are
working with must recognize that you are a graduate
student, that you have extensive commitments beyond
your shared project, and that you’re still learning. It’s best
that the study not be something that is time-sensitive, as
it can (and likely will!) take much longer to finish than
you expect at the outset.
(7) Have something “fun” to work on
This rule can be a key, but often overlooked, facet of
long-term success. You should, of course, generally be
working on research that you are passionate about. But,
day-to-day, even the most inspiring research includes
enough minutiae, roadblocks, and mundane tasks to swal-
low your excitement if it isn’t regularly stoked. Aside
from surrounding myself with passionate, interesting
people, my practical solution for this is to spend one or
two 30-minute blocks each day on something that is
enjoyable, easily progressed, and career building. The
second part of that bears repeating: this is something that
you can make progress on with relative ease. There’s an
important mental health benefit tucked into that idea. My
darkest academic times have always come when I felt I
was spinning my wheels and not accomplishing anything.
Having one or two projects on the back burner that are
interesting and easy to move forward gives me crucial
small victories while bigger projects play out in their
necessary, albeit frustrating, start-and-stop fashion. For
me, fun projects are typically writing-focusedwhether
a commentary like this (you’re reading my current fun
project right now!), a popular press article, or a review.
For others, this could be an interesting coding idea, a
website, an outreach projectreally anything that is
professionally beneficial but not too complex. It’s
imperative that the fun project not become another
burden weighing you down. When I get stuck on a
prioritized project, I switch to the fun project, make some
progress for half an hour, then switch back, usually with
a refreshed outlook. And when a fun project sees the light
of the day (e.g., Hotaling 2016), it’s just icing on the cake.
iee 11 (2018) 42
Figure 3. A theoretical plot of effort versus quality for
early career (e.g., graduate students, solid line) and
experienced (e.g., tenure-track professors, dashed line)
researchers. A and B) Experienced researchers can reach
acceptable quality of a manuscript, for example, with
much less effort than early career scientists. This is
normal and as training continues, the curve for early
career researchers will increasingly shift left. This differ-
ence is largely rooted in practice. With every iteration of
manuscript or grant-writing, you will learn to write more
efficiently, anticipate reviewer comments, and generally
become more adept at creating higher quality products
more easily.
(8) Recognize when it’s good enough
One vital skill you’ll develop during your career is the
ability to gauge when something is good enough. Let me
be clear: I don’t mean you should take shortcuts and
submit manuscripts or give talks before they are ready.
Don’t do that. Rather, there comes a time in every project
where more effort will add, at best, only incremental
value (Figure 3). Your goal is to learn to recognize this
inflection point and either pass the project off to a
collaborator when you reach it or move on to the project’s
next phase (e.g., journal submission). Early on, you’ll
think you’ve reached that magic point—and perhaps you
have for your ability!only to discover from a
colleague’s feedback that there is still plenty left to do.
This is normal. It’s part of the process. As you become
more experienced, your sense of “finished” will
increasingly align with that of your colleagues and
community.
(9) Embrace feedback
I alluded to this earlier, but it bears repeating: embrace
feedback and the people that give it. Aside from persist-
ence, you would be hard-pressed to find anything more
important to long-term academic success than taking
feedback well (spoiler alert: there will be a lot of it). First,
it’s imperative that you recognize criticism (even when it
doesn’t feel constructive in the moment) for what it is:
someone cares enough to tell you the truth instead of tak-
ing the easier road of smiling and nodding. All feedback
and criticism will not be constructive, but the instances
of critique just for the sake of critique are few and far
between. Even if someone’s delivery isn’t ideal, they
have something useful to say. Instead of trying to figure
out why they are wrong, you should listen closely. Ask
them to clarify if you don’t follow their point and do
whatever you can to help them help you. No perfect paper
has ever been written, and the perfect talk is yet to be
delivered. No matter what stage you’re at, there is always
room for improvement. Early in your career, your ability
to self-diagnose issues is particularly limited and sets you
up for disappointment. Where you see a polished, well-
crafted manuscript that you spent tens (or hundreds) of
hours on, your colleague may see neon signs of mis-
placed hypotheses, run-on sentences, and murky points.
This is a normal juxtaposition and it’s two-fold in
origin. First, your colleagues haven’t spent weeks obsess-
ing over every detail. They are seeing it all with fresh
eyes. Second, and more importantly, your readers will
typically have much more experience than you do.
They’ve written, edited, reviewed, and received feedback
on orders of magnitude more writing than you have. And,
luckily for you, they are going to tell you about it. It will
be tough to hear. You’ll feel like you’re not good enough,
or that they made some kind of mistake when they decid-
ed to work with you (see "imposter syndrome": Parkman
2016). Don’t listen to those voices. You’re plenty good
enough, and they didn’t make a mistake. You just have a
lot of room to grow. You’ll look back in a few years and
feel incredibly thankful that they took the time to help,
and you’ll pass those lessons on to the next group coming
up behind you. Finally, if a culture of feedback doesn’t
exist at your institution or within your laboratory group,
you can be the seed that helps to establish it. Talk with
your advisor about incorporating feedback on present-
ations or budding manuscripts as a regular part of your
group’s interactions. And if that isn’t in the cards, reach
out to your peers and see if they would be interested in
helping you create a group for regularly scheduled,
supportive feedback.
iee 11 (2018) 43
(10) Consider your publishing “strategy”
If you don’t already know, you’ll quickly learn the
gravitas that major journals like Nature and Science carry
in the scientific community. These journals publish some
of the highest-quality, most impactful research and
publishing in their hallowed pages is admired (and covet-
ed) for good reason. But, as a graduate student, you
should try to avoid stressing over that. Instead, focus on
doing the most high-quality, impactful research you can
and publishing it in a timely, consistent fashion. Note that
I’m not advocating for quantity over quality, nor vice-
versa. While sheer numbers do matter, you’ll likely be
best served by repeatedly publishing high-quality papers
instead of seeking out that single home run or writing
many forgettable ones. A note of caution here: your
publishing strategy will depend heavily, if not exclusiv-
ly, on your advisor. Here, I’m making a significant
assumption of student independence that may not exist.
This can be a significant challenge with few solutions if
student-mentor strategies are mismatched and you should
pursue very open communication with your advisor to
avoid it. However, should an issue arise that cannot be
solved within the mentor-mentee frame-work, both your
committee and other campus resources can be important
resources for mediation and/or student advocacy.
Generally, scientific publishing strategies fall into
three categories (Figure 4): (i) “broadcast”, (ii) “Goldi-
locks”, and (iii) “saving it for Nature.” Of course, my
names for each belie my own opinions, but let me
explain. The (i) “broadcast” publisher seeks to publish
every data point, no matter how small, in any peer-
reviewed journal that will take it. (ii) “Goldilocks”
publishers get things out when appropriate and their work
commonly appears in medium to top-tier journals for
their field but rarely, if ever, in the highest-end journals.
The (iii) “saving it for Nature” publishers spend their
early career chasing major publications. This is a part-
icularly high-risk strategy, as unless your big paper gets
through where you hope it does, you could easily be left
with no published record of your graduate work. I named
the “Goldilocks” strategy that because in my experience
as a student in an ecology and evolution graduate
program, it seems like the “just right” attitude. If you hit
a home run and your study finds its way into a big
journalgreat!—but don’t chase it. The experience you
gain from repeatedly publishing papers in solid journals
will not only benefit you, it may even look better to future
employers.
(11) Finish papers!
What you’ve published matters immensely. In your first
few years, you’ll get a pass—as you shouldfor not
publishing much. But as the years tick by, that pass will
Figure 4. Three general publishing strategies for
graduate students (B, G, S) and my own empirical PhD
data (SH) are shown with each publication (colored
circle) mapped by impact factor (a measure of the the
yearly mean number of citations to recent articles
published in that journal). B: “broadcast” publishers, high
output with consistently low impact. G: “Goldilocks”
publishers, several high-quality papers in medium to top-
tier journals for your field. S: “saving it for Nature
publishers, holding off on publishing in pursuit of
difficult-to-obtain, ultra-high impact publications.
Summary statistics include: n = total publications, 𝑥̅IF =
mean impact factor of publications, TIF = total impact
factor “points” for each strategy. Impact factors from
2016 are shown for a subset of primarily ecology and
evolution journals (right-hand side).
turn to curiosity from peers and employers, possibly
manifesting as a key limiting factor in your career
progression. Much has been written about the meritsor
lack thereof—of the “publish or perish” nature of
academia (see recent perspectives: Brischoux and
Angelier 2015, Fanelli and Larivière 2016, Nabout et al.
2015). But, at least for now, publications are the game so
if you’re going to play, it’s worth spending significant
iee 11 (2018) 44
time and effort on them. For many graduate students, the
real challenge doesn’t lie in devoting time to papers; it
lies in finishing them. My doctoral advisor addressed this
semi-jokingly with a saying: “Science isn’t real until it’s
published.” In my short career, I’ve seen many studies
make it to the final stagessolid data, interesting con-
clusions, drafted figuresonly to stall. Why? Pub-
lishing a peer-reviewed paper takes a ton of effort, a good
deal of patience, and the capacity to get through the
process with your self-confidence intact.
But I think there’s a bit more to the phenomenon of
stalling manuscripts that is at least partially rooted in our
own scientific predispositions. There seem to be four
general groups that most of us fall into: thinkers, collect-
ors, analyzers, and writers. After finishing that sentence,
odds are you know which tribe you belong to. Falling into
one group over another isn’t a bad thing; science needs
all four. But members of each group need to be wary of
the pitfalls that come with their respective territory. As a
writer, I, in many ways, move through the development
of ideas, collecting data, and analyses just to get to the
writing part. This generally works out pretty well because
I don’t linger too long in earlier stages. But if left to my
own devices (i.e., without mentors, collaborators, or
reviewers), key supplementary data, more robust
analyses, or additional levels of investigation might get
passed over. The other groups all share the same potential
for getting stuck at the stage they are most excited about
instead of making it to the end. Knowing is half the battle
so your first goal is to recognize which camp you fall into
or at least where your working pre-dispositions lie.
Second, you should seek out your complements. Thinkers
are great for seeing the big picture and developing new
ideas. Collectors may be excited about helping to gen-
erate some data for a project you can work on together.
Analyzers are important resources for sorting out what to
do with your data. A writer in your midst can start
framing out the manuscript while you collect that one
more data point or add an analysis. No matter which
category you fall into, you must publish your work in a
timely manner. And, ultimately, while success in
graduate school does not require you to become a master
of all four groups, it does require you to be a sufficient
practitioner of each.
(12) Take care of yourself, be patient, and avoid
comparisons
Throughout graduate school, you need to be realistic
about your time and goals while also taking care of
yourself, mentally and physically. For significant
portions of my own career, I have taken advantage of my
university’s counseling services. As a graduate student,
these services were free, easy to schedule, and incredibly
valuable. If you think counseling could help you, spend a
few minutes looking at the available options and give it
shot. For the physical side of things, I try to find time to
go for a run or exercise in some way every day, even if
it’s just a walk. These mental health and exercise “tasks”
go on my working list for each day and are treated with
the same importance as any professional item (see Figure
2B). My dissertation research included significant back-
country fieldwork, and these forced breaks, though still
relevant to my work, always recharged me mentally since
no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t take my
laptop into the field. In the absence of trips, I still take
breaks from time to time, sometimes an hour or two,
sometimes a weekend, sometimes much longer. The
point is, it’s important to treat your mental and physical
health with the same focus you give your research. Make
time for that yoga class you’d wanted to try, a Saturday
afternoon hike, or coffee with a new friend. Remember
that your life is happening now. It isn’t starting at some
future date when your degree is finished. Work hard, but
make time to enjoy yourself too. These things matter, and
the benefits will spill into your research.
Also, remember that you can’t do it all in one day,
week, or year, so don’t pretend like you should. The
common student stress trifecta has three axes: impat-
ience, jealousy, and reduced self-esteem. Graduate
school can, and will, seem competitive and you may
catch yourselfconsciously or notfeeling a twang of
jealousy when your peer gets that fellowship, publishes
another paper, or does virtually anything of note. Or,
similarly, despair when you need to rewrite an Intro-
duction another time. I want you to know a few things.
It’s okay to feel a bit jealous or bummed when things
don’t go your way. One key to success lies in recognizing
negative emotions for what they are, embracing them for
a moment if you need to, then working past them. It’s also
immensely helpful to surround yourself with people that
are supportive and collectively celebrate successes.
Academia may feel like one giant competition, but in
reality, there’s space for you to succeed regardless of
what your peers do or don’t do. Seriously. The landscape
of jobs and opportunities is far more expansive than you
may realize. Don’t believe me? Sign up for email lists
like ECOLOG-L (https://listserv.umd.edu/archives/eco
log-l.html) or EVOLDIR (http://evol.mcmaster.ca/
evoldir.html) and watch the flood of opportunities arrive
in your inbox every day. When the time is right, you’ll
find a professional home. And honestly, if you let it,
being around successful people can be an inspiring
opportunity to learn. Be humble and consider asking
them about their success. Why do they think things are
going well? Are they doing anything differently? See if
they wouldn’t mind giving you feedback on a proposal or
upcoming talk. But, most importantly, never forget that
you belong where you are. Being there is your choice,
and no one is doing you a grand favor by tolerating your
presence. You’ve already passed a litany of checkpoints
to wind up in a position to even be considering your own
iee 11 (2018) 45
productivity as a scientist. So, when negative voices
creep in, try to ignore them and refocus your mental
energy on something productive.
Concluding remarks
Graduate school is hard. It’s supposed to be. There
will be times where it’s mentally and physically exhaust-
ing, often simultaneously. But the process can also be one
of the most enlightening, important, and rewarding
experiences of your life. An uncertain future breeds
anxiety, and there will be plenty of uncertainty to go
around. The enemy of anxiety, however, is action. You
have the opportunity to look at your future, identify
professional goals that you want to pursue, and take steps
every day to make that distant ideal a reality. In this
perspective, I’ve outlined my own roadmap (summarized
in Figure 1) for being productive throughout graduate
school while also doing the best I could to maintain a
healthy perspective. I failed plenty of times on both fronts
but with every setback, I picked myself up and kept at it.
While these rules proved particularly effective for me,
like anything, your mileage may vary. And make no
mistake, this guide only looks polished after considerable
retrospection, feedback from others, and copy-editing;
rather than being developed (or written down) with clear
intention, these “rules” were stumbled upon during my
own experience and have been refined since. If you’re
excited about what you’re doing and work with purpose
every day, grants will be funded, papers will get
published, and jobs will be offered. It won’t happen
overnight, but learning to publish effectively while
keeping the rest of your life in balance will help you get
where you want to go with fewer roadblocks.
Acknowledgements
Many mentors (David Weisrock, Joanna Kelley), collab-
orators (Debra Finn, Joe Giersch, Clint Muhlfeld, Lusha
Tronstad, Lydia Zeglin), colleagues (Paul Hime,
Catherine Linnen), and friends outside of academia
(Rachel Holsinger) contributed lessons to this article both
directly and indirectly over the years and I’m thankful for
the opportunities I’ve had to learn from them. Shishir
Biswas, Zoë Campbell, Lynn Hotaling, Joanna Kelley,
Rose Marks, Elisabeth Öeller, Erin Richard, Kenton
Sena, and the Kelley and Cornejo Labs at Washington
State University provided feedback that improved the
manuscript. Two reviewers, Robert Denton and Meryl
Mims, provided valuable comments on the original
submission and their contributions greatly strengthened
the final version.
Referees
Meryl Mims mims@vt.edu
Virginia Tech
Robert Denton robert.d.denton@gmail.com
University of Connecticut
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... For me, this means writing almost every day, learning as much as I can about the process by talking with and reading writers I admire, and actively seeking feedback on my work. While much has been written about increasing writing productivity and effectiveness (e.g., Filstrup 2019;Strunk 2007;Schimel 2012;Hotaling 2018), less attention has been devoted to advising writers on issues of clarity and conciseness (but see Gopen andSwan 1990, Williams andBizup 2016). From emails to manuscripts, the ability to make points clearly and efficiently is perhaps the most important writing skill you can develop. ...
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