Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Garbage In?

Let's say that you are a grad student or postdoc and you are supposed to supply the first draft of a manuscript to someone, perhaps your advisor. Let's say that you miss the first (self-imposed) deadline, and then the second and third and (n-1) deadlines (some of which are imposed by your advisor), and time is going by. Let's say that there is no drop-dead deadline as with a grant proposal to a funding agency that cares not for the reasons why you didn't get your grant proposal in on time*, but if you don't write the manuscript, your career prospects diminish.

So, you are up against your nth deadline and you still don't have the manuscript in acceptable form and you have been unwilling to accept your advisor's offer to help you with intermediate stages of writing and constructing the paper because you want to show that you can do this.

Do you send your advisor garbage -- a rough rough rough draft that has huge holes in it and essentially no discussion other than some topics in outline form, causing him/her to question your abilities and to wonder what you have been doing for the past few months/years -- or do you send nothing (again) and hope that nothing now is better than garbage now?

The best answer is, of course, neither. Send a decent draft, even if it isn't perfect. Don't send garbage and don't send nothing.

But what if you can't come up with a decent draft? The answer (in my opinion, speaking as an advisor-like person) is still neither. Ask for help: from your advisor, from peers who can help you with whatever obstacles are keeping you from writing, from your therapist, from your pets -- just do something constructive if at all possible. Do not make excuses -- that doesn't count as doing something constructive.**

* Except once I found out that the proposal deadlines at federal funding agencies are not so drop-dead as they may seem. Several years ago, I was traveling far from home and working on a proposal during my travels. I planned to submit a proposal online but then there was a natural disaster that cut off the internet connection of one region of the world from the rest of the world. By phone, my nice program director gave me an extension on my proposal and I successfully submitted the proposal 5 days after the deadline, and the proposal was funded. I would not recommend this in general, but it's nice to know there is some flexibility.

** I seem to be very emphatic this week. I am not sure why, but this weekend I went to a cafe to do some work, and as I walked across the cafe to visit my daughter, who was curled up in a chair reading nearby, a large metal bar dislodged from the high ceiling and fell on the place where I had been moments before. Perhaps this has put me in a somewhat severe mood, at least temporarily. Perhaps it should have put me in a philosophical mood, but it didn't.


Unbalanced Reaction said...

A very large metal bar dislodged from the ceiling of the entranceway to LargeU science building and DID hit my friend..luckily on the arm and not the head.

I get so frustrated when my coworkers send The Boss crap when there are >15 of us fellow group members more than willing to advise on science, tweak grammar, etc.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Anyone who is so in fear of paper production that they miss several internal deadlines is not likely to do well with the remaining endless internally and externally imposed deadlines of science. That said, probably better to get over the terror of the paper and at least turn in something odiferous.

I hope that you do not meet with any more near-death experiences. I further hope that in the event that you do, your blog is willed to your feline inventor of dimensionless parameters, or else to PhysioProf. Either way, it would confuse the bejeezus out of everyone.

C W Magee said...

Is "Quit academia and join the circus" an acceptable alternative?

Anonymous said...

FSP, is this a paper or a thesis ?
Because if it's the latter, I know exactly what you're talking about and it drives me crazy. For some reason, even smart, articulate, English-proficient, bright students, who have otherwise shown to be more than able to write a decent first draft of a paper to be submitted for publication, when it comes to writing their own thesis regress to a primordial state. Seems as if even writing their name is a problem.
I think they are simply not interested in writing a thesis (a couple of them explicitly told me that much). They see it as nothing but university bureaucracy, they feel that it's going to be a lot of work for which they will receive essentially no credit nor derive any other tangible benefit, and they would rather spend the time publishing another paper. Plus they know that we want them out and therefore eventually we'll either write it for them, or help them substantially.
So, I think the strategy is to send you "garbage", something downright insulting, hoping that you'll get so frustrated, that you'll think that they are such hopeless cases, that you'll just "cut your losses" and do the writing yourself (unless you want to spend months reading n >> 1 drafts...
Really, if someone has some advice for me on how to deal with this nonsense, I'd greatly appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

"Do neither."

Yes, yes, yes, yes!!!!!

Nonetheless, I will say that having to look at illiterate incomprehensible garbage puporting to be a paper draft is more emotionally disturbing than being told that there still is no paper draft.

Anonymous said...

My last advisor was a control freak. I knew (from experience) he would completely rewrite whatever I wrote regardless of how much effort I put into it. Accordingly, I made it a point to just get anything thrown together (garbage) and get it onto his desk right away.

Anonymous said...

Haven't we all been in this situation! Actually, haven't we all been in this situation from both sides, at least to some extent. I have know SO many students (and postdocs) who are paralyzed by the sight of a blank page. Months will pass, and they remain stuck on the introductory paragraph. Nothing gets given to the advisor whose blood pressure steadily rises to the point of having a stroke or contemplating homicide.

With regard to the dichotomy in your post, I would lean toward giving the boss garbage rather than towards nothing. The only way you can get help on a peice of writing is to have a piece of writing to get help with. None of us, even the most fluent writers (FSP may be the very rare exception) can write something that is superb from the get-go. I consider myself a reasonably talented writer, but I would still never dream of sending a piece to a journal or granting agency without feedback, preferably from multiple people. All of us get and need feedback, if only to avoid the problems caused by the internal dialogs that fill in gaps in our own writing.

Make an outline. Write something stream of consciousness. Just write SOMETHING. Then, if its too rough for your advisor, talk it out with a colleague or friend. Writer's block can be overcome. Once its readable, your advisor can and will help, if they are not a troll and have some knowledge of their own self-interest.


Mark P

Anonymous said...

The poor student sounds terrified of writing. I think scientific writing--both doing it, and how to do it--are skills that can be taught. A garbage first draft is basically asking for help.

One of the things that I have learned along the way is that different people have different
tolerances for levels of rough draft. Some of my coworkers have preferred an almost submit-ready draft; while others are not uncomfortable with an outline that just sketches out some ideas.

Now, when I am working with someone, I just ask up front: Do you prefer a polished draft? Or are you comfortable with a garbage outline? Everyone has been able to tell me their preference, and some are surprised by the question.

It's all a matter of different styles.

Good luck teaching student how not to fear the writing!!

Janice said...

I believe there's some relationship between the inability to turn in a draft and the lack of real forces in a student's life to move them forward. Many of them see grad school as a permanent holding pattern. Some are simply paralyzed at the thought of actually having to write something so substantial: it's a real mental roadblock.

Our master's students get a maximum of five terms of funding and, surprise, surprise!, many of them don't turn in a draft of even one chapter until the fifth term (even though they're directed to have the first draft in by the start of the fourth term). Then they complain that they have to actually cough up money for the sixth term's registration when they fail to finish in time!

Anonymous said...

I have begged my advisor to let me turn in garbage without having him read it. There is something about missing deadline after deadline that is incredibly disheartening. Making a deadline with garbage is better than feeling like a helpless loser. Plus then you have something to edit; garbage on paper is infinitely better than garbage in the head.

My advisor edits my garbage (in spite of my begging). He probably hates it. I don't think he understands that just producing garbage without feedback is a useful part of the process. Or maybe he does, but doesn't understand why I can't take it from garbage to lousy draft on my own without sitting on the garbage-on-paper for a while. I am thankful that he is endlessly supportive, but I'm also now and then overcome by guilt, and disappear for weeks as I try to write perfect drafts.

Anon said...

I just finished my senior thesis, so while not nearly as intensive as a Ph.D. thesis, there were some similarities to the process.

I put off writing my thesis initially simply because running experiments was more fun than looking up references and drawing figures. I found that the most useful interaction with my advisor wasn't necessarily the comments on my drafts, but the conversation I had with her before I even started writing. We basically talked about the overall goal of the project, how what I had done fit into it, which parts to include or emphasize, and discussed the overall structure. This gave me a mental outline, and also let me see that the whole process really did have an endpoint.

That said, if I had turned in complete garbage, I think it would be perfectly within the rights of my professor to give a blanket "that was a start, but you know what improvements need to be done, send me another draft when you've made those changes" statement. The professor shouldn't be expected to re-write any draft completely, that defeats the purpose of the student writing a draft.

Unknown said...

I turned in some chapters of my masters thesis in very rough form--I hadn't even read them over--and told my adviser to just glance at it for some general advice. He read it and said it was much better than the first drafts he usually gets, so I was glad I turned it in then and stopped worrying about the details!

chemcat said...

there's nothing as depressing and off-putting for me to have to work with garbage. my student just gave me chapters of the thesis without spell-checking. there's no excuse for that.
admittedly, I am a slow writer and a control-freak... but my own writing problems are multiplied by having to work with junk.
What I would like is a simple bullet-point document describing the results, the relevant literature, and some conclusions. Figures and methods section in good order (my former postdoc needed 4 iterations to produce a self-consistent methods section-- I was ready to go on Prozac).

I can spin and expand very easily once I have a clear picture of what was done.

Anonymous said...

We seem to have the opposite problem in my lab. The post-docs and I (a graduate student) have all watched precious days, weeks, and months go by while our PI failed to read our manuscripts. We do not tend to submit garbage. These are generally fairly polished working drafts. Then, after all that waiting, and a fair amount of hounding on our part, he will suggest a critical experiment... that happens to already be included in figure 2! If only we were the cause of the bottleneck.

Psych Post Doc said...

I never miss a writing deadline (self or other set). That does mean that sometimes what I turn over is not in the shape I was hoping it would be, but I give the reader a heads up about it.

That being said, I reviewed a "draft" of a manuscript for a colleague and friend last week that was in a much rougher form that I ever even let co-authors see. I wasn't upset or put off by it, but it did strike me as something I would generally have kept to myself.

I find writing really hard but have found if I just plow through it, it gets done.

Sorry you had to read garbage after all that time.

Ms.PhD said...

I'm with the last anon. In my experience, the PIs are more often the bottleneck.

But I have been working with a student of late who fits your description perfectly. Fortunately he's not MY student so I have washed my hands of nagging him. a

But of course I am now wondering whether that's the best course of action since I'm supposed to be a co-author on this paper that still does not exist. And it would have been nice to have on my CV sometime in this millenium.

His PI, however, is more like mine than like you, and seems to forget that promises were made and manuscripts were not produced.

Anonymous said...

To some extent I was that student for a lot of grad school -- mostly because my first encounters with peer review shook my confidence so much that it became much less scary to procrastinate (and therefore be able to blame the procrastination for failing) than to actually try to do the work (which seemed doomed to failure anyway). I finished my Ph.D. by the grace of some very supportive and patient advisors and the very real and necessary help of the school mental health center.

I don't know if there's a safe way for an advisor to suggest that a student seek some help, but it might be a good thing to try...

Change said...

I dread writing. I'm terrible at it. Like the student you mentioned, I missed several internal deadlines and turned in garbage to my adviser at times. He was definitely frustrated with that. There was a paper submission for which he entirely rewrote the garbage I gave him. I'd have liked him to give my garbage back and ask me to rewrite it.

Female Science Professor said...

change - Did you talk to your advisor about that? Would you have rewritten it, and done so on a timescale acceptable to your advisor? I would be fine with that as an advisor, but communication is essential. And action.