Write Young Grasshopper! Write.

I know I said my next post was going to be about marketing and writing, but I got sidetracked (things get busier as the school year begins) and then a few recent blog posts got me thinking back to my own experience with writing while in graduate school.

In this post, Dr. O explains why grad students shouldn’t feel like they need permission to write their dissertation (or to write in general, in fact):

“On the contrary, grad students should be continually writing throughout their thesis work, one results section at a time. For papers, if possible. If not, then for practice. Writing is an art, and it takes lots of practice. You understand your data and results better when you have time to write and reflect on them. Speaking on those results is important too, but unless you can convey your message on paper, you’re doomed.”

This advice was seconded here:

“Grad students, [writing]’s a great habit to get into RIGHT NOW–write a bit every day (or every week, if you’re like me and prefer to vomit papers up in  larger chunks)–just get into the habit of doing it regularly and you’ll be way ahead of the game when it comes to your thesis or dissertation.”

I wish I had received advice like this a little earlier in my grad school training, maybe even in year one. It actually took me a few years to cop on that one paper equals one chapter of my dissertation (I know, duh!).

So I’ll throw in my two cents here – I recommend that first-year grad students be required to write up what they accomplished after each lab rotation (even if it was very little), as if it were going to be submitted to a journal. I ended up developing my writing chops despite being clueless about how crucial writing and communication skills really are to being a successful scientist, because I actively sought out opportunities to write for my own reasons. But I don’t think this is true for most grad students, who are already completely overwhelmed with their experiments, lab meetings, journal clubs, departmental seminars, conferences, abstract submissions, self-doubt, sleeplessness, etc, etc, to be worried with whether or not they can or need to practice writing. For the grad students I knew, writing the paper often seemed like an afterthought at best, and at worst, like drudgery and punishment that required time away from the bench. So I think Dr. O has it right – writing should be happening all the time, not shoved aside until it absolutely must be done to meet an abstract deadline or submit a paper. More than that, I think all graduate students would benefit from formal training in manuscript writing and grantsmanship. Just a single quarter’s worth, one class.

Expanding on this theme in another post, Dr. O lamented the fact that grad student training tends to be a little light in the grantsmanship department. She went on to explain why grant writing seems like (is) such a Herculean task and why putting it off to the last minute is not a wise strategy.

When I joined the lab, my research project R01 funding had just been renewed for another 5 years, so I was able to pretty much keep my nose to the bench, and produce data, abstracts, and papers…until around my 4th year when it was time to start working on the competitive renewal. Wait…wha? I look back and picture myself coming up for air and then looking around to find myself on Mars. I had to learn pretty quickly about what goes into a grant submission. Blood, sweat, and a lot of tears, as it turned out. And I think some brain cells were sacrificed as well.

So I’ll add another three cents to make it an even nickel – immediately upon joining their thesis lab, grad students should be handed a copy of the grant(s) that is funding their research. It should be required reading. Students should have an understanding of where their research fits into the aims of the grant, how their data will support future grant applications and inform the direction of the next 5 years of research, as well as how the grant fits into the overall research goals of the lab. (In defense of my advisor, she excelled at sharing her vision with us in yearly State-of-the-Lab addresses.) While reading the grant will help grad students appreciate what grant writing entails, I would further suggest that every graduate student, whether or not they intend to pursue a career in academia, needs to help prepare a grant submission before they are allowed to graduate. (Sorry guys, it’s for your own good, I promise.)

In my post-graduate career as a freelance academic writer and editor, I have had plenty of experience preparing and consulting on grant applications. But I think I would have benefited from more formal training in writing and grantsmanship when l was a grad student.


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